One of our features on Progressive Redneck Preacher is Country Fried Chicken.
“Country Fried Chickens” are individuals who, like me, are children of the south. They wore born to southern mamas, and grew up hearing the cry of the whip-poor-will. They grew up swimming and fishing in its rivers. Sweet tea runs through their veins and you can still see the shimmer of fried chicken grease sticking to their fingers. Yet like me they have seen the damage that approaches to the stranger, to the other, and to violence can produce and how ingrained they have become in our culture. These Country Fried Chickens are working to transform our culture to live out the best of our values, and truly be a place all are welcome at the family table as one.
This week’s Country Fried Chicken is Bec Cranford. I hope later to share an interview with her, about her life and ministry. Here is her testimony, taken from http://thegaychristian.com/?p=1154, with her permission. Her story is one that I think many of you will relate with, one that calls us to really consider how to offer true southern hospitality and live out Christ-like love.
And I’m not just whistling Dixie here!
Your progressive Redneck Preacher,
How I Became An Affirming Christian: The Story of Bec Cranford
I have always struggled against legalism, often waving my middle finger in its face hoping to get a reaction. From the earliest recollection of olive oil scent, I can hear the message that I was not good enough for church people. Sweaty evangelists in cheap polyester suits, swaying in tempo with the organist, screaming of hell fire and telling the story of the teen who did not accept Christ at the hypothetical revival but died later in a car crash. The abusive tone of the tight-bunned brunette and her holy decree to cease laughing or running in the Sunday school hallway haunts my childhood memories of church. The legalism and ultra-conservative ignorance that spoke of personal piety in one breath and spoke of racism, sexism, and classism in the next. I grew disheartened and discontent with Christianity. I flirted with many other forms of spirituality in college. I could never escape the Jesus story. I loved it.
I deeply despised the southern-fried “Bapticostalism” that I had been forced to absorb as a child. My parents divorced. The worst hurt came when my father told the faithful and the family I was a lesbian. I found him later that week crawling on the floor speaking gibberish clutching an empty bottle of sleeping pills all because of his failed marriage. He often abused the usage of “thus sayeth the Lord.” My father operated in the gifts of the spirit as a talented minister, but he also operated in the some alcoholism to cover up his condemnation and pain from an abusive childhood. My father was a highly anointed man in Pentecostal circles. He would sing and people would be healed. He loved God. Yet, he had no revelation of God’s grace and coupled with his manic-depression he easily would swing into bouts of beer-binging. I recall him telling me I had brought witchcraft into our home, I had caused their divorce, and my lesbianism would send me to hell. I wasn’t sure if I was more pissed at him for being an addict or telling people I was witch. I turned my back on that type of Christianity and any God associated with it. I told my Dad, “Fuck You, Fuck Church, Fuck Georgia, and Fuck God.” I hated Georgia, I hated fundamentalism, and I hated my Dad. I spent the next years running away to AmeriCorps, the Army, the rave scene, and anything I could to get away. I left the church for 7 years, until I overdosed and died.
We partied hard that night. Screens pumping out porno, and blasting the best beats by Oakenfold and DJ Baby Anne. I snorted line after line of coke, ate two double-stacked Mitsubishis (Ecstasy) and snorted a line of Ketamine. Nothing seemed to get me off that night. So my friend brought over some crystal ice, and we smoked it from a light bulb. I started vomiting, and everyone laughed thinking I was being a pansy. Yet my heart palpitated faster than the drum and bass beats. I lost vision, and the ability to speak. I remember a friend dragging me to the bathtub, and putting me in a bed of icy water. My heart thumped out of control until finally it stopped. I had some sort of mystic encounter with a crucified Christ, while my mind or psyche or spirit, felt fear and isolation in a dark place. I remember hearing accusing voices coming for me, and feeling abandoned by everything- even God. I cried out to Christ, and offered my life in exchange for a second change. Maybe it was just the MDMA and cocaine, maybe it was real. Either way, I was hooked on Jesus and service after that encounter in 2002.
After my near death experience and postmortem Jesus sighting, I decided to follow Christ. I wanted a rational and sensible religion, but I wanted everything he had for me. I did not want anything messy or a form that would make me be or feel crazy. I was worried about being carted off to one of the mental institutions. I recall telling God early after my 2002 experience that I would be Lutheran or Presbyterian or Catholic, but I told him I would never be Pentecostal and I would never minister in Georgia. Then I spoke in tongues several weeks later.
I was a serious skeptic of all churches. I was a heresy hunter, and very afraid of cult activity. After my first year at Southeastern University, I had a little bit of knowledge and I wanted everyone to not see my drug-addict past, instead to view me as the new minister of God.
I went about everything in the wrong way. I was very combative to what I assume were cults or factions of the true faith. I let bitterness pump through my heart and I went head strong against my father who was in the “Word of Faith” facet of Pentecostalism. After all he started to believe in Universalism around 2006 when other Bishops came out and said they believed that Christ would save the whole earth. I vehemently attacked my father, using my new 5000 dollar words and everything I could muster from my minimal theological education. I also attacked anyone I perceived as being legalistic and judgmental. Yes, I was the fundamentalist who wanted to argue. I did not want any weird or paranormal experiences with God. But soon my heart melted and I desired intimacy and union with God. In Bible College, I began to read books by Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, N.T. Wright, and Erwin McManus. It didn’t sound like the trailer-under-the-pines style rhetoric that spilled over the pulpits of my past. I was leery of the emergent movement. But I was very much interested in every perspective that Christianity had to offer. I begin to attend church services that were outside of my traditional Baptist or Pentecostal background and found a deep love for the liturgy. I would ask God to heal my past and my family. Slowly he restored my relationship with my father. Slowly he helped me work past my sexual addiction. Slowly he removed hurt from my heart. So I graduated to head home to start something for God.
I stepped across the finished concrete and new building. The mega church excited me! All my old friends waited for my return. Our favorite testimony had arrived; the punk girl who came off drugs and who left her atheist boyfriend to follow “GAWD!” Except this time, the punk girl, came back with a B.S. in theology and had every intention of using it at the mega church! I bounced across conversations, shaking hands, and giving hugs. I was so eager to see the “mothers and fathers” of the faith I had left and tell them the many things I had learned while getting my bachelor’s degree in theology.
I was eager to serve, yet my “Pentecostal call” haunted me with delusions of big stage ministry and flashy outfits and theatrical effects. I assumed that my years of scrubbing toilets, moving chairs, and setting up tables would benefit me, and I would now be teaching. Until the question came out “Do you believe everything the DENOMINATION teaches in its 16 fundamental truths?”
How to answer that question? I sat under the finest professors. I worked at great churches. I was always treated like an “outreach pastor” or “street minister” or “recovery pastor” at my college because of the tattoos, or the fact I was blunt, maybe because I cussed a little. But I had studied scripture and there were things I no longer knew or felt convicted about. Honestly, I was sure many great men of faith did not speak in tongues and I was even more assured that there was no “rapture.”
So, my next emotional wrestling lay in how to answer the committee’s question with integrity. I did. I assumed there would be no big hassle. Pastor Polished-boots click-clacked down the hallway and grabbed me, shaking in his buckle jeans, and ninety five dollar shirt. His blue eyes almost cried as he said, “How can you just throw scripture out like this!” I tried to make sense of the interaction, and told him what I had learned. He would have none of it. He said I was “divisive.” I shared my pain with no one, save my three favorite professors. I wrote an apology letter to the mega church, and asked that the application be removed. I applied and said “NO, I have no disagreements with our beliefs.”
I was told by friends and colleagues not to die on mole hills when it came to theological issues. I had a lot of pride in me, but I died to self and let Pastor Polished-boots and Pastor Distinguished know I was not going to tell everyone at Church the rapture wasn’t coming. The next 8 months were horrible. Depression lingered over me like fallout from a nuclear war. I thought I was doing little for God by teaching my Spanish bible study. After all, my plan had been rejected to start a Spanish Church at my home church. Some sentiment came down that we “should teach them English” while Sister Bitterbottom told me I would never be a leader because of my sin-issues. Yes, I had sin issues. I was honest about them. I asked every Christian I knew to pray with me over my addiction to sex. I had walked through some dark days, and came out rather victorious, but they always remembered my sin- and held it against me. Sister Bitterbottom always made it a point to put me down. Perhaps she was just jealous that my sin was so passionate and causing me to fight, while she was completely unaware of her sin. I prayed really hard that God would let me forgive her and love her. Sister Bitterbottom just needed love like the rest of us.
The depression continued. My outlets were unavailable to me. I stayed in the prophets. I read ever Rob Bell book I could. Greg Boyd, N.T.Wright, and anything that had a scholarly slash hip vibe to it. The depression clouded me. I doubted almost everything my tradition handed to me. I went away to seminary. I was excited to escape. The divine discontent let go of me when I settled into town.
I began to really deconstruct my faith and tradition in seminary. You learned who the safe professors were and who the fundamentalists who spoke in tongues were. I really unpacked a lot in my three years in Springfield. I wrote more and more about my views, my obsession with the prophets, and my mistrust of the American Church. A man found me online and invited me to be a part of the emerging conversation. After I had preached for the first time at my seminary, I had another peer stalk me in the library. I saw his eyeball between the books starring me down as if he was starving and I was a turkey-leg. He whispered my name. The event seemed like some secret meeting where he was going to take me down stairs into a room where a magic potion would start my journey to discover my identity as a hero in a fiction book. I had heard about the emergent movement, and was really refreshed by what so many were saying there. I found myself to the left of many political issues or either a-political, almost anarchist. I hated all the nationalism that sprouted up in my denomination- these services in which the worship was for America, not Christ. I hated all the anti-gay rhetoric, and how every earthquake was a “judgment from God.” I actually had an affinity for the LGBTQ community, and many friends who loved God but were afraid to come out because of all the “wrath of God” stuff. I hated the vast stupidity in the pulpit, that got away every Sunday preaching the same old crap- but yet I loved every one of those preachers. I hated topical preaching. I hated legalism. I really disliked how people in my denomination thought so many others were hell-bound. They feared Catholics and called them idolaters. I would tell stories about the awesome Catholics I knew. But I was of little effect; after all I was the sinning girl who made any church look credible.
“If you can love a girl in green combat boots, Jesus must be there!” Jesus was there. God is always there. God is even working in churches with great theology or no theology, where heretics teach or where reformed theologians speak! I did love the church, I was so mad with her, though! I loved feeding the hungry; I loved hanging out with the foreigner. I really was encouraged by those in shut-ins, disabled, elderly, homeless, queer, hookers, punks, those who were outside the box and spoke of God with such “intimate knowledge.” I questioned scripture. I visited a Buddhist temple and found the spirit of God resting there. No one could help me unpack that. I went into a Mosque and watched a woman fully in love with God worshipping. I made friends with a rabbi who has a mystical step and a knowing eye who talked about the Kingdom of God. I was told by my professors, that there was only one way to God, and these men and women must be possessed with demons. I felt completely unsafe. I was becoming a heretic. I called trusted friends and begged that they prayed for my sinning heart. I beat myself at the altar and examined my heart daily. I read Hebrew and Greek word studies and I begin to think God was a universalist, there was real sin in the world- but it was injustice and inequity, and monogamous same sex relationships would make God happy not angry. I did intensive word studies on “abomination” and “homosexual” and “hell” and “kingdom of God.” I spent hours in prayer. I cried daily and screamed at God. But the more Bible I studied the more God told me to love those who had been shut out of the religious system. Was I just a rebel? The emerging conversation allowed me to speak without being called a trouble-maker.
I found a place to listen and learn. I did not agree with every idea that came from those conversations, but my heart was warmed by a people who believed in God, love, community, and the way of Christ. In 2008, I furiously scribbled in my journal “God give me your heart for the Homosexual.” In 2009, after reading a book called “the Hole in Our Gospel” I became enraged that no one in West Georgia loved those who were LGBT. Little did I know that I would scoop up every book penned about the subject and the bible over the course of two years or that I would go back to Georgia to minister. I took a break in 2010 to go to the Outlaw Preacher’s Conference in Memphis. I had heard Tony Jones earlier that year and loved what he had to say. I sat down with Jules Kennedy, Adele Sakler, Rebekah Burnt, Pastor Nar, and Pat Green and so many others- listened to what they were speaking. I met Kathy Canyon Walker, Connie Waters, and Tim Kurek. I hugged Bud Wilson, Richard Twiss, and Brian McClaren. I heard their hearts for those who had been hurt by church in America. I started listening to Peter Rollins, Jay Bakker, and Doug Pagitt. I took a road trip with a gay Christian named Kody, and listened as he told his story. I was beginning to become an “affirming” ally, yet, I was still hoping to take on Andrew Marin’s stance so I could be in my conservative denomination.
Over the past five years, I have been extremely humbled as I have courted the emergent movement at night, while maintaining a semi-conservative relationship during the day. I do not see this as being unfaithful, but more along the lines of Nicodemus sneaking out to see Jesus. This movement of radical grace intrigued me. It sounded like the God who grabbed me from the clutches of death that I experienced when I was dying.
I could no longer tolerate this mentality of earning your godliness that I saw perpetuated in many churches. I would double over and cry through sermons that seemed to misinterpret scripture in exchange with twentieth century understandings of “churchianity.”
Unfortunately I had not allowed God to speak to some of the hurt places in my life. I was hurt. Hurt that the Christians in Douglas County Georgia had treated me poorly after hearing I was a lesbian from my father (and I was not gay, perhaps a cross dresser.) I was hurt that every Christian judged me from the time I was 14 until well, forever. I was hurt that I was molested in a church and no one gave a damn about me or the dozen other children who felt guilty as a result of one man’s actions. I was mad that many Christians in my tradition were so closed minded, waved American flags- spit on other people, were bigoted, nationalists, misogynists, ignorant, capitalists, and republicans. I was mad that Christians would bow down to the Bible as a god. I was mad that no one was caring for the homeless, the day laborer, the LGBT, the punk, the depressed, and the marginalized in my community. I was mad at every little holier-than-thou woman in my home church who would rub my confessions in my face every time I saw them. I was mad at pastors who preached that avalanches, hurricanes, and economic failures resulted from homosexual activity. I was just mad. I attacked out of that. There was no love, no praying for my enemies, and no hoping to see anyone else as a person made in God’s image. I felt like I was a prophet and I had to attack the religious system and tell it that it was wrong.
I dated this guy who was hurt three times more than me. He too was a heresy hunter. He wanted everyone to listen to his preaching because he had it right. I saw my disgusting selfish pride in him. He taught me more about me than I cared to learn. I broke up with him. I wanted to break up with this part of me. So I began to pray dangerous prayers like “rid me of myself”, “make me like Jesus”, “humble me”, “tear down my pride”, and “break me so you can use me.”
God worked in my heart to remove offense. One by one, I walked in forgiveness towards people. I also would encounter others from other backgrounds that helped me heal. I felt so hurt by one lady, every time I saw her I wanted to punch her in the face. God healed that. I forgave her. I got over offense. She even would speak accusation at me still to this day, and does every time she has the chance, but all I see is a hurting woman who loves God but can’t get beyond that hurt. Piety drapes her viciousness and hides daggers. Her daggers conceal hurt.
It was less than two years ago when things clicked. Sitting near leaders at the Wild Goose conference I began to think about forgiveness and offense. I came home and heard a sermon by an amazing woman of God on the subject. Like someone bent down near the bricks and grass, turned the spicket: I was flushed by water that renewed my soul. Suddenly, I felt like I could perceive my intentions before speaking. I knew the motives of my own heart. God’s love had healed me, and I no longer wanted to hurt anyone- even those who I perceived had hurt me. It was over. I felt so free.
Within a month’s time, I was in trouble every other week for something I had said on Facebook about loving the LGBT community. I met up with my home pastor who was also a presbyter in my denomination. I spoke about my convictions through tears and in humility. He told me in love that my convictions would prevent me from serving in ministry. He told me I wouldn’t be allowed to stay in my denomination. I was ok with that. I just wanted him to know I loved him and loved people.
I didn’t mind the communal shame. I really did not even want to convince him of my beliefs. I was no longer worried. I really felt like God had given me an identity that could not be shaken, even by the loss of community or approval from those who I desperately wanted to see me as more than a rebel, a drug user, or a sinner. I loved my old church. I grieved for days. They were such godly people. But I didn’t have all the answers anymore. I wasn’t sure about Hell. I knew there is a trash pit somewhere outside the city. I knew Jesus referenced it a lot. During this hard time of exile from my old denomination and church, I sat in on “neighbor’s abbey” with Troy Bronsink and Melvin Bray. I connected with Jim and Debbie Swilley and Robert Rutherford. Although I was hurt that my conservative peers didn’t want me around, I was thankful for others to bind around me during my time of depression. Troy urged me to continue on. I told him, and Jim Swilley, about starting a ministry in West Georgia. They told me to do it. They believed in me.
When I was let go by my denomination, I just surrendered and said “I am affirming.” I had always been- and had been publishing and speaking about being affirming in the conservative circles. It felt so good to be free of religion- and backed by the Bible as well. I still felt hurt by those I had grown close to in my schooling, but at the end of the day, I would pray and pray and cry and cry, and I knew God was calling me to love postmoderns, LGBTs, and the spiritual but not religious.
I do not read scripture as speaking out against monogamous queer relationships. I do see it speaking out against lust, a lack of hospitality, injustice, rape, arrogance, gluttony and pride. I don’t believe that speaking in tongues is the first evidence of being filled with the Holy Spirit.
I stopped believing in the “Rapture.” Why evacuate earth if you are making all things new? I am sure that you can drink and smoke, and it might make you smell like hell, but doesn’t have to be abstained from. I really don’t know a whole lot else but I do know that Jesus Christ bent time and space to come to purgatory, hell, the afterlife, the grave, whatever to rescue me from the death that covered me after I had an overdose.
I told him my life was his. I am following Jesus, and his teachings. I am going to love Queers, Atheists, Baha’i, Muslims, Jews, transgendered, Bikers, Goths, Lesbians, thespians, Seminarians, Pagans, Christians, and Christ-followers as much as I can.
In the Fall of 2008, I begin to pray that God would give me a heart for “Homosexuals” (LGBT) and the marginalized. By 2010, I was convinced of my calling to postmoderns and LGBT persons. I began a creative planning journal in 2010 while attending AGTS in Springfield, Missouri. I started conversations with atheists, spiritual but not religious, and persons who had been hurt by the Church over the Internet. In 2011, I moved to Atlanta Georgia and planned to launch Church of the Misfits in 2012. As prayer, conversations, and research propelled us onward, a small team began meeting in bars and local homes. We decided Church of the Misfits would contextualize Christ to postmodernity and LGBT persons. We wanted to be a safe place, where everyone is welcome, including atheists, Baha’i, Buddhists, homeless, international students, punks, Muslims, LBGT persons, agnostics, hookers, drug addicts, Goths, emos, bikers, single adults, and other misfits. In preparation, we attended church planting conferences, seminars, and met with elders of various denominations. We gathered demographic information, cultural analysis, and historical perspectives.
And we started. We are small and a small voice in the Bible belt. But we are “welcoming and affirming” because God has called us to be.