I have a secret, which I have not shared with anyone at the church where I serve, until now: I have been baptized twice. Once as an infant, at a Presbyterian church in New Jersey, and once as a 17-year-old, through a “Bible church” in my Texas hometown. Under the influence of that church’s youth group, I came to believe that the baptism of an infant isn’t really a baptism and thus, at age 17, I had not yet obeyed the biblical command to be baptized. My father, a professor of theology, expressed his disagreement with the reasoning behind my decision, but I remained undeterred: I was not going to let this divine command go unheeded.
My River Jordan was the town’s local pool. Hands I trusted as much as any dipped my body under the water and then lifted me up, to the cheers of a large crowd that included family and some of my closest friends. Through their spirit of celebration, I felt the Spirit descend on me, and through the hands of my youth pastor, I felt the voice from Heaven say, “This is my son, with whom I am well pleased.”
A few years later, removed from the religious influence of that youth group, I changed my mind: every tradition of baptism is true and beautiful in its own way, and so my second baptism was unnecessary — and the exclusionary theology behind it problematic. Even so, I do not regret going down to the River Jordan a second time. Now, ten years later, a new gift has surfaced in that holy pool water. Almost every day, it floats toward me. On my better days, I manage to grab hold of it.
At age 17, I was my youth group’s golden boy. I led worship, helped to organize events, and mentored and taught middle school students. My youth pastor and I ate meals together, saw movies together, laughed a lot, fought once or twice. I got the impression that he thought of me as a spiritual protégé, and I certainly thought of him as a spiritual parent. On more than one occasion, I accidentally called him “Dad.”
Not long after my second baptism, at a time when I was mired in angst over my sexuality, I heard my youth pastor say that there is no such thing as a gay Christian. Five years later, with those words still haunting me, I came out publicly as gay. He and I have not spoken since then.
Every so often, my mind wanders back into a graveyard of memories: the judgment dealt, the mistrust felt, the gifts of fellowship withdrawn. It isn’t a scary place for me to be anymore; I can wander out just as easily as I wandered in, and I now have a safe home to which I can return. But even as I leave the graveyard and head back home, bitterness and indignation flare up in my soul, which incites another kind of haunting. In those moments, I try to remember my second trip to the River Jordan — how special it felt, how evident the Spirit was. The gift of that memory keeps me from raging at my ghosts for too long. One day, I hope that it will help me to forgive.
* * * * *
When I was discerning my call to ordination, I met regularly with a long-time pastor who is also gay. In one of our meetings, I shared at length about my past in a conservative evangelical youth group. After listening to me speak as if I had survived the greatest drought in human history, he responded with a question that caught me off-guard. Apparently, he suspected that it might catch me off-guard, because he prefaced it with “You don’t have to answer this question right now, or ever, but … are you still carrying any of the gifts that your youth group gave you?”
I was expecting something more along the lines of “Oh, those small-minded dummies. I’m so glad you’re rid of them now.” Plenty of people have said that to me, and if I want to hear it again, I know where to go. Far fewer people have invited me to recall and to celebrate ways in which God showed up in my wilderness.
It’s not easy to remember seasons of drought with a smile. Nor is it advisable to give thanks for a hand that has slapped you, to befriend an enemy who has tried to destroy your life. But that is precisely what LGBTQ+ Christians are doing. We are making a home in a tradition that has been, on the whole, overwhelmingly hostile toward us. Like the exiled Hebrew people who God invited to settle down in Babylon, we are choosing to dwell and striving to flourish in what often looks like an unpromising land. And yet, we believe that it has been promised to us. And somehow, we keep finding holy water here — even as our neighbors try to withhold it from us.
* * * * *
I have no idea what my youth pastor is thinking these days. Perhaps his theology of sexuality has opened up a bit, or perhaps he is as contemptuous as ever of us LGBTQ+ folk. At this point, it doesn’t make much of a difference to me — or at least I don’t think it should. The Spirit that descended at our River Jordan is still moving, the voice from Heaven is still speaking, and I want to focus on following it, not on looking backwards and seeing how someone else is making sense of it (or not).
Every once in a while, though, I do wonder what he makes of that day; what he makes of what his hands did, and what our hands did together; what he makes of God’s work in me, in him, in us; and — I dare say — what the Holy Ghost might do between us down the road.
Photo via Unsplash.
William Stell is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Bordentown, NJ. He has written for Huffington Post’s Queer Voices section, Religion Dispatches, Geez Magazine, and www.religioussocialism.org. Connect with him on Twitter: @wmstell.