On the Road to Redemption

 

Yesterday, I gave my religious story before the congregation of Lynhurst Baptist Church. I have been going there consistently since late June, but off and on since my return to Indy in August 2016. A few days after my story performance at Pull Up a Chair Indy, I told Bobby that my story would be posted on YouTube. He saw it, and enjoyed it, and then told me, “You need to talk to Ben and tell your story to the church.” I approached Ben before service, and told him what Bobby had said, and Ben was excited to get me behind the pulpit. We set up the date for September 17, and I went to work on my story.

Ben wants any story to be around twenty minutes—give or take a couple minutes—so the service does not exceed an hour. I thought this to be a challenge because my history with the church is not a pleasant one, nor is that history brief.

I don’t come from a stereotypically religious home, and that reason had to do with the cultures of my mother’s family and my father’s family, and their own conclusion on religious matters. I wrote out my mother’s family arrival from Scotland, Wales, and Germany to the United States at the turn of the twentieth century, and how they stayed within their respective cultures though my great-great grandparents had been dead since the 1940s. I grew up with snippets of German and Scots Gaelic—sometimes sworn at me—in a gravelly Highland accent my youngest great aunt maintained. These people had their fill of America by the early teens because of the ethnic backlash from World War I, and wanted to be left alone thank you very much. And if they were not left alone this part of my family had no qualms delivering an explanation on the matter, and go sing hymns to Jesus the following Sunday with a bounce in their step.

My father’s family was quite different. Most of his family arrived from County Cork, Ireland in the 1880s, and, Hoosier Hospitality being the same then as it is today, were told in no uncertain terms they could be Catholic or they could eat. On the surface they complied and didn’t go to Mass. Behind closed doors, though, they remained staunchly Irish Catholic. This cultural religion was passed down to the succeeding generations, and my father, though, hateful towards God for the hand he had been dealt, maintained that religious culture in his ethics that became my foundation for morality long before our shadows hit the church doors.

My mother is cynical towards organized religion because of the hypocrisy she observed in her family, but she’s cool with Jesus and God is alright. Their followers, on the other hand, had better stay away from her if they know what’s good for them. She thought the black and white points of view childish and beneath her, and did not shelter my brother or myself. In fact, she was the one who drove me to a hole in the wall Punk Rock record store in the Irvington neighborhood so I could buy Agnostic Front’s “Liberty and Justice For…” album along with The Crucified’s self-titled release. Pop didn’t care about the music per se. He was into Surf music, Johnny Cash, and other Outlaw Country. He hated the sound and would yell, “Goddamn it, boy! Turn that shit down!” But he never stooped so low as to equate morality or spirituality with a music style. For Pop, morality and spirituality were internal.

But those examples were too much for the story with regards to time. I also had other examples from different churches from all over Indianapolis. While these things are good for a written story such as a memoir, they exceeded the time constraints by twenty-five minutes. My first attempt at brevity was an eighteen page first draft.

I kept Ben and Eric in the loop with each step of writing and revision. Most of my story blew away Eric. Even though he has known me for twenty years he never knew the depths of my hellish religious background. I never brought them up because my story of religious abuse and walking away from God is an all too common story in the United States. The experience felt common, and I’ve also been told to be quiet about it. After all I’m bitter and ignoring the grace of God. God’s grace is true and keeps people close to God, but grace does not mean any kind of bad behavior is without consequence. As much as God is gracious, God is also about justice—restoration and balance—something that much of the church has forgotten as it wielded its heavy handed judgments.

When Ben and I met for coffee in the middle of August, I felt the need to address my concern towards telling my story. “You do realize my story is an indictment against the Christian religion and The Church?” He gulps his coffee and shakes his head, “Yes, but you need to tell it because The Church needs to hear it.” I shrugged my shoulders and continued on with the editing. I reduced the family and religious examples to one or two instances and focused on my particular journey from 2010-2017—my wandering years after my father died.

After a brief introduction from Eric, I got up behind the pulpit with my quart mug of green tea and honey, and began my story. There was some laughter here and there, but mostly dead silence. I was feeling a bit nervous myself. Not from speaking in front of people, but telling this particular story to people in a church. I don’t have the pleasant church experiences where there was a constant stream of love and safety. What has been consistent in my story is abuse, cover up, victim shaming, and dismissal from the church. Another reason for the apprehension I felt had to with this being the first time in my religious experience where church leadership wanted to hear my story and have the congregation hear my story.

I don’t know what I was expecting to happen after the end. I sat down in the pew, and Ben got up to speak. He told the congregation that The Church does not like to hear stories like mine because it makes every Christian uncomfortable, but my story is one of thousands—people walking away from God because they want to be free from of the violence people have done to them in God’s name. Ben admonished the church to take seriously stories like mine and to put in the effort to be Jesus outside the church walls. Not that Lynhurst Baptist needs much admonishing. The only reason I go there is I feel the reality of Jesus from the people I meet, and that is not something I have ever felt in a church. I also want to be like Jesus, and for me, Lynhurst Baptist is a place where Jesus lives next door—he goes to the bar with you.

Ben’s response caught me off guard, though. When he spoke, the reality of me telling my story in a church set in, and there was a leader who didn’t tell me to keep quiet and let the grace of God handle it. He never blamed me for what had happened. In fact, Ben validated me and my story before the congregation and to those who were watching the service online. My wounds had come full circle, and I could finally lay them to rest. A church and its pastor, my pastor, acknowledged my story without any defensiveness. The pain I had carried had been redeemed, and could be released. So I let go of the pain.

After service few came up and told me they enjoyed my story. However, I did not spend any time discussing my story or my church experience. There were two people who wanted to talk to me about Jack Kerouac and his book On the Road. I mention Kerouac as a stalwart companion, and both people told me the effect he has had on their lives and the lives of their kids. I spent an hour in the sanctuary discussing Kerouac and Buddhism, and when I left, Ben told me a couple people, inspired by my story, came up to him expressing their desire to tell their story.

Grace had come to me because of my telling, and when I spoke the last word, the final burden had been removed. I could sit around and discuss common joys with people I just met. Grace had also touched those two people sparking in them the courage and the desire to share also. Redemption and all things beautiful had manifested that Sunday morning, but that happens every week at Lynhurst Baptist, and I observed that manifestation from a different perspective.

 

Advertisements

Deus Volt

download

I have not posted on this blog in the last couple weeks partly because I had been working on a story that I would be presenting at a local storytelling group. It was a blast. Ronnie said I killed it, and a new friend who is also a writer told me I did so well. I’ve posted a link below should you want to watch and listen. The length of time is thirteen minutes and some change.

 

The morning after I told this story, I told Bobby—the leader of our Sunday School class—and he said I needed to talk to the pastor about telling my story to the church. Not the story posted above, but my religious story. The pastor encourages all the people in the congregation to get up and tell their stories because he believes that God works and speaks differently to each individual while remaining the same. He also views the bible as a collection of individual stories and how God moved upon these people, and while we look to their example, we do not confine our life story to that ancient story. It’s like some modern religious Jews. The Hebrew Canon is still open because times and locations change, and the prevailing question is “How is this ancient story expressed in my modern story?” Good question, and one many Christians foolishly ignored when they closed the canon in the mid fourth century.

In between the class and service, I went up to the pastor and told him what Bobby had suggested, and he was for telling my story. The next day, I sat down and started to write beginning with my first exposure to church at the age of nine. I had told this story several times, but I decided to write with unflinching honesty, and when I did that I awoke the hive of demons that laid dormant in my brain. The shrieks and howls, and the clouded perception became maddening. I kept writing until every last scream was exhausted by a lacerated throat, but a realization occurred.

In my writings and in my conversations, I have foul words for my experiences with the church of various denominational branches, and I also have foul words for Christianity and the church. What I discovered is the church had become a scapegoat. The hatred I have for the church and for Christianity is really a hatred I have for my father. Something was unresolved. I thought I had all the hard conversations with my father and we had come to a moment of complete reconciliation and forgiveness on both sides. I even went so far as to tell him, “Because of you I associate violence and brutality with Christianity.” It killed me inside to tell him this because the man who received those words was no longer the man who bruised me and broke my bones in the name of God and St. Paul. But I needed to say it. I didn’t want him to die without my having a chance to be completely honest with him.

That’s why I never addressed the hatred I’ve had since I was a boy. As I became older, I went out on the road to wander, and I met various kinds of people. I met fathers who did not care one whit about the moral integrity and personal development of their children, but ran around on their wives and drinking their paychecks. I started to see my father as a man, and, because I knew a little of the abuse he endured as a child and how he worked on his anger, I felt my hatred was misguided and therefore unnecessary. I didn’t put it aside or repress it, but I let the anger dissipate. I thought I was finished with hatred, but my body and my brain were not. As I felt my brain rattle and my shoulders tighten, I decided to pursue my hatred for the church with complete transparency. I would not pull any punches with myself, and I would let whatever happen, happen.

I blamed the church for my father. Before we went my father was a peaceable man who liked to spend time with work friends at a local bar or with my godparents during camping trips. After church happened, I saw my father transform into a snarling monster. While raging and spitting he would beat me with his bible(figuratively) while citing chapter and verse justifying the bruises on my body and crooked fingers. The people at church knew what was happening at home. They even witnessed my beatings and told me, like my father, I had it coming because I was such a bad kid. Jesus was on their side condoning my treatment. It wasn’t until my mid-thirties when my pop got all confessional about the rape and beatings he experienced from his uncle and father in Jesus’ name that I realized I wasn’t a bad kid. The church wasn’t to blame for my dad, though they did exacerbate the situation, but the monster had been created by my father’s father doing unspeakable things to him in Jesus’ name. That kind of religious exposure leaves a mark. My father believed and came to faith on his own, but I am cold and indifferent to the idea God and Jesus.

After writing about my father and becoming honest about my hatred towards him, I realized I didn’t have that much anger towards Christianity or the church. Granted, I still have my points of contention, and I still think Christianity, as a religion is bullshit, but the hatred is no longer there. Without those distracting unresolved emotions, I can look at God and Jesus with improved objectivity. At the moment of this writing, I am still indifferent to Jesus. If he were sit down next to me at this table in my apartment and ask me, “Who do you say that I am?” I would shrug, “The fuck, if I know.” It’s not that I don’t want to believe, but my negative experiences of Christianity and the church have been rather consistent with the few exceptions I have met and befriended on my way. But those exceptions are not enough for me to even desire to believe. Those exceptions, however, are enough for me to listen to what they have to say. That’s why I go to this church. That’s why I have a friendship with the associate pastor, and beginning a new friendship with the Senior Pastor and Bobby. They practice and own their faith, and I will listen to Christians like that.

I finished the rough draft, and I sent it to the pastor. I asked him if he could meet for coffee the next day because I needed to talk to him about my story. He agreed to it and we met at Thirsty Scholar downtown. I told him that I was brief in my sketches, but that brevity produced eighteen pages and if I went into more detail, I would have enough for a short book. I also told him the story he wants me to tell, and the story I am writing, is an indictment against Christianity and the church. He agreed, but he still wants me to tell it. “Your story will make people uncomfortable, but your story needs to be heard.” This caught me off guard. Every other pastor I have met would dismiss me as bitter and patronize me with, “Well no one is perfect. That’s why we have grace.” Right, but understanding your own imperfections and using grace is not a license to behave like an entitled asshole. Will my story inspire a change? I hope so, but that is not my goal. Neither do I want people to come up to me and make apologies on behalf of the church. The whole point of my story is if you’re a Christian and you skillfully apply 1 Corinthians 5:11-13, “But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging those outside? Is it not those who are inside that you are to judge? God will judge those outside. ‘Drive out the wicked person from among you’ (NRSV).”  I presume that Christians holding other Christians accountable there will be fewer people like me who are burned out with hostility, or, worse yet, indifference  The point of my story is to inspire Christians to own their faith and take their faith seriously.

Clean

I began my day at 6:09 this morning. Ronnie has to work the occasional Sunday, and I got out of bed to shower and shave, and prepare our breakfast and her lunch. The plan was to drop her off at work,  get gas, go to Mo’Joes write over my sandwiches and coffee, and go to church. The rain sprinkled off and on as I exited I-70 on the West St. exit, and drove past Lucas Oil Stadium towards Mo’Joe’s.  The gray, drizzly weather is perfect for dark roast coffee, sketching out a prospective piece, and read Ellis Amburn’s Subterranean Kerouac: The Hidden Life of Jack Kerouac. The work is good thus far, but I’ve a high opinion on writers like Amburn, Joyce Johnson, and Ann Charters who write about Jack Kerouac based on their scholarly research and their relationship with him. I spent nearly ninety minutes writing out a first draft on my desire to heal and take life case by case, and went right into Amburn’s book. All the while, I’m listening to my writing playlist of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Charlie Parker. That’s my normal music for writing, but sometimes I will throw in the occasional Thelonious Monk.

18675282_10211815647960441_1658678846_o

At 9:50, I packed up my books and notebook, and went outside to a pouring rain battering the buildings and the pavement at an angle. In the fifty feet it took to get to  my van, I was soaked. I heard the pounding on the roof of the van, the thud on the windshield, the dull rub of the wipers as they moved in time to remove the water. Visibility was nonexistent,  the sounds of the rain and car, and the smell of my coffee inspired me to play Thelonious Monk’s “Monk the Transformer” Album. The piano playing is slow and deliberate, but the percussion of the falling water caused Monk’s music to throb with a forceful urgency calculated and executed patiently. As I drove south on West St dodging the many tour buses stopping at the hotels to drop off patrons who are here on business or the race, I saw myself as Moses, bearded and weary, passing through divided waters.  When I entered I-70 West going toward Lynhust, the rain subsided leaving behind a drenched urban sprawl.

18675179_10211815646480404_775100478_o

As I entered the church, I had already been set off by one of the greeters who called me, “Big Guy.” I hate that. I’ve had that since high school, and the nickname was based off Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. One of the main characters is Lenny who is a large man, and quite stupid. Because of that book, I was taunted with the name of “Lenny” and bullied all the more when I dared to rise above the intellectual limits my classmates set for me. As I entered my twenties, people would respond angrily to me when I told them I preferred to read and write poetry instead of playing football as if I owed people athletic prowess because I’m 6”8 and quite well read. Everything rises up in me, the person in front of me is transformed into those adolescent images. “I’m educated! I’ve a degree in religion and literature! I’m an intellectual! Do you see me?! I’m not my fucking size, you ass!” I give him a quick no, and withhold eye contact as he offers me a bulletin for the service.

I go up the stairs, I walk into the sanctuary, and see bells set up for the bell choir, but I don’t see the member of the bell choir. The last time they played in the service they sat in front of me, and were quite rude to me. When Ben called for the greeting they stuck out their hand, “Aren’t you going to shake my hand?”
“No. You were rude to me, why should I deign myself to take your hand?” One gave me an angry glare and a curled lip, but said nothing. I continue, “What? You’re not laughing? You mean my countering you doesn’t cause you to laugh? You thought your rudeness towards me was funny!” They weren’t in the place I usually sit, and I thought they were in another part of the sanctuary. As I began my writing before the service, I thought I left my headlights on so I put down my notebook, and went outside to check. The headlights were off and I returned to the building. As I went in one of the ladies in the bell choir stopped right in front of me and I waited for her to move so I could sit. She stares at my bag, and proceeds to sit on my bag. As I move my bag, she offers no apology when I speak of her lack of consideration towards my space. Within a few minutes, I am lost in my thought as I scribble out another piece on the Indy 500, and another bell choir member plops next to me grazing my leg. I stop, take a breath, and return. She kept shifting, and pushing me until, I belted, “For the love of God would you sit still, I am trying to write!” Nothing. No apologies. Other choir members proceed to flank me, and I am at my wit’s end. I am not above causing a scene and shaming folk, who are old enough to know better, with a lecture on manners. I’ve been working on how I express my agitation peacefully, but I am not at that place where I can be calm, so, in the middle of service, before God and all the congregation, I get up with my bag in tow, and move to the pew behind me. I found out later, the children’s ministry leader was pissed at the bell choir’s behavior towards me. I stretch out my legs, and continue to write.

I don’t write to escape anything, but to make sense of the thoughts that race through my head, and when I find a rhythm, I blow until everything is out and I set aside the writing for future editing. After the editing, I put out the piece for the benefit of others. If I am interrupted any time before the final exhale, I become curt with short hostile syllables so I can be left to myself. Because I was already agitated from the “big guy” comment and the behavior of the bell choir, I was in no mood to take shake hands with the man who shoved his his open hand toward my face, “So glad you keep coming back.” At a quick glance, I see it’s the guy who made the comment to me outside the church doors. “I’m writing.” then I return to my thought. As I jot the final word on the paper, the sermon begins, but it is not the usual sermon.

Ben teaches the word of God is not limited to the bible, nor do we confine our experiences to how the people in the bible experience God, but God is writing new stories in individual lives. The new stories differ from the bible because of culture, but there is a consistency in God’s character. Because of this, Ben lets people from the congregation get up and tell the congregation how God is moving in their life. I’ve heard some good stories during my time at Lynhurst, and I see God relating to these different people in different ways. These people speak honest stories that are not the pretty, beige ceiling advertisement of suburban spirituality, but stories out of brokenness and desperation involving drugs, alcohol, weapons, and promiscuity. They aren’t juicy tidbits, though, told with feigned regret. The people at Lynhurst who tell their stories wish to God they didn’t go through their experiences, but are grateful for God delivering them and saving their lives. Their theology is “I was lost, but now I’m found,” and, “Come and see.” That’s a spirituality worth considering because it’s not out to sell a particular brand of God.

That’s the story Stephanie told this morning. She grew up in a small town in southern Indiana, and went through a painful hell. She had body image issues, and developed an eating disorder that she wrestled with, and when that pain became too much she self-medicated further with drugs, alcohol, promiscuity, and unhealthy relationships. The self-medication deepened when a good friend of hers committed suicide. She is drained and spent like Bilbo’s butter thinning over too much bread. She has to take several pauses throughout her telling to collect herself because the pain is still close to her heart. She is sobbing. She apologizes for the long pauses. I hear from the pews, “It’s ok. Take your time.” She is free to let her vulnerability show, and I feel the love of this congregation towards her. She is safe even as she is reliving her sorrow. When she ended, Stephanie told the church she wanted to sing a song for them to summarize her story, but hesitated, “I don’t want to break the song with my voice.” In my head, I’m shouting, “Oh, girl, no! Those are the best songs to sing! That’s how Ellen Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Patsy Cline sang. They sang their sorrows, and reached down to the depths pulling out their pain buried under the rubble of their broken hearts! You sing that song with all the ferocity of your sorrow!” That’s the blues. Naming what has spent you to lift up as a prayer to the universe, to God, or whatever name you want to apply. Releasing the pain brings freedom, and, after she sang, Stephanie walked away clean. Not only was she clean, but her story and song redeemed the agitation I felt from the bell choir’s rudeness and the unintended insult outside the church doors. The world receives salvation when you sing your grief.

 

 

 

Family Drama

18043171_10211509198739402_1767914213_o

I’m a fourth generation Eastsider, and my neighborhood at 30th & Shortridge used to be a farm my twice great grandfather bought when he came to America in 1908 from Hamburg, Germany. After my great grandfather married my great grandmother, her father, who came from the Highlands of Scotland’s northwest, moved to my great grandfather’s home. The house where I grew up had been built my great-grandfather so he could be close to the farm after Wilson’s disease crippled him—the trees that lined the front yard was a path to the barn. When he died in the 1958, my great grandmother kept the house, but sold the farm to developers to pay off the medical debt. The house had been designed as a double and the vacant side used for tenants–the tenant side face Shortridge and my great grandmother’s side faced Ashland. When I was born, my parents lived in the Irvington neighborhood, and when money became tight and we faced homelessness, my great grandmother and youngest great aunt opened up the vacant side of the house for us. The act appears generous and compassionate, but there was nothing generous or compassionate about my great-grandmother, my youngest great aunt. Don’t misunderstand, I am grateful for having a roof over my head, and if it had not been for my great grandmother’s garden, I would have gone hungry like many of my school mates surviving on government cheese and canned goods in wrapped white paper and black stencil; but the kindness gave her the right mistreat us, mostly me, with manipulation and abuse.

Growing up with my great grandmother was a mixed blessing. How many kids in my neighborhood grew up in a house where there were family pictures going back to tintype, or had family who enjoyed storytelling? The truth was of little use, and the stories I heard extended back to my ancestor’s life in Europe along with embellishments and modern spins. There were facts like names and personality types along with the time of year, but everything else became an artistic expression of the one telling the story—like their cooking.

My great grandmother made mincemeat pie, and it was a 300 year old family recipe from the Highlands. Mincemeat pie was my exposure to the contradiction that is British Isle cuisine. What is mincemeat pie? According to the family recipe, it’s made with raisins, apples, cinnamon, and suet. What is suet? Suet has been described to me as the extra bits that fell on the floor the butcher processed into hot dogs. My great grandmother would go to the Grassy Creek butcher on East 10th to pick up the excess bits—she knew how to make suet, and it was a source of great pride. When I walked into the house on Christmas Day, the smell made me gag. I did not pay attention to my surroundings and belched my disgust, “Oh my god, that is nasty!” Next thing I know I am facing the back of my great aunt Mary’s hand as she flicks her fingers on my teeth causing my entire skull to rattle, “Just for that you’re taking two slices to teach you some manners. Next time you say, ‘No, thank you. I do not care for any.’” She turned to my eight year old brother who witnessed the exchange, “Tommy, would you like some mincemeat pie?” He looks at me, narrows his eyes and gave me a wicked smile, “No, thank you. I don’t care for any.” Then he runs off to visit other relatives. My mother explained to me the origins of mincemeat pie, and that it’s creation of poor people trying to survive. “Yeah, Ma, but we American poor—we can eat a little better.”

Before I left for Blackburn in August of 2012, I was at my mother’s apartment watching BBC news. At the time Great Britain’s experience with immigration issues similar to what the United States experiences with its southern borders. The correspondent talked about Scotland and how it’s lax approach on immigration allowed foreigners to move about freely and retain their culture in Scottish society. To support his statement, the correspondent commented on Scottish culture in general, and how that attitude went across the Atlantic Ocean into America. “The Scots that emigrated to America stayed Scots, though they are considered Americans.” I laughed because I thought only great grandmother and great aunt Mary were the only people to do this, and leaned on their Scottishness to support their stubborn opinions, bigoted views, and violent behavior. Especially when it came to came to religion. They loathed Catholics and had no love for Episcopalians, “By God, we left the crown, and it’s going to stay that way!” I turned down the television and shared a laugh with my mother—apparently our family’s crazy was cultural.

Walking into my great grandmother’s side house was like walking through a wormhole into Scotland; but a turn of the century Scotland. The kitchen has a dulled yellow tint and is filled with the different aroma of the various spices above the stove. The utility room to the right, where the washer and dryer are kept, are mason jars filled with canned vegetables, fruits, jams made from the plum tree in our front yard, and homemade sweet chili sauce. Towards the wall is the oak table my great great grandfather brought over from Scotland and there is a three foot gap between the table and the refrigerator before entering the living room. The space is already tight when it’s just myself, my great grandmother, and great aunt, but is a cause for cartilage snapping asphyxiation when all the relatives from all over the country converge on Thanksgiving and Christmas day. My great grandmother has her end of the table with her back to the hall way and surrounded by family photographs from the 1860s. When there aren’t family gatherings my great aunt Mary has her place at the other end of the table with her back to the front door. Behind her are the things she bought while she was a missionary to India.

One of the benefits my mother found in living next door to her grandmother and aunt was child care. They were family and they could be relied upon if something last minute came up and she and my father had to leave. I didn’t mind this either because I liked being around them for the most part, but their demeanor changed toward me after I turned ten. I am a sensitive person, and much of my personality can be considered feminine. When I finally came out last October, a good friend told Ronnie, “God! It’s about time he came out—I knew when I first met him.” My family is quite perceptive, and looking back, I think they saw the same thing in me—and they hated me for it. On a cold December day when the sky is overcast, and the yard is haunted with the naked bones of the tree’s limbs, I hurt myself. While playing with the tree branches, I lost my grip, and the branch smacked the bottom of my nose. I don’t know what it is about cold air that intensifies pain, but I was in tears. My parents weren’t home, and ran into my great grandmother’s house crying and looking for comfort. My great grandmother roared at me, and her Highland accent came out like thick stones breaking my head with her disgust. “I took care of your great great grandfather who was a foul tempered Scot, I survived being nearly burnt to death, and the Great Depression—you’re going to cry to me over a goddamned twig?! You come from great Highland warriors! How dare you behave like such a little girl!” My great aunt Mary chimed in to echo the antipathy, and not once did it dawn on them the irony of insulting their own gender. I’ve watched how they publicly humiliated men who treated them as weak girls—even physically breaking their jaws with empty mason jars in their purses.

This treatment was not a one-time thing, and happened consistently until I became an adult and severed the relationship. I was alone during this time. Everyone knew what was happening, and there were people in our church who said I deserved everything they did to me because I was such a bad kid. I needed to be dehumanized and controlled because there was something off about me. They knew it, and had the bible to justify the monstrous behavior; but I didn’t know. What I did know was my home was not safe, at school I received similar treatment so that wasn’t safe, and when I had to start working at sixteen, my work environment was the same as home and school. I wore leather jackets and combat boots to put on a mask of toughness, I verbally lashed out at any authority figure taking them to task on any issue, I created a narrative where I appeared hard so people would leave me alone—so I wouldn’t get hurt anymore. On some level, I think that disguise worked because I wasn’t attacked after the race riots in my high school junior year. I learned to sever any connection with my heart to find solace in my mind. There is nothing good or bad about what I had done as an adolescent. I believed I didn’t have any options, but I needed to cope and get out as soon as possible. The downside to such coping is the mask soon becomes the identity, and there is a disconnect with the heart making it impossible to relate to people. As awful as my family was to me and others, I have never met anyone who could come close to comparison—even the ones who have done violence towards me have lines they will not cross. I had to unlearn my coping mechanism, take off my masks, face my broken heart, and be honest.

I think my coming out in October of last year was the first best step in facing me without any insecure bravado. Who I am is ok. In no way do I blame my life or my current struggle towards healing on my great grandmother and great aunt. I worked with what options were available to me, and when I became an adult I stayed behind my masks. I chose to do that and the consequences of that choice are on me. In recent months, I have had to deal with the same maltreatment from my mother who claimed I was a mistake and kept her bound to a man whose instability made her life a painful struggle. To hear it as an adult is rough, but with her disclosure, I understood why my home life was a bone rattling, soul dissipating hell. I found freedom in that final rejection. One of my masks has been the cultural history of my family, and I attached myself to an identity as a working class, Scot-American from Indianapolis’ East Side; but that wasn’t my story, nor has it ever been my story. That’s my family’s story, and the only connection I have to such a narrative is biology. Beginning to face myself with honesty and acceptance has opened a door for me to start my own story with each chapter better than the first.

Sunday Story

17623088_10211295724562681_1499191249_o

 

This past Sunday I attended Lynhurst Baptist Church on the near west side of Indianapolis. I go there off and on because a friend of mine is an associate pastor and a worship leader, but he is not the usual type of pastor I meet, nor is the head pastor—they like to get their hands dirty by being part of the neighborhood. The church’s location is a poor neighborhood, and like any poor neighborhood, families struggle with gangs, violence, alcoholism, drugs, single parent homes, and desperation. My friend and head pastor do not come in preaching the gospel of the affluent, middle class, white SUV Jesus who rewards new believers with six figure incomes and a nice house upon reciting a prayer of acceptance. There are plenty of churches who come from the suburbs and preach that Jesus downtown, and those are the churches who share in the responsibility for gentrification and displacement of the poor. The pastors of Lynhurst Baptist Church live in the neighborhood and face similar struggles as the residents, and have earned the right to speak into the life of their community. For my friend, he came up on the Indy’s east side like I have, and we grew up in similar neighborhoods as his church’s neighborhood. We are all too familiar with gang violence, violence in general, racism, but we never got caught up in that. The gospel my friend and pastor teach is a Jesus who is part of the family, lives next door, and wants to find people who have lost their way; and he does it without toeing the doctrinal line—Lynhurst Baptist Church is Baptist in name only.

The focus is on the stories of the individual people who walk in the door and their context in the ancient story of the cross. The mission of the church is not about conforming people into the image of a Bronze Age Hebrew or a second century Roman Christian, but in the image of a God who meets people at their level. Sure God worked a certain way with the people who contributed to the Bible, but many churches have made the mistake of presuming that is how God works. The same God who said, “Behold!  I am doing a new thing.” did not stop doing new things in people’s lives after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. This is what the pastor thinks, and has put aside his preaching on some Sundays so the people in the congregation can share their stories on what their lives were like before they came to Jesus, and what their life is like after choosing to follow Jesus. Because of the language, the content, and the lack of a “positive” spin, these would offend the masses of the hip, polished downtown churches as well as the WASP nests in the suburbs. I find this strangely odd because the people whom God called in the Old Testament as well as the people Jesus called to follow him were not the upper crust of society. Political and religious extremists, murderers, adulterers, brawlers, thieves, ill-tempered, and swore just a little too much for the comfort of religious people. Granted, these people did not remain as they were after God called them, but those are the people God wants. They know they are lost, but they have no clue how to find themselves again; and they know they need help.

I think churches, in general, have done a disservice to God by only catering to the privileged while ignoring and victimizing those whose lives have become a disaster through bad choices or circumstances out of their control.  Not until I talked with the head pastor after the Sunday Service did I understand the role of the church in the middle class. He and I discussed different books and authors and their impact on the culture. I brought up my disgust with books by the likes of Rob Bell and Brian McLaren because what they said resonated with me, and when I went to the churches influenced by these authors, I was still ostracized. I’m not a fan of Rob Bell’s books anyway because I’ve noticed a sort of theological plagiarism, but that is for another conversation. When I brought up my contentions with these particular churches, and the treatment I received, the pastor told me those books are written for the middle class because that’s where the money is. This Jesus belongs to them, but the people who would benefit from this Jesus—the ones who need him the most—do not have the money to purchase these books; and once again the poor are dismissed so nice, white people can bring a quasi-mysticism to lives dulled by complacency. From a business standpoint this what you do to make money off of fluffy, evangelical jargon that pushes against theological views taken for granted; but those outside the target demographic are dismissed. Giving space to those who would otherwise be forgotten, and permitting them to tell their stories allows for the change in the dynamic surrounding the gospel. The poor may not be academics or even have a high school diploma, but they know they were lost, who found them, and how their lives have changed.

Sunday’s service did not have the pastor preaching, instead one of the members had the opportunity to get behind the pulpit and tell his story. He grew up in Mars Hill, a poor, white ghetto on Indianapolis’ southwest side, and lived the life of a gangbanger just to survive. He drank, he did drugs, and he was also the muscle when someone owed money. He did not put a delicious spin to entice the congregation, but talked openly of how he hurt people, and how he hurt himself—all the while noting how God kept him from dying or making a deadly mistake. I resonated with the story because I had friends who lived a similar life, and some of them did not make it, but his story stood out to me nonetheless. He did not censor his language, but he did not go out of his way to swear incessantly. He used a couple “damns” and when talking about the time he first met his wife referred to her as “a piece of ass.” He said that only to communicate his mentality at the moment he first saw her. He was comfortable as he said these words, and when I looked around at the congregation, I did not see anyone wince.  The people in the church accepted this person, and, because of their acceptance, he felt comfortable to be authentic. If I could give a title to this sermon, and it was a sermon, I would say “Here’s How Jesus Saved Me.”

The most simple and soul opening stories I have heard have come out of a heart that has been broken by tragedy praying to a God whose existence is uncertain. Theology and apologetics dissipate with the opening: “Here’s how it happened to me”. It’s the story that draws our attention, and connects us with our hopes that our lives can also be found and redeemed. That’s the Bible: a book full of stories from people and how they experienced God in their lives, and how that God was expressed in that culture. That’s also the gospel. The four gospels were written thirty to sixty years after Jesus’ resurrection because his followers went out and preached Jesus’ message to whomever. After a few decades the followers of Jesus consisted of urban Jews and Greeks who could not relate to the rural imagery of Jesus’ parables so the authors took the message of Jesus and translated it into language of the growing church. The original message was never lost but evolved and adapted to the different people meeting Jesus for the first time. The gospel was never intended to be limited to a book in a specific time, but ever changing because God is always changing to meet people where they are. The gospels were never written on paper but on the heart of the speaker. The point of the church is to go out and tell people about Jesus and allow them to experience Jesus in their own way, and Lynhurst Baptist Church lives up to that point.