The reading omitted from the video is “Angels of the Get Through” by Andrea Gibson
When I first visited my home church, the minister told me she believes in God on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and alternate weekends. I didn’t believe in God at all.
I was raised kind of Catholic and kind of nondenominational Christian in East Tennessee, though I never got around to my first communion and I was asked to leave church events more than once for not behaving as a child. To this day, I’ve not read the entire Bible, though I’m pretty sure the gist of what Jesus said is love one another. I turned to the Unitarian Universalist church at seventeen years old to prove something to the boy who dumped me for not being Christian. I got much more than I bargained for.
That same minister who didn’t believe in God every day also told me that we never know what someone is going through. She told me people come to the church for answers and meaning and purpose. I’ve found that those types of answers are not so easily produced in the Unitarian Universalist tradition, where every seeker is charged with finding their own answers and truths.
There is a sacred safety in that freedom and in this beloved community.
I’ve found that sometimes, people adopt the traditions they are born into as a convenient means of belonging, even if they do not strive to live up to their tradition’s ideals. Though I know this exists to an extent in Unitarian Universalism, I’ve found that most UUs do strive to live up to the ideals we claim, though they are lofty. We are not perfect – we all have and all will stumble over our own ambition at times, but for the most part, we are all trying our best.
At the time that minister first welcomed me into the church, she was declining to officiate any wedding ceremonies. This was in 2010, five years before marriage equality became law, and she was not performing wedding ceremonies in protest of legal discrimination against same-sex couples.The congregation already had a long history of LGBTQ+ advocacy; in 2006 this home congregation of mine, Westside Unitarian Universalist Church in Farragut, Tennessee, was one of several local organizations who took out a half-page ad in the Knoxville News Sentinel opposing Tennessee’s new discriminatory marriage law. In 2008, they first requested Welcoming Congregation status from the UUA, a status they proudly maintain to this day.
When the rainbow flag was taken from our church sign, Rev. Mitra led the congregation, marching and singing “We are standing on the side of love,” to replace and rededicate it.
I am just beginning to realize what an incredible privilege it is to belong to a spiritual community that supports and affirms all people.
I am just beginning to realize what an incredible privilege it is to belong to a spiritual community that supported and affirmed my identity long before I even realized it.
My parents did not express views on LGBTQ+ issues until I did. In seventh grade, I had to report on a current event for my social studies class. That was when I first learned about the gay rights movement. I was moved to my core in a way I would not understand for years to come, appalled that people were being denied rights because of their sex. It seemed ridiculous to me and I was eager to share my findings with my classmates.
I was not prepared for the hate and Bible verses that would come from my peers’ mouths.
I was not prepared for my father to reiterate that hate when I told him about the experience later, expecting an explanation and comfort.
In the same moments that I began to realize who I am, I was taught that who I am is not acceptable – not by society, my peers, my family, or some vague notion of God.
So, I suppressed. I had a series of short-lived, toxic relationships with males and a long string of intense friendships with females that I can now recognize as crushes.
Of course, everything happens exactly the way it is supposed to.
I had to be, or at least act, straight in order to have my son, and for that reason, I would never change a thing. Henry is the single greatest blessing of my life – he is the blessing from which every other blessing has come.
One he arrived, it was only a matter of time before I was finally able to accept the truth about myself and take control of my journey toward my highest good.
After joining at seventeen and being an active member for over a year, I fell away from the church for about two years and returned when I was pregnant. I slowly became more involved after Henry was born, gingerly finding my place again among the loving community I desperately wanted to call mine.
A lot had changed in three years. The kind man who sat next to me on my first visit had passed away. The minister and DRE had both moved on and new people had filled the positions. The elementary schoolers I had taught in Religious Education were taller and more brilliant than I could have imagined, though I was completely unsurprised by the engaged and empathetic young adults they were becoming. There were so many new faces, and in many ways, it was a completely new place – but it still felt like home.
The day I returned to Westside, pregnant, anxious, and heartbroken, I didn’t know what to expect. I had disappeared without a word into a depressive and self-destructive spiral, abandoning my teaching duties and my new community. I was worried that I would be scolded for falling away or worse, that I wouldn’t be remembered at all. But I didn’t have to worry long.
Before I even reached the front steps of the church, one of my former Religious Education students was flying out the front door and into my arms. She threw her arms around my neck and even though she was now a proper pre-teen, it was as if she was still the little girl who used to sit next to me in worship, and I knew I was home. That day was, appropriately, the congregation’s annual ingathering and water communion service, and I settled into my seat still pregnant, anxious, and heartbroken, but keenly aware that I was exactly where I needed to be.
I have done more healing and growing as a part of that community than I have or ever could have anywhere else. I went back to school as a part of that community when my son was only six months old. I got my life together and named my call to ministry as a part of that community. I came out as a part of that community.
Actually, I came out in the minister’s office on a sunny Tuesday afternoon in September 2018.
We were talking about generational trauma and Rev. Carol guided me in a meditation in hopes of quieting the constant chatter of insecurity in my mind.
Once the stillness was achieved, a Truth bubbled to the surface, and I laughed.
“What was that?”
“No, what was that?”
“Yes, you can.”
I took a deep breath and smiled for incredible relief and for knowledge that I was in an absolutely safe place to speak my Truth.
“I’m super fucking gay, dude.”
Not many people can say they came out as gay in a minister’s office in the Bible Belt and were met with love and congratulations, but that is exactly what happened to me.
Absolutely every queer person should be able to have such a positive, uplifting coming out experience.
Absolutely everyone should have access to an affirming and loving spiritual home where they can unapologetically live their truth.
I marched in my first Pride parade with Westside just a few months later. Where I felt the trauma and shame of my ancestors leaving my body in the moments before I came out, I felt their profound joy and abiding love as I marched through the streets of downtown Knoxville, my beloved hometown, with my spiritual community, especially with the queer elders there.
I was euphoric as we marched, standing as tall as my inner eleven-year-old as they boldly claimed their truth before their social studies class in the only way they knew how. It was safer for me to simply claim allyship for a long time, but nothing compares to the raw and exhilarating ecstasy of owning myself and my true nature.
Just over two years after I first came out, my beautiful wife and I began planning our wedding. We chose a small, intimate ceremony initially to accommodate the ongoing pandemic. It also accommodated shelter from family and friends who still do not fully affirm and appreciate the beauty and validity of our love. We originally wanted to be married in nature, somewhere deep in the Great Smoky Mountains that I call home, but chose a private venue to assure we would not be harassed or worse on our big day.
I did a lot of mourning in the early planning process – mourning my family of origin who, though still very much alive, died to me when they refused to accept me, not only as queer, but also as a person fundamentally different from them. I mourned the church wedding I stopped wanting somewhere along the way. I mourned the radio silence from my straight friends whose weddings I had joyfully sniffled through.
I mourned the everyday moments consistently dampened by fear – the half-second I still sometimes hesitate before grasping my wife’s hand in public, the shoulder I can’t help but look over, the deep irritation, then resignation, when someone asks about my husband when they learn I am newly married. I am still learning to be unapologetic about myself, not for a lack of pride, but for an understanding that doing so always comes with some amount of risk.
There was something peculiar and wonderful about sitting down with the pastor of my home church to begin planning our wedding ceremony. We met virtually, my wife and I from my home in Florida and my pastor from her office at the church in Tennessee. Rev. Carol sat in the exact same spot where I sat two years earlier, tentatively forming words on my tongue that I knew would be life-changing.
I know I was not the first person to sit in that seat and proclaim their holy truth, nor will I be the last. That office has hosted several ministries over the years and will surely host many more. I think about her predecessor declining to officiate weddings until ones like mine were made legal, and I wonder about legacies. I inherited a burdensome and beautiful legacy – from my family, from society, from the Universe – and a responsibility to do everything in my power to make the world safer for those who will come after me. And I gratefully receive that duty.
No matter how many times it takes, now matter how many times the vows are broken or the path is troubled, you will always find me marching back to replace the sign that has been stolen, I will put it up again and again singing that I am on the side of love.
For all of the grief, all of the wonderful and worrisome considerations that my identity puts upon my existence, there are still moments that take my breath away; the way that young queer people look at me and my wife public, with the same wide, hopeful eyes that I used to look at older queer people with; the absolute joy of sharing the news of our engagement with the youth group at the congregation I serve; the way that Paige is the home I never knew I was searching my entire life for, and never believed I could have until I met her; the way I know I will never not be at least a little bit afraid, but I would rather live with that than live without her. How could I ever be anything but proud?
One of the great spiritual answers I have found for myself in my seeking that we are all a reflection of the same Divine Love. Whatever we choose to call this Source, it is a part of all of us, and it does not care how we worship or who we love. It is entirely unconditional.
This Love transcends any scripture or tradition, any walls we have built around our hearts and between one another. This Love is the Godde I believe in, not only on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and alternate weekends – but every moment of every day. May we all embrace it in a way that suits our needs, may we all allow ourselves to be embraced by it, and embrace one another as loved, whole, and worthy fellow travelers who are trying our best to live up to the ideals we claim – always.