By KRISTEN SCHAROLD
When you are raised to be a good Christian girl, you don’t just go to church; you date the church. Church is the significant other with whom you spend weekends and evenings, the boyfriend whose friends become your friends, the girlfriend with whom you share all your dreams.
I was a really good Christian girl, so I didn’t just date the church; I married it.
After graduating from a Midwestern college whose motto is “For Christ and His Kingdom,” I moved to New York City. It was my first time out of the evangelical cocoon, and my priority was finding a church I could love, commit my life to, and make my spiritual and social center.
My search ended in Brooklyn, where I found a church of young creative people and fledgling professionals who, like me, were looking for a faith less burdened by fundamentalism. We forged a quick camaraderie, including with our pastor, who was as much friend and peer as spiritual leader. We hung out in the pews on Sundays, but also in bars and each other’s living rooms throughout the week.
Soon this congregation became my beloved. I took my membership vows and began leading a Bible study, teaching Sunday school, attending weekly planning meetings and signing up for countless other duties. I committed to this church with the vigor and joy of a new bride.
Like most single women in my position, my next priority was finding a husband in this church. There is a motif of love triangles in Christianity. Like the love of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Evangelicalism 101 also teaches the holy trinity of matrimony: man, woman, church. So I scanned the pews each week looking for someone with an unadorned ring finger.
One Sunday, I noticed a new woman in a suede jacket, her short dark hair tucked under a brimmed hat. Our conversation was unremarkable, and yet I was captivated. I tossed out the most evangelical invite: “Do you want to come to my Bible study?”
She did. Then she came over for dinner. Then she began sleeping on my couch. We met for coffee and whiskey and eventually lost track of who paid for each other’s tabs. I convinced her that biking in New York wasn’t too hazardous, so she bought a bicycle on Craigslist.
When she crashed — twice! — we went back to my apartment, where I cleaned pebbles out of her skin and bandaged her ankle. Then we unknowingly went to a museum exhibition featuring gay and lesbian art, and I was forced to think about us. But I wouldn’t let myself acknowledge what was so painfully obvious.
Over the following months, however, as Jess began stashing extra shoes in my closet and bringing home groceries to expand my diet of frozen burritos, I couldn’t deny that I was falling in love. And with that realization, I fell off cloud nine and stared into the fires of hell.
I finally came out to myself. Then I scrambled right back in. At stake was my soul and identity, my entire worldview and spiritual cosmology, my relationships with friends, family, God. That holy trinity of husband, wife and church haunted me even as it slipped out of reach.
It was a crisis of eternal proportions. I fell deep into an inferno of shame and panic. My fear of hell shut down any capacity to imagine a future with Jess. I repented of what Christians call my “struggle with same-sex attraction,” but still I found incomparable delight in her. I read countless books on homosexuality, and yet clarity escaped me. Fighting for solace, I convinced myself that Jess and I were just friends.
That worked until one night when we went to the ballet, and I kissed her, and she told me she loved me. For the first time, I felt complete, loved, known. Lying beside her healed my past and present self. It also confirmed my worst fears. I woke up terrified. I needed to kick Jess out and end things with her immediately.
But first, we had to go to brunch. It was the kind of brunch we couldn’t skip: a going-away celebration for a good friend.
We barely endured the long mimosas and eggs Benedicts as we contemplated our catastrophically changed lives à la Adam and Eve postfruit, full guilt. Finally, the check was squared, and we left to confront the reality of us.
As we walked, Jess noticed a distraught homeless man standing in traffic. Never one to ignore a person in need, she called him over to the sidewalk, where he began to share his story of the wounds life had inflicted upon him. Jess listened patiently. I stood aloof and awkward while she offered to buy him lunch.
When they exited a nearby bodega, the man had a bag of food, a hot coffee and something like a smile on his face.
“How much?” the man asked.
“Oh, nothing. It’s a gift.”
“How much?” the man insisted.
“O.K., well,” Jess hesitated. “A dollar.”
He reached into his jacket and pulled out a coin purse, counting out four quarters and placing them in Jess’s hand. Then he left.
Jess looked at the quarters. “These are the most valuable things anyone has ever given me,” she said. “I don’t even know what to do with them.”
For most of my life, I had been given a slew of definitions around love and relationships that were easy to verify with Scripture, just as a flat Earth was once confirmed by looking at the horizon. But watching Jess interact with this man, I saw a new horizon, one that was more complicated.
In Jess, I saw the love Jesus preached, one unconstrained by conditions and extended to everyone, especially the forgotten, the stranger. Jesus never mentioned homosexuality. His cosmology was not studded with creeds, crimes and contempt; its essence was loving the marginalized. Every fiber of Jess’s being reflected this. She embodied the attributes Jesus was most passionate about: compassion, kindness, justice. How could loving someone who loved so well be wrong?
I felt my cramped religious framework of false dichotomies and moral starkness beginning to collapse. What once seemed like a bleak choice between losing my soul or losing my most cherished friend was in fact a lesson that true love is the only thing that could save me.
There was still much turmoil ahead. Many people opposed our relationship and insisted that if we loved each other, we didn’t love God. Our pastor was one. We had first gone to him to confess what we then considered our sinful relationship. But over time, we discussed our evolved thinking with him, hoping that our years of faithfully serving the church would be our witness, and that our pastor — a friend — would agree to disagree where our theology diverged.
Instead, he gave us an ultimatum: break up or lose our church memberships. Soon after, the church divorced us.
Looking back through that messy love triangle between Jess, our church and me, I kept asking myself what Christ’s love required, and the refrain I kept hearing was “love your neighbor as yourself.” Jess didn’t usher me into only true romantic love, but also true agape love, showing me that the most foundational precept is the trinity of loving God and your neighbor as you love yourself. We eventually found a new church that champions this belief and embraces all people. I now have the joy of serving as an elder there.
Two years after our first kiss, Jess and I sneaked onto an empty Rhode Island beach. Only a few stars and a cloudy moon illuminated our running and jumping as we let freedom eradicate our shame. As our eyes adjusted to the darkness, we saw a lifeguard tower and clambered up. With the ocean at our feet and the horizon at eye level, we sat side by side in the night air.
“Let’s write something,” Jess suggested, pulling out the journal we shared.
“No, let’s just enjoy this,” I insisted. The moment seemed perfect as is.
“Well, I’ll write something, and we can read it later.”
Jess scribbled and then handed me the open notebook, shining her phone’s flashlight on it. The light was a shocking intrusion upon our private darkness, so I asked her to turn it off.
Instead, she pushed the journal into my hands. When I looked down, I saw a hole cut out in the middle of all the pages. Inside lay a ring.
My head spun. I waited for her to ask me those four fated words, but she was silent. The moment didn’t need words.
I took the pen and wrote “yes” on the page.
She put the silver band on my finger and gave me a matching ring to place on hers. Then she asked if I remembered the homeless man we met that morning after brunch.
I laughed. “Of course! Why?”
“I figured out what to do with those quarters. They were melted into our rings. Fifty cents each.”