Stories are powerful.
My last post told a piece of the story of how I became an LGBTQ-affirming Christian. That story began with someone else’s story, with a novella and a film and a character whose humanity got under my skin. Curiously, over a decade after I first saw Strawberry and Chocolate, the process of digging up reading materials for my international cinema class led me to another story of a gay man of faith. This time, it wasn’t a fictional character, though, it was a blogger by the name of Kenny Pierce.
At the time, his name didn’t stick with me, but his story did. It was a story of coming out in the 1980s, of alienation from the church, and of surviving the AIDS epidemic while many friends weren’t so lucky. It was a story (as I remember reading it then) that staked out Kenny’s unlikely place as a Christian against two opposing camps: anti-gay Christians and anti-Christian gays. It was a story of a faith that could not be escaped by fleeing the church or be drowned by alcohol. It was also a story that radiated pain and love, and it stayed with me.
About two years later, around last August, I happened to cross paths with Kenny on Twitter because we were both following The Moonshine Jesus Show, and eventually I made the connection between him and the blog I had read long before. Since then, Kenny and I have struck up an online friendship, and so naturally I shared my post about Strawberry and Chocolate and my journey to becoming an LGBTQ ally with him. He’s a film buff, so I expected him to appreciate it on a couple of levels.
I surprised by one of his responses, however. He found an echo between my story of struggling with belief and his own experience of coming out, and he commented that I had “described the earliest feelings incredibly well.” Curiously, both of our journeys had a cinematic catalyst; Kenny wrote, “It was a film (Making Love) that sent me driving for an afternoon, staring at the road and just feeling terror…”
As we talked over our experiences, Kenny added this wistful comment: “I wish to God that the conversation that we’re having now had happened with the 21 year old kid in 1985 that was Kenny.” He went on to wonder what would have happened if he and so many others like himself had not been ostracized from their church and home communities, only to take refuge in big cities where they felt safer but where many would fall victim to AIDS.
I found that I didn’t have the words to respond to Kenny’s wish, and I finally settled for “I know. Me too.”
The thing is, I don’t know. My experience is a world away from Kenny’s. We are decade and a half apart, thousands of miles apart, and different in gender, sexual orientation, and countless other life experiences.
Yet, in spite of that, he found an echo of his story in mine. And when I think about it, I can find many echoes of my own story in his: feeling alienated in a community where I once fit in, finding myself adrift, only tenuously connected to my childhood faith, and yearning to be accepted without having to hide part of who I am. Of course, the degree of those experiences and the pain that they caused are different, but the echoes are a start, if not toward total understanding, then toward the possibility of empathy and grace.
If I needed a box of bandaids to knit together my spiritual scars, Kenny needed a team of surgeons. But here we are, finding the light in each other’s scars.
I’m glad I stumbled across Kenny’s story. I’m glad that I paused to listen, and that such a simple act can be a source of healing and affirmation.
The tragedy is that no one can go back and listen to 21-year-old Kenny’s story. It is too late to prevent a great deal of pain, too late to right a great many wrongs done to Kenny and those of his generation.
The good news is that we have opportunities all around us to do better. Behind every kid struggling with identity, behind every hard choice, and behind every screw-up is a story waiting to be heard. Often, if we pause to listen, we can find echoes of our own stories in the most surprising places, and in those echoes we can find compassion and grace that we never knew we had in ourselves, or that we never thought we deserved from others. We can find a chance at understanding, healing, and reconciliation.
Stories are powerful, but only if we keep listening until they resonate with our own, until familiar echoes overwhelm the distortions of fear or ignorance or misunderstanding and remind us that where it counts, we are much the same. We all need to speak and to be drawn into conversation, we all need to hear and be heard, and we all need to be greeted with grace and love no matter where we are in our own story.
May we listen until we find ourselves alongside the other, and in doing so, may we turn our stories into tales of love, grace, and transformation.
Thanks to Kenny Pierce for allowing me to share his comments. If you would like to check out Kenny’s blog, I recommend these posts: On Death, Dying, and Those who Still Wait, The Light in My Scars, and That’s my Given Name but a Lot of People Call me HIV.
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