Recently I had the opportunity to speak at CreativeMornings in Sacramento and during the Q & A, someone asked me what a “recovering evangelical” is—it’s a line in my bio, which had been read by the host when she introduced me. I’m embarrassed to say that I totally fumbled my answer. And I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. So…here is the beginning of my story. My truth. The only one I can tell.
Before I dive in, there are a few things I want to clarify up front. The first is that this is my story. While members of my immediate family have moved in similar directions, this is my own experience. In addition, there are many others I know who have also painfully walked this road. Like me, their questions have been ignored and brushed aside. They have been burned when they should have felt safe. They have been painfully marginalized by others who “stand up for truth” or are “defending the faith.” They have felt and continue to deal with trauma few of us know, and I hold them in my heart as I write. My prayer is that you might hear their stories as well. To the women, LGBTQIA, refugee, LatinX, brown, black, exvangelicals…I love you.
Second, there are people and things I cherish about the evangelical world I was raised in. The friendships, the importance and emphasis on the inner life, and message that we are worthy of love are just a few, but important. I hope to honor those experiences in this space.
Leaving evangelicalism doesn’t always mean walking away from faith completely (although this is important for some). It can simply mean that a certain culture or way of interpreting the world is no longer the proper vessel to contain the way you are being led to practice love in the world. I recently heard from an Anglican priest I respect, “Settle where you can best live out your baptism.” Simply put, evangelicalism ceased to be a genuine way for me to live out my faith. A faith that engaged the world with love first, was intellectually honest, sought solidarity with “the least of these,” and actively pursued a diverse community. For me (and many others I know) American Evangelicalism has lost its spiritual, social, and moral authority. To call myself evangelical was to be complicit in larger movements that I believe are damaging to what Jesus described as the Kingdom of God. Marriage to Republican Party politics, rejection of science, and clinging to theologies that have been used to oppressed people for nearly 500 (debatably longer) years have rendered Evangelicalism untenable in today’s world.
Evangelicalism’s culture also allowed me to thrive in ways that were unhealthy for both myself and those around me. The type of masculinity the culture teaches and often produces allowed me to use my maleness, whiteness, and straightness to have authority over others in ways that I should not have. I didn’t always understand it this way, but it gave me a power that I subconsciously needed. For too long, things I had not earned gave me a free pass with the way I treated those that were different, particularly women and those in the LGBTQ community. I was able to easily hide my insecurities, doubts, and addictions because I happened to be the person on stage who too often goes unquestioned.
Although I had grown up in an incredibly loving home where faith was openly embraced and discussed, it wasn’t until I was thirteen or fourteen years old that I had what I considered to be personal spiritual experience. Around the same time I picked up a guitar and the combination of music and newfound personal faith landed me on stage in front of churchgoers on a weekly basis (probably well before I was ready). During those years there were some great people and organizations that cared for me and did their best to show me the love of God as they understood it. They were pure in heart and I am grateful for an environment that made investments into my development as a person. The opposite was also true. There were those who sought to instill in me a narrative that was explicitly male, white, and driven by the need to be right at all costs. I thrived in the spotlight and my abilities earned me praise from other students and adults alike. So much so that I was eventually offered a partial scholarship to a prestigious bible college in Los Angeles. The school funded my musical projects and I traveled to churches, conferences, and camps, playing in front of thousands every year.
If I was not already, my experience in college made me a zealot for my faith. The stages I occupied only got larger, and I was surrounded with the message that our primary objective in life is to go out and “win the world for Christ” and to take a particular interpretation of The Gospel to the ends of the earth. I was young, male, extremely Republican, and ready to punch the world in the mouth for Jesus. In the midst of it all, I developed some incredible male friendships that were beautifully intimate and life-giving. While I loved (and still do) those in my life at that point, my world was still a bubble. There was little diversity of thought, culture, or faith traditions. I left with with a degree in Christian Education (not actually sure what that is anymore) and minor in Biblical Studies. In 2004, I moved to Sacramento to help start a church.
About a year into my time in Sacramento, I moved into the downtown area. The church had purchased a coffee shop and I moved in from the suburbs so that I could take over daily management. Sacramento isn’t necessarily a major metropolitan city, but it is incredibly diverse and I found myself living and working alongside people I had never interacted with. Rich, poor, young, old, gay, straight, muslim, black, white, I found myself in a melting pot of people and cultures…and completely fell in love. I built friendships with people who I once thought were somehow my enemy. You see, one of the major false messages within the larger evangelical world is that there is this war being waged against Christianity by everyone outside of it. I ran right up against this falsehood. I began to ask myself what else about the narrative I so strongly embraced might not be accurate. What else was I missing? What else had I been blind to?
I started doing some digging and opening up books from what evangelicals would consider the “naughty section” of the library. I opened everything from spiritual classics like Siddhartha and the works of Rumi, to more modern books that explored issues of justice like Race Matters by Cornel West (more on all those later). It was a whole new world. I rekindled connections with people who had a found a new spiritual path that I had previously written off. I dove head first into this new environment that I had grown to love.
What I found changed everything.
To be continued…