Read Part 3 — “Qualm of Conscience” here.
It is a chilly night in Auke Bay, Alaska – December of 2007. Chance and I are staying toasty by the electric fire stove, the shadows of which dance all about this wide space around us filled with rows of books, exotic plants I’m responsible for watering, and glorious walls of windows overlooking the sun’s increasingly sleepy glow over the expansive channel. This house doesn’t belong to either of us (far out of the tax bracket of a college student like Chance or a university employee like me); in fact, it’s a colleague’s house for which I’m sitting while she is away for the holidays.
Chance and I met at the University’s library. I graduated the previous semester with my literature degree and now work as the circulation supervisor. For the past semester, Chance has been here on exchange from NYU and working as my student employee. Beside this electric fire, Chance and I now engage in the kind of animated conversation that we usually have, in which we geek out about weird movies, indie music, Broadway show tunes, sci-fi TV, and anything else in the abundance of nerdy interests that we have in common. We’re both completely relaxed and mostly unfiltered, because over the past semester or so, we’ve learned how to feel safe in our own skin around each other – and we both comprehend just how rare of a gift finding someone like that is.
Chance is so fucking cool. The day they rolled in for a job interview, I connected with something in them fiercely. I think I recognized that we had a similar fire in our eyes – a resolve to be the truest versions of ourselves that we could be, and a decision that the next stage in our life would be working up the courage to find that person… even if it meant taking a lot of shit from a lot of people. There was something in their smile that made me envious, because it seemed like they’d gotten to that point in their life first. Before we knew it, we were swapping recommendations for favorite old black-and-white movies and chatting up sci-fi pop culture. It made for some great conversations.
We hit it off during what was supposed to be the job interview, and we never really let up throughout the semester. Our shared interests became an entry point to talk more about our journeys that led to those interests, until we were talking far more about our journeys than black-and-white movies. Soon, every conversation (most of which occurred when we, admittedly, should have been working) seemed to be an invitation to the next – one I’d wait for in anticipation, so that Chance could gently deliver another crack in the wall I’d built to protect myself as they opened up more about themselves and made me realize that I wanted to do the same.
Chance, it is happens, is a non-binary person.
The more I’ve gotten to know Chance, I’m coming to realize that most human beings have the same basic desire to find purpose and love, but that there are simply some to whom an individual will have a stronger pull. I may not believe in the Holy Spirit, but I haven’t ruled out kindred spirits – souls that recognize someone a lot like themselves. It’s a new experience, opening myself up to someone else in this way; I’ve always been taught that every conversation that I ever have with anyone else needs to be redirected toward the One, True, Soul-Saving Gospel. I never knew how to connect with people – not really. Thus, I don’t think I can ever put into adequate words just how much Chance has been my first true tutor in the art of actually shutting up and listening to another person – to REALLY listen, to take in their perspective and consider it on its own terms instead of my own. Such conversations have made me feel vulnerable, but after a lifetime of being taught that God can’t see me because of my sin, feeling seen – and seeing someone else – is empowering in ways that feel new.
For as animated as our conversation now is (as always), if we are honest, behind our genial dispositions this evening, we’re both pretty melancholy. In a few hours, I’m taking Chance to the airport, and they will fly back to their college on the East Coast. I think that our reluctance to admit that soon we will say goodbye makes us all the more enthusiastic in our conversation, because we hope that we can mask our melancholy for the other’s sake.
There’s more to it than that, though – at least for me. In addition to feeling sad about having to say goodbye to my new friend, I’m also feeling pretty nervous. Slowly but surely, I’m cautiously building toward a confession that I need to make to Chance – one I honestly think I’ve been been chipping away at since one September day in the university cafeteria when we found ourselves chatting over lunch. I think we’d both admit that it was this conversation that made clear to us that we were going to be good friends.
You see, we’d told each other so much about our own stories on that day. We realized that for as much as we’d had completely opposite experiences, somehow we’d managed to find ourselves crossing paths on a road that had provided us many of the same perspectives. It struck me by surprise, how natural and organic it felt to tell Chance about my Christian upbringing and the steps I’d taken toward walking away from the evangelical faith that had been the cornerstone to my identity up until only a few months prior. It is not a story I’ve really yet shared with anyone – and those who know it (such as friends from my now defunct college church ministry, the Bridge) have now either moved away or lived through it with me and would rather not have me explain it to them again. Somehow on that day in the cafeteria, Chance became the first person who had not been a witness to my absolute abandonment of the Christian faith to whom I shared my story.
I’d told Chance about how I’d been a pastor, and I confirmed everything they knew about how the evangelical church is basically a white Republican club that I’d both participated in and perpetuated. They’d listened intently, without any judgment. I told them about the last sermon I’d ever preached in church – just a few weeks after the conversation I’d had with Earl about how everything I thought I knew about the faith of my upbringing was falling apart under my feet. I described to Chance the group in the congregation that Earl had assembled to whom I was expected to apologize. Earl had been generous enough to arrange something small, only filled with the people who may have been offended by what I had to say. Half of the regular attendees – about fifteen of my Emmanuel friends – would be in the sanctuary to watch me humbly grovel.
It had been a Thursday night when Earl had summoned me in front of them – a night that church is usually closed, except to assemble for “visitation” (an occasion, I explained to Chance, where the pastor hands out cards with addresses and we go evangelize to people who’d filled out Emmanuel Baptist Church visitor cards). But there had been no visitation that night – just some skeptical church-goers and a couple of pastors from other Juneau Baptist churches, who apparently had gotten word of the blasphemy I’d uttered when I’d dared to actually quote Jesus from a pulpit. I’d never seen more forced smiles as I’d entered the church, from usually warm friends who were fast to avert their eyes from me. We made our way into the little sanctuary, where we sat just before Earl had prayed that God would give us the courage to seek His guidance in all things. He then gave me the floor, and everyone sat as I walked up to the pulpit with a racing heart.
“I went up there, actually thinking I was going to apologize to all of them,” I’d told Chance that day in the cafeteria. “I had a whole little humble sermon prepared, using some generic example from the Bible about men of God who sometimes make a mistake. About how these faithful heroes remain in Christ’s service by repenting before both God and men, and by turning away from their sinful ways. I was prepared to bend over backwards to earn their trust back. But as I stood up and opened my Bible, I peered down at all of my friends – they’re all just glaring at me, and suddenly I’m so ashamed that I can’t look at them, so instead my eyes avert to the sanctuary’s exit.”
“Because that’s where you want to be,” Chance chuckled. “Right out the fucking door.”
“Yes, exactly,” I’d said. “But while I’m contemplating my exit, I notice the two flags on either side of the door. One was the American flag, and the other was a Christian flag. Do you know what a Christian flag is?”
“I don’t know. Maybe?’
But Chance would know one if they’d ever seen one. So I explained: “They pull out the Christian flag every Fourth of July, every Vacation Bible School. It comes with its own pledge, which we do right after the pledge of allegiance to the American flag. ‘I pledge allegiance to the Christian flag and to the Savior for whose kingdom it stands; one Savior, crucified, risen, and coming again with life and liberty to all who believe.’ I smiled. “We could add – ‘You must also be white, male, and straight’ – but that part is unspoken.”
Chance’s mouth dropped open. “Jesus – that’s really fucked up. Not exactly separation of Church and State.”
“Oh, we were always looking for loopholes around that, and when we couldn’t find them, we invented them,” I said. “In our upbringing, you never saluted one of those flags without promptly turning to salute the other. They’re posted side-by-side in every Baptist church, so that you don’t even noticed them after a while. But standing up there that night, it was like I was looking at them for the first time. I thought about what they mean, and something just suddenly clicked.”
“You were in a room full of fascist assholes?”
We both chuckled. “Yeah, more or less. But when I looked down at all my glaring friends again, you know what I mostly felt? Sorry for them. So I decided not to grovel. Instead, I preached a different sermon. It turned out to be my last sermon.”
“Goodbye, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish,” Chance started to softly sing.
I’d finally recently read Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (it had been banned as an evangelical for being very skeptical of organized religion) and got the reference. “More or less,” I’d nodded. “I just asked them a few questions. ‘Who here believes that the Ten Commandments should be posted in front of every school and courthouse?’ I asked. They all raised their hands, so I said, ‘Can anyone tell me what all the Ten Commandments are?’ None of them could. ‘Now, what about the disciples – who here believes Jesus had twelve disciples?’ All hands raised. So I said, ‘Can you tell me who they all were? Can you name the first twelve to preach the Gospel across all the world?’ Again – none of them could. I asked, ‘Who here believes that the Bible is the perfect, infallible Word of God – the instruction manual literally given to us by the Maker of the whole Universe?’”
“And all hands raised.”
“And all hands raised. ‘Can anyone quote me ten verses from the Bible? Can anyone quote me five?’ It turns out, none of them could – or they wouldn’t, because they didn’t know what I was getting at and were just sort of flabbergasted that what they’d expected to be my apology was turning into a cross-examination. But I still had one last example – and it was the big one. ‘Who here believes that anyone who doesn’t accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior is going to burn in Hell for all eternity?’ Every hand up – because whatever else an evangelical might think is open to interpretation, this point is not.
“So I said, ‘Listen to the sound of all those cars driving by, right now. Each one of those contains a soul that may be saved or may not. Have you thought about them? Because let me tell you a story. When Thomas Aikenhead, the last atheist martyr executed in England for not believing in God, was being marched along to his death, he was trailed by a priest quoting all of these verses about the horrors of Hell. Aikenhead stopped the proceedings and told the priest that if he actually believed in Hell, he’d be willing to crawl on his hands and knees through shards of glass and stone, across the entire distance of Great Britain, if it meant he could save one loved one from that fate. Hell is eternal torture from which there’s no escape. Think about that, and think about how little any of us actually do to warn others about what’s waiting for them if they don’t come to Christ.’ I actually managed to get an ‘Amen’ out of that.”
“A pretty nervous one, I imagine,” Chance said.
“Yep. I looked at them all directly in the eye – my old friends who, I now realized, were lost in a matrix from which I’d finally been unplugged. I couldn’t help them – because you can’t help someone who can’t see what’s actually going on. The only one I could save in that room was myself. So I summoned this insane burst of adrenaline that I didn’t expect and finished my sermon.
“I said, ‘We believe in the Ten Commandments, but we don’t know what they are. We honor the twelve disciples for fulfilling the Great Commission that has brought us all here tonight, but we don’t remember their names. We believe that the Bible is the Infallible instruction manual from the Creator of the Universe, a love letter and gift to us – yet we do not hide its words in our hearts. We believe that everyone who doesn’t accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior will burn in Hell forever, but we do little-to-nothing to warn anyone. Here’s what we do instead: We show up on Sundays and pat ourselves on the back for having the only true path – all the while, we never actually act like we believe any of it.
“’We call Christianity a relationship with Jesus Christ, but then we make someone apologize for quoting Him directly from a pulpit. Well, I think I’ve decided that I’m not going to apologize for quoting Jesus. I think I’ve decided that I don’t want to be in this club anymore. Jesus said in the Gospel of John that the world will know we are His disciples by our love for one another, and I think we’ve failed that test. And we’ve always been failing that test, nearly since the beginning of Christianity. If we can’t measure up to the standard by which Jesus Himself said we would legitimize his message, then it’s time to admit that his message didn’t stick. I think maybe it’s time to bury him, because it’s what he would have wanted.’”
Chance was grinning, even as they sat stunned. “What did they say?”
“Nothing. I didn’t give them time to say anything. I picked up my Bible and raised it for them all to see. I said, ‘I fear that this book has actually ruined more lives than it’s saved. I’ve no further use for it.’ And I left them all just gaping at me – left my Bible right there at that pulpit. I walked right out of those doors – past the American and Christian flags. I never looked back, and I haven’t walked back into a church. I’ve been on this journey ever since then – where I’m trying to actually learn that it’s like in the real world, away from all the dogma that had me brainwashed into believing that the fishbowl in which we’d been raised was all of reality. I’m still trying to figure out who I am in all of it.”
“Dude – that’s fucking crazy! I can’t imagine the amount of courage it took to get that honest in front of a crowd.”
I was a little surprised to hear Chance say this. “Can’t you?”
“I mean, in a way,” they said after rolling my question around in their head for a moment. “Except, I don’t really get a choice. I am who I am no matter where I am. Look at me – I’m clearly queer, and no amount of pivoting toward all the hetero norms of my gender is going to change that. I can’t hide it – which mostly just makes me feel lonely, because even straight people who are okay with us don’t really know how to talk about it. You could have hidden your crisis of faith from all those people, and they’d have never known. It takes courage to tear the curtains open like that. I hope you’re a little proud of myself.”
I hadn’t thought about it that way. Mostly, I’d just been hiding and ducking when anyone from Emmanuel Baptist – especially Earl – bumped into me in our small town. Neither party seemed to mind keeping a wide girth between us – I didn’t want to hear that they were praying for me; they don’t want to remember the time I literally stopped believing in their Jesus right in front of them as I called us all out on our hypocrisy. Earl was the only one who had really tried to keep a connection, and at one point stopped over at my work to apologize if he’d offended me in any way. I’d thanked him for his apology, and then we stood around awkwardly. When it was clear that I wasn’t going to apologize back, he quietly shuffled away. After that, he certainly quit asking to meet up and pray.
I felt so embarrassed that it had taken me until halfway through my 20s to figure out that the teachings of the evangelical church was all a delusion, when it’s so obvious to anyone on the outside looking in. Somehow, it hadn’t gotten back to my Dad, and I knew he was absolutely not going to be a good person to talk to about all of this. The Ohio church in which he was currently the Minister of Missions actually used to send the Bridge money and prayed year-round for our ministry. I figured that it was just a matter of time before someone told him about my last sermon, but I just couldn’t work up the courage to tell the faithful son of the founder of the Alaskan Baptist Convention that I’d just had a melt-down in front of a congregation that all knew his father’s name. I didn’t feel embarrassed about the pivot I’d taken – just that I’d done all of that laundry in front of my dad’s friends. What a goddamned terrible place to have that happen.
It hadn’t occurred to me until Chance’s reaction to my story that what I had done had actually taken considerable courage – so that even someone who had every reason to be far more perpetually fearful than me for their life would be impressed by what I had done. Somehow by releasing that story to my new friend, their perspective had empowered me to let go of just another evangelical shackle that I didn’t realize I stilled carried. That was a good lesson to learn.
I realized that I grinned gratefully at Chance. “Thank you for telling me that,” I said. “Because honestly – I’m just now beginning to comprehend how much courage it takes to be your true self all the time, for everyone to see. I just don’t know how to do that yet. And I’m afraid of it.”
Chance shrugged. “Me too. But fight, flight, or freeze, right? It’s the only choice any of us ever have.” Chance smiled at me on that day in the cafeteria – accepting and kind. “So how do you identify now? Do you believe in God?”
I’d shrugged. “The jury’s still out. I think I can tell you what I don’t believe more than I can tell you what I actually believe. My initial thought was to find the truth, now that I knew that Christianity isn’t the truth. But I’m starting to think that it’s more complicated than that. Or maybe simpler. Maybe there isn’t just one way. I’ve started researching Christianity’s construction – the way that the Bible was actually formed and written, the whens and the hows. Biblical infallibility falls apart under the most basic scrutiny. I can’t believe any of that nonsense anymore – it just doesn’t make any sense. God, in His infallible perfection, comes up with a plan in which so few are saved… What a shitty deity.”
“Totally,” Chance said. “I love the idea of a God who’s always there, who’s always got your back – but not one in which terms and conditions apply.”
“And the Christian God is all about terms and conditions. He’s either all powerful and sadistic, or He’s not all powerful and let things get wildly out of hand. Either way, He sucks. But there’s something to Jesus that I still admire, and I’ve been trying to explore why that is – if there’s actually anything to that, or if I’m just clinging on stubbornly, because I have to believe that the circus that was my upbringing actually brought something useful to my life.”
“Why can’t it be both?” Chance asked.
“I mean, maybe it can. But I’ve been thinking about it rather obsessively. For my undergrad thesis, I actually wrote a screenplay based on the Gospel of Mark, where I completely rewrote Jesus’s origin story while staying faithful to his words in the gospel texts. I depict Jesus as a former fundamentalist preacher – the son of a famous pastor of the Jerry Falwell-variety. Jesus has a wake-up call after a near-death experience in which John the Baptist – a civil rights activist – saves his life. Jesus completely redeems himself and transforms into a modern day civil rights activist who stands up for minorities.” I tensed up, nervous to admit the next part: “Primarily, he seeks disciples from the gay community, to whom he is truly repentant.”
Chance nodded thoughtfully. “I like the idea of a savior who actually must repent to his disciples – who’s just trying to make things right. That’s a messiah who’s learned how to listen.”
“And he does. Just as he’s teaching them, they’re teaching him too.”
“Teaching him how to be an ally,” Chance said.
I hadn’t heard that word before, but I liked it. “Ally?”
“A safe straight person who stands up for our community,” Chance said.
I considered this new vocabulary word and nodded. “Yeah. He has to learn how to humble himself, shut up, listen, and to be an ally.”
“So your screenplay was autobiographical, then?” Chance laughed, without a shred of judgment or rebuke.
I smiled back. “Your own personal Jesus, right?”
“Sounds incredible. I’d love to read that.”
“I’ll email it to you,” I said. “I did so much research writing it – learned about the history of the early church. I’ve learned that there were many ancient Christian teachers and theologians who did not agree on all the points in the Nicene Creed, which basically solidified the Holy Trinity and so many other tenants of Christianity as its still exists. Those Christians who refused to sign the Creed were driven into exile – banished by Constantine, who needed Christianity to have a singular set of beliefs in order to expand his empire. I think that maybe that’s what I am: Someone who can’t believe in any of the nonsensical theology, while still loving a lot of what Jesus was about – you know, the Sermon on the Mount and all that Love One Another shit.”
“Yeah, that’s good stuff,” Chance said. “How a clear leftist radical turned into a Republican savior is something I’ll never understand.”
“I don’t understand it either, and I wonder how it took me so long to come around to that. Jesus has far more value outside of Christian theology’s framework,” I said. “And maybe all of this will change as I continue on my path – maybe I’ll turn on Jesus too and realize that he was just another nut. But for now, I think that’s how I identify. I’m an Exiled Christian – unlearning everything I’ve learned, making up for lost time. Trying to actually be Christlike for once.”
I’ll never forget the look that Chance gave me when I confessed it all to them. They’d crossed their arms thoughtfully, rolled it around in their head for a while. Their smile bore a trace of knowing, and with that knowing – sadness. “So what does your super-conservative Christian family think of the new you?”
My wince made Chance chuckle softly. “I haven’t told many of them yet,” I confessed. “My brother knows, because he’s here in Juneau now and started processing his own crisis of faith around the same time I was. We’ve been pretty transparent with each other about it all, and he’s been a lifesaver. My wife wasn’t raised evangelical, but she drank that Kool-Aid pretty hard before we got married – and that’s mostly because I shoved it down her throat. Now I think she’s pretty overwhelmed by what’s happening to me. She’s calling it a stage, hoping that I’ll come back around. But I don’t think I’m going to. I think I’m turning into a new person.”
“I get that,” Chance said gently.
It wasn’t lost on me, the conditions under which Chance could relate to what I was saying. I don’t think I truly understood irony until that moment. I continued, “Everyone else – especially my parents – I’m afraid to tell. Because I know it will break their hearts, because I know that they won’t understand. They’ll just want to pray over me and spit Bible verses at me, like I don’t know them all already just as good as they do. So I have no idea how I’m going to tell them, or when. I’m kinda playing it by ear for now. But mostly, I’m really dreading them finding out.”
Chance had leaned back in their chair, their face settling into a gentle grin that made clear that they had caught the irony far sooner than I did. “You might say you’re in the closet,” they said.
I’d thrown up my arms. “Am I allowed to use that term? I know it’s not the same thing – hell, my mom once told me that she’d rather me have lost my faith than to be gay. But fuck me, it’s about as close to that experience as I’ve ever gotten.”
Chance was quiet for a long time. They had a way of being silent very loudly, if that makes sense – I could practically hear their thoughts churning around and around their head. I wondered later if they had been gathering the same kind of courage that I’d summoned to unload my deconversion journey on them. After a while, they’d answered, “I can’t tell you if it’s completely the same. But since you told me your story, is it okay if I tell you mine?”
I felt a flush of both exhilaration and panic all at once. Obviously, I was elated to hear Chance’s perspective, which I knew would be completely outside of my own experiences. I was honored to just listen, that we were finally at the point in our flowering friendship where it was okay to share such things. On the other hand, how could I not feel nervous that I’d do something wrong when listening? After all, I’d never been taught to listen; I wasn’t sure that I knew how, except to look for gaps to insert Jesus. But settling into Chance’s story was, well, a chance that I knew I couldn’t turn down. Whether they meant to or not, Chance was providing me an opportunity to practice putting aside my own agenda when engaged with another human being. “I’m listening,” I’d told them, and I’d actually meant it.
I won’t reveal Chance’s story in these pages, because it is not mine to tell. But what I came away with on that day in the university cafeteria wasn’t just their story, but our story – everyone’s story. Of being comfortably on one path before being unexpectedly T-boned by life and finding yourself on another. Of struggling with identity, of trying on different versions of yourself to see which one fit. Of a life still struggling to make sense of it all, trying to figure out the next steps and the next phase, of summoning the courage in themselves to take steps outside of their comfort zone and expand their own experiences by listening to other people about theirs.
By the time Chance was done sharing, I’d taken in a beautiful account of a human life, not dissimilar to mine at all – a queer person’s story that led to them to this cafeteria, looking at a former Baptist preacher who used to spew the most vile things about gay people and actually seeing a safe person to whom they could open up about their journey. Inside, I was just like them – and they like me. And I realized that sitting here, talking to Chance in this cafeteria, had been another crucial learning experience – that they were teaching me how to really listen to another person, to simple accept them, and to hold space for them.
I’d never felt so human. I’d spent all my life being told that our humanity is fallible and untrustworthy – that my soul was so black with sin God couldn’t even see me unless I was covered in Jesus’s redeeming blood. To actually feel something empowering about myself – my humanity – felt so liberating. No one had ever given me that freedom the way that Chance did on that day.
Chance’s story weaved about until they’d settled on a word that made them beam proudly – like simply saying it out loud freed them. “Genderqueer” – someone who identifies with both male and female qualities without drawing a line in the sand between them. I sat enraptured as Chance wrapped up their own story: “I also am thinking about how to tell my family about all the ways I’m trying to figure out my own identity. They know I’m gay, but this is something different – something new, that I’m not even sure how to define. And honestly, it’s all unfinished – because I’m unfinished, like we are all unfinished. I might wake up in the morning and completely change my mind about it all, but I don’t think I will.”
“Yeah, I don’t think I will either,” I said. “It would be like walking backwards. Or as my brother puts it – like a colony now free returning to the empire that had enslaved it.”
“Yes!” Chance agreed enthusiastically. “When you said that this isn’t a phase, I get that. I’m turning into a completely new person. I’m genderqueer – and every day and with every new experience I have, I’m exploring what that means. So I really resonate when you call yourself an Exiled Christian – it’s where you’re at in your journey, and you’re still evolving. And we’ve evolved to this place, right here – together. So here we are, an Exiled Christian and an Genderqueer, having lunch together when you should be working and I should be studying. I hope that both our families will one day hear us and accept us.”
“You put it that way, it sounds like the start of a joke,” I said, smiling ear-to-ear. “An Exiled Christian and a Genderqueer walk into a bar.”
Chance threw back their head and laughed. “We’ll have to think of the ending,” they said. Something about that laugh and that retort – the way they’d settled into their seat with a deep, relieved sigh – told me that they’d needed to release their story to me just as badly as I’d needed to release my story to them. We now carried pieces of each others’ journey within us, like cherished gifts. I knew that even if we were separated by years, we always would carry those pieces.
For the rest of that semester, leading all the way to what is now our last night night together, Chance gave me yet another cherished gift: They taught me how to be an ally.
And I don’t mean that in some sort of Obi-Wan/Luke way – it’s not like we sat down, meditated, and talked about the tenants of being a straight ally for all things LGBTQ+. I’m sure that if I’d asked, Chance would have done something like that – but it wasn’t their style. Their style was loaning books to me (Leslie Feinberg had been so helpful), dropping me titles of movies that I devoured (“But I’m a Cheerleader” – WOW), and usually barely talking about being an Exiled Christian or Genderqueer at all. It was the way that Chance just completely accepted me, so that I was able to feel safe being no one else but myself with them. It was giving me an example that was teaching me how to hold the same space for them.
And before I knew it, Chance and I were doing crazy things like driving down Egan Drive in the middle of the night, singing Les Miserables together at the top of our lungs. Somehow, I’d loved that play more than my musically-inclined family did; when none of them wanted to sing it with me, I used to crank it up while I drove down the highway and sing it to myself – boisterous enough to shake my windshield. Turns out, Chance had done something similar. I’d never even dreamed of sharing that with anyone before – and neither had Chance. That’s just one example of many of how Chance and I held space for each other while sometimes having to remind ourselves that we were not literally twins.
Through it all, I’m learning that this is what it means to be an ally, and it’s a little ironic: It is actively, honestly, and openly treating other people the way that they wish to be treated. It is providing and holding space where they can process what being true to one’s self actually means. It is standing up for their right to do so – and sometimes, standing up is as simple as the act of standing with. It is encouraging people to be themselves, free of judgment.
It has been, so far, perhaps the most valuable lesson that I’ve ever learned in my entire life.
After tonight, that lesson will inevitably continue – because I know that I’ve got so much more to learn. But soon, Chance will be on an airplane back to New York – and that means that the lesson will have to evolve. And this part is a bit like Luke and Obi-Wan – it will be time to go find another teacher, while also figuring out my path forward from this exciting, hilarious, beautiful, educational, and first authentically human experience I think I’ve ever had. That’s been all Chance. Now, I need to find a way to keep growing in the absolutely messy but freeing experience of simply allowing myself to be human. If I can do that, I think I’ll be able to figure out who my authentic self actually is.
Because I’ve no doubt now – this is the way, not the cheap salvation and blind submission that I’d been taught. I want to learn how to embody the freedom I now feel so that I may never forget what it was like to be a slave.
I’m starting to think that if someone living as deep in the evangelical well as me had managed to crawl out, then there have to be others too. After all, my brother had believed as sincerely as me, and he also managed to punch through the walls of that toxic darkness. So far, he’s been my only guide, as we struggle to make sense of any of it. Surely more like us struggle with a path forward, too afraid to let their families know the truth, because it will absolutely destroy them. I’ve been so fortunate to connect with Chance; exiled Christians all need a Chance Encounter: Someone outside of our suffocating upbringing with the patience, grace, and intuition to show us a better way – just by being themselves.
Maybe I can help other exiled Christians all find their Chances. But if that’s something that I’m going to do, I need to know that I can survive the next test. Discovering what it actually means to be human has not all been easy; there are parts of that pain that I’ve yet to discuss with my friend – parts that I’m scared to discuss with them. Because for as much as we’ve held space for each other, I have come to understand just how deeply the queer community is exactly that – a community that stands up for, defends, and honors each other. It’s such the opposite of the evangelical community – a place where they throw you to the dogs the moment that you stray even an inch from conformity.
I know I’ve much to atone for — especially toward Chance’s community. Maybe I’m still thinking too much like a Christian: Literally the first thing my religion taught me is how to internalize shame – that no matter what I did, it would never be good enough for God. I was told to stop trying to do anything on my own, except in His service – and that we should be repentant whenever we strayed from that path.
But in this case, shame as a motivator feels more than simply my dead faith’s residue. I cannot deny that being held accountable for one’s actions feels pretty fair – because for me, who had been groomed to be an evangelist since the day I was born, the Christian path entailed preaching some really terrible things that hurt many people for whom it was not safe to speak out. Kids like Chance had been banished to conversion therapy based on my whistle-blowing; even after all these years, many of them have completely vanished, so that I can’t find them on social media or anywhere. Moreover, I’d taken Michael by the hand and guided him one more step that lead him to his closing conclusions. The farther away I drift from my upbringing, their ghosts whisper in my ears when I try to sleep.
Evangelical Christianity will tell you that only Jesus can redeem you from your sins – that His blood will cover you so that God can look upon you. These days, I’m not too interested in whether or not that God notices me. I just don’t think He’s real anymore – if there is a God, it is nothing like that thing whom we were taught to worship, Who would gaze from His throne across the vast cosmos to this tiny little ball and actually give a fuck about who loves who, except to be pleased that we love at all. I don’t want His Son’s blood to cover me either – if that guy was real, he had some pretty good shit to say that bears absolutely zero relation to the machine of enslavement that the Church clearly has always been. I think he’d find the idea of his blood covering me as disgusting as I now do.
Here’s one thing Jesus said that I actually think is perfect: New paths start on a much better foot if they begin by asking forgiveness from those you have hurt. But the Church subverts that point by turning it into a divine mandate, so that humans forgiving each other is a half-measure – a requirement before seeking God’s forgiveness. Today, asking God to forgive offenses that were never leveled against Him in the first place feels like the half-measure. Because making wrong things as right as you can, and learning along the way how, is a goal toward which we who said those terrible things from pulpits must strive. I neither want nor need God to redeem me – but rather the ones I have injured; that feels like a much more authentically human experience than the path I’d been placed on by those who’d also been placed there by those who had been placed there themselves. It is time to break that chain.
I can’t ask forgiveness from Michael, Camilla, or all the others – they’ve vanished completely from my life, or they’re dead. I couldn’t even count them all if I wanted to – who knows the tidal waves of self-hatred that I’d perpetuated every time I’d preached “hate the sin, love the sinner” propaganda. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to silence those ghosts – or if I even should. But when I think about Chance’s community and the way that they seem to lift each other up, a deep longing inside me compells me to confess those ghosts to the community that had been waiting all along to welcome them. It was a community that I’d taught my flock to fear and to hate – as I taught those silently struggling with their gender and sexual identities to fear and hate themselves. I have spoken words for which I must now hold myself accountable.
All this to say – it’s time to test the limits of redemption.
Sitting in front of this crackling fire, in my colleague’s house, Chance asks me, “What’s on your mind, bro?” They give me a curious look, and I know why: We’d just been engaged in some random, geeky conversation like we always were – trying to avert the swelling sadness we both feel that this was going to be goodbye for a long while. Suddenly, I’d sort of drifted off in this contemplation, where I decided that I ought to go for it. Chance has noticed.
There’s a look in their eye, though. It’s curious, but also soft – maybe even a little fragile. I wonder if this is another crack in our wall that was about to come down – that maybe they had something that they wanted to tell me too. But they’d just granted the patience and grace to let me go first. No one lets you go first in Church.
I smile. “Looks like we’re coming to the end here, dude.” We share a wince, then a grimace. “So I guess I’ve been thinking about anything else I’d say to you before we part ways for a while. I find that there’s something that I’d like share, if you’d indulge me.”
“Woah, so this is like the serious speech part?” Chance says, shifting. “We’re finally there?”
“If that’s okay. It’s starting to make my head go a little cloudy, trying to keep it in.”
“Yeah, it’s fine.” They smile reassuringly. “I’m just making sure that this is where we are.” They settle in their seat and direct their eyes right into mine, which is Chance’s way of letting me know they’re listening.
My hands, I realize, tightly wring. Besides Earl, this is the only time I’ve ever released this story into a space between me and another human. But perhaps I must have faith.
I release my hands with a deep exhale and begin. “I’ve been thinking a lot about something my Dad told me once. I’ll never forget that day – he told me that I needed to be careful about watching old movies, because that’s how the queers will hook me in.”
“I guess he was right,” Chance correctly asserts.
“The thought had crossed my mind,” I laugh, and it helps me relax. “But that’s not the part that stayed with me. It’s what he told me next – that sometimes, following the Lord comes at a cost. Well, I don’t believe in the Lord anymore – but the gist still might have some truth in it. Sometimes, doing the right thing comes with a cost. I think I’m starting to figure out what the cost is. Because there surely is one. And I really need to tell you about what that cost is. There’s no one else in the world I can tell it to first, if I’m ever going to tell it at all.”
Chance rhythmically nods as I talk, absorbing it all. “Okay,” they say – their tone inquisitive but kind. “You have my attention.”
“Thank you. I’ll try to keep it short.” Another deep exhale as I feel a little more safe. “Hanging out with you has really taught me how to listen. I can’t tell you how much that has helped me. To suddenly not be thinking about how I am going to lead you to the Truth, but to instead consider your perspectives as a fellow participant of the universe… I’ve never felt so connected to another person. It’s like I see the whole world with new eyes. Because suddenly I realize that Earth isn’t passing away – it’s all we have. It’s changed my walks on the beach – I’m picking up garbage now, thinking about my carbon footprint, reading Al Gore. If all this sounds crazy because these things seem like just basic parts of life to you, then maybe that gives you an idea of just how insulated I was.”
Chance hasn’t budged an inch. I pause, gather myself, and push through it: “And in that insulation, my friend – I’ve come to feel this increasing dread about some terrible things I’ve done from behind a pulpit. The horrible things I said about your community – over and over again. It’s what I’d been trained to do, but that’s no excuse for saying the things I said, turning over friends who never came back. If you’d have known be back then, you’d have had every reason to be afraid of me.”
Chance’s face is a blank slate. They lean forward, resting their chin in their hands.
I say, “I can’t be sure, but I don’t think you’re my first gay friend.”
“Guaranteed,” Chance says.
I nod. “I think that my first gay friend was a guy named Michael. He was a kid who looked up to me, who watched me cast one line of judgment after another against this queen bee among the queer goths in my high school. She put me in my place, but I was firm. Michael came up and asked me if it was better to be dead than gay. I thought about my answer for days, but never once in that pondering did I ever think to listen to what Michael was actually asking me. I was convinced, after seeking God, that the answer was that it was better to be dead. And I told him so.” It’s too late to swallow it down, so I simple push it out: “He killed himself a few years back. Hadn’t spoken to him in years. But that’s… really been bothering me. And the longer I stay in this freedom, that more that guilt is feeling like a shackle. And I’m starting to realize that it’s a shackle that I deserve.”
Somehow I’m not crying. It’s a goddamned miracle. I can’t gauge Chance’s reaction to any of this, because I can’t lift my eyes toward them. I look everywhere in the room but at them. “And I know that you’re not Michael, and that you don’t speak for every queer person. I know that there’s so much more to you and our friendship than that side of it – you’re just a great fucking hang. But having you around has really helped me, and I don’t know who else I’m supposed to apologize to.” I bow my head – as if to pray. “I have been on the wrong side for so long – and now that I’m not, I’ve made a promise to myself to never be on that side again. It’s a promise I’ll make to you too. I am so, so very sorry for the hurtful things I’ve said, that has hurt so many people.”
We are silent for a long time, the stillness only interrupted by the fire’s flickering shadows – until I finally dare to look up at my friend, whose eyes squint as they continue to processe everything I’ve just confessed. I remain silent, because I have nothing more to say. It’s Chance’s turn, and I will patiently wait – I know to do that because Chance has showed me how. I do not know what else to do, except to cautiously watch them roll it all around in their head. If I am honest, I don’t think I can look away – and I wonder if that’s what courage is actually like. We were taught that courage is lay it all at God’s feet, not actually facing that which frightens us. Every time, we run to God. Tonight, I think I’m finally figuring out what it’s like to run for myself – even if it comes at a cost.
Because if I’m not capable of forgiving myself for any of the things I’d said and done under Yahweh’s banner, I need to figure out what I’m going to do about that to keep going. I suspect that many like me just go back into the Church, because the guilt would otherwise just be too great. I’m thinking about specific Christians I’ve known over the years who may have been at that crossroad in their life and just backed as far away from it as they could, lest those ghosts eat them alive (which is how I now hope that James Dobson will one day slowly and agonizingly die). I don’t want to look in the mirror and see the same tired look in my eyes that I’d seen in certain pastors, who just seemed exhausted to be still preaching all that hate but in too deep to stop.
If Chance can still exist with me in their world after knowing about all the terrible words against their community that I’d uttered in front of hundreds and hundreds of people for so many years – maybe I actually have a chance.
After a while, Chance speaks with a certain decisiveness. It’s soft spoken, but with some gravity of a mind already made up and with something to say. “In light of how much time we’ve spent singing Les Miserables together at the top of our lungs, you may find it hard to believe this – but I actually am a pretty introverted person. No, really – I don’t let people in. I usually don’t try hard to reach out or to connect. It’s been very hard being me throughout my life. I’ve spent a long time looking for a tribe. And I love the tribe I’ve found in the queer community, but sometimes it drives me crazy too. People have this idea that our community is a welcoming place to congregate – and it often is. But not all the time. We fight among ourselves viciously – because we are all working through so much trauma and bullshit that don’t know how else to communicate. We are a group of deeply wounded people – and that’s because of the sorts of sermons you used to preach. That’s partially why I don’t let people in. It’s hard to know who to trust.”
Chance leans forward, reaches out, and squeezes my knee. “You’ve got a gift, Danél. I am a misanthropic misfit, and I have had more fun with you than I’ve had with anyone for a really long time. And talking to you has helped me process a lot about myself. Because that’s what you do, man – you actually listened to me, spoke some wisdom as you shared your journey with me that’s gotten me thinking about my own journey. I have uttered things to you that I don’t talk about with anyone, because you offer a safe place just by being yourself. You were clearly meant to be an ally. I just can’t believe that a place like the Church that you’ve been describing – the one that has made me feel ashamed to be myself – would ever be able to contain you. It doesn’t deserve you. Whatever harm you’ve done, it speaks so much about your courage that you got out. I see you in there, man.”
They lean back, cross their arms, and smile deeply at me. “Keep looking for the misfits. Keep looking for the outcasts. The ones that don’t want to talk – the ones like me. Not just the ones in my community, either – look everywhere for people who don’t seem like they want to talk. Because everyone wants to talk – everyone wants community. And if they don’t, it’s probably because they’ve never felt safe enough with someone else to talk. So keep holding safe space for them.” They laugh. “Just be like Jesus, am I right?”
I throw up my hands. “Right?!”
They point at me. “Keep an eye out for the misfits, the outcasts, the loners – wherever you see them. The more you do, the more you will find your tribe. And I’ll tell you this, brother – it is an honor to have you in my tribe. And that doesn’t have anything to do with me being Genderqueer or you being an Exiled Christian. I don’t care about who you were – I only know who you are now. You’re just a really cool motherfucker.”
A silence settles around us. How can I adequately describe the way I feel now – the new thing being born inside my chest. I guess the best way I can put it is that a little more of the weight I was carrying has unshackled itself from me. I realize how much better forgiveness feels when it comes from a person than when it is whispered up to a God who demands forgiveness lest He take His hand of safety away from us. The longer I’m away from His grip, the more I see what a tiny, petty thing that the Christian god is – especially compared to a moment when someone whom you have wronged forgives you for no reason, except that they feel in their heart that they should.
“So here’s what I think I’m hearing,” I say, after I finally return from this blissful daze from which I float. “An Exiled Christian and a Genderqueer walk through the bar.” I smile at my friend. “Whatever happens next, they walk in together.”
“I,” Chance nods, “will drink to that.” And we do, until it is time to say goodbye. I stay with them until it is time to board, still nerding out and holding space. We hug fiercely when the moment comes. I watch their plane fly away. I’m silent as I return to my colleague’s house and sit in front of the fire, staring at the empty space that Chance filled. I finally whisper a promise to myself that I will never be on the wrong side again. A grown man on a new path then cries to the rising sun over Auke Bay.
The next day, when I sit down at my desk, I see a picture of Chance tacked onto the wall beside my computer. It’s the picture for the “Meet Your Student Employees” profile that we post in the staff lounge. In the picture, they lay on their back over a massive boulder; their hair falls over the edge as they look up and smile mischievously. Underneath the picture, Chance has written, “You know you miss me already.”
A grown man then cries again, as another shackle falls.
Read Part Five — “The Church of Denunciation” here.
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