Ok, so this feels a little tacky to post a piece written about me right here under a masthead with my goofy old mug grinning at you, but here is how it happened. The post below is not about me really, it is about everyone out there who is willing to speak up for a Christianity that lives into God’s radical hospitality. This is about what can happen when a progressive Christian “evangelizes” (eeeek!).
See, I’ve been thinking about how sometimes it is hard to come out as Christian. I don’t mean it’s hard to come out, telling people I am gay, since I am a Christian. I mean that sometimes in a world that is overwhelmingly secular and often convinced that all Christians are hypocritical, hateful, jerks (ooo, was that my outside voice?) it can be a little delicate to talk about our faith with a new friend. Believe it or not I’m not exactly the type to just walk up and say “Have you accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and savior” (shocking I know). “Let me tell you about my church” is just not the first thing I think to say to someone over cocktails, well, except it often is but I don’t I tend to feel like that will scare the daylight out of folks and we will never get past the olives.
While thinking about this conundrum I recalled a chance encounter on an airplane where I did just come on out, rainbow flag in one hand and old rugged cross in the other. I asked a friend if he could recall what happened that afternoon and well, here’s what he sent…
Kimberly and I met in a place many people tend to keep to themselves: the cramped confines of Delta’s coach class cabin. The experience of flying today is a far cry from its heyday when folks got on board dressed in their best, and then, as the ill-fated ABC series Pan Am would have me believe, roamed the aisles making new friends in every row as they sipped champagne on their way to exotic Palm Springs. Now folks get to their seats after 20 unplanned minutes of frantic parking spot-hunting in the economy lot, getting randomly selected for a thorough inspection by TSA, and having to put their carry-on in an overhead bin 10 rows away because everyone who boarded before brought everything and the kitchen sink aboard. So every time I approach my seat I find myself anxious to see who will be sitting beside me, and wonder if their journey to or reason for being in 26B has precluded all hope of a friendly seat-mate. Sadly that’s often the case. Beyond the obligatory “hello” or “I think our seat belt straps are crossed,” most passengers seem uninterested in any further conversation. The headphones go in or the book opens up, and we all know those are universal signs for “do not disturb.”
I was headed to Detroit to attend a family function, so I was in a great mood as I took my aisle seat. Window Guy was already there, but the middle passenger hadn’t arrived. In that situation I always think, “Does he or she know they’re in the middle? I hope they chose this and it wasn’t randomly assigned.” Discovering that your reward for successfully navigating the terminal obstacle course is the least comfortable seat in the row is insult added to injury. She arrived a few minutes later with a relaxed style and friendly expression, seemingly unfazed by her space in the middle. Jackpot! Getting a friendly and calm neighbor on a flight is the closest you get to a first class experience in coach. The woman was, of course, Kimberly.
It didn’t take long to find out my initial assessment of her calmness wasn’t entirely correct. She initiated the conversation by saying takeoffs make her incredibly nervous, and warned that she might involuntarily reach over and grab me if she got scared. The moment she opened up to me, I stopped seeing her as someone to have a polite conversation with but as someone I genuinely wanted to learn more about. To ease her fears I put my hand on the armrest between us, and told her it would be there for takeoff if she needed it (she didn’t). In a strange twist of fate, however, I was the one who unknowingly needed her.
We started talking again, covering the basics: “Are you from Atlanta?,” “What do you do for a living?” and “What takes you to Detroit?” Once those were out of the way, though, it started to get interesting. I’m gay, but that’s not information I’d typically offer to a stranger when asked to describe myself. I would never expect someone to say, “Well let’s see… I’m straight, I’m an accountant…” To me that detail doesn’t matter, but when a conversation goes from pleasantries to personal, inevitably it comes around to relationships and that’s where ours was headed. She was talking about her daughters, and I was frantically trying to decide whether or not to be honest when it was my turn to speak. I was thinking, “We’ve been perfectly friendly and even a little caring so far, but what if I tell her I’m gay or have a boyfriend and she freaks out? Do I want to risk the last hour on this plane being a silent, judgmental torture by telling the truth, or do I just go with the old, ‘No, I’m single right now. Work keeps me too busy for relationships’ line to shut it down?” After I heard about the kids, Kimberly moved on to her significant other. Although in an ever-so-slightly softer voice, she told me about her partner and their coming out stories. I was taken by surprise – not because she was gay too, but because she must have trusted me. It’s a shame we have to worry about such things, and I hope someday the world will be a different place where that’s concerned. But thankfully the panic was gone with her revelation, and I half said/whispered I was gay, too, and talked a bit about my relationship status.
With our identities revealed she began to tell me about her time in seminary, and the church services in which she participated each week. She said it was a place where everyone was welcome. They met at an old converted library, where kids would run around during the sermon, and some people played their guitars to provide music. I had to know more because her words were in direct conflict with the Christianity I experienced as a child, a version of which resulted in my complete rejection of it. I told Kimberly how the Christians I knew harassed my mom when she filed for divorce from my dad, and said she wasn’t welcome at our church anymore. They said the decision wasn’t hers to make, but theirs. The Christians at my church sat silent after the Children’s Choir finished singing the songs we’d rehearsed for months at the Christmas service. The Christians I knew were not kind. In fact, they were downright cruel. I couldn’t understand why they told us in Sunday School to follow in Jesus’ footsteps by being kind and loving everyone no matter what, but I’d get home from school to find messages on the machine from our pastor berating my mom. I was only 10 at the time, but I was smart enough to know these people weren’t practicing what they were preaching. They were hypocrites, and I figured all other Christians must be, too. That’s the belief I held for nearly 20 years until that day on the plane, and the one that kept me from exploring and nurturing my spiritual self. I repressed it in fear that the next pastor or congregation would bamboozle me and break my heart all over again.
Kimberly proceeded to share her beliefs about Christianity, and it’s at this point of the story where the details get a bit fuzzy. Her words were like a wrecking ball, and every sentence was another hit to the truths I had constructed and fortified for more than half my life. I was overwhelmed. She told me about love and inclusion, and reminded me that Jesus didn’t judge people by their circumstances. My mom was still loved despite the divorce, and being gay didn’t mean I was loved any less, either. I told Kimberly that even though I had rejected the church, I have always conducted my life in a manner consistent with Jesus’ teachings, with as much love and kindness as I can muster for myself and others. I told her how hurt I’d been by people who said my lifestyle would keep me from going to heaven. My friend Jamie recently paraphrased the Dali Lama saying, “Love is the absence of judgment… Real love is selfless detachment, allowing everyone you meet to travel toward his/her destiny without imposing your selfish desires.” That’s the kind of love I envisioned when they talked about it in church, but the world around me was suggesting that interpretation was wrong. Had Matthew 7:1 been removed from the Bible since I left?
Even in the face of those comments, I told Kimberly I fully believed if heaven and hell were my two options, God could see my heart and would know the truth: I was a good, kind person who didn’t take from the world but tried to add to it. And even if I didn’t call his name when praying for guidance, deep down I knew those prayers were being heard. Certainly a part of me which I did not choose and cannot control wouldn’t send me straight to Satan, but that’s what I was hearing in person and seeing in the news. Where was the Christianity I remember from Sunday School? The one that taught me many of the values I have used to guide my life since? I assumed it was gone and I was the lone survivor. Kimberly assured me there were multitudes of people just like me, herself included. I didn’t know because I was too afraid to look.
That’s when the tears came. I don’t know if she noticed, but I turned my head away during a pause in the conversation and let a few fall. She restored an abandoned part of my self that was so clearly starved for nourishment. She opened my heart to exploring spirituality again, and showed me that my experience wasn’t representative of many, many Christians in the world today. Two decades of hurt, confusion, and loneliness were gone in an hour and a half. It remains the singularly most powerful conversation I have ever had. After we landed, she told me her last name and said to look her up on Facebook. The friend request was sent by the time I got to baggage claim, and we’ve continued our friendship ever since.
God knew I needed Kimberly, and he practically put her in my lap. If not a miracle, it was the most divine of interventions, by which I was forever changed.