Where I Feel Welcome (More Than at Church)
Tuesday, January 10, 2012Tweet
In my junior year at the Catholic university Mike and I attended, I went to a meeting of a group that was hosting an upcoming event. I needed to get details about the event and interviews for an article for the school paper, and as head of the news section I had assigned this article to myself. I'd been wanting to attend this group's meetings for a while, but hadn't given myself the push to go until now.
The group was amazing. They completely welcomed me and shared with me not only information about the event but personal stories about their lives. If I initially felt awkward as an outsider, they all made me feel at home.
I attended this group almost every week for the rest of my time in college, including grad school. I served as secretary and helped plan some of the major events.
But the most memorable part was the people.
They loved me, accepted me, and became my campus family. No matter what else was going on in my life, I tried to make the time to come to the weekly meeting because I knew that they would take the burden off my shoulders. They would listen and give me hugs and brownies.
When I graduated, the group had a surprise party for me and gave me gifts.
I have never felt so loved by a group of people, except maybe my own family. I've remained friends with many of the members.
Who was the group, you ask?
It wasn't a Bible study or a Christian small group.
It wasn't even church-related.
It was the college's gay-straight alliance.
I'm pretty sure there was a period of time during the two-and-a-half years I was a member when I made up the "straight" part of "gay-straight alliance" all by myself, except possibly for one of the advisors. We had a policy of never asking anyone to share their sexual orientation, but through the intimate conversations our group had, it was pretty clear that I was straight.
But it never mattered.
They loved me anyway, exactly as I was.
I know this isn't the case for the entire gay community, but I have heard from other people, both straight and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender), who have had a similar experience. I recently read Sundays in America, by a woman who attended churches all over the U.S., and you immediately get the sense that the churches with a large LGBT population are the most welcoming, the most accepting, the most loving.
Why is that?
(I fully acknowledge that this can only ever be speculation because I am myself straight, but as probably a good third of my friends are LGBT, it's at least an educated guess.)
I can imagine that if many, many people -- often even your own family -- refuse to accept you for something that is fundamentally part of yourself, you have to seek acceptance among other people who are struggling in the same way. And the only way to sustain and grow this safe space of acceptance (especially at a Catholic university) is to be completely and totally accepting of everyone else who comes into that space.
I was blessed to find my way into that safe space.
When I was a freshman, I tried to get involved with several different Catholic groups on campus, but I never quite felt like I fit in. I didn't get super-excited about saying the rosary or going to adoration, so I always felt like I wasn't "Catholic enough" to be part of these groups. I couldn't reference the Catechism in everyday conversation or debate theology like those who had grown up in Catholic school. I could have tried to keep up or fake it, but it got to be too difficult to pretend to be someone I wasn't.
I do remember one time that year I was having a rough day and was looking for a sanctuary where I could just find some peace and be in God's presence. The main chapel was unlocked, so I went in and took a seat in the back. I soon realized that they were setting up for some event, and the guys who were bringing stuff in were giving me weird looks that made it clear I wasn't supposed to be there. I left after a few minutes.
A few years later, I was again having a terrible day and needing some rest and comfort for my soul. This time, I went inside the building where our gay-straight alliance meetings were held. Even though it wasn't a meeting night, just being in that building gave me the familiar peace and comfort of being totally loved, totally accepted. There I felt like I could lay my burdens at the feet of God, the way I could bring my troubles to the group at our meetings. In that place I didn't have to be good enough or "holy" enough or try to fit some preconceived notion of who I should be. I was loved no matter what.
My friends from the gay-straight alliance showed me more about what loving your neighbor truly looks like than the vast majority of Christians I have met.
My question to you is: How did the Christian community get so far away from this?
How did we get so far from Jesus' welcoming arms and His willingness to break bread with those whom the Pharisees and scribes had deemed "not good enough"?
When did we stop loving all of our neighbors and start only loving those neighbors who we deemed not sinful enough to be beneath us, or at least not sinful in the "wrong" ways? The "unforgivable" ways?
When did we make ourselves the gatekeepers of who is deserving of love and acceptance?
Christians used to be the unaccepted ones, the rejected ones, the ones who had to meet in secret or risk persecution. But in America in the 21st century, that's not the case. I'd even say you're better off being a Christian than not in terms of being accepted in most parts of the country.
And somewhere along the line, when being Christian became the thing to do, there was a standard created. There were fences put up. No longer were we just glad to find another person who accepted us and shared our beliefs. No longer were we down at the bottom of the social ladder, where we might as well hang out with lepers and prostitutes and whoever else was down there with us. No, we had been elevated, and that meant we could start looking down on other people.
I fear that there's no easy road back. No way for the Christian community at large to understand what my gay-straight alliance friends understood: that intimacy is built by first extending love and acceptance, while rejection only fosters isolation and separation.
In fact, I see the opposite happening: As the gay community becomes more visible and accepted in the mainstream, more and more judgments are made about LGBT people who are being "too gay" or "not gay enough." And these judgments are being made by those who are LGBT. A group that is not simply fighting to be acknowledged anymore can afford to start being exclusive. Creating standards for who's allowed "in."
Whether you are Christian, LGBT, both, neither, or not even sure, I ask you: Help me break down these barriers. Anywhere. Everywhere. Rip up the standards you have in your head for who is deserving of your love and acceptance.
Because the answer is: Nobody. And everybody.
None of us truly deserves or can earn God's love, and yet He loves all of us.
Can we really create standards that are better than God's?