Guest post by David Waldock. Content note: This story touches on homophobia and suicide.
Lofty, the worn toy giraffe Michael had loved since his second birthday, sat above the folded note on Michael’s bed, as though safe-guarding it, daring the world to defile the sanctity of his final words, a plush, ineffectual guardian. Doreen, Michael’s mother, snatched up the note and Lofty was displaced, tipped over on the bed, his role no longer important, and lay there whilst Doreen read the note, and you could see her world fall apart.
Michael’s world had fallen apart months before. Fifteen years old, Michael had always been a quieter child than his siblings, happier reading than doing, seemingly more satisfied studying, and understanding, and imagining than kicking a ball, or playing soldiers, or out on his bike. He was a great hope, his mum would tell her church’s Ladies’ Group companions: he would become a pastor one day, his sensitive, emotional side able to connect with his intellectual and rational side by ministering to the saved and the unsaved in a town, bringing people closer to God. The other Ladies would nod, pleased to see that the next generation would continue to ensure that the Word of the Lord was heard. What higher calling could there be?
Michael attended a local school, where he was active in the Christian Union, often leading prayers and Bible studies, and standing in the playground offering small cartoon tracts to other students. Needless to say, this didn’t make him popular. He wasn’t cool because of his disdain for sports, he wasn’t a geek because secular cartoons weren’t godly, he wasn’t a goth because that was positively demonic. He, along with a couple of other students, stood out because they simply didn’t fit in. He always had a small fish symbol, the Ichthus, pinned to his blazer’s collar, and the girls always ensured their skirts (never trousers!) covered their knees when seated.
Every Tuesday and Friday night, Michael would attend the church Youth Group. On Tuesday, the Youth Leader, a charismatic twenty-five year old named Tim who was just so on fire for God, and who carried an acoustic guitar everywhere on the off-chance some unplanned praise and worship might break out, would lead the group in studying the Bible and praying for the town. They would all have read the passage in advance and make some notes, and then they’d discuss it. Tim, studying at the local Bible college, would highlight the original Aramaic, and all twenty of them would feel like they got some insight from really understanding what the original author and God had meant them to understand.
Fridays were more relaxed; sometimes they’d go bowling, a small party of sobriety, modesty and Godly joy silently witnessing to the beer-swilling, body-flaunting heathens around them. Other times, they would support the local Street Team, helping people who were rolling out of nightclubs to recover from the effects of alcohol with a cheerful prayer and a leaflet promising “better than beer” services at the Church next weekend shoved into pockets as they staggered out. Or they’d watch a carefully chosen film together – boys on one side and girls on the other so nothing inappropriate could happen – and then reflect on how the film demonstrated the Godly characteristics they all wanted to emulate.
On Sunday morning between nine-thirty and ten-thirty, Michael would attend Sunday school, more reading of the Bible, more reflection on the words, more prayer. Then some light refreshments before the Family Worship Service with his mum and dad, brother and sister. The Service was the keystone of the family’s religious observance; Doreen, Michael, Samuel and Elisha would sit in the third row back, leaving a chair free at the end of the row for Graham to sit in when he’d finished greeting people, distributing hymnals and church news letters. The Worship Team, sat just in front of the stage, and consisting of three guitarists, a French horn, an occasional trumpet, a keyboardist, a surprisingly flamboyant pianist, a drummer (who was clearly trained in the elevator muzak style), and four singers, would lead some well-practised and carefully spontaneous worship, four songs long, or if the Spirit really led them, five, with the words projected onto a large white backdrop on the back of the stage. Hands would be raised in adoration, and tears would wet cheeks at key moments. People having a really hard time would ensure people knew they were having a hard time by falling on their knees in silent worship, whilst the white, middle-aged men with Audis, a sales job, no children and, in a surprising number of cases, an Filipina wife, would ensure that people knew how successful they were by waving their gold Rolex watch in the air attached to their worshiping wrist.
Then the mood would change, and they would sing a more traditional hymn of worship, reminding the congregation and Michael that they stood in continuity with nearly two hundred years of worship in this very building. Then one of the Elders, an accountant during the week, would lead them in humble-but-public prayer, speaking from the heart with polished, scripted words, a perfect performance of how intimate their relationship with God was, and a way to reinforce their credentials as a leader of the church. Then someone – occasionally even a woman, although, obviously, her hair would be covered by an horrific home-made crocheted beret in bland-but-still-managing-to-clash colours to show her submission to the authority of men – would read a passage of the Bible. As they did so, the worship team quietly, indeed, exaggeratedly quietly, because not causing distractions from the Word of God by accidentally strumming a guitar or playing a drum solo is a skill worthy of drawing excessive admiration, returned to their reserved chairs, unobtrusively unmistakeable at the side of the platform.
Then Pastor Thomas Jefferson (BA, BD, ThD, Cert Ed, for those counting), would stand on the platform, walk to the humbly carved and gilted pulpit, deliver a short prayer thanking God for the Bible, and preach. None of your short, worthy but intellectually hollow homilies from a Church of England vicar, this was more like a lecture, the solid, academic exposition of the Bible, featuring references from Strong’s Concordance, Matthew Henry’s Commentary, stories about when he’d met with leading theologians from around the world at major conferences in which people like him would validate each other’s vainglorious egos, always ensuring that he started with a funny but poignant joke. After forty-five minutes (on a good day) or an hour-and-a-half (on what Michael considered, as he scribbled furious notes, anxious to record every last drop of Biblical wisdom from this master of The Book, a very good day), Pastor Thomas would close with a prayer. This would be brief, and ask the Lord to ensure that the word of God went straight to people’s heart.
At this time, never earlier than twelve-thirty, and frequently later than one in the afternoon, it would be time for communion. First, there would, as ever, be the recitation of scripture by one of the Elders, reminding everyone of the symbology of the (organic, sour-dough artisanal bloomer, with a gluten-free option available) bread and grape juice (the pastor had explained at a church meeting that the word rendered as “wine” in the Bible also meant “fruit juice” and it was important as a church not to tempt alcoholics to sin, and the members hadn’t wanted to embarrass him by pointing out that, firstly, in a country where fridges didn’t exist, the chances of Jesus changing water into a freshly squeezed oranges at a wedding was frankly pretty unlikely, and second, even an alcoholic would find it difficult to reinforce their addiction after sipping a thimbleful of wine which no one would even use for cooking and frankly calling it a sin when it was an illness was pretty offensive, so they’d opted to bulk-purchase cartons of grape juice from a business operated by one of the Elders of the church). Then everyone would be reminded that if they partook of the sacrament whilst “in sin” unspeakably bad but mysteriously non-specific things would happen at some unspecified point in time, possibly post-mortem, and encouraged to confess their sins in silent prayer. Michael would wrack his brains to find something, anything!, to confess, lest judgment come upon him, wondering if he’d accidentally committed adultery, perhaps fallen into lust with his eyes, or if he’d been coveting someone’s modern-day donkey, or praying for forgiveness for having a terrible memory for not being able to remember anything he needed to confess.
Occasionally, someone who felt their Godliness had gone shockingly unnoticed, and was probably angling for a vacant Eldership, would turn the silent prayer into non-silent prayer confessing on behalf of everyone and anyone that they were not worthy to be in God’s presence, and if the Lord would just move his Spirit upon them, upon the country, and bring renewal and new life, everything would be so much better; not exactly earth shattering originality, or indeed particularly specific, but the Lord moved them to pray, and who were they to argue, particularly since it furthered their own Godly agenda?
Then the greeters would hand around silver platters of the cubed bread and trays of tiny cups of grape juice, and for the fifteen to twenty minutes this took, the congregants maintained a spiritually appropriate silence. Never was a cubic centimetre of carefully carved bread and a sip of premium from-concentrate grape juice more gratefully received as nourishment than when it’s approaching two in the afternoon and you’re a teenager who has not eaten since breakfast at eight. Next the greeters, who prided themselves on their desire to selflessly serve the Lord and the church, and to raise their chances of becoming a House Group Leader entirely coincidentally, would take the remaining supplies back to the kitchen, and return with offering bowls, polished wood and luxurious green velvet dishes, and walk to the front of the pulpit.One of the platform party, an elder or the pastor himself, would exhort the congregation to give enthusiastically to the Lord that the church may do His work. The Pastor, who coincidentally, was never seen out of a Saville Row suit, a silk tie and a shirt with neat, eighteen-carat gold cufflinks, and who drove the half mile from his five-bedroom townhouse in a Mercedes-Benz, was careful to remind members that one of the conditions of admission to the church, in order to ensure the members maximised their own rewards on earth and in heaven, was that they tithed a full tenth of their income, regardless of their disposable income, and to remember that God only counted gross income, not net. The plates would be passed around and members with navy blue blazers and unnaturally white teeth would produce small, discreet, and yet, at the same time, completely unmissable brown envelopes on which were stamped “TITHE” slipping them in, careful not to look proud; small bundles of notes and cheques and coins would be deposited, whilst the poorer families slipped half-a-weeks worth of quality food into the dish, looking forward to a week of stew made from frozen meat of dubious provenance. Michael would carefully slip in one pound fifty from his fifteen pound newspaper earnings.
Then the service would break after a brief prayer from the pulpit, and the congregation would leave, hanging around on their way out to fellowship with one another, the kids, shut up in crèche and child care for three hours running around the building like the bread and left over grape juice they’d nabbed from the kitchen was a form of crystal meth, and the Elders and Pastor patting each other on the back as the Treasurer reported the week’s haul of offerings in figures. Michael’s mother would rush off, with Michael’s brother and sister, muttering under her breath about how late they were, to get the leg of lamb out of the oven (before, as she’d joke, it became a burnt offering, it’s aroma pleasing to the Lord, but it’s charcoal flesh unappealing to anyone), and boil the potatoes ready for when Michael and his father returned home. The remaining two would tidy the hall in which they met, adding the leftover newsletters to the pile in the lobby, and returning the hymnals to the shelves, ready for the dedication to be reinforced in the evening, when another service, more carefully impromptu praise, more Scriptural exposition, and more deeply reflective prayer, would be offered.
All this was perfection for Michael; the rituals, the characters, the actions, the introspection, the material showiness, even the hunger and invariably burnt Sunday dinner, and the bullying at school, were exactly as they should be. Exactly as they had always been. Exactly how he needed it to be to ensure not only his place in life, and in death, but to give him the strength to deal with the naysayers, atheists and Satanists in school. Exactly as it needed to be for the universe to work. Exactly as it needed to be for him to feel safe and secure.
And then, one Sunday morning, Mel, the pianist didn’t turn up. Nothing was said about her absence, her name wasn’t mentioned in the prayers for the sick, she wasn’t listed in the news letter. Johan, the tall blond nineteen year old guy with hair just a touch too short for it to be truly rebellious and who normally played the keyboards, started playing the piano. It was as if Mel, and her sparkling smile, her amazing dresses and her infectious joy for life, had never existed.
Michael mentioned it over Sunday lunch, three weeks after her disappearance. His mother had nearly choked on the dry piece of chicken she was trying to wash down with sloppy mashed potatoes and lumpy-yet-simultaneously-watery gravy. His father had simply said, “She was in sin. She had her membership revoked when it was brought before the congregation.” That was it. His parent’s demeanour didn’t lend itself to further questioning, or at least, he might ask further questions, but he definitely wouldn’t get any answers, so it would just be a waste of time.
Fortunately, although gossip was clearly un-Godly and led people into all sort of sin, it was entirely acceptable to talk about people’s prayer needs. Michael tried asking a few questions in the youth group, but all people could say for certain was that she’d been caught in sin. Nobody knew anything more than that, or if they did they weren’t telling, so instead, the young people started exploring what people could only say for uncertain, and rumours abounded: Mel had been stealing money from the collection, Mel had been caught coming out of a pub one Friday night, Mel hadn’t confessed before taking communion and the Lord had given a Word of Insight to one of the Elders. All of this strictly exchanged so that the young people could pray for her, of course; scandal and hearsay was quite immoral.
Eventually, the youth leaders had heard enough, and decided to shock the young people with the truth. They were sworn to secrecy, but they needed to know the consequences of sin, and Mel was a prime example. Tim, the charismatic guitarist talked in generalities for a good twenty minutes before getting to the really good prayer material, reminding people that some sins were worse than death, and that people who committed them and didn’t repent simply couldn’t be part of the church and certainly couldn’t take communion. And yet, after much build up and drama, Tim revealed that Mel had been found to be in a relationship with another woman, a member of one of the other, less legitimate and certainly less Biblical, churches in town
The group was scandalised in a way that only a group of sexually-repressed teenagers can be. Homosexuality, as the leaders insisted on referring to it, wasn’t really talked about in the Church or youth group, so although Michael had heard rumours at school, he’d never really given much thought to it. The leaders explained that the Bible condemned homosexuality; Leviticus explained how abhorrent it, and the Epistle to the Romans explained how they were given over to their lust; they explained how homosexuality caused the downfall of Rome, how homosexual women were in rebellion against the role of man, and how homosexual men caused the AIDS outbreak which resulted in thousands of innocent women and blood transfusion patients dying.
And yet… And yet, in that moment, Michael saw a glimpse as if in a mirror. He’d never really thought about it before; his parents didn’t talk about relationships, he was withdrawn from the sex ed lessons at school, and in the church people just got to about twenty and then got married (in the church, it went without saying) and a year later the kids started arriving. But he never saw himself doing that. He just didn’t see women that way. He didn’t want women to be under him, figuratively as head of the house, or in other ways. He’d never thought about it, but, now that he was, he really didn’t want to treat women the way he’d seen the women in the church treated. He couldn’t cope with that.
Now he came to think about it further, maybe that’s why he watched Johan’s floppy hair so intently. Maybe that’s why, when Johan bent over to plug his keyboard in, Michael was so… But wait, the leaders are saying homosexuality is a choice, that people choose to be unnatural. So Michael couldn’t be a homosexual, because, if he was, at some point, he’d chosen to be a sinner, to be unnatural, to offend God in the worst way possible, and he definitely hadn’t done that. In fact, he spent so much time ensuring he wasn’t a sinner that he hadn’t even noticed he was a sinner.
The following evening, after dinner, helping his mum wash up, Michael had mentioned what the youth leaders had told them the night before. His mum said how sad it was that Mel had been deceived by the devil, how she was such a nice young woman, but she’d chosen a life of sin with that young harlot from St Christopher’s Church, and she’d have to pay for her decisions in the hereafter, and honestly, it would be better to kill yourself than to be homosexual.
And that’s when Michael’s world had fallen apart.
And that’s why the note in Doreen’s hand was being gently taken off of her by a police officer, and why it read, “I fell in love with another guy. We kissed. I knew that taking it further would be a sin, and I couldn’t live without him. God forgive me.”
And that’s why Doreen’s wracking sobs marked the moment her world fell apart.
And that’s why Lofty, the threadbare, but much-loved giraffe, lay strewn across Michael’s bed, never to be held again.
Previously from David Waldock on Leaving Fundamentalism: