malcolm marler

on a mission to embody grace and compassion in all relationships

Month: March 2009

Part V — A Shining Light

This is the fifth in a series on “One Christian Minister’s Response to Homosexuality.”

Stereotypes.  Sometimes we think all Baptists and Baptist churches are the same when it comes to their view of homosexuality.  But Oakhurst Baptist in Decatur, GA is an exception.   JoEllen Holmes recently wrote about her own journey in changing her thinking over the years about persons who are gay and their role in the church.

joellen-holmes

JoEllen Holmes

When I was a Senior at Jacksonville State University (Alabama), my Sociology teacher wanted to take our class for a multi-cultural field trip which included a visit to the premier gay bar in Atlanta.  I wanted to go, but somehow, my conservative Baptist roots held me back after my Pastor warned me that going to such a place would be like visiting hell.

During my years at a Baptist Seminary, I know that I had many friends that were gay.  As a student there, I am certain that they were not out of the closet, but retrospectively, I am aware that many were struggling with the issue and were not able to talk about it openly.  Yet, I knew, and I didn’t know how to process it.  Because even then, in what was then a progressive place of education, such discussion was not welcome.

Finally, after completing seminary, I was working on my Master of Social Work.  One class, Cultural Diversity, gave us an assignment to visit a place that was not within our cultural comfort zone.  I decided then, that my visit to the gay bar was long overdue.

My pastor’s warning did not seem to be based in reality.  Instead of finding hell, I found a place where human beings existed. In fact, my escort for the evening were two gay friends from the local Baptist church that I began attending.  From that experience, I learned that it really did not matter whether or not homosexuality was a sin or evil, but what mattered was that if God dwells among us now in human form, then God is a part of the lives all human beings, including gays and lesbians.

oakhurst-baptist2Today, I am a member of Oakhurst Baptist Church in Decatur, GA.  Every year, our church is only one of few churches that march in the Atlanta Gay Pride Parade.  We are in fact, the only Baptist Church. Our church gathers every year on the weekend, putting together a float on the back of a flat bed truck.  Some 30 – 40 members of Oakhurst walk together, children, adults, parents of LGBT friends, straight, black, and conservative lookin white people get together to celebrate the goodness of our diversity.  We receive jeers from some who have been scarred by the abuses of the church.  We see weeping from others who long for a church that they can call home.  We hear jeers from the conservative churches in the crowd cursing and damning us into hell for our beliefs.  We also hear applause and cheers from those who are thankful that we are there.

I am very thankful for my brothers and sisters who are gay and lesbian.  They have enriched my life, and have become a part of the fabric of my world.  Thanks be to God.
Thank you JoEllen, for you and your church being a shining light for all God’s people.


NOTE:  Tomorrow, I’ll share a story from a friend who is gay and how the church has made a difference for him personally.

Part IV – That Judgment Thing

This is the fourth in a series on “One Christian Minister’s Response to Homosexuality.” Judge Not

I still remember my first lesson about being judgmental of another from my mother. I was about five years old and my sister and I were arguing as five and seven year olds tend to do.  I could tell I was losing the fight, so I pulled out what I thought would be my verbal ace.  I blurted out, “You’re not really a Marler!” Ouch.

It was the meanest thing I could have said to my sister who was adopted.

Marcy’s adoption brought my parents indescribable joy especially after the grief of losing their first child at childbirth and being told they could not have more children.

My hurtful words had no longer than just left my mouth when I felt my mother’s strong hand grab the upper portion of my arm and escort me into the bedroom.  She sat me down on the bed, looked into my eyes with her misting eyes, and said with a quivering but stern voice,

Let me tell you one thing Malcolm Lewis Marler.  First, that was a very mean thing to say to your sister.  Second, I want you to know that Marcy has been a Marler longer than you have!  Third, I want you to apologize to her.

She was exactly right, of course.  What I said was mean and hurtful.

“Yes ma’am,” as I tried to hold back the tears.  I walked into the room and told my sister I was very sorry for what I said.  I told her I was glad she was a Marler.  I think I even hugged her.

This reminds me of what we do in the church sometimes.  We can be mean and hurtful when we feel like we are losing an argument, or its not going our way, especially on the topic of homosexuality.

Jesus was very stern with one group of people in his ministry– the religious people who were in judgment of others. See just a few of the stories in Matthew 7:1-5Matthew 23:1-28; Luke 6:32-42; John 8:1-11, etc.

I have come to believe as followers of Jesus, we get the most lost in our spiritual journey when we try to determine who is in the family of God, and who is not.  It’s simply not our call.  It is God’s business.  It is a fatal distraction.

Let us re-read our our job description as people of faith. Love God and love our neighbor as ourselves.  That’s it.  And this love includes loving persons who are gay, or anyone else we see as different from us.

Hundreds of people have said to me,  “I knew from the time I was a little boy (or girl) that I was different.  I knew that I was gay.” And yet, many of us in the church use the name of God to say to persons who are gay, “You are not really one of us.  You are not really part of this family.  You are not really a Christian.”  Ouch.

And so we refuse to acknowledge their relationships (which makes their relationships harder to sustain without social support), or to welcome them, or marry them, or ordain them.  Ouch.  It is the most painful thing we can say to our adopted brothers and sisters.

We must be careful my fellow brothers and sisters with this judgment thing.

We are all adopted into God’s family, by grace.  None of us were born into it.

And there is plenty of room for all of us in this human family.

For which, I am profoundly thankful.  Aren’t you?

Angel Wings

The email pops up in the lower right corner of my computer screen at the clinic with two words in the subject line, “Angel Wings.” I know what’s coming. Since 1994, those two words have stopped me in my tracks every single time they appear. I take a deep breath, and click “open” to read its contents.

Sometimes, the message is brief. “Joe Black died at home on January 3, 2009 due to Pulmonary HTN. He was a fine man who struggled with renal failure and HIV. He will be missed.”

Sometimes more detail is provided. “Jane White died January 4, 2009 in the hospital from complications of right hip hemiarthroplasty. She developed hypotension, falling hematocrit, and multisystem organ failure, and hepatic encephalopathy according to autopsy report. She was a professor of journalism at the University. Her disability never stopped her (hemophilia, hepatitis C, HIV, chronic kidney disease, past septic arthritis, ect). She had an upbeat, positive attitude, and often minimized her complaints. I truly will miss seeing her.”

The email is a death notice about our patients sent by one of our nurses, doctors, chaplains, social workers, medical records staff or whoever hears the word first.

No matter how it is written, or who its author is, it is always significant.

Josie Grable, who worked in Medical Records in 1994, started the “Angel Wings” tradition as a way to notify all staff about the deaths of our patients.  We had less than 500 active patients at the time but still had at least one death every single day. It was like hearing about the death of a distant or close relative every day you came to work.

Today, we have more than 1600 active patients, with just a handful more staff.  We have approximately one death per week rather than per day. The death ratio is better, but it is still too many.

Every Friday at noon our clinic staff of 60-70 persons crowd into our conference room to break bread together, receive updates, and connect with one another.

One of the things we do is say the name of the person out loud who died this past week.  We have a moment of silence to remember the impact this person had on us, his or her loved ones, and the world. It is a silent, sacred moment. We take a deep breath and then move ahead with the duties we have been called to do.

If there is one thing I have learned these past 15 years is that each life matters.   We remember.
__________________________________________________

FOLLOW-UP NOTE: On October 30, 2008, an “Angel Wings” email arrived from Wes Akins, one of our social workers that said:

“Some of you may know Josie Grable who was a part of the 1917 clinic family for years.   She died this week after a long illness and was surrounded with the love of family and friends.

Josie was an artist, a musician, a free spirit and a lover of all people. She cared deeply for the patients that we served at 1917. Karen Head, a long time friend, represented the 1917 clinic at Josie’s celebration of life this morning. Please keep Karen in your prayers.

Josie continued touching lives at the assisted living facility where she lived and served as a musician and grounds keeper.  She was a breath of fresh air to the residents there.

Thank-you Josie… you will be missed.”

Part III — Reaching Out

This is the third in a series on “One Christian Minister’s Response to Homosexuality.”

One of the reasons Mike Saag (MD, Founder of The 1917 Clinic, and now head of Infectious Diseases at UAB) wanted to hire a chaplain for his clinic in 1994 was to do outreach to churches and the faith community.

He said, “Malcolm, we need help with the churches. They are hurting our patients more than helping them.” He was of course, referring to the stigma, judgment, and just plain meanness that some churches were exhibiting towards their own members and our patients when they found out they were HIV positive, and gay. The two went hand in hand in those years. (Click on picture.)

It was ironic to me that a physician who happened to be Jewish, and a businessman who happened to be Methodist, convinced a state university hospital system to hire a Chaplain who happened to be Baptist, to reach out to churches so that they could help rather than hurt its patients at the AIDS clinic. An innovative outreach program to say the least.

But there were also many churches and synagogues, and clergy persons, who wanted to help our patients, partners, and families in those early years. One of them was The Reverend Timothy Holder from Grace Episcopal in Birmingham.

“Hi Malcolm, this is Tim Holder from Grace Church,” he said in an unassuming manner on the phone. “I read about your work in the newspaper the other day and wanted to see if I could come and visit you to see how we could help.” We became friends. I learned later he was gay.

Today, he is the rector of the Church of the Ascension in Atlantic City, NJ. He is innovative, creative, and open to the Spirit as evidenced by a book he edited called The Hip Hop Prayer Book. He has been sensitive to the neighborhood he serves and has found ways to reach out to young people and bring them into the church with a hip hop worship style in the church.

Better yet, hear Tim in his own words.

I love my life and work as a priest in the Episcopal Church. Ordained the first openly gay priest in Alabama in 1997, I have experienced ‘complete joy’ that God wishes for all his children. I know pain and defeat, from which we learn, but joy and love conquer all fear and darkness (1 John 4:18). I celebrate joy and love because I am so happy that God created me who I am, a gay man. I am not sure I would be a priest in the Church if I were not gay. I am not sure if I would have been able to stand with Latino/a refugees and immigrants in Alabama and create a brand new congregation – also a first – as anything but a gay man.

Moving to the South Bronx of New York in 2002, resisting the Church’s call for celibacy and silence in my good home of Alabama, I became priest to an all-African American and Caribbean American congregation. Celebrating ‘Street and Altar’ with all my gay heart, I became a hip hop priest! And let me tell you, hip hop – children and young people – know the real deal. Gay is the real deal, sisters and brothers. I learned that early in life, thank God.

If we can stand up and celebrate – really celebrate – the humanity God gives each and every human being – g-a-y – then we can stand up and celebrate the abundance of humanity revealed to us in the unending color, awesomeness and beauty of God’s greater creation. This is just my story, but isn’t it wonderful?

Why all these things, so unexpected, so unlikely? ‘Gay’ is who I am and knowing this I can love myself as God loves me. ‘Gay’ like the priesthood, like Anglo-Catholic, like Latino/a, like African American, like hip hop is who I am and anything else would be just a lie. How boring is that?


Tim Holder is one of the reasons I believe that God can work through any of us, gay or straight, if we are open to reaching out to others.

Sometimes when we reach out, we are the ones who are changed.



Note: See Hip Hop in Action in Worship

Part II — Is Homosexuality a Sin?

This is the second in a series on “One Christian Minister’s Response to Homosexuality.”

Just a little over 15 years ago, I sat in a conference room with a half dozen persons as they asked me questions to determine if I would be their choice to be the first full-time chaplain at The 1917 Clinic at UAB (HIV Outpatient Clinic). They represented the community I would be relating to in my ministry including a couple of patients at the clinic, a staff member, the medical director and founder of the clinic, a local businessman, a local pastor, and a couple of other persons.

I don’t remember all of their questions, though some were expected. I tried to answer them directly and truthfully. But there was one question that stood out. The local pastor in the group leaned forward and asked the last question of the day, “Malcolm, I have been listening to your answers carefully today, and I still have one question for you.” “Sure, what is it?” I asked.

He caught my eye and said, “What I want to know is do you believe homosexuality is a sin?

It was a clear, unambiguous, critical question for the grandson and son of Southern Baptist ministers. It was a fair question for this ordained Southern Baptist minister, and a minister who also had dual standing in the United Church of Christ (UCC) and Baptist denominations to answer. After all, if I was going to be the clergyman to persons who were gay or homosexual as the majority members of my parish at the time, I needed to know the answer to this question.

I leaned forward and said, “Well Joe, that depends. Let me ask you a question. Is heterosexuality a sin?” I asked rhetorically.

I continued with my answer. “I believe that our sexuality is a gift from God. I have to apply the same standards to persons who are homosexual to persons like myself who are heterosexual. If we are talking about a mutual, caring, respectful, loving, committed relationship, I would answer your question, ‘No,’ I do not believe homosexuality is a sin any more than heterosexuality is. If you are referring to a promiscuous, non-committed relationship, I would answer the same for both a same sex or opposite sex relationship, ‘Yes,’ it can be sinful. I also believe in God’s grace and forgiveness because we all fall short in this area.”

This was not a question I answered hastily. The answer for me had been years in development after studying the Bible as part of my former church’s journey to become a welcoming congregation in CT to all persons regardless of sexual orientation (see more about the UCC process of Open and Affirming here); walking with and listening to the struggles and stories of persons who were trying to do the right thing as they understood God in their lives. (I will deal with “the scriptures” in another post on this blog.)

And since that interview in 1994, I have walked with hundreds of individuals, parents, partners, and families down this road and have confirmed this belief in my heart. Gay and straight, we all struggle in this area. We all sin, or fall short. There are no exceptions.

Since that interview, I have also been humbled by my own divorce of a 16 year marriage, and had eight years of being single again and dating before I remarried in 2004. Believe me, I made lots of mistakes as a single heterosexual man during that time as I tried to find love in my life.

One thing I know is that many of the clergy who have been the most critical of persons who are gay have not had the gift of the hundreds of friendships I have had with persons in this setting. I understand, and I don’t blame them because I was just like them 20 years ago.

I was the minister in a large suburban church where I was not comfortable talking about sex openly, whether it was lesbian or gay or straight or bi-sexual, or anything else so intimate except in generalities, platitudes, or one way conversations.

My parishioners at the clinic have taught me how to have open discussion around this subject for which I am grateful. I have held the hands, heard the stories, married and performed the unions and funerals, dried their tears and visited them when they were sick and dying. And I have been changed because of my relationship with them. Still am.

And for this I am forever grateful and thankful.

The answer to this question from my 30 years of ministry is, it depends on how we use this gift we have been given.

Part I — Finding the Words

This is the first in a series of “One Christian Minister’s Response to Homosexuality.”

I haven’t always felt comfortable when talking with persons who are gay–homosexual, lesbian, or transgendered. It seemed like a foreign language to me. I am still learning. Early on though it was more than language, it was an emotional, visceral response to homosexuality. I was homophobic.

I grew up as a Southern Baptist preacher’s kid in Montgomery, AL and had never heard my father or mother address the topic of homosexuality. They lived a faith that was kind and tender-hearted, and always loved people first no matter what. I took that faith into my own heart.

But I was also a product of my culture regarding homosexuality.

When I was in seminary in my early twenties, 1977-80, my wife pointed out to me how uncomfortable I was when she talked about a classmate who was/is gay. The more I protested that “I WAS NOT UNCOMFORTABLE!” the intensity in my voice said otherwise. I protested too much! I protested because it wasn’t my experience to be attracted to a same gender partner. I couldn’t imagine it. But the more I listened to friends over the next few years, the more I learned to reverse pronouns in my mind as they talked so that I could compare their experiences to my own as an heterosexual. I began to hear their pain.

As a minister in a church, a close friend of mine who was also a minister, walked into my church office one day and asked, “Can I talk with you for a moment?” I said, “Sure, close the door behind you.”

He said, “I see you as a good friend and I want you to know something about me. I am gay, and I want to tell you about my struggle and journey.” It was the first time anyone had said those words to me directly. I had intuitively known friends from childhood through young adulthood who were gay, but we had never talked about it.

But this time, sitting in front of me was someone who was a good friend and one of the finest Christians I knew. I was not surprised by his words and told him so. But I admitted that I needed an education. I trusted this friend with my questions. “Have you always felt this way? Did you choose to be a homosexual?” He was patient and kind with me.

He told me about being aware he was “different” as a young boy. He pushed the feelings away and played the game. As he went through puberty, his internal attraction to other boys was stronger, as mine was for girls. When he told his parents, they sent him to several religious camps, programs, groups, and therapists to help him “change.” He prayed daily for years for God to heal him, to change him. God did not.

Finally,” he said, “after years of pleading with God to change me I said to God, ‘I am either going to end my life or I am going to be the best Christian I can be as a person who is gay.’ I chose the latter.” I am glad he did.

I have learned that my friend’s journey is not uncommon. Just yesterday on March 3rd, 2009, an anonymous reader told a similar story on my blog:

The issue crystallized and reached a turning point for me when a passing motorist rescued one of our students, a 15 year old boy, “Jimmy”, dangling over the edge of Gold Star Bridge, the span across the Thames River in Connecticut between New London and Groton. This was about 10 years ago… (read more in “Comments” at the bottom of the page for March 3, 2009.)

Parents have come to me over the years and asked “What do we do?” when they discovered their child was gay.

I listened and encouraged them to love their child no matter what. To be kind and tender-hearted with them. How could that be possibly wrong?

Many gifted men and women have come to me and said, “I am gay.” I have told them that they are a child of God no matter what anyone else has told them. Each one is a child of God. No exceptions. God has given them gifts they are to use to make this a better world. Just as God has given to us all.

My gay friends have been my teachers. They have taught me to be myself, nothing more nothing less. They have learned this lesson better than I. Sometimes I wish I could preach like one friend of mine or be as wise as another pastoral counselor I know. The have reminded me I just need to be Malcolm. They have also taught me to laugh more often, hug more frequently, and listen more intently. I cannot imagine my life without these friends in my life now. I am a better person as a result.

I have never heard a person say in 30 years of ministry, “I think I will be gay” as a choice. Or, “I think I’ll try being gay, or I think I’ll rebel against my parents and be gay.” Not one, ever. It has always been the way they have been for as long as they can remember. Some recognize it early in life, some later.

I am still thankful to my friend who I believe God sent to me as one of my first teachers many years ago. I still see his face and hear his voice in each new person I meet. And now, I see God’s face and hear God’s voice in each person.

My prayer is that there will be more persons who will share with trusted friends about his or her sexual orientation. I plead with you to do so. I know it takes great courage. But we who are heterosexual need you desperately to tell your story to us. Otherwise this is a dry as dust, hypothetical, theological monologue.

And I also pray there will be more and more persons who will be willing to listen, learn, and be supportive of you.

This issue is ultimately about relationships, and it is through friendships and relationships that we will be changed around this issue. Amen.

An Open Letter

Dear Friends,

In the coming days and weeks I am going to write an ongoing series on my blog about my journey in my 30 years of ministry on why I believe all persons (more specifically persons who are gay–GLBT) are children of God and should also have the same rights and responsibilities as everyone in our society including marriage, healthcare insurance, role in the church, etc.

I’ve been wanting to do this for quite some time, and for whatever reason I feel led to do so now.

Of course, I can only speak from my personal life experience including:

  1. Being a former Baptist and UCC minister, and now a lay person in the Episcopal Church
  2. Being a Chaplain at The 1917 Clinic since 1994 and hearing the thousands of stories from patients, colleagues, and parents
  3. My understanding of a Biblical response that is often left out of the traditional church argument
  4. Being a straight, married, bald, white guy

I understand that trust is critical in this request. I also know that the primary way true change comes about in our lives is through personal story and relationships, not through a proof-text of the Bible or an hypothetical argument. I see this as part of my responsibility as a Chaplain in an HIV clinic and as a minister being faithful to the Christian faith as I understand it.

I do not take this issue lightly as it impacts persons I see everyday in my life.

My request is twofold (one, both, or neither):

  1. Write a sentence, paragraph, or more of your own personal story, perspective, or experience in being gay or having friends or family members who are gay. It can be an experience with the church or not, with God or not, or an experience with discrimination or issues you believe to be important in this discussion. Email it to me.
  2. Please tell other persons you know who may want to share the above with me.

I give you my word that I will:

  1. Protect all written responses with utmost confidentiality.
  2. If I use any part of your story on my blog, I will protect your identity unless you tell me otherwise.

What do I hope will happen as a result of this writing?

I do not have any expectations of grandiose change. I simply want to add my view and the stories of others to the discussion. I am open to hearing from others from both sides of the issue.

If you have any questions, please email me at mmarler@uab.edu.

Thank you for being my teacher,
Malcolm

Becoming a Child Again

On March 1, 2009, we had light snow in North Alabama (see my wife and daughter to the right). I am well aware that snow is unremarkable to my New England friends.

But in Alabama, we only have snow about once in every five years or so. It is an invitation to be a child again. Mary, Kiki, and I chose to respond to that invitation and play. It was a good choice.

I grabbed my camera and outside we went. The lake where we live had seemingly “changed clothes” and was stunning with snow on the tree trunks and in the branches. The birds fluffed their feathers to shake the snow off and ate from our birdfeeders at a ravenous pace.

We walked down our country road to a nearby untrodden pasture that was snowy smooth and silent. We threw snowballs at one another. We laughed and remembered winter stories from the past. We played with Daisy, our yellow lab who caught snowballs in her mouth.

Mary and I got in the car and drove for an hour on country roads around the lake to take in more scenery and tried to get lost. We stopped the car to watch newborn calves in one pasture, while laughing at minature goats butting heads in another. We noticed horses and new houses that we have not noticed before. We admired the beautiful sunset as we drove back to the house. We thanked God at dinner for the wonder of the day.

God, help me to be more childlike and in awe of your world every day. Amen.

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