My Friend Waleed

I didn’t work on Sunday and I called in sick on Monday. On Tuesday, when I got to work, one of the first people that called was my friend and co-worker Waleed, who was off for the day. 

He asked if I was feeling better. (I was.) And he told me he had a couple of reservations he needed to give me, but most importantly, he wanted to tell me how sorry he was about what had happened in Orlando. 

You know, we gays we do have this tendency to make everything be about ourselves. I think it’s because most of us have an excess of narcissism and empathy in our DNA. ( I’m not a scientist, so that’s just a theory.)  As we watch the news and read the many articles about the victims and the survivors and the families, we grieve for Orlando. But also, we watch the scroll of men and women and think, he looks like a guy I dated in New York or she looks like someone I used to temp with at that law firm. We feel a deep connection to those lost and those struggling to stay with us. And of course, though it happened miles away, on another coast, if feels personal. 

Waleed grew up in Afghanistan but has lived in Southern California for decades. If you are familiar with Beverly Hills’ luxury hotels, you likely know him because he is famous around here, having worked in the best properties.

What makes Waleed special, and I’ve witnessed it where we both work now, is that he always treats every guest as if he is welcoming them into his own home.

I believe this kind of graciousness is rooted in his culture, in his homeland, and in his upbringing.

Yesterday on the phone, he repeated over and over how much he loved his friends in the gay community. “You are my good friend, ______ is my good friend, ______ is my good friend. ______is my good friend.” He didn’t have to tell me, I see everything and I know how much he loves his gay friends. 

The store was not yet open, no one was around to see, but a few tears spilled out as I talked to my friend.

“Waleed, you gotta stop, you’re making me cry.”

“I want you to know that what happened is not what I believe. That is not Islam.”

“I know that.” And my heart broke a little more that we live in a world, where when someone commits a crime, everyone else who is from the same country or the same religion, somehow feels like they need to apologize. That when Waleed tells people, “I am from Afghanistan,” he always has to wonder what conclusions people will draw about him.

We have worked together a year now, we learn more about each other as we go, but when he talks about his home, his eyes dampen, his smile deepens, he has so much love. 

For some reason, my swimming pool received a large shipment of single serving Quaker blueberry pecan granolas. I’ve been bringing them into work by the handful and sharing with anyone who wants them.

No one reacted as enthusiastically as Waleed. “These are perfect, I can eat these on my drive home.” You may or may not know that we are in the middle of Ramadan, a month of fasting for Muslims to commemorate the first revelation of the Quran to Muhammed. So Waleed can only eat or drink from sunset to dawn, from June 6 to July 5. It’s a discipline that I don’t know that I have, but he does it every year. With joy he does it because his faith is that important to him.

To lighten the conversation yesterday, I told him how on Sunday, I kept thinking about a conversation we’d had just two days before. He told me he woke in the middle of the night, hungry, but not wanting to eat anything too heavy. He remembered the granola. He told me that he got up, made a cup of tea and ate his granola.  And he told me he prayed for me, his friend, who had given him the previous snack. 

And on the phone, we laughed about that darn granola, that it could be the building block of a friendship. 

Of course, many things are building blocks for friendships. I told him, “Maybe the one good thing that can come of this is that it will bring us all closer, that we’ll realize we are all in this together.”

He agreed with me. We said our goodbyes, I told him to enjoy his two days off, to get some rest. 

I don’t know if tragedies do bring us closer together on a global level. I’ve certainly seen evidence indicating otherwise. 

But I do know this, what happened in Orlando, deepened my friendship with Waleed. I feel I need him more. Though, I don’t really know, I think he needs me a little more too. That maybe there was this part of him that was unsure when he called on Tuesday, hesitating to dial the number. But what we both found, does not surprise me. I am his friend, as he is mine.

Imagine You Are on a Beach

I was on death’s door this afternoon. With a lump on my tongue and swelling in my glands and a raging headache, I made an appointment with a doctor. 

I couldn’t get in to see my doctor so they sent me to another doctor in my network. 

The nurse brought me into a room and started to take me blood pressure and pulse. “I have white coat syndrome,” I whispered.

She stepped back. “Okay, don’t look at me, I won’t look at you. Imagine you are on a beach.” 

I tried to do what she asked because I really liked her and she reminded me of Niecy Nash’s character in Getting On.

“What, do you think you’re running a race?” she asked. 

“I told you I get nervous. What was my blood pressure?” 

“150 over 82.” (High, obviously.)

“If you take it in a few minutes, it will go down.”

“Have you felt depressed, down or hopeless in the last six months?”

“Yes.” As in, hasn’t everyone?

She handed me a questionnaire, to gauge my depression, downness, and hopelessness. I scored ones (occasional depression, not frequent or constant depression.) 

“I’m not suicidal or anything, I just don’t feel very good.” 

For some reason, good or bad, she moved me into the room across the hall, the only difference, the new room had a window with views of the Beverly Hills flats. If I squinted I could see the building that used to be Loehmann’s.

The doctor came in, skeptical. Since this was our first meeting, I tried to explain that I am a hypochondriac who is deathly afraid of doctors. I hoped this would be our ice breaker. It was not our ice breaker.

He asked me about my symptoms.

I told him about the bump or lump in my throat. I told him that my Dad had oral cancer twice. He looked at it and poked it with a tongue depressor. “This?”


“That’s a taste bud.”

“Oh. Well, my glands have been swollen.”

So he felt my glands.

“Your glands are not swollen.”

“Oh, can you look under my tongue? It feels like there are weird spots.”

“Looks fine. Nothing unusual.”

“I was thinking it might be oral thrush.”

“Oral thrush was white spots, you  don’t have oral thrush.”

“Long dormant oral gonorrhea?” 


“What do you think is causing my headaches?”

“Has there been anything in your life that has caused you stressed lately?” 

“Yes, my job, you see—” 

“Well, work could play a factor.”

“You see, Doctor, I am a very sensitive person.”

He nodded. He told me I looked healthy.  I asked him if he could still write a doctor’s note since I missed work. He said he would.

“But don’t tell them nothing’s wrong with me.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll just tell them you have oral gonorrhea.”

I thought, he likes me, he really likes me.

He then checked my blood pressure. 120/80. Then he left the room. 

Niecy Nurse came back to take my blood since I needed that checked for my blood pressure medicine. 

“120/80, so I guess it was you all along,” I bragged.

“You’re really going to say that to me before I stick a needle in your arm?”

We laughed. Old friends laugh.

She drew my blood. I survived. 

I asked her my favorite question, “Say you go home today and there is an envelope with $10,000 that you must spend on a vacation and you must leave tomorrow, where would you go?” 

She told me that she just returned from where she grew up, in South America, and that she would love to take her three kids back there for another trip. 

I asked what country she was from and she told me Guyana and we talked about the massacre that happened there so long ago. 

“I’m surprised you remember, no one remembers.”

There is a silence, unacknowledged, but I know we are both thinking of what transpired this weekend. 

I also thought how could anyone ever forget the Guyana tragedy?  It was probably my first introduction to the evil that exists in the world. Nowadays, we have a Jim Jones or a Sandy Hook or a Columbine or a Virginia Tech or an Orlando, every few months.

Clearly, all this sadness takes an emotional toll, but perhaps there is something physical that happens too. And my connection to this particular atrocity is simply that I’m gay, just like most of the victims. That I am a person who has danced in a gay club, thinking, this is home, this is life. I didn’t know one person that was at Pulse on  Saturday night, but the stories that come forward, I can’t shake them. I don’t want to shake them. 

So I sit down and write a story about my trip to the doctor where I try to see the funny, because you know,  life can be funny.  And it’s important to laugh, especially when all you want to do is cry.

Where Could I Go

It’s all so fresh. As today unfolds, we will learn details about the victims and the gunman. About the families, about the survivors, about Orlando, about tragedy. 

We already know that the guman’s father has said that his son acted because of antigay beliefs. So his interpretation of his religion led him to kill scores of people.

Like many on my Facebook feed, my heart is breaking. I’m so sad. I awoke this morning happy. It is Eric’s birthday. We had plans to go to church and then to brunch for yet another birthday celebration. A few miles down the road, West Hollywood was preparing for its annual LGBT Pride Parade. What a festive day this could have been.

And now, we find ourselves glued to our televisions and checking our news feeds on our phones. Waiting for details. Trying to understand.

I know that I won’t ever really understand.

I don’t know how the day will unfold but, after a quick swim, I’m heading to church.  I want to pray for the victims, pray for the families, pray for my LGBT brothers and sisters, prayer for my fellow Christians.  

An old southern gospel song has returned to me. I don’t even have a recollection of liking it but this morning it is a salve.

Where could I go, where could I go. Seeking a refuge for my soul. Needing a friend to help me in the end. Where could I but go to the Lord. Where could I but go to the Lord

Is there irony that some people’s interpretations of their religions think that gives them license, even explanation, to murder others and here I am turning to God and my church for comfort? For understanding. For guidance.

Because this is a Sunday, I find myself wondering what is being said this morning in houses of worship throughout this nation. Are there churches not even addressing it? Are there churches teaching that these people had it coming? Are there churches praying with compassion but tacking on the addendum, “Also, dear God, let’s let this be an opportunity for these people to turn from their sinful lifestyle.”?  Probably all of the above.

If this tragedy had happened six months ago, I would have turned to all the usual channels for solace. Eric, my dogs, my parents, my friends, Facebook. (All very good support systems, I might add.) But this morning, it is different. And I feel grateful I have a church now. I can stuff my burdens into a satchel and I can walk into a house of God and lay those burdens before a magnificent altar. And my church will mourn with me. 

Will I ever understand any of it? Probably not, but I might find some comfort on an extraordinarily heartbreaking day. 

We Need to Talk About Ray 

Yesterday, my friend Louie called to tell me that our mutual friend Angela had been messaging him about me. It seems Angela is worried about my recent involvement in church. I pressed Louie for details and then stopped myself. The whole thing kind of irked me and I felt the more I knew the angrier I’d get. 

“Are you worried about me?” I asked Louie. Louie said he wasn’t. And then I wondered if Louie was just saying that to placate me. I have an active, bordering on paranoid, imagination and ever since talking to Louie, I’ve had this image of every person I know, by text, email or Facebook messenger, communicating with each other with the subject line: We need to talk about Ray.

Never mind that I’m sure Angela’s intentions are pure, that she just cares about me and wants me to be happy.

When I lived in New York, one of the young men who had been in my youth group when I was a youth minister came to visit me. He was a freshman at an East Coast college. I had worried a bit about our trip. I had come out to myself and most of my NY friends knew I was gay but I had not started the process of telling the folks back home, so to speak.

In our time in New York, we didn’t talk about my sexuality. I didn’t really think he’d figured it out. But a few days after he left, I received a late night call from one of the girls, now in college,  who had been in my youth group. “Ray, I’m just going to ask you, are you gay now?” “What?” “Gary just called us and he thinks you’re gay now.” I told her that this wasn’t the way I wanted her to find out, but yes, I was gay. 

It was one of the saddest phone conversations I’ve ever had. This girl who called, even though we’re not supposed to have favorites, was one of my favorites. I felt I’d let her down, I felt I’d let the entire youth group down. Also, I was mad at Gary, I questioned his intentions for sharing this piece of information before I felt comfortable with others knowing. And if he’d been so sure, why hadn’t he asked me if I was gay while we were together in New York?

In the months after that phone call, I found that this girl gathered all in the youth group, my youth group, who attended this particular university and they all prayed for me. Presumably, they prayed for me to stop being gay. But also, I think they prayed for me that I would know God’s love, find my way, find peace and joy.

Later, when I found out about that late night prayer session, I was conflicted. One one hand, it was an example of how much they loved me, that this little group dropped everything and came together to beseech God on my behalf. On the other hand, it was also kind of like when Sandy walks into the bedroom after the Pink Ladies have been singing an entire song about her and sadly asks, “Were you talking about me, Riz?”

All day, I thought about Angela. For years, I was the source of concern (or gossip) because of my lack of faith and now I’m the source of concern because of my (perceived) return to it. And the irony is, I still don’t know what I believe. I just missed church and decided I wanted to find a church that affirms me, my people, and I found it. And I really like going.

I do know this, I know what I have to remember. Angela loves me. Louie loves me. Those kids in the youth group loved me and even Gary loved me. They all just want the best for my life. They want me to be happy and joyful and at peace. 

I could spend a day or weeks or months or years ruminating about how people are talking, worrying, and texting about me behind my back, or I can just say, “They love me. I know they love me.” And move forward.  

Life’s too short and I don’t even know if heaven exists. 


As I drove Highway 128 from Mendocino to Santa Rosa, towering redwoods flanked me for most of the journey. These old, gorgeous, distinguished trees were like nothing I had ever witnessed growing up in Kansas. Otherworldly, maybe even a little sinister.

I had been in Mendocino for a friend’s wedding, and now it was Sunday. More than a little hungover, I headed home. My two dogs, Lucy and Mandy, in the passenger seats, were my docile navigators.

On NPR, I discovered a Julia Sweeney audio cast, what I came to know as her one woman show, Letting Go of God. She spoke of a spiritual quest that she’d embarked upon that ultimately led to her embracing and accepting her own atheism. She talked about Biblical inconsistencies, other religions, Deepak Chopra. For some reason, probably because I was surrounded by the most majestic trees I’d ever seen, her thoughts on Jesus (cruelly? rashly?) condemning that fruitless fig tree  have stuck with me in the decade since that day. I mean, DID that fig tree really have to die?

It might sound strange, but that drive ended up being a sort of spiritual experience. I was surrounded by beauty, my two dogs curled up next to me, it was Sunday morning, and I was listening to this woman’s compelling story about her complicated relationship with faith. It made me feel less alone about my own complicated relationship with faith, and God, and Jesus.

Two Sundays ago, I joined the church that I have been attending for the last few months. Not a rash decision, it was something I had planned. On that Sunday, about 15 of us, old, young and in between, stood in front of the congregation and were introduced as new members.  I tried to stand up straight, look proud, but also humble. I wore a tie. 

That morning, when I woke up, my first thought was, do I really want to do this? Am I ready to do this? Shouldn’t I wait until I’ve become a better person or a better Christian before I join a church again? I really do cuss a lot when I’m driving. And I’m a gossip. Also, I border on self-righteousness. 

But while a part of me said, “Take the day off, gets some donuts and go to the beach.” Another, louder voice, told me to go forward. There would always be questions, weaknesses, doubts, but why not explore those worries within the parameters of church, and church’s membership.

On that Sunday, as I was sitting in the pew, in the second row, cordoned off for the new members, the minister told an anecdote about an atheist who attends our church, who after each Sunday’s service, shakes the minister’s hand and says, “I’m glad you haven’t given up on me.” I thought about that long ago drive, and the Julia Sweeney audio cast. 

As I sat there, listening to the minister’s sermon, reflecting on that memory, it hit me, that all along, even in the decades that I avoided church, felt completely detached from God, that church and God had still been a part of me. Always. 

I loved church when I was little and I loved it as a teenager in youth group and I loved it in Bible college and, certainly, in my short time as a youth minister, I loved trying to help others to love church. 

And then I left the church, and I thought I’d left it permanently.

Of course, I kind of knew that I had this fixation on church and religious themes. I still loved Amy Grant. 

Sometimes I read my old blogs. For three years now, I’ve written so much about God and Christianity and church it seems obvious, in hindsight, that it was all, always, leading up to this return. 

Is it possible to come home to somewhere you’ve missed for decades only to find that you never left at all?  That you only thought you left?

I’ll tell you what the big surprise in all of this is, it feels as if God has been saying to me, “Not only have I been here all along, but you have been here too.” And not that I even know exactly what the “here” is. 

Not that I was always faithful or always pure or always kind, maybe not that I’m even any of those things now. But God and faith and Jesus and Church are still a part of me, of who I am. Always have been, and fight it or not, always will be.