Vacations are always interesting, rarely predictable and even more rarely common in my life. For the past couple of weeks I've been traveling in the south visiting friends and family and enjoying the food, the drawl and the hospitality of the culture.
On last Saturday I found myself in Charlotte, NC on the very day of their Pride celebrations for this year. It wasn't a parade but it was a festival complete with booths of sponsors, folks selling their wares, churches, banks, recovery groups, and a stage with good live music acts.
As we approached the area where the festival was occuring it was obvious that there were many protestors with signs, some preaching away, Bible in hand, shouting, gesturing, approaching people, accosting people. I was shocked. I had not seen anything like this in the 10 years since I'd left Charlotte and immigrated to Canada... to be with my female spouse.
Now I'm no prude about these things. I was in Philadelphia at the second Witness our Welcome conference and attended a worship service throughout which we could hear protesters outside chanting "God hates gays." And I was at Bishop Gene Robinson's consecration in New Hampshire when he became the first "honest, openly" gay bishop in the Episcopal Church. The Fred Phelps types were there with their "God Hates Fags" signs. But in both cases the protesters were contained in a specific area, watched by police without personal body space access to anyone. We had to walk past them and we could hear them but they were prohibited from approaching us or accosting us in an abusive way.
This was WAY different. These guys just walked right up to people and made disparaging remarks, sometimes about their children. They shouted at us as we walked by saying terrible things under the guise of free speech and "witnessing" as the fundamentalists call it. I was in a bad space, emotionally fragile from a breakdown of my car on the trip, late flights for friends coming in from the Midwest, visiting folks I didn't know... just general uncertainty and stress. So these guys got to me. I felt like weeping.
Just then I got a glimpse of a man in a collar working a booth. His face was familiar to me, he was a classmate of mine at Episcopal Divinity School working on his Doctor of Ministry degree. He lives in Charlotte and there he was in the flesh, preaching the gospel of love and inclusion by his very presence.
I quite literally ran to him and we embraced. He felt my fear and hugged me close to reassure me I was safe and nothing could harm me. It was like running into the arms of Jesus really. It made me think of the woman being stoned, of the woman with the issue of blood, of the man beaten and left by the side of the road in the parable of the Good Samaritan. There was Cliff with HIS sign... God is Love and Love is for Everyone. I've never seen such a beautiful vision in my life as that dear man in his Booth of Truth wearing his collar and boasting his own brand of the Good News.
Others were there as well. Two women trying to contain the protesters and ease people's fears. They were witnessing to their commitment to hospitality and trying to keep it all in perspective.
Metropolitan Community Churches were there giving out buttons that say "Would Jesus Discriminate?"
We left and went on with our day. Some of the protesters were being ejected as we left. Turned out when the police got any kind of complaint about people feeling harassed, they tossed them out.
On our way out a cop on a Segway approached us from behind. My friend said "Hey, you might want to check out that guy back there.... he seems to be getting a lot of pressure." She had overheard one of the protesters in earnest conversation with a guy asking him if he was "ready to give up his lifestyle." The cop spun around to investigate. We went on to our car and on to the safety of friends and family.
What I'm left with is the fear that filled me. I'm not generally afraid of much. But the "just below the surface" threat of violence was palpable. It made me think about the fear that some people live in day by day... not just because they're having a bad day and feeling vulnerable. Some people live in this kind of fear day after day and year after year. See.... I want to be like Cliff. I want to be out there, visible, making a statement with the embodied reality of the incarnation I live.
Thank you Cliff. You made Episcopal Divinity School proud pal. You made me proud to be your friend. And you made me feel safe when I was afraid. I'm thinking that's about as good as it gets in this life. Thanks.