Listening to self-anointed “prophet” Damon Thompson preach now, it’s hard to recall why I ever considered him to be anything but a dangerous madman.
It’s not simply that he was the first preacher I ever heard use anti-gay slurs in a sermon or make the suggestion that it was possible to change one’s sexuality; it’s that he was the first preacher I ever heard sell homophobia and self-hatred so effectively.
His home venue, The Ramp, is a teen and young adult driven ministry in the small town of Hamilton, Alabama. Several times a year, hundreds of followers pack the building out to engage in fiery worship services as ministers rally the young troops of an emerging Christian army. In fact, The Ramp’s stated mission is “to awaken a generation out of spiritual death and religious complacency . . . as an offensive army imposing the kingdom of God.”
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When I first heard of Thompson, I was in religious limbo; I was not ready to give up church completely, but staying in the oppressive world of the Fundamentalist Baptist Church I had spent my early teens in was no longer an option. At Lighthouse Baptist, tradition reigned and women were expected to remain silent in their big, smothering dresses while a well-groomed, seminary-schooled preacher led the stained glass masquerade.
So when I was introduced to The Ramp on a DVD during my senior year of high school, it seemed like the perfect antidote to the religious stagnation old-time religion had wrought. “Prophet” Damon preached unashamedly, not with his hair combed neatly to the side, but cascading in long, scraggly curtains on either side of his face.
He wore, not a suit and tie, but blue jeans and a short sleeve Dickie’s shirt that revealed the tattoos covering his right arm. The hundreds of kids who had gathered to hear him were jumping and screaming as the praise band played to his escalating shouts and descended with him into emotional euphoria.
It turned out that Damon regularly preached revival services at a local Church of God. In fact, I was elated to learn, he was scheduled to preach quite soon.
The first night I heard him preach at Trinity Heights in January 2008, I was just as enthralled with him as I expected to be; he was preaching of a God that was actively guiding my generation to a place of spiritual renewal that no generation had gone before.
I admit now that I was more enthralled with the idea that my generation might have a unique God-ordained purpose than I was with whatever that purpose was.
But when I heard Damon again mere months later at the same church, things had changed. I had already begun to lose hope that the promises he had made would ever manifest in reality and, this time, he was unable to stoke the flames and excitement within me as he had before. Even as he made proclamations of divine destiny, I found myself disenchanted. And then, when he started railing against “queers,” I lost all hope that he was any better than his suit-and-tie counterparts.
“Yeah, I said queer,” he reaffirmed. “It’s time we started calling sin for what it is and stop trying to make it sound nice!”
I knew that there were people in that sanctuary that very night who were gay. I knew that there were people there that very night who were lesbian. I knew that there was at least one person in the church that night who hurting from self-loathing.
But Damon didn’t, or if he did, he didn’t seem to care. There was no love in his heart for the ‘homosexual’ (as he otherwise called them). In some ways, hearing preachers like him constantly talk about ‘homosexuals’ was even worse than hearing him use the word ‘queer;’ while his enunciation of the word ‘queer’ truly dripped with disgust and revulsion, ‘homosexual’ just sounded cold. Scientific. Devoid of humanity.
And that’s exactly how preachers like Damon make gay youth feel — less than human.
I left the service that night with a far different opinion of Damon than I had held before.
That summer, I was invited to take a weekend trip to Hamilton to experience The Ramp for myself. Despite my misgivings about Damon, I went. I still held out hope that Damon might prove me wrong. But if nothing else, at least I could experience The Ramp firsthand.
Well, I certainly experienced it. The second morning service we attended that weekend was devoted entirely to ‘delivering’ attendees from the ‘sin’ of homosexuality.
“God has not nor will he ever coexisted [sic] with the devil,” Damon began. “And God’s not gonna come live in there with you and your homosexual devil.”
As soon as he said that, I knew where the service was going. I took several steps back to ensure that I was as far away from the altar as possible, fastening myself securely to a spot in the back of the room where I could watch the ensuing mayhem from afar.
Damon called upon those who were struggling with homosexual demons to come to the front and be “set free from sin.” He and members of The Ramp began to work the crowd into a frenzy as they labored to draw people out of the closet and onto the altar. At first, only a few guys and girls came forth. But, aided by music, the ministry leaders continued to pluck at the heartstrings of every struggling gay kid in the audience, promising that if they would only make themselves known, God would grant them the deliverance they so longed for.
Over a period of forty minutes, kids approached the altar one-by-one — some admitting to same-sex attraction for the first time in their lives. Some fell to their knees in brokenness, rocking back and forth as they prayed for absolution; others stood with their arms spread out as tears spilled from their eyes. By the end of the morning, dozens had approached the altar hoping to lay their burden down.
The Ramp leaders onstage rejoiced at the turnout, their music and shouts escalating ever louder as they began to wail repetitious phrases like, “Thank you Jesus, for a mind that is free, a mind that is free, a mind that is free!”
Every person in the room was spellbound by the spectacle. Every single one of them seemed to believe that these kids had truly been ‘delivered from homosexuality.’ Every person but me.
As I stood by watching as if from a distant land, I knew in my heart that these kids would only hate themselves even more a week later when they caught themselves still averting their glance from a member of the same-sex. I knew then that my days of giving any credence to the world of charismania (as I like to call the Christian charismatic movement) were long over.
I bought a DVD of the service as I was leaving, knowing that one day I would want to revisit that morning.
This past week, almost exactly three years later, I did revisit it. I uploaded a shortened version of the video to YouTube (above) and showed my friends and family. All were horrified at the blatant psychological abuse on display, especially my mom, who expressed regret for not doing more to dissuade me from immersing myself in that culture when I was only eighteen.
But for certain, the video horrifies me more than anyone. Under the right conditions, I could just as easily have been one of those kids at that altar. Now, I can only watch on a computer screen their tears that once fell to the same floor upon which I was standing. Now, I can only hear through a small speaker their cries that once filled the same room as my horrified gasps.
But I wonder — who are they today, three years later in their lives? Are they still struggling with their identity? Do they still seek solace in religious extremism? God forbid, have any of them succumbed to such desperation that they chose suicide over hell on earth? Or did they find a better way? Did they ever learn to love and accept themselves? I earnestly pray that they broke free and did just that.
I’ll probably never know what became of them. But I thank God that I escaped that world; not only was I ready to leave charismania behind, but I was ready to leave organized religion behind as well — along with all the rules, regulations, and intellectual roadblocks it entailed. These days, “my mind is my own church,” as Thomas Paine once wrote.
“Thank you Jesus,” indeed, “for a mind that is free.”