By Kathryn Hulbert
I am drinking from a coffee cup right now that quotes the book of 1 Corinthians, which is in the New Testament. The quote says, “By the Grace of God I am what I am.” 1 Corinthians was written by Paul, a man who was extremely influential in the establishment of the Christian church. The verse is referring to Paul talking about being transformed by Christ’s crucifixion. I was drawn to purchase this cup because I am learning that being free to be myself is essential to my well-being. As a white heteronormative woman, being myself is a lot easier in the context of a church than it is for others. Being able to identify as a Christian has been an important journey for me. I have found that many of my friends who identify as LGBTQ feel like outcasts from the church. They hear that Christians think that who they are is wrong. They often don’t seem to know why, only that their orientation is viewed as sinful. Not all Christians are hateful, and not all Christians think that loving whom you love is wrong. Unfortunately, the voices we sometimes hear the loudest are the cruelest. Loving families walk past hateful signs spewing that, “God Hates Fags.” God is not limited by the tunnel vision of some people. He is so much more beautiful and expansive than that.
The first time I let out an audible “Amen” was during a sermon where my Pastor smoked and drank at the podium. Pastor Jake’s illustration was the hook for a sermon about the limitations that some Christians feel compelled to impose on who gets access to God. What hubris to claim that mortal man holds the key to wholeness! How ridiculous that people would be the guardians of relationships with God! When Pastor Jake said that you can be a Democrat and a Christian, I felt happiness in my chest, and there it came. Not shaky, but confident my mouth announced “AMEN!” God is not a Republican, but he is not a Democrat either. For me though, this example was important in that it strengthened my burgeoning faith. I didn’t have to hide who I was in order to be loved and accepted. Knowing God through Jesus for me is feeling peace about the Creator of the world caring very much about me, my life, and how I live my life. It is not that I feel like God will forsake me if I am not Christian enough, but rather I feel so immensely loved that it helps me feel love towards other people.
A few years ago I was ready to stop walking towards God, at least a Christian one. I had a bit of a Huck Finn complex. I felt like becoming a Christian meant hating gay people, so I would stand my ground, even if it meant Hell. People whom I love very much, including one of my brothers, have been condemned by Christianity, and I could not bear the fact that accepting a God I very much wanted to know would mean agreement with that hate.
As college students, my parents converted to a religious group known as the International Churches of Christ, abbreviated as ICOC. I was born into it. I didn’t really realize that being a part of this church was different than other children’s religious experiences. Somewhere in the timeline of my life it became ingrained in me that everyone I knew who was not approved of by the ICOC was condemned to Hell. That included me! I was deemed too emotional to become a member. Eventually I was baptized into it. In the parking lot, right before my baptism, before entering into the church in front of upwards of a thousand people, my Dad smacked me across this face. This angry and cruel man somehow got to submerge me in water that would allow me to go to Heaven. Honestly, I didn’t feel any different, and beyond that, I soon fell back into my old fears of eternal condemnation. Even now, the highest sense of injustice I feel towards the ICOC is how they condemned my gay brother. He became so depressed and felt that life was not worth living because of words from church leaders and my parents. I almost lost him, and to this day I often cry recounting that part of our history.
After graduating high school, I went to a wonderful woman’s college. I dabbled in some religious groups there, but primarily found peace and community through nonreligious venues. My Junior year was spent in England. There I made friends with an intensely compassionate Priest named Mark, and a host of, for the most part, fundamentalist evangelical Christians. I went to a church that I loved and appreciated the chance to experience spirituality. I remember one particular argument with a young man I was entranced by. He asked, “Wouldn’t I be disappointed if one of my still fictitious children were gay?” “Absolutely not,” I shot back in my floral dress and rain boots. I returned to my home campus quite ill with mental illness. I didn’t go to church as I decided that I was still in the unsaved category, and beyond that, I wanted to be as happy as possible. I did not believe I could experience that happiness through church.
After graduation, my sister took my parents’ dog and I to a “blessing of the animals” service at a traditional Presbyterian church. From there, Rufus and I attended their “Paws and Prayers” service where he could sit on the pew next to me. I was very much welcome in that community. I started attending services on Sundays as well and decided to become a member. I did wonder if I was a “real Christian.” I still struggle with that and yearn for others’ approval. I feel insecure that some more conservative churches may think I am not the real deal. It is not about their opinion though. It is about God’s. I have learned and work towards knowing that my spirituality is not about my performance. God loves me for who I am, and I find strength in that. I identify as a daughter of God. Sometimes I feel limited at the thought of God being a man. My Priest friend Mark posited the idea of God as a Mother Hen. I find wholeness in that description.
My parents and I moved to a new state. We visited various churches. I visited mostly traditional denominations. My parents went to church that was advertising a new “twenty somethings” ministry. It seemed like a good idea to all of us that I could meet people my own age. My months there were very painful and abusive. I constantly tried to prove myself. I was disturbed by the anti-gay talk and the frequent jokes about gay people. Hateful things were prefaced by, “I have gay friends.” I did experience God on an emotional level and intensity I hadn’t felt before. My mental illness got worse without adequate treatment. I ended up being told I was no longer allowed to be a part of the ministry from the pastor via an email. People, particularly the woman leading my bible study group, fabricated lies about me. This was so incredibly painful. I thought I would never seek out Christian community again, and I vowed to never treat other people that way.
I moved in with my sister and started attending church with her—the church with the beer drinking preacher. I was so loved, welcomed, and cared for there. I had a conversation with my Pastor over a baked potato about being a Christian. I asked him what I needed to do for salvation, and he said believe Jesus died for me. I see the crucifixion in more dimensional ways now, but I breathed relief in knowing that identifying as a Christian did not mean being good enough for other people or good enough for God. It means that I love Jesus and am fully accepted by him.
I don’t believe it is at all wrong to be gay. I could reference the verses of the bible that people use to condemn being gay. The bible is important to me most definitely, but not as a literal be all and end all. Also, there are multiple other things with much more emphasis in scriptures that Christians do every day. Jesus was critical of the religious elitists of his day—the Pharisees. Jesus is not elitist. I fully believe he would sit down and love anyone who wanted to talk with him. In the book of John, one of the Gospels that tell the good news of the story of Jesus’s life, it says “Jesus wept.” Jesus wept in empathy for the pain of his friends. I believe that hate crimes and bigotry and exclusionary practices make my beautiful Savior weep. I went to a mental health treatment center and became a part of a church that accepted and loved me fully. A pastoral counselor helped me blossom into a woman with a healthy spiritual identity. I made the decision to be baptized out of my own volition. Subsequently, I went back to live with my parents. I attended a church that was kind to me and that preached much more of a conservative view of God than I experience. I have moved again and am attending an Evangelical church where I feel embraced and like I can be myself.
I identify as an evangelical Christian. I rest in the word evangelical even with all the negative connotations that come with it. I rest in my identity as an evangelical Christian because evangelical means having had a born again experience. I remember the day in my life where I decided that I can accept God’s tremendous love. That day where I asked my Pastor what being a Christian meant over a baked potato. I am also evangelical in the sense that I love to talk about my faith. I think threatening someone to think like me is a waste of time at the least and abusive at the most. I have found freedom in Christianity and am happy to share my experience in that. A healthy spirituality is an important part of my life. I feel security in being close to God. I am striving to walk towards goodness and love people like Christ.
As a Christian, I want to apologize for any hate you have experienced because of who you are. I want to apologize for any person or any church that led you to feel unwelcome. I am sorry for the words of condemnation that have been spewed at you. I believe there is a space for everyone to have a healthy spirituality. If you want to correspond with me, please feel free to email me at email@example.com.
– Kathryn Hulbert