It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year: Advent is for the Killjoys

I have a tendency towards sadness, which is why I think I like Advent so much.

When I say “a tendency towards sadness”, I mean that not in the sense that I like or enjoy being sad, but rather… it feels honest to be sad in this world and I feel the need to pay attention to that. Christmas matters to me because of the sadness that precedes it.

Advent is the season for killjoys, an expectation for real joy.

I remember when I was doing Mission Year several years ago, feeling so much shame for my sadness. I felt like I was broken. I was suffering with deep depression, lingering feelings of childhood needs unmet, an enduring sense of loneliness that I could not shake off. I remember sensing that I have always felt this way. I have always felt sad– I just did not want to admit it to myself and I did not want others to see it. I wasn’t allowed by my family to talk about it. And, I do not live in a world that lets black girls express grief. And tiredness.

But, during Mission Year, I also I remember one of my teammates challenging me with this thought, when I expressed dismay and shame over my constant sadness, lamenting that I ought to never feel anything. I prayed for numbness. In response, he offered this: “If you never feel anything, if you decide to just be numb forever, you would be asking to not feel joy either. You can’t experience joy without experiencing grief.”

He said this to me, the first time that I ever heard this.

Since that time, I have been able to accept that this tendency towards sadness is okay and real.

Later, I have come to understand that this tendency towards sadness is not my fault. It is a remnant of my history on this earth; a reminder that a longing for justice has been worn into my brain and skin cells through my lived experience, this sense of sadness that doesn’t quite leave.

Advent is the season for killjoys, an expectation for real joy.

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photo credit: rachelvirginiahester

A year prior, in my first year of college, I remember having my depression explained away. Someone in the college ministry told me that maybe there was something wrong about my brain and that I needed anti-depressants and that there was nothing wrong with me. It could just be how my brain worked, she assured me, and that I am okay, and that she cares about me. She knows that we don’t talk often but she hopes that this message doesn’t bother me.

I did not know what to make of this new idea, that some brains are just sadder than others. I could not imagine at the time that maybe, while there could have been truth in that statement, maybe there was more than just this simple explanation. She was not the only one who told me this. I remember always hearing about depression this way from my college-mates that did affirm the use of anti-depressants.

I didn’t want my sadness to be dismissed. So, I became afraid of anti-depressants*, because I had concluded that if my sadness came from no where, that sadness was something inherent in me, about the way that I was born. I did not want my sadness to be dismissed, to be contextualized, because I had been through a lot.

And this world is dark.

I did not want to believe my sadness came from no where.

I think about the Christmas story, the one that many Christians will be thinking about for the next month, and I think about the gift of frankincense and myrrh that the wise men gifted Jesus. I remember being told that these two items were given to him intentionally, because these were medicines used to cope with pain. (I don’t know what to do about the gold, so I won’t comment on that). But, I think about the life that Jesus would have, one where he would be spat upon, threatened and mocked by authorities and others in his society and I know that any sadness Jesus felt during his ministry did not come from no where. The kings must have known about what kind of life Jesus would live. One where he would be acquainted with sadness and grief.

As I’ve become more honest with my own experience in the world, I know that I can now attribute this pain to much of what is happening in the world around me, whether it is that which directly affects me or something felt by communities worlds away.

Advent is powerful for me, because I can live into the mystery of this season and the complexity of my emotions as I interface with a hostile society in a precarious global climate. Advent encourages me not to put complex emotions away, because Advent reminds me that it is okay to have hope that is grounded in reality. During Advent, I can resist the compulsion towards happiness without giving into sadness. It is a season where I feel more comfortable not shaming myself for refusing to feign contentment in a dark world.

Advent is the season for killjoys, an expectation for real joy. A time that I think about The One Well Acquainted with Grief, the One that Befriended me. The One who Hopes for Joy After Grief.

Advent begins this Sunday.

*For clarity, this is not to be taken as a statement about anti-depressants, rather was what I was told to believe about them at the time. If you are considering anti-depressants, please talk to a professional who can be sensitive to your needs.

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I Have My Very Own (Queer) Christian Flavor and It’s Tasty

Finding my voice as a queer Christian means being comfortable about being a queer Christian.

Being black feels vulnerable already. Being queer and Christian feels vulnerable and scary as well. Being a woman anywhere is scary. Being queer and black and a woman who wants to be a Christian… help me, Jesus. Being queer, black, Christian, woman and ME makes me want to pass out!

I know that many people in my community know that I am living in my identity as both Christian and queer and that I do not see this “bothness” as a contradiction. I’ve never really struggled so much with believing that it was good to be both, which is different from a lot of people’s stories. There was a time in which I didn’t believe being a queer Christian applied to me, because well… I didn’t know bi+ people even existed until I was 19 going on 20. It was then I met for the first time in my life an “out” bisexual person. That is a story for another time.

I find that I have to practice being known as someone who is queer and Christian in the same way a person has to practice feeling comfortable wearing make up or wearing a new clothing style. Knowing that God loves queer Christians is one thing… It made sense to me. But being confident as someone who is a queer, Christian black woman is another story!  Because I am an (awkward) black queer Christian woman, I feel the need to assert myself a lot. I often tell myself that this asserting myself is unnecessary… that people get it. However, my inner voice tells me otherwise: You need to assert yourself more, Rachel, because asserting who you are more is how you grow more comfortable in your skin. If I assert myself over and over again, it is only because I am trying to get more and more comfortable with the fact that being queer and a passionate Christian is my reality. THIS is my reality. I can never go back. I often imagine what it would be like to go back. And by “back” I mean going back to a life where I could convince myself that I could fit into what the Christian church wanted for me to be.

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The pride flag in my bedroom. (photo credit: rachel virginia hester)

“Going back” is impossible.

It might sound ridiculous that I would entertain such an idea as “going back”, but it is one of the many tapes that play inside my head. “Everything would be easier if people still believed you were only attracted to men”. Sometimes I think that I would feel better– that many of my inner anxieties would cease if I had never told anyone, but I don’t think that confidence happens by “going back”. I began telling people that I was queer slowly and gradually because despite the risks of telling people, it felt lonely keeping it to myself. So, instead, I’d tell folks in passing, non-nonchalantly at times, in hopes that if I did not draw attention to it, it would feel less awkward and vulnerable and instead feel “normal”. I did it gradually, because an all or nothing “I’m queer, y’all!” Facebook-style announcement or haircut reveal on a day like National Coming Out Day feels too vulnerable for me. Emotionally impossible. “Coming out” gradually and selectively is all I could muster. It often still remains all that I can muster because it is not a small feat to trust others with your queerness, especially in a world that already is hostile to you for existing as a black woman.

I find a lot of common ground between my personal relationship with my queerness and my relationship with clothes. When I practice makeup and outfits, I get compliments for some of my outfits, and I struggle not to shake them off. “It’s okay I guess” or “It’s not my best dressing day, but thanks!” I don’t fully feel comfortable in the clothes that I wear, because I haven’t fully reckoned with who I am supposed to be within a human body. My human body. In the same way, I get told by peers that I’m brave for sharing with them about who I am and why I still want to be a part of the Church. I get complimented for my identity based work. I don’t always receive these comments well because I’m still trying to come home to my voice and to accept my flavor. I hope to someday see myself the way that I want to see myself. I hope I can live up to the kind words that people say about me.


In the past three years, I tried to come home to my voice, my queer voice, but it was difficult. I did not always feel supported enough to come home to myself. When I went to The Reformation Project conference last month, it kept coming up, even during my presentation.

“This is my first time presenting ever.”

“REALLY?” many would say.

Yes.

I felt like I could give myself permission to have my voice — MY voice, not someone else’s — at The Reformation Project Conference — this conference where I was surrounded by queer Christians, with so many of the keynotes and speakers being queer people of color like me. I don’t necessarily need permission to come home, but I wanted support. I needed support.

I think what made being able to present at The Reformation Project feel so special was because it was the first time I felt supported enough to show up as “me” and for it to be okay. More than okay. Therefore, I felt the courage to present what I have learned in my few years of life at the conference. Despite this courage, I still felt nervous, especially when I had started my presentation. Of course, the record tapes went wild: “why isn’t anyone responding? Is anyone connecting to what I am sharing? Am I even making any sense? Are my lived experiences even relevant to the Church? Do I have anything to bring to the Church?”

“I don’t sound like what I’m ‘supposed’ to sound like,” ran the inner tapes.

I don’t sound like a gay Christian who has been in the Church my whole life.

I don’t sound like a gay Christian who had a church home.

I don’t sound like a queer Christian who always knew they were queer.

“Maybe that’s why no one is saying anything. Maybe that’s why my audience is so silent,” sang the record. “I don’t sound like how I’m supposed to sound like.”

But as I finished my presentation, I was surprised to hear so many positive words and to see so smiling faces. My modest audience were thankful for my words. They told me they were glad that I presented, that what I shared was necessary. That there were other queer youth Christians who struggled in activist spaces like me. That there were even old, white men who connected to my words, even as we exist within the world in very different embodiments, separated by power and privilege. That felt so special to me.

To be able to sound like me and to know that my stories and revelations resonated as meaningful to others–this has an impact on me. This is why I share, why I speak, why I write.

I sound like me and it is important. I sound like someone who has her own story of being queer and Christian. It’s a story that is still unfolding. It’s as story that has its own flavor and it is a good flavor. It’s tasty.

I sound like someone who hasn’t found a steady place to call my church home both past and present.

I sound like someone who found my best friend and my first love outside of the Christian faith.

I sound like someone who struggled to find her place in non-religious activist spaces for 2-3 years.

I sound like these things and so much more.

These things are part of my story and they have and mean something to someone.

I want to strive to keep from comparing myself and my story to that of other Christians, whether they are queer or straight. I can’t or else it will drown my heart. I can’t, because I can’t anyway. The LGBTQ+ community is so diverse, despite the ways certain narratives get raised above others inside and outside of the Church.

I have my own voice, my own stories, my own flavor and I’m trying to remind myself that this is a flavor that I can like. It will take time. I might not be a pistachio queer Christian or a moose tracks gay Christian. Perhaps I am an elderberry sorbet queer Christian. If God already likes my flavor, I should be able to as well.

 

A Few Ways to Support a Queer Christian Post-Nashville Statement (and always)

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”- Matthew 6:21

(tweet/twitter link by SueAnn Shiah)

I am writing this to let people know how to support me during this time. This has been a trying week for me as I have struggled through a bad depressive episode. On top of that, the Nashville Statement was released. Ever since the Nazi-rallies at Charlottesville happened, I have been deeply troubled and unable to fully allow myself to rest.

However, part of my worry is exacerbated by the reality that the liberal and progressive Christian response to such national bigotries has not be remarkable. Over and over again, the people who continue to show up in meaningful and tangible ways in response to displays of bigotry have generally been those most affected; people who occupy the margins continue to show up for each others in ways that “allies” seldom do.

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Audre Lorde was a black lesbian who shared a lot of wisdom that is value for our social movements and lives. If you haven’t read her, fix your life and read her books. Photo Credit: Unknown

What I found the most distressing about the Nashville Statement was not so much the statement itself. I am used to the reality that people hate and feel threatened by my existence. However, I was distressed by the “allies” of queer people and how they responded. Many went quickly to talk about how “this is destroying Christianity” without thinking about how stuff like this destroys and traumatizes queer and black/brown lives before it even destroys a progressive Christian movement. A lot of my friends, particularly those friends who ARE queer people of color were also disappointed by the mainstream progressive response. I was immediately confronted with requests for “input” or “insight” into straight and/or white people’s projects and “conference calls”, but not asked how I was doing. I was not asked how I was doing or what I needed despite the fact that the Nashville Statement’s anti-blackness and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric isn’t bullying straight or white people. It’s harming me. It is harming and alienating people like me. It’s harming my friends who are queer, who are black, who are brown who can never live up to the standards of purity.

The progressive Church overwhelmingly has misplaced its priorities — loving its brand more than the people they proclaim to support. The lack of tangible support, concern and fellowship with people ACTUALLY affected by the Nashville Statement and by Charlottesville’s white supremacist rally is alienating.

I don’t always remind people that I am queer (as I am not out in all contexts — and the erasure of people who are attracted to multiple genders, such as bisexual and pansexual people is part of this), but there are many who know that I am queer. Many people who knew that I am queer did not respond to me except to remind me that I am “beloved”. As someone who knows that I am loved by God, I do not need this reminder spoken to me. However, I do not feel very loved and cared for when straight and white people center themselves, their visions or their platforms on something that isn’t about them. I do not doubt that God loves me. I doubt that those who profess to be allies to a queer black woman such as myself love me beyond their words and desire to embody God’s love. God is my refuge when the Church has not been and as the Church continues to fail to be.

The Church, as does the wider society, has this problem with ASSUMING what people need instead of ASKING or PAYING ATTENTION TO what people need. This makes it harder for people living vulnerable lives (such as poor people of color/ women of color/trans people/disabled or differently able people) to ask for what they need. People of color and LGBTQ folk are often not asked by the Church. Our needs are not centered and white/straight folks continue to build their platforms (and thus their financial and social wealth) off of our wisdom. This is evil.

I am writing this to express that I am disappointed, but also that I have tangible and ongoing needs. The following are some of my needs specifically. It is not enough to say that you love me. Rather, it speaks volumes if you work towards PUSHING the world to increase my ability to thrive on this planet.


How to Support Real Life Queer and Trans People (Especially LGBTQIA People of Color – these intersections cannot be ignored).

1. Ask queer people of color what they need. Ask them, regardless of whether or not they are Christian people. What made me so distressed about The Nashville Statement was the liberal and progressive response to the Nashville Statement. I witnessed many straight, white progressives using this as an opportunity to build their own platform and influence. Our bodies are tokenized through retweets and Facebook shares. But the commitment to living alongside us and getting to know us and support us is not there. Center our needs. We will not have liberation by centering the privileged.

2. Support the projects and fundraisers of my peers, especially that of Trans people of color. The Trans Kindred Fund is an ongoing fundraiser to support the needs of trans and non-binary people of color of different non-faiths and faiths living in North Carolina. THESE ARE MY PEERS. Because these folks are my peers and my co-laborers, I am affected when they are not thriving. The Church is complicit in patholigizing the lives of trans folks despite the brilliance of trans people. Donate here: https://www.gofundme.com/transkindred

3. Become a patron of my work. This is one of the best ways to provide ongoing support for ME as I continue to write, speak, teach and do emotional work to dismantle racism, sexism and anti-LGBTQ norms within and outside the Church. One of the ways that we uphold patriarchy and racism is to not compensate the work of queer people of color, trans people of color and women of color. The message that is given is that our work and wisdom is valued, but supporting us and making sure that we have our needs met are not a concern to you. This is my Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/rachelvirginia

4. Reach out to me about how you can support my projects and how you can offer the skills that you have to me. There are many projects that I am working on that I do not have enough skills for, or that I do not know how to do. Here is a few things I need help with:

  • How to start a consulting business or non-profit
  • General ongoing interest/co-laborers for Queer People of Color led projects
  • Financial support for my projects
  • I have a few secret projects that I will only reveal to people I trust via a direct ask
  • Photographic support and video support (offer photographic/video services to me for free or at a discount, especially if you are a middle-class white person)

5. A very concrete need that I have is support paying for my plane ticket for my trip to Chicago. I am giving a presentation at The Reformation Project this October. I am both excited and nervous. Donate here: https://www.youcaring.com/rachelhester-931832. If you know other women of color or students trying to attend, as them how you can offset their expenses.

6. If you don’t know something, admit it and commit to continuing to learn. I would not have to ask people to donate to my Patreon if I got paid for how many “allies” STILL call queerness a “lifestyle” and refer to trans folk as being “trangendered” or experiencing “transgender-ism”. It causes harm for you to say that you support LGBTQIA people but to normalize rhetoric that is degrading to us and diminishes how we experience the world. The impact of your words and actions matter more than your good intentions. Do your homework before you tell us that you are a therapist, doctor, pastor, etc competant on LGBTQIA concerns and struggles. This requires a lot of humility but it can create trauma for LGBTQIA people to have to make themselves vulnerable to people who are too proud to admit and to do something about their ignorance. It asks us to do MORE work to make up for the lack of work you’ve done in understanding our issues.

7. Donate to LGBTQ/queer/trans led work in you area AND give directly to queer/trans people when you can.

This is NOT meant to be an exhaustive list. I share this as a place to start. And like I mentioned before, many of these are just my needs. Queer/people of color are not a monolith. Remember to ask queer people what they need, especially queer people who are rendered invisible by other systems of domination.

Thank you for everyone who has supported me so far.