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Friday, October 9, 2009

Matthew Shepherd's kin still need a safe place

It got so I knew what was coming. The phone rang. Or a young man stopped on his way out of the sanctuary after worship on Sunday. "Could I come in and talk?" I made sure to have a box of tissues on the oblong white table that sat near the front window of my church office. I tilted the blinds to provide a bit more privacy. I prayed to be surprised, happily surprised. But I never was. "My father kicked me out." "My sister won't let me see her children ever again." "My parents told me not to come home for Christmas." The details changed but the basic message never varied. Rejection. Cold, cruel rejection of a son or daughter or sister or brother or friend or neighbor or colleague. Heartbreaking realities of gay life in the late 20th century. More and more folks coming out. More acceptance than ever before but not enough. I wasn't old enough at the time to be the parent of a young adult but I still couldn't imagine what it would require of a person to reject their own flesh and blood. For being gay. It was the great privilege of my life to be pastor for several years in the 80's and early 90's to this community of brave and creative souls who came to Christ the King in the Loop Lutheran Church in Chicago. Not all of us were gay but many were and we fashioned of ourselves a faithful band of folks who welcomed as Jesus did, as Jesus would, who loved and celebrated as Jesus did, who put everybody to work, all of us doing our best to follow the One whose life was lifted up for the world. I'm thinking of these gay guys this week because it is the week that Matthew Shepherd was killed, eleven years ago, and his sweet, haunting face reminds me so much of the faces of young men who sat at that white table in my office. I'm so glad things are changing, have changed. Now there are stories of reconciliation and rejoicing to go along with the few that still come up, of rejection. Now there are stories of interventions, of people keeping other people safe from danger, of new safeguards, including hate crime laws to deter assaults like the one that took Matthew's life not far from here. Boys, young men, just like Matthew sat at that white table, under the kite I had flying across the high, open-beamed ceiling. I feared for them as much as I grieved with them. Many wonderful, joyful experiences marked those years at Christ the King (CTK). Easter Vigils that featured a paschal squid and bunnies tucked in among the tulips, demonstrations at the South African Consulate, Christmas Eve dinners together in the fellowship hall, coffee hours so bounteous there was talk of them being featured in the Sunday Brunch section of the Chicago Tribune. An annual Jazz Mass with the very best of the city's jazz musicians playing a gorgeous setting of the liturgy. Weekday chats with the best "church ladies" anybody could ever hope to know. Children coming up to the Eucharist wearing brown paper bags over their heads, eyes cut out so they could navigate to the altar and cotton balls glommed all over them to signify that they were all sheep. I loved setting the bread in their tiny hands and seeing them tuck it up and under the bag, into their sheep's mouths. Crying and singing and applause on the Sunday Nelson Mandela was released from prison. Lots and lots of weddings, some featuring readings from Deuteronomy and one where the reception came first. A tiny little voice piping up one Sunday after the communion blessing, "thank you, mommy." And, of course, the day in and day out interaction with members and friends and neighbors of CTK, including these young men who came in to sit at the white table in my office and tell their stories. These times together always, always ended with reflection and that reflection always included this, "I'm so glad to find this church, to find a place where I am welcome, accepted, embraced, given work to do and dignity for doing it. A place where I can be myself." It's a dangerous thing to do but I'm going to tell you what letter I think I cherish most, from those years. Two young men wrote to the Church Council and said, "thank you for letting us be here together. For letting us hold hands like other couples do, for letting us be ourselves." It should not be something remarkable but sadly, in our culture, it was. And probably still is. I think of their faces at the table and those of dozens more, grateful for a safe sanctuary, a home away from home. CTK was just that, a warm, safe home in the city for so many of us who found ourselves there for work, by choice, by default. I miss it still. Christ the King is closing, the last service is this coming Sunday, October 11. The reasons are complex and inscrutable. It's been eighteen years since I left that call and I don't know the in's and out's of the later history. But I'm sad. Matthew Shepherd's parents did not kick him out, he wasn't one of the boys who might have needed a place at the white table. But there were and are many more gay and lesbian folk who still need that safe haven, a welcoming home, a place that is at least as glad to have them as they are to be there. If it's not CTK anymore, there'd damn well better be someplace else.

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