I had doubts for a long time already. I was 25 when I decided I wanted to have a last conversation with the leadership. What I had in mind was an honest and upfront talk about all my doubts, and I wanted to hear their thoughts. I could have known beforehand, it was only wishful thinking to have an actual in-depth conversation about the topic. I tried to share my story and ask them questions, but none of it was being addressed much further. When I cycled back home I felt sad and upset. All they did was try to keep away from having a discussion and steer the conversation towards letting me know: ‘we see you as part of the family, feel welcome to come back any time’. Only that didn’t feel as heart-warming as it might have sounded to them, since they didn’t seem to want to put in the effort to hear and understand me. Already before I arrived back home I started feeling relieved: I didn’t feel heard or understood for a long time already, and that was exactly why I wanted to leave the church.
I became a member at this church at the age of 15. Unlike most peers I went there by my own choice and not because my parents told me to do so. I was already busy with faith for a few years by going to a teenage bible study group together with my sisters. This church seemed like a very attractive community to me. A youthful and progressive place where everybody is welcome, spiritual growth is encouraged, with a band with contemporary style worship music, and where (Jesus’) love and grace are the central theme.
The church was like a ‘safe and secure’ bubble full of wisdom to me. The message preached from the stage is the truth, a polished and soothing story you want to hear more of. It gave me the feeling of having an understanding of the world around me. Looking back I would say those truths are actually dogmas. Topics or views that don’t fit within the dogmas are not easily discussed, they are taboos. Living in this little safe and secure bubble made the outside world look big and bad to me, a place full of foolishness and bad temptations.
Also, this church has certain unspoken expectations towards their members, and an ideal to live up to. It is promoted to find your life partner within the church, have no sex before marriage and therefore marrying young, buying a house and getting kids. You’re supposed to be living your best holy life, share this with your non-believing environment, so that they might also get curious about the good message, and in that way help the church grow. It is seen as favourable to invest a lot of your time into the ‘good cause’ by volunteering. By doing this and by being on good terms with the leadership, you have the chance to move up on the hierarchy ladder. Maybe you can imagine this cultivates a culture of strife and pretentiousness, as you want to paint a good picture of yourself to the rest of the church. I was doing quite a lot of things. I was the leader of the beamer team. I was hosting a home group, helped out with youth weekends, and most importantly to me: I was part of the worship team as one of the vocalists. I absolutely loved singing those worship songs on the stage of the church.
Going back in time, even before all this, around the age of 10, some things had happened. A neighbour kid and I used to spend time in his attic bedroom playing children’s games. So, one day, for whatever reason, we challenged each other to take down our pants, and we started innocently looking and comparing. This was even before either of us could get hard down there. Only this didn’t stay a one-time thing, and as you can imagine, over time as we grew older, it became much more than just looking and comparing. I think this went on until I was 16. Those times with him were exciting and fun in the moment, but I would feel guilty, dirty and faulty right afterwards. I didn’t talk about the experience with the neighbour kid with anybody. By not talking about it, this secret became like a festering wound within my mind, growing bigger and bigger.
During my time in high school, the secret translated into insecurities. The dogmas and taboos from church got ingrained in my way of thinking and caused huge internal conflicts. I was afraid people would discover the transgression I committed, and that I would get bullied. I was never actually bullied, but in my mind It felt like I was. At home I also didn’t feel seen or understood. My parents would go through great efforts to make sure I am taken care of, but mainly in a practical way. I didn’t feel comfortable sharing my emotions with them. I became a very shy and emotionally distant teenager, and an expert in what I call ‘the dance of evading the piercing eyes’.
For many years, I was living this two-faced reality. One that I was showing to my surrounding and that felt like it was my identity: the good and devoted christian. And one that wasn’t (supposed to be) part of me and that I put a lot of effort into hiding: the bad sinner. When I was 21, I even had a girlfriend who was also part of the worship team. It felt like it was meant to be, I honestly and naively expected her to be my life partner (even when we didn’t sleep together). When she broke up with me after half a year I was devastated, but looking back I completely understand why she decided to do so. We portrayed the perfect image within the church, we lived up to the expectations. And even though we shared a beautiful connection, it was never meant to become more than that.
During this time I was already studying at the art academy. One would expect it to be a very open and liberating place for me. Still, it was not until I was 23 that I had an experience with a guy again. I was seduced into a sexual act. It confused me a lot. Again, I enjoyed it in the moment but felt guilty, dirty and faulty afterwards. I remembered that feeling all too well. I started questioning it this time. This forced me to also start questioning the dogmas and taboos from the church that had become my own. I began to grow the need for space to discuss certain topics. It no longer felt right to say and think ‘yes and amen’ at every whim of the church. A slow process of letting something go that felt so familiar to me began. And this is what led to where the story started: trying to have a talk about a very personal struggle about a taboo topic with the pastor.
I actually already had a talk with the pastor 1,5 year before that last conversation, not much time after the new experience with the guy. It was a very nice chat where he shared that he had dealt with the same kind of doubts in the past. He said he appreciated my openness and honesty, and he would talk with some other leaders from the church and we would have a follow-up conversation. It never happened. I tried on multiple occasions. He seemed too busy to make time for me. I expect my story confronted him with a part of himself that he wished to forget about. He had made a conscious decision not to act upon his feelings towards men, but to live life according to the ‘higher path’ God has set out for him, have a wife and kids, and lead a church.
After leaving the church, I had a period where I didn’t want to give much thought to my time there. I wanted to move on and start living my own life. Looking back, I’m now starting to realise what a huge impact that time has had on me, how influential a place and it’s mindset can be for a person in those formative teenage years.
Before, my mind was trained to always check what is the right path and to avoid being sinful. I had become quite judgemental towards ‘the big bad outside world’. My decisions had become dependent on what God had planned out for me, or what the leadership of the church saw as my destiny. Now, I’m learning to trust my gut feeling and check in with myself: what feels right; what feels good; what do I want. I’ve especially learned to do this during the times I went to travel by myself. When I made a decision that resulted in a positive outcome I tell myself: just enjoy it! When I make a decision with a result that I don’t like, I try to deal with it and learn from it. As long as I don’t hurt myself or anybody else I should be able to do whatever I like or want.
Also, I now finally started to permit myself to explore my sexuality after abstaining myself for so many years. I live in a liberal country, it shouldn’t have been such a big deal to come out of the closet. But the context and it’s mindset I got myself involved in made me feel guilty, bad and faulty about an experience many people have had and would call quite innocent and deem irrelevant. It made me completely deny part of myself for many years, and cultivate feelings of duality, doubts and not-belonging. It felt strange at the beginning, but I started to understand that I don’t have to feel bad, guilty or faulty about anything. I’ve been in situation(ship)s that would have never even crossed my mind as a possibility a few years earlier, and I’ve lost count of the number of sexual encounters I’ve had. And honestly: I didn’t do anything I didn’t want to, I’ve enjoyed most and regret none.
Next to starting to trust my gut and exploring my sexuality, I’m also starting to embrace my creativity and queerness more and more. I remember being at festivals and seeing an interesting band play on stage, hearing the voice of a singer, and having this strong gut feeling: ‘I belong on that spot, I belong there’. Music is something so special, you can set a tone in a space, connect (with) a group of people, and share a story. I’ve had a good taste of it on the stage of the church. With leaving the church I also kept the singing on a low gear for a while. Now I want to continue the journey! I’ve had a few gigs already, singing covers. I feel it’s time to take the next step, and make a promise to myself: I’m going to write my own music, and I’m going to look for more opportunities to perform!
The hesitation and emotional reservation from those teenage years aren’t things that are helping me. I no longer want to keep myself small. It’s time to no longer try to ignore, but start acknowledging the part the church has had in my life. Is interesting to reflect on the lessons my time as part of that religious community has taught me, both the good – and the bad. That’s also the reason why I’ve started writing this tale, putting my thoughts on paper. I’m actually very happy to have the opportunity to share my tale on this platform: It’s about daring to show yourself and your story to the world. It’s about accepting and appreciating your journey, owning your story and the outcome of it, and allowing yourself to keep on growing.