Last night I wrote and wrote because I was angry.
This morning I woke up, and I packed the kids off to school and got a shower and drank some coffee, and I am still angry.
Listen. My relationship with both evangelicalism and my old church is like a relationship with an ex who shares custody of your kids and who also massively influences U.S. public policy. I don’t know how angry I should allow myself to be with someone I broke up with, and how much I should shake my head and say, Yes, this is why I left, and move on.
It has been eight months since I left my church. I left because it hurt like this nearly all the time. I left because I was angry more often than I wasn’t, and because I had to work so hard at being not-angry. I left because I couldn’t separate the things that frustrate me about white American evangelicalism from the specific culture that existed at that one single white American evangelical church, and because I didn’t see that one church making any effort to distinguish itself from the most toxic parts of the culture anyway. Walking away hurt, but staying there hurt more.
(In the eight months since I left, no one there has noticed that I’m gone or reached out to me in any way. That hurts, too, but it certainly reinforces my decision.)
It has been five months since I went on my own to a service at the tiny Episcopal church that I first attended once last summer with a friend. Five months since I sat in the priest’s office after the service and cried, because I was lonely and lost and I didn’t know how to do church anymore or if I even could, and because for the first time I had hope that someplace new could feel like home. And five months since Mother Debra — an unmarried woman of color: exactly the sort of person who never would have been allowed authority where I came from — told me that I was welcome there, could call it home if I wished.
“But,” she added. “You should know that we have quite a few gay people in our congregation. I hope that won’t be a problem for you?”
And I laughed. Which was probably not the best response. But I laughed, because here was this priest, telling me that I was welcome at their church but that making me comfortable as a straight person wasn’t a priority. That their church was a place where accepting LGBT people is the norm, and it is up to me to adapt to that, not the other way around.
And this is why that’s my church now. The church where I bring my children on Sunday morning, where my boys and I take the Eucharist alongside gay people and straight people and families and single people and people of different colors and ethnicities and people with autism and just people, and where it is expected that this is their church, and we are welcome to worship alongside them. A church where my whiteness and straightness and able-bodiedness isn’t privileged.
This is what unity in the body of Christ feels like. And it gives me hope. It makes me remember that white American evangelical Christianity isn’t the only Christianity. It makes me want everyone else to remember that too.
If I could add to the canon of scripture, besides Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, I would include Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation.” It’s about Mrs. Ruby Turpin, a southern woman who is very confident in her place in the hierarchy of God’s children, and how she has an epiphany about what it means for the first to be last. Here is the ending:
Until the sun slipped finally behind the tree line, Mrs. Turpin remained there with her gaze bent to the hogs as if she were absorbing some abysmal life-giving knowledge. At last she lifted her head. There was only a purple streak in the sky, cutting through a field of crimson and leading, like an extension of the highway, into the descending dusk. She raised her hands from the side of the hog pen in a gesture hieratic and profound. A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were tumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black n***rs in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They, alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces even their virtues were being burned away. She lowered her hands and gripped the rail of the hog pen, her eyes small but fixed unblinkingly on what lay ahead. In a moment the vision faded but she remained where she was, immobile.
At length she got down and turned off the faucet and made her slow way on the darkening path to the house. In the woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.
Hellelujah. Lord, have mercy on us sinners. Hallelujah.