The Lost Sheep: My Failed Attempts to “Pray the Gay Away”

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Bailey Lovell

An Alabama storyteller doing his best to make up for his state's backwoods way of thinking

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When news of Kim Davis, the now infamous Kentucky clerk who went to jail because she refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, erupted recently, I didn’t even bat an eye at her behavior.  “Of course,” is all that came to my mind.  Growing up gay in the Baptist church, this was nothing new to me.  For the entirety of my childhood and adolescence, I sat in cinder block rooms in church basements, listening to Sunday school lessons taught by people like Kim Davis. I sat beside her in the choir and listened to her rendition of “Amazing Grace.” I complimented her on the covered dish she brought to the church homecoming dinner. I rolled my eyes as she disguised gossip as prayer requests, telling everyone’s business but adding, “Bless her heart” at the end so that she remained pure.  I feel like I know Kim Davis.  I know what it is to feel like you’re doing the right thing, even as you break laws and oppress people who are already so massively oppressed.  Also, I know how it feels to be sitting in the middle of a room full of Baptists who aren’t afraid of telling you how they really feel about any minority group that has come across their TV screens or newspaper front pages that week.

I attended church regularly with my parents and older sister throughout my childhood.  The whole family would go together for about a month, then dad would stop going but continue to make my mom and sister and me go.  I thought nothing of this growing up; I thought it was just the way things were.  It was a constant cycle of the four of us going together for a while, then just the three of us going for a while until my parents would have a big fight about something my dad did that I didn’t understand, then dad would start coming again for a month or so before the cycle began again.  Years later, I learned that the big fights were centered about my dad’s adultery.  He would cry and say that everything will get better if we all just put God first.  After my parents divorced, my mom stopped going to church, seeing it only as a symbol of lies, hate, and judgment.

My story is similar.  For the first 22 years of my life, every single night before I would go to bed, I would pray for God to keep my family safe, let us be happy, and please make me like girls instead of boys.  “Please fix me,” I would pray.  I was doing everything right, according to my church leaders, but I knew that I was still gay.  Many events happened to make me stop attending church and stop praying that prayer for God to fix me.  This is one of them.

***

The parable of the lost sheep in Luke 15 tells us that God’s love for us is so overwhelming that He is willing to leave a flock of 99 sheep in order to find just one that is lost.  This has never made sense to me.  If He were to leave 99 sheep just to find one, doesn’t He then have to go back and find those sheep later?  And wouldn’t He constantly be leaving the sheep He just found in order to find the sheep He left to find the last lost sheep?  Wouldn’t the all-knowing Creator of the universe be able to devise a better system than this chaotic, nonsensical mess?

This narrative runs through my head as I sit in a classroom in Shanghai Baptist Church in 2006, listening to a Sunday school lesson on the parable.  I am 17 years old.  Because I am the only youth left in the church, I attend the Sunday school group for men aged 25-45.  The men sit around and discuss what the parable of the lost sheep means to them.  One man states that he loves this Scripture because it lets him know that, even when he messes up, God won’t abandon him.  Another says that he loves this image of a mighty and powerful God searching for him, as little and unimportant as he is in the grand scheme of the universe.  As I hear the different opinions the men have about God and His never-ending love, I begin to almost give in to the beauty of it all.  I picture the God of the universe, this mythical and majestic being, scouring an endless forest, and calling out my name.  He is frantically searching for me, yearning for me, desperate to know that I’m safe from the harm of this dangerous world He knows all too well.  He has left behind everyone else He loves, all to find me because I mean that much to Him.  I imagine hearing his terrified voice calling my name, growing ever louder as he comes closer to finding me.  I can almost feel his arms envelop me when I am finally found.  I can almost hear his deep, powerful voice crying out, “I found you!  I was so worried!  Don’t you ever run away from me like that again!”  I can almost hear myself reply, “I won’t.  I promise I won’t,” as I am comforted by my Father.  I can almost feel myself believing.  Almost.

My thoughts are interrupted by the sounds of a class coming to a close: papers shuffling; chair legs scratching the carpet; conversations developing.  The class has ended and it is now time for us all to make our way to the sanctuary for worship and the sermon.  The Sunday school teacher turns to the men who had been sitting beside me.  He points to the newspaper resting in the elbow of one of the men, to the front page headline, and asks, “What do you think about that?”

“I haven’t even had the chance to read it,” the man with the newspaper replies, “What’s goin’ on?”

“A couple’a deer hunters found some men fooling around on the corner of his property this weekend.  Two men. Apparently it’s some sort of gay meetin’ spot,” the teacher explains.  The men all respond with horrified expressions.

“Gay meeting spot?  On his hunting land?  I can’t believe that,” one of them finally says.

“Well,” the teacher continues, “when you really think about it, that’s the best place for ‘em, isn’t it?  If it’d been me who found ‘em, I wouldn’ta called the cops.  I’da shot ‘em dead right there!”  The men laugh hysterically.

“Hey!  What do you say we do some fag huntin’ next weekend?”

Several comments like this follow as the men make their way out of the classroom and toward their wives and children waiting for them in the church pews.  I stop cold in my tracks, in shock of the hateful and violent messages I have just heard from these same exact men who just minutes earlier had spoken so beautifully about an all-encompassing love.  I can’t help but resent them for having it so easy.  I realize that we all have our struggles; we all have our own crosses to bear.  I know that I was born into certain circumstances that give me an advantage over others.  My skin color, for example.  I know all of this, but in this moment, I forget my own privileges and focus on theirs.  I resent these men for being able to navigate the world so easily because they have the “correct” sexuality.  I hate them for having the option to laugh away the headline while I completely understand the struggle the men behind that story face on a daily basis.  I hate them for hating me and who I truly am, who I’m terrified to admit I am.  I hate them for seemingly feeling so secure in their faith while I wonder the wilderness, adrift and alone.

The laughs ring down the hallway as the men enter the sanctuary.  I see the outline of the cross on the altar as the doors open then close behind them.  The sun is shining through the big glass windows that frame the altar, and I can feel the light on my face for only a second before the doors close again, enveloping me in the dim light of the hallway.  I stand there, horrified, disappointed, lost.  Minutes go by and I realize that no one is coming to find me.  I turn around, the sanctuary at my back, and walk out the back door.  I don’t really know where I’m going, but in this moment, I decide that I will be my own shepherd.