I met him in the lounge of what Tulane calls the O, where Office of Multicultural Affairs and the Office of Gender and Sexual Diversity are located. I had gone there to share leftover chocolate chip cookies from our weekly NOLA Wesley lunch. He was wearing pink spandex and a pink shirt and a pink hat. After we’d introduced ourselves, he said almost immediately, “I’ve decided to stop drinking so I’m looking for some new friends and a church to belong to.”
Maybe you have to be a campus minister to understand what an impossibly rare and wonderful thing it is that a student would ever say something like that aloud to a pastor he just met, especially at the number one party school in the country which constitutes the most secular square mile in the entire Deep South. That’s why I’m convinced that Jay was an angel God sent to us. And I’m not just saying that as a rhetorical flourish. Hebrews 13:2 says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so, some have entertained angels unaware.” Jay brought us beauty that was from God, and our lives will never be the same.
I invited Jay to my AA meeting and my campus ministry. And he came to both faithfully without any reminder texts. I never had to think twice about whether or not he’d be there which is completely unlike the vast majority of his generation. He showed up every weekday for AA and every Sunday for NOLA Wesley. And he always arrived early. And the first thing he said when he got there was “How can I help?” Jay made himself at home wherever he was and he made a home for others by doing so. When new people arrived, he became their gracious host even in spaces he had only been a part of for a few weeks.
Jay very quickly bonded with the students of NOLA Wesley, especially our Prism LGBT group. His sense of humor was infectious. His gentleness made people around him feel safe. He also had a brilliantly sophisticated theological mind. Jay’s contributions to our weekly conversations were always some of the most thought-provoking. He was very comfortable being vulnerable and honest about his life and his views.
Jay shared quite openly that his adult life had been a bumpy journey. He had dropped out of Tulane twice due to his alcoholism. His service in the Air Force for six years was also impacted by his disease. But beginning in January 2017, he was really starting to turn his life around. I’ll never forget the joy that he shared about his first taste of sobriety. He marveled at the beauty of Audubon Park, which he loved to walk around every day. He was smitten by the ice cream at Creole Creamery.
One of Jay’s proudest moments was when he cleaned up his entire apartment so that he could host a dinner party for some of his closest friends from NOLA Wesley. People who haven’t been through depression or alcoholism may not understand what a monster basic household chores can be. My sponsor told me that if I wanted to get sober, it started with making my bed. Sobriety is not just abstention from alcohol but a complete lifestyle transformation. And Jay threw himself into this transformation. But he was desperately lonely and he had demons that we’ll never understand.
Last Thursday, Jay achieved two months of sobriety. He made plans to eat dinner with his friends from NOLA Wesley. He sent his last text message at 3:54 pm. I don’t understand what happened after that. But there are two thoughts I was given as I held hands with my students and cried and prayed for God to raise him from the dead on Friday morning. Death cannot erase the beauty that he shared with us because love is never wasted.
So whatever is true about what happens after we stop breathing, the love Jay shared with us is eternal. I haven’t been able to say much to God since Friday morning. But Saturday as I was going through Jay’s pictures, I came across the one above. And I couldn’t stop looking at it. And it became a kind of prayer, not to Jay but to the God who is imaged through Jay and each of us. The love in Jay’s eyes is more than human; it comes from beyond him. When I look at Jay’s face, I see “the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror.” I see the love that radiates outward from my Rublev Trinity icon on the desk behind my laptop.
God is somehow using Jay’s picture to breathe peace into my heart. I don’t understand it. I’m sure somebody will want to correct me theologically. But Jay will never stop being an angel in my life, and I look forward to seeing how brilliant he looks whenever we meet again and he shines with the fullness of his unique expression of God’s image.