When Wesley Rowell realized he was gay, he swapped church for the library, and became a performer. Then, in his seventh decade, he heard the call to join a seminary.
Religion may have been the cause or excuse for many wars and the deaths of millions over the millennia and in the west our religiosity has been waning for decades so religion may not be everyone’s cup of tea but even atheists can see some upsides in peace time. I wrote on this subject, albeit from afar so have a look at Taboo #5 Religion
or even 20 tips for a happy retirement. Practice mindfulness! if the spirit doesn’t move you!
Wesley Rowell hoped to make it as an opera singer. A bass-baritone, he supported his ambitions and auditions with singing jobs in churches in Chicago and New York, and as a luxury salesperson, selling expensive pots of face cream. Then, at 60, he found a different kind of voice – and started seminary at Princeton with a mission to “reclaim God’s queerness”.
No one was more surprised than Rowell, who is now 61. “If somebody said to me three years ago: ‘You’ll be going to a seminary,’ it would have been a ridiculous joke.” His mother, however, “a very serene, soft” 91-year-old, “just smiled and said: ‘Well, I guess your grandmother was right.’” Rowell’s grandfather was a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church in the family’s hometown of Fayetteville, North Carolina, and his grandmother had raised the possibility that one of the grandchildren might follow that path.
Rowell is still a little hazy on where seminary will take him when he leaves in 18 months. His cohort will work in churches and academia and with nonprofit organisations, he thinks. “And I honestly don’t know where I am. I’m open to where it takes me.”
Church, song and family have always been intertwined. Singing began for him in church. “My grandmother used to hum with me. And I can almost remember her vibration.”
At 10 or 11, he realised: “Oh, I like boys.” The library became a new sort of church. “I would find whatever gay books there were – Oscar Wilde and James Baldwin. And I would hide them and go read them.”
Rowell heard “nothing but openness” from his grandfather. But still, he says: “I instinctively knew, this you have to shut down, this you have to keep secret.”
I want to start a church that centres the experience of people like me
In his early 20s, he decided to study music. He stopped going to church regularly, but although he “moved to New York to get famous” at 36, he still sang in churches. Even as he became detached from the religion, he was acquiring a sampler of preaching voices. “I’m very thankful to all those choirs,” he says. “I think I thought: religion is not for me – but spirituality is better in community.”
Bass voices mature late, and through his early 40s Rowell “had these fantasies … The right person is going to hear me.” He had big auditions. Friends from grad school were singing all over the world. “I was not at that level professionally,” he says. “So there was that frustration.”
For the first time in his life, Rowell stopped singing. In seven years, not one note. He summarises his thinking: “I don’t know what my purpose is here, so I’m just going to party.”
It wasn’t until 2013, when he became a paid singer at Middle Church in New York, that he began to enter into religion again with a whole sense of self. One day, he turned up when he was not due to sing. The pastor, who had introduced herself as “the queerest straight black woman”, told him: “Oh, we got you!”
Rowell started a group at the church “for queer black men who are interested in spirituality”. The pastor asked him to preach. It was a different form of stage from opera but, he says, “More so than when I was a performer, I’m like: ‘This is where I belong.’”
Of course, obstructions to the feeling of belonging remained. If he had previously found homophobia in church, in the gay community he found racism (“‘I don’t date black guys …’”). “I felt rejected. It took a lot to get over that,” he says.
“I think I might be in seminary because I want people to realise that they don’t have to leave any part of themselves.
“The more we define our particularities, the more our connection is universal. I think people see this person is living into who they are. I don’t think I’m going to start a queer black church, but I want to start a church that centres the experience of people like me.”
He wants to start a church? Just now he wasn’t sure why he was in seminary. “I said it out loud!” he says. “Maybe that’s where this is going.”