There’s a beautiful old building a few streets over from where my church meets to worship, and it catches my eye each time I drive past it. The charcoal exterior of the A-frame design stands out against the urban Birmingham backdrop. I’ve heard the building is just two shotgun style houses, put together, but the design reminds me of the little Methodist church in the town where I was born. Last Saturday night, I was invited into its sanctuary.
The stairs creaked as I walked in the front door and turned the decorative metal knob. A small crowd gathered just past the foyer, while music boomed from within. As we entered the main room, I found smiles all around, people hugging and talking. Some were drinking, most were dancing.
To celebrate a friend’s birthday, I’d just entered a gay bar for the first time. I’d been invited to step into my friend’s world.
The interior walls were black, and the lights had been dimmed throughout, but there was a lightness in the air. I couldn’t get past the sense that this place was a real church. There were barstools instead of pews, and bartenders standing in for ushers. Nonetheless, I recognized the feeling permeating the club. It was a feeling of safety, of love, of community, of belonging. And isn’t that what the Church is all about?
I walked into that churchy old building, converted into a gay club, and I found God.
Love is Just Love
The place was a safe haven for those who have been cast aside from most traditional worship. Many have even lost their families. But here, nobody had to fight to be seen or struggle to be afforded the dignity many Americans assume is theirs from birth. In this sanctuary, my friends were able to be fully themselves, congregating in the name that is above every name: the name of Love. And I saw that love is too great to ever be labeled “worldly” or “godly”, “sacred” or “secular”. Love is just love.
As the night progressed, the music grew louder and the drinks stronger. The dance floor was filled with familiar faces, and my dearest friends spun, shook, and smiled, weaving themselves in a beautiful tapestry of peace and freedom. It was more than just a party; it was a spiritual experience.
My friends were living into their identity, knowing that in a few hours, they would return to straight America. Many would once again hold their true selves at a comfortable distance, not wanting to offend their neighbors, co-workers, or those who sit with them on more familiar pews.
I watched them dance, and thought this is life. I could feel Emmanuel, God-with-us. My friends were the most alive I’d ever seen them. They must have felt God too. With lifted hearts and heads, the room was filled with laughter, our entire beings, overcome with the joy of the Lord.
Outside that bar, my friends are judged, cursed, and worse by so-called Christians who are “preaching the truth in love.” But inside, they find a shelter from the storm, a community, peace, safety and love. There’s really only one word to describe what they find in that club — God.
The Most Rebellious Thing a Christian Can Do
This was the first time I went to a club on Saturday night and wasn’t overwhelmed with guilt and shame on Sunday morning. Standing in the crowded club that night, the smell of cigarette smoke wafting in from the patio as music blasted in my ears, my friend leaned over and said, “We should do this more often.” He didn’t necessarily mean we should party on a more regular basis, but that we should be in the community, our community, the gay community, more consistently.
As I scanned the horizon last weekend, I couldn’t help but think that my friends would have been Jesus’ friends. This would have been exactly the place where Jesus would have hung his hat.
Jesus took a drink of water from a woman who had been married multiple times. He was anointed for burial by a prostitute. He ate with tax collectors (who were about as socially progressive as Donald Trump). And Jesus never let the cultural norms of his day or the loudest voices of dissent intimidate him from preaching a gospel of inclusion for all people.
It’s okay to be a rebellious Christian.
Jesus came to offer an invitation. He promised that the underdog would have a front row seat in His radical new kingdom, where the last are first. Jesus and those who followed him were square pegs who refused to fit in a round hole.
Whether they realize it or not, the friends I met at the gay bar understand what the disciples of Jesus discovered long ago — that it is okay to rebel against the status quo, when the status quo is doing more to keep people out, than to draw people in.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
– Jesus Christ, Luke 4:18–21 ESV
The message of Jesus was a big “hell no” to the way things had always been.
When we, the Church, stop expecting people to fit our mold, agree with our politics, or live up to our social expectations, we extend freedom and joy to all of God’s people. And isn’t freedom and joy what we all want? Isn’t that what Christ offers us?
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me — watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
–Jesus Christ, Matthew 11:28–30
For a group of people so disenfranchised from the Church, the gay bar is a place where everyone is an equal. It’s a place where “Love is Love” isn’t a cliché’ slogan on a rainbow bumper sticker. It is believed and lived. Love is universal. And the most rebellious thing a disciple of Jesus can offer another human being is love.
Happy PRIDE, friends. You are dearly and queerly loved!