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  • Writer's pictureNicole Kiszenia

Faith, Sexuality, And Fear: Overcoming Adversity

I’ve been wanting to share this story for a while. But every time I stare at the computer to type, the reasons of why I don’t feel like I belong stare straight back at me.

Truth is, I’m still figuring out if I even belong at all.

I grew up in Lowell, Indiana. It’s a small town made up of predominantly white, middle class “folks.” The typical community where I see at least three people I know when I walk into the grocery store. Corn fields. Suburbs. Friday night football games. Growing up, my grandma told me stories about Jesus. My mom and I attended a small church where I colored in pictures in the pews.

When I was 13, I fell in love with God and his son, Jesus. I think many people, religious or non-religious, can resonate with the reason why.

Jesus’ death was a representation of love. It taught me that no matter what, I am worthy. I am loved. I am accepted. Just for being me. The Bible shares that he sacrificed himself for the forgiveness of sins. I learned that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, and whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). A popular teaching in church is that we didn’t earn this love. In fact, we never could. Despite our imperfections, he loved us anyways. To the non-believer, these teachings are synonymous to helpful forms of self-care.

These teachings built me up. One of the most inspiring verses to me is the one where God reminds us to “fear not for the Lord is with you, do not be dismayed, for I am your God.” (Isaiah 41:10) I used “fear not” as a reminder while doing sprints on the basketball court to not be afraid of going my hardest and tiring out on the next rep. I trusted God would take care of me, and I became faster on the court and more fearless in other aspects of life. God was my comfort and safety.

This love fueled me. I loved God and wanted to tell everyone about salvation so that others could find the same love and acceptance for themselves that I did.

Like I mentioned, I started to come into my faith the summer before my first year in high school. Fall approached, and so did cross country season along with it. All of my friends were running. I asked the coach if I could manage the team to spend time with them. At the time, I had no idea what this would mean for my life. The coach proposed a trade: I could manage cross-country if I threw for him on the high school track team. Eventually, with lots of pushing and encouragement, I started to throw shot put and discus.

It was amazing. When I walked into practice or stepped into the circle, I knew I was right where I needed to be. I felt empowered. I love that sport can do that.

I discovered two very different communities to call home.

Each taught me about the other, and both were environments of love that pushed me to be my best self and shaped who I am today.

People from Lowell don’t really get out much from our small town… but I was recruited to throw for the University of North Carolina Track & Field team and I was ecstatic. I was so eager to start the journey that God had planned for me at UNC. This school, for some reason I can’t actually put into words, had been my dream school.

Within the first few days of being on campus, I quickly connected with an evangelical Christian group for student-athletes. It was incredibly exciting to find talented athletes who held the same beliefs as me. This group became a place of love and acceptance for me. It was a place of mentorship, a place that helped me feel I was adding value to the world, and a place where everyone had the same values of “right” and “wrong.” A place where everyone wanted to be the best they could be, personally and spiritually.

This group, along with the weight room and the throwing circle, is where I made my home for four years. Every day I wanted to grow in my faith. Challenge myself. Love God. Love others. On a typical day, I would read the Bible at least once (sometimes up to five times) and meet with people to teach them about scripture, amid all the practices and workouts. Over the summer, I would go across the world with sports to share my faith. I was so dedicated, passionate, and aligned with my faith community’s values that they asked me to be on leadership after my first year!

I had it all figured out. Or at least I thought I did.

On my flight home for winter break in my 4th year at UNC, I felt God (or what others might call intuition) was calling me to sit by a girl on the plane. Her name was Megan. I remember exactly what she was wearing, a grey Columbia with UNC in the top right corner and leggings, and that she had philosophy and economics books in her lap. I even remembered the name of her sorority - which means I was VERY attentive that day because I could not name another one if I tried. We talked for the entire flight. It was like I had met an angel. Seems dramatic, but I’m serious. I felt like it was the best two hours I had ever spent!

We talked about salvation through Christ, our regular Chipotle orders, the stereotypes of being in a sorority, and everything in between. She thought it was wild that I believed in the literal interpretation of the bible, but understood at the same time. I remember praying for her almost every day during winter break as a friend, I thought, because that’s what good friends do.

I didn’t get her phone number but I did remember her sorority name. So I googled it, found her name, and then added her on Instagram. I invited her to an apologetics conference, where people present theological arguments about why God is real. My hope was that she would find God, too! To me, being saved was the greatest opportunity we have in life.

I was overjoyed when she said yes to attend with me. I thought, “I met her on the airplane so that God would save her.” After the conference, I kept in touch, in case she wanted to find faith.

I was so happy that God put her into my life.

I started to like Megan a lot and always looked forward to spending time with her. I couldn’t wait for her text to pop up on my phone. One day, Megan texted me that she needed to talk to me. I was beyond excited. I thought she was going to tell me that she had accepted Jesus as her Lord and Savior.

She got in my car and we just drove around. She seemed anxious, nervous and excited all in one. She gathered herself up and said, “Okay, I like you. And I think you like me too.”

I was going to throw up.

I drove her home and kindly told her that we couldn’t be friends because she would be too much of a temptation for me. I thought this was satan tempting me because she was beautiful, charming, sweet and loving. And homosexuality in the church is wrong.

Two weeks later I called her back and told her that we could be friends because in my mind I knew that Jesus would still befriend the sinner, and judging her for who she liked was not cool. It just couldn’t be me. I had it hardwired in my mind: I am supposed to marry a man.

We started texting often and became really close. We would spend long nights talking in my car. I would FaceTime her just to take a nap. It was dreamy. Eventually, in my own time, I figured out that I really enjoyed kissing her. I was really confused. It was infinitely more complicated than it should have been.

I began to hate myself.

Through the literal interpretations of the Bible’s teachings, and what I had been taught about sexuality in the evangelical Christian faith, I saw homosexuality as a sin. However, it’s not just any sin, you see, because of such high levels of homophobia in the community, this sin is seen as one of the worst. Repulsive, disgusting, and perverted. I internalized these and projected it onto myself. Repulsive. Disgusting. Perverted. And wrong. This conflict of my identities started a gut-wrenching cycle of guilt and shame.

I would hang out with Megan and love every moment and then not talk to her for a few days, or what felt like weeks, because of the shame I felt about it. I didn’t tell anyone. The more time I spent contemplating my feelings, the more I was filled with self-hatred and utter confusion. I thought this cycle would never end and I truly didn’t know what to do.

I denied that I liked Megan externally - and even internally - for a long time. I had to really contemplate what it meant to like someone as opposed to being friends with them. If you are straight, it’s easy- you like a boy and can be close to female friends. Well, what if you like a girl? Did I like all of my female friends, too? I know that sounds ridiculous, but seriously, did I?

In the midst of everything, I found some light in the discus ring. At practice, I could escape all judgments from society and religion and could meditate over what I really wanted and believed.

One day, I had enough of sneaking and hiding. I decided to tell a staff member in the Christian athletes group, in the hope of finding love and acceptance.

If I was not going to love myself, I hoped someone else could.

That day, I was met with a bunch of overwhelming questions about my relationship. There’s one that I’ll never forget, because it really messed with me later on: “You don’t think you’re in a position to lead, do you?”

Filled with guilt and shame, I told them “no.” Afterwards, they convinced me to break up with Megan. So I removed myself from leadership, from a place I loved so much and found my home in, and broke up with Megan.

I spent the summer before my 5th year praying a lot and questioning myself just as much. I prayed that God would help me do the right thing, and every time I prayed, being with Megan was the right thing. But I had so many doubts.

Many affirming Bible passages popped into mind, but one of the main passages comes from 2 Corinthians 5:15 that says Christ died for all. Jesus died to break down the hostility between the Gentiles and the Jews, or as we can contextualize it to today, all races. If I could date any race, why not any gender? I understand the evangelical arguments about this verse - I thought about them a lot and feared them deeply. This verse, however, kept coming to mind.

My mental health was at its worst. I was afraid of myself. I am usually someone who enjoys living and am generally really excited and passionate about life. During this summer, I did not want to exist because, in the eyes of people that I loved, I was “wrong.”

I can’t count how many times I asked myself, “What if this is wrong?”

I felt I couldn’t trust my intuition. My thoughts throughout the day were so foggy and I isolated myself from my friends. My body was feeling this mental beatdown and I was getting sick easily and often. I had spent more than eight years studying what’s right and what’s wrong, and living life perfectly to honor God. Then it all came crashing down.

I was the pharisee Jesus talks about. The one judging and worrying about who’s right or wrong by the law. But as I would figure out, there are no right answers to life. Honestly, that’s the best part.

I needed something to shake up my life. So I made plans to see one of my best friends who had been the quarterback at Sacramento State. I had done some work with him through the same Christian organization in L.A. the summer before.

As long as we’re being honest here, I was sort of (really) hoping I would like him the way I liked Meg. I was like yeah, perfect guy. He’d somehow make me straight. That didn’t happen, but something else did that I really needed at that time: when I told him my truth, he met me with open arms and told me, “God loves you for liking girls. You belong as you are in this world. You are needed and loved for who you are.” And that’s where I found a light.

I think a lot of people think that to merely accept or tolerate someone in the LGBTQ community is equal to loving them. Collin helped me realize that truly loving someone looks like rejoicing and celebrating the diversity they bring into the world.

After that, Collin and I went to a church that had a female pastor who was proudly married to another woman! It was inspiring to me to see someone I related with so deeply connected to God, and so valued in their faith community. I wanted that too. At that point, I could feel my outlook - on my faith and on myself - starting to change.

It was still a struggle, every day, to love myself and to be myself.

I honestly think the only reason I came out of this dark time of my life is because I stayed hopeful.

I looked for the positive and envisioned what life would look like if I followed my dreams, and decided that dating Megan was one of those. I challenged my perspective, what I thought I knew to be true, and how I knew it. I saw the love of God in the person who wasn’t “saved” by my measures. Maybe we didn’t need these qualifications at all. I started stepping out of my comfort zone in order to gain a new perspective.

UNC became another home that I never knew. It opened up a whole other college experience for me. I tried so many new things with an open mind and grew in areas I never knew existed! I went to an LGBTQ safe-zone training, a body positive meeting, joined UNC spectrum, attended a new and open-minded church, and a faith and sexuality bible study.

My worldview completely changed. Before, as long as you lived to honor God, and worked to help people be saved, you were living the right way. Salvation was the only way to experience true joy. I thought churches outside of non-denominational or Baptist were not okay to attend because they didn’t believe in the scripture correctly. I was taught that you can’t trust nonbelievers as people.

I thought the sexist teachings in the evangelical church were the best way to have a relationship. The man leads the family. I thought sex was only for the married. Drinking and getting drunk was a sin. I thought any other religion left your soul in despair. I was so incredibly closed off to a world full of love which exists all around us.

With all this being said, I still see the consequences of my actions every day. I still feel as if I'm missing a sense of belonging.

My mentors told me I couldn’t lead, and I believed them.

What churches reflect to the LGBTQ community when they say “it’s not the best way” is that they aren’t good people and they never can be if they continue to love the way that they love.

We should be celebrating their diversity.

I got back together with Megan. I learned so much from being around her. The kindness she shows other people is the exact kindness Jesus reflected in what he did. I can’t go on enough about her. She never judged me and was always patient with where I was at.

Someone once told me, “one of the things we do when we’re in any closet is hurt the people around us.” The thing that enrages me about all of this is that even though our love was so good, I still tore it apart with judgment and despair. I treated Megan in ways I would never treat another human being. I reflected the internal judgment I had on myself onto her. The idea that homosexual relationships are wrong in any measure truly needs to be dismantled.

I’m so thankful that I’m still with her, and that I’m still in love with her.

These past two years have been transformative. I’ve learned that the best thing you can do for the world is be your true self no matter what anyone else tells you. There are no “shoulds” in life. It’s going to be hard. However, whatever you love, there are people in this world who will support you, even when you didn’t know they existed.

Hourglass by Dani Shapiro reads, “Rabbi Zyusa said, ‘In the coming world, they will not ask me: “Why were you not Moses?” They will ask me: “Why were you not Zyusa?”'"

- Nicole Kiszenia


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