It was 2019, so this wasn’t my first trip to the circus. I knew the warning signs: rushing to lock things down, love bombing and making big promises. Dating in your 40s was hard and things were getting serious. But then this woman wanted something new: she wanted me to go to church with her.
Commitment and church, both felt scary to the divorced, radical Queer in me. I was raised Anglican but had not participated in organized religion as an adult (although my ex-wife and I had our two children baptized — just in case). But this sounded interesting. We were going to church… in a movie theatre. How dangerous could it be?
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My new sweetheart went to an “irreligious,” Jesus-focused megachurch called The Meeting House. Apparently the third-largest congregation in Canada, it is billed as the church for people who aren’t into church and a healing place for those who have been spiritually hurt in the past.
My partner was recently single and had discovered that when she brought up her love of Jesus on a first date, the response was typically a resounding “Hell No.” So she was happy I would even consider going. I was curious, more about my partner and her belief system than the church itself.
I was wary about churches in general. I remembered when I first came out in the 1990s, there were multiple spiritual groups that would troll the corners of Toronto’s Gay Village, pushing conversion therapy to vulnerable young people in my community. And even during the annual Pride parade, there is always at least one congregation holding up signs calling for us to burn.
We drove to the theatre in Toronto’s Yorkdale mall, one of the satellite Meeting House sites across Ontario, and found a comfy seat. As the congregation of mostly young, white adults filtered in, we listened to the house band. A slim, 20-something woman whisper-sang a breathy verse into a hot mic like an ASMR video. Soon a dark-haired, dark-eyed Irishman with a lilting accent appeared. No cult leader in a hooded cloak, just a man in a dark hoodie. I expected that he would lead the service but instead the lights turned off and a movie projector turned on.
A 25-foot-tall tattooed pastor who looked to be in his mid-50s stood before us on the screen wearing ripped jeans and an old T-shirt. His long hair and beard untamed. Even his name was cool, like something Angelina Jolie would have given one of her children in the early 2000s — Bruxy Cavey. He had the cadence and enthusiasm of a high-school drama teacher. He spoke of the impressive work the church was doing in the community and announced a new “Feminism in Christ” program. Then he launched into his thoughtful and well-spoken sermon.
He reminded us that Jesus was subversive. A rule breaker. A rebel. Cavey tore apart Bible passages and reconstructed them with a contemporary slant that seemed instantly relatable in a way I had never experienced. I could see why young people liked him; I could see how this appealed to my date. But I am not easily won over. I found myself mentally pacing back and forth across his every word. A lioness in this Cineplex Colosseum.
But then I started to judge myself for mistrusting him. This pastor invited me to trust in love and surrender myself to God. He said something about how carrying the past around is a weight you do not need to shoulder alone, and his words made me mentally swoon. As a single parent of two, I wished I could lie around in languid forgetfulness and let someone else carry my worries. Because worries had been piling up in my house like an episode of Hoarders. Who will care for me if I get sick? How will I afford braces and university tuition? What if I fall down a flight of stairs while the kids are asleep and they wake up to find me dead in a heap? (My worries are specific.)
I turned to look at my new love. I desperately wanted to surrender to this relationship and trust that she would tame my ferocious self-pity. I wanted to believe in unconditional love. But I don’t trust; I am a lioness who remembers the wild too well. So I continue to pace.
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During a Q&A portion, someone asked Cavey to expand on his teaching about God’s tolerance. He invited us to extend the message to today and used gay marriage as an example. Saying that although gay relationships weren’t in God’s divine plan, God tolerates it.
Tolerates it?!? Inside I roared. This lion was going to expose the hypocrisy in the arena. My partner felt me squeeze her hand and she encouraged me to express my concerns with the local pastor. So when the lights went back on and the service was over I scanned the room and cornered him.
“Do you have more than one child?” I ask him. He nods. “Would you say to them: ‘You I love, and you I tolerate’? You cannot have it both ways. You cannot say God is all-loving and then suggest he loves some people less. My partner volunteers in a dialysis ward every week, caring for the spirits of the sick and their family. Does God only tolerate the way she loves because she isn’t straight? Is that what Bruxy was saying?”
After a polite exchange, he asked if he could connect me with his manager — the pastor on the movie screen. I think I “Karened” Christianity.
Cavey and I connected via Instagram DM. He apologized that I was upset by his message. He reiterated that he was “eager to point out that the principle of accommodation is a good argument in favour of gay marriage today” and he had hoped to “make that one point in a humorous way and then move on.” He said “I realize (humour) can be tricky, and it sounds like I failed in this instance. I have had other gay people thank me for my comments.” He said he would rethink how he framed it in future sermons.
I left the exchange feeling like he sidestepped the issue, said it was just a joke that I didn’t understand, that other gay people get him, so why didn’t I?
I didn’t go back to her church. We found ways outside of organized religion that supported her faith and beliefs. But ultimately, two years later, we came to a mutual agreement that Christians and Lions are too far apart to live together in harmony. Instead we transformed our relationship into a loving and supportive friendship.
I feel deeply for the congregation of The Meeting House, which is weathering a painful separation. Cavey was asked to resign and stripped of his credentials following allegations of sexual misconduct. Another 38 devastating allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse by four former pastors, leaders and staff of The Meeting House have come out. Cavey was arrested and charged with sexual assault by Hamilton police.
This is an enormous, ongoing tragedy not only for the victims but for a church that had touted itself as being a refuge. How will they trust again? Although I had a negative experience on my visit, I try to remember that the some 3,000 Christians devoured by lions were a persecuted people too and not judge the whole congregation based on the actions of its leadership.
I recently had to remind myself to “not judge the whole.” In what I can only assume is a unique form of Queer family rebellion, my teenage daughter has applied to attend a Catholic high school in our city. Catholic school. What’s next, she’ll vote conservative?
I did everything I could to dissuade her. I took her to open houses for arts and alternative schools. I educated her about the Catholic faith’s horrific treatment of LGBTQ2 families. I reluctantly went to the virtual open house ready to pounce again but instead I was met by open and welcoming teachers wearing pronoun pins, a Pride flag displayed on their social media. My daughter was smiling at me, saying that she knew this school was different.
And I feel proud of her. A little lioness in the making. I know her heart. If it turns out that school isn’t all it promotes, she’ll take her Pride elsewhere.
Allyson McOuat is a writer in Toronto.
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