Last fall, I drove through the Iowa hill country on my way to a cabin. Black clouds poured rain from above, winds pushed it to the side. My car sped along a two lane road that curved and bowed to keep shape with the forested autumn slopes. I crossed one bridge after another, tributaries of the Mississippi flowing underneath each one. These words played on the radio. I put them on repeat, turned them up full blast.
How fickle my heart and how woozy my eyes
I struggle to find any truth in your lies
And now my heart stumbles on things I don’t know
My weakness I feel I must finally show
I felt a change inside of me so vast and so unknown that it required what felt like a second coming out. The faith I professed I no longer possessed. In my world, admitting that felt like social betrayal. It felt like I had gone through this once and I wasn’t going to do it again. I was angry that I found myself there. It felt like if I didn’t stick in the club, I could no longer help people in the club. But I also I knew I could never help people if I wasn’t real. Faking it is how we’ve all got into this problem in the first place.
So I sped and I cornered and I winded around, bridge over bridge. Water fell from the sky like it used to fall from my eyes. Dead leaves fell from trees. Once flowered, then green, now golden but dead. Both water and leaves flowed to the river, past towns and cities, through homes and through damns, under bridges and over falls, before eventually making it back to where it always was, where it always had been destined to be —the ocean.
I was asked to write about how my view of God has changed since coming out. This was that journey for me.
Part 1 of 4: Out of the Walls
My senior year, before coming out publicly, but after coming out to faith leaders at my university, I was invited to attend a closed-invitation retreat for student faith leaders. It was an incredibly meaning invite for me. It was a screaming, “You are important and matter and we cannot do this whole thing without you and without people like you.”
Trevor Hudson, a South African theologian who had been imprisoned with archbishop Desmond Tutu while fighting to end the apartheid, keynoted the retreat. I was figuring out what it meant to be gay and Christian and I figured he would be a really good person to talk to. I wasn't sure if he was affirming. I wasn’t confident that he wouldn’t throw at me all the homophobic crap that a lot of Christian leaders throw at queers. But in my core, I felt safe to talk to him. I felt like it was what I was suppose to do..
So on our last morning together, after his last lecture, I approached him and asked for a bit of him time. I asked to chat in private.
The only block of time he had available was the hour after lunch that day —the same hour that the fancy retreat bulletin said was reserved for silence, that was literally reserved for us to not talk to each other. An hour for us to be quiet with God, or with ourselves, or all the things of that flavor.
It felt so right to be sitting with him, on folding chairs, tucked away on the back side of the chapel, talking about gay things while instructed to not talk at all. It felt rebellious. It felt good. It felt symbolic of how all of these queer conversations have happened throughout the Christian faith. When someone finally breaks the rules and talks when they were told to not. It was wild to think that this man had spent his life having these type conversations. Those that are forced to happen in shadows. This was a man who also knew how to bring these conversations into the light.
I don’t remember the exact words that Trevor and I exchanged. But I remember that they made me feel good. They made me light up inside. They made me feel like a confident, capable gay man. They gave me hope. I remember he did a lot of listening. I remember he wanted to hear from me and about my experience. And I remember he ended our time together by saying this:
“Thank you for expanding my understanding of humanity. For that, I am truly grateful.”
I, someone different than him, was not a threat to him, but a gift. I gifted him an understanding of humanity, that without my honesty and vulnerability and my difference from him, he could not have known. A humanity that he, and I, and all of us, are entirely tethered to and a part of, and a humanity that can only ever be perceived fully when the entire diversity of stories within it are told. Humanity is there whether we open ourselves to its stories or not. It’s us who don’t understand its fullness and ~who miss out~ if we stay in our small monolithic groupings. It’s us ~who will oppress~ if do not remain open to other stories.
His response that day marked a shift for me. It told me, “Everyone’s story is true and everyone’s story matters.“ It was the turn in a corner, a turn that opened to massive a field and a forest and a mountain. His response that day gave me permission to look to the narratives and stories of those who before I was afraid to look to.
Before, I think Christianity had always been a maze for me, a maze with tall brick walls, and a maze that didn’t have any diverging paths. There was always only one path: the path of rightness.
Or maybe the maze did have diverging paths, but at every fork, lay the words and the whispers and the faces of every Christian I had before met and they were threatening me that if I made the wrong move, I would be kicked out.
That made Christianity super easy. I just went where people told me go. I just did what they did. I thought what they thought. I never felt forced to go in any certain direction, or believe any certain thing. I don’t even think I would have described my experience in this way when I was in it. But I think I just didn’t know any other option. I couldn’t perceive a reality outside of doing, being, saying what was expected of me.
Sometime in those 22 years of sitting in a church pew, I was taught that things of the outside world are bad. I lived in the world that when talking about a book, or a boy, or a musician, I always felt the need to say, “and they are a Christian.” Which to me and those around me was synonymous with, “They are in the club. They are good. They are safe to trust. You won’t be corrupted and be sent to hell if you listen to their words.”
I loved that world because it guaranteed that I had friendship and closeness with the people I wanted to be friends with and close to. That world served me really well. And to be honest, from my perspective today, I see how many good things I grew into during that time in my life. I wouldn’t change it. But I do think it was really important that I moved beyond it.
That day with Trevor, I turned a corner in the maze that was different the corners before. This corner didn’t lead down another tall, walled corridor. It led to an open field, with a forest, and with a mountain.
In this new place, the people in my life didn’t tell me to go in a certain direction. In fact, they weren’t even there. Who was there were a bunch of people ~who had always been around~ but who before, I was afraid to listen to. There were Muslim people, Jewish people, Catholic people, black people, and women. Athiest people, artist people, single people, and gay people. Trans people and people who are experiencing homelessness. South Asian people, Middle Eastern people, differing-ablity-people and non-binary people. There were poor people and rich people, city people and country people. There were people who support abortion and those who do not.
Before turning that corner, I thought that listening to people other than those with the exact worldview of myself, would corrupt me. I believed non-Christian thought was dangerous to my own body, to my own well-being. I thought that I was compromising myself and everything good in my life if I listened to those people.
I am embarrassed to admit that. I feel like a narcissistic jerk to have even ever believed that. I don’t think I ever verbalized it to myself, but I know it was there. I know how I clung to the stories of some, and talked myself out of the stories of others.
That’s where I was. That’s what I did. And I’m still probably there a lot of the time.
But on that day, on the backside of that chapel, Trevor gave me the permission to go out and to learn. That was the start of a wild revolution.