Healed: They’re Here. They’re Queer. They’re Christian Scientists. Get Used to It.

Written by John Strausbaugh on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.


Every Thursday
evening a small group meets in a spare, classroomish space upstairs in the Lesbian
& Gay Community Services Center on Little W. 12th St. (moving now to 208
W. 13th St.). The group’s two leaders, Bob McCullough and Bob Mackenroth,
have been doing this since 1986. The Center provides meeting space for groups
like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous, as
well as SAGE (Senior Action in a Gay Environment), WWIAB (Women Who Identify
As Butch) and BIGLTYNY (Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian & Transgender Youth of New
York). And then there’s McCullough and Mackenroth’s bunch: the New
York City Gay & Lesbian Christian Science Group.

When I told
a gay friend that I was interviewing gay Christian Scientists, he snorted, "What
a bunch of oxymorons." And it’s true that the not-even-an-aspirin
Christian Science culture would seem incompatible with a West Village lifestyle.
Evidently the Church itself thinks so: although the leadership does not openly
condemn homosexuality anymore, levels of discomfort with gayness seem to be
as high in Christian Science as in Roman Catholicism and many other American
churches. An openly gay person interested in Christian Science may not be invited
to join unless they "heal" themselves of their homosexuality. Gay
church members stay in the closet; those who come out may be kicked out.

Principia,
the Christian Science college in Illinois, bans open expressions of gayness
by faculty or students.

Every now and
again the monthly Christian Science Journal, which runs testimonials
from church members claiming to have been healed of cancer or diabetes or a
broken bone through prayer, will run a letter from someone claiming they’ve
been cured of homosexuality or "freed from homosexual entanglement."As
recently as March 1999, another church organ, the Christian Science Sentinel,
ran an article by a woman who’d decided that her faith was in conflict
with her "long-term lesbian relationship," so she simply "drop[ped]
the gay lifestyle," which I read as a spectacularly cold euphemism for
dumping her girlfriend.

McCullough
ruefully remarks that what everyone thinks they know about Christian Scientists
is that they’re child killers; what Christian Scientists think they know
about gays is that they’re child molesters.

Thus his and
Mackenroth’s group. "The group started in 1986 as a protest against
the Church’s treatment of gay people," McCullough explains. "We
were a place where gay people could come to study and practice Christian Science
unharassed by non-gay–and, yes, some gay–condemning Christian Scientists.
We have evolved into a group of deeply committed students of Christian Science,
gay and non-, interested in exploring and demonstrating Christian Science."

McCullough
is 63 and looks 53. Mackenroth is 76 and looks 66. It occurs to me that either
there’s something to this Christian Science thing, or the Church just happens
to attract youthful people.

The size of
their group varies from Thursday to Thursday. Some weeks there’ll be a
dozen people; then again, one evening this spring it was just "the two
Bobs," as others refer to them, and a young junkie who wandered in mid-meeting,
nodded out for a bit and then stumbled off. Gay men predominate, though a few
lesbians do attend, and one of the most interesting regulars lately is a straight
woman, Jackie Park, a former Hollywood actress.

They come to
it from a lot of directions. Mackenroth was raised in Christian Science. McCullough
joined the Church as an adult. One young guy in the group was introduced to
Christian Science by his East Village coke dealer. Another is a Russian kid
who was brought up Russian Orthodox and started investigating Christian Science
when he emigrated to Brooklyn. And Park tells me, "I studied every religion
that there’s ever been. I started out in Christian Science, but I left
because of the strict rules and regulations. So I went to Buddhism, Hinduism,
I did LSD, and I found that the Christian Science thing really worked, because
it taught you how to pray."

The meetings
are more cerebral than churchy. (One of the first things I notice about Christian
Scientists of all sorts is that they do a lot of thinking. Christian Science
is often compared to fundamentalist faith healing, but if so it’s the Mensa
of faith healing, one that seems to attract and foster thoughtful, highly educated,
middle-class brainiacs. They’re also heavy readers, as their ubiquitous
"reading rooms" attest.) Each week there’s a new topic for discussion–androgyny,
desire, ethics, heaven, loneliness, politics, romance, sin. The conversations
are open, warm and can be quite profound. I came as an observer and soon found
myself provoked to butt in. McCullough posts weekly digests of the meetings
on the group’s website, www.nycsgroup.com. It’s interesting reading.

But still,
gay Christian Scientists?

The old joke about Christian Science is that it’s neither Christian nor
Science. Another way to put that is that whatever it is, it’s unique.

On the one
hand there’s something irreducibly Victorian Gothic American about Christian
Science. It’s as straitlaced as a corset. Although they’re best known
for refusing traditional medicine, believers also don’t drink, don’t
smoke and don’t do recreational drugs. Chastity is highly prized. For a
long time, white and "colored" members went to separate churches.
While services are open to all, if you actually want to join your local church
you need to be voted in, and I understand you come under a fair amount of close
scrutiny. If you offend, you can be voted back out in a kind of local excommunication.

What’s
interesting is that at the bottom of all this conservatism are some pretty progressive,
even radical ideas. The Church was founded in the 1870s by New Englander Mary
Baker Eddy (1821-1910). Professional skeptics from Mark Twain to the curmudgeonly
Martin Gardner (in his 1993 The Healing Revelations of Mary Baker Eddy)
have portrayed Eddy as an illiterate kook and a charlatan, little removed from
the table-rapping spiritualists of her day who conned the gullible with phony
seances. She doesn’t strike me as significantly more crackpot than the
founders and leaders of numerous other American churches and sects, though I
suppose that’s not saying much.

She was an
unlikely prophetess, sickly much of her life (one illness bereft her of the
sense of smell), of limited education, a survivor of a couple of failed marriages.
She got her initial ideas from a spiritualist and healer named Phineas Quimby,
and opened the first "Christian Scientists’ Home" in Lynn, MA,
in 1879. She’d published the first edition of what is in effect the Church’s
bible, Science and Health (later Science and Health with Key
to the Scriptures
) in 1875. She would go on to found the Christian Science
Journal
, Christian Science Sentinel and Christian Science Monitor
(the last because she felt the media was not fair in its coverage). The Christian
Science movement grew rapidly through the turn of the century, and the Church
was well-established and well-heeled when Mrs. Eddy died in 1910, age 89. There’s
the giant Mother Church in Boston, and local or "branch" churches
in cities throughout the world.

Eddy believed
that what we perceive as physical illness is caused by errors of the mind, and
that illnesses could thus be cured through prayer. She wrote: "The Science
of Mind denies the error of sensation in matter, and heals with Truth. Medical
science treats disease as though disease were real…and attempts to heal it
with matter." She claimed that in traditional medicine it’s not the
doctor himself that cures, but the faith of the patient in the doctor.

Since the material
world is illusory, every physical experience–pleasant as well as painful–is
an error that distracts us from "Reality"–a purely spiritual
realm, which Christian Scientists identify as the One Mind. The more we connect
with the One Mind (aka God), the better we can ignore or control the distractions
of the material realm.

When Christian
Scientists refer to prayer they don’t mean prayer like "Oh dear God,
please make my piles stop itching," or fundamentalist-style laying-on-of-hands
healings. It’s more of a mental exercise, getting in tune with the One
Mind, getting right with the Science. Church members pray on their own, but
when they’re feeling really sickly they’ll call on the services of
either a nonmedical Christian Science "nurse" or a trained "practitioner,"
who’ll pray with them. The practitioner need not be in the room to facilitate
a healing, and indeed they do a lot of their consulting over long-distance phone
lines, a fact that skeptics and critics uniformly note with scorn.

As an alternative
to hospitals, a dying believer may choose to go to a Christian Science care
facility, where there’s no medical intervention but, again, lots of prayer.
Death in Christian Science is not supposed to be the trauma it is for the rest
of us, since you’re escaping this realm of illusion and rejoining the One
Mind. Mackenroth speaks of death as a "non-event." The Christian Scientists’
blissful disregard for pain and death is another aspect that drives their critics
crazy. In Caroline Fraser’s anti-Church screed "Suffering the Children
and the Christian Science Church," which ran in The Atlantic Monthly
in 1995, she railed against their "obliviousness of the reality of pain
and suffering" and fumed that the "infuriating, smug calm in the face
of crisis is part of what makes Christian Science so dangerous."

Virginia Harris,
who chairs the Church’s board of directors and is thus the Church’s
de facto current leader, recently explained prayer and healing this way to Larry
King: "When you pray, and your thought is so aligned, so attuned to God…you
can have a transformation take place in that body. Bad cells can become healthy
cells. A cancer can disappear. Mary Baker Eddy said she healed a cancer that
had eaten to the jugular vein, and was healed. People are healed." ("The
statement about the exposed jugular vein is a bit much," Gardner sniffed
in his book. "Did this really happen? I strongly doubt it.")

"It’s
an attempt to get to the Divine Mind rather than mortal mind," McCullough
explains. "It’s really an attempt to be at one with the mind of God.
It’s quite different from most of the [faith-based] healing methods you
hear about. This is almost like a quantum leap or a disjunction, a dropping
of thought."

The Mother
Church’s website claims that healing "has been practiced effectively
for more than 100 years. In some families, Christian Science has been the means
of healing and care for five generations. During the past 112 years, more than
50,000 authenticated testimonies of healing have been published in the monthly
and weekly Christian Science periodicals. Many of these have medical verification."
Critics take such claims with a huge grain of salt.

It’s worth
noting that unlike her most dogmatic followers, Mrs. Eddy was not 100 percent
against seeking traditional medical help–Christian Scientists often refer
to it as "mechanical" help–when one found oneself unable to effect
a healing through Science. She herself took morphine when she was older; in
fact, by some accounts she’d become addicted to it by the time she died.
Most Christian Scientists wear glasses, go to the dentist and will have a broken
bone set, although they tend to add that by applying Science they then hasten
the healing.

I ask McCullough,
if he became deathly ill or was diagnosed with a deadly disease, would he go
to a hospital, or to a Christian Science care center?

"I don’t
think I’d go to either one," he replies. "I’d stay at home
and perhaps get a Christian Science nurse to help with things around the house.
Enlist a practitioner. Work on it. Otherwise, I think I’d tend to go to
the Christian Science facility first, because they have done really wonderful
healings. And I’m not that trustful of medical stuff. Certainly if I was
doing a medical procedure I’d get a good Christian Science practitioner
to support me–and many of them won’t. They’ll withdraw from the
case if you take medical care."

At its simplest,
then, Christian Science is a kind of Mind over Matter, Power of Positive Thinking
movement. In its insistence that the material world is illusory and that Mind
is all, it’s also a kind of Western Hinduism or Buddhism, with roots in
the New England Transcendentalists. For all its fustian Victorian trappings
and conservative leanings, it fits in rather handily with contemporary new age
spiritualism and the alternative medicine movement. Current polls show that
the majority of Americans believe to some degree in some form of spiritual or
faith-based healing–although only a tiny handful join the Christian Scientists
in rejecting traditional medicine altogether. And it’s widely accepted
in medicine that mental attitude can have a profound impact on health and healing;
numerous med schools now include some instruction in spirituality.

Finally, it
must be said that Mrs. Eddy’s melding of religion and "science"–a
science that apprehended the illusoriness of the apparently solid material world–was
really quite prescient, even if accidentally so, in that she predicted a universe
that 20th-century quantum physics would later describe in detail.

 

Following
Mrs. Eddy’s explicit orders,
the
Mother Church never talks specifics about how many members it has. It’s
generally accepted that membership peaked in the middle of the 20th century
and has been on the decline ever since. Branch churches have closed and membership
in churches that are still operating is dwindling. There are currently 10 churches
in Manhattan; they’re numbered First through Fourteenth, but the Fourth,
Sixth, Eleventh and Thirteenth no longer exist, having died out for lack of
parishioners.

Church members
I asked about it unanimously agreed that membership is on the decline, and my
few trips to Manhattan churches did nothing to dispel that notion. In her Larry
King Live
interview, Virginia Harris offered the spin that while church
attendance itself has decreased, the number of people buying and reading Science
and Health
around the world has actually increased. "…I think we
find this is true with all faiths," she said. "Many churches are having
fewer people attend regularly. People are exploring spirituality."

In the late
1980s and 90s Church leaders were alarmed enough by the decline that they initiated
a full-court media recruitment effort. It was punishingly costly and seems to
have left only ruin in its wake. The Church gutted the flagship Christian
Science Monitor
to fund ill-considered tv and radio efforts, including the
Monitor Channel, a failed cable network, and the short-lived magazine World
Monitor
, which alone lost an estimated $36 million. Today’s Monitor,
a flimsy newspaper, still earns some respect, but it’s a thin ghost of
its old self.

Again, what
everyone thinks they know about Christian Scientists is that they’re religious
fanatics who let their children die by refusing them traditional medical care.
In a handful of cases, this is true. Through the 1980s and 90s one tragic story
after another made the news. Two-year-old Robyn Twitchell, who died in excruciating
pain from an easily treatable bowel obstruction in 1986. Ashley King, 12, who
died a hideously prolonged death of bone cancer in a Christian Science nursing
home (which provided only nonmedical care) in 1988. Ian Lundman, 11, who died
in 1989 after his mother, stepfather and two Christian Science practitioners
tried to use prayer to heal his diabetes. Andrew Wantland, 12, who also died
of treatable diabetes in 1992…

Such cases
produced blistering attacks in magazines and a series of outraged memoirs by
adults who’d "survived" their childhoods in the Church. Medical
ethicists complain that these kids do not have the basic benefit of informed
consent. In Praying for a Cure (1999), Margaret P. Battin observed:

"From
the legal and medical perspective, the Christian Science community simply cannot
be trusted by the dominant community to do what is best for their children without
serious threats to the fundamental rights of these children… In a sense, respecting
the wishes of [his] Christian Science parents meant that Robyn Twitchell was
the subject of child neglect… When the Twitchell case is used as a model,
Christian Science seems to be the kind of community that cannot and should not
be given equal respect with the other communities in our pluralistic society."

It’s a
measure of how influential Christian Scientists became in the Church’s
heyday that protections and rights for the Church were often specifically written
into federal and state laws in the 20th century. The IRS and most insurance
companies recognize Christian Science healing, and the Supreme Court just reaffirmed
the right of Christian Science health facilities to get Medicare and Medicaid
reimbursements. (The Church is named in the original 1965 Medicare legislation.)

Many states
once exempted Christian Science parents–and all believers in faith-based
healing–from prosecution when their children died because the parents refused
medical treatment for them. But with the rash of highly publicized cases in
the 1980s and 90s, many states began repealing those exemptions, leaving parents
open to wrongful-death or child-abuse charges. Colorado just did so in April.
The Denver Post editorialized that "Christian Scientists who lament
their lost exemption to practice ‘spiritual healing’ shouldn’t
be too concerned. They’re welcome to continue that approach to medical
treatment on themselves and even on their children–until the youngsters’
cases turn life-threatening. If they want to pray over sniffles, splinters,
cuts and bruises, they’re free to do so. But even their children will be
protected when the ailment turns serious."

The Christian
Scientists I asked characterized these kids’ parents as a minority of extremists.
Still, they also like to add that many more children die every year under traditional
medical care than the handful of Christian Science kids who’ve died because
they couldn’t get it.

"I think
if I had kids I’d be super-careful about it," McCullough says. "Remember,
though, a kid who’s rushed to a hospital by parents has no consent either.
The parents may or may not know if the doctor is good, and he may have a bad
day. And many children do die under medical care. The parent is the one who
has to make that decision as to what to do."

"You’re
in a tricky area there, when you’ve got a little baby that really can’t
tell you anything," Mackenroth says. "If I saw my child in pain and
I saw that my prayers were not bringing any comfort and healing, I’d rush
my child to a hospital. When you’re dealing with a baby–or anyone,
for that matter–I think the comfort of the child (or anyone) is number
one. I mean, where are you coming from? Are you really caring for the child
or are you trying to prove a point? Where’s the compassion? Where’s
the love? Where’s the honest concern?"

 

One gloomy
Sunday morning,

Mackenroth and I walked the half-block from his apartment to the First Church
of Christ, Scientist, for the 11 a.m. service. Completed in 1903, the edifice
broods over the corner of W. 96th St. and Central Park W., a forbidding Victorian
pile that reminded me of Grant’s Tomb. There’s something funereal
and mausoleum-like about it I thought was at odds with Mrs. Eddy’s emphasis
on light and spirit, and Mackenroth tells me Mrs. Eddy never did like the cold
stone edifices her physical churches became. Inside the cavernous space are
massive wooden pews facing an altar area as wide as a Broadway stage; behind
it looms an enormous pipe organ.

If the gigantic
and opulent space speaks of the wealth Christian Science boasted at the turn
of the century, its emptiness on a Sunday morning tells the opposite tale today.
At best there were a dozen people sprinkled around the vast hall, and that’s
counting the staff: two readers, a singer, an organist and an usher. The two
male readers and the attractive blonde female singer were young, early thirtysomething
at most, while the scant congregation was all older folks. I should add that
the two readers registered as blips on my gaydar, which is admittedly not unfailingly
accurate. I’m told that, as with Roman Catholicism, the Mother Church is
loaded with closet cases.

Like most everything
about mainstream Christian Science, the service is an odd mix of the intellectually
challenging and the boringly churchy. It begins and is punctuated with the singing
of hymns, which sound like normal Protestant tunes but are characterized by
alternate-universe, almost Pythonesque lyrics along the lines of "O God
our Father-Mother, lead us to reality…" But for the bulk of the service
the two readers–handily known as the First Reader and Second Reader–alternately
intone selections from the Bible and Science and Health.

The interposed
readings are supposed to comment and reflect on each other, but most times I
missed the connection. I can say I found Eddy’s snippets more thought-provoking
than the Bible quotes: "Christian Science reveals incontrovertibly that
Mind is All-in-all, that the only realities are the divine Mind and idea…"
"The substance, Life, intelligence, Truth, and Love, which constitute Deity,
are reflected by His creation; and when we subordinate the false testimony of
the corporeal senses to the facts of Science, we shall see this true likeness
and reflection everywhere…" "Hold thought steadfastly to the enduring,
the good, and the true, and you will bring these into your experience proportionably
to their occupancy of your thoughts…"

With the inevitable
passing of a collection basket and the singing of a few more hymns, the service
concluded. Strolling out, I told Mackenroth I thought Christian Science might
do a lot better in the 21st century if it jettisoned the heavy, old-fashioned
Christian part and went full-on with the Science.

Churches also
hold Wednesday evening services. I attended one in the Tenth Church on MacDougal
St., in the heart of NYU country. It was a very different space–light,
airy, sort of Scandinavian. The service was much better attended–maybe
30 people, from what looked like college students up. As at the First Church,
virtually everyone was white and looked middle-class. There were the same sorts
of hymns and readings as on Sunday, but the Wednesday services focus on "testimony."
People stood up in their pews, were handed a mic by a smiling attendant–it
had a bit of a Donahue feel–and reported on healings they’d
experienced. On the night I was there nobody claimed to have been cured of blindness
or cancer or HIV infection, although one woman said she’d cured herself
of a lingering cold. A couple of people stood up to credit prayer with helping
them make felicitous career choices, and a student spoke of his improved grades.
It felt less like a religious ceremony than a Tony Robbins motivational seminar.
I came away from both mainstream services liking the informal little gay meetings
the best.

 

McCullough
smilingly admits

that "outing" himself a Christian Scientist in New York City can be
"a little weird. It’s a little like being gay. You have to choose
your audience."

He was raised
Episcopalian in Houston. He moved to New York in 1964 to work for Texaco in
accounting and finance. "And," he says, "as a gay person who
had not come out yet–I mean I knew I was gay–I knew this was the place
to be, period."

Asked what
New York was like for a gay man back then, he responds, "I came out within
six months. This was before Stonewall… I was so shut down and so shy that
it was very difficult. But I did go to bars and learned how to cruise the street
or whatever. But you were always in danger of being picked up by a cop. And
they raided the bars. They had a policeman sitting at the front door of the
bars, who registered you when you walked in… I mean it was awful. Eventually
they raided all of the [gay] bars and put a policeman in there. It was very
oppressive. And that was the reason for Stonewall. It just got unbearable."

It’s odd
to think of a gay man in New York City deciding to become a Christian Scientist.
McCullough says that "After working for Texaco for about five years, I
started having all kinds of physical problems, gastrointestinal kinds of problems.
They couldn’t find anything wrong with me, so I went to a shrink. He prescribed
medication, and I just hated the side effects from it. At that point, I thought,
‘Let me try Christian Science.’"

He’d become
familiar with Christian Science in a funny way: he was dating a callboy who
used to take him to evening services. He did eventually heal his G.I. problems,
and says he’s had many other healings since.

I ask McCullough,
"If you get a toothache, do you go to the dentist?"

"I do.
I use dental care. Most Christian Scientists do, in fact."

How is that
not a cop-out?

"I think
certainly Christian Scientists ought to give it [healing] a good try first.
But I have no objection to using traditional medicine. When I broke my knee
I certainly went to the hospital and got it set. It’s not a sharp division.
It’s up to each person to decide what they need."

I’m also
interested to hear that McCullough underwent psychoanalysis. Is that okay for
Christian Scientists?

"Many
students of Christian Science would not undertake this kind of analysis,"
he concedes. "They’d feel it’s dealing with mortal mind alone.
I went into Jungian analysis and had about 1200 hours of it. It was a difficult
problem balancing the Christian Science and all that was coming up in the psychological
work. No one could do this balancing but me–the analysts thought I was
in denial if I tried to talk about spirit, and my Christian Science friends
said I was toying with mortal mind. But it was very valuable to me. I learned
a whole new vocabulary that got me away from stale Christian Science jargon."
He says his analysts also had difficulty trying to balance Jung and Mrs. Eddy–his
last one "fired" him in the middle of a session.

If you’re
a gay man in the age of AIDS, is it crazy not to take whatever medical precautions
are available?

"The people
I meet at [gay Christian Science] conferences around the country, some of them
are taking the drugs," McCullough concedes. "We had a man recently
who was still on the drug cocktail protocol, though he says he wants to get
off of it. We did not encourage him to get off them. He was getting truly
interested in Christian Science and wanted to drop them, but was understandably
afraid since they had helped him. He prayed, and at his next visit to his doctor
he was able to let go of the drug that had the worst side effects. This could
be viewed as a healing in itself.

"There
was a fantastic healing by a member of our group, actually. This would’ve
been about maybe–very early–there were no drugs. Maybe there was AZT.
He was a member of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, and a friend of his, who was
also a member, called and said, ‘We’ve had a request for a Christian
Scientist to go to Bellevue. Would you come over there with me?’ And so
he did, and they found this man in bed, just skin and bones, terrible shape.
It was Communion Sunday. (Twice a year we have that in Christian Science. It’s
a special lesson, and we kneel. It’s the only time of the year that we
kneel.) They did the lesson together and they got him out of bed so that he
could kneel on the hospital floor. And, with that, three days later the man
was out of Bellevue, gained weight rapidly, went back to live in Ohio. When
I heard about him five years later he was still doing fine."

What about
counterexamples of gay Christian Scientists who refuse the drugs and die horribly
of AIDS?

"I have
known only one man who died of AIDS-related illnesses under the care of a Christian
Science practitioner, in a Christian Science nursing home. I have known several
students of Christian Science who died under medical care. All these happened
before the current drug combinations became available. I have known many non-Christian
Scientists who have died under medical care. I have no objection to medical
treatment–it’s divine Love’s provision for those who need material
reassurance–which we all need from time to time."

 

Mackenroth
was born in Minneapolis in 1924,

grew up in a well-off family that moved around the Midwest. His father did not
practice Christian Science, while his mother "was the only one of five
children that seriously followed Christian Science… My mother had the sensitivity
of a saint, but a very practical saint. She wasn’t preachy. She was extremely
lively–and a bit of a tomboy.

"In my
20s I was severely attacked by asthma. Mom sat down with her back to me and
started to pray, as she was taught in Christian Science. I was healed instantaneously–immediately.
The asthma never returned."

She raised
all five of her children in the Church. "One brother just passed on. He’s
the only one that got away from Science and was treating cancer through conventional
medicine and alternatives such as shark cartilage and electrodes. Belatedly
he did return to Christian Science, when he found no release in the other methods.
He went to church. Personally, I hardly ever go to church.

"My sister
has gone on to develop her own version of Christian Science. She felt the Christian
Science Church is too liberal–I’ve found it to be the exact opposite,
of course." Another brother, David, is a West Coast attorney who has argued
for Christian Science parents accused of letting their children die.

"In 1953
I came to New York for a theatrical career. I lived just off Columbus Circle
on 58th St. for $9 a week, in a lovely brownstone. It was heaven. The day after
I ran out of all of my money I got a job in a bookshop that was actor-friendly.
That was an answer to my efforts at Christian Science prayer. A true miracle.
My family had cut me off–I had no money." He would later become a
successful makeup artist.

Mackenroth
tells me of miraculous healings.

"I have
the good fortune of inadvertently healing a tumor twice. The first time I didn’t
feel metaphysically up to it. It was about 1973. I just stood in front of the
mirror one day and I resigned. I said, I know people are calling me ‘homosexual.’
(At that point I hadn’t come to the refinement of thinking that everyone
is an individual, in terms of sexuality. I’m not thrilled with the term.
I think people are individual beings, with different fingerprints, none the
same. I don’t think any two people’s sexuality is the same.)
But at that time, I hadn’t come to that conclusion. And I just wept and
wept, looking in the mirror. I said, ‘Bob, you’re a good guy. You
want to love somebody. I just don’t feel it’s my fault here. I’ve
done the best I can.’ And I wept and wept and wept and wept. ‘Dear
God, just guide me as to what to do.’ And three days later, I’m just
combing my hair and this tumor in the middle of my head, which had gotten to
about the size of a pigeon egg, was gone."

He recalls
another time when he went into surgery for a cyst in his neck. Years of prayer
had failed to remove it, "and finally one day I prostrated myself on the
floor of my apartment. And I said, ‘Dear God, what is it I need to do?’
It just seemed that it required a complete surrender. And the word ‘surgeon’
kept coming to mind. I obeyed it."

In the recovery
room, when he came to from the anesthesia, "the surgeon says, ‘We’d
like to talk to you privately. There’s something peculiar here. What we
thought was a cancerous mass is gone, and we don’t know where it went.
Now, what is your background?’ Other doctors were called in and they took
pictures of me and all this. And I told them about Christian Science, and the
practitioner I had hired to work with me while I was being treated. [The surgeon]
gave me a refund."

And then there’s
the group’s straight female, Jackie Park, whose life has taken a remarkable
route.

"I started
out in Philadelphia, then came to New York. I started out as a dancer, and at
15 I met this millionaire, maybe billionaire–I was his summer mistress
while his wife was away. When he found out how old I was, he sent me to Hollywood.
With all the introductions, the money to get along for a while. I did some wee
roles," including appearing in King Creole and on the tv show Dragnet.
She says she dated Cary Grant, then married a Hollywood psychiatrist. "That
didn’t work out–he was into drugs–so I got a divorce.

"I was
at a party one night and met Jack Warner, of Warner Bros. I was his mistress
for the next five years." She "traveled all over the world with him."
She says, "He was a monster."

Most remarkably,
she claims she dated Ronald Reagan for a time when he was still a Hollywood
figure. "It’s all documented. I don’t believe it either, but
it can be checked." At various points there’s been interest in a book
or tv movie about her Hollywood years–she says HBO is currently looking
into it. She shows me a sheaf of articles mentioning her–in Time,
Newsweek, Playboy, various tabloids–after Kitty Kelley cited
her in her 1986 Sinatra bio His Way and again in her 1991 Nancy Reagan:
The Unauthorized Biography
.

For all that,
"To me, the highlight of my life now is to leave this apartment at 6 o’clock,
go down to Nick’s Diner to grab a bite and rush over to the [Christian
Science] prayer group. I’ve had everything else and tried everything else
and been everywhere else."

 

In the mid-70s,
small groups of gay and lesbian Christian Scientists began to organize around
the U.S. and in England. Mackenroth and McCullough were part of the movement–"inadvertently"
at first, Mackenroth smiles. He was attending an annual meeting at the Mother
Church in Boston in (he thinks) 1975.

"The meeting
was for ‘singles,’ and was held at their rather spacious Sunday school.
Gay people were not mentioned. Everything was heterosexually oriented. My heart
ached. I couldn’t stand it any longer. When they asked for questions from
the floor, mine was the first hand up and I was instantly acknowledged. I said,
‘I didn’t hear anything about people who are gay–like me.’
You could hear a pin drop. A man from the audience boomed out, ‘You are
what?’ I couldn’t believe I’d said it! I gulped and said, ‘I’m
gay.’

"During
the week following my return from Boston, a Sunday school pupil of mine got
up at a Wednesday evening testimonial meeting [at the Ninth Church on E. 25th
St.] and expressed his gratitude that gay members had spoken up at the annual
meeting. The First Reader instantly interrupted him, instructed him that that
word cannot be uttered in a Christian Science meeting and told him to be seated.
I was on my feet before I knew it, asking the First Reader to reconsider–in
that we cannot allow some here who may be attending for the first time to leave
with the impression of such an unloving taboo. Furthermore, I could not wait
until after the service to discuss this issue because the attendants in question
might well leave without benefit of fair dialogue on this sensitive subject.
The reputation of our precepts was at stake.

"One thing
led to another and I was finally informed by the branch trustees that my membership
would be in jeopardy if I were ever to confront the First Reader during a service
again. I never did–but they illegally threw me out any way. (I was the
branch church parliamentarian.)"

I ask him what’s
written in the Church’s precepts that specifically bans homosexuality.

"I can’t
find a thing in anything that Mrs. Eddy has written," Mackenroth replies.
"She propounds that the male and female of God’s creation is within
all of us. We reflect the Father/Mother God."

So what was
the Church’s problem with his saying he was gay?

"One of
the members–whom I had helped to come into Science–came up me and
said, ‘Bob, it’s as though we paint our hair red and you don’t.
That’s reason enough,’ he said–and added, ‘You don’t
respect your position in the Church.’ I said, ‘I respect my position
in God’s reality. Now if the Church diverges from that, what am I to do?
Do I go along with the Church organization’s views regardless?’ Most
other gay people in the Church chose to be quiet. They said, ‘Bob, why
don’t you just be quiet?’ I said that that doesn’t sound like
Mary Baker Eddy, who stood up to make her statement. Nothing gets done without
someone making the move, and I just couldn’t stand to see people continue
to suffer over this any more.

"As of
now, I have been sexually inactive for approximately 20 years, so it’s
not as though I’m trying to work just a self-serving benefit here. I just
can’t stand by and see what I have seen happen to people–in or out
of the Church. One great guy from our little group tried to merely be a devoted
member at a New York City branch church. The minute they found he was gay they
threw him out without due process."

Mackenroth’s
effective excommunication turned him and his friend McCullough into activists.
"We passed out pamphlets," McCullough recalls. "We stood up in
church. We gave counter-testimonies. We were excluded from talking at the Second
Church. We went to all of the churches in New York, and we went to the Mother
Church… There was something read one Wednesday at the Second Church, something
to the effect of ‘There’ll be no political statements made from the
floor.’ They considered us to be political."

In 1980, gay
and lesbian protesters distributed a pamphlet at the annual meeting in Boston,
in which they wrote that they "appeal to all Christian Scientists and especially
to The Christian Science Board of Directors to re-examine their thought on the
subject of human sexuality in the light of Christian Science; and to take whatever
loving and practical steps are necessary to rectify the present wrongs being
done to Gay people in the name of Christian Science."

The pamphlet
cited a watershed 1967 article in the Sentinel, "Homosexuality Can
Be Healed," and others through the 1970s, which used terms like "promiscuous,"
"bizarre," "abnormal," "immoral," "unseemly,"
"unhealthy," "unnatural," "cursed" and "perverted"
to describe gays and lesbians. Given all that, the pamphlet noted, "it
should come as no surprise that so-called ‘healings’ of homosexuality
should appear. This, naturally, prompts one to ask what exactly has been ‘healed’?
Has the person been ‘healed’ of love, companionship or friendship?"

In 1982, Chris
Madsen, who’d been a writer at the Christian Science Monitor for
more than seven years, was let go when it became known that she was a lesbian
and wasn’t trying to "heal" herself of it. She sued (and eventually
settled). A small group of gay and lesbian protesters disrupted the annual meeting
that year with the chant, "Two-four-six-eight. How do you know the Board
is straight? Stop the witch hunts!" An international group of gays and
lesbians in the Church, Emergence, was founded in 1986; McCullough and Mackenroth’s
group started the same year.

McCullough
says change has come very slowly in the 15 years since. Anecdotally,
he and Mackenroth tell me numerous stories of Church members currently being
ostracized or otherwise harassed for being gay.

It’s true
that today Church leadership is less ready than it once was to openly condemn
homosexuality. In fact, it can sound reticent to the point of evasiveness, as
in this exchange:

LARRY KING:
How about homosexuality?

VIRGINIA HARRIS:
Well, I’m–on social issues, we as a Church don’t take a stand.

Well, that’s
not quite true, McCullough says.

"They
say they don’t, but in fact they do. It’s shifted slightly over time.
I think before Bob and I brought it to such a head in Boston and New York it
was more or less just these potshots taken at us. Once we brought it to a head,
then the Mother Church and branch churches quickly put in a clause that you
had to be ‘healed of homosexuality’ before you could become a member.
The Mother Church has since removed that, about five years ago. But some branches
still have it." At best, he’s written on the group’s website,
there appears to be "a kind of glacial shift going on at official levels."

Last year,
McCullough and Mackenroth wrote to the Mother Church to ask about policies on
accepting gay members and hiring gay people. The letter they got back last December
from the board of directors is a masterpiece of soft-pedaling:

"We are
not aware that the Board is planning to make any statement about homosexuality.
As for who can become a member of The Mother Church, Mary Baker Eddy made it
clear in the Church Manual that only members can approve applicants for membership.
She further has stated in her writings that anyone who becomes a member of the
Church must believe in the doctrines of Christian Science, read the Bible and
Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures understandingly, and be
able to abide by the Rules and Tenets of the Church.

"Turning
to employment, we can tell you that applicants are not asked about sexual orientation
or other similarly private matters. Neither do we make a practice of trying
to determine the private behavior of our employees. Of course, chastity clearly
is the standard of Christian Science; Mrs. Eddy called it the ‘…cement
of civilization and progress’ (Science and Health, p. 57). The Church
and all of its activities continue to uphold that standard. Therefore, if an
employee were to publicly challenge that standard, to argue that it is not or
should not be the standard, or to engage in obtrusive sexual behavior (all regardless
of sexual orientation), it is likely we would part company."

McCullough
recently sent a copy of that letter to a gay friend who’s a Church leader
in another part of the country. This person has just come out, and is facing
dismissal from the branch church. (I was asked to avoid details, so as not to
get this person into deeper trouble.) While the Mother Church exercises no direct
dominion over the branches in such matters, he thought the tone of the letter
might be helpful.

On the other
hand, Principia College, presumably training the next generation of Christian
Science leaders, seems to be training them to be closet cases and ’phobes.
(Mackenroth, who attended Principia after WWII, recalls that "Their racial
and homophobic policies drove me out after a year and a quarter–even though
they offered me a scholarship to stay on.") "Principia does not knowingly
admit or hire homosexuals," a university officer told the school newspaper,
The Pilot, in 1999. "Principia views homosexuality as something
worthy of healing."

The article
also noted that "Unquestionably, homosexuals have attended or currently
attend Principia. Current gay or lesbian students, however, would have to keep
quiet about their sexual preference while enrolled because of the school’s
unwritten policy."

 

B

Both Mackenroth
and McCullough continue to attend services in mainstream Christian Science churches.
But they both say they feel more comfortable–and get more spiritual work
done–in their own group.

"To me
the heart and soul of my Christian Science practice is the group," McCullough
tells me. "I go to church as kind of an ashram, a place to meditate. I’ve
never given gay testimony. There’s so much that I want to talk about–relationships,
all my friends have died of AIDS. There are so many things that you can’t
really talk about [in a mainstream church]."

Nowadays, he
says, "I’m more interested in healing than I am in political pushing."

nnn

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