Belonging was why I came and what led me to leave.
Growing up, my family never went to church. My parents just weren’t into it. It wasn’t that they weren’t religious people. They believed in God, they just didn’t like the experience.
Sunday mornings were spent doing yard work with my dad rather than sitting in a pew singing hymns.
I had a lot of friends who are members of different churches and it seemed like such a beautiful concept. They get dressed up in nice clothes on Sunday and went to spend the morning in fellowship with other people. As a kid, I wanted to be part of that.
More than anything, I wanted a place where I felt like I belonged. Growing up an awkward-looking kid, I didn’t have a lot of places where I felt I was accepted. I knew one of the major teachings of the Bible was to love your neighbor. I wanted love.
A few friends occasionally invited me to go to church with them after spending the night at their house on a Saturday. I enjoyed it. People were warm and welcoming.
I loved all the older folks that were dressed up in their Sunday best. Women would wear hats and men would wear neckties. They’d greet me and shake my hand. I felt seen.
As I got older, the landscape of my friendships started to change. My friends became misfits. The folks who were a little edgy, a little rebellious, and not the least bit religious. Many of the friends who had taken me to church with them years ago turned into atheists. I remain unaffiliated to any religious belief whatsoever.
I stayed this way until I met my first husband. He grew up in a house where you always went to church on Sundays. They were Methodists. I didn’t even know what that was. All non-Catholic Christian religions seemed the same to me. Church services were similar, just with various amounts of standing up and sitting down.
My husband’s dedication to his church activity was sometimes humorous to me, especially when he would jump up on a Sunday morning, still partially drunk from tequila the night before but still had to speak in church that morning.
When we got married, it was a no-brainer that I would start to go to church too. I accepted that readily. I was still searching for that place to belong. I became a member of the United Methodist Church.
For the first couple of years, it was fun. We made some friends but they were always couples that were older. There weren’t many people our age in the church. We volunteered after church on Sunday to make lunches for the homeless. Occasionally, we went to Bible study at someone’s house.
Our pastor, Terry, was amazing. Knowing I was new to the church, he would sit with me and check in on me. He’d seek me out after service and ask me how things were going and if I had any questions.
He was a man in his late 40s or early 50s. He had a bright warm smile that was everything you thought you would want in a church pastor. He’d shake your hand and look you in the eye. He remembered everybody’s name.
We went to the earlier service on Sunday which was the more traditional one. The demographic of the service attendees was much older. It wasn’t long before we started to hear some rumblings.
It was 2003 and Massachusetts had just become the first state in the country to legalize gay marriage.
There was a lot of talk amongst the elders. I remember sitting in the pew and overhearing conversations around me. Words like abomination were thrown around.
Phrases like “we have to do something“ were uttered.
It made me horribly uncomfortable. Here I was, sitting in a place that I had arrived at because I wanted to feel a sense of belonging. And yet, the same people who had welcomed me with open arms would have immediately shunned me if I was gay.
Suddenly, it didn’t matter to me what my orientation was or anyone else’s for that matter. It mattered to me that my entire sense of belonging felt like a sham. It was like the mask of the church had slipped and I saw it for what it really was. I felt hatred. I felt uneasiness. I felt discomfort. I felt exclusivity.
Worse than that, I saw my pastor uncomfortable. One Sunday, when we showed up for church, we weren’t greeted with the same smile I was accustomed to. He looked forlorn. I felt a sadness about him.
When he got up to deliver the sermon he felt it was necessary to address the issue on everyone’s mind head-on. His way of doing this was to stand up in front of the congregation and let them know that we were not going to be addressing the issue. He had nothing to say on the matter.
After that, there were whispers and grumblings and talking. I remember a couple of gentlemen got up and left. Clearly, they were there for the witchhunt and our pastor had refused to hand out the pitchforks.
By this time, I was very pregnant with my daughter. Our plan was that our pastor would baptize her when she was six weeks old.
That day, after the sermon, he came up to me and apologized. He would not be baptizing my daughter. He would be leaving our church.
He told us he could no longer lead a congregation of hate. The church elders had pressed him to take a stand against gay marriage and he wasn’t going to do it.
I could see the pain and disappointment on his face. If I had invested such a small amount in this church and felt this disheartened, I could only imagine what this man was feeling.
After Terry left, I didn’t want to stay. My husband still insisted that our daughter be baptized and I agreed. But it wasn’t by Terry. It was by some man that I didn’t know. Some new pastor willing to speak out about the abomination of homosexuality and gay marriage.
After that, I refused to go back. I saw the church as synonymous with hate. Intolerance. As much as I wanted to belong, I didn’t wanna belong to that. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been at a church in the last 15 years. I can’t go without crying.
Recently, the Methodist Church announced that they were going to split because of the divisiveness over two different thought processes regarding gay rights to marriage. It may have taken 15 years but I was happy to see that others finally got around to doing with my pastor had done years before — refusing to stand up for hate.
When I heard the news, I still felt anger rise up in me that there were still members of this church that were as committed to intolerance as they have ever been. They let their church become fractured over a long-held belief that has no place in Christianity.
Despite the decision of the church and that I could now attend an inclusive church, it’s still not going to make me go back. I haven’t reconciled the hearts of others yet, especially after that beautiful soul that I held in my arms in front of that pulpit and had baptized 15 years ago turned out to be gay. I won’t take my daughter somewhere that she’s hated.
I have a hard time sitting in any church where, when I look around, all I do is wonder which one of these churchgoers hates my amazing child by the mere fact of her existence.
The irony is not lost on me, but the need for belonging is. I found my own belonging with people who embody what I truly feel would be Christian beliefs. Love, acceptance, inclusion. My church is now with those people, wherever it is we congregate. I honor that space.