Healed: They’re Here. They’re Queer. They’re Christian Scientists. Get Used to It
They’re Here. They’re Queer.
They’re Christian Scientists. Get Used to It.
From the New York Press (www.nypress.com) Every Thursday evening a small group meets in a spare, classroomish space upstairs in the Lesbian & Gay Community Services Center on Little W. 12th St. (moving now to 208 W. 13th St.). The group’s two leaders, Bob McCullough and Bob Mackenroth, have been doing this since 1986. The Center provides meeting space for groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous, as well as SAGE (Senior Action in a Gay Environment), WWIAB (Women Who Identify As Butch) and BIGLTYNY (Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian & Transgender Youth of New York). And then there’s McCullough and Mackenroth’s bunch: the New York City Gay & Lesbian Christian Science Group.
July 3, 2001, Vol. 14, Iss. 27
When I told a gay friend that I was interviewing gay Christian Scientists, he snorted, "What a bunch of oxymorons."And it’s true that the not-even-an-aspirin Christian Science culture would seem incompatible with a West Village lifestyle. Evidently the Church itself thinks so: although the leadership does not openly condemn homosexuality anymore, levels of discomfort with gayness seem to be as high in Christian Science as in Roman Catholicism and many other American churches. An openly gay person interested in Christian Science may not be invited to join unless they "heal"themselves of their homosexuality. Gay church members stay in the closet; those who come out may be kicked out.
Principia, the Christian Science college in Illinois, bans open expressions of gayness by faculty or students.
Every now and again the monthly Christian Science Journal, which runs testimonials from church members claiming to have been healed of cancer or diabetes or a broken bone through prayer, will run a letter from someone claiming they’ve been cured of homosexuality or "freed from homosexual entanglement."As recently as March 1999, another church organ, the Christian Science Sentinel, ran an article by a woman who’d decided that her faith was in conflict with her "long-term lesbian relationship,"so she simply "drop(ped) the gay lifestyle,"which I read as a spectacularly cold euphemism for dumping her girlfriend.
McCullough ruefully remarks that what everyone thinks they know about Christian Scientists is that they’re child killers; what Christian Scientists think they know about gays is that they’re child molesters.
Thus his and Mackenroth’s group. "The group started in 1986 as a protest against the Church’s treatment of gay people,"McCullough explains. "We were a place where gay people could come to study and practice Christian Science unharassed by non-gay–and, yes, some gay–condemning Christian Scientists. We have evolved into a group of deeply committed students of Christian Science, gay and non-, interested in exploring and demonstrating Christian Science."
McCullough is 63 and looks 53. Mackenroth is 76 and looks 66. It occurs to me that either there’s something to this Christian Science thing, or the Church just happens to attract youthful people.
The size of their group varies from Thursday to Thursday. Some weeks there’ll be a dozen people; then again, one evening this spring it was just "the two Bobs,"as others refer to them, and a young junkie who wandered in mid-meeting, nodded out for a bit and then stumbled off. Gay men predominate, though a few lesbians do attend, and one of the most interesting regulars lately is a straight woman, Jackie Park, a former Hollywood actress.
They come to it from a lot of directions. Mackenroth was raised in Christian Science. McCullough joined the Church as an adult. One young guy in the group was introduced to Christian Science by his East Village coke dealer. Another is a Russian kid who was brought up Russian Orthodox and started investigating Christian Science when he emigrated to Brooklyn. And Park tells me, "I studied every religion that there’s ever been. I started out in Christian Science, but I left because of the strict rules and regulations. So I went to Buddhism, Hinduism, I did LSD, and I found that the Christian Science thing really worked, because it taught you how to pray."
The meetings are more cerebral than churchy. (One of the first things I notice about Christian Scientists of all sorts is that they do a lot of thinking. Christian Science is often compared to fundamentalist faith healing, but if so it’s the Mensa of faith healing, one that seems to attract and foster thoughtful, highly educated, middle-class brainiacs. They’re also heavy readers, as their ubiquitous "reading rooms"attest.) Each week there’s a new topic for discussion–androgyny, desire, ethics, heaven, loneliness, politics, romance, sin. The conversations are open, warm and can be quite profound. I came as an observer and soon found myself provoked to butt in. McCullough posts weekly digests of the meetings on the group’s website, www.nycsgroup.com. It’s interesting reading.
But still, gay Christian Scientists? The old joke about Christian Science is that it’s neither Christian nor Science. Another way to put that is that whatever it is, it’s unique.
On the one hand there’s something irreducibly Victorian Gothic American about Christian Science. It’s as straitlaced as a corset. Although they’re best known for refusing traditional medicine, believers also don’t drink, don’t smoke and don’t do recreational drugs. Chastity is highly prized. For a long time, white and "colored" members went to separate churches. While services are open to all, if you actually want to join your local church you need to be voted in, and I understand you come under a fair amount of close scrutiny. If you offend, you can be voted back out in a kind of local excommunication.
What’s interesting is that at the bottom of all this conservatism are some pretty progressive, even radical ideas. The Church was founded in the 1870s by New Englander Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910). Professional skeptics from Mark Twain to the curmudgeonly Martin Gardner (in his 1993 The Healing Revelations of Mary Baker Eddy) have portrayed Eddy as an illiterate kook and a charlatan, little removed from the table-rapping spiritualists of her day who conned the gullible with phony seances. She doesn’t strike me as significantly more crackpot than the founders and leaders of numerous other American churches and sects, though I suppose that’s not saying much.
She was an unlikely prophetess, sickly much of her life (one illness bereft her of the sense of smell), of limited education, a survivor of a couple of failed marriages. She got her initial ideas from a spiritualist and healer named Phineas Quimby, and opened the first "Christian Scientists’ Home" in Lynn, MA, in 1879. She’d published the first edition of what is in effect the Church’s bible, Science and Health (later Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures) in 1875. She would go on to found the Christian Science Journal, Christian Science Sentinel and Christian Science Monitor (the last because she felt the media was not fair in its coverage). The Christian Science movement grew rapidly through the turn of the century, and the Church was well-established and well-heeled when Mrs. Eddy died in 1910, age 89. There’s the giant Mother Church in Boston, and local or "branch" churches in cities throughout the world.
Eddy believed that what we perceive as physical illness is caused by errors of the mind, and that illnesses could thus be cured through prayer. She wrote: "The Science of Mind denies the error of sensation in matter, and heals with Truth. Medical science treats disease as though disease were real...and attempts to heal it with matter." She claimed that in traditional medicine it’s not the doctor himself that cures, but the faith of the patient in the doctor.
Since the material world is illusory, every physical experience–pleasant as well as painful–is an error that distracts us from "Reality"–a purely spiritual realm, which Christian Scientists identify as the One Mind. The more we connect with the One Mind (aka God), the better we can ignore or control the distractions of the material realm.
When Christian Scientists refer to prayer they don’t mean prayer like "Oh dear God, please make my piles stop itching," or fundamentalist-style laying-on-of-hands healings. It’s more of a mental exercise, getting in tune with the One Mind, getting right with the Science. Church members pray on their own, but when they’re feeling really sickly they’ll call on the services of either a nonmedical Christian Science "nurse" or a trained "practitioner," who’ll pray with them. The practitioner need not be in the room to facilitate a healing, and indeed they do a lot of their consulting over long-distance phone lines, a fact that skeptics and critics uniformly note with scorn.
As an alternative to hospitals, a dying believer may choose to go to a Christian Science care facility, where there’s no medical intervention but, again, lots of prayer. Death in Christian Science is not supposed to be the trauma it is for the rest of us, since you’re escaping this realm of illusion and rejoining the One Mind. Mackenroth speaks of death as a "non-event." The Christian Scientists’ blissful disregard for pain and death is another aspect that drives their critics crazy. In Caroline Fraser’s anti-Church screed "Suffering the Children and the Christian Science Church," which ran in The Atlantic Monthly in 1995, she railed against their "obliviousness of the reality of pain and suffering" and fumed that the "infuriating, smug calm in the face of crisis is part of what makes Christian Science so dangerous."
Virginia Harris, who chairs the Church’s board of directors and is thus the Church’s de facto current leader, recently explained prayer and healing this way to Larry King: "When you pray, and your thought is so aligned, so attuned to God...you can have a transformation take place in that body. Bad cells can become healthy cells. A cancer can disappear. Mary Baker Eddy said she healed a cancer that had eaten to the jugular vein, and was healed. People are healed." ("The statement about the exposed jugular vein is a bit much," Gardner sniffed in his book. "Did this really happen? I strongly doubt it.")
"It’s an attempt to get to the Divine Mind rather than mortal mind," McCullough explains. "It’s really an attempt to be at one with the mind of God. It’s quite different from most of the [faith-based] healing methods you hear about. This is almost like a quantum leap or a disjunction, a dropping of thought."
The Mother Church’s website claims that healing "has been practiced effectively for more than 100 years. In some families, Christian Science has been the means of healing and care for five generations. During the past 112 years, more than 50,000 authenticated testimonies of healing have been published in the monthly and weekly Christian Science periodicals. Many of these have medical verification." Critics take such claims with a huge grain of salt.
It’s worth noting that unlike her most dogmatic followers, Mrs. Eddy was not 100 percent against seeking traditional medical help–Christian Scientists often refer to it as "mechanical" help–when one found oneself unable to effect a healing through Science. She herself took morphine when she was older; in fact, by some accounts she’d become addicted to it by the time she died. Most Christian Scientists wear glasses, go to the dentist and will have a broken bone set, although they tend to add that by applying Science they then hasten the healing.
I ask McCullough, if he became deathly ill or was diagnosed with a deadly disease, would he go to a hospital, or to a Christian Science care center?
"I don’t think I’d go to either one," he replies. "I’d stay at home and perhaps get a Christian Science nurse to help with things around the house. Enlist a practitioner. Work on it. Otherwise, I think I’d tend to go to the Christian Science facility first, because they have done really wonderful healings. And I’m not that trustful of medical stuff. Certainly if I was doing a medical procedure I’d get a good Christian Science practitioner to support me–and many of them won’t. They’ll withdraw from the case if you take medical care."
At its simplest, then, Christian Science is a kind of Mind over Matter, Power of Positive Thinking movement. In its insistence that the material world is illusory and that Mind is all, it’s also a kind of Western Hinduism or Buddhism, with roots in the New England Transcendentalists. For all its fustian Victorian trappings and conservative leanings, it fits in rather handily with contemporary new age spiritualism and the alternative medicine movement. Current polls show that the majority of Americans believe to some degree in some form of spiritual or faith-based healing–although only a tiny handful join the Christian Scientists in rejecting traditional medicine altogether. And it’s widely accepted in medicine that mental attitude can have a profound impact on health and healing; numerous med schools now include some instruction in spirituality.
Finally, it must be said that Mrs. Eddy’s melding of religion and "science"–a science that apprehended the illusoriness of the apparently solid material world–was really quite prescient, even if accidentally so, in that she predicted a universe that 20th-century quantum physics would later describe in detail.
Following Mrs. Eddy’s explicit orders, the Mother Church never talks specifics about how many members it has. It’s generally accepted that membership peaked in the middle of the 20th century and has been on the decline ever since. Branch churches have closed and membership in churches that are still operating is dwindling. There are currently 10 churches in Manhattan; they’re numbered First through Fourteenth, but the Fourth, Sixth, Eleventh and Thirteenth no longer exist, having died out for lack of parishioners.
Church members I asked about it unanimously agreed that membership is on the decline, and my few trips to Manhattan churches did nothing to dispel that notion. In her Larry King Live interview, Virginia Harris offered the spin that while church attendance itself has decreased, the number of people buying and reading Science and Health around the world has actually increased. "...I think we find this is true with all faiths," she said. "Many churches are having fewer people attend regularly. People are exploring spirituality."
In the late 1980s and 90s Church leaders were alarmed enough by the decline that they initiated a full-court media recruitment effort. It was punishingly costly and seems to have left only ruin in its wake. The Church gutted the flagship Christian Science Monitor to fund ill-considered tv and radio efforts, including the Monitor Channel, a failed cable network, and the short-lived magazine World Monitor, which alone lost an estimated $36 million. Today’s Monitor, a flimsy newspaper, still earns some respect, but it’s a thin ghost of its old self.
Again, what everyone thinks they know about Christian Scientists is that they’re religious fanatics who let their children die by refusing them traditional medical care. In a handful of cases, this is true. Through the 1980s and 90s one tragic story after another made the news. Two-year-old Robyn Twitchell, who died in excruciating pain from an easily treatable bowel obstruction in 1986. Ashley King, 12, who died a hideously prolonged death of bone cancer in a Christian Science nursing home (which provided only nonmedical care) in 1988. Ian Lundman, 11, who died in 1989 after his mother, stepfather and two Christian Science practitioners tried to use prayer to heal his diabetes. Andrew Wantland, 12, who also died of treatable diabetes in 1992...
Such cases produced blistering attacks in magazines and a series of outraged memoirs by adults who’d "survived" their childhoods in the Church. Medical ethicists complain that these kids do not have the basic benefit of informed consent. In Praying for a Cure (1999), Margaret P. Battin observed:
"From the legal and medical perspective, the Christian Science community simply cannot be trusted by the dominant community to do what is best for their children without serious threats to the fundamental rights of these children... In a sense, respecting the wishes of [his] Christian Science parents meant that Robyn Twitchell was the subject of child neglect... When the Twitchell case is used as a model, Christian Science seems to be the kind of community that cannot and should not be given equal respect with the other communities in our pluralistic society."
It’s a measure of how influential Christian Scientists became in the Church’s heyday that protections and rights for the Church were often specifically written into federal and state laws in the 20th century. The IRS and most insurance companies recognize Christian Science healing, and the Supreme Court just reaffirmed the right of Christian Science health facilities to get Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements. (The Church is named in the original 1965 Medicare legislation.)
Many states once exempted Christian Science parents–and all believers in faith-based healing–from prosecution when their children died because the parents refused medical treatment for them. But with the rash of highly publicized cases in the 1980s and 90s, many states began repealing those exemptions, leaving parents open to wrongful-death or child-abuse charges. Colorado just did so in April. The Denver Post editorialized that "Christian Scientists who lament their lost exemption to practice ‘spiritual healing’ shouldn’t be too concerned. They’re welcome to continue that approach to medical treatment on themselves and even on their children–until the youngsters’ cases turn life-threatening. If they want to pray over sniffles, splinters, cuts and bruises, they’re free to do so. But even their children will be protected when the ailment turns serious."
The Christian Scientists I asked characterized these kids’ parents as a minority of extremists. Still, they also like to add that many more children die every year under traditional medical care than the handful of Christian Science kids who’ve died because they couldn’t get it.
"I think if I had kids I’d be super-careful about it," McCullough says. "Remember, though, a kid who’s rushed to a hospital by parents has no consent either. The parents may or may not know if the doctor is good, and he may have a bad day. And many children do die under medical care. The parent is the one who has to make that decision as to what to do."
"You’re in a tricky area there, when you’ve got a little baby that really can’t tell you anything," Mackenroth says. "If I saw my child in pain and I saw that my prayers were not bringing any comfort and healing, I’d rush my child to a hospital. When you’re dealing with a baby–or anyone, for that matter–I think the comfort of the child (or anyone) is number one. I mean, where are you coming from? Are you really caring for the child or are you trying to prove a point? Where’s the compassion? Where’s the love? Where’s the honest concern?"
One gloomy Sunday morning, Mackenroth and I walked the half-block from his apartment to the First Church of Christ, Scientist, for the 11 a.m. service. Completed in 1903, the edifice broods over the corner of W. 96th St. and Central Park W., a forbidding Victorian pile that reminded me of Grant’s Tomb. There’s something funereal and mausoleum-like about it I thought was at odds with Mrs. Eddy’s emphasis on light and spirit, and Mackenroth tells me Mrs. Eddy never did like the cold stone edifices her physical churches became. Inside the cavernous space are massive wooden pews facing an altar area as wide as a Broadway stage; behind it looms an enormous pipe organ.
If the gigantic and opulent space speaks of the wealth Christian Science boasted at the turn of the century, its emptiness on a Sunday morning tells the opposite tale today. At best there were a dozen people sprinkled around the vast hall, and that’s counting the staff: two readers, a singer, an organist and an usher. The two male readers and the attractive blonde female singer were young, early thirtysomething at most, while the scant congregation was all older folks. I should add that the two readers registered as blips on my gaydar, which is admittedly not unfailingly accurate. I’m told that, as with Roman Catholicism, the Mother Church is loaded with closet cases.
Like most everything about mainstream Christian Science, the service is an odd mix of the intellectually challenging and the boringly churchy. It begins and is punctuated with the singing of hymns, which sound like normal Protestant tunes but are characterized by alternate-universe, almost Pythonesque lyrics along the lines of "O God our Father-Mother, lead us to reality..." But for the bulk of the service the two readers–handily known as the First Reader and Second Reader–alternately intone selections from the Bible and Science and Health.
The interposed readings are supposed to comment and reflect on each other, but most times I missed the connection. I can say I found Eddy’s snippets more thought-provoking than the Bible quotes: "Christian Science reveals incontrovertibly that Mind is All-in-all, that the only realities are the divine Mind and idea..." "The substance, Life, intelligence, Truth, and Love, which constitute Deity, are reflected by His creation; and when we subordinate the false testimony of the corporeal senses to the facts of Science, we shall see this true likeness and reflection everywhere..." "Hold thought steadfastly to the enduring, the good, and the true, and you will bring these into your experience proportionably to their occupancy of your thoughts..."
With the inevitable passing of a collection basket and the singing of a few more hymns, the service concluded. Strolling out, I told Mackenroth I thought Christian Science might do a lot better in the 21st century if it jettisoned the heavy, old-fashioned Christian part and went full-on with the Science.
Churches also hold Wednesday evening services. I attended one in the Tenth Church on MacDougal St., in the heart of NYU country. It was a very different space–light, airy, sort of Scandinavian. The service was much better attended–maybe 30 people, from what looked like college students up. As at the First Church, virtually everyone was white and looked middle-class. There were the same sorts of hymns and readings as on Sunday, but the Wednesday services focus on "testimony." People stood up in their pews, were handed a mic by a smiling attendant–it had a bit of a Donahue feel–and reported on healings they’d experienced. On the night I was there nobody claimed to have been cured of blindness or cancer or HIV infection, although one woman said she’d cured herself of a lingering cold. A couple of people stood up to credit prayer with helping them make felicitous career choices, and a student spoke of his improved grades. It felt less like a religious ceremony than a Tony Robbins motivational seminar. I came away from both mainstream services liking the informal little gay meetings the best.
McCullough smilingly admits that "outing" himself a Christian Scientist in New York City can be "a little weird. It’s a little like being gay. You have to choose your audience."
He was raised Episcopalian in Houston. He moved to New York in 1964 to work for Texaco in accounting and finance. "And," he says, "as a gay person who had not come out yet–I mean I knew I was gay–I knew this was the place to be, period."
Asked what New York was like for a gay man back then, he responds, "I came out within six months. This was before Stonewall... I was so shut down and so shy that it was very difficult. But I did go to bars and learned how to cruise the street or whatever. But you were always in danger of being picked up by a cop. And they raided the bars. They had a policeman sitting at the front door of the bars, who registered you when you walked in... I mean it was awful. Eventually they raided all of the [gay] bars and put a policeman in there. It was very oppressive. And that was the reason for Stonewall. It just got unbearable."
It’s odd to think of a gay man in New York City deciding to become a Christian Scientist. McCullough says that "After working for Texaco for about five years, I started having all kinds of physical problems, gastrointestinal kinds of problems. They couldn’t find anything wrong with me, so I went to a shrink. He prescribed medication, and I just hated the side effects from it. At that point, I thought, ‘Let me try Christian Science.’"
He’d become familiar with Christian Science in a funny way: he was dating a callboy who used to take him to evening services. He did eventually heal his G.I. problems, and says he’s had many other healings since.
I ask McCullough, "If you get a toothache, do you go to the dentist?"
"I do. I use dental care. Most Christian Scientists do, in fact."
How is that not a cop-out?
"I think certainly Christian Scientists ought to give it [healing] a good try first. But I have no objection to using traditional medicine. When I broke my knee I certainly went to the hospital and got it set. It’s not a sharp division. It’s up to each person to decide what they need."
I’m also interested to hear that McCullough underwent psychoanalysis. Is that okay for Christian Scientists?
"Many students of Christian Science would not undertake this kind of analysis," he concedes. "They’d feel it’s dealing with mortal mind alone. I went into Jungian analysis and had about 1200 hours of it. It was a difficult problem balancing the Christian Science and all that was coming up in the psychological work. No one could do this balancing but me–the analysts thought I was in denial if I tried to talk about spirit, and my Christian Science friends said I was toying with mortal mind. But it was very valuable to me. I learned a whole new vocabulary that got me away from stale Christian Science jargon." He says his analysts also had difficulty trying to balance Jung and Mrs. Eddy–his last one "fired" him in the middle of a session.
If you’re a gay man in the age of AIDS, is it crazy not to take whatever medical precautions are available?
"The people I meet at [gay Christian Science] conferences around the country, some of them are taking the drugs," McCullough concedes. "We had a man recently who was still on the drug cocktail protocol, though he says he wants to get off of it. We did not encourage him to get off them. He was getting truly interested in Christian Science and wanted to drop them, but was understandably afraid since they had helped him. He prayed, and at his next visit to his doctor he was able to let go of the drug that had the worst side effects. This could be viewed as a healing in itself.
"There was a fantastic healing by a member of our group, actually. This would’ve been about maybe–very early–there were no drugs. Maybe there was AZT. He was a member of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, and a friend of his, who was also a member, called and said, ‘We’ve had a request for a Christian Scientist to go to Bellevue. Would you come over there with me?’ And so he did, and they found this man in bed, just skin and bones, terrible shape. It was Communion Sunday. (Twice a year we have that in Christian Science. It’s a special lesson, and we kneel. It’s the only time of the year that we kneel.) They did the lesson together and they got him out of bed so that he could kneel on the hospital floor. And, with that, three days later the man was out of Bellevue, gained weight rapidly, went back to live in Ohio. When I heard about him five years later he was still doing fine."
What about counterexamples of gay Christian Scientists who refuse the drugs and die horribly of AIDS?
"I have known only one man who died of AIDS-related illnesses under the care of a Christian Science practitioner, in a Christian Science nursing home. I have known several students of Christian Science who died under medical care. All these happened before the current drug combinations became available. I have known many non-Christian Scientists who have died under medical care. I have no objection to medical treatment–it’s divine Love’s provision for those who need material reassurance–which we all need from time to time."
Mackenroth was born in Minneapolis in 1924, grew up in a well-off family that moved around the Midwest. His father did not practice Christian Science, while his mother "was the only one of five children that seriously followed Christian Science... My mother had the sensitivity of a saint, but a very practical saint. She wasn’t preachy. She was extremely lively–and a bit of a tomboy.
"In my 20s I was severely attacked by asthma. Mom sat down with her back to me and started to pray, as she was taught in Christian Science. I was healed instantaneously–immediately. The asthma never returned."
She raised all five of her children in the Church. "One brother just passed on. He’s the only one that got away from Science and was treating cancer through conventional medicine and alternatives such as shark cartilage and electrodes. Belatedly he did return to Christian Science, when he found no release in the other methods. He went to church. Personally, I hardly ever go to church.
"My sister has gone on to develop her own version of Christian Science. She felt the Christian Science Church is too liberal–I’ve found it to be the exact opposite, of course." Another brother, David, is a West Coast attorney who has argued for Christian Science parents accused of letting their children die.
"In 1953 I came to New York for a theatrical career. I lived just off Columbus Circle on 58th St. for $9 a week, in a lovely brownstone. It was heaven. The day after I ran out of all of my money I got a job in a bookshop that was actor-friendly. That was an answer to my efforts at Christian Science prayer. A true miracle. My family had cut me off–I had no money." He would later become a successful makeup artist.
Mackenroth tells me of miraculous healings.
"I have the good fortune of inadvertently healing a tumor twice. The first time I didn’t feel metaphysically up to it. It was about 1973. I just stood in front of the mirror one day and I resigned. I said, I know people are calling me ‘homosexual.’ (At that point I hadn’t come to the refinement of thinking that everyone is an individual, in terms of sexuality. I’m not thrilled with the term. I think people are individual beings, with different fingerprints, none the same. I don’t think any two people’s sexuality is the same.) But at that time, I hadn’t come to that conclusion. And I just wept and wept, looking in the mirror. I said, ‘Bob, you’re a good guy. You want to love somebody. I just don’t feel it’s my fault here. I’ve done the best I can.’ And I wept and wept and wept and wept. ‘Dear God, just guide me as to what to do.’ And three days later, I’m just combing my hair and this tumor in the middle of my head, which had gotten to about the size of a pigeon egg, was gone."
He recalls another time when he went into surgery for a cyst in his neck. Years of prayer had failed to remove it, "and finally one day I prostrated myself on the floor of my apartment. And I said, ‘Dear God, what is it I need to do?’ It just seemed that it required a complete surrender. And the word ‘surgeon’ kept coming to mind. I obeyed it."
In the recovery room, when he came to from the anesthesia, "the surgeon says, ‘We’d like to talk to you privately. There’s something peculiar here. What we thought was a cancerous mass is gone, and we don’t know where it went. Now, what is your background?’ Other doctors were called in and they took pictures of me and all this. And I told them about Christian Science, and the practitioner I had hired to work with me while I was being treated. [The surgeon] gave me a refund."
And then there’s the group’s straight female, Jackie Park, whose life has taken a remarkable route.
"I started out in Philadelphia, then came to New York. I started out as a dancer, and at 15 I met this millionaire, maybe billionaire–I was his summer mistress while his wife was away. When he found out how old I was, he sent me to Hollywood. With all the introductions, the money to get along for a while. I did some wee roles," including appearing in King Creole and on the tv show Dragnet. She says she dated Cary Grant, then married a Hollywood psychiatrist. "That didn’t work out–he was into drugs–so I got a divorce.
"I was at a party one night and met Jack Warner, of Warner Bros. I was his mistress for the next five years." She "traveled all over the world with him." She says, "He was a monster."
Most remarkably, she claims she dated Ronald Reagan for a time when he was still a Hollywood figure. "It’s all documented. I don’t believe it either, but it can be checked." At various points there’s been interest in a book or tv movie about her Hollywood years–she says HBO is currently looking into it. She shows me a sheaf of articles mentioning her–in Time, Newsweek, Playboy, various tabloids–after Kitty Kelley cited her in her 1986 Sinatra bio His Way and again in her 1991 Nancy Reagan: The Unauthorized Biography.
For all that, "To me, the highlight of my life now is to leave this apartment at 6 o’clock, go down to Nick’s Diner to grab a bite and rush over to the [Christian Science] prayer group. I’ve had everything else and tried everything else and been everywhere else."
In the mid-70s, small groups of gay and lesbian Christian Scientists began to organize around the U.S. and in England. Mackenroth and McCullough were part of the movement–"inadvertently" at first, Mackenroth smiles. He was attending an annual meeting at the Mother Church in Boston in (he thinks) 1975.
"The meeting was for ‘singles,’ and was held at their rather spacious Sunday school. Gay people were not mentioned. Everything was heterosexually oriented. My heart ached. I couldn’t stand it any longer. When they asked for questions from the floor, mine was the first hand up and I was instantly acknowledged. I said, ‘I didn’t hear anything about people who are gay–like me.’ You could hear a pin drop. A man from the audience boomed out, ‘You are what?’ I couldn’t believe I’d said it! I gulped and said, ‘I’m gay.’
"During the week following my return from Boston, a Sunday school pupil of mine got up at a Wednesday evening testimonial meeting [at the Ninth Church on E. 25th St.] and expressed his gratitude that gay members had spoken up at the annual meeting. The First Reader instantly interrupted him, instructed him that that word cannot be uttered in a Christian Science meeting and told him to be seated. I was on my feet before I knew it, asking the First Reader to reconsider–in that we cannot allow some here who may be attending for the first time to leave with the impression of such an unloving taboo. Furthermore, I could not wait until after the service to discuss this issue because the attendants in question might well leave without benefit of fair dialogue on this sensitive subject. The reputation of our precepts was at stake.
"One thing led to another and I was finally informed by the branch trustees that my membership would be in jeopardy if I were ever to confront the First Reader during a service again. I never did–but they illegally threw me out any way. (I was the branch church parliamentarian.)"
I ask him what’s written in the Church’s precepts that specifically bans homosexuality.
"I can’t find a thing in anything that Mrs. Eddy has written," Mackenroth replies. "She propounds that the male and female of God’s creation is within all of us. We reflect the Father/Mother God."
So what was the Church’s problem with his saying he was gay?
"One of the members–whom I had helped to come into Science–came up me and said, ‘Bob, it’s as though we paint our hair red and you don’t. That’s reason enough,’ he said–and added, ‘You don’t respect your position in the Church.’ I said, ‘I respect my position in God’s reality. Now if the Church diverges from that, what am I to do? Do I go along with the Church organization’s views regardless?’ Most other gay people in the Church chose to be quiet. They said, ‘Bob, why don’t you just be quiet?’ I said that that doesn’t sound like Mary Baker Eddy, who stood up to make her statement. Nothing gets done without someone making the move, and I just couldn’t stand to see people continue to suffer over this any more.
"As of now, I have been sexually inactive for approximately 20 years, so it’s not as though I’m trying to work just a self-serving benefit here. I just can’t stand by and see what I have seen happen to people–in or out of the Church. One great guy from our little group tried to merely be a devoted member at a New York City branch church. The minute they found he was gay they threw him out without due process."
Mackenroth’s effective excommunication turned him and his friend McCullough into activists. "We passed out pamphlets," McCullough recalls. "We stood up in church. We gave counter-testimonies. We were excluded from talking at the Second Church. We went to all of the churches in New York, and we went to the Mother Church... There was something read one Wednesday at the Second Church, something to the effect of ‘There’ll be no political statements made from the floor.’ They considered us to be political."
In 1980, gay and lesbian protesters distributed a pamphlet at the annual meeting in Boston, in which they wrote that they "appeal to all Christian Scientists and especially to The Christian Science Board of Directors to re-examine their thought on the subject of human sexuality in the light of Christian Science; and to take whatever loving and practical steps are necessary to rectify the present wrongs being done to Gay people in the name of Christian Science."
The pamphlet cited a watershed 1967 article in the Sentinel, "Homosexuality Can Be Healed," and others through the 1970s, which used terms like "promiscuous," "bizarre," "abnormal," "immoral," "unseemly," "unhealthy," "unnatural," "cursed" and "perverted" to describe gays and lesbians. Given all that, the pamphlet noted, "it should come as no surprise that so-called ‘healings’ of homosexuality should appear. This, naturally, prompts one to ask what exactly has been ‘healed’? Has the person been ‘healed’ of love, companionship or friendship?"
In 1982, Chris Madsen, who’d been a writer at the Christian Science Monitor for more than seven years, was let go when it became known that she was a lesbian and wasn’t trying to "heal" herself of it. She sued (and eventually settled). A small group of gay and lesbian protesters disrupted the annual meeting that year with the chant, "Two-four-six-eight. How do you know the Board is straight? Stop the witch hunts!" An international group of gays and lesbians in the Church, Emergence, was founded in 1986; McCullough and Mackenroth’s group started the same year.
McCullough says change has come very slowly in the 15 years since. Anecdotally, he and Mackenroth tell me numerous stories of Church members currently being ostracized or otherwise harassed for being gay.
It’s true that today Church leadership is less ready than it once was to openly condemn homosexuality. In fact, it can sound reticent to the point of evasiveness, as in this exchange:
LARRY KING: How about homosexuality?
VIRGINIA HARRIS: Well, I’m–on social issues, we as a Church don’t take a stand.
Well, that’s not quite true, McCullough says.
"They say they don’t, but in fact they do. It’s shifted slightly over time. I think before Bob and I brought it to such a head in Boston and New York it was more or less just these potshots taken at us. Once we brought it to a head, then the Mother Church and branch churches quickly put in a clause that you had to be ‘healed of homosexuality’ before you could become a member. The Mother Church has since removed that, about five years ago. But some branches still have it." At best, he’s written on the group’s website, there appears to be "a kind of glacial shift going on at official levels."
Last year, McCullough and Mackenroth wrote to the Mother Church to ask about policies on accepting gay members and hiring gay people. The letter they got back last December from the board of directors is a masterpiece of soft-pedaling:
"We are not aware that the Board is planning to make any statement about homosexuality. As for who can become a member of The Mother Church, Mary Baker Eddy made it clear in the Church Manual that only members can approve applicants for membership. She further has stated in her writings that anyone who becomes a member of the Church must believe in the doctrines of Christian Science, read the Bible and Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures understandingly, and be able to abide by the Rules and Tenets of the Church.
"Turning to employment, we can tell you that applicants are not asked about sexual orientation or other similarly private matters. Neither do we make a practice of trying to determine the private behavior of our employees. Of course, chastity clearly is the standard of Christian Science; Mrs. Eddy called it the ‘...cement of civilization and progress’ (Science and Health, p. 57). The Church and all of its activities continue to uphold that standard. Therefore, if an employee were to publicly challenge that standard, to argue that it is not or should not be the standard, or to engage in obtrusive sexual behavior (all regardless of sexual orientation), it is likely we would part company."
McCullough recently sent a copy of that letter to a gay friend who’s a Church leader in another part of the country. This person has just come out, and is facing dismissal from the branch church. (I was asked to avoid details, so as not to get this person into deeper trouble.) While the Mother Church exercises no direct dominion over the branches in such matters, he thought the tone of the letter might be helpful.
On the other hand, Principia College, presumably training the next generation of Christian Science leaders, seems to be training them to be closet cases and ’phobes. (Mackenroth, who attended Principia after WWII, recalls that "Their racial and homophobic policies drove me out after a year and a quarter–even though they offered me a scholarship to stay on.") "Principia does not knowingly admit or hire homosexuals," a university officer told the school newspaper, The Pilot, in 1999. "Principia views homosexuality as something worthy of healing."
The article also noted that "Unquestionably, homosexuals have attended or currently attend Principia. Current gay or lesbian students, however, would have to keep quiet about their sexual preference while enrolled because of the school’s unwritten policy."
Both Mackenroth and McCullough continue to attend services in mainstream Christian Science churches. But they both say they feel more comfortable–and get more spiritual work done–in their own group.
"To me the heart and soul of my Christian Science practice is the group," McCullough tells me. "I go to church as kind of an ashram, a place to meditate. I’ve never given gay testimony. There’s so much that I want to talk about–relationships, all my friends have died of AIDS. There are so many things that you can’t really talk about [in a mainstream church]."
Nowadays, he says, "I’m more interested in healing than I am in political pushing."
Excerpts from "The Mail"But Age Believes in You
Bravo, John Strausbaugh! As a gay Christian Science practitioner I would like to commend you for the well-researched, thoughtful, lively and accurate article on Christian Science ("Healed: They’re Here. They’re Queer. They’re Christian Scientists. Get Used to It," 7/4). This is the type of journalism Mary Baker Eddy wanted in her own newspaper, The Christian Science Monitor. Of course, you were fortunate in having "the two Bobs," Bob McCullough and Bob Mackenroth, to introduce you to the crazy maze called Christian Science. My only quibble is that I think they look even younger than you say they do, but as Carol Channing always says, "We Christian Scientists don’t believe in age."
Hugh Key, Key West, FL
The Two Bobs
I commend John Strausbaugh for his cover article on the NYC Gay & Lesbian Christian Science Group. His portrayal of both the group and the Christian Science faith is fair, balanced and often quite funny. It’s heartening to read about the sincere efforts of reformers like McCullough and Mackenroth–they will help keep Christian Science’s powerful teachings alive and relevant to a new generation of people who can benefit from them greatly. While the C.S. Church, as an organization, is certainly conservative, let’s remember that the religion itself was founded by a woman who broke a lot of social rules in order to follow the dictates of her conscience.
Paula Carino, Brooklyn
John Strausbaugh: Thank you for your well-researched feature article. I think some Christian Scientists will learn a few things they didn’t know about their own religion.
Bill Sweet, Mount Prospect, IL
Watergate and Christian Science
John Strausbaugh: I was born into Christian Science, and attended Principia College for four years, but am now an out lesbian, and worse, a Catholic! While I found your article interesting, I think you let Mary Baker Eddy and Christian Scientists off the hook way too easily. Reading Willa Cather’s expose The Life of Mary Baker G. Eddy and the History of Christian Science, I found an ambitious, mercenary, contentious woman, who stole ideas from others, was tortured by paranoia, petty jealousies and a constant fear of "mesmerists," who she believed were constantly praying for her demise, causing her no end of hysterical illnesses, bad eyesight and the death of at least one husband.
Another husband, by the way, was known for "his odd choice of clothes, his mincing gait, and the elaborate arrangement of his hair." You do the math. She eventually turned against each of her closest students, going so far as to have one tried for witchcraft in the 1870s for which she was laughed out of court in Salem, MA. As a married woman, she constantly required her father and others to rock her in their arms to sleep in order to quell her nervous fits. (One man became so tired of this that he built an adult-size cradle and tied it to his rocking chair so he could sit!) Later she called upon her closest students to pray her back from her spells and to guard her against those pesky mesmerists.
Eddy did not believe in the need for food, water, sunlight or hygiene for man or plant. She taught followers she could walk on water and that she had seen the dead raised. She believed she had come to complete the work of the hapless Jesus, who had actually caused his own death by predicting it. Privately, she taught that women could conceive children mentally. This is not so far from what I was taught.
Growing up seeing many suffer and die of curable illnesses, I can attest that many Christian Scientists are much more extreme than your interviewees. My mother, who died of gangrene, believed that even people who were forced to take medical treatment were tainted, and that there were whole orders of nuns whose purpose was to pray for the demise of individual Christian Scientists. Even at Principia (generally a good school where I had many friends), I saw evidence of MBE’s wackier ideas. One staff member died of untreated breast cancer, and her husband and daughter appeared all chipper and smiling the next day it was said that she only died because she let fear overtake her at the end. A dean and his wife were said to have the ideal marriage in that they had risen above sex. In Christian Science, death is a disgrace because if you’re "demonstrating your Science," you should rise bodily into heaven just as Jesus did not to mention do everything else he did! I always found it interesting that several of the Watergate perpetrators were Christian Scientists (Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Bud Krogh, e.g.). Their antics and attitude seem very like those of their religion’s founder.
Bonnie Burke, Brooklyn
Healed in Mississippi
Kudos to Mr. Strausbaugh for his excellent piece, "Healed" (7/4). While I question the accuracy of some of the anecdotes about Mary Baker Eddy’s life in the article, I thought that he did an excellent job of painting an objective picture of the current environment of the Christian Science movement while reviewing its very complicated history. Christian Science does have a website, and to me that presents a more modern and refreshing picture of Christian Science than do many of the cavernous-yet-now-empty exquisite churches in New York and other large urban areas of the United States and Western Europe where Christian Science initially became rooted.
Shepard G. Montgomery, Jackson, MS
I read your well-written article about gay Christian Scientists. I myself was born and raised a Christian Scientist (and I’m gay). I gave up the church in 1967. In 1969 I encountered an offshoot of Christian Science called the Prosperos, which has been my "church" since then. In 1985 I formed a group called the Metaphysical Alliance, incorporating various groups that believe that "healing" is a real possibility and, specifically, that AIDS can be healed. We put on public forums till 1991. Our most popular forum was "AIDS Survivors and Thrivers," in which long-term survivors would debunk myths about AIDS being 100 percent fatal.
Michael Zonta, via Internet