A Journalist in Church, Hiding in Plain Sight

I’ve often wondered why I hid from them that day. It was two years ago and a rousing Sunday service was winding down at the Portuguese Language Missionary Pentecostal Church in Queens. The pastor, a fiery sermonizer who looked the part of an insurance salesman in his oversized metallic gray suit, had just asked the congregation’s baptized members to approach the front of the church and form a tunnel, through which the unconverted (não crentes, as Brazilians call them) could walk and feel the power of the church’s faith.

As the first of several women approached the gauntlet of cheery Christians, their heads downcast in perhaps shame or contemplation, I double-timed it down the church’s back hallway to the shoddy bathroom. For several tense minutes I waited, until it was safe to once again hide in the back row.

While cowering in the bathroom, and later in my seat, I rationalized my disappearing act on purely journalistic grounds: I was only there to observe. Yet my rapid heartbeat hinted at something else: fear. Fear of being found out, of being asked straight out if I had accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior—I had not and still have not.

As I would discover over months of reporting, my job was just that much easier if everyone simply assumed I was a born-again journalist, writing about a life of faith I had intimate access to. Though I never once claimed to be anything I was not, I also never volunteered a fully candid portrait of my private self: A young gay man, recently out of the closet and transplanted to the big city, co-habitating with my boyfriend of almost three years, unable to remember the last time I’d darkened a church’s doorstep. 

To avoid the dreaded question, while still establishing a basic sense of belonging in the dozen or so churches I visited, I set down some rules of engagement. When the assembled faithful joined in song, I’d sing along. (My favorite hymn, Ressuscita-me, or “Revive me,” begs God for a miracle.) When the congregations swayed rapt, their hands raised to the heavens to beseech their God, I’d hold my hands palms up, but never higher than my elbows, which I’d keep firmly glued to my sides. None of those straining Baptist hands for this (onetime) Catholic boy. I also peppered my language with faith-y buzzwords—God’s Peace, Epiphany, Deliverance—meant to connect with my interview subjects’ often hardscrabble stories of poverty, illegal emigration to the United States, solitude, drug abuse, and, finally, rehabilitation in Christ.

And, then there was that feared moment of ‘the call,’ normally issued toward the end of the service by the pastor who, throwing his arms out, would ask: “Are there any among us here tonight who have not yet accepted Jesus Christ into their hearts?” Tears streaming down their faces, the spiritually lost would step up, experience a sobbing jolt as the pastor lay his hands on their heads, and receive their church membership slip.

Unprepared to forsake what was a still-fresh sexual identity, I would always bow my head during the ‘call,’ mimicking deep prayerfulness. Still, at times I’d become hot and flushed, convinced the pastor’s eyes were boring into me, daring me to speak up—like one Wednesday evening in February I can recall vividly. I was, as usual, seated toward the back of the Assembléia de Deus de New York, a branch of Brazil’s largest neo-Pentecostal church, listening to a charged-up visiting pastor preach, not slowed by his arm in a sling. When he made the ‘call’ I remember my temperature spiking and the sideways glances of the few regulars sitting in my same row.

Then I considered that this wasn’t an infiltration. I wasn’t there, passing myself off as a churchgoer, to unmask deplorable social intolerance. I was there to experience, observe, and report on the very real, powerful presence of God in these peoples’ lives. In the weeks following I was able, for the first time, to keep my head up during ‘the call.’

As my reporting passed into weeks, months, and then years, other personal rules also fell by the wayside. I began signing off phone calls with Paz de Cristo (Peace of Christ), and exclaiming Graças a Deus (Thanks be to God) when celebrating life’s good fortunes. Though Jesus’ divinity remains a mystery to me, I became increasingly comfortable wishing to others the Peace I knew they’d found in Christ.

More than once, I felt an all-too-spiritual tingle as I crescendo-ed in collective song. During church services, I began sending up prayers for the health of my loved ones, something I hadn’t done since a boy, kneeling by my bedside and clutching a pendant with an image of my guardian angel, to whom I would pray to intercede with God to cure my stutter and wandering eye.

I even volunteered to start a discipulado, or Bible study, with Pastor Valmir Delgado, of the Comunidade Evangélica Vida Plena church. And when confronted by a back-slapping pastor from Minas Gerais, moonlighting as a chauffeur, and facing off from across a pamphlet-strewn table in his church lobby, I finally felt free to lay bare my split beliefs. Sort of.

I told him that I was raised Catholic, like millions of Brazilian evangelicals were before they were born again in Christ. I told him how growing up in a leafy Pittsburgh district, my churchgoing Portuguese mother (and agnostic French father) put me through Catholic grade school and a Lasallian Christian Brothers’ high school. To this day I retain an enormous respect for the religious mentors I met there, men strengthened and not shackled by their vocations. There was a time, hard to imagine now, when I confessed regularly and earnestly, attending Sunday Mass religiously—I still (warmly) remember those warm summer mornings in my childhood church, listening to the fatherly, white-haired priest’s baritone reverberate through the floorboards while imaginary bees hummed from the whirring fans.

Yet, despite these gladder memories, I told the pastor as I thumbed through a copy of a local Portuguese-language evangelical newsletter, I too often exited Sunday Mass heavy of spirit, brooding over my terrible guilt and sinfulness—common refrains offered up with few palliatives. Back then, God as I knew Him was remote and mediated by the Church—a somber relative of this pastor’s appealingly user-friendly and solution-oriented God. As for the Catholic Mass’s plodding readings and Communion queues, they were an occasion for daydreaming and sinful thoughts—thoughts I agonized in vain to squelch. Which is why I decided, at the age of 16, that I no longer believed unreservedly in much of what had seemed self-evident just years earlier—and took a nearly decade-long vacation from religion.

As I write this now, and contemplate my research these past few months and years, I am heartened by how easily I can appreciate the beauty—at least literarily—of a world with unanswerable questions and godly mysteries. While this hasn’t lessened my skepticism in the more rigid interpretations of (supposedly) sacred texts—physically written millennia ago by human, not divine, hands—I want to hope that I’m now within hollering distance of that moment or point when belief becomes faith. Close enough, in fact, that when I recently grasped hands with a modern-day Apostle (as Valdemiro Santiago, miracle curer and head of Brazil’s World Church of God’s Power, proclaims himself), I momentarily implored God for a miracle for my mother, who six months ago survived the latest in a harrowing series of medical ordeals.

With that little bit of prayerful business out of the way, I turned from the ecstatic mob of Santiago-rushing crentes and walked down the darkened block, gripping my scuffed iPhone and returning to my real life, a reality somehow made newer.

andre.tartar@gmail.com'

Andre Tartar is a freelance journalist whose work has been published in New York magazine and on the web at nymag.com, the Huffington Post and other media outlets. He is a recipient of a 2011 Knight Grant for Reporting on Religion and American Public Life, which underwrote his exploration of the Brazilian evangelical community in Queens, New York