Love is but a song we sing. Fear’s the way we die. You can make mountains ring.
Or make angels cry.
– Get Together
(Chester William Powers)
Lyrics ©Universal Music Publishing Group
Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, EMI Music Publishing
It has been nearly twenty- five years since my friend, boss and part time moral compass Bert transcended this plane. I say transcended because people like Bert never truly pass away, much less die. Bridges, highways and building wings are rarely named for them. Instead, we erect monuments to them in our hearts.
In the modern American Christian vernacular when an individual faces a crisis of conscience, resolution is often sought by asking the simple question “What would Jesus do?”
Nothing against Jesus, to the contrary he appears to have been an amazing human being. I am an agnostic with atheistic tendencies so to my mind turning water into wine, feeding multitudes by magically multiplying loaves of bread and fish, walking on water, restoring eyesight to the blind and raising the dead are less miracles than they are fanciful (albeit valuable) allegories meant to teach, so that we may experience more fully the spiritual joy of our own blessed humanity.
As illuminating as these stories are, our path is most brightly lit when we are in the presence of those who exemplify true virtue every day of their ordinary lives. This ability is however anything but ordinary. Rather, it is quite extraordinary.
Bert Ottley was only 46 years old when he left us in 1992. But spiritually he was an ancient possessing a wisdom that few acquire in life spans twice as long.
He was a black man raised in the south by his grandmother and a committee of strong black women who valued community, education and work ethic. They shared a common love and commitment to Jesus Christ. They raised Bert with these values and he in turn, without proselytizing, passed them on to others solely through the force of his actions, personality and enormous smile. He was also gay. I believe that he would have been loath to define himself as either a “gay” man or a “black” man or, even worse a “gay- black” man. Rather he was first and foremost a man, his race and his sexual identity were indeed inherent and essential to who he was but any attempt to define his essence by these two traits would be missing the point. To those of us who loved him he was simply, Bert. And that was enough. More than enough.
Bert’s Jesus was not just an historical figure but rather a living, breathing force who exercised understanding while offering eternal forgiveness. One only had to know Bert for a short time to bear witness to his exclamations of “Praise the Lord” or “Alleluia”. The expression I cherish the most now in retrospect however, was the one he used when he called upon his skills as a former school teacher. When I would kvetch about my various dis-satisfactions over some work related detail (generally something monumentally insignificant) he would push his glasses down to the tip of his nose, look me directly in the eyes and with the power of his gigantic grin simply say two words, “Now, Tom.” That was all. That was it. That was all it took. No lectures were necessary and within moments I would be laughing at my own absurdity. Bert had a way of making one feel foolish and then making you love him for it. It was a rare talent that he exhibited frequently.
He hired me as an usher/assistant/bartender when he managed the Joyce Theater in New York City. On more than one occasion I saw him use the same type of technique on unsatisfied patrons. I discovered during those years that an elaborate wardrobe and expensive jewelry could often be directly linked to a poverty of manners. He never lost his temper (this is not to say he didn’t experience anger, he just never let it win) he was always gracious, charming and sincere.
The roof of the Joyce was in desperate need of repairs and funding for such a project was non-existent at the time. Bert and the super Jimmy came up with a system of well- placed buckets, cloths and makeshift signage designed to provide a certain amount of protection and guidance to the collected masses during a sudden rain storm. It was not unusual to witness an usher run down to his office in the middle of a show shouting “Bert, the roof is leaking”
Eventually Bert’s Jesus called loudly and he began the odyssey of entering the Episcopalian ministry, leaving a safe and secure job at the Joyce to journey down a road with no shortage of obstacles for a middle aged man. We were unaware at the time that his Jesus was also calling him home. I guess the lord does work in mysterious ways. Eventually he was accepted into the prestigious General Theological Seminary in Chelsea, right down the street from the Joyce. I looked forward to enjoying a series of lunches with him over the next two or so years. It was not to be. Bert had AIDS.
I visited him in NY Hospital towards the end. I remember sitting at the side of his bed as an oxygen mask covered his face, his eyes wide from the physical discomfort which belied the huge grin that never seemed to abandon him. I leaned in and whispered, ‘Bert, the roof is leaking’ and he laughed as if he weren’t dying, defying the cruelty of the virus that he knew was killing him. We shared a last look. I left because the line of people outside was snaking through the waiting area. A few hours later his long- time assistant and close friend Denise called to tell me he was gone.
In the years since his departure monumental events have occurred. A black president was elected, but read the comments on almost any news page on the internet regarding Barack Obama and it is evident that we are not living in the post racial society many of us assumed such an event would result in. It also saddens me that gay marriage is now legal but comes too late for Bert and his longtime partner Cliff. Unfortunately fearful and bigoted challenges to this new expression of liberty will continue and under the current climate it seems the whole matter is likely head for resolution by the United States Supreme Court.
We are living in a time of great contradiction, an era of enormous possibilities as well as polarizing fears of anything or anyone perceived as “the other”. These fears threaten to fray the very fabric of our liberty. Labels substitute too freely for foundation and fact. The very humanity of our friends and neighbors are cheapened by demonetization and coarse caricature . School teachers are slighted as mere “union thugs” and any attempt to humanize an unfair and inefficient system of healthcare is simply called “socialist” in nature. Adjectives of anonymity too often are used to define flesh and blood human beings while their selected identities are buried under the dirt of the most obscene rhetoric.
In the years since the Obama election two particular stories regarding the use of the pulpit, an instrument Bert aspired so lovingly to, caught my eye. Both of them made me shudder.
In the first a minister in North Carolina (Bert’s native state) called for the concentration camp style detention of homosexuals. This “man of god” suggested that the males and females be separated and their food be dropped in from airplanes, like care packages into a war zone. He said that eventually the whole ‘problem’ would be solved because these people would not be capable of reproduction. Maybe this is true, strict gender specific camps would preclude the occupants from reproducing but I truly doubt it will end the reproduction of gay human beings. As far as I know every single homosexual walking the planet at this time is the result of a heterosexual union.
The other story is even more disturbing because it comes not only from the pulpit but from the mouths of babes. A four year old boy stood in front of the congregation of an Indiana church and sang “aint no homos gonna make it to heaven”. The congregation stood and cheered, no doubt teaching this little boy that hate of certain types of people is encouraged by God. Suddenly I am full of fear and pity for a child whose innocence is being stripped in the name of a vacant and dangerous ideology. St. Paul himself said that the most important qualities were faith, hope and charity (love) and of these the most important was love. I challenge anyone to find the love in either of these two instances.
At the time of his death Bert’s tenure as the manager of the Joyce Theater had been long over. Yet when word spread of his illness and passing the response was overwhelming. The theater rented two school buses to transport a mixture of Joyce employees past and present as well as dancers and indeed some patrons, out to his funeral in East Orange, NJ. Such was the power of Bert and his Jesus.
I am still friends with some of my colleagues from the Joyce, despite the fact that it has been more than a decade since any of us were last employed there. I think all of them would agree that the bond we all share from those days is in no small part attributable to Bert. The power of his spirit continues even now. In preparation of this piece my friend Laura put me back in touch with Denise, Bert’s aforementioned assistant and the person from our crew who was closest to him. What a pleasure to read her stories and revelations about this all too mortal man who through the force of his humanity achieved a rare sort of immortality.
I like to think at this stage in my life that I have no regrets. They serve no real purpose. We do not get to do anything over. Do overs are for the playground and life is serious business. So when confronted now in the later years of my own life by events that tilt me towards anger, fearful of the future for those I love and will one day leave behind; when I seek reconciliation of my own spirit I ask, ‘what would Bert do?’ And even in my darkest moments I see those glasses flip down, the open smile and the direct gaze that says not only ‘Now, Tom’ but also perhaps ‘forgive them for they know not what they do’.