Artist and Author David Hayward on Waterfalls, Leaving Religion and the Art of Coming Out

It was a dream about a waterfall that finally gave David Hayward the peace of mind he needed after leaving his career as a pastor in 2010 after almost thirty years of service.

Religion had been Hayward’s life from the beginning. Originally baptized Anglican, he grew up in the Baptist church but turned to Pentecostalism in his teens. He attended seminary and was ordained as a Presbyterian minister and went on to pastor Vineyard and independent churches before his questions about traditional Christianity led him to give up his career and leave the church.

The beginning of the end came in 2005 when he began his Naked Pastor blog. A moniker, Hayward told Whosoever Magazine during a recent interview, that means, “I’m going to bare my soul. I wanted to reveal what pastors really think about what we go through and be honest about it.”

In 2006, he added daily cartoons to his blog, calling himself “A graffiti artist on the walls of religion.”

The topics for the cartoons vary widely, but all tend to deal with current events within the church, religion and politics — skewering everyone from disgraced Mars Hill Church pastor Mark Driscoll to prosperity gospel preachers.

“I try to address what’s going on in religion and challenge the abusive, erroneous, silly and toxic aspects of religion,” Hayward said. “I challenge it not because I hate it but because I love it and I think people have the right to be spiritual, religious and to gather together but for God’s sake, let’s do it in healthy ways.”

The members of his congregation had little motivation to keep up with his blog when it began. Then, Hayward’s increasingly unorthodox views on Christianity began to get noticed by outsiders.

“Ever since I can remember I’ve always struggled with the exclusivity of religion,” he said. “Christianity in particular which teaches the only way to God the Father is through Jesus Christ the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit. Although it sounds wonderful, it is exclusive. I met nice Jewish people and Buddhist and Roman Catholic people and atheists who are better people than I am and I wondered, ‘How would they deserve eternal punishment and I wouldn’t?’ It was a mental anguish of the kind that was unbearable.”

When word of what Hayward was blogging about — those tough questions he was posing about traditional Christian spiritual beliefs — got back to his congregation and church leadership, they began to question his commitment to the faith.

He and his congregation parted amicably enough, but Hayward found life difficult after the pulpit.

“When your whole life and identity is wrapped up in something like that and you leave it, cold turkey, it’s a tough go,” Hayward remembered. “I nearly self-destructed. I nearly lost my wife, my family and myself. You lose friendships, networks, income, career, religion. We had to file for personal bankruptcy. It was just the perfect storm.”

It was during that perfect storm that he dreamed about a waterfall. In the dream, Hayward is standing at the bottom of the waterfall. He realizes this is a symbol of reality. Looking up, he knows that, above the rim, is God in whatever form — or no form — we may imagine that higher power to be.

The water coming down was the manifestation of that universal source and the water hitting the ground was the Holy Spirit “engulfing and integrating everything,” Hayward said.

“It had a Trinitarian structure to it, but I knew we are all experiencing the same thing but we are all understanding it and articulating it through our own paradigms and language. That’s the only difference,” he said. “I knew this immediately that there is nothing worry about. The atheist, the Buddhist, the Hindu, the Jew, the Muslim were all experiencing the same thing but we have our particular paradigm and language that seems to separate what we’re experiencing into exclusive ideologies or religions, but it’s only an illusion.”

In that moment, he felt what he called “a theological peace,” and then realized that he was probably not the only one who felt this way — trying to come to terms with a spiritual life after leaving organized religion. Many people who choose to leave the church, he said, feel like gypsies or refugees without a safe and supportive place to deconstruct their beliefs and build new ones.

It was that thought, and his own craving for safe community, that led him to found The Lasting Supper, an online community for people who have left religion but still want to retain their spiritual orientation.

“A lot of people who leave religion realize the risks and they quickly jump into something else that provides community such as yoga or other wellness movements. None of that is bad, but sometimes I wonder what would happen if people kept pressing to find their own spiritual identity. I’m trying to provide a safe place for people to process in a healthy way,” Hayward said.

Among those who flocked to his new community were lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people who had found themselves on the receiving end of so much abuse at the hands of the church. They have been welcomed into the diverse community which includes people who are married, divorced, atheists, agnostics and people who have left the church and don’t want to return.

Many of the cartoons that Hayward has produced over the years have been aimed at revealing some of that abuse LGBT people have suffered in traditional churches. He’s taken 100 of those cartoons and put them in a new book called The Art of Coming Out: Cartoons for the LGBTQ Community.

The book is divided into three chapters: The Discrimination, The Struggle and The Affirmation that traces both the fear and love that LGBT people have experienced in their spiritual journeys.

Hayward hopes that his images of Jesus fully accepting LGBT people as they were created will help others achieve the same theological peace he found when he dreamed of that image of the waterfall of God’s all-inclusive love spilling over into the world.

“There is something magical about an image,” said Hayward. “You can say to somebody, ‘Jesus loves you as you are.’ But, when you show them a picture of it, people can understand that it’s true! It’s another way of truth telling.”

Use this link to purchase The Art of Coming Out and David’s other books.

To learn more about The Lasting Supper, go here.

Listen to our podcast interview with David Hayward.