Sunday, December 1, 2013

Shadows and Light

I stood silently in the cold, dark room, the shadows and light of the X-ray film playing on my face, and I knew that this day would be the border between Before and After in my life, that everything had already changed.

In the summer of 1981 I was beginning my pediatric residency at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.  It was a small program, only four residents in each of the three years, so we each spent a great deal of time at other institutions doing specialty rotations.  In August of that year I was at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, then as now, one of the premier cancer hospitals in the country, doing my intern-year pediatric Hematology-Oncology rotation.  I was taking care of kids from all over the world with cancer and leukemia, many of them there because they couldn’t be treated in their home cities.  Memorial, for many, was the hospital of last resort, the place where the mysterious cases were sent and where a few, even kids, came to die.

Each morning our team – the attending physician, the senior resident, myself and the other interns, and the medical students – would go down to the radiology department to look at any X-rays that had been done on our patients in the past 24 hours and discuss them with the radiologist.  We had finished going over all our films when the radiologist said, “Wait a minute.  I know you guys are peds, but I want to show you this one film.  It’s really interesting.”  He sifted through a pile of X-rays on the desk in front of us, held up a film, and slapped it up on the backlit viewbox.  “Take a look at this.  What do you think?”

We all stood in perplexed silence for a moment.  I looked at the chest X-ray on the box in front of me and systematically began to analyze it.  Based on the size of the chest it looked like an adult, probably male since no breast shadows were evident.  Good quality film, no rotation.  Heart normal size.  Lungs…  Something about the lungs.  They were clear for the most part: Black fields indicating that the X-rays were going clear through the mostly-air of the lungs to expose the film behind, blocked at regular intervals by the gentle white arcs of ribs bordering and encircling the chest.  But in the blackness where there should be nothing – more white, something, some things, in the lungs blocking the X-rays, things that looked like huge cotton balls.  “Fluffy infiltrates” is the term radiologists use for lesions such as these.  I thought I could rattle off a few things that did this, but it would help to know more about this patient.  I knew my place so the resident was the one who asked the question.

“What’s the history?”

“27-year-old white male,” the radiologist answered, and as he said it, I thought, 27?  Makes no sense.  These sorts of infiltrates are usually seen in fungal infections in really old people.  But 27?  He was still talking.  “He’s been coughing for a couple of months, losing weight, no energy.  Anyone want to guess what this is?”  The attending mentioned fungal pneumonia.  Cool, I thought.  Nailed that one!

“No,” the radiologist answered, clearly pleased at having stumped a clinician.  “Anyone else?”  Silence.  After a moment he looked over the crowd and said, with a sly smile, “Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia.”  His audience didn’t disappoint.  This revelation actually brought a gasp from the attending.  For myself, I thought: That’s impossible. Pneumocystis carinii was thought to be a protozoan and a very rare cause of disease in healthy humans.  My only past experience with Pneumocystis pneumonia had been the year before during an internal medicine rotation when I had taken care of an extremely ill, immunosuppressed woman in her late 80’s.  For Pneumocystis pneumonia to be present in an otherwise healthy man in his 20’s was almost inconceivable.  My thoughts were being echoed by the attending who was asking the radiologist about this case.  “How do you know that’s it?” he asked.

“Pulmonary did a biopsy,” he said.  “But shouldn’t your next question be, what’s a pneumonia doing at Memorial?”  We looked at each other.  Yes, it should.  Why indeed would someone with an infectious pneumonia be admitted to a cancer hospital?

Scanning the crowd, the radiologist finally said, “Because the patient was originally referred here for Kaposi’s sarcoma.”  Again, his audience was thunderstruck.  I’d read about Kaposi’s sarcoma but had never actually seen it.  It was a form of skin cancer that looked like a bluish-purple bruise.  Indeed, it was often assumed to be a bruise for weeks until the patient noticed that it hadn’t gone away.  But again, it was only seen in very old, very frail people whose immune systems were not working.  What was going on with this 27-year-old?

“Here’s the thing,” the radiologist continued, answering our unspoken question. “This young man gets referred here for Kaposi’s by his private doc, and then they find out he’s been coughing and losing weight so they get this chest X-ray and see this and call in pulmonary to get a biopsy.”  I looked at the date on the X-ray film and saw that it had been done almost two weeks earlier.  “So the pulmonologists are stumped, and they start talking to other docs around town.  Turns out this guy’s not the only one with this stuff going on.”  He paused for a moment.  “There’ve been about 5 or 6 cases pretty much like this, healthy young men who suddenly get sick with diseases that only older, immunosuppressed people get.  And you know what they all have in common?”  Again he paused.  “They’re all homosexual.”

I don’t remember if I broke into a sweat.  I do know that my face flushed, and I could feel my heart pounding like one of the jackhammers out on York Avenue.  I looked at the film again, for something, what?

“Wait a minute,” the attending said.  “I think I read something about this in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.  Clusters of homosexual men coming down with these weird diseases.  Here, San Francisco, Atlanta…”

“This is one of them,” the radiologist said triumphantly, as if he were displaying a rare white tiger.

Fluffy infiltrates, Kaposi’s sarcoma, Pneumocystis.  Words I’d heard.  Things I’d seen, but in the pit of my stomach I knew that I would hear these words over and over and over again, in hospitals, in bars, in community meetings, from friends, on TV.  Something bad was happening…  This X-ray, this guy I’d never met:  He could be me.  Someday, I wondered, would I be him?

I don’t remember much more of the discussion that followed as the attendings, resident, other interns, and students talked about what they did and didn’t know, what they’d heard and hadn’t heard, about this cluster of cases.  Someone said something about sexual spread, someone else a tentative name she’d heard for it called gay lung disease, another made a wisecrack.  I was silent, staring at patterns of shadow and light.

Once we got back to the inpatient floor, there were a lot of sick kids to take care of, and I didn’t have much time to think about the X-ray or the man with – what?  This thing with no name.   It wasn’t until much later, as I walked the 15 blocks to my apartment on 2nd Avenue between 80th and 81st in the dark, still-hot August evening,  that the unease of the morning returned. 

I got home late that night.  Bob was there.  He’d already eaten.  “I saved you some,” he said, fixing a plate for me.  We’d been together for over a year but had just moved in together two months before.  “Long day, huh?”

“Yeah,” I said quietly, looking up at him as I poked at my food, almost examining him.  “Yeah, long day.”

In bed that night I held Bob as he slept, listening to his breathing – his strong healthy breathing – and I wondered about the future.  I wanted this moment to last forever.  I didn’t know then that Bob and I would split up three years later, that we would become best friends very quickly afterwards, and that we would remain best friends until he died at the age of 36 on Thanksgiving weekend 1994.  I didn’t know then that he would come to me in a dream in 1997 to tell me that death is nothing to fear and that he would always be with me.  I didn’t know then that – though I would be spared the virus – this day would give my life focus and that I would be one of the survivors to tell the story of my people in the time of plague. 

I didn’t know any of this on that night in 1981, holding my lover in the August heat as he slept, or earlier that morning standing frozen in the dark, staring at the chest X-ray of a nameless 27-year-old gay man, but I did know as I finally fell into a troubled sleep that life as I knew it had changed forever.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Station Wagons, Magical Thinking, and the Flu Vaccine

When I was nine months old, our family – my dad, mom, and six year old brother, David – moved from Pittsburgh to Hicksville, Long Island, so my dad could take a new job as an engineer at Sperry Rand in Lake Success, NY. As our family grew – brothers Steve and Jim and sister Cathy were born on Long Island – our summers had a ritual. We would pack up the station wagon, a 1962 black Mercury Monterey, by putting down all the seats in the back, covering the bed of back of the car with carpet remnants, putting in sleeping bags, coloring books, coolers, cups, plates, utensils, board games, toys, crayons, playing cards, pens, pencils, knives, and if there had been room, the kitchen sink. The five of us kids would then pile into the back at 4:00 AM while mom sat in the passenger seat and dad drove. We had one stop on the eight-hour drive: Harrisburg, PA, right before the Turnpike. We got gas, we peed, we got back in the car. And we then went straight through to our Aunt Cleo and Uncle Bud’s house in Carnegie, PA, a 407-mile drive done in 7-1/2 hours flat, all the time sitting, sleeping, fighting, and otherwise rolling around unrestrained in the back of a speeding station wagon, surrounded by an amazing array of sharp, breakable, and otherwise dangerous objects.

No one, I hope, would dream of taking a trip like that these days. We know better. We know that accidents happen, and when they do they can be devastating. Yet amazingly, we all survived. We never did crash. No one ever had their eye put out. We got to Cleo and Bud’s just fine and were met there by Isaly’s chipped ham (a Pittsburgh delicacy) sandwiches and Fritos (a gourmet food since we only had potato chips and pretzels in our house).

So why bring this up in a discussion of flu vaccine? Well, because of this: “I’ve never gotten a flu vaccine and I’ve never got the flu.” We’ve all heard this, right? We may have even said it. Like there’s a connection. Like there’s causality. Like, because I’ve never had the flu, I’m never, ever gonna get it. Like, since my dad never crashed the car or we were never hit by a truck while doing 70 on the winding Appalachian hills of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, it was never gonna happen. Right?

This is not causality. This is Magical Thinking. This is the blinkered view of reality that we sometimes use to get through the day. Why? Because, statistically speaking, most of the time, we’ll be right. Most people will NOT get a bad case of flu. Most kids will NOT die in a horrible car crash. And it’s hard to keep those small but real possibilities in our heads because it’s all just too much to deal with sometimes. But it’s not real. The “never” of the past does not create a “never” in the future. It’s just statistical probability, aka, plain dumb luck.

The fact that the flat bed in the back of a station wagon created by putting down the seats and filled with all sorts of distractions, many of them sharp and/or breakable, was considered an acceptable way to get your kids to their vacation was a product of the times and the lack of experience most people had with how horrific the consequences of this sort of arrangement was. While I look back at those trips fondly – they really were fun – these days the hair on the back of my neck stands up just a bit at the astounding risk my parents unknowingly took with our lives.

So, these days, to say that you are not going to get a flu vaccine because you “don’t believe in it” or because you’ve “never gotten the flu” is scientifically not reasonable and socially not acceptable. We know better, just as we know how vital it that that we and our kids have age-appropriate safety restraints in a moving car, even if we’ve never had an accident and will most likely never have one. We just know it’s the right thing to do.

I’ll freely admit that you will most likely not get the flu. That’s a statistical reality. It’s also likely that you and your kids will never be in a car accident, and that if you let them just sit in the car without a seatbelt, they would most likely be just fine. Yet I know that you will not drive without wearing a seat belt or let your kids travel in your car without proper restraints.

So when it comes to the flu, yeah, you most likely will not get it, not because you never have, not because you don’t believe in the vaccine, just because most people don’t. The thing is, if you lose, if you get the flu, you will be miserable. For at least a week. You will not be able to work. You will not be able to do anything. You will want to die. Even worse, if you bring the flu home to a more vulnerable household member – a baby, an older adult, a family member whose immune system is compromised – and that person gets even sicker with the flu than you and ends up in the hospital, or worse, how will you ever forgive yourself?

So while I really loved those trips to western Pennsylvania when I was a kid, lying in the back of the black Mercury station wagon with the “wood” on the side, writing in my notebook with an extra sharp No. 2 pencil, I also recognize that I am extremely lucky to have survived those trips to be here to tell you about them – and to urge you to get yourself and your loved ones a flu vaccine.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Bit By Bit, Putting It Together

In January of 1976, in the middle of my senior undergraduate year at Creighton, I took a three-week intersession course before the spring semester called, if I recall correctly, “Acting Styles.” This rather pedestrian title did not come close to the intensity of a grueling ten to twelve hours a day of theatre games and acting exercises. It culminated in a production of “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” by Berthold Brecht. I was cast as Azdak, the slovenly, drunken, Solomonic judge, who takes bribes from the highest bidder and then does whatever the hell he wants. Azdak was also, in the director’s conception, bald, and so he asked me, in order to help me identify more closely with the character’s alienation, to shave my head.  I listened, took a deep breath, and said yes. Later that day, I went to my barber in downtown Omaha and asked him to do it for me. Since he was ex-military, he was more than happy to help because he didn’t have a lot of college kids coming in asking to get all their hair cut off. Luckily, I had – and still have – a nicely-shaped, symmetrical head. If I ever did get dropped on it when I was a kid, there were not obvious dents.

I then went to Brandeis Department Store and bought a Norelco Triple Header Shaver and a green wool stocking cap – this was Omaha in January after all – and my course was set.

I had been in plays before, ever since the fifth grade in fact, but this was the first time I really felt like an Actor. Before, it had always been about Pretending; now it was about Becoming. In fact, since rehearsals continued into the spring semester and the show opened about two weeks into the semester, followed by a two-week run, I had to shave my head regularly for about a month after the rest of my friends and classmates had returned from winter break. This was not a common “look” for college students in the late 70’s. And the director was right: Doing this did make me an outsider – or rather MORE of an outsider – as I got quizzical looks, stares, and laughter from strangers and puzzled questions from friends, and all this pushed me to go deeper with my performance. (It was also something that, frankly, resulted in amazing PR for the show and sold out performances practically every night, a side-lesson that I have not forgotten.)

But what was so powerful for me was to live this character for weeks, to find a person who seemed so unlike myself right inside myself, and to have so many people who knew me watch me in this and go on this journey with me. I was amazed to have them tell me afterwards that, near the end, when Azdak, against his better judgment, defies the Powers That Be and Does The Right Thing, they were moved to tears, and that at the end, when Azdak is dragged out on stage, covered with blood after having been beaten by those Powers, they had to avert their gaze, that it was too painful to watch. To know that I had the power to move people in that way was quite thrilling and not a little scary.

Ultimately, this workshop, this play, this role were not enough to turn me away from Medicine as my profession. The pull of being able to participate in healing was too powerful. But what I took from all this was that healing is much broader than I had ever suspected and that knowing all the medical literature without being able to connect with the person sitting across from me would be useless. I knew then that acting would always be part of my life, and not just on a formal stage, cast in a play. This was the genesis of my struggle, my desire, my compulsion to integrate all the parts of my life, to see this life not as a bunch of unrelated parts but as a whole that expresses itself in everything I do. Acting can be healing. The Physician is a role. I don’t stop being one thing when I am something else. It’s all there all the time, and my hope is that I am – to quote a certain Mr. Sondheim – “bit by bit, putting it together.”

Sunday, May 26, 2013


Today is Trinity Sunday, the last day of the Easter Season, according to the Catholic liturgical calendar. I went to Mass today, and when I received Communion, I thought of my mother. I have my reasons.

I was an altar boy at St. Ignatius Loyola Catholic Church, in Hicksville, Long Island, NY, starting in the fifth grade. I also attended the parochial school there through eighth grade and was very proud of how well I knew all the rules about being Catholic: The Seven Sacraments. The Six Holydays of Obligation. The Three Theological Virtues. The Six Laws of the Church. I had a particular fascination with the Six Laws of the Church. These told us unambiguously what we had to do and how we had to act to be a good Catholic, and violating any of them would be a Mortal Sin. Unless forgiven in the sacrament of Penance, a.k.a, Confession, a Mortal Sin would send us straight to Hell upon death.

Since St. Ignatius was a big parish and had about 10 Masses every Sunday, I was frequently on the altar in the Sunday rotation. For convenience, my mom would attend the Mass I was serving and would bring my younger brothers and sister with us. One year, as we entered Lent, I noticed that my mother had not been receiving Communion at Sunday Mass. A few weeks before Easter I asked her about it, and she said that she usually forgot about not eating for an hour before Communion so she couldn’t receive. Okay, I thought, but Church Law #4 was starting to weigh on me: “It is the obligation of every Catholic to receive the Sacrament of the Most Holy Eucharist at least once a year during the Easter Season, that is, the time between the First Sunday of Lent and Trinity Sunday.” It began to dawn on me that my mom had not received Communion during the Easter Season, and time was running out!

I started to keep track. Palm Sunday came and went. Palms yes, Communion no. Easter? Bonnets and chocolate bunnies, but no Eucharist. The post-Easter Sundays marched on, and mom still had not received. Ascension Thursday? No. Pentecost Sunday? No! Finally, her last chance: Trinity Sunday.

I was serving on the altar that day. I went through the motions of bringing the priest water, wine, and hosts, washing his hands in preparation for the Consecration, ringing the bells at the elevation of bread and wine and their transubstantiation into the Body and Blood of Christ, but my mind was on my mom. I kept glancing at her, sitting in the front row, off to the right, thinking of how I did not want her to go to Hell. Sure, she could go to Confession later, but why take the chance? What if we were in a car accident on the way home, and we all got killed? She would be sucked into Hades, and I would never see her again, for all Eternity.

And yes, I am Irish Catholic.

When the priest finished the Canon, I went and did the only thing I could do, what, I felt, any kid would do to save his mother from the fires of Hell. I slipped into the sacristy, snuck out into the church, and tiptoed up to my mom in the first pew. Words cannot describe the look of astonishment on her face as I said to her in a fierce whisper, “You have GOT to receive Communion today!” Astonishment quickly became embarrassment became anger as she hissed, “Kenneth Arthur Haller, Junior, get back up on the altar right now.” “But mom…” I implored. “NOW!” she growled through clenched teeth. I did, trailed by the whispers and giggles of my siblings. Did she receive, much to my relief? Or did she sit there, and lecture me later about her reasons being her reasons? I’ll come back to that.

I am very lucky to have grown up in the Catholic Church in the 1960’s in the immediate post-Vatican II period. This was a time of renewal and change, of introspection and discernment, of being challenged by the Church and by God to look within to ask, Who do you want me to be, Lord? Although St. Ignatius was a parish in a white middle class suburb of Long Island, we were taught that God calls us to reach out to the poor, the sick, the hungry, the outcast. This call resonated deeply within me.

At the same time, I also saw the world beyond Hicksville, NY, through The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. Most importantly, as I watched the civil rights movement blossom in the South, I saw African-Americans being attacked, beaten, and jailed, and I couldn’t believe that people were being treated this way because of the way they were born, the color of their skin. While this might have seemed so very far from the white middle-class suburb where I was growing up, at this point in my life, I was just beginning to realize that there were things about me, about the way I was born, about the way I was beginning to like boys in a way I should like girls, things that, if people found out about them, I knew I would be treated the same way. I knew then what it was to be an outcast.

Discerning my path in life over years and through my personal experience and my religious faith, I finally accepted that my calling was to became a pediatrician, to take care of the most vulnerable, children, and to spend my life and my career in poor communities caring for those who were also outcasts.

I am not a recovering Catholic. I am not an ex-Catholic. I am, for better or worse, a Catholic, and I really cannot see that ever changing. I am also gay. I always have been, I always will be, and I am who God intended me to be. As you can imagine, that makes being Catholic…well, complex. But then being Catholic has always been – or should always be – complex.

For me, then, being Catholic and being gay are not opposing forces pulling me apart but synergistic energies that call me to a single purpose – to serve God’s people on earth with the gifts God has given me.

The Institutional Church, of course, does not always see it that way. Members of the Hierarchy have called me “intrinsically disordered,” and that’s when they’re being kind of nice. But that’s the thing: The Body of Christ has always been about so much more than a bunch of old guys in black and scarlet robes.

Some years ago I had an epiphany at Mass one day at College Church on the campus of Saint Louis University. It was during a period in my life when – because of some new, astoundingly hurtful statement out of Rome about gay people – I was really questioning whether I still could call the Church my home. At this particular Mass, the Old Testament readings included one from Genesis: the story of God giving Moses the Ten Commandments. The second one was from Leviticus. I can’t remember what that one was about, but since Leviticus is like the Ten Commandments on steroids – it comprises about 500 “Thou Shalt Nots” about things like shellfish and the many, many circumstances under which one should NOT to have sex – I know that it was telling us not to do a lot of things.

The Gospel reading, however, was from Matthew 22. Jesus is asked, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment?” Jesus replies, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Well, as a Catholic and as a pediatrician, I thought, that’s interesting. I had been taught in those Religion classes at St. Ignatius – where I learned those Six Laws of the Church – that, before the birth of Jesus, God treated His people as a father treats His children. Viewed in that context, the Old Testament God is not unlike a father who has to tell His kids what to do and not do, whether it makes sense to them or not. His people, like young children, are in what Jean Piaget, the pioneering Swiss developmental psychologist, called the Realm of Concrete Operations. Kids at this stage are unable to think ahead to the long-term consequences of their actions so parents have to give them very concrete instructions. Any parent knows how often they have had to say to their kids, “DON’T stick your finger in a light socket! DON’T run out in traffic! DON’T jump off the roof! Why? Because I SAID SO!”

But what happens when your kids get older? You can actually have conversations with them. You can reason with them. You can teach them to look into their heart. If they come to you with a dilemma to ask what they should do, you can turn it back to them and say, “What do you think you should do?” and if you raised them right, if you taught them consistently by holding yourself to the moral and ethical precepts you espoused, then they will give you the answer that you would have given them. They have now entered Piaget’s Realm of Formal Operations where they can make decisions based on a consciousness of long-term consequences and a deep sense of empathy.

Jesus, then, is the fulfillment of God’s Covenant to bring His people to maturity. This maturity and wisdom is what Jesus is appealing to in his reply to his questioner in Matthew. He is saying that if, in your dealings with others, you honor that which created you and you act toward others as you would have them act toward you, you have become the person I hoped you would be.

One of the other things that I was taught at Saint Ignatius is that Divine Truth is revealed to every member of the Body of Christ equally if we are open to it. Jesus tells us this in Matthew. So what I have experienced as love and intimacy, seeing the face of God in the person I love and who has loved me, is as revelatory of God’s grace as the latest encyclical from the Pope. I have received so much from the Church, but I have also given so much to the Church. So as difficult, as complex, as it is sometimes for me to be Catholic, I cannot imagine not being a Catholic. But of course, I also cannot imagine the Catholic Church without me in it.

One more thing: As a pediatrician and medical school professor, I spend a good part of my day teaching residents and medical students how to be doctors. They have spent a great deal of time and energy reading, memorizing, and learning rules, numbers, and concepts. My job is to reinforce their learning but also to give them a real life context. I can’t tell you how many times I have had a student give me a presentation of a patient complete with history, labs, and X-ray findings leading to an assessment and plan of care, and yet when I ask, “So how does the patient look?” I get a blank stare. “I haven’t had a chance to look at her.” “Okay,” I say, “let’s go do that.”  Once we actually do that, in a good number of cases, the assessment and plan no longer make sense. All the chart data in the world cannot substitute for the wealth and complexity of information derived from actually looking at the patient.

Which brings me back to my mother, her decision not to receive Communion that day, and my fear of Eternal Damnation for her. When I was up on that altar, having checked off “No Communion” on her heavenly scorecard week after week, I never looked at HER. I never considered that a just and loving God never would send this woman who had lived this life and made these sacrifices to Hell on a technicality. Back then, I thought as a child, I spoke as a child. I just knew the Laws, and that was all that mattered. But as Jesus said, laws are made for Man, not Man for the law.

So, finally, did my mother receive Communion that day or not? Honestly, I don’t remember. It was over forty years ago, after all. And ultimately, it really doesn’t matter, does it? What does matter is the important lesson she taught me that day, one that I am still learning: We all have free will, and we are all finally responsible for our own salvation. How that works out is up to each of us. But I also showed my mom, in my own weird, childish, Catholic-nerd way, how much I loved her.


Thursday, May 23, 2013

To Drive Out Hate

There’s a meme going around which I will not re-post here. It says:

“REFUSE SERVICE TO THIS WOMAN and those with her.
“This is Shirley Phelps-Roper. If she comes into your store, sits in your restaurant, or tries to check into your hotel, refuse her any service. She is one of the leaders of Westboro Baptist Church and she is not welcome in Waco.
“Click ‘Share’ to get the word out!”

In my work with PROMO - Missouri's statewide LGBT civil rights organization - and in my work as a pediatrician, I spend a lot of my time and energy trying to assure that no one is refused food or shelter in the state of Missouri on the basis of who they are. Granted, this woman's actions and professed attitudes are vile and reprehensible. That makes our response to her and her companions a challenge.

I have seen Westboro Baptist in action. In 2001, one month after 9/11, in fact, I was at the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association Annual Conference in New Orleans. As you can imagine, indeed, as you may remember, that was a time of deep sadness and roiling emotion, and many of us who went to the conference were pretty apprehensive about even getting on a plane to travel there. Well, that year Westboro decided to target GLMA, and for three days they picketed outside the hotel, spewing hate and bile. On top of the devastation I was still feeling for the thousands lost that autumn, as someone who, at one point or another in my life, has been called all the disgusting names a gay man can be called, it was hard to hear that relentless chanting outside my window. It brought up a lot of old fear and shame, and my first response, understandably, was anger. “This is freedom?” I thought. “Americans are dead, for THIS?” I wanted nothing more than to go out onto the street, scream right back in their faces, kick them in the gut, pummel them with their own GOD HATES FAGS signs. Of course, all of us at the conference had already been coached on what we could do and could not do, legally, in response to them, no matter how we felt or what old psychic scabs they had picked at. Finally, I went down to the street…

Now, I do consider myself a Christian, and at times like that, it’s not easy. As I went took the elevator down to the lobby, I recalled, almost against my will, what Jesus said in Matthew 5:43-45, "You have heard that it has been said, You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which spitefully use you, and persecute you; That you may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust." Like it or not, I had been given a grace experience, and I had to choose to accept it or not. As I walked out of the hotel onto the sidewalk on Poydras Street, I saw them standing in the median, their screaming faces focused now on me and contorted by hate and fear. I made my choice, and for the first time, I saw them clearly: sad, pathetic, and ultimately powerless. Finally, I pitied them, I prayed for them, and I turned and went back into the conference.

So we all know that Shirley Phelps-Roper and the members of Westboro Baptist Church have twisted and corrupted the core tenet of Christianity – Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself – but if we do the same to her and to them, if we hate and revile them, then we are no better than they. We surrender to hopelessness. We yield to fear. We lose our power. We are diminished. 

As Dr. Martin Luther King said, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” It's easy to love those who love us. The challenge we have been given is to love those who hate us. And perhaps, in doing so, we can be the agent of grace for them, the one person who will reveal the truth of God's love to these people so poor in spirit, and perhaps we may crack open even these poor hearts shriveled by hate.