Updates at the bottom of post
Today, after seven years of attempting to build the courage and strength, I finally went back to my childhood Baptist church – the place where the stench of hatred, bigotry and oppression was, and still is, thick in the air. Grapevine Baptist Church in Lewisville, N.C., is a place where violence against gays and lesbians is honored, adored and glorified from the pulpit – a place where I heard many times, “Put the queers on a ship, pluck a hole into the side of it and send it out to sea,” or “Put all the gays in their own two states and shut the borders” (with the logical conclusion therefore being that all the gays would die out).
In all honesty, I hadn’t really built up the courage. I was pushed into going by my 14-year-old brother. This weekend was his birthday, so I came up for that, to take my other siblings to the Downtown Christmas tree lighting and to go to a performance of Handel’s Messiah today (something I won’t get to do because we haven’t done my brother’s birthday cake yet).
He was going to have a sleep over with him and two friends. One of those friends is a kid from the church. The mother of that friend stopped that plan in its tracks. My little brother’s friend told him that his mom wouldn’t let him spend the night because of me.
At the youth rally on Saturday night, visiting minister Steve Cox, told the more than 250 children and teenagers, “Put all the gays on an island and they’ll die of AIDS and they’ll all be gone” and “If you’re gay and you want to come up and shake hands with me, then you can just stay away.”
Using words like “queer” to describe gays and lesbians, Cox said that homosexuality “makes him puke.”
After the service, my brother was horribly upset by the words of his friend’s mother and by the sermon. He went up to the altar to pray (like all good Baptist boys – myself included) and Brother Matt Comer (no, not me… the son of Pastor Ronnie Comer, no relation to my family) asked my brother what was wrong.
My brother told Brother Matt about what had been said by his friend’s mother. Astonishingly, Brother Matt said, “Well, Let’s pray for Matt,” instead of, “Well, Let’s pray that Sister Ruth finds more love in her heart.”
My brother and a cousin came home that evening and told me of all this. It was at this point I decided that I must go back to that church to be a witness for my own humanity; to defend my brother from unwarranted, unloving and unjust discrimination; and to finally, after almost a decade, go to my brother in Christ as the Bible commands to confront him on how he has offended against me.
I did all three of those things at church today.
My 19-year-old brother went with me because I certainly didn’t want to go alone. We walked in and a few people said hello and shook our hands, although one person moved from sitting in the pew where we were. Pastor Ronnie Comer walked over and shook our hands. Immediately, I could sense tension in the air, as our handshaking was quick and to the point. It almost seemed more like the obligatory, Preacher-must-say-hello-to-visitors handshake rather than greeting a long-time gone son of the church – a person who had gained the respect and title of “brother” by age 10 or 11.
I suffered through the service, my nerves on end. I didn’t know when or how Preacher Comer was going to mention homosexuality. I really did expect it. I can remember hardly any times he never mentioned the subject when I was younger.
But he didn’t mention it. (He did come close, though, talking about how sick the world is and how it is in the hands of Satan – he could have very easily inserted it into the sermon then).
During the altar call, Preacher Comer asked (“with every eye closed and every head bowed”) who in the room knew without a shadow of doubt that they were going to heaven. Proudly, I raised my hand.
I stayed after the service and on my way out the front door asked Preacher Comer if I could speak to him once everyone had left the sanctuary.
A few minutes later we sat in one of the church’s private lounges. I told him that I wanted to talk to him and that I wanted him to listen, not to interrupt me, but just listen.
I told him that, first of all, we both know that we will never agree about everything… that we might as well lay that out on the table. I told him I agreed with almost everything he said on the pulpit today about grace and salvation, but that on other portions of Scripture we would never, under any circumstance, come to agreement.
With that out in the open, I told him about how upset I was over what had happened to my brother. I told him that it was one thing to hold beliefs on homosexuality against me and something else entirely different to hold it against my brother. Surprisingly, he agreed.
Secondly, I related to him how the Bible says if a brother offends against you, then you are to go to that brother, confront him and solve the situation. I told him how wrong I felt it was that he preached and glorified violence against gays and lesbians.
Immediately, Preacher Comer denied ever doing that. He said he never preached, “Put all the queers on a ship, pluck a hole into the side of it and send it out to sea.” He said he might have said, “Put all the queers on a ship and send it out to sea,” but that he never said “pluck a hole into the side of it.”
I cut him off. “Preacher Comer,” I said, “You may deny that you ever said anything of the sort, but I know and God knows what you said.”
I told him, “There are two commandments that are first and foremost in Scripture. The first is to love your God with all your heart, your mind, your soul and strength; and the second is like unto it: To love your neighbor as yourself.”
Preacher Comer nodded his head, acknowledging that he knew these two commandments.
I continued, “Jesus said it was upon these two commandments which the entire law hung, and secondly, that His disciples would be known by their love.
“Preaching exclusion to any person, at anytime, is not in accordance with these two commandments,” I concluded.
On the issue of my little brother and his friend’s mother, Preacher Comer said that all parents have the right to raise their children as they see fit.
He compared my “lifestyle” to a “highly contagious disease.”
“If you knew I had smallpox,” he said, “You wouldn’t want your children to be around me. It isn’t that you hate me, it is that you don’t want your child contracting a disease.”
In the same way, he said, Sister Ruth did not want her child being influenced by my “lifestyle.” He even said, “Who knows, perhaps your brother has even been influenced by your lifestyle.”
He concluded, “You believe that kind of lifestyle is acceptable and we and Sister Ruth do not. She doesn’t want her child being influenced by that and you believe that it is perfectly acceptable to expose children to those kind of acts. I just don’t know how that situation could have been handled differently.”
I cut him off again, “I know how it could have been handled differently. Sister Ruth could have said to her son, ‘No, you can’t go to the sleepover tonight because I want you to stay home, but ask if he would like to hang out after church at McDonald’s or something.’”
Preacher Comer nodded his head, silently acknowledging an “I guess so” kind of moment.
He said that he doesn’t hate me and that he never had… that he loves me and only hates my sin. “It is an abomination in God’s sight and I hate the sin.
“I hate it with a perfect hatred,” he said, as if he were God himself.
Preacher Comer admitted to me openly that he censored himself because of my presence. “I would have touched on homosexuality today and I didn’t precisely because I knew you were here.”
At some point – and now I don’t remember exactly when or how – I mentioned something about him continuing to “preach death.” He immediately denied such a thing ever occurs in his church (even though the night before, the guest minister plainly insinuated such).
Finally, he said, “I guess we will just have to agree to disagree.”
I said, “Okay.”
I shook his hand and walked out of the door.
My brother came home a bit later than I did, as he was riding the church bus. As soon as he came in he said his friend’s mother had said something else… That his friend could no longer be around my brother at all.
I’m going back to the 6:00pm service. Updates afterward.
Update, 4:00pm EST, 12/2/2007 – I must say that I hate my 14-year-old brother is having to learn the hard lesson of bigotry in the South at such a young age – an age where he really doesn’t have the ability to completely understand nor completely fight on his own against the immoral actions of others.
Update, 6:15pm EST, 12/2/2007 – I’ve decided, on second thought, not to go back to the 6:00pm service. I would have liked to, but I was too tired and too emotionally drained from my visit at the 11:00am service. I’ll leave it for another time. Maybe next time, we can arrange it so that some friends can go with me. I have to begin another week at work tomorrow and I still need to drive back to Charlotte. Till later… everyone take care!
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