This I Believe: Mark King (2021)

Like most middle-class boomers, I was brought up culturally Christian. My family attended the local Methodist Church where Mom taught Sunday school and Dad served on the church Board. I was confirmed into the faith more as an exercise to make Mom and Dad happy than from any real belief. One recollection I have around those confirmation classes was asking Dad about the claim that one had to accept Jesus as savior to get into heaven. I was concerned that somewhere out in the world there was a good person who never got to hear about Jesus but despite doing all the right things wasn’t going to heaven. I remember Dad’s reply – “I’m sure God has a place in heaven for those folks.” So I guess I can claim some Universalist roots from my father.

My journey out of the religion of my youth was influenced strongly by my coming out as gay. Most, if not all, the messages telling me I was a bad or defective person were coming from religious sources, and the messages from the Methodists, while not as strident as some, made it clear that I had no home there. As I came to claim my own self-worth (my inherent worth and dignity) and assert that I could indeed be a worthy individual, I rejected those messages and exited mainstream religion to live an authentic life.

Coming out in the late 70’s and early 80’s, the loud voices denouncing the idea that LGBTQ folk had any dignified role in society (much less basic civil rights) were the likes of Jerry Falwell and Bernard Cardinal Law in Boston where I was attending graduate school. At the same time, AIDS began to rapidly spread through the community – I remember talking with fellow students in the gay student lounge on campus about the mysterious skin cancer reported in New York and speculating on how it was transmitted. As the epidemic spread, Reverend Falwell’s and Cardinal Law’s messages to and about people like me gained a certain “I-told-you-so” nature which seemed to permeate their religious cultures. A cousin of mine and his mother were forced to leave the church of his birth when the congregation found out he had contracted AIDS. They fortunately found another church that would hold them through his last days and his mother beyond them.

So with all these “go away!” messages, I did. In retrospect, I think I may have taken it to an extreme.

It was quite liberating emotionally standing outside the church doors, and it gave me the freedom to consider what I really believed. I didn’t embark on any sort of religious journey at that time, I was just happy to leave the hostility behind me. Looking back, this re-enforced a pattern in my life where through college, graduate school and my early career, I was always on my way to “somewhere else” and never really invested much time, commitment, or effort in developing relationships. Eventually, I found myself in a very lonely and isolated place, despite my relationship with Jonathan, good relationships with my family, and a steady job. Jonathan observed that it seemed my life involved only getting up, going to work, coming home, eating dinner, and going to bed. At Jonathan’s suggestion, I started going to the local UU church in Gardiner MA (Jonathan and I had not yet moved in together). I still found myself in the “on my way to somewhere else” mode and didn’t commit myself to the congregation. I also didn’t really know how to “do church” either.

When Jonathan and I moved in together in Providence, we also would attend the UU church there. We didn’t devote much time to the congregation – I still didn’t know how to “do church” – but instead were deeply involved in the Rhode Island Alliance for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights. Jonathan had been involved with the organization since its founding in 1983 and I began to participate with my arrival in Providence in 1991. I ended up serving on the Board of the organization in various functions including a term as president, but I really enjoyed being secretary-treasurer because I got to play with developing the database, and use my computer hobby to benefit the community. One of the fun projects we came up with was the “Letter Project” where Jonathan and I would bring our quasi-portable MacPlus computers and a laser printer to gay bars. There we would register people to vote, and get them to send letters to their state representatives urging passage of the sexual orientation civil rights bill. After the bill was passed in 1995, Jonathan and I along with other members of the Alliance were present when the Governor signed it into law in 1995. On a personal scale, what the Alliance provided for me was a community and friendships that deepened beyond our activism and continue today. Jonathan and I are the (non-custodial) fathers to three wonderful young women (Madison, Harris and Devlin) as a result of meeting M’lyn and Diane who co-founded the Alliance. We bought our house on Morris Ave in Providence because Nancy Rose, another Alliance member, lived up the street, and remain in close contact with her today – she may even be watching today’s service. Hi Nancy Rose! So in retrospect, what my experience with the Alliance taught me was how to “do church.”

I used that experience when I moved to Pasadena in 1997 for a new job. I moved there solo for the first year to prospect the job and area to determine if we really wanted to relocate from Providence. When it became clear that the work culture at the company was not going to be source for local connections, I again followed Jonathan’s advice to check out the local UU church. So this time, arriving at Neighborhood UU Church, I was prepared to “do church” when approached by Betsy Blue and joined the Welcoming Committee and entered a new community.

We used the same approach of “doing church” when we relocated to the Twin Cities and found White Bear UU and dove right into the life of the church. I remember sitting beside Deb Debroux on one of her first visits to our church and talking about how to make and build connections. My advice to her was “join a committee!” It’s one of the most effective ways to get to know the church in a small group setting where you work towards a common goal – it is work that will grow your soul. Attending services is like a stone skipping across the surface of a pond, it will give you a sense of the church, but to get to know a congregation, to belong, volunteer for a communal activity that involves working with others.

I find transcendence – what I call god with a lower case “g” – in two very different and perhaps opposite places. One place I find god is in what I call the “spaces in-between.” I find these places frequently when we travel – usually to isolated and sparsely populated corners of the world with unique biomes. But my favorite place to find that space in-between is the early morning walks I take on the sand bars at Pine Point Maine where the open horizon, the rising sun and ocean breeze sweeps the weight of worldly things off my shoulders. The other place I find transcendence is community where working with others helps create a better world. I found that community in the RI Alliance for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights, in Neighborhood UU Church in Pasadena, and here at White Bear UU Church.

So what do I believe?

On the sand bars of Pine Point Maine, and touching those spaces in-between, I believe I am one with the universe. Here, in community, at White Bear UU Church, I believe I am one with you.