Straight Deconstruction: My Escape from Evangelical Homophobia. Part 5 – “The Church of Denunciation”

Read Part Four — “An Exiled Christian and a Genderqueer Walk Into a Bar” here.

It is 2010. I am 29 years old and living in Mount Vernon, Washington where, for the last eighteen months or so, I’ve been working through my shit with gloriously backbreaking manual labor on a farm.

And I think I’m falling in love with a boy.

I’m watching him right now. We stand with the surprisingly invested crowd that he and I have assembled together. They raise their hands in mock praise, satisfied smirks on their face rivaling my own – implying that they’re enjoying Nathan’s song nearly as much as I am.

He’s just as in on the joke as everyone in this room – maybe more so. But god damn, this man is a hell of a showman – it’s clear that he’s had a background in theater, and that he learned from it. The man plays his acoustic guitar so serenely, rocking back and forth with a smooth, reverent sway that mimics the scene we are here to utterly deconstruct; closing his eyes tranquilly, he coos us with one of the praise songs he wrote just for this occasion:

“Sing it with me, friends – and let’s all come on – I mean, to – Him together.” And I do, because I am under Nathan’s complete control:

“Penetrate me, Lord – go deep inside me. / I wanna feel you up in my (s)hole. / Penetrate me lord, let your love burst loose inside me. / Never pull it out, Jesus.”

Because, you see, we’ve realized from our many chats about evangelical culture that any song can be made into a praise and worship ballad whenever its closing signature lyrics is simply a reverent “Jesus.” Today, we are here (among many other reasons) to demonstrate that point.

Maybe it’s just the sheer rebelliousness of all of this – the adrenaline that comes with deeply satisfying catharsis. Maybe it is just ironic, a little too perfect that my own father used to be a praise-and-worship leader, just as Nathan had been. Maybe I’m finally opening up a little bit to the concept that spirituality is okay when encouraged on my own terms. Maybe meeting Nathan has convinced me in past lives or alternate universes – and that in either scenario, Nathan and I had likely been passionate lovers. But when I look at him, all I can think about is the lust with which he intoxicates me when I listen to him sing.

The more I take in his broad frame, the curves in his scruffy cheeks, the strands of hair sprouting out of his tightly-pulled ponytail – the way he owns this part as fearlessly as I hope to soon own mine: All I want to do is walk straight toward him, pluck that guitar out of his hands (as beautifully as he uses it), replace it with myself, and throw my arms around him so that we may formally begin the passionate foreplay that will end with me bending him over the makeshift altar we’ve constructed for today. We’d proceed to make love over the banner we’d draped over that altar – which reads, “The First Church of Denunciation.” The best part is, I’m pretty sure that everyone in this room would burst into applause to see us finally consummate our union.

God, I may actually have half a boner right now, just thinking about it.

It’s a twist that I certainly hadn’t expected when I relocated from Juneau to Mount Vernon in 2009 to work on an old college buddy’s farm for a season or two. When it was clear that Juneau was not going to be a big enough town for me and my ex-wife to inhabit together, it was only right that I be the one to leave – because I was the one who’d really wanted to. It was painfully obvious to me that if either of us were going to continue our journeys on paths that didn’t signal our own self-destruction, this marriage – which began when we were twenty-one-year-old children brought together under the pretext of God’s will – needed to end. We’d spent five years hating living with each other, me only holding on because I thought that God had ordained our union. When the veil of that toxic delusion lifted from my eyes, I started seeing the components of my evangelical upbringing that could no longer be salvaged.

My marriage had been such a casualty. I fear that it had been a picture that I ultimately saw a little more distinctly than she did. I quickly learned with absolute clarity the price that I would have to pay for doing the right thing: No matter how much you know that you need to leave something that is clearly toxic in order to salvage your soul, the dissolution of a marriage is soul-crushing. You just feel bad all the time – exhaustively shitty – as you try to suppress the absolutely devastating shame that festers as you feel more and more and more like the monster that you keep being told that you are.

From that situation, I gained a new compass by which I measured both my sadness and guilt. I remain consumed by all the terrible ways I’d handled that separation – because I hadn’t known how to handle it like an adult. But I’m also learning that if I’ve ever regretted walking away, I don’t now – and I never will again. Because this thing I feel for Nathan now, as his first anti-praise songs ends, makes me understand that with time, distance, ten-hour days pulling weeds out of the grown and harvesting vegetables, and falling madly in some kind of love with the man with whom you’ve spent hours and hours bunching beets and as you process your religious trauma together – steps toward healing are attainable.

I still cannot comprehend how this has happened. I’ve heard people jokingly talk about their “exceptions” – that everyone is on a spectrum that I’ve come to deeply appreciate and defend. But as far as my own experiences and preferences, it’s been clear that I’m your typical straight white guy. Nathan is the first and only man who’s made my stomach tingle in the same way it does when a beautiful woman notices me in a crowd and smiles. But that’s exactly what Nathan is doing right now, and I get the exact same tingle. It’s the first time a boy has ever created that kind of blush, and I like it.

As the song ends and everyone lowers their hands, he winks and me before nodding to one of our attendees who sits next to the slide projector. They move the next set of lyrics to the glowing screen behind Nathan. I’m a little jealous when he directs that charming smile of his to our congregation. “It’s a little funny,” he says casually, briefly breaking character. “You all seem to be way more into this than anyone ever was at church.” Everyone laughs, and he strums his guitar again and glides smoothly back into worship leader-mode. “Now, the next song is a good-old-fashioned call-and-response. I need you all to repeat after me.” He sings. “I am,” and nods at us.

“I am,” we sing.

He nods and smiles. He sings, “Completely.”

“Completely,” we softly echo.

He closes his eyes, as if in deep prayer. “Emotionally dependent on you.”

“On you,” we coo, and all our hands are raised.

He takes it from there: “I can’t make a decision without you, Lord. / I need the vagueness of your Word/
I can’t function as a person without you, Jesus. / Your word makes no sense when I read it, Lord. / So I’ll have someone tell me what it means. / I’ll put it on a note in my kitchen / to remind me that you are King.”

Oh, the work we all have to do to not break out into laughter. But he holds us hypnotically in the moment, leading us with each note into the reverent state of irreverence that feels like cleansing fire. “I am,” he sings.

“I am,” we repeat.



“Emotionally dependent on you.”

“On you.”

Smiling smugly, Nathan winks at me again. I want to marry this man.

I’d spent my first summer in Mount Vernon mostly just working my ass off in the day and researching publishers at night who might be interested in my novel. All I wanted to do was keep my mind busy, so that I didn’t have to think about how much I’d committed against so many people. Before my separation, I’d written the novel – because it was the only way I could think to process all of the overwhelming changes that were happening to me. Walking away from your faith, realizing the freedom that you have, comprehending those things which I needed to let go – it’s a terrifying, exhilarating, and at all times dizzying experience of the whole universe rapidly expanding all around me. I needed a way to contain it, to process it. All my life, I’d been a very gifted writer, and thinking creatively had always been a safe place for me. So that’s what I’d done.

The subsequent novel wasn’t great, but I figured that it was something that might resonate with audiences on a similar path. I did a pretty good job projecting my own struggles in the characters – not least of all in the way that they loved all the same literature that had helped me out of the evangelical maze. It told the story of two lost souls who represented different sides of myself locked in philosophical conversation together, so that they become sounding boards; each chapter is prefaced with a poem that resonated with me as an undergrad, as a tool to set the mood of each scene. I’m grateful for this novel for the way that it was a safe place into which I could retreat as my marriage crumbled around me.

All this to say, the summer of 2009 had consisted basically of two routines that kept me in a distracted head space: In the daytime – pulling weeds, harvesting crops, attending farmers markets, and working on my Spanish with the absolutely fantastic and hilarious pick-crew. I was never one for manual labor, and I went home sore every night – but I absolutely loved this gig as exactly the mind-numbing, repetitive grunt work that a recently divorced ex-pastor required to officially clock out of my own thoughts. In the evenings – editing and submitting my novel to every publisher I could find.

Having no idea how one finds a publisher, I’d ordered a copy of The Publishers Almanac and started in the A’s. I began work on the farm in May; by September, I’d made it to the T’s – and I was harvesting beets on a rainy day and up to my knees in mud when a publisher from the P’s called me. I’d answered the phone thinking the call was another order coming from my boss – so it took me a while to process that this was an agent offering me a book deal. I blinked in silence several times before it occurred to me that they were waiting for an answer. I looked down at my clothes, caked in mud. My hands held dangling beets, as the rain pelted me from above. “Let me call you back,” I’d said. And I did.

It took all year for my novel to come out, of course – there’s the publication deal, the signatures, the design, the editing, talking about promotional strategies. Being a small indie press, my publisher left me largely responsible for securing the copyrights to the poems that prefaced each of my chapters – and that had taken time. I spent all those months pacing for the moment when I could hold the finished product in my hands. When the release date finally arrived, I waited frantically at my mailbox for my own copy to appear. My old friend Chance was the first person to tell me that they’d received their copy, and I called them later that night so we could geek out together. When my own copy arrived a few days later – on July 20th, 2010, to be exact – all I could do was hold it in my trembling hands as my eyes welled up with tears.

I really needed this victory. No matter how much I hated the cover, to take in a new book’s smell and realize that it emanates from words you have written that someone has paid you to publish, so that a piece of yourself may be released into the world to spread its own wings and find new meaning with news audiences – is the single-most empowering moment I’ve ever experienced in my life. I clung to that book like it was a holy relic, because it was – and slept with it that night under my pillow.

I decided to take my book to the farm the next day, to show it to my boss and the handful of friends that I’d made over the last two seasons. My boss, a dear friend from college named Kai, was the primary person I wanted to have look at it (“You’re a treasure, Danél,” he’d said sincerely, patting me on the back), but I intended to pass it around to some of the other people I worked with – especially the college kids who spent most of the day in the pack shed, cleaning and bunching the product I brought in as one of the pick crew.

Most of them were the same folks who’d worked there last year – college kids just trying to make some money while having lunch breaks where they could puff some ganja. A few faces were new to this season – including a fellow named Nathan, who was certainly not college-age. He had more responsibilities than the kids, and he seemed to be friends with the pack shed supervisor – maybe someone passing through looking for seasonal work. He was professional to a fault – an easygoing but steady worker who seemed dependable. I often caught him eyeing me from across the pack shed, sizing me up. In fact, we spent most of our early interactions eyeing each other with some suspicion like two tigers trapped in a cage together.

I estimated that he was a few years older than me. His beard wasn’t nearly as long as mind – which is the sort of thing alpha tigers notice, but he was in better shape (divorce compels a man to let himself go a little). A beret perpetually covered his head that seemed impracticable for farming compared to my outback hat, but he wore the look well. He mostly kept to himself; while never giving off an unfriendly vibe, it was clear that he didn’t enter into this job to socialize. I had a similar disposition when I needed to be in the pack-shed, so we got along. Mostly, we’d have a few superficial interactions and then get on with our respective days.

Needless to say, Nathan wasn’t a priority on the day that I brought in my novel to show off. By the time I got to him, we were packing up a rented Penske truck for a farmer’s market. One of the college kids handed my book back to me as they passed with some of the cargo, and Nathan, washing his hands by the sink, saw him do it. He eyed the book in my hands curiously. “What do you have there?”

I made damn sure that he’d dried his hands before I passed him my brand new book. “If you’re looking for a good read, this one is hot off the press,” I said.

He took it in his hands and winced a little at the cover (did I mention how much I hate the cover?). “What’s it about?” he said.

“The description on the back is pretty good,” I said (I didn’t write it, but the publisher had done alright). “And note the picture of the author on the back.”

He did, and it took him a few moments to process that a younger me smiled up at him. “Wait,” he said. “Is this you?”

I nodded. “It is.”

“You’re a published novelist?”

I nodded again. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of answering that question. “Yes, I am,” I beamed.

His increasingly impressed face flicked back and forth between me and my book. “I’m on my break. You mind if I take a look?” he said.

I had to load the truck anyway. “Take your time,” I said. He leaned against the wall and flipped through pages as I worked, and I’d occasionally steal a glance at him. He wasn’t just casually curious, but scanned the pages sincerely and thoughtfully.

“What are the poems about?” he said.

“Every chapter is prefaced with a poem that I loved in college,” I said. “It was my way of saying thanks.”

“Oh, so you did go to college,” he said, still scanning. “You struck me as a little older than the rest of these guys. The bald head was the giveaway.”

“Figured you were too,” I said, still hauling boxes of produce up and down the ramp. “College kids are too cool for a beret.”

Nathan chuckled. After a few minutes of flipping, he froze on one particular page as his eyes widened. He pointed to the words that had given him pause. “This is a poem by Kevin Max Smith.”

“Yes,” I said, suddenly intrigued that he’d read the name out loud.

He looked up at me in the truck at last, with a curiosity in his eyes that I hadn’t seen before – some new kind of hesitation, even skepticism. “Kevin Max Smith of DC Talk?”

Now it was my turn to pause, quickly set down the box I carried, and return his incredulous gaze. I felt something in me tense, in exactly the same way that I’d seen him tighten when he’d read the name. I grinned cautiously at him. “Yes,” I confirmed.

And we just stood there looking at each other for a few moments.

Now, a brief history lesson for the uninitiated:

If you were an evangelical teenager in the 90s, you listened to DC Talk. They were the compass by which all Contemporary Christian Music was measured. There are plenty of explanations for their surge to the very top of our greatest rock stars, but the primary reason was because they were more wickedly talented and diverse than most Christian music could ever dream of being, with their fusion of rap, hip hop, pop, and good old rock and roll. They were the closest thing to “cool” that Christian teenagers had to bring to the table when our friends wanted to talk about Nirvana or Backstreet Boys. DC Talk was so eclectic and diverse that they somehow managed to compare to both in Christian subculture.

The three voices of DC Talk comprised of Toby McKeehan, who provided the hip hop, Michael Tait, who provided the soul, and Kevin Max Smith, who provided the rock and roll. The band split up in 2000 or so to pursue solo careers. Kevin Max Smith was the only one whom I followed, because he was the only one who made music that interested me. He was also the only musician from my Christian days whose music I still listened to – because it was eclectic, thoughtful, and pointed the way toward all the great music that inspired it. His music, which questions the mysteries of the cosmos with more honesty than most whose origins are in CCM, had been so encouraging during my transition out of Christianity.

Kevin had published a book of poetry in the mid 90s that I’d really enjoyed, so when I wrote my novel, I included one of his poems – hoping that I could introduce his work to a new group of readers outside of the Contemporary Christian Music scene. Because despite Kevin’s immense talent and range, he was almost exclusively still known for DC Talk – to the point that anyone who knew his name was most certainly either currently or formerly an evangelical Christian.

Nathan didn’t talk much, but he didn’t shy from dropping some “fucks” and “goddamns” from time to time – which didn’t lend itself to a current state of holiness. I could tell that he was realizing the same thing about me – and such information is the difference between flight or fight when you’re an ex-Christian standing in the presence of someone who has figured out that you’re an ex-Christian.

I still wasn’t ready to talk about any of it to too many people – especially some stranger at the farm. Not because I haven’t been healing, but because I’m starting to realize what a long, grueling, and constantly shifting process healing is. My siblings know, and a few trusted friends – but not many more people. And when I do talk about it, I usually only go so far as saying that I used to go to church; I hardly ever discuss my time as a pastor or the years that I spewed the most hateful bile from my mouth.

Nathan had completely tensed too – and I instantly recognized the skepticism on his face. It was like looking in a mirror, as we just stood there taking each other in while wordlessly asking each other the same, terrified question. “Who are you?”

Today, the looks we cast one another don’t carry such apprehension: When we are together, we are no longer reminded of how we used to be slaves. Today, in our Church of Denunciation, we are free.

He’s moved on to the next song, easing down the tempo for this one – a strategic transition from the more upbeat praise phase to slower worship mode. He’s got such a lovely tenor voice – sincere and rugged, like what Steven Curtis Chapman (another CCM superstar) would sound like if his throat had been bleached with whiskey. Nathan sings, “I’m so full of awe by the wonders that you do/ Oh my god, I’m awe full. / I do everything just to be more like you, I’m awe full because of you. /Oh my god, I’m awe full.” He’s so committed to doing this with a straight face – and he is fulfilling his mission so fully – that I do something I never thought I’d do again: I lift up my hands in praise while I think about all the naughty things I want to do to my friend.

On that day in the pack shed in which Nathan and I first peered at the faces poking from underneath our carefully constructed masks, it had finally been me who had broken the awkward silence between us. “So,” I said, “you used to be in the church?”

He nodded, still skeptical. “Yes.”

It had been the first time I’d attempted bringing up my religious past with someone entirely new, with whom I hadn’t spent any time earning trust. But something about the way Nathan seemed to throw up his guard reminded me too much of myself – I knew that I had to try, despite our shared apprehension. After a couple of decisive breaths, I pulled the trigger: I straightened myself up, faced him directly, and said, “Former Southern Baptist, myself.”

He thought about it for a moment. “Former Nazarene,” he said evenly.

I realized that none of this was about my new book anymore, which he’d set to the side so casually as he took me in that I’d nearly forgotten about it myself. And I was okay with that: Now, it was all about this new experience – to meet someone outside of my own circle who understood the jargon that had kept me a slave for the first quarter century of a life. The relationships I’ve forged since finding freedom have been outside of that fish bowl, because I was not interested in telling anyone who had known me within the church about my choice to unremittingly abandon the faith that has defined all of us. My parents still didn’t know, neither did so many of my old church friends. I know that it will break their hearts to learn the truth. I hadn’t met anyone new who’d left like I had, until I saw the look on Nathan’s face that the name of Kevin Max Smith had elicited. I realized in that moment that something deep within him and I – something fragile, wounded, but courageous – was the same.

So I just laughed and started talking to him like a Christian would. “Well, as a former Southern Baptist, I fear that I can’t fellowship with a former Nazarene,” I say. “Too many theological differences. You’ll have to give me back my book – I don’t want you reading it.”

Nathan cracked a smile that I suspect surprised him, and he relaxed a little. “But you still listen to DC Talk?” he said.

He joined me in hauling boxes onto the truck, and we talked as we worked. “Not really,” I said. “They all went solo. Kevin’s stuff is really good. I wouldn’t call it Christian music at all.”

“I loved his voice – it was iconic.”

“It still is, but now with far better music.”

It was an odd entry point, but one that we both approached with increasing enthusiasm. “I’m a singer myself,” Nathan said. “A performer. I used to be a praise and worship leader. I had aspirations of being the next Steven Curtis Chapman.”

“No shit?” I said. “I used to be a pastor. We could have worked together, if you hadn’t been a Nazarene.”

I still can’t believe how easily that confession had slipped out of my mouth, to someone I barely knew. On the other hand – we had shared history that leads to the kind of trauma that makes two people stare at each other carefully in fear of being hurt… and we knew it. Somehow, even without knowing Nathan at all, we knew each other as intimately as two people could.

I explained my history to him a little bit more, still moving while we talked. I gave him the basic rundown – about how I was a minister’s kid who had been groomed to be a minister myself, how I’d left my faith a few years prior, and how I now wandered the earth in an attempt to put all of my fragments back together. I didn’t mention Michael or any of the other ghosts that still keep me up some nights – we weren’t there yet. But he wasn’t telling me everything either – just the highlights to make sure that we were on the same page. The more we shared, the clearer it became that not only were we on the same page, but that we could have co-written the book.

What an experience it is, to meet someone who has not been a part of your story, yet they nevertheless share so much of it. The damage caused by all the guilt that had been impressed upon us as children, the way that we continue to carry a chronic sense of unworthiness as we were taught that to be a Christian is to live in perpetual fear of breaking God’s heart. Of how we were in so deep that we accepted callings into the ministry, which made the entanglement so much more complicated.

We took turns, sharing snippets of our story with one another – like two old sailors comparing scars. We swapped until we finally got up to the parts in our individual narratives in which we stopped believing all of the sand of self-hatred on which we’d been taught to build our houses. We hesitated as we crept toward that turning point. Once again, I started. “So what was the straw that broke the camel’s back for you?” I asked.

Nathan hesitated. He suddenly looked so sad. “All the bullshit – you know. You know.”

He was struggling with his words, so I decided to help a little. “You got tired of believing in something that you knew wasn’t true?” I said.

In the pause that lingered between us, Nathan’s eyes welled up with tears. We stood in the truck silently for a long time, looking appreciatively at each other. He said quietly, “Can I hug you?”

“You sure can,” I said.

We embraced as best friends.

Today in our makeshift church, Nathan has started another soft song. He is a showman and a poet on that guitar – if I were a person through the hallways of the public library whose conference room we have rented for this occasion, I’d assume that this was just another church service… so long as I didn’t catch the lyrics: “I will worship you, because I won’t want to go to hell,” repeated over and over.

My beautiful friend is now engaged in an old worship trick, where you sing the same one-or-two line chorus over and over again, changing the key as the beat increasingly slows. Nathan explained to me one day that this kind of key change is how music ministers emotionally manipulate congregations into believing that they are having a deeply moving Holy Spirit encounter. I’ll be damned if it still isn’t working – to the point that it’s almost triggering to have this experience again, even with the satirical lyrics. On the other hand, I also cannot deny that feeling this Spirit move on an occasion we’d created to literally defy Him is validating and healing in ways I’ve never dreamed of. I’m letting shit go.

Instead of directing my apprehension toward the sky, I channel it to stand in awe of Nathan’s courage to lead us all through this. Because I know it’s hard for him too – we’ve spent the last several weeks talking about it all, processing together. But I know that like it is for me, our Church of Denunciaion is an act of tremendous healing for him.

Briefly breaking away from his hypnotic performance, I look around at the crowd that we’ve drawn in. It isn’t a large gathering, but neither is it insignificant – an eclectic bunch of misfits with far more diversity than you’d ever seen in an evangelical setting. From the moment that Nathan welcomed us all and started leading us in these songs, no one has broken character – except to periodically laugh at some of the lyrics. Clearly, this group of mostly strangers are also here to heal – and we are all doing it together, because we’ve all found ourselves at points in our journey in which we know we need this.

Suddenly, I realize that I’m more nervous about delivering the sermon I’ve prepared than I thought. It will be my turn to see what kind of courage I can summon to get through it. I listen to Nathan switch to a verse. Something rattles painfully as it leaves Nathan, and he winces. But the more he sings, the more free from that pain he becomes. I watch him in awe. “I will sing to an insecure and jealous God / and kiss Your ass alone with praise. / I will stay on the good side of the one true Father /so I don’t have to face the flames. / I know that there’s a Heaven with a narrow road ,/and few are those who enter its gates. / But there’s a fire and a torture and unending pain / unless we all tell You You’re great.”

For the next several weeks after our first hug, I literally couldn’t wait to get up as the ass-crack of dawn and come to work – just so that I would have the pleasure of spending more time with my fellow survivor. Perhaps slightly to Kai’s chagrin, I kept volunteering for jobs in the pack shed simply so Nathan and I could keep talking while we worked. And we did work as we talked endlessly back and forth – in fact, we were a remarkably efficient team. We just chatted as we did so, laughing at things in Christian popular culture that now seem so absurd (like the Dove Awards – “How do you practice humility by handing out golden statues?!”), coupled with surprising admissions of things that we missed – like certainty and community and, yes, sometimes the musical experience.

The more we talked about the superficial elements, the deeper into our own journeys our conversations probed. We sighed together about our mad dash to catch up on popular culture after living in an evangelical bubble for so long – comparing notes to what in “secular” culture had hooked us in. We’d chase rabbit holes like this every day, chipping away more and more at the masks we’d built for ourselves to stay safe after experiencing the trauma that we did. Every conversation eventually found its back back to sad, passionate lamentations about all of the ways that those doctrines had really harmed us as children, and what we were doing to pick up the pieces. And before we could allow ourselves to sink too deeply into despair, one of us would snap us safely out of it with a question like, “So what’s the dumbest Christian movie you’ve ever seen?”, and we would just laugh and laugh. (Answer: “The Judas Project.”)

After every long day we had together, I left feeling exhilarated and validated.

I haven’t told Nathan my whole story. Something compels me not to. I remember something that Chance told me on our last night together – to just be a listening space for misfits looking for someone to hear them. Nathan doesn’t exactly fit the bill – he’s a weirdo, but not a misanthrope; in fact, I’ve learned that he plays multiple instruments and threw himself into the theater crowd after leaving his increasingly limping career as a Christian rock star. But it’s clear that I am the first person to whom he’s ever been able to talk about this stuff, and I’ve been incredibly lucky that I’d had my brother, Chance, and a few others. Nathan needed someone to listen, because though he’d left his faith far sooner than I had, he still hadn’t really processed any of it. It’s his turn, and I’m happy to be the start of that journey for him.

Which is not to say I haven’t shared deep pieces of myself with him. He knows that I was a pastor in as deeply as him. He knows that I’ve said many things from the pulpit that still keep me up at nights. He knows that my marriage crumbled before my eyes, and that I’m finally at a point in my journey where I’m ready to leave Mount Vernon and return to school in Alaska – that because academia had been so nourishing toward my abandonment of Christianity, I think that maybe returning to it after this wandering period will help me with the next phase. We both look sad for a few moments every time I remind him that after the season is over, I’ll be moving back.

That being said, I’m vague with the specifics. I haven’t yet told him any story as thorough as the one about Michael. If I’m honest with myself, I’m not sure what it is that makes me resist: I trust Nathan, but every time I’ve considered it, I freeze. I think that perhaps it is the knowledge that he needs someone to listen more than talk.

But there’s more to it. Though we share that deep sense of betrayal from the church that had given us slavery under the banner of “Free Gift,” it’s a different experience for a worship leader commanding a congregation’s emotions than for a pastor who is responsible for planting the thoughts. Both are essential ingredients in the brainwashing technique, but Nathan never stood in front of pulpit and essentially preached that Matthew Shepard’s execution was not murder. A different kind of guilt keeps him up at night; it draws from the same toxic wellspring, but it isn’t exactly the same. And the more I listen to Nathan, the more I feel like I am guilty of far worse crimes in the name of Christ than him. The shame I feel in this realization frightens me a little, and I know that I’m not yet ready to tell him my story. It helps me realize that I’ve still so much more to process.

But still – our souls fuse together. We become intimate in ways that I’d never been intimate with anyone. And then one day as we bunch chard and chase more rabbits, I mention that I play the harmonica.

Nathan’s eyes lit up in a new way. “Are you any good?”

I’d mastered harmonica writing my novel, and had kept up with some talented musicians around campfires here and there. “Yes,” I say confidently.

The glow in his eyes deepened. “Bring it tomorrow,” he ordered.

I obeyed. The next day over our lunch break, we sat under a tree and jammed.

Over the course of the next hour, I can honestly say that the experience I felt can only be exactly that – felt, not described. Because it is the feeling that every poet strives to conquer with their words, yet no matter how elegantly and longingly they stretch toward it, they cannot capture it. But like the poets, I will try.

I let Nathan lead. He started with just a basic little song – “You Are My Sunshine” or something like it, just to see how well I kept up. We thus felt each other out, like lovers laying down in bed together and allowing just the tips of their fingers to graze their partner’s cheek. He stepped it up to some Beatles, and I transitioned just as quickly with him; we started to weave music in the space between us like lovers pulling each other more deeply in. I soon stepped in with some improvisation, my cheeks humming warmly as he plucked and sang away; he gave me the road, and let my notes wrap their tendrils around his and coil into each other like warm, melding bodies.

Eventually, we moved beyond playing anyone else’s songs and just wordlessly jammed back and forth – spinning music of our own in a way that was absolutely, positively the sexiest experience that I have ever had in my life. (And I’ve had some pretty goddamned good sex.) We did this until our lunch hour was nearly up, coiling around each other like tigers in nearly rabid heat. When we only had a few moments left, our instruments finally went silent as our bodies froze, except our eyes probing each other. Christ, we were panting.

In that moment, I realized with absolute clarity that I am wildly attracted to this man, on every conceivable level. Emotionally, physically, spiritually. And most perplexity, sexually. Because whatever it was that we’d just done, we had most assuredly made love – and I was instantly craving more. Whatever he was thinking as his delicious shoulders heaved over his guitar, I knew that Nathan was still my mirror – he was feeling it too, and that truth grasped me in a place I’d never felt before. It felt foreign, yet familiar – dangerous, yet comfortable. But mostly, it felt rebellious and therefore powerful.

And I hate that in that defining moment, the first place my mind went was straight back to that day watching “Animaniacs” with my Dad, when it had occurred to me that he may be afraid that I was gay. At the time, I knew that this fear was unfounded – I’d known for a fact that I was only attracted to women. Yet here I was, nearly two decades later, staring at a man who I’d just let have his way with me in ways I’d never given myself to anyone. And all I could think about what that fucking prophecy I’d heard Benny Hinn deliver on television – that God was going to kill every homosexual in America with fire from heaven.

“Benny Hinn was talking about me,” I said out loud, into the steaming, sultry air lingering between Nathan and me.

He frowned. “What?”

I shake my head. “Shut up,” I muttered. Before I knew it, I’d pulled myself forward, leaned into his face that hovered over the guitar still frozen in his arms, and planted the juiciest kiss on his lips that I could currently summon in my dazed and tingling state. And what do you know – he’d leaned into it.

I made damn sure that our lips smacked loudly when I pulled away. He remained in a stunned state as I settled back into my spot against the tree, smiled, and lit up a cigarette. “I hope that was as good for you as it was for me, darling,” I said softly, winking at him.

He smiled back, pulled himself together, and started strumming his guitar again. We play one last song before we return to the pack shed – one that doesn’t require my harmonica, so that we soulfully sang it together. It is “In the Light,” a DC Talk song; as sung by two ex-ministers, it transformed into a soulful lamentation that leaves us in tears as our souls tightly spoon.

We somehow uncoiled our souls and returned to work. We try to continue our conversations as if nothing has changed. But it had – I was now blushing, flirting, averting eye contact like some school boy discovering his first crush. Nathan spoke words, but I struggled to comprehend them – all I could think about was how much I wanted to step back into the bedchambers of our music and ravage each other again.

We do it again, under the same tree that night after work. Our souls entangle again. The more we play day after day, the more we find ways to explore each other with the notes that fuse our spirits together. Sometimes Nathan plays me tracks from old bands that he was in, and it’s pretty damned good stuff. We learn new songs – including some by one Kevin Max Smith, because just like I told Nathan, it’s damned good stuff. We play and laugh and dance and flirt and embrace all the way, like a couple of giddy school children. Soon, we are visiting bars together, introducing each other to our circle of friends, and finding little music circles to lend our lover’s duet.

We continue to do this, all the while talking more openly and candidly about our church experiences. And we daydream a little bit – if we found each other, certainly there have to be more out there who need help. Certainly we knew people who’d also managed to crawl their way out of the cage – all of us at different stages in our journey. This particular thought clearly lingered in Nathan’s mind, haunting him like a ghost – that so many people must be suffering through this do so in a state of perpetual loneliness. Maybe gathering a community together could be an encouraging way of letting each other all know that they’re not alone.

The more he expounded on this loneliness, the more I realized the fundamental difference between him and I. I’d had my brother, as well as fellow travelers along the way to help me release all of his. Nathan hadn’t had anyone to talk to. I’d been his first, after so many years of carrying all of this rot within him. Walking away from a faith that has both defined you and determined your eternal soul’s fate is only the beginning – it takes time to heal from all of that shit. I’ve already started to realize how long this journey will probably be. Nathan isn’t yet there – because he’s had to face all of this on his own, without anyone’s help.

That single fact – that he chose to walk away, knowing he’d have to on his own – makes him one of the strongest, most beautiful souls I’ve ever met. It also makes me fearful about how much further he has to go. Because after our summer “fling,” I can see exactly where he is in his path – it is where I’d started, as soon as I’d delivered my last sermon to Emmanuel Baptist Church:

When you are told your whole life that all questions about the meaning of your personal existence have a single set of answers from which you never need to deviate, it brainwashes you into believing that life is only meaningful when it has certainty. There’s a rule book, and everything must fit within its standard – even if that standard doesn’t make sense, because God’s ways are not our ways. After you realize that Christianity is a sack of lies, it’s not as easy as tossing out its atrocious playbook – you go in search of another, because it’s what you’ve been trained to do. Everything needs to make sense, because it’s the only way you know to consider the world.

I’m not completely out of that hole yet, but I know that I’m closer than Nathan. I’m coming to be okay with the fact that there’s no playbook – that human existence is a wilderness, and that its ravines and mazes don’t have to be exclusively scary. I’m glad I’d had my brother, Chance, and others – because without them, I may still be in a stasis state like Nathan, grasping for that playbook. I hope that in some way, our summer of love has helped him along in that journey. But from the way he processes his feelings and sometimes clings to the necessity of some kind of rule book that he can’t seem to find, I fear he has a long way to go. And with the season racing toward an end as my return to Alaska approaches, we are running out of time.

I know we both dread that our time is coming to a close, because of the way that we both refuse to talk about it – except in this unspoken way after playing music together into the sunset, in which he would sometimes look at me sadly for a long time and say, “I wish I’d met you sooner.”

About three weeks before I move away, Nathan enthusiastically approaches me in the pack shed, shifting back and forth like he’s a kid on Christmas morning. He had an idea that he wanted to run by me.

It is now the weekend before I fly back to Alaska. Nathan wraps up the slow, methodical worship portion of the service, and his guitar picks up speed. His smile is just a little sinister; plucking away rebelliously, he raises the guitar into the air and practically hisses. “Now, everyone put your hands together for this one. You ready? Very simple… Just sing it with me.” And he belts out with absolute flamboyant flair the song that proves to be his masterpiece:

“And the Muslims are wrong, and the Buddhists are wrong, and the Hindu are wrong, and the Jews are wrong, and the atheists are wrong, and the pagans are wrong. / Cuz they don’t believe in you, Jesus.” We all roar with applause, and he soaks in our energy and starts to shred. “What else is wrong? Sing it with me!”

We’re all shouting out answers, which he sings. “And Harry Potter is wrong. The feminists are wrong.” He winks at me. “The homosexuals are wrong. Rock music is wrong. Old movies are wrong. Einstein was wrong. Bill Nye the Science Guy is wrong… / Cuz they don’t believe in you, Jesus!”

He keeps whipping us into this song, to which we toss out ridiculous things that we’d been taught are wrong because they dare to have a different point of view than our own. Every time a misfit in the audience shouts out another, Nathan catches it and lifts it up toward a Heaven that isn’t listening. He’s liberating us all.

It’s going to be a tough act to follow, but now I don’t mind. Nathan has prepared the way, so that even if I botch this thing, we will still have the glory of the gift he’d just given us all.

I hadn’t known what to expect when he’d excitedly come to me with an idea that he called “The Church of Denunciation” – a joint project that he insisted we do together. It would be a mockery of a Christian service – a way of bringing out all of the hypocrisy while doing a good old fashioned Holy Roller show. He wanted to put out some feelers to see how many people we could round up to attend. “All those who also are struggling all alone,” he explained to me excitedly. “People who need to know that they aren’t the only ones afraid that they are crazy because of all the tangled evangelical knots blocking their ability to think clearly. Knots keeping them from actually engaging with the world. We’ll put up banners everywhere, make ads. I’ve already looked into renting out a conference room in the library – it’ll be like a little house church. I lead the worship, you preach. We see how many people we can get to come. What do you think?”

“You mean, we pass out fliers like we used to for Vacation Bible School?” I say incredulously.

“Well, no – we’re not terrorizing people,” Nathan clarified, shivering a little. “God, no. But we take an ad out in the paper, put up some messages on bulletin boards. Look, I was the promo guy at my church – I’ll take care of all of that. Just think of a sermon, and help me brainstorm what this thing should look like.”

Over the next few days, our conversation drifted back toward this hypothetical idea. I’ll admit that I remained skeptical for a while, because I didn’t see much healing in the mere act of mockery. I was eventually persuaded, because I understand just how badly Nathan needs this – but it is only when witnessing his songs for the first time, feeling that wild attraction as he uses this service as a reverse exorcism, that I understand just how badly he needs it. Not just Nathan, but me too. And clearly everyone in the room – this small gathering of misfits and ghouls who needed this release. Nathan had been right, and I’d been a fool not to trust him – it is not just enough to cry it out if we wish to heal – we also must laugh.

Soon the last praise song comes to a rousing end. Nathan stomps his feet, lists his fingers from his strings with a slick, sexy flick, and screams, “Yeah!” The small congregation bursts into cheers and applauds. Nathan waits until they are calm before asking them to sit. He turned to me and smiles. “And now, Published Novelist Danél Griffin and I have a special song prepared for you. It’s by the musician who brought us together – one Kevin Max Smith of DC Talk, whose music has broken the barriers of its CCM trappings and now maybe wanders through the dark with the rest of us. It’s a sign that if we can change, then anyone can. Amen?”

“Amen,” someone reverently confirms.

“Danél will be joining me on harmonica,” Nathan says. “I want you all just to close your eyes as you prepare for his sermon – not to pray, but to think about all the ways we are now free. Because that’s why we are all here, amen?”

A few now. “Amen!”

And in front of all these people – many strangers – we proceed to make gentle love as I accompany Nathan to the song “Unholy Triad.”

I can’t begin to know where Kevin Max Smith’s headspace was when he wrote this beautiful song about faith in crisis. I only know that at this moment, as our music coils like warm bodies, it is exactly the song that everyone in the room needs.

“Step out in the light and you feel the pain. / Spread your wings of danger and you will not feel again. / Is it really worth it? / I stayed up overnight reading everything, / Looking for a hidden to make some sense of this – / why’d you disconnect? / And I watch through eyes of steel, / safety net breaking down.

“You and me were caught up in this scene / One and one and one always makes three / You and me and someone in between / makes an unholy triad. / Here we are just swimming on the floor / as my soul is crawling out the door. / I will not share You anymore, / cause it’s an inverted triad.”

Tears stream down both our faces. I know even though I cannot see, because in our most intimate moments in which we come as close as we have in a long time to touching the divine, Nathan and I are always a mirror.

Somehow, we push through.

“Let’s rendezvous some place where none can see, / in a cage of my design through bars of velveteen, / secret captivity. / And I have abducted you, / knowing all the time you wanted me to.

“You and me we’re caught up in this scene / on the edge and baring all our teeth. / Some say common sense is for the weak / in this our unholy triad. / Here we are just spinning on the floor, / all the world’s a stage and we want more. / One and one and the other feels like four, / and it’s an unholy triad.”

When we are done, it takes me a moment to gather myself and open my eyes. Everything is blurry, so I steady my gaze by looking at the large whiteboard behind us, on which Nathan had written, “Everyone welcome!”, along pictures of an Angel of the Lord tossing stick figures into the Lake of Fire. It makes me smile, until I can see clearly and realize that Nathan’s hand grips my shoulder. “You’re up, Lover,” he whispers.

So I am.

I briefly contemplate what I am going to tell them all, as I take my place in front of a pulpit for the first time in nearly five years. Because though I’d prepared something, I didn’t expect to be this overwhelmed with emotion – and I wonder if my words would even suffice after what Nathan has just achieved. I look at my congregation, who curiously take me in. Perhaps they know that I am nervous, perhaps they suspect that any man coming up to preach on a platform such as this one has participated in his share of hate speech. Is it really my right to stand up here and trivialize the way my sermons had broken all those hearts and helped ruin so many lives?

But then I look at the congregation – folks who had been hurt by people like me. Their eyes are full of encouragement and grace – the whole collective of them. My eyes fall on Nathan last, who sits in the front row. The way he smiles at me makes my timbers shiver a little, and suddenly it occurs to me: In a bizarre, unexpected, and seemingly unique way that I can only experience but never explain, I’ve become the sort of person who I’d been preaching against.

It is time to take another step in releasing the power that my guilt has over me. I summon the greatest gift that Nathan has so far given me: The courage to take that step.

I preach from John 13, which I insist everyone turn to in their Bibles – even though I’m the only one with a Bible. I talk about the upper room on the night before Jesus was crucified. The disciples, trained to believe that the Messiah was going to be a general in a violent uprising, think they all sit in the location where Jesus finally pulled out the war plans. But instead, he does something that none of them could have possible expected – he starts to wipe all their feet. They just watch their Messiah in this horrified awe, going around in a circle on his hands and knees.

Washing feet, I explained, was known at that time as a task reserved only for the lowliest servant. I know this because I read it in a secular book on the historical Christ – it ironically wasn’t something taught in churches. So here is the one who they think is going to save them – their General in the upcoming war against Rome – and he’s taken on the role of the lowliest servant. When he’s done, he looks at them and says, “Now that I have washed your feet, you must also wash each other’s feet. You have loved me, now love one another. By this men will know that you are my disciples – that you love one another.” In other words – this is how we save the world, these are the war plans: We serve. And if anything Jesus has ever taught us means anything, we have to serve. It is the only way.

Hours later, Jesus was crucified – begging God to forgive those who betrayed and murdered him. “And since I don’t believe in the Resurrection, I’m going to assume that a scene kind of like this one was Jesus’s actual closing message to the world. Even in the end, we must love. It is the test by which he gave us to prove that what he said is true. And it is a test that the Church – that I, as a minister of the gospel – failed.”

I pause, forcing down a lump in my throat. I look to Nathan again, who I think now watches me in the same way that I’d watched him. It kind of turns me on, and I find my strength. I wonder briefly if I am going to tell this crowd about Michael. But no – I’m not ready to release it yet. Not to a group this large – it is still a source of immense shame for me, and I just don’t think I can yet. It doesn’t make sense, because I know that everyone here would support me in this confession – especially Nathan, who I now understand loves me without judgment, just as I love him. But it doesn’t have to make sense, because life is a wilderness. It’s okay that I can’t do it yet; I know that because of today’s steps, someday I will.

So instead, I launch into the history of genocides committed in Jesus’s name – stories I’d learned about all the ways that Christianity had been used as a way to oppress, suppress, subjugate, segregate, enslave, and massacre multitudes. I concluded my illustration simply with this: “In God’s name, I said horrible things to a lot of people, misleading them and misreading them. Many of them were certainly folks like you, whose courage I would have mocked for coming here today. And make no mistake – coming here took courage, precisely because of all the people in our lives still trapped in the maddening maze from which we escaped. But now that we are free, we will never be stuck in that maze again.” I hesitate but find the stuff to push through. “Now, we are free. As a free human, I stand before a host of freed people and I beg your forgiveness for failing the test of my Master. Because obviously his test has failed. So now it’s time for those of us who recognize this simple fact to bury him, as a respectful act toward a good man. Today, we let Jesus finally die – not only because it is what he would have wanted, but because it’s what we all need.”

“Amen,” Nathan mutters. I count the tears, including my own.

“Now,” I say, “Nathan and I have been talking about the last part of our little church service here. Because as I’m sure you all recall, the last part of any good church service is a good old-fashioned invitation and altar call. Does anyone remember what one of those is?”

Of course, nearly every hand raised. Nathan takes my cue and rises, moving quickly to the side of the room to find the extension cord. I continue, “For today’s call to invitation, we are going to finally wash the Holy Spirit off of us. Nathan has brought his blow-dryer, and anyone who would like the breath of God shot off of them with the cleansing power of ConAir, it is time to step forward.” Our unholy instrument plugged in and ready to go, and he giddily hands it to me and goes for his guitar. “Nathan is going to play an old favorite – ‘Just As I Am’ – and I’ll be holding the hair dryer. If you’re ready to cleanse yourself of the putrid stench of the believer’s baptismal waters once and for all, come forward. No, no – don’t wait for someone else to come first. It’s up to you to make the call to your own common sense, your own intuition, your own moral compass. Because you’re not fallen, you’re just unfinished. You’re worthy of love because of who you are, not in spite of who you are. You’re not broken – just healing.”

Some in the congregation now have hands over their mouths, as Nathan begins to strum his guitar lightly. Others cannot hide their smirks. All eye each other, to see who’s coming forward first. “Don’t wait,” I say again. “Make the call now – to your own journey. Because you’ve earned it.”

A girl with green hair and a nose piercing comes forward first. She reminds me of one of the goths I used to try to save in high school. I wonder what Camilla would think if she could see me now, and something about that is really satisfying. She throws her hands into the air as she approaches. “Penetrate me, Lord!” she exclaims, and her green hair tickles her freckled face as she releases a liberated whoop.

The whole congregation lines up after that, one after the other. Each of them feel the healing heat blast as I shout praises like, “Hallelujah – you are free!” One after another, hey raise their hands into the air and soon jump around the room, hooting and hollering like it’s a legitimate holy roller show. The last guy – tall, lanky, and baffled – looks around at the scene of people shaking the last drops of the Holy Spirit from their bodies with wide eyes. “I was a Mormon,” he confesses meekly. “What the hell is this shit?”

I point the hair dryer at him. “Be unsaved, Brother,” I shout, and he rolls with it.

As I finish with the bewildered but game ex-Mormon, Nathan brings ‘Just As I Am’ to an end. If he’s altered the lyrics, I didn’t notice – I was too busy blowing the Spirit off all my fellow misfits. And now, it is Nathan’s turn.

Setting down his guitar, he positively beams and throws his arms into the air. “Up yours, Steven Curtis Chapman!” he roars, clasping his hands together as the hot hair caresses his face like I wish my hands were.

When I hand the hair dryer to Nathan, I close my eyes and reflect on the promises made in a baptist – to love, serve, and commit my life to Christ for the rest of my days, in service and gratitude for the sacrifice he’d made that I’d never asked for. The hot air flowing over my head and gluing my sweat to my brow, I make a promise instead to myself: That no matter where I went, no matter who either of us became, no matter what years or distance or ideologies may separate us, I would carry Nathan in my heart. Because after the way we’d seen each other, after this amazing day in which we’d all stood together and were reminded that we are slaves no more, how could I not?

My head is bowed and my eyes closed as Nathan lowers the hair dryer. Everyone has noticed and now cheers. I step toward him, grab his scruffy cheeks, and plant a long, passionate kiss on his lips. Our congregation’s cheers turn into a wave of delighted, intoxicated sound that bounces off the walls of our Church of Denunciation. Our kiss soon transitions into a long hug, and Nathan whispers into my ear, “I hope that was as good for you as it was for me, Darling.”

“Jesus H. Christ, it fucking was,” I reply.

One thought on “Straight Deconstruction: My Escape from Evangelical Homophobia. Part 5 – “The Church of Denunciation”

  1. Pingback: Straight Deconstruction: My Escape from Evangelical Homophobia. Part 4 – “An Exiled Christian and a Genderqueer Walk Into a Bar” – Surviving the Spirit

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