If it’s true, I say hooray, but it brings back mixed memories.
by Charlie Leck
Minneapolis has just been named as the most gay-friendly city in America! I’m pleased about that. The honor comes from The Advocate magazine. The reasons it chose our city aren’t very scientific. It was just a feeling the editors got about the city. If you want to read the entire story about it, as I read it, you can find it here, on MinnPost.
I remember very well the first time I walked into the Gay Nineties bar – famous in town as a gathering place for gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transvestites and transsexuals.. Curiously, I was with a Methodist Minister. He had an interesting job with the Methodist Church. He’d been tabbed at the nation’s first Methodist minister to the gay community.
Now, mind you, this was in 1967 or ’68. The cultural and social acceptance of gays and lesbians wasn’t anywhere near what it is today. So, it had been a brave and bold step for the usually conservative denomination. And, this guy was sent not out to convert, transform or change the gays with whom he worked; rather, he was representing Christ among them in an accepting, understanding and loving way. He sought ways to be of service to our city’s gay community. It was all quite revolutionary stuff back then. His name was Jim Clayton. I haven’t seen him for a million years. I hope he’s still around and well.
I was a minister in those days, too. I was serving in the only church I’d ever have during a ministry that would last slightly more than three years. It was a great experience – short, but sweet! Jim and his wife were parishioners in my congregation. It’s odd when I think back on it, but I had a number of clergymen who joined my congregation. We were doing unusual things and my job, though I preached on most Sundays and led the worship, was more as community organizer than clergyman.
Preaching is a great ego trip! I thought I was good at it and I still think I was. I worked hard on my sermons and tried to make them mean something special in people’s lives. After getting to know Jim and understanding his ministry, I invited him to preach a sermon on one Sunday and talk about his work and how it squared with the gospels. He did a great job, as far as I was concerned, and most of the congregation was pleased with his accepting and understanding attitude. There were some older people, however, who were pretty shocked and I guess that’s understandable. The times they were a-changing!
Well, this has been a long-way-around to my first trip to the Gay Nineties. I wanted to see Jim in action, to understand his ministry better. It was quite an experience for me when I stepped in off the street and into that establishment. My, oh my!
I was a young man then – maybe 26 or 27 years old – and I wasn’t unattractive and that’s not boasting, but just fact. Jim was well enough known to the crowd and they knew he wasn’t gay, but I looked like fresh stuff for a bunch of the guys there and a number of them wanted to get close and get to know me. I fought showing my embarrassment and tried to get the message to them as quickly as I could that I was straight, but it was amazing to be surrounded by a good size group of guys who all wanted to get to know me – you know, really get to know me. It ended up being funny and we all got a great laugh out of it eventually.
My most embarrassing memory of that night was my introduction to a very attractive woman who was an extraordinary flirt and was dazzling me and making my heart flutter a bit. Jim could see my reaction and he moved in close to me and whispered softly in my ear.
“Charlie, that’s not a woman you know! Or, don’t you know?”
Well, I mean, I remember the shock! It couldn’t be. I mean, she was so beautiful – or he was – at least while I was thinking he was a she. We all had a great laugh about that too and I developed a whole new attitude that night about the gay lifestyle and I’ll never be able to thank Jim enough for opening my eyes to a whole new world.
A story about Jim ran in our local paper a few weeks after that. Jim had told the reporter of my experience with him at the bar and that it had encouraged some troubled gay guys to seek me out for counseling from a Christian perspective. A reporter came to my home to interview me. A photographer took a head-shot of me and, on the following Sunday morning, the story about Jim ran on the front page and it included a short comment about me with my photograph. That afternoon, home from church, a few of us were sitting in the backyard having a little picnic when Bob wandered around to the back of my house to find me and to ask for help. He’d seen my name in the paper and read my comments that, to him, seemed pretty understanding.
That led to a counseling situation that lasted nearly a year before I went home with Bob to the little town in western Minnesota where he had grown up, to meet his parents. For several years Bob had wanted desperately to tell them the truth – to stop living his little lie – to ask for their understanding – but he couldn’t do it alone. He wanted me by his side.
“Mom, dad, this is the Reverend Leck that I’ve been telling you about!”
I remember so clearly how it began that way. We sat in the living room of their modest little home and Bob told them his secret and begged them to understand. His mother wept softly and tried so hard to understand. His father, though, was furious. He told Bob that he was disowning him. He screamed that Bob was destined for hell. He turned on me and leveled his attack on me, telling me that I, as a minister of Christ, had no right to condone such sinful behavior as that exhibited by his son.
“You’ll go to hell, too! Get out of my house!”
A few weeks later I got a phone call from Bob’s mother. Bob was dead. He’d hung himself in his little apartment just a dozen blocks from our church. She thanked me for my visit and asked me to pray for Robert’s soul. I offered to come to visit her, but she declined with an explanation that her husband was putting a lot of the blame on me.
I called Jim. He came over to my place and allowed me to cry on his shoulder. It was one of a number of events that made it so clear to me that I wasn’t cut out for the work I was in. There were so many people in need of help and I didn’t have the strength or the guts.
A few weeks later, on a Saturday night, some vandals broke into our little church and spray painted hate messages on the walls of our basement dining area – some vile stuff. I arrived early on Sunday morning to rehearse my sermon in quiet. I found that the door had been broken down and I wandered around to see what had happened. I found the messages and took them personally. It was like a blow to the gut. In the middle of my sermon that morning, I lost it. The sermon wasn't making sense and I confused.I stopped and looked out at my congregation and began to weep... and I announced my resignation, telling them I’d had enough. I had no idea what I’d do next or where I’d go, but I knew the ministry wasn’t for me.
Frankly, it all turned out well. I fell into some good things and looked back at my time in the church with some pride, but I was pleased to be separated from it.
On September 30, 1970, about one year after I had ended my ministry there, that church burned to the ground in a spectacular and shocking fire. Someone called me at home to say that the church was burning. I drove there and parked some distance away and walked to the scene, to witness, along with hundreds of neighborhood folks, the old girl disappearing in flames and smoke. Some laughed and some cried.
Some time, in the next 30 days or so, I penned a poem about the blazing scene. It’s a private poem that I never thought I would share, but my days are fleeing, so why not?
One time yet they gathered and the ritual was fitting…
A strange mingling of people was her dream
And now, fulfilled, she went proudly
With lights playing merrily upon her bosom
And a festive Mardi Gras of sounds in her soul
While one (perhaps more) gentle tear spoke to her softly
And laughter lifted her heart above the rising smoke
Poor tikes glow at the sight of shiny red
And rubber glad professionals proudly bark commands
Which worshipping hosts dismiss as too somber for this occasion
Now she turns and goes amid the dancing streams
Touching all who stretch out for one last embrace
She was smiling as she stepped finally out of sight
And I saw them all then –
black and rich and red and poor and white
going peacefully together to bed
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