By: Mike Givens/TRT Assistant Editor—
A little over two years ago, an Arizona mother was taking her twin 18-month-old sons on a walk near a canal. While swatting away a bee, the mother let go of her stroller, which abruptly slid down an embankment and into the canal. The currents were so strong it pulled the stroller and the two toddlers deep under water and away from the shore. It took rescuers more than an hour to find their bodies.
I have family members who would listen to the details of this story, shake their heads, utter some cliché about praying for the victims and family, and end the conversation with the oft-repeated phrases of “It’s all a part of God’s plan,” “The Lord works in mysterious ways,” or “God’s will be done.” Empty, uncomforting, and utterly baseless platitudes, in my opinion.
Children with leukemia. Innocent people who die in terrorist attacks. Transgender people denied their personhood. Black people being lynched. People circulating videos on social media depicting grotesque violence. A reality TV star who is now president of one of the most powerful countries in the world. All senseless things that mainstream Christians will undoubtedly call part of “God’s will.”
I was raised Southern Baptist and have the emotional scars to prove it. I distinctly remember one particular deacon in the church who was often called “funny” behind his back. He was a tall man, effeminate, and spoke with a softness and delicacy that others would use to castigate him. Of course, these castigations were always done behind his back, never to his face (the true Christian way, I suppose).
As a child, that man typified for me the incongruity between being a Christian and being gay. I don’t know what his orientation was, but the perception amongst the narrow-minded parishioners of that church was that he was gay. His mannerisms were a litmus test for masculinity. Men are deep-voiced, not soft-spoken; no rings on their fingers unless it’s a wedding ring; and never, ever switch your hips or be caught with a limp wrist. Growing up as a black male in the south had its own set of rules, and corresponding traumas.
Several years ago, when I was in college, I came home one holiday to visit family. One of my relatives was there, a woman who I truly liked when she first married into our family. Over the years, she transformed from being a relatively benign Christian to a fervent, Bible-thumping, judgmental “prophet” of God. By the time I was in my mid-20s, the woman petrified me. Every time we encountered each other, after chastising me for not calling her more and bragging about how much she prayed for me, she would go into a long diatribe about God and how blessed she was. On this particular occasion, she shared with me a dizzying anecdote.
She and some church friends had gone on a trip to New York City. While on the subway, a man sat down across from her and right next to one of her friends. According to this relative, he seemed nice and made small talk with her friend, but, using her “gift” from God, she was able to “discern” that he was “touched.” She was convinced the man was possessed by a demon and was up to no good. She ended the story by saying that she gave him a look so stern that, according to her, he knew that she knew that he was possessed. They parted ways after that without incident.
I was once acquaintances with a member of the clergy who I’d periodically chat with about issues of faith and my struggle with believing in God. I thought he was benevolent, wise, and truly gracious. I happened to write an article that had nothing to do with religion or spirituality, but reported on the questionable behavior of one of his parishioners, and he abruptly unfriended me on Facebook and blocked my profile. To this day I wonder if he feels any sense of hypocrisy for turning his back on someone seeking his counsel.
I share these stories from my past more out of befuddlement than anger or sadness. I often joke with myself that if anyone ever asks me whether I believe in God, I’d respond, “It depends on the day.” Some days I do; most days I don’t. Christianity could be a perfect religion … as long as there aren’t people around to practice it.
I loathe how people use religion to justify the senseless, to denigrate and judge others, or to imbue themselves with some sort of gift. If God does exist, I wonder if He/She/They/It looks on what is done in the name of religion and sheds a tear. I know that I do.
I’ve struggled with mental illness for most of my life (and my sexual orientation is not a mental illness). I often wonder, on the days that I do believe in God, whether there is some sort of divine purpose in it. Maybe all of the mental anguish I’ve experienced will lead to something profound. On the days I don’t believe in God, I just chalk up my mental health to the apparent randomness of the universe.
It’s maddening to want to believe in God, but to be so depleted of faith and hope that you simply choose not to. What’s even more harrowing is that the more I try to run away from God, the more I feel drawn towards He/She/Them/It.
I will always be in the middle of this tug of war, more than likely up until the moment I die. Will I go to heaven? Hell? Will I merely cease to exist or be reincarnated as a mushroom or an octopus? It’s disheartening that I have no idea.
*A graduate of the Boston University College of Communication, Mike Givens has been a social justice advocate for more than eight years. During that time he’s worked on a range of initiatives aimed at uplifting marginalized populations. An experienced media strategist and public relations professional, Mike currently devotes his time to a number of vital issues including racial justice and socioeconomic equity.