I numbly sang the chorus to appease my mother.
“It is well, with my soul, it is well with my soul.”
While I sang, tears streamed down my face as I contemplated my faith, my history with this church I grew up in. The church I sang in the kids choir in, the church I would gawk at the stained glass depiction of the cross with childlike wonder, the church I was saved in, the church I watched my mother’s face beam in every time her famous strawberry pie brought in the most money at the auction, the church I had confided my struggles, questions and feelings in for over a decade, the church I was baptized in, the church my best friend and I led worship together in. And now, the church I couldn’t even recognize.
Bristow, Oklahoma had never seemed so foreign to me.
I sat in the pew three rows from the back of the middle section. It was our pew. Week in, week out, you could find my family there. We were back-row Baptists through and through. The padding was comfortable but the wooden back was hard and stiff – meant to keep us from slouching. It was anything but comfortable. My algebra teacher played the bass on stage. My anatomy teacher sat four rows up and to the left. My ex-best friend stood on stage too, strumming her guitar. The elderly woman who always would find me to tell me she could hear the voice of heaven when I sang was directly behind me.
She asked me why I wasn’t leading worship today. I knew the answer but lied and said I had a scratchy throat. The truth was I was asked not to.
I would later come to find out I was asked to step down from leading worship because “my heart wasn’t in the right place.” I had asked too many questions recently and made a little bit of a scene the week before on stage.
One week before, my pastor stood at the front of the church and began speaking of something that didn’t belong in the walls of the church. He read aloud from the “recently improved” church constitution, and my heart stopped. My church – the place where I grew up, where I began to believe, where I once learned to love – believed members of the LGBTQ community weren’t welcome there. I was angry, and I’ve never had a good poker face, so everyone knew. I stormed off as soon as the service was over.
Considering myself an activist, I believe in standing up for others, but I couldn’t help but act “appropriately” as I was taught. Turns out, to members of the church, making my opinion known about this wasn’t appropriate at all.
After a few weeks wrestling with the idea, I stopped stepping foot in the church I once called home. I stopped stepping foot in church at all. I stopped praying, asking for trust, understanding and love and started running in the complete opposite direction of God.
Growing up singing in church, I was always told that it didn’t matter if I messed up because my church was always going to love me. Instead, I was not met with love in the most trying time of my life.
A few months later, I stood on the football field waiting to congratulate my brother on a good game but was met by a man from my church that offered anything but love. He said, “It is time for you to swallow your pride so you can come back to the church.” Ambushed by an older member from my church I once respected, I was taken aback and struggling to process what was just said to me. If he had only known I wasn’t prideful at all. I was the opposite. I was insecure, dejected and feeling worthless.
My great ambitions were often too big for my tiny town. I was always a curious child who didn’t do what was expected I wanted to be a football player. I wanted to go to an Ivy League school. I wanted to be the President of the United States. But I was told I was “more of a first lady.” I wanted to express my thoughts and opinions, but it was made clear I should keep those to myself because it’s not ladylike to be so loud.
I wanted to get out of my tiny town that was like the stiff, uncomfortable pew I sat in for so long.
And finally, I did. Wounded, confused and questioning, but out.
The next fall I started at the University of Oklahoma. I was excited for a new chapter and a not so tiny town. I was offered so much freedom and so little guidance that I didn’t know what to do. The week before Thanksgiving, I found myself at a retreat through a college ministry called Crossover. It was then that I found myself missing my relationship with God. I missed the fellowship and the freedom from this awful feeling I had carried for so long that I wasn’t enough, I wasn’t fixable, I wasn’t worthy, I wasn’t accepted.
That weekend, I decided it was enough, and I quit trying so hard to stand out on my own terms that I was left feeling alone.
The band at the retreat started to play a newer song but with a melody I recognized, and my heart shattered. The worship leader began to sing the words “It is well, with my soul, it is well with my soul.”
I was immediately reminded of all the pain I forgot to feel. The weight of it, of all of the doubt I had carried with me for over a year, was overwhelming in that moment. I had to let go.
The next October, I was a completely different person. I was bold in my faith and my opinions. This new me sat in the last place I ever thought I would be: a tattoo parlor in Dallas as my dearest friends – who ask the hard questions, encourage my deepest thoughts, interests and ambitions and remind me every day I am worthy – held my hand as I got a tattoo. One that represented my journey, God’s unfailing love and grace and even my flare to go against the grain.
I was worried I would regret the new ink, that it might be too permanent for comfort. I then realized I would never regret my faith: the journey from pew to newfound freedom, and this new tattoo was a physical embodiment of just that.
If it weren’t for the journey, I may still be sitting in that pew, uncomfortable, afraid to be vulnerable, unable to slouch.