Drawing the line between respect for others’ beliefs and standing up for yourself
Growing up, my father took us to a Catholic church every Sunday. By the time I was 14, I was volunteering each weekend at the Lutheran church my mother attended, singing on the music team for Sunday school students. I was very involved with the church, between being a confirmed Catholic, and devoting hours of my time to worship on Sundays. And the whole time, I kept my sexual orientation a secret to my church family, despite having already come out to my mother, and knowing that my father knew from intuition. Nonetheless, I hid myself on Sundays from the parish, and from God him/her/itself.
I felt a connection there, being told, and subsequently telling others, that Jesus’ love was supremely powerful and unwavering, and that comforted me. But his so-called messengers were preaching another message in his name, one not of hate, but of disapproval. We were bombarded with stories of people who saw the light and changed their ways to that of God’s will. I had begun to feel like my life needed the same change as well and dove into my faith blindly. When I graduated high school, I stopped going to church. My family was less insistent and I was on a different path. One that was tired of the shame, but still very much affected by it. My growth as a strong gay man was stunted, and shame penetrated my existence so deeply that, I’m realizing as I write this, I still hold it.
The pastor at my mother’s Lutheran Church was infamous for his impassioned sermons. Nothing fire-and-brimstone, and nothing outright hateful, but as close to the two as a pastor could get without crossing that line. He felt that he was God’s mouthpiece and if you weren’t happy with the message, you would have to take it up with the big man himself. My mother had a hard time with this. She and I both suffer from clinical depression, and the last thing we need as such is someone telling us we’re terrible people, but God loves us anyway. She frequently broke out into tears during mass, and not tears of holy joy. Tears of shame.
There was one mass while I was away at college, where she was particularly affected by the word. The pastor had gone on a two-hour sermon about homosexuality, and how the congregation must show these men and women Jesus’ love, and point them in his direction. It was the final straw for my mother, who later met with the pastor and revealed to him that I was gay. She met him with a list of questions like, “I’m divorced and God says that is a sin, so do you feel the same way about me that you do my son?” And, “would you ever deny my son communion because he’s gay?” He answered that the Lord’s table is open to everyone, but he’s not going to make exceptions to his beliefs. I respect his beliefs, and so did my mother, but it was too much for her to stay a member of that church, a congregation of which she and my stepfather had been very active members for nearly 10 years. She left that church after this meeting, and never went back.
My mother’s courage trumps mine, doubtlessly. She stood up for her beliefs even when I couldn’t. She is struggling with the same problem at her new church, and we have had many conversations about it. The sting of disapproval, even from a person I’ve never met, continues to sit with me. It is a product of the shame I was made to feel in my youth. But time and experience have given me a new outlook. In these discussions with my mother, I told her not to leave her new church, one that she and my stepfather have come to love, just because of one point of disagreement. To this day, I’m not sure if that was the right answer, but she continues to have discussions about homosexuality with her new pastor, maintaining her stance that God made me this way. She says she knew from the time I was a toddler that I was gay, and that it was no choice of mine. She fights for her belief in a realm where differences in beliefs are not looked upon favorably.
The premise of respect for another’s beliefs, even though they are in direct opposition to your person as a whole is one that I have struggled with. I am blessed with the privilege of a supportive and loving family, which has made this internal debate one of hypothetical and distant conflicts. Nonetheless, as a gay man, one has to wonder where to draw the line. These congregations didn’t run me out of their church with torches. They didn’t ostracize my family or tell me I’m going to Hell, and for this, I am forever thankful. But they did stop me from growing and made me doubtful of who I am. Their message will be with me forever, eating at my confidence and self-worth. Do their beliefs deserve my respect?
My mother more than anyone has talked to me about her own beliefs as a Christian. Her love of God and the Holy Spirit is one that she takes joy in sharing with others. And the core principle of this faith is love for all people. She has told me time and again not to take the hateful Christians as a representation of the Christian faith, and uses herself as an example of a supportive Christian. I attended a church in Chicago for a while, trying to understand my own relationship with faith. This church was very inclusive, especially to the LGBTQ community. I don’t think I will ever consider myself a Christian again, but I was able to find relief knowing that, despite the damaging messages spouted off by the few, we can hold ourselves strong in who we are, and still coexist with kindness and love. It will never be easy for me to shake the hand of someone who disapproves of my sexual orientation. But I’m satisfied knowing that I can hold myself up, with the support of those who love me unconditionally, and shake their hand regardless.