The Third Row

Monday morning at 7 AM I was heading north on Interstate 55, heading toward my hometown. A woman I knew had died. She and her husband lived down the road from Mom on a few acres we had sold before I was born, and she and Mom were close.

Growing up, some of my earliest memories were of going to their house. The adults would play Yahtzee, and I would play in the living room, on the improbably white carpet. He was a few years older than Dad, and they had grown up together and had similar interests. They were very much a part of my life growing up.

Our lives revolved around the church down the road. It was a small brick building in those days before they added the fellowship hall and the new sanctuary. My granddaddy’s name was on the cornerstone, and my uncle had run the electrical for it when it was built. And generations of my people are buried across the street, in the cemetery there, including Dad.

They don’t really use the old sanctuary much anymore. It’s still there, though, and when I had finished eating my spaghetti Monday in the fellowship hall after the service, I crept over to the old building to look around.

It still looks the same as it did 40 years ago, except it doesn’t, mostly because I’m no longer the same. The first thing that grabs me is how small it was, just six rows or so of pews, and none of them really long. No wonder it always seemed packed in my memories.

The hardwood floors are still there, blessedly uncovered by carpet, as is the fate in many churches that tire of the upkeep required for hardwoods. The area behind the altar rail is carpeted now as it was then, although, in my memory, the carpet was maroon instead of the blue it is now. It is, of course, entirely possible they changed the carpet in the last 40 years, but it is far more likely that my memory is playing tricks on me.

The pulpit is now in the new sanctuary next door, with a piano in its place, which in my childhood was in the alcove to the right of the door. There was no sound system in those days, either, forcing Brother Leon to use his preacher’s voice.

The Heinrich Hoffman print of Jesus praying in the garden the night he was arrested is still there, in the same spot it was every Sunday of my youth. Just out of the frame of this shot, there were additional pictures of Jesus on each side wall, one a headshot and the other an improbably young Jesus, also prints from Hoffman. The headshot is still there, but the picture of adolescent Jesus is gone, a nail still sticking from the wall being all that proves I was not making it up.

Adolescent Jesus captured my attention to no end as a child. I would stare at him on the wall, beardless and with unruly hair, and wonder if he knew what he was in for, if he got in trouble a lot, and why his dad didn’t make him cut his hair.

The hymn board is still there, too. It always had the list of the hymns we would sing today, along with how much money folks had put in the offering the week before. I liked that the hymns were enlisted, as I would go through the hymnal and find the songs ahead of time and slip pieces of paper in to mark them so that I could find them later instead of being flustered and pressured when they were announced. Even then, I was searching for coping mechanisms.

In my memories, as a family, we always sat in the third row in this photo, on either side, but always toward the aisle if we could. I have lots of memories here. Mr. Hays interrupting the preacher, mid-sermon, that he had preached too long and it was time for lunch. Billy, who was what my people called slow and would now be considered special needs, always sang off-key but made up for it with volume and exuberance.

And I remember my daddy’s hands, curiously enough. In this memory, we are on the right-hand side of this picture, on our customary third row. He was wearing his one suit, dark blue, with a white shirt and red striped tie. I am to his left, and the preacher is praying. Daddy’s elbows are on his knees, his scarred fingers interlaced, forehead resting on his clasped, callused hands. His eyes were scrunched closed tightly as if, by sheer concentration, his petitions would go to the head of God’s line.

You could not have convinced me then that they did not.

One Year

A year ago today, I bought the domain name for this website, Humidity And Hope.

Yesterday was the 9th anniversary of that time I was threatened with arrest for feeding hungry people.

Those are not entirely unrelated facts.

In the aftermath of that day 9 years ago, my visibility skyrocketed. A fair portion of the people who read my stuff now came to know who I was in the aftermath of that day. I now had a “platform.” I was, at the time, responsible for fundraising for the small nonprofit that I had founded that would eventually serve more than 300 meals a day, and that would start what was at the time the only faith-based LGBT-affirming day shelter for people without homes in the state. A lot of people depended on me. I felt a lot of pressure to write about my work.

For the next five years, I wrote almost exclusively about faith and justice issues, especially as they related to poverty and homelessness. A lot of people still wish I would write about those things. Recently, I asked my Facebook timeline what I should write about on this blog, and more than ⅔ of the suggestions were faith/justice related.

But here’s the thing: I’m not really interested in writing about those things. But I’m very interested in doing those things. Not to say, “Hey, look at me – see this good thing I’m doing,” but because I believe that doing those things is how I want to live.

I don’t know that we need more people, especially guys, even more especially white guys – writing about what people should believe. But more than that – I am not convinced it matters at all what you believe.

I will go even further: I think that there is nothing more useless to the world than what you believe, and there’s nothing more important to the world than what you do.

I wanted a place to write about doing. Not about why you should feed the hungry, or a place to share my sermons, write about how evil the religious right is, or whatever other God-talk people would read. I don’t think in those terms anymore. I actually think it’s all God-talk.

The work I have done feeding the hungry and building the wildlife pond in my backyard comes from the desire – the mandate – to assist creation in flourishing. My time spent preaching sermons and my time walking along the creek by my house are both done in service to God. Whatever God may need from me, none of it is for me to come to God’s defense. However, the turtles and frogs are not as resilient and need my help much more.

In short, I wanted to write about my attempt to live a complete life. What does it mean to live a good life? What is required? What would that look like? I wanted to write about that.

I didn’t think it would be simple. It would be wide-ranging but centered around trying to be a certain type of person in a certain context. And for me, that context is the Deep South, which is my deepest identity.

So, over the last year, I have written about cornbread and gravy and depression and hope and birds and frogs and nature and travel and death and attempts at suicide and also about trying to live. I have published 216 posts containing over 175,000 words. I’m proud of all of them. Not because it’s the best writing I’ve ever done, but because it was all real. There was no agenda behind any of it other than to say, “Here I am. This is what I do and how I want to live. You might be interested.“ The last 12 months of publishing here have been the source of the most genuine writing I have ever done.

I’m not sure what this place really wants to be yet. But I think it’s beginning to come together. I know I’m glad I’m doing it. I’m glad I get to do it. And I’m glad you’re here.

It means more than you know.

The Spiritual Life

“Can I ask you a question?”

It came over text. I didn’t see it for a while. I have a bad habit of walking away from my phone.

But when I saw it, I replied.

“Sure. What’s up?”

I should say here that it wasn’t a close friend, but someone I know casually. In other words, getting a text from her wasn’t weird, but it was hardly a regular occurrence.

“You’re a preacher, right?”

I used my standard line: “That’s what the piece of paper on the wall says.”

There was a pause of a few minutes.

“That’s what I want to talk to you about. That sort of ‘not taking it serious’ thing you do. You don’t act very spiritual”.

It was my turn to pause. If she needed me to be “Pastor Hugh,” I wanted to be that for her. But if she just wanted to bust my chops because I said “shit” on Facebook, I didn’t really have time for that.

“Is that a question?”

Her: Maybe. Like, even though you act like you don’t, you do take it seriously, don’t you?

Ahhh. Here we are. I didn’t fit her paradigm of what a spiritual person looked like.

I scheduled a time to grab some coffee with her, and we talked for about an hour.

Here is an abbreviated version of what I said.

I told her that while I understood what she meant, I just don’t think in those terms. Like, deciding that this is spiritual, and this isn’t.

There isn’t spiritual work and secular work. There aren’t spiritual people and not spiritual people. There isn’t spiritual music and not spiritual music. And there isn’t a spiritual life and a not spiritual life.

There is just the sacred and the desecrated. That’s it. Those are the only two categories my worldview permits.

It’s all supposed to be holy. It all matters.

So yes, I take it all seriously. I take it very, very seriously.

I’m just not interested in pretending to be something I’m not, I told her. I’m the kind of guy who says “shit.” I’m not the kind of guy who tries to turn every conversation to be about God. Besides, if everything is holy, it’s all about God anyway.

In her book The Writing Life, Annie Dillard says,

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern.

I think about that a lot. That there is no such thing as a spiritual life – there is just whatever we are doing at any given minute. As Dillard advises, there are practices one can engage in to catch those moments so that we capture them and thus form a pattern, both blurred and powerful. And for me, looking for the beauty that underlies everything is one of those practices. Loudly proclaiming my spiritual allegiance is not.

So, I’m not a guy who is going to say, “Ain’t God Good!” when my car gets hit in the parking lot. But I am the guy who will notice the sunlight refracting through the cracks in the windshield as I wait on the tow truck. And I believe God is in those cracks, too.

And that is my spiritual life.

The Plan

Some years back, I was hanging out in the smoking rea of the day shelter I ran at the time. It was one of my favorite community-building activities – it’s hard to have any agenda in a smoking area, especially if you yourself do not smoke.

If you just hung out there long enough, people would forget you were the guy in charge of everything, and eventually, they would just talk. And if you were willing to just listen, you heard some amazing things.

Like the time I heard how one of our guests had been in a drug deal gone bad, and so the other party to the deal was looking for him to kill him, but our guest had hidden in a dumpster and the would-be killer overlooked him.

He turned to me and then said, “Pastor, that’s why I believe in God. Because he was protecting me that day.”

Well, as the old saying goes, the Lord protects fools, drunks and, I guess, drug dealers.

Anyway. Another time, and to the point of this conversation, I overheard two guys talking. It seems that this was homeless because he had cheated on his girlfriend, and she found out about it, and she had then thrown all his stuff out in the street when he wasn’t home, changed the locks, and also called the woman he was cheating on her with, who was unaware he was cheating, and who also threw all his stuff out and locked him out.

So he’s telling this story to another guy who we will call Guy #2.

Guy #1: I ain’t mad though. This is all part of God’s plan.

Guy #2: Oh, how do you figure?

Guy #1: I mean, I just figure everything happens for a reason.

Guy #2; Sure. But sometimes, the reason is that you did some stupid shit.

Well, yes. There is that.

Our impulse to make meaning from chaos is strong. I have spent more time than most people at the deaths of youths who died violent deaths, and I always hear folks say that God needed them more than we did, or that this is all part of God’s plan, or that God won’t give us more than we can handle – all of which are really stupid things to say that bring comfort to no one but the speaker.

But they say them anyway.

I get how it happens though. As I look back over my life, I see things that turned out poorly – a bad relationship, a job I got fired from unjustly, a friendship gone bad – that at the time seemed horrible, but which, in time, became a turning point for my life, and that led to my finding a better partner, or a more rewarding job, or led to my developing healthier relationships.

And so it is tempting to believe that the bad thing that happened was part of the plan – God’s, The Universe’s, hell – somebody’s – and that it was foreordained that as a result of this bad thing, I would be better off eventually.

But I don’t believe that to be true.

What I believe is that the universe is inherently frugal, and wastes nothing. The leaves that fall from the trees in Autumn become compost that feeds the trees in Spring. The flurried attempts to get nourishment by bees from flowers are also the accidental means by which flowers get pollinated, and thus exist. The spring ephemeral flowers only exist because the leaves fall off the trees, and thus bring sunshine to places that are normally in darkness.

The Universe is a very frugal place.

And I exist in that frugal universe. And so do you. We don’t just exist in it – we are part of it. Like the leaves, or the bees, or the flowers. And so, since the universe wastes nothing, the tragedies that befall all of us are not debris left over from disasters, but building materials from which we build our lives.

And so the fact that I spent most of my 20’s doing a job that I hated, that required me to do things I found abhorrent and that led to my drinking an unhealthy amount to survive was neither a personal disaster nor part of a benevolent god’s plan, but rather the source of the skills (such as public speaking, persuasive writing skills, and confidence in dealing with people) that I have used to build a 15-year career advocating for people who have their backs against the wall and effecting culture change. Work I would not have had the tools to do had I not learned them then, in that ugly period of my life.

Like bones and water, which, with time. Heat, and intention, form broth, the things in our past are the materials with which we build our future.

I once knew a lady who lived in a van. Her story was harsh and brutal, and she had legitimate grievances about the circumstances that led her there, and her reasons for being unable to be rehoused. But she wasn’t angry. I asked her why not, and she told me she never really thought of it that way.

“I don’t focus much on what got me here. I just ask myself what I’m supposed to be doing now that I’m here.”

That sounds like a plan to me.

The Giddiness of God

Tony is a Black man who lives on the edge of homelessness, with occasional bouts of sheltered living. Tony is also a gay man, but not completely out, largely due to concerns about his safety in the world he lives in. And Tony is also Christian in a very intense and Evangelical way, mostly, I suspect, as a way of dealing with his shame around his sexuality.

So when Tony came into my office and asked if he could talk to me, I knew this was going to be interesting.

I want to say upfront that while I know that there is no single Black Church Experience and that there are many positive manifestations of the Black male-led church, Tony is involved in none of those. Instead, he regularly attends a storefront Pentecostal church led by a power-hungry man who preaches prosperity theology with a side dish of shaming, who demands that people refer to him as “Pastor”. Like it’s his name.

One of Tony’s friends is Jimmy, and Jimmy is very gay and very out. Jimmy had been going to Tony’s church, and was recently “convicted” about his sexuality, and had recently been, at the encouragement of the pastor over there, committed to praying that God will take away his “homosexual desires”.

Earlier in the week, Jimmy had confessed to the pastor that it wasn’t working. Despite all his praying, Jimmy was still just a big old gay man, and this made Jimmy feel ashamed and made the pastor angry.

So at the Wednesday night prayer meeting, and at the leadership meeting afterward (that Tony was a part of), Pastor doubled down. They had a ‘Come to Jesus” meeting, Tony told me, where Pastor let it be known in no uncertain terms that being gay was a sin, against the law of God, and to prove it, they had a verse by verse reading of Romans chapter one.

Everybody in the room was supposed to read two verses out loud, and when it got to Tony, he was supposed to read verses 26 and 27 out loud.

For this reason, God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

There was a long pause while they waited for Tony to read.

“I can’t do it. I won’t do it.” Tony said. And then he left.

Pastor was upset, obviously. He isn’t used to being defied. He sent Tony several texts, basically threatening his eternal salvation if he didn’t repent and come back to church.

So Tony thought about it and came to see me. Because that’s sort of what I do. I’m the pastor you come to when you don’t have anyone else to talk to. The conversation went like this:

Tony: Pastor told me last night that my being gay was a sin, and that God was angry at me.

Me: Well, what do you think?

Tony: I really don’t think it is a sin. I think God made me this way. What do you think, Hugh?

Me: I think you’re right Tony. I don’t think it is, either, and I think God made you this way.

Tony: You do? (This two-word phrase was so filled with hope, tears, and pain that it almost broke my heart.)

Me: I really do. God made you, and God doesn’t make mistakes. You are exactly the way God meant for you to be, and God loves you, and God loves that you are gay. You being gay is exactly what God wanted, and it makes God happy.

Tony, thru tears: No pastor has ever told me that before. I wish they had.

Me: I really wish they had, too.

We talked a bit after that about what Romans chapter one was actually talking about, and I lent him a couple of books that would be helpful to someone from an Evangelical background. But mainly, I let him know he was loved, by both me and by God.

As he was getting ready to leave, I asked him if he would let me read another Bible verse to him. He agreed.

So I read Romans 8:38 and 39 to him.

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Him: That sounds like it’s saying that nothing can come between me and God.

Me: That’s exactly what it’s saying.

He hugged me, and then, heading to the door, stopped and turned to look back at me.

“No pastor has ever told me that before, either.”

And he walked out the door.

# # #

If you are gay, and like Tony, you have never had a minister tell you that God is happy you are gay, then please, allow me to be the one to say it.

You are made, the book of Genesis tells us, in the very image of God. You are not an afterthought or a mistake. You are not defective. Your being gay was part of the plan, and has been all along.

And because every creator delights in seeing their creation being fully utilized, God is delighted that you are gay. Not just delighted that you are attracted to other people, but your expressing your sexuality makes God happy. In exactly the same way that it makes God happy that you like to paint, or that you like to run, or that you enjoy singing songs or making music.

Your being gay, realizing you are gay, seeking to express your gayness – all of that makes God giddy with joy.

And as to what can separate you from the love of God?

Not a damned thing. Not a single damned thing.

Miracle Enough

I spent this morning among Pentecostal folk.

I have never seen a blind man regain sight.
I have never seen a cancerous tumor go away untreated.
I have never spoken in tongues.

When I prayed over the dying, they still died.
Despite intense prayer, my church still has a hole in its roof.
And praying in Jesus name has yet to bring me wealth.

But each day about 5PM, the birds gather
in the bamboo grove near my house
And sing songs of praise as they prepare to sleep.

And for me, that is miracle enough.