This year I am blessed to have been in God's service as a vowed religious Brother for 23 years. 20 Years in vows. It is 15 years fewer than I have been out of the closet as a proud queer person. Unlike many, I have been blessed to have never struggled to reconcile my sexuality and my spirituality. I am essentially ... A unicorn.
The first time I was asked to bless someone was when I was a brand new novice, standing outside of St. Mary the Virgin Episcopal Church in NYC. I was with two senior brothers who had just come from their corporate jobs, dressed so beautifully in their work attire, while I was clothed in habit having just come from work at an Upper West Side parish.
A poor drunk soul came staggering up the street and saw me and threw himself down on the pavement and cried out - "Bless me Father!" As a dutiful novice, I turned to my much senior brothers in deference. One of them responded, "Oh no, brother. You wear the dress, you have to bless." I laid my hands upon the man and did my best. It was enough for him to feel validated.
Fast forward, I have just moved to San Francisco. I was still a novice. It was one of my first days walking in habit through the Castro after church on Sunday. That day, an angry and somewhat inebriated man coming out of a local gay bar saw me, grabbed me and threw me down in the middle of Castro Street. He spit on me and yelled "I hate the Church!" And walked away. While my heart was bruised, I realized that here was someone wounded by the Church, and when I took up religious life, I took up responsibility for their woundedness as well.
These two pivotal moments defined my journey into religious life. It defined my sense of responsibility to communicate to the Church the needs of the LGBTQ community. And it defined my need to demonstrate in tangible ways, the love of God to all of my sibs in that community.
The violence that my community has suffered at the hands of religion is impossible to overestimate. Even at the hands of my own denomination - a liberal progressive denomination - we were talked about, talked at and discussed for over 40 years as though we weren't even in the room. It took 30 years before we even were let into the room. And now that my Church has finally reached the point of "full inclusion" of LGBTQ people in it's life and ministry as its public stance, it has left room for those who in good conscience can't accept us fully. And it largely thinks it's internal work is done. It is not.
I spend my time in and among my queer community as an out religious. As Brother. This is who I am. The gratitude of that community when I show up to events that are important in their lives is so telling. It demonstrates that they still don't believe that the Church will show up. They can't believe we love them. I try to be a bearer of love. God's love. The Church's attempts at love. I often show up as an apology for the Church.
I show up at fundraisers. I show up for Trans Marches, and drag shows, and vigils and memorials. When my drag sibs win pageants I tell them how proud I am of them. When our community suffers losses, I weep with them. When we crown new Court members, I honor them. When they struggle with addiction, when they lose their housing, I hold them and listen to their stories. I tell each and every one of them I love them as often as I can. I demonstrate that God loves them with actions. I walk the streets in habit and show up at bars and coffee shops and say hello to folks I know will be there to remind them that they are loved. I walk with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and the Companions of Dorothy the Worker to reclaim spaces where violence has been committed against our community.
Sometimes, I say difficult things to my Church. Not because I think the people who constitute it are bad. I don't believe that at all. But I say difficult things, because sometimes my Church seems to be invisible. And as an institution, its atonement for the way it has treated us is not done. Before my Church can relax into considering a job well done for suffering to include us fully in its life, my Church must go through a period of reconciliation. Of demonstrable penance to the communities it has harmed. My Church must take responsibility, not merely within its own ranks, but with the world outside its walls. There are many individuals in the Church who do the hard work. Our Presiding Bishop is one such remarkable human being. The Bishop of my Diocese is another. But as an institution, the Church still has a great deal of work to do.
My Church must begin to understand that acceptance, welcome, love, and inclusion is not reserved only for those in the LGBTQ community who conform to its standards of behavior. Those who can blend in and behave. And that the Church's job is not merely to love them when they walk into the doors of a church, but that they must go out into the world as pastors, leaders, and witnesses to that same love - taking up their places as visible spiritual presences in the community they have harmed. The Church must be the Church in that world, at the foot of drag stages, at the lighting of candles at vigils of remembrance, and at the raging and reclamation of our community from acts of violence like Orlando - knowing that it has played a role in the perpetuation of that violence.
The Church must be the church at the coronations of our fantastical Imperial and Ducal Courts; at the bars and the parades; at the grand balls and tea dances; at the awakening of trans patients after the first or the many of their gender-confirmation surgeries. To congratulate, to bless, and to love.
The Church must understand the queer spirituality that has arisen in the Church's absence. A spirituality that is robust and colorful and different, and that doesn't always exclude God, but like in any oppressed community has re-imagined God in a million different ways independent of any dogma the Church may profess.
The Church must walk the streets at night; must be willing to hold the queer addict without judgment or shield them as they shoot up because their own LGBTQ community has no room for them and because there is no one to tell them God loves them even in the throes of their addiction.
The Church must take in the homeless queer youth and be family to them, because at the Church's word their own families have thrown them out.
I grow weary of two things I hear so often in my life and ministry as an out proud queer Christian:
"You aren't like any Christian I've ever met."
"What is the Episcopal Church?"
My queer sibs, I am like many Christians. I am not unique. There are many good ones out there! And they are doing a lot of work to grow and change into the kind of spiritual presence you deserve. Be patient, but don't give me more credit than I deserve. My love for you is deeper than anything you can imagine, because it is informed by the Gospel of Christ; forged in a Church that is trying to grow in Love. And because I, as a queer person, have learned that Love at the foot of the Master who loves me as I am.
My beloved Church, as long as you expect the community to come to you, they will not know you. It is time for you to go to them. Not anonymously or covertly. You must go to them - in collars and habits and as representatives of the Church. As dedicated pastors and spiritual friends. And I promise you this...if you show up you will be met with wonderment, with gratitude and love, and perhaps some wariness. Because it isn't about getting folks into the pews of your Church. It's about showing that you have the capacity to love more deeply than anyone believes or imagines you can; because you have been transformed by the Gospel into witnesses to the unfailing love of God.
I don't remember who said that when you draw a line to keep people out, that God immediately sides with those who have been excluded. It's time to come to the other side of that line and join us. Because if you want to learn what love looks like - come and experience queer love. The love forged in the capacity of human beings to find dignity, family, empowerment and love when the world has cast them to the margins. I promise you, you will see the Gospel with new eyes indeed.