Despite the massive leaps and bounds the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community has made as a whole on the civil rights front — as judges across the country strike down state marriage bans and the marriage equality case makes its steady march to the U.S. Supreme Court and polls show growing support for full acceptance of LGBT people both in society and in the church — the reality is, most people still grapple with deep religious fears when they begin to come out to themselves and others.
Most of the conversations I have with people grappling with reconciling their faith and spirituality centers on their family — how their family will react, whether or not they should come out to their family now or wait, or how to deal with their family when they go off on homophobic rants. I dare say, the hardest group of people to deal with as we embrace our God-given identities as LGBT people are those closest to us – our families who have raised us and loved us, and who we know may reject us or fight against us if they know the truth of our lives.
When I wrote Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians, I focused mainly on how to deal with objections from strangers, friends or other people with whom we are not so emotionally invested as we are with our families. In fact, during workshops or book signing talks, most of the questions from audience members centered on how to respond to family members when coming out.
My own coming out experience with my family, relatively speaking, was easier than most. I was raised in a strict Southern Baptist family where homosexuality was hardly ever discussed, and when it was, it was with the strongest condemnation. I grew up knowing that God condemned homosexuality, but the very idea was a complete mystery to me, even as I became aware of my own strong attractions for other girls and no romantic or sexual feeling for boys.
Back in my day, we didn’t have out and proud celebrities or openly gay and lesbian pop singers. There were no positive portrayals of gay and lesbian people on television or in the movies. Homosexuals were mysterious people who lived in big cities, and even lived in the shadows there! There was no mention, whatsoever, of people who experienced gender identity issues. Transgender people were not even on the radar!
When I came out to my mother I was 16-years-old. I had been wrestling with my sexual orientation for years and finally had found a name for it — from a cover article in Rolling Stone magazine.
“Lesbian,” I said the word out loud for the first time while looking in the mirror.
“Lezzzzzz-beee-yunnn,” I rolled the word around on my tongue for a few minutes. “I am a lezzzzzz-beee-yunnn.”
I immediately hated the word. I still do. I prefer the politically incorrect word, “Dyke,” because it just sounds and feels stronger than “lesbian.”
But, I digress …
If my mother panicked when she heard that word come out of my mouth, she didn’t show it. She simply put her dishtowel down and said, “Well, it could be a phase. Don’t do anything about it right now and see how things go.”
I knew it wasn’t a phase, but let the matter drop.
At 18, I met my first girlfriend and told my mother, “It’s not a phase.”
Her exact words to me were, “I don’t agree with homosexuality. I think it’s wrong. But, you’re my daughter and I love you. You are always welcome in my house.”
My mother and I never had a deep conversation about homosexuality, but she was true to her word. I was always welcomed back home, as were all of my partners who accompanied me for Christmas and other visits.
My siblings, two brothers and two sisters who are all older than me, had their own various reactions, but every single one of them, whether they accepted my lesbianism (dykeism?) or not, have each remained welcoming and loving to me and my partner.
So, I got out easy when it came to coming out to my family. My first girlfriend was not so lucky. Her family disowned her, causing her much emotional pain and turmoil. I am happy to report that she and her family eventually made amends and are all happily co-existing now, but it takes time.
Perhaps it was my own relatively easy coming out that left me so unprepared to respond to those earnest readers who wanted to know how to deal with family members who want to argue the Bible or threaten to remove their love or financial support if they find out the truth. But, I think the true crux of the problem, especially for we LGBT people raised in Christian homes, is that our coming out challenges not only our parents or siblings image of us, but it challenges the religion both we, and our parents and siblings, have been raised to believe and follow.
Our families are often the source of many things for us including love, emotional and financial support and our sense of self and belonging. But, for those of us raised in Christian homes, our families were also the source of our knowledge about God and how God works in our lives and in the world.
From the cradle we are carted off to Sunday school, Sunday morning (and evening!) services, youth activities on Wednesday nights and church all week when the revival minister comes through town. Our lives center around the church – its activities, community and beliefs about God and the world.
What I discovered along my journey, though, is this: While our families may give us a religion, they most often fail to give us what we need the most – faith.
Losing Our Religion
There is a huge difference between religion and faith. I grew up knowing I was a Southern Baptist and was versed on all the beliefs being such a thing entailed. I was baptized when I was 6-years-old after accepting Jesus as my personal savior. I rededicated my life to Christ a million times during Vacation Bible School, Christian summer camps and every single night during revival weeks. I told everyone I knew about Jesus and how much he loved me and how much wanted them to believe in him and accept them as their personal savior and “be saved,” whatever that meant.
Actually, that was the problem. I didn’t know what any of that really meant. I knew all the words. I knew what to say to evangelize someone and how to pray the sinner’s prayer with them. I had a religion, alright, but I didn’t have a faith. Religion is a set of beliefs and principals that we follow … faith is knowing why you believe and follow those beliefs and principals.
It wasn’t until I left church that I discovered that religion and faith are two very different things. It wasn’t until I was forced by my admission as “an abomination before God” that I could even begin to fathom how to rid myself of religion in order to find my faith.
When I told my mom I was going to seminary, she looked up from her tomato plants long enough to say, “You’ll shipwreck your faith.” Because, in my Southern Baptist momma’s mind, asking questions – seeking faith with understanding instead of just assenting to a list of religious beliefs – will bring nothing but trouble.
She was right, sort of. I did shipwreck something in seminary, but it wasn’t my faith. I shipwrecked my religion, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. Only when I was freed from the trappings and shackles of my inherited religion was I able to get down to the hard work of building a faith that could see me through all of the trials and troubles that would come in my life.
Along the way, I discovered that my images of God as a Southern Baptist youth — that image of God as the bearded man in the sky who “loves” you but will condemn you to an eternity in hell if you don’t toe the line and believe rightly — was a false god. I have struggled for many years over who God is and how God works in this world and the more questions I ask, the more questions I find.
This, friends, is the bedrock of faith — questions that beget more questions. Questions keep you from settling on one idea of God and concretizing that idea and making an idol out of it. That’s what religion wants us to do — pick and idea of God and stick with it, even if that idea doesn’t work anymore.
Some of the popular ideas of God floating around out there in religion include:
The Vending Machine God: Prayer goes in, stuff comes out. Until that day when it doesn’t and we find ourselves kicking God like that stuck vending machine, angrily demanding that God do what we have asked and being profoundly disappointed when God doesn’t.
The Superhero God: This is the god that swoops in and makes things right. We pray to this god in every situation whether it’s for the healing of a loved one, to find a job, sell a house or get a great parking space at the mall. This god is guaranteed to let us down when the loved one dies, the job falls through, the house never sells and we’re trudging to the store from the far reaches of the parking lot.
The Warrior God: This is the one who hates the same people you do, and from what I can tell, is the most popular form of religion out there right now.
There are many more iterations and images of God that we project onto the Holy in this world, and every single one of them is handed to us by religion – no assembly required. Here’s the truth, though: Every single one of those images of God will break down and disappoint us at some point.
The solution? Ditch religion and keep your faith.
Building a Mystery
God is not a god of religion, but of faith. To try to describe God, to capture an infinite force of love and mercy in mere limited human language, is a fool’s errand. Instead, the best way to talk about God is to simply say, “God is …” and refuse to end the sentence. Because when we end the sentence, even if we say, “God is love,” we set ourselves up for disappointment when we wonder why a loving God allows so much suffering in the world? (I imagine God would ask us the same question, why we allow so much suffering in the world?)
So, how do we get rid of religion and instead begin building a faith? We can start by learning the difference between the two.
- Religion is concrete. Faith is mystery.
- Religion is dogmatic. Faith is free to question.
- Religion is certain. Faith has doubts.
- Religion sees clearly. Faith sees dimly.
- Religion has rules. Faith breaks them.
- Religion is rigid. Faith is able to be awed.
- Religion is the letter of the law. Faith is the spirit.
- Religion loves with conditions. Faith loves unconditionally.
- Religion says, “I know.” Faith is most comfortable when it’s say, “I don’t know.”
- Religion’s power is in outside authority. Faith relies on our inner experience of God.
- Religion says, “Be careful.” Faith says, “Step out, even if you can’t see the path.”
If you read over that list carefully with the ministry of Jesus in mind, you can see that what he sought to bring to us was not religion, but faith. Jesus was always pointing us to the mystery and beauty of life, to consider the lilies and the birds of the air. Jesus also spent most of his ministry breaking the rules of his day, talking with women in public, working on the Sabbath and “twisting” the Hebrew scriptures to encourage people to follow the spirit of the law instead of its rigid letter.
Jesus spent his short time on this earth trying to encourage us to stop following religion, represented in his time by the Pharisees, and instead grow our faith by looking within.
“The kingdom of God is within you,” Jesus tells us in Luke 17:21. This is where true faith can be found, not in the certain, rigid and unforgiving confines of religion.
What that means to us as LGBT Christians is this: We do not need to rely on the acceptance of the world, the church or even our families, because God has already fully accepted us as God’s beloved children.
Religion won’t tell you that, but faith will.
Ditching religion may not make it any easier to deal with rejection or arguments with family members, but I promise you, working to deepen your faith in God instead of cleaving to a useless religion, will help you get through the bad times — and teach you to love even those who hate or reject you.
That’s a faith worth building.
Candace Chellew-Hodge is a recovering Southern Baptist and founder/editor of Whosoever: An Online Magazine for GLBT Christians, and author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians, published by Jossey-Bass. She currently serves as the pastor of Jubilee! Circle, a progressive, inclusive community in Columbia, South Carolina. She is also a spiritual director and is currently taking on new directees. She blogs regularly at Religion Dispatches.