A conversion story should have taken all of the pains, questions and wants away. Preachers have spoken as if it is the climax of one’s spiritual journey, a mountain top experience with no need for descent. For those who descend down the mountain never really understood Christ Jesus in the first place. Those thoughts waited in the back of my mind as I sought to keep my mountain experience as I headed to another European country.
England's Lake District captivated me with its sheep and cattle grazing on rolling hills. I leaned against the city bus window wondering what might happen in the second part of this European adventure. I had left Spain feeling anew, mentally preparing myself for another set of introductions. The bus screeched to a halt in front of the nineteenth century castle. I could not believe this Bible school, interestingly named Capernwray, sat inside this incredible structure. I got off of the bus with my hiking backpack thrown over my shoulder. Wide-eyed, I stared at the massive grey stone fortress situated within the green hills. I pushed a large wooden door open to be greeted by a small framed English woman who gave me instructions to the eight-person room in the far quarters. I walked across the burgundy carpet and made my way to my new bunks; this time with four roommates on the second floor and in a different wing from the rest of the male students. I felt excited to get back into the same routine from which I left in Spain.
Capernwray had several buildings on its campus including an indoor swimming pool. Swimming laps gave me a sense of healing, the chlorine smell evoking positive memories of early morning swim practices and Saturday swim meets. I released my inner frustrations with the push of each stroke. I found life in the water. The pool was my safe haven.
Talking with the other students, I heard of someone who could potentially be a morning swimming partner. Noah and I introduced ourselves and became immediate friends. Our similar personalities allowed the friendship to grow through intentionality and encouragement. I appreciated Noah’s wisdom as well as a balanced brotherhood of both humor and deep conversations.
Our hands held the edge of the pool with feet propped up against the pool wall. In intensity we stared at each other as one of us stated, “Ready? Go!”
We flung our bodies into the water racing down the pool, doing a flipturn and back to the finish line. I grabbed the wall and looked over to see Noah standing there with a grin. He always won. I joked that he had an unfair advantage being more muscular compared to my slender body. He stated I was just too slow. It was all a matter of perspective.
Noah and I looked over at the digital clock, which read “07:30.” We climbed out of the pool to shower before heading to our morning lecture. We stood side by side with our hands underneath our respective shower heads waiting for the perfect temperature. We made small talk as we began to wash off. Our chests turned red from the hot water as our bodies recovered from the workout. We took off our speedos and continued to shower, placing our swimsuits on the ground next to us. My heart suddenly stumbled over its own beat as I tried to remind myself of our same gender. But instead, I became internally preoccupied with our nakedness. I inwardly coached myself knowing I had seen naked men before being on a swim team for a dozen years. I tried to convince myself nothing had changed about me. In an effort to lessen my paranoia, I placed my face underneath the water to wash the distractions away.
I wiped the water from my eyes and looked over to see Noah simultaneously looking at me. We nodded our heads, smirked and laughed. My muscles loosen as I realized nothing sexual would happen between us. We grabbed our swimsuits, headed back to the lockers, got changed and walked together to our morning lecture.
As we walked out, Noah mentioned, “I’m glad that wasn’t uncomfortable.... I never know if it is cool to shower naked in front of another guy.”
“Totally not a big deal. We were both on swim teams. We would have had to change in front of each other anyways,” I said with ease as if convinced of the statement.
Still, all of my inward coaching did not push away the new questions suddenly erupting inside of me. Did I want something more from Noah? Why did I want to be near him everyday? If I am not attracted to him now, will it happen later? With each morning, I reminded myself to stay collected as our friendship grew. And contrary to my hopes, I grew more and more uneasy around him.
I did not hear condemnation in his lectures, only words carrying love and redemption.
Few speakers could tug at my heart the way the school's principal did. Mr. Whittaker spoke from the vantage point of pure grace and mercy. I did not hear condemnation in his lectures, only words carrying love and redemption. He briefly mentioned homosexuality along with other issues like lust, greed or slander. I would have felt damned before, but here, I only felt compassion.
Still, the word of “homosexuality” pierced my heart as Mr. Whittaker looked in my direction. Could love truly be shown to me from someone like him, a prominent religious man? My eyes darted down after quick eye contact, unsure if he knew who he had spoken to. Did the short, white haired British man know about kept secrets? I felt known by Mr. Whittaker and unsure why. He could have been looking at one of the other five hundred pupils in the lecture hall.
The following morning, Mr. Whittaker spoke again. Again, he mentioned homosexuality alongside other struggles. Every muscle tightened as I internally wanted to reject the mercy he spoke about. Shame inched its way up my back, my shoulders tightening even more as I grew unsure of what to do with this Gospel of love given to the gays.
The lecture ended, allowing my mind to quickly change topics. Noah and I gathered our belongings, discussed our morning work-out and made our way to our weekly small group. Capernwray placed students in groups of eight, having each student take turns presenting the weekly devotional. On this morning, I had a chance to share. My heart was drawn towards spiritual friendships, so I chose a non-conventional text to speak on. David and Jonathan’s friendship in 1 Samuel 18:1-4.
As soon as he had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as much as himself. And Saul took him that day and would not let him return to his father's house. Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul. And Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was on him and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt.
I longed for the depth of this spiritual brotherhood written thousands of years prior. Jonathan and David’s intimate friendship gave me a sense of hope. A pure friendship to count on one another until this life’s death. I read the verses out loud during our short walk around the campus property and spoke about their care for one another.
“Yeah, probably because they were gay!” Someone hurled the comment from the back of the group. The familiar voice echoed in my ears before piercing my soul. I looked over my shoulder to see Noah’s face smiling in my direction. The playful statement became confusing at best. Why him? Where did the comment stem from?
An uncomfortable laughter welled up within the group and dissipated as did the discussion. I forced a short chuckle to join the groupthink hatred. In self-interrogation, I wondered if I had been discovered due to speaking on the topic of brotherhood? It stood true. Homophobia ran through Christendom. I stared at Noah and he looked away, knowing the off-colored comment had shattered the discussion. As Christians do, I quickly closed the lesson in prayer and we parted ways.
I do not believe we have ever spoken. It seems like you consistently mention homosexuality in your lectures. It was as if you directly spoke to me. I am dealing with this myself and unsure what to do. I was wondering if you had a chance to talk.
I quickly folded the paper and shoved it in my pocket. I walked across the grounds with my right hand in my pocket, assurring myself the note would not fly away. I walked into the lecture hall to the back office and nervously slid the handwritten note underneath his office door. I slowly backed away from the door and speed-walked away praying no one saw me. I leapt up the concrete stairs outside of the building and made my way towards the cafeteria. In route, I heard my name being called from a distance. I looked over to see Noah waving in my direction. I hesitantly raised my right hand to acknowledge his call and he jogged over to meet up with me. I prayed that he would not ask where I had just come from.
“Hey man. I wanted to say sorry about the David and Jonathan gay comment the other day. I wasn’t trying to be rude. The words just... It just came out.” Noah’s voice trembled affirming the sincerity of his apology. I placed my hand on his shoulder to gain his full attention and looked into his eyes.
The gays were an easy target among the religious.
“Noah, don’t worry about it,” I replied. For me, our friendship would not end from a premature thought being vocalized. I pulled him in to give a hug displaying my forgiveness towards him. Noah changed the topic as we walked towards the cafeteria, and I internally wrestled with whether male friendships were worth it despite the positive reconciliation I just had with Noah. I always pressed into friendships with subtle caution. The gays were an easy target among the religious. I needed a defender to pull the arrows out of my back. I made up my mind that Jonathan and David relationships could not exist. I concluded the gays would stay a forever abomination like the centuries prior, and the smoke from Sodom and Gomorrah’s lustful fire would continue to burn us alive.
I stacked my notebook and Bible on top of one another at the conclusion of the late morning’s lecture. I turned to leave, but stopped when I heard my name stated in a thick British accent. I looked behind me to see the white haired British man staring at me.
“Are you Nate?” Mr. Whittaker questioned. My heart raced with uncertainty of what to say. I cleared my throat and looked down to respond.
“Yes, that’s me.” I nervously waited for his response as my hands held onto my belongings. I waited in expectation to be placed in isolation or expelled from the school. No one wanted the sexually perverted walking on these sacred grounds.
"It’s nice to meet you. I had to ask who you were from Sue Gilmore...” My shoulders tensed as I began to think of the whole school knowing the one secret I held inside.
Mr. Whittaker placed his hand on my back to ease my noticed tension “... I did not tell Sue anything about what you wrote. It is between us. Would you like to come to my office after lunch?”
The weight of the world dissipated from my shoulders and I looked up at Mr. Whittaker to let out a small “Sure.” His opposite hand lifted to offer a handshake, which I hesitantly shook. He looked at me through his oval bifocals and responded, "Great. I’ll see you then.”
For a moment, I stood there confused and amazed by his gentleness as he walked back towards his office. I guess it would be okay. I turned around and out of the lecture hall.
The laughter in the cafeteria took away any leftover anxiety I had as I was surrounded by my peers and the sound of silverware clinking against dinnerware. I got hot tea from the wooden table in the back wall and took a seat on the bench next to the window. I glared out the window wondering if my conversation with Mr. Whittaker would bring healing or an end to this new spiritual awakening. The continuous swirling of my teaspoon in my teacup caught the attention of my peers and they asked if everything was okay. I dodged their questioning by mumbling a generic response about the lecture. Lunch soon ended, and we quickly stacked our dishes and started our afternoon break.
Everyone welcomed the sunny spring afternoon as a much needed break from the dreary England days. Students took long walks around the property. A herd of sheep grazed in the distance. It felt like the perfect afternoon as I slowed my pace back to the lecture hall. I quietly opened the double doors and walked past the few hundred uniformed desks facing the stage. My fingers traced along the front desks as I made my way to Mr. Whittaker’s office. I had a flashback of my father reminding me not to touch everything in the grocery store. I smirked at this memory and how curious I was as a child. I placed my hands in my pockets hoping to appease my father on the other side of the Atlantic.
I stood in front of the closed office door. Is this the best time to talk about sexual issues? I scanned the hall to ensure no one else was present. I lifted my shaking hand and softly knocked on his wooden door. A chair creaked across the floor and soon Mr. Whittaker opened the door to greet me.
“Come in,” greeted the British man, ushering me into his office. Mr. Whittaker and I sat in identical wooden chairs facing his matching wooden desk. In his wisdom, we both peered out the window behind his desk, allowing me to process without making eye contact. And gratefully, we skipped all casual discussion and jumped right into the contents of my letter. His gentle tone matched the lectures he gave each morning. A tone without any hint of judgment, only of empathy and concern. In a strange way I loved him, even with knowing of him less than two months. I felt safe here. Mr. Whittaker told me about a previous teacher who spoke at Capernwray about sexual issues while I was studying in Spain. Mr. Whittaker gifted me with a set of CDs of the teacher’s recorded lectures to listen to at my leisure.
“Does anyone from home know about your sexuality?”
Mr. Whittaker questioned, “Does anyone from home know about your sexuality?” I felt my neck muscles tighten as I tried to breathe imagining anyone knowing. I could tell no one. Everyone I knew spoke about homosexuals with such disgust. They would hate me. I took a deep breath, shook my head and let out a large sigh. How could I come out, when I had full expectation of being disowned?
“You need to find a safe place at home to talk about this. It will give you comfort to confide in people you trust,” he stated with a concerning voice. Silence followed as my leg shook mimicking my increasing heartbeat and insecurity. I only needed one question answered: Who is a safe person? I held the question until I found a safe person. But Mr. Whittaker lived in England and I in the States. He gave a short prayer before we ended.
Mr. Whittaker and I both stood up and made eye contact for the first time that hour. I still didn’t understand his kindness, how could he comfort me with no strings attached. What favors did I owe him? I had nothing to offer him which he did not already have. I cleared my throat to hold back the tears. He patted me on the back and I walked out of his office.
For the first time, life gained a small amount of hope as I had spoken honestly without feeling rejected by another human being. This is what it was like to be known with no sexual desire attached.
Not more than a week later, my inner hopeful dialogue twisted into self-hatred. Were Mr. Whittaker’s words out of true love or a hidden agenda to change me? Did he have a plan to use me as an example in front of the whole student body? I knew true love could not be given from one man to another. Noah had made that certainly clear. I tried to self-therapize myself, internally reminding myself to love myself, accept Mr. Whittaker’s kindness and stop being a fortune teller.
I sought a silent sanctuary away from the noise of the other students. I exited through the large castle doors and walked to the outdoor basketball court. I stood there in silence mesmerized by the grassy hilltops perching themselves up against the starry night sky. I watched grey clouds dance in the distance and make their way towards me.
How many times could you give the Almighty One an ultimatum?
I silently waited for God to speak. How many times could you give the Almighty One an ultimatum? Why did my gay desires linger? Or was it gay at all to want a close friend of the same gender? I thought a good God would take all of our pain away. A good god would, wouldn’t He? Why couldn’t He give me a new sexual orientation overnight like he gave me hope with my dream in Spain? Irritation resurfaced echoing a softer version of the coastal confession I had with God only a few months earlier.
“Hey, are you okay?” Startled, I quickly turned to see Mary, the woman I had beaten up in my dream.
“You scared me,” I stated. “Everything is fine.” Shoulder to shoulder we stood staring out into the English hillside. The silent company she provided brought comfort to my anxiety.
“Did you want to talk about anything?” The softness in her question matched the dancing rain clouds now giving way to the gentle night rain falling in the distance. I wanted to share, but my spirit wouldn’t allow me. I recalled Mr. Whittaker’s wisdom of sharing with someone geographically close to me. Sadly, she too would soon be a distant friend. And so, I kept the secrets inside letting the far off rain publically cry for me and my dilemma.
With both arms crossed I only mustered the words, “No, I don’t want to talk about anything.”
The clouds rolled in and released a gentle rain on us as the bell tower rang announcing the tenth hour of the evening. We looked at each other then walked back into the castle. The large doors closed behind us as we said our respective good-byes, escaping through the narrow halls to our respected corridors.
My time in England now ended.
I recalled that silent rainy British night as I stood in Germany’s Black Forest waiting for my church team to arrive. Did all of that just occur? Was the dream in Spain enough to break suicide’s grip on me? The journaled words had trouble putting all of the pieces together. I knew something had changed, but I couldn’t quite understand it. I knew Jesus had showed up and that was all. Mr. Whittaker’s voice echoed in the back of my mind. You need to tell someone near you. A far off, gentle voice directing me to seek refuge close to me. I knew one day I could do this. I just needed to figure out who.
Sounds of vehicles rushed through the small German streets as familiar American faces arrived and a few days later German youth arrived to participate in our English camps. My youth group friends and I led typical American activities for entertainment and dialogue for the German campers, while other staff cooked or taught English lessons. It felt like the perfect way to end this European adventure.
The American counselors and German campers quickly formed bonds. Two German cousins, Andi and Jonas stayed close to me. Andi kept a never ending smile on his face which radiated joy and his goofy jokes. But Andi’s rounded face quickly turned into deep shades of red with any major attention placed on him. In some ways, I felt pleasure in drawing attention to him. Andi’s older cousin, Jonas, initially stood a bit more reserved with others until he began strumming his guitar and singing songs. Possibly due to our similar spirits, Jonas and I became fast friends, endlessly talking about life.
On a free afternoon, Jonas and I took a short walk through the meadow overlooking the small town we and the campers had overtaken. Jonas disclosed personal struggles he had pushed through. In return, I exchanged a little bit about my life including the dream I had of Jesus showing up as a lawyer. I hid the full truth, in fear that this bond which had been quickly made could be quickly lost. I convinced myself that hiding sexual issues was for the sake of the Gospel.
But in reality, shame’s heaviness sat on my shoulders whispering the queerness would scare everyone away. This is what all great leaders do - share only their victories to make others feel inspired. A Christian foundation built upon the sure foundation of hiding. Jonas never asked if there was something deeper and I didn’t offer anything deeper. Despite hiding a part of myself, I knew our friendship would last a lifetime. And it did through short e-mails and social media connections after the American team and I returned to our respective cities.
This is what all great leaders do - share only their victories to make others feel inspired.
A year later, I applied to an undergraduate program in Canada and stayed in Rhode Island until I moved the following summer. I attended a small Bible study at the local state university, where I became quick friends with another man named Nate. For us, it seemed to make sense to call each other "twin" due to our common first name. In the evenings, I would randomly show up at his house. He was studying engineering and I mulled over the Scriptures for an online class that I was taking. We spent countless hours together joking around or talking about theology or social justice. And almost every Friday, we, along with two other "Katies" and Kendall, would drive thirty minutes to a small club in Newport. We laughed and danced the night away as if the sun would never rise .
One evening, Nate and I sat in my 1995 Toyota Tercel. A no thrills car equipped with only the necessities – FM studio, four speed stick shift and manual windows. Nate disclosed to me his doctoral application process to universities outside of the state. A small panic shocked my body as I mulled over who I would hang out with when he left. He knew everything about me, well almost, just not the gay part. Somehow, Nate quickly changed the conversation to my love for Jesus and social justice issues despite my continued resistance to be a consistent part of any church.
Nate jokingly called me "Pastor.”
This comment always resulted in me blurting out, “I’m not a pastor!” and punching him in the arm. Nate quickly returned the punch with a stronger one.
From that evening on, anytime I had a speaking engagement within a church setting, Nate would exclaim, "You're preaching!"
I violently shook my head stating, "No, professor..." His nickname due to his pursuit in doctoral studies "...It's just a talk."
"Whatever, pastor," he would sarcastically say followed by laughter.
My final Rhode Island summer consisted of hanging out with friends before I ventured across the continent to a small school in western Canada. I took a final weekend trip to visit my twin, who had relocated to upstate New York to start his doctorate at a prestigious ivy league school. Anticipation overwhelmed me as I prepared my mind to share the secret journal pages with someone I deeply loved. The trip’s length overwhelmed my spirit as I wove in and out of the New England traffic and dashed in and out of upstate New York’s mountain range. A new found heaviness pushed my shoulders down as I mulled over how to come out to him.
I greeted Nate at a local bar and we partook in local homebrews and engaged in normal conversation. Even with the alcohol intake I found it difficult to make eye contact with him as my left leg tried to shake off my anxiety. He questioned my nervousness. I lied and stated his new town made me uncomfortable knowing our friendship would operate differently.
Over the next seventy-two hours, Nate kept asking what was wrong and I would quickly mumble “I’m overtired” to avoid further questioning.
On our final afternoon, Nate and I took on a short hike to a local waterfall. The crackling of sticks underneath our feet sounded like trees falling in the far distance. Outwardly, we hiked in silence. But inwardly, the hike grew increasingly louder as a self-hatred dialogue overtook my mind. No one likes faggots. Vulnerability is not worth it. Nate will push you away. Stop being a pansy. Be a man. The inward conversation never stopped.
Nate tossed rocks in my direction or bumped into me on purpose in an effort to break the ice. But with every physical touch from Nate, the tenser I got and the louder my inner conversation became. We arrived at the creek's edge and started to skip rocks across its water. The steady flow of hikers subsided with only a few stragglers seeking refuge fifty yards away. We tossed sticks into the water watching them immediately spin, glide with the rivers currents, get entangled with larger branches only to break free again by the water’s current.
“What’s going on, pastor?” Nate stood close by as we stared into the water.
“Umm..." Time stalled as I cleared my throat multiple times. "...I’m...” my throat swallowed the excess saliva left in my mouth. “Nate... I... I struggle with homosexuality.”
Nate nodded his head without changing his demeanor and slowly inquired about who knew or who did not. I looked over to see Nate smile at me as we continued to throw rocks in the water. I disclosed the visions from Spain and the pen pal letters written to Oregon. I stumbled over my words as he became the first friend to know. He reminded me that I was not the first one to struggle with sexual orientation issues and our friendship would not change.
Nate listened and gently asked questions like why I had not shared this with my family yet. I looked down into the imaginary six-foot hole I would be buried in if they knew. In order to save myself, I had vowed to never share with them. I knew I would never have any romantic relationships. And I didn’t have to disclose to them why it would be that way. Nate understood my resistance to discuss sexual issues with my religious family. He patted me on the back and pulled me underneath his shoulder to hug me. His willingness to keep our friendship baffled me, yet in the moment, his physical affirmation gave hope to my resistance of sharing with others.
Why did I have to be so vulnerable?
The sun began to hide behind the pine trees announcing the day's end. We left the riverbank along with my security that everything would be okay. I immediately mocked his affirmation. Our brotherhood would slowly fall apart. Internally, he surely demonized me and wanted me to die. He thought I was disgusting. His riverside affirmation blurred and disappeared as I fumbled my way through any conversation for the rest of the night. Why did I have to be so vulnerable? If anything, I did not want to be his gay friend. All Nate would see is a gay man.
The next morning, I gathered my belongings to make the return to Rhode Island. I struggled to make eye contact with Nate as shame filled my soul. I felt like half the man he was because of my lack of attraction to women. He reassured me of our friendship without me asking. It still seemed insignificant as I held onto my disbelief. What male would want to be friends with another male who could potentially fall in love with them? I opened the drivers door and stated my goodbye. Nate thanked me for the visit and again affirmed our friendship. Sheepishly, I looked at him, nodded my head and thanked him too. The car’s tires slowly spun as I subconsciously counted down the days until I could escape from everyone I knew.
I had found grace, but could not accept it until I accepted grace from myself.