One of my favorite storytellers was a friend of my parents named Jake.
From the outside Jake was a scrawny little guy, not very tall, but wiry with a wrinkled face from smoking a lot of cigarettes in his youth and a ready smile that spread from ear to ear.
When he was in high school he’d worked part-time at a gas station and his best story came from that experience. One afternoon he was waiting on a customer, back in the days when gas stations still provided full service. He checked their oil. Washed their windshield. And as he slipped the nozzle into the gas tank to fill it up, he got a glimpse of a machine gun laying on the backseat. He looked at the driver. He looked at the woman in the passenger seat and as she turned to face him, he realized he was waiting on Bonnie and Clyde, notorious criminals of the early 1930s.
Jake entertained me with those stories when he came to sit with my mother and me at the hospital during my dad’s surgery. We had barely settled into my dad’s room early that morning when I heard footsteps outside the door. I looked up to see Jake coming down the hall to find us.
He didn’t want my mother and me to sit there all alone.
Jake knew what it was like to be alone when someone you love is sick.
He and his wife had cared for their son, Mark, in the last few months before his death. Mark got sick in the early 1990s, but they never talked about his illness.
Especially with anyone at their church.
When Mark came home so that his mom and dad could care for him in those final days, Jake and his wife asked for the prayers of their church. But they never felt safe to share all that they were going through with their son.
Save for a few, they always held back.
Because in 1994, you didn’t dare mention that someone you loved was dying of AIDS.
But that was then.
Awhile back I spoke to a group of people from different churches and a man came up to talk to me afterward. He smiled as he began telling me about a relative who had identified as gay, a cousin whom he liked and admired for so many good qualities. Like many other people I talk to, he told me about how his family had reacted upon learning that the cousin had contracted the HIV virus. The smile faded and his voice softened as he told me about the time he and his children had played in the swimming pool with his cousin.
When no one else in the family would enter the water with him.
The man paused and his smile reappeared as he told me how thankful he was that he had done that.
That didn’t happen back in 1994.
It happened last summer.
Sadly, many of us are still living in fear – fearing most what we don’t understand.
But our fear has kept us from getting in the pool with people – from getting involved in the lives of people who are isolated and feel all alone.
I’ve found some churches who are trying really hard to be like that swimming pool – where people feel safe to get in the water – no matter what they bring with them.
Churches where Jake would’ve felt safe to share what his family was going through.
Churches where Mark would’ve felt loved.
Churches that become family when our own won’t get in the pool with us.
Churches filled with storytellers like Jake, who know there are times we weren’t meant to be alone.