Before my feet could touch the ground under the pew of the Southern Baptist church of my youth, I was afraid. Every time the preacher screamed and pointed eternal damnations, I knew he was screaming and pointing at me. Sunday nights were awful. The fears were fresh and pressed deeply into the soft tissue of my heart. As sleep was elusive, I prayed and wept throughout the night.
There was no answer. There was no salvation. I was only a child.
The Wednesday nights of youth worship and festivity were anything but fun. We were being trained. We were expected to be the warriors that would win the nation back for the Jesus Christ of the Southern Baptists. These battles began in our own group. I remember Sam. A regular attendee of youth services, Sam let it slip one night that she thought another girl in the group was cute. The total alienation of Sam commenced. I didn’t stop it. I was too afraid.
Not too long afterward, Desmond shot himself. My childhood best friend was dead. When I was told that he struggled with his sexuality, based on the Southern Baptist theology I was taught, I assumed he was being punished. God was punishing Desmond for being attracted to other boys and killed him. When I realized I found another boy at school handsome, I knew I was next. Based on the teachings of my Southern Baptist church, I knew I was disgusting. I thought about suicide. I begged. I feared. There was no answer.
Southern Baptist elders teach young persons to feign certainty from an early age. The advice might translate into, ‘scream until you can’t hear the doubts anymore.’ I had many doubts, so I screamed. I met Becky in my chemistry class in high school. One day, Becky told me in confidence that she was a lesbian. Though I was often uncertain if I even believed in God, I told her and everybody else in the class that she was going to hell. When others in the class confronted me about my behavior, I knew I was being persecuted for the Kingdom of God. The hateful screams toward Becky solved my lack of faith temporarily.
I spoke out of my fear. I chose not to love.
When I was asked to give a talk to a youth group, I spoke about the favorite topic of Southern Baptist culture warriors: homosexuality. I delivered an impassioned loud scriptural rebuke of a homosexual lifestyle. I spoke harshly. Although I questioned the harshness of what I was saying, I knew that I had to keep saying it if I wanted any level of certainty in my walk with Jesus. I was a fearful Southern Baptist homophobe.
Privileged friends and beautiful people are difficult to turn down, so I joined a fraternity. For obvious reasons, most of my friends were drawn to a way of talking about God called Calvinism. The base line of Calvinistic thought is that God has elected persons to be Christians. In many conservative spaces, the election of God also extends to those granted power and privilege. I liked this system, as it provided the answers and space for upward social mobility I hungered for.
I squashed my doubts with answers and the enjoyment of privileged posh spaces. In this space, no one claimed an alternative sexual identity and we honestly didn’t think any existed, at least within the state limits. I was a culture warrior, with a bright shiny new academic theology, willing to engage in tremendous oppression. I was a privileged Southern Baptist Calvinist.
Those of us from the South know that sometimes it takes leaving for a little while to realize the ignorance of the land that we love.
I left. I accompanied my newfound peculiar Southern Baptist mentor, George, to a major northern city. There, I witnessed the unbelievable poverty and violence of an urban center, the vibrancies of a community called alternative, overwhelming diversity, and the power of the church to help and hurt in such settings. I concocted a plan to keep my privileged theology, while also helping people in the city. I wanted to have my cake and eat it too.
When the time came to choose a seminary, I had not doubt where I would go, the Harvard of Southern Baptist education, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. I was a privileged Southern Baptist Calvinist with a newfound festering miniscule social conscience.
Sweat poured, my chest pounded, my brain throbbed, my spirit was stifled, and my voice was weak.
I had spent a semester and a half at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and realized that the answers were running out. The professors consistently argued that those who cut out one piece of Calvinistic theology or the Bible, would begin the downgrade that led straight to hell. I knew that I was on the downgrade and I was flipping out. I felt like I was going to be eternal toast. I started asking questions and things got much worse. ‘A Christian wouldn’t ask such questions.’ ‘You must not be saved.’ ‘Those who doubt are on the downgrade.’ ‘If you can’t believe then maybe you aren’t chosen.’ All of these responses served to push me toward suicide.
I turned to my peculiar Southern Baptist mentor, George, for help. “I am dying,” he said. I didn’t believe in God or much of anything anymore, but I believed in George. Though I was frightened, I stayed awake with him. As his time on earth drew to a close, George asked me to come into his room alone, he grabbed my hand, pulled me close enough to smell the death, and told me, “I am gay and always have been…Go back to seminary and fight for those who have no voice.” I didn’t believe. I was confused. This was the beginning.
The events of life demanded answers that the Southern Baptist Calvinists didn’t have.
I pushed. They screamed louder. I questioned. They demanded silence. I hurt. They ignored. I cried out to a God I didn’t believe in to deliver me. I was alone. I needed help. As I shared my story, several Southern Baptists came out to me. They knew I was safe. I rediscovered hope. I began to believe again. I began to discover the Queer God.
After graduating, I retreated to Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. I thought the mainline folks I met there would accept me. They didn’t. There was much suspicion around my zealous desire to question their theology too. I served on a panel about LGBT issues. I was called conservative. I didn’t know any better yet. One person on that panel began to meet with me and love me, Duncan. The regal gentleness I discovered in him changed me.
Later, I met Lucas, an activist, who also loved me and challenged me to go deeper still. These two men prepared my soul to meet the Queer Jesus. I finally found love and acceptance in a community I previously called ‘sin.’
On the way down to Abilene Christian University to hear my wife speak, I began to read of the many atrocities committed against Queer folk by faculty and students of the institution. I knew that following Jesus means action. I knew that my faith would no longer allow me to exist in these bigoted spaces without acting.
I drew up a sign declaring, “Jesus is Gay.” In the midst of my naked fear, as insults flew on the steps of the Chapel, I experienced Jesus. I became Queer.
I cannot stop talking about this being I have met. I protest. I write. I speak. I preach. I fight. I love. I hope. I have a testimony of a Queer Jesus who, through the folk called Queer, made me whole through discovery of my own Queerness.
I know it is the churches and people called ‘Christian’ that need the Queer Jesus the most. These are my people, and thus, I work. I work so that my two sons, Jeff and Phillip, might know a church where Jesus is not shunned for his Queerness either.
Painting by Emily Jean Hood