There I sat. Alone amid 250 other people, feeling as though all eyes were on me, especially Dr. Duke’s. It was Epistles of Paul class in the Science Lecture Hall. I have never felt such despair descend upon me like I had felt that day. There I sat, a gay boy in a theology lecture, being told, no admonished about the perverseness of homosexuality. Being read to, or at more precisely, from the Bible the words that would seal my fate. That “those” men, lovers of themselves, would never inherit the Kingdom of God. That I, on judgment day, would be cast into the Lake of Fire along with all the other sinners, that I would never be able to express my love and share my life in a way that had always felt natural to me.
Looking back, I wonder if it really was all that bad, the despair I felt that day and for the years prior. Time does heal many wounds. And then I recall the look on that professor’s face, the hatred, the intolerance, and the feel of his eyes piercing my skin. I recall feeling that there was nowhere to hide. I felt naked, totally exposed. My deepest, most guarded secret, that which I had scarcely admitted to myself, had to have been written all over my face. My cover must have been blown, and everyone, especially the good doctor, saw right through me. And I felt their disdain.
Leaving the Lecture Hall, I felt the crisp morning air cool against my face. The warm sun pouring through the trees of the Piney Woods, which had just a few hours prior made the day seem glorious, now shown down on me like a spotlight. It had been one of those mornings in East Texas that normally would have made me glad to be alive. A morning that, in the past, would have confirmed in my mind that my decision to leave New York and study here was correct, pre-ordained. A peaceful morning, that so many times before, made me feel at one with my Creator. But not this morning. This morning, my death sentence was read aloud and there would be no appeal. This morning I was running, trying to hide from myself and my God. The One who was supposed to protect me and guide me, the One who made me as I am, had turned His back on me. There was nowhere to turn. I was alone.
Alone is a miserable place to be, especially when you are alone in the middle of a crowd. However this was not the first time I experienced this loneliness. I had actually become accustomed to that feeling growing up, but it still stung. Being the middle child, I knew I was the black sheep of the family. Born to immigrant parents, and brought up in the European way of doing things, I never really fit in with the rest of the kids in school. And from a very young age, my mother even knew that somehow I was different, although it would be years before she ever found out how. We grew up in New York City, a city known for being a melting pot of cultures, so the fact that my parents were not American should not have caused me too much ostratization. Growing up in the church, however, did.
When my parents immigrated to the United States, they felt a void in their lives, both socially and spiritually. They were in a new country with few friends, did not speak the language well, and were far removed from any support their families might have been able to provide. Enter the revelation of truth!
I’m not sure which avenue he stumbled upon, be it radio, television, or print publications, but somehow my father stumbled upon the church. The indoctrinated members often referred to it as “the first love.” It was a time when you feel suddenly enlightened, almost as if God himself had revealed his truth to you and you alone. It was as if the whole world was, to coin another church phrase, “groping in the dark,” while you had been shown the light. It was all the answers to every question you had ever wanted to know. And it was better than that. There were others like you who had found the truth as well. It was a place of support and assurance that you were on the right track. It promised salvation, happiness, and peace.
The church was the Worldwide Church of God. It was an offspring of the Church of God Seventh Day. Founded by Herbert W. Armstrong in Oregon, it was originally called the Radio Church of God. He would broadcast his message of prophecy, of the end times, and of the millennium. The millennium, often referred to as the world tomorrow, would be a 1000 year period where Satan and his demons would be bound up and God’s plan for his chosen people could finally be set in motion. There was so much hope in his message, especially during times of war and uncertainty.
But there was also a catch to this message. It was called the great tribulation. It would be a time of war and havoc, such that the world had never seen, a time when nation would rise up against nation all led against each other by the great beast power. There would be famine, pestilence, disease. Only God’s chosen few would be spared this, the most terrible time in the history of man.
God’s elect would be whisked away on eagles’ wings to a place of safety to wait out this terrible time when the world caved in on itself. At the end of the tribulation would come the time of the millennium when the church would become the bride of Christ. During this time, there would be no evil and no violence, only peace.
So wonderful was this message that people clung to it for dear life. So dreadful was the alternative, that you would do whatever told for fear that you might not escape the troubles of the end times. I realize that many churches preach the prophecies of the book of Revelations. In this sense, our church was not unique. It was the many other differences that set us apart in the eyes of our neighbors, coworkers, and classmates.
The church believed that the laws of the Old Testament were still in effect, most of them at least. They would pick and choose what would be law and what would not. We did not keep kosher kitchens but we did keep the law of clean and unclean meats. In other words, I could have a cheeseburger but never pepperoni pizza. We believed that the Lord’s day was from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday, not Sunday midnight to midnight. On the Sabbath, as it was called, you were supposed to dwell on Godly things and not do your own pleasure. There went Friday night extracurricular activities at school. We could watch television but only if it was the news, as this pertained to prophecy, or nature programs. Music on the Sabbath was usually restricted to classical or any tapes produced by the church.
All of the differences from main line Christianity made us quite the odd group. Many people were at a loss to understand what we were doing or why. But for some reason, it made perfect sense to me. It was all I knew. Having grown up on the baby blanket on the floor at church, I heard it explained week after week. It was God’s law. The minister said so and he had the verses from the Bible to back it all up. I could explain to my friends at school why we did not observe Christmas. It was a pagan holiday worshipping the sun god. And besides no one knew exactly what day Jesus’ birthday really was. Since we didn’t observe Jesus’ birthday, it would also be ungodly to celebrate our own. Around my birthday and Christmas, most of my classmates felt bad that I didn’t get any gifts. Then again, most of my friends just thought it was weird.
We had our holidays, too. We called them Holy Days and they revolved around the Old Testament holy days. Our favorite was the Feast of Tabernacles. The Feast lasted seven days. You saved all year and went to one of the designated Feast sites along with thousands of other members. It was to represent the millennium. As a kid I loved the Feast, everything about it. We didn’t have to go to school for that week. We could go out to eat every night and have our favorite meals. We got to do lots of fun things, except we had to go to church. Everyday, we had to go to church. For a minimum of 2 hours a day, and 4 hours on the first and last day, we had to go to church. After all, this was not a vacation, this was God’s time we were on.
One Feast sticks out in my head especially. I was probably 11 years old at the time. It was youth day at church and I had to sing with the kiddy choir before 5,000 people. It was a beautiful song that particularly embodied the meaning of the Feast. It also solidified in my mind that I had to be good and do what God said. The lyrics were taken from a verse in the Psalms.
“It won’t be long now ’til the world is at peace, ‘til troubles have ceased, it won’t be long…the lamb shall peacefully dwell with the lion. The leopard will lie down with the kid. The wolf and the bear will no longer be wild. Little child, it won’t be long now.” It was the perfect song to drum into my head, “Don’t step out of line, or you will be left behind.”
I was terrified. I didn’t want to get up on stage in front of everyone, but I had no choice. The church encouraged corporal punishment. That is another memory from church. Kids being drug out to the restroom to have them beat into submission. “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” This too is very biblical. So under threat of getting my ass whooped, I went up there with the rest of the kids who didn’t want to be up there and sang that song.
I’ll never forget the words to that song. It made me anxious and excited, and it scared the hell out of me all at the same time. It was a constant reminder that the time was near. I wanted to make it to the millennium. I wanted to be spared the tribulation. But I had one problem. I was gay and I knew it even at that early age. On that particular youth day, the minister gave a sermon directed specifically to the kids. He told us that the time was near, that we would never learn to drive a car, that we would never get married, that we would never have sex!
My problem was solved. If the end would come and I would still be too young to have sex, then I would make it to the millennium and I would be spared all of the horrors that I had been told about my entire life. But my problem wasn’t solved. “God looks on the heart. Thinking it in your mind, in God’s eyes, is the same as physically committing the sin.” Yep, I was screwed. I thought about men all the time and if I didn’t change that thought process, if I didn’t change my attraction, I wasn’t going to make it.
I had to make it. My family was going to make it. Everyone at church was going to make it. Outside of them, I had no one. At an age where other kids were coerced into behaving with “He knows if you’ve been bad or good” and not getting presents under the tree, I had a bigger threat looming over me. My family and everyone I knew, everyone I was allowed to socialize with were going to be swept away to the place of safety and I wasn’t going with them because I couldn’t stop thinking about men. So I prayed. I prayed that God would take away this perverse way of thinking. I prayed that he would cleanse my mind. I prayed but to no avail. I was still attracted to men and I was doomed.