There is a group that I belong to on Facebook whose aim is to bridge the gap between the glbt and conservative Christian communities. There is a fellow in the group who repeatedly posts things from his Biblical perspective that homosexuality is a sin. He is strident and does not appear to absorb or even ponder what other members of the group have to say. Most, but not all, of the members are people who grew up in the church and struggled for years before they reached a point where they started to accept themselves as is. We share our stories and connect. But this guy, he just kind of comes in, lobs a grenade and runs away, never responding to other members’ constructive comments about whatever he has posted. After a couple of weeks pass, he repeats his cycle.
I could wonder why this man, a young, Midwestern husband and father, is so fixated on that Biblical issue, but I’ll never really know his story. And that’s fine. I’ve never met him. I personally don’t have any interaction with him. I don’t respond to his posts. But he does remind me of someone I know.
When I lived in New York, I was a member of an amazing church. I moved to New York knowing no one, they helped establish me in the city, they were my first friends. When I came out to the pastor and his wife nearly a year after I’d moved to New York, their first words were affirmation that I would always be a part of the congregation. By that point, their words and deeds had led me to suspect as much, which, it goes without saying, was a tremendous relief in a tumultuous time in my life.
And I guess the reason I knew that I would still be loved, accepted at this church was the way the congregation loved and accepted a man named John. There are things I’ve probably forgotten about John and perhaps things I’ve remembered not quite precisely. John was gay, probably in his fifties. He never in my presence talked about his sexuality, but I’d been told he had a long time lover that had passed away. He was a greeter, always one of the first people to welcome you and give you a bulletin of the church program. He always wore a suit and tie, always had a kind smile.
John and I spoke every Sunday, it was a small congregation. I have no recollection of any specific thing we discussed, but I thought he was a nice guy. I liked him. I also, probably, foolishly, pitied him a little.
One Sunday, months before I came out of the closet, but certainly while I was wrestling with my sexuality and my identity, I was asked to preach a sermon. It just happened to be gay pride weekend, the day of the parade. And while my sermon was not completely about my perceived interpretation of homosexuality being Biblically immoral, I remember I touched on how the gay people celebrating on Christopher Street did not know the “truth.” While I was writing the sermon, I thought about John and how my words might hurt his feelings, but I reasoned, John needs to know what the Bible says. As if in his 50-some years no one had ever told him. Just thinking about that day, I cringe. I don’t remember John ever treating me any differently after that sermon. I also don’t remember John treating me any differently after I came out to the church less than a year later.
When I moved to Los Angeles, I lost track of most of the people in that church. I find that sad, too, because, they were very, very good to me. I do not know whatever happened to John. It seems possible I heard he’d passed away, or maybe he moved to Florida.
There is one thing that gives me comfort when I think of my fervent sermon about God’s truth that long ago gay pride weekend and that is John knew what was going on the whole time. I was a fresh-faced, corn-fed, passionate Midwestern boy who had moved to New York with a dream, or two. And he knew before I knew, I was on the road to becoming the person I did become. He’d seen it all.
So that’s why I have a little patience with the guy in my Facebook group who lobs dagger after dagger. I think he’s working through his own issues, and let’s be clear, his issues may not even be my issues, but there is something going on that’s shaking his faith. And my wish for him is peace in his spiritual and emotional life. Whoever he is, I want him to accept it.
I don’t doubt that John wanted the same for me. There is an irony that at 46, living in Los Angeles, the stories I most gravitate to are stories about gay culture in New York in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. If I’d known John a little better, I might have had a mentor, my own historian.
I can hope that John knew the influence he had on me, but I doubt he did. Still, I’ll always remember him fondly, a sharp dressed gentleman of a certain age, greeting not just me, but everyone, into the flock, with open arms and a welcoming smile.