“More than Conquerors”
A Reflection for Pride Sunday
June 30, 2019
“When troubles come knockin’ at your door
Don’t be afraid, you know it’s not like before.
Don’t you give in, don’t let it bring you down
Cause you don’t have to worry anymore!
We’ve been made more than conquerors,
overcomers in this life.
We’ve been made victorious
Through the blood of Jesus Christ!”
“We’ve been made more than Conquerors” by the Rex Nelon Singers
The one thing which I treasure most from my Southern Missionary Baptist childhood in the Blue Ridge mountains of Northwestern North Carolina was my exposure to Southern Gospel Music. It was from this music that I first learned many important things about faith and God—things which have stayed with me ever since. It really is interesting to reflect on how often these songs continue to impact and influence me. They have given me hope and encouragement at times of difficulty and confusion. I will certainly acknowledge that my theological understanding has changed, even dramatically, but the essentials which I still find in those songs has not.
Of all the groups from my childhood, the one group which I may have loved most was the Rex Nelon Singers. I found their music inspiring, joyful, and comforting. Although I love many of their songs, and especially “Victory Shall be Mine,” the one song which I have listened to more than any other is “We’ve been made more than Conquerors.” The lyrics are inspired by the Eighth Chapter of Saint Paul’s Letter to the Church in Rome (which is, by the way, one of my all-time favorite passages from the Christian Scriptures). This song is not just a recapitulation of the passage from Romans, though, it explains how that passage—and the hope which it promises applies to our lives. And it is for that reason, that I chose to begin this reflection today on Pride Sunday with those words.
Growing up in the country, I had never heard of Stonewall—and do not think that I even knew that it existed until I was in college at Appalachian State University in Boone, many years later. It is quite possible that I had encountered a reference to it along the way, but really did not have much of a sense of what it might have been about until later. Even though I did not know the history of the LGBTQIA rights movement, I had some very clear ideas about the impact of the movement in the rural South.
I had just entered into the first flowering of my sexual awareness and identity when Anita Bryant burst onto the scene warning of the dangers of the “radical homosexual agenda.” It would be impossible to describe the impact that her movement had in the Baptist world of my childhood. All at once, Southern Baptists became aware of and frightened by “queers.” Until that point, the two dangers which had most occupied their attention were “drinking” and ‘Godless Communism.” You could be sure that almost each revival (usually one in the Spring, before we got busy with farming, and in the Fall, after the tobacco had been harvested-but before we began grading) would have at least one night devoted to those issues.
All at once that changed. Now, preachers began to warn us that “degenerates” and “deviants” were set out to destroy the Christian Family. After Bryant was successful in getting some protective legislation overturned in Florida, Baptists began to celebrate. Now they did not go quite so far as to have a “victory dance,” (after all, “we don’t drink, dance, smoke or chew—and we don’t run with them that do), but they came pretty close. To my shock and horror, they seemed to become fixated on the details of gay sex and of gender identity! The clear consensus what that “homosexuality was a lifestyle” and a “choice,” and that “queers were sinners who needed to repent and accept Jesus.”
And this began to unfold precisely at the moment that I faced the unavoidable realization that I was—and am—gay. To this day, I do not know if many people knew, at that time, that I was gay. If so, they never mentioned it to me. I heard all the regular macho bullying things in school. But they did not seem to be addressed specifically to me. I may not have appeared to be especially effeminate? Or, it may have been that because I was so clearly a person of faith, that they just chose to ignore it. I would love to learn more about that time and about how I was actually perceived—but I may not ever have that opportunity.
It was only later, after I had the opportunity to live in larger “Northern” cities that I actually encountered the safe haven of the “gay ghetto.” That was of no consolation to me during my years in high school or in college.
I went through a period of intense spiritual torment and suffering. I became convinced that I was so deeply flawed that it would be impossible for God to love me. I became convinced that my sexual desires and longings damned me to an eternity in Hell. There was nothing that I could do about it. I pledged that I would fight those desires with everything in me—and that I would never act on them. But, of course, that was impossible. And when I gave in to temptation—in the very few and mostly innocent and harmless ways that was even possible—I fell into despair and depression. I was lonely, miserable and contemplated suicide. It really was a miracle that I finally had the opportunity, in college, to begin counseling. What a miracle that was! For the first time in my life I came to believe that there might be hope after all.
My own experience as a repressed gay boy from the Southern highlands is by no means unique. I later learned that many other young men like me were suffering in similar ways in mainline Protestant, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish and Muslim families. We experienced angst in the country, in villages, in towns and cities. This happened in the South, in the North, in the heartland of the U.S. and on the West Coast. It was an experience for LGBTQIA persons in every part of the world. It was only worse in those areas where same sex activity was punished by strict laws and enforcement. I was, at least, spared that. Ironically, I later came to know and to realize that there had been far more going on in many of the communities in which I lived, moved, and had my being than I had known at the time. I was truly naïf.
For most of my adult life, I was “closeted.” The decision to live as openly and unabashedly gay man took decades. In the end, it meant making the choice to leave behind things which were precious to me. But, I came to realize that in order to achieve wholeness, integration, and health (mental, physical, and spiritual), I had to be honest. I realized that I was gay, and had always been gay. This was not a choice—it was who I am. Interestingly enough, it was only as a result of having a partner for three years that I finally came out to pretty much everyone.
This week we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion. It is not at all ironic to me that it was the most radical members of our community who finally stood up and said, “No more.” In those days, they were called “drag queens.” Now, we understand that some of them were Transgender. To be clear, though, the gay men who were able to “pass” had little incentive to protest. Unless they were “caught in the act,” and were arrested, they seem to have been pretty much resigned to accepting their lot. It was only those persons who were never going to fit in or be accepted who were willing to take the risk of being even more vulnerable. Without them, Stonewall would never have happened. The great irony of that is that they were just as persecuted within our community as outside it. Gays who were under attack were quite willing to “throw them under the bus.” Too may of us wanted to assimilate and be accepted. They wanted the right to be truly free-and paid the price for it. In doing so, they won freedom for the rest of us.
Perhaps the bravest person I have ever known was a person who went by the name of “Kitty.” Later, I learned that Kitty had probably been born with ambiguous genitals. For whatever reason, the decision was made to raise “him” as a boy. He shocked and scandalized, even as a child, by choosing to “cross dress.” The abuse and insults to which she was exposed for most of her life far surpassed anything that I ever experienced. I remember when a report was given that a group of men from my church had visited her home to witness to her about Jesus. I can only imagine what that must have been like at the time. One of the greatest regrets of my life is that I did not have the courage to be a friend to Kitty. Years later, I attempted to reach out to her. I learned, to my great sadness that she had died. I do not know the circumstances surrounding her death, but imagine that they may have been horrible. I do not think that she ever escaped to a safe haven. Even if she had, she still wound have faced oppression, persecution, abuse and torment.
It may have taken almost fifty years, but finally it became possible to people to marry the person whom they love in our country. Not every place makes that decision easy. Not every congregation is willing to bless such marriages. And, there remains persecution in towns and villages, on farms and in many work places. But much progress has been made. I would like to believe that a day will come in which people were not be judged for the color of their skin or for their gender or orientation. If that ever happens we will truly be overcomers.
The song reminds us: “When troubles come knockin’ at your door, don’t be afraid, you know it’s not like before. Don’t you give in, don’t let it bring you down, cause you don’t have to worry anymore!” We are not there yet, but we have come farther than I thought would be possible in my lifetime. And, I have every reason to hope that the “long arc of history” will move in a direction of affirmation, empowerment, and inclusion. I am committed to do all in my power to help move in that direction.
When all is said and done, I honestly believe that it is truly the grace and love of God which has made this progress possible. As people of faith have come to recognize, acknowledge, and repent of prejudice—healing has become possible. It seems unlikely to me that even on the farms in the mountains it would be as difficult for children like me or like Kitty these days. At least I desperately want to believe that is so. I do not think of myself as the LGBTQIA poster child. But I can not help but hope that my openness about my own experience might be helpful to someone who needs to hear it. My own struggles could be a source of hope for someone like me who struggled to reconcile my identity with faith.
The one thing of which I am absolutely sure today is that God loves me—absolutely, totally, unreservedly and unconditionally. I am also convinced that has nothing to do with anything I have ever done. It is because God has created me as good and worthy of love, respect and dignity. And that is equally true of every single person who has ever lived or who will ever live.
I joyously sing—with modification: “We’ve been made more than conquerors–overcomers in this life. We’ve been made victorious through the all-inclusive, transformative, reconciling and healing love of Jesus Christ.”
A note—on Sunday I did not have any responsibilities in my own parish family, and so (for the 50th anniversary of Pride) I intentionally chose to gather with my LGBTQIA siblings at the Metropolitan Community Church of the Lehigh Valley in Bethlehem.
This coming Sunday I will return home to be with my church family of Trinity Episcopal Church in Easton, PA.