We Were Missionaries Once
I got to know Matt because I led a mission trip he was on. “Mission trip” is, in some ways, a very accurate depiction of what we did, for our goal was to evangelize, to win souls for Christ, but in other key ways, it deviated from the stereotypical build-houses-in-Mexico trip that our peers experienced. Certainly, those trips existed; our college encouraged an understanding of the world beyond the upper-middle-class white suburb that our school resided in. It seemed that everyone was in some kind of program that exposed them to life outside “the bubble.” Some kids went to downtown Chicago every Saturday and hung out with homeless people, bringing them sandwiches and trying to build relationships. Some kids tutored the Syrian refugees who lived in apartment complexes on the other side of our suburb. Some kids took a whole semester in another country, a “third world” country, where they lived with a local family and did an internship of some sort. This program was called Human Needs and Global Resources, but its common name was “HNGR.” Get it? It was actually pretty hard to get into. You needed to prove that you had the emotional strength to survive in a place where you didn’t know anyone, where you didn’t speak the language, and you didn’t have access to the pleasures we were all accustomed to. My friend Remer said that despite his Honduran mom feeding him every day, he was always hungry. There was never enough food. Many students came back slim and gaunt, unwittingly shedding their freshman fifteen. Every year, one or two kids flew home early, unable to hack it.
I did not apply.
Instead, during my sophomore year, I applied to a summer program called YHM - Youth Hostel Ministry. It began in the 70s, when a Wheaton student backpacked through Europe and, through the hostel experience, met loads of curious, conversational people from around the world. He was stunned, however, by their absence of faith. He thought that youth hostels were actually the perfect place to evangelize; people were willing to meet and engage with strangers, and they were searching for something, albeit often it was weed in Amsterdam or a hook-up in Berlin or just some cool experience in Prague. These people don’t realize that they’re really searching for God, I’m sure he said.
It’s a weird idea, sending college students to travel Europe and evangelize while they do it. It’s a weird thing to ask people to donate to. And yet they did, and they do. Many missions trips have evangelism as one element of many: we’ll evangelize, sure, but we’ll also dig you a well, or we’ll bring you clothes, or we’ll set up a school. With YHM, evangelism was the single goal.
To be fair, we weren’t sent to Europe simply to travel, eat, be merry, and talk about Jesus. We were broken up into teams and assigned a certain city where we spent most of our time and where we worked at various Christian-owned hostels. In Amsterdam, we worked predominantly as cooks - serving breakfast to hostel guests in the morning or cooking a large dinner for the staff in the evening. In Bergen, Norway, the Wheaton students literally set up the hostel, putting together bunk beds and washing the linens as well as checking people in and out. In Prague, the students manned the bar in the basement of one hostel - deeply ironic considering that all of us signed a document saying we wouldn’t drink (and most of us, knowing God’s eyes were upon us even if we were out of the purview of all Wheaton-affiliated adults, kept our word).
The summer I first did YHM, after my sophomore year in 2009, I worked at the hostel in Amsterdam for almost my entire time in Europe, punctuated by a quick trip to Koln, Germany with my “team” of two other Wheaton girls and then a “mid-summer retreat” to a castle in Austria with all of the Wheaton kids. (Yes. A castle. I felt guilty at the time and still do to a degree; experiencing those luxuries felt antithetical to the mission work we went there to do.)
The second summer I did YHM was two years later, right after I graduated. My friend Megan was leading the trip, which meant that she did not have a “base city” where she would be spending most of the summer. Instead, she’d exclusively traveling, checking on hostels to set up future partnerships with and also visiting the other teams and offering them support. She would not travel solo, though; she needed a travel partner, and I happily complied, not ready to leave my college experience behind.
Matt LeGrande was one of the kids on the trip. Having just finished his freshman year, he was one of the youngest people going, but he was tall, good-looking, confident, charismatic, and instantly one of my favorite people. He was funny, a quality I often didn’t find among Wheaton students, who were more notably intelligent or earnest or thoughtful, and he could be sassy and crass and quick-witted in a way that made me adore him because, in this small way, we were both outsiders.
I remember chatting with Matt in a small town in the Czech Republic. I had gone to the market and made breakfast for his team, myself, and Megan, and the topic of masturbation came up. I gave the “liberal” opinion that it wasn’t a sin, if done in moderation, and Matt concurred. “Masturbation” was only something I had talked about with fellow college students in my final year at Wheaton, and I felt bold and worldly talking about it, though I had been doing it since I was six, long before I knew the word for it.
But that’s the kind of Christians we were. The ones who were edgy for thinking masturbation wasn’t evil but who still believed that sex outside of marriage was wrong, Jesus died for our sins, and the Canadians staying in the bunk beds next to us needed to find God.
But the longer I was on that trip, the less convinced I was that Christianity was the answer. We met a lot of different people, many of whom were open to hearing about our faith and were willing to engage in conversation about religion. None of them jumped at the chance to have what we had, though. Most of them seemed okay without it. Very few of them seemed lost like I thought they’d all be.
I didn’t doubt that Christianity was powerful and effective and good in some respects. The students on that trip were thrown into teams of four people, people who were not previously friends with each other, and they traveled and cooked and slept together, on a budget, catching trains and surviving on baguettes. Traveling is never completely painless, even if your companions are loved ones and money isn’t an issue, but it’s a truly terrifying endeavor to travel for two months with relative strangers. The only thing that made it work, that kept everyone willing to cooperate and communicate, was the idea that they were brothers and sisters in Christ, that they had a mission bigger than themselves, that they were called to be selfless, humble, kind. As Matt and I reflected on YHM eight years later, having brunch together in Los Angeles, he said, “It was like the Real World on steroids.”
“With Jesus,” I added.
When I returned from YHM that final summer, I immediately headed to my first post-graduation job, doing residence life at a boarding school in northern Michigan. I went to a few church services throughout the year, but it was sporadic, and I felt like what I missed most from Wheaton were the friendships. And then, as I got closer to my coworkers at the school, I felt God becoming less and less necessary. He was still there, in the back of my mind, keeping me from having sex, but it’s as if I took a break from him, or a very mild vacation away.
The summer after the boarding school, the summer after Matt’s sophomore year at Wheaton, I stayed with my parents for a couple months in Wisconsin. I took my little sisters to the beach one day, and on the way there, Matt called. He called to come out to me.
At this point, Matt’s experience with Christianity and its expectations radically veered from mine. Sexual purity, one of the biggest tenants of evangelical Christianity at the time, was relatively easy for me to obtain as a heterosexual woman. All I needed to do was find a man and wait for us to be married before we fucked. But Matt’s very identity was not permitted at our school, and I was sorry to be moving out to California, so far from him, at a time when I felt he most needed support.
For a while, Matt attempted to fulfill his Christian duties (remaining chaste, pursuing women), to fit who he was into the narrative of what it meant to honor God. Instead of calling himself “gay,” he told people that he was “struggling with SSA.” SSA, or same-sex attraction, was the lingo used at our Christian college. It made it seem like attraction was a phase or an illness and not an intrinsic part of your being. “Gay” was who you were; “SSA” was something you could conquer through prayer. And even if it couldn’t be conquered, it could be dealt with. At this time, Matt was still convinced that he would marry a woman one day.
I spent my first year in Los Angeles as a moderately good Christian would - not having sex and going out mostly with moderately Christian men. I wasn’t convinced that I would “save myself for marriage” like I used to be so certain I would, but sex still carried an enormous weight in my mind, and I wasn’t ready to give it up. Aside from that, no one seemed super eager to take it from me.
While I was living in Christian limbo, Matt was still in college, and after his junior year, he too did YHM a second time, also co-leading the trip. And it was there, in Europe, amidst the pressure of evangelizing to people who were just fine without Jesus, that Matt lost his virginity. And while it’s possible that he was not the first man to have sex with another man on a mission trip in Austria, I do think the odds are pretty good that he was.
And I wondered, was that the end of Christianity for Matt? When the body became more powerful than the ideas of what God wanted for him? Were his changing thoughts about God expedited by the fact that the God our parents believed in didn’t think who he was was good?
When Matt graduated, three years after I did, he also moved out to LA and also started doing stand-up. Because of this, we have a strong overlap in our histories. He is the only person who can understand both of the microcosms that were so formative to my twenties, the conservative Christian college in Illinois and the Los Angeles open mic comedy scene. And like me, Matt doesn’t know if he can call himself a Christian. Like me, Matt makes jokes about growing up Christian but still loves so much of Christianity, although he’s been bruised by it. And like me, Matt has many friends who are just as Christian as they were in college. We have friends from YHM who waited until they were married to have sex, who still go to church, who still believe the Bible is true. I wanted to know what Matt thought about all this, about why we have changed and others have not. And so, nearly a year ago, at that brunch in January, at the Figaro Bistrot on Vermont Ave., I asked him.
Rachel: Describe what your faith looked like at Wheaton College.
Matt: I think it would best be described as a military position that I was called to do but didn’t necessarily want to do. Like being in the army is such an honor, it’s an act of service. Not necessarily something I enjoyed. A lot of Christians have this mentality that you’re supposed to be this martyr on earth, suffer a really horrible life, but then you have the reward of being in heaven. I never liked what I was doing, and I felt guilty about most of what I was doing.
Rachel: What did you not like and what did you feel guilty about?
Matt: There was always more that I could be doing, and, you know, you’re called to a higher standard, yeah, I always felt like I was called to be the highest leader and I had the potential to be the best Christian possible, and that was my calling. And I always felt like I was ignoring that calling and not living up to it. Also the whole gay thing, that was a huge hurdle because I wasn’t being honest with myself. There was so much dishonesty. It’s hard to say, because I didn’t even know myself back then, and when I came out, everything changed as far as my Christianity. But I was still a Christian, and even then it was more of a duty, because I knew what I had to do.
Rachel: Which was be celibate?
Matt: Well, not be celibate. I thought I had to find a woman to marry me, but it was so stressful because I had this idea that I was going to be married by 21, I had kind of decided that in my mind, so I was on a mission. It’s like I wasn’t actually surrendering anything to God, at least in that department. I felt like it was my job to figure out the gay thing and to secure that I had a wife, and it was all very stressful and made me want to cry. I didn’t like going to church, I don’t like it, it’s not fun, but I felt like I had to, I was supposed to, and I had to find a way to make this my thing... And I looked at porn a lot in college, I think I became addicted to porn, because it was like an outlet for me... always straight porn because I almost felt good about watching straight porn because it was like I was trying to make an effort. I mean, I would watch the guy. I knew the guy I liked watching, and I liked watching him fuck. I think I’ve learned since that just the misconstrued truths about Christianity, like Christianity wasn’t really the problem; it was just the cultural context of Christianity that I was raised up in, and this high pressure to have sex with your wife, and that was the only way. For some reason, a lot of people in my community, once they got married, they were like certified as actual people, like they had grown up and graduated. You didn’t have to worry about them anymore, because they weren’t going to have premarital sex.
Rachel: Marriage symbolizes adulthood?
Matt: Yeah, I still feel that, and every time I go home for Christmas and I’m single, I feel like a fucking child because I’m not married, like I don’t have my parents’ approval...which I never will, because I’m gay. Even if I have a husband, you know what I mean? I’m never going to get that, which I’ve had to come to terms with. I’m never going to have that moment where my parents give me this feeling that doesn’t actually exist, that I’ve made it, like you’re certified, you’re a real human, you’ve graduated… But I think I want something that isn’t attainable. It’s a personal issue, it’s not actually anything they [my parents] can give me. I need to learn to let go of wanting some kind of… They’re proud of me with limitations, with exceptions… I thought it was so funny meeting non-Christians post Wheaton and learning that even in very liberal households, people still hate their parents. Parents are fucked up. Again, I don’t think it’s Christianity. I used to think it was, but parents forcing an agenda on their kid, that’s not fun for anyone. These weird ideas that don’t really have anything to do with Christianity. I’m on good terms with my parents now, but since I’m more emotionally removed, I’ve been able to ask them questions objectively, and they believe some really weird things that are not…biblical. My dad has these weird phrases that he says that sound like he read in some random self-help book sometime and just decided they were his life motto. Like I was talking to him about...I have a relationship with God now, like a higher power or energy or whatever the fuck you wanna call it, and I was talking to my dad, and he doesn’t believe that I know the true God. And I was like, how do you know that Jesus is God? I’m not opposed to that idea, but there’s no way for me to know it. And he’ll be, like, if you choose to take the risk of not knowing, it’s a bigger gamble than actually choosing to believe... He tries to break it down into a logical thing, but it’s not logical, and he thinks that it is. So I’ll ask him, the way that you’re telling me this sounds like you have some secure knowledge that I don’t have; how do you even have this? And he’ll tell me that in every human there is the mind, the body, and the spirit, and when Jesus is revealed to you in your mind, and your body, and your spirit, that is how you know. And I’m like, where did you get this? What does that even mean? And it’s like watching a scared kid when I ask him these questions because he kind of fumbles with the answers, he doesn’t really know how to explain it. Obviously it’s just something he’s clung to and decided that it worked, that it is the truth. And with my mom, I was talking to her recently about how it’s historically sound that Jesus was a man, that there was a person named Jesus who was crucified on a cross, like the historians agree that that happened… But that’s the only thing that can be proven. And a lot of people were crucified, it was not uncommon. So I was telling my mom the belief that Jesus is God, because we can’t prove it, is a myth. And that’s not bad, but that is what a myth is, it’s a story that can’t be proven… So I was trying to get my mom... to agree with me, and she was like, Well, it’s not because it’s true. And I said, But you agree that you can’t prove it to be true? And she was like, Yes, but it is true. But my mom has two masters degrees, she reads a lot, she is a smart woman, but it doesn’t make sense. And so I was like, But you agree, Jesus is God, that is a myth that you have personally chosen to believe is true, and she kept saying, Well, no, because it is true. Like, as a smart, educated person, just by the definition of things, if you can’t prove it to be true, it doesn’t make sense for you to say that it is true. Again, I’m not opposed to Jesus being God… And my dad is so funny, he’ll be like, Matt - and he’ll always say this with some concerned tone, like I’m just not looking at something that’s so clear, and he’ll be like - Matt, God is not a God of confusion. There are hundreds of sects of Christianity. That’s really fucking confusing. He’s like, It’s been made abundantly clear. But no, it hasn’t. There’s so much information out there. But he’ll say when it’s been revealed to you in mind, body, spirit, you’ll know it to be true. But my parents have been born-again Christians for almost forty years now. They’ve dedicated their whole lives to it, so if you put that kind of energy into something...like, how could you [question it]? It would destroy their whole foundation. As much as it’s not their job to convince me that Jesus is God, it’s not my job to convince them otherwise. It’s not my fucking job. And that’s why I’m so relieved to not be evangelical anymore because I get to have honest relationships with people without an agenda. That’s so freeing. And that feels more Christ’s life than when I was a Christian, to honestly love people exactly where they are without trying to force them to change their lives. That’s what killed me. The reason I’m not a Christian is probably going on mission trips, on YHM, and talking to these incredibly intelligent travelers who were like amazing people who had purpose and goals in their lives, and they loved me, unconditionally, as a fucking weirdo, without trying to change anything about me.
Rachel: Doing YHM...it’s so weird that we did that, twice, but I remember meeting people and feeling like, they’re fine. Christianity has been good for someone like my mom, who needs it to have hope, but none of these people are seeking something that Christianity could help with.
Matt: Yeah. There’s that mentality on mission trips where it’s like you have this piece of information that other people don’t know that they need, or that they’re living in darkness and you’re the light, and there was that crazy moment when I was on YHM the second time, and I realized it was the other way. I was in such darkness, and I was the one who needed to be saved from this dogmatic...I wasn’t free to actually love people or be honest with people. And none of that really has anything to do with being gay, that was such a sub-thing. It’s not like I became gay and then I realized whatever, but the way I was developing relationships with people, it’s really...I’m having to reprogram my brain because my brain...every person I met, if they weren’t a believer in Jesus, that was my goal with them. I was viewing people as projects instead of actually listening to people… But [now] I love having friends who believe different things. Did you know Los Angeles is the most diverse city in the world? Toronto’s number two. People say we live in a liberal bubble, which is true, but we do live in a very diverse city that a lot of people don’t see, and we have, being in comedy, so many different types of friends, so many different beliefs. When you go to other cities...I was just in Fresno, and the guy who was headlining, he said things that were so non-PC, like “black people are taking racism so well they’re only killing some of us,” and you see people say things onstage and get huge applauses, but it’s not my job to hate that person. I feel like my worldview is constantly being challenged, and I’m hearing all these different opinions that I don’t necessarily agree with all the time. Even at The Comedy Store. You hear things that you don’t agree with, but that’s part of comedy. You’re in this giant, philosophical discussion all the time. A lot of people don’t have that. They’re not being challenged all the time. If you go to a church, you decide that’s your form of community, and for the most part everyone believes the same fucking thing. And you pick the type of church that you want to go to, that has the type of beliefs you like and feel comfortable with. I don’t pick the shows I’m on. I don’t pick who’s at the open mic. Also we’re in a business where we’re interacting with all types of people… But it is surprising to me, I have a lot of friends who do believe in God. It’s just a different understanding of God, but I think it’s in a really healthy way. Have you read The Secret Life of Plants? It was like ostracized. I think it came out in the 70s. They did these experiments, I’m sure you’ve heard of them, where there are two plants in identical conditions, and you take one of the plants, and a person will envision the plant wilting, drying up, and dying, and in the other room, with the other plant, he’ll envision it flourishing. He’s not even touching it. They’re still being watered the same. But the one that he thinks about flourishing, flourishes, and the one he thinks about dying, dies. The only difference was his thinking, being in the room and thinking about them. So there is science behind it... The energy that we put out in the world is received and felt. You feel that in comedy, too. I hosted a really good mic for a long time, but I would go in with really good energy, and I would make sure, constantly, that I was keeping the energy up, and people had a good time. And you could feel, if you’re perceptive or intuitive, you can feel that energy in the room.
Rachel: There are certainly aspects of Christianity that I still hold to, and the belief that everyone has value, everyone is made in the image of God.
Matt: I think that’s beautiful… With that being said, I didn’t pray forever, but I started praying again a year ago, and it fucking works. And I don’t know how it works, but there’s something about putting that energy out there and being honest about your intentions, and I don’t know, I believe there’s something, connectivity. I like believing in God, it’s just easier for me, but there is something that happens, and it makes me a better person. And the whole act of surrendering, which is very Christian, evangelical thing like “surrender it to God,” that’s freeing. Stress doesn’t do anything good for us. Worry doesn’t help anyone. It’s just a helpful life tool. There are a lot of helpful life tools in Christianity. And I feel like spirituality is having a comeback after atheism was really popular. People want to feel more connected. And it’s a good thing. I used to be such a cynical bitch, but if it’s making you a healthier, happier person, then do it. I think that stuff is great. And meditation, that’s a biblical principle. Isn’t it?
Rachel: I’m sure like the call to “be still.” My mom has quiet time with God every day, and she’s one of the strongest people I know. That belief not only motivates her to be a good person but it also revitalizes her and gives her strength.
Matt: Cause she’s spending time meditating everyday and clearing her mind. It’s crazy cause my parents...I’ve never wanted to be like them. I don’t admire them. My mom, she reads her Bible everyday, and I love my mom, but her emotions are all over the place, and she’s so unstable emotionally, and she breaks out in screams at the top of her lungs, and honestly, what you’re doing isn’t working. The Bible says you’ll know a tree by its fruit, and I’ve seen ways that I have grown emotionally so much by the way that I’ve been living my life, making steps to be a healthier person but not in ways that a Christian would live, but other people see that I’m becoming more emotionally healthy. More patient, more empathetic, I became so much more empathetic when I stopped being a Christian. Like I don’t like violence in movies, it really disturbs me, I care about plants and animals. I never cared about that shit before because it didn’t matter. But my mom, I don’t see that in her at all. My dad, he’s so impatient with people. And if you’ve been doing this for forty fucking years, how are you still like this? I don’t get it. He’s so bad at communicating with people.
Rachel: So how would you characterize your faith now?
Matt: Like a lot of people in LA, I would say that I’m spiritual. Not religious. A spiritual person. I remember when I was in the church, it was very important that people distinguish that Jesus was God. Cause then I was like, relieved, we’re both not crazy. But now, I have that same thing with people who are spiritually open and in tune with a higher power. The last guy I was dating, he didn’t believe in anything beyond himself, and that was really hard for me to connect. I don’t want that pressure. So I would say I’m a really spiritual person. I like praying a lot, it’s been helpful for me. I don’t know about Jesus at all. I think, if anything, religion seems to me so beautiful as a representation of culture. I grew up in Indonesia, so I love Islamic artwork, it brings me back to my childhood...I find comfort in believing in God. It works for me. Some people are really scared of the idea. I have a friend in the program who was raised Christian, and he has a huge problem with the higher power thing, but he goes through the steps, and he tries to not overthink it because God is a triggering thing for him. I feel fortunate that it’s not for me. And I’m aware that that idea may just be familiar so it works, but I’m okay with that. If that’s my coping mechanism or what helps me, great. At the core of it, I really believe that what energy you put out there really does affect things. That changes my life drastically, because if I go in a room with a shitty attitude, people are going to read that, whether or not I think they will. If I’m angry about something, I’m putting that out onto the world. And when I hate someone, it encourages me to be compassionate towards them, because they can feel that. I really feel that. I don’t know what I think about heaven or hell, I just don’t think about them anymore…. Oh my god, what happens when we die? [laughing] At my most optimistic, I think we’re reincarnated, because a scientific principle is that energy is never created or destroyed. So the energy goes somewhere. But my mom told me so many times growing up that she can’t wait to die.
Rachel: Because she has God?
Matt: Yeah. She doesn’t want to be here. She doesn’t want to be on earth. She wants to be with this fantasy of what she thinks God and heaven are going to be like, which, you can’t know that. But she wants that. She can’t wait to die. What a shitty way to live your life. So where I’m at, spiritually, encourages me to…
Rachel: Make heaven here?
Matt: Yeah. C.S. Lewis talks so much about that, and I think that’s beautiful. And I have depression and suicidal thoughts, and whenever I think about taking my own life, which honestly is on a weekly basis - whenever I get sad I’m just like I should probably just kill myself - but then I’m reminded of things I want to do in life before I die, and there’s a lot I want to do. So it’s forced me to be more present and make the most of my time here and explore new depths… One of my biggest goals in life is to be as honest and transparent as possible; it’s one of the things I love about comedy. That’s what I love seeing most in comedy, that’s why I got into comedy, I was just so struck by that, because I wanted that in the church so badly but I wasn’t getting it. I could’ve just been going to the wrong church, but I also found that in people’s sets, where they were just laying out their shortcomings, and it’s healing. And it makes you feel like you’re okay. But that’s an exciting thing for me that makes me want to live, learning how to be the most authentic. Life is so random; you didn’t choose to be put into Rachel Mac’s body. You were born, and this is it. I believe God wanted you to be in whatever situation you’re in, so do it.
Rachel: So you would not identify as Christian anymore?
Matt: I don’t think so. But I say that because there are people who believe the same things as me but who do identify as Christians, and that’s weird to me. And they can claim that and say, “As a Christian, blah blah blah,” but the brand of Christianity I was born into, if you don’t believe Jesus is God, then you’re not a Christian. But a lot of Christians don’t… And also that’s a new idea. Am I wrong in that? That that wasn’t the deciding factor of what a Christian was?
Rachel: I don’t know. I could say I am a follower of Christ, that doesn’t mean I believe he was the son of God.
Matt: I am, too. The big choke-up is him claiming to be divine. But those manuscripts… Jesus as a person, I always tell people how incredible he was, and he was someone to aspire to be like. So empathetic, he cared about orphans and widows and poor people and the marginalized. But I’m way more like Christ now then when I thought I was a Christian, and you can quote me on that. But I think because of my upbringing, believing that Jesus was God, I don’t feel comfortable saying that I am a Christian. I feel like if I did, someone would just scream, “No you’re not!” Or I would be pointed out, which is so crazy; I need to talk to my therapist about that. Who’s going to point me out? ...That’s a weird thing about Christianity; they say it’s not about your actions, it’s about your beliefs… It’s so dumb. Who gives a shit about what you believe if that’s not how you’re living your life?