The following short story was performed by Jonathan Frank at C2G's 'Liturgical Performance Festival' on April 17, 2011. When we return to First Pres Cookeville on August 28, 2011, our first event will be an Open Mic For The Soul, & we invite everyone to come & anyone to perform.
Justin West nervously drummed the pen on his desk as he sifted through a backlog of emails on his laptop. This one was from yet another student in the church facing an unplanned pregnancy. He grabbed the church pictorial directory and thumbed through the pages so he could put a face with the name on the email. There she was. He touched his hand to the page and whispered her name. The phone number for the crisis pregnancy center was written on a post-it note somewhere amid the piles of papers on his desk. Now if he could only find it.
Justin could feel himself becoming numb to these scenarios. This was, after all, pretty standard fare for a youth pastor in a large church. For him, it was another day at work, but somewhere a scared, 16-year-old girl’s world was coming undone.
The weight of everyone else’s problems had depleted Justin of the strength he needed to face his own. The very nature of the job seemingly disallowed being real. He had to always be “on,” always be strong, project a certain image and message. And whenever he needed a cigarette, as he did right now, he had to walk to the far corner of the parking lot, behind the shed, lest he cause anyone to stumble . . . or worse, the senior pastor find out.
“Why did I ever become a youth pastor anyway?” Justin wondered in silence. He wanted to help people. He so desired to be an honest, vulnerable human being, sharing openly about his imperfections and weaknesses, and reaching out to those hurting people, disenfranchised with religion and tired of trying to be good enough. Instead he was pushed into the insulated, Christian bubble. He was tired of the game, the pious religious power brokers, the hypocrisy, the arbitrary human scale of sins that welcomed, if not encouraged, the gluttons and gossips but assigned scarlet letters to the homosexuals and divorcées, and the deacons that successfully lobbied to end the homeless ministry out of concern for its possible effects on the newly reupholstered pews.
Justin’s mind flashed back to the present, where a handful of new emails had suddenly emerged in his inbox. He didn’t have time to think about his grievances. Not today. As soon as he was done solving everyone else’s problems, he figured he should try to make an appearance at home and work on some of the many simmering there.
Then the phone rang and everything else in the world stopped. Justin’s past had decided to come back for a visit.
“I’m calling about your friend, Kurt,” came the voice on the other end of the line. She identified herself as a nurse at the General Hospital across town. “He’s very sick and he would really like to see you before . . . ” her voice trailed off. She didn’t want to finish her thought and she didn’t have to. Justin knew what she meant.
Justin clenched his teeth and then finally let out a deep breath. Memories he had spent years trying to block out quickly came flooding back. Kurt was one of Justin’s best friends growing up, but life would take them in very different directions. While Justin faced his own private battles and rebelled in his own ways, Kurt threw himself headfirst into the trappings of the young adult world, and Justin had resented him deeply for it. So many phone calls had gone unanswered. So many times when he needed the support of his old friend he was left feeling alone. He wanted someone to stand alongside him, to join him in his efforts to escape the years of life with some shred of innocence left and to help him be strong in the face of so many other shiny distractions. Without ever knowing it or even meaning to, Kurt had refused to be that person in Justin’s life.
Just as Kurt was emerging from the muddied haze that was his youth and starting to reassemble the pieces of his life into something that made sense, Kurt received devastating news. He tested HIV positive.
Kurt successfully hid his condition from everyone around him for years, but the truth was forced out of him on the day of his car wreck. He walked away from the scene of the accident, but was a bloodied mess. An acquaintance that saw the accident unfold pulled his car over and ran to Kurt to offer assistance. “Don’t touch me,” Kurt pleaded as the man approached him. “You can’t.”
News travels fast in a small town. Stereotypes were made, assumptions abounded, and one by one the church doors quickly shut to this modern day leper.
“I have children and I do not feel like explaining this to them!” exclaimed one of the deacons at Justin’s church during a conversation about the newly discovered social pariah’s involvement in their congregation. “I want someone keeping a close eye on him,” added the children’s pastor. Normally Justin would feel compelled to speak out, but many wounds had yet to heal, and though he knew his church’s rejection of Kurt was wrong, he couldn’t bring himself to say anything in his defense. He never expressed agreement with the decision that was made, but instead sat by in silence, which ultimately had the very same effect.
That was fifteen years ago, and that is exactly where Justin wished to leave those memories. But with news of Kurt’s deteriorating condition, a Pandora’s box was opened and every painful remembrance reentered his mind. The ways that Kurt had betrayed him, and worse—the ways that he had betrayed Kurt, were thrown back in his face. Could he really revisit that world?
“Sir, are you still there?” asked the voice on the phone. “Yes, yes. I’m sorry,” said Justin, his mind shifting back to reality. “I’ll be glad to come see him sometime soon.”
“I’d hurry,” said the nurse. And with that she hung up the phone. Justin let out another deep breath and then he cried. It was time for that cigarette.
The following afternoon, Justin got in his car and headed to he hospital. Upon arriving there, he said his first prayer in a long time that was not spoken while standing behind a microphone. He gripped the steering wheel of his car and looked to the sky, searching for words. “God, you see the real, broken person behind the mask I wear. I am not good, strong or pure, but you are. I can’t pretend right now. I don’t have words to offer. I am hurting, but I need to bring something sacred, something of worth to a person who is hurting so much more. Help me.” And then he got out of his car and walked in, repeating the last words of his prayer under his breath the whole time.
As he saw that he was getting closer to Kurt’s room, Justin’s footsteps became slower and softer, and his heart began to beat louder and faster. What would he say? His mind had gone totally blank. And then he saw him. If his heart was racing before, it had now all but stopped as he peered through the narrow, glass window on the door. There he was, sitting alone in a sterile, white room, his only company an IV drip and a series of monitors and machines humming along. His body was wasting away. He didn’t have a hair on his head and his face was weak and drained of color. Kurt knew that he didn’t have much time left. His glazed, tired eyes told the story. He understood that AIDS would soon claim his life. In many ways, it already had.
Justin slowly opened the door and walked into the room. Suddenly emerging from his comatose state and aware of his surroundings again, Kurt turned to look towards the door and their eyes met. Justin ran to the bed and clasped Kurt’s frail hand in his. “I’m here,” he whispered. Kurt began to sob. Justin turned towards the nurse that had just entered the room with a look of concern. She gave a knowing half-smile. “You’re okay,” she said. “It’s just that this is the first time anyone that didn’t work here has touched him.” The realization of Kurt’s loneliness and isolation broke Justin’s heart wide open. He buried his head in the side of the bed, crying alongside his friend.
“I’m sorry,” began Justin, wiping away tears. “I’m sorry for the things they said. For the way they hurt you; for the way I hurt you. We walked away when you needed us the most. When you needed love, we only offered judgment. You were never meant to walk this road alone. I’m here now, and I’ll walk with you.”
Kurt strained to speak. Slowly, the words came out in a hoarse whisper. “Where am I going?” Kurt asked, managing a feeble grin. Justin gazed out the open window of the hospital room as the sunlight streamed in on a warm September day. He looked back at Kurt and returned the smile. “Home,” he said.
“I’m scared,” said Kurt, through labored breaths. Justin looked his friend in the eye, and once again took his hand. “Kurt, if only you could only see the roads I’ve snuck down, the shame I’ve known, the dark places I hid. I threw stones, pretending that my mistakes were somehow lesser than yours. But now I see that we’re just the same: imperfect people in need of grace. And God is always ready to offer that, even when Christians aren’t. When everyone else walked away, someone still loved you. He sang over you, he stood beside you, he carried you when you couldn’t stand, and he caught every tear you cried. You are not alone, and you are not unloved. Don’t be afraid.”
Kurt smiled and nodded. He tried to speak, but no sound was made. He had already spoken his last. Justin could see the life behind his eyes starting to fade, and then they closed. Kurt mustered up all of the energy in his body to squeeze Justin’s hand one last time. Moments later the heart monitor beside Kurt’s bed switched from short, pulsating beeps, to one long, steady tone. A lifeless body remained on the hospital bed, but Kurt was no longer there.
Kurt had held on for so long, afraid of what would come next if he finally let go and allowed himself to embrace the mystery of his acceptance and fall on the grace and love of someone bigger and stronger than him. With Justin’s gentle words of truth, Kurt could finally let go. He had made it home, freed from the prison walls of his illness and dancing alongside the one who had loved him all along.
“Save a place for me,” whispered Justin. “I’ll be there soon.”