Former Champion for Christ , MorningStar, Victory Campus Min
Date: March 27, 2006 03:34PM
GAY IN THE LAND OF HOLY ROLLERS: I Was Told Hitler Can Be Forgiven, But Not My Brother Who Died Of AIDS.
By Esera Tuaolo
[Editor's note: Esera Tuaolo created a stir when he came out as gay in 2002 after retiring from a nine-year career in the NFL. In this except from his new book, the story picks up in 1997 when Tuaolo leaves the Minnesota Vikings to join the Jacksonville Jaguars. Tuaolo was still in the closet, but in Minnesota he met his partner, Mitchell, (with whom he is now raising two children).]
LAND OF THE HOLLY ROLLERS:
Jacksonville is the land of Holy Rollers. I have never been anywhere else like that, where religion has taken over the entire city. It extended to the football team.
The Jaguars were known as a Christian team. About half of the players were involved in some way with an organization known as Champions for Christ. I had seen Christian groups on other teams, but nothing like this. The CFC members seemed to accept only the guys who attended their weekly bible study. I was my usual Mr. Aloha, always happy-go-lucky in the locker room and able to get along with everyone. But I could feel the tension between the CFC guys and the rest of the players. It was as though you had to choose between two cliques that divided the team.
A lot of the team’s stars belonged to CFC, including Mark Brunell, the quarterback who had upset John Elway and the Denver Broncos in the AFC Central Division playoffs the previous season, and Tony Boselli, an offensive lineman and the first player the franchise drafted. They were the two biggest stars on the team. They really pressured guys, especially the younger players. An older player might start preaching to a younger guy in the locker room that he needed to change his ways because the end was near. You could feel the threat of rejection. Don Davey told me the star players and other CFC members had shunned him because he hadn’t accepted their invitation. It felt like if you didn’t go to their bible study, you weren’t part of the team.
The Holy Rollers carried the attitude, Either you’re with us or you’re against us. That took me back to the Pentecostal days of my childhood when the pastor preached, “If your friends don’t go to church, you should de-friend them and find some Christian friends.” When I arrived in Jacksonville, they thought that I would automatically gravitate toward Champions for Christ because I was a Christian. They had seen me kneel in the center of the field with other players after games. I always went to chapel on game days with the Vikings and Packers. But CFC’s militant approach rubbed me the wrong way.
In a way, CFC seemed like a cult to me. Any religion that excludes a certain group is a cult. True religion accepts everyone as they are. That’s my understanding of God’s love. I also don’t think you should pressure someone into faith. I think we should teach people about our faith by the way we live. Our job as Christians is not to convert; our job is to introduce the idea that Jesus Christ can help someone in his life. I leave it to the Holy Spirit to convert and to the individual to feel the conviction in his heart. When you try to push religion on others, it tears a team apart. I could see that in the Jaguars’ locker room.
My hunch that something wasn’t quite right with Champions for Christ later proved correct. When running back Curtis Enis, the Chicago Bears’ top draft pick in 1998, fired his agent after attending CFC bible studies and hired a friend of CFC president Greg Ball, the media started questioning the group’s practices. Reports speculated that CFC, which endorses the biblical practice of tithing, preyed upon the NFL’s high-paid players. Brunell, who made more than $6 million a year, and Boselli, who made more than $2 million annually, both admitted that they gave 10 percent of their income to CFC. The NFL, which had acted in the past to protect players against scams, launched its own investigation. Much of the talk focused on the Jaguars. This all happened after I had left the team.
While with the Jaguars, I felt the pressure to join Champions for Christ. Not long after I had been in Jacksonville, a teammate and CFC member asked me if I believed in God. I said yes. Then he asked me if I had accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior. I again said yes. He invited me to the bible study. I balked. An experience at my church in Minneapolis made me cautious.
"THE CHRISTIAN WAY":
I had attended services regularly at Speak the Word since 1992, when I had come to play with Minnesota. In all of those times, I hadn’t heard a word spoken about homosexuality. The week after my first date with Mitchell, I went to the Sunday morning service at Speak the Word on my own. The topic of the sermon was homosexuality. I had admired the pastor. He had preached about love and discipline, topics that spoke to me and bolstered my faith; but that Sunday he spoke about homosexuality as a sinful choice, as though someone could choose his or her sexual orientation. I felt like Fred Flintstone, the way he shrinks when someone yells at him. The more the pastor railed against homosexuality, the smaller I felt in the big church, as though everyone was pushed away from me.
The pastor proclaimed that he was going to raise his children to be straight. He said the way to do that was to raise them “the Christian way.” That meant he would be involved in their lives and teach them to be great children of God. I had been raised the Christian way, with the bible, and I was gay. Yet the pastor thought he could dictate his children’s sexual orientation. I couldn’t believe these words coming out of his mouth. This church was a place where I had felt at home. I had given money to support its ministry. Yet the pastor was talking about me as someone who was not one of God’s children.
I didn’t want to listen to any more of this negative talk. His message said nothing about love. Stop this talk, I was saying to him in my mind. Please stop. Then something surprising happened. As I listened, a peace came over me. I had the revelation, he’s not telling the truth. I started crying. The people around me consoled me, saying, “The Spirit has touched you.” Yeah, He did, I thought, but not like you think. The Spirit said, “I do love you.” He told me the truth. God opened my eyes as to what kind of church that was. I wanted a church that preached God’s love, a church that made me—and everyone—feel like part of the family.
That was the last day I set foot in Speak the Word.
Needless to say, I had reservations about attending the Champions for Christ bible study. One day, I saw a CFC flier in the locker room that listed Darryl Flowers as the guest speaker. I knew Darryl from Oregon State, where he had been a star basketball player along with future NBA point guard Gary Payton. Darryl had later become our football team’s chaplain. I had liked Darryl. I figured I could please my CFC teammates and catch up with Darryl by attending that week’s bible study. I had attended other teams’ bible studies, where a handful of guys sat in a circle and talked about scripture. This one wasn’t like that. It was held in the conference room of an airport hotel. There must have been a hundred people there: my teammates with their wives and their friends from church. Beforehand, I greeted Darryl. We hugged. He seemed happy to see me. The bible study started like many others. We introduced ourselves and said some prayers. Then Darryl started to speak.
I expected his message to be like those I had heard in the past. I expected him to talk about drawing inspiration from the Good Book, or about finding our strength in God. I hadn’t expected him to speak against homosexuality as an abomination. He sounded like the preacher at the church I attended as a child, saying that such sinners would spend eternity in the lake of fire.
"I'M NOT GOING TO HELL":
The anger started to rise within me. I was fed up with this kind of misinformed talk. [My brother] Tua [who died of AIDS] came to mind. I had not let myself think of him since his funeral. I missed him too much. I had tried to block out the pain. That night with Darryl speaking, I couldn’t help but think of Tua and what a wonderful, kind person he was. I thought of the way he had helped others and the way he treated my mother so well. A person like that could not end up in Hell, could they? I thought about Mitchell. I had finally met a wonderful man, who I thought was the answer to my prayers, yet this kind of talk forced us to live a secret life. I wanted to stand up and shout, “I’m not going to Hell!” Instead, I stewed in my seat, torn between what I heard and what I lived.
After Darryl’s sermon, we broke into small discussion groups. Darryl was in my group. I said to him, “I had a gay brother who died of AIDS.” The other guys in my group leaned back with worried expressions on their faces, like my brother had contaminated me. “You’re telling me that if Hitler in his last breath asked God for forgiveness, that he would be forgiven,” I continued, “but my brother, who was gay, would not be forgiven?” “Yes,” Darryl said. “Murder is different from abomination. Murder is a sin that can be forgiven. Homosexuality can’t be forgiven because it is an abomination.” “That does not sit right with me,” I said to Darryl. “If you knew my brother Tua and how many people he helped, you would know like I do that he has a place in heaven.” I stood up to leave. “I can’t accept that.” “That’s what the word of God says.” Darryl quoted Leviticus 18: 22, “You will not have intercourse with a man as you would with a woman. This is a hateful thing.” (New Jerusalem Bible) “If you’re going to follow Leviticus, then every NFL player should be put to death for working on the Sabbath and touching pigskin,” I shot back. (In addition to the passage Darryl quoted, the book of Leviticus also mandates resting on the Sabbath and not contacting pigs, which are considered unclean. What’s more, Exodus 35: 2 states, “Work must be done for six days, but the seventh must be a holy day for you, a day of complete rest, in honor of Yahweh. Anyone who does any work on that day will be put to death.” New Jerusalem Bible)
They looked at me like I was crazy. I walked out.
LAKE OF FIRE:
I drove back to the hotel irate. When the Vikings played [an] exhibition game in Berlin, I had visited a concentration camp near the city. I had seen Hitler’s legacy of horror. He was going to be forgiven, but not my brother? Why did Tua need to be forgiven in the first place? Back in my drab room, I started to drink tequila. The more I thought about what had happened and the more I drank, the more upset I became. What if Darryl and all of the guys there — my teammates and the star players — were right? Maybe Tua wasn’t in heaven. Maybe I was headed to the lake of fire. That’s what pastors had been telling me about homosexuality since I was a child. My heart didn’t believe it, but my head was filled with their preaching. I was confused about what I truly believed. I had spoken up about Tua, but I hadn’t had the guts to tell the other guys about me. Once again, I was a coward. Why must I always deny who I was? How long would I have to feel ashamed of myself?
All of my confusion and conflict came out in a rage. I drove my fist through the wall. I wanted to kill myself. I felt the despair and defeat that I had known so many times in Minnesota. Once again, I was alone and confused and wanted to die. If I had had a gun that night, I would have used it.
I called Mitchell. Instead of letting him comfort me, I blamed him for the miserable way I felt. I told him that I could not be happy with him, that I didn’t want to see him again. In my confusion and despair, I rambled on about being a sinner and not deserving him in my life. In the next breath, I begged him not to leave. Eventually, I hung up on him. He called back. I hung up. I immediately called him to tell him why I had hung up on him. He wasn’t sympathetic enough. He couldn’t understand. I hung up again. This went on for three or four hours. Mitchell kept calling and talking until he got through to me. I think he realized how serious this was, that I really was suicidal, that he could lose me. He didn’t panic. He was able to look past all of the rotten things I said about him. He managed to calm me down. His persistence and love kept me alive. He told me to sleep before making a decision about our relationship. Finally, exhausted, I surrendered to sleep at about 2:00 a.m. The next morning, I woke up drained. I was grateful to have football practice. It gave me somewhere to go.
"JESUS BRINGS LOVE":
Some of the players who had not been in my small discussion group had not seen me leave. One of those guys approached me in the locker room and asked, “What did you think of the bible study?” “I consider myself a Christian,” I said. “But you guys are stuck in the Old Testament practice of condemning certain groups. In the New Testament, Jesus brings love, forgiveness, and compassion to everyone. To live like Christ is not to cast out another group. That’s what happened at the bible study.” We had a long conversation.
The New Testament was the new revelation; it gave us a new understanding of God through the person of Jesus Christ. I’m not saying we should throw out the Old Testament. I’m saying we should read it in context of the New Testament. To stick with some of the teachings in the Old Testament can cause people to live in the past. I think many of the Old Testament’s comments on homosexuality are teachings from the past that Jesus did not endorse. I heard Robin Williams deliver a great line: “If homosexuality is an abomination, why didn’t it make the top ten list of sins?” Jesus would not dismiss me from his presence. He saw the beauty in everyone. Look who Jesus hung out with: tax collectors and prostitutes. He never discriminated against anyone. His message was to treat others with respect, not to pass judgment on Earth. Jesus loved everyone. He died on the cross for everyone — not just for straight people, but for all people. Some Christians try to exclude some groups from the blood of Christ, but Jesus didn’t. No, he died for all of us. During tough times, I held onto that. The Bible says in Leviticus 18: 22 that it’s unnatural for a man to lie with a man. God created me—you, all people—in his image. I am not a mistake. God doesn’t make mistakes. My own belief is that if God doesn’t make mistakes and God made me gay — I was born gay — it would be unnatural for me to lie with a woman. Since God created me gay—with a desire to be intimate with men — it is natural for me to lie with a man. It bothers me that people are selective in their scripture readings. They only pick the passages they want to use for their own purposes. If you’re going to read one passage, you’ve got to read them all. If you’re going to read Leviticus 18: 22, you’ve got to read the whole book, which says, among other things, that “Whenever a woman has a discharge and the discharge from her body is of blood, she will remain in a state of menstrual pollution for seven days. Anyone who touches her will be unclean until evening.” (Leviticus 15: 19–20, New Jerusalem Bible) Are you going to cast out your wife when she has her period? We have to consider the context and use common sense.
"I CANNOT IMAGINE GOD WOULD HATE ANYONE":
Some people blame gay men for the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, but there were also men raping women and other sins taking place there. God destroyed the people in those cities for doing evil. A lot of people are stuck on men raping the angels, but the place was long gone before the angels arrived.Critics view homosexuals as a group. If a man goes on a shooting binge, you don’t read in the paper that a heterosexual man went on a shooting binge. But if a homosexual man molests a child, you read that a “gay man” molested a child. There are bad homosexuals just like there are bad heterosexuals. Please don’t judge us as a group. I don’t understand how religious people can read the Bible and know that there’s only one judge, yet take the responsibility for being that judge. They condemn all homosexuals simply because of the way we are created. I see a little lesbian girl or gay boy listening and becoming afraid like I was, believing there is something wrong with them. These people tell these gay kids that there is no place in this world or God’s kingdom for them. It breaks my heart to hear that. I cannot imagine that God would hate anyone. Remember, Jesus shed his blood for all of us. I want the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people who have turned their back on God to return to their faith. Ignore the misinformed people; don’t ignore God. When I speak at colleges, I want to make sure that those who hear me know God loves them. I speak out of my Christian faith, but I tell them, “Whether you are a Jew, Buddhist, Hindu, or whatever, hold onto your faith. Religion is supposed to bring comfort and joy to your life. It’s not supposed to scare the Hell out of you.” Religion involves a personal relationship between you and God. People can give you advice, criticize you, say what they want, but in the end, when you stand before God on Judgment Day, you’ll stand alone. We each need to decide for ourselves what we believe and live out that faith. People ask me, “How can you believe in God after all of the negative things you’ve heard in church and bible studies about homosexuality?” I know those negative things others have said don’t come from God. I still believe because God has always been there for me. If it weren’t for God, I would be six feet under. My faith has made me explore the Bible even more. I found out God loves me the way He created me. I’ve held onto that love. That’s all you need.I don’t want to come across as holier than thou. I’m not perfect; no one is. I’ve got skeletons in my closet. We all have our weaknesses. We all fall short of God’s glory because we’re all human. I’m not an expert, and I don’t claim to be a scholar, but I know the Bible and what I believe. I simply want to spread the word about God’s true love the way the book of Wisdom describes it: “Yes, you love everything that exists, and nothing that you have made disgusts you, since, if you had hated something, you would not have made it.” (Wisdom 11:24, New Jerusalem Bible)
These thoughts were not as clear in my mind the day after I attended the CFC bible study. I was feeling wiped out and adrift. After practice, I went over to [teammate] Don Davey’s house. Mitchell wasn’t there to comfort me in person, but Don and his wife were. I told them about the bible study and how I couldn’t accept that my brother was an abomination. They were very supportive and sympathetic.
I talked to Mitchell again on the phone. He told me he would stay in the relationship if I would. I wouldn’t have blamed him if he had called it quits after the way I had treated him. I think he believed that deep down I was a good man. Even when I treated him horribly, he believed that good man would again show himself. I tell people that Mitchell is the strongest man I know. I put him through a lot of crap, but he stayed with me. That night could have destroyed us, but instead, we took an important step forward.
From "Alone in the Trenches: My Life as a Gay Man in the NFL"