My secretary stuck her head through the door. “Stan, there’s a Paul Osterland on the line for you; he sounds pretty distressed. Do you want to take it?” ” OK,” I responded, “but first make sure he’s not a copy machine salesman; they use that ruse to get past the secretary.” The glare she gave me told me I was better advised to find out myself.
“Hello, Paul, how can I help you?”
“Pastor, my brother Rick is in the hospital with serious pneumonia and the docs don’t hold out much hope. My pastor recommended that I contact you to see if you would go with me when I visit him.”
After a bit more conversation we agreed to meet at the hospital and visit Rick together. Paul lived a hundred miles or so away, so we set a date to meet a couple days after our talk.
I met Paul for the first time at the hospital. He was a very intense guy who had a mind that ran on overtime all the time. He was like Robin Williams on steroids. He could actually talk faster than I could think. We shared the same cynicism, the same hope, and a similar sense of humor so we became fast friends.
When we arrived at Rick’s room, we were asked to put on full hazmet suits – gloves, gown, hood, and booties –the whole thing. I felt like a robot because when I turned my head the window in the hood stayed put, so I had to turn my whole body to get around. I was wondering why a case of pneumonia required such precautions.
Rick couldn’t talk because of feeding tubes and breathing tubes; he could only respond with his eyes. We told him that God loved him just like he was and would love to be asked into his heart. Paul was the better eye movement interpreter so he did most of the “talking” but he felt sure his brother had agreed to follow Jesus. Rick did look like he was more joyful than when we first got there and I was glad for both Paul and his beloved brother.
Paul and I sat on the steps of the hospital and talked for quite a long time afterwards. I asked about the hazmet suits and he told me that Rick was gay and had contracted AIDS and that it was responsible for the pneumonia that was killing him. This was in ’85 and I knew little about AIDS, except that it was a monster killing people by the hundreds. I had just stared the monster in the face without even knowing what it was.
I made a couple of subsequent visits to Paul’s brother even though he was becoming increasingly incoherent because of the meds and the progression of the disease. When he died a couple of days after my last visit, the news of his death simply broke my heart. I was heartbroken because of his death, but also for his life. I grieved for his life because, as I learned from Paul, Rick had never gotten to be loved for who he was and he was constantly reminded he wasn’t deserving of God’s or the Church’s unconditional love. He lived under constant condemnation and had to hear many of the big-named (and big haired) celebrity evangelists describe his disease as God’s punishment for being gay.
I grieved for his death because Rick never got to use his many gifts to glorify the Creator or to dance the dance of freedom and empowerment. He had an excellent voice and sang opera in New York for several years. When he moved back to my city, he sang as part of the chorus for the local Opera.
About a week after his death, I officiated at Rick’s memorial service in a small chapel in my church. Some of the church women were willing to make sandwiches and small snacks. The people who attended were mostly from the GLBTQ community, people who had become close friends of Rick. The reception in our fellowship hall was joyful and open. I remember saying to myself, “These folks are really friendly and gracious, and funny!” I felt accepted, even honored, by their reaching out to me.
Then disaster struck. I saw my son Max, who was about two years old, eat a half eaten pickle given to him by one of Rick’s friends. I rushed over to him and said, “Please don’t give Max anything out of your sandwiches, OK?” He laughed and said, “Why, are you worried I’ll give him AIDS?” “Yes,” I said rather bluntly. He sensed my anxiety and said, “Relax, I don’t have AIDS and neither does anyone else in this room. Most gays don’t have AIDS, okay? But I promise to keep my pickles to myself.” He gave me a hug and went on his way. He eased my fears a bit but I still worried and often dreamed about Max having AIDS. It was later scientifically proved that pickle sharing was not a leading cause for the spreading of AIDS.
I suppose this story doesn’t seem that traumatic or emotional to one just reading it, but my experience totally changed my attitude toward GLBTQ folks. I went home after the memorial and prayed for a place of acceptance for gays and lesbians, and spent most of my prayer time weeping before God and asking how it could be true that God would reject these wonderful folks. I reached out to GLBTQ folks and tried to find be a place of trust and acceptance. Eventually closeted GLB folks came to me for help, some from my own denomination, even one pastor who remains in the closet today, and another pastor who was engaged to the daughter of a leader in an extremely conservative denomination and wondered if he should tell his fiance that he was gay. That was one of the five most stupid questions I have been asked in 34 years of ministry. I simply told him that there were no options if he loved her than to tell her immediately. Every other option would make her daily bear the weight of his dishonesty.
It was such a joy to be in place where I could reach out in a loving way to GLBTQ people. It was an incredibly meaningful ministry.
But I was left with the same questions. How COULD an unconditionally loving God exclude gays from the kingdom? How could we be so cruel and judgmental towards them? How could we not care enough to bring them into the church and let them use their gifts for the sake of others? Although 25 years have passed since I met Paul and Rick, I still weep over the pain, rejection, belittlement, and shame my dear GLBTQ friends are made to feel.