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Last year, I spent every Tuesday talking with undergraduate students, delving into the intersection of spirituality, religion, and queer identity. In those one-on-one conversations, I heard story after story of the flaws of religious institutions: banishment, shame, violence.
We engaged the suffering the church, in its many expressions, has caused. It was sometimes wrenching, sometimes hilarious.
But the common refrain I heard from this diverse group of young people is this: They sent me away, but I still want to believe.
These students yearn for the personal connections, vibrant music, spiritual growth, and perhaps most of all, the communal space to make meaning together.
What brought me back to church, and then to seminary, was this very thing. I finished several years of Catholic schooling, came out as queer, dropped religion all together -- my atheist phase, as my parents like to call it -- and then I slowly, cautiously, anxiously crawled my way back as a young adult.
To be frank, I wasn’t quite sure what was driving me to seek church out again. But I knew with certainty that what I had been doing up to that point was not working.
So one Saturday, I opened my laptop, hit enter on my Google search, and found myself taking a Buzzfeed-style quiz to determine where I belonged on Sunday mornings. And after that first service in this new church that offered a stronger sense of belonging than I had had in any other place in my life, I cried. I cried tears of relief, of surprise, of joy.
I cried because I entered that space fully as myself -- with all my gifts and my flaws and my pieces of identity -- and I was met with a welcome that had no caveats to it. A welcome that was full and complete and unabashed in its enthusiasm and reach.
The wholeness that is me was treated as holy and sacred. My coming out had returned me to myself. And in that return, I also made my way back to that holiness buried deep within. That holiness that I had learned was not supposed to be there, that holiness that I had forced so far away that I could barely recover it.
And, yet, there it was. There I was. There God was.
Of course, church isn’t easy. Religious institutions, as we know, are deeply flawed, including my own. I struggle with the daily challenges that we all face as leaders in these institutions.
But then there are days I remember that first sermon in that new church, and I remember how it made me feel. And I remember the looks on the faces of the students when I tell them that, yes, I’m going to be a minister, too, and that their choice to leave faith all together, or to reimagine what it means to them is theirs to make -- and any choice is going to be OK.
Because their wholeness and holiness is theirs. It was never meant to be hidden or banished or stolen. We remind one another that wherever we go, that holiness remains. God remains.
As I look to what’s next, I’m focused on ministering from a starting point that church is neither good nor bad, but that it can be good-enough. My relationships with these young people have been a much-needed reminder that sometimes a loving starting point, a welcome with reckless abandon is really all you need.
Thank you and amen.