I first met Tom when I was working at Canticle Ministries, an HIV/AIDS ministry in DuPage and Kane County, IL. Tom was on the ministry staff of a large evangelical church and had been asked to help develop a response to HIV. DuPage County’s conservative faith community had only recently gotten involved in HIV/AIDS work thanks to the appearance of Bono at Wheaton College. The energy and focus, however, was almost exclusively on Africa, allowing for many to think they could address the HIV/AIDS pandemic and avoid talking about homosexuality and drug use. Many people, including Rep. Henry Hyde, only wanted to talk about Africa. As one church representative told me, in Africa “we don’t have to deal with homosexuality.” Tom Keefer knew otherwise. Growing up in the south, his church led African missions but did not allow people of color in the pews so, before delving into far-away AIDS work, Tom wanted to make sure his church was a place of welcome for people with HIV.
What unfolded was transformational. Tom opened my eyes to an evangelical community that was not a monolithic group of Bible-thumpers, but made up of a broad range of thinkers and doers; people of deep faith, deep compassion and deep thought. This led to getting to know or be acquainted with such people as Ruth Bell-Olsson (Rob Bell’s sister), Andrew Marin, Jennifer Grant, Suzie Goering, and Cathleen Falsani. He got me to see the amazing goodness where I had assumed it did not exist, and to seeing people not just living in the tension, but embracing it. He did this more with his actions than words, including helping lead local HIV testing efforts with openness and humility, confronting stigma with love. This has been fundamental to what we do at William Penn House and William Penn Quaker Workcamps.
In addition, Tom challenged me – ever so gently – to more deeply explore my own faith. By asking “so what do Quakers believe?” I realized that I could list the “not’s” (war, violence, greed, etc.), but to state affirmations was less simple. Because of his simple question, I can now state with certainty that I believe that there is that of God in All, and mine is to joyfully seek it. Sharing his faith, and encouraging me to explore mine, deepened my Quaker faith while more deeply appreciating his. This now guides the Quaker Workcamps engagement with places like the Southeast White House and Our Daily Bread, as we create opportunities for groups to become comfortable with religious talk so they can see the good works. We also ask Workcamp participants to develop a greater comfort in affirming one’s own faith.
In 2006, an election year when gay marriage was again a hot-button issue, Tom and I were working with Chip Huber from Wheaton Academy to hold a workshop exploring global and local issues related to HIV. As the date neared, Tom called me to say we had to talk. My first thought was he had to back out because of church pressure about doing this with an openly-gay, HIV+ person at a religious school. Instead, Tom wanted me to know that if the question of gay marriage came up and he was asked his opinion, he had to speak his truth – that he believed marriage is for one man and one woman. More importantly, Tom did not want this to hurt our friendship. I was deeply moved by his trust and his faith, and realized then that when his “t”ruth and my “t”ruth come together, a greater “T”ruth” emerges – that we can live together.
In honor of Tom’s gentleness and spirit, take a moment to reflect on these simple words from Isaac Newton: “We build too many walls and not enough bridges.”