As a child, Communion was my favorite part of going to church. Being Methodists, we only took Communion once a month and when we did, we stayed in our pews as brass trays with tiny juice glasses were passed from person to person. The infrequency of Communion and those little juice glasses themselves—fascinating miniatures much like my Matchbox cars—made it a treat. I remember feeling especially close to my family in those moments, as we sat side by side in the pew, adults and children alike sharing in this intriguing ritual.
We were not a devoutly religious family, but I loved the stories I learned in Sunday school and in vacation bible school about a kind and loving Jesus. With those stories in my heart, I believe it’s possible that in taking Communion I felt the stirrings of God’s love.
By my early teens, we had stopped going to church regularly, though I gladly attended with my grandparents when I visited. I occasionally went with a friend’s family to a large Baptist church and attended a few meetings of my school’s Campus Life chapter. Through these experiences and the loudest religious voices at the time (Jerry Falwell, et al.), I began to experience religion, and Christianity more specifically, as a barometer of good and evil, a determinant of the saved and the damned. There seemed to be little room for the uncertainties of life or the reality of being human. From what I witnessed, the kindness and generosity of the Bible stories I learned as a child did not extend very far or very deep.
As I grew into adulthood, I admired friends who drew strength or comfort from their faith, but I couldn’t find it myself. I wanted clear, straight answers that I couldn’t find in the contradictions of the Bible I studied in college courses. I can’t recall how my growing awareness of being gay played into my religious questioning and antipathy. When I came to accept my gayness, I recognized that it had been with me all of my life, as much a part of me as blue eyes or the gap between my front teeth, now mostly erased with braces. One thing I knew for sure; whatever force had created me had included my gayness as a part of the package.
As I entered my mid-twenties, my professional, political and personal lives were immersed in the AIDS epidemic. Though I missed the earliest days of fear and horror, I saw enough pain and suffering and death to long for the consolation of faith. I knew I could only find hope in a church that welcomed and affirmed my whole being. There were few options in those days and the one I tried left me impressed with their social justice missions, but my soul untouched. Discouraged, I drifted.
Some years later, supported by the lessons I had learned from the AIDS epidemic, I accompanied and cared for my mother as she died of cancer. In her final month, even I as watched her body and spirit struggle, I experienced a depth of familial and community love that I had never known before. Moments of profound grace and mystery opened my heart in new and unexpected ways.
When I returned to DC after her death, I found myself called back to the church of my childhood. I attended a prominent and inclusive Methodist church a short walk from my house. Hearing the words of the “Old 100th,” I felt as though I was back in the pews of my childhood, close to my mother, as well as to her father, through whom our Methodist lineage had travelled. I took great comfort attending services during this period of grief and soon realized I had found a church home. The services touched my soul and I appreciated this church’s commitment to local missions and its willingness to stand on the front lines of efforts to make the Methodist church inclusive of LGBT members.
Over time, though, I turned away. I found that I could not remain within a larger church community that deemed me “less than.” I had marched too often and felt too much shame in years past to allow myself to be relegated to second-class status within a spiritual community of my choosing, a community that preached and demonstrated God’s love in so many ways, but denied the fullness of that love to people like me. It was deeply painful that the church which baptized me refused to recognize all of me as God’s creation. Discouraged, I drifted.
And I searched. At several points, I was drawn to Buddhism and attended sittings with a kind and compassionate local teacher. I had the opportunity to participate in an extraordinary Buddhist program for those who care for the dying. The words of wise teachers rang true and inspired me. Seeking to go deeper, I spent a week at Buddhist retreat center studying with a Zen priest whose wisdom called out to me. I left the retreat rested, hopeful, at peace.
But it didn’t stick—or, it might be fairer to say, I didn’t stick with it. By this time I was working at Joseph’s House. A year in, I was exhausted. Stretched by the challenges of a small non-profit and serving those who struggled mightily with the long-term impacts of poverty and racism, I was losing heart.
About that time, on the fourteenth anniversary of my mother’s death, I was called to remember her in the quiet of a chapel at Washington National Cathedral. The power of my experience that day lead me back to church—actually back to the cathedral itself—and, ultimately, to the Episcopal faith.
Shortly after I started attending, then Dean Gary Hall preached a sermon that shook my understanding of what faith could mean in my life. “This search and call are not only about being found and saved. They are about a new life in which we, as Jesus did, offer life and hope to others.” For the first time, I got it. For me, practicing Christianity was not about saving my own skin, it was about sharing God’s love. I found new inspiration for my work.
In the months that followed, the words and movements of the services became familiar, comforting. True to my childhood inclinations, I loved that the Eucharist is celebrated at every Sunday service. I felt a twinge of joy each time the priests invited us to the table with the words, “The Gifts of God for the People of God.” At the cathedral, all are welcome to partake of the bread and wine and the words and the sacrament become a tangible reminder that God’s love is on offer to all of us—always.
The words took on a depth of meaning for me because of the church’s welcome of LGBT people; its welcome of me. I had not realized just how much of a difference that embrace made in my own faith until a recent flap with the primates of the Anglican Communion, the leaders of Anglican churches around the world.
The primates have been troubled with the Episcopal Church’s stand on LGBT inclusion since at least 2003 when the Diocese of New Hampshire elected an openly gay man as their bishop. This past January, the primates sanctioned the Episcopal Church for its decision to broaden the sacrament of marriage to include same-sex couples.
In his statement in response to the action, the Most Rev. Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church said, “there will be heartache and pain for many.” I found my reaction to be just the opposite. I was heartened, overjoyed even, by the words and conviction of the church’s leaders in response to the primates’ action. In speaking before his fellow primates, Bishop Curry said, “Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all.”
My own bishop, Rt. Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, said in a radio interview, “we say that this is the truth that we claim as revealed to us.” Reflecting on the Episcopal Church’s own long journey toward full inclusion, she said, “We tried to carve out a place of love and unconditional acceptance for gay and lesbian people and yet deny them their god-given identity as full members of the church. And yet the discrepancy between such words and actions can only be tolerated for so long, and then you must change your church to reflect the desire that you have for that pain to be addressed appropriately.”
How refreshing to hear such strong, insightful words not only from those in the LGBT community working for acceptance, but from leaders who articulate so clearly why the church acted as it did. I could feel their love—and God’s—through their words and deeds.
It was a few weeks later when I recognized what that love meant. Returning to church has been a great support for me, especially in my work at Joseph’s House. That certainly does not mean it’s always easy or that I don’t find myself frustrated at times with those we serve as they struggle to make it in the world.
A few weeks ago, though, I noticed a perceptible shift. In unexpected moments, I found that I was more open, more forgiving, more inclined to give a hug and see the beauty in our friends, even as they struggled. I have always loved and had empathy for those we serve, but I found that for the first time I could really see them as God’s own.
Even as I noticed the change, I wasn’t sure where it came from. As I reflected, the reason became clear. I had been fully acknowledged as God’s beloved child—for the first time in my adult life— and in that acknowledgement I had been freed to see and love others in a new way.
I like to think that I don’t need an institution or another person to validate my worth, but I had come to believe the message I heard over so many years—I was loved by God, but not quite all the way. I was flawed.
The actions of the Episcopal Church, the words of Bishop Curry and Bishop Budde, made real a very different truth—God’s full love does extend to me.
No doubt, my ability to see this truth and my ability to love my neighbor will sway in the months and years ahead. I know myself well.
Yet, I also know that when I hear the priest invite me to the table with the words “The Gifts of God for the People of God,” the invitation now touches something even deeper within me than it did when I was young boy first awakening to the possibility of God’s love.