On Sunday, after church, I went to an orientation for people interested in joining the congregation. About 15 of us, we all sat around a table and wrote our names with sharpies for name tags we affixed to our shirts and blouses.
The minister came in and introduced himself, shared a bit of his life story and asked us all to share our names, what we do, and briefly, our religious history. Not surprisingly, the group was filled with folks like me who had grown up in church and somewhere along the way, stopped going.
When it was my turn, I shared that I had gone to Bible college, had been a youth minister, and that after I came out of the closet, that was the end of all of it. Also, for whatever reason, in the beginning of 2016, I decided I missed church. So, after more than 20 years, I started looking for a church home.
After we went around the room, each sharing a bit of their own story, the minister told us about the church, its history, its positions, its outreach. Then he asked the room if anyone had any questions. The room sat quietly for a few seconds until finally, he said, “Surely the former youth minister has a question for me.” Everyone chuckled, I chuckled. “Actually, I do.” Another chuckle. I asked my question, so boring of a question that it doesn’t warrant repeating.
A few others asked questions, and not much later, he dismissed us. As I left, my friend Richard and I went to shake the minister’s hand and say thanks.
The minister said, “Ray, I hope you know that you are welcome here. We have many LGBT members.” I laughed because, as I shared in my last blog, at this church, someone, everyone, is always reminding us, as often as possible, just how welcome every person is.
I was a little high all that afternoon. And it wasn’t just the welcoming the gays part. But there was something thrilling about being called out for my time in the ministry. The former youth minister. And that somehow, if God had used me before, maybe God could use me again.
As I was reading a book today, another memoir of a Midwestern gay who moved to New York to make his way, I had a flash of that exchange that took place on Sunday. “Ray, I hope you know that you are welcome here.” My eyes got blurry and I had to put my book down and I started to weep. It had not been emotional in the moment, but now, with some reflection, I thought, I have waited 25 years to hear those words from a church. I’d actually waited my entire life. From the time I was the little guy in a tan leisure suit and a wooden cross necklace, until the day I left, at 23, I was always trying to turn myself into the straight version of Ray. And here someone, an entire congregation, was offering the possibility, that Gay Ray, could be what God wanted me to be all along. And the idea was shocking, but also, a comfort. I bawled.
And you know, I must be honest. There is a conflict, because within this joy, this discovery that there is a place for me, after so many years, I can’t help but resent the churches that turned me away in the first place. And then I wonder, DID they turn me away? Or did I just go away because I was afraid I would hear those words, “You are not welcome here.” I knew the 411. I’d been paying attention every Sunday. Church is no place for the gays. Being gay is something you repress or pray to heal. And if you aren’t healed of it, your faith wasn’t very good to begin with. And your parents are taught in church that if you are gay, it’s because they did something wrong. And your parents, as hard as they try, it breaks their heart that you’re gay. And you go through life, knowing that, even though they love you, you broke their hearts. And their churches don’t offer them comfort and say to them, “You did nothing wrong. You are amazing parents.”
It’s a lot. It’s enough to burden a person’s soul.
I know it must seem like I say the same thing over and over again. I do and I know that I do, but I cut myself some slack because I don’t think I am the only person who has struggled to feel welcome, to feel home. And I know that I have conservative friends in conservative churches that have young LGBT kids in their congregation and it would mean so much to me, if that is you, you could reach out to those kids and tell them how much you are rooting for them. That your church is their home. That they are welcome.
I know that some of you grew up, completely, all the way, house, kids, dogs, vacation home, grew up, but for some of us, childhood never seems very far away. And the people whose approval we wanted most in our youth are the affirmations we seek for the rest of our lives. And we are all a little broken, all a little weary. And don’t think you can tell someone too many times that they are welcome, because, maybe the opposite is so ingrained, that it takes a really long time to hear it.