On the night of June 25th, 2016, I was in Belfast’s Sunflower Pub for Fringe events at Peter Rollins’ Wake Festival. Jay Bakker was speaking and I was determined to meet him. That night put my faith journey on a new and scarier, but much better, course.
God and Jesus and Christianity were always part of my life. I was homeschooled and my mom taught my sister and me biblical principles as part of our studies. Plus, everyone went to church on Sunday as a family. I accepted Christ when I was only six and questioned things occasionally, but kept my wonderings to myself because it didn’t feel okay to express them.
In late 2005, I found a church podcast that resonated with me because the pastor preached it was faith, not works, that got people into Heaven. That was the way I was raised, but most of the preachers I had heard until then were wedded to the concept of “faith plus works.” I didn’t know it then, but the church was in Dundalk, Ireland.
I’d felt drawn to Ireland for as long as I could remember. Once I visited in 2006, I took to it so strongly that I wrote in my journal how Ireland was home and I was going to move there — only hours after arriving. It took seven years of planning, but in July 2013, I moved there to volunteer at the church without knowing anyone. I felt it was something God had called me to do.
I was very concerned due to a belief that the only people who were going to get to Heaven were those who knew salvation came through faith alone. If most of Ireland didn’t, (The people who hold religious beliefs here usually think works are required with faith), I was going spend eternity separated from the majority of Irish people and wasn’t okay with that.
I stood out in Dundalk without even trying and not just because my religious beliefs had begun expanding beyond what I’d grown up with. People heard my accent and said, “What’s an American doing in Dundalk, of all places?” When I explained I had come to volunteer with a church, most of them looked at me as if I’d gone mad. I considered that was a natural way to be a witness since I’ve never been one to stuff tracts into people’s hands or otherwise force beliefs on them.
In early December 2014 after a morning service, the head pastor announced that after almost two decades in operation, the church was shutting down after the upcoming Christmas Eve service. I broke down crying immediately.
Chaos ensued. The church sold Starbucks Coffee products and the coffee shop workers, most of whom were congregation members, got word they were losing their jobs only a couple of weeks beforehand. People could hardly stay composed enough to do their shifts. I was told if anyone asked, to say the church was only going on a hiatus, not closing. Things got even worse when the pastor and his family started avoiding everyone and changed their phone numbers without notice.
I flipped rapidly back and forth between extreme sorrow and sheer panic. If my best friend O’Hara hadn’t have been there for me during that time, I don’t know what I’d have done. As a testament to our friendship, he lives in the States AND doesn’t share my faith, but it felt like he was the only thing I could depend on or trust. Finally, I cornered the pastor and asked him what this meant for me. His attitude made it very clear I’d get no support from him when he said, “Some people have to go through tests, and this is just yours.”
I never fit in at church, but still considered it a second family. After it closed and almost no one kept in contact, it hurt a lot to realise that wasn’t the case. If I see the pastor in town, he ignores me unless approached. The same goes for many other church members. That treatment only amplified when I proudly and loudly campaigned so Irish LGBT people could have marriage equality after a 2015 public vote, the first of its kind in the world.
I felt incredibly alone. My faith and confidence in organized religion were rocked. I went through a period of disinterest in anything to do with God or Christianity, but then found Jay Bakker’s Revolution Church podcast and was immensely comforted by it. Jay is very transparent about expressing doubts. My pastor liked to seem as if he had no doubts, and even doubting the pastor was severely frowned upon, so Revolution Church was refreshingly different.
My faith deconstruction officially started after enrolling in Atheism for Lent this year, which made me question nearly everything I had been brought up to believe. I know Jesus was a real person and is someone who shapes my life and actions, and I believe there is some sort of higher power. I don’t believe in a literal Hell, and I know it’s not a sin to be gay, or otherwise along the LGBT spectrum. As for just about everything else, those beliefs are works in progress.
I’m still a volunteer but split my time between an LGBT community support service (I am a straight ally), a domestic violence refuge and an arts centre. My goal is to live in ways that reflect how Jesus treated people and there are lots of opportunities to do that in Dundalk.
I did indeed meet Jay Bakker on April 26 and had life-changing conversations with Peter Rollins, too. Prior to that, the faith leaders I knew positioned themselves as being “above” the common people and it was surreal to sit with these two and chat casually over a pint.
I asked Jay if we could go for coffee the next morning. He gave me his contact details and said, “We’ll make it happen.” Sure enough, we did and Jay strengthened me during an unsteady time more than I can adequately describe. Notably, my pastor never had coffee with me despite my giving his church 30 hours per week of my time for free. Jay willingly agreed to after only having met me a few minutes earlier.
During the Fringe events of the Wake Festival, the room featured what was the most diverse representation of people of faith I’d ever seen. Genuinely welcoming individuals of all ages, races, backgrounds and beliefs. I thought excitedly, “I’ve found my people!” For my whole life until then, I felt like a Christian who never fit in and thought that would always be the case. Then, finally, I was at ease and wholly accepted at the Sunflower.