Where Logic Meets Love

Where I Feel Welcome (More Than at Church)

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

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Where I Feel Welcome (More Than at Church) | Faith Permeating Life

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?


  1. So... I've had this post up on my screen literally ALL DAY. I loved it and I wanted to type in some really awesome comment that was insightful and thought provoking to add to the discussion.

    But my brain today decided to take a day off and all I can think of is "Yes. I agree. You rock."



    I AGREE!


  2. Another well done post, Jessica. I too have found that my gay friends are some of the nicest and most hospitable people I know.

  3. Jessica,

    Through your blog, you have helped to make me the writer and person I am today, and I wish to extend my most heartfelt thanks for the work that you do by nominating you for the Liebster Blog Award.

    For more info and to see how to nominate others, see the post on my blog: http://lifeasareader.blogspot.com/2012/01/liebester-blog-award.html

  4. Took me a while to gather my thoughts, but on your questions:

    I think that the roots of the problems many Christian groups face, where the behavior of believers doesn't match up with the teachings/rhetoric of the faith, comes from people taking faith for granted. It can happen many ways, but the most common way I see it is when people have both fervor for the absolute truth of their faith and a complete lack of critical thinking about, and understanding of, what that truth actually is. I've seen people make jokes about how the Bible, for many Christians, is like the terms of service agreement - most people click "agree" without reading it. It's both clever and accurate.

    People prioritize the belief that their faith is true above the belief in what that faith teaches. Christians often become more concerned with proving their faith right than with doing as their are instructed by Jesus's words. This is what happens, I think, when you see people using one single Bible verse to justify rude or mean behavior (like pointing to how Jesus drove out the money-changers or other similar incidents in his life). They hone in on one sentence from scripture, instead of taking the New Testament/Bible as a whole and thinking, what are the most common themes here? Doesn't Jesus (and God the Father, when we look at the OT as well) talk a whole lot more about loving and caring for outcasts and vulnerable people than he does about, for instance, sexual immorality?

    That's my perspective of it. When faith in a particular religion involves no critical thinking or personal reflection, things just go haywire.

  5. This reminded me of a sign that always makes me smile when I see it on this one church's door: "God loves everyone. No exceptions." Though I'm not a regular member of that congregation, when I do go there I have always felt so welcome, in large part because they embody that message.

    My impression as an outsider has always been that since most churches require adherence to certain laws/commandments/etc., it's very easy for God's love to become framed as something that some people 'deserve', even if it's not theologically framed that way. "God loves you even when you sin" just feels different from "God loves you."

  6. @Dave Keller
    Are you familiar with the Implicit Association Test? I took the Gay-Straight test a few years ago and it told me I had a strong preference for gay people. It was a lot easier for me to make the gay-good / straight-bad association than the gay-bad / straight-good association. I think it's because I've unfortunately seen plenty of protests and counterprotests in which the group of straight (or supposedly straight) people have signs of hate and insult while the LGBT folks and their allies have signs of love, and I don't think I've ever seen it the other way around.

    That said, I don't want to romanticize this too much, because I've definitely met some gay people who are not people I'd like to spend time with. But on the whole, I find the contrast between how welcome I feel in most LGBT-oriented groups vs. most Christian-oriented groups to be quite stark, and that's what I was trying to say here.

  7. @Macha
    I love this comment so much I'm going to share this and write about it in my post tonight because I want to make sure everyone reads it. You rock.

  8. @alice
    You're right about how messy it can get with having rules or commandments but having love freely given. When you think about it in the context of a parent it makes sense: Your parents have rules for you because they care about you, but you can understand that they still love you no matter what. The difficulty is that our earthly parents can explain why certain rules are in place, whereas we rely on people other than God to explain God's rules to us, many of which are either no longer relevant or may not have been commands from God in the first place. There's a million gatekeepers trying to stand between us and God, explaining both his rules and his love. As a child, we may feel our parents' love because of how they treat us (how they talk to us, look at us, hold us) even when we've disobeyed their rules. But we feel God's love mainly through other people, and when those other people cease to be loving on account of our supposedly breaking God's rules, it can feel like God's love is dependent on our following the rules. And it's not--but the way many Christians act, you would never know that.

  9. Great article, and great thoughts in the comments!

    My church is widely considered "the" church for LGBT Episcopalians in Pittsburgh and thus tends also to attract LGBT people who have felt rejected by Catholicism--because Episcopal liturgy is so similar to Catholic. It is so inspiring to meet these people who endured years of feeling judged by Christians yet managed to keep a spark of hope that God does love them, who have now come to a place that confirms that! It has helped me to welcome other kinds of people, too--for instance, developmentally disabled or very poor people. For a while there was a homeless man who never came to services but would show up at coffee hour for free coffee; we chatted with him and offered him food, just like we would anyone else, and while it was often mentioned that he was welcome to attend services, nobody pressured him or suggested that God wouldn't accept him if he didn't. We knew the odds were small that this man would ever become a pledging member who would help our church financially, but even though we are struggling and need more pledgers, that just isn't the only important thing and certainly isn't the reason we exist.

    I know and have known many fine people who are LGBT, but I haven't personally had the experience of finding unconditional love in their groups. Where I did have something like that experience was in the "geek" social organization at my university, in which nearly every member had at some point in their lives been bullied for being smart, weird, and/or unfashionable. Knowing how that feels, all of us were determined not to make other people feel that way, so we were friendly and loving to all the geeks who came our way--and the only people discouraged from hanging out with us were those who picked on others. I remember vividly a time in my first semester when one guy started to make fun of another's dandruff, the room fell silent, someone said in a shocked voice, "Mark, that is Not Cool!" and Mark absolutely shriveled in shame. It was so different from other social environments I (and Mark!) had experienced, it took many of us all of college and well beyond to unlearn the cynicism and fighting-back ideas we had learned earlier in life.

  10. @'Becca
    I've written about this before, but this is another reason it frustrates me that all of our church's social events cost money. There is really no opportunity for someone like that homeless man to become part of our church community except to come to Mass. That makes me very sad.

    I'm glad you had the opportunity to be part of an organization as welcoming and accepting as the gay-straight alliance I was in. It makes me sad that these groups seem to most often form among people who have been bullied or looked down upon, but your church gives me hope that there are still openly welcoming Christian communities even though American Christians have a higher social status (in general) now than those in the early church did.


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