Image Credit: rainbow mural by liturgical artist Diane Brandt
It had been only two months since Brother Oakley had told me I was cursed, and I was already supplicating myself in another pastor’s office. Drawn like a fundamentalist to a flame.
Back then – when I had gone to see Brother Oakley – I’d been desperate to pray the gay away. And since he was the only de-gaying expert within driving distance, the pairing had seemed preordained. Like most people in northeast Arkansas circa 1992, I was a Southern Baptist who thought homosexuality was a sin. And not just any sin. It was such a bad sin that it warranted a special category: abomination before the Lord. This was the only self-understanding available to me as I made my way through adolescence having crushes on football players and soap opera actors, so I believed it – hook, line, and self-loathing sinker.
But church prohibitions rarely hold up against teenage hormones. And when, during my senior year of high school, I discovered that my best friend Heath was into me… well, blowjobs ensued. With some frequency. Then a couple of people from my church found out about us, and they put the kibosh on our suckfests. They also told me I had to come out to my parents. I was despondent. So were my parents. We all thought I would go to hell if I couldn’t find some way to like girls. So I decided to try Brother Oakley – an old, rambling type with bushy eyebrows and a white-noise machine outside his office door. According to him, I was not just any old abomination. I was cursed. Probably by “homosexual demons.” Maybe by “Oriental art.”
“Perhaps your mother brought home some cursed object that came from the East – a knick-knack or something,” he suggested. “Oriental religion is actually devil worship in disguise. You know those parades where people dress up like dragons and pigs? Well, that’s all a guise for the devil!”
I’d never heard that one before. I’d also never heard the term xenophobia. I clearly had a lot to catch up on.
Brother Oakley sounded like he knew what he was talking about, and I was hard-wired to trust religious authorities. Being cursed seemed even worse to me than being an abomination, since you can get cursed without even doing anything wrong. If the Oriental rug your mom got on sale at Ethan Allen can do it, what hope is there? And when even Brother Oakley couldn’t make me stop fantasizing about Billy on Melrose Place, I was at my wits’ end. I became a full-fledged insomniac, offering up prayers in lieu of sleep, desperate for God to fix me. And every time I slipped up with a masturbatory fantasy, I’d lacerate myself with homophobic judgments, echoing Oakley’s rhetoric.
Believing you’re cursed is a lot for a 17-year-old. And I believed it. All of it. With my whole heart. I also believed I would go to hell if I committed suicide, which is the only thing that kept me from driving my cherished Ford Probe into the trunk of a live oak one particularly bleak night.
So two months later, in a last-ditch lunge for sanity, I went to see this other pastor.
I was a freshman in college at a small religious school, and the pastor was a campus minister named Ollie. Ollie was nothing like Brother Oakley or any of my other ministers growing up. Though he was sincere and thoughtful, he didn’t hit you in the face with his religiosity like they did. He seemed real – like he wasn’t putting on any holier-than-thou pretense – which was novel. He also seemed a little… irreverent.
Case in point: At the end of freshman orientation, the Student Life brigade – campus nurse, campus therapist, campus minister – came to our dorm for an informal chat about the services they provided. When the nurse took the floor, she gave a little sex-education spiel in which she demonstrated how to use a condom, with the tried-and-true banana as a phallic stand in. This would have been shocking enough for my sheltered mind, but then she asked Ollie to hold the banana. Jaw unhinged, I braced myself for his polite but stalwart refusal. None of the ministers I’d ever known would have been caught dead giving a sex-education talk unless it was Abstinence Only, and they sure as hell wouldn’t have participated in any banana fondling. But Ollie was totally game, and he didn’t seem a bit nervous. I sat there in disbelief as he made corny jokes, all the while holding that damn banana: ‘Um, guys, if your banana has this many brown spots, you should probably get it checked by a medical professional.’
And also stimulating. Because the man was fine as hell. He looked like a baseball player with his tanned, toned frame. Throw in a hint of young Pierce Brosnan, and he had my attention. But that’s not why I had come to see him. Really.
I’d come to this campus minister seeking closure. I was ready to bury my relationship with God. Sure, I still believed all the fundamentalist claptrap I’d always believed. I knew of no alternative belief system, and atheism seemed a bridge too far for my Baptist heart. But all the psychological torture and self-hatred that comes from believing you’re a cursed abomination had proven something else beyond a shadow of doubt: trying not to be gay was killing me. If I wanted to avoid suicide or the mental ward, I had only one choice – give up on being straight, being good, being Christian, and carry on with my miserable life. I might spend the afterlife in hell, but at least I wouldn’t kill myself to get there.
So I had come to get closure. And before I even walked into Ollie’s office, I already had the scene mapped out:
I sashay in from stage left, sit my faggoty ass down, and launch right into my sordid monologue. I tell him that I’ve always struggled with homosexuality, I’m sure I can’t change, and I am planning to go forth and live a gay lifestyle (whatever that means). He responds on cue, telling me that being gay is a terrible sin and that if I continue in my wicked ways I will never be welcome in the church, will live my life as a pariah, and will most likely wind up in hell. I rise with a dramatic “That settles it, then! I am henceforth done with the church!”, thank the hot minister for his time, and flutter out the door as a self-avowed (though no less self-hating) homosexual. End scene.
I had been sure that’s how it would all go down.
So why was this minister going off script?
There is a churchy phrase that gets bandied about with some regularity, even by people who don’t really believe in a higher power: There but for the grace of God go I.
Its origins are unclear, but it may date as far back as the 16th century. That was a time when a bunch of Europeans started trading goods – and later people – over newly opened oceanic routes, allowing them to accumulate vast amounts of wealth for the first time. Being nouveau riche and all, they remembered what a slog life had been before they banked that sweet colonialist coin, so you can understand why they’d be anxious about maintaining their fortunes.
“There but for the grace of God go I,” they might have said as they fingered their fancy lapels and looked upon the less fortunate.
It was meant as an expression of humility. An acknowledgement that if one thing or another had turned out differently, they could be the ones living in some rat-infested hovel instead of lounging in a cushy boudoir lined with beeswax candles. I imagine it was said then like it’s said today, with a furtive glance toward heaven, an implicit prayer to God or the Universe or Whomever: please don’t let me wind up like that poor bastard over there.
I’ve always found the phrase off-putting for the way it distances “us” lucky ones from the misbegotten “them.” But I can’t deny its point. We aren’t in charge of our own fates. And if just one thing – an interview, a medical test, a traffic stop – had gone another way, we might have been propelled down another path and ended up in a different place. When things are turning out well enough for us, we imagine those alternative destinations to be tragic ones. Tragedy, after all, can come knocking at any time.
There but for the grace of God go I.
Or to borrow Jane Kenyon’s beloved verse, “It might have been otherwise.”
“I know it’s wrong – I’m wrong – but I don’t think I can change. And I’m done trying,” I said, making eye contact with Ollie as I concluded my monologue.
I had told him my story in headlines, from “Seventh Grade Boy Has Crush on Male Classmate” all the way to “Seventeen-Year-Old’s Bid to Break Curse Fails.” I sat motionless, awaiting the familiar condemnation. He flashed me his ready-for-the-camera smile, his face bright with energy, his eyes locked on mine.
Then a pause, interminable, containing futures.
“I don’t think anything’s wrong with you,” he said, finally breaking the silence. He had the enthusiastic-but-casual demeanor of someone praising his favorite pizza. (Dude! You’ve gotta try the margherita pie at Antonio’s…)
What he was actually doing was blowing my mind. All the way open.
I don’t think anything’s wrong with you.
It was the most subversive thing I’d ever heard, going against a lifetime of evidence. Peers, preachers, parents, society, scriptures, news stories – every conceivable source had given me the same message since I’d first chosen to play dress-up over little league: there is something wrong with you. But here was an honest-to-God minister, looking me straight in the eye, with nothing to lose or gain, this world-rocking sentence rolling off his tongue like it ain’t no thing.
“I don’t think anything’s wrong with you.”
“But it’s a sin!” I was reeling, almost breathless, speaking in defense of all the sweet judgments that had been whispered in my ear since birth. I felt a little light-headed. Fainting is not a good look for you, Lance. Deep breaths.
“I don’t think homosexuality is a sin,” Ollie said, then paused for a beat while I tried not to pass out. “I think sin is something we oversimplify,” he went on. “We think it’s about breaking rules, but it’s much more complex than that. So often, churches use the concept of sin to decide who should be in and who should be out, that sort of thing. But Jesus was more judgmental of this kind of gatekeeping than anything else. He seemed to think the gatekeeping done by religious people is itself the bigger sin.”
“But I’ve been told,” I said, pausing to collect myself and get to the heart of the matter. “Well, that if I act on it, if I live a gay lifestyle – that’s something I could go to hell for, right?”
Ollie leaned forward, his wide smile settling into something more pensive. This time, when he opened his mouth, he sounded less like he was praising his favorite pizza and more like he was trying to talk someone down from the ledge.
“You seem like someone who’s been beaten up by that question: ‘Where will you spend eternity?’” Ollie gave a little huff and a disapproving headshake. “But I don’t think any of us – any church, any pastor, any Christian – gets to determine whether someone is going to heaven or hell. Salvation isn’t our business. It’s God’s. And here’s the thing….”
He paused, reviving that camera-ready smile before proceeding with his mic-drop moment: “I think God always proves to be more merciful than we imagine, far more merciful than any of us can account for. I’m confident that, in the final analysis, God’s mercy will outweigh God’s judgment. And that goes for you too, my friend. No matter what.”
Of the five people I’ve personally known who have taken their own lives, four of them were plagued by homophobic voices playing on repeat in their heads. One was the pious mother of a gay man, unable to manage the shame of having an abominable son. Her last phone conversation with him – two days before she put a gun to her head – was spent in tearful pleas, begging him to forsake his sinful ways. The other three were themselves gay men – including a beautiful Black engineer named Jamison, barely thirty, whose brilliance wasn’t enough to overcome his congenital fundamentalism.
It happens all the time: Queer children get told by influential figures, from trusted authorities in pulpits to cool kids on the playground, that they’re disgusting, defective, flawed. They internalize these curses and go through life unable to see their own worth. Some of them – way too many – end up statistics, snuffed out in one way or another by the abominable self-understandings they inherited.
There but for the grace of God go I.
I often wonder what route my life would have taken if Ollie had spoken a word of judgment rather than grace, a curse instead of a blessing. If at that pivotal moment he had confirmed the warped identity I had been given, the neural pathways encoding that identity may have been set in stone, never to be overridden. I needed someone to flip the script and liberate me from past pronouncements. I needed an authoritative voice that could interrupt the homophobic voices playing on repeat in my head.
Ollie’s words to me that day may not have been some saving utterance capable of determining where I will spend eternity. Such final judgments are not our business, as the man said. Nor were his words a magic incantation that – abra-gay-dabra! – fixed my self-image in one fell swoop. It would take years – and a stack of therapy bills – before I would learn to embrace myself as beloved. But his words, spoken to me at a crucial crossroads, did contain my future. They are what set me on a whole-making path.
It might have been otherwise.
The course Ollie charted for me that fateful evening eventually led me to seminary. I was hungry to know more about this God whose mercy could extend to my gay self, and I also wanted to share such mercy with others the way Ollie had shared it with me. During my fourteen years as a pastor, I had the opportunity to do just that. I have a small box full of grateful testimonies – some written carefully on glossy cards, others scrawled on the backs of worship bulletins, one from an e-mail I printed on bright pink paper – each claiming that my words came at a pivotal crossroads and charted a good course for some desperate person.
But the presence of these testimonies, as touching as they are, will never equal the weight of one I never received.
Jamison, the engineer who killed himself, was 25 when he joined the church I was pastoring. He was bright and quiet, with a sensibility that was equal parts earnest and sassy. In many ways, he reminded me of myself. But Jamison carried a heavier load than I did. The double weight of both heterosexism and racism is one I’ve never had to bear, and his family was more strident in their fundamentalism than mine. Even as I watched him excel in his career and take on leadership roles at church, I saw signs that he was self-medicating in dangerous ways. His escalating substance abuse landed him in the hospital, then in jail.
He became something of a personal project. I met with him for numerous one-on-ones, I went to support him at his DUI hearing, I offered words of grace without a trace of judgment. Within a year, he seemed to be on a whole new trajectory. He was sober. He was seeing a therapist. He was beginning to reconcile his sexuality and spirituality. He’d even come out to one of his siblings and was preparing to do the same with his parents. I thought for sure I’d been the course-correcting pastor to him that Ollie had been to me.
Our last conversation of any length – at a church yard sale shortly before I left that parish – was a bubbly exchange about our shared love of the Alien movie franchise, including the widely panned third installment.
“Sigourney looks so badass in that one!” I said, with delighted handclaps.
“I know, right? That shaved head!” Jamison pointed to his own razor-smooth dome. “I mean, who doesn’t love a badass with a bald head!”
“Exactly!” I smiled, taking stock of his newfound self-confidence.
“And that death scene at the end, with her arms stretched out like Jesus, was perfection,” he said, raising an admiring eyebrow before adding: “I’m a sucker for a good death scene.”
Just over a year later, I got the heartbreaking news.
While I can’t be certain what drove Jamison to suicide, I do know the homophobic voices in his head had been as loud – if not louder – than mine ever were. He spent much of his life trying to silence those voices in a number of ways, and I have to think his final action was at least in part the choice for a permanent solution.
It’s been a decade, and my heart is still broken.
Perhaps it’s survivor’s guilt. Given our similar struggles, why am I still here and Jamison isn’t? Or maybe it’s something more self-centered that that, an overblown sense of responsibility that approaches a messiah complex. There’s a part of me that believes I could have been his Ollie, that I should have been the authoritative voice that contained a good future for him. He was in my care for over three years. Was that not enough time for me to place him on a whole-making path? I replay my conversations with him and try to conjure the magic words, the healing utterance that could have rewritten his flawed fundamentalist coding before it was set in stone. Perhaps it was already set in stone when I met him.
I think about his potential, his path, his end.
That it might have been otherwise is a thought almost too heavy to bear.
There appears to be an excruciating randomness to this “grace of God” business.
We are not in charge of our own fates. But sometimes we can influence someone else’s fate. And sometimes we can’t. It all depends on a set of intricate circumstances unfolding perfectly, on the right players with the right chemistry hitting all the right marks with just the right timing.
This randomness weighs on me.
In fact, it pisses me off.
I’m pissed at this roll-of-the-dice reality where the lucky “us” survive and the misbegotten “them” perish. I’m pissed that our best efforts to talk someone down from the ledge can come up short. I’m pissed at God or the Universe or Whomever because Jamison and countless others are dead too soon.
And I give thanks because I’m not.
I’m still here, despite all the ways it might have been otherwise.
I’m still here, pissed and grateful, aware that each encounter demands the same from me without revealing the stakes. I’m here to let grace roll off my tongue, unfettered, like it ain’t no thing.
- Kenyon, Jane, “Otherwise,” from Collected Poems, Graywolf Press, 2005.
Lance F. Mullins is a queer clergyperson who lives in Indianapolis with his seminary-president husband. He holds an M.Div. from Columbia Theological Seminary and is ordained in the United Church of Christ, a progressive LGBTQ-affirming denomination. After pastoring radically inclusive churches for over 14 years, he is now focusing his energies on writing and ministering to the birds, chipmunks, and possum that frequent his backyard.