Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Gay Pride Sunday--Remembering the Day AIDS Came to Church

"Why do I want to tell it 
It was the afternoon of November
15th last fall and I was waiting
for it whatever it would  be like

it was afternoon & raining but it:
was late afternoon so dark outside my
apartment and I was special in that
I saw everything through a heightened
tear, things seemed dewy, shiny
and so I knew there was a cave
it was more of less nearby as in my
apartment it was blue inside it

dark blue like an azure twilight and the
gods lived in the cave they who
care for you take care of at death and
they cared for Ted and were there for me
too and in life even now"
   --Paul Monette, "Poem"

(Sunday was Gay Pride Day across the nation. Interesting that finally, after all these years, we have the courage to bury "Don't Ask...Don't Tell" and treat all our troops the same. Justice is slow and it is a long time coming--always. Ask our black brothers and sisters. I wrote this piece last year on Gay Pride Sunday. I repeat it because it says a good word for a church that reached up and claimed it's heritage of justice for all. So, on this day I remember all the brave soldiers that have gone before and all those in that tiny congregation that were faithful to their commitment.)

On this Gay Pride Day memories swirl. As a minister I have said goodbye to a great many gay men through the years. My own education began as the AIDS epidemic was raging. One of my church members, a Pastoral Counselor called me one day. “ I have been talking to a woman whose son has AIDS. He lives in California and is moving to Birmingham because he is so sick. His mother feels that her church wouldn’t accept him. She is looking for a church that would treat him just like everyone else. Do you think our church could do that?” I remember whispering: “I would hope so.” I asked my Counselor-friend to have the mother to call me and we would talk. She called, told me their story and wanted to know if they would be welcomed in our congregation. I told her I thought they would.

So she came and joined. Weeks later her son, Kevin moved into her house so she could take care of him. He visited church one Sunday and it was very clear that he was sick. I wondered how people would respond. Well, they rose to the occasion. They welcomed him as they had his mother. A Sunday school class took him in and he became a part of their class.

He lived less than a year. Slowly he began to slip away. The church surrounded this family. We prayed for them, took food, sat with Kevin so his mother could take a break. When he was so very sick his Sunday school class visited around his bedside on a Sunday morning. They brought communion with them—little tiny wafers and a vial of wine. Kevin had eaten very little those last days. But he asked for Communion and the class gathered around his bed and they took the Lord’s Supper. It was the last food he ever had by mouth. A day or two later he slipped away.

At his funeral our church was there in full force. Little blue-haired ladies surrounded the mother and wiped away their tears. There were a lot of gay folk that attended that service. They whispered to one another: “Is this a Baptist church? It couldn’t be.” Weeks later some of those same people appeared on a Sunday morning. They kept coming back. And one by one they joined our congregation.

This was a sea change for our little church. Some began to mutter, “Is this going to become a gay church?” One family walked into my office, stuck their fingers in my face and said, “What are you going to do about these homos?” I told them I was going to treat everyone the same and we would turn no one away. Our church pulled out of another Baptist church years before because that church refused to receive black people into their membership. So I told this irate family, “If we don’t keep these doors open for everyone—we will be dead in five years. A church of open doors is who we are.” We lost a few members at this hard time—yet the church kept welcoming all that came.

One of our Choir members told about the promise he had made to his dying mother. He told her he would sing, “Amazing Grace” at her funeral. When she died the woman’s pastor told this son because he was gay he could not sing at that funeral in that church. So they moved the service from the church to a funeral home and the young man kept his promise to his mother. I heard heart-breaking story after heart-breaking story.

Our church formed Care teams and took meals on wheels to people with AIDS. We welcome a little black baby with AIDS into our nursery. Slowly the church began to see that our gay members were just like everyone else. Several congregants served on boards that dealt with gay concerns.

That was in the mid-nineties and if you were to visit that church today you would find a great many gay folk in a multitude of leadership positions. It did not become a gay church. It was just a Church—a church with enough courage to open it’s arms to everyone. People there do not now think in terms of who is straight and who is gay. They are simply people who are struggling to find their way and help each other.

And so, on this day I remember Kevin and his mother Carole. They forced us to deal with an issue that was extremely volatile at that time. They left indelible fingerprints on that congregation. And so today as people march across this country for gay rights—I remember Kevin and the battle he waged and how he helped us open our doors a little wider.

We still have a long way to go. Much of the church still cannot face this issue of homosexuality. Yet step-by-step we are getting there. One day I hope I see a time when everyone who steps into a church and sits down will feel safe and welcomed. Kevin helped teach me and our church this lesson. And so on Gay Pride Sunday I remember.

1 comment: