Communion In Reality

Rev. James Abel Stevenson

The names of all persons, places and institutions mentioned in this article (including the author's) have been changed to give dignity to the deceased and to avoid offense to the offenders.

"On the night He was betrayed, Carl, Jesus took the bread and He broke it. Picture in your mind what He did for you!"

I held up empty hands, imagining what it must have looked like to the disciples when Jesus did it with real bread, and wondering what a nurse would think if one walked in and saw me with my hands in the air. Carl{1} lay in Bethel Jewish Hospital, dying of AIDS, and I, his pastor, was alone in his room with him, trying to connect one more time, to bring words of comfort and assurance, not quite sure if he could hear, or if the brain damage caused by CMV{2} left him out of touch with this world.

What was I doing there? We were a group of "clean-living" Christians, comfortably secure in our sterilized world, through grace and monogamy safe from AIDS, yet risking infection by visiting Carl in that fifth floor hospital room, donning gowns and gloves to go in and scrubbing as if for surgery on leaving, and never sure if it was Carl's intelligence or his reflex that responded to our presence. We had had no plans for a significant ministry to gays and lesbians, we just wanted to grow in the Spirit and deepen our relationship to God the Father through Jesus Christ. Our parent congregation (some 350+ people), a group committed to the work of racial reconciliation in the power of the Gospel, meets on Sunday mornings for corporate praise. Then we break into separate, smaller "house churches" on Wednesdays for prayer and fellowship. Our house church of 20 had started a tutoring program for elementary aged children in an inner city neighborhood; our focus was on poor widows and single-parent kids. We wanted to plant an urban church among the poor. Simple stuff. Then Carl joined us.

Through our interaction with him, we learned about abuse and grace, AIDS and affectionate touching even as we dealt with the coming death - and death was coming fast, because AIDS is devastating, horrible, and apparently irreversible.


Carl was brought up hard-scrabble in the foothills. Nonny, his Mom (or was she his grandma? or both?), said he had to be tough: "Hey, a short boy growing up in a basketball lovin'-community had to learn to put out that extra effort," she said. Carl said he learned to be tough in a somewhat different manner: he was only 6 years old when the deacon taught him about enduring pain and keeping secrets. He raped Carl in the church basement not once but repeatedly.

Poppy the pastor knew about it, but if Carl talked about it there was more of the belt buckle. He had screamed at first when Nonny whipped him with it, but she would only stop using the buckle end when he stopped crying; and then she continued with the leather end. Where was his mom, and his dad? No one came when he cried out for help, and the years were long for him and Judith, his sister, and silent.

Mommy, she was somewhere else, another town, hiding the shame of alcohol and prostitution. The belt buckle dug deep.

"Your nasty mother is a drunken whore," Nonny says. The buckle strikes again. "Why did I ever adopt her? Or you?" Nonny asks. Buckle to thighs. "And who says she was my own daughter? She was born while your Poppy was away at war! We adopted the slut." The strap and buckle resound against moist thighs. Carl is silent, laying naked on the bed.

The deacons (yes, now more than one, and even an occasional visitor) see the marks as they sodomize Carl, now 12 years old, but he is silent. So many years, so many scars, so many secrets.

He did what he was told: Memorize Scripture. Be quiet. Read the Bible. Endure the pain and learn to love it. Don't tell anyone. Don't tell Pastor, don't tell Poppy. Don't tell Our Father. Don't tell God. Memorize Scripture. Recite verses on demand and show the world the goodness of Nonny through reciting your Bible knowledge. Help build the church building. Help with the radio broadcast.

Let Nonny get rid of her anger and guilt with the strap and the locked rooms.

Let the deacons use the church basement.

Hide your Self. Become another person: the little boy in the basement with the pain and the horror, that is Evil Carl. Good Carl knows the Bible and recites the 23rd Psalm on demand.

Then came high school graduation, and 18, and Poppy dead, and the deacons' preferences in hiding at last, and finally, a move to LA.

Grace LA

The basement of the brown brick church gave way to walking the streets. Carl discovered quick pickups and one night stands, whips and fists, leather and latex. Here, with the big boys, he could recreate the pain and horror of his youth. He didn't need the deacons or Poppy or Nonny. They were gone. Instead, it was high heels and leather vests, parades and orgies and pain. Beat it out. Beat it out. Beat it out.

It would not go: Somewhere deep inside, Carl remembered the Bible. Somewhere, deep called to deep. Carl slept the night with strangers, and spent the days giving his clothes to the poor and passing out evangelistic tracts. If he could do enough for God, maybe God would ignore the sins. Maybe God would let the good Carl into heaven and send the evil Carl away forever.

Then came AIDS. Who knows from whom he caught it, or how many contracted it through him. He was promiscuous, sometimes even having multiple partners in one night, even at one party. And yet he was alone. In his sickness, no one wanted him. He told few, but the truth circulated. He left LA and found his way to Dallas, closer to home but still away from that brown brick church where he had suffered as a child.

Carl found his way, somehow, to our church. I never knew how God brought him here, but Carl connected with our church, with the music, with the ministry to the poor, with our firm commitment against sin yet equally firm commitment to loving the sinner. Loving them by focusing on the Gospel, and the grace of God.

Carl heard our preacher, Sunday after Sunday, proclaim grace: Yes, we are accountable for our sins, and yes, we seek to be obedient to God's will as revealed in Scripture, but we are not defined by our sins. Yes, we all sin (and here the preacher occasionally alluded to his own lust and wandering eye and even once wondering what a homosexual relationship would be like . . . ). Yes! We all sin! Yet God defines us by the righteousness of Christ and judges us based on our relationship of faith with Jesus Christ. Carl realized he was no longer "Carl the Gay" but rather, in Christ, he had become "Carl the Child of God", a child struggling with sexual sin.

By grace he was free. He was not free of the temptation, and not free of the occasional fall, but he was free of the need to work off his guilt, free of the judgements of his own heart. Now, instead of acting like a two-person Carl running from Jesus to john and back to Jesus, he could run to the cross to find assurance of salvation.


Carl learned that his personal salvation was not from memorizing Scripture or even reading the Bible, but in trusting God's promises. "Yet to all who received him [that is, Jesus Christ], to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God -- children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God." (John 1:12-13, NIV)

Oh yes, he struggled. He would slip into old patterns, make a quick pickup at a local park or a bar, and then sink into deep and dark depression. He would bring those confessions to Billy Bob, his friend and mentor, a married man with a vision of reaching into the gay community to proclaim the love of Christ. Carl also confessed in our house church.

He repented. He drew close to the Lord. And he doubted his faith. How could Christ love a homosexual? How could God forgive what Poppy had taught was the unforgivable sin of being gay?

Then to grace we flew. As believers in Christ, we have been adopted as children. As children of the loving king of the universe, we are no longer orphans. We are not on our own - God loves us and lives in us and gives us new life. Our sins are forgiven and our stain is removed. Carl knew the truth, and the truth would set him free again and again - until again to whores and open arms he flew.

Then we would remind him of the truth, and to the arms of Christ he would fly.

Affectionate Hugs

Our house church wanted to include Carl in our fellowship. We knew that meant committing to the dying process with him, but we knew also that we shared at least things in common: We are sinners. We are saved only by grace. When we were yet enemies of God, Christ died for us.

So . . . we adjusted from the norms. We focused on hugs instead of handshakes because one of the doctors in our congregation said there was little to no risk of AIDS transmission through a warm and happy hug and some risk of transfer if both Carl and another shook hands and had open cuts on the hand (and even then the risk would be slight to negligible). Billy Bob and his wife met with social workers and medical staff. They added a bedroom and bath for Carl in their basement, furnishing it with donations from church friends and others. Carl got worse and moved in with them before the new rooms were finished, even though that meant sharing a bathroom.

We washed dishes more carefully after Carl used them, but mostly we focused on prayer and encouragement and treating him with love and dignity. Carl was in and out of the hospital several times while he was at our church, and we visited and prayed and encouraged.

Then the infections in his body stopped responding to medication. He had to be hospitalized, and his body turned grey. Then he began to shrink. He seemed to be slowly curling into a little grey ball before our eyes. And Nonny showed up.

Somewhere in the foothills, word had got out: Carl is dying of AIDS. Nonny came to help because the hospital wouldn't know what to do. The woman who brought her said it was a conspiracy. Someone wanted to use experimental drugs on Carl, and to steal his body for medical research. Why did we want to prolong his life? Were we trying to keep him alive until after Nonny and her friend had left, and then take all his worldly goods?

Grace, we spoke to them. Carl is dying of AIDS and no treatment is known. We pray for God's mercy - may God heal him perfectly through death. Carl has nothing we want except life in Christ.

Well, I hope he will be resurrected.

His faith is in Christ. Firmly rooted.

Well, I don't know about that but at least he did read his Bible.

It is not through the Bible that we are saved, but through faith in Christ. I know that, but he did read his Bible. Maybe God will forgive him his homosexuality.

As a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and as Carl's pastor, I give you this assurance: Carl professed his faith in Christ alone as the only answer to our own sins and the sure place on which we stand. Those who do likewise will see Carl on resurrection day, and spend eternity with him.

I hope so. He did read his Bible. But he is gay. Why do you want to steal his body?

We learned much of patience in those few hours with the visitor. Nonny stayed longer.

Indignity And Horror

For all the medicines, for all the attention, Carl only got worse. He slipped further and further out of this world. Finally his doctors said they would soon remove all life supports (we learned by observation that that meant not only medicine but also food and water!). That night, we kept a vigil with Carl, praying with him, praying over him, explaining to him as best we could. He could not speak - too many tubes in his mouth and nose - but he could cut his eyes and squeeze with his fingers.

He knew we were there, and what we prayed, and he said with signs that he had no fear. Jesus was with him. He was agitated, not in anger but in movement, through most of the night.

Then Saturday morning came, and he was alive. And Sunday. And another week. He clung to life though the CMV spread to both eyes (could he still see?) and to his brain (his hands took on a distinctive curl; the neurologist said it was the curl of brain damage). Usually his eyes would roll up into his head and we could see only the whites and a small eighth-moon of color.

I wanted to let all the world know: this is not pleasant, this is horror. It is broken, vile, hateful! AIDS is a cursed disease!

Then the hospice offered to help, and to work with any religious preferences Carl had, to bring death with dignity through our human religious efforts. I realized their way was like vinyl shoes: pretty, and shiny, but not patent leather. Without Christ, Carl would be naked, alone, without dignity. In Christ, his death was an act of mercy and dying a process of grace. But still ugly. We refused their offer.

His death was slow. He had tubes and needles and surgeries and patches and pinches and bed sores and cancerous lesions on his arms and a virulent form of herpes in, on and around his buttocks and a bacteria that refused to quit in spite of all the medicines and instead slowly filled his lungs with infection.

He was there not because of poor medical care, not because we need to do more research to learn to cure the disease, but rather because he was raped and then pleasured by gay men.

Nonny and Poppy should be held accountable: the herpes infection should have been on them and not around the scars from their belt buckles slammed on Carl's 7-year-old bottom. The deacons should have been there, seeing the horror that they brought to this man, in so many ways still a pre-teen in the church basement saying please, not again, not again. The mother should have been there, to see what resulted when she abandoned her babies . . .

And then Mother was there. She found out about the dying, and she came. She flew in from Some Where Out West to Dallas. She made it through one night. Then she was drunk, passed out in the hospital lobby, as Carl lay a-dyin'.

Sister Judith came. She knew all the horror for she, too, had scars, scars from the buckles and the locked doors and the basement and the little church of horrors in the foothills and the silence. She knew, and she hugged him and wept. He had taught her how to be silent, how to be brave, how to keep secrets, and how to run. Now, she hugged him and wept. She wept for herself, for her divorces, for her abused children, for her memories. And she wept for joy. She knew of Carl's call in faith to faithful Jesus, and she shared his trust and confidence.

And every morning, every afternoon, every evening, members of our house church donned surgical gowns and two pairs of barrier gloves and made the trip in to see Carl lying, eyes rolled up so only the whites showed, arms not moving, breathe shallow and rapid, fever ever present.

Then came the seizures. More medications, less contact with this world. Seldom did he squeeze back when I held his hand.

Every day, sometimes twice a day, I preached the same sermon to Carl:

Proverbs 18:10 says "The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run to it and are safe there." Carl, you know the name of the Lord. (The first times, he said, "Yes, Jesus"; as the week passed, he just said "yes", and then a squeeze, and then nothing.) Yes, it is Jesus - the only name by which people can be saved, the name that is above all names.
Carl, the Lord is a strong tower - he hangs the stars, and keeps them there; he is not a small god we have created. He is Lord of the Universe, King of Kings, our Creator and our loving and perfect Father without sin. Those who are righteous can run to Him. Run there, Carl! In the name of Jesus you are righteous, regardless of your sins, because in Christ, we become the righteousness of God! Do you hear? We are the very righteousness of God Himself! Run there Carl, and be safe! Let God be merciful to you!

Our True Communion in Reality

Then, on Sunday morning before I went to church, I stopped by his room. He was looking like I expected. Eyes rolled up in his head, whites only showing. Arms under the covers, unmoving. Breathing rapid and irregular and shallow. Hot and sweating. Feeding tube in place (through his nose) and mouth dry, lips cracked from lack of use and lack of moisture. I daubed his forehead. No response from the eyes or arms or mouth. I spoke to him. No visible movement of his hands under the sheets or his eyes. I called out his name. No response. Not even a flicker of lips. What do you say to such a man? I started telling him about churches around the world.

Carl, it's 9 a.m. Churches across America are starting praise and worship right now, singing songs to our God. Pastors are getting their sermons in order. Sunday school teachers are talking to little kids. And somewhere right this minute some church is celebrating communion . . .

That was it! I decided to have communion in our minds!

"On the night He was betrayed, Carl, Jesus took the bread and He broke it. Picture in your mind what He did for you!"

I held up empty hands, describing aloud what I was doing, imagining what it must have looked like to the disciples when Jesus did it, and wondering what a nurse would think if one walked in. Carl lay in a Jewish hospital, dying of AIDS, and I, his pastor, wearing a seldom-used clerical collar, was trying to connect one more time with Carl, to bring him words of comfort and assurance, not quite sure if he could hear, or if the brain damage caused by CMV left him out of touch with this world. I broke the bread in my mind, and spoke to him, and reached one hand down to put pressure on his right forearm as I continued.

As real as my pressure is on your arm, Carl, so real is the presence of Christ. He died to absorb the full wrath of God, that we might be free from eternal punishment...

Suddenly, I saw motion under the sheets. I paused, and his left arm jerked out from under the covers. He swung it awkwardly, suddenly, across his body and grabbed my hand, the one resting on his arm. I looked, and his eyes were clear, focused and brimming with tears. He wept as I continued ("Imagine it, Carl -- Christ's blood, shed for you!") and we imagined communion one more time together.

Here, then, lay dignity: Carl, wasted from AIDS and CMV and unnamed bacteria and herpes and scars and his sin, -- this very Carl, now covered in the robe of Christ, the blood of the Lamb. Carl, spotless and perfect in the eye of God!

This is no artificial freedom, no contrived cleanliness, no hopeless wholesome image. This is the Gospel at work. The living grace of God, able to cut through the insult of sin, the destruction of aberrant behavior, the pain and scars of sexual abuse and physical abuse and emotional abuse, the degradation forced on him by an officer in the church -- the real and living hope, free grace, offered to as many as receive Jesus Christ.

A week later, when Carl succumbed to death, the family, staying in a guest room in the hospital, had the body cremated quickly. The ashes were returned to them in their guest room at the hospital. When my wife and I went to pick them up to take them to the memorial service, I saw a bizarre and revealing sight: A Nurse accompanying a volunteer Transport Specialist pushing a patient in a wheel chair, as is hospital policy ("Every patient leaving the hospital must be in a wheelchair, pushed by a specialist and accompanied by a nurse."). Their patient? Even Carl must have laughed: a cardboard box containing the urn containing the ashes of our brother in Christ himself, dear Carl. Policy is policy, law is law, and the body is the patient.

Yet not so to our Father, who reigns in this world and the next. That was not Carl; it was a box of ashes. Carl is in glory, freed from sexual sin, freed from all sin, and dancing with the saints to the tune of "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty!"

In the half darkness of the hospital, in the hours with Billy Bob, in the quiet workings of the Holy Spirit, through the Word preached and lived and read, Carl came to know true grace, true freedom, true guilt, true sorrow, true redemption and the true love of Jesus Christ. In his mind, he reached out and shared bread with Jesus that morning in Bethel Jewish Hospital. Now, he shares the bread of life and living water with the saints on streets of gold in the new Jerusalem!

The name of the Lord is a strong tower. The righteous run to Him, as Carl has done, and are safe there.


{1}"Carl" is not his real name; the hospital was Jewish but not Bethel, and the city was not Dallas. I was his pastor, but all names (including his and mine and the hospital) and all locations in this account have been changed out of respect for "Carl". The details, unfortunately, are true.

{2}Cytomegalo virus, a virus common to all humans and normally controlled by natural immune systems, is difficult to control in AIDS patients who have little or no natural immune strength. It can blind, cause brain damage, destroy organ function and kill those infected with AIDS.