And Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and Jacob’s thigh was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said “Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed. Then Jacob asked him, “Tell me, I pray, your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his thigh (Genesis 32:24-31).
My alarm beeps, and I start my usual Sunday morning routine: brew coffee, walk the dogs, feed the cat, and drink coffee. But this was not always my Sunday morning ritual. My Sunday used to include rushing out the door and dutifully sitting in a church pew attending Mass. However, that changed when I stopped going to church four years ago. In the past, this would have seemed unthinkable, because when you grow up as a devout cradle Catholic, your faith doesn’t just entail going to church every Sunday. It permeates every aspect of your life, is the lens through which you see the world, and is your identity. To question the church would mean questioning one’s whole life.
Over the years, I naturally had questions regarding the church and the church’s teachings, but I was always careful not to dig too deep because I wanted to preserve life as I knew it. However, the chasm between the facade I was putting on of a good card-carrying Catholic and what I felt on the inside was becoming too big to ignore. This chasm still wasn’t enough to push me out the doors of the church, though. Something had to give me the final push.
“And Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day.”
It wasn’t until I came out as gay that I got the push I needed. Realizing I couldn’t live an authentic life inside the church as a member of the LGBTQ community, I left the church. Leaving the church felt like both a death and a birth. On one hand, I felt like a part of me had died, while on the other hand, I felt like I could breathe for the first time. I was also terrified, as everything that I had taken for fact was now in question; I had lost the shared identity I had enjoyed with friends and family. I was without a home. Like Jacob, I was alone.
Being on the outside of the church removed the lens through which I had seen the world up until this point. This new perspective provided me with an opportunity to search for answers to those questions and doubts I had avoided for so many years. In the words of Rachel Held Evans, “I conducted this massive inventory of my faith, tearing every doctrine from the cupboard and turning each one over in my hand.” During this time, I became acquainted with a figure who was an iconoclast, tore down social boundaries and constructs, was intimately involved in the liberation of the marginalized and oppressed, and always put the person before the law. This figure was the historical Jesus.
I didn’t instantly recognize this figure as Jesus due to having become accustomed to the images of Christ filtered down to me by the church. I was baffled. How could the church claim to be the mouthpiece of God when the God of the church seems to drastically different from the God of scripture? It seemed impossible to reconcile these two Gods. It wasn’t until I wrestled with God as Jacob did that I fully embraced the historical Jesus.
So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his thigh.
In the scripture passage, we learn that Jacob, after wrestling with God, has a limp. Many people who leave the church and take apart their faith end up with scars such as being disowned by their family or rejected from faith communities that once were home. My encounter did indeed leave me with scars. It led to loneliness, having to live in the uneasy state of the unknown, and losing the shared identity I had once enjoyed with family and friends. However, I wear these scars with pride, as they are a sign of the sacred journey I’ve been through and a badge of solidarity with everyone who has walked through Peniel, questioned their faith, and encountered the revolution that is the historical Jesus.
The church’s mission is to carry out and continue the work of Jesus Christ. How can Catholics live out this mission statement as living representatives of Jesus when it comes to loving the LGBTQ community? It’s often said that the church is a hospital for sinners. However, if patients were leaving a hospital because they weren’t getting better or because they were getting sicker, we wouldn’t point the finger at the patients for leaving. The same should apply to those who have left the church. The first step should be to look inward and not outward.
I find it helpful to look at Jesus’ own actions with people he didn’t see eye to eye with. One common theme we see throughout scripture is that Jesus held space for discourse with those he disagreed with and talked with them directly. Unfortunately, too many Christians don’t take Jesus’ cue and instead make assumptions regarding LGBTQ Catholics. This leads to LGBTQ Catholics being falsely mislabeled as indifferent, morally lazy, rebellious, or lacking an in-depth knowledge of church teachings, though often none of these accusations are at all true.
One way Christians could better reflect Jesus would be to open the door for conversation without the kneejerk urge simply to defend the church, or only to explain church teachings and scripture. Instead, initiate a conversation with an open, respectful, curious heart and with a willingness to walk in others’ shoes. If more people followed these steps, the church might more fully realize its own mission statement.
I would like to leave my readers with one thing to ponder. I was born and raised a cradle Catholic. I spent my whole childhood and early adult life in the church. I prayed countless rosaries, received sacraments, and never missed Mass. Why then, was it not until I was outside the walls of the church that I encountered God?
Image: Unsplash/Mateus Campos Felipe