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Two paths, one faith

Louis Crew Clay reading poetry at his 80th-birthday celebration. Photo/Sharon Sheridan

By Sharon Sheridan
Traveling the night before Thanksgiving, I opened my e-mail to the news that Louie Crew Clay had gone home to God.

I often said that Louie was the most Christian man I knew.

A white, gay Southerner who married a black man and launched the organization Integrity to support and push for full inclusion of LGBT people in the Episcopal Church, he suffered more than his share of life’s slings and arrows. But however much they vilified him, he countered his critics with grace and wit. He demonstrated how to love one’s enemies. And he steadfastly signed his messages: Joy anyway!

Predictably, tributes soon appeared across Facebook and listservs from all corners of the church he had served as a member of Executive Council, a six-time deputy from the Diocese of Newark, Integrity founder and tireless advocate for social justice.

Everyone, someone commented, had a Louie story. I could tell several, from when I first encountered him when I began working as a church reporter in the 1990s to when he sent me a gift for my 2018 ordination to the transitional diaconate.

Some of my favorite memories of this former English professor involve poetry. At the 2009 General Convention, he joined in a poetry slam, giving, as I wrote for the Convention Daily, “an animated reading of two poems from his collection ‘Quean Lutibelle’s Pew’ (the ‘Quean’ is his alter ego, he explained), adopting an auctioneer’s stance for ‘Lutibell Goes to an Auction’ and crossing himself solemnly and invoking the Trinity as he began reading ‘Lutibelle Imitates a Strait Male Prayer.’

“‘God, I can’t pray just now,’ laments the praying man. ‘Some people/have been saying/that you/might not even be a real man,/might be instead an androgynous mutation. … It was difficult enough/when those black children/started coloring you black./Before long/even sissies will be saying/that you lisp/or go about in drag.”’

Seven years later, I was thrilled to participate in a poetry night in honor of his 80th birthday. And I was both surprised and touched when he greeted news of my progress through the ordination process with not only delight but also an admonition to keep writing poetry. When I visited his church in Newark in 2017, he inquired during coffee hour what poems I was working on.

Through the years, Louie’s voice projected in the halls of General Convention and beyond. But he also had a knack of encouraging other voices, including mine.

As I thought and read about Louie, and prayed for his husband and the many others who loved him, I received word of another death during that Thanksgiving weekend.

He was not a public figure, so I’ll just call him John to protect his family’s privacy. While Louie’s obituary made multiple churchwide publications, Google reveals no obituary for John. I learned of his death by chance, while visiting the church of one of his relatives and hearing his name in the prayers.

I met John when he began attending the church I belonged to when I started seminary. Many in the church were well-off or solidly middle class; but John inhabited a lower economic stratum.

It’s long enough ago that I’ve forgotten the details, but I know he faced challenges. I recall some level of housing and employment instability. I don’t think he had a car. His voice certainly did not echo across the diocese, let alone throughout the wider church.

And yet, what stands out in my memory of John is not so different from how I viewed Louie.

He was a Christian. He was kind. He served his church.

While John lived locally, he faithfully attended worship. He willingly pitched in when we needed tables moved or other assistance around the facility. He attended our first-ever parish-wide weekend retreat. The last time I saw him, he was visiting my friend at her church during Christmastide two or three years ago.

Two different men. Two very different spheres of influence.

And yet, I saw the spirit of Christ within them both.

One had what I imagine was a small and quiet funeral. The other’s memorial service will, I suspect, be a standing-room-only life celebration by people gathered from across the country.

And yet, the same God welcomed both home, inviting both equally to the heavenly banquet, just as God invites us all to the same Communion table each week.

We each receive a portion of talents and challenges; we steward the one and battle the other as best we can. In the end, it is the faithfulness and integrity of the journey, not the sphere of influence or scope of worldly accomplishment, that matters.

I doubt they met on earth. But I like to picture Louie and John meeting now, and going in to sit at the banquet together: unequal in life circumstances, but equally loved children of God.

Joy anyway, my friends. Joy always.

The Rev. Sharon Sheridan Hausman is priest associate at Christ Episcopal Church in Newton, N.J.

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