“Suffering is a very private journey,” said the Reverend Jimmy Allen, who should know. He was seated at a library table in the basement of a small gray clapboard chapel tucked in the piney woods of Georgia, far from the wealthy and powerful churches he once served in Texas, before his terrible ordeal began. “Suffering has come early and often to our family. We’ve had so much suffering that I’ve developed a special radar for it. Now I see it coming from a long way off.”
I had known Allen for twenty years. Once he had been roly-poly, a big man with a large, enduring laugh, the kind of laugh that exists for an eternity in memory. Now, at 65, he was forty pounds thinner, and his hair, swept off his face, was solid white. His glistening blue eyes looked like two polished stones resting underwater. I stared into them and mentally calculated his losses.
In the late seventies he had been the president of the still-moderate Southern Baptist Convention, the leader of 17 million Baptists. Then the convention was taken over by fundamentalists, and his moderate views were out of fashion. The church he pastured here in Big Canoe, set in a hilly forest about seventy miles north of Atlanta, was not even Southern Baptist but ecumenical.
Far worse are the private afflictions of his sons. Skip, 38, is a homosexual who tested positive for the AIDS virus in 1987. And Scott, 36—the hope of the family, the one who followed in his father’s footsteps and became a Southern Baptist minister—has seen his life torn apart by AIDS. Scott’s wife, Lydia, became infected with the AIDS virus from a blood transfusion she received in 1982, just before the birth of their first son, Matthew, who got the virus from her. Lydia died from AIDS last year, and another infant son, Bryan, who also contracted the virus in his mother’s womb, died in 1986. Matthew, now ten, has thus far survived. Allen’s eldest son, Michael, lives in San Antonio and did not want to be interviewed for this story.
Not only did Jimmy Allen’s denomination reject his theology and politics but his church rejected his family in its time of greatest need. Last September the New York Times reported that five churches had discouraged Scott Allen’s family from attending worship services. How could something this horrible happen to such an innocent, righteous family?
“The greatest blow was the failure of the churches to welcome Lydia, Bryan, and Matt,” said Jimmy Allen. Nervously, he crossed one leg over the other, then repeated the motion in reverse. “I did not think the church as an institution would go so far as to deny the touch of Christ to innocent children.” His face was raw and open. Like a close-up photograph, in which every cruel detail is enlarged. Angst poured from his red and swollen eyes. His tears were transparent, his grief unmasked. “Life,” he told me, “does not come out even.”
To most of us, Bible stories seem arcane and remote, far removed from modern life. We think and sometimes say, “What does this have to do with me?” One story that isn’t remote but recurs generation after generation is the story of Job, a Hebrew poem written at the beginning of the fifth century. The central question of Job—Why does God let good people suffer?—is a question all of us are doomed to answer for ourselves.
Job is a good man who becomes a target of a heavenly power play. God’s adversary—Satan—claims that Job is good only because God allows him to prosper. To prove Satan wrong, God allows him to take everything from Job. Job loses his seven sons and his three daughters, he is visited by plagues and boils, and he loses all of his money. Three friends come to comfort Job but instead tell him that he may deserve what he’s getting. At first Job is silenced by grief, then he maintains his innocence, but finally he demands to know, Why me, God? His quarrel with God raises all the great questions about life and death that have been debated for millennia. What is the nature of good and evil? Is there divine justice? If the wicked and the good both suffer, why have faith?
In the end of the poem, God answers Job by appearing to him in the form of a whirlwind. “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” God asks. Unable to understand God’s ways, Job must be content with this answer to his suffering—this marvelous vision. “Therefore have I uttered that I understood not, things too wonderful for me,” says Job.
Jimmy Allen is the modern Job in a family of Jobs. He and his family have reenacted Job’s long internal argument. When God tested every member of the Allen family by killing children, covering Jimmy’s progeny with the modern-day equivalent of boils, and taking from all of the things they loved most—including their comfortable ideas about God—not one of the Allens took it lying down. Like Job, they all protested. And like Job, they were met with God’s immutable ways. After all, it was God who told Job, “I am going to ask the questions.” This story is about Jobean answers in the nineties, given by a family whose members have found different meanings about life, death, and faith through their own suffering.
All children of preachers grow up reacting to what their fathers decide is the will of God. Other fathers have regular jobs with regular bosses, but the work of preachers is dictated by the ultimate invisible hand. Other children grow up knowing that their destiny is influenced by concrete factors, such as how much their parents earn in a given year. The boundaries of the lives of preachers’ kids are ethereal. Where they live, where they go to school, who their friends are, every facet of their lives is determined by a large unseen force—the dreaded will of God—that is decipherable only by their fathers. Their sense of moral isolation is intolerable. They see in the details of ordinary life what their fathers cannot bring themselves to admit: The world of these children is precarious, not blessed, and their fathers are doing good because they’re afraid not to. Eventually this isolation leads preachers’ kids to their only possible self-defense: Discovering the will of God for themselves.
In the Allen family this pattern has repeated itself for three generations. Jimmy’s father, Earl L. Allen, was a Baptist minister who was the pastor of a Baptist church on McKinney Avenue in Dallas. Before Jimmy was born, Earl and his wife had difficult conceiving a child, and they prayed for one. When Jimmy arrived, Earl pronounced him a miracle and predicted he would grow up to do God’s work. Jimmy turned out to be an only child. He memorized Bible verses the way other children learned multiplication tables. At seven, he was baptized. At twelve, he announced God had called him to preach. At fifteen, he preached his first sermon.
Jimmy attended a Baptist college—Howard Payne in Brownwood—where he met his future wife, Wanda. In the beginning, their marriage was based on the proposition that God and Jimmy’s ministry came first. It didn’t seem like a bad formula, because everything Jimmy Allen touched succeeded. He was a charismatic preacher who studied hard and elevated his audience with serious ideas and genuine warmth. From 1960 to 1968, as the executive secretary of the Texas Christian Life Commission, Allen traveled the country, preaching that racism was a sin. Then, in 1968, he came to the First Baptist Church in San Antonio, a large, wealthy church in the center of downtown that was so physically imposing it was nicknamed the Fortress. There he started downtown programs for the poor and homeless while keeping the prosperous members of the congregation loyal through the power of his preaching. I joined Allen’s church in 1972 and vividly remember his consoling style in the pulpit. He seemed able to meet everyone’s eyes at once, and his palms, were often open, inviting people to belong. The two things I appreciated the most were that Jimmy Allen never talked drivel and he never wailed.
Churches are by nature secret places. Every one has a secret, and it’s part of the group covenant that everyone agrees to keep the secrets of everyone else. The First Baptist Church in San Antonio was such a place. The secret everyone knew about the Allen family involved Jimmy’s wife, Wanda. She suffered from depression. In the early seventies she was so depressed that she disappeared from public view. For a long time she was hospitalized at Timberlawn Psychiatric Hospital in Dallas. To his credit, Jimmy did not hide his wife’s illness. One Sunday evening he told the whole church about it. The reaction was overwhelmingly supportive; everyone felt sorry for the whole family.
Wanda Allen had good reason to be depressed. Like many other preachers’ wives, she was married to a man who was married to his mission. The family he devoted most of his time and energy to was not Wanda and their three boys but the heavenly one he was building for his congregation. Twenty years later, Wanda has recovered from her depression but Jimmy is haunted by the memories. “During Wanda’s illness, I had to face up to the fact that my priorities had to change,” recalled Jimmy. “Wanda viewed me as the man with a telephone to God, and she was all alone with no phone to anyone. Once I realized that, we got a clearer and healthier relationship, but it was too late for the early years of my children.”
Silence came between us. Allen knew these were not idle questions for me; I was asking them from my own experience. My father once worked full-time for the Baptist church as a minister of music. Now I am married to a Methodist minister. I know what it’s like to love someone who answers only to his own ideas of God’s changing will. I settled my mind on a long shaft of light that poured through the library window and then asked the question that has lived inside of me for as long as I can remember, the question that I know has already formed in my own two small children.
“Was it worth it?” I asked Allen. “Was it worth it to give so much of yourself to the church at the expense of your own family?”
I saw grief shoot through him the way fire lights brittle wood. “Yes, it was worth it to love God with all my heart,” he replied, haltingly. ”The mistake I made was in not realizing that God loved my wife and children every bit as much as He loved the church.”
Scott Allen, Jimmy’s youngest son, once had a nightmare. He and his own son Matthew are standing side by side on a pier overlooking the ocean. “Step back,” Scott warns Matthew. “There are sharks in the water.” Just then a shark snatches Matthew in its teeth. As Scott stands by, the shark shakes Matthew back and forth, tearing him apart. Matthew screams and holds out his hand, frantically reaching for his father, but the shark dives deep into the ocean and will not resurface.
This dream became Scott Allen’s reality. Of all the curses put on Job, the worst was when God gave Evil permission to do anything to Job, short of killing him. Scott Allen, who has his father’s stocky build, has been similarly cursed: All the members of his family—his wife and two sons—have been infected with the AIDS virus, but he has been spared. Scott has longed for death and found comfort in his own mortality. “We all get a chance to get off this planet,” said Scott. “There is a transcendence to suffering once it is accepted. Once you’ve faced your own death, then life is receivable.” Even though Scott is still an ordained Baptist minister, he no longer considers himself a Christian, having abandoned the faith three years ago. He now studies Eastern philosophy. As the Chinese who follow the philosophy of Tao Te Ching say, Scott has a “hollow heart”: he has experienced both life and death, which has fortified his wisdom.
“Many Christians can’t live with the absurdity of suffering.” Scott told me over breakfast in Dallas, where he and Matthew now live. “They think suffering has to be answered. Well, sometimes it can’t be answered. It is what it is.”
Scott’s ordeal began on a Sunday in 1982, the night before Matthew was born. Scott was the pastor of a small Southern Baptist church in Pacifica, California, a short drive south of San Francisco. His pregnant wife, Lydia, complained of stomach pains. They drove to the hospital and found out she had toxemia. Ten hours before Matthew was born, Lydia was given a blood transfusion in anticipation of a cesarean section. As it turned out, she didn’t need one. She had a regular delivery. Though no one in the Allen family would know it for three years, both Lydia and Matthew had been given a death sentence. The blood in the transfusion was contaminated with the AIDS virus.
Matthew was sick from the beginning. Eight days after he was born, he had surgery to remove two thirds of his intestines. “I got on my knees with a Bible,” recalled Scott, “and then I begged God: ‘Please don’t take my baby.’” Matthew survived the surgery.
“Have you ever felt you changed the will of God?” asked Scott. “Well, I have considered it, and believe me, it’s a very dangerous thing to do.”
Scott was falling—falling from the Baptist fold that had fragilely contained him since childhood. He was eleven when he first met Lydia. Her father was Luke Williams, who served as Jimmy Allen’s second-in-command at the First Baptist Church and was the director of church activities. The two men functioned well as a team because they were opposites. Williams was organized and always under control and kept his emotions concealed; his nickname was Cool Hand Luke. Allen was a visionary, his interior eye permanently fixed on larger goals.
Their children had different temperaments as well. Lydia was prim and proper, every bit as cool as her father. She obeyed her parents, made average grades, and loved church. Scott was rebellious. He argued constantly with his father, stopped going to church altogether by the age of fourteen, and got in trouble in high school for drinking.
On the night of March 3, 1976, when Scott was driving on a county road near San Antonio, another driver, traveling at 75 miles per hour, came into Scott’s lane and hit his car head-on. Scott was driven into the back seat by the impact and seriously injured. He still has a scar on his forehead. Shortly before entering Baylor University in Waco, Scott had a traditional conversion experience. “I was alone, reading the Bible, and I wanted a different way of life,” said Scott. “I did the old, old story. I got down on my knees and gave my life to Jesus. I felt called to the ministry, even though I really didn’t want to follow in Dad’s path and he didn’t want me to either.”
Lydia, who was studying to be a medical missionary at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, was pleased with Scott’s change. The two were married at the First Baptist Church on August 17, 1978. It was a royal Baptist wedding. Lydia, who had shoulder-length brown hair, wore a size four wedding dress made by her sister. Jimmy Allen officiated at the ceremony. Soon Scott and Lydia were off to Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in San Francisco. While Scott worked as a pastor, Lydia worked as a psychiatric nurse. She sang in the church choir and taught Sunday school.
In 1982, after Matthew was born, the family moved to Colorado Springs, where Scott accepted a position as an associate minister at the First Christina Church. Health problems followed Lydia and Matthew. Matthew had continual ear infections and was not growing at a normal rate. He woke up five or six times a night, begging to be held. Lydia was sick too, with night sweats, colds, and shingles. They made regular trips to the doctor, but no one could tell them what was wrong.
Two years after Matthew was born, Lydia got pregnant again. On May 13, 1985, she gave birth to Bryan. He was born prematurely with heart defects. “What is happening to us?” an anguished Scott asked Lydia. “Why are we getting blindsided by life?”
Four months later, on September 15, 1985, Scott and Lydia got their answer. A woman from a San Francisco blood bank called and told Lydia there was a chance that the blood she had received years earlier was contaminated with the AIDS virus. Suddenly the pattern of unusual illnesses that had plagued Lydia, Matthew, and Bryan fell into place: Lydia knew instantly that they would all die of AIDS.
Lydia asked the caller from the blood bank whether she should have Matthew tested. “Unless you are having sex with him, you do not need to worry,” was the reply. Lydia shouted, “This is my life!” and hung up the telephone. Five days later, Lydia had Matthew tested for AIDS. He was a high positive.
The only member of the family whose tests turned out negative was Scott. Instead of relief, Scott felt guilt. “After a tragedy, people ask themselves, ‘Why me?’ Here my entire family was stricken with this disease and the only question I could think of was, ‘Why not me?’” Scott said. Angry and afraid, Scott turned to his church for love and solace. When Scott’s mother had been ill with depression, his father had found comfort there. But depression isn’t contagious, and this time the church did not honor the Allen family’s secret.
A few days after getting the news, Scott went to see the Reverend Warren Hile, the senior minister of the Colorado Springs church. Hile told Scott how sorry he was for the whole family, but soon, says Scott, Hile asked for his resignation. By that time the secret was out. A friend of Lydia’s had betrayed Lydia’s confidence. Panic set in. Suddenly parents were worried that one of their children might have shared a deadly juice cup with Matthew in the church nursery or had come in contact with one of Bryan’s diapers. A meeting was held to discuss whether any church members could be at risk for getting AIDS. Scott and Lydia weren’t invited, and not a single person telephoned to offer encouragement or reassurance.
The day after Scott met with the senior minister, he went into his office and found a letter on his chair that Hile had typed. It was a memo accepting a resignation that Scott says he never offered. The following Sunday, Hile and two leaders of the church, both of whom happened to be lawyers, called Scott into the senior pastor’s study and granted him a paid leave of absence. Hile denies that Scott was forced out. Nonetheless, Scott still feels that his family was rejected. “That’s when I realized that for all their talk about unconditional love and caring, many Christians are terrified by people who face this kind of suffering,” Scott told me.
They decided to leave town. Through his father’s contacts, Scott got a job in Dallas at the Christian Life Commission. Scott packed up everything they owned and headed home to Texas in Job-like silence. They left in a hurry; there were no good-byes.
By then they had been told that Bryan had only a few weeks to live. He needed constant oxygen. One day the man who provided Bryan with oxygen tanks showed up at the door of their rented home wearing many layers of clothing; he was afraid even to enter the house. Lydia was tired all the time and couldn’t find anyone to help with baby-sitting or housework. She felt obligated to tell anyone who interviewed that she and her children had what Lydia called the Scarlet A.
One of Scott’s jobs at the Christian Life Commission was to find churches for AIDS patients, but he couldn’t find one that would accept his own family. One Baptist minister suggested that Matthew could come to Sunday school if Scott would sit with him in class; another suggested that they videotape Sunday school lessons so Matthew could see them at home. At another church, parents told their minister that if a child with AIDS came to Sunday school, they would pull their children out. Individual Christians did help Scott and his family. Some raised money for Scott’s salary, one group showed up to help paint their home, and others offered to baby-sit. Yet the church as an institution rejected them.
Scott could not reconcile the fate of losing a wife and two small sons with what he had been taught about the Christian faith. “We were innocent. We gave ourselves to God. Where was God’s favor? Where was God’s blessing? Even God’s church rejected us,” Scott said.
In January 1986 Bryan entered Fort Worth Children’s Hospital for what Scott and Lydia knew was the final siege. Lydia stayed with Bryan night and day, trying to stop his endless crying. “Bryan never smiled. All we could do was rock him,” said Scott. “I would rock and sing the Simon and Garfunkel song ‘Old Friends’ to him, and he would claw at my chest. All I could do for him was hold him, rock him, and try to help him catch the rhythm of life.” In retrospect, Scott now views Bryan’s undeserved suffering through the lens of his Eastern philosophy. “My goal was when he died, he would know the kind of love he was going to. He would know it and find it familiar in the next dimension,” Scott said. “Maybe we do life here so we can catch that rhythm. In a way, I guess we’re all running for the next train.”
The night before Bryan died, Lydia went home to rest. The next morning, Bryan’s doctor called and told Lydia to come to the hospital right away. When she and Scott arrived, Bryan’s body was still warm, but he was dead. They dressed him in a sailor’s suit, and Scott placed him in a child’s coffin. The funeral director was reluctant to touch Bryan’s body. “He asked me to straighten Bryan’s head,” recalled Scott. “Bryan was an untouchable even in death.”
After Bryan’s death, Scott and Lydia’s marriage frayed. Scott was angry at both God and man. Lydia couldn’t deal with his outbursts. A month after Bryan died, Scott moved out of the house but continued to care for Matthew four days a week. During the separation, Scott took another HIV test, and this time it came out positive. Later he found out that the paperwork was in error, but for three months Scott Allen believed he too would die of the disease.
One day he decided to give up. “I quit,” he thought. “I’m off this planet.” He got in his 1979 Plymouth and drove to South Padre Island, where he intended to kill himself. His plan was to drive his car into a tree and hope Lydia could collect his life insurance. “I was driving as fast as I could,” said Scott. All the while I was thinking, ‘Nobody cares.’ But then I realized something: I cared.”
Scott and Lydia reconciled. By then Matthew had a few playmates whose parents knew about his disease. Scott and Lydia read books to him every night. In 1991 all three took a trip to the Grand Canyon. By early 1992, Lydia knew she was close to death. Two weeks before she died, Lydia woke Scott up and told him that he had been talking in his sleep. “You said something about a gate,” Lydia told him. They talked about what the dream might mean, then drifted back to sleep.
At 3:46 p.m. on February 28, moments before Lydia died at their home in Dallas, Scott looked at Lydia and repeated the message from his dream. “Meet you at the gate, Lydia,” he said. She smiled, and then she was gone.
Scott sat down on their bed and read a letter Lydia had written to him before she died. Near the end of it, she said, “I love you, Scott, and I’ll see you at the gate.” Scott got to his feet, walked out of the house, got to his feet, drove past the hospital where Bryan had died, and then turned back toward home, for one more day of life with Matthew.
Not long after Lydia and Scott were married, Lydia had a premonition that she later related to a close friend. While praying in a chapel, Lydia was surrounded by a feeling of darkness. In the next few minutes she saw a series of moving pictures in her mind’s eye. The pictures were of everyone and everything she loved slowly being taken from her, one death at a time. When she stood up, Lydia could not shake the thought that someday she would endure a holocaust of her own.
Years later, after Bryan died, Lydia thought, “This is my holocaust.”
The image of the Holocaust came to define her personal spirituality at the end of her 38-year-old life. She went from being a Southern Baptist ingénue who grew up believing in salvation through an all-powerful personal God to an adult who had stopped trying to define God. “The idea that most appealed to Lydia is one she got from reading one of the Auschwitz survivors,” said Maria Bellantoni, her best friend. “That idea is that God is whatever exists beyond suffering, beyond comfort.”
When Scott pressed Lydia about what she believed about life after death, she was usually closed about it. But once she told the truth, as best she understood it. “I don’t know what happens after I die,” she said. “All I know is, I will know my babies.”
She died clinging to her children and that fundamental Baptist staple, the righteousness of work. If she couldn’t have her life, then she would give it away—first to her sons and then to other children with AIDS.
Unlike Scott, whose anger was directed at God, the church, and the AIDS virus itself, Lydia’s anger was focused solely on the San Francisco blood bank for first giving her tainted blood and then failing to notify her for three years. Lydia kept notes and diaries, which her friends made available to me. Once she wrote down notes about how her life would have been different if she had known earlier. “I would have made sure that I did not become pregnant,” wrote Lydia. “I would have taken safe sex precautions with my husband. I would have trusted myself more and had a much better self image of myself as a mother. Now I know that I did a fantastic job of keeping this little boy [Matthew] alive and well in spite of the odds. At the time I could only berate myself for not being a better mother, and for not keeping my baby from being sick.”
If you want to know what living with AIDS is like, consider Lydia’s daily grind. Here are a few notes she scribbled on her calendar in 1985. July 1: “Bryan hospitalized…Diagnosed with congestive heart failure, liver and hypertension.” July 9: “Bryan diagnosed wit pulmonary bronchial dysplasia.” July 18: “Bryan’s heart monitor alarmed every 15 minutes.” July 26: “Matthew has horrible diarrhea.”
Nothing could cure her sons, and much of their treatment was painful. One day on the way to the hospital to get Matthew a gamma globulin IV treatment, Matthew turned to Lydia and said, “Mama, I wish I had a gun. Then I’d shoot my arms off so they couldn’t hurt me anymore. Why do you let them stick me?”
She had vowed not to use heroic measures to save Bryan, but in the end, she did everything possible to prolong every moment with him, including installing a central line for feeding. It was a decision she regretted, and later she advised other mothers in similar circumstances against it. “Be a mother first, not a medical caregiver,” she told them.
After Bryan died, Lydia searched for something she could pour her grief into, something constructive that would, as her mother told me, “leave some footprints behind.” Working with a psychologist in Dallas Lydia helped form a support group for HIV women. In 1987 she heard about three children whose mother had HIV and was too sick to care for them.
“Lydia could not bear to see those children homeless, so she took them in herself,” said Dr. Janet Squires, the head of the HIV clinic at Children’s medical Center, who cared for Bryan and now cares for Matthew. In June 1987, Lydia and Stefanie Held, who was then the director of pastoral services at Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, raised money to buy a two-story house in Oak Lawn to provide medical and social care for children with AIDS. Without Lydia’s knowledge, the board of directors decided to name the new facility Bryan’s House. To them, Bryan was anonymous. All they knew was that he was the first known baby in Dallas County to die of congenital AIDS. “Even people closest to the house never knew that Lydia was Bryan’s mother,” said Squires. “She didn’t want them to know.”
Today Bryan’s House provides three kinds of care for children and families who are affected by AIDS: A day care facility offers HIV-infected parents a place to drop off their children while they are at work, there are facilities for 24-hour care for children whose parents are temporarily hospitalized, and a few HIV children live at Bryan’s House because they no longer have a home. All of these services grew out of Lydia’s isolation. She knew what it was like to be ill and still have to care for sick children. Once Lydia wrote a poem titled “Who Will Sing My Song?” A year after her death, visitors to Bryan’s House can still hear Lydia’s poem on the playground in the chorus of thirty children at play.
At about the same time she was founding the house, Lydia also worked as a nurse for Dr. Squires at the hospital. Her primary responsibility was educating mothers once their children were diagnosed with AIDS, explaining how to hold on to their insurance, finding transportation for them to the doctor’s office, often referring them to Bryan’s house for baby-sitting and emergency financial help. “Almost no one here at the hospital knew that Lydia had AIDS,” said Squires, “but occasionally, when another mother would tell her that no one understood how she felt, Lydia would look them in the eye and say, ‘I do. I have AIDS myself, and I gave it to my sons.’”
AIDS became her lifework, but she did it in secret because she didn’t want Matthew to experience further rejection. She felt isolated even in happy times. Once she and her close friend Maria put together a program for a Presbyterian church in Dallas. Lydia read a ghost story she had written, “Harry’s haunted House,” and assigned children the parts of making different noises in the story, including doors knocking, clocks tick-tocking, shutters banging, and ghosts howling. “What if the parents knew about me?” Lydia asked Maria after the show. “There wouldn’t be any laughing then.”
At her father’s insistence, Lydia went to Mexico City for six weeks in 1988 to try experimental drugs that Luke had heard about through Baptist missionaries. These same missionaries brought drugs back to the United States for Matthew. Lydia didn’t fully expect the treatments to work, but she did them for her father.
In July 1991, at the age of 66, Luke Williams had a heart attack and died. As the family death toll mounted, with Lydia and Matthew living on borrowed time, Lydia’s mother, Joyce, stopped looking for meaning in the suffering. “Luke and Lydia were so close,” said Joyce. “He died with his heart broken, and I don’t ask why anymore. There simply aren’t any answers.”
At the time of Luke’s death, Lydia was told that she had little time left. Physically, she was increasingly weak and her vision was failing. Part of her psychic pain was dealing with the fact that she was a member of a deeply religious family, and at the end of her life, she couldn’t bring herself to talk about God. “She felt abandoned by God,” said Maria. “She just couldn’t reconcile the idea of an involved personal God with the reality of not being able to do anything to save her two babies.”
Her funeral provoked a religious crisis. Months before Lydia died, she and Scott had planned a non-Christian service to be held in a Unitarian church. However, near the end. Lydia changed her mind and told Maria that she wanted it held in a Baptist church as a comfort to her mother.
And so, on March 2, 1992, Lydia’s childhood self was resurrected for her funeral. The service was held at Shiloh Terrace Baptist Church, where Luke Williams had served as the music director when Lydia was a toddler. A huge crowd of mourners attended, as well as both the Allen and the Williams families. Hymns were sung. Prayers were offered. Maria delivered the eulogy, and Phil Strickland, Scott’s boss at the Christian Life Commission, struggled to keep his sermon as ecumenical as possible. At no time during the 45-minute ceremony did anyone mention AIDS. The church kept the secret well.
>On a comfortably hot day last September,</span Scott Allen and his elder brother Skip drove around Dallas, belting out familiar Baptist hymns at the top of their lungs.
“Did you watch Brother Bob Tilton on TV last night, Skip?” asked Scott sarcastically. “Ohhh, yes, sirree,” replied Skip. “I sure did.”
“Did Brother Bob heal you of your homosexuality?” Scott asked. “Praise Jesus!” screeched Skip, milking his role. “I put my hand on the TV, and Brother Bob did in fact heal me of all my sins.” Scott exploded with histrionic laughter. “Hallelujah!” he wailed, in his best TV preacher whine. “Yet another miracle in these our troubled times.”
All the Allens are laughers. Listening to the extemporaneous comedy going on in the front seat, I found it impossible to believe that these two brothers, who now both live in Dallas and talk several times a day, were ever estranged. However, when Scott first found out his entire family had the HIV virus, part of his anger was directed at homosexuals, including his brother Skip. The two brothers didn’t speak until after Bryan died, when Scott realized that the enemy was a virus, not people.
For Skip, suffering has a different meaning than it has for other members of his family. It has given him a way to connect to them. After Lydia died, Skip decided to talk to Matthew as an equal. “You know Matt, we’ve got something in common,” Skip told his nephew. “I’m HIV positive too.” Immediately Matthew wanted to know how Skip had gotten the disease. Skip told him the truth, that he had gotten the disease through sexual transmission. “Oh,” said Matthew, underwhelmed.
Skip was friends with Lydia before Scott was. Back when they were teenagers at the First Baptist Church in San Antonio, Skip and Lydia sang together in the youth choir and went to the same Sunday school class. His other brothers—Michael and Scott—did not attend church, but Skip was his father’s little Baptist boy. He sang solos in church and was interviewed weekly on one f Jimmy’s television shows for teenagers called Good News.
At sixteen, Skip sat his father down in the parsonage in San Antonio and blurted out the truth. “I’m gay,” Skip told him. Even now Skip remembers the look of horror on his father’s face. “He told me that when God created the world, He created everything for a purpose, and that man and woman were created to live together,” recalled Skip. “Then my dad told me he would always love me but could never bless my life in my choice to be a homosexual.”
Each was so certain in his own view that reconciliation was impossible. For the next ten years, each went his own way. After high school, Skip chose to attend Houston Baptist College, hoping his father would approve. As for Jimmy Allen, he was true to his word; he kept in contact with and continued to love Skip but denied his approval of his son’s sexual orientation. The night that Jimmy was elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention in the Astrodome in 1979, Skip was in downtown Houston at a gay march protesting Anita Bryant’s appearance at a local hotel. Later Jimmy thanked Skip for keeping such a low profile.
After leaving college, Skip had a hard time keeping a job, because he had a drinking problem. At one point he was drinking half a gallon of vodka a day. Ten years ago he started going to a twelve-step personal-recovery program and stopped drinking. The philosophy of self-help has replaced the fundamental Christianity of his youth.
Still, he believes God’s love is enduring. “When I was little, I used to sing a song about being God’s little sunbeam,” said Skip. “That’s what I am. They can kick me out of the church, but I’m still God’s sunbeam. Nothing anyone can do can take that away from me.” Nonetheless, anguish camps in Skip’s heart. Like Job’s, Skip’s worst nightmares have happened in spite of his trying to be so good that he does not disappoint those around him.
No one with the HIV virus is free of guilt or isolation, and Skip has carried equal loads of both. When he first found out his test results were positive in 1987, Skip’s employer canceled his health insurance. Now he depends on the public AIDS clinic at Parkland Hospital, where a routine visit can take eight hours. In 1992 Skip decided to go into business for himself and bought a frame shop in North Dallas.
Sometimes he asks himself whether he is guilty for getting AIDS. “If our family is a chain,” said Skip, “then I’m the kink.” Often he wonders how his father views the question of guilt, but he has never asked him for fear he wouldn’t like the answer.
“What does guilt have to do with it?” asked Jimmy Allen when I asked him the question Skip was too afraid to ask. “AIDS is AIDS. I don’t blame Skip for getting AIDS,” said Jimmy. “He’s my son. I love him. All I know is that we have to walk through this together.”
But even now, after more than twenty years, Jimmy still withholds his approval of Skip’s lifestyle. “I just can’t believe this is the intention of God for Skip’s life,” said Jimmy. “I don’t see it as a condemnation of Skip. There is a love that is higher than mere approval. Skip yearns for my approval and has been hurt because I don’t want him to settle for just that. I want him to get to the love.”
This fall found Matthew Allen a happy little boy. After his father disclosed the family’s story in the New York Times in September, all the fourth-graders at Lakewood Elementary, Matthew’s school, gathered in an assembly to learn about AIDS. “It’s just good not to touch somebody else’s blood,” Scott Allen told his son’s classmates. “Blood is not to be played with.”
The fear that Matthew would become another Ryan White, who fought a two-year battle in the late eighties to attend a public school in Indiana, did not materialize. So far, no parent from Lakewood has asked to withdraw a child from school. If anything, Matthew has been treated as a hero. He is popular and out-going. The members of his Cub Scout troop encouraged him to keep participating. For his tenth birthday, Matthew took fourteen of his buddies out for pizza. “Kids shouldn’t have to keep secrets,” Matthew told me in late September. “It goes against their nature.”
To look at Matthew, you would never guess that he is a gravely ill boy who has already lived four years longer than his doctors expected. He is a beautiful child who has his father’s dark brown hair and his mother’s wide cheekbones. Most days Matthew is a constant flurry of activity. When he isn’t chasing his dog, Radar, through the house, he grabs bananas off the kitchen counter or fixates on a Terminator video game. When asked to describe himself, Matthew didn’t hesitate. “I’ve got my dad’s sense of humor,” he said, laughing, “and my mom’s common sense.”
Still the members of his family have learned that death can be a spontaneous part of any conversation. Once after his mother died, he was flying a kite with his grandmother, Wanda Allen, but the wind was too strong, and the kite got away from them. “Don’t worry,” Matthew told his grandmother after the kite was out of sight. “Mom will catch it for us.”
Near the end of a long fall day, as we were driving near White Rock Lake, Scott noticed that Matthew had a mouthful of bubble gum and was in the process of blowing an enormous bubble. “Don’t pop it on your face,” Scott chided. Too late. Pop! Matthew giggled through a web of pink goo.
“Dad,” said Matthew, “when I die, you better pin a note on my shirt telling whoever is in charge not to give me bubble gum.” Scott laughed and promised that he would do just that.
“Never mind,” said Matthew. “I guess I won’t wear clothes after I die. I’ll be naked, just like when I was born.” This time Scott had no comment. All three of us drove along in silence.
I remembered part of the conversation I had had with Jimmy Allen in Georgia. When I had asked him what he had learned from all the tragedy in his family, he thought for a long time. “What I’ve learned is that each of my three sons love God in their own way and that all three of my sons love me,” Allen said. “Suffering has taken me to a place beyond theology. What I’ve gotten to is love.” What he meant was that he had learned to see the world through Job’s eyes—the good and the bad, the just and the unjust—and live in peace, resting in the unknown.
In the end, Job realizes there is no justice, only wisdom, and wisdom is given by God in suffering. Each member of the Allen family was given his own private answer. Scott is an Eastern mystic. Lydia devoted herself to helping others. Skip lives on day at a time to please himself. Bryan wept. Matthew is a prescient ten-year-old—he sees with the clarity of someone who has lived with death. And Jimmy? Well, Jimmy is certain in his Christianity.
At the end of the book of Job, God told Job that the reason he had suffered was because Job wasn’t present at the creation. “Don’t you think that’s a crummy answer?” I asked Jimmy Allen.
“The important thing to me is not what God said to Job, but what Job said to God,” Allen insisted, reminding me that God appeared to Job and comforted him. Then suddenly he dropped all pretense, and I saw him as an ordinary man, separate from the authority of his vocation. The veil dropped from his watery eyes, and he sobbed. “Like Job, before all this happened, I had only heard of God with my ears,” said Allen. “Now I’ve seen Him face to face.”