by Randall S. Frederick
T.D. Jakes once said that there are two certainties in this world: One day, you will die And when you do, people will eat potato salad. I think this is true of many Sunday church services. Someone in the congregation is being preached to, their sins pointed out and implicitly (if not explicitly) made public, and they are dying while the rest of us go home and eat potato salad.
It was Trevor who was the catalyst to dispelling many of the reservations grade school insecurity instilled in me. You see, I was raised with very tolerant, even progressive parents, but I was still raised by those parents in the South, where prejudices are lingua franca. My family would have never said they were racist, sexist, or homophobic. We were too polite. It was more that there were appropriate phrases for people like that. Their culture was different from ours, and a polite but firm line had been drawn somewhere which everyone – if we were to avoid the civil “disturbances” of the pat – needed to respect those meridian lines of difference. People who didn’t wound up missing or, worse, dragged down gravel roads and everyone knew it was their own fault for not respecting those lines.
Trevor didn’t care for polite phrases, though. He was loud, brash, and a self-proclaimed “fah-LAY-ming-HO-mo-SEX-ual.” Something about his personality called to the inner rebel I had suppressed since I became an Evangelical at the start of college. Like something out of a Paula Abdul video, our opposites attracted immediately. We were – I cringe to look back at my behavior in those days – unapologetic about what believed and how we saw the world. Matching Trevor in outspokenness, I was an unapologetic, judgmental ignoramus who though God loved us sinners, but hated our sins. It was in this way that we became fast friends – there was no filter and I suspect neither one of us had had such a high degree of transparency. Always inquisitive, I asked Trevor how he knew he was gay (“Are you sure?”) and when he decided to be “this way.” Yes, dear reader, I say again, I positively cringe to retell the tales of youthful ignorance. Undeterred, Trevor took me “under his wing” and told me what it was like to grow up gay, what it was like coming out to his parents, how his church and friends rejected him, and what it had been like to start over. He had gone off script. My questions were formulated to confirm what I already knew. His answers gave me something to think about.
Even now, I can’t place on a date on when the change occurred, but Trevor’s honesty and effusive love for whoever was in front of him at any given moment were entirely incongruent with the way “the gays” were portrayed in my family and in my church. I saw this. I turned it over and over in my head, like a Dr. Seuss rhyme. In point of fact, I felt more love from Trevor than the “loving” congregation I worked for when I finished college and there was something about this that wore on me.
And then, one Sunday, Trevor came to my church. He had been invited – god forgive us all – by one of the professors who attend our “loving, family church” under the pretext that he would be “loved” there. I can still hear the deathly promises now. “We aren’t like all those other churches. We accept people as they are.”
What followed has played out in baker’s dozens of churches. You might be able to reconstruct it from your own experience, if you try. The blur of Sunday morning fellowship. The pastor takes the stage was a voice bearing the familiar swagger of Southern Bully Pulpiteer, he directs himself to Trevor’s side of the congregation, a hunter in search of sin. Bible flopping in hand, he jabs at it. This is the Word of Gawd (like a rattling saber, the leather snaps, crackles and pops all the way to the back pew as he flails sacred scripture around) and Gawd decides – not me, I’m just a human! I’m your friend! I’m a good pastor! – but Gawwd is the condemning one. “And God can help. He can change you. Yes, even you. You’re a sinner. He knows who you are. He knows what you are. And God can change you. Can forgive your sin.” We’re raised the tension of our Sunday stage and there must be resolution.
It was a script familiar to Trevor. Over beers, he had once told me about how he had tried to “pray away the gay” as a little boy. I knew he had been terribly, even irreparably hurt, by the Church and here he was once again a very public example of a sinner in need of Jesus’ (totally straight and not at all gay) love so that other people could go home smug and self-satisfied to eat their potato salad.
Within a month, it would come to light that the pastor was having an affair, his secretary had been stealing from the church, setting off a chain of revelations that would divide the congregation over the summer. But, even though some of us on staff already knew about these “sins” privately, let’s not talk about faithfulness in marriage. Let’s not talk about the shady business deals. No. “Our” people give tithes, which cover all manner of sin. Instead, let’s go after the stranger, the newcomer, the “fah-LAY-ming-HO-mo-SEX-ual” and make a cathartic example of him because he’s not one of us. He’s not like us. He’s gay. He’s different.
It’s different for each person, how we move from one position to another. My friend Sara was once a leading fundraiser for the Republican Party. Now, she is reluctant to tell anyone about that period of her life because she thinks Republicans are morons. My dad was once a long-haired hippie bartender. Now, he is a bald teetotaler. The easy thing to do in a story like this is to summarize, explaining of how my experience with Trevor translates to your life and how you too can live a more enlightened life! Yes, for only a nominal fee, you too can love the gays!
Except that the point isn’t Trevor being hurt by the church, or even trying to convince you to be suspicious when you attend your local church. There are enough of those articles already, preaching to the choir. Rather, the point is the potato salad. People eat potato salad after funerals because it helps them feel alive, comforted in the knowledge that they’re okay while someone else suffers. It seems a bit of a sweeping statement to say that a strong Evangelical anti-gay response is one of fear. But, as I learned from Trevor so long ago, we express our fears in judgmentalism so that we can feel better about ourselves. Having worked with churches and religious groups for over a decade, it’s become a familiar trope to ask myself, “What is this person’s potato salad?”
It is out of the shadow of the heart that evil comes. (Matt. 15:19)
Anyone who hates one of God’s children – male or female – is nothing more than a murderer in their heart. You can be sure of one thing: they do not have the life of God’s eternity in them. (1 John 3:15)
And then Jesus said, “You’ve heard the familiar saying by now, ‘Murder is a punishment worthy of death.’ But I want to expand on that – If you focus on something that someone else is doing, it’s really none of your business. You don’t have reasonable cause for that. But let’s say you persist in that anyway; you are the one in danger of judgment. What you’re doing is carrying murder around in your heart. Get yourself right. Let it go. And if you can’t, talk to them to see if any kind of agreement can be reached. Because if you can’t, the ‘wrongdoer’ will accuse you!” (Matt. 5:21-26)
So much of the Evangelical experience, I am sure you will agree, is based on the staples of prayer, self-examination, and love for Jesus. Our only reward is the potato salad – the safe, pure feeling we get from someone dying. And isn’t it a shame that for all of the emphasis Christians put on Jesus dying, we’re still so intent on “killing” someone else? The writer of Hebrews says that this is a “disgraceful” predicament and shames the congregation as much as Jesus himself (Heb. 6:4-6). The hard work of self-examination is frightful, so we invert the inverted, explicitly expressing our confusion and tension externally and who better than the outsider who will neither understand or respond? Christianity becomes then an expression of our greatest fears rather than our greatest hopes – another lesson Trevor taught me.