Believers Finding My Place in Ritual and Love as a Queer Mennonite
With this person, I wondered, could I be my full self—queer, spiritual, and religious?
“I don’t think I want you to say the prayers with me,” she said as she looked over the cup, broken bread, and Shabbat candles.
My stomach dropped. She had helped me learn these prayers. We had done this before. What had changed now?
“This doesn’t mean anything to you,” she said.
“It does,” I said. “Probably something different than what it means to you, but it means something.”
She took a breath and looked up at me with trepidation. “What does it mean to you?”
I felt a rush of anxiety. This was a test, and I’ve never been good at those. “I think Jesus had his Last Supper on Shabbat, and there was bread and wine . . . ”
She began to cry. “I’m sorry. I just . . . I don’t want your Christianity here.”
Four weeks earlier, she had told me she was in a bind. She had fallen for me—a loosely identifying Christian and a strongly identifying queer Mennonite—but had always imagined herself with a Jewish person.
“No matter what decision I make now,” she’d said, “I’m going to be sad.” It was November of 2016. The waxing nights seemed to mirror the gulf widening between us. With this person, I wondered, could I be my full self—queer, spiritual, and religious?
We’d met only four months earlier, in August, but that already felt like a radically different time. The days had been long and full of hope, and we were both sure that a woman would be our next president. On our second date, we sat on a patch of grass and talked for hours. “I don’t agree with everything in conservative religion,” she’d said. “But I do think there is something to not jumping in bed with someone right away.”
After coming out as queer at my Mennonite college ten years earlier, I had all but given up on finding a person who might understand and respect the sexual mores instilled in me during my churchgoing childhood. There are so few Mennonites, and the chances of finding one who was queer, my type, and not my second or third cousin seemed slim.
With this person, I wondered, could I be my full self—queer, spiritual, and religious? I was deeply and maybe even desperately hopeful.
In the months that followed, we found common ground in songs from our different religious upbringings. She was Jewish and I was Mennonite, but when we sang together, the harmonies seemed flawless. We both described our relationship using metaphors of sanctuary, imbuing the space between with a holy aesthetic. The understanding and safety of this relationship felt so good to me, like a hug so perfect I was afraid to move.
During our conversation at Shabbat, I silently ridiculed myself. Jesus at Shabbat? What was I thinking?
Until this moment, there had only been small tears in the fabric of our relationship. This was a massive rupture; in the middle of a ritual, no less. Suddenly I knew a kind of loneliness that bypasses melancholy, soaring straight into something more primal and familiar: panic.
I have memories of a similar tension between embrace and exclusion, belonging and othering. The burgundy carpet covering the church sanctuary of my youth was thick and soft, surrounding our holy space and the people in it. I remember feeling comforted by its velvety texture, sleeping on it at youth group sleepovers, standing on it while our congregation sang in four-part harmony.
I was six years old when I first began to understand my identity as a Mennonite. It was 1990, and Operation Desert Storm had just begun. “Tomorrow there is going to be a Support the Troops rally at your school,” my mother had told me. “But we are Mennonites, and we don’t believe in war. Part of being Mennonite is choosing not to fight in wars or support fighting in wars. It’s up to you if you want to go to the rally or not—I want you to make that choice for yourself.”
For me, it was a no-brainer. Church was the place where I felt safe and held, where I had a strong sense of identity. I was a Mennonite, above all else—the only one in my class at school. The next day, during the rally, I sat in an empty classroom with a teacher who happened to be Jewish. She had volunteered to sit with me so that I could I honor my religious beliefs. The sound of cheers and patriotic music wafted down the hall from the gymnasium as I held steadfast, picturing myself standing on the crimson carpet of our church.
I remember, as a child, sitting shoulder to shoulder with my brother during Christmas Eve services. People would walk to the front of the sanctuary in groups of five or six, gathering in small candlelit circles around tables of bread and wine. Whispers of “the body of Christ for you” and “do this in remembrance of me” could be heard. At the end, participants would turn to one another and embrace, recognizing their connection to one another through this sacred ritual.
My brother and I stayed seated, because communion was reserved for those who had been baptized and we had yet to make that commitment. Heightening the importance of the ritual was the knowledge that many of our ancestors had died for the belief that baptism should be chosen by the individual, not conferred on infants. Gruesome stories of early Mennonites being persecuted and burned at the stake had been passed from generation to generation. Choosing to be baptized, choosing to be Mennonite, was supposed to be a lifelong decision to stand in a precarious place as neither Catholic or Protestant. And with the choice to stand apart from the Christian mainstream came communion with your own people, symbolized by the nourishment and fellowship of the communion ritual.
In adolescence, I could have chosen to take baptism and membership classes; take my place at the communion table. But, at the same time, I was aware of another type of othering—one I did not choose, one that made me hesitant to be baptized and claim my own full identity as a Mennonite.
At the age of twelve, I watched a lesbian couple be denied membership to our church. The community had been embroiled in a contentious debate over their membership rights—I would always remember some of the vitriolic comments I heard echoing through the sanctuary. Burned into my memory, too, is the sight of the women weeping in the pews after the pastor told them their membership request had been denied. These women had been raised in Mennonite communities, bequeathed the same Mennonite traditions, baptized even—but that didn’t seem to matter now.
As I looked at them, I wondered, Will this happen to me, too? Maybe it was better not to belong than to belong and then be cast out. Better to never try to declare myself holy, worthy of baptism and communion, only to be excluded later.
At the age of twelve, I watched a lesbian couple be denied membership to our Mennonite church.
Now, with my beloved, here I was again looking at a ritual—one in which I had once hoped to find belonging—from the outside. I had fantasies that creating a family with her would help protect me and perhaps my future children from experiencing the trauma I had known as a young queer Mennonite. From the outside, it seemed to me that Jewish people could actively disagree with one another on various issues without exclusion. But I was not Jewish.
Following the 2016 election, the walls of our relationship, once a sanctuary, were closing in. Temples built and destroyed, the persecution and demonization of Jewish life, promises of safety made and then broken, forced conversions—she alluded to all of these traumas, the result of 1500 years of anti-Semitism on the part of Christians, expressing her deep fear and pain amidst rising levels of anti-Semitism in the current political climate. “What did we ever do to you ?” she asked during that painful Shabbat conversation.
I was not sure if she was speaking to me or not, but I still froze. It was my own response to trauma, triggered by my own experience of exclusion from ritual and religion—exclusion by my own people: Christians, Mennonites. What can you say or do when you are part of the thing that has done the most harm, to you and to others? Stay quiet , I thought . Look at the carpet.
Our relationship ultimately ended on a rainy Wednesday in January, a few days before Inauguration. Though there was great kindness in the breakup and even an invitation to say prayers with her, it was the first rupture during Shabbat that kept circling my mind and heart. I could not shake the feeling of raw abandonment. I felt foolish for letting my guard down, for learning and saying prayers that weren’t mine, for thinking I belonged where I could not.
This spurred what can only be described as a period of spiritual mania, wandering the desert and looking for answers. I slept little, channeling all my energy into research. I became obsessed with studying early Christianity and first-century Judaism, the history of anti-Semitism, human evolutionary biology, Jewish-Mennonite relations. I was grieving all the times I had felt unseen and unknown, unworthy and unchosen. I wanted answers, thinking that would ease the pain. One night, I found myself reading the story of Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, and Jacob from the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim perspectives. I saw that all the stories were similar, but had one main difference—each tradition claimed they were the true chosen people of God. I thought about all the wars fought partly over this idea of chosen-ness, the violence still inflicted to this day.
And I thought about my own ideas about chosen-ness, the prophecies to which I was still adhering. I had long resisted the notion of Christian superiority. But when someone I loved chose Judaism over me, it had made me feel inferior. What stories of exclusion had I projected onto the experience with my ex-girlfriend? What story was I perpetuating by pining for a relationship with someone when it was clear that, due to no fault of either of us, I simply didn’t belong?
Another night, I dreamed that I was walking around heaven with a tour guide. I saw my former girlfriend sitting in a circle of women enacting some sort of ritual. I thought, This is heaven! I am sure it’s okay to go over there. I’m here all alone. Maybe I can join her group . As I moved toward the circle, my guide stopped me. “That is the section of heaven for Jews only,” he said.
I turned to him. “Even in heaven, we have to be separate?”
“You don’t have to be,” he told me with a smile. “She is just choosing to be.”
I felt as though I finally understood her decision. Her boundary was her own. It wasn’t wrong. It had nothing to do with me. It was simply her choice, what she needed for herself. I felt a deep love for her, as well as for myself. I walked away.
After that, I began a personal daily ritual. Every day I would say to myself, I choose to be chosen and I choose to be loved , trying to create and wield a new prophecy, word by word. I wrote songs, poetry, and essays, continuing to read and research subjects I thought might help me understand what it means to be human. I thought about the people especially targeted with false messages about their inferiority, their un-chosenness. This led me to sign up for a training for therapists wanting to become expert witnesses for immigrants seeking asylum. There, I met a woman.
“I came to this country as a refugee,” she said to the group. “I am wanting to help those who are in a similar position today.” On our first date, she told me she was from Belarus, a descendant of Holocaust survivors. Her family had come here when she was three years old. On our third date, she admitted, “I never fully learned the Shabbat prayers. You said you know them? Maybe you could teach them to me.”
I had stuffed a set of candle-holders and a Kiddush cup in the back of a cupboard a few weeks after the breakup. I hid them almost as if I were ashamed to have them. I kept thinking of my ex-girlfriend’s words: This doesn’t mean anything to you. I retrieved the cup and the candles, and taught my new girlfriend the words to the prayers I had learned.
This choice to belong is at the root of so many important human rituals.
It has been a year and a half since we began saying these prayers together amidst bread, wine, and the light of the Shabbat candles. Bread and wine are familiar symbols that still evoke stories of my own, memories that are deeply Christian and Mennonite. I am who I am, and I will always have come from the Mennonite tradition. But the experience with my former girlfriend taught me that Shabbat is, first and foremost, deeply Jewish. Generations of Jews have preserved these prayers and this ritual despite persecution and the direst of circumstances, and that must always be remembered.
For me, now, it has been so meaningful to develop a consistent, mutually respectful religious practice with a partner who has chosen me—chosen to marry and create a family with me. This choice to belong is at the root of so many important human rituals. It is a core need of ours, as vital as bread to squelch hunger and wine to quench thirst.
My partner, in all her wisdom, made this explicit on our one-year anniversary. As I opened her gift, a beautiful Kiddush cup to hold our wine on Shabbat, she said, “I am giving this to you so that when we are having Shabbat, you always remember that, with me, you belong.”