Semler, With 'Preacher's Kid,' Writes Music Of Faith For A Real World
So, you might not be surprised that a record titled Preacher's Kidby a musician whose father was a pastor would take the top spot on the iTunes Christian album chart. That happened last month, with a new album by Grace Semler Baldridge, who performs as Semler. But the lyrics on that album tell a different story than the one you might be expecting.
In Preacher's Kid, Semler explores faith and church life through a queer lens — everything from the meaning of the gospel and activism, to what really happens in youth group.
Semler spoke with NPR's Michel Martin about growing up queer in a faith community and what climbing up the Christian album charts means for her. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read on for an edited transcript.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Michel Martin: I understand that the providence of this is actually, kind of, different that you might expect. [...] This wasn't like some big plan, as I understand it.
Semler:Certainly not. I recorded this at home, in the room that I'm speaking to you from, my office — on a USB mic plugged into my laptop because I just had some things I had to unpack, and I uploaded it myself on Distrokid.com. And I — I don't know, I didn't expect any of this, but I'm very happy to be in this position.
Well, you can tell — the production's a little casual...
Oh, that's very generous of you. [Laughs]
... but the thoughts are very complete. I mean, it just sounds like something that's been on your mind for awhile. So, do you mind just walking us through a little bit of your background. Youarea preacher's kid, or a "P.K."
Yeah, sure. So, my dad is an episcopal priest and I grew up in the rectory. And that very much was, just, my life. I have no memories of not growing up in faith, in a church environment. And that was wonderful, in some regards. And also not wonderful, in other regards — specifically, when it comes to being a queer person and going through that self-discovery as a teenager.
Did you experience your queerness as a young person? Did you experience it as something to hide? You know, there are some denominations in church communities, church families that are more welcoming than others. Obviously, there have been some really horrific stories of people being forced to go through conversion therapy or people being kicked out of the house. I take it that wasn't your experience, but what was it? If you could describe it a bit more.
So, I knew I was gay from a pretty early age. I also knew that I belonged to an affirming church, although it wasn't outwardly affirming. There weren't, like, pride flags. It was, kind of, as affirming as many churches were in the 2010s. There weren't anti-gay sermons, but I also was not protected from larger church culture. So, when I would be sent on youth events and things like that, even though I was raised Episcopal, the other youth people that would be there were of an evangelical tradition.
I remember when Young Life [a Christian youth organization which has been criticized over its anti-LGBTQ policies] started loitering around our school, when I was in high school. And I remember being introduced to a very different Christian doctrine that was quite confusing for me, and that made it pretty clear that my sexuality and my identity was something to hide and potentially, something to be ashamed of. And it was just — the culture at large was just emphatically not affirming, you know?
I remember praying over someone at a church camp because they were gay and thinking in the back of my head, like, "Oh my gosh." All of a sudden it was, I recognized: we're praying that she isn't what I am. And I'm gay. Now, that's like — [I] better keep this secret. I don't want people praying over me. I don't want to be crying and having strangers ... I don't know this girl. I still don't know her last name. I have this vivid memory of her that came rushing back, now that I'm 30 years old. And I don't know her name — and I don't know if she's OK.
"But I'm a child of God / Just in case you forgot / And you cast me out every single chance that you got / And that's your loss, not mine / I'll be better than fine." That's a pretty powerful statement, if you think about it ... Did you always know you'd be fine?
No. I definitely didn't. I have pretty strong memories of lying in bed, listening to Christian music, ironically. And just wondering, like, "Will I ever be OK?" I didn't know that I would be fine. And I think that my life now is so exciting and happy, and I wanna be visible for anyone who needs to see it, because I think it would have been helpful for me. And I know, as artists, a lot of what we do is sort of extending a hug to our younger selves — and that's very much, I think, what this project was for me.
And you made the explicit choice to position this as Christian music, right? What was behind that decision? Was it, in part, to give a hug to the younger self who wants to claim both your faithandyour sexuality and doesn't feel you need to choose?
Well, there's no division in me. It's not that I'm queer and then I'm Christian. I'm a whole person in Christ and I'm also queer. And I think that, writing Preacher's Kid, this is a Christian record. Just because there are certain people, certain gatekeepers in this industry, who would never acknowledge who I am, and that my story is valid, doesn't make that true. I'm here. I have a lived Christian experience. My faith is deeply important to me. There's a pluralism of beliefs within Christianity, within that umbrella and we know that to be true. But yet, within the genre of music, of Christian music, it's just so homogenous.
I'm mindful, as we are having this conversation, what seems absolutely right and obvious to you — and you know it in the core of your being. To other people, this is just wrong and dangerous. And how can we be talking about this without embracing that point of view? And, you know, faith communities are the one place where people feel, I think, comfortable in absolutes. How do you think about that? Are you hoping that people who need the hug, as you put it, will just find it? Do you hope to persuade people who absolutely disagree? What do you think?
It's really not about persuading people who disagree. It's sort of an invitation to recognize my humanity, right? I think the line in "Bethlehem" that I hear people share most often is: "But I'm a child of God / Just in case you forgot." As Christians, we're taught to see the image-bearer in each person we come into contact with. And for some reason, the LGBTQ+ community has been spared from that dignity within a lot of Christian circles. So, with this project and, I think, with the visibility that, sort of, has recently come my way, I'm just hopeful that it could serve as an invitation for other Christians to lean in and learn more about affirming theology, that is the cornerstone of so many Christian denominations. The question, "Is it possible that you're wrong?" Is it possible that, perhaps, the theology of exclusion is not the only way? So, just join me halfway. And let's talk about this on an even playing field because the queer community, for the most part, has been doing the heavy lifting when it comes to understanding a pluralism of theologies. I'm not really seeing that from the conservative side.
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