The President, the Pastor, and a Gay Marriage Made in Heaven
Today is the five-year anniversary of the passing of my mom. I want to share a special memory with you today in her honor, a chapter from my upcoming book, …And I Breathed, Essays on My Myth, My Mom, and My Meditation.
It’s the story of my mom’s marriage to her beloved, Kim, and my political and religious experiences surrounding gay marriage in our country. I believe that our loved ones live on through the expression of our hearts, and I know that this is a message my mom would want me to share …
A few days before President Obama arrived in Los Angeles for the largest fundraiser in the history of presidential politics (an event at George Clooney’s house), he made an announcement. Perhaps he did it because he needed an issue to rally Hollywood after angering the entertainment community with his position against tougher piracy law, or maybe it was just time to do the right thing. The reason is not important; what is important is that President Obama came out in support of gay marriage.
This simple declaration of human rights by the President of the United States set off a firestorm within the Christian community, especially because the president had cited his Christian faith as the basis for his decision.
Since my departure from Live Nation I had been attending a small Christian church in my neighborhood. A new spirituality was awakening in me. I was longing for a sense of community and support, and while I had never been a regular church-goer as an adult, I found something I was thirsting for ― the songs, the hugs, and most of all, the beautiful teachings of Jesus.
“Love thy neighbor as thyself … faith can move mountains … God loves everyone … ask and you shall receive … .”
Like many things in my adult life, gay marriage was an issue highlighted for me by my mother.
* * *
One day in 2000 my mom asked me to stop by her house in the Burbank area of San Jose. She lived in a small, two-bedroom cottage with a garden of sunflowers she had planted herself. It wasn’t much of a house, but to my mom it was her little slice of heaven. In her typical giving fashion, she had searched high and low to find a place where her aging mom could live close by. And so it was that my Grandma June lived in the cottage next to my mom’s.
My mom had a concerned look on her face that day, which wasn’t surprising because she was always worried about something. Usually it was about someone else ― a stray dog, a child at school, a sick friend ― but today it was about her, or me … well, you’ll understand in a minute.
She asked me to sit down and then her eyes teared up. She told me she loved me and never wanted to disappoint me. Where was this going? I wondered.
Then she told me that she was in love with a woman ― her friend Kim to be precise.
I chuckled inside as this neither surprised nor concerned me. My mom’s love life had always been unique and I really liked Kim. With a smile I said, “Mom, I love you and the truth is I like Kim a lot better than all the asshole men you’ve dated.” And that was that.
My mom and Kim dated for several years. Mom was happier than I’d ever seen her before. She’d found love, finally, after all those years of searching.
Eight years later my mom married Kim in a ceremony on the beach in Monterey, California. This was in the brief period when gay marriage was legal, before the passage of Proposition 8. It was a raucous time: gay couples rushed to express their love and commitment while opponents protested and politicked for a constitutional ban.
For many in California, and around the country, this was a news story. For my family it was personal as hate reared its horned head in our face.
I drove up from Los Angeles for the wedding with my son, Kevin, and my daughter, Nataly. We arrived in Monterey late and spent the night at the Hilton Hotel. The next morning we got dressed for the ceremony. On strict instructions from the bride and bride, it was a casual event: jeans and tie-dye and tennis shoes comprised the dress code.
As we neared the site where many gay weddings were going on that day, we noticed a commotion ahead. There were a dozen or so people, holding signs and yelling at cars. Their message was expressed with slogans like:
“God hates fags.”
“Jesus loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life in HELL.”
“Homosexual marriage is terrorism.”
And … “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”
Nataly, a teenager then and in that great time of life when you have no patience for stupidity, rolled down the window and expressed what the entire family (and much of the world) was feeling.
“FUCK YOU!” she yelled.
That same year Live Nation was one of the first companies in California to publicly and financially support opposition to Prop 8.
Five years later politicians finally decided to endorse gay marriage, a welcome though overdue turn of events for me. With or without their support, my mom and thousands of others were already in loving relationships and the tide of support for gay marriage was well underway.
What set me on my heels was the reaction of my Christian friends. This was a serious issue for them. In their minds gay marriage broke God’s law. Through them I became acquainted with the less loving portions of the Bible. Like Jude 1:7, where God punishes homosexuals in eternal fire. Leviticus 18:22, which calls homosexuality an abomination. And Leviticus 20:13, which prescribes the death penalty for gays.
This was a strong departure from the loving message of Jesus, an about-face from the songs of community and support, a new face of a church I had come to trust as my friends.
So I called my friend Pastor Paul.
I met Paul for the first time one day after a pre-Christmas service at the church. He had delivered a passionate, loving, and tender call of support for all the people in our community who were suffering during the holidays. He so moved me that I dropped the 500 or so dollars I had in my pocket in the collection basket. I followed up with a call to the church on Monday to see how else I could help.
Paul had a long list of people who were in need: a single mom of four children who had lost her job, a father who had been injured at work and had no money for his family, an elderly grandma without food, and on and on. Together Paul and I would help them all and many, many others over the next year as we bonded through acts of kindness. This was exactly the kind of loving service I had been looking for.
As the gay marriage debate raged on, I drove over to meet with Paul and get this cleared up. I started with a simple question.
“Pastor Paul, if Jesus says love your neighbor as yourself, how can the church oppose people who love each other?
Paul squirmed as if sensing this was going to be one of “those” conversations. He replied by telling me that Christians love everyone and want to help them. That we all sin, and so homosexuals are just like others who needed to find the light.
Hmm. I didn’t consider my mom a sinner nor someone who needed to find the light. Ok, so let’s make this more personal.
“Pastor Paul, is my mom in hell because she loved Kim?”
“We don’t know that,” he explained, “because she may have repented.”
Repented? For loving? You think my mom, the woman who made feisty, stubborn me, repented for loving another human being?
Okay, now it was time to be more direct. “Assuming my mom didn’t repent, is she in heaven or hell?”
“Well, the Bible IS the word of God, and so, well … ” I could see the pain in my friend’s face. He so wanted to give me the logical, loving answer. He wanted to tell me my mom was an angel. But he couldn’t. He looked down before finishing, “she would not be in heaven.”
I know this answer wouldn’t come as surprise to some people. Those who have suffered bigotry in their lives have come to expect this kind of duality. “I’m loving, but not toward THEM.” Still, I was floored. This was my friend, my pastor … how could he believe my mom deserved to be in hell?
“Paul, are you saying that if someone doesn’t believe and act exactly as you say they should they will burn in hell?”
“Not the way I say, Jason,” he said quickly. “Act the way God says they should.”
“But my mom spent her entire life helping, giving, caring. There was no person more Christ-like than my mother. And because of whom she chose to love … God says she’s going to hell?!”
I realized this was getting too personal and too heated so I changed veins to an example with a little less charge.
“Paul, let’s say there’s a little girl who lives in the mountains of … China. She lives with her mom and dad and there’s no one else around. Their entire life is spent walking the forest, communing with nature, and loving all they see. As her parents grow old she cares for them, cooking and bathing and tending to their every need. After they die she continues to live alone, just this beautiful soul and nature. Now she never sees a Bible and never knows of Jesus. In every way she exemplifies a Christ-like life, but has not accepted Jesus as her Lord and Savior. Where does she go when she dies?”
Once again Paul was pained. He tried to answer “We don’t know,” but I pressed. I was now filled with the sting of injustice and I wasn’t going to let him off.
“Paul,” I said, “is the little girl going to burn?”
The answer was yes.
I was deeply saddened. I so wanted Paul to have a different answer, one that would bridge the gap between the Old Testament and the world in which I lived today … the world in which my mom’s life and death had taken a public policy issue and made it real.
Paul was ― is ― a good man. A caring man who spends his nights comforting the homeless, a kind soul who runs the youth camp in the summer, a hero to those in pain who need some love. But because he believes all that good comes from the words in a book, he is also a bigot trapped by his own religion into believing that love is only love when the book says it is. And hate is only hate when it’s not his people doing the hating.
Before I left, Paul looked at me longingly and said, “Jason, you are such a good Christian man … ” He didn’t finish his sentence, and I didn’t reply. There was nothing left to say.
I had spent my entire life writing my own story. A lifetime of not really fitting into any box. I guess it shouldn’t have been a surprise to me that religion would be no different.
I was looking for a story to understand God, not one written in stone, but told from the heart. One that made as much sense today as it did a thousand years ago and as it would in another thousand years. I would find what I was looking for in due time.
For now I had learned another life lesson, again with the help of my mom: to always follow my heart no matter what the book says.
Big hugs of love,
Originally published at jasongarner.com.