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Spiritual Biography

Please note: this rather long document was compiled for the vocations committee at my church, for their use in helping me discern a vocation in the body of Christ. Since writing this, I have converted to the Orthodox Church. This document is now the first of three...

I can remember in 1967, at the age of 3, singing "Jesus Loves Me" in the Presbyterian Church after Sunday School. In Vacation Bible School that summer, we sang "Jesus Loves the Little Children" in a park that was on a high river bank overlooking what was once the American Frontier: the Chattahoochee River, on the border between Alabama and Georgia.

In 1969, I gave my life to a God who scared me. A preacher told me that if I didn't pray the sinner's prayer I'd go to hell. At the age of five, hell and the fear of hell is a good motivator. Am I running to God or away from Hell?

In 1976, I stopped by the desk of my 5th grade teacher for a visit - it had been nearly a year since I left her classroom for Junior High. Mrs. Rubin asked me about a cross I was wearing and I said I wanted to be a minister.

After that it all gets a little cloudy.

Growing up we always went to the Church that was closest to our house: a Presbyterian church, a Baptist church, a Methodist church. I was the oldest of three children. My family was my brother, Jimmy, my sister, Anita, my Mom, Diane, and I. My father had left my mother when I was one. When my mother remarried in 1974, we moved to New York: Mom's third husband, Walter, is the man I call Dad. We left the Presbyterian church of Hainesville, GA, and joined the Dutch Reformed Church of Wurtsboro, NY. The welcome that Dad's family - all living in Wurtsboro - provided to my mother and her kids was amazing, all-inclusive and real. We lived in a row of houses on various sized lots: our family, then my grandparents, and then my great grandparents. Also in town were a total of about 60 other relatives. This helped us move from "Outsiders" to "Insiders" very quickly - Dad was a member of the Fire department and worked for the Department of Public Works, Grandma worked on the Volunteer Ambulance Corp and was a school bus driver, Mom soon got a job as secretary to the Mayor, Grandpa was also in the Fire Department and worked for the electrical company.

For some unexplained, adult reason, we later left the Dutch Reformed church and started going to the Methodist Church and on Youth Sunday in 1977, I preached my first sermon there. It was on the Second Coming and I quoted extensively from a work by Hal Lindsey.

In 1978 we again moved to Georgia and after a brief experiment with the Marietta Baptist Tabernacle (they had the largest Sunday School in the State of Georgia) we joined the Acworth United Methodist Church (AUM). After all the vagueness prior to this time, several things stand out very bright in the time at AUM: the music that we sang still fills me with joy. The Sunday morning hymns of Wesley as well as the youth-oriented "Jesus Music" of the 1970s and the Contemporary Gospel music we sang on Sunday Nights all meld together to accentuate this time in my life. Much of what we sung was simple, even simplistic, yet these songs lift me up, even today. We used a book called "Hymns for the Family of God", a non-denominational hymnal filled with "the old stuff" as my mother calls it, like "Just As I Am", "I Come to the Garden Alone", and "It is Well With My Soul". Also in that book were songs by Bill Gaither (stuff from the 50s and 60s) and Chuck Girard (from the 60s and 70s). Some of my fondest church memories come from our Sunday evening services when we would sing songs - all suggested by the congregation - and then listen to a sermon from our pastor, Jim Lowry. Jim is one of the best preachers I have ever heard. As recently as March of this year, my mother and I took a trip to Jim's church in a suburb of Atlanta. He still is one amazing preacher.

One of Jim's sermons, on the Passion of Christ, has left a lasting impression on me. Preached on what used to be called "Passion Sunday", the 20-minute sermon began with the Garden of Gethsemane and continued forward, discussing the physiological aspects of each event from the amount of stress needed on the human body to make it "sweat blood" to how one suffocates during crucifixion rather than bleeds to death. Jim left me literally crying for quite some time for grief and anguish and pity. It is an emotional event that comes upon me regularly at certain events: Good Friday, reading the Passion Gospel, singing "My Song is Love Unknown", etc. Yet in the pastoral session that Jim arranged after he heard what had happened, he counseled me strongly to avoid confusing faith with a feeling. Faith was a loving relationship with Christ and while feelings may play a part if we are so graced, love is always an action, a doing.

The third event from this time that sticks with me is my friendship with Pace Yarbrough. Pace was about the best friend I can imagine for a new guy in town: Pace went to church and Sunday School and youth group, but he was old enough to drive, and he was not in high school although he would have been a junior the year that I was a freshman (there's a story there, but we'll let it pass). He and I hung out rather a lot, and he taught me things about growing up - specifically about growing up in North Georgia as an "outsider".

His "outsider" status was created by the fact that he was expelled from school. My outsider status was because I was the "new kid" - and a Yankee (although I had been born in Georgia, my odd accent hid my true nativity). Also, deep inside me at this time was a growing knowledge that I was gay. My outsider status was only thus furthered, as I was called names at school (names which had also been leveled at Pace for reasons he never explained) and treated poorly, in some cases by the same folks who had got to him. Collectively, we furthered our status as "outsiders" in the way that any clique (no matter how large or small) does: we developed inside jokes and secret code phrases and all sorts of things designed to exclude.

For my 15th birthday (1979) he presented me with a large, gray hat - the hat of a Confederate General: Pace was an ardent opponent of Reconstruction. The presentation of that hat meant that, somewhere and some how, I had passed some test: despite being raised for several years amongst the heathens, my identity as a Southerner was very much intact, or at least regenerated.

But of course, there was another level of our relationship: one that I only now can see. Pace saw me, a berated and tortured outsider suffering from verbal and physical stones thrown by the same people that had succeeded in moving him to a place of violence. Pace was actively trying to keep me from that same place. The Confederate hat came with a card, and on the card was a Bible verse: Proverbs 17:17 "A friend loveth at all times, and a brother is born for adversity." (Pace and I and most of the other folks I knew at this time used the King James Version.) The Confederate hat was, in many ways, a graduation: I had moved, in Pace's eyes, to a place where my anger was creatively channeled and I became comfortable being outside. Although Pace and I have fallen out of touch, I miss him sorely. I know that his love and care for me was one of the things that gave me the personal strength to come out. Today, I need his lessons in dealing with anger just as much.

The final thing from this period was just before my family moved back to New York. My mom let me stay in Georgia to finish out the tenth grade. I lived with my Sunday School teacher and her husband, the youth group leader, Jeanette and David Dantice. Jeanette lived in a nearly Benedictine world where actions like ironing a shirt, obeying those in authority over you and not putting aluminum in the microwave all reflected our response, in love, to what God gave us in His Son. The works of CS Lewis (which I read at night to the Dantice Children) and the teaching of Pat Robertson (on TV a lot) were all important but not as important as relating to God and being filled with the Holy Spirit. It was Jeanette who taught me to seek the Gifts of the Spirit and to use a "Prayer Closet" - some place private in which to pray and be alone with God.

Moving back to New York created rather an interesting dichotomy in my life. Just as I was discovering my own sexuality, my family joined a church that was drifting slowly to the right. It was 1979 and Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority could be found even in the Catskill Mountains of New York's "Borscht Belt". I became a card-carrying member of the club and joined the rest of the congregation in feeling oddly self-righteous. I was at a youth group meeting the night of Ronald Reagan's first election. The local polling place was in the basement of the church. The pastor's son came running upstairs to tell us that Reagan had won Rock Hill, NY. And we knelt in prayer; thanking God for that symbolic victory, and to pray that it wasn't merely symbolic.

Also that November, I saw an ad in the local newspaper announcing a "Pontifical High Mass with the Suffragan Bishop of New York, the Rt Rev'd Walter D. Denis." He was doing the annual visitation to Grace Church in Middletown. I had gone to another Episcopal Church before, but nothing prepared me for the high church world of Grace Church and Bishop Denis. A year later, on 5 November 1981, Paul Moore confirmed me and I became an Episcopalian. Two Youth Sunday Sermons later, I was on my way to college and, as far as Grace Church and I knew, to seminary. I was out to my pastor, John Osgood, and all was "on schedule" for what I had told my fifth grade teacher years earlier.

During my first year of college, my brother and his best friend were killed in a motorcycle accident. My relationship with God changed to one of quiet trust to one of yelling a lot: "How can this happen?" I confess that most of my reaction to my brother's death was based on the indifference he a felt towards each other. I recognized the loss to our family more than my personal loss for quite some time. Only now, when Jimmy would be 35, do I miss having a brother. I spent many long nights walking from my college to a job washing dishes in the town at the bottom of the hill. This walk involved a long part up hill through a forest, then a long flat part walking past homes, then a sudden left hand turn through a golf course and then more up hills, through the campus itself to the dorm. During these walks I would yell at God about death and loss: A forest and golf course are both wonderful places to yell at God and He does listen. But after a while my own anger would drive me to silence, and then I'd just breathe.

I transferred to NYU and things changed even more: drugs, sex and alcohol entered my life in friendly amounts. I began smoking. I came out. I went to some classes. I failed Latin. I passed Hebrew with flying colors. I learned about neo-paganism and I discovered that it was possible to go to the same church every Sunday - for years - and for no one to know your name.

I found myself identifying more and more with the community created by my fraternity. With the help of some of the brothers who were also spiritually minded we turned our organization's rituals into rites that could be identified as "initiations" by students of religion. I was reading Mercea Eliade at the time and was very into the concept of "make your own" when it came to religion and ritual.

During this time my friend, Nina, and I served as an odd sort of chaplaincy team to my fraternity and our companion sorority. Although she could not participate in our "secret rites", she and I became the tarot card readers, the aura cleansers, the "marriage counselors", the exorcists and the blessers of dorm rooms and football teams for our circle of friends. We also hosted rituals for new moons and full moons and the several pagan holidays that fell during the school year. These were not "official" fraternity events, but they took place in the house. The list of invited guests and regular attendees soon grew to include brothers, girlfriends, roommates, members of the gay and lesbian union (of which I was the co-chair) lovers and professors. When it began to be too regular for our dorm rooms, we moved to an apartment in the east village and officially named ourselves "witches." We called our group Ananda, the Sanskrit word for "joy". Nina and I served as teachers - having been around the longest (a year or two more).

At the same period (1983-87), I was going from parish to parish in NYC. For a long time I was at the Parish of St. Luke-in-the-Fields. Then I attended the Cathedral of St John the Divine. For a while there, I was one of the acolytes. Then I attended the Church of St Mary the Virgin, a.k.a. Smokey Mary's. Many of the churches in the Diocese of New York are "high", but St Mary's was one of the highest. Eventually I ended up living in the mission house, helping with the fix-it work and painting for one summer. While there I learned all sorts of liturgical stuff, and I learned about how (some) gay clergy were expected to act in the Church.

In the summer of 1987 I asked the curate of St Mary's, Fr. Sloane, to be my spiritual director. At this point in my life I (I turned 23 that August) was living in New York City and, at that time, was still in college. I was at best, only pretending to be Christian. I was in an unusual position as far as a young gay man: all of the clergy at my church were gay men. But two of them were closeted (and the rector was very jealous of any gay man who was "out" as I was). In our first meeting, sitting in Fr. Sloane's office one hot New York afternoon, he presented me with a list of things that I would need to no longer do in order to be not only a good Christian, but also a "better Christian" as he thought someone in the clergy must be. First on the list was celibacy. He provided no "why" other than this was what was needed to go on.

That was the last time I met with my spiritual director: and he never asked me to come back. That October I got a job at the National Church Office (The Church Center or "815") and shortly thereafter, the rector asked me to leave St Mary's Mission house. This created a rift between the rector and me, and for a short time between the rector and the other clergy. The rector saw fit to criticize me in other ways as well and thus Sundays became rather a scary time for me. All the while I was continuing to explore pagan spirituality and working with the witches.

After reading the Laughter of Aphrodite by Carol P Christ and several books by Mary Daly I became convinced that the sex-negative attitudes of some of the clergy at St Mary's were just a symptom of a wider disease that filed Christendom. On Sunday 14 February 1988, following High Mass, I left a note on Fr Sloane's vesting table, informing him that I was withdrawing from the Episcopal Church.

The next few years - almost ten - I spent moving deeper and deeper into paganism. I learned how to summon the quarters, how to lead ritual, how to call the gods. I learned a whole bunch of stuff and I learned a whole bunch of names. After learning for a time (3 years or so) I once again started teaching. By this time Ananda had ceased to exist, and I lost touch with Nina. I began working with an established tradition (sort of a "denomination" within paganism) and then with a specific teacher within that tradition. As basic learning turned more towards teaching, I began to study more in-depth stuff: Grail mythology, astrology, Kabala, Crowley, Celtic Myths, Welsh language, stone temples, star alignments and calendars. Like going on a shopping trip just because you like to spend money, I found myself nearly compulsively reading new and exciting stuff. Always more knowledge. None of it worked. What was work? I don't know.

At the same time, I was working at the Church Center and getting as angry at the staff at 815 as I had gotten at the Rector of St Mary's. During my tenure at 815 I learned that the national church gets a lot of money from folks who don't like gay people in ministry. In order to appease them, sometimes it became necessary for me to suck up. I'm good at that. But I didn't like it: there were times when I'd spend almost every night of the week sitting in Ty's bar on Christopher Street, enjoying the company, watching movies and drinking my dinner.

Between fights with the Church and pagan groups - which would form, break up and reform with almost lunar regularity - the only think I knew was that Something or Someone, some voice or hand was pulling me forward. Sometimes I was kicking and screaming. Sometimes I was laughing and skipping. But never did I get closer than to hear an echo or to see only a slight afterglow.

I left New York City in 1997. Having made the decision, all of my NYC defenses started to fall away. The last time I took a subway at rush hour I was nearly in tears before I got home. I thought I had come to SF because I could be gay here. I think I had convinced myself that that was the only part of my life that created my identity. My attempts to create pagan community failed in SF - mostly, I think, because of differences between East Coast pagans and West Coast pagans. But after being here a year, I followed a suggestion from a friend who had visited SGN and thought it would be a perfect fit. What he told me was "Gnostic Meditation" and "Medieval Mysticism" was important to Rick Fabian. Don't ask me where he got that...

My Journals from that time indicate that I was wrestling with concepts of Community and "can I come back to church" and what would my ego do if I did? In 1998, I received my Third Degree initiation in the Welsh Wiccan tradition. This qualified me as an Elder in my tradition. I was empowered to do anything I wanted - what did I want? Community and a relationship with the Holy One. How could I do that in the Welsh Tradition? So for a while I stopped coming to SGN. I told my self "You don't have to go every Sunday because you're not a Christian. You only need to go when you feel like it." I was totally absent for 6 months and yet no one seemed to care when I came back: my button was there. My friends welcomed me back. Here was a community that held and supported me, and so I began to think about membership.

The summer before I joined (in October of 1999), I had a major fight with my pride. My friends would write me emails and ask me what the problem was - God was obviously working, why not let Him? To which my only reply was, "Sure, but do I want Him to?" What finally got me was the sense of Community I found at SGN. These people were honestly seeking God and honestly wanted to know me. I could not get beyond that. The first time (prior to joining) that I received an email from a member of the parish, it closed with the word "love". I hit reply and almost closed with my standard "yours" when I realized that the "love" was truthful, and real, and sincere. I didn't know what to do. With the exception of business emails, I now close all communications with "Much Love". I realized it was real - because it's not me doing the loving.

I took a class in the Church Fathers. I thought that there I might find out what it was that was calling me to this place. Through that class I some how developed the idea that the "what" at SGN was the amount of "eastern Orthodox" flavor. So I began to research the Jesus Prayer. Again this was only more knowing, more studying, so I decided to do instead. Praying the Jesus Prayer, over and over, while studying the Church Father caused me to realize one night in February 2000, on my way to class that the only thing missing from my life all along, the only sin I was committing, the only absence, was in daring to do anything (or in this case, everything) without Jesus. My Sunday School teacher had been right: ironing your shirts without Jesus is wrong. Living without Him is impossible. As I turned the corner of 17th Street on to Deharo, I prayed what that preacher in 1967 had called the sinner's prayer. I gave my heart, my life stuff, my loves, my job, my hates, my sins, my everything to Jesus and asked him to take and use them all - me - as He saw fit. I confessed the only sin I knew: trying to keep Him out of some part of my life. I asked His forgiveness and I accepted it.

A discussion in class that night led to my joint facilitation of a course on Jesus and the Gospels. In turn that led to a current course in the Writings of John. At the same time, participation in the liturgy at SGN as a deacon has called out my voice, callout out my love and called out my desire to call others out of their hiding places.

The jobs I've had have been all over the spectrum, usually in administrative fields with some overlap with retail with a good smattering of tech support. I've served as administrative assistant and program assistant in two World Mission departments - Asia/Pacific/Middle East and World Mission Information and Networks. I worked in bookstores (sales and management) as well as very briefly in a pornography company. I sold David's Cookies (manager) and Sweet Victory Glace. Since coming to SF, I have also worked as a department secretary in Multicultural Education and Catholic Education at the University of San Francisco. Then I took a stint answering emails in DotCommuslavia, and beginning on 23 April, I return to the world of Education and Tech Support as I take up my former position as technology manager at the California institute of Integral Studies.

I'm singing again for the first time in I don't know how long. I life my voice and hands in praise and joy and it feels right. But I know, like the Pastor told me long ago, that it's not the "feeling" that matters, but rather a relationship. Jesus loves me. There is a God of Love who loves us, and all that I give I give in response to all He has given me.

This story continues, discussing my conversion to Orthodoxy

Huw Raphael | 1998.09.01:2349 (@242) | Personal
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