"When a pastor serves up God's word, you have to pick out the pastor's own beliefs to get to the meat of what God is saying to you. I read my Bible on my own."
Growing up in his father's church, Joshua Stovall had a religious upbringing. But it wasn't until he became HIV-positive that he discovered the real meaning of faith.
"Being the pastor's son had its perks and trials," the 36-year-old says. Among the congregation of the Pentecostal Church of God in Christ on Chicago's South Side, the pastor's family was at the top of the social ladder, and many of the parishioners sought status by associating themselves with and insinuating themselves into the family.
"I loved the hands that were there to help raise us. Our family never really lacked for anything," he says. "But sometimes the hands that helped were the same hands that hurt."
Stovall was first sexually molested at the age of four by one of the members of his father's church. The molestations continued over the years committed by other youth, deacons, church elders, and ministers. Some of them would confess to Stovall's father, whose main priority, according to Stovall, was to prevent it from becoming gossip.
"I had a warped sense of spirituality and what 'God meant,'" Stovall says. "On the one hand, I was being reared to godliness, but on the other hand I was being opened to sexuality at a very young age. The spiritual and the sexual intermingled all the time. I was confused by what it meant to be Christian."
According to Stovall, many of the people around him at church engaged in sex with each other, while claiming to be religious. Sex was tacitly accepted as long as it was kept secret -- and as long as it was heterosexual.
"Around eighth grade I knew I liked boys," he says, "but being gay was not acceptable, so I liked boys secretly."
He soon came across a book, E. Lynn Harris' The Invisible Life, a 1991 coming-of-age novel about a young gay African American man's realization and self-acceptance. "He was such a great writer, I could see myself in the book," Stovall says. "It was like a movie was playing in my mind. That was my Eureka! moment. The molestations didn't [make me gay] -- I was seeing myself in that book.
"From that point I was curious about what gay was and what it meant," he says. "I saw how people in church would talk about them. I knew I didn't want my mom and dad to look at me and think of me in the same way that they looked at other people, so I didn't tell anyone."
Keeping his secret took its toll. "I would take safety pins and stick them into my fingers," he says. "I was a cutter, I was inflicting pain on myself. To me, it wasn't cutting; I was trying to release the pain. But not only did it not release the pain, it caused a lot of self-hatred because I couldn't get it out of me. I prayed, I fasted. I started hating myself.
"I felt God hated me," he adds. "You look for spiritual guidance from your pastor, priest or elder; you feel that God feels that way about you. Their dogma is that God hates gay people. How could He say He loved me so much, and then make me this way? Why can't He remove this thing that so many other people hate? I felt rejected by God. I felt He was mocking my life. I wanted to know what kind of God would make me who I was to tell me He hates me. You can deal with your father not loving you, but for your God, who made you, that He hates you, where do you go after that?"
Stovall found himself at the corner of Belmont Avenue and Halsted Street in Chicago's predominantly gay Boystown neighborhood, which has for decades attracted LGBTQ youth, particularly those who are homeless or transient. He would wander the street, aimless, looking for a hookup and acceptance.
"I was 16, 17 years old," he says, "I'd meet a guy, sleep with him. I couldn't go home, so even if he wasn't my type I'd stay with him to have a place to stay and something to eat. If we liked each other enough to do it again the next day, fine; otherwise, I'd find someone else to do it with."
Related: Spirituality and Faith in My HIV Journey
Stovall eventually found a place of his own on the city's South Side, but it wasn't long afterward that he took ill with flu-like symptoms. A public health department case manager had been trying to contact him, and he had been avoiding her. But his symptoms convinced him to get tested for HIV. She delivered the test result in person.
He could hardly walk down the stairs to let her in. He recalls bracing himself for the news: "Lord, they say you won't put on us more than we can bear. If that's the case, strengthen my shoulders."
Learning that he was HIV-positive was actually a release of the burden of rejection he had been carrying. He says the "old" him died, and that he experienced a rebirth. Stovall even gave himself a new name -- London Benton.
He called many of his friends and acquaintances with the news; rather than offering words of comfort to him, he was consoling them, reassuring his friends that he would be alright but to pray for him. The following Sunday, he returned to his father's church to tell the congregation.
"I was taking the power away from them that they had had over me," he says. However, the church members responded by turning their backs on him. During the service, at the point when congregants shake hands with each other, they intentionally passed over Stovall, shaking hands instead with the people around him. He was shunned outside the church as well. "The same people that molested me, the same people I had had sex with, they would cross the street to avoid me because they don't want anyone from our congregation to see me with them," he said.
Not long afterward, he left the church altogether. His older brother became pastor after their father died in 1998, and runs the church much the same way it always has been. When Stovall suggested having an event to observe World AIDS Day, his brother killed the idea, saying he didn't want his church "looking like gay pride."
"Right now, I don't go to any church," he says. "I don't need it to have a relationship with God. I'd rather my experience with God be a loving one, and not worry about who's judging me for being gay or having HIV. I have a greater faith in God now. When a pastor serves up God's word, you have to pick out the pastor's own beliefs to get to the meat of what God is saying to you. I read my Bible on my own.
"God's truth is that He loves you," he adds. "The Bible is supposed to be a book of love, about the relationship between God and humanity. People think that God is in control. God is not always in control. God has given us free will, for us to do either good or evil. Bad things do happen, but the lesson is what will you take from that and teach the next person. He is a free will God that loves all people."
[Note from TheBody: This article was originally published by Positively Aware in Nov. 2018. We have cross-posted it with their permission.]