Essay

Outstretched Arms, or, My Answered Prayer Was A Gay Atheist

Flashback. It is college.

I–a purity ring-wearing, worship service-attending, raise her hands to praise Christian girl–have my first ever barkada: a group of pious Catholic kids who go to confession every week and attend spiritual formation at a “Center.” Despite some niggling doctrinal differences, I truly believe I had found my tribe.

Three weeks later, I am dumped. Somehow, by being my borderline-manic, socially-awkward, embarrassingly earnest, consistently tactless self, I manage to offend/irritate every last one of them.  In the words of the group’s de facto “leader,” I’d proven “…too much to handle.”  As quickly as I thought I’d found a place to belong…I am alone again.

I’d spent ten years of my life alone. Having gone to a conservative Baptist-oriented school where I was one of the few kids from a broken family (anger issues included), I literally had zero friends from grade school and high school. While not really “bullied” in the conventional sense, I was definitely ostracized, seen for most of my time there as a “problem child” who either needed to shape up or get out. Starved for human kindness, I’d hoped college would be different: here, I could finally have a brand new start.

It appears I am wrong. This is high school all over again, five more lonely years of floating and feeling like I have to apologize for existing, that somehow my very presence offends.  I spend three weeks dodging my ex-barkada–and my whole college block, who also have reasons to dislike me–and discovering every last corner where it is safe to cry.

In desperation, I turn to the Bible. I pray my way through Psalms–David is about as distraught in most of them as I am–beg God to not let me be so alone.  I do this for probably a month, until one day, as I am moping on the couch in the lobby of our faculty building, a boy walks up to me with what is probably the best/worst icebreaker in human history: “You’re a Christian, right? So what do you think about Leviticus?”

(Yes, he means that part of Leviticus.)

After offending what feels like everyone else on campus, by some miracle, I do not offend him. This boy becomes one of my best friends in college, the person who picks me up and swings me around when I make it to the Dean’s List for the first time. Who listens to my first (horrible) attempts at writing songs. Who calls my mother on my eighteenth birthday to tell her he’s buying me my first drink (a tequila rose; I discover I do not like alcohol).

After ten years of being a label, this is the first person who sees me as a human being.

He is gay, and at the time he was an atheist.

Before I became a Christian, I understood judgment better than I understood grace. Raised, as I mentioned, in an uber-conservative school environment, I grasped very little of homosexuality beyond the fact that “it was bad:” the sort of shallow theology that, if allowed to grow, leads to justifications of cruelty and violence, to concentration camps and mass shootings. Back then, befriending a gay atheist would have been unthinkable. It is easy–so easy–after all, to demonize a label.

But then, that label saved my life.

Yesterday was, I am told, the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia (IDAHOT). A few weeks ago, in celebration of it, I was tagged in a challenge to rock rainbow-colored lips as a symbol of protest against violence perpetrated against members of the LGBTQIA+ community.

I could not take that photo, because I am not an ally, because as a Christian my stand is that homosexuality is a sin, and I cannot celebrate it. But, as a Christian, this is what I know: we are all sinners here. Jesus died for us all. And in that death, he marks us all as being of equal value

The dead in Orlando. The tortured in Chechnya. The shunned in Manila. All of them are worth the death of God himself.  The blood of Christ is the price of every single one of these lives we dismiss as “abominations” in the name of “religiosity” or just plain prejudice.  I can’t be called an ally, but I am a Christian, and that means I try to follow what Christ has to say. And did he not say this, that “…whatever you do to the least of my brothers, so you also do to me”?

This is my stand, then, that whatever is done to a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, it is also done to me. Their lives are just as precious as mine, and honestly—if I think about the things I’ve done–maybe even more so. I may not hashtag #LoveWins, or paint my lips rainbow, or fly a Pride flag, or march in the Parade, but you will not find me picketing on the sidelines, screaming hate and judgment.  You will not find me cheering in approval as my brothers and sisters are thrown into camps or shot in nightclubs or beaten in the streets for sins none of us have any right to pass judgment on. Sins that all of us are guilty of.

Once upon a time, God answered my prayers: he sent me a friend, and that friend taught me grace.  Despite differing beliefs, and–as we would later discover–wildly different yet equally intense personalities, he treated me with kindness.  In the face of inevitable arguments, and myriad opportunities to cause each other offense, he treated me with dignity and respect.

When no one else did, he offered me outstretched arms, and for the first time I was not alone.

I have no idea why we’re still saying this in 2017, but gay people are people. And God loves people, even as he hates their sins.  If I raise a fist, or a voice in judgment, I do not do it in the name of my God, because the God I serve did not come with fists. He did not come with violence. He came with an offering of himself, a baptism in blood that was for everyone, regardless of who they were.

He came with outstretched arms.  

To be honest, my relationship with the gay community is a complicated one: many of my friends identify as LGBT, or else have loved ones who do. I understand how my Christianity–with the beliefs that entails–can often feel like an attack, like an angry mob with stones in their hands ready for throwing.  “Hate the sin and love the sinner,” has been so often misused it’s been reduced to a meaningless cliché, so much so I still struggle to articulate exactly what I mean when I say it.  I cannot offer easy explanations reconciling what seems to be an inherently bigoted worldview with a promise of love and respect.

What I can offer, though, is this: Compassion instead of condemnation. Kindness instead of repulsion. 

Whatever happens, my hands will always be free of stones.

~aRT~

A/N: Because I know a bunch of people are going to ask: No, I do not support conversion “therapy.”

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What’s In a Name?

Plenty of people hate (or at least, dislike) their given names.  It’s understandable.  As you grow and change, the name your parents gave you often stops feeling anything like the person you are, and so you default to a nickname that you feel better represents the person you’ve become.

This is not the case for me. I’ve been Frankie, essentially, since I was born. My mum gave me the nickname, deriving it from the 90s movie starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Al Pacino, an adaptation of Terence McNally’s play Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune.

For all intents and purposes, “Frankie” might as well be my given name.  But it’s not.  Instead, the name on my birth certificate is Francesca Nicole.  Francesca, pronounced (but never spelled as) Fran-ches-ka, is Latin/Italian, meaning “free one.”  Nicole, pronounced how it’s spelled (certainly it’s common enough not to be misspelled), is Greek-based, meaning “victory of the people.”  Both incredibly bold names, especially when considered together.  And I have no problem with Nicole; in fact, I plan to name my son Nicolas, after my maternal grandfather (which is where I get my name).

But I’ve never used–and will never use–Francesca. In fact, no one who really knows me, not even my mother when she’s upset (and you know it’s serious when even your parent won’t call you by that whole name when she’s mad), uses my first, given name.  The only people who do are people from my high school, which frankly only compounds the PTSD from that part of my life.

The reason? I hate my first name. And I promise it’s for a very good reason.

I remember hearing once, at a parenting seminar (I’m not sure why I was attending one of those), that the name you give your child represents the first blessing you want for them, sort of like how the fairies in Sleeping Beauty blessed Aurora with beauty and grace etcetera etcetera.  But if Aurora had Flora, Fauna, and Merriweather, I only had Maleficent: my dad, whose intentions were, if not less-than-pure, horribly misguided.

My dad and I don’t have a great relationship. I’m frank enough (hence, Frankie; good one, Mum) to admit that. While I want to love him, there’s a lot of childhood baggage stemming from his few appearances during my formative years (my parents split up when I was three; the annullment finalized when I was thirteen) that gets in the way. Part of this baggage is something he and I have in common: we say things without thinking. A lot.  It’s why I took to writing, because putting thoughts on a page forces me to go over them.  

Unfortunately, my dad isn’t as literarily inclined as I am (though he does fancy himself a critic, dismissing my fiction as “too verbose” at one point, which it probably is but like you aren’t the same, Dad). Where he does excel, however, is telling tall tales about my childhood. I call them tall because, well, let’s just say there are reasons to consider him an unreliable narrator. My dad’s memories have always been foggy and rose-tinted, at best. Even today, I’m not sure the story of how I got my name is actually true, but if the facts aren’t straight, at least the intention is, and the intention is all that matters in this case.

I’ll jump straight in: my dad named me for another woman.

Before I get accused of defamation, let me clarify: she wasn’t his mistress.  I’m not sure he was capable of having one, to be honest.  (He had girlfriends after he and mum split, but they never stuck around for long.) Instead, this other woman was an officemate, a law firm secretary, to be exact (Dad’s a licensed attorney).  By all accounts, he didn’t know her very well, but he seemed to be very…impressed (for the lack of a better term) by her.  Enough, at least, to take her name and give it to me.

Sounds innocent enough, until you get into the reason for why he was so impressed by this first Francesca.  From his own testimony–which, caveat, he probably won’t remember giving; like I said, his mind’s not completely reliable anymore–this Francesca was “…sweet, charming, very friendly. Not too bright, but everyone liked her.”

Whether or not the actual Francesca wasn’t bright is still in question, since it took my dad years to recognize that he couldn’t pull the wool over his Game of Thrones-watching daughter. What’s important is the fact that he thought she was so, and, by his own admission, this collection of traits was why he decided to give me the name Francesca.

Basically he wanted me to be sweet, charming, attractive, and not too bright.

(As if I needed any more reason to be proud of being an abrasive, antisocial cactus.)

Francesca is a beautiful name, with a beautiful meaning, and on any other girl I’d embrace it. But when it comes to me, that name comes loaded with my dad’s intentions: to have a docile daughter, a people-pleaser, an attractive and non-threatening little lady.  Everything I’m not, and honestly, don’t want to be.

Frankie and who I’ve grown to become have always been a good match.  I’ve tried re-nicknaming myself, for radio and college and a bunch of other things, but no name’s ever stuck quite as much as the one my mother gave me. Her intentions, I know, were better: among other things, the name Frankie sounded like Punky Brewster, a feisty, smart-alec of a kid with enough fighting spirit to survive whatever the world threw at her. Punky, based on the Wikipedia synopses and Youtube clips, was still quite a bit more likeable than I am, but she wasn’t likeable for likeability’s sake.  

No, she was likeable for being unapologetically herself.

Between my dad’s picture of the First Francesca and my mum’s image of Punky Brewster, it’s a no-brainer which one I’d choose.  I choose Frankie, every time, because with it comes my mother’s first blessings: courage, resilience, and the capacity to be unapologetically oneself, even if that self is very weird.  I am not, and refuse to ever be, that docile and pliable, non-threatening Maria Clara stereotype.

The fact is, I’ve always been Frankie, not Francesca. My legal first name is a person none of you–including myself–would recognize. No matter how much I’ve tried to hide it, or change it, or tone it down (well, at least the toning it down helped), I’m Frankie. I’m Frankie. 

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Tl;dr, seriously high school/Chinese community people, my name is Frankie Torres.  Stop trying to make Francesca happen; it won’t happen.

~aRT~

Scattered Thoughts of a Sinner in Church (Come As You Are)

When I was a kid, my cousin Charlie introduced me to the comic book character “Spawn,” a man who, from my limited understanding, was “too bad for Heaven, too good(?) for Hell.” Lately, I’ve been feeling that same internal tension: too “Christian” for the world (or so a friend called me, not entirely as a compliment) but too much of a sinner for church, too riddled with doubt and disbelief and anger to fit comfortably into the padded seats of the airconditioned assembly hall. Even the way I talk and act runs counter to the poised prayerfulness and doe-eyed Christianese of the girls in Friday Youth Group, where I stopped attending after my barnacles got too obvious to hide.

I am a Christian sanctified, but far from sanitized, and honestly, I feel that the slight whiff of “worldly” about me marks me, to this church, as imposter, a wolf trying to live under the blood of the Lamb, but my teeth are too big and my claws are still sharp and oh, how I howl.

(Church, could you love me if I wasn’t perfect? Because I’m not. I am so not. Please don’t judge me, but I don’t always feel “on fire” for Jesus. Sometimes I doubt if he hears. Sometimes, my faith is in shambles. Sometimes (a lot; I even have a tracker in my BuJo), I stumble. Sometimes, I don’t pay attention to the sermon. But oh, Church, how I could not live without Christ!  Surely, that is enough?)

I’m a small group leader. I still do not understand why, and my group meets less regularly than I think is ideal, but since my name is on the roster, I get invites to the regular Leaders’ Huddles our church holds. Since my mum is a leader too, I sort-of have to go, regardless of what I feel the state of my soul is at that very moment. Two huddles ago I spent the entire meeting on the verge of tears, calligraphy-ing my frustrations in my sermon notebook: a Christian on the fringes, on the outside looking in.

Today was a good day. Today, I felt my social anxiety and situational depression was at a low enough level that I could function as my Sunday self. I sat through the leader’s huddle, convinced I could fool my church into believing that I was a model leader…and then I was unmasked.

Well, not actually. The pastor–one of my favorite pastors; I want him officiating my wedding–didn’t suddenly summon me to the front to be rebuked. Instead, he preached about Zacchaeus, that familiar story of the wee little man in the sycamore tree. Since this was a leader’s meeting, the insights were about ministering, and one point struck me:

“People, not process.”

I have this habit of building up monsters in my head. Maybe it’s the pessimist in me, but I’m always expecting the worst, waiting for the axe to fall because I am not changing fast enough. Over time and familiarity and, okay, disappointed expectations (Who knew Christian millennials could be just as cliqueish as non-Christian millennials? Duh, Frankie. Christians are people too.), I guess I turned the Church into one of those scary monsters, another self-policing institution in a world full of self-policing institutions. But with three words, that terrifying image shattered, and I was reminded of why I believe. See, as my pastor exhorted us leaders to be sensitive, kind, and compassionate with people who, perhaps, did not fit our preconceived notions of what salvation–what the desire for changed life–should look like, all I could hear was “You are welcome here.”

Zacchaeus was a tax collector. In the Bible, tax collectors are mentioned separately from sinners, are their own brand of outcast. As turncoats who aligned with the colonizers, they were considered social pariahs, and it was not kosher to associate with them.  Here was a person who longed to change, but for whom the door seemed shut.

But then Jesus asked to stay at Zacchaeus’ house, and in that moment the nature of what the church should be was established: a place of open doors, where sinners of all sorts belonged, could find acceptance, could become saints by virtue of accepting one man’s sacrifice.

My two best Christian friends–really, my two best friends–are probably the two people I know who reflect this best. Together, we three form #TeamHumanChristian, and when we get together and talk about the journey of overcoming our sins it is so easy to see God’s grace. Painting on a Sunday face makes sense, but when you come in your Monday blues and Tuesday baggage, your Friday failings and Saturday sins, it becomes so easy to discover “I am not alone.”

Everyone is growing here.  Everyone has a ways to go.

I love meeting Christian sinners, people in the trenches, fighting their flesh; those for whom the words “His grace changes everything.” are not just lyrics but a daily reality. The struggle IS real. It is. And how beautiful is the honesty.

“People, not process.” This is a home for humans, not a factory for churning out cookie-cutter models of holiness. I’d forgotten that home is where you take off the mask, not put it on, but thank God for the reminder: “Who does the Lord receive?” In Luke 15:2, the Pharisees said it so clearly, voices strangled in self-righteous horror: “SINNERS! He eats with sinners!”

The church is His dining room, and I am a sinner. I am a Christian. Those labels were always meant to coexist. Every Christian is a sinner, every saint has a past. The armor of God maybe doesn’t fit just right, still sits uneasy on my shoulders, but it has always come with the reassurance that I will grow into it, should I choose to keep walking.  That everyone else in His church is fighting to grow into it too.

People, not process. Christ met Zacchaeus at the foot of the tree. I smell of the world. I howl like a wolf. Church means come as you are, because this is where God meets you.  This is where hope resides.

“You are welcome here.”

~aRT~