Voices from the Past: Homemaking in Pioneer Texas

This is another article written by my great-grandmother, Augusta, in the 1940s. I have made a few explanatory comments, in brackets, and have linked the article to relevant material available elsewhere online. Another article by Augusta—a story of the founding years of Comfort, Texas—is available here.

Mrs. Rosalie Hess Dietert

by Augusta Dietert Schulze (1871-1950)

Rosalie Dietert (bottom center) and her daughters, including Augusta Schulze (top left).

Rosalie Dietert (bottom center) and her daughters, including Augusta Schulze (top left).

Mrs. Christian or Rosalie Dietert [1833-1929] was a well-educated woman, having finished—as it was called—at a girls’ seminary at the University, City of Jena, Germany. She was a small dark haired, and brown-eyed woman, weighing about 110 pounds, though what she lacked in size she made up in a charming and energetic personality. Coming to a new and unsettled country still over-run with Indians did not daunt her. She went to live with Mrs. Theo. Wiedenfeld near Comfort[, Texas]. Later she went to live with a Mrs. Ridley some miles west of Comfort where she began the study of the English language.

After her marriage with Mr. Christian Dietert [1824-1902] she settled down in a small cabin in Comfort, to housekeeping with a skillet, a small dutch oven (which was a small round iron pot with three legs and a dented-in lid to hold live coals), and a brass kettle holding about one gallon, for cooking utensils. But they were enough for the little they had to cook in those days when they had to do the cooking on a fire outside their doors. Meat there was always plenty, venison, wild turkey, fish, occasionally bear, and later beef. In the beginning there were practically no vegetables. They made a salad of wild parsley and tea from a variety of the small prairie sage, and greens from the “lamb’s quarters” or “land squatters.” Mrs. Gustave Dietert, my father’s mother, brought some vegetable seeds when they came to Comfort in 1855.

Among them were some German peas which did exceptionally well here. Everyone was anxious to get a few for a start. It is noteworthy to state that the strain of this hardy pea has been kept and planted year after year by members of our family to our present time.

Some one brought a handful of squash seed to the colony which was distributed among friends; the fruits of these were not relished at first, but they flourished amazingly, and there were few vegetables to choose from. They soon learned to cook then and make them palatable.

For coffee they used a mixture of cracked and parched post oak acorns, rye and wheat grains. Later coffee was brought from Mexico. The furniture was home-made of walnut and cherry wood. [My family still has one of the bent-wood chairs, with a seat of cowhide.] The decorating was up to the women. Her home was not long without homey decorations. For the bare windows she made curtains from widths of a voluminous skirt of those days which were the admiration of all her friends; a wall basket that seemed to be a distinctive decoration of every pioneer home, to hold letters and patterns was a semi-circle foundation of stiffened cloth or paper and covered with a piece of material with cross-stitched flower design with colored wool thread; or a crocheted piece, or a velvet beaded piece, just whatever their store of treasure yielded. Mother was an expert at handiwork which she willingly taught others. Rugs were made of corn husks or plaited of worn-out trousers and coats. She also made lovely pieces of crochet for the dresser and table. Among her treasures from across the sea she brought a set of silver knives and forks and spoons and lovely linen table cloths. For their bed spreads they pieced and quilted the loveliest quilts, some of which can still be found in homes. Every spring the house got its inside and outside coat of white wash.

Quilt made by Rosalie Hess Dietert

Quilt made by Rosalie Hess Dietert

Once or twice a year a pattern package came from across the sea. This was always welcomed, for it contained all sorts of handiwork patterns and a large sheet with patterned lines running up and down and criss-cross, designating certain types of dress patterns. To me when I saw a last relic of one, they looked much like a road map of today. One of which shows paved, graveled, or all weather roads. They were eagerly sought after. Dangers of Indian raids were still prevalent, so visits between places were few. When they did visit, they went two, three, or four together on horseback and side saddles. Between the stretches of homes they went in a full gallop all the way. Horseback riding was one of mother’s first accomplishments in the new country.

In about 1870 some cook stoves were brought west as far as San Antonio, one of which mother became the proud possessor. No more out-door cooking in all sorts of weather—a stove and a real oven to bake bread and cakes! Her recipes were gotten out, and all sorts of good things were made for holidays and birthdays. The favorites were stollen
(loaf cake), pfeffernusse (spice cookies) and schnecken (a sweet dough rolled out flat and covered with brown sugar, cinnamon, raisins, currants and pecan meats. This was all rolled up, cut into slices and baked.) This recipe soon became very popular and was given to all who asked for it until it was used in most of the homes in Kerr county. Recently at a gathering I found a dish of schnecken and I asked about it. The maker said they were the “Dietert Cookies.” “My grandmother got the recipe from Mrs. Dietert. They are still our favorite cookies,” she said. I had the pleasure of telling her that I was one of Mrs. Dietert’s daughters. It may be of interest to add that mother used the popular sour dough for leavening for loaf cakes. They were set in a warm place to rise. For cookies eggs were used plentifully with lots of hard beating to incorporate air.

Rosalie Hess Dietert

Rosalie Dietert Hess (1833-1929), at Split Rock Farm near Kerrville, Texas, c. 1925.

As postmistress, mother learned to know everyone that came to Kerr county. Mrs. T. K. Carr once told me that when she came to Kerrville as a bride, her husband stopped to get his mail before going on to his ranch home near Harper, Texas. When mother learned that his bride was outside in the “buckboard,” she went out and brought the young Mrs. Carr into the house. It was a very cold wintery day and she had had nothing since they came through San Antonio. She said mother made her a cup of hot coffee and set a plate of schnecken before her. That was Mrs. Carr’s introduction to Kerr county, an act she always remembered.

Mother played no musical instruments, but she had a sweet singing voice and taught her children many Lutheran church hymns. Most of the Christmas carols are still popular today. While frequently attending services in churches of other denominations, she remained true to her Lutheran faith to the end.

* * *
From a biographical sketch Augusta dictated to her daughter-in-law in the 1940s: Rosalie Hess was born in Bavaria, Germany in 1833, the daughter of Alfred Hess & Clara Graefe Hess. She had one brother, Rudolph Hess, who remained in Germany. No sisters. Rosalie’s father taught graphic art at the University of Jena. Her mother died when she was 13 and after her father’s death 6 years later, she lived awhile with her married brother and engaged in tutoring. This life was distasteful to her and she joined friends and sailed for America [on March 15, 1854], bringing a few of her cherished possessions including a few of her mother’s jewels and her father’s art.

* * *

From a school project published in a local paper  by one of Rosalie’s granddaughters:

“‘Grandma, what was here when you came to Kerrville?’

‘Nothing, my child, but a cluster of five small log huts, of one or two rooms, a wilderness of trees, and grass as high as a man, with Indians skulking through. Your grandfather built the sixth house. It had three rooms and was built of cypress timbers cut on the saw mill he set up at the place where the ice plant now stands.’

Thus answered Grandmother Dietert to a query of her great-granddaughter, who looked at a slightly built woman of 93 years…

‘What ever made you leave your home, brave the sea and throw your lot in an unknown land?’

‘With me it was the spirit of adventure. All the papers were full of the new world and of Texas. With the men it was for the most part a question of political freedom.'”

* * *

Oral history from Edith Schulze Stromberg, Rosalie Dietert’s granddaughter: “My grandmother had twelve babies in the wilderness, without a doctor around. There was a lady who knew what to do – there was no medication or life support. People had a lot of babies – if they lost one, they knew they would have more. Sometimes my grandfather had to do the honors and deliver the babies.” Christian’s & Rosalie’s children, in order of birth, were Gustave Dietert (1855-1939), Clara Dietert Ochse (1858-1913), Lena Dietert Herzog (1859-1933), Emelia Dietert Enderle (1863-1938), Rudolph Dietert (1865-1941), Henry Dietert (1867-1944), Otto Dietert, Augusta Dietert Schulze (1871-1950), and then the three youngest girls—Emma Dietert Rosenthal (1874-1938), Valeska Dietert Mosel (1877-1945), and Flora Dietert Weiss (b. 1879)—who, according to Augusta, “became my charges as I grew.” One daughter, Rosalie, died in infancy.

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Voices from the Past

I found the following newspaper clipping in my great-grandmother’s scrapbook, with a penciled notation that it was published in 1908. It tells the story of the early years of Comfort, Texas, the settlement founded by my pioneer great-great-grandparents (among others).  Having recently shared with my friends a photograph of my great-grandmother, which a note about the literary club she started that lasted for more than a century, I am happy to be able to share some of her wonderful writing, as well.

Comfort, Texas“[T]he first installment of a story of the founding and early history of Comfort, written by Mrs. Herm. Schulze and read by her at the latest meeting of the Comfort Literary and Social Club.  This sketch made such a favorable impression upon its auditors on the occasion referred to, that a number of persons suggested that it be published in The News for the entertainment and enlightenment of the people generally; and particularly the younger generation, to whom much that is contained in this article will doubtless be absolutely new.”

Early History of Comfort

by Augusta Schulze (1871-1950)

“How dear to our hearts are the scenes of our childhood,” sang the poet. Equally dear and full of interest are the stories of the past told by our grandfathers. Time does not mar their value, but appears instead to wrap about them a sort of veil of mystery, till they seem almost like fairy stories, finally becoming folk-lore and legends. So does the story of Comfort with its picturesque setting and the trials of our pioneers become a pastoral as sung by the pioneer poet, Fritz Goldbeck.

On the 27th of August, 1854, there arrived at the small site where Comfort [Texas] now stands a small party of men. From New Braunfelds they came led by Ernst Altgelt, attorney-in-fact for one [Vless?] of New Orleans who owned the tract of land where Comfort is laid out.

With tents, provisions and a few household goods piled high on big wagons drawn by oxen (the only means of travel in Texas in those days) they reached the little stream all edged with green, which they called Cypress creek, after the trees along its banks.

Though they were tired and travel-worn, they were so charmed by the scenery, the verdant valleys and hills, sparkling waters and the hearty welcome they received from the one lone man living in his little cabin on the west bank of the stream, and feeling so comfortable in their camp, they called the place, “Camp Comfort.”

These daring men were Altgelt, Holekamp, Fuch, Grothaus, Dietert, Goldbeck, Schimmelpfenig, Mueller, Kutsfeld, Breitenbach, two Teligman Bros. and Brunke; and Brunke it was who gave to the most prominent hill and the different valleys the names of which they are still called today.  Near Comfort there are the Rigi and Jungfrau, up Cypress creek valley there are the Wolkenberg, Lazy Valley, Wallachei and Hasenwinkel.

These men were nearly every one of them University men, and almost every profession was represented; There was the Doctor, the master Carpenter, the Millwright, the Professor, the Surveyer, the Farmer, the Geologist; even the Poet and Musician were among them, all ready to brave any danger “with a heart for any fate.”

These first settlers were sturdy, thrifty Germans, who having heard of the new and wonderful state of Texas, had left the Fatherland to cast their lot among the hills of Southwest Texas. They brought no riches with them, only the wealth of brave hearts and strong arms.

They did not come to idle, but at once set about the work of surveying and laying out the streets and town lots, of Comfort. A place was reserved for a park and further down was the market place. Over a little rise behind the town, on the side of a gentle slope, they reserved an acre, where those who had fulfilled their mission on earth might rest. “Friedhoff,” it is called in German.

Then there began to echo through the valley the sound of the ax; all were busy felling the big trees, hewing and shaping them into logs and splitting them into shingles. The poet and the doctor, by the side of the carpenter and millwright swung their axes with willing arm and telling stroke. “One for all, and all for one,” was their motto.

Thus was built the first log house in Comfort on the lot bought by Holekamp, who hastened back to New Braunfels to return quickly with his wife and children, thus becoming the first family in the town of Comfort; although, about two miles west of the settlement there already ived Mr. Schladoer and his family; also Theo. Wiedenfeld who with his young bride had come from New Braunfels the year previous.  With the latter couple lived a young lady, Rosalie Hess, who had come from Germany only a short time before.

After the erection of Holekamp’s log house, Altgelt’s store was built on the place where Mr. Walter Brinkmann’s furniture store now stands.

Then came another family, the Willes, and gladly were they welcomed; for the blacksmith with his hammer and anvil is a most necessary adjunct to any town, particularly a frontier one. Then came the Lindners and Flachs, both desirable families, and both heartily welcomed.

No sooner was one log house finished than another was begun. The little settlement was all life and activity. And now the work on the Mill was begun. The Mill which was to saw the logs and boards and grind the corn! The power was furnished by a huge water-wheel, fed by the waters of Cypress creek.  It stood just beyond the first crossing above the town, and on the hill above it was erected Bachelors’ Hall, which is still to be seen. The remnant of the old dam which still reaches half way across the creek bed two miles above town, is a silent witness of this enterprise that failed. For how were these strangers in a new land to know that the streams here in Texas were dependent absolutely upon the rainfall for their supply of water?  Far different are the mill streams of old Germany, which are fed by the snow-covered Alps; and which like Tennyson’s “Brook,” just go on and on forever.

The year that these pioneers came to Comfort had been one of much rainfall, and perhaps also were the years preceding it; then followed several very dry years and the water in the stream disappeared just as it has done this summer of 1907. As a result the mill had to be abandoned on account of lack of water power, scarcely two years after its completion.

And now let us learn something about the arrangement of the homes: Furniture such as the house wife delights in today, was conspicuous by its absence. For chairs the rejected shingle blocks did duty; the bedding which was spread out on the floor at night, was in the morning rolled into a neat bundle and stowed away in a corner; the table was home made from stout cypress boards, but kept always spotless and white by the liberal use of sand and water.

As the house boasted of only one room the house wife had not far to go from parlor to kitchen. Her only stove was a camp fire just outside the door, and her oven was merely a skillet with a lid. When baking bread the skillet was placed on a bed of hot coals, and a pile of hot coals heaped over the lid.

Of game there was plenty: the deer and wild turkey, with an occasional bear, roamed the woods in large numbers. But the Germans are fond of vegetables, and because as yet they had no gardens, the good house wife cooked the dandylion and wild spinach, and for a salad prepared the wild portuac, and if the tea canister happened to be empty she gathered on the prairie a fresh supply of very drinkable tea. And everything tasted good because Mother cooked it. And, although she was dressed in plain homespun, no queen every ruled more supreme in her domain than did this pioneer housewife and mother, and her influence reached far.

The first winter found the colonists comfortably housed in several small log houses. And as the winters are never very severe here in Texas, everybody was happy and contented, and as none was rich, none was envious.

When Christmas came they prepared for a great celebration in the colony.  At Altgelt’s store they gathered, one and all. A small cypress was brought in to serve as a Christmas tree. Although there were few ornaments and lights and fewer presents, it was the best substitute they could produce for the tree they had always had at home. So they sang Christmas carols and the dear, old German songs they all loved so well, and Schimmelpfenig played his clarionet or violin, moving his hearers to tears or laughter with his music. They were a light hearted people, everyone, and they wished each other “Merry Christmas” over and over again, and drank health and happiness one to the other and prosperity to Camp Comfort, for Altgelt, the leader, had not neglected to bring a supply of wine from New Braunfels.

Then came the New Year, and such frolicking there was! For several parties of young men had been added to the colony.  Every wagon that came brought new members.

Altgelt had donated twelve charges of powder, and with their small brass cannon the settlers shot out the old and shot in the new year, and such was the noise and the glare of bonfires, that the deer coming down to their accustomed drinking place, paused there; then turned and fled afar into the forest.

This cannon had been brought with them for protection in case of trouble with the Indians, but they never had occasion to use it, as they were a peaceable people and were not molested.

The only trouble they ever did have with the Indians came years later, and then consisted mostly of loss of horses and cattle which the Indians stole. To illustrate how sly these red skins were: My father owned a fine horse, and for safety always tied him to a ring attached to the side of the door of his log house. He also put a bell on the horse. One morning his horse was missing, and the bell which he had heard jangling occasionally through the night was found hanging to a sumach branch which the breeze swung to and fro, causing the bell to give forth an occasional sound, as though worn by the horse.

With the spring activities began anew, for the land must be broken and gotten ready for the planting, and the good wife had been pleading for a garden plot with a fence around it, for she already had a dozen chickens and a cow.

More families came into the colony in the spring; and wonder of wonders, a babe was born in the colony! A boy he was, lusty and fine. The same is now our jolly miller, Ernst Flach.

Bye and bye several young ladies came to the colony, and their presence gave rise to thoughts of parties and dancing. And as the people had no hall, they decided to enjoy a ball in the open under the stars. So, on the grass under a broad spreading oak they danced, and the moon lent his silvery light.  Herr Schimmelpfenig sitting aloft on a limb of the oak, played his violin, and if there were not enough ladies to go around, the men danced with one another, for there were only three single ladies and five married ones to twenty-five men at this, the first ball in the colony of Comfort. But the men were not selfish, and exchanged partners often; and, as they waltzed to the strains of the “Beautiful Blue Danube,” there were no happier nor lighter hearted people in the world. And the big round moon overheard made a very queer face, as he gazed on this happy scene, for he had seen revels here before, and councils of war, under this same spreading oak. But they were of a people copper hued and of wilder habits, brandishing weapons of warfare.

And so, when the first year in the history of the settlement was round, the colony was flourishing. People came from everywhere, and, even as today, they were charmed with the surroundings, and stayed there.

Their chief occupation in those days was shingle making. There was a demand for shingles in San Antonio. So every one went to making shingles by hand with a sort of large draw-knife. And those who owned a wagon and team of oxen hauled loads of shingles to the city, and brought back provisions and clothing.

After the day’s work was done, and the tools were laid aside, all gathered round the camp fire that threw its cheerful light far out into the forest, and high into the branches of the giant cypress threes, and out across the limpid water, turning it to molten gold. There they sat, and told stories of the home and the Fatherland. Then Huber would play his zither and sing in a soft mellow voice, and they would all join in the choruses of the songs they loved. And Schimmelpfenig would play his clarionet while all listened enraptured. For who was there who could withstand the indescribable charm of his music?  When the fire burned low, and the moon told of the lateness of the hour, each would hie away to his log house, and all was once more dark and quiet in the forest.

Before the first year was round the little “Friedhoff” had its first grave, but Death in his selection was merciful, for he took an old man, an aged hermit, who had dwelt alone in his log house, his only companions being two faithful hounds. One morning the men on their way to their work of shingle making found his lifeless body under the giant cypress tree which had been his favorite resting place. Here the old man always came to rest and to dream of his lost love. Gossiping tongues, it seems, had come between them, causing each to believe the other false. She took the veil and became the bride of the church, while he left home and all that was dear to him, and came out into the hills of Texas to bury his grief. Faithfully he kept his secret from human hears. But as he sat under his Cypress he was wont to whisper it to his faithful hounds, and the branches waving above him heard the story, and the breezes carried it afar. So, under his cypress he had fallen into his last dreamless sleep, and here they found him, his devoted dogs keeping watch, and whining by his side.

The passing years brought many changes.  It is now the 27th day of Sept. 1879, and the 25th anniversary of the founding of Comfort. There is a great celebration of two days duration in Comfort’s park.  There were speeches and recitations from Goldbeck, the poet, who had written a special poem for this occasion.

The familiar faces are nearly all still there, only older grown and traced with lines telling of years of responsibility. And their hair, once shining brown, is now streaked with white. Their children who were toddling babies when the colony was new, are now promising young men and rosy cheeked young women. The colon with its dozen log houses has grown to a fair sized town, with beautiful gardens; while on every side may be seen large and well-kept farms. Every one is hopeful and looking forward to a glorious future.

Again the years go by. Twenty five more are added to the past. It is the 4th of Sept. 1904, and the Golden Jubilee, 50 years since the founding of Comfort. Again there is much merry making; flags floating, bands playing, and a grand procession. In the vehicles occupying the place of honor may be seen the few first settlers still remaining, their dear faces deeply lined and their hair as white as snow. The youths and maidens of the 25th anniversary are now middle aged men and women, whose bright faced children are hurrahing and enjoying the day as only children can, all representatives of Comfort’s future.

Great and various changes have taken place. The little town can now almost be called a small city. The little, one roomed stores have grown to large business houses.  A fine stone building has taken the place of the little log school house. Church spires point heavenward, and the beautiful residences with their well kept gardens lining every street furnish evidence of thrift, and bear testimony of the traditional love of home of the German people.

And the busy arms of the railroad have now stretched themselves to and beyond Comfort, the trains bringing from San Antonio and other places hundreds of people, many of whom in years gone by, had left Comfort in a wagon drawn by oxen, little dreaming that they would one day return in a coach drawn by steam.

Thus we reach the present day. Who can foretell the bright future Comfort may have before her?  Through the fame of her life-giving ozone Comfort has already become a world renowned health resort. And where can be found a people who are so hospitable, social and free? How very true is the oft heard remark, which in time may become an axiom:  “Es gibt nur ein Comfort.”


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What I learned as a rape crisis advocate

“I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something God intended to happen…”—Richard Mourdock, explaining why the government should require women who are raped to bear their rapists’ children to full term.

In the early 1990s, I volunteered for awhile as a rape crisis advocate, “on call” for emergency room visits to sit with people (mostly women) who came in for examination and treatment after being raped.  Every time I got one of those middle-of-the-night calls and fumbled to find my clothes and car keys for the ER trip, I’d feel an initial wave of anxiety and fear, not knowing what situation I might face and wondering how I could possibly do or say anything of use to the person I would encounter.  And though every one of those calls invited me to walk briefly with someone else on one of the very worst days of that person’s life, one call stands out in my mind more than any other.

The phone call woke me around 2 a.m. and summoned me to a different hospital than the one I normally visited—a Catholic hospital, it turned out.  At the ER, I encountered a teenage girl who’d been beaten and gang raped by several young men.  Because of her condition, the police had rushed her straight to the nearest hospital, rather than the one normally designated to receive sexual assault victims.  But her injuries turned out not to be life-threatening, so it wasn’t till she’d been waiting for a couple hours in a flimsy gown under the fluorescent lights of the exam room that we learned the hospital, on moral grounds, refused to supply her with the dose of hormones that would cause her to immediately menstruate.  Other local hospitals routinely offered this to survivors of rape, since a dose of the drugs within 72 hours would prevent implantation if a woman’s egg was fertilized during rape.  I offered to help this young woman get to a different ER, where she’d probably have to wait for several more hours and tell her story all over again to a different set of providers. But it was about 4 a.m. by that time, she was completely exhausted, and she asked to just finish up and go home to her shower and warm bed.  I wasn’t surprised.  I never heard what happened to her after that night, but I never forgot her, either.

Years later, it still makes me furious that the hospital cared more about the two to eight cells that might have multiplied inside that young woman, than about the emotional and physical welfare of a very real, very hurt teenager who had just been gang-raped. The hospital chose to wash its hands of the situation, leaving the young woman to confront later the knowledge of any resulting conception and the terrible choice of whether to undergo an abortion or bear her rapists’ baby to term.  Even God doesn’t display such deep concern for the fertilized egg:  between one third and one half naturally fail to implant and are lost.  But the hospital’s policy—in the name of God’s will—actually made it more likely that this teenager and other women in the same situation would go on to have abortions two or four or fourteen weeks after being raped.

Early on in my rape crisis work, I feared perhaps more than anything else that I wouldn’t know the “right” thing to say to someone who had been raped.  That fear resolved pretty quickly, as I learned I would never have the slightest inkling of an answer for any person I encountered in that situation. Instead, rape crisis advocacy taught me the power and value of being fully present for another person, without trying to impose my own answers.  On those calls, I could keep someone company, give them useful practical information, and help to calm and educate their family members—and that’s about it.  I couldn’t presume to tell anyone how to make sense of what happened.  And I can’t possibly imagine ever looking a women in the eye and telling her that being raped was what God intended for her.  Least of all if the rape resulted in a pregnancy she’d have to carry or abort.  That kind of answer would be hers alone to seek and to find.

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Did they hesitate?

She stood wobbily like a sullen drunk interrupted from sleep, and I knew I had to kill her.

The car had broken her wing, cracked her head and unhinged her jaw—sprawled on the road, she hadn’t looked alive till I’d touched her and she stood. I turned to the young mother who had come to my door with her boy to deliver the bad news and told her she might want to take her son elsewhere for a moment. Then I crouched to the asphalt, laid my palm on my chicken’s back, hesitated in a brief apology, and wrung her neck with a hunter’s quick flip.

buff orpington #1

Buff Orpington #1

I knew to expect the flapping and kicking that followed: my mom and grandmother had told me often enough how my great-grandmothers would flop a chicken over a stump, behead it with an axe to the delight of the waiting barnyard cats, and then watch the body run around senseless till it dropped. The implications of that are somewhat unsettling, if you’ve ever heard the story of “Mike the Headless Chicken.”

That it made me sad to dispatch her, too, did not surprise me.  I’ve felt it every time I’ve had to kill a fish or bird I intended to eat, in the moment of apology—the silent “thanks-sorry”—that precedes the act. I hope I always feel it. Perhaps one thing that’s allowed the industrialization of our food supply to go so awry is that we don’t ever have to face the fact of killing our meals, unless we choose to.  Who says thanks and sorry to their chicken strips or fish sticks?

And when all the life had run out of her, I cleaned and dressed my hen for mealtime.  I couldn’t let her go to waste, even if I don’t eat her myself. As my friend observed, I had done all the work to raise her, feed her, and care for her, and I had done the hard part of killing her:  I should follow in the footsteps of my grandmothers, say a little prayer of thanks, and eat her as well.  How strange my qualms, when generations of us have killed and eaten the animals we’ve fed by hand from birth. We hadn’t given our chickens names for this reason, after all.  But my menu plan isn’t sorted out just yet.

Funny enough, I’m still sad about losing that chicken the day afterward.  Three chickens don’t seem like nearly as many as four, and the coop looked a little sparse when I “tucked them in” last night.  But the three we have left have gone about their business of bug-scratching, clucking, and egg-laying with no second thoughts—they’re chickens for goodness’ sake.  And even chickens, it turns out, are capable of showing me how change is inevitable, and how my suffering relates to resisting it.

Did they hesitate? My great grandmothers, and their grandmothers, when they put a flapping fowl to the block?

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Wag More, Bark Less

CashI took my dogs to the dog park this morning to take advantage of the cool air and run some energy off of them. Cash, my favorite of the three, is the dog of my heart: a big, black Labrador-Great Pyrenees mix, noble, loving, obedient and true. He’s easy-going and friendly, though no push over, and like many big dogs, he thankfully doesn’t exhibit that need to “prove himself” in fights with others.

Shortly after we arrived at the park, I saw one dog chasing another dog over and around a picnic table, until the second dog began yipping and some humans intervened to chase off the aggressor. The two dogs never fought or had any physical contact, and it wasn’t even clear that what they were doing was anything other than normal dog play, but the humans around were yelling pretty loudly, which made the incident sound alarming. A few other dogs, including Cash, noticed and ran around to investigate, then raced off with the more submissive pup in what appeared to be a typical game of dog-park chase. I didn’t like to see Cash run out of my line of sight, so I whistled him back.

Apparently, I didn’t whistle him back soon enough for the taste of one man, who began loudly yelling at me to “get your dog under control!” I was surprised and confused to be yelled at—Cash had not growled or barked or raised his hackles and had come when I called him—and I thought perhaps he’d mistaken me for the owner of the dog who’d originally made the other dog yip. I pointed at Cash and said, “That’s my dog, and he’s come when I’ve called him, so I’m not sure what the trouble is.” The guy continued to loudly admonish me, so I told him if he calmed down that would help keep the dogs calm. The man fussed a bit more and then sat down at some distance from me.

A few moments later, however, the man approached me again, again angrily fussing about me letting my dog “run out of control.” At this point I was pretty annoyed, since Cash was off by himself sniffing something and up to no trouble. I told the man we were in a dog park and dogs often chase each other in the park and that I didn’t care to discuss it with him any more. He continued angrily fussing at me, so I turned my back on him. At this point, he yelled, “Well f*ck you, you passive little b*tch, I hope you eat sh*t and die!” Fortunately, at this point, he stormed out of the park.

Instead of enjoying the rest of my time at the park, I sat around fuming and fantasizing about things I could have said or done to the man — and believe me, my thoughts weren’t pretty. Even when I got home, I found myself still poisoned with his anger, irritable about completely unrelated things and inclined to “pay it forward” by visiting my irritation on others.  Thich Nhat Hanh says anger is like a furiously screaming baby; he advises that we treat our anger like a mother treats her screaming infant, holding and soothing it till the screaming ends and we understand what the baby needs.  So when I realized what I was doing, I stopped, breathed, meditated on my own anger, and tried to care for it as best I could.   I’m glad I didn’t say or do any of the rash things my anger suggested, but I wish I hadn’t taken in that man’s anger and made it so much my own.

“And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity…and sets on fire the course of our life…” (James 3:6).

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“Love the Republican Party, Tired of Defending It.”

Listening to Chris Rock’s funny (explicit) routine on defending rap music, I can’t help but to draw the mental comparison to the “Mitt Storm” of politics this week.  Here’s my adaptation…from the point of view of a Reagan-era Republican (Thanks for the inspiration, JJC):


Now I’m 39, right? And I still love the Republican Party.  I love the Republican Party.  I love it…but I’m tired of defending it.

Cause you gotta defend the Republican Party, because people always say, “There’s no philosophy! There’s no ideology! It’s all corporate money!  How can you vote for those a**holes?! How can you support those rich guys?”

And in the old days, it was easy to defend the Republican Party. It was easy to defend it on an intellectual level.  You could break it down intellectually why Reagan had a foreign policy of nuclear deterrence.  Why George Bush Sr. was a “compassionate conservative.” Why “limited government” was more than just a buzzword to get votes.  You could defend it intellectually.

And I love all the Republicans today, but it’s hard to defend this sh*t.  It’s hard man.  It’s hard to defend, “Legitimate rape.”  It’s hard to defend, “The 47 percent  of voters who think of themselves as victims and believe they are entitled to food and medical care.”

“Well as you can see, 47 percent of the population pays no income tax.  And they have to be living on something.  Thus the term, ‘entitlement’.  Clearly, all of those people are voting for my opponent.  There’s no way I could persuade them to take personal responsibility for their lives.”

My favorite Republican right now is impossible to defend.  It’s impossible.  We should all be ashamed of ourselves for nominating this a**hole.  Mitt Romney.  You know that guy:  “I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. (Middle income is $200,000 to $250,000.) I like being able to fire people who provide services to me. There were a couple of times I wondered whether I would get a pink slip. I should tell my story. I’m also unemployed. My wife drives a couple of Cadillacs. If I was Latino, I’d have a better chance of winning. No one’s ever asked to see MY birth certificate. I’ll tell you what, ten-thousand bucks? $10,000 bet?

And you know what’s real wild?  You go down south, you’ll see working class folks all over that sh*t.  “That’s right, no more entitlements!  No more Social Security!  No more minimum wage!  No more government regulations!  Drill Baby Drill!  Too old to take care of yourself?  Well f*** you, we don’t have enough money left in the system to cover your nursing home bills.”

I feel sorry for the children that get born to this bunch:  Daddy, why can’t you afford to send me to college?  “Shut up son, those ivory tower elitists are just trying to turn you into a homosexual athiest.”

That’s why, people always say, “The Republican Party is just a mouthpiece for multi-national corporations.  They’re waging class warfare on the 99%.”  But what I realize, man, is 99% of the folks who vote Republican Don’t Give a F***.  Christians who vote Republican, don’t care what they saying.  If the guy’s pro-life and opposes gay marriage they will work all night to get ’em elected.  They don’t give a f*** about the rest of the platform.  The more selfish and manipulative the politician, the better.

I see apparently normal people on the Internet spouting the nastiest sh*t ever said.  Just out there writing stuff like:  Those homosexuals who want to marry are trying to destroy our families.  Women who want health insurance companies to cover birth control are sluts and whores.  Our president is a socialist, a Communist, a Muslim:  just look at his middle name. He hates this country.  What about his birth certificate anyway?

And you know what’s wild? If you mention to a working-class or middle-class Republican that the Party is sold out to the richest 1%, it only serves the rich guys, it only helps the corporations, they’re all the same:  “They aint’ talking bout me!”

Those folks on extended unemployment are irresponsible and lazy.

He just said your name!

“No he didn’t!…We don’t need no stinking stimulus plan. That’s a just a waste of money.”

Those veterans on disability have no sense of personal responsibility, they’re quite satisfied to be dependent on the people who pay taxes.

“He ain’t talking ’bout me!  We need a Commander in Chief who’ll keep queers out of the barracks.”

Love the Republican Party, tired of defending it, man.

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“The day has come for us to stop hiding behind an unjust law…”

United Methodist Bishop Melvin Talbot has become the target of calls for censure by conservatives within the UMC, for urging clergy to conduct marriage ceremonies in disobedience of church rules he says are “immoral and unjust and no longer deserve our loyalty and obedience.”

In a hundred years or so, Bishop Talbot and the other brave clergy who stand with him will be looked on the way we look today at the Christian leaders of the Abolition movement.

The lovers of the law who have attacked him–and who devote themselves tirelessly to the work of withholding from gays and lesbians the same rights and status they enjoy for themselves–can wrap themselves in their pinpoint verse cites, and their analogies from Genesis, and deny cultural context, and so forth–just like the pro-slavery clergy of the 1800s comforted themselves with the Book of Philemon and the descendents of Ham, etc.–but they will one day be an embarrassment to the Church.  For a reminder of this struggle, a good long dose of Fredrick Douglass’s “My Bondage and My Freedom,” is in order.

Instead of preaching the gospel against this tyranny, rebuke, and wrong, ministers of religion have sought, by all and every means, to throw in the back-ground whatever in the bible could be construed into opposition to slavery, and to bring forward that which they could torture into its support. This I conceive to be the darkest feature of slavery, and the most difficult to attack, because it is identified with religion, and exposes those who denounce it to the charge of infidelity. Yes, those with whom I have been laboring, namely, the old organization anti-slavery society of America, have been again and again stigmatized as infidels, and for what reason? Why, solely in consequence of the faithfulness of their attacks upon the slaveholding religion of the southern states, and the northern religion that sympathizes with it.

I have found it difficult to speak on this matter without persons coming forward and saying, ‘Douglass, are you not afraid of injuring the cause of Christ? You do not desire to do so, we know; but are you not undermining religion?’ This has been said to me again and again, even since I came to this country, but I cannot be induced to leave off these exposures. I love the religion of our blessed Savior. I love that religion that comes from above, in the ‘wisdom of God, which is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy.’ I love that religion that sends its votaries to bind up the wounds of him that has fallen among thieves. I love that religion that makes it the duty of its disciples to visit the father less and the widow in their affliction. I love that religion that is based upon the glorious principle, of love to God and love to man; which makes its followers do unto others as they themselves would be done by. If you demand liberty to yourself, it says, grant it to your neighbors. If you claim a right to think for yourself, it says, allow your neighbors the same right. If you claim to act for yourself, it says, allow your neighbors the same right. It is because I love this religion that I hate the slaveholding, the woman-whipping, the mind-darkening, the soul-destroying religion that exists in the southern states of America. It is because I regard the one as good, and pure, and holy, that I cannot but regard the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked.

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Responses to ‘The Heart of Christianity’ (part 1)

Over the last twenty years or so, I haven’t spent a lot of my time worrying about “belief” in God. “What do you believe?” just hasn’t been a relevant question for me. When I have needed spiritual nourishment, I’ve turned to sources that suit me:  in one city, a traditional Quaker meeting, in another, an explicitly gay-friendly Christian church, and very often over the years, writings and poetry, as well as a (rather undisciplined) discipline of breathing meditation as explained by Thich Nhat Hanh.  But as for “belief,” I have been content to allow any questions to remain unresolved.

And yet, as we contemplate as a family the prospect of rejoining a church membership, Judith and I have been talking about what “faith” means.  This naturally raises questions about the significance of belief in church doctrine.  Marcus J. Borg in “The Heart of Christianity” discusses the concept of faith as “assensus” in a way that boils down one of my concerns:

That the Christian faith is about belief is a rather odd notion, when you think about it. It suggests that what God really cares about is the beliefs in our heads—as if ‘believing the right things’ is what God is most looking for, as if having ‘correct beliefs’ is what will save us.

. . .

[F]aith as belief is relatively impotent, relatively powerless. You can believe all the right things and still be in bondage. You can believe the right things and still be miserable. You can believe the right things and still be relatively unchanged. Believing a set of claims to be true has very little transforming power.

The kind of Christianity I practiced as a young woman overtly claimed to focus on a person’s relationship with God (through Jesus) as the key to Christian faith, but in fact required all sorts of specific beliefs seen as inherent to salvation. These included beliefs about the inerrancy of the Bible, Christian exclusivity, and a host of life rules corollary to “proper” interpretation of scripture—for example, that women should be subjugated to men and should not be ministers/pastors, that some common conduct such as drinking alcohol is sinful—and of particular concern to me, that all same-sex relationships are an “abomination” to God.  Consistent with what Borg observed, none of these beliefs were transformative for me; rather, I found the real transforming power of that brand of Christianity in the practice and pursuit of a genuine relationship with a living and accessible God.  Each of the “required” beliefs I’ve listed became stumbling blocks for me as time went by, and when enough of those stumbling blocks developed, I found I did not belong in that kind of Christian world any longer.

I mistrust the idea that salvation—right relationship with God—hinges upon correct belief. We believe what we believe in our heart of hearts because experience, culture, contemplation, study—all of life, really—leads us to those beliefs. Faith as belief in something contrary to what life teaches—as an artificial expression of consent to what one rejects—strikes me as absurd. Salvation as contingent on “belief” like that seems cruel, unhealthy, and unworthy of any divine plan. It’s comparable to having a relationship with a partner who imposes arbitrary tests to determine your commitment—revealing an immature, insecure personality.  And any study of the history of Christianity from its earliest roots right through to the present day teaches how “correct” belief has been tied to, and used for, power and dominion over others, completely contrary to Jesus’ own teachings. (See, for example, the encounter leading to Mark 10:45).

Yet if faith is not “assensus”/belief, what is it?  In my own experience, what I can accept without dishonesty is faith as trust.  When we have faith in someone, we trust them, we have confidence in their intentions and abilities, we are open and vulnerable to them.  And I find that for years, I have held and been nourished by a faith-as-trust in God, without seeing any need to put “God” in any precise doctrinal cubbyhole.

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Eulogy (What we have to learn from the life of a Centenarian)

Edith Augusta Schulze Stromberg

Edith Augusta Schulze Stromberg

Every one of you who spent any time with my grandmother, Edith Stromberg, will probably remember her as a storyteller.  She told us stories of her childhood in the Texas Hill Country, stories of our childhoods, stories of her life as a young woman and her long life with my grandfather, R.E.

Some of her stories were oral histories of the German pioneers in Kerr County, Texas:  for example, there was the story of the women of Comfort who rode to the South Texas on horseback after the end of the Civil War to bring back the bones of the German men who had fought for the Union and died at the Battle of Nueces in 1862.

Some were stories of adversity, like the heartache it caused her when she won first place in a competition as a young girl, but wasn’t given the prize because, with the prejudice against Germans during World War I, the newspaper wouldn’t print that the contest had been won by a German child.

Many—maybe even most—of her stories were humorous anecdotes, because my grandmother had a dry wit and a fine sense of humor.  She always liked to remind people of the time I, as a young girl, looked up from a plateful of expertly-prepared home-grown vegetables she had served me, and told her that anything tastes good if you put enough ketchup on it.  She never let Barbara forget the time she came home, smelled something good cooking in the kitchen, and committed the cardinal sin of lifting the lid on the Fluffy Dumplings causing them to collapse. She had dozens of stories like this, funnier ones in fact; I just wish I had a memory like hers to recall them.

I remember one story she told me, about when she got her first job.  It was during the time of the Dust Bowl, when she’d just graduated at The Texas State College for Women in Denton and come back to the Hill Country, looking for her first job teaching home economics in Austin.  When the principal at Allen Junior High school got her application, and learned that her mother Augusta had won a state-wide homemaking competition, he figured my grandmother probably had a thing or two to teach his students and declared, “Hire that girl!”  Even 80 years later, after my grandmother lost most of her vision and hearing, and could barely even converse, she still loved to hear and tell that story and proudly exclaim with a big smile, “Hire that girl!”  It was a moment of great affirmation she loved to think about, one of so many fond memories she had accumulated over a century of life.

After my grandmother had reached the age of 100, people would remark about her age, as if to live for one hundred years and beyond was, in and of itself, an accomplishment.  To me, though, her accomplishment was not that she had lived for over a century, but that she had done such a good job of it.  I see that in several qualities about my grandma that I hope  I am able to emulate.

First, perhaps as a consequence of her German pioneer heritage, my grandmother was a very practical woman who, instead of clinging to one way of doing things, planned ways to adapt to change, which is of course inevitable. In her 80’s, she organized all the things in her house in carefully labeled boxes, and told me that’s because she knew one day she wouldn’t be able to remember where she put them. In her late 90’s, when she needed the money from her house to help support her life in a nursing home, my grandmother made the decision on her own to sell her home to me and Judith and never complained, but only commented how glad she was to keep it in the family.

Also, as long as she could, my grandmother kept learning and embracing new experiences.  Even in her 80’s, I can remember her going to Lifetime Learning classes to make sure she was up to par on things like geography and herb cultivation. In her nursing home bookshelf, she had spelling lists to help her learn new words.  In bigger ways, too, she was always open to the new:  when her old friends died, she grieved but then made new ones; when she could no longer live on her own, she took advantage of every activity she could in assisted living and later in the nursing home.

And I think that perhaps the most enduring and important quality I admired in my grandmother was her positive, cheerful outlook on life.  Until the very end, she was kind and considerate to the people around her; she almost always found something to smile or joke about with that certain mischievous gleam in her eye. As important parts of her life fell away one by one—her husband, her friends and brothers, her independence, her ability to walk, to hear, to see, and eventually even to feed herself—what I could see more and more was her peaceful, happy heart. I pray that when there’s nothing left but the core of me, I will be as beautiful as she was.

I like to think that in those last moments of her life, as she was closing the door on the things of this world and stepping out toward the joys of Heaven, my grandmother – a graduate of life whose story can teach us what a life well-lived looks like at its end – could hear the voice of the Principal of us all calling out at her approach:  “Hire that girl!”

Edith & daughter Mary Ann

Edith with my mother, Mary Ann

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On Jesus, Me, and Being Gay

I’ve just come home from a weekend in North Little Rock, Arkansas, celebrating some extraordinary teachers from the high school where I graduated 22 years ago, and reconnecting with old friends. After having spent some time there and mentally revisited an earlier period of my life, I want to answer some questions some of you who knew me years ago have tried to ask me, wanted to ask me, or wondered about but wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole.

I’m writing this because the suffering and the shame of those from my hometown who are gay and can’t admit it or have to hide it–and the awkwardness of those who aren’t gay and don’t know quite what to make of it–felt as palpable and oppressive to me as the heat and humidity in the air that hit me in the face when I stepped off the plane last Friday. I have much to say and share on this subject, and no reason to hide. And I do not want to stand at the brink of my life’s end — whenever that might arrive — and realize (in the words of the poet Audre Lorde) that I had never spoken what needed to be said, but had “only betrayed myself into small silences, while I planned someday to speak, or waited for someone else’s words.”

Let me explain the being gay part. I didn’t just wake up one morning and decide, “Gee, today I think I’ll become a lesbian. It just sounds like so much fun!” Nope. I don’t think it’s true that every little tomboy grows up to be gay — but as for me, I more or less popped out of the womb wearing a pair of jeans, carrying a toy gun, and (to my mother’s chagrin) stubbornly refusing to dress or play like a girl. And when I was pretty young – starting when I was maybe 8 or 9 — I had crushes like all kids probably do, only mine were always on girls: Nancy Drew. Olivia Newton John. Jo on the “Facts of Life.” (Go ahead and laugh; but I like to think my taste has improved). As I got older sometimes it was girls I knew – like my roommate at band camp, Ann the Tuba Player (I kid you not). Certainly it wasn’t something I sought or intended, it just was. And no one else made me feel that way; I wasn’t sexually abused (nothing like that happened till later), or neglected or unloved by my parents, and as far as I knew I’d never seen or heard of any gay people. I didn’t hate boys, they just didn’t interest me that much. As a kid, I didn’t even know you could be “gay” or “lesbian” or “homosexual” — I doubt I’d even heard the words for it.

Yet I knew somehow, I wasn’t supposed to talk about any of this. In fact, I came to feel a deep shame, alienation, and sense of differentness because of it. To imagine my isolation, take yourself back to the 1980s, when I was a teenager. Before Ellen, before Melissa Etheridge, before the L-word, before Matthew Shepard and the outcry over his death, before the laws allowing gay marriage in some states…when the only time you ever heard about gay people in North Little Rock, Arkansas, was stories of gay men giving each other AIDS in bathhouse sex-fests. Nobody in my entire school would admit to being gay as far as I knew, though statistics suggest there were a couple of hundred of us. One girl was cruelly ostracized as the victim of rumors (probably untrue) that she had once “tried to kiss” another girl. (Oh, the horror!)

So as a young woman I didn’t admit my feelings of attraction to other girls, not even to myself. I’ve kept a journal for most of my life and throughout my teenage years, I engaged in this magical thinking that if I never wrote a single word about the thoughts or feelings I had, they wouldn’t be real – and they’d go away. But they didn’t. Teenagers have their different reasons for feeling awkward, disconnected, and isolated — this was mine. And by the time I was 15, it was simply awful. Awful enough that I thought of killing myself some days, when the only reason I could find to go on was the thought that perhaps tomorrow will be different somehow.

(And I have to pause here, with a lump in my throat, because still today there are so many gay teens who reach this point and give up. Some of you who read this probably know kids who stand on the brink of that precipice right now. What are you doing for them? Does it lead them back toward life, or make them feel more alone and unacceptable?)

Thank God, then, that when I was 15, some of you decided to invite me on a ski trip with Park Hill Baptist Church. It was an evangelism outreach; clearly, I was ripe to be evangelized. But I doubt my evangelization was quite what the church had in mind: it only took about two days for me to fall completely head over heels in puppy love with Annette Sayger, who had a beautiful warm smile and the voice of an angel — and that made me ready and eager to hear anything and everything she had to say about Jesus. So after not too much time, in absolute sincerity, I invited Jesus into my heart and became a Christian.

And believe me, becoming an evangelical Christian at age 15 was a good thing in my life. It opened up a whole world for me of friends and constructive things to do. It kept me busy having silly fun, and out of trouble – away from drinking or drugs or other mischief, and away from the terrible loneliness that had haunted me. And through things like Young Life – and the exciting and inspiring sermons of Craig Loibner – and the ski trips and retreats at Castle Hill – people encouraged me to dig deeper, to explore and find for myself a genuine, living spirituality. I took that and ran with it; worshipped, and sang, and prayed, and studied — not only the Bible, but also popular theology and religious history. But none of that changed the fact that I was gay. Sure, like my friends, I dated boys, and I was curious about sex with them, but there was just no…spark, for lack of a better word. At the time, I figured I just needed to meet the right guy.

What happened instead when I was a senior in high school—and you can blame God or the Devil, but I know who I credit—was that I met the right girl, and this time, fell passionately, deeply in love. The kind of love that makes everything else and everyone else seem black-and-white and dull. The kind of love that makes you want to give yourself—all of yourself, including your body—to another person, whose mere presence makes you happy beyond belief. For a long time, of course, I didn’t understand or admit what was happening to me; this was still in those years when I couldn’t even bring myself to put pen to paper to describe my feelings or the intense fear and shame they provoked. I danced around (and refused to admit) my attraction for a good three years before I finally did anything about it.

And what did I do in the meantime? Well, I was still relentlessly pursuing my life with Jesus; I’d gone to college and become a song leader for a local Young Life group in Houston. And I’d started to date Peter, a thoughtful, intelligent and handsome young man who lived next door to me in my dormitory, who wrote me eloquent love letters and treated me wonderfully. I enjoyed him, and enjoyed dating him for about two years, and figured, well if anything is love (since all “love” happens between men and women), this must be it and I’ll probably marry this guy. My own parents, who’ve now been married for almost 50 years and still love and like each other, had met at about that age.

But the summer when I turned 20 turned my life upside down. Despite my best efforts, I could not ignore or set aside the feelings I had for the young woman I loved. One day, shaking like a leaf and feeling as if I might simply drop dead on the spot, I confessed my feelings to her and to my shock she shared them. Attraction felt like an irresistible force of nature, and we began a physical relationship. It was such a powerful and profound and joyful experience that for weeks, I could barely think about or do anything else.

I knew I had to break up with Peter. I think he truly loved me, and I flat out broke his heart, but it was clear from the first time I kissed my girlfriend that whatever I’d felt with Peter was not the feeling of being “in love.” If I’d stayed, what kind of a partnership would that have been for Peter (or any man, for that matter)? Would it have been fair to him? And what kind of happiness or fulfillment would I have felt—would it have been fair to me? Could I have made myself toe the heterosexual line, year in and year out for the rest of my life, pretending to be something I wasn’t?

In short order, though, the fear and anxiety about engaging in an “abomination in the eyes of God” grew almost overwhelming for me. I wasn’t dumb, I knew I wasn’t supposed to be having sex with another woman. And there I was, strung up in an impossible choice between losing myself, my very soul, and losing this person I loved so dearly. I prayed, I studied, I read, I prayed more. I asked for God to save me, to give me some way out; I begged, pleaded, I ate my heart out over it. I talked to some adults I trusted, who made things sound pretty black and white: “this is not what God wants for you,” or more gently, “it’s a phase,” or simply, “this has got to stop.” And I listened to them with an open heart.

The fall of my junior year of college, I went back to Houston, and my girlfriend lived in Arkansas, so distance itself kept us from stepping “over the line” for the most part. Yet where exactly to draw the line? What was it, exactly, that God didn’t want me to do? Well, the Bible said that a man wasn’t supposed to lie with another man as with a woman, and people said that obviously meant it worked the same way for women too, and nobody bothered to explain all the stuff about temple prostitution, etc., that puts those verses in context. Some acts would clearly amount to “lying with another woman as with a man.” But what about the other things we do with the ones we love, that aren’t sex but aren’t just friendship either? What about kissing her or holding her hand? Sleeping next to her? Sitting close to her? Thinking about her? Sharing a meal, sharing my thoughts, my time, my heart? Even if I completely broke things off with my girlfriend, I had to admit that my whole life I’d always been emotionally and physically “tuned in” to other girls in a way I never felt with boys. So what was I supposed to do – run away from my closest and most exciting friendships as soon as I began to experience that feeling of deep connection? Did God intend to force upon me a life of loneliness, always fighting against and fleeing from the inner pull to intimacy with other women? If so, why would he do that to me, and how could I bear it?

Of the months that followed, I can’t recall many details. They’re a blur of pain, longing, confusion, as I struggled to understand why I’d grown to feel the way I did, and what I could possibly do about it. A few things I remember, though. Spending hours alone reading, writing, and praying, trying to figure out some way through, wondering which of my friends knew or suspected, who could be trusted if I needed someone to talk to. Listening to songs by the Indigo Girls and wondering if they were really talking about the stuff that burdened me, if there was really any “insight between black and white” for me and if so, how to find it. Sneaking into the “HQ” section of the library, reading books about the lives of gay people, when I was supposed to be studying English literature. Housesitting for a family, discovering a book they had about how to keep your child from growing up to be homosexual, and wanting to just curl up and disappear at the thought of being so fundamentally wrong at my core that people wrote whole books about how not to have their kids turn out like me. Seeking help from a respected “Christian counselor” and feeling dark despair after I’d talk to him: I eventually realized that he was making me explain in explicit detail what sexual things I had done with my girlfriend, not because he needed this information to help me get right with God — but because it turned him on to hear a young woman describe having lesbian sex.

And I remember the day when, in my plan for reading the whole Bible in a year, I got to the Bible’s touchstone on homosexuality – the story of Sodom and Gomorrah — and read again how Lot, the only righteous man in the whole city, offered his teenage daughters to be gang raped (better, supposedly, than letting them rape his male houseguest), and then had drunken sex with them in the desert and got one of the pregnant. This was the moral example that would determine the course of my entire life? The source of righteousness that would help me survive days, nights, weeks, months, years of self-imposed isolation and guilt-filled self-denial? But what about how “the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as himself” (1 Sam. 18:1-4)? And what about the beautiful pledge of Ruth to Naiomi (Ruth 1:16-17), which people read at their weddings (“wherever you go, I will go, and wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die…”)? Couldn’t I have that kind of love in my life – didn’t all of me cry out for it?

I had trouble making sense of all that I saw and read and felt. I continued to talk to God and just hold on. I fell back on that strategy I used when I was 15, passing each day in the hope that the next would be better. And I clung to the advice of the German poet Rilke, to “[h]ave patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language.” Indeed, I did “gradually, without even noticing it, live [my] way into the answer.” And the answer for me was, to look for the people and places in my life where I could find and experience the “fruits of the Spirit”: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control,” since “against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:22-23). I could sense that others around me shared some of my struggles, and watched as a few of them labored to cram themselves into a heterosexual life, like Cinderella’s step-sisters cutting off their toes to fit in the prince’s glass shoe. It wasn’t hard to sense their fear, uncertainty, and unhappiness. On the other hand, to my puzzlement, one of the most brightly shining examples of someone whose life bore those fruits of the Spirit was a teacher who was clearly gay (though she never breathed a word about it), whose time and attention and mere existence created a safe space where I could relax and feel accepted and not quite so alone with my struggle. And I eventually (though not without making some mistakes along the way) lived my way into the life I have now: happy, healthy, whole, peaceful – and openly, unapologetically gay.

I remember quite clearly one day in high school when I came to Donna and Doug Hall in tears, upset about a family member’s inheritable mental illness and what it might mean for me one day. “What happens if I’ve accepted Jesus into my heart, but then I get sick like that and somehow forget or turn away?” I don’t remember what they said but I know it reassured me; probably a reminder that Jesus is, after all, the good shepherd who looks after his lambs, and comes and finds us and brings us back when we wander. I don’t tell that story because I believe I am off wandering somewhere without God. It’s true, out of self-love and self-preservation, I felt I had to leave the evangelical Christian churches and groups that had been my home, and distance myself from good people I loved who lived in that world. I couldn’t even bring myself to set foot in a church for about ten years – and I still would never go back to any church where I felt I had to defend or justify myself to anyone for being who and how I am today. But I have not turned my back on God and God has not turned his (or her?) back on me, though some of you will believe that’s so and pray for my redemption. The story of Jesus and the lambs is for you—because you must simply trust that having committed myself to a personal relationship with Jesus at an early age, and walked every step of the path that brought me here with a sincere and open desire to comprehend my Creator’s will for my life, I stand right here today where I’m supposed to be — and I don’t stand here alone.

So what would I re-write in this story? As a kid, when I learned the “facts of life,” I would have heard that sometimes girls love girls (and sometimes boys love boys), and while not everybody approves of that, God made those girls and boys that way and loves them just like everybody else. When I grew older, I would have known some openly gay and lesbian people, and certainly would have seen them on tv and in movies (fortunately, that happens for kids now). The adults in my life who were gay wouldn’t have had to try to be straight, or operate in a “cone of silence” for fear that offering me direct reassurance, or telling me about their own experiences and how they’d adjusted, would put them at risk of losing their jobs or being accused of improper behavior with a child. And the people I turned to for spiritual guidance would have told me that it was up to me to discover what God wanted for my life and how to live it, that God had made me and didn’t make mistakes.

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