Ralph Jones Jr.
“Choose to spend your whole life telling secrets you owe no one to everyone, until there isn’t anyone who can insult you by calling you what you are: you holy, blinking star.” (Andrea Gibson)
Those who know me best have learned that after years of allowing my life to be shaped by fear and shame, these days, I am all about running towards the things that scare me. This story is terrifyingly beautiful. Here goes.
I was seventeen years old when I first came out to myself in my sophomore year of college. The dissonance between the moral code of my evangelical upbringing and my sexual identity took a toll on every facet of my life, resulting in my eventual withdrawal from college to find some sense of reconciliation between my sexuality and the faith I treasured.
Realizing this queerness was not a phase after decades immersed in a culture holding to a non-affirming stance on the compatibility of homosexuality with Christian teaching, I decided that I needed to be “healed”.
And I tried.
Through a vocal tremor and teary eyes, I spoke with a trusted spiritual advisor on-campus, confessing my secret shame and like many others, I was referred to a Christian reparative conversion counseling program. I prayed, I cried, I screamed at God, wanting to end my life as none of those things proved to be any more productive than the other, and I could not imagine a life or a future for myself unchanged.
Finally, I came to an impasse. Namely, if I believed that just being attracted to members of the same sex was sinful and Jesus wasn’t changing me, then I could believe one of two things: I could either believe that there was nothing to change, or that the work of the cross did not truly bring redemption — which was the cornerstone of the Christian faith.
I wish I could say I immediately chose the former, but I wavered between the two for a while, even losing my faith for a bit.
In the end, it wasn’t a person, a teaching, or my emotions which convinced me it was possible to be gay and follow Christ. It was Holy Spirit–present, living, breathing, speaking.
I was serving on staff in 2014 at Bethel Atlanta, a Bethel Redding church plant in Tyrone, GA, still secretly hoping for healing from homosexuality when it began to happen. In ignorance of my inner struggle, my faith community had spent the past two years embracing me, repairing the damage done by years of reparative therapy, offering me an invitation to be myself and to love myself as God created me — beautiful and without flaw, thereby creating space for me to become. To this day, I believe everyone deserves a life marked by that feeling of safety and celebration in family, and I have committed to spending the rest of my life working to create spaces like that for them.
Thereafter, I looked at myself and realized that, in the absence of the shame that had ruled my thoughts for as long as I could remember, my theology had unexpectedly shifted. While I quickly grew into a closeted ally and advocate for LGBTQ+ people within the greater Bethel community, another year would pass before I would gather the courage to face the consequences I knew would follow publicly owning my story and theological convictions around the God-given gift of my queer identity.
Marriage equality was passed by the Supreme Court the following summer, and though my heart was filled with happiness for the millions of people–my people–who would be free to love and build lives with the ones they chose, my countenance could not betray my joy.
After work that evening, my parents kept rehashing how terrible they believed the day to be. How immoral. How scary it would be that a generation of children would grow up to believe that same-sex unions were okay, that queer people were normal.
My mother rocked back and forth saying she couldn’t stand the thought.
My father lamented all the people who would now feel okay to come out the closet as a result of the ruling.
The only words of praise that came from their lips were for my brother. They were proud that he recognized queerness as wrong. They were relieved that it was confusing to him–that he didn’t understand how the couples on screen went against Adam and Eve. And me? I wanted to tell them; not inherently because I wanted to convince them, but because I desperately craved pushing past the disconnection fostered by decades of hiding and shame.
Instead, influenced by my old companions of fear and shame, I made a cowardly choice not to fight for these relationships I valued, to choose a lie by omission. Instead, I recoiled. I betrayed myself. I measured my every action and waited just long enough to avoid suspicion before excusing myself, repeating over and over, “Smile. Just. Keep. Fake-smiling. This will all be over soon.”
That day, I felt fraudulent. The next, I chose authenticity.
I’d spent so much of my life performing, pretending in hopes that I would find acceptance and love. That’s what I thought I knew of home–that if I pretended to fit a certain expected mold, there would be a place for me. I decided I was done making that choice. Without being able to pinpoint exactly when this happened, life became so much more fulfilling as I began to embrace what Holy Spirit had been revealing to me all along–Love that was real never came with conditions, and anyone who demanded a denial of my intrinsic experience of attraction did not have permission nor authority to speak for God in my life.
In the aftermath of that revelation, I felt more freedom than I ever had in my life. I felt permission to have these conversations, and through it all, Holy Spirit has been with me, encouraging me to share my experience, to fight the fear and shame that suffocates people in the church like me. In trusting God’s faithfulness, I have seen God’s goodness.
When it became clear there was no place for me in a church, I found God again and again outside its walls in the most beautiful ways and the most unexpected places.
After being dismissed from Bethel Church, I built a consulting firm, and a new client turned into an unlikely career change in politics.
I finally began to write things I was proud of. I was a mess, but I was honest at last.
Today, I’m walking in the fullness of God. I am unashamed, unrestrained, and fully in love with Jesus, more in love with Him than I’ve ever been. And this is just the beginning of my story.
This commitment to authenticity and vulnerability has not been pleasant, but I believe nothing sustainable can be built on a lie.
I identify as queer in most instances because I feel no need to affirm the current power paradigms by dignifying the idea that I owe the world any thing by way of explaining my body and how I use it.
I am brave. I am fearless. I am God’s. I have found myself, and learned to love who that is. These are all the parts of me that would have spilled out of that cup. This might get messy. But it will forever be me.
This is my journey, filled with hard questions, hot topics, and controversial opinions that we will not all agree on, and that’s the beautiful thing about family and community–this is all a choice. I believe Jesus modeled more than just a meal when he gathered his disciples around the table. To this day, I call my former Bethel community family, and hasn’t the table long been a place where families who fear they might be torn apart can choose ways to stay together instead?
Today, my every exhale is a “thank you” for the gift of breath. I can’t believe this path I get to walk, this life I get to live. So beautiful, even in the hard of the becoming; of choosing to be happy, to be black, to be queer, and to hold tight to my faith.
Fear and shame are such a powerful and dangerous combination, and they’ve been given quite the platform as of late. From our politics to our pulpits, I’ve never been more sure that this is necessary. Brene Brown says “Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” This is my bit of truth, my bit of light.
I’m lasered in on these out breaths of discovering my Pride, on tables where the Eucharist is broken for me and tables of hard conversations, in taking photos with friends at our yearly Q Christian pilgrimages and offering forgiveness, in the sweat of building bridges and the still of prayers for healing
I’m the ice cream of my favorite Oreo Ice Cream Sandwich on a hot summer day, the happiest leaky heart basking in the sun and between the whisper of “I love you” from God, and the whisper of “I love you” from inside, I’ve found a heart that leaks, “I love you”, the greatest commandment.
I have found pride in my body, this prayer box of a house
built in worship of a caricature by a person who was never expected to live there.
And yet I am still showing up here, ready to share–what redemption.
All pillar and stone and open window. Let them see.
All unlocked door and gritted tooth and grin. Let them in.
Old insecurities now newfound confidence.
I have raised this altar stone by stone,
Wall by wall from the smooth granite I unearthed in people I dared to trust.
This is borne from pain and humility and grace and hope.
And the glory is so thoroughly honest that I am finally sleeping soundly at night.
I have built sanctuary. I am creating home.
It’s funny how habits can convince us to carry things that are long since unnecessary.
I am just now learning to let them go.