Life at the Intersections!
Beginning the "Race"
I was born in the year 1982 to two military parents in the small town of Centerville, Georgia. Growing up as an Air Force brat greatly influenced and informed my world-view. I've lived in 6 different states: Georgia, Michigan, South Carolina, Florida, Washington, and California, as well as the US protectorate Guam.
At a very early age I was confronted with the stark reality that I was black and that being black meant "something" in America and that "something" came with an entire history of baggage, bondage, struggle, and ultimately liberation. Being an African American has greatly influenced how I see the world and how I interact with the world around me. Through the struggles of learning how to accept myself as a black man (in a culture that is often pitted against me), I have made many valuable and evolutionary leaps in my development. The work is still ongoing, but I firmly believe that Spirit and my Ancestors have brought me here for such a time as this.
Sex and Spirit
In 1993, at the age of 11, I started to identify myself as a same-gendered-loving male. This simple, yet profound cognitive development would become a cornerstone in my belief system and interpersonal relationships. However, it would also become the source of much pain, depression, spiritual doubts, fears, and confusions for almost two decades. In the same year, while enrolled in a Vacation Bible School at March AFB, California (in the hopes of obtaining salvation from hell and being freed of my same-sex attraction), I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior thus making me (officially) a Christian. The hope was that Jesus would free me from my same-sex attractions, that I would be whole, cleansed, and finally...normal.
Imagine my disappointment when, after years of pleading for God to "heal" me from this "perversion," I realized that Jesus had no intention whatsoever in doing what I was petitioning Him to do on my behalf. As one acquaintance would later say to me, "Sometimes God's non-answer is His answer." I would later come to believe that Spirit had other plans that did not quite fit within my limited perspective or purpose for my life. It has occurred to me that, perhaps, this was not done "to" me but instead "for" me. More about that later.
What progressively happened for the next 7 years (1993-2000) was my consistent and almost fanatical and fervent zeal for all things Christian. I preached, I prayed, I led people to Christ. And once I started High School in 1996, I seemingly stepped it up to fever pitch. For many, I was the go-to guy for all things Jesus. I carried my Bible to school, wore WWJD bracelets, and passed out tracts. I knew many of the latest Contemporary Christian songs, worship songs, and musical artists. I was in Church every Sunday, Bible Study every Wednesday (always the youngest in the adult class), and I sang in the choir. Although I didn't claim a denomination, Pentecostalism became my flavor of worship. I was rapture ready and Holy Spirit filled. And by the time my senior year of High School rolled around I was leading prayer for our 200-plus sized marching band before every football game and had garnered the respect of many in my school; from the Principal down.
Falling from Grace, or Into it?
Upon my High School graduation in 2000, I had been living, what seemed a double life; Christian and gay. At the time my faith and belief about God did not privy itself to the acceptance of both. For years I had tried to deny, pray away, and even exorcise the attractions within me; the latter, through very spiritual wrenching means. But upon the commencement of my undergraduate career at Valdosta State Univeristy in Valdosta, Georgia. I had had enough of the lies.
I came out!
It wasn't a major "to do" event actually. It happened late one night when I was home for Thanksgiving break. My Father was the recipient of the news. But with that one confession, I had started a chain reaction I was not quite prepared for. Although it sent ripples throughout my family, it was the crashing waves within me that would eventually lead me to doubt and question the faith I had grown up with and whether or not there was still hope. What I didn't know, however, was that things were going to get much worse before they started to get better.
The event that sent my spiritual faith and sexuality crashing into each other happened one evening when my "secret" (I was still selective who I was out to) was revealed to certain members of the Church I was attending. After my refusal to undergo their version of reparative therapy, I was passively aggressively excommunicated. With my ego bruised and my spirit crushed, I quit the church and left them to their own devices. And as I stood watching helplessly and in disbelief as my world imploded upon itself and the faith I so relied upon seemingly betray me, I made a decision: I was through with Church!
I didn't regularly attend church again 'till 2008.
Welcome to the "Desert of the Real"
In almost every popular tale, fantasy, mythology, or true-life story, there is a moment when the main character finds themselves separated from almost everything they've ever known: family, friends, an old way of life, or even love. They are driven either into bondage, slavery, the desert, or some other form of isolation altogether. Sometimes this is forced upon them. And sometimes it is self-directed.
I was familiar with the tales of Abraham the Father of nations, Moses the Liberator and Lawgiver, Joseph the Interpreter, David the Great King, Elijah the Great Prophet, and countless other people of faith that had been driven or called out of their comfort into a far harsher environment. Even Jesus the Christ and greatest of Prophets was led into His own wilderness. And it was alone that Siddhārtha Gautama found his enlightenment and became the Buddha.
What I was soon to realize in my own wilderness experience was the shear bleakness, fear, and doubt that would accompany such an experience. I call the 7 years between 2000 and 2007 the "Great Falling Away." I wrestled greatly with what it meant that my prayers for the healing from my homosexuality had not been granted. Truly I loved God; there was no doubt about that. So why then, was I still struggling with these feelings? If anyone deserved deliverance, surely I would've been in the rankings. I knew what the scriptures said. I knew what I had been taught, what ministers all around me had preached and declared from their pulpits, and I was not naive nor ignorant of the social implications of what this kind of social lifestyle would do to my image as a Christian. Was I destined for hell for something I could not control? Was I doomed to a life of unhappiness, doubt, fear, and self-insecurity? Was it my fault that I felt this way to begin with? I knew what the scriptures supposedly said about people like me, but somehow that didn't mirror my own character. Was I meant for celibacy for the remainder of my time on this planet? Was I to forever watch as heterosexuals relished in their blessed unions while my own pain grew like a festering cancer, slowly eating away at anything that would bring a moments joy? Why would God do this to me? How could He allow this? What puzzled me further was the clear ways in which God was seemingly providing for me and directing my life, yet my belief system always supported the notion that God was far from those who lived in sin. How could this be? This made no sense to me!
Needless to say, the questions were countless unlike their corresponding answers!
What made matters worse was that all throughout my undergraduate career I was surrounded by Christians who were always trying to get me involved in some mission trip or volunteer activity for one of the many Christian organizations on campus. I couldn't bring myself to be in the presence of their over-exuberant excitement and seemingly careless disregard for my silent dilemma. They were happy about their Jesus. And they relished in there sublime, righteous, and God-sanctioned heterosexuality! Even when I would find trusted friends to confide in about my situation, I was met with pat answers and scriptural anecdotes. There is nothing worse that hearing the same advice that I would give them in a similar situation. However, my advice and my knowledge no long satiated my growing and insatiable hopelessness!
This is the part of the story where, if it weren't for my doubt about whether a soul that commits suicide went to heaven or hell, I would have surely offed myself.
Finding My Way Home
Through those emotionally and tumultuous 7 years I did find some saving graces amidst the pain. I fell in love with a man for the first time in my life. It was a very rocky relationship but it satisfied a deep longing for connection, companionship, love, and sex. The relationship lasted off and on for 2 years. And after I graduated with my BFA in Speech Communication in 2004, I entered into another 2.5 year relationship with a man who loved me more than life itself. Because of my emotional and spiritual instability, my inability to retain employment, and other crucial factors, I was unable to fully reciprocate his feelings. But it was within this relationship that I would receive my biggest gift and my deepest revelation.
Jared's love for me was unfailing and unconditional. Even through all of my life changes and spiritual wranglings he was steadfast. We had a very roller-coaster season together, but I always new that at the end of the day, this man, whom I was blessed to share a part of my life with, would have never left me unsupported. And it was his patience, loving-kindness, humility, selflessness, compassion, and grace that began breaking through my dark fog of spiritual malcontent and disillusionment.
About 1.5 years into our relationship and through the security of the home-life he was intent on having with me, the light came. It was a clear, pure beam of light, like the sun breaking through a thick layer of clouds after a dark storm. Within this light came perspective and a singular thought: "I am loving this man!" And as soon as I had turned my inner eye to contemplate this thought, the thought morphed into so many layers of meaning all at once.
- I, am loving this man.
- I am, loving this man.
- I am loving, this man.
- I am loving this, man.
- I am loving this, man.
Love's Liberation - Back to Basics
The level of personal significance of this one statement was profound for me. I was building a life with this man, out of love. It was not about lust, lasciviousness, cruelty, selfish gain at the expense of his well-being, or out of wanton sin. As I continued to ruminate over the meaning of "loving" Jared it occurred to me that not only was I loving this man but I would, if push came to shove, die for him. And I remembered Jesus' words, "Greater love has no man than this than he who lays down his life for his friends." It wasn't about lust. I wasn't lusting this man. It wasn't about infatuation. I wasn't infatuated with this man. It was about love. This was a relationship that did not match the unclean relationships that I had read about in scripture. This was a relationship that was striving to be built on mutual respect, love, and compassion. And I was doing it! I was actively and purposefully participating in a relationship where I strove to seek the betterment of my partner and if need be, die for him.
It wasn't so much that Jared's love had found me, this was truly the case. The deeper meaning that I had been blatantly overlooking through my entire sexual/spiritual struggle was that "love" was the ONLY thing that mattered. That was it. You'd think that the depth of meaning of the greatest commandment in all of scripture would've dawned on me sooner, but it didn't, because, Christian opponents of homosexuality (of whom I used to be a part) always argued that the homosexuals' advocacy for "love" was nothing more than a "license to sin." Because of this line of reasoning, it took me years to finally accept the fact that it was actually possible to be a homosexual AND live out the greatest commandment of all. Yes, it was possible and I was doing it! I was living out the law of ultimate love and expressing my sexuality in the only normal expression I knew how.
Changing the Tide
Although my relationship with Jared did not last, the lessons I learned and the epiphanies I was blessed with lingered and continued to do so. In the years of my "Great Falling Away," I spent a considerable amount of time in prayer, thought, and in conversation. But what probably helped me most through this period was my keen sense of observation. It was during this time that America's "War on Terrorism" was in full swing and I began to notice a very disturbing trend: the Religious Right, in the shroud of the Republican Party, had become such a prominent figure in the everyday discourse of our political theater. I'll be honest, during my days of staunch conservatism and religious fervor, I voted for Bush but was unable to consciously do so a second time.
I watched and listened as the Religious Right spewed their venomous xenophobia, racism, and millennialist propaganda. I was particularly aware of the rash judgements they made of people they hardly even knew and cultures and groups of people they would probably never meet. It wasn't only their beliefs about Muslims or Islam that concerned me, it was also the explosive and corrosive political atmosphere that they almost single-handedly were creating and steering. Issues from whether to display the Ten Commandments on federal land to abortion and homosexuality were all fair game to them. And they spared no expense or communication airwaves disseminating their dualistic message. And that message was nothing short of their version of "Taking America Back for God!"
The questions I had to ask myself were, "What period are they taking America back to?" and "What version of God are they taking America back for?"
Leaving the Forest of Dualism
It was during this period that I came across a book by Gregory A. Boyd entitled "The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church." I found this book so on target that it inspired my unfinished essay, "Poisoning the Well." My conservative walls were quickly disappearing. This was also a period of time when Spirit started to show me deeper truths about the scriptures I had long held as infallible or at least unchanging. I received revelations about the changing nature of the Law of God as man continues to evolve and understand more about himself and the universe in which he lives (or as a Jewish friend would later tell me, God's Laws were always supposed to evolve as man evolved), to the significance of Jesus not stoning the woman caught in adultery and what it meant that there was a higher path than judgement. These new thoughts and epiphanies were, in many respects, antithetical to my conservative sensitivities. However, these observations made far more sense to me and felt far more conducive to the world in which I was finding myself.
I didn't know it at the time, but I was leaving a very grave and dangerous way of existing in the world. I was leaving Dualism. Dualism was a safety net for my conservative views. Everything had an opposite. There was right and wrong, black and white, up and down, us and them, good and evil. All the beliefs I had were fairly airtight and able to be explained in a succinct sound bite. The way to Heaven was ONLY through Jesus; the way to Hell, without Him. It was easy being a Conservative. The Bible was a list of do's and don'ts; punishments and judgements if you fall by the wayside (or backslide) and rewards if you "keep your feet from stumbling." Most things were easily explained and if there was not a readily available answer, I was told that God would one day reveal it. Needless to say, there was no need to worry so long as I stuck to the rules.
However, being inherently attracted to men and desiring to be fully all that I could be in this life (which also meant being a sexual being) meant there was no rule in the book that could assure me eternal salvation, or so I was told!
In leaving Dualism I found myself in a brave new world. To be honest it was a world that was far more real than anything I found in Conservative Christendom. In Conservatism I walked around with blinders on; blinders that prevented me from fully seeing the complexity that is life. In short, most things were not as clear-cut and succinct as Conservatism would've had me believe. Once I started to adjust my eyes to this new light I was baffled as to how I could've even read the Bible and not see the gross complexities to every story and almost every character. Conservatism removes the mystery and the beautiful complexities for the sake of ease, bullet-point faith creeds, and manageability (arguably defined as "control").
There are often more than two sides to every story, every dilemma, every action, or every belief. Conservatism didn't allow for this. Conservatism is like a dangerous cult. The longer you preach something as true, the stronger people will believe it. The stronger they believe it, the less likely they are to think or consider differing viewpoints or ask pertinent questions. And the less likely they are to think, the harder it'll be to break them of their belief. And as I've seen time and time again (I used to be like this), people tend to get extremely violent when strongly confronted with an opposing view. And because of this staunch belief that their way is the only way, Spirit has difficulty doing new and exciting things in our world. Conservatism doesn't allow for any flexibility. Abandoning these dualistic conservative yawns helped me more fully appreciate and embrace the mystery that as a same-gender-loving male, I had a phenomenal and profound love and connection to Spirit. I was discovering that my sexuality and my spirituality were not mutually exclusive.
In 2007 I moved to Tampa, Florida and was longing to be a part of a spiritual community again. And in 2008 I started attending an inclusive congregation at "The Potter's House International Fellowship." My initial visit was quite jarring. The ushers, with open arms, welcomed me and as worship commenced, I witnessed homosexuals and heterosexuals worshipping freely and proudly together. As I sat in the back of the Church, a voice inside me was yelling, "No, this is not right, they should not be doing this!" I quickly recognized the voice as my own internalized fear that God wouldn't be pleased if gays worshipped Him while still expressing their sexuality openly. I realized that something quite profound was happening in the midst of this free worship and that my internal fears were wrong. I still had more work to do in reconciling my sexuality and my spirituality and what better place to do that than within this body of believers.
So for two years, I worshipped, fellowshipped, and enjoyed the company of these brothers and sisters. I joined the praise team and my spiritual gifts were encouraged and appreciated. This was the first time I had ever been part of a congregation that recognized my calling and spiritual gifts and sought to nurture them. The Spirit moved freely within this congregation of LGBTQ believers and it was a beautiful thing. The two years I spent with them taught me a powerful aspect of the Spirit of God. Compassion!
The word compassion means to "suffer with." While attending "The Potter's House" I was confronted with the depth of pain, sorrow, loss, fear, and uncertainty that we as LGBTQ people wrestle with on a daily basis. But I learned that one of the most beautiful things about the Spirit is that so often the most beautiful songs, offerings, and heartfelt prostrations are borne out of those who are acquainted with grief and despair. This was a congregation of broken vessels and I witnessed time and again the Spirit flow so freely through them. They came to empty themselves before Spirit and again and again Spirit came alongside, entered in, or enveloped their trembling hands and trembling hearts with so much love and compassion. As I'm penning these words, I'm fighting tears remembering how marvelous an experience this was. This was truly a testament to how Spirit had held me all these years and continued to do so. As scripture depicts the woman caught in adultery, the man who was beaten and robbed and left on the side of the road, or the sick who cried out for healing and release, Spirit is seen as having compassion to forgive transgression, being a Good Samaritan to bind up wounds, and a healer to mend the broken.
There IS a better way!
Desert experiences may happen more than once in a person's life, when they are called away yet again to learn another lesson, strengthen their ability to fight the battles of the next chapter, or for Spirit to get them to pay attention to a crucial aspect of their life. 2009 was a transitory year for me. At first I didn't know how transitory, but by August it was clear that Spirit was moving me on, again. The year opened with the loss of a job I had held for two years and as the months progressed, I watched as everything I wanted to do and seek to create dry up or fall through my hands. One of the greatest lessons in life is knowing when a season has ended. By years end I had said goodbye to everything I had known in the South: family, friends, Churches, lovers, and drove the 3100 miles from Tampa, Florida to Seattle, Washington; truly leaving behind everything. I had moved approximately 17 times before then, but having known only one friend, moving to a place that was the whitest city I've ever lived in as an adult, coupled with watching my car stolen two months after moving, made this the hardest move of my life.
The Unexpected Expectation
Over the years I had come to expect Spirit's leading, guidance, and provision. The move to Seattle was no different. As a matter of fact, this move saw everything I needed beautifully provided for; from money and employment, to housing and education. What I didn't expect was the direction that Spirit was leading. I had acquired a job as an HIV/STI and sexual health counselor at arguable the largest HIV/AIDS agency in the city. Having come from a short career in IT, this was a major shift, although a better fit for my gifts, talents, and life experiences. Further, my job required me to counsel and work with African American men, primarily.
Re-entering the "Race"
For years, I had spent my time and efforts working on building a bridge between my sexuality and my spirituality. Although I still had much more work to do, I was further along than I was. However, what continued to plague me was my struggle with being a black man. I had continued to push aside the pain I received as a child due to the ridicule and struggle of being caught between worlds, to white to be black and to black to be white. I found that many blacks did not take kindly to my extensive education, proper English skills, or my inability to be able to successfully integrate into Black culture; I didn't take to Rap, R&B (although Jazz become my first love), sports, or other aspects that would stereotypically define me as a Black male in America. This struggle became a thorn in my side that, for years, I would've rather not have dealt with. To me, there seemed no way to heal from this, when all around me, there were so little opportunities to engage in relationships with black men that were a lot like me. Couple that with me being gay, and the situation exponentially increased in difficulty.
Seattle was unlike any city I had previously lived. What struck me as odd was the lack of racial diversity when it came to percentages of blacks and whites, let alone the sheer lack of southern hospitality. I became increasingly jaded by the fact that the only African Americans I saw in a week were those I counseled on a daily basis at my job. I did, however, start attending another inclusive Pentecostal Church during my first year or so in Seattle and it offered me more of an African American "fix" but it still didn't seem enough. I would joke that, upon flying home to Georgia to visit family, that I would see more blacks in Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport than I would see in Seattle in any 2-week period. What added insult to injury is that I had been accepted into the University of Washington's School of Social Work Program for my Masters Degree only to discover that I would be one of two men, the only African American male, AND the only queer male in my entire evening cohort for the next 3 years!
So much for social justice!
Spirit was up to something, because the African Americans I did meet in Seattle were far more like me in education, linguistics, mannerisms, and even sexuality than I had EVER previously encountered. At first I felt a spirit of competition because my previous modus operandi was making sure I wasn't mistakenly identified as "ghetto." As a matter of fact, I grew up in a family where education, caring how you presented yourself when outside the home, respect, and honor were stressed and expected. For so many years I felt alone in my struggle not knowing who to turn to or even how to go about healing the deep racial wounds of my past. So, imagine my surprise when the African Americans I did meet in Seattle mirrored my own character more often than not and brought a perspective and way of being that I had desperately needed in previous years! I was truly in a different chapter in my life and one that would bring a great deal of healing and reconnection.
One of the greatest blessings in my racial healing process came during my last course of my graduate school career, Social Working with African American Families. During one of the class conversations, the subject of racism came up (as it was bound to do). As the conversation progressed, a hand went up. This hand belonged to a lady whose original home was Kenya. As she began to speak about how racism in America baffles her because it is not something she is well acquainted with in Kenya, she said something that would change my life and my view of being an African American forever. She said that where she was from, people in Kenya are very proud of the progress that the African American slaves have made. They look up to us. She continued by saying that they use us as an example for their children by saying that if the African American slaves could achieve so much, then surely they can too. After she finished speaking I raised my hand and after being called on, turned my head to look directly at her and while fighting tears I said, "Thank you for saying what you just said. In all of my life I had never heard this. In all of my life no one has ever said this to me." In that moment I felt reconnected to my heritage, not just as far back as a couple of generations ago but all the way back to Africa. In that moment I felt the host of my ancestors saying to me, "Yes, we see you. Yes, we hear you. Yes, we know what you have been through. We have always been here watching over you. You have never been alone. You are 'ok' and we are so very very proud of you!" To have the feeling of Ancestral reconnection was one of the most profound experiences of my entire life. I will always carry that experience and that knowledge with me knowing that I can always call on them when I need to. Being brought into the fold of people I felt previously rejected by and therefore rejected myself, has been one of the greatest blessings of living in Seattle. And for that, I am eternally grateful!
Not Done "To" You but Instead "For" You!
I mentioned earlier that I would come to see my struggles as something that wasn't done "to" me but instead "for" me. Seeing my struggles as something that works out in the best of my interests can only be fully grasped in retrospect after the countless tears have dried and the stitches I have used to keep my heart beating are no longer necessary. I have learned many lessons and have acquired much wisdom along the way. The story is far from over. There are many more tears to cry, laughs to be had, lessons to learn, mountains to climb, deserts to traverse, and moments to be still, to wait, to listen. My ultimate goal is the full freedom to be wholly me.
I am convinced that through my healing work, I have learned valuable lessons about life, about love, and about Spirit that I would NOT have otherwise obtained had I been anyone other than me. By wrestling with the intersections of sex and spirit I am learning that neither are mutually exclusive; that sex is nothing more than an expression of Spirit (and an often wonderful manifestation indeed). I have often witnessed sex destroy, but I have also witnessed sex heal. Like anything, the inherent nature of a thing is neither good nor evil. In the right hands it can become either. In my healing work around homosexuality and Christianity I have learned a great deal about what true love actually is, what compassion actually looks like, and what non-judgment truly entails. I have witnessed that many people who have labeled themselves "One like Christ," are often anything but. It has been greatly impressed upon me that being a follower of the book is not the same as being a follower of the way. When love is your dictate, your guide, and your purpose, other laws, rules, regulations, do's, and don'ts fade away. I have truly lived and witnessed the scripture that states that the letter of the law kills but the Spirit gives life (2 Corinthians 3:6). I truly believe that mankind will evolve when we no longer see our universe through dualistic lenses. And lastly, as I continue to heal around the issue of my racial identity, I am finding myself reconnecting not only to a rich ancestral heritage but also to my ancestors who lived and created it.
My struggles have been the vehicles for my blessings, my tears the womb of my joys, my pains the roots of my laughter, in everything the essence of my thanks!
The Journey Continues...In Gratitude!