“I just have one question, if I may: why do you keep coming back?”
It’s a Wednesday morning. The pastor and I are pressed to the sides of the small (cozy?) Fehrenbacher Hof cafe, elbows and knees contained lest the troop of backpack-laden students, recently arrived, runs us over. In true Portland-grime style, there’s an air of shabby-chic that pervades. There are teas stacked six high lining the walls, mismatched, chipped coffee mugs, and a truly sinful case of pastries.
The pastor awaits my answer.
His eyes are kind. No judgment lingers there, no distaste or malice. In his sincere expression, his attentive, listening posture, I sense only genuine, gentle curiosity.
I gather my thoughts.
It’s a fair response. Safe in the wafts of espresso, we had spent the last twenty minutes discussing how I had felt rejected in every way from the church. “Religion is the greatest enemy of the church/the church is its own worst enemy,” etc. It’s an easy enough sentence to write–fingers tapping down on keys in a dance long since memorized–but the reality had been harrowing. In Japan, where my ship had spent over 370 days at sea, we had been too busy to experience Christianity in its more formal iterations.
In Bahrain… well, now that was another story. My work had kept me extremely busy and borderline exhausted; but, given that it was a land-based assignment, I had still tried. The church on base had been lackluster. I personally experience God through music, and the contemporary Protestant service had left me cold. The music in the Arabic service had been similarly disappointing; but, more distressingly, it was situated in the oldest, most crowded part of the island. The journey to the church’s doors had been harrowing in its own way; the masses of people, close spaces, and loud noises had overwhelmed the senses. After spending over an hour fruitlessly searching for parking one night, I never went back.
Not yet deterred, I had tried attending a service at one of the more popular expat churches, “St. Christopher’s.” I’m not sure what St. Christopher, patron saint of travelers and lightning, would have thought of the service, but it left me scalded with horror. The pastor had supposedly been offering a message on friendship. Twenty minutes later, however, the only message he had succeeded in getting across was that homosexuals were worse than child molesters.
Side note–I dislike labels. Truly, sincerely. When someone recently asked me how I identify, I responded, “As a Brett. Who happens to be gay. Along with being a sister, daughter, Christian, poet, storyteller, laugher, adventurer, and goofball.” That said… when a man of God tells you you’re 100% guaranteed to go to hell/(insert other variations of damnation here), that’s a tough pill to swallow.
I tried sitting through the whole sermon, hoping there would be some redemption to this spirit of hatred in the infamous “third point.” There wasn’t. What was almost worse, however, was when I tried to speak to this man of God following the service, referencing my own credentials of “properly raised in the faith,” grown in the shadow of Liberty University, etc., he completely dismissed my concerns. I had been trying to speak, not necessarily on my own behalf, but more for the generations of troubled LGBTQ youth who resorted to suicide. Instead of listening with compassion, this pastor wholly disrespected me, my experience, and my position.
I never went back there, either.
As a last resort, I returned to the church on base, this time attending the Catholic service. After a long, exhausting, 12hr shift on night watch, I dragged myself bleary-eyed to mass. The sermon that day? “How Wonderful that God Made us Catholic.”
Aaaaand my shadow rarely (if ever?) darkened that door again, either.
And yet, here I was. In Portland, once again at a church, once again attempting to trust. I won’t lie–it wasn’t easy. The day I finally returned to service, I had a good long freak-out at home, texting my friends across the country about how scared I was to go back. But I did. I went anyway, despite my fear. The message that day was from a new pastor, a different one, and she spoke of safety. I later confessed in her office, breaking down as I so loathe to do, that that sense of safety was one thing I wholly lacked.
And yet… and yet I was there. Why?
“I think,” I answered, looking steady-eyed at the man in the café, “I think it comes down to faith. To grace.”
It’s a cheesy answer, right? This is 2020, haven’t we come up with anything better than that? But, on another level–isn’t that what this is all about?
“Bitterness doesn’t suit me,” I continued. “What did I have to gain from gnashing my teeth outside the door? It’s hard, yes, but… sometimes fear is worth it.”
Because I choose to trust. Despite the fear, despite the pain, despite the scars that wend through my mind and heart… I choose to believe in grace. Not every tragedy has a reason, and that’s a whole other debate on determinism/free will. But, after years of living alone, I’m starting to see hope and “coincidence” in very strange places indeed.
If the start of this new decade sees me scarred but hopeful–stained by shadow but choosing to believe in light–then so be it.
Welcome, 2020. I’ll see you in church.