I am a retired Chemical Engineer who worked in the pulp and paper industry, initially in the Southern United States, and later all across the US and Canada. After retiring, I volunteered here at Coronado UMC and was, for a time, a member of the staff. In three months, I’ll celebrate my 80th birthday.
I was raised in segregated Savannah, Georgia in the 1940s and 50s. My dad was a civil engineer working for the Seaboard Railroad. Mother was a wonderful stay-at-home mom and played the piano in the nursery class at Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church for years. I knew all the songs we sang and I still remember them today… “Jesus Loves Me,” “Who Can Make a Flower,” “Jesus Loves the Little Children…”
My great-great grandfather and his brother owned land and owned and traded slaves in middle Georgia before the Civil War. My dad and mom grew up in small, middle-Georgia towns around 1920. My sister and I were raised with the attitudes about race and LGBTQ issues that were typical in Coastal Georgia at that time.
Our neighborhoods, schools, and churches were segregated. We teenaged southern boys called each other gay slurs in immature, teenaged arguments. We used the N-word in derogatory expressions about others. Yet 70 years later, my family now includes Cecil and Noah, two young black men whom I have grown to love. And today, many of my close friends are members of the New Smyrna Beach LGBTQ community.
What happened in my life to make these changes in my attitudes about race and sexual orientation not just possible…but second-nature to me?
In 1984, the paper company that I worked for moved its most experienced engineers and technical staff to Atlanta to form a corporate engineering group. We were an all-white, all-male group, and I was the youngest of the management staff. We hired our secretaries, new engineers, and technicians with the goal of being more racially inclusive.
Bernadette [real name redacted], a young, black woman was assigned to be my secretary.
She was about my daughter’s age. Over the next ten years, Bernadette and I developed a close relationship. I think I was a father figure to her and she reminded me of the daughter I seldom saw. Together we went through Bernadette’s boyfriends, a courtship, marriage, a child, and her divorce. Clearly, Bernadette and I learned from each other in our years together. When we parted, we both had tears.
Later, when I was facing life changes that seemed almost impossible to me, I met Walter.
He was struggling with many of the same issues I faced. We supported each other through these difficult days and bonded in a way that was special and powerful. We had begun to respect and love each other. Then I was stunned to learn that Walter was gay. Knowing Walter forced me to change my feelings toward LGBTQ persons.
Since then, I’ve met many more people with sexual orientations different from my own…singles and in pairs. I have seen how they longed for companionship and acceptance, watched their love for each other, seen the service work they do in their churches and in our community. I’ve watched as they lost spouses to illness. They love each other the same way I love my wife. And they are loyal, trusted friends. I can no longer think of them as “the other.”
When we moved to New Smyrna Beach, I met Earl, a black man about my age.
Earl listened to my admission of the wrongs I committed during the desegregation of Savannah’s schools and churches in the 1960s. I had not been able to forget the hurt that I believe my actions had caused. A few weeks later, Earl was able to tell me of events from this same time that he had never been able to discuss before. Sharing together gave Earl and me peace of mind about our pasts. We became close friends in 2012. Now I can no longer think of someone from another race as “the other.”
On most Sunday mornings, I am in the Open Minds Discussion Group at CORMETH. Currently, we are reading and discussing Fr. Gerald Boyle’s book, Tattoos on the Heart. The teenage black and Hispanic gang-members that Fr. Boyle works with call him “G.”
G assigns rival gang members to work together. They always begin this work experience in a sullen, silent mode toward one another. But gradually, they get to know each other and, almost always, a strong bond develops between them as they learn each other’s story. Then they can no longer sustain the anger that used to keep them apart.
Buddhism teaches that it requires a form of negative energy to sustain the “illusion of separateness.” And separateness allows me to look down on “others” and to exclude them from my circle. But once I know their story, who they are, and what experiences they have had, I can no longer sustain that illusion.
For then I see that we are all children of God. No matter our race, our sexual orientation, gender identity, or political affiliation, we are all precious in God’s sight. We are all children of God. In this way, I believe I have been transformed.
My love and respect for Bernadette, Walter, Earl, Cecil, and Noah transformed me into the man I am today. Now your skin color, your sexual orientation, religious beliefs, political party…your opinions about issues like abortion and “the Wall” are none of my business. And I want to break the “illusion” that we are somehow different.
We are all the children of God and I look forward to – and I work for – the elimination of any “rule” that would separate us or limit anyone from fully participating in The United Methodist Church…in the USA…or here in Coronado Community United Methodist Church.
Thank you for listening to my story. Now I would like to hear yours. I believe the more we share our stories, the more we will have in common. In that way, we will become a stronger church.
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