Art lives in a corner room of the Mansion near the basement, Bill lives on an upper floor.
Both men have suffered strokes and live in a Medicaid facility. Both men need help. Both men are struggling to regain their health. Both men are different. Art is a fundamentalist Christian with strong views on sin, sex and sexual preference, and Bill is an 82-year-old Gay Men fiercely proud of his sexual orientation.
The two see one another every day, often dine at the same table. They are keenly aware of one another.
Art would like to save Bill from damnation (he would like to save me also) and Bill does not care to be saved, he is yearning to connect with his community and i am helping him make contact with other gay people and arrange for them to visit him. I am also helping him to learn to read again by getting him a boombox and some James Patterson CD's. We will see that the letters are read to him, he can't read or write right now.
I am helping Art also. Thanks to the Army Of Good which supports my work, Art has a new air conditioner, his own boombox CD player, letters from people of faith from all over the country (his "ministry") and a boxed set of CD's of the Bible, so he can listen to them (his eyes are too weak to read.) He is very grateful for this help, and calls me brother.
Art came to the Mansion to be near his brother, who also lived there. His brother died, and his extreme religious views have isolated him from his own family, and from many of the other Mansion residents. I feel close to him, and although we share almost no views on religion, faith, profanity or sexual preference, we are connected in some way.
I see myself in him in some ways.
Once or twice a week, we pray together and Art's prayers are warm, compassionate, uplifting. He revels in being provocative and controversial, he rattles off a long list of churches he has been asked to leave. He first visited a local church but was asked to leave after he insisted on reading his own prayers.
Today, he told me the story that occurred in Missoula, Montana, where he came from to be with his brother at the Mansion. His brother died soon after he arrived. In Montana, he said, he passed an older man walking on the street and waved to him. The man ignored him and kept walking. Art waved again the next day and the man ignored him again. Art waved to him every day for three years and one day, the man waved back to him, and the two became friends.
"That's the kind of person I am," he said. "That's the kind of person I am also," I answered.
Beyond that, there is not much that connects us. Except I do like him. In a way, I love him.
Sometimes we laugh and joke together, he has a quick laugh and sharp sense of humor.
I know what he thinks will happen to people like me when I die, because he has told me. He says he acts out of a great love for people.
Art needs a reclining or lift chair, and I have been trying to raise funds for it, and many people have balked at donating money to Art because of views they consider extreme. I am not pushing it, I have taken what money has been sent and added my own and ordered a good and strong reclining chair today, it will come in a week or so.
He is a big man, he needed a big chair.
This is the first time some people balked at donating to a Mansion cause. People have the right to donate or not donate. I asked for help buying a power lift chair for a handicapped resident, and the money came instantly.
I understand how people feel, I went back and forth myself, but it is not my position to judge or argue, only to help, and Art needs a chair, his back causes him great pain. I have great feeling for Art. Today he told me he loved me, he knew I was a man of God who did good, and he hoped he could save me. Good luck to you, I said.
A friend of mine – she is an evangelical – send me a verse from the Bible to show to Art:
Luke: 6;35 "Love your enemies, do good to them and lend to them without expecting anything in return. Then your reward will be great and you will be sons of the Most High because He is kind to the ungrateful and wicked."
I feel close to Bill also and this week, I have felt a bit caught between these two very good men, even though that is my feeling, no one has pushed me in that way. Bill is a warm and carrying man. He is not looking for any trouble or conflict, he just wants to get well and connect with his community.
It isn't that I am taking sides or in the middle of an argument – and these two have already had several – rather, it is much more challenging for me to raise money for Art than for Bill, Art is not like anyone I have become close to, at least not since I quit reporting 20 years or more ago. I told Art if I didn't know him and just read about him, I would dislike him intensely.
But there is only so much money to go around. There are always choices to be made, and it is up to me to make them.
Who do I help? Who gets priority? How much of my own values or feelings do I push aside to do what I set out to do – fill the holes in people's lives? I had a long talk with Art today, and I said I wasn't here to argue with him or tell him what to do, but I have followed Jesus Christ's teachings and values also and I believe my idea of faith celebrates tolerance and mercy, not judgement or condemnation.
I don't tell anyone else how to live, or who with. He has to lie in his own bed. Or chair. Art is a man of great conviction, he does not compromise or back off. His faith is his passion, his life.
What does it mean to help? For me, it means there are no conditions. I've come to a place with it. I leave myself at the door and just come in with clean intentions. It was a hard week somehow, but it comes down to how I want to treat people and be treated. You might get something back, you might not ever.
This seemed to me to be a microcosm of the pain wracking the country, we so hate the people who are different from us. I don't want to walk in that road, I really don't.
Art is a good man with a big heart, but he is isolated, he has driven off so many people in his life, including his own family. He asked me if I was going to break off with him as well, and I said no, I wouldn't, but I didn't care to be saved either, or doomed because of who I am. And I hoped he would respect the values and beliefs and realities of others, that seemed to me a very Christian thing to do.
So at the end of the week, and with the help of the many good people who seem to be around me, I made a good decision for me. I am helping both men, talking to them, learning about them, filling some of the holes in their lives.
It seems to me there is way too much argument, intolerance and judgment in my country, I don't wish to be adding to it. My work at the Mansion calls me to listen, not preach or judge.
I am comfortable with these two very different men, I respect them both and the choices they make in their lives have nothing to do with me. I think I landed in a good place for me. Help does not come with any strings attached, compassion and empathy are not only for people I like or who are like me.
Tomorrow, an easier, clearer kind of day. We have bought tickets on a steamboat that will take me and some staff and some residents cruising around Lake George and also getting lunch on the boat. We are all excited about it. The weather is beautiful and the Mansion residents who can come can't stop talking about it.
Thanks for coming along with me on this journey and supporting it. You can write both men c/o The Mansion, 11 S. Union Avenue, Cambridge, N.Y., 12816. Art wants to hear from people of faith, Bill would like to hear from other gay men and women.