Finding Jesus, in Drag

I was really nervous about how the Christian magazines and festival organizers and even some of my Christian friends would react if they knew I'd been to a drag show.
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Cathleen Falsani (aka God Girl) caused quite a stir here at HuffPost when she cited my new book "Fall to Grace" as evidence of a potential "great gay awakening" in the evangelical church.

The response was heated: 1,400 posts (and counting) filled with everything from enthusiastic support, to reasoned dissent, to emoticon-happy vitriol. Things got so unruly at Cathleen's own website that she shut down the comments thread and posted an instructional video on how to administer hugs.

This column isn't the space for a blow-by-blow account of the biblical passages on homosexuality. (For that, you'll have to check out my book. Nudge, nudge.) Instead, I'd like to challenge readers with a story about my own struggle to overcome the fear of judgment and live grace.

During a trip to California a few years back, my then-wife Amanda and I were invited out to a drag show by RuPaul, the famous drag queen (recording artist, supermodel, VH1 talk-show host, etc.) who did the voice-over for the 2000 documentary about my mom, The Eyes of Tammy Faye.

The invitation came at a delicate moment in my own spiritual evolution. I was working my way toward becoming a gay-affirming pastor -- someone who welcomes gay people into the church without asking them to compromise their love or lifestyle -- but I hadn't yet declared this position publicly. Frankly, I was really nervous about how the Christian magazines and festival organizers and even some of my Christian friends would react if they knew I'd been to a drag show.

I came up with lots of excuses not to accept the invitation: I told myself that I was trying to gradually bring conservative Christians around to a more loving and understanding attitude toward our LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) brothers and sisters in Christ. And I thought that meant not reinforcing stereotypes or inflaming fears about the gay community -- and you don't get more flaming than a RuPaul drag show!

In the end, I decided to overcome my fears and go. (When the queen of drag queens invites you to a drag show, you really don't have a choice.) Thank God I did.

When we arrived at the club, RuPaul said hello and ushered us in past the crowd thronging outside. There were about ten of us in the VIP area. It was a very hip group including risqué celebrities like Dita Von Teese, the famous burlesque dancer who was married to the singer Marilyn Manson. The first half of the show passed without incident. Then, during intermission, I stepped outside to have a cigarette. While I was standing there, one of the drag queens -- a seven-foot tall black man in heels who was wearing a massive replica of the Eiffel Tower on his head -- approached to say that he was a preacher's kid too and that he had grown up in the church. He went on to explain how much he loved my mom and how worried he was about her cancer.

"Please tell your mom that I'm praying for her and that I love her," he said, Eiffel Tower bobbing as he spoke.

"Well, let's get a picture together so I can show my mom who you are," I said, letting my guard down a little and taking a photo with him. Stubbing out my cigarette, I went back inside for the second half of the show.

Near the end of the show, a drag queen got up onstage and began spotlighting the famous people in the crowd: "Dita Von Teese is here!" (cheers). "And RuPaul is here!" (cheers). And all of a sudden he said, "Did anyone here ever watch the Praise the Lord ministry?"

I thought, Oh, no, here it comes. But half the crowd raised their hands and cheered (and chuckled). I think they were expecting someone to come out and impersonate my mom or something. "Well, Jim and Tammy's son, Jamie, is here," the emcee said. And suddenly, this huge spotlight hit me.

As I blinked into the blinding light, the emcee asked teasingly, "Are you straight?"

"Yeah," I said, blushing and pointing a thumb at my wife, Amanda.

"Lucky girl," the emcee said.

And then the emcee got real serious. Standing there in high heels and a sparkly dress, he said: "You know, this is where Jesus would be if He were alive today. Jesus hung out with the tax collectors and the prostitutes and the sinners ... " He then launched into a three-minute speech about how Jesus loved everybody without judgment.

Then he looked back up at me and asked, "Jay, are you still doing your church?"

"Yeah," I answered.

"Oh, that's so wonderful. Best of luck to you on that." And everybody clapped.

So there I was, stunned, not knowing what to make of this. One minute a drag queen was making cracks about whether I'm gay, and the next minute he was saying these really amazing things about Jesus and grace. I looked over at Amanda, not knowing what to expect, and she had tears in her eyes.

"This is incredible, Jay," she said. "In a roomful of people, where you don't know who believes what, they're talking about Jesus. They're talking about His love and grace and how much they appreciate the fact that you, as a preacher, are here with them, that you're willing to come out to the show and share this with them ... This is where we're supposed to be," she said. "This is where God has sent us."

I realized she was right.

That night, at a burlesque club in Los Angeles, I saw people hungry for the love and truth of Christ. Not the judgment and rejection they'd experienced their whole lives in the church, but the real deal: revolutionary grace. That's what they welcomed into their midst.

That's what grace is all about: loving one another and understanding one another and sharing in Christ together, no matter who we are or what others might think about it.

Being at that drag show in L.A. challenged me to get outside my comfort zone. It taught me that grace crops up where you least expect it. It helped me to recognize that there can be no boundaries on God's love.

I want to challenge everyone reading this to push yourself in this same way. What are the boundaries you put on grace? Are there places you won't go or people you won't socialize with for fear of judgment? Ask yourself: What are the rules I make up about who gets to sit at Christ's table? Then ask yourself: Are my rules consistent with grace?

Jay Bakker is the son of Jim Bakker and Tammy Faye Messner, the co-pastor of Revolution Church in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and the author of the new book "Fall to Grace: A Revolution of God, Self, and Society", from which this piece is adapted.

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