“I am gay. And God loves me.”

Rev. Dr. Daniel Meeter asked me to repeat those words as we walked and talked in Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Rev. Meeter was my field education supervisor during my final year at Princeton Theological Seminary. He is a progressive White pastor of a congregation that is part of the Reformed Church of America. As he encouraged me to repeat those words, I thought, “this man can’t be saved.”

As a product of Black churches—formerly a member of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), baptized in “Jesus’s name” at an Apostolic church, attendee of a tongues-speaking, foot-stomping holiness church in my childhood—I was convinced that God despised and would deliver me from the “spirit of homosexuality” that seemingly had its grip on me.

Despite the fact that I left the Church after being suspended from ministerial preparation at the last church of which I was a member, I was still scarred so deeply that Rev. Meeters’ words seemed to be paradoxical. I could not believe, even then—even after having nearly finished seminary, God loved (gay) me.

That is why I was not surprised when a video of a self-proclaimed ex-gay COGIC member lauding his newfound attraction to women, in front of thousands, at the denomination’s 107thHoly Convocation was widely circulated in social media. While I was never bold enough to publicly denounce my queerness, I did so in private, often.

Yet, I have always been physically and, at some points in my life, emotionally, attracted to males. Sex with other males didn’t feel wrong—until it was over and I was debilitated by guilt to the point that I would earnestly pray for forgiveness. Loving other men didn’t feel wrong—until I would sit in church under the sound of some preacher’s sermon warning me that liars, cheaters, backsliders, and homosexuals didn’t have a chance at making it into heaven. And if, at the time, the homophobic sermonizing deadened my spirit, my unwavering belief in the self-hating theology I was taught nearly killed me, literally. I really really loved God, but I felt as if I was never able to suppress my attraction and love for other men such that God, or the Church, would be pleased enough to love me back.

There was something confounding about the ways certain pastors and church goers would demonstrate care—make sure I would eat while broke in college, push me in moments when I felt socially dejected, repeat how much they loved and supported me, shout and shed tears after I would sing—all while offering affirming “amens” almost every time a word was preached reminding us “God hates the sin (of homosexuality), but loves the sinner.” It confused me when I would preach to others about God’s love while experiencing God’s hate in the form of anti-homosexual sermons and prayer lines where saints would rebuke gay and lesbian demons.

One well-known evangelist who was the visiting preacher at the COGIC church I attended, for example, stated she’d rather her son be a “crackhead” than a homosexual. Actually, she never said the word “homosexual.” She lifted up a limp wrist, instead. The church went up in high praise after. I was devastated. Surely, the preaching woman who was assigned the title of “evangelist” in a denomination that doesn’t believe women should be ordained had to know something about oppression?

Once I stood anxiously, as I always did, in a prayer line waiting my turn. I really believed that if I demonstrated enough faith and if I took control over my fleshly desires God would deliver me from my gayness. So, I waited in line, full of faith, and received the prayer offered on my behalf. I received the preacher’s harsh rebuke of the spirit of homosexuality that he and I thought was ravaging my life. I received the hands placed firmly on my head, which were used to push me down on the ground until I was alone, under a pew, and crying with spit dripping out of my mouth. It didn’t work and I wasn’t sure if the failure had something to do with the prophet’s lack of power or my lack of faith, but I still loved and was attracted to the man I was seeing at the time.

There were also the many moments when, after all of the prayers and tongues and shouting and faith offerings and fasting, I contemplated suicide. I figured that nothing could be more painfully tormenting than the “hell” I was experiencing on earth. What more could perpetual burning do to my soul than the everyday scorn I had been experiencing had already achieved? I hated myself. And that every-second type of self-denigration was punishment enough.

Years would pass before I was able to love myself more than my church members, former pastors, and even God supposedly loved me. It’s complicated because the churches I attended were spaces where my spirit was healed and killed. In fact, some of the worshipping spaces I attended were home to some of the most caring people who just happened to proclaim uncaring theologies. But I had to leave toxic worshipping spaces, and friendships, which had me believing lies. I had to separate myself from church leaders and parishioners who apparently “loved” me so much they felt the need to torment me with bad theology as opposed to allowing me space to live a full and loving life, with integrity, surrounded by affirmative people. The price of gaining entrance into their “heaven” would have been hefty, costing both my life and soul, had I stayed and believed their words.

It would take years before I would be able to pray to God my truth. I recall proclaiming, “If ‘hell’ will be my lot for telling and living my truth, then I guess that is where I will need to go. If you expect integrity, it doesn’t seem logical that a lie will grant me entry into heaven.”

My mom, who sat before me, when I fearfully disclosed my sexuality some time later affirmed me by sharing, “If folk don’t love you, they don’t deserve to be in your life.” I took her words to heart. And I took them as a reference for God, too.

It would take time and healing before I began to understand hell as fictitious, and if it exists, to be that which we create right here on earth. And even more time and healing to consider the ways we create gods to maintain power and to control people’s lives, bodies, money, passions, beliefs, and yearnings.

And, yet, here I am today: a self-loving gay Black man who once loved the church even while hating himself, a proud-to-be-in-his-skin Black gay man who left the church to save himself who can finally repeat with conviction the words Rev. Meeter challenged me to repeat seven years ago: I am gay. And God loves me.