During our time of remember LGBT heroes during LGBT Pride month, I can’t overlook a dear friend if mine who passed last year, a hero in the fight for GLBT rights in my home town of Fayettevile and the surrounding Ft. Bragg, North Carolina area. Several of us who had joined in the fight for GLBT rights in the area joined to remember him at a memorial service shortly after his death. I am including both my words about this and also a poem I wrote in his honor.
I feel he is a southerner worth remembering, whose life touched so many, so I am sharing the words I gave at his memorial. I hope they inspire you and help you get a sense of this great man’s life.
Your progressive redneck preacher,
It is hard to sum up in a few words the life of someone who has touched you so deeply. I have to admit I tried several times and the words would not come.
I first met Rabbi Jernigan at a gathering at the Unitarian-Universalist church related to the movement to try and prevent an amendment banning same-gender couples from marrying from being added to the NC state constitution. We struck up a friendship right away. He was full of passionate opinions, full of colorful humor, and incredibly open about who he was. To be honest, at first with his many piercings, tattoos, and colorful stories I did not realize he was a rabbi.
But rabbi he was. I remember standing with him together, both dressed in the symbols of our faith, myself as a Christian pastor and himself as a Jewish rabbi, speaking together at a gathering organized by the Alliance of Fayetteville and Equality NC, speaking up against the move to discriminate against GLBT people done then by the state legislature.
He spoke of his own faith that day. He talked about the Jewish principle of tikkunn olam, which calls people of faith and of good will to join in the work of “setting the world right”. He spoke of that call of his faith calling him to work hard to help repair those things that are broken and off-kilter, including the way here in North Carolina so many face persecution for who they are. And this is what Rabbi Jernigan consistently did.
I learned so much from his friendship. First of all, he was like family to all who came to know him. He would fill your heart with laughter. He could be fierce in defending those who mattered to him, yet tender in friendship to those close. I still remember the laughing way he would reach out to pet Kat’s service dog Isaiah, or the way he spoke with fatherly kindness to the exchange student who stayed with us one year.
Yet his example for justice stands out. While his own faith was deep and strong, rabbi Jernigan did not let barriers of culture or religion stand in the way of reaching out. From his example I learned what it means to see all as one people, regardless of culture or faith. He would show up alongside Christians speaking up for GLBT rights, joining arm in arm; among atheists and Wiccans; among anyone on the side of justice. He would speak up for their rights alongside his own. We were all one family to Rabbi Jernigan.
I still remember him saying at one point how much it bothered him that people thought they were being friends to Jews by mistreating Muslims. I have to believe if the shooting of three young Muslim students that occurred where I live had happened in his community, Rabbi Jernigan would have joined the many who stood alongside their families saying their lives matter, and that we are one regardless of our creed or color of skin.
And Rabbi Jernigan was never afraid to speak his mind and to be himself. I remember at one point him telling me, “they’ve been trying to keep me quiet my whole life. My people we tried quiet. Then they gathered us up – Jews and gay people – and put us in camps.” He then showed me a tattoo with the number a relative who was gassed by the NAZIs had. “I will never be silent again.”
I think those words still speak not just to me but to all of us today. Rabbi Jernigan would challenge us – don’t let anyone silence you or make you feel you need to be someone other than who you are. Don’t let anyone tell you to not fight for your rights. Be true to yourself. He would say that the world has had too much of good people being silence.
I think he would remind us that there is still a lot to repair in our world. We won marriage equality but already our state is trying to put loopholes in place to silence those who want equal rights and to make it so in not all areas will counties honor that law. They are trying to build walls to keep gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people out again. I think Rabbi Jernigan would tell us that though he can’t be present to keep this fight alive physically, we can and, if we go remembering him, he is there in spirit continuing the fight.
I think he’d remind us to realize we are all family, and to not let attacks on others who are different cause us to avoid being there for each other. I think he’d tell us to treat each other like family.
He’d remind us of youth gay youth, and youth who like these three Muslim youth in my town, who need someone to be the parent, brother, friend, aunt, uncle, that their own won’t be. Who need people to believe in them and say their lives matter.
Then I think he’d tell us a colorful story, or an off-the-wall joke. I think his living life to the fullest, being as fully who he is as he can be, was our good friend’s way of living out the traditional Jewish blessing of L’Chaim. To Life!
Let’s all honor that L’Chaim blessing. And live our lives so we can fully say “To life!”
Pride of Zion
I will never forget when we stood together upon that grassy lawn,
Your beard, ever wild, waving in the autumn wind, a sun-drenched lion’s mane,
Your voice roaring out your truth, echoing for all to hear
Crying against the oppression of your people saying
Is what you promised defiantly on our first meeting
While showing your tattoos and piercings
Which turned your skin into a billboard testament
Including the number of your ancestor in the camps
“This is what silence does”, you whispered
Voice trembling in despair and rage.
“My people, of the star and rainbow, rounded up and killed.
Never again will I be silent”.
Is it any wonder my heart sank
when I stood by your bedside,
watching wires and tubes cover your mouth
The beep and whir of machines the only sounds
Flowing from your still body
Never again it seemed would I hear
That roaring voice which politicians and preachers
Never before could quiet
How could it now be hushed and still?
Now that the beeping has stopped,
The respirator no longer whirring,
I hear you still
In every voice crying out
“Silent no more”
In every people saying their lives matter
Saying never again shall they be crushed
Though your mouth be silenced, your body stilled,
Never again. Never, never again.
Cry on, dear lion, cry on!