by Tim Tyson
My parents became Christians in the 1950’s and immediately became extremely involved in church. They remained deeply involved in their church community their entire lives, starting and leading numerous ministries at their church (for widows, for the home bound, the food pantry, the prayer ministry, etc.) as well as supporting other church ministries with their time and effort. Living their Christian faith was always, without exception, central to their lives.
My sister and I were raised in church. We attended a Christian school from kindergarten through 12th grade. We went on to Christian colleges. While we lived at home, our family was at church every time the church doors opened–literally. Again, the church community was central to our lives. To be honest, I don’t think one could overstate the extent to which our lives revolved around the church community.
When I reflect back over the past 4 to 5 decades, I observe an interesting, gradual change in my parent’s church community. Early on I recall a direct emphasis on helping people–all people, being kind and compassionate, and being non-judgmental: I could be in their shoes but by the grace of God. People will know we are Christians by our love. No conditions. Only kindness.
But today that very same church community, that very same minister who was their pastor for decades (now retired) speaks of a nation of takers taking until there is no more to take. I was recently shocked by his comments. Today they will know we are Christians by our extreme conservatism, by how we take a stand against abortion, against homosexuality, and by how vigorously we defend marriage between one man and one woman. Love is seen as “liberal” and is now dramatically diminished along with the grace it freely affords.
You simply can not imagine my parents’ reaction when, nearly 30 years ago, they learned that I’m gay: me, their “perfect” Christian son who had always filled their lives with joy and pride. Frankly, their reactions surprised me. No, their reactions shocked me.
I thought my father would go ballistic. He didn’t. He sat silently for the entire nearly-2-hour conversation.
My mother, who I thought would be somewhat understanding, was more irate than I had ever seen her in my life. By the sheer force of her will, she was determined to force me to be straight immediately. After an hour and a half of failing to accomplish her mission, she angrily said to my father, “Well, Tommy, don’t just sit there. Say something!” She needed to recoup her strength for round two.
My father was always one to listen and think things through. Unlike my mother, he was slow to speak. When he did speak, the wise in the room knew to listen.
“I don’t understand it.” my father said. “I don’t understand it at all, and I suspect that being gay is probably wrong. But I don’t know for sure because I don’t understand being gay. What I do know is that you are my son, and I will always love you no matter what. And, as far as I’m concerned, that’s the end of the matter.” I was stupefied, and my mother was now livid with the two of us. Round two of her angry efforts to immediately fix me started.
Round two ended because of sheer exhaustion. One can not sustain that much emotional energy for very long. Here at the end of this horrible conversation was the crux of the entire issue for my mother: she demanded that I promise her I would never, ever tell any of our relatives or anyone in our hometown that I was gay. While I definitively refused to make that promise to her, I honored her wish for many years, until she began telling people herself.
Why All the Fuss?
To be certain, my mother had religious reasons for despising the fact that I am gay. But, while she might have disagreed with this statement, I sincerely believe the most significant reason she was completely and vigorously unaccepting of her gay son was her all-consuming fear of what people at church, the center of their lives, would think of her. She was very well known. She was highly regarded. Her presumed straight son was too. What would people think!? She knew the answer.
In many ways, my dear mother was suddenly living in the fear I had lived in for years as I tried to make myself straight. What would the people at church think? What would the people with whom I went to Christian school and Christian college think? What would basically everyone that knew me on this planet think of me? I knew what they would think. I knew what they would do. I knew what they would say, and, after all I had gone through trying to make myself straight, I could not bear to be further victimized by that “love the sinner; hate the sinful choice…” quackery. Nobody wakes up one morning and thinks, “Oh, wow! You know, it dawned on me this morning: I really want to be gay. I simply can’t wait. I’ve decided, starting today, I’m going to be gay! WooHoo!”
Gay people don’t struggle with homosexuality, the way the church inaccurately tries to characterize us. We struggle with the church’s lack of love, with the church’s bullying and hate speech. We struggle with the church promoting a broad religious culture that makes discrimination acceptable inside the church community and out. We struggle against the church untruthfully characterizing who we are, then politicizing and fundraising off of the fear they stoke surrounding that dishonest caricature. We struggle with church-sanctioned and promoted ostracization and being the cast out “other” rather than a child of God like everyone else. We struggle with the church stating we should be stoned–murdered!, like they did in the Bible. The church teaches us to loath ourselves simply because they loath us. (Oh, their leadership is very quick to deny this, but their actions belie their hollow words.) This is the stuff of our struggle. And now, my mother was afraid she, too, was going to be the object of this same, unprecedented level of hatefulness.
Time Heals All Wounds?
As the years passed my father wished aloud that I would find someone with whom I could settle down in a loving, committed relationship–a good Christian guy. “I just don’t want you to be alone. I want you to be happy.” That’s what he cared about the most: me. My father’s love for me was simple and pure, unencumbered by what anyone thought about him or me. How beautiful is that?!
My mother struggled, and that’s the mildest way one can say it. At one point I came within a heartbeat of permanently severing my relationship with my parents because of my mother. (The idea that I would never speak to my parents again was inconceivable to me until this hateful and outrageous outburst from my mother. I will not tolerate anyone treating me without dignity and respect–anyone.) I didn’t speak to them for many months because of her unspeakable, “godly,” hatefulness. But for my father’s kind, gentle, wise, and patient intervention…
A couple of years later, my father passed away. He didn’t survive open heart surgery. He never got to see his wish for me come true.
My mother was devastated at the loss of her husband and came to stay with me in Atlanta for several months. Her journey toward simple tolerance was slow, painfully slow. It was slow because of the church.
Mother went to church with me in Atlanta. I was a member of St. Mark United Methodist which had a membership of over 7,000 people, about 80% of whom were gay. She honestly, literally, didn’t believe these people sitting all around her at my church were gay–except for the fact the music was flawless. Thousands of gay people in church on a Sunday morning was an utterly inconceivable concept to her at the time.
One of the ministers, the Reverend Mary Lou Gilbert (a woman minister–another huge leap for my mother), for whom I will always have the greatest love and respect, sought my mother out and spent a tremendous amount of time with her while I was at work. She comforted her in her grief and had long conversations about having a gay child. But this all happened in Atlanta, where it was much safer for a Christian to have a gay son.
Some years later my mother met Steve, the love of my life. She was shocked that she really liked him, saying, “But, he’s so nice!” “Well for god’s sake mother, what did you think: I was going to hook up with some thug off the street?! Good grief! Who do you think I am?!”
Then shock of all shocks: my mother’s minister’s son, I’ll call him John, who was the music director at their large church, announced he was divorcing his wife and was gay. The entire church community was scandalized, and the pastor took a militant stand against homosexuality and against his own son.
Ironically, my mother had several conversations with John, who was understandably bitter about how his father had reacted. My mother spoke to John of her own journey and encouraged him to give his parents time. John confided to her that his father had said and done to him the most hateful things. She told him that she had done the same things to me, and that it takes time, time for someone of their age and religious training to come to terms with having a gay child.
At the end of July, 2015, my 79 year old mother became desperately ill with congestive heart failure and kidney failure. Her fragile health rapidly began to deteriorate, and her rebounds were growing weaker and weaker. I sped down to my hometown to be with her as her doctor, at the beginning of September, prescribed hospice care for her. Her body was exhausted. She was barely able to speak single words.
When she awoke, she managed to say the word “day.”
“What day is it?” I asked.
“Where are you?”
“You’re at the Haven.”
I told her I had come to see her and that Steve had canceled a business meeting in Washington D.C. and was on his way to see her, too.
“Yes, Steve is coming. He’ll be here at noon today. We can all have lunch together.”
“Yes. He is coming here.”
“Hair!” She said, pulling at her hair. I knew she had had a hair appointment scheduled, but I thought they had canceled it because she was physically too weak.
“I’m not sure, mother. I think they canceled the appointment. We’ll ask Becca [my sister] when she gets here. She will know. She’s on her way up here now.”
“Hair. Hair.” she kept repeating as she pulled at her hair. She then became very fidgety. I was afraid she was becoming agitated. However, she unearthed one of these ring-bell-for-service metallic bells on which she had actually been sleeping and began dinging it like mad. The nurse came running.
“You want a shower, Mrs. Tyson?” the nurse asked incredulously.
“Well, OK then. Let’s get you a shower!”
They took her off for a shower, and when she returned, the nurse said, “I don’t know what it was about that shower, but it perked her up amazingly. She hasn’t been this good for at least a week! She’s alert, talkative, wants to get dressed and get her hair done.” As they wheeled her by, I heard her telling the nurse, “Steve is coming to see me.” Head held up high, she had a big smile on her face. For some yet-unknown reason, Steve’s visit was a big deal to her.
Mother, reminded me of Lazarus, as she seemed to have all but risen from the dead. She was incredibly present and lucid, rather energetic and astonishingly talkative, and very, very happy – in fact, I would say she was thrilled. She was back with us, almost like her old self, if only for that morning and afternoon, which completely exhausted her.
As my sister was getting mother’s lunch there in the cafeteria, my mother was sitting across the table from Steve and me and asked to hold our hands. She looked at me and said, “Tim, you’re my son, and I love you. I’ve always loved you with all my heart–with all my heart, son. Never forget that.”
She turned to Steve, “Steve, I want you to know that I love you. I really, really do–with all my heart. You’re a part of this family, and I love you with all of my heart. It took me a long, long time, I know. And it was very, very hard for me, not because of you, but because of everything else. But I want you to know I love you with all of my heart. I do. And I’m so very, very thankful for everything you’ve done for me– very thankful for everything.” She spoke sincerely from her heart to ours. I was shocked and completely caught off guard by this most unexpected conversation.
No more unfinished business.
At this point my sister came up with mother’s lunch, and I said, “Let’s take a picture [shown below].” I was fighting as hard as I could to keep from just exploding into tears. This was the greatest gift my dying mother could have possibly given me: her simple love for me and for the man who fills my heart with love.
I had come to accept the fact that my mother was just incapable of getting past what people had told her God thought about me and my husband. I had come to accept the fact that she would always worry about what her “godly” friends would think and say about her because she had raised a gay son. Through the years the weight of accepting her limitations didn’t really seem too heavy any more–until suddenly, unexpectedly, that weight melted away in this instant. This was the most freeing experience of my entire life.
The next day, Thursday, my mother went into hospice care. Several times, while she could still manage to speak, I heard her repeatedly and slowly list the names of her children and her pets. My husband, Steve, always led that list. I suspect she was holding close that which was most precious to her heart. On a beautiful Sunday afternoon I held my mother’s hand as she peacefully left this world.
Why Share This?
Most who read this probably do not know me and don’t know that I am deeply shy and very quiet–taking more after my father. I am a very, very private person. Sharing these profoundly personal moments of my life is no small matter for me. Only one reason could possibly compel me to share these intimate details: I want to encourage Christian moms and dads to stop diminishing grace. Stop diminishing love. “They will know we are Christians by our love”–nothing else. Don’t wait until you’re merely hours away from death. Work the hard work of love now! Everything else, everything else is unimportant.
My parents did the very best they could do in every aspect of their lives, including dealing with having a gay son and son-in-law. Tragically and inexcusably they had to do this without the loving, full, unconditional embrace of their church community, which instead busies itself hating marriage equality and thereby actively hurting gay people and their parents. I accept, even embrace that my mother and daddy did their very best. We all did. But I’m asking other moms and dads to do a better job, and do it in less time than it took them. Groups and organizations, yes, even affirming Christian ones, are available to support you in kindness and sensitivity.
That good people have to struggle for decades to overcome the anguish and heartache of a religious ideology that diminishes love and grace in order to love “with all my heart, with all my heart” speaks directly to how flawed and failed fundamentalist religious dogma is. Dogma is never more important than people. That hate-filled dogma hurt my family, hurting my precious mother the most. That dogma and the people that espouse it were not there holding my mother’s hand as she left this earth; her gay son was.
Christian moms and dads, I sincerely doubt that hatred and bigotry are the natural shape of your heart. I beg you to let go of the hateful nonsense that has replaced simple love. When it comes to your children, nothing is more important than loving them with all of your heart, with all of your heart. And, just as you would with your straight children, love, with all your heart, the person that fills your gay child’s heart with love. Give all of your children the priceless gift my Christian parents gave me.
Nothing, simply nothing, is more transformational than simple love. Full stop.