Writer Michael Arceneaux recently was a guest on National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air show with interviewer Terry Gross to discuss his new memoir: I Can’t Date Jesus: Love, Sex, Family, Race and Other Reason’s I’ve Put My Faith in Beyoncé. His story is a tale that Catholic leaders and pastoral ministers need to hear. During the conversation, Arceneaux discussed ways that his upbringing in a Catholic household in Texas shaped his life, including many of the painful parts that appear in his memoir.
As she introduced Arceneaux, Terry Gross explained:
“Arceneaux abandoned the Catholic Church about 16 years ago, in what he describes as an act of self-preservation after deciding he was no longer willing to be part of an institution that condemned him for who he was.”
As someone who grew up gay and black in Texas, Arceneaux discussed the intersections of race, religion and sexuality in his childhood. As a child, his family received Catholic Leaven newsletters, which Arceneaux says, “communicated very early…being gay is wrong.” When his uncle died of AIDs, his father informed him of the death by way of a homophobic slur, blaming his death on his sexuality. This, along with widespread cultural heteronormativity, created a great fear in Arceneaux about both HIV/AIDS and his sexuality.
While Arceneaux is no longer Christian of any denomination, he doesn’t identify as agnostic or atheist. He described his spiritual life:
“…I do believe in something. I still actively pray. I believe in a god. And I just don’t think I believe in maybe necessarily the Christian God I was raised to believe in. But I do like the idea of Christians who actually practice the teachings of Christ. I think Jesus is a swell guy. I would love to be friends with him.”
For the title of his memoir, Arceneaux settled on I Can’t Date Jesus following a conversation with his mother, who remains a devout Catholic. He explained:
“We had this conversation where she says, I know that you’re born gay. I know that you can’t help it. But if you have sex and get hit by a bus, I don’t know where you’re doing to go. My mom can be morbid. Bless her heart. And my mom – when I was going on, I was like, well, girl, I can’t date Jesus. And so that is when the title happened.”
Despite his own struggles with religion, Arceneaux does have a respect for the “role that faith plays in people.” He said:
“My mom is the strongest person I know. Her faith is what has kept her alive. And I respect that, and I admire that. But what she doesn’t seem to understand is that the faith that she was raising may keep her alive, but it makes me want to die, or at the very least, not live a full life.”
New Ways Ministry believes in the importance of sharing all stories at the intersection of LGBTQ+ individuals and the Catholic church, including those who have faced difficulties finding acceptance in the church. Last week we profiled stories from two parishes that have successful, positive ministries for their LGBTQ+ members and families.
Hearing a narrative like Arceneaux’s is essential for what it can teach Catholics about the damages that can be done to a person through negative messaging and repression of their sexuality. Early in his papacy, Pope Francis warned church leaders “not to administer a vaccine against faith to young people growing up.” Love and compassion are always more powerful than condemnation, especially when based on ignorance. Arceneaux’s memoir is a cautionary tale for church leaders, and we hope that by listening to both positive and negative stories, more parishes can learn the importance of fully welcoming their entire congregations in the hopes that they, too, can live a full life.
Click here to read or listen to the full conversation on Fresh Air with Terry Gross and Michael Arceneaux.
—Catherine Buck, New Ways Ministry, August 2, 2018