I moved to Riverside about eight years ago, after having grown up most of my life in Jacksonville, yet somehow never venturing to the neighborhood. I remember the first time I drove down Park street at the end of high school, marveling at the architecture of the post-war houses and flowing, oak-filled parks. I thought, “how has all of this been right here, just miles away from my suburban, bland, cul-de-sac bubble, without me having any idea it ever existed?”
A couple years after college a friend I met at Florida State found a 3rd floor apartment tucked into the corner of a quiet condo named the Peacock on Saint Johns Avenue, and I moved out of my parents place with her, ready to start my new, cool, adult life. She, a non Jacksonville native, wanted to live in Riverside to be close to her then-boyfriend, now husband, who had gotten a job at a finance company downtown.
I wanted to be near my church.
At the time I found the church, I was single, still healing from the ending of an unhealthy relationship that left me so devastated I transferred colleges and moved cities, finishing out my degree while living at home. The church was everything I needed at that time in my life. Having been first brought there reluctantly by a guy I was “hanging out with” I had thought I was not ready to commit to a spiritual community. The thing about letting people enter your life, gaining access to all the drawers and cabinets holding your crap, is that this means they also have the option to one day exit it.
But I forgot all about that once I stepped foot inside the church. It was nothing like the traditional, suburban, fundamentalist church I had grown up in. This church was attached to a treatment center for a local city rescue mission. Every Sunday worshipers who drove into the barbed wire topped gates in their fancy cars happily praised Jesus alongside people who might have slept on the street just days before. It felt like heaven. Or what I always imagined heaven would be like.
Within weeks I was fully immersed into the church, forming fast friendships, attending studies and groups, exploring my neighborhood. Everything was new and for a few wonderful years it was perfect. Exactly how I pictured my life going when I first signed that apartment lease and said goodbye to the “old” me, from the traditional fundamentalist cookie-cutter suburbs past.
And then my best friend of fifteen years came out to me.
It shocked me, when he said, after trying and failing a few times to tell me, that he wasn’t able to tell me at first, because he was scared of how I’d react, since I was a Christian. The biggest part of my life had always been my faith. The church. I’d always loved my friend. So it hurt, deeply, that he thought I could ever, would ever reject him. Or that he could think my friends, my church, would ever do something so awful either.
The best part about having your heart destroyed, and going through a devastating break-up, I learned, is that surviving it makes the next break-up hurt a little less.
For a while I tried to separate the parts of my self so they wouldn’t touch and interact, and I could rationalize staying in the church. Even while they refused to let my friend in the church who was openly gay pray for people during ministry time. Or while they told my other friend who was gay, who began dating my friend that had come out to me, that he had to step down from the worship team, since he was no longer “celibate.” But when they turned down my ideas for ministry opportunities and people started looking at me different, I knew it was over. After a few months of trying to “make it work” I left the church that had meant everything to me, that had been such a wonderful place of healing and vowed to never trust, be hurt like that again.
Church -and Christianity – for a long time, for years, brought up nothing but bitter, painful feelings.
Church was where I was first told I couldn’t lead because I was a girl.
Church was where I was told my LGBT friends were going to hell.
Church was where I was told I was dirty and worthless for not being a virgin.
Church, and church groups, was where I made some of the greatest friendships I’d ever had, but that was also where I met some of the cruelest people I’ve ever encountered. People who told me that I wasn’t really a Christian, because I refused to reject my LGBT friends.
Church was where my heart was broken again and again.
Through out all of this I never lost my faith in Jesus. He never hurt me. He never betrayed me. It was (C)hurch who had done me wrong. This went on for years. Then one day I got an email.
It was from someone who had found some of my writing online, and she wanted to invite me to a conference for Christians. I scoffed, and almost deleted it, seeing the word “Reformation” in the title. But when I read further I saw it was a conference for Christians who wanted to CHANGE the church, to be affirming of LGBT people. AND they’d pay my way.
That got me on a plane. When Sunday rolled around I found myself standing in a tiny Baptist church pew, surrounded by gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, and affirming allied Christians like myself. For the first time in almost five years when worship music played, and people raised their hands, I felt something inside me move.
I had found my church.
What had brought me back was what had been the catalyst for me leaving. My love for my LGBT friends, which over the years turned into love for immigrant friends, mentally ill friends, black friends worried about their safety during interactions with police, and all of those people who often are marginalized by society and sadly, also the church.
That’s one reason that when I first heard the name of the Intersections Jax festival I smiled. Because two things immediately came to mind; 1) the 5 pts beacon that everyone hates and/or loves to hate because it’s a round-a-bout but not really, and 2) the way that Christ used the people I loved the most to bring me back to church. To him.
I’m excited about Intersections Jax for the same reason I love that 5 pts beacon (sorry haters.) Because it will be unique, and unlike anything else in the city, and something that, even if scary for those of us used to more “traditional” ways of navigating faith or spirituality, if you go slow, it’ll get you somewhere really worthwhile.
Intersections Jax will be a place without all the answers.
It won’t be perfect.
But it will be a place for those of us to go who have felt unwelcome elsewhere.
Who were told they couldn’t because they were a girl,
Or because they were gay
Or asked too many questions.
All will be included.
Just be careful, because, if you’ve ever been in that 5 pts beacon intersection, you know that rarely do we enter an intersection alone.