The Church is Our Home Too

written on 14 September 2020 by Mark Ehrenstein

Art by Nat Iwata

“The church is our home too.” This statement carries with it many feelings, emotions and realities for me. My name is Mark and my history with the church has been one of great joys, deep heartaches, abandonment, rebirth and hope. My relationship with the church has both ebbed and flowed as well as lifted me up and torn me down. My relationship to the church has been a source of strength and destruction.

To begin my journey with the church, I should first define what the church means to me. The church is a group or fellowship of believers in Jesus Christ. The church varies in its beliefs, abilities, outreach, and forms of worship, which is why we see so many denominations. I also believe just as there are a variety of beliefs and interpretations of scripture, there are also a variety of values towards racial and social justice. Different churches and cultures respond to the inclusion of race, gender, sexual identity, economic status, age, political identity, and nationality in many different ways. In other words, the church is fractured, and constantly evolving in both good and bad ways.

To fully understand my experience with the church, you must go back to the beginning. Sorry, I’ll try to keep it brief. I am 60 years old (born 1959). I accepted the Lord when I was 15 years old. I came out as a gay man when I was 20. So, I have experienced the church for 45 years. To really understand my journey with the church, I must tell you who I was before I became a Christian.

As a very young child, I was extremely sensitive, caring, easily hurt, manipulated by others and, to be honest, effeminate. These qualities made my grade school, middle school and high school years extremely pain-filled and difficult. I’m not sure what was worse, the abuse and bullying from fellow students or from teachers. This was a time when bullying was not only tolerated but, at times, encouraged. Being different, in any way, was very bad.

My sister, Cheryl, became a Christian when she was in her early teens. Several years later, she encouraged me to attend youth beach days and other youth outreach programs at her church. I did and, for perhaps the first time in my life, I met people who were loving, encouraging, and respectful. After a Friday night youth rally at the church, I accepted Christ as my personal savior with open arms and great expectations. I fully expected to be everything I was not, including being healed of homosexuality. I prayed and prayed and prayed. I read and truly tried to absorb the Bible, reading the entire Bible 3 times in less than 2 years. I went to church at least 4 times a week, surrounded myself with believers, evangelized, and even had a Christian girlfriend, Doris, for nearly 4 years. As my “battles with homosexuality” did not go away despite constant prayer, I sought counseling from Exodus (a change ministry). I talked to a youth pastor and a “former gay” pastor. My struggles and pain started to escalate overtime and I started feeling like my only way out was to commit suicide. Thankfully, I decided instead of ending my life I needed to be honest and “come out” to my girlfriend, my family and my church.

Coming out was without a doubt the hardest, most painful and scary life experience I have ever gone through; even harder than living through the horrendous AIDS epidemic that arrived a short time later. My relationship to the loving, supportive church that I had known for 5 years literally changed in a heartbeat. When I said “I’m gay” everything turned upside down. People walked away, people pitied and scolded me. People that hugged me before every service acted like they did not see me. One person tried to rebuke demons from me. When I told my pastor, his response was “you can’t continue to teach the 4- and 5-year-olds Sunday school anymore. Such a pity. You have such a gift with them.” The church secretary even sent a copy of an autopsy report, along with photos of her gay brother who died of this strange new disease that was killing young gay men in New York. He was in his twenties, but looked 90 and was literally skin and bones, having been perfectly healthy just 4 months earlier. The secretary told me she prayed this would not be me soon! A girl in my youth group seriously asked if I liked to paint my nails and wear women’s shoes. I told her they would look better on me than her, leaving me with just an ounce of dignity! In retrospect, when I left the church, I lost fellowship, love, and a community. The church lost a dedicated servant and my spiritual gifts. A true loss all around. When I look back, I believe Jesus wept with me and certainly carried me through the traumatic days that would lie ahead of me. The only silver lining in my coming out was the unconditional love, respect, and dignity given to me by my family, especially my parents who were strong Christians but told me “they were the ones who need to be educated about all of this.” To this day, there is not a moment I do not thank God for giving me truly Godly parents. In 1980, my parents, in many ways, became “my new church” and an anchor in the storm.

My experience with the church has varied over the 40 years since I came out as a gay man. After coming out, I really left the church entirely. I saw the church as my oppressor and Christians as hypocrites and closed minded. Yet, I soon realized I needed to continue a relationship with God. God was my refuge and my strength through everything. God did not abandon me when I left the church! First, God brought me slowly into the hands of the gay community, which stabilized and encouraged me. This community, in a real sense, became my new church. My new community shined light into a very dark place I found myself in. Next, God brought into my life a man that would forever alter my life in every way imaginable. I met John in 1982 and we have shared, grown, loved, and built a wonderful life together for over 38 years! I can honestly say I don’t believe I would be alive today if it were not for John. He not only loved me for who I was but taught me I was capable of loving someone in return. Nearly every blessing I have in this life has John directly tied to it. Thank you, God, for my life companion! In a way our relationship has become the church I have belonged to the longest.

God also brought me back to a particular church; this time, to an MCC (Metropolitan Community Church) in downtown Los Angeles. MCC is a protestant Christian denomination founded by former Baptist minister Rev. Troy Perry in 1968. John and I attended MCC for over 7 years, and I can honestly say it restored my life and returned my faith to me. MCC became the church that I desperately needed at that moment. MCC was an extreme melting pot of people from every denominational background and economic status, including homeless people, people of every age and color, and all genders (including trans men and women). There were gay and straight people, as well as people with every imaginable disability. I could talk for hours about the things I learned, and the healing that took place at that church. After a lot of prayer, John and I decided to leave MCC. Our spirituality and lives were taking us in different directions. This time, I left the church with nothing but joy, appreciation and gratitude. Our pastor, Nancy Wilson let us go with her blessing, saying we, like so many others, came to MCC broken, but received unconditional love and healing. Nancy encouraged us to go out and make our lives, loves, friendships and outreaches “our church.” Rev. Nancy encouraged us to be the church in this chaotic and hurting world. Sage advice that I have tried to live by.

When I came out 40 years ago, the trend for Christians was “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” which fits nicely on a bumper sticker, but is empty, hateful, and misguided in the real world. It would be as if I told you I really love you but hate and cannot accept that you have blue eyes. Yes, you can cover your eyes with sunglasses but having blue eyes is a part of who and what you are! God made you in his image! I have survived and even flourished as a gay man in that I have turned to God for my existence and salvation. I am not a fundamentalist, though it took me nearly 20 years to undo that (a whole other story!). I believe the Bible is open to interpretation from and through the Holy Spirit. I believe, with all my heart, God created me gay and that my sexuality is a gift from God, not a curse. I personally believe that Jesus is my path to salvation, in particular because of the country, society, life experiences, and family I was born into. I also believe there are other paths to God. Lots of paths. Our God is so much bigger than one religion. My beliefs, though perhaps different from other believers, does not mean I’m not a Christian, it means that I’m not God and don’t claim to have all the answers.

In closing, what is my current relationship with the church? I love the church, hate it, get profound meaning from it, hope and encouragement from it, as well as constant disappointment. The church is made up of people with their own baggage, prejudices, and biases.

At the end of the day, I take refuge, strength, love and hope in a new church; a church I have not yet discovered. A church that embraces and respects ALL people, their gifts, talents, and potentials! A church that cannot house a congregation where members look alike, sound alike and say the same thing. A church that listens, grows, evolves and truly loves one another. In short, a church that respects the dignity of each and every soul. Not a church that tolerates diversity, but a church which embraces and celebrates diversity!

Perhaps I will never find and experience that perfected church in my lifetime, but I will surely experience it in heaven!