Sunday, August 16, 2015

Farewell to Little Brother - Part II, A Canary in the Mine Shaft

[continued from Part I]

Charles's 69th birthday, Francis-Clare Community, Lac Viet Restaurant,Orlando

A Canary in the Mine Shaft

Given my own interest in all things spiritual, I would often take Charles with me to religious events and services across the metro area. That was particularly important when visiting Episcopal Churches. Charles was my canary in the mine shaft. I watched very carefully how people responded to him. If they were welcoming, respecting his dignity, we went back. If not, I shook the dust off my own sandals as I left.

There were two visits in which that proved deeply troubling. The first was to an Episcopal Church in one of the suburbs north of Orlando known for its charismatic worship. I went with Charles and Pam, my law partner. I wanted to see for myself this form of worship in this parish that other Episcopalians spoke of only in whispers.

I was on edge from the moment we walked in the door, quickly slipping into the next to the last pew in the back. The service began with a loud “Let’s do it” rather than the familiar words of the prayer book and the praise band took up the first half hour of the service with repetitive, mindless and narcissistic lyrics projected on a screen overhead (“Our god reigns….ha ha hains….Our god reigns….repeat 50X).

When the time came for the Prayers of the People, I quickly realized the formula prescribed by the Prayerbook had been abandoned for a free form set of prayers offered by anyone who wanted to speak. The very first prayer was that “right thinking people will be elected to the school board next week…” I could see Charles’ back stiffen as my law partner began to dig her nails into my bare arm. The next prayer was for “God to strike down all the lesbians.” By this time I was beginning to feel nauseous. Charles was visibly agitated and my arm had begun to bleed from my law partner’s nails which she had unconsciously dug through the skin into the flesh.

The next thing I knew, Charles was up off his kneeler and standing. He began to pray: “Let us pray that the Carthusians and the Carpathagians will end their ancient feuds and come together in Christian love and reconciliation…” This continued for two or three minutes with a wide range of obscure religious orders and various prayers for their historical plights. When he finished his prayers, he returned to the kneeler beside the two of us. There was dead silence. I looked up and every head in the church had turned around to see who had said these things.

Recovering his wits, the priest quickly signaled the end of the Prayers leading the congregation in the communal Confession. This would prove to be one of the few times I have not stayed for an entire service in an Episcopal Church.  I placed my hands on Charles’ shoulders as we got up from the communion rail and whispered in his ears, “Just keep going, Charles. We’re leaving now.” And out the back door we slipped.

The second event occurred at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke where I had met Charles and where we had both sung in the choir together. I had left Orlando to attend seminary without diocesan support and the Cathedral had undergone a massive change of staff under the direction of its new fundamentalist bishop. The occasion for our attendance was the memorial service for a former dean whom Charles had loved.

The Cathedral is a beautiful neo-Gothic structure in the heart of downtown Orlando. It has long had a storied music program. At one time it had also been actively involved in downtown ministries among the homeless and interfaith services with nearby Catholic, Orthodox and Lutheran parishes. All that had changed during my seven year absence from the Cathedral. But I had no idea how much it had changed.

At one point, Charles said he needed to go to the restroom. His medication included a diuretic so I was accustomed to this. Given all the years he had spent there, I had no qualms about him going out to the restroom in the nearby parish hall.

After about 20 minutes, a friend who had come to the service with us asked, “Where is Charles?” I said he had gone to the restroom but should be back by now. I began to look around for him thinking perhaps he’d come back in and sat in another row. But no Charles. After 30 minutes I began to panic. Had he gotten lost? Had he turned the wrong way and stepped into the street in front of a car?

Then I saw him. The narthex of the Cathedral has been glassed in to allow for mothers with crying babies to leave the main sanctuary when necessary and still be able to be present for the service visible through the glass and audible via the sound system. Behind that glass wall stood Charles, face up to the glass with his hands to either side of it, trying his best to see what was going on, looking like the doggie in the window at a pet store.

I went out to get him thinking perhaps he’d gotten lost or confused. As we walked down the side aisle to our seats, I softly fussed at him, telling him I’d been worried and asked him why he’d stood out there all that time. He simply said, “I’m sorry, little brother. That man wouldn’t let me come back in.” In a Cathedral which used to feed homeless people and provide them places to sleep on cold nights, the new reality was a corps of ushers who also served as bouncers to keep homeless people away from the well-heeled elect inside the glass doors.

I suddenly found myself white hot with rage, so angry I could hardly speak. This was a former parishioner who had come to honor a beloved dean (whom Charles had regularly engaged for counseling). He had been treated like garbage strictly based upon appearance. As I walked out the doors of the Cathedral that night, a place that had been my spiritual home for eight years, I swore I would never return. Now 18 years later, I never have and have no plans to.

Thanksgiving 2007, first meal in New Coverleigh,
rebuilt after Hurricane Charley. With Andy and Luci Blake

Sometimes the Canary Sings

But sometimes the canary not only survives, it sings.

Those who know me well know that, despite having been ordained priest in 1995, my inclination to attend any Episcopal Church since returning to Central Florida has been limited to say the least. Having fled this diocese after it began down its homophobic and fundamentalist path with the election of a new bishop in 1990, I entered into four of the most incredible years of my life as a seminarian in the Bay area of California, connecting with a diocese in California and ordained in a parish in San Jose. During my two years of doctoral work in Tallahassee I worked under a very fine chaplain there as his assistant and got some experience in preaching, celebrating and pastoring.

Then, for a variety of reasons, none of which had to do with the church, I needed to return to Orlando. My bishop in California had told me ahead of time that he would not release me to the Diocese of Central Florida. And I had no intention of asking him.

The rumors of the pathology in the diocese had actually been understated. I saw aging clergy, venerable servants of the church for decades, who were treated with contempt, shunned by new clergy who had flooded into the diocese after passing the ideological litmus test imposed by the bishop. And I had witnessed my dear friend Charles prevented from entering a Cathedral church to which he had been deeply loyal for many, many years, all based upon snap judgments made about his appearance.

At one point, I realized that if this had been the Episcopal Church I had encountered as the young Methodist college student who followed the Wesley brothers home to Anglicanism, I would never have become an Episcopalian in the first place. Indeed, the incarnation of the church in Central Florida was almost unrecognizable as Episcopalian. It was more like angry, judgmental Baptists who liked to wear dresses. Who needed it?

The only dim light in this sea of darkness was a small suburban parish north of Winter Park. Named for St. Richard of Chichester (whose most famous prayer became the basis of the song “Day by Day” in Godspell), it was the parish in the diocese which was rumored to be “tolerant” of gay people. Many refugees from the Cathedral diaspora had ended up at St. Richards. And so, for the first few years after my return to Central Florida, when on the rare occasion I actually did attend services, I attended St. Richards.

When Charles was finally evicted from his apartment at Reeves Terrace due to his inability to keep it free of roaches (which were in turn infesting neighboring apartments), he moved in with a friend from the SCA who was more than happy to have assistance with the rent on a condo in the suburbs not far from St. Richards. Charles was now cut off from all of his familiar surroundings and neighbors. He was lonely. And so I decided one Sunday that I would take Charles to St. Richards to get him out of the house. Of course, he was delighted to go.

When it came time to go to communion, Charles needed to hold onto my shoulder and be led to the rail. The interior of the parish is a bit dark and he simply couldn’t see where he was going. I watched the people of the parish as we went forward and returned. And what I saw there amazed me. Most of them smiled. And when we went out to the coffee hour out on the breezeway, they could not have been any more welcoming to Charles.

I began attending church regularly with Charles after that Sunday. This continued over a two year period until the time Charles was finally too frail to survive at his friend’s condo. Once he had been placed in an ACLF, I was only allowed to take him out one final time before his case worker restricted his outside visits to family members and legal guardians.

The rector there had offered a free burial space for his cremains in the columbarium though that will not happen now that Charles lies amidst the waters of the St. Johns River headed for the Atlantic. But his memory still burns in the hearts of the people of St. Richards. I know that because I attend there regularly now and they often ask about him.

 I tell people that Charles saved me for the Episcopal Church.


Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)


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