Week Four: Stepping Out
“For at one time you were darkness, but now you in the Lord you are light. Walk as children of light.” Ephesians 5:8
The refracted light from the disco ball dances across the walls in perfect syncopation with the beat-heavy top-40 hits blaring from the speakers above. It’s a summer evening at a gay bar in Hell’s Kitchen where I’m meeting up with Jacob who is in town visiting a friend of mine. Jacob is finishing up at the same university from which I graduated – a conservative evangelical Christian school in the rural Midwest- and is happy for the change in scenery.
Jacob’s eyes are soaking up everything in sight and a look of sheer delight overtakes his face. He grins as he catches a group of lesbians laughing as they wait in line to order drinks and he grows sweetly silent as he spies two men relaxing in a booth holding hands with one leaning on the other’s shoulder.
Jacob leans over and shouts in my ear to make sure his voice is heard above the music. “This is my first time in a gay bar!”
“Really? That’s great.” I respond, wondering if mine were the appropriate words of congratulations.
“Yeah, I turned 21 a few months ago. I mean, I’ve stepped inside one before- just for a few minutes- but that doesn’t really count.”
I nod my head and tell Jacob I’m going to grab a drink. As I walk away I glance over my shoulder and see his shoulders casually moving to the music, elbows propped on the high-top table, eyes dancing around the room as he steps out into the light where he finds himself to be wholly and truly acceptable to those around him and to God.
For Jacob and others members of the LGBTQ+ community, much of our time is spent playing an exhausting game of “How much of me can I truly be?” We conceal important aspects of ourselves from others, only tell fractions of our stories, and hide away some of the best parts of who we are. For many members of our community, their safety and well-being are completely dependent upon how well they’ve mastered these rules of play.
Our participation in this game does not come without a price, however. Over time as we censor ourselves and adhere to the advice of Dear Evan Hansen to “step out of the sun if you keep getting burned,” we find ourselves compressed into a small state of being walled up on all sides by shame and self-rejection. We exist as a thin shadow of who we really are, of whom God created us to truly be.
The abundant life promised by Jesus this is not.
Author James Baldwin once wrote, “Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety.” It’s entirely possible that when we start to lay claim to our belonging as children of God, it will feel scary and perhaps even painful as we expose parts of us that we have hidden away from our friends, families, and churches in order to win their approval. We will feel our world breaking up- rocked by a seismic acceptance of self- and under the shifting layers will emerge a new existence, gleaming with God’s goodness and ready for the world to behold and celebrate.
Pride month is an invitation for us to step into our authentic selves and begin to bask in God’s unflinching approval. This month, amidst the flurry of parades, glitter, and rainbow flags, you are welcome to walk forward into your authentic self, illuminated by the radiant splendor of embracing your identity, cherishing your non-conformity, and celebrating the types of people you love. You are a child of God, beloved and cherished.
It can be incredibly difficult to begin taking pride in the things you’ve spent a lifetime concealing away in shame. This process of transformation takes as long as it takes and sometimes requires the help of professionals like affirming therapists, doctors, or pastors. Wherever you are at in this process, take a deep breath and remember how incredibly valuable you are to God. And if that thought alone seems impossible to believe, remember: There’s a first time for everything.
Rev. Kevin Wright is the Executive Minister of Programs at The Riverside Church in New York City. Find Kevin on Twitter @kevinkwright.