Sunday, February 28, 2016

Remembering Death - Jeff

Jeff was a seminary classmate, an Episcopalian. I didn't get to know him really well while we were in seminary. We both sang bass in the chapel choir. He had a previous career as an opera singer and was Very Loud. I didn't always like standing next to him in choir, but with his musical training and experience, I could at least always find my note.

After we graduated from seminary, we both ended up working at the University of Texas at Austin, even in the same building (the famous Tower). I had decided that ordination was not for me, but he was searching for a bishop to ordain him and give him work.We would have lunch together regularly and here's where I learned to know him better.

I was just coming out during this period. I don't remember when I came out to him or when he came out to me, but it was in the safety of a secular institution that we could finally share this. His story was very poignant, but probably not that unusual for that period.

He and his partner had moved to Austin for Jeff to attend seminary there. They had chosen Austin because they'd heard how open and liberal it was. At new student orientation, however, Jeff heard a school official say that there would be zero tolerance for sexual misconduct, the definition of which included any homosexual relationship.

Jeff spent the next three years guarding his personal life closely. He told me about going home to his partner after that orientation and how they were suddenly afraid. Jeff was committed to his theological education and had some hope that he would find a bishop to ordain him when it was completed (the first ordinations of openly LGBT folk had already occurred in the Episcopal Church by that time), but now his education was in danger.

So, big, loud, gregarious Jeff led a carefully guarded life in Austin. He told me how he and his partner had always been the hosts of big parties and how they expected they would do the same in seminary. Jeff expressed deep disappointment that they couldn't safely open their home to his classmates. He didn't even let people know that he had a roommate. On campus he was just another student, albeit a loud and conspicuous one, whose personal life was completely unknown by practically everyone.

It was not the seminary experience he had hoped for. He could only get so close to his classmates.

In that time he worked at UT, I finally got to experience their hospitality. They had me over for Christmas one year. It was obvious they loved having a guest in their house. It was both a joy and a sadness to see them finally get to play host to one of Jeff's classmates. Our campus life was surely the poorer for not having experienced their gift of hospitality.

Jeff finally did find a bishop in California to ordain him and he spent a brief time as a parish priest. I don't recall exactly how long he was in a parish, but I'm pretty sure it was less than two years. Our communication was infrequent, but all of it conveyed at how happy he was in that work.

I also don't recall how I heard of Jeff's death. I'm sure it was some seminary newsletter or the like. It was a shock. I called Jeff's partner (he and I never got to be as close---he was the quieter one, although we were certainly on friendly terms) and learned that Jeff had been diagnosed with a cancer that took him very quickly. By time I had made that phone call, Jeff had been dead for several weeks---this was an age of email, but not social media, so this sort of news didn't travel as quickly as it does now---but of course his partner was still in shock. He'd followed Jeff across two big moves, from east coast to Texas and then to west coast, only to be left alone very suddenly.

It's been 15 years or more since Jeff died, but I remember him with a sort of sadness that goes beyond a life cut short by cancer. The church delayed the vocation of someone who would have been a joyful servant as a priest. The church missed out on a few years of joyful servanthood.

Again, his story is hardly unique, and perhaps even happier than some---he did get ordained and so did get to fulfill, however briefly, his vocation. Not everyone gets that. But it's still sad and regrettable.

I can still feel the involuntary flinch every time his booming voice would greet me with an eardrum shattering, "NEIL!" I maybe lost some hearing to his friendship, but I remember his joy.

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