Well here I am. 70 years old. Knew that was coming, but didn’t think it would come so soon.
Well here I am. A father for seventeen years to my adopted son Tony. Never saw that coming at all, but wow!
Well here I am. With a nifty heart condition, bit fingernails, sore knees (now and then), bowed legs, “pink eye,” and tiny German hearing aids. Have worn glasses for 66 years. I used to bury them in the back yard as a kid, I hated them so. My parents just thought I lost them and never figured it out.
Never smoked. Did only a few drugs; don’t like what they do to me actually. My brain seems to churn out lots of ecstatic chemicals all by itself.
And here I am, healthier, Dr. Rich says, than I have been in 15 years, despite two hospitalizations, a foot broken twice, and a persistent cough from all the meds I take to thrive.
So here I am. My third odyssey. But so different this time, because so much has happened in the 22 years since I gave my first one.
It’s 50 years after Stonewall, almost a 100 after the Harlem Renaissance, and Weimar Berlin. And now, so much good research going on about our Unitarian Universalist paths and sexual/ gender variations. This I applaud. And I will certainly lift up a lot of what I know about this in my Odyssey. But note, this is about my life, not my gay identity.
And, to be clear, when I say I am a gay man, this is a political statement. It is not an existential statement. It’s a useful word politically, certainly, as are lesbian, transgender, bisexual, asexual, pansexual etc. But the reality is the word “gay” applied to me gives you almost NO information at all about my erotic life, except to name the general direction my erotic life leads me. But it does not tell you anything about my inner life, my needs, my fantasies, my sexual practices or my broken heart.
I am, more accurately, a Marksexual, as there are Janesexuals, Lamarsexuals, Lucysexuals, Miguelsexuals, Aikosexuals and Seansexuals and a million other rather individual ways of expressing the erotic electricity that runs through many, if not all, of our bodies. We share a political and social existence, but our inner erotic lives, even if we dress up wildly at a pride parade, are mostly invisible, except perhaps in the memoirs of brilliant writers like Ned Rorem or Audre Lorde. I’ve said these words I am saying now to every congregation I’ve served. I’ve also offered sermons where I have lifted up bisexuality, sexuality’s partner; spirituality,;same-gender marriage; GLBTQ history; polyamory (some colleagues thought I was just a troublemaker when I gave that one. I wasn’t.) But this is about my whole life, not only my erotic “identity” per se.
So here goes: my mother Elisa told me the story of my birth on June 16, 1949 1:15 in the morning (same as our beloved colleague Mark Morrison Reed) every Christmas evening for most of my adult life. It was an important ritual. Alexander Blaine Hospital. Detroit, Michigan, with streetcars, a world-class art museum, and a thousand factories, one with 50,000 employees.
Doctor Powell. Nurse Pauline. My mother, awake, not drugged. When I am born via forceps, my mother’s first words: “Is he whole?” Pauline: “Oh yes, and he has the most beautiful eyes.” They take me to see my grandmother Carmelina and my father Louis. My pre-Lemaze era father cries in horror because the forceps made my head look like a Klingon’s. My grandmother just whacked him: “He just came through a very small door. Laci’ esta, e bello.” (Leave him alone, he’s beautiful.)
Home was with Carmelina and Nazzareno Belletini, my loving grandparents, for my first year, in the middle of the Detroit’s very large ghetto, (a Venetian dialect word for the isolating Jewish quarter there. My grandparents were surprised to find that word here.) I grew up in Emilian culture, since my other grandparents, Anna and Umberto, were cultured the same way, the culture of the mountains above the ancient town of Modena. Same dialect, same food (homemade tortellini in brodo and borlenghi.) And, same cultural realities, which were distinct from most everyone around me. Emilian dialect was spoken in the home as well as English. For example, my grandfather used to say “Egvol tant curaj aney vetch” which means, “It takes a hell of a lot of guts to grow old.”
Parents move to Springgarden Ave with me when I am one. Sister Lynne is born, brother Robert. Small Cape Cod bungalow. After 3 years at public school, Catholic school till age 12, since the public schools were going to bus me across town and my parents wouldn’t have it.
I was an effeminate boy, to use tiresome binary language, in movement and speech. My father brimmed with shame because I hated team sports, and other “male” things (although I could swim like a fish.)
My father was a complex man. He could laugh, sure, and do generous things, but most of the time he was a human Mt. Vesuvius, with my sister, brother and mother standing in for Pompeii. He was unfailingly kind to my friends, and to guests, but as soon as they left, we were all witnesses to frequent, meaningless rages.
More frightening to me as a younger person, I also witnessed many nervous breakdowns, my father crawling across the floor speaking in high pitched baby talk, pulling on my mother’s apron and saying in his baby voice “Mommy, don’t leave me.” My mother had breakdowns too, less severe, more like a fish out of water gasping for breath, but breakdowns nonetheless. Both talked with me, in rare moments of self-reflection, about dreams of suicide, of driving their cars into walls. My father never remembered his breakdowns, my mother did, his and her own.
My four grandparents saved me. They loved me lavishly, deeply. Carmelina especially was my first real teacher of what love and friendship really mean. Both Carmelina and Anna kept up with literally hundreds of friends who visited them, came for supper, to whom they wrote long letters. Both were world-class cooks, and like other Italian immigrants, kept fig trees in their back yard, which we had to bury every fall, and raise up every spring to grow sweet figs. As I age, I realize that they have always influenced me for the good more than my father and sometimes my mother, and remain my true models for my present life.
My mother worked out of the home once I was in high school, so our home was quieter. Her anger took the form of tears or silence. She was a great and creative Italian cook, but my father dominated her as well. She was smarter than my father too, and read things all the time.
Friends, part 1.
As I said, I was an effeminate child. In walk and talk. I had many friends on Springgarden Avenue, but I was clearly different from them. One day, when I was 10, the whole group I used to hang out with turned on me and decided that I was not welcome among them. They beat me, raising a welt on my head. They tormented me whenever they saw me. I was confused then, but now I realize that I terrified them because of my mixed gender appearance in a binary world. I could use the modern words homophobia or even a kind of gynophobia, but for me, then, it was simply a huge broken heart, great fear and confusion. Since then, cultivating friendships on the model of my grandmothers has been the central practice of my entire life, perhaps spurred on by this horrific betrayal of friendship.
I was a “good” Catholic, an altar boy, loving the Latin. In high school however, I discovered yoga (long before anyone else did I think…it bothered my ma.) And I discovered biblical scholarship at the library. I slowly, very slowly, began to evolve past my Catholic culture and theology.
My new high school friends, Chuck Rzepka, Tom Zambettis, and Frank Siskowski in particular, were important to me. In our senior year, our teacher Conrad Vachon asked us to group-create films with our parent’s super 8’s and editing machines, (“Films are the new literature,” he told us.) And together we had an astonishing time making movies, lying in the grass to catch cool sunlight angles, editing, attaching music, making disappearing titles. 1967. Then the Detroit Uprising that summer, with smoke and tanks in our city, and ruins and anger afterward and the near death of a great city. Our ’67 yearbook began with photos of the smoking ruins, which was emblematic of the world we were graduating into.
College. Oakland University. Rochester MI (where Madonna grew up down the street from my senior year apartment.) New friends. Classes in French. Sculpture with Morris Brose, Russian with Helen Kovach, a formidable person whose mother Julia I used to call Babushka, “grandmother,” when I grandma-sat with her while Helen was on sabbatical. She was very old, knew Nicolas and Alexandra. And met Tchaikovsky when she was a little girl. History first became alive for me at that moment.
I was active in the radical Newman Center for a few years. I served as liturgist. At the behest of my priest, I studied under the amazing Clarence Rivers in Cincinnati, gained important radical insights about worship from him which I still use. But despite all that, I slowly I relinquished my religion. Became more like my other grandpa, Umberto, an articulate non-theist who hated all religion. I even painted this triptych to express the influences that led me there, rather than scribbling some new revised credo on a piece of paper. I’ve always been an artist first.
Life Before Stonewall
I let my parents into my life at age 16. See, I like this new way of talking about coming out, which doesn’t give the power to those you come out to. So, now I say I let my parents in. But in those days, they still had the power, didn’t they? I didn’t use the word gay; it wasn’t used in Detroit then before Stonewall. I was a homosexual. Worse, I realized my parents knew less about what that meant than I did (and I knew nothing), but they assumed was cross-dressing. I rolled my eyes back into my head and despaired. I did not want to live at that moment. I contemplated how to end my life. I couldn’t undo what I had said. But after days of deep silence, they sent me to a psychiatrist, who also knew nothing back in those days, and assured me religion was my problem and if I just stopped going to church, I’d be “better.”
I had no sexual experiences with anyone but myself. None in college. Never went to a bar. Didn’t know they existed. No gay friends. No gay anyone that I knew of till my senior year, and that was just a chance meeting at a party.
I attended a Unitarian Church one day after meeting Jane Ranney, the fiancée of my friend Chuck Rzepka from high school, who had been raised UU. Their lovely wedding was the first UU service I ever saw. But the Sunday service I attended that day was terrible. Boredom squared. I was also the only one with an Italian name, the place was a mess, and no one greeted me. They didn’t sing either, just played Quinn the Eskimo on a record player. Embarrassing. I was upset, but nevertheless, I later found an old Universalist church in Farmington, and started attending. I loved it: music, creative services, Underground Railroad era building. I was working with emotionally impaired children at the time at a residential treatment place, Hawthorn Center, a job I loved, but on my off-Sundays, I loved going to church with my rather wild minister, Rick Neff. I first travelled to California on a vacation during that time with Tom Zambettis and we visited Chuck and Jane who had moved there.
One day a woman who interned with my treatment center called me, six months after she went back to school in western Michigan. She told me her husband had just shot himself to death, and thought I might know what to do. I talked with her a bit, suggested she call 911, then calmly drove three hours west to help her figure things out; we talked of anger, what might happen after death, funerals, grief, and all the tumult that follows a suicide. But before I left, I asked her why she called me. We hadn’t been in conversation since she left. She answered: “Because you are not shockable, and can listen to things gently and aren’t scared of impossible questions.” I really didn’t know that about myself. It was a revelation to me. I was just living my life from day to day.
On the way home in the rain, I rained too, and, crying, realized her phone call was my “call to ministry,” something I had not really imagined for myself before. I asked for an application to Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley the next day. (I knew about Meadville, but Chicago was too close to my father.) A month or so later, Jane Rzepka called to let me know I was in; she was already in her 3rd year.
Leaving my grandparents was sheer heartbreak, for them and me. Leaving my father was bliss. Leaving my mother made me sad for her more than me. My sister said she cried “for 4 years straight” as she put it, irritated that she had to deal with it, not me.
I went to SKSM in 1975. Ron Cook, Til Evans, Kimball, Setchko. I loved Ron and could sit in his office and talk for hours. Truth be told, I never really understood anything Kimball said. Taught classes, one with Til on food and religion, which was heartily mocked, yet became one of the more useful classes for congregational ministry as the years went by. Also taught the gospels, which has been a lifelong study of mine, (I’m still active in the Jesus Seminar.) My favorite class was at Pacific School of Religion, with Mark Jurgensmeyer, on Gandhi. I also studied the Hebrew prophets with the monumentally erudite Baptist Marxist Norman Gottwald, and studied the Reformation with the formidable John Dillenberger, who, we joked, seemed to know Luther personally. I still talk with Ron frequently, and wept long when Til died, since we were close. I was able to see part of her memorial via Skype, which was helpful to me.
Life After Stonewall, Part 1
I was sexually inactive. Terrified. No GLBTQ ministers out there for me to talk with, no role models. I was not interested in being the new queer UU Moses, so I was paralyzed and didn’t know what to do. So I just did nothing. I kept busy. I did my student ministry at Walnut Creek for two years, preaching often, and doing 4 weddings a weekend sometimes. I took four classes per semester. I did my CPE with Rod Seeger at University of California Medical Center in San Francisco, and then my full-time internship in Rockford, Illinois, with Tony Perrino, whom I loved, (along with his wife Karen) and who was like a beloved Italian father to me. But, as most of you know, he was eventually disfellowshipped by the Ministerial Fellowship Committee for dozens of sexual affairs in his various churches, which I personally never caught a hint of. His lies to me broke me. But eventually Til Evans and I were able to restore partial relationship with him and would drive over together to Karen and Tony’s place in Marin to watch movies and eat supper.
Reading in Scientific American that Carl Sagan, whose writings I adored and used frequently, was going to produce a VERY expensive television show called Man and the Cosmos, about cosmology and space, cheeky intern me wrote him a letter and suggested he check with the English Department at Cornell about the dated use of the word Man to mean everyone. I suggested Humanity and the Cosmos, “or just Cosmos,” I wrote to him, because “humankind is not really separate from the universe.” The letter he wrote back to me, (on the table there) reported they were considering my suggestion, but that he humorously worried about naming his show after a soccer team, (the Cosmo’s.) It is one of my most beloved treasures.
On my last day in Rockford I had a very strange experience. I was unable to sleep, and actually quite delirious. But I had a clear, overwhelming feeling, (call it woo woo, if that makes you happy,) that my life in my 3rd year of school was about to change wondrously. It was scary/wonderful and lived within me all the way back.
And something did happen. Within a month of getting back, I had fallen in love for the first time in my life with new student. He talked about his girlfriends, but it turns out he was on the continuum, a Flipsexual, since Flip was his name. He seduced me, and quite beautifully, like in some novel, dancing for me by candlelight, disrobing and lifting me into his bed. It became, instantly, “the full catastrophe,” to quote Kazantzakis, with an inability to breathe right, with awkward sonnets coming out of my mouth, limerance at an upheaval level. When it all came crashing down, my broken-heartedness was a pain I had never felt before. I wondered how civilization survived love and heartbreak at all for months.
But in the end, after some drama, we remained friends. I solemnized his first two marriages to women, and was best man at his third, and his third wife Susan and I eulogized him in Kansas City when he died of early onset Alzheimer’s. He didn’t go into ministry; he became an entertainer. Saw him on TV shows, visited him in Lake Tahoe where we had dinner with Sammy Davis Jr., one of his good friends. (Not immune to being star-struck, I would just sit there and smile and think “Oh my god! I am having dinner with Sammy Davis Jr.)
I don’t know where I got the strength for being with him and his wives since I never just stopped loving him, but as they say these days, love is love.
Incidentally, it was the late Mark DeWolfe who, after Flip and I realized we could not be together, took me in his arms as someone lovable again. This was before he was a student at Starr King, and eventually an intern at the first church I served.
I “let others into my life” again after realizing I could not possibly minister and also lie. Anne Heller and I did what we then called a “coming out” chapel, and I gave a sermon to that effect in Walnut Creek, after which everyone there hugged me one at a time for an hour and a half.
I graduated, could not find ministerial work. Pre-candidating after pre-candidating ended in disaster… as soon as they found out I was gay, they told me “We can’t deal with that.” My heart broke a lot… at least they were honest. Some members of search committees apologized to me at General Assemblies thereafter, lamenting that they had not gotten their “act together.”
I met Phil Porter at a gay rap group during this time (rap used to mean talk, not music.) One week we went on a date, and swiftly fell in love, and for 16 years we had a very happy relationship. We were very different from each other, (he ate, I dined; he was morning, I was night) and we had our days. But we were the holiday boys, having folks for festive family dinners.
As time went on, we did what some gay men do at least, and “opened” our relationship. Some are a bit bewildered when they find out that we sometimes had our other erotic friends over for holiday dinners with our other friends, or that Phil and I were entirely open about it, i.e. “I’m going out with Juan Carlos tonight.” “Have fun!” But we felt it deepened our relationship. He wrote Gathered Here in our hymnbook, so you have sung words and a melody from his heart. He traveled a lot in our years together, to Australia and Thailand especially for his Interplay work, an improv system he invented with his friend Cindy. He’s a UCC minister now, and his partner Chinh has grandchildren whom he loves. Our break-up was a complex thing, but we are fine with each other now, and remember those 16 years with gladness. I thank Rob Eller-Isaacs for ministering to me on the actual break-up day when we were NOT fine with each other, and I was a blubbering wreck.
I worked at a Bank of America as a teller to make money to live. Never balanced but twice. During that time, both the Guyana Suicide disaster happened, and the great Harvey Milk was murdered, along with the SF mayor by a man named White. The police-teller next to me found out right away, via walkie-talkie and told me, just five minutes after it happened. I don’t know how we arranged it pre-cellphones, but Phil and I both marched with 30,000 others that night down Market St. It was there I heard Holly Near sing We Are a Gentle Angry People for the first time.
During this time, those of us who were in the GLBTQ crowd from SKSM met on Sunday afternoons to support each other as we got said “No” to by congregations where we pre-candidated. Lucy Hitchcock, Barbara Pescan and Anne Tyndall, Charlie Kast, Mark de Wolfe I believe, Lindi Ramsden and a few others would debrief after pre-candidating sessions. I seem to recall Lucy got the most impertinent and uneducated questions from search committees.
We ended up writing a little question and answer pamphlet, patiently answering uneducated questions with rational, kind answers. This we sent to David Pohl at the UUA, who took it seriously and reproduced it. Both he and Chuck Gaines were really supportive of us in those days, so much so, that at the GA in Salt Lake City when I delivered the Living Tradition Sermon, Barb Pescan and I sought them both out and literally thanked them “for our jobs.” Our pamphlet morphed over the years into the affirmative action program which exists today. Back then it was mostly GLBTQ focused, and I worked with as sort of a “demonstration gay preacher” at search sites. We did amazing work on that team and I too learned a lot from the process, and heard moving stories that changed me.
The marvelous Diane Miller, here present, realized that someone like me had to get their foot in the door if there was going to be any progress, so she asked me to be her assistant interim. Gratefully I started work in April the year after Milk’s murder, and served till Sept of 1980. The White Night riots in protest to officer White’s lenient sentence for murder, with overturned flaming police cars, happened right outside my window a few months later. Chuck Rzepka had to phone me to tell me I had to come home a different way, because our offices were soundproof and I didn’t even know what was going on out there just beyond Starr King’s tomb.
The congregation in San Francisco ordained me — Anne Heller, Diane and Til all participating — and they alone laid their hands on me in a private confirmation that I was not in the apostolic succession of my childhood church. My lover Phil danced on the chancel.
During that time, Mark De Wolfe, Barbara Pescan, and Robbie Cranch served as interns, during a much looser arrangement than exists now. As Diane said today, many considered the two odd years we were there to be “the Golden Age.” Diane and I got to hear 85 year old Bodhana Haspl tell us the story of the first Flower Ceremony in Prague (NOT communion!) as celebrated by her father, Norbert Capek. I also did my first same-gender weddings there. Two guys, Lauritz and Michael, came in and asked me to do it. No one thought of such things in those days much, so we worked it out together, but I did burst into tears during the ceremony when I realized what I was doing. I also became close to Harry Scholefield, the emeritus, and he was my beloved mentor till he died. He of course had done such things back in the fifties, if a little discretely.
Starr King Church in Hayward called me, and I thrived there 18 years. It was a small congregation, in a simple building, but the search committee did not ask a single uneducated question. “Be so kind,” Wink Smith said to me, “as to teach us about what being gay means. We don’t know, but we want to learn.” They were supportive in every way. They were a true working class congregation, with a lot of old CP members and union organizers, and several “red-diaper” baby Jews, who knew less about their heritage than I did.
I preached without any notes or manuscripts back in those days, winging every Sunday, using no pulpit, and had a ball doing so. It freed me to go out with friends on Saturday nights. We danced together on some Sundays, I crafted repeated rituals they had not seen before, but came to love, like the elemental Seven Blessing Naming ceremony for babies. They didn’t have a hymnbook, but I taught them rounds and simple chants which gave them confidence. I even pasted up a little quite illegal song, hymn and liturgy book to use so I didn’t have to print up the order myself every Sunday. I had no secretary. We eventually hired a musician. And a secretary, Phyllis Perry, whom I loved dearly, and was quite ministerial.
One highlight in those years was serving on the ceremony planning commission for the IARF at Stanford University. I was chair of the committee, and pushed to get Maya Angelou as our main speaker, since I got to know her when she preached at my internship church. She wasn’t as well known until after she did Clinton’s poem, but I had also heard her preach at Glide Memorial and knew she was astonishingly good.
I met her several more times, quite by chance, and finally had drinks with her in Chicago and told her about a behind-the-scenes catastrophe at Stanford having to do with her speech and the translators that had us both in stitches. She was remarkable. And the IARF conference small group experiences with people from around the world supplied me with sermons for years.
When Dru Cummins called me up to tell me the nominating committee wanted me to chair the hymnbook resources commission, I said “No, I don’t sight-read music and I am completely disorganized, so thanks and everything, but no.”
Then hung up. She called back. No one said No to Drusilla. She told me everyone else could sight read, and that she would fly me to Boston to hire the staff organizer who would do that work. I finally capitulated and said yes.
Six years. My congregation was supportive. Most colleagues were. But there were a few of what my generation of ministers referred to as “the old boys” who wrote us diatribes that chilled the blood even before present computer cruelties. As chair, I had to deal with that. I also had to deal with a staff member at the UUA who made trouble for us, but the great Kay Montgomery saved us after I talked with her.
The committee was more fun than anyone can imagine, and as the members have been dying, I have been weeping. The book needs something to replace it now. I did a lot of prep for this work. Talking to the chair of the Blue Hymnbook Committee of 1963, Arthur Foote II in Maine, was a moving moment. He asked me to sing, solo, some of the new songs we chose, just to him alone, as we sat together by his huge roaring fireplace. Gruff committee member Ken Patton softened as we talked during lunch, and spoke with a confessional tenderness that made me weep. I felt often like I was swimming laps in the sea of our living tradition.
Based on our joint mentor Harry’s devotional life, Laurel Hallman and I led devotional retreats for fellow ministers at Casa de Maria in Santa Barbara. These were rich events for both Laurel and me, I know, and hopefully those who joined us.
Friends, Part 2
I made friends outside the congregations after some early internship student ministry mistakes. Alex Stevens, a dancer who routinely said he wanted to grow old with me as friends, not lovers. John Zimarowski, a writer for Christopher Street magazine, cook, traveler and wit par excellence. Stephen (Stef’n) Mistler, Mr. San Francisco Leather and chief tailor for Macy’s, my best friend, my heart, my dear brother. In time, I sobbed for and buried them all because of AIDS. I led their memorials, weeping.
When Stephen died, it was the BCE/CE split in my life, Before Stephen and after Stephen. I was strangely ecstatic with a sense of thanksgiving that I loved him at all, for a few weeks, as Meg Riley can tell you; then unfocused, depressed and suicidal for months. My congregation had been terrific, telling me to take off time as he was dying, then movingly coming to the shul where I personally led the memorial but joined the generous rabbi for kaddish and oseh shalom at the end. But I really didn’t want to live for months. It was also just a few months after my separation, so I was in bed depressed for months, getting up to preach on Sundays.
Frank Siskowski died, too, my high school friend, and Mark de Wolfe, and John Sikes and Juan Pablo Oregon and my beautiful Dallas Williams. All men I loved. My gay men’s life- drawing group sopped my grief for a couple of hours each week… thanks to Mark Chester, who reliably ran and still runs the group. After Stephen died, I didn’t even go there for a few months. Everything was meaningless. But, I moved forward. I did meet Kevin Woodson in the group, and Stephen’s surviving spouse Richard Sinkoff, and his next lover for a time, Doug Robson, entered my life fully in those days. Richard was the first and last “grieving partner” I’ve ever had. We are brothers, family. Words cannot capture how fortunate I am to love such friends. Doug took me on a civil rights tour in Alabama for my birthday this June, and Richard and I just came back from an amazing European trip together. My friend Paul, Doug and John, the Mennonite couple, and many more blessed my life as others died, leaving holes that do not close in my heart, but my heart grew to embrace others deeply.
Life after Stonewall, Part 2
I eventually moved to Columbus when my ministry in Hayward was finished. I could do no more, and burying people got harder and harder.
I loved them, and they loved me, and it was a healthy departure. Mary Harrington and I almost served another church together, but that didn’t work out, so I left California alone.
It was not easy, and Columbus was not then what it is today, a truly great city. I spent my first three years depressed, but pretending not to be. The former minister had left a divided congregation, there were troublemakers galore whom no one confronted, and congregational boundaries were not very good in general. I eventually did archeological work and discovered that I was an “after-pastor,” as they say, of a congregation which had any number of clergy engaging sexually with congregational members, including with a sixteen year old boy back in the late 50’s.
But my time at First Church was pretty amazing by most standards: a gorgeous building and memorial garden, a mostly terrific staff (the “mostly” is because we had to fire an administrator who proved pretty awful at the end), many choirs, including a 65 member choir for the 11 AM service that could sing impossibly beautiful things every week. And, yes, the really splendid folk always outnumbered the troublemakers.
When I led a pre-Easter Eucharistic service in the egalitarian ad-lib manner of our Socinian ancestors 400 years ago, and joined our large Jewish membership in celebrating a full Seder during Pesach, (with a haggadah I composed with encouraging rabbinical friends) I felt fulfilled and happy because of the very moving responses folks shared with me every year, including many Jewish guests from the environs. Sunday preaching got richer ever year, the liturgy we put together over time, with feedback, was elegant and beautiful week after week.
I was an active part of the local interfaith social justice group of congregations, BREAD, the largest in the nation. The Ohio River Study Group has become and still is an important part of my collegial and intellectual life, and over the years I’ve written many papers, and led worship there. In my last years, things hummed along pretty smoothly in Columbus; working first with Wendy Fish, then with Rev. Eric Meter and DRE Jolinda Stephens was a dream come true. Such wonderful partners in this work.
But it was also during this time when my father died (it was a relief to me), and then, a year and a half later, my mother. But my mother changed after my father died. She became funny, i.e. literally a comedian. She apologized for not having been then for me when I “came out,” and during the AIDS era when I buried most of my friends. She became, in short, who she had always been but wasn’t allowed to be. She also reported that my grandfather Umberto, her step-father, whom I loved, had molested her when she was 12. That sent me into a tailspin for a while. But after a week of talking about it, she said: “I’m done now. I am never talking about it again.” When she died, I wept, grateful to have had my real mother, un-cowed by my father finally, for at least a year and a half. My once beautiful and smart brother Robert lost himself in alcoholism and drug use, something my parents refused to deal with, even after he spent 7 full weeks in a hospital posey-belted to a bed, and delusional.
He died a year after my mother did. His memorial was one of the hardest I ever did, because in many ways, he never lived his life, his life lived him.
Other Ways I Served Over the Decades
My over-long, over-fretted about Sermon of the Living Tradition in Salt Lake City in 1999 was an unnerving experience, because after a year of totally neurotic rewriting, all I could see was the first row of peoples’ feet as I stood in that pulpit. I preached to the darkness. Most people were kind, but I was very rough on myself.
I traveled to many CENTER presentations during the hymnbook years, exploring musical styles and getting feedback with colleagues all over the continent. I wrote an essay on aging along with others in this room for a book edited by Kay Montgomery. I also wrote about my own relationship as a UU minister to Judaism, both in and out of our congregations.
I spent a year writing a study of our sublime ancestor Arius of Alexandria which I delivered at a Starr King History conference right in front of one of my heroes, John Dominic Crossan, who had just given his paper, and was relieved when he remarked that he found it a very fine piece of historical research.
I wrote the history of Abraxas and the Humiliati for another conference; a history of radical theological antecedents to (and for) the Unitarian Congregation in Praha; major book reviews of two gay books for various UU publications, and delivered a lecture on G-d-talk for Abhi’s seminary for lay people program. I also gave the Judy Lecture in the Prairie Starr District annual meeting, on, get this, Lakota theology. I thought I had been asked to give a lecture on hymnody, and two months before the lecture I was informed it was about Lakota theology (“You should have known because its being given in Sioux City, Iowa,” I was told!) and although I protested, I managed to do a passable essay about my relationship and anger about European attitudes about the native nations here, having been part of an archeological dig near Cahokia in my internship years and learning how little I was ever taught in school.
I taught worship both alone, and with others Lindi Ramsden & Therasa Cooley, at both SKSM and ML, etc. I gave the Mark DeWolfe Lecture in Toronto, basically his larger eulogy. One sweet event was being granted a D.Min from Meadville Lombard for my work on the Hymnbook Commission, and preaching the graduation sermon that year at Chicago First. I also gave a lecture series on hymnbook theology at SW institute and at Seabeck, dedicated the Mark de Wolfe AIDS house in Seattle, and was chaplain for three consecutive years at Ferry Beach for GAYLA, a gay men’s summer week of fun. I served three years on the Berry Street Essay Committee, which was a superlative privilege and got to offer the invocation for Mark Morrison-Reed’s moving, on-point essay.
I supervised many interns over the years as well, Axel Gehrman, Joel Miller, Barbara Hamilton Holway, Gretchen Thomas. I had fun covering the Dallas Church for a month while Laurel was on sabbatical. I also enjoyed sitting on the Ministerial Fellowship Committee for 8 years, chairing a panel. Plus, over the years, preached at 28 ordinations or installations or wrote ordination songs/hymns for colleagues. One of the most interesting of these was the ordination of Hans Legrand, a citizen of Nederland who attended my congregation in Hayward, returned to Europe, studied ministry through the UK system, and then flew me over to preach his sermon. There was a soccer riot right afterward with tear-gas and flung Heinken bottles which made it unusually memorable.
I am very grateful for the opportunity to be educated by travel in my life. The European Unitarian Universalists flew me to Europe five times to lead worship, lecture, and lead life-ceremonies like coming of age ceremonies and Naming Ceremonies. Oberwesel on the Rhine, Germany, twice; Berlin, and Koln Germany, and Spa, Belgium. Preached in Paris once too.
I helped lead a UU group from Ohio on a tour of Israel/Palestine in 2000, and visited my friends Farley and Virginia Wheelwright both in Mexico City and San Miguel. I visited my internet-friend Ionut Stefan in Bucuresti, Romania one summer, and the Soviet , including the island Kizhi in the middle of Lake Onyega, in glasnost days. I visited Chile, to visit my friend Bonni, her husband Ignacio and my “goddaughter” Andrea there. Both Russia and Chile were mini-sabbaticals. After I retired, I also visited Italy again, this time with my beloved friend John Finkbone, where we take the 2 and a half hour bus ride from Modena up into the Apennine Mountains where my grandparents’ ancestral town, Fanano, charms in the center of a Yosemite-like national park. I wept a lot there, seeing the specific Italian names of my youth festooned on all the shops, and walking the whole length of the Via Belletini, (a total surprise to me,) named, I suppose, for one my ancestors. I’ve preached in both Hamstead outside of London, and in Manchester, after leading a worship retreat at the Nightingale House for the marvelous UK ministers.
But the most remarkable trip way out of the country (not counting frequent high-school age trips to Canada from Detroit, just across the river or preaching trips to Canada’s Toronto and Calgary) remains the first. My friend Anne Heller asked me to cook a thank-you party for all the folks who, a few weeks earlier, had helped her and her lover Rosemary paint and arrange their new house in Oakland. It was a UU barn-raising, so Anne’s widowed father could move in with her and Rosemary quickly. Since I love to cook, I was happy to help. “Make it an Italian menu,” Anne says. We shop, I cook all day, people arrive. Turns out I am cooking my own surprise party! Rob and Janne Eller-Isaacs, along with Anne and Rosemary, decide over a supper conversation, where they noted I had never been to Europe, to send me to Italy, and asked all my friends and colleagues to each contribute some money to the fund. I found this out in a playful way, (I won the “door prize” lol) but when it sinks in that it is really happening, I bolt into the kitchen, push a table in front of the door, and sob hysterically on the floor. The loving kindness overwhelmed me completely. The tenderness of this amazing gift is still with me to this day.
And my congregation in Hayward, upset they were not asked to contribute, collected another surprise gift and sent me on that trip to Chile. A woman in the San Francisco congregation, hearing this story, sent me on my first sabbatical, to the Soviet Union. My friend Doug, in a similar spirit, offered miles on United for my trip to Romania. The congregation in Columbus, upon my retirement, gifted me 12 grand to travel to Italy with my friend John because search committee members remembered that I told this story when they asked me about events that changed my life. The stone in the pond and all that. But the inner voice that tries to tell me that I am somehow not loveable…a voice forged in the fire of my father’s rage, began to evaporate that day.
Il mio carissimo figlio
I met the man who was to become my son when he was 19, at a dinner party put on by my sweet friend Babar, who cooked a Pakistani meal for his friends to show us what foods he grew up with. We became friends after that night. And I learned about his life, which was pretty awful before his 19th year: mother died of cancer and father was put in prison a long time for counterfeiting. Raised in foster families with his sister, then by his grandparents, he experienced some pretty out of control disciplinary actions even though he was brilliant in school, star quarterback and a pitcher good enough to try out for the Cincinnati Reds.
He’s lived with me and also out of state with lovers, but he returns to our home and is living with me now. Our relationship as babbo and figlio literally brings me to tears sometimes, it’s such a wonder. Our conversations about love or heartbreak or anything leave me in awe. He is brilliant and loving and tender and insightful all the time. He is 36 now, and our relationship deepens. He’s dating a guy I really like right now, who joins us for dinner. But although I have been a minister, my primary identity since I retired has been dad and friend. I can only hope you would be lucky enough to meet him someday. More words than these simple ones fail me.
Friends, Part 3
My friends in Columbus have joined my surviving friends from the Bay Area to create a deep and intertwined family for me. Loving-friendship, sheathed in astonishment, is the major theme of my life, as it was with my beloved grandmothers. These photos on the wall and on the tables in front of me are my life now. My identity does not limit itself to what is inside my skin, but leaps outward with love so I can say that every single one of these people are part of who I am.
My address, my accomplishments, the hymnbook, the sermons, the books, and even my body are all just temporary and are not, finally, me. But love partakes of something which has the depth of eternity, and when all of those things and my body are gone, the love I feel for others will be passed on and shared centuries from now, but with different faces, different names, different temporaries. The most important part of me is that love, not anything else, including my name.
Richard Sinkoff and Doug Robson and Kevin Woodson in California are brothers to me, fratelli. Richard, who speaks more languages fluently than I can count on my fingers, and I, as I said, just came back from two perfect weeks in Europe for my 70th; we think the way we travel together, and talk together, is an art-form. Doug I talk every single day, and have for a while, and I cannot now imagine not doing that. My love for him deepens every day. In Columbus, John Finkbone, and his beloved gorgeous, talented “pet-whisperer” love, Tyree Sheperd, are family; it was John who wonderfully accompanied me to my ancestral Fanano, Italy. He is incredibly good with concrete things in a way I am not… maps, gadgets, machines, and he is devilishly playful, as well as generous and kind. Geoff and Ally… Geoff lived with me a while after a rough divorce, but in Ally he has now found a perfect treasure. Goeff and I can talk and laugh for hours, and a night out with him restores me even if I am not in need of restoring.
I met a someone almost 7 years ago now who has transformed my life as a friend I love. I saw him at my local café, his arms covered with tattoos, including an Auschwitz number. I asked him if it was one of his grandparent’s numbers. “No, Elie Wiesel’s,” he answered. “Are you Jewish?” “No, my father is, but my mother is not, nor am I.” “What’s your name?” “Christian.” “Ah,” I said, “a story.” He’s certainly one of the deepest, most brilliant people I know; he was thankfully wide open from the first about his heroin and other addictions, which did not prevent the depth of our friendship. He’s relinquished the drugs, settled with his girlfriend Emily, and thrives in grad school. He is transparent in a way I can only admire, and even as he faces past traumas head on, he is playful, a quality I adore. We even play tag sometimes. He will surely be a well-known writer one day, and my love for him puts the ground under my feet.
Three baristas, now former, at my café have become friends… Sean, now a terrific father; Nate, who featured beautifully in a sermon I gave, and who lives in Arcata CA now, but visits for dinner when here; and Alex, my “rock star friend,” who is also my opera buddy for trips to Cincinnati Opera. My first great and redeeming friend in Columbus, William Green, now lives down in the Carolinas on a small boat; we talk often; he is a brilliant photographer among many other talents; and my friends Matt and Jesse live in Florida too. Jesse was just up, Matt will be in Columbus when I return. I’ve known Shane since he was a teenager in a bar, figuring out the life opening up before him. It’s been my privilege to get to watch him mature into an incredible man in his late twenties whom I admire and love deeply. My former neighbors here, Fred, and Rob, are wonderful friends who both have the power to double me over in laughter with their swift wit. I always tell Rob I see him as governor one day, but I really am not joking. Jimmy, whom I have known 20 years now, calls me uncle, and he and I have been through thick in thin. Over the years I have helped him buy his truck, he’s done handy-work around my place, and his mother, brother and daughter have been to my loft. Jet skiing with my talented country-boy friend Josh, photographing the world of Columbus with my friend Kalum, delighting in visits from Tim, a former Ohioan, who just introduced John, Tyree and me to his husband Dann; taking long walks with Jake Adams who lives in Lima, watching scifi films with Anthony or John Wehibrink, having the warm and life-loving friends Mike and Mel for supper, or going to the new exhibit at the museum with Jared after some dinner at my place. Rosario is my only local Italian friend, and it’s important for both of us I think… we get what it means to be Italian American. Or my friend Devon, whom I unexpectedly met via YouTube, lives in Houston, flies up frequently so we can do local museum and art trips to nearby cities. I just was in Houston to see him and preach there.
In New York, Adam Chuck, whom I met on Instagram, is a sweet friend. I own four of his amazing paintings now. Dakota, John’s former love, is someone I love to spend time with, as are Matt and Kip, who I have visited everyplace in the country where they have lived, as well as helping to solemnize their wedding. Rita Fredericks, 95, is a friend of three years. Wise, hilarious, her apartment filled with great art, she delights me with stories, such as how she almost drowned Roy Cohn when they were both 12 years old after he tried to cheat her in table tennis. “Sometimes I wish I had succeeded” she reflected.
My friend Max in NYC is a delight who has more sheer life-wisdom in their little finger than anyone else I know. They have been my joyful living teacher about trans and neuro-diversity as lived in his life. I find myself immensely happy in their presence, and also as I contemplate their future work as a therapist. Ash is someone I met on-line who writes about his trans life so beautifully and with such precision I turned Skinner House editor Mary Benard on to him as a possible author on such topics. He gym-trains me when I go to NYC.
I met my stunning friend Ionut Stefan on line… he lives in Bucuresti, Romania and I have visited him, and we whats-app each other; he hopes to come here next year. Certainly I have collegial friends too, like Jane, but especially Jay Leach, a former Baptist minister who I taught at a Starr King Summer School session and eventually became one of our truly exemplary ministers as well as a friend, and David McFarland, whose family in Pittsburgh I visit, and of course, Kelly Flood and Neil Chethik, who were members of the congregation I served in Hayward before she became a colleague. My visits with them and their son Evan are always like a visit home, safe and sound. Ned Wight accompanied me to Israel-Palestine, which was great fun, Kathleen Rolenz and I have enjoyed working together on several projects with joy, and are working on one now. Scott Prinster and I love each other fiercely, and was always my GA roommate over the years. Then there are the long phone calls about family and life with Carol Hepokoski, whom I first had a long conversation with on the steps of Starr King School.
My friend Tom Ace lives in the desert of California, and is perhaps my most serene and rational friend… he cannot lie, distort or even exaggerate in the slightest, but is clear and truthful and plainspoken in a way I admire and almost envy. His outstanding photography illustrates his calm spirit. My cousin Sergio has lived with his two husbands for over two decades now… yes, I married them… but I also consider him a friend out in LA.
I’ve still lost friends too, after the AIDS era… Devere Wright lived with me for two years, delightfully, when he was suddenly homeless, but he died of HIV though the meds were there. His mother and I tried everything to get him to face it but he would not. Apparently there is a pattern found in young African American males 20 years old of being resistant to dealing with it… not sure why. Doing his memorial in his hometown of Cleveland put me in a tailspin. Sweet Bob died of an overdose in his early twenties; John Finkbone called me to tell me when I was in Manchester UK with the Unitarians there, and we wept together, me in my hotel, John on the highway in Ohio at 3 in the morning. Jeff Abraxas Dade, an incredible painter of wall murals all over Columbus, and who was part of my drawing circle in Columbus, died of pneumonia at 39.
And of course, past ordinary friendship, there is my godson Ben, son of Lindi Ramsden and her partner Candace originally, but they are with other wonderful partners now, and so Ben has four moms now, and me; the privilege of being in his life for these last 30 odd years is one of my life’s greatest blessings, as was being part of the wedding ceremonies of Adam and Toby Rzepka, or watching Toby build amazing structures out of nothing when he was a kid, or spending time with Adam when he was in grad school and I could meet his friends and take him to his first opera at the Lyric.
I meet my friends in ways that are unusual I suppose. My friend Andrew I met as he served a restaurant I frequented late at night; before he moved to Alaska, one of our many conversations turned into an Easter sermon.
Andrzej I met in Columbus, at a bar, no less, an economics professor at OSU and a wonderfully tender and smart man. He and his wife and daughters live in Abu Dhabi now, after some time in Maastricht, Nederland where I visited them a few years ago. Chris Nusbaum, whom I met dancing in a gay bar, is my fearless political anchor, as well as a farrier and blacksmith. The chef’s knife he made me is the best one in my kitchen. And Bonni, a college friend, now lives in Chile after living just about everyplace else. For years I read her letters in services as readings and mostly knew her through those letters.
My friend Bernie, whom I met at my cousin Sergio’s house in LA at an Academy Awards party I cooked, and who now lives in Indianapolis after years of me visiting him in NY, was in many ways the last great love of my life. I really was “in love” with him at first, and we talked every day. He is married to someone now, but we are as close as can be again, and I cannot thank him enough for blessing my life. He is someone whose voice on the phone immediately puts me in a grateful happy mood.
Still figuring out retirement. See my loving and clear-eyed brilliant therapist Brian to help me with that. I have come to care for him in a way I have never any other therapist I’ve seen over the years. I preach around, but less now. Working on a new book, for Skinner with Kathleen and my friend Jeff Horst. Also wrote a few essays for anthologies published by Skinner House.
Wrote an essay on a painting in the Columbus Museum of Art that is coming out this week in their American Collection Catalogue.
Have a horrible time sleeping, often, but the big happy change for me is that I have become a photographer of sort, and post on social media that photography is so available now with modern iphones.
All in all, I live a pretty happy life now that I am retired and actually have time to go to all the dozens of doctor’s appointments I go to every month.
Blessings on you all when it’s your turn to do an Odyssey. It’s like nothing else I have done in my life, and it was surprisingly difficult and provoking to concentrate a long life into a short essay.
But here I am, still, and amen, finally finished.