“A day in your court is better than a thousand outside…” (Psalm 84:10). When I was a kid this was one of the scriptures that my parents would quote to me when we talked about our regular church attendance. My family was serious about worship. It wasn’t a once a week event for us; it was something that happened three times a week – every Tuesday night, Thursday night, and Sunday. On top of that, we read and discussed a bible verse out of a daily devotional every morning before I headed off to school.
For a lot of people this sounds like a lot of time devoted to church, but the truth is that I loved it. I didn’t complain about going to church. Church was a place that I loved being. I felt that I could relate to the Psalmist, I really did feel that being at church was better than being anywhere else. There was just one problem.
Around the age of 12, I started to understand something about myself. I started to understand that this “difference” I had been feeling all my life might be connected to who I was attracted to. As the years went by, that feeling got stronger and stronger. I prayed. I prayed a lot. Every day I prayed for God to help me to not be gay. When that didn’t work, I prayed for God to help me cope with my feelings and not be discouraged that I would likely spend my life alone.
Despite years of prayer, the feelings didn’t go away and they were increasingly paired with feelings of despair, depression, and hopelessness. I never stopped going to church all this time. I kept going faithfully (still three times a week), and I was involved at all levels of congregational life. While my feelings about being gay didn’t change, my feelings about church did. The place that had always been a haven started to feel like something very different.
The conservative denomination I was raised in has very strict protocol for what happens to ‘unrepentant sinners’. At the age of 23, I was expelled from the church and subsequently my family, my circle of friends, and all the people I had spent my life calling my community. There is no feeling of loneliness that compares to being rejected by your family and friends as an act of their faithfulness to God. Not only did I not have my family, I felt for the first time in my life that I didn’t have God and that, more importantly, God didn’t have me.
Why am I sharing all of this? Because I know I am not the only one. I know that my story is repeated time and time again all over the world as gay and transgender people of faith share who they are, when they share how God has made them. And I know the pain that I experienced, I know that the deep loneliness, the grief that I experienced, and the feeling that I had been cast aside by God is a feeling that is shared by all too many gay and transgender people.
How do we heal? Those of us who have been so harmed by the church, by our families, our friends, and even seemingly by God, how can we heal? I don’t have all the answers and one thing I do know is that all people are remarkably different and each person’s journey to healing will be unique. I also believe that healing from “spiritual trauma”, as it has been termed by researchers, is a long journey and one that I know I will be on for many years.
That being said, there is one thing I believe can be true for many of us. I believe that a religious community, a church, can be the very place we need to go for healing when our spirit has been hurt. Even more importantly, I believe that when your spirit has been hurt by church, when a religious community has been the source of the harm, that there is a unique healing, a unique care, that only church can provide to help raise up our spirits again from a place of despair to a place of wholeness.
I haven’t always felt this way. When I was first expelled from my faith community and my family, I said I was agnostic, then atheist. Down deep I knew that neither definition really fit with who I was.
Slowly, I started praying again. And for the first time in my life I started praying prayers that didn’t ask God to change me. Instead, I started asking God to help me know I was loved and to help me feel whole.
I think God answered those prayers by bringing someone into my life who invited me to come to church. A very different church than the type I had been raised in. The first time I went to St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Greensboro, North Carolina, I knew I had found a place for healing. My very first time there, I nervously approached the alter rail for communion. I knelt and heard the amazing, powerful words that told me I was part of this church. I went back to my pew, knelt to pray, and cried. I cried tears of relief. I cried tears of healing. And I just cried.
I kept going back to that church and I kept being healed. I found healing in the one on one conversations with my priest. In addition to going to a therapist every week (which I believe is a crucial part of the healing process) I met with my priest Leslie on a regular basis for several months. She prayed with me and she cried with me too, helping me to heal. I also found healing in the youth group. I was too old to be a “young person” in the group, but the youth leader knew I needed community, so she asked me to be a youth leader. For the first time in my life I showed up around young people who were talking about God and who fully accepted that I was gay! I was supposed to be helping them, but they helped me. They helped me to heal from the trauma I carried from hiding who I was from my peers at church all throughout my childhood. Then I found healing in serving as an acolyte. I found healing in being in a house of worship and seeing other gay and lesbian people be celebrated for who they are. I found healing in hearing the preacher talk affirmatively from the pulpit about the way I was made. And most of all, I found healing in community, in the church of God, in the warm smiles, the genuine concern of the people around me.
I’ve moved to two new cities since then, to New York City and most recently to Boston, but I keep going back to church everywhere I go and I keep being healed over and over again. I know that for very well deserved reasons, church is often viewed with suspicion by gay and lesbian people. It’s a well-earned reputation as my story of being rejected shows. But there is another story that we need to be telling in the LGBTQ community. A story about healing, a story about LGBTQ people whose journeys lead them back to church and who discover ,often with great surprise, that they can add their voice to the Psalmist and say with conviction, “A day in your court is better than a thousand outside…” (Psalm 84:10)