If I had to name the god of when it all fell apart, I would name it Tolerant.
I hung up with my parents and started crying. I had just told them that I was dropping out of college. All of my dreams were falling apart. I wasn’t going to go to seminary. I wasn’t going to be a missionary. I had let God, my family, my friends, my church, and myself down.
In the lead up to that moment, I had spent most of the summer alone, working for a Christian radio station. Most of my friends had gone off to do summer missions, just like I had the previous year. Carrie had gone to Hong Kong for the entire summer. My sister went on her senior trip to France. My parents had moved to Houston, my new “home” in which I knew no one. My campus minister had left our school to take a job somewhere else.
My only outlets for social interaction were a small Baptist church Carrie and I had switched our membership to and my job. At work, I showed up when everyone was leaving for the day, so I worked alone in the control room for a few hours before heading back to my apartment to be alone there. At church, the pastor I adored had left for a job pastoring a church in West Virginia. I showed up for the service as late as possible and left as soon as I could when it was over.
On top of the loneliness, I couldn’t beat the sin in my life. The sin I left unnamed when I asked for forgiveness. The thing that the bible told me God detested. I told myself that, if there wasn’t something wrong with God, then I must be the problem. I was broken at my core. Twisted in some way that even God couldn’t straighten out.
When the Fall Semester of college started, I was still trying to hold everything together. Carrie was coming off of the high of summer missions, our new Campus Minister breathed fresh air into our ministry, and my job in Radio was something that I was good at but the overnight hours were taking their toll on me.
My band had lost Brian Smith and replaced him with Shawn Pitre, Jerry Curry, and Kent Caperton. Those three, along with Gary, Jeff, and me, called ourselves Ecclesia, the ancient greek word for church. We led our campus ministry in worship every week and our time together was the one thing besides Carrie that felt right in my life. I took nothing but music classes that semester and learned the difference between a major and minor third, how to dissect a chord by ear, as well as when breaking musical rules can create beauty instead of dissonance.
I passed all of my music classes but still felt like a total loser when it came to school. I told one of my friends about my frustrations with college –who was himself on his seventh year of school– and he looked at me and said, “then quit.” That option hadn’t been on the table for me. My life trajectory was dependent upon a Bachelor’s Degree. I couldn’t “just quit.”
I held on to my life with a white knuckle grip. Most people couldn’t tell how bad I was doing. I’ve always been pretty good at hiding.
Life finally slipped out of my grasp in the first week of the Spring Semester. That’s when I called my parents and told them I was dropping out.
My Deepest, Darkest Secret
At some point right before I dropped out, I found a Christian leader I could trust. I told her I didn’t know what was wrong. I didn’t know if I was gay or a crossdresser or transsexual or what. She was patient with me and did a fantastic job of modeling Jesus’ love and acceptance of sinners. As we talked through my deepest, darkest secret over a few days, she helped me figure out that I wasn’t gay… which came as a huge relief to me. I was so glad I could keep fantasizing about touching boobs and lusting over the women in Victoria’s Secret catalogs. She –and I cannot state this strongly enough– with good intentions, told me that if I wasn’t attracted to men and liked dressing like a woman, then I must have a sexual fetish.
[Let me take a timeout here and explain 1990s America to you. The only places to see people who bent gender rules was in porn or on afternoon talk shows. In that world, in the common vernacular of the time, there were people with a sexual fetish (crossdressers) and people who completely changed their bodies as well as their sexual orientation (transsexual). Transgender, while known in academic circles and, maybe, in the Gay/Lesbian Community was not a common word nor concept.
So, this well intentioned woman, using all the tools she had at her disposal as well as the limited information I had given her, told me I had a sexual fetish. I never questioned this opinion. It is the reality I worked out of for two decades of my life.]
She then found a Christian Counselor for me who saw me at no charge. I don’t remember much of our time together, other than it feeling very cold and sterile in his office. However, he punched through my darkness with one question: “Dallas, do you think Jesus would be surprised if he walked into your bedroom and you were wearing women’s clothing?”
I relaxed internally as it hit me that an Omnipotent God wasn’t shocked or surprised. He knew. I could tell him all about “it” and he would listen because he already knew about “it”.
The World Will See My Glory
I told Carrie about my “sexual fetish” of crossdressing. I thought it would be over between us but she stayed with me. From that day forward, any time someone talked about unconditional love, I would think about she and I sitting in my car in front of her house, and her not leaving me.
Carrie and I left our small church and started going to the church she grew up in. They were this weird little group that met in a Junior High Auditorium. They felt somewhat familiar to my Baptist background but they were… different. They seemed less stuffy. No one wore suits. Everyone helped with tearing down and getting everything stored away when the services were over. They let me bring my bass, Black Maggie, to their services and her deep voice rattled the chairs and walls of the middle school auditorium.
Their pastor even let me meet with him to start picking out the music we sang. He was a great guy, a former Youth Pastor, who was extremely patient with me. I realized as he kept making space for me to move into leadership that I needed to tell him about my Deep Dark Secret. He listened and, like Carrie and the woman I first trusted, accepted me. What I was learning was that God was so much more tolerant of my sin than I could have ever dreamt.
I remember one sermon the pastor gave in the Lafayette Middle School auditorium. He said that Jesus reaches past our achievements and into the muck in our heart. As he holds the muck he says, “this is where the world will see my glory.” I inhaled deeply at that audacious statement. It was the exact opposite of how I viewed God.
I saw God as, basically, pissed off at me (and probably everyone else) on a regular basis. He was constantly shaking his head because I kept fucking up my life. I kept being drawn to the feminine and wanting to leave the masculine. I kept screwing up with the intellect God had given me. I kept wanting to touch Carrie’s boobs and butt even though we weren’t married yet. This god I believed in tolerated me because he had a plan for me and he had created a theological math solution in Jesus that forced him to love me. However, I didn’t think that god liked me. That pastor challenged some of my deepest notions of god with one sentence on that Sunday.
A Little Longer
Even with the handful of people accepting me, I was still sinking lower and lower. I just couldn’t see a way out from underneath my problems. I fantasized more and more about making a break from my life. Being a Type A Personality, I made a To-Do List. I was going to quit my band, break up with Carrie, disappear off of the face of the earth without so much as a whisper, move to San Francisco, and live the life I fantasized about. It was a life full of exciting things like growing out my hair, wearing tank tops, and piercing my ears. I always had big dreams.
Right around the time I was going to quit the band I was in, we were handed the opportunity to record an album. It was going to be a fundraiser project that would send summer missionaries all over the world with its proceeds. I threw my To Do List away. The opportunity to record an album beat the opportunity to be myself. I figured I could keep fighting this sin a little longer.
Another reason I was fearful of going through with my To-Do List was that I was terrified of rejection. I wanted, more than anything else, to belong. I desperately wanted to be accepted. That’s why I hid part of myself from everyone for so long. That’s why I did evangelization even though it felt disingenuous and manipulative. That’s why I dressed up for church even though I hated dressing up. These were the costs of belonging to the tribe.
Over a semester break, we drove to Carrollton, TX and spent two days in a studio recording our album. While we were there, I checked in with my parents and got some bad news. My grandmother, in a rehearsal for their Christmas Musical, had suffered an aneurysm while she was singing. She was rushed to a hospital in Houston. I was driven straight to Houston from Carrollton and I saw Gramma one time before she died. I still don’t know if she recognized me or not. I told her that we were taking care of Grampa and that everything was OK. I can see her staring up at me from the hospital bed even now as I write this.
According to my Evangelical theology, she went to Heaven, even though she was a Methodist. According to my Catholic theology, she went to hell, because she was a Methodist. According to science, she turned into dirt and bones in the middle of a field in Bay City, Texas. All I knew was that one of the warmest women the world had ever known was dead.
Supposed to Pair Off
When you’re in a Campus Ministry (or if your girlfriend is in one after you drop out), the culture of the organization is very similar to Sorority & Fraternity life. Except for the True Love Waits stuff. And no one drinks. And there’s no Greek letters. And no one curses… except for that Assembly of God guy who had Tourette’s. I loved standing near him when we prayed. So, basically, now that I think about it, they’re nothing alike at all. Except that we sat next to each other at football games and that people paired off during college and got married when they graduated.
We all were supposed to pair off and get married. Lee & Ginny got married. Gary & Christie got married. Bert and Mandy got married. Larry & Melissa were leaning towards getting married. So, naturally, Carrie kept pestering me to get married.
I use the word “pestering” because I was in a band, man. I had recorded an album, man. We were, like, going to make it big. We had played a couple of decent sized gigs and our sound was definitely tight after playing together for a few years. So, I broke up with Carrie because she made me pick between her and the band.
I lost ten pounds in the month we were apart. When I went “home” to Texas for a holiday, I was talking to my older cousin, Bobby, and his new wife, Jennifer. They were so happy and their happiness was a mirror reflecting back to me my misery. How had I not seen how miserable I was without Carrie?!
At the end of the visit, I got in the car to drive back to Louisiana, determined to ask Carrie to get back together with me. I was scared shitless as I drove East on I-10 because I didn’t know if she wanted to get back together. I had broken up with her three times and she hadn’t so much as said hi to me since the last time I had dumped her. For the first time I could see that maybe I didn’t even deserve to be with her.
It Wasn’t All Laughs
My dad’s dad, “Pa-Pa,” died within a year of Gramma (mom’s mom). I lived next to him and, since I had dropped out of school, I was one of his caretakers as the Stage 4 cancer ate his body from the inside out.
Where my Gramma’s death was sudden, Pa-Pa’s was a long, drawn-out affair. Is it weird that I remember the humor from his dying more than the pain of those months?
The doctor said that Pa-Pa was dehydrated so one day I just kept bringing him glass after glass of water. The next day, when I went to see him he said, “Jesus Christ, Dallas! I woke up wet from my neck to my toes because I peed so much in my sleep.” I stopped giving him so much water and he started rubbing Vaseline on his gums to keep them from sticking to his lips.
One time, he was talking on the phone to my uncle -his son- Tommy. Pa-Pa wanted to change the channel so he pointed the phone at the TV and started mashing the buttons on it for the station he wanted to switch to. I could hear my uncle screaming “Daddy!” from the phone in between the loud beeping as Papa mashed the numbers. Papa put the phone to his ear and exclaimed, “Tommy? There’s something wrong here!”
Unfortunately, it wasn’t all laughs. There was one day that my sister and I couldn’t get Pa-Pa to cooperate with us as we tried to get him into the car. We all just stood in his front yard for a long time at the car door. He suddenly had a moment of clarity and complied, leaving my bewildered sister and me speechless. That same night he wouldn’t get out of his chair and into his bed. I finally made the decision that no one else would make. I picked him up and put him in his bed. As his wife, Ma-Ma, helped him lay down, he looked at me and repeated over and over, “You son of a bitch. You son of a bitch. You son of a bitch.”
After one scare, I drove him home from the hospital. As we turned onto St. Mary Street, he started crying. “I didn’t think I’d get out of there,” he told me as he stared at the trees. It hadn’t occurred to me until that moment that he thought he was that close to death. I made the decision to drive him around town a little longer than was necessary. The massive oaks of the university and the azaleas of the Saint Streets were suddenly too beautiful to not appreciate.
Carrie showed Pa-Pa the engagement ring I had given her and he put the diamond in his mouth to taste it. (Spoiler alert: she took me back. Carrie had been just as miserable as I had been during our break.) After that moment of comedy there was a moment of gravity as Pa-Pa did the math and realized he probably wasn’t going to live long enough to see our wedding.
He was right.
I got off of work one morning at 6am and did my morning pop-in at Ma-Ma & Pa-Pa’s house. My Aunt Pat and my sister were there. Pa-Pa wasn’t doing well. My Aunt started doing the assessment Hospice had given her and he appeared to be in the last few minutes of life. I didn’t believe it. I went home to sleep and was woken up by my sister a few minutes later. I walked back to Pa-Pa’s house and stared down at his lifeless body, angry at myself for giving in to the tiredness instead of spending those moments with him and my family.
According to my Evangelical theology, he went to hell. According to my Catholic theology, he went to Purgatory. According to science, he went back into the soil and is a part of the ecosystem in Scott, LA. No matter what happened, I tried not to think about it. He’d suffered enough as far as I was concerned.
Those years had a lot of loss in them. I lost two grandparents. I gave up on my dreams of working in ministry. I almost lost the woman of my dreams.
But I found a career in radio. And acceptance from people when I showed them the darkest part of myself. I never imagined I’d discover a tolerant God or tolerant people.
Read the next chapter: A God named Formulaic