Black LGBTQ folks are often trying to find a place that they can call home. For us, it can be a tough task when much of the backbone of Black community is rooted in anti-lgbtq principle and practice. From the Barbershop to the Black Church, we don’t have much of a safe haven for the nourishment of our spirits outside of the safe environments we created within LGBTQ circles of community. Sometimes, that isn’t enough, and the soul deserves as much of a relationship to God and the universe as anyone else that is deemed acceptable in the eyes of religion.
For me this journey has been a lifetime in the making. I was five when I first started going to Sunday school, a tradition that had stood in my family going generations back. My introduction to the church was one of a safe haven for me, where I could exist without judgment, or so I thought. It kept me out of trouble, and gave me things to do throughout the week, building my relationship with God, faith, and community. It is honestly the first place that my activism began, as I learned that being a servant of the Lord meant I was to be a servant to the people; something I dedicate my life work to doing.
As I grew older, my responsibility to church continued to grow as well. I joined the church choir, with the requirement to sing monthly on Third Sunday. Weekly rehearsals became a place of social gathering as church kids became some of my closest friends. I participated in church events, joined the Youth Ministry and even had a year as a liturgical dancer. I was thirteen when my grandmother and I started a soup kitchen to feed the sick and shut-in at our church. This became my weekly thing to do for the next four years as part of the requirement for community service at my high school. The church was a huge part of my life, and it centered me and made me feel comfortable in the skin I was in. I would soon learn though that in this once sacred safe haven I would become only a memory of a version of myself, one that could only be accepted by the institution at the suppression of my identity.
It was senior year when I saw just how unsafe the church could be. Up for a scholarship with another classmate who also attended the church, a controversy erupted because we were both awarded the same amount. A member of that person’s family questioned in a public meeting in front of my grandmother and mother whether I had “done enough” for the church to deserve any type of reward. Now I’m a be honest, by then I wasn’t a Sunday morning regular. But I learned that the real work of ministry often happens on the days when no one is around to see it. I had dedicated four years of my Saturdays to helping our church, only to be deemed as less-than because I wasn’t present for Sunday services. This one experience would be the start of my awakening to the journey of self-discovery outside the institution of the church.
By the time I was in my twenties, church was not a thing for me anymore. I only participated when forced to and I had no desire to sit in a room where I was tolerated, condemned, and never accepted. However, I did go back to my roots of community work and started working with the young kids on how to step. It gave me great joy to be doing that type of work again, spirit-nourishing without having to compromise who I was. I was so happy with this work, that I even tried to join the church again.
In a moment of crisis, I spoke with a religious leader regarding the issues I was having because of my sexuality and being in my fraternity. I was told that my lifestyle was wrong and that although I could be accepted in the eyes of God that man may not be so moved to do the same. It was around that time I was diagnosed with HIV, and I knew that for me, I had to find an alternative to feed my spirit. Losing the church during such a hard time in my life was troubling to say the least. The loneliness I felt dealing with my diagnosis, which intersected with the assumed loss of God, was enough to push me over the edge. Thankfully, I was always raised to know that there are always additional options for salvation if you just do the work.
I began researching alternate methods of health and spirituality, when I landed on Yoruba and many of the principles surrounding it. I also began “smudging,” a process involving the lighting of sage and chanting away negative energies while opening one’s self up to light and healing.
Holistic health was another approach I took to finding spirituality and healing as it took into account the mind, body, and spirit; three things necessary in my journey to health and wellness. My diagnosis then became one of the smaller parts of my existence, as my spiritual journey led me to working on things I could change while managing the things out of my control. The experience also broadened my understanding of the universe being suffice, and that belief in a higher power opens one up to a spiritual relationship where church is not needed. I gained salvation outside of religion, and have been better for it.
I write this to say that there isn’t one way to be saved. For those who need the church, go to church. For those who don’t, trust when I say you have options for spiritual healing. Do the research.
George M. Johnson is a black queer journalist and activist. He has written for Ebony, TheGrio, JET, Teen Vogue, Huffington Post, Black Youth Project, and several HIV publications. Follow him on Twitter @iamgmjohnson.