How I Made It Back to Church
By Michael Arceneaux – New York Times – 21 July 2018
I hadn’t been to church in five Beyoncé albums.
Not for a service, anyway. In that span of time, I had stepped inside two churches for three funerals, but as my mother and most faithful churchgoers will promptly make clear, simply stepping into the house of the Lord isn’t the same thing as attending mass or truly engaging in praise and worship.
Until an April morning in 2017, the closest I had come to church attendance was watching “Mary Mary,” a reality series about that gospel duo, and inappropriately body-rolling to tracks of theirs like “God in Me.” My other quasi-religious activities included posting social media updates about how the incredibly bad singing coming from the Baptist church across the street from my Harlem apartment was disrespectful to Jesus.
I describe myself as a recovering Catholic, but when a more pointed question such as “So what do you believe in?” surfaces, I don’t know how to answer.
As a child, I knew what to say, thanks to a religious-indoctrination diet of Bible-themed cartoons, saint-themed trading cards and required attendance at mass. As an adult, I still think Jesus seems like a swell fellow, but I feel out of step with most Christian churches. My talking points aren’t what they used to be.
In the midst of this cloudiness over my beliefs, I found my way to a church service on Easter Sunday. A friend invited me to First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem.
For years, my mother had been encouraging me to go back to church. The most opportune times for her to push her agenda were whenever I felt my lowest. I liked my methods of coping better: Mary J. Blige albums and maybe another prescription for a generic form of Celexa.
Since I grew up Catholic, a lot of traditions associated with the black church were much different from what I was used to. For example, I could wear jeans or slacks — either was acceptable at the Catholic churches in Houston that I attended. Outside of major holidays, I never had to dress to impress anyone there. I simply needed to be present. And in my experience, Catholics were big fans of brevity. A typical mass was no longer than an hour, and even on holidays like Easter and Christmas, it extended to no more than 90 minutes.
On the other hand, my only recollection of attending a Baptist service as a child was being in church for what felt like an entire weekend. But what I remembered most about both church experiences — the overwhelming memory of hours spent in pews — was feeling the need to conform in order to be accepted by both the church and the God it purports to represent, to take the same-sex attractions I felt, bottle them up and pretend they didn’t exist because the church said they were an affront to God’s will.
I got to First Corinthian before my friend did, and he found me in one of the lines to get in. There were two: one for regular parishioners, most of whom were black, and the other largely for white European tourists.
It looked like segregation, except it was the remix in which black people had decidedly more power over the space. I would later find out that there were plenty of black tourists in the same line I was in, but the optics were striking all the same.
Once I stepped inside the sprawling space, I marveled at its beauty. But the images that stuck with me most were of the people sitting inside. I saw a woman who I knew was married to another woman. Directly behind me was a gay man I knew. I ended up sitting between two gay men. All of them were regular churchgoers, yet none of them appeared torn about being there.
Of course, there have always been gays, lesbians, bisexuals and trans people inside churches. Although their talent might be on display in, say, the choir, their sexuality was far less pronounced. As in, don’t ask, don’t tell, just sing your li’l gay self off for God.
And indeed, I did clock plenty of gays in the First Corinthian choir. But it felt different from what I was accustomed to. I knew what it was like to be around Christians who knew of my sexuality but who merely tolerated me. It reminds me of my mother, because while we love each other dearly, we have, uh, differences over what Jesus makes of that side of myself.
In church that day, everyone seemed to be welcomed and behaved as such. In the front row, which was reserved for pastors of the church, I saw a sea of women. Women were typically marginalized out of leadership roles in the church. In Catholicism, no such roles even existed. But on that day in that church, there were more female pastors than male pastors.
During the service, the pastor called on visitors to stand; I did so reluctantly. Toward the end, he called on those who wanted to join the church to approach the altar. I stayed in my seat. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, saints.
What I saw at First Corinthian in Harlem was the Christianity I wish I had seen as a child, as a teenager and as a young man trying to find a place in a world that appeared unwilling to offer one. This was the Jesus I had needed to see back then. In the past, I didn’t think God would like me much unless I pretended to be someone else. In this church, I felt God knew who I was already and was just waiting for me to come to my senses about it.
Months later, someone I went to catechism with at Saint Mark the Evangelist, the church I attended regularly as a child, got in touch with me on Facebook. She had watched an interview in which I described myself as a “recovering Catholic.”
She told me that I had her in tears. “I had no idea you felt that way about being Catholic,” she wrote. “It really hurt to hear you say you were recovering from it.” She described the church as a big family, saying that we all had different opinions yet loved one another. And that the church we both grew up in was different now. That it was welcoming and that she could actually “see and feel the love.”
Unfortunately, her telling me this story did not make me want to come back to the Catholic church or any church. All she did was remind me of what had kept me away for so long. It took me a long time to unlearn every damaging thing I’ve seen and heard about my identity. I was in no rush to fall back into old habits.
Being able to step inside a church that truly lived up to Christian virtues was refreshing. But I know that is certainly not the case for all houses of worship. Just a few blocks away is another church, one that routinely slams “sodomites” for “invading” and subsequently tainting the streets of Harlem — presumably with their exceptional taste in pop music.
Still, for a brief moment on Easter Sunday 2017, 15 years after essentially abandoning Christianity in an act of self-preservation, I was able to experience religion the way I wish I always had.
I do not know what my future with religion looks like. I don’t see myself becoming saved by 40 — still a few years away, thank you — and releasing a trap gospel album soon after, but stranger things have happened. Whatever does happen, though, I know that with or without it, I’ll be fine. I’ll at least continue giving Jesus the courtesy of condemning anyone who can’t sing for him in the correct key.