At twenty, I'm starting to find myself defining my identity in terms of "used to" phrases. I used to stress myself sick about my grades. I used to play Little League Baseball. I used to think that I'd never be able to drive.
I also used to be Methodist.
That change was made a few days ago, but it's been a long time coming, if I'm being truly honest. My relationship with God has frayed, fractured, and finally outright disappeared. I feel betrayed, and abandoned. The church that was supposed to love, nurture, and support me -- the one I was baptized into, the one I pledged myself to at fourteen when I was confirmed -- has turned its back on me.
Being confirmed was not the only thing I did at fourteen. I also came out as a gay man. I was terrified that everyone around me would reject and despise me. The rhetoric that I heard and the images I saw were of faith communities shouting down their LGBT members, driving them out of their sanctuaries, and rejecting them. I had hoped, perhaps naïvely, that my church would be different. I wanted them to embrace me, unapologetically, and welcome me back into the fold.
I grew up at the First United Methodist Church in Moorestown, New Jersey. A relatively progressive body, the church just celebrated its 200th anniversary. I sang in the church choir from kindergarten through my senior year. I even had a few starring roles in church productions, playing Jonah, Noah, and even Jesus for the annual Mother's Day musicals. My paternal grandfather was a long-time member, and had donated the giant cross on the outside wall in memory of his late wife. I remember that, for a while, it felt as if every time I asked about it, I discovered something new that he had given to the church. It was such a big part of his life, second perhaps only to us, his family.
Like most teenagers, I went through a face of casual agnosticism. I wanted to sleep in late on Sunday mornings or catch up on homework. Church was no longer a priority, and apart from keeping my commitment to sing in the choir I stopped going. With the advent of high school and later college, those visits decreased further. When my grandfather died my freshman year of college, I felt like going to church was just too painful. Seeing the pew where he had sat every Sunday occupied by someone else felt wrong.
But more than that, I had a sneaking suspicion that I just wasn't welcome. I couldn't prove it. Nothing had ever happened that made me believe that I was no longer a valued member of the congregation. I just felt as if in order to go to church, I had to step back into the closet to avoid any potential issues. I dressed in a masculine fashion, and tried to deepen my speaking and singing voice. I wanted to be the last person into services and the first one out. I worried that if I said the wrong thing, or used the wrong tone of voice, I would be "found out" and cast from the sanctuary. I always felt like my behavior and mannerisms were being monitored.
Like many separations, mine from the church was slow and lengthy. That drifting process I described before was one that took months -- indeed, years -- to occur fully. But I decided to cauterize the wound about a month ago following the United Methodist General Conference in Oregon, where clergy and representatives refused to vote on whether to accept LGBT congregants and extend them the full rights of church membership. Even though I wasn't sure whether I ever wanted to get married, much less in a religious setting, it stung to have that option removed for me. And while the general Methodist body and my individual church are two different institutions, the general silence coming from our church was deafening. They know that I'm gay -- virtually everyone does. I'm not the only one, I'm sure. But instead of joining me in solidarity and standing up for the rights of LGBT Methodists to be treated fairly, they looked the other way. And it hurt.
I know I wrote earlier that I feel abandoned by my faith. Yet I also feel strong and open-minded. I feel like I have a direction for my life. I feel like I have a plan. I have a good relationship with a higher power, one I feel no need to label or anthropomorphize. I am who I am, I believe what I believe, and I have yet to be smote from the earth; as far as I'm concerned, that higher power values me and that's the most important thing.
I still have many friends, relatives, and neighbors who attend my church. I know many members who are leaving. I know others who are staying. I know some who, as I have perceived my church's leaders to have done, turned away and ignored the issue. I don't pass judgement on any of the congregants for their choices. But I do pass judgement on my church's leaders for not doing their job. As I learned in Sunday School growing up, Jesus taught us to love one another regardless of whether or not you personally agree with them. Jesus sat with prostitutes and lepers -- he loved the least of us. It is hurtful to hear lectures from pulpits all around the country teaching of Jesus' unconditional love but refusing to enact it when it comes to LGBT Americans. The personal is political, and the political is personal. The decisions made at general conferences and on Capitol Hill affect congregants, and clergy need to realize that.
I have hope that my church will do the right thing, even if that means standing up to the governing body. And when they do, I will come back. But until then, I will take the lessons they taught me so many years ago and do what I can to teach them back. We don't need healing or reconciliation. We need action. We need love.