Out of the Closet: I Am A Christian

Out of the Closet: I Am A Christian

“We have this totally warped idea of what Christianity should be like when it comes to the public sphere, and it’s mostly about exclusion….no matter where you are politically, the gospel is so much about inclusion and decency and humility and care for the least among us. (How does ) a wealthy, powerful, chest-thumping, self-oriented, philandering figure like (Donald Trump) have any credibility at all among religious people.” – Pete Buttigieg

The Moral Majority, established in 1979, was predominately a Southern-oriented organization of the Republican Party’s Christian Right, but its national influence grew throughout the 1980s to the point where I was embarrassed to call myself a Christian. It was already hard, since I grew up in the Catholic church where only Protestants called themselves Christian. Catholics never did. Because of Democratic Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg’s reclaiming Christianity for the Democratic Party, I can finally come out of the closet. I am a Christian.

When I marched into a church confessional and announced to the priest I no longer believed salvation was available to Catholics only, he said, “then you are no longer a Catholic.” I expected more of an argument, but at age 18, I felt I’d been set free. And adrift.

Until that moment, through all the alcoholic parental rages, multiple midnight moves, changes in schools and churches, only one place made me feel at home—the pew on Sunday morning where I heard Jesus loved me. 

Daniel and Philip Berrigan were my heroes then. The brothers were Catholic priests who’d been convicted of destroying military draft records in protest to the Vietnam war. I searched for a pew in their radical faith, but stumbled instead into the despair of drug and alcohol addiction. Another patriarchal Christian (but non-Catholic) church found me and delivered the familial message, Jesus loves you. Desperate to belong, I swallowed their conservative biblical fundamentalism for four years before I fled that oppressive pew. 

I tried to be a non-churchgoer. It was impossible. I’m at home in a pew on Sunday morning. I sought a simple pew in a simple church. They are easy to find, those simple churches. I hopped from one to the other long enough to know people by their names, feeling satisfied but longing for a more high-octane Jesus message. A lot of post-Watergate Christian pulpits were delivering bromides—safe words and a kindly gospel. Where was the social gospel of the Berrigans, Thomas Merton, Martin Luther King? Where were the Christian anarchists?

I lamented to a friend who suggested Fourth Presbyterian Church. For the first few years FourthPresbyterianChurchChicagoat Chicago’s Gold Coast Gothic Revival landmark, I arrived late and left early. I sat in the last pew, never opened the pew Bible, the songbook or recited the prayers. I didn’t belong there. I didn’t have the right clothes, right politics or right job. Indeed, I had no right to sit in well-ordered Presbyterianism.

Gradually I moved closer to the pulpit. I wanted to catch every word of Reverend Elam Davies’ sermons. Davies was slight of build, but a mighty orator. His spoken words came from deep inside his heritage, as if the whole of his native Wales was belting them out.

The first ten minutes of every sermon had me in sorrow. Sorrow for my selfishness, sorrow for my recklessness, sorrow for my sins. The next ten minutes had me laughing. Laughing for joy that Jesus knew all those sorrows and loved me anyway. The last ten minutes moved me to action. Action to protest policies that deprived people of basic human rights, action to help relieve indignities suffered by the victims of such policies.

When Elam Davies retired in 1984, I thought I’d be on the prowl for another pew. But each of the succeeding preachers have delivered similar bedrock messages that tell me every week: Jesus loves you. It’s been almost forty years since I first hid in that pew on North Michigan Avenue. I may not belong there still, but I no longer hide and the preaching makes me feel at home.

Blest Be The Ties That Bind

I haven’t seen Rick Ridder in years but loved reading his 2016 book, Looking for Votes in All the Wrong Places. I bought it to add to his sales numbers, support him in my own 81JbkJ1jA8Lsmall way. We both survived the 1980s Gary Hart presidential campaigns. So when it comes to making room on the shelves for other sympathy books, the ties that bind keep Rick’s book in place.

My built-in bookshelf clings to the entire southern wall of my small living-dining room. It’s stuffed. Books, old Vanity Fairs, photos, souvenirs, dog sculptures, used conference binders, scrabble, dominoes, a small portable heater and my writing notebooks all collide on the faded white sagging shelves. 

When the time comes to rack the newer books, stockpiled on all the flat surfaces in my living space, I painstakingly pull the old prisoners from their slots on the shelves. They sit on the floor for hours, days, weeks, awaiting sentencing. I stare at the titles. Agonize over their fate. I wish then, more than at any other time in the hours before twilight, for a piece of someone to discuss the disposition of the hoard and share in my decision-making.

“What about this one? Remember this? Dimitir by William Peter Blatty. Mark suggested it when I told him Blatty named the girl in The Exorcist after me. Did I read it? Should I save it?” 

“Oh, then there’s: Age Doesn’t Matter Unless You’re a Cheese. Jeanette gave me that when I turned 70. Maybe there’s something in it I can use for my writing.”

“Oh yeah. Listen to this. Ram Dass: ‘I used to have a sign over my computer that read OLD DOGS CAN LEARN NEW TRICKS, but lately I ask myself how many more new tricks I want to learn—isn’t it better to be outdated.’”

“Outdated! Is that how I should think of these old darlings?”

Oh, I tried long ago to get help with this salvage operation. It broke down, however, when I plunged into the stories behind my keepsake books. No matter how good a friend I netted, my stories bored in the telling and the telling and the telling. I sit alone now on a stool wheeling around the wreckage from title to title. 

“These? Oh no, must save Ian Rankin, my favorite mystery author. Oh, c’mon, Regan. It’s not as if they’re going in the garbage. Put them on the bookshelves in the laundry room. Someone’s bound to enjoy them before they get carted off to the used book sale at the Newberry Library.”

“Ok, these can go—two books by David Ellis. Oh, well, maybe. He’s the lawyer-turned-mystery-writer who prosecuted Rod Blagojevich. A good lawyer. And a good writer.”

“Richard North Patterson’s, Exile, needs to go. It’s old and smells. Musty. But I’m so grateful that it helped me understand the Israel-Palestine mess. Maybe I’ll read it again.”

Loneliness has its price. Out of this last 24-book pile-up, only one goes to the graveyard: The Complete Book of Food Counts.

The 2018 Midterms: The Saints Came Marchin’ In

I Got My Country Back.

Weeks after the January 2017 presidential inauguration and Women’s March, I met with a group of women who look like me—old, white, middle-class—to discuss what we could do to help right our country. We devised a plan based on the Indivisible Handbook: meeting monthly to report on our calls and letters to elected officials stating our opinions about Cabinet secretaries, legislation and impeaching the President. We all decided the most impact we could make was to help turn the Sixth Congressional District blue, ousting six-term incumbent Republican Peter Roskam at the midterm election in 2018.

Cries at 2016 post-election presidential rallies to “lock her up,” a demand to jail Hillary Clinton awakened us to a cruel reality. This America, our country, had turned overnight into a place we’d only seen in movies like Elmer Gantry and footage from 1920’s Ku Klux Klan rallies. Little by little we discovered some of our friends, neighbors and family members had voted for a man who gloried in grabbing women by the genitals and calling immigrants murderers and rapists. At first I wondered how people could be so duped by the Reality Show President. I slowly came to realize not all are fooled. People who look like me actually like his white nationalist agenda. Yep. They like him, a tells-it-like-it-is guy, no matter how crude or criminal. I dismayed.

My enthusiasm, and that of my activist friends, turned pessimistic as we drew closer to the midterm election.

Sean Casten, an environmental scientist and political newcomer, won the Democratic primary for Congress in Illinois’ Sixth Congressional District over five women. The district includes some of Chicago’s wealthiest suburbs. I had never heard of him, knew nothing about him. But he became the object of my strongest desire.

I really wanted him to win.

The day after his November victory an interviewer asked Representative-elect Casten what he attributed his win to. Without hesitation he said, “The women. My sister, my wife, the women who showed up every day in the campaign office, the ones who phoned voters from home and knocked on doors. The women.”

Democrats took 35 seats and counting away from the Republicans in the 2018 midterm elections. And I got my country back. I live in a country where white suburban voters fullsizeoutput_45efelected a 32-year old black woman nurse, a country that elected a Sudanese Muslim immigrant woman who wears a head covering, a country that elected two Native American women for the first time in history, a country that elected a married-with-children gay governor, a country where a lesbian became a conservative state’s attorney general. My country will have 102 Democratic and Republican women in the House in January, 12 women in the Senate and 9 women governors. In my country, a record forty-four percent of employers offered employees paid time off to vote.

In my country, the saints are marching in.

1971, 25 Years Old and Still Alive

In June 1971, I turned 25 years old and celebrated my first six months of sobriety in Alcoholics Anonymous.

That same month, the release of the Pentagon Papers set off a firestorm of I-told-you-so outrage by Vietnam war protesters like me. All through the 1960s Washington insiders had been leaking to the press that the White House was lying about our involvement in the war in Southeast Asia. Anti-war organizations published newsletters and held NYT-pentagon-papermarches screaming at the government to pullout of Vietnam because there was no good reason for us to be there. When my son was born in 1967 I started sending streams of letters and postcards to the President and Congress begging them to end the draft. I didn’t want my son growing up in a world where he would be forced to kill another mother’s son.

My imbalanced emotional connection to the 60% of Americans who were against the war drove me to protest, argue, march and drink myself into oblivion. In December 1970, defeated, I finally collapsed, failing to escape the world of war, within and without.

Then, in my first year of recovery, the Pentagon Papers confirmed that Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson all lied about why we were in Vietnam. We stayed simply to save face, refusing to admit defeat. Troop numbers fell from 500,000 in 1968 to 156,000 by the end of 1971, the year The Pentagon Papers were published.

And so what? The world went on. Jim Morrison died in his bathtub in Paris. I read The Exorcist, rocked out at George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh and women were allowed to run the Boston Marathon.

The Pentagon Papers’ exposure of the government’s lying treachery slow-cooked beyond my consciousness. My AA meetings in Point Pleasant, NJ, seduced me with a new recipe for living, replacing the bitter stew of the wearying world. A wise woman at my meetings gave me two pieces of advice: 1) don’t comment at meetings about outside issues and, 2) wear a bra. I did both and managed to attract a ne’er-do-well fellow AA’er, ten years older. Ed professed some kind of love, so I moved in with him.

Julius Roehrs Garden Center hired me to make terrariums in glass bowls, a new fad. It 805160-03-1was my first job as a sober adult. I spent all day in a greenhouse planting miniature sedum and echeveria while having LSD flashbacks and dancing around to tunes only I could hear. My son, Joe, had been living with his grandparents for his kindergarten year and came to live with Ed and me. Disney World Orlando had just opened, so we read up on how to camp, then packed our new tent, camp stove and sleeping bags into Ed’s Mustang and drove down I-95 to the Yogi Bear Campground.

It rained. Ed and I fought. He got drunk and disappeared.

I drove Joe home—1,000 miles back to New Jersey.

When Ed showed up a few months later, we got married.

First Impressions of Bill Clinton

In August 1991, twelve Democratic leaders and influencers, were seated in leather armchairs at a walnut oval table in a small dining room at one of downtown Chicago’s private clubs. I was the only woman. When Governor Bill Clinton entered the room, his th-2tall navy-suited body seemed to shift the atmosphere, moving the dust molecules away from him and clearing the air as he moved. He gave a hardy salutation and proceeded to introduce himself to each person while he circumnavigated the room, one-by-one. I was halfway around the table, and when he reached me I stood and looked up to his bemused rosy face, full of laugh lines. He had a big red nose, like Santa Claus. As I tried to introduce myself, he interrupted me by saying he knew who I was— the Executive Director of the state Democratic Party. He asked if I knew my name was the same as one of King Lear’s daughters. “Yes,” I said, “My name came from her.” He leaned over and whispered let’s keep that between us since she wasn’t such a great character. And just like that we had a best-buddies pact.

He finished working the room, told us why he was thinking of running for president, and asked us to support him. He never sat down.

A few weeks later, Bill and Hillary entered a crowded 2nd-floor meeting room in a Chicago hotel with about 50 curious political activists who gathered to meet them for the first time. He neither ushered her in ahead of him as a well-mannered (albeit chauvinistic) gentleman nor did he make her walk behind him as an ill-mannered boor. Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton (L)
Side-by-side they came to us. We all jumped to our feet and cheered before he even said hello, before he shook one hand. It was two months before he announced his candidacy for President. His nascent message stressing personal responsibility for welfare recipients echoed what I’d learned in Alcoholics Anonymous — to acknowledge that I am responsible for the choices I make in my own life. Later in his presidency I despised his welfare reform policy but for now this seemingly spiritual insight vaulted my commitment to a new height. This was my guy.

The first week in October, one of Clinton’s many Chicago friends asked me to join him in driving Bill Clinton to Midway Airport. We’d been at a 100-person meet-and-greet where Clinton learned I was moving to Little Rock to work on his campaign. He looked back at me in the car and asked what my boss said when I told him I was quitting my job. My boss hoped I’d change my mind, so I told Clinton he wasn’t happy.  Clinton picked up the car phone, called my boss, thanked him for letting me have this opportunity of a lifetime and said he was happy to have me on board. He ended the call by inviting my boss to bring his family down to the Governor’s mansion for a weekend. In the back seat I imagined throwing my arms around his neck and kissing the top of his ever-loving head.

I was in Little Rock by the end of the week.

Keep On Truckin’— Contemplation on a Deadman by Regan Burke

In Beth Finke’s latest book, Writing Out Loud, the following brief memoir was excerpted. I post it for those who’ve asked for the full story.  Check out Beth’s book for more stories from Chicago writers: Writing Out Loud.

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Keep On Truckin’— Contemplation on a Deadman

I worked in politics my whole life, always hoping for the perfect politician, one who acted in the best interest of the whole. Bill Clinton could have been my hero. I loved his rallying cry in the 1992 campaign, “personal responsibility.”

But I had doubts. Could I work for a candidate who was pro capital punishment and unsure of his view on abortion? Those were two issues I thought every Democrat knew to be against and for.

The “personal responsibility” message won me over. In October 1991 I abruptly left Chicago for Arkansas to work as Clinton’s campaign scheduler, a grueling job that required 24/7 attention. One cold January night Clinton and his entourage, George Stephanopoulos and Bruce Lindsey, returned to Little Rock in a small private jet from all-important New Hampshire. I met the plane on the dark, deserted tarmac to give Clinton his next-day schedule. He descended the jet stairs with a big smile, came directly at me, grabbed my coat and ran his graceful elongated fingers up and down my long furry lapels. “Nice coat, Regan,” he whispered in my ear.

This encounter may be the reason I love Bill Clinton.

When he won, I relocated to Washington to work in his administration. I moved into the first floor condo of an 1880 townhouse on Church Street in DuPont Circle. In 1994 he passed a crime bill I thought went too far. Next he signed NAFTA, an agreement opposed by every Democrat I respected. Both policy shifts were spearheaded by White House insider, Rahm Emmanuel, who decidedly did not have the public good at the forefront of his self-serving mind. But Clinton loved him. Dissatisfaction settled in the space between my bones and muscled me awake at 3 o’clock in the morning for the next six years.

In the early still of a hot D.C. August morning in 1995, NPR told me Jerry Garcia died. I collapsed on the bathroom floor weeping over the death of something I couldn’t put words to. At 49-years-old my idealism had come to an end: my phony world of everlasting good died with Jerry Garcia. Reality glared back at me in the mirror as I brushed my hair, seeing for the first time a wrinkled face and rubbery neck. I dressed in soft yellow, a flowery cotton frock, and pinned a silk flower in my hair, ready for the grieving day.

My dog Voter squirmed away from my extra long hug and I went out the door to my old friend, Keith Lesnick waiting to drive us to work. As soon as I got in the car tears spilled out. He asked about the sadness, and I slobbered out a few words, “Jerry Garcia signed into rehab last night,” I said. “He died in his sleep.” Keith waited a few respectful minutes, and then, with one simple sentence, he opened a new, naked reality that included the unspoken caveat—don’t take yourself too seriously.

He said, “well, it’s not as if it’s Aretha Franklin.”

People Say They Did the Best They Could

What My Parents Believed

No One Ever Said We Were Democrats. Neither of my parents campaigned nor wore political buttons nor wrote thoughtful letters to politicians. They were Catholics, went to Catholic schools, Catholic colleges, married in the Catholic church. They took on the mantle of Irish Catholicism as if it were a physical birthmark, a once-a-Catholic-always-a-Catholic mental tattoo unaccompanied by belief in God or Jesus. They took advantage of the culture of the sacraments— Holy Communion, Marriage, Baptism—to display how beautiful we all were in our expensive clothes, polished shoes, fashionable hair styles.

They argued. About money mostly. And other women, other men. They agreed on important things. Pope Pius XII was a backwater imbecile for invoking papal infallibility in 1950 when he proclaimed all Catholics must believe Mary didn’t suffer physical death and was assumed into heaven. This new doctrine, along with the Pope’s insisting the Church of Rome stay neutral during the Holocaust, put a stake in their religiousity.

They hated right-wing bullies like Senator Joseph McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover. McCarthy was a reckless demagogue who ruined lives with public witch hunts and unsubstantiated accusations against communist sympathizers. FBI Director Hoover amassed power by steering favorable press and policy his way using his secret files to blackmail Congress and Presidents alike. Throughout their lives my parents derided the Red Cross for raising money for war-time troops then charging soldiers and sailors for their so-called giveaways like toothpaste, coffee and donuts. My mother eagerly showed how smart she was in these matters. After all, my parents attended college in the nation’s capitol in the years leading up to World War II. She gossiped about under-informed conversationalists, “What do you expect, they don’t even read the New York Times.”

During the war, they lived in housing provided by the Navy in Key West. With no children to mind, they spent evenings in the Officer’s Club chattering about the day’s news, forming opinions and cooling off with rum smuggled in from Cuba. The men were Navy pilots and Naval intelligence officers. Some worked in the newly-formed CIA. Anyone who didn’t drink was not to be trusted. They never went to a restaurant, nor any gathering, party, picnic, or church function unless they knew alcohol would be served.

Any friend or relative who stopped drinking was derided as a reformed drinker, as if that were a dirty word. My father eventually stopped drinking and went to Alcoholics Anonymous, but he still steered clear of social events and restaurants where there was no alcohol. With all their strong opinions about religion and politics, the foundational belief of my parents was that life without alcohol was as unsophisticated and tasteless as a Greek diner.

My father, divorced from my mother, helped me get sober in 1979. When I told my family I was in AA, my older sister, glass of wine in hand, said, “Well. Just because you’re an alcoholic, doesn’t mean everyone is.”