05/21/2014 03:37 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

The Prodigal Gay Uncle

This past weekend, I found myself in an unusual setting for me: a church. I have shied away from organized religion because organized religion has shunned me. Not shunned exactly -- church members claim to love me (a gay) and hate my sin (acting gay). People of "faith" have devised ways to distinguish the "sinner" from the "sin," making them feel less guilty about hating certain people.

I was in a Boston church for my niece's ordination. My family is not religious; however, my niece has attended a Unitarian Universalist church since she was 13 years old. She has gone on to attend Harvard Divinity School and, now, to be ordained. Setting foot inside a church for the first time in many years, I was struck by the difference between this church and my childhood memory of organized religion. Although it had all the trappings of a traditional, potentially oppressive environment -- ornate stained glass windows, grand pillars, imposing pulpit -- this church did everything it could to make a flaming gay feel welcome. There were queer congregants singing and praying, Not the hush-hush, wink-wink kind of gays who play piano for choir and are labeled "confirmed bachelors." No, these were out-and-proud gays and lesbians. The presiding minister stated with pride that this church was the first to wed same-sex couples when such marriages were legalized in Massachusetts. At the reception after the ceremony, a rainbow banner above the dessert table proclaimed, "You Are Divine and FABULOUS!"

This is not the church of my youth. At one time in my life, my family engaged in a hollow Catholic routine by attending mass each Sunday. I dutifully went to CCD classes once a week. I recall that, at a young age, we were asked in CCD to prioritize a list of six items. One choice was "loving God." I placed this last on my list after much more practical options like "being part of a family" and "going to school." As the other students read their lists, each had placed "loving God" first, pleasing the instructor. I could not, in good conscience, put God first so I put Him fifth and placed "doing my chores" sixth in a desperate attempt to fit in. Another exercise asked us to describe what came to mind when we thought of "God." Despite my classmates' responses of white clouds, flowing robes and other Charlton Heston-like imagery, I could not conjure up anything. Surprising. I have an active imagination but the concept of God eluded me. I repeated by rote the prayers they taught us without understanding meaning. I said "Hell Mary" instead of "Hail Mary" because that is what I thought they wanted us to say. I had no idea that CCD stood for 'Confraternity of Christian Doctrine' until I looked it up this morning. I also had to look up 'confraternity.' All of it was, and is, incomprehensible and inaccessible to me.

Catholic doctrine states that homosexual acts are "intrinsically disordered" and "under no circumstances can they be approved" (but, of course, they add that we gays "must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity [and] every sign of unjust discrimination... should be avoided." Puh-lease.) As I came to a more mature awareness of my homosexuality, there was always some religious fanatic of one denomination or other telling me how horrible I was (uh, I mean, how horrible my "sin" was): Anita Bryant, Fred Phelps, Pat Robertson. These kinds of folks claim that they learned love from Christ, yet they built a wall between gays and Jesus. I am much more comfortable on the "gay" side of the wall and have quickly lost appreciation or trust for anything religious.

So... here I was, sitting in a new-world, gay-is-good church and participating in the ordination of my niece. At first, the Paul Lynde in me viewed the ritual with sarcasm. It was difficult for me to believe that the words coming from the minister, or the lyrics from the songs, were genuine. I have had too many years of listening to hypocrites in the pulpit to accept preaching at face value. But, as person after person spoke about their love for my niece, I softened. I knew their words were true. The love in the room was palpable. When they said that my niece was a beacon of light who will illuminate the congregation she will lead, it was hard for me to be snarky because I believed them. I put the cynic aside not because I was infused with some divine enlightenment. I believed the words because I know my niece and I love her, too. I trust that her calling is a true one and that she will, indeed, do good in her life. She founded an orphanage in India, for goodness' sake. Who could doubt her intentions are anything but selfless?

The next day, I told my niece how impressed I was about the open-mindedness of her church. We chatted about other congregations and denominations that are fighting for, not against, gay rights today. She allowed me to see that, at least for some, a religious life can be positive... and progressive.

Have I had some sort of Saul-to-Paul conversion? No. But I will try not to be close-minded about anything that smacks of organized religion. I may not join hands and sing Kumbaya at Sunday mass any time soon. But, at the very least, when someone who professes to be a person of faith has something to say, I may actually listen.