Although I can’t say I’m a Jesus freak today, I have always felt connected to something much more grand than my temporary fleshy vessel. As a child, watching adults transcend through a range of emotions every Sunday, I knew early on that there was something else going on. Beneath those funky suits and flapper’s hats there was a metaphysical transformation going on within. It was something in the air, a most natural high. Although I never was the one to participate in the screaming, dancing, and fainting, I could feel that exo-presence within the Church pews. I felt it in the music: the Language of the Universe. Every time I blew on that sax, I felt like I was connecting with a higher power. I couldn’t sing, I couldn’t scream and shout for glory, but I sure could get lost in a saxophone solo. As I grew up though, music was the only thing keeping me in the Church. Eventually, even that wasn’t enough.
Late into my high school life I started to question the Baptist religion I was christened into. It started with the pastor’s renouncement of homosexuality. I’m sure he was probably doing those types of sermons for years. But it didn’t hit me until this time in my life because he was so smooth and clever about it. He wouldn’t do a full one hour anti-gay sermon. Rather, every once in a while, he would hint at the sinfulness of being gay by connecting it to whatever he was preaching about. You don’t really notice these hints as a kid. But you start to become more aware of subtext as a maturing young adult. I may have not questioned it if it weren’t for my uncles. They have been happily together for as long as I remember (R.I.P. Uncle Jimmy). From my perspective it seemed like they had a better functioning partnership than my parent’s own marriage. It didn’t make sense for homosexuality to be a sin; they love each other, right? I questioned my religion but continued to follow its doctrines.
Watching ‘The Matrix’ was my first bite of the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. It went over my head in middle school. But something about that movie (and its subsequent sequels) kept me coming back in high school. Every re-watch was a reprogramming of my neural circuits. Another bite from the apple. Throughout my college years I stripped the whole tree clean. It was like losing my mental virginity: it seemed so bad, but it felt so good! It wasn’t just the classes I took in undergrad. It was also the people I met, and the inebriated conversations where Mary Jane sometimes played host. At first it felt scary. When I was exposed to an idea that went against my religion/upbringing, I always went through some cognitive dissonance. I am reminded of an English paper I had to write in which I debated from the perspective of an atheist. My cognitive dissonance made it difficult for me to write. Upon finishing I felt so negative. Like what’s the point of living? What’s purpose? I never knew my mind could get so dark. This darkness turned into unspoken negative feelings directed towards others who didn’t think like me. Over time, as I was exposed to more truths, the dissonance began to subside. I realized that humans are more than their viewpoints. Not many of my peers had the same exact views as I. Yet I learned so much from their differences. I couldn’t help but accept them for who they are.
I would go back to the Church during college breaks because of the music. Playing the saxophone was so therapeutic to me. I felt that meta-connection with an alien energy. I literally got high off playing music. But with each passing year, as I plucked more from the Tree, it got harder for me to deal with hearing things I just didn’t believe anymore. I also felt a growing pressure on me from the older members to stay involved. This sense of obligation originally started when I was elected to be a Junior Deacon (one of the first ever) right before college. I didn’t really have a choice in the matter. Nor did I know how to respectfully leave the position as time went on. These growing pressures of obligation and conformity were a catalyst to my departure. The last straw, ironically, came at the hands of the person I respected the most at church. The music director.
“All the youth please come see Reverend Brown after church!”
Rev. Brown’s voice boomed over the loudspeaker soon after the closing procession. My scruffy, unshaven self was getting ready to jet outta there with my younger brother. Hoping to avoid those endless “long time no see” conversations with the older church members. The music director always has a reason for these impromptu meetings. And it was most likely because I, and many of the other members in college, were in attendance. So I didn’t sneak out. Rev. Brown was one of the few people I looked up to at Galilee Baptist. May not see him again for a few months. We all gathered around his piano near the front of the church.
Now I don’t remember his speech word-for-word, but I remember the subject matter oh so clearly. Enough to convince me that I no longer belonged in that environment:
“Now I know you all have probably been hearing a lot of different things. People tryin’ta tell you that Buddha is the right way, that Allah is the right way…” he looked right at my aki beard as he said this, “…that whatever else is the right way. Jesus is the ONLY way. Don’t listen to these people out here trying to convert you. You are a Christian; a follower of Jesus. Now, we’re going to have band practice on…”
The rest of his words just fell to dead ears. I was in so much disbelief that I almost cracked up into laughter. It just didn’t make sense, coming from a guy who has a Ph.D. in the Universal Language: Music! Simple melodic sound vibrations can inspire emotion in anyone, regardless of background. Music crosses cultures and unites us all as humans. Music made me realize that we really are all One as human beings. Not separate. Having been in that field his entire life, I thought Rev. Brown would have made this revelation by now. But the only thing on his mind was keeping his idea of Christianity alive above other spiritual options.
I wanted so much to stand up to him that day. I was afraid of what might come of the younger children who also were present for his speech/rant/crazy talk. I never did tell him how I really felt. I just stopped going to church. The last time I went was right before I left for Japan (the second time). My aunt and uncle had asked the pastor to say a special prayer for me, since they didn’t know when I’d be back stateside. So I went out of respect. Things didn’t feel the same. The vibe just felt different. Of course with family it was all Love. But I was no longer seen as that young future leader in the church. I was a grown ass man about to be gone from this place for a long time.