A queer atheist goes to church

Excerpt: In her new memoir, Ontario politician-cum-minister Cheri DiNovo remembers exploring her faith for the first time

Growing up in what she describes as a “dissolute generational matriarchy” in 1950s Toronto, Cheri DiNovo never went to church. Her family was, as she writes, agnostic at best, rejecting God as an “old white male with a beard directing human traffic.” But DiNovo, like the matriarchs who raised her, was a rebel. And so, years later, when she was married with children, she went to church for the first time—sparking a lifelong shift in spirituality. She would go on to become a Christian, one of Canada’s best-known and most ardent queer ministers and an Ontario politician who would help pass some of the province’s most integral LGBTQ2S+ policy. In her new memoir excerpted here, The Queer Evangelist, DiNovo recalls the moments during which she found her faith.

I had no idea what went on in church or any faith community for that matter. All I knew was that Richmond Hill United was for the ordination of queers like me and against an imperialist war. Even today, if I find myself in another city looking to worship in a local church, I look for similar markers: Pro same-sex marriage, anti-war. I’ve never been disappointed in finding such a church anywhere in the world. The Christian Right (which is neither) gets the press, but there has always been an alternative.

On our first visit to Richmond Hill United, neither my husband Don nor I knew when to stand or sit. We didn’t know the hymns or if we should go up for communion. Church was a strange country. We liked the minister, and the children went off somewhere to Sunday School, so that was relaxing. The children would learn the stories, and perhaps, just perhaps, I’d figure out how to be happy again. Nothing in what we heard seemed too objectionable although neither of us believed in God. It was all strange.

By God, we thought we meant an anthropomorphic monster, creator of the cosmos, who demanded subservience amongst his followers and punished those who didn’t comply. Who in their right mind would believe in or want to worship someone like that? Don and I enrolled in a new members’ class where we read that we didn’t have to believe everything in the Bible literally to call ourselves Christians. We also learned that you could be queer and faithful. Good stuff, all, but it evaded the central question of God.

“Nothing in what we heard seemed too objectionable although neither of us believed in God. It was all strange.”

Ken, the minister, put it well during an intro to Christianity class, summing up where Don and I were at. “Cheri is an atheist who doesn’t believe in God but does believe Jesus was God’s son. And Don the atheist doesn’t believe in God but does believe Mary was God’s mother!” Too true. For me, there was something about the person of Jesus dying on the cross who was still able to turn to the dying thief next to him and offer comfort, saying they would be together in Paradise. I thought it was fiction, but even so, who could make up something like that? If it wasn’t fiction, what manner of human could say something like that? Who could offer that glorious lie just to make a stranger feel better before death? What manner of person was that?


I hadn’t heard of Karl Barth then. I hadn’t read his idea that “the Bible is far too important to be taken literally.” Barth defended Christianity from the inside out, clarifying the radicality of a God de-centred, as person, as dying, as fragmented, using the Bible as it was, rather than acting as a classic apologist. I’d heard of Martin Luther but not his great punk rock theological statements, like “the Bible is the swaddling cloth in which I lay my Christ” or “sin boldly and love Christ more boldly still.” All I knew was that something in that weird book intrigued me. I was introduced to that by a Rolling Stones rendition of a Blues spiritual written by Reverend Robert Wilkins. “Well, father said, ‘See my son coming home to me / Coming home to me’ / Father ran and fell down on his knees / Said ‘Sing and praise, Lord have mercy on me.’”

Who was this, falling down on his knees to welcome back a son who’d wasted his father’s money and his own life? A son who treated his father like an ATM and really was returning just for a free meal. Falling down on his knees before the son had said a single word. A father who was so in love with the son that he didn’t care. So, God’s love was like that, profoundly loving, forgiving anything, delighted just to be with the child she or he loved. If God, whether noun or verb, wasn’t a monster but the very essence and origin of love, wasn’t that something I might believe in or at least hope for?

“If God wasn’t a monster but the very essence and origin of love, wasn’t that something I might believe in?”

I learned early on at Richmond Hill United Church, in actually reading the Bible, that it says exactly that in 1 John 4:16: “Whoever lives in love, lives in God and God lives in them.” God equals love. That made sense. At least it made enough sense to keep returning to church to find out more. The other equally important aspect of church was the community. I’d never been a part of a community whose sole function was to try and love one another. Every community I’d been a part of had some ulterior motive. It was making a revolution or making money or sharing an identity. In those communities we were endlessly substitutable. The end goal was the real purpose, even if the end goal, as in being queer, was us against them. Eventually, I was baptized. Who could have seen that coming?

Our minister, Ken, became a friend. He asked if we’d lead the youth group. After all, our house had a pool and I co-owned a box at the sports complex. For the church’s teens, there was the allure of tickets to the monster truck show. Don and I said yes. We were, I later learned, the very kind of family every faith group loves to welcome. The fact that I was going through a kind of prolonged panic attack didn’t arise, but we were just so delighted to be welcomed at all.

I’ve often said that my main motivation in life has always been the man running behind me with an axe, by which I meant, survival. Now with children and a partner, others’ survival mattered as well. Without my hefty income nothing worked financially. When my corporate headhunting business started failing, I tried to keep it together, but it became increasingly impossible. When an enterprise you’ve poured years into fails, it’s like a real death. Worse, it’s like a death you caused, at least in part.

Church saved me. Being in the personnel field, I’d always said that if a job came across my desk that was better than running my own company, I’d go for it. No job ever had until I witnessed Ken doing his. His job was better. It paid terribly but it was clearly better. I loved reading and wrestling with scripture. I loved being a part of a community based on compassion. You didn’t have to like everyone, but you did have to love them. I was nourished by the prayer and mystery and spirituality. Walking into a church, I didn’t have to leave my brains at the door, as I had thought I would have to. My assumption about church, having been raised without it, was that I would need to give assent to propositions I simply didn’t agree with or at least, didn’t understand. The opposite was true. There was never any sense that doubt, disbelief, and inquiry were unwelcome, even to this day.

“Walking into a church, I didn’t have to leave my brains at the door, as I had thought I would have to.”

If we sold the big house and downsized, I could go back to school, to seminary. I’d have to keep some clients going, but it could work. Of course, it would mean going from wealth to just above the poverty line, but we could possibly make it work. Ordination wasn’t the aim. I was just following my bliss, and I needed to stop the anxiety and the hideous financial pressure. In this respect, the recession of the early ’90s was a blessing in disguise. I would never have been able to walk away from that much money without it. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s realm.”

So that’s what we did. We sold the big house and moved back downtown to a house that would have fit into our basement in the suburbs. The women who worked for me continued on their own with difficulty, and I returned to school. It was at seminary that I really could say I was becoming Christian. I remember the lecture where the professor, David Demson, who eventually became my doctoral dissertation supervisor, provided clarity. He was teaching about the reformers. He said something along the lines of, “For the Christian Reformation, Christ, not the Church, became critical. One understood ‘God’ through the Jesus of scripture, not the other way around. You aren’t a ‘deist’ with a new prophet. You are a follower of Christ. Christ made manifest what deity means.”

Now that made sense. Christianity had much more in common with the spiritualities of the Far East, with Buddhism, than with what I came to think of as “blob God” or “Lord” or “Omniscient Other.” Jesus, as a historical figure, healed, taught, talked. That was all I really needed to understand the Divine. Or, as another student said, “It is as if we are ants speaking about a human when we engage in God talk, but then a human came to us as an ant and we got it.” Jesus was undoubtedly socialist. He was also the embodiment of Marx’s true communist. In Acts, the disciples shared everything together. Early Christian communities mirrored the communes in Spain before the Spanish Civil War. The great Christian proclamation, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again,” was the true opening to interfaith conversation. No one expected Jesus to come as he did the first time around. Christ could re-appear at any time in the form of a Muslim, Jew (again), Hindu, Buddhist, etc. Who were we to control that? Loving one’s neighbour meant absolutely everyone. Everything was coming together.

Meanwhile, on the home front, my marriage was coming apart. Don’s drinking was spiralling out of control. I was not present in any meaningful way. I had a new “man with an axe”—the fear of everything falling apart again. We’d been together for 17 years and were still best friends, but we’d both had relationships apart from our marriage over the years, and that was also destructive. We hadn’t been able to make it work without hurting each other. The added financial pressures of the recession and the loss of my business were too much. We separated. My children learned trauma for the first time and missed their old lifestyle. Money was very tight. I felt as if I’d dragged them all unwillingly into my new version of “good,” one they didn’t share. I didn’t know what to do and I just “KBO’d” it, as Winston Churchill put it: Kept buggering on.

The Queer Evangelist by Cheri DiNovo is available from WLU Press in May 2021.

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