The following three posts are bonus chapters, not included in the novel. They'll give you a feel for the Church of Whosoever. Enjoy!
Gary was running late, which he hated. He breathed a prayer for calm and made his way to the circle of chairs and people expectantly waiting for him. A few of them had cups of coffee in their hands and some sweets that someone usually brought to the study.
Tonight eight people were in attendance. The number fluctuated between five and sometimes fifteen but typically hovered around six to eight. They came to learn more about the church but also to share their personal stories of faith.
For many, these stories were not happy ones. Being gay, lesbian, transgendered, bisexual, a cross-dresser, or a transvestite in any mainstream religion, let alone mainstream America, was rarely easy. Gary had seen the internal bruising so many of his flock had endured in the churches of their upbringing. In some cases, the damage was severe, which explained perhaps why the church found it difficult to sustain membership beyond a certain threshold. People came to COW hoping that the pains of the past would be forgotten, or melt away or transform themselves into something more positive but such transformation took time, forgiveness (especially of one's self), prayer and a commitment and energy that many found daunting. And sometimes, even though it welcomed all and worked mightily to avoid the pitfalls of other churches, COW would remind some of what they disliked in organized religion. It was, after all, a human enterprise fraught with human failings and frailties.
As he poured himself a cup of coffee and sat down among the group, Gary internally mused that anyone hoping to find a place free of hypocrites wasn’t going to find it at COW. If this was what kept them away or caused them to leave, he could do little to change the fact, except to help them understand the true purpose of church and why coming, despite whatever drama existed, mattered.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” he said. “I was visiting Bertie at St. Luke’s. She went in this morning. The doctor said it was a mild stroke. She’ll be there for a few days. Thankfully, she’s already beginning to recover from the mild paralysis it caused. We’ll be sure to say a prayer for her at the end.”
He took a sip of coffee and set the cup on the floor beside his chair. “All right. If I recall correctly, Samantha was going to share her story and how she came to COW. Are you ready, Sam?”
Samantha nodded in ascent. She was large and lively, quick to smile and always reaching out to others, not just for their sake but also her own. When she first arrived at COW, she’d rarely look anyone squarely in the eyes. When she did, she betrayed a familiar hurt that was yet its own, for no one’s hurt is quite the same. Every now and then, you still saw glimpses of it.
She spoke plainly, knowingly:
I did not have much exposure to church growing up. I went to a few churches with friends as a teenager, but mostly for social activities, not services. I didn’t feel especially welcome when I was around the adults. Maybe I already felt judged. Growing up was hard enough without feeling further ostracized. Besides, I remember my Grandma telling me that I didn’t have to go to church to believe in God.
I had no idea what I was missing!
I started coming to COW – off and on, mostly on holidays – when my daughter was growing up. This would have been in the 80’s. About six years ago my daughter and I had a huge falling out over my grandson. He had lived with me for about 18 months and then went back to her. I miss him terribly. I’ll spare the gory details, but I ended up only getting supervised visits with him, and was convinced God was punishing me with all this pain.
I was so frustrated and hurt, and I felt helpless. I didn’t know where else to turn. I reached out to Pastor Gary and spent hours on the phone with him that first time. He was so helpful.
Maybe out of a sense of gratitude and indebtedness, I started coming to services on a regular basis. Pastor Gary is such a powerful sermon-giver. I felt he was speaking "to me" every time. He kept me coming back. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know. This was the only church I ever felt comfortable in. I can honestly say that COW changed my life. From the day of my first attendance, I felt like everyone accepted me for me.
Oh, and at some point, I realized that God wasn’t punishing me. I believe that God only brings good into our lives. People do bad things, whether intentionally or unintentionally, and that’s why we need God. But people also do wonderfully good things. That’s also why we need God…to fill our hearts with the good and crowd out the bad.
The reason I keep coming to COW is because of the relationships. When my real family starting falling apart, I found and made a new family here. They love me and express God's love in ways I can’t begin to describe, although it’s really simple, as I said: they accept me for who I am, even as they help me to become a better, more loving person.
Recently, I started visiting other churches, perhaps because I sense that my faith journey is just beginning. I don’t want to get complacent. I’ve discovered different atmospheres that can also be affirming and full of love. This certainly wasn’t true years ago when I first starting coming to COW. Time has caused so many more churches to accept and embrace the LGBT community.
Sometimes a church can fill a need for a time, but you may have to move on to grow. I am not sure what my future holds but COW has taught me what being a Christian is like. I will be forever grateful.
Oh, the music is part of why I stay too. It uplifts me every time.
Gary was again seated in the circle of newcomers and regulars who met weekly to discover more about the church, each other and their faith walks. Tonight, Don had volunteered to tell his story.
A man of sturdy build and jovial smile, Don didn't take gruff from anyone. But he had a heart of gold and went out of his way time and again to help those in need. Despite visceral outward confidence, he seemed nervous as he began.
I was born and grew up Southern Baptist. My mother rarely went to church but from an early age, she instilled in me the necessity of going every Sunday, to both day and evening services, and also Wednesday evenings.
I was born again at age nine but, looking back, I doubt I really understood what that meant. I felt a commitment to this new belief, but it was a nine year old’s commitment.
I sensed my gayness early but immediately felt it was wrong. It’s not as though I had to be told this overtly by someone else. I simply felt it within myself. Perhaps it was the knowledge that this fact would put me at odds with my church that made me sense its wrongness and try to squash it the best I could.
I remember a Sunday night New Year’s Eve service. Perhaps like a New Year’s resolution I said, “God, I want to be what you want me to be.” But I was still uncertain what God had planned for me. I thought I knew, and I thought it meant being straight.
I married at age 17. I did my very best to be a good and faithful husband and father.
I kept attending the Baptist church in which I grew up, but it was dying. The pastor had lost his passion for tending his flock and, as a result, the church was not growing. Finally, he said he would retire. I remember being elated and hoping someone would come that would make a positive difference – not just in the church but in me.
Alongside my spiritual journey was another journey, a very human journey in which I was struggling to come to terms with my sexuality. I’d have an encounter with a man, often anonymous, and then beat my chest and promise that it would never happen again. I can’t tell you how many times I made this promise.
I got ulcers. Twice they got so bad, I was hospitalized.
The new minister at my church was remarkably young. I felt my prayers had been answered. Although only 25, I sensed in him both a maturity and an understanding that allowed me to approach him with my struggle. He told me, “Don, I’ve never known a homosexual. I respect you, I love you and I will do whatever I can for you.”
I can’t begin to tell you what hearing those words meant to me. But despite his caring heart, he was as naïve about this issue as I was. It was the blind leading the blind, and I suffered as a consequence. He recommended counseling and therapy. Unfortunately, the therapy included the use of exorcism and shock treatments. For both our sakes, I was obedient to the counseling and for a while it helped. I felt strong and resisted any form of physical contact with another man. And I kept claiming that God would see me through, which really meant that he would “cure” me of my gayness.
I then moved here to Kansas City, with all its attractions, diversions and distractions. I worked for a religious organization and tried to walk the straight and narrow but it became increasingly difficult to do so, especially after my 31-year marriage ended.
I joined a Baptist congregation in the center of the city. Again, I immersed myself in the life of the church. I went to prayer and healing services. I prayed for the forgiveness of my sins and restoration. I still felt deeply sinful; yet I remember one Sunday having this calm come over me and this certain knowledge that nothing I did that particular day or week or month would make God love me any more or any less than He already did – and always had.
Ironically, in spite of this feeling, when the pastor announced that the church would open its doors to gays and lesbians, I stormed out. I tried a few other churches, but none spoke to my heart.
All the while, I was going to Christian-based therapy that continually boxed me into a place of shame. Suddenly one day, I had this revelation. I realized I was as gay that day as the day I had started, so why did I keep coming? Mind you, this was after over five years of therapy!
I confronted my therapist. “Tell me what to do today, right now, to be straight, and I’ll be straight.” Well, he couldn’t tell me so I left.
I had also been in a 12-step program for sex addiction. It was very severe. Too severe. I left it, as well.
But I still needed someone to talk to and advise me about my faith walk and my gay walk, too. I was still in an uncertain place. My heart was pretty fragile. I was going to a group session comprised of married, separated and/or divorced gay men and a former Nazarene minister came to it one night. I asked him for guidance. I told him that if I could be straight, I would be. But he quickly made me realize what I knew to be the truth: I was gay, plain and simple.
Ok, so I’m gay, I thought. Now what? How do I deal with it? I decided that I needed to find people that would be “good” for me. It’s not that all those people before this moment had been sinister or intentionally bad; it’s just that I needed to surround myself with people that would accept me for who I was and still challenge me to grow and become better. The Nazarene minister mentioned that there was a gay church in town that I might investigate. “A gay church?” I said aloud. Who knew?
But still I hesitated to come to COW. That first Sunday, I parked a block and a half away. As I drew closer to the church, I began to struggle inside. “I’m not like THOSE people,” I thought. I didn’t come in. I turned around and left.
The following week, I phoned the church, not from my house but from a pay phone (that’s how paranoid I still was), and asked what the service times were and what the dress code was. Finally I mustered the courage and came inside.
I sat down in the pew and looked straight ahead. A few people came up to me and welcomed me but I must have been very unwelcoming in return. The service started and little by little the wall around my heart started to crumble. A large black woman, wearing a pastel dress with a matching broad-brimmed hat sat a few rows in front of me. She was rejoicing loudly, hands in the air, unafraid. Joy overtook me in a series of waves that left me depleted but utterly joyful at the end of the service.
Ondine Sharp sat towards the back of the church and always on the left side, perhaps because this is where she sat as a child alongside her mother and sister, albeit long ago in another church and in another state. Her father hadn’t believed in church and went fishing instead. Most Sundays, she wished she could have gone with her father.
Recently, she wondered why she kept coming to COW. She came more out of habit than anything. Maybe she’d be better off fishing instead, except she’d have to drive at least 50 miles to go anywhere worthwhile. Her father had only to drive 10 miles.
Coming to church meant something when she was with Kim but since their breakup six months ago, Ondine felt unmoored and aimless. Everything was just sort of blah: her job, friendships, church, most of all dating. Kim had been the one. She still was. Nothing had changed in Ondine’s heart; but it had in Kim’s. Now Kim was on the East Coast and already in another relationship.
Most days, Ondine found herself replaying the breakup and wondering if she could have done anything differently. To make matters worse, Ondine hadn’t seen her two boys, Perry and Patrick, in almost two years. Their father, who was a prick (sorry God, but he is), did everything he could to prevent Ondine from seeing them. He’d taken a job in Idaho, more to spite her than for the job itself, and neither one of them could afford getting to the other.
If anything had crushed her spirit and a large part of her faith, it was the loss of her boys. Their father said she was unfit and while the L-word was rarely used, the essence of it hovered over the entire proceeding. Instead, it was pointed out that she wasn’t in a steady relationship, her previous girlfriend had dwindled her savings to almost nothing, she had trouble holding down a job, lived in a mobile home in a poor neighborhood and struggled to keep the refrigerator stocked. It didn’t matter that she loved her boys more than life itself….
Her mind was in what her dad called the “insanity ward” again; the one you let yourself into and then find no doors to exit by, the one where you tie yourself up in a straightjacket of what ifs, if onlys and maybes; the one where you keep thinking and doing the same thing and expecting a different result.
Lost inside herself, Ondine hadn’t noticed a pair of bright eyes peering at her over the top of the pew in front of her. They opened wide and then narrowed again, as if trying to cast a spell on Ondine. Perhaps it was just the child’s movement that finally caught Ondine’s attention but the spell worked; she came out of her dark place and found herself staring at a boy of perhaps 18 months to two years. He had a wild mop of curly hair, an impish grin and eyes that sparkled like firecrackers. He clearly sensed that she was paying attention to him because he started to bounce up and down, smiling all the more.
On either side of him were two men. They had slipped in the pew without Ondine noticing but, given her state of mind, that wasn’t surprising. One of them turned to the child and gently shushed him, then looked back and smiled at Ondine. He whispered to her, “He likes you.”
A shiver ran through her. She hadn’t heard words of appreciation, of any sort, in a long while and their impact was immediate, like water to a parched plant. She smiled and, in response, the child grinned irrepressibly. Suddenly, he threw his arms wide apart, an insistent look on his face. Clearly, he wanted Ondine to hold him. She shook her head from side to side, knowing this wasn’t possible. She tried to evade his look, so as not to encourage him, and found herself looking up at the stained glass window of Jesus. There he was, arms outstretched, just like this boy, beckoning us. How much she yearned to be in his embrace, despite her failings. She knew that faith connected her to Christ, and hers had been lacking. But sometimes, in order to have faith in something – such as touch, affirmation, forgiveness, and love – you need it in the real world first.
She looked back at the boy, his arms still stretched wide. He was right there, yet she felt a deep chasm between them. His embrace simply wasn’t hers to have.
The despair inside her was too much; she felt she had no choice but to leave but as she was gathering her things, the man who had spoken to her took hold of the boy and lifted him over the pew to her. “He really, really likes you. He’ll be impossible if you don’t hold him, at least for a little bit.”
She took hold of either side of him and sat him on her lap. He sat there quietly for a moment, then started rolling his head from side to side as if intentionally trying to make her laugh, which she did, intermixed with a few tears. He made motion for wanting to stand up, so she picked him up and rested his feet on her legs. He reached out his hands to her face and pulled his face to hers. It was a near-kiss but a kiss all the same. Then he suddenly seemed restless and tired, so he nudged his head to her shoulder. She rocked him and patted his back till he fell asleep.
When service was over, the boy’s fathers introduced themselves.
“I’m Brad,” said the older and taller of the two, the one who had spoken to her.
“I’m Michael,” said the other.
“And that’s Peter,” said Brad pointing to the sleeping boy.
Ondine nodded quietly and seemed to struggle to speak. At last she introduced herself. “I’m Ondine.”
Brad and Michael looked at each other and then back at Ondine. “Peter is typically very clingy with us and rarely lets others hold him,” said Brad. “I don’t know why he took to you so immediately, but he did. That says a lot about you, I think.”
“I don’t know,” demurred Ondine. “I’m nothing special, I can tell you that. But holding him has been very healing, and I’m grateful that you trusted me with him.
“Of course,” said Brad. “If Peter felt comfortable with you, how could we not?” Michael nodded in agreement.
“We’re heading to brunch. Will you join us?” asked Brad, carefully peeling Peter from Ondine’s shoulder and placing him on his own.
Ondine hesitated. “I have some errands I have to take care of,” she said. It was a half-truth; she did have errands to run but another reason caused her to deflect their invitation. “Will you be back next week? Can we do it then?”
“Absolutely,” said Brad. But she could see he was a bit disappointed.
She gently kissed Peter on the cheek and then, before she betrayed a rush of tears, backed away saying “Thank you so much for sharing him with me. You don’t know how much it’s meant.” Her last glimpse of Brad and Michael suggested they did.
In her car, she leaned against the steering wheel and sobbed mightily. Through the sobbing, she made up her mind with a sudden absoluteness. She was going to get her act together. She’d go back to school and then get a better job. She’d be the best she could be at it. She’d save her money and visit her boys often. Maybe, in time, they’d come to live with her.
And she’d do it not only for Perry and Patrick, but also for Peter, not only the Peter whom she had just held in church but her Peter – her first child, stillborn, whom she held just once, briefly, of whose memory she could – would – never let go.