We backtracked to the entrance of the department store, which put us back in the main corridor, looking each way and not a sign of him. We looked at each other with a “what the hell?” expression and I pointed left and said, “You go that way, I’ll go the other. Back here in no more than five minutes.”
I was back in three because my end of the corridor was a dead end with an appliance store. Jackson came along a minute or so later. “I went as far as the drug store, took a quick look inside, and nothing. Then I came back here. Now what do we do.”
I was trying to choke down a rising sense of panic, and then halfway down the corridor toward the appliance store I saw the Restrooms. I grabbed Jackson’s hand and pulled. “Come on, Men’s Room.”
We walked in, and the array of sinks were first, and nobody in sight. Behind a partial wall were the banks of doors into the toilet stalls on one side, and the urinals on the other. We walked down the row, looking under the stall doors, and there were no feet in sight. At the end of the stalls was an opening, and around the corner was a space with a baby changing shelf and a bench seat. Will was on the seat with his face in his hands, sobbing.
I pulled Jackson to me. “Go talk to him. Be soft. Something happened to scare him. Don’t push now, Okay, we can talk about it later.”
I saw Jackson take a deep breath and smile, then walk over in front of Will, drop down onto his knees in front of him and softly take his hands. Will had to look up because the hands he’d been sobbing into were suddenly gone. His face was red, his eyes raw, and he looked bleakly at Jackson. They looked at each other in silence of a few seconds.
Then Jackson said, “Lovely to see you again, my friend!”
Will started crying again, this time more than sobbing, and Jackson leaned forward and pulled him into his chest in a full embrace. Will’s face dropped into Jackson’s neck, and he kept crying as Jackson stroked the back of his head and rubbed his shoulders.
I heard him say, “It’s Okay Will. Don’t panic. You can control this. Just like JC said, you can control this. Nothing is so scary that you have to lose it.”
Slowly, Will stopped sobbing and eventually put his arms around Jackson, hugging him like he was holding on for dear life. When Jackson knew he’d calmed down and the crying had stopped, he leaned back and took his face in his hands and looked straight at him.
“Will, what happened?”
He was quiet, then he started trying to answer, stumbling over his words, almost choking out his reply, and finally said, “I saw Kevin.”
I was floored, and I saw Jackson startle. “How do you know,” he said, still holding Will’s face in his hands.
He was quiet, it was almost like he couldn’t speak the words.
“Will, can you tell us what happened?”
He swallowed and wiped his face, and I handed them some toilet paper to blow his nose. Finally, he said, “I was following you into the department store, and just as you went in, I looked to the right, down the corridor, and there he was, walking toward me.”
“Bro, how do you know it was Kevin.”
“He had red hair and blue eyes, and he looked at me and smiled, he was looking right at me. Those eyes. I knew it was him.”
Jackson glanced at me. I shook my head and then tipped my head over my shoulder pointing at the door.
“Will,” Jackson said softly, “you’re spooked right now, and that’s understandable. We need to get out of this bathroom. Come on, get up and we’ll all go home, Okay?”
Will eventually nodded, clearly not having remembered he still hadn’t bought underwear and socks, and slowly we got him out of the bathroom, and down the corridor toward the entrance on our side of the parking lot. As we walked by the Banana Republic store, I saw him! Kind of tall, red hair and blue eyes, and at the cash register with an older lady and two small children.
We walked Will across the parking lot, got him into the car and headed home. It was a quiet ride, and when we got there, we carried the stuff from the car into the kitchen. I motioned Jackson to sit Will down at the kitchen table and they sat together while I made some tea, then I sat down with them.
“Will, back at the mall you looked like you had the shit scared out of you, like you’d seen a ghost. Do you want to tell us about it again?”
Jackson had his arm around Will’s shoulder, and he looked at me with an irritated expression, but I was pretty sure he hadn’t seen what I had in Banana Republic.
Will said, “It was like I told you, I saw Kevin, and it blew my mind, and then I thought, ‘he’s dead, he can’t be here,’ and then he looked at me, with those blue eyes, and suddenly it all started again. He was here because we loved each other, but he couldn’t get past the guilt, and why would he be here, and then he was gone, and I freaked and ran down the corridor and saw the Men’s room and went in there. You know the rest.”
I reached across the table and took both of his hands in mine and said softly, “You know that next to Jackson I love you more than anyone else in the world, right?”
He was looking at the tabletop, not at me. I squeezed his hands and he looked up. “Do you?”
He nodded. He looked pale, but at least he wasn’t crying, he was in the funk on the other side of the emotional impact.
“Will, have you ever had to have someone pull a splinter out of one of your fingers because you couldn’t reach it?”
He looked at me like I was talking Martian.
I smiled, “You know, you get a splinter, it’s in your right hand and you’re right handed, and it’s in a weird place and you can’t work your pocket knife or the tweezers with your left hand to get at the splinter and pull it out. So, you need to get someone to help. Have you ever had that happen?”
“So, it was awkward, and maybe embarrassing, and at some point, it hurt. But when it was all over the splinter was out and it healed. Did you hate the person that made you feel bad and caused the pain?”
He paused, I could see the small muscles around his eyes flexing, and finally he said, “Well, no. Cause they pulled the splinter out.”
I squeezed his hands and held them tight till he looked straight at me, and then I said, “Good. Now, I’m going to pull this splinter out, and at first you’re going to feel dumb because you couldn’t reach it with the tweezers in your left hand, and then you’re going to feel some pain, but then the splinter will be out, and it’ll start to heal. Are you with me?”
He nodded. I could tell that at least I had his attention, and we’d changed the line of thinking in his head.
“I’m going to say a few things to you, and some of them are what you know, what you’ve told us, and some of them are new information. Just listen to me, Okay. Hear me out. You don’t need to confirm or deny any of this. Just listen, Okay?”
I squeezed his hands again and he smiled meekly.
“So, you’re about to walk in the department store and out of the corner of your eye you see this guy walking toward you, and he catches your attention and you look to the right and you see he’s a good looking guy with red hair and blue eyes. Am I right so far?
He nodded, and I went on. “So, he sees you and smiles because he’s looking at another good looking, teenage guy, and you see him smile at you and suddenly it clicks in your brain: red hair and blue eyes and that smile. It’s Kevin! But he’s dead. How can he be here? And suddenly your brain is in this whirlwind of trying to sort out how all of those things can be happening to you at the same time right there in the mall.”
Eventually he nodded.
“So, all this stuff is boiling in your brain, and you’ve stopped dead in your tracks, and what did the guy with the red hair do?”
He was silent. I squeezed his hands again. Finally, he said, “I don’t know.”
“Will, you don’t know because your brain seized up or overloaded or whatever you want to call it.”
I let him think about that. When I glanced at Jackson, the irritation had gone off his face, and he’d realized that I must know something he didn’t. There was the faintest smile on his lips.
Will finally said, “Okay. But what does that mean?”
“It means the moment was so emotional for you that you freaked, and lost sight of what else was happening. It happens in moments of crisis. Ask JC about it someday, or your Dad. It’s the kind of thing that can happen in war or dangerous situations, that can either shut people down or enable them to complete acts of amazing courage. You freaked, and that’s Okay because we’re talking about your boyfriend who died. That’s a pretty major deal. Don’t feel bad about it. If I thought I saw my parents at the grocery store, how do you think I’d act?”
He didn’t say anything, so I went on. “So, here’s what I think happened. You had that moment of emotional crisis, you freaked, and then you didn’t know what to do, you panicked, we’d kept walking into the department store and you lost sight of us and you ended up running down the corridor and you saw the Men’s room and went in there to try and figure things out. Was it something like that?”
Slowly he nodded.
“Okay, that’s what happened to you. Now we’re at the pain part about getting the splinter out. I’ve got to make a little nick with my pocketknife and then pull it out with the tweezers. Are you Okay with that? Can you handle the pain?”
He looked at me like ‘is this for real,’ and then slowly nodded his head.
“There’s two things here. First, did Kevin have straight hair or curly hair?”
“He had straight hair. You know that. With beautiful waves in it.” His voice was suddenly strident.
“Okay, we’re good on that. Also, did Kevin have two younger sisters?”
“What? That’s crazy. You should know he didn’t he didn’t have any brothers or sisters.”
I squeezed his hands. “Okay. Will, the pains over. We just pulled out the splinter.”
He looked at me like I was nuts. “Will, what do you suppose happened in that moment when you thought it was Kevin and you freaked?”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t mean to you. We know what happened to you. You ran to the Men’s room. What happened to Kevin?”
Suddenly his eyes widened. “Oh my god. I don’t know.”
I softly squeezed his hands again. “I think I can help.”
He was silent, just looking at me, with an expression that slowly became pleading.
“He walked by you. He looked at you, and you looked at him, but he walked past you because he didn’t know you and he had to be somewhere.”
“What? What does that mean.”
“Will, it doesn’t mean anything. It’s a statement of fact because when we were leaving the mall, I saw him in Banana Republic at the cash register with his mother and two younger sisters. And he had curly red hair like the rest of them. So, curly red hair and two younger sisters. That wasn’t Kevin. It was someone attractive that looked like Kevin, but it wasn’t Kevin. You mistook him for Kevin. That’s all that happened.”
Will looked dumbstruck. He didn’t say anything, but I could see his eyes flicker and the emotion wash across his face, and finally he said, “I’m such a fuck up. I’m so pathetic. I can’t believe that happened.”
I glanced at Jackson, who understood and reached over and put his hands on top of ours. “Will, you’re not a fuck up and you’re not pathetic. Your boyfriend killed himself six weeks ago. This is life, man, and you just got hit with a real shocker—someone that looked a lot like Kevin. What happened to you isn’t anything to be afraid of, it was a shock. Now we know what really happened, and you’re past it. Like JC said, it doesn’t have to control you, you can control it. You know the facts now, and they brought back a ton of memories and feelings. But now you can let it go. You can let it go if you choose to.”
Will was looking back and forth between Jackson and me. He started sobbing again. “It was so real, and I was freaked. I didn’t know what to do, that’s why I ran to the bathroom. I didn’t even think about you guys, so I’m sorry about that.”
Jackson’s expression slowly changed to a shit-eating grin and he said, “Will, you’re my best friend, and here’s the deal. All my best friends get one major fuck up like this. You just used yours up!”
I had to struggle not to laugh, and slowly it dawned on Will that it was a joke, and he could laugh, too.
I still had ahold of his hands and squeezed again and said, “Are you Okay now? Do you need anything?”
He got quiet for a minute, like he was pulling himself together, and this his expression became very open and vulnerable. “Can I ask for something I really need right now?”
“Can we go into the living room on the couch like the other day, when you were hugging Jackson and he made me sit down next to him so he could hug me.”
“Sure. Let’s go.”
“But this time can I sit in the middle. I want one of you guys on both sides of me, cause I need you guys to hold me and I’m probably going to turn into a crying baby again.”
“Will we’ll go do it. And, you know what, tears are good and healthy. We’ll talk about grieving soon. You haven’t been able to do much of that so far. Come on, let’s go.”
As we sat down, Jackson put on some music, but mainly we just sat, holding each other, loving each other, accepting each other, healing each other.
Eventually we broke for dinner, and had a quiet evening together. Will was pretty well back to normal by the end of the evening. Jackson even asked him if he didn’t want to be alone and if he wanted Jackson to sleep with him. He shook his head. “No, I’ve got to control this. You got me through today’s freak out, and now it’s on me.”
Sunday morning, I made French Toast with sausage and we had a pleasant breakfast. As we were washing up, I said to them both, “You know what we have to do today, don’t’ you?”
I got a kind of clueless “What?” from both of them.
“We have to go back to the mall, because Mr. Summers never got around to buying the underwear and socks that he needs in order to show up on campus and register for class tomorrow.”
We had lunch when we got back, and talked about being back in the mall today with no freak out and no fear. He’d led the way in and down the corridor to the department store, and was doing his best to control the situation. He looked at me and said, “Can we talk about grieving?”
I nodded and said, “Sure, if you’re ready. You have to tell me you’re ready. It’s kind of an emotional subject.”
“I think I’ve got to be ready. School starts tomorrow and that’ll be a bunch of new stuff so I need as much ammo as I can get if I’m going to be in control.”
“Let’s clean up and then we can go in the study or the living room, which ever you prefer, and we’ll talk about it.”
We settled in the living room because Will had asked Jackson if he’d be there, saying, “I’ll probably need you to sort me out on this stuff. You’ve had experience and I haven’t.”
I started out explaining that the concept came from work Elizabet Kubler-Ross had done with terminally ill patients who demonstrated five phases of reaction to their diagnosis. That research was expanded and showed that it also applied to people going through loss.
“Think of it as the person gets a terminal diagnosis, that they’re going to die, and they begin to experience their own loss, the loss of their life. Conversely, a person loses a loved one or close friend and the loss they experience is external to them, but it’s still a very emotional and painful loss. Are you with me?”
“Okay, the concept is that the process of grieving moves through five phases, and they are Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. This was part of our counseling training in seminary, and I’ve seen some of it, and I can tell you that it’s not always five distinct phases, one that follows the other. They can overlap, it depends on the person. Also, for some people it can be a long and drawn out process, for others it happens relatively quickly. I’m not going to tell you where you are in the process, that’s something for you to determine. We can talk about anything you want to, but let’s start with denial. The idea behind it is not just an overt denial that something happened, but that denying it in our minds is a coping mechanism to survive the emotional pain. Does that make sense?”
“Kind of, at least if someone says, no that didn’t happen. But that’s not what I did. Well, maybe for five minutes. But I knew Kevin’s mother wasn’t lying to me. She was too mean and nasty in what she said for it to be anything but true.”
I smiled, “Do you remember what you said over and over again for quite a while? You said, ‘Why did he do this? We loved each other. He told me that he loved me.’ That’s not denying that the event took place, but it’s similar in the way you were emotionally reacting because you were still trying to understand and absorb what had happened to your boyfriend and what it meant to you. If nothing else, the denial phase tries to slow the painful process down, so it can be managed.”
He was quiet for a while, finally looking up at us. “I guess I did do a lot of that, didn’t I?” I could see the emotion in his eyes.
“Yes, and it’s perfectly normal. You were processing a ton of emotion. That’s also what’s going on in the anger phase. There’s a lot of emotion to process, we need an outlet, and anger allows us the outlet without being vulnerable. You don’t have to open up to people if you’re angry, in fact anger makes us unapproachable. Anger is also more socially acceptable than admitting we’re afraid. I didn’t see a lot of anger, but maybe that happened while you were still down in Eugene?”
He looked up, “It did, but it didn’t last very long. It was mainly a lot of crying and wailing and pounding on my bed. I don’t know why my roommate didn’t throw me out. I think I reached the point that I was cried out and just couldn’t be angry anymore. What was the point?”
“That’s a good sign, Will, because it means you understood and accepted the reality of what had happened and weren’t avoiding it or re-directing it in the wrong place. The bargaining phase can occur two ways. The first is the obvious one of trying to cut a deal, usually with God, to restore what’s been lost. ‘Let me find my stolen bike and I’ll never be a bad boy again,’ kind of thing. For a lot of people, though, it’s really about seeing our own faults, regretting what we didn’t do, things we could have done differently. In a different way that’s bargaining about how we actually feel.”
“I didn’t do any of the first kind, but how’s the second one bargaining? I don’t get that.”
“You, like everyone else, had to think for a little while, maybe a longer while, that if you’d only done this, or hadn’t done that other thing, then maybe that would have done the trick and Kevin wouldn’t have committed suicide. That’s what we were talking about when I told you that you weren’t to blame, that the irreconcilable conflict was all on Kevin, and you had been doing everything in your power to make it work for him. Do you remember that?”
He nodded. Jackson scooted over next to him, and put his arm around his shoulder. “I saw that too bro, and there was a time when it was almost like you were trying to take some of that responsibility onto yourself. Like you were still trying to help Kevin deal with what he couldn’t deal with.”
He was tearing up now, and slowly said, “I guess that’s true, and it just means I couldn’t accept not just what he did, but why he did it, right?”
“Probably so,” I said quietly, “but don’t beat yourself up about it. To me it’s less a problem and more a commentary on you being a compassionate and honorable person. You did everything you could while he was still alive to make it work, and you were still trying after he died.”
“I guess that’s why I was so depressed for so long, right?” He was sobbing now, and that was good because it wasn’t just raw emotion, it was an emotional outpouring connected to a specific thing.
“I think so, and if you add all of that up, the efforts you made, his inability to resolve the conflicts, his constant burden of guilt, the fact that you couldn’t share that burden with him, take some of it off of him, even though you tried, is it any wonder you were depressed?”
He was quiet for a while, then shook his head. “No, I guess not. That was that deep black hole where I’d dug down to and taken my candle of life, wasn’t it?”
I glanced at Jackson. “It was,” he said softly, “and that’s why we were so worried. Not just because you were in that black hole, but because when people are involved in a suicide, they can think it’s a solution for them, too.”
He said nothing.
“Will,” and I paused till he looked up at me. “All that stuff, denial, anger, bargaining, is mainly emotional. A way to process the grief by expressing emotion. When you get past those things, and I think you worked through a lot of the emotion pretty quickly, then you’re left with dealing with the reality, with really feeling the loss of the person you loved. You feel the loss more intensely, and that’s when it’s almost natural to pull inward, to withdraw, being less sociable, not relating to other people. It comes in all different degrees and can happen quickly or be drawn out. In your case it went on for two or three weeks. Even though being depressed is natural, being that depressed that long isn’t. You’d isolated yourself in your room at home. That’s why we came and got you and brought you here. We felt you needed to be with people you could relate to and talk to about anything, no matter what.”
“I must have looked like a lost cause,” he sniffed out.
“No, you didn’t,” Jackson said very firmly, not willing to let him slip back into it. “You weren’t a lost cause. You were our friend going through hell, that just needed some help to get out of it. You sat right here and told us you weren’t to blame. Remember that?”
“Good. The second thing is that it’s normal to be depressed, but it’s something you get through. Either alone or with help from your friends. That’s all. It has nothing to do with being a lost cause.”
“And the thing that proves that,” I went on, “is the last phase which is acceptance. You moved into acceptance when you could say you weren’t to blame. But you were still depressed. A lot less depressed than the week before, but still depressed. And you’re still depressed, but a lot less depressed than ten days ago. It’s a process that you’re working through. You’re still feeling it and processing it, and that’s why you reacted the way you did at the mall when you thought you saw Kevin. You’ve still got raw and unresolved feelings and emotions, but you’re doing a great job of working through the entire grieving and healing process. Just know that you’ll be feeling it for a while.”
He was quiet. “In case you don’t believe me, I’ll tell you something you don’t know. Weeks after my parent’s funeral, my brother shipped out to me that rotating dictionary stand that’s in the study. It was full of memories for me, good and bad, and my brother didn’t want it. We put it in my office in the parsonage. And then a week or so later, I was working in the office and something happened to set it off, and I was flooded with all these memories about my Dad and his study and the stand, and I just lost it. A lot like you did in the mall the other day.”
“Really? You did?”
I nodded. “I’m not Mr. Cool-Calm-and-Collected all the time!”
Jackson hugged him and said, “He was late coming home, so I walked down to the parsonage and found him in the study, just sitting there crying. Kind of like the way we found you in the Men’s Room at the mall. See Will, it’s normal. There’s nothing weak, no lost cause stuff about it at all.”
We all sat there quietly, letting it sink in. Finally, Will looked up at both of us and said, “Thanks. I needed to hear all of that so I could get it sorted out in my head. I know I’m out of the dark tunnel and up in the sunlight with you guys, I just got scared I could fall back in, but I guess I see now it doesn’t have to be that way, and if you understand it, then like JC said you can control it.”
Slowly he started smiling, and then broadened, and finally he said, “I owe you guys big time.”
Jackson looked at him and said, “Hey, it’s what you do for family. See this?” He pulled down his sleeve and exposed his bracelet. I did the same thing. Finally, Will did too, and said, “I get it.”
Registration went fine for both of them Jackson got the classes he expected, continuation of the ones he began in the Fall, and Will ended up with a completely different set of classes since he had to take many of the first-year entry classes over again. They wouldn’t have any classes together, but they would have choir practice on Tuesday and Thursday evening and Glee Club on Wednesday afternoon together.
I spent the day at the Center working with Mona on planning for the quarter, and to be available during registration in case students had problems or showed us with any special needs.
Much to my satisfaction, in the early afternoon our “regulars,” as I’d begun to think of them started showing up. Ruth was first, and she and Mona had a huge catch up session about what happened over the holiday vacation, and before long Ron appeared and joined in. They eventually headed into the lounge to get organized, and after a while I heard Jackson and Will arrive. It was fun to listen to Jackson introduce Will to Mona, and to hear Mona, in her indubitable way, come right back, clearly liking Will not just because he was Jackson’s best friend, but because she clearly saw what a great person he was.
When I heard them head into the lounge and Will being introduced, I walked in and said hello and asked who wanted a cup of coffee, got a rousing response, and we all trooped into the kitchen. I made Jackson bring Mona along, and we ended up having a great conversation covering the highlights of Christmas break, who was taking what classes, and what the expected challenges of the quarter would be. It was very open and friendly, and we all headed back into the lounge to sip our coffee. While we were chatting, I asked Ruth and Ron if they’d had any thoughts about the discussion group over the holidays or had any suggestions. Ruth responded quickly, “I like it a lot and think we should keep going the same way. Some people may think it’s too heavy, but I think one of the really good things about it is that we talk about important stuff. It’s not just a fluff and warm and fuzzy kind of session.”
Ron was nodding his head. “I agree. I learned a lot last quarter and we should keep it up. The discussion made the mythology class more relevant for me, and then we went in a different direction from the class when we discussed faith, and that was personally helpful, too. Are you still thinking about a support kind of meeting for gay students too?”
“I am. As in, I’m positively thinking about it, if there’s enough interest. Homosexuality being legal is new enough in Oregon that lots of people aren’t out, so how do students find out? I don’t want to broadcast it and make announcements and make it a big public deal over it because then it could have the unforeseen consequence of outing people who aren’t ready.”
“I hear you, but I’m out to our small group. And Jackson’s out publicly. I think if we get going, we can get the word around. I’m with you that it’s important not to make public deal out of it, but because it’s here, off campus, we should be able to finesse it.” He looked at Jackson, “What do you think?”
“I agree, but you need to know that while a few people outside the discussion group know about me, it’s not widely known on campus, and I’m just a Freshman, too, so it’s not like I can talk to or influence a lot of people or anything.”
“Same for me,” Ron said. “I haven’t formally announced anything either, but I’m pretty sure the group knows or figured it out based on the discussion and questions I asked. Ruth did, and she’s become a real friend and that’s helped a lot.”
It got quiet and then Mona asked if she could say something. I laughed out loud and said, “Mona, you run this place. Without you it wouldn’t work, so you can say anything you want anytime.”
She smiled sweetly, saying, “Thank you, Pastor Dave. I’ve gotten to know all of you and you’re all fine young people. I told Pastor Dave early last quarter that a big problem last year was that his predecessor was anti-gay. I don’t know if he was homophobic, but the effect was the same. Over the course of the year a few students who were homosexual, boys and girls, came looking for help of one sort of another, and they got none. I ended up talking to a lot of them, because that’s all we had to offer. So, what I’m saying is that it’s important that there be something, a support group or discussion group we can point them to. Anyone who wants one-on-one counseling with Pastor Dave will get it, and that will be fine. But my sense was that many of them were also looking for and needed a peer level organization with students their age, that they can relate to, and they can discuss their challenges with.”
Everyone agreed, and then Ruth said, “This is confidential, but Mona I’ll give you an example.” She looked at everyone. “Confidential, all right. Not to be repeated ever!” Everyone nodded.
“My roommate is a great person, and she says she’s bi and makes it sound like life’s all good, but I know she’s struggling. It would be great to have a place to suggest to her. I’d even attend if that’s what it took to get her to attend and check it out.”
Jackson both smiling and astounded. “You’re not gay and you’d attend? You’d do that to help your roommate out? Wow, Ruth, you’re some kind of good friend.”
Will had been quiet, and I’d been watching his expression which went from curious to interested to something just short of amazed as the conversation developed. He finally said, “I know I just met you guys and I just got here, but I can sure see the need. I’m bi, I’m going through a hard recovery right now from something that happened last Fall, and I’m Okay because I’m living with Pastor Dave and Jackson. But if I was new on campus, like it was for me at the start of Fall quarter, I wouldn’t know what to do or where to turn. I was at U of O and thought I knew what I was doing, but I wasn’t singing in choir and I didn’t really have any friends, just knew my roommate and a few guys I met in the dorm, and then when the problem happened, I was alone. Well, alone except Jackson kept a lifeline going over the phone. I think what you’re talking about is really important.”
I was impressed that he could be that open, and was heartened at the seriousness and trust all these students were exhibiting to each other.
Ruth looked at me. “Well?”
“When does it start so I can tell my roommate?”
I smiled at her and looked around at everyone. “Will you give me a week or two? And when’s the best time to do this? Tuesday and Thursday evenings are a problem with choir practices. What do you think?”
They all kicked days and times back and forth, and settled on 4:00 PM on Monday. It wasn’t a huge school day usually, and that time would be after classes, and it didn’t consume another evening.
I saw Jackson smile conspiratorially, then say, “You should ask Pastor Dave what else he’s been working on to hold here at the center.”
That got everyone’s curiosity fired up, and I outlined the idea of having a simple non-denominational Christian worship service on Sunday mornings. The reception was positive. Jackson wasn’t letting go and said I needed to provide more detail about what was in and what was out.
I described the idea of a service modeled on the early Church, that used the Psalms, included an antiphonal litany, a couple of simple chanted hymns that themselves were very ancient as well as a Scripture reading and short sermon. “What do you think? I’m not asking for any commitments. Just, what’s your reaction?”
Ruth was the first to respond again. “I’ve told you I’m going through a kind of spiritual crisis, so you can definitely count me in. I’d probably learn a lot about stuff I know nothing about, and I can also get my Dad off my back about not going to church and worrying I’ve become a backslider and apostate!”
That cracked everyone up, and Ron said he was curious and interested as well. He told me that I definitely had to announce it at the first discussion group.
“How about I explain it at discussion group on Wednesday, just what’s in it and why we’re doing it, and then we’ll have the first service on Sunday, and whoever wants to can come and check it out? The idea is to have a non-denominational worship service available to students on campus, and this would give us a way to work out any problems or wrinkles. You guys would be my guinea pigs! Does that sound reasonable?”
Everyone nodded, and Mona told everyone to take a look in the old dining room before they left because it had been converted into a small chapel. She was smiling with the pride of ownership, and I was thrilled at that. She really had the wellbeing of these students at heart. The conversation went on a little longer and I begged off to go back to my office, but not before noticing that Ron sure appeared to be paying attention to Will.
I came back down before 5:00 and Jackson and Will were still there reading. I was impressed that they were trying to get a jump on the quarter. Mona waved me over to her desk and said quietly, “I just want to make sure my assumptions are correct. Will is the same best friend Jackson told me about at Thanksgiving, the one who’s boyfriend committed suicide?” I nodded and told her I’d fill her in on details when we were alone. I also thanked her for the comments she made to the group. “You know they’re going to start thinking of you as a surrogate mother if you keep it up, don’t you?”
She grinned and said that wouldn’t be a bad thing. As we drove home Jackson and Will were talking about classes and workload, but over dinner I asked Will if I could say something to him. He looked confused, but nodded, and said, “Sure, but why do you have to ask?”
“Because it’s personal and I don’t have the right to just invade your space. I want you to know how positive for the group, but more importantly, healthy for you, what you said to Mona and Ron and Ruth was this afternoon. I know what happened at the mall, and I know we talked about the grieving process yesterday, but I want you to know that for a person to be able to talk about a major loss in the manner you did this afternoon is a really good sign of healthy progress in the grieving process.”
The next day Jackson and Will were still complaining about the academic workload, topped off by choir practice. I looked at them sideways and said, “Wait. It’s the first day of class, how can it be that hard already?”
The answers were along the line of ‘it just is,’ and ‘so much homework.’ I rolled my eyes. “You guys are lightweights. You’ve been off for two weeks, haven’t read a lick and now you’re overcome with the academic load. Give me a break!” They kind of laughed it off. When I asked how Will’s audition had gone at choir practice, he smiled broadly. “Mr. Atkins is really a cool guy. There was an audition, and I had to sing, solo and with the choir, but he made it work. Not that he made it easy, but I couldn’t have framed it up any better to make me sound good. So, I’m in choir and glee club.”
“Very cool. Let’s get dinner organized, and then you two academic lightweights can take over the study to do your homework!”
The next night was the quarter’s first discussion group, and after we caught up, and then had a few questions about the stages of faith subject we’d discussed last quarter, I asked what they wanted to focus on this quarter. It went back and forth, and we agreed on a topical subjects: women’s rights and the ERA movement. I had a flashback to my conversation with Jane and Michael almost a year ago, but the point was that these were relevant topics in the news, and students were aware of them.
We decided to begin with the subject of Women’s rights, and then move from there to the Equal Rights Movement and discuss the status and issues around the Equal Rights Amendment. The ERA had turned into a hot potato in some political circles, so this subject promised to be interesting. Ruth said she’d do some reading on the history of women’s rights and have that for us next week, to open the discussion.
Different classes meant different start times, and often Will would leave later and drive himself to campus. That frequently meant he and Jackson would meet up after choir practice or Glee Club, and they’d drive home in Will’s car. They were both upbeat after Wednesday’s Glee Club, because Robert had mentioned that their new member didn’t just have a good voice, but had done some arranging with his high school choir director, and there was member interest in the two Beatles arrangements he’d done.
Thursday evening during dinner I asked them what their take was now that they had a three days of the new quarter under their belt. For Jackson, the reply wasn’t hard. “I’ve got it easy, I’m just continuing classes and choir and glee club from last quarter. No new subject starts or anything. Will’s the one dealing with the challenges.”
We both looked his way, and he nodded. “Yeah, it’s more challenging than starting last term was, but you know what, I know it’s good. ‘No pain, no gain,’ right? I’m not as good a student as Mr. Smarty Pants here, but I’m good enough, and I’ll be on top of it. I know I’ve got to get on track, and then along the way I’ve got a quarter to make up, and I’ll do that. I’m not going to blow the opportunity you’ve given me, trust me on that. Also, I can tell you one of the mistakes I made last quarter at U of O was not being actively involved in the music program in some way. It seemed like there was so much music last year in high school, I just wanted a break. But I’m a musician, so that was a mistake. All I did was make a hole in my life, and just the three practices we’ve had this week have shown me that. Like I said the other day, it probably would have made dealing with the Kevin roller coaster a lot easier if I’d been involved.”
He was looking at us directly, not acting embarrassed, just stating the facts. I smiled at him. “You’re probably right, and credit to you for making that assessment and being able to talk about it like that. That’s very mature.”
He was quiet, smiled and nodded but didn’t say anything, but it was clear something was on his mind. Finally, he looked at us and said, “It also would have made a big difference if I’d been in something like the discussion group. They’re great people, and I was amazed how serious they are about stuff like mythology and faith, and they’re so open and honest with each other about their personal stuff. I let myself get alone, even though I had a roommate, and that was a big mistake. We all need support sooner or later. Is that how you see the gay support group going?”
I hadn’t brought that up since we’d talked about it at the Center on Wednesday, because I didn’t want him to feel any pressure to participate. “Yeah. You’ve already seen the discussion group can deal with any subjects. Last quarter we spent time talking about identity and Jackson shared he was gay and that led to some discussion about sexuality, and we discussed faith and dealing with a spiritual crisis and changing belief systems, and now we’ll be talking about women’s rights. They’re all relevant and topical, and can help people sort problems out, but it’s pretty general. I don’t remember if I told you before but when I was hired, there was a clear mandate to create some outreach programs for homosexual students because it’s legal in Oregon and gays have civil rights. So, that support group will be much more specific and hopefully provide support and help students dealing with their sexuality.”
“Will I be able to attend that too?”
I looked at him, somewhat surprised. “Of course, if you want to. Why would you think you have to ask?”
“Well, I’m bi, I know I had a relationship with Kevin, but I don’t think of myself as gay.”
“Will, it’s for all students dealing with their sexuality. Remember us talking last year about it being on a continuum from hetero to homo, with bi in the middle somewhere. So, gay, bi, and even straight for that matter. And I’m glad you asked the question that way because it’ll be important to make sure everyone understands that and position it that way.”
Jackson looked at me. “What are you going to call it? I mean if you call it a ‘Gay Support Group’ it sounds like some kind of clinical therapy session type of thing for gay guys.”
“That’s a good point. What do think it should be called?
“If you want it broad about sexuality, not just for gays, then gay and homo should be out of there. What do you think, Will?”
He nodded. ‘Yeah, it should be about personal development. And I think Jackson’s right about calling it a support group. That sounds more like what should be at the clinic or something.”
I was impressed. “We started last quarter with identity and that led to these other discussion points. What if we call it Personal Discovery? Personal covers all types of people, and certainly includes their sexuality. Discovery implies finding new things out and some kind of journey. Make sense?”
They were both nodding. Jackson added, “and the support part won’t just come from gays helping gays, like that, it’ll come from straight people like Mona helping gays, and vice versa. So, it needs to be a kind of coalition or club or alliance.”
Will turned up his nose. “Club sounds childish and exclusive for personally important stuff like this. I could go with coalition or alliance. Either one works for me and it’s got the broader meaning you were talking about.”
“Then I say Personal Discovery Alliance,” Jackson said with a grin, “because PDA is easier to say and sounds cooler than PDC.”
I looked at him and said, “Good suggestion, for both reasons. Are you going to be part of it? I’ve purposefully not asked either of you before now because I don’t want to put any pressure on you. You’ve already got lots to do, and you’ve been helping me with the worship service, too. I don’t want you guys stretched thin.”
He looked at Will, and I could see Will’s eyebrows flick up out the corner of my eye. “Yeah, I’m in and you know why. And by the way, we’ve got plenty to do, sure. But you know what, most students waste a lot of time, or play around after school or shoot pool at the student union or whatever. I’d rather be doing stuff like this that makes me a better person and happier.”
“Makes sense to me.” I turned to Will. “See why I love him so much?”
He grinned, “Yeah, and I’m on the same page. Better to be happy and healthy than unhappy and a great pool player!”
“Right on. Now, it’s been a busy three day. You owe your parents a phone call to let them know how it’s all been going your first week back, and Jackson and I will do the dishes.
We’d never gotten in the habit of watching much television beyond occasionally watching the news, and occasionally 60 Minutes on Sunday evening. Friday evening, though, we watched The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson because Jackson and Will had heard that Richard Pryor and Tim Conway were both going to be on. They were hilarious in completely different ways, but we all laughed and giggled the whole time they were on, especially the amazingly silly but surprisingly funny dumb things Tim Conway was able to get away with pulling off.
Saturday had light rain, but we still needed to get out, so we drove to Forest Park after lunch and did a short hike. The 60/40 jackets did their job! On the way back I asked what that strange noise was that I heard coming from Will’s bedroom during the morning. They knew I was kidding, but said I’d have to wait and see.
I “saw” the next morning when I said at breakfast that I’d be leaving for the Center by 9:20 for the worship service, and they both said they were going too. When we got there, to our surprise, Mona was already there and had opened the building and had the lights on softly in the chapel.
“What are you doing here for a non-denominational Christian worship service,” I asked smiling?
“My not being Christian doesn’t mean I can’t participate does it? I’m half Roma and many of them are Orthodox Christians. Anyway, I may not be here every Sunday or even frequently, but I want it to be a success, and I’ll help however I can.”
“You’re amazing, Mona. Now, what’s that?” I was pointing at a brass Celtic cross and two candlesticks on the worship table.
“They’re something I found in an antique store. I heard you say something about needing a cross and candlesticks on the table, so, you know! They weren’t expensive, and they’re my contribution.”
It was a nice older brass Celtic cross, as were the candlesticks, and they clearly had had a life of church use that they brought with them.”
“They’re lovely, Mona. Thank you so much.”
“My pleasure. The owner didn’t know anything about them, but guessed they must have come from a church that updated, or upgraded to newer furnishings. You know how so many are getting modernized. I thought they had a nice older and traditional look that went along with the feeling you’re trying to create. I had that fabric left over from curtains, so I just sewed a simple drape to go over the table.”
By drape Mona meant she had stitched a long one, a covering that was the width of the console table she’d given us, and draped two feet off either end of the table’s five-foot length. It was a beautiful green color and lent a lovely quality. “Do you know that green is the liturgical color for Ordinary Time, meaning for most of the year apart from the holy days?”
She shook her head. “That means the color is perfect,” I said, “and it adds such a nice feel.” I hugged her.
She looked at Jackson and Will. “I happy to see you’re both here too. You’re both committed, I see.”
Jackson grinned, “Well, Pastor Dave kids me about being his atheist boyfriend, but I’m still spiritual, and we couldn’t let him do this alone without a choir, cause, you know, he can’t sing all that well!”
I let it go so they could have their joke, and got myself familiar with positioning in front of the worship table. I’d placed the copies of the order of service by the door when we came in, but was incredibly happy that they’d both come along, and now knew for sure that Jackson had been teaching Will the music for the Litany and the hymns in Will’s bedroom.
“Okay, what say we run through the Litany once, to warm up. After we start, when we get to the Beatitudes and then Lord, Lettest Now Thy Servant hymns, I’m just going to be quiet and let you start the singing, Okay?
Jackson nodded, and I added, “It might just be the four of us, this being the first time we’re having the service.”
He smiled. “I know. No worries. It’ll be nice even so.”
There were actually three more. Ruth and Ron came, as well as one other student from the discussion group. I’d lit two of the votive candles and they put out a nice warm glow, and then I lit the candles Mona had provided on the worship table.
At 10:00 o’clock I put a stole over my shoulders and walked up front, turned to them and said, “Since this is the first time we’ve held this service, a little explanation is in order. We won’t have to do this each time, but it will explain things and make everyone more comfortable to begin with. First, the chapel is purposefully simple, the intent just being to create a sacred space. The worship table with cross and candles is courtesy of Mona. It’s a simple Celtic cross, and that form is among the oldest Christian crosses, going back to early Ireland. The votive candle holder was given to us the by Russian Orthodox Church, where we also got the arrangements for the two hymns we’ll be singing. The service is simple by design, like that in the early Church. It’s designed to be non-denominational and intended to be as inclusive and welcoming as I could make it.”
I explained what Father Alexi had said about lighting votive candles upon entry, that the service was structured with antiphonal parts like a sung service, and also had participatory parts, that we would read the Psalms together and say the Lord’s Prayer together using an ancient Aramaic version. I said we’d also sing two ancient hymns, and that in the middle would be a Gospel reading and short lesson. Finally, I added, “Jackson and Will have both sung in choir for years, and have very good voices, and they’ve offered to lead the singing parts. You each have the lyrics for the two hymns, The Beatitudes and the concluding hymn known as Lord, Lettest Now Thy Servant Depart In Peace in the order of service. They’re going to sing both now, so you hear the melodies, which are straight forward and easy to learn, so just follow along and be comfortable. You’ll learn then quickly and sing along as soon as you’re there.”
Jackson and Will sang both hymns, and I joined them halfway through, and could hear other voices slowly joining as well.
I said, “We’ll begin now,” and turned to the worship table, said a silent prayer and began by intoning the first line of the Litany.
In peace let us pray to the Lord
Lord, have mercy.
For the peace from above, let us pray to the Lord
Lord, have mercy.
For the peace of the whole world, for the stability of the holy churches of God, and for the union of al1, let us pray to the Lord.
Lord, have mercy.
For this holy house and for all who enter with faith, reverence and the fear of God, let us pray to the Lord
Lord, have mercy.
For this country and for every authority and power within it, let us pray to the Lord
Lord, have mercy.
For this city, for every city and country and for the faithful living in them, let us pray to the Lord.
Lord, have mercy.
For seasonable weather, for an abundance of the fruits of the earth, and for peaceful times, let us pray to the Lord.
Lord, have mercy.
For those who travel by land, air and sea, the sick and suffering, those under persecution and for their deliverance, let us pray to the Lord.
Lord, have mercy.
For our de1iverance from affliction, anger, danger and need, let us pray to the Lord.
Lord, have mercy.
Help us, save us, have mercy on us, O Thou, from whom the breath of life comes,
To you, O Lord.
Jackson and Will had nicely sung the “Lord, have mercy” responses, and by the third one everyone else had joined in.
Everyone joined in the reading of the first Psalm and then it was quiet as The Beatitudes was indicated to be sung. I was facing forward but could imagine Jackson holding the arrangement in front of them, marking the timing and then they began. They were singing at moderate volume, and their voices were brilliant and clear, and the lilting melody just came across as very consoling and spiritual, and I heard a few voices join in part way through, and toward the end everyone was singing. I suddenly had a new appreciation for The Beatitudes.
Watch the YouTube video of The Beatitudes sung by the St. Patrick Cathedral Choir
The next Psalm was read together, with everyone joining in and being a little more vocal, and then I read the Gospel and delivered a short lesson or sermon. I purposefully kept it short and simple, so I could spend a few minutes on the version of the Lord’s Prayer we were using. I pointed out that I’d learned about it being the earliest translation we have, from a 1st century Aramaic version, reminded them that Aramaic was the language Jesus spoke, and that while the central part was the much the same, the beginning and ending were both simpler and different. For instance, it did not begin “Our Father who art in Heaven,” because the concept of God the Father as a member of the Trinity was a 4th Century doctrine, and in Aramaic, the opening word was Abwun, which addressed the creator and giver of all life. Correspondingly this translation wasn’t full of legal concepts about transgressions and forgiveness, but was about experiencing God’s light, knowing his will and receiving wisdom. Here I got specific.
“Because this ancient form of the prayer was in use before the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity is also why it has quite a different ending that doesn’t speak about the ‘kingdom and the power and the glory of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,’ but rather ended with the statement ‘sealed in trust, faith and truth,’ followed by Amên. Notice it’s a different ‘Amen’, which would be pronounced as a-meen or a-mun. The usual understanding from Hebrew is associated with truth and dependability, and it’s commonly translated in English as ‘So be it.’ Meaning, it conveys agreement with what has just been said. But in Aramaic it’s not just an intellectual concept, a mental agreement with what’s just been said. It’s much deeper than that, and in fact, corresponds with the meaning in the prayer itself. In Aramaic, Amen is translated as ‘I confirm with my entire being.’ So, you see, not only is the prayer more universal and less legalistic, the ending is not an intellectual assent but rather a wholistic commitment of self. Let us say the Lord’s prayer together.”
I turned back to the worship table and we recited it together.
Oh Thou, from whom the breath of life comes,
who fills all realms of sound, light and vibration.
May Your light be experienced in my utmost holiest.
Your Heavenly Domain approaches.
Let Your will come true - in the invisible universe just as on the material earth.
Give us wisdom for our daily need,
detach the fetters of faults that bind us, like we let go the guilt of others.
Let us not be lost in superficial things,
but let us be freed from that which keeps us from our true purpose.
From You comes the all-working will, the lively strength to act,
the song that beautifies all and renews itself from age to age.
Sealed in trust, faith and truth.
I paused for a moment, then we read the final Psalm. After another few moments of silence, during which I could imagine Jackson with the arrangement Father Alexi had given us, they began softly and purposefully singing our closing hymn. By the end of the second line, others were picking up the melody and singing along to the ending. It was lovely, that was the precise word that came to mind.
Watch the YouTube video of Lord, Lettest Now Thy Servant Depart in Peace sung by Chanted by the choir of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Seminary
I gave the Benediction and then said, ‘Go in Peace,” turned back to the worship table and removed my stole, then walked down to join them. Mona was smiling broadly and when I asked what she thought, she said, “It was peaceful and spiritual. What more is there?” That made my day.
Mona had put on a pot of coffee before we began, and said she’d bring it into the lounge and had a plate of cookies as well. We stood around and chatted and there were plenty of comments about how nice and different the service was, and a few about it being a novel approach. Ruth said she liked it and would also like to meet sometime to talk about the service structure. I told her I’d be happy to share what I knew. I could see Ron talking to Jackson and Will, and Mona was chatting away with the other student.
Before she let me go, she said, “I do have one specific question right now. Why The Beatitudes, but no Creed, and why no communion?”
I grinned. “Asked like a minister’s daughter. You learned well. The Beatitudes because they are so centrally reflective of the core message that Jesus taught. He didn’t propagate doctrine, he talked about doing: accepting the other, caring for the sick, things like that. You will likely recall that in Luke, the passage about Jesus sending the disciples forth actually says nothing about ‘ministry,’ it says they were sent to proclaim the kingdom of god, and the emphasis is on taking care of the poor, accepting the stranger, and curing diseases. As to the other part of your questions, the short answer is that the Creeds were late additions, even the Apostle’s Creed is late 4th Century, so, trying to create a non-denominational service modeled on early Christian worship would exclude it. As to Communion, you’ll know from the Mythology and Comparative Religion class that one of Joseph Campbell’s laments was the loss of the metaphorical. In my view there isn’t much metaphorical about re-creating the Last Supper.”
She had been listening hard but was smiling. “I like that answer, Pastor Dave. Thanks”
On the ride home I was quiet, reflecting on the service, and finally Jackson reached over and put his hand over mine on the gear shifter and asked what I was thinking. I glanced at him and smiled. “That it went as well as I could have hoped, that everyone participated was a good sign, and the response certainly seemed to be positive. We’ll have to wait and see who comes back next Sunday to really tell.”
He squeezed my hand and said, “I thought it was really cool and that it went off well. Will and I were talking about it, you know like we would after the band played and you talk about how it went, and setting aside the spiritual stuff, and we thought that the music was good, people sang along, and it had a real nice feel.”
He looked over the seat at Will in the back seat. “Me, too. I liked that it was low key and didn’t have an overload of doctrine. When we were talking to Ron, who’s Mormon, even he was saying stuff like that. Going to a big time Protestant service is too much for him, but even though this is really different than what he grew up with, it was still accessible, and he said it was spiritual and made him feel good.”
“You guys just made my day. Are we going to have lunch at home, or do you want to go somewhere?
We went to a different restaurant in Sellwood, and over lunch they told me that Ron had been asking about us living together and if that meant I was gay. I wasn’t surprised, since enough clues had been dropped, and they both said they thought he wasn’t being nosy, rather trying to understand since he was dealing with his own sexuality.
Will said, “I probably gave it away when I said I was living with you two. I didn’t know Jackson had told the discussion group he was gay and didn’t think about if they knew about you. I’m sorry if this causes a problem.”
“Will, it won’t cause a problem,” I said, smiling at him. “The Center is run by a non-profit and the President of the Board is the one who wanted an expansion of support ministry for gay students. He knows I’m gay because I told him right up front and I also told him I lived with my boyfriend. Jackson and I decided we didn’t have a need to tell everyone, that we could do it when it was right, and on our terms. Mona and Ruth know. Ron has figured it out, and he won’t be the only one. So, it looks like tomorrow at the first PDA is the time. For the record, that’s fine by me. I haven’t been hiding anything, you didn’t cause any problems, and it means one less thing to worry about.”
Monday after class, Jackson and Will were studying in the lounge, along with Ruth and Ron. It was a little after 3:00 PM, and I glanced at them and waved as I came in. They all had coffee, so I knew Mona had been busy taking care of them. I stopped and chatted with her and she said Ruth wanted a meeting. I told her it would have to wait till tomorrow since we had the first PDA starting at 4:00 PM. She smiled. “If you don’t tell her, I will, and we’ll set a time. Good luck with your first PDA. I think it’s a neat name, and a cute acronym.”
I joined them at 4:00 and to start it off I told Ruth and Ron that Jackson and Will and I had been talking about format and name, and we were suggesting that we call this the Personal Development Alliance, purposefully avoiding using ‘homosexual’ or ‘gay’ in the name and asked them what they thought.
Ruth said, “I’m straight, so I don’t know that I have anything of value to say.” She looked at the three males sitting next to her. Ron said to her, “I know you’ve figured it out even if I haven’t told you formally, but I have told Pastor Dave and Jackson and Will that I’m gay. I’m getting closer to not being afraid of it, but I like the name idea that focuses on personal development and doesn’t scream gay. God only knows I need personal development, too!”
Everyone laughed at that, and Ruth said, “I think you’ve got a name. And now that you say it that way, I think it’ll be more attractive to someone like my roommate if it’s named like that. Will, you said you’re bi, does it work for you for the same reason?”
Will looked at her, assessing the question, and I could see he had decided he could trust her. “Look, I’ve had one girlfriend and one boyfriend and that’s why I say I’m bi. That sure doesn’t make me an expert on any of this. I think that’s why a name like PDA works best, because it’s more inclusive. Being gay may be legal today, but it wasn’t not so long ago and there’s a lot of fear out there. I was scared to death when I came to grips with maybe being gay and telling anyone.”
Ruth was clearly curious and being sensitive. “Can I ask how that went, Will, or is that private?”
He looked at her deeply again and then said, “Ruth, I trust you. I was scared to death because my parents were really religious, like yours but my Dad wasn’t a minister, Okay? But I’ll tell you what saved me. My best friend who made me realize that I was normal and Okay, and that I didn’t need to be afraid. And then you know what else, he said he was no expert either and that I needed to go talk to my pastor about it. I think you can connect all the dots.”
It was my time up. “Maybe that’s a good place to start this first discussion. What Will was struggling with was fear. Where that fear comes from for the most part is religion. Yes, society talks about societal and cultural values, but guess where almost all of them come from? We were all in a Presbyterian church, and the Presbyterians, like most Protestants consider homosexuals to be depraved sinners. What goes along with that is a lot of personal condemnation. So, using Will as an example, we just needed to help him understand that homosexuality is a natural expression of human sexuality that has been around forever, that it was organized religion that labeled it as something negative and sinful, and that because it’s a natural expression of human sexuality, he could feel good about himself.”
I saw Ron kind of raise his hand and nodded at him. “Can we spend more time on that in one of these PDA meetings? In Mormonism there’s no alternative view. Being gay is a sin, always has been and it means you go straight to hell. You’re telling me there’s a different reality and that there’s actually hope?”
“I am, Ron. We’ll have a session like you asked. Right now, I’ll just say this. Homosexuality was considered just one of the expressions of human sexuality up to and through the Greek and Roman civilizations. And get ready cause here’s the mindblower: it was through the first thousand years of Christianity, too. It wasn’t until the 12th Century that the Catholic church began putting out a doctrine labeling it an intrinsic moral fault. That’s the Catholic equivalent of the Protestant concept of depraved sin. The Catholic concept came into Protestantism, and since Mormonism is an offshoot of Protestantism, that’s where it came from for your religion. In other words, it’s essentially all the same. When you label the act, the action as a sin, then what you’re doing is labeling the actors. By modifying the verb ‘sin’ with that lovely adverb ‘depraved,’ it means that what they’re really saying isn’t just that the homosexual act is ‘depraved’ as if that’s some kind of neutral label. Rather, because sexuality is so deeply personal, it essentially turns homosexuals into a different category of people. It effects a person’s identity. It doesn’t get much heavier than that, and it causes deep pain and anguish…unless you can work through it or leave.”
They were quiet. I decided it was time. “Also, you all need to know something else since we’re talking this candidly. I’m gay, too. Jackson is my boyfriend and we live together. He’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me, and the consequence of that for a Presbyterian minister was having to address it head on. Was the love that we shared depraved? Did the fact that we loved each other turn us into depraved sinners? For us, the answer was no. But the practical question for us was: how do you continue as Presbyterians under those terms? We decided we couldn’t. Jackson was starting college here and I left the ministry. It’s similar for you, Ron, because Mormonism has the same position. So, I’m telling you about me because I think you’ve already figured it out. Also, I’m not hiding anything. We’re not hiding anything. And, it’s just better to be completely clear and candid from the outset.”
Jackson had been unusually quiet, and Ron looked at him and asked, “How did you handle all of that?”
Jackson laughed, then said, “I’m not laughing at you. I’m laughing at how insane it was. Just like David said, loving him is the best thing that ever happened to me. I had a really bad family situation, and along comes this guy that I fall in love with, and he loves me, too, a dorky teenager, but it’s real. And what’s the upshot of the best thing that’s ever happened to both of us? We’re called depraved sinners. Give me a break. That’s why this is so important. People get trapped in all this hate and shit, and it can ruin their lives.”
I saw him glance at Will and smile softly.
“That’s why I’m here. I know what it’s like. I’ve been there, on the receiving end, and I’ll do what I can to help other kids and students avoid it or get through it. Does that make sense to you, Ron?”
Ron nodded, but was quiet. After a while he said, “The biggest thing I’ve got to deal with is the fact that there’s an alternative and what to do about it. In the culture I grew up in there wasn’t. I mean there were gay guys, we all knew that, but you knew that there was no hope for you if you were gay. Know what I mean? What you’re telling me is that there is hope. I don’t have to be depressed and feel like a piece of dirt because I’m gay.”
“That’s exactly right, Ron. That’s why we’ve organized the PDA,” I said, “and it’s important for you all and everyone you tell about it to understand, that the Campus Ministry Center’s sponsor feels the same way. Helping gay and lesbian kids isn’t all we’re here to do, but it definitely is something we’re here to do, and we’ll do the best we can at it. And let me add one more piece of important information so you all are clear on it. Mona is one of the biggest supporters of this effort. She’s been here for a few years and she’s the one who talks to most of the students, understands the need, and wants to help. She’s not just a great person, she’s your greatest advocate.”
We ended it there, and I specifically thanked Ruth for being part of it. “You don’t have to do this, but I want you to know how much I think of you because you care enough to invest the time and to understand and learn, instead of just buying the standard religious line on it.”
She smiled and said, “It’s worthwhile for me, too. I’m learning a ton, mainly the other side of the issue. In the church I grew up in, there was only one side, and that was the condemnation side. I really want to learn as much as I can about the other side. That’s why discussing homosexuality and women’s rights is really important.”
On the way home I asked Will what he thought about the first meeting and how he thought it went. “It was pretty much living out what I said a few days ago. Having something like this to be part of last year would have helped all those kids that didn’t have people like you and Jackson in their lives. It sure would have helped me last quarter, especially if it had had students like Ruth and Ron that you knew you could trust, were there for you and would help you out. I’m amazed, like you said, that she’s straight and she’s there to learn and because she’s concerned about her roommate. How radical is that? In the church setting Jackson and I grew up in the expectation was that straight kids would condemn gay kids.”
“It’s pretty radical,” I said. “It’s also something else. She may not know it, but she’s an example of what I think of as a real Christian. She’s living out her faith thinking about and concerned about others. Remember the sermon on the Good Samaritan? That’s the kind of person she is. She lives out the Beatitudes, it’s not just lip service for her. That’s probably part of why I think she’s at odds with her father. He has a literal and conservative view, and hers is more compassionate and loving.”
We were home by then, and all set to work preparing dinner. Jackson and Will then headed for the study to do homework, and I cleaned up the kitchen and settled down to read. It had been a good start for the PDA.
Tuesday morning, I met with Carter about the worship service at the center, and he said he’d like to tell me first what he heard Campbell say when he heard him speak at a recent conference he’d attended. “He was speaking about Experiencing the Mystery of God, and I think you’ll find it relevant to what you are doing with your worship service.” I nodded, no doubt showing the eager anticipation a kid does on Christmas day.
He said Campbell began by saying that to properly frame the subject of experiencing the mystery of God, we must be clear what we mean by mystery, and stated: "...the ultimate mystery is found in the mystery of one's own being... deeper than any individual's thinking can go."
He glanced at me, and I smiled back. “I want to remember that line. It will be part of my next identity talk. I can imagine it surprised a lot of people in the audience.”
“I’d say half the audience were educators and academicians like me, so we weren’t so surprised. The regular clergy and theological types in the audience were a little stirred up.”
I grinned at that. “It’s amazingly profound, and engaging at the same time.”
Carter nodded and then went on about Campbell’s lecture. “Then, he briefly spoke about mythology as the mechanism to explain and approach the mystery. First, he outlined the four functions of myth, you remember, I’m sure. Reconciling consciousness to existence and arousing a sense of awe and gratitude about the mystery that is life, of presenting a consistent image of the order of the cosmos, of validating and supporting a specific moral order of the society out of which the mythology arose, and finally carrying the individual through the various stages and crises of life so as to live a life with integrity. We talked about those functions in class as mythology answering the big questions of life: who am I, where did I come from and where am I going?”
He looked at me, and I nodded.
“The first eye opener about experiencing the mystery of God was pointing out that in our western tradition we, essentially, don’t help people get in touch with the ground of their being, or acknowledge the possibility of an experience of identity. That reminded me very much of things you have said about defining the elements of one’s identity and being intimately in touch with it, and how the church only gives lip service to that work. Then he went on and pointed out what is emphasized instead: namely the achievement and maintenance of a relationship to a personality conceived to be our Creator. That makes the religions in the Judeo-Christian-Muslim traditions a religion of relationship. It contrasts completely with Oriental religions that sees the mystery in all of life, and it is incumbent on everyone to experience this truth in their own person. In other words, it’s not a relationship but an experience.”
“Wow! That is a potent assessment, and there’s a lot to unpack there,” I said, somewhat amazed. “You’ll have to help me understand how that came about? I mean, for Christians, especially Evangelical Christians, the fact that there is a relationship with God is the most important thing. Meaning it is something extra special that they’re got to offer that other Christians don’t, and especially non-Christians, don’t have. That’s what I grew up with, so I’ve to work through that, but you certainly know far more about it than I do. Does that mean relationship has replaced the mystery?”
“That might be one way to put it. It’s not to say that something of value isn’t being acknowledged and worshipped, but Campbell’s more important point is that it is not the ultimate mystery of life that is being pursued and discovered, rather this abstract relationship, because the nature of the relationship has been made finite.”
“Meaning that you can’t enter into a relationship with the thing that is beyond all of creation and beyond our comprehension?”
“Exactly. He was quite specific, and I concur completely. Western thinking in general, and our religions in particular, trace back to Judaism. Judaism is the tribal religion in the Middle East that survived and prevailed, and was also the first religion that tied its belief to a specific people in a certain place. God contracted the Covenant with the Jews. So, we have an exclusive relationship between God and a certain people, that occurred at a specific time and in a specific place. God is now no longer the transcendent mystery of life, but a powerful personality that can establish relationships and enter into covenants. So, now the religion is relational and almost transactional. That continues into Christianity where Jesus is the one and only incarnation of God on earth, so the relationship and exclusivity continue, but now they’re tied to a different set of requirements. The same dynamics continue forward in Islam. We end up with the three ‘major religions’ of the world being relational and historical in nature. And, that essentially makes the “god” on the other side of the covenant or contract finite as well. Which leads to the spiritual problem that not only has the metaphor been supplanted, but our religious symbols have all been consistently interpreted as referring not to the inner mystery, but to supposed outer historical events.”
I was stunned and went silent. Carter looked at me. “Are you all right?”
I was processing a mile a minute, and finally said, “I’m beginning to feel like the guy that fell for a complex con job.”
“David, no need. We all grow up within our tribe and its belief systems. Some are enabled to see it for what it is, some aren’t. Some can assess it early, some much later. How old are you?”
“You’re not even one third the way through your life. Consider yourself fortunate that you’re coming to this understanding now. Remember Fowler’s stages of faith and how late in life it is for most people?”
“I can’t argue with that. If what you’re saying about the transactional nature of religion is true, though, I have a pretty major overhaul ahead of me. What does it say about the state of western religion? What hope is there for spiritual progress?”
“Well, Campbell didn’t say it, but I could see how one of the major needs for the doctrine of the Trinity is to somehow attempt to neutralize the problem of the transaction with the finite god, by which I mean make the Father transcendent, the Son the incarnational savior and the Spirit the experiential component. But in the end, it’s all the same thing because it’s tied to the historical and the finite. It’s quite a challenge, really, especially for people in your position, for clergy who are responsible for the spiritual wellbeing and advancement of the faithful. From what you’ve told me so far, and what I heard Jackson and Will chatting to Marcia about the other evening, that’s what you’re working on with the worship service you’ve organized at the Center. Tell me about it.”
I handed him the Order of Service, which he read, and then started asking a series of questions which pretty much resulted in my explaining how it included certain things and why, as well as why others were excluded. He was nodding and he listened and asked more questions. “And so, Jackson had a role in this too?”
I grinned. “My joke line was that my so-called atheist boyfriend was helping me make the decisions about a Christian worship service, but on reflection, something much more important was going on. His feelings and suggestions about the music, about chanting versus reading, were musical and artistic, spiritual even, and very concerned with the feeling for the participants. But overarching that, when he told me the first time we did the service together, that something was wrong, something was missing at the end, it was almost spiritual. You heard him say he may not believe all the doctrine and theology, but he’s still spiritual. It was something like that, he was very in tune with the overall effect being spiritual and uplifting and fulfilling. I was quite amazed!”
“You’re a lucky man, and you’ve got an amazing boyfriend there. I like what you’re doing, and think you’re heading in the right direction. I’m struck that you’re using the early Aramaic Lord’s prayer. I don’t know that much about it, but the 1st century language is striking, especially the all-encompassing way God as creator of all is addressed in the beginning, and the personal engagement in the Amen at the end occur.
“I don’t know that much about it either, but the simplicity of the overall prayer plus the power of the opening Abwun and the different understanding of Amen really struck me.”
“I should share one other thing Campbell said in his lecture, which is specific to what I see you trying to do with this worship service. He concluded by stating that when you are given a dogma telling precisely what kind of meaning you shall experience in a symbol, then you are in trouble. He went on to point out that in his view, the real function of the church is to present symbols and to perform rites, letting believers experience the message for themselves in whatever way they can. To me that says the structure and format while Christian, like your worship service, needs to be as open and un-dogmatic as it can be to allow people to have the spiritual experience they are seeking by virtue of the influence of the symbols. Campbell’s example was a fresco of the Virgin and the virgin birth to symbolize the spiritual birth within one’s heart. In other words, we have to do the things to help people get in touch with the mystery, and place as few obstacles in their way as possible. It looks to me as if you’re doing that. I think you’ll find some interesting support and information in next week’s lectures on Christian Gnosticism.” I thanked him for the illuminating conversation, as ever, and told him I’d see him in class the following week.
The appointment with Ruth in the afternoon was fairly wide ranging. She wanted to learn more about how homosexuality came to be condemned in Christianity, and having grown up in a household and church that was big on knowing the Bible, she was familiar with all the verses that were used to condemn it. When I asked her to tell me the total number, she was stumped, and then we talked about how few there actually were.
“Oh, I get it, that’s why it’s so important that Jesus didn’t mention it, isn’t it? The whole doctrine is built up from other sources?”
Once it was explained, she quickly understood that almost all of it was based on the Leviticus passages that were about ritual cleanliness, and that it was intellectually dishonest to single out “laying with a man” and ignore all the other actions that were condemned. It was no surprise to her that Paul, a rabbi, brought it all forward into Christianity, and it also blew her mind to find out that the two Greek words Paul uses were ones he created, not found anywhere else, and probably described boy temple prostitutes. I could see in her eyes that she was processing, and it was the kind of processing that goes on when you’re being forced to reassess much that you had previously been taught. We then made the subject switch to the concepts from early Christianity that I’d incorporated in the Sunday service, and how that reflected a completely different doctrinal understanding than later Christianity.
She got pensive, then said, “You probably won’t believe this, but it wasn’t Prof. Higgins’ lectures on mythology or comparative religion, or even your talks in the discussion group, but for a girl like me that grew up in church with a minister father, but it was sitting in the service Sunday that kind of made it all click. We get raised up with so many defense mechanisms to reject what we’re taught isn’t right, and even to ignore the truth when we hear it.”
That’s when I reminded her of Higgins comment that mythology is not the false and fictional fantasy stories of pagans. Then I went on to remind her that he’d shared a telling quote from Joseph Campbell in the first class, when he said, ‘Myth is other people’s religion: religion is misunderstood mythology,’
She smiled. “I remember that. I have lots to learn, and probably even more to re-learn! But here’s my point. The service on Sunday felt right.”
Will had meant what he said about being serious about his studies, and he studied as hard as Jackson. Both worked hard in choir and Glee Club, and there was a performance ahead later in the quarter. In the discussion group we took on Women’s Rights, beginning with the little understood fact that the only right the Constitution explicitly extends to both men and women is the right to vote. That’s what led to the movement for the Equal Rights Amendment, which would guarantee equal legal rights for all American citizens regardless of sex. Ruth read a lot on the subject and lead a lot of the discussions. She became particularly strong minded about the ERA.
Passing it would also require states to intervene in cases of gender violence, such as domestic violence and sexual harassment; it would guard against pregnancy and motherhood discrimination; and it would federally guarantee equal pay. Congress had originally set a ratification deadline of March 22, 1979, for the state legislatures to consider the ERA. Through 1977, the amendment received 35 of the necessary 38 state ratifications. What more progressives were beginning to understand was that the entire E.R.A. success was likely to hinge on the work of one woman: Phyllis Schlafly, a proudly anti-feminist Republican, who rallied housewives to fight the amendment in the mid-70’s, but most of us didn’t know it was going on because of the networks we were in. High school kids weren’t paying attention, seminary students, especially gay seminary students weren’t tracking the subject either.
As we learned more about Schlafly’s work, we became sickeningly aware how similar it was to Anita Bryant’s movement, because her argument was mostly that women already had equal rights, but also that the E.R.A. would tear apart the traditional family structure and strip women of remaining privileges, such as having separate bathrooms and college dormitories for men and women. For students in colleges it was unbelievable to listen to, but the sad reality was that the people deciding weren’t college students. The correlation with Bryant’s anti-gay “save the family” movement was there, and it was no surprise that the most vocal opponents were mainly conservative Christians.
We made dinner together when we got home, and were cleaning up. Will was drying dishes with a towel and handing them to Jackson to put away, and he said, “Can I ask you guys something.”
Jackson said, “Well, yeah, as long as it’s not a national security secret.”
Will chuckled and said, “No, it’s not, but can I go on a date?”
Jackson stopped and spun to look at him. “Whoa! What did you say? A date? Far out! And, why do you need to ask us?”
I could see Will out of the corner of my eye, and he was blushing a little. “Well, I live with you guys, and you saved my ass last year, and we’re really close and I don’t want to mess anything up.”
I didn’t wait for Jackson to respond, but said, “Will, do you remember one of the things JC said to you when we were in Seattle? Don’t be afraid of relationships? You don’t need our permission. You’re a smart young man. Just letting us know where you’re going and when you’ll be back is cool. We’d do the same for you.”
Jackson was right on it. “So, what’s up? Ron asked you out, didn’t he? I’ve been seeing him eyeing you for a couple of weeks.”
I could see Will grin. “Yeah, he asked me if I’d go to the movie with him on Friday. He lives in the dorm and doesn’t have a car, and I do, so it’s easy. You guys are cool with it?”
“Man, this is great,” Jackson gushed. “It’s good for you like David just said, and it’s good for Ron because it means he’s getting in touch with himself.” He paused, and he was still looking at Will. “So, Bro, how does it feel to have a good-looking guy want to go out with you?”
I could see his eyebrows working, being just a little lascivious. “It was embarrassing at first,” Will said softly, “then I said to myself ‘don’t be stupid, he likes you,’ and you know what? I like him. I mean, I’m not like madly in love with him, but I like him.”
I squeezed Jackson’s elbow to quiet him down. He could interrogate Will later. “That’s all good, Will. You guys like each other. That’s enough. Go on a date. Enjoy each other. Have a good time. That’s what it’s all about.”
Friday, after Will left for his date, Jackson said, “What are we doing for dinner? Shouldn’t we get started?”
I smiled at him and said, “Since Will and Ron are having a date, don’t you think it would be appropriate if you and I did too? As in have a glass of wine, then go out to dinner, then come back here to a romantic candle-lit house and see where the romance takes us?”
He grinned, and the dimples flared, and he silkily said, “That’s a perfect suggestion. Especially the romantic part of it. This has been such a hectic week I haven’t even thought about romance…but now that you mention it, I can feel this bulge in my crotch, and you look sexier by the minute. Maybe we should go have a little warm up romance session, you know, just for practice. Then we’ll know we’re ready for the real thing later.”
“I love it when my Lover Boy talks like that.”
Over dinner we discussed the pros and cons of an evening ‘quickie.’ Jackson looked surprised, like he wasn’t familiar with the term. “Maybe you didn’t have enough boy or girl friends before you met me?”
His eyes widened and flashed a little at that comment. “Hold up, Big Boy. I’ve heard people talk about it, even if I’ve never had a quickie before. But, to clear the air, I think you need to tell me if you’ve ever had one before or not.”
I grinned. “Of course not. Until I met you, I never really had sex, you know. You were my first, so I wouldn’t have had the opportunity.”
“Well, me either. So, why are we having this conversation?”
“I think we got sidetracked. Weren’t we really trying to talk about if it was fun to have some quick sex before we went out, and if it took the edge off so we could enjoy the evening, and then…you know…be more ready for a languid interlude when we get home?”
He paused, smiling. “Yes, you’re right. Now explain to me what a languid interlude is.” I could see he was beginning to work me.
“Well, Lover Boy, it just means slow or relaxed. As in, no rush. The advantage of our earlier rather furious session was that it takes the pressure off, and we can be slow and relaxed when we get home. You know, a very easy pace. If it takes ten minutes to cum, or fifteen or twenty, who cares. We’ll be in languid mode, so we can just let it flow, don’t you think.”
He’d been watching my lips, and said, “I think we’ll be able to let it flow. By the way, I like the shape of your lips when you say languid. You probably haven’t noticed, but when you reach the end of the first syllable, your mouth is pretty open, and your tongue is noticeably forward in your mouth, and as you say the second syllable your lips purse. I can sit here thinking about what I’d like to have that mouth of yours do to me as your lips purse, and what I’d like that tongue to be doing, too!”
“Now you understand why I’m suggesting a languid interlude, right?
At that point our dinner was served, so we tabled the conversation in favor of the food, with the promise it carried to fuel out later evening activities.
After walking home, we flipped on the TV to see who Johnny Carson had on, and had quite a few laughs listening to him interview George Burns. We lost interest in the program, though, and we were ramping up more interest in each other, and headed to our room for a languid and delicious love making session that started with out some sixty-nining and ended stunningly. As we were recovering, we heard Will come in. He quietly went to bed, being careful not to make to noise to wake us. Thoughtful boy!
Saturday morning we’d brewed the coffee and were debating breakfast choices when Will wandered into the kitchen.
Jackson looked at him and grinned. “You look kind of rumpled, you know?”
“What’a ya mean? I just got up. Have you looked at yourself?” He was grinning.
“Did you have a good time?”
“Yeah, it was cool, and it was fun. Nothing heavy, just fun and being together. It felt really good.”
“I’m so glad, Man. I didn’t say anything yesterday, not even to David, but I so wanted it to work for you, and it sounds like it did.”
“Yeah. We’re not madly in love or anything. We’re both coming out in different ways. I’m coming out from my deep dark hole, and he’s coming out from being repressed, so we can be good for each other. I think that’s pretty fab.”
He looked at me, “Does that make sense David?”
I’d purposefully let this be between them beyond the first ‘Good morning.’ Now I turned to him and said, “I do. I think it’s an amazingly healthy way to approach it. I’m happy for you. I do have a question though, if it’s Okay with you.”
He nodded. “I meant what I said about your comment about you coming out of your deep dark hole and Ron’s coming out from being repressed being very mature. Observant and mature. Are you able to discuss that with Ron, or is it just something you can talk to us about?”
“Well, we talked about our backgrounds a little bit, but not like we shared our life stories or anything.”
“That’s not what I’m suggesting. There’s similarities in your circumstances and vast differences. You’re currently excited and happy it happened and how it went, and that’s terrific. Don’t lose sight of the fact that you’re still tender and sensitive and hurting in places. It would be easy for him to misunderstand some of that if he doesn’t know about it. You’re way ahead of him on coming to grips with your sexuality, but if you weren’t, then he could do or say things that might concern or spook you. I’m not telling you to go bare your soul, but you are two friends who’ve started dating, and if anything, err on the side of overcommunicating. It’ll be good for both of you.”
He smiled back at me and said, “Thanks for that. Can I have a hug.”
I grabbed him, and Jackson acted petulant, “Why am I left out?” and jumped up to join us. It was a really neat kind of rejoicing about a new milestone.
After we’d cleaned up from breakfast I asked about the day. “What do you guys want to do?”
Will said he needed to change the oil and oil filter in his car, but it could wait another week if there was a better option. I looked at Jackson.
“I need to do something physical. It was a stressful week. That was a big dinner last night. Can we go on a hike?”
A smile flashed across Will’s face, and slowly morphed into a grin. “Exercise. Wait, you’re trying to tell me that the first night you had alone in this house in a month and you didn’t get any exercise. I don’t believe it!”
I was looking at the weather forecast in the paper, but heard Jackson snicker and say, “Well, you know, there’s exercise and then there’s exercise. And, thanks for being quiet when you came home last night!”
The forecast was rain later in the afternoon, so we decided to drive up the Gorge where it would probably start raining later still and get in as much of the Eagle Crest hike as we could. We were back in time for dinner. Jackson asked if I had my lesson ready for tomorrow’s service, and I smiled.
“Thanks for remembering and asking. Actually, I do, and there’s a whole new feeling associated with it. Since we’re doing a sung service, one that’s antiphonal, it isn’t necessary that the highpoint is some killer message from the minister. Everyone can have their own highpoint depending on where they are. I was thinking about that as I put the lesson together a couple of days ago, and I remembered something from a class in seminary about church architecture, that most Protestant churches are laid out with the pulpit either dead center down front, or just off to the side, but having a central position. In other words, they’re laid out like an auditorium, and the spoken message or sermon is clearly the center of attention. It doesn’t have to be that way, maybe it shouldn’t be. We’ll see.”
They both came to the Center worship service, sang beautifully.