Much of my adult life has been spent focused on the larger external world. Significant attention has been given, for instance, to matters of justice, and how individuals or whole populations have been injured by systems over which they had no control. Recently, however, my attention has begun to pivot inward. So I have been wandering around in the thicket of memories stored in some crevice of this warm grey computer between my ears. In this search I have gotten in touch with long-forgotten individuals who have unknowingly had a part in shaping who I am. If you have followed these weekly ramblings, you might have noticed a modest change in direction. One early discovery has been the realization that the division between what is above the surface of my mind and what is below it is artificial, and that everything I am is interwoven. If that sounds complicated, hang on while I offer an example.
I came out of seminary, age twenty-five, unprepared to be the pastor of a Washington, D.C., congregation to which I had been called. I had been something of a star surviving partly on moxie and partly on skill. This congregation had sold its inner-city building to an African American church, and secured an acre on the boundary line between Washington, D.C., and Silver Spring, Maryland. The project was to build a beautiful new facility with the money from the sale of the old property. The new structure was to have been completed by the time I arrived. But alas, I was greeted with a basement over which had been placed an ugly temporary roof. Having been talked into a cost-plus contract, the money was gone.
With no idea about what to do, I spent lots of time wandering around the community hoping that a good idea would jump out of the bushes, but none did. Late one evening as I was walking home through a parking lot behind a series of shops, I came across a young man sitting on a bench, sobbing. The pastor in me took him to a nearby quiet coffee shop where he could pour out his story. And what a story! He had been raised as a devout Christian, and had planned to quit his job and enter a Bible college on the way to becoming a missionary.
Earlier that evening he had met with the governing body of his church to ask for its blessing on his plans. Disaster struck! It had been discovered that he was a homosexual, and what he thought was to be a meeting in which he was to share his dreams was in reality a trial in which he was found guilty, thrown out of the church and told that unless he repented and entered Christian treatment to heal his sinful life, he stood condemned, and would spend eternity in hell! I had encountered him an hour after he had left that devastating meeting.
I do not want to run this encounter through my typical rational analysis, but instead I want to explore what might have been going on underneath my rational surface. Who knows what these chance encounters are really about. It might have been about an angel that confronted me unaware — or it might have come from a far deeper place I could discover if I was open to the possibility.
While years before I had been faced with the poison of racism (to be discussed in another column) the homosexual issue was completely outside my experience, but that reality dawned on me gradually. At any rate, after this encounter I could no longer dismiss those with a different sexual agenda, including a daughter, whose long-time marriage I not only accept, but have also celebrated. This encounter introduced for me the next important civil rights issue requiring the mobilization of the justice-oriented community. We could not rest until justice meant marriage equality.
My anger focused on the failure of the religious community to take leadership on the issue, and to be clear about welcoming its gay and lesbian brothers and sisters to ordination. To the particular “Christian” community that was unbelievably cruel to this man, I had nothing but disdain.
I had one more encounter with him. When my congregation was finally able to complete the building, we needed a carved wooden header which could be placed atop a long velvet cloth hanging behind our communion table. By chance — if anything happens by chance — two years later he called me to describe his newly opened interior design studio, and I referred him to the proper church committee that asked him to create and install what was needed.
I don’t recall his name. I have always wanted to remember him only as the Weeping Angel who confronted me when I was in great need of having someone introduce me to I what became an important part of my life and ministry.