Tuesday, July 20, 2004

In over my head ... as usual

     Like most of the trouble I find myself in, this started because I couldn't keep my mouth shut.
     Here's the stit: I live in a small town, but attend a fairly large church. Over 700 people attend each Sunday morn. Last Sunday before service started, while I sat with a few friends of mine, a couple of them were talking about Thomas Thomason (not his real name for good reasons). Apparently the pastor was going to ask him to not teach Sunday school anymore. (I'm recreating this conversation as best I can. Bear with me.) 
     "Why?" I asked. 
     "Because he cheated on his wife," Lori (also not her real name, but I should give it) said. 
     I frowned. I didn't know Thomason very well -- mostly just saw him across the crowd -- but I didn't think he had a wife. A fact I mentioned. 
     "It was years ago," Lori said, grinning at Joan (another alias). They were obviously sharing a joke.  
     "Then I don't get it," I said. "Why would it matter now?" 
     "I shouldn't say," she said. 
     "Okay," I said. 
     "But I will," she said. "He cheated on her with --" dramatic pause "-- another man." 
     When I didn't respond, she giggled. My friend Roger (AKA as someone else) looked at me and tried to change the subject. 
     "I think we're going out to eat after church --" he started. 
     "So he's going to be asked to not teach anymore because he's gay?" I asked. 
     "Well, I don't think he's gay now," Lori said. "He's lived alone for a while." 
     Roger's wife Helen (also someone -- well, you know the drill by now) could also apparently read my face, because she jumped in with, "I think we could try out that new Chinese place." 
     "Then why is he being asked to not teach Sunday school?" I asked, perhaps a bit loudly. 
     Lori edged away from me. Joan's eyes got big. 
     "Well ... because ... you know ... he was with another man ..." 
     "And so he's tainted forever, is he?" I nodded. "I understand. So much for God's forgiveness. He cheated on his wife, and now we're going to punish him." 
     "It's not that," Joan said. "No one wants him to teach their sons." 
     "So he's a pedophile, too?" I asked. 
     "No," Joan said. "But he might encourage them to ... you know." 
     "Oh. So he's going to teach them to be gay," I said. "Let's see. He gets about 30 minutes a week with them. He must be one smooth talking fellow." 
     Lori sighed. "I shouldn't have said anything to you. We all know how you get on your soapbox. You're always sprouting off about something. If it's not the whales, then it's the forests. Don't you ever get tired?" 
     "That's going over the line," Roger said. 
     "Yes, I do get tired," I said evenly. "But then some narrow-minded, backward, knuckle-dragging, half-witted person gets me angry, and I perk right up!" 
     A lot of people were staring. Roger and Helen were embarrassed. Lori and Joan picked up their purses and moved further on down. I sat and fumed all through the service. 
     At lunch, Roger and Helen both said that they agreed with me, but also said that there was nothing anyone could do. Thomason's past was all over the church now. 
     "How did that happen?" I asked. 
     "His ex-wife came back to visit," Helen said. "She asked several people to pray for him and told them that she believed he was struggling with it again." 
     "That's clever," I said. "She gets to be pious and vicious at that same time." 
     Helen shrugged. "Maybe. Anyway, some parents approached our pastor and told him that they wouldn't allow their kids to attend any class he taught. I don't think our pastor has any choice. It's not Thomason's being asked to leave the church." 
     "It's wrong," I said. "It's flat out wrong. It's against everything the church is supposed to be. Forgiveness. Acceptance." 
     "If you had kids, you might think differently," Roger said. "I wouldn't want my children exposed to a gay teacher." 
     "He's not teaching gayness," I said. "He's teaching Sunday school." 
     "Yeah, but they might look up to him," Roger said. "They might think it was okay since someone they respected was gay." 
     "How would they know?" I said. "Is he wearing a button that says, 'I'm gay and I'm proud'?" 
     "Their parents know," Helen said. "And kids hear everything."
     "Do we seriously believe that all a kid needs to be gay is to have a gay teacher?" I asked.
     "It has to do with influences," Roger said. "Teachers influence kids. In this day and age, parents have to be careful."
     "Then they should drop cable television and lock their kids up in a cave 'cause there are a lot more things influencing their kids than a man who's got 30 minutes a week with them!"
     Helen changed the subject then, and I let her. Didn't seem much point in continuing the conversation. But I knew as well as they did that Thomason wouldn't stay in the church now. Since I am usually the last person in the church to hear any news, it was a good bet that everyone knew. Too many people would snub him. Oh, a lot of them would be subtle. A quick turn of a shoulder. A lack of invitations to dinner or to golf. No requests for him to attend the men's prayer breakfast. He'd get the message and get it quick if he hadn't already.
     Monday afternoon, though, I was surprised when Roger dropped by my office.
     After a bit of talk, he got to the point.
     "I just thought you should know that people are talking about you," he said. "No one believes it who knows you, but I thought you should know what they are saying."
     If I had half the brains that God gave gravel, I wouldn't have let him continue. Nothing good ever comes out of hearing what people are saying about you. I know that. I know that. 
     "What are they saying?" I asked.
     "Well ... and I know this isn't right ... but they're saying you might be gay," he said. "Of couse, Helen and I are letting them know you're not, but you should be aware of it."
     "And why do they think I'd gay?" I asked, already knowing the answer. "Simply because I thought it was wrong for Thomason to be asked to stop teaching Sunday school."
     Roger nodded. "You're not married. I mean, you date a lot, but people wonder about it."
     "Do they?" I snapped. "Perhaps I should have sex with my next girlfriend on their front porch. Or start my own porn site. I'm not gay, but it wouldn't be any of their business if I were."
     "I know, I know," Roger said. "I'm on your side. And this will all blow over. But maybe ... you should cool it. A bit."
     "Cool it?" I felt sick.
     "Not be so ... ah ... loud about Thomason," Roger said. "You don't even know him. You don't have to stand up for him."
     I sat there for a long time.
     "If I don't, who will?" I said finally.
     "You can't do anything to help him," Roger said. "The pastor's already asked him."
     "Oh?"
     "He took it well. Told the pastor he understood. But he's not going to attend there anymore," Roger said. "He'll probably be happier somewhere else anyway."
     "Yeah."
     "Are you okay?"
     I nodded and managed a smile. He stayed for a few more minutes and then left.
     It's Tuesday. I'm sure they're still probably talking. Those who talk and those who listen. It would be easy to turn this into some sort of rant against churches in general and that one in particular. I hear that lot from people who tell me that they are done with church and God because so-and-so is a hypocrite or such-and-such happened. (Frankly, I get tired of hearing it and find myself impatient with those telling me about it. Repeat after me: "Churches are filled with people. People make mistakes. People make mistakes everywhere. Churches are no different. Christians are not perfect people. They're just people trying to get better. I should give them a break because I'm not perfect, either.") It would be easy to condemn the pastor and those parents. To dismiss them as bigots and stupid.
     But they're not. I know several of them. They work in local charities. Take food to the elderly. Take Scouts on camping trips. They give to the United Way. They participate in Walk-A-Thons. They love their kids. They work hard jobs for not enough pay. They struggle financially, but still give to the church and to missions. To dismiss them so casually is to be guilty of what they have done to Thomason.
     I could talk to them. Some of them would listen. But I wonder what the point would be. I doubt I would change anyone's mind. And then there's the cost to me. I work in this small town and to be considered gay is a quick way to lose sales and friends. (Listen to my cowardice talking. Listen to my ethics and morals scurry away.)
     So what do I do? Do I stand by and let injustice happen without raising my voice? If I do nothing, am I not just as guilty?
     I thought as I typed this that I would come to some sort of conclusion, but I don't have one. I don't know what to do. But I will do something. Maybe it will be small and maybe it will be ineffective, but I will make the gesture. If only for this selfish reason: Someday I might need someone to stand up for me.

Copyright 2004. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

Tanuki said...

Hi! I was very taken with the story of "Thomas Thomason". The way you were attacked reminded me of a crow I once tended who used to hammer the wood of his perch with his beak whenever I came into the cage. As nearly as I could tell, he was afraid of people, but knew that if he attacked us, we would simply leave--without feeding him. The naturalists tell me his behavior is called "displacement aggression." Your story reminded me again that humans are not immune from some very primitive impulses!

In any case, thank you for the story, and for not using it as a pulpit to preach from.

Tanuki...aka Kumo