Our previous post on what is commonly known as Side B beliefs generated robust discussions. Thank you for your engagement. Such wrestling is essential to Christian faith.
While this post isn’t a point-by-point response to that discussion, the conversation did well up in me the desire to share this story. Think of it not as a sequel to “On Side B,” but as a thoughtful pairing.
I’ve written before about friendships that I’ve let go of, but here I’m sharing a more detailed account of one such letting go. I’m by no means writing a prescription for what every LGBTQ person should do with every non-affirming friend or family member. We’ve had and still have meaningful relationships with non-affirming people who are open to growth and change. I’m telling one story – of a decision I don’t regret – because I think this story is not unique to me.
The Little White Church
I grew up in a village in Maine where most folks made their living at sea. In that village is a little white church (in every sense of each adjective), and I was a part of that community from birth through my college years. My family still goes there. Congregants still ask them about me from time to time.
I was something of a golden child to that church. My grandparents were respected elders, and I was always in the pews right beside them. My grandfather reinforced reading by pointing to the hymn lyrics as we sang them. They let me stand on the pews to sing along.
Although my actual parental situation was a mess, I excelled at school and sports, I volunteered, I taught at Vacation Bible School – you get the idea. Then, I won the scholarship of a lifetime to a fancy liberal arts school, and though the congregation chewed their nails at the prospect of me venturing into a “liberal” hotbed, they were proud of me.
Irene was probably proudest of all, save my family. She had been my Sunday School teacher and mentor through four years of high school. She’s a prayer warrior, the blessed bleeding-heart, meek sort of human not unlike one version of Jesus as we know him.
The Gate Closes
I’ve written about leaving my non-affirming college church, but leaving my family’s church was a different process: one marked by more nuance and nostalgia. After coming out as queer, I started feeling unwelcome at the little white church that raised me.
Living out of state made avoiding that church easier, but there were still holiday and weekend visits when I had to walk through the gates. Sometimes Ada came along, selflessly deflecting the side-eyes and “where are you really from”’s that my all-white community imposed.
It wasn’t until a post-service, emptying sanctuary conversation with Irene that I realized the gate might rust shut. Ada and I were visiting, and we had been lucky enough to witness a one-of-a-kind (I hope) sermon by their young Southern Baptist preacher, in which he proclaimed that the “literal finger of God” had been “flicking” Palestinian missiles away from Israel. (Is this the appendage you’re referring to, Pastor?)
We walked up to Irene after the service and exchanged pleasantries long enough for most of the congregation to file out.
“Zora, honey, I have to tell you something. (Nervous smile) Dan and I can’t come to your wedding.”
I feigned neutrality.
“I just – I want to support you, but I prayed about it a lot, and… I can’t.” She apologized. “I hope we can still be friends. I hope this doesn’t change anything between us.”
“I understand. I’m sad, but I understand.”
Just then, Gramp’s voice cut through: “C’mon, Zo! Truck’s leavin’!”
When the gate shut, I found myself on the other side.
Irene and I later exchanged some emails in which she tried to delineate her point of view.
On the day I sent that last message, Irene sent me another email in reply. It was blank.
What did she mean to say? Did she mean to send it at all?
I felt too paralyzed to ask. Had we been listening or just talking? Could she ever come to understand the unequal nature – the power dynamics – of her request for a continued albeit compromised friendship?
Losing friends is never easy for me. My personality – structured, straightforward, steady – lends itself a little too well to loyalty. Ada says she likes that about me, but sometimes it’s a spade with which I dig myself deeper into sadness than I should.
I wrote earlier that saying goodbye to Irene is a decision I don’t regret. That’s true. My relationship with Irene had lost its equilibrium. I could no longer share my whole self, but she insisted that she was pouring all of hers out for me. Someday, I hope to have children with Ada, and the last thing I want is for them to have an Auntie Irene who “loves them to pieces” but believes that their moms’ “lifestyle,” out of which our children will come, is sinful. I don’t regret preserving myself, Ada, and our future.
It is, however, a decision I lament. And I think that’s okay. I lament because I love Irene, and because I know she loves me. So I sit in the dimmest light and ask: what good could come of the darkness?
The Dark Wood
Last spring, Ada and I led a Lenten book study on Gifts of the Dark Wood by Eric Elnes. The premise of the book is that though we tend to run from darkness – from uncertainty and emptiness, from getting lost and being a misfit – the darkness is where we most often and most sincerely encounter God.
Saying goodbye to Irene was a sign of the dark wood ahead. And in some parts of my life, I’m still here, wandering. I make my grandmother cry when Ada and I decline her invitation to spend Christmas Eve at the village church that raised me. I’m afraid of spiritual mentorship even though I know it would help me grow. I read Bible passages I studied with Irene, and I flinch.
Not every non-affirming Christian is an Irene, but I suspect that just about every LGBTQ Christian (and even non-Christian) has an Irene.
I lament that I’m in the dark wood, but I know that the dark wood is where I’m supposed to be. And I’m trying to find the gifts that can come from this hurt.