When I was roughly twelve years old, active in the Christian church, my youth pastor (we’ll call him Chris) thought it would be a good idea to take our youth group down to Volunteer Park in Seattle, WA, during the Gay Pride Parade (now just known as the Pride Parade). I don’t remember having any advance knowledge of what we were setting out to do – we just loaded up into the church’s bus and headed out.
The sun beat down on us as we exited the bus and headed into the park, which was relatively empty for such a nice day. Chris led us into the park, and instructed us to stand in a circle and hold hands – we were forming a prayer circle. Chris prayed aloud. I don’t remember his words. What I do remember was wondering why we had driven all the way to this far-off park to stand around praying. I had questions about many things we did, but I had learned over time to just go with the flow. Chris had that way about him; everything was a mystery until he was ready to unveil his message. I used to think he behaved this way for dramatic effect, but now, I think that if he had been upfront about what he was doing, maybe nobody would have followed him. Our parents must have known, but they hadn’t said a word.
After a few moments in prayer, we heard a commotion. The sound of many voices echoing through the park. A stampede of people headed our way. Why all these people? Who were they? Chris told us to close our eyes and pray. Pray about what? What is going on here? I felt like I was on the front lines of something, woefully unprepared. I prayed for protection. This whole thing was starting to frighten me. Here we are, standing in the path of a stampeding horde, in a prayer circle. To say that my mind was racing would be an understatement – it had already jumped the starting gun and left me in the dust, disoriented and grasping for something steady. My pounding heart beating in my ears like a war drum, I could feel that we were surrounded now. The stampede was upon us. I opened one eye, just a crack.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The parade-goers had zeroed in on us. Two men were inside out prayer circle, right at my feet, dry-humping each other in the missionary position, looking right at me and crying out exclamations in mock pleasure. Outside the prayer circle, other male couples were making out, tongues tangling, making similar noises. Some of the shouting was angry and profane, full of hatred. One man ran up to everyone in the circle saying “sex is fun, try it!” and stuffing condoms in our pockets. I recalled the biblical story Sodom and Gomorrah – it was the only point of reference in my young mind for what I was witnessing. After a while, the parade passed, and everyone left us alone.
I had no way to fully process what I had just experienced. Chris explained that he had wanted us to see how people behaved when the Devil had a hold of them – just how depraved that we, too, could become if we gave the Devil a foothold in our lives. He said he wanted us to know what it felt like to be surrounded by sin and depravity. He described the battle between good and evil, and prayer as our best weapon in spiritual warfare. My friends and I spent the bus ride home recounting what we saw in hushed, scandalous tones.
That day stands out as one my most vivid childhood memories. What we were doing was inflammatory, and we provoked a response. The response was inappropriate, in my opinion, and illustrated mostly that when you publicly condemn the behavior of a people group at their own event, it can bring out the worst in some of those people. We had a right to free speech in a public park, but what did Chris think we were accomplishing? We weren’t engaging in respectful dialogue, or seeking to understand the hearts or minds of our fellow human beings. We were standing in judgement, maybe even declaring war.
This is how I was raised to look at the world. It is a microcosm of what religious dogma has created throughout history; war, discrimination, segregation, oppression. For all the good that people have accomplished because of their faith (and there is undeniably a long record of great things), there is an equally heavy burden of judgement, condemnation, delusion, and death that tips the scales in the other direction. Once reason is replaced with strict adherence to cryptic ancient texts, and we think we have the answers to end all answers, we are on dangerous ground.
The amount of security we feel in our own rightness is directly proportionate to our need for humble re-assessment of our beliefs.