My Story: The Tiger-Eyed Kid – An Exvangelical’s Tale of Amazing Grace

Some of my favorite people are evangelicals. Unless they are using their authority and influence to actively take advantage of others, I’m really not angry at the folks in the pews at all. I’ve learned that the primary difference between evangelicals and exvangelicals is that the latter have simply realized that we are all victims. I don’t have it in my heart to hate anyone who’s weathered what I did, even if they’re still trapped in the Matrix. 

That wasn’t always true. There was a time that I was angry as hell at evangelicals I’ve known – my parents, my family, old youth pastors and church leaders. Walking away from evangelical Christianity is the single hardest and most painful decision I’d ever made, and my rage was as hot as hellfire against those evangelicals whose unshaking devotion to their narrow reading of the Bible had rendered me broken. As the schism widened between me and the only community I’d ever known, I felt betrayed, confused, alone, and judged.

And honestly, I had every right to be angry about all of those things – I’d experienced abuse and trauma through Hell and Rapture theology, Purity Culture, the message that every time I sinned, I was nailing Jesus to the cross again. That’s some heavy shit to have drilled into your brain and heart starting the day of your birth, and it leaves scars in your soul that can manifest physically – scars that take a long time to heal. When I first left the Church, my initial instinct was to take it out on the ones who’d passed it down to me: My dad, the minister who’d dragged us from one church to the next all our lives so that I’d never really made many friends; my mom, whose love I never doubted – so that when she told me she was disappointed in me, her words just cut into my soul. 

For a long time, I kept the information that I’d walked away to myself and just a handful of people I trusted – certainly not my parents or my church leaders, the former living too far away to know what was happening, the latter increasingly bewildered that I kept dodging opportunities to get together for a word of prayer. I stayed very private about it all – I still carried all that anger, but I also didn’t want to hurt them with the truth. I always feared they’d rather me die or even be (gasp!) gay than be ex-Christian. But that fear just made me more angry at them for feeling it. It festered, and I withdrew.

Withdrawing cost me – not least of all a marriage. As soon as I’d done it, I quickly had another poignant, terrible realization: The anger I felt toward all those Christians in my parameter was chained to the guilt and shame I felt for having fallen for all of this nonsense. Even as my anger toward my family and church body subsided, I carried that shame for a long time. Recognizing you are a bigot is the first soul-crushing thing. Within that foggy shame creeps this increasingly penetrating, horrific realization that you were a bigot with an audience, because you have stood behind a pulpit. 

I’d hurt people – really, deeply hurt them. I’d ruined lives. There’s this sickening process you go through when you realize that you’ve been confusing hatred for holiness, where you think that maybe if you can remember every last one of the people you’ve hurt, it will help you forget them. Well, it didn’t work. It just confirmed to me what I already knew: Being a preacher had turned me into a monster. And I just couldn’t help but shake the conviction that the ones who’d made me – a long line of preachers – had been monsters too. It is maddening, the sleepless nights I spent thinking about this. Drinking didn’t help – certainly not drugs. I just accepted that these ghosts were a permanent part of me. 

Around this time, I started working with kids – first, just to pay the bills as I worked on my master’s degree. I gradually realized that the only thing that helped with the ghosts on my back was when I tried to be be a positive influence on kids so that I could empower them to accept themselves for who they were instead of who I thought God required them to be. I worked in elementary schools, preschools, summer programs, emergency shelters, treatment facilities, mental health hospitals – trying out different things to see where I fit. It’s hard to choose which was my favorite, because all kids are awesome. As I worked with them, I realized that I was learning how to listen – first to their needs, then to my own. I realized that I was finally working on myself too. This was the path I needed. Most importantly – it was the path I wanted. 

A time finally came when I could open up more about my own deconstruction process from the Church. I could talk about the toxic theology, trauma responses I’ve had to work through, conflicting feelings about my parents. But unless you knew me nearly as well I as I knew myself (you know who you are), I did not talk about my role as a pastor. It just didn’t come up. Because whatever rage I carried inside myself for my parents and my church leaders, it was minuscule compared to the hate I felt for myself. Even as I knew that I was healing, as I learned how to write through my thoughts (hey – thanks for reading) and process my experiences… I still didn’t like to talk about my days as a Baptist preacher. I’d suppressed that one very deep, because I didn’t have a healthy coping strategy for dealing with it yet.

Sometimes, burying it is the only thing you can do right now. Healing is not a straight line, and it is often hard to know what to prioritize, or when. 

I remember the exact moment when my priorities changed, and I was finally ready to confront my shame. I was on the clock for an agency that treated kids with trauma, talking to a pansexual teen soon to discharge back to their evangelical household. I can’t go into much detail about this kid – no name, gender, or personal details. We are just gonna call them the Tiger-Eyed Kid. 

I simply must take a few paragraphs to describe this utterly remarkable kid to you. They were initially placed into my care with a barely medicated case of paranoid schizophrenia in which they saw demonic clowns, heard voices telling to them savagely murder people, and played hopscotch with little girls that only they could see. A history of pretty severe self-harm, because that’s what the voices had told them to do. Their parents couldn’t think of anything to do with this kid, who’d been in and out of hospitals and treatment facilities for most of their childhood, and the agency I worked for wasn’t exactly equipped to offer much help outside of keeping them contained. 

No one on the payroll was trained to work with schizophrenia disorder, and no one was keen to do the training. As a result, this kid was mostly given a wide girth as they wandered about the hallways and freaked out the staff. But this kid deserved a chance, and if my employers weren’t going to offer them one, I would. But I was gonna have to think on my feet if I was going to do something about this kid’s zone outs, their homicidal and suicidal tendencies, their terrifying hallucinations, their constant pacing, and their scrambled brain as the shrinks were moving them through one anti-psychotic med after another.

I instantly saw that beneath this shitstorm that this kid had the misfortune of being cursed by, they were observant, empathetic, and sharp. Their considerable handicap was just one layer, and underneath it someone with a fierce tiger hidden behind their eyes. Cool quirkiness and radiant energy just slipped through this kid’s cracks in a way that reminded me so much of me. We dug all the same shit, geeked out about all the same nerdy stuff. Our senses of humor were right on the level. We had the same ideas so much that sometimes it felt telepathic – like I’d start strumming my fingers along the table, and they’d instinctively finish the beat. We’d shared music videos that each of us really dug (they got me into Melanie Martinez; I got them into Kevin Max), comic books, aesthetics, we both loved Halloween and spooky stuff – this kid was a cool fucking cat, and when I connect with one, I really try to help them. 

The first thing I did was educate myself very quickly about how to work with schizophrenia disorder, in order to be as helpful to this kid as possible and to keep us both safe. Part of that was connecting with them on things that could keep them grounded; for example, I offered to be the person who they could ask to confirm whether what they were seeing was real. And for a long time, I was the only person they’d trust to tell them the truth about that. I think they were pretty sure I thought they were as crazy as everyone else did—but they could also see that I wasn’t letting that define them. This was the nature of our relationship for a while—me just trying different things with them, to help them feel a little more comfortable in their world. I think they appreciated that. There was a day that they said they saw another balloon floating through the air, and I looked up and actually saw it too. “You’re not crazy, or now I am,” I said, and we both just laughed and laughed.

After a while, that brain-scrambling combination of medications finally kicked in, and this Tiger-Eyed Kid gradually emerged from that place in which their brain had trapped them. That’s when our connection really took off. They opened up to me about their life, and I just sat there and listened and simply steered the conversations here and there to make sure their mind wasn’t drifting off into dark places. They was so fucking cool to hang out with – not only because we loved all the same stuff, and all the hilarious inside jokes we had developed that left everyone else scratching their heads: We could read each other like a book, and we were okay with the shadows we saw in each other – even as they remained mostly unspoken. I think we just found safe places in each other. 

The more the Tiger-Eyed Kid opened up to me, the more I learned some things that slowly began to shift the nature of my mentorship in a direction I had not expected. I’d long suspected they identified as pansexual before they finally told me—and I’d been very inclusive in the way I talked to them so that they could come to understand at their own pace that I was someone who that was safe to talk about with. Eventually, they did. But then I realized why they were so afraid to tell me, and why they were  so stunned when I told them that I thought they were beautiful just the way they are: Because in their family, they could go to hell for being that kind of person.

And I realized, in that instant, why I had connected so much with this Tiger-Eyed Kid. We practically had the same goddamned story—except from opposite ends of the pulpit. I comprehended why they were so scared to talk about more sensitive topics. Why they’d ask me questions like, “Are you okay with that?” when they’d say something a little too dark, when it was clear that I totally was. Why they were constantly arguing with themselves about whether they had a mental illness or were demon possessed. It was for same reasons I’d second-guessed myself, argued with my conscience, and fretted telling my family when I was walking away from something I was pretty sure wasn’t true.

The Tiger-Eyed Kid went on to tell me what would happen if their parents ever found out about them. And they described something that sounded a lot like conversation therapy—deacons and pastors coming over, laying hands on them to pray the gay demons out, going to special “services” to fix their brain and make them straight. This kid kept this a secret for so long, because they knew that it would spell their doom. To tell me now was to finally release it into the world. I was honored to be its recipient—and also terrified of what it meant for them when they were no longer in my care.

I had to remind myself to breathe for a while, taking it all in. I knew I was going to have some responsibilities now—this would need to be reported to her therapist. Conversion therapy is illegal in my state of residence, but that does not mean that churches don’t find away around that. I guarantee you – it is active in every state, with different labels and in unofficial capacities. But beyond any legal obligation of reporting potential abuse, my own trauma came flooding back as I felt my guard spiraling away with the tide that had just turned. I wasn’t looking at a client anymore—it was more than that. I was experiencing a panic—a protective urgency—that was something new. I was looking at every secret kid LGBTQ kid to whom I’d ever preached from behind a pulpit, thundering away about gay demons who may possess them if they didn’t pray hard enough.

I’ve referred gay teenagers to conversion therapy. Their faces are among my ghosts – since leaving the Church, I’ve heard stories from friends, colleagues, and clients about what those experiences were like. I knew what this kid needed to expect, because of all the things I was ashamed of the most. 

Long story short – I’d reported immediately to the people who’d put this kid into my care that they were describing conversion therapy to me, and that was the beginning of the end of our time together. I think that had something to do with the parents pulling them out of our services so promptly. That scared me, because kids in this demographic often do not survive that process. I knew that statistic not only because of my line of work, but because it had been a part of my Church experience. 

Now, I respect professional boundaries when interacting with children in a treatment setting – and I truly try to follow the rules. You should avoid getting too personal when you’re working with teenagers with mental health issues and trauma histories, not least of all because you’re supposed to be there for them – not the other way around. My role was to provide a safe space where they realized they could talk, and then to listen as best as I could when they were ready to try. But when you are in frequent exchange with other human beings in any setting, eventually you’re going to encounter a situation in which the rules just aren’t sufficient. We’re just unpredictable that way as a species. I realized I was gonna break the rules with this fierce, tiger-eyed kid – one of the most vibrant, completely and almost devastatingly authentic souls I’ve ever encountered – and tell them my story. It was the only light I could think to offer. 

So I transformed my shame into their city on a hill.

Looking back on my time working with kids, it’s now clear that I’d been preparing for this conversation for a while. By the time I met this tiger-eyed kid, I’d already started processing my religious trauma, already recognized church abuse in other teenagers I’d worked with and given them tools for dealing with their evangelical households – particularly LGBTQ teens who were in treatment primarily because their parents just assumed they were broken. So many of them had thanked me profusely for my help before they left treatment. I was coming to terms with the fact that I could be proud that I’d helped them – almost as proud as I was of them for their courage. 

But this tiger-eyed kid was going to need a little bit more than one of my pep-talks. Because first of all, this was the first kid I’d ever worked with who was probably about to go home to conversion therapy, and that scared the shit out of me. (60% of kids under 18 will attempt suicide after conversion therapy, and that’s someone without this kid’s diagnoses). Second of all – staring into this kid’s tiger eyes was like staring into a funhouse mirror, looking on some version of my childhood self free from shame and fear’s oppression. I can’t explain it, because this kid’s tiger eyes understood that oppression – they’d suffered it. But they also had a ferocity that I’d been afraid to show my own parents. This kid was already the warrior that I was still learning to become. All I still see in that soul is strength. 

This tiger-eyed kid was the first person who wasn’t blood or my very, very close friend to whom I told my whole story. They just sat and listened calmly – I couldn’t tell if they were shocked, horrified, sad… I’ll just never forget the look on their face as I talked, just taking it in and absorbing it all in a way that let me know that even though I was the only one talking, we were both participating in this conversation. I made my confession about the people in their demographic that I’d hurt, about the way I’ve carried that my whole life. I thought up every possibly scenario that could happen when they went home and tried to shine light down all of those tunnels. I told them nearly everything. And I reached a new, unexpected conclusion at the end of my story – and I said it out loud to them:

“I cannot take back the past. But I am responsible for the way I move forward. Yes, there was pain, shame – even agony. A lot of it. Yet if having that experience meant I could now make a difference in your life, I think that’s the closest to the divine I’d ever felt since leaving the Church. Thank you so much for that. Remember that you did that for me when it gets bad – that you helped me just by being you. I hope it reminds you that you are stronger than you could ever imagine. And if you mess up, don’t give up – just get up and keep going. You are not broken, and I believe in you. That will never change.” 

Only when I was done talking did I realize what I’d just done. My past had played out for both of us, and it now existed in the quiet, thoughtful space between us. And this tiger-eyed kid was clearly thinking about it all. I held my breath – not knowing if speaking it out loud to them would just perpetuate my shame further. If this kid would ever even want to talk to me again after what I’d told them I’d done. Suddenly, I felt anxiety’s swelling sting – had this been a terrible mistake?

And then that tiger-eyed kid looked up at me, smiled sadly, and whispered, “I wish you’d been my Dad.”

Me too, kid. Every fucking day. 

And in that moment, I discovered what grace truly is. It is the act of letting go in order to be free. It is finding someone who can carry a piece of your story with their own. But most of all, grace is being able to look outside of yourself and consider someone else’s story before reaching a judgment about them. Only grace can accomplish the acceptance I felt from this kid in that moment. Only grace is capable of that level of empathy. 

I realized then and there that I didn’t need to be angry at my parents or my church leaders anymore. Yes, they’d hurt me – they’d even traumatized me with their indoctrination at a young age. But they’d done it because they too had been indoctrinated, by people who had been indoctrinated. This heavy chain stretches back for a long time, and it drips with the blood of white supremacy and genocide. But the ones shackled to it are not my enemy – they are literally my family. I couldn’t carry anger at them any longer. Years ago, the chain that made us all prisoners fell off my ankle and mine alone. It took a lot of painful tugging that had left me raw. But until I was sitting here with this tiger-eyed kid, I’d still been behaving like I was shackled to that chain. 

So I let it fall and let it go – dropped it for that kid to see. They were the first to watch me finally forgive myself. When I did – I forgave my loved ones too. 

Only then did I realize just how much wisdom I’d gained from my parents. My father, who’d been a children’s minister for some time, had taught me how to meet kids on their own level. How to indoctrinate them too, yes – but I’d taken those skills and reframed them to empower kids instead of brainwash them. I’m so grateful I learned how to talk to kids from my father. I’ve been helping save lives with that skill. 

And my dear mother – what a wonderful, quirky soul she is. I’m an odd duck of a razor-focused writer, and it’s all her fault. My happiest memories of her as a child was watching her write. I inherited that love from her, so that even after long days at work, I’ll still come home and write my own stories until I can’t keep my eyes open anymore. It’s that discipline that writes the words you now read. 

It isn’t okay that they indoctrinated me. But once I understood what grace truly is, I realized I could forgive them and embrace them as who they are. I understand that they have chosen to be evangelicals, and I have to be okay with that. I understand that there’s no deconstructing for them. It’s something we all have to understand, we exvangelicals who are finding new parents, new siblings, new children in each other. We are a family too, who must understand that we are not evangelists any longer. We cannot be responsible for changing anyone except for ourselves, and we have to respect the paths that others are on – even (especially?) when we see the risks and pitfalls of that path. We have to get to a place where we can let that go, so that we are not consumed by anger forever. Because anger is the fire that sweeps and devastates the fastest, and only the kind of grace I’m talking about has extinguished that festering flame inside me. 

I forgive my parents. I forgive my family. I forgive my youth pastors, my Sunday school teachers, my small group leaders, my praise and worship teams. I forgive them for the part that they played in the ghosts on my back and the weight in my heart. And the more I do, the more I realize that I have found ways so much more fulfilling than the evangelical path in order to honor my father and my mother. 

I still have righteous indignation. It’s palpable. Because I’ve no intention of forgiving the Church as an institution. Not until we can report the psychological, mental, spiritual, and emotional harm happening within its walls as child abuse. Not until Religious Trauma Syndrome is a part of every conversation about mental health. Not until the whole world comprehends the extent of the damage this indoctrination causes in children that continue into their adulthood. I am proof – and I’m one voice of a multitude. I’ve got one statement to the Powers that keep the locks to this very long and bloody chain in their pockets – one condition of my forgiveness: “Let my people go.” 

If you’re deconstructing, if what I’m saying here resonates – I can’t tell you how long you need to stay angry, or to whom, or to why. You stay angry at those who hurt you as long as you need to, because holding onto it for a while is part of the process. That’s okay – own it, and try to find healthy ways to deal with your anger. Evangelicals make forgiveness against those who hurt us an expectation (thus making their churches a lightning rod for abusers), and I no longer think it works that way. Just know that eventually, angry starts to fester – and you deserve so much more than that. You deserve to find the grace I did – the grace I am still discovering. So while you are angry, take a piece of my story with you. I hope it serves as a city on a hill. 

I conclude with this benediction: Maybe there’s no God, maybe there’s nothing after we die, maybe all of this is an illusion of quantum physics, or we are all in the Matrix, or just a random thought released by a universe in constant conversation with itself. Maybe the Raelians are right – that might be fun. Who the hell knows? But this I DO know: there is still such a thing as Amazing Grace. 

I love you. Incidentally – Wednesday, August 11th is National Son and Daughter Day. Tell yours that you love them, if you’re in a place where you are ready to do so. I’ll have a tiger-eyed kid who changed my life on my mind. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s