Sometimes around dusk (I was probably six or seven years old), I would look out my bedroom window and see the sky turning orange and purple, and the setting sun turning red like blood, and I was sure the end of the world had come upon us, and soon graves would be ripped open, and reanimated corpses of the dead in Christ would rise to join a zombie army in the sky, led by Jesus riding on a white horse. Other evenings, I tried not to fall asleep for fear that demons would rip the flesh of my arms open, like the traveling preachers said. I was sure that if the Christ arrived while my heart was heavy with sin, I would be left behind to face the wrath of the Antichrist, who would chop off the heads of any last-minute Christian converts on the guillotine, the way he did in the 16mm film we watched at the church potluck dinner on New Year’s Eve the year I turned five.
Not everyone at the Southern Baptist church believed so strongly in these things, but no one spoke up to say anything against them, either. And no one spoke up when the football players at the Christian school began to assault me daily in the school locker room. Sometimes I went home with blood in my underwear, which I hid from my parents out of shame, and several times a week I went home with my ears ringing because there is a way you can shape your open palm so when you slap somebody with it, their ears will ring, and all the other sounds will soften.
By the time I turned fourteen, I was in the market for a kinder variety of religion, and I was in the market for some friends, and I wanted to meet some girls who would pay attention to me. I found all three when my best friend invited me to Church in the Gardens in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. I was welcomed and embraced by the people there, not least the three young pastors — Greg Sempsrott, the senior pastor; Greg McCaw, the music pastor; and Jon McDivitt, the youth pastor. Within a year, I was spending all my free time at the church, and as much time as I could with all three pastors. I attended the college they had attended — Anderson University, in Anderson, Indiana — and I spent the summers interning as part of their pastoral staff. When I graduated from college, and Jon McDivitt left to work at another church, I took his place at age 22, as an associate pastor overseeing youth and young adult ministries at the church.
My tenure there was very short — less than two years. My college religion professors were good and responsible teachers, and what I had learned from them about the history of Christianity, the canonization process of the Christian Scriptures, the rigors of formal logic, the competing philosophies of religion, and, most of all, the ugly and contradictory history of the American version of Christianity I had been raised to believe was the one unimpeachable variety, troubled me as I began daily work in the church. What I saw and did while I was a pastor — encounters with illness, death, behind-the-scenes shenanigans, the troubling internal and external politics of the higher tiers of the national evangelical establishment to which I was being newly exposed — further complicated my view of things. (I wrote in greater detail about some of these experiences in my first major literary publication, “You Shall Go Out with Joy and Be Led Forth with Peace,” which appears in Random House’s Twentysomething Essays by Twentysomething Writers anthology.) I began to wonder if I really believed in the things I knew I was expected to say by way of comfort and instruction and as part of my job, and I began to wonder if I could reconcile them or even keep them in sufficient tension to enable myself to continue to call myself a Christian.
What I did was walk away, and not in any sort of brave way. I did not want to inflict my own doubts on others who seemed to be bolstered by their faith, so, in the language particular to that community, I said that my calling seemed really to be writing, and that I was going to leave pastoral ministry in order to pursue it. Then, over the next ten years, I made myself into a writer. In order to keep myself afloat, I did work for a time in religious publishing and in an admissions office at a Christian college, but I never did return to church, and in time I made my peace with my distance from faith, which was good, because by then I no longer had any.
What I didn’t want to do, however, was divorce myself from all the good relationships that remained from my years in the church. The congregation I served in Palm Beach Gardens, in particular, was full of good-hearted and relatively broad-minded people. Many of the uglinesses which were made so public during the years of the Bush Administration seemed far from that place, which was mostly populated by pragmatic, working-class people who, like me, had found a place to belong.
Foremost among these relationships was Greg McCaw, the music pastor, under whose tutelage I had learned in part the craft of ministry, how to play guitar and bass in an eight-piece band, and how to speak publicly in a way that made people feel the things you wanted them to feel. I spent two summers with him in high school, touring the country in a traveling music show, and I spent two summers alongside him in college, as a staff intern at the church. He was known for the lavish productions he staged each Christmas and Easter, which drew standing-room-only crowds to multiple performances that often featured live horses, an angel choir near the ceiling, and a bank of subwoofers sufficient to shake the cars in the parking lot.
He was also known for his willingness to conduct frank conversations about such near-taboo matters in that time and place as teenage sexuality, dating, masturbation, oral sex, and pornography. He was frequently criticized for this openness, but I would imagine the criticism mostly happened when he was not around, because Greg McCaw was and is a big man with a deep and commanding voice, and outsized personality to match — he was a traditionally masculine force — and he could be as intimidating when he was angry as he could be gentle and understanding when he was of a mind to be gentle and understanding.
On a couple of occasions, he confided to me that he struggled — that was the word he used — with attraction to other men. (He was, in fact, the primary model for the closeted preacher in my novella “A Love Story,” which appeared — to the chagrin of many people we both knew — in my debut book In the Devil’s Territory.) This attraction was something he kept close to the vest, because there were few things more threatening in the evangelical community of the time than same-sex attraction. Our church was considered especially broadminded (or weakminded and near-heretical, depending upon whom you asked) on the subject of homosexuality, because our senior pastor publicly welcomed gay people to worship at the church, the theory being that if they entered into a right relationship with God, in time God would enable them to “change their hearts” and be therefore delivered from their sexual desires. To be homosexual, the logic went, was no different in the eyes of God than to be an alcoholic or a drug addict or a liar or a cheat or a gossip, and let he or she who be without sin cast the first stone.
It is troubling to me, now, to enter into the consciousness of the person I was then in order to type these words which I hope will give you, Rumpus reader of whatever background, adequate context to understand the conversation that follows, because what I must confront in typing such words is that the person I am now is not separable from the person I was then. I will always be a person who was once a person who listened without comment or even emotion to talk such as: “They ought to round up all those faggots in San Francisco and stick them on that Alcatraz island and nuke it.” To the ears I have now, the comparison of a person’s sexual orientation to their heroin problem or their embezzlement problem, or even the casual invocation of the old archery term sin to describe the complexities of human behavior, is different only in degree, not in kind, from the faggot talk and the nuke talk. But I cannot deny that the process of coming out from under a couple of decades of indoctrination in what the world is and how it operates is a process, for most people, that is incremental.
This is one of the reasons that I wanted to interview my old pastor Greg McCaw. I wanted to get a sense for why it took him over forty years to come to terms with his sexuality, and I wanted to find out what it cost him. I already knew that his process of coming out had lost him close friendships, his closest relationship in the world (with his ex-wife Lori), and his livelihood — churches of the sort he spent his adult life serving not being terribly open to hiring a gay and divorced pastor. But I also wanted to learn something about how he got here from there, and what it felt like to make such a significant life change, especially since in many ways his story seems to be one of the representative stories of our time. When I called to ask if he would agree to the interview, he was very happy to receive the call. He said he was working for slightly more than minimum wage as the night-time desk clerk at a chain hotel in Wilmington, North Carolina, and that he had become a volunteer leader in the local GLBT community and in a local church.
It was difficult for me to imagine him in a position so relatively powerless, but after we talked, I was reminded again that there are varieties of power that come not from one’s position in the world, but instead from one having something meaningful to say, and then having courage enough to be willing to say it.
Kyle Minor: I learned that you had come out on Christmas Day 2005. I was at my brother’s house in Nashville. My parents were there, and my wife and baby, and my brother’s wife. We opened the presents, we ate the Christmas meal, we did the Christmas ritual. Then my parents grew very solemn and asked us to sit down and said they had something to tell us. This was naturally very concerning. We thought someone had cancer or my parents were getting a divorce or some similarly unexpected thing. Then one or the other of them said: “Greg McCaw is gay.” Then we — me and my brother — started laughing. Because it was a relief. It wasn’t the big thing we thought it was going to be. But to my parents, the news was devastating, especially because you had been our pastor for so many years, and because it was unthinkable to them that you could be gay, and because you were leaving your wife Lori, a person we all loved and cared about. I’m thinking that if it was this difficult for my parents to take, it must have been even more difficult to people closer to you, from similar religious and cultural backgrounds, to accept the news, and it must have been difficult for you to share, knowing that you might be in for some difficult scenes. What was that time like, for you?