Mega Church

OverlakeWhen I walked into Overlake Christian Church, I half expected the walls to come crashing in.  OCC is what you would call a modern day “mega church.”  In a building that more resembles Costco from the outside than any other kind of structure, it is a teeming city within, just as any of the more ornate ancient Gothic mega churches such as Notre Dame de Paris or Chartres Cathedral were in their day.  There are legions of volunteers, several varieties of youth spaces including a youth chapel and a fully staffed nursery, a full gymnasium, meeting rooms, offices and a cafe with (this being the suburbs of Seattle) what seemed like endless gallons of coffee.

But also like the ancient cathedrals, Overlake is serious about the business of faith.  The sanctuary put me in mind of the largest theaters I’ve performed in with capacity for some 5000+ people.  I imagined that when full, as I was informed that the space gets for the later service, this place was off the chain. This church sits in the heart of the evangelical nouvelle vague where young families in increasing numbers are flocking to a message about Christ that doesn’t judge them because they are struggling to make ends meet or because maybe they didn’t finish school or because they believe in traditional conservative values.  This is a place where these particular young people find community that offers them unconditional support and love in a language they can readily understand.  Yes, there were surely gun owners; yes, plenty of McCain/Palin supporters; probably a lot of anti Obamacare people as well…and me.

If you have read any of my other posts, you know immediately that I did not support McCain/Palin, I don’t believe in any kind of gun ownership (private or otherwise) and I am a rabid supporter of the Affordable Care act.  I am also black and very, very gay.  Walking into Overlake or any conservative community, I know that by the simple appearance of my skin, most people will assume my political positions, but the one thing they can’t and usually don’t assume is my sexuality.  This is a squirmy discomfort that I’ve lived with my entire life, whether it was as a teen meeting people who would ask me if I had a girlfriend yet or in a locker room where guys talk incessantly and rather defensively about sex with women (hmm, there’s a blog post in there) or as a cruise director where the singularly most frequent question I was asked was if I was married.  For some 35 years, I have had to “come out” to every single new person I meet.  One of the reasons I am pro marriage equality, outside of personal interest, is because maybe by “normalizing” same sex relationships it will chip away at the assumptions that force someone like myself to have to repeatedly go through this public explanation process that more than being embarrassing is just plain exhausting.  This kind of daily “coming out” is heightened even more in a church setting…let alone an evangelical one.  But, as I said, I’ve been doing this dance for many years so when I was invited by my dear friends to attend their church, it was easy to put my own disquietude aside and let myself feel deeply flattered that they wanted to include me in their spiritual experience.

After dropping off the kids, we made our way through the throngs of beaming faces to the sanctuary where the house band was already in gear.  The music was youthful guitar heavy rock.  The voices were clear and again…the beaming faces.  In the house, many people swayed and sang along (the words were projected on the largest of the flat screen monitors…a 20×30 foot jumbotron at the back of the stage) and many stood with their eyes closed and palms turned upward to receive the spirit…with beaming faces.  The music built a certain frenzy so that when the pastor, Mike Howerton arrived on stage you wouldn’t expect anything less than being inspired.  His message, “Hope Restored” was clear and hip (he wore jeans and converse sneakers) with no “thou shalts” and “wherefores” other than what might appear in specific scripture.  The service ended with a tricked out version of “Oh Come Emmanuel” that was just plain fun to sing. The experience was, in a word, thrilling and I left feeling inspired and elated.  I thought to myself, why can’t Unitarian Universalists do this?  Wanting to stay focused on my time with my friends, I didn’t stay to socialize or chat.  But on my way out, I made note of what seemed like a whole lot of nice people enjoying church the way they wanted to enjoy it, giving their families the grounding that they felt was important to being successful and balanced people.  I should have been content with that.

But after I got home the next day, I did my usual skeptical due diligence to see where this community stood politically.  It was not enough for me to see them first hand and accept them in their natural habitat.  I had to see if they would have strung me up had they known I was a card carrying ‘homosexualist!’  A simple Google search (“Overlake Christian Church LGBT”) turned up the following article from the Christian Telegraph:

Overlake Christian Church Provides Aids Test to “Remove Stigma”

The article is very definitely anti-Gay (a clue should have been seeing AIDS not capitalized.) But looking past the article at the actual act of an evangelical church asking members to take an HIV test, I was blown away.  Again, I found myself asking, why can’t Unitarian Universalists do this?  At the center of this article were Linda and Rob Robertson who lost their gay son in 2009.  I did a bit more research and came across, or rather was reminded of Linda’s blog, Just Because He Breathes.  Their family story of transformation through their faith to embrace their son in all of his beauty as a gay Christian before his death is extremely powerful.  I had read her article in the Huff Post in July and suddenly felt ashamed that I was in her church and didn’t know…or feel comfortable to seek her, or someone like her out.  I immediately reached out to Linda through her blog and to my amazement, she wrote back.  I am hopeful that I will be able to continue a dialogue with her, not only to support her work, but also to learn from her.  I see a lesson for progressives and liberal church goers as well as Atheists and non believers here.  Linda is a Christian.  She lives what she believes.  From the most painful experience that any parent can undergo regardless of their faith, she learned that she cannot judge.  As a Christian, I imagine that she knows that judgment is in God’s hands.  But that is not to say that for those who are not Christian that they must play by those same rules; judgement, peace, balance are what we come to in our own experiences and we cannot require that others accept something just because it works for us…and ultimately, it is out of all of our hands.  Just as someone who is LGBT cannot be judged by the rules of heteronormativity and just as Christian evangelicals should not all be judged by the same rules of liberal intolerance.

Personally, I am tired of religious irony.  My own snarky, judgmental attitude about a Christian mega church, no matter how much in check I was able to keep it in the moment, almost kept me from making a beautiful discovery about the depth and capacity of the human heart.  Every religious leader or aspiring religious leader should be so lucky as to be able to float in the warmth of what I witnessed at Overlake, and every religious or faith community should be able to provide that warmth to whoever comes into their midst, whether it is a liberal black gay guy in an evangelical church or if it is an evangelical in a community of Pagans.  We are in the business of creating community and those communities are built on “common unities”…shared experiences of our worlds.  There is no possible way that everyone is going to have the same common unities…and we shouldn’t really want to have the same ones.  But it is the impulse to gather and share those common unities that is the same among all of us and that is something in which we can all share; that impulse is love.  I am a Unitarian Universalist and I will celebrate your joy at commemorating the birth of Christ.  You are straight and I hope you can celebrate my thriving in a relationship with the man I share my life with.  We are Jew, Gentile, Muslim, Atheist, Lesbian, Transgender, Cisgender, HIV+, black, Latino and white and we can celebrate one another and be much better for it.

Blessed be…he said with a beaming face.

Conversations About Masculinity – Real ‘church’ is for Men

Napier CathedralI am a regular church goer.  A few years ago when I started to get serious about my commitment to becoming a Unitarian Universalist minister, I figured that a more frequent appearance than Christmas Eve was probably a good idea.

Going to church is not a big stretch for me.  I come from a fairly churchy family and was a regular until I was 13.  Even when I left at that tender age, I knew that I wanted to return some day.    But as an adult things have been different.  Before entering seminary, I often felt that I didn’t have the proper time on Sunday to go to Church, which made it difficult.  Even now, I’m writing this blog on a morning where I’ve had to make a choice between getting my school work done and being part of my church community.  I think many men struggle with this.  Work all week; ‘honey do’ list on Saturday…leaving Sunday as the one day that you can be unscheduled.  Of course Sunday options are limited: watch or play sports, read, shop, do more work (case in point)…or, as a last resort, go to church.  Most men choose the sedentary version of the first on this list (sports), making it ‘their time’ and even though most professional games (whether they be baseball, football or basketball) don’t begin until well after even the late church service has ended, there’s that thinly veiled excuse out there about not wanting to miss the game, which requires watching the pre-game and the pre-game pre show and of course you have to get as much rest as possible leading up to that, so really there is no time for church.

Bullshit.

Now, I am not at all writing this as some kind of holy roller, Bible thumping, hellfire and damnation preacher who wants to blame men for the downfall of religion in America.  No, really, organized religion is doing a good enough job of imploding itself without any help from men.  As I said, I am in seminary, but I’m studying in the Unitarian Universalist faith and for those of you who don’t know about UUs (as we call ourselves), this is as good as saying that I might (stress might) just decide to wear clothes to church and if I do choose out of my free will to be clothed, my garments will most likely include sandals and some form of fair trade hemp.  You see, among the Unitarian Universalist seven principles is the free and independent search for truth and meaning (although contrary to popular belief, most of us go to church clothed.)  We genuinely believe that everyone is welcome at the table…even if they don’t believe in a God, or a supreme being…or tables.  So, my reason for wagging my finger at men who don’t go to church and choose football instead is simply because a lot of men have walked away from the church experience for the reasons I listed before and in doing so, have left themselves out of something that is damaging men everywhere.  This absence of men in the pews supports a bizarre cultural stereotype that church and therefore spiritual connection is somehow only for girls.  And lets be clear here, I’m not talking about supporting the challenging and historically oppressive patriarchy that has come out of some traditions.  My point is that the real spiritual life of men and masculine identified people matters; in fact, it is more important now than it ever has been…hence the title of this piece, and we owe it to ourselves and the world around us not to ignore the spiritual and communal aspect of our humanness.

When I’m referring to “church” here I am definitely referring to small “c” church.  In fact, I also mean to include temple, mosque, prayer garden and any place that people gather or put themselves to engage in a spiritual experience.  But this dearth of men in what are traditionally shared spiritual experiences is most visible in Western Christian churches.  We are currently in an age when, in Western culture, increasing numbers of people have no church affiliation and a significant portion of those people are male identified.1  As a seminarian, I spend a lot of time reading about this and talking to people about why or why not they attend church.  Fairly consistently when I speak with men, they mention that their  mother always wanted them to do it growing up (guilt) or if they are married to a woman…their wife goes (she’s holding the place for both of you), but they aren’t interested and more than anything how they find it boring (no beer, smashing heads or cheerleaders.)

But I would conjecture that it is not so much church that is boring as what Western men have been trained to look for in church that is boring.  After working all week long when you are asked in your job to follow rules, or fulfill needs or meet deadlines, why would you go to a place that is going to tell you about more rules, make you feel guilty for the needs you haven’t met in others and put you on a schedule that makes you get up on the one morning when you can choose to stay asleep?  By these standards, church (still small ‘c’) is the antithesis of what Western men want to do with their free time.  I was just reviewing some more great statistics from the Pew Forum.  On the surface, the numbers tell the story where 59% of men in America identify as “Unaffiliated” where as only 41% of women identify as such.  Jehova’s Witnesses and the historically black church lead the way with the percentages of women who identify with these traditions outnumbering men by some 20%.2  But then in the same chart, we see Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu men outnumbering the women in their self identifying by nearly the same margin.  At first glance one might look to the prominence of men in each of these traditions to be the reason behind these numbers.  The male role in each of these non-Christian traditions is worthy of several dissertations let alone a Sunday morning blog post.  Plus, each of these non-Christian traditions maintains a certain amount of rigor in terms of practice (prayer rituals, rites of passage) and lifestyle (diet, clothing) which on the surface appears to be significantly more time consuming and restrictive than being asked to teach Sunday school once a week or simply put a dollar in the collection plate.  But at the same time, each of these traditions, and their many variants, also offer a more specific connection to cultural and racial identity.  It is certainly worth asking how this element plays into keeping men identifying as Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu.

In the long run, what I’m really talking about is what I call capital ‘C’ Church.  It is bigger than any one tradition or organized group, though it includes and welcomes them all.  You might call it “spirit” another might call it something else all together.  Regardless of the word or language or tradition, this is a connection to one’s inner life; a connection to one’s community; a connection to one’s family and taking the time to embrace and acknowledge these; a connection to what it means in an authentic sense to be male identified and how it is neither a burden nor a privilege, but one of the many states of human being to be celebrated and cherished without hubris.  This ability to connect to the web of humanity, is something that can be beautifully experienced with others through ritual, or it can be experienced in solitude alone on a beach.  What matters is that this crucial part of what makes us, does not go un cultivated and under nourished.  We are even seeing Atheists in growing numbers, who are coming together to acknowledge the need and desire to enrich themselves through acknowledging their humanity.  Many of these “New Atheists” are indeed men, although in a recent series of Salon.com articles the prominence of men in Atheism is called into question as a symbol of patriarchal structures held over from other traditions3…again, another dissertation.

Ultimately, most American men are spiritually out of shape.  What they need to realize is that there are options for how to tone up the spiritual flab and yes, it might mean missing a football game or two.  By occasionally praying to something other than the Heisman Trophy, one might just find a deeper connection to and understanding of themselves, other men, masculine identified people and the women and children in their lives.  If you choose to go to church on Sunday morning, instead of going like a petulant brooding 12 year old, go like an adult who is looking to invest more deeply in the experience here on earth or in the next life or whatever will take you into your particular spiritual place.  Even if you don’t attend an organized formal service, or if you don’t do organized religion of any kind, it is important to find the time in your regular routine to check in with that part of yourself that’s not all about yourself.  Going to your particular ‘church’ and understanding ‘Church’ as it relates to your masculinity is as important as a prostate exam.  You might be uncomfortable at first, but after probing around, you will feel much more at ease knowing that you’ve really got a handle on what’s going on in there.

Footnotes

1. “Nones” on the Rise – PewResearch: Religion & Public Life Project, October 9 2012
2. Religious Landscape Survey – PewResearch: Religion & Life Project
3. 5 reasons there aren’t more women in Atheism – Salon.com, July 29 2013