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Sunday 12 April 2015

Comment: Your own personal Jesus

Posted in: Features
By Alexander Lowë - 27th August 2014


It was uplifting to see Sinéad O’Connor’s comeback single “Take me to Church” from her newly released album. Sinéad is a troubled soul, enfant terrible, black sheep and drama queen of pop music.

Propelled to stardom with her ground-breaking cover of Prince's “Nothing compares 2 U”, she soon became ‘persona non-grata’ after tearing off a photo of the late Pope on the live Saturday Night TV performance. After the shock and universal condemnation that followed, she went into hiding, even retiring from music several times, got four children from four different men, married four times, with her last marriage lasting just 17 days. She even had some flip flops with her sexuality. Once declaring herself ‘dyke’ before releasing an album featuring Canadian folk lesbian song Peggy Gordon, she then backtracked on her statement and later rebranded herself as ¼ gay and ¾ heterosexual.

Link to the video

Through all of her ordeals and mental breakdowns Sinéad remained devoted to religion and despite her crusade against the Holy See in protest of the Vatican's cover-up of child abuse by clergy; she managed to get ordained as a Catholic priest in Ireland, though with a different from Roman Catholic Church's nomination. It is clear that Church gives troubled Sinéad a sanctuary, forgiveness, redemption and hope.

It made me think about other troubled souls, queer folks like me. Can we also find peace, strength, support and inspiration in spirituality? Are we equally welcomed and fully embraced by religious institutions along with heterosexuals? Or is the domain of faith in fact the last bastion of legalised anti-gay discrimination? What about all those exception clauses in the work legislations allowing churches to ban and prosecute gay employees, reject service to gay people and reject gay marriage?

Some churches picket LGBT related events. Others encourage conversion therapy and celibacy for gays. In some priests are excommunicated for officiating gay marriage. Others go as far as spreading anti-gay propaganda and hate into Africa and the Pacific inciting homophobic legislation.

So would atheism be the fair price for our sexuality? Indeed, by embracing our gay identity we still effectively rebel against heteronormal society, challenge established gender norms, reject dogmas, stand up and fight. Many of us would instinctively oppose the Church that has been prosecuting our folks for the millennia, once burning us on the stake for simply being who we are. And being expelled from religion for so long we may often be oblivious of what faith can provide in terms of support, acceptance and guidance.

It has not always been so. Once LGBT people were considered very spiritual, intimately connected with gods. In North America and Siberia transgender men (two-spirits) were in high esteem, often selected to become shamans. There was a cult of hermaphrodites in Greece. In Roman Empire gay god Antinous have been worshipped for centuries in many dedicated temples. In Maya, Inca and Aztec civilisations homosexuality was ritualised in religious ceremonies.

Religions once again are becoming visibly more inclusive and supportive of LGBT, with Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism leaders specifically expressing increasing tolerance. Vatican, once practical enough to commission Michelangelo to build St. Peter's Basilica and paint the Sistine Chapel is changing as well. Defying his homophobic predecessor, new pope Frances claims “who am I to judge (gays)?” and even discusses benefits of same sex civil unions.

Ruth Hunt, newly elected CEO of Stonewall charity in the UK and also a practicing Christian, calls for reconciliation between church and LGBT. “There’s a real sense of The Gays vs The Church and it’s just artificial, it’s not how any of us work. “- she says ‘. “There’s a real need for Stonewall to build a common ground and demolish that sense of ‘them and us’.

Determined to break down barriers between gay people and the church, Ruth Hunt had encouraged Christian rock star and popular blogger Vicky Beeching to come out. Ruth also believes that ‘the spiritual needs of lesbian, gay and bisexual people are completely overlooked…it’s heartbreaking for your family who have to see you be excluded from it.”

Why don’t we too stop the feud and explore spirituality, ‘reach out and touch faith’, rediscover the healing power of prayer, purifying blessing of confession, sweet grace of redemption and revitalising strength of holy community?

There are some apparent benefits that church gives believers like enhancing feeling of belonging to a community, providing comfort and refuge during troubling times, reinforcing hope and joy and helping find direction and sense in sometimes crazy and chaotic world.

Faith can help us be healthier, mentally stable, concentrated, relaxed and even happier. A study of Tibetan Buddhists and Franciscan nuns found that prayer and meditation increase levels of dopamine, which is associated with states of well-being and joy. According to study by American Psychological Association (APA), higher levels of religious faith and spirituality are associated with a range of positive mental health outcomes, including more optimism about life and higher resilience to stress.

Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, survivor of Nazi camps, remembered with awe how spiritual people, often of delicate built, coped better with hardships of camp life than seemingly stronger fellow prisoners being ‘able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom’.

Researchers show that people who pray and meditate trend to be statistically healthier and live longer than those who do not, they also better recover from illnesses and surgeries.

I remember my own encounters with Church. It was Orthodox Church back in Russia and I did not like it. Reduced during communist times to a skeleton service with a handful of remaining churches attended by few elders with priests reportedly working for KGB, it saw Renaissance and mass conversion after the fall of USSR. As a gay teenager, I found it oppressive and did not like it – too structural, too corrupt, too massy. I remember nearly loosing conscience at a funeral service one winter day with hundreds of people in fur coats, suffocating sweet smell, monotonous chanting. There are no benches in Orthodox Church, one either stands or kneels on a stone floor through the service, as if remained by church how insignificant each individual is, destined for conformity and suffering.

When enabled to travel in Europe I was amazed to find that Catholic churches had benches, were still open outside service hours and in many places I was allowed to be entirely on my own to prey and lit a candle, alone among church treasures, donation boxes, books and artefacts. In Russia, churches are guarded by local babushkas who supervise all day to day activities, control merchandise and police the premises enforcing strict dress code. But overseas I was free to be all by myself in a church to reflect, relax, meditate and prey.

I had a culture shock in England when I attended Anglican service, being accepted at once into the community with people happily engaging with me during and after the service, making me feel welcomed, validated, uplifted. I even expressed my wish to get baptised there – much to vicar’s dismay.

Breakout of USSR caused rapid replacement of communist ideology with Orthodoxy, and also allowed Western Churches into Russia. I remember continuously being approached by clean young men with a staple pick up line “I would like to invite you to a free concert this weekend”. Some guys looked hotter than others and one day I surrendered to a particularly persuasive brunette with radiant eyes.

That was a surreal experience – Church of Jesus Christ was apparently exploiting the laws of same sex attraction to the maximum, we were meeting in small groups, embracing each other, guys were all young, sexy and welcoming, aliens among harsh grey reality. We watched ‘concert’ which was actually a service where we were holding hands, singing songs from Jesus Christ Superstar and listening to the heart-breaking stories of male and female prostitutes and drug addicts who turned their lives around by finding the Saviour.

We then used to meet for some communal activities to discuss Bible, share food, play outdoor games. For once, I was not alone, surrounded and courted by other young men. I loved threesome dates with a group leader and another guy when we had to reveal our ‘sins’, I was surprised how common homosexual experiences and phantasies were, I was in fact least experienced and rather innocent.

But this spiritual honey moon was cut short when my spiritual leader started pressing me to get baptised in the river (+10 at the time). I was further repelled by his admission that his was aiming to score 50 conversions to progress higher in the church hierarchy. And I was expected to recruit new members by cruising underground stations and inviting other guys to Sunday ‘free concerts'. These tactics and pressure was against my very nature and with my family becoming increasingly suspicious of the ‘sect’ I was finally locked at home – much to my relief, letting me out of the ordeal.

That was all well before I could visit gay venues, which had similar impact on me. Coming for the first time to clubs like “G.A.Y.”, “Heaven” and “Family” I experienced exactly what their names promised – a feeling of belonging to family, fun, joy, ecstasy. I was there fish in the water, Charlie on the Chocolate Factory, Jew in the Promised Land. These were my temples, safe gay oases in the foreign straight territory, glory waterholes in the vast and lonely land, where there was no need to hide and pretend, where I was no longer a miserable freak, celebrating with my blood brothers and sisters our shared believes, listening to gay hymns, worshipping gay icons, confessing on the dance floor, getting blessed by elders, reaching out and finding support, redemption, getting high from the whole holy atmosphere.

What else unites gay people besides clubs, where else gay culture flourishes? I wish we could get deeper integrated into the society, relating to more of its institutions, getting more pillars in life to be able to lean onto. I think spirituality and faith could be one of these final frontiers for us to explore and equally benefit from together with heterosexual citizens.

Alexander Lowë - 27th August 2014

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