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Going My Way: Church of My Poisoned Mind

Going My Way: Church of My Poisoned Mind

Grumpy at the Vatican? Our monthly columnist and recently booted Mormon Dennis Hensley examines why churches make complicated tourist destinations, especially for gay people.

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Ever notice how on almost any city tour you would take in any part of the world, there's a stop at some old church? You walk in, curb any chitchatting out of respect, look around and try to take in how immense, ornate, dank, majestic, creepy and/or beautiful it all is. Truth be told, I've never been very into these church stops. In my younger days, I would try and feel something profound or have some kind of epiphany about my life but I usually just ended up wondering how the roofs on these places don't cave in because there don't seem to be that many support beams. Are there angels keeping the roofs up with some kind of pulley system? Heaven knows.

During my more recent church outings, I've found myself reflecting on the not-always positive role organized religion has played in shaping our planet's history. I got particularly grumpy at the Vatican a couple of years back and wondered aloud if the workers who slaved away on the place were paid fairly or if they were told they were doing God's work and they would be duly compensated in the next life. I hope it's not the latter because if there's one thing I've learned working in Hollywood, it's that there is no back end. Kim Kardashian's about as close as you get.

Maybe I'm sour on churches because I was recently booted out of the one I was raised in, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, aka the Mormons. I grew up in the church and was baptized when I was eight, but I quit going back in college when I started performing in plays and musicals. I know this sounds gay but I felt closer to God during the "Morning Glow" number in Pippin than I did sitting in a pew, counting the minutes until I could go home and watch Star Search. From college on, I was out of contact with the church until a few years ago when representatives of my local ward started showing up on my doorstep. After politely saying, "Thanks but no thanks," a few times to their attempts to bring me back into the fold, I finally decided to cut the crap. "Look," I said, while my then-boyfriend watched Rick and Steve on Logo a few feet away, "I'm gay and I'm in a relationship and I'm happy and I'm not going to change. Have a nice day. Goodbye."

A short time later, my local bishop sent me a pamphlet about the church's position on homosexuality then called to follow up. Here's how our conversation went:

HIM: Did you read the literature I sent?
ME: I skimmed it.
HIM: Do you need more time?
ME: No. (Awkward pause) Look, I'm gay and I'm fine with it and I'm not going to change. So what are my options?
HIM: (Another awkward pause) Well, um, you could write a letter asking to be removed from the church rolls.
ME: What's the address?

And that was it. I wrote the letter. I was going to use my Hannah Montana stationary but I didn't want to drag her into this, which is a good thing because the whole Prop 8 craziness was just around the corner.

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When it comes to organized religion, I'd say I'm closer to Bill Maher than Billy Graham. So now I've settled on a way to appreciate a lovely church when I happen upon one. I've decided I'm not going to see them as places where people in odd outfits control other people -- hey, we all saw Doubt -- but as places where, for centuries, people have come to connect with their God and each other and find comfort in tough times. Just because you can't always trust the seller doesn't mean the product is useless.

I'll celebrate the quirks that make each church unique. For example, I loved the artsy-craftsy vibe of the artwork on display at the San Pedro de Andahuaylillas Church, near Cusco, Peru. You could imagine an actual human being creating it. There was a crucifixion statue where Jesus was wearing a multi-colored bedazzled skirt as if he's going to be on the next season of Dancing with the Stars. You don't get that at the Vatican.

This past June, I visited the Fraum?nster Abbey in Zurich, Switzerland and was captivated by the five stained-glass windows created by artist Marc Chagall in 1970. How often you get to see a Russian-Jewish modern-art legend tell Christian stories through the medium of stained glass? It's like when Barbra Streisand sang "Silent Night," complicated but beautiful.

Just like in college when I felt closer to God on stage than in church, I've found that I really love visiting old theaters and performance spaces. This is where my people came, I think whenever I walk into somewhere like the Vaudeville-era Orpheum Theatre in downtown Los Angeles or the Art Deco Civic Theater in Auckland, New Zealand, when they want to connect with themselves, each other, or Judy Garland. (She played the Orpheum as one of the Gumm Sisters.)

My favorite discovery of late is the nearly 300-year-old Manoel Theater in Valetta, Malta. It was commissioned and paid for by Ant?nio Manoel de Vilhena, Grand Master of the Knights of Malta, to serve as a public theater "for the honest recreation of the people." You gotta love that. I have a video clip of my then-boyfriend backstage at the Manoel, winding the crank on this centuries-old rain drum that was used to simulate a downpour for various stage productions. It was a small moment on a big, sprawling vacation but it was really cool to watch, listen, and imagine what it was like back in the day.

Maybe God really is in the details.

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