Is There a Path Back to Religion and Spirituality for Bears?

Queer religious experts weigh in on whether there is a path back to religion and spirituality for bears and other members of the LGBTQ+ community.

As the days grow longer and the flowers bloom we are reminded that Spring is finally here! After a long and dreary winter its time to think about fun in the sun, Pride celebrations and Ptown Bear Week!

Spring represented something much different to our ancestors. For them it was confirmation of the natural cycle of rebirth that occurred each year. It was a time to begin planting the crops that would yield forth the food that would sustain them come next winter. It was about survival and the natural order of things.

Spring also likely represented something much different to our parents and even some of us from the baby boomer and millennial generations who were raised a bit more conservatively and religiously compared to the younger queer people of Gen Z.

I myself was raised Catholic, so until I entered adulthood, Spring meant Easter, family and Church. I have long since left that behind me but it’s undeniable that religion can leave its mark. For many it’s a painful remembrance of judgement, persecution and rejection that served to not only turn them away from religion but spirituality in general.

As the Springtime holidays of Ostara, Passover, Easter and Eid approach it got me thinking about the many queer clergy people and religious practitioners I’ve met through the years and wondering if there might be a path back to religion for those that want it. I myself have had many peaks and valleys in my spiritual journey. And although I find myself very much in a valley at the moment, I wanted to explore this as part of our mind, body, spirit issue.

Rev. Dr. Roland Stringfellow

When considering a ‘path back’ to Christianity with Rev. Dr. Roland Stringfellow, Senior Pastor at the Metropolitan Community Church of Detroit, and proud member of Detroit’s Black Bear Brotherhood  said:

“Some may believe there is no need to heal the ‘spiritual violence’ that was inflicted by the churches of our youth.  But just like carrying the burden of any violent act in our bodies and minds, it has a way of keeping us stuck.  Spiritual violence is defined as any word or action used to shame or condemn someone in the name of God or a religious community.  The natural response is to simply walk away from the hurt or embarrassment.  However, healing only comes when we begin to separate those violent words and actions from the unconditional love of God.  Our sexual orientation and gender identity and expression are gifts from God given so we may create love and accept others.”

Rev. Stringfellow brings up an interesting point in separating God from the people that misuse and abuse Christianity’s teachings, so obviously my next question would be to get the Jewish perspective on the issue of lapsed Jews returning to their faith. For that I turned to Rabbi David Dunn Bauer, chaplain for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, proud bear, and loyal attendee of events such as Bear Your Soul and Bears on Ice.

Rabbi David Dunn Bauer

“The Jewish religious tradition that people return to is not the one that they fled from. The name may be the same, but the spirit and the function are totally different.

People who return to Judaism after wandering away, or those who join the Jewish people after having started somewhere else on the spiritual map, have the same right to our spiritual heritage as do those people who never left. We aren’t so much ‘The People of the Book’ as we are ‘The People Endlessly Conversing About the Books’ … Nowadays, within Feminist and Queer Judaism there are fewer restrictions on who may pull up a chair and join the conversation… Contemporary Queer Judaism is so much more interesting than the hetero-normative Judaism that turned people off or turned them away 30 years ago. Come back and see what it has become.”

Feminist and Queer Judaism?! I never thought I’d see the day. Just the thought of it excites and encourages me. However, despite the warm welcome offered by the good reverend and rabbi, I am very cognizant that many of us may not want traditional or highly organized religion. Perhaps Buddhism or Taoism is more your speed. Or communing with nature via Paganism might be more palatable to you. For an alternative approach to spirituality, I consulted with Karl Paulnack, an interfaith chaplain at Cayuga Medical Center, who engages in a Shamanic practice.

Shaman Karl Paulnack

Karl explained that one interpretation of the word shaman is ‘one who walks between worlds’. A shaman is someone who is comfortable in marginal spaces because that is where the magic lies, where spiritual power resonates strongest. It is due to this outlook that shamanic cultures tend to elevate gender non-conforming or ‘two-spirited’ people, which is most reassuring. When asked if there is a community for queer shamanic practitioners he explained:

“I would find it odd, and a bit pointless, for there to be a separate queer community within a shamanic community. All of the shamanic communities I am aware of have large numbers of queer people as part of them; but they are entirely integrated, not segregated or recognized as separate. All people are one, and all things are connected. There is nothing about being queer that requires a separation or special treatment within communities that are oriented in this way. We tend to recognize everyone as special, and unique, and sacred, and weird, and belonging, all of us, every one.”

How refreshing to hear of a communal spiritual practice that treats queer people no differently than any other person.

Of course, there are still those of us that prefer to engage in spiritual practice alone, or not at all and that’s ok too! Many Wiccans I’ve met are solo practitioners and they are just as centered and fulfilled as any other person belonging to a faith group. Similarly, I’ve met people who reject the idea of religion and spirituality all together, but through yoga and meditation have also found a centeredness and semblance of peace.

There is no right or wrong here, just options to consider. It’s a tough world out there and anything that makes that journey even a little easier is worth exploring.

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John Hernandez

John Hernandez is the Editor in Chief of Bear World Magazine. In addition to bear culture, he specializes in entertainment writing with a special focus on horror and genre films. He resides in New York City with his husband.