When digging through a small box of "relics" of my childhood, stuffed deep in a larger box my parents gave me marked "Brett's," part of the refuse of their children's odds and ends they purged from their household, I found my quarter-size Sunday school pin, with all its attendance bars attached. Immediately upon discovery, memories that I kept stored in the deep recesses of my unconsciousness rushed back. Not that they were bad memories per se. They weren't. They were just memories I don't call upon often these days. But now these memories were front and center, actively running through my mind as if they were a celluloid film, moving quickly as if my two ears were movie reels. My visual, aural and kinesthetic memory of Sunday school times brought a broad smile to my face for they were a period of happiness during a childhood in which I felt increasingly odd as a gay boy. My happiness rose from my innate curiosity and eagerness to learn the stories of old that buoys me through the hardest days of life today. And while some of those stories are historically true, others I believe through faith, while a few episodes are truly of mysterious myth and the stuff of legend that might make for a good Spielberg-Lucas film. If you believe some of these mythic stories of the Bible are real, I have an ark to sell you.
The setting: the 1960s elementary Sunday school classes that took place every Sunday morning at 9:00 a.m., at Morrow Memorial Methodist Church in Maplewood, NJ. Because of my faithful attendance, at the end of kindergarten Sunday school I was given my pin, honoring my fairly faithful attendance in Sunday school. My faithful attendance was due in large part because my dad taught the third grade Sunday school class with my friend George's dad, Mr. Fisk. As a result the entire family went to Sunday school before worship. On the bottom of the pin were two small hooks. Upon those hooks would hang six individual bars, recognizing my faithful attendance for the next six years. Needless to say, I'm a product of Sunday school in the Methodist Church.
Some frames of the film streaming through me was being dressed up in an old family bathrobe and a candy-striped dish towel on my head, with an elastic black headband holding the towel in place around the crown of my head. I loved the same ubiquitous costume I wore when I was a young shepherd in skits involving Jesus' birth or being one of the bystanders to Pharaoh's daughter finding baby Moses in the bulrushes during the first two years of Sunday school. In third grade, Mr. Fisk presented me with a soft ball for being the first in class to memorize the Apostles' Creed. My dad created a neat way to teach us how a stylus works by giving us sheets of melted wax that in which we would inscribe a Bible verse like the "ancient times." The church presented us all with Bibles in the third grade -- revised standard version -- with no operating manual but great pictures spread sporadically among its thin pages. Study of the Bible took up the remainder of Sunday school, partially through learning songs based on Bible verses that would remain with me a lifetime. We also created more arts and crafts to fill up a chest full of colorful construction paper, handprints in plaster, macramé weavings and a torn copy of Good News for Modern Man with its simple stick figure characters. The budding artist in me loved this part of Sunday school.
But I was also drawn into the amazing creation stories: the desert pilgrims Abraham and Sarah, Noah's ark, faithful Moses and Egypt's nefarious Pharaoh, young David slaying evil Goliath and (one of my favorites) lone Daniel in the lions' den, with a detached hand writing words upon a wall -- cool! Then there was the central story of the prototypical family: Jesus, Mary and Joseph. I was -- and still am -- amazed at the miracle stories that started immediately with Jesus' birth. Because I was in the church's children's choir, I vividly remember Christmas and Easter, because the stories in Sunday school and worship were one and the same. With Christmas the stories and songs were about the choir of angels, a menagerie of animals and freshly cut Christmas trees. And Palm Sunday was my favorite Church holiday because of the palm branches, followed by Easter with the sanctuary overflowing with white Easter lilies from floor to ceiling.
In hindsight, Sunday school also taught me that Jesus was straight, and there was no place for a young gay boy among his followers. Jesus never married, was celibate, never talked about sex, let alone showed romantic love. His very conception involved no sex whatsoever. As a young teenager he never attended a youth group or dated, but read Isaiah to the elders in the synagogue. In adulthood, asexual Jesus hung out with a group of other sexless men who walked around Nazareth, Capernaum and Jerusalem (Peter is the only one who seems to be wedded.) There was no mention of Mary Magdalene in Sunday school, because the possibility of her being a prostitute meant there would have to be an explanation of sex. This is when it struck me: There was never any discussion about the married status of these biblical people. It was simply assumed that they were all straight, just like my family: a mom and dad, children, grandparents, aunts and uncles. Samson and Delilah never "knew" each other in the biblical or sexual sense. No mention of Ruth and Naomi or Jonathan and David. Being gay or lesbian was not part of the discussion in Sunday school in the 1960s (or beyond that). And from my knowledge of Sunday school materials (I have written Sunday school curricula in the past), the material continues to hold the line that there was no place in the Bible for an out gay or lesbian character.
Sadly, little has changed in the stories shared in Sunday school in the Protestant churches. But imagine how wonderful it would be to introduce the stories of love shared among friends like Naomi and Ruth or Jonathan and David. Much like public elementary schools and libraries include And Tango Makes Three about two male penguins sharing their love with an orphaned penguin, churches could also begin educating the young about all the ways of being a family in the Bible... including Jesus, his mother Mary and his step-dad, Joseph. After all, it is in such small changes that we make a church more hospitable for one and all.