At 19 years old, I found myself undone by what I thought were two diametrically opposed truths: I loved God with all my heart, and I was queer.
I am a child of the Pentecostal church. Specifically, I grew up in the Assemblies of God Church. The World Assemblies of God Fellowship, also known as AG, is a denomination that sits at the intersection of both Pentecostal and evangelical faith. Like many Pentecostal denominations, the Assemblies of God Church is heavily focused on intimate interactions with the divine. The AG Church believes that all people have access to a one-on-one relationship with Jesus Christ. This is my favorite aspect of Pentecostal faith, the idea that all people are inherently worthy of knowing God. I love the emphasis on the idea that God is intent on knowing us. I think the belief in a bidirectional relationship between humans and God is one rich with joy and possibility.
And yet, even prior to my revelation of my own queer identity, I found myself skeptical of certain core tenets of the Assemblies of God’s interpretation of the Pentecostal faith practice. Though I fell in love with the transformative power of the Church—I am particularly fascinated with Christianity as a site of resiliency, joy, and connection—over time, I found myself skeptical of my church’s theological interpretations. My church utilized its belief that Jesus is the sole pathway to heaven to be both covertly and overtly Islamophobic and xenophobic in its rhetoric.
In addition, my church was expressly homophobic. I watched many times in horror as my pastors exorcised students who confessed thoughts of “spiritual perversion.” These thoughts included both thoughts of homosexuality and thoughts or actions of pre-marital sex. To this day, I am shocked that students were coaxed into sharing intimate details of their lives only to be publicly shamed and, in my belief, spiritually abused.
Further, many of my church’s strictest tenets were steeped in anti-Blackness. For example, hip-hop and R&B music were repeatedly denounced as demonic. And, on more than one occasion, a white kid called a Black kid in my youth group the n-word. Sadly, these injustices were always ignored under the guise of Christian forgiveness.
However, even with some of my misgivings, the church was my home. It is where I felt the deepest sentiments of belonging. My queerness thrust me suddenly and violently into a spiritual wasteland. I felt lonely, aimless, and unwanted. In my moments of joy and triumph, I always turned to God for direction. In the early months of coming to terms with my sexuality, when I went to pray, I only felt shame. Over those first few months, shame became my cloak. I hid beneath it, comforted by its callous warmth and promise of isolation. I hoped that shame would kill my truth. I prayed for partial death, for my queerness to die and for the rest of me to remain unscathed. I learned, painfully and repeatedly, that my queerness and I are inextricably linked. I cannot kill my sexuality without maiming myself. To do so is a process of self-mutilation. The Church teaches queer people masochism. It teaches us to turn ourselves inside out, to hide our truths in our stomachs and let the acid churn it into nothingness.
Nothing short of divine intervention—a conversation with my sister—invited me into a world of new possibilities.
At my lowest moment of spiritual pain, I called my older sister. Between sobs, I lamented, “For my whole life, I dreamed of being a pastor, and now who I am means that I can never be. I can never become who I imagined myself to be.”
Knowingly, my sister offered me words of wisdom: “Who told you that you cannot be queer and Christian? You are already those two things as we speak. What if there is another way to know and understand God? I do not want you to live a life based upon self-rejection. What does it mean for you to accept and love yourself as you are—and trust that God does too?”
My sister, in her brilliance, gave me a gift that many queer people are not offered: the gift of spiritual agency. Many LGBTQIA+ people spend their lives contorting themselves into theological doctrines that are steeped in self-denial. My sister freed me from the practice of making myself unrecognizable for the comfort of others. She reminded me that some Biblical interpretations are not rooted in love or truth, but power and control. She reminded me of my right to refuse loveless theology. She reminded me of my right to take time to discover who I believe God is to me.
Her words reframed my turmoil. It was not just that I did not want to serve a homophobic God. I also did not want to serve an Islamophobic God, or an anti-Black God, or a xenophobic God, or a God that would lead me to believe Trump is the incarnation of spiritual righteousness.
The study of Biblical interpretation is called hermeneutics. I needed a new hermeneutic, one that was geared toward liberation, because I believe that God is a God who liberates the oppressed and opposes injustice. I never believed in the two-issue God, a God consumed with disdain for LGBTQIA+ people and abortion but unconcerned with Black lives, affordable housing, and universal health care. That God is unrecognizable to me. That God mirrors white supremacy. I do not know that God, and that God does not see me.
In her book, Our Lives Matter: A Womanist Queer Theology, Pamela Lightsey discusses the important fact that many LGBTQIA+ people know God through experience (prayer, worship, meditation), not through Biblical text. I know that for some LGBTQIA+ this feels insufficient: Because the text is used to reject them, queer people also want textual evidence that it accepts them. As such, many queer Christians spend their lives reading and re-reading a few Bible verses that appear to condemn them, while feeling disconnected from a God that loves them. Though I am always happy to sit with LGBTQIA+ people and unpack Bible verses with them, I want to help LGBTQIA+ people break this cycle of Biblical obsession. My praxis of theological belonging mirrors that of some of the womanist scholars who came before me. I encourage LGBTQIA+ to know and experience God for themselves. For me, trusting that God loves me is much more freeing than debating the meaning of Biblical passages that have been utilized to subjugate me.
Though the text is deeply important, I want to remind queer people that they can ask themselves: Who do I know God to be? and trust their internal wisdom to guide them along their journey. I want queer people to know that they have their own inalienable wealth of spiritual knowledge that is valuable, powerful, and always available to them. Dominant Christian narratives declare that queerness is a choice, not an inherent identity. And further, that queerness is a sinful choice, one that willfully places LGBTQIA+ people in opposition to God. This narratives splits LGBTQIA+ people of faith into two selves: their spiritual self and their queer self. I believe that these selves are one and the same and that God accepts queer people fully as we are. I do not want LGBTQIA+ to live lives where they are constantly seeking spiritual approval from others—or worse, lives where they constantly feel spiritually unworthy. In my work, I remind LGBTQIA+ that they, too, are divine and spiritual beings, that they can pray and trust that an all-knowing and deeply loving God will meet them there.
It is important to note that my suggestion is not new. As many Black women religious scholars have noted, enslaved Black people documented their own unique relationships with Biblical text. Many enslaved Black people did not read the text in its entirety due to the fact that slave masters deployed certain Biblical passages as a means to justify enslavement. As a result, many enslaved people read the Bible, but avoided passages that were interpreted so as to cosign white supremacy.
I understand that certain Bible verses are extrapolated out of their context and used as tools of oppression. Hermeneutics is not just theory; it begets material consequences. According to the UCLA Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law and Public Policy, almost 700,000 LGBTQIA+ identified people from the ages of 18 to 59 have undergone conversion therapy. That is 700,000 lives forever harmed by bad theology and harmful Biblical interpretations. We are a society in desperate need of progressive religious education. Every day, I grieve that the mainstream Church believes in a God that is big enough to create the universe, but too small to love LGBTQIA+ people as they are. What a petty and unloving God.
What if there is another way to know God?
This is the question that my sister offered me at 19 years old. This is the question that guides my work, and I hope that it can be the question that guides LGBTQIA+ people as they discern their place in the ethereal world. I want LGBTQIA+ people to know that they do not have to deny their faith, even if their faith practice denies them. I want LGBTQIA+ to know that when it comes to Biblical interpretation there is no absolute truth, only interpretations that are filtered through our human experience. As humans, we crafted God in our image. We made God bigoted, capitalistic, anti-Black, xenophobic, and graceless. There is another way to know God. There are hermeneutical interpretations that believe in a God who does not mirror white supremacy, but stands with those of us who have been denied our humanity on the basis of who we are.
My journey toward believing in a queer-affirming Christian God has not been an easy path. It is full of moments of self-doubt, fear, religious persecution, and personal shame. Yet, in each of these moments God met me with radical love and unwavering acceptance. By seeking to experience God both through prayer and by attending queer-affirming churches, I found a God who loves me not in spite of who I am, but because of who I am. And further, I found community, both straight and queer, who also believe like I do, that God stands with the oppressed and is concerned about the well-being of all people. Matthew 18:20 says, “Where two or more are gathered in my name, there I am also.” This passage does not specify straightness as a prerequisite to know and commune with God. I know that as LGBTQIA+ stand for our rights and advocate for our inclusion, that God stands with and among us. I believe in a God that exists in the midst of those who are pushing for the inclusion of people who are marginalized for daring to be all that God created them to be. That is the God I know. That is the God I love. And that is the God I serve.