these pews were once my home
but their backs are to me now.
“you changed. too much you changed” they accuse
without speaking to me
and they gawk
without meeting my eyes.
in the windows your robes
and your son’s
are far too gilt
to be yours,
your skin too white,
too smooth. hairless.
callous-less. Mary, where
are the dirt and sweat
of the rugged roads
your blistered feet trudged out?
what are these false eyes
pale as standing water
where brown eyes deep as rich earth
dark as the secret grove
those glass eyes stare off
into something too distant to be
the Kin(g)dom of
a skin-swaddled God
a beggar’s flaking palms
a cast-off seed.
Maria della Strada,
in your corner you see —
you see — me!
their backs are to you, too.
of the long and potholed road
no one bothers to patch
of refugees and castoffs
of crumbling wayside shrines
that only bruised knees discover
let me sit with you as you nurse
God’s hungry, toothless mouth
and i will gather wildflowers
to crown your unwashed hair.
If you use this piece, please credit it to Avery Arden and link this website. I also invite you to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to let me know how you’re using it!
About this poem:
“Maria Della Strada” is the Italian form of Our Lady of the Wayside, and a statue of her can be found in my childhood church. Maria Della Strada is a patron of the Ignatians, and Our Lady of the Wayside is a patron of travelers, but I also imagine her as a patron of those left behind on the wayside by churches tied to power.
She is Mary who knew what it was to be an outcast and to embrace impropriety in order to follow after God’s call for her; she is Mary who protects those shoved to the margins and who inspires us to build our sanctuaries there.
I wrote the following about this poem on my instagram back in September 2019:
I wrote this poem a couple Sundays ago after going to Mass for the first time in a long time. I started out in a pew but felt like everyone was staring at me to the point that I could feel panic beginning to clutch at my lungs, restricting my breath — so i awkwardly went and sat in a back corner with a statue of Mary for the entirety of the service.
Ever since my first inkling I might be queer quite some years ago, Mother Mary has felt like a comforting protector — whenever I talk to her about it, I feel nothing but love and acceptance from her, and her desire for me to embrace how God had made me and use my queerness to honor her Son. I was grateful to have her in my corner (literally, ha) that Sunday when I felt too anxious to be seen.
Even so, when I went to Mass again this past Sunday and managed to, ya know, sit in a pew like a normal person, I realized my feeling of being gawked at and cold-shouldered was probably more my anxious imagination than reality. Trauma at being rejected by some Christian groups has led to my brain, body, and spirit developing a cynical shield — better not to trust anyone so I can’t be hurt again. Better to hide myself and shield myself, to assume the worst from the start, than risk opening myself up to community only to receive hatred instead.
The cynicism that had me thinking “no one’s going to join me in this pew, to dirty themselves by sitting by this queer who dares enter the house of God,” was quickly exposed as false by a family with young children sliding into my pew. “Oh…they’re not scared I’ll be a Bad Influence on their kids? Huh. …And… no one is staring?? Sure people are glancing at me but that’s normal; the hostile glares I could have sworn I saw last week just aren’t there.” I was able to relax, just a little bit, to calm my fight-or-flight adrenaline-rush enough to feel like I was truly worshiping God with my fellows in the pews, instead of worshiping God in spite of them like the week before.
…The thing I need cishet Christians to understand is this:
It is so. hard. to enter a non-affirming church (or honestly even an affirming one) as a queer person — especially as a visibly queer and trans person. There is so much trauma and fear built up in my psyche that I can’t help but assume the worst of everyone there. I’m glad I went back to Mass a second week to continue to work through that anxiety — because while it’s certainly not unfounded, I know that God calls me to a sort of vulnerability and trust and openness that is so difficult to achieve when you’re dealing with trauma and marginalization!!
When you have been wounded before by fellow members of the Body of Christ, by people who claim “all are welcome” but then turn on you when you show them who you really are….how do you heal enough to be vulnerable again? How do you know which ones you can trust and which ones will attack?
LGBT/queer Christians: How do we be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves,” balancing trust with rationality, vulnerability with self-protection? What do you do to prepare yourself to enter a Christian space?
Cishet Christians: what work can you do to help make LGBTQA folks feel truly safe and welcome in your faith spaces?