A guy at work recently asked why I’m Christian. It’s not something I am particularly vocal about, but it’s also not something I’m not vocal about, you know? In some ways, I think of it as doing improv or supporting the Patriots: If you talk about it in public, get ready for eyes to roll. But I’d been trained for moments like this. It’s been years since I’ve considered myself evangelical, but the indoctrination is hard to shake. The party line is that the only way to the afterlife is through Jesus, and the only way to Jesus? Well, it could be through me. I could practically hear the youth pastors from my past speak in unison, “How blessed to be in this moment, provided through the grace of God, where this young man has queried you about your faith.” As we stood there, chatting over a cubicle wall and sipping on expensive promotional liquor in CVS plastic cups, my colleague said, in what amounted to nothing short of an invitation to put evangelicalism in action, “I just don’t understand how someone could believe in that.”
Former me would have mounted a spirited reply, but I’m not former me. I understand why you’d ask the question.
How can someone believe in that?
For my every East Tennessee impulse to defend my faith, I have what is now an equally strong New York impulse to talk on past these moments. But the side of me that is Christian—the word I use most easily to describe myself—stumbled over my words, trying to find one specific anecdote that would make that question make sense.
Patti had frizzy blonde hair and fibromyalgia and an unshakable fear of the year 2000. She lived in a nice brick house at the end of a long gravel driveway with a weeping willow in the front yard. When I was eight, I started attending the Bible-study group she held for her daughter. I was its second member.
I spent so many summer weekdays at their home, which was decorated with an alarming number of dolphins. Dolphin figurines and dolphin paintings. Dolphin lamps. Everything was in pastels. My mom dropped me off on her way to work. Patti made us lunch, and we had Bible study while we ate. Then her daughter and I played in the backyard until her dad got home from his mortgage-company job, and Patti climbed back into her bed, which had the most pillows I’ve seen in one place.
Patti taught us in the basement, furnished with papasan chairs and a small table. At my first session, she gave me a journal with a dolphin on its cover and told me I could write anything I wanted inside. I’d mostly write letters to my Mamaw, who’d died a couple years before; sometimes I’d write letters to God, asking why he’d taken her. Patti shared stories about God that made me feel better about wherever heaven was. We prayed about whatever was on our minds or in our hearts, so I usually prayed for Mamaw and that no one else in my family died.
As odd as I thought Patti was—she always looked like she’d been crying right before you walked in—I was drawn to the way she told those stories and how their kind messages applied to me. Jonah and Daniel and Mary Magdalene were brave, humble, and saved by their faith. God would watch after me, too, so long as I believed in him. Doing good and being kind felt less like a chore and more like an opportunity. From an early age, I’d conflated being a good Christian with being a good person—not in the evangelical way that I’d learn about later in life, where you were failing if you weren’t professing your faith frequently and enthusiastically, but in the way that you should share, look out for others, kindle relationships with people unlike you. That’s something that happens a lot in the South—this entanglement of goodness and faith. I was taught to assume if someone was good, that was Christ’s love at work. In most cases, I found that the person doing good things was a Christian. Then again, everyone I knew was Christian.
At the end of each session of Bible study, Patti told us how much Jesus loved us and that he would return on January 1, 2000. While everything else was nice, that was… terrifying. Every time she said it, she seemed worried. She never shed a tear—just suggested, with her big, glossy, pale eyes, that she might. I cried and asked if I would be okay when Jesus came back in Y2K and Patti said yes, “because you believe in Him, and you go to church, so He will protect you.” But I didn’t go to church, I said. “When just two people gather in the name of God, that’s church,” she replied.
I knew my family was Christian. To Mom, we were Baptist. Dad added the Southern part, for no explicable reason—he wasn’t particularly religious outside of saying he was. I’d attended Vacation Bible School since I was four, held at the church up the road from our house. It was mostly just children singing Bible-themed songs until dusk, when our parents came to collect us. On the coffee table in my family’s living room sat a Bible—large, white, dust-coated. Instead of reading from it, Mom would tell us stories from memory.
When she found out Patti was teaching that Y2K Jesus was coming and that all computers would fail, Mom told me that we’d lived comfortably without a computer until a year prior, and that it might be best to find another way to commune with the Lord.
No matter what we called ourselves, I found a comfort in God and faith. Even if it was scary. Even if my church was just two people, a dolphin notebook, and a few letters to Mamaw.
When the new millennium arrived, technology did not crumble and drag society down with it. Instead, I met Emily and her dad, Corey, who served as the pastor at New Hopewell Baptist, a quarter mile down the road from my elementary school. Corey was handsome, short, and athletic. The kind of person who probably jogged for fun. When he picked Emily up from our house, he’d do flips on our trampoline. Dad liked him, too, so when Corey asked if we’d like to visit New Hopewell, my family accepted his offer.
Here was a real church, with a roof and a steeple, open its doors and see all the people. I loved that even though it was much bigger than Patti’s basement, it still felt small and personal. Over the next year or so, I watched Dad open up to Corey about his difficult childhood. Stuff that didn’t pertain to God so much as to what troubled his soul. He told Corey that he had never been too sure about God, and Corey told him that they only had to talk about that when Dad wanted to.
One day, I eavesdropped on Dad and Corey as they talked on our porch. Standing there in his work clothes, Dad closed his eyes. Corey, in a T-shirt, placed his hand on Dad’s back and bowed his head, too. As Corey prayed, Dad repeated after him, as he instructed Dad on how to give his life to Christ; and when Dad looked up, with tears in his eyes, he asked Corey what he needed to do during the Sunday service. Corey shook his head. “Nothing,” he said. “That was it. You just did everything you needed to do.”
With his empathy and patience and grace, Corey was like my ideal of God in human form. The very embodiment of being brave enough to be vulnerable. Before we met him, I thought Christianity was all about the stories and their lessons. But Corey put his faith into action. Patti recited the text, but Corey applied it in the most personal way, turning archaic text into something incredibly intimate, as if it was written for the person who needed it most. I watched him do it with Dad, who, unlike Mom, had always seemed to keep God at arm’s length. He was a construction worker who hunted—and who didn’t talk much about his feelings, let alone about God. Seeing Corey break through by applying Biblical stories to hunting? That was powerful.
Each week, my family arrived at New Hopewell before Sunday school let out, so we could grab our favorite pew. I hung out with these two older women, Sarah and Nell, who’d belonged to the church for their whole lives, since even before the annex was added and the sanctuary redone. They’d been baptized in the nearby river. I fell in love with their stories about this stripped-down version of Christianity and faith and community. For a few years, that’s what church was: my own version of Sunday school with Sarah and Nell, followed by Corey’s sermon. We sang a few songs, then my family headed to Captain D’s for our version of a Sunday fish fry.
A complicated part about preaching, as with writing, is that once you tell a story, it’s out of your hands. And attending a church meant that you had all these spiritual soldiers armed with their own interpretations of what Corey was trying to communicate. It takes a lot of foresight to tailor Bible stories to the listener. But Corey kept people honest and grounded. He spoke to me so personally that it was as if he’d known everything that worried me before I did.
Then, in the summer of 2003, Corey’s van fell off a crank jack in his garage and crushed him. When my parents took me over to see Emily and to check on the family, they were still hosing down the carport. A deacon later told us that Corey had died instantly, which I suppose was a gift from God, but I suppose a better gift would have been to stop the jack from slipping.
Before I was born, Mom had two miscarriages—one at eight months into the pregnancy, the other at nine months. We spoke about it when I was becoming a teenager, and she told me that God had a plan for her two daughters, but I always thought that was a cruel plan. I’d spent most of my life believing that God was all about kindness, not fury. I thought it was mean when he took Corey, too. I never told anyone that because we were told not to question God. I wouldn’t say that Corey’s death shook my faith in God so much as it shook my faith in God’s kindness. Shook my faith in his people, too. Corey had so much left to do, and yet it felt like the church moved on so quickly. A new pastor came along, not nearly as handsome as Corey. He spoke of the prosperity Gospel: the idea that if you give your money to God via the church, you will be rewarded and your wealth multiplied. It’s like you could feel Corey’s air being sucked out the back door.
By that point, I was old enough to join the youth group, which had a new youth pastor, too—the previous one, whom I adored, was replaced by a guy who didn’t seem to have a handle on how to lead either youths or groups. I joined anyway, because I was thirteen, and that’s what I was supposed to do. The youth group met in the church basement, in a big, open, white-cinderblock-walled space furnished with hand-me-down couches. The members who’d donated them probably didn’t know that the adolescents used them as make-out spots when the adults weren’t around.
Every Sunday, the new head pastor invited the unsaved to come to the pulpit and give their lives over to Christ. “If you don’t know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you have been saved by Christ, then step forward,” he said. Like my dad, I had been saved, privately, by Corey. But in this new regime, I wasn’t so sure if my saving had stuck. When you’re an adolescent and anxious and maybe gay, and your spiritual guide has been killed by a Dodge Caravan, how certain can you be about anything?
To initiate salvation in the traditional way, unsaved congregants walked up the center aisle to the front of the church to pray with the pastor and turned their life over to Christ in the company of everyone else. But it seemed like there was this conga line of youth-group members who would make the rounds each week, rededicating themselves to God. Maybe they were seeking forgiveness for all that making out in the basement. Watching them proceed up the aisle on repeat was the first time church felt performative. Problem was, I wanted to be up there, too. Not to apologize for making out downstairs, because God and everyone in the neighborhood knew I wasn’t making out with anyone. I wanted to ask forgiveness for being gay—something other kids had gossiped about before I even told anyone myself. That wasn’t something my family talked about. But as I was beginning to acknowledge my sexuality, I was hearing from other youth-group members that being gay was at odds with being Christian. And if that was true, then being gay was at odds with being a good person.
So once a month or so, when everyone else’s eyes were closed, I would sneak to the side of the altar and I’d pray. I’d talk to God and then I’d talk to Corey. I’d pray for forgiveness for thinking gay thoughts, and I’d ask God to change me. I worried that if I didn’t change, it meant that my faith was broken, or, worse, that I was too far gone for God to care. I wanted assurance that whatever magical words I’d said with Corey during all those trips to my house—what were those words?—had stuck. Then I’d quietly rejoin my family in their pew.
Youth group felt more like a party where, for about twenty minutes, we talked vaguely about Christ’s sacrifice. We sang a lot, mostly about God’s omnibenevolent love, and then, in not so many words, we talked about the ways you could fall out of God’s favor. Killing people, getting abortions, being gay. We prayed about coming together as a community, and then we split off into small cliques. Everything that I’d loved about Christianity—the stories, the humility, the specificity and simplicity of God’s love—seemed to be deprioritized after Corey left.
One day, another boy named Blu told me that he’d heard I was gay. “I don’t think you really belong here,” he concluded. When I complained to the youth pastor about what Blu had said, he said I should just brush it off.
That didn’t feel like church to me. Then again, church hadn’t felt like church to me for a while. After Corey died, Dad stopped going. Eventually, so did Mom. Sarah got sick and Nell started caring for her on Sundays. So it was me, in husky-sized khakis, wading into church each week, privately rededicating myself to God—a God who had killed Corey, probably made me gay, and allowed intimidating high schoolers into our youth group. And then church felt like torture. I don’t remember learning anything in that basement, so I left. There’s no worse place to be unwanted than in the house of the Lord.
I started attending Mt. Olive about a year after New Hopewell, as part of a cold-call church tryout. I was in middle school and so many of the kids I wanted to be friends with went there. That had become a problem for me and my faith. For me and a lot of things, really. Corey might’ve been gone, but I still believed Christians were the keys to God’s greatest work.
Prayer had not yet remedied my gay predicament, so I ramped up my efforts. I listened to Christian rock and spoke to strangers about how my life had changed after accepting Christ. I’d list generalities about my positive disposition, like a walking antidepressant commercial. I read the Bible and marked it up, circling and highlighting sections so that when I opened it at youth group for us to discuss, people would see all the ways I had been moved by our weekly readings. Bright yellow blocks of text with the word “WOW” scribbled next to them. To be a good Christian meant to advertise that you were a good Christian.
I was certain that whatever had gone awry since Corey had died could be remedied with enough effort and a new group of people. When you’re on the wrong side of evangelical law, that’s the explanation—you. You should try harder. You should pray on it. You are missing something keeping you from the promise of God’s love, and when you’re separate from it, there’s a shame in speaking about that distance. At least until you fix it. That didn’t seem fair to me. I decided that one day, I would become a youth pastor, and when I did, I’d do it differently. I’d make sure that if there was some kid who thought they were gay, they’d have a place to land. A place full of Coreys, who prayed for people in their own language.
But I had no idea how to move forward with that plan. To be a good person, I needed not to be gay. And, ahem, to straighten things out, I needed to be in church. I needed to be committed to whatever the larger group was doing. That happened to be going to a screening of The Passion of the Christ.
If you weren’t following Mel Gibson news in 2004, then you might have missed the stories of people who died watching the movie. One woman had a heart attack in Kansas. Another man inexplicably passed away midfilm in Brazil. I was certain I would be the next one. I was non-athletic and eating at least one Domino’s pizza a week. Even in the chest of a teenager, that’s not a heart you want to test. But the refrain from the other youth group members was that to deepen my faith was to deepen as a church community. Attending the screening wasn’t just necessary—it was a test.
I prayed with Mom about it, and she suggested that maybe I should skip it entirely. She pointed out that I cried so hard at the end of Titanic that I’d thrown up off our back porch. But skipping the movie would only pull me further away from people I already felt so distanced from. Mt. Olive was my new church home, and mine alone. My parents hadn’t kept searching like I had after we’d left New Hopewell. But the ideals I learned from Corey, and even, to a degree, from Patti, made me feel like church was too important to be ignored. God was supposedly at his strongest when he was working through the whole of us, right? I was scared shitless to watch the movie, but I could be in the glory of God’s love at our local theater, or I could be out of it. My call.
As the youth group lined up in the burnt-maroon lobby of Foothills Cinema, I had that roller-coaster feeling, where you’re wondering if there’s still time to raise the lap bar and say, “Never mind! Grabbing a hot dog instead.” I stuck it out and nabbed a seat squarely in the middle of the theater. If I was here, I wanted to see it all. But by the time the film got to the big climax, I found the torture of Jesus to be unending. And then he was crucified. And then the kids around me faced the screen, closed their eyes, and thanked Jesus for his sacrifice. Asked God for their salvation.
As immersed as I was in all things God, I just couldn’t get over all the blood. Why were we praising this? I understand at the core, sure, but I need you to imagine a theater of teenage faces, illuminated by the motion-picture image of Christ getting a nail driven into his palm, their own palms raised high, turned toward the violence. And—well, you know how everyone’s mom has a version of that phrase: If your friend jumped off a cliff, would you follow? So much of my faith after Corey died was about emulating the people around me. The first church official in my life (no offense to Patti) was Corey, and he felt so ideal. Someone worth embodying. He is why I made it part of my own spiritual philosophy to reflect the people around me. To assimilate, I suppose. But surrounded by palms turned toward the violence, I felt this pang: If this is what it is to be a good Christian, then perhaps… I don’t want to be a good Christian. I thought I’d done something wrong. I left my hands in my lap and I cried.
When Mom picked me up in her silver Dodge Intrepid, she told me she was happy I hadn’t died of a heart attack. All I could think of was the gore and how it felt like everyone in the audience but me was moved by it. How I must not be getting it. How I was simply too bad to be good. I didn’t talk about the movie all the way home, and I didn’t go back to Mt. Olive, either.
By the time I got to high school, I once again was without a church. I had tried a few other congregations since leaving Mt. Olive, each time participating less and less in the group activities. That’s tough in the evangelical Bible belt. If you’re doing your job as a Christian, or at least as it was outlined to me, you’re going to church and bringing people into it. If you’re lost, come to church. If you have good news, bring it to church. The church is the defining aspect of your faith, the way in which you’ll grow.
I kept my personal life and doubts to myself because Blu, all those years back, had been right. I was gay, and that didn’t fit with the Christian doctrine. But there were also all these other arguments I’d heard throughout my church years that had broken me. Arguments that didn’t make sense: Unbaptized babies go to hell. People in remote parts of the world—that is, beyond the U.S. and Western Europe—who do not accept Christ also go to hell. Women who get abortions: hell-bound. Those who practice other religions: scorched.
Church quickly devolved in my mind into a place where like-minded people shared like-minded beliefs, but it never struck me that the beliefs were wrong. Only me. And when you’re growing up in rural Tennessee, unsure whether any church can tolerate—let alone celebrate—who you are, you start to think maybe that’s because you don’t belong anywhere. The church, particularly as it applies to younger members, serves people on a particular path. And because America and its evangelism are so entangled with one another, it’s a path that conflates rigidity with piety; empathic acceptance with deviation. For all the things that you could bring to church, there were only so many that you should. With my every failed attempt to find a place I belonged, the basis of what I believed became more and more muddied. By the time I was sixteen, Christ felt more than anything like a threat.
So one night, after a particularly awful day spent grappling with my sexuality and my conflicting views of the world, I decided to expedite the process. The things that divorced me from God’s love were the things I’d begged Him to change. I’d begun every prayer as formally and respectfully as I could, and I’d pleaded to wake up straight, to no avail. Asked Him to give me a community who loved me. And yet, nothing. I’d lay in bed until my parents were asleep, then sit up and pray and watch music videos until I nodded off from exhaustion or they got up for work. I’ve always been an anxious person, but never more so than when thinking about what does and does not adhere to God’s plan. The lessons of the Bible stories I’d fallen in love with as a kid were now vague memories—I’d convinced myself they were little more than yarns for children. They didn’t apply to me anymore. Only the rules did. I was too isolated to find grace among other Christians. Even when I felt like I had hidden the things that made me different, I’d still hear people talk. And sometimes that’s worse, you know? When people don’t know exactly whom they’re around, they’re empowered to talk freely. And in church, they’re empowered to justify it in verse.
I was certain I’d never be fixed. I decided that the best way out was to kill myself. Damned today, or damned tomorrow: You’re damned either way.
One night after my parents went to bed, I went to our dining room and turned a chair to face one of our gun cabinets. My dad kept a .357 hanging above the center shelf. Because we were raised never to touch the guns, the key was kept in the lock. I reached up and unlatched it, and the door swung open. I didn’t turn on any lights; our doublewide was small, and the glow of a light at one end of the house could be seen from the other.
Enough outside light came through the window to catch the shine of the gun barrel, but when the cherry frame door tapped the inside of my knee, I decided to sit for a while. I sat and stared at the gun, thinking about how Dad had inherited it from his dad, and how he’d said he’d one day pass it on to me. And then I thought about God. How shitty He was for making me gay. How shitty He was for making all these people hate me. How shitty He was for leading me to this. In that moment, I didn’t doubt Him. I just wanted to hold Him accountable. And then I started to pray.
That night, I approached a God who was unprotected by the people who had communicated His message to me over the years, and I told Him how awful all this was. How I was destined for an eternity of fire despite my best attempts to change. How I’d prayed to Him to be changed, or at least to find people who knew me and loved me and allowed me to speak about the things I couldn’t manage inside my head. And He’d given me nothing. How could I believe in someone like Him? Someone so cruel? So determined to damn to hell a creation of His own making?
At the end of my prayer, spoken aloud though in a tone so hushed that only I could hear it, I stared once more at the gun. I spent a lot of time thinking about God the god and God the church. I thought about who was putting pressure on my trigger finger. A few times, I let another rush of whispers out, chastising God for not chastising His own followers. Asking if this is what they wanted. If this is what He wanted. I considered what it might be like to simply not believe in God anymore. And then I considered what it might be like to believe in God on my own terms.
And then I imagined picking up the gun, putting it to my head, and getting the job done. One less sinner in this god-awful world. But I was tired. From the prayer and the questioning and the long-winded dissection of God’s people and God’s word and God’s silence. And so, after several hours in the dining room, with just me and God gathered in his name, I felt compelled to stand up. I closed the cabinet. I locked it and went to sleep.
We like definitive endings. Everyone has heard the story of Jonah escaping the whale’s belly, but Jonah’s story doesn’t end there. God sends him to Nineveh to tell its people to repent for their sins and idolatry or face God’s wrath. You know, spread the good word and all. Jonah does as he’s told, gives the people a good ol’ finger wagging, then moves outside of town to watch the fire and brimstone from afar. He builds a fort and God grows a vine to give him shade from the sun. Then the vine withers and dies, and Jonah is like, “God, are you serious?” The Almighty will not cut this guy a break. God argues that He gave Jonah what he needed and that Jonah didn’t tend to it, and now He’s too busy dealing with the people of Nineveh, who heeded Jonah’s advice, repented, and are now in God’s good graces. And that’s literally the last we hear of Jonah.
Kind of fucked up, right? That’s why we usually end with the whale-belly stuff.
After the night when I held church with God and a .357, it wasn’t like everything in my life was fixed. God didn’t say, “We’re square, my gay boy.” I told my mom about wanting to kill myself, though I withheld the reasons why. Withheld most of the story, honestly. Then we spoke to my dad, who joked about removing all the knives from the house, and then we didn’t speak about it again.
Beginnings and endings are, ultimately, the machinations of humans who need the structure. I believe humanity works most comfortably in binaries, to our detriment. My parents needed me to punctuate the story of how I almost killed myself with the promise that I would be fine. The Christians who judge me need a set of rules that place people in one of two boxes—I’ve come to assume placing others in the “bad” box makes them feel a bit more comfortable about putting themselves in the “good” box.
But those binaries are also what pushed me to define my faith the way I have. We’re a society that staunchly believes in going tit for tat. There must be winners and losers. At the core, there is not much difference, in my opinion, between a rural Southern evangelical and a liberal atheist from a coastal city. Neither one is concerned with faith so much as they are with being correct.
So now, God and me, we have this arrangement that relies on no one else. It’s mine. It started on a lonely night, and it isn’t up for debate. I found a strange peace in speaking to God candidly that night. I could be mad at Him and not be damned for it. I didn’t need to ask anyone’s permission, and even though I didn’t come out for another seven years, I walked that line on my own, without a church. The last time I attended a service, it was because I was trying to date the associate pastor. (Things didn’t work out.)
I don’t talk to people about my faith, which is ironic, considering all these words I’ve just written about it. But I’ve seen how off-track things can get when other people get involved. I could not answer my colleague’s question—not without getting into the hairy details of it all because, on principle, I suppose the point is to not answer that question to anyone but myself.
To justify it means letting someone else into the circle. It means I start dictating what works for me to someone else, and then I have that on my conscience, too. To explain it means you’re trying to prove something, which is where I think we’ve gone so wrong with one another. And if he’s right—if God is some invisible thing in the sky that occupies real estate in my mind for no reason—then that’s fine. I believe because I think it makes me a better person for the people around me. I’m better suited to help them by being a better person than I am by convincing them I’m one.
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