Does it take imagination to be a Christian?

Gil Galloway as a young man in the 1960s (the only picture I could find)

Gil Galloway as a young man in the 1960s (the only picture I could find)

I recently spent three weeks in Italy. I’d planned to write about it, I even have a post ready to go. But yesterday, a friend of mine died and his leaving meant that my world lost one more of its pivots, which always makes me feel a little more displaced. I decided a post about Gil Galloway was more important for the moment than the one about Italy.

Besides, Gil loved to travel. One of my earliest memories of him was when he commented about the people he’d met in the South Pacific – that it was so strange to think of them there, as we are here, walking around, living their lives, and none of us knowing anything of the other. Gil had a kid’s curiosity, a religious man’s sense of wonder. He never lost his astonishment about air travel, even though he flew to one foreign clime or another most years of his long life.

Gil was the resident expert about things technological—audiovisual stuff, films, computers, and later video at the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries. He was profoundly Christian. He was also unfailingly kind, gentle and responsible towards all of us, including two odd freelancers, myself and Wes Adams. We’d both been raised Lutheran, and neither of us quite believed any of it. Probably I did a little more than Wes.

We were, however, sincere in our belief that Gil and his colleagues were right, as well as Christian, in their aims. They wrote, “We have heard of a global church ministering to famine victims, the hungry, homeless urban poor; desperate farmers and displaced workers; unemployed youth and single mothers; refugees fleeing war and political repression; victims of natural disasters; little children and the aged; the diseased, distressed and dying.” (Theology of Mission Statement, General Board of Global Ministries, October 1986).

Their vision was ours.

Wes was in his seventies; I was in my forties. One night during his 79th year, a few days before he planned to place his partner of nearly fifty years in a nursing home, he fell asleep with a martini and a lit cigarette. Gil was his executor; I was the beneficiary of his enormous slide collection. We went together a few days after the fire to retrieve the slides and to find his and his partner’s signed statement that they would like, at their deaths, to be cremated. For two hours, we searched together through the detritus of our friend’s life. It’s the kind of job you learn from, and that you never forget.

I found dozens of address books that Wes and Clive had kept, books chock full of people, but almost all of them had already died. Wes and Clive, in those late years, were very much alone.

Wes died in the hospital shortly after the fire. Gil was there but he kept the experience to himself. Clive, overcome by smoke, was in a coma for five days before the end. Gil only knew Clive casually, almost not at all. But he faithfully went to the hospital every day, and sat with the poor man who had already lost much of his mind and memory to Alzheimers, and just narrowly escaped having to try and understand why his dearest friend Wes would put him away in an institution. Gil did the Christian thing, the human thing. I don’t think anyone else had thought of it. I didn’t.

Understandably, I will forever associate Gil with Wes.

One day, a few months after his death but before the weather permitted us to scatter Wes’s ashes on his rose garden on Fire Island, Gil and I were in his office remarking on the oddness of the box on his window sill that contained Wes’s ashes. Stranger, by the way, than the world’s multitudes of people we would never know.

I was surprised when Gil asked me why I thought Wes hadn’t been a believer. I had no ready explanation. Gil knew we were both gay, I’m sure, but it probably would never have occurred to him that that might be part of the reason. He had no judgments to make. We were his friends and co-workers, and not people he would ever have discriminated against. So I hemmed and hawed, thinking about the extraordinary life Wes had lived – loving music and the arts, dancing, photographing, film making. Perhaps, I thought, he couldn’t figure out how to accommodate Christianity in the midst of all that richness.

I think, said Gil, that he just didn’t have the imagination.

That answer took my breath away. It still does.

It didn’t make me think better of my disbelief then any more than it does now. It did make me think about Christianity in a new way, about artists, about myself. I think Gil would have been pleased to hear about my experiences of the Italian hill towns and their cathedrals and palaces filled with great art, almost all of it Christian, all of it crackling with imagination.

I’m going to miss knowing Gil is there.

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4 comments on “Does it take imagination to be a Christian?
  1. Jeannine Young says:

    I’m so sorry, Elaine. A beautiful tribute.

  2. Lorraine cheli says:

    Elaine, so very sorry for yor loss. It is always so difficult to loose that person who has touched our lives in such a meaningful way. May he rest in peace and may you be comforted by your memories

  3. Cathie Lyons says:

    Thanks for these thoughts about Gil, Elaine. I have fond regards for him though I didn’t know him well. It is just that he was always so darn kind and genuine and helpful. When HWM first became part of GBGM and I was there getting our offices set up, Gil would drop by just to see how things were coming and to inquire whether there were things he could do to make the transition easier. I kept thinking to myself where do guys like this come from who are on their way to sainthood. Glad also for your mention of Wes Adams. That takes us back in time a bit.

    So you were raised Lutheran. So was I. In a small conservative town in western Pennsylvania back in the late 40s and early 50s when the belch of smoke and ash from Pittsburgh’s steel mills was like a foretaste of hell on earth. I often wondered whether the London of Charles Dickens was a whole lot worse than the hell hole Pittsburgh was back in the war years when iron and steel were the mainstay of armies in their fights to the death.

    Thanks again for this wonderful piece. Eager to hear about Italy.

  4. Linda Markin says:

    I love this prose piece and the tribute to your friends – Wes and Gil both. About imagination and religion, I think it takes more imagination and courage to be an atheist than a religionist. Religion asks us to suspend disbelief on faith. Atheism frees us to ask every question and search for answers everywhere.

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