Maybe I Pushed the Idea of "Unconditional Love" a Bit Too Far
What would you have thought if your parents had told you at 17 that no matter what you did, even if you murdered someone, they’d still love you just as much? Mine did. And, religious people that they were, they threw in that God would still love me too, no matter where I went or what I did.
None of my friends could imagine their parents saying such a thing. Even the religious ones. But the idea was incredibly freeing, so I set out to explore it for myself.
I went alone to New York City specifically to sleep in Grand Central Station.
Decades later, I’m not sure this was a logical way to explore unconditional love, but it seemed quite connected at the time. Life was unpredictable and beyond my control, and I wanted to know how to live it. I wanted to get far outside my comfort zone, to put myself in a place where I had no resources of my own to count on. Would some force beyond myself actually show up? And—what do you know—something did. When I woke up two men were waiting for me, and they offered to cook me breakfast at their place. Encouraged, and yet a little scared, I reminded God as we walked there that I was counting on him.
This was the late 1950s. No one I knew talked about gay people; homosexuality was considered unspeakable.
But Aaron and Ronnie were remarkably kind and open. We talked for hours. I was curious about everything—about their homosexuality, their lives, how they discovered their orientation and how people treated them. And they were astounded that I had come to New York specifically to learn if I could count on God. When one of them started to come on to me, the other said, “No, leave him alone! He’s an angel.”
That got me mad. “I’m no angel,” I said. “I’m just like you guys.” I told them more about my unconditional love experiment. “I need God as much as you do, and if God is here for me then God is here for you too.” They found that hard to believe, given all they had heard from religious people. But they were tantalized by the thought that God was actually right there in the room with us and was not angry with them. They simply wanted, as we all do, to be accepted and affirmed, to belong, to have value.
Ronnie—who had been a Marine—turned his face so I couldn’t see his emotions. Until that moment he had never heard "God loves you" from someone who really believed it.
But I wasn’t there to explore ideas about homosexuality. I was exploring life and my parents’ radical idea that all of us are totally accepted, even with all our stuff. In the next few years my exploring took me hitchhiking more than 40,000 miles, all around the US and down through Central and South America. But those are stories for another time.
I knew this sense of security did not come to me because I was especially good, brave or intelligent. I didn’t have encoded in my DNA a personality that predisposed me to take risks—nor some key to the divine that made the risks I took work out positively. The only thing different about me was that I actually believed that I was loved and valued, even though my parents had no delusions about how good I was.
On this trip, it began to hit me that I’d discovered something primal, that I’d somehow returned to what everyone really wants to believe. But would it continue? And did this gift from my parents tell me something about my life’s work, which—after Martin Luther King’s assassination—would focus on reconciliation? I had a lifetime of exploring ahead of me.