Ricardo, an openly gay pastor, in his home in Grand Rapids, MI. 2018

How has religion or spirituality impacted your journey of self-discovery? - J

I am a religious person, but I would say that my journey in becoming a pastor has been far more spiritual than religious. The first time I felt like God was calling me to be a pastor I was sitting in the back of my childhood church. I looked up and had this vision where I saw a version of myself that was maybe ten years older than what I was at the time preaching at the pulpit. I had never preached before and it dissipated just as quickly as it appeared. A few years later I was in bed and I heard a voice call my name. It was the most indescribable thing that has ever happened to me. The voice was like a waterfall and a drop of water, like a baritone and a soprano, like a shout and whisper; and it simply called my name. I remember sitting upright in bed terrified and feeling overwhelmed with love at the same time. Another year after that I was taking a course in civil law at Grand Rapids Community College as I was exploring the idea of a degree in law or law enforcement. During an exam I heard a similar voice call out to me and tell me I am supposed to be a pastor. I remember looking up while everybody else was busy taking their tests, realizing no one else had heard what I heard.

After all these experiences I decided to formally pursue Biblical studies. I knew that this was the direction God wanted me to go. I didn’t know exactly how to pursue what he was calling me to do, but I knew I had to do it. Eventually I found myself stepping into the role of a pastor, but it was not what I had thought it would be. My first perception of what a pastor should look like or do was first reshaped at the Guiding Light mission in downtown Grand Rapids. An older retired pastor had taken me under his wing and decided to show me what it would be like to do real ministry. He took me to the Guiding Light mission and exposed me to homelessness on a level I did not know existed and he surrounded me with men who were in rehab. These people didn’t need a hellfire sermon preached to them. What they needed was to experience grace, mercy, and forgiveness to know that they were loved and cared for just as they were. I grew from that experience and ended up volunteering there for several years before going to a theological seminary.

My experience as a pastor has changed again now that I am more open and honest about my sexuality. I knew that I was gay when I was 12 years old. When that hormonal switch came on it really came on and it was very clear that it was not in the direction that my friends were going, but I grew up in a household that was very conservative. The only times that homosexuality was ever mentioned was in a very negative and violent light. My father would not remember this at all, but we were in the car on our way to church once and there was a drag queen walking down Division Avenue. From the passenger seat, I remember watching my father roll down the window and yell “SOMEBODY SET THAT MAN ON FIRE!”. Maybe he thought he was being funny, but I knew then that I was not going to share my struggle with my sexuality with my family. So, I dated women and tried really hard to go through the mental gymnastics of making myself attracted to women, but in the end I found myself in relationships that weren’t going anywhere. I dated some guys in between dating women. There were a couple of the men I dated that I would have been willing to come totally out of the closet with, but they were living even deeper in the closet than I was and I was scared to do it on my own. I thought that maybe if I had someone there with me; that if everything else fell apart I would at least have that love to fall back on and that it would be worth it.

But, they weren’t ready and I guess neither was I.

I experienced a form of sexual assault and it was very unexpected. I was incredibly lucky and managed to get out of the situation, but that triggered a desire to have a conversation with someone that I trusted. I reached out to my mentor, a pastor, and I tried to express to him what had happened. I don’t think I did it in a good way because I was still masking myself, but he asked me if I was gay and I trusted him enough to tell him that I am. Unfortunately, the conversation went from me trying to explain to him what had happened with the assault to him being very concerned that something bad would happen to our reputations because of my sexuality. He was concerned that I would be negatively exposed in ministry in front of people because of my sexuality. He was concerned that it would ultimately somehow fall back on him because of the relationship that he and I had with him being my mentor. He was concerned for our churches since they were developing a deeper connection. He kept asking me over and over, “What is your plan? What is your plan?” as if I needed to have some kind of plan with my being gay. I wake up with this everyday; it’s not something I ever planned for or something I think I need to plan for. It just is. After that, every time we met my sexuality would be the topic of conversation. It became very clear that he was uncomfortable with my sexuality and that he wanted me to reassure him that he was going to be okay, but that is not my job and it’s not my place to make other people comfortable with my sexuality. I’ve had a hard enough time coming to terms with it myself.

He strong-armed me into seeing a counselor and the counselor I saw was very kind and told me, “There’s nothing wrong with you.” I felt like he was making me jump through hoops and once again I found myself just biting the bullet and going through the motions to make other people feel comfortable with me. I thought the ministry that I had just started and the church that I had just launched would fall apart if this man exposed me. After a few months of going back and forth with him we had an explosive conversation in public. Thankfully nobody we knew was there in the room, but I told him, “I’m done. I’m done having these conversations about my sexuality with you. It’s very clear to me that you’re uncomfortable with it. I don’t have a problem with who I am. It’s just who I am and I can’t make you feel better about it so you do what you have to do. If you need to talk to people about it, if you need to expose me, if you need to talk to my board - do whatever you’re going to do, but I am moving on.” I didn’t hear from him for about 3 or 4 weeks and the silence was probably more terrifying than hearing his voice over and over because I was waiting for the moment where he would just do the damage to everything I had built. On top of that I was still dealing with the sexual assault and never having fully processed that with anyone. I thought of my parents, but I had never talked to my parents about it. I didn’t know if they ever suspected and I thought that it would hurt them very much. The thought was agonizing.

One night after our biggest and best bible study the thought - this will all fall apart unless I do something - came into my mind. It overwhelmed me. I went out and got a drink with someone I was seeing at the time ended up having a terrible night with that person because my head was just not in a good place. I went home and came to the conclusion that if I removed myself from the equation everyone would be okay. That it was myself and my sexuality that were the problems. That my church would move on and someone else would come along and help them in their journey. That my parents would be okay and that they would still love me, but without having to know that I was gay and going through this pain. That even my mentor would be able to move on with his life and not have to worry about me doing damage to him.

I just needed to remove myself.

I sat at the end of my bed and I turned off my phone. I didn’t write a letter because it didn’t seem necessary. I grabbed a cocktail full of pills and thought, “This is it. This is enough to kill a baby elephant, surely this will be enough to take my life.” So, I drank the pills and laid down in my bed and waited for something to happen. I waited for death to come. An hour passed by and nothing happened. Lying there with my eyes open, I thought that it just took a while for this stuff to kick in. Then two hours passed, then three, then four. Sunlight started coming through the blinds in my window and I remember thinking God isn’t going to let me take my life. I never had any convulsions, seizures, nor did I throw up the medicine. It was like I never even took it. Nothing happened to me. It was some sort of miracle, but not the kind I had expected or even wanted.

Once I realized that nothing was going to happen I reached out to a couple of friends and I told them what I had done. I was still suicidal and depressed, but I knew that I didn’t want to live my life as a lie anymore. Something had to change and if everything fell apart around me - my church, family relationships - at the very least I should be honest. So, I went through the process of fully coming out not just to a few people, but to everyone. I did it in waves by telling a few close friends first and then writing a letter to my parents. I told people at my church. I told my board. I have to say that what I imagined would happen actually happened. Things at church aren’t same - some people have left. My relationship with my parents is very tense; sometimes we don’t even know what to say to each other and I’m pretty sure that my parents are actively praying the gay away maybe even as I speak. But, I feel like a whole person.

How do you feel whole? - J

Immediately when you asked me that question the first thing I thought about were the people that came to me as a pastor to express what they were feeling about their sexuality before I had come out. I had people who were gay or lesbian visiting our church who had no idea I was gay. Not once did I offer to pray the gay away for them because I knew that was never going to happen. I felt that I couldn’t be the minister that they needed because I couldn’t or wasn’t willing to totally open up to them about what their concerns were with their sexuality. Now all I want to do is advocate. I just want people to know that God still loves them if they’re gay. Their sexuality has not changed God’s mind about how much He cares for them. I want to challenge the way that we’ve been reading scripture because the place where the deepest love is supposed to come from - which I think is the church - today all we see is hate. Not every church, but it’s the predominate message that we have been hearing. And so many people have been willing to hear what the Bible has to say now through me because they know that I’m gay and that I still believe God exists and that God loves us.