Early Sunday morning before Christmas I learned that my first long term partner had died. It took me by surprise and grabbed me in the gut. I wanted to talk to somebody about it, but I didn’t think anyone could understand. So I’m talking about it with you, the reader of this blog. Some of you have followed my life not only during part or all of the nine years I’ve been writing this blog, but in the decades since my first book was published in 1988 and before, in the multiple columns I wrote for several periodicals and newsletters.
It was to that first book that I returned to remember “John,” one who saw me through some of my roughest times as a candidate for ordination in the Presbyterian Church. I first wrote of him recounting my first Presbyterian General Assembly in Baltimore in 1976 as a gay activist:
My loneliness grew from having completed the fulfilling ministry internship at the Christian Association [of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia] the week before. I had not only said goodbye to a number of friends at term’s end, but I had also broken off a relationship with a man whom I will call John, a name that means “The Lord is gracious.” … *
John, a graduate student, had sought me out for a relationship. His presence in the months that followed comforted me… While he respected and admired my commitment to the church, he was not similarly inclined, and this limited the depth of the relationship for me. On the other hand, though severely closeted, John at least was not inhibited by the church.
At the close of the spring semester he completed his studies and returned to his home in California, where he intended to become a millionaire in his chosen career, a priority I did not share. Unblinded by passion, we made a mutual and rational decision to bring our relationship to a close, since I would only briefly be in California before returning to New Haven for my final year of seminary.
But something happened as I drove him to the airport: he cried. I had never witnessed his poker face display emotion. I was moved, and fell in love with him for the first time. He was vulnerable, capable of an intimacy never before revealed. Then he was gone. Lost love frequently prompts me to write, so I wrote him a poem. I did not know it would rekindle our love, but I hoped that it would. –Uncommon Calling, p 143.
I did not hear from him at the time, but later learned he carried that poem in his briefcase for a month before responding, favorably. I returned for a visit with my family in California before my final year at Yale Divinity School, and we renewed our relationship, despite the distance to come.
After graduation in May of 1977, I returned to California to accept a position as Director of the Lazarus Project, a first-of-its-kind ministry of a mainline denomination intended to reconcile the church and the LGBT community. Because I was “under care” as a candidate for ordination in a neighboring presbytery, I was required to seek its permission to “labor outside its bounds” to accept the call, permission denied me during an unusually well-attended summer meeting.
A church leader remarked to me afterward that the presbytery was so hostile to me, “They wouldn’t let you clerk in a grocery store!” I was devastated. … I phoned John from the meeting, barely able to speak, embarrassed by my church family’s treatment, crying that these who did not know me personally could be so angry with me. Stunned and hurting with me, John comforted me as best he could. Uncommon Calling, p 166.
So that I could accept the position in the neighboring presbytery, a special meeting was called to consider my transfer as a candidate for ordination to that presbytery.
This time my lover, John, was present for moral support. Fears had been expressed that the presbytery might defeat my transfer out of sheer vindictiveness. After an hour’s debate in which hostile questions surfaced, such as whether I were repentant enough to be transferred, the vote was taken.
Because of voting irregularities at the earlier meeting, a written ballot was requested. The stated clerk, appointing neutral people to count ballots, pointed at John (not knowing his relationship to me) as a potential volunteer. “And you—who are you?” the clerk asked. John, caught off guard, stuttered, “I’m not a member of this church!”
“Then you ought to be fair,” came the clerk’s mischievous rejoinder, breaking the gathering’s tension with laughter. Later, John told me, in tabulating the ballots, he seemed to open all the negative ones! Uncommon Calling, p 167.
I “won” that vote, given permission to transfer, but, though it had approved the mission and ministry of the Lazarus Project, the receiving presbytery delayed a vote on receiving me until after the denomination had decided on the question of ordaining openly gay and lesbian clergy the following year, in May of 1978. The denomination rejected such ordination and in June, the presbytery considered my transfer and rejected it. Unintentionally ironic, the presbytery then asked me to pray!
After the prayer I walked down the center aisle of the church to the narthex, followed by a few supporters, mostly women, who offered me tearful hugs outside the sanctuary. There my grateful eyes saw John. He had hurried from work to the evening meeting, hurried so fast he had been stopped for a speeding ticket, at which time, flustered by the delay, he had locked his keys in the car!
But he’d arrived in time for much of the debate, and he was there for me. He gave me a hug, and we drove home. Entering my apartment, the phone rang, an elder from a Baltimore church calling to hear how things had gone. I could hardly bear his sobs on the phone as I told him. Then came the task of informing my parents. I phoned them the news, and they too cried, hurt and angry that the church could reject me.
And then John offered me the love the church denied.
Uncommon Calling, p 205-206.
I cry even now as I copy this from my first book, hurt by the rejection, moved by John’s love, grieved at John’s death. We remained friends for nearly two decades, but lost touch for a variety of reasons after my move to Atlanta, though I continued to pray for him and his partner. His love then, our love then, remain forever.
In loving memory of Tom Halliday.
*He puzzled why I would use a pseudonym for him in my book, and I explained because he was not openly gay then. He appeared again as Tom in my book The Final Deadline, pp 38-39, 42.
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