Everybody has been sharing this story with me:
After a gay man from Mountain Home, Ark. died last week, local churches refused to allow the family to have a funeral in their churches. The local firehouse, which was built by the man’s father, refused to open its doors for fellowship after the funeral as is the custom in that town, according to Jeremy Liebbe, who officiated at the service.
We’re talking to the family and friends of James Stone, the 32-year-old man who was living with his husband in Conroe, Texas and was originally from Clarkrigde, Ark. and died on Jan. 19 of Sjogren’s syndrome, a genetic autoimmune disorder.
He is survived by his husband, Jay Hoskins. They were married six months ago in New Mexico on their 10th anniversary together. More on this story in Friday’s Dallas Voice.
I imagine they’re sending it to me because it occurred in my hometown of Mountain Home, Arkansas. However, everybody sharing this piece with me was likely unaware that I knew James. Not well, mind you. We went to high school together and were part of the theater club. He was kind, very quiet. He was closeted then, as was just about every person to come out of Mountain Home who wasn’t straight.
There are both truths and falsities circulating with this story, and I’ll do my best to separate them here (and will update the post should I learn anything new).
The first matter is to clear up the way in which James died, which is perhaps the most tragic part of the story. According to his husband, James did not die of an autoimmune disorder. James took his own life:
James did not die of Sjogren’s Syndrome. He died a tragic death of suicide where his poor mother and myself found him hanging from a ceiling fan. I tried unsuccessfully to revive him, but it was too late.
Growing up in a place where you are despised, and told regularly by the adults in the community that god despises you based solely on your nature, a nature which is no more optional or malicious than your eye color, can severely damage a person psychologically. Calling it Christian love just increases the irony, it doesn’t diminish the damage. I don’t know how James adjusted after high school, but I know the area where he spent his formative years and I wouldn’t wish it on anybody, not even my worst of enemies.
The next thing to clear up is that multiple churches were not culpable in this, just one. To quote my father:
There are certainly churches in Mtn. Home capable of this mean-spiritedness. However, the yellow pages show over 80 churches in the area and I find it hard to believe that ALL or even most of them were asked.
I notice the service was held at the cemetery, which leads one to believe no church was available, but I can’ t imagine a money hungry funeral home denying them if they really wanted an indoor funeral. I would want a list of the churches that turned them down before I condemned all the churches in the area. As Megan Vick points out in the article comments, the U.U. would have welcomed them. I know some of the U.U. people, and I concur. I’m more inclined to suspect the fundamentalist Clarkridge church of choice didn’t want them, and knowing some of those people I don’t find that at all hard to believe.
My father’s suspicions were later confirmed by James’ husband, Jay. The service had been set up at the Clarkridge Church of Christ where James had spent a part of his youth (some members of his family still attend the church). According to Jay, upon finding out that James was gay the church canceled the service and the reception (UPDATE: after further investigation I have learned that the church refused from the outset, but canceled the reception they didn’t set up – the full details are here). Not only is this an extremely cruel thing to do to a grieving family, the manner in which they did it was as biblical as it was cold-blooded (and no doubt the former catalyzed the latter):
I can tell you that there were not only issues having a service for him, but also in so much as that one or more members of the Clarkridge Church of Christ called and “CANCELLED” our family get-together after the service, and that TWO members of the Clarkridge Church of Christ, Jerry and Vicki Oels gave James grieving mother, myself and the preacher a nice big envelope each
One filled with over 10 pages of Bible passages condemning us to hell, referencing God’s marriage laws, marriage amongst people and animals, and then a sympathy card.
Ah, what better time to tell a grieving spouse that his partner is burning in hell than at his funeral? Both my father and I have crossed swords with Vicki Oels in the comment section of my hometown paper (my father went to school with her). Every cliche you can think of about mean-spirited, fundamentalist, judgmental, ignorant, etc. applies, so this doesn’t surprise me at all.
As a bit of a bonus, do you know who else also attends this church? That would be County Judge Mickey Pendergrass who is currently being sued for religious discrimination (and who is managing the situation with the legal acumen of a toddler).As for the local firehouse, as far as I can tell that much is entirely true. They do usually open their doors for fellowship after funerals and decided, at the behest of the Clarkridge Church of Christ not to do so in this case. Jay has sent several requests for an explanation to the fire chief and received nothing but silence in return. (UPDATE: members of James’ family who are members of the CCoC contacted the fire station to cancel the reception, but it seems the fire chief didn’t know they were undermining James’ spouse. Those members of the church are to blame, not the fire chief who eventually did contact Jay to confirm this was the case. Read more here.)
But what really gets me is the way Christians are discussing the issue in the comments of the article. To fully explain why I need to first set the scene. Arkansas is already a state saturated with religious fundamentalism (just look at who gets elected and what they do once they’re in office). Remember, this is a state that elected Jon Hubbard, who said that slavery might’ve been a blessing in disguise for African Americans.
And Mountain Home/Baxter County is even more steeped in religious lunacy than most everywhere else in the state. The Baxter Bulletin (the town’s newspaper) recently ran a poll asking “Do you think any religion is worth killing for?” By a tally of 107 to 102, the residents of Baxter County answered “yes.” This isn’t the Middle East. This is rural Arkansas in the United States. In 2004 Arkansas passed Amendment 3 which banned same-sex marriage. 75% of the votes in Baxter County were cast for the ban. When a federal judge struck down the ban, GOP lawmakers in Arkansas (elected every cycle by the citizenry) adopted a statement condemning the judge and made moves to impeach him. So if you’re a Christian in the comments suggesting these people are a wacky minority and that most of the Christians in Mountain Home/Baxter County would never visit misery upon the lives of gay people out of deference to their love of Jesus, you’re simply wrong. In fact, the truth is the exact opposite: you are the minority, and the gay haters are thriving – and they’re being stoked from the pulpit.
This is the reality in Mountain Home. This is where James Stone grew up. This is the community that forced him into the closet out of either shame or fear, and it’s done so almost exclusively because of the community’s thick and overpowering faith in Jesus. These are the people who swear up and down there would be so much more love in the world if only everybody were Christian like them (and if they get to be the ones writing our laws).
And that’s why you’re in the comments section saying you know Jesus’ real will, because you know the bigots (the majority in that area) are motivated by their Christianity, and you just can’t have that. But when you argue over what Jesus wanted, you’re presuming that Jesus’ will is absolute – that it’s the standard for what we ought to do. That’s your premise: gay marriage can’t be wrong because Jesus would’ve supported it, right? The army of Christians on the other side are arguing the exact same way: gay marriage is wrong because Jesus hated it! If you would abandon your support of equality if only they could prove Jesus would’ve wanted you to, you’re no better than they are – you’re only different by circumstance.
But here’s the truth: what Jesus’ thought about same-sex marriage doesn’t make one single god damn bit of difference. If Jesus opposed gay marriage then he was wrong. If Jesus lacked compassion to such a degree he’d discriminate, he should be rejected, not compassion. This is a lucky truth for us, since Jesus’ dad declared unequivocally that gay people should be killed on multiple occasions (maybe he meant to kill them with kindness).
What the Clarkridge Church of Christ did, and what the majority of Christians in the state of Arkansas (including Mountain Home) continue to do, is sadistic to the extreme. That’s the problem: that so many Christians abandon compassion in favor of obedience, that they can’t figure out what’s right/wrong without being told, and so many have been convinced that god’s commands require them to fuck with other people’s lives. They believe they’re showing love when they psychologically fuck up high schoolers who are coming to grips with their sexuality. They think they’re earning heaven when they rush to enshrine discrimination in the state’s laws. Regardless of what Jesus wanted, this is the reality of religion, and it wouldn’t exist if people cared more about other people than they do about obeying their religion’s commands no matter what.