19 May 2009

A Trip to Church

By Matthew Beams

I do some volunteering with an organization called Soulforce NYC, http://www.sfnyc.org/, which desires reconciliation between LGBT folks and anti-gay and anti-transgender religious traditions. For the past few months we have been visiting a church in Sunset Park, Brooklyn where the pastor has a history of making anti-gay remarks and writing anti-gay tracts. We contacted the church and let them know we’d be coming to worship and fellowship with them and hoped to open a dialogue with them. Preparing for these visits, we train using the principles of non-violence as outlined by Gandhi and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We support each other and pray together. We discuss openness and reconciliation. We go in a small group. And we believe that it is God’s Will that we should reconcile. And yet, on the day it was my turn to visit the church, I was nervous to go.

Micah, Peter, and I met on Sunday morning and traveled to Brooklyn together, arriving at the church shortly before the service started. We stood out as visitors to the church, as most church-folk know who are the regulars and who are the visitors. We were greeted warmly and welcomed. We chose where to sit and entered our row, and my heart was pounding.

The opening music started, and it sounded great. The band played worship and praise songs and we all started singing and worshiping together. As we stood there, a young teenager took a seat in the row ahead of us, and Micah, Peter, and I all looked at each other. Surely this boy was queer! I didn’t know him, nor did I speak with him, but he just reminded me of myself at that age, struggling with the intersection of faith and my own beginning understanding of myself as a gay person. Micah and Peter had a similar impression. I felt strengthened. Maybe God had seated us all here in proximity to be a witness to each other. As the music continued on for some time I felt at ease. The Holy Spirit was moving through this sanctuary, and I felt God’s presence all around me. I wasn’t surprised, because of course God is everywhere, but I was relieved of some of the anxiety I brought with me.

Then the sermon started. One of the bishop’s associates preached that Sunday and the theme of his sermon was “Deception leads to Disobedience, which leads to Disease, and then to Despair.” Wow! As he picked and chose verses from the Bible to support his claims, my relief dissipated. Where was God’s Grace? Where was Love? Where was Mercy? It was not in this sermon. As a 37-year-old man I can look back at my life and see where I have deceived myself, or allowed myself to be deceived by the trappings of life or the lure of the quick-fix. I can see how that deception lead me to disobey my own personal morals and even to fail to be the man God called me to be in those instances. I can see how that led to physical, mental, and spiritual “dis-ease.” And often that led me to feel despair. As a 37-year-old man, who has found God’s Grace and Mercy, I can look at that without judgment for myself and see how that did not fit into God’s plan for me. But as I looked at the teenager sitting in front of me, knowing the message of exclusion that is preached at this church, I couldn’t help but be sad for what message he was hearing. Was he hearing that being gay was the Deception? Did he believe that “the Deceiver” was tempting him into this “homosexual death-style” (as the Bishop of the church has called it)? How would he reconcile Jesus’ command to “Love one another,” Jesus’ acceptance of all those who had not been welcomed, with this message of condemnation and judgment?

When the sermon was over, the music began again, but I could not find the peace and relief in it that I found at the beginning of the service. I tried to lose myself in the music, to let the Holy Spirit enter my heart and relieve me of the bondage of self that this sermon had cast upon me. Eventually I relaxed and gave thanks to God for all that is good and for the opportunity to be here and be a witness of God’s love for all people.

As the music slowed down, the Bishop started asking questions of the congregation. He asked who wanted Jesus to enter into their hearts in a new way today, and I raised my hand. Now I grew up Catholic, and I currently attend Marble Collegiate Church http://www.marblechurch.org/, so I didn’t realize that raising my hand to this meant they were going to ask me up to the altar call! The Bishop said, I see a hand back there and called me up to the altar. I quickly put my hand down and kept singing, hoping no one had noticed. A few minutes later, a woman from the church came to my aisle and invited me up front. I politely declined, and she let me be. As the Bishop kept calling people to the altar, I thought of all the ways the Holy Spirit has worked in me, ways too many to name in this post. The Bishop kept speaking, and I kept praying. The Bishop spoke of the healing available to all of us through Jesus Christ. I can’t know what the Bishop was referring too, or if he had any agenda, but I believe, regardless of his platform, agenda, or theology, that his intentions are true, that he is a man of God who wants to bring people closer to God. And so, before I knew what was happening, my feet were walking down the row of chairs and up the center to the aisle to the altar. There was a flurry of cheers and applause from the people behind me who had seen me raise my hand and then put it down. As I approached the altar, I felt fear coming back into me. What am I doing up here? Who do I think I am? What if they …? What if …? What if …? But I trusted in the Lord and stood my ground. As I listened to the people around me I heard real pain, real joy, real love, real faith. Finally, the Bishop, himself, approached me and asked me if anyone had prayed with me yet. I told him no. He asked my name and how did I want Jesus to heal me. I told him who I was and what was on my heart, and he asked if he could hug me. In that embrace I felt a man deeply committed to Christ, a human being filled with all the same feelings as any other human being. He laid hands on my forehead and we prayed. His prayers were gracious and generous and without any judgment. I believe that both the Bishop and I were healed that day.

After the service, Peter, Micah and I broke bread (delicious baked ziti and salad) in the church basement with members of the congregation, just as was being done in churches all across the world. People thanked us for attending and invited us back. We thanked them for their hospitality and promised we’d return. I know that I was changed by my visit to this church, and I believe that the church was changed by our visit as well.

As we left, we passed a group of boys standing on the steps outside the church; among them was the boy who sat in front of us during the service. We said goodbye and as we walked away, he turned and quickly waved at us before going back to his friends. Who knows what kind of impact we made that day?

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