Rainbows Follow Rain

A Strange Calling Indeed 

It was a very hot summer in Indianapolis, 1967.  Winter seemed to stay forever and then one day it was hot and humid.  I was very glad that papers were all in.  Finals would start in a week.  One more year and I would have the M.Div. degree, be ordained and give full time service to the calling, which I had felt since a youth.  I always knew it was a special calling, but did not know exactly what that meant.  But seminary was about behind me and life was Good. 

Then the day before final exams were to begin an announcement appeared on the bulletin board.  It touted a "special" summer session class that was being offered by my favorite theology professor.  The Church in the Social Context was its title.  I was hooked.  That day I cornered the professor and asked what the course was going to include.  He told me that those that enrolled would read some contemporary theologians.... and not necessarily ones that were normally considered theologians at all.... like Saul Alinsky and Malcolm Boyd.  But the majority of the class would consist of looking for the Church in very unusual places.  He told me that each student would be required to do primary research in one of three communities.  The goal was to look for the Church or recommend how the Church might be involved in the Local Political Process; Businesses with suspected ties to Organized Crime and the Homosexual Community.  Now I was really hooked. 

I struggled all that night with myself.  What a challenge.  I wondered if I had the courage to enroll. Of course, I would only consider doing research in the Homosexual Community.  In my youth there had been a bevy of boyhood relationships with the other boys in the neighborhood.  And there was a particular boy that I had been with all through high school.  But I had convinced myself those were just youthful experiments and was then married with a daughter.  Would I have to face all of those hidden desires if I took the class?  What of wife and family?  What about the Church and ordination and the calling?  What about Chuck?  

The next day I gulped a few times and enrolled. 

The first day of class came.  Twelve of us gathered in front of the professor.  He handed out the syllabus and explained the nature of the fieldwork.  He told us that with the exception of anyone who took the homosexual issue, there would be no faculty support whatsoever for the field work assignments.  We were to be on our own.  We were to make our own inroads, introductions completely without the seminary's intervention.  Then he asked us each to give him a slip of paper with our name and the area of interest written on it and dismissed the class.  

The next day he told me that one other student and I chose the homosexual community for our target research.  He gave me my partner's name and the name and phone number of the Pastor of Christ the King Cathedral of the Episcopal Church on Monument Circle in downtown Indianapolis.  I called my partner and we met.  

It was an awkward first meeting.  We were both married and each wondered why the other had chosen that particular field for our research.  After a long and very pregnant silence, we each confessed our boyhood activities to the other. (I had always wondered why I was so attracted to him.) We called the Pastor and made an appointment.  When we met with him, there were two others there.  They were gay and had consented to talk with us and take us to one of the local gay bars.  In retrospect, I am sure that they were as afraid of what was going on as we were. 

Our guides took us back to their apartment.  We talked for hours and soon our mutual fears subsided and there was true dialog.  They agreed to take us to The Betty-K that following Saturday evening.  When Saturday came we all met.  We cruised up and down Meridian Avenue in Indianapolis and all of the local pick-up places were pointed out.  In fact, one of our guides made a date for later that evening during our cruise.  Finally the bar parking lot appeared and I made my first entrance to a gay bar. 

As soon as I walked through that door I knew I was in trouble.  All of my fears and memories flashed in front of me.  In my eyes, every boy I had ever slept with was in that bar.  It was dark, and smoke filled.  An old-fashioned bar with a mirrored bar-back offered us a place to sit.  We ordered a drink.  Sloe gin and ginger ale.  I will never forget that drink.  I looked around me.  I saw MYSELF.  Suddenly these were people in front of me.... Not stories in books or fantasies of my imagination.  Real LIVE human beings.  Each one ME.  I could not speak.  I could do nothing but sit there clutching my drink like it was the last thing in the world attached to reality.  

Then, as other guys started talking with me, I realized that their feelings were just like mine.  Their worries about paying the rent and keeping the phone connected were exactly like my own.  Their touch was my touch.  A young man with blonde hair and blue eyes and the cutest smile I had ever seen sat beside me.  He was about 24 and looked all of 16.  I talked with him for over an hour.   I must admit that watching men dancing with each other had quite an effect on me.  I wanted to ask my friend to dance, but did not know how to come out and say it, so I sat and talked.  Then the spotlight was turned on and this beautiful "woman" in a long red evening gown started a monologue.  It took me a second to realize I was watching a man in a dress.  The bartender slipped another drink in front of me.  It was from the guy beside me.  Our eyes met.  I lifted my glass to thank him, and he handed me a matchbook cover with a telephone number and the name Pat written on it.  I was so naïve.  I had no idea why he had done that.... bought me a drink...gave me his phone number.  He knew why I was there.... I was only an observer, with no intention other than doing homework.  After all, this was pure social science!  It seemed like he held my hand in his for an eternity while he closed my palm around the matchbook.  Then he whispered, "Enjoy the show" and toasted me with his drink.  

And enjoy it, I did.  One after another the performers mimicked women singing torch songs.  There was a skit between performers.  Then a really large framed performer in a floor length dress appeared.  She belted out the best interpretation of "A Place for Us" from West Side Story that I have ever seen.  Tears ran down her face as she sang.  The audience rocked the bar with applause.  It was obvious that she really wanted a place, not just for her, but also for us all.  I knew that the Church was there.  A whole room filled with men crying their eyes out begging for just one thing.  Inclusion.  I bought Pat a drink. 

The following Tuesday the class met again.  Lee, my partner was not there.  He had called the professor and told him he had to stay in his student parish for the week because of a death.  Now I was truly on my own to describe our first encounter in our assignment.

Somehow I struggled through the class without revealing how I really felt about my first experiences in a gay bar.  That day the Seminary organist stopped me in the hall.  He told me he had heard of my assignment and wondered if I was having trouble finding source material in the library.  I told him that I was.  He told me that he would bring me some materials the following day, and that I was to return them to him exactly as he gave them to me.  Strange, I though.  The next day he handed me a package wrapped in brown paper with the instructions I was NOT to open it when anyone was around and NEVER tell anyone where I got it.  I rushed back to my dorm room, opened the wrappings and found 2 books.  One was the Complete Works of the Marquis de Sade, and the other a novel entitled The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name.  There was also a newsletter from a strangely named group in Chicago.  I glanced through the newsletter of Mattachine Midwest for the first time.  I was dumbfounded.  If I had not been so naïve, I would have realized I could have had a deep and profound experience with one of the Churches leading musicologist.  He had once been the organist at St. John the Divine in New York and was then on the editing committee of the Episcopal Hymnal.  Dumb, Dumb ME! 

There was a post office box address for Mattachine in the newsletter and I sent a letter to them asking to be placed on the mailing list.  I also noted that there was to be a potluck dinner in Chicago 3 weeks hence, and circled my calendar.  I wanted to go, and of course all in the name of social science, mind you. 

The week passed.  It was Friday.  I made some lame excuse to my wife about having to stay at school that weekend, and called the phone number from the matchbook cover.  Pat answered and we made a date for dinner that night.  He suggested a gay restaurant/bar in downtown Indianapolis. 

When I arrived I found a romantic environment with candles on the tables and low lights.  We took a far booth and ordered a drink.  No more sloe gin for Chuck.  Suddenly it was Jack Daniels on the rocks with a water chaser.  Two drinks and we ordered dinner.  I vaguely remember eating it when it finally arrived.  Truthfully I was more interested in the young man across the table.  More Social Science!  After dinner we had another drink and he asked me if I liked movies.  Here I was again.....DUMB!  Pat took me to a hole-in-the wall movie house.  It was damp and cool inside.  The place reeked with a musty sent.  I never had been in a **** theatre in my life.... but I was now.  The screen was filled with men doing all kinds of strange things to each other.  The things they were doing excited me.  It had been a very long time since I had done any of them, but none of them were strangers to me.  I felt Pat grasping my hand.  I spent the night with Pat and by morning knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that the things I had been calling boyhood experimentation were anything but.  Social Science my ***!  I knew after that night that these were my people, and that the calling I had always felt was to serve them. 

God spoke to me in strange ways that summer.  It was if the real reason I had been chosen for the clergy was to some how start the process of reconciliation between a caring God and the disenfranchised children who needed caring for.  My readings in the class confirmed my own feelings.  We read of a God who is never without a witness to the world.  We read of a world that longed for that witness. 

Three weeks later I went to Chicago to the Mattachine Potluck.  Pat went with me.  It was nothing like the bar.  About 20 people with only first names (all fictitious) gathered in a small room atop a bar on the Near North section of Chicago.  We feasted together, told stories, and I learned that this was the group that had been instrumental in working for the adoption of the Model Penal Code in the State of Illinois in 1961.  It was that legislation that legalized sexual relations between consenting adults in Illinois.  I felt awed by the power of such a small group and wondered how so few could have possibly accomplished so much.  And all with only pseudonym first names. Once the group knew of the class I was taking, the began to open up and tell me all of the stories of the phone calls, speaking engagements, personal visits they had made to and with State politicians in the lobby effort.  They stopped being homosexuals to me and suddenly became real live heroes.  So much work had gone into that historic lobby effort.  I was indeed impressed.  I joined Mattachine Midwest that night.  Pat and I spent the night in Chicago and I was once again convinced that they had not been boyhood experiments at all.  Two weeks later the president wrote me a letter asking me to sit on their board of directors.  He told me that they needed someone in the organization to help bring the Church to the awareness they had helped Illinois achieve.  I humbly accepted. 

Summer ran by.  My paper was in and I came away from the class with a totally different opinion of the Church and its role in society than I ever thought possible.  My paper concluded that the Church needed a presence in the gay community and that the community was comprised of people who were completely overlooked and cast out of the arms of the people of God.  I received my A in the class and my life was profoundly and permanently changed.  I now knew the depths of my calling, but had absolutely no idea how to proceed from there.  

I returned the materials to the organist.  Pat went back to school in the East and I started to sort out my head.  What a mess I was in.  The next year at seminary was exciting enough to keep my mind occupied.  It was 1968 after all.  I had finished all my required courses and could take any classes I wanted to finish out my M. Div.  One class pitted me with a news crew from a local Television station.  I got to travel with the crew for the entire second semester, which is a story all of its own.  One experience I will never forget from that class was the day Martin Luther King was assassinated.  Robert Kennedy was in town and had spoken at the morning chapel service at the school.  I was standing in the Commons Room discussing politics and the state of the world with him and other students when suddenly an aide whispered something in his ear.  Kennedy turned ghost white and excused himself from the gathering.  Just then my pager went crazy.  It was the station.  When I called in I was told that a major event was working and that I was to get to the station immediately if I wanted to go along.  I jumped in my car and headed in. 

When I got there I was told that King had been shot and that Kennedy was on his way to the Butler Tarkington Neighborhood Association street rally. I joined up with the crew and we headed back about a mile from the seminary. We were told that the news was not going to be released to the public for 2 hours in order to give police around the US time to deploy crowd control squads. When we arrived at the scene a large crowd had already gathered.  Robert Kennedy for President posters were displayed everywhere you looked.  Red, White and Blue bunting adorned the makeshift stage from where Kennedy was scheduled to speak.  The rally began.  Local speakers talked about solidarity in the community, bands played, but there was no Kennedy.  It was announced that he had been detained and would be there shortly.  As the time of the announcement of the assassination approached, the Kennedy motorcade arrived.  Kennedy took the podium.  He calmed the cheering crowd and told them that he would not be making his planned speech.  Instead he asked everyone to kneel in prayer.  The stunned crowd obeyed.  After a moment, Kennedy announced the death of Dr. King.  He asked the crowd to pray for peace and forgiveness.  Then he told them all to stand and go home and to continue to pray.  There was no race riot in Indianapolis that night. 

But this digression, no matter how interesting of how much historical importance is just that.  It is a digression. 

I graduated in May of 1968 with all of the red robes and masters hoods flourishing.  The next week I was ordained an Elder in the United Methodist Church and became a member of the Central Illinois Annual Conference.  I had applied to Northern Illinois at that time, but there were no vacancies that year.  I was appointed to be the director of a community center in rural, central Illinois.  That was the longest year of my life.  I wanted to go to Chicago and begin to work on my newfound calling.  While at the Community Center, my wife gave birth to our second child.... a son.  My life was more complicated than ever.  I wondered how in the world I was going to survive.  I prayed for an answer, but none came.  Every month I would disappear for a couple of days and travel to Chicago to attend the Mattachine board meetings and the potluck supper that followed.  It became difficult to keep my secret, and impossible to follow my sexual desires.  My wife and I fought constantly.  We both knew the marriage was never going to work, but I did not have the strength to tell her why.

In February of 1969 I received a call from the Board of Ministry of Northern Illinois Conference.  There was an opening if I cared to transfer.  I was promised a parish on the near northwest side of the city.  AT LAST!

WhtRabbit WhtRabbit
66-70, M
Feb 18, 2010