Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
I was on the second row of our church auditorium, just under the pulpit and gracing the edge of the altar. The room was packed with rambunctious teens singing, giggling and whispering as our supervisors tried desperately to muffle the noise. I looked down at my clothing, a light pink floral dress that fell nearly to the floor covering my matching tights and white shoes. Ew! I thought, what is happening? Why am I back here? I reached up to touch my hair. It was long again, filled with curls and flowered pins trying to hold some kind of updo style in place. I panicked for a moment then caught a flash of blue on the floor. It was my Cubs baseball cap. I snatched it up and quickly covered my head, pulling the hat low over my eyes and slinking down into my seat.
The girl next to me turned to speak and I nearly shot out of the pew. “Hey Heath what do you think-” she began, but I have no idea what else she said. I couldn’t stop staring at her, it was Ashley. One of my best friends from high school but she had left after the 10th grade and I only ever saw her once again. What the hell is going on here! I could feel my anxiety rising, my palms sweating, my breath coming in short spats. Why am I back here? I can’t be back here?! Then a face filled the pulpit and my panic attack went into full mode.
The face started as that of my first youth pastor, he said a few jokes to get the kids attention. Then he started full on into a sermon about the evils of the world. Music, movies, Hollywood, pants on women, physical contact before marriage, skirts too short, tops too low, hair too long on men and not long enough on women. And with each offense I waited for the big one, I waited for those ultimate sins to be named and the place to erupt in a torrent of outraged agreement. And just as we approached the inevitable climax the face changed. And it was Jack. Jack the second, the current leader and final authority in all our lives for so many years. His face was that crimson red it turned when he got heated and his eyes burned with fire as he gripped the pulpit and screamed into the mic mounting each word into a fever pitched frenzy “and don’t get me started on the sodomites and the queers and the men who think they’re women and women who wanna be men, and all that disgusting, abhorrent GARBAGE THAT IS FROM SATAN! LUCIFER! THE PRINCE OF DARKNESS!!” And the room exploded.
Men were standing up in their seats, some standing on the pews themselves, while others ran up and down the aisles, all waving their bibles above their heads and screaming “that’s right preacher!” “Tell those queers preacher!!” “Amen Brother!” Women in the pews sat with hands folded, nodding their heads, some praying as others wept in grief for the lost souls. A few whispered an amen under their breath, but not loud enough for any man to hear. Women were to keep silent in the church. Not that any man or anyone for that matter would have noticed a woman say a word or even scream at the top of her lungs as the place was now a zoo of excitement. And Jack continued to feed the frenzy and his ego as began to pace up and down the platform shouting out his prophecies and condemning the sodomites to hell. “God will judge them!! Like he did Sodom and Gomorrah! Burning them to ashes. If he doesn’t get them in this life, he’ll get them in the next. Hell is no place you want to be. People say I want to go to hell, that’s where all the fun people go! Let me tell you something my friends, Hell is no party. It is an everlasting pit of fire. You hear that! An everlasting pit. You will fall for eternity as fire consumes you and yet death never comes. The Bible says it is a place where the worm dieth not, that means termites and scorpions will eat you alive as you’re falling and writhing in agony. Demons will mock you and you’re only company will be the most vile people from Earth. Do you want to spend eternity with the homos? Do you want to spend eternity in pain and agony? Then you’ve got to get right with God my friend!!”
I was nearly as frantic as the crowd now, only I wanted to leave. I wanted to get out! But the girl on the end of my row was blocking me and the guy on the other end was shaking the pew in front of us; sweat pouring down his face, spit spewing from his mouth as his voice cracked in a hoarse cry echoing the word Amen! Amen! over and over again. Then the face in the pulpit changed again, this time to the face of my second youth pastor. He was a sleezy guy with the smile of a Cheshire Cat when he thought he had someone caught. “You know all this talk of queers and we have one here today who fits that category” I froze, I didn’t want to look up, my heart was racing as I forced myself to look into his eyes. Cool and grey, void of the wide smile plastered on his face. “Cross your legs like a lady Heather”. He snapped loudly into the microphone. I looked down and hadn’t even realized I had been sitting in a masculine pose. For a moment I slipped one knee neatly over the other and then stopped. Looking back at him I put my right leg back into a more comfortable and manly position. Now his smile was gone and he paused before leaning in to say “On second thought, why don’t you come up here and we can show you how to act like the girl that you are”. Then hands were grabbing me and I was struggling and wondering over and over again, what am I doing here? What the FUCK am I doing back here??!! And suddenly I woke up, and the nightmare was over. But the shame and the guilt were there all over again and I knew today I’d have to confront them again.
I knew I’d have to stand strong in my truth even though it was rattled. I knew I’d have to face those same demons that were so familiar. I knew the doubt would tell me I was wrong. I’d wonder if acceptance was really courage even though I know that it’s not. For a moment the thought would cross my mind that I wanted those people’s approval again. That if I could be “normal” then maybe I could fit in. I’d forget that I don’t want to live a life of hate and intolerance. Perhaps for a little while I’d forget that in fact that life was the most inauthentic life I ever lived. Courage is not easy, it is terrifying. And the nightmares poise themselves to drive us away from our goals. But today I have the courage to change the things that I can. And no person, not my family, not my former friends, not even Jack the Second is going to drive me away from being true to myself.