|For Christ's love compels us||
Wed, 14 Jul 1999
From: Joe Hennessy
Hi, I'm Joe Hennessy. A 55 year old former overseas medical missions-type in a committed happy relationship with another man. So I'm SideA, SGB in BA jargon. A 21 year marriage behind me with two sons, now young adults. I have been "out," at least to myself, most of my life. During that marriage I spent some time in counseling and therapy concerning my sexuality. And some time in conservative evangelical seminary preparation for missions work. Primarily I wound up relying on prayer and vigilance to remain faithful to my marriage. That didn't always work, but we held our marriage together through that.
A few years ago, cancer brought me back to the US, together with my family. Surgery and chemotherapy ensued and here I am...over five years later. Recovery from cancer also brought me face to face with my sexuality. During seminary training, and subsequently, I relied firmly on a very straight clean reading of those "troublesome" passages of Scripture. Relied on that reading is not quite accurate, it was always more overlooking the puzzles those passages presented than it was reliance.
I couldn't functionally return to overseas missions work following cancer. It was just too arduous. Began doing medical writing and editing, health care communications. And returned to Scripture study, serious NT Greek scholarship, painfully struggling with my Hebrew as well. My purpose was to no longer nod my head "yes" when reading Lev 18: 22, 20:13, Ro 1:18ff, 1 Cor 6:9-10, 1 Ti 1:10. But to devote serious attention to Scripture and Christian ethics. The result was dramatic liberalization. (A lot left unsaid here.)
The result was also that my wife and I separated, lovingly and prayerfully, giving one another the right to once again puruse our happiness, apart. Then we stood together with our sons to explain as best we could the changes in our lives. I've dressed this up a bit: there were a lot of tears and pain in that process. Today, we are in many ways closer than we have ever been, and still very much parents together.
I also met a man. And today, after three years, we share our lives together. We live in the East San Francisco Bay area. We are members of Lake Merritt United Methodist Church, where I coordinate the "reconciling congregation" program. I am committed to presenting a gospel of inclusiveness to the gay and lesbian community. Both within and without the church. I am also committed to continuing study and dialogue within the Christian community concerning sexuality.
I am grateful for Bridges Across. I look forward to what I can learn, and share, here. I know I have left much unsaid in this introduction. I have a much longer "bio" available, but it seemed better to try to be succinct at this point. I am happy to fill in any blanks, to respond to sensitive and respectful questions with sensitivity and respect. More than any other dialogue in my experience, that seems assured in B-A.
Thanks for allowing me aboard!
For Christ's love compels us.
I marched in my first SF Gay Pride Parade a couple weeks ago. Actually, I marched in my first parade that celebrated anything a couple weeks ago. I've done my share of marching over the years, but my memory says they were all in controversies and protests: civil rights, war. Never marched in celebration of anything before. We shuffled along Spear Street, start and stop, toward a growling crescendo till I turned the corner of Spear onto Market Street and saw before me a long, long canyon...a gauntlet of over 500,000 faces, stretching toward a hazy triangle up Twin Peaks in the noonday sun-blazed distance. Staggering spectacle for a 55 year old guy at the head of the Christian "United in Spirit" contingent. A guy who half expected to be pelted with offal, screamed at, hosed, choked in a pungent stinging haze of tear gas...old memories... Instead, it was a two hour walk into tribal acceptance. 500,000 of them: pink haired, square-block dyke, leather-studded, old and bald, young and slender, fawns and does, black and asian and twink and 490,00 who were absolutely unremarkable except they were all smiling, applauding, yelling. And I was alone. 500,000 of them welcoming me, just me.
So, I'm out. I guess.
In a small Adirondack rural town in northern New York 40 years ago, the word "out" had a meaning. A bit different from today. Primarily, as a 13 year old, "out" was me accepting who I was. "Me" made up a larger part of the world then. You have to get the picture here. Small town (pop. 900 on a good day) in a county with more cows than people. A 9th grade class of 40 total. I didn't really know an "out" world existed. No personal struggle, no guilt, no confusion. Maybe it was the water. In an Irish Catholic blue collar farm family that meant some juggling and dancing, but no doubts. Just out to myself, "that's who I was." Dealing with God through a parish priest (my cousin) was pretty easy. Not denial, just smooth thinking. Keep my eyes open, pay attention. A pre-Vatican II altarboy. I could drive a hockey puck OK, and shovel manure, so I got to wear my FFA jacket at school, glance at all the guys discreetly, and just think about "it" a lot. Functional. My friend, Jimmy, was a fag, everybody knew that. "Out" wasn’t even an option for him, but it's a small town and there were just too few kids to go around. Somebody had to be last chosen for sides, so lots of stuff got overlooked. Jimmy, always walked with his head up, swishy walk, yeah, but his head was up. At 13. But me, like I said, "functional." Which meant I could hang around Jimmy and not attract attention. I think maybe I caught a glimpse of him along the parade route, when I was walking up Market. Must have been the sun...Jimmy's been dead since 92. Left NYC, went back upstate, died alone.
College. Freedom with a big "F" One of those colleges Spiro Agnew later said was full of effete Eastern snobs. Guys with thin ankles, like wellbred race horses. It was coed, so I dated. Kept on making the right moves. Functional. Scholarship boy. Good grades, double major, biology and Romance languages. Kept it all together. Didn't have to be an altarboy any more, so Sunday mornings were spent getting over Saturday nights. Besides, Life Magazine said "God is dead."
JFK was dead, too, and LBJ was president. McNamara was king. I got excited about civil rights, and the war. This was the South. Good place to get excited about civil rights, and the war. Years of protests, marches...and love. He was black, quiet and beautiful. Things began to get difficult. He was in school a hour away by bus. Two guys, salt and pepper, in a South where the Klan still marched, and mean-faced white cops held mean-faced dogs straining on leashes. Harder to be functional.
I'm in medical school. He gets drafted. Refuses to "declare" himself, proud to be in uniform. He looked good, his head was up. A year of agony for me. Drive down to Ft. Bragg in Fayetteville NC for a single Sunday afternoon hour. Never even got him out of that basic training Class A uniform. A single leave visit home, then just letters and pictures from two-syllable foxholes in Vietnam. Thinner in the pictures, an uncertain smile, but his head was up. He came home dead two weeks after Tet, '68.
I closed down. Turned off the lights and locked the door. Sat in the dark. Waited. I was rescued from that darkness by the Chief of Psychiatry at medical school. He walked me slowly toward some better lighting. Quietly, lovingly helped me not be too frightened to feel. The "silver fox" we called him in school. I didn't get thrown out. The 60s saw some experimentation in medical education. Even allowing homosexuals, as long as they acted straight, kept their mouths shut and sat in the middle of the room. Easy enough, and besides, I didn't look at guys, didn't look for guys. That part of me stayed closed down.
Strange, while I was hiking along that parade route two weeks ago, just about Market and Montgomery, I think, I could have sworn I saw a guy who looked so much like the silver fox nod and wave, over there deep in the crowd. Then he turned to a tall slender black guy in a uniform, his head up high. I stumbled for a second, I remember that. But, when I looked up, I couldn't see them.
About then, I began muttering to myself, started to worry about tripping over those MUNI airvents in the street. About not having any water. But, I kept on holding up the sign, "God Loves Gays."
Anyway, back there in the early 70s, along came a lady into this young doctor’s life. New light, new life. I told her who I was...had been, I mean. She figured, from the way I looked and acted, I must have gotten over it all, kind of like a bad case of the flu. So, now I'm a married man, successful, two beautiful children. And the unhappiest man in the world: spiritually empty, a growing, gnawing, aching sense that things are wrong, way wrong. I had everything one could want, yet my hands felt empty.
Became self-destructive, which means destructive to others as well. Looking for anything, anything that will bring some light. Guys are starting to dominate my vision...again. A constant tension between what I have—what I am not—and what I am—what I have not.
Drugs. Easy enough for an M.D. Drugs will soften even the worst of tensions, lighten dark places, smooth rough places. At a price. The price of reality. And family. And function. And finally, that rock bottom that God lovingly placed there before I fell too far. One day, in the anguish of absolute lack of control, forgetting all about Life Magazine’s headline, I pray "God, give me an anchor! I cannot control where I am going." Two hours later, I'm playing "I Ching" with the Bible: flip it open to wherever and blindly point, then read the verse.
Hebrews 6:19. "We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain. where Jesus, who went before us, has entered on our behalf."
We had a house guest at the time, a friend of my wife's who was going through a rough divorce. She was in a home Bible study. The pastor was over at our house that very evening. We talked. I cried. He cried. We prayed. I detoxed. My wife and I decided we needed a new life. We prayed a lot. The usual completely irrational, inexplicable, yet ever so common events began happening. And I'm praying, "God, please don't let me miss those closed doors." Seemed like a good idea since so many doors were opening so fast. I wound up in seminary—conservative, evangelical seminary—preparing for overseas mission work. Clean, straight Scripture and theology. Some rough spots in Greek New Testament work, though. Languages come easily for me. I'm comfortable with the discipline of learning languages, the rules make sense. Greek NT translation was too easy. Too often the Greek word translated into the English word and the lexical reference was the Scripture translation. Circular. It'll always be the same if the dictionary source is the Bible itself. "A waste of time," was the deterrent from looking outside of the Bible to see other usages.
Sexuality came into counseling, as it should. The other Romans Road 1:27, 6:12-14, 8:6-10, 12:1-2, 13:13, and of course, 2 Cor 5:17. Lot of father talk and mother talk. Prayer technique. prayer partnership. Accountability. My wife and I smiled a lot, nodded a lot, prayed a lot. And remained without intimacy. I went off to Asia for some periods of service. Then we went off together, as a family, for long term missions work: building clinics, training paramedics. Good work, exciting work, fun work! It all stayed together in work. For years. Work, prayer, and endurance.
Then suddenly I got sick. And I'm back in the U.S. in hospital. Colon cancer. Metastatic colon cancer. The kind that's already spread when discovered. Surgery. Chemotherapy. And, for a while, the presumption of death. Not so bad. What's the worst will happen to me? I go home! Even got a little excited about that. Home to God. No more struggling. With anything. But, I began recovering, even though I wasn't able to finish the chemotherapy. I was even a bit irritated that I had begun living again. To struggle again. I began filling the recuperation time with a return to Greek NT studies. Found a great retired seminary Greek professor willing to devote a lot of time just to me. I found the discipline of hermeneutics more easily borne than in seminary. And the opportunity to view the text from as many directions as I have the capacity to comprehend. I began to study the varieties of understanding of human sexuality in a theological context. My own theological base began to expand, grow clearer, become more real.
You know, I thought I saw my Greek professor along the parade route gauntlet on Market Street. It had to be him. Waving that sign above the crowd, waving it back at me, like it was his parade! "The Word Of God Is Living And Active" translated into Greek below. I know, it was just all the heat. I was certainly spacey from lack of water.
Recovering from cancer, I began considering work. Did some missions support work, screening applicants, writing up proposals, glad-handing and soliciting. I became involved in some medical writing and editing. I've always been a word carver of sorts. It makes a bit of income. We no longer sought the American Way. It gets shabby after years in the developing world. Then, a few years ago, I met a guy. It was a surprise. Wasn't looking to meet anyone, wasn't even looking at anyone. I was in San Francisco (yeah...I know...where else?) to talk to some people at UCSF about a medical writing proposal. Took a lunch break and brownbagged it down to Golden Gate Park. One of those unbelievably lovely warm summer days. There I am munching away and I notice an open book. In Greek! Eusebius! I know this text. Curious now, I notice a hand holding the book, an arm...a shoulder...a face. We talk for a few minutes, about Eusebius, exchange email addresses, and I go back up to the hospital. He goes back across the Bay to that strange Berkeley world.
We met online, began chatting, exchanging email, became friends. Became aware of more. He's from an evangelical Christian family, but knows he's gay. SGA, but no SGB. There we are, about 2500 miles apart. Yet...there we are.
My wife and I spent an entire day dealing with all this. A Saturday at the kitchen table. A marathon day! We prayed, we yelled, we cried, we hugged, we laughed, and we reached a new level in our relationship. Walls fell away between us. Old, bad, cold walls. Openness we had hungered for, for years. By the end of that Saturday, we had granted—before God—one another freedom. Freedom to honestly begin new lives in search of fuller happiness. And decided that we would stand together in telling our sons, then 17 & 18 years, what was happening.
So, we did. My younger son, who leads with his love in just about everything he does, was neither surprised nor alarmed. He isn't so sure "how God feels about all this" but, "hey, Dad, it's the 90s you know...." with a shrug and a hug. My older son, ever the cautious one handles all this more carefully. He "kinda knew something was going on. It's OK, I guess...But do we have to talk a lot about it?" Only so long as he knows I love him, and that I'll talk with him about "it" anytime he wishes.
They remain living with their mother, in school. I get home as often as I can, but it's 2500 miles. It's hard to tell if the changes I notice are just time gaps, adulthood, or "dealing with Dad." I do notice changes. No lack of love: neither stated nor displayed, just differences.
Church fellowship crumbled in a flash when my wife and I decided to talk to friends, elders and pastor of our home church. No surprises. Except in the few who seem as supportive and loving as they have always been. A few. But, a lot of doors shut.
I now live with my partner here in the Bay Area. We fellowship with Lake Merritt United Methodist Church in Oakland. A "reconciling" congregation. We have felt warmly included in a church family from the beginning, and put to work. A sure sign of acceptance, being trusted with work. I coordinate the Reconciling Congregation program at Lake Merritt UMC. I recognize that within UMC there is a widening gap between SideA and SideB. A gap made more visible by the Sacramento same sex holy union of Janaury 16, 1999. My own primary interest is not so much with the gap within, as it is with the walls without. To face those who have been denied the love of Christ, or think that love unavailable to them, and invite them in stands far above all other issues of theological dissent. The church as the Body of Christ will be here when Christ returns. All who come to Christ in faith will join in the Kingdom of God. That may be disappointing to a few, but only here and now. There can be no disappointment in Paradise.
I spend a lot of time reading, in dialogue, in study. I bike up to GTU Library regularly and sneeze away all day among those dusty volumes. All of the time I can permit, I direct toward a greater embrace of God's call in my own life. How can I not be strengthened, then, by the exercise of understanding what others believe? And to show them what I believe.
Which brings me back to the SF Gay Pride Parade a couple weeks ago. It took some self-encouragement to pick up that sign "God Loves Gays" and take my place with the other Christians marching behind the Gay/Lesbian Veterinarian Association contingent. That dog with the lavender neckerchief they had snagging frisbees out of the air made me a bit nervous, that he not mistake me for a fire hydrant behind him. And, as I said, the blazing hot sun beating down on me was disorienting. I guess it made me a bit delusional. As I finally got to that turn by the Civic Center, at the end of the parade, for just a second I was certain I saw my Dad there, applauding, and my sons smiling, a little embarrassed I guess, because my older boy rolled his eyes at least once. But he held his head up high. A sure sign he was happy.
text © 1999 Joe Hennessy
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