Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Long Time Coming


I don't remember his name, but for reasons which will soon become apparent, I'll call him Adam.

It was twenty years ago next month that I stepped off a plane in Washington, DC, and took the Metro to George Washington University, there to attend the National Convocation of Reconciling Congregations. I was pastor of one of those congregations, the Estacada United Methodist Church.

Estacada is a small former logging town in rural Clackamas county, an unlikely place for a church to proclaim itself Reconciling, the word Methodists use to mean gay-friendly. But the small size of the church made it much easier to reach the decision. All it took was remembering that Marvin, who had grown up in the church, was openly gay. Knowing and caring for a gay man broke through all the barriers of ignorance and bigotry that kept most Christians in that time, and many even now, from opening their hearts to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons. The vote went through in no time, and Estacada pioneered the position that was, over the course of the next two decades, to set the tone for United Methodism in the Pacific Northwest.

I had a rough first year in Estacada, but it was not the fault of the church. I'd had a hard time with my new district superintendent, who was (rightly, it eventually turned out) skeptical of my fitness for ministry. I just didn't seem to have the fire in my belly, and I was struggling with depression, due, in large part, to my slowly imploding marriage, not to mention the never-ending struggle to stay in a vocation that just wasn't right for me. But I loved that little church, and they loved me, and wanting me to grow as a reconciling pastor, they sent me to Washington.

My first day at the convocation was a blur of activity, plenary sessions, small group meetings, inspiring speakers, dinner out with the Oregon delegation (there were, by then, two other churches that had become reconciling; one of them was my eventual post-ministry home, Metanoia), a final worship service, and then I was introduced to Adam, who would be putting me up in his guest room for my stay. He showed me to his car and chatted amiably with me as he took me to his home in Dupont Circle. He kept talking about his "other half," and in my ignorance, I assumed he meant his wife.

But no, his other half was Steve. At least, that's what I'm calling him for reasons you can probably figure out yourself.

Imagine that: I was attending a gay conference, and it never occurred to me that my host family would be a gay couple. Ignoramus that I was, they welcomed me into their home, fed me breakfasts, transported me to and from the convocation, and were always happy to talk with me about any questions I might have about DC, the Reconciling movement, or being gay.

I think it was my third night there that I stayed up talking to Adam, learning all sorts of things about him and about his relationship with Steve. They were a strictly monogamous couple, had been together for several years, and from everything I'd seen, loved each other with a tender intimacy that I found myself coveting. I shared with Adam at one point that I wished my marriage was as supportive and loving as his relationship with Steve, and asked if he'd ever want to have a Holy Union service (the term the movement was using then to describe a gay wedding). He sighed. Civil unions weren't even on the horizon at this point, and having their relationship recognized in church seemed an empty ritual until it had some kind of legal muscle behind it. "It wouldn't really change anything," he said. "We're committed to each other. There's no one else for either of us."

The rest of the convocation continued to open my eyes. On my final night, Adam and Steve took me to Café Luna, a favorite hangout for Washington's gay community, for dessert. Apparently the waiter was hitting on me, though I was completely oblivious to it, and only learned about it many months later from an Oregon friend who'd talked with Adam after I flew home. I was oddly flattered when she told me.

I had two more years in Estacada, and during that time, we fought against a local measure that would have barred the town charter from including homosexuality as a protected minority for hiring purposes. It was a vicious fight, brought in by the Oregon Citizens Alliance, an anti-gay organization that had targeted Estacada after losing a statewide battle the year before. We lost the election, but the coalition that grew out of the struggle eventually displaced the forces of bigotry from their position of power in the community. The night of the election we held a "service of reconciliation" at the church, with invitations sent to all the conservative churches that had booted the Methodists from their ecumenical organization when the church became reconciling. None of them came, but we did bring in a large contingent of gay men and lesbians who had not been in any church in years. One of them stood up and said, "Because of what this church has done, this is a safer place for me and my family." Some of those people decided it was time to set aside the fear that associating with us would be a tacit outing, and began attending on Sunday mornings. By the time I left Estacada in 1995, the Citizens for Fairness, the group born to combat that election, had become the most broadly inclusive and powerful organization in the community.

The churches I went to pastor after Estacada were nowhere near as progressive; I was chided at one point for reading the "I Have a Dream" speech from the pulpit on the Sunday before Martin Luther King Day. I lost touch with the movement, though I continued to believe in the cause of opening Methodism to full inclusion of sexual minorities. But the denominational trend was entrenchment against such progress, and every four years the General Conference moved to close more loopholes, to shut off whatever entrée might be figured out to ordain gay men and lesbians. Ministers were now being prosecuted for performing same-gender services, even though they still had no legal standing. In 2000, I left ministry and became part of Metanoia Peace Community, a radically inclusive alternative congregation that happily situated itself on the front line of these issues.

In 2004, I canvassed against Oregon's version of DOMA. It nearly cost me my job, which at this point was teaching music at a Catholic school in Vancouver. I had signed a petition, to be published in The Oregonian, declaring my support for full inclusion of gay men and lesbians in every aspect of society. Unbeknownst to me, the petitioner had added the title "Rev." to my name; so when the principal of my school opened her newspaper and saw my name, she suspected it was me. (My seminary education had been a strong reason for offering me the job.) She called me into her office, pointed to it, asked me if it was, in fact, my name, then reminded me that I had signed a document stating I would not advocate for positions contrary to Catholic teaching. I pointed out that this was something I was doing on my own time, and not even in the same state as this school. She replied that all it would take would be one parent calling her up and complaining about my activism, and she'd have to suspend me. That didn't happen, but it was a part of my decision to seek a public school position at the end of that year.

We lost that election battle, and Oregon's state constitution has enshrined that bigotry, just as it once included a clause prohibiting persons of color from residing in the state. I have no fear that it will eventually be excised, just as was the racial purity clause; but until it is, I have to admit to some shame when I call myself an Oregonian.

I have more hope today than I've had in years that the time will come, perhaps in next year's general election, when Oregon will set aside this monument to homophobia. The Supreme Court threw out DOMA this morning, and rejected an appeal of California's reversed anti-gay-marriage statute, but did so without setting a mandate for the rest of the states. But the change is coming, and those who resist it will ultimately be plowed under by it.

I've argued for years that gay and lesbian couples are no threat to marriage; that, if anything, their intense desire to be married, to have the same right all heterosexuals are born with, may save the institution from people like me. It was far too easy for me to marry, both times I did it. In neither instance were my wife and I ready for this commitment. We didn't know each other well enough, we had not experienced enough life together, and we had no idea how changing times might change our feelings for each other. People like Adam and Steve, though, have been waiting all this time, longing for this right, passionately working toward it, and will value it far more than the straight couples of my generation.

It's been a long time coming, but at last it's here. And maybe, just maybe, one of these days I'll be able to dust off my preacher papers and preside over a wedding between two men or two women. It could very well be the highlight of my long abandoned career.

Here's to you, Adam and Steve. I hope you've booked a chapel.

No comments:

Post a Comment