Out of the Closet: I Am A Christian

Out of the Closet: I Am A Christian

“We have this totally warped idea of what Christianity should be like when it comes to the public sphere, and it’s mostly about exclusion….no matter where you are politically, the gospel is so much about inclusion and decency and humility and care for the least among us. (How does ) a wealthy, powerful, chest-thumping, self-oriented, philandering figure like (Donald Trump) have any credibility at all among religious people.” – Pete Buttigieg

The Moral Majority, established in 1979, was predominately a Southern-oriented organization of the Republican Party’s Christian Right, but its national influence grew throughout the 1980s to the point where I was embarrassed to call myself a Christian. It was already hard, since I grew up in the Catholic church where only Protestants called themselves Christian. Catholics never did. Because of Democratic Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg’s reclaiming Christianity for the Democratic Party, I can finally come out of the closet. I am a Christian.

When I marched into a church confessional and announced to the priest I no longer believed salvation was available to Catholics only, he said, “then you are no longer a Catholic.” I expected more of an argument, but at age 18, I felt I’d been set free. And adrift.

Until that moment, through all the alcoholic parental rages, multiple midnight moves, changes in schools and churches, only one place made me feel at home—the pew on Sunday morning where I heard Jesus loved me. 

Daniel and Philip Berrigan were my heroes then. The brothers were Catholic priests who’d been convicted of destroying military draft records in protest to the Vietnam war. I searched for a pew in their radical faith, but stumbled instead into the despair of drug and alcohol addiction. Another patriarchal Christian (but non-Catholic) church found me and delivered the familial message, Jesus loves you. Desperate to belong, I swallowed their conservative biblical fundamentalism for four years before I fled that oppressive pew. 

I tried to be a non-churchgoer. It was impossible. I’m at home in a pew on Sunday morning. I sought a simple pew in a simple church. They are easy to find, those simple churches. I hopped from one to the other long enough to know people by their names, feeling satisfied but longing for a more high-octane Jesus message. A lot of post-Watergate Christian pulpits were delivering bromides—safe words and a kindly gospel. Where was the social gospel of the Berrigans, Thomas Merton, Martin Luther King? Where were the Christian anarchists?

I lamented to a friend who suggested Fourth Presbyterian Church. For the first few years FourthPresbyterianChurchChicagoat Chicago’s Gold Coast Gothic Revival landmark, I arrived late and left early. I sat in the last pew, never opened the pew Bible, the songbook or recited the prayers. I didn’t belong there. I didn’t have the right clothes, right politics or right job. Indeed, I had no right to sit in well-ordered Presbyterianism.

Gradually I moved closer to the pulpit. I wanted to catch every word of Reverend Elam Davies’ sermons. Davies was slight of build, but a mighty orator. His spoken words came from deep inside his heritage, as if the whole of his native Wales was belting them out.

The first ten minutes of every sermon had me in sorrow. Sorrow for my selfishness, sorrow for my recklessness, sorrow for my sins. The next ten minutes had me laughing. Laughing for joy that Jesus knew all those sorrows and loved me anyway. The last ten minutes moved me to action. Action to protest policies that deprived people of basic human rights, action to help relieve indignities suffered by the victims of such policies.

When Elam Davies retired in 1984, I thought I’d be on the prowl for another pew. But each of the succeeding preachers have delivered similar bedrock messages that tell me every week: Jesus loves you. It’s been almost forty years since I first hid in that pew on North Michigan Avenue. I may not belong there still, but I no longer hide and the preaching makes me feel at home.

How I Do Without Hate

As a reward for living through every day since November 8, 2016, I look to Haagen Dazs Dulce de Leche. Each day I try to do without hate. But I judge each day’s news as the worst thing I ever heard. Every. Single. Day. A bit of solace comes briefly through a pint of ice cream.

Doing without ice cream when the emotional alarms clang requires me to Hold myself tight for fear my limbs, my tongue, my head will whirly-gig out of control and irreparably damage my spirit-mind, not to mention my friendships. The Hold relaxes briefly with one simple pint. And then I do without until the wind gusts the whirly-gig back into motion.

Holding myself together generates an inward turn I take without looking both ways. I involuntarily drive straight to the core where I look for Jesus. From 2003-2011 I worked in Cook County government with a lively crew where the listening was easy. I belonged there, with cultures other than mine. God manifested himself through black and brown christs who spoke of Him: Have a Blest Day, Stay Prayerful, Jesus Loves You. Whenever the bosses above dumped demons into my serenity, Big Jim appeared and quietly laid a copy of a page from the Bible on my desk with a comforting Jesus quote circled in red. John 8:10 I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me won’t walk in darkness but will have the light of life.

The Catholic nuns gave me Jesus in grade school. He walked beside me like an imaginary floppy-eared bunny. As a newly-formed adult I moved from certainty about God and his Son to doubt. Preachers told me to welcome doubt, to throw certainty out with the th-6evening garbage, that doubting God strengthens faith. And it did. Until I started doing my own version of God. I built a periodic table of spiritual elements with blocks of God-info such as heaven and hell don’t exist and Jesus’ Resurrection is simply a symbol of renewed life. Trouble is, I silently scorned those who didn’t believe as I did. When I first met my co-workers I held a colonizing view of their beliefs. Over time my religious formulas fell in the trash heap. As slave descendants, they daily transformed their passed-down spiritual trauma into “I believe.”

Now in my own spiritual trauma I yearn for the comforting words of Big Jim and Shunice, for them to assure me Jesus loves us, all of us, including the remnants of the November 8, 2016 tragedy. I look for faith in my post-work world but Jesus is subtly tucked in for the night. My white-only community seems embarrassed, even ashamed to mention His name.

Well, I miss Him, miss talking about Him, miss Him talking to me through the kindness
and courage of my old work friends. A pint of ice cream doesn’t fill the void but it will do to keep the whirly-gig still until the Floppy-Eared Bunny wakes me in the morning.