For many, she's a matron of a church straight out of the past: a woman of a certain age, we'll say, standing at the microphone, gleefully marshaling the audience into spirited renditions of Southern-tinged hymns like "I'll Fly Away" and "Do Lord, O Do Remember Me."
Radiating joy, grace and dignity, Rev. Yolanda's certainly a robust specimen, right at 6 feet tall—at least, when you include the artfully teased strawberry-blonde hair whose improbable parabolas arc upward, toward heaven.
After some patter and a little down-home personal testimony, the lights dim and the songs turn introspective.
But tonight's show is in a West Village cabaret called The Duplex, toward the east end of Christopher Street. There's a hefty cover and a two-drink minimum. The woman at the microphone is actually a man in a dress. He is Rev. Roger Anthony Yolanda Mapes. And as he intones that old-school altar song, "Just as I Am," in full drag, he is many things—but he isn't kidding.
"All kinds of people come to my show with an idea of what they think a drag queen doing gospel music would be," Mapes notes. "They're expecting me to be a comedy act; making fun, or a parody. That's not what it is. And they walk away with a completely different experience."
Rev. Yolanda's Old Time Gospel Hour, which plays Friday night at Chapel Hill's Unity Center of Peace, represents a gay interfaith minister's difficult decision to reclaim—and, arguably, redeem—the conservative Christianity of his childhood, integrating it into the broader spiritual vision he now has of humanity and God.
Raised in a Methodist home in Muscle Shoals, Ala., Mapes turned to the Pentecostal church as a teenager. "That was where I really began to see what I considered spirit moving through people," he recalls. "The falling out, members shouting and the music—it was exciting, theatrical and fun. But it was also very real to me."
Playing in a gospel bluegrass band, Mapes believed he'd pursue a ministry of music. "I assumed I was going to do it within some sort of traditional church," he remembers.
That, however, came before he professed his love for another member of the band during his senior year in college. "I understood my sexual orientation very young, before puberty. And I knew that people had views about homosexual love. But it really didn't affect me, until then." The result was disastrous: Mapes was forced to leave the band and the church of his childhood. "It kind of blew my whole world apart. I thought I had been ostracized by God because I was gay."
A spiritual, secular and sexual walkabout followed. Mapes got into theater, moved to New York and discovered the gay community—in that order. "Living in Alabama, I didn't know there was such a thing," he admits. "Moving to New York was quite the eye opener, as you can imagine."
After taking acting classes and forming a rock band, Mapes discovered a spiritual group of gay men, the Radical Faeries, in Vermont.
"A lot of what they do incorporates the feminine into the masculine," Mapes notes. "That's how Yolanda was actually formed."
Still, Mapes was dealing with the loss of his early religious experience: "I was really forlorn about losing Jesus, and not having him as my friend anymore." When he mentioned it to one of his Radical Faerie friends, the friend replied, "It's like they've taken your Jesus away."
The moment proved a turning point for Mapes, as he decided to reclaim his earliest beliefs. "I said to myself, you know what? I love Jesus. And now I know that he's my guru." Ultimately, the singer/songwriter concluded, "I also have Christ."
The process of transformation has brought the disparate parts of his life together. "The things I thought I had to keep separate from each other—well, you can't be Yolanda and be a minister—that's not true. I'm finding out that Rev. Yolanda is a particular ministry that's unique to me and quite powerful."
Thus a drag queen convenes church in a Christopher Street nightclub—because for many in this congregation, there's nowhere else they feel welcome. "Gay people have told me, 'We've been ostracized and pushed out of conventional religion, and a lot of us now just go with that disconnection rather than trying to embrace spirituality.' I'm helping bring the message that we all have access to God. It's there within you."
Mapes pauses to reflect again on that plaintive altar song, "Just as I Am."
"I've always wanted to sing that song in drag, and finally I am," Mapes says. "It's such a moving experience for me to be standing there in drag, talking about all this outrageous stuff that I used to do—and acknowledging that I have access to God. That, just as I am, God loves me. Just as I am."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Double lives."