Last night I watched the conclusion of a PBS documentary, God in America. It was the second half of a four-hour film that explored American worship and it’s influence on our culture. Last night’s two-hour continuation began with World War II and the rise of Christian evangelist Billy Graham. Watching Graham preach from the stage at a revival brought me back to the childhood I spent in Amway rallies. These rallies were monthly events that changed my parents lives and profoundly shaped mine. My father loved these rallies more than any other part of the Amway business. I have no memory of childhood that does not include these spectacles. And they were spectacles. Anywhere from one hundred to one thousand Amway distributors would gather in a hotel ballroom or large convention center on a Saturday night to praise Jesus and free enterprise.
I was raised Catholic, but my parent’s were sponsored into the Amway business by an affluent African-American couple by the name of Bill and Anna Mae Wright, who greatly influenced my religious upbringing. Bill and Anna Mae were Christians just like Graham and preached at Amway rallies like they were in church. In fact most of my parent’s Amway group was black. I even grew up thinking all black people were rich, because that’s all I saw. Bill and Anna Mae would bring us in their limousine to their Baptist church on Sundays where I would sit and listen to the preacher tell me to hitch my wagon to Jesus’ star. At the following Amway rally I would listen to Bill and my father recreate that sermon, but in Amway verbiage, in order to motivate their followers. There was no separation of church and state in Amway. My father held weekly Amway bible study groups at our home every Thursday night with the local Baptist pastor leading the way. I saw faith as another stepping-stone on the great road to success.
I prayed like a good white Catholic and a good black Christian. But when I reached adolescence and discovered that the gay man I was growing into was not accepted by either faith, I threw the baby out with the bathwater and turned my back on God. That is an unfortunate reality for most gay Americans when facing this dilemma. I made boys and my quest for success my new Higher Power.
When I was twenty-six years old I found myself questioning my salvation at my father’s deathbed, as he lay dying of cancer. My father spent the last years of his life in the front row of Rev. Earl Paulk’s Pentecostal mega church in Decatur, Georgia: The Cathedral at Chapel Hill. He had left my mother for a southern black flight attendant and together they had found Jesus. As I sat by his bed watching the most powerful man in my life waste away, I read through his bible. He had studied this book and its teachings but had he changed? This was the same man whose ego ruined my family. Where was God then?
In one of our last talks he leaned over to me and said the words I had longed to hear my entire life
“I was wrong.”
He denounced his success driven, materialistic life and told me to find God. But how do I do that? I’m gay.
After his death I returned to New York and got sober. That was the resurrection of my spiritual life. It’s been a long and bumpy road but worth every pothole.
Last night’s documentary got me thinking about where God and the American Dream stand for me today. The documentary, of course, featured Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and clips of his preaching. In a 1965 sermon he boldly called out America on its arrogance. If he could have delivered that sermon today, it would be just as relevant. I thought about my own arrogance and American entitlement. I see it everywhere in this country, from Wall Street to Hollywood and, yes, even in the Christian faith.
I want the best life I can have, but I also want to be helpful and part of the solution. I want to accept others for who they are and give everyone the freedom to believe what he or she feels is best for them. I want to smile and wave good morning to my new Islamic neighbor here in Harlem. I want the same rights as every other human being in this country and I don’t want to fight you for it. I want to be a producer of harmony rather than dissonance. And if there is a God I just want to ask one question. What kind of American do you want me to be?