I really liked Craig and his wife, Sofia*. They were weird, and I was 13. It was perfect. This odd couple had been involved with my small church for a few months as volunteers. They helped with the youth group (which mostly consisted of me and my brother). Sofia was severely obese, very sweet, and wore her hair and makeup like she fell out of the 80s. She had an infectious laugh and joked about herself and everything else constantly in a way that was disarming and endearing. When I knew her, she had put herself on a very strict diet involving liquids and supplement pills. She would laugh while she told stories of restaurant staff scolding her beanpole-thin husband and demanding that he “let her eat because she’s beautiful just the way she is!” They apparently got a kick of this, and they both seemed genuinely happy.
One evening, just before the Sunday night service, my father called me to his office. I was nervous because such a request usually meant I was about to get a guilt-ridden lecture of some sort. It wasn’t that at all.
“You know Craig?” he asked.
“Yes.” Of course I did. This was weird.
“Well he’s going to speak tonight.” He paused. “He’s going to tell the congregation about how he used to be a homosexual.” He spoke without emotion, but he was watching my face very carefully. I suddenly felt very grown up.
“Oh.” I said. “But he’s not anymore, right?”
My father nodded. “Well then it doesn’t matter,” I said. “Jesus forgave him like he forgives everyone else.” I firmly believed this.
That evening, I was glued to my pew as I waited with baited breath and listened to his tale. He told us about how he was the youngest child, the runt. He was raised on a farm and was not as strong as his siblings. His father mocked him relentlessly, he told us. “Sissy-boy. Fairy. Weak. Queer.” His father would shout these words at him as he struggled with hay bales and other chores. “Eventually, I started to believe it,” he told us. Craig used polite euphemisms to describe how he joined the Navy so he could be near other men like him, and how he felt evil desires and began “living a sinful lifestyle.” He lived this way for years, but he was never really happy, he said. He was consumed with guilt and self-loathing, but then God changed his heart.
Craig described meeting Sofia and going to church with her. He detailed his swift recommitment to Jesus and his subsequent marriage to Sofia. He seemed to believe that Jesus had brought her into his life to help cure him of his sinful lust. They had been married for several years at this point. A real pray-the-gay-away success story! I did not understand why people were not cheering yet.
Sofia sat in the pew toward the front, near me, occasionally giving Craig an encouraging smile but never looking around at the other members of the church. I, on the other hand, kept sneaking peeks at the congregation, which consisted mainly of older couples frocked in pastels and lace and plaid and suspenders. Normally their faces were smeared in a vague smile. Tonight was different. Tight-lipped and stone-faced, I saw no friendly faces, and I certainly did not see any Christ-like compassion. This disturbed me, and I couldn’t quite understand what was happening. The silence that hung in the air after Craig finished his story was oppressive. My father, the minister, said some closing remarks about forgiveness and compassion and morality. I think we sang a half-hearted hymn.
Years later, I remember asking a Bible teacher why the church seemed to weigh certain sins as heavier than others. “If Jesus died for all our sins, then how come we treat homosexuals like they are so much worse than liars or adulterers?” The answer was both revealing and unsatisfying. “It’s not that they are worse… You see, homosexuals cannot be legally married, so they have to live a life of sin and extramarital sexual immorality. They cannot accept God’s grace if they are living in sin this way, so we have to be firm in our convictions. It’s really a message of love.” When I think about that response, all the opposition to gay marriage suddenly makes sense. It’s a lot harder to justify a bigoted position on marriage equality when it is no longer appears to be endorsed by the government.
I now recognize that moment in my life as being one of many steps on a path to atheism. This man did everything “the right way.” Sure, he had sinned, but he turned to Jesus and away from wickedness. Isn’t that what the church wants for sinners? If so, then what exactly was the big deal? The older I got, the less any of the religious view of homosexuality made any sense. Why do so many of the same Christians who use the Bible to vehemently condemn homosexuality say little to nothing about divorce? If homosexuality is a choice, why would anyone choose to be shunned and treated so horribly? All of these questions and contradictions bothered me, and they kept stacking up and continued to bother me until I acknowledged them for what they were: a fairy tale, and an ugly one.
*Craig and Sofia’s names are fictional but, sadly, their story is not.
Featured image from Flickr found here.