I wasn’t raised religious. In fact, I only recall Jesus’ name being mentioned on those Saturday mornings when my stepfather would wake up in a bad mood to find dirty dishes in the sink. Those days also included lots of fuming and stomping and curse words and hurt feelings, so while the ‘Lord’s name’ may have been uttered, there was nothing religious about that particular ritual. My early childhood provided little to no context for the Holy Trinity or sin or the bible or anything Christian at all. That is not to say I didn’t have an educational and meaningful upbringing.
My mother had joined the Nation of Islam in the early 70s while attending Stanford University. Judging from how quickly she abandoned her head wraps to raise yours truly, I’ve always assumed she was more interested in the academic pursuit of Elijah Muhammad’s Black Nationalism than the Islamic religion. Even so, I grew up very familiar with phrases like, “Al hum du’ Allah” and “Asalaam Alaikum” and I never saw a piece of pork up close until I was away at college. Eating that slice of pepperoni pizza felt like more of a transgression than knocking back my first Zima (the even cheesier predecessor to Mike’s Hard Lemonade), which happened at the same party. I guess even without the fear of God’s wrath, I used to be sort of a goodie two-shoes.
In elementary school, I remember a group of my friends talking one Monday morning about going to church and how much fun they’d all had at Sunday school together. I’d obviously heard of church, but at that point, it was like rugby or long line fishing; an activity I didn’t understand and had no interest in learning about. However, the fact that I was missing out on socializing was not cool. I was a chatty child and prided myself on being in on all the jokes and up to date on all the shenanigans. So that night, I asked my mother if I could go to church with my friends the following Sunday. Incredulous, she scoffed, “You clearly don’t know what you’re getting yourself into.” But I pleaded my case and told her it was important to me to see firsthand what it was all about. She eventually shrugged and said, “Fine. Knock yourself out.”
I can still remember the smell of that ecru glossy painted Sunday school room; it was tangy and stale and somehow homey all at once. I sat in class with two of my buddies (I think the other two couldn’t make it that week) and within minutes, was bored out of my mind. As the polite, gap-toothed, Jheri-curled lady sat under florescent lights reading bible stories in what sounded like cartoon slow motion, I looked around to see if anyone else was having as much trouble picking up what she was putting down. Every single set of eyes was glazed over. The lesson played like a bizarre form of child torture. The language was not the least bit engaging and the stories didn’t make any sense.
I knew right away that Sunday school was not for me. I actually felt tricked, bamboozled by my friends into sacrificing my Sunday morning for this hogwash. To add insult to injury, after class, we had to sit through a sermon in the actual chapel with the adults. My eyes and ears were bleeding with boredom. By the time I got back home, my mother’s “told ya so” smirk was all I needed to confirm that my spiritual journey, whatever it was to be, would not involve sitting in a room with a bunch of overdressed, shiny folks, having someone talk at me in old English. That church shit was for the birds.
A few months later, some Jehovah’s Witnesses talked my mother into purchasing a “Children’s Book of Bible Stories.” I had just started getting into Edith Hamilton’s book on Greek mythology and I was far more intrigued by superhuman Zeus turning into a swan to seduce a woman than some dude named Abraham setting a bush on fire, but I read both books. It’s all mythology, right? Fables and morality plays… Fiction.
Cut to eight or nine years later. I’d had my official introduction to Zima and with it, a handful of clumsy encounters with guys in college. I knew I was gay before I went away to Berkeley and in truth, sought out the campus’ proximity to San Francisco on purpose. Every day of that first year, I chipped away at the terror of admitting to myself that I would ultimately have to share this secret with everyone in my life. I had no real concept of sin because I already knew that particular book of mythology didn’t apply to my life. As long as I didn’t buy into it, I could not be beholden to its laws and punishments. I wasn’t worried for one second about burning in Hell for being attracted to men. No, I was scared to death that my mother and my brother wouldn’t love me anymore and that I would have to create an entirely new life without them. I was petrified at the prospect of losing my family and friends over something I could not control and did not choose. I knew gay was considered bad by most people, but as far as I could ascertain, God and spirituality had nothing to do with it. Even then, I knew ignorance and shortsightedness were to blame for the unfortunate station of homosexuals in our society. To add to that stress, HIV and AIDS were still widely considered a warranted death sentence for men who dared to have (unsafe) sex with other men. The early 90s was a harrowing time to be coming into your sexuality.
By my second year of college, I came out to my mother, who was surprised but ultimately supportive, and to my younger brother, who insisted he always knew (recalling the elaborate Janet Jackson dance routines I’d perform in our room) and then everything else just sort of fell into place. Extended family eventually caught wind. Most of my close friends had received the news even before my mother, and with the exception of maybe one or two, no one batted an eye. (My stepfather was fortunately already out of the picture. I’m not sure if I’d have come out at nineteen if he was still in the house.) I had built up this very elaborate, but in retrospect half-assed lie to hide my shocking secret, and when the shit hit the fan, most people were really not shocked at all. I mean, I had been in the show choir and dance production classes in my high school. Who was I kidding? My whole life had been a performance.
Cut to about ten years later. I had graduated from the campus stage to star in a cable television series. Considered revolutionary for its depiction of black gay men, Noah’s Arc was cherished by many queer folks of color and, quite unexpectedly, resonated with straight black women as well. By that time, I was very aware of the church’s stand on homosexuality. Over the years, I had even been convinced that the black church was particularly unaccepting and backwards on gay issues, but again, none of that had anything to do with my life… until it did.
I started getting messages from a number of Noah fans from all over the country and eventually the world who had found strength and solace in the images of friendship, love and self-respect our little soapy sitcom promoted. I heard from elderly black men who were thrilled tofinally see images in the media that reflected their relationships and experiences, as well as teenagers who found the show to be an escape from their stifling home lives and a hopeful glimpse of what the future could bring. I could never have anticipated the emotional impact the show would have on viewers… or the emotional impact their response would have on me.
I would regularly find myself at my computer with tears streaming down my face, stunned by the stories of people I’d never met, overwhelmed by how many struggled with simply being gay. And for a number of them, it wasn’t introspective, unwarranted paranoia, as it had largely been with me. Some of these people had been kicked out their parents’ homes and already lived on the streets. Some had been emotionally and physically abused repeatedly. Some had been bullied so brutally they’d considered taking their own lives. Nowadays, we hear about gay teen suicide all the time, but when Noah’s Arc was airing in 2005 and 2006, it was still shocking to consider that it could ever get that bad. (Even I had been picked on for being ‘too soft’ in high school, but it never affected me enough that I would have considered suicide a viable option.) The most horrifying aspect of most of these stories was that the violence and humiliation these people were suffering had been justified by and was rooted primarily in Christianity. Like slavery and xenophobia and misogyny and every societal ill you can name, some bible verse had been twisted to serve as the excuse to rob another human being of happiness, self-respect and love. It made me sick. It made me angry. It made me view religion as the enemy of love.
As the show’s popularity continued to rise, I began hearing from straight folks—mostly women, many of whom were struggling to reconcile their relationship with a gay child or family member. They shared their experience of toiling over how to go about loving this gay person when the bible clearly states that yaddah, yaddah, yaddah. These people were legitimately torn between their instinct to love, to be supportive, and an obligation to adhere to scripture they had been taught in church. I was shocked at how many people were wrestling with this, and shocked that they felt I was the person to whom they should reach out.
While the series was airing, I was far less of an activist. The cast wasn’t even officially allowed to discuss our sexuality in the press. I guess people reached out to me (and other cast members, as I understand) because I was someone with whom they could speak openly without worrying about it getting back to the people in their lives. Honestly, the deluge of messages from people either struggling with being gay or trying to fix a gay person is what eventually lead me to publicly come out as a gay man. There were too many people starving for affirmation, with nowhere else to turn. I had to share my own story to provide an alternative to the all-too-prevalent black queer narrative of suffering and ostracism. Not all of us were sinners born into so-called Christian, hate-mongering churches of rejection and repentance. Some of us were just living our lives.
As soon as I started talking about my experience publicly, I had to learn to bite my tongue. It quickly dawned on me that my ‘demographic’ was by-and-large, church-going black folks. Some of them were straight black women. Others were queer folks who had somehow managed to clear the many hurdles toward self-acceptance placed before them (shaped suspiciously like church pews) and were able to love, live, and worship their God in peace. But many were same gender-loving men and women still at odds with their human urges and their pastor’s dogma. Self-loathing is rampant in gay communities and especially, it seemed to me, in the churchy ones.
My eyes would roll all the way around the back of my head every time a queer black person would quote a bible verse or thank Jesus for their ‘blessings.’ Some variation on, “That book is not serving you, honey. Pick another,” was always cued and ready to go… but I wouldn’t say a word. Of course, it would have been foolish to think someone would choose my idea of free-thinking over their God. I am just another man, raised under different circumstances with different ideas about where we all go at The End. I may not have been speaking my mind, but I certainly had my opinions about people whose views were dictated by what they’d managed to pick up from the pulpit.
Every time someone responded to a discussion topic with a bible quote or mentioned wanting to shut down a Planned Parenthood or praying the gay away or loving the sinner, not the sin, I would just see brainwashed sheep… inane, illogical, obstinate sheep. If your God told you that you had the power to make decisions for someone else’s life, what’s to stop me from making up my own god to grant me the power to tell you to fuck off? I’ll write a book of fables too, if that’s all it takes.
I’ve never called myself an atheist. My issues are with the church and oppressive interpretations of the bible, not with anyone claiming a higher power. I’m personally more comfortable with the term agnostic, because although I don’t believe in any ‘man upstairs,’ I’ve always considered my belief system, my code of ethics to be grounded in spirituality and love. I believe what most call God is simply our universal instinct to love and be empathetic. But the Holy Bible? The Virgin Mary? Leviticus? Child, please.
I knew too much. I was too smart. One couldn’t possibly understand the historical context of African slaves being “given Christianity” in exchange for their freedom, in exchange for their very lives, and actually believe they—WE hadn’t been hoodwinked.
Karl Marx said, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
In other words, they told you that you were born LESS THAN, degraded you, demoralized you, dehumanized you, and then they gaveyou Jesus and a book of rules to keep you in line, to keep you from uprising and taking back your dignity and your humanity… and you bought that shit? They didn’t even bother championing a character that at the very least LOOKED LIKE YOU to feed you the lies. In every painting and stained glass window, Jesus is depicted with long, flowing, flaxen hair and pale skin, despite textual references to him having “hair like lamb’s wool” and skin of “bronze.” Most black girls in pop music today are breaking their backs to look more like that version of Jesus than anybody born to African ancestors… but I digress. This isn’t about Beyonce or Nicki Minaj. This is about my mounting list of grievances with religion and my constant struggle to keep my mouth shut so as not to piss anybody off. Yes, I know… too late. (I bet most of you are more pissed that I called out 'Beysus' and her blond hair extensions.)
A few months ago, the topic of the black church came up with my good friend LaDasha. I can’t be sure, but I was probably expressing outrage over the photos of that black congregation holding up bags of Chick-Fil-A in solidarity with the anti-gay-funding fried chicken chain. That photo was wrong on so many levels, my head is still spinning. Anyway, LaDasha explained that she grew up in her grandmother’s black church and that their congregation would never have pulled a stunt like that. They were too busy feeding and clothing the homeless, shuttling kids and elderly members to places they needed to be, and going about the business of being what I had heard described as ‘good Christians.’ She explained to me that her grandmother’s tiny church never turned a profit like the mega-churches you see headed by the likes of closet-case and alleged sex-offender Bishop Eddie Long. Their church was in place to help and serve the community in the name of The Lord. She wasn’t defensive or boastful when she explained it, either. It was just what they did. I was shocked. I had never heard of such a church. But why would I have? It’s not like I was out looking to find one.
The conversation stumped me. For years, I had been seething with all these ideas about how useless and archaic and backwards the church was, and then someone very close to me—someone who is notbible-thumping at all—explained that she was raised in a church that did nothing but help people in need. Isn’t that what church is supposed to be about? I know my enlightened, evolved, Easter Sunday Mass-skipping family wasn’t driving people around and spending their weekends feeding the needy. Had I been a little too hasty in my condemnation of Christianity? Were there actually people taking all the supposed teachings of Jesus Christ and applying them to something beyond judging and condemning others? Was there ultimately some useful information to be gleaned from that ancient book of mythology?
Well… a few weeks ago I came across another book.
Chris Stedman’s autobiographical “Faitheist” tells the story of a gay adolescent searching for acceptance, longing to belong, who winds up finding his first real community in church. He spent most of his teenage years turning his bible-induced shame inward, hiding from his truth while attempting to live up to the image of a true Christian. As he continued to come to grips with his sexuality, he studied theology in college and eventually came to understand, with a great deal of soul searching, that God did not exist. Like me, however, he had some difficultly fully embracing the atheist identity. But his reticence wasn’t based in fear of alienating a black fan base. Chris came to find many atheists just as judgmental and short-sighted—if not more so—as their right-wing conservative Christian counterparts. If I had publicly declared myself an atheist, come outabout my anti-church stance, I might have been grouped in with those same elitist ‘intellectuals’… and I would have deserved it.
There is a humility and generosity to Chris’ approach to this discussion that I have yet to master. He struggled with claiming his place at times, but eventually found purpose in acting as a bridge between people of all walks of faith, including atheists and agnostics. His story has inspired me to be less judgmental of people of faith, of church-goers, God-fearers, and of anyone particularly attached to any book of mythology. Not all Christians are praying to keep me and my boyfriend from getting married or looking to bomb Planned Parenthoods to keep my cousins from getting affordable health care. There are whack jobs in all walks of life. Some of them are Christian, some of them are Muslim, and some are Wiccan or Buddhist or atheist or agnostic and so on. What we believe should not determine who we are and what we represent to the world around us. The kindness one exhibits, the empathy one feels, the integrity with which one lives their life… these are the qualities that we should be concerned about, not where he or she spends their Sunday mornings.
So I’m still working on this. I’m a grown ass man and while I do find myself more set in my ways these days, I think it’s important to continue bettering myself when I can. I still catch myself squirming when I read an article about a Catholic pro-life football player turning down an invitation to the White House because President Obama supports a woman’s right to choose. I still find it hard not to blame the church when I hear about a mother losing her son to drugs because she encouraged him to pray his gay away rather than just loving him unconditionally. We all have a lot to learn, but the only way to learn is to be open to communication. NO ONE HAS ALL THE ANSWERS. And just because we’re reading different books doesn’t mean our stories won’t overlap at times and that we can’t find strength and solace in our similarities.
You can learn more about Chris Stedman's book at faitheistbook.com