No one knew where he came from. Most of the residents in our shelter/home were referrals or people we had served with one of our other ministries. We lived communally with seminary students, the homeless, mental health persons in crises, staff and their families. We were open but selective to whom we opened our doors. He came and declared we should house him. Asked for referrals he said he had none. He was new to town. But he declared himself useful and we had an empty bed. So we took him in. He really left us no choice.
His name was Alexis Wilantevicz. He was a defrocked Russian Orthodox monk. Or at least he said he was. We would get in theological discussions and he dropped Russian fathers, bishops, and theologians names by the minute. Being a Southern Baptist I merely nodded my head when he would do this until he drifted back into a land I knew. He was a very assertive, flatterer who was used to having his way. After he found out I was an admirer of Martin Luther King Jr. he would note how I sat on the podium with the same style and demeanor as King. I was his favorite staff member, probably because he could get the most from me. I often felt he was trying to educate me. He claimed to have lived in a hospitality house with Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. He constantly offered me tidbits about her especially after he learned I admired her too.
He revealed early in our relationship that he was gay. This was no surprise but it’s always nice to go from speculation to knowledge. He said this was why he left the monastery. He would always laugh at himself in his flamboyant way and say, “Only I Alexis Wilantevicz would choose to come out of the closet in the midst of an AIDS epidemic.” This sad irony seemed to define his life.
He was indeed helpful. He had learned to cook good, cheap meals from very little at the monastery. So to the chagrin and concern of the rest of the staff I hired him as our Kitchen Manager. He thus became the first openly gay employee of the Southern Baptist Convention. The Southern Baptist Convention paid for part of our work, the local Baptist district paid some, and the rest came from other churches across the nation as well as the small chapel that met inside the Center. The staff was concerned about facing reprisals if it was ever found out that Alexis was gay. We worked closely with over twenty churches. They would come and feed the homeless on Saturdays and Sundays. I told him to please not tell the churches he was gay. He promised not to but I swear when the churches were there he flamed exceptionally bright. On more than one occasion a concerned church member would come to me and say in a dismayed way, “I believe he is gay.” I would always reply by nodding my head, “HMM. That’s interesting.” and divert the conversation elsewhere.
Once he became comfortable he reveled in telling different members of our community he was gay to see their reactions. This began to have a backlash for him and me. I was suspected of having an affair with him, even though my wife and child were living with me. His flamboyance became exceptionally annoying to other members of the community. And if they ever had a complaint he would invoke my name, a habit not pleasing to other staff. To say the least, he was a handful. He loved to play the provocateur and ruffler of feathers. But I was learning about Dorothy Day, Russian Orthodox history and theology, and enjoyed being compared to MLK Jr. so our friendship continued. I liked him.
As part of my work with the homeless I was helping to organize busloads of people to a March to Washington called Housing Now! I felt very important because I had organized two buses out of the five going from our city. They even chose me to direct the bus riders to Washington, to the March, and back home again. I was full of myself until I realized the really important people flew to Washington ahead of time, skipping the nine and a half hour bus ride, and attended meetings before the March with the other big wigs. The church helped pay Alexis’ way to the March and off we went, five busloads from Louisville.
Alexis was insistent that he wanted to show me something significant when we got to Washington, D.C. I was insistent that he take a deep breath and let me make sure everything was okay with the transportation. I did not want to tell him a flat out no because I could tell by his demeanor that this was important, but was sure I would not have time for any side adventures. We were to attend the March, eat and get back on the bus. And I who was vaguely familiar with D.C. was to make sure no one was left behind. I felt overwhelmed.
At the March Jesse Jackson and other dignitaries spoke; Tracy Chapman sang ‘All That You Have is Your Soul.’ I was pumped but Alexis, knowing it was close to time to leave, was insistent. Taking a deep sigh I said, “You have thirty minutes.” We walked fast around a corner removed from the March. It was then I saw it. It took me a moment to realize what I was seeing; row after row of quilts full of magnificent color. It was the AIDS Quilt. Quilts with notes and personal thoughts about someone who had died of AIDS. I began to notice the people around me; many were in tears, others with jaws set and some lost in thought. Then I heard the names being read, one after the other. I kept thinking surely the list would be exhausted but it never repeated itself; it kept marching ahead. I noticed Alexis off to the side observing me. AIDS was a new world for me. I knew the very basics but you heard all sorts of arguments questioning the basics. We walked back to the March where the others were. He was quiet, an unusual feat for him. We returned to Louisville.
It was a month later in the kitchen (his domain) he stopped me and said we need to talk. I said sure and he waited until he had my full attention. He began to cut an apple and handed me a slice. I noticed he was cutting with the blade toward him, a good way to get cut. “I got tested today,” he said. I said, “For what?” “HIV,” he said, handing me another slice of apple. Inside I shook with fear; I wanted to throw the apple down and run. “Really? What was the result,” I said. “I do not know yet,” he replied. He handed me another slice of apple. I ate it, making a calculation of how many slices could possibly be left in that apple. He said, “You know, people have problems with my being gay. HIV will scare them shitless.” I smiled, “Yea that should be a lot of fun for you.” He smiled back, “Yea that could be fun.” “Well you know we say we accept anyone here so there should not be any problems.” He sighed, “But I prepare the food and I have seen the irrational fear people can get especially with their food.” He cut me another slice of apple. Damn was he giving me some kind of test, I thought, as I took the apple from him. I suddenly realized that what I was feeling was going to be multiplied many times over with others. Taking a deep breath I sighed, “I guess we are all going to have to learn to live with it.” He knew I was not talking about HIV but the fear of it.
Two months later he was gone. As mysteriously as he came to us he had now disappeared. Rumors of sightings came for the first month. I followed the rumors up. But they all were dead ends. Slowly, I came to accept his absence. Why he left I do not know. He never confirmed whether he had HIV or not.
I later went on to work with Persons Living with AIDS for over eight years. I worked with over hundreds who would die too young. It was sometimes unbearable. Yet I could hear Alexis’ voice in my head. It was as if he was observing and guiding me through this time. I missed his flattery and even the brouhaha he created. I have a picture of him in my mind somewhere else with another young minister flattering, observing, yammering away about some Russian orthodox bishop of the eighteenth century, initiating them into new experiences, and giving them a final exam before he moved on. It is said we entertain angels unawares. I do not believe in angels but I do believe in Saints especially the Russian Orthodox ones.