Church/Gender/Sex. Church, post 1.
“Church” is such a packed word – this is just one unpacking of that word.
Today was the first time I’ve been to church in a few months. My younger brother had come to visit me in Ann Arbor, and after his visit I decided to bring him back home, pick up my beater of a car from the shop, and go to church with my parents. Church for me has an entirely different association than most people – church is my dad’s job.
So for me, while the above un-packing applies, church also includes dad, mom, family, tradition, spending time together, holding hands with my mother, laughing at Dad, crying to myself out of joy and sadness (I feel so comfortable in the small sea of faces that face forward, populating the pews), and being greeted warmly by everyone – even if I don’t know who they are. I can never truly appreciate what church means or is for anyone who hasn’t had this experience because “church” – in all its complications – is such an integral part of my family.
I will never hate or alienate “church” from my life, but I’ve had some extremely un-satisfying experiences with it, namely that of the enthusiastic evangelical variety.
For the first two and a half years of college, I attended New Life Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I am not writing this post as an indictment of this church, but as an honest expression/reflection of my experiences with them.
I loved New Life Church. It captured the things that I had gotten from my church home – namely a sense of home that was comforting as a college freshman, thrust into living on my own for the first time in my life. New Life gave me structure beyond my classes, and being a micro-manager and ENFP (Myers-Briggs, what what!), I greatly value structure even if I like to be impulsive.
What attracted me at first, though, was how outgoing and friendly everyone was. It was astonishing and refreshing coming from my last church, which my dad had just had to leave because of numerous, ridiculous conflicts within the deacon board.
The sense of community was palpable – everyone knew each other and smiled and hung out all of the time, and I was hooked. They promised an open, questioning attitude to the Bible, in which deep personal relationships and diving into the Bible had to go hand-in-hand in order to constantly push at each-others’ inherently short-sighted interpretations.
In fact, I was so involved that after my Freshman year I attended “Leadership Training”, or LT, for 10 weeks of the summer in Virginia Beach, VA. The 120ish participants lived in a small group of cabins a two-minute walk across the street from the Atlantic Ocean and only a mile down from the strip, where most of us worked in hotels. Every day we’d have readings, teachings, gatherings, and community. While I was struggling through my personal questions with God, I was oblivious to the fact that it was not an open reading of the Bible that was being sought – asking us to interact and help each other to grow – but a calculated, specific message that was largely fundamentalist to the point of quiet bigotry.
Looking back, I should have noticed and been outraged by the red flags – praying for strangers who need salvation because they were drinking or wearing bikinis (a bit of a calculated description, but in some cases student leaders did emphasize those strangers), teaching us that Catholics were not Christians, and going over exactly what Biblical dating is – to the point of saying what is and isn’t an acceptable physical touch. Don’t kiss – it’s a temptation. It’s best to wait to kiss until you’re married. You can if you want, but if you can wait, wouldn’t your love be stronger for it? Holding hands is great if you can handle it. Hugging only once in a while – the genitals are too close. Dress modestly, men and women, but women should more-so. Men, pray about someone you’re attracted to extensively, making sure it’s in God’s plan for you two to date, then after you decide that it is, ask her out. She’ll understand. You can’t date a non-Christian – it’s not what God wants.
The last bit is what really really should have tipped me off. But, by this point, I was too invested in both my relationship with my girlfriend and what I thought was my relationship with God. For a few weeks I struggled, weeping often over how unfair the whole thing was – how could God want me to give up this relationship, one that was so beautiful and loving and pure? But I was told being a Christian is hard. It means making sacrifices. I was afraid of making a mistake. I was afraid of not loving God enough, of loving something else more than Him. I was told that I shouldn’t do that. I was led to believe I had no choice. Leaders – both students and staff members – urged me that only I could make the decision, but told me that no matter what I couldn’t marry her if she wasn’t a Christian. That for certain would be a sin.
The shitty thing is: I believed them.
I called her up and broke things off. Before we had started dating – before we had even gotten to college – I told her that I only think dating makes sense if you can see yourself marrying that person. I told her that I would have to marry a Christian – I believed that then, but I know things aren’t so black and white now.
We both started sobbing on the phone. I felt that while I had done the right thing and that eventually I would be rewarded for it – something that was stressed to me during my grieving process by others – that I had a hole inside of me.
All of the pain of that summer, of breaking her heart and forcing mine in the process, is not gone. I don’t revisit it often, but that it still stings at my eyes and stretches my throat when I picture that phone call – everything vivid and fresh.
I have never been in love with anyone or anything like I’m in love with Natasha, and I felt it the rest of that summer. After returning home and being torn apart from my church “family”, I felt the mistake that I had made. For sometimes hours a day I would lock myself up in my room and plead to God, asking for him to take the pain of my mistake away, for things to get better. Thank Him that in returning to school we couldn’t stay apart. We sorted through things – not without tremendous pain and definitely not in a timely manner – and are still together.
But it was church that made me feel wrong, and in that way I am wary of church. The definition touted by New Life of what is pure is entirely tied to the idea that all sexuality is impure, that any longing for the comfort or expression of unspeakable and beautiful things held in a simple kiss is wrong. Now, having been disillusioned from their message and practices, I know a kiss, placed anywhere, can be the purest of all things.