Chaplain Norris Burkes

Chaplain Norris Burkes. Photo by Wade Spees. June 6, 2014.

Wade Spees

In 1980, my wife Becky and I were living the idyllic newlywed life on the sheltered campus of Golden Gate Seminary in Mill Valley, Calif.

The campus spilled onto a pine-wooded hillside next to Richardson Bay. Our view was so breathtaking that the guest speakers in our chapel were often rendered speechless in the beauty of the moment.

We knew few problems in paradise. Occasionally, a curious child wandered too close to a skunk. Or a student, like myself, strayed into poison oak. Or someone forgot to set the emergency brake and lost their car off the steep hills.

But across the bay, headlines screamed about a deadly virus brewing in the San Francisco bathhouses. Some students called it “God’s judgment” on the city's homosexual community, but most of us felt “called of God” and therefore immune from AIDS.

By 1981, my thoughts centered on my new position as a student pastor of a rural church in Hopland, Calif., 90 miles north of my seminary Shangri-La.

On any Sunday morning, my church drew about 40 parishioners. According to my deacons, those numbers materialized only by the fulfillment of two conditions: “If the Good Lord’s willin’ and the ‘crick’ don’t rise.”

One Sunday, when the creek was particularly calm, Mrs. Black invited us to her home for a fried chicken lunch. Sometime during dessert, she mentioned how she’d recently evicted two men from her rental house.

“Didn’t they pay their rent?” Becky asked.

“Yes,” she said. “They tried, but I wouldn’t let them. I discovered they’re homosexual, so I kicked them out. God don’t approve of that sort of thing. Just look at all the gays getting sick in San Francisco, right, pastor?”

I pondered how my reply might shorten my employment, even my Baptist career. I quenched my discomfort with a long swallow of sweet iced tea, wishing it were the beer for which Hopland was famous.

“Pastor?”

“What would Jesus do?” I asked her, looking for the safety of a cliche.

“Jesus said it’s a sin,” she answered.

Honestly, Mrs. Black’s question made me realize how I’d parted from my denomination’s company line. I might’ve said it was a sin, but I couldn’t go along with the eviction part.

“Did he?” I asked, knowing that Jesus never commented on the subject.

I continued, ignoring her glare. “Would Jesus want them to be homeless, destitute, and outcast?”

“It’s their choice,” she replied, spearing her unfinished dessert with a fork.

“I’m not sure God wants Christians to cause anyone to suffer,” I said. “I think these men deserve homes, jobs and happiness.”

Back in the '80s, even suggesting that gays might be in the heart of a loving God was a liberal statement. Southern Baptists had just fired a missionary after he claimed, “God affirms all loving relationships.”

I don’t remember all that was said, but I did suggest that Mrs. Black compare her actions to the biblically inspired words of the Declaration of Independence.

“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

As you might guess, she didn’t take that well. I felt like the dinner guest who’d become the meal.

A few months later, she tried to block my ordination by recounting my views to the ordination council. The council was unmoved by her attempt.

Ninety miles south of that dinner discussion, my seminary classmate Benjamin Scott Allen, son of our Southern Baptist president, brought his pregnant wife, Lydia, to a San Francisco hospital for a blood transfusion.

The Allens would soon know the tragedy that comes with the shameful shunning of their church. Their story follows next week.

Reach Norris Burkes at comment@thechaplain.net, 843-608-9715 or @chaplain.

Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771. Follow him on Twitter @RobertFBehre.