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Church in a gay bar: Queer Chicagoans find ways to merge religion and identity

Nicole Blackwood, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Religious News

CHICAGO -- The second Tuesday of every month, Affirming Worship holds church in Atmosphere, an Andersonville gay bar. The organization, founded in March 2019 by Kelly Ravenscraft, 22, and Michael McBride, 38, works against what a traditional Christian might think of as Mass. It's a space for queer individuals in the Chicago area to discover or rediscover faith, separate from a church in which they may feel uncomfortable. It is, Ravenscraft said, a sacred space, but made so by the members within it.

The format is left intentionally open: Ravenscraft and other organizers perform music and invite attendees to share their stories. Rainbow colors flash across singers' faces; the bass player wears a T-shirt: "Conversion Therapy Dropout." A pride flag hangs against the brick wall, and Joshua Hundl, a drag performer, wears a dress that says "God is gay, nonbinary, pan, queer." Ravenscraft steps up to the mic after the first song, smiles.

'A QUEER PERSPECTIVE OF THE WORLD'

The common narrative, one Affirming Worship works against, is that queerness and faith are disparate. Hundl said that this easy story defies reality.

"Most queer people I've known have had some kind of experience in a church," Hundl said. Ravenscraft agreed, saying that much of the "spiritual development and ethical development" of young people happens behind stained glass windows. Religion is, Ravenscraft said, a lens through which to view the world.

For some, the lens can crack. Ravenscraft said that for queer individuals, discovering identity can result in leaving or being forced out of communities of faith, but others remain -- often quietly. According to Chicago-based minister Alicia Crosby, the common narrative is snake-eats-tail; if a queer individual of faith feels alone, they may not ever be visible to others. Daniel Bahner, education director for Keshet, a Jewish LGBTQ organization, said that though "LGBTQ folks have been around in our communities forever," whether or not they are visible depends on feeling safe. Meanwhile, the divide between communities grows deeper.

 

"Sometimes it's said by people in religious forums that we have to divorce ourselves from our queer selves to function in religious spaces," Crosby said. She noted that the same can be true within LGBTQ spaces, as members of the community tend to mistrust religion "because of the harm witnessed or experienced."

According to Crosby, division can be a pervasive mindset, generating the perception that queer individuals don't belong in faith spaces. Frequently, this determination moves beyond the theoretical. In June, pride flags were vandalized by an unknown individual at Wicker Park Church; a transgender flag was marked with an X and a rainbow flag marked with the words "We love kids." Wicker Park pastor Jason Glombicki said this unfortunately supported his "general lived experience" as a gay man, though the plan is to keep new pride flags up. Hannah Kardon, pastor at Urban Village Church, said that the incident, while emblematic of a preexisting divide, points toward the work in progress.

"The fact that there is this kind of response makes the fact that they have those flags even more important," Kardon said. "The fact that there's somebody out there who finds that message scary means that somebody else didn't know they could be seen and loved, both in their belief in God and their trans identity, and was moved by them."

Faith itself supplies this demand -- Lilli Kornblum, board liaison to Or Chadash, an LGBTQ-focused Jewish congregation within Temple Sholom, said that "most of us are looking for some spiritual connection, especially now." But in Chicago, conservative and progressive values run into one another, and spaces like Affirming Worship emerge from the fault line, spanning religions -- Christianity, Judaism, Islam.

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