I should’ve died when I was twelve.
Most people wouldn’t know it to look at me now, but the way I walk in the world has a lot to do with the struggles I’ve overcome, and the knowledge that I didn’t get through those struggles on my own.
I have what is now a largely invisible disability. I have scoliosis, a birth defect that affects the structure of my spine. It's more common for girls than boys, but by age 4 I was already wearing a back brace 23 hours a day. By the time I was 12, my scoliosis had progressed far enough, despite the brace wearing, that it was time to perform an operation that had a fifty percent chance of paralyzing me, so that my disease wouldn’t crush my lungs.
It was during this operation that we discovered that I am deathly allergic to morphine. I was in a coma for 5 days.
Without my Grandmother, the daughter of Mexican immigrants who earned her living bartending, and a connection she made with one of her regulars, we would never have received the help from the Shriners that my family did. The Shriners helped fund all my treatments.
Without the nurse-who knew me well enough as a patient to know that I was a light sleeper-coming into my room in the night when I didn’t respond to her calling my name, I would never have been rushed to intensive care where five days later I awoke to find my parents crying.
Without, without, without.
There is no one alive today who’s very existence hasn’t depended on the help of others.
I have done a lot of hard things in my life. I am the first man in my family to graduate from high school. I was the first person in my family to earn a bachelor’s degree. I am the only person, to date, with a graduate degree. I was the first in my family to leave our home state to further my education.
I came out of the closet as a gay man at the height of the AIDS epidemic in North America. The people at the community center told all of us “new” gays that the average life expectancy for a newly out gay man was 2 years before he died of AIDS.
I claimed my identity as a religious person, and then a religious professional in a world where it was often easier to be gay in church than to be religious in the gay community, due largely to the way that many religious people have abused, and continue to abuse, us.
And I did none of these completely on my own.
This deep-rooted awareness of community and connectedness infuses my very being. It is within this deep knowledge of interconnectedness that I practice ministry.
Congregations are places where we can learn and teach lessons of deep interdependence. Places where we can be challenged to grow, comforted when struggling, places of laughter and life’s lessons.
My home congregation is the First Unitarian Society of Chicago, nestled in the South Side of Chicago in the neighborhood of Hyde Park. I maintain my membership there and it is where I think of when someone asks me where home is. I first walked through the front doors of that church when I was 28 years old. I had been a largely unchurched person, and I had never heard of the faith that I would one day dedicate my life to.
It was in the church where people older and wiser than me saw something I didn’t see myself. They molded me. They grew me into leadership. It started small, with teaching the sixth graders. From there I was asked to run for election to our Religious Education Committee, and other opportunities came along the way. A decade later, when I told them I had to resign from the Board of Trustees because I was entering seminary, the church matriarchs said to me, with love, “We knew it all along.” And then they said “We need to make one thing clear: we raised you, and we plan on claiming you. We are going to ordain you into ministry, and no one else.”
First Chicago is an integrated church. When I joined in 1996, Polly McCoo, who had been the first Black person to join the church in 1940, was our matriarch. The Rev. Dr. Mark Morrison-Reed grew up in this church, he calls me his Little Brother. Though it seems funny to think of a 28-year-old “growing up” in a church, it was during my time in the church that I very much became the person I am today.
I have been a part of 9 congregations in my time as a Unitarian Universalist, 8 of them as some form of minister (Student, Intern, Interim, Parish) and so I’ve seen enough of other systems to know that my home church is not the only way that we can do church. I know that my home church, like all systems, has its flaws, but it is in the sense of belonging, of communal responsibility, one person to and for another, that has taught me the potential of church life.
With, with, with.
It is with the help and companionship of so many that I have achieved my dreams. 20 years pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in American History focusing on Protestant Religious Movements and a minor in Gender & Women’s Studies from the University of Illinois at Chicago. A Master’s of Divinity from Meadville Lombard Theological School, located across the street from my church, where I gave my first public sermon.
From there I was able to spend a summer internship with the Old Chapel Unitarians in Dukinfield, England, and a year-long internship with the Unitarian Church of Vancouver, BC.
During the summer I was on my way to my internship from Chicago to Vancouver I met the man I would marry, the Rev. Denis Letourneau Paul. At the time, Denis was a street minister in San Francisco with the Faithful Fools
I returned to the States to live with Denis, and from there we moved, with our dog Toulouse, to Modesto, California to my first parish position. I was their interim minister and when it came time for that relationship to conclude, both Denis and I accepted positions in Northeast Ohio.
In 2014 Denis began to serve in Kirtland at the East Shore UU Church as their Developmental Minister, and came to the the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland as their settled minister.
Joe & Denis in Quebec City, QUE, 2019
Three years after I arrived, the lay folks I was serving asked me to help them talk to the folks at First Unitarian Church of Cleveland about possibly re-uniting after an acrimonious split from them in 1951.
In 2018 the First Unitarian Church of Cleveland and the UU Society of Cleveland came back together, something no two UU congregations had ever done before, to become the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Cleveland.
It is time for them to find their first “new” minister.
Denis will be leaving parish ministry for now. He has some interesting ideas about a consultancy that would take advantage of both of his degrees, one in architecture and one in theology, to help congregations look at and improve their spaces in ways that are economically and environmentally responsible.
And it’s time for me to find my next adventure.