For You Are With Me

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According to family legend, in the weeks before my father’s mother died, she had a conversation with my mother that changed the course of our lives.  At that time, my parents did not attend church.  I was still a baby so you know how long ago this was.  “Find a church,” my Grandma said, “Any church, I don’t care what denomination, but find a church and become a part of it.”

And in the months after her passing, my parents did just that.  They found a church.  As long as I can remember, church was always a central part of our spiritual and social lives.

When I was in my twenties, I left the church and in my forties, I returned.  A very long in the tooth prodigal son.

Last night I wrote about the events of the last week.  As I published the post and ran out the door to my friend’s party, I felt a lightness.  Eloquent or fumbling, I put into words what I had been feeling.  I tried to approach it with kindness, not always the easiest task when talking about polarizing subjects.

This morning,  I looked forward to church.  I got there early and sat in my pew.  There is a thirty minute organ concert that precedes every Sunday’s worship service.  You can judge me, you probably should judge me, but I tend to spend that time on my phone, checking Instagram, texting and emailing.  As the prelude began it’s final chords and the organ began to swell, I put my phone away.  In the time that I had been looking down on my phone, the sanctuary filled up.  This morning, it wasn’t average Sunday in November full, it was practically Easter full.

We stood to sing the opening hymn, A Mighty Fortress is Our God.  The oft-mentioned beauty of my church comforted me and yes, even surprised me a little.  Every Sunday, I can’t believe how at home I feel on my little pew in this grand, old sanctuary.  I was grateful to have a place where I could bring the sadnesses of the last week.

I touched on it in my last blog, this complicated navigation many of us are attempting with family members who did not vote the same way we did.  Like I said, my parents voted for Trump.  I voted for Hillary.  And for the last week, I’ve tried to figure out what these opposing positions mean about our relationship.  How can we see life so differently?

Big surprise, I cried in church.  Believe it or not, it was my first cry this week that was about the election.  Yes, I am disappointed that Hillary lost, but my tears were not really sad ones.  Well, maybe melancholy.

See, I cried this morning when I realized here I was in church again, after a twenty year break, because my parents showed me the value of it.  That church is a place to bring your heartache.  That church is a place to look at your heart and see what you need to change.  That church is where you have a moment to acknowledge what you are grateful for.

I thought about my ailing Grandma Avis who asked my Mom to find a church, any church, 46 years ago.   And maybe the ANY part is what I was thinking about in February, when I attended a worship service solely on the basis that I thought the church looked pretty when I drove by.  And when I walked into the church courtyard, I saw a poster that read, “Inclusive.”

The Scripture reading today was David’s Psalm 23.  When the man read, “I will fear no evil for you are with me,” I thought about how, like God, my parents are always with me, even when I feel there is a distance.

On Friday, when I spoke to my parents, my Dad stated that if someone ever asked him to deny Jesus, he would let them kill him.  He would die defending Christ. I assured him that that would never happen.  “You never know,” he insisted.  “If I die tonight, I have no regrets.”

Today was the first day that I prayed for Donald Trump and his impending presidency.  I prayed that God would give him wisdom and compassion and guidance.  With my head bowed and my eyes closed, it struck me that I have more in common with Trump than I’d like to admit.  I sometimes say cruel things. I sometimes make bad decisions. I can be self-serving. I grow my hair longer than what is ideal for my age/weight.

I loved that my church was packed today.  I looked around and saw faces I’d never seen before.  I imagined that maybe, like me, they had grown up in conservative churches in the Midwest or the South.  Maybe they had left the church in a huff or snuck out a side door.  But maybe, this week, this crazy week, affected them in a way that they said to themselves, I’d like to go somewhere to find comfort, healing.  Maybe they thought the church looked pretty.  Maybe they had a Grandma who begged, “Find a church, any church.”

That parable of the prodigal son, maybe it resonates because some of us feel like we’ve squandered riches and long to return home to a father that welcomes us with open arms.  Today, I thought about the time when my own Dad was a prodigal and the events that drove him back to church. Surely there are differences, big differences, but for now, maybe it’s best to hold to what we have in common, to cherish what we share.

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The Pink Tea Cup

052809PinkTeaCup17MS.jpgWhen I lived in New York, on my days off from work, I would sometimes go to the Jefferson Market Library in Greenwich Village, check out a few books, then wander somewhere around there for lunch. One of my favorite places to have lunch alone, just me and a book, was a soul food restaurant, a neighborhood staple, called The Pink Tea Cup. I ordered the same thing every time, a burger special that came with fresh cut fries, a slice of sweet potato pie, and a cup of coffee. I was usually one of only a few customers during the hour or so I’d sit and read my book and eat my meal. It was a cozy joint and I especially liked going in the winter. I remember one year that I did not think I would be able to fly home for Christmas, whether it was because of money or getting shifts covered or both, but at some point, the heavens parted and I was able to get a plane ticket and make arrangements. I celebrated by taking myself to a late lunch at The Pink Tea Cup. I could not help but be conscious of the color of my skin while I dined there, but there was something Southern and familiar and comfortable about the place. I sat and ate the home cooked meal and looked forward to the home cooked meals my Mother would have waiting for me when I made it to Kansas for the holidays.

I just finished reading Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone by James Baldwin. There was a section of the book where the protagonist, a successful African American actor named Leo Proudhammer, recalls working as a waiter in a Greenwich Village restaurant called The Island that sounded, if only to me, a bit like The Pink Tea Cup. Leo remembers serving Hopping John and chicken and ribs and I closed my eyes and saw all the action taking place at my old haunt, a place that still looked like 1968 even in 1993.

I am mostly drawn to James Baldwin for three reasons. He wrote often about New York, a city I love. He wrote about the Church, it’s complicated burdens and emancipations. And probably mostly, because he wrote about homosexuals, because he was one himself. I identify with James Baldwin.

This identification resonated even more in Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone because he wrote about acting, specifically his character’s technique and process and it gave me an idea what it must have been like to be an actor in the ’50s and ’60s New York, a time and place that produced some pretty exciting actors, not to mention writers.

There is a point in the novel where Leo’s estranged brother, a man who was falsely imprisoned in his youth but has become a minister, comes to visit him at The Island. He stays until the restaurant closes and the two brothers sit to share a meal, Leo drinking a tumbler of Chianti, Caleb, the elder, drinking coffee. Their conversation is tense in moments and tender in others. At one point, Caleb asks Leo, “What does an artist really do?” I’m editing for space. More than anything I just want you to pick up the book and read it yourself, but Leo tells Caleb that an artist creates things-paintings, books, poems, plays, music. Caleb then wants to know exactly what these arts do. Leo tells him, “They make you-feel more alive.” And then Leo thinks to himself that he doesn’t trust that answer. They talk more, Leo then says, “I think it-art-can make you less lonely.” But he doesn’t trust that answer either. And then finally he tells his brother, “Sometimes you read something- or you listen to music- I don’t know- and you find this man, who may have been a very unhappy man- and- a man you’ve never seen- well, he tells you something about your life. And it doesn’t seem as awful as it did before.”

Everytime I write about Baldwin, I feel a little foolish. What could a very white boy from Kansas have to offer when talking about one of the greatest African American writers in history? His experience was not my experience. It’s kind of ludicrous for me to say, “Oh I LOVE James Baldwin because he wrote about New York!” It sounds like I’m talking about Cindy Adams. But there is something about the way he wrote about New York and Evangelicalism and sexuality that drew me into his world, that captivated me. And once he had me, has me, for James Baldwin’s work is ongoing, by seeing how much we are alike, he also reminds me of how different we are. I learn from his experience; it’s my hope that reading about his specific African American experience makes me a more sympathetic, empathetic, knowledgeable person. I think there is, in his writing, an attempt to shame me for the wrongs my ancestors did, just as I think he tries to hurt his father, even though he loves him, for being cruel and abusive and embittered and drunk when Baldwin was a boy. Baldwin offers a knife in the side and then a blanket for comfort.

It’s no surprise, really, that I feel a pang of regret for saying that something in Baldwin’s writing intends to punish or wound me. While I am gay and have always felt like an outsider, the color of my skin, reminds me, how much of an outsider could I possibly be? I’m much more Barbara, the secondary character of Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, a white aspiring actress who fled Kentucky in hopes of making her way in New York City, who forges a life long intimate relationship with Leo Proudhammer. Leo’s love for her is visible and tenable, but in the 20 years of their friendship the novel spans, there are the knife and the blanket and neither are ever very far from each other.

I really don’t know where I am going with all of this. Baldwin raises more questions than he answers for me. But God, I love him. I love the way his stories burrow into me and I laugh and I weep and I think to myself, “This is MY STORY. He is telling my story.” And the ridiculousness of that statement doesn’t even occur to me until I am pages ahead.

Book of John

johnevanThere 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.

What the World Needs Now

photo-32So, I’ll be honest, when I finally got to Wilshire Boulevard Temple tonight for their Sanctuary Rededication and community concert, I wasn’t feeling the love for anything.  It’s been a hectic, arduous, often annoying 48 hours.  I got 5 hours of sleep last night.  I didn’t get out of work until 4:00 and the service was supposed to start at 5:00.  I told Eric to go on ahead and I’d meet him there.  Our friends Barbara and Jack were meeting us there as well.  Of course, parking was a nightmare.  I was grumpy when I found my group in the balcony of the newly restored temple.  I started kvetching (I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist) about having to park half a mile away.  And then I stopped and looked around the sanctuary and I was kind of speechless: it was stunning.  I took a few pictures which I posted to Instagram (feel free to follow me at raybarnhart68), but I really wish you could have been there to see it.  A few minutes after my arrival, the two-hour service started.  Different guests and members of the congregation talked about the temple, the previous rabbis, interfaith relations, Los Angeles.  There were prayers.  There was music from six different choirs including the Wilshire Boulevard Temple Choir, the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, the Sacred Praise Chorale of Faithful Bible Church.  

And then the service closed with Burt Bacharach and all of the choirs singing What the World Needs Now.  I also posted a snippet of that to Instagram.  After the weekend I had, there was a part of me that dreaded sitting in a pew for a religious service, and yet, I left invigorated.  I shed a tear when Rabbi Steven Leder became a little emotional as he introduced his mother.  What a big day this was for him, this respected religious leader and yet, at heart, like the rest of us, he’s a child who just wants to make his parents proud.  

It was an evening filled with blessings for people of all faiths and among those blessings was being able to sing along with Burt Bacharach to one of his most iconic, beloved songs.  Btw, he’s 85 and spryer than me, not that that’s saying too much.  His life has certainly had its joys and sadnesses and I couldn’t tell you how much his faith has played a role in his life, but it was a gift for him to share his time and talent with us, with me and Eric and Barbara and Jack, tonight.  And certainly, the song couldn’t ring truer, love is exactly what the world needs, now and always.