More about: From Christendom to Freedom: Journey-Making with a Black Trans Elder (2020) by Jonathon Thunderword (Table of Contents)
As my ancestors are free from slavery,
I am free from the slavery of religion.
Thelma “Butterfly” McQueen quoted in the
Atlanta Journal and Constitution on October 8, 1989
A picture is worth a thousand words. This picture speaks volumes: An enslaved Black man escaped to an encampment of the Union Army near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in April 1863 (during the U.S. Civil War). This photograph was taken during the medical examination as Peter enlisted to serve in the Army. No surname was collected.
The photograph was widely circulated through the North by anti-slavery advocates, though we do not know what became of Peter after the photo was taken. When published in Harper’s Weekly, the photo reached a massive audience but listed the man’s name as “Gordon” (for no apparent reason). His image was used for abolitionist fundraising, accompanied by notes clarifying that he had done nothing to “deserve” such treatment. It was quite a spectacle.
In the picture, raised welts disfigure Peter’s back. Northerners were surprised and appalled at the sight of this constellation of scars, but Southerners and enslaved African-Americans were all too familiar with the kinds of abuse that might leave such enduring marks.
The welts left by religion are typically less visible, but no less enduring. Each strike against one’s very soul is an experience that leaves its mark on the individual. My flesh has born many such marks, brutally placed and without mercy, by those who would say they were only trying to help me. My well-being was scourged again and again: lashes to my self-esteem; assaults on the beauty of my spirit; violations of my body, as well as my soul—always with the expectation that I would submit, endlessly to such corrections.
One bad religious experience would have been sufficient, but I have been struck again and again. Each one of the many religious traditions that I have followed or visited throughout my journey from Christianity toward freedom is its own story and relationship. In this book, I will provide highlights from many different encounters that have left a mark on me.
Bruises do heal with time. Even after scars become less tender, they stick around to tell their story and help us to remember. I became disfigured, but I survived, and I am claiming my story. I know that I am not alone—and I believe that we would all benefit from having more space to share our stories. I believe that we have more in common than we might think.
With this book, I want to share my testimony of freedom. However, in order for you to understand my journey, I need to show you some of the scars that I carry. In most settings, I learn not to talk about these stories. While I may run my fingers over my own scars privately sometimes, we are typically encouraged to cover such wounds up for the sake of others. Most people are uncomfortable hearing much about struggle, even when it does not challenge their religious sensibilities. In such a world, it is no small task to take off my shirt to let others examine the lines on my back.
All this to say: Writing this book and reviewing my past have been uncomfortable for me—and it may be uncomfortable for you to read. I have had to take breaks, set limits, find support, and tend to my own needs. I encourage you to do likewise. Please be gentle with yourself.
Now that I am free, I sing along with my sister, Thelma “Butterfly” McQueen, “I am free! I am free from the slavery of religion.”
I started out just trying to get away from Christianity, but, as I moved away, I also got free from organized religion more generally. I have carried not only a bruised and battered body with me but also trophies and souvenirs from my battles—proof of what I have been through: Krishna statue and crosses and candles and incense and different articles of clothing and even different scriptures that have endeared themselves to my heart. I will be sharing some of these souvenirs with you as well.
When someone gets shot, the surgeon will pull out the bullet, but the patient may decide to keep that bullet to remind them what they have endured. These traditions have wounded me, but they have also sustained me. I carry many reminders of how far I have come. You may see me at a religious ritual wearing kippah or kufi or tzitzit or even a clergy collar. These souvenirs remind me where I have come from. And, as they say, if you don’t remember where you come from, you might go back to repeat things. I certainly do not want to go backwards.
There are hundreds of websites, books, and even organizations to support LGBT+ folk in healing from and reconciling with all kinds of religious traditions. There is space to acknowledge those struggles in community but usually only if your goal is to pick up that religious mantle again in some way. Unfortunately, there is typically little space for agnostics, skeptics, humanists, atheists, and other free thinkers. We need the balm of community, too.
Regardless of how we identify religiously or philosophically, many of us have suffered from post traumatic stress symptoms, religious trauma, and other kinds of abuse in religious settings. My program, Finding Another Right Road Authentically and Holistically (FARRAH) is designed to assist with unpacking such challenges and setting a new course that truly suits your needs. I will talk more about that in the Afterword and Appendix.
I am no guru. I certainly do not have all the answers. I am still very much on the journey myself. So, my story is intended only to be an example—more “possibility model” than role model. With that in mind, each section of my story ends with one or more questions to help you look at your own experiences and needs. I encourage you to take notes (there is extra space at the back of this book) about where you agree or disagree with me as well as where you have had similar or different experiences. These are the building blocks that you can use to build your own shelter from the storm.
So, let us begin at my beginning . . .
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