I spent last Thursday night in gay bath-house.
Well, not the whole night. Just for three hours or so. Actually, i was back in time to watch “The Office” and the new episode of “Lost,” but it would take a whole lot to wrestle me away from both of those. Anyone with me on that?
Anyway, I was invited by my new friend, Rick. Rick is a man i recently met who has been teaching me a lot about what it means to love, follow Jesus, and live my life with purpose and intention (see my last blog). But, maybe the most intriguing part of the man is where you’ll find him most Thursday nights–in any one of three gay bath houses in downtown Seattle.
Now, i didn’t even know that there were bath houses in Seattle. I suppose it shouldn’t really surprise me; i guess i just hadn’t really thought about it. But since he had explained his presence there i felt compelled to go and discover what would draw a man back there week after week to serve people that many have written off.
Getting there, i thought, would be easy. I had an address. I had a GPS device. I had a car. Pretty much i can get anywhere. But, as i turned down the block and approached the spot where the GPS said i had arrived, i didn’t see anything. So, i drove around the block, still looking. Then again. In fact, i drove around five times looking for a business i was assured existed. Finally, in exasperation, I called Rick and asked him where to go. He told me it wasn’t marked, that there was no signage at all, but that i should simply look for a red door and go inside.
I was definitely nervous to go inside. Mostly because i just wasn’t sure what to expect. But, as i walked through the door, i met an employee at the counter and he ushered me through to the lobby, where Rick was already seated waiting.
Rick explained to me that we would sit here for our whole shift offering “safer sex” kits to anyone that would come by us. Inside each kit was a condom, lubrication, and a pamphlet on HIV/AIDS with educational information and a hotline to call.
As things weren’t too busy initially, however, he offered to give me a tour of the club. Not really knowing what a bath house was–i was still picturing a giant pool with people lounging around in pool chairs sipping ice-tea and others sitting on the edge of the pool dangling there legs in the warm water–i said, “why not?”
Now, i’m not sure i have the courage to explain to you everything i saw that night inside the bath house. But, there were some things i saw that were pretty normal: a internet cafe with people checking their email, a tv lounge with “My Name is Earl” on, and a normal looking shower area with lockers. What i didn’t see was any sort of “bath” or large pool.
But, without exposing you to everything i saw, let me explain the general purpose of the club. The basic idea is it is a place for gay men to gather and either purposely–or more often it appeared randomly–meet other gay men and engage in sexual behavior together.
And let me tell you, i was relieved to get back to the lobby! While too much for this blog to convey, there was much to see that made me quite uncomfortable. In fact, I felt like i was holding my breath during the entire tour.
However, as we got back to the lobby, i understood much more fully why we were there. We weren’t there to hand out kits that could possibly be used. We were there because the kits we handed out that night were SURE to be used. The job was no longer optional, it was necessary.
That night we sat there handing out kits to everyone who came in. And roughly half of the people coming in accepted our gift. We even got three guys to agree to be tested for HIV by the King County Health Department doctor that was there with us (In just 20 minutes, each of them knew their status).
But, it was the drive home that i had to process everything that i had experienced. And for those of you who have asked, here is what i learned…
1) Stereotypes are dead. If there were any stereotypes of what it means to be gay, or beyond that gay and in a club like that, they are gone now. Guys from every walk of life came in the club that night. Old. Young. White. Black. Asian. Wealthy. Poor. None of it mattered. There were no guys in drag. It was people you walk among and live around all day long. Any attempt to label people or stereotype them never seemed more wrong.
2) Homosexuality wasn’t the biggest problem. If you really pressed me, i would have to admit that i believe that homosexuality is not God’s ideal. In one way, i hate to make that claim. Not because i don’t authentically believe it, but because so many are saying it without love. I say it this way because i believe it is a difficult issue and a deeply sensitive one. Not involving theories or abstracts, but involving real people with real loves, desires, dreams and ambitions.
However, that wasn’t the biggest issue in a club like this. It was, to be sure, a very dark place, but not because gay men gathered there. The darkness came from the intent of the club. The club exists in order for people to meet (randomly?) and have their pornography and sexual addictions fed. The bathhouse operates to encourage people to engage in highly promiscuous and dangerous sexual activity. Activities that destroy relationships, encourage isolationism, damage families and promote disease.
Had this been a heterosexual club, it would have been no less dark. And in this way, homosexuality wasn’t even the major issue.
And i suppose that leads to the most important thing i learned:
3) God calls me to love people that others (especially many Christians) consider worthless.
I suppose at one point, just before i walked in the door that night, i may have considered them worthless as well. I was afraid of them. I was judgmental of them. I had already labeled and categorized them.
But, something happened as i watched guy after guy enter the club that night. In a glance, I started to look into their eyes. Although really, very few were willing to actually look anyone directly in the eye for long. And what i saw was not sub-human. They were not worthless garbage to be discarded. The were not “lost causes” to given up on and condemned.
They were Imago Dei. They were the image of God. They were and are created in the very same image of God that i am created in. And beyond their oppression to a sexual addiction, they are still valuable and beautiful.
So, I asked Rick, “How many churches help out with this?” He said he couldn’t think of any. So i asked, “How many Christians do you know that help out here? And again he couldn’t think of any.
Hundreds of people, like slaves oppressed by evil, flock to the bathhouses each day. And not a single Christian, other than Rick is anywhere in sight? That just doesn’t sound like the Jesus i know. And let me be clear, i’m not primarily picking on other Christians here, i’m shocked most at my own un-Christlike absence.
Would Jesus go to the bath house? I don’t know. But, i know he went to the places that no one else thought a respected religious leader should go. He showed up to parties at tax collector’s houses. Hung out with notorious sinners and prostitutes. He even invited a hated tax collector to be among his elite few, 12 disciples (Matthew 9:9-13).
And so, i arrived that night thinking that the people in the club weren’t worth the piece of latex we were handing out. But, I discovered instead that Jesus lives there. He lives there in the form of my friend, Rick, who sees beyond their addiction to the divine imprint and beauty in each of them.
If you ask Rick why he’s there, he might simply tell you, “I’m a doctor. And there are sick people here.”
Ironically, Jesus said the same thing when questioned about why he hung around the condemned of his day, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor-sick people do. For i have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.” (Matt. 9:12-13)
In that way, Jesus might more often be with Rick at the gay bath house, than with me in my house.