If you would have told the young kid that sat on the playground swings a block away from the “queer” church, too afraid to enter at first but too hungry for something more that he’d wind up speaking in front of the congregation about connection group, that youngster would have told you that you were fucking crazy. I was that young kid, and around 15 years since those three Sundays spent on the swings, I stood in front of the MCC Detroit congregation, my church family, and spoke about how much connection group has shaped my life.
I didn’t know I’d be speaking this Sunday when I was told/asked on Wednesday. All I was told was that Laura had told the church that I’d be speaking on behalf of the Wednesday morning connection group. I didn’t have anything prepared so I spoke from my heart. I’ve always sort of felt that joining connection group represented a huge step in my spiritual story.
I grew up Baptist. I tell people it was Southern Baptist because that’s easier to explain than the weird hybrid that was Turner Church. Turner Church was the church my grandmother Gartin attended. She was a deaconness and her photo hung on the church wall. The summers and holidays spent in Virginia center around Turner Church.
Religion had a heavy place in my family but I rarely remember us going to church on Sunday mornings. My parents had attended a church on Nine Mile in Hazel Park when I was first born but they stopped attending shortly after. My dad worked odd shifts at General Motors so I remember Sundays being more a time that he used to catch up on his life on those Sundays he didn’t work.
My dad is one of the most spiritual people I know. For as long as I can remember we have engaged in Biblical discussion. In his later years, my dad’s numerous heart and lung health problems made him become a seeker for a home church in Michigan. He found a church filled with ex-pat Southerners from the Virginia, Kentucky region. He was baptized in this church and faithfully attended services until he moved back to Virginia. Now, when his health allows, my parents attend Turner Church like my grandmother did.
I’d think that someone that grew up in a strong faith based family would know his place in God’s kingdom but that wasn’t the case. Being gay and knowing the Christian stance on homosexuality didn’t make my life easy. Too many times I’ve sat through sermons that preached more about the lake of fire and brimstone and less about God’s love for everyone.
My gayness wasn’t the only thing that I felt separated me from Christianity. I could never wrap my head around the notion that practicers of other religions were going to go to hell because they did not know Jesus. I couldn’t understand the audacity the church had by claiming themselves the one and only true religion when there wasn’t 100% reliable truth that (a) there was even a God to begin with and (b) that God was exclusive to Christianity. I had a limited idea about Western religion so I wasn’t concerned about Jews and Muslims but my heart broke for the Buddhists and Hindus and other praticers of the Eastern religions that held me in thrall. I couldn’t get on board with a religion that would willingly toss a peaceful Buddhist in the lake of fire and brimstone because he did not know Jesus.
I became a paradox. I was a seeker of the truth and a doubting Thomas. My doubt has mostly left but I feel I’ll be a seeker, a questioner for the rest of my life. I began to study mythology and other religions trying to find the one that fit me. I wound up having my own piecemeal religion while avoiding the trappings of organized religion. I didn’t know that I was embarking on the “I’m spiritual but not religuous” path because that wasn’t really an option in the early 1990’s.
Now, for someone who wanted to stay away from religion, I made a strange decision in my working life. I found a job heading up the shipping and receiving of a local Bible and bookstore. Here I saw Christianity and both it’s worst and greatest. I saw how some Christians let the love of God shine through them while others treated God like a velvet roped nightclub where you had to have the proper credentials to get in. I spent a year and a half at the Bible store. At the end my relationship with traditional Christianity had soured. The reactions of co-workers and customers after the death of Matthew Shepard broke me. I knew that I could never be both gay and Godly. As Troye Sivan sings in “Heaven” I wondered “Without losing a piece of me, how do I get to heaven? Without changing a part of me, how do I get heaven?”
I left the Bible store and pretty much left Christianity. I was trying to practice the golden rule and it was around this time I spoke aloud my feelings that love and goodness and kindness towards others was the only way I could live my life. You might wonder why I let the Bluv nickname stick and this is why. I’ve reasoned out the best way to live was to be love. To be the personification of love and kindness in bodily form. I fall short because I am human and I have human ego and faults and bias but I really do try to show everyone I come into contact with a little love, dignity and respect.
I paused while writing so I could pull up the journals I’ve recently found to see when I first mention church. I mention it in 2003 in a context of how much can happen in 12 months so I started going sometime in 2002. I would have thought sooner. I remember being there for the Westboro Baptist protest so, whenever that was, I consider that the start of attending MCC. For the sake of coherent narrative I’ll say 2002. I was at pride and saw that there was a LGBT friendly church in Hazel Park (Divine Peace) but I knew I could never visit that church because someone would see me come out of it and I’d be outed. I knew that there was another LGBT friendly church in fabulous Ferndale so I decided it was close enough that I could relatively make it on time but far enough from Hazel Park that the likelihood of running into someone I knew was slight.
MCC-Detroit has been a life changer. The late Rev. Mark Bidwell preached that God loved everyone. I learned how to seperate my sexuality from my spirituality. I still struggled with God and the idea of sin but I felt comfortable at MCC.
Around 2007 my friend Cathy began looking for a church and, as much as I liked MCC, I decided I’d accompany her and see what else was out there. Cathy and I church hopped. Cathy told me what she was looking for in a church and I thought MCC would fit her needs. She started to come on a regular basis and eventually became more involved than I was.
Around the same time MCC introduced the concept of connection groups. They would be an opportunity to connect with other congregation members. MCC usually averages around 100 goers each Sunday so I felt that this would be a better way to get involved. It would also give me the added bonus of improving my social skills.
Cathy and I started to attend the Monday morning connection group. That group was lead by a pair of sisters, Jo Plougher and Laura Nicols. These women would show me kindness and give me a safe space to question and doubt and get angry with God and the institutionalized church. The Monday morning connection group was filled with unemployed people and was eventually disbanded when most of us found employment.
I then started to attend a Tuesday night connection group that met at Jeannie Barnett’s house. This group was beyond special. When I was gay bashed in 2009, this group went to the site of my attack and sanctified it. It was the Tuesday night group that really soldified that the “connection” part of connection group.
That’s not to say I didn’t have my struggles with MCC. I was asked to become a connection group leader and, after the first day of training, I became so overwhelmed with fear and uncertainity, that I fled MCC and didn’t return until months later.
These days I attend and host the Wednesday morning connection group. I schedule my classes around it. I appreciate that we talk about spirituality and wrestle with topics that are usually avoided. We’ve read Nadia Bolz-Weber, a tattooed former addict turned pastor. We read Bréne Brown’s Rising Strong which helped me learn to navigate that space between falling and getting back up. Right now we’re discussing Desmond Tutu’s book on forgiveness and how a person actually goes about forgiving someone else. Forgiveness is a process like anything else but we’re not taught how to forgive only told to forgive. After we’re done with forgiveness we’re going to move onto Sister Joan and a book that has been on my to-read list for a little while now.
Through connection groups and the various subjects we’ve tackled throughout the years I’ve gotten a better understanding of my belief. I believe in a God but it’s not the traditional God of popular culture, a God with a long white beard that hangs out in the clouds. I only refer to God because it’s a term that people readily understand. In private I refer to it as the Divine Wow. I say it because I don’t feel the Divine Wow has a gender. It exists as something bigger than I am. The sun rises and sets and the seasons change and the flowers bloom and caterpillars turn into butterflies and I know that there’s a higher power at play. I sorta think of the Divine Wow as the source for everything. It surrounds me and is within me but it’s my choice to do with it what I please. I study all of the great teachers and thinkers but I don’t singularly follow any of them. I think that we can learn a lot from Jesus but I don’t buy into the crucifixion and resurrection.
Reading the different sacred texts there’s one rule found in all of them and in science. I mentioned it earlier. “Do unto others”. I try, and fall short, to treat people like I want to be treated. We all deserve basic respect and dignity. We all want to feel loved. We all want to be heard. I have a standard I live to, a standard I’ve been told I expect others to have so I’m trying to change that. U2 performs “One” and I adopt that as my spiritual theme song. This morning I heard a poem that talked about humankind being more kind. I’m in agreement. I’d like my life to be one of showing how humankind can be more kind.
I didn’t expect to write out a version of my spritual story but I never know what to expect when I put my fingers on the keyboard. Happy Sunday.