I Found God at Queer Summer Camp

I left the evangelical church when I came out as a lesbian. Then I found faith again in the place I least expected.

I Found God at Queer Summer Camp

When I signed up to spend five days at queer camp, surrounded by 400 other queer people in the mountains of Ojai, California, going to church was the last thing on my mind. Jesus might be a queer witch, as one camp friend said, but my faith was a hollowed-out relic of a past life, left in the dust with a straight marriage and the dozens of friends and family that stopped speaking to me when I came out as a lesbian.

Yet, for all that I don’t consider myself a Christian anymore, here I am, in the middle of church, which is really just a bunch of queer folks who got up early on Sunday morning to read scripture and poetry in a small dining room.

“Where two or more are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them,” Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew. I look around the room and see gorgeous queers with piercings and undercuts and bra straps sticking out, drinking mimosas and talking and laughing and finding room for doubt and praise and prayers, all at the same time.

I was not prepared for this.

I registered for A-Camp, an exclusively queer camp hosted by Autostraddle, the internet’s leading independent media company for “girl on girl culture,” for the most obvious reason: I liked a girl, and she was going.

That particular flirtation fizzled out long before camp started, but our conversations piqued my interest about camp itself – a community that springs up in the woods, magically, for five days a year. A space where everyone just knows that everyone else is somewhere on the LGBTQ spectrum. For me, a femme-presenting lesbian who refuses to get an undercut or a septum piercing, or to wear most types of clothing that would register as legibly queer, the idea of being someplace where I was immediately seen, where I wouldn’t have to come out to someone new for a whole five days, sounded nearly utopian.

One of my dearest friends signed up to join me. I had other friends from Boston who were going, and a whole host of queer Twitter who I had never met in real life descending on the camp as well.

The schedule was released a few weeks ahead of time and included something for everyone. Among dozens of workshops, there were dance clinics (yes), crafting events (no), Disney Princess singalongs (hell yes), and a Dana Fairbanks Memorial Tennis Tournament (hard pass). There was a Shabbat on Friday for Jewish campers. Also of note? A Gospel Brunch on Sunday morning, hosted by Al(aina), one of my favorite Autostraddle writers, described as a service for those who were faithful, seeking, and “running from” the church.

I reconnect with my Boston friends, and it doesn’t take long for one of them – Erica – and I to end up on the subject of religion. Our conversations always go there. After all, we’re both in the “running from” church category.

“We probably aren’t the only two people at camp who are ex-fundie,” Erica says. “There are definitely more of us. We should put a meetup on the board.”

I scribble a quick note: “Ex-Religious and Fundamentalist Lunch Meetup – 1:45pm Saturday, Cabana,” and pin it to the “Missed Connections” board, where lunch meetups for Saturday are springing up.

By the time I walk into Klub Deer, the unofficial dance party of A-Camp, that night, the religious meetup Erica and I are hosting the next day is forgotten. After all, God isn’t a part of my vacation plans. Sex is.

Deer is spoken about in hushed tones, a “you have to see it to believe it.” But it’s just a party in a big room, really. Deer is held in the one room with a stage, the room large enough to fit hundreds of folding chairs for the performances that take place every night. It has high ceilings and an ugly brown carpet. Picture the lobby of a big Midwestern church. But dim the lights, pump Janelle Monáe through the speakers, and add hundreds of queer bodies pressed up against each other and suddenly, it’s a queer nightclub – which is its own kind of holy.

There’s a woman at Deer who I recognize from some workshops I’ve attended. She’s femme presenting (not my type), with glasses (totally my type), but she has this energy, a rip current that carries you under with a smile on your face.

We’re dancing and before I know it she’s kissing me, saying all kinds of things to me that make me blush, and she keeps playing with the harness I’m wearing. She doesn’t know what to do with all of my lingerie, but she bites her lip and the look on her face is, well…

Later that night, when we’re bracing ourselves in between wooden bunks in an abandoned tent, I come into her hand, and she catches all of it and says, “I’m going to return this to the earth you came from.” We walk out of the tent and listen to it all drip off her fingers into the dirt, the moonlight dancing on her skin.

Sex with language is still a revelation for me, mostly because for years I didn’t know how to express myself sexually, didn’t know how to say yes or no, didn’t know how to articulate my desire, didn’t know how to identify what my desire even was. My suppressed language was tied to God, to purity culture, to the fact that good Christian women are not supposed to have a sex drive, to the fact that, in my marriage, sex was usually not consensual. Sex was something I endured so that my husband wouldn’t sin. “Do you want me to start watching porn again? Do you want to be responsible for my sexual sin?” were explicit questions asked of me when we would go three or four days without sex.

The ability to vocalize desire, and the reality that others could vocalize theirs while asking me if it was O.K. if they touched me, if I wanted more, if I wanted it differently, is still a revelation that knocks me on my ass.

The next day, Erica and I host a group of ex-fundies in a conversation at a picnic table in the open-air cabana. There are fewer than 10 of us, and a meetup that is supposed to be 45 minutes goes for nearly three hours, all the way through the first workshop block of the afternoon.

We each introduce ourselves by name and pronouns, and immediately launch into detailed retellings of the faiths in which we were raised, of what we’ve experienced, as queer people within faithful families, of what we’ve lost.

“I’m Jeanna,” I say. “I’m a lesbian, but I grew up really conservative and really Christian, and I’ve got an ex-husband.”

“I’ve got one of those,” another lesbian in the circle says, and we laugh, looking at each other in recognition, seeing – really seeing – each other’s pain in a way virtually no one else can.

In spite of having different backgrounds – some from legit cults, some LDS (Mormon), some ex-evangelical Christian (like myself), some ex-Catholic, some ex-Muslim – everyone at the picnic table shares similar traumas around sexual purity, rigid gender roles, authority and authoritarianism, and literal interpretations of religious texts. We’re all wounded, bitter, searching, healing.

None of us are still practicing any even adjacent forms of the religions we have grown up with. All of us have issues with our natal families; many have been cut off and are struggling to find ways of staying connected. Many of us feel too hurt to even try any form of spirituality and are skeptical of the queer community’s embrace of alternative forms of spirituality. I’m one of the few who has embraced practices like tarot and astrology, but more as a form of self-healing, of rebuilding my own identity outside organized religion.

It’s hard to explain to folks who don’t grow up within the constricts of fundamentalist faith just how deep it goes in you. Clean to the bone. It’s not a belief so much as an identity – the identity. You are good because Jesus redeemed you. You are worthy because of Jesus’s sacrifice. Your primary identity is as a child of God.

So what do you do when that doesn’t apply anymore?

Saturday night, I eschew the after parties and stay up talking in the common room with my cabin mates, especially one – Lauren. It turns out that she and her partner are both ex-fundamentalists, that she grew up in the South around the kinds of evangelical churches I had.

“It’s so hard, with our queer community here,” I say to Lauren. “They don’t understand how much of a loss the church is. And of course, I don’t want that community anymore, but that was home, that was my identity. Jesus was everything, and the loss is just so total when you come out and no one here gets that unless you were in it.” It can feel like our LGBTQ community doesn’t take our trauma seriously because we should be glad to be out of the church, because Christianity is so damaging that we shouldn’t mourn its loss.

For hours, Lauren and I talk religion and God and church and family and identity, finishing each other’s sentences, starting to explain the words we’re using and then realizing we don’t have to because we’re talking to another native speaker of our own first language: that of the evangelical Christian church.

For me, sexuality and faith are intrinsically linked, because coming out and leaving the church were ultimately one and the same. I tried to keep them both, but couldn’t. I tried to keep my marriage, tried to stay straight-presenting, tried to deny my feelings for my best friend.

But I couldn’t do it.

So I gave up my marriage, but tried to keep Jesus. I tried to keep my identity as a child of God, to forgive myself for leaving my husband, for telling God and everyone that Jesus was not enough to fix it – to fix the relationship, to fix my sexuality.

I tried to attend more liberal, progressive churches that allowed women in leadership, and that didn’t think lesbians were going to hell. But that didn’t work, either.

My decision to leave my husband had declared that Jesus was not enough, and for a fundamentalist, that is blasphemy. My brain was too hardwired in fundamentalism. Every Bible verse was a tripwire. I had been raised within a framework that valued biblical literalness (to be read literally and not figuratively or with cultural context) and inerrancy (the Bible is the given, infallible, perfect word of God).

Intellectually, as an educated woman, as a woman who was, at the time, in an English Ph.D. program, it made sense to me to read the Bible within cultural context. But fundamentalism – or what some would call “brainwashing” – is powerful. Even if I could make room for the scripture to embrace LGBTQ folks, what did it have to say about me, a divorced woman? Jesus doesn’t say much about being queer, but he says plenty about getting divorced, and my faith could not reconcile that.

Within the fundamentalist framework, the divorce was the result of my own sin and inability to withstand temptation. This belief drove me to consider killing myself before I considered leaving the church.

Within a fundamentalist framework, God does not make mistakes. Within fundamentalism, there is no grace for someone like me.

So I left the church. I left Jesus, too.

It’s been five years and I’m still so angry and sad when I walk by a church. I am still mourning this part of me – that was once all of me – that was ripped away, that I had to leave like Lot’s wife, and I couldn’t look back or else I would turn to salt.

The last time I was in church before camp was for my grandmother’s funeral. I was heartbroken. Not only was my grandmother dead, but I was also fresh off a breakup with my partner of nearly four years.

My mother’s side of the family is conservative in that peculiar Midwestern, religious way, and while I knew I was loved, I had no idea how they would respond to me coming out post-divorce. My grandmother’s wholehearted embrace of me and my partner, who she actively emailed with right up until the end of her life, set the tone for how this side of the family would treat me: the same way they always had.

Sitting in church at my grandmother’s funeral, I felt numb. The familiar Episcopal liturgy washed over me without impact. The message was clearly delivered by someone who didn’t know her at all. When the time for communion came, I sat in my seat as others went up to receive, tears dropping from my eyes as I asked Grandma to understand.

After the service, my sister and I snuck out and walked to the freshly dug grave where she had been buried with my grandfather. It was dirty from its recent unearthing.

“Let’s clean this up,” I said, and my sister and I immediately set about to wiping down our grandparents’ headstone with the tissues we had in our respective purses.

Tears mixed with dirt as we scrubbed the grime off, as I traced the letters of their names so that they looked shiny and new.

After we had cleaned it up to our satisfaction, my sister and I just sat next to our grandparents, holding hands, quiet as the sun beat down on us.

I laid my head down on my grandmother’s grave and wept.

Sunday morning rolls around, and it turns out that I’m not too tired from staying up late into the night with Lauren to go to Gospel Brunch. I show up at the room dubbed the “Fishbowl” with my breakfast plate – mostly blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries – and sit at a random table.

The only person I recognize in the Fishbowl is Al(aina), the Autostraddle staff member who is leading the service.

I turn to my breakfast. The feeling of isolation in church is familiar, practically comfortable. But there is orange juice and champagne on the tables for mimosas. That’s different.

A girl at my table sits down with her plate and pauses. “Should we pray before eating?” she asks, the question seemingly directed to all of us. I pause mid-bite. I haven’t prayed before a meal in years, haven’t even stopped to consider the question.

It only then dawns on me that some folks here haven’t lost their faith yet, and have found a way to hold their queerness and God simultaneously. I knew that, intellectually, but now I really know it. Some small engine of anxiety starts up in my stomach, that gnawing feeling that maybe I don’t actually belong here.

Al(aina) is praying, and there are readings from scripture.

Why did I come here? This isn’t me anymore, I don’t believe in sin, don’t believe that Jesus is the only way to God, don’t even know if I think he’s an option on the path to God.

My mind is reeling, and practically on cue, Lauren and her partner come in and sit down next to me. I feel a little less alone because I know they’re in the same category as me, the “running from” God category, even though somehow we ended up here, in church at queer camp.

And then, something happens. Al(aina) starts reading an unfamiliar poem from one of my favorite queer poets, Natalie Diaz’s “These Hands, If Not God’s”:

Haven’t they moved like rivers—
like Glory, like light—
over the seven days of your body?

And wasn’t that good?

And I split open like a seed, tears falling from my eyes uncontrollably. Natalie’s words are balm and Al(aina)’s voice is rainwater. Something starts growing, or maybe something starts healing? What are these words doing in between readings from 1st Peter and Acts? It is magic, indefinable, except it is entirely definable. This is the kind of thing that used to happen for me in church, that I used to call the Holy Spirit – back when I still believed, back before I knew I was queer.

The woman I danced with is here, at Gospel Brunch, because of course she is. These people I end up being drawn to, we just smell the church on each other. Our spirits recognize each other.

The coincidence is amusing. It also somehow strikes me as poetic, because this was taken from me – church was taken from me, my faith was taken from me, for the very kind of desire we acted on so recently, even though I have found that there is more divinity in a dark tent where a woman asks if she can be inside me than in a marriage bed where a husband assumes he’s welcome.

“If you’d like to take communion, we’re going to have it,” Al(aina) says. “We’ve got cinnamon bread and champagne

At this, laughter.

“And there is absolutely no pressure. But if you would like to come up, come on up.”

I am out of my seat immediately, instinctually. Lauren is, too. We just look at each other, quietly, and nod.

I stopped taking communion long before I stopped going to church. To me, communion symbolized not only that you were right with God, but that you wanted to be right with God, and even when I was still trying to go to church, I wasn’t sure what I wanted. So I abstained. Depending on where I was attending that week, I passed the communion plates, didn’t go up to receive.

But I know that here, I want to. Here, no judgment. Here, safety. Here, family. Queer family, full of bisexuals and lesbians and gays and queers and trans folk and enbies and genderqueers, all of whom are coming from their own place of religious trauma or questioning or even, most remarkably to me, groundedness. All beautiful.

We stand in a circle, and Al(aina) starts the prayer chain. I hold Lauren’s hand tight, a lifeline, as people pray aloud. Eventually, the prayers make their way around the circle. Lauren squeezes my hand, signaling that she would rather not pray aloud, that if I want to pray aloud it’s my turn.

Back when I still attended church, I was never the person who passed the prayer, who declined to pray in a group setting. I always had something to say, something eloquent and moving. But here among my family, the truest spiritual family I have ever felt, I have no words.

For the first time in memory, I squeeze the hand of the person to my right, passing it on, still silent. I don’t know their name, and they don’t know mine. They pass the prayer, too, and it is as though we can feel each other’s wounds through our palms, like Christ’s palms, bleeding as we hold each other’s hands. A collection of Lost Boys.

Someone speaks up, a person who I would later learn was also ex-evangelical, the child of Pentecostal pastors: “Hi, God. It’s been a while.”

Then we start communion, improvised with champagne and cinnamon bread, passing it around the circle as we did the prayers.

When it gets around to our side of the circle, Lauren turns to me and says,

“The body of Christ, broken for you,
The blood of Christ, poured out for you.”

We’re both crying as she gives me communion, as I eat the bread and drink the champagne, representative of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. I take the bread and the cup and turn to give communion to the stranger who feels like family on my other side, and I repeat:

“The body of Christ, broken for you.
The blood of Christ, poured out for you.”

And for the first time in a very, very long time, saying these words does not feel false and they do not feel trite; they do not feel forced. Not because I believe, but because I feel something else – whole?

When communion concludes, the stranger to my right and I turn to each other, and we embrace for several long minutes, swaying back and forth. I still don’t know their name, but there was something there between us in spirit.

I hug Lauren. I hug Al(aina).

The woman from Deer approaches me. “Can I hug you?” she asks. Always asking, always checking in. I nod, and we embrace. And what strikes me, immediately, is the complete lack of shame – the fact that I could be in church with a woman I had sex with, outside of marriage or even any intention of a relationship, and that it was fine. That we can stand in a circle together and take communion and feel full of love and joy and spirit, even though I have spent decades hearing that nothing but the contrary would be true.

Haven’t they moved like rivers—
like Glory, like light—
over the seven days of your body? 

And wasn’t that good?

For me, faith is an, “I know it when I see it.” Hear it. Feel it. I feel it when walking along the headwaters of the Mississippi River. I feel it when I’m on the rooftop bar of the Met Museum, sipping a glass of wine, looking out over the millions of people who somehow fit on the tiny landmass that is Manhattan.

I felt it when I was sobbing in the bed I shared with my husband – my sister lying in bed with me, holding me – as I fell apart on Christmas in 2012, when I was in the darkest deep of my coming out.

“I feel like Jesus has left me,” I said.

“I will never leave you,” my sister said.

I feel it when I take communion at queer camp, standing in that circle with Lauren and Al(aina) and the woman I danced with and so many others whose names I don’t know, but whose spirits I would recognize anywhere.

Maybe it’s God. Maybe it’s something else. For now, I’m comfortable settling in the space between.