When I was 19 years old, I floated down the middle of Bourbon Street on Fat Tuesday.
Ten months earlier, I wasn’t succeeding in class, wasn’t succeeding outside of class, felt disoriented in regards to my future and needed a structured incubator where I could find the pieces of myself that seemed scattered and in disarray. To that end, I joined a yearlong discipleship program I lovingly now refer to as Prayer Jail; a safe space where I could be singularly-dedicated to figuring out who I was and who God created me to be. It was during that program when an opportunity arose for us to partner with other churches and “minister” at Mardi Gras.
When our director told us we were going, I was elated. I’d never been to New Orleans and though I knew we’d be taking part in some as-yet-undefined ministerial activities, my cohorts and I were excited about the prospect of corner cafes with chicory coffee and listening to jazz bands while eating beignets.
In a church a few minutes outside of downtown New Orleans, we joined with about 100 other Super-Christians from around the country, most of whom were in programs like ours. We attended what we thought was a welcome meeting only to discover it was a full-blown church service complete with an altar call and a sizable dose of Pentecostal emotionalism. It was surprising to say the least but I reasoned the pastors in charge simply wanted the long weekend to start off on the right foot. We then spent the middle part of the day getting instructions and being briefed on the best tactics to share God’s love to the drunken masses.
Over a dinner or preassembled sandwiches and tiny bags of chips, we were told the people to target were the loners; those who sat by themselves on the curb looking sad and despondent in their drunken stupor. Evidently, this would make them more receptive to hearing about a dude named Jesus who loved them exactly how they were. (Except not exactly how they were because they had to change everything about their drunken-selves or it was straight to hell for them.)
I found this concerning. We were supposed to pick off the strays who were uber drunk and therefore not in any state of mind to think rationally about anything much less their faith? I’d arrived under the impression we were doing something far more practical like handing out water or sandwiches but there wasn’t time to linger on that because as soon as dinner ended, it was straight to another prayer service; one even more ramped up than the first.
The idea was to soak up as much of God’s love as possible so we could then wring it out all over the Mardi Gras crowds but as the praise and worship band launched into song eight or nine, I began to think, I didn’t come to here for altar calls, I came for New Orleans. I could’ve prayed at home. At the end of the nearly two hour long service, I was relieved when we finally loaded into the vans to make our way toward the action. My skepticism and concerns faded to the background because as we parked because I found myself entranced; the glow of the French Quarter lights luring me in. When we reached the corner of St. Ann and Chartres, my attention was pulled in a thousand wondrous directions as music echoed through the streets like the soundtrack to a citywide movie. It felt like magic and I was hooked.
There in lied a substantial problem. My instinct was to look up and around me—to take in the spectacle and newness of my surroundings—but earlier that afternoon, we men were instructed not to do so. The pastors leading the trip had the idea a bunch of sexually-repressed Christian males would fall irretrievably into sin over the possible glimpse of women baring their breasts, thus we had to stare at the ground. Perhaps they thought the sight of boobs would lead to an all-consuming porn addiction or maybe we menfolk would become so overcome by our carnal urges, we’d just start masturbating in the middle of the street. Either way, the instructions felt ridiculous. We were in the French Quarter, during Mardi Gras, the weekend before Fat Tuesday and I was supposed to stare at my feet?
Even knowing this, my instinct as a breathing human was to look up so that’s what I did. It wasn’t premeditated, it wasn’t an attempt to beat the system or an intentional move to stick it to anyone. It just instinctively and involuntarily happened and wow, the city was astonishing. Spires and rooftops and arches and lights, my eyes spun like pinwheels taking it all in.
One of the pastors saw me marveling and called me out in front of the entire group. Unfortunately, I was so enamored, I didn’t hear him. I did, however, hear him the second time he barked my name and when I turned to look, I was met with an unreasonably angry face staring back at me.
“What did I tell you about looking up son? If I catch you again, you’ll spend the rest of the night in the vans and the rest of the weekend praying at the church!”
I felt a mushroom cloud of shame ignite and expand in my chest cavity; the embarrassment of being chastised publicly causing me to lower my head in a futile attempt to save face. Looking down at the pavement, that mushroom cloud began to make my eyes water. I felt like a puppy called on the carpet but for what? For looking up at the architecture of a church? I’d had question marks about what we were told that afternoon but this was nonsense. As I became more upset, one of the girls from my discipleship group caught my attention. She mouthed, “Are you okay?” I nodded but that was a lie.
As I stared at my shoes, I realized this wasn’t going to be the trip my cohorts and I were hoping for. Free will was not on the agenda and our behavior was going to be policed to an extent I’d never before experienced. This wasn’t what I was used to, nor was it what I came for, so I made a decision that could cost me my trip. I decided I was going to look up and take in as much of the city as possible. I didn’t drive all these hours so I could inspect the concrete and tell drunk people they were going to hell. We were standing in Jackson Square under the steeples of the St. Louis Cathedral. All around us were dancing lights, costumes covered in sequins, and architecture unlike anything I’d ever seen. Disrespect for authority or not, my eyes would be open.
Per the rules outlined that afternoon, the method by which we were supposed to “shield our eyes from temptation” was to pair each male in the group with a female and any time we were on the streets, we were to hold hands. This had a slight dual purpose in that the appearance of us holding hands was meant to ward off hecklers from objectifying the girls but that wasn’t the principle reason. It should’ve been, but it wasn’t. The principle reason for holding hands was so our female counterparts could lead us through the raucous streets of the French Quarter while our eyes remained locked onto the ground. We were told the only reason we could look up was if we were ministering to a drunkard.
I was relieved to discover my female counterpart, Alice, was less than concerned where my eyes looked. She was kind and soft-spoken and also signed up with the intention to do some good in the world. We were in similar discipleship programs and she, like me, was taken with the city. When we were dismissed to go our separate but coupled ways and got clear of our overlords, she told me, “I’ll let you know if there’s a reason to look down or if I see anyone from the group. I don’t want you to get into trouble but you need to see this. It’s amazing.” And it was.
I looked up every moment I could. I was infatuated with the way the paint chipped off the old buildings and the ease with which the flowers cascaded off the balconies. I was enamored by the people who laughed and drank and kissed strangers and traded their inhibitions for beads. I was curious about what lie beyond the doors of restaurants and bars where jazz bands played their songs into the night. It felt like a purple, green and gold fever dream and though I may have only been a voyeur and not a participant, I didn’t want to wake up.
Not much happened that night and we didn’t find any stray sinners on whom to pounce. Upon returning to the church, we had yet another prayer meeting and this one included a series of self-congratulatory stories masquerading as “praise reports.” When that song-and-dance was finally over, deep in the middle of the night, we were dismissed to go to bed so our exhausted bodies could somewhat recover. The women were allowed to sleep on cushioned pews in the sanctuary but the men were made to sleep in the halls of a classroom wing of the church. Against the wall on the hard linoleum, we had to try to get some rest. I rolled up all of the clothes I’d brought with me into a makeshift pillow and spread a zip-up hoodie across my legs in place of a blanket. We hadn’t been warned about having to sleep on the floor before we got there; a nauseating omission to learn about in the middle of the night after such a long day.
While there were more than enough pews in the sanctuary for all of us to sleep somewhat comfortably, the thought of men and women sleeping in the same room was considered too great a temptation. In high school when my youth group would have all-nighters at church, my friends and I would find pews to sleep on—guys and girls mere feet away from one another—but here, as young adults, this was apparently wrong. So wrong in fact, the sanctuary was locked so boys couldn’t sneak in. It was mind boggling and to add insult to injury, when we men woke up to our backs and necks riddled with cricks, the pastors told us we were “suffering for the Lord” without any trace of irony or jest.
Our second night out, Alice and I accidentally waded into the river of people on Bourbon Street and it was a sensation unlike any I’d ever experienced. Once you were in that river, you found yourself moving with the flow of people, ending up blocks away from where you started and not knowing exactly how you got there. Like in the lazy river at Wet n’ Wild, we drifted with the current down the street, packed body-to-body with strangers like pickles in a jar. This may be unsettling to some, but it was exhilarating to me.
When we surfaced from the waves of River Bourbon, we headed down a much calmer street for a moment’s respite from the wild. This street was darker than most and relatively quiet except for some pulsing music emanating from a specific block of storefronts.
I’d never seen the outside of a gay club before much less peered inside, but the pulsing music wafted through its open double doors and invited anyone to look in. So I did. Inside, the men were tall, short, muscular and thin. Some were burly, some were not, some were overweight and others were of average build. Some wore leather harnesses, some wore button-ups, and some didn’t wear much at all. Yet they all danced together under the deep purple lights and I was amazed. As a nineteen-year-old coming to terms with himself, I felt perpetually weak; the ugly duckling and the runt of the litter. I was trapped beneath a crushing feeling I could never measure up to other men, that I was different, less-than, and frail.
But staring at those men, something began to rearrange itself in my spirit. It wasn’t a sudden desire to dance on a tabletop or get wasted under the glow of the purple lights, but witnessing so many types of men move in strength and confidence took steel wool to my preconceived notions of what masculinity should look like. I lived in a state of feeling outside the loop. I didn’t look or act like the frat guys or the athletes, I wasn’t a “car guy” and my interest in video games only went so far. Even among the other Super-Christians on this trip, I’d felt outside the loop when the guys played football between altar calls that afternoon. But looking into this club—a club I wasn’t supposed to look up to see—I saw men who didn’t fit a stereotype, who were uninhibited by anything or anyone, and who were free to be themselves. I didn’t know what that freedom felt like but in watching them, I felt like it was possible I could.
We didn’t linger outside the club lest we be spotted and get sent back to the vans. We did however come across a group of street performers on the next block. They danced and did backflips off of platforms while using jump ropes that lit up. I spotted my cohorts in the crowd so we joined them, watching the performance and clapping along. It was the first real fun any of us had; the first real moment of freedom and normalcy in our trip.
Upon our return to the church, we endured another prayer service but the thought of sleeping on the floor again sent me into a panic. Together with the other two guys from my discipleship group, we pleaded with our director to let us sleep in the van. He let us and after we snuck outside, we each had a bench to ourselves in the van. Though it was cold and we were each too long for our benches, it felt like we were sleeping on a cloud.
On our third and final evening, after a morning prayer service and a bonus lunchtime service which lasted the better part of four hours, one of the parades made its way down the street near Alice and me. It was the Monday night before Fat Tuesday and over the top of the crowd, I could see enormous floats covered in sequins and sparkles and laughter. Thunderstorms of confetti rained down from the buildings above, beads flew through the air and families of all ages cheered on the flamboyantly-costumed participants. Standing next to me was a family with children no older than ten-years-old and they squealed with delight as the float-riding Greek gods and goddess in drag tossed them strings of beads. How was it that these children were allowed to see, feel, and experience the tactile joy of the celebration but I, an almost twenty-year-old man, had to keep my eyes on the ground for fear a pastor would send me back to the vans to repent?
At that point, this heavy-handed crusade had so tipped the scales of rational thought, I would’ve rather stayed in the van. The previous night, they’d caught a tall, frat boy type youth-pastor-in-training looking up at a balcony and now he was no longer allowed to attend for fear his eyes would betray him and sin would enter his spirit like voodoo. The entire enterprise became more and more ridiculous as the minutes ticked on. He was older than me and was being made to sit in time-out because he was curious about Mardi Gras? He looked the way I’d felt when I’d been barked at two nights before; his mushroom cloud of shame and embarrassment written all over his face. He was also made an example of publicly and had to apologize to the entire group during that morning’s service. It was brutal.
Kindness is the greatest gift at your disposal. Why did Jesus spend so much time washing dirty feet or providing food and wine to hungry, thirsty people? Because kindness matters. I was struggling to find any of that here, thus, I was struggling to find any Jesus.
That night, Alice and I came across a heavy set girl on a side street who was in rough shape. As she cried on the curb, we asked if she needed any help. She said she was reeling from the demise of her relationship and had come to Mardi Gras with some friends to take her mind off it. After becoming separated from them and feeling increasingly more lost and upset by the minute, she planted herself on the curb not knowing what else to do. As she told us more about her life, she became sick and started to throw up. Instinctively, I pulled her frizzy hair back and out of her face and offered her my small bottle of water. She thanked us for our kindness just as her friends came around the corner looking for her. She left with them, waving back at us as they disappeared into the fray once again.
Alice said to me, “I was so focused on helping her, I didn’t think to say any of the things we’ve been told to say.” I told her that was alright and there was far more Jesus in that bottle of water than there’d ever be in some “God can give your drunken heart rest” lecture. Alice said she’d never really thought about it that way. “Sometimes,” I told her, “all those mysterious ways in which God works aren’t so mysterious after all.” It was only after saying it out loud that I realized I believed it.
The strictures placed on us that weekend had been suffocating but by stepping out of them, I realized the light was brighter, the air was fuller, and God wasn’t a Zeus-like figure on a mountaintop throne waiting to stomp me out. God was within the kindness of a shared water bottle.
After another night sleeping in the van, we spent the morning of Fat Tuesday wandering around New Orleans in the thick of the revelry. We weren’t paired up that day and my cohorts and I wandered together watching fortune tellers, parades and costume contests in the streets. Feeling ballsy and somewhat untouchable, I told them we should go to Bourbon Street one last time. “Let’s do it. What’s going to happen? They’re going to send us home? We leave for Dallas in an hour,” one of the girls said. So we dove in. Floating down the river of people, I looked up and around and all over, taking it in one last time. It was as participatory as we’d get; a subversive baptism in the ambience if even for a few minutes.
So despite being told I wasn’t allowed, I actually saw a lot on that trip. Yes, I saw pastors who circled around us like Dementors but I also saw seven-year-old kids marveling at the joy of a krewe’s parade. I saw restrictions but I also saw freedom. Freedom felt much more holy.
I never got to experience that freedom. I caught glimpses of it but it was ephemeral at best. Thankfully, my discipleship group leader knew of our need for gumbo and normalcy so on the drive home, we stopped just outside of the city in what can only be described as a shack to have some of both. Our picnic tables sat on the edge of a swamp under a canopy of trees and I half expected gators to lounge on the banks while lightning bugs danced in the air around us. The gators never showed up but the lightning bugs did and the gumbo was divine.
Ryan’s book of essays, I Feel God in This Cab, is available here.