Was Rich Mullins gay?
An early songwriter for Amy Grant, he helped make ‘contemporary Christian music’ a commercial force. In 1988 his solo song “Awesome God” was a mega-hit. Later albums were influential, and he keeps a cult of admirers. His vibe was a more loving faith. He died in 1997 at age 41. Reading up on singer-songwriter Rich Mullins, I found vagueness and strangeness around his personal life. Never married, no girlfriends. A bit androgynous. I wondered if he was gay.
Which would make getting access to his real story a problem. His commercial value to the Christian demographic would depend on all knowledge of it being suppressed. Tricky. I might need an angel to whisper it in my ear? I kept researching, and was watching a 2014 documentary, Rich Mullins: A Ragamuffin’s Legacy. I paused the player, backed up, watched again. Amy says it again, exactly the same way.
“He was, you know, very— Um. Honest about his— Everything from his sexuality, to his appetites to his— He was just so raw.”
That’s not a very Christian way to be.
I hear back from Reed Arvin, Mullins’ longtime producer.
He was the most authentic poet in the history of contemporary Christian music, a truth-teller in the best sense, and a true believer in Christ. I’ve never met anyone who so thoroughly conformed his life to the image of Christ, which, naturally, made him an outlier in many ways. I have no idea if Rich was gay or trying not to be gay. I do know that on the spectrum of “things that matter about Rich Mullins,” his sexuality rates about 90th.
But I must say — it might explain his whole life.
Asked to speak about “grace” on a 1996 radio show, he’s slipping back into his childhood in rural Indiana.
When I was young, I was angry and I was kind of going, “God, why am I such a freak? Why couldn’t I have been a good basketball player? I wanted to be a jock or something. Instead I’m a musician. I feel like such a sissy all the time. Why couldn’t I be just like a regular guy?”
There was a sort of biography about him in 2000, An Arrow Pointing to Heaven by James Bryan Smith. There’s been two documentaries. I’m browsing newspaper archives for more, wondering how it all fits together.
It’s the story of a sensitive boy who took to music. “We went to see the movie Music Man when he was just a child,” his mother, Neva Mullins, says in a 1984 newspaper interview. “He came home and pecked out the songs he’d heard on our old upright piano.”
Not the first boy to love Broadway musicals. Or to horrify his father. Smith quotes Neva reflecting on her husband. “John’s generation of men did not express their feelings to their children.”
Which isn’t quite true. John Mullins expressed disappointment. “I have two sons, two daughters, and a piano player,” he’d say.
Many others found him mystical and magical.
After his death, Mullins’ hometown paper has memories from schoolmates. “Even as a young teen-ager, it was apparent that he was not like all other kids,” a man writes. “He was chosen by God.”
A female classmate: “While most of us were asking questions about how do we get ahead in the world, he was asking why are we in this world? And wondering don’t we truly belong in the next world?”
Graduating high school, he goes to Friends University in Kansas, then Cincinnati Bible College. He’s remembered here for being weird. Like his talk of Jesus as a human man, capable of an erotic relationship. His messiah was a “lover,” and he’d go on about being “ravaged” by the divine.
He grew his hair to shoulder-length. “His dad did not like it at all, and sometimes they fought about it,” his mother says.
He launches a band called Zion. His bandmate Beth Snell Lutz recalls in a recent interview: “He had a lot of darkness in him. That was a constant wrestling for him.”
All his life, friends refer to his ‘dark’ or ‘sinful’ side, his ‘temptation’, etc., without clarification.
With funding from an uncle who believed in Mullins’ talent, Zion releases an album, Behold the Man. I love “Heaven in His Eyes.” But “Praise to the Lord” got the attention.
He was reluctant to become a public person, initially refusing to sell the song to Amy Grant, who saw its potential to become her hit “Sing Your Praise to the Lord.”
In a contribution to a 2017 book, Winds of Heaven, Stuff of Earth, Amy Grant writes: “I have been moved by a lot of songs, but when that song reached its iconic release point, I was levitating.”
In Rich Mullins: A Ragamuffin’s Legacy, a friend recalls going to Nashville with him to prod him along. An industry gatekeeper, Jon Rivers, takes her aside and advises her that Mullins had talked about his “friends in Cincinnati,” and that he was in for a bumpy ride.
It’s all kept vague. Was Mullins trying to be openly gay? Amy Grant writes about getting to know him, in the sanitized version for fans:
He was disarmingly honest about his life and the things that he struggled with, and he came at things from a different angle, a different perspective. Many times in our conversations I would think, I hadn’t thought about it that way. He made lofty ideas about God so earthy. He humanized God. He humanized Jesus for me.
Rich didn’t waste any time trying to be good, or at least trying to appear good. There’s a little bit of good and bad in every one of us. But what Rich wanted to know, what we all want to know, is that we are loved.
But he’d have a dilemma. He keeps being told, and believes, he and his music are touched by God. But he’s also the Evangelical villain.
No long after, he leaves Nashville.
He says in 1995: “I was not going to be your typical run-of-the-mill, Pollyanna, goody-two shoes Christian musician. I became so boring trying to be bad that I gave up the pursuit.”
But in a 1984 interview he’s striking a different note: “I felt I was getting self-obsessed there,” he says. “I’m really not a very career-oriented person. If I don’t enjoy what I’m doing for the sake of doing it, then I’ve lost integrity.”
He works as a youth minister for several years. Later he gives vague interviews about a great battle with ‘secret sin’ happening at the time. In November 1995, to CCM, he discusses a key moment happening, as the reporter notes, “about 30 when he confronted the power of a secret sin and found a greater power in confession.”
If he was around 30, then it happens around 1985.
I was in Michigan, on my way to somewhere where I knew I ought not to be going. I started praying, ‘Oh God, why don’t you just make my car crash so I won’t get there because I can’t stop myself.’ I remember thinking that He said, ‘Yeah, you’re right. You can’t.’ I said, ‘Why can’t I? What I’m doing makes me sick.’ And it was as if God responded, ‘Yes, what you do makes me sick too, but what you are makes me sicker. You do what you do, because you are what you are. You can’t do otherwise.’
He drives to Cincinnati and confesses his ‘secret sin’ to friends.
It was one of the most liberating things I have ever done. It’s not like I haven’t been tempted since that time. It’s not that I don’t still deal with the same sorts of things. I still have to make right choices. I still have to flee temptation. But the power of that sin was broken.
He returns to Nashville and professional music.
Amy Grant has him as the opening act on her 1986 tour. He releases a solo album, as he’ll note, “that nobody bought and that no one would play on the radio.”
Then “Awesome God”—which, I’ve realized, is a homophobic and hateful song.
Judgment and wrath He poured out on Sodom
Mercy and grace He gave us at the cross
Sung in 1988—against the backdrop of people dying of AIDS? Horrifying.
A story circulates about the song’s writing. Rich was driving late at night to a youth concert in Colorado. To keep himself awake he imagines Southern preachers ranting, rolls down the window and starts ‘preaching’ to the wind.
Is the song ventriloquizing a message he didn’t believe? Or might Mullins really be in self-attack over the thing he is. But “Awesome God” launches his solo career, and he becomes a star, and leader, of Christian music.
In interviews, he talks about his struggling for “purity”— without details.
At the same time, many of his songs are ripe for queer readings. In his 1991 hit, “Boy Like Me, Man Like You,” he and Jesus are two awkward guys meeting each other.
Did the little girls giggle when you walked past?
Did you wonder what it was that made them laugh?
In 1992 song, “What Susan Said,” two “lonely-eyed boys in a pick-up truck” seem to be sexually attracted to each other, but keep up the God-talk that “love is found in the things we’ve given up…”
He has a cover story. He tells it over and over. He was engaged in the 1970s. She broke it off.
“I have no interest in anybody else and she is married to someone else, so that’s the way it goes, and I don’t mind that,” he says. “I think, you know, maybe God wanted me to be celibate and the way that he accomplished that was to break my heart.”
The broken heart part—I believe. There’s no memories of a girlfriend noted by anyone. It was fiction for the press.
He travels with young men. Early 20s, handsome, gifted. Fans approach him, not always getting what they expect. Mac Powell, future star of Third Day, recalls in a recent podcast he’d been touched and formed by Mullins’ music, and approached him after an Atlanta concert.
Powell readies his fan speech. “Rich, I just want to tell you that your music has literally changed my life. It has given me a path to try to walk down. It’s helped encourage me in my faith. It literally has changed me.”
Mullins stares at him a moment, and says, “Thanks!” And walks away.
His concerts are celebratory, ecstatic events. They feel spiritual. It feels good to be Christian, to be Evangelical.
He was never Evangelical himself. He was raised Quaker, and came to love a lot of Catholic influences. He always understood himself as a religious outsider.
He explains in 1988: “I take comfort in knowing that it was the shepherds in whom the angels appeared when they announced Christ’s birth. Invariably throughout the course of history, God has appeared to people on the fringes.”
What he came to love more than anything—was applause?
In September 1995, he’s interviewed by the Arizona Republic. “There are times when I know that the overwhelming motivating factor for me is the acceptance and the applause of the audience,” he says. “So you feel like a total phony because you’re up there talking about all this great, grand stuff and you’re going, ‘The filthy truth is I’m saying this because they will clap.’”
He decides to leave his career, to spend two years back in college, for a certification to teach music on a Navajo reservation in New Mexico. It was an unnecessary step. I have to reflect that he’s often putting himself in situations where there’d be young men who are jocks.
“Mitch was just this basketball player who happened to be in this religion class I was in,” he explains of his latest partner-collaborator, Mitch McVicker.
Mullins resists efforts to frame his leaving to New Mexico as him being a missionary, or being ‘spiritual’.
“If you don’t love your neighbor where you live, you’re not going to love them in another place,” he tells the Greenville News. “I just happen to like this region, and so my neighbors are going to be Navajo.”
His brother David Mullins recalls him saying he viewed the Navajo as “a shepherding culture, they work with sheep, so many Scriptures were written from that perspective. I went there to learn from them what I could about the Lord as our Good Shepherd.”
He brings some five young men from the college down with him, and goes to work trying to create a sort of brotherly spiritual community, the ‘Kid Brothers of St. Frank’, after the example of Francis of Assisi.
He still does concerts, and does interviews on the phone with newspapers around the country. He chats with the Indianapolis News in 1995.
Everybody struggles. If people knew the stuff I struggled with, they would hate me . . . I do the best I can. I have failures and I don’t think Christianity is less true because I’m not an exemplary Christian. What I want to communicate to people is what I think is at the heart of the gospel, which is that God loves us.
A young reporter for the Chicago Tribune spends a week in New Mexico, doing a profile.
Today, Lou Carlozo doesn’t like the gay angle, but notes the intimacy of their few days together. “I slept with Rich Mullins—in the same way I slept with my kid brother as a kid,” he says.
Mullins tells him, in the profile, that he isn’t sure why he’s ducking out of his career. “I don’t know if I’m afraid of success; I might be,” he says. “I can make records for the rest of my life and talk about love, but it won’t mean anything until I love somebody.”
“It all seems ironic and weird to me,” he adds. “I’m thankful for it, but I never had any ambitions in Christian music.”
Why is he on the reservation? He replies: “For me, it’s much more to work out my own salvation with fear and trembling.”
It’s fine if his celebrity fades. “If it continues, that’d be fine,” he says. “If it doesn’t, that’d be fine. I’ve had more than my 15 minutes.”
I’m startled by the narration of this profile.
The dynamics of new life in New Mexico are as complex as Mullins himself — a man who in conversation reveres St. Francis of Assisi, then forgets the name of the sitting U.S. president; who seeks to quench a spiritual thirst and lives on fast-food milkshakes and Diet Coke; who plays dulcimer with a weaver’s grace but dismisses himself as a “mediocre” musician; who is finding God in the desert, even while losing his keys in the living room.
Milkshakes. I’ve heard that detail—in narratives of AIDS patients.
He leaves his job as a music teacher on the reservation. It was a fundamentalist Christian school and he wasn’t one, is the story he tells.
“And I can respect that,” he says. “We both agreed that I don’t really need to be there right now, just because I don’t get fundamentalists, and I don’t really know that I want to be stuck with a bunch of ‘em.”
In early 1997, he’s at a retreat, writing a letter. He’s pretending he’s his father, who’d long since died.
He’s John Mullins writing from Heaven to his suffering son.
“I didn’t know I was supposed to be affectionate — I thought that was soft. I thought a man had to be hard.”
A kindly man’s monologue. Contrite, amusing. Various biblical figures, also in Heaven, help out. It goes on and on.
In the room next door at the resort north of Atlanta was Brennan Manning, the ex-Catholic priest who’d written The Ragamuffin Gospel, which had become a narrative helping to define and brand a kinder and gentler Christianity. He recalls of the moment: “I heard sobbing and wailing so loud that I started crying myself.”
The crux of Mullins’ biography can seem to be his painful relationship with his dad. I keep thinking there might be more entries to this subject. In a April 1997 interview, he‘s telling a story of a “friend of mine” who’d been a youth pastor of a church, and realizing he was gay.
“And he, uh, finally really came to a—a crisis about this. He was going, ‘Gosh I feel like I’m a phony because I, you know, I go to church and I tell kids all this stuff.’”
The youth group pastor was thinking of having a gay relationship. “I’m not sure if you can call that a marriage or if you shouldn’t call it— I don’t know what to call it.”
This youth group pastor went to Rich Mullins’ father to talk about it. “You know, what should I do?” he asks the older man.
And my Dad said, “You need to decide what’s most important to you and do it. You can’t do everything. And uh, you know what the Bible teaches and uh, decide if you can live with the Bible or if you can live without it.
He came out to his father? Who kicked him out of the faith.
Mullins talks about the gay thing a lot.
In concerts he tells a story about how he was at a restaurant when a man strikes up a conversation, then offers to give him a ride. CCM, the industry magazine, later prints a transcript. It was news.
“I probably ought to tell you that I’m gay,” says the man from the restaurant.
“I probably ought to tell you that I’m Christian,” Mullins replies.
Hmm. Doesn’t God say to hate gays?
Mullins replies, in his dialogue: “My understanding of what Christ told us was that Christians were to love. I didn’t know there were a lot of parameters set on that.”
Is AIDS a punishment by God, the man asks?
Mullins replies: “Well possibly, in the same sense that presidents are God’s punishment on voters. I mean there are consequences. We make choices, and there are natural consequences for those choices.”
Interviewed by interview to Les Sussman for a posthumously published book he lays out a narrative of his life.
He clarifies his new theology. “Jesus message is not to be good boys and girls so that when you die you can go to heaven,” he says. “The message of Jesus is ‘I love you. I love you so deeply it kills me.’”
He speaks of his life, in new detail. “From my junior year of high school until age thirty I felt tormented all the time. I was depressed. I just think I have that sort of personality.”
He adds there was “more than ten years of darkness where I felt tormented all the time.”
The “ten years” bit is similar to the story of Mullins’ one great love. A typical rendition: “I had a ten year thing with this girl and I would often wonder why, even in those most intimate moments of our relationship, I would still feel really lonely.”
He says he wrote a song, “Doubly Good to You,” recorded by Amy Grant for Straight Ahead (1984), for use in his planned wedding. The line is often repeated, though the song has no gendered references.
He’d say his song “Damascus Road,” recorded for his Brother’s Keeper album in 1995, was written after his fiancé broke up with him. The song has no reference to a girl. It’s about Jesus intervening in his life when he’d been intent on his career.
By 1996, his love song days are over. “I haven’t been in love in so many years that I don’t think I could write a very good love song,” he says.
At the same time, in other interviews, he continues to praise sexual “purity”—as in a story he tells of a young man whose girlfriend wants to have sex.
The guy chooses to be faithful to Christ; he chooses to say, “Purity is important and I’m going to choose obedience to Christ over obedience to my instincts.” His girlfriend may go, “Man, you’re a wacko. Man, you’re a pud.” He may lose her, and that will hurt. That’s going to burn. But that’s the kind of fire that will purify him.
Toward the end, there’s a wasting.
Mullins explains his worn appearance as from being so long on tour.
People come to interview him. How does he, a super duper Christian, manage to live among Native Americans? “The same way I dealt with living in Middle America,” he replies. “I think most Middle-American beliefs are in direct conflict with the scriptures.”
In March 1997: “I really came here more to try to get beyond my white, middle-class Protestant upbringing and see life through a different lens.”
In June 1997, CCM is doing a feature on AIDS and quotes him. Mullins seems more concerned with the general Evangelical approach to homosexuality. “It seems like the church has picked homosexuality out to be the ultimate evil thing, and I’m just not always sure that it is.”
He’s working on a new album, The Jesus Record, narrating the birth and rise of the messiah. It’s as if Jesus is born once again in the wilderness, among the shepherds.
In late concerts, at age 40, he seems to be taking leave of this life. In a concert, as quoted by Smith, he speaks of his coming resurrected form: “I’ll have no bags under my eyes. I’ll have a jaw line, biceps, the whole works. I’ll be a jock. Either a jock or a fife player, I have decided which.”
A church friend, interviewed in Rich Mullins: A Ragamuffin’s Legacy, recalls Mullins calling and saying plans for work on the reservation were being dropped: “My health has been bad. I don’t know what’s going on or why. I just know I’m not going to be able to do this.”
I wonder if there’s two possible narratives. In the one adopted by Mullins biographers and fans, he was in decent shape at the time of his accident.
In an alternate narrative, Mullins may have gotten a diagnosis of HIV and structured the last years of his life to try and be unstressed, yet productive. In this hypothetical timeline, he arranges for his decline to be little noticed. He’d work on an exit from public life, and then, from life.
In one of his many surprise appearances, in September 1997, Mullins stays at the home of young Caleb Kruse, who remembers the three week visit in a 2016 memoir, Meeting Rich.
If he was expected to have superstar ways, he didn’t. Caleb writes: “When he spoke, he was polite. Almost even shy.”
Mullins explains his worn appearance by saying he’s been busy. They had multiple musical projects in progress. (In Rich Mullins: A Ragamuffin’s Legacy, a friend recalls: “He was real, real tired. Real tired.”)
He gives an impromptu concert in the house, with talky interludes. “I wanted to be a jock, but I don’t have any athletic skills at all,” he says.
He speaks of the house where he’d lived in Cincinnati as a struggling college student. “And I had so little money, I was in the attic with one other guy. And we had to sleep together for the two years I lived there, because he had an electric blanket. I woke him up one night, my teeth were chattering so loud. He said, ‘Why don’t you just sleep with me? That way, I can get some sleep and you can too.’”
During the stay, Caleb’s mom has an odd moment where she wonders if something’s amiss. “I just need to ask,” she says, “are you okay?”
“Yeah,” Mullins says.
“I just feel like something’s wrong,” she says.
“Don’t worry,” he says.
Mullins and Mitch McVicker leave for an event. Who was driving, southbound on I-39 north of Bloomington, Illinois, isn’t known. McVicker later has memory loss.
Mullins might’ve died from his initial ejection. The semi truck didn’t help.
Pam Destri, an EMT called to the scene, is later interviewed about meeting him in death. “He had such an angelic face,” she recalls. “I really thought he was a young man, like young, like 15, 16.”
Wrapping up, Amy Grant recalls that time she was at a radio station, and people ask her to talk about the “real” Rich Mullins.
So she throws out some “shocker stories.”
“Everybody in the radio station was very conservative and they kinda withdrew, and dropped the subject,” she adds. “And I thought: ‘You wanted to really know him.’”