Tonight I had to listen again to Keb Mo’ sing Just Like You — a song I love but had avoided for years because of the memories it brought to mind. (If you’re not familiar with it, I encourage you to give a listen here.)
I listened to this song on endless loop one night in 2001, driving the I-270 circle around Columbus on the way home from the funeral of a young man who had died of AIDS. It was an extremely small funeral because the family had been so beat up by hateful gossip that they couldn’t bear to let their agony be seen by anyone other than their immediate family, a couple of friends, their pastor and his seminary intern.
I was wrestling with the way the community — including those in this young man’s church — had added to this family’s pain by making up stories about the one who was suffering, in the absence of actual facts. Stories that were whispered in the parking lot after the church council meeting. Stories that even those who knew they were false did not have the courage to challenge.
After he died, gradually, the truth came out. He had not in fact, been an IV drug user, as the critics claimed. He had not, in fact, been promiscuous. He had struggled terribly with a love that was forbidden in that small town.
He had feared bringing shame on his family, so he made excuses about working long hours when his parents invited him to dinner. When they finally figured out he was hiding something, it was too late. The doctors could do little to control his pain and even less to prolong his life. Over the course of just ten days, a small circle of people took turns sitting vigil with him, reading his favorite scriptures, and playing his Les Miz and Keb Mo’ CDs repeatedly.
When the people in the community who had spread the vicious tales learned the truth, and realized their assumptions had been wrong, they did everything except apologize. Some wouldn’t accept the truth and held onto their stories even though evidence clearly indicated they were wrong. Others simply kept a low profile until hushed conversations of the tragedy subsided. Many were relieved when the family stopped coming to church. It made conversations over coffee less awkward.
I remember thinking after the funeral that maybe God would raise up from that tragedy a greater compassion in those who had added to the pain of this grief-stricken family.
I don’t know if that happened. I lost touch with all those who lived the story after that year.
I do know this: just last night, I was texting with brilliant, hope-filled, compassionate young people who were seeking solace as they witnessed their friend, a gay Christian musician, be bullied and scorned and threatened in the same way I saw it happen to that young man years ago.
I wanted to soothe their anxious hearts by offering assurance that the hatefulness would subside. But I know better now.
I encouraged them to continue to rally around their friend and give him the support he needed. I prayed for their hearts, now disillusioned for having been beat up by the very people who claimed to follow Jesus. I commended them for living out the love of the Gospel.
I fell asleep late and dreamed of shadows in hallways and students with dripping parkas standing in the rain around campfires that wouldn’t stay lit.
I read stories all the time on social media that lament declining church attendance and claim to know what pastors must do to stop the exodus from churches once so easily filled: “Ten things the church needs to do differently!” “Five changes the church must make!” “Who kidnapped Sunday morning?”
And when I read them I think, ironically, that it would be easier to implement every suggestion the articles contain than it is to address the truth: when our collective compassion becomes more important than assuaging our discomfort with those whose lives we know little about, then the pews might once again be occupied by those who left to heal from pain inflicted by members of the church.