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