OLIVIA CORBIN/EMILY WEBSTER-UNSPLASH

Sinners and saints: 'Life after' YES for young, gay woman of faith

Gender

"Don't you say you are the one? Prove it! Get us down!" said one of the two criminals. The other — also hanging bare and nailed to a cross — snapped back: "Don't you have any shame? This man is not a criminal. He is innocent," pointing with his head to Jesus. He continued, "You and I, however, are getting what we deserve." The thief then looked at Jesus and said "Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom." Jesus smiled and said to the thief: "Today, you will be with Me in Paradise." (Luke 23:39-43)


NOT everyone treats sinners like Jesus did, and not everyone is as lucky as that thief to go directly to Paradise. The thief, named Dismas, was actually a saint. Only saints go straight to Paradise from Earth. The rest of us, even the best of us, still have to pass through Purgatory. For how long? God knows! Literally! Earth's time doesn't work there.

In Purgatory, our souls are cleansed, healed and purified. Ready for Paradise. This is what the Catholic Christians believe. The Protestant Christians however think differently. For them, Purgatory is fake news. It is not there. IT. IS. MADE. UP. Nothing but Paradise awaits us all. Sinner or saint.

Saints like Dimas serve as holy role models for Christians. The Catholics hold a holiday, All Saints' Day, on November 1 each year to honour them and celebrate the legacy they have left behind.

But it is not the afterlife of the saints I am here to discuss. It is the prospects of the "life-after" for sinners.

****

THE Catholics and Protestants share many beliefs about fundamental Christian teachings. They also have their differences. One of which can be how they deal with homosexuals or gays.

It's been more than two years since Australians overwhelmingly voted YES for marriage equality on November 15, 2017. At the time, the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, the Most Reverend Anthony Fisher OP expressed "disappointment" in response to the YES vote. He noted, "Australians still stand by the conviction that marriage is a unique relationship between a man and woman." The Protestant Sydney Anglican diocese, an outlier of evangelical conservatism in the Anglican Church of Australia, was also opposed, contributing $1 million to help fund the NO campaign. (The diocese is also opposed to women preaching.)

Yet, by 2018, one progressive Protestant communion, The Uniting Church of Australia, was permitting its priests (both women and men) to conduct same-sex marriages at will.

'I'm 31 years old, and I have to hide everything.' And by everything, she doesn't only mean her nine tattoos.

Saints or sinners? According to one-time rugby saint Israel Folau, via a late-night outburst of "righteous indignation", the LGBTQI community make God's sinners' list of those going to hell.

Folau's comments are especially topical with the parliament expected to debate a revised draft of Attorney-General Christian Porter's religious freedom bill in the first parliamentary sitting of 2020. The original draft, dubbed by the Greens as "a Trojan horse of hate", enabled people, like Folau, to behave based on their religious beliefs without the fear of discrimination or termination of their employment contracts.

But it is not the bill I am here to discuss. It is the prospects of the "life-after" for "sinners".

****

FATHER Anthony sat on the floor in front of the altar on a red cushion. I had arrived in the middle of a rosary reading. But I was prepared, having been provided with a small prayer booklet and rosary beads.

A homeless man entered the chapel dragging his bedding behind him. Reeking of alcohol and in dirty clothes, he sat next to a tidy old lady. He asked for money. She said no. He moved on.

St Joseph's is a small local Catholic parish church in Camperdown. It has less than 20 pews and most are empty. Father Anthony, 50, is a priest at the church. His frizzy black hair and tanned skin contrast with his Tide-white clerical shirt. He is slim and stands approximately 170 cm tall.

On this day, Father Anthony, attention fixed to the prayer on his mobile phone, had not noticed the homeless man's entry. He walked down to the front, bent and whispered something in the priest's ear. The priest blessed him with a prayer, passed him a business card and he left. Then came a father with an infant. He blessed the child and they left. Then came a construction worker. Father Anthony blessed him and he left too.

"Saints had a profound relationship with God," said Father Anthony, now seated in the St Joseph's church office. Their relationship with God was reflected in the way they treated other people. "At the end of the day. God is a relationship. He is a relationship with [God] and with other people."

He explained Jesus showed kindness and love to sinners because "they didn't know any better." God is kind and forgiving but there is a difference between having weaknesses and arrogantly wanting to continue sinning, he said. A sinner can only be saved if they ask for God's mercy.

Anybody in their own brokenness and state of mind - the atheists, non-believers, agnostics, Christian, Muslim – will be judged by God and he will judge according to what they know, Father Anthony said. "Everyone has a sense in their heart between good and evil, a sense of what is pride and what is humility."

Sitting on the sofa beside me, carefully holding a teacup by its handle, the priest said God knows what intentions motivate people's actions. For instance, God knows what is in the heart of a Muslim who is genuinely humble and caring to the vulnerable, just as he knows a practising Catholic who is arrogant and proud.

He explained that in the New Testament — Mathew, Mark, Luke and John — the only one who spoke of Heaven and Hell was Jesus. He especially spoke angrily and harshly to the arrogant and the proud.

A sinner can only be saved if they repent. But will she repent?

****

SARA* remembers the day, lined up in a row of girls from her Catholic primary school. One by one, they touched the Holy water, did the sign of the cross, knelt before the altar and then filed back into the pews. She had splashed some of that Holy water on the blue and white chequered uniform that she hated.

She worried if it was OK. They had practised how to perform it at school, "but what if I screw up?", she thought. Then, it was her turn. She stepped inside the wooden box. Closed the door behind her and looked around. A red velvet stool signalled: SIT. From the other side of that wooden box, a screened window slid open. Sara spoke: "Forgive me Father for I have sinned …" and so her first confession began.

"But as an eight-year-old, how much could you have really sinned?" Sara asked, not expecting an answer. "You're supposed to love thy mother and father and yet I hated my mother as a kid," she continued. "Most of my confessions were about NOT talking about all the ill-thoughts that I had about my mother."

We met in a street-front Lebanese shisha bar in Newtown, a five-minute walk from Sara's home. Standing 172 cm tall, her black ponytail almost brushes her shoulders. Baby-faced. Arched thick eyebrows, neatly threaded, and pinning hazel eyes.

"My mum isn't as religious as she used to be. She's only religious when it's convenient. Like when I am made to feel like I'm sinning," Sara laughs sarcastically.

I had asked about her background. Her mother is European-Australian. "What about dad?" I pursued. "He is Palestinian." Pause. She gave me a couple of seconds to react to that. I did not. She continued, "My grandparents fled the Israeli civil war."

Muslims? I asked. "Ha ha, no, Catholics." She laughs. Loud. Mouth wide-open. Bleached teeth. Pierced tongue. It captures her overly sarcastic personality.

Sara's grandfather is a devout Christian who follows the Bible to the T. He can recite most of it by heart. He often reads passages from the scripture to her. He warns of those who have tattoos. They are sinners. He refers to Leviticus 19:28: "You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you."

Sara says her sister is also very religious. But her sister accepts and supports the "real" Sara. "How can two people believe in the same book and be so different?" she contemplates.

Sara's coming out was the beginning of her 'life-after'. A new mate asked: 'Wouldn't your God want you to be happy?'

Frustrated, she rolls her eyes, shakes her head left and right. "I'm 31 years old, and I have to hide everything." And by everything, she doesn't only mean her nine tattoos.

In March 2008, Sara walked into the dining room of her grandparents' house. A wooden display covered one whole wall. The family had bought the cabinet in 1962 when they arrived in Australia and in the decades since, Grandma had been building her collection of plates, glasses and pottery. She liked to spoil her guests. She would cook her famous chicken stew with peanuts for dinner. On this night, her granddaughter had brought a friend. But Laura wasn't really a friend, and Grandma had suspected that:

"[Sara], Is this boy or girl?"

"It's a girl Grandma."

"Is your friend? or what? Shohaida?" Translated it means "What is this?"

Grandma still doesn't know the truth. Everyone else does, but not the grandparents. They can never know. They could never understand that she can be happy with another woman.

A sinner can only be saved if they repent. Will she repent?

****

GRAHAM Long was on his way to see a family who had allowed a doctor to put 17 stitches in the vaginal passage of their little girl. She was about seven. Long's life reached a turning point that night. "We clearly have a court case here," the social worker thought. Some in his team thought differently. "Things aren't, well, you know …? Different families work differently … and this family works this way."

Long questioned the basis of his colleagues' thinking. It changed him, forever. It was farewell to social work. As a child, Long had liked what his father, a Protestant minister, did for a living. He saw a man who was fixing the world and thought "that's what I want to do." Now, he would.

Long, 69, is a minister of the Uniting Church of Australia and former Chief Executive Officer (2004-2018) and pastor at The Wayside Chapel. The Wayside is a very different scene to St Joseph's in Camperdown. There are no pews, just rows of chairs set up in about 70 square meters of floorspace. A metal ventilation canal bolted to the ceiling stretches from the entrance down to the altar and reaches out to the side of the hall like a cross. Purple wallpaper covers the walls.

Who is welcome in this communion? A better question might be: who is not? The Wayside provides support to the most disadvantaged groups in Sydney. The broke. The homeless. The alcoholic. The addicted. The weak. The poor. The venerable and the foreigner. "Everyone is a child of God," said Long, now Pastor Emeritus with the chapel.

Curious eyes. Hearty laughter. Bushy white eyebrows and scruffy beard. Yet something gives Long away. Ten years ago, he lost his son James at 31 years of age to a stroke.

"This one is his watch actually," Long pointed to the clunky metal swatch watch hanging off his left wrist. Long's wife had asked: "Is there anything of James that you would like?"

Nothing he could think of. "Well, what about his watch?" and Long has been wearing it ever since. James's watch ran out of battery a year after his death. It stopped at one minute to midnight. It reminds Long to think about how he wants to spend his last minute. He also wears a black cotton banded watch on his right wrist that still ticks.

Having sat by hundreds of deathbeds, Long tells of a universal language at the moment of death. Whether they be people of faith or none, at the moment the breathing stops, everyone says, "they've gone!"

"Where did they go?" Long wonders. "Everything that was them is still in the body. All their belongings still exist and yet everyone seems to agree that the person has gone." Wary of those who claim they know precisely where we go after life, Long tells me it's just more honest for the church to admit, "we don't know."

So, would a murderer be treated differently to a good man after death? Pause. "I actually suspect not," Long said, while wiping the residue of a flat-white from his moustache. "To me, God loves both those people the same." The difference, he said, is between being loved and knowing it and being loved and not knowing it. "The murderer would have the biggest surprise at the point of death to realise that he was so loved, and yet he was so brutalised that he could take someone else's life."

He said "you can't work your way, buy your way or earn your way into Heaven. It's just a gift." According to Long, in most Protestant teachings, evil is not the equal opposite of good or God. It's seen as a lack of it, evil is like a shadow. Shadows are real because we can see them. But it is, in reality, the absence of light that we see.

****

AS A schoolgirl, Sara saw what happened. She was waiting at the bus stop in front of her school. One of the popular girls from their school walked down the street, holding another girl's hand. Other students saw them too. The day after, none of the other popular girls wanted to talk to her.

Sara retreated into her memories. Sat back. Dissociated. Her upper eyelids sacked onto her eyes, keeping me out. What would they have said if Sara had come out of the closet? I asked.

"You're gonna go to hell. You're dirty."

"Lesbians at our school were bullied, and it was horrible," Sara said. "They were tortured and isolated because it just wasn't acceptable in our school." She crossed her arms and pressed her lips together. A trauma had surfaced. "Girls at that age just didn't seem to understand that you could like another girl and it not be so perverted."

The incident was salutary. She joined Antioch, a Catholic youth group, when she was 16. They went to the church eight times a week. Twice on Tuesdays. She made "heaps" of mates in Antioch. She would also lose heaps of mates a few years later. She tells me her fear of God's judgement was genuine, but what terrified her more was getting bullied. She never dared to speak to a priest about being a lesbian. "Will he try to talk me out of it?" she had worried.

Sara's coming out was the beginning of her "life-after". A new mate made her think: "Wouldn't your God want you to be happy?"

****

I ARRIVED at the Newtown Hotel on a Sunday afternoon in November. The ID-check line stretched to almost three blocks down King Street. The bouncer at the door had let me inside instantly. Regulars don't wait.

Inside, it was raining lesbians, gays and transsexuals. Drinking. Sniffing. Kissing. Dancing. Grinding. Fighting. Crying. Even punching the wall. I made my way towards the back garden and there was Sara, pushing the boundaries, dancing on the table-top. Ripped jeans. Sleeveless denim vest. Tattooed arms and Dr Martin's shoes.

It's been two years since Australia overwhelmingly voted YES for marriage equality. As a lesbian Sara can now legally marry another woman. As a Catholic, she is obliged to repent. She did not repent. Instead, she left the Church.

****

JUST a suburb away is St Joseph's. Father Anthony tells me when people are angry with institutions, they tend to reject logic - and the essence of the Catholic teachings are love, compassion, kindness and charity. He points out it is not only homosexual relationships the church takes issue with, "a sexual union is only sacred between men and women in marriage, not even outside marriage."

Any sexual relationship conducted outside of marriage is offending to God, he said, citing Revelation 22:15: "Outside are the dogs, the sorcerers, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood."

What can an LGBT person expect, should they decide to speak to a priest? I asked.

"How priests and individuals speak to people, can be affected by their own brokenness, their own language and how they understand people of a particular nature," he said contemplatively. "A lot of priests, they are good men, but they are not emotionally mature, a lot of people are not."

Father Anthony insists, "sexual sins aside, what offends God more is arrogance and uncharity." Only those who repent can be saved. Even then, unless you are a saint, the first stop is Purgatory.

****

"CHURCH invented Purgatory," said Long. "The church keeps inventing stuff when there isn't guidelines." As a pastor ordained by the Uniting Church of Australia, he performs same-sex marriages. "Personally, I can't see that God is all that fussed about which genitals go where."

Long refers to what Jesus said to Dismas, the thief nailed on the neighbouring cross: "Today, I'll meet you in Paradise." He admits that he may not fully understand the meaning of that passage, but he is happy to have a working hypothesis that what Jesus said carries truth. He concludes, "All thieves — in fact everybody — is liked by God."

"You could go to jail for being gay in my lifetime," Long pointed out. He believes when a culture changes some people take longer to go through the transition. "We have to accept that they are people of goodwill."

Tolerance is a two-way street.

Will we be tolerant?

*Not her real name.