Writing by anonymous. Artwork by Cilla Sullivan.
Christian worship is steeped in catharsis, acted out in rituals of purification and cleansing. We baptise ourselves over and over. We release our energy, our hopes, and worries through turning them into prayers and praise. I first witnessed this catharsis myself when I attended a Christian residential programme for 11 to 14 year olds. We stayed in an old house on the east coast. There was no mobile reception, no wifi, just a hundred teenagers gathering together to spend a week of our summer holidays cultivating our faith. It was a perfect bubble. Each day had a long schedule of activities: sports, meals and prayer groups, always followed by an evening service. Here a leader would preach a themed sermon, and lead a session of heartfelt prayer and song. Sometimes we would go to pray on the beach. Looking out onto the horizon you could be sure the world was so vast, so beautiful. ‘God moulded every single stone on this shoreline,’ we would exclaim, ‘he knows each one's shape and size just as well as he knows you.’
Each night, I would lie awake in my bed listening to the drum of crashing waves, and I would think about the camp leaders and my peers, how they would let themselves go, raising their arms in praise and belting the songs in each evening service. I longed to be that free, but in every service, my arms would feel heavy, glued to my sides, my throat too dry to sing louder than a whisper. I had always been shy and withdrawn but I was aware of what was really holding me back: it was the uncertainty of God's love. I had chosen to accept by queer identity at a young age, but I didn’t know how to reconcile that with being a Christian. There seemed to be an ultimatum at hand: choose religion, or pursue a life of authenticity
Then came the penultimate night. Instead of listening to a sermon led by one of the leaders, we were all given the opportunity to stand in front of the congregation and tell our own testimony - a short, public proclamation of our belief in God and what had led us to commit to that. It was the culmination of the week, a night of emotion and honesty and weeping. By my third year of attending the residential, I felt I had committed to God. I wasn’t sure how I would do it but I felt touched by a loving, divine spirit that surpassed my sexuality. An impulse hit me and I found my voice. And I knew, in that moment, that if I didn't seize it then, I would lose it forever. Clarity filled me and I rose from my seat. Walking to the centre and turning to face the hundred expectant faces watching me, I took a shaking breath and proclaimed: ‘I like girls, but I know that God still loves me.’
I don’t remember much else of what I said. Looking back, I wonder if I felt free in the aftermath-if I saw it as a confession which had now liberated me. All I remember is sitting back down, and tears leaking out of my eyes. I looked at my shoes and felt someone rub my back gently from the row of chairs behind. Nobody spoke to me about what I had said that night. I found my questions were still unanswered. During anonymous Q&A’s I would secretly write my questions onto slips of paper, begging for some kind of validation: ‘Is it okay to be gay if you are Christian?’ ‘What does the Bible say about homosexuality and gender?’ My questions were never answered. ‘Oh well,’ I presumed, ‘the leaders must not have picked that one out when they were reaching into the little sack of questions.’ The silence made me feel more exposed and my uncertainty returned.
My question was finally answered when I was sitting in the prayer room after a service, during the optional private worship time. I must have had a tortured look on my face because a leader approached me and asked if I wanted to pray with him. I told him about how my friends and I were trying to decide which residential we should go to next summer, now that we were almost too old to attend this one. We would probably go to the same one as my friend's elder brothers. The leader told me that he had also gone to that camp, and after a moment of hesitation he gave me a crucial warning: ‘I don’t think you should go to that one, we have a policy here, where we can’t say anything that might discriminate on the basis of sexuality, but if you go there you won’t have that protection.’ He rushed to say that a lot of the leaders had said how brave I was for giving my testimony. His clarification confused me, wasn’t everyone who gave their testimony brave? But suddenly I felt scared. The future wasn’t safe for me if I went to the same camp that my friends wanted to go to next year. Maybe I wasn’t even as safe here as I had thought previously. The bubble burst. I thought about my unanswered slips of paper. Maybe they weren’t still sitting in the darkness of the sack. Maybe the leader had opened up the folded edges and read my anxious scrawl, and set it aside, knowing they could not give me an answer.
I continued to sit, processing what I had learned. Another leader approached me and asked to pray with me and she read me a bible verse. It was Zephaniah 3: 14-15:
“Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, Daughter of Jerusalem. For the Lord has taken away your punishment. He has turned back your enemy […] No longer will you fear any harm.”
I was grateful to her, but I was coming, more and more, to view my punishment as homosexuality, and to believe that I would only be free from my fear if my sexuality was taken away from me. I prayed to God to release me from it until I believed that he had. I began to cringe internally when I thought back to the testimony I had given. Why did you draw attention to yourself like that? Now they all think you’re gay. For years I couldn’t think about that night without feeling a wave of self-hatred, it was too strong to reflect on. It was the most I could do to squeeze my eyes shut until I would forget it had happened.
Now I am five years older, and I live on the same coast. When I go to the beach I watch the waves lapping at my feet, and I remember my thirteen-year-old mind anxiously turning over endless questions in the dormitory at night. But I know, when I go into the water and am submerged in the clean salt, I will feel weightless. And when I look at the stones on the shoreline I know that the sea has moulded them slowly, over a long period of time, longer than I am able to comprehend. And finally, I know that I have reached real catharsis. The real catharsis was a gradual, private admission - not a sudden, public one. Admitting to myself that I was queer and that, after all, I was at peace with that. Catharsis is the end of repression and denial. It is a weight lifted, and the self freed.