Sunday, 4 September 2011 will go down as an important day in my spiritual journey. I had an extraordinary experience today that I feel compelled to share with all of you. When I left the WTS I also decided to have nothing to do with organized religion. My experience in the WTS had convinced me that there was very little that was good to be found in any religious organization and that I was better off flying solo as it were.
As I have related elsewhere, I was disfellowshipped for being a gay man. For all of my more than thirty-five years association with Jehovah's Witnesses I was made to feel nothing but shame, guilt, and self-hatred for simply being who I am. I was told that I had to purge my very nature if I were to receive everlasting life, that God himself was disgusted with my thoughts and emotions. I read it in the literature, I heard it from the platform, and I listened to it in Witness gatherings at the Kingdom Hall, in field service, and informal get-togethers. After finally turning my back on the WTS, I concluded that I could only have a solitary existence as I followed my own spiritual path.
But then I decided to see if there were other gay Christians in my area and would it be possible to fellowship with them. Lo and behold! I searched the Internet and found a church that was set up to serve the gay and lesbian community in metropolitan Denver. The website contained loads of useful and encouraging information and I finally made up my mind to attend its Sunday morning service. It was a journey of more than thirty miles but I found it was worth it. The church is located in one of Denver's oldest neighborhoods, not far from the state Capitol building. I had no trouble finding it, but was still apprehensive as I walked along the tree-shaded streets to the building.
My reception was warm and friendly. I wasn't "love-bombed" but that made my welcome seem all the more genuine. The service itself was remarkable! After decades of attending the stiff, dry, and formula-ridden meetings in Kingdom Halls, it was amazing to be at a service that featured dynamic music in a building full of light. The congregation was a wonderful blend of people. Most of it was gay, of course, but there were a few straight couples there who looked completely comfortable and entirely at home. As for the gay couples, some of whom had children, you could see that here was a place where they could be themselves. Sitting quietly together, occasionally caressing their partners' hands or even giving them a soft kiss, was something new for me to see. Fear, hatred, contempt, and prejudice had been left outside and the worshippers could concentrate on hearing the pastor's message.
And that message was something utterly different from anything I had ever heard in a Kingdom Hall. It had nothing to do with human sexuality and the freedom to pursue a particular lifestyle. Instead, the minister wove Romans 13:8-10 and Matthew 18:15-20 into his talk. In a warm and friendly voice, he exerted his listeners to remember that the community they were now part of was composed of people who were imperfect, and so misunderstandings, frictions, and even bitter disputes could and would arise. The key to solving them was to remember how love was the complete fulfillment of both the Law of Moses and the teachings of Christ. Sometimes extending love and forgiveness to those who have hurt us is very challenging, even difficult, but if we would have peace among ourselves and God's blessing, we must make every effort to do so. And should we find we need help, then we could turn to other members of the community for it. The minister pointedly condemned those religions who used Matthew 18:15-20 as a pretext for "excommunicating" people, for that was not at all the thrust of our Lord's meaning.
I couldn't help contrasting this service and the words it put forth with the rigid, unbending, sanctimonious fulminations one hears in WTS public talks and literature studies and lessons. Several times during either the sermon or hymns as I listened to the words, I had to hold back tears as I felt here was a place where I could be accepted, loved, and respected for simply being who I was. When the service ended, I couldn't believe that an hour had gone by. One glaring contrast was the fact that none of the children fidgeted or had to be disciplined during the meeting as they fought boredom. Instead, it was evident that they enjoyed being there as much as their parents did.
Did they pass a collection plate? Yes they did and I gladly contributed. This church is actively involved in giving back to the community in which it is located. It operates a food bank, conducts a ministry toward those suffering from HIV and AIDS, assists the homeless, has an outreach program to people of color, and counsels youths. You won't find anything like that in any Kingdom Hall, look where you may.
When the service ended, the minister told me he was glad to see me, especially since this was my first time there. He asked me to come back again. I spoke to others who said the same, one woman smiling at me and saying she looked forward to talking to me again. When she asked about my own background I smiled ruefully and said only that I was a "refugee", and how glad I was to find a community where I could be myself. She smiled in return and then said she was an "ex-Presbyterian" and had come to the Metropolitan Community Church of the Rockies for the same reasons that had drawn me in.
Will I go back? Yes, I will. When the service ended today I felt refreshed in a way I have not my entire adult life. I actually felt closer to God than I have for years. I felt love and gratitude toward him for allowing me to find a place that made me feel whole and human again, and that had rekindled my spirituality in a way I never thought possible. I also appreciated the fact that nobody pretended that their community was perfect or that there were no problems there. The difference for me was first, the open acknowledgement of this; and second, the fact that people were genuinely glad to attend services here and receive the kind of refreshment and strengthening they needed to go about their lives. Nobody was told they weren't doing enough to serve God. Nobody was given a list of regulations they had to follow. Instead, we were urged to draw as close to God and one another as we could, trusting that he would be pleased with our genuine efforts.
I certainly want to learn more about this community and see whether I can not only receive good things from it, but give them as well. I am excited about the prospects and what they mean for my own spiritual life. I have reached a milestone on my journey that will stand like a beacon for me because it has shown that I still have a deep spiritual need, and that I will be blessed if I seek to fill it. My friends, whatever your circumstances, I wish the same for each and every one of you.