In Fight & Flight, I shared my experiences as an affirming queer Christian in a non-affirming church. I eventually took flight from that church after realizing that the hits I was taking were critical enough to damage rather than boost my relationship with God and God’s kin-dom. In this post, I’ll describe the journey I’ve been on since then – this time with Ada as my co-pilot.
Preparing For Take-Off
Ada and I spent a formative part of our lives entwined in our college’s Christian fellowship, which shaped our view of Christian belief, culture, and purpose.
By the time I was a college senior and going through the discernment process with Ada, I felt tension between the fellowship and me. When a new student asked which churches students usually attended, my co-leader answered, “There are four: The Living Room, First Baptist, New Life, and Oikos.”
Not known for holding my tongue, I interjected, “Sure, Chad, that’s where our fellowship tends to go. But there are over a dozen churches in the area, like Hope Episcopal, Village Congregational, the A.M.E. Zion church…”
Evangelicals, like those in our fellowship, often isolate themselves from the rest of Christianity. I’ve been at evangelical churches that won’t even consider partnering with the congregational church next door for a simple food drive, let alone an Easter vigil.
Sometimes they even step beyond isolationism and into judgment. I’ve been warned countless times that a neighboring mainline church “won’t be preaching the gospel like we do.” Today, my grandmother – the type of evangelical who doesn’t know what evangelicalism is (I was this once, and it’s okay if you are now. Wikipedia can offer some clarity.) – still asks me regularly if the church I’m going to now “preaches the gospel.”
So when Ada and I took flight for a new church home, we had a lot of cargo onboard from our past evangelical addresses.
We traveled onward to the next destination aided by the gradual revelation of Christianity outside of conservative evangelical expression. Our journey coincided with moving in together in a new state (more on this in a later post) while Ada attended graduate school.
When we arrived in our new town, we went church shopping. It was a special time in our lives, searching together for a new church home – a place that would value and challenge us as Christians and as LGBTQ folks. We had faith that such a home was out there.
We still joke about how fabulously dressed Episcopalians locked us into antique pews and about the woman at the Evangelical Lutheran congregation who wouldn’t take no for an answer to her fervent coffee hour invitation.
VIP Landing Only
Our first pit stop was not unlike my last church, The Living Room. Wheatville’s worship service was casual, passionate, and provoking. (TBH, we couldn’t not visit a church that served “beer and cheese after the service” and employed an “indie-folk style of worship.”)
After one service, we spoke with the pastor about how we – affirming and married queer Christians – might fit in at the church. That bit wasn’t on their website. “Let’s get coffee,” he said.
He was kind enough but unwavering in his belief that our relationship was against God’s will because of our genders. We were welcome to attend service and small groups – to befriend the congregation – but we couldn’t become the congregation through full participation or membership, and certainly not through leadership.
After Wheatville, we went to Church of the Redeemer, a United Church of Christ with an airy sanctuary and an inspiring but humble feminist pastor. It was staunchly open and affirming and committed to social justice. We made fast friends and were welcomed fully.
After a few months, we started up a small group for young adults in our home. It was a transformative experience for me. For the first time, I was leading a group of people from a very different spiritual background from mine. I could no longer assume that participants all knew a Bible story, or that they’re comfortable with “popcorn style” or “Korean-style/Lion’s-Roar” prayer. I worked to craft sessions that anyone – evangelical Christian or mainline Christian or non-Christian – could access. And through these sessions, I sifted through the evangelical notions and defaults that I had been carrying.
Our small group was a blessing, but Redeemer didn’t really felt like home for me. It was sort of like eating in a new country. The food’s pretty different at first, but you get used to it and even start to love it over time. Then you go back home, and your family makes all the same foods that they’ve always made – for me it’s baked beans and mac & cheese – and those foods are your favorite. I guess I was hungry for the nourishment of home.
Riverfront was like the family kitchen of the church home I was longing for. The culture reflected what I loved about evangelical churches: it was warm and intentional and fired-up for Jesus. And it shared the beliefs of more progressive mainline churches: radical inclusion, open-mindedness, and hope. I breathed a sigh of relief – one I’d held through this whole ride.
It was our first time experiencing an LGBTQ-inclusive evangelical church. Queer people were not only welcome: they were cherished and defended and leading. (Riverfront was affiliated with the American (Northern) Baptist Church, a denomination with a rich history of justice-seeking and justice-building.)
Here, I could finally lay down my shield and rest. There were no theological coffee d(eb)ates to be had, no exclusionary membership requirements to stifle my belonging. Now I could focus on growing myself and others into what C.S. Lewis calls “Little Christs.”
I started to catch the justice bug at Riverfront. (Also, being married to Ada makes it impossible not to – she’s a fierce one!) After about a year of calling Riverfront our home, life brought us to Maine.
When we left, we were worried that we would never find a church like Riverfront again, especially not in Maine – one of the least churched states in the U.S.
I have a mantra for times of uncertainty.
“I will set no bounds for you, God.”
We were wrong to worry. We did find a church home, and it shares many of the qualities we loved in Riverfront.
HopeGateWay is this roiling pool of healing for folks from all over our city and beyond. It sets its sights on the God of justice and mercy, and it empowers its congregants to do the things of God, even when that requires great discomfort, sacrifice, and civil disobedience. It’s the kind of church where you aren’t afraid to invite your friends for fear of misunderstanding and toxic theology. (And yes, Nan, they do preach the Gospel.)
HopeGateWay walks the walk and the talk of Jesus, and we get the sense that we haven’t just arrived at a home; we’ve enlisted in a movement – the movement to build a kin-dom where all are welcome to partake in God’s love.
Our new church isn’t a hangar for arrivals; it’s a fueling station, a mechanic’s shop, a trove of maps of places uncharted and yet to be built. It’s from the safety of a carrier like HopeGateWay that we can reflect on where we’ve been and where the Spirit is nudging us forward.
Next post (Christmas Day), we’ll link to a blog post on practical advice to our allies in non-affirming churches.
After that, we’ll be answering your Queeries! Get them in while you still can.
Photographs from Airbus.com and Telegraph.co.uk.