The last time I was in church was for the installation service of a close friend. I attended because she invited me to preach and that was a huge honor. The last time I attended church before that was the Sunday after election in the USA. Having been raised in the Church, I often relied on this community to be the safe space where I could bring my fears into with the hopes of being healed.
When Republican Party enthusiasts, emboldened by the rhetoric of President Trump and Republican leaders in the USA Congress, led a group of white supremacists, Nazis, and Ku Klux Klan sympathizers to march on the streets of a public university in Virginia, I felt the need to return to Church. I woke up on Sunday with the idea of finding a nearby congregation to attend. Somehow, I had equated church with healing and community and restoration. But then, I started to doubt it. I stopped to think about what Church had really been for me. All throughout my life, Church had not been a welcoming, healing, restoring community. On the contrary: Church was the people marching on the campus of the University of Virginia with torches, threatening many of my communities with violence and death.
Since my childhood time in Church, I had only heard hatred and violence against “sinners.” The goal was to rid the World from the sinful; to establish God’s kingdom, where the violent will reign with Christ and the Earth would be transformed into their playground. The images of fire and destruction were the ones used to exemplify this future. The King will stand to divide the crown and send some – the goats – to the pits of hell to rot for eternity, with pain and punishment unimaginable. Others – the sheep – will be lifted up to heaven to be with their Ruler.
I have been in several churches throughout my life, both as a parishioner and as a pastor. Every church has been different: my rural Baptist church in Puerto Rico, the underground Metropolitan Community Church also in Puerto Rico which I led for a few months before going to seminary, the urban, large Baptist church that sent me off to seminary, the suburban, white, moderate Baptist church that ordained me, the small, urban Hispanic Baptist church in New York City that welcomed me as their pastor, the multicultural, urban Methodist church also in NYC that provided refuge and welcomed me as a leader, the urban, liberal, white church in Seattle that made me question my call to ministry and which proved me that liberal churches are no safer than conservative ones, and the little suburban Episcopal church in Wisconsin with a worship service in Spanish that offered a few months of refuge while I served other ministries.
Here is what Church has done to me:
Church was the place where my first conversion therapy sessions happened. It was the place where I was made ashamed of my sexuality. It was the place where I learned to be secretive and embarrassed about liking men. It was the place where people gossiped about their neighbors throughout the week while coming to pray together on Sunday.
Church was the place where I had to hide my sexuality even as I was both on the ordination process and as I served as a pastor. It was the place where I was asked not to be creative with liturgy as this was not welcomed. Such experience was once again relived as I was invited to write for a white denomination’s worship resources and my work was deemed too “intimidating” because it didn’t fall within the liturgical styles of the white church. Both homophobia and white supremacy were present this weekend in Virginia. Both homophobia and white supremacy were present in this church experience for me.
Church was also the place where the white visitor who saw me walking down from my office responded to my greeting by saying “Are you the janitor?” No, I was not. I was the preacher that day, and perhaps that’s why you didn’t come back?
Church was the place where, behind closed doors and without ever telling me, the congregation had the excellent idea of paying for speech classes for me to become a better speaker of English… instead of learning how to accommodate their ears to a different accent. But that’s OK for them, because they are “liberal” and they “get it.” They too were present at the demonstrations in Virginia.
Church was the place where the fragility of the person who bullied me was most important than my safety. It was the place where I approached with caution because each time I pulled over to the parking lot, my hands started to shake and my heart started to race as the bully’s car was parked there too. It was the place where her dismissal of my leadership was encouraged; the place where they welcomed meetings with her behind my back to talk about the supposedly weak pastoral care I was providing the congregation, without ever knowing that I was often visiting, listening, calling, and praying with the elders who had asked me point blank to please keep this woman away from our household because they were afraid of her too… But I could not tell her that without facing the doubtful stares of cheering crowd. Church was the place that didn’t allow me to fall asleep from Friday night to Sunday night just because of the fear I had of coming to worship on Sundays. Even after trying different prescriptions – yes, prescriptions from my doctor – and relaxation methods, I could not do it. The bullying was that strong, and the lack of support was too much. This white fragility that didn’t allow this bully to recognize the leadership of a Latino man in church also marched in Virginia this weekend.
Church was the place where the priest addressed the violent rhetoric of the election season and the overwhelming support of white supremacists for President-elect Trump by calling the small group of Latino and Latina people by asking us… us… to come together with our oppressors and to find unity.
This was the last drop. I had tried long enough to make the Church a place of respite and community. The Church has not been such a thing for me. I need to break from this abusive relationship for good. Church, you are not safe for me as long as you march with torches and hatred.
Perhaps Church has been different for you, and for that, I am glad. Perhaps you will send a few words of “encouragement” and some apology on behalf of the Church. Don’t. I do not need them, nor do I need to explain more than I had already expressed here. Theology as a discipline and a field of study will continue to be a passion for me. The Church as a place for community, on the other hand, will not.