Angels Are Real

Have you ever wanted to hear directly from God? Have you ever asked to receive a sign form above? We’ve all been there. That’s where I was this time last year. As I started the process of writing my memoir, I began to realize, if I wanted to speak my truth, I would have to make life changing decisions. Lacking confidence in the choices I had to make, I often found myself asking my higher power to “just give me a sign.” I think I received my sign on Veteran’s Day weekend in 2017 at The Range in Slab City, California.

In 2008 I saw the film Into the Wild. It immediately became one of my favorite movies and it still is. It’s based on the true life story of Christopher McCandless who was also on a journey to find happiness and answers to his big life questions. Towards the end of the film, there’s a scene when Christopher visits a place called “Salvation Mountain” which vibrates with a curious beauty at the entrance of Slab City. In this scene, Chris meets the creator of Salvation Mountain, Leonard Knight. There’s a moment in the movie when the actor playing Chris asked Leonard what the real life Chris probably hoped to be true. Chris asked, “You really believe in love?” Leonard replied with a sincerity and absolute certainty that exuded through the screen and into my heart, “Totally.”

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It was because of that scene I put Salvation Mountain on my bucket list. I had to go there and experience this place for myself. Last November, I drove five hours into the desert to experience it and cross Salvation Mountain off my bucket list.

Slab City is commonly referred to as “the last free place in America” because there is no government presence other than the occasional Border Patrol truck that passes through. The residents of Slab City are made up of veterans, hippies, artists, nomads and drug addicts. People arrive in their RVs, tents or nothing at all to live off the land and be free.

I arrived Saturday evening, just in time for the weekly open-mic night at Builder Bill’s living room known as “The Range”. I called the Slab City Hostel ahead of time and made arrangements to stay with a hippie named, Whitehorse Bob. He goes by Whitehorse for short and has been living in Slab City for a few years now. If there was ever to be a Dumbledore doppelganger, Whitehorse is it. He recently took over the Slab City Hostel which features open-sky rooms and a semi-private outdoor shower. With no ceiling above your head, you’re free to gaze and rediscover the awe of the night sky as you sleep or shower. With the Milky Way clearly visible, you’re able to see every star and constellation twinkling in and all around the Milk Way. It’s absolutely stunning and capable of filling even the most ungrateful person with gratitude.

As I arrived and drove past The Range to settle in at the hostel, I squealed with excitement. I could feel the energy of this special place as much as I could feel the shirt on my back. I knew this was going to be a magical experience. I just didn’t know to what extent.

Under the twinkling stars, The Range stage was sandwiched between two antique blue buses. Christmas lights were strung above our heads giving us the only light to see. To the left of the stage was a food stand. On the menu: hamburgers or hotdogs for $3 each. The chef was a woman in her mid to late 50s. Her cheek bones were accentuated by her sunken in cheeks. You could tell who lived there and who didn’t. I clearly didn’t. Compared to the crowd, I looked like the white, privileged, yuppie gay male that I am.

In front of the food stand was a man in his early thirties, unbathed and sporting a long brown beard with a floral patterned dress on. He calmly watched the talent on stage with a subtle smile on his face as if he was experiencing one of the most content moments in his life. Across the way — a girl with a large cat mask covering her face danced eccentrically to the live music. The crowd looked like they were composed of hipsters from Silverlake, bikers and homeless drug addicts. Probably because that’s exactly who was there.

I took a seat on the second row of wooden benches to enjoy the music. Some of the performers were truly amazing. Everyone was limited to three songs. However, one guy did an amazing blues/rock set that had the crowd shouting for an encore. So, he gave them one. This is a place that respects boundaries not rules. Anything goes at Slab City until it disrespects someone else’s boundary.

It was during that encore I met Bobby.

A stranger to me but an obvious resident of Slab City. He told me he had been living there for about a month now.

Unbathed, wild hair and wrapped in a blanket with the print of a lion’s head, Bobby sat down next to me and introduced himself, “Hey there, I’m Bobby. Well, I go by Bobby but my name is Robert. However, my real name is Ishmael. I’m part of a Messianic Christian group here.” Robert came off not only as a Slab City resident but a drug addict too. I was feeling cautious and uneasy with this encounter.

“Hey, my name is Azariah.” I replied.

“That’s a great name. What does it mean?”

I always get that question. I have several ways in which I answer the question but I wanted to keep it short and sweet with this odd fellow, “Whom God helps.”

“What’d you say?” He asked me to repeat myself due to the loud music.

“It means, whom God helps.” I said louder.

“Oh, wow. You’re definitely getting it tonight. Yeah, someone is watching out for you tonight.”

Bobby’s comment grew my curiosity. It confirmed what I sensed earlier, I am probably not the most welcomed person here. Slab City is a place for nomads, wanderers, gypsies, hippies — not a gay yuppie like me. I remember as Bobby and I were talking, one of the lyrics sung from the stage stood out to me, “He should have left earlier but he stayed. He didn’t notice the audience changed.” Later that evening one of the performers even went as far as calling out the yuppies (me) in the crowd. I was feeling insecure and a little unsafe but I stayed.

That’s when my conversation with Bobby shifted to where we were from. By doing so, it turned my attention away from observations that were stoking my fears and making me feel uncomfortable. Bobby started the conversation by asking, “Are you Jewish?”

“My mom’s side of the family was Jewish but I wasn’t raised Jewish.” I replied.

He continued, “Where are you from?”

“I grew up in Indiana.”

“I used to go to church in Indiana when I was a kid.” he shared.

Now intrigued, I asked, “Where at?”

He tried recalling, “It was in the Northwestern part. It was called Harvest Kids or something like that.”

Now, I was almost certain it was the same place I frequented as a kid, “Was it in South Bend?”

He replied in an uncertain tone, “I think so, maybe. They spoke in tongues, right?”

Was it possible that Bobby and I went to the same church when we were kids? Were we together in the same room in South Bend, Indiana nearly 25 years ago and now we’re together again but in the middle of the California desert? This wouldn’t have been the first time this happened to me. One month after I moved to Las Vegas in 2013, I discovered one of my co-workers also went to the same church in South Bend. Growing more curious and excited to discover this possible shared experience, I confirmed, “Yeah, they spoke in tongues.” Then I asked, “Was it Lester Sumrall’s church? They would do a puppet show for the kids in the gymnasium. Do you remember that?”

Bobby grew excited and replied, “Yeah! And they had the bunk beds built into the walls of the nursery room.”

I remembered all of it and so did he. Memories in that church rushed back into my mind. The coincidence of this moment was too much. Bobby closed his eyes, threw his head back and gave a long, inaudible laugh. I laughed so hard I began to cry.

As our laughter calmed, we continued to watch the performer on the stage. I wiped the tears from my eyes and Bobby began speaking again, “You think you can do everything on your own because you think you’re self-sufficient.”

It felt like Bobby transformed into someone else in that moment. Maybe he did. It felt as if someone or something else was speaking through him. The energy had shifted and it didn’t feel like the Bobby who first sat down next to me. I thought to myself, What did he just say to me? Did I hear him right?

The truth hit me like a ton of bricks.

It’s the truth of what I do — I rely on myself and never ask for help. But why is this homeless, drug addict looking dude telling me this? What does he know about me? How could he know that? Am I that easy to read?

I couldn’t help but ask, “What do you mean by that?” He peaked my curiosity.

“What?” he replied. The loud music was drowning out my voice.

Longing for clarification, I repeated and expanded my questioning, “What did you mean by that? What did you just say?”

“I was just saying, God is all sufficient.”

I looked at Bobby differently now. Who is this person? Why does it feel like he just broke through every wall I put up and saw me? I didn’t know what else to say to him, so, we sat there quietly. A few minutes later, I offered him some of my snack food. Many of the people living in Slab City rely on what people bring so they can eat. Bobby sat next to me for a few more minutes until he got up to play the congas with the band on stage.

I was left with a surreal experience. Was Bobby an angel or a manifestation of the Divine? Was my higher power using this nomad to send me a message? Is the answer I was subconsciously looking for found in what Bobby shared with me?

I spent part of my morning the next day calling that church in South Bend. I was trying to find out the name of the children’s ministry. I wanted to confirm if it was the same one Bobby said it was. A different church and pastor has since taken over, no one there could recall the former children’s ministry name. I was transferred to three different people. All of them were very kind but no one knew. I then text messaged my co-worker who grew up going to that church but she couldn’t recall the name either. Everyone I spoke to agreed “Harvest Kids” sounded like the correct answer.

While I’m extremely skeptical of stories claiming supernatural encounters, I have no other way to explain what happened. What I know is this – much like Christopher McCandless, I showed up to Slab City with a heart full of curiosity and a head full of questions about what the next right step was for my life and God answered with, “You think you can do everything on your own because you think you’re self-sufficient.” When I asked for clarification because I struggled to believe what I heard, the message was shortened and more direct, “God is all sufficient.”

It’s almost been a year since I had that experience and I’ve made some major life decisions since. I ended a year long relationship, relocated to Los Angeles and I quit my cushy job of 4.5 years. As I made the jump in each of those decisions, I’ve relied on what my angel named Bobby said to me, “Don’t rely on yourself. God is all sufficient.” This has become my life mantra.

There has been fallout from some of my decisions and I am still experiencing fallout from the choices I’ve made. I’m sure if you’ve read this far, you know what I’m talking about. The shit does and will hit the fan. Things will not go as we anticipate or plan. We’re not able to control every outcome. Yet in the midst of my numerous fallouts and anxiety about the future — I keep returning to the answer I got from my angel in the desert — God is all sufficient.

I Love Jesus But I Follow Buddha

This past weekend was the most amazing weekend of my life. No exaggeration.

Let me tell you why…

One year ago, I was feeling dead inside. My spirit was dry as the desert. My brokenness was growing like an intrusive ivy beyond myself and started to overtake those around me. My shortcomings were casting a shadow over the person I was once proud to be.

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A year ago, I was deep in the dark forest of unhappiness which was caused by no one else but myself. However, while watching Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday, I was inspired to search for a nearby Buddhist monastery. I was hoping my results would yield a solution to my suffering. My Google search listed Deer Park Monastery in the top results. I clicked the link to learn all about Deer Park and its practice of mindfulness in the tradition of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. While I was roaming around the website, I learned they were going to have a young adults retreat the following month called, “Wake Up!” I was immediately intrigued and booked my spot for the retreat that same week. That was in April of 2015. I had an incredible time but that weekend was a mere introduction to the practice and healing which I desperately needed.

I chose to return to the same retreat this year. A year later my situation is a little different because I’m no longer in a relationship but I was still trapped in the same dark forest of unhappiness; feeling alone, broken, hurt, useless and lost.

Twenty minutes before I arrived to the retreat last week, I ended an argument with a family member saying I didn’t want to speak or visit for a long time. The conversation brought up a lot of pain and I arrived to the monastery feeling very angry. When I arrived I didn’t want to speak with anyone or really even be there at that point. Shortly after arriving and setting up my tent it was dinner time. I was thankful for the required “Noble Silence” during dinner as I was still fuming from the conversation just a few hours before. That night I went to bed still feeling livid. I couldn’t stop thinking that I will probably not talk to this family member for a very long time.

The next day, after morning meditation, breakfast, and working mediation; I made my way to the monastery’s bookstore. I wanted to buy Thich Nhat Hanh’s book Living Buddha, Living Christ (partly because Oprah said she has it on her nightstand). As I was searching for the book, one of the nuns approached me and pointed to a book on the very top shelf and recommended it for me. When I raised my eyes to read the cover of the book it was titled Anger. Part of me felt caught, embarrassed, offended, but also relieved. Will this book contain a path out of my darkness? I don’t know if it’s a book that she recommends to everyone or if my anger was just that evident. I sheepishly and discreetly purchased the book but secretly couldn’t wait to begin reading it.

I made my way back to my tent and began reading the book right away. Once I started, I wanted to consume the entire book and every line which felt like a healing ointment on a fresh burn. The book was opening my eyes to how my anger is a part of me, it’s my inner child which I need to embrace. My anger is the inner child that I need to invite to sit down and eat with me, climb the mountain with me, invite to watch TV with me. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches in this book that we need to care for this child because it is a part of us. While reading this book I started to feel resolve with the anger I arrived with that weekend and I began to come out of my shell and socialize with others attending the retreat. Over the next few days I started to make connections with others. I made myself vulnerable and I began to feel a sense of purpose and belonging once again. 12321198_10207233633936897_1877970217804756762_n

On Saturday, the last full day of the retreat, there was a Q&A planned. This was our opportunity to ask any question(s) we were dying to ask a monk or nun concerning the practice. It was held in the main meditation hall. More than 100 of us gathered to sit on the floor to ask our questions and hopefully gain answers to our suffering. Some questions inquired about life after death, celibacy, but the question that stood out was about gender roles and is there a place for transgender people in this practice. All the questions were echoes from our caves of pain and suffering. This question, although I didn’t ask it, was one I was wondering about also.

The monk who was tasked with answering the question of gender roles and the place of transgender people within the practice gave an answer which raised some eyebrows, unintentionally evoked the pain which we too often ignore and cover up, yet, at the same time created an opportunity of healing I personally did not expect.

While he gave his answer you could feel the energy of the room shift. Several people got up and walked out feeling rejected again by another spiritual community. It was obvious that his answer did not sit well with the majority of the people in the room. Little did I know, this mishap was going to bring about a healing that me and many of my LGBTQ siblings desperately needed.

Personally, as I sat in the big and open mediation hall listening to his answer, I felt the pain from the messages of my past, “We love you but…”, “You’re welcome here but…”, “You can practice with us but…”. The mediation hall which once felt full of love and joy was suddenly becoming hollow. Having been rejected in the past by my faith community for being gay, I couldn’t help but feel the same despair again. It felt like the spiritual community I was willing to trust again and become vulnerable with was going to keep me locked outside. However, in the midst of all these feelings I invited the children (anger, sadness, despair, and rejection) to sit and breathe with me. Together we breathed and I put the children to bed. I chose to understand that this brother answering the question is not originally from America, English is his fourth language, and comes from a culture that has long ignored confronting LGBTQ issues. Within that context, the answer was a little easier to hear but still not easy. More than likely, it was nothing more than a cultural misunderstanding and poor choice of words. However, the familiar pain it raised was real.

After the Q&A, our day continued as planned.

After lunch, one of my new friends asked if I was going to go to the LGBTQ breakout group. “There’s a LGBTQ breakout group?” I asked. One of the nuns had planned this breakout for those who wanted to express their feelings and thoughts concerning the answer the monk gave about LGBTQ people within the practice. Without hesitation I agreed that I would be there.

Dear god. Am I glad I went.

There we were. A good number of us gathered in the circle garden sharing our stories, pain, and concerns. I shared with the group about how I went through five years of ex-gay exorcisms and am still hurting from the blunt force of rejection from my past faith community and leaders. I expressed that I wanted to trust a spiritual community again but was scared and now I wasn’t sure if I could.

As we approached the end of our sharing, the nun who organized the event shared a story with us.

The sister shared about the time she visited a Christian monastery. While she was there, a priest shared with her the story of how a woman came to him and told him about the sexual abuse she experienced by her Catholic priest. Moved by the story, and wanting to help relieve her suffering, this priest she was confessing to knelt down on his knees and kissed her feet. An act of humility and kindness which helped the woman heal from her pain. After sharing this story, the nun asked if we would allow her to touch the earth for us. Not entirely sure of what that meant or how much it would mean, I nodded in agreement with the group.

The sister, with a shaved head, wearing a long brown robe, took her sandals off, stood up from her chair, walked to the center of the circle and knelt to her knees. She slowly put her face on the ground covered in pine needles and mulch, stretched her arms out before her and she stayed there. Then, the healing began.

As she touched the earth for us, like a film, all the past rejection I received and felt from my faith leaders played in my head. All the hateful messages. The exorcisms. The manipulation. The lies. The spiritual abuse. While she remained faced down on the ground before us, the images I was seeing turned from color and faded to black and white. The messages I was hearing in my head started to become mute. The anger I didn’t even realize was there matured to forgiveness and resolve. The pain faded away. The power of the past died.

She touched the earth for us.

For me.

A leader within my new spiritual community chose to humble herself and care for us instead of ignoring and rejecting us. She chose to be the doctor who saw our suffering and offered a cure, unconditional love and kindness.

Others in the circle began to weep and cry.

This was a holy moment.

As I replay it in my head, it remains a holy moment and one I keep revisiting since it happened.

It gives me hope.

It brings me healing.

It has given me a path out of my dark forest of unhappiness.

This was, hands down, the best weekend of my life. I arrived angry, empty, and dry but I left feeling healed and full.

This is the reason I love Jesus but I follow Buddha.