Resuming the Missionary Position

Years ago when I attended Nyack College, a small liberal arts Christian school run by the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church, I decided to go to Ecuador for a summer to serve as a short-term missionary. Since I had a license as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT), I agreed I would work in the emergency room at a hospital in Quito. In addition, I learned I would also join hospital staff for the week-long “medical caravans” into remote jungle and mountain communities where we would set-up temporary medical clinics.

In preparation for the mission trip I decided to train my body and mind for the deprivations of the missionary life. The months before my trip to South America I denied myself sweets and ate a very simple diet. I limited the number and length of showers I took. Perhaps most radical of all, I forsook my bed and opted to sleep on the floor. My college roommate looked on amused, but I explained I grew up with many comforts that I assumed would be denied me as a missionary.

I arrived in Quito and met my host family, Americans who were career missionaries originally from the Midwest. They took me to their home, what seemed to me a massive two-story structure with gorgeous gardens. The grounds and the house were maintained by local Ecuadorians, a gardener and a housekeeper. Compared to my working-class, tiny home in the New York State Catskills, in Quito I lived in opulence.

That summer there were about 20 of us summer missionaries, site-seeing, hanging out at the fancy malls, going out to eat at posh restaurants which because of the exchange rate cost us little. We served the Lord too, but not too much.

I was the only one who actually got to leave Quito to do mission work in rural places. It took up to 12 hours on single-lane dirt roads to go deep into the bush. Once there we set up camp at the local school. Without glass or screens in the windows, just bars, we slept on the floor exposed to all of the flying and crawling insects. One night I felt a welcomed occasional breeze pass over my face during a particularly stuffy, sultry night. I opened my eyes to see the source of the wind, a huge bat swooping around our heads eating up all the mosquitos that gathered to attack us.

Mostly being a missionary that summer was a cushy job. I did get sick to my stomach once and lost five pounds in 15 minutes, but overall it was more of a vacation in an exotic location than any sort of intense missionary work filled with multiple deprivations.

I always wanted to be a missionary, to travel the world with Good News. I tried to suppress my gay desires so that I would at last be eligible for service in Conservative Christian missions. The more I suppressed these desires the stronger they became. I eventually came out gay and figured my life as a missionary was over forever.

Yet last week on an overnight train from Albuquerque, where I had just spoken about gender non-conforming characters in the Bible and the Koran at a Sufi worship Center, I remembered Ecuador and my self-imposed missionary training. Back on the train I felt excited about my upcoming presentations in California at Pomona College, the Claremont Friends Meeting, and the La Verne Church of the Brethren. Unable to sleep in the confining reclining chairs in Coach Class that Amtrak offered, I trudged over to the observation car with my blowup pillows and my travel blanket stuffed under my arm and foam earplugs jammed into my ears. There I found a quiet corner, and settled down on the floor for a long, mostly comfortable night of sleeping.

I awoke refreshed with a feeling of joy that surpassed my pre-coffee stupor. I realized that the dream I had so long ago abandoned had been happening in my life for some time without me even noticing. These days I travel the world sharing Good News. On this particular wild and wonderful cross-country train journey I stopped along the way to share my work at seminaries and an LGBTQ Center in Chicago and then in Albuquerque with a Muslim group.

On my return trip I stopped in Flagstaff, AZ, where I met with my dear friend Abby Jensen, who recently was honored through the prestigious Trans 100 List. I enjoyed her company without the pressure of a show that evening. Through a friend of Abby’s I learned of a local transgender support group. Some of the members felt strain and pain from family and friends who stirred up questions and opposition based on their faith and their reading of the Bible. Abby’s friend invited me to attend the meeting. I sat and listened and took part in the discussion topics. Then at the end, they asked if I would share some transgender Bible stories, and I did. People seemed to take them in as ammunition as well as bread for their own souls–words of comfort and encouragement from the Bible, a source that has meant so much in their lives. After another overnight train ride I am now in Kansas connecting with all sorts of Christians–straight and gay–who are grappling with a variety of issues.

After all these years I feel that I am in a missionary position of sorts (pun intended with a nod to my gay mormon performance art pal, Steven Fales and his newest show.) I do a different type of mission work I guess. Perhaps the message has shifted. I speak of a different type of liberation, even using the same texts that once oppressed me. I recognize I don’t have The Answer or all the answers. I have my story and a new take on old stories. I have faced homophobia in the world and in myself. I have seen transphobia among gay and lesbian peers. I have seen the pain of rejection and the joy and wholeness that comes from self-acceptance. Good News

Photos from the road: Display at La Brea Tar Pits Museum and views from the train in New Mexico.

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This post has 2 Comments

  1. Steven Fales on May 10, 2013 at 1:12 pm Reply

    Yes, “Missionary Position” still brings the most emotional intimacy and joy!

    I’m following your blog now. Learning how to do all this stuff. Follow me back just so I know someone did and can?!

    http://stevenfales.blogspot.com/

    Keep up the good work, Elder! 🙂

    • p2son on May 10, 2013 at 2:48 pm Reply

      Hey Hey, I see you are on Blogger. I have not used that account forever, but I will and see if I can be one of your followers.

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