John Joseph Reid creates a striking image as he walks out of his pink house on NE Tenth Avenue in Wilton Manors, just two blocks from the popular bars and restaurants of Five Points. A gentle, reserved man with a coif of gray hair and a trimmed mustache, Reid wears black from head to toe, with a white priest collar encircling his neck. He cradles the Holy Bible in his right hand.
"Let's have a seat in the chapel," he says, walking to a space near the driveway that was once a carport. Now an enclosed structure, it is separated from the elements by large panes of ornate glass. Reid opens the double doors, revealing a small house of worship. In front, a gold cross sits on the altar next to two large candles. The traditional Catholic Stations of the Cross line the west side of the chapel. On the floor, a dozen wooden chairs face the altar. This is the House of Divine Mercy, where every week, people come to worship, pray, and marry.
It's a place touched by God's love, Reid says. But if you ask members of the religious and political right, they'll tell you that it's a place molded by the devil's hand. That's because Reid, a 72-year-old Catholic priest from Boston, is a homosexual who has been in a monogamous relationship with another man for more than 30 years. And during the past four years, Father Reid has wedded dozens of gay couples, sanctifying their marriages before God just as other priests make holy unions of husband and wife. Later this year, in the wake of highly publicized gay weddings across the nation that have doubled as acts of civil disobedience, Reid will become one of the many gay Rosa Parkses, traveling to Massachusetts to make his holy marriage a legal one. It is because of Reid and other gay civil rights activists that President George W. Bush has proposed altering the U.S. Constitution, democracy's greatest living document.
Reid grew up in the strict Irish-Catholic streets of Boston. Back then, when someone asked where he lived, Reid mentioned not the name of the neighborhood but his local Catholic church. Even as a young boy, Reid was drawn to organized religion. He attended Catholic school and Sunday Mass for most of his young life. In fact, Reid's earliest aspiration was to be a priest.
But there was a problem. "When I was 7 years old," he recalls, "I realized I was gay. I couldn't become a priest and lie." Instead, Reid became a social worker, specializing in helping people beat addictions. It was a calling to which he was particularly drawn. Like many gay men, Reid neutered his self-loathing with the bottle. By his early 40s, he'd become an alcoholic. But in a strange way, he says, the addiction led to his ultimate happiness. At Alcoholics Anonymous, he met Larry Eaturner, a union electrician one year his junior. They've been together ever since. More than ten years ago, they moved from Boston to Wilton Manors to live off Eaturner's pension.
Yet a relaxed life in sunny South Florida wasn't enough. God, Reid says, was calling him. At 68 years old, Reid finally became a priest. He joined the American Catholic Church, an independent church that split from the Roman Catholic Church in the late 18th Century. With eight churches across the United States, the small American Catholic Church, formerly part of the Old Catholic Church, has become something of Rome's wicked stepchild. "We're accepting of women priests, accepting of married priests, accepting of gay priests, accepting of people who are divorced," Reid says. "Anyone is welcome to receive Jesus and the Blessed Sacrament. We don't turn anyone away."
Although the American Catholic Church lacks the influence of its Roman progenitor, its priests can trace their theological lineage as far as any in the Roman Catholic Church. "I was ordained from a bishop who was ordained from a bishop who was ordained from a bishop," Reid says. "I can trace [my ordination] all the way down to St. Peter, and the pope can never say, 'That's not so. '"
Being a gay Catholic priest isn't unusual. In fact, throughout the ages, gay men have found sexual placation in the cloth. "They could enter the priesthood," Reid says, "and no one would question why they weren't married to a woman."
But being a gay Catholic priest married to another man is something altogether different -- something that Catholic theologians can easily condemn with Scripture as a sin. "Intrinsically evil," Reid admits. "The Roman Catholic Church calls homosexuality intrinsically evil."
The priest has no difficulty reconciling his sexual attraction to men and his faith in Christ, even citing ambiguous scriptural passages that seem to show that the Bible does not condemn homosexual love. He gets up from his chair and points to a painting in his chapel of Sergius and Bacchus. The two men were soldiers in the Roman army under Emperor Maximilian. As the story goes, when Sergius and Bacchus were instructed to participate in a sacrificial ceremony for an artificial god, they refused. As punishment, the Roman army stripped them of their swords and tortured them. Sergius and Bacchus died horrible deaths, refusing to denounce Christ. They were later canonized for their acts of faith.
But the story, Reid says, speaks to the hypocrisy of the Roman Catholic Church: According to legend, Sergius and Bacchus were lovers, meaning that gay men are among the church's saints. This, of course, is despite the fact that Leviticus says homosexuality is an abomination (Leviticus 18:22). But so is lying in bed with or touching a woman at the end of her menstrual cycle (Leviticus 15:19-24), eating shellfish (Leviticus 11:10), getting a short haircut (Leviticus 19:27), playing football (Leviticus 11:6-8), and wearing cotton-polyester blend shirts that won't shrink in the dryer (Leviticus 24:10-16), among many other ridiculous instructions on life found in an outdated religious text.
"The Holy Spirit is talking to us. He's not enclosed in just this one book," Reid explains, laying his hand on the Bible. "I get angry when people say, 'It's all in the Bible.' I say, 'No, it isn't all in the Bible.' God talks to every one of us today, telling us what to do and where to go. I feel he's behind this whole thing of people being equal in marriage."
That's why Reid views himself as more than a priest. He's a civil rights leader, fighting to gain the rights already granted to heterosexual married couples. Reid lives on Social Security and his long-time partner's pension. But one day, he could lose that pension, forcing him to live off a paltry $836 per month from Social Security. "If I were a woman who was married to him, when he dies, I would get the pension," he says. "I could hold on to the house. I could continue living here. Without this [marriage license], the pension dies. I don't get a penny."
In May, Reid and his partner will be among the hundreds of gay couples to receive Massachusetts marriage licenses -- legal documents that could one day be voided retroactively with the passage of a Constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. As a young man, Reid marched with African-Americans to protest Boston's discriminatory practice of busing poor children across town to poor schools and rich children to rich schools. His upcoming return to Boston will represent his second act of civil disobedience.
"We're going into the water," Reid says, waving his hands with excitement. "Are you going to try to stop us? We're doing it all over the country. Nonviolence, nonviolence, that's what Gandhi said. Keep going, keep going. Nonviolence, that's what Martin Luther King said. If you have to break the law, break the law. If you have to sit down in the street, sit down in the street. This is what's happening around the country over the marriage issue. They're going to have to come with machine guns to stop us.
"This marriage situation is going to show gay people some role models. We're going to have some role models, and the far right does not want us to have positive role models. What they want is to have us always looking and sounding bad. 'They're bad people, they're bad people, they're bad people...' We're debunking that whole thing."
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