I’ve lived many lives in my 42 years of surviving on this Earth. I’m a security guard at an art museum in Cleveland, that is a life I never imagined. I’m also divorced, five years sober and seriously pursuing poetry as my art. It’s not always been my plan, as I said I lived many lives. I’ve been a writer, journalist, teacher, preacher and most recently a security guard.
This story though is about the seemingly lifetime I spent in the service of others under the cover of Christianity. I was a Christian, a minister and for a while I had my own church, that was until I sobered up, figuratively and physically, and I found a new kind of freedom.
My relationship with church began as a child going with my mother who was a newly found Christian reeling from a divorce. I’ve written and told my formational years story so many times it no longer interests me to tell it again. The important part to know is I was raised in a Evangelical Christian home, went to Catholic school, and my church was old world Reformed. I played along with the religious aspects of it all, got confirmed, attended camps but I was not convinced of much as I pursued my art, my music and my fun. The church seemed like a giant mess of men trying to prove they were right and not that Jesus was. This cluster-fuck of a theological swirling shit-storm that began my walk into the abyss that is the church.
I wandered into a Christian roommate situation while in my freshman year of college. This guy convinced me to go to a campus ministry group and it was obvious that my view of God and the church was a bit different then these kids. I was a punk rocking free spirited newly clean kid just wanting some non-party people around him. They just saw me as a dark shadow on their cultish sing-a-long times. I was asked to never return and set out on my own, again, where I found the most spiritual experiences anyway. I found a small group of exiles and that was my first taste of what I was in for if I pursued any kind of ministry life.
Soon after nearly failing out of college and suffering through a couple failing relationships I transferred to a liberal Christian school outside Philadelphia. It was there I met some true like-minded people. My first real friend there was an atheist, naturally, but we shared musical taste and nicotine addiction. Soon I was getting involved with a small group of renegade types attempting to build a community in North Philly. They did succeed, with minimal help from me, but I was there when it began. They showed me that Christianity was less about theological warfare and legalism, instead it was about loving people no matter what and providing services to help them, like food, legal aid, voter registrations, after school programs, and most of all friendship.
My underlying issue with the group was my own insecurity of where I fit in. I never was comfortable around this group of tightly formed friends, though I know they loved me, just I wasn’t on their level. I don’t think they came from my world and I certainly never fully was able to see into theirs. I just saw a world of hurt and wanted to get involved. There was another problem too, Philadelphia, and it’s many bars and many ways to find drugs. This is a part of the story I haven’t told or even really wrote down. Let’s just say, I relapsed pretty hard in the late 90’s and I sank into some dark shit. It was my secret and until recently it was buried deeply under my covers.
I bounced around for years, from apartments to squat houses, to dorm rooms, and all kinds of couches. Drinking hard to numb pains I had in my head and in my stomach. I was searching for a place to fit into with in the Jesus structure of spirituality. This delusional game of trying to be a minister to the broken, the homeless and the hurting whilst completely falling apart on a daily basis was ripping me apart like tearing communion bread. Just shredded by guilt, pain, suicidal thoughts and the question of of is God even real anyway?
People would meet me, look in my eyes and say “God’s got a plan for you?” or “You have something special about you, God’s hand is on you” which now seems cliché and completely non-sense but at the time I was happy to hear it. I was called anointed by some people I admired, I was coming of age in the counter-culture of Christianity with people I looked up to and admired. My mentors were men who wrote books about justice, love and hope. This all made me so excited to keep going into the wilderness of radical love. Even though I was struggling hard with addiction, mental illness and completely and crushing insecurity, I pressed on.
I did outreach work by myself, sleeping out with homeless folks I befriended, even ended up homeless for a time, living out of my car. I truly never had a real home, I just bounced around, relying on the kindness of friends and family to help me along. I sold plasma, worked odd jobs and terrible minimum wage gigs to keep a roach infested roof above my head. My ministry life was pretty much a done deal except for sporadic church visits and late night drunken Jesus talks.
My failed years as a want to be rock star lead me into a new arena as a mentor to Christian bands but also a booking agent, promoter, and eventual pastor. Booking tours was the easy part but keeping people straight was not. I was a mess, having kicked the dope, again, but still drinking heavily. My partner I crime was an alcoholic father of two who was on the verge of coming out as a gay man. This was our fucked up family. We were outcasts of a “liberal” thinking church, which was really just hipsters fighting back their own conservatisms, by playing rock n roll, drinking craft beers and cursing.
Soon the music died, it ended abruptly as our company failed due to poor management of money by my partner, who was in a mess of a life at the time and my own lack of confidence to dig myself out of my own hole. So I was back to my old ways, hiding in plain sight, staying out all night and living alone because then no one could see what I was doing. My mid-twenties were I surviving somehow with very few friends who ever truly wanted to know me, my guard was up to most who seemed interested anyway. I was an addict, I kind of knew it, but I didn’t care. I had friends living downstairs but I also could go days with out seeing them, I knew they weren’t looking for me either. I realized that true friendships were hard to find and most were based on what you could offer the relationship and if that filled a certain void. Once you weren’t needed, neither was the friendship anymore. It’s just simple mathematics and the science of human chemistry really.
So after failing hard at music business I found myself back in a ministry role, sobering up as much as I could manage. You must understand, at the time I had no clue I was as bad as I was, I just was trying to get through each day alive. So I met a girl, we worked with a great group of kids who needed us as much as we needed them and I married that girl. We would become these weirdo ministers who hung out with the ones that people labeled “troubled” or the church called “fringe” for some reason. The local church was glad we were there and gave us resources but often were uneasy with our tactics and honestly we didn’t tell them much. These kids were the lost sheep of the mainline of Philadelphia. The working class offspring in a area of wealthy old money families, The rich kids who were disappointing their folks and so on. It was typical teenager issues like relationships, pregnancy, coming out, and being different than their parents wanted. We would go to court dates, pick kids up from drunken parties, help them through serious issues with family and friends, and escort them to rehab centers. It was a pretty crazy time, planning a wedding, being in love and having a bunch of teenagers around kept us young. We were a family and then one day it was over. We got married, moved to Atlanta GA to work for a bigger ministry and the saga continued as I still wasted convinced God was even real let alone the driving force of everything I was doing.
My job with my wife was doing ministry but my main job was booking concerts with underground bands, some Christian and some not. Just punk rock and hardcore shows to give the kids something to do but also show them how to run a show on their own. Once in Atlanta my primary focus became music, booking larger shows with bigger bands. I built a reputation as a good promoter, a cool Christian amongst a sea of angry bible belted athiests and finally a party guy. I drank and did my best to hang with some rowdier friends I had but to me that was normal. I wasn’t from the “legalistic church of don’t indulge thyself” instead my church growing up had a bar and pastors who partook on the regular. So even though I got shit for it, I wasn’t one to give a shit what those kinds of Jesus folks said.
After Atlanta, which ended rather badly due to church politics and oddly enough the fact that our ministry was accepting of the wrong types of people. So I was back in Philadelphia, wasting my time trying to start a record label with talented yet completely arrogant assholes of musicians. That is a whole different story and one that to this day confuses the hell out of me.
Fast forward to 2005…things in Philly went downhill, my wife needed out of her job, I was tired of working for friends who were not into paying me or being forward thinking. We were struggling to survive so we moved to Cleveland in the winter? It was not the brightest move at all. The winter was awful and jobs were completely scares, my friends in the church were calling me back to them as I had walked away sometime in the last year. They offered me speaking opportunities and other such things. I was emptied out by seemingly all my friends turning on me and feeling the rest wanted something from me based on who I had worked for and how they wanted to be close to them.
So needless to say Cleveland was a failure and we moved to Harrisburg, a hard drinking political town on the banks of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. I would spend the next decade in this small town of a city building relationships and facing my ultimate demons. My wife found her career in working for a ministry that helped the mentally ill and those needing personal care. She became the activities director at her job which is a home in Harrisburg, a very nice place.
I was initially working for a group that was affiliated with a national evangelical youth organization. It was complete bullshit. My local contact and supposed boss was a floundering youth pastor with too much space and too much money. His promises to help me along were as hollow as his message. It was unbelievably churchy crap. Then they paraded me in front of potential donors as a tattooed outcast reaching the “youth on the margins” of some shit like that. Thousands of dollars raised off white faced cul-de-sac Christians who drove SUV’s and went to church three days a week. I was looking to provide a listening ear to drunks and addicts in Harrisburg, maybe book punk rock shows and help bands that were struggling on the road. These people were into blending into the fold and raising kids that vote republican. This was not my scene.
After a almost a year of trying the reality of nothing set in. These Godly men were actually corporate drones and they wanted the donation potential of a radically different ministry. They also were cut throat and willing to stab each other to get their way so I bowed out, warned my friends and ran. I started my own thing in a bar, a bar a drank at, opening it up to anyone who ever wanted to talk about God or the bible. It was cool and not in a hip way, just a bunch of messy motherfuckers and few straight up Christians talking together. We had some hard cases and some that were just too far-gone. In the end I worked on this mission for a good 7 years and when it ended I was completely spent. We did our best and we ended up failing to really make a real difference in my opinion. Then again the church has seemed to be in a virtual spin cycle of that same problem for centuries, so I guess we did okay?
My partners in crime were a mixed bad of churched, unchurched, and completely wrong churched. The variety of theological minds and opinions was enough to start a war but we maintained because we believed in love winning. We did well, even found a building to share with two other churches, not like us. Then things got weird, we began having services, worship bands and all the things that we kind of all were against. I became increasingly weary I was doing everything wrong and I also was leery of my help. They were not dedicated as much to it as I was because they weren’t getting paid, which in the end is the motivation for all of us to do just about everything. I was still drinking heavy, no more drugs, but I was a full on functioning alcoholic, running a church of weirdos.
I befriended over the years many a pastor of different ideas. I never cared what you believed as long as you treated me with respect. This led me to travel a lot, speaking at churches, festivals, and colleges. I was guest lecturing undergrad classes at a local Christian university and even going to D.C. to guest lecture at a seminary there. I was featured at conferences with peers that are still selling books and doing the ministry thing. My passions were radical love but more so for social justice, for LGBTQ rights and for racial reconciliation. These things began to cause trouble amongst the “friends” I had. I also began to find that if I was a Christian I was certainly a Universalist, being that I didn’t believe in hell or heaven perse, but also I had been toying with an idea of Secular Christianity or even Christian Agnosticism. My reputation had always been “He’s a passionate guy but has some out there views” but now I was diving deeper into theology, picking it apart and blowing it up. My God was not the awesome God from the songs but a confusing mystery that maybe we shouldn’t figure out. I studied other faiths and saw the similarities and differences but also thought, why not their God? I began to study Eastern thought and religious ideas, met with Muslim clerics, Rabbis, and anyone else who would have a conversation. My church was failing, financially and just enthusiastically so I began to look to my next step. I had written a book, a terrible book, outlining at the time my ideas about faith. Telling the horror stories and those of triumph but I disagreed with it more than agreed now. I never was certain of anything, with God, or with life.
Sometime in the midst of my personal chaotic journey called Hold Fast Ministries, I made the decision to get ordained officially. I did so through a church group in Nashville whom I shared many friends and acquaintances but also they seemed to believe in what we were doing in Harrisburg. In hindsight it was a terrible idea, because we didn’t agree on anything and theologically were miles apart but also their leader and myself shouldn’t have tried being friends. It was a terrible relationship and it led to the demise of our church but I think they had their own problems in Nashville. So again I watched it burn and turn to ash.
My faith was not concrete, ever, but towards the end of the church I was nearly empty. My wife was pretty much an atheist and my Christian friends had begun to disappear from my life. I had some good buds out in California but as cool as they are and were to me, they were Straight Edge and also very charismatic. I always loved being exposed to the weirder more spiritual stuff. I think the mystery of the supernatural is something wonderful and weird, so I chased it for a while like a journalist on a hot lead. It was magical and fucking out there, but those motherfuckers love people, for real, it’s weird but they genuinely believe what they do but more so they love people in big ways. I appreciated them but they were not from my world and I was not from theirs so over time we drifted.
I had also become entangled in the wackiness of another group of believers from the far different end of the spectrum. This tribe was broken toys and castaways searching of leaders, voices and ways to self-destruct. It was red flags everywhere as I gingerly stepped into their chaos. I befriended some beautiful people who were just fucked up. I never could commit to their movement because it was a fucking disaster but damn it, it was a beautiful one for a moment. After awhile I saw the bigger picture of the so called “Christian Left” and I was determined to run away. This particular group was a fragmented version of the bigger non-sense but they ate themselves to death leaving a bloody trail of distaste behind. My last real interaction with these folks was being attacked by a member who saw it fit to bash my family, so I was gone. I walked away from the rest of the “Left” when I realized that it was pretty much a bunch of yuppies who gave their money and time to mega-churches and hipster pastors but felt burnt when they realized that maybe being against everyone isn’t part of gods plan, so they broke off to write books and be famously infamous. Some genuinely seem to get the idea of God loving all unconditionally but others are merely just building new mega-churches and selling books by cleverly cornering a market. It’s a business after all.
Let’s wrap this up, shall we? So how did I, a former pastor, speaker, Christian writer, blah blah blah, end up where I am now, a divorced, agnostic, sober, poet, living in Cleveland and working as a museum security guard? That is a terrific question!
So, the Nashville ordination happened and then the relationship died. My church also died a rather quick death, prompted by the suicide of one of our beloved friends and members. That event took the wind out of my pastoral sails for sure but also just broke me in two. I also received a few death threats against my family and me for my association with certain causes and people, even praying that God send me illness and disease. Then one of my own churchgoers told me he was going to kill me because of his own mental illness had manifested into psychotic episodes in which he thought he was Satan and I was to be sacrificed. So I was at me end with this fucking crazy shit.
I was essentially, a part-time drunk and a part-time pilgrim in search of healing. In my search I found the church upstairs in our building who took me in and genuinely wanted to heal me with the power of Christ. It didn’t happen, but what did happen is they used me up as they put me into use as a minister to reach the “Marginalized” but actually that wasn’t the case. It was just a church group for people who maybe had a tattoo or liked to watch R-rated movies. It was also a very hard place as my co-pastor was a “tough love” preacher who tried to be as non-politically correct as he could and just offended my wife almost weekly, among others. It was a constant fight and a lost, admittedly.
Shortly before I left that church, I faced a bigger issue, my addiction. I had quit using heavy drugs years ago and though I had bouts with pills or other secret sidetracks I was pretty much a full-blown drunk. I finally saw it and I decided on June 6th 2012 that I was done. I started going to meetings, called my sober friends and just struggled through the first year but my bar family was there as my unlikely support. I am forever grateful to the staff of McGrath’s Pub in Harrisburg PA for oddly enough, keeping me sober. I was finally clean, off everything but cigarettes and coffee, which may never leave me. I was seeing things clearly now as a sober human being, this was the first time since a year between 20-21 that I was completely sober. I felt alive, I started writing poetry again, and produced a ton of it. I also decided to abandon the Christian faith.
It’s funny how in AA they preach the higher power and when I finally found my sobriety I ditch it. It was being a part of the church that fed my destructive behavior because it was always someone biting on someone else and the whole legalistic bullshit that kept so many controlled was to me just another form of addiction. The church was nothing more than a shooting gallery of sainthood. Dope sick fiends in search of that spiritual high and community potluck fullness of God. Needless to say, I was finally convinced that certainty when it came to God was not something I could do. I chose to embrace the mystery of everything and walk into a new life as a sober man.
In 2015 my wife of 13 years, the love of my life, asked for a divorce. It was not easy but I accepted her request as she has been changing into a new person herself. We both had been beaten up by the church, by our families, our friends, and our lives for so long that love no longer was all we needed. It was time to just cut and run. So we split, I retreated to my parents home in Ohio, sober and alone. I spent the next few months on the road writing, experiencing and crashing into a pile of sadness. My return to Harrisburg was not well planned and lasted a few month before I found myself penniless and directionless. My friends had begun to vanish and or just move on and my church friends were pretty much nowhere to be found once I had announced my divorce and previous sobriety. I was alone, with a few lovely but equally broken companions, just trying to make sense of each day.
So here I ended up, in Cleveland, where I began my life. I actually live in a house a few blocks from the hospital I was born in and only a mile or so from the house I grew up in. It’s weird. I have a new life, new friends, and some old ones too and slowly rebuilding some others. My family is closer to me than they have been in years and while we disagree on God and politics we have a mutual understanding that this life is a fucking shit show and we need people to get through. I am five years sober and still a royal mess of a man making no money at a terrible job but somehow still surviving.
That is pretty much life, survival, and we find ways to cope. Some cope with substance abuse, others with God, and yet many of us find new ways daily. Now I write poetry, and just finished my fourth book, but I also paint, cook, and listen to records. In this life it’s about distractions from the reality of our mortality, so I am doing okay, I guess? God is something, and somewhere, and maybe someday I’ll figure out the truth, but then again truth is just grey area anyway. We just have to keep doing our best.
I’ll leave you with the immortal words of Leonard Cohen, which sums my journey up perfectly.
“Maybe there’s a God above
But all I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you
And it’s not a cry that you hear at night
It’s not somebody who’s seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah”