Last Sunday, on Mother's Day, my family and I were part of a group of LGBT families who visited Lakewood Church--the largest and fastest-growing mega-church in the nation. Located in Houston, Texas, and housed in a former basketball stadium, Lakewood Church is pastored by the Rev. Joel Osteen. If you've walked through an airport in the past six months, you've doubtless seen Rev. Osteen smiling at you from ubiquitous displays peddling his latest bestseller, Become a Better You.
Our visit was part of The American Family Outing, a six-week effort to promote dialogue between lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender families and families at six of America's most influential mega-churches. Conceived by Soulforce, The American Family Outing is rooted in the philosophy of nonviolent reconciliation. Each of the participating LGBT families have pledged to refrain from violence of the fist, tongue, and heart.
Before we even got to Lakewood, I knew this was going to be a personal challenge.
I wasn't worried about the fist and tongue part--I've never been in a fistfight, and I can usually hold my tongue if I need to. But refraining from violence of the heart requires us to recognize and identify with our adversary's common humanity. Nonviolence demands a radical openness to the other. What's more, nonviolence demands a radical reflexivity about the limitations of our own perspective. In order to engage in true dialogue, we must remain open to the possibility that our adversary may have an insight into truth that we do not have.
In other words, I was supposed to believe that Lakewood could teach me something.
I hasten to point out that many of the American Family Outing participants share a huge swath of common cultural and religious ground with the average Lakewood family. But for me, stepping inside the Lakewood lobby was like stepping across an enormous cultural chasm. The purple curtains and the big hair are more familiar from Saturday Night Live parodies than from anything in my own personal experience.
I was raised Catholic, and my father had a particular penchant for pre-Vatican-II-style Latin mass. When I was growing up, going to church was less about being entertained or getting "fired up" than it was about endurance and mortification of the flesh. Not surprisingly, I spent most of my adult life unchurched. Ironically, it was fighting anti-gay legislation here in Texas that revived my interest in religion, because I kept meeting all these smart, loving, gay-affirming clergy in my activist life. They made me curious about how church might have changed since I was a kid.
But just because I now count myself among the community of churchgoers does not mean I felt an immediate affinity with Lakewood. At my church, we alternate masculine and feminine names for God. Our ancient projector barely works, so we don't do multimedia. Everyone says their prayers out loud, and, on a good Sunday, almost everyone present has a chance to speak. Once a homeless man walked in off the street to thank God for LSD and marijuana, and no one raised an eyebrow. So I wasn't quite prepared for the efficiency of Lakewood-style hospitality.
In retrospect, I think we were probably just experiencing the regular Lakewood greeting protocol, but when people started hailing me every 10 feet to wish me good morning or to say "God bless you," I immediately felt like I was in trouble. As we waited for the other families to join us outside the Lakewood bookstore, I was sure we would be scolded--or worse, expelled--for some infraction of standing the wrong way or blocking the flow of traffic. It's the kind of automatic reaction that I suspect many queer people have to mainstream religious institutions: the sense that they are not authorized or welcome. Ultimately, it's a defensive reaction--not the ideal starting point for openness to the other.
Soon a cordial Lakewood ambassador appeared to guide our group of families to the seats that had been assigned to us. I was pleasantly surprised when we were seated near the front. As we prepared for the service to begin, I tried to unfold from my defensive posture and open my heart.
Then the praise music began. At Lakewood, the service begins with 40 minutes of very loud praise and worship music. Now, I heard many of my friends sincerely admiring the music, but I have to confess that contemporary Christian praise music ain't my cup of tea. Still, I know that perspiration is the better part of inspiration, so I applied myself to clapping and singing in the hopes that I could share a moment with the 10,000 worshippers around me. It was easy, because the words were projected on 25-foot screens like the ultimate karaoke. When the lyrics said that "all are accepted" in Christ, I sang with particular gusto, imagining myself and my queer family a part of that "all."
Somewhere toward the middle, the crowd began singing a song with the chorus "we are on the winning side." Who was on the losing side, I wondered--Iraq? non-Christians? People like me? The loser was never specified, but suddenly my enthusiasm for singing waned. I was trying to remain genuinely open to a new culture, but this kind of "us against them" thinking seemed like precisely the kind of thinking that our presence was meant to subvert. I didn't want to take it into my heart.
By the time Joel came out and praised the crowd for sounding like "victors, not victims," I was beginning to lose hope. It wasn't just that all the talk of victory seemed like a roadblock to reconciliation. I was losing hope that I was going to be able to find a sliver of common ground. I was losing faith that I was going to be able to share a meaningful and transformative moment. In spite of my commitment to nonviolence, I was beginning to doubt that Lakewood had something to teach me.
Then Victoria Osteen, Joel's wife, came out and asked all of the Mothers to stand up.
Apparently Victoria preaches and teaches for 10 minutes every Sunday, but this being Mother's Day, she had a special prayer for all of the moms. I stood up proudly next to my wife, Katy. Our five-year-old son, Waylon, was between us, holding both of our hands.
On my other side was my mother, Charlotte, and I reached over and put my arm around her waist. Most LGBT people feel lucky if their parents accept them, but my mom hasn't just accepted me, she has taken on part of my struggle. She actually volunteered to be part of The American Family Outing without any prompting from me. As Victoria began to talk about the many sacrifices that mothers make for their families, I felt so grateful and loved.
Truth be told, my relationship with my mother has been rocky ever since we stopped wearing matching outfits, when I was in approximately seventh grade. The whole separation and individuation thing was never easy for us. I sometimes feel like the world's oldest person with teen angst. But, as Victoria spoke about a Mother's love, I thought about something my friend Gretchen said. After being estranged from her mother for years, she realized, "I like how I turned out." She was happy with the person she grew up to be, and she knew that a big part of that was due to her mom. That was the seed of their reconciliation.
Victoria assured all of the moms in that huge crowd that they were good mothers. I scanned the rows of standing women, and I thought about how they might share my same hopes and fears about being a good enough mom. Victoria talked about how mothers can feel unappreciated, like no one sees their hard work, but she assured them that their efforts would be revealed in the love that their sons and daughters pass on to their own children. Standing there between my mom, my son, and my partner, I felt like a conduit for a love that is bigger than me. I was overwhelmed by what a powerful gift our parents give us when they foster the ability to give and receive love. It's the foundation for all of our relationships.
Sometimes people speak about nonviolence as a philosophy rooted in love. I know that we would not be able to do this work if someone had not fostered that trust that we can be open, we can be vulnerable, and that--ultimately--we will be loved. I left the service with a new appreciation for how both of my parents prepared me to love my wife and son and to participate in this work of reconciliation.
In the end, I did learn something from Lakewood. I hope the families there learned something from us too.
Read a news account of the visit and support the families of The American Family Outing.