The embrace of three mothers who warmed my faith
by Emanuele Macca (Milan, Italy), translated by Mario Gerada
It is a reflection on the testimony of three mothers whose three gay boys lived and died in the United States and Italy (Mary Griffith, Judy Shepard and Ursula Barzaghi). Starting from the story of Mary Griffith (also represented in the movie “Prayers for Bobby” – www.prayersforbobby.com) this article offers a spiritual re-reading of that history.
The article then elaborates a reflection about the meaning and power of these witnesses. These are witnesses of strength and of faith which goes beyond that inner anger that the Church’s official approach can cause within one’s own heart. It has been a long time that I reflect upon the meaning of the tragic testimonies of Mary Griffith and her son Bobby. Because of religious beliefs, Mary rejects her son’s homosexuality.
She fears God’s judgement based upon Bible verses quoted several times, that homosexuality is a grave sin and according to conservative Christian theology, an “act against nature.”
Mary loves her family to excess and cannot imagine any way that could disrupt that project that was worked hard at and built with so much love here on earth. She could not immagine her own family not being reunited in the afterlife because of the sin of homosexuality of one of her family’s components. She goes on a mission to convert her son, to lead him away from this abominable sin.
By doing so, she instills in Bobby a deep sense of guilt. This guilt becomes like a dead end that feels like eternal damnation. She takes him to a female psychologist and forces him to participate in fundamentalist Church activities and practices.
This kind of love Mary offered her son lead him to suicide. In shock the mother did not give up. She knew that Bobby was intrinsically good, just and sensitive. She talks to two conservative pastors and also talks to a pastor from a welcoming church. A church that receives and embraces a large community of LGBT. Bobby himself had attended for some of these services. Bobby’s mother is now concerned about two grave sin, homosexuality and suicide.
She is afraid her son does not deserve Paradise. On the other hand she knows that Bobby someone incapable of doing harm to other. In his act of suicide he was distraught with grief and unable to understand. Mary starts reading her child’s diary and she follows the recommendations of the pastor from the gay-friendly church.
She listens to the stories of other parents of gay persons. Here, the “first miracle” happens. Mary understands that she is not the only one to have experienced this situation and acknowledges to herself that she always knew that her son was different, “was different from conception.” This realization felt like a veil falling from her eyes. Such a tragic event opened new horizons for her. She accepts her own responsibility for the suicide of Bobby. She understands that she gave her son a distorted sense of the word “love.”
Mary becomes a mother who re-tells her own story to the whole town to defend LGBT persons, to protect her own son. As a mother she warns all pastors of conservative Christian communities that “there are guys like Bobby, who sit in your congregations. They listen to your Amen. And it silences their prayers, their prayers to God for understanding, acceptance and for your love. But your hate, your fear and ignorance of the word gay silences those prayers. So before resounding that amen to your home and in church, think! Reflect and remember that a child is listening. “(1)
The culmination of this conversion occurs in the scene where Mary participates in San Francisco’s Gay Pride together with all her family and together with other parents from PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). During the march she dedicates a statement of filial love to all the LGBT boys and girls telling them: “To all the Bobby and Jane’s in this world, I say these words as if you were one of my children.
Please do not give up hope in life or in yourself. You are all very special to me. I am working hard to make this world a better and safer place for you. Promise me that you do not give up. Bobby no longer believed in love. I hope you do not do this. I will always carry you in my heart. ” (1)
This statement answers a message that Bobby himself had left in his own diary: “My name is Bobby Griffith. I write these words in the hope that one day, after many years, I can look back and remember what my life looked like when I was young and confused, desperately trying to understand myself and place in the world where I lived.
The other reason I write this is that after my death others may be able to meet me and see what my life as a young man was like “(1) As Mary states her statement of love she comes close to a boy in whose face she sees the eyes of her own son. I think that it is here that the greatest miracle in the history of the Griffith family happens. This gesture echoes two episodes of the Holy Scriptures, which I quote below:
Jesus is crucified – Jesus saw his mother and next to her favorite disciple. Then he said to his mother: “Woman, behold your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold your mother.” From that hour the disciple took her into the house. – John 19.26-27 – Multiplication of the loaves and fishes * – Then, it was evening, his disciples came and said, “This place is deserted, and it is already late, then dismiss the crowds that go to the villages and buy food.”
But Jesus said unto them, need not go away, you give them to eat. ” And they said: “We have here but five loaves and two fishes.” * And he said, “Bring them here.” And then commanded the crowds to sit down on the grass, then took the five loaves and two fishes, and looking up to heaven, blessed them, broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples and the disciples, the crowds.
And they all ate and were satisfied, then the disciples gathered up the broken pieces in twelve baskets full. – Matthew 14.14-20 –
Whilst Mary embraces that boy whose eyes are filled with tears she embraces the world and embraces Bobby’s heart. Mary comes out her convictions and those of her own family. She follows the example of that other Mary, the Madonna who obeys the words of Jesus and accepts John also as her own son.
Then the journey continues, she looks at the faces of those other children participating in that Gay Pride march, to each of them she speaks as if they were all her children. People grow to love in love. It is not only are those five loaves and two fish who had to go to Heaven together (I’m referring to her family), but now that love is extended to all those LGBT boys and girls who need love and acceptance for who they are, beyond any definition of family, sin and “nature”.
Finally, for historical accuracy, I want to remind you that this story does not belong exclusively to Mary, but to many other families, some unknown to us but I am convinced that there are present in the heart of God. Others are well-known like the sotries of Judy Shepard and Ursula Barzaghi. Judy Shepard witnessed the brutal murder of her own son Matt. He was killed because of his homosexuality. He was left to die tied to a fence. In her autobiography, Judy says: “The police had told me how they had found Matt.
I always felt there was a spiritual presence with Matt, a kind of supernatural power. I never believed Matt would die in that kind of manner. The police told me that as soon as they spotted Matt tied to that fence, he was not alone. Next to him, lying on the ground, was a deer who seems to have stayed there all night to keep watch and keep Matt company.
Once the police arrive the deer disappeared into the woods. Matthew who had spent the night there and was without consciousness. For me that stag was God’s presence who stayed by his side til the end. ” (2) Following the murder of Matthew, Judy, like Mary, discovered a whole new world of other men and women killed because of their sexual orientation. Judy got involved in their stories as well because they become her sons and daughters as well.
Judy has been battling for legislation against hate crime since then. In a promotional spot for this campaign the stories of a number of the persons are told, stories of homophobia and transphobia, stories of persons whose lives were broken but are now visible and found their voice. In Italy we find the story of Ursula Barzaghi, the story of a mother who discovers that her son Henry has HIV positive.
It is a story about fear, pain and suffering, also about isolation and shame. However mother and son overcome all difficulties together through their love and their strength, overcoming the insecurity felt by the family, the hostility of others and the indifference of the world. The transform their tragic story into one of solidarity and love.
Whilst visiting Henry in hospital she gets to know other men afflicted with the same disease and writes: “For my part I decided to devote myself to working with gay men, because whilst for persons who have drug addiction problems accommodation facilities and help was available, gay men could only depend on the solidarity of their own group.
I discovered that although many had a family, they did not find the courage to reveal to them that they were HIV positive for fear that their family also discovers their sexual orientation. A few months before his death Henry was baptized thanks to the loving care Sister Celeste (hospital nurse) offered him. I want to remember this event with the words of Frank Henry’s grandson who attended the third grade at the time: “A few months before his death, Chicco was baptized. During the ceremony people cried, especially mum. (…)
My sister and I were maid’s of honour and brought a bouquet of flowers to the altar. Three priests were at the altar. Nurses sang in choir on the balcony above the door. In that church I felt that everyone loved my uncle. “(3)
Henry’s life was marked by a virus. Ursula writes: “Like other mothers, since then I also have my little altar with Henry’s photograph smiling at bouquet of flowers in front of him. My wonderful son always smiled even when he felt a desperate desire to live.
A small photo of R. keeps him company. Fragrant flowers no longer exist for him. They were two men who loved each other, who have fought together and have lost their battle to death but still love one another. “(3)
Following the death of her son, Ursula devoted much of her life to other persons living with HIV and AIDS. She also campaigned and educated students in schools explaining how HIV is transmitted. She also used to tell them her story as a mother whose son died of HIV and how they struggled together against this disease.
Reflecting on these three stories (without forgetting the many other similar stories), I realize that faith is a flame that can never be extinguished. My own anger can blow as much as it wants, the hierarchy much loved by the media and the crowds can also thunder its own voice about traditional family values, about “unnatural” loves and mortal sin. But it is to this small church that I want to listen to.
The church proclaimed by these stories of these three women to whom I owe so much. Listening and meditating on their experience I can understand what love means to “love a humanity that only half of it is accepted, the other half sidelined, its right to exist ignored and not recognized for what it is.”
The message of the gospel is timeless and it transcends any definition of the family, sin and of “nature”!
(1) “Prayers for Bobby,” directed by Russell Mulcahy, 2009
(2) Judy Shepard, “The meaning of Matthew, My sons’s murder in Laramie and a World Transformed”, Hardcover Edition, 2009
(3) Ursula Barzaghi, “Senza vergogna” , TEA Edizioni, 1996
Text original: L’abbraccio di tre madri con figli omosessuali che ha riscaldato la mia fede