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.