If I had to name the god of my time in Houston, I would name it Holistic.
You can take the musician out of the band but you can’t take the band out of the musician. My bass fingers were itching to make original music again. Those itchy fingers met an itchy singing voice while I lived in China. Krista Vossler is one of the most amazing singers I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing alongside. When she would sing at the International Church (as per Chinese policy, only expat passport holders could attend), I would be blown away by her raspy, resonant voice.
One day Krista mentioned that she wanted to make music when she moved back to America… that she wanted to be in a band. I latched onto that and told her I would seriously like to be in that band with her. I knew that this was going to be my last shot at “making it” when it came to music. I was at the age that it was almost time to hang up my bass for good. So, while Carrie and I wrapped up our time in China, Krista and I debated the virtues of York, PA or Houston, TX as the home for our band. Ultimately, Houston won out. (I don’t have time to write about our band, Ship to Shore, in this blog post. Spoiler Alert- we didn’t make it big. As a consolation prize to the three of you that wanted to know more, here’s an ancient, badly recorded song from one of our gigs. Krista found her husband in Houston so I don’t feel too guilty about her moving across America. She also made a solo project that was amazing.)
The First Church of the Hipster
Once the plans for where to live while becoming a Rock Star were finalized, it was time to find a church. I had discovered this new movement called The Emerging Church. It was doing to the Evangelical world what Willow Creek and Saddleback had done in the previous generation. I grabbed a book by a dude named Dan Kimball and dove in. He talked about Generation X -my generation- and how vastly different our approach to spirituality was than previous generations, due in large part to the philosophy of Post-Modernism. Dan was speaking my language. I knew that I had to approach America the same way I had approached China… I was going to be a missionary to my own country and I needed to be a part of a church that was engaging culture in new and risky ways.
I started googling “Emergent Church Houston”, “Emerging Church Houston”, and any other variant of that phrase I could think of. This church with a weird looking website and a familiar name popped up – Ecclesia. Since I already knew that ekklesia was the word for church in Ancient Greek and I had played in a band with the same name, I wasn’t put off by the strange moniker for a church. While living in China, I wrote in my journal, “I think I just found our church in Houston.”
Carrie and I walked into the West End Baptist Church building and fell in love at first sight. The old building had been transformed for the evening service of Ecclesia. Original art painted by artists within the congregation hung everywhere. Candles were set at the bottom of the windows as well as at the stage. There was an art station for painting during the service, if you were so inclined. Communion was real wine (or grape juice for those in recovery/kids) and loaves of bread that had been baked by members of the community. The benediction (the closing prayer) for the service was poetry that was written during the service. In short, every week was a creative orgasm. Phuc, Aminah, Tyndall, and others kept finding new ways to express the liturgies and traditions of Mainline Christianity while staying within the Evangelical world.
Ecclesia’s band was a professional band, the Robbie Seay Band. They gave away their services for free to the community as part of their personal acts of worship. Their songs were different than the music of any other church service I’d experienced. I remember singing one song of Robbie’s and feeling comforted by the lyrics. However, I also remember thinking “is this Biblical?” Later that year, I stumbled upon the lyrics -almost word for word- in the book of Psalms.
Let me explain for you outsiders looking in. Most Christian music has this shiny veneer with a pageant-sized smile attached to it. Sunday morning music usually consists of christians standing around singing about how good God is, how wonderful and happy we are, and thanking God for loving undeserving turds like us. One of my atheist friends called it a “Celestial North Korea” and I laughed out loud because the description was painfully true of the average church service. The songs of the bible (known as Psalms) rarely look like that. Neither did Robbie’s lyrics. Robbie left room for doubt, grief, fear, and regret in his songs.
The pastors of Ecclesia were amazing, too. Chris Seay and Chad Karger were phenomenal in both their mature perspectives and their willingness to wade into people’s messiness. They knew Carrie and me by name within a few weeks of us showing up and immediately welcomed us to find our places within the community. I still love these guys and am grateful for their positive influence in my life.
Carrie and I, being the good little rule followers we were, joined a small group. We knocked on the door of the address we were given and walked into the weirdest living room I’d ever seen. There was soap all over the place. The long haired guy who answered the door explained that he and his brother had a “communal home” and that they co-owned a soap company. He didn’t wear shoes. (When I finally worked up the courage and asked him why he didn’t wear shoes, he looked at me like I was the crazy one and told me “they rob you of texture.”) One guy was laying on an ottoman in the middle of the room and spent most of the evening staring upside down at Carrie and me. There was a dude who had changed his name to Shwahh… how you pronounce an upside down e.
Welcome to Ecclesia.
One I moved past the strangeness, I discovered that these people were absolutely amazing. They took bold risks. They dreamt big. They challenged all of my assumptions about what Christian living looks like. Krista and I found our guitarist/songwriter, Michael Rice, in that home. A record label and clothing company incubated in that living room. These people celebrated Carrie’s pregnancy with us. We all wept together during another couple’s miscarriage. We grew to 24 people and ended up becoming three different small groups. There are two specific experiences that occurred during my time in that living room that changed the way I live, think, vote, and believe.
The first experience was a book called Simpler Living, Compassionate Life. It’s a collection of essays that are powerful beyond measure. We didn’t just study the book as a group, we lived the book as a group. We put its theories to the test and discovered that they didn’t fall down. All of our lives were enriched by the practices those writings extolled.
The second experience was a CD Shwahh gave me. I popped in the CD and listened as the man started his talk with two simple questions, “Is it OK for your mom to work in a factory making 50 cents a day? Is it OK for someone in Bangladesh to work in a factory making 50 cents a day? If you said it isn’t OK for your mom but it is OK for the person in Bangladesh, then you believe in two different classes of people.” I never finished the CD. I didn’t need to because I realized I was guilty of exactly what this man had accused me of. I knew that I had to change.
A Vow On That Day
“It’s a boy,” the ultrasound tech told Carrie and I.
I felt the floor drop out from beneath me when she said that. I got vertigo. I looked at Carrie and smiled, hiding my emotion from her. I was intimidated beyond belief in that moment.
I never felt at home in groups of men. I always felt like I was on the outside looking in. I remember thinking and thinking of things to talk about with guys when I found myself stuck with them, throwing out the sentence or topic I had come up with in my head, and watching it fall flat. I was a wallflower in my own gender… and now I had to raise a boy and teach him how to become a man.
I made a vow on that day. As with most things involving my gender identity, I didn’t articulate it. It was made at a non-verbal, gut level.
Since I was having a son, I was stuck in the world of men.
Since I was stuck with guys, I was going to get good at being a guy.
I wasn’t going to fail my son.
Show Up & Provide
Carrie’s belly kept getting bigger and our savings kept getting smaller. Time was running out for me to find work. I had been runner-up for a handful of jobs in radio and I didn’t know where I was going to find full time employment. My part time job managing Carrie’s family’s websites and Carrie’s part time job substitute teaching paid our bills but that wouldn’t cover raising a child.
I kept praying Robbie’s song:
Days are fleeting
And life is hard
Come back to us
And, with the sun, bring surprising love
To this day of Eternal God
This song was my prayer. Jewish people had sung it at sunset while they wandered in the desert. It was a prayer asking God to provide for them when the sun rose, to bring not only light but to also bring love and hope to the day. I needed God to show up and provide a job for me.
Carrie went into labor the day after I got a job offer. God let it go down to the wire but he proved to me and Carrie that he would provide for us. He truly was יְהֹוָה יִרְאֶה, the God Who Provides.
What If They Knew
When Carrie and I started leading a small group, we found ourselves in a room full of strangers and we needed to develop a sense of community. We made the decision to share Life Stories and, holy shit, did our group go deep. Each week one of us took a turn unzipping our skin and standing bare before everyone. The group did well, holding each other’s vulnerability with tenderness and care. We quickly transitioned from “strangers” to “friends.”
My turn to share my life story was coming up and I knew I had to tell the group about it, my “sexual sin.” I made the decision to tell half of the truth. I spoke of it in past tense… like something I had conquered but still battled the temptation to act on. The group handled my partial honesty very well. I felt a relief as I unburdened myself.
I also felt fear. What if they knew it was something that I couldn’t beat?
Even in telling the truth, I lied. I wasn’t going to burden anyone else with my shit. I just figured that the emotional anguish and isolation I felt were the cost of being as fucked up as I was. I loved these people and I wouldn’t hurt them. This was my “thorn in the flesh.” This was my cross to carry. I saw the pain I caused Carrie in our first year of marriage and I wasn’t going to inflict that pain on anyone, other than myself.
For the First Time
On May 21st of 2004, the world became an infinitely more beautiful place. Riding a wave of amniotic fluid, my son splashed into my life. Until then, I had only known him as the occasional bump against Carrie’s skin. In that moment, my heart grew in ways I didn’t know it could.
I thought I knew what love was. I had been clueless up until that moment. I had been calling an anthill a mountain. I truly understood love when I saw my son for the first time.
The nurses turned off the lights and he opened his eyes, taking in this strange new place. After weighing him and making sure he was in good shape, the nurses gave him back to Carrie. Then they asked us his name.
For the first time, I spoke his name in public. We had kept it a secret until he was born. My band came in to celebrate with us as did my small group, my parents, and my in-laws.
It was the greatest day of my life.
A Live Wire
One of the small group leaders in our church had told their small group -and published on their blog- that they thought Paul the Apostle had made a mistake when he called homosexuality a sin. I had recently been named one of the leaders of my church, so I brought it to the attention of the other leaders of Ecclesia. We agreed that this person needed to be talked to and that they couldn’t lead a small group if this was their view.
Because they were my friends, I volunteered to be the person that talked to this couple. It was a stupid move on my part. Anything LGBT related was a live wire for me because I was constantly repressing anything feminine about myself and condemning myself for those thoughts and feeling. There was no way in which I could have this conversation with my friends from a neutral place.
As I expected, the conversation was awkward, ugly, and left all of us hurt. My friends weren’t changing their minds and I couldn’t change mine. If I changed my mind, it meant I had to change my mind about myself. Like I said, it was a live wire. They left the church.
I did my theological duty but hurt my friends in the process. I felt like shit for how I treated them and how I was treating myself.
But the church was happy with me.
This Noble Task
There was a ceremony in which I was ordained as a minister that I don’t remember. What I do remember is the Certificate of Ordination. It’s signed by three of the men that led Ecclesia at the time. The document informed churches everywhere that Dallas Begnaud was worthy of proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. I walked a little taller for a few days after being ordained. It felt so good to be seen by people I respected and told that I was capable of this noble task.
A few months after they ordained me, Ecclesia sent me out to be a Church Planter in my hometown. It was what I wanted to do and I felt called to do it. I had dreamt about it in college and I was going to start a church alongside my friend, Drew, who was leaving his church in Arkansas to move back to Lafayette.
As I passed the I10/I45 interchange in the rented UHaul and looked at Downtown Houston for the last time, I started crying. Coldplay was on the radio and the lyrics reflected my mood:
Tears stream down your face
When you lose something you cannot replace
I was so grateful in that moment for the city of Houston, its people, its varied cultures, and its many gifts to me. I had learned that community can grow anywhere you cultivate it. I had learned that God truly does provide… even if he waits until the last minute to do so. I learned that dreams that you think die at 20 sometimes happen at 30.
The God I believed in when I left Houston was more holistic. He wanted social justice and he wanted to reward hard work. He cared about how we treated his beautiful planet and he gave us dominion over it. He wanted us to enjoy these bodies he gave us and not be ruled by them. He was the god of the word “and”… the word “or” was too small to contain him.
I couldn’t wait to share these discoveries and experiences with people in my hometown.
Read the next part: An Interlude.
Not related to the story, many of my favorite memories of Houston involve riding the bus.