A religious homecoming: Notes from a journey

By Richard M. Weinberg

Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God.

1 John 4:7

“For God is love.” So ends the eighth verse of this same 1 John passage from chapter four. And all of my life I have used these two verses as a mantra in times of serious doubt. My relationship with God has been enduring yet punctuated over the course of my childhood and young adulthood by my relationship with the church, and my identity as a gay man.

Ignorant Bliss

As a devout Roman Catholic raised in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., I was a faithful attendee of Mass, served as an altar boy, never missed a Sunday school lesson, and ensured my parents and brother attended church with me every week. I prayed the rosary often, confessed my sins regularly, and pondered living a full life as an example of an obedient child of Christ.

As adolescence took hold of my life and distracted my mind and body like every teenager, I began to identify with my great aunt who lived with her female partner, as I wondered silently if I were like them. Then, when my aunt, Lynn, posed to me one evening while watching television, “Well, you know your grandfather was gay, right?” it shook my core to realize that, yes!—I am, too. It was all the more reason then, that coupled with my self-inflicted rigid beliefs and my own sexual epiphany, I was utterly wounded the morning in Sunday school when my teacher lectured on the sin of homosexuality.

An Abomination

I sat in the front row with my eyes growing wider as I listened to the lesson. Occasionally making sure my visual discomfort was not noticed by my classmates, my usual engaging questions were silenced by the news I was hearing. During a break in class, I called my teacher to the hallway to speak privately, and asked “out of concern for a family member” about the implications of such a lifestyle.

Of course now I can admit that it was my own sexuality and the reality of the church’s non-acceptance that brought me to question my teacher privately. From that point, my faith slowly deteriorated as I frequently sought excuses to miss Mass and grappled with the seemingly daunting conflict of choosing between being myself or being in God’s grace. I continued throughout high school with the corresponding stereotypical existence of a “different” kid, fearsome of bullies in the hallway who mocked and chided me, and all the while sinking into a deeper depression as a result of a stripped faith and trust in God.

Becoming Spiritual

I could not have asked for a more loving and accepting family. To this day my parents, grandparents, brother, and other family members support me unconditionally, and I know my mother in particular was distraught with worry during those trying years as to how to help me. Perhaps in some way my guilt was augmented by the thought that I could have it so much worse. I could have had a family that threw me out of the house. Yet I fundamentally could not come to terms with the implications of how the church felt about who I was, and that these feelings of helplessness were a direct result of the pain I experienced from a place that once provided me the utmost comfort and solace.

Throughout my undergraduate years my depression gave way to the excitement of life and the experience of maturing. Most significantly, I fell in love for the first time. That relationship with another man made me realize that being gay was completely natural. I experienced first-hand that two committed same-sex adults can be just as happy as their heterosexual counterparts, and that there was no reason to believe that God didn’t love me for who I was. I also discovered the practice of yoga, and bestselling metaphysic titles taught me that a relationship with God could be had outside of the church. I toyed with the label agnostic, and I spoke to my close friends and a rabbi about Judaism. I did not step foot inside a Christian worship service for more than five years. I would shudder at the thought, refuse invitations, and even avoid music performances that took place in any sanctuary.

A Church for All Souls

Thankfully, I found a way to hear God’s calling to come back. Upon moving to downtown Washington, D.C. during my grad school years, I was forced to seek out a paying church choir job and landed at All Souls Memorial Episcopal Church in Woodley Park. I remember my first Sunday in the choir, participating in the order of service with such familiar liturgy, reciting the responses and prayers that brought back years of Roman Catholic Mass. Yet it was different.

The Rev. Joan Beilstein, an open lesbian who was then interim rector, preached from the pulpit. A skilled, openly gay choir director led our ensemble, and at coffee hour I met numerous same-sex couples who were happily engaged in the life of the parish. I learned that All Souls had grown to be a particularly welcoming parish as a result of the former rector, the Rev. John David van Dooren, who drew attention during the Minneapolis General Convention in an August 2003 article in The Washington Post. “Founded in 1911 … All Souls was once known as one of the most conservative Episcopal churches in the District.” Under van Dooren’s leadership, the church—“dwindling in membership, at risk of closure by the diocese”—became one of the most revitalized parishes in D.C. Beilstein estimates that during our time there, some 40 percent of the congregation was gay and lesbian. On the Sunday of the bishop’s visitation, I listened to the Rt. Rev. John Bryson Chane preach on the inclusiveness of the Episcopal Church, and his views that gay brothers and sisters are equal in the eyes of God.

A Troubled Communion

But there are those within the Episcopal Church who are seeking to disassociate themselves from what they see as a too liberal acceptance of gays and lesbians, including the ordination of gay clergy. As theologian Walter Wink writes in his well-known essay Homosexuality and the Bible, “Sexual issues are tearing our churches apart today as never before. The issue of homosexuality threatens to fracture whole denominations.” And the issue indeed has. At the same 2003 General Convention, the major issue debated was the confirmation of the church’s first openly gay bishop, the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson. Ever since his ordination, it seems too often we read another article about a U.S. Episcopal church voting to break off and align itself with a conservative African diocese, while most recently, news emerged in December 2008 of intentions to create a new church in North America, which portrays itself as the conservative arm to the Anglican Communion.

Through my most influential mentor and friend, I ended up employed at Washington National Cathedral in December 2006. The epitome of a beautiful landmark, constructed for the glory of God, welcome to people of all faiths and none, yet governed by the Episcopal Church, the Cathedral entered my life unlike any other edifice before it. More than a place of work, I was embraced fully by its community, its clergy, and my colleagues. The programs and ministry of the Cathedral were evident examples to me that Christianity does exist within the center—and that rather than discord there is dialogue; rather than slander, respect; and rather than damnation, there is understanding.

The Cathedral makes clear its role of being welcoming to all people, which includes a diverse worshiping congregation with many gay and lesbian members, as well as a growing number of people in their 20s and 30s. The Cathedral’s own openly gay vicar, the Rev. Canon Stephen Huber, who oversees the Cathedral congregation, recently mentioned his own childhood experience in a sermon, which resulted in overwhelmingly unexpected positive feedback on the significance of identifying himself as gay from the pulpit.

A Spiritual Home

I was received into the Episcopal Church by Bishop Chane in May 2008. Kneeling in the Cathedral nave surrounded by the soaring Gothic vaulting, and my family and friends with their hands on my shoulders, I knelt as Chane recited, “Richard Mosson Weinberg, we recognize you as a member of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church, and we receive you into the fellowship of this Communion. God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, bless, preserve, and keep you.” I felt tears pouring down my cheeks and the full divine presence of God so close to me in that moment. It was one of the most moving experiences of my life.

Earlier that May, I attended a screening at the Cathedral of For the Bible Tells Me So, a feature-length documentary that chronicles the experiences of five “normal,” Christian, American families handling the realization of having a gay child. Enhanced by the in-person discussion among filmmaker Daniel Karslake, Bishop Gene Robinson, and the audience, I sat simply in profound gratitude for my own experience in coming out, growing up, and joining the church out of my own renewed faith. Eight months later, I watched Bishop Robinson participate in the inaugural concert for President Barack Obama. Robinson’s words, “Bless us with freedom from mere tolerance—replacing it with a genuine respect and warm embrace of our differences, and an understanding that in our diversity, we are stronger” resonated deeply.

I view my faith journey as a full circle, and also commensurate with my own self-discovery. Now, as a more mature, religious, Christian gay man, I am proud to call the Episcopal Church my spiritual home. And I am comforted that here at the Cathedral there is a voice for a generous-spirited, welcoming Christianity, firm at its center and soft at its edges, where all people are invited to engage and learn, and cultivate a fuller relationship with God.

Richard M. Weinberg is assistant director for integrated communications and co-editor of Cathedral Age magazine at Washington National Cathedral. He serves on the Advisory Council of Generation O, Washington National Opera’s young professionals and student outreach program.

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