The Mercedes convertible, top-down in the Sunday morning, Summer heat, pulled into a parking space reserved for "Leadership", in front of a church called "Thorns". The twentysomething from Christian central casting had gushed to me on the way about Thorns' involvement in local charities, communities, etc. She quoted from two Emerging Church authors of the '90's; a time she couldn't have remembered.
"You're going to get so much out of the Word here! I'm so excited about where God is going to take you!"
As a Queer, Mad, and often homeless individual, I wasn't sure how to respond to her enthusiasm.
I left her car and walked up to the front of the non-descript building; apparently converted from a retail space. I turned toward my guide, presuming she would want to introduce me to the greeters manning a table just outside the door, but she was nowhere to be seen.
I supposed she was throwing herself into pressing, preparatory business, and that I was on my own. I nodded at the young couple behind the table.
"Hello! Welcome! Do you have a Bible? Here, have one! It's our gift to you!" She said as if the pitch was a single word.
"Thank you. Thank you," I responded. I tend to repeat myself when nervous.
The interior was badly illuminated with track lighting and had a "rec room" aesthetic: faux wood, folding chairs, and a hotel conference-style podium. I headed for a chair at the back; the sinners' bench. I noticed a woman walking toward me from near the pulpit. I altered my path slightly to avoid her, but she came to block my way.
"Hi. I'm Shelby. You are?"
She was stunning: deep brown eyes, long, complex tresses of brown hair; barely standing to my chin in her heels. Her black-on-black fashion raised the spectre of the Goth girl.
"Well, hi. Nice to see you at Thorns. I'm Dakota's friend."
"She drove you to church."
"Yes, of course. Sorry,"
"And I'm on the Seeker Welcoming Committee!"
"What did you think of the sermon, yesterday?"
I sat opposite Shelby in her closet-esque office, in the basement of the church.
"I found it... very interesting."
Her eyes expressed all her skepticism. She sat staring at me for slightly longer than socially acceptable.
"Which part did you find interesting? Specifically."
She puckered her lips and let her snark hang in the air.
"The part about... Jesus?"
Shelby shuffled some paperwork in front of her and adopted a breezy tone, "My favorite part was when Pastor Eli was talking about how God can transform us from a lifestyle of sin, with his grace."
She raised her eyebrows expectantly.
"A lifestyle of sin? OK... You mean like drugs or...?"
"Yes, drugs, " She sounded slightly condescending," but also sexual sin. God healed me of my attraction to women."
"My same-sex attraction. God just healed me of it two years ago when I was saved."
Her tone was disconcertingly straightforward. I struggled to be conversational, "So, you are attracted to men, now?"
"No. God showed me that the Bible teaches that relationships are not really based on attraction."
There is, I believe, a certain feeling one gets when a discussion begins to drift into the irrational proper; a feeling akin to seasickness.
"Shelby, I don't have any idea what the fuck you're talking about."
She put up a finger between us and smiled, "Language."
"JESUS delivered me from SUICIDE!", Pastor Eli stomped repeatedly on the cheap stage, shaking the podium.
"He will deliver you from Hell. You are in Hell, right now!"
I looked over a seat to Shelby, side-eyeing her about Eli's apparently tenuous grasp on theology, but she was bent over with her hands out in front, mumbling in tongues.
"Jesus is the One God we worship! And useless you are baptized in his Name, your salvation is a LIE!" Eli actually thumped his worn Bible on the pulpit.
"Shelby, I'll be right back. Getting coffee," I whispered.
I walked quickly into Thorns' vestibule and over to a line of large coffee urns against the wall; the greeter couple stood beside them.
"Hello, brother. Pastor has a great message today, don't you think," the male half of the team said.
Honestly, I was failing to discern any difference, one sermon from the next. Eli seemed to be a one trick pony: preach that you are evil and should join Thorns.
"Yes. Very powerful." I've found that this phrase works very well at churches, generally.
"You'll really want to be here next Sunday! Pastor will be speaking about the greatest threat to God's people of our time."
"Oh? And that is? "
He beamed at me, "The Gay Agenda."
"Welcome, brother. Please sit."
Pastor Eli gestured to a chair opposite him at the long table in his office, next to Shelby's. I kept trying to convince myself that he did not resemble David Koresh.
"You've been coming to Thorns for some weeks, now. Have you considered baptism?" He leaned back and looked slightly down at me; a remarkably unfortunate ministerial choice.
"Uh, well, so...I'm already baptized."
"I mean a baptism in Jesus' Name. According to the Book of Acts. "
From my extensive church shopping and wandering about in the past, I actually already had one of the very sectarian baptisms he was offering. He seemed less than pleased when I mentioned this.
"I see. Well, I think the next step should be to become more involved with Thorns. Move from the outside to the inside."
"Yes, but, Pastor, to be fully transparent, I should say that you might have an issue with my sexuality."
Eli's eyes narrowed, " You mean like you're not married to your girlfriend?"
"I mean I'm bisexual."
"OK, first, Pastor Eli did not EXCOMMUNICATE you!," Shelby yelled, as animated as I had ever seen her. "We don't even have excommunication at Thorns! This is all a big misunderstanding."
She had ushered me into the parking lot behind the church when Dakota and I arrived. I had been discussing Eli on the ride over and Dakota called Shelby, declaring an emergency.
"Well, he said that he was 'breaking fellowship' with me, and he quoted the Bible a lot. Mostly from an Epistle. I think it was Titus."
Shelby's face reached a new level of fury, flushing with rage.
"FUCK!" she yelled.
I knew that I shouldn't, but I succumbed to temptation: I wagged a finger at her, saying, "Shelby...Language."
Dakota drove me back toward town, her face the expressionless kind that one develops from Evangelical Church attendance, for use in a crisis. The local Christian radio station filled the silence. It was obvious that she knew none of the songs.
"Thanks, Dakota; I had a great time."
I thought I might have caught the slightest hint of anger in her jawline...
Patrick Stanton--a Mad writer living in Shelburne, Vermont.