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Christianity in the Western world has so many negative associations that, often times, I am embarrassed to admit I am a Christian. It’s as if when people ask me if I’m a Christian I answer, “Yes, but…” filling in the blank with some type of caveat like ” I don’t practice the mainstream Christianity you see in the media.”

Christianity, like any religion, has so many denominations and sects that it’s often hard for people who aren’t Christians to get a clear picture of what Christianity really is. In fact, I don’t think there really is a clear picture if you look at Christians/Christianity themselves.

I grew up in a small, conservative Mennonite church in rural Pennsylvania. There were around 200 members, most of whom were white and straight. As a child in the church I did feel love and happiness but it wasn’t until I became a teenager that things changed.

Some friends of mine began bringing friends of theirs to weekly youth group (a Wednesday night meeting where youth study the Bible and hang out together). It soon became apparent that youth leaders and youth parents were uncomfortable with having these teens hang out with their teens because they drank and smoked and weren’t “perfect little Christian teens.”

I soon realized that many members of this church were not accepting of people who were different than them. I became increasingly uncomfortable. To me a church should be a place of vulnerability and openness and when the biggest discussions the church has revolve around what type of music to sing or what kids should be allowed to hang out with their kids then church stops being church and starts being a members-only club.

In college this church went through a difficult, heartbreaking split with many people following the leader who brought the church to its destruction. It was hard and I gave up on churches in their pristine buildings where petty arguments and hatred overruled truth and light.

This is not to say that this whole church was a corrupt place. There were people there whom I loved and respected deeply, and still do. But when the church split it felt like a huge chasm appeared in my own faith. When the church stops being a place of unconditional love then it stops being what Jesus intended it to be. If we can’t be real in church and have the church respond in a supportive and loving way then where can we be real?

Over the last two years I started attending two Mennonite churches, one in NYC and one in Philly, where church was real. In these churches I shared about depression, suicide, and rape and no one judged me. As my words hung in the air and I feared for the worst, people took those words and held them. And then they held me. And they cried. And they loved. And they were church to me.

Other people shared about their struggles and shame, about being gay in the church, about having a disability, about failing to be perfect, about being taught that their “sins” were too great to be forgiven. And we took their words and we held them. And then we held the speakers of those words. And we cried, and loved, and were church.

And it is in these settings I can exuberantly proclaim that I am a Christian without any buts or caveats attached. And a clearer picture of Christianity emerges and it is beautiful and it is real.

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