I grew up Pentecostal Apostolic, where the saints proclaimed to be wrapped up, tied up, tangled up in Jesus, washed in the blood of Christ, and fire-baptized. They took the Bible literally and summed up their beliefs as "God said it, I believe it, and that settles it." Everything was about holiness. I spent many Sundays in that church listening to the pastor stand in the pulpit and rattle off a list of things off that could get you tossed into the lake of fire for eternity. Among the long list of "sins," which seemed to fault people simply for being human, was the greatest of sins, and one that was unforgivable: being a homosexual.
I had no idea that I was one of the people he was referring to until one Sunday afternoon, during Elder Smith's overly dramatic altar call, with the air stuffy and a broken air conditioner offering no relief from the July humidity. Elder Smith leaned forward over the congregation, tall and mighty from his pulpit, taking inventory of his exhausted but still very engaged congregation, as he bellowed, "I know it's hot in here, and the air would be fixed if more of the saints paid their tithes and offerings ... but if you think it's hot in here, then you really gon' be fanning your butt in hell!"
He would reference a "sin" and attach a Bible verse to it, while reminding the congregation that hell was much hotter. We had the chance to claim our salvation while the heat was at least bearable. I remember looking around hoping that folks would take him up on his offer so that they could join the rest of us in heaven, until the pastor lashed out, saying, "And nobody will have a hotter seat in the lake of fire than these nasty, sick, perverted homosexuals. You're a boy, you don't have no business kissing no boys!" That's when it hit me like a ton of bricks: Oh, shit. He's talking about me. Oh, my God, I'm a homosexual.
I was about 13 years old, and I'd never done much sexually, but I knew something was different about me. I couldn't quite put a finger on what it was, but that thing I knew was different about me made me think about kissing and behaving affectionately towards other boys. I felt ice in my fingertips and stood; my mother tapped my shoulder and knodded toward the pulpit. I remember feeling a certain guilt and shame as I took what seemed like a mile-long journey up to get the "gay demons" prayed off of me. After all, I didn't want want to disappoint Jesus and definitely didn't want to go to hell.
I'll never forget that pastor, looking at me as if he were staring at Satan face to face while he slung blessed oil in my direction saying he could see the homosexual spirits on me. A series of prayers were issued over me, and the pastor proclaimed that when I left the altar I'd be healed of homosexuality. During the walk back from the altar, I made eye contact with a very attractive junior deacon and felt the wave of heat and excitement wash over me that always did when I saw an attractive male. I figured that the healing hadn't kicked in, and I managed not to feel guilty. I was torn for years, knowing I was being gay while praying for and expecting deliverance, until a series of events occured that assured me I was OK and, most of all, the Lord definitely worked in mysterious ways. Of all those incidents, the most revealing was taking a trip to get an HIV test, where I ran into the pastor coming in for a test as I was leaving.
After sitting there and listening to him preach fire and damnation against folks for not only having sex before marriage but also being gay, seeing him stroll into Whitman-Walker Clinic (which caters primarily to LGBT people in the D.C. area) was telling. We made eye contact, but of course he made sure to avoid a conversation by never coming close enough to me to say anything — but what needed to happen happened, and the truth was revealed. From that day on, I developed an awareness of not only church hypocrisy in general but the fact that you can't choose who you are attracted to, and that not all pastors practice what they preach despite encouraging their congregations to "give up ways of the flesh."
Perhaps these are some of my biggest contentions with pastors like Bishop Eddie Long and gospel singer Donnie McClurkin. Long, the pastor of Atlanta's New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, was notorious for his homophobic sermons, where he stood in his pulpit and described gay sex as abominable and that men who used their penises to pleasure other men were violating God's laws. In 2010 he was caught up in a scandal in which a group of young gay men came forward and shared very explicit details of intimate relationships they alleged they'd secretly had with the pastor in exchange for money, vacations, and gifts. The scandal nearly destroyed the church. However, the congregation rallied around the embattled megachurch pastor and swept whatever they could under the rug.
Not long after that, Donnie McClurkin appeared at the 2011 Church of God in Christ convention (which is basically like a black gay pride celebration) and urged the youth who might be struggling with homosexuality to come to the altar and be delivered. In tears, he cried out to the congregation that "the children are being lost and failed by the people in their generation." This was in reference to singer B. Slade, formerly known as Tonex, a gospel singer, who had come out as gay. McClurkin, painting himself as the ex-gay poster child of the black church, issued a rebuke and called being gay a perversion of our youth and the church. McClurkin declared that if it hadn't been for Christ, he himself would still be a homosexual. He even insinuated that young people's sexuality is affected by fatherlessness. I listened to him and rolled my eyes so hard up in my head that I thought they'd be stuck that way. When they finally came back down, I watched in anger as young gay and lesbian people threw themselves on the altar — similarly to how I'd done back when I was in church, praying for Jesus to make me a heterosexual.
The funny thing is, I'd come in contact with two people who'd shown me evidence that this man, although preaching that everyone else should be "delivered," was indulging in some of the same behavior and having the time of his life. A couple of years after that, McClurkin was still making antigay statements that were so awful that he was disinvited from a March on Washington memorial concert in Washington, D.C., in 2013. When the Supreme Court ruled for marriage equality last year, McClurkin issued a statement of disgust and urged his church to "stand against all sin, and not bow [its] knee to it."
Finally, this month, it was announced on TBN, a Christian TV network that McClurkin was engaged to gospel singer Nicole C. Mullen. Almost as soon as that statement was issued, it was retracted, and several gospel outlets apologized for sharing the information. Donnie released a video explaining that the couple needed more counseling before trying to move forward. I wonder why?
I'm bothered by all of the scenarios that I've laid out. First, that there are still women who would marry or even entertain the thought of marrying a gay man, especially a gay man who's turned his self-hatred into a war on LGBT congregants and believers. It bothers me having friends who are very aware of their homosexuality pray for a cure while either abstaining or sneaking around and having sex, indulging in what's genuinely natural to them, and feeling unloved by God. It bothers me that there are those who are fine with being LGBT and in relationships but still attend churches that bash gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans people, staying because the music is good or they don't want to attend a "gay" or affirming church because it's too different. That's like being in an abusive relationship where the motherfucker whoops your ass every week, but you stay because he makes good waffles and the sex is good. Honey, trust me, you can do better. I took my three LGBT dollars out of the tithe basket and walked out of that church a long time ago. I'm more emotionally and spiritually healthy because of it.
There are so many horrifying stories, like Andrew Chad Caldwell, who in 2014 proclaimed that he was "delivert" and he would no longer carry a purse, wear makeup, date men, or wear a bright yellow, frilly bow tie (shocker: he still digs men). Seeing our impressionable youth forced to suppress their sexuality saddens me. Many of these youth live in self-loathing and fear, isolation and terror, while these pastors and gospel singers go to these hotels and sex parties — sometimes held during church conventions — and indulge in the same behaviors. I think about the men who came out against Eddie Long and the pastor I saw when I was leaving from getting tested that day and the fact that any church you go to on a Sunday morning is full of gay men. We are pillars of our communities inside the church and out, while in many religious communities we face a "don't ask, don't tell" policy, and hypocritical behaviors are overlooked. I wonder what is it going to take for everybody to live in truth and all of us to simply be free?
SAMPSON MCCORMICK is a comedian, writer, and activist. He also produced a documentary about his experiences trying to make it in the comedy world, A Tough Act to Follow.