2001-ish, I sat in on a class for Unitarian inquirers – folks exploring the possibility of joining a local congregation. My being a liberal-leaning SNAG (sensitive new age guy) not withstanding, I was feeling pretty protective of and defensive about my lifelong Presbyterian connection. People spoke of their understanding of God, or of some other sense of spirituality, or of being kind of blank – and I silently ranked them against my own time-proven pattern of faith and believing. One guy said he didn’t have any kind of feeling for God, that he liked being outside and natural things felt somewhat spiritual to him – parks, trees, that sort of thing. Dude, I thought, shaking my head internally – you believe in trees. That is so deep.
Lord, have mercy on me. Trees, have mercy on me.
My friend Jessica – who is preaching at GPPC this Sunday – Facebooked earlier this week:
I still believe in the power of faith communities to transform lives and be places of healing and transformation for individuals and systemic change – enough so that I’m in the process of being ordained. But I will also say that I have never been able to exhale or breathe as deeply, to know that I was safe to fully be myself, in a church as I have been in a gay bar.
I’d like to think I’ve come a ways in the past 15 years, but there was still a tape playing in the back of my mind: that means you don’t know how good church is, because a bar can’t be as good as church. It’s a bar.
Still, I think Jessica was loosening me up for what I heard on NPR a couple of days later: an interview with writer Justin Torres, who’d recently written “In Praise of Latin Night at the Queer Club” for The Washington Post. The sadness in his voice over Orlando blended with an aching beauty in his descriptions of being a minority gay bar patron:
I think that for queer people, the bar has served so many more purposes than just a place to kind of drink and socialize. It’s a place to kind of be transformed, right? The point is that it’s a space where you are the majority. You know, people talk about the gay bar like it’s church, you know?
And then for people of color, … Latin nights, you know, they’re kind of doubly significant, doubly important. And it is sacred, right? I mean, it’s – people – you go, and you worship, you know? You dance. You celebrate. You connect. And it’s sexy, and you’re kind of allowed to be free in a way that feels so difficult so often when you’re out a kind of straight world. It is sacred and it’s – it really chokes me up when I think about the violation of that space.
The cards finally flipped for me, there in my car on Grace (!) Street. Holy is where we find it, where we feel it, where we are affirmed, where we are most real, most full. In Chariots of Fire, real-life runner and future missionary Eric Liddell says “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel his pleasure.” Holy, I’m pretty sure, is feeling God’s pleasure in our own selves.
I love my church and I love being there. I’m grateful, this week, for the understanding that people can love church anywhere – a chapel, park, bar, or track, – when they experience that which is Holy through themselves and those nearby.
Last night in a short, violent storm, our front yard shade tree came down, landing almost entirely on our neighbor’s property, banging up her gutters and porch. We all met in our yards, the rain still blowing, the only light coming from our little phones. We hugged and cried over the loss of the tree, named our gratitude for everyone’s safety, celebrated that we are neighbors who care for each other. Church. It was a lovely old tree, shading two yards, keeping the grass cool under lots of young, bare feet. A beautiful piece of Holy. I tried to have the same reverence as would the tree guy from the Unitarian meeting.
Alfred Walker attends church, plays music in bars, and runs several times a week. He thinks he may have this covered.