My Faith Is Bigger Than the Church

by Ashley DeTar Birt

Throughout my first year of seminary, I often had conversations with a good friend living overseas. While our conversation topics ranged from politics to cultural differences to vacation locations, one of our most popular subjects to discuss was religion.

We came from two completely different backgrounds-he is a white straight British male who is no longer in the evangelical church of his younger years, and I am a black bisexual American female up for ordination in the Presbyterian Church-and these differences were never highlighted more than when we talked about Christianity.

I asked to hear stories about his teenage experiences and he had a lot of questions about churches in the U.S., most of which I assumed came from a curiosity about my experiences and the fact that I was literally studying the subject.

For the most part, I enjoyed our talks; it’s not often one gets to listen to and learn from someone who appears to be their complete opposite.

There was a series of questions, however, that enraged me in a way that I just recently began to understand. Whenever the subject of reconciling identities-my race, my sex, my queerness, and my faith-came up, a tension formed that left me fuming.  Normally I loved (and still love) speaking about those things separately, so what was it about the combination that upset me? Was I uncomfortable? Unsure? Insecure?

Eventually, long after I lost touch with said friend, I realized what emotion came up during those talks: resentment. I resented being asked to reconcile these various aspects of myself. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to talk about it; it was that I felt like I had to justify something about myself that felt not only very basic but also essential to who I am.I don’t usually feel the need to reconcile my various identities with my faith. To be honest, I don’t really see what there is to reconcile.

Although living in this country as a queer black woman has its challenges, my faith has never been one of them.

My faith is what counters the world around me. When the world wants to tell me that the color of my skin means my life doesn’t matter, Genesis 1:27 reminds me that I am made in the image of God and that my life must matter. When those around me have told me that being female means I am somehow less worthy of accolade, respect, or even the ability to speak in church, I remember the widow from Luke 18 who used her presence and her voice to make an unjust judge grant her justice.

When I am made to feel like my sexual orientation somehow makes me less of a person and therefore not deserving to be free of fear or harassment, I think to every church service and Sunday School class that taught me the truth of Psalm 139:14: I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

I don’t need to reconcile being a queer black woman with being a Christian. My Christianity has never done anything but raise me up.

This is not to say that the Church Universal has never given me problems. The Church has, time and time again, shown me that “straight white male” and “minister” are terms that most mainline churches are most comfortable with. It told me that my authentic preaching voice was both “refreshing” and also “not Presbyterian”, which is not a comment I’ve ever heard my white classmates and colleagues receive.

Throughout my ordination process, I heard horror stories of men being asked softball questions while women were challenged much harder, often on seemingly insignificant issues. I spent a significant amount of time fearing what would happen if I was ever outed before I was ready.

I spent an even more significant amount of time talking to those who sexual orientation and/or gender identity had made it so the Church had deemed them unfit for ministry, for church acceptance, for God’s love. For every time that the Church Universal has done something progressive and supportive, it has done many more things that harm, discriminate, and dehumanize women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community.

My faith, however, is bigger than the Church. That faith allows me to stand as myself in my truth. 

It makes it possible for me to work towards making the Church better from the inside. It makes it possible for me to just be. I have a faith that feels as natural to me as breathing.

My love for God and my understanding of God’s love for me is so strong that I cannot help but feel it. Like my race, my sex, and my sexual orientation, my faith is who I am. I feel no need to try and reconcile it with any other part of my identity because the only time I have a problem is when others create one.

I resent the notion that just because someone else doesn’t understand how I exist means I have to explain myself. God knows who I am and so do I, and we both love me for it. There’s no further explanation needed.

Photo via flickr user las – Initially 

Comments (3)

Jon Spangler

Ashley, Thanks for your words
Ashley, Thanks for your words of wisdom. I have felt the same challenges to my identity and integrity growing yup, and have been sustained in the same ways you have by the messages of love and grace in the Word–as well as in the Word Made Flesh–through the Episcopal Church.

The challenges from society–and sometimes from members of the church itself–are often not of substance and they fall away like chaff, but can still be hurtful or painful during our formative years. (For the record, I am a straight male Caucasian, now 63 and married for 26-plus years.)

Genevieve Tatum

This is what I share with
This is what I share with those who are struggling. God created us as we are. Each one of us has a course to run.

Pamela Shea

This article coming to me at
This article coming to me at this moment is truly a God-incidence. I have felt at odds with my congregation recently and this Lenten season has been one of great challenge, but the statement, “My faith, however, is bigger than the Church” brings me hope and reassurance. “That faith allows me to stand as myself in my truth” lets me know that I am not alone, none of us is ever alone, for whatever reason. Thank you!

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