Each week Eleanor Black invites someone to reflect on taking an exit - from a job, a lover, a lifestyle. This week, Eli Matthewson talks about leaving the church
What church did you grow up in?
It was Presbyterian by name but I don't know if it was fully Presbyterian by how it operated. It was very much the modern church, with a rock band, a cafe inside the church, that type of vibe. For youth group, you'd go to someone's flat and play Guitar Hero and at the end we'd talk about God for a little bit. We were told at a youth group meeting that you should never masturbate unless you were about to do something much worse. That was what we were taught. Crazy. I'm from a really big family, there are five kids. My parents were youth group leaders when they were young and I was named after a kid they met at Bible camp. I would head along to Easter Camp every year and be like, "I don't know if I fully buy this." I looked at Christianity's history of oppression and thought, "I'm not sure if this is my cup of tea." Then I was in a play and the rehearsals were at the same time as church and that was the final nail. I was about 14 or 15.
Were your parents disappointed when you left the church?
Not really, they have always invited me to keep coming. There was never really any anger or resentment, it was more like, "Hey, what are you up to this weekend, would you like to come along to church?" I still go back for Easter or Christmas sometimes but every time, to be honest, it confirms for me why I don't want to stick around. Everyone is pretty nice and pretty welcoming; it's more that I don't connect with the sermons in the way I feel I get value out of other aspects of my life. I get spirituality and community from other areas. When I go to church, I feel like I am walking into someone else's space.
What is it about religion that doesn't work for you?
The main thing for me is the people who are horrible to each other all the time, seeking forgiveness for their sins from someone who is not of this Earth, or trying to find spiritual fulfilment from something outside and they are distracted from the fact that we should be working together and caring for the people around us. We didn't have a lot of money growing up – I can't believe that we survived, some years – and so many of the Christian houses I went to, they would have two storeys and two lounges and three TVs and two Rav 4s parked out the front. Seeing that kind of wealth in a world where so many people need [help], I couldn't align myself with it.
Churches aren't always welcoming of diversity – is that something that made you want to leave?
That was definitely part of it. In youth group, there was one other guy who I gathered was queer as well and it was like, "We're going to get through this together." Growing up, I could never share any of those feelings because I was terrified to reveal the truth of myself. I didn't feel like I knew any queer people; at school, sex education wasn't spoken about and at church it wasn't an option. We weren't taught we were all going to hell but it was swept under the rug and never mentioned. My church wasn't outwardly homophobic but it wasn't outwardly accepting either. Once there was an "ex-gay" pastor who came and showed off his new wife and kids and talked about his terrible homosexual past.
At the time I don't think [I absorbed it] but years later I thought, "What was going on there?" I hope he's doing all right now. My dad is actually openly gay now; he came out a couple of years ago. My parents divorced when I was in my early teens, so he had an even bigger crisis of faith than I had. He still enjoys going to church and connecting with spirituality in that way. He has actually just been in Uganda working with an LGBTQ charity – he is full outreach, in a way I wish I could be.
Where do you find your community and your spiritual connection?
Truly - and this is so lame - it's my friends. There's a group of about 10 of us and we work together and we are in each other's lives 24/7, to the detriment of our partners. We have a group chat where we talk constantly.
Auckland Pride presents OurMarch today at 4pm. Eli Matthewson and Chris Parker record an episode of their podcast The Male Gayz - Live for Pride on Thursday, February 13, at Phoenix Entertainment, Auckland.