Every Wednesday I take the subway with 13 other preclinical medical students to set up clinic in the attic of a church. The church is three stories: the first is a shelter, specifically serving homeless LGBTQI+ youth. The second is the sanctuary. The third, the attic, is a place for offices and other services, and is the space we use to provide queer-friendly health services every week.
Until this weekend, the sanctuary was a silent place, a doorway we passed on our way to the attic. I knew on Sundays it would be filled with people who believed strongly that God did not hate someone for the people they love, and I was grateful for that. But we were never there on Sundays.
This week, we were. We held a flu fair, met members of the congregation, saw the sanctuary bursting with people. It was an emotional time for me — even as I was smiling and chatting with members as I pinched their arms and stuck needles in their deltoids — because, for the first time in a very long time (perhaps ever) I saw God in a church.
I grew up in a very religious community. Even if my parents weren’t as religious as others, we were in church every Sunday and, for certain bouts of time, every Wednesday. I went to church camp and vacation bible school. I was baptized in my neighbor’s pool. Monthly, we had “dinner on the grounds,” or potlucks after service. I was taught women submitted to their husbands. And I was taught that God “loved the sinner and hated the sin” but also that the wrath of God was coming, and anyone who didn’t repent — especially those who were gay — would be quite literally tortured, torn apart, and burned for all of eternity.
Growing up, I loved the teachings of Jesus. I studied them, took them to heart, tried my very best to live in his image. But as I approached high school I began to realize that I didn’t see anything Jesus-like in the church. Members of my congregation patted themselves on the back because they weren’t overtly awful to people who showed up to church with tattoos. Girl in youth Bible study would admit to suicidal thoughts and self-harm, and the pastor would say “Hallelujah, give that God” and then never follow up. They would teach us that eating disorders meant that we were giving into Satan. They raised a million dollars to build a new sanctuary, even though the local high school let them use their auditorium for free. They’d say to help the poor and then say that Medicaid and food stamps were creating people who were reliant on welfare, not God. They’d tell girls who had sex or even kissed a guy that they were like dirty bottles of water that others had spit in; what God-fearing husband would want a dirty water bottle as a wife?
My youth pastor was awful to his wife; I didn’t see God in him. My pastor told us that he hoped he could kill his son if he was “lead” to; I didn’t see God in him. I didn’t see God in the church. I realized that I had never seen God in any church that I attended, not once growing up. And I haven’t seen God since.
And although the basic teachings of Jesus might align with a lot of my values and aspirations, I didn’t consider myself Christian or part of the church. I didn’t need the teachings of Jesus to tell me what to do. As I wrote in my blog post In Opposition of the Gods, I wouldn’t care if Jesus himself appeared before me and told me we were supposed to hate the “gays” or other groups of people. I wouldn’t care. My moral compass puts an extreme emphasis on the rights of human beings to live and exist free of persecution and harm, so long as they are not persecuting or harming others. I am fine if God himself were to tell me that this moral compass is wrong. And so I don’t need God to tell me that I am right.
But this church I saw on Sunday — the one that uses its first floor as a shelter and its top floor as a place to provide referrals, healthcare, and other services to people who need it — was truly Jesus-like. There was no hate hidden behind smiles or pats on the back of “I didn’t harass them because they’re trans, good job to me.” There was no proclamation to help the poor juxtaposed with comments about how poverty-relief programs are Satan’s work. And it wasn’t just the absence of bad stuff — I actually saw something good.
I’ll be honest, I don’t really know how to deal with that information. I don’t even know how to talk about my feelings about this information, and I’m not even going to try in this blog post. But I will sit with that information. And, of course, I’ll continue attending this church every Wednesday, not to spend time in the sanctuary but rather the attic, doing something that Jesus or my pastor might have told me to do if I had attended this church as a child.
Header photo on Foter.com