Brandon Maxwell (he/him/his) is the Dean of Students at Columbia Theological Seminary + Pastor of Worship & Spiritual Formation at Park Avenue Baptist Church. He is one of the loveliest individuals I have ever encountered, and his thoughts on love and life will not disappoint.
How do you identify?
Depends on who asks. More often than not, I identify as “queer.” I find myself in religious circles, and “queer” invites discussion whereas “gay” invites judgement. I think conversation is transformative. It invites everyone in.
In practice, desire, and all the ways, I am a gay man. “Queer” honors that I have dated women in the past in effort to fit into a hetero-normative outlook on relationships. That's a part of my story, too. I've had two very meaningful relationships with women - women who I tried to give myself to fully, but couldn't because we had different desires. So, I like to honor that. Who I have been and where I am now.
What is it like being a queer reverend?
I'm simply a gay Christian. It's not mutually exclusive to me. It's unfortunate that there are churches that teach us that this is the case. It's like being a woman and a Christian. Or black and a Christian. You can be both. You are both. I think it is hard, however, for both groups to accept me - Christian folks and gay folks.
For me, coming out was a spiritual and faithful process. My parents raised me to be a person of integrity. Initially, I came out to myself. I was reading a prayer based on Psalm 32 and 139 – God, you know me. You know everything about me. You formed me. God, you know me! It was through that prayer that I came to know myself as a queer man.
I've always been active in the church. So, there was a season I felt like I couldn’t identify. I couldn’t externally proclaim what I knew internally. I could say that God loved gay people, but I never applied it to myself. As a result, I went through a season where I didn't care about the church. My spiritual life was dry. I was just going through the motions. It wasn't until I came out that things changed. I looked in the mirror and said, “Dude, you’re gay. You like boys.” It was like scales falling from my eyes. All the things I knew about God as a child came back to me in fresh, new ways.
Did you grow in an affirming denomination?
*laughs* Nope! It was a very, very conservative Baptist congregation. To this day they still don't affirm women in ministry. So, gay folks aren’t even up for consideration.
To complicate matters even more, my family was, and continues to be, very involved in that congregation; my uncle is the pastor there. And for all intents and purposes, I was supposed to be the next pastor of that church… so, very early on, people attempted to keep me closeted – both consciously and unconsciously. It The church wasn’t only non-affirming, it was repressive.
How do you make sense of that?
For me, it is important for me to honor where I have been. I wouldn't be the human being I am today without that congregation – without my family. I had to learn – and am still learning – how to appreciate them and how to honor the role they played in making me the human I am today.
When did you realize about your sexuality?
I was aware very early on. I remember coming home from elementary school one evening, saying, “Mom, I think I'm gay.” She asked what I meant by that. A conversation could have started then, but it didn’t. Rather, my family prayed over me. Which is all they knew to do. Even though they had good intentions, that caused me to repress my sexuality for years. That could have been my coming out moment and I could have lived into that reality from the age 5 or 6. But then I wouldn't be who I am today.
Now, I’ve lived into my pastoral identity. And we have a serious need for openly gay clergy in the church. People need examples of individuals who are fully themselves and fully love God. I didn’t have that example early on, and I don’t want that to be the case for people who come after me.
How did you come out?
Initially I told 10 friends who were close to me. I made it a Lenten process. Lent is an important season for me. It is a season of pruning away your old self. For me, that meant, dying to a false hetero-sexual identity and awakening to authenticity and a truer sense of self. So, when I started to tell people, I wanted to normalize the coming out process. I didn’t want formal meetings. So, everyone thought I was joking at first, but I wanted to tell them in unique and expressive ways.
I came out over email to my housemates. I was going to be a judge at a talent show and I had friends coming into town and wanted to let my housemates know. So, I drafted an email telling them I’d clean up and to give them a heads up. I ended with “P.S., I'm gay.” “P.S.S., This isn't a joke.” It was April Fools Day. They immediately called me and I said "I'm serious as a heart attack but I'm going to go judge a talent show. We'll talk later."
Another time was over dinner with someone that I’d tried to date. I said, “Oh hey one more thing, I’m gay and I’m living into that now. Do you want more queso?” She stopped and asked “What?” I said, “Do you want more queso?”
I will also say, I was fortunate enough to have two friends that wanted to honor my coming out through rituals. We don’t know how to ritualize these things, and rituals are quite important in life. So we performed a few rituals – like feet washing. It was a beautiful moment to name and honor the fact that I was transitioning and becoming a new person. Once I had that community of trust around me, I sent a letter to my parents. I hand wrote 4 pages and told my parents that I was gay and that I loved them, and wanted them to know this new truth. They knew me for 28 years. They had to know this, too. I didn't want them to find out through the grapevine. They were scared that I was going to lose my job and my church. Their parental instinct kicked in. But I wasn't afraid of that. I was transitioning into a new person. I believed in the Lenten process. New life was waiting on the other side.
The semi-final way I came out was through a blog post. It needed to be extremely public. Never again would I accept staying in a closet for my life. I couldn't live that way.
Now, I don’t judge anyone who does but I wanted to live out and proud. My post was cryptic and very poetic. I never actually said I was gay, people had to read into it. So, if anyone is reading this blog and didn't realize it, allow me to tell you – I am gay. I am an out, proud, black, gay, Christian man living in the South. Love you! Thanks! Bye!
How long did it take you to become comfortable with yourself?
I think it’s a ongoing process. I’m never going to be fully comfortable with myself. I’m always going to want to fine-tune things. However, I was also raised to be comfortable in my own skin. I don’t walk around concerned about how people perceive me. So, for me, it’s about living in a duality - the both/and. I’m comfortable in myself, but I’m still getting used to myself. I think that’s a good thing though. See, God knew not to give me a six pack. Lord bless, if God gave me a six pack and five more inches of height, I would be a jackass.
What advice would you offer to someone who hasn’t come out yet?
We live in a world where it’s ok to be gay = well, mostly. So, some like to pressure people to come out. But if it’s not the right time, it’s not the right time [to come out]. I know that if I had come out earlier, I wouldn’t be here today. If you’re 6, 16, or 60, trust the timing of your life. Trust that the universe, God, or whatever you want to name it, will guide you.
On the other hand, this isn’t an excuse to stay in the closet. There is going to be a time (or there might have already been a time) when you need to come out. I heard a sermon once by Bishop Yvette Flunder about Pentecost. Pentecost is a public declaration of a private blessing. For the disciples, they were already blessed, affirmed, and promised the spirit privately in the upper room. Pentecost was when the spirit came, and publicly affirmed/proclaimed the private blessing. You have already been blessed and affirmed. When the time comes, you must come out of that closet, you’ve gotta come out of that room and proclaim to the world that you are fearfully and wonderfully made just as you are.
Yvette Flunder Sermon, “The Sound of Pentecost” https://youtu.be/6F2XN4UP7-0 Brandon Sermon, “Body Talk #2: Fearfully and Wonderfully Made” https://soundcloud.com/parkavenuebc/body-talk-2-fearfully-wonderfully?in=parkavenuebc/sets/body-talk-series
Do you believe in soul mates?
I didn’t, I do now. However, I don't buy into the notion that each person has only one soul mate, but I do think there are humans with whom your soul is more compatible. I wouldn't have been able to say that before I met Adriel, my partner.
I'm someone who sizes up people up pretty quickly. I can tell within 10 minutes whether or not I’ll be friends with someone else. Throughout my life I've relied on my gut and intuition. Adriel is someone I would definitely call a soulmate. But it’s not about feeling mushy or sappy. It is about a deep connection with another human being. It’s about feelings. But it is also about shared values and goals.
What does love feel like?
*Smiles and rolls eyes*
For me it feels like being completely out of control. As I said earlier, I can count someone out pretty quickly. Give me 5 minutes and I can find reasons to count them out. Love though… love feels like being out of control. I fell in love with Adriel rather quickly and did not anticipate doing so. I'm a very heady person. I kept trying to back out, but I couldn't. My heart, mind, body, and soul were all in agreement.
I don't think it's our natural impulse to fall in this sort of way. Well it is natural, but the world doesn’t teach us about that kind of love. Love is about sacrifice and the world doesn't teach us that. When you fall in love, there is a little bit of dying to yourself and trusting that on the other side an even more beautiful self will emerge in relationship to another. There's a lot of death and new life in love.
Should I keep going?
It feels like butterflies.
If feels like I am that person that everyone hates but I can’t control it.
It feels like holding a new puppy.
It feels like my favorite ice cream, which is currently a dark chocolate sorbet at Butter & Cream by the way.
What inspires you?
People who are alive inspire me – anybody who is alive and passionate. I love people who are following their passions and truly living into their full selves. People who are gifted in unique ways and are just leaning into their gifts inspire me.
Like Darci – she is our artist in residence at Park Ave Baptist Church and she is leaning into her work and creativity teaching people about justice and activism through art. I love that. It inspires me to be fully myself.
You inspire me. Your blog, photography, and how you’re leaning into your sexuality – that inspires me.
My goach (Gay coach) inspires me. (He hates when I call him that!)
People who aren’t selfish inspire me, as do people who are willing to tell their truth even when it’s difficult and costly. That inspires me.