My Advent: A Queer Faith Journey
by Alyssa Sileo
College is not just about working toward your degree. You will also have a series of moments of self-discovery about your identity and your hopes for yourself and the world.
I’ve been quite literally blessed to be a student of an institution that makes my new faith journey possible.
I want to share about what it’s like to be a queer person pursuing a faith community, not only because I gain more clarity by talking about it, but I also can express to others in similar situations that there is hope.
A bit about me and my faith history: I was raised Catholic and attended Catholic school for the first 14 years of my life. I enjoyed being a faithful person, but once I reached sixth grade, I started understanding some stances that this church took that I did not and could not support, especially because of my newly realized queer identity.
What I had always liked about faith is how it drives a person to do good and fight for others. However, I saw that becoming less and less of the true mission of the particular Christian space I was within. By their leadership and messaging, they valued exclusion over inclusion and were too prone to condemning actions and beliefs before working to understand them. They did not validate other alternate interpretations of what is and is not divine. even though i did not have many non-Catholic people in my life, I was upset that my faith spoke about other religions as “incorrect.”
I began the coming out process in eighth grade to my family and close friends. As a younger person, there were still some things I did not understand about myself or the society I lived in, which made the process eventful. Even though I was largely-in-part immediately accepted by my family and close friends, I began to understand that queerness was not welcome in at least the Catholic spaces of my region, and certainly not by the greater Catholic Church’s dogma.
What initially made me the most upset about this lack of acceptance was that I believed it entirely strayed from the teachings of Jesus. To think that an entire faith system diverted from the truth it is supposed to hail from made me feel hopeless about ever finding a faith community that clicked into the principles of radical love. That’s what I got from the Gospel, anyway — love, love, and love.
However, isolated in this way, I started to believe that maybe I heard the Gospel wrong. Maybe this spirit of kindness I felt so strongly about is not from a God in Christianity, but something completely removed from Christian spaces. I still believed in a God, miracles, and prayer, but these things were disconnected from the Church.
Once I graduated eighth grade and began high school at a public high school, the chasm between me and Catholicism grew deeper. When I fully came out throughout that autumn and winter, it became clearer that I did not want to align myself with an institution that did not support me or my community. My family supported that decision entirely.
So, I went through most all of high school without even stepping in a church, and when I ever did, I felt such a deep sense of sadness, as though I lost a home. No more Christmas Eve mass on my birthday. No more of my favorite hymns. I began to forget their lyrics and melody with every Sunday that passed. I spent those mornings writing or reading, trying to do something Church-y that was not too Church-like. I would eat some of the special Easter and Christmas Food thanks to the bakeries in the area, but that was the max amount of seasonal Catholicism I would access. I wore a St. Therese charm I bought in a French basilica around my neck for all of senior year, but she was essentially the only faith leader I felt I could trust, since she spoke about loving others. That’s it.
I missed a community to pray with. But I also questioned if that was something I even had to begin with. I never had a faith leader to go to during times of trouble. I felt bad about myself more often during religion class than I ever felt good. All of this doubt brought me to a place in which I adopted the belief that it didn’t matter if the true roots of Christianity were broken or if this faith was always exclusionist anyway. Either of those facts would mean that there would never be a faith space that projected the same values I shared. I came to believe that Christian faith communities were spaces that perpetuated my community’s oppression.
I had followed a couple queer pastors on Twitter who were doing awesome things in their Church. I would retweet their posts and read their blogs. But even then, their churches were in different states. Even then, I was unsure if their congregations stood with all the principles of human rights that I believed in so deeply. Even then, I basically had decided that what my soul needed was not supported by any group in this society.
And amidst this rejection of Christianity, I felt guilty for still missing certain prayers and rituals of holy seasons. I missed the simultaneous simplicity and complexity of Bible stories that said so much to me with so little words. The things that hallmarked so much of my childhood and brought me comfort also brought upon such an inner conflict.
Then senior year came along, and I wanted a Church more than ever, and I decided which college to attend. It is home to one of the most progressive theological schools in the country. It has a campus that values interfaith conversation more than I’ve ever seen in a school environment before. I didn’t decide on this school because of these things — but goodness, was I excited to engage with it.
I met two faith leaders from the nearest Protestant Church at the campus club fair. I immediately asked if their congregations were queer-affirming — and with an enthusiastic yes for an answer, I attended their Sunday fellowship dinner and early morning service within the next two weeks.
Throughout these first couple of weeks, I began to understand something very essential about the theological school, this faith community, and congregations like these. The leadership and messaging spoke about the figure of Jesus as someone who practiced civil disobedience, fought for the marginalized, and spoke out against oppressive systems. I was relieved, excited, and hopeful all at once. I found what what I felt in my own gut at a younger age was right about how this faith can be interpreted as advocacy. I became a lot less scared to engage with certain faith concepts and practices. It became so much easier for me to speak about God. Most of all, I love the ways this faith community emphasizes being there for each other in both the good and hard times.
Having this faith community has been instrumental to building the incredible first semester experience I’ve had. I am understanding more and more that faith does not belong to a singular church or way of acting, but that a person should be able to engage with their spirituality in whatever way they see fit. I am learning that one should never have to feel as though they must reject one part of themselves to embrace another part, and within my future, I want to advocate for the creation of more spaces like this one. I’m home on Winter Break right now, and as far as I know, there are not any faith communities like this one in my part of the state. The fact that it took a location switch for me to find this home is a factor I want to remove from the equation of what it takes for a queer person to find that home if they so wish.
I still have my baggage with aligning myself with Christianity. I believe I will be working towards resolving this my whole life, considering how integral growing into and out of it was within my childhood and early teenage years. Sometimes I call myself Pluralist more than Christian because a huge part of my spiritual identity is celebrating the appearance of God in multiple interpretations. Some of my most impactful moments this semester include both certain services at church and the Shabbat and High Holy Days I’ve been welcomed to for my campus’ Hillel alliance. My exposure to multiple ways to engage in faith has helped me to realize it is not just in traditional faith contexts that I get to be spiritual. I learn as much about the world through art and theatre as I do from Scripture. I am learning to be okay with the fact that there may not be a name for how I honor the universe — the fact that I have found multiple ways to is what I am most grateful for.
I don’t regret the start of my faith journey one bit — without that, I would not be where I am now. I’m writing so many theatre pieces about those experiences as well as what catches my ear in all of the religious events I am attending. Within this year, between certain theatre experiences and this ability to finally come back to church, I’ve understood for myself that there is nothing sinful or lesser about my identity. In fact, it is my belief, supported by scripture as well as what I hear from faith leaders and also in my own heart, that my identity was perfectly made, deserves to be expressed, and has the power to change the world for the better. I’ll keep dedicating my advocacy to helping save queer lives. This new faith community of mine has helped me salvage so much of myself and hold onto what makes me excited to get up in the morning.
This holiday season feels much more joyful than ever before. I am still on a “church tour” and look forward to visiting even more progressive Christian congregations as I grow closer with my primary one and keep learning about other faith traditions. It is my belief that anyone with true love in their heart — whether they align it with a religion or not — deserves to have ways to express that love, for that is what changes the world every day.
Right now I am celebrating Advent, which is characterized by waiting for the birth of Jesus. I used to cry during high school when I watched The Little Drummer Boy because I missed Church so much. The Star of Bethlehem seemed so far from me. But now I understand the Star of Wonder to be the one that shone for me to land where I am now and, and the one that shines for every person who wants a home. It is my wish that I can do anything to keep it shining for all that will come after me.
If you celebrate a holiday this season, I hope it is full of bright, bright hope.
About the Author:
Alyssa Sileo’s Thespian identity comes first and foremost in anything she carries out. As a member of the Drew University Class of 2022, she studies theatre arts, women’s and gender studies, and Spanish. She’s a proud NJ Thespian Alumni and member of their state chapter board. She is the leader of the international performances network The Laramie Project Project, which unites worldwide productions and readings of the acclaimed Tectonic Theater Project play and encourages community-based LGBTQ+ advocacy. Alyssa is humbled to serve as the 2017 Spirit of Matthew Award winner and as a Youth Ambassador for Matthew Shepard Foundation. She believes there is an advocacy platform tucked into every piece of the theatre catalogue and intends to write outreach into the canon.