“A Christian who happens to be a lesbian”, Susan Mabey’s is a name which has been more than incidental in the long struggle for LGBT inclusion in the United Church of Canada. Cited by the Chaplin Award committee for her recent bridge-building, even as a self-described ‘lightning rod’, as the multi-ethnic Toronto school where she teaches Grade 2 struggled with the new provincially-mandated health and sex education program, Susan drew national attention of a different kind in the early 1980s when she was refused ordination in the United Church of Canada due to her sexual orientation. (She very quickly established herself as a minister of Christos Metropolitan Community Church in Toronto at a time when the largely-LGBT congregation was beginning to be devastated by AIDS illness and deaths.)
Her 1999 Doctor of Ministry thesis was entitled “When the Valley of the Shadow is Littered with Bones: Ministry in the Midst of Multiple Bereavements”.
The Craig Chaplin Memorial Award was established following the death of my brother in 2007. It is meant to lift up the outstanding vocation of an openly lgbtq person. Susan will be presented with the award as part of the Convocation of United Theological College, in Montreal this May, the tenth anniversary of Craig’s death.
“UTC is honoured to name Rev. Mabey’s long and courageous commitment to justice and inclusion, compassion and vital pastoral presence, and in particular, to the ministry she now lives as a teacher.”
Rev. James “Jamie” Scott will be recognized through the conferring of the degree Doctor of Divinity (honoris causa). Rev. Scott, the United Church of Canada’s General Council Officer for Residential Schools, will also be the convocation speaker. The College “recognizes in particular Rev. Scott’s profound commitment to indigenous concerns and his work with the Church in preparation for, and response to, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.”
UTC’s convocation exercises will be held at Roxboro United Church, 116, rue Cartier in Roxboro, Wednesday, May 10, 2017 at 2 pm. Roxboro is the congregation of Rev. Darryl Macdonald, the second recipient of the Chaplin Award in 2009.
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I have been a follower, if not always an admirer, for many years.
Your change of heart, more quantifiable with each successive column I read from or about you, has touched me a great deal.
Suffice to say I weathered some of your former comments, written or on CTS, no worse for wear but, so convincing were you, I find I need to pinch myself to take in how you have changed.
I am by no means a model gay citizen. A recovering alcoholic, HIV-positive for 26 years, and a gay rights activist since 1981, my journey seemed to be at right angles to yours. I don’t know that I have ever scorned you in public but, to the extent that I have resented you, I apologize. I nevertheless admired the strength with which you held your convictions.
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.
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.
“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.
“This friend living with AIDS who gave me so much…”
There are people who cross our path at random and without knowing just how they transform us.
In the 1980s, a mysterious illness was striking the gay community in Montreal. Acquaintances were dying around me. I was terrified. At that time I was not “out”, essentially living in a gay underground. I hid because I was ashamed of who I was. I hid because I was told again and again that being gay was against nature, immoral, abnormal. Imagine being more affected by what was dubbed the “gay cancer.”
I entered adulthood marked by a childhood in the holy water, where the Catholic Church thought it was the only one which could possibly save me from eternal fire. I was influenced more by the existence of the devil, and fear of damnation, than by a God who loves unconditionally. At this time of my life, I was still marked by homophobic attitudes, having suffered beatings and taunts at school. I was so ashamed that for fifteen years I kept secret a sudden sexual assault in late adolescence.
My silence and my imprisonment in these underground confines led to hidden relationships – dangerous, anonymous, without boundaries and dead to any fear of taking medications, alcohol and street drugs to gild my non-existence. That led to a deep depression. Well-meaning Christians stretched out their hands to heal me, yet told me that marriage was the solution to my very gay problem.
I didn’t get it, seeming to sink further. Naturally! That God rejects and hates gays was well known. I did not deserve to live.
I met Marcel at a party. He told me his life story. He was one of the first I knew who spoke openly about his HIV status. Marcel was a believer and soothed by his faith even though it was very different from mine.
We did not get together too often. We met once by chance walking on Ste-Catherine. Pleased to meet and share some time together, without a pre-arranged date, we went to the chic restaurant “Cristal” in the gay village.
One day as I paced the streets, feeling out of it, at a very low point in my life, religious and social tensions at their lowest, Marcel accosted me with his big smile, hugged me and told me how much he loved me. There was universal love, unconditional. I firmly believe that his actions that day prevented me from throwing myself under a subway train. He was kind of my angel of the day.
Several years have passed since then. Today, I work for GLBT inclusiveness and I am aware of the realities of HIV and AIDS. I’m light years beyond the young man I was at that time. However, I am shocked to see that so much remains to be done in moving toward a society that’s more tolerant and inclusive. Unfortunately, prejudice remains and there is a rise of the religious right and those who would rather see the social exclusion of people with HIV, showing homophobic feelings.
When I see the repercussions in the media of intolerance and hatred on young people who end their lives or who are considering doing so, I ask myself many questions. I have to wonder if anything has really changed in forty years. Some narratives or stories that I hear have disturbing similarities to what I experienced back then. When a character like Benedict XVI speaks of homosexuality as an injustice and against the will of God it is really baseless, ideological bullshit.
Getting back to my friend Marcel, I saw him one fall evening, cold and rainy, in a restaurant. He was letting me know about his next stay in hospital. He gave me his phone number and told me he did not really like people calling it, except me.
After several attempts to contact him, I remained without news. Worried I returned to the restaurant to ask the waitress if she had seen him lately. She told me that he had died.
Every December 1, I think of Marcel and I thank God for having placed him in my path. I think of all those I knew or I know who live with the reality of AIDS. I invite you to do the same and perhaps contribute a donation to an organization or recognized charity.
For my part, in Montreal, I suggest you donate to Cocq-SIDA. I also invite you to learn about the new “Jasmin Roy Foundation” which works to fight against homophobic attitudes in schools. This is another reality which touches me closely and which unfortunately has been topical in recent months.
Biblical text of the day
Today, the biblical text is not that suggested by Taizé as I usually do.
31 “When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. 34 Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? 38 And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? 39 And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’