Why I Left: Presley's Story
What type of church did you attend at the time of your leaving?
Southern Baptist/Church of Christ/Lutheran
Did you find a new church to attend?
My first experience with smoke, I am told, came from the chimney in our Louisiana home where, a few years before, it had filled the entire house. My older brother, a toddler at the time, had insisted on handing my dad his plastic fireman’s helmet before my mom carried my brothers and I out of the house with a rag over our mouths. Dad had forgotten to open the flue. Instead of the smoke rising, it filled our lungs, and choked us.
Prayer was once a light, airy thing to me. It rose and rose until it reached its destination. It was like the smoke from the chimney of our brick fireplace in Ohio where we had learned to make sure the flue was open. This is what the pastor told us when it was explained to me from the pulpit as a child. He wore the hair on his bald head like a halo.
Even though the north was not known for its old time Baptist religion my mother found the one Southern Baptist Church in town after we moved from Louisiana. She made sure we attended faithfully. She was adamant we appear in the church directory every year even after my twin brother fainted under the hot white light of the photographer. He fell from the wooden box he was standing on with a thud on the linoleum. He had locked his knees. I never had this problem.
As someone with mild cerebral palsy, I struggled with balance. Loose knees made me better able to navigate if I lost it. A few steps back, and I could regain it. In the directory photo that year I have big, thick glasses and a clip-on tie. The cool metal clip pressed uncomfortably against my throat.
In the moment when my brother fell I remember praying. I was glad that God could hear my thoughts so I didn’t have to speak them aloud. If even my athletic brother struggled how could I even hope to fare well in the world that was before me? When he fell I prayed for myself, for my body, glad that it wasn’t me. I wouldn’t recover so quickly and, knowing my mother, we probably would have just left without taking the picture.
Later that year, on Mother’s Day, my twin brother and I would walk down the aisle to “I Surrender All” and accept Jesus into our hearts. In Evangelicalism this is the most important prayer you will ever utter. Even though I was technically the middle child, one minute older than my fraternal twin brother, my disability garnered me more attention—like an award that you’re embarrassed to keep but can’t get away from. In another time, this is how I would to relate to my own belief in God. Why are you here? I’m not supposed to have you. They told me. Go Away.
When it comes to prayer I am a special target. Especially in more Charismatic circles where the belief in The Holy Spirit and His healing properties are most sincere. In High School my friends told me about their awesome church, and since church was about the only unsupervised place I was allowed to go, my parents obliged. I was excited to go to a church other than my own.
When I walked in I could hear someone roaring like a lion behind a closed door. I was shuffled by my friends to another pair of open doors away from the animal noises. Contemporary worship songs were sung, gibberish was spoken from the stage and on the generous space in front of the altar. Some of which echoed the animal noises I had heard when I walked in earlier. It didn’t stop when the pastor came to preach.
One woman stayed at the front the entire time speaking in tongues. The woman’s pants were starting to show some unseemly part, as she lay prostrate, bowing, and laughing hyenalike into the floor. A sister in the congregation threw a blue blanket over her to protect her modesty as the preaching began: “We should have faith...We should hear God...We should remember The Holy Spirit’s promises to us, and not doubt what The Spirit can do.”
In hindsight, I regret bringing my cane to church that night. As soon as I walked into the sanctuary a strange woman placed her hand on my head, before she even asked my name, and prayed for healing. Then, like a doctor who had just administered medicine, asked me how I felt. All I could manage was, “Fine,” and, “thank you.”
Dr. Scott told me to use the cane at my last appointment. Five months earlier I had completed my second surgery at Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children and logged countless hours of physical therapy that summer. I had learned to walk for the third time in my life at an age when most kids were learning to drive. I graduated from the wheelchair with the brake that kept sticking, to the walker with the red rubber handles, to the crutches that cuffed just below my elbow, and now, the cane. I was getting better, stronger, and more controlled as I walked. It wasn’t God’s healing, but it was my own.
To these people I may as well have worn a sandwich board sign that said HEAL ME. I could feel their eyes on me. I had learned to ignore a few pairs of eyes in public places, but not an entire crowd. I stared at the church’s logo in front as if it was of great interest to me. It was a bushel of wheat surrounded by a circle with a bible verse address splattered across it in a messy urban font, Acts 2:42: And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.
This verse is immediately following the Holy Spirit’s outpouring and conversion of thousands of people in The New Testament. I knew because I brought my bible with me and looked it up. I marked it with colorful tabs I would later use for college textbooks. It was worn with use from my earnest effort to read the whole thing and find answers in the midst of uncertainty; the scope of which I was not even aware of yet. The bushel was symbolic of the great harvest ready to be threshed, stored and, apparently, healed of all infirmity.
Instead of the altar call I was used to that stressed salvation there was a call for healing with a term I was yet unaware of—slaying in the spirit—I half expected to see them pull a shining sword out of a jeweled sheath. Were we really supposed to treat The Spirit this way after so many nice things were said? Then I realized it was my spirit getting run through and not God’s. I went out of my seat through the aisle following my friends like a particularly woolly sheep to the shearer.
I was not aware of the unpleasantness involved. I only thought healing sounded like a good thing. If someone says they don’t want it when they are told it is possible, especially as a sixteen year old having gone through a lot of pain and discomfort, they are lying. Also, like a sixteen year old, I forgot my medical supply cane hooked on the chair in front of me. This was a mistake.
The pastor placed his palm on my head and pushed hard. Two strangers came behind me, ready to catch. I stood there for at least a minute where, even in my weakened state, I stood firm until the man behind finally whispered in my ear and told me to fall. It felt more like a session of physical therapy than healing. I dug deep into myself to see if I felt anything other than shock as I was pushed on purpose to the ground.
I just lay there with my eyes closed until the commotion stopped. When I got up to leave the one woman who had prayed for me before the service, and had been boring a hole in me with her gaze the entire time since, found me, touched my arm, and called me proclaimed me healed. I grabbed my cane from my seat as soon as I could and tried not to use it even though I felt weak from the ordeal, as I walked back toward my friend’s truck in the parking lot, and headed home. Even then, I didn’t want to disappoint.
This was the first physical form of prayer I had come across, and it was not my favorite kind. The next time a hand was laid on me was after a man I was seeing made his way to my mom’s work and stated his case. He believed that if my parents were more supportive we would get back together and everything would go back as it was. Your ex-boyfriend is the worst way to come out to your mother.
She put her hands on me that night as I lay in bed at home and prayed. I was still struggling with this part of me. So, I took a plunger made of other people's’ expectations and stuffed it down, “It’s okay, we’ll get through this,” She said.
The next day I found a gift of tin on my desk, a sign from her favorite home goods store painted with the words, “A journey begins with a single step...” I began to date women.
I said to myself, you know what would be great? Bringing people I care about to see my family without fear of retribution. My parents were convinced my exboyfriend was capable of some great violence because of his orientation and the way he handled himself with my mother, just coming out and saying that he cared for me, that I mattered. In some way, it was the bravest thing a man has ever done for me.
The women I dated next all came to me and asked me out in different church settings. I never lifted a finger. They were all broken in their own way, and I didn’t want to glue them back together. I just wanted to be able to show my whole life like my brothers had done with their girlfriends, now spouses. I did care about them, but it would never be in the way that they deserved. It would never be love, and they figured that out in their own way.
After one of them, a woman with an odd mixture of psychological symptoms that included fugue states and regular short term memory loss, broke up with me through the video chat function of the iPod Touch I had bought for her. I decided that I didn’t care anymore, and I would date who I wanted and not worry about the rest.
I came out to my mom myself a few months after finding a man I could actually have feelings for. Who had feelings for me. There was a romantic energy between us. It was new. It was good. It was mine. I didn’t think anything would take that away. When I came in from a date with him one night I knocked on my mother’s bedroom door, she was in bed with her beauty cream lathered on her face and a terry cloth robe. I laid my own body across her comforter. I was feeling bold in my affections, happy.
“I just got back from a date.”
“Oh really, who is she?”
“It’s a he,” I said burying half my face in the blankets.
“A he?” Tears welled up in her eyes. The antiwrinkle cream she was wearing, that already turned her face ghostly pale, turned clear as they ran down.
She pulled a tabloid out from beside her nightstand. I recognized it as a sign of affection from my father. He would buy them for her at the duty free store before he left the airport on his way home. It was a guilty pleasure. For her last birthday I bought her one along with some peanut brittle and flowers.
She turned the pages, frantic, “Is this what you want?” She asked, still crying, showing a spread of celebrity gay couples, newly married, turning more pages, and stopping on a smiling shot of Portia de Rossi and Ellen Degeneres.
“Maybe,” I said, “but those are lesbians. So, the opposite of that.”
I tried to go to church to be supportive, but my mother would cry, and it only made me sad. My dad seemed to know already. He wondered why I told her. He did not like handling his weepy wife. I don’t blame him on some level, but her choices were pushed on me as she drank wine in excess, grabbed my arm when I left the house to go on dates with my boyfriend, and told me I didn’t have to go. As if I was brainwashed, as if something else compelled me.
I was not her son anymore. I was a problem. On a night he was home my dad handed me a book I had already read in my search for answers written by Alan Chambers, President of Exodus International, an exgay ministry, regarding same-sex attraction. Years later Chambers would dismantle the group and denounce its teachings, apologizing for the people they hurt as an organization.
“For quite some time we’ve been imprisoned in a worldview that’s neither honoring toward our fellow human beings, nor biblical,” He said in a statement that year. My mother never prayed for me again, not audibly. She only pulled me, pushed me, and encouraged change. I tried to make efforts of appeasement since I was still living in their home.
I lost hours at work going to counseling sessions with a Christian counselor. He was more about talking than any kind of drastic reparative work. He acted as if he could plant his musings in my mind and cause some other course of action.
Eventually my boss got frustrated and said I needed to either come to work with more regularity or move on. When I asked my mom one night how much longer I needed to attend these meetings she asked how I was feeling. I told her I was still gay.
This led to a crying mother and a wine induced phone call to my dad who was in a business meeting in Paris. He berated me in a loud voice through the phone asking why I was behaving this way and yelled about the terrible choice I was making with statistics and data he found from Focus on the Family.
Eventually, twenty four and still living with my parents a year after college, I was offered an ultimatum. My dad handed me a piece of lined paper divided in four sections with three different scenarios: 1. Break up with my boyfriend and continue living at home under lockdown. 2. Move to California where my dad’s job had recently moved to get away from my boyfriend and live under lockdown. 3. Continue to date my boyfriend, get one month’s rent at an extended stay hotel until I found my own apartment and lived however I wished.
In the next twelve hours I was supposed to make a decision, write it down in the fourth box, and return it to him before he left on a business trip the next day. Then the gears would start turning.
I did not make a lot of money as a pharmacy technician, but I did better than minimum wage. I knew I couldn’t live comfortably and pay a full rent and all those other bills that come with being on your own. I stopped praying altogether. I was hard and angry. I was crying and yelling words that I had never called my parents openly. I knew I couldn’t help them anymore. I had tried. I kept curfew. I went to counseling. I didn’t degrade them, but I didn’t diminish my reality either. Where I had seen so much support in my disability, another thing I couldn’t control, I saw only walls in this. I needed out.
I made the easier choice. I told my dad I would move to California with him. At least the weather would be nicer there. My dad never pulled the trigger on this plan. In truth, I think it would have killed me. I told them I broke up with my boyfriend, but I continued to see him and lied about where I was going.
I made up new friends with names that didn’t beg for any questions. They were all married, in love, and hopelessly straight. God, I was told, was not on my side. In winning them over, I thought, I was winning God back too.
Years later, when I had my own salaried job and apartment, and moved on from the man my parents found so much offense with while avoiding mentioning any others, I called my dad on my way home from work. I did this a few times a week and tried to do it the last five or ten minutes of my commute so I didn’t have to talk to him for too long.
I was driving by the Episcopal Church in Houston’s gay neighborhood when he asked me, “Are you going to church anywhere?”
“No,” I said, “but I drive by one everyday on my way home.”
The next Sunday I attended. I walked the few blocks from my apartment, went to service, met the rector, and walked home. I began to attend regularly. Some members were gay, some were straight, others were married or in a relationship or single. I found a cause for faith.
After completing a course I was confirmed by the bishop. He placed his hands on me and welcomed me into The Church Universal. A mass of people came behind me, church people and family included— Dad, my baby nephews, and both my brothers—they prayed for me. I received a Book of Common Prayer and a Confirmation Certificate. It fit perfectly inside an empty frame I had for years. I never knew what to do with it until that certificate came.
It sits on my desk now in my tiny apartment beside my leather pouch with my prayer beads. In my time in The Episcopal Church I have joined a group that meets every Saturday morning. We use our beads to pray. Instead of wisps of ethereal desire and supplication directed at God I clutch round stones in my palm, and cross myself with the symbol of the sacrifice God made. I hold them in each moment until I let them go. I know that they get where they are going because each time they are sent the stone still stays in my hand like a receipt.