"Loneliness is a degenerative disease."
Many, many moons ago, I came out as an atheist, and my religious orientation hasn't truly wavered since. It would have hurt my parents less if I'd told them I was gay, I think. I thought about that this morning, as I read a message from my father. It seems that my childhood pastor and his wife are soon to celebrate their 60th anniversary. I'm thinking of sending them a note.
Ron Conklin played an important role in my coming out. As I think back on it now, the sequence of events is hazy in my mind. But this much I can definitely say: It came to a head over confirmation. In the United Methodist Church, children are confirmed at about the age of 13. It's their last year in "Sunday school"; after that, they're supposed to join the adults in the sanctuary. We had a deal in our family that we could make up our own minds about attending services once we'd been through confirmation class.
By that time, I'd been dubious about Christianity for at least three years, and had counted myself firmly as an atheist for at least two. I felt unclean every time I sat in the santuary and mouthed hymns or prayers, and had even begun to consider leaving the Boy Scouts because I felt dishonest reciting the Oath and Law.
So when June rolled around, and Confirmation time drew nigh, I elected not to be confirmed in the United Methodist Church. I told my parents why; they didn't like it. They implied I would be forced to confirm. I made it clear that I would not be.
As a compromise, I agreed to talk to Reverend Conklin. We met after school one day, at the church. As I recall, we didn't talk for long; I told him what I believed, told him that I felt it would serve no purpose to argue about it, and ultimately, though I'm sure it didn't make him happy to do so, he agreed that it would be dishonest for me to confirm if I did not believe in God.
I promised him in return that I'd come see him if I wanted to discuss my "doubts." He didn't demand that; he asked for it. I knew him well enough to know it wasn't a deal, but an offer. I've always been grateful to Ron for that, but then, that was the nature of his belief: Faith had to be freely chosen, or it was without meaning.
That wasn't the end of friction -- my parents tried to go back on our traditional deal regarding confirmation and church-attendance, and my mother still occasionally begs me to "reconsider" and tries to guilt me into Easter services whenever the logistics align -- but my meeting with Ron Conklin more or less forestalled a war. I've always been grateful to him for that, too.
The Conklins have been close to my family in the years since. Ron married all three of my siblings (even my agnostic brother Glen asked him to perform the service), twice travelling a day's drive to do so. And my parents have often stayed at their cabin in the Adirondacks.
There's another story that comes to my mind more often with regard to Ron Conklin, though. At the reception for my brother Glen's wedding, I stood to offer the traditional "best man's toast". I hadn't given it much thought, intentionally: I felt it would be more appropriate if more sincere, and more sincere if done off the cuff. So as I started to talk, I didn't know quite where I was going -- only that Glen and Sheila would want me to avoid cliches and embarrasing stories. I allowed myself to start out on the usual "I was there when..." journey, let myself wind into the story for thirty or forty seconds, and then stopped, suddenly, put on an urgent expression, and cried out: "Sheila, it's not too late! The window's open! He's a monster, run away now!"
Ron burst out laughing (along with everyone in the room except for the mothers of the couple), and called out, "It is too late, I've got your signature as a witness!" He later congratulated me: "You did the two most important things a best man is supposed to do, you made the couple feel good and you kept it short."
Dad tells me that the Conklins are living in the same area where I first knew them, where our church was -- his last church as a full-time pastor. I'm glad they're well. I'll never share their faith, but I'm glad that at least some people of faith have had people like Ron and Ruth to look out for them.