Have you ever come home to a place you've never been before?
That's what it felt like for my husband and me five years ago when we literally stumbled into the Christmas Eve carol service at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto.
We learned only when we were seated that this service has been held since 1991 by the Metropolitan Community Church for its constituents, the gay and lesbian community of Toronto. We've gone every year since, dragging our friends to this sold-out gathering that validates an undying need to belong for a community that's still often shut out from more traditional holiday observances.
The celebration was defined by its 2,500 participants, who were dressed in velvet and leather, studs and metal. Imagine -- people dressing up like that for Christmas Eve. The music was produced with huge pizzazz. When we all rose, in full puff, to belt out Handel's Hallelujah Chorus, the organ and choir made it seem as if we were all going to levitate to heaven.
Then came the showstopper, the earliest and simplest song of my childhood: Jesus Loves Me. I started weeping and didn't stop until long after the parents of the church's parishioners, many of them old and awkward and uncomfortable with their offspring's sexuality, stood to receive the audience's deafening applause.
For more than 30 years, the MCC has been an anchor for Toronto's gay and lesbian community, a population that continues to be shunned in some larger, established churches. Many members of the congregation remain cut off from their families, forced to flounder in finding connections that matter, and acceptance for what is deemed aberrant, sinful, shameful.
The family members who turned up that night, with their children, were now being acknowledged for their bravery. The fragility of that bond, the struggle to find accord and acceptance, the solidarity of the congregation in supporting that effort, the simple yet profound power of love, soared to the beams in that hall.
Since then, we have known in our hearts that this is our community.
We feel it even more now that we've moved into the church's downtown neighbourhood -- and participated in one of its sermons. Rev. Brent Hawkes, the elfin, Energizer-bunny minister of MCC, asked my husband to talk about addiction as life's ultimate denial, as part of a 10-part series that had been created by asking the parishioners about the critical issues in their lives -- the ones you don't usually hear much about from a pulpit.
There were sermons on critical illness, depression, personal branding (true), sexuality and half a dozen topics that gave the "coffee and cookies" afterward a certain refreshing frisson.
Parishioners were encouraged to use the gorgeous Sunday of my husband's sermon to start what would be a very tough conversation about their drinking and drug use with the people they cared about.
The sermon armed them with a new lexicon and understanding of what constitutes addiction from someone who had been there and had credibility with this audience of skeptics. It addressed how addiction destroys lives and relationships, how it is fueled by denial and perpetuated by rationalization: "It's not about the amount; it's about the consequences."
Brent Hawkes made following through easier. Open discussion meetings on addiction followed the service, and individual appointments were available afterward.
One of my patients is a long-time member of MCC. When I asked her about the sermon on sexuality, she remembered that it was honest and humane. She found the sermon comforting not only because it supported the way she practised sex, but because it affirmed what she seeks in all her relationships -- trust and caring.
So while a more heterosexual congregation might redden at hearing about some of these encounters, at its heart, the sexuality sermon saluted the inherent goodness of every human being and their capacity to express emotion and be loving with each other.
At MCC, watching men come forward hand in hand to receive a blessing is a touching experience. As is hearing the words of healing during that part of the service set aside for acknowledging individual hardships or overcoming illness.
The powerful feeling of finding your way back home can be overwhelming, which is why boxes of tissues are placed in every pew. The woman behind me handed me wads of the stuff when the collective emotion of one service caught me up in its wave and popped the cork once again on my own store of bottled tears.
Choir members, who see everything, are quick to embrace you after the service, reassuring you that you are the norm and not the exception.
The same spirit so evident during that Christmas Eve service five years ago perpetuates itself within this congregation every day, not only for the GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender) population of Toronto, but for anyone who wants to come into the church. Just as the Christmas Eve service at Roy Thomson Hall is inclusive for all faiths, many Jews, Muslims and Catholics find in the Metropolitan Community Church a refuge, sanctuary and serenity that is as real as it is powerful.
As Brent Hawke extols, Christianity is only one of the many paths to God, and MCC is a church for all people.
In this season of halting homecomings and contrived community, you may want to think about that.