I Saw The Light: A Gay Man's Search for a Welcoming Church

Isthmus | December 22, 2005

Seeing the light

My search for a church

By Kenneth Burns

You can learn a lot from Hank Williams.

I sing country music, and for years I have concluded most of my performances with "I Saw the Light," the gospel tune by the honky-tonk legend. The song's message is mostly redemptive, especially in the chorus, but there also are dark shadows. "I wandered so aimless, life filled with sin," the song begins. "Then Jesus came like a stranger in the night/Praise the lord, I saw the light."

I have played "I Saw the Light" for east-side hipsters, wedding revelers, Sheboygan bikers and gay-bar carousers, and the result is generally the same: delirium. Feet fly, hips shimmy, hands shake. I half expect audiences to break out the snakes.

What does this mean? Is this bona fide religious mania? I suspect these are not Southern Baptists, for the most part, or else they would not be drinking whiskey and two-stepping on a weekend night. To be certain, there is an element of burlesque to the frenzy, just as there is burlesque in my being a country singer at all. A gay, Madisonian Southerner who wrote a master's thesis on Pol Pot, I wear rhinestones and cowboy boots and sing songs like "Take This Job and Shove It."

Yet "I Saw the Light" is unabashedly what it is: pro-Jesus. And although the dancers' writhing reaction to it may be booze-fueled and satiric, part of me also reads it as an enthusiastically spiritual response to an enthusiastically spiritual song.

So rather than honky-tonking on Saturday, shouldn't we all be resting up for church?

Actually, these days I am in church most Sunday mornings, although I am more likely to sing "A Mighty Fortress" there than "I Saw the Light." But it was not always so. I came to be a churchgoer again only after a long period away. And truth be told, churchgoing sometimes feels like just one more incongruous element of an identity I am still trying to piece together: gay, Madisonian, Southern, Pol Pot-studying, Hank Williams-singing alternative journalist -- and Protestant.

'Where do y'all go?'

I could not have predicted this turn of events. I never thought I would reach my mid-30s and begin to suspect that, just as preachers and Sunday school teachers used to tell me, I might have a soul, and it might need looking after.

I grew up in Tennessee, where new acquaintances commonly ask one another, "Where do y'all go?" -- meaning, to church. As a child, I attended the neighborhood Presbyterian church. My mother was the pianist, which meant we went every week, without fail.

My childhood memories of church are largely pleasant, especially those of my courtly, educated minister. The people in the congregation were like Presbyterian churchgoers everywhere: easygoing and not particularly obsessed with doctrine. I especially liked the other young people, and in early adolescence, youth group was an important social outlet. As for the spiritual side, I mouthed the creed and sang the hymns, but I did not think much about them.

Meanwhile, I was getting an intense religious education at school: Through eighth grade, I went to a private school with strong ties to a group called the Churches of Christ, which are conservative and largely Southern. Members are forbidden to dance or to be gay, among other prohibitions.

That school had daily Bible instruction, which I liked. As I got older, however, I began to chafe against the restrictions. The film Footloose came out when I was in seventh grade, and I identified strongly with Ren, the Kevin Bacon character, who rebels against a strict Christian social order that, similarly, disallows dancing. In a happy change, after eighth grade I switched from the Christian school to an unapologetically liberal prep school next door to Vanderbilt University. That was the end of my daily Bible instruction -- and also, as it happened, my weekly churchgoing.


After college, though, I once again turned churchy -- briefly. That was when I befriended a University of Chicago seminarian who was in training to be a Presbyterian minister. The meeting seemed fortuitous, partly because he was himself a Southerner. But mostly, I had been toying with the idea of getting back to Presbyterianism. I missed the music and the ritual, and I missed the feeling of community. I especially missed the weekly reminder that life has, possibly, some kind of higher meaning. I mostly kept these thoughts to myself, though, since they seemed to confuse my friends.

But on several occasions I accompanied the seminarian and his wife to a south-side Presbyterian church where he sometimes preached. I liked the familiarity of the services, but for the first time I found myself getting hung up on niggling details of propriety: What should I wear? How much money should I put in the collection plate? What if I'm not so sure I believe the Apostles' Creed?

For reasons I do not quite understand, I hesitated to pose these questions to my seminarian friend. I worried he would judge me.

One Sunday morning, I found myself debating, in my car, whether to hide the case of a Black Sabbath tape before I picked up Marthame and Elizabeth. In an epiphany, I decided churchgoing was too hard. And once again, that was that.

The great divide

I remained curious, though, and as I approached age 30, the itch returned. But the situation had grown more complicated, because not long after I moved from Chicago to Madison, in 1999, I came out as a gay man. I had a hard time reconciling that with my churchgoing impulses, since many Christian groups condemn same-sex relations outright, and even moderate denominations are bitterly divided on the issue.

That includes the Presbyterians, and I followed their agonies in the news. Then as now, liberals and conservatives in the denomination were having strident arguments over same-sex marriage and gay ordination.

These made me apprehensive. I was still getting comfortable with being openly gay, and did not want to go where I was not welcome.

Then came Sept. 11, 2001, and like many stunned Americans looking for solace amid confusion, I thought of organized religion. And I was, inexorably, drawn back to the Presbyterians. I had this notion that although the broader denomination was divided, as a gay man I would be welcomed with open arms at any Presbyterian congregation in Madison. You know, it's Madison.

I liked the idea of a large, downtown church, so I turned to Christ Presbyterian Church, 944 E. Gorham St. A congregation in the Presbyterian Church (USA) -- the main body of American Presbyterianism -- Christ Presbyterian is known to some neighborhood heathens as the Church of the Shrugging Jesus. That is because in the colossal relief sculpture of Jesus that faces busy Gorham Street, the savior really does look like he's shrugging.

I attended a service or two, and they seemed just fine, and familiar. I called my old Presbyterian church in Nashville, which I had not attended since the Reagan administration, to see about getting my files sent up. All that remained was to meet with the minister, one last formality.

And so I contacted Rev. Dale Chapin, whom the congregation had just chosen as its new pastor. On the Sunday he was to be installed, I met him in his office, immediately before the installation ceremony. I told him I was interested in joining. He seemed amenable.

Then I told him I was gay, and I asked whether that was a problem. I hoped the answer would be a resounding no. Instead, Chapin told me what I already knew, that the denomination was divided on gay issues and had not yet come up with definitive answers. He said he declined to take a stance and would await the broader church's final decision.

And that was all he said.

What response did I really expect? Throbbing techno music? Rainbow flags dropping from the ceiling? A choir of men in hot pants bursting in and carrying me up the stairs? What I got was a careful reply from a not-yet-even-installed minister in a furiously embattled denomination.

Actually, I do know what I expected: unconditional acceptance and support. When I did not get this, the blood began to roar in my ears. I felt sick.

After that day I continued to shop, briefly. I attended a service at the east side's Parkside Presbyterian, whose minister, Calvin Harfst, is outspokenly in favor of gay equality. But after a few weeks, I lost interest in church again.

Jesus shrugged.

Gays welcome here!

Gay seekers in Madison do have some options. Lesbians and gays are accepted to varying degrees by some mainline Protestant denominations, for example, including Lutherans and Methodists. But those groups are as bitterly divided as the Presbyterians.

One mainline church is wholeheartedly accepting: the United Church of Christ, which made headlines last year after CBS and NBC declined to broadcast advertisements promoting the church's gay-friendliness. Last July, the denomination made still more headlines when its general synod affirmed same-sex marriages. It was the first mainline church to do so.

Gay-friendliness was fully on display at a service I recently attended at UCC-affiliated First Congregational Church, 1609 University Ave. A large rainbow flag was hanging in the front of the sanctuary. The pastor, Curt Anderson, inveighed against the proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in Wisconsin. Most important, my gaydar pinged unceasingly. I felt welcome.

There also are the Unitarian-Universalists. Their general assembly voted to end discrimination against gays and lesbians in 1970, notes Scott Prinster, associate minister at Madison's First Unitarian Society, 900 University Bay Dr. An openly gay man, Prinster, 39, grew up Roman Catholic in Warrenton, Mo., but he drifted away from the church in adolescence. He came out as gay while attending college at Purdue University in Lafayette, Ind., and he began going to Unitarian services.

He continued going to them after graduation, when he went to work for a space-industry company in Huntsville, Ala. It was there that he heard the call to the Unitarian ministry.

Unitarianism has its roots in the Protestant Reformation, but ceased to be explicitly Christian early in the 20th century. (In the United States, Unitarians and Universalists consolidated in 1961.) Unitarians view the world "through this lens of reason and rationality," Prinster says. Members may be atheist or agnostic, "but that doesn't keep them from being part of a community that is looking for meaning and justice."

Prinster likens that search for meaning to the process of coming out as gay. "I'm so much a better person for having had the experience of coming out," he says. "I had to look so closely at how unkindness and inauthenticity hurt us."

Also contentedly pursuing a religious path is Dorian Leafman, 20, a third-year University of Wisconsin-Madison student who attends Reform Jewish services at Hillel Foundation, 611 Langdon St. Leafman, from the Chicago suburb of Northbrook, came out as a lesbian at 17. "I am a religious person before I am a gay person," she says. "I do feel I have a personal relationship with God. I talk to him every day of my life."

In her first year of college, at Purdue, Leafman spoke to a rabbi who assured her that there was a place for her in Judaism. "What I've come to realize," she says, "is that I've seen love, and I've seen sin, and I've seen horrible things -- and love isn't it. It doesn't matter what they're saying over there. Love isn't a sin, and no one gets to judge that, whatever higher being you believe in."

Says Leafman, "All I want to do is marry a nice Jewish girl and have children."

Try again

I know where Dorian Leafman is coming from. I want a normal life, too, and to me normalcy includes tending to a spiritual aspect of myself that I have begun to glimpse only tentatively. But Leafman is right when she says that gay people who pursue spirituality invite suspicion. "What do you mean, you're religious?" she says she is asked. "You're gay!"

So four years after my last disappointing foray, I decided to try again. With trepidation I mentioned the idea to my boyfriend, who was angered by my experience at Christ Presbyterian. To my surprise, my boyfriend, who grew up Methodist near Knoxville, Tenn., confessed that he had been thinking along the same lines.

Not wanting to repeat my trauma, we resolved to approach churches where we were reasonably sure we would feel welcome. I tried a service at First Unitarian's stunning, Frank Lloyd Wright-designed meeting house. It was nice, but I wanted something else.

I thought next of the Episcopalians, who in 2003 elevated an openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. We visited Grace Episcopal Church, 116 W. Washington Ave., and were delighted by the lovely old building, the sumptuous ritual, the outreach to the homeless and hungry -- and by the warm welcome.

So we keep going back.

Like other mainline Protestant denominations, the Episcopalians are split on gay issues, perhaps hopelessly. The split is not merely between Episcopalians, however. The American Episcopal church is part of the worldwide Anglican communion of churches that trace their lineage to the Church of England. Anglican leaders in Africa and Asia are furious at the gay-friendly steps taken by American and other churches. In the Anglican communion, as in other divided churches, conservatives and liberals buttress their arguments with scripture, and they interpret certain key scriptures differently.

The Anglicans may well split up over these differences, which would be a terrible shame. But I try not to dwell on the calamitous possibilities, and meanwhile I am glad to have found a church where I feel at home.

A difficult call

As I was thinking about all of this, I realized that I had better speak again with Dale Chapin of Christ Presbyterian, just to make sure his memory of our conversation matched my own. I hesitated, though. It was a painful time, and I was trembling when I called him at his home.

I was reassured by his tone, which was gentle and reflective. He said that he indeed recalled our conversation, and that he remains ambivalent about gay issues and the Presbyterian church. "My point of view in all of this is that it's hard for me to come down one way or the other," he said. "In many other areas I have fairly strong convictions, but in this one I'm going to have to listen to the voice of my denomination."

In recent years, he said, the Presbyterian Church (USA) has appointed a committee, the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity of the Church, to recommend a course of action. "What it's coming down to look like," he says, "is to give presbyteries, the geographic units, the authority to ordain pastors and give to local churches the authority to ordain elders and deacons, and allow them to make choices."

That is, Presbyterians would make gay ordination a local matter. "I don't know if that's just pushing the conflict to the front lines," Chapin says. In the meantime, his congregation is divided on gay ordination and gay marriage. "That's probably a good reason that I'm a good fit" as pastor, he notes.

Chapin's cautious position is a reasonable one, even if I do not agree with it. He strikes me as a decent man, a smart man, one who is simply trying to find a delicate balance. A few minutes into our conversation, I was no longer trembling, and we began to have an enjoyable, wide-ranging discussion of American Christianity and its discontents.

As I prepared to hang up, I bade him Merry Christmas. I felt good about the conversation, and relieved to have faced an uncomfortable episode from my past. I had learned valuable lessons about forgiveness, about struggle, about acting on my beliefs. Holy smokes, I think that just may have been a religious experience.

Bless you, Hank Williams. I saw the light.


I missed the feeling of community. I especially missed the weekly reminder that life has, possibly, some kind of higher meaning.

One mainline church, the United Church of Christ, is wholeheartedly accepting of gays.

‘I am a religious person before I am a gay person,’ says Dorian Leafman.

These days I am in church most Sunday mornings.


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