July 18th, 1999 was a Sunday. I was 12 years old. It was in the high 90s in Los Angeles, as it had been most July days of my life. I went to the Assembly of God church that we regularly attended that morning with my ex-stepfather, his new wife, and my younger half-siblings. I went to Sunday school and the first part of the church service and they reminded everyone that there was going to be a mission trip to downtown that afternoon, and that anybody was welcome.
When the kids left for Children’s Chapel I left, as usual, to help out with a couple of the special needs kids that usually fell to my care being, frankly, the only person who really paid attention to them.
After service that day I asked my ex-stepfather’s-new-wife about the missions trip that had been mentioned. If she was going. If I could go.
It was held in an older parking lot, temporarily transformed into a place for music and fun things for kids to do while their parents were given such life-sustaining goods as bibles and prayer. Looking back I really, really hope they were given some kind of food, too, but I don’t think they were.
I was helping out with the children, specifically a little boy named Tomas, who was 2 years old, and his older sister Maria, who was 5. Tomas sat on my lap, and Maria sided up against me, not letting go of my leg for hours. They didn’t speak any English so I was translating the necessary words.
There was a sermon by a man named Luke who talked about the importance of loving God, because God loved you. There were songs, and dancing, and I helped lead “Father Abraham” and “Rise and Shine.”
“Monitors” walked through the groups of kids sitting on the ground, handing out tickets for things like “sitting quietly” and “paying attention.” At the end all the tickets were put in a big basket, and names were drawn for some cheap prizes that were on the stage. Tomas won a prize, and when I carried him up to pick one he chose this grubby little stuffed owl, much to his big sister’s chagrin.
That was eleven and a half years ago.
That was the day I was introduced to the idea of missionary work.
Two Sunday’s later we had a guest speaker at an evening service. She talked about her work in Ghana and all the fun they had. Her name was Cynthia and, frankly, she was gorgeous and funny and basically everything that I wanted to be. She talked about working with kids and adults to improve their lives, about going around with the local people and learning about their life and trying to buy food and ordering a coca cola and getting it in a sandwich bag because bottles were too expensive.
That was the day that I decided I wanted to go into ministry. I had this long, crying talk with our youth minister, Bobbie, and I started to get even more involved with the youth chapel. There was lots of crying, lots of praying on my knees, I started to get a sick feeling in my stomach if I had to miss any church because it meant I wasn’t serious or good enough.
The various youth ministers encouraged me – I gave testimony and helped at services and, if nothing else, got way more comfortable speaking in front of crowds. The pastor’s wife told me I had a gift for preaching, and that I would be a great youth minister (not a parish minister, mind you, because girls shouldn’t strive for that – but I’d be a great youth minister).
On May 10th, 2000, a month and a few days before I was to turn 13, one of the youth ministers found out that I had been outed at school. I guess, technically, I outed myself – I went with my best friend to the final school dance of the year and we weren’t shy about dancing together, hugging, and holding hands.
The youth minister told me that that was not OK. It was immoral. It was against God. It was against the Bible. We should pray about it.
Two weeks after that they called in the big guns – my ex-stepfather and the minister of the church. I was told that we needed to pray about the part of me that the devil had gotten a hold of. They tried to take my hands. I refused. They held hands. They prayed about me. It went on forever. And at the end they looked at me, asked me to recommit my life to Christ.
And I stood up and walked out. It was a mighty uncomfortable ride home.
That was the last time I ever went to that church. It was the last church I went to for a long time.
That summer I read the bible. And in the next couple of years I read the Qu’ran, and the Tanakh, and lots of other books on spirituality and religion. Then I really got involved in activism, and I realized that I was doing my idea of missionary work without the moral superiority that was present before. Without the exceptions or the caveats or the gays need not apply.
I feel like I’ve almost come full circle. I have people encouraging me toward ministry again, people telling me that I’d be good at it. Ministers telling me I’d be good at it. Friends who are saying “dude, if it’s what you want then go for it.”
So what comes next? Is it bad or good? Affirming and soul-fulfilling? Or heartbreaking because, damnit, there still really isn’t a place for me in religious leadership? Questionsquestionsquestions.
(Overactive memory? me? what? Noooooo.)