All Are Welcome! (Some Conditions May Apply)

A reflection by Sarah

It’s not really a secret that many LGBT people struggle to feel welcome at church. However, as I think on my own experiences, I can’t help but conclude that we often misdiagnose exactly what makes people feel unwelcome in faith communities. When trying to find a community where I can come fully alive in Christ as an LGBT person with somewhat traditionalist sensibilities regarding theology and liturgical life, I’ve frequently felt like a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. As I’ve gotten to know other people walking in similar spaces, I’ve noted that it is rare for a person to be free to discuss openly his or her sexual orientation or gender identity, preference for historic patterns of worship, and appreciation for traditional theology all within the same faith community. Thus, folks at this particular intersection can find themselves fitting in nowhere.

To help readers grasp what life in the midst of this tension feels like, I want to share my experience of searching for a church home once after I had moved to a new city. I encountered two parishes full of people who were passionately committed to Christ. The one I’ll refer to as “St. Andrew’s” had a visible desire to engage in social justice work, and parishioners were entirely committed to living life at the front lines of loving their neighbors as themselves. The one I’ll call “St. John’s” valued forming people of all ages in the faith, providing ample opportunities for parishioners to tap into traditional prayers and spiritual practices. However, as a person attracted to life at both parishes, I soon realized that parishioners saw these two communities as being a bit at the extremes. The communities were so distinct from one another that most people I got to know at one couldn’t see how a person might find value in the activities and pursuits of the other. My own sense of self – a lesbian seeking deep spiritual formation within traditional Christianity – prevented people at both parishes from recognizing me as “one of them” no matter how much I participated in parish life.

When I first moved to the city, I was in a spiritual and emotional space that left me with an acute need for love and acceptance. Because of this, I searched out parishes known for welcoming absolutely everyone. My search brought me very conveniently to St. Andrew’s, a parish less than two blocks away from my apartment. From the moment I set foot in a Sunday service, it was clear that St. Andrew’s welcomed every kind of human diversity present under the sun. As soon as people found out I was new, they peppered me with helpful tips for adapting to life in my new city. Immediately, I had recommendations for local grocery stores, fun free things to do, parish ministries in which I could become involved, and the best place to go for frozen custard. Over time, I realized that St. Andrew’s folks would do just about anything to love their neighbors. Parishioners visited families living in poverty to discern their needs, held regular fundraising events to help people rebuild homes and meet basic needs after disaster struck, delivered first-aid kits to homes that would otherwise lack band-aids and antiseptics, and constantly referred people to social services organizations if and when the parish wasn’t able to help more directly. St. Andrew’s proclaimed a loving acceptance for all people because, according to its members, St. Andrews “welcomed everyone, no matter what.” All signs pointed to a thriving parish.

I was quick to get involved even though I had concerns about how St. Andrew’s seemingly failed to promote the observance of disciplines I found essential to my spiritual growth and wellbeing. I thought that surely as I shared my life within the parish, I’d find at least some people who would resonate with how I valued traditional devotions and approaches to liturgical worship. Within the first month, I was able to disclose a good deal about my own life. The congregation accepted me completely as a lesbian, and I found many people willing to discuss certain practical theological topics with me. However, after I had been at the parish for about six months, I realized that the only theological topics people were very interested in talking about centered on social justice and concerns that there needed to be “updates” to teachings on women’s ordination and gay marriage. Mentioning that I was considering a non-monastic celibate vocation resulted in questions such as, “Don’t you accept yourself as you are?” and, “Why are you letting the Church get to you so much?” Though I found myself irked by these queries, especially because this Christian tradition recognizes celibacy as a vocational option, I could handle them. I had much more difficulty when I began to see that that every conversation I attempted to start about the Church fathers, liturgy, official Church documents, or traditional spiritual practices would fall on deaf ears. One person even went so far as to tell me, “God hears what you have to say from your heart so you don’t need any scripted prayer.” I found it exceptionally odd that a person within a liturgical Christian tradition would have such a disparaging attitude regarding the prayers that have shaped this tradition.

It didn’t help that I had these conversations when I felt like I was floundering spiritually. I had an incredibly full schedule, and I found it difficult in that season of life to connect with the still, small voice of God. St. Andrew’s seemingly expected people to connect with God through serving the poor. Yet, even though I was actively conducting home visits and sorting baby clothes for new mothers living in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, I perceived a real need for more contemplative spirituality. As I sought counsel from my priest, he told me that I just needed to get more involved in the parish’s ministries than I was already. I thought his prescription failed to address my main concerns. Not seeing any alternatives within the St. Andrew’s community, I began to look elsewhere in an effort to meet my spiritual needs.

I had heard about another parish, St. John’s, and decided to investigate further. I chose to try this parish for a number of reasons: it was geographically close to my apartment, I’d heard it had a beautiful liturgy that was much more traditional than contemporary, and I’d determined after a bit of research that it had several parish ministries aimed at fostering spiritual growth. As I met with the priest, he seemed excited to welcome me as a prospective parishioner. He showed me different events on the church calendar where people would gather to pray traditional prayers and support each other in a shared prayer life. When I mentioned the interest I’d expressed previously in starting a discussion group at St. Andrew’s on a Church document, he met me with enthusiasm and indicated that many people at St. John’s might also be interested. After that meeting, I rejoiced because I thought I had finally found a place where I could grow spiritually. When I went to Sunday liturgy, I felt a profound sense of connection to God and to my Christian tradition. This parish saw that adults were continuously learning about their faith; members of the parish placed a high value on scripture, tradition, and Church history. But because St. John’s had relatively few opportunities to do social justice ministry, I continued to volunteer with people from St. Andrew’s.

I experienced excellent formation in my time at St. John’s, but still did not gain a sense of feeling completely at home. Almost immediately, I caught on to the fact that St. John’s was not a safe place to be LGBT, as demonstrated through a number of clues. One Sunday in a homily, the priest emphasized how homosexuals would not inherit the kingdom of God. As I listened to him preach, I realized that I had not mentioned to him that I was a lesbian during our initial meeting. Another hint was that one long-time member of the parish was easier to identify by appearance as being a member of the LGBT community, and the lack of acceptance for this man was abundantly clear. Many parishioners talked about him behind his back, saying things like: I don’t know why Tom comes to church every Sunday if he’s not going to try to be normal, and Tom’s been here for years, but I would never let him around my children. The things those people do are abominable. I tried my best to foster conversations about any number of non-sexuality-related topics with other parishioners, and I perceived the people at St. John’s to be genuine folks who were doing their best to serve God. Though I discussed many diverse topics and built relationships with them, it seemed that no amount of relationship building could influence their perceptions of LGBT people. The moment that I took the plunge and revealed to one trusted person in that parish that I was a lesbian, I realized the gravity of my mistake. She responded immediately with, “Are you trying to get yourself healed so you can marry a man some day?” When I said, “No…” she cut me off before I could even mention my exploration of celibacy and asked, “Well then, why are you here? Why don’t you go to a denomination that’s more liberal and accepts people like you?”

I felt caught in an inescapable tension between these two parishes, electing to try and attend both for the next year and a half. I had never ended my involvement in the social justice ministries at St. Andrew’s. Most Sundays, I elected to go to St. John’s for worship and simply not stay to socialize with anyone afterward. Occasionally, I’d continue to pop in at different traditional prayer and study groups. Independent of my best efforts to do church with both communities, I realized I was constantly being forced to choose between being known and being loved. To be loved at St. Andrew’s, I couldn’t be known as a liturgical and theological traditionalist. To be loved at St. John’s, I couldn’t be known as a member of the LGBT community. As a result, neither parish afforded me a place to be me.

Summoning every bit of internal strength possible and giving one’s all to being church with others has an added level of challenge when you’re LGBT. I’d go so far as to say that sometimes, this feels impossible if you’re LGBT and at least somewhat of a traditionalist. Throughout my twenties, I continually experienced the St. Andrew’s and St. John’s scenarios playing out in my life every time I moved to a new place. They played out with greatest reliability when I was a part of my former Christian tradition. In my current Christian tradition, parishes are generally small, separated by long geographic distances, or both. Everyone who is a part of this tradition in a certain area organically ends up in the same church community, and that reality creates its own set of unique challenges. For my part as an LGBT person with traditionalist sensibilities, I experience a double-silencing. I feel as though I’m constantly being told to seek a church where “my kind of people” go. Depending on the context, “my kind of people” can have a host of different meanings. Generally, I don’t have trouble figuring out the implications of that phrase within a specific church community. Yet each time the issue arises, I find myself wondering: who are “my kind of people”? Folks within the LGBT community, or Christians with traditionalist sensibilities? I’m tired of being informed that my people fit neatly within any category narrower than “the Body of Christ.”

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