Celebrating true freedom on July 4th

I can still remember my first 4th of July celebrations in Berkeley, California. I was on vacation from serving in a parish in Dublin in the late 1970’s with my partner, Frank Wilson. We were staying on the campus of Church Divinity School of the Pacific (CDSP) where my best friend from Bangor University in North Wales, Nigel Hamilton, was completing his training for ordination. He, (like our own Dan Kline) met his wife at seminary (Mary Mail) and they were married by Dean Frederick Borsch who was later to become bishop of Los Angeles. I can still see the fireworks over the bay, several colorful outbursts of a celebration of freedom from Oakland and the diversity of communities creating a palette of color “from sea to shining sea”. There have been may fireworks since then, including one evening flying over the country watching the fireworks from above! Quite an experience.  But that visit to the Bay area was a life-changer and whatever that trip sowed in my soul; it was more than simply a vacation. I was longing for a place to simply belong and develop my gifts and experience– a seeker.

I was introduced to St. Mark’s Berkeley and encountered the Episcopal church for the first time. Massy Sheppard was one of the priests there and Nigel and Mary told me how important he was in the liturgical renewal of the church through the new 1979 Prayer Book.  We returned to Ireland and our established and closeted lives (it was still illegal to be gay in the Republic until 1982). The whiff of American freedom and LGBT liberation was tangible in San Francisco, epitomized in the song “Run like the wind” by Christopher Cross. It would often come on the radio of the Pinto car rental we had learned to drive (on the other side of the road!) Ride like the wind has a chorus “I have such a long way to go” “Ride like the wind before I get old”… “I have to ride like the wind to be free again”. Cross’s voice still takes me back to those days.

Within a year, Frank and I were outed as a couple, fired from my job in Dublin and we limped to London where we simply regrouped as best we could. The blow from the church hierarchy caused a deep wound and our relationship never recovered. I did not practice my priesthood in England, as the Archbishop of Dublin basically told me he could not recommend me to serve in the church. A job as Youth Director with the British Council of Churches in London was offered to me, then withdrawn when I told them about the Dublin outing. I finally found work in the East End of London working with the children of immigrants from the Caribbean islands (parents were allowed to immigrate to work on the London transportation system). My teaching credential (part of my insurance policy should the church fire me for being gay) came in especially useful. I learned so much from this young West Indian community (who spoke with deep cockney accents) but were aliens in a racist Britain. This was around the dame time as the Brixton uprising and the police were regular visitors to our programs, keeping an eye on these largely unemployed kids.  It was a still a ministry under the auspices of an ecumenical program, but I had not celebrated the eucharist for over two years and missed many aspects of my priesthood.

The seeds that were sown on that 4th July in Berkeley were now beginning to germinate and the possibility of working in the USA for integrity USA (working with LGBT homeless runaway and throwaway youth in Los Angeles). Here was another group of forgotten and alienated teenagers who were often thrown out of their homophobic communities in the middle of the country and ended up on the coastal cities, looking for a place to belong. We had a lot in common.

I returned to California and this time to LA and after a series of important meetings and support from Nigel (who returned to the USA after a short time serving in the Church of England) I decided to move here and applied for a green card. By November 1982, I was finally here and began working at St Mary’s Church in Laguna Beach with a great friend and mentor, Rev. Bob Cornelison and commuting to Hollywood to work with my first group of homeless youth. After nine months I was finally licensed to preach and administer the sacraments and can still remember the terror of celebrating the eucharist for the first time in years at the Integrity chapter’s mass in St John’s church in LA. But I was home. Mary Mail’s comment from that first trip has helped me understand the sowing of seeds on that 4th of July. “It was obvious back then that Frank was an excited tourist while you happened to be an American, born in Belfast.”

So, in celebrating the birth of this great “experiment” there are millions of immigrants and exiles like me who see something in the fireworks and reflections on shiny seas, that have sown the seeds of unimagined hope and belonging -to find a place of belonging. I continue to support refugee work at our borders and in our cities and to hold up the high ideals of freedom and democracy, because it saved me. Thank you, America, for taking me (and others like me) in. You have helped me live my vocation and share my love and ministry with so many others. When we see images of people trying to get into this country, think of my story. Since 9/11, it is more difficult than ever to come here, and the immigration and asylum system remains terribly broken. Yet, organizations like HIAS (they are working with our Room at the Inn Program), and the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation are fueled by the same hope and dream of a different America. This is the America I love and hope for. We all must work hard to ensure what happened for me can happen for others in their own callings and their own alienation. Happy 4th!!

Rev. Canon Albert Ogle