This piece was adapted from Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious (Beacon Press, 2012).
gay... and I don't know why God won't answer my prayers."
That was the opening line of a journal I kept during my adolescence, the contents of which detailed my private struggle as an adolescent to reconcile my sexuality with my fundamentalist Christian beliefs.
Picking me up from an event, she told me that she read it, and that she loved me. I sobbed and went downstairs to my room, refusing to leave for the rest of the day.
The next morning, I slept in. Eventually I woke up and, after lying in bed for an hour staring at the spackled ceiling, went upstairs.
My mom was sitting at the kitchen table with a glass of water, working on some insurance paperwork. She looked up at me and said: "I scheduled a meeting with a minister. Let's go."
I followed her to the car, opened the passenger door, and climbed in. Still in my pajamas, I sat silently, running through the possible outcomes of this meeting. Who was this minister? Was he going to try to cure me of my disorder? Was he going to fix me? After what my mom had said the day before, it didn't seem likely that she'd be sending me off to reparative-therapy camp, but I couldn't fathom the possibility that a minister could be anything but anti-gay.
I looked out the right side of the car and saw a swarm of black terns rise from the marsh I had often explored with my siblings. Out the left window, we passed the parking lot where just the night before my mom had broken open the lock on my secret life. In less than 24 hours, everything had changed. I didn't feel like a child anymore, yet I wasn't an adult. I was in between worlds, lost.
We pulled into the parking lot of Incarnation Lutheran Church, right next door to the middle school I'd graduated from the year before, and stopped the car in an empty spot. My mom came around to my side of the car, opened the door, and motioned for me to exit. She gave me a hug, took my hand, and led me to the front door of the church. I walked alongside her in a daze, blinded by the bright spring sun shining down on us.
I stopped at the entrance and looked up at the giant crucifix on the building's front face. Two thousand and two or so years ago, Jesus had died on a cross very much like it; I would turn 14 in a week, and, for the first time since converting to fundamentalist Christianity, I cringed at the sight of this ancient symbol.
"We're here to see Pastor Luther Dale," my mom said. I stared at the maroon rug at my feet, unable to look at the secretary, convinced she knew why I was there. My face flushed with embarrassment at the thought of anyone else knowing my secret.
"Right this way," I heard her say. Then, the shuffle of feet and my mom's hand grabbing mine to lead me down the hall to an office filled with books and framed Bible verses.
Pastor Dale had gray hair and wore a big smile. He sat in a desk chair and motioned for my mother and me to sit on a floral-patterned couch.
"Your mother called me yesterday and let me know you've been struggling with something," he said, cautiously.
I turned bright red and looked down at my feet.
"Would you like me to leave you two alone?" my mom asked me. After nearly a minute, I nodded. I didn't know what to think. She put her arm around my shoulder, squeezed me tight, and walked out of the room. She stopped at the door, turned around, and said she'd be out in the office reception if I needed her.
I sat on the couch with my arms crossed tightly across my chest. After another minute of my silence, he raised the issue again.
"You know, I know this is a tough issue. One of my closest friends struggled with it for a long time." I looked up and he nodded.
"My best friend and roommate in college was gay," Pastor Dale said, exhaling and crossing one of his legs over the other. "He had always been a little quiet, and didn't ever really share much about his personal life. Then one night, near the end of college, he came out to me. He said he had struggled with it all of his life, and that he finally couldn't keep it in any longer and needed to tell someone.
"I know that I can't even begin to imagine how difficult this is for you," he said, looking pained. "But I want you to know that there are people who care about you a whole lot, like your mom, and who love you just the way that God made you. They don't want you to change, and neither does God."
He grabbed my Teen Study Bible out of my hands; I stared at the floor.
"'Alternative lifestyle' usually refers to making a sexual choice," he said, reading aloud from the book. "When it comes to sex, don't kid yourself about some of those choices being morally all right: It's wrong to have sex with any close relative. It's wrong to have sex with animals. It's wrong to have homosexual sex." He sighed loudly.
"If someone tells you homosexuality is an alternative lifestyle -- meaning that it's OK -- don't let those words fool you. It's an alternative all right. A sinful one."
After a final sigh, he delicately lifted a red pen from his desk and drew strong, deliberate red lines over the entire page, creating a giant X.
"This is dehumanizing garbage," he said. "Being gay isn't like incest or bestiality. Jesus would be flipping tables in the authors' offices over this."
I looked up from the floor and, for the first time in far too long, genuinely smiled.
I couldn't really take in what I was hearing. Here was a Man of God, with the collar to prove it, saying that God had made me this way.
Here, finally, was someone in a position of religious authority telling me that there was nothing unnatural about my sexual orientation.
The burden of believing I was a monster and the struggle of dealing with that conflict in secret was over. I felt liberated, as if the demons had been cast out of me. After years of speaking with other LGBTQ people, I know that my situation was the exception to the rule. So many people I've met have been rejected by their families and their churches; many ultimately even reject themselves. I believe in many ways that my mom and Pastor Dale saved my life, and I remain grateful that my mom chose love over fear.
Years later, I stopped believing in God and became an atheist. Eventually, after years of grappling with different approaches to religion, I decided I wanted to commit to promoting interfaith cooperation and understanding.
Though I am no longer a Christian, that meeting with the first pastor to tell me that it was okay to be myself changed my life forever. I think of it often when considering the importance of interfaith work -- of sharing stories across lines of religious difference, and affirming that differences in identity and experience are what make us human.
He was the first person to say that I could be me -- and though I no longer believe in miracles or blessings, his act of love was akin to both.