The first sound I remember was probably my mother singing some damn Jesus song. She was the product of a man and woman (my grandparents) who, in their old age, had themselves become a bit disillusioned with Christianity except for "special" visits to church during Easter or funerals. I remember the conversations as a pre-teen with my seventy-some-odd year old maternal grandmother, who had taken a more personal approach to her relationship with God. She spent most Sundays preparing food for our return from church. We talked about a variety of topics, many of them quite secular and non-religious. She was the first person to inquire about my sexual orientation, and had no harsh words, just "be careful, people can be cruel". Some family members have suggested that she was a "good Christian woman" and therefore wouldn't have said that. I agree with the first part of the statement. So my connection to Christianity is nurtured by the memories of a grandmother who knew unconditional love in a way I didn't experience from some others in my family; and stained by the more romantic claims by my family that she wouldn't have accepted my homosexuality. Reasonably, I was quite confused growing up about the damn Jesus songs. I was one of those kids that knew he would grow up to love men as early as I had a concept of what romance and marriage were. Unfortunately, these Jesus songs seemed to signify a painful reminder that my way of thinking was abominable. Every time I heard "jesus", I didn't hear that he loved me, but that he hated me. Unfortunately, given that I thought this way, I was a preacher's kid with a preacher's wife at home, so church was a daily experience. Baptism in scripture and gospel music were ritual, so it's in my bloodstream.
My maternal grandfather was often more outspoken about his "issues" with "crooked church folk" than my grandma; so by the time I got really acquainted with my grandparents, and this just before their passing, I was really baffled by my mother's devotion to the Jesus songs. My mom, after all, was the church goer, my grandparents were not. This isn't to suggest that my grandparents weren't Christian or religious, but that my experience of Christianity was shaped by: a black minister, my father, whose actions at that time were harshly juxtaposed to his "teachings", a mother who, without being devout, had a rather subtle, fanatic way of creating scripture collage on every available wall space so that her 7 children would not be "led astray", and my grandparents,aging and cynical, close to death, and as I saw it, less seduced by the ruse of salvation than their children, yet certainly more loving and hopeful about their grandchildren's potential to lead happier, productive lives.
"Moms" still relishes a recording of my muffled 2-year-old breathy baritone pushing out "Jesus loves the little children" before I had any notion of a God who would someday burn me eternally in the pit of fire and brimstone. Listening to that recording, some thirty years later, I think that even at two, I "believed" in God,,believed in the way children trust a mother's tit for sustenance. And I grew up this child who LOVED the lord. Even as a kid I recall Pentecostal prophecies that I'd be "called" to minister. As I read the Bible, I wanted an even deeper understanding of God's word than my Sunday school teachers offered. As a teenager, I became a bit frustrated with the reiteration of the Bible without application to daily experience. I grew hardened by the juxtaposition of "salvation" and the daily poverty and struggle my family experienced. Yes, the meek shall inherit the earth, but why all the meek people gotta be mostly black and brown? And aren't there other factors besides prayer? Like calling a bigot a bigot? Isn't there something very spiritual about activism and a sense of justice? And if love is so Christian, why would it matter who people made love with? So much of this stuff didn't make sense to me, so I kept my mouth shut and prayed a lot on my own. You can imagine why the deacon-prayin', sacrificial Jesus stuff of Southern Baptists didn't sit to well with a budding black queer activist. My dad's charismatic roots in the Pentecostal Church and his rigid policing of all things secular had this ironic mix of entertainment and rebuke; and that wasn't any better. We shouted, danced, and sang and felt good, then felt guilty for feeling good. It was a pretty sick cycle.
So I did the logical thing for a wandering postmodern black homosexual in training and became a Mormon. Well... it's not quite that simple. When I was about 10 years old my parents were having some serious marriage issues; and it was easier to attribute the problems to their differing denominations than to the excessive abuse and neglect we were experiencing in our family. My dad was less of a pastor then, and more of a charismatic evangelical who couldn't manage to keep a church, but was a gifted orator. Because he wasn't connected to any particular church, he often fell on hard times financially. Dad also had a criminal record from his post-Vietnam, black panther, hustling era, so it was hard for him to find steady work. He was often frustrated and sometimes took it out on us. The Mormon missionaries, for a moment, became the band-aid for these and other serious issues: violence, womanizing, drug abuse, and the related misappropriation of funds. Their strong sense of "family values" and the nurturing of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints were pretty seductive to my parents. Everyone's seen the LDS commercials: mom and dad smiling, children smiling, families are forever, love love love. It was spiritual propaganda at its best. My parents actually started getting along and loving each other for a change. So my siblings and I thought, "maybe there's something to this". Plus, the elders seemed to be cool courageous white dudes coming into the hood with their Books of Mormon, so for a period of about a year, we all went to church there (mom and dad included).
The Book of Mormon was like the Bible but remixed for the New World. That made sense to me. But the charm did not last; and my parents started having problems again, so everyone stopped going... except for me. Teenage Mormons, for all their faulty-fanaticism and obsession with shame, had lots of fun. As a teen I had access to boy scouts, basketball teams, church dances (yes, with Hip Hop and soul music among the pop favorites of the day). I was like... "Haaaayyy! Church!" Black churches had better music and choirs, but I think the intensive indoctrination of my earlier years left me hungry for something different. Mormons were more polite Christians, so I didn't have to worry about being "gay bashed" from the pulpit. It just wasn't their way; at least not where I attended. I would still go to church with my family, but alternated it with fairly regular visits to the Mormon church. Yes, I know: Mormons only started letting black people in their church in the 70's or something, but I got to dance to Run DMC and Madonna at the youth dances. They didn't seem as racist as other white people in the South, in part, because their unorthodox faith made them a religious minority, subject to the ridicule and taunting of "real Southern Christians". I felt that these Latter Day Saints provided an alternative way to stay connected to the God I had grown to love.
Then I came into a greater awareness of what it meant to be a black man in America, and experienced racist parents of white female friends who became all the more anxious as I matured into adulthood. It didn't feel so good anymore because I'd started listening to Public Enemy and X-Clan, so I needed a spirituality that could feed my cultural connectedness. Almost ready to leave the nest and go off to college, I did this zig zag back and forth from the Mormon church to my mother's Baptist church; and all this alongside a growing awareness that my attraction to boys was not a phase. High school years are filled with touchstone moments of dances, first dates, first kisses, and proms. All of these things created great anxiety for me, since I didn't understand why I was not attracted to girls in the ways my peers were. I hated my attraction to boys because it was clear to me by then that homosexuality was an abomination. When I was younger, I paid it little attention because I wasn't experiencing hormonal changes that lead to greater sexual desire and awareness. The more the hormones kicked in, the more I beat myself up. I was a teenager who, in the minds of many, had everything to be proud of. I'd overcome the barriers of poverty and race to become a superior athlete, leader, and student in a small Southern town with few black heroes. I think I probably delved so deeply into studies and extracurricular activities to keep from having to think about how hurtful it was to love God when he planted a feeling within me that I was being tortured for. So with no one to turn to, I spent many a night on the "Front Porch" feeling alienated by the very God I'd grown to love and trust so deeply. I asked God for answers,asked if it was really wrong for me to have affection and romantic feeling for other boys. God never told me no. The naturalness of the romantic feeling actually is the closest I've felt to God. But I dismissed what I believed felt right and started listening to my mind. I deduced that God didn't want to hurt my feelings by telling me that the feeling was wrong (he is, after all, an understanding awesome God). I took matters into my own hands.
I recall fasting for days at a time, hoping that God would release my desire for men. I remember those prayers,hour-long sessions on bended knee crying for God to take the pain away. I had not acted on same-sex desire, but the desire itself was so intense that it felt like I might as well have. At one point I figured that suicide was not as offensive a sin as loving a boy, so I thought I'd try that. The homosexual feeling wasn't going anywhere. I grew exhausted with fighting it; and didn't want to live that way anymore. A few years and an unsuccessful suicide attempt later, my mom started to figure that something was wrong. Interestingly, it was easier to tell the truth about having been sexually abused than to say I was gay. Abuse allowed me to be the victim; homosexuality made me the perverse agent of my own backsliding. This conflicted attachment to church was instantly severed when I decided to "come out" to my Mormon bishop. His comment? "A lot of people have those feelings, you just can't ever act on them". After all I'd been through, I was like "Jeez. Thanks!" But at least I felt like I could tell him. I would have never disclosed my homosexual feelings to the black Baptist minister of my mother's church. Homosexuality, in my mind, seemed to be something white ministers would carefully discourage. I felt the black pastor would send me to a crazy house. And pastors are supposed to be the people we are able to turn to.
I went off to college in the early 90's and became atheist, then agnostic. Blame white liberal teachers and those damn philosophy classes. In truth, I had decided before leaving Taylor, Arkansas that I wanted to live my life as an open homosexual. When I finally sat still enough to listen to that very same spirit that helped my sing "Yes, Jesus loves me" at two years of age, I was able to develop a different relationship to the Jesus songs. I had sporadic moments when I joined a gospel choir or visited a black church, only to hear more about who God hates than who he loves, so I pretty much stopped giving Jesus a chance. I once started practicing Zen and meditating, but a break-up with my first lover at twenty-one broke my balance and my spirit, and for a moment, I didn't feel that I could believe in anything anymore. Through advance studies in philosophy, I did come to some resolve about a few things. I believe in something greater than science. The story of my life and my survival alone has no explanation beyond grace of some sort helping me through the muck of self-loathing and rebuke of feelings so central to who I am. At twenty-nine and in Oakland, California, I'd found one church home that was black, progressive, contemporary, mixed sexual orientation. Still, while many lesbians were out and coupled, many of the men still felt a need to be secretive about their desire for other men. That this particular congregation could be almost perfect was painfully upsetting, so I even stopped going there. I no longer have hopes of finding a congregation that embodies my understanding of God... and I'm okay with that.
These days, the closest I get to God is on the dance floor. My spirit led to dance or weep or celebrate this energy greater than what I can myself muster,some source of strength that exceeds even my own understanding: it is rhythmic, it is redemptive, it is loving, it is the nature and essence of God.
To this day, my very infrequent visits to church invoke the holy ghost. I feel it deep down, I get jitters, a feeling comes over me that is unexplainable, though not unlike those times when dancing when I feel safe enough to weep. And, honestly, it kinda upsets me; namely because I reluctantly claim to be Christian and think it's a seductive way black choirs trick congregations into forgetting what didn't feel right about the sermon. As much as I try to shake it, I believe that the God that I was raised to worship hates faggots; and I don't want anything to do with him. I've adopted a polytheistic hodgepodge of deities that love me; it's the meshing of Jesus, Budda, Allah, and Jah with a hip hop remix. It's my very own religion because it provides the safety and unconditional love that I know in my heart, God intends. It's the Yoruba, Voodoo blues that makes me close my eyes when I'm dancing. I retain memories of all the worship-rituals of those who have come before me; beyond my grandparents or even theirs. I honor all of them. I'm quite devout about not being devout. I am the fruit of a people who bowed to symbols and sought witchdoctors for cures, people who believed in working roots on folks and who prayed to a white Jesus to spare their black boys from lynching. I'm all those and then some. And I celebrate this as my own spirited expression of my self-love. The grandmother I remembered loved me because she loved God, not in spite of her love for God. So maybe she and I had the right understanding of God all along; and I shouldn't let others' tainted view of things make me betray what I know and believe to be true: I love God with all my heart and believe that God loves me, just the way I am. After many years of protesting all things Jesus, I'm opening up again to its influence on me. Jesus has become my own personal signifier of my own triumph over racism, homophobia, self-hate, over anyone who would take God's word to represent anything but love.
While I hesitate to associate myself with Christians, I do understand that Christianity is a part of who I am; it's what guides and gives shape to my prayers, hopes, and aspirations. So perhaps I have arrived full-circle to an understanding of why my grandmother, mother, and even me, sing Jesus songs. Perhaps, for them too, Jesus is the signifier for our individual and shared struggles to be good, loving, honorable people in the world. And that's a damn Jesus song my heart, ears, mouth, and spirit will never refuse.