Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
I am often asked why I write on the topics of civil rights and human rights and why I have over the past few years gone beyond writing but speaking and engaging in peace public protests for these rights. I guess it is because I have to. Writing is easy for me and apart from the occasional death threat from a Neo-Nazi or KKK sympathizer there is little risk. However, getting out in public and speaking or marching with others in support of their rights is not without risk.
As a historian I have always impressed by the struggle for equality and resistance against tyranny. It matters not to me if the cause is that of the African American fighting against slavery, Jim Crow, and continued discrimination; the Native American against whom genocide was committed in the name of a supposedly “Christian American” Manifest Destiny; the Jew targeted by Nazi Race hatred and genocide, or so many others who due to their race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or political beliefs have been targeted for subordination or elimination by governments, or mass movements.
One man who inspired me is Charles Morgan Jr., a lawyer in Birmingham Alabama had the courage to confront the people and the culture that allowed the brutal bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963 that killed four little girls attending Sunday school and wounded many more. Morgan noted: “It is not by great acts but by small failures that freedom dies. . . . Justice and liberty die quietly, because men first learn to ignore injustice and then no longer recognize it.” I have embraced his example to speak out publicly when I see the rights of my fellow citizens and other human beings trampled by those who only care about their power and privilege.
On this site I have frequently written about those subjects. Likewise, within the confines of still being a commissioned officer in the United States Navy I continue to support those discriminated and oppressed by people whose political, religious, or ideological beliefs support policies, measures, and ideas that go against the basic guarantees of the United States Constitution, as well as the bedrock ideal of the American experiment, the belief written in the Preamble of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights…” and reinforced by Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg address that this Republic was dedicated to the proposition that “all men are created equal.”
I know that there are many times that people wonder why I continue to write about and even take an active role in promoting the liberties of people who because of their race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or ethnicity are the targets of discrimination, legislative actions, threats, and violence. As such I write about these issues all the time, however, it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I became an actual participant in rallies and marches on behalf of any persecuted group. In my case it was making a deliberate move to openly support my friends in the LGBTQ community.
My support of my LGBTQ friends has perplexed many people who predominantly knew me through church or military settings. The sight of a Christian Navy Chaplain and carer military officer supporting people who until 2012 were forbidden to even reveal under threat of criminal prosecution and discharge from the military that they were Gay, or condemned by the church to discrimination in this life and damnation in the next was anathema to many people who I counted as friends. Since I came out as a straight ally to my LGBTQ friends, many people who I believed were friends have long since written me off simply because my stand contradicted their religious beliefs. That bothers me by I have to move along. Likewise there are others who regardless of their beliefs have remained close friends and been supported even if they disagreed with me. That is a hallmark of true friendship. I honestly believe that if friendship is predicated on religion, political beliefs, or anything but on true care for one another it is not friendship.
It is interesting that almost all of my LGBTQ friends are people who I went to high school, college, attended church with, or served alongside in the military. In fact I didn’t know that most of them were Gay for years because the were closeted and that the act of coming out could cause them incredible harm. Over the years as I came to support them more and more have let me know that they were Gay, knowing that I would both protect their confidence and fully support them and they have come to trust me, and I cannot betray their trust by failing to support them in my words and in my deeds.
Knowing their stories and holding them sacred is important to me. I cannot imagine what it would be like to hold fast to the creeds of the church yet suffer the pain of excommunication because of my sexual orientation. I cannot imagine what it would be like to swear and oath to defend my country and go to war yet still be forced to be silent about the people that I love under the threat of punishment and discharge. I cannot imagine what it would be like to be evicted from my home or denied the opportunity to buy a house because I loved someone of my gender. I cannot imagine what it would be like to be able to be fired from a civilian simply because I was Gay. I don’t have to imagine what it would be like to have your best friends and your life partner forbidden to be with you on your deathbed, because as a hospital chaplain I have seen it happen even as the pastor of the man’s parents screamed at him to repent as he died with a ventilator in his throat.
Sunday I participated in the Equality March in Washington D.C. I was with friends and I represented friends that could not be there. It was important. I have been to D.C. many times but I have never experienced it in such a way, I never dreamed that I would be in any civil rights march that went past so many places that symbolize who we are as Americans including the White House and in front of the Capital building. On the way back home yesterday Judy mention how proud she was that I marched. That meant a lot to me, she is an amazing woman who cares so deeply about others that it humbles me. As we talked I remarked that had I been an adult in the 1960s I would have very likely been marching in support of the civil rights of African Americans.
John F. Kennedy said “The rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.” This is something that I believe with my whole heart and now have decided to back my beliefs and words with action instead of sitting on the sidelines.
Yesterday I had friends who took part in the commemoration of the slaughter of 49 people, including an Army officer at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. It was a crime directed at them because they were LGBTQ people and Pulse was a place that they felt safe. Sadly they were not the first to die violently because of their sexual orientation in this country, nor will they probably be the last. That is a reason that I have to speak out. If I don’t I would be complicit in the crimes committed against them by my silence. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said: “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
I will not be a silent friend ever again. This week was for my LGBTQ friends, but I will do so for others as well. I cannot be silent in the face of hatred, even that legislated against already marginalized and despised people by supposedly Christian majorities in various statehouses and Congress. I remember all too well the words of the German pastor Martin Niemoller who wrote:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
As such, I cannot be silent. To do so would betray all that I hold dear.