One Wednesday night in late summer 1994, I snuck out the house with my friend Hopey and drove my mother’s 1970’s blue Monte Carlo to Woody’s, the only gay club in philly that had a teen night. The car was busted, but it got us around. After dancing our asses off until 2am, Hopey and I jumped back into the car to head home. While stopped at a red light, I looked up and read a message on a large billboard that left me shook. The billboard, which served as a promo for a local Christian music radio station, read, “He’s coming! Feel his wrath this September!” My heart fell into my stomach. I turned to Hopey and told her to look up. She looked back at me with the same fear that I felt. There we were – two teenagers in my mother’s car convinced that the world was ending. And no, we were not high or drunk.
As we were parking the car in the lot where my mother left it and the joyful night of dancing our asses off at the gay club hours behind us, we both agreed to never repeat what we had just discovered. We swore each other to secrecy as if we had just stumbled upon a lost scroll of the bible. I remember saying, “We can’t tell anyone. They will panic.” Meanwhile, I am already thinking “I need to get my life right. I am going to get saved!”
I always hated religion. My only reference was the Pentecostal folks who would set up chairs and a mic on our street corner to scream at us sinners as we walked by. They scared me. I am sure it was largely because they were screaming in Spanish, and I could not understand a gawd damn word, but I felt the damnation.
About a week after Hopey and I discovered the world was ending in September, I was sitting on our front steps when two white Mormon Elders walked over and began to talk to me. Their temperament was calm and unlike the screaming Pentecostals. I didn’t feel judged by them – yet. By the end of our chat, I agreed to participate in the series of bible studies they offered. Over the next few weeks, I learned about the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. I took all the bible lessons in our living room as hip-hop music played, as people cussed each other out, and as folks looked at me, wondering just how much more weird was I gonna get? And that was just in my house!
Completing the Bible studies meant that I now qualified for baptism, BUT before that was to happen, the Elders informed me that I had to answer three mandatory questions. I don’t remember exactly what the questions were but one of the questions centered on same-sex attraction. I was puzzled and suddenly felt little. I challenged the two elders, “Why is this important?” “Well, it is. And if you don’t feel comfortable at answering it, you have to meet with the district Prophet,” they replied. I opted to meet with the district Prophet.
He was an older white man dressed in a “I am not a District manager, I am a District Prophet” suit. As I looked around his office, I saw pictures of past prophets, and they’re all white. So I said aloud, “God doesn’t talk to Black people?” The look on his face read, “I gotta get this fag out of here. This is a troublemaker.” So he asked me dismissively, “Did you ask for forgiveness?” And I answered just as dismissively, “Yeah, I guess.” He then gives my baptism the “OK.”
The following Sunday, I’m at the Mormon church with all my gay friends for my baptism. As I am meeting with the elders to go over what to expect, I am told to get my friends to come back inside the church. These queens were smoking and cackling outside of the church. I was like “‘Y’all need to come back in. I am about to be dunked in water!” So there I was, standing in the baptism pool dressed in a white jumpsuit as the elder prayed over me. Then I think I am asked “Do you accept Jesus Christ into your heart?” Too late to say no, so I say, “Yup.”
After my baptism, I was committed to seeing this Mormon thing through. I walked about three miles to church every Sunday. The congregation was pretty much all Black and Latinx except for the elders. I would later discover that the Mormon Religion was hella racist and only began letting Black folks in the 1970’s. One Sunday, after service wrapped, an elder said, “Hey. You have to meet this other young man we just baptized. He loves Janet Jackson just like you.” I knew that was code for “He’s gay, just like you” I met the other Janet Jackson fan the following Sunday and we instantly connected. We sat next to each other in the back and kiki’d during the entire service. All was going well until he stopped laughing and whispered that the group of kids a couple roles ahead of us were laughing at us and said “faggots.” “Don’t make a scene,” he said. He didn’t know me yet.
As everyone was exiting through the narrow stairway, I shout, “Yo, is it true that you fucking called us faggots!?” Everyone stopped and immediately turned around. It turned out that the group of teens were the Bishop’s family. The Bishop then instructs me to calm down and “Let it go” because that is what Jesus would do. I continued to make a scene because I didn’t know how to articulate how foolish I felt for thinking this wouldn’t happen here. When I left that day, I knew that I would never return. And I didn’t. I had decided that that wasn’t a safe place for me. I wanted eternal life but I certainly wasn’t willing to suffer through homophobia. I was already doing that on the block.
About a year later, I received a call from one of the Elders. It was a pleasant surprise because no one from the church had tried to reach out. After a few minutes of catching up, the tone in his voice changed. He informed me that he never finished his mission. I was shocked and knew this was a huge deal because Mormons who don’t complete their two-year mission are viewed as failures – especially those from Utah. He let me know that he was okay and that he had learned a great deal about acceptance in his failure. “Louie, I want to tell you that I know that our church told you a lot of things but no matter who you are or what you do with your life, God loves you. He accepts us all.” I was beyond moved. I would have probably cried had I not been so shocked.
I spent the following years learning and unlearning all the things I have been taught, told and made to believe about God and what God thought about me as a young queer person. There were no support groups or social media. I had to do a lot of this examination on my own. It was painful and lonely but that call from the elder really gave me a soft place to land whenever my confusion about religion left me in a kind of limbo.
It’s been almost 30 years since that night that I thought that me and Hopey discovered the world was ending. Hopey and I never talked about that night ever again but she was there when I got baptized. Me and the Janet fan were friends for many years. He is STILL a huge Janet fan! I have not heard from the elder that called me but I hope he is well. I hope these people know just how grateful I am to have had them play some part in my spiritual journey.
I have never regretted getting baptized. It served its purpose. It set me on the road to discover my spiritual path and gave me the confidence to define my own relationship with God. I am at peace with this part of my life. I know that I am loved. I wish this kind of peace for anyone who fears the end of the world. I wish this peace for everyone who is searching for something bigger and greater. We are worthy of love and eternal life. Right here, right now