Once upon a time there was a Presbyqueerian who lived in the City of Magnificent Intentions with lots of Family. Even her church was filled with Family. They marched together through magical streets lined with rainbows, telling everyone they were safe and welcome and loved by God. And they were. Even and especially people who had been clobbered before by the Trolls of the Troubling Texts. Many Family members, including the Presbyqueerian, had long ago slain the Troubling Text Trolls and would just as soon have left them behind and forgotten about them. But the Church in the City of Magnificent Intentions decided one summer to take on troll after troll, text after text, week after week. Presbyqueerian knew it was important to help take on the trolls, but was not enthusiastic about facing them again — not because they were so scary anymore, but because she was so tired of fighting them.
One bright summer morning, while she was not exactly avoiding the Troubling Text Trolls but was very much distracted by the pretty wildflowers and most interesting mushrooms calling her away from the City, the Presbyqueerian wandered into the Woods and lost her way. She was very frightened, but then she saw a friendly little misty mountain town in the distance. In it were three churches, very good-natured, tidy, and hospitable. There was a little, small, wee kirk, a middle-sized contemporary congregation, and a great huge tall steeple church.
In the little, small, wee kirk, where the marquis advertised the simple message “ALL ARE WELCOME,” a dedicated crowd of twelve sang louder than two thousand regular Presbyterians (and just as off key) on a Sunday morning, out of a strange book she had not seen since her childhood visits to Grandmother’s house. (Grandmother was a Southern Baptist.) They were singing bloody violence about substitutionary atonement, and the Presbyqueerian grew apprehensive, but they were so very friendly. “My what big voices you have!” “The better to greet you with, my dear!” They recited by heart their Creed unaltered for centuries, one the Presbyqueerian learned in Confirmation class long ago, then unlearned in a college course on Gnosticism. I believe in God the Father, Our Father, Glory be to the Father, Praise Him Father Son and Holy Ghost. Even as she strove to be a good girl and fit in and knew the creed (not printed in the bulletin) by heart, like the other twelve people, her soul screamed “AND MOTHER!” But she said nothing out loud because it would be impolite to explode their Patriarchal God-Box and instead she smiled at the pastor’s wife in the pew in front of her.
The pastor preached a topical sermon about an article in the local paper on two churches leaving the denomination over same-gender marriage. The pastor chastised the congregations for leaving, to the Presbyqueerian’s great relief, until he rebuked everyone involved in the struggle over same-gender marriage for fighting like children. Between this condemnation, his literal exegesis, and the closest thing to an altar call she had ever seen in Presbyterian worship, the Presbyqueerian exclaimed “This church is too hot!” And she jumped up and ran away into the forest and never returned to the little, small, wee kirk.
The next week she attended worship with the middle-sized contemporary congregation, with music by Bobbi and Marty Culp. The autoharp was unsettling, evoking strong memories of childhood summers in Vacation Bible School, where she confused Kookabura and Zacchaeus (gay your life must be, wee little man). Still, compared to the wee kirk there was more inclusive language, and the sermon was thoughtful and historically, linguistically, and scientifically informed. Nearly everyone introduced themselves after, and the Presbyqueerian felt right welcome. She befriended a woman carrying a 3 month old infant, and began to talk with her about the child. An older woman walked up to greet the woman and child, turned to Presbyqueerian, and said, “Do you have children?” When Presbyqueerian said “no” she said, “A husband?” “No.” “Well there’s still time for you, dear.” Presbyqueerian understood the woman was trying to be kind so she decided not to come out or point out the heterosexual privilege inherent in her statement, as it might embarrass the woman or hurt her feelings, and after all, they had just met. Still, she was beginning to feel misunderstood and wondered if she was fully welcome here, though she knew better than to read too much into one woman’s comment.
Another friendly member of the middle-sized contemporary congregation approached Presbyqueerian and began to ask questions to get to know her better. When she inquired about her circumstances, Presbyqueerian drew up her courage and explained she had been wandering in the Woods and was looking for a good-natured, tidy, and hospitable church to visit, and shared that the little, small, wee kirk had frightened her with their rhetoric about queers. The Presbyqueerian had been in the Woods long enough to recognize what came next: the tight smile, and the beguiling drawl of “well, bless your heart!” Her heart was not blessed but rather sank with this disingenuous welcome. This church was too cold! Maybe it was better not to reveal so much next time, to find out what she can contribute first, and just contribute, and worry about all this queer business later… After all, God is with us even in our closets, right? Sensing the danger in this line of thought, she ran away into the Woods again, to get away from the middle-sized contemporary congregation and clear her head.
She wandered in the Woods contemplating whether to return to the middle-sized contemporary congregation. Maybe what her gut was telling her was wrong. Maybe there were some truly welcoming people there, and she hadn’t met them yet. But without a printed inclusion statement in the bulletin, without welcome from the pulpit (beyond y’all are welcome), without any visible queer members (not even the music minister!), there was no real indication it would be any different next visit, and would she endure more microaggression — or passive aggression — from other members? Presbyqueerian sighed as she contemplated what she would have to do: work hard to meet more people, many more than if she were not queer, then gauge whether or not it would be safe to come out and when and to whom, and steel herself against the hurt and disappointment when some people would inevitably prove to be unwelcoming, not to mention the even more exhausting and potentially alienating work should she ask whether the church might consider formally expressing specific welcome in the bulletin. She grew tired just thinking about it, and she was already so. very. tired.
She thought about checking out the great huge tall steeple church, but Presbyqueerian was already wary of great huge tall steeple churches. She knew that in the City of Magnificent Intentions, and in other cities too, the great huge tall steeple churches tended to set time tables for another’s freedom. Whenever there was a group that was being mistreated, the great huge tall steeple churches would say they would stand with them and stand up to the bullies together, but then when standing up to bullies actually cost the great huge tall steeple church something in terms of risk to their reputation or funding, they would say “yes we will stand up for you….but not now; it is too risky now; you must wait.” (That slippage in preposition from with to for said so much!) And of course, for the mistreated group, it was always too risky already.
As Presbyqueerian was thinking these thoughts, she came upon a traveling Lesbyterian woodsperson who had been to the great huge tall steeple church; she said that even though it didn’t have Family like the church in the City of Magnificant Intentions, Presbyqueerian should check it out. And so she did. When Presbyqueerian visited the great huge tall steeple church. the preacher seemed genuinely welcoming, but the people were prim and proper and well dressed and only exchanged superficial niceties. This church was lukewarm!
How Presbyqueerian longed for the City of Magnificent Intentions! She had not fully cherished what it meant to belong to a church where Family and Friends of Family marched together through magical streets lined with rainbows, telling everyone they were safe and welcome and loved by God. “There’s no place like home,” she thought. She clicked her heels together three times, and wished as hard as she could, but nothing happened. Presbyqueerian knew she had to make her way in the Woods for now, and maybe forever.
She sat on a nearby stump in despair. She thought about what her church family would be doing at that moment, and laughed to remember they were probably fighting the Trolls of the Troubling Texts. And then Presbyqueerian recalled some things from her times fighting the Trolls of the Troubling Texts so many years ago. She remembered how much it mattered that she witnessed and told her story, even if she was tired, and even if it hurt. It mattered to her own sense of self, if mattered to others who heard her, though she may never know who, how, or why, and it mattered to God. She remembered that in all of this search for belonging, she belonged to God. And Presbyqueerian suddenly knew she was not alone, even in the Woods.
It wasn’t happily ever after, but it was enough.
Donna, I am so glad that, despite the tiredness and the hurt, you told us this marvelous tale about Presbyqueerian, a heroine of whom I am most fond. I am delight with the ending–the happiest I could have imagined! Thank you. (So glad you are still here writing for MLP!)