If the entry ticket to heaven turns out to be based on how much bible trivia you know, then I will definitely my way through the holy gates. My family started going to church when I was 10, and the Sunday School model of having us remember bible verses one week and then regurgitate them the next was right up my alley -– it was just like real-life school, except that it had a smiling hippie guy who apparently thought I was neat.
For nearly a decade, I read the bible from cover to cover each year (spoiler alert: Jesus wins in the end). Since becoming a certified sinner, my bible knowledge hasn’t really been useful for anything other than pub quizzes -- but back in my church days, it was my claim to fame. You see, my church was a bible-based church. This meant that if something was in the bible, then doggone it, we followed it.
My teenage years were spent watching from the sidelines as my bible study friends paired off one-by-one (or two by two) and got married to each other. Their wedding speeches all followed the same formula; rejoicing that the couple had saved themselves for marriage, with a gentle reminder the bride that her new husband was in fact the head of the marriage. By the ripe old age of 20, I was a lone spinster, adrift in a sea of couples.
Around the same time that I was lamenting the fact that God hadn’t sent a magical husband to save me from my spinsterhood, my mum told me that she was gay.
I could spin a tale here about how I was completely and utterly shocked, but that would be a big fat lie. I’d had my suspicions for a while that my mum loved the ladies, so I think I just said something really awe-inspiring like “Oh yip, I thought so” and carried on chugging down my mocha.
Don’t let my mocha-chugging fool you though; I was extremely proud that my mum had finally come to terms with who she is. I knew that she had an incredibly hard journey ahead of her, but I told her that I would be there for her as she made her tentative first steps into her real identity.
When mum and dad broke the news to my sisters, it was as uplifting as it was heart-wrenching. My sisters’ gaydar evidently wasn’t as finely tuned as mine, and they were completely blindsided by the news. But they recovered quickly, hugged her, and said that we all loved her so much, that we were unbelievably proud of her.
The heart-wrenching bit was that this meant that my parents’ marriage, a union that had seen my parents live together for 25 years and bring four daughters into the world, was going to end in divorce.
I was heartbroken for both my parents; for my dad, who felt like he’d been betrayed by someone who’d been living a lie for 25 years, and for my mum, who had been indoctrinated with the anti-gay dogma of her generation and so had entered into marriage believing that she could change. She loved my dad, but not in the way he so desperately wanted.
The first time I went to church after that, I felt like an egg with my protective shell removed; but I felt sure that my church friends would be there for me. My mum hadn’t come with me because she said that it “wouldn’t be right,” and I didn’t really know what that meant until I got there.
I felt like Moses with the seas parting before me –- if the seas parting were people not looking at me and shifting awkwardly out of my way. I sat there in my isolation pew, wondering what was going on. No one asked me how I was, no one asked after my mother. There was just echoing silence from the sea of couples.
My final year of university flicked by in a blur of missed lectures and soul-crushing depression, but somehow I still managed to drag myself to church most weeks, where I would close my eyes and sing and hope that smiling hippie guy was still up there somewhere.
And then our new vicar decided that the time was ripe for the church to “come out” and take a stand as the only church in my hometown to “get back to our roots” and state explicitly that homosexuality is a personal choice, and that choice is wrong.
He wrote an editorial for our local newspaper, heralding a new era for his church –- the one church in town that was standing up for what was right. He kick-started the sermon series by explaining exactly why it was wrong to be gay –- because the bible said so. At first, I sat there in stunned silence. My mum had just come out and my family was in the midst of an incredibly painful divorce –- I wondered if maybe the vicar hadn’t heard?
And then I remembered my ace in the hole, the good old bible that he was talking about. I was the A+ bible girl, and I knew what God had to say about homosexuality. And that is, not a hell of a lot. Jesus himself said absolutely nothing about it; he spent his time talking about things that we didn’t seem to be hearing a lot about, like loving your neighbour as yourself, and not judging other people.
Homosexuality as we know it isn’t in the bible at all, and when it is, it’s sandwiched in-between really important life advice like making absolutely sure that you don’t shave the sides of your beard. And if the church has been out and about condemning the well-groomed men that haunt my street, I’ve obviously missed it (I won’t bore y’all with the details, but for a supertastic summary, see this article here).
I thought that maybe the vicar wasn’t aware of all this –- so I booked an appointment to see him. I hauled myself out of my pajamas, grabbed my carefully typed notes, and headed over to his office.
He kindly invited me in and asked me why I was here today. I explained that I was really upset by the current sermon series, that my mother is gay, and that I didn’t think anyone would “choose” to be gay if this was price. I said that I was pretty sure that if Jesus had hung out with prostitutes, then gays would be no biggie, and I didn’t think he’d be too happy if he got back from his heavenly holiday to find his church is best-known for the groups that it excludes, not for the good they’re doing in the world.
I’d like to say that I said this with absolute pizazz and righteous eloquence but the truth is, I was terrified. I was a really depressed, really confused, and really scared kid, in an unfamiliar office with a stranger who had the mystical power of a holy collar around his neck. I clasped my traitorous hands together because they were shaking, and I waited to hear his words of wisdom.
And he yelled. He said that his own brother is gay, and was I daring to say that HE, the VICAR, was HOMOPHOBIC? That this was something that the church all agreed on –- it was there in black and white in the bible, that homosexuality is wrong, end of story. The worst part was how he ended each sentence with an increasingly outraged “REBEKAH” –- each time, it made me wince. Out of his mouth, my name sounded an awful lot like “FILTHYSCUMBUCKET.”
So I left his office, and like the strong independent lady I am, I walked out of the building, pulled up my socks, and I cried my ass off all the way home.
My visit must have really stoked the fire in his heart, because for the next sermon, he was really worked up. He spieled off all the dogma that we’d all heard before, but this time it was different because he was so righteously angry. He told the congregation about his brother, as painful proof that he was doing this from the goodness of his heart.
I sat in the front row, in shock that this was happening. All these years I’d been laboring under the notion that church was a place where you could expect compassion and kindness; but set against the backdrop of my disintegrating family and my fragile state, this felt an awful lot like persecution.
I tried with all my might to stifle the sobs that had begun to shudder through my body. They vibrated through my chest, choked up their way up through my throat, and they escaped out of my mouth, one piercing sob after the other, until my hysterical wailing was like a really awkward back-up singer, accompanying his entire sermon.
After the sermon, the vicar invited me up to the front of the church to be prayed over, and my dad helpfully led me up (in defense of dad, he had no idea I was crying about the whole “being gay is evil” thing, he just thought my wailing signaled my need for some good old-fashioned public prayer).
I stood there, staring in wide-eyed, wailing horror as the vicar put his arms up and prayed over me, asking that God would be with me at this difficult time, as I dealt with my mother’s terrible, terrible gayness.
As traumatic as this was for me, it was worse for my mum. I’ll never forget one morning, when mum and I were having breakfast at a posh café (and yup, for the record, I was yet again chugging away on my trusty mocha). We spotted a lady through the café window who used to come to our house for dinners on Sunday nights after church, and I raised my hand to wave. But I was stopped cold by the look on her face -– by the unadulterated hatred that contorted her face as she glared at my mum.
Looking back at that awful year, I think that we were the casualties of people who had outsourced their empathy to the cause of religious doctrine. Somewhere along the line, they had lost sight of the point of religion –- to bring joy and meaning to people’s lives, not pain.
Whether or not God did get on the phone to the vicar to tell him that he needed to “come out,” the way my church dealt with me and my family wasn’t kind. The people who were my real “church” were my black-listed non-Christian friends. They were the ones who created the loving safety net that let me cry and cry, who listened as I talked through my grief, and who helped me to heal.
Some of the kindest, most selfless and inspiring people I know are people who would no doubt be fine candidates for a series of sermons denouncing their private lives. Whatever creed (or lack thereof) that we sign up to, I think that the world would be a much better place if we could all work up the courage to check in with ourselves now and then to make sure that our natural empathy is not being clouded by prejudice.
The price of not using that empathy is paid by the people who have been made to feel that the way they are built is immoral –- the product of religious figures who have forgotten to bring their hearts and minds to the equation when discerning the lasting message behind a book that was pieced together by a committee of men, thousands of years ago.
These days, I use the empathy we were all born with to set my moral compass. I’ve wiped the unnecessary settings that were a hangover from my bible years; like the one that said I should care about anyone else’s sexuality apart from my own (aside from my manfriend’s, because I’m kind of invested in him continuing to bat for Team Bex), and the one that told me that waiting around to get married to Prince Christian was my main purpose in life. And I don’t have a beard, but if I did, you can bet your sweet ass that I would shave the sides of it.
The only setting I have now is this: I try to be kind. I try to take off my inbuilt judgment goggles, the ones that divide people into needless categories like gay or straight, sinner or saint. I just try to see everyone for who they are; people, just like me.
My old pal the Dalai Lama is notorious for saying “My religion is kindness” when quizzed on what religious doctrine he thinks people should be following. A religion of kindness is something that to me is both amazingly simple and yet incredibly profound. Being kind is something that I can get on board with; feel free to join me.