I was “ashed” today.
Yes, the guy raised in the Southern Baptist tradition received his first ever Ash Wednesday sacramental today from his lesbian Reformed Church pastor. (How is that for a mindfuck?)
Religion and I have always had a bit of a tenuous relationship. Many years ago I left the Southern Baptist Church when they presented me with a petition to sign to place a referendum on the ballot that would keep the LGBT community from ever becoming a protected class in Florida’s civil rights charter (essentially, prohibiting us from filing any discrimination claim).
I was already struggling with my sexuality to begin with at that point but that seemed to just put it over the top. I had to admit to myself that yes, I was gay, and that, yes, the church I was in did not view me as being worthy of God’s love. In fact, I was being viewed as someone who should be punished, hated, and have laws enacted against. This was not the place for me. From there I bounced to a local member of the International Churches of Christ led by Kip McKean which, to put it nicely, was a cult and after a lot of soul searching and realizing that I still wasn’t spiritually happy. That led me to moving to the Metropolitan Community Church - an LGBT-centric (though not exclusive) congregation led by Rev. Frankye White. I found a wonderful church home that loved and supported me for many years.
When I moved to NYC, I briefly attended the MCC chapter but it didn’t fulfill me like my Jacksonville home had. When I finally settled into a home and an apartment, church became less important. Less… there. There was something missing from that church that made me not want to return and to this day I don’t know why. I would attend church when I went home to visit my family but for the most part, it wasn’t something that I sought out. During this time I ventured into drug use and addiction, more sexual experiences, and things that would turn even the most liberal of faces red or at least make them look away.
The thing is that I have always found that organized religion tends to be about exclusion. More of the “We’re the chosen, you’re not. We’re right, case closed, go to hell.” It was the thing that ultimately repelled me from the Southern Baptist Church - the holier than thou religion. I must admit to having moments where my head is bowed for prayer that I have to keep from giggling over the how amazing we are portions of their prayers that some of their members give. The giggles comes from the fact that I never seem to believe that the words that come from their mouth match their actions during the rest of the week.
So… here I am 12 years later… and I am back in church. I’ve known one of the co-pastors, Ann, for several years. She had been wonderful about gently nudging me here and there about coming to church and I even promised her at one point that I would attend… a promise I didn’t keep for MANY months. I happened to catch Ann on Facebook the Saturday before Hurricane Sandy hit and sent her a message asking her if this Florida boy could be of any assistance to help them prepare for the upcoming storm. She readily accepted my offer and the next Sunday I made my first voluntary trip to church in over a decade.
And I haven’t left yet…
In the next few months, I found myself confiding some personal issues with Ann’s partner and co-paster, Jen, as I found the words, “I need guidance” come tumbling out of my mouth. A few weeks later I was directing the Christmas pageant and meeting more members of the congregation. Last month, I went to a community meeting where I supported my church for its support of those in the community who can’t support themselves. I have become active and involved. I have become a churchgoer.
Today as Ann placed the ashes on my forehead, I was reminded of the long journey I have been through in the past year. I have come clean with my addiction issues, lost a few friends, and somehow found a new path for myself. I’ve learned to reach out to others for help more often and not have to feel that I have to shoulder my burdens alone. Weirdly enough, the sermons I have heard have all hit very close to home. It was what I needed in that moment.
Secondly, as I walked away, newly “ashed” as I have come to say, there was this amazing uplifting feeling I had. Sure, there may be some who say that this is the placebo effect but for me it was like God was embracing me and reminding me that He is here, always has been, and He’s glad to see me in His house again.
Finally, this new step seems like a new rebirth for me. 2013 has not been that great but I have started putting more faith in God that he will provide for me (including a new job). Yes, I still question organized religion and if it’s all just one big brainwashing cult. I still have my issues with it as a whole that will kinda gnaw at me. However, the joy, the love, the support that I have received in the past few months has been spot on, selflessly given, and gladly received.