Prodigals Come Home, Orphans Never Do.


River Ackley

I wanted to feel the jittering Holy Ghost electricity in my veins. I wanted to feel the chills and spine-tingling ecstasy…

In my 28 years of existence, I have learned one thing very clearly: Whether or not a story is told depends entirely upon the teller. I will not say that my exodus from the Pentecostal Church has led me into a path of vehement antitheism–or even anti-apostolicism. If how you worship includes speaking in tongues, and calling upon angels and fire and such, I won’t judge you any more than someone who practices tarot or zen meditation. If that’s how you center yourself in the universe, that’s what you do. I consider myself a seeker, and if all that holy ghost fire turns out to be a good fit for me after all, I’ll come slinking back to it like the “prodigal” I am. 

Unfortunately, I also don’t actually consider myself a prodigal. You see, prodigals have a home to return to, a family that’s waiting for their inevitable “calling back.” 

I doubt I’ll ever experience such a “calling back” on account that I am not a prodigal, I am an orphan. 

Chicken Soup for the Broken Soul. 

Lately, the Pentecostal Church has enjoyed a renaissance in Mental Health recognition. Therapy, Medicine, and self-care fly over the pulpit like they’re sponsored by BuzzFeed. Now they’re all about eating duloxetine and taking days off. I don’t remember when this started, must’ve been around the time I was dying my hair and indulging in vices. I can only assume that this is a recent advancement because as I was self-healing from a certain level of trauma back in the winter of 2018, I received a word from the lord in the form of “Uou instigated it, you clearly wanted it,” and “You need to let it go and live in the victory.” 

Live in the victory, ah yes–look, I didn’t want to live at all, much less in the victory. But I was so “full of dead men’s bones” that I couldn’t even sleep in my own bedroom and I hated even the idea of showering. The most basic forms of hygiene seemed like a chore, and I spent every waking minute playing Final Fantasy 14 and chugging LaCroix in a manic bid to make myself healthy, and of course, nearly relapsing, like, all of my eating disorders. But hey, I was just living in sin, so my idea was to “Seek God As hard as I possibly could!” 

Which meant attaching myself to my pastor/dad in hopes that I could Elisha some of his Holy Ghost onto me so I’d stop being miserable. Ironically, this was the best that my relationship with my father had ever been or ever would be. I was literally calling myself his “disciple” and following him everywhere he went. 

Whether or not a story is told depends entirely upon the teller.

And then, when I started asking questions like, “Okay, how do we know the earth is only 6,000 years old?” and, “So you can’t cosplay and still be a minister?” and, “Why does the world have to end?” our relationship instantly strained like a dry-rotted bungee cord. My being autistic was always an issue for him, and when he started suspecting me of being “gay,” our relationship went from Elijah and Elisha to Esau and God. 

Thanks to a “Collect-and-Fight scantily clad chubby dudes” mobile game I found on Twitter, I became torn between my discipleship and a heady case of the “not gays.” 

This wasn’t the first time I’d had gay thoughts. I think Chad Michael Murray was one of the first same-sex heart thumps aside from a friend I had in the fourth grade. It was, however, the first time I knew what these gay thoughts were. 

So I had to suppress them. Clearly, the spirit of homosexuality had taken root in my body and I had to pray away the gay and shit. 

So after convincing my dad to drive me to a church at the very foot of the state so that I could attend “YOUTH FORWARD 2019,” we hit the road like a couple of apostles. 

The trainwreck of fall 2018 left me with more baggage than a Michael Kors delivery truck. I would say Gucci or Valentino, but I grew up on food stamps and lead paint. Anyways, I took my cheap-ass baggage and my patchy facial hair and fucked off to some Biloxi megachurch to seek out holy-ghost healing! 

I clad myself in a floral button-down and painfully tight skinny jeans, checkered vans and square glasses–and threw myself into the nerve-racking throngs of being underdressed–I was kind of hoping that my building nerves were just the preliminary tingles of Jesus-ness. 

I was also probably just buzzing from the black coffee I’d bought from the in-house café, and my nerves were set on edge from feeling like everyone knew how full of shit I was.  For the first time, I didn’t feel like I was anticipating a “Move of the spirit,” however much I wanted to. I just sort of felt raw and exposed, maybe I was just getting too old for youth services–I mean, I couldn’t drive and still lived with my parents. I had just turned 25– 

But, Insecurities be damned–I was going to receive! 

Angels in the Doubtfield. 

Pentecostals will say that if you don’t feel anything, you didn’t want to. I wanted to. I wanted to feel the jittering Holy Ghost electricity in my veins. I wanted to feel the chills and spine-tingling ecstasy–instead, I just had a headache. 

 Through the deafening tinnitus, I listened, I focused, desperate for something said to stick–And then the preacher said something that stabbed into me like a white-hot knife:

“God wants entrepreneurs,” he said “He wants you to be rich.” 

“When you make your first million, remember this moment.” 

The knife turned. I didn’t want business advice. I wanted to hear that I wasn’t dirty, that it wasn’t my fault–I needed to hear something to make me feel like I wasn’t some sort of reprobate–and all I received is something I could have read in a fortune cookie. 

When that slog of a service was finally over, I sought out my former pastor– I don’t know why, but I wanted to see him. 

And that’s when the air shattered. Two girls approached–dressed to the nines, and posed like something out of fucking Bridgerton–and with all the poise and professionalism of Victorian child-brides, shook his hand. It should have been innocuous, but the movement was so painfully calculated and puppet-like. Time slowed down to a crawl. Everyone was a fucking politician. My “brothers and sisters” became salesmen. I wasn’t one of them–

Clearly, I was a different, Radical breed.  

No Apathy Like Christian Charity.

I refused to be defeated in my search for the true Jesus. I studied socialism, Kabbalah, Greek and Hebrew, Aramaic, and only read the transliterated versions of the bible. Also, I was very, very in the closet. I was an alternative apostolic: I translated my desire to kiss boys as “biblical masculinity” 

Sort of a Jonathan and David, or Jesus and John, the beloved situation. It was not–unless these figures were queer icons…

…Anyway, I became what I called a “Secular, Progressive Christian.” My idea was that we were called to love and take part in creation. In hindsight, it was just me narcissistically picking away at the bits of Jewish mysticism that I thought were cool and stitching together a malformed religious homunculus. 

Fall 2019 was the era it went to shit. I’d finally come to terms with the fact that yes, what I felt for that boy back in the summer was a crush, and yes, he was cute, and yes, I was disappointed that he was a red-cap, and yes, I had pictured a future with him, sitting on his bed talking till like 4 in the morning with our legs brushing each other as we’d awkwardly adjust our masculine sitting style–Yearning aside, I’d mostly accepted that boys were cute. 

I’d bought cosplay wigs and fake glasses and was fully enjoying the free range of gender expression that I was able to explore. And then the other foot dropped. First, the church I’d attended convinced a lady of…lower social status that she was possessed by a powerful, angry demon. Then my pastor/dad incited a “war with hell” and brought in a prophet to help train us all for “war.” 

Clearly, I was a different, Radical breed.  

I remember this very well because I thought I was a prophet myself. I even had my own vial of anointing oil and an annotated bible, and had read this man’s works–he was basically a hero to me and… 

…He thought I was possessed with a spirit of witchcraft. 

He thought I was living in sin, and I had a spirit of rebellion attached to me. Anger, hatred, defiance–whatever–and suddenly, I felt lost. 

I remembered how hard I’d tried to be a good Pentecostal. I prayed like everyone else, I cut off friends, I cut off relatives, I self-isolated and refused to even go into certain stores for fear of being possessed. I dedicated and re-dedicated myself and it was never good enough. I would travail at the altar and my mother would flank me and say that I wasn’t praying right and God couldn’t hear me because I was a sinner. I would get angry, and my dad would tell me that if I died, he doubts I’d go to heaven. 

And then, when I thought nothing could hurt me more—I was isolated from my partner, my friends, and my school, the only place I’d found to be a refuge from the “spiritual warfare,” I was lost in the throes of quarantine trying to believe that this was all God’s will–and then, my grandmother died. 


I stared down at this woman’s lifeless body. Dementia is a royal bitch. Watching people you love wither away. But did I love her? I remember when she got married and moved off to Mackon, I’d bitterly say, “She’s their grandmother now,” referring to my step-cousins.

I thought of the idea of caring for her as a chore and her visits felt tedious. And as I looked at her empty body, I felt selfish, stupid, and broken. I choked out my apology and through sobbing tears, I begged for her to forgive me–wherever she was.

And then my dear, darling mother decided to flank me again. “You need to get it right in order to see her again.” Which translated to “You need to convert your non-religious partner and be the man of God I want you to be.” 

The excruciatingly long procession from the funeral home in Batesville to the gravesite in Water Valley began. It was a gauntlet of “If you don’t come back to Christ you will never see her again,” and, “We are saying this out of concern for your soul,” and, “What sins are you involved in?” the whole. Fucking. Way. 

B u l l s h i t. 

I wasn’t even allowed to mourn my own grandmother? Bullshit! 

My beliefs were flaking away like charred paper. And the harder I tried to grasp at them the more they seemed to flake away– 

I tried to hold on and just ended up hurting the people I cared about. 

And then there was the night it all came to a screeching, burning apocalypse. I had finally accepted that I couldn’t “pray it away” and had come to terms with both being pansexual and nonbinary. I had been making friends in college and actually felt like I fit in for once, which was different from my experience with the youth group to be sure.

That particular night, my partner was out of town, I had just gotten home from hanging out with a friend and there on my front door hung a post-it note with a big “we need to talk” scrawled across it. The third one this week. I threw the note on the floor and slunk into my parents’ room. 

“What did I do this time?” I asked, shaking. 

“You know what you did.” 

“Actually, I don’t.”

And then the interrogation began. Thirty or more grueling minutes of being picked apart and questioned, accused of things I didn’t do, my friends being accused of things they didn’t do, and suddenly it all came to a head. This was bullshit. 

I knew they wanted me to come out, they had hinted at it and all but tried to force me to admit that I was a big, fucking queer–but I refused. I spoke of my nonbinary identity in the past tense and shot down their suspicions. They didn’t believe me, they never did, but I tried. 

They found me in a vulnerable position and ambushed me–ripped me apart from the seams. 

“What are you involved in?” said my mom. “I’m your pastor’s wife, I deserve to know.” 

Dad chimed in: “Why are you shaking like that? Are you possessed, too?” 

I was having a panic attack. Because if I came out, they would disown me. It’s not like I had anywhere to go, either. 

Call it a grudge, but some stories need to be told.

And that was it. I knew that if there was a Christ somewhere, he wasn’t going to be found there. So, I became a Unitarian at first. I was still seeking God, I suppose. 

And then, the last time I ever attended their church was the weekly End Time night. We were forced, 1984 style, to watch a video of some soggy old dude picking apart the books of Revelation, Daniel and Ezekiel to find little clues to calculate when the end would come. 

The man who headed this off took the stage, and with all his audacity said that the international trucking company FedEx would be a catalyst for the End Times because–get this–when the two prophets are killed (Revelation 11) they will use…fucking FedEx to ship gifts to each other to celebrate the murder of the two prophets. 

I left. I Didn’t Go Back, and I Won’t Go Back. 

The Pentecostal Church can tell its own story from front to back. There are whole books written on the subject. The tellers of the story won’t tell you about when they fuck up. They won’t tell you about dragging kids out of bed at church camp and forcing them to do push-ups because they were awake–and if you weren’t awake, they’d shine a flashlight in your face to make you wake up so they could punish you. 

They don’t talk about the 16-year-old girls with 36-year-old husbands. Or the eleven-year-old girls with 16-year-old boyfriends who “were too godly to hurt her.” 

They don’t talk about confirmed pedophiles being allowed to hang out with the youth group after multiple allegations. 

They don’t talk about the scars. And now, after years of pretending like the wounds they cause were just from not living in the fucking victory, they are all about self-care and mental health–bull fucking shit. 

Call it a grudge, but some stories need to be told. An organization that loves accountability needs to be held accountable. They refuse to hear their own faults while pointing at everyone else. This is my story, and I’ve more than earned the right to tell it. 

My relationship with my family is over, and if they read this, shit will probably hit the fan–but I’m not really scared of them anymore. They can’t love me beyond their religion and that’s fine. But I’m not going to pretend to be something I’m not for someone else’s comfort.

Because some things you can’t pray away. Because I’m sick of being intimidated by people who don’t give a shit about me. Because prodigals may come home, but orphans never do.