Riding with the Spongs

in New York City's Pride Parade

by Louie Crew

First appeared in Outlook September 1993: 12-14. Collected in Letters from Samaria: Poetry and Prose by Louie Crew Clay, NYC: Morehouse, 2015
© 1993, 2004, 2017 by Louie Crew

"It's a `march,' not a `parade'!" my friend Kim Byham, NY lawyer when it comes to facts, kept reminding "Ms. Grand," (his new affectionate appellation for me) as I huddled in the heat of the rented chariot for NYC's event yesterday.

Before the procession, I gadded about with neighbors, from Riverside Church, from a Unitarian Church in Brooklyn, from a Witches & Pagan group from all over (where I encountered an employee from our national church office, who was burning sage for their incense), from synagogue after synagogue..... Religious groups were all lined up east of Fifth Avenue on 51st street, and at least an hour and a half of the parade/oops march had moved down Fifth Avenue before our turn arrived. We knew from the cellular phone that the Spongs were en route from their episcopal visit to Morris Plains, but they had not shown up when the white chariot, bedecked with red ribbons and purple ribbons was marshaled to the taxiing area for entrance to the `march.'

Not wanting an empty vehicle marked "Bishop John S. Spong and Christine Spong" persons insisted that The Rev. Tracy Lind be Bishop Spong and that Luti of the Alabama Belles be 'Christine Spong.' "They won't know the difference!" several shouted. Peg Dengle, vestry member from St. Paul's/Chatham exchanged her fuchsia straw bonnet for my butch, as in b-u-t-c-h, fuchsia cap. Jack and Christine arrived to this spectacle just as the chariot began gaily forward down Fifth Avenue. Tracy jumped out of sight but I could not waddle fast enough and was caught in the act. Can you imagine the reactions of the diocese had Tracy and I still been stand-ins when we passed the reviewing stands with all the news media. Bishop and Christine who?

One of the most moving of the NYC `march' always comes quickly as the marchers move past St. Patrick's, always closed all day long on Pride Sunday, surrounded by well over 100 policemen, most with walkie-talkies, and barricades two and three deep to prevent any one from getting anywhere near the cathedral. Opposite, on our right, are always the small crowd of the major nay-sayers to the parade. "Buchanan for President" Christine read aloud from a smaller sign in their midst. "AIDS is the wages of sin" read a bigger banner, and upstaging them all were several posters the size and shape of coffin lids, each saying "Here lies a queer who marched last year."

Yes, a march, not a parade.

"Should I bless it, Louie?" Jack said quietly from their perch at the back of the chariot while Scott Helsel drove and I huddled in the right front seat as he stared at the grim, guarded St. Patrick's.

"No," Christine said.

The silence was eerie as we slowly moved past.

"What a comment on the church," Jack said, over and over.

All down Fifth Avenue people applauded in ripples then with shouts as our chariot approached. Dozens called out, "I read your book and it brought me here to support my daughter!," "Can we find a way to clone you?," "Thank you, bishop, I have come back to my church because of you!"

At 42nd Street a man dressed as a fairy, complete with wings that shimmered when he stood tall in his ballet shoes, flitted over to Jack, glitter all over his face, completely in character, tears pouring out of his eyes and said, "We made big posters quoting your book in the Rochester parade and you moved thousands. Thank you, Bishop, thank you, thank you."

Jack usually seems quite at ease with media, and I have sat with him and Christine in scores of other lesbigay venues, at times when no lesbigay Christians are about, and they have never lost their cool, have always been gracious and welcoming.

"Louie, I have never been in a parade before. I don't know how to act."

"Louie can teach you," Kim responded, with his vcr aloft. He milks the crowd all the way."

Jack remained clumsy, but the crowd did not hold back. They loved the two of them. NYC's policemen occasionally could not stifle their own surprise, but probably, I reminded Christine, more because she was with a bishop than because a bishop was with us.

At the reviewing stand by the Public Library, every year the clergy in the march join arms and shoulders and do a high step dance. "Join us," Tracy Lind beckoned, as did numerous other clergy. "Join us, Jack!" He smiled but replied, "I learned a long time ago the difference between being a 'fool for Christ's sake' and simply being 'a fool.'" He enjoyed their performance just ahead of us.

"Maybe we should detour down to 815 Second Avenue," Jack teased. (That's the national headquarters of the Episcopal Church, and home of the Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning.) But that was at 42nd Street, when the fairy flitted over. From that vantage, Fifth Avenue begins its long, long descent towards Washington Square in the Village, and from their perch Christine and Jack could see marchers all the way there and all the way back to Central Park behind us.

"If Jerry Falwell is right, we must have every lesbian and gay person in the entire country with us in this parade," Christine teased.

"NYC has a good subway system and some of them must be rushing from one part to the other just to make the numbers look bigger," Jack joked.

The crowds stagger the imagine of lesbigay folks as well! So many people. So many lesbigay people. Hundreds of thousands and only one bishop.

"This is the scene Bill Frey is so afraid of, Jack, and he can't even see it as a mission field," I said.

"And all the hate the church has heaped on the persons for generation after generation, I'm astounded, here as in all my other visits to the gay community, at the warm reception I receive," Jack said.

"I reckon we'll have won when we have 12 bishops to march with us," I speculated. Dick Shimpky [El Camino Real, formerly a priest in the Diocese of Newark, was the first ever, last summer, followed by Chester Tarlton, Suffragan of Los Angeles, also last summer. Jack was the third. Of course, that does not count at least half a dozen of the gay bishops who have marched with us incognito on occasion.

Scott turned on 107.70 to find the Yankees ahead. That made the scorching heat more bearable for Jack. Christine insisted that they remain perched the entire way when we suggested they might give themselves a rest by slipping down into the back seat. Never have the services of an altar guild and petitpoint been so "sorely" needed for episcopal cushions.

The Yankees scored and Jack said we should turn off the radio not to distract from the march.

"If anyone had told me twenty years ago that today I would be riding in a gay pride parade, I would have told him `You're madder than hell." Jack muttered, still in utter amazement at the crowd.

"Bishop, I'm XXXX XXXXXXX [a prominent theologian] and I want to thank you for being with us today!" the bare-chested brother said out of breath, as he jogged to catch up with us in this pilgrimage.

"Bishop Spong," I'm rector at _____" at least 50 others came over the sideline to speak to him and thank him for being there, giving them his name.

One rector had never missed a gay pride parade in all the history of them, but this was his first time ever to confirm his identity for the bishop and the rector was obviously moved. Once he held my hand as we rode along. He remembers the Jack Spong of years ago, the Saul who persecuted many gay men and threw them out of the diocese and had many others living in terror of exposure. And here he was, the Tarsus character with a new name riding down Fifth Avenue.

Just before we reached Marble Collegiate, Norman Vincent Peale's old church, a bare breasted lesbian appeared from out of no-where and asked Jack for his blessing. Jack is uncomfortable with catholic worship but managed to say, "Bless you" and she moved away. I did not look back but felt his burning cheeks as he said quietly to Christine, "I'm more conservative than I thought I was." We all blushed as a new round of cheers and claps went up from the crowd. "Thank you, Bishop! Thank you!"

One embarrassed sissy rushed to the side of the car and said, "Oh Bishop Spong, you have to understand that we gay people have such a great need for approval."

"I have the least problem of all with that," Bishop Spong assured him. "Every human being needs approval. Even we bishops need approval and we know how hard it is to get it sometime."

At Marble Collegiate and at [First?] Presbyterian people brought trays of cold water to all the marchers. Long after our thirst was quenched, we felt it important not to reject this marvelous hospitality, just as at the beginning of the march, importuners from the crowd had brought us bottle after bottle of sun lotion to guard us against the heat.

At Ascension, the parishioners set up a great peal of bells as they are always wont to do when Integrity and other Episcopal groups pass. They also set up great rounds of cheers when our chariot rode by them.

The march turned at "America's Arch of Triumph" (Christine's term) in Washington Square and moved west down Christopher towards the Hudson. All down Fifth Avenue the street had narrowed, the crowds had thickened, and the people had grown more protelarian, more obviously international.

And the welcome for Jack and Christine had not diminished!

Not once in the entire parade did anyone shout profanely or abuse the Church. At the site of the Stonewall Inn (the bar where 24 years ago tonight the Resistance, this March, actually began, a black male, much like some of the original drag-queens, was wildly drunk and read out loudly, "Bishop John S. Spong and Christine Spong" Someone else shouted out, "I'm glad you're here, Bishop," and the drunk shouted, not in mockery but in celebration, "I'm a bishop too!"

"I'm glad you're here too," Jack said.

The march ended at Washington Street, one block before the river. Scott drove Jack and Christine back uptown to their car so they could make another annual Episcopal visitation, at Epiphany in East Orange.

"I'm going to be out of the country next summer at this time, but I think Jack [McKelvey, our suffragan] will be glad to go, Louie, if you ask him," Jack Spong said as they drove off, sitting down in the back seat by now. A dozen or more priests hovered nearby to thank them for coming.

We waited for an hour and half for Evensong at St. Luke's in the Village, followed by an Integrity reception in the Garden.

We kept prayer Common and simple, as Evensong should be. No choir of other angels ever has sung in fuller voice

There's a wideness in God's mercy like the wideness of the sea; there's a kindness in his justice, which is more than liberty. There is welcome for the sinner, and more graces for the good; There is mercy with the Savior; There is healing in his blood.
We did not sing the whinny Victorian version (Beecher> but the Calvin Hampton version. The vicar noted that the late Howard Galley from this parrish, gave us much of the setting for the Prayer Book and we made the service a special memorial to him. He was head of the revision of the Prayerbook. The New York Times listed both of his male long-time companions in his obituary last month.
There is no place where earth's sorrows are more felt than up in heaven; there is no place where earth's failures have such kindly judgment given. There is plentiful redemption in the blood that has been shed; there is joy for all the members in the sorrows of the Head.
One of the most moving moments of the march occurred about an hour into it when all the thousands there paused for two minutes of absolute silence to reMEMBER the thousands more who have left us.
For the love of God is broader than the measure of the mind; and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind. If our love were but more faithful, we should take him at his word; and our life would be thanksgiving for the goodness of the Lord.
Amen

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