My new year begins with a late morning, coffee, and pondering how I might approach teaching the topic of heroes with my little ones. Zinn’s Education Project is geared for older kids and Scholastic’s resources are much too mainstream for my taste, so what shall I say in this upcoming season of winter cultural icons? In the midst of my musings I flip back to my Facebook page and see the wonderful news that Jeff is now engaged to be married. Wonder of wonders, such a happy beginning to this new year. Here is a hero story worthy of the telling, complete with happily ever after.
I met Jeff what seems a lifetime ago but the calendar would suggest it was just a decade. Jeff was a community organizer in those days and I an activist suburban pastor. Missouri was one of the first states to be targeted to add a marriage discrimination plank to our state constitution and Jeff was heading an opposition effort. Jeff was a child of the church, a PK and himself an active church member; he knew that there were lots of religious folk that did not support such codified oppression. His strategy was to gather religious leaders together and invite us to speak as a unified voice on behalf of civil rights.
For my part, I had recently come face to face with my own orientation only to toss it back in the closet. I had a job, children, and a husband. And my job was as a suburban church pastor. My congregation was very liberal and supported my work on behalf of justice, whether or not they could or would support a pastor coming out of the mythic closet was dubious. When Jeff introduced himself and his project, I jumped at the chance to be involved. With Jeff and a cadre of wonderful rabbis, I spent the summer of 2004 writing, speaking and organizing on behalf of marriage equality – or at least in opposition to codified oppression.
This was the summer that Karl Rove paved the way for Bush’s second presidential inauguration, where the rhetoric of “marriage” was tested and found to be the perfect issue to draw conservatives to the polls in droves. Missouri was a bellwether state with a special election in August and, liberal city pastors not withstanding, the churches across the state of Missouri offered free air time to voices promulgating oppression disguised as “defending marriage”. What appeared at the outset to be a winnable fight was an astounding defeat that sent reverberations across the nations. Even today we are fighting against the cloak of these horrid amendments. As Utah officials cling to the shreds of their anti-gay amendment in an appeal to the United States Supreme Court this week, we see a new dawn and I pause to give thanks.
In the decade that has ensued we have seen the pendulum swing both ways and the only certainty is change. Change has been the constant in my own life. After the campaign and it’s aftermath, my life initially settled back into a routine but closets take on a life of their own. Eventually my truth needed to be told and the structure of my own life changed. No longer married to a man, still serving a suburban church; now married to a woman (my dear one) and no longer in church. At significant turns in the road I’ve reached out to Jeff whose wisdom and perspective I encountered that summer and cherish even now. We eat waffle fries, share stories, and find common ground.
Jeff’s life has held an enormity of change as well, leading him away from organizing and into his studio. He designs really amazing liturgical vestments, works of art each of them. I’m privileged to own one, it is one of the few treasures that I took with me when I left church. His ability to do great work in one arena and then step out and onto a new road professionally was inspiring as I stepped away from the church just last year. Our paths were very different but witnessing his courage helped me to find my own. The last time we shared waffle fries, he shared his story of a long-awaited romance and the spark in his eyes was truly precious. One of the gifts of Facebook is the opportunity to see life unfold even when chance may not bring us in proximity and I’ve been delighted to watch Jeff’s new path unfold. Even so I was delightfully surprised to see the news this morning: Jeff is engaged. The news was complete with a photo of ring-clad hands. A perfect beginning for a new year.
Ten years ago, Jeff invited a bunch of clergy to join him in the fight for marriage equality in Missouri. Though the skirmish appeared to be a bitter defeat, I look around today and realize that I am oh-so happily married to a woman, Jeff is poised to marry a man, and the vitriolic amendments are falling down all around us. Always I have admired Jeff’s work in organizing, his art, and even more his authentic choices in life. Today I wear a goofy grin in honor of romance that comes ’round right. Authentic efforts for compassion and justice are never truly lost. What appears in the moment to be a defeat is perchance a seed for a later harvest or a stepping stone for those who will come along in season.
As I think about American heroes this month, I cast my vote for Jeff. I want to teach my children to have the kind of self-respect, perseverance and courage that brings Jeff and countless other true heroes into a place of delight. Shining his light, Jeff inspires countless others to do likewise.
Congratulations, Jeff! Mazel tov!