Rev. Don Marsh: Haven’t We Come a Long Way?!

My story is not one of coming out, but of finding out. Having grown up in a time (born in 1924) and place (rural Nebraska) where the issue of homosexuality was unspoken and not described in home, church, school or community. Having served during World War II in the U.S. Army (1944-1946), when its policy on homosexuality was basically “Don’t ask, don’t care, don’t even think about it,” and having graduated from seminary with nary a serious in-class discussion of how to deal with the issue, I was ill-prepared to cope with it in my early ministry — more than I knew! I tried to be open and nonjudgmental in my counseling style, but I had little real comprehension of the depth of pain and sense of exclusion involved.

Then, while at Hanscom Park Church in Omaha (late 1960”s, early 70’s), I helped establish and served as an anonymous volunteer telephone responder for Omaha’s first telephone HELP-Line—long before the 911 emergency system was established. For seven years, my weekly on-call schedule was from 11 p.m. Friday to 7:00 a.m. Saturday—a time when parties happened, inhibitions faded, rash deeds and thoughts occurred, with guilt and fear crashing in. We kept a tally of our calls, not by name but by situation. Over those seven years, an average of two out of seven of the cries for help on my shift came from callers, mostly men, wrestling with their homosexuality. Among those who were high-risk for suicide, the percentage was even higher. The church? That’s the last place they’d think of for help—some after bitter trials. Moving right along…

After I retired in 1990, I volunteered for seven years with the Nebraska Aids Project in Lincoln. Following training, I was assigned as an AIDS-Buddy. That was when AIDS was a dark, burgeoning epidemic,. Positive diagnosis was tantamount to a death sentence, Several of my Buddies, all gay, died—some as prison inmates. Many of our AIDS buddies were estranged from their families, and especially from their churches. Some religious leaders called AIDS God’s punishment for the sin of being gay. I conducted a dozen funerals for AIDS victims. Most had grown up “in the church,” but felt cast out. Parents estranged from their sons for years because they were gay were often reconciled at the AIDS deathbed, crying softly in their sorrow at having wasted years in separation. As to the church, most of my AIDS Buddies in Lincoln and those desperate HELP-Line callers in Omaha shared a sense of utter abandonment. The church has come a long way in the last half- century, haven’t we? Haven’t we?

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Rev. Don Marsh: Haven’t We Come a Long Way?!

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