The autumn chill has, at long last, come upon us, bringing relief from the drought and heat, bringing an end to one season as we prepare for the next. With trowel in hand, I find myself in the annual ritual of racing to get the last heap of spring bulbs planted before the soil cools. My gardening skills were honed under the watchful eye of my maternal grandfather, who had learned it from his father and his father before him. I have learned that each bulb planted is an act of faith in the future: what appears lifeless and brown today will resurrect into a myriad of colors and textures when the sun returns. What is planted now can reveal its true character only in another season.
Bulbs are like ideas—when they lie dormant they seem undifferentiated and innocuous. Both can hide their real potential for a long time, but, inevitably, both must grow and express their respective truths. Good ideas, those that serve the larger human community, bring necessarily positive results. Concepts of liberty and personal responsibility, equality and altruism have proven to be a generative patrimony for those of us in the West. As a result, the whole world has had to address the truth claims of our shared philosophical base. On the other hand, bad ideas, those that build walls, barriers and prejudices also result in consequences: violence, fear, hatred.
I am either extremely fortunate, or oblivious, but I believe I have experienced real hatred on only two occasions and both of them have to do with religion and homophobia. In both cases, the seed of hate had been planted in the soil of the Christian Church where it was tended, sheltered and shared with others until the final result was made manifest. Although several years have passed since my initial encounter with evil, recalling the details of that encounter can still make me shiver.
In 2001, a production of the controversial play, Corpus Christi, was staged at IPFW by the late, great Larry Life. Despite the lackluster script, my best friend and I wanted to see a performance. This desire only increased when the out-of-town fundamentalists made news by picketing the show: there is nothing I love more than being in the thick of something publicly boisterous and confrontational.
On a warm August night we drove to campus, parked the car, and began walking up the sidewalk to the entrance of the theatre, which had been cordoned off with bright orange snow fencing and policemen. On the other side of this barrier were perhaps a hundred shrieking, cursing “Christians”. My friend and I were the only ones entering at that moment, but I was fearless. I was prepared for the condemnations of the minister and his ilk because I’d seen it before on CNN. Predictably, the Reverend shouted that we were “fags” destined for “eternal hellfire”. He spit at me and cursed. (Apparently, the sight of two men walking together is considered a “gay” activity in his mind!) When I turned away from him, bemused, my gaze fell on the face of a young boy of about twelve years. He had made his way to the fence and was cursing me as a “fag”, his eyes brimming with rage and hate. I was shaking by the time I got to the theatre door, and for days afterward I lay awake at night, wondering what kind of family would pervert the heart of a child into an abode of Satan.
The second time I experienced hate came several years later, while trying to assist a fledgling church group find worship space here in the Fort. Although the group was in the Catholic tradition, they were too liberal for the Roman Catholic churches. They needed to rent space in another denomination’s building temporarily, until they could afford to purchase their own. A local minister heard of the group and offered his assistance, and he was particularly pleased with the theology of the new group, which allowed marriage of both gay and straight couples in sacramental union—something the minister himself was not allowed to do in his denomination. He presented the idea of sharing worship space to his administrative board: they were thrilled with the idea and were eager to assist.
Within days, a member of the church with strong homophobic biases, began phoning parishioners. Garnering a little support, he threatened to report the minister for violating the canons of the denomination, for misusing church property, for allowing “those people” to get married in “his” church. Within a week, the minister felt he had no choice but to capitulate to the vocal minority and the people of the Catholic community were no longer welcome because of their acceptance of gays. Fearful of repercussions from the haters, the minister publicly announced that due to “doctrinal differences” the Catholics had decided to look elsewhere for a home. Substituting a lie for the truth, an occasion to confront bigotry was passed over in favor of placating a generous donor. Amazingly, 2,000 years after Jesus, there are places right here in Fort Wayne where stone and mortar have more intrinsic value than human beings created in the image of God.
I consider myself a Christian most days, except when I experience hatred at the hands of my sisters and brothers who claim the same spiritual heritage. The history of the Christian Church’s views on homosexuality are far from unambiguous and the earliest centuries were incredibly tolerant. That has changed. There is much evil—I’ve seen it!– lurking in the shadow of the Cross, and my limited encounters with it only further convince me that churches are not only NOT doing their job, they are often breeding grounds for the ugliest forms of discrimination. When a twelve year old boy can look me in the eye and damn me to hell, when an affluent church member can sharpen his homophobia into a weapon of exclusion, something is seriously amiss. Perhaps we should be less concerned about Al Qaida training camps and Islamist clerics overseas and more concerned with ordinary Christian pastors in the “City of Churches”.
The autumn cold catches me offguard each year as I try to plant one more clump of bulbs before winter, hoping to create a haven of beauty in a world that sometimes frightens me. Inevitably, fall planting brings memories of my grandfather: his after-shave, his smile, his generosity and infuriating intransigence. “Il faut cultiver notre jardin”, he would say with a wry grin. Years after his death, I learned that this is actually the last line from Voltaire’s play, Candide. It translates: “We need to cultivate our garden”, and when I get overwhelmed by the world and its intolerance, I think it’s the best damned advice I’ve ever gotten. I can’t make the world different than it is, but I can nurture my own friends and family. Despite fears that I’ve inherited more of Grandpa’s intransigence than his generosity, I’m increasingly impressed with how my own sons are turning out. They seem more open-minded and tolerant, less picky about the wine they drink, more focused on questions of fairness, more aware of their world than I was at their ages. Best of all, they love to work outdoors in the soil. Perhaps the garden I envision, the one as yet unrealized, will be the one that prevails. And so my sons cultivate, dig and plant, something they learned from their father, who in turn learned it from his grandfather, who learned it from his father and his father before him. The cold sets in. We wait.