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.

“Come out come out wherever you are…” Happy East-over!

One of the most challenging aspects of being LGBTQ over the last 40 years has been “coming out.”  Until Stonewall and the Gay Rights movement, it was assumed that if one led “a certain lifestyle” that one would simply stay quiet about it.  Rock Hudson, Paul Lynde, Langston Hughes and even people like Eleanor Roosevelt lived lives that clearly included same sex love, but they were not “out” in our modern sense of the word.  This was a potential way of navigating the world that was shared with me early on and with all due respect, it was one of the more painful options presented to me when I did ultimately come out to my family.  But we live in a different time now.

Right now, it is Easter for Christians and Passover for the Jews.  This is a time of gratitude; gratitude for sacrifice and gratitude for liberation.  It is the intersection of these two kinds of gratitude that I think makes the coming out experience of LGBTQ people the perfect Easter/ Passover subject for reflection.

In many ways, Christ was faced with coming out, time and time again.  Throughout the New Testament, Jesus reveals himself and is revealed as the Son of God.  I love this from John 4:25,26:

The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’

This simple private confession is not a grand proclamation.  There is an intimacy here that reminds me of the kind of conversations that BFFs have where coming out can be matter of fact and really just a confirmation of what both people already know.  This is the way we would love all of our coming out stories to go.

But then in Matthew 26:63-66:

But Jesus was silent. Then the high priest said to him, ‘I put you under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have said so. But I tell you,
From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.’
Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, ‘He has blasphemed! Why do we still need witnesses? You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your verdict?’ They answered, ‘He deserves death.’

Frequently, this is how many people, particularly LGBTQ people of faith, feel like their coming out will go and unfortunately,  too often this has been the case.  Jesus cannot change who He is, nor does he want to, yet the non-believers wish to deny him his reality.  When we come out, this is what questions and statements like “are you sure” or “how can you know” or worse “you are not my child/friend/ family” can make us feel.  These are the attitudes that deny and condemn.   They put us to death.

Ultimately, Christ’s “coming out” leads to the ultimate sacrifice.  But it is this sacrifice that fulfills the prophecy and brings salvation by living (and dying) for a divine truth.  Through the lens of the LGBTQ coming out experience, there is a death (of hidden ways and secrets ) that also brings with it the promise of rebirth and an eternal life and legacy in who we truly are.

The Passover tradition, of which I am less familiar, but have been surrounded by since early childhood, may also hold great inspiration for LGBTQ people.  The entire story of the Exodus is one of great tenacity and dedication, but Passover, specifically says something.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with the story, in its simplest terms, the Jews’ ‘first born’ are spared during the worst of ten plagues that are brought to test the Jews for their release from slavery by the Egyptians.  The first born of the Jews are spared by marking their doors with the blood of the slaughtered spring lamb as a sign to the spirit of the Lord to “pass over” their homes.  There are many lambs in the Bible (Old and New Testament).  But I draw inspiration from the the symbolism of sacrifice in the Passover tradition where something has been sacrificed so that something else may live, whether the sacrifice be of  good things or bad things (true or false gods.)  LGBTQ people continue to have to sacrifice relationships, family, jobs, living situations and many other things to simply live freely as they must. These are the sacrifices that are in addition to those that are faced by all people and that remind us to be grateful for being led to our personal Exodus in addition to the historical Exodus of some of our faith traditions.

So this Passover/Easter season, a time of sacrifice, rebirth, gratitude and liberation is a perfect time to also embrace the journey and experience of coming out whether it is past, present or future; whether it is you or someone you know.  What is your coming out story?

חַג שָׂמֵחַ

Happy Easter!