Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Don

Gary was again seated in the circle of  newcomers and regulars who met weekly to discover more about the church, each other and their faith walks.  Tonight, Don had volunteered to tell his story.  

A man of sturdy build and jovial smile, Don didn't take gruff from anyone.  But he had a heart of gold and went out of his way time and again to help those in need.  Despite visceral outward confidence, he seemed nervous as he began. 

I was born and grew up Southern Baptist.  My mother rarely went to church but from an early age, she instilled in me the necessity of going every Sunday, to both day and evening services, and also Wednesday evenings.

I was born again at age nine but, looking back, I doubt I really understood what that meant.  I felt a commitment to this new belief, but it was a nine year old’s commitment.

I sensed my gayness early but immediately felt it was wrong.  It’s not as though I had to be told this overtly by someone else.  I simply felt it within myself.  Perhaps it was the knowledge that this fact would put me at odds with my church that made me sense its wrongness and try to squash it the best I could.

I remember a Sunday night New Year’s Eve service.  Perhaps like a New Year’s resolution I said, “God, I want to be what you want me to be.”  But I was still uncertain what God had planned for me.  I thought I knew, and I thought it meant being straight. 

I married at age 17.  I did my very best to be a good and faithful husband and father.

I kept attending the Baptist church in which I grew up, but it was dying.  The pastor had lost his passion for tending his flock and, as a result, the church was not growing.  Finally, he said he would retire.  I remember being elated and hoping someone would come that would make a positive difference – not just in the church but in me.

Alongside my spiritual journey was another journey, a very human journey in which I was struggling to come to terms with my sexuality.  I’d have an encounter with a man, often anonymous, and then beat my chest and promise that it would never happen again.  I can’t tell you how many times I made this promise.
I got ulcers.  Twice they got so bad, I was hospitalized.

The new minister at my church was remarkably young.  I felt my prayers had been answered.  Although only 25, I sensed in him both a maturity and an understanding that allowed me to approach him with my struggle.  He told me, “Don, I’ve never known a homosexual.  I respect you, I love you and I will do whatever I can for you.”

I can’t begin to tell you what hearing those words meant to me.  But despite his caring heart, he was as naïve about this issue as I was.  It was the blind leading the blind, and I suffered as a consequence.  He recommended counseling and therapy.  Unfortunately, the therapy included the use of exorcism and shock treatments.  For both our sakes, I was obedient to the counseling and for a while it helped.  I felt strong and resisted any form of physical contact with another man.  And I kept claiming that God would see me through, which really meant that he would “cure” me of my gayness.

I then moved here to Kansas City, with all its attractions, diversions and distractions.  I worked for a religious organization and tried to walk the straight and narrow but it became increasingly difficult to do so, especially after my 31-year marriage ended.

I joined a Baptist congregation in the center of the city.  Again, I immersed myself in the life of the church.  I went to prayer and healing services.  I prayed for the forgiveness of my sins and restoration.  I still felt deeply sinful; yet I remember one Sunday having this calm come over me and this certain knowledge that nothing I did that particular day or week or month would make God love me any more or any less than He already did – and always had. 

Ironically, in spite of this feeling, when the pastor announced that the church would open its doors to gays and lesbians, I stormed out.  I tried a few other churches, but none spoke to my heart.

All the while, I was going to Christian-based therapy that continually boxed me into a place of shame.  Suddenly one day, I had this revelation.  I realized I was as gay that day as the day I had started, so why did I keep coming?  Mind you, this was after over five years of therapy! 

I confronted my therapist.  “Tell me what to do today, right now, to be straight, and I’ll be straight.”  Well, he couldn’t tell me so I left.

I had also been in a 12-step program for sex addiction.  It was very severe.  Too severe.  I left it, as well.

But I still needed someone to talk to and advise me about my faith walk and my gay walk, too.  I was still in an uncertain place.  My heart was pretty fragile.  I was going to a group session comprised of married, separated and/or divorced gay men and a former Nazarene minister came to it one night.  I asked him for guidance.  I told him that if I could be straight, I would be.  But he quickly made me realize what I knew to be the truth: I was gay, plain and simple.

Ok, so I’m gay, I thought.  Now what?  How do I deal with it?  I decided that I needed to find people that would be “good” for me.  It’s not that all those people before this moment had been sinister or intentionally bad; it’s just that I needed to surround myself with people that would accept me for who I was and still challenge me to grow and become better.  The Nazarene minister mentioned that there was a gay church in town that I might investigate.  “A gay church?” I said aloud.  Who knew?

But still I hesitated to come to COW.  That first Sunday, I parked a block and a half away.  As I drew closer to the church, I began to struggle inside.  “I’m not like THOSE people,” I thought.  I didn’t come in.  I turned around and left.

The following week, I phoned the church, not from my house but from a pay phone (that’s how paranoid I still was), and asked what the service times were and what the dress code was.  Finally I mustered the courage and came inside.

I sat down in the pew and looked straight ahead.  A few people came up to me and welcomed me but I must have been very unwelcoming in return.  The service started and little by little the wall around my heart started to crumble.  A large black woman, wearing a pastel dress with a matching broad-brimmed hat sat a few rows in front of me.  She was rejoicing loudly, hands in the air, unafraid.  Joy overtook me in a series of waves that left me depleted but utterly joyful at the end of the service.

I knew I was home.

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