People take lots of kinds of journeys throughout life, to places geographical, emotional, spiritual, internal, difficult, joyful, perplexing, mysterious or unknown – as ever journeys can be. There are journeys we are on as individuals and journeys we are on as societies. The impact of a journey can be as powerfully and immediately transformational as a meteor strike, or it can be as soft and beckoned as the gradual morning dawn.
A series of steps and encounters during my life has brought me to an unexpected place of feeling a powerful need to advocate for a people that have been so much a part of my life that, in the naiveté of my own acceptance of them, I did not fully realize were/are fighting and dying for their basic human rights and dignity on a level of global cultural genocide. They have never, not a one, ever asked or sought my help, you see. They are a proud people. I have been living beside them and with them for years as a steadfast confidant, friend or pastoral care giver.
While I could see and respond to their individual suffering as they gifted me with the sharing of it throughout my life, it took me standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon last week for me to finally see the broad global pattern of socially institutionalized persecution that has held them in thrall for millennia. Their degradation, humiliation and even annihilation is so deeply imbedded in three of the world’s largest faith traditions – which maintain encoded prejudices from sources held in common – that I now perceive an abyss representing both historic time and cultural divide that cause me both inarticulate amazement and abject horror. I truly did not “get it” until now.
Walk with me.
When I was little, my mother told me stories about her early life as a vocalist with the Pennsylvania Light Opera and flutist with Pittsburgh Philharmonic. At some point in her career she had the opportunity to work with conductor Leonard Bernstein, unarguably one of the most talented composers and musicians in America. He enjoyed her company, and they attended parties and gatherings together that my mother recalled with great fondness. My mother obviously liked and admired him very much.
My six year old self once asked her, “Why didn’t you marry him?”
“He never asked me,” said my mother.
“Why not?” I demanded (thinking my mother unparalleled).
“Well, dear, he was gay,” she answered as she gently cupped my chin with her hand, tilting my gaze upward to meet hers. “He eventually did marry a woman, but he preferred to be with men. I knew that was the case and decided that I would make a better friend to him than a wife. But, oh! He was handsome!”
“Are lots of men gay?” I asked, somewhat uncertain of the new word that had been introduced to me, since until then I thought it just meant “happy.”
“Some men are, and some women, too. But you mustn’t mind it; it doesn’t make the quality of a person any less or more. But it is an important thing to know beforehand, if you think you might like a certain boy,” responded my mother with her usual common sense.
From that moment onward, I never minded “gay” as an aspect of anyone I would meet going forward in life. On some level I felt that if my mother loved an extraordinary man like Leonard Bernstein, gay was a human quality that was ultimately very lovable and was just one of the many ways of being that humans can come in.
Though I would learn that some of my friends in high school were gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered, I was utterly unaware of it at the time. Like most people who live from a privileged status within a culture (in this case, heterosexual), it rarely occurred to me that heterosexuality could be a challenge for anyone else outside of the approved social “norm” – that measure having been established by those claiming to represent the normative by which everyone else is judged substandard or defective.
In high school “gay” was something the jocks (male and female) flung around like dirty socks at anyone who didn’t live and die by the calendar of sporting events. Since I was in choir, theater and the debating club, you can imagine that I had a few such socks thrown in my direction. I didn’t mind it or respond to it in any way, because it wasn’t my issue; it was clearly theirs. I also thought they were very stupid, and I had been raised to be nice to the imbecilic.
It wasn’t until college that I came to know young men and women who were actively struggling with a “coming out” process. Most didn’t fully emerge during those four years but came to grips with their true personhood after college. One exception was my dear friend Joe (who I nick named Jody), who finally came out to me after breaking up with an overly-dramatic girlfriend that most of us thought was a lunatic anyway. I’ll never forget the night in a local pub when – over a pitcher of light beer and a bag of peanut M&Ms – we realized that we had both spent heaps of emotional energy agonizing over the same guy. We both dropped our crush in that instant, and I attribute our strong bond to that hoot-and-howl of a sister recognition moment.
Jody could never tell his parents that he was gay, and he took that secret to his grave. He was their only son and their only hope for continuing the family name in a presumed marriage that would and could never be. Not long after college, Jody was in a car accident. He survived his injuries but not the pneumonia he developed during his hospital stay. I phoned his parents after I read the news of his death posted in the college alumni newsletter. While speaking with Jody’s mother, I could hear the subtext accusation in her voice, “He cared for you so much!” Apparently, either I or another close girl friend of his was supposed to have made their wedding and family dreams come true. None of us could have done it, and I didn’t correct their impression. I just held his mother’s grief in the cradle of my ear, even as I mourned for the Joe (Jody) I had known and loved as my friend.
When I became a professional healthcare chaplain in the early ‘90s, issues of who could be a healthcare representative were in the forefront of emergency room conversations. Within heterosexual relationships, family members and fiancés were considered the unquestioned primary candidates to make decisions on behalf of a patient who could not speak for him or herself.
When it came to homosexual relationships, however, even family members who had historically disowned a homosexual child or sibling were suddenly empowered by the medical institution and law to enter the ICU or ER and make life and death decisions about someone they hadn’t even spoken to in twenty years. Meanwhile, the person the patient had shared a home and a life with in all that time was not permitted access to the patient without the family’s consent. The life partner was certainly not permitted to make healthcare decisions, even if they were allowed in the patient’s room.
Healthcare representation has mellowed in the law, depending on which state of the union one lives in. My early work as a hospice chaplain was in Indiana. If the appropriate forms were completed while the patient was alive, awake and coherent, the patient could appoint the health care representative of their choosing; a representative didn’t have to be blood family. Without that paperwork, family was legally recognized as the rightful decision makers. In addition, funerary law states that the family “owns” the body post mortem unless legal documents have been prepared that state other wishes.
Toni was one of the hospice patients in the inpatient facility where I worked. He had been with his partner, Stephen, for nearly 30 years. For Stephen’s two children (by then young adults) Toni was the only mother they had known. They shared stories with me about Toni’s care in preparing their lunches for school when they were kids and how Toni took their daughter to prom when she had no date because of the stigma of her same-gendered parents. At the prom he wowed everyone with his dancing – wowing them again when he fixed a student’s car in the parking lot that night so the student and his date could drive home safely and not get in trouble for being late.
As Toni’s legal healthcare representative and partner for life, Stephen cared for Toni throughout his struggle with non Hodgkin’s lymphoma. With tireless devotion and love, Stephen helped Toni bathe, eat, prepare for bed, groom his hair and wipe the tears from his face when Toni could no longer speak in any other way.
One evening before leaving work for the day, I stepped into Toni’s room on an impulse to say goodbye (I came to listen to those intuitions while working in hospice). Stephen was at the bedside, holding Toni’s hand in the quiet twilight of the room as Toni’s breathing gradually became labored and irregular in his dying.
“I’m glad you came by,” Stephen said in a hushed voice reminiscent of a chapel whisper, “I have something for you from Toni and me. It’s not much, but we thought you could understand it.” Stephen then poured a silver ball-chain with a series of rainbow colored aluminum rings on it into my open palm.
Stephen explained, “They’re called Freedom Rings. The rainbow colors of the rings represent us and the hope that freedom will someday ring in our country for all people. You’ve helped make this a safe place for us to be who we are and allowed us to love one another in these last days as any two people committed to one another do. Toni and I want to thank you for being our chaplain. No minister or church has ever welcomed us and our family, but you did. Thank you.”
I still have the Freedom Rings necklace they gifted to me. When Gene Robinson was consecrated the Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire, I wore it to the special clergy day that was called for the clergy of the Diocese of Olympia, an opportunity for us to voice our concerns or opinions. I received several puzzled looks as I sat adorned with rainbow rings and holding Nigel’s (my husband’s) hand. I wish I could say that I spoke up that day and shared Stephen and Toni’s story, but I did not. The remarks of conservative clergy were harsh and strident; somehow the tenderness of a beloved man dying beside the man and family who loved him seemed too sacrosanct for the churning vitriol in the air. It felt like I was trying to gently launch gossamer seeds into a hurricane wind, and I lost my voice before I could utter a syllable of peace.
I met my dear friend and colleague, Sean, while working at hospice, and I have been promising him for many years that we would one day go to the Grand Canyon. It’s a gift to me that finally – at the age of 60 – he feels safe enough with someone to be utterly free to be himself, in a place both far away enough and grand enough to accept him. People easily mistook us for a heterosexual couple. And yet, seeing what is truly there is far more challenging and compelling.
See with me.
Standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, the distance between the past and the future is deeply chiseled as a journey through time – from the base rock of our cultural and theological past to the uncomfortable expanse of the rim above, we are all challenged to read the record of how things have been. Then, like the Colorado River (which has never changed its width), we must patiently but inevitably carve the way forward. We must commit to creating a different legacy, in a country founded on freedoms that has yet to find freedom for all.
At last, at the end, after all; I see something even larger than the millennial abyss of frightening despair, prejudice and hatred.
I see in the canyon a parable carved in stone about the vast heart of God. Sean stands on the edge, and there I stand with him, my hand in his, and I will not let go. We dare to stand side-by-side on the edge of hope, held to this sacred place by gravity and divine love. Each life on this earth, having been created by the God who called it good, deserves nurture and protection in order to live into the fullest promise of what God has made – the life abiding in the canyon, and the life abiding in each of us.
God promises love. God asks only that we love one another as Christ loved us.
Stand here. See all that God has made…and…
Love with me.