One of the beauties of Christianity is that, like Jesus the Christ, after whom it was named, it is theoretically and officially welcoming to all who are moved to explore what it teaches and offers.
One of the most heartbreaking failures of Christianity is not just that it sometimes fails to be that welcoming but that sometimes it makes some people feel like unwanted outsiders with serious moral failures and intolerable ideas.
That has been true from the beginning and, sadly, remains true today. What is also true, however, is that across its history the Christian church has raised up prophetic voices that call the church to account for this by challenging it to live up to the ideal of love and inclusion that Jesus modeled.
A new such voice is that of the Rev. Steven Andrews (pictured below), a pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA) whose new book, That's Me in the Closet: A Spiritual Memoir, is a fiercely honest account of how an abused child who eventually discovered himself to be bisexual came to embrace a faith, Christianity, that promised him a chance to be fully who he is. (Andrews currently is the interim, or transitional, pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church of Kansas City.)
This is a painful story of a child who was rejected in countless ways, who knew he was highly intelligent but who had almost no social skills needed to survive childhood. Nonetheless, he was open to finding a place for himself in a hostile world. But the focus of the book is not solely personal. Rather, it also considers what others might learn from that at-times bitter story.
In many ways, the book is a plea to the Christian church in particular and to institutional religion more generally to become the healing, loving, generative presences that the wounded world so desperately needs them to be.
At the end of this difficult story of personal redemption and change, Andrews asks this about people who have been socially, sexually, economically, racially religiously and/or otherwise marginalized: "The question is, then, can we be ourselves anywhere? Can any church accept leaders and people for who they are? Can any church be a place where you can tell a story like mine and be your whole self the whole time? Or will institutional concerns always get in the way?"
It is exactly the right question. And for the answer to be "yes," some difficult changes may well be necessary -- in some faith communities more than others but, in the end, in all. For no single congregation or denomination or faith tradition gets it right every time.
As Andrews notes, "The institutional church does not, by its nature, take chances. It does not pursue its passions. It doesn't even pursue Jesus' passions. It doesn't express itself in authentic ways. It is afraid that if it were truly authentic, it would lose everything that keeps it alive. . .
"The church and Jesus are different. Every time I am hurt by the church, I say this to myself again. The church and Jesus are also the same. The church is the body of Christ. The Bible says that we are his hands and feet, that we have a mystical connection with him such that the church is an extension of him, a physical representation of him. For some reason, Jesus chose to throw in his lot with the church. What a holy fool! Either his judgment is poor or we need to to more to live like him."
I won't go into detail here about all the trauma Andrews went through as a child in an unstable, erratically mobile, often-dysfunctional family. Just know that today, as a member of the clergy, he identifies as bisexual, is married to a woman and together they are parents.
When you read the story you may have the same reaction I did: How did that kid survive all that and become what he is today, especially after he was told more than once, "You were an accident" or "You were a mistake"? Andrews' answer has to do with finding a loving God and learning how to be vulnerable and open to his true self.
"My life," he writes, "has taught me to be a boy in a closet. However, a loving God and loving people continue to draw me out of that fortress -- into a vulnerable, terrifying, life-giving authenticity. And I have chosen to be drawn out, to keep working against all the forces trying to drag me back in."
But don't imagine this was an easy journey into the arms of God. No, no. Still, God was persistent, and somehow Andrews came through it all whole -- despite the failures of the church, of family, of social structures to nourish his mind and heart and despite the fact that at more than one point in his young life he thought of himself as "worthless" and considered suicide.
What a good thing it would be for the church if members of all the governing bodies who run churches read this book and took its lessons to heart. What a better institution the church universal would be.
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HONORING MORE POLISH RESCUERS
Sometimes it takes what seems like nearly forever for stories to play out to some kind of resolution. For instance, the Vatican, as this RNS story reports, just "beatified a Polish family of nine — a married couple and their small children — who were executed by the Nazis in World War II for sheltering Jews." Poland had a deserved reputation for antisemitism, and yet there were Polish people who rescued Jews, as Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and I recounted in our 2009 book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust.
It's crucial that such stories be remembered if for no other reason than to help people understand that they are called to love and respect all people and that they must not engage in dehumanizing or demonizing others. As the RNS story noted about a family named Ulma, members "were killed at home by German Nazi troops and by Nazi-controlled local police in the small hours of March 24, 1944, together with the eight Jews they were hiding at their home, after they were apparently betrayed."
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P.S.: My friend Markandey Katju, a former justice on India's Supreme Court, has decided to argue with me in print about the death penalty. As a judge, he occasionally imposed capital punishment on someone. I am against the death penalty in all cases. No exceptions. But you can read his post about that here and decide which of us -- if either -- is right.
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ANOTHER P.S.: The Rev. Tom Are (pictured here), who has been the senior pastor of Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kan., has told his congregation that he's leaving to spend a year or so as transitional pastor of the Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, one of the nation's largest PCUSA congregations. Tom, a gracious and wise pastor, has been at Village for 20 years and has done a terrific job leading that important congregation. His last Sunday at Village will be Oct. 15.