I first recorded the experience that follows in a letter to the late Bill Silver during the summer following our (with many others) successful lobbying efforts to persuade the 1976 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church to set up a task force on homosexuality and ordination. Bill and I had become great friends in the process.
This became my favorite passage in my first book, Uncommon Calling: A Gay Christian’s Struggle to Serve the Church, which is not just my story but the story of many, as well as the story of the Presbyterian Church dealing with the issues involved. Published in 1988, the book had four printings with Harper & Row, and an updated 1996 version with photos had two printings through Westminster John Knox Press, totaling more than 20,000 copies.
It was Bill Silver’s candidacy for ordination that prompted New York City Presbytery’s request for “definitive guidance” on the ordination of “avowed, practicing homosexuals.” I too was an openly gay candidate for ordination in another presbytery, and had just completed a year’s internship in campus ministry, working with LGBT people for the Christian Association of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
In July 1976, before moving from Philadelphia, I took my car for servicing and, as usual, waited for it in a nearby café. During a prolonged breakfast, I wrote of my experience to that point as a gay minister. At this relatively early time in my ministry, I already found myself describing a feeling that a primal scream lay buried within me—a scream that expressed the cumulative pain and birth as described to me by hundreds of gay sisters and brothers. I felt like their vessel, a vessel of their feelings, their stories, their hopes and fears entrusted to my care; and I felt as if I would burst if I did not write out their feelings.
The café waitress was unusually gregarious and solicitous, equally generous with coffee and conversation. She picked up an ongoing conversation with a regular customer, evidently begun when he was last in, about methods to avoid crib death. She had a new grandson to worry about.
Now they turned to discussing an article in the paper about women as priests: she said “Why not?” but he was opposed. She spoke her mind plainly, without fear, as one might in a friendship of trust, in which the parties agree to disagree. She had already learned my intended profession, so she shouted over to me, “Hey Rev, what do you think of women priests?” I said I agreed with her, that women should be priests.
She brought me more coffee as a reward and whispered about her other customer, “He don’t like women, that’s his problem. Two divorces and can’t find anyone to marry him. Not surprising!” She said this matter-of-factly, not meanly.
Even more compassionately she added, “Y’know, the other girls warned me he didn’t tip when I started to work here, but I decided to be just real friendly with him, take some time to talk with him. I figured he was lonely. That’s what’s wrong with most people today—just plain lonely, just need somebody to talk to. Well, I’ve worked him up to a 50 cent tip! D’you know, he’s a shrink? People pay to talk to him, and he comes in and talks to me for free! Ain’t it funny?” The coffee fell a little over the brim of my full cup.
Noticing I was writing, and with my left hand, she exclaimed, “I was left-handed too, growing up. But the nuns made me write with my right hand. I’m sure that’s why I’ve been a nervous person ever since! When my kids were old enough to go to school, I went down and told those nuns that if any of them were left-handed, to leave ‘em be. I wasn’t gonna let the same thing happen to my kids as happened to me! Honestly, I think you got to be a genius to be left-handed in a right-handed world.” With that she returned to her post behind the counter.
I was stunned. I believed she was speaking about much more than which hand I wrote with. I looked down at what I had written about others who had been forced “to write with their right hand” in a sense, the anxiety and suffering church and society’s coercion had caused countless gay people. I believe the waitress intuited far more about me than I had disclosed.
I felt deeply moved by her unqualified affirmation. I smiled in gratitude toward this minister who dispensed wisdom and insight as readily as coffee and sweet rolls. Her counter was at once pulpit and communion table, an integration of word and sacrament. The church needed ministers like her. The commonwealth of God had come near.
Copyright © 1988 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit distribution with attribution of author and book title. Other rights reserved.
For more on the LGBT movement in five mainstream Protestant denominations, check out R. W. Holmen’s comprehensive Queer Clergy: A History of Gay and Lesbian Ministry in American Protestantism. For Holmen’s account of some of my personal involvement, please click here.
Those concerned for Israelis and Palestinians in the current crisis might want to read my earlier post: Peace in Jerusalem. Despite what I wrote then, I have resumed following Israel and Palestine’s struggles with dismay and grief.
On today’s anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Saturday’s anniversary of Nagasaki, you may want to read my post: Acts of God and Acts of War.
Progressive Christian Reflections is an unfunded Emerging Ministry of Metropolitan Community Churches, a denomination welcoming seekers as well as believers.
Copyright © 2014 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.