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.’
The family piano is on its way to southern Ontario from Perth, having been wrapped in quilts with care this morning, under Mom’s watchful eye, and loaded into a moving van. It is about to find another appreciative home at my sister’s where my young niece and nephew are at a good age to learn to play it.
To me, given my way of waxing hyperbolic, this is no ordinary piano. Mom and Dad bought it, nearly new as I recall, more than fifty years ago taking it from Perth to (Salaberry-de-)Valleyfield’s three residences and then back to Perth when they retired.
Due to their towering height, these instruments usually had string lengths and musical capabilities equal and often superior to actual grand pianos, thus being labeled “Upright Grand”, “Cabinet Grand” or “Inverted Grand” by their manufacturers.
Heintzman of Toronto was the manufacturer of this instrument, the company name and “Toronto” stenciled on the shimmering wood centered above the middle C. It’s been interesting just to read up on this company’s history at its website, so familiar – and greatly changed – are its former Toronto addresses.
The “Pledge-shine” piano always enjoyed a prominent place in the living rooms of our homes, except in the last couple of years of Mom, Dad and Janice living in Valleyfield when it was moved into an otherwise empty bedroom. The only times the keys were covered were when it might serve as an elbow rest for untold numbers of house guests, such as we experienced at holiday choir parties. Said guests would likely be sitting on the matching bench (two slender bums could share it), a bench full of all sorts of things over the years. There was sheet music, of course, complete books of music as well, partial pages of various stickers Mom employed to encourage her students, pictures (both framed and unframed), diplomas sometimes, a tattered hymn book or two, perhaps some gift wrap. Well, I’m sure that paints an adequate picture. It has always been the go-to place when we couldn’t find something – such as last Thanksgiving when I was searching for a biography of my grandfather which an aunt had typed many years ago.
Things atop the piano changed depending on the circumstances, except for the ever-present light over the open music – family pictures, a little clock, and, when teaching was in progress, a metronome (which spent its off hours in a cupboard), a wind-up gizmo that counted the prescribed beats of a given piece of music.
Oh the stories these pictures-within-a-picture can tell! (click to enlarge)
A crowd of faces flashes through my mind when I think of the piano students Mom taught over the years, not the least of whom were her four children – with varying degrees of interest and success. As I progressed (and wanted more time) I was farmed out, as I saw it, to one of her senior students. Neither of my sisters took much interest in the piano but Craig, bless him, learned to play by ear which pissed me off to no end as I methodically plunked out the notes of whatever I was learning.
Craig’s gift came in handy when, as pre-adolescents, we played church (that’s a variation on playing house). Craig took the dual role of minister (long before he felt called to do so as a vocation) and pianist. I was the soprano soloist since I was able, with rather surprising ability, to imitate one of them from our own church – complete with impressive vibrato. My sister was responsible for taking up the offering (of which there was none) – all of this being played out before the birth of my youngest sister (or, at least, before she could participate). Craig might have baptized her, I don’t remember! The piano bench served as altar until it was needed, of course, for its intended role to support the pianist.
There’s a picture somewhere, which I’ll seek out at Christmas, of Janice sitting at the piano on Craig’s lap. Mom was delighted that Janice could carry a tune before she could even talk properly. I remember a little ditty she and Craig would sing together, to commemorate the arrival of K-mart in Valleyfield: “Let’s go to ‘Tay-mawt’, let’s go to ‘Tay-mawt’, ‘Tay-mawt, Tay-mawt’ Department Store.”
Another legend I have codified, inasmuch as I’ve put them in a music list for my hypothetical memorial service, revolves around the painstaking process (for those who overheard it as much as me) as I learned two difficult pieces of music – and not just “easy for piano” knock-offs, either, but the original scores. I don’t remember which was first (they seemed to be my two-song repertoire ad infinitum) – “The Homecoming” by Hagood Hardy, made famous as the background music for Salada tea commercials and “The Entertainer” by Scott Joplin, a much more complex piece which was the theme from the 70s flick “The Sting”. Weeks of work leading to months of practice and even years of play – both on this piano and on the green one located where I used to spend my summers.
It was while Mom was trying to teach after-school piano lessons that Lynn and I would arrive home ready, if not always willing, to deliver the now-defunct Montreal Star, the afternoon newspaper competitor of the morning Gazette (which is still going strong). We each had routes of about the same size which brought in a little spending money. There were occasions when the distributor left us one newspaper short which led to, above the melodic plunking of the piano keys at the other end of the house, a row over who would have to go to a store to pick up the extra copy (and, being an English paper, our options were limited somewhat). Nine times out of ten it would be yours truly who went, usually to O’Neill’s on Boulevard du Havre until a new little book-store opened up in the shopping centre, about the same distance away.
I have digressed.
This piano was where Mom transcribed the Sound of Music wedding processional. It was where Craig rehearsed for at least a couple of friends’ weddings.
I know that many more stories will come to mind, which I will add, as the piano – absent in one home, present in another – continues to be a beautiful part of our family’s collective memory.
Crédit-photo: Massicotte et Dignard
Une traduction ( +/- ) suit.
That glass atrium between the church on the left and the social hall on the right was, until renovations began, an empty space most of the time – except in the weeks leading up to Christmas when a pre-fabricated wall, about half the height of the glass pictured, would be carried into place, the old door and padlock having managed to make it through another year. Behind that wobbly wall and padlock were dozens of Christmas trees which Dad, and other men of the congregation, would sell, in the cold and damp, after a hard day’s work. I accompanied Dad many times and I can almost recall with bodily memories the painful numbness in my feet as we sought brief shelter in the building proper from time to time.
This was Valleyfield United Church in Salaberry-de-Valleyfield, Québec where, when not at home, I spent a great deal of time in my youth. The congregation left the building many years ago and since then it has been kept on life support by, among other things, a small French-language fundamentalist congregation. Oy!
Mom was the organist for 30 years, and a mighty fine one at that, as well as the choir director which – oh well – she did what she could with whom she had to work! The two manual pipe organ was built by the well-known Canadian firm Casavant Frères of Ste-Hyacinthe. Serendipitously, the company is still going strong and bought the organ back to be installed elsewhere.
Built across the street from the 19th-century Montreal Cotton mill, using the same stone, the church first served Scottish Presbyterian settlers who, having named Valleyfield for a town in Scotland, put their stone masonry expertise to good use and harnessed the power of the St. Charles River which cut through the island in the St. Lawrence and which the massive cotton mill complex was built around. When the mill was demolished in the 1970s, sending a smaller work-force out to a modern, suburban plant (which has also since closed) it was a big blow to Valleyfield’s already small English-speaking community. In addition to political turmoil which sent many English-speaking families packing, rightly or wrongly, the changes in industry had a major impact on what was essentially a factory town – textiles, Goodyear tires, munitions, chemicals, the harbour and, oh yes, a huge Schenley’s distillery!
This beautiful building will fare better than the neighbouring Presbyterian church which, last I heard, is now an indoor rock-climbing centre! The architect’s drawing (top) was done for MUSO, Musée de société des Deux-Rives, – (loosely translated as Museum of the People of the Two Shores) – is it any wonder “MUSO” has caught on as its name?
It is a museum which has been without a home, limited to travelling exhibits, in addition to its very well-developed web site (which will be moving eventually to a new domain).
MUSO’s directors are taking great steps to ensure that as much of the former church is preserved, including exceptionally beautiful stained-glass windows which completely surround the sanctuary. I’m drawing on an admittedly greying memory but, other than an abstract one which is beautiful shades of rose, high above where the organ used to be, the windows all depict scenes from biblical stories – Jesus as shepherd, the road to Damascus and I guess half a dozen others including the last one installed, the only one dedicated in my life-time, which depicts the nativity scene. These windows are another reason, in addition to the practical use of solar power, for the new glass area. This will allow eastern sunlight to continue to show windows so situated.
Considering this is a building which was foundational, in the best possible ways, to my youth (better than many children’s experiences elsewhere) I am delighted that it will live on in the form of this exciting museum.
I very much look forward to visiting after it has opened next year!
Crédit-photo: Massicotte et Dignard
Cet atrium de verre entre l’église sur la gauche et la salle sociaux sur le droit a été, jusqu’à début des travaux, un espace vide la plupart du temps – sauf dans les semaines précédant Noël, quand un mur pré-fabriqués, à environ la moitié de la hauteur de le verre sur la photo, serait effectué en place, la vieille porte et un cadenas avoir réussi à le faire à travers une autre année. Derrière ce mur bancal et cadenas étaient des dizaines d’arbres de Noël que Papa, et d’autres hommes de la congrégation, serait de vendre, dans le froid et humide, après une dure journée de travail. J’ai accompagné plusieurs fois papa et je peux presque rappeler des souvenirs corporelles de l’engourdissement douloureux dans les pieds que nous avons cherché un abri dans le bâtiment brève bon de temps en temps.
Ce fut l’Église Unie de Valleyfield à Salaberry-de-Valleyfield, où j’ai passé beaucoup de temps dans ma jeunesse. La congrégation a quitté le bâtiment il ya plusieurs années et depuis lors il a été maintenu en vie par, entre autres, une petite congrégation intégriste. Oy!
Maman a été l’organiste pendant 30 ans, et une fort belle à cela, ainsi que le directeur de la chorale qui – eh bien – elle faisait ce qu’elle pouvait avec qui elle avait à travailler! L’orgue à deux tuyaux d’emploi a été construit par le célèbre firme Casavant Frères de Ste-Hyacinthe. Par un heureux hasard, l’entreprise est toujours aussi fort et les props. ont acheté l’organe de retour doit être installé ailleurs.
Construit en face du moulin du 19e siècle Montreal Cotton, en utilisant la même pierre, la première église presbytérienne servi colons écossais qui, après avoir nommé Valleyfield pour une ville d’Ecosse, mettent leur expertise en maçonnerie de pierre à la bonne utilisation et exploité la puissance du rivière Saint-Charles qui traversent l’île dans le Saint-Laurent et autour qui le complexe coton massive moulin a été construit. Lorsque l’usine a été démolie dans les années 1970, l’envoi d’une petite force de travail vers une usine moderne de banlieue (qui a également fermé depuis), il a été un coup dur pour Valleyfield communauté anglophone déjà faible. En plus de l’agitation politique qui a envoyé de nombreux emballage familles anglophones, tort ou à raison, les changements dans l’industrie a eu un impact majeur sur ce qui était essentiellement une ville d’usine – textiles, les pneus Goodyear, munitions, produits chimiques, le port etc., et, oh oui, une distillerie Schenley énorme!
Ce magnifique bâtiment sera mieux que l’église presbytérienne voisins qui, la dernière que j’ai entendu, est maintenant un centre d’escalade intérieure! dessin de l’architecte (en haut) a été fait pour MUSO, Musée de société des Deux-Rives, il est pas étonnant “muso” a pris en tant que son nom?
C’est un musée qui a été sans domicile, limité à des expositions itinérantes, en plus de son site web très bien développé (qui se déplacera finalement à un nouveau domaine).
Les administrateurs de MUSO sont de prendre des mesures considérables pour s’assurer que le plus de l’ancienne église est conservée, y compris d’une beauté exceptionnelle de vitraux qui entourent complètement le sanctuaire. Je suis en s’appuyant sur une mémoire certes, mais grisonnant, autre qu’un un résumé qui est de belles nuances de rose, au-dessus de l’organe où l’habitude d’être, les fenêtres représentent des scènes de tous les récits bibliques – Jésus comme berger, le chemin de Damas et je suppose une demi-douzaine d’autres, dont le dernier est installé, le seul dédié à ma vie à temps, ce qui représente la scène de la nativité. Ces fenêtres sont une autre raison, en plus de l’utilisation pratique de l’énergie solaire, pour la région de verre neuf. Cela permettra à la lumière du soleil est de continuer à afficher les fenêtres afin situé.
Considérant ceci est un bâtiment qui a été fondamental, de la meilleure façon possible, à ma jeunesse (mieux que les expériences de nombreux enfants d’ailleurs) je suis très heureux qu’il continuera à vivre dans la forme de ce musée passionnant.
Je suis très impatient de me rendre après qu’il a ouvert l’année prochaine!
Millions of Roman Catholic pilgrims climb the 283 steps to St. Joseph’s Oratory – praying on their knees.
In the early days of my AIDS diagnosis I used to go to a “healing mass” at Our Lady of Lourdes on Sherbourne Street here in Toronto. I can’t say I wholeheartedly believed there was much hope for a cure but as long as continued life accompanies my skepticism, and I’m still sucking air, I’ll remain interested in all manner of healing.
St. Joseph’s Oratory, spiritual home of Brother André, is like Montréal’s Our L of L, only much, much bigger and a great deal more famous. It is where thousands of Montrealers will gather this weekend to watch as the Pope declares Brother André a saint.
Regardless of your mode of travel to Montréal, approaching the city from the west affords a view of the large dome of St. Joseph’s Oratory on the Côtes-des-Neigesslope of Mont-Royal. It’s across the road from Collège Notre-Dame where, for many years, a man born Alfred Bessette in 1845 (he was later given the name Brother André) worked as a porter – a not-so-glorified doorman – for the student priests.
Brother André claimed a strong devotion to St. Joseph and eventually he was given permission to fund-raise for a shrine to St. Joseph. The first structure was built in 1904. Church authorities permitted a room to be added to the chapel and Brother André was instructed to live there so as to be able to receive pilgrims seeking prayer. He received the ambulatory sick during the day, while evenings were devoted to visiting anyone who could not leave home. In 1914 construction began on what would eventually be known as Saint Joseph’s Oratory. By the 1920’s over one million pilgrims visited each year and Brother André’s prayers, through St. Joseph, were credited for hundreds of cures. (There are displays of antique crutches left there many years ago.)
Lest you think L’Oratoire Saint-Joseph, and its beautiful gardens, are only for the devout a few months after my brother Craig died in 2007 I went there one hot August evening with Craig’s partner, Claude, and two of his friends to hear the church’s music director play the massive pipe organ as accompaniment to a Charlie Chaplin film – the fourth or fifth such silent move night that year. It’s a building that can’t be missed and, once there, shouldn’t be missed.
But, alas, what would a Roman Catholic celebration be without a sexual abuse scandal? That’s the risk when nothing is done about a systemic problem!
Praying over bread and wine (or grape juice) used to make them the body and blood of Christ – literally, according to the faithful. Then someone dressed Jesus in a white wafer and, poof, a melt-in-your-mouth Christ.
And, while I could see how it would upset the modern-day Pharisees, such a fuss over spontaneously giving Communion to a dog?
St. Peter’s Anglican Church on Carlton Street (pictured below on a decidedly cold winter day) does a lot of good work in the community, far more important than a dust-up over ‘dogma’.
La Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours (loosely translated as Chapel of Our Lady of Safe-keeping), known as The Sailors’ Church, backs down the hill towards the edge of Montréal’s Old Port on the St. Lawrence River.
It is almost as striking from the rear with the large statue of Mary greeting sailors and newcomers on the water’s edge to Montréal for nearly two-and-a-half centuries.
As Québec has become much more secular, collectively fleeing the Roman Catholic Church, old church buildings serve as museums which, in this case, is very appropriate given its long history.
In my second year at college I hitchhiked from Niagara to Burlington, as I would do occasionally, just a few weeks before Easter. A cousin, her husband and their young family were happy to pamper me with good food and fun. On this particular weekend they also shared their enthusiasm with me about their conversion to Christianity – more of a conversion from the liberal, mainstream Christianity we knew as kids to the ‘born again’ variety.
I was of an age, and at a time in my life, when I was susceptible to suggestions of my unworthiness – not from them directly, to be clear, but in the pamphlets they gave me from Campus Crusade for Christ. I did not realize, at the time, that I could have discussed my troubling homosexual awakening with my brother so, upon my return to my shared apartment on Sunday evening, it was one of the things I prayed to be rid of as I followed the instructions in the brochure (now available as a web page but the illustrations remain exactly the same.)
My prayer was sincere, including my wish to be rid of my homosexual thoughts, and I’d like to think that my eventual acceptance of myself and my coming out, were God’s answer to those prayers – just not the ones I had expected.
Anyway, feeling the excitement of a new convert I went to visit the pastor of a church which I had been attending. Excited by my news, of course, he told me that there was to be a baptismal service at the evening service on Easter Sunday, just a few weeks away. This was to be a full immersion baptism, with several others, wading into a tank of water at the front of the church.
News of how I was to spend Easter did not go over well at home. By then Mom and Dad had learned that Craig was gay and was quietly involved, nearly silent of necessity, in the church’s deliberations over the ordination of gays and lesbians. (They wisely chose not to disclose Craig’s sexual orientation to me at this time!) I can only imagine how upsetting my decision was for them. It’s something I regret to this day although Craig assured me, when I eventually did come out, that he understood where I was coming from.
Holding up the positive, I understand the theology of the back-to-basics, evangelical Christians. From their point of view it’s simple, matter-of-fact, and certain – just the way they like it. (I still have a weakness for Christian music which has come a long way since the heyday of gospel quartets.) The cyclical “the Bible tells me so” argument is not subject to much, if any, interpretation. It stands up to criticism and discussion by simply not engaging in it in any way that the Bible-as-authority is disputed. I actually find more meaning in the story-as-metaphor or allegory. The burden of proof is lifted and the underlying message can come forward.
When my pastor, in 1981, publicly supported Toronto police raids of several bath-houses I was really angry. I traveled to Toronto for several public rallies against the raids and soon came out to Mom and Dad and, in turn, to Craig. Far from unforgiving of my past denunciation of homosexuality they were all very supportive. Craig understood, as do I, that some of the most virulent homophobes are people who haven’t dealt with their own sexuality in some way.
So, rather than dwell on that disruptive Easter of my youth, I remember the great holidays spent with Craig for the twenty-five years plus we were able to enjoy as gay brothers and I look forward to spending this weekend with Mom and Craig’s partner Claude. I hope Claude’s tulip bulbs at Craig’s grave survived the squirrels.
As I walked up to the subway this morning I passed a young Tamil-Canadian family crossing the street from St. James Town to attend Our Lady of Lourdes Roman Catholic Church – so a confession is in order. I have received Communion from Jesuits there which, as a Protestant, I am not permitted to do. A Basilian father or two has also served me the sacraments up at their now-closed retreat centre on beautiful Strawberry Island on Lake Simcoe. I seem to have genuflected convincingly.
At Lourdes the occasions for my being there were monthly healing masses for anyone affected by HIV/AIDS. I don’t know if they’re still going on but in their early days I attended semi-regularly with many others willing to at least pay lip service to just about anything offering hope. (I’ll try to refrain from further use of the term lip service in a Roman Catholic context.) Filipino-Canadian drag queens would attend, their resemblance to their mothers always quite striking. It did not surprise me that one of the priests at the mass was someone I would occasionally see in dimly lit establishments known for sexual activity – and he was not there to hear confessions.
My blood has been at a rolling boil this week as more and more revelations of sexual abuse, and the Vatican’s handling of these tragic cases, have been reported almost daily.
I came out of the closet in the early 1980s during heated public debates over the basic civil rights of gays and lesbians in the Ontario Human Rights Code. One of the canards thrown at us by opponents was the equating of homosexuality with pedophilia. It was always a shocking, and infuriating, charge. I, therefore, have a great deal of empathy for Roman Catholic priests who do not happen to be molesters of their juvenile parishioners. They must feel betrayed by their brothers who are guilty of such crimes. I hope they have the strength to call them out on these matters.
The official Roman Catholic Church, from Pope Benedict (formerly known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and “God’s Rottweiler”) down through the defensive male hierarchy of the Church, has unsuccessfully tried to do the impossible – saving its face and its ass at the same time. The influence it once held in western society long lost, the Church still carries on as if we all believe everything that comes out of the Holy See, down to the bishops and the pawns.
I know a few Roman Catholics who cling to their faith as the way they know to experience the Mystery and, more importantly, to act out their faith through such entities as The Catholic Worker Movement. I know them to be good, loving people who believe in gay rights, for example, and other things which would not get an endorsement from the balcony at St. Peter’s Square. My heart aches for them as they see their Church being yanked from one priests’ scandal to another.
This jars memories of ‘Hawaiian Tropic’ Secret, a story I put into words and read for the first time in 1990 during an “AIDS Mastery” workshop. In writing, without judgment or self-censorship, I saw the plain fact that what I had carried as guilt for my behaviour was, in fact, the abuse of a minor (me) by a much older man. (I have no reason to believe the abuser was a priest but I do empathize with the Church – whose condemnations regarding morality over the years are coming back to bite it to the point where its outward-pointing fingers of yesterday are increasingly pointing inward today.)
Unfortunately The Church seems to be better at demeaning the sexual life force of lowly parishioners than dealing with the inexcusable sexual violence visited upon young people by priests who claim to hold such incredible moral authority over their charges.
As I followed some suggestions, during a morning stroll through YouTube, after viewing an organist handle a Bach piece with flair I found another one with a story much like one I can share.
Many years ago, I’ll bet it’s pushing forty years now, my mother was asked to play for a family friend’s wedding. Mom was organist for about thirty years, on a beautiful two-manual Casavant Frères instrument, at Valleyfield United Church.
One of the requests was for the Wedding Processional from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The Sound of Music” which, as our YouTube friend explains, was not available on sheet music until fairly recently. Because this was not a drive-by wedding of people few – if any – in the congregation knew, as was too often the case even then, Mom was determined to transcribe the music.
Mom was a very good organist but the fact is her formal musical training was in piano so it seems pretty remarkable to me, in hindsight, how well she accomplished this task of bringing Richard Rodger’s grand march to life. (She ended at the part where it bridged into “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria”. :) )
It was painstaking work. I can’t remember precisely how it all came together but I do recall Mom sitting at the piano, playing a few chords, then pencilling them onto a blank sheet of music. She used the vinyl disc of the soundtrack which, I would guess, she recorded onto a cassette so she could have it near the piano – and that’s how this favour began to be carried out.
Although I wasn’t at the wedding I did hear her rehearse the music on the organ a few nights before and it sounded great to me!
Fast-forward twenty-five or so years and I found, in my friend Jim, someone besides me who could sing the entire Sound of Music soundtrack from memory. While we did so with much more camp than devotion it indicated a shared affinity we had with the story and the music.
Later still I learned that a friend of friends, who had been married in his youth before eventually ‘coming out’, had been betrothed when his bride marched down the aisle to someone else’s version of this same music.
To think this all started this morning with someone on Facebook posting a YouTube video of an organist playing a hymn written by Bach!
After the cathartic experience here this morning of again recalling Craig’s struggles, in the early days of his ministry, I was remembering some of what was going on in my life 700 km away from Craig. In the raucous days of an Ontario Human Rights Code amendment debate, giving gays and lesbians protection in the workplace, housing and so on, I agreed to be interviewed by another reporter (she from the newspaper, me in radio).
In a brown envelope, within a “clippings” folder, I found a photocopy of this St. Catharines Standard article stamped Dec. 29 1986.
Forgive some of the views expressed. Pop quuiz: I won’t tell you which ones. :) I was so naive!
Beneath a picture of me on the phone, a picture roughly the same size as the three-column article, picture this:
On the record
Kenn Chaplin has ended a double life to find contentment in the gay world
By TERRY SLAVIN
If Kenn Chaplin had been able to choose his sexuality, he would have chosen to be gay. Although it’s difficult enough for most people to deal with their heterosexuality, Kenn has no regrets about the fact he was born gay.
“I’m enjoying the political side of my lifestyle immensely. I think because I’m gay I’m more sensitive to other oppressed people. Despite what I now know about the difficulties of this lifestyle, if I could choose, I think I would choose to be gay.”
Kenn, a reporter with CKTB in St. Catharines, is also one of the founding members of Gay Outreach Niagara, a two-year-old support groups for gays and lesbians.
Helping other gays in the region come to terms with their homosexuality is a labor of love which occupies about half of his leisure time. He also has devoted a great deal of time working with the AIDS committee in Toronto.
Kenn has emerged from a few closets since the day six years ago when he penned a letter to the United Church Observer objecting to the ordination of gays as ministers.
“It’s something I regret now,” the lanky 27-year old says quietly. “But I think some of the worst homophobes can’t come to terms with their own sexuality.”
Kenn moved to the Niagara area from Valleyfield, Que., to attend Niagara College in 1977, and entered a period of emotional and mental confusion.
“When I moved here I had a truly double life, going to Toronto for sexual contacts while attending an ultra-conservative sect in Welland on Sundays as a way of suppressing it.
“It didn’t work. It just made me feel guilty – not because I was doing what I was doing, but because I was leading this double life.”
On one trip to Toronto in 1981 he was handed a pamphlet which tore apart the biblical justifications used to denounce homosexuality, and he suddenly realized he could resolve the conflict between his gay identity and his faith in the United Church.
It was on the heels of that revelation that he decided to tell his parents the truth.
“That was the biggest hurdle, telling my parents I was gay. I just wasn’t sure how they’d handle it. My gut reaction was they’d either reject me or lovingly accept me.”
Fortunately for the entire family, they did the latter.
Spending Sundays hearing the anti-gay gospel expounded on the Calvary Gospel Church pulpit, however, has helped him to understand both sides of the heated debate about the sexual orientation amendment to the Ontario Human Rights Code.
“I appreciate the diverse backgrounds. I know how the two poles operate. I know how the born-agains operate. They fully believed I was going to hell.”
Kenn says his goal in life is to share a normal existence with one other man “and live happily ever after”, but it has been difficult for him to find a partner.
He estimates between 40 and 50 percent of gay men aren’t secure enough about their sexuality to commit themselves to that kind of lifestyle.
It is difficult enough meeting other gays. He says “straight people” have the opportunity to meet potential mates in school, shopping centres, work situations, as well as the bar scene, but gay people don’t have as many choices.
Outside of a gay bar, he observes wryly, “You just don’t go up and ask, if you want to keep your teeth.”
There is one bar in downtown St. Catharines which caters to a gay clientele at night, he says, but most people go to Toronto, or across the border to Niagara Falls and Buffalo, New York.
“I’m not holding out much hope it’ll happen here, and that’s why I’ll never feel at home here.”
Another shadow that cannot help but creep into Kenn’s life is the fear of AIDS. He has done some work with the AIDS committee in Toronto, and has given emotional and practical support as a “buddy” to some of the AIDS victims in Niagara.
He has had three friends die from AIDS.
“When I read the Globe or the Star I read the death pages. It’s made me grow up fast, come home, do the crosswords and read the death notices.”
And with each new death, his thoughts can’t help but stray to his own mortality.
“I’m assuming I’ve already been exposed to the virus before safe sex started,” he says. Because of the long incubation period (up to five years) he could still get AIDS.
“I like to live. My philosophy is don’t worry until you have something to worry about.”
And now that the Human Rights Code has passed an amendment prohibiting discrimination against homosexuals, he does not have any fear about going public about his sexuality.
He said he expects some negative reaction when “people who’ve been dealing with Kenn Chaplin, CKTB reporter, find out they’ve been dealing with a gay all along…but I accept it. I’m going to have to deal with it all my life. By coming out the only choice I’ve made is to be honest. If other people can’t handle that it’s their problem, it’s not mine.”
If I was spoiling for a fight I got one – but nothing as bad as it could have been.
It just so happened (wink, wink) that the article came out on the first of my two days off. When I returned to work my fellow reporters showed a variety of levels of support but when my boss called me in I got a truer picture.
He nervously assured me that he had no problem with the substance of the article, the unorthodoxy of a newspaper interviewing a competing radio station notwithstanding. He wished that I had given him a heads up. It was his boss, he said, the station manager, who was having a harder time with it.
His office was my next stop.
Again, I was treated with courtesy but he gave me a double-pronged objection: I was opening up the radio station to unnecessary scrutiny by listeners and he was Roman Catholic and struggled with some of my views. No big surprise there.
The whole exercise was an adrenaline rush and I wholly admit to being in a frame-of-mind at the time of, “Go ahead. Challenge me!”
It’s a reminder to me of those days when “pride”, as in LGBT Pride displayed in the annual festivals and parades, was much more political here in Canada than has since become the case. However, echoing the words of Alyson Huntly to me earlier, “I don’t think people realize how much hatred glbtq people experience just for being who we are, or how hard it is for young people especially. It’s still socially acceptable to be anti-gay even when it is no longer socially acceptable to promote racial hatred.”