Hurricane Sandy passed just inches from us on Monday evening’s map. I happened to be in Washington, D.C. to be part of all the pomp and circumstance to welcome Gary Hall, the new dean of the National Cathedral.
The coincidence of his induction as the 10th dean and Sandy’s arrival did not go unnoticed. Gary literally took the cathedral “by storm.” Another weather legend comes to mind. Within days of the election of the current Episcopal bishop, Mariann Edgar Budde, there was a major earthquake in Washington. So it looks as if the Episcopalian leadership in Washington has a particular impact on cataclysmic events when chosen by the faithful.
Because of Gary’s selection, the wind blew ferociously at 50 miles an hour and we were miraculously spared when it decided to go another way as it spun northward. Washingtonians were extremely fortunate not to suffer the devastation experienced by the closely knit communities of New Jersey or southern Manhattan that have become iconic images of media reporting.
So while the wind was shaking all we know to be “secure,” I had an encounter with another man of faith.
“The human heart is dark,” he told me, “and we are doing terrible things on this Earth. God is sending this hurricane to remind us that we are sinful and to wake us up to the wrong things we are doing.” Usually, these kinds of encounters “scare the Bejesus out of me,” as we used to say in Ireland, and I would avoid them like the plague. This man had a clear message and interpretation of “signs” that did not fit my own and it was not clear to me where he was going with this … so the conversation continued.
There is an old Buddhist phrase that encourages us not to run away from adversity or challenge but to “lean into the wind.” I decided, as a man of faith, not to avoid this difficult conversation, but to lean into it. For some, ridiculous as it may sound, the storm was clearly Gary’s fault and Episcopalians were particularly despised by God for ordaining women and gays.
“Wait a minute. Are you trying to say God sent this hurricane to punish us?” I asked. “Yes, it is because of our sin and all the wicked things we are doing, that God has sent this violent storm to bring us back to him”.
Smiling into his deep brown eyes I replied, “As a man of faith, as you are a man, I just don’t believe that. I don’t believe God interferes with the weather patterns of the planet to punish us or scare us like some Halloween ghoul. That’s not what God is about!”
The discussion suddenly becomes more engaged
“There is approximately 5% of Americans who are homosexuals and they all run Hollywood. God is unhappy with this and we have to wake up to what Hollywood is doing to the world,” he said with a completely serious face. Now I was really interested. This was better than a hurricane party!
“Hold on, are you really telling me you believe there is some gay agenda to take over the world from Hollywood and this hurricane is God’s response?” I could think of many other places God could strike if it was as simple as that.
“But the gays and the Jews are taking over the world. It is what is predicted in Scripture.”
I wasn’t quite sure where he was coming from or where he was going with this. Was he a Christian anti-Semite or from another religion? We had a brief conversation about the plight of Palestinians but he continued to warn me about the 5% of gays who were totally responsible for this storm and how they were destroying God’s plan to have men and women produce more babies. “Imagine if everyone was gay, then the world would end. Who would make babies?”
“How many gay people do you know?” I asked. “None,” was his reply. “OK, I am GAY. I don’t work in Hollywood and I know a lot of poor gay people who are clearly not taking over the world. I even know gay people who have babies!”
Searching for the roots of this man's homophobia
I was honored to be the first gay person this guy has ever met. “You know, I just got back from Uganda and even though they have a small country, they produce a million new babies each year and the churches, mosques and government are all telling Ugandans to have more babies. How are we going to feed all these children? It is unsustainable! Think of the security and food issues that arise from overpopulation. I don’t think it is responsible to bring children into the world when we cannot feed or protect them.”
This was a new piece of information for him. Maybe God wants less people on the planet so we don’t kill each other over food and land as they did in the Rwandan genocide (one f the most densely populated regions in Africa). I am much more concerned about the instruction from God to “go forth and multiply” and how we interpret that sacred command n the 21st century, than I am about St. Paul’s attitude to gays.
“How do you feel about that comment from Jesus that ‘God sends the rain on the just and the unjust’?” There was a contemporary disaster story reported in the gospels. A prestigious Roman imperial building project -- an aqueduct -- fell and killed a lot of local Jews. Maybe they were working on the project for the despised imperial invaders and as traitors, God got them. The locals interpreted that as related to the immorality of the victims. The argument from the more traditional voices of this first-century gossip column was that they all perished because they were really bad people. Jesus completely refutes their theological insights. The God that Jesus knew would never do such a thing. It is the classical text to debunk “Prosperity Gospel” theory, which only seems to work for people who are employed in the Rick Warren 300,000-strong prosperity church movement. God is the ATM machine in the sky, and when you know and love God, you will be blessed and your bank account will clearly demonstrate it.
A Fundamentalist worldview
It is always interesting to observe what happens when a Fundamentalist is confronted with a different interpretation of the teachings of Jesus and often does not know what to say. “And by the way, Jesus had NOTHING to say about gays. He DID say about religious bigotry and self righteousness, particularly in the company of clergy.”
My new friend had never heard a “gay” speak before, never mind a biblically-literate gay before who was obviously enjoying the conversation as much as he was. “But there is 5% of Americans wanting to control everything and they even want this as a civil right around the world.” Now he was truly talking about something that I knew a lot about!
I thought of a young African who had just arrived in Washington with the support of the St. Paul’s Foundation. He had been arrested and tortured by his government merely because he was LGBT and he was now in the USA seeking asylum. (I was later to discover these two men shared the same country of origin.)
“You have listened to too much propaganda,” I replied. He assured me he never watched television so I imagined he must have gathered his LGBT intelligence from a local preacher. He sincerely believed all of it and had no personal experience of LGBT people but was convinced we not only controlled Hollywood but caused the wrath of hurricane Sandy.
“I respect that you are a man of deep faith as I am,” I opened. “I am not convinced from my life experience that humanity is basically evil. We do bad things but most people I know want to do good things and even when we go wrong, we want to fix it somehow.”
He actually agreed with me. He believed in the ultimate goodness of people, so if we were made in the image of good God, why would God want to punish us? He saw the logic. Maybe, the storm will help wake us up to a lot of things we have been denying or avoiding as human beings like global warming, but there is a difference between God’s punishment and humanity’s role in global warming. Maybe we should pay attention to our stewardship of the planet for us and for future generations? We also had some agreement on that point. Maybe we need to spend more money on better infrastructure, disaster preparedness and support federal response programs like FEMA instead of thinking about immediate and local interests?
I am now in New York and the southern part of Manhattan is a disaster zone. The northern part of the island is functioning as usual and locals here keep saying “it’s a tale of two cities.” People who have power are taking in friends and neighbors who don’t. One friend talked about having “refugees” living with him. These are the kinds of experiences that help us to discover our deep core values. We learn to lean into the difficult situations and difficult conversations and emerge as better people, more connected and more thankful for what we share in common.
RGOD2, written by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, looks at faith and religion from an LGBT point of view. Ogle is known around the world for his work in support of LGBT rights and HIV-prevention efforts. He is president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE.