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 twenty-two, 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?
Greg McCaw: I expect similar scenes were being played out in quite a few households around that time, given the way the news carried. I honestly believe that the most difficult part of my coming out for most people was the breakup of my marriage to Lori, and that would include the many younger friends, students, etc., who have been quite supportive of me in the years since. Lori and I represented to all who knew us well a good and cooperative collaboration. We were very close and very dear friends, and we were very good together as far as that part went, as well as our work and creativity together. We made pretty cool stuff happen in collaboration. What most people didn’t know, however, was that we weren’t lovers. That part was my fault. Not my choice—I honestly wanted to be her lover—but I was not able to be. Without a doubt, for many, perhaps like your parents, especially friends, family and patrons my age and older, my news also felt like some kind of betrayal. I’m aware of that, painfully. Facing each “scene” or “moment” of “coming out” to each person, family or group, was extremely difficult and stressful for me. I was racked with fear in each circumstance.
Minor: Is there one such scene that was particularly difficult?
McCaw: Outside of coming out to Lori, the next most difficult conversation was with my own immediate family. Of course, Lori and I have no children, so that wasn’t a concern for us. I also wanted to make something clear from your initial question: I never “left” Lori, in the sense of one spouse taking leave and the other being left alone. After she learned I was gay, we tried everything we could to stay together and make it work, for three more years. We finally reached the decision to part mutually. In December of 2005, we sold most everything we owned, then she loaded one car and headed to be near her family in Indiana, and I loaded my truck and headed to North Carolina to be near mine. I did not tell my family, my parents, that Lori was not coming with me. I showed up in their driveway in my truck, pulling a small trailer, and got out alone. I know that sounds a little cruel, perhaps, but I honestly couldn’t stand to tell them on the phone. I wanted to be with them, face to face. It was hell, quite literally. I had been the son who actually followed in the footsteps of my father, my grandfather (mother’s father) and my uncles (my mother’s brothers) into Christian pastoral ministry. And, I was quite successful in it. It was hard news for everyone, but, hardest of all for my parents. They were devastated, to say the least.
Minor: What did you tell your parents that day, and what did they say in response?
McCaw: I got out of my truck, they met me on the front porch, with odd looks on their faces, and they asked where Lori was. I just said, “Let’s go inside and sit down.” I reminded them that Lori and I had been in therapy for two years. We had never been specific about the reason for the therapy. I said, “Lori has gone to live in Indiana. We are separated, pending divorce. I take full responsibility for the reason we’ve made this decision. Mom, Dad, I’m homosexually romantically oriented.” They were of course stunned and speechless, for a bit, then I saw both of their eyes well up in tears, and mom started crying outright. I don’t fully recall what all was said next. I recall Dad asking how long I felt that way, and, when I answered, “All my life,” my Mom declared: “No you haven’t!” There wasn’t really much more talk that first night.
Minor: Who did you tell next? My first thought, when I heard the news, was that I wondered how your colleagues in pastoral ministry would respond to the news—old friends we both used to work alongside and with whom you were close like Greg Sempsrott and Jon McDivitt.
McCaw:I went on to tell my brothers and their wives next. I actually had opportunity to tell Greg and Jon before, on my drive up to Charlotte, North Carolina, to my parents home. I was leaving Miami, Florida, my last pastorate, which I had recently resigned, and my path took me through Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, where you’re from, and where we all worked together in the past, so memories flooded me the entire drive north. I wept constantly. Then, north of Palm Beach, is Vero Beach, where both Greg and Jon were now pastoring. It was a Wednesday evening, actually, and I didn’t call either one of them, because I knew they would both be at the church. So, I just went directly there, arriving shortly before the evening’s activities were to begin. I arranged to go get some dinner with both of them afterwards, then I sat in on Jon’s youth group service. Many of the youth and workers there knew me well, and were all greeting me, hugging me, asking me why I was there. It was pretty tough, and I avoided any direct answers. Afterwards, the three of us went into Greg’s office at the church and sat down and I told them everything there. We all wept. It was a pretty dramatic scene. Greg made it clear to me that he was disappointed to hear the news, and was very sad, but, loved me no matter what. Jon actually was not completely in the dark. I had shared with him in the past that I struggled. But, I guess he was pretty sure I’d never do what I was doing now. Then we got something to eat, and they prayed with me, and I left and headed on north on I-95. I got about an hour up the road and Jon called me. He was still crying. He was very worried about me. He said he hadn’t even gone home yet. Didn’t know what to tell Carey, his wife, and really didn’t want me to leave.
Minor: You said that they were weeping, and it’s not difficult to imagine why. They no doubt believed that you were in grave sin, and also they were probably weeping for the loss of your marriage, for Lori, and for worry about what would become of you professionally, since pastoral ministry is the thing you have done for a living your whole adult life, and since you would no longer be welcome, as a gay man, to continue doing that work in the religious communities where you had been doing it. Why were you weeping?
McCaw: You are correct in summing up how they were feeling. I would add that there was a lot of history among the three of us. Jon was my best friend throughout our college years and beyond. We were extremely tight. Greg and I had developed our friendship as professional partners, and good ones, too. We had also become very, very tight. So, for all of us, I think there was this fear of a looming distance between us, far more than geographical. And to some degree that has come to pass. There is no enmity between us, we all still love one another dearly, but, there is very little communication. Jon and I have recently made some attempts.
Why was I weeping? Wow… it was, of course, an extremely charged moment in my life and history, not just that night, but the nights preceding it and the coming nights I was facing. I’m not sure if I can ferret out my exact emotions then and there, but I’m always most deeply moved by relational distress. The potential loss of their love was overwhelmingly felt. The loss of my career, as you mentioned, became a huge economic issue in my life, but, I don’t think that was where my feelings were at that moment.
Minor: Were you able to retain your ordination? What was the process with the church with whom you were affiliated? Did you even want to continue to be a pastor?
McCaw: The last part of your question is easy. I am a pastor, and I don’t believe by choice as much as it truly is who I am and will always be, in the true sense of the word, as a shepherd. I pastored for over twenty-five years in my faith family of origin. My grandfather was a pioneer pastor in the Church of God; my father is still a pastor and national leader; three uncles and six cousins are pastors, theology professors, and national leaders in the same movement. I will always love my faith family of origin. I resigned the actual congregation I was pastoring before Lori and I separated and before I came out. I didn’t want to drag them through any pain and controversy. As far as my ministerial credentials are concerned, I actually never heard from any official from either the national headquarters or from the Florida headquarters, which held my credentials at the time. I came out officially, via letter, to all the official parties and to my ministerial colleagues in June of 2006. Sometime in late 2007, I finally got a letter from the Florida headquarters asking if I desired to “defend my credentials.” I wrote them back saying that it would only prolong the inevitable, but that “I would always love them and hold them in my embrace even if their embrace was unable to hold me.” My credentials were simply not renewed in 2008.
Minor: Did you respond in that way because you believed that your declaration of your sexual orientation would disqualify you from getting your credentials renewed? Was that a stated policy of the church, or was it a matter that might have been up for debate?
McCaw: I can’t recall the year, but, pretty sure that it was in the summer of 2003 or 2004, I was a delegate at the annual national assembly where a doctrinal statement was presented and was ratified. This was two or three years before I came out, and I, and a handful of others, stood up to vote against the statement. I can’t quote it here, but, it basically made policy the standard evangelical/fundamentalist stance that homosexuality was “an abomination” and not only disqualified one from ministry, but also from citizenship in the Kingdom of God.
Minor: What is your history with that question? Have you always been able to reconcile your religious beliefs with your sexual orientation, or did you come to this reckoning later in life? I remember when I was in high school that we would occasionally have conversations about these matters, and you would offer sort of vague opinions that something wasn’t right about the way we were thinking about gay people, but to me, then, it was a conversation that was too threatening to what I thought I knew about how the world works and who God was and so on, and probably to my ideas about my own sexuality, as well. And certainly you were married to a woman and lived with her for many years…
McCaw: Yeah, well, that is the great struggle of my life. My own sensibilities about God, the world, what I saw, what I experienced, what I read, what I was taught, who I knew, what I felt, what I knew that others felt, were always working on me. Oddly, firstly, my faith family of origin (although maybe it’s not evidenced by the statement I spoke of in my last answer) is a rather open, theologically “liberal” group, when measured against other evangelical groups, except on this particular issue, and, of course, depending upon what area of the country you live in, to some degree. And my family, as leaders in that movement, were generally even more so theologically “liberal,” whatever that means. So, in most other areas of life, I had few hangups. Even my sexual learning was advanced at a young age, my parents being exceptionally open and communicative in that area. Name a social issue and my family was pretty progressive for from whence they came. Through junior high and high school, for instance, I went to schools that were nearly all black in student population and teachers. My parents didn’t take me out of the system and place me in all white private schools like most other white families did. I was taught to respect and love all persons.
Still, I guess homosexuality was one progression too far. It was tough. I was tough on me about it. I was never tough on anyone else. I never thought or taught that being gay was evil, even though I was pretty convinced it was evil for me. I never treated any person who was gay any differently, and I even stood up for them against bullies in school, which got me in trouble with my friends, but I couldn’t show myself the same level of grace. I began to study everything I could get my hands on from the time I was about fourteen years old. While in college, I took classes that I thought might help me gain a better perspective, or help me find the way to get rid of the feelings I was dealing with. I was deeply convinced, and taught others, that Christ’s love was for all, no matter what, but I feared that if I was gay, Christ would not be pleased with me. I worked for years to rid myself of my “tendencies.” I was engaged twice, to two different women before Lori, and I rightly decided against marrying either of them because I knew I was still struggling. After breaking the second engagement, I entered into a covenant with God to put off any kind of romantic activity, with men or women, for an entire year. A fast, so to speak, from love and sex. I kept that covenant, explicitly. During that year, I did everything imaginable to convert myself into a “normal” heterosexual male. That was in 1988-89, during my first year pastoring in Palm Beach Gardens, FL. I counselled with more than one addictions therapist, I fasted, I prayed, I went on spiritual retreats, I even had an exorcism performed. You name it, I tried it. Toward the end of my covenental year, I attended the Promise Keepers conference in Atlanta, GA, my second Promise Keepers. A great preacher spoke the first night, and I had a very unusual and moving emotional experience. I interpreted it to be God’s healing of me finally. I came home from that event completely psyched and convinced that I was no longer gay. I married Lori a year later.
Minor: What changed your mind? What was the process that moved you from the position that you were no longer gay and that you would get married, to the position that you were in fact gay, and that you could no longer live honestly while married to a woman?
McCaw: I’m a very strong-minded guy. When I make a decision, I stick with it. If I’m convinced, I’m convinced. So even though, in retrospect, there were immediate signs that nothing had really changed, I was determined that it had. Lori and I had dated before. She was the only woman, ever, that I truly did mostly feel “right” with. She was the only woman, out of many “friends” of the female type, who I really felt close to, and really wanted to share with. We connected on every level, almost, and I had never felt that way with any other woman, even though I had dated many different women. All my dating of women had been purely because that was what men were supposed to do. Not that I didn’t like women at all, I did, and I enjoyed dating, but I never felt moved in any romantic or deeply intimate way. I did feel some of that with Lori. She is an amazing woman. Still, it was not long after we were married that I was became certain that I had fooled myself. It was an awful feeling too. And I didn’t know what to do about it. Bottom line was that I had made a commitment and I was going to do everything in my power to stick with it.
Minor: So what changed your mind? Was it something theological about which you refined your opinion, or had you just grown tired of the tension you might have felt within yourself? What enabled you, I mean, to push past the choice you had made to stick with the commitment you had made to Lori, and to make the new choice to part ways?
McCaw:I think it was the coming together of many pieces. Late in 1999, we moved to Indiana so I could begin work toward my Master of Divinity degree [at the Anderson School of Theology]. First of all, my studies opened my mind and enabled me to begin to contextualize the gospel and my own spiritual framing story in ways I had never allowed myself before. Secondly, I was introduced to a far larger tent of faith, especially via interaction with Dr. Stanley Grenz, who was a visiting lecturer in 2001, and whose books I began to read, as well as other books I was led to via reading his books. Nothing in any of that addressed my orientation directly. Rather, my discoveries were significant for my growing ability to reconcile the inconsistencies I saw between my belief systems and the way the world really was. Thirdly, and sadly, after eleven years of resisting any kind of temptation to stray, I met a guy who I had a short affair with. He too was a Christian, and it didn’t last long because he ended it because I was married. I was devastated not only because he ended things, but more so because I allowed myself to get there in the first place. I went to one of my professors for help and he got me connected with a professional therapist who was also a Christian. Over the next 8 months or so, he helped walk me into a place of acceptance of myself. As part of an exercise in letting go of the guy I had an affair with, he had me write a letter to him. It was never to be delivered, just to be read to the therapist, and then destroyed. I, however, kept the letter, and Lori found it, which led to the necessity to go ahead and get honest with her, which the therapist had been preparing me to do at the time anyway. We decided to try to stay together, and entered into therapy together, which we attended for two more years with a professional that Lori found through James Dobson’s network, believe it or not, but who turned out to be superb in his discipline. Over two years he helped me come to a peace with myself as a gay man, and I think he helped Lori to begin a process of healing too. After three years of trying, I think we both just came to the realization that we were really just working way too hard just to try to keep a promise. And, a promise that was made under false pretenses, which is, in my mind, my greatest sin. It was my responsibility to at least let Lori know of my struggle before she married me. I did not do that.
Lori and I always found ourselves in ministry with younger people. Younger people always ask questions about sex and marriage. Lori and I both have always been people who strive for honesty, integrity and authenticity. However, this was the one area that we didn’t feel free to answer with complete honesty and authenticity, and it just really got too stressful to keep up with. We also came to the realization that we would most likely never find a faith community where we could both serve and be completely honest and feel supported. In the end, we were both convinced that divorcing was the best of all the poor choices moving forward.
Minor: What kinds of consequences have you faced in the aftermath of your divorce and the end of your career as a full-time pastor?
McCaw: Many of the fears I had which delayed my coming out in the first place have come to pass. Not as badly as I feared, but, still, in very difficult ways. Most friends my age and older have apparently found it difficult to relate to me, and there is obvious relational distance. I have received some very uplifting support from a few members of my extended family, and limited support from one brother and his wife and my parents. But my other brother is very angry with me, and I’ve had little contact with him over the past three years. We were very close before. My parents are honestly trying to understand, I think. They’ve made recent gestures that I never thought would come. As for younger friends and former students, and there are many, very few have reacted negatively. Most have been wonderfully supportive and affirming. [Discrimination against gay people] is definitely a generational problem.
My largest practical consequence has been economic. I lost a long, successful, and rewarding career, and, with it, a substantial income, for a pastor. As you said earlier, I’ve never done anything else. My resume is not enticing to potential employers. I was completely out of work and unable to find work for an entire year and a half. And, now I’m working hourly for a little above minimum wage.
Minor: Do you think evangelicals are starting to change their minds about issues related to gay, lesbian, and transgendered people? Do you think the evangelical movement as a whole will ever change its positions?
McCaw: Yes and no. Yes, in that institutionally churched people always mimic the general population. Look at any social issue: abortion, divorce, etc., the rate of incidence is the same in churches as it is in the general population. Of course, there are as many LGBT persons, percentage-wise, in the church, as there are in the general population. The increasingly strong trend is no doubt in favor of acceptance of LGBT persons at all levels in the West, and this is trickling into the churched population as well. The truth is that the entire world is changing around them, and they will have to change as well in order to survive. And that is the bottom line of any institution: Survival. Some people and some churches will, of course, never change, but they will be the vast minority. In fact, some of the best motivation toward change in faith is coming from inside faith groups themselves. I am encouraged by the attitudes of younger persons. Within the next ten years, these same younger persons will begin to take the leadership positions in all faith groups. This will lead to enormous changes. The modern mindset [ed.: It is common in contemporary evangelical discourse to speak of the “modernist” evangelical mindset giving way to the “postmodernist” mindset. These categories are mainly used to describe competing dominant generational ideas about the relationship between the church and the broader world, and they don’t seem to have much to do with the way these terms are ordinarily used in discussions of, say, T.S. Eliot or Robert Coover], while fighting to the death, is slowly giving way to a new era of thinkers. That is why I remain encouraged and dearly hope to be influential in this kind of change, not just about LGBT issues, but also about poverty, hunger, homelessness, violence, and creation care. I believe that younger people of faith will begin to lead us back to some good news.