A few months ago we woke up to the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case. K goes to church almost every weekend, and we’ll be married there next month. That day, we were planning to meet up with our photographer afterwards, to walk through the garden where we’ll hold our clambake, so I went along, too. I don’t go frequently, but I was so glad I did that day. The room was heavy and sad. Listening to K’s fierce priest talk about the Good Samaritan and what it means to help your neighbor and what we can and should do to honor the memory of this child’s death made me feel infinitesimally better about the situation.
I remember that K and I first started talking about religion while we were nursing cocktails on our first date. I had been halfheartedly looking for a place over the past several years, feeling like there was something spiritual missing in my life and not sure how to find it, or if I’d even find it in a church at all. I’d checked out a Presbyterian church in Fort Greene with a gorgeous mural and a robust choir, and a hilarious service at a gay church in Manhattan where everyone brought their tiny dogs. Nothing felt quite right, partially because these churches weren’t quite the right match for me, but also because I’d recently ended a relationship with someone who was raised deeply evangelical, and her struggles, and her family’s struggles, with her sexuality were fresh on my mind.
I was raised Episcopalian, and went to church with my family nearly every Sunday until I went away to college. St. Barnabas was a warm, storied old church where my childhood best friend and I grew up together. When my parents went through a lousy divorce, the community provided me tremendous comfort and an anchor at a time my siblings and I were uprooted. Church makes me think of wearing my life-size Kirsten school dress, racing around the parish hall eating soft, stale generic Oreos with Lucy, proudly reciting the entire Declaration of Independence for the service on July 4th, and listening to my dad harmonize with the people in the row in front of us.
In all those years, not once do I remember hearing that God created man and woman in His image alone, or that same-sex relationships were sinful. The community, and certainly my childhood self, was much more focused on the social side instead of scripture. I don’t remember that St. B’s was emphatically supportive or unsupportive of queer relationships either way, but growing up in a conservative, evangelical community, my ex had heard it plenty. Her agony about reconciling her faith and her sexuality was horrible to witness. Much worse for her, of course, but it’s an awful feeling to be the nearest example of corruption.
Once we broke up, I felt wounded and distrustful of the church. I couldn’t think of the warm, kind community of my childhood without thinking of the anti-gay, anti-choice, anti-feminist venom that other churches, supposedly of the same faith, were spouting at people like me. And I felt lonely. Church made me think of my family pre-divorce, before everything changed, a time that I didn’t really want to go back to, but would always miss nevertheless.
The first time K brought me to her church, everything was foreign. I sometimes experience church like experimental performance art or maybe senior prom: a place where it seems like everyone else in the audience “gets it” and I’m the only utterly baffled one cringing in this uncomfortable chair, wondering what the song for two voices has to do with the lady in the banana costume, or why we think making duckfaces and dancing to “Sexual Healing” on this leaky party boat on the Hudson is the time of our lives, or is everyone else seriously thinking about a voice emerging from a burning bush—but I’d better act into it, so no one catches on.
At K’s church, there were bongos and a guitar instead of a booming organ. There was a raggedy choir who sang all kinds of stuff instead of traditional hymns. There was an active focus on social justice threaded through the sermon, the prayers of the people, and all over the announcements in the back of the program. The congregation sat in a circle facing one another, and took communion in a circle, and the priest sat there right along with them. Where was the altar? The pews? The blue hymnal and the red prayer book, excellent for paging through when you’re bored, were missing too. There were also a lot of delightful people who clearly adored K, but I was so busy grumbling about why they’d swapped out Father for Creator in the Lord’s Prayer that I couldn’t really pay attention. As I was complaining, I was dimly aware, and horrified, that I was essentially complaining about missing the patriarchy, simultaneously suggesting a return to something that made me feel ostracized. What. But I couldn’t stop spouting on about tradition, like a queer, Episcopal version of Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof.
When we first started talking about getting married, we debated the idea of having a small, intimate ceremony with just a few people, followed by a big blowout party. I have some strange anxiety about feeling all those eyes on me when I’m making vulnerable, personal promises to K, so I loved this idea. But K, who has very conflicted feelings about marriage to begin with, decided to talk with her priest about it, and came home with a new perspective.
If we were getting married at all, she wanted it to be in her church, using a blend of old and new Episcopal ceremonies. Her priest pointed out that marriage is the only sacrament that couples make themselves. That all the other sacraments, like baptism and communion, are administered to participants by a priest or deacon, serving as representative of the church and community. Sure, there’s a wedding officiant there, but the actual marriage is officiated by the couple themselves when they take vows to one another, and the priest acts as a witness to offer the blessing of the church and community. She also said that the sacrament is ongoing, that throughout the course of a lifetime together, it continues to reveal itself.
Originally I liked this suggestion because I like being the boss of anything, including sacraments. And I liked that my dad would be so happy when his big queer daughter ended up getting married in a church. And I really loved the idea that we’d enter into this marriage fully expecting it to twist and turn during our lives. But none of these seemed like reason alone to get married in a faith that some people use to perpetuate the notion that homosexuality is a sin, which honestly, is such a tired idea by now, yet really has legs. I thought participating in a ceremony that has been around for hundreds of years (there goes Tevye again!) sounded incredibly powerful, because I know I’d say too little or too much if I wrote my own, but I didn’t want to participate in anything that wasn’t “real.” I didn’t want a substitute blessing ceremony swapped in because other churches don’t believe we should get married. I wanted real.
At K’s church, a bunch of people, all very different from one another, certainly one of the most diverse spaces I’ve seen in New York City, show up each week to face each other and confirm the same thing every Sunday: I tried this week, some things went according to plan, I screwed up some other things, I’m going to try again next week, and here, in case I falter, are the ethics and moral code by which I want to live.
When I can stop thinking about everything that’s missing at K’s church based on my nine-year-old analysis of what a church should be, I see why she keeps going back. I have a moral code, sure, somewhere between try to be kind, don’t be too greedy, don’t let anger rule your life. I think about it sometimes, but most of my days are just getting by between the commute and thinking about what’s next. But K’s is laid out, right there, and she takes this opportunity to reexamine it and to decide she wants to commit to trying it all over again every week, and I find that incredibly compelling.
There’s a moment during every service where the church asks if anyone has any announcements to share. On that day, we looked at each other, and K squeezed my hand. When I stood up and told them we were getting married, the clapping was long and loud and reverberated through the three hundred-year-old space.
Afterwards, over generic cookies, one by one people came up to us and congratulated us and offered to help us, and I stood there remembering how it felt to be nine, surrounded by a community that supports me.
Photo Vivian Chen