I remember the smell of the clean, crisp paper. Filled with the staffs and notes written by men long dead, it smelled oddly similar to moth balls. The church was newly constructed but even from my small, elementary point of view, I could see how antiquated the space was.
This congregation sang from hymnals over a boisterous organ, played by a lady the size of a fiddle. The sound vibrating the green and mauve velvet detailing on ornate chairs and the bottoms of stiff wooden pews. Every woman in this church wore a skirt that hit the floor (NO PANTS!) and every man a tie. On stage sat 4 to 5 older, white men wearing over sized suits and uncomfortable grimaces. Behind them sat a choir of voices with vibrato you could walk through.
The music was joyful. Joy sprung from the hope of a living and merciful God. Yet when the minister came to the pulpit, a different message was delivered. There is nothing more convincing to some, than fear. Fear in mortality becomes a motivator for many when it comes to religion. This minister, who previously sat in front of the choir in his mauve, velvet embellished chair, singing of the joy Christ brought him, could only now produce but one emotion, anger.
With the veins in his neck protruding and the color in his face to match his chair, he pleaded with us, the audience to forsake our earthly desires or risk eternity with the forsaken of God. He then went in detail of the heat we could expect if we did not then and there accept his message and his God. The God of fear. Fear in those that do wrong, and also those that were different.
Didn't take me long to realize that this sort of religion, simply was not for me. When I was in 8th grade two of my older sisters started to go to a different sort of church. Their new place of worship was modern, cool. They swapped the 5 old velvet chairs and the old slacks that sat in them for drum sets and electric guitars, threw out the hymnal and projected lyrics against fun graphics and eye catching light displays. The music was not just joyful but deeply emotional and repetitive, thankful. From the first time I visited until the last Sunday I attended years later, I was hooked.
This church seemed to reinvent what religion actually was, to me. Even though it belonged to the same technical belief in Jesus, everything about the faith seemed to change. Worship was not only emotion filled and personal, but it was outward and physical. This congregation would raise their hands in surrender, scream at the top of their lungs and dance in the joy of God. I felt for the first time in my life a real presence of something more than myself. I did, in fact, believe in God.
I showed up day after day. Learned how to pray until sweat fell down my back and my brow. I sang the name of God until my voice was gone and I sang more, still. I learned here in this space to barter, I learned to plead to what I couldn't see. I was seeking something.
I remember laying on the carpet of the church with tears spilling from my eyes. "Please God, take this burden from me. Please take my desires and turn them over to what the church would find acceptable. Please make me normal. Please make me not gay."
I became obsessed with finding ways to convince myself I could fit the church's mold. I dated girls from youth group, went to weekly bible study( some weeks the only attendee), I SHOWED UP. I showed up to every event, volunteered in every capacity, and still I couldn't out run it.
One Sunday I went again down to the alter and cried to God. I cried in the arms of a pastor and confessed what I was too afraid to say out loud until that moment. I WAS GAY.
I was counseled. Prayed over and for. But I never could shake the knowing stares of people who now knew. They knew I was not really one of them. And after I was asked to not be apart of the music, I stopped attending all together.
There's a darkness that develops when you stop talking to a good friend. You both want the relationship but the darkness covers all path of communication and you become unsure of how to proceed. I wanted to talk to God. I inherently believed he existed but had been made to believe he was not for me. It would be years before I attended another church service.
In those years I became a fully realized gay man. I made friends like me, and even married one. My life moved on, but the darkness lingered. I longed for the moment I could flip the switch.
That moment came in the form of a cool, fall morning. I know what fate is because of days like that day. I woke up after a very long week of strenuous nursing classes, and even though I was completely exhausted I decided to get out of bed. And even though I had coffee at home, I decided to go to a coffee shop in midtown. And even though there was parking at the coffee shop I decided to park in the adjacent lot.
That lot belonged to First Congregational Church.
First Congo (as its called) is the biggest, oldest looking church in that area and one I had always admired for its extensive wooden doors and tall, rounded windows. Something (or someone) drew me towards those open wooden doors that Sunday morning. I walked timidly up the stairs and was not prepared for what was inside.
Bread. Canned food. Poptarts. On big metal rolling shelves sat a literal ton of food between me and the rest of the large, wooden sanctuary. And that's not the only peculiar found beyond those wooden doors. Large sheets of fabric dangled from the ceiling, covering ever inch of the huge open space and bringing the ever reaching ceilings down closer to reality. On the fabric painted with whimsy and color were trees of every size and shape. Under the art forest were a multitude of strong wooden chairs. Chairs not pointed at a pulpit but at each other, in circle. For the second time in my life church had been reinvented for me.
That first service went by as a blur. Everything delighted my spirit. The spoken word recited in unison, the message brought forth by a woman in simple robes and a rainbow colored stole, the myriad of misfits in the audience, everything called to me. And more than that it shed light on what I had been missing in my life, my soul.
I joined the choir that same day, and continued to see the light that was taken from me years ago. God shines through the people at Congo. Through the food on those metal shelves, laid out for the less fortunate in the area. Through the expression of art and music. And through those misfits that peace together to make a congregation.
I found myself as a gay man in my late teens and early twenties. A gay man comfortable in his sexuality and the partners he chooses to love. But it wasn't until I found First Congo, that the darkness that covered my line to faith was lifted, replaced by the light of those large rounded windows. It wasn't until First Congo that I saw Christ through the works of people. They are charitable, they are good. They see me for who I am and what I have to offer. They see me as a gay Christian man.