Tony Haynes was raised in a Southern Baptist church in Atlanta. It was a church that “preached condemnation … that all gays were going to die and rot in hell,” said the 40-year-old Haynes, who now lives in Ohatchee.
Haynes always knew there was something different about him. The messages he heard all too often from the pulpit on Sunday mornings forced him to live in fear and hide his true nature — not only from friends and family but also from himself.
Finally, at the age of 14, Haynes admitted he was gay — and no amount of preaching of hellfire and damnation could change who he was.
“Because the church was constantly condemning me, I had a lot of struggles with religion — never faith — but with the church itself,” he said. “I had such faith in God and I knew He had a purpose for me, so I decided to dig my heels in and make decisions for myself, no matter what the church said about people like me.”
During his early 20s, Haynes rebelled against the faith in which he was raised.
By the age of 24, he was HIV positive.
Through it all, he felt a “void” in his life, and knew it was only a matter of time before he found his way back. But first he needed a place to belong.
He found that at the Metropolitan Community Church in Birmingham, a national Protestant denomination that has an outreach to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender families and communities. Haynes began driving to Birmingham every Sunday to attend services.
“It shouldn’t matter about your sexuality,” he said. “It should only matter about God.”
In 2006, while attending an MCC-sponsored youth rally in north Alabama, Haynes was overcome by what he can only describe as the voice of God commanding him to join the ministry.
“Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that I’d ever get called,” he said. “For two years I fought it, thinking I’m not worthy, given all the mistakes I’ve made in my life. I’m not worthy to preach the word of God.
“But God had other ideas. Now, I can’t see my life as being about anything else.”
Haynes was ordained in 2009 through the Progressive Christian Alliance. He is currently a full-time student, working toward his associate’s degree in Christian ministry and his bachelor’s degree in Christian leadership from Ohio Christian University.
He doesn’t see himself as a gay pastor, but rather as a pastor who just happens to be gay.
“Too often the pastor tries to be greater than his congregation. You can’t do that,” he said. “I’ve made mistakes. I’ve learned from those mistakes, and God has forgiven me. As Christians, we have to accept people for who they are. Forcing someone to live a lie is the greatest sin of all.”
— ‘We will all be members of the universal church’ —
Terry McGuire lived in Anniston back in the early 1990s. He still remembers the candlelight vigil that he and other volunteer members of the Health Services Center participated in when the HIV clinic officially moved its headquarters to Hobson City, after years of battling local government and the stigma of AIDS in small-town Alabama.
McGuire, 51, has known he was gay since he was a teenager. He was raised Southern Baptist.
“I’ve always felt that God had a purpose for me, and that he loved me no matter what people kept screaming from the pulpit,” McGuire said. “The church can’t get past the bedroom because it’s in the Bible. ... If it wasn’t in the Bible, I doubt anyone would care.”
Now living in Florida, McGuire is a pastor with the Progressive Christian Alliance, a small denomination that welcomes openly gay men and women.
HIV-positive for more than 20 years, McGuire is all too familiar with the state-by-state, congregation-by-congregation struggle for acceptance. But he believes the future is bright for gays in America.
“Eventually, we will all be members of the universal church, where we can reach out, hand in hand, to sing in glory and praise to God,” he said. “And when we look to one another, we will see the least likely person sitting by our side, reaching back.”
— ‘A commitment of our love before God’ —
Sherri Beane and Summer Covington were set up on a blind date 10 years ago by the associate pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, N.C., where they attended services.
The couple moved to Jacksonville in 2005, and stayed for three years. Covington (on the right in the above photo) was the assistant soccer coach for Jacksonville State University. They attended church at First Presbyterian in Anniston, after meeting pastor David Rice at a high school soccer game.
Beane, 47, was raised Southern Baptist. She had difficulty reconciling her homosexuality with what she’d been taught in church.
“Honestly, I was out for two decades before I was comfortable in a church,” she said. “I did what a lot of people like me did — I just quit going rather than deny who I am.
“I gave up on church … never gave up on God, but I gave up on church because I felt like church gave up on me.”
Rice invited the couple to attend First Presbyterian and didn’t want them to hide. “This is the future of the church,” he said.
On July 14, 2007, Rice presided over the civil union of Beane and Covington in South Carolina. Covington’s father refused to attend. The state of South Carolina doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage.
By church rule, Rice can “bless a union of two people regardless of their sexuality,” he said. “Though it was referred to as a ‘wedding,’ and Summer and Sherri consider themselves ‘wed,’ according to official standards I blessed their union.
“We were in a state that does not recognize same-sex unions and, up to now, the Presbyterian Church (USA) does not recognize same-sex weddings,” Rice said.
The difference between a marriage and a civil union is great. “We have no legal rights to one another,” said Covington, 33.”What we did was make a commitment of our love before God.”
The couple has since moved to North Carolina. “What we’re really talking about are two human beings who love each other unconditionally and without reservations,” said Beane. “We don’t need to be divided over this when there are so many other issues to settle. ... We are human beings … and all we want is to love and be loved for who we are.”
— ‘You’re not gay. Now go to bed.’ —
Matt Atkins was 15 years old the night he was damned to hell.
Atkins wasn’t popular in school. He was quiet and withdrawn and “easily overlooked.” He was also gay. Born and raised in Oxford, for years Atkins had struggled with a reality he didn’t want to face, but those feelings wouldn’t go away.
“It was eating me up inside,” he said. “I hated myself. I didn’t have anyone to talk to. I wanted to die … to go to sleep and never wake up again.”
After wrestling with the truth by himself, Atkins called his mother into the kitchen and started talking, rambling for 10 minutes or more before the words “I’m gay” finally spilled out.
Without a word, Atkins’ mother stood up, pushed her chair under the table and disappeared into the darkness of her bedroom.
“I didn’t know what to do,” he said. “So I just sat and waited, figuring she needed some time to process it all. I don’t think she ever saw it coming.”
When his mother emerged from the bedroom several minutes later, she was carrying a Bible. She calmly sat down and began to read, reciting passages from Leviticus describing “man lying with man” as an “abomination.”
She read the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the verse from Romans in which homosexuality is said to be “against nature,” and the passage from I Corinthians that states “… neither fornicators … nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind … shall inherit the kingdom of God.”
Then she closed her Bible, rested her hands on top of its worn cover and told her only son, “I don’t want to ever hear you talk about this again. The Bible says that homosexuality is a sin. You’re not gay. Now go to bed.”
Atkins’ mother died of cancer three years later, while he was a freshman at the University of Alabama. Though he tried to talk to her about it, she refused to hear another word.
“I never forgave her for doing that to a scared little kid,” said Atkins, now 31 and living in Birmingham. “Until the day she died, there was always this horrible lie between us. My mother was kind and loving, but that night she used the Bible as an excuse to turn her back on me.”
Atkins said he didn’t choose to be gay any more than he chose to have blue eyes or need braces growing up. “But that’s another argument … Even if I never had sex, I’d still be gay,” he said.
“I’ve read the Bible, studied it, and while, yes, there are passages that seem to condemn homosexuality, there’s also love and kindness. That’s what I focus on,” he said. “I only wish my mother could’ve done the same.”
— ‘I wanted to die’ —
An unexpected phone call saved Anthony’s life.
Like so many other young gay men and women, Anthony was overwhelmed with thoughts of suicide. Church was the one place where Anthony felt he should have been accepted. Instead, it made him feel like “the most evil person in the world.” So Anthony decided to kill himself.
“After hearing over and over again that I was going to hell, I figured, what’s the point in living?” remembered Anthony, who didn’t want his last name revealed. “I wanted to die. I wanted it to all be over. I wanted to find a way out,” he said.
“Then I’d go to church … walk up to the altar, crying, and ask for forgiveness — when there was nothing to forgive.”
One afternoon, Anthony was about to swallow a handful of pills when the phone rang. It was his mother, accidentally saving his life.
That was 15 years ago. Now, at age 37, Anthony, who lives in Calhoun County, has made peace with his sexuality and once again found strength in faith.
“I believe I was made this way for a reason, and God loves me because of it,” he said. “But the church needs to stop preaching about the bedroom and uplift people — give them hope and joy.”
Raised a “die hard” Southern Baptist, it wasn’t until after college that Anthony came out to his parents. Their reaction was a mixture of tears and confusion, blame and anger, but they eventually accepted their son for who he is.
His mother still prays for him every night.
“I don’t blame them for not understanding,” Anthony said. “I blame the ignorance of how they were raised … and I blame their religion for what they were taught about homosexuality.”
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