We were in our 20s when we met. Not yet a pastor, I was buzzing from several warm festival beers and he was buying the bolo tie I was selling at my friend’s rugby club booth. I could say he wasn’t homosexual yet, but that wouldn’t be accurate, right? Well, he was still dating, or trying to date women. Impressed by the way I worked the crowd on that hot June evening, he tracked me down the following week and offered me a job.
We worked for the same company for a couple of years, became friends, roommates and budding entrepreneurs. Along the way, I smoked a good bit of pot, had two children I was ill prepared for and he revealed to me that he was gay. It didn’t matter. Why would it?
Then life happened. We went our separate ways. I turned back to the faith of my youth and he adjusted, or so I heard, to life as an openly gay man in Texas. He called one day, years later. I wasn’t home. He told my wife (now ex), “I guess Ethan won’t want to talk to me since he’s a pastor now.” And he was right. He hadn’t become my enemy. It was just not going to work. I wasn’t going to change him and there’s no way our new lives could mesh. Sides had been chosen, or at least, I had chosen mine.
I know for some of you the words “open-minded” and “pastor” go together as well as peanut butter and tuna – but I was open-minded, for a pastor. I heard an elder tell me that my (then) 9- and 7-year-old daughters were going to be alcoholics in ten years because I allowed my best friend from high school to drink beer in my house when he visited. A man I had previously thought to be similarly open told me purchasing a single Powerball ticket for my sister-in-law was akin to giving whiskey to an alcoholic. So I wasn’t like them, not really. Except I was. Because Marshall was gone from my life and there was only one reason. He was gay. Okay, two reasons; he was gay and I was a pastor.
To understand what I turned away from, you must know Marshall. He was one of those people that changes the temperature of the room when they enter. He was an oddity in the best sense. He was Cary Grant in a world ruled by Tom, Arnold, and Sylvester. He was the oldest 24 year old I knew, but in a way that totally fit, at least it fit him.
He was constantly implementing crazy schemes to get ahead in business. They were crazy because no one else was doing them, and because he always set his goal just beyond what reason would allow. Leading up to the launch of every one of his projects, chaos surrounded him. I could tell you that in the midst of all the disorder, he was at peace, a warm cup of earl gray during a tornado – but that wouldn’t be true. He was in the tornado, riding the whirling winds with alternating looks of disbelief and humor. And yet, when the moment came, just when you knew that this could go horribly wrong, he pulled it off. And not once or twice. Every single time.
But that’s the smallest part of Marshall. He was also supremely kind and warm-hearted. Marshall didn’t lose friends often because where else could you find such a mix of goodness, ambition and benign danger?
That’s why, last Tuesday I looked Marshall up on LinkedIn. No longer a pastor, and now considered a prodigal son by those who once valued me, I looked forward to reconnecting with my old friend. I sent the connection request and waited. Thursday morning, having heard no response, I googled him. My fiancé and I were sitting on our patio, drinking coffee and reading the news. I was shocked by the first link to appear – Marshall’s obituary.
What’s the story here? Others have lost touch with a friend, only to discover years later that they died prematurely. Premature death – such a succinct description for such tremendous loss. How do I explain to you the waves of emotion cascading over, through and around me while my fiancé asked repeatedly, “what’s wrong?”
I had lost Marshall. Not on Dec. 12, 2012, the day of his passing. I had lost him years earlier because a culture war neither of us started identified us as opponents. And I let it happen. I was devastated. I had turned away from – no exaggeration – one of the kindest people on the planet, because he was gay. Because I couldn’t fit him into my world and I didn’t want to fit into his.
You want to hear at this point that my views on homosexuality have evolved. That I’ve joined the community of the civilized on this issue. They have not. And that’s the point. I’m convinced that an even more momentous change has taken place in my heart. I have shed the youthful cloak of intolerance.
Maybe I’m an aberration, but the older I get, the more tolerant I become. So I no longer select and reject people based on their beliefs or practices like some twisted playground holdover. I am (still) a Christian. My fiancé is agnostic. My future in-laws and some of my closest friends are Muslim. My favorite drinking buddy is Hindu. And I still have plenty of family that hangs out in the old club – the one I don’t go to often these days. It’s too painful for reasons that are not entirely their fault.
Finally, my fiancé’s dearest friend is homosexual. And he’s amazing. Funny, decent and kind. I’m fortunate to have him as a friend.
There are just some questions the Supreme Court can’t answer. And if you’ll forgive the former pastor rising up for a brief exhortation from exile – we have to stop rejecting people because they don’t fit. I am not the first to commit this sin. I won’t be the last. Regardless of political party, geographic area or economic level – we are children of intolerance. Leave aside the childish belief that we must agree and the ridiculous notion that tolerance requires pretending that we agree. Tolerate, embrace and defend even those you don’t understand. If you don’t, you just might rob yourself of someone really amazing. Like Marshall.
*Featured/top image: A cross held during the National Day of Prayer at City Hall. Photo by Scott Ball.