The djembe drum beat called people to the river.
They lined up on the wet grass in rows of four and five, some with eyes closed, arms spread. The Eno gurgled nearby.
Chauncey Taylor picked up a sage smudge stick and began moving barefoot through the group, trailing smoky wisps.
He wore a white head wrap, a long white pocket T and loose-fitting white pants, slit nearly to the waist. An Ankh, the Egyptian symbol of life, hung from his neck.
At his side, Anath Sekhem traced his movements, tapping a small bowl in a metallic pulse.
“I want you to listen to the waters,” Taylor told the group as he circled the smudge stick around heads, hips, legs and stomachs or embraced someone in a long bear hug.
“I am ... enough,” he said.
“The lies that were told to you from childbirth, they no longer exist,” he said.
“Because you are enough ...You are more than enough.”
Call it the church of Chauncey, except most of the 60 people who attended the summer renewal celebration at West Point on the Eno on Saturday don’t call him that. They use the name he prefers, Mystic Waters.
And of course Taylor might not call it a church at all. He left his home church years ago and never looked back. The Holiness tradition didn’t square with being gay or his bigger-than-life personality.
But self-acceptance took time, he says. The love he brought to the river’s edge took years, friends and a funky street band to feel for himself.
And he keeps working at it.
Grew up singing
Taylor, 35, grew up in Durham, graduated from Northern High School and attended UNC Charlotte, where he majored in business marketing.
He grew up singing, call and response style.
In the Holiness church, “a lot of our songs are very upbeat, loud and growly,” he explains. “That’s how I learned to sing in crowds, because that’s what we did in church.”
But church, and even the larger community, proved a difficult fit.
“First of all you can’t be gay. They didn’t allow homosexuality,” he says of the Pentecostal denomination.
“Another thing I had to accept is I’m feminine. I’m a feminine gay man,” he continues. “And in the black culture, that’s shunned upon. Yet (we’re) still needed. Because we are the ones they call upon to be the nurturers, the glue sometimes that holds the family together. If I tried to act masculine it just wouldn’t work. And I no longer fight against it.”
His split from the church came after a gesture he says was misinterpreted.
A man in the congregation announced his wife had been cured of cancer.
“As the service went on, the woman started to get the Holy Ghost,” Taylor recalls. “I went to her. I placed my hands on her and said I was celebrating with her. They thought I was coming to harm her.”
He never went back.
‘A closer walk’
Cathy Kielar, owner of the Music Explorium and a founder of the Bulltown Strutters band, kept running into Taylor, a friend of her son’s.
One night at Papa Mojo’s the band was playing “Just a closer walk with thee,” and Taylor, who knew the song from church and gospel choirs, was in the crowd.
They called him up on stage, and from that night he was part of the band. Many Durham residents who may not know his name, know him from seeing the Strutters at Durham Mardi Gras, the Beaver Queen Pageant in Duke Park or just about any joyous occasion in the Bull City.
But one night, Kielar, sensing something was troubling Taylor, called him to her home.
“I said, ‘I want to have some time to talk to you,’” Kielar remembers saying. “He just seemed like he was off a little.”
Taylor misread the invitation.
“I was at a point conforming to what people wanted me to be,” he says. “I felt I was a disappointment to people that I loved. By the way I dressed, by the way I sing, by the way I carried myself.”
“I thought they were going to shun me.”
But that wasn’t it at all. Instead Kielar told Taylor the band wanted him to know what an asset he was, how much it meant for him to be in it.
“They said, ‘Chauncey, we want you to be out there, we want you to be out front,’” he says. “I was about to rip off every (Mardi Gras) bead I had and throw it away. It was God using Cathy to say not only am I proud of you, but I need you to be more of who you are. So go get more stuff.
“The Bulltown Strutters saved my life.”
‘People are looking’
A few days before the celebration at the Eno, Taylor sits in Mad Hatter Cafe on Broad Street.
He’s wearing a black do-rag and navy blue polo-shirt buttoned to the neck: his uniform for a cashier’s job at Kroger while he attends nursing school at N.C. Central University. He wants to be a midwife.
“So many people are looking for something – and I say this with all respect – other than a church,” he says.
“People are looking for a place where they can get connected to the divine outside the walls of a temple, because the real temple is here,” he says, touching his chest. “That’s what we want people to tap into.”
The solstice is a beginning, he says, a time to celebrate “how God made us to be, a renewal of who we are, what we’re here to do and not apologize for that.”
“I want all of Durham to come together and put away those differences, pain, hurt, mistakes, anything, anything that holds them back. I want them to come to the river.”
I know I’m crazy, and I love it, because I wasn’t made to be normal ... I’ve learned to accept exactly all that I am. You can’t be all that you are until you accept yourself.
Chauncey Taylor, aka Mystic Waters
Rachel Alexis “Gemynii” Storer met Taylor at a poetry show and felt an instant bond. ‘It was like we recognized each other as tribe, if you will,” she says.
She agrees his leaving the church had a big impact.
“He was not accepted in the one space you’re supposed to be accepted in,” she says. “I would say he’s finding his own path, rather than (following) the path others set for him. That’s never a comfortable path.”
Today she sees a more confident man.
“Chauncey genuinely loves everyone he comes across,” she says. “It’s exhausting, constantly putting yourself out there, but I think Chauncey gets a lot of that love back.”
Nadia Porter, a receptionist at Durham Tech, has known Taylor about seven years and says she won’t plan a big event without him, even childbirth.
When she had her second child, Taylor got to the hospital before she did and was in the room when she delivered.
“Just like any other man, he did not handle it well,” she recalls and laughs. “When I was getting contractions he was too, but it was great to have him there. He’ one of my best friends.”
“Where do you learn love?”
Taylor asks that question as he sits in Mad Hatter.
“There are lots of kind of love,” he continues. “Love is pure, it’s true. It has no boundaries. It’s forgiving. It’s warm. It’s protective. It’s inside you.
“The problem is people have not tapped what’s inside them. Love is nothing more than another word for God. It’s really simple. It’s about getting in touch with your creator. People want to make it more than it is.”
Taylor feels that love when he sings. And he says he couldn’t sing as he does, or touch people as he does, if he did not learn to love himself.
“Having people cry at your concert. Who cries at a concert?” he asks. “When you have people crying because they’ve been touched by God and you can deliver that ... Are you serious? What an honor.”
“These are my people, the people of Durham,” he continues. “Those people who are ready to receive it, to get it, they get it. Because they sing and they dance, and they cry and they get connected to their creator, the divine. My God!”
He pauses, the church emerging at the restaurant table.
“Forgive me,” he says. “I’m getting passionate because through my life I’ve had to apologize for being this way, being that way.”
But he’s done apologizing. It’s a message Taylor thinks can help others.
“You don’t know what people are dealing with on the inside,” he says. “I’ve learned to accept exactly who I am. That’s the light bulb. That’s the light bulb, honey.
On Mother Goldie Brown, East Durham street preacher in the 1930s, and ’40s
“She was an apostle of Durham. She dressed in all white and she walked around barefoot. She would preach on the street. People would try to lock her up but then they would release her . She was so anointed rain would not even touch her. Ask anybody from old-school Durham. She just walked around with such a presence. I want to bring that feel back into Durham. I can’t be like Mother Goldie Brown, but I am inspired by her. She didn’t apologize for who she was.”
– Chauncey Taylor