The Spiritual Mentor
After five and a half years living with homeless and the mentally ill in the inner city of Louisville and dealing with a Southern Baptist Convention split that seemed at least locally to be focused way too much on the powerless it was time to take a break. I had chosen to go to the country. Specifically to a Christian commune called Koinonia. It had been integrated in the 1942 in rural South Georgia and had been the birthplace of Habitat for Humanity to name two of its claims to fame. I was to garden and work with the youth in the surrounding neighborhoods. Part of the process was to have a spiritual mentor. John was to be mine. John was a tall lean man who did not say much but worked hard. Because he did not speak a lot and was hard to get to know I had no clue what to expect from him as mentor.
We were to meet at least once a week but he said we will meet how many times was not important. Having had spiritual guides in seminary and other places I was happy with the concept of meeting whenever. The first meeting I was given a two hour notice to meet him I try to explain to him I was scheduled in the garden and this would not please Bob the gardener. He said tell him it is to feed your soul. So the next thing I know I was with John in the old beat up farm truck he drove. “Are you scared of needles”, he asked as we drove down the road to where I had no idea. ‘No’, I said. He nodded his approval as he continued down the road. I looked at him with questioning eyes. ‘We are going to town’, he reluctantly volunteered. Going to town was not something we did every week so now I was confused and maybe a little nervous. My previous spiritual guides and I met in offices and here we were in a run-down truck going to town and needles were going to be involved.
He asked how things were going. He offered no commentary on what I said only continued to drive very fast. We reached town faster than I had ever done before and he pulled in a church parking lot. Aw I thought this must be one of his spiritual meccas he went to when he needed to get away from it all. Now everything made sense. He looked at me and said,’ The Red Cross needs blood. Have you ever given blood?” Now I was even more enlightened. ‘Yes’, I replied. He nodded his head in approval. We went and were placed on tables and stuck with IVs. Half way through my pint he looked over at me and said,” Jesus said to lay down ones’ life for another was the greatest love you could give’. He looked away that was my lesson I thought. After we were having our cookie and drink as is the ritual after giving blood. He looked at me and said in a serious tone which caused me to lean in expectantly,” Man does not live by bread alone.” He smiled to himself he thought that was funny.
I began to look forward to our rare but always eventful meetings. He told me he too had gone to seminary and was to be a pastor but one thing sidetracked him ‘I am a bad preacher’, he explained, ‘and you may have notice I am not a great conversationalist.’ One of our other meetings consisted of a ride in his truck to the cow pasture. We rode over hill and dale with me hitting my head on the roof of the truck before he stopped. I looked over the meadow and saw at least fifty cows in the large field. “He looked at me and said,’We need to herd these cow back into the barn yard”. ‘Okay,’ I said. I looked at him for guidance I had no clue how to herd all these cattle. I opened my door and got out and waved at one of the cows that was actually close to the truck and the cow moved in the general direction of the barn. I looked back at John as a kid looks back at their parents for approval. He shook his head and waved for me to get back in the truck. I knew he must have been able to tell by my waving at the cow I had no idea what I was doing. I was dejected. Once I got back in the truck he blew the horn twice. All the cows looked up and headed for the barn. He looked at me, ”Sometimes when you do not know what to do it is best just to sit and wait, instructions will come if we let them.’ Message received I thought. I also wondered if I was not his most difficult mentor job.
Our final session was when he called me and asked if I could bring the truck to an area off the farm on a highway. I as usual had no idea of what would come next. When I arrived I saw the large cargo truck the farm owned turned on its side with all of our harvest crop spilled on the side. People were trying to harvest the crop. He came over to me and said, ‘ I drove too fast around the curve and the load shifted and the truck fell over.” I nodded and said, “The tortoise will eventually win the race.” He stopped, looked at me, put his arm around me and laughed,” The student no longer needs the mentor.” We went to salvage what we could of the crop.
This story is in memory of the Lady Chablis.
One of the hardest funeral sermons I ever delivered was for a young man who was a bartender for Club One. His death had taken everyone by surprise. There was a scramble by his Club One family to honor their friend. But a complication had come. As in so many of the early days of the AIDS epidemic, families who had ostracized their loved ones when the double whammy of their children coming out to them as gay and even worse HIV positive at death would insist on taking control of the funerals.
They often excluded the long time partners and friends of these folks. The gay community was determined in this particular instance this would not hold. Jeff had supported so many of them through their crises and he had become a strong voice and fundraiser for support of HIV positive individuals he had made a special place in their family. But they were polite and wanted to reach out to his family and honor them as much as possible. The problem was his step-father was a Church of God minister and was very demanding that a Christian service be held. The opinion of the family was gay was wrong and AIDS was the curse of God on the gay community. This is where I was to come in.
They had arranged for me to have what amounted to an interview with his family and gave me two hours to be there because the family was from out of town and had to leave directly after our meeting. So here I was walking up to one of Savannah’s historic town houses to meet with some members of the gay community and Church of God. My worst fears were realized when I entered the room. On one side of the room was the stereotype fundamentalist preacher with three older women in the Church of God fifties beehive hairdos and dresses, not pants. On the other side were some of the strongest voices in the gay community and not dressed in drag but two drag queens. Now I was somehow supposed to bring the two sides together. I instantly asked everyone to pray. And then asked them to tell stories of how Jeff had impacted their lives. His mother started talking with tears in her eyes about her child. The minister insisted that I know about how he had accepted Jesus and was baptized in his name. I knew that was my cue to agree to include that in the service. His gay family with tears in their eyes told of the many kindnesses Jeff had offered them. The minister questioned my credentials and I answered. Then the spirit said it was time to close the meeting before we moved too far away from the life of Jeff into abstract beliefs. I told them thank-you for this honor and I would handle it from here.
Everyone looked startled by my abruptness but were caught enough off guard to agree. Now my chore was to somehow honor these divergent people’s wishes and make a funeral service. I heard through the grapevine, there were fights over his belongings. He had not left an official will because there was not much to distribute. He had no idea his family would want to claim him. They had not only kicked him out of their home but out of the church too. Word had come to me the small church they had originally chosen was just too small for the funeral. A larger church said no. They were renting a ballroom at the Desoto Inn now. The family was not happy but they realized the circumstances and agreed.
Finally the day came. I had waited to the last minute to show at the Desoto. I did not want to give any time for discussion for either side. It was a tense atmosphere I heard between Jeff’s physical and his Savannah family. I walked into the ballroom; it was packed. The crowd had to be pushing a thousand. The gay community was there in full force. Huge drag queens in need of shaves dressed in fifties style outfits I suppose to honor the family, closeted gays, advocates, businessmen, laborers and the whole shebang. The stepfather and mother along with ten other congregants to show their support sat on the front right two rows. The crowd kept growing; there was standing room only. I thought all I need now is a fire marshall.
The service began. We sang a couple of hymns and a popular secular song. I had asked the stepfather with some fear and trembling to read a passage of Scripture. I stood close to the podium in case I needed to assist him in knowing when he should finish. If he had any concept of speaking I think the crowd overwhelmed him. Two people from Club One spoke of the goodness that was Jeff. I rose and preached a funeral sermon that tried to celebrate his life and yet have enough religion so the toes of the Church of God folks would not curl. I finished and we closed with a song and a prayer. Through it all I watched his mother. She was awed by the crowd and moved by the stories of Jeff. I had always thought as I listened to his stepfather and mother talk that the ban from family and church was his work. She was a god-fearing woman who had no choice but to follow the head of the household and her minister’s action but I detected a regret that it could not have been different somehow.
After the service I somehow was caught in a reception line. Everyone wanted to shake my hand because they felt a need for touch. His mother was one of the first in line; she was weeping. She looked at me and said, “He was a good boy wasn’t he.” “Yes,” I replied. “He didn’t die alone,” she breathed out mournfully. “No his friends were here and they treated him as family.” She nodded and sighed, “That makes me happy.” I thought the family knows he was loved and cared for; that is probably the most that could have been given to her.
As the line that seemed it would never end was coming to a close I looked to speak to the next person; it was the famed and charitable Lady Chablis of book and movie fame. She was dressed in her Sunday go-to-meeting clothes and as always a bright ray of sunshine. She smiled at me and said in a formal manner, “Well Rev. Freeman that was a surprisingly good service. Thank you.” I smiled and said thank you and thought God has her little ways of letting you know you have done well.
It is hard to say how it happened. Two of us got together and decided it would be nice if we started a men’s group. So we did. What was unpredictable was the cast of characters that would make up our group. A computer programming business owner that, for a while, referred to himself only as “thirteen.” He even decided, for a time, to make his decisions on how he spent his day by rolling the dice. We also had the unemployed middle-aged man who was reinventing himself into an actor. Another member had been an Army survivalist in Vietnam and a teacher at our local wildlife center. He was a craggy older man now on oxygen with COPD. There were others: an accordion player, an ex-millionaire now on Social Security disability, a government lawyer and me.
We had some people who were short timers. One man saw we were sponsored by the Unitarian Universalists and decided he needed to convert us to the one true faith. The usually taciturn lawyer, upset by the interloper’s dogmatism and critique of our faith, threatened him physically and with his lawyerly verbal prowess. It took a moment to calm him down.
Another short-timer was a banker whose wife felt he needed to get in touch with his feelings and coerced him to come for a season. We alternated hosting the meetings and whoever’s home we were in was to supply a topic to be discussed usually spiritual. When it came his turn instead he brought cards and toothpicks to play poker. I am not sure that is what his wife had in mind. But it was one of our more spiritual meetings.
Despite it all we continue to meet over ten years later. Visitors are fewer and seldom now. We do not have any great ambitions of growth anymore. We hang in there. The discussions can be dynamic. Such as when the former teacher who was not gay asked everyone if they ever had their cocks sucked by a man. He said it was much better than by a woman. We were never sure if we were being propositioned or if his drugs were working extra well that evening. There were the health reports. Prostate cancer left us baffled. “How a country, that is able to put a man on the moon needed you to fast and drink putrid liquid overnight, in order to have your anus probed to see if you are developing prostate cancer, could exist in the same time\space continuum.”
The exaggerated tall tales are abundant, politics are discussed and the conundrum of women is detailed. We have written obituaries for ourselves, discussed our most formative relationships, talked about our beliefs of the afterlife, and our fathers. And sometimes a truth would come to us all. And other times we assisted each other in life’s challenges. But for the most part we met.
We have had two retreats, picnics, and ballgames together. Our retreats have been interesting. One of the members revealed he had been in jail several times for various felonies. Which left the lawyer, shocked at this revelation, and he became a little concerned about his safety in the middle of nowhere with this person. The lawyer suddenly hurt his knee although we were all sure he in part was scared to sleep in the same cabin with an ex con. He went home early. Another of our members came to the retreat after taking too many of his prescription drugs, leaving him in a semi-conscious state. The next year it rained and we were stuck inside all weekend. One of our members could not stay off his chat lines and we resorted to talking about him, as he sat there, to see if he would notice. He never did. And by midday our accordion player had come up with the ingenious plan to play a concert for two hours. He was like the EverReady bunny and was willing to go for another extended period of time. At which point five other desperate men threatened his life. So as you can understand we have not had a retreat recently.
We are getting to be an older group now. We cannot go on forever. In another five or ten years maybe someone will have died. And slowly others will follow. Unless we intentionally recruit, the group will probably die out. The problem now is our group is like an old married couple. We can finish each other’s sentences, have many inside jokes, and have heard each other’s life stories so many times we can tell them ourselves. We also can nag, fuss, sulk, and fight. Combine that with our ‘interesting’ characters we would have a hard time getting new members. We are stuck together; to leave for someone or something else is silly. We have been together too long.
The next meeting we will be talking about a retreat again. Accordions will be banned although our accordion player has long since moved away. The place must have sunny weather. Some will complain all we do now is discuss retreats, not take them. One of our members will demand we go to a place that only the younger ones can enjoy. We have had this fight so often we know who will say what and who will leave disgusted. But in the end we all know we are way too far into this marriage to turn back now.
Her name was Eva. She lived in a high rise apartment complex in Louisville, KyY. She was a visitor to our church on several occasions but we had not seen her in a while and on her last visit she said she would not mind a visit from the minister. So yet again it was my destiny to go to an apartment complex that had for me quite a bad history. I had started a Bible class for some of the mentally ill in the tower as a way to “minister” but also to have a reason to check up on schizophrenic members without checking up on them. I was in the middle of the first class. We were talking about listening to the small voice of God inside. One of the members look at me horrified and said, “My doctor told me not to listen to the voices inside me but I always thought I should and you are saying I should.” Now the horror was on my face. “No listen to the doctor. Your doctor is right.” He replied, “Why?” And that was only the beginning of my learnings from my schizophrenic friends about how religious language is dangerous. Another time I went to check on one of our members and found them dead in their apartment. My car was broken into once while I was there. Once I broke up a physical fight between two seventy plus year old women, receiving a scratch to my face for my efforts. There is nothing like trying to explain how it is you came to be scratched by a seventy year old woman to your congregation.
So it was with fear and temerity that I agreed to visit Eva. She lived on the tenth floor. The apartment complex was like a motel with the hall on the outside. As I approached her apartment I heard a familiar tune; it seemed my mind was trying to jog out the name of the song and the artist. As I approached her apartment I realized it looked as though her front door was open and the music was blaring out from her apartment onto the walkway. I had never met Eva before so I slowly went to her open door and looked in. What I saw was a woman gracefully waltzing around the room by herself. She had a scarf wrapped around her shoulders and a long flowing dress as if she was at a ball. I asked if she was Eva. She said yes; I thought that figures. I am Reverend Freeman from the church. Oh she exclaimed as she waltzed toward me what an honor to have you come. Making a grand gesture toward the loveseat inside she said why don’t you sit here beside me. Now I was slowly realizing that she was not completely aware and she seemed to be exhibiting hyper-sexuality so I replied can we talk on the walkway I like the view I explained. Parking lots have always fascinated me. She came outside and said what a beautiful day it is. Do you know what day it is I asked conducting my mental assessment. It does not matter as long as it is a beautiful day, she explained. She leaned over the railing sometimes on beautiful days as this I feel like a bird and I could fly for miles she exclaimed. I quickly said to my wannabe bird I think I would feel more comfortable inside. So she took me by the hand and led me to the love sofa by waltzing back in the room. The name and performer of the song came to me Elvis Presley and The Great Pretender.
Well Reverend Freeman she said with emphasis on reverend what can I do for you. As her hand rested on my knee. Well we have been missing you at church and wanted to let you know we…. Oh you like me minister and you miss me she said coyly. No the congregation misses you I said with a fluster.
She said you know Reeeverend Freeman I love the Bible. I have always fancied myself a minister too. I evaluated the situation: a hyper-sexual not exactly there person with her door open to all and music blaring out into the world with no sense of time and, I am not sure of this, but not sure of place either. She definitely needs Adult Protective Services to come. She said wontolyn “May I read you one of my favorite passages?” Scooting closer to me she began reading from her Bible in Shakespearean fashion. Arms thrusting, stage voice with pronunciation perfect she read the passage. I now knew I needed to get back to my office and place a few calls so she could be evaluated and medicated (this was before cell phones). I told her I needed to go; we had been screaming over the music and now I was yelling above the music and her Shakespearean stage voice (she would not stop reading). She said that was fine. I arose; she hugged me with her arms roaming on my back and head buried in my chest. I broke away from her and started firmly to the door. She said she would walk me to the door which was to her the bottom floor door. Then she grabbed her Bible and said let me read one more passage to you as we go downstairs. I would agree to anything that helped me make it to my car.
We walked down the walkway the passage she read Psalm 23 The Lord is my shepherd….. We passed a couple on our way to the elevator she continued I shall not want…. . we arrived at the elevator and I assured her I could make it the rest of the way by myself. She courteously disagreed. The elevator doors opened and three people were inside. She followed in full stage presence He maketh me lay down in green pastures. The three disguised their snickering. I felt as if I was dead man walking. Two centuries later the elevator reached the ground floor. She continued, even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. She followed me through the lobby. Everyone turned and looked as we traveled. At the door I said goodbye again. She had finished once but started from the beginning again. She said it was a beautiful day and would walk with me outside to the car. She continued to read, surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life. I reached the car and she stood in front of the door reading. I said excuse me and brushed by her to the door. She made to get in the car with me. And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. I locked all the doors and did not squeal off but made great haste. She waved at me and I noticed she took a bow as I left the parking lot.
Maybe she really did not want a visit from a minister and it was all a ruse but I would have just taken a no. When I reported her to the social services and they visited her everything was fine she was of a good mind. The social worker asked me I hope jokingly maybe you were having a fantasy. Whatever. But for my part I made sure I never needed to visit that apartment complex again. The voices in my head told me not to.