There’s a beautiful old building a few streets over from where my church meets to worship, and it catches my eye each time I drive past it. The charcoal exterior of the A-frame design stands out against the urban Birmingham backdrop. I’ve heard the building is just two shotgun style houses, put together, but the design reminds me of the little Methodist church in the town where I was born. Last Saturday night, I was invited into its sanctuary.
The stairs creaked as I walked in the front door and turned the decorative metal knob. A small crowd gathered just past the foyer, while music boomed from within. As we entered the main room, I found smiles all around, people hugging and talking. Some were drinking, most were dancing. To celebrate a friend’s birthday, I’d just entered a gay bar for the first time. I’d been invited to step into my friend’s world.
The interior walls were black, and the lights had been dimmed throughout, but there was a lightness in the air. I couldn’t get past the sense that this place was a real church. There were bar stools instead of pews, and bartenders standing in for ushers. Nonetheless, I recognized the feeling permeating the club. It was a feeling of safety, of love, of community, of belonging. And isn’t that what the Church is all about?
I walked into that churchy old building, converted into a gay club, and I found God.
The place was a safe haven for those who have been cast aside from most traditional worship. Many have even lost their families. But here, nobody had to fight to be seen or struggle to be afforded the dignity many Americans assume is theirs from birth. In this sanctuary, my friends were able to be fully themselves, congregating in the name that is above every name: the name of Love. And I saw that love is too great to ever be labeled "worldly" or "godly", "sacred" or "secular". Love is just love.
As the night progressed, the music grew louder and the drinks stronger. The dance floor was filled with familiar faces, and my dearest friends spun, shook, and smiled, weaving themselves in a beautiful tapestry of peace and freedom. It was more than just a party; it was a spiritual experience. My friends were living into their identity, knowing that in a few hours, they would return to straight America. Many would once again hold their true selves at a comfortable distance, not wanting to offend their neighbors, co-workers, or those who sit with them on more familiar pews.
I watched them dance, and thought this is life. I could feel Emmanuel, God-with-us. My friends were the most alive I'd ever seen them. They must have felt God too. With lifted hearts and heads, the room was filled with laughter, our entire beings, overcome with the joy of the Lord. Outside that bar, my friends are judged, cursed, and worse by so-called Christians who are "preaching the truth in love." But inside, they find a shelter from the storm, a community, peace, safety and love. There's really only one word to describe what they find in that club - God.