Thursday, January 13, 2011

Reader Submission: One Man's Story

The following post was submitted by a reader, a young man from our community who goes by the name Atheous.  I want to thank him for taking the time, and for his courage in sharing this story.  

It doesn’t matter what my name is or where I’m from. None of these things matter when lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender teens commit suicide because they’ve been bullied. None of these things matter when they’re alone during the holidays because their families have shunned them. None of this matters when a wife finally realizes that she can’t change her gay husband and that their marriage is over. It’s important that my story gets out there because I know I’m not the only one.

Once upon a time in a far away place, a young boy innocent of the evils of the world began his journey of life. He was the only child and his parents toiled day and night to provide the basic necessities. Life was hard. My father juggled two jobs and medical school in hopes of making the American dream. When his dream turned into a nightmare of never ending student loan payments and the failure of medical school, he became controlling, domineering man, who liked to control every detail of our home life. My mother was an overworked woman, suffering from a terminal illness and found solace from her miserable life in fundamentalist Orthodoxy.

As a young boy, I remember my father calling for me in Arabic, “come under the covers, habibi. let’s snuggle.” I didn’t know what would happen because I was innocent of the evils of the world. I couldn’t say no to my father. He was my protector, the one who gave me unconditional love and provided me with food and shelter. My mother had an inkling of what was occurring at home when she found me hiding in my room scared one night. I didn’t tell her what had happened. I couldn’t tell her what had happened. I was afraid of my father’s wrath.

As the years went by, the abuse continued and my father’s anger grew uncontrollable. My mother’s denial reached a high point. On her days off, she would sleep through out the day. She began to call in sick from work and sleep even more and more. One day she had witnessed my father breaking into the bathroom while I was showering. He yelled at me to use more soap because I was a ‘dirty’ boy. He watched me as I lathered my body from head to toe with soap hoping to get the ‘dirt’ off my skin. At this point, she had enough and confronted my father about his behavior. He wouldn’t have any of it. He couldn’t handle having a woman telling him what to do. A physical altercation occurred. I closed the door, climbed up on my bed and went under the sheets. I kept on telling myself repeatedly that everything was going to be alright. I woke up the next day to an eerie silence: broken glass on the floor, over turned furniture in the living room and food on the walls. My mother had given up hope, she had complained to the priest at the local church and nothing happened. After that, she complained to the Bishop of diocese about the abuse: again, nothing changed. Her despair increased and her illness had begun to take a toll on her body. Every day, she prayed for a miracle.

Unfortunately, life wasn’t any better outside of home. I was bullied at school because I was different looking, had coarse hair, and acted ‘girly.’ But the bullying I encountered at school couldn’t compare to the bullying, I encountered at church. At church, I was bullied because they said I acted ‘girly,’ because I wore hand me downs, and because I didn’t fit in with the boys. Despite all the bullying at church, I went to church every Sunday, attended every bible study class on Wednesdays and even the pre-servants class on Saturday afternoons. Despite the bullying and hate around me, I achieved the deacon rank of aghnostos and taught Sunday school classes for more than 3 years.

However, behind the polished church creditails lay an incredibly broken boy. I was fourteen, 6 foot tall, lanky boy who was extremely na├»ve. One afternoon, I went to church for alhan lessons. I rode in a van full of other deacons and rode 40 miles to my church. I suffered the usual annoyances of any fourteen year old boy: wet willies, name calling and an occasional punch or two. I got out of the van and took a chair towards the back of the class. I opened up my psalmody and paid close attention to how Abouna sang the hymns. After about an hour and a half of learning praises, Abouna decided to take a break and hear another parishoner’s confession. All of the deacons went into the kitchen to get a bite to eat. That’s when the humiliation began: one of the deacons pinned me up against the wall and started to hump me. Then another boy, humped me, then another boy, then another boy, then another deacon, then another deacon and then another boy. All the while, I heard them calling me a “fag,” “gaywad,” and “gay.” After it had all happened, I was in complete shock and couldn’t speak. I stopped taking communion and believing that there was a higher power. My disbelief in God stemmed from the fact that I had encountered such evil from human beings that wore the touna, took communion and read the holy bible.

I couldn’t speak about what had happened for another 10 years. After I graduated high school and moved out for college, I began experimenting with drugs, alcohol and wanton sex to fill the void once held by religion. I was so high, so drunk that I didn’t know what was occurring around me. However, I am fortunate that I met a group of friends that rescued me from myself and my bad decisions. It was from my continuing interaction with non-religious, liberal and secular-humanists that I began to understand that there are people in the world that I can trust and confide in. I am proud to classify myself as a Coptic-Atheist because the people who gave me unconditional love, devotion and respect were non-judgmental regular folks who didn’t condemn the sinner to hell, nor hate the ‘sin.’ It was through their unconditional love, devotion and respect that I was able to close this dark chapter of my life, finish college with high honors and graduate medical school.

- Atheous

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Bishop Youssef And Throwing Stones

I feel I need to add a little pre-amble to this post, as it's gotten quite a reaction.   This is a commentary on some of the teachings of His Grace Bishop Youssef of the Southern Diocese, in regards to the nature of homosexual orientation, as well as how to treat gay people that you may know.   I found these teachings troubling.  Bishop Youssef is a well respected leader in the church, because of his service and his education, and he has done a lot to build up the Southern Diocese to what it is.   I write this post, not to bash him or everything he says, but I felt the need to make light of certain teachings.   These particular teachings are common in our culture, among common people, and it just shocked me that His Grace included such opinions in his Q&A section on his site.   These particular attitudes have justified some terrible behavior towards LGBT Coptic people in our community, and everyone just seems OK with it.   We forget who our neighbors are, and don't think how our words may be piercing the hearts of the person who may be sitting next to us.   I mean no offense to His Grace, personally, however, I had to speak up, because no one else is.  Take it for what it is, this is just a blog, and I'm just one person.  If you agree, wonderful, and if you don't, well that's OK too.   Dialogue is more important to me than being right or being wrong.   We're humans after all and we have much to learn.

"Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, I would ask you to come down and I would ask to stay at your house, however I do not want to appear like I approve of tax collecting, I do not want my reputation to be ruined by associating with you, nor do I, or would I ever want to be mistaken for a tax collector."
Wait, is that how the passage went? According to certain things I've read on the internet, this passage may as well have been written as such. More on this later.

There should be something made absolutely clear in regards to the Coptic Church's view on homosexuality: it is uninformed and very extreme. In comparison with even other Orthodox churches, there is something missing within the Coptic Church. The church has an official stance that does not take into account any of what studies have taught us about human sexuality, and results in a very inhumane and stubborn approach to not only the topic of homosexuality, but in the way it deals with people who identify themselves as LGBT.

One resource of particular interest to me, was that of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States, where H.G. Bishop Youssef has a section on Frequently Asked Questions organized by topic, one of which is that of Homosexuality. Most of the questions receive the same answers, but at the same time, some of these answers were very troublesome to me, not just because I'm gay, but there seems to be something inherently wrong in the way that His Grace answers these questions, and I dare say, it is quite dangerous.

It is no wonder gay and lesbian people live in such fear:  fear of humiliation, fear of rejection by family, priests, and of course, by God.   Even other Orthodox Churches do not take such a backwards approach in teaching this subject.   There are many reasons, that I can objectively respect, why a Church may feel that practiced homosexuality is not something that God desires for His people.   While I do not agree with these reasons, and there is plenty in the Bible that shows why this approach is flawed, I can understand why an individual or community may come to that conclusion.  However, there are beliefs being taught that are not only just flat out wrong, in their essence, they debase the message of the gospel. It is a message that leads to the further marginalization of gays and lesbians within the community, to the point where we do not even exist, not because we're not alive, but because we CANnot exist.   It just saddens me to know that a representative body of Jesus could really care less about a certain group of people. I want to touch on these things being taught within the Coptic Church and explain why such beliefs are damaging to the community at large.

One such question given to His Grace, is regarding the Ukranian Orthodox Church in Canada's official statement on homosexuality which goes as follows:

"Orthodoxy distinguishes between a homosexual orientation and a homosexual expression of one's sexuality. While denouncing same sex sexual relations, we affirm the basic human dignity and rights of the person with a homosexual orientation. In short, homosexual acts are condemned, not homosexual people. The homosexual man or woman, then, is faced with a particular struggle with his/her sexuality that, by the grace of God and guidance of His Church, he or she can find a healthy, Christ-centered means of life."
His Grace responds as follows:
"You may find the church's complete formal statement regarding homosexual practices and persons at the link below. A term you used in your statement requires caution: "...but does not condemn someone for being naturally oriented in such a way so as to be attracted to the same sex?" We do not hold the notion that one is "naturally oriented" towards homosexuality, but rather the individual has consciously or unconsciously submitted to this desire (see Romans 1:18-32; Genesis 1:27). The church invites all people to repentance and agrees to baptize repentant persons (if baptized as adults) who adhere to all the teachings of the Coptic Orthodox faith."
So the Coptic Church as represented by His Grace believes this premise about human sexuality: that that no one can be naturally oriented towards homosexuality, but rather the individual has submitted to these desires. I'm not sure if His Grace understands that the book of Romans is not a manifesto on human psychology, any more than John 2:1-11 is a cookbook recipe on how to turn water into wine. In fact, 14 verses in the Bible should not be enough to explain the complexity of what human sexuality is. If the Orthodox Church at large recognizes that human sexuality is more complex than we have previously realized it to be, why is the Coptic Church so stubborn? There are countless sources and research that indicate that sexuality is something that is absolutely not chosen. It is no wonder, that the church's stance has become so oppressive and its dealings on the matter have not helped but harmed so many people, it's because the premise it's based on is a bold faced lie. To make such a bold statement, His Grace needs to back up such a statement, rather than flippantly throwing a verse out there that explains why human sexuality is indeed a choice.

There are plenty of people who are gay and lesbian within the church, and even those who have decided to live a life of celibacy, who can tell you, they have not chosen this. It's such a slap in the face to the scores of thousands of gay christians out there (and among whom I know hundreds) who I believe have prayed, fasted, and cried tears of desperation asking God to change them. To say it's a choice, even subconsciously, is to say the power of God is not as powerful as our psyche. It is to say that our subconscious, 100% of the time, trumps God's grace. It is to say that "ask and you shall receive", is nothing more than an submission of a request form into heavenly beauracracy and politics, hopefully if you know the right people, miracles can happen. For those who have been "healed" from homosexuality, I do not know of a single documented case where the "healed" person no longer is attracted to the same sex. Even those who have managed to move onto possibly being married to the opposite gender, all claim to still wrestle with homosexual attraction. With such little understanding of human sexuality, how is the church even equipped to dive into this issue and teach on it, without fear that they might be marginalizing God's own children, and turning the minds of the rest of the congregation in a way that teaches them to be less-Christ like.

Another question is posed:
"I do believe that homosexuality is a sin, but I feel that homosexuals are some of the kindest people I have ever met, and I fairly enjoy being around them (homosexual men in particular). Is this wrong?"
Minus the "homosexuality is a sin" part, this question could easily have been submitted by Grace Adler. He goes on to answering the question:
"Homosexuality is a sin and Christianity invites us to hate sin not the sinners. However, being around homosexuals and befriending them is wrong for the following reasons:
1.  St. Paul's teaching about homosexuals is clear: "Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God" (1 Cor 6:9-10). God considers all those mentioned in these verses ungodly; and do not deserve to inherit the kingdom of God. The Holy Bible tells us "Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful" (Ps 1:1). It is a blessing not to be associated with such a crowd nor stand in their path, nor go their way.
2.  By associating with them you will make them feel accepted and that there is nothing wrong with their behavior. This feeling would encourage them to live the life they are leading without considering changing it."
And my favorite:
"3. Your own reputation could get affected. When people see you around homosexuals; they might label you as one of them."

Do I need to comment on this?  I think it speaks for itself.  To be part of a faith that has for generations, tested the bounds of societal norms, whose very Leader lead a life of example where it was the workings of the heart, not social status or personal wealth, that determined the worth of a person, how can such nonsense be taught, let alone tolerated by its members.   What is the point of being Christian, if the very essence of the Christian life is traded in for that which is saturated in fear and paranoia?  I'm certain Bishop Youssef does not teach this way of approaching love and friendship for other people all the time, what makes it ok this time?

I have a few theories:    One may be the fact that, he assumes that there aren't gay people in the church who are reading this.   Another may be the fact that, gays are expendable members of the church, and their absence is of more value than their presence.   If all of us are equal in the eyes of God, then who else should not be tolerated in the church?   Have you ever asked: what makes this sort of marginalization permissible in this one case?

What is unfortunate, is that the words and statements made by higher clergy such as Bishop Youssef carry a lot of weight and power. People decide to turn their brains off when a Bishop speaks, and all is absorbed, and recorded, and not tested in the way we're called to test all things with discernment.   Your Grace, if you happen to read this, whatever happened to compassion?  Whatever happened to trying to understand those you disagree with?   If Christ is the Good Shepherd, why allow your children to wander so far?

While we have leaders who may be spreading messages of intolerance and misunderstanding, we also have bishops and priests who are teaching messages of love and compassion, I just wish they'd raise their voices.  The people can choose to follow the example of the Church's true founder and leader, and learn from the good news, as we see in the true conclusion to the story of Zacchaeus:
“Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Christmas In The Orthodox World

Tonight, millions around the world are celebrating the birth of Christ in the Eastern tradition, including my brothers and sisters in the Coptic Church.   For us, it is a solemn night, one that is filled with concern as the usual carefreeness of the Feast has been recently dampened by recent events.    As I said in my previous post on Christmas, there is an ever present Emmanuel, God is With Us, this very night.  And I wish my brothers and sisters peace, courage, and forgiveness, during these troubling times.

Here is a great slideshow from the BBC:

Monday, January 3, 2011

Prayers For Egypt: New Years Massacre At Coptic Church

I wanted to take a break from the normal flow of conversation to draw attention to something currently happening to our people in Egypt.   Early on New Years Day, not even an hour after the turn of the new year, a suicide bomber detonated an explosive outside a Coptic Church in Alexandria, as the church was letting out for the New Year's Eve liturgy.   Twenty-one people were killed, and scores were injured.  Why did this happen?   Many people think it is linked to the recent decree by Al-Qaeda, promising violence upon Copts and Chaldeans in their home countries of Egypt and Iraq respectively, as well as throughout the diaspora.   This threat was in response to the supposed captivity of a Coptic woman by the church who supposedly converted to Islam.

It is clear that Christians in Egypt do not have the same status as Muslims.  However I do not believe it is a problem between religions, but rather an issue of power from certain radical groups, unfortunately, such tragedies bring further division brought out by fear and the need for survival.   There is an inequality and a huge injustice, by the mere fact that a Christian can convert to Islam peacefully, but a Muslim converting to Christianity can result in death for one or more parties.    The government of Egypt is doing little to protect equality in the country, and as a result, incidences like what happened on New Years Day will continue to occur.

I just wanted to create awareness, because there is injustice happening in the world, and the more people are aware of this injustice, the more we become accountable to each other, hopefully resulting in a greater opportunity for peace and community.   This is sad time for our people, and it breaks my heart to know this is happening to my brothers and sisters out there.

For more information on the attacks: