Losing My Religion Breaking the Horse
God has given you a special task, they said. Save your mother’s soul.
The Evangelical Christian Homeschooling Group in Alexandria Township, New Jersey, took a lot of field trips. We went to the dairy farm, the chocolate factory, and every museum in the surrounding area. Once, my parents woke me up in what felt like the middle of the night with hushed, excited voices, explaining that this was a field trip, and drove us to a remote house in the woods, where a man my dad had met through work made miniature horses in his basement. I still remember the lamp-lit glow of his subterranean workshop. He handled the horses that he had created with an incredible gentleness, as if the magic they possessed was beyond even his understanding.
Sometimes on our way to the museum or the farm, we would pass a public school. One of the parents shuttling us around in a minivan would inevitably tell us how the kids in that drab, squat building had to sit in a desk all day. How their secular teachers brainwashed them into believing in sinful ideas like atheism and evolution. “Aren’t you happy,” they said, “to be with us instead?”
We nodded along. Sitting at a desk sounded boring, and we all knew that God had created all of the birds and beasts on the Earth, including us, fearfully and wonderfully and in a single week.
When we reached wherever we were going, the parent in charge would remind us to be on our best behavior. “Remember,” I heard, over and over. “You’re representing homeschoolers, and Christians.” This meant: Be smart, attentive, and well-behaved—and, when you can, take the opportunity to spread the Word of God to the sinners of the world.
Evangelizing suited me. I was a friendly kid, and I liked the fairy-tale idea of saving people, so I introduced myself to any stranger I met (a fellow six-year-old at the dentist, a group of kids on the beach) and started trying to convert them right there. I spun the glories of God, the miracles of Jesus, like a beautiful story, even as the other kids’ eyes glazed over. I didn’t care. I knew that I was different from them—I was one of the righteous. I was on my way to Heaven, and I wanted to bring them along. I was young, passionate, and indoctrinated.
I learned about hell in Sunday school, and I started having nightmares about waking up to a burning house and having to choose who to save: my mom or my brother, my gerbil or my cat. I would lie awake for hours, doing emotional math, trying to figure out how to rescue everyone. I started trying even harder to save people by bringing them to Christ. It was difficult, though—in such an insular community, where we weren’t supposed to break bread with sinners, we didn’t run into strangers too often. Everybody I knew was already saved.
When I was eleven, my mom went on a bike trip and fell in love with a woman. Over a decade later, when I asked her what it was like to see a person and know that your entire life would change, she just said, “She had the greenest eyes I’d ever seen. And the most beautiful smile.”
A few weeks after my mom was informed that she couldn’t continue teaching in our homeschooling group, a fellow mom told her, teary-eyed, “It’s like you’re dead now.”
People at the grocery store saw us coming and looked away. We found nails in our driveway, broken glass. We moved towns—far enough that my mom could make a new life, close enough that I could still see my dad (who I love and trust and have a great relationship with) for visitation, until I eventually moved back in with him.
All along, the church still loved me. Its members told me so. Adults who had helped parent me while I grew up would take me aside after Sunday school. I remember their voices: sympathetic, pleading. God has given you a special task, they would say. You have to save your mother’s soul.
I had a public online journal, like so many teenagers of the early aughts. I wanted to write books, to create something as beautiful as the man who made model horses in his basement. In the meantime, I wrote about my daily life, my friends and my crushes, in shoddily veiled terms. I wrote, too, about my confusion and pain regarding the church, my faith, and my mother’s sexuality. Adults from the church read and commented—sometimes anonymously, sometimes not. Satan is tempting you, they said. He is using your love for your mother to poison your mind. We love you, they said. Be strong.
I know that the people who told me these things believed them. I felt the church’s love, warm, close, and comforting. I loved it back. I went to youth group, sang in the worship band, attended retreats, conferences, and Christian rock shows. I listened to speakers from other evangelical churches tackle many faith-based topics: evangelizing, prayer, reconciliation, unconditional love. I learned about the value of having a heart for the world. I learned to be generous and selfless and kind, and to glorify God through my actions in this life, that I might be saved, and save others, too.
As I grew older, I started going to the speeches about sex and sexuality. All of the teenagers did; those events were constantly packed. Even the goofiest Sunday school class clowns listened intently.
I remember sitting in auditorium chairs, on grassy hills, standing in listening crowds while men with microphones spoke about sexual sin. Sometimes the speakers said: Love the sinner and hate the sin. They said, yes, it is sin, but no human is perfect; what is greatest about God is his grace. I was relieved to hear those speeches; they allowed me a precious half-freedom. I would remember them when my mom would introduce me to a girlfriend. I would be kind, reminding myself that the greatest commandment was love, and that I was not straying from God by showing love.
Other speakers would say: Be intolerant; stand up for the only real truth; stand up for God in a secular world. Pity the nonbelievers, but do not break bread with them. Do not be moved by the sins of men; be in the world, not of it. I left those speeches with a blind, charged energy, erratic and confusing. At home, I wouldn’t be able to look at my mother. “You’re disgusting,” I would tell her when we fought. “You disgust me.”
And I would lock myself in the bathroom to throw up after almost every meal, and I would take hour-long showers, biting safety razors open to retrieve their blades, cutting myself quietly, watching streams of blood run down the drain. There was something unavoidable in me that I could not look at, that I could not look away from. I disgusted myself.
When I was in college, I met a girl who had the darkest eyes I’d ever seen, and the most beautiful smile. I saw her and knew that my entire life would change.
Coming out as bisexual was easier for me than coming out as a lesbian had been for my mom. I had friends of many different faiths, and by that time I was only tangentially involved in the church. I attended Loyola University in New Orleans—a wonderful, deeply loving Jesuit college with a University Ministry department so accepting that one year, on a retreat, a freshman wondered out loud if the program was specifically meant for queer people of faith. I learned new and different ways of living my uneasy faith. I learned that not all Christians focus on saving people’s souls at the cost of caring for the people themselves.
I still prayed. I still do. I still have faith, and I’m still learning about what it looks like, and how to live in it. And I learn every day how many other people claim the label of Christian uneasily, knowing that they’ll never shake it free, knowing that their faith is personal and cannot be explained in a sermon or a book. Many people would say that this kind of faith isn’t faith at all. Many people would say that this unease is where true faith begins. There are so many ways to have faith. There are so many ways to use it—to love people, and to hurt them.
I believe that choosing to follow Christianity—or any other religion, or system of faith, or moral code—should mean choosing to wrestle with doubt: to confront it, to grapple with it. And yet, so often, the born-again Evangelical Christian is taught to follow without question. I was taught that to explore my doubts or my sinful thoughts was tantamount to sin. “If you think about murdering someone,” a Sunday school teacher told our class, “then in your heart you have murdered them, because God knows your heart. Sins in your heart hurt God as much as committed sins.” If I thought about kissing a girl, I realized, God saw that, too. I was repentant and ashamed.
My Christian church taught me to fear my mother’s identity and my own long before I had the chance to claim it, or to understand it. My life could have unfolded in many different ways. So many of those ways lead to an adult version of me who would have hated my own sexuality—a person who would have been afraid to look closely at myself and in turn refused to see the humanity in others. I don’t know how I would have lived with all of that confusion and anger and pain. I don’t know what I would have been capable of. I thank God constantly that I am not that person.
Last year, a youth pastor who I looked up to in high school, who was always kind to me, reached out to me on Facebook. He told me that he was sorry if he had ever made me feel like my faith was incompatible with who I am. He asked for forgiveness. Over the years, the Christians who helped raise me have seen my mom at the hospital where she works as a nurse. She has cared for them. Some of them have apologized to her. She has called me afterwards, her voice awed. “Guess who I saw,” she says. “Guess what they said.”
In 2013, Exodus International, one of the many faith-based groups who told me to “love the sinner, hate the sin” and gave me pamphlets with advice on how to save my mother, shut its doors. In its closing, the president Alan Chambers said, “I am sorry for the pain and hurt many of you have experienced. I am sorry that some of you spent years working through the shame and guilt you felt when your attractions didn’t change. I am sorry we promoted sexual orientation change efforts and reparative theories about sexual orientation that stigmatized parents.”
I cried when I read that, and for days after. Writing those words now, I still tear up. I am so grateful that Alan Chambers said that he was sorry. I am vindicated by his courage, for his humility, by his grace. The apology that he gave felt and feels like an answer to my own prayer, one that I have been praying all my life.
I still pray.
I give thanks for those who have stood up against their traditions and their families and their churches’ histories to defend us, and for those who have built churches that welcome us. I pray that more and more churches will follow this lead and choose unconditional love.
I pray for those Christians who have hurt us so deeply under the guise of Biblical righteousness. I pray that when my community is oppressed, abused, and killed, the public leaders who represent the Christian church will find the courage not just to send half-hearted, pandering thoughts and prayers, but to first apologize for the world that they have created.
Mourn with those who mourn, yes. And have the strength to reckon honestly with the long and bloody history of being born-again.
I pray that a time will come when no queer person will feel abandoned or unloved or hated by the church. I pray that no one will ever forsake another living person for the sake of religious conviction again.
The man who sculpted miniature horses in his basement told my brother and me that we could each pick out a horse of our very own. I picked one from his shelf: a gray horse that looked like it was mid-gallop; my brother picked the one that the craftsman had created right in front of us: a honey-colored colt that stood shyly on its knobby knees.
Occasionally, when I go home, I come across my brother’s horse. It’s never where I last remembered seeing it. We’ve both grown too old to play with toy horses; I don’t know how it would still move from place to place. And I don’t know what happened to break two of its legs off—one at the knee, one at the ankle. It may have been a fight we got in years ago; it may have been a complete accident. If it was my fault, I don’t remember the specifics.
I don’t know what happened to my horse, either. All I know for sure is that somehow over time a thing was lost; somehow over time a thing got broken. When I hold what is left in my hands, what I remember best is the glow in the night, the way I felt when I first watched a loving creator make something wonderful.