It’s Christmas Eve and I’m going back to the church that I grew up in for the first time in years. It’s a tradition for us to go as a family. I don’t particularly want to go but I also know that if I refuse it will send a message that I am somehow afraid to go back or ashamed of my life. I am neither afraid nor ashamed and so I go.
I haven’t been back since I started my transition. I’ve been myself for many years now. I don’t get misgendered out in public anymore. I look like the dude that I am. I realize this has the potential to get complicated.
My mother refuses to acknowledge my transition. I haven’t wanted to make waves and so I don’t push her on it. But tonight…
Some people that we’ll see have known me since I was small. They may or may not recognize me, but once they are nudged about who I am they will know and they will probably see me as female. Others will simply see me as I am, a man. I begin to stress about the bathroom situation. My mother will assume that I should use the women’s room. Anyone in the women’s room will assume that I am in the wrong place. I make sure to go to the bathroom before we leave the house and hope I can make it through the service without having to go.
I decide to have my own private little rebellion and wear a sweater with pink and white stripes and pink chucks to the service. It’s silly, I know, but it messes with the whole super gendered and super policed gendered world they inhabit. My mother will see pink and think that I am wearing something feminine and that suits my “female” gender. But everyone else who is there, who will read me as unmistakably male, will see a dude wearing pink. I like this sweater and the chucks so they are comfortable for me but I know they have the potential to make others uncomfortable and I am okay with that.
I have learned that the best way to handle people who think queerness is the worst of the sins is to walk in, hold your head up high, and smile a lot. See, in the fundamentalist world they are taught that being “a homosexual” leads to a life of misery, shame, and sickness. Their world view literally cannot square with a happy queer person. They honestly think that such people should not be able to exist.
An example: One time when I came back to the church (after I came out as gay but before I came out as trans) the Pastor’s wife came up to me and struck up a conversation. We were chatting and cordial and she said “We should go out for coffee sometime, I’d love to talk.” She was expecting me to hedge, to try to avoid, to not want to go out. Instead I said, with a huge smile, “I would absolutely love that! Here is my phone number, my cell, and my email. Send me a message and we’ll set it up.” She never called. I know what she wanted; to take me out to coffee and convince me to “come back to Jesus” (even though I had never left Jesus). What she couldn’t handle was someone who was living in their truth and feeling completely unashamed about it. I’m sure that, to wrestle with the cognitive dissonance she chalked it up to me being so firmly ensconced in my rebellion that I would be unwilling to listen. But even so I trust that the cognitive dissonance was there.
So on this particular Christmas Eve I walk into the church. I smile. I say hello and hug people that I recognize. I chat. They ask me what I am doing and try to hide their looks of shock when I say that I work for a church, that I am doing youth ministry, that I am happy.
One woman, right in front of me, asks my mom “Is it okay that Shannon is back for Christmas?” My mother, to her credit, looks at that woman incredulously and said, “Yes.” That woman then moves on after giving me a hug and a look that is a cross between pity and judgment. I am not hurt by it, more incredulous that it happened.
As I look around the room and sit through the service one thing strikes me, it’s as if I never left. Sure the people are a bit older (but then, so am I) but it’s mostly the same crowd. There are the kids I knew who have grown into adults and married other kids I knew who have grown into adults and they have had their own kids. The musicians on stage are the same people I played with back when I was in college. The special music performers are my old high school friends doing the same things we did when we were in high school. It’s as if this place has frozen in time.
I can’t help feeling a little sad about it. I know most of these people. I truly believe they are good people. I believe that they love God and one another. I believe that they believe they are doing the right thing. And yet as the Pastor preaches a sermon that has Jesus on the cross before he’s even born I can’t help but wonder what they think they are doing there. The church isn’t packed with people. My guess is that beyond a few people who have brought family members with them there aren’t a lot of visitors there. And yet the message is about salvation. Preaching to choir. It seems strange. Maybe a little pointless. Like they had hoped to have more visitors and they just didn’t show up.
Maybe it’s just that I don’t believe like this anymore.
I used to believe that the evangelical church was the hope of the world. That we had the answers. That the life we were living was the only way to be truly happy. I thought if we could just get people to really listen to our message that they would be convinced, too. There is a scene in the movie “Saved!” where the group (led by Hillary Faye) is at a table at the food court in the mall. They see someone from school who isn’t “saved” and Hillary Faye says, “Let’s all laugh really loudly so that she’ll see that being a Christian is super fun!” There are a few chuckles and she then commands the table, “Laugh!” and so they do. Loudly. And it’s all fake. I remembered watching that scene and being so struck but the honesty of it. How I would laugh to make people think that being a Christian was super fun. How we would all laugh that way. How that laughter was often a mask for deep pain that none of us had room to talk about. Because pain meant you weren’t following Jesus in the right way.
There wasn’t room to be human in my childhood church. There wasn’t room to wrestle and struggle and come to faith on your own. There was a path. A list of things to memorize. A list of beliefs to regurgitate. And if you wavered? Well. That was bad.
Ad the end of the service there is the one part of the evening that feels truly holy: Candles held in tight hands as we make a giant circle around the sanctuary and sing “Silent Night”, looking into one another’s faces, softened by the flickering light.
Leaving evangelicalism saved my faith and honestly my life, too. And it has given me a softness, like the softness of candle light, where before there was only the hard light of absolute truth. But this softness that I carry now, it’s healing. It’s a softness that can forgive myself for old mistakes. It’s a softness that can forgive the people who hurt me unintentionally. It’s a softness that can hold space for this piece of my past while also claiming my present. It’s a softness that doesn’t have to hold cognitive dissonance because I am allowed to question and wrestle and abandon things when confronted by truth that makes those old beliefs false. It is a softness that allows me to grow and shift and change. It’s a softness that allows me to be human which means to be flawed and to change and to love and to hurt and to be in pain and to laugh, loudly, but not fake.
It is, after all, what Christmas is about: Incarnation. The humble and the holy. The human and the divine.
As we leave the service and head out into the cold night air I wrap my coat around me and hold my little brother’s hand. I give thanks for my own humanity and the holiness of my finally right body. I give thanks for the journey, for this place that was once home and is no longer. But mostly I give thanks for the peace and joy that I feel now and the wholeness of my life and how now that I am free I never have to pretend.