Trying to forgive evangelical Trump voters at Chris Tomlin’s Xcel concert

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Chris Tomlin YouTube

I’m a pastor, so I know I shouldn’t judge or let the sun set on my anger. But I’ve been nursing a grudge against evangelical Christians since I first heard 81 percent of them voted for Trump.

Because I’m also a progressive—and, frankly, a human being—and 2017 has been a waking nightmare. One evangelical Christian recently told me that “the night before the election God told me to vote for Trump in my dream,” and that’s not the first time I’ve heard this. Every time I do, my grudge burrows a little deeper into my soul.

I grew up in a big, white, wealthy evangelical church where they played Jesus rock, memorized Bible verses, and always voted for Republicans. They trained me to judge gay people, told me women weren’t biologically fit to lead, and insisted that real Christians never voted for baby-killing Democrats. Still, I thought maybe 2017 would be different. Maybe pussy-grabbing would be too much.

Apparently not.

So I cooked up this plan to go to the biggest gathering of evangelicals I could find, and, as an exercise in gotcha journalism, ask them why they voted for Trump. Then I’d write down all their stupid and “un-Christian” reasons.

Yes, I am a pastor, and yes, I now see how mean and uncharitable my plan was. But like I said, I was nursing a grudge. So I headed down to the Xcel Energy Center on Friday for a concert by evangelical megastars Chris Tomlin and Matt Maher.

Over the last 15 years, Tomlin and Maher have written or recorded the most popular Christian rock and roll worship songs on the planet. The music is a cross between Mumford & Sons and U2: straightforward acoustic guitar, delay-drenched electric guitar, massive but manageable drums, choruses that swell and fall in all the most inspirational ways.

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Carl and Jon Nathan Roberts

Outside the stadium, I met Carl and Jon, two college kids in Christian T-shirts. What were they were most excited about that night? Jon smiled and said, “15,000 people coming together to worship Jesus--” Then he was cut off by a homeless man who asked, “Can you spare some change.” Aha, I thought, the perfect opportunity to spot some classic Christian hypocrisy. But without skipping a beat, Jon smiled, asked the man his name, and placed $7 into his hand. The man then turned to me with his hand out. Embarrased, I shrugged, “Honestly I don’t have any cash.”

That was not how I wanted this to go.

I swallowed hard and continued my interview. “As you may know, 81 percent of evangelical Christians voted for Trump, how do you think he is doing as president?”

Jon shifted nervously, not expecting my question. “I think America and the president have lost sight of why God put us here,” he said. “People are fighting for their lives”—he gestured to the homeless man, still standing just a few feet away—“and he is concerned about which bathroom people go to? We need to spread more love in the world, and Trump is more concerned with taking credit than actually helping people.”

I wasn’t ready for this answer. I was wondering if I was ready for any of this.

Carl and Jon were not the exception to the rule. Next I met Stephanie, 20, in a long flannel and a friendly smile. She was excited—this was her first big Christian music show. When I asked her what she thought of Trump she said, “I know a lot of Christians, like my dad, think you are supposed to vote for Republicans, because Republicans are pro-life. But I couldn't vote for Trump. I look at the stuff he said and did and it is not God-honoring, I wouldn’t want someone saying stuff like that that about human beings.”

OK, I thought, but these are millennials, and, after all, there were 19 percent of evangelicals who didn’t vote for Trump.

I took another deep breath and found Roger, an older white man in a Oklahoma jacket. He told me he was there to “dance on God’s great dance floor.”

“Sorry to say but I didn’t vote for Trump either,” he shrugged as if he somehow knew what I wanted to hear. “Considering what he was accused of, it didn’t seem the Christian way, calling people SOBs and and grabbing women.”

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Kenneth and Tanya Nathan Roberts

Kenneth and Tanya, a black couple in their 40s with two kids, had stickers on their shirts from Harvest Ministries. “We are just excited to worship,” Kenneth told me. “And we volunteered tonight to collect food for kids from…” He looked at Tanya, who smiled and said, “The Phillipines.” I asked them about Trump. “He does not align with the word of God,” Kenneth said with conviction. “God tells us to care for the hungry and shelter the homeless. And just look at what he’s doing in Puerto Rico.”

I stood in the entry to the Xcel, scanning the crowd, thinking about how my plan was crumbling in front of me.

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Jon Nathan Roberts

And, then, finally, I met him. My Trump supporter. A white man named Jon. “America was built on Christian values and I believe he is trying to make America great again.” That was it, the quote I was waiting for. But when I asked him about the concert he smiled. “I just got back from teaching English in Zanzibar, Africa. And I’m excited to praise God for that trip.

“One thing I noticed in Zanzibar was that even though they had so much poverty, they had an incredible sense of community,” he continued. “They seemed less divided. America could use more of that.”

It was 7 p.m. when I took my seat, my head spinning. I had interviewed a dozen people and my only Trump supporter was also teaching English in Africa.

As the music started, I realized Tomlin and Maher weren’t really playing a concert—this was a church service. Tomlin and Maher were longtime friends, and they took turns backing each other with acoustic guitars. For two hours 12,000 people sang along to lyrics projected on the screen that read like a mix of Bible verses and pop love songs.

“If our God is for us, what who could ever stop us…”

“You do impossible things…”

“Worthy is the lamb…”

“And all the people said, ‘Amen.’ Give thanks to the Lord.”

I knew a lot of the songs, but I didn't sing. My head was swimming with images from my childhood. These songs had been the soundtrack to my indoctrination. Crying as a little kid at summer camp. My pastors retelling the story of Jesus being tortured in R-rated detail. I remembered a church mom insisting I was gay and warning me about “that lifestyle.” The old anger swelling as I remembered being told I wasn’t welcome at the church that raised me. The morning after the election, standing in the shower, gasping for breath during my first panic attack in five years.

I sort of woke up from the dream of memories when Tomlin’s pastor, a charming Australian man, Darren Whitehead, came out and gave a short sermon about praising God, about how we should raise our hands because we are overflowing with joy and thankfulness.

I did not raise my hands out of overflowing joy and thankfulness.

Then they played “Amazing Grace.” As the guitar slowly strummed the chords, Tomlin smiled at the crowd, “A lot of you know the words, but as we sing ‘My chains are gone I've been set free’ I don’t care if you’re a good singer. I want you to sing it out. Let your heart be free. I want you to let go of whatever is holding you back -- anger, resentment, pain, whatever is keeping you from singing.” And as the old story goes, I felt like the preacher was talking to me.

But as the chorus swelled, I felt the anger and resentment swelling too. When the room exploded with phone lights, stage lights, and a full throated chorus of “My chains are gone, I’ve been set free,” I left my seat and walked out of the building. I emerged from the warm full chorus to a cold fluorescent sidewalk.

I know how this story is supposed to end. I was supposed to have a moment of amazing grace. I was supposed to walk away with my heart free of resentment. And I’d like to say that’s exactly what happened. But I’m still angry. Angry about the way I was raised, angry about the way the election turned out, angry about Christians who defend Trump... just angry.

But those chains of anger are weighing on me and I need to start thinking about what forgiveness might look like.

As I walked the 11 blocks to the my car, I passed the same homeless man I’d encountered earlier. He was asking for change from a guy with a gray crew cut outside of a fancy neon bar. The crew cut was looking around, trying to avoid eye contact.

I didn’t know if that homeless guy had anywhere to sleep, I didn’t know if Trump was going to cut funding to some program he relied on, and I was too tired and emotionally worn down to try to find out. But I did know he had at least seven bucks in his pocket from a few Chris Tomlin fans that night.


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