As a preacher’s kid, we are instructed that our first order of business is to worship and devote our lives completely to God. When you are very young, being told to worship God is, admittedly, an abstract idea. It’s like being shown a picture of George Lucas and having it explained to you that this man invented Star Wars: I may grasp the concept theoretically that someone made up the franchise that defined my childhood in the 80s, but I’m not going to look at that picture with the awe that perhaps it is intended to evoke. My heroes were Yoda, Chewbacca, and Lando, and they were tangible and real to me. Who the hell is this bearded fat guy?
God was an equally intangible figure. I’d never seen Him, I’d never heard Him – and the idea of “feeling” Him was basically limited to shame for when I did something wrong, because I was told He was always watching (not unlike Santa Claus, except instead of giving you coal for Christmas, God sent you to Hell). So when the five-year-old Danél was instructed to love an unseen patriarchal figure who watches over you, that figure naturally manifested in the form of a patriarchal figure who I COULD see and hear, who WAS present – who, in fact, first explained the directive to serve God to me.
So when I imagined God, I imagined my own father. It is therefore inevitable that, when I talk about my deconstruction from my Evangelical upbringing, I take some time to process the nature of our relationship when I was growing up under his care.
First of all: I love my father, and I have never doubted his love. That makes me exceptionally lucky as far as many preacher’s kids go. It is with some trepidation that I approach my remembrances of him – I do not want you to come away believing that he was without love during our childhood, or that he did not have long periods of kindness and goodness toward us. A parent’s number one job is to keep their kids safe, and he fulfilled that obligation in a way that made him feel more present than many other preacher’s kids have. I’m grateful to the man that he did the best he could under the insulated world in which he was raised to teach me how to think for myself. Because hey – here I am.
Furthermore, when it comes to having his own model for fatherhood (and, if he processed the same way his son did, God), Dad had plenty stacked against him. I have come to understand that being the son of a pioneering Southern Baptist minister casts a long shadow, and perhaps the only difference between Dad and me is that I ultimately was lucky enough to learn how to step out of that suffocating darkness and see the light beyond its borders. When I think of my father, it is this shadow that I first acknowledge. Dad would tell us that his priorities were God, church, and family – in that order. I think that ranking came from the ghost of his father Felton H. Griffin on his back, whispering into his ear. It must have been a terribly heavy burden. It must have been maddening.
I write the above disclaimer because I understand that so much of these recollections of Dad and the way with which he engaged with our family will seem like a denunciation, and I want you to know that I do not want to condemn him at all. I believe he was often a misdirected father, but there is no denying that he wanted to be a good one – and that he often was. That makes me, having survived my childhood within the confines of my religious upbringing, far more fortunate than others.
It is probably necessary to briefly explain the history of HIS father, to make clear just how generational our Southern Baptist heritage is. Felton H. Griffin was the founder of the Alaska Baptist Convention. He came to Anchorage in the 1940s, when it was still a mining town in a barely-organized territory. It took tough men to stake their claims, and tougher men to stay – especially a man whose intention was to preach the Bible while simultaneously battling rampant alcohol abuse and racism against the local Native population. “Griff,” as he was called, did both, and had built the largest church in the town from scratch within only several years of arriving – one of the very first interracial churches in the country, and certainly the first in Alaska. All were welcome, and he even allowed cultural diversity in the worship service to reflect various ethnic groups that he was less interested in assimilating and more driven to merely convert. The congregation were just as likely to see a Native dance as they were to sing a traditional hymn. At the time, such gestures were unprecedented, and he was heralded as both an important Christian leader and a pioneering Alaskan frontiersman.
I imagine that Griff must have been quite a remarkable leader of men. But I also long suspected that he was a terrible father, with a holy yard stick to measure whether or not his children were living up to the righteous standards that he expected them to. Of his five children, two died before him, and he was barely on speaking terms with either at the time of their deaths. The other three speak highly of him and his legacy – and while his work as an Alaskan minister was considerable for its time, the church that he built is now mostly empty while old parishioners are the type who meet Griff’s grandson (me) and ask for help writing a letter to the Alaskan governor to stop gay marriage in the state. I have had encounters like this on more than one occasion.
I’ve recently been in contact with the daughters of Griff’s oldest child, and some of the stories that I’ve been told confirm what I’ve always suspected: Griff has been elevated to a status of sainthood among his surviving children that I don’t believe was truly earned (and perhaps it never really is). Stories have been relayed to me about Griff refusing to allow his daughter to get help for mental illness that she needed because he didn’t believe it was biblical – and that was after being the father who shut down school dances because dancing was sinful. Imagine being THAT guy’s daughter in the high school cafeteria.
Dad tells stories of near fall-outs that he had with Griff, who often chastised him for wanting to be a minister of music instead of a full-on evangelist. Still – they were able to more or less patch things up and maintain a loving relationship throughout the final years of Griff’s life. I cannot speak with certainty as to how their relationship survived; drawing from my own experiences, I suspect it is because Dad kept Griff on a pedestal and worshiped him. To this day, he sings praises of his father’s legacy. It practically comes up in every conversation that we have.
Griff died when I was young. I remember his stories by the fire, the way he’d set me up in his lap and quote the poetry of Robert W. Service. I also remember the glares he would cast at my parents, my uncles, and my aunts as they walked across the room. As if he already assumed that they were doing or thinking something that he’d disapprove of. Glares like that don’t hit you hard – they create a thousand paper cuts that slowly bleed you out. I believe that my father has been bleeding out from those cuts for as long as I can remember – that he was bleeding for the entire time I was living under his roof, as he tried to combine his love for music with an evangelical angle that would make his father proud. I understood that compulsion, because for the first quarter-century of my life, it basically informed every aspect of my relationship with Dad.
So much of my childhood feels like repetition of the same notes and beats, as we hopped from one state to another based around Dad’s impulses. We’d arrive at a new church in a new town, with Dad beaming that we were there to do the Lord’s work – to lead countless people to Christ through his calling as a music minister. We’d settle in, adjust to this new place, and tried to catch Dad’s enthusiasm. It never took long for the darkness and disappointment to settle behind his eyes, as he realized that this church was going to be just like the previous one. “They don’t get my vision,” he’d say. “They have no idea how to preach the gospel, and they’re resisting my ideas at every turn. I guess God just wants us to plant the seeds here and move on.”
It’s difficult to let anyone in, to make lasting friends, when you’re always holding your breath for those words. We therefore made a community with ourselves. Tirzah and I at first, with the plays that she’d write and I’d act in. Hope as the subject of our whimsical torments, and eventually Seth as our mascot. Against all odds, Dad did a very good job establishing himself as the ringleader of our community. I remember so fondly sitting around his fireplace – an imitation of his father’s – and listening to him tell us stories from the Bible, and accounts of his summers living in the wilds of Alaska, or reading to us the Chronicles of Narnia. He wasn’t the best at voices, but he certainly knew how to stay enthusiastic. I’d curl up on his lap, rest my head on his chest, close my eyes, and pretended that Narnia was a place we could all move to without ever having to hear those ominous words from Dad that heralded our inevitable departure, the reason why I kept most of my friends from school at an arm’s length.
But I want to make something absolutely clear: My father gave me Narnia, and this is no small thing.
How can I adequately describe him – this eccentric man who was a classically-trained singer and cellist? He’d walk around the house in his bath robe, singing classical tenor solos with pitch-perfect ease. He’d sing them even louder when we were driving – sometimes, I thought, just to get the attention of the poor bloke next to us at red lights. He’d sit at his cello, close his eyes, and play hypnotic tunes that I don’t think I realized how much I appreciated at the time. Mostly, I just liked to watch his hand moving up at down that instrument, the way that it would dance while his bow moved back and forth so forcefully, to create the most peaceful music. I can only tell you that I cannot listen to the cello without feeling instant comfort. As an adult, I saw a homeless man on a cello playing Mozart in the streets of Portland, Oregon, and I gave him all the cash I had – nearly fifty dollars. My heart broke for this man, but I payed him because of the way it also swelled with nostalgia.
And then we’d all be at church, and he’d stand up there and lead the congregation in song after song, his eyes on the hymnal, his hand waving to the beat. I was often scolded for not singing along, since it was my duty to be a good example for others as the eldest son of the music minister. I was never into singing for a variety of reasons. First of all, I was much more interested in writing and storytelling; playing instruments required following rules that quickly bored me compared to worlds I could spin in my own head. Besides – when everyone else in the family has ridiculous musical talent to burn, it was hard to know where I fit in as one of the Singing Griffins.
But more to the point: To sing along would be to focus on anything other than my father, and I could not accept that. As he led others in loud worship, I silently worshiped him because it was the only way I knew how to worship the God to whom he’d instructed me to submit. My father was my hero when I was growing up. He was the only man I really knew. And it seemed, when I was very young, that everything he did, he did for his family. Because church, faith, family – they were all interchangeable. They were all part of the same entity for which he lived, that he loved. Narnia and the Bible sat next to each other on the coffee table, and the former was revered because of its allegiance to the latter (I just loved the talking animals, but C.S. Lewis was another saint in our home).
But for as much as Dad led our family, he was often lost in his thoughts. His eyes would get cloudy at the most random times – sometimes mid-sentence as he was talking with one of us, or all of us. When we do it now as adults to each other, my brother and I jokingly call it the “Dad Drift.” It consistently went something like this: We’d sit down at the dinner table, and Mom would inquire of his day at church. He’d shrug thoughtfully, shovel some food into his mouth, and say, “May day was, uh….” And his eyes would cloud over, and we knew that we wouldn’t get the rest.
His aloofness led to plenty of laughs at his expense. Once, as we all sat at the dinner table, Dad sat with his nose pointed directly at his food. Mom, at the other head of the table, asked him to pass the vegetables. He did not reply. Everyone but me tried several times to get his attention. “Danny…?” Mom repeated. “Honey?”
“Hey, Dad… Dad?” from Hope.
“Father dearest? Hey, Daddy?” Even Tirzah, his favorite, couldn’t get him out of his cloud. Seth, barely a toddler, just watched and giggled.
I sat closest to Dad. I watched all the members of my family try for several minutes, shrug, and give up. I’m not sure if it was ten-year-old bravery or just sheer annoyance at Dad’s complete disregard for reality around him, but I looked at them all, smiled widely, and held up my finger decisively. “Let me try,” I said. And then I leaned real close into his ear – still, without him noticing – opened my throat, and screamed at the top of my lungs:
He snapped out of it as if his thoughts had been suddenly robbed from him. After a jump and a start, he glared at me and said, “What?! What is it?! Do you want me to whack you, kid?!”
His threats soon meant nothing under the weight of the laughter that sounded around that table. It was the first time I remember Mom standing up to him, daring him to lay a hand on me. He soon settled into his chair, even managing a chuckle himself.
His discipline, by the way, was never measured. It rarely included conversations about what we had done and why we were being punished. He just liked to lean over and whack us on the head with a spoon when we used our fingers to eat. I remember him bragging about this to one of my mom’s horrified brothers. We were always getting threatened with “whacks.” It became a joke among us kids, and it was always funny until one of us actually got whacked.
At some point in my childhood, Dad decided that God had called him to minister in Russia. He began taking trips over there, and he’d come back with hours of film footage and photos of all of the churches and orphanages and prisons he went to, and all of the people he led to Christ. He’d brag about the bribes he’d have to make to smuggle medical supplies and Bibles into places where they were considered contraband. He’d be gone for hours on some nights, and we’d all sit around wondering where he was. Mom would read Narnia for us instead – she was better at the voices. Then he’d come home with sometimes five or six Russian men and women, who he said were helping him organize his next mission trip. They were always big people, with round noises and gold teeth who would give us Russian pennies and pat us on the heads. So much patting, as if they thought it was an acceptable apology for taking up so much of Dad’s time.
Dad would insist that Mom would make them meals, hours after she’d made us all dinner and sat a plate for him at the table that he never used. She would always submit to his whims. The look on her face was always passive, always stoic. But once, when she was scooping up some leftover mashed potatoes for one of his visiting Russians, some fell from the spoon and onto the kitchen floor. She looked at the blotch by her toes for a moment, then bent over quickly and scooped it onto one of the plates. I’ll bet she didn’t know I was watching.
But I always watched Mom when the Russians came over. The way she’d stare quietly at Dad as he sat with them in the living room, occupying all the furniture where we usually all sat and watched television or read Narnia. Tirzah, Hope, Seth, and I all sat at the kitchen table when they were over, watching Dad laugh and beam to his new friends about how God was going to use them all to accomplish great things and lead countless people to the Lord. Mom would walk quietly around the table and kiss us all on the foreheads. “Time for bed,” she’d say quietly. Dad looked a little impatient when we expected kisses and hugs goodnight – he wanted to get back to mission planning.
Through it all, it never occurred to me to regard Dad as anything less than my hero. I was told to worship God, and I did it by worshiping him. I listened to his accounts of his mission trips, the hundreds of people he’d led to Christ, from the kitchen table and dreamed of the day that I could finally go with him on one of his mission trips. I imagined leading countless people to the Lord, and how proud he would be of me.
One year – I suppose I was about eleven – Dad even managed to convince Mom to accompany him to Russia. “I want you to see what I do,” he told her enthusiastically. I remember listening to a conversation she had with Dad’s old sister Ceil, about how she absolutely did not want to go see what Dad was up to in Russia, about how she wanted to stay home with her kids. But in a Baptist household, wives are told to submit, and if Dad wanted her to go, she couldn’t argue.
They would be overseas for three weeks, and Aunt Ceil had graciously agreed to take us in. One night, a couple of weeks before the trip, I sat in the living room and listened to Dad talk to her on the phone, prepping her for what to expect out of us. I listened as he went down the list.
He beamed as he talked about Tirzah. “She’s stubborn like me and her grandpa. A Griffin to the core. Just be prepared for some arguments, but she’s a good girl. A great leader. I’m really proud of her.”
Another smile when he talked about Hope. “She sings like an angel. Put her in the children’s choir. Give her solos. She’ll love it.”
And then he got to Seth, who by now was about to enter kindergarten. “Seth is going to become a powerful man of God, I know it. I can already see the Lord working in him. Encourage his questions. Give him verses in the Bible to think about. Even at this age, I can tell that he’s learning how to hide God’s word in his heart. He’s going to be a minister of the gospel. God has whispered to me this truth.”
I bit my lip in anticipation as he finally got to me. But there was no beam. At best, there was a shrug. “And Danél – he likes to draw and write, I guess. Into monsters. Kind of a weirdo, tell you the truth. And he’s gaining too much weight. I just kinda let him do his thing. Keep him away from candy – he’s getting fat.”
It wasn’t disappointment in his voice that I heard. Not the kind of look that I saw his father giving him when we were younger. I think disappointment would have actually meant more, because that would have signified that he noticed me. What I heard in his voice that day was indifference. As if he’d weighed us all and decided that three out of four wasn’t bad. As I contemplated that moment, I distinctly remembering the crushing feeling of shame that I’d let my model for God down by simply being myself. Suddenly, a fear seized me that I couldn’t shake for a long time – not for years: The only thing this could possibly mean is that I’d also let down God.
I’m sure my Dad, whose love I’ve never doubted and who did his best to keep me safe, would be horrified to know that this is how I took his words, at that impressionable age. That my interests, which didn’t include the music he loved or the hand of God interceding in my life with great plans, were so beyond his realm of priorities that I felt like an afterthought. I’m sure he’d read this today and weep to know what effect his words had on me. Perhaps one day he will.
But from that day forward, something inside of me changed. I had a new mission: To be a son that would do my Bible-believing, born-again father proud. To be a powerful weapon against Satan, to lead countless others to Christ. To be, I suppose, the man he’d decided that my brother would become. To let him know that he’d misinterpreted God’s whispers – He’d also been talking about his oldest son’s destiny after all. Because seeing myself through Dad’s eyes was an instruction on how God Himself saw me – and I comprehended instantly just how much room for improvement remained.
I spent the next several years allowing myself to be mentored by my Father – to always be at his side, so that I could learn from him the ways of the Baptist Minister. It was grooming that I chose all on my own, so that I could be an evangelist like him, and his father before him – who would lead countless people to Christ. And lead countless people to Christ I did, until the day finally came that I realized my heart simply could not keep pushing against this belief system that simply did not make any more sense to me. Only when I finally rejected that God once and for all did I learn to escape from my own father’s shadow and find my own path toward freedom.
As I stressed at the beginning of his story – I love my father. I can say that without any doubt, hesitation, or reluctance. But now instead of worship, it is simply that – love. If you are such an exvangelical who struggles with a disconnection from your parents because of the chasm that oppressive theology creates, I know that learning how to separate the abuse we experienced within the church’s walls with those who transmitted it can be very difficult. In many cases, we cannot and should not – and authentic forgiveness cannot come with pressure from those within the Church; it is a matter that we choose on our own, when and if we feel like we are ready. That being said, the wisdom I can share from my own experience is this: It was only when I stepped out of Dad’s shadow that I finally learned to love myself as I am – and then learn to love Dad as he is.
Frankly, it speaks to Dad’s character now that even though I am openly an ex-Christian, he can retain his evangelical theology and still engage me as an equal. I suspect it is something that his father could never have done. From many conversations that I’ve had with fellow exvangelicals – especially preacher’s kids like me – that’s a rare blessing, and remains the greatest lesson my father ever taught me. We will probably never again see eye-to-eye on many topics, but that doesn’t stop us from looking each other in the eyes and loving the person we see staring back at us. Loving him free of hero-worship, away from the standard of love that I was taught in his household, helped teach me that grace.
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