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Man In the Spiritual Wilderness

From Slaveholder Son to #Exvangelical to Searching Again

“low angle photography of concrete building with cross” by Louis Moncouyoux on Unsplash

You have to understand…

When I was seventeen, I knew that I wanted to spend my life sharing the Word of God. I thought I knew who God was back then.

God was my salvation. God was going to deliver me from my life. God took me away from my family for a day a week and put me in the company of people who would understand. God took my sinless, sexless, lonely state and called it holiness; promised me that something good would come out of all of the grief that I was feeling.

God was Rules, rules that I could cling to, and someday, those rules would make me like that man at the pulpit — kind and generous with a nice suit and a nice car and a nice apartment, always able to afford Sunday lunch. The rules would make me pure of heart and end my suffering, and transform me from the nothing I was to someone I could be proud of. Someone who was Going Somewhere. An Heir of the Kingdom of Heaven.

So what if I had to vote this way and swear off sex and protest this clinic and watch this movie? This was how you became a Good Person. That is how you inherit the Kingdom of God. Or so I thought.

By the time I was 22, I was in the middle of a swirling depression, agoraphobic, flirting with the word asexual and absolutely convinced that, if God existed, they didn’t give two shits about me.

The road into the wilderness began with death and grief. Losing 3 friends to cancer (all young adults). Having to stay in an unbearable home situation — which two years after graduating, included losing our home and moving in with my grandmother. Not being able to find work, because people at my size can almost never find work, especially the kind of minimum-wage labor that I was qualified for. Unable to get to school because public transportation was — and still is — a nightmare.

I was supposed to be transforming into a Good Christian Man — prosperous, certain, unfailing. But instead, I was losing faith in God — and losing faith in life.

There was a time where I knew that I was losing my faith, that there would be a day where I’d lose my faith in God. I prayed that I would die before that happened.

I did lose my faith. I did not die.

I tried going back a few times after this, mostly for the music. When talking about God didn’t make me feel anything, the music did. Standing in that worship hall, I went through the guilt of knowing that everything I felt was the psychological effect of hearing certain chords, rhythms. The mysterium tremendum was a lie.

A few years later, shortly after moving to Nevada and taking my first real step to freedom, I signed up for a Judeo-Christian studies class. Because, even though I had lost God, there was still something calling me to a deeper understanding of religion, of The Bible.

That was the beginning of the deconstruction. Learning about the textual history of The Bible from a detached, historical, academic perspective. You stop looking at each word as Divine Truth, and see the manuscript history of The Bible — how it’s been edited, how it’s been manipulated, and how the different texts have come together over the years. It was easy to begin to see how the patriarchy had shaped this text — and, indeed, the radical Christianity that followed in Jesus’ wake — into a tool for their own ends.

Another year or so later, I took my first steps into trying to find a church. A different state, a different denomination, something that seemed so different — and so much younger — than the Southern Baptist rhetoric I was familiar with. And it was nice — for the first three weeks, until the regular pastor came back. And, his first Sunday back, he was preaching hate from the pulpit.

It was easier for me to not believe at that point. To write off my love for God as youthful bullshit. To write off all Evangelicals as hate-mongering bastards. This became especially easy during the 2016 election season, when the Evangelicals fell for Trump, hook, line, and sinker.

But even that wasn’t the end of the story.

I spent most of 2017 and early 2018 living on the internet. A lack of money, living in the middle of the California High Desert without the ability to consistently put food on the table, let alone gas in the car, made getting out of the house difficult.

Mostly, it was spent trying to regain one of my lost homes on the Internet. Gone was the Tumblr of 2010 and 2011, where I’d sit outside Starbucks until 2 AM so I could video chat prayer groups with other people, or when I could dump my time into an MMO.

I somehow ended up pouring most of my time into Twitter, a not-quite-welcome member of the YA community, unpublished and untested and having given up after a first failed novel. But part of the great thing about Twitter was being exposed to different people — including some Christians who were very different from the Christians that I knew. It started with Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis and others at Middle Church, a theatre boy forever dreaming of New York City, and the myriad opportunities it provides for People Like Me.

Just through the magic of social media algorithms, I started hearing about people like Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, Rev. Dr. William Barber and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis with the Poor Peoples’ Campaign, and my eyes opened to the great history of believers who rejected the White God that I’d been brought up to believe in.

They preached a kinder God, a God of love and grace and change and revolution. A God who broke chains. A God who loved everybody.

And, maybe, one who loved me.

I don’t know if I believe anymore. I don’t know what I believe anymore. I don’t know if I can believe anymore.

But it’s been on my mind a lot, lately.

After moving back to Nevada a few months ago, it’s been on my mind even more. I’m no longer isolated, no longer completely without. I’m at a place in my life where I can start trying new things. If I knew where to look.

Thankfully, I didn’t have to look too far. Shaunta had heard about First United Methodist Church, and had been wanting to check it out. So we went.

There are precious few things in this world that manage to surprise me in this world. Seeing an old Methodist Church in the middle of Reno’s chic urban riverfront is a surprise.

Seeing an old Methodist Church bedecked with pride flags — at the door, in the worship hall, throughout the worship hall — a dozen at least — was a surprise. They struck such a beautiful and blessed contrast with the gorgeous pipe organ and the stained glass windows.

But the biggest surprise? Stepping into the narthex and being handed a program emblazoned with the smiling face of Marsha P. Johnson under the words “No Pride for some of us without liberation for all of us.” Of all the names and faces I’d never expected to see celebrated in a Christian Church, the Drag Mother, Stonewall Rioter, Black trans woman that I had only recently learned about thanks to a Netflix documentary would be near the top of that list. But there she was.

The service was beautiful, an eclectic dash of the old — the building, a great deal of the crowd in the pews, the stunning hymns — and the young — the children brought to the front, the dozens of pride flags, the unapologetically affirming sermon. It was nothing like I imagined a church would be.

I left after the service — I didn’t stick around to talk much. Truth be told, I was a bit shaken after seeing all of that. My thoughts have been . . . turbulent, to say the least.

I don’t know if I can walk back after losing my faith. I don’t know if I can return to God with the simple, unassuming, and absolute faith that I had as a teenager. I don’t know if I can ever open myself to another church after being so damaged and so hurt in the past.

As much as the church gave me, it encouraged me to have a distorted view of the world. A distorted relation to sex, love, and others. It inspired an absolutist, unyielding, and unkind relationship to others like me. I bought into the lie: hook, line, and sinker.

I don’t know if I can walk back into something like that — even if it seems so much different, even if it seems so much better. I don’t know this yearning that’s beginning to wake up in me — this excitement, this hope.

My faith was the great hope of my life; it ended up being the great disaster of my life.

And now? I just don’t know.

Querying soon? Get my Query Letter, Deconstructed.

Zach J. Payne writes poetry, plays, and young adult fiction. He’s an assistant at Ninja Writers, where he helps new writers find their voice and their tribe. He was the query intern for Pam Victorio at D4EO, and his novel Somehow You’re Sitting Here was selected for Nevada SCBWI’s 2015–16 Mentor Program. He lives in Reno.