Major Henderson was a man I never met and knew little about but he played a major role in my early life. He had been coming to the Senior Citizen’s program, housed at the church where I worked, for a month when he disappeared. They finally found out that he had been hospitalized and died shortly thereafter. There was to be a funeral but he had no minister or church. The seniors were insistent that he should have a minister. The seniors, though I did not know him, asked me to act as his minister. I accepted right away. Besides being pastoral I had an ulterior reason for accepting: I had never led a funeral before. I was anxious to have that first funeral notch on my ministerial belt. All through seminary I had practiced the sermon in my head many times but never had an opportunity to deliver it.
I knew I must place first things first. As they had taught me in seminary I needed to gather anecdotes about him and incorporate that in my sermon. So I began asking around the Senior Center. No one knew any details about him. He was the new man who sat at a certain table. He seemed shy and did not reveal much about himself in the short month he had been coming to the program. I thought of the irony that they insist he be remembered although they did not remember him. My only source of who he was would have to be his obituary. It was a standard paragraph but it did reveal he had served in the military during WWII. It also revealed he had once been married and had a son; both family members had preceded him in death. But that was it. That was the only information I had. Of course this did not matter because my sermon was going to turn heads and quench the thirsty souls of grief.
There was to be a viewing for him at the funeral home for a couple hours right, before the funeral service, which was to be held at the chapel at the cemetery. On arriving at the funeral home I met the director who gave me instructions of how the transferring of the body to the cemetery was to be done and other essential things to know. I went to the viewing at the funeral home. They had given him a small room off to the side. I was hoping to meet some of his friends and learn some things about him that I could use in the sermon. I was excited.
Before I went into the room. I looked at the guest book to see how many people had been to view the body. There were two names. I entered the room and no one was there. I thought to myself it will probably be a small crowd maybe ten or fifteen people. I was still energized about my sermon. The hour came and went and it was time to go to the cemetery.
It was a thirty minute drive to the cemetery. There was no long line of cars driving there. It was only me trying to keep up with the hearse that was driving fast because there was no procession following. We arrived at the cemetery; it was large. Finally after driving a quarter mile I saw over the hill a gothic chapel. It was huge and seemed out of portion to its surroundings. I noticed there were no cars except the cemetery caretakers and the hearse. I entered the high vaulted ceiling chapel to symbolize humanity’s reach upward to God. The chapel could seat around two hundred people. There was one huge woman sitting on the front row. That was it. Yet I looked at the watch and we still had fifteen minutes before the service was to begin. I attempted to look pastoral as I walked up to the front. I nodded and smiled at the woman. I sat on the pew next to her as I reviewed my sermon. It was good, although I knew now that I would be lucky to have five people. But still there would be some pleasure of saying to my peers yes I have done my share of funerals.
The funeral director walked up to me and said it was time to start. I agreed. Then the funeral director looked at me and said with a smirk in his voice, ’You know she is deaf.’ He then turned and walked out of the chapel. My first funeral and the only people to hear it were a corpse and a deaf woman. Now if I had not been Baptist I could have performed some ritual and left it at that. But Baptists or not much for ritual and feel a need for the spoken word. So I decided the show must go on. Deciding an introduction would not be needed I went straight to preaching my sermon. Not knowing how deaf she might be I put on the loudest preaching voice I could muster. Now one has to realize that in a large empty chapel like I was in your voice had an echo. I had to concentrate to keep on-track as my words were repeating back to me. I knew it was a comedy of errors but my sermon was going to be preached; after all it was good. About a quarter of the way through it she finally caught my eye pointed a finger at her ear and mouthed “I can’t hear you.” The empty cathedral with the echo and the deaf woman and the corpse had now won. I looked at her; she had tears rolling down her eyes. How lonely she must have felt. This man who had meant something to her was gone. And maybe she would die and no one at all would be at her funeral.
My humanity laughed at me. I stopped my sermon mid-sentence and said amen. I left the front of the chapel and sat down beside her, reached out and held her hand. She looked at me. I looked at her and I mouthed I was sorry for her loss and would keep her in my prayers. I reached in my pocket pulled out my business card and handed it to her. She cried for a few more minutes, smiled at me, said goodbye and left. I sat for a few minutes in the chapel with Major Henderson. I told him thank-you for being my first funeral.
The funeral director, cemetery caretaker and assistants came in. I looked at the director; he nodded at me and asked if I would be available for other funerals. I said yes and walked out. The day was overcast. I got in my car and started the drive out of the cemetery, thinking my colleagues would love this story. I would never hear the end of it. But my mind trailed to Major Henderson as I looked at the row after row of tombstones. Who were all these people once so full of life and yet now relegated to a tombstone. Did people remember them? Did they leave family? A deep loneliness filled me. I looked at the final row of monuments as I pulled out of the cemetery and remembered the belief that your existence continues in this world as long as someone remembers. I made a promise to Major: I will not forget him.
This is a mostly true story of a person whose life though short continues to keep the fire in my belly burning.
I was the new Baptist preacher come to town to help run the HIV/AIDS program. I had been reared by a Marine Drill Sargent, and was entering into a world I vaguely knew. The community saw a straight Baptist minister who had come to town to 'work' with Persons Living With AIDS to say the least there was sincere skepticism if I was up to the job. My first call was from a sister homeless shelter asking me to come down and help them with this new resident at the shelter. It was the early nineties and the word AIDS scared people. So I waited in my office for the new client. The door opened and my heart sank; before me was a kid. He was sixteen years old. He was being kicked out of a government program called Job Corps. Job Corps was a program where you lived a semi military existence while you worked and gained employable skills. As far as Job Corps was concerned, he was gay and had another problem--AIDS. He was capable of infecting the whole Job Corps unit they proclaimed. I tried to explain AIDS was only contracted through sex and blood to blood contact. Regretfully, the social worker explained that he was sexually active. ‘”Very,” the young kid in front of me spoke with a huge smile on his face. The expression and his general demeanor told me he could have all the sex he wanted. “I do tell them I have AIDS and insist on protected sex but they do not seem able to resist me,” he continued with a sultry grin.
I would discover through many conversations that he had been abused as a child and thrown out of the house at eleven because he was exhibiting gay behavior. Along the way someone thought Job Corps could correct his wayward path. He was black, poor and abandoned at an early age, first by his family now by the government. I told the social worker we did not take minors. In saying that, I knew there was nowhere else in the state that would take him either. He looked at me and said, “I will be real good.” I thought that is just the problem I am afraid of.
Despite my misgivings we took him in. There was nowhere else and I would be damned if I rejected him too. The next day I went to my office in our group home. A young attractive woman in a pretty dress came up to me and said, “Hey Dad.” I looked at the woman closer and then my jaw dropped. It was JJ, the youth we had taken in yesterday. He started, “So yesterday you said you wanted to have a father-daughter talk with me.” I replied sternly, “That was not exactly what I said.” “But Dad, if you ask to talk that means we are going to have a father-daughter talk,” he nonchalantly said. “I prefer you did not call me Dad,” I answered, trying not to be charmed. But I knew this moniker would stick. She saw how uncomfortable it was making me. For her part she said, “If you insist, Dad,” she giggled. So we continued with the father-daughter talk about what was expected of her while she lived at our group home.
Talking about house rules to someone who had been living on the street since they were eleven was not the most fruitful conversation I have ever had. Curfews were missed, clubs were attended, but everyone loved her. I tried to counsel her about her anger with what God and life had given. At least I did until I realized she did not have anger. She only wanted to enjoy life; she didn’t have time for anger and hate. We were constantly at odds because there was no rule she would not break. Despite liking her I was slowly being forced to evict her. By now the staff and other residents loved her. But the choice was becoming clearer every day. My criticism of the government program that had rejected her was true but now it was seeming a little hypocritical. To my relief she came into my office with one of her other transgender friends. She started, “Dad I want you to meet my new roommate.” I looked at her quizzically. I knew there were no new residents moving in. She continued, “You and I both know you are going to have to kick me out of here. A girl’s just gotta have her fun,” she offered. “So I am moving in with Jill and a couple of other friends.” Somewhere inside I felt a sigh of relief. But my heart broke. The only place she could find acceptance was with other marginalized people. I knew that was why she attended the clubs. It was the one place on earth she felt comfortable and was totally accepted. Our house was filled with older gay men who too often felt uncomfortable being in close proximity to transgender people in those days. I, “her ‘father” was older and just now figuring out the variety of gender issues. She was sixteen and moving out on her own.
JJ did not become a stranger. She continued to come to us for other services and to say hi. It was quite the scene as she came to see my colleague and me, dressed to a T. The jaws of the men at the shelter would drop and eyes would bulge out at the sight of this beautiful woman. As her “father,” I did not appreciate the looks and murmurings of lust they whispered to each other. I received some consolation with the thought, if they only knew where their testosterone was taking them they would be questioning their sexual identity. JJ still addressed me as Dad to see my discomfort. There was less discomfort now; I looked forward to her visits.
She broke her probation, they told me over the phone. She was carrying a gun. I thought of course she was, do you know how dangerous the streets can be for a transgender person? The threat of assault from local soldiers or rednecks was a fact of life. You would be unwise not to have a gun. Yet I could never see JJ using it. The judge showed no mercy and sentenced her to a year and a half in jail. The perfect place for a transgender youth. We tried desperately to get her out. And then we tried even harder to get her the medicines she needed. We visited her but she did not want visitors. It was beyond my imagination what she must have gone through but she never complained. Her spirit stayed intact. Finally after a year we were able to get her out on early probation.
When I saw her, my whole being was filled with anger. She looked almost anorexic. Her face was worn with wrinkles at seventeen. She had a cough. We took her to the group home. I was not sure if that was going to work out but was determined to make it so. She again told me she would be good; now the sass in the tone was gone. The first time she saw me after coming out of jail she called me Dad but never again. She was older than me now, at only seventeen years of age.
JJ became the mother of the house--checking on the other residents and even staff, and giving advice about how to handle situations. The other residents teased her by calling her mom. She still had fire but less now. The rules were not as easy to break. Her hair began to fall out. She either had a scarf or a wig on when you saw her. The slow process of death was coming. Still she had no anger. Still she was full of confidence in who she was. She had dignity about it all beyond her years.
One day she broke curfew. She had not broken curfew during this stay. I fretted, pacing the hall. Finally, a car drove up; I went outside as the worried parent ready to chastise yet so grateful she was safe. She got out with her dress disheveled. Looked at me, shrugged her shoulders and smiled. She showed no evidence of alcohol or drug use. “Momma just needed a night out on the town.” After all it was her eighteenth birthday. JJ died two months later. She died happy and content. She was mourned by all of her children in the house.
Sometimes when I feel like justice is too hard to fight for and I want to bail on life, I remember JJ, my daughter and mother, and a fire reignites in my soul. But mostly I long to hear those uncomfortable words “Hey Dad.”