Part Two (Did you miss Part One?)
When I graduated from my Mennonite high school, I chose a big-city state university instead of a Mennonite college in a Mennonite town. I wanted to launch into the world. But arriving in Philadelphia, I was disoriented and afraid. Being alone, I succumbed to temptation.
I remember the campus bookstore, and noticing the top rack of magazines. Playgirl. The cover was a muscled blonde with a python draped over him. As if in trance, as if no one could see me, I reached up for the magazine. I walked with it to the cashier, laid it on the counter between us. I smiled as she rung it up and I handed over the cash. It was easier than I imagined. I accepted the brown paper bag and went straight to a stall in the men’s room. Ten minutes later, disgusted with myself, Jesus’ words rang in my ears: Even gazing on someone with lust in your heart is adultery. I threw the glossy magazine into the biggest, dirtiest, smelliest dumpster behind the student activity center to ensure that its contents would not pollute anyone else.
I believed I had it under control. They were only thoughts. I never acted on those thoughts. That’s what I told myself, despite experiences like the bookstore. Because homosexuality was a choice that people made, I never considered that I might be gay; I would never choose that. When Lisa told me about her boyfriend being saved, converted from homosexuality, by Campus Crusade for Christ, the idea lodged in my brain: maybe Campus Crusade could help me eradicate my sinful thoughts.
In San Francisco.
In my room, on my bed, I read the packet from Campus Crusade. I learned the summer project would be the typical Bible study, but in place of evangelism on the beach, we would study ethnic groups and diversity, and develop new multi-cultural techniques for converting people to Christ. Students were hand-picked for maximum ethnic diversity.
I was hand-picked, I thought. My heart glowed. I didn’t consider the fact that I had been hand-picked to be the white guy.
I had four months to raise a couple thousand dollars for the trip. It was easier than I imagined. As I talked to people, I heard their ideas about the city. An old Mennonite man from my church, his long white beard bobbing as he talked, called San Francisco a place of depravity. A Sodom. A place that needed the message of Jesus. He wrote me a big check. I raised double what I needed. Most people wanted to help me; I wonder now if anyone thought I was planning my own escape.
God had a plan. I did not. I avoided any thought of depravity. Of Sodom. I stepped through the semester in a fog of self-imposed ignorance. I did not research the city. I busied myself with fundraising and maintaining my 4.0.
Maybe I felt happy. I know I was scared. But I also had hope.
From the time I was little I imagined freedom was found in California. Church taught me that Jesus was my savior, but what I really believed in was the 30-minute sitcom. I wanted to live in a world where no matter the mess up, you could always trust in the happy ending. I fantasized about sharing an apartment with Laverne and Shirley. Being the fourth Charlie’s Angel. I knew I would make a great Love Boat cruise director. And God was sending me to California.
I watched out of the plane window as squares of farmland gave way to soaring, snow-covered mountains, and then, the bay. I believed this was my chance. I had it all—Jesus, Campus Crusade and California. The sinful thoughts would be cured. I would become a normal boy. I was close to the happy ending.
At the San Francisco airport, Roy, a Crusade staffer met me.
“So, when was the last earthquake?” I asked as we walked toward the parking garage.
“Oh, hmmm, I think the last one I felt was, like, 3 years ago?”
Three years ago? I thought earthquakes happened all the time.
“Do you think one will happen soon?” I asked.
“Oh gosh! I hope not!”
Disappointed, I considered my other expectations: Sodom. I imagined outrageous displays, like gay people holding hands and kissing in public. I surveyed the airport crowds. People looked normal. I determined to reserve judgment until I could experience life on the streets.
I learned that Roy was Filipino, hand-picked to be the Filipino-American representative for our maximum-diversity summer project. Had I ever met a Filipino before? I wondered.
Arriving at the Lone Mountain dorm at the University of San Francisco, I met my roommate Edwin, the hand-picked Chinese-American. Within a few moments of talking, he told me I seemed “very east coast.” What does that mean? I felt a spike of anger, but suppressed it, thinking, anger is probably very east coast.
“I’m from Tucson,” Edwin said.
“Oh yeah, that’s the city just south of Seattle, right?”
“Well, it’s really south. You’re thinking of Tacoma. Tucson is in Arizona.”
Arizona. I didn’t know where Arizona was on the map. I pictured tall cactuses with arms, and Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam on horses, leaping over canyons.
Edwin showed me Tucson in a road atlas. It had five or six major roads that dead-ended in vast patches of green.
“Small town, huh?”
“It’s a city, dude!”
I couldn’t imagine a city where the roads just dead-ended in the desert.
At orientation, we learned to say ‘the city’ and to never say ‘Frisco or San Fran.’ Staff gave us warnings about city life, including to not go out alone and the command: never go to the Castro.
We were a diverse group of 15 students and seven staffers. We were together all day, every day. I didn’t like the evangelism part, but I loved the multiculturalism class. Each week we studied immigration patterns, cultural heritage, issues of religion and faith and wrapped up with strategies for evangelizing. The syllabus: African Americans, Arab Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Pacific Island Americans.
I noted the omission of white people and felt guilty for even thinking of it.
In class, my new friends told stories of discrimination and racism. I didn’t have those stories. I reacted from a sense of wonder. I asked questions. I got called out for enjoying the discussions. For not listening. For treating difficult and painful conversations with a lightness that grated on others.
One night, Edwin and I laid on our beds across the dorm room from each other. Propped up on my elbow, I asked if we were really that different. We were education majors at universities, middle class, our parents weren’t divorced. We both rode bicycles and drove Hondas.
“What do you eat for dinner with your family?” he said.
“I dunno. Normal stuff. Pizza. Chicken. Chili.”
He told me about a normal dinner at his home, and how they ate it. And he explained being a translator for his parents. And how the Chinese were kicked out after the railroads were built. He asked me what I thought about Mr. Magoo’s sidekick.
I felt ashamed and didn’t know what to say. It was painful to realize my ignorance, but Edwin wasn’t judging me. He was sharing his life.
Years later, after I had moved to Tucson in part because of Edwin, Edwin gently asked if I thought I might be gay. I did not repay him with the same love he had given me.
“HOW COULD YOU THINK THAT ABOUT ME?” I raged at him. “I’M A GOOD CHRISTIAN AND YOU KNOW IT!”
I avoided him for a while. It was one of my lowest points. Even as I yelled, even as I walked away, I knew I was lying. My heart, just beginning to be able to feel, was crying out. Tell him the truth! But I did not know that God loved homosexuals; I did not know that I could live—live or die—without being afraid of Hell. So I lied to a generous friend who had never judged me.
That truth was a lead weight in the bottom of my heart, and in the end, years later, it helped me come out.
In Part Three, my urge to find myself gets a label: ignorance.