Sunday, November 9, 2008

Angels Among Us

Two things prompted me to think of angels today. The first one is related to cancer, and the second one isn’t.

Imerman Angels is a non-profit that pairs cancer survivors with cancer fighters – those in the middle of their treatment or the beginning of their diagnosis. While Lance Armstrong defines a survivor as anyone who is diagnosed with cancer, from the day they are diagnosed, Jonny Imerman has to have a way to distinguish the two groups.

Diagnosed with cancer at age 26, Imerman had great support from family and friends, but never met anyone his age who was a cancer survivor while he was fighting his own battle. His own experience was the inspiration for his organization now helping so many others, and his goal is to make sure everyone diagnosed with cancer can talk immediately with someone else who is similar to them in age, gender and cancer type. These “angels” are walking, talking, living proof to inspire the newly-diagnosed that they too can beat the disease.

Jonny is the most enthusiastic, kind-hearted and loving soul you could ever hope to meet. He does his work with tremendous passion, and brings hope to so many. In that way, he is like the other angels I was reminded of today.

Matthew Shepard died on October 12, 1998, ironically, just one day after National Coming Out Day, and – unbelievably – ten years ago. At his funeral, Fred Phelps and other anti-gay members of his Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, picketed displaying signs reading: “God Hates Fags,” and “Matt in Hell.”

As a counter-protest, a group of supporters led by Matt’s close friend, Romaine Patterson, dressed in white robes with huge wings, and stood silently with their backs to Phelps’ crowd, making a human barrier between the two groups. This You Tube video depicts the story with great music, but many misspellings in the text.

This week as we have so much to celebrate in this country’s election of its first African-American President, we are also reminded that there are still great divisions among us. I don’t usually get political in this column, but it’s hard to ignore the divisive rhetoric whipped up by a long campaign season, and the outcome of three anti-gay ballot initiatives across the country.

Proposition 8 in California passed by half a million votes, removing the right of gay people in that state to marry. I have personally, never understood how consecrating a loving relationship between two individuals of the same sex in any way threatens the institution of marriage, and I am deeply disturbed that we spend so much time and energy on a topic that should be a non-issue - especially when there are so many important and true problems to worry about.

The labels we all wear don’t begin to describe us as individuals: Christian, gay, Muslim, Black, Republican, liberal, cancer-survivor, disabled, Latino, leader, friend, husband. Even “angel” isn’t the complete story, but a picture of a moment in time when we are at our best. I hope in time the labels won’t be necessary, and we can recognize the commonalities rather than the differences when we look someone in the eye.

I voted for Barack Obama in part because I felt he could bring us together as a country. I was convinced by his 2004 DNC speech that he would try when he said, “We are not a nation of blue states and of red states. We are the United States of America.” It is time for us all to find some common ground rather than continuing to hurl insults from the wings. I created a blog called Meet in the Middle in hopes of starting a dialogue on the issues. Join me in the middle, won’t you?