When I gave my life to Christ in 1975 there was a lot of clean up I had to do to follow God the way I really wanted to. I invited Christ into my life, and the next thing I knew, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit barged into my life and went to work. “What’s this?” said the Son, holding up a few joints I kept stashed in some hollowed-out books on my shelf. “These magazines just have to go,” said the Father, weeding through my “reading” material. “I think it’s time to permanently retire these,” said the Spirit, holding at arm’s length my nasty, well-worn jeans that could have stood up by themselves in the corner. “Who’s that knocking at the door?” all three of them said as one my party friends came by, looking to lure me away from my faith and back to my former life.
Within a few days I had changed the way I dressed, the people I hung out with, what I read, even the music I listened to, for the sake of my newfound spiritual life. My life goals got a going over by the Trinity, and I decided that graduating from high school might be a good thing after all. All those things needed to change if I was going to change. And I really did want to change.
I was reminded of that first week of faith when I was watching an episode of Queer Eye. In case you are not familiar with the show, someone gets nominated by a friend to be on the show. If the person nominated is accepted, out of the blue five gay guys, Jonathon, Bobby, Karamo, Antoni and Tan, show up to give their life a complete makeover. It all starts when the Fab Five plow through their apartment or house. They literally throw away clothes, furniture, food, and useless knickknacks. In one episode they cut up their victim’s favorite shirt. In another they blindfold their subject, and drive him to a landfill to watch them toss his favorite lounge chair in with the other garbage. (It really was a gross chair, stained by years of use and neglect.)
Then they go to work on the person. In Jonathon’s hands, beards are shorn, hair is cut, and skin that has never experienced any kind of treatment is bathed in honey compounds, green sticks or in extreme cases, make up. Mani-pedis are given. Tan gives them a whole new wardrobe. Bobby redecorates their home and lawn. Antoni teaches them a few, basic, cooking skills. And Karamo helps with their social life.
The guys can be a brutal in their judgments of the person’s life styles before they appeared. One hirsute person was referred as a yeti, another is told he needs to lose the gnome effect of his red beard. When Jonathon goes into a bathroom he likens it to a skin tag–harmless but really bad looking. Antoni goes through the refrigerator, making faces at the spoiled or unhealthy foods he finds inside it. Often all five join in the chorus with “yucks” and “ee-yews.”
If this sounds cruel, it is not. The fact is, they show up because the people needs help of some kind. Many are stuck in endless ruts, and are not enjoying their life. Some just have bad ways of relating the world. One person couldn’t tell the truth about some very important things if his life depended on it. Another was making the female to male transition, and needed support. Yet another wanted to come out to his mother. Often the people whose lives they entered would be considered losers by the world at large.
After tearing apart the dysfunctional vestiges of their former lives, the Fab Five go to work on showing them a new life. When Tan takes a person for a new wardrobe, he is trying his best to find clothes that can show the person off in the best possible light. “Style is not fashion. Fashion is not trendy after a season. I couldn’t give a sh** about fashion. Style is dressing the way that you feel confident and what is appropriate for you, your age, body type.”
Confidence. That cannot be emphasized enough. They are doing their best to create confidence in people. They are not trying to make people over in their own image. They are trying to help people find their true selves. Quoting Tan again, “You being your true self isn’t going to offend anybody. It’s very unlikely that people are going to cause you an issue just because you are being yourself. And if they’re concerned, that’s on them. You’re happy.”
Often the people they work with have shut themselves off from others, others who care about them. “When people build up walls, they end up keeping other people out. But they’re also keeping themselves in,” says Karamo, the Fab Fiver who is there to help the person with the personal, inner lives. He took a young man who had consistent problems telling the truth to take a lie detector test. After the test he held up the results and asked him what he thought they would show. “I don’t know,” said the person. “Yes, you do,” said Karamo, “YOU know what the truth is,” and then he tore up the results. “This was not for me,” he said. “This was for you!”
While barbs about the person’s dysfunctional lifestyle are abundant at the beginning of each episode what quickly follows is an overwhelming affirmation of who the person really is. Time and time again people are told they are beautiful, exciting, talented, and most important, worthy. Usually there is an important event the person is preparing for–a party, a speech, a performance, a date, and in one really emotional episode, a proposal. This event often determines the focus of how the Fab Five work with that person. But the upcoming event is really an excuse for them to get out of their rut, and face and accept who they really are, and who they really want to be.
Sometimes I am surprised at how pliant the people are. If the Fab Five showed up at my place and tried to rip up my barbecue pants, they would have a fight on their hands. But the fact is the people who they are working with really do want to change, and they all accept it. They know they need to change, but they just don’t know how to do it. When Antoni teaches a person how to cook, what he is really doing is instilling confidence in them. “You can make this,” he says, “and it will be delicious.” When Tan helps them with their wardrobe, he is showing them how to respect themselves in the way they dress. When Jonathon does the makeover, he is encouraging them to take care of their body and their looks on a daily basis. When Bobby redoes the dwellings, he is giving them the space they need to flourish. And when Karamo gives them a life lesson, it is always a confidence builder.
Often the Five have their own transforming experience while working to transform others. Karamo, an African-American, worked with a cop, and during their time together they talked about Black Lives Matter and the many incidents where people of color were killed by policemen. He shared that he really didn’t want to do this particular gig. The policeman affirmed Karamo in his fears, and told him there were bad cops out there, but that there were good cops too. By admitting the injustices, a healing took place in Karamo. It was a cathartic moment to hear a policeman admit that police brutality existed. Bobby spoke at length with a devout Christian woman about how he was ostracized by his church when he came out. His story was heard, and his pain was felt by the woman, and she did not judge him, but showed him love. Tears were shed, some of them by me watching this profound moment of reconciliation.
There’s a part of me that watches the show wishing the Fab Five could enter our churches, and who us a new way of being who we were created to be. Maybe that is what church consultants do, but I have read enough books on the subject to know that if I hired one, one thing I would miss, that the Fab Five provides, is consistent and overwhelming encouragement and affirmation.
Then I wish that church could be this way. Part of the appeal of the show is the understanding that we all have things we need to change, and who is going to help us? Imagine if a group of people barged into your life, at the invitation of a friend who knew and cared for you, and started cleaning house, and showing you a better way to live, a way that really reflected your true self, that helped you be the person God created you to be. Imagine if the church could be loving but firm about what needs to change in a person’s life, while also simultaneously treating the people with deep and abiding respect. If only we can work to pull people out of their self-imposed ruts, and into the lives they really want to live, a life that glorifies the God who made them, and respect the image of God that lies in all of us. We can work to tear down the self-made walls that we create to keep others out. We can learn to be vulnerable with each other. “Being vulnerable,” says Karamo, “is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of strength. It shows that you are in tune with yourself.”
Toward the end of every episode there is a scene where the Fab Five gets together with the person, and they say their goodbyes. Often the person ends up crying as they say goodbye, because they will miss the guys, but also because they realize just how important and life changing their work was.
But too often church is the last place people feel safe being vulnerable.
Years ago the Holy Trinity entered my life and made some radical changes. I wanted those changes, but it took a long time for me to feel the complete love and acceptance that comes from God. Over the years, I have learned that God’s love is complete and unchanging. I have learned that when I am myself, I am the best person I can be. Watching Queer Eye was like watching my own life over the past forty years, and how God has remade me.
And as I write I realize it does happen. Maybe not enough, but it does happen. I was lucky to have a few people enter my life who could be my personal Fab Five–friends, a counselor, a wonderful wife. But it took years and along the way there was no shortage of people who wanted to make me change, but without the accompanying affirmation.
Maybe I will nominate the Church of Jesus Christ for a Fab Five make over. Maybe we will see our need to change, and invite the mostly unlikely people to come into our lives, love us and change us.
Jonathon says, “When people say, ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,’ it’s not true, because you can reinvent yourself and learn new things whenever you want.” Maybe we can learn new tricks. To quote Jonathon again, “Can you believe?”