Friends of Padre Steve’s World
I have been thinking about the profound legal and moral implications of the Supreme Court ruling on marriage equity, the Obergfell v. Hodges case. One of those impacts in in a very simple and human concern, the ability of people to be with their loved ones during medical crisis or when they are dying. I saw the profound implications of not having this right when I was a young chaplain doing my hospital residency at Parkland Hospital in Dallas, Texas 1993 and 1994. This is the story of those two encounters and how they changed me.
For me it is still hard to comprehend, a young chaplain; two relatively young men dying of AIDS, two partners, two families and two radically different experiences of humanity, faith, religion and authentic loving relationships.
I was still a relatively inexperienced minister and chaplain back when I was doing my Pastoral Care residency at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas Texas back in 1993 and 1994. Yes I had graduated from seminary. Yes I had a bit of chaplain experience as an Army National Guard chaplain and as a counselor at a major evangelical Christian ministry, and yes I had experience in dealing with AIDS as a Medical Service Corps officer in the Army.
Despite that, I was so ill prepared to deal with the massively different treatment of people dying from AIDS from their families. Families that in some cases shared the same Christian faith as me. I think that is one of the things that young ministers struggle with when they enter the nether world between life and death, mortality and immortality, faith and unbelief in the real world. When I was in seminary the senior pastor of the mega-church that I attended told a story about being approached by a family member of someone who was very sick and in hospital. The person wanted him to visit them while they were a patient. He had been their pastor for years. When they ask him if he would come, he refused. He recounted that the “parishioner asked just how sick he would have to be to get a hospital visit?” The pastor told us his response. He laughed and said “you don’t want to be that sick.” The congregation laughed and I was devastated.
The pastor was a leader in the New Apostolic Reformation, a friend of John Wimber, Rick Joyner and others who helped to pave the way to the heartless, unfeeling, political “Christianity” and “Dominion theology” that is in vogue with the Tea Party and Religious Right today. When I questioned him about his comments later he told me that thought that pastoral care of those in his congregation, especially in regard to hospital visits was “below his office as an apostle, that others had that responsibility.” The thing that disturbed me the most was that he had ordained me as an Evangelical minister in that church to be a chaplain barely two years before this. I had respected him and now I felt a tremendous sense of emptiness when I left his office.
So when I began my pastoral care residency at Parkland I found that I had a lot to learn about the real world of religious faith, religious hypocrisy and religious hatred and intolerance.
Early in my residency I dealt with a number of AIDS cases. I wrote about one of those cases last night, although that was not really early in my residency, it was closer to the end of it. There were two cases besides that one that made such deep impressions on me that I can never forget them. Both involved young, white, homosexual men dying of the complications from full blown AIDS. Both came from very “Evangelical Christian” families (both were Southern Baptist) and both were being grieved by what we called then, their “significant others” as well as their biological families. But that was where the similarities ended.
The first case was in the second month of my residency, when I was the chaplain for the Medical ICU, before the Pastoral Care Director wisely moved me to the Trauma and Surgery department. A patient came to us, a man, about my age, a successful architect with many friends who was experiencing pneumonia brought about by his immunodeficiency brought about by HIV.
When he arrived he was still able to communicate and he had many of his friends as well as his significant other visiting him. They loved him and he loved them. There was a sense of community and if I dare say real family as they visited. In those first few days I got to know him and these people, most of who were homosexual but not all. There were a number of women there, who I am sure had the patient, who was a remarkably handsome man, been a heterosexual, would have loved to have been his wife.
My encounter with him, before his condition worsened to the point that he had to go on a ventilator and was sedated was transforming. He grew up in the church, knew that he was homosexual, attempted to live with it and finally came out as gay, and was disowned by his family. Despite this he became a highly successful architect, had many friends, was active in charitable works, and still maintained his faith in Jesus. I came to appreciate him, the man who for was for all purposes his spouse and his friends.
However, when his condition deteriorated his estranged family, the people who had disowned him, rushed to his “rescue.” In good Christian form they brought their pastor who though their son was unconscious proceeded to preach at him regarding his need to “repent” and “to come back to Jesus.” The family also took advantage of the law. They were his biological family and next of kin. They banned the man’s partner and friends from his room as he lay dying.
The family’s pastor preached at the dying man and glared at the people closest to him while he was present. I was appalled by his, and their behavior. While they isolated their son from those closest to him and allowed their pastor to condemn him as he died, I remained with his partner and friends. I prayed with them, I cried with them, I embraced them. When the family left I went with them to be with this young man’s mortal body. We prayed and after the nurses prepared his body and the doctors completed their final notes, I walked with them as we took his body on that long trip from the ninth floor to basement, where the morgue awaited. I still cry when I think of this encounter, of how supposedly Christian people would not only keep their son, who they had rejected and condemned from those who loved him the most as he lay dying.
A couple of months later I was in my element as the Trauma and Surgery Department Chaplain, but I still had on call duty where I was responsible for crisis situations anywhere in the house. One of those wild nights I got a call from the nursing staff of Nine South, the Medical Step Down unit where the lady that I wrote about last night had passed away, but that was still in the future.
This time there was another young white man, another partner, another family. This young man was not in the ICU fighting for his life, he was passing away in the quiet solitude of his room with his mother and father, his partner and his friends at his side. Like the other young man he was a man of faith. He loved Jesus, he loved his family and he loved his partner.
He was from the area west of Dallas, the area between Fort Worth and Abilene. His mom and dad were ranchers, dad was wearing his cowboy hat, a plaid shirt, classic western Levi’s jeans and cowboy boots. His mom was wearing a simple dress. Both were thing, tanned and their faces lined by the sun and weather and from being out on the range with their cattle. The young man who was with them, the dying man’s partner was casually dressed but though he was from the same area was not a rancher.
I spent time with all of them. The contrast between the “Christian” parents and pastor of the first young man could have not been more profound. Like the architect’s parents, they were Christians. In fact they were Southern Baptists who attended a small country church in the town that they lived. By any sense of the word they could be described as “Fundamentalist” Christians, but unlike so many fundamentalists they focused on loving God and loving people, even people that so many Christians reject out of hand.
I arrived as the patient was breathing his last. I remained with him, his parents, partner and friends as he passed away, and when his parents asked I offered a prayer commending his soul to God. As I did this his partner was in a state of near collapse, exclaiming “I have no one now, I am alone!” His grief was overwhelming, he had no legal status, in the eyes of the law he meant nothing, though the man that he loved had just died. My heart was rent, and I held on to him.
As I did, the patient’s father came alongside of us. The father said to the young man “You are not alone, you are our son now, we love you.” When this dear man said this we all were in tears, as I am right now. I stayed with all of these dear people as the nursing staff prepared the young man’s body to go to the morgue. At some point the parents escorted their son’s now widowed partner out of the hospital. Mom and dad walked on either side of him as they left the ward. If there was anyone couple on this either who were true Christians, it was this dear couple. As we parted I could not hold back the tears, and the father of the deceased gave me a hug and thanked me for being with them and honoring his son.
I remained with the nursing staff and the internal medicine resident as they complete their duties and took the young man’s body to the morgue. After that I went back to the emergency room where some of the nursing staff, including a RN who at one time had been an Assemblies of God pastor, but was now an avowed atheist who loved to torment chaplains, except me, comforted me in my grief. It is funny that an atheist would be comforting the chaplain after such an event, but then if I do believe in God, why can’t I believe that anyone cannot share in the grief of others and of comfort and care.
It was a story that I could only share with my pastoral care residency supervisor, in our residency group and with my wife Judy, as I knew if I shared my experience at church that at best I would only be humored, and most probably be ostracized. In fact I had to keep that story pretty much under wraps until 2010 when was told to leave the church which had ordained me a priest, for among other things speaking out for the rights of Gays, Lesbians and the LGBTQ community. By then I had met and served with far too many Gays who were far better Christians than most of the Christians who condemned them not to do so.
But, in a way it was a step to freedom because I realized that what I had been taught for so long was so horribly at odds with the message of Jesus.
Two deaths, two men, two partners, two families, two experiences of God’s grace, two experiences of a common humanity and the experience of one very flawed, but no longer confused chaplain…