Love in the Time of Corona, Part 21 “The Risk of Prayer”


A few years back I met a man named Joe. He was dating a close friend of mine at the time. Eventually she and I parted ways and so did she and Joe but Joe and I have maintained a close friendship in the ensuing years. We’ve only met twice in person but we’ve had hundreds of bro-outs via Facetime. Joe was raised a Jehovah’s Witness but now “walks the Red Road” which is the way folks refer to when someone practices the Way carried by the Lakota Sioux. I remember standing and listening to a talk that was being given by Chief Leonard Crow Dog who is a long time servant and leader of the people and is generally accepted to be the spiritual leader of the American Indian Movement. During the talk, Chief Leonard said, “This is not the Lakota’s Way; this is the Way carried by the Lakota.” I am continually amazed and grateful that I was ever welcomed by the Lakota people to pray with them in these ceremonies when men who looked like me, for hundreds of years, actually slaughtered their people to try to extinguish their culture and religion from this continent. Over the years, Joe and I have had many discussions about the religions we grew up in (mine, The Church of Christ) and what it now looks like to pray to the same God in a different way, the Way shared with us through the generous forgiveness of the Lakota.
Six month ago, Joe brought his mother from two thousand miles away in Houston to live with him in Seattle. She has severe dementia and is in rapid decline. As anyone who has been a caretaker to a loved one knows, it can be difficult in the best of circumstances but during times when moving to a nursing home sounds like a death sentence and even simple trips outside the home are dangerous, my friend, because of his extraordinarily generous and kind heart, has found himself in the most challenging time of his life. I wish there was more that I could do for Joe and his mom than just pray and listen. I try to be a good listener when (and if) I can ever shut up about my own stuff. Joe’s in it alone as far as human help goes. His two late-teenage daughters moved out and in with their mother when they found the situation too difficult. I’m really pulling for Joe.

On Tuesday night this week, while on the couch in the evening with my laptop in my lap working on yet another blog that would only end up in the “not yet finished” pile (about ten of those during the quarantine so far, another twenty have been published), I stopped typing for just long enough to make that deadly mistake, the destroyer of all works of art, that ritual act of procrastination, I hit “F enter” on my keyboard and the search engine populated that oft-addressed word, “Facebook,” and I’m teleported immediately to the blue-and-white land of perpetual unproductivity. But on this night, I’m glad that I did. I start doing the two-finger scroll on the touchpad of my MacBook; it’s like a rowing exercise for my “IOJKNM” digits. I scroll faster when I see Trump’s face. I have a daily tolerance level and by that time of night, it has most certainly been met. I scroll past a few of those “what is your vampire drag queen name” posts and the usual arguments between Democrats and Progressives (yes, that’s what I meant to type). Then I scroll past a familiar face I’d not seen do Facebook Live before. I put on the scroll-breaks and slapped it into reverse.

I go Facebook Live compulsively and several times a day. Even before the sequester, I use it to combat inordinate amounts of loneliness, the hallmark, I think, of every artist. It’s as if Zuckerberg has given a bunch of crazy narcissists their own little reality show. Most have more modesty and decorum. There are a lot of people who’d rather die than start filming themselves live for all the world to see. On lists of “Top Fears of Humans,” public speaking is always near the top and there’s nothing more “public” than speaking to an audience of potentially anybody on the planet with a device and access to the Internet. But since the black cloud of Corona descended upon us, I’ve been seeing more and more people go Live and I love it. All other things aside, just getting past the nervousness of talking to a lot of people is good for us, I think! Not everyone does as I do; much to the chagrin of people who are friends of mine, I’m sure. I dance in the meadow at City Park each day as a way to pray for the people during hard times. I wear Daisy Dukes and cowboy boots. I know that people laugh. I want them to laugh. Risking embarrassment and rejection is like pushups for artists.

So the familiar face I saw as I was scrolling Facebook was Donna King. Donna was a many-years friend of my late mother, Judy. She was a good friend and also a fellow teacher. Donna and my mother loved each other very much and share a lot of traits including that they were born to teach, they are faith-full faithful women, they love their students, they love their kids, they love Cordova, and they love the United States of America. Donna has become my friend during my adult life and since my mother’s death, she, like a few of my mother’s other friends, has checked in on me from time to time, often saying just what I needed to hear at the time. I can easily imagine that my mother had a hand in that or in guiding me to Donna’s page that night. When I clicked on the video to unmute it, I saw and heard immediately that Donna was leading a bedtime devotional.

How do I say this right? I got injured by the religious culture and some of the teachings of my youth. There were jewels I took away to be sure, and I did and do love those people I grew up around and will until I die, but the truth is growing up gay in a rural, Southern, Fundamentalist, Christian religion in the 60s, 70s, and 80s was no picnic. Oddly, long before I had any concept of “the gay thing,” parts of what I was being told started so seem incongruous with what my heart was learning was the nature of God. There were the thousands of Bible school lessons and thousands of sermons I’d listened to, but there were also the hours and hours I ran naked through the woods, through the Alabama pines behind our house and sang songs to God and talked with Jesus as I had been taught. Those worlds eventually started to pull apart from each other. For example, I saw some very powerful and righteous women in my life, real life “Steel Magnolias” and there was a lot of talk about what “their place” was in this life. I figured a woman’s place ought to be where they wanted it to be and as far as I was concerned, I’d be as content to hear a woman stand up at the front of the church and tell me what she thought God wanted for me as much as I was to listeni to man. When I was about ten, I started begging to be able to invite my bestie Roz, to come to church with us. She was a “Nazarene” after all and we’d been told that “only The Church of Christ was going to heaven.” I loved hanging out with Roz and didn’t want to spend eternity without my friend. But Roz was Black and there were no Black people at our church. Eventually, when my father had had enough, he tried to explain it away with “they have their own church.” “Well do they have their own heaven too?” My father wasn’t a huge fan of my precocious and questioning mind when it came to religion. To be fair, he, as have a lot of White Southerners, had a huge revelation when it came to race and some other issues. I also refused to believe that my Baptist friends and my Presbyterian friends were going to be joining those Nazarenes (not to mention the billions of Buddhists who had lived devout spiritual lives, their Muslim and Jewish counterparts) in hell! I remember lots of time when I’d be espousing adults of “how I think it is,” I’d hear over and over, “Oh you think that now but wait until you’re adult, you’ll change your mind.” As it turns out , so far (I’m only 54), that twelve year-old version of me was right and I still think racism, misogyny and homophobia are wrong.
Not to ignore the gay thing altogether, only by the time that I had enough wherewithal to figure out that I was that thing that thing I had heard described with disdain, disgust, and pity, all those years, was I able to begin the decades-long journey of healing. Being told that something so central to your identity makes you an “abomination” to that which created and supposedly loves you (except for that) can really do a number on you, let me tell you. Also, to be fair, as with my father, a lot of Southern Christians have come to what I would consider a higher consciousness regarding queer folk and God. I never doubted that any of those Steel Magnolias loved me for who I was and not what I was. Nevertheless, when I was about eighteen years old, I walked away from organized religion altogether for many years simply telling people I was agnostic. But short years after that I found myself in such dire straits emotionally I was forced to again seek out a “higher power” and “spiritual community,” and have found it in many (sometimes unconventional) forms over the years since.

Many people have “stuff” around the religions of their upbringing. A lot of people, not just queer folk, have been so hurt by religion they recoil even at the mention of anything having to with God. Then there’s the “I’m spiritual but not religious” crowd– but when you look at their lives, they are filled with rites and rituals and the community of people who believe as they do. Semantics. Over the past three years especially I have found myself actually shocked and the very vocal political allegiances spouted by most of the people I grew up around! I mean, my daddy was a deacon. He carried the keys to the church building. I was in church at least three times a week from nine months before I was born until I left for college and for years and, as I said, thousands of Bible School lessons and sermons I was pitched this idea of who and what we were not supposed to be. The sinner and his eternal punishment were described ad nauseum in horror-movie-quality detail. I knew exactly what a sinner was and therefore what we were not supposed to be! Now, it seems that the greater swath of the American South has lifted up a modern-day Golden Calf who is the epitome of what was described to me all those years in the Church of Christ! So of late, when I hear religion or politics coming out of Alabama I just change the channel or scroll faster. If for nothing else than their support of sending a pedophile to the US Senate; after that, I was pretty much done for good. (I was molested at 12 by a church camp counselor.)

When I became outspoken against the Trump Administration I became personae non grata to a whole bunch of folks who used to communicate with me a lot. That hurt. A lot. I simply wanted no more Alabama politics and no more Alabama religion. So when I realized our friend Donna King was praying on Facebook, my first impulse was to go on by. (And that’s certainly not to say Donna believes any of those awful. ugly things.) What she was guilty of that night was being from Alabama.
But it was so nice to hear her voice again, that familiar accent. She uses the prayer language familiar to me from my youth; listening to her pray was like listening to my mother pray. Both, when they speak to their creator, have so much love in their voices. You can tell when a Southern Christian woman prays that she cares very much for those for whom she’s praying. So I stuck around for the “amen” by which time (this is the part where you think I’ve gone ‘round the bend) I felt my mother’s hand slip into my right hand and my father’s into my left. I wrote to Donna and thanked her for that moment and she thanked me for praying with her.

Daily, especially lately, Joe and I check in. My perception is he doesn’t have anyone who will listen without judgement on the level I do. His trials with an octogenarian mother with dementia during Coronatimes has at times been almost more than he can bear. This week, he retold me a story (because I asked him to) about a personal pilgrimage he took as an 18 year-old. That’s his story so I’ll let him tell it to you and I hope that one day he will. Suffice it so to say, it’s a story of courage and a story of seeking. With nothing more than a pack on his back and barely older than a boy, Joe set out for Papua New Guinea, a land which had called him since youth. One of my scriptures is from Jeramiah 29: 11, 12. Here’s the Jeff Key translation: “For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord of Hosts, plans for good things and not for calamity, to give you a future and a hope. And you will search for me and you will find me, if you search with all your heart.” Joe’s a man who’s been on a prayerful search for a long time. I’m really pulling for him. His prayer is my prayer.

Yesterday, I asked him if he’d mind if I asked Donna to put him and his mom on her prayer list, to get all those Alabama Christians praying for them too. He said of “that’d be fine.” I told you Joe practices Native spiritual traditions and was very injured by his youth as a Jehovah’s Witness but out of love, before the quarantine, Joe’s been putting on his collared shirt and tie and taking his mother to Kingdom Hall, the assembly house of the Witnesses, because he knew that it gave his mother peace. I sent Donna a message and when it came time for devotion last night, I hopped on Facebook to listen to her homily and prayer. My boyfriend, an apostate Mormon, was on Facetime from LA so he joined in to help us all pray for those who’d asked for it. It feels good to get out of myself and pray for others instead of living in my normal loop of self-obsession. It’s hard for me not to hate someone I see that I perceive to be harming millions. Sometimes I have to turn off the news when I find myself chewing on the inside of my mouth. What I have to remember is, when I walk by CNN and scream, “That makes me sick!” at the television that I am absolutely right. As Donna prayed, my heart softened. That alone was worth the price of admission. Some people make fun of prayer. I don’t care. There are also others who’d be astounded and confused to hear me say all this. I am, after all, the man who dances his prayers in Daisy Dukes and cowboy boots to some of the filthiest Hip-Hop out there. If there ain’t room at God’s table for sinners then I guess there ain’t nothing but room. Besides, I’ve always been more the “hooker with a heart of gold” than the “devout church lady”. Perhaps with all those thousands of times I sang for God to take me “Just As I Am,” that’s actually what happened.

You don’t have to agree with everything somebody believes or even how they pray to join them in that prayer. If you’re not the praying sort, what is the harm in holding a good thought for someone, joining them in the vision of relief, of blessings? I promise that good will come of it, if only in your own heart.

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