Personally, I am tired of religious irony. My own snarky, judgmental attitude about a Christian mega church, no matter how much in check I was able to keep it in the moment, almost kept me from making a beautiful discovery about the depth and capacity of the human heart.
When I walked into Overlake Christian Church, I half expected the walls to come crashing in.
Overlake Christian Church (OCC) is what you would call a modern day “mega church.” In a building that more resembles Costco from the outside than any other kind of structure, it is a teeming city within, just as any of the more ornate ancient Gothic mega churches such as Notre Dame de Paris or Chartres Cathedral were in their day. There are legions of volunteers, several varieties of youth spaces including a youth chapel and a fully staffed nursery, a full gymnasium, meeting rooms, offices, and a cafe with (this being the suburbs of Seattle) what seemed like endless gallons of coffee.
This church sits in the heart of the evangelical new wave where young families in increasing numbers are flocking to a message about Christ that doesn’t judge them because they may be struggling to make ends meet or that they maybe didn’t finish school. This is a place where these particular young people find community that offers them unconditional support and love in a language they can readily understand.
Walking into conservative communities, I know that by the simple appearance of my skin, most people will assume my political positions, but the one thing they can’t and usually don’t assume is my sexuality. This is a squirmy discomfort that I’ve lived with my entire life, whether it was as a teen meeting people who would ask me if I had a girlfriend yet or in a locker room where guys talk incessantly and rather defensively about sex with women or as a cruise director where the singularly most frequent question I was asked was if I was married.
For some 35 years, I have had to “come out” to every single new person I meet.
One of the reasons I am pro marriage equality, outside of personal interest, is because maybe by “normalizing” same-sex relationships, it will chip away at the assumptions that force someone like myself to have to repeatedly go through this public explanation process that more than being embarrassing, is just plain exhausting.
This kind of daily “coming out” is heightened even more in a church setting—let alone an evangelical one. But, as I said, I’ve been doing this dance for many years. So when I was invited by my dear friends to attend their church, it was easy to put my own disquietude aside and let myself feel deeply flattered that they wanted to include me in their spiritual experience.
After dropping off the kids, we made our way through the throngs of beaming faces to the sanctuary where the house band was already in gear. The music was youthful guitar heavy rock. The voices were clear and again, the beaming faces. In the house, many people swayed and sang along and many stood with their eyes closed and palms turned upward to receive the spirit—with beaming faces.
The music built a certain frenzy so that when the pastor, Mike Howerton, arrived on stage, you wouldn’t expect anything less than being inspired. His message, “Hope Restored” was clear and hip (he wore jeans and Converse sneakers) with no “thou shalts” and “wherefores” other than what might appear in specific scripture. The service ended with a tricked out version of “Oh Come Emmanuel” that was just plain fun to sing.
The experience was, in a word, thrilling, and I left feeling inspired and elated.
I thought to myself—why can’t Unitarian Universalists do this? Wanting to stay focused on my time with my friends, I didn’t stay to socialize or chat. But on my way out, I made note of what seemed like a whole lot of nice people enjoying church the way they wanted to enjoy it, giving their families the grounding that they felt was important to being successful and balanced people. I should have been content with that.
But after I got home the next day, I did my usual skeptical due diligence to see where this community stood politically. It was not enough for me to see them first hand and accept them in their natural habitat. I had to see if they would have strung me up had they known I was a card carrying ‘homosexualist’! A simple Google search (“Overlake Christian Church LGBT”) turned up an article from the Christian Telegraph.
At the center of this article were Linda and Rob Robertson, who lost their gay son in 2009. I did a bit more research and came across, or rather was reminded of Linda’s blog, "Just Because He Breathes."
Their family story of transformation—through their faith—to embrace their son in all of his beauty as a gay Christian before his death is extremely powerful.
I remembered reading her article in the Huffington Post last July and suddenly felt ashamed that I was in her church and didn’t know—nor did I feel comfortable to seek her, or someone like her, out. I immediately reached out to Linda through her blog and to my amazement, she wrote back. I am hopeful that I will be able to continue a dialogue with her, not only to support her work, but also to learn from her.
I see a lesson for progressives and liberal churchgoers as well as Atheists and non-believers here.
Linda is a Christian. She lives what she believes. From the most painful experience that any parent can undergo regardless of their faith, she learned that she cannot judge. As a Christian, I imagine that she knows that judgment is in God’s hands. But that is not to say that for those who are not Christian must play by the same rules.
Judgement, peace, and balance are what we come to in our own experiences and we cannot require that others accept something just because it works for us—ultimately, it is out of all of our hands.
Every religious leader or aspiring religious leader should be so lucky as to be able to float in the warmth of what I witnessed at Overlake, and every religious or faith community should be able to provide that warmth to whoever comes into their midst, whether it is a liberal black gay guy in an evangelical church or if it is an evangelical in a community of Pagans.
We are in the business of creating community and those communities are built on “common unities”, or shared experiences of our worlds. There is no possible way that everyone is going to have the same common unities—and we shouldn’t really want to have the same ones. But it is the impulse to gather and share those common unities that is the same among all of us that is something in which we can all share; that impulse is love.
I am a Unitarian Universalist and I will celebrate any person’s joy at commemorating the birth of Christ.
If someone is straight, I hope they can celebrate my thriving in a relationship with the man I share my life with.
We are Jew, Gentile, Muslim, Atheist, lesbian, transgender, cisgender, HIV+, black, Latino, white, and much more—we can celebrate one another and be much better for it.
Blessed be—he said with a beaming face.