"Welcome to church," she began.

The 'She,' in question, was the self-appointed 'Good Christian Woman.' And she was welcoming a packed house to Casper Pride's 'Drag Church Brunch,' hosted by Occasions by Cory.

My lover's got humor.
She's the giggle at a funeral.
Knows everybody's disapproval;
I should've worshiped her sooner.
If the Heavens ever did speak
She's the last true mouthpiece.

- Hozier

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To be clear, it was a church service in all the important ways. There was fellowship, there was worship, there was a message. And there was so. much. love. Depending on the interpretation of God, He or She or They were there in abundance.

But there was also a brunch buffet. And swear words. And alcohol.

And a drag queen.

Kai Lee Mykels is the aforementioned 'Good Christian Woman' and she, along with United Church of Christ pastor Dee Lundberg led the 'congregation' in an hour-and-a-half of song, dance, and self-love.

"If church was like this all the time, I would go every Sunday," said Veronica Ratigan. It was her first experience with 'church' since she was a little girl and, in her words, it was 'a lot different' than what she remembered.

 Every Sunday's getting more bleak; a fresh poison each week. 'We were born sick,' you heard them say it.

- Hozier

There was very little talk of heaven and hell. There was no fire, no brimstone, no altar calls. There was just love, acceptance, and affirmation which, according to the Bible, was Jesus' biggest message.

In John 15:12, Jesus told his disciples to "Love each other as I have loved you." He didn't add any qualifiers, either. There were no 'but's,' or 'if's' or 'only's.' He just told his people to love each other as he loved them - unconditionally.

That was the message that was prevalent on the Sunday of Casper's Pride Week. And it's the message that Lundberg said her church tries to present every week, every day, with everything they do.

"Some of you care about church," Lundberg told the congregation. "Some of you have been damaged by church. And some of you...sometimes in our hearts, we just want to be accepted. And that's kind of what our church is about."

Let's tell the truth and shame the devil - acceptance is something that most of us seek. We want acceptance from our friends, from our peers, from our families and loved ones. This is true even for those of us who don't have any closets to come out of. But for those that do, for those who have spent years peeking out of a closet that was more like a prison cell the world continued to shove them deeper and deeper into, acceptance from somebody who loves them unconditionally is like receiving a drink of water while being nailed to two wooden beams. They thirst.

Speaking of thirst, Lundberg began her portion of the sermon with the story of a bar in Great Falls, Montana that she frequented back in the '80s, when being 'out' wasn't really an option. In fact, Lundberg said she tried to stay 'in' as much as possible.

"It was dark," she said. "The windows were boarded. You came in the back door, and you tried to be as invisible as you could the rest of the week. And look at us now. There's still some hiding. There's still darkness. Still shame. At times, there's a lot of hopelessness. We know what our suicide rate is. And there are some people, like the folks that tried to evangelize to us yesterday, that don't even know they're part of the problem."

She continued, saying that "Those people do not speak for everyone. And they sure as hell don't speak for God."

Cue the 'Amens' and 'Hallelujah's' from the crowd.

Take me to church.
I'll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies,
I'll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife.
Offer me that deathless death;
Good God, let me give you my life.

- Hozier

Then, the music started playing. But it wasn't the hymns you may or may not have grown up with. There was no talk of 'That Old Rugged Cross' or 'The Blood of the Lamb.' Instead, the house band led the congregation in songs such as 'Beautiful,' by Christina Aguilera and 'Imagine' by John Lennon.

Skeptics would say "That isn't real worship music," but who decides that? If worship music is designed to invoke the presence of God, of the Holy Spirit, of love, that's exactly what happened. Parishioners held hands, put their arms around each other, closed their eyes. Some even raised their hands to the sky. It wasn't hymns, but many in attendance would certainly attest that it most definitely was a time of worship.

Following that, the 'Good Christian Woman' took the stage and, like a Southern Baptist church from the '60s, the shouting began in droves. It started in the back and crescendoed until most of the restaurant was repeating the chorus of 'Shout now.' Of course, being that this was a church service-cum-drag show, it wouldn't be complete without a call for tithing. Parishioners offered tips to Mykels, as is tradition at a drag show. In between singing, dancing and engaging with audience members, she would take dollar bills from them, offered in appreciation of the talent and charisma that radiated off the 'Good Christian Woman.'

Mykels (who, out of drag, uses 'they/them' pronouns) stated that even though she believes in God, and loves Jesus, she has a love/hate relationship with 'the church.'

"As a Christian, as someone who works in the church, I'm weird," she said. "I have a really cool love for God and Jesus and I always have. But I'm a recovering Southern Baptist; I was raised Southern Baptist. I came out of the closet when I was 15 years old as a gay man, because that's all I knew then. That's the only terminology I knew. Non-binary wasn't really a terminology for a little queer in east Texas. Even learning that terminology and then coming to terms with who I am; it's just been a beautiful journey. "

Mykels stated that when they came out as a teenager, they did so with a lot of trepidation, especially within the church scene.

"I remember sitting in Sunday school class," she told the crowd. "I always had a lot of questions. And questions are okay! Especially in the church. I think the more questions we have in the church, the better the church is. So don't let some normally white, old man tell you what's right and what's wrong, because they don't know."

Mykels said that the church they went to as a teenager was about 2 miles away from their house, and they would actually drive illegally to the church as a 15-year-old, because their parents didn't want to go. They, too, had been hurt by the church.

"I remember sitting in Sunday school and asking my Sunday school teacher, 'How can you tell us that this God loves us so much, but yet, if we don't fit a certain mold, that we're going to go to this really bad place, this really awful place for eternity?'"

Mykels then emphasized that she doesn't actually believe in a literal hell, stating that, "It's bullshit made up by the patriarchy, and by the church."

Mykels said as much to their Sunday school teacher, in maybe not so many words.

"Because, I mean, if it gets worse than the shit that happens here on earth, then it's pretty bad," she said. "We have a roof over our head and food to eat, but many people in our country alone don't have that. So I asked that and I remember my Sunday school teacher looking at me and going, 'You can't ask that.' So I literally looked at her, said 'Okay,' stood up, and left."

That tends to happen a lot when believers outgrow the church's belief system.

In the book 'They Like Jesus But Not The Church,' author Dan Kimball writes that if you "ask someone today if he or she likes Jesus, the answer is usually yes. But ask if that person likes the church, and chances are, you will get a far less favorable response."

Rob Bell, a world-renowned author, speaker, and pastor has written many books and delivered many sermons on the concept of God, of Jesus, of Heaven and Hell. In his book 'Love Wins,' Bell wrote something that affirmed what Mykels had told the congregation.

"Jesus meets and redeems us in all the ways we have it together and in all the ways we don't," he wrote. "In all the times we proudly display for the world our goodness, greatness, and rightness, and in all of the ways we fall flat on our faces. It's only when you lose your life that you can find it, Jesus says. The only thing left to do is trust. Everybody is already at the party. Heaven, and hell, here and now, around us, upon us, within us."

That was a lesson that Mykels learned early on in their life.

"I left the church and I was like, 'No, this isn't the God I worship,'" she said. "But I never lost my love for something that's beyond us. So I went back to the church. And the reason I went back is because I want to change the system from within."

No masters or kings when the ritual begins.
There is no sweeter innocence than our gentle sin.
In the madness and soil of that sad earthly scene;
Only then I am human.
Only then I am clean.

- Hozier

Then Mykels, being the good Christian woman that she is, spoke directly from her heart to the congregation.

"Know that if you've been hurt by the church...I have - as a queer person, as a drag entertainer, as a non-binary person - I've been hurt by the church," Mykels professed. "And I bet many of you have too, whether you're gay, straight, bisexual, black, white, transgender. I bet many of us have been hurt by the church, but know that the church does not have power over you. And know that, as a Christian, I'm so sorry for the damage that churches have done to our queer community, who have put shame and guilt on people."

Something meaty for the main course
That's a fine looking high horse
What you got in the stable?
We've a lot of starving faithful
That looks tasty
That looks plenty
This is hungry work

- Hozier

 

A mantra of Christianity has been 'Don't hate the sinner; hate the sin.' At the previous day's 'Pride in the Park' event, a church group stood outside of David Street Station handing out fliers, asking the children in attendance if they were going to heaven or hell, and attempting to preach 'the good news of the gospel.'

"We're just trying to spread love," one of the ensemble stated with a smile on his face. "We don't hate the sinner, we just hate the sin."

But, to many of those in attendance at Pride in the Park, saying that oft-repeated line -  suggesting that their love is a sin, is bad, is wrong, is anything other than beautiful and powerful and whole and true - that's worse than being told they're going to hell. Living a life of being invalidated, of being repeatedly told that their love isn't 'real' love, that their hearts don't matter; that's hell enough.  They'd rather be hated for what they are than loved for what they're not. At least, according to Mykels.

"The people that were protesting your amazing and beautiful event yesterday; that's on them," she told the crowd. "They need to look in the mirror and ask themselves, 'Why am I feeling this way?' Because it has nothing to do with you. Their shame, their guilt, has nothing to do with you because you are beautiful."

There were people in that room that needed to hear that. The nodding of heads, the applause breaks, and the shouts of 'Amen' proved it. But look a little closer, and you'd see many eyes with tears welling up. Maybe this was the first time somebody told them that they were enough. Maybe it was the first time somebody told them there was nothing wrong with them. Maybe it was the first time they heard that they were, unconditionally, loved.

Or maybe it was none of those things. Each person in that room brought with them a story. They brought a lifetime of experiences; of incredible highs and tragic lows. They brought their hearts, their hurt, the hopes. And for a of couple hours, they laid each of those burdens at the altar while they were reminded of the important things; that they were whole, that they were worthy, and that they were so, so loved.

"Know that you are here for a reason" Mykels told the church. "Know that you are not alone. Know that you are beautiful. We are all made in the image of God. We are all made in the image of whatever is beyond us, just as you are. And you are here for a reason."

Amen.

Take Me to Church- Casper Pride Hosts 'Drag Church Brunch'