Read Part 1 — “Sea of Sin” here.
It is fall of 1998. We’ve moved again – we do that quite a bit in my family, due to Dad’s music minister job. I’m not sure if it is the nature of all ministers to move their family around so much, or if it is just my family with this gypsy curse – but it sure does seem like God calls us to new towns on a fairly frequent basis. For the past three years, we’ve been living in Manchester, Tennessee, where Dad works for Trinity Baptist Church – a proud member of the Southern Baptist convention in a truck-stop town. The sights aren’t as impressive as the Bay Area, needless to say – but I’ve found that living in a po-dunk town in a red state isn’t without its advantages when you are a white Christian male.
I’ll never forget the way my eyes nearly rolled out of my head in my first week at Manchester’s middle school (where I could count the number of black students literally on three fingers), when we assembled in the school cafeteria for a message from the leader of one of the school clubs. Turns out, the club was called Fellowship of Christian Athletes – something I’d ever heard of in California. The leader of the club was my English teacher Mr. Milsap – a tall, lanky white guy with a handlebar mustache, a crew cut, and a thick country accent that everyone around here spoke and sometimes seemed like a foreign language. But I understood Mr. Milsap perfectly that day: The first thing he did at that meeting, in front of the entire school body, was lead everyone in a prayer that ended with, “In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.” He then produced a King James Bible and shared a few verses with us all, which was followed by an opportunity to accept Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior.
I just watched with my jaw slacked. I couldn’t believe that such a thing was possible anywhere in the Godless, liberal America that Focus on the Family had warned us about. And everyone in the room – even those goth kids clearly skeptical – were respectful and bowed their heads during the prayer. My heart stirred instantly with a new hope. Because in the course of a single hour, I realized that everything that had been the nightmare of my social life in California was about to radically change.
After the meeting, I turned to one of the other teachers and said, “That would have never happened where I’m from.”
“Where are you from?”
He’d winced. “Well, technically it’s not allowed here either. But we get away with it by calling it a school club.”
I’d felt a weight lift off me. In California, which Dad now lambasted as the “land of fruits and nuts,” a display of the Gospel was unheard of in a school setting. The Christian kids were the outcasts, the fringe group sitting cautiously in the corners of the cafeteria, the ones that got fruit thrown at them on the jungle gym. It took exactly one week in Tennessee to realize that in this neck of the woods, Christians were not only the majority, but we’d infiltrated the public schools as a battleground to save lost souls in a way that terrified Christian kids in California could only dream of. It was like the suffocating air had cleared, and suddenly I was breathing freely.
That was 1995 or so, when we first made the move. I’ve spent the last three years owning the Gospel and my identity as an ardent, radical follower of Christ. Whereas I was afraid to be an evangelist at my school and a youth leader in my churches in California, here I am enthusiastically learning how to be an radical witness for Jesus’s saving grace. In the summer of 1997, I felt called at a summer youth camp into the ministry; my Dad and pastor and youth pastor all gleefully took in the news and now tutor me in the ways of sharing Christ. Every day, I’m more confident that this is what I’ve been truly called by God to do. I’m no longer the one who gets fruit thrown at them. I’ve made friends – nearly all white Christians – and have come to identify Trinity Baptist as my community. I’m finally starting to feel like I’ve figured out how a personal relationship with Jesus is going to actually help me – and I’m pursuing this path with all of the faithfulness, sincerity, and openness to be molded.
I have finally found my people and am rising up in the church youth group ranks as a leader among them. I’ve been preaching both to the youth group and in front of church; I’m a fast learner, and I’m getting more and more comfortable in front of a large crowd – where in addition to drawing inspiration from my tutors, I’ve honing my own speaking and preaching style. My youth pastor, a man I trust completely, sometimes wheels me out out to preach in front of whole communities when various churches get together to show off the future leaders they’ve been grooming.
In such settings, I’ve led countless to Christ already, and I’m looking forward to leading more and more. I feel happy and secure; my life in California and the sea of sin that surrounded us feels like a far off memory no longer relevant to my experience – which is to be a minister of the gospel to a place that more or less already knows that message, because it’s been literally taught to them in school. Yet every day, I’m praised by my church leaders, who promise me that I’m truly making a change in people’s lives.
I’ve also become the leader of an unlikely posse of middle-school aged kids and high school freshmen who follow me around with a loyalty that makes me actually feel pretty good about myself. Made up primarily of other preacher’s kids and their friends and girlfriends, most in the group are at least a year younger than me and all look up to me as a funny, affable guy who loves to hang out with them, lead them in spiritual instruction, listen to Christian rock, and feel their pain of being one of the kids being watched the most for kinks in our Godly armor. They look up to me, and I appreciate their company and their eagerness to accept me as their leader. I rise to this occasion so well that not only have I become Christ’s beacon among the kids in my school and youth group, but I’m training the kids underneath me how to be the same kind of radical warrior for Christ, and the opportunity is a blessing from God. Plus, I’m the only one who can drive.
In all these ways, I talk the walk. But I try really hard not to be a hypocrite: I also walk the walk as best as I can. I’m a good kid – I keep my nose clean, and I don’t rock the boat outside of wanting to grow my hair out long (because uncles on both my sides are completely bald, and I know I’m on borrowed time). I still watch old movies, but I’m no longer concerned that they will be an entry point for queer seduction – because in Tennessee, straight white Christians are the majority. My primary temptation that I never seem to overcoming (besides masturbation, which I consider to be my greatest shame) is occasionally watching 80s horror films on overnights at a friend’s house (which I’m still not into as much as the old movies, but I try to keep an open mind). Beyond R-rated movies and occasionally putting my hair in braids to the chagrin of my youth pastor (again: borrowed time), I’ve never smoked or drank or engaged in premarital sex, and I absolutely refrain from cursing – while all the while, railing against these acts of shameful rebellion from my youth group pulpit.
Make no mistake – we are still surrounded by the forces of evil that threaten constant spiritual warfare. In fact, the more Christian the culture around me has become, the more I am instructed to put on the full armor of God in order to prepare for battle against the secular world. This is the message passed down to me from my church leaders to spread to the kids in my sphere. We may have a haven here in middle Tennessee, but the world around us is still one filled with sin from which we must perpetually be on guard lest they tempt us to question God and backpedal in our walk with Christ. As someone who lived in California, I can testify how much the rest of this country is indeed a den of sin – which is why it is so important that we in Trinity Baptist Church double down on our devotion to Christ. The liberals, the feminists, rock and roll, the queers – they still have an agenda for which we must be ready, and that is nothing less than the secularization of a society that they hope to corrupt with their sinful ways. And while I don’t think I actually know any liberals, feminists, rock and rollers, or queers – I know they’re out there… waiting. I know that when I less my guard down, they may strike.
Our Sunday School classes and youth group lessons therefore often feel like training exercises in which we are taught to batten down the hatches of our faith and keep out all of those corrupting influences in every form they take. We must only listen to Contemporary Christian music – otherwise, Satan’s lyrics might corrupt us. We must not watch movies with sex and cursing – because, as we are constantly told, “Garbage in, garbage out” (violence is okay, and I promise I always look away from the nudie parts of the slasher movies – honest). We must not use swear words, drink, or smoke – because this would ruin our testimony to the world . We must not have any premarital sex, nor can we masturbate – because that is not what God intends for our bodies. Girls must constantly cover up, because they are responsible for the impure thoughts that us boys have for them. Boys must constantly avert their eyes from girls, or else we nail Jesus to the cross again with our lustful thoughts intended only for our wives in the sanctity of a marriage bed. With this strict code of conduct – coupled with weekly church attendance, church activities throughout the week, daily Bible-reading, and “quiet time” with Jesus – we free ourselves from the world’s corruption and fend off Satan’s attacks.
It is so easy to be a Christian in Manchester, Tennessee that I honestly have a hard time imagining anyone trying to be anything else. I mean, even the hard-drinking, tobacco-chewing good-old-boys who drive huge trucks – the ones who spend all day one-upping each other’s vulgar intentions toward the cheerleaders – always take their hats off in God’s house. The ones who primarily have little interest in believing any of this are the ones we call the “goths” – that odd tribe of long-haired kids with piercings and excessive eye-liner (girls or otherwise) who stick together on the outskirts of the school cliques. These are the misfits, the ghouls, the “sinners” who listen to music like Marilyn Manson, Nirvana (I’ve finally learned to Kurt Cobain was) and Nine Inch Nails. They’re the group that challenges the system, the ones most likely to get harassed or have fruit thrown at them – though unlike me, they throw back.
It’s also clear that when you’re one of them, they will fiercely protect you. I once saw three rednecks move against one of them in the cafeteria – a scrawny purple-haired kid with flashy earrings – and about eight goths instantly stood up and formed a protective, glaring circle around him. It was enough that the bullies backed down. I knew two of the rednecks from church; at the time, the gesture from the goths – the sinners – struck me as profoundly Christ-like. That was the occasion that inspired me to get to know them better. For the first time, I find myself as one of the popular kids in an advantage over the outcasts. But because I remember what it is like to be an outcast, I refuse to be one of the Christians who makes them feel that way. I’m secure enough in my faith to believe that I can mingle among them without falling under their influence.
The first time I come and sit with them during lunchtime, they watch me skeptically. I say very little at first – just ask questions about certain musicians or entertainers whose names I don’t recognize. They’re shocked I haven’t heard of most of them, but they educate me and recommend a few songs that I know I’ll never listen to. Day after day, I use lunchtime to sit, listen, and pick their brains about goth culture. They give me tips on how to keep my long hair better maintained, and I’m slowly earning their trust. Eventually they decide that they like me primarily because I can educate them about the horror genre in ways that impress them. My knowledge of old movies is an advantage, because they’re into vampires – and I’m a wellspring of information about their cinematic history. I also can recommend many old movies to them that share similar beats to “The Crow” (a movie I catch on TV one night – edited for content, of course – and love). They eventually tell me that they like my long hair, and they appreciate that I never comment on their appearance. They offer to do my eye-liner one day if I’d like; I think about it, but I know that would get back to my parents pretty quickly.
All the while, I’m looking for any opening I can to share Jesus with them, and they more or less know it. But among the Christian evangelist clique in the school, I’m the one who they feel like they can talk to, because I actually take the time to listen to them. Certainly, they balk at my attempts to lead them to Jesus – though most of them patiently say, “No thanks,” and I respect that boundary. I find this group to be more tolerant and open-minded than I expected, not least of all because our youth pastors and Sunday School teachers warn us constantly about how easy it is to be corrupted by the world’s influence – and this little tribe is drowning in those influences. Satan’s corruption is clear in the way they dress, the way they talk, the way they keep themselves at a safe distance from the rest of the school scene.
After a while, I’m sitting with them regularly – not quite one of them, but welcome in their circle. This often gets me odd looks from kids from my church and the good old boys – but when the goths are targeted, I’m never included among them. Parents at Sunday School addressing their concerns about my long hair find that their kids – my merry little posse – vouch for me. They know that I’m trying to share the gospel, and they tell their parents so. The parents don’t understand it, but they trust me to do the Lord’s work. That leaves the hicks, who do the most to terrorize the goths – but I’ve got that covered too: One of my best friends – the guy who has introduced me to 80s horror, in fact – is a leader among the rednecks. It just takes one of them telling his people that I’m alright, so I’m safe (thanks, Stan).
Sitting with the goths comes with its share of challenges for a minister of the Gospel. Only when I mingle among them do I generally find anyone bold enough to openly question the narrative and the lifestyle that has become my safe place. They’re still very careful about what they discuss publicly and with whom – but for the first time, I am encountering alternate perspectives drastically different from my own. Many of these goths identify as “Wiccan,” which I have come to believe is a form of devil worship. I’ve been well trained on Satan’s many paths leading us to temptation (it was literally his first trick, after all), so I know that I have to be careful engaging with goths about their pagan religion. But I also feel firm in my faith, and I believe that if I give them a platform to share their testimony about how they came to be wiccans, they’ll listen to me give my testimony about how I came to accept Christ as my personal Lord and Savior. With that dialogue open, the religion that is clearly the truth will prevail – and I never doubt that Jesus is the Only Way.
Those talks aren’t as successful as I thought they would be. These goths kids counter my attempts at sharing the gospel with all sorts of comebacks to which I don’t have an answer – like how the Bible was actually written, who wrote it, and what about the older religions (like Wicca) that were around before it. Still, I hold onto my faith because I know without any doubt whatsoever that it is the Truth. They’ve come to tolerate my theological sparring because I’m not a jerk about it, and also because they love how I can tell them about the making of “Nosferatu.”
There’s a clear leader of this pack – a girl named Camilla who is the same age as me. She sits in the center of their group like a pack mother, and she’s always the first to whom the others seem to come for advice or encouragement. As a leader of my own merry band, I resonate with that. Among the group, she’s not the most rebelliously dressed, but she seems confident in herself always; she likes to wear her hair teased, and clearly does all her shopping at Hot Topics, but she’s more likely to help someone apply their black lipstick than put it on herself. In class, we know her as one of the bolder kids in this fringe group – a little more rebellious with teachers, a little more sassy when she’s picked on. But when I come and sit with her band, she mostly just sits with a bemused smirk and quietly listens to our conversation – occasionally chiming in to talk about something trivial.
I have a couple of classes with Camilla, where she sits in the back and often heckles. So far today, she’s been unusually silent – a little paler, a little more rattled. She doesn’t often get like this – at least, not in public. I notice how dark the edges of her tired eyes are at lunchtime when I come to mingle among her and her friends. When I sit, I she tightens up a little. I make eye contact with her and smile as sincerely as I can. She smiles back weakly; it seems forced, but I don’t feel unwelcome. Soon, we’re having our usual trivial chats that I use as an opening to insert the Gospel.
We eventually get to talking about music, and I’m doing my usual thing of insisting that DC Talk compares favorable to Nirvana. After a few minutes of this, an increasingly dour Camilla seems to reach the end of her patience, and she interrupts me. “Hey, Danél. I have a question for you.” Her voice sounds more fragile today than I’ve heard, like she’s been crying. Still – there’s plenty of assertion in her voice.
Like I said, Camilla barely says anything to me – so I am thrilled to hear from her. I silently utter a prayer to the Holy Spirit to guide my witness. “What’s up?”
“Have you been paying attention to what’s going on in Laramie, Colorado?”
I frown, because yes – I have. Everyone has – we’re all talking about Matthew Shepard, the gay kid currently in the hospital after being beaten within an inch of his life and practically crucified on a fence out in the middle of nowhere. Laramie police already made some arrests for his assault, and the perpetrators are all over the news: Matthew had unquestionably been targeted for his homosexuality by kids who identified as rather militant Christians not entirely dissimilar to the social circles surrounding this little group of goths.
Frankly, I haven’t wanted to think about Matthew Shepard at all, because I find his lifestyle to be so repugnant that I can only hope that he asked for forgiveness from God before slipping into the coma he is now in. I don’t want to think about how kids roughly my age who basically believe the same thing that I do are the ones responsible, because something about that feels really wrong. I cannot justify the violence against Matthew Shepard, but I also understand why they did what they did. They were warding off Satan’s attacks, just like we have been trained to do. But when I think about that violent reaction against this kid and how he was unlikely to wake up, I feel a sense of shame that I quickly identify as a Satanic attack against me. The shame is increasingly strong, which leads me back to the conviction that I shouldn’t be thinking much about Matthew Shepard.
So when Camilla asks, I simply say, “Yes, I’ve heard.”
Camilla nods. “So let me ask you, then, since you clearly like hanging out with us: What do you think about gay people?”
I don’t know how to reply at first, except to honestly answer that I pray for their souls. I’m actually not sure that during my time in Tennessee, I’ve even encountered one; as far as I know, they’re all in California, slowly gathering their satanic army for the Battle of Megiddo. That Matthew Shepard is one of them, and that he certainly just looks like an innocent kid from the pictures we’ve seen on TV, is not a challenge to the narrative in my head that I have the capacity to willfully make. But while I’m sitting here looking at Camilla, a connection finally does occur to me: I remember my father’s dire warning about how queers will try to hook you in and contaminate you. I remember realizing that queers don’t look like ghouls, but rather like us.
It occurs to me that Camilla is on edge today because she is probably gay, and the attack on Matthew Shepard has rattled her to her core. And now, sitting in front of her is someone whose ideology matches the people who put Matthew in the hospital. Me. It’s why she tightened up when I neared, and it’s why God moved her heart to ask me this question.
In this moment, my heart sings with joy – because I realize that God has called on me to use Matthew’s near-execution as a springboard to share the gospel with Camilla. I intend to tell her the truth, even if it means that everyone here kicks me out of their goth circle. Because I remember another truth Dad told me on that day in California, when he issued his warning to me: “Sometimes following the Lord comes at a cost.” If telling Camilla the truth means I no longer have a place at her table, I could be proud for not ruining my testimony and confessing Christ before man so that He would confess me before the Father.
For the duration of this lunch period, I proceed to preach the truth of the Gospel to Camilla and all of her increasingly exasperated friends. I’m not vindictive or judgmental; I’m not interested in coming down on Camilla in any way – because sure, homosexuality is a sin, but all sins are the same in God’s eyes. Christ died for all our transgressions – lying, cheating, murder, child molesting, and gayness all equally. As a Christian, it is my job to be filled with God’s love for everyone and to point them toward the way. I explain to them this new concept being tossed around at the Fellowship with Christian Athletes Bible studies when we talked about gay people – which is the “hate the sin, but love the sinner” policy. When I first heard this phrase, I thought it was the most beautiful way of articulating the Christian position: We hate sin because God hates sin, but we also love sinners because God loves them too.
Camilla is silent for this fifteen minutes or so in which I have the platform. Other kids rise up to challenge me, but she quickly shuts them down and lets me talk. I see this as a sign that I’m getting through to her. I conclude my little sermon with a heart full of hope, quoting Romans 3:23 like I’d been trained to do at church. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” I smile at Camilla, who leans forward on her seat with her chin resting in her hand. She doesn’t smile back. “We’re all sinners, we all deserve Hell,” I say cheerfully. “Being gay is no worse than any other sin, and Jesus can save us from it. That’s what I think about gay people.” I beam at her.
The goth crowd around us collectively bit their lips and eye Camilla nervously. Even the larger crowd around us has noticed that I’m evangelizing, and some of them are listening – including one of the kids in my little church posse for whom I’m trying to be a good example. His name is Michael. I see him watching me from a distance, and I silently pray that my boldness will inspire him to share the Gospel with others.
Meanwhile, Camilla just sighs. Her face is a blank wall. She calmly says, “Danél – have you ever tried to be gay?”
I’m stunned, needless to say. This isn’t the response that I expected. “What?”
“Have you ever tried to be gay?”
“No, of course not.”
She nods. “Do you think it would be hard to be gay?”
“I think it would be unnatural to me,” I say – and that’s the absolute truth. The girls I’ve betrayed with my own shameful, lustful thoughts continue to be my fire insurance against God’ judgment against queers. “I couldn’t do it at all.”
“So you’re saying, it would be really hard to try to be gay,” she says. “Like, you couldn’t do it – even if you tried as hard as you could.”
“Yes,” I irrefutably confirm.
She seems satisfied by my answer. “Okay.” She closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. She reaches out and holds a hand – any hand – to squeeze. When they squeeze back, she opens her now tearful eyes and points them into mine. “Because I’ve tried really hard to be straight. Over and over again. I’ve prayed for God to take it away, over and over again. Over and over again, being straight has felt unnatural. I’ve hurt myself over and over again, to try to bleed the gay out of me. I have never been more miserable than when I tried as hard as I could to like boys.” She smiles weakly. “But it’s okay. Don’t worry about me. I’m happy now.”
“How?” I say.
Now, she is starting to beam. “I’ve come to the conclusion that if the Goddess didn’t want me to be gay, She would have given me a way out of it.”
“That’s not how sin works,” I gently rebuke. “Sin is in our nature. We all struggle with it. This is the one you struggle with.”
Camilla finally smiles, and I realize the truth: My words – my witness, God’s love – has absolutely no power over her. “I don’t know if I’m a sinner or not,” she says softly. “I only know that once I was blind, but now I see.”
I comprehend what she has done – which is quote the story from John chapter 9 at me. It tells of a blind man whose vision is restored by Jesus. When the Pharisees call him a sinner, Camilla’s words were his retort. I’m so flabbergasted at my jaw drops – that someone so thoroughly overcome by Satan’s lies could quote the Bible as if they are as familiar with it as I am. I wonder if Camilla was ever a Christian like I am, searching the Bible for answers and trying to suppress perpetual doubt at every turn. I wonder if she’s ever buried the Bible’s words in her heart like I do – and what made her stop. It breaks my heart to hear that anyone could turn so thoroughly from God that Satan could convince them that they cannot be saved from their sins.
Once the bell rings and we all shuffle onto our next class, Michael – that groupie of mine for whom I prayed – approaches me. He watched the whole interaction, and now he stands next to me thoughtfully and pensively.
“Did you see that?!” I boast at him. “That was crazy! God just opened that door!”
Only now do I see that something is bothering Michael. His eyes seem pensive, like Camilla’s had been. “So what do you think?” he asks right away. “Is it better to be gay or dead?”
The question throws me only for a moment before I realize that Michael is also conflicted about Matthew Shepard. That’s the only reason I can imagine him asking this question – and I feel his pain on that one. “I don’t know,” I confess. “I just pray that he lives and comes to Christ.” We don’t have much more time between bells, so I move along quickly without thinking about Michael’s question further.
That night I pray for forgiveness after touching myself again. I’m so ashamed that I’m taking this gift away from my future wife and nailing Jesus to the cross again for my impure thoughts. But this sin is the hardest one for me to overcome. I wonder why it seems to easy for all the other boys in my church not to sin in this way, while it remains so hard for me. It makes me realize how much I need to double-down on my Bible reading, on my praying, on my scripture memorization. Because by putting on the full armor of God, I know that temptation can be firmly withstood. Obviously I need to try harder.
As I make a promise for these future efforts and my shame recedes, I think about what Camilla told me about how hard she tried to not be gay. I wonder if that struggle is similar to how hard it is to not think about all the girls in my school and my youth group in ways that I know breaks God’s heart.
This thought festers. By Sunday, Matthew Shepard has died. Everyone is talking about it on television, the news – it is a national crisis. Everyone is asking why and how. Was this a hate crime? Can we talk about how wrong it is to hate the gay lifestyle while also condemning Matthew’s death? Where did this violent impulse come from, that these two kids close to my age could beat this kid almost to death and leave him to die? Had Matthew – like Camilla – also tried really hard not to be gay, so much that he prayed about it and hurt himself?
But if Matthew’s death is being discussed on TV, it is certainly the topic of fewer conversations at church – where it hangs over our heads with unspoken apprehension. The liberal pundits on television seem to be making this a gay issue and are taking sides with sin. Here in church, our almost complete omission from this topic means we aren’t officially taking any sides. But during Sunday School, it is difficult for me to focus on anything that our teacher is saying; I’m distracted by this feeling that something is terribly wrong about the way none of us are actually talking about this kid’s death – how no one even offered to pray for his family during their great hour of agonizing need.
So I bring it up. “I’m sorry,” I tell my Sunday School teacher while he’s mid-sentence on a tangent about liberal America. He’s a man I respect and like, so I want his perspective. “I’m a little distracted. Can we talk about what’s going on with Matthew Shepard?”
The other boys in our group tense up a little and look at our Sunday School teacher. He’s a stout little guy with a thick mustache and eagle eyes that always seem to penetrate deep into our souls to see all our sins. He constantly uses his Sunday School lessons to warn us of the Satanic influences of godless liberals in our schools, on television, in our communities. In every lesson, he encourages us to be Christian leaders in every way, guiding people to the light of the Republican party. He’s been particularly militant of his support of the Southern Baptist Convention’s boycott of Disney, ever since they introduced “gay days” at their theme parks. His name is Danny.
Well, Danny sits up with a jerk when I ask this. He seems truly surprised that anyone would utter Matthew Shepard’s name in Church – not least of all me, one of the evangelical leaders in the youth group. He even makes a face like he’s just sucked on a lemon. “What about him?”
I’m not sure what I want to say, and I’m suddenly filled with dread. Or is it shame? “I don’t know,” I confess. “It just seems like what happened to him was wrong, and since it was done by Christian kids, maybe we should be talking about it.”
Danny nods, considering my words. He moves his open Bible from the palm of his hand onto his lap and leans toward me. His eyes are not as kind as Camilla’s had been when she rebuked me a few days ago. “You know what I find funny?” he spits. “How many innocent babies do you think were aborted this week? Notice how the liberal media never talks about that? Why are they so focused on the death of one gay kid, but they ignore all those murdered babies? This is all Satan’s propaganda, Danél. I’m surprised that you of all people fell for it.”
I shake my head defensively. “I’m not falling for it, Danny,” I plead. “Of course, my heart breaks for all those babies. But what I’m saying is, maybe it’s okay to be sad for Matthew Shepard too.”
Danny isn’t impressed, and his skeptical eyes transform into an icy glare. “We don’t feel sad for Matthew Shepard. Not in my class, anyway.” He speaks the next words with pointed, righteous conviction. “We only mourn the deaths of human beings. Only humans. Do you understand?”
He says it so decisively and casually that at first, I think it is some sort of stone cold joke – a set-up for the next point. But as the silence lingers between his accusatory glare and my increasingly open mouth, I realize that he’s finished. It’s my turn to be flabbergasted. “Wait – you’re saying that Matthew Shepard isn’t human because he’s gay?”
Danny shrugs and taps his Bible. “It’s what the Word says. If they were natural, God wouldn’t have set Sodom and Gommorah ablaze with His judgment. I’m not saying that that Matthew Shepard should have been murdered, but – ”
“No,” I dare to interrupt. “You’re saying that what happened to him wasn’t murder.”
“That’s between him and God,” Danny answers. “If you pray and spend time in the Word, you’ll reach the same conclusion.” He taps his Bible indignantly. “Now – can we continue with today’s lesson?”
All the other boys around me are staring at the floor nervously, probably praying that this exchange will soon be over. I’m on my own, and it suddenly reminds me a little of being that kid in California, dodging a bully’s flying fruit. My heart quickens, and I retreat with an apologetic nod.
Later that night, I take Danny up on his offer. I search the Word for answers. I’m not sure how many passages reference homosexuality, but that night I don’t find any. Many verses pop about about God’s wrath, which seems consistent with what Danny said. I note only a few passages here and there about mercy, but that’s not really God’s style until you get to the teachings of Jesus. While I read, I just can’t stop thinking about Camilla’s final words to me, and every verse I read offers little by way of resolving this conflict.
I decide to ask my Mother. She’s a firm evangelical, faithfully loyal to both Jesus and Dad. She is also clearly invested in being a loving mother who is far more present both emotionally and physically than Dad is. She reads her Bible compulsively, teaches Sunday School. She also has always encouraged my reading and writing in a way that Dad, in his aloofness, rarely does. She’s a writer herself, so she takes enthusiastic interest in what I do. She loves to talk to me about topics that hold my interest, even when she’s exhausted after a long day of cleaning up after us all. I don’t revere her like I do Dad; he picks on what he calls her limited intellect quite a lot, and she more or less accepts his jabs. But whereas Dad requires getting on his level – primarily sharing the Gospel – in order to engage with him, Mom makes me feel seen on my own terms. I feel safe talking to her in ways I don’t with Dad.
I think about how I want to approach her about my conundrum. I don’t want her to suspect I’m gay, or that I’m struggling with some sort of doubt that will require telling Dad. So I decide to pose it as a hypothetical.
She’s doing the dishes when I make my approach. With four kids and a husband who more or less requires just as much taking care of, it seems she’s never sitting down much. “Mom, I have a question – just something I’ve been thinking about while I’ve been reading my Bible.”
Even as she toils away, she’s instantly focused on me. “Alright.”
“Would you rather me tell you that I’d lost my faith, or that I was gay?” She immediately gives me a strange look, but not an unkind one. I clarify, “It’s for a friend at school.” That’s not entirely a lie.
She accepts my terms and thinks about it for a while. “Well, I think I’d rather you say you were no longer a Christian.”
I am legitimately stunned by her answer. “Why?”
“Because if you walk away from God, He can just kill you before you’ve used up all your blessings,” she says, casually standing over the steaming sink while wiping away at a dirty plate. “If you’re gay, you’ll struggle with that all of your life.”
I’m quiet for a long time. Something in my head clicks. “So you’re saying that it’s better to be dead than to be gay.”
Mom nods. “That’s between them and God,” she says.
I instantly recognize this answer as God’s confirmation that my Sunday School teacher Danny, who used exactly the same phrase, had been right all along. Instantly, the temptation that Satan whispered into my ear when I spoke with Camilla passes; I have overcome it with prayer and the Word, just like my parents and my church leaders promised I always will. My faith is renewed – but so is my shame. I realize that this temptation would not have been so strong had I not gotten sloppy and spent so much time with those goth kids. They’d done exactly what Dad had warned me about – tried to hook me in with Satan’s lies. I’d overcome it this time, but next time I may not be so lucky. This is an important lesson, and I thank God for delivering me with His discernment.
I spend the night repenting for letting my guard down and praying fervently for Camilla to come to Christ before all her blessings are used up. I renew my commitment to Jesus and decide to stop hanging around her and her crew so much, in order to keep away Satan’s continued temptations. During lunch time at school next Monday, Camilla notices that I don’t come around anymore and that instead I sit with the younger youth kids I am grooming to be ministers of the gospel like me. I fleetingly make contact with her sad eyes, but I mostly stay focused on my posse of Christian freshmen groupies.
I eventually tell Michael that after much prayer and reflection from the Holy Spirit, I realize that it is probably better to by dead than gay – because from the various sins with which Satan can afflict us, it is clearly one of the hardest to overcome. But what a gay person chooses to do with their struggle is between them and God; I refuse to believe that anyone with a true heart of repentance cannot turn toward God and be saved from those sins that He hates so much. Michael has no discernible reaction at the time, but I notice over the coming weeks that he’s increasingly irritable and isolated. I pray for him.
Meanwhile, I’m on a Holy Ghost roll. I begin to research methods for saving gays from their homosexuality and hear wonderful things about the success rates of these camps and retreats claiming to offer a Bible-based cure. These places seem like any other youth retreat camp – like the one where I felt God’s calling to the ministry last summer. I realize that the answers may be found in these places, and that God in fact DOES cure gay people. I understand now that someone like Camilla simply chooses to live in sin – that if she actually wants to get well, the answer is found in the same Gospel that she refused when I offered it to her. A few months later, she shows up at the spring formal with her date – one of the girls in the goth group. They dance courageously around all the other couples, laughing and kissing and clearly in love – blissfully ignoring our condemning glances. I pray that they both will one day be cured from their terrible sin.
Years later, I will hear about Michael’s suicide. I’m living in Juneau, Alaska when I do, preparing for a sermon. I will take a moment to remember the question he asked me on that day, and something inside of me will feel a semblance of the shame I felt so many years before when I thought about Matthew Shepard. But all that comes later; today, it is 1998, and I am a flowering minister of the gospel who has emerged from my time of temptation victoriously and with a renewed faith in Christ. I hate the sin, but oh, how I love the sinner.
Read Part 3 — “Qualm of Conscience” here.
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