I miss praise dancing. I miss singing in the choir. I miss sitting next to my grandmother and getting smacked in the arm for talking during the sermon.
These are just a few of the very nostalgic responses that come from conversations with my queer friends about church.
I learned pretty early on that, as a very openly active queer Christian, I am like a unicorn – something people have heard of but never quite seen in person. However, we are here, we are real, and we don’t navigate this journey without our own unique set of problems.
I know so many that have lost their relationship with the church, not because they no longer believed, but because doing the work to free themselves from oppressive things like patriarchy and shame, also allowed them to recognize the space that those same concepts occupy within religion.
And as a social justice oriented, queer boi striving towards liberation, I can definitely relate.
But as a person who also spent almost every waking moment of their first 18 years of life in church, the idea of divorcing myself from my relationship with God and my Christian upbringing seemed unrealistic.
So I found ways to try to compress my queerness, and my gender expression, into something semi-familiar to most church goers. Despite being masculine of center and more comfortable in a button down and a bowtie than a dress or skirt, I did everything I could to look as feminine a possible when I went to a worship service.
Further, I decided it didn’t serve any of us to actually live as an out gay Christian.
But because I was desperate to stay connected to my cultural and spiritual upbringing, I completely ignored how hallow it felt to be in the church with a mask on. I simply wanted to be in the building and that was the only way I knew how to do it.
Church meant the world to me. I just began working with youth, and I was thoroughly invested in it.
However, as time past, I realized that I was just as invested in living my truth out loud. So, donning my Sunday best – bowtie included – I decided to finally be my authentic self, even at church.
Unfortunately, it was only a matter of weeks before I was told by a member of the ministerial staff that I couldn’t effectively teach youth if I was living a sinful life.
Though deeply conflicted and in immense pain about the decision, I decided to leave the church all together.
During that period, I never stopped worshipping, praying or enjoying gospel music. I STILL Looked to God for inspiration when I was down or in times of trouble. I still leaned heavily on the faith that I as taught.
I missed being in church so much, but I had never been around anyone that was gay and Christian. I didn’t have the resources to feel okay with all the intersecting parts of my identity.
All my queer friends talked about how the church had rejected and hurt them, and the church had also hurt and rejected me – so how could I long to be back within that institution?
Further, the newly queer feminist ideologies that were taking residence in my mind and heart kept asking how could I continue worshipping within the church after becoming conscious of how it created and taught generations of oppression?
I discovered that what I truly desired was a Christ-centered spiritual journey. I was tired of church but not tired of Jesus and I know that I was not alone.
In finding my own way spiritually, there were a few steps that I found helpful to facilitate healing and understanding. These steps are written from my experience as a queer Black woman raised in the Black Christian church. However I believe that these same steps can be tweaked to use in any spiritual faith.
1. Lean On What You Were Taught
In church, the preachers always say “don’t just listen to me, study for yourself!” We are consistently taught to read the Bible so we can truly understand the meaning behind the scripture for ourselves.
My Great-Grandmother’s favorite scripture was “Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman needeth not be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15 KJV).
This concept of studying is indeed the first step toward freeing yourself from religious oppression. To “rightly divide” means to properly define what the words that you are reading mean.
As religious feminists and queers, it’s important that we recognize how biblical texts have been used to oppress, deconstruct (or divide – as the Bible refers to it) those texts for their actual meaning, and apply those meanings to our lives as we see appropriate.
I spent almost every moment of my childhood in church studying the Bible – youth bible study, old people bible study, Sunday school teacher bible study, vacation bible xchool, regional youth department, and state youth department. Bible study is a deeply ingrained part of Christianity and I have been doing it since I was a young child.
Consequently I like to call myself the most dangerous queer Christian there is. Why?
Because it’s my belief that you can’t train me for twenty years that God loves me just as I am and that nothing can separate me from his love, then turn around and tell me that he hates me because I am gay.
It is just not sound doctrine. I also don’t believe that that is the kind of love that Jesus teaches in the Bible.
There were so many lessons in the Bible that I had to remind myself of. That I continue to remind myself of.
Many lean on the heavy handed stories of the Old Testament as reason to take away love, rights and justice from anyone that they do not like. But Christ himself showed that his message was completely different from those negative messages. He loved marginalized people, underprivileged people, and people seen as unworthy by “high class” individuals.
He was here for those going through tough times and/or living their truth even more because those were the ones that, more often, showed true love towards him.
I often think about how Christ used the story of Mary Magdalene as an example of how much he hated pious, uppity Christians with their noses in the air. That story is taught routinely in churches, yet no one grasps the fact that Christ was declaring how he loves all that love him.
It fascinates me.
What fascinates others is that I know these and other biblical passages and am happy to point them out at every chance that I get.
It reaffirms that God loves me and created me just as I am.
And that even he notices the hypocrisy amongst his followers.
2. Redefine Exactly What Your Relationship with God Means to You
Historically, the church is used to teach children a moral compass.
What that usually translates to is teaching children “how to act.” And far too often, the idea of church “teaching you how to act” implies teaching respectability politics.
In the Jim Crow south, where Black people were treated with no sociocultural or political respect, it was the respectability politics of the Black Church that allowed janitors or drivers to be immediately transformed into the highest pillars of the community with titles like Pastor or Deacon.
This was a place where Black women could exist without being sexualized or mammified. IThey took great care to dress appropriately so that they too would be seen as worthy of respect.
Those same Jim Crow survival strategies are now used to teach us who is good vs who is bad: What does a bad woman look like? How does she act in the presence of men? Can this type of person be a leader?
I didn’t agree with these values,so I began reflecting on why I would want to remain part of a culture that teaches these type of lessons.
I took the time to deeply examine what Christ asks of me as opposed to what the members of the church asked, to remember that my choice to have a relationship with Christ is a personal one. It is not defined by or bound to church or organization.
Church is more than just a building or the group of people that gather in that building. Church is perspective and action. It’s deeply ingrained in the way that I navigate the world – from the music that I like to how I support, relate to, and connect with those around me.
My relationship with God makes me feel good. It teaches me about love, charity, hope, faith, joy, strength, and peace. I made the choice to let those lessons provide me with path to a more spiritually fulfilled life.
3. Escape the ‘Gaze’ of the Church
Part of being taught how to act is being taught who is watching you, and we were taught that whatever you do, you do not question the church.
Oprah once described how she viewed God to be a white man with a beard looking down on you from heaven, taking notes of all the bad things that you do. For me the “gaze” is the entire church community watching you for opportunities to correct, judge or shame you for living outside of the boundaries they have set.
In deciding to study for myself, I had to be willing to take on the burden of releasing fear, shame, and conviction. I would have to believe in myself and not allow myself to be hurt or offended when homophobic Christians rejected me.
I surrounded myself with folks asking the same questions as me, folks on a similar spiritual journey. They became the spiritual family that I cared more about.
Not the ones who existed solely to shame me. I turned my back on the gaze.
4. Find a Spiritual Center That Settles Your Spirit
It is important to find a church or spiritual center where your soul feels settled.
After I came out and started to feel more comfortable presenting as masculine of center, I went through a point where I did not feel at all comfortable in a traditional church because of the stares when I walked in wearing a necktie and slacks.
I was so thankful when my friend introduced me to the Unity Fellowship Church Movement, a network of queer affirming ministries by Bishop Carl Bean. It was there that I finally I felt loved and valued just as I was.
Members respected my theological knowledge as well as my understanding of church leadership. There was never any mention of me not being fit to serve just because of my gender presentation. The only question that was asked was did I love God.
It was the affirmation and teachings of that inclusive spiritual space that reinforced the idea that God loved me and that I could be bold enough to face criticism and be the light that creates a path for other queer people who want to serve and worship in traditional worship spaces.
5. Don’t Be Afraid to Explore and Create Your Own Spiritual Lanes
There are so many amazing spiritual practices that I like to partake in that previous generations would assure me were “of the devil.”
But creating my own spiritual lanes and practices were integral in defining my personal relationship with God. They are also self-care, which is something we’re never ever taught in traditional spaces.
For example, as much as we are taught about prayer, we are more so taught to pray more in a manner of petitioning God and not communing with him. And what God wants is for us to commune and have a relationship with him.
To that vein, I added more meditation to my spiritual practice.
From one of my black queer elders, Queen Hollins, I learned so much about cultural practices – about communing with God, the earth and spirit. I began to practice the healing power of drumming and singing and so many other things that mothers of the church would see as blasphemous.
I have recently become a huge fan of the Queer Theology site and podcast hosted by Brian G Murphy and Father Shannon TL Kearns. The podcast itself is a great show where the hosts break down biblical texts and how they can be applied to the journey of queer people.
Lessons like “The Power of Community,” “God Did Not Give you The Spirit of Fear,” and “Even When Your Family Doesn’t Get It” are matched with biblical texts that give inspiration and, as they would say, “queering” the bible.
The site also offers literary resources, an Inclusive Church Checklist and their original “Guide to Recovering From Fundamentalism.”
My spiritual truth and liberation manifested as merging all of these learnings together to find a greater sense of peace. By seeing God in all of these practices I saw him in an entirely different way
Because being at peace with yourself, other people, God, and the universe is one of the points of religion, right?
The bottom line is your spiritual relationship is personal.
It is a personal decision and relationship between you and whatever spiritual deity you engage in. The problems come in when outsiders try to create barriers and rules based on their own biases, prejudices, and ignorance.
It takes just a few extra steps to learn that if you allow your heart and mind to step outside of the physical walls of organized religion you will see that at its root is love and peace.
If you have already pulled off the layers of historical oppression then you have already started the process of defining exactly how to navigate it authentically for yourself.
Carolyn Wysinger is a writer who has contributed to Autostraddle, Black Girl Dangerous, and Media Diversified. Her first book, Knockturnal Emissions: Thoughts on #race #gender #culture #community is currently available on Amazon.com. Check out her website at theknockturnalproject.com and follow her on Twitter @.