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Respect for a Gay Elder, Pity for Benedict XVI

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This piece was co-written with Joe Karpowicz and Zach McCallum.

Each week Carlos Delgado would unfold a little lace doily and place it on the baby grand piano, smoothing it with wrinkled, spotted hands. He would pause for a moment to survey his work, then he'd pull the small white statue of Mary from its velvet cover and gently stand it on the doily, meticulously aligning it according to specifications known only to him. Finally, he'd turn to me and say, "Where's my hug?" Busy as I was, preparing to do my part as music director for services at Peninsula MCC, I would happily pause and complete our little ritual.

It was an important ritual for us both. MCC churches were founded in the late 1960s to serve as communities of faith for LGBT people, many of whom were unwelcome in the churches of their youth. As an MCC we had no permanent statues of Mary, nor of anyone else. But MCC churches, because of their founding mission, often operate like camps for religious refugees, tending spiritual and emotional wounds, and providing a few comforts of home without the dangers that had made emigration from home churches necessary. For me those comforts were gospel music and the example of older men like Carlos. For Carlos those comforts were Mary and hugs, and those dangers were the harmful words of the Catholic Church leadership.

LGBT people who were raised Catholic have heard some particularly harsh things from people in positions to hurt them. In Carlos' lifetime the people who claimed to be in charge of his spiritual and moral development, including the men he was raised to consider infallible, have called an essential part of his identity imperfect, inferior, intrinsically evil, and objectively disordered. Most recently, in a statement against marriage equality, Pope Benedict XVI said, "The family is threatened by an idea of human nature that proves flawed," and that "marriage and family are institutions that must be promoted and safeguarded from every possible ambiguity regarding their true nature, because every injury that is inflicted upon them in fact constitutes a wound on human cohesion...." He has said that Catholic doctrines on marriage "permit the full development of the human person."

The pope issued that statement on Sept. 21. That evening, at 89 years old, Carlos Delgado died.

What a shameful coincidence. What a pitiful bit of kismet. But please understand: My pity isn't for Carlos, who had been sick for some time and likely never read Benedict's statement. Carlos died in the care of loving clergy, friends, and family, and at peace with himself and his God. No, my pity is for Benedict, who seems in mortal danger of living his whole life without the blessing of knowing a gay man like Carlos.

Zach knew that blessing. When he was still going by the name Andi, and somewhat worriedly approached 88-year-old Carlos to explain that he would be changing names and genders and living as a man, Carlos said, "I always knew there was something special about you."

Joe knew that blessing. Joe is a world traveler who's been in some of the most poverty-stricken nations on the planet, always with $100 in his pocket from Carlos and the instruction to "give it to someone who needs it." With the money Carlos gave him, Joe saw to it that a pregnant prostitute in Cartagena, Colombia, could stop turning tricks long enough to have her baby, that a tour guide in Cairo could keep his children in school, and that a generous woman in Peru who gave of her best to her guests could continue to feed her family.

William knew that blessing. William was Carlos' partner of 20 years, who came home one day with the news that he had contracted HIV through infidelity. When William asked if Carlos was going to kick him out, Carlos said, "No. You don't kick a man when he's down." Carlos and William stayed together. When William got sick, Carlos cared for him. When William died, Carlos mourned.

Carlos was well past the midpoint of his life before the Stonewall riots or anything approaching the gay-liberation movement began. He was already in retirement when he lost William to AIDS. He lived most of his life in a society where the words "coming out" were meaningless, where congregating with other gay men could get him arrested -- and did!

Carlos lost his youth to repression, his church to ignorance, his lover to AIDS. Unlike so many well-stationed, fortunate people in this world, Carlos actually had the right to be bitter, judgmental, and angry, yet he was not. In fact, his kindness was palpable, his love of life contagious, and his grace constant. He was a humble man of humble means, but his capacity for generosity was extraordinary.

Pope Benedict, a loftily placed global citizen, must know many amazing people -- heads of state, authors, musicians -- but if he took the time to know anyone like Carlos, his hurtful proclamations against LGBT people would turn to ashes in his mouth.

Unlike protestant or evangelical leaders, who use a particular view of scripture to issue harm to LGBT people, Catholic church leaders tend to wrap their assertions in claims about "natural law." This is more insipid in some ways, because scripture can at least be debated. Phrases like "an idea of human nature that proves flawed" aren't in the Bible, but they give the false appearance of academic or philosophical authority. Words like "full development of the human person" can sound caring and informed, if more than a little condescending, but they are vague and undefined. What, in Benedict's estimation, makes a fully developed human person? Family? Children? Marriage? Surely the pope doesn't mean to imply that the thousands upon thousands of priest, nuns, monks, and popes who have faithfully served the church by denying families for themselves were "incomplete."

The pope leaves us to guess what he might mean, and the scriptures simply don't use language like "human nature," but for those of us with Judeo-Christian leanings, what God requires of a human life is pretty plainly laid out in Micah 6:8:

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.

And what does the Lord require of you?

To act justly and to love mercy

and to walk humbly with your God.

Did Carlos do justice? Yes. Did he love kindness. Oh, yes. Did he walk humbly? Indeed he did. Do you? Do I? Does Benedict?

When Carlos was arrested for attending a gay house party, his stepfather disowned him and insisted that the family follow suit. But when the stepfather had a heart attack, it was Carlos who secretly drove his mother to the hospital, where she would visit her husband while Carlos waited in the lobby. Eventually the stepfather asked his wife how she got to the hospital every day.

"My son brings me," she replied.

Hearing this, the stepfather got angry that none of the other family had offered to help. He told his wife to go down to the lobby and bring her son up to see him. He then told Carlos that although he did not approve of the behavior that got him arrested, he did recognize that Carlos was kind and generous to his mother. He wrote Carlos back into his will and welcomed him back into his home.

If only Benedict had seen Carlos' lifetime of kindness and generosity, perhaps he could have done as the stepfather did and welcomed Carlos back into the fold. His church certainly could have benefitted from Carlos' extraordinary wisdom and grace.

Instead, that blessing went to Peninsula MCC, and to me.

In memory of Carlos Delgado
Born May 30, 1923
Died Sept. 21, 2012