Barry and me, and the angels

by Louie Crew

First appeared in Christianity & Crisis 52.3 (March 2, 1992): 52-53.

© 1992 by Christianity & Crisis; © 2004 by Louie Crew

Barry died last night, and nobody much cares.

When I was last with him at St. Michael's, he said, "My family don't come anymore. They think they'll get it by breathing the same air."

Barry was 28, brilliant, black. He and his Puerto Rican lover were together for eight years before the lover died, three years ago. Both families were always hostile. With his grief, Barry went berserk for a while, ran up enormous debts, lost his catering job, and had to sleep on the streets for several months before he got a bed in a shelter for PWAs, the only one in all of Newark, though we have the highest HIV infection rate of any city in the USA.

The shelter was for HIV+ drug addicts, most of them macho straits who "know how to handle a sissy." To escape their abuse, Barry found one of the addicts, a strait man who still liked to cuddle, especially if it could get him a hit or two. They moved out to splurge in a motel on some back social security payments that came through for Barry. When that money ran out, they got a welfare apartment.

Barry loved music and the smells and bells of my religion, so I took him to church occasionally, but he stayed away most of the time, saying it made him feel guilty. "A third of the parish is gay; several on the vestry are gay. Why on earth do they make you feel guilty?!" I asked.

"It's not them!" he told me, shocked that I had misunderstood; it's me; it's God; it's the way I was brought up....

"In my heart of hearts I believe that God hates me. He has to. I don't live the way I was taught to live. My parents hate me. Society hates me. When I was young I tried every way possible to live right, but I'm me; I'm gay. And, Louie, I'm scared of God." No matter how good the meal, whenever I drove him home, he would always bring the conversation back to God. We both realized we were talking about a different God. He seemed to like my god more than his, but wasn't convinced. For neither of us was "convincing" the issue. Speaking candidly was. He testified to his experience and I to mine.

I am an atheist to the God he feared: I believe that kind of God is a fraud and not worth my belief. If that God turns out to be real, let the sucker burn me. I will not yield. I have no use for patriarchs. None whatsoever. But the God I believe in scares me too. Knows all secrets. Is completely righteous and just and patient and compassionate and vulnerable..... So I understand awe all too well. I've got more awe than any God worthy of the identity would ever be comfortable receiving.

Visitors

At St. Michael's the last time we were together, Barry asked me, "Do you believe in angels?"

"I've heard them."

"Really?!" His fever was 104 and had been at least 102 for eight days; but he got very excited.

"I don't talk about it, though," I said awkwardly, "at least I haven't talked about it to more than to two or three people, and as much as I write, I doubt that I will ever write about it. When other people talk about things like that, they spook me; I don't want to be a spook. Some people talk about seeing angels as if to say they're better than anyone else. The fact that the angels have come (and only a few times, many years ago, so far as I knew or remember) says little about me, but much about God...."

"Angels have come to see me several times here at St. Michael's," Barry interrupted, as if to confirm, as if safe for the first time to tell someone. "One sat right there on the edge of the bed this morning, but he did not say a word."

"That's like the way mine behaved, though I never got to see them. I just knew that they were there. It always seemed like a pair. It also seemed to happen when I was in danger, like when Ernest and I lived in Georgia in the 70s and integrated the neighborhood both racially and sexually. Whenever a white kid sprouted new pubes it seemed he had to announce the fact to the world by throwing rocks at our window shouting, 'Nigger! Faggot! Nigger-loving faggot' We would squeeze tighter, and sometimes I would hear their wings. I'm not absolutely positive. Not a lot hangs on it. But I was very conscious of it at the time, heard the flutter quite distinctly. And then I could go to sleep." "Another one sat right over there a few days ago," Barry said, pointing to the other side of his bed.

We sat silent for several minutes.

"Barry, they wouldn't come if God hated you," I said.

If Barry heard, he did not say so. I think he had drifted off. His eyes lit up when we kissed goodbye though.

Now his family has whisked his body away for a private funeral.

Tonight I don't give a tinker's malediction about what straits think about us and our visitors. They'll let the whole world die before they notice or care or understand.

Goodbye again, Barry. My close friend's nephew went into the hospital today. Looks like pneumonia, but may be tuberculosis instead. That will take longer and be more painful. I'll give your kiss to him, and to his lover, who has tested positive too. Good night, sweet angel. Goodnight. Goodnight.


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