University of La Verne community members shared their spiritual journeys and challenges as members of the LGBT community April 21 at the Spiritual and Queer event hosted by the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life.
The event was held via Zoom and had 40 participants.
Zandra Wagoner, university chaplain, hosted and moderated the event, which featured alumni Damairis Lao, Caleb Ulrich, Jae Carter and Honeybee.
“Please notice that spiritual struggle is not specific to one particular religious or spiritual tradition,” Wagoner said. “The same tradition that has been a source of great pain for one may be a source of in conclusion and liberalization for another.”
Lao is an artist in Southern California and graduated from ULV in 2019 with a degree in studio art and art history. Lao is now pursuing a career in the animation industry.
“I learned early on that I was queer, that I was different,” Lao said. “When I was 14, I came out, and thankfully I had a supportive group of friends. After tackling that hurdle, I felt that I can tackle this next question that has been planted in my mind about spirituality and Christianity and reconciling the two identities between queerness and religion.”
Lao, who was raised as a Buddhist, started studying Christianity and started reading the Bible and seeing herself in the subtext in the story of Ruth and Naomi, the story between two loving young women, and had to come out as Christian.
Lao also studied queer theology and dethroning what she called the idea of an old white man at the center of her religion.
“What my spirituality looks like nowadays is that I still identify with Christianity, and I still honor my Buddhist upbring because it anchors me and my Asian identity,” Lao said.
Ulrich works at a California Community College, tending to administrative efforts that support students with underrepresented experiences, history, and identities. Ulrich graduated from the ULV in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in religion and later received a master’s degree in religion from the Claremont School of Theology.
“Upon taking classes at ULV and Claremont School of Theology, I came to learn that religion is something that is created, and it’s often a form of support, but it can also be used to hurt,” Ulrich said. “I was creative for a reason according to my theological beliefs, and I need to pursue that which affirms my existence because that allows me to use the resources I use and to journey along the sides of those who I’m able to help and affirm what they are going through.”
Honeybee graduated from ULV with an English degree. Since then, she has lived as an educator and is now writing and doing church consultation work around decolonization and antiracism frameworks. Honeybee strives to let their life be a prayer, to be in a bright relationship with themselves and with the land and be free.
“I was raised Catholic, and it was a huge part of my spiritual journey, was my relationship towards my family, and I can see how when I started my relationships with my family, and their opinions of me were so important that they were more important than my own opinions of myself,” Honeybee said.
Honeybee’s theological wrestlings became intercepted by a rejection of faith that her family practices, and it told them that their God wasn’t good enough for her. Still, Honeybee was able to tell her family what they were able to give to her, which was a rich place to start, and was able to go to a deeper sense of faith.
Honeybee was able to pray knowing she came from praying women, and not only is her prayer being heard, but her mother, grandmother and great grandmother are also being heard.
“I am so grateful of the gift they gave me of raising me Catholic, but I wanted to honor it so much more that I really wanted to sit with it and understand it,” Honeybee said. “I may not have come with the same conclusions as they did, but at the end of the day, we were still able to have conversations around faith today that we were not having five years ago.”
“It was a joy to be able to bring them along because they wanted to walk behind me, and a path had already been cleared for them because of the work that I have done with myself and my ancestors,” Honeybee said.
Carter is a ULV graduate and a current master’s student at Antioch University in Los Angeles. She is an advocate for the queer community and said she uses spirituality as a foundation for advocacy, among other things. Carter hopes to start a nonprofit one day that combines spirituality, psychology and the arts into a self-healing module.
“I was introduced to spirituality and Christianity by my foster dad and grew up in a sort of cult-like extremist religious family. So starting off, I was already turned off against religion,” Carter said. “It didn’t make sense to me because I was told these concepts of God is a man and it kind of dwindled down in my personal life because my foster dad had this view that if God is a man, if Adam was a man, that means men are like the top-tier society they rule everything which didn’t settle with my spirit and it didn’t make any sense to me.”
At the age of 14, Carter dismissed her ideal religion of Christianity and discovered her own queer identity.
“I tried to come out to my foster parents maybe around eighth grade, but they were so strict in this westernization of Christianity that they scared me back into the closet by telling me that I was going to go to hell, so it reignited that fear that I had again. So I went into high school with this internalized homophobia I didn’t even realize I had,” Carter said. “So now I kind of identify as spiritual and non-religious.”
Carter said she found out that she didn’t have to identify as Christian and didn’t have to stick to one box because someone tells her she had to be this one box.
Toward the end of the event, participants wanted to say a few words for themselves.
“I feel such gratitude right now because it is not a small thing to share a journey like this and at the intersection of queer and spiritual is so complicated,” Wagoner said.
“I wanted to thank all of our guest speakers for sharing such a deep part of themselves and the journey,” Lourdes Jackson, LaFetra College of Education administrative assistant, said. “I greatly appreciated it and resonated with all of you in different levels.”
Abelina Nunez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.