Saturday, April 09, 2005

good folks

Today is my father's 54th birthday.

My father grew up in the Deep South, the squirrel-huntin', drawl-talkin', church goin' son of Southern Baptist parents who had grown up, in their turn, on the farmlands of rural, Jim Crow-lovin' Mississippi.

My father is not going out for dinner, or having friends over, or engaging in any other traditional birthday festivities tonight. He's in a little room in the basement of an Episcopal church in downtown Lowell instead, a charter member in a newly founded support group for gay and lesbian people and the people who care about them.

No one in my father's family is gay, and, as far as I know, neither are any of his friends.

My father was trained as a Southern Baptist preacher. He ministered in the banjo-dueling highlands of east Tennessee, and in the buckle of the bible belt in Memphis. The same churches that today are proclaiming that George W. Bush is the right hand of God, the same congregations who won't sleep soundly at night until women's rights are blown back to the dark ages and marriage is legally limited to a religious and binding contract between a man and a woman.

At some point in my early childhood, my father left the church of his childhood, the church of his parents and their parents before them. He could no longer accept the intolerance that ran through its bylaws like kudzu runs through a volkswagen.

Today, my father has formed an alliance with another religious expatriate, a Cuban-American former Catholic priest who left his own church for much the same reasons my father left his. They both share a respect for the spirit, not the letter, of church law, and they both have a healthy disregard for any authority that dictates otherwise. Together, this priest and my father have concocted a plan that will allow gay and lesbian couples to be legally married in the Episcopal church; my father with his still-valid minister's license will perform the ceremony, and the priest will be on hand to bless the marriage instants after it takes place.

And tonight, my father, with his irascible southern drawl fully intact, is attending a gay and lesbian support group for no other reason than that he was invited by a friend from the congregation. In downtown Lowell, no less - a city infamous for its blue collar past and gang-ridden present. I can picture him there - him and my mother both - two middle-aged, slightly-out-of-place people, people you'd expect to see snapping photos from the Swan Boats, tourist maps in their pockets and Red Sox slogans plastered across their newly purchased t-shirts and visors. And they are those people. But they're something more than that, too.

And in an age where Christianity has become almost synonymous with conservatism, and empty-nesters are expected to buy luxury SUVs and settle down with a spoiled lap dog or two, my dad is out there quietly making a difference, holding up a faint little light of tolerance and love in otherwise dark times.

I'm so lucky to live in that light. And I know that the best present I can give my father is to tend my own candle, to share the lessons of generosity of spirit that I've learned from him over all these years.

Happy Birthday, Dad.


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