“What options are there for those who want to recognize that there is a higher power but don’t fit into organized religion?”
This question is common in the circles I travel. Many of my friends and colleagues are ordained clergy of a particular faith tradition, initiated into an indigenous spiritual path, or they fall into the now popular category of “spiritual but not religious”. What made this question unique when I read it in my email was that I would soon get the chance to answer it as it pertained to LGBTQ People of Color.
Last month I participated in the Unity Through Diversity Conference. This is a national bi-annual health summit for LGBTQ People of Color that takes place in Albany, NY. When I was asked to be on their Spirituality panel I was delighted because it would be the first time I could participate in a public forum and speak about the personal intersections of my life according to gender, sexual orientation, race and religious/spiritual affiliation all at once.
Before the Sunday morning panel started, two conference presenters invited everyone in the room to gather together and stand in a circle. A white tea light candle and sage were lit to clear the atmosphere. We were led in a gentle exercise to acknowledge the six directions: East, West, South, North, Above & Below (a common theme in Native American spiritual traditions). Next, we were asked to release any mental or emotional baggage that did not serve us and call forth something we wanted to sustain us. As we took our seats after the opening, I felt immense appreciation for the two presenters who led us in the ritual. This Interfaith-Interspiritual experience was a pleasant surprise. In addition to honoring everyone in the room, they carried on a tradition that many of our ancestors followed by showing reverence to the earth.
Very soon after the moderator had us introduce ourselves, I realized fitting in took on a deeper meaning for many of us gathered in the room. While religious discrimination and oppression has been inflicted upon people worldwide, LGBTQ people often face another level of discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity or expression. Being a person of color who identifies as LGBTQ does not make the journey of self-discovery and acceptance any easier if we come from marginalized communities, families or faith-based institutions who believe we are an abomination or something other than sacred.
My answer to the question of fitting in is best expressed by feminist writer and activist, Lani Ka’ahumanu. In her essay, “Hapa Haole Wahine” Lani writes, “Assimilation is a lie. It is spiritual erasure.” For as long as I can remember, I was not very good or successful when I tried to fit into someone else’s expectation of how I should behave or who I should become. I shared with everyone that when I left my hometown to pursue graduate studies in New York, I knew I would find a spiritual community that would respect all aspects of me. This came to pass when I found my Ifa community. It felt like home because not only were women viewed as equal but there was also deep reverence for ancestral wisdom and connection. There was no discrimination based on one’s sexual orientation and the studying of different faith traditions and leaders was recommended and encouraged. Most importantly, I was never asked to change to fit in. Instead I was encouraged to focus on what purpose I wanted to fulfill and how that purpose would serve humanity.
Everyone on the Spirituality panel offered their own personal views regarding this topic. While we all had varying religious affiliations, there seemed to be consensus among us around the following points expressed:
1) Creating safe space starts with you and how you feel in your own skin
2) Self-empowerment is best attained through an on-going process of internal validation versus external validation and approval from others
3) People begin to heal when they change their expectation
4) Healing is strengthened in an affirming community
When the panel was over, a gentleman stopped me as I was leaving the room. He attended many conversations on sexuality, religion and healing before but this was the first time he actually heard people offer Interfaith perspectives. I realized our diversity and courage to be ourselves strengthened the information we had to offer.
After I left the conference, I carried a feeling of connection with everyone who was present during our short time together. I knew something special had happened. I said a silent prayer asking if there was any final nugget of wisdom I needed to know from this experience. I saw confirmation when I arrived back home and looked at the quote on my calendar for the month of February. Thich Nhat Hanh’s words captured the most important lesson of all: “To be beautiful means to be yourself. You don’t need to be accepted by others. You need to accept yourself”.
Image: Unity & Connection Symbol, posted with permission from ilera.com