Church Dread & Reclaiming My Faith

I can almost pinpoint the moment I decided that church was no longer for me.

I was sixteen and sitting at a table in the same room where our girls’ youth group met every Monday evening.

And I was listening to a visiting priest explain why homosexual behavior was sinful.

Not homosexual feelings, mind you – God forgives for those and he was very clear about that. Behavior.

I didn’t speak up. I wish I had. I really wish I had…

But I was entirely at a loss for words.

Remember, I was sixteen, and to this day, I’m still amazed that I had not heard much of any anti-gay rhetoric before this. I truly don’t think I’d ever sat in church during a homily and listened to a priest tell me same sex romance was evil.

So when I sat in that room with my youth group and it hit me for the very first time that perhaps Catholicism was not as all accepting and all loving as I’d believed it was…

I checked out.

Why in the world should I think that an expression of love would be wrong?

I’d come out as bisexual just a few months before. I was involved in my school’s drama program, a common and beloved haven for young people coming to terms with their identities. I was fond of hopping friend groups, not attaching myself to any one group in particular, which meant I heard a lot of perspectives, understood a lot of voices, regardless of whether those voices agreed. I really didn’t date in high school, but plenty of my classmates did. I thought nothing of their casual affection, and I freely gave my own friendly, platonic affection all the time.

Why in the world should I think that an expression of love would be wrong?

I knew about boundaries. I knew if someone asked me not to hug them, I was meant to honor that wish. I knew that there would be the smallest ripple of discomfort when I revealed my attraction to girls.

But… sinful? What had I done? As though I’d made some kind of intentional choice to be what I was?

This was when I developed what I call “church dread”.

I was still expected to go. With two Catholic parents and two younger brothers for whom I was supposed to set an example, there was no getting around it for those first few months. Saturday evening came along and my anxiety would start to spike. Sunday morning crept in and I held so much tension in my body, I thought my spine would snap.

After a few months, though, my Mom deployed to Iraq and my Dad stopped making me go. As much as he wanted me to join him, I think he saw how uncomfortable I was – that I was no longer getting anything out of Mass. I think he saw that I was going through the motions in order to appease my family, not as any genuine expression of faith.

Not long after that, I left for college where no one cared whether I went to church. Sundays were for sleeping in and grabbing a coffee with friends or even grabbing an extra hour or two in the library before class the following day.

My anxiety wasn’t gone, just redirected, but my church dread was.

Thus began the lapsed period of my life that would last for ten years. A lapsed Catholic has been Baptized, has taken Communion, has been Confirmed… but doesn’t practice. For a decade, that was me.

I did try a few times in those ten years. There were parts of my religion I missed.

But every time I tried to go back, I remembered.

Before that evening at my youth group, I had been very active in my parishes. Army families have all kinds of ways of feeling at home no matter where military orders take them, and we had two major tactics: find the scouting troops and find a church. Boom. Easy. We suddenly had friends. We were part of the community. This also meant that the more we involved ourselves in those activities, the more at home we felt.

So, in a search to belong, I dove in.

I sang in the choir. I was an altar server. Later on, I was a lectern, then a Eucharistic Minister. Father Clark (still my favorite priest, though I know I’m not supposed to have one) came to our house for dinner. I asked him a million questions. I volunteered at his retirement party and cried when I realized I wouldn’t hear his homily about butterflies at Easter anymore.

There was a lot I missed about being a good Catholic.

But every time I tried to go back, I remembered.

During those lapsed ten years, I learned more about myself. I explored my feelings for other women (yes, in behavior as well – take that, visiting priest…) and I definitely didn’t stick to the “wait until marriage” thing.

I don’t regret those years at all. I have a beautiful daughter. She is not a sin. I’ve had many amazing experiences, and as painful as some of them have been, I’m not sorry that I had them.

I’ve asked for forgiveness and I’ve given it. I’ve forgiven myself for a lot.

And the second I started to…

God started nudging me.

Damn it.

If I was going back to church at all, it was going to be a Catholic one.

It was slow. It was bits and pieces at first. I wandered around a bookstore and among the shelves of fantasy and mystery, someone had misplaced a book of Psalms. I cleared through an old box of knick knacks and there was an Our Lady of Guadalupe prayer card I’d gotten at one of the Christmas fairs. I walked through the neighborhood and saw a statue of Saint Francis I hadn’t noticed before, one that reminded me of my Dad’s.

Father Martin, a celebrity Jesuit of sorts, liked one of my tweets. Joey, a friend of mine from high school, posted a photo on Instagram that showed him in his Roman collar. Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis popped up on my recommended books list.

I went to a pay-what-you-wish night at the Philadelphia Museum of Art with my daughter and my mother. We had no real plan. We wanted to wander a little without sticking to a map.

Yeah. We “wandered” straight into Medieval to Early Renaissance European Art where an eight foot high crucifix was staring at me from the center of the room.

“Okay,” I said to Mom. “Now He’s laughing at me…”

When I got home that night, I did some research. I was nervous about the idea of trying out a new church. My church dread has started to creep in again. Lapsed or not, I was still Catholic. I knew those prayers, I knew those songs, I knew when to sit and when to stand. If I was going back to church at all, it was going to be a Catholic one.

But if I was setting foot inside a Catholic church again, I was going to need a progressive parish…

Lucky for me, Saint Joseph’s University isn’t far from my place. Jesuits (widely regarded as a particularly nerdy order of priests and missionaries) who teach college students.

Bingo. This was exactly what I needed. No one here was going to lecture me about sex before marriage. No one here was going to scold my attraction to women. They stood in front of classrooms full of horny teenagers every day! Their messages were of Christ, yes, but their messages were also “plagiarism is wrong” and “call your parents” and “calm down, your whole life is ahead of you”.

I chickened out. My first Mass at the St. Joe’s chapel was Easter Sunday, a day I knew very well would be packed to the gills with “Chreasters” (Christmas and Easter Catholics) where no one would notice two newbies slipping in and taking up space in the back row.

I, in all of my queer harlot glory, belong there, too.

Well, this priest was eighty if he was a day and had the greatest resting bitch face I’d ever seen, but the moment he opened his mouth and called Jesus a “homeboy”, I started to relax. My church dread started to dissipate. My stress levels sank. I didn’t take Communion that day. I wasn’t there yet.

But I did a few weeks later.

I don’t go every week. I don’t pray every day.

But we say grace before dinner. I say thank you for the good stuff, I ask what the hell is going on with the bad. I’m not saying any novenas, but I’m talking. I’ve opened the door to a bigger conversation with the Big Guy Upstairs. Truth be told, I’m really not following the rule book and I probably won’t. But my church dread is gone.

I, in all of my queer harlot glory, belong there, too.

I do not believe for a single second that God is disappointed in who I am. I do not believe that He is angry with me. There’s plenty I can do better and we both know it, but I’m not racking up a mental tally every week for all of the cracks I stepped on and drivers I honked at so I know just how much repenting I need to do before I can call myself a good Catholic. Who cares if I’m good at it? A controversial question, I know, but I’m serious.

Faith is about God and religion is about people. Even lapsed, I always had faith and that faith was perfect. People, by nature, are imperfect and so is religion.

So the way I see it, religion is a toolbox. You do not have to use every tool there is to curate your relationship with God, and I’ll freely admit that I don’t. (I think some of those tools are pretty dumb, to be honest, but I am neither Craftsman nor Catechism.) I don’t think the Catholic toolbox is the only one that works, but it’s the set of tools I’m used to, the ones I know how to use to do the sort of spiritual work on myself that feels right.

I am still bisexual. I am still an unmarried mother. I am still a little bit of a train wreck.

And I am still Catholic.

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