Ray Boltz was a superstar of the contemporary Christian music scene in the 80s and 90s. His songs from “Thank You for Giving to the Lord” and “I Pledge Allegiance to the Lamb”, were powerfully resonant anthems of my childhood, and they fed my soul and shaped my faith in ways that can’t really be articulated in words. I looked up to his humble and gracious spirit and the authenticity with which he sang. Looking back at his music now, I find it overly synthesized and a little overblown and very very much of the specific time period in which it was written, but I still know every word, every note, by heart. And every word and every note still strikes a deep chord in me, even though I no longer consider myself a person of faith. Realizing the effect his music had on me, the unique potency of a melody alive in my heart and stuck in my head, was one of the primary reasons I decided to pursue a career as a songwriter and composer.
The first line of our mission statement is “We believe music is powerful and that there is a great need in the world for refrains and melodies to sing and shout from rooftops that reflect expanding conversations around sex, relationships, love, and families”. So it could even be said that Ray Boltz was a part of inspiring this album!
While in Jackson, Mississippi (a city I fell in love with more than I expected to, but that’s another story…), we had the privilege of playing a show in the home of an evangelical Christian pastor and her wife. Gathered with them were several other lesbian couples from their church community, ranging in age from early twenties to late sixties. Two cancer survivors. A young couple navigating whether to move to a state where they could legally adopt children or to stay in Jackson near their families. An older woman who had been forced to undergo shock therapy in her teens by parents trying to turn her straight, supposedly for her own good.
Despite obvious hardships, this was a community bursting at the seams with robust joy, glowing compassion, full-throttle open-heartedness, and irrepressibly contagious laughter. These women are extraordinary, and extraordinary with each other. I don’t know if I have ever known two people more vibrantly in love than the pastor and her wife of several years.
Queer community is a powerful thing, regardless of the geographical context. But I believe it is a far different ballgame to hold space for it in the deep south than it is to hold such space in New York City, though the latter is also hard-won.
This was one of our last concert/conversations of the tour, and Jillian and I were feeling in a great flow. It was such a pleasure to share songs and engage with everybody there. And then we got to the part of the show were we ask: what kinds of refrains/themes would you like to see in pop music, that you don’t often see?
And our host exclaimed, “Ray Boltz!”
And I expressed recognition and plowed ahead with the flow, thinking she was referring to “I Pledge Allegiance to the Lamb” and the like, which is indeed a powerful refrain but not a sentiment that I would like to see even more widespread.
But then I overheard someone say, “You know he came out as gay, right?”
It took a minute for this to sink in.
Ray Boltz! Superstar of the evangelical Christian music scene, hero of my childhood… came out as gay?
“Yes! He’s wonderful! He recently played at our church!”
Ray Boltz! Do my parents know?
“I’ll give you a copy of his latest album, True, with songs like “Don’t Tell Me Who to Love” and “Who Would Jesus Love?””
Needless to say, this really threw me off my game. I stammered and shared about how formative his music had been for me, and they shared about how he came out publicly in 2008 after suppressing his authentic self for thirty years. And how his wife and kids were publicly standing by him, proud of him standing strong in who he really is. And that, of course, there was intense and widespread backlash from his largely fundamentalist fan base. And that he continues to write and perform music, reflecting his continued faith in Jesus and the fullness of his own identity.
Many Christians, like our hosts that night, are openly gay and/or openly in support of queer rights. Many Christians are the textbook definition of tolerant, they have genuine compassion for LGBTQ people but still believe that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice, at best, or an addiction to be recovered from, at worst. This latter category are well-intentioned, but holding those beliefs leads to perpetuation of stigma and shame and may even indirectly put God’s stamp of approval on hate crimes. And of course, this sometimes extends to God’s supposed direct approval – a Ugandan legislator justified the “kill the gays” bill because Uganda is a “God-fearing nation”.
Thus, when I think about the particular megaphone that Ray Boltz held and the fact that he is an openly gay man while still holding it, I am shaken to my core. He speaks in this highly specific vernacular, that of contemporary Christian music, which resonates in a highly specific way with many many people. And while there are many former fans who write off his prior impact as false and will probably never listen to his new album (called “True”), there are so many more who may hear in Ray Boltz’s authenticity what they are not hearing anywhere else. I think of other Christian men, married and closeted, maybe on the brink of suicide, who might really be able to allow in a ray of grace and hope (in the form of Ray Boltz and his current music) in a way that they wouldn’t have otherwise. I think of those who are homophobic towards others because of homophobia towards themselves, those who are often most vocal about restricting the rights of those who are not strictly heteronormative and how the example of Ray Boltz might have a fighting chance at softening the edges around the hatred and fear.
I believe in the power of music and the power of human-to-human diplomacy so strongly. In that evangelical lesbian community in which we got to share songs and meaningful conversation, I found a breath of fresh air in softening the edges around my longstanding kneejerk reaction toward those who value a personal relationship with Jesus. I am so grateful for that.