Unless I was sick, I spent almost every Sunday from the time I was a baby until the time I was 18 in the sanctuary of someone’s church. Both of my parents are licensed ministers, which in some Black churches is just as important as ordination. Together, my father and mother taught me the basics of Christianity. I learned “Jesus Loves Me” alongside the “ABC” song. We read morning devotionals together before running off to work and daycare and said the Lord’s Prayer before bed. Through his words and actions, my father taught me that Christianity is rooted in love, and while I’ve since learned a lot more about the religion, that idea has stuck. It’s become one of the greatest influencers in how I practice my religion.
I’ve had a complicated relationship with the church growing up as a queer person, but church has always been home. It taught me first and foremost about love, justice, and acceptance; the other things I’ve picked up there I blame on “Church Folks,” not Christianity. Going to church is something I’ve enjoyed doing my whole life and as I’ve started building my own faith traditions, it’s something I want to keep doing.
The love I have for church definitely came from my father. For as long as I can remember, he’s wanted to pastor a church. This desire to lead stems from church being one of the few places he was praised as a child. It’s a family non-secret that my grandmother spit on the doctor when my father was born. After two boys, she wanted a girl, not my father. He was teased at school because he was Black. He was the only child my grandmother didn’t send to private schools. He was fat. But in church, people listened to him. And so for him, religion became a way for him to be heard. Church was where he was valued and where he was loved. It held him in ways his own mother wouldn’t. He built a relationship with the church and with Christianity that kept him sane through difficult times and filled him with love.
Somewhere, my father got off track. It was like everything he taught me stopped being real once I got old enough to disagree with him. Christianity for kids is all about love, but now that I’m 24 and talking about potentially loving a human who isn’t a man, Christianity is about something completely different. His Christianity is fueled by hatred, not love. His Christianity is rooted in righteousness, not justice. He cares about proving that he is the most like Christ, but he’s so stuck living inside of a rigid interpretation of the Bible that he isn’t actually being like Christ at all. The Christianity he believes in is the Christianity that would have me, a non-binary queer person, not exist, or at least not be welcome into heaven. And there’s this sad inner child part of me that wants to believe that he loves me too much to believe in that Christianity. But when someone shows themselves to you, you have to believe them.
One of the only memories I have of my father before my parents got divorced happened at church. Sometimes I’ll randomly remember it and laugh to myself about. Part of the reason I hang onto it so much is because the father from that memory is so different from the father that I grew up to know that I’m partially convinced it isn’t real.
We were loitering in the sanctuary of Mt. Moriah Baptist Church after service one Sunday when I was 5 years old and I was sitting on a bench by the door. My dad was talking to someone, probably some uncle or adult male cousin who made me uncomfortable in ways I wasn’t able to articulate yet. I was a bored kindergartner who’d just learned the Blackstreet song “No Diggity”— probably from my father. So I started singing it, obviously. And I remember my father’s face as he registered what I was singing. It was something between horror and amusement. He rushed over to me, knelt in front of me and said something along the lines of You can absolutely sing that song in the car, but you can’t sing it in church. He laughed and called me Suga’ Bear. He picked me up, we left church together and sang the song in the car on the way home.
This is not the father I grew up to know. When I was young, even immediately after the divorce, I was known as a daddy’s girl. I loved and admired my father so much. He had an infectious laugh and he was kind to everyone, most of all me. I’m his first child, so there was always something between us that felt special. So it hurt me when he moved away because I felt like he was leaving me. Once my father moved, he started looking for a new wife and a new family.
When he started dating the woman he would eventually marry, that’s when I started noticing the biggest change. Despite the difficulty distance made in maintaining our relationship, one thing I could count on every year was my father visiting us in Connecticut for my birthday. It was one of the most cherished traditions that we’d had after he moved away. His new wife’s birthday happened to fall two days before mine, and I will forever remember the day he told me he couldn’t come see me for my birthday anymore. He mentioned something about the Bible and the covenant of marriage and told me, “She’s the most important woman in my life now.” If I was hurt when my father moved to Virginia, this crushed me. I’d felt like I lost him.
I kept trying to stay close, though — even though with his new wife, the new son that came with his new wife and the new baby they’d had together, he kept getting farther away. He slowly stopped visiting Connecticut in general, and the only times I’d get to see him were the two to three weeks I was mandated to see him over the summers. I’d call to try and keep him updated on my life; I told him about my basketball games and plays. Adolescent me tried so hard to get him to just pay attention to me. For a variety of reasons I eventually stopped trying — and wanting — to be close.
One year, my brother and I were scheduled to stay with him for three weeks but actually stayed eight. My father refused to buy us plane or train tickets back home until my mother agreed to give him sole custody of my brother. I was shocked: both that he’d held us hostage for five weeks and because he had no problem hurting my brother and I to get what he wanted (even though he eventually did send us home). Another year, he threatened to spank me — something my mother, who was my primary caregiver, hadn’t done in over five years — over a run of the mill argument with my brother. He was out of touch with me and my life and he didn’t even care. Everything was about his new wife, his new family, and the new church he was starting. My brother and I didn’t fit into that life; it was hard for him to reconcile two children from his failed marriage with the new ‘holier than thou’ life he lived.
Based off of our history, I waited longer to come out to him than I did to my mother and other immediate family members. I expected that to be the end of our relationship, and so it was surprising when he reacted so neutrally to it. During one of his visits when he took my brother and I to a local diner for breakfast, I threw in the fact that “y’know, I’m gay,” as something that was influencing my college choices. He said something about loving me forever and being proud of the woman of God (a phrase he loves and that I hate) I was becoming. When he didn’t completely lose his shit when I came out to him, I took it as an apology for being so crappy for most of my childhood. I thought it was maybe the beginning of our healing process.
The day the Supreme Court ruled that marriage equality was a constitutional right was joyous for almost everyone I knew. Straight friends put rainbow filters over their profile pictures and I turned off my cynicism for a day and let myself be happy. We’d won an important battle. Somehow, I found myself on my father’s Facebook page where I saw a long paragraph which ended with, “We don’t care about man’s law because God’s law will always reign supreme!” I was sad and angry in a way I didn’t expect to be. Sure my father had been disappointing me for most of my life, but he said he’d loved me when I came out. How could he say something this hurtful?
I confronted him about it, telling him that it hurt me to know that was how he felt about a day that affected me in such a positive way. I said something about my future wife, our children, his grandchildren, and other buzzwords that generally work to steer the conversation in a positive direction after a misguided and homophobic comment from a family member. I expected an apology and a reassurance of his love. One of the most disappointing things about my father is how he falls through on his commitments, but is able to seem like the World’s Greatest Dad to the public. I thought I’d caught him: to me, his apologizing felt like the only way he could maintain that public persona. He wanted his friends to know that he loved his daughter, right?
He never apologized. Instead, he said, “Like God, I love you as my daughter, but don’t love everything about you, or the lifestyle you choose. I’m being Godly in not approving of that part of you. I’m sorry you’re not spiritually mature enough to see that yet.” To his conservative, Christian friends, my father just maintained his position as World’s Greatest Dad. He told his daughter that he loved them, but he also maintained his “biblical” position on queerness. I told him he wasn’t God, and that he could either love all of me, or none and after tiring myself out and getting more and more hurt by the conversation, I ended it by blocking him. I also blocked his phone number.
Our falling out was expected and surprising at the same time. Our relationship had had a shaky foundation from the start. There was always a part of me that wondered if we’d stop speaking one day, but I never honestly believed it would happen. Something I grapple with every year around Father’s Day is that my father is a really good spouse and parent in his new family. As his new marriage grew stronger, our relationship weakened. I think he didn’t know how to improve our relationship and have a strong new marriage; he couldn’t do both because growing with my brother and I would have conflicted with his new life. My brother and I were becoming stereotypical liberal New England democrats while he became more and more soaked in conservative Bible Belt culture. Eventually, we became too different to coexist peacefully.
My father has very few admirable qualities when it comes to our relationship: he doesn’t follow through on his promises, he doesn’t compromise, and he has a God complex. But, there’s still a part of me that is holding onto a shred of what he used to be. And so when I think about the man he used to be, there’s a lot I admire about him, especially his commitment to his religion, as misguided as I think it is today.
It’s funny because even though I find him misguided, we’re essentially traveling the same path. I’m applying to graduate school right now, and recently, I’ve felt called to look at seminary programs. The path I’m hoping to travel will lead to ordination, and maybe a leadership role in a church. I’m not really sure what “called” means, but it felt different than deciding I’d apply for a PhD in Performance Studies. Seminary feels like something I need to do because it’s bigger than me. It feels important academically, spiritually, emotionally and developmentally. And I think a part of it has to do with my father. I think there’s a part of me that hopes that if I go to seminary I can fix it so he loves me again — that I can fix us.
Religion is the only thing that can win over my stubborn father. If you can prove something to him biblically, he will believe it. While I hope to impact far more than just my father in whatever work I decide to do, whether faith based or not, I know that part of me wants to go to seminary because then, maybe, my father will listen to me. I mean, how much more “spiritually mature” can I get than literally getting a professional degree studying religion and spirituality? I think I’ll feel validated by him if I can prove to him that I am both spiritually mature and queer. I think I need to prove to him that I can be both and that God loves me just as much because I am queer as They do because I formulate a strong spiritual relationship with Them — even though that’s something I’ve already reconciled for myself.
I also know that I shouldn’t have to earn my father’s love. I learned that from my father — I learned that God is like our parent and that God loves us unconditionally, and that like a parent, we can’t do anything to earn God’s love. So it’s weird, me trying to be good enough for him. If I’m queer but I’m a preacher, maybe he’ll love me. If I become an ordained minister, maybe he’ll dance with me at my wedding. If his friends know I’m going to seminary, maybe he’ll be okay with me being queer. I am only human though, and so I don’t beat myself up too badly when I think things like that; it’s a hard habit to break.
Looking at seminary hasn’t just caused me to think about my father, though. It’s connected me with radical, queer activists who are reclaiming Christianity in the name of justice and love. It’s introduced me to queer women of color theologians who center their Christianity in Black womanhood. My top choice school has a history of rooting itself in Black liberation. My faith is radical, and seminary searching has reaffirmed that for me. My faith has deepened because of this search, and I’m finding myself in places I didn’t know I could exist.
These radical faith traditions contrast to my father’s beliefs. His is a mainline evangelical Protestantism that says that if you believe hard enough and rebuke those who aren’t like you loud enough, that health and wealth will come your way. My faith tradition centers itself on those of us who have been hurt by the church, and uplifts them because that’s what Jesus would have done. It recognizes that the Bible is, according to the UCC in a recent campaign, “like GPS. A brilliant guide. All-knowing. Occasionally wrong.” This Christianity practices the way Jesus taught: with room to change and grow.
Some days it feels so important to help my father get it right. If he can be reminded of the beautiful and loving possibilities of Christianity, like those that attracted him to it as a boy, maybe we can begin to heal. When he started forming his relationship with the religion, he was attracted to it because he was an outcast, just like Jesus.
I want to help remind him of the unconditional love that Christianity offers — not just for fat Black boys in Connecticut during the 70s, but today, for his Black queer non-binary daughter. I want to find the words to show my father that I forgive him. We are so similar that it destroys me sometimes, because I could end up like him. But we are also different. I am strong in ways that he isn’t. I love harder than I judge. I forgive easier. Hopefully, my journey through the depths of our shared religion can help to heal our broken relationship.