For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants. They will spring up like grass in a meadow, like poplar trees by flowing streams. One will say, ‘I belong to the Lord’; another will call himself by the name of Jacob; still another will write on his hand, ‘The Lord’s,’ and will take the name Israel.
— Isaiah 44:3-5
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
To him who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it.
— Revelation 2:17
One of the things that I was not prepared for as a single gay man was the multitude of scraps of paper with names and phone numbers I would accumulate. Sometimes someone will have an honest-to-goodness business card but often times names and numbers are scribbled on edges of newspapers, post-it notes, grocery sacks, or bar napkins and end up in a drawer by the phone. Sometimes those names and numbers turn into friends or dates, but often times they turn into scraps of paper. I will run across a name and number and can’t place it for the life of me. I hesitate to throw it away because it might be Mr. Right or he might be Mr. Right’s roommate.
I was recently asked to return a piece of paper; it wasn’t a scrap by any stretch of the imagination. It was more of a legal document. It was my certificate of ordination. It was inevitable that the Church of the Nazarene would discover I was now living as an openly gay man. I hadn’t attempted to hide my coming out from them. It is just that once that piece of paper is gone … it is gone.
I remember my ordination well. I was Associate Pastor at Westchester Church of the Nazarene in Los Angeles, California. In celebration of my ordination the church had raised money for a gift … two radial tires for my station wagon and more auspiciously money to have a suit tailor-made in Beverly Hills. Because of my size and build buying a suit off the rack was impossible. I remember the great excitement I felt as I drove into Beverly Hills and the tailor shop and looked at bolts of fabric that might become my suit. I chose a black material with a maroon pinstripe. Within a few weeks that bolt of material became a three-piece suit. Within a few weeks later I was kneeling at a large church in Pasadena, California surrounded by hundreds of fellow pastors laying their hands on me and the massive hands of General Superintendent Eugene Stowe directly on my head. I can’t remember when the words were said in the service, but at some point the ordinands were instructed that if at any point our lives did not match our call in “holiness and purity” we would be asked to return the certificate of ordination.
In some ways I had wanted my outing as a gay man and the returning of that piece of paper to be more dramatic. I had wanted some form of trial in which an ecclesiastical Perry Mason would put me on the stand and with pointed finger ask, “Is it true Rev. Jenkins that you are a … homo-sex-ual? And is it also true that you have ‘been with a man?’” I would pause and Perry would turn with a ferocity and bellow, “Just answer the question, Rev. Jenkins! HAVE …. YOU … BEEN … WITH A MAN?”
It was not even close to drama. It was a polite letter expressing an appropriate amount of pastoral care and concern. I debated what approach to take in returning the piece of paper. Should I burn it and return the ashes? Should I tear it into smaller pieces of paper? I turned to the community of gay men I meet with each week for study and prayer. We arrived at the solution that each of them would write a note on the back of the certificate telling in some way how I had been a pastor to them as gay Christian men. Once they had written their comments, I folded the vellum piece of paper and sent it back. I am keeping the suit, however.
Many people have asked me if I will ever return to pastoral ministry in a denomination that ordains openly gay clergy. I think it is too early to tell. I have not preached for over six months. I have agreed to preach for Wes Taylor in Tualatin in August. I am a little apprehensive about it. I assume it is like riding a bicycle … something you don’t forget.
Three years ago, when I had just begun the process of coming out to myself, but was still very much in the closet personally and professionally, the subject of homosexuality came up in a Bible study. Following the study a woman came up to me very agitated, “Obviously we have to let them attend church. But we don’t have to let them do anything like teach Sunday School do we?” My heart skipped a beat. I looked at her with deep pastoral concern and said, “This is a complicated issue perhaps we could discuss it at another time?” But what I wanted to say was, “What if the person who just led this Bible study was gay? What if he was the one who preached you sermons each Sunday? What if he was the one who came and prayed at your hospital bed? What if the one who broke the bread and poured the wine for communion was gay? What if I that person were me, would it make a difference?”
In December of 1998 my mother died of complications due to diabetes. In January 1999 a woman from Tigard went into hospice care for ovarian cancer. I had paid her a few visits the previous year when she was undergoing the original diagnosis. She was always so cheerful and appreciative of my brief calls. But now I was visiting her almost every day. One day, shortly after being admitted to hospice, she took my hand and said, “David, this must be awfully hard for you to visit me like this so soon after losing your mother.” I assured her that it wasn’t. Each day she began lose a little bit more strength and a little bit more awareness, till finally she was unaware and unresponsive to my visits. But I continued to go and sit by her bedside and hold her hand. Feeling like I should “do” something I lit upon a plan. I would sit by her bed and take a hymnal and sing her hymns.
One time during the hymn singing her eyes opened and she smiled a smile of recognition and squeezed my hand. A few days later she died. I conducted her funeral and I wore the hand-tailored suit from Beverly Hills.
A piece of paper had permitted me to conduct weddings and funerals, it had allowed me serve the sacrament of communion. That piece of paper is now gone. I guess what I have not determined yet is if the desire to be a pastor is also gone.
To be continued …
My father was a golfer and a bad dresser. Every morning, except Sunday, he would rise at 5:30 AM to go to the La Grande Municipal Golf Course. Golf in La Grande was something that wealthy people did … doctors, lawyers, teachers, and dentists … not barbers. I think that I had heard rumors that my father was only allowed to play golf early in the morning so as to not clash with the fashion consciousness of the other golfers.
At 5:30 AM most mornings during my adolescence I was sleeping. I had no desire to golf. So it was quite alarming when my mother shouted up the stairs, “Your father is having a heart attack, we are going to the hospital.” The rest of the morning became a blur of hazy memory.
At the hospital the whole story came out. On the golf course my father began experiencing chest pains. Rather than call an ambulance, he loaded his golf clubs back into the station wagon and drove home to tell my mother he was having a heart attack. My mother, who did not drive, was not a good choice to share this information with. So he now had to drive himself to the hospital and deal with my hysterical mother.
I would not have been as frightened and concerned about my father’s heart attack, were it not for the fact that my friend Molly Deatherage’s father, who was a dentist and snappy dresser, had died of a heart attack only months earlier. He was about the same age as my father.
In the midst of this touch-and-go chaos was our pastor. He comforted my mother. He comforted my father’s friends, and he comforted me. He had a piece of paper that allowed him to do so, I’m sure of it.