Day: January 15, 2015
by Rev. Elizabeth O’Neill, Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Montgomery, Alabama
John Mark showed up one Sunday in the pews – alone, and looking a bit anxious. I guessed he was maybe 19 or 20 years old; red curly hair, piercing brown eyes, ruddy complexion; he introduced himself and told me was a student in his freshman year at a nearby university. Later I learned that he had come that Sunday because he was curious; he had read an article in the local paper about an annual Hate Crimes Vigil in Montgomery, honoring the memory of Billy Jack Gaither, a young man who had grown up in rural Alabama and had been murdered in 1998 because he was gay. John Mark was surprised to read that both a local church and its pastor had been part of the rally. He was curious enough about our church and its female pastor to show up one Sunday.
Immanuel Presbyterian Church was far removed from John Mark’s congregational experiences. He had been raised in rural Alabama and reared in a fundamentalist, Pentecostal church tradition. Still, not only did he show up that Sunday, but he kept coming back – which was a bit of a wonder, given his roots.
One day he mentioned that he loved music and he wondered if it would be okay if he dropped by the church occasionally during the week to practice on the piano; since he lived in the dorm he no longer had ready use of a piano.
I came to treasure his visits. He was polite, never intrusive, inquisitive, kind, and generous. After a while, I began to wonder if John Mark really wanted access to a piano, so much as he wanted to know that he was accepted and “okay.”
You see, over time I began to put together John Mark’s story: He and his younger brother had been adopted at a very early age; he was home-schooled and before coming to Montgomery, he had never lived outside his little rural Alabama town. I discovered quickly that John Mark was very a very bright young man; whatever else his insular home schooling experience had been, it had served him well. In addition to being a good musician, he had a gift for words. John Mark was funny and outgoing and sensitive; yet there was something sad about him around the edges. Eventually he shared the reason for the sadness– he was gay and he couldn’t be anything other than gay.
He had found that out in very painful ways…
Before he left home to come to school, his brother-in-law discovered that John Mark had visited some gay websites on the family computer. The brother-in-law told his parents; the parents literally beat John Mark up and then called on the local minister and priest to perform an exorcism.
John Mark was locked in a closet, preached to, scolded, and in the end he “repented’ only to realize that he could not, not be gay. So he came to Montgomery to go to school, but he was really running away from home… or maybe he was finding his way home.
Testing the waters at school and now at this new church he had found, John Mark was on the verge of claiming his identity when he decided to submit an article about being gay to the student newspaper. His article was selected for publication! When the newspaper hit the student mailboxes, someone who knew folks in John Mark’s hometown forwarded a copy of the article to his family, and they responded by sending a shoebox from home.
When the package arrived, John Mark was expecting to find homemade cookies inside. Instead, he found a letter from his mother stating that he was no longer welcome in their home, he was no longer their son, and he did not have a place at the table with his family. “Your father and I are disowning you forever,” she wrote. Along with the letter, she attached a copy of John Mark’s birth certificate and a current bill for his automobile insurance.
Shoebox in hand, John Mark drove to our church. I opened the door to let him in and he immediately thrust the letter and the box into my hands, sobbing. For a very long time, he couldn’t speak. When he finally did, he sounded lost and broken. “I am all alone now and I’m 19 years old – what am I going to do?” he cried.
I wrapped my arms around him and held his hand for a while. When the tears began to subside and his shoulders began to relax, I looked him in the eyes and said, “John Mark, you are going to go to your next class, that’s what you are going to do. You might be on your own for now, but you are not alone.” I held up the letter and said, “This was a cruel response to a very well-written article – an article that was honest and well-written enough to be published.” The tears began to flow again.
I don’t think John Mark made it to his next class, but eventually he stood up to leave. I walked him to the door, turned to him and said, “John Mark, you are a child of God, and you are a member of God’s household. Never forget that. This is a time for you to choose life. Know we are here to walk alongside you, one step at a time.”
I had no idea what that would require, but I knew I could not let him leave so lost and alone. I suspect he walked away unsure, and with a deeper groove of sadness around the edges that will always be a part of John Mark. His was not to be a happily-ever-after kind of story any time soon.
Members of the church in Montgomery stepped in and walked alongside John Mark. A temporary home was provided when he could no longer pay for his dorm; clothing, food, transportation were given as needed. Someone arranged for a scholarship fund to be set up, and the following fall John Mark transferred to a college in a larger city nearby. Faithfully, he kept in touch and found his way back to our table as often as he could. Then one day in the spring, I received another unexpected visit: John Mark’s younger brother had been hospitalized after being diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia and had died suddenly while undergoing treatment.
The family had never contacted John Mark regarding his brother’s illness or hospitalization. Apparently they had no intention of informing him of his brother’s death either, but a young relative managed to secretly get word to him about the death and the funeral arrangements. John Mark needed to be there, but he did not know what would happen if he just showed up; he didn’t even own a suit. Well, one of the church members bought John Mark a new dark suit and loaned him a tie. Two of us cleared our calendars to make our way with him to the small town that John Mark had once called home.
The town was a sleepy little place that consisted of a main street, a corner ‘ma-and-pa’ grocery store and diner, two churches – one Catholic, one Pentecostal – and a small cemetery with lots of land in between and a creek running alongside. We arrived at the Pentecostal church, where John Mark had been “exorcised” and repented, just in time for the service to begin. The musician leaned over the piano and began playing, “It is Well, With My Soul” – only it wasn’t.
The family was gathered together in a small room adjoining the sanctuary where John Mark had spent all of his Sundays growing up. The family gathered, that is, except for John Mark; he was shunned – meaning his presence was not even acknowledged. No one so much as looked at him, not the ushers or his former neighbors or former friends or former Sunday school students or Sunday school teachers. There were no words spoken, nor was there a place reserved for John Mark to sit with his family. It was as if both brothers were dead.
No, it was not well with anyone’s soul….
The service began with instructions to rise as the family entered; John Mark rose with one of us standing on either side of him. The preacher entered in and climbed into the pulpit, lowering his hands palms down, indicating that we could be seated. Then the preacher began preaching.
It was an awful ‘fire-and-brimstone’, ‘seize-the-moment’ kind of sermon, laced with challenges to repent, or burn in hell. “You know who you are, and we know who you are,” the preacher bellowed. “Repent now, that your brother’s life was not taken in vain!” he shouted as he banged his hand on the pulpit.
John Mark remained glued to his seat, as did everyone else. Soon the local Catholic priest came walking down the center aisle. He too offered a threatening word that ended with a commitment to place the name of one sinner on the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem when he traveled there in the days ahead; “…and you know who you are,” he said.
I wept as I have never wept at a funeral before, through the entire service. Finally, it was over, but with a noticeable absence of one sinner crawling on his knees to the front for forgiveness.
It was time to make our way to the cemetery. The casket was lowered into the ground and after a while, the folks began to leave; everyone except John Mark went home. When there was no one left but the three of us, John Mark got down on his knees, bent his body low to the ground and sobbed as though his heart were broken forever.
From a distance, so was mine, for this one chapter in John Mark’s life was, and is, surely something to weep over.
(c)2015 Elizabeth O’Neill. Used with permission.