Lynda McGraw: “My Beloved Brother”

Ralph Sturdy opened the doors of conversation in the Covenant Companion, and now this blog and Facebook page. I think now I can take a stand with others… Thank you.

There have been SO many times I have written this letter in my head and, more importantly, in my heart.  I was a coward. For years I thought it was to protect my brother’s memory, and other times I thought the Covenant was not ready. What if the door was slammed shut tightly and it was I who forced the issue? I did not want to hear the talk – it was my beloved brother that would be left out.  My dear friends have known my struggle. What if I put it out there and the church dismisses it, dismisses him, dismisses me?  After the line is drawn in the sand, what then? Can I straddle it?  I brag that the Covenant is very inclusive –  women ordained for the the pulpit? – infant baptism or dedication – praise songs or traditional hymns?  We are a modern church.  But alas the gay issue has been a very sticky subject – and an oh so personal one for me.

So here it is: my brother Mark was gay.  He was a wonderful, caring man who loved God.  Yes, you do hear the past tense.  He died in 1996 under the shroud of guilt and shame of AIDS.  He kept the secret that he was gay from his extended family, many of his friends, and for some time even me.  He was afraid that we would leave him out there– all by himself.  He had been told that he was not worthy of God’s love or even ours.  He did not dare bring his friends or his life into the shadows, let alone the limelight.  He attended functions alone for fear of being known.  Family weddings he was stag,  badgered by many “When are you going to get a nice girl and settle down?” I cannot tell you from how many people he hid who he really was, even from me his dear sister – his best bud.  For a while I was kept in the dark.   He worried what I might say.  I cannot tell you how that breaks my heart.

But he did have good reason to hide. One of our “Christian” relatives showed up at his door spouting the idea of “change your ways or Hell will welcome you on the other side.”  Mark did eventually share with me all of who he was and there is NO WAY I could say he was trash. He was Mark, the man who loved cats and a good book, who brought Christmas gifts to a friend’s kids when her husband walked out, and who stepped up as a class act in many situations. My husband and I visited with him and his partner, James, and my children carry his name as a badge of honor.  Do not get the idea that he was all alone, but the church did not welcome him or at least he did not trust it to open its arms. Neither did I trust the church.  I played my cards close – ever so close to the vest.  I could not take the chance that he would be left out in the cold.

Time went on and he became sick. Along with the illness came the “you deserve it – God’s curse.”  I held his secret of identity and health, and our family hunkered down together.  I said nothing at church: no requests for healing or understanding. I dared not.  Instead I sat in the pew, silent and steely.  Our pastor called when his obituary appeared in the paper, but I did not share much.  I am not sure if I was ashamed for him, for me, or for the church in general.

As years went by I could share in our writing group about the loss of him, but not all of who he was. I was raw and I felt I could not deal with anyone who would question his value.  I even worried about how my children would be treated and warned them that they may not want to share too much in school or church because some people might not understand.  Someone might disparage their uncle  of whom I spoke so lovingly, and they would not know what to do.

There have been several instances where I have met people at Camp Squanto or Pilgrim Pines and they ask about Mark.  I respond with his passing, but am afraid to say of what – because the assumption is that since he was gay he was a lost soul.  I am still protecting him even now. No one should think poorly of my brother. Maybe I have not given many the chance to step forward and show inclusion.  That has been much too frightening. If it is a bad reaction then I might have to walk away from my church.  What then?  A line drawn in the sand: Mark or my church?  Mark trumps.

So, there you have it.  My beloved brother was gay and he loved God and God loved him.  His memorial service was held in a Covenant church with a carefully invited crowd:  his partner of 10 years, James, his parents, his brother, me, and the trusted friends of all of us.  How sad it is that many feel the shame or fear to be themselves.

I “mark” a January day – yes, his name resonates with the verb – to state boldly that all of us are God’s people.  We need to welcome all believers and stop closing the door.  It is a cold  Sunday when I place flowers on the altar at the front of the sanctuary to mark his birthday and then death a week later on an oh so cold lonely January night.

I so hope the conversation begins,  understanding ensues and the doors fly open.  What would Jesus do?  He was and is with all who believe,  rich – poor, male – female, and I do believe gay and straight.

P.S. Editor’s note. Mark’s life story inspired the 1992 movie, “Doing Time on Maple Drive.” Check it out! 

  • Brita Moon Gotberg

    Thank you for sharing your story and the love you have for your beautiful brother.  Peace to his memory and to you.  I loved your words, “I so hope the conversation begins, understanding ensues and the doors fly open.”  Thank you.

  • Carol Wild

    Beautiful story, Lynda. Thank you so much for sharing.

  • John Marshall

    I believe it was John who wrote: “We know how much God loves us, and we have put our trust in his love. God is love, and all who live in love live in God and God lives in them.” The word “ALL” stands out to me and I put my faith there. So sorry for your loss and the compounded fear you have felt keeping your brother’s secret. I suspect he’s smiling down on your bravery and wondering what all the fuss is about down here.

  • Krista Stevens

    Oh my dear friend – this is so beautiful.  I raise a glass to you and Mark and all others who have traveled this long, difficult road.

  • Linda, what a wonderful tribute to your dear brother. I am sure he would be proud of you!

  • Eva

    Lynda, thanks for sharing about Mark and for sharing what has surely been a difficult journey.  I am sorry for the pain he and your family have known. I believe you honored him by what you shared. Peace to his memory and God’s blessings on your family. May your story inspire others to hear with different ears and to respond with open hearts.

  • Jim Anderson

    Dear Linda, you have so admirably overcome fears, doubts, risks, barriers of many kinds, to write this beautiful tribute to Mark. I remember him well as a teenager, bright, laughing, life of the group at Pilgrim Pines, perhaps one of the restaurants or fish market, other places our paths crossed. I’m so sorry for all he had to endure, not least his illness. There is much that many of us, myself included, could have done to make his life better. I sense a great need for forgiveness at what I missed, or was simply too ignorant or insensitive to see and feel (and I’m wondering where I do the same today).  I’m so glad, Linda, that he was always sure of your love and care. Thank you for that example. You’ve added to the conversation, you’ve opened a door, you’ve helped us to understand. 

    • Lynda McGraw

      Thanks Jim,
      It is a very different time from 1996 and I so wish that Mark were here to see and experience it.  I  feel a bit uncomfortable “outing him” – but I do think the doors are open a bit more  – with hearts trying to understand.

  • Karen Cormier

    An amazing story Lynda, and wonderfully written…

  • This is so touching, Lynda.  Thanks for sharing your brother’s reality, and for your unfailing love and acceptance for him.

  • Dan Johnson

    Thanks so much for your story, Lynda. Your honesty is important, and beautiful!  And “Doing Time On Maple Drive” has been one of my favorite TV movies of all time.  How interesting that it has a “Covenant” connection.