I’ve never wanted to officiate a funeral service so badly. I was devastated by the loss of my friend. I loved him, and he’d repeatedly asked me to officiate his funeral. Yet, I knew the call asking me to help mourners celebrate his life would not come. My friend was gay. I was a woman. Discrimination and legalistic thinking would win the day.
Steve and I met more than a decade ago. I’d ventured into his retail store that catered to women, helping them feel their best with clothing, makeup, and careful attention. On our first encounter, I was fairly certain that Steve was a failure at his business mission, because after a few words of greeting, he called the outfit I was wearing hideous and unflattering. But, before I could walk out the door never to return, he talked me into trying on a few selections of his choosing.
In the dressing room, I could feel my blood pressure rising. As I looked in the mirror, I felt my fury grow. It was utterly infuriating; he was right! I glowered. He laughed. Then, he made me laugh, and he made the sale.
For the next decade plus Steve brought laughter into my life on a regular basis—even on my grumpiest days. He also bolstered my self-confidence. From our first meeting, he encouraged me to believe I was worthy of time, care, and attention.
Quickly, our relationship blossomed to friendship. We’d talk about anything and everything, but Steve was slow to discuss his sexual identity. I suspected he was afraid of judgment from the Baptist pastor, but he also struggled with his faith and he wanted to talk. The trust came and so did long discussions. He’d grown up Catholic. He wanted to be part of a church family, but he’d heard—and experienced—more than one horror story. I could assure him of God’s love and that many church families would welcome him, but I couldn’t promise him that there wouldn’t be more horror.
During our conversations, Steve often asked me to officiate his funeral service when the time came. “You’re the only pastor who knows the real me,” he said on more than one occasion. I always responded that if I was still around, I’d be privileged to do so. We were about the same age; I didn’t imagine that day would come so soon.
In the last year of his life, Steve fell in love. He told me one day that his partner had grown up in a religious tradition that didn’t believe in women in ministry—not at all. I asked Steve if he saw the irony in a gay man believing that God couldn’t work through a woman. Steve laughed in agreement, but he was unable to sway his partner’s beliefs.
A few months later Steve was dead, and I was not invited to officiate his funeral. I have often thought about what I might have said. Of course, I’d talk about his gift for gab and laughter. His desire to bring out the best in his customers—really everyone—even when stark honesty was required. A healthy funeral message would also acknowledge his brokenness, including his very real tendency to encourage others to care for themselves while neglecting his health. The message couldn’t overlook his lifelong struggle with the tension between his profound desire to grow in his relationship with a loving God and the religion he’d been taught as a child and beyond that told him that he was living a sin.
I might share that one day Steve caught me off guard with a hug and the gift of the words: I love you. Afterward, we’d always end our encounters with such embraces.
Perhaps I would have told mourners that the God I know wouldn’t have been caught off guard and would delightedly embrace any of God’s children with a love far greater than we could imagine.
With that said, a question of Paul’s would have been worth re-asking: Who will or can separate us from the love of Christ? And then, Paul’s adamant response: No one or no thing. Not “death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Now, I am certain that Steve knows God’s love was and is always available to him. In the vein of Steve’s stark honesty, it’s the rest of us that I worry about. God’s love can overcome anything that stands in its way if we remember another of Paul’s lessons: That love is available to each and every one of us: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
If we can put our trust in that Love and bear witness to it with our deeds and voices, discrimination, horror stories and other byproducts of evil won’t win.
Stephanie Porter-Nichols is the associate pastor of Marion Baptist Church in Marion, Virginia.