My guest blogger today is my friend Lisa Brown. She works for Study Abroad here at Eastern Illinois University. She is young, smart, liberal, Christian, funny, cute and a new member of our Scrabble club. (She made recently made “stomacher”–nice, don’t you think?) In the following blog, she writes about the need for gay-friendly churches in Charleston, Illinois.
Since moving to Charleston, I have had a spiritual epiphany, which is this:
I am unable to worship without gay people.
I’ve tried it, and it doesn’t work. When I try to worship without the presence of the gays, nothing seems right. I forget the words of the Apostles Creed. I cross myself backwards. I open the Book of Common Prayer when I’m supposed to open the hymn book. It’s just all wrong.
Now mind you, in Akron, Ohio, I attended a pretty fabulously gay Episcopal church. The name of said church was Church of our Saviour, which, without the saving grace of the Anglicized spelling, sounds way too evangelical. This had rather unfortunate consequences when I conversed with liberals who weren’t familiar with my church. Upon hearing that I was a member of Church of Our Saviour, they would usually raise an eyebrow, nod politely, and walk away before I pelted them with gospel tracts. Of course, I shouted after them to defend myself, “Wait! It’s not what you think! You see, Saviour has a U in it! It’s got an Anglicized spelling!”
When I moved back to Ohio from Japan, convinced that the gays are really God’s chosen people (which I’ll explain later—I promise), my first step was to find a church that I’d feel comfortable in—no small order. I called around to various houses of worship, asking two simple questions and hoping that I’d hear the correct answers.
Question one: “Do you teach that adherents of other religions go to hell if they don’t accept Christ?” (Correct answer: “No.”)
Question two: “How do you feel about the gays?” (Correct answer: “They’re the bee’s knees!”)
The secretary at one church I called, St. Paul’s Episcopal, helpfully replied in response to Question 2, “Oh honey, I don’t think you’d feel comfortable here. I think you’re looking for Church of Our Saviour.”
“Church of our Savior?” I asked suspiciously. “They sound like Pentecostals or something equally horrid. Do they speak in tongues?”
“No, no, no,” she replied. “They’re part of the worldwide Anglican communion, like us. You see, Saviour has a U in it.”
“Ohhhhhh,” I said. “You mean Church of Our Saviour, then.”
So began my love affair with the Episcopal Church. We dated at first—I was free to check out other churches, nothing serious. Then we started seeing each other every weekend. And sometimes even during the week. In May of 2009, however, the Episcopal Church and I had our commitment ceremony—I was confirmed.
Oh, I brought plenty of baggage into the relationship. After all, I’d been had my heart broken by other churches. But gradually, I began to trust Church of Our Saviour. As the weeks turned into years, I began to realize that what I was seeing wasn’t an illusion—that all people really were welcomed regardless of their sexual orientations and life histories.
And besides, COS was absolutely fascinating for Yonathan, my staunchly agnostic life partner. When he began to attend church with me, I’d sometimes look up at him during Prayers of the People and catch his eyes wandering around the room with a look of wonder and puzzlement, seeming to say, “Wow… look at these couples. They act just like straight couples… except they’re GAY!”
This truly was a hard concept for Yon to wrap his mind around. After all, he’d spent the first three decades of his life in Ethiopia, where homosexual relations are punishable by jail. Politically, however, Yon has always been somewhat of a social libertarian and if asked will firmly state his opinion that “if gay people want to be married, they should be able to get married. Why should it bother me? And anyway, what choice do they have if they’re gay?” In America, this sort of statement would be called Progressive. In Ethiopia, it would be called Totally Batshit Insane. All the more reason that I love him.
However, Yon does sometimes find it hard not to grimace a little bit when seeing gay couples express affection openly. Understandable. If you traveled to another land and saw people having hot, sweaty sex in public, you’d probably grimace, too. Taboos are taboos, and when they’re engrained in you for 30 years, they’re not all that easy to let go of, especially when said taboos are visceral.
But both of us found a home at COS. I never forced Yon to go with me, and though he didn’t accompany me every week, he often did. He enjoyed conversing with the parishioners—both gay and straight, stumbling and laughing through the ballroom dance classes with me, and surreptitiously stealing the children’s lemonade during coffee hour.
Therefore, when I moved to Illinois, Church of Our Saviour was one of the hardest parts of my life to leave behind. When I received my job offer from EIU, I was in my office at the University of Akron, and I burst into tears. I found my friend Marjie planning her lessons and interrupted her, panic-stricken.
“Marjie,” I pleaded, “you have to come to my office and help me find a gay-friendly church in Charleston, Illinois!” We pored over Google Maps for a good hour, looking first in Charleston… then Mattoon… then Effingham… then Champaign.
Oh, sure, we found a few that looked promising. Marjie even found a church called Broadway Christian Church—what could possibly be gayer than Broadway? But further inquiry led us to the sad conclusion that there were no gay-friendly churches in Central Illinois.
But that couldn’t be true, right? After all, weren’t they any gay people in Charleston who also happen to like Jesus? I turned to the associate priest at Church of Saviour, the Reverend Joy Caires, herself a happily married lesbian. “Joy, can you help me find a gay-friendly church in Illinois?”
“I can try,” she answered. “Where are you going to be in Illinois?”
“Central Illinois,” I answered.
She winced. “Yikes. You’re not in a particularly gay-friendly diocese.” Not a good sign when a priest winces upon hearing where you’re going to live. I started feeling that I had a better chance of finding a gay-friendly church in Riyadh.
Yon, who understands how much Church of Our Saviour means to me, took pity on me and did his own research. By pure coincidence, Yon actually had a connection to EIU. The woman he shares an office with has a stepfather by the name of David Raybin who has been an English professor at EIU for decades.
Yon spoke to David on the phone and asked if he knew of any gay-friendly churches in the Charleston area. David laughed good-naturedly and answered, “Well, I wouldn’t know about that.” Go figure. The English Department at EIU is the largest on campus, with well over 50 faculty members—and we know the Jewish one.
While David may not have much personal experience worshiping in buildings with crosses emblazoned on their fronts, he does have connections—and, as those who know him can attest, a heart of gold. He called Yon back the next day and said, “I asked around, and people said the Disciples of Christ church is the best.”
The Disciples of Christ, yes! I was familiar with them. They’ve been performing LGBT commitment ceremonies for years. My friend Megan Odell-Scott’s parents were both Disciples of Christ ministers, and I pretty much saw them as rock stars. When they lived in Tennessee in the 1970s, they allowed Blacks in their church and subsequently found a cross burning on their lawn. They decided to stay, however, rather than be intimidated into leaving. Because of Lauren and David O’Dell-Scott, the Disciples of Christ gained major Social Justice Cred in my eyes.
My first weekend on campus, then, I excitedly got into my car and drove to the Disciples of Christ Church. I could picture it in my mind – a cultural ratatouille of a congregation with all races, ages, sexual orientations, income levels. We’d sing hymns that would refer to God as She, and then a passionate sermon would be preached, decrying social injustice and the destruction of the environment. I’d be moved to tears, and I’d stand in front of the congregation and gush, “I just want to say thank you to all of you for welcoming me here. For the first time since moving to Illinois, I finally feel like I’ve found a home.” And they’d race to altar and embrace me, another lonely Christian liberal who has found a spiritual oasis in the midst of the corn fields and pro-gun sloganry.
Except that totally didn’t happen at all with one minor exception—I did end up leaving the service in tears.
Upon opening the door, I was dismayed to see that the congregation looked more like white rice than ratatouille. In fact, it looked exactly like my fourth grade class after we got in trouble for talking too much—everyone was sitting boy girl, boy girl. Not a gay in sight. I tapped on my gaydar to make sure it wasn’t malfunctioning. It wasn’t. Sigh.
I tried to keep a hopeful attitude. After all, it was right before Christmas, and the children were singing in their Christmas pageant. What could be cuter than that, right?
The children smiled their way through an off-key rendition of O Holy Night, and all was well and adorable and just plain Christiany good fun—until the minister broke in and helpfully explained that we needed to keep the Christ in Christmas because “Jesus died to take away our sins and we should accept Him as our Savior.”
Most people in a church wouldn’t have given that sentence a second thought. I, however, pretty much almost shit my pants. My heart turned a cartwheel. Accept… Christ… as my Savior? It’s funny how a simple phrase can cut us to the core. Those exact words, in that exact order, caused a fight-or-flight response that I’d never without a rabid-looking dog’s presence . These words reminded me of sitting in the Baptist Church in high school and hearing about what a horrible sinner I was and how I was destined for hell. They reminded me of the 4 hours I used to spend every day reading the Bible and praying, desperately trying to prove to myself that I was a good person. They reminded me of the time I approached a woman I trusted from the church and confessed to her that I was feeling like I might be clinically depressed, and her response that I was a sinner who needed to repent because God expected us to rejoice in all things. They reminded me of the nervous breakdown I had after watching a video in Sunday about demonic possession and subsequently feeling 100% certain that I must be possessed by the devil. What else could explain what a wretched person I was?
Upon hearing that one sentence, all of those memories rushed through my brain, similar to the sensation I’ve heard described by those who’ve suffered a near-death experience. And it sucked. It sucked with a sucky suckery that sucked so much that no matter how many times I use the word “suck” in this sentence, I cannot fully express the sucky suckiness of that sucky sensation.
I knew then that I wouldn’t return to this Disciples of Christ church. Even if a truckload of drag queen Christians had marched in at that moment and started swinging their hips and singing sassily along with “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” it wouldn’t have been enough to make me come back. I was incompatible with this church—in a very linguistic sense. I couldn’t handle the verbiage.
I was sitting too close to the front to feel comfortable leaving early, so I stayed until the end of the service. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, the children finished singing and passed out neon push-button plastic flashlight key chains, like the type you’d order from the Oriental Trading Post. Mine was hot pink and read in block letters on the side: JESUS IS THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD! I wondered about the 8-year-old Vietnamese girl who made it and what she would think about that slogan if she knew what it meant. I wondered how long the 100 or so flashlights passed out would work before they stopped lighting up and were tossed in the trash to be trucked away to a landfill. I estimated around two months, if that.
As I drove home, the memories of that Baptist Church kept playing in my mind, and to crowd them out, I tried to think of an opposite memory. That’s when I remembered a story that Reverend Joy told.
When she was 15 years old, she realized that she had a crush on a girl named Chloe. The implications of this shook her to the core and she lived with the ache of the secret until she could bear it no longer. She finally went to see her guidance counselor at her Anglican high school.
At first, she just bawled and bawled and couldn’t bring herself to tell her guidance counselor what was wrong. The Episcopalian counselor waited patiently, her face full of concern. Finally, Joy was able to blurt it out. “I… I… I think I might… be gay.”
The counselor’s worried expression untwisted into a soft smile. “Oh, Joy,” she said. “You scared me! I thought you were going to tell me something bad!”
Joy’s high school experience with Christianity could not have been more different than mine, but somehow it led us to the same place. Why the hell couldn’t that counselor have worked at Norton Baptist Church instead? I guess I can grudgingly admit that Joy probably needed her more than I did. As I pulled into my driveway, I realized that I was simply an Episcopalian. Something about the Catholic-esque, regimented quality of the worship service clashed enough with my Baptist background to make me feel comfortable. Like bubbly Joy and her introverted wife Lona, the Episcopal Church and I were a perfect match.
I guess you may be wondering why I, a straight woman, feel such a pathological need to worship with gay people. Astute psychological observers among you might posit that, like the Catholic feel of the worship service, the presence of gay men and women at the church worship service contrasts with my negative Baptist experience and allows me to feel more comfortable. If I’m 100% honest, I have to admit that there may be some truth to that. However, there are two more reasons I have to worship with gay men and women, and they’re more important. (At any rate, I like them better.)
The first is that I’m convinced that gay people are closer to God than we straight wankers are. Hear me out on this one.
In my Introduction to World Religions course – a requirement at Mount Union College, where I completed my undergraduate work – I remember learning about the 60s Black liberation theologian James Hal Cone, who claimed that Jesus had a special relationship with Black folks because Jesus was constantly fought with infinite compassion for the downtrodden and oppressed. Therefore, he coined his very controversial catch phrase, “GOD IS BLACK.”
If God was Black in the 60s, I’m sure that God is gay in the naughts. Is there any group more oppressed in modern society than gays? When I first read that Prop 8 passed in California, I became convinced that God is gay. As I stay abreast on the legal hoops that Joy and Lona have had to jump through simply to ensure that their baby has the same protections that the babies of straight parents have, I’m becoming more and more certain that God is, in fact, gay. The hateful ignoramuses at Westboro Baptist Church will never understand that as they wave their GOD HATES FAGS picket signs, they’re actually proving to me that God is, in fact, a fag. In fact, He’s a total flamer.
When I worship with gay men and women, I understand that they know an oppression that I’ll never know because I can marry Yonathan any time I damn well please. They need to rely on God in a way that I don’t, which makes them close to our Heavenly Mother in a way that I can’t be.
The other and most important reason that I need to worship with gays is that I love so many of them. Not because they’re gay. I don’t love them because they’re gay any more than I love Yon because he’s Black. I love them for who they are, their quirks and foibles and idiosyncrasies.
I love Joy for her sense of humor and free spirit and willingness to drop the f-bomb every once in a while in conversation even though she’s a priest. I love Tom because he always says something completely inappropriate during communion. I love how Ron’s constant worrying and Stuart’s laid-back approach to life make them absolutely perfect for each other. I love the funny links Quin posts on Facebook. I love watching Patrick and Andre desperately trying to wrangle their three active children. These people are so special to me—and I miss taking their hands to pass the peace.
Now, when I enter a church, I can’t help but wonder, “If I brought Quin to this church, would she feel as comfortable as I would here? Would the Sunday school teachers bristle when Patrick and Andre’s children talk about their two daddies? Would these congregants want to worship with Tom?”
Because if you don’t want to worship with Tom, quite frankly, then I don’t want to worship with you. So nyah.
So as I said, I went to the Episcopal Church in Mattoon. And it was fine, really. Friendly enough. Nothing to write home about. Not an uncloseted gay man or woman in the bunch, though. When I ask myself if they would want to worship with Tom, my honest answer has to be, “Some of them probably would. Some of them probably wouldn’t.”
And, unfortunately, most days that’s just not good enough for me. Occasionally I’ll visit the Episcopal Church in Mattoon, but most Sunday mornings you’ll find me lounging at St. Mattress of the Springs with a reading from the Book of David (either Sedaris or Foster Wallace) on my lap.
I fervently pray that one day we’ll get our very own gay-friendly church in Charleston and that Joy will be able to refer to my diocese without a wince. Until then, however, I take comfort in the knowledge that my God is gay and my Saviour has a U and all of the quirks, idiosyncrasies and foibles that I took for granted for so long are only a car ride away. Charleston may not have a real smorgasbord of Christian churches, but it does have wonderful, friendly people like David Raybin, Daiva and Marty, my office mate Farhan, and pretty much every person I’ve met here. I get the blessing of seeing God in them whenever I want. For now, I have to make that be enough.