by: Khai Devon
Standing across the street from an unassuming church building, I nervously suck down a cigarette and eye the young mother helping her two children up the stairs. I’m doing that thing again, that thing I hate that I do when I’m nervous, clutching my forearms and attempting to calm myself. In three minutes, I will have to be perfect and will have to look confident. In three minutes, I will have to smile and joke and pretend I am absolutely comfortable and normal. Right now though, I can be honest with myself. I am terrified.
I remember the first time I felt unwelcome at church. I didn’t look different, then, like I look now. I wasn’t openly everything the church preaches against. But I was different. And with the cruelty only very small children are capable of, my peer group never let me forget it. A flash forward to my teenage years, the poor kid in the rich church I went to with a friend. A Sunday spent babysitting my siblings, in overalls and a t-shirt. No time to change before ministry team practice, and then evening church service. Long hair pulled back into a ponytail, scabby knees, trying my best to believe the things I have been taught to believe my whole life, trying to fit in with this group of people who loves me as long as I play the game, and is indulgent when I don’t know how to be perfect. An old man, one who has always been gentle with me, tells me I am the evidence that the devil is at work in our youth group. I cry, but those I turn to for succor tell me that I am in the wrong. You don’t wear jeans to church.
Flash forward, again, to a different church, one that is supposedly “modern, and different from the others.” They don’t meet in a church building. The dress code is jeans and t-shirts. They play rock music. They also don’t like gay people, and when I come out, all of a sudden I am persona non grata. No one wants to be friends with me, no one wants to hang out with me, they are kind for my mother’s sake, because I am her child. They do what they can, but they are clearly relieved when I move on to a different group to socialize. One man, the associate pastor, loves me even if I’m gay. He does his best to bridge the gap that is ever-widening between my mother and I, encourages me to be myself. I wonder, if he were still alive, if he would be proud of the person I have become.
Flash forward, again, to a series of churches around my tiny college, churches that have taken one look at me and asked me not to come again; churches where I have seen a pastor explain that he was taking a break from the series he was preaching– the series I had actually come to hear– to discuss something “God had just laid on his heart.” He speaks of the evils of homosexuality, the way the queers are infiltrating even the sacred spaces. I cry as I walk out in the middle of his sermon. I just want to explore my faith in safety.
Shortly after that last one, the college chaplain and I start arguing every other week, arguing in a way that tells me my intellect is valued and doesn’t force me to be other than I am. For a while, I think there may be room for me at the table– and then I attempt to go to the not-quite church service he holds every Tuesday night. I’ve taken the night off of work and everything, and I’m ready to worship with my campus community, a group I’ve gotten very used to. They form a wall, that night, a wall I can’t break through, literally blocking me out of their circle of chairs. I am not welcome, one tells me, because I am gay and it makes people uncomfortable to have to deal with my gayness. I have no idea if the others feel that way — I am too hurt to ask, I just know there’s a wall I can’t get through, to get to where I can see the powerpoint presentation, and I turn and I run.
There are a few people with whom I am friends, who are also Christian, but by now my walls are up high, and there’s no tearing them down. I want nothing to do with this religion, or its followers. I jokingly tell people that religion is for people who can’t handle the lack of easy answers. I enjoy my life, hedonism after years of legalism. I am happy. I ache for community, faith, the comfort of belief, but I am happy enough without it. If I ever darken the door of a church again for anything but weddings or funerals, I will be shocked.
And yet here I am, on a chilly October morning, in St John’s, Portland, Oregon, rubbing my forearms and sucking a cigarette and studying the door of the church, trying to convince myself to go in. One of my teachers from high school– a man who believed in my potential to be more than my repressive upbringing had trained me to be—is now the pastor of this small church, and we are back in touch after years. We had coffee the other day, and he told me he wanted his church to be a safe one for queers. He told me he doesn’t think that queers should stop being queer, but he does think that they should probably hear about Jesus. His faith obviously enriches his life. He is warm, inviting, able to hear my candid dressing-down of The Church. He invited me to his church, promising me it would be different than what I’d experienced.
So, here I am. One minute now. One more minute to cross the street. I adjust the binder I’m wearing like armor, run a hand through my hair, pop in some gum. I can do this. It’s only a couple hours. Slowly, I cross the street and push myself up the few stairs and through the doors.
Everyone is nice, I am greeted and welcomed and chatted with as if my being present didn’t shock anyone; they’re all shaking my hand and asking if I’d like more coffee, and do I live around here and how did I hear about their church. I am invited to stay after the service for “fellowship.” And while the church service is, pretty much, a church service, after a little bit I begin to relax. Perhaps I am not unwelcome.
I do not know what I believe. I do not know where I belong. I do not know if this church will turn out to be like so many others, sweetness masking prejudice and bigotry. I do not know anything except—the coffee is hot, and I have always wanted to be part of a community of faith. I want faith. I want the comfort of being sure. I want something bigger than me. I want, I want, I want. But I do not want to have to change myself to be a part of that faith community. I want to be honest and accepted. I want to explore my faith in safety. And perhaps, maybe, it will be possible. I close my eyes, and let the worship songs wash over me, the familiar refrains welcome me back.
Khai Devon is a ze. They are learning to let themselves be a human being, rather than a human doing. They work customer service and snark about their clients, and pour their heart out at duffelbagandadream.wordpress.com when they have time to sit down at their computer, rather than checking into facebook from their phone. They have no idea how to date, but are having fun learning, they think. And mostly, they love people. Khai has published one book of poetry, which you can purchase from the back shelves of Amazon.com, and plans to publish at least one more before they turn 25.