04 August 2008

At the Water Table

Reflection on Pride March 2008
Rev. Bob Brashear
West-Park Presbyterian Church, NYC

I come to the Pride March from one step beyond...as an ally, friend. I come to the First Presbyterian Church at 5th and 12th in the Village because of the water table there where we give cups of cold water to hot marchers. Because the table is named for Evelyn Davidson, the wife of Bob Davidson, former pastor of the church I now serve.

Bob led our church to be the first More Light Church...the first church of any mainline denomination to openly welcome lgbt folks at every level of leadership thirty years ago. One of his greater moments was when he ran for Moderator of the Presbyterian Church, its highest elected position. A doctor of the law, make that a Presbyterian elder, seeking to test him, rose to ask a question. “Rev. Davidson,” he said, “there is a rumor that one of your daughters is a lesbian, what do you say to that?” And Bob immediately replied, “Oh no, that’s not a rumor...that’s a fact. And her mother and I are proud of her and completely support her...and all of her brothers and sisters.” Davidson won the election proving what so many candidates have failed to realize...that to the average commissioner, openness, directness and honesty are more important than agreement. We’d rather know where you are and disagree than to have someone in there who will bend which ever way the wind blows. Those who seek to please everyone can never lead anyone.

Evelyn believed that the church was responsible for much of the hostility directed at lgbt folk. That the church had caused much hurt and pain. And that gay people needed to see a different face of the church. So she came up with the idea of the water table, to give a “cup of cold water”..in “Jesus’ name” to give welcome and refreshment to all who would pass by.

I see Charlie Mitchell at the table, once a volunteer Parish Associate at West-Park. Well past retirement age, but still filling cup after cup of cold water. I see Jon Walton, pastor of First Church, in his clerical black complete with collar and a red baseball hat with the Presbyterian seal on it wading purposefully into the crowd to pass out the water. I’m more reserved, stand a little further back, looking into faces to see who might be thirsty, then stepping forward. With each word of thanks that follows a cup, a moment of connection.

There are three young men standing in front of the table. One in a pelt of some kind, (where’s PETA?), one in a loin cloth and one with only a strategically placed cluster of green leaves. What they represented, I don’t know, but many marchers stepped out of line to pose for photos with them.

I remember the first year I did this, my whole family with me. My younger boys were, well, unprepared for some of the more overtly sexual displays of the day. Later that night, we sat on the floor with our friends Judy and Diane and their daughter Elana, a schoolmate of my son Nate. Finally one of them worked up enough courage to say, “But I don’t understand why...” and proceeded to describe what had upset him. Judy looked him straight in the eye aid, “ Well, there are some things about gay men I don’t understand either.”

The only way I can begin to understand it, from one step away, is that if society has forced on you an identity that focuses on only one aspect of your life, your affectional orientation, your sexuality, then the most subversive act in response is to take that, pump up the volume and put it right in their faces. Like sixties long hair or rap music, a performance art of protest.

I enjoy the more mainline contingents...the PFLAG group of courageous parents and friends who loved their children and opened the way to safe space for so many others, the SAGE group fighting for health and wholeness for Senior citizen gays in a young person’s world. And then the Lavender Light float with soul shaking gospel music flowing forth in a mighty stream.

I’m most of all glad that I’ve got here in time for the Latin groups. First the Peruvians in a cascading explosion of feathers and gold and color in profusion, ancient native costumes and gilded bodies. A procession fine enough for even the great Inca, Atahualpa himself. I wondered if maybe gay folk may have had a special role in that culture.

Then the Argentines, cosmopolitan and Euro. There’s a late model black Cadillac convertible and there on the rear, the very living image of Eva Peron. Voluptuous, graceful, black flowing gown, blonde hair pulled back, striking her iconic poses, playing to the crowd. It could have been Eva herself.

And then the Brazilians in a flowing samba stream. Some in soccer regalia from their national team, many more in full out carnival costume, the samba line behind keeping the rhythm rolling. Who were men, who were women. Who could tell? Who could care?

I think about what it means to fully embody a culture that is essential to who you are and at the same time know that the same culture may well want to keep you out. I remember the Latin women I’ve married over the years, often one Pentecostal, one Catholic. Drawn to West-Park by its dual Latino and More Light reputation. Feeling alienated from the church that shaped them, a culture that fills them and rejects them and even a community that often seems dominated by white professional class people. And how sad I have felt that despite the welcome my church gives that sooner or later I would have to say that our denomination is no more inclusive than theirs.

Thunder booms. A storm is coming soon. I know that my friends from Presbyterian Welcome are still down the line. That my Elder Jim is on the street or on the float. Along with too many others to name. That over the years, some of my members have come to safely test out a new identification, others to show solidarity and support and others just to celebrate being. And that this year, even as the rain begins to pour down, there is even more to celebrate. Our General Assembly has just once again voted to send to its Presbyteries for ratification the deletion of any constitutional language that would bar lgbt folk from full participation in ordained leadership. Maybe the thirds time’s a charm.

As for me, I’m proud to follow in the line of a courageous cloud of witnesses that stretches back 30 years. Saturday, at the Mets-Yankees subway series, a storm broke out, then a bright rainbow appeared over the rising new ball park beyond the outfield wall.. My son Dan turned to me and said, “Just the right weekend for a rainbow, huh dad?” Maybe this year...make that, may this be the year....

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