By Tommy Airey
Thirty years ago this month, I packed up my car and left Loyola Marymount University. I was a freshman on a full-ride basketball scholarship. I drove home. Just fifty-five minutes south on the 405 freeway. Back to Orange County. I left LMU because I was miserable – and I was nineteen. I struggled to emotionally connect with our head coach who tried hard to be funny (but wasn’t) and whose favorite word was “horseshit” – always used as a descriptor for either our team or one of our players. Sometimes it was aimed at me. I did not have a clue how to metabolize what was going on inside of me. It’s just not what young men who change in locker rooms are equipped to do.
Our team – half-Black and half-white in the immediate aftermath of the L.A. uprising – bonded during preseason fitness conditioning. Coach made it clear that, before official practice started in October, everyone had to run a mile in under five minutes. Together. If anyone didn’t make it, everyone would have to wake up at 6am every morning and run it again. Together. Until everyone could do it. At the same time. We had guys who were 6’9” and weighed 240 lbs. We had other guys who never failed to miss the fraternity keg party. We all ran a sub-five-minute-mile on our first attempt. This is one of the reasons I believe in miracles.
I liked the players on the team. I also liked the dudes down the hall who stayed up late gambling and the guys across the way who taught me that it’s impossible to play video games without talking shit. I just didn’t fit in. It was 1992. I was steeped in Rush Limbaugh racism justified by the Christian apologetics of Josh McDowell, who proved that my belief-system was absolutely true. I was probably the only guy on the team who voted for George H. W. Bush that Fall. My white suburban evangelicalism did not have categories for Catholic social teaching, for the critical scholarship of my brilliant Old Testament professor Daniel Smith-Christopher, or for my teammate Rahim who wore a shirt that read, “Jesus was a Black man.”
In Orange County, I fit in with the Christo-fascist fold for about a dozen more years. I was dealt a well-resourced hand. Megachurches. Mission trips. Small groups. Summer camps. It felt so good to be on the same page with so many successful white people! But then, I studied and prayed and traveled and listened and learned. The cognitive dissonance was killing my soul. I’ve written extensively about following Jesus out of Christian fundamentalism, where the racism and anti-intellectualism are not just bugs of the tradition, but features designed to make sure mediocre white people fit in no matter what. I’ve written a lot less about the emotional contours of my post-evangelical path. It has been an inspiring journey. But above all, it has been immensely lonely.
I no longer believe that faith is about fitting in. It is about Something Else. It is about getting free. It is about becoming the adult I needed when I was nineteen. It is about becoming someone centered, grounded and emotionally available. Someone with the ability to break down the walls that block intimacy. Someone willing to be present to other people’s pain. Someone who feels with others instead of tries to fix others. Someone who is nurturing, tender, playful, open-hearted and emotionally expressive. Someone not there to drop knowledge, but instead daring to be more vulnerable than the last time. Someone there to remind nineteen-year-old me that I was enough, no matter what, just because.
In my forties, I’ve come to realize that becoming this kind of person is not a mercenary affair. The more I become this kind of person, the more I have the capacity to experience what Jesus called “abundant life,” a way-of-Being unbound from social norms and obligations that center supremacy. I am leaning into a life that does not have to endlessly meet the needs of white interests, the profit motive and hetero-patriarchy. I’ve also come to realize that becoming this kind of person takes an enormous amount of time and intention. It doesn’t just happen. It is the reason why Lindsay and I fled the suburbs, shelved the concept of “careers,” and nixed the notion that the nuclear family is the summum bonum. We are desperately seeking Something Else.
Something conceived by unconventional wisdom.
Something pregnant with healing potential.
Something birthing non-biological offspring.
Something nurturing a radical revolution of values.
I am convinced that this is what it takes to become someone who I needed when I was nineteen. Too often, I fall into the trap of assuming that others are on the same page, that there is some sort of basic, mutual understanding on the left that every single one of us, regardless of our race, class, gender and sexuality, have been counterfeited by childhood trauma and by every institution (including families and faith communities) that is geared towards meeting the needs of whiteness, the profit motive and hetero-patriarchy. Too often, I fall into the trap of assuming that I actually understand this. Too often, my unrealistic expectations lead to resentment and a stubborn self-hatred. This calls for constant re-calibration, daily come-to-Jesus meetings on my prayer mat, with my feelings journal, in conversations with Lindsay and a few others.
* * *
My earliest childhood memory was the day in 1977 when they trucked in snow and piled it on our preschool playground. South Orange County turned into upstate New York. For a few hours, at least. My therapist says that early memories can reveal a lot about someone. Like a snow day in Southern California, I often feel like an oxymoron, just melting away. It’s an old scar still trying to define me, festering in the slow trauma of all the silence I soaked up in childhood and all the supremacy stories I’ve been scripted into since. I am also a cis-het vegetarian white dude who loves sports, is committed to abolitionist politics, reads the bible everyday and still wears an N95 mask everywhere I go. I am a weirdo – and I am still unlearning that old white boy script that I am supposed to be a lone ranger superhero. I need Something Else. I need a team.
Jesus knew this better than anyone. He cultivated an alternative family. His true kindreds were those committed to doing God’s will. He proclaimed this to a packed room right after his mother and siblings tried to restrain him – because folks were saying that Jesus was out of his mind. The rules and roles of family systems restrain each member. Alternative families are needed to become Something Else. It’s often referred to as “fictive kinship.” Ecofeminist Donna Haraway calls it “clanarchy.” It’s how Black, Indigenous, Undocumented and Queer people have survived and flourished for centuries in this supremacist society. I am very late to the game. I need kinship to survive, to flourish, to do God’s will, to become the adult I needed when I was nineteen.
Over the past year, I’ve thought a lot about kindreds. These are the people in my life who
(1) prioritize time, energy and resources
to heal themselves and the world,
(2) have the capacity to know me and love me,
who ask questions and stay curious,
(3) are willing to be vulnerable, to open their hearts
and share their struggles, pain, hope and joy, and
(4) possess the courage to go public with convictions
that are not popular with people in their network.
My kindreds are actively aiming for all four of these soul targets. In 2022, dear friends entrusted me with stories about surviving sexual trauma, about struggles to get sober, about the ways shame invaded their lives, about wrestling with self-hatred, about enabling addicts, about feeling like they are never enough, about dreading going to therapy, about navigating conflicts with their partners. These confessions subvert the social norms and obligations scripted by supremacy stories. They beckon me to go further on my own journey. My kindreds keep me accountable, mostly with their actions, sometimes with their words. They are far from perfect. They do not hide the fact that there is still so much to figure out.
My kindreds are walking, talking reminders that the chains of hetero-patriarchy and racial capitalism can only be broken with the radical truth that God’s power is perfected in our imperfection, not in our performance or production. Ultimately, my healing hums on the truth of a higher Power. I do fit in – with Something Else. Something that says I am beloved and belong, no matter what, just because. I am not alone in this world. I am blessed to know a few folks covenanted to healing, loving, being vulnerable and going public with inconvenient truths. With the support of just a few kindreds, I can swim upstream. I do not have to run like I did when I was nineteen. Because Something Else does exist – and it is conspiring to make me Something Else too.
Tommy Airey is a post-Evangelical pastor and the author of Descending Like a Dove: Adventures in Decolonizing Evangelical Christianity (2018). He roasts his own coffee, roots for the Kansas Jayhawks and rests his head in Detroit, Michigan with his partner Lindsay. He is currently working on his second book Conspiracy: A Biblical Spirituality for Breaking Rank. Tommy consistently posts shorter pieces to his blog Easy Yolk.