I was twelve years old when it happened, in the 7th grade, attending Victory Christian School on 71st Street in South Tulsa. My grandfather, Oral Roberts, climbed up into a tower and began telling the world on national television that God had commanded him to bring in eight million dollars to further his work on Earth. If he didn’t come up with the cash, the Lord, my grandfather said, would take him home.
I was twelve years old and, in the world I was living in, this wasn’t as unusual as you might expect. There was a rhyme and reason to everything in God’s world–if you had a question, the Bible always had the answer. So when my grandfather climbed into that tower, I randomly opened the Bible for guidance and my fingers landed on this passage from the book of Isaiah:
Behold, I have given him for a witness to the people, a leader
and commander to the people. Behold, thou shalt call a nation
that thou knowest not, and nations that knew not thee shall run
unto thee because of the Lord thy God, and for the Holy One of
Israel; for he hath glorified thee.
I was twelve years old, and this tower business didn’t really make sense, but then again, there was that passage from Isaiah, with God seeming to speak directly to me.
At night I had dreams that the eight million dollars in donations wouldn’t come in, and my grandfather would be taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot like Ezekiel, another Old Testament favorite of mine. Once at school I overheard two teachers talking about how Oral was a Cherokee Indian, and how it was a longstanding tradition among Indian chiefs to declare the day of their death as a way to get the tribe to do something drastic it didn’t want to do, and the teachers said that if the tribe didn’t cooperate, the chief literally fell over and died on the promised day. Turns out there is no such tradition, but even so, I imagined my grandfather, who at 70 years of age, with his long-hanging ears and bulbous, impressive nose really did look the part of an Indian chief, sitting up there in the Prayer Tower one day and suddenly expiring on his prayer rug. I imagined a lot of things, all far-fetched seeming now, but at the time completely in line with the culture I lived in, a culture in many ways shaped by the teachings of my grandfather.
Oral began “preaching the Word” in the late 1930s as a nineteen-year-old during the Great Depression–my grandmother Evelyn told me that food was often scarce, and Oral would sometimes go out and shoot “swamp rabbits” which she would then dutifully clean and bring downtown where you could rent communal freezer space. Oral’s ministry grew slowly, reaching its prime in the sixties and seventies when he built Oral Roberts University and pioneered the “electric church,” becoming the first television evangelist. His television programs came out of studios in Burbank, California, and his message was simple, and contrary, to what priests and preachers had been telling us for thousands of years: God, according to Oral, wasn’t very interested in punishing us. In fact, God was just dying to heal us. All we needed to do was stretch out our hands in faith and believe, and God would bring healing. Healing to our bodies, healing to our marriage, healing to our loved ones and, yup, healing to our pocketbooks. It was a revolutionary message and one that hadn’t really been heard before in quite the same way.
“God is a GOOD God,” Oral intoned on national television. “Something GOOD is GOING to HAPPEN to YOU!”
By January of 1987, when Oral climbed into that tower, donations had been falling off for years. The fall of Jim Bakker, the fall of Jimmy Swaggart, and the failure of the City of Faith, Oral’s 60-story hospital complex (much of it still sits empty today, 23 years later) were all part of the reason for the decline in revenue, as well as an ebb in popularity for the brand of televangelism Oral helped create. His efforts to bring in the money to keep his empire afloat became more and more ridiculous, but he continued using that feel-good phrase, “Something GOOD is GOING to HAPPEN to YOU!”
Even now, as a 35-year-old gay man whose church and family has rejected him, I can see the appeal in those words. “Hope is the thing with feathers,” Emily Dickinson once wrote, “that perches in the soul, and sings the tune–without the words, and never stops at all.” These days selling hope is a well-worn path, and Barack Obama, for whom my grandfather voted, inspired the nation by blanketing walls and subway stations and billboards with this one powerful word. It’s surprising, I’m sure, that Oral voted for Obama, but given a choice between a man selling fear–fear of nuclear weapons, fear of the black man, fear of change, fear of Muslims, fear of a bright, sunny future–and a man who simply said “Yes, We Can,” it must have been an easy choice for Granville Oral Roberts, who grew up in a shotgun shack in an impoverished corner of Oklahoma. He ended up building a 500-acre kingdom on the banks of the Arkansas River, a kingdom funded by faith, and faith alone. “Something GOOD is GOING to HAPPEN to YOU!”
But I digress. I’m not 35, an out-of-the-closet gay writer happily raising his kids in Dallas, Texas; nope, I’m just twelve years old, and my grandfather just climbed into a 200-foot-tall tower, and the whole city of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the evangelical reaches of the entire world (which numbers, perhaps, in the hundreds of millions) were holding their collective breath awaiting the outcome. And me? I wasn’t so worried about Oral. I figured either he would get the money and come down, or he wouldn’t and God would take him to Heaven–either way, if you believed the hype, it was a win-win situation. When you’re twelve, you buy just about everything your family tells you, so I really didn’t worry much at all. About Oral, that is.
What I did worry about, and continued to worry about for at least the next 15 years, was the condition of my soul. While everybody else was worrying about Oral, I was worried that Jesus would come down, perched on a cloud in the sky, and whisk all the Christians up to Heaven in “the twinkling of an eye,” as the Bible says. Like the title of the popular evangelical novel blares loudly from its cover, I was worried about being Left Behind.
Why choose 1987 to start worrying about the rapture? It wasn’t, after all, until 1989 that Oral first said Jesus was coming back and the world was going to end, when I was in ninth grade attending Jenks High School. Nineteen eighty-seven made sense because Oral was up in that tower, and that tower, for me, was a symbol of the Second Coming of Christ, and this is exactly how Oral planned it. The Prayer Tower was built, along with most of the other buildings on the Oral Roberts University campus, in the late 1960s as a symbol of hope. At that time, on college campuses across the nation, students were sitting in groups by the thousands, smoking pot, drinking, swearing, having sex, wearing their hair long, and spending a lot of time saying “No!” to The Man.
Parents were scared, and Oral had an idea: why not build an evangelical university, where the students keep their hair short, their faces shaved, and their skirts long, and rather than saying “No!” are instead taught to say “Yes!” to the calling of God on their hearts? And in the middle of this campus, why not build a tower, constructed in such a way that, from any angle, it represents the image of the cross? In this tower he installed two things: a phone bank manned by faithful, little old ladies who would answer your call, day or night and pray with you on a toll-free number; and a gas flame, installed on the top of the tower, manned at all times, day and night, by a born-again Christian whose heart was “right with God.”
This tower became the focus of my fear of the rapture. In 1987 I had a dog, a scruffy, old, monstrously-huge Irish Wolfhound, the kind of dog you see in movies about medieval England sitting calmly at the foot of the king in his castle. His name was Samson, and because he was such a big dog, I had to take him on a long walk every day or he would go stir-crazy and eat the cushions off our couch. We were living on the Oral Roberts compound off of 75th Street, in South Tulsa, just north of Lewis Avenue, a three-acre piece of land surrounded by an eight-foot stockade fence and a chain-link topped with barbed wire and electrified. I would walk down my 50-yard-long driveway, out the first gate, and out the second gate (always waving to the security guard in his little hut) and across 75th Street to the campus of ORU. There was another gate, and as soon as Samson and I went through, there was the Prayer Tower in the distance, that gas flame shining brightly on the top.
Or, at least, I hoped it was. On bright, sunny days it was almost impossible to tell, and that’s where the fear crept in. The whole point of having that gas flame manned by a born-again Christian whose heart was “right with God” was this: if Jesus were to come down, perched on a cloud, and whisk away all the born-again Christians (the Catholics, and probably even the Episcopalians, were not really included in this group), that gas-flame operator would also be whisked away, and the flame would go out. That flame, perched on top of a 200-foot tower at the center of campus was both a promise and a threat–Jesus is coming back, but he’s not here yet, so if you’ve sinned, get your heart right with God, because He might come at any moment.
Well, how do you know if your heart is right with God? Even at 35, I still haven’t figured that one out.
So while everyone else was worried about Oral in that tower, I was worried about that gas-flame operator, looking every day to see if the flame was still there. On weekends, the campus could be awfully still and quiet, and if the sun was at just the right angle and I couldn’t quite tell if the flame was still lit, chills would go down my spine. In fact, sitting here writing this, they still do. Some things just don’t go away. I’m not scared of the rapture anymore, or the boogie man, or going to hell because I’m gay, but some nights when the house is too quiet I almost wish there were a tower across the street to remind me that all is well.
I was twelve, my grandfather was in a tower, and I was worried about the rapture, but I was also a seventh-grade gay kid in an evangelical Christian middle school, trying my best to develop crushes on girls. There was one girl I asked out every single day for a month and she said no every time, until it became a sort of joke and I asked her the way I scratched my nose, that is, quickly and sharply. And why did I ask her every day? Because my best friend at the time, a boy I haven’t seen since 1988 but still remember his full name and telephone number (918-528-0897), had kissed this girl. I think I was hoping that, if I kissed her too, I would somehow get some of his germs. Or something like that. None of this was conscious, but looking back it’s the only way I can make sense of it. Because, looking back, while I romanced the girls I ended up being nothing but a pest, stealing their lunch bags, undoing their bra as a joke, etc.–all I was really interested in were boys.
In seventh grade, I went through a series of crushes on boys, five of them to be exact, each one more painful than the one before. I would fall for them, spend a lot of time around them, and then, realizing eventually that they would never feel for me the way I felt for them, would suddenly stop talking to them. The last of the five, in April of 1987, called me up, mad as a hornet, asking why I wouldn’t talk to him anymore. “You just go through boys like Kleenex,” he said, “you blow your nose on them and throw them away.” Neither of us understood what the hell he was talking about, not literally, but we both knew he was right. I swallowed, hard, and quickly hung up. I swore off boys then and there, and didn’t really have close friends (other than girls) for a long, long time.
When I was 18, I met a girl the first week I arrived at the University of Oklahoma, and she reminded me of my grandmother Evelyn–graceful, witty, intelligent, and always free to say exactly what was on her mind. I told her I liked men, but that I didn’t want to be with one, which was exactly how I felt about things at the time. Two years later we were married. Six years later we had our first daughter on Father’s Day, and five years after that, after having three kids and trying our best to build the perfect little picket-fence family, we were divorced after 11 years of marriage. I cried, for at least a year and a half, at this great, great loss.
There was nothing I wanted more on earth than to give my children a loving, happy, stable home comprised of a Mommy and a Daddy and a dog and a garden and the whole nine yards. But like in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, sometimes in a relationship between two people a ghost from the past intervenes, and starts shaking things up, and sometimes in the aftermath there’s nothing left but a wrecked marriage and a chance to start all over again.
There were several ghosts that wrecked our marriage, things that happened in the Pentecostal compound I grew up in that came back to haunt me, and one of them was the ghost of a man who shot himself in 1982. That ghost would be the presence, in my mind, of my uncle, Ronald David Roberts, Oral’s eldest son, and at one time the man Oral had hoped would inherit his kingdom. “Ronnie” to the family, he was, by all accounts, one of the most brilliant men anyone who came across his path had ever met; at Booker T. High School he taught English as well as Russian and Chinese. Nancy McDonald, who worked with him at the time, told me he was not only one of the brightest teachers she had ever met but also one of the most loved by his students. In his mid-thirties, Uncle Ronnie was divorced and committed suicide soon thereafter, six months after coming out to Troy Perry, founder of the first gay-friendly congregation in Los Angeles, and four months after he was arraigned in court on prescription drug charges–leaving his two children, ex-wife, and extended family to bear an unbearable burden.
Growing up, I didn’t know any of this about my uncle, but I always wanted to be like him. Every time my mother mentioned him I noted two things: one, that she had loved him more than she had ever loved anybody else; and two, that the memory of his path brought more pain to her than any other memory.
I suppose it makes sense I wanted to be like him. I didn’t know, when I was a kid, that the “path” my mother said brought him down consisted of being gay, intellectual, and godless. All I knew was, I wanted my mother’s eyes to light up like that when she talked about me. Having ended up on this same “path” (gay, intellectual, godless), her eyes don’t light up anymore, and haven’t in years–for the last five, at least. And that’s a shame, because I really do think that if she got along with Uncle Ronnie she could find a way to get along with me. But we were talking about ghosts. The first time the ghost of my Uncle Ronnie entered my life was in the Spring of 2002, at Mayflower United Church of Christ in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
My wife and I were in transition–having both rejected our Evangelical past, we were trying to find a way to still be Christian but also true to our intellect, and we found ourselves attending Robin Meyers’ church, Mayflower. We were there when Carlton Pearson, founder of Higher Dimensions (at one time one of the largest evangelical churches in the nation), came to speak to our liberal, almost-Unitarian Christian church. My family and I had attended Carlton’s church in middle school and high school and, in fact, my parents went to Oral Roberts University with him in the early 1970s. At one time, Oral had publicly referred to Carlton as his son, so you might say he felt like an uncle to me, even though I hadn’t seen him in years.
Carlton preached an amazing sermon that day, one that brought me to tears. Hearing him was like hearing my grandfather all over again. Here was a man who, instead of preaching that God was sending gays, and communists, and Catholics to Hell, said there was no Hell, and no mean, angry God dying to punish us. He might as well have said “GOD is a GOOD GOD” or “Something GOOD is GOING to HAPPEN to YOU!” I had finally admitted to myself a year before that I was homosexual, but being gay, Christian, and married with children does not give you many good options. During that year I had often wished I would die, but Carlton’s message gave me hope.
After the sermon, my wife and I waited in line to get a chance to talk to Carlton. It had been a long time since we’d seen each other – I probably hadn’t been to his church since I was 15 or 16, and here I was a full-grown man of 28 with his own children in tow. We waited about ten minutes as Carlton greeted each person who wanted to tell him how much his sermon moved him, and finally there we were, my wife and I, standing about three feet directly in front of Carlton. I smiled, big, and moved as if to hug him, but his face darkened immediately, and I hung back, and a chill passed through my spine. We might have only stood there for 20 seconds, but it felt like an hour – me looking at Carlton with a silly grin pasted on my face, and him looking back at me like he’d seen a ghost. He clutched his Bible tightly and his face went white, as white, anyway, as a black man’s face can go.
“Which one are you?” he finally asked, barely breathing, still looking scared. After another long pause, he said “You’re Ron and Roberta’s son, aren’t you?” and I nodded, “I’m Randy,” I said.” He nodded back. “I thought you were Ronnie,” he said. And we both stared at each other, and then, finally, hugged. It was a big bear hug, a reunion of sorts, and we were both misty-eyed as we talked that day.
Sometimes, a particular mantle is thrust upon you, whether you like it or not. My grandfather, with all his faults, was at heart a man who wanted to spread a message of hope. While it’s likely that many of the decisions he made later in life were motivated by money or at least the desire to keep his ministry afloat, it’s not my impression that’s what he was thinking when he was 20, 21, 22 years old and standing in healing lines and touching, for hours upon hours, people with tuberculosis and cerebral palsy and cancer. It’s not my impression that he started out to make a quick buck. Oral started out as a preacher, in tiny towns in southeastern Oklahoma, convinced that the mantle thrust upon him was to encourage the poor Pentecostals around him that God was a good God, that God did not want them to be poor, that God did not bring on diseases (as some evangelicals have suggested that God brought HIV to kill off gay men). Oral’s mantle was one he felt thrust upon him, and his message of hope transformed the evangelical church.
A year ago I took my children to Los Angeles for Spring Break; for them it was a chance to go to Disney World, to Universal Studios, and to see movie stars, but for me it was a chance to pay my last respects to a man who had overshadowed almost every memory from my childhood. Oral spent the last 20 years of his life living in a home on a golf course in Newport Beach, California, and while this sounds ostentatious, his home was fairly simple, a 1,000 square-foot condominium, the dining room table covered in water rings, the living room small and cramped, and the sixty-year-old home smelling vaguely of mold. I hadn’t spent more than five minutes with him in the previous ten years, and a man changes a lot from 81 to 91. I felt sorry for him. Without my grandmother by his side, he seemed lonely.
Oral never could remember my name when I was growing up; even though I lived just down the hill from him and ran up to see my grandmother several times a week, “boy” and “son” were the only things he ever called me, if he called me at all. But in the Spring of 2009 he eagerly played at great-grandfather, showing off that he had done his homework by greeting each of my three children by name, and, because he was no longer the scary grandfather I remembered but, instead, a 91-year-old man barely able to hear and completely unable to leave his chair without assistance, I gladly played along. Although we never spoke of it, Oral knew I was gay, and yet that day, it didn’t seem to matter–he signed a copy of his newest book for my children and gave them each a twenty dollar bill, and our hour-long visit passed quickly.
I’m grateful for that afternoon with my grandfather because, frankly, the man I grew up with in the compound was not a kind, warm grandfather. He was a driven man, one who slept four hours a night and the other twenty working. Even while “relaxing” on the golf course, Oral would be processing his next sermon in his mind or networking with business partners who might be able to help keep his ministry alive. There was always another tower to build, or another tower to climb up into; that mantle burdened his soul and there was never any time for children. But this day was different. Oral seemed at peace, happy to sit in his armchair and play great-grandfather.
He looked at me several times during that visit and sighed, and I almost felt that he was looking right through me. Before we left he asked me to come over to his chair; the children were watching a cartoon in the spare bedroom and the living room was quiet as I knelt down beside him and held his hand. Oral had large hands–the 60-foot bronze sculpture of hands clasped in prayer which stands at the entrance to the university are modeled after his–and I noticed that day that they also looked a lot like mine. I was a little shaken up–we both knew this was likely to be our last visit. As I stood up to leave, he held my hand tightly, looked up from his chair with that characteristic twinkle in his eye, and said “Son, something GOOD is GOING to HAPPEN to YOU!”
Hear Randy Roberts Potts discuss his lifelong struggle with faith and sexuality:
Note: This article was originally published May 25, 2010