NB: A version of the following was delivered as a scriptural reflection during a prayer service at Saint John’s School of Theology and Seminary on March 12, 2015.
This weekend, Christians throughout the world will celebrate the long-anticipated beatification of El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was martyred 35 years ago. Many of us know at least part of the story of Romero’s death and the events that led up to it. Indeed, in the years since his assassination, a great deal of scholarship has focused on the question of his possible conversion from the position of a timid and traditional priest and prelate to a champion for the poor and marginalized. I would argue, as would many others, that the conversion Romero experienced throughout the course his life was more of an evolution and indeed a return home to his humble roots.
However one element of the soon to be beatified martyr’s conversion story is almost impossible to refute. There is no doubt that the Archbishop was forever changed when on March 12, 1977 his dear friend, the Jesuit priest Rutilio Grande was killed along with two companions, including Nelson Lemus, a 15 year old boy. Romero’s episcopal successor, Archbishop Arturo Rivera Damas is often quoted as saying, “Before the body of Fr. Rutilio Grande, Monseñor Romero, on his twentieth day as archbishop, felt the call of Christ to defeat his natural human timidity and to fill himself with the intrepidness of the apostle.”
In the third chapter of Exodus we are reminded of Moses’ conversion on Mount Horeb before a burning bush, a bush that was on fire but was not consumed by the flames. This of course took Moses by surprise and he moved in to take a closer look. And as he does, God tells him to remove his sandals, as the ground before him is holy ground. Then, after reminding Moses of God’s own history with the people of Israel, he immediately lifts up the voice of the suffering, noting their great affliction and that he has heard their cries.
The ground under Moses’ feet is hallowed, not because of the bush that is on fire, but because of the voiceless the Lord has come to give voice to and rescue.
In the streets of San Salvador, Archbishop Romero lifted up the voice of the voiceless—those who were hungry, oppressed, tortured. This lifting up of their voices by their shepherd was not a matter of the privileged helping the less fortunate at arm’s length, it was a matter of neighbor helping neighbor, the emptied helping the empty, the poor standing right alongside the poor, not only in the Cathedral, but also in the slums and throughout the streets of the city.
This perspective, what others might call a notion of a suffering servant or a wounded healer, was the direct result of the conversion Romero experienced before and after he became Archbishop of San Salvador. Here, the well educated priest who once walked the streets of Rome as a privileged seminarian found himself at home, hearing the cry of God’s people, just as Moses did so long before.
The conversion of Oscar Romero—no matter how gradual and evolutionary—directly impacted the people, relieved their suffering and in the end saved lives.
I want to turn now to another opportunity for conversion and, indeed, another opportunity to heed God’s call to relieve suffering and save lives in our world today.
In late December of 2007, I was returning to my office located near the State Capitol in Lincoln, Nebraska. I had run out to grab a late lunch before a series of conference calls that filled my calendar for the remainder of the day and into the evening. As I turned into the parking lot my phone rang. On the other end of the line was a detective from the Lincoln police department. He asked, “Mr. Fought, how do you know Hugh Hunter?” After a brief pause, I informed him that Hugh was my partner of three years. The detective then stated that he was sorry to inform me that Hugh was found dead earlier that day, the result of an intentional drug and alcohol overdose. “I’m sorry about your friend,” the detective said before hanging up. Hugh, my soul mate and best friend, was 38.
I wish CJ and Hugh were alone. But I’ve known many amazing, young, bright and talented gay men who have gone too soon. I won’t be able to share all of their stories and my memories of them with you but I at the very least will offer their names. Wes, Ray, Chad, Stephen, Scott and Matt. We lost Matt earlier this year to a heroin overdose at the age of 28.
Now, let me be clear. There are many reasons why these young men died. Addiction, alcoholism and mental illness are complicated medical conditions. But there is no doubt in my mind, having known each of them personally and having spent three years of my life with one of them, that a great deal of their suffering was directly connected to the way in which our Church treated them and how we treat other gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender children of God in our midst.
We have failed them and us, and as the people of God we are better than that.As a gay man in recovery, I’ve spent many years in 12-step meetings with other gay men and women listening to their stories. And I of course know my own. I will say without hesitation that every single man and woman that I’ve encountered comes to sobriety with deep emotional and spiritual scars—scars left by Church teaching, literal interpretations of Scripture, political battles waged by bishops over civil marriage, sacraments being denied to us and our loved ones, and scars left by a laity that has either assisted in such spiritual violence or has sat idly by as our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, neighbors and friends have suffered and died.
The time for conversion as to the way in which we as Church exclude and vilify gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people is well overdue. Just as Archbishop Romero was profoundly and forever changed by the death of Fr. Grande, I have been forever changed by the loss of my friends and loved ones that I remember each day. And I lift up their names and their stories so that we might ensure that no one else dies in the name of stubborn, mistaken hermeneutics and long dismissed theories regarding the nature of sexuality. I lift up their lives so that we might create a Church where love rises above all else, where we heal rather than wound and offer hope rather than hurt.
Indeed, the Lord, the God of our ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob has sent us to do this work. That God is calling out from the bush, telling us to take off our sandals and honor the holy ground that is before us.
On that ground we honor Hugh, CJ and Matt; we honor Oscar, Rutilio and Nelson and all those who have died before their time with us should have ended. And we also remember those lucky ones who have survived but remain marginalized today.
God has witnessed the affliction of God’s people and has called each of us to conversion. Let us say, with hearts burning, Here I Am.