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Brett Webb-Mitchell

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The Coming Out Pilgrimage

Posted: 09/05/2012 4:40 pm

I woke up at 3:00 a.m. in the well-used Community Center of Bernal, New Mexico, for the first day of my recent pilgrimage to El Santuario de Chimayo in northern New Mexico. After a quick morning prayer and stretching exercises, and a delicious meal of breakfast burritos, my companions and I set out on the road to Las Vegas, the first leg of our journey to Chimayo, by 5:00 a.m. It was chilly outside because the sun had not risen yet. The sun rose a few minutes after 5:30 and within a half hour started to warm up the earth. Why Chimayo? The sacredness of Chimayo among Christians comes from the very earth itself that is said to have healing powers, whether one comes with physical pain, emotional needs, or spiritual wounds. I, along with a band of 31 other men of all ages, walked over one hundred miles in five and a half days. Even though I went on my first pilgrimage over 13 years ago, and have been on many religious pilgrimages since then, the first day of a pilgrimage is the most nerve racking. I openly wonder if my aging body will be up to the physical challenges, and if my spirit will shun or embrace the mysteries that I will encounter along the way. Each morning, questioning my sanity, I knew that I could only complete it one day at a time, one step at a time, to quote my 12-step friends. Pilgrimage begins simply with the first step forward, followed by another, and nothing is ever the same.

Seventeen years ago I awoke early one morning and began my coming out pilgrimage. Though I had long imagined what it would be like coming out, the very act of coming out of my closet brought both unbridled joy and literally scared me to death. It was these polar opposite feelings that effectively stopped me from leaving the closet's narrow, loathsome confines. I was paralyzed emotionally, wanting to embrace the emotional, relational, intellectual, spiritual, and physical attraction to men, yet could not accept being gay because I believed society's and my church's hateful condemnations against the "homosexual lifestyle." To keep my mind from dwelling on being gay, I busied myself with the academy where I worked, the denomination I served, and the family I loved, to fend off any rumors that I could be gay. But one morning, after a year of counseling and months of strategizing, I simply left the house I shared with my wife and kids, and moved to a small studio apartment, never to return. Even though I was consumed with fear that I would lose my place in the institution of higher education where I worked, be defrocked as a minister, and lose my family, I nonetheless could no longer live the lie I was trying to live. I wanted and needed to live life as fully "me": a dad, professor, writer, pastor, partner, and pilgrim who happened to be gay. As pilgrimage starts with a step forward, so does coming out. And nothing is ever the same.

I live a pilgrim life, both as a Christian pilgrim and as a gay man. I live in the amazing parallels between these two movements of body, mind and spirit. Both pilgrimages start from a beginning point; are more about the journey than the destination sometimes; use stories as a way to navigate the way forward; require taking good care of ourselves; and lean forward toward reaching a destination and a life radically reformed. The close parallel of an actual pilgrimage and coming out is more than mere metaphor: an intentional pilgrimage provides concrete, tangible, markers by which one can discern where one is located on the map of coming out.

The Beginning Point: A pilgrimage is privileged opportunity, because not everyone gets the chance to go on an actual pilgrimage due to a lack of time, money, or other practical impediment. It is also an extreme challenge physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. To walk twenty-miles, day after day, is not part of my normal routine. As a white Presbyterian pastor, I am the loco gringo (that's my pilgrim name), who speaks little Spanish among brothers to whom it is their first language. As the stranger from North Carolina, I am the guest, not the host, and I am honored to be one who goes on pilgrimage with them. From the start I immerse myself in the deep waters of the rich, dark, mysterious Catholic life of northern New Mexico. I am inundated with new sights, prayers, rituals, and songs (in Spanish). While my body is weary my mind is wide-awake, keeping me from getting a good night's rest before I begin an actual pilgrimage. What keeps me awake are "What If?" questions demanding my attention: What if I get a blister on the first day of pilgrimage? What if I stumble and hurt a knee or pull a muscle? What new spiritual insights will I receive that will change my world as I know it? What will be different about me at the end of pilgrimage?

The day I decided to step over the threshold of my self-imposed closet was simultaneously horrific yet exciting. I was horrified at the prospect of leaving all I had worked for: a happy family with a wonderful wife I loved, and two adorable children. I was working at my dream job at a major university, and was ordained a pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Yet I was putting it all in jeopardy because I simply was not completely happy with my life. I felt incomplete, like I was living a lie. In this configuration of being "family" I could not fully give myself to a relationship in which I could be wholly myself. I was excited about the prospect of no longer wasting energy in holding together the closet of gloom, and giving myself over to other life projects (being fully myself) that eluded me. The pilgrimage of coming out meant that I could embrace the person God made me to be whole-heartedly for the very first time. But how would I be different in being unapologetically me? Would I recognize myself? Would my family recognize me?

The Journey: The first day of the pilgrimage is all about the physical for me, with my mind and spirit lagging except to buoy my exhausted body. Bernal to Las Vegas is roughly 20 miles, and fairly flat. The cool morning air gave way to New Mexico's dry heat. Walking over a mountain pass would not come until day three, which is good because by then I was almost fully physically adjusted to the act of walking many miles. I began to adapt my life to the rhythm of the pilgrimage: every morning begins with thirty minutes of silent contemplation, which I throw myself into, listening to the syncopated rhythm of many shoes hitting the soil with a full moon casting an eerie shadow. Later, in English but more often in Spanish, we sang songs of praise to God the Father, "El Senor," Christ the King, "El Christo Rey," and Mary, "Madre Maria." As a Protestant, I fumble through the recitative prayer of the Rosary, learning to keep up with where we are with the bead count by my last day.

Unlike the pilgrimage to Chimayo, I do not remember the day I put myself into a closet. The closet was already fitted and built around me before I was aware of it. From the first day when I was twelve years-old and realized that I was attracted relationally, emotionally, physically, and intellectually to boys my age, I was stuck in not knowing what to do with the new sensations and feelings in me. There were no stories on television, movies, children's stories, or young adult books to help me navigate through this sea of new feelings and thoughts as a young boy who was gay. After years of therapy, struggling with a sense of abandoning my family, fearing reprisal from my denomination, I left one morning after breakfast, never to return back to the house-as-home. That night I moved into a rented one bedroom studio apartment in Chapel Hill, NC, not too far from the children. I was excited yet scared, wondering aloud at times, "My God, what have I just done!" The heavy, complicated lock on my gay closet fell off the closet door. I took the first few steps, and soon miles, away from the shadow existence of a claustrophobic life into the bright sunlight of hope.

Stories: Over the six days of being together on pilgrimage, there was plenty of time on the road and off the road to talk with one another about what we missed about home, gather in small groups to discuss the conditions of the trail, how our bodies were faring, or dreaming about a hot shower (and a cold beer) aloud. While we awoke at 3:00 a.m. and were on the road by 5:00 a.m., we were off the trail and sat down wherever our feet landed, massaging our sore limbs and lancing blistered feet by 1:00 p.m. or a little later each day. "No pain, no gain" made more sense on pilgrimage. On the pilgrimage, in between the first thirty minutes of silent contemplation, and another thirty minutes of praying the rosary or singing songs, there was always time for talking. We share stories of either previous pilgrimages, or gossip about people who had been on pilgrimage before but were not able to be with us this time. While Facebook makes sharing personal stories on a one-to-one basis difficult, pilgrimage provides a precious opportunity to share intimate stories of life. On pilgrimage I find people more willing to share stories of profound vulnerability, to sigh deeply, because they know they will most likely not meet the other pilgrim ever again. We share stories of a love life gone awry; harrowing tales of inclement weather on previous treks; the "good, bad, and ugly" parts of family life back home. I listened intently to stories from those who walked this trail before, wanting to hear which is the longest day for walking, or the height of an upcoming mountain pass we would be crossing. Stories bind us together as a community of brothers.

The stories of other gay dads, married, with children was the only way I could navigate my way out of the closet. I studied carefully how society at large and the Church in particular reacted to out gay men, learning from others how I might be perceived and treated in my community. I devoured David Leavitt's The Lost Language of Cranes, empathizing with the closeted gay father figure who would find solace in the dark confines of adult movie theaters, as he secretly envied the open life of his gay son. I freaked out when viewing the dramatic British movie "Hollow Reed," as the gay dad and his partner try to save the life of his young son who was being physically bullied by his former wife's boyfriend. While there seem to be plenty of stories of single young men, stories of gay dads were rarer. Perhaps I need to create an "It Gets Better" series of gay dad stories for dads who are in the process of coming out as an emotional map.

Taking Care: After a long day -- 3:00 a.m. wake-up call, walking, eating great meals, participating in worship along with morning and evening prayers, and showering--there is always time at night to check feet for blisters and ankle sprains, shin aches, and knee problems. There are people pre-assigned on pilgrimage to carry a medicine bag full of ointments, bandages, moleskin, and Ben-gay cream for sore limbs. I watch the care and healing touch of Roger who gives me a new understanding of brotherly love as he massages a foot, carefully threads a needle and then lances a blister, applies a bandage to keep the wounded site clean. On this pilgrimage, two men unfold a massage table, in which all pilgrims are given the gift of a massage of thigh, shin, calf muscle, and feet with cocoa butter. All we have to do is bring our towel to spread on the bed itself, and the magic begins! By the end of the pilgrimage young men take care of the feet of us "older men," a practice they learned from their elders.

Along the coming out pilgrimage trail it is important to take care of ourselves as we walk along harrowing stretches of darkened roads, the once-comfortable hiding place of the closet falling down around our ears. While counseling is helpful through this crisis of change, it is extraordinarily helpful to have others who have come along a similar pathway to walk with us. Bandaging bruised egos, and reminding ourselves that another person's crisis is not our problem simply because we're "out" is a great help. Lancing a blister, where we keep butting up hard against those who call our "lifestyle" sinful is a gift. Pulling out splinters from the shards of the wooden closet of hate I used to live in makes moving forward easier. And a massage is simply icing on the cake.

Reaching Destination: Throughout the weeklong pilgrimage to Chimayo I depended upon rituals, prayers, and songs to buoy me along the way, helping to redirect my attention from my tiredness to realizing the beauty around me as I walked. I gained insight to the audacious nature of God by simply realizing that Jesus himself was a pilgrim throughout his known ministry, never owning a home but living life on the road, depending upon the goodness of others. The late-Brother Roger of Taize rightly called Jesus the Pilgrim God. There is nothing so magnificent yet disheartening as getting to our destination. The morning of our last day together, walking nine miles is incredibly bittersweet. I know I'll never walk with this exact band of people again. I won't have the opportunity to sing the songs we've been singing all week with my friends. I'll miss someone preparing every meal for me throughout the week. The confraternity of men happens but for a brief moment in life, then disappears. It is illusory the rest of the time. Over one hundred and sixty people walked over one hundred miles over five days, up and over mountain passes, through chapels and churches, in the hot northern New Mexico sun. At El Santuario de Chimayo we enter the small sanctuary itself, half filled with cheering and singing pilgrims from other parts of New Mexico, with the Mariachi-like band playing "Que Viva Christo Rey!" An official of the Catholic Archdiocese of Santa Fe places rosaries from the Camino de Santiago de Compostela around our necks. Various crosses, images of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and other memorabilia are gathered in central place during our closing Mass together. Go in peace.

I'm now out of my once constrictive closet. The boards, nails, screws, and locks were left in garbage cans along the way. I self-identify as a dad, a pastor, a writer, a professor, a partner, and a pilgrim who is gay. In my daily prayers I quietly voice my gratitude to God for making me who I am. I love who I am today. Still ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA), I now work at another university, teaching ethics and world religion to new students every semester. My children are grown. My former wife and I are friends, and my partner and I live in the countryside with our dogs. And now I write several blogs on my stories of being a gay dad, my letter to those in the closet to come out and move on. Perhaps take time to swim in the ocean of full acceptance, where the water is just fine. The pilgrimage of coming out is arduous but richly rewarding in the end.

 
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