As my heart is reeling from news of being laid off from my regular church today, I go back to a story. These all start with a story, all rife with feeling and promise. This one’s about a church.
In August 1999 I returned from New York. My mother had been dead a year, I was recovering in turmoil from a recently broken relationship that I had thought would last forever (I was 23. Of course I thought that.), I had been put through the wringer. It was January of 2000 before I licked my wounds enough to get back in the game. I needed more money than my DayJob provided, and I wanted to earn it by singing. But where to start? Where any tenacious, operatically-trained career rebel starts – the yellow pages. (For the younger folks in the audience, this was a book of businesses listed by type, with addresses and phone numbers.) I made a spreadsheet, typing in each church’s address. I customized 88 cover letters and printed out 88 copies of my resume, for each church in the yellow pages in San Francisco. Every denomination, including the Temple of Set, got a copy and a personalized letter.
Three churches responded. One said their parish was about 50 people – not enough to warrant a cantor. Another kept me on file, using me 3-4 times, for weddings. And one called me directly. Dick Davis, of St. Anne’s of the Sunset, on the other end of the phone. Dick was a no bullshit man, tall and gruff. He told me their regular cantor was done, showing up halfway through the sermon (for the uninitiated, this is after the opening hymn, the Kyrie, the Gloria, the first reading Responsorial and the Gospel Acclamation Allelujah – 5 total cantor responsibilities) and he was ready to replace her.
For the next four weeks, in private, huge, bombastic, hilarious, openly gay Dick Davis trained me to cantor. If I waited for him to play my opening tone instead of figuring out the interval myself, he’d say “No. You’re a professional. You start when I start; don’t wait.” He said he was going to “train me right”, and train me he did. I’d never sung a mass before outside of a congregation. (I left the church when I was 12, filling out every subsequent informational form with “Marisa-ist” under “other” in the “religion” category.) I learned when to stand, sit, kneel, how to do a responsorial, everything. Dick was patient, grueling, and worked into the wee hours to ensure I would be a professional cantor. After a month, he let his wayward cantor go, and I stepped in. And there I sang – for nearly 5 years; until well after I moved to the East Bay, I sang at St. Anne’s; one Saturday mass and two masses Sunday morning. It was exhausting and I loved it. We worked on amazing music, and Dick was a fantastic mentor. After I moved back to Alameda in 2003, I eventually made a sad phone call to Dick to let him know I could no longer do the commute. I sent regrets to both Dick and their amazing pastor, Father Ed Dura. Dick and I were in touch until he died several years later – this shook me more than I have cared to admit until now. Having quite a good reputation (I show up and can sight-read almost anything), I was unemployed less than a week before I started work at St. Barnabas in Alameda, just a few blocks from my house. I worked there for a year or so until they lost funding… and before I even knew funding had been lost, I got a call from David Sundahl, telling me I wasn’t going to be unemployed for any period of time – he wanted me at Saint Margaret Mary. And so I went. In 2005 (or late 2004), I began to sing at this wonderful church – the 5:00 on Saturday, the 10:30 on Sunday. This sweet parish, plucked from a hillside in Europe, gothic in appearance to the flying buttresses, filled my heart. A short commute from my house, Saint Margaret Mary immediately became home. A wonderful choir that was always being challenged to do incredible music, and wonderful, accepting people who never questioned my not going down to communion, I made a home there. The priest was one I often espoused – one who reminded us before voting day that Christians had agreed to love everyone, not just people who thought like they did. One who, when a parishoner fainted after communion, berated the congregation for claiming to be Christian and not coming to her aid. I loved the message. And so I was there; David and I sightreading amazing music, even recently garnering a $1500 donation to the organ repair fund based simply on our Laudate Dominum.
No one asked about my proclivities at the beginning of my employment there. Singing well and kickass sight-singing was good enough.
In 2007, my life partner and I bought a house. The priest questioned me – why wasn’t I married? I said getting married was expensive. He said it wasn’t as expensive as living without the blessing of our lord.
For a few weeks, he questioned me. I demured – Luke isn’t Catholic, I said. Luke is Jewish, I said. I’m not practicing, I said. Finally, I said, “I know you won’t marry us, because I don’t want children.” “What’s wrong with you? Why don’t you want children?” he said. “What’s wrong with you? Why don’t you want children?” I said. I couldn’t believe that had come out of my mouth. True, but probably not appropriate. He smiled and hugged me. I knew this was it – a priest will not marry you in the Catholic church if you do not want children. I was either going to get fired or not have to deal with this again.
This is a scary thing that happens to me when cornered. I’m honest to a fault normally but, backed into a corner, I become honest beyond that. These are the kinds of things that come out. This was in late 2007, or early 2008. I reeled. I worried. But I didn’t get fired. And, for years, that was it. The knowledge was common (many choir members are friends on facebook); I lived with my (male) domestic partner, unmarried. Additionally, I filtered nothing about my feelings about gay marriage on the facebooks. I lived an open life, while being respectful; journaling during the non-singing parts of the mass, enjoying the community and the music.
Saturday, as I left mass, the conversation went like this:
“I haven’t seen you in a while – where have you been?”
“I got married!” (Thrilled for me and Luke, foolishly thinking that this would be positively looked upon in the church.)
“You didn’t get married here – where did you get married?”
“You did not get married in a church? I think that’s evil.”
“But you used to be Catholic, and you left the church?”
“Yes, I left when I was 12.”
“That is evil. I don’t think you should sing in our church if you aren’t practicing.”
“I like you. I want to talk with you. Make an appointment with me.”
“…ok.” (I was willing to agree to anything at this point to not be called evil again.)
And so I left. I had let the choir directors (David, my dear friend, and the July sub, Chris) know several days prior that I’d be out of town the next day. I called David to let him know what had happened, and said I’d regroup with him the following week when I was back in town to see if the priest had said anything.
Today David called me to let me know that the priest had said that I’d flaked on an appointment with him. Impossible: I was never going to be there yesterday anyway. He said that, unless Luke and I agreed to allow him to marry us, he didn’t want me singing there anymore.
8 years. Done in the blink of an eye, and not even by the person who had a problem with it.
I never lied. I never pretended to be anything I wasn’t; I can’t. It’s too far out of my nature. I also won’t argue it; I don’t want to be anywhere that I’m not wanted, and I’m not here to make a political statement – politics are bad on the voice and I’m well past drama in my life.
And so that leaves me brokenhearted, facing not seeing some amazing people again to join them in song and, frankly, out several thousand dollars a year. As an equal earner in my household, I rely on my musical income for bills.
The ramifications of this are far and wide – hurt, betrayal, without regular singing income and, worse, regular singing, and missing some dear friends.
I am so thankful for the amount of time I’ve had, and for the people I’ve met. I’ve been so fortunate to have had these things. I hate how they were ripped away – how swiftly and harshly. But something better must be in the works – I have to believe that. Until then, I am here, and here, and teaching a LOT, and considering, maybe, taking a regular day or two off a month for the first time in 13 years – I’ve been working 7 days a week since 2000.
Brunch on Sunday, anyone?