Taking My Queer, Autistic, Atheist Self to La Iglesia | Sojourners

Taking My Queer, Autistic, Atheist Self to La Iglesia

Local residents take part in the first church service after Tropical Storm Harvey at the Iglesia de Dios Pentecostal M.I. El Triunfo church in east Houston, Texas, U.S., September 3, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Walking into Iglesia La Gloria de Dios Internacional, a Latino Pentecostal church in the heart of Hialeah, Fla., I felt nervous to be on church grounds.

I’m Mexican American, but I don’t speak Spanish; I’m an autistic person who really doesn’t like new situations. And even though it’s now been a year since I moved back home to Miami from Minnesota, I am still a bit self-conscious of my Midwestern accent. But most importantly, I am an atheist and an openly queer and trans person living in Florida.

Dressed in the only somewhat “feminine” outfit I had left in my closet from before my gender transition, I partially wondered whether my very queer self would burst into flames upon entering the church.

But even though I don’t believe in God, being part of the Sojourners opinion writing cohort has challenged me to think about the intersection between religion and culture here in Miami. I realized I was curious to attend church back in my hometown for the first time and learn more about how Miami, Latino, and religious cultures intersect.

To keep myself safe, I wanted to attend the service with someone I trusted, and I knew exactly who to ask. My good friend and mentor’s mom, Señora Santos. Señora Santos is the sweetest soul you’ll ever meet. She also makes the best Honduran tamales I’ve ever had. She has been attending Iglesia La Gloria de Dios Internacional for the past decade and loves to help members of her community.

Out in the church’s courtyard, I found Santos manning a table of volunteers. They were serving homemade tostadas, yuca, and horchata to raise funds for an upcoming mission trip to Nicaragua.

With a bright smile on her face, she gave me a warm hug and introduced me to all the congregation members.

“Ella es la amiga de mi hijo!” Santos proudly exclaimed as she introduced me to everyone in her community. It meant a lot to me to hear her introduce me as her son’s good friend. I think she loved it too.

I met pretty much every church member of all ages and stages of life. I grabbed a plate of food and went to sit with some of the younger congregants. I learned about how many of them had been raised in the church’s community and what kept them coming back, but we also talked about normal stuff: our friends, family, and typical Miami life.

Everyone was welcoming, and I found myself losing track of time. Then Señora Santos tapped me on the shoulder — it was time for the service.

Iglesia La Gloria de Dios Internacional is an Assemblies of God church. The Assemblies of God is the world’s largest Pentecostal denomination, with more than 85 million adherents and members worldwide. My dad was raised in a Pentecostal church in Indianapolis, but he doesn’t talk about his experience very often. I was raised Catholic by my mom’s family and am still healing from the hurt that the Catholic church caused me.

As a queer and trans person, I am hesitant about Christian institutions because many have promoted anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. The Assemblies of God takes a conservative stance on LGBTQ+ issues, believing that those who identify with the community are engaging in sinful behavior. But I tried to keep an open mind when going with Señora Santos.

I joined a few dozen other attendees in a small church hall. It wasn’t anything fancy, just a stage with a projector, a few rows of chairs in front of it, and a sound booth in the back. Señora Santos led me to the right corner of the room, where a friend of hers around my age was sitting. She gave me a warm smile and I felt like I was in good hands.

The service was fully in Spanish and started with a small band leading a song; worship dancers in colorful red and orange dresses danced in front of them. I tried my best to understand the announcements — mostly the usual church and youth group events. And then a welcome surprise: One of the church staff approached me with a pair of headphones and offered to translate the pastor’s message for me. Being a “no-sabo,” I took her up on it.

Referencing John 14:16, the pastor spoke about how God is with everyone and that we need to welcome him into our lives and listen. She spoke on the importance of attending church in person and transforming your spirit to honor God, letting God lead you through life. Some of the examples were a little conservative for me — like when she said being in church every Sunday was the only way to be a good Christian — but I got the general message.

And then, during the meet-and-greet portion of the service, something happened that I wasn’t so sure I liked. A sweet older abuelita approached me and offered to pray for me. I thought that was fine initially, but I didn’t expect her to physically pray over me for more than five minutes. It was a little overwhelming for my autistic self and my Spanish couldn’t keep up with what she was saying. One of the dancers sitting next to me even acknowledged that it could be a lot for other young people to get used to. She said she prefers the services led by younger church members instead, where the mood is often lighter and the messaging more inclusive. I agreed with her.

After a few more songs and prayers, the service came to an end. It had been an hour and a half. By the end of it, I was ready to get out of my seat and back outside into the warm Florida sun.

Leaving the church, I wasn’t quite sure what to think. Was the religious service for me? No. But I loved the sense of community that came with the tight-knit church. I loved being around other Central Americans whom I could easily relate with and seeing everyone come together as a sort of family.

I felt conflicted. I texted my friend before driving home.

“Church still isn’t for me, but I had a great time with your mom. She is the best.”

“She really is,” my friend replied. “I respect the sense of community my mom has. Everyone needs community.”

I’ve never been a religious person and I never will be. But I love my friend and his mom, Señora Santos. Going to church helped me see new ways that the culture of Miami, Latinos, and specific religious communities all mesh together.

I’m glad I tried something new, even if it was uncomfortable at times. I’m grateful Santos took the time to welcome me into her community. And seeing how much her church loves her, I can hold a place in my heart for them too.