BY DEV CUNY
As a child, I loved to dress up in my dad’s Sunday best to preach the Good News of Jesus to a congregation of furry stuffed animals. Little did I know that my favorite form of make-believe would foreshadow the painful journey of deciding between a call to ministry and fully embracing my own expression of humanity that separated me from the very church I loved. It would take many years before I learned the two were not separate.
It is an extremely isolating experience to come out as a teenager in an Evangelical Christian family in a small Southern town. As a young person, the face of God in my life was the face of my family and church. I knew with relative ease that I was gay, but accepting the implications of what that meant for my life was nearly unbearable. The church taught some of the closest people in my life—my family, spiritual leaders, friends in the congregation—that as a gay person, I was no longer welcomed at Jesus’ Table. I was sick; I needed to be fixed. Having experienced an intimate relationship with God, I felt my life shatter as I witnessed this church family I trusted most reject me. My own understanding of unconditional love drastically changed as I was abandoned at the time when I most needed to know that God loved me. The face of God transformed from one of love to one of deep judgment and disappointment.
Those around me were taught that to love me meant to save me from my own sexuality. I remember sobbing in my chair at a conference while 10,000+ youth gave a standing ovation to Jerry Falwell as he preached, “There is no such thing as Adam and Steve!” I watched as members of my community engaged in intense prayer asking God for my salvation, something I never thought I could lose. My youth group leaders eventually stopped talking to me. After I decided to move out of the house, members of my faith community came into my childhood bedroom to cleanse it of the demons they believed I had brought into my home because of my “lifestyle.” I couldn’t help but believe I was the demon they were trying to erase from my own childhood home.
My family, in their own attempt to seek help and support, became involved in the ex-gay ministry Exodus International, and eventually began volunteering regularly at a local ex-gay organization called Crossover Ministries. Embroiled in my own struggle to maintain a relationship with my family and with God, I agreed to meet with people who were undergoing treatment for their sexuality. I began regularly engaging in conversations with communities who reinforced my own fear that I had chosen my own self-interests over the love of God. I believed I was irrevocably broken, which made me try even harder to find the root of my illness so I could heal and regain God’s love.
The pull toward ministry continued into college. Believing that I couldn’t answer the call to ministry if I was active in my romantic life, I went through intermittent periods of celibacy. I tried many times to find a home in the Evangelical church, and asked several ministers if I could attend their services. The response I received time and time again was that I was welcome, but only on the condition that I entered counseling or abstain from sexual involvement.
My growing self-hatred eventually led me to agree to the most abusive spiritual practice of my life—a Deliverance. Often labeled an exorcism, the goal of a Deliverance in the Assembly of God Church is to pray away the demons that keep a person from fully embracing God’s love. Over a period of six hours, I went through intense prayer and extraordinary anger as the ministers physically and aggressively handled me while they screamed in my face, believing they were confronting the Demon of Perversion inside me. It was during the Deliverance that I realized this wasn’t working. I was still gay. Before they could finish the Deliverance, I stopped them. I left the room wailing as the lead pastor yelled after me, “You just chose hell.”
In the years that followed, I experienced bouts of depression, disillusionment, and numbness as I tried to move forward as an openly gay person who was no longer a Christian. But something was missing. I would regularly get drunk just so I could listen to the Christian music of my childhood church. It was the only way I could find to touch this deeply buried wound and desire for God.
In my late 20s, I met a friend and mentor who introduced me to a contemplative service at a local Episcopal church. It was at this service where I saw my first female minister and heard my first rector say, “Every person is welcomed, gay or straight.” I still avoided taking communion for years even at the gay-supportive Metropolitan Community Church because, deep down, I believed that gay people weren’t truly Christian. But it was here at this Episcopal church that I was compelled to walk down the aisle and participate in the most transformative Meal of my life—Eucharist. It was here that I first realized I, too, may have a place at The Table.
The experience of welcome at the Episcopal church reawakened my call to ministry, which eventually led me to attend seminary in Berkeley, CA. There, I continued to grapple with extreme internalized homophobia and loss of faith, but I also began to slowly gain a new church family. I found the support I needed to seek out healing, but this time the healing included integrating my call to God with my Divinely-created sexual and gender identity.
My family began their own healing process, and my parents shifted their views of what it meant to love others as Christ loves. The changes in my own family have helped me to restore my own faith in God. I can now say that I have witnessed a miracle. My family is becoming more and more a part of my support network, showing me the importance of reconciliation, compassion, accountability, justice, and grace for our larger Family — the family that will never abandon me.
While I continue to struggle to believe that I am an equal child of God, every year I hear the crack of another broken shackle. My family recently attended my seminary graduation where I had the opportunity to publicly thank them for fighting to love and support me. They received two standing ovations from my new faith community. Their attendance was an act of love that gave me the strength I needed to accept a chaplaincy position at a San Francisco Hospital where I hope to continue living into the role of wounded healer. I now believe that it is when I allow my own wounds to be touched and healed, that I am better able to serve as a part of this new face of God, so that others may experience the unconditional love that I so desperately craved as a gay teenager.