malcolm marler

on a mission to embody grace and compassion in all relationships

Month: April 2009 (page 1 of 2)

The Scandal at Heartsong

St. Francis of Assisi Chapel at Camp McDowell

It has been less than 12 hours since I left the Alabama Heartsong Retreat 2009, but I feel like I have to write about a scandal that happened at this year’s retreat.  It happened on the second night of the retreat, but one needs to know the setting first.

Fifty or so people gathered at this year’s spiritual retreat at Camp McDowell, an Episcopal camp in Northwest AL. There were heterosexuals, homosexuals (gay and lesbian), bi-sexuals, black people, white people, and even a person with a Cherokee Indian background among the participants.  They were young and old.  Some were Pentecostal, Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian, Presbyterians, Catholic, AME, CME, and more.

One was a fugitive running from the law in another state.  Others had been in prison for drug abuse, and some were still fighting the drug demons.  Several were alcoholics.  A few had been abused, while others were, or had been, in an abusive relationship.  I think a few people there had never said the sacred traditional word, “IacceptJesusChristasmypersonalLordandSavior,”  that I had been taught as a child.

Let’s be honest, everybody there was plain and simple “a sinner,” to use religious language.  I’m talking about the kinds of sinners whose sins are high on the “sin grading scale” that most religious people use, as if there was such a scale.  The ragtag group embodied the “disenfranchised or outsiders” that you read about in the Bible.  I read the story aloud of the woman who was a sinner and washed Jesus’ feet with her tears.

Our retreat theme, “Getting in the Game of Life,” was at the center of the spiritual discussion in the large group as we sat in one unbroken circle.  We talked about what it meant to be “blessed” by other people.  Not a blessing prior to a meal or someone saying, “God bless you.”  Rather, the kind of blessedness or blessing that happens when one is emotionally and spiritually dying to hear a word of encouragement, or affirmation, or love, or hope in one’s life.  We named some of those people by name, both the living and dead.  These were the people who had been there for us.  I heard myself call out my father”s name, “Lewis Marler,” as his name lodged in my throat.  We lit a candle in the circle’s center as a reminder.  Some people didn’t name anybody.

And then the scandal happened.

“Choose a partner and sit knee to knee,” I began.  “Study the features of your partner’s face, and look into his or her eyes.  I mean really look until it is a bit uncomfortable,” I directed, and people giggled.

And then I asked one of the partners to say to the other very slowly, “You are a child of God.”  I asked for silence to let it sink in.  Then the receiver of the blessing responded with, “I receive your blessing.”   We changed it around.  “You are a child of God,” they said, with silence allowed to soak up the words like a sponge . . .  then together the blessed ones said, “I receive your blessing.”

I  suggested that each one of us in that room were called in life to be that blessing–that thread of hope to others on a daily basis.  We were to give this blessing, especially to the people we didn’t like.  The ones who irritate us, the ones who are the opposite of the kind of folks we like to hang around.  This is what it means to “get in the game of life,” to pay attention to the person in front of you.  He or she are no longer sidelined, no longer benched.  To look into the face of every person and know that he or she is a child of God.

Grace was scattered to everyone there without discrimination.  Actually, the grace was already there, we just acknowledged its presence.  From drag queens to the ordained.  Grace poured.  Tears flowed.  Others were trying to figure out what just happened.  We all knew something happened.  Powerfully so.

Whatever you want to call it, it was scandalous for sure. Sinners being called children of God.  And the kingdom of heaven, for just a moment, was not in the distant future of a life in the hereafter.  It was and is a life of the here and the now.

_____________

NOTE: Much of this entire scandalous exercise was my colleague’s, Joe Elmore, idea.  It seems like all he talks about as a retired Methodist minister is grace these days. Thank you Joe.

Janet’s Tender Grace

Janet

As I go down my final checklist to attend the 16th Heartsong Retreat, I am thinking about Janet.

Janet went to Heartsong last year.  I remember her love of singing, her quick sense of humor, her self-awareness, and her love of dancing.  She was a 50 something year old African American woman who made friends quickly with other participants.

I noticed how Janet looked for persons who were holding back.  She used her slow Southern drawl and warm personality to make them feel at ease and to reassure them there is nothing to fear here.

One of those persons who came for the first time last year was “Jerry.” He was a quiet young man in his early 20’s who wasn’t so sure on the first night if he had made a good decision to come to Heartsong with all the laughter surrounding him.  I watched Janet introduce him to others, sit beside him in large group time so that he wouldn’t be alone, and even encouraged  him to dance with her in the talent show on Wednesday night.  Together, they brought the house down with their dancing and had everyone on their feet shouting encouragement and clapping their hands by the time the music stopped.

A few weeks after Heartsong ended last year, we got the shocking news that Jerry was shot and killed on the streets of Birmingham.  We were all numbed and grieved by the news.

In the last year, Janet hasn’t been doing so well. She has had a very difficult life since being diagnosed with HIV 21 years ago.  She has been in the hospital a half dozen times in the past year.  Her health has declined significantly.  And her attendance at this year’s Heartsong was in doubt as late as Friday, before we leave on this Monday.

I sat with Janet in Kathy Gaddis’ office, her social worker at the clinic.   “Janet,” I began, “I don’t know if you are healthy enough to attend this year’s retreat.  What do you think?”

She sat up straight in the chair, smiled and said resolutely,  “Malcolm, I am well enough to go to Heartsong.  I can do it.”   I looked at Kathy, and she nodded in agreement.

And so this year, if Janet can get to the clinic to catch the van tomorrow afternoon, she will attend another Heartsong.

Except this year, I hope some of the other participants will look out for Janet, like she has done for others before.

The tender grace will be passed along once again.  This is what Heartsong is all about.

Note:  You can see and hear Janet on The 1917 Clinic video called “Positive” by clicking here.

Update: Janet made it to Heartsong 2009, and she got stronger each day she was there.  Many participants stepped up to make sure she had what she needed.  On August 29th, 2009, Janet died.  I will miss you Janet.  Peace to you.

Alan and Manny

This post fits in both series:  “One Christian Minister’s Response to Homosexuality,” and “The Alabama Heartsong Retreat.”

Alan Woellhart

Friendships change us. Alan Woellhart is one of those friends in my life.

I met Alan in 1993 when I was interviewing for my job at The 1917 (HIV/AIDS) Clinic at UAB.  He was on the Chaplain search committee, and a patient at the clinic.  Alan was also one of the instrumental figures in starting the Alabama Heartsong Retreat, and he is the only person in Heartsong’s history who has helped coordinate and attend all of the retreats since 1993.  An amazing accomplishment by itself.

Alan met Manny on July 4th weekend in 1993 and like many love stories, the two of them were a perfect fit for one another.  I observed the tenderness in the way they talked and listened to one another, and how thoughtful they were in their actions towards one another.  They were best friends, as well as partners in life.  Their personalities complimented one another.  They were quick to smile and laugh when in each other’s presence.

After dating for about a year, Alan asked, “Malcolm, I want to talk with you about something.  Manny and I want to get married and we were wondering if you would do the ceremony?”  It was the first time I had been asked by a gay couple to officiate at their wedding. In Alabama of course, this really meant a union “blessing” since they would not even receive civil rights of a married couple by the state.

I told Alan that I would be honored to participate in their wedding if the two of them would be open to pre-marital counseling.  After all, I had performed many weddings as a minister and had done pre-marital counseling with the heterosexual couples.  (Alan secretly told me later that he thought I was trying to find something in their relationship so that I could respectfully decline.)

I met four or five times with the happy couple who always held hands in my presence and we talked about finances, issues related to their families of origin, faith and its importance in their lives, communication skills, and more.  They were clear that they wanted to make a life long commitment to one another in front of family and friends.

The wedding was at Alan’s home in Jasper, AL. Most of the staff of The 1917 Clinic were present along with Alan’s family.  Some of the Catholic nuns who were friends from our previous Heartsong Retreats were also present to celebrate the day.  We all stood in the living room, shoulder to shoulder, face to face, for Alan and Manny to declare their vows before God, friends, and family.

I used the same service I had used for most weddings I had conducted with a few changes of pronouns in the vows.  The language changes were minor.  The reception afterwards was joyous and the food was delicious with smiles, hugs, music, and lots of laughter.

Alan even won his mother-in-law over in subsequent years and he became like another son to her.  He said, “after I painted her house and hung ceiling fans, she came around!”

And then one day Manny noticed blood in his urine and Alan took him to the doctor. After some tests, the diagnosis and prognosis were grim–renal cell carcinoma.  Treatment was scheduled but Manny’s health declined over the next year.

In 1996, Alan convinced Manny into coming to Heartsong with him.  The rest of the participants loved Manny and I will never forget Alan singing to Manny in the Wednesday night talent show.  They were inseparable.  Ironically, it was the year after I had been divorced and I wondered if I would ever have a love like the two of them shared.  They gave me hope.

Over the next year, Manny was hospitalized and there were times when Alan couldn’t see Manny in ICU when he was critical because medical staff stated that only his “family could see him.”  That just wasn’t right.

Both decided that Manny would be cared for at home in his last few months.  The extraordinary hours and tender loving care given to Manny by Alan were like couples I had visited in similar circumstances over the years.  I visited him at their home.

On September 19th, 1997, Manny died at home with Alan at his side.

I had the privilege and honor of conducting Manny’s wedding and his funeral.  It was the first time I had conducted the wedding and funeral for the same person within such a short period of time.

Understandably, it took Alan several years to work through his grief.  I remember that he came to Heartsong for the next couple of years and he hardly said a word the whole week.  His grief was almost too much to bear.  For all of us.

Finally, Alan became the sassy, no-nonsense guy so many of us knew him to be previously.  He began living again.  His faith was one of the things that made a difference.

Today, Alan has been HIV positive since 1989.  

Maybe now you can understand why I felt a lump in my throat this week when I was sitting across the table from Alan as we put together the 16th annual Heartsong Retreat starting on Monday .

I thank God for giving me friends like Alan Woellhart.

Friendships make a difference.  Alan sure has.

The Gift of Presence

Bob Hill, a friend and former colleague of mine at the clinic for many years wrote about his experience on one of our Support Teams for The Balm of Gilead Center at Cooper Green Hospital in Birmingham. I wanted to share it with you.
Our Support Team had a “ministry of presence” where we joined a “community of caring at the end of life,” in a palliative care unit.
Our “Room” had become Mrs. G’s home for her final few days. After church, another Support Team member and I took flowers from our altar and stopped in to see her. She was not able to speak, so we visited with her husband and daughter. Upon leaving, I asked if we could have a prayer. I laid my hand on her small, frail body and we all stood around her.
My prayer was that God would open his loving arms and receive Mrs. G. into the Kingdom of Heaven and give her peace. I felt movement in her leg as I prayed. It was powerful for me.
The next day after work, as I drove from the parking deck, an overpowering feeling came over me, which I had never experienced before. I felt drawn to drive to the hospital, but I had errands to run.
I did, however, turn left and 2 minutes later appeared at the nurses station of the Balm, which means “place of no pain.”  I asked, “How are things with Mrs. G?” “She just passed,” I heard the nurse say.
I then knew why I had been called to go. I walked into the room, pulled up a chair beside her. I felt a presence of her spirit still in the room, and peace. I prayed and I wept, as I kept vigil for 40 minutes until her family arrived. I felt the Holy Spirit come down and embrace us.
What a gift I had received through “presence.” Mrs. G and I never spoke one word directly to each other, but my life has been changed by her “ending” and her new “beginning.”
Thank you Bob Hill for who you are and for teaching me about the gift of presence.

Part IX — My Coming Out Story

This is the ninth in a series on “One Christian Minister’s Response to Homosexuality.” (updated April 2013)

Mary and Malcolm, life partners

I have been wanting to say this publicly for most of my adult life, but I have been afraid to admit this to myself, to my loved ones and to my friends.  I was afraid what my family would think or say or do.  I did not want to hurt them.  I’ve always wanted them to be proud of me.  I’ve tried hard to be who they wanted me to be.   But, I have to be who I am, who I believe God created me to be.

I know that some of you have been wondering about my sexual orientation.  I have wanted to be truthful about my feelings from the time I went to seminary, became a pastor in rural Kentucky, and worked on the church staff of two churches full-time in Kentucky and Connecticut.  What I am trying to say is I know that at least a few of you have wondered if I am straight or gay for all of these years especially since I worked as a Chaplain in an HIV?AIDS clinic for 15 years.

So, during this month of my 31st anniversary of my ordination in full-time ministry, I have decided to come out of the closet.

Here goes.  Deep breath.

I am straight. There, I said it.  It is true, I am a heterosexual. While I prefer you refer to me as “straight,” I know others are more comfortable with the term “heterosexual” or “hetero.”  Either are better than some names I’ve heard.  Some of you are probably saying you knew it all along and it does not come as a surprise to you.  For others, I realize this may come as a shock and I hope and pray you will still love me regardless.  I am the same person you have known for all these years.  But from this day forward, I’m not looking back. I’m choosing to move forward as a child of God.

Maybe one of the easiest ways I can answer many of your questions is to just answer the TOP TEN questions I have been asked over the years.

1.  When did you first decide to become a heterosexual?

I knew in the first grade when I loved sitting by Andrea in our reading group in elementary school in Montgomery.   We even secretly told one another we were boyfriend and girlfriend, but neither of us knew what that meant so nothing happened.  I have felt this attraction towards girls for as long as I can remember.

2.  What do you think caused you to be a heterosexual?

Now that I am in my 50′s, I see life differently than I when I was younger.  I look back and believe God created me to be a “hetero.”   I always had a very close relationship with my mother.  Tragically she died when I was ten and I used to think I was maybe straight because I’ve always wanted to love a woman the way I loved her, since she was the center of my universe. But now I know that her death was not the cause of me becoming a heterosexual.  I have been this way all my life.

3.  Is it possible your heterosexuality is just a phase that will change?

No, it is not a phase.  I can’t imagine what it is like being with a man sexually. It is very natural for me to be attracted to a woman.

4.  If you’ve never slept with a person of the same sex, how do you know you wouldn’t prefer that?

Well, that’s personal.  But let me put it this way, I just don’t have the sexual attraction and desire for a person of the same gender, though I have many close friends who are male.  Does that make sense?

5.  Why do you heterosexuals insist on flaunting public displays of affection with a partner?

I agree it is uncomfortable for me when I see people hanging all over each another in public.  I recently sat behind a man and woman in church, and they either had their arms around each other or held hands during the whole service.  It was distracting.  But I do admit I like to hold my partner’s hand when we walk together, or give her a little kiss on the lips when I am leaving home or when I see her initially in public.  I don’t mean to be offensive with my PDA, it just the way I feel.

6.  Why are heterosexuals so promiscuous?

I admit that many fellow heterosexuals are promiscuous and they get a lot of media attention. Politicians, sports figures, movie stars, and clergy do not always help our reputation as straight folks.  Of course, I can only speak for me.  I have been faithful to my partner.

7.  What do you believe the Bible and God thinks about heterosexuals? 

Well, I believe that God loves all of God’s creation.  Since I’m a Christian, I believe God loved me so much that God sent God’s Son to show me and others how we should live.  I know God must be disappointed with many of us as heterosexuals.  We all fall short.  All of us.   I am thankful for God’s grace and forgiveness.

8.  How can you enjoy a fully satisfying sexual experience with a person of the opposite sex when the physical, biological, and psychological differences between you are so great?

No comment.  Next question.

9.  Why do you think heterosexuals are so unhappy?

There are many reasons straight people are unhappy.  Sometimes we try to find happiness in what we can buy, or through sex, or drugs, or alcohol.  Sometimes we are unhappy because we are disconnected from our Creator.  I can think of hundreds of reasons why heterosexuals are unhappy, as well as a few homosexuals I know.

10.  Why are heterosexuals always trying to seduce others into their sexual orientation?

I have never tried to seduce another person to change them into being a heterosexual.  I can only speak for myself.

So there it is for all the world to see in bold letters.

MALCOLM MARLER IS A HETEROSEXUAL.

I hope you will still love me, because this is who I am.  We all want to love someone, and want to be loved by our beloved.

Thanks for listening.

 

Part VIII — Gay Marriage

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

gaymarriage

When I started dating my wife, Mary Sullivan, on January 29, 2003, I was swept off my feet.   I told the world about it.

I remember calling my “surrogate mother” from my college years, Ina Durham, from the airport as I was leaving Mary in Chapel Hill in 2003.

“Ina,” I said with unbridled clarity like I had never expressed, “I have fallen in love, I’ve been swept off my feet, and it has finally happened!”  She giggled with me and asked for more details.  Ina and Harry had been second parents to me for almost 30 years.  They always held on to the hope that I would find a life partner with whom I could celebrate life fully.  Over the next few days, I called dozens of people to share my joy.  I told Kelly, Chris, Joe, Mike, and many others at work about this new love I had found.

But I simply cannot imagine having to keep that relationship a secret from others.   And yet, that’s what some of my friends do on a daily basis who are gay.   If they are not ready to risk rejection from friends, or love that is withheld from family members, they keep quiet.  They tell no one, and their joy is silenced.

Many of my friends who are gay or lesbian have to mute their excitement daily, use “neutral pronouns” when they are asked by work colleagues what their weekend plans are, or shake their heads “No” when a stranger asks them if  they are married or have children when making small talk.  They are asked, but they don’t tell.  Except maybe in the smallest of circles.

I called Rick Meyer, my close friend from Glastonbury, CT who had stood by me for years when I struggled through my divorce, and had been there for me through several relationships that didn’t work out.  He shared my joy when I told him I was getting married.  I had found my life partner and I wanted the world to know.

Mary and I went to the court house and bought our marriage license.  We called my pastor and asked her if she would perform our wedding ceremony in a few days.  Sarah had come to know Mary and her children because we worshiped together regularly and she was almost as excited as we were.  We eloped a few days later with only Sarah, Judy Bridgers (close friend), and Brendan and Kiki present.  Instantly Mary and I had all of the rights and responsibilities that all spouses enjoy.  But not so if you are gay.  And that’s just not right.

Not only can you not buy a marriage license for your life partner in Alabama if you are gay, but you better not ask your clergy person about blessing your relationship either.  They are more likely to see your joyful love as illegitimate and shameful.

Even the most caring and enlightened clergy I know believe they have to turn down the opportunity to do a “Union Ceremony” for a gay couple because his or her job depends on it.  Who can blame them?  How many of us make decisions that risks our present and future job opportunities?  And yet no hospital visitation, or property rights, or inheritance come with a clergy blessing.

I used to think that “domestic partnerships” sanctioned by the state would be enough if it gave equal rights to couples. I should know better growing up in the South during the Civil Rights movement and hearing “equal but separate” education for persons who were black and white.  Those of us who were white believed it was very equal and were thankful it was separate.  It didn’t affect the majority of white folks anyway.  When you are in the minority though, being equal is more important.

While domestic partnerships might be an interim step, a domestic partnership is not enough.   For gay couples whose faith is central in their lives, anything short of a wedding denies a gay couple the joy and blessing of their church.

I believe that God is love, so how can I oppose two persons who want to make a life commitment to one another in love?  How can I deny a couple all of the rights that I take for granted? How can I deny a couple the social support that I value in my own marriage?  How can I deny a couple the blessing all straight couples get in a church whether their faith is central or not in their lives?

I cannot.

But I can continue to offer my services to gay couples who ask for a blessing in a Union Ceremony as I have done in the past in Alabama.  I can advocate for gay couples to have rights that are equal to straight couples.  And I can work towards the day when gay marriage is legal in Alabama.  Don’t laugh.  Many of my brothers and sisters in my home state could not have imagined the day when an African American man would be President of the United States.  And we will have an African American governor in the state of Alabama, maybe sooner rather than later.

My silence in the past as been my downfall.  I simply can’t do it anymore.  It’s just not right.

___________________________

NOTE:  There are signs of hope.  Connecticut, Massachusetts, Iowa (April 27, 2009), Vermont (September 1, 2009), and Maine (May 6, 2009) have legalized same gender marriages.  California approved same sex marriages, then had it taken away, and is still being pursued.  Bills to allow same-sex marriage are currently before lawmakers in New Hampshire, Maine, New York and New Jersey.  Legal unions or domestic partnerships are approved in New Jersey, New Hampshire and Washington (April 15, 2009).  Maine, Hawaii, District of Columbia, Oregon, and Maryland  have created legal unions with certain rights.  Read more here.

Heartsong Stories — Harry

Harry C.S. Wingfield

Harry C.S. Wingfield

As our annual Heartsong Retreat is coming up in a couple of weeks,  I am thinking about Harry Wingfield.

Soon after I began at the clinic in ’94, Harry came to my office and said enthusiastically, “I want you to know about a spiritual retreat I went to in Louisiana for persons living with HIV. We had the first one in Alabama last year.  Would you like to coordinate the next one and get the clinic to be its sponsor?”

I was still trying to find my way around the clinic and I must have looked like a deer caught in headlights. I said, “That’s great Harry, but I need a few months to get my feet on the ground,”  hoping that I could put him off so that he would forget about it.  I didn’t know about Harry’s persistance.

A few months later he was back in my office and I knew then that I better learn about this spiritual retreat.  He and another patient, Alan, met with me to talk about their ideas, where we could have it, what the retreat should be like, and how our retreat could be “even better.”  They worked out most of the details and invited friends and patients from Alabama and Georgia to attend.  Harry added, “I play the guitar and sing some.  I’ll bring my guitar if you want.”

I learned that Harry was a gifted songwriter and musician who had sung all over the United States. He had written and performed an album called “But I Have Promises to Keep” about what it was like to live with HIV.   Some songs were hilarious, others were sad about the friends he had lost, while others connected one’s heart to the Creator.  All of them were “heart songs.”   When Harry sang, I knew I made the right choice to come home from New England to work in an HIV clinic.

Joe Elmore and I led discussions in the large group during the four-day, three-night Heartsong Retreat at The Bendictine Sisters Retreat Center in Cullman, AL.  The Sisters welcomed us and showered us with love and hospitality.  We asked Harry to sing, a lot.  We also had a talent show, a memorial service to remember those who had died, art activities to express ourselves, and even a bonfire to let go of the grief we were carrying.  I discovered that Heartsong was all about hope.  Heartsong was and is a safe place for persons living with HIV to just be.

Harry’s health changed for the worse the next year. His T-Cell count dropped to 4.  He didn’t lose his sense of humor when he said that he had named all “four of his T-Cells, John, Paul, George, and Ringo.”  He lost weight and became weaker and short of breath.  We developed a “Support Team” from a local church to give him extra support for meals, transportation, tending his flower garden, and friendship.  I wondered if this would be his last Heartsong.

During the next annual retreat, a frail woman introduced herself to Harry.  The two of them had gone to high school together, dated, and had been close friends.  Harry had not recognized her until she spoke because HIV had devastated her body.  They embraced and held one another.  When it came time for the talent show, Harry asked “Holly” if she would come forward with him so that he could sing a song to her he had written about their relationship years before.  Tears flowed.  It was a tender, sacred moment.  Holly died a few months later.

Listen to the song, “Hollywood” that Harry sang to “Holly” at The Heartsong Retreat here.

Another year during one of our retreats, Harry participated in a “journaling workshop” at Heartsong.  He decided to write a letter, “just as an exercise,” to a former employer who had let him go not long after disclosing he was HIV positive.  The letter expressed his forgiveness of his boss, even though it had not been requested.   He decided to mail that letter.  It was a significant turning point in his life.

Over the next few years, Harry got better rather than worse.  He discontinued his disability benefits and got a job full-time at our clinic in the research department, and later moved to another job at UAB where he still works.  We held a “graduation party” for his Support Team at his house because he didn’t need their help in the same way anymore.  He is still friends with many of them a decade later.

Harry still lives in Birmingham, AL with his partner, Vern, of 21 years. He recently said the following about Vern,

“He took care of me when I was sick with AIDS, and I’ve taken care of him when he broke his foot and when he broke his wrist.  We are both ready for less of the “in sickness,” and more of the “and in health!'”

The Alabama Heartsong Retreat has flourished as the 16th annual retreat will be held April 27-30, 2009.   How could Harry have known that more than 750 persons living with HIV would experience Heartsong? When asked why he wanted to start Heartsong so many years ago, he said recently,

“My hopes were that it would help me and others with HIV, and that we could use each others’ strength to find a spiritual connection once again with God.  A lot of people weren’t finding what they needed in organized religion.   Many of us had been wounded by the church.  Since so much of HIV is lonely, a spiritual emphasis is needed to remind us we are not alone.   A neutral spiritual setting is what I hoped for, a safe place where we could discover that “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Indeed.

Amen.

Heartsong Stories — Andy

I am thinking about the Alabama Heartsong Retreat  in a few weeks and remembering people who have attended in the past, like “Andy.”

Andy was a handsome Italian man in his 20’s in 1998.  He was a loving father, a devoted son, a caring brother, and a committed life partner.  I remember his health had deteriorated quite a bit and he came to the clinic in a wheelchair.  He was always an optimist and he still cared about whomever he met.  He never sat silently by anyone in the waiting room and before they knew it, he had coached them to keep on living life to its fullest.

Andy looked at me at the clinic that day and said “I’m going to Heartsong in a couple of weeks.” I didn’t see how it would be physically possible for him.  But I told him if he wanted to go, we would help him.  His mother later said he couldn’t go to Heartsong unless Carol Linn, one of our clinic nurses, went with him to give him the daily infusions he needed.  So Carol said she would go if Andy wanted to be there.

When Andy arrived at Heartsong, it was incredible to see participants take the time to help him with various activities. At mealtimes different people carried his tray or pushed his wheelchair.  Everyone wanted to sit by him.  During workshop activities, many were inspired by his willingness to try to participate though his frail body made it difficult.  He had to nap in his room during some sessions so that he would have the strength to come to the large group gatherings.  When Andy spoke in large group, everyone listened.

Kelly Ross-Davis, our Director of Education at the clinic wrote about that experience:

Andy received his care at our clinic.   No, I think Andy taught our clinic about care. While I didn’t often work directly with Andy, I heard the stories of his remarkable courage and uplifting spirit despite the incredible pain in much of his body.

I was privileged to experience Andy’s amazing heart up close.  In our small group, we were tracing the outline of our bodies on a large white paper in an exercise as we defined ourselves from our head to our feet.  Carol and some dear friends patiently and lovingly assisted him as he got out of his wheelchair and laid on his back as we traced his body.  While other participants laughed and relaxed as they worked on their projects, Andy was intently focused on his.  I wondered if it was his way of finding some closure – saying goodbye to his physical body and embracing his eternal soul.

Harry Wingfield, another Heartsong Retreat participant that year, said that when it came time for the “nature walk,” Andy couldn’t go outside, so he stayed behind with him.  Harry added,

We talked about a lot of things related to living with this illness.  But Andy looked up at me and said that he thought he was ready to let go (die), but there were so many people to take care of in his own family, he didn’t know what to do.  He was so tired, but he also didn’t want to let them down.  I suggested to him that maybe it was time to take care of himself and that it would be ok for him to talk to them about it, and to let go if that is what he wanted to do.

One night when Carol was giving Andy his treatment in his room he said he wanted to call his son at home.  This was before cell phones were common and so Carol pushed his wheelchair into the hallway where the one wall phone was located. Carol said,

I sat with him as he called home and asked his partner if his son was already asleep.  I could tell he said yes by the disappointment on his face.  He was already asleep and he would miss talking with him.  And then, Andy asked him if he would put the phone by his son’s face and let him just listen to him breathe for a short time.  After a couple of minutes he hung up and said to me ‘Carol, that is the most beautiful sound in the world to listen to your own son breathe peacefully in his sleep.’  I knew then he was one of the best dads I had ever known.

At the end of the retreat, Andy said to me as he was leaving, “I am at peace now, Malcolm.  I finally have peace.”  His face was beaming.  He really was at peace and he had shared it with all of us.

Just six weeks later, Andy died a couple of days after Easter.

Andy is one of the reasons I go to the Heartsong Retreat every year. And Carol, and Kelly, and Harry also give me hope to return to Heartsong.

You just never know who might give you peace and hope this year.

(More information about how you can help sponsor a retreat participant.)

Heartsong Retreat

heartsong-logoThe Alabama Heartsong Retreat is the most meaningful event that I have ever been involved in on an annual basis.  This will be my 15th year in a row to participate.  In fact, I can’t think of anything I’ve attended for 15 years in a row.

Heartsong is an annual spiritual retreat for persons living with HIV as well as those affected by HIV.   People come from every corner of Alabama and surrounding states of GA, FL, and MS.   This year’s retreat will be our 16th annual retreat on April 27-30, 2009.

Heartsong is a safe place for persons to gather, share, and learn from one another.  For some, it is the first time they have ever said out loud to another, “I am HIV positive.”   They discover they are not alone.   Some persons have been diagnosed for over 20 years, while others found out only in the last month.  Black and white, gay and straight, young and old.  They all show up.   Some come running, others move slowly on their walkers.  All are welcomed with open arms.

Heartsong is an opportunity to listen to one’s own “heart song,” to connect to the Creator and to a community.  The healing power of Heartsong is balm for one’s soul.   It is open to persons of all faiths, those who have lost their faith, and those who have never discovered a faith.

The four day, three night retreat costs $150 per person and includes nine nutritious meals.  Most participants cannot pay anything.  No one is turned away due to inability to pay.  All workshop leaders donate their time.

And that’s where you and I come in. Can you help sponsor a scholarship for one participant?  Whether it is $25, $50, $75, or $150, everything is appreciated.

This is an opportunity to make a difference for someone who is HIV positive in Alabama.

Will you join me by making a donation from you, your family, friends, congregation, or organization?

Thank you from the bottom of my heart for all of our Heartsong participants.

Please make your check payable to:
UAB 1917 Clinic
“Heartsong Retreat” on the memo line
Mail to:
Malcolm Marler
908 20th ST S, Room 189
Birmingham, AL 35294-2050
Questions:
Call Malcolm Marler at 205.975.8923
Email mmarler@uab.edu

See brochure here.

Part VII – Creating Community

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

Mary Bea Sullivan - My Encourager

Mary Bea Sullivan

I was talking with my Mary last night about how discouraged I was about this series on homosexuality on my blog. When she asked why I said, “I don’t know, I think my friends who are straight are probably annoyed with a straight, white, bald guy writing about this issue. And I’m not sure this is really encouraging or helping persons who are gay. I just don’t know,” as I shook my head.

She reminded me about two blogs that I read on a regular basis and how I had just read two posts from those blogs aloud to her recently.  We were both moved by the truth, clarity, and humor of each.

Mary said, “Drexel and Rami are not even aware that you read their blogs and you are moved by their words.  I bet there are people who are reading your blog and you just don’t know about it.”

She saw my faithless face and added, “Besides, I’m not sure that is the reason you are writing anyway,” alluding to the fact that I write because it is important for me to put my thoughts, beliefs, and reflections down for my own sake.

And, she is right.  I write here so that I can be clearer about my life’s purpose.

The reason I am on this planet is to create community and connection for persons who need it most, wherever I encounter them in my daily life. I know what it is like to be alone and wonder if God is present.

When I got up at my regular 4:30 a.m. time this morning, one of the first things I read was an email I received overnight from an anonymous reader on my blog.  Here is what this person said:

Thank you for giving a damn about me. Thank you for giving your heart and soul to those of us in the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgendered, questioning) community.  Thank you for serving God and embracing the diversity that IS God.

I am reading your series and have wept through nearly every post. It reminds me of my own struggle with sexuality vs. my Evangelical upbringing. I prayed for nearly 30 years, endured exorcisms (yes, exorcisms), counseling, ex-gay camps, condemning, damning sermons, flaming accusations, etc. from the church.

I was and still am Gay. God didn’t change that part of my life. I had come to a point where I plea bargained with God that if He didn’t change me, I’d just be gay, leave Him behind and go to hell, like I had been taught–because I couldn’t fight anymore. I surely couldn’t be gay AND Christian.  So, if God didn’t change me, it meant He didn’t love me. My whole world changed in 2006. I visited a gay-affirming church and Pastor J.R. Finney II, from Covenant Community Church taught me to forget all that I had learned and to discover God again; this time, without the guilt of religion.

While I am thankful for my previous religious upbringing, as a foundation for God’s word, I am more thankful that I got a chance to re-learn what God really says about me in His Word. God thinks I am OK and I’d rather have God’s approval. I have since forgiven those Christians who ignorantly shunned, hated and damned me.

I have even forgiven the Pastor who “outed” me 17 years ago during one of his famous fire and brimstone sermons on a Sunday morning when I was absent.  He is no longer there.  I have visited the church of my childhood several times since then–and you know what, I am loved by them.

The members, many who have been my Sunday school teachers, school teachers, either don’t remember or don’t care that I am gay. And you know what? They accept me unconditionally and often invite me to do the Lectionary readings on Sunday morning when I visit.  That is an honor that I cherish. I am what I am; I am how God made me, and I embrace that now.

My life has been hard, but I grew and I learned, and I thrived. I think that, things had been really easy, would I appreciate my life this much? Furthermore, the struggles remind me that “the negative experience helps us appreciate the positive that much more.”

I want to say thank you to this anonymous writer for creating community for me when I needed it most.  Surprise, surprise.

And thank you to my wife, Mary Bea Sullivan , for your encouragement in my life.  You create connection for me like I have never experienced before.

I think I’ll keep writing.

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