A Gay Activist and a Christian Minister Confront Suicide

I had to kill my faith to save my life

James Finn
Aug 22 · 8 min read

LGBTQ youth think about and attempt suicide at rates far higher than heterosexual and cisgender youth. One study from 2018 demonstrates a chilling link to religion, showing that increased levels of religious importance track with increased odds of suicidal thoughts. Religious leaders and LGBTQ advocates owe it to young people to talk about this problem, face up to it honestly, and work toward real solutions.

Warning: This story contains frank talk about suicide and dramatizations of suicide attempts.

Dinner with the pastor

I had dinner last night with Ken Wilson, an LGBTQ-affirming Christian minister who along with Emily Swan pastors a church in Ann Arbor, Michigan. They serve a diverse congregation that’s about one-third LGBTQ.

Ken and I were meeting for the first time to discuss LGBTQ advocacy and spirituality, after becoming acquainted with one another through our writing. I should have felt funny. Nervous, even — because that’s how I often feel around Christians, especially Christian leaders.

I internalized mistrust of Christianity when I was very young and just discovering my sexual orientation. I’m gay, and I know Christians often have a huge problem with that. I’m used to Christians imposing shame on me, and I recoil from it.

I sat at the restaurant table contemplating shame as I waited for Ken. I trusted him already, but still… We all have our irrational sides, and I admit to the tiniest shiver of unease. When he walked in the room, all smiles and hugs, any thought of mistrust evaporated.

We talked without stop, sharing stories and experiences, learning from each other. We focused a good deal of our time on youth issues, each of us sharing how we feel a personal connection to the pain that LGBTQ people experience because of rejection by their faith communities.

Ken inspired me with tales of his personal evolution, of how he came to reject traditional Evangelical views of homosexuality the old fashioned way, by knowing and loving LGBTQ people. Faced with the reality of humans in need, he had to search his soul and confront his beliefs.

I mourned my faith. Hymns echoed around my head. Community and congregation called out to me, taunting me with joy and belonging I knew could never be mine again.

We talked about suicide, homelessness, and the values of Christian ministers who would never knowingly encourage such things, but who do it anyway. We talked about how he and I, Christian minister and atheist activist, share so much in common. We’re each motivated by love and centered around ministering to people in need.

Ken gets what I’ve known for a long time. While I lack faith, my life has been shaped by the ideals of love and service I learned as a Christian during my childhood and teens.

I feel like a piece of blown glass sometimes

The breath of Christian faith shaped me during the fiery furnace of my youth, blew me hollow and left me ready to be filled with … what? “The Spirit” is the reflexive finish my fingers make of that sentence, flying across the keyboard without conscious thought.

I strolled home last night after dinner, moody, taking a detour around the village pond to stretch my legs and maybe spy some carp in the crepuscular light, boiling at the surface. I found myself humming one of my favorite hymns, It is Well With My Soul.

A particularly haunting interpretation of ‘It is Well With My Soul’, by Audrey Assad

I sat on a bench as the melody stirred ancient memory

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say
It is well, it is well, with my soul

It is well
With my soul
It is well, it is well with my soul*

I push open the fire door and find myself at the top of a set of stairs nobody ever uses. This is the tallest building at my university and I’m 10 or 11 flights up. I draw in a sharp breath that fights with the pain in my stomach. When I let the air out, I hear half a sob. I know it must belong to me, but I can’t connect to it.

I step up to the rail and stand quietly, peering down, dizzy from the height. It won’t hurt, I whisper to myself. Everybody says so. You won’t feel a thing.

I climb onto the rail, trembling and not keeping my balance very well. I hum the chorus.

It is well
With my soul
It is well, it is well with my soul

I close my eyes. Just let go. Just take a deep breath and let it all go. Let it be over. My hands shake as I force them open and lift them millimeter by millimeter from the polished wood I’m grasping.

I smell something acrid and realize I’m drenched in sour sweat. My body starts to shake, then to topple and fall. My hands grab that rail and push down so hard I vault like a gymnast — to safety. I stumble and hit the floor, curled up for a while, contemplating my cowardice.

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul

My roommate is out with his girl. It’s just after dinner, and I have our dorm room to myself until at least three or four in the morning. He might not come back at all. Plenty of time, I tell myself.

I change into comfortable sweats and a tee shirt, then slip a tape into the deck. I pour a glass of scotch and sip slowly. Quietly. With determination. When the glass is empty, I fill it again.

I don’t write a note, I just slip the pill bottles out of my sock drawer and arrange them on my bed. I don’t call anyone from the phone in the hall. I want to. I feel lonely beyond words, but …

They’ll know something’s wrong. They’ll try to stop you. Don’t mess this up.

I fill my glass again and drink faster, humming through the sting in my mouth and throat.

It is well
With my soul
It is well, it is well with my soul

I crack the bottles open and swallow the pills three or four at a time until they’re all gone, smelling scotch and plastic. I lie back in bed, still humming, thinking, remembering. As I grow sleepier, I hold onto images of the people I’ve loved. I shake myself awake and bring their faces closer.

I fade out with the crack of a baseball bat echoing out of my dreams, a face from the past taking shape under a ball cap, eyes blue with pity and thinly veiled disgust.

Shame stings me in the end, as grey fades to black.

The power of faith

Many people are aware that LGBTQ youth face an increased risk of suicide. Fewer people are aware of another frightening number. When LGBTQ teens attempt suicide, they’re about three times more likely to succeed than straight or cisgender teens.

Faith and spirituality are astonishingly powerful forces. I had to kill my faith to save my life, and I almost didn’t make it. The night I took those pills, I had every intention of dying.

My Christian faith had already fled, but the burden of living in a world filled with the faithful seemed more than I could bear. I was excelling in my studies, rushing toward a successful career, in love with military service, and stone-cold in hate with myself.

I mourned my lost faith. Hymns echoed around my head. Community and congregation called out to me, taunting me with joy and belonging I knew could never be mine again. I was an outcast, that wasn’t going to change, and I didn’t want to live any longer.

I was stupid and lucky

I knew sleeping pills were supposed to kill people, but I didn’t know they needed to be prescriptions, not the kind on shelves in drug stores. When my roommate stumbled in at 3 am, I’d vomited up the contents of my stomach and fallen into a deep, snoring sleep.

When I woke, I mourned terribly. I was achingly sorry to be still alive. Crushingly disappointed that I wasn’t at peace.

“You party dog!” laughed my roommate the next afternoon when I stumbled out of bed. He never knew I tried to kill myself, and nobody else ever knew either, aside from a therapist I told decades later. Until now.

Why I am writing about an ancient suicide attempt?

The power of faith. It can fill people with love and joy, inspire them to transcendent spirituality and selfless service. Faith can also kill. It’s a sword that cuts in two directions.

Ken and I asked ourselves last night how we can reach Christian ministers who don’t understand the power they wield as spiritual leaders. I’m not talking about hateful leaders who rant and rave about gay plagues. They’re beyond reach. And for all the noise they make, they’re in a tiny minority.

I’m talking about loving, even progressive Christians leaders, the kind who try but fail to be good to LGBTQ people. Even the kind who go so far as to label their churches “accepting,” but who nevertheless inject shaming toxins into their queer congregants.

That face I saw under the baseball cap the night I swallowed the pills? He was a faithful Christian boy I loved. He never said one unkind word to me. But his pity and disgust skewered me, drove a sword through my heart, and made life not worth living.

My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, o my soul

It is well (it is well)
With my soul (with my soul)
It is well, it is well with my soul

I could write much more on this topic, on LGBTQ youth suicide, the power of faith, and the toxicity of Christian congregations and pastors. But writing this has been hard enough. One step at a time.

I grew past my flirtation with death, discovering community and family that I thought could never be mine. Things got better. But they almost didn’t. I almost didn’t fight my way to health and happiness.

If my hands had slipped the other way on that railing?

A bright, healing light

Much of Christianity today is rotten, in the sense that good people are driving good kids to suicide and homelessness. That has to stop. Christians must confront the power of faith and work to undo the harm they’re causing. Loving Christian leaders need to face their culpability and learn how to transform the power of their faith into the bright, healing light that a certain itinerant preacher in Galilee surely meant it to be.

Are you a young LGBTQ person thinking about suicide? The Trevor Project has your back. Their trained counselors are there for you 24/7. Call or text 1–866–488–7386. Don’t hesitate.

*It is Well With My Soul, music by Philip Paul Bliss, lyrics by Horatio Spafford

James Finn - The Blog

Collected Writings. Stories and ramblings from a long-time LGBTQ thinker and activist.

James Finn

Written by

Writer. Runner. Marine. Airman. Former LGBTQ and HIV activist. Former ActUpNY and Queer Nation. Polyglot. Middle-aged, uppity faggot. jamesfinnwrites@gmail.com

James Finn - The Blog

Collected Writings. Stories and ramblings from a long-time LGBTQ thinker and activist.

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