Dr. Sam

The 12 year old boy stood alone, looking around frantically, unable to think clearly. Why had he ever asked for this? He had begged and pleaded to be trusted with such a big responsibility, and after 3 years had finally been given that opportunity.  How could this have happened?

“Big Red” was an old Snapper riding mower that only Johnny Byford was allowed to operate.  He had been Dr. Sam’s “vet assistant” and the general fix-it and maintenance-man around the animal hospital property for over ten years.  Today he’d be going out to help Dr. Sam work 800 head of cattle, and so the property maintenance would be postponed for a day or two.

Billy had wanted to be an animal doctor for as long as he remembered.  He had begged for years to have a dog, but the pleas were always met with a resounding, “No, it would just too big of a responsibility for the entire family (translation: you’re a pretty irresponsible kid, so grow up a little).”  When Billy’s big sister had gotten a kitten for Christmas from her boyfriend, that broke the ice.  Within 6 months, his persistence had paid off, and Billy had his first dog, “Pooch,” the ugliest, most pitiful, miserable little wretch anyone had ever seen.  Even then, life was fleeting and ever so precious.  Within six months of “Noelle” dying from feline leukemia, Pooch was found poisoned in a neighbor’s yard.  And so a steady progression of relationships with the small-town veterinarian were born, as Roger, Wolfie, Sam, Sean and Mandy became successive members of the family.

Having thus become acquainted with Dr. Sam, as the dorkie little kid with the ever-present “wow” big eyed look behind his wire glasses, Billy finally got up the nerve.  He asked if he could volunteer sometimes out at the clinic, “Just to help clean up and stuff.”  Hair thinning at the top, even at 30, Sam looked down, “How old are you young man?  When you get to be about 10, I’ll put you to work!” (This was well before minimum age requirements, or at least before they were really enforced).  Sam thought for sure this would be a few years off, and by then the silly little kid would have long since moved on to washing dishes, or mowing lawns.

“Great,” Billy almost shouted, I’ll be ten this summer!  August 27th!”  Johnny looked at the scrawny little brat and laughed, relieved that it was at least 4 months off.

Billy home sick with Wolfe & Noel 1972crop

August 27th of 1969 fell on a Wednesday, and Billy was sitting on the front steps when Jackie the receptionist arrived, without a clue as to the importance of the date.

Billy was mainly a bothersome pest that just wouldn’t go away, everywhere at once, always asking questions, and basically a pain in the ass.  But Sam was a “stand-up” man, and they had a deal.  Besides, Sam didn’t have any children yet, and Billy was growing on him.  The weeks turned into months, and weekends turned into summers.  He really wasn’t allowed to do much in front of the clients, but he gave most of the baths, walked the dogs, scooped the litter-boxes, and kept the runs free of feces.  This was the perfect job.  Except he knew he really wasn’t allowed to do anything important, anything of real responsibility.  That would soon change.

Billy used the push mower around the edges and behind the clinic, watching with envy as Johnny got to ride the big riding mower and do the “real” lawn work.  How he longed to do something that cool – when nobody was watching, he’d sit on the mower in the barn and shift the gears.  Such was the innocent stuff of little boy’s fantasies in 1971 Sikeston, Missouri.  Billy’s imagination was startled as he clipped a rock with the rotary blade and sent it hurtling across against the metal building.  Johnny’s head turned, and Billy sighed to see him laugh at his carelessness.

Dr. Sam bounded out the side door with his arms filled with syringe guns, castrating instruments, blood tubes, and rolls of cotton.  As he walked towards his Bowie Vet Truck, he motioned to the boy to come over.  “Dr. Sam needed to talk to me!  Maybe he’s gonna take me with him to work the cattle!  I’ll be such a big help!” his mind racing as quickly as his little legs.  “Johnny and I won’t be back before quittin’ time, so when you’re finished mowing, just go in to see if Jackie needs anything before you leave for the day.”

“Yessir,” he replied as he turned and hung his head, walking back towards the push mower, kicking the ground.  If not for the approaching shadow, he would have walked right into ol’ Johnny, rushing towards the truck after putting Big Red up for the day.  That would have been really funny to them.

The next morning Billy had to ride his 10 speed Schwinn the 3 miles to work, because his Mom was teaching a remedial summer class, his daddy was at the farm, and siblings were all busy.  He arrived just to see Dr. Sam and Johnny cleaning up the instruments from working on a limping bull, and he braced for admonishment for being a few minutes late.  But Doc simply said, “After you get the kennels cleaned, Billy, I need you for something big.”  He looked up to see a serious face, but Johnny was behind him smiling.

As the boy scrubbed the dried feces off of the concrete kennel floor, he couldn’t help but imagine, “Is today the day he’ll actually get to do something big?”  As Billy squeezed  the floors dry, the idea fell apart as Dr. Sam said they’d be leaving soon to finish at the feedlot where they had been yesterday.

“Since you’re pretty much finished up here, come on out and let Johnny show you how to run Big Red.  This grass is gettin’ mighty tall an’ it really shouldn’t wait another day.”

Billy’s heart was bursting with excitement, but he did his best to look unmoved, answering matter-of-factly, “Sure Doc, that shouldn’t be a problem.”  Johnny rolled his eyes, because he knew this was a big deal for the little brat.

Johnny had actually already showed him what everything was, and how it worked , many times, in anticipation of this glorious event.  Johnny made a point to let Billy know that it was his suggestion yesterday, as they pulled out of the clinic parking lot, that he thought he could be trusted with the big mower.  So within about 4 minutes, Billy had mounted the trusty steed, and was doing “manly work.”

What everyone but Billy knew, was that Big Red was a rust bucket.  This thing was over twenty years old, and always breaking down, throwing a belt, or getting overheated.  Nuts and bolts constantly loosened and fell off, and just last spring, a wheel had fallen off.  But to Billy this was the most responsibility he’d ever been given, much like the little kid in the movie A Christmas Story, summoned by his father to help change the flat tire.  He is entrusted with the hubcap and lug-nuts until he loses his balance, flinging them into the dark, and utters the famous expletive.

Billy puffed his chest out as he had suddenly become a valuable employee, riding the trusty steed on its first lap around the field in front of the barn.  He watched Doc and Johnny loading up the truck for the day.  “When,” he dared wonder, “would he be considered for a day of that – now that’s what he really wanted to do, his life’s mission.”  As he pondered these dreams, basking in the glory of the moment, the tension rod holding tight the belt connecting the engine to the transmission snapped in two.  The belt fell off the camber, and into the path of the blade.  As the mower coasted to a quick halt, the belt wrapped around the blade, quickly chewing it into black rubber pieces, sprayed all over the driveway.

Billy’s head spun around to see the reaction of those who had trusted him.  They hadn’t seen a thing, but were inside getting another load of medical supplies.  He jumped off the machine, frozen in panic.  He wasn’t sure what he had done wrong, but (he thought) nothing like this had ever happened before, and somehow he had screwed up his first real chance to prove himself.  He had begged and pleaded to be trusted with such a big responsibility, and after 3 years had finally been given that opportunity.  And failed.

Billy had no idea what to do, but more than anything, he didn’t want to face them, and just wanted to run.  Dr. Sam was supposed to teach him how to be an animal doctor, and Johnny Byford had trusted him.  He had let them down.  As he raced through the possibilities, he saw his bike leaning against the building, but before he could consider the consequences of racing away, the door opened and out ran the two men.

There was fear and panic, dread and disappointment.  But it was all Billy’s.  The consolation from Dr. Sam’s response would be remembered, valued and put to prose some 40 years later.  There would by no tears, or hugs – these were three grown men.

I looked up to my mentor, my role model, and my friend with tears, I’m sure, in my eyes and said, “I’m sorry.”  Johnny was smiling, probably relieved that his little pal hadn’t been hurt.  Dr. Sam, who’s initial reaction appeared to give me a hard time, suddenly realized this I just a little kid, and this was one of those serious moments where you don’t mess around.  But I anticipated his change in body language was now be one of regret, that I was too little for such a chore.

He squatted down beside me and said, “Billy, this is not your fault.  Even if it was, the only people in this world who never screw any thing up are people who never do anything.  I’m proud of you for wanting to work so hard.  Now help Johnny get this mess cleaned up and put Big Red up ’til tomorrow.  We could use a hand at the feedlot today anyway, so after you’re done here, get you’re boots on and get in the truck.”

Much Love.

Engraved pavement brick at the WhiteHouse Jesuit Retreat, Saint Louis, MO

Engraved pavement brick at the WhiteHouse Jesuit Retreat, Saint Louis, MO

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Rude (Part 2) – Why even try?

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People like me can not even fathom Betty’s kind of poverty, or what leads someone there.  Culture? Role models? Lack of them? Financial ruin? Death? Mental Illness? Addiction?  Our modern-day lepers – It’s just so easy for us to look the other way as they stand amid the traffic, cross to the other side of the street as they approach, and flip someone a buck when we’re feeling generous.  Haven’t they made their own choices?  And if they’re an addict, it’s their own doing!  Why would I feel sorry for someone who poked holes in the crumpled can to burn a rock, put the lighter under the spoon, or climbs inside a bottle with my dollar?

It’s not so simple.  Seriously, do you honestly think that kid sitting next to you in your high school memory really chose to end up penniless and begging?  Many do have substance abuse issues.  I’ve learned so much about addiction lately from Ryan Robertson’s story as well as a blog I read about Phillip Seymor Hoffman.  What an epiphany!  I had no idea.

Maybe it’s because I’m a lot older now, or perhaps life’s cruel lessons have made me better, more adept at saying what I really believe.  Or maybe I just believe different stuff now, because of those lessons.

“Doctor Klein, that woman with last week’s pyometra is on line 2,” declared the intercom, and I quickly finished the call I was on to grab the other line because I hadn’t heard a thing from her in almost a week.  My heart sank when Betty (not her real name) told me “Baby Girl” didn’t like the antibiotics, so she didn’t give them.  The dog “hadn’t really moved much” for the first two days after I had done the surgery.  My heart sank as I prepared for the grim follow-up sentence – the poor little dog had been so very sick from the infection that I knew, even with our surgery, without the antibiotics, there really wasn’t much hope for survival.  It just didn’t make sense.  Why hadn’t she…  This was all a big …  Hadn’t I impressed upon her enough how important this was?  Besides, Amoxicillin suspension tastes really good – I had taken it myself dozens of times as a child!

My worst thoughts were interrupted, “But then, all of a sudden, she jus’ started drinkin’ water again.  So I tried again, and then she drank it ‘real good.’  Nex thang ya no, she’s jus’ a runnin’ and jumpin’ and beggin’ at her food bowl.”  I thanked her for calling, scheduled a recheck, smiled from ear to ear, and did the “happy dance” in a circle around the medical treatment room.

My staff had heard the entire conversation, and although they were glad also, I think it was more because I really suck when I’m in a bad mood, and when I’m in a good mood, I’m basically a pretty big dork.  They prefer the latter.

Surgery is often time for interesting conversation in an animal hospital.  We typically discuss really important stuff like Jack Bauer’s return, last night’s American Idol performances, and the latest Netflix we’d watched.  My CVT’s (kind-of like nurses), assistants, kennel staff, and sometimes some of the receptionists and managers all participate in these important meetings, mainly because they end the morning, and run into the lunch period.  Sometimes we actually do talk about important things, like why the hell is it so hard to keep the controlled drug log exact, why personalities seem to clash, and medical ethics; often this morphs into real world morals and ethics – life lessons, if you like.

So today, after deciding last nights American Idol girls were mostly disappointing, I told them how funny it was that my blog about last week’s pyo had gone viral.  Admittedly, I’ve only blogged for a very short time, so most regular readers have been family, friends, clients, and a few other followers from last year, when I hiked the Camino de Santiago, and amateurishly began to learn to write.  Anyway, I explained that I normally get about 150 or 200 hits a day, and during the Camino there were a few days when I topped 700 views.

Well, the day I posted about our donating our time for Betty and her dog, I got 300 hits.  “Wow,” I thought, “People much prefer a veterinary feel good story (or maybe just a gross picture) than the embarrassing , personal, cathartic stuff I usually blog about.”  The second day 1000, the third day 3000, then 10,000 views. (Then a surge to 650,000 and as of today, views of 1.42 million)

Like me, my staff was amazed, but they weren’t unanimous about the merits of how it had played out.

Only then did I learn about the scene, in our front reception area, when Betty came in that afternoon with an intoxicated friend.  While she was rushing around, shouting, concerned that her dog had died, he was also up there, to a full waiting room, talking “crap,” certain that even if the dog was alive, we wouldn’t give her back to them; it was all a trick, that’s how “places like this operated!”  Even after she had her dog in her arms, she was still “rude and disrespectful.” When she was given the bottle of Amoxidrops, she didn’t even say ‘thank you,’ only a remark that she wasn’t gonna pay any more for it, that she’d already “paid in full.”  You can imagine how well this went over with the front staff, but they never shared this part, knowing for sure it would change how I looked back and viewed the whole case.

I could only laugh at these new details.  And I (who knew?) got back on the ol’ soapbox.  “Should I be indignant, that the ‘Supersavior vet’  and his wonderful clinic hadn’t been properly worshipped?  Come on guys, what do you need?  You are missing the entire point.  You don’t help someone because you want them to love you, or even thank you.  Think about it – why do you do nice things for people? Or give someone a gift?”  Before he could answer, I reminded him that this had been rhetorical.  “You don’t do nice things because you want the other person to reciprocate!  That’s not even a gift, that’s an exchange, and you’re always disappointed with what you get back.”

“Here’s the deal.  You’ll be so much happier in life if you always do the right thing, because it’s the right thing, not because you expect someone to do the right thing in return.”  Expect for them not to.  Then it would be a nice surprise.  What’s the point of even walking on this earth if we can’t make it better for our having been here.  Who cares if someone says, “Thank you.”

“I think you are naïve,” my tech said to me, “Why even try? You can’t rescue the world!”  “Daddy mode” kicked in, so I shared a paraphrased  Starfish Poem:

One day an old man was walking down the beach just before dawn.  In the distance he saw a young man picking up stranded starfish and throwing them back into the sea.  As the old man approached the young man, he asked, “Why do you spend so much energy doing what seems to be a waste of time?”  The young man explained that the stranded starfish would die if left in the morning sun.  The old man exclaimed, “But there must be thousands of starfish.  How can your efforts make any difference?”  The young man looked down at the starfish in his hand and as he threw it to safety in the sea, he said,” It makes a difference to this one!”

Someone else then thought they were agreeing when they said we had done it to help the dog anyway, not the woman.  My “daddy mode” was in full throttle now, and I’m sure the churlish cynics will also consider this all to be sanctimonious, holier than thou drivel, but I’m just sayin’…

“No, no, no!  It’s not an “either/or, it’s a both/and!  Although we obviously treated Betty’s dog, that’s not where it ends, or certainly not the “why?”  Remember why people even have pets!”  We had had this discourse plenty of other times, and all were in agreement about the importance of that loving bond.

Of course this story involves a pet, but only because that’s what we do.  It really involves another human being.  I did encourage them to be proud of what they do, and what they did, and where they work, but not smug.  “Because every one of us is an accident, a medical diagnosis, a fire, or a divorce away from living in that cardboard box under the bridge.”  (There, but by the Grace of God, walk I.)  Looking back over 50 years forces me to remember so many dumb things I’ve done, and wonder why not me?  “Besides,” just joining us from her kennel duties, Amy added perhaps the most wisdom, “Even if they have become addicts, I don’t think they drink or do drugs to get high.  It’s to numb the pain and loneliness.”

I remember a colleague at a convention shared with me that he had become a vet because he liked animals more than people, that he “hated” people.  I was stunned.  How do you “hate people” in this profession?  Perhaps it was his whiskey bravado talking to me, but his words still ring in my ears years later.  I do hope he found other work.  I shared this story with a classmate and best friend Jim, who practices not far from me.  We were enjoying a beer (seems to be a theme), watching our beloved Mizzou Tigers, and solving the world’s problems with our wisdom.  He also helps out our church’s philanthropies, such as St. Vincent de Paul and the Brevard Sharing Center (a soup kitchen), so I enjoy sharing our stories together.  Jimmy shook his head and agreed that, maybe he’s naïve, but all the vets he knows, the successful ones anyway, in order to really care about their patients, care about their people first.

And so it is a both/and.  I firmly believe we’ve placed here not only as stewards of our animals but to love and support each other.  At the end of the day, at the end of our lives, when we “que up in front of St. Peter,” which line would you prefer? – the naïve, giving, loving line or the “it’s all about me” line.  That’s the choice.

Betty’s calling us that day was no co-incidence.  Much Love.

bettysdog2

She wasn’t being rude

My receptionist Ericka was in tears. The caller had said some pretty mean things, and she’s sensitive to what people say to her. She thrust the phone towards me, and pleaded for me to deal with it, “She doesn’t understand we don’t have any appointments available and, anyway, we’ll be closed in 45 minutes.” Some lady’s dog hadn’t “eated” in 4 days, and so she thinks she’s really pretty sick, and what was I gonna do about it? On such a hectic afternoon, I was glad to take the load off the front desk, and proceeded with the best defense being a good offense. “So he hasn’t eaten in 4 days? Wow, you rushed right in! What makes you think it’s serious now” The colloquialism of her words and accents made it difficult to understand, even for a small town Missoura hick like myself, but I did make out something about not having much money, something about only having a hunnert dollas. Knowing it sounded like a major medical workup, our lab equipment had an hour back log of tests waiting, and it had been a really long day already, I told her that I could see her at 9:15 the next day. My technician Jenny cringed, knowing full well that I had no openings, even for something minor, at 9:15 tomorrow, or anytime, all day. She also thought the front staff might not be very happy when I had allowed someone so rude and disrespectful, accusing them of not caring, to come in when they had been telling good, regular, polite clients that we were booked until next week. I had a funny feeling about this one. I knew this woman’s dog was pretty sick, and a “hunnert dollas” wouldn’t even get her in the front door of the emergency clinic tonight. I hoped it would wait. And that it wasn’t too serious to throw my schedule into seizures tomorrow.

Frankly, I forgot about her until the next morning, when I walked into the exam room. My flippant attitude about her apparent lack of concern for “Baby Girl” quickly dissipated. The “homeless person” stench was overpowering and was immediately telling as to why the visit had been postponed. This poor 12 year old dog couldn’t even lift her head. Indeed, she had not eaten in 5 days now, but was drinking lots of water. “She’s not spayed,” Jenny whispered to me, in case I missed the obvious. We both knew what it was from the history. A pyometra is an infected uterus, life threatening, and one of the important reasons why a female dog or cat should be spayed if she won’t be used for breeding. I’ll spare you the details, but it is typically fatal before five days, from internal rupture, much like a child’s appendix can rupture, spreading bacterial poison and toxins throughout the body.

The pre-surgical workup of confirmatory lab tests and X-Rays alone is about $300, and if it was a pyometra, could easily exceed $1200-1500. And the patient could die, regardless of our best efforts, especially if the uterus had already ruptured. She hadn’t come in because she had been scraping together, begging, and borrowing to get some money together to get her dog fixed.

Nor could I promise her that her little dog would live through the surgery. “So what are you telling me?” the woman shouted at me, with tears in her eyes. Deep down, I knew she had been rejected before, a lifetime of it. I knew she expected me to say to go away, that if she had no money she wasn’t welcome here.

I told her I wanted to run some tests, and that it would cost her “a hunnert dollas.” That wouldn’t fix anything, but we needed to know what was wrong.

Jenny was correct. The test confirmed a high white blood cell count (indicating infection), and the radiographs (X-Rays) confirmed a huge swelling in the area where the uterus would be.

As I delivered the news and the grave prognosis, her eyes reddened and became teary.

Having pets is a commitment. And an obligation. And owning pets is a choice that involves responsibilities and expenses. Therefore, keeping a pet is not a right, nor is it the grocery store’s obligation to feed the dog for free, nor the veterinarian’s obligation to care for it for free. Pets, like people, should have a basic minimum of care: annual examinations, inoculations, and other preventative health care, and the planning for the possibility/likelihood that something may go wrong – an accident or an illness.

So, are people living in poverty allowed to have pets? If she can share what she finds in the dumpster with her only friend in the world, or if she and her cat split a can of food, is that “good enough?”

As I spoke with my staff, receptionists, as well as technicians, I told them that this woman was not rude. The astonished looks of disagreement on their faces faded as I explained. “You can’t be rude if you don’t know what rude is. She doesn’t fit our picture of how we should behave or talk, but she’s not intending to be disrespectful or unappreciative. She just doesn’t know any better. She’s never had anyone give her the benefit of the doubt. How many times had she been excluded as a child, or looked down upon as an adult? How do you expect her to behave?”

I’ve mentioned in previous posts how high a value I place on the “human-animal bond.” That unconditional love thing is impossible to put a price tag on. Of course this dog is suffering now, but what about the past decade of loving relationship? Do you honestly think this dog’s life didn’t live a happier, worthier life for having met this woman instead of starvation on the street, or the animal shelter’s needle? As Pope Francis said in different circumstances, “Who am I to judge?”

“I can only promise you two things,” I told her solemnly. “I’ll do my very best to save your dog, and she most definitely will die without the surgery.” I was emphatic, because she needed to really understand how sick her little friend was. “Baby Girl” couldn’t lift her head, but her eyes followed my every move and she wagged her tail when I scratched behind her ears.

I told her that we had all discussed it and that we were willing to do surgery during our lunch break, and that it would only cost her the “hunnert dollas.” I’ve learned over the years that even if you work pro-bono that the client must contribute something, to take ownership, and to feel the value – something about pride, that they had contributed also.

I don’t take any credit. And I honestly do not write this story to look like some kind of a hero. My staff clocked out over the lunch hour and also donated their time. We’re all confronted with choices in life where we can make others’ journey’s better, or at least less miserable. I know pain, and anguish. We all do. We have a choice to be angry at God or whomever for allowing/causing crap to happen, or we can rise up from the ashes and be better for our losses. Is it to better to be bitter and angry, or realize what suffering feels like, and gain empathy?

“Really? No one’s ever done anything nice for me before,” this smelly woman wailed and wanted to hug me, so I embraced the leper. If you’re skeptical, of course this may seem disingenuous, and I do get it, I’m from Missouri (this is the origin of “show-me”). We are constantly barraged with cardboard signs on the off-ramps. Are any of them really willing to work for food? At the end of the day, does it make any difference? “I was hungry and you gave me to eat.”

It’s easy to puff your chest out when you do something difficult. But this wasn’t difficult. If I’m not there that day to fix the torn ACL knee ligament, the liver shunt, the heart defect, the broken hip … someone else would have. I’m truly not particularly intelligent or even very talented. But I sleep well tonight, knowing that no-one would have done this simple surgery for this indigent woman. This was truly no big deal, a very simple surgery that took just a few minutes. But after so many years, these opportunities to make a difference, make it all worth while.

I usually ask for comments, but not on this one. Please don’t leave any comments. Like it if you want, and share it. If you like this story, pay it forward. You think your life sucks? Look around. Make a difference. This isn’t even a story worth telling if you don’t use it yourself and think about it tomorrow as you look around. This story would have remained untold if I hadn’t had a couple of beers and like to write. Your life is charmed and blessed BECAUSE you are reading this, are capable of thinking about the big picture, and can make a difference. It’s not the big things we do that are heroic.

At the end of the day, this woman ran in, frantic about her dog. She didn’t have a phone so had no idea if her dog made it through surgery. Certainly, she thought the worst when she was escorted into the room, and told the doctor would be with her shortly … she stomped and shouted and cried for some answer, “How is my dog?!! PLEASE dear God, please somebody just tell me, did ‘Baby Girl’ die?!!” I ran from the appointment I was with when I heard the commotion, but Jenny beat me there. All I heard was, “She’s alive?!!! She’s alive?!! Oh dear God, praise dear God! My Baby Girl’s ALIVE!!!”

I’m sure they heard the shouting and crying next door.

Pay it forward. Much Love.

Please Continue with PART TWO

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I Should Be Standing Up

“I really doubt I’ll have a job soon,” replied the man sitting next to me at the GCN convention in Chicago.  Like me, Rev. Danny Cortez wasn’t really sure why he was there, but felt quite confident that he needed to be.

Cortez has been a traditional, conservative Southern Baptist minister in Southern California; happily married, four kids, a big congregation that loves him, and today he has a problem.  About five years ago, one of his flock, a 20 something girl “came-out” to him, and challenged everything he had taught and had been taught about homosexuality.  Sara had been one of his “shining stars,” a youth leader who genuinely witnessed for Jesus; the Pastor considered her a Christian to be admired and emulated.  So when she admitted to him, in confidence, that she had a same-sex attraction (SSA), nothing fit.  Although she, and they, tried desperately to  “pray away the gay” striving for a closer, more faith filled relationship with our Lord that would “fix” her, she continued with her SSA..  She had done this for years, and would continue to plead that this burden be lifted, and reparative therapy was also tried, even though it sounded absurd:  The idea of “repairing” a disordered sexuality was based on the premise that children formed a SSA when they had a faulty or dysfunctional relationship with their parents.  But her’s were model parents, who love each other and their children, and both have a healthy relationship with her.  Sara eventually switched to a more “affirming” church, but continues her sharing and mentoring, pastoral relationship with Reverend Cortez.

However the Pastor wasn’t really sure who had done the mentoring.  She had showed him that his ideas about homosexuality were built on a crumbling foundation.  He had been misinformed about SSA, and he was now very challenged, and very troubled.  Had some of his sermons wrongly condemned?  Had he caused self-hatred in adolescents (and adults)?  Had his messages split families?  Was he to blame for bullying, or worse yet – suicides?  The next five years were filled with research and discovery, anxiety and guilt.  Finally he simply came to the conclusion, “I can no longer do this.”  His wife knew the torment he was enduring, and supported his decision to tell his church elders at its next meeting.  He was quite confident that this would lead to him being out of a job, and he would need to tell the kids to prepare for some belt-tightening.

The next morning he was taking his kids to school when the infamous “gay equality” Macklemore song came on the radio; he turned up the volume.  This would be a segue for the conversation he needed to have with his children.  When the song was over, as he struggled to put his pending unemployment into words they could understand, his son asked why he had turned up the song.  “I really like the lyrics,” he explained.  “Really, dad?” asked his son in astonishment, “but do you understand what the lyrics say?”  “Yeah, son, actually I do.”  There was a five-minute pause, before his son said…

“I’m gay,” his son sobbed, having dreaded this conversation for years.  (Just this week, his son Drew posted this)

Suddenly all the angst and theological gymnastics precipitated by Sara’s coming out to him all made sense.  This certainly did not feel like any kind of coincidence.  Even though the sequence of events now was starting to feel like the hand of Providence to Pastor Cortez, this was all still very foreign, nothing really made any sense at all. At least he had a better acceptance, if not understanding, of the journey.  How many of his colleagues had asked members of their own congregations to worship and seek counsel elsewhere? They would only be welcome back when they were “normal.”  So there he sat at the Gay Christian Conference, worried about his career, and his family.

So why was I sitting there, next to Danny and his wife?

On the Camino de Santiago, I had made a decision to make a difference with my own life.  Before his accident, my son had such a strong and loving connection with God that it overflowed onto every one he knew.  Surely he had confusion and anxiety about his SSA.  This was a challenge, adding some stumbles to his rocky road, but we all have some.  So how did he work it out with God?  Why did he enjoy such a healthy relationship and so many others, straight as well as gay do not?  I honestly don’t know, and I certainly don’t take any credit.

I can say that my son Cullen never heard the hateful sermons that I have read about.  They are “always our children,” and my minister has only pounded the lectern with messages of God’s love manifest through Jesus, who seemed most angry with those who sat in self-righteous judgment as hypocrites.  Our Church is a “hospital for sinners, not a sanctuary for saints.”  As a father, I embraced every conversation with him to use as a “parenting, even pastoral moment.”  Faith without journey is blind and shallow.  Our God invites our questions and doubts as we stumble through.  If there’s proof for everything and it all makes perfect sense, it’s not “faith” at all!

For my readers well versed in the Bible, we’re all aware of the seven famous “gotcha” verses in scripture which “seem” to condemn all aspects of homosexuality.  I’m not a scholar, but I am well enough read to know how the many versions, translations, and commentaries differ for a myriad of reasons, including cultural context.  I honestly only know one thing: I am sure of much less than I was a thousand bible hours ago.  I’ll not go into any more details here, it’s so easy to Google search until you find something you want to believe.  If you’re curious, and have no idea where to start, look at these people:  Rachel Held-Evans, Justin Lee, Andrew Marin, Alan Chambers, Susan Cottrell, Matthew Vines, Daniel Mattson, Kathy Baldock and Julie Rodgers.  These are really incredible people and really thought-provoking links, and many vehemently disagree with each other; All challenge the way we think, so come back and look at each one thoughtfully…

If reading and research sound like too much work, start by watching this video of the Robertsons, who lost their son Ryan to a drug overdose, with their initial evangelical rejection of his orientation playing a huge part of the story.  A shorter slide-show version here and also an animated one (bring tissues when you watch Ryan’s story).

I’m most devastated when I hear so many stories of rejection by their own families.  If we fail to provide unconditional love to our children, what message are we sending?  Are we the hypocrites so often condemned by so many of Jesus’ parables?  How can we possibly expect forgiveness, acceptance and unconditional love from our heavenly Father when we refuse to forgive, accept, and love our own children? (Mt 18:33)

These are statistics that most certainly must make Jesus very sad:

When gay youth are unaccepted by their family, they are:

  • eight times more apt to attempt suicide than those who are accepted
  • (The Trevor Project was formed specifically as a gay child suicide prevention website & hotline)
  • six times more susceptible to depression than those who are accepted
  • three times more likely to get involved in drug and alcohol abuse than gay youth that are accepted
  • three times more likely to contract HIV/AIDS and STD”D than gay youth that are accepted?

So I sat in my chair in the back of the room next to my new friends.  I looked around and I was honestly in awe.  I was in the room with over 700 people – many were parents there supporting their child and some were pastors learning how they could possibly change their approaches, but most were people with same-sex orientation there to worship Jesus Christ.  Yes, we were “in church” for much of the four-day conference.  I would look out at the crowd, and pretend that I was there with my own child and these were his friends.  They held their hands up high in worship, with every voice singing with such volume!  Every denomination was represented and standing together with the most ecumenical thing I have ever witnessed. This was, without doubt, one of several times in my life when I was sure the Holy Spirit was present and truly directing an experience.    (These are people that have been told not to return to their congregations until they had been repaired?)

Churches should be safe havens filled with a loving message of support.  The fact that many are not makes me confused.  Even if you think homosexual relationships are sinful, ESPECIALLY IF you think this, shouldn’t you be the one MOST welcoming to those seeking the love, forgiveness, and counsel of Jesus Christ?  As you sit in the pews and look around, you do realize you’re looking at the spouse cheat, the tax liar, the work thief, the hateful bigot, the one living in adultery, the porn addict, substance abuse cripple, and the jealous covet.  If you’re honest, you may see them in the mirror.  Who are we to exclude an entire group of others from standing next to us?

As you lament the fact that your own children have “lost their faith,” look closely.  This one piece of the puzzle may be a metaphor.  Our new generation has more empathy and is much more accepting of homosexuality today.  They see the loving “Christian” community that rejects and vilifies their gay friends as not very loving at all.  Clearly we don’t get much positive secular media coverage, but perhaps the biggest enemy of our faith is not outside the walls of our churches at all.

Before beginning the keynote address, the speaker specifically recognized the parents who were there supporting their children.  They stood to thunderous applause.  Pastor Cortez reached down and pulled me up.  “You’re son is here, and you should be standing up.”

I’m no theologian, and am an expert about nothing.  I have opinions that have been formed by my upbringing, my culture, my immediate environment, and my conscience.  If Pope Francis, who I believe is the Vicar of Christ on Earth can honestly say, “Who am I to judge?” then my slamming Leviticus over someone’s head would seem wrong.  If my boy could converse and embrace with our Lord the way he did, I feel I it a worthy enterprise to foster that kind of relationship in folks of all kinds, as best I’m able.  So, I’ve read dozens of books, attended this conference, as well as at The Marin Foundation.

In previous posts, I’ve described lots of my mistakes and failures and a few of the many times I’ve fallen far short; I’ve shared them for a reason.  Exposing your true self, warts and all, shows you’re vulnerable, approachable and able to relate.  It’s an invitation to others in my Church, my Community, and anyone who I might encounter who doesn’t know where to turn to approach me if they need resources. I’m not really sure what it will look like just yet, but I am forming a support mechanism, a ministry of sorts.  The perception seems to be that my Roman Catholic Church has no where to turn.  In fact, we have quite a few support mechanisms if you know where to find them; the most helpful support ministries are the folks themselves.

I have been there, walked in a parent’s shoes.  I’ve shouted at God, pleading for help, begging for answers. I’ve read dozens of books, spoken with mentors.  I’ve cried the tears of panic and anguish with concern for my son’s physical, mental, and spiritual health.  Because of the unique texture of my life Camino, I can be quite a resource.  There’s much comfort and consolation in knowing you are not alone when you face something so frightening.  I can direct concerned parents and their scared, confused children, as well as frustrated adults with many struggles associated with this journey.

Please feel free to contact me or pass this post on to someone who may need to hear this.

And, as always, I’d love to hear your comments.

Rev. Danny Cortez, Linda Robertson, me & Mrs.Cortez

Rev. Danny Cortez, Linda Robertson, me & Mrs.Cortez