Loopholes

Editor’s note:

These remarks, which were prepared for delivery at the 2000 Covenant Conference, are as good an example as any of why many of us in Covenant Network have arrived at the understanding we have. Can anyone question that Hugh is called to be a deacon?

Hugh as it turned out was too ill to deliver this speech. I am proud to be able to share it with others here.

— Pam Byers

Loopholes

Remarks for the Covenant 2000 Network Conference

Hugh Swaney

Sisters and brothers in Christ, I would like to give personal testimony why I think your work with the Covenant Network is so important.

I read recently that when W. C. Fields was on his death bed, a lady friend called on him to comfort him and to say farewell. She was astounded to see him in his bed thumbing through the Bible and she said, “Why, Mr. Fields, I didn’t know you were a religious man. Why are you reading the Bible?” W.C. Fields replied, “Lookin’ for loopholes, my dear, lookin’ for loopholes.”

In 1993, I was expected to die. Most people thought that except me. I did what I had done for over 50 years. I prayed. I find great solace in prayer and I can tell you that God has answered my prayers so many times over the years that I am beginning to feel a bit selfish. One thing that I have never done, however, is to try to bribe God, You know, “God, if you do this for me, I’ll go live in a cave and be a monk the rest of my life.” I had just retired from 30 years in law enforcement, my health was pretty lousy, and I just knew that there was something more I could do on this earth. What I said to God was this: “Tell me what it is that you want me to do if it is your will that I stay alive.”

About three weeks later, Tim Hart-Andersen, my pastor at Old First Church in San Francisco, called me and asked if I would mind giving Mr. Lui, a member of the church, a ride to church the following Sunday. Herbert Lui was an elderly Chinese man in his 80’s who had had a crippling stroke several years before, leaving the left side of his body paralyzed. He loved church but was hesitant to try public transportation because it was unreliable and it was difficult for him to board a bus, even if it were reliable. I told Tim I would be happy to pick him up.

I knew Mr. Lui casually but had never had the opportunity to spend time with him. What ensued, in my mind, was a revelation of God’s grace that I never expected. Mr. Lui, who spoke English with difficulty, told me of his life as a Tai-Chi Master and I was fascinated having conversations with him. He gave me various articles about Tai-Chi and about faith that were wonderful reading. I also picked him up on Monday mornings and took him to the Old First Senior Center which had operated for many, many years.

This wonderful gentleman added so much to my life and I was delighted to provide rides for him for about three or four months. One Monday evening, Tim called me to say that Mr. Lui had had another massive stroke and had died. I felt terrible but was also thankful that I had had the chance to learn from this kind old gentleman some of the arts of wisdom and humor and grace.

About the same time, one of our deacons, Howard Cheek, was ill with lung cancer. Howard had no family and many in the congregation offered to help him when we learned of his illness. I was somewhat surprised when Howard asked that I be the one to help coordinate his care.

The congregation responded just as you would expect. A schedule was made so that someone would give Howard a ride to UCSF every day for his chemo and radiation treatments; food was delivered to him and other needs tended to. In addition to the good works of the congregation, I spent nearly every day with Howard for ten months. The treatments made him even sicker, and caring for him was a challenge. On more than one occasion, I carried him up a steep flight of stairs in his apartment building when the dumb elevator quit working. I took his laundry home, ran errands for him, and took communion to him with Tim. Howard said to us one day,
“As your strength goes down, your faith goes up.”

The final three weeks of his life were spent in the new hospice care unit at the V.A. Hospital in San Francisco. The staff called me about 6:00 A.M. one day to tell me that Howard had died during the night. Tim and I went to the hospital and stood on either side of Howard’s lifeless body which, for the first time in ten months, looked peaceful. We reminisced about Howard’s life and his contribution to our lives and to the church, and then Tim said that he wanted to pray. We each held one of Howard’s hands and Tim said, “Thank you, God, for Howard’s Easter morning.”

I could not believe what I had just heard. I hope that when my time comes, someone will say, “Thank you, God, for Hugh’s Easter morning.” What a prayer of Thanksgiving!

A few days after that, Tim asked if I would give Mary Eames a ride to a doctor’s appointment. I had heard Mary’s name but had never met her because she was too ill with congestive heart failure to attend church. She lived with her sister, Julia, who had provided all of Mary’s care for several years. Mary was just as fragile and beautiful as a porcelain doll. It was an ordeal for her to walk even a few steps, but we finally got her into my car and went to the doctor’s office where the staff had told Julia on the phone that they would see Mary immediately. We waited in the reception room for five hours and both Mary and Julia were embarrassed because they were sure they were wasting my time. I assured them that they were not.

When we got back to her apartment, both continued to apologize and I again assured them that I would be happy to help them at any time. A couple of weeks later, Julia called and said, “You said!” Mary had not been able to go to her beauty parlor for months and Julia told me that I was the only one they both trusted. I was delighted to take them but the best part was when I returned two hours later to pick them up. The smile on Mary’s face was worth every minute of my time driving her and several other folks by that time.

She loved church, too, but had simply not had the strength to attend for two or three years. About once a month, however, she mustered the strength and I drove her and Julia to church where we had a wheelchair waiting for her. The courage she showed in making those incredibly difficult journeys will stick with me forever, but it was her smile of thanks that was just another sign of God’s amazing grace.

By that time, I had gotten the nickname “the transportation minister,” and I was pretty well convinced that that was God’s answer to my prayer in 1993. On one occasion, a couple in the church were flying out of town and I offered to take them to the airport. They refused and said they would just take a taxi. I asked if they would not have to spend at least $25 for the taxi and they agreed. I then said, “Wouldn’t you rather write a check to the Deacons’ Fund?” They responded that I didn’t play fair, but they had a check for the Deacons’ Fund when I picked them up the next day. The news spread in the church and I raised several hundred dollars for the Deacons’ Fund by giving rides to the airport. It was great fun.

After Mary Eames died, one of our dear Sunday school teachers, Lee Maynard, became ill with liver cancer. I was her deacon, so was a bit more involved with her care. She had been one of the outstanding teachers in the state of New Jersey before she moved to San Francisco, to be near her daughter. She had the countenance of a very strict teacher; but I discovered a sense of humor that can only be described as surprising, refreshing and a tiny bit wicked. Lee became a breath of fresh air in my life, in spite of her illness. She chose to take more of a holistic approach to her healing efforts because she did not want to go through the agony of chemo or radiation. She was nearly 80 years old and I think she made a wise decision.

Again, the congregation responded with food and care and I had the rewarding responsibility of coordinating all of that. A few days before she died, I asked her if she was in much pain. She replied, “Oh, if it gets too bad, I just pray and it goes away.” How’s that for a statement of faith?

Now, if I may, let me tell you briefly about my own health. I was diagnosed HIV-Positive 14 years ago. My T-cells dropped below 200 in about 1993, so I had a clinical diagnosis of AIDS. I weighed 128 pounds and just could not regain my weight. I heard of a clinical trial at S.F. General Hospital which was going to test the efficacy of an experimental human growth hormone to add lean tissue and muscle to AIDS patients. 178 people were to be selected from the entire country to participate in the study. I was the 178th person picked.

Beginning in December 1993, I gave myself a shot in the tummy each evening. I had been told at the outset that there might be some unpleasant side effects, such as painful finger joint pain, carpal tunnel syndrome and pancreatitis. I got all of them, but we controlled most of it by reducing the dosage. I had several bouts of pneumonia and bronchitis but the growth hormone did its job. I believe I had some of the better results in the study and got back to a strapping 155 pounds.

In November 1997, I moved to Palm Springs, and discontinued the growth hormone because there was no doctor there at that time to monitor me. On June 28, 1998, I suddenly lost my voice (no doubt some might have been happy about that) and that lasted six months. The doctor I was assigned to by my then-infamous HMO diagnosed sinusitis. After several weeks of no improvement, I knew there was something more serious so flew back to San Francisco, to see my previous doctor. He took one look at an x-ray and said my right vocal cord and right diaphragm were paralyzed so the right lung was not working. Because of the misdiagnosis initially, I developed a raging pseudomones infection in my lungs which continues to this day.

To shorten this tale of woe, I’ll just say that both shoulders froze earlier this year, meaning they had become encapsulated. It was great fun to have them “broken” by the physical therapist. I am now oxygen-dependent 24 hours/day and have developed emphysema and COPD. I take 54 pills a day and one of the side effects of that is neuropathy in my feet. Each step is like stepping on broken glass.

I hurt all the time. Other than that, I feel like a million bucks!

But, let me tell you what the worst “hurt” is. There are 50%, plus at least one, of the voting commissioners to the General Assembly who would deny my call to care for a Herbert Lui, a Howard Cheek, a Mary Eames or a Lee Maynard simply because I happen to be in love with a person named Richard. I cannot adequately describe for you how much it hurts to know that those voting commissioners would put qualifications on that call.

It never occurred to me when Tim called me on all of those occasions that I should have asked some qualifying questions — was Mr. Lui a Chinese or Korean man? was Howard Cheek a Republican or Democrat? was Mary Eames faithful in her pledge to the church? was Lee Maynard really qualified to teach the kids in the Sunday school classes? It never occurred to me to ask any questions.

What did occur to me was that there were some people who needed some help and I went to them.

When I made my own memorial arrangements with Tim, there was a question as to what I considered my three proudest moments of my life. # 1 was being a guinea pig for the human growth hormone study because it is now being used around the world to treat HIV/AIDS patients. # 2 was that in my 16 years as a homicide investigator, I retired with only one unsolved homicide on my record and I am awfully proud of that record. And # 3 was being a deacon.

The last thing I want to mention is that there are some in our society, including the church, who think that gay people are incapable of having honest relationships and simply are interested in sexual activity. Richard and I celebrated our 14th anniversary November 1, 2000. So much for lasting and loving relationships, I might suggest to the pro-B folks. Richard has been the quintessential caregiver so many times in 14 years and I am convinced I would be dead now had he not been with me. I resent very much those who demean our union together.

I am so grateful to all of you, the vast majority of whom are straight, for your efforts on behalf of the Covenant Network. I have listened to many of you who have given beautiful and thoughtful dialogue to the ordination issue and I have read as much as possible the views from both sides. I am, by no means, a student of the Bible but I have searched it for an answer to this question and it appears to me that Jesus commanded us to do one thing — love God and love each other.

And, my friends, I just simply cannot find any loopholes to that.

God bless each one of you.

Hugh Swaney
Palm Springs, CA

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