I had just walked out the gates of a Gay Pride festival when I saw the protestors. In was in the late 1980’s and I had been invited to give a short address and to be honored by the GLTB community of Orange County California for the work I had done with the City of Irvine to help create protective laws for Gays and Lesbians in the work place and in housing. It had been a cantankerous struggle in conservative Orange County, in large part, because of the muscle that the conservative churches had been able to orchestrate in political arena. I already had suffered some of their venom as the pastor of the first UCC church to take a congregation through the Open and Affirming process in the area. The church vote made the front page of the Orange County Register which resulted in protestors, bomb threats, death threats on my life and my family and some pretty crude graffiti on the buildings. Admittedly these things seemed unreal and in large part unlikely to actually cause me harm.
But this group of Conservative Christian protestors, mostly large men, looked very real, at that point, and they were headed my way. I was aware that this group, of about 12-15 men, was blocking my way to the parking lot so I decided to just keep walking. I knew that things were going to get serious when one of the men yelled, “that’s him!” Within seconds, it seemed, I was surrounded by these angry, aggressive men screaming that I was a fraud, a heretic and that I was no Christian. Somehow the heretic thing stuck and they all started to chant, “Heretic, heretic, heretic…” as the circle got tighter and tighter, keeping me from any hope of a safe escape. One large man, well over six feet and 200 pounds, was carrying a large flag on a pole with a picture of Jesus on it. I remember thinking Jesus seemed to be looking down at this sad ruckus. This guy kept pushing up against me, shoving the pole into my body, yelling, his saliva hitting me in the face. I don’t think it occurred to me that I was going to die, but I had no doubt that I was probably going to get hurt very badly.
Suddenly there was a body that stepped in between this threatening man and me. And then there was another, and another. I finally realized, in the midst of my confusion, that there was a group of gay men who were surrounding me within the circle of aggressors. Once I was completely protected, the inner circle started moving, with me in the center, until we were thirty yards away from the yelling crowd and we has a clear path to my car in the parking lot. Hardly a word was spoken but I was shaken. When they walked me out to the car, I thanked them and told them how amazingly well they had handled it. One fellow said, “Oh, we are used to it.” And then they quietly walked away.
As I sat in the car for half an hour, too shaken to drive, the words of the gentle, young escort kept going through my head and my heart; “Oh, we are used to it.” I suddenly realized that this is what it feels like to be gay. This is what they have had to get “used to” their whole lives. I remember crying out through my tears “my God, my God…this is not right.”
My life changed with that event. I went from being a social activist to a zealot. Never again was I willing to look the other way. I had a renewed sense of what it meant to be a follower of Jesus, to be willing to take a risk on behalf of another. This was not just about some abstract social justice issue. This was about real people, with real lives, loves and fears. This was about people with a constant fear that they might have to confront some kind of mistreatment on any given day simply because of who they were.
Right then, I realized that the Jesus path was not just about social justice issues but it was rather about people-people who suffer as victims of power, prejudice, class, color or culture… I saw people at the table of Jesus very differently, after that.
But something else happened. I stayed close to some of those men who came to my rescue for now we had shared a common experience. Over the years we shared our story many times, even learning to laugh about it. Of course we shared new common stories along the way. The lines between us somehow had melted. They were no longer my gay acquaintances but my dear friends. They were no longer “they” for we had become “we.”
I have had other experiences like that – going from thinking I was the savior to being the one saved- “them” transforming into “us;” going from the helper to the helped; going from the teacher to the student. And as I continued to have those experiences, I realized that this was the real value of the Jesus path. For it is with our willingness to reach out, with the compassion of a mother for her child, to the marginalized, the outcast, the enemy, the hurting, the other, that we can experience the melting, the dissolving of all lines of demarcation that separate us from each other. And it is here, I believe, that we can discover the Oneness in all life-the Unity in all things.
These opportunities can show up in our workplace, our schools, our churches, “on the side of the road.” They happen when we start seeing every living being as part of one creation, interconnected and interdependent. They happen when we begin to hear the cries of another, as a cry from God.
I believe that this very important aspect of the Christian tradition has been ignored by too many of us who claim to be a Christian and the result is that we have missed profound opportunities… opportunities to experience the “Realm of God” that Jesus referred to with such passion. Maybe the real question is: how far are we willing to go to experience that “place,” the state of mind that is so special that once you experience it, we will go out and sell everything we have to “buy it?”
How far are you willing to go for something so special?