And the walls come tumbling down (Deconstruction Part 6)

Deconstruction is a process. Maybe some people wake up one day and realize they no longer believe in the things they spent decades cultivating but that's not what happened for me.

2010 until 2013 was a difficult time. Financially we were recovering from the failure of my business. My wife and I both changed jobs twice, one of which was not her choice. I was diagnosed with cancer. We lost a pregnancy and in 2013 my wife lost her dad. Things weren't going according to plan. The promises we were made as Evangelicals weren't panning out.

It was late in 2011 when I was approached by church leadership to become a deacon. The qualifications were that I was a married man in good standing with my membership (meaning I attended and I tithed). The church was already in trouble and they were approaching any man with these qualifications. More men were deacons than not.

I already had serious doubts about my faith but I wanted to do what was best for my community of church members. I also wanted to make my dad proud. He's a former pastor and missionary himself. When I was younger I said I wanted to be in ministry as well but never followed through. I felt becoming a deacon would lessen the disappointment.

The process itself was pretty easy. They interviewed me and asked me if I believed the things I was supposed to do as a Southern Baptist. Most of which was the standard stuff, Jesus is God, he was executed around 2000 years ago, he didn't stay dead and his resurrection is an "atonement" for all the bad stuff I do in the eyes of God. They did have a particular hang-up about alcohol though, as Baptists do. I was asked if I'd ever partook and when I admitted to doing so once or twice before (I was far from a regular drinker)[2], there were those who advocated that I not be accepted.  Those who realized they were going to run out of deacons if they got too selective prevailed and I was ordained in a ritualistic service a few Sundays later.

The duties of a Southern Baptist deacon, at least in our church, included talking to assigned families and praying with them. I was never good at that part, given that I'm quite introverted. Other than that we ushered the services or took turns walking the parking lot to watch for potential break-ins. Classical paranoia in a white church in an increasingly minority-populated neighborhood.

It wasn't long before I realized the entire idea was a grave mistake. The first clue, and probably one of my first exposures to blatant racism in a church (at least that I recognized) came only a few weeks into my tenure.  There was a Latin American congregation that for some reason lost its meeting place. They were requesting space in our large and underused building. The deacons had no objection to this as we already had a Korean congregation meeting within our walls as well.

Our pastor, brought forward the idea that we should make them full members of our church and allow them to hold services in the main sanctuary. The Koreans were completely separate, meeting in an old chapel space and keeping to themselves, but the idea of integrating a minority population into the actual church was a non-starter.

One deacon, in particular, stood up and passionately defended "Those who have been here for years will now be outvoted by this new group with a different culture." ("Culture" is often a code word for "brown people" in Evangelical circles). It stung because, for the first time, I saw things that I didn't want to take part in.[1]

Things really began to unravel with the scandals. Our pastor, who was also a long-time family friend of my parents, had his house foreclosed on. The problem was the church was giving him money to pay his mortgage. We'll leave aside why the church didn't pay the mortgage directly, but regardless, he was spending the money on other things.

If you've not been in Evangelical circles before it's easy to imagine the coked-up megachurch preacher (looking at you, Osteen), flying around on their private jets, begging for dollars in return for blessings.  The truth is most churches are small affairs, run by pastors on shoestring salaries. Often they're only part-time. In our case, our pastor and associate pastor were full-time salaried, while the youth minister and music minister had other jobs. The point is, we didn't pay our guy enough and he wasn't making ends meet.

Fraud is still a problem though, and made a bigger problem by him throwing his own wife under the bus. "She takes care of the finances," he said and thus the mortgage problems were not his fault.

Then the accusations began. The pastor and his wife had two sons. (Both were my friends when our families were missionaries in Tanzania at the same time). Before their return, they adopted a girl from Lebanon and later adopted a brother and sister from Tanzania.  By the time he was pastoring our church the two sons were adults while the Lebanese girl was in college, and the brother and sister were teens in high school.

Both daughters accused the eldest son of sexual abuse that occurred for years while he still lived at home.

Now I'm not one to subscribe to the idea of "sins of the father" but one starts to wonder how such things occur under your own roof if you're paying attention. The response was worse. Instead of believing their adopted daughters, the pastor and his wife appeared before the church and pleaded with us to believe the son. They insisted none of it was true.

I believe the response was the breaking point for the church. Several deacons sided with the pastor. Some believed the girls but suggested that they "forgive and forget" so everyone could move on. Others were only incensed by the financial revelations. It seemed very few of us were actually sane enough to say it was all bad.

It's hard to break free but around this time I wrote an anonymous post on Reddit in a thread where people were encouraged to share their darkest secrets. (The thread has since become infamous. In hindsight it was probably a bad idea).  I wrote that I was a deacon in an SBC church and that I was an atheist. I could no longer separate the idea of a church being made up of its people without God himself being affected by what those people represented.

I wrote it because I felt trapped. My friends, my relationship with my parents, my relationship with my wife, and my very identity were tied up in the ideals of Evangelicalism.  Even stepping away from the church I was in seemed impossible. Let alone stepping away from my faith itself. Staying in and pretending felt easier so that's what I did.

The former pastor left due to the scandals and the associate pastor took over. A man who seemed to hold mainstream beliefs set about to remake the church in his own image. Women were kicked off committees and reassigned to teaching only children's Sunday School[3] classes.  A concerted effort was made to affirm our beliefs in free market principles, traditional marriage, and creationism. All the things Jesus never talked about.

The final straw came a few months later. A trans person came to our church and gossip was intense. In my Sunday School class, it was an intense discussion. Why were they here? What would cause a person to change their gender? What went wrong in their lives that they felt the need to? Why were these LGBTQ+ people so intent on destroying our church and our faith?

On that fateful day, I spoke up and pointed out that gay people were really not a problem and that we should stop worrying so much about what the world[4] was up to and instead focus on how we could better serve our community.  There were two other deacons in the Bible study that morning and while I can never know for sure, I think I have a pretty good idea narced on me.

We'll call him "Jim" since that was his name. Jim was a 50-year-old single guy, living alone in a house he owned. There were many rumors about Jim but the church as a whole mostly ignored them and Jim was a deacon like the rest of us. Like I said, the church was hurting for deacons so apparently the "husband of one wife" qualifier didn't apply if one was never married. At any rate, someone went to the head deacon and claimed that I said being homosexual wasn't a sin.

To be clear, I don't believe homosexuality is a sin, and even at the time, I was struggling with the idea given I worked with a couple of gay men who were better Christians than me. Still, that's not what I said. I explained that to the head deacon when he called me later. Someone claimed I said these things and they viewed them as problematic.

I pointed out that the church rules specified that a deacon who has a problem with another deacon is supposed to approach them in private. That didn't happen but church rules were fungible as needed.  Instead, I was asked to go before the full group of deacons and explain myself. I chose to resign instead. The cherry on top of the dumb situation? The associate pastor, still the one in charge, responded with a sermon on why homosexuality was wrong.

It was the first real step in my deconstruction. I finally admitted to myself and to my wife that the things I'd held dear for so long were crumbling. I didn't like the mix of politics and faith and I didn't believe in the free market Jesus that Evangelicals try to sell. But the road doesn't end there. I had to unlearn everything that I'd learned for 34 years.

  1. To be clear, it took me longer to realize my own complicitness in the racism that goes on in our society at large, not just in Evangelicalism. I recognize that I have privileges due only to my whiteness. I'm far from perfect even today but I'm trying hard to get better.
  2. This has since changed. I can neither confirm nor deny that I wrote at least part of this post under the influence of some strong wine. I am not responsible for grammatical errors.
  3. For the unfamiliar, this is a small group Bible study class that takes place either before or after the regular worship service at most churches, even mainstream ones.
  4. "The world" is a common Evangelical phrase meaning "people outside the faith". Usually, it means unbelievers but could also refer to believers of other faiths or even believers of other denominations.

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Jamie Larson