'A lot of us feel like orphans': LGBTQ Christians find refuge at Halifax faith group
‘It's very important that people who feel forgotten know they're not,' says facilitator Marie Raynard
Close your eyes and it almost feels like you're sitting in a pew on a Sunday morning.
But there's no pulpit or preacher in this west-end Halifax apartment, just a small group of friends harmonizing to worship songs.
The people who gathered on a recent Monday night are members of the Halifax chapter of Generous Space Ministries, a refuge for LGBTQ Christians, "recovering Christians" and allies who've felt rejected by mainstream churches.
For the past three years, the group has met twice a month to sing songs — some with revamped lyrics that are more inclusive — share readings and talk about growing up in the Christian world.
Some members still attend traditional churches. But many don't feel welcome there.
"A lot of us feel like orphans from a community of faith," said Marie Raynard, the group's co-facilitator. "I feel like it's very important that people who feel forgotten know they're not, know that they have someone who sees them."
Raynard grew up going to a conservative Brethren church where homosexuality was regularly denounced from the pulpit. There were less overt rebukes, too.
"There was how everybody lived together, and what I saw modelled for me was just one way of living, and that it was the only way, really," said Raynard, who identifies as both queer and Christian.
The group allows her to feel close to the parts of her faith that still bring her joy.
"I spent a good deal of time assuming that God hated me and, therefore, I hated myself and realized that was unhelpful and probably not correct either," she said.
Keanan Byggdin said the years he felt trapped between two identities left their mark.
"There's a lot of shame," he said. "There's a lot of sadness. Depression is something that I have struggled a lot with."
He remembers years ago learning from a friend that someone from the congregation had come out as gay, but vowed to remain celibate.
"I remember arguing with her intensely about how it wasn't OK for him to have even said that he was gay … and here I am, this little queer kid, just basically parroting back the views that I had heard," said Byggdin.
For Marissa Wiebe, Generous Space has become a support system of sorts for her to work through her anger at mainstream churches.
She grew up in a Mennonite area of Manitoba, and attended a mix of Baptist, Protestant and Evangelical churches. These days, she calls herself a "recovering Christian."
"Most people have come from a similar western Christian tradition, so it's nice to relate to people and have conversations about, you know, as children what were you exposed to in the Christian world and it's nice to know that I'm not alone in that," she said.
Generous Space Ministries was founded in 1985 as a very different organization. Back then, it was actively anti-gay.
Over time, the organization shed its old name and ties, and began trying to create a space safe for LGBTQ believers and their families.
Now, that's its entire purpose. The Generous Space website says it's a place for people "craving spaces where they could unapologetically be both Christian and LGBTQ+."
There are chapters across the country, including a growing number in Atlantic Canada.
Churches confront their pasts
Confronting a history of intolerance is something that many mainstream churches have had to do.
While today more and more Halifax congregations call themselves affirming, and march in the Pride parade, distrust still exists, said Hubert Den Draak, minister at St. John's United Church.
"I would first apologize to them because real hurt has been done for the wrong reasons," he said.
In 2007, St. John's became one of the first affirming congregations in the city, and Den Draak said nearly 40 per cent of the congregation now identifies as LGBTQ.
Betsy Hogan, minister at St. Matthew's United Church on Barrington Street, said a church has to do more than say it's accepting of everyone.
"To be affirming is to be intentional, to be explicit, to be public about recognizing the full humanity and the full inclusion of people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, two-spirited, inquiring," she said.
But she knows building back trust with LGBTQ believers who've been burned by Christianity is not easy.
"Real healing does take time, and shifting what is, after all, thousands of years of destructive theology does take time," Hogan said.
Family and tradition are so much a part of faith that identifying as both queer and Christian can sometimes feel like walking a tightrope, said Raynard.
Shifting ... thousands of years of destructive theology does take time.- Betsy Hogan, Minister at St. Matthew's United Church
"Some people probably in the queer community would say, 'Oh, you can't be Christian if you're queer.' Or 'Why would you do that to yourself?'" she said.
But Raynard tried leaving Christianity behind for good, and couldn't.
"I think parts of my Christian background that remain with me are still harmful to me, but there's also this idea of loving God and loving your neighbour at least as much as you do yourself, and I don't think I've found anything truer than that," she said.
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