Healing words of 17 years ago still echo today


RICARDO Palomares and Ted Bennett did not live to see an openly gay man become a bishop of the Episcopal Church, and they are due no direct credit for influencing the vote to make the Rev. Canon V. Gene Robinson the bishop of New Hampshire.

But I feel their spirits flitting about this story.

And I can still hear Bennett's words on what was an important day in Baltimore in 1986. I feel lucky to have written them down and saved them. Whenever fellow Christians start condemning and decrying and threatening and making God's big tent a little smaller, I like to savor good words and healing wisdom, even if it means reaching back for an old eulogy.

Ricardo Palomares was a Cuban-born Episcopal vicar in Baltimore in the 1980s, serving a little parish in Canton, the Chapel of the Holy Evangelists, and La Mission Episcopal Hispana in Fells Point. Before he died of AIDS in 1986, he'd asked the Rev. Edwin G. "Ted" Bennett, the canon administrator of the Maryland Diocese, to deliver the eulogy at his funeral in the exquisite Episcopal cathedral in North Baltimore.

It was an unforgettable funeral -- a kind of homecoming for those who had felt bashed or betrayed, or alienated from the Christian world -- and it was one of the most memorable of eulogies, something that felt in its moment downright historic.

"We gather here as a church to make absolutely clear the truth of God by which we live, and that truth is the Gospel we proclaim, enshrined in the promise we heard -- the love and care of God for all his people, no matter who, no matter what," Bennett said.

"I know many in this cathedral have long felt alienated from the church -- the preachings of many, who I believe misunderstand the Gospel, have made you feel unwelcome, unwanted, unloved. But the Gospel message seems to me unequivocal: 'God so loved the world that he gave his own son. All who believe in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.'

"No one is excluded from the love of God, and if the church is faithful, none is excluded from the care of the church."

The Rt. Rev. A. Thomas Eastman, the Maryland bishop at the time, presided at Palomares' funeral, one of more than 80 clergy in the cathedral that day.

As a Roman Catholic, I found the event stunning -- an open acknowledgment from the pulpit of the cause of Palomares' death and an official invitation to gays and lesbians, without ever saying the words "gays and lesbians," to the embrace of the Episcopal Church. Remember, this was 1986, the midst of the Reagan Revolution and the march of the Moral Majority. The Episcopal Church had been debating the role of gays for decades and a progressive view had started to evolve, but the issue was still divisive and bitter in many quarters of the Christian world, the Catholic Church, in particular.

That Bennett spoke as he did at Palomares' funeral, with Eastman presiding, gave hope to those of us who like our Christianity as big and as open and as tolerant as we can get it.

Bishop Eastman, contacted at the Episcopal meeting in Minneapolis yesterday, understood exactly why Bennett's eulogy for Palomares came easily to mind in Baltimore this week.

"That was a powerful message," he said, "and actually I think that is exactly what this convention is trying to say to the gay and lesbian community. Here we are, 17 years since [Palomares' funeral], and some of what began in certain places I think is being completed here.

"Not that we're done. This is an evolving story, and the end isn't in sight. One of my fellow bishops was just telling me how alienated he feels [because of the vote to make Robinson a bishop], and many are hurt by this."

But in this tiring debate, there has been plenty of hurt for years, felt more by those made unwelcome in the Christian life. Ted Bennett spoke directly to that at Ricardo Palomares' funeral.

"I know," Bennett continued, "that many in this cathedral live in fear of the plague that afflicted Ricardo, the fear of getting sick, the fear of being rejected because of your sickness, the fear of being alone when you most need the love of friends. But let this service be witness to the fact you need not be afraid -- we have heard the Gospel message -- and as you are not excluded from the love of God, so you are not excluded from the love of those who love and serve the Lord."

And here's the part that ought be repeated in every Christian church:

"For we know that every human being, no matter how you live or what your pain, is someone God thought worth the death of his son. ... And more than this -- more than being loved by God, more than being cared for by his church -- the promise of eternal life is yours."

In this space a week ago, I incorrectly named the former Episcopal bishop of Maryland. He is the Rt. Rev. A. Theodore Eastman not Thomas Eastman. I regret the error.
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