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.