I cant date jesus, p.1
I Can't Date Jesus, page 1
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Once an old high school classmate told me at the Pappadeaux’s off of 610 in Houston that I would end up working at Burger King because I had majored in journalism.
This book is dedicated to dummies like that who don’t know when to shut the hell up.
Also: pay fast food workers livable wages.
I know where I’m going and I know the truth, and I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want.
But in the long run, no matter what I do for the rest of my life, I’ll know I did something wonderful by saying what I felt.
Introduction: Where’d You Go?
Before that day, I hadn’t been to church in five Beyoncé albums. Well, not for service, anyway. In that span of time, I had stepped inside two separate churches for three funerals, but as my mama and most faithful churchgoers will promptly make clear, solely stepping into the House of the Lord isn’t the same thing as attending mass or church service and truly engaging in praise and worship. Until that April morning, the closest I had come to church attendance was watching WeTV’s Mary Mary, an eponymously titled reality series about that gospel duo, and body rolling to tracks of theirs like “God in Me.” (But only the chopped-and-screwed versions, because as a native of Houston, Texas, everything sounds better to me chopped and screwed—jams for Jesus included.) Other quasi-religious activities for my church-less life included posting contemptuous social media updates about the Baptist church across the street from my Harlem apartment and how the incredibly bad singing coming out of it is disrespectful to Jesus. Even if I had become an estranged acquaintance of Jesus, I didn’t feel He deserved a shaky-vocals-having soloist and an equally terrible choir shouting off-key about Christ’s love. If Jesus Christ was nailed to a cross in order to die for our sins, the least any church singers can do is find the correct note.
I often describe myself as a recovering Catholic, but when a more pointed question such as “So what do you believe in?” surfaces, I struggle with specificity.
I know that I am not an atheist. For me, to let go of the idea of God altogether would mean completely sinking to a level of cynicism and jadedness that could ultimately devour me whole. That is not to speak for atheists in general; it’s merely what an embracement of atheism would mean for me. I cling to the idea that there has to be something bigger than us. Perhaps God is not, as He is so often depicted, the old white man with a white beard as long as a freshly sewn-in, twenty-two-inch Peruvian body-wave human-hair weave. Maybe God is not a man at all. Over time, I’ve grown weary of using male pronouns to denote that Divine Being. In all the years of my absence from “God’s house,” I have continued to fall to my knees—sometimes on a random sidewalk—to pray, if for no other reason than to leave some line of communication open. As for Jesus, I’ve swung back and forth from “That’s my nigga!” to treating Him like a friend with whom I’ve fallen out because I hate a lot of His punk-ass friends (e.g., so many Christians) and never really had a proper sit-down with Him to make amends. Many with a firmer stance about their religion have mocked or at least expressed befuddlement at those who say they are more spiritual than religious. It is their belief that such a noncommittal position reads as lazy, like it’s putting the tip in with respect to faith, but not really going all the way. For them, it’s merely a matter of effort: You can do it, put your back into it!
Such opinions are a reflection of their own lack of will to step outside of themselves and their experiences and see how those on the other side feel. How can you be obedient to dogma you’ve found oppressive? How can you cling to tradition and exalt a vision of God that minimizes you and expects you to suppress what is innate to you? Is it not an exercise in futility to place your faith in a belief system that doesn’t completely believe in you? Some of us either do not know the answers or have found ones that leave us on our own respective journeys for clarity and understanding, independent of any organized religion. It may not be a definitive position, but there are periods in life during which a gray area may be best. For those who do not understand or refuse to understand, such is their right. They also have the right to mind their own damn business.
Anyway, in the midst of this cloudiness over my religious ID, I found my way back inside of church to attend service. Naturally, I would go on Easter Sunday, one of three specific days when a bevy of lay Christians or full-fledged heathens opt to go check in with God. (The other two are Christmas and Mother’s Day.) Funnily enough, there was no grandiose moment that got me back inside of a church for the first time in well over a decade. It was just a simple request from my best friend, andré (he prefers the aesthetic of lowercase lettering, and I respect it). dré and I were at brunch a week before and he asked me if I wanted to come to church with him on Easter.
I don’t recall what number Bellini I was on, but I was of sober mind when I replied, “Sure.”
Now, for years and years, my mother had been encouraging me to go back to church. The most opportune times for her to push her agenda were whenever I felt my lowest. My mother may not have always seen me as wholly as I would have liked, but she was one of the very few people who could see through my veneer, a person who knew that beneath the flexes of strength and feigned indifference to a hostile world was a man often struggling to hold it together. In these weak moments of mine, she would push me to go back to “God’s house” to renew my faith and, by extension, be in a better place in every facet of my life. I liked my methods better: Mary J. Blige albums and maybe another prescription to a generic form of Celexa. After a while, she did take the hint that I was as firm in my choice not to go as she was in hers that I ought to. She would continue to encourage me to pray, send rosaries and prayer books, and sometimes casually mention that I might want to tip my toe into God’s residence. But in time, she majorly fell back.
She wanted the best for me. She loved me. She just didn’t understand that what she wanted for me was not for me. Her technique always made me think of this line from Pimp C on UGK’s “Hi-Life”: “Tired of hearing grandma telling me, ‘When you gonna go to church, Chad?’ ”
dré was different in that he understood my conflicting feelings about religion based on my sexuality better than most did—even if he didn’t handle them in the same way. He was a preacher’s kid, but he was neither rebellious toward the faith nor didactic in how he discussed it with other people. As for the church he invited me to, First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem, I had heard about it and its well-regarded pastor, Michael A. Walrond Jr.—better known as “Pastor Mike”—repeatedly since I had moved to Harlem some four years prior. Despite constantly hearing about how great he was, I had never received a direct invitation from him to see for myself.
So when dré actually did extend a direct invitation, I accepted and went to church with him the following week.
I grew up Catholic, so a lot of traditions associated with the Black church were much different from what I was used to. For example, I could just as easily have worn jeans as I did slacks if I went to church. Outside of major holidays, I never had to dress to impress anyone at the Catholic churches in Houston that I attended. I simply just needed to be present. And one thing I did like about Cat
Thankfully, dré explained to me that I could wear denim and a button-up and that the nine-thirty service wasn’t going to be too long because there was another one at eleven thirty. He and a few of his friends casually referred to the eleven-thirty service as “thot service.” I’m not entirely sure why—I’m assuming because it’s the latest service and catered to the night owls who needed a bit more time to recover from the previous evening—but all I knew was that it was the longest service so absolutely not the one for me. Two hours of church service sounds like two-for-one mass to this old Catholic. Nope.
I actually got to church before dré, and he found me in line to get in. There were two separate lines: one was for regular parishioners, most of whom were Black, and the other one was largely for white European tourists. It looked like segregation, only the So So Def remix in which Black people had decidedly more power over the space. I would later find out that there were plenty of Black tourists in the same line as I was, but the optics were striking all the same. While waiting to be let inside, I came across a media legend whose work I’d long admired and whom I knew socially. He showed visible shock when he made eye contact with me, then came up to me and quipped, “Oh, honey, don’t burn the church down.” Ah, a joke with a tablespoon of judgment: I was indeed back to church. Praise the Lord. At least he hadn’t greeted me with “Fancy seeing you here, fornicator.”
Clearly rusty on how to enter a church, much less one of this size, I grabbed my wallet and was about to pull out my ID to show it to the usher that stood before the doors. Yes, as if he were a club bouncer. Yes, as if I were trying to get in free before eleven and rush to the bar to enjoy that two-for-one drinks special. I believe God has a sense of humor, so I’d like to think He saw that moment and said, “This ridiculous, bird-ass bitch.”
Once I stepped inside the sprawling, gorgeous space, I marveled at its beauty, but the images that stuck with me most were of the people sitting inside. I saw a woman that I knew was married to another woman. Directly behind me was another gay man I knew. I ended up sitting between two gay men. All of them were regular attendants, yet none of them appeared torn about being there. Of course, there have always been gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and trans people inside churches, but although their talent might be on display in, like, say, the choir, their sexuality was far less pronounced. As in, don’t ask, don’t tell, just sing your lil’ gay self off for God. And, indeed, I did clock plenty o’ gays in the First Corinthian choir. But this felt different from what I was accustomed to. I knew what it was like to be around Christians who knew of my sexuality but who merely tolerated me. (“Tolerated” meaning they knew I was gay but avoided the subject at all costs. There was a difference between being welcomed and being tolerated.) Here, everyone—and I mean everyone—seemed to be welcomed and behaved as such. In the front row, which was reserved for other pastors of the church, I saw a sea of women. Women were typically marginalized out of leadership roles in the church. In Catholicism, no such roles even existed. But here, on this day and in this church, there were more women pastors than there were male pastors.
When Pastor Mike spoke, I understood quickly why so many people had fawned over him for so long. With respect to various members of the clergy, having read the Bible didn’t mean you actually understood it. There was memorization and repetition, and then there was comprehension.
During service, they called on those who were visitors to stand; I did so reluctantly. Toward the end, they called on those who wanted to join the church to step down and approach the altar. I kept my Black ass in my seat. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, saints.
I ended up interviewing Pastor Mike for a work-related project a few weeks later. I asked him why LGBTQSWV folks felt so welcomed (I added SWV to honor both the girl group and the expanding identities; I’m also a smartass). He said it was because they were welcomed. That he was not condemning who they were. That he had not been placed in that pulpit to make them feel less-than or like an affront to God. He also agreed with what I meant about many people in the clergy not necessarily being theologians and thus having a limited understanding of the text they were supposed to be teaching to parishioners. Biblical literalists of convenience irked the living hell out of me, I told him. We both likened the situation to various cable pundits who didn’t know so much about policy but were adept at repetition and talking points.
Seeing how moved I had been during the service, one of dré’s friends suggested that I write about it. As a freelance writer, the constant essay-hustling had me always in a state of planning for the sake of a paycheck. But that was not why I had come, so I brushed the idea off. I had gone simply because I had been invited, I told him. In hindsight, the invitation had come at the time when I was truly ready to accept it. After service, dré and I hopped in an Uber to join friends for brunch. I told dré that I had enjoyed my time there and that I would go back. But I made clear that I wasn’t joining the church.
Frankly, while I had enjoyed my time there, in terms of what I believed in—or, in my case, didn’t believe in—nothing changed. There was no moment that compelled me to reenter a relationship with Christianity. It felt good, but not that good. What I will say, though, is that what I saw at First Corinthian in Harlem was the Christianity I wish I had had as a child, as a teenager, and as a young man trying to find a place in a world that appeared unwilling to offer one. This was the Jesus I had needed to see back then. These were the Christians I had needed much earlier in my life. Maybe if I had found a church and pastor like this, my views on religion might be different. Perhaps questions about the state of my Christianity wouldn’t require me to first locate a feather duster. Yes, I was moved by what I had seen and heard, but I had already moved beyond needing a church and a member of the clergy to guide me to God or define my sense of what’s right and wrong. In those years of separation, I created my own idea of who God is and what God means to me. The same goes for my moral compass. I’ve become a solo act when it comes to how I process things and what spirituality now looks like—and I’m wary of walking back to the old band whose validation I have long moved past requiring, as I simply do not need it.
Months later, someone from Saint Mark the Evangelist, the church I attended regularly as a child, with whom I went to catechism (think vacation Bible school for Baptists or the weird thing they do for entry-level Scientologists), reached out to me via Facebook. She had watched an interview in which I described myself as a “recovering Catholic.” She told me, “Michael, you have me in tears with your video post. I had no idea you felt that way about being Catholic. It really hurt to hear you say you were recovering from it.” She went on to tell me that she understood where I was coming from, and she shared a story about her guilt over perceived faults she had committed in the past. These “faults,” though, were simply the acts of a woman with autonomy over her body. Not abortion (not that it matters) but a medical procedure that she would later learn was considered to be a sin. She spoke of extreme depression as a result of the guilt stemming from her decision, but, ultimately, a priest told her during confession that she had already been forgiven, that she merely needed to forgive herself. She told me this as a means of reaching out to me and to let me know that I “[didn’t] have to feel that way about the Catholic Church.” She described the church as a big family; that we all had different opinions yet we loved each other. And that the church we both grew up in was different now. That it was welcoming, and that she could actually “see and feel the love.”
She made it sound a lot like First Corinthian. Unfortunately, her telling me this story did not warm me back to the Catholic Church or any church. All she did was remind me of what had kept me away for so long. W
This book is about unlearning every damaging thing I’ve seen and heard about my identity and allowing myself the space to figure out who I am and what that means on my terms. I may not have figured every single thing out, but I do know the stories I heard as a child and the damnation assigned to me because of my identity no longer haunt me. I do know that I am a good person. Most of all, I know that God gave us the gift of discernment and that I’ve made the most out of it. I’m glad that I did not merely give in to deference because it may have very well been the death of me. Being able to step back inside of a church that truly lived up to Christian virtues was refreshing, but I am reminded by another openly homophobic church only a few blocks away from where I live now that this is still not the case for all. The same can be said of a childhood friend being stricken with the level of guilt only a religious institution can instill.
Still, for a brief moment on Easter Sunday 2017, fifteen years after essentially abandoning Christianity in an act of self-preservation, I was able to experience it the way I wish I always had. I do not know what my future with religion looks like. I don’t see myself becoming saved by forty and releasing a trap gospel album soon after, but stranger things have happened. Whatever does happen, though, I know that, with or without it, I’ll be fine. If it can boost my life, great; but if it not, I’ll at least continue giving Jesus the courtesy of condemning anyone who can’t sing for Him in the correct key. Amen.
by Michael Arceneaux have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes