I applied to school, and I got in. Because of the way that the financial aid worked out, I have to start classes later than I planned — but I am in.
I’m a church elder. All of my life, I have been searching for a faith community where my vision of having a family includes kids, a dog, a cat, a white picket fence and only the anomaly that my spouse is another man, and now I have found it: the perfect meeting of my Catholic upbringing and a progressive approach to the reverence of traditional Christian values.
Life has been busy. Constructing these never-to-be-sents in the manner one would apply to novels, short stories, and better epistles has been an unfortunately taxing priority in the face of more tangible concerns — though I am still drawn to writing you whether I scale the heights of life or descend into its shadowy valleys. Every time it crosses my fancy to write a letter to Linc, there is some other checklist item to cross off or some actual relationship that requires tending. I feel like the year got off to a fast start — I was filling out paperwork, making plans, setting goals and then when the papers were at last filled, the plans made and the goals set, the bigger challenge yet remained: waiting. Minutiae. Details. Stuff of life. Life, itself.
I think people are creatures of glamour. What we inherited from our ancestors in the scope of decisions about fighting disease, fending off large prey, and migrating toward better resources has today become want of drama and consequences that are shiny. Sometimes I wonder if that poor Lindsay Lohan enjoys constantly getting in trouble because there exists a fix that she can’t get anywhere else (besides booze and drugs — oh wait, she’s been accused of them, too).
Even when we are not busy, we are planning to be busy. This has actually been a lightweight week but much of it was spent planning the near future. I’ve found that as I get older and all my closest friends remain close yet steadily grow into their own independent adult lives, it’s more and more challenging to get together. Lately I have reminisced about those younger college days where one phone call would lead to the word of mouth that would result in a gathering for dinner at some diner or a trip to the movies — those days are gone. I am not exactly longing to go back — there is beauty in forward movement, messy as it is — I have spent a considerable and private component of my busy public life looking back as a way to relieve the stress of now.
Did you know that in a few days we will be Springing Forward? The time change hadn’t even occurred to me until someone brought it up. So much about the time that’s in front of me right now is always changing that I can barely keep up with this intangible notion of Daylight Savings — what, exactly, is it saving? It’s the same daylight, the same little squares on the calendar.
There is certainly beauty in forward movement — let’s enjoy the ride. Growth is not really about the end result as much as it has to do with how it happened. A tree that bears fruit didn’t magically appear out of nowhere, tall and voluminous, with succulent sustenance. It took time to grow. There may have even been a point where it didn’t look like it was going to turn green, much less ever bear fruit. Maybe it had go endure seasons without rain. Maybe the soil was not good for a long time. We don’t know. All we see is the tree, and how beautiful it is, and the yummy apples to eat.
I may be scheduling my life like a mad man but there are smaller details that contribute to life just as importantly. Those details don’t make it onto the calendar but they are remain vital components of this wonderful and expansive life. I still like writing to you, Linc.
What’s an ordination? Am I becoming a minister? No, but that’s what Spencer hilariously said to me when I invited her to come to this afternoon’s church service. It was a cute reaction. I said to her that, no, it’s nothing like that. But it is a big deal, at least to me.
As a Catholic, I don’t understand a lot of this Presbyterian stuff, and it would probably be a good thing if I did since the church that I have been attending since the summer of 2011 is in fact Presbyterian. Fortunately even though they identify with the denomination and share many of its values for the most part my church reaches across all denominations and even all faiths; I would say that its only doctrine is that it is progressive. Where Jesus asked us to be kind to one another, humanity’s other deceptively simplistic imperative is to behave in the present in such a manner that we have a solid future. We’re pretty bad at doing both but that’s why I think it’s important to have faith.
To my understanding, a church in the Presbyterian denomination ideally has a lay governing board of some kind. Now, I am immature, so when I say “lay,” immediately I conjure up all the things you and I could do for at least eighteen years of spicy marriage; in this case, however, “lay” means regular ol’ churchgoers. The pastor is the official head of the church but in Presbyterian practice the churchgoers are also allowed access to some of the same leadership privileges in accordance with a democratic philosophy. The criteria for these selected churchgoers is simple: they have to have been attending the church for a little while, and they have to be “members.” To become a member, you have to take a class, which I did and wrote about a few never-to-be-sents ago. I know that this is all starting to sound dangerously similar to Scientology, but just to let you know, our church is not the only one that looks for membership. Many years ago, I used to regularly attend another church that would often solicit the same thing of its congregants. This seems to be fairly common practice among Christian churches — in fact, I think that even though Pop and Ma had attended the same church all of their lives they only recently became official parishioners — but my church doesn’t have membership quotas or anything like that. We’re just happy if you show up; in addition to being progressive, we’re also a rather mellow bunch.
When the pastor asked me if I wanted to take a membership class, it was something I had to think about really hard. By that point I’d already been attending that church regularly but it would be a whole new plane of belief to formally acknowledge my alignment with them — like, would it be a slap in the face to my Catholic upbringing? After about a week or so of reflection over this and many other matters I decided that there could be room for all of the above. Some time shortly after I became a member along with a handful of others, the pastor again reached out to me, this time about being an “elder,” a funny but traditional title for a layperson with leadership function.
The timing for all of this has been interesting. When I was still thinking about going to back to school, and thus also considering a radical career change from my current bookstore job, one of the things that I would think to myself in this literal wording was: I am ready for leadership. It was a fascinating and scary presumption to have reached especially after so many years of avoiding leadership because I didn’t think I was ready or would ever be ready. Even in my professional life, I have always billed myself as a helper. When I am asked the inevitable interview question about how I can contribute to an organization, I always talk up my willingness to help; never have I said that I am ready to lead anyone or any project. In very many ways I am still an amateur and even if I ever do attain some kind of leadership status I don’t think I will ever consider myself one — after all, I still have trouble thinking of myself as an adult even though I am of age and am dealing with all the commensurate responsibilities and troubles. Just look at what happened on Friday. I’m not yet ready for the big show.
But I’m ready. There gets to be a time when just being the assistant, the clerk, the paper pusher and the guy you can always count on is great and yet still not enough — there’s room for both, and there’s room for more. I don’t think I’m being greedy or am reaching for too much. I think my twenties, and even my young life before, were a good stretch of time to think about these things and to also accumulate important experiences even if many of those experiences were the result of poor choices and hard lessons. I am where I am and even if I don’t actually get to hold whatever it is that I am now reaching for I can always say that I tried.
As for the fact of no one coming to my ordination today (just to remind you, as I have mentioned this in another never-to-be-sent but I feel it necessary to repeat, it is not just me who is being voted into the leadership body but two other great church friends as well) that was not for lack of trying. I sent everyone an e-mail in which I tried to explain just what ordination is all about, and why this means so much to me. Besides Spencer’s confusion about the word “ordination,” Ray also responded to me not by e-mail but by text message; in it, he asked me if I wanted to grab an early dinner with him and Wolfie in Oakland at 4pm today. I had to stare at the text message for a few moments to contain my bewilderment, as church starts every Sunday at 5:30, and I had indicated in my e-mail that I should be there at 5 today because it was a special occasion. Either he did not read my e-mail or he just forgot; one benefit of communication not in real time is that there is just enough time to compose one’s self. I took a breath and typed out, Wish I could but I’m being ordained. Have fun though!
It is all right — no really, it’s okay. It’s okay because I know that this is My Own Thing. You know what I mean? My faith is something that I have had to necessarily compartmentalize and I am okay with that. This is for me. But I guess what also gets me is that I feel like I would be there for my friends if something special were happening to them even if it wasn’t My Thing. I just keep thinking of bad movies I’ve sat through all in the name of hanging out. A part of me wants to perhaps whine that I have given a lot of my time and myself and in return no one is coming to my ordination, woe is me, woe is me — and yet, no. And yet, it’s okay. Really.
There is only one friend whom I know would be there in a heartbeat because we share the same passion for our faith — but Mary is all the way in New York, and anyway, even if she still lived here in San Francisco, I can already picture her saying, “Joseph, I love you, but this is your thing.” Perhaps it is adulthood and perhaps it is because of age, because one gets to be alive for so long that they are comfortable with all of the quirks and mannerisms of being alive, but the part of me that feels lonely about this chain of events also readily accepts it, personalizes it, and makes it truly my own.
Each Sunday after service has concluded, the congregation sits around for a final few minutes to talk about what is happening in our lives. This is a time for prayer requests, where we lift up to each other — and God — the good news that we have been blessed with or the concerns for which we need extra help and guidance, spiritual or otherwise. Most times, someone has taken ill and needs prayer for recovery. There is an unspoken directive that one can’t get too personal when voicing a prayer request. For today’s service, I have spent the past week not merely envisioning how I will look standing up in front of everyone for ordination (I am still in disbelief that I have managed to dupe these poor saps into thinking I’m a good Christian, hah) but also rehearsing a certain prayer request that I want to make. I have decided that I will not publicly announce it at the end of service, and that even if I still want that request to be lifted in prayer, I will likely, if at all, do it privately by writing it down and slipping it into the collection basket. Here, Linc, is what I rehearsed:
I’m lonely. It is no specialty to be a single gay man in San Francisco, and even though I am blessed to have many friends, privately I yearn for the company of someone else. It’s the little things that I want: after a long day at work, I want to come home to someone who isn’t my best friend and her two cats, even though I love her and I love the cats, but it’s just not the same. I want to make a phone call and make a stupid complaint about some trivial issue in life that I still need to voice to someone, and that someone is him. I want to hold his hand when I’m walking through the park. I want to tell him goodbye before I go to work and to ask him what’s wrong when he looks bothered. But I don’t know where he is. I don’t know if he will ever come. I seem to be ready for so much else in life but even though I can fill out a school application, have a great conversation with my mom, or juggle a million things at work the one thing that I can see clearly is the one thing to which I am nowhere near. I do not understand how my life can be so full and yet feel so empty. I have tried online dating. I have tried regular dating, whatever that is. I’ve dated. I feel like I’ve done all I can. Do you realize that if I have a kid next year I will be almost fifty when he has his sweet sixteen? That I actually will be in my fifties when he is in college? I don’t want to raise a child alone. Men don’t have biological clocks but I hear the ticking anyway and it is deafening. I need my husband but he’s still not here. This prayer request has gone on a little long, and I’ve rambled a little, but you know what I mean. I’m waiting and it’s starting to hurt, a lot.
It’s too personal for church but just right for a never-to-be-sent.
It’s three in the morning. I’m still up. I’m tired but I’m not sleepy. I will have to make myself fall asleep soon, though. Even though I start work late, it will be a closing shift, so I will be at the store for eight hours. Naps are hard to come by.
I guess I’m up because my mind is racing with thoughts about choices that have to be made in the coming weeks. Many of those choices are beyond my reach — what I mean is, I put them in motion, but now I’m just waiting to see if what I’ve put out there will come back to me. Sorry if that sounds cryptic. I’m anxious, and superstitious. Besides those two words, here’s another good word: career.
Anyway, you will never guess what happened on Sunday. My church voted three new people into the leadership body. Guess who one of those three people is?
I can’t believe it, either. Imagine: me, on a team helping make important choices about our church. Fools! I hope they know what they’ve gotten themselves into.
I kid. But I still can’t believe it. That kind of trust is unbelievable to me. I just don’t think I’m capable of convincing anyone that I’m good enough to be on a leadership anything, let alone for a church. This isn’t just some side volunteer gig for me, Linc. I really believe that God is there — well, technically, God is everywhere. But I think God is especially at my church. I don’t know why He should be there more than in any other church. Our congregation is small. Honestly, the outlook is tenuous — were it not for how solidly we hold such present promise.
That night after service, I went home and polished a Yelp review of the church. It had been lying dormant because I could never quite find the right words to say. I must have hit backspace and delete a hundred times and canceled the posting several more times before I finally sent it through that night.
Here it is:
I’m kind of guy crazy. I see them on the bus and I think about how good they look in those jeans or how sexy that necktie is. I work with them and pay attention to the ones who make me laugh the most or who read the same books that I do, or who have the same tastes in TV and movies. When I was in my 20s, I liked to go out dancing with my friends just to be with other guys under the burn of pulsating strobe lights and sweat to the music of Beyonce and Britney. This year I will be 31, and while I was never that frequent of a clubber in the first place, I’m even less of one now, and I’ll be lucky if I can meet someone my age who hangs out at the older-skewing Yoshi’s, for example, or the library. (Let’s face it: my idea of a wild time these days is reading in the library until the 15-minute warning is announced over the loudspeakers.) Having lived in San Francisco for 13 years, I’m practically a native. Moving to San Francisco from suburban Maryland as soon as I graduated high school was natural and even inevitable: not only had I known that I was gay for a very long time, but I also considered myself an aspiring writer, even a tortured artist — ah, the conceits of youth.
That may not sound like the profile of a church-going Christian. I am a Filipino and, as many of you might guess, I was raised Catholic. I know that Catholicism is fraught with many serious issues, and in fact when I was a teen I did my share of rebellion. (Fun fact: I was never even confirmed. When I was 13, my mom tried to enroll me in confirmation class, but we got into an especially explosive argument and confirmation never happened.) But I’ve mellowed in my old age, and I respect, even revere, my Catholicism as part of my heritage and upbringing. All through high school, I thought that I was a Republican. It seemed like the right fit for a Catholic (albeit a Catholic in the closet). When I reached voting age, I backed Steve Forbes in the primary, and when the election ultimately came down to the ruling of the Supreme Court, I led a prayer circle for the election of George W. Bush.
The decade that followed was as revelatory for me as it surely is for anyone in their twenties. I left behind those Republican days, went Green for a while, and when I departed my twenties I had become something of a moderate. Now I believe that the important work that we do for ourselves, for our loved ones, for country and for humanity isn’t something that can be accomplished through extremes but through reason, reflection, and the unfolding of time itself. Was it Ecclesiastes that said there is a season for everything?
I’m telling you so much about myself to give you an idea of the kind of Christian I am and hopefully an idea of the kind of church this is. Picking a church, even admitting to yourself that you are the least bit interested in trying out a church, is an intense and an intensely subjective decision. There are many ideas floating around about what it means to be Christian, what it means to be religious, or spiritual, or neither one — to believe or not to believe, that is the question. Mission Bay Community Church isn’t here to give easy answers. Moving forward is never easy but progress and progressive thought are the guiding forces here. This church puts faith into action — ask them about this wildly successful thing they do called the Excelsior Community Food Pantry. This church is aware of the world — ask them about a recent sermon about human trafficking, for example, or talk to the pastor about how awesome and challenging it is to be a woman in her field. This church breaks the mold. That’s what I’ve learned since I dropped by in June 2011, and stuck around.
When I look at other church congregations, especially those so-called “megachurches,” I don’t see me. I’m a gay person of color who is itchy to start a family. I’m still an aspiring writer. I voted for Barack Obama, twice. My heroes are my dad, my mom, Hillary Clinton, and all the women and especially all the moms of this church. I’m a huge Trekkie, I think too much, I wear my heart on my sleeve, I believe that you should have cake on your birthday no matter how old you are, I don’t always open up when I should, and I think the Giants are the most magical baseball team this side of Dyersville. When you visit our church, you will most certainly meet me, but you will also see white people, black people, Asians, Latinos, hipsters, do-gooders, same-sex families, interfaith couples, newlyweds, and singletons like me who are always searching. The congregation is small, but growing, and insanely dedicated. We’re there for each other. We also lead our own lives: teachers, scientists, doctors, engineers, musicians and, yes, writers. I see myself in this congregation. Maybe you might see yourself, too.
A lot of people find our church through Yelp. Sometimes they even stumble find us using Google. I like that. It shows how modern we are. Even I’m still taken aback when someone says they found us through Yelp. I’m still of the belief that churches are attended by dynasties or because it’s the only thing to do in the neighborhood on a Sunday.
I gave the church five stars.
During the regular season, I doubt you ever stay up this late — do you? I can only imagine what you must have done during this off-season. Did you go back to Hawaii? Or maybe you hit the slopes.
I should really stop pondering impossible answers, an act which I don’t think is necessarily a waste of energy, or talent, but maybe just misguided.
My review isn’t written under my name the way these letters are. I’ve always had mixed feelings about Yelp. You never know if someone is posting a review to get “elite” status, whatever that means; and I’ve come across too many unhelpful reviews that give little to no impression of the thing being reviewed at all. Professional critics don’t march into a restaurant announcing who they are. But Yelp is a fact of life. People have been complaining about television for a long time but there are many things about it that are useful. I wonder if Yelp will have the longevity of television.
What happened at church over the weekend got me thinking back to the summer that I first started going there. Even though this was only back in 2011, that is now a lifetime ago — and judging by how monumental each year seems to be, I seem to have lived quite a few lifetimes.
Here’s one letter I wrote that summer. When I read that never-to-be-sent, I am taken aback at how passionate I am toward a recipient who will never see it. Yet here I am, still writing.
Speaking on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, Obama’s references to the slain black leader were oblique. His references to the continuing socioeconomic subjugation of much of the African-American community were nonexistent. That was largely in keeping with Obama’s first-term record. Solely by his rise to office, and by the shining example that he and his family have set in their personal conduct, the President obviously has made a historic contribution to breaking down racial stereotypes and bolstering self-belief in minority communities. But he rarely, if ever, confronts the legacy of slavery and racism. When he brings up the gender gap in wages, why doesn’t he talk about the racial gap, which is even larger, or the disparity in rates of life expectancy, incarceration, social mobility, and virtually every other indicator of success and well-being?
One of the reasons why I’m not especially moved to trumpet the President’s vocal blessing of gay rights.
Obviously, as an LGBTQ person, I am necessarily obligated to hail the presence of an ally in the oval office; and obviously, as an LGBTQ person of many other backgrounds (Filipino, Catholic, raised among African-Americans), there will never be a complete “victory” (for lack of a better word). Whereas the President initially campaigned on change, when the reality of that first term settled, we could only move on with life in the same manner that we always had long before him: not exactly with revolution, but the kind of guarded optimism that has always been better for pragmatic, long-term planning.
Also, part of supporting the President, as well as supporting any other elected leader for whom I have voted as a reflection and champion of my values, I have to constantly remind myself to distinguish ideals from politics. In the end, whatever Barack Obama does is as much about advancing the American people as it is an inevitable and necessarily selfish career choice. To employ a saying: it is what it is.
Instead, the message I prefer to take from the President’s second inauguration is that there is, indeed, a lot of work left to be done.
It wasn’t for a wedding, but this past Sunday I said: “I do.”
After taking three weeks of classes about Christianity as well as about the church that I have been attending for almost two years now, this past Wednesday I stood with a handful of other congregants in front of the Sunday service to answer three questions about our commitment. With an answer of “I do” to each question, our membership was officially confirmed.
I have written about church membership in a prior never-to-be-sent but it isn’t all that much more complicated. Membership just means that I have been attending long enough and in one of her first official acts, our pastor, who is new since this past summer, wanted longtime congregants like me who were not yet members to consider a formal commitment.
I had to think about making that commitment, Linc; for one thing, this church is not Catholic. It is Presbyterian, and I only happened upon it as the result of church shopping. For a long time, I had drifted between two Catholic churches in San Francisco, neither of which were gay-friendly. I actually did find two other Catholic churches that were gay-friendly, but the congregation was older, or generally comprised of people I could not otherwise relate to. I don’t know whether or not to an outsider that seems a very shallow piece of criteria for choosing a church; for me, if I am going to worship somewhere regularly, I want to have peers that I can relate with and ultimately form friendships. Which is what has been happening at Mission Bay Community Church.
When she first offered the classes to me, I wrote my pastor an e-mail about how honored I was to be asked to take them, but also how strange it would be to have membership; to me, it was to be a serious commitment. Also, there was something that made me cautious about pledging allegiance to a church that wasn’t Catholic. I know it seems silly, but I kept thinking about what Pop and Ma would think. I couldn’t see them ever worshipping at Mission Bay. On the other hand, I couldn’t see them worshipping anywhere else except our home parish back in Maryland; perhaps the issue is that they are more set in their ways rather than actually opposed to worshipping elsewhere.
Mission Bay Community Church is young and growing and has changed quite a bit even in the short time I have been going there. I first attended right at the time when the pastor of ten years was moving on and then for a few months there was no pastor, only interim staffers and a series of guest sermonizers. Privately, to me part of the appeal of this church was in fact that it seemed in transition and, on the worst days, seemed rather adrift — just like me. There were Sundays when going to church seemed sad because even though the interim staffers and sermonizers seemed motivated, the pews were mostly empty and our congregation looked less like a church and more like a skeleton crew. We are no longer so adrift now that we have this wonderful new pastor but we are still finding out way — again, something to which I can relate.
Speaking of our new pastor, lately I have e-mailed her quite a bit. The length and confession of those e-mails rivals that of even these never-to-be-sents. When we see each other at church, she is warm and friendly. She exudes such a radiance that she is like an old friend who is also new and I am getting to know. We have even gone out for beers. Can you imagine a pastor who sits with her gay congregant scoping out guys? Until it actually happened, I couldn’t. But I wonder if she privately thinks I’m a bit of a freak. I wouldn’t be surprised.
If I should ever find my husband, I want her to marry me. I think I even want to forego any kind of destination wedding, which I sometimes fantasize about, and have a simple ceremony at the church. When I was talking to Ma about the possibility of moving back home, even the thought of leaving behind my friends was not enough to ebb the overwhelming desire I had that week to flee. For a long time I have felt a disconnect from many of my friends and their adult lives of coupling, having kids, buying houses. I figured that it won’t be so bad if I left. They have their own lives. I am happy for them. They won’t mind if I left — would they?
I never bothered to consult them about my plans to move, which in hindsight seems shortsighted at best, and if I had actually moved, selfish at the worst. The next thing about moving that I had to consider was my church. How could I leave after making this commitment? It seemed irresponsible, although losing one new member would not be such a big deal. The church would move on; I’m not that vital. But it seemed very sad.
Of course, Linc — and you may laugh at me for this — I also considered how moving back home would also change me as a baseball fan. What would it be like to root for the Giants 3000 miles away, looking forward to games only when they were the visiting team? Could I ever become a diehard of either the Orioles or Nationals? The other thing I thought about was my therapist. I have known her for years and, as I have written previously, to such a degree that I consider her a friend. Sometimes I even bring up during our sessions the possibility and implications of having her as a guest at my future wedding; on the subject of her attendance, what we talk about is complex and, above all else, personal, but what I can tell you is that I’ve noticed that she always smiles a little whenever I bring up the possibility of inviting her. I would like to think that in reciprocation of my fondness for her that she, too, considers me a little bit more than just one of her patients.
Commitments are fun to make but never easy to maintain. Just look at all the celebrity marriages that fall apart. I think people are not used to living daily lives. We haven’t yet completely evolved past our survival instincts. It is still in our blood to live from moment to moment even though we don’t take up in caves and run from big animals anymore. When I survived my illness a few years ago, I made a lot of grand plans that gradually faded into the ether of everyday life, which didn’t seem as special as evading death. I know that in the mind of the athlete, or any celebrity, anything but the spotlight is depressingly and disappointingly boring. Daily life has no rush. There is no applause and standing ovation for balancing your checkbook or restocking your fridge with groceries. There is only personal relief; these days, a hard day at work for me feels better when I get home and I can open my fridge to find ingredients to make a sandwich. Or if there’s a beer. I have learned to take relief in these little things that make up the everyday. I have lived in San Francisco for twelve years. Moving out here directly from high school was the biggest decision I ever made. It was a glamorous decision, full of ambition. Twelve years later, the next glamorous decision I can make is to continue that life. Keep going.