by Dani Gabriel
I was done with church. I wanted nothing more to do with any institution that claimed to be where Jesus lived. I was intent on following Jesus, but I was pretty positive he was going nowhere near a cathedral, or or a pulpit, or any stained glass windows. I believed in a Jesus who walks in the world, who is present on street corners and in jail cells, who hangs out in hospital cafeterias and psych ward day rooms. I wanted to be where Jesus was, and when I went to church it felt like Jesus had moved out.
Ever since my grandmother brought me to her Catholic church when I was eight I was possessed with desire to figure this Jesus guy out. I secretly prayed in my room with a cross I made out of whittled sticks and a picture of Mary in blue that I had drawn. I demanded that my parents take me to church. When I was eleven I can remember giving my mom an elaborate speech about why I was a Christian. I wanted to go to Bible camp. I really wanted a cross necklace but I was afraid to ask for one. Then, in ninth grade, I got to go to Catholic school. My sainted grandmother paid for it. But once I was there my dreams of Jesus went up in flames. The worship was hollow, our religion class appalled me. I had a crush on a girl. I smoked pot. I started drinking. I started drinking in class. Jesus didn’t feel relevant to me at 14 years old, when my world was violent and unpredictable. Who needs church.
A few years later I got a cross tattoo. But I refused to admit that’s what it was. It’s a big cross on my right shoulder, you can’t miss it, but I had an elaborate explanation about how it was a Celtic symbol of the four directions. I was embarrassed. I wore a Joan of Arc medal, which seemed safe, she was a fierce woman. I pretended I wasn’t wearing it because she was a saint. I started sneaking into church, nervously. I went to various Catholic churches, thinking of my grandma. I started catechism classes. Then the sexual abuse scandal broke and I bailed. But the next year I was back, at a different Catholic church. I just could not stay away. Six years in a row, at different churches, I started and dropped out of the RCIA program. Finally, in the middle of the seventh year, I landed in the hospital with a life threatening illness. I asked for my Bible. I felt absolutely ridiculous, but there I was in my hospital room, reading the Psalms. I made it out in time for my baptism and confirmation at the Easter Vigil. But I only lasted about six months after that. I shared that my partner was transgender with someone and it didn’t go well. I felt confined. I tried another parish that had a reputation for being more progressive, but when I signed up for a volunteer role I was given a lecture about lipstick and nail polish. That was the end.
So I was a Jesus follower but I wasn’t looking for a church. Then my partner walked by a pretty church one day, peeked inside, and came home and said, “Honey, I think this is the church for you.” I was unconvinced. For six months he pestered me to go to this church and I refused. He was so persistent that finally I gave in. I put on appropriate clothes, I dressed up the children, and the four of us went to church. I have told this story various ways. I have said that the liturgy was beautiful, which is true. I have said that the parishioners were warm and friendly, which is true. I have said that the priest was a woman and that this made me cry, which is also true. But the real reason that I have been at that church almost every Sunday since for over seven years is that Jesus was there. I walked in and there he was. He was in every face in every pew. I saw him. I felt the spirit in the air. It was humming. The bread and the wine were his body and blood, and we became the body of Christ. I knew this to be true. This was not a church. This was home, this was where I wanted to live.
And then I started talking about it. In fact I couldn’t stop. I was no longer embarrassed to be a Christian. I was no longer nervous to admit that I went to church. I started inviting people to church. I was so excited. “You should come!” I’d say. “It’s amazing!” And a few have come, over the years. Mostly they don’t come. But often, over time, they start to get used to this idea that there is a church in the world that even loves radical tattooed queers. Not accepts us, but loves us. They start to get used to this idea that there is a church out there where resurrection is taking place. They say versions of “that’s different than the church I grew up in!” Sometimes it takes them years to believe it. Sometimes they interrogate me. Sometimes they weep. Always they come away with this question “What is this crazy church where this crazy Jesus hangs out?”
This spring I went to the Evangelism Matters conference in Cleveland. Yes, I am a radical tattooed queer evangelist and I am not joking. I have thrown myself headlong into the ordination process in the Episcopal Church and I see evangelism as a part of my call. Yes, I talk about it that way now. I am called. All these years Jesus has been chasing me around, calling my name, and I couldn’t hear him clearly because I was hearing Christian radio and talk show dialogue. I am trying to cut through that noise and call out in my own voice, as loudly as I can. I am trying to tell stories about Jesus that are relevant to the people in my communities, stories about resurrection from addiction, healing from abuse, standing up to oppression, loving the ones who have been forgotten and locked up and thrown away.
I am finding out that there are many people in leadership in my church who are pursuing this kind of evangelism. But there were echoes of the evangelism that seeks to convert people, that is coercive and oppressive, and excuses bad behavior in the name of “saving” souls. I was, at one point, encouraged to pray for God to bring “two new families” to church this week, as though God fills quotas, and as though this was all about the numbers. Bradley Hauff reminded us of the long, long history of forced assimilation and genocide that is impossible to escape, and we shouldn’t try. We must look it in the face and consciously decide to heal those wounds and move in a different and just direction.
There was a mandate that what we’re doing to share our understanding of the Good News does not count unless it includes an invitation. While I often invite people to further conversation, or even to come to church with me, I believe the Good News is an invitation in itself. I believe the work of my church speaks for itself. The Good News is compelling in different ways to different people, and God is ultimately extending the invitation. To what is not up to me. I’m not trying to make more Christians. This, as Presiding Bishop Curry said “is about building a better world.” In my relationship with Jesus I do not know him to be jealous, I do not know of him ever keeping score. The goodness of the Good News is not Christianity. The goodness of the Good News is the possibility of redemption and the uncontainable realness of love.
When I was in the process of preparation for baptism, and during the time I found my church home, my kids were very little. I had a friend named Lia, whose kids were the same age as mine. We would sit at my kitchen table, exhausted, drinking coffee and struggling to manage a linear conversation. I shared a lot about why I wanted to be baptized, why I was a Christian, and when I found my church I told her all about it. We connected around some pretty serious thoughts about faith and life while our toddlers careened about. She became inspired, and joined a synagogue. She was Jewish but had never been observant. She started sharing the traditions she was learning with me, and I visited her synagogue. We both grew through our shared exploration of faith and truth and who God might be. We have fallen out of touch, but about a month ago I ran into her. I was with my church at an action to support an immigrant father who was being deported, and she was there with her synagogue. Love and faith and justice are in the world in so many ways.
I have found that Jesus does live in the Church. But Jesus also resides in every dirty corner, in every trash filled alley, in every 6 by 6 cell. What I have to share about Him is not scripted, and the conversations he gets me into are not predictable. We can’t contain Jesus or break him down into a four-step process. This evangelism is a wild project. John went out in the wilderness for this, and my hope is that I am willing to go too.
Dani Gabriel is a writer, mother, and partner who lives in El Cerrito, California. She is a member of All Souls Episcopal Parish and a postulant for the Diaconate in the Diocese of California. Her personal blog is at https://www.allthepossible.com