Faith Put to the Test

Seeing the Light: Joel Barrett and David Seymour

First Recorded

August 20, 2018


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Joel Barrett and David Seymour are a married couple who have significantly different religious upbringings: Barrett grew up in a conservative Baptist world that presented significant challenges to his life as a gay man, whereas Seymour was raised in a family that did not attend church regularly. In this conversation, Barrett and Seymour reflect on their faith journeys as queer people in the Midwest.

This story was produced by David Dault at Sandburg Media, LLC.

This story is a part of the American Pilgrimage Project, a conversation series that invites Americans of diverse backgrounds to sit together and talk to each other one-to-one about the role their religious beliefs play at crucial moments in their lives. The interview was recorded by StoryCorps, a national nonprofit whose mission is to preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world.

Joel Barrett and David Seymour

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Joel Barrett: Let's talk about our religious background because you and I come from nothing similar at all.

David Seymour: Pretty much night and day.

Joel Barrett: Yeah. Pretty much night and day.

David Seymour: Very hodgepodge would be a good way to capsulate it. So, I was raised in South Bend, Indiana, to parents of mixed racial heritage. So, my dad was Black and my mom was white.

Joel Barrett: But she didn't really go to church though, right?

David Seymour: She didn't really go. But for Easter and Christmas she wanted me to be baptized. So, I got baptized in the Lutheran Church because that was the church where she got baptized. But it wasn't like we went faithfully, religiously every Sunday. So as a kid, the only other time that I entered a church space were probably for funerals, weddings, or a little celebration here and there for a friend that was having a party at the church, which was rare, because most of my friends didn't really go to church.

Joel Barrett: So, that's very different from my story.

David Seymour: Very. Yes.

Joel Barrett: What questions do you have for me about that?

David Seymour: Well, how did you survive?

David Seymour: That's the new question I've been... I still marvel at that, we still talk about... And you bring up instances where I'm just like, I still am shaking my head like what the? I don't get it.

Joel Barrett: Well. So, I mean, I grew up very conservative independent fundamentalist Baptist. And how did I survive? If it's all you know, you just, you believe it and you think, well, this is my only option. And I was a willing subject. It was all I knew so it didn't seem weird to me at the time. Other than occasionally there were things that didn't add up to me and that would bother me. It was a very black-and-white world. There was no gray, everything was absolute. I would say it was kind of like being in the movie, The Village by M. Night Shyamalan because it just felt like it's an alternate reality that you don't realize is an alternate reality when you're in it and so I was in it and I obeyed, I submitted, I did everything I was supposed to do.

David Seymour: Well, it's impacted our relationship too at various times because I don't come from that baggage, and it affects the way we communicate and our relative self-esteem and how we support each other. And you know, all those things. We've gotten, we've learned a lot through that, but it's still a process.

Joel Barrett: But for me, I guess the overarching message that I got from both the churches I was in, as well as my parents who were very proud to embrace everything that the church and this interpretation of the Bible, was always that there is nothing good in you and there never can be. And that you will never, ever be enough because you're not supposed to be anything. You're supposed to be nothing according to the religious structure that I was in, which is why I enrolled in ex-gay therapy through Exodus International was to once and for all fix that so that I could be whole, because we were always considered broken. And in my mind, unrepairable.

David Seymour: But you were broke. Just to clarify, you were broke. Everybody was broken. You just happened to be broken because of being gay. That was the one that trumped everything else.

Joel Barrett: Yeah. I was broken in a way that was presented as almost irreparable.

David Seymour: Right. What did that feel like when you came out to yourself? What did you feel that day?

Joel Barrett: I was going to say fear which is ironic…

David Seymour: A different kind of fear.

Joel Barrett: But I was scared because it was the first time that I was really committed to be myself. And I didn't know what that would feel like, what that would look like. I remember I had that conversation with God where I said, "Okay, I've tried it your way for 30 something years, and it's not working and you know that. So, from here on out, I'm going to live as a gay man." And I remember when I said those words to God, I literally just felt like I was taking a plunge into the pool and not even knowing how to swim and just saying, "Here goes." And I think that's why when I met you, just a couple of years after that, I think what really now looking back, what really attracted me to you was not your scarf.

David Seymour: Don't be hating on the scarf now.

Joel Barrett: But was the energy that you bring to this day of love, interest, and acceptance. Because as you met me at the end of the long dark tunnel, I was still in the tunnel, but I could see the light, and you helped me see the light.

David Seymour: That's good, baby. I'm going to continue to do that.

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