Happy Friday! Welcome to the thirteenth episode of Your Sacred Place. I’m your host, Matthew, the pastor of Sacred Place in Rancho Cucamonga, California. As we continue our series The Way of Love looking at the life of Jesus in our divided world, I was struck by something I saw on social media this past week. It was a quote about growing up as an LGBT+ person that I saw shared by dozens of friends on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Originally posting on Twitter, writer Alexander Leon shared, “Queer people don’t grow up as ourselves, we grow up playing a version of ourselves that sacrifices authenticity to minimize humiliation & prejudice. The massive task of our adult lives is to unpick which parts of ourselves are truly us & which parts we’ve created to protect us.”
This resonated deeply with me. My journey of unpicking, or deconstructing as we called it in seminary when I began to accept myself for who I was created to be is ongoing. I had to learn as I was nearing 30 the things that most adolescents experience as they become teenagers. Even as a proudly out, happily married with a kid, gay man, I still have to check in with myself regularly to see if I continue to hold on to behaviors that served to protect me from the judgment of others. Generally speaking, I am safe. I have a supportive family, supportive friends, a work environment which allows me to express who I am with creative freedom—things of which a lot of LGBT+ people can only dream. But that wasn’t always the case…
Growing up in Texas as a gay kid, wasn’t easy. Being deeply closeted, I never experienced homophobia directed at me, but it was prevalent in culture. Conservative evangelicalism has deep roots in Texas, and affects even mainline moderate denominations. I never heard fire and brimstone preached against me from the pulpit in my United Methodist congregation, but neither did I hear a call to love and accept of all people. The United Methodist Book of Disciple had—well, has—condemnations against homosexuality calling it “incompatible with Christian teaching” and forbids the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” Even 20 years later, this is still an issue for the church of my youth.
In middle school I was just an awkward kid, but in high school and college, I knew that I could never fully be myself, not that I even knew what that truly was. I held back a part of who I was even from myself, let alone others. The community I found in the United Methodist Campus Ministry in college was unlike anything I had experienced before. We were living our faith together. Freshman were intentionally welcomed and invited to become part of the family, yet I still felt like an outsider.
I don’t recall the specific words against homosexuality I heard. I don’t remember if they came from any pastors; I honestly think I blocked out a lot of those memories. Yet, I had an understanding that the love of God and the love others, including my friends, would have limits if I were to be honest with myself and live into my identity. This created in me such a deep loneliness that, even with my closest friends, I always felt like an outsider. I never felt like I truly fit in. I experienced years of internalized homophobia which taught me be uncomfortable around those who were more like me than I would have wanted to admit, those who would have accepted the part of me that I couldn’t.
My experience with United Methodism didn’t change much after I graduated and began to work in the United Methodist Church. A number of those who I called dear friends during that season are now very outspoken against LGBT+ inclusion in the Church. The denomination of some of my most formative years still holds a special place in my heart. I have watched, albeit from a distance, with great anticipation and hope at the movements within United Methodism. I hoped and continue to that the love of God will prevail for all people. For the way we talk about the love of God matters.
Finding the United Church of Christ was a winding journey. After spending my first three years in California in non-denominational churches, I still didn’t feel like I could belong in the Church. Even when I met more inclusive clergy, they were often serving in places that were not officially affirming of he LGBT+ community. By the grace of God, a classmate, and now friend, mentioned that she had marched with her church in the San Diego Pride parade during a break in our Hebrew intensive. That small moment of conversation created a safe place for me to mention that I had just met this wonderful guy and had asked him to be my boyfriend and shared that we were struggling to find a church together. San Diego was a bit far for us to drive from Orange County on a Sunday morning, so she mentioned that she knew of another church in the denomination in Irvine that would welcome us with open arms.
We showed up at that church, Bibles in tow like good recovering evangelicals, and the people there, indeed, overwhelmed us with the love of God. From just the introduction to the community in the opening words of allowing God to still speak to us as we embrace one another in love, I knew that this place was different from any that I had experienced. I wouldn’t have to wait for the other shoe to drop to see where the limits of love lay hidden.
Fast forward a year, and our beloved pastor performed our wedding with friends and family surrounding us, including many from that church. Two years later, I was ordained into the United Church of Christ and began serving at what would become Sacred Place. Which brings me back full circle to those who shared the post from Twitter where I began. The majority of those people are fellow UCC pastors who have created for me the kind of community I wished I’d had in college. I am free to be who I am knowing that I am a beloved child of God. The people of Sacred Place work with me to continually create that loving community for everyone who walks through our doors. Instead of dividing ourselves, instead of declaring winners and losers, we proclaim that the boundless love of God brings us together.
We know that it takes work to create that kind of community. We have to remind ourselves regularly of the Love which unites us. When we pray together, we center ourselves on asking God to use us to make the world more just, more inclusive, and to heal the family of God. We know that we are not in this work alone, even if we are one of only two affirming and inclusive churches in our city. That makes our work all the more important. Whoever you are and wherever you are, I hope you find that kind of sacred place for yourself. If you’re close enough to join us, you are welcome anytime, for this is your Sacred Place.