Shaun Fryday, whose faith community emulates his personal hospitality, to be this year’s recipient of the Craig Chaplin Memorial Award


Rev Shaun Fryday has been selected by Montreal’s United Theological College to receive the award, established by my late brother, at the UTC Convocation on May 8th, 2013. Fittingly, the ceremonies will take place in Shaun’s congregation of Beaconsfield United Church.

When he received the news, Shaun is said to have been deeply moved, recalling Craig as one of his closest friends and how the award makes Craig seem “very present”.

Craig died on May 9, 2007 as the result of a fall fifteen days earlier which caused traumatic brain injuries. Like me, he had been retired since the mid-1990s when the stress and fatigue of living with HIV had become too much to bear in his capacity as a United Church minister in west-end Montreal. It was shortly thereafter that he first made plans to establish the award, which would follow his death.

In a letter to the college, in which he outlined terms of reference for the award, Craig wrote:

“…it is my intention and desire that this award be presented in recognition of the particular ministries of gay and lesbian people both within the formal, organized structures of the Christian Church and without…to honour those whose life’s work has been particularly distinguished in its clear embodiment of such central Gospel values as personal courage and integrity, life-affirming faith and spirituality, an unswerving commitment to social justice and a sustainable environment and solidarity with those who are poor or marginalized.

“The conditions of eligibility for potential recipients of this award are intentionally and necessarily exclusive in one important respect – the person being honoured must be able and willing to be publicly recognized as a lesbian or gay man. I am sadly aware of the fact that because of the current climate within some churches and certain elements of our society, this condition effectively excludes a good many competent and highly gifted people who are eminently deserving but who do not feel they can risk coming out of the closet at this time. I am all too aware of the oppression many of them suffer and the peculiar irony in the fact that I am creating an award for which I myself would not have been eligible for most of my professional career in the Church because of my own inability during those years to be safely and publicly self-declared as a gay man.”

Craig went on to say that he believed the award would have the potential to create positive, visible role models for gay and lesbian Christians. He poignantly recalled the United Church’s much-debated decision in 1988 to no longer exclude LGBT persons from consideration as ministers. The final decision was made at a Church-wide council meeting in Victoria, which Craig attended with much trepidation, referring to LGBT members in the third person.

Much has, thankfully, changed since then – the Church evenly electing an openly gay man as Moderator last August!

In nominating Shaun, his congregation cited his vision and commitment to numerous social justice initiatives, from guiding the parish in becoming an LGBT-affirming congregation to the creation two years ago of an LGBTQ Youth Centre, a first for Montreal’s West Island (and for any church!). The centre has more recently expanded its outreach to family members of the LGBTQ community as well as to LGBT adults seeking to break out of isolation.

A couple of paragraphs from a congregation member’s supporting letter speak volumes:

“…after working at the front lines of the African AIDS epidemic I needed solace and community…Shaun was not only open about his sexuality, he was willing to explore the injustices the world visited on LGBTQ people and explore how the experience of being ‘different’ in the world might offer us all opportunity to live more compassionately and justly…

“But I also would like to make clear that Reverend Fryday does not confine his zeal for social justice in ministry merely to issues directly impacting the LGBTQ population and their families. He has been a fierce advocate for the indigenous people of the Philippines, and has determinedly brought their plight into our consciousness at Beaconsfield United Church. Indigenous communities in far away places are easy communities for comfortable Canadians to ignore. But Reverend Fryday has demonstrated that to do so is merely to perpetuate the systems of inequality that plague our planet, destroy communities and, ultimately, our planet. And when injustices on this scale occur, we cannot be silent.”

Shaun’s c.v. concludes, “I have a number of leisure activities that I enjoy pursuing. Particularly, I am an avid reader, I enjoy writing, and I love to cook (and eat!)”

Shaun is a tall, and in other ways, large man – self-deprecating, too!

His hospitality figured prominently in the agonizing days that Craig lay dying in Montreal’s Neurological Institute. Craig’s partner, Claude, and sister Lynn kept constant vigil each day asking other would-be visitors (other than we siblings) to respect their privacy. With understanding and compassion illustrative of his pastoral care, Shaun prepared and delivered delicious home-cooked meals a considerable distance each day to the walk-up Craig and Claude shared in the “Le Plateau” district. I was privileged to partake in some of these meals, both in Montreal and Perth (those we took up there for Craig’s burial).

Craig’s family is proud to anticipate Shaun receiving this award!

Two names to be added to Craig Chaplin Memorial Award


This spring’s presentation of the award in my brother’s memory will include a couple of firsts – two individuals are being cited and they’re from across the Canada-U.S. border in neighbouring Vermont.

To be more accurate, one-half of the couple of Dr. Delores Barbeau and Carol Olstad, R.N. will be honoured posthumously as Carol, who incidentally was a Canadian born in Alberta, unfortunately died last October in their adopted home of Weston, Vermont.

The two met in 1983 while working in strife-torn Bolivia, Delores as a Maryknoll nun-turned-physician and Carol a registered nurse working under the auspices of the Canadian Baptist Overseas Mission Board.

Delores had only lived and worked with Bolivians since 1969 and, given the political climate, knew how much safer it would be to avoid becoming attached to Carol.

Bolivian authorities were already suspicious, to say the least, of church aid workers in their midst (let alone white North Americans); not easily dissuaded from their presumptions of CIA connections. Imagine if they knew they were lesbians!

But the Bolivian Ministry of Health assigned the two to work together, within a year of their first meeting, in a remote tropical jungle.

Not more than a year later the government had put Delores on a hit list and the two fled Bolivia, travelling to Nicaragua to work for five years alongside the people defending their dignity and rights against American-backed rebel forces out to destroy the successful Sandinista government.  (This corrects my earlier history-fogged equating of the rebels as the more courageous side to be on!)

In 1991 Delores and Carol returned to the United States, first New York and Massachusetts and then Vermont, sharing their lives openly as a couple while continuing to live the “social gospel” lessons of their respective faiths, even if no longer so affiliated. (They have since enjoyed the community of the Monks of Western Priory in Vermont where Carol was solemnly and happily remembered following her death in October of last year.)

In a letter to loved ones about her experiences, Delores concludes:

So. That was Bolivia.

What was it like?
It changed my life forever.
I learned to love.
I learned to look at things in a new way and walked in many different shoes.
I learned other definitions for family.
I learned that there were priorities.
I learned to dance.
I stood before mass graves, and buried many friends.
I learned what fear really felt like.
…and in all of this I never knew a time when I did not know God.

The 2012 Convocation of United Theological College, during which the Craig Chaplin Memorial Award is presented (and Delores will deliver the Convocation Address), will be held at Summerlea United Church on Wednesday, May 9 – five years to the day since Craig’s death.

With such an early spring, maybe his favourite irises will be in bloom.

There is no hierarchy in grief: Of Norway and Amy Winehouse


Please read this from Scott Dagostino, whose writing makes me admire the way his mind works.

Being someone who might preemptively describe myself as naive (which endears me to world-wise friends and the ne’er do-well-alike), I must say the title of Scott’s post took me in with more than its most obvious sarcasm and led to a deeper, even more evocative message.

The pallbearers of history seem frozen in their places these days, BREAKING NEWS interruptions startling and incomprehensible. Are we to be judged, as facts settle, for an uncomfortable lack of surprise?

As Scott points out feelings surrounding more than one tragic event at a time are not only possible but healthy. I don’t give the blame-stream media much credit for this, one moment sanctimoniously screeching, “What’s with Amy?” and the next re-tracing the steps of her train-wreck. Musicians,fans, and salaried pop-culture followers – many of whom know the industry of which they speak – are a welcome exception.

Those of us who identify with even a fraction of Amy Winehouse’s experience, who perhaps hope that our lives will be remembered not for the hurdles we’ve overcome but for the overcoming itself, would do well to think more than “But for…grace…there go I”. Powerful though that contracted quote may be – for reasons I have felt for a long time – very few would suggest that this doesn’t require willingness to work. Sometimes, and my knowledge of Amy Winehouses’s story begins and ends with her music, an obvious need for help (or defiant cry against it), is not enough when our perception of the problem is her solution (as it has been for me/us in the past). This was not about reasoning with her. We are left to mourn and to miss Amy Winehouse.

Back to Norway and referring again to Scott, he gives examples of evidence that the varieties of scale notwithstanding, it goes without saying that deranged people and their despicable acts are not unfamiliar. This guy – be he right-wing fundamentalist Christian, xenophobe and/or I’m wondering if maybe homosexual-minus-the-gay (wouldn’t that be a clever escape for the Right?) – kept himself alive for probably only the most sadistic reasons, his freedom to speak at today’s court appearance thankfully thwarted.

Nothing will hold back our shock, grief and anger. However a healthy brain is complex and, therefore, resilient enough to process all matters of information and emotions. Maybe even laugh along the way. With a name like “gallows humour”, you know that expressions didn’t come from the “Y” generation, and I’ve been known to enjoy such humour in AIDS circles. A now-defunct letter (newsletter would not suit its editors nor those claiming more legitimacy) called Diseased Pariah made the rounds at the height (let’s hope) of the AIDS scythe’s attempted purge of my community. DP was irreverent, offensive to many, even hard to stomach for some in the HIV-infected camp – of course what wasn’t hard to stomach back then? It found a niche but didn’t last as long as some of us might have liked and brought laughter to the grimmest of times for many.

Whether in formal or informal support groups I have been fortunate to have at my disposal the listening ears, hugs and shared laughs of countless fellow travelers. Many of the best models for care, of self and others, were exercised and developed when hope seemed so fleeting. Those tools are still operational.

Laughing then, as now, was a relief valve of stress, sorrow and feelings of certain death. It has a time and place with receptors eager to work, in the same minds as the distraught, whenever we are ready.

There is an important difference between humour and satire, or other genuine comforts, and some of the crassness or just unwitting ignorance which sells itself as information (news even!)

How long before we hear about “closure”?

I had been meaning to post this sooner but “computer says ‘No!'”

Messiah the Musical


handel I know, I know – George Frederick Handel’s famous work is actually an Oratorio.  (A musical would require lots of period costumes and at least one big dance number!  Now imagine combining that with Mel Gibson’s gratuitously blood-letting Passion of the Christ.  No, let’s not.)

This was the time of year, probably forty years ago, that I first heard Messiah performed.  More about that presently.  Contrary to common practice, when versions of the Messiah compete with one another in the city, the work was not written for Christmas. Only the first part of the composition has to do with the birth of Jesus. The second and third parts focus on the stories of his death, resurrection, sending of the Spirit at Pentecost, and then the dream of a final resurrection of all believers. (Think of the overwhelming conclusion Worthy is the Lamb and Amen.) Handel’s masterpiece was first performed in Dublin on April 13, 1742, 19 days after Easter.

The very next year a lasting tradition was born when, as the singing of the Hallelujah Chorus began during a performance on March 23, 1743, King George II rose to his feet. Speculation as to why have ranged from His Majesty needing to stretch his legs, his mistaking the opening notes for the national anthem, to his simply being so overwhelmed with the music that he felt compelled to stand. Nevertheless people the world over still rise at the sounding of the first notes of the Hallelujah Chorus

It was spring, before Easter, somewhere in the early 1970s that I first heard Messiah.  Hardly a stellar performance, I’ve only enjoyed better and better renditions since.  The venue was a United Church in Cornwall, an industrial place of about 50,000 just across the Ontario border from our home in (Salaberry-de-)Valleyfield, Quebec.  I don’t remember what sort of orchestra was involved, if any, and I would only be guessing if I called the choir The Seaway Valley Chorus, a combined choir from every church from Brockville to Lancaster.

A family friend, Robert, was minister at this church and he and his wife, Marilyn, and their children were back and forth with us three or four times each year.  Unfortunately this was one of the last times we saw Marilyn, who died of cancer following a brain tumour.

Something eerily similar comes to mind as I listen to I know that my Redeemer liveth which comes right after Hallelujah.  As organist and choir director of a very small United Church in Valleyfield, Mom was fortunate to have two very talented soloists. One of them, Martha, a contralto, sang this piece on a couple of Easter occasions before she died of cancer.

The sum-total of the music, combined with a great performance – either live or recorded – completely eclipses whatever bittersweet associations I have with the work from my early days of learning about it.

Hope as verb, noun and/or feeling


Everything I am feeling in this moment is in the context of having watched, via television and Twitter, the roller-coaster of events in Egypt these past 18 days, of having just listened to the Feb. 6 (2011) edition of Tapestry from CBC Radio with Mary Hines, and of having made the seemingly Herculean effort to order refills of my HIV, diabetes and “head” meds.

And already I have forgotten why I could only describe myself as despondent when I opened up this page.

Towards the end of the week, say about twelve hours before the start of Friday Prayers in Cairo, I was in discussion with some peers about the now-tired links I make between the distinct hells of elementary school and my adolescence, then of my instant activism after the 1981 bath house raids in Toronto (just add water, or steam, and stir!)  Oh, and then I added that leap fart of logic that permeated me for so long “…if anyone deserves AIDS I do.”  Even though I quickly pointed out that I have dismissed this asinine proposition, intellectually, I allowed that it may still hide in the nodes of my psyche as traces of seemingly “undetectable” HIV viral load might hide from the best available tests – though I did not use that analogy.  Frankly HIV could probably hide better, regardless of whether it is or not.

It stands to reason then, if reason is all I can stand on, that I might feel despair given Dr. Kenn’s self-diagnoses (AIDS-because-I-deserve-it and mental-illness-because-well-life-just-piled-up).

Listening to myself, as the conversation with my peers played over and over during the walk home, I understood – was aware of, made sense of – almost immediately how the 51-year old Kenn brutally judges (ever-present tense) the Kenneth of childhood, the Ken of adolescence and the Kenn of a promising adulthood.  Then, with a deep sigh, I recognized (again) how tiring this is – to me, sure, and I can only begin to imagine how much so to any audience (at least anyone not paid to listen!)

John’s question emerged, from among the group, asking me how I would respond to someone presenting my self-evaluation.  Not a new question, of course, I said I’d tell them it (circumstance=deserving) was absurd and to cut myself some slack.

That’s what I left with Thursday evening, not picking it all up again until listening today to the aforementioned edition of Tapestry (which, in all candour, is this loner-wannabe’s “church”-of-choice more than any other these days).   While the Thursday evening mood personified wanted to dislike what I was hearing, I could not.

The stream of consciousness of the past couple of weeks (and blog posts) went like this: forgiveness (others and myself) does NOT mean condoning anything, the letting go frees me up for other things – happier, productive, more self-fulfilling things.

Now what?  (Interestingly, this is one of the questions being asked repeatedly about Egypt this weekend).

Should I pack up for Haiti?  No, I don’t think so – not today at least.

Do I believe that wishing to do anything is a foolhardy distraction from what I’ve been carrying, and working on, for years?  Would a change of course, however big or small, negate everything?  No!

Having lived for so long like I could not imagine surviving another year, never mind quarter-life (and more than occasionally not wishing to!), what small steps can I take to change my attitude?

“Fake it ’til you make it”?

“Act as if…”?

Well, internalizing those phrases would be a pleasant change from the self-defeating mantras, so – if nothing else – let this be a beginning.

I understand, and have experienced, how ‘getting out of self’ can lighten the load a great deal.  Therefore I could do a lot worse with my time than thinking about ways to do this.

I would rather be cut down in the middle of something, only at the moment of my death, than continuously sharpening my focus on seeing it come from an undetermined distance.

“Now what?”

Better to live unto/into hope than fear (which I must always recognize is inherent in any comfortable certainty of hopelessness).

“The Shack”: allegory, empathy and the question of forgiveness


“I brought a book I think you’ll find interesting,” my cousin said as we sat down for lunch recently, handing me a paperback copy of The Shack by Wm. Paul Young.

I believe, now having read it, that she might have been nudged to give me this book because she knows, perhaps as much as any confidant, “The Great Sadness” (as the novelist puts it) which has been stored, occasionally visited, and allowed to grow unchecked in my own run-down Shack.  I’m guessing she might believe some of the messages of the novel could be applicable to me.

It is not difficult for me to imagine how wrenching it would be, certainly a step out in faith, to face those men I have written about who wronged me in my childhood and youth.  At least one is dead and the others, well, I don’t even know their names let alone their current state-of-being.

That’s not the point.  Were they to appear in my dreams I would almost certainly be forced to confront them.  Would I, in such a dream, or do I now, in compartmentalized pain, feel willing – to say nothing of empowered – to symbolically release their throats from the anger of my tight grasp and hand them over to the power whose many names include God?

The message seems to be to trust that something beyond my judgment, my imagination – beyond belief often – is a better repository for my judgment (which I ultimately can’t inflict anyway) than am I.

Somehow, in releasing my grip, I imagine forgiveness looks more like letting go – leaving judgment to forces beyond me. The haunting “monsters” of my past, after all, are dead as far as I know so my preoccupation with holding on, even if it’s not uppermost in my consciousness, is clearly only hurting me. I get that. To let go completely, though, seems more than I can do – at least on my own. Another message of the book, then perhaps, is that I don’t have to do it by myself.

To the best of my ability I release my hold on these men, that in letting go of them their power over me will be lessened. I will not, however, shy away from using the experience – all of it – as best I can whenever I believe it might be of assistance to someone else.

Music therapy – after which you may need some (without the music)


I cannot remember a time when music was not a vital part of my life.  Music is in my genes, especially from my mother’s side of the family, with my grandparents having been matched up in the early 1920s as a violinist/fiddler being accompanied by his pianist.  What I wouldn’t give for a cell-phone video of one of their evenings together at a Depression-era house party in rural eastern Ontario!  My mother studied piano throughout her childhood, later graduating from the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, then earning her qualifications to teach the subject in Ontario schools.  With probably fifty years of teaching individuals, coinciding with thirty-plus years on the pipe organ at church, and I’m sure you’d agree that it was inevitable my siblings and I would also have some natural gifts in this area.

Anytime I am asked what types of music I like the only genres not on the list, with the exceptions of a few crossover songs, are country and today’s pop.  This, of course, leaves me with a vast array of music to choose from but the music player in my head doesn’t shuffle the same way that an iPod can, but goes from mood-to-mood, sometimes lingering on and repeating, over and over, the same song.

As a teen I would play and sing along to songs such as Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself”, the Beach Boys’ “In My Room” and “Hide In Your Shell” by Supertramp in my basement bedroom, no Karaoke machine required, at the top of my lungs.  I know this experience was not unique to me and, while the examples cited were just a part of my record library, my tastes were generally not too mainstream – certainly not for a guy!

All of this is to prepare you for a sampling of the YouTube video-jockeying I did late last night, prompted by two guys posting two different songs by Josh Groban.  The first was a memorial tribute, from a man who had lost his partner to AIDS several years ago, while the second was a Christmas season favourite passed on to his Facebook friends.

Then I was swept away, again, by this.

And by this.

The next selection, a lot less video than audio, was such a blessing to find recently (and another artist does sing it on camera but at a much jumpier pace than I was accustomed to.)  Years ago, when the AIDS Committee of Toronto offices were at 464 Yonge Street, there was a group of us who gathered each Sunday evening for a healing circle.  It always concluded with a slower, studio version of this song, and hearing it again sends through me chills of so many emotions:

André Gagnon – whose every recording I have possessed in formats ranging from 45s to LPs, and from cassettes to CDs and mp3s – composed this particular song in homage to beloved French Canadian poet  Émile Nelligan (1879-1941). The poetry, and tragic life, of Nelligan inspired many Québec-based composers, authors and playwrights.  In fact Gagnon, along with the legendary Michel Tremblay, later penned an opera based on Nelligan’s life and work.

These pictures hardly do his Québec notoriety justice.  Having always fascinated me in my adult years, I often pass some of his haunts whenever I am in Montréal although, to the best of my knowledge, the boutique hotel which bears his name in the Vieux-Montréal quarter has no direct connection.  (The first two images are from his home, on Laval Avenue at rue Du Square St-Louis, and the bust in the fourth picture is in that square across the street.)

 

And now, as I prepare to conclude, here is my favourite Christmas carol – bar none!