Bishop Otis Charles and the bridge to somewhere by Susan Russell (published by permission)
The news that Bishop Otis Charles died at the age of 87 came via a Facebook message the afternoon after Christmas. Ironically, the message “popped up” while I was reading this quote in an online article about the last crop of Utah county clerks — who had been holding out issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples — giving up the fight. “The scales have tipped. It’s not the way I want to see things go. But the law’s the law, and I accept it. It’s time,” said San Juan County Clerk Norman Johnson.
The scales have tipped … and when the history of that still-in-progress tipping is written, the work and witness of Bishop Otis Charles – the Eighth Episcopal Bishop of Utah — will be part of the story.
This 2004 feature on Otis Charles in the San Francisco Chronicle offers an overview:
Charles, who served as bishop of Utah for 15 years and then president of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., was married for 42 years and has five children. He told his wife he was gay in 1976, but he didn’t come out publicly until he retired 11 years ago.
For years, Charles said, he told himself it would be too hard on the diocese, on his family, on his wife. But then keeping his secret became unbearably oppressive.
“I was ashamed of myself for remaining silent when the church was involved in an acrimonious debate about the whole question of gay people in the life of the church. I couldn’t live with that any longer,” he said. “I came to realize that I was only going to wither and die and it would be a destructive relationship for my wife and myself.”
In a letter to fellow bishops, Charles wrote, “I will not remain silent, invisible, unknown.”
Legally married in 2008, during the pre-Prop 8 window here in California, Bishop Charles (who preferred to be called Otis) and his husband Felipe Sanchez-Paris had their union blessed in 2004 at a celebration at St. Gregory of Nyssa in San Francisco. I love this quote from the 2004 Chronicle interview:
“The single most powerful possibility for raising people’s awareness and consciousness would be when in the church relationships are being blessed,” said Charles, who turned 78 on his wedding day. “Then people see that two human beings want to commit their lives together and are able to do that and have the desire to do that with the blessing of God.”
Those scales tipping? They’ve tipped – at least in part – because of that raising of awareness – of consciousness – Otis Charles talked about in 2004. Because of couples who stood up, who came out and who offered their lives and their love as a witness to the world. Sometimes paying a high price for their courage. Refusing to remain silent, invisible, unknown.
Because of legislators and activists and agitators who wouldn’t take no for an answer. Who returned – again and again – like the persistent widow in Luke’s gospel story – demanding justice. Sometimes against stupendous odds. Refusing to remain silent, invisible, unknown.
Otis Charles was part of the bridge generation – those who dared to reach across the chasm of what was to what could be – building a bridge to somewhere. Those who had no examples of how to live authentically as LGBT people and so became examples for those who came after them. Examples of how to tell the truth about their lives – even after decades of denial to themselves and to others. Examples of how to claim the blessing of God’s presence in their life and in their love as a witness to a work of healing, of hope, of wholeness.
My favorite interview with Otis was in the documentary film “Love Free or Die” when he talked about spending so much of his life trying so hard – and failing — to “fit.” And then, he said looking lovingly at his husband, finally finding the perfect fit with Felipe.
Felipe Sanchez-Paris died just six months ago – July 30, 2013. The time they had together may have been chronologically short but their example will continue to inspire as the story of the tipping point is told. Not because they always got it right. And not because they were perfect. But because in their willingness to reach out beyond what was to what could be — and by their refusal to remain silent, invisible, unknown — they helped build a bridge to the somewhere of liberty and justice for all … not just some.
We may not be there yet, but we are on the road. We are passing the tipping point. And we are going to keep moving forward until marriage equality is a national norm, not a local option. Because, in the words of San Juan County Clerk Norman Johnson: “It’s time.”
UPDATE: From Walking with Integrity