A tempest in my soul: A son's secret brings a Southern Baptist minister to his knees

A tempest in my soul: A son's secret brings a Southern Baptist minister to his knees

June 24th, 2012 by Joan Garrett McClane in News

Matt Nevels reads the newspaper with his wife Frances at their Red Bank home Sunday, June 3, 2012. Since leaving Red Bank Baptist Church, many of the Nevels' Sunday mornings have consisted of reading the paper, private devotionals, and watching services on television.

Photo by Jake Daniels/Times Free Press.

This family portrait from nearly 40 years ago harks back to a simpler, more innocent time and shows the Nevelses in their Sunday best. Pictured are, from left, Tim, Matt, Stephen, Frances, Keith and Vicki.

ABOUT THIS STORY

This story is based on four months of reporting in and outside the gay community in Chattanooga, and more than 20 hours of interviews with Matt and Frances Nevels. The reporter consulted local studies on the gay community, books on the conflict between faith and homosexuality and interviewed several area pastors, including the former pastor of Red Bank Baptist Church, Dr. Fred Steelman. She also interviewed nearly 20 people who identified themselves as gay, lesbian or transsexual for story context. Reconstructed scenes are based on interviews, and confirmed through hundreds of letters, newspaper articles, church records and obituaries.

It's Sunday morning, and Matt Nevels is at home again.

From his front yard, he almost can see the white steeple of Red Bank Baptist Church. Less than a mile down the road, he knows, the church parking lot is clogged with members. Traffic backs up onto Dayton Boulevard. Crosses dangle from rearview mirrors. Bibles slide on dashboards.

Matt, 78 now, with wrinkled knees and sagging cheeks, was once minister of education at the red-brick church. His babies grew up there. Stephen, his middle son, sang tenor in the choir. Vicki, their only girl, played in the youth softball league. Keith, the youngest, went to backyard Bible club.

Every Sunday for nearly three decades, Matt put on a crisp shirt and tie, trained Sunday school teachers and glad-handed newcomers. But it was more than that, more than just tradition.

From the Southern Baptist church he drew his purpose, his worth. The calling had come when he was in his early 20s, fresh out of the Army.

But that all ended 17 years ago.

These days Matt watches recent reruns of Red Bank services on a television in his kitchen while his wife, Frances, putters around the house. Sometimes he'll move his lonely worship into his study and read through the Bible again. The only sound in the background is the dull hum of an air conditioner. On the wall, a hand-sketched portrait of Stephen reminds Matt of all that's gone. It hangs over him.

He carefully reads the red letters in the Word, the phrases Jesus spoke. Books like Leviticus, he skims.

Leviticus, with its hard words about abominations and detestable sin, just doesn't speak to him anymore.

•••

There are more than a dozen churches along Dayton Boulevard, just a speck on the congregational landscape of the city. These are the gathering grounds of Red Bank, where business is done and children are bragged about and standards are passed down. These are the places where people come for their beginnings and ends.

In Chattanooga, and in the one-red-light towns and the farmland of North Georgia and North Alabama -- the buckle of the Bible Belt -- Christian faith is a thread that runs through everything. High school cheerleaders paint Bible verses on signs. Hamilton County commissioners bow their heads before meetings. Store owners use little Jesus fish on their advertisements.

Believers call that faith the community's bedrock. Scriptures tell them to do good, love their neighbors, be faithful to their husbands and wives. They tell them not to steal or kill.

But while these beliefs knit people together, they also tear apart. As Jesus said in Matthew, they turn sons against fathers, daughters against mothers.

The faithful hold firmly to God with one hand, family with the other. But sometimes we are forced to choose. If we can't hold onto both, which one do we let go?

In 1991, after 25 years of defining himself by his position in the church, Matt Nevels' faith abruptly and irrevocably collided with the death of his middle son.

•••

Stephen left Chattanooga for Atlanta in 1985 after graduating from college. He told Matt the jobs were in the big city. And, after uprooting his life, the 24-year-old seemed to do well there.

He worked at Macy's, selling fine china, and drove a Mazda RX-7. He called home regularly and told his parents he wasn't skipping Sunday services. He brought friends home, men and women.

Matt was proud. He had retired from working as minister of education at the Hamilton County Baptist Association after a massive heart attack in 1982, and life had settled into a quiet routine. He and Frances continued attending Red Bank Baptist, but just as congregants.

Then, one morning in the fall of 1991, Stephen, 30 years old at the time, called Frances at her job at Provident insurance company and told her he was sick. Something was wrong with his lungs. His breathing was labored.

He called again that afternoon and told her he was being admitted to the hospital. Tests had been ordered, but it looked like pneumonia. He told her to bring his father to Atlanta to see him the next day.

At first, Frances didn't worry much about the call. Stephen had run a marathon that year and had a muscled body from years of shouldering women as a cheerleader at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. But as the day unfolded, she started to wonder about the urgent calls, the tiny tremble in his voice.

Pneumonia in young, healthy men was uncommon, and she knew from her days volunteering at the hospital that it was typically linked to something more deadly. Pneumocystis pneumonia crept into the bodies of people with weakened immune systems -- people in the last stages of AIDS.

Then another thought came.

The year before, Stephen had come home to bury his roommate, with whom he had moved from Chattanooga to Atlanta. Everyone said the young man had died of Crohn's disease.

Then another thought came.

AIDS could show up in blood-transfusion recipients, drug users or babies, but its most common victims were men who had sex with other men. But her son wouldn't have sex with other men, she thought. Her son wasn't gay.

Was he?

That night she asked her son Keith if he knew anything about Stephen that she should know before she and Matt went to Atlanta. Was there anything she should tell his father?

What Keith said shocked her.

So she walked to the study where Matt was and sat beside him on the couch. She spoke plainly.

"Stephen is gay," she told Matt.

Matt didn't speak.

"I think what we are facing tomorrow is AIDS," she said.

In the quiet, Matt thought back to a day years before when he and his oldest son, Tim, were driving together. Tim nearly made his father's heart stop when he asked if Matt thought Stephen was a homosexual.

Matt gave a firm "no." There was no reason not to. So Tim never mentioned it again, and Matt buried the memory.

To acknowledge that Stephen had kept a secret like that would shatter the image of his family. All sins were equal to God, but not to many in the church. There was something about homosexuality that made people want to turn away.

Matt stood up and walked outside. Frances left him alone. He stayed in the backyard for what felt like hours, pacing. Finally, he looked up at the black sky and pleaded.

God, this is beyond my imagination. This is beyond my ability to accept.

•••

The two-hour drive to Atlanta was quiet. Neither knew what to say. The Nevelses were the kind of people who didn't take well to mess. The tops of the picture frames were dusted, the beige carpet was always lined with vacuum marks.

They thought they knew their son. Everyone called him Steve. He was handsome, with a firm chin and steely blue eyes.

As a boy, he dressed like his two brothers. He had played sports like his brothers, cross-country and softball. He got good grades and grew to 5 feet, 11 inches. Frances made his three-piece suits for church. She knew the length of his inseam and the width of his chest.

Matt and Frances knew about the time he burned his little bottom on the house heater, how he loved to eat hot fudge cake, how he broke his pinky finger once while setting the table with his grandmother.

And what they didn't know for certain they assumed -- one day, Stephen would get married and have babies like they had. One day, Stephen would come home to Red Bank and sit beside them on the 10th pew.

When Stephen started dating women in high school, Matt had a single talk with him about waiting to have sex until marriage. Stephen nodded, just like his brothers had.

But by the time Matt and Frances pulled into the Atlanta hospital, they imagined their son a stranger.

Riding the elevator to the fourth floor, the infectious disease unit, Matt vacillated. He pictured the face of a younger Stephen. Innocent. Buzzed haircut. Dewy eyes. A pouty lower lip. Two big front teeth.

Regardless of who his son was, Matt knew only that he didn't want to lose him, not ever.

Stephen's room was on the middle of the hallway. They walked fast.

•••

In all his years as a minister, Matt never spoke in depth with anyone about homosexuality. In seminary, the topic wasn't studied. It didn't often crop up in sermons or in prayer requests. If a parent or a child had faced it, he never knew.

But he did know the Bible verses that seemed to condemn homosexuality: 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:10, Romans 1:21-28, Genesis 19, Jude 7 and the fiery passages in Leviticus.

"If a man also lie with mankind as he lieth with a woman both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood be upon them."

Matt had called it a sin and, like any unrepented sin, he believed it could lead to separation from God after death.

But he also knew the 505 Bible passages about love, and those words undergirded him through most of his church life. And he had seen the signs of love in churches.

He received thank-yous sent after visiting the sick. Congratulations when his daughter married. In 1971, the youth at Red Bank Baptist made him a plaque for his service. "You're a good man, brother Matt," it read.

When he moved from his job as minister of education at Red Bank Baptist that same year to work for the Hamilton County Baptist Association, the church staff got him a cake and made him feel as if he would be missed.

Years later, when he had the heart attack, Fred Steelman, the head pastor of Red Bank Baptist -- everyone respectfully referred to him as Dr. Steelman -- came to the hospital and prayed over him, and Matt healed.

Matt assumed somehow that when he learned that Stephen was dying of AIDS, the church would come alongside him in this strange place. That's what churches were supposed to do.

When he and Frances walked into the hospital room, Stephen was lying in the bed in a thin gown. His body white and weak. The same blue eyes, but hollow underneath.

Stephen looked at his father. The room felt tight with fear and embarrassment. Matt knew his son was waiting to hear his voice, listening for reassurance.

And Matt began to cry in front of his son. Frances held her hands over her mouth and cried, too.

"Son, it's OK," Matt said. "We are going to love you the way you are."

Stephen sobbed. He crawled out of bed and into Matt's lap and Matt held him like he did when he was just a boy. Stephen put his arms around his father's neck and kissed him on the cheek.

"Son, don't worry," Matt said softly. "Nothing between us is going to change."

•••

Once home in Chattanooga, Matt kept the news about Stephen a secret from the church and opened his Bible. The sight of his son stirred questions.

Stephen had a partner named Rick, and he told his father he wasn't going to give up the relationship. Stephen told Matt he had been sexually abused by an authority figure on multiple occasions as a teen, but had never wanted his parents to know.

The events confused and hurt Stephen, but he said he had always been attracted to men. He was born gay, he said.

Still, Stephen told his father, he believed he was a born-again Christian.

Matt had believed another narrative about sexual identity. He had heard that homosexuality was a choice to ignore God's design. Ministries that worked with what they called the formerly gay said it was a phase caused by abuse, absent fathers and overbearing mothers. The cure was repentance, sometimes celibacy, a hope that the desires could quiet with help from the almighty.

But when Matt thought about the stories his son had told him in the hospital that weekend -- stories of friends turned out of their families and churches, stories about bullying by people who knew their secret, stories of double lives and failed marriages -- he couldn't help but wonder who would choose to be gay.

He read and reread the Bible's passages on homosexuality. Then he read and reread different interpretations of the Scripture. He wondered if the verses mentioning homosexuality were meant to condemn rape or pedophilia and not love relationships between two men or two women. And holes started to form in his tight theology.

He prayed to God, long prayers full of questions.

Why would you make someone like this? Why would you tell them they have to be alone?

He didn't want to tell Stephen's friends that they were in sin. He didn't want to tell his dying son that his soul was sicker than his body.

So over the months, a new belief took hold. In Matt's mind, there was no conflict between homosexuality and Christianity, and the hundreds of years of church tradition had been missteps.

It was only a matter of time before the church realized as much, he thought.

In the meantime, word spread from the AIDS outreach organizations across the Chattanooga area that a minister's son had caught the virus, and the Nevelses were asked to speak at an evening service at First Baptist in the Golden Gateway. It was considered a watershed moment, because few parents were willing to talk about the infection at the time.

It would be Matt's first plea with a church to alter its thinking.

"All have sinned," he said.

"We have got to quit trying to play God."

The next Wednesday the Nevelses went to a small evening service at Red Bank Baptist, and Matt spoke up during the prayer requests.

"It's true that our son Stephen is sick," he told the congregation. "He has full-blown AIDS, and also he is gay. This is like a double whammy that has come to us, and we need all the support and prayer that you can give."

No one said anything. A handful of women hugged them afterward. They told the Nevelses they would pray. Matt said he watched everyone else disperse.

•••

Months later, Matt and Frances moved their son home to die. He'd been whittled away from 160 pounds to 72 pounds. His legs thinned to matchsticks. His cheekbones created a gray frame on his face.

Experimental medicine ravaged his nerve fibers, and the feeling of the sheets touching his feet at night made him scream for Jesus to take him.

Cards arrived, with reassurances about resting in God's will. But few hinted at the gay issue. Dr. Steelman sent three notes that Frances kept in a box with all the other condolences, but he didn't visit them or come talk to Stephen.

One of Dr. Steelman's cards read: "Someone mentioned to me yesterday that Steve's condition has declined rapidly. ... We are praying for both of you that God will grant you the needed strength to deal with your tragedy."

At the time, Stephen asked his father why no one from the church leadership visited. Matt didn't know what to say. He figured some people were afraid of touching his son. Maybe they were afraid any kindness could be translated as acceptance.

In 1991, a public battle was raging over homosexuality. The Chattanooga City Council debated whether to allow a gay pride parade through downtown. Students at UTC rejected, then accepted a charter for a gay support group at the college. Gay men were being arrested at popular cruising spots. Pastors were weighing in. Church denominations were splintering.

When Matt and Stephen were alone at home, the two read the Bible together and tried to make sense of it. Stephen told his father that, four years before, when he found out he had HIV, he promised God he would turn from his sin if God would heal him.

He tried to change, he told his father. He even told Rick that he was moving out and that he wouldn't be gay anymore. But then he prayed again, he said, and a still, small voice told him to have peace.

"Am I going to hell after I die?" Stephen would ask his father.

"What determines if you go to heaven is that you accept Jesus Christ as your savior," Matt told him. "Once you are accepted in God's family, you are not going to be kicked out."

By Dec. 3, 1992, Stephen was in the hospital again, this time with a jaw infection so bad he couldn't swallow. For 12 days, Matt and Frances took turns staying with him around the clock. He screamed from the pain, and the nurses kept bumping up his morphine.

Matt read a devotional book aloud to Stephen every afternoon and, on Dec. 16, he watched his son's breathing slow. He kept reading.

"For I am already being poured out like a drink offering and the time has come for my departure," the verse in 2 Timothy read. "I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith."

As he read, Matt's cheeks grew wet, and the words on the page began to blur.

•••

Dr. Steelman visited the Nevelses' home the day after Stephen died. He told Matt and Frances he was sorry for their loss. Frances asked why he had waited so long to come. He said he hadn't known Stephen was home. Matt kept quiet.

Part of Matt could understand the view of the church, the view that Dr. Steelman held.

In the beginning, God created man and woman and joined them together. The Bible's words against homosexuality seemed to be written in stone. For centuries, church leaders had either condemned it or buried it. And to alter your thinking on the topic just posed more questions.

But here Matt was, swallowed by questions.

How was a man supposed to read Scripture? What else did the church get wrong? Can you toss out certain parts of the Bible and not others? Why were divorce and premarital sex and greed -- all condemned in the Bible -- overlooked but not homosexuality?

He had watched Stephen die, holding on to God with one hand and the hand of his partner with the other -- unapologetic to the end.

Stephen had wanted his funeral in the church where he grew up, but he wanted his father -- not Dr. Steelman -- to lead it. All that was left to do was to get the church's permission.

Dr. Steelman wanted the funeral to be tasteful and respectful of the church, he said he told Matt. The pastor had no questions about what he believed: Accept the Bible entirely or not at all. We all have to walk away from sin, no matter how natural the sin feels.

The church staff grieved over Stephen, but they were also pained to see how Matt was changing.

Dr. Steelman said he remembers the helpless feeling. He would be heartless or faithless, depending on what he said.

But regardless of how Matt was struggling, Dr. Steelman made it clear that he did not want the funeral to be a celebration of Stephen's lifestyle. There were lines the church couldn't cross, Dr. Steelman said.

But Matt couldn't see them.

More than 700 people came to the funeral. Stephen's gay friends from Atlanta and Chattanooga and members of Red Bank Baptist sat in the same pews. Dr. Steelman came with his wife and sat in the back because of the crowd.

A man read a poem in the sanctuary full of people and said Stephen had been a Christian inspiration.

Rick, Stephen's partner, walked in the processional with the family. He kissed the casket before it was covered with dirt.

After burying Stephen, the Nevelses kept attending church, but their involvement dwindled. They stayed away from Dr. Steelman and the leadership.

Other gays at Red Bank Baptist would approach Matt and tell him in confidence that they hoped he could help make a change. One former church member who was gay and dying asked Matt to lead his funeral service at Red Bank.

As Matt became more outspoken about gay rights, Dr. Steelman worried about his influence. He asked Matt again to be careful about what he said at the funeral.

A week after Matt buried the man in 1995, three years after Stephen's death, Dr. Steelman chose to make his stance from the pulpit.

The pastor felt he had to be at least as public as Matt had been with his views.

He spoke firmly: The institution of the family was under siege, and softening toward sin was shortsighted and wrongheaded. Homosexuality was a sin. Don't be fooled. The church would not change its position on that.

A few people walked out.

Matt had his Bible in his lap. His skin turned gray. Frances looked over and worried he was going to have another heart attack.

Dr. Steelman's words felt like an assault.

After the service, Matt marched out. He didn't speak a word.

He never went back.

•••

Nearly 20 years have passed since the day the Nevelses left Red Bank Baptist. But on the third Sunday of every month they tell their story at a support group, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, also known as PFLAG.

There are no sacraments here, just chips, M&Ms and cheese squares.

But the people are lost, and in need of a shepherd.

Matt glad-hands visitors when they enter, pats their backs and tells them what a pleasure it is to see them.

One week, there is a grandmother with a tight perm and tinted glasses who cries about her grandson. A former lawyer who talks about his dead gay brother. There is a lesbian couple and a transsexual woman and her wife. Another week, there is a couple with a gay son in his 40s and a couple with a gay son who is 12.

Many of the families tell stories of leaving churches or being asked not to come back.

Matt tells them about how he and Frances walked away from Red Bank Baptist. How hard it is to find a place now for his faith. He doesn't say it aloud, but he still longs for his traditions, his church.

When he is alone, he thinks of this absence as a kind of emptiness. He tried other churches but could never bring himself to pull his name from the Red Bank membership roster. His son Keith is still a member there. Matt knows that even Keith and his other children don't believe as he does. They don't think that their brother was born gay.

Matt doesn't pressure them to change their minds.

Sometimes he regrets leaving the church. Sometimes he doesn't. He wishes for some grand middle ground. A Red Bank Baptist that teaches the Bible but doesn't talk about "the gays."

The country's views continue changing. There are medicines for HIV, and people no longer call it a "gay disease." Children will grow up and know the word "gay." They will see gay characters on television and in the movies. They will know that gay marriage is allowed in some states, that the president of the United States recently said he supported it.

Change has come to Red Bank Baptist, too, although its doctrines remain the same.

The body recently hired a new pastor, a young man from Louisiana, and Matt wonders if this could be the time to return to the church, to accept its imperfections -- and his own -- and start over.

"You can't exert any kind of influence if you are outside," he tells his followers at PFLAG. "That is what I am struggling with now."

•••

Matt and Dr. Steelman have seen each other around town over the years, at the dentist's office or the grocery store. Neither has waffled publicly on his views, each a stalwart on opposite sides in the culture war. The Southern Baptist church still believes that homosexuality is a sin. So does Dr. Steelman.

And Matt still believes Jesus doesn't need gays to change.

When they see each other in public, the two men exchange nods, but for both a strain has remained, disappointment over the other's values.

But a few weeks ago, a moment revealed a softening between them. Matt began telling people that he was planning to go back to Red Bank Baptist. Dr. Steelman, who still works as an interim pastor at local Baptist churches, heard the news and was surprised, given all that had happened. He felt glad to know Matt and Frances might go back, that the church had meant something to the Nevelses.

They saw each other from across the meat section at the Walmart in Hixson. Dr. Steelman waved, then disappeared around a corner.

A few minutes later, the Nevelses saw him coming back around the corner toward them, smiling. He put out his hand to Matt, and Matt took it.

"I was not trying to avoid you," Dr. Steelman said. "How are you doing?"

"We are fine," Matt said.

"How is your family?" Frances asked. "How is your daughter?"

"She is doing fine," Dr. Steelman said. "I understand y'all are considering going back to Red Bank."

"Yes," Matt said. "We are going back this Sunday."

Dr. Steelman nodded. He said he thought that was a good thing.

To Matt, the little kindness felt like a suture on an unhealed wound.

•••

A week later, the Nevels home is busy with Sunday-morning ritual.

Matt and Frances gather up their Bibles. They banter about the best spot to park. They don't talk about their nerves. It's a short drive to the Red Bank parking lot.

"Come on, honey. Come on," Frances calls after Matt. She wants to get in the doors before the orchestra starts. They both wonder what will happen in the sanctuary.

They trickle in with the crowd through the front doors where deacons in black suits hand out church bulletins and good-mornings. The sanctuary is different now. Projection screens come down from the ceiling. New paint is on the walls.

Yet Matt can't help but remember another day. Looking toward the pulpit, he pictures Stephen's casket. He pictures Dr. Steelman, firm and resolute.

But the vision is quickly interrupted by voices. Graying women and men bring handshakes and hugs.

"Where have you been?"

"I thought about you the other day when I was up at the cemetery."

"It's good to see you."

"I haven't seen you in a long time."

Matt's face brightens. He walks toward the front.

The doors close at 10:30 a.m.

The trumpet sounds and the people sing.

"Rejoice. Rejoice. ... O Church of Christ, rejoice."

Matt's voice rises above the rest.