Recently when I went for spiritual direction at the church I’ve been visiting on and off, the priest asked me midway during our conversation, “So how’s Jesus been for you during this time?” I had already anticipated her question and it had been one that I had contemplating quite a bit up until that point.
So I told her, “I think my problem was never really with Jesus, but the church.”
It occurred to me that when I first left the Church (and here I mean Christianity in general, not just the Roman Catholic Church specifically), I didn’t leave Jesus behind.
During my senior year of high school, I made it a practice to sneak up to the chapel- one of few perks of going to a Catholic school- practically every day. I was often the only student there for the 7:15 morning Mass, usually attended by just the school rector and two of the resident nuns. I didn’t really know if I even believed in any of it, and I was truthfully angry at the Church, but there was something about being there, listening to the Gospel, and seeing images of Jesus that gave me solace even after considerable hurt (the fact that most of the kids who bullied me never bothered to enter the chapel probably helped, too).
When I later became a Hindu, I would visit churches like the Episcopal Cathedral here in Philadelphia for interfaith exchange and learning, but I also couldn’t deny that I also really liked the feeling of being in a church again. There was also the fact that in my altar at home, I kept murtis (icons for worship) of Ganesh, Shiva, Durga… and a picture of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.
As I mentioned previously, during my early teens, I never felt as if Jesus Christ personally condemned me for being gay – I never read that out of the Gospels. I never had the sense that Jesus was somehow angry or disappointed in me for my queerness. How could someone who knows everything about me hate me for the way that he himself made me? My Jesus was one who stood with the poor, the oppressed, who invited everyone to be a part of his family and whose forgiveness and embrace extended to all.
But the Church told me that people like me were not eligible to enter into this celebration of life; the Church told me that God’s love came with qualifications, that, somehow, God demanded I renounce my queerness- which was and is, mind you, part of the careful way God fashioned me – and force myself into a box that was not made for me. And that I could not accept.
So I left. But I continued to carry Jesus with me, albeit incredibly unsure of what to do with him at times. I still saw him as a divine figure worthy of honor and worship, which is why after I converted to Hinduism, I worshiped him in a Hindu way and offered him incense and oil lamps. I still thought of him as a revolutionary and radical teacher whose message of “love thy neighbor as thyself” I tried to follow even when it was incredibly difficult to do so. I still felt that if Jesus were in my midst, he wouldn’t care that I was gay. Jesus remained a constant presence.
When I left Hinduism a few weeks ago, unsure of where to go, I felt an inner prompt to open the New Testament and read. I opened to this passage:
When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were frightened. But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” Then they were glad to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going. (John 6:16-21)
I hinged on the words “Jesus had not yet come to them”. Jesus was not physically near to the apostles at that moment, but he reveals himself to them out on the water, while they’re anxious and freaking out. I was afraid and I most certainly felt adrift and alone, having left a religious community I had known for a number of years. I took this as an invitation to try out church, and Christianity, again. Interestingly enough, when I went to church the next day after reading this passage, I sat down in a pew for rosary. After everyone had finished praying, I looked up. The stained glass window I was sitting under depicted this scene. A sign. “It is I; do not be afraid.”
In the time away from the Church, I had many opportunities to hear the stories of LGBTQ Christians who reclaimed Jesus and Christianity for themselves. I had visited communities and denominations where one’s entire person was affirmed and not simply the parts the Church found desirable. I had seen straight, cis Christians call out discrimination against queer people in their communities. For a while I felt that this was all well and good, but not for me (I still had the pictures of Jesus and Mary on my altar, mind you). I admittedly was a little stubborn, but for good reason; I was afraid of potentially getting hurt.
So when I finally did decide to try Christianity again, there was a part of me that was frustrated with myself; I felt as if I had “wasted time” when I could have found an LGBT-affirming church from the beginning. But perhaps I needed that time away to fully and completely appreciate who Jesus could be for me, and to see that the church, while certainly not perfect, is changing and slowly, but surely, welcoming its LGBT children with open arms. Like he was for the apostles, Jesus was always nearby. Ready and waiting.
When I first shared that I would be resigning from my positions of leadership in the Hindu community and was exploring Christianity again, the news was greeted mostly positively- but I did have one former colleague ask me why I would ever consider going back to a community that, in his words, doesn’t affirm me. He insinuated that now I believed Hinduism was a false religion and that I would be becoming an “ex-gay”. It should have gone without saying, but neither of those things are true. I still believe that God is too big (being Infinite and all) for one religion to have received all the truth about God, and thus Hinduism and every other religion has one way of seeing and expressing that Truth. It should also go without saying that I am still very, very gay.
Save for my occasional interfaith visits as a Hindu, I’ve been formally away from churches for a little more than 10 years. That shows in the way that when I show up to a Catholic Mass, I stumble over some of the prayers because the liturgy has shifted a bit and the prayers I so carefully memorized as a kid are now different (I still say “And also with you,” instead of, “And with your spirit”). But I’ve also changed. I’ve come to see that while the Church most certainly is not perfect, Jesus is, and that’s enough for me to continue to try and follow him wherever he wants to take me.
Now, I have the courage to say:
“I’m gay. I love Jesus. And there’s nothing wrong with that.”