July 7

Stories of LGBTQ Persons – Part 3 (bold part by John Reid)

(Stories from Bill Swisher, Mark Hewitt and Sven Erickson)

Acts 10: 25-36 and 44-48

July 7, 2024

          These past few weeks we’ve been listening to stories from LGBTQ Persons. Two weeks ago, Em Norwood shared with us about being non-binary and we learned about their non-binary pronouns. Last week Heather Hasch shared with us some of her experiences about being Trans. Next week our daughter Sarah will be with us and share some of her experiences

          Today I’m sharing stories from some folks in our church who will not be preaching up here with me. I had the privilege of visiting Mark Hewitt and Bill Swisher in their home a month ago. They shared some of their own experiences and thoughts. In addition, I talked on the phone about a month ago with Ilse and Kay Erickson’s son Sven who is a member of this church.

          As I talked with these three gay men, I could see that we’ve made progress in the past fifty years. It’s good for us to celebrate the progress that has been made – both in the culture around us and in the church. Let’s start by remembering what it used to be like and what it was like for these guys when they were young.

           Sven Erickson told me what it was like growing up gay. It was hard. He said that he knew he was different from most other guys and attracted to men from a very young age. Sven dealt with the name calling. Faggot was used when he was in Junior High. He stayed in the closet to protect himself from the bullies.

          Mark Hewitt also talked about being referred to as faggot in school. Some kid wrote that word by his name in a book. Mark said he felt like a fish out of water. He didn’t fit. He didn’t have any close friends. As a youth, he put all his energy into his swimming. And after graduation, he put all his efforts into his job at the car dealership. He too stayed in the closet to protect himself.

          Mark said back then he didn’t have any role models or any community where he could be totally honest about who he was. He said that he wanted to fit in with the straight people and so he didn’t have any gay friends. There was loneliness in Mark’s life. He didn’t even start dating till he was in his 40’s.

          Bill Swisher talked about being active in the UCC church in Eau Claire as he was growing up, but he was never out as a gay person. It was the era of don’t ask, don’t tell. Bill didn’t even talk about it with his mom. He said that he did talk about it with his pastor at some point as a young adult, but they kept it quiet. It was also the time in which gay men were dying of AIDS. Bill had a friend who had moved to Texas but moved back home to die of AIDS. Those were hard times.

          Cornelius knew what it was like to be on the outside looking in. He was a non-Jewish Gentile in a country where if you weren’t Jew, you weren’t worth associating with. Gentiles like Cornelius were considered unclean, unfit and sinful.

          Cornelius never talked about being a gentile. But even so, people knew. And they avoided him. It was a lonely existence for Cornelius. So, he threw himself into his work. He was the captain of a group of soldiers called: The Italian Unit. In other words, they were associated with the Roman Imperial Army. Just another reason that people kept their distance from him.

          Even though he was not a follower of the Jewish faith, Cornelius was a very religious man. He worshipped God and so did everyone in his house. He gave money to the poor. Cornelius made a point to frequently turn to God in prayer.

          One afternoon at about 3:00, Cornelius was praying and had a vision. An angel spoke to him.

          Immediately, Cornelius called in two of his servants and one of his soldiers. He said,

          “I’ve just had a vision. An angel of God came to me and called me by name. I was so surprised and at first, I just stared at the angel. Then I asked, ‘What is this all about?’

          The angel answered, “God has heard your prayers and knows about your gifts to the poor. Send some men to Joppa for a man named Simon Peter. He’s visiting with Simon, the leather maker who lives in a house near the sea.”

          After the angel said this, the angel left.

          I want the three of you to go to Joppa right now. Find this Simon Peter. Tell him what the angel told me. Then invite Simon Peter to come meet me here in Caesarea.”

          The three men went to Joppa and talked with Peter. It just so happened that Peter had just a vision in which God showed him that it was o’kay to eat unclean meat just like the Gentiles.

Peter joined the three men and travelled to Caesarea to meet with Cornelius and his Gentile friends.

          After their initial introductions, Peter said, “You know that we Jews are not allowed to have anything to do with Gentiles. But has shown me that he doesn’t think anyone is unclean or unfit. I agreed to come here, but I want to know why you sent for me.”

          Cornelius says,

          “Four days ago at about 3:00 in the afternoon I was praying at home. Suddenly a man in bright clothes stood in front of me. He said, ‘Cornelius, God has heard your prayers and he knows about your gifts to the poor. Now send to Joppa for Simon Peter. He is visiting in the home of Simon the leather maker, who lives near the sea.’

          I sent for you right away, and you have been good enough to come. All of us are here in the presence of God so that we can hear what you have to say.”

          Peter responds in a way that was revolutionary for a Jewish Christian leader. Peter says, “I’m certain that God treats all people alike. God is pleased with everyone who worships him and does right, no matter their background or heritage.”

          Peter is saying, “Everyone is welcome. Not just us insider Jews. But everyone. Even those we once considered outsiders and sinners and unclean.”

          I can just imagine Peter embracing Cornelius at this point and welcoming him as a fellow sibling in God.

          Soon Peter was baptizing many of the Gentiles in the room, including Cornelius and therefore symbolizing their full inclusion in the newly formed Christian movement.

Full inclusion was the heart of many discussions and talks that were shared in this church twenty years ago. This church decided to engage in a process of exploring whether to become open and affirming. Some people, including Sven stood up here and told their stories.

          Sven had not talked much about being a gay man before that day that he spoke here twenty years ago. It was important for the church to hear his story. It was also an important moment for Sven in his journey.

Most responded in such a positive and caring way to those who talked up front during that ONA process. But there were a few people who chose a different path. Sven lost a good friend when he came out. This church lost a few good members who weren’t ready to support the church becoming open and affirming. It was hard to see people turn away like that.

In spite of that, this church moved forward and voted on November 20, 2004 to officially become an Open and Affirming congregation.

This made it possible for two men who visited our church a fifteen years later to feel welcomed and accepted.

Mark and Bill met at the Art Fair in Ann Arbor back in 2001. That relationship changed their lives. Both of them began to feel comfortable being out as gay men. Mark said, ‘It was like a load was lifted. I didn’t have to play that game anymore.”

Bill eventually encouraged Mark to come to church. They were busy for many years running an inn in the St. Joe area. But after selling it they had their Sundays off.

The first time that Bill and Mark came through our doors they walked into the Furman Room where Kay and Ilse were preparing for the Fellowship Time. The warm welcome they were given encouraged them to return Sunday after Sunday.

Mark and Bill continue to be thankful for the love of this church family. Bill said he was really grateful for how the church helped him when he broke his leg four years ago.

          Sven also talked about how thankful he has been for the love of this church. He mentioned how the pastors at this church have all been so progressively inclusive. Sven is appreciative that he’s always felt supported and affirmed here.

It’s good for us to celebrate the progress that has been made – both in the culture around us and in the church. We know there’s still much work to be done, but today we can look back and be thankful.

We’re going to conclude this message by sharing together in a litany that is based on the Open and Affirming Covenant we voted in favor of twenty years ago.

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