It was late June, 1994; my second week, as a brand-new pastor. It was Sunday morning, and I’d just preached about the woman healed by touching Jesus’ robe. She’d suffered from flow of blood for twelve years. In Jewish society, bleeding was considered “unclean,” which banned her from all aspects of public life. But, she knew – she had faith – that if she could sneak through the crowd unnoticed, and just touch the hem of Jesus’ robe, she’d be quietly healed, without drawing attention to herself.
As I told the story, I talked about ways we treat people as “unclean;” specifically mentioning the mentally ill, the elderly, and people with AIDS. Remember: this was 1994, and AIDS was deadly, and carried a terrible, shameful stigma.
I stood at the church door, greeting the morning’s worshippers. That’s when I met Jeff. Jeff was 34 years old, gaunt, and clearly upset. He asked if we could meet, and I agreed.
The next day, Jeff came to my office. He told me he was gay. I’ll confess, I was still homophobic. He shared that he had AIDS. That was my first “contact” with the disease. His illness was advanced, and he only had a few months to live. I was a new pastor, and young, with little experience with death. Jeff said, “God sent you to help me die.” He didn’t ask. He told me, in no uncertain terms, “You’re going to help me die.”
I will confess: I was afraid of Jeff. I was afraid of spending time with Jeff. What would people think, seeing me in public with a gay man? Would he get the wrong idea, and make a pass at me? Could I catch AIDS from being around him, eating lunch with him? What did I have to say to a suffering, dying, gay man? If I’m entirely honest, at that stage of my life and maturity, I wouldn’t have chosen to befriend Jeff. But, thankfully, Jeff chose me.
Over six months, in spite of my fears, I spent a lot of time with Jeff. Early on, we’d go out to lunch. When he couldn’t leave his apartment, I visited him. I visited the hospital “psych ward,” when he attempted suicide, because his suffering was so terrible, and he couldn’t stand the pain. I sat with him at Hospice, often holding his hand, often lifting him in and out of his bed so I could take him outside in his wheelchair. I was with him on Christmas Day, 1994, a few days before he died.
My friendship with Jeff was far from easy. Especially early on, I was VERY uncomfortable. But, I learned from Jeff. I learned about being a gay Christian man, who only wanted to be loved and accepted. I learned, first hand, about suffering and death, and the related fears. I especially learned that my homophobia was based entirely in irrational, unfair, incorrect ideas about homosexuality. Few people have impacted the man and pastor I am today as much as Jeff.
Most importantly, I was privileged to become Jeff’s friend and pastor. When I met Jeff, I feared him. When Jeff died, I grieved the loss of a friend.
Mother Teresa was asked how she could work so intimately with the sick, suffering and dying. She often responded, “Whenever I meet someone in need, it’s really Jesus in his most distressing disguise.”
I wonder, how often do we miss out on friendships and spiritual connection, because a potential friend is hidden behind a “distressing disguise,” that evokes a fearful response in us. To a young, inexperienced, homophobic, ignorant pastor, Jeff’s “distressing disguise” was his sexuality and illness. By disguise, I don’t mean those things weren’t real. They were. I mean, I only saw what I feared. But, my fears were unfounded and unnecessary. There was more to Jeff – much more.
Whom do you fear? Who’s “distressing disguise” evokes fear in you, yet there is a potential friendship waiting to be made? Who is Christ calling you to love?