In one of my musings a few weeks ago, I attempted to cling to my self-identification as an evangelical. I received some curious blow-back on my use of the label, which led me to remember Mrs. Alcorn.
While briefly attending a seminary outside of Philadelphia, I rented a room above a detached garage. Mrs. Alcorn was my landlady, a woman in her late 80’s clinging to her dignity, independence and her house. She lived in a massive three-story Victorian across the street from the Jenkintown station, a rail stop on the east’s Main Line. Years ago, her husband Cyrus (Cy) had ridden the train up and down the eastern seaboard as a regional salesman for the Pennsylvania Woven Carpet Company, the last of the great Philadelphia mills.
Cy had passed away from a sudden heart attack, leaving Mrs. Alcorn with the huge house that was gradually falling into disrepair. She supplemented her widow’s pension by renting a third-story two-bedroom apartment in the house and the studio over the garage, a garage too small to accommodate my massive eight-cylinder Buick LeSabre. I used to joke that my apartment was smaller than my car.
On Thursday evenings I would have dinner with Mrs. Alcorn, after which we would play gin and drink scotch; it wasn’t too many hands into a game and she would be significantly ahead of me on both.
One evening she began to talk about her other tenants—a young family with two small children, the wife pregnant with their third. He, too, was a student at the seminary, a graduate of Oral Roberts University, also preparing for ministry.
“You know,” chirped Mrs. Alcorn, “I think he’s a little queer.”
I got the “little” part—he was diminutive in stature, but then I reflected on his fastidiously repressed mannerisms and thought momentarily about the dangers of judgmentalism when I suddenly realized Mrs. Alcorn and I were about to embark on two completely different conversations. In the generations between us, language and the definition of words had glided into very different worlds. I quickly recalibrated my thoughts and concurred, He was a bit odd.
Language is a fluid thing. After all, when was the last time you actually dialed a phone number? And knocking someone up in London isn’t the least bit scandalous. Because conversation requires some sense of shared vocabulary and meaning, as words shift, so, too, should our loyalties to particular tags.
Which brings me back to my affection for the title “evangelical”. If every conversation requires the preamble of a glossary in which I have to explain how I do not mean what you think I might mean, then the words themselves become an obstacle to communication. So, when a group identifies itself as an evangelical body forming the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (a cumbersome red-flag set of words from the get-go), and that council delivers something called the Nashville Statement (a set of 14 beliefs that repudiate homosexuality and transgendered identity as fundamentally unchristian), then I have to think long and hard about what labels we share. I can rant all I want about how they have stolen a good word, but at some point I have to surrender to whomever has taken possession of the definition. In the end, I’m going to have to find another word or set of words that describe my intent without so much necessary distancing.
I just hope I can find an alternative to “evangelical” that will make me just as gay.
Looking for the right words, I remain with Love,
Jonathan B. Krogh