Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Hellfire and Grace

My father moved us to Ohio the summer before my junior year of high school. I went from attending a high school that housed almost 4,000 kids to one that saw me graduate with fewer than 60. On my first day at the new school I was shown to my locker and met R. The lockers were in alphabetical order and his last name was the one next to mine. I remember thinking that he was tiny – maybe 5'2" and had fiery red hair. He was also impossibly nice to the new kid.

As the year went on I got to know R. well. We shared classes, but most importantly, we both sang in the choir. It didn't take long to realize that R. was an amazingly gifted musician. He played the piano like no one I had ever heard, adults included.

One of the things that helped me fit into a new school was music. I was a fairly adept clarinet player. Music gave me an immediate community, while talent gave me a few instant enemies. R. and I were comrades in that sense.

My father was the new pastor at one of the local Southern Baptist churches. R.'s parents started attending. He and I stayed friends through the end of high school, commiserating every day at our lockers, and generally surviving life in a small town school, full of gossip and innuendo. I always had a sense that R. was gay and that he was struggling with all the same things I was – a religiously fundamental family and fears of being abandoned.

He went on to college and so did I, and gradually we lost track of each other. About a year ago I heard that he had died a dozen years before and that he had been yet another casualty of HIV. I was pretty devastated by the news and hoped that he had been surrounded by people who loved him.

Then, last week, through the miracle of Facebook I found his brother. I never knew his brother well, he was quite a bit younger than me. I sent him a note and told him how much his brother's friendship had meant to me and how sorry I was that he was gone. It opened up an avenue of conversation what was both difficult and cleansing.

I learned that, because of their "religious" beliefs, R.'s parents did indeed abandon him as his death drew near. I learned that his brother became his caretaker and support in the last months of his life.

His words:

When my brother became ill, I was left to be responsible for his affairs, but I would not change it for the world. It is amazing that the foundations of Christ's teachings were centered around love and acceptance and how quickly some hide behind the bible to cast someone else out. It is sad.

I asked myself how he could be so loving? Hadn't he sat in the same church services where my father spewed condemnation of homosexuality and preached the hellfires of damnation with regularity? His parents had certainly heard that message. . .

My return message to him:
I can't help but think about the similarities between your parents and mine - and how religion factored into their choices.

I distinctly remember going to a church softball game. (Your dad must have played on the team?) I sat with R. watching the game and we talked about feeling so "apart" from everyone and so alone. He was afraid of the condemnation that coming out would bring and I was absolutely no help to him, as I was struggling with the same things.

I guess where I'm going with this is that I want to apologize for the ugliness and hate that my father taught and preached from his pulpit. I know that I can't take responsibility for his words, but I also can't help but believe that some of your parents responses to the tragedy that unfolded in R.'s life were directly influenced by his words.

And that breaks my heart. And it hurts for you as well, because you were the one who had the courage to step in and be what your brother needed - family.

When I think about my friend R. the image that comes to mind is of a beautifully flowering tree that you might come upon in the middle of a forest full of pines. When everything around him was the same color, texture and appearance, he stood out with his own unique gifts. And, as I celebrate who he was, I also celebrate his brother who embodied grace and love until the end.


Ami said...

What you wrote was beautiful and made me cry.

As a family (extended family) we're currently struggling with a similar issue.

I had started to leave more in this comment, but I'll put it on my blog instead.

I'm pondering printing out this post and mailing it to a few family members.

Unlike some,I am MORE than willing to take sides.

Ami said...

Oh. And I'd like to link to this post on my blog.
Is that okay with you?

Tanya said...

Thank you. It would be a fitting thing for my friend that his story might help someone else think. Of course, you may link to it.

Anonymous said...

Great post. Amazing what happens behind the scenes in our small school.