Am I Worth Being Loved?
by Chris Ramsey
Karen Bentley, a friend of mine, invited me over one day to listen to her brother Joe’s life story. As I entered Karen and her husband’s simple one-room apartment I had the feeling I was about to hear something special. I sat down on a hardwood couch, facing this brother and sister. Joe was seated in a rocking chair, and he moved back and forth slowly as he began to talk about his childhood.
“I think the Devil used things that happened to me as a little kid to fool me all my life” recalled Joe. “I remember one Fourth of July when I was ten, my relatives had gotten together at my grandma’s house. One of my uncles had his daughter, who was four years younger than me, drag me down on the ground and beat me up. The rest of the family sat around laughing, calling me a sissy.”
Any boy would have been humiliated if a little girl beat him up, but for Joe it was devastating. When he was four he had been stricken with polio and left paralyzed. As he grew up he gained the strength to walk, but his legs were always weak.
Joe limped when he walked, and he was extremely embarrassed because of it. His father periodically told his mother he was taking his son fishing, but would actually end up in the bars. As the men started drinking they would put money in the jukebox, and force Joe to dance while everyone laughed. “When everybody else made fun of me, that was one thing” said Joe. “But when my own dad did it, it really hurt.”
Joe’s older brother, Jack, was very active and into weight lifting and sports. This pleased his father, who would shower Jack with attention, while ignoring Joe. “All I ever wanted was to hear
somebody say, ‘I love you! Even though you’re the way you are, I love you.'” In this kind of atmosphere, it was no surprise that the young boy felt rejected. “I became convinced I could never live up to being a man.”
As a child, Joe couldn’t understand that his father was being chased by demons of his own. The head of this Memphis, Tennessee family was a violent alcoholic. “I can remember running down the street in my pajamas with my mother in the middle of the night,” explained Karen. “Dad had started another big fight, and we had to go to our neighbor’s house.”
Joe’s parents divorced when he was fifteen, and his mother took the family to upper Michigan to live with their grandmother. Getting away from his father was a relief for Joe. He tried to fill the gap his father left by working three part-time jobs while he went to high school.
In 1970, at the age of twenty-one, Joe married his high school sweetheart . “I thought this would really prove I was a man.” The young couple’s first year of marriage was very rocky and Joe started
drinking and hanging out in bars. It was then that Joe had his first gay encounter. “I got involved because I was drinking,” Joe told himself, “Otherwise I wouldn’t have done it. So I’ll just stop
drinking and it won’t happen again.” Yet he couldn’t stop, and his marriage ended in divorce two and a half years later.
Joe’s failure at marriage only re-emphasized his sense of worthlessness. In the midst of depression he moved back to Memphis to get a fresh start. Two weeks later Joe got word that his father had
been shot by a fourth wife.
“I stood over him in the hospital room,” Joe recounted. “I knew Dad was dying, but I had all these feelings of hatred toward him. I asked myself, ‘What kind of person am I? I hate my own dad.'”
After his dad’s death, Joe started going to church. He was looking for something to pull his life together, and it was there he met his second wife, Ellen.
The first two years of that marriage were reasonably smooth. Joe didn’t drink, and he stayed involved in the church. But then he started having health problems related to his polio, and was forced to take pain pills and muscle relaxers. Joe began abusing his medication and soon he was doing street drugs as well. His lifestyle quickly returned to its former pattern.
“Ellen didn’t even know what was going on. I was selling accounting systems on commission for two or three days a week, and on the other days I was sitting in gay bars, waiting to get picked up. I really had a lot of people fooled, ’cause during the week I’d be in the gay bars, and on Sunday I’d be in church.
“One night I was high and I told Ellen’s sister everything I had been doing. Ellen freaked out when she heard. I said I would go for counseling, or do anything she asked me to do. We had two boys by that time and I wanted our family to stay together. But Ellen didn’t want any part of me. We were divorced in 1980.”
The next seven years are represented by glimpses and memories of two more marriages and various attempts at repentance: the scene of being dragged off his third wife as he tried to strangle her; the picture of a pastor telling Joe he should have no more problems with homosexuality since he was baptized; wife number four treating him like a Ken doll, dressing him up to show him off; the look in his wife’s eyes as she returned to their empty apartment after he had sold everything for drugs, even the dishes and silverware.
In April 1987, Joe was admitted to the hospital with Steven Johnson syndrome, a rare allergic reaction to medication. While the doctors were treating him, they decided to run an AIDS test. Joe tested positive. “It totally freaked me out. I didn’t know how to handle it.”
“Your brother and I are very sad that you have AIDS. You can call and talk to us on the phone, but for no reason should you come around. And let’s not tell the rest of our family.”
“That was my mom’s response to my having AIDS. This was the first time I had no place to go. I didn’t know what I was going to do. So I decided suicide was the only answer. I couldn’t even do that right. After my second attempt I ended up in a recovery center where I was finally able to get off drugs and alcohol.”
On leaving the recovery center, Joe moved to Minneapolis to live in a government sponsored house for AIDS victims. “Mom couldn’t keep quiet about my having AIDS, and she ended up telling Karen and my other relatives.” Before long Joe received a letter from Karen. “When I read the letter I just went all to pieces. She told me that she loved me and that God still loved me too. She also said she and her husband, Bill, would like to come up and visit…if I wanted her to. I couldn’t wait to write, I called here on the phone and told her to come.”
Although Joe was excited on the day of their visit he started having second thoughts. “I’d hardly seen Karen over the past sixteen years, but I’d heard she was a fanatic. I told my friends I might even have to ask to leave if she started to push her religion on me. But when they arrived everything went great. They were real friendly to me and the other guys who lived in the house,” smiled Joe as he glanced over at his sister.
Karen laughed, “I was sweating the visit too. I wanted to be a support to my brother, yet I had no idea of what to say. But I had made up my mind ahead of time that the main thing I was going to do was to love him.”
“I must admit the first time Karen and I were left alone,” Joe continued, “I wondered if she was going to come on strong. But when she didn’t it totally disarmed me, so I finally decided to lay it all
on the line and said, ‘I feel like I was born gay.'”
“Karen’s response surprised me. She said, ‘Joe, that’s not true. I don’t think you even had a chance growing up, the way Dad treated you. You just believed a lot of lies and got messed up in sin.'”
“I came back at her with the fact that I had a friend who was gay but also born again. He said that Jesus accepted tax collectors and sinners and so he accepts gay people too.”
“I really had to pray,” recalled Karen, “so that my answer would come off honest but not judgmental. I just told Joe what I believed. ‘Of course God loves the sinner, but the problem is our sin separates us from God. That’s why Christ died on the cross, so we don’t have to be ruled by all the mess in our lives.'”
Joe hesitated for a minute and looked down at the floor. It seemed as if he was reliving that moment in his mind. “Before Karen’s visit, I was really scared of dying, and I knew that I was going to go to hell. I thought that I had done so much wrong there was no way God could love me or forgive me,” Joe remembered as he broke into tears. “But then I realized through what Karen said that God always loved me. I also knew that I desperately wanted to experience that love more than anything else. When I prayed this time and asked God into my life, I knew that what I’d done was past. It was forgiven and forgotten. The peace and the love that I have in my heart now is great.”
“My life changed drastically at this point, though I still had struggles to work through. At first I held on to the old idea that once you were saved, you weren’t going to have any problems,” Joe said
with a smile. “But that’s not the way it works. God gave me the strength to work through my problems, but they didn’t just disappear overnight.”
“Knowing I needed the strength that comes from being around other believers, that past August I moved into Jesus People USA. I don’t know how long I’m going to live, but I want to live the rest of my days for the Lord. One of my biggest desires is to encourage others who have battled with rejection. I handled the thought of having AIDS a lot easier than the rejection I received.”
“I also long to be an example for others who are attempting to deal with the AIDS tragedy. The Church must especially show love, because God’s love is the only thing that’s going to reach people suffering from AIDS. These people already have a lot of rejection in their lives. They need to be told the truth, but first they need to know they are loved. Anybody can tell them that they’re wrong and this is what the Bible says, and read a sermon to them. They’ll just want to defend themselves, and try to twist the truth.”
“AIDS is going to touch a lot of families too, even Christian families. And you can’t turn that person away. You’ve got to deal with it. AIDS is an illness, and you have to let that person know,
‘Hey I love you, whether you’ve got AIDS, cancer, or heart trouble, I love you.'”
“And then maybe through that love they will see God. Maybe they can turn their life around before it’s too late. But they’re sure not going to if you reject them. When Bill and Karen came to visit me, they came to show love. And look what happened to me.”
Aslan’s Roar – “Radical Truth in Telecommunications”