Dipped and batter-fried religion

When I interviewed Brian Copeland, I found him to be unpretentious, unaffected and welcoming - basically an approachable kind of guy. His Southern charm and accent are infectious. He is passionate about everything. Throughout this interview, I was reminded of how important character is in every endeavor. 

“I was raised in East Tennessee where my walk with Christ was dipped and batter-fried! My family was a Southern Gospel singin’ group. We toured throughout the Southeast and attended an Independent, Premillennial, Fundamental, Missionary Baptist Church--and yes, that is what was on the sign out front,” says Brian.

Having been raised a Southern Baptist myself and still proud of my heritage there, I was intrigued by this man, who appeared to be completely unscarred. Amongst the gay Christian community there are many who vow “never to go back to church.” They have been hurt, left out or told to leave, so the frustration many individuals have is understandable. As I continued speaking with Brian, I found him passionate for all things Godly. 

Brian says, “Like so many of us, I knew I was gay from my earliest memories. One day I was at a thrift store in Knoxville with my mom where we saw a man with an earring [horror]. My mom said, ‘He’s one of those,’ (complete with limp wrist). And I thought, ‘So am I!’ She went on to say, ‘He hurts little boys.’ Even then, though I would disagree with hurting little boys, I knew I identified with that man. As long as there has been a Bo and Luke Duke, I’ve known I was gay.”

Brian decided to attend Carson Newman College, a private Southern Baptist College in east Tennessee. He hoped that going there might somehow change him. It was at Carson Newman that Brian developed into an incredibly likeable all-around “Joe college” kind of guy.

“I was never persecuted and called ‘fag.’ I was well-liked,” he said.

Brian’s list of accomplishments is impressive: vice president of the student body, president of his class two years in a row, president of his fraternity.

“It became easy for me to hide in the holiness of what I was doing. I could always say I was too busy to seriously date or too involved in spiritual things to bother with a relationship,” he explained. 

After he graduated from Carson Newman, Brian opted for graduate school at the University of Tennessee (UT). One day he was walking through the student center and saw a sign asking a question that would have tremendous affect on his life. The question was, “Can you be a gay Christian?”

Brian thought to himself, “I don’t know.” So he attended the meeting.

Anyone who has entered a meeting like this and still been in the closet will understand the courage it took for Brian to go. Brian walked in and quickly sat in the back row. Somehow he felt as if the walls might cave in around him. But it was here he would listen to Mel White for the first time. Mel White is a speaker, conference leader and author of “Stranger at the Gate: Being Gay and Christian in America.”

After listening to Mel, he decided to begin his coming out process at the age of 22.

“I came out to my parents; it was like a death to them. It is the worst thing in their eyes. They have no concept of what it means to be a gay man in today’s world, much less a gay Christian. At that time, to them, gay men 'hurt little boys’," he explained. 

A few years later, Brian received a call from a friend in Nashville who offered him a job at a Christian music publishing company. He knew the music. Assuming he wouldn’t be there long, he thought the fact that he was gay wouldn’t be a huge problem.

“Three years later, I was standing on the stage at BMI with that company, winning the Music Publisher of the Year Award...problem,” Brian remembers. “So here I was, having come out of the closet back in Knoxville, but here in Nashville, having stepped back in. As the company continued to grow, I continued to develop a name for myself. I was known in the industry. But in your mid-twenties, it is still safe to be single--a young, up-and-coming professional, no problem. But I knew the day would come when people would begin whispering, when it would become an issue. So I kept my nose clean. I didn’t drink; I wasn’t a club kid, and I ignored rumors when they surfaced.”

But one day the tide turned. Brian was called into the office of the president of the company who said, “I need you to think about getting married and having a family.”

Being a well-composed man who had his act together, Brian had been prepared for a long time for a conversation such as this. He had his card ready to play.

Brian responded by saying, “You don’t want me to get married. If I had a wife and kids, I would be divided. I wouldn’t be able to jet off at a moment’s notice and take care of work-related issues.”

Brian was proud of his well-thought-out response. What could his boss say?

His boss in turn said, “I’m telling you right now, I need you to step back from your job and focus on getting a family.”

Brian thought, “Crap! He trumped my card.” He knew Brian was becoming a face for that company and his being single was a problem. 

Brian left that office frustrated and confused. Procrastination set in and he immersed himself in his work to avoid making any decision regarding that matter. He thought he had too many projects going, too many irons in the fire, too many artists to sign, to separate himself from this position.

“I had a new home and a new car;  I had reached my goal. I thought I was living my Christian life to the fullest when I was working in the Christian music industry,” Brian recalls. “But it was at this time I was the most distant from God. I replaced my relationship with Christ with work in the industry.”

In December 2004, Brian’s boss came into his office and said, “We have no problem with the job you’ve done here. You have been wonderful for us and we appreciate all you have done for us. We just feel like we need new leadership.”

What was he to do? There was no outburst. There was no expression of remorse.

Brian simply replied, “I enjoyed my work here. Let me get my stuff together.”

It is at this point in the interview that I saw Brian’s true character. It is so odd, but he in no way seemed bitter about this past experience. As he continued, the passion behind his words grew more intense.

He went on to say, “I am not a victim of the Christian music industry. My story is NOT about being removed from that job. My story began when I left. My story is not about being wronged by society. It is about God steering me into a place where He can take control of my life and put me in the fullness of His mercy and grace. I am so thankful I went through that valley.”

Even though Brian “officially” no longer works in that industry, he still gets calls from Christian artists he worked with who just want to talk. They know he’s gay. But they don’t care. They need someone who will listen; who will understand.

Brian shared one of those calls: “Just before Christmas, I got a call from an artist who was ready to jump out of his window. He calls me because he said, ‘you are all I know to talk to.’"

Funny how God is still using a gay guy in Nashville to minister to those in need.

Currently, Brian works as a realtor in Nashville. However, I am somehow left with the impression that this work might not be as spiritually fulfilling for him. So I asked him what his thoughts were.

“It is the same set of skills," he said. "The song is the house (it needs to be sold). The songwriter is the home seller (with something to sell) and the recording artist is the home buyer (wanting a product they will benefit from). The Christian music industry taught me that successful business is about relationships, and that is certainly true as a realtor as well.”

In 2006, Brian and his partner Greg Bullard, pastor of Covenant of the Cross, had a huge commitment ceremony. More than 250 people attended the event — gays, straights and even some city officials.But what seemed to catch Brian’s attention the most was a woman in her 50s from east Tennessee. She came out of her love for Brian. She doesn’t understand the modern concept of being gay.

Fortunately, Brian noted, she went away saying, “I can’t explain it, but I have never seen love expressed so beautifully.”

Brian and Greg’s ceremony was a Spirit-filled, holy event. Brian and his parents still don’t see eye to eye on this either, so they have agreed to disagree.

His father says, “I can’t explain how Christ works in your life. It looks nothing like how He works in my life. But I can’t deny He’s there.”

He has to see Christ in Brian’s life first, and there they have common ground.

I asked Brian, “To those who are reading this and struggling with the relationship between their sexuality and their faith, what do you say to them?”

Without blinking an eye, Brian said, “Get over it. When Christ died, it created a direct connection for all of us to God. My removal from that job made me be still long enough to finally hear Him.”

And the story doesn’t end here. With the experience Brian has from working in the Christian music industry, and the financial success he has had as a realtor, he hopes to begin a Christian record label for accepting and affirming artists.

“I am using the same talents and abilities in a venue like none other to get a message like none other out there,” he said.

As the interview comes to a close, I was reminded of a verse of Scripture that I feel encompasses Brian’s experience: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28 NIV 

Clearly, God has been and is at work in Brian’s life. His continued compassion for anyone in need, his success as a realtor, and his vision for the future, give abundant evidence that this “dipped and batter-fried” Southern Gospel singin’ boy is passionate for all things Godly.

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