Sunday, January 23, 2005

Visit with 1 Giant Leap, New Orleans, LA, USA: DAY 6

Sunday, 23 January 2005

I woke up on Sunday thinking, "Ah! I have a free morning!" Duncan, Adriana and Ben were planning to go to church and I haven’t done church since I was a teenager except to attend funerals. I especially have been turned off to church since the outcome of the US election and how it seems to have spun around on us because of a Republican collusion with the Evangelical Right. So I made coffee in my room and ate leftover croissants from the recording sessions on Saturday and started thinking what I might do until 2pm or so when the guys would be back to do my interview.

Each morning, I have to eat to take my meds, so I thought I was set with a couple of croissants and went about taking my 25 or so morning pills. About half an hour later, Duncan called me up to ask me if I wanted to meet them for breakfast. Since I had seen so many things change so quickly in the past week, I decided to meet them in order to figure out what our day might be like.

When I got there, we ordered our food and started to plan the day. As breakfast went on, there was more and more talk about the music in the church and the ministry of the church and I have to admit that I began to warm up to the idea, but then Duncan said, "Yeah, come on…go to church with us." How could I refuse, eh? THEY FORCED ME TO GO!

We finished up breakfast and did a mapquest search to find the location of the Greater St. Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church. We found the church and headed out. When we arrived, I walked in with great trepidation because I had just recently written to my own childhood Baptist church since the election and asked them to remove my name from their rolls. It was an emotional thing for me to go into this church thinking about how the church had sided against me and all people like me in the world. The evangelical movement was instrumental in voting in bans on gay marriage in 11 states during the last US election and I was going into the Lion’s den, so to speak. The experience also had the potential to unleash emotions from my last times in church when I was an adolescent.

As we arrived, we walked through the foyer and asked if there might be a service starting soon. We were told that the Bishop Paul Morton would be preaching that day in half an hour and that the sermon was a good one. The four of us walked into the church and took seats in a pew about half way up to the pulpit. I had chosen to sit on the outside so that I could flee if the emotions got the best of me. Mistake, mistake, mistake! The sanctuary was filled with small groups of people who were conducting Sunday school lessons in breakout sessions. I looked around the church and the first thing that caught my attention was a portrait of Jesus being baptized in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. Both of them were depicted fairly much as I would see Ethiopians today. Light yet definitely black skin, long wavy hair and almond shaped eyes. At least that is what I think I remember. I have seen some unbelievably beautiful Ethiopians in my life and this felt familiar.

As the Sunday School sessions finished up, people would come up to the front of the church and take a microphone to make announcements. They were taking an accounting of the number of members in the individual classes and the announcements took a rather passive-aggressive turn. A lady took the microphone and would say things along the lines of "Sustah Payne and Sustah Moore. It is good to see you here. I remember way back when you both told us that you had to give up your work for God and leading your Sunday school sessions because you just couldn’t keep up anymore. We know you have been feeling poorly and haven’t been here much AT ALL LATELY, BUT WE ARE GLAD TO SEE YOU HERE TODAY. And where is Sustah Moore? Sustah Moore? I am so glad to see you, it has been soooooooooo long since we last saw your face here!" I knew that kind of behavior from the church in my small town. If you weren’t in church on Sunday, someone would corner you in the street and send you into a guilt trip about not having attended. At least we weren’t called out in front of the whole congregation.

After that bit of business, we were on to the "intercessional prayer time". A woman took the microphone, raised her head up and began to recite shortly phrased entreaties to God while her head was held up to the heavens with her eyes closed. She was accompanied by quiet, entrancing music. It must have gone on for about 15 minutes or so. "Thank you Jesus for the air we breath. For the Sunshine, For the Cold, And the Heat. Thank you Lord for the food we ate this morning and for the food we ate yesterday. Etc…." I rationalized this as a good thing…being thankful is a good thing and it has no real connection to religion per se, so I was cool with that aspect. What worried me was my natural tendency to go into trance under certain circumstances and I could feel myself going in. I basically used the time after that to meditate, but throughout, I heard the words Jesus and God hundreds of times. I could feel it penetrating into my subconscious.

Eventually that prayer ended, thank you Jesus, and we got to the good stuff. We had music..full gospel music. There was a band sitting way up in the choir perch and a choir of about 20 people present along with a backup group of four singers, of whom one was a gorgeous petite woman in a sun-dress and one a guy who looked a lot like Bill Cosby’s Fat Albert character or one of Eddie Murphy’s Klump family members. These people started singing and soon we were all rocking along in church. It was nice.

Next the Bishop’s wife came out to take care of some items of business. She presented an introduction to the Gospel News Network, GNN, that was fashioned after CNN and presented news about the ministry run by the Bishop Morton. It seemed like a parody of CNN and when they went to commercial, they actually ran a commercial for a gospel album by the Bishop’s son PJ Morton. Imagine a slick ad for an R&B collection with voice-over stating "Hear his elegant vocals and instrumentals on such songs as ‘Blah Blah Blah’ and ‘Jibberish’. At that point, we all began to look at one another thinking that it was a full-on joke, but NO! PJ was indeed selling his album with 2 songs called "Blah Blah Blah" and "Jibberish".

The next half an hour of the service was devoted almost entirely to the collection of money. There was a surrealism about the names of the organizations that the church operated or with which it worked. You could attend a Wednesday night service and get a massage, manicure and pedicure from SpaNobia. Or you could join the Women of Excellence or "WOE" Women (Poor Baptist women probably have a lot of woe to discuss at their meetings.) Or you could contribute to the Tsunami relief fund which had met $13K of its $20K goal already…"You all have done good… some more good, now and help us reach that goal." Or you could just put money in an envelope for this or that cause, and there were many, many causes along the way that morning. The ushers were rushing around collecting envelopes of money. Suddenly, there would be a rousing number from the band and choir to work us all up to the next level. The congregation was paying to see the Bishop do his thing, and as they paid their dues, the more they paid, the closer his time on stage came. If you hadn’t been able to attend last week, you could always just fork out some more money to buy the tapes or DVDs of the sermon. The moneychangers had come back to the temple.

There was a part of the service where visitors were recognized. I was really surprised when the names of two people were called out and it was announced that they had come all the way from Durham, North Carolina! Of all the churches I never expected to be in on a Sunday morning in New Orleans, we had walked into one where there were people from my own town! Next those of us who were first time visitors to the ministry were asked to stand. Duncan, Adriana, Ben and I stood up and people started coming up to us with huge smiles on their faces, hands extended for handshakes and kind words of welcome for us. It all felt so very sincere. I can remember wondering if they would have been smiling so broadly to know that a gay white male was in their midst and especially one who is living with AIDS.

Envelopes were distributed for tithing, the traditional Baptist tradition of giving 10% of your income to the church. We watched as a stack of pre-printed envelopes was passed hand to hand down the pew and I saw Duncan reach for his wallet and pull out a large bill. He stuffed it into his envelope and handed the empties and the one he had filled to Ben who handed them to me. The usher took them all and then handed the filled envelope back to me. Somehow, I didn’t know why, but I didn’t like the turn this was suddenly taking. After the envelopes had been distributed throughout the church, people started streaming to the front of the church to place their envelopes in plastic baskets. I looked at Ben and Duncan and realized that, being at the end of the pew, I had to be the one to take this offering up to the front of the church. I reluctantly got up and walked up to drop the envelope in the basket. When I turned around to walk back to our pew, I saw that Ben was grinning and filming me and I broke out in what must have been the silliest sheepish grin on Earth that day. I was busted…had been caught in the act of giving money, nay!…aiding and abetting my enemies! I turned to Ben and said "You would have to film me now, eh?"

We were asked to join in prayer on several occasions. There was a lot of holding up of hands to Jesus. The words of fixed prayers were telecast onto the big screen in the corner and everyone in the church seemed to know the prayers by heart. The services began to take a familiar Baptist turn…more song (only really good music, unlike the wailing I heard in my childhood church) and then there appeared this man in a long white robe with huge purple sashes sewn onto the sleeves and across his back. I didn’t see him come on stage…it was almost as if he just popped up out of nowhere, and then I realized that this was the Bishop himself, Paul Morton, Sr.

When the music calmed, the Bishop began to talk…still carrying on about the business of his ministry. Where did it get to be a little bit too much for me?…when we were told that the Reverend Paul Morton, Jr., who was stranded in snow in New York City and couldn’t personally be with us that day, would be giving his concert the next week in New Orleans and that it was not sold out yet. Such and such church across town, not even his OWN church, had bought more tickets than the people here in his own church…and "I know you don’t want to do that to my own son . Come on now, who here has $7 and wants a ticket. We just got to get this thing done, people. Sometimes, you just can’t wait till next week to take care of your business. Help us finish this up people. Who needs some tickets?"

When we finally got the business out of the way, and I mean FINALLY, the Bishop began to discuss the theme of his sermon that day: "carnality." I turned to Ben and whispered "Uh oh!" Fortunately, the sermon was not as difficult to take as I expected it might be. He never spoke of damnation, nor of hell nor of fire and brimstone. Rather, he gave a good, common-sense talk about how to live one’s life. The man was an entertainer. He would sing, he would make jokes, he would talk directly to people. He is good at what he does. He said, on the subject of carnality that the Devil never tempts us with things that we don’t like. "The Devil ain’t never in my life tempted me with broccoli!" he said. At times, he would work up the congregation with the typical call and response format that is still alive in American music and Baptist sermons after having crossed over the Atlantic from Africa during the years of slavery. Toward the end of the sermon, he started using the metaphor of "Changing Lanes". If you are waking up depressed in the morning when you are filled with spirit of the Lord, then you better listen to his messages and "CHANGE LANES". If you find yourself following the Zulus down the street at Mardi Gras instead of looking for a virtuous woman, then you better "CHANGE LANES", etc. Toward the end, the music swelled again and there was a call to God. Those in the church who wished to dedicate themselves to Christ could then come forward and renew their lives in Christ. As about a dozen people walked up, they would get moved up to the altar and ushers would extend their arms to form a physical barrier between those new lambs and the rest of the flock out in the general congregation.

About that point of the service, I started to get a little bit overwhelmed. I flashed back to my time of being a 12-year-old barefooted kid in the countryside of eastern North Carolina and how two of my friends and I had conspired to "join the church" at Revival one night. We had told the minister before the service, but when the time came to go up and actually do the deed, none of us could move. Finally one of us went and one by one we were accepted to be Baptists. When the service ended, the congregation came to greet us and we all three bawled like babies for no apparent reason. I was told later that it was the spirit of the Lord that made us cry. I have now learned that it is all about belonging. If you are excluded by a society in which you live and the only way to find peace is to conform, you are weeping for the loss of self and for the relief of being accepted, finally.

As these services were wrapping up, a little, frail old lady in the second pew caught my attention. She was so filled with the spirit at that moment that she was squirming in place, almost tap dancing on the spot while her frail little voice was screeching out "Thank ya, Jesus. Thank ya , Lord" It swept through me that despite the obvious contradiction of this ministry’s focus on money, it was working to help some people there get their closeness with God. I know that she would not have cared if she went without food if it meant that she could buy some eternity with the God she so honestly seeks. I can respect and honor that and I started to well up with tears. I had to fight not to break out in sobs again and risk getting caught on film sobbing in a Baptist church!

Next thing I know, Duncan caught my attention and said, "We are going." We got up and walked out of the church to the van were we all were sharing our amazement at what we had just witnessed and where I beat Duncan and Ben about the legs with my Human Rights Campaign cap for filming me donating Duncan’s money to an Evangelical church.

We went back to the hotel for lunch. While sitting in the restaurant, Duncan found the Bishop Morton’s website and brought his laptop up to me to hold up the screen. (Editing note: since Hurricane Katrina, the website that showed the list of videos available for purchase from Paul Morton's ministry is no longer active.)There I saw that the first video on his list for sale was one entitled "God vs. Gays". When we saw the very first item for sale on the list, it caused a lively discussion of how the church has taken its war to gay people and that the issue of gay marriage is the battle being fought. By denying gay marriage in individual states, and with the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment, the people of the United States are making gays second-class citizens. There are over 1130 rights that are conveyed automatically to heterosexuals who marry in the country, including visitation rights, immigration rights, inheritance rights, and survival rights. Gay people have to hire lawyers to get those items put down in writing if they want to try to ensure that their wishes are granted and even having their wishes in writing is no guarantee that someone might not contest them and tie up the decision in the court system.

Our food arrived. We had a great laugh that the devil had put huge trees of broccoli on our plates.

Anyway, that was a good discussion and it got me worked up a bit for my interview that was to be held right after lunch. Because I had been expecting the interview to happen at any time all week, I had built up a bit of anxiety over the actual filming of the interview. I knew and implicitly trusted the whole crew by now and had no concern that they would put me on the spot in a way to make me uncomfortable, but I do have a bit of an irrational fear of being interviewed on film. This fear had grown a bit by the end of the week. As we finished up lunch, I asked if I should change from my dark shirt to a lighter color for the black background against we would be filming and then went to my room to get the broccoli out of my teeth and to change shirts.

I walked into Ben’s room for the interview much as I walk into my dentist’s office. I know it has to be done, but I dread it and my heart races in anticipation of the metal of anxiety scraping over a raw nerve that I don’t know is there. Ben put me in a chair in the corner and told me he was going to make me all pretty with soft light and a nice tan through the miracle of modern filming. Adriana, who had said that she wanted to take a nap joined us as well and I was touched by her gesture of support. I knew that she was tired and needed a nap, but felt that her presence would make me feel more at home. We had developed a nice vibe with one another by this point and I liked having her around I was glad she came to join us. And so, the interview began.

Ben conducted the interview. At first, I was very nervous and could feel my pulse quickening and my breathing becoming shallow. Then I started to hear a bit of a stumble in my voice as I experienced high level adrenaline rushes through my body. Nothing that anyone was doing caused this, but my body runs on high adrenaline anyway. It seemed forever before I finally was able to relax enough to get caught up in the questions and the answers and conveying to the world who I am and why I have to say the things that I have to say. After I loosened up, I could tell immediately when I had said something that fit the desired format from Ben’s expression or smile. He was a good coach, encouraging me to keep my answers short despite my storyteller style of expression, and encouraging me with his kindness. Meanwhile, I had put poor tired Duncan to sleep on a nearby bed!

On one question, I was talking about my dad, and I got choked up and began to cry. After we took a bit of a break, I was very touched by Adriana, who with her bad foot, got up and came across the room to give me a kiss on the cheek. I can’t say what will make it in to the films, but that was a very special moment for me. It is times like that that I understand that people see me differently than I see myself, but I don’t quite get why they do. So we finished up the interview and I was done! When I got up from the chair, I was hit immediately with chills and my body started trembling unbelievably. I took my leave of Adriana, Ben and Duncan, telling them that it was my last night in NOLA and that I wanted to go be with "my people". I ended up going back to my room for a 15 minute hot shower just to stop the chills that were wracking my body.

After I dressed, I went outside and took a cab down to the French Quarter. It was cold with a strong wind blowing and I wandered around the streets looking for the local gay bars. I found one, but it was populated by transvestite prostitutes and was not at all what I was looking for. I kept walking in the cold and my ears and nose went numb. Eventually, I decided that I had to find some dinner so that I could take my evening meds and warm up a bit. I found a Mediterranean restaurant where the waitress completely got my order wrong, but I was too tired and cold to complain. At one point, a Joe Dassin song started playing on the speakers in the restaurant from the 1970’s when I lived in Menton, France, for a month. I was astonished to hear "Et Si Tu N’existais Pas" and it put me in a good frame of mind to sing along in French to a song from my teen years.

Fortified, I walked from the restaurant down to Harrah’s casino. It was far too cold to be out walking the streets trying to find a gay bar on a Sunday night, so I decided to go check out the casino. I walked around for a few minutes before deciding that I would risk $100 on a few hands of blackjack or "twenty-one". I then set about selecting myself a table. It took me a while to find one where I could be in the first position off the dealer’s left. Annie, the dealer, said to me, "I saw you come by earlier with your hat snapped onto your shoulder like that!" (I had snapped my hat into the epaulette on my leather biker jacket so that I wouldn’t have to carry the hat around in my hands.) I told her that I had been looking for a table with a good vibe and I knew I had found it now. So I put down $100 and got 20 red chips.

I started playing and started winning. The longer I played, the more I talked with Annie and the more I liked her. She was a good soul. She had problems with her shoes. They came off and she couldn’t get them back on. I told that I had been traveling with a friend earlier in the week (Jody) whose shoes came off every time we got out of a car. That just cracked her up. Then she had problems with her bra and she would just announce, "I got an itch under my bra strap and I can’t get to it!" The guys there were being really crude, offering to help her scratch her itch. I just looked at her and said something to the effect that I found that rude. Annie soon had to go on break and she was replaced a lady named Remmielou who also was a good soul. When she dealt out an ace or face card on the first pass, she would really punch down the next card, hoping to punch you down a blackjack. Both dealers had wonderful energy and they made me feel at home in my skin, in the casino and in the universe. Suddenly, the cards just started falling for me.

I started talking to the lady beside me who was not having very good luck We were all trying to support each other and were wishing each other victory. Not paying a lot of direct attention, I didn’t notice when some of my fiver chips got cashed up to a tweny-fivers and I continued betting, not knowing that my stakes had increased. Suddenly, I decided that I needed to organize my chips to see how I was doing. I started stacking them out and realized that green ones were worth $25 and I looked down to see that I had $400 on the table! Where the heck??? How the heck??? Wha?

Annie came back after Remmielou’s shift was over and continued to bring me good luck.. Sometimes I would win,. Sometimes I would lose and sometimes, I would just push….but pushing is as good as winning. You get to keep your money. About this time, a brash, overweight man who was too drunk to be playing cards sat down and started playing. After he has lost a few hands, he looked up and started talking to Annie: "I don’t like you. You are bad luck. I am going to kick your ass, Annie!" It offended me. I was upset that he put upon her all his negative energy and blamed her for his stupid play. Annie, though, took it in stride and proceeded to win him over, little by little by dishing it back out to him. On the next hand, he had a 20 and she hit a 21. She looked up with a smile and said "Look like Annie done kicked some ass of her own!" I just cracked up laughing. She then turned to me and said loudly, "You better watch that man over there and tell him when to bet and when not too. He gonna mess you all up if you don’t."

I continued playing until about 1 a.m. and left the casino with about $435 more than I walked in with. The universe had managed to pay for my trip to New Orleans and my participation in 2s2e and my time with the family of 1GL.. As I got up to leave the table, I was begged to stay and continue playing by four middle aged white guys who were shit-faced drunk and who thought that their good luck was dependent on me. One of them had been playing at my table for about two hours and I had come to know him a bit. Since you are permitted to talk to each other about how to play your hands in this casino, I was able to help the inebriated among the crowd recognize when they were making an error in betting…something that helped me too, because that prevents them from wasting the good cards that I would need for myself. I began to really understand that if you give out to the universe, it comes back to you.

I left the casino to take a cab back to my hotel. The cabbie was a Pakistani man. When I asked him where he was from and he told me, I said to him "Welcome to America" and he said belligerently, "Yeah, welcome yourself." Somehow I ended up talking to him about 1GL and I mentioned Michael Stipe and Asha Bhosle and when he heard her name, he started talking to me. Suddenly he was not sullen and angry and by the time I arrived at my hotel, I had created another 1GL convert who wrote down the name and promised to find a copy of the DVD.

Before bed, I packed my bag for my trip home to North Carolina.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

this was SOO! funny. :-D
and very touching as well.

gahahahaa. i loved that.

1/30/2005 09:41:00 PM  

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