A MEMOIR OF A PASTOR'S CALLING TO DEFY THE CHURCH'S PERSECUTION OF LESBIANS AND GAYS
By Jimmy Creech
Duke University Press
Copyright © 2011 Duke University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One ADAM
"I quit! I won't take it anymore. I'm leaving the church!" Adam1 cried as he entered my office.
I quickly went to him and asked him to have a seat on the couch, taking a chair across from him. He was in obvious agony, his body shaking with anger and grief. His eyes were red and swollen from crying, and they moved nervously back and forth between mine and the floor. He leaned forward, elbows on his knees, hands clenched in front of him, fingers interlocked so tightly that his knuckles were white.
"Why, Adam? Tell me what's happened," I said gently, trying to calm and comfort him.
"I won't be a member of a church that thinks that I'm some kind of pervert, that doesn't want me."
I had no clue what he was talking about. "Adam," I said, "tell me who said that. Who in our church thinks you're a pervert? Who doesn't want you?"
"Didn't you read the paper this morning? Didn't you see what they did? I've been a Methodist since I was ten years old. I've given the church my time, my money—and what do I get?"
That Wednesday morning in May 1984 had been quiet before Adam appeared. As I drank my morning coffee at home, an hour or so earlier, I had read a newspaper report that the General Conference2 of The United Methodist Church—gathered in Baltimore, Maryland, for its quadrennial meeting—had just passed a new policy prohibiting the ordination and appointment of "self-avowed practicing homosexuals." Because I didn't know anyone who was a self-avowed practicing homosexual, the news meant nothing to me. There'd been other reports on the General Conference's actions in the newspaper over the past week, and I'd grown indifferent to them. It seemed that nothing happening in Baltimore was particularly important or would affect my ministry. I was wrong.
"I don't want to be ordained," said Adam. "But I don't want to be told I can't be because I'm gay. I'm just as moral as anybody, just as good a Christian."
I'd first met Adam when I became pastor of the United Methodist church in Warsaw, North Carolina, three years earlier. Adam was in his late forties, and he was an educator at a nearby community college. Quiet and reserved, he often complimented me on my sermons—so, of course, I admired his intelligence. Comments people made about him showed me that he was highly respected by other members of the congregation. I didn't know Adam was gay until that Wednesday morning. It never crossed my mind that he might be. I assumed that everyone I knew was heterosexual.
That morning, Adam revealed to me a hidden world of oppression in which people who are gay, lesbian, transgender, or bisexual suffer an insidious violence disguised as Christian morality that attacks their very beings, their very souls. It's a reality created and sustained by the claim that gay people are sick, sinful, and criminal, a claim that is declared to be God's truth in pulpits, courtrooms, workplaces, and schoolrooms; on playgrounds, athletic fields, and street corners; and at family dinner tables. The cruelest aspect of this hidden world is that gay people internalize these demeaning proclamations and hate themselves for simply being who they are. It's a world they cannot escape and have little defense against, except to hide their sexuality and pretend to be someone they are not, or to end their lives.
Adam's words rushed from his soul like water pouring through a broken dam. I listened with rapt attention, losing all track of time, as he opened to me a whole new world. He told me that as a child he would hear preachers and others in the church talk about God's unconditional love, and then hear from those same people the irreconcilable message that God hates, rejects, and condemns homosexuals to hell. He shared the story of his painful struggle to discover, understand, and accept his sexuality, first running from the self he discovered and later trying—and failing—to be heterosexual. He talked about the shame and guilt he felt about simply being himself. He even told me that he had considered suicide, once thinking that was the only way he could escape his homosexuality and demonstrate true repentance for it. He said that finally, after hating God for condemning him, he had chosen to trust God's unconditional love. But this only made it possible to survive; it didn't ease his pain or end his shame.
I was so stunned by Adam's revelation of the abuse he'd experienced in the church that I no longer recall everything I said to him in response. But I do remember these reassuring words that came from the depths of my soul, from instinct if not reason: "Adam, God loves you and accepts who you are. You have every reason to respect yourself and to expect others to respect you." I was as sure of that as I had ever been sure of anything.
I also told him, "The church should never be a place where you feel attacked and scorned. I understand and support your decision to leave the church, not because I want you to leave, but because you shouldn't allow yourself to be mistreated. No one should tolerate an abusive relationship." And I said, "Thanks for telling me your story. Thanks for trusting me. I promise to be your pastor as long as you want me to be, even if you're not a member of this church."
After Adam's visit, I thought about all the stereotypes I had learned about "queers"—that they are dangerous people, psychologically sick, depraved, and immoral. Adam fit none of these stereotypes; in fact, he'd destroyed them for me. He was a healthy, responsible person of good character. He was a gentle person of faith, a thoughtful and practicing Christian. Who Adam was and my beliefs about homosexuality were incompatible. I was distraught.
I was devoted to The United Methodist Church. It had nurtured me in my faith journey from childhood into adulthood. I was committed to serve it as a pastor. Adam's revelation changed neither my feeling for The United Methodist Church, nor my commitment to it. But what he said troubled me greatly. While I knew the church did much good, I was not unaware of the harm it had done and could do. Because I'd seen how the church had supported and promoted racism in the South, anointing racial segregation and the myth of white supremacy as God's will, making God the enemy of racial equality and justice, the holy oppressor of black people, I knew that the church I loved was capable of the spiritual violence that Adam had described to me. I'd also witnessed Southern prejudice against Jews, Roman Catholics, and women, often supported by the church. These were injustices that I knew the church had acknowledged and repudiated. Now, however, Adam had revealed another injustice that the church had not acknowledged, one I had not known about before.
As a pastor, my mission was to help people overcome whatever damaged them spiritually; whatever diminished their capacity to trust God's love, to love others, and to love themselves. I'd never imagined sexuality to be an issue of justice, much less a spiritual one. In fact, I knew no clergy who did see it that way. Although I didn't realize it immediately, Adam's visit that Wednesday set the rest of my life and ministry on a new course. Adam launched me on a journey with no clear destination and with no guide or maps to follow, other than an intuitive sense of what was right, just, and compassionate. Before I could move forward, however, it was necessary for me to look back on my personal history to understand how my attitudes toward sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular had been formed.
Chapter Two ORIENTATION
I grew up in Goldsboro, North Carolina. Until I was ten years old, my family lived on a street lined with large oak trees and homes built in the early years of the twentieth century, just three blocks west of the center of town and one block east of the train station. I was the third of four children—Will and Frances were, respectively, nine and seven years older than I was, and Alice was six years younger. Each of us was born in the house where we lived, 105 South Virginia Street.
My father, Wilbur, owned Creech's Furniture, which was a walk of two and a half blocks from our home toward downtown. My mother, Frances, went to college in the 1920s to be a teacher, but she stayed at home to raise my sisters, brother, and me. Both my parents were active members of St. Paul Methodist Church, where Dad was on the Parsonage Committee—keeping the pastor's home well furnished with contributions from his store—and Mom taught an adult Sunday school class. Family Bible reading and prayer were part of our evening routine. In our home, every special event was an occasion for family devotions. On birthdays, we always had a large candle for Jesus in the center of the cake. On Christmas, before we opened any gifts, we read the nativity stories from the Gospels, lit a candle for Jesus, sang "Happy Birthday" to him, and said a prayer of thanksgiving for his life.
Although my mother and father were devout, they were not rigid in their beliefs. They taught me that our way isn't God's only way, but that there are a variety of people and religions in the world, all deserving as much respect as our own. While it wasn't unusual for Southerners to consider any religion other than Southern Protestant Christianity against God's will and un-American, Mom and Dad had friends who were Roman Catholics and Jews. When Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons came by with their tracts, Mom would welcome them into our home like honored guests. Often she attended evening prayer meetings at a black church in a part of Goldsboro that white people called Colored Town, just a few blocks from our home. The earliest memory I have of budding erotic desire and sensual pleasure was when I was four or five years old. One summer day, a family came from out of town to stay with Frank Samath, a neighbor who lived just down the street from my house. A girl in the family was my age. I don't remember her name, but I can't forget her beauty. She was gentle and sweet with olive skin, dark brown eyes, and long black hair. She was the first person for whom I felt that deep aching desire to be near and to touch.
In those hot and humid summer days, I was always barefoot and shirtless, wearing only a pair of shorts. She was always barefoot, too, and wore a light cotton dress or shorts and a T-shirt.
We played together day after day at Frank's house. We played under the hot sun and in the warm, gentle rain. The odor of her body, wet from the summer's heat or rain, was delicious. We picked dandelions, using the golden flowers to make crowns for our heads and blowing on the gray puff balls to make the seeds scatter on the breeze. At night, we caught lightning bugs, cupping them in our hands and thrilling at their pulsating glow between our fingers.
In Frank's backyard was a mimosa tree with branches high enough for us to play beneath, sometimes napping together in their cool shade, our legs and arms entwined. We especially loved the mimosa flowers, which last much of the summer. A slender stem is topped with thousands of delicate pink, mauve, and yellow fibers that spread into a fan. The flower has the subtle fragrance of ripe peaches. The little girl and I enjoyed lying in the grass beneath the tree, where we would take turns lightly stroking and tickling each other's body with these soft, fragrant flowers.
It was under the mimosa tree that I first became conscious of sensual pleasure and the physical desire to touch, smell, taste, and hold someone. I did not fully understand, of course; but erotic passion had wakened within me. In the pleasure and pleasuring of our play, I discovered at the most basic level that I was a sexual being who hungered for physical and emotional affection, and intimacy with another person.
Later, I wrestled with male friends in the grass under trees, and lay quietly next to them, with our backs on the ground and our eyes searching for the shapes of animals in clouds above. Their bodies had odors, too, but not like the little girl's. With my male friends, I felt no sensual longing to touch, no mystical desire to unite. Being with them was fun and entertaining, but it was not the same as being with her.
It was under the mimosa tree with my young girl friend that I sensed for the first time the desire to reach out of myself so as to unite in love and passion with someone else. This was a desire beyond reason for a mystical union that was both corporeal and spiritual.
Years later, when listening to lesbian, bisexual, and gay friends describe how they discovered their sexuality, I'd recall the mimosa tree. It is clear to me that being erotically attracted to someone, whether of your own gender or the other gender, is a normal step in the maturation process. It's so normal that most nongay people don't remember it, any more than they remember "discovering" their fingers and toes. For gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, however, the discovery soon becomes problematic, and consequently memorable, as they realize that they are different from most other people—if not from everyone they know—and that others do not accept, and may even condemn, their difference.
I never talked to my parents about what happened to me beneath the mimosa tree, about my erotic and sensual feelings. I had already learned that my feelings were not okay, that they were bad, and I shouldn't have them. I didn't know how to reconcile them with the moral lessons I was being taught, both directly and indirectly. I struggled with the shame of pleasure and the guilt of wanting to touch and hold a girl.
When I was growing up, in the late 1940s and the 1950s, there was very little open discussion about sexuality at home, church, or school. My friends and I were left to learn what we could on our own, and to share with one another what we knew—or thought we knew—about it. What I heard from older youth and adults made sex sound morally wrong and disgusting, so disconnected from what I had felt with my girl friend under the mimosa tree that I didn't even relate the two. There was always snickering when a conversation turned to sex, as if it were salacious and embarrassing.
I was six when my sister Alice was born, at the end of November. On Christmas Day, I was shooting a basketball with a friend in his backyard when he told me that there was no Santa Claus, that my parents had bought all those gifts under our tree, and that a stork hadn't brought Alice to live with us. My parents, he said, had had sex to make her, as well as my older sister and brother, and me. That's how babies are made, he insisted.
I was crushed that Santa Claus didn't exist, after all those years of believing in him. And I was shocked and disgusted at the thought of my mother and father having sex, after years of being told it was dirty and forbidden. I suspected my friend was telling the truth, but I held on to my disbelief until dinner that night. I wasn't ready to mention the stork, but I asked my parents about Santa Claus. Mom told me that "if you believe in him, he exists." I knew then that my friend was right. Mom and Dad weren't telling me the truth about Santa Claus. I knew, too, that they weren't telling me the truth about the stork. I didn't even need to ask.
My parents never did discuss sex with me, or with any of my siblings. Once, when I was in my late forties, I asked Mom why she had never talked to me about sex when I was a child or youth, and she replied: "Because I knew if I did, you might get interested in it." Her parents never talked to her about sex, apparently for the same reason. My father enjoyed telling the story of taking Mom back to her mother the day after their wedding, so that my grandmother could explain "how babies are born." It seems that my parents' wedding night was chaste, frustrating my father, who was nine years older than his bride. My mother claims that up until then, she thought that women got pregnant from sitting on toilet seats that men had used. She felt that not knowing had served her well until her wedding night, and that ignorance would serve me just as well.
My childhood playground was downtown Goldsboro and the area around the train station. I played on the roofs of buildings and explored the alleys between them. One block west of our house, just across the street from the train station, was a small brick building where a man operated a peanut roasting machine. From time to time, the man would open up the building and roast peanuts.
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