Where Joy and Pain Meet In Living Color

June 24, 2012

by Dan Shenk

One cold winter evening quite awhile back, I had the honor of meeting with the Ordination Committee of the Metropolitan Association of the American Baptist Church. The purpose of the meeting was to examine my qualifications to become an American Baptist minister. I was sure I’d covered all the bases, and I was looking forward to the meeting. I remember that the meeting started out warm and friendly, just as I expected. Members of the Committee were intrigued by my spiritual journey which included being born and raised, up until the age of sixteen, in Tanzania, East Africa, the son of Mennonite missionaries. Even in New York City, how often does one run into someone from a country called Tanzania who is a white African Mennonite! So for the first part of the session I experienced myself treated almost like some rare exotic creature.

Then the tone of the meeting suddenly changed. One of the committee members asked me if I’d ever been baptized. “Why yes, of course,” I said. - I had been baptized by my Father around the age of eleven in a ritual that consisted of having water sprinkled on my head.

But the response to this new piece of information was one of deep doubt and concern.

“You mean you weren’t baptized by immersion!”

“Well, no, I wasn’t. Still, I was baptized at Kisaka Mennonite Church, in Tanzania. Although the baptism was by sprinkling, not immersion, I had been old enough to more-or-less understand what I was doing. Shouldn’t that count?”

Well, the committee wasn’t so sure about that.

“We don’t doubt that you are sincere,” They said, “But being baptized by immersion is an integral component of Baptist practice. Therefore it is very important for you to be baptized by immersion because you are about to become part of this new spiritual family. This is not something to be taken lightly!”

I remember leaving that meeting feeling angry and fearful. “New Spiritual Family!? – Going back to the age of sixteen, when I was brought to the United States, I had quickly come to realize that the Mennonite world I was so suddenly thrown into was not going to give me room to feel, think, or tell my full story which, by that time, included the fact that I was gay.

And I had basically accepted that. - Accepted the fact that a whole component of my life would have to be kept out of any official rendering of “My Spiritual Journey.” This predicament had brought me into a situation that most LGBTQ people can fully identify with. – Simply, there have been times when we’ve left out a basic, central aspect of our true stories simply in order to survive.

But there is a price we pay when we do this. In my case it meant that in my entire future ministry as an American Baptist minister, I would have to keep an important component about myself a secret. – And of course this caused deep pain. - Pain because for me this meant that right at the heart of what Baptists consider to be their most sacred ritual of fellowship and inclusion; A real, living ritual meant to provide outward, incontrovertible evidence that I was now part of the familial warmth of new spiritual family – Yes, right at the heart of this ritual would be the cold fact that I had a secret. A secret that if ever found out might even cause me to be excommunicated!

For me, this kind of hiding and tiptoeing around people who have the power to make decisions about my life puts me into a state of self-loathing. - Self-loathing because hiding who I am seems cowardly, and is so completely opposite from the life of freedom and aliveness that I had started out with And now here I was, a grown, adult man who’d already lived a little, being reduced to going around acting apologetic for his life!

A favorite author of mine, Frederick Buechner, says that there are several distinct ways in which people deal with emotional pain: a) The first way, he says, is to attempt to forget the pain. To hide it, to cover it over, to pretend that its not there, because it’s too unsettling to remember. So keep the pain hidden even from yourself. - Here addictive behavior can often be a way that people use to anesthetize themselves against feeling the pain.

b) Another thing you can do with your pain is to use it to win sympathy. A sob story is a story you tell hoping that people will sob with you; Sort of an end in itself, a way almost of giving yourself a kind of stature in the eyes of the world as a suffering one.

c) Another way, Buechner says, of dealing with emotional pain is to use it as an excuse for failure - "If only I’d gotten the breaks; If only those bad things hadn't happened, who knows where I might have been today."

d) Another great temptation about pain is to allow yourself to become embittered and trapped by it. Buechner says the classic example of this is the tragic character of Miss Haversham in Charles Dickens's novel, “Great Expectations”. She was deserted by her bridegroom on her wedding day. He never showed up. She spent the rest of her days sitting in the room where the great reception was to have been, her wedding cake moldering, her dress long since turned to rags, imprisoned in a sadness that she simply never could escape. - All of these are options for dealing with pain!

But there is also another way which is a redemptive way to deal with your pain. And that way is to be a good steward of your pain! What does that mean? Beuchner says that it means, before anything else, to admit to your pain. Stay in touch with it. Keep in touch with it because it is at those moments of pain that we are most open to the pain of other people. – Keep in touch with those sad times because it is then that you can be most aware of your own powerlessness, crushed in a way by what is happening to you, but also most aware of God's power to pull you through it, to be with you in it. Keeping in touch with your pain, means being true to who in your depths you have it in you to be -- depths of pain and also, in a way, depths of joy, because they both come from the same place.

Today I think nothing quite captures such a movement away from self-loathing toward being a good steward of pain, than the recent documentary by Macky Alston about the ordination of Gene Robinson, Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire. It is the dramatic story of one individual’s journey toward discovering that living freely often does not mean living without pain! For Bishop Robinson it means the opposite of that. For him, it means integrating his pain into the rest of his life, which results in true empowerment!

Some days after meeting with the Ordination Committee, Howard Moody said something that proved helpful: He said, “Now might be a good time to take a look at yourself, and to ask yourself where you want to go today. What could baptism symbolize for you right now if you’d go through with it?”

The best I could come up with on that one was to acknowledge that I was, of course, joining a new community, just as the Ordination Committee had said. But that thought was not sufficient to lift the weight of self-loathing I felt and with it the conviction that I was only going to succeed in embarrassing myself in front of my friends. – After all, baptism was not going to change my sexual orientation! So I would still be living with that secret. – So days before my baptism I withdrew emotionally from all my friends and on Saturday afternoon, the day before the baptism, I took a long, solitary walk around the lake at the Retreat Center. Looking back on it I now see the irony of the situation in that most of my friends probably thought I was in some blissed out state of fellowship with God, when in fact all I really wanted was just to die!

On the morning of the day I was baptized I woke up with a headache, but the day was bright, warm, and sunny. After the service in the lodge, Howard put his arm around me and together we walked down to the pond while everyone else followed behind. Then something unexpected happened that I had not imagined happening. I stopped fighting, and then I was in tears. I remember praying, “Let it be whatever it’s going to be, even if all I end up carrying with me about this day is the memory of crying, getting wet, and having a headache. – But no matter what, just let it be!”

I remember that everyone sang something, and then Howard and I waded out into the water together. Then he said something to the point that seemed to pull the loose ends together for me, [But later when Harry Koutoukas asked me what he’d said, I couldn’t remember a word.] – The last thing I saw before Howard put me under were two dragon-flies, wings the color of rainbows, dancing above the water right in front of me. And then when I came up, I was laughing with a sense of relief. But what happened next was a complete surprise. I had not even imagined it. There is no other way to describe it except to say, quite honestly, that in my entire life since early adolescence, I had not experienced such an out-pouring of unqualified love. And then at one point in the midst of that glorious mixture of embraces and sun, water, and dragon-flies and Howard and Emily Jean bringing me towels, Michael Kelly came up and, hugging me closely with a full body hug, he said very clearly right in my ear, “Are you wearing any underwear?”

So on that sacred occasion of my baptism into the Baptist Fellowship of Believers, a sense of levity was added to my sadness, along with the hardening of a certain part of my body which sealed my identity as a sexual being!

More recently in my faith journey, I’ve tried to reserve some time in my life – preferably on a weekly basis – when I can reflect on where I’m at in the whole ongoing process of having stewardship over my pain. Right now that place for me happens to be with the Excess Anonymous Group that meets here at Judson Monday evenings.

From time to time I do some skimpy journaling and while I was preparing for today, I went back to a few things I’d jotted down way back over the time of my baptism. And I see that some things were happening to me then that continued to push me in the direction of being a better steward of my pain. – Over this time, although not yet ordained, I was none-the-less serving as the Protestant Chaplain of the Correctional Institution for men on Riker’s Island, one of the larger institutions with close to three-thousand men incarcerated. Late one evening, just as I was getting ready to go home, the tour commander in charge asked me to deliver a death notice to the next of kin of a prisoner, whom I’ll call David, who’d died of HIV/AIDS. In accordance with the guidelines set by the Department of Correction, two officers were assigned to accompany me in a Department of Correction vehicle.

After several hours of searching we finally located the address, a run-down tenement building in the upper reaches of Manhattan, with abandoned buildings on both sides. The officers accompanying me had a Department of Corrections photo and they showed it to the residents on the first floor asking everyone if they’d “seen this homo going in and out of the building.” We were finally directed to the top floor where, after much pounding on the door, we finally woke up a man who turned out not to be a blood relative, but someone that David had lived with on and off for ten years.

As the officers and I stood there in a garishly lit kitchen listening to David’s companion pour out his grief and frustration about David’s death and hearing him talk about the highs and lows of the relationship they’d shared, it gradually dawned on me that what was happening was the closest thing to a Memorial Service that David would have.

David, it turned out had severed all his ties with his family years before and I saw that his partner was too poor to afford a burial. David would therefore almost certainly be buried in Potter’s Field on Hart Island. With that realization came a sense of urgency about the moment. Suddenly just then I knew that for David’s lover not to feel lonely and abandoned, it was important for me to share about myself. So I told David’s partner, along with the officers standing there, that I, too, had lost someone I’d loved deeply who’d died from HIV/AIDS.

Later, after we’d prayed together, as we descended the steps going back to the street, the officers were silent. I knew that we’d shared a sacred experience. The door had opened for us to feel and experience both David and his partner as living, breathing, feeling men who’d loved each other, and I had opened up and used my pain as a way to embrace David’s partner. It had been one of those “Gate to God,” moments. For the whole, long drive back to Riker’s there was no more talk coming from the officers about the “homo.”

When I left the Department of Corrections, to become a chaplain at Bailey House, Al Carmines delivered the sermon at my installation and said a few things that I’ve never forgotten. He said:  

The comfort of the Holy God is a comfort that stretches down into your gizzard and strokes that quintessential part of you until it is akin to pain. Bessie Smith sings in her blues about a man putting a hurting on her. Let me tell you of a God who will put a comforting on you until you won’t go into a trance of selfish uppies’ bliss. O no! - - - God comforts us to the place where joy and pain meet in living color.

In other words – in this frame of time – God does not comfort us into [ease]. Oh no! God comforts us into life. And whether we are in prison or have AIDS, - - - -or we are living out of a desperate bereavement – this God does not comfort us out of those things. No! This God doesn’t take the heartache away – God aims straight for the YOU behind the heartache that strokes that YOU into life once more.

I believe that we are made ready for “Gate to God” moments in a multitude of different ways. Sometimes we are made ready when we feel a longing for deeper fellowship. - A feeling, sometimes subtle and sometimes not so subtle, that we want to be more deeply connected with others.

Perhaps on this Day of Pride we have a yearning to be comforted by God’s kind of comfort. We want to be rid of fears and feelings of inferiority that may be preventing us from having a full sense of attunement with a larger fellowship. So today may be a “Gate to God” moment for each one of us as God aims straight for the You behind the heartache of each one of us and strokes us into life once more!

- Amen!




55 Washington Square South New York, NY 10012 | phone: 212-477-0351 | fax: 212-995-0844