Confessions I, Part 2: I used to not care much about homeless or mentally ill people

Photo displays a tent in Franklin Park, Washington DC

Franklin Park encampment, photo by Benjamin Burgess

PREVIOUSLY: Jeff Taylor told readers he knows he is far from perfect but that he has generally tried to treat others as he wishes to be treated. He’d give himself a solid “B” grade, leaving room for improvement. He explained that confessing publicly to moments when he has stumbled is a way to make sure he wasn’t “BS-ing” himself and said he is willing, “by the grace of the greater universe, to work harder at being an a**hole even less of the time.” In Part One, Jeff detailed his relative economic stability and confessed to having paid for sex, out of occasional desperation and not without a sense of shame, as a gay man forced to remain in the closet…

I ended up leaving the Midwest to come to D.C. because, by an unfortunate set of comedic missteps, my sexual orientation became known to the personnel committee of the church where I worked. It wasn’t a problem for everyone. But for just enough key detractors, it was enough to shove me out the door. And out of the closet once and for all! 

I had been informed of a group called More Light Presbyterians, a former subsect of the Presbyterian Church USA that championed changing the church’s official standing on the ordination of members of the LGBT community. I did my homework and landed a job at a More Light church in Rockville, Maryland. And so, I was off to the East Coast.

Now back to the confessions.

I used to not care much about people who were homeless

 

The little Presbyterian church I now worked for had a multipurpose room with a stage and a commercial kitchen on the third floor of the education building. The aging and dwindling congregation didn’t use the space much for community events, especially since there was no elevator. But the space was put to good use as a handful of women founded Rainbow Place, a winter women’s shelter. Looking after the needs of the shelter was the heart and soul of the church.

I admit, when I saw the space I thought to myself, “Gee whiz, we could do a bunch of fun dinner theater stuff in here if it weren’t for all these homeless people.” Shame on me!

The tradition for the church’s youth group was to serve dinner one Sunday each month and prepare bag lunches for the next day. Of course, as director of the youth group, that meant I was also volunteering at the shelter. I fell in love with the culture of the place and ended up joining the staff. The women were treated with as much dignity as possible. I loved the residents. Eventually, I was asked if I would be willing to serve as president of the board.

The embezzlement

 

I don’t have a lot of regrets in life, not more than a few things for which I’m still deeply ashamed of to this day. This is the one thing for which I may never forgive myself and will always regret.

When I moved to the D.C. area, I was convinced this was a place where I could meet that special someone. But the love of my life was elusive. I was still having to pay for intimacy — only, like everything else, it cost a hell of a lot more here than back in Peoria, Illinois. 

My little “sessions” were now running an average of $175! In Peoria, I could scratch my itch for as little as $40! Neither Salary Calculator nor I factored this dramatic budget increase into the cost of living in the comfort to which I had grown accustomed. This became a problem in a mere matter of months.

One of the final acts of the pastor on his way out the door was to hand me a checkbook to pay for the youth group’s summer mission trip. I was to be the sole signatory, with no accountability to anyone. There had never been an audit since the congregation trusted staff in these matters. 

It most certainly, at that moment, never occurred to me that I was even capable of breaking that trust. Nonetheless, circumstances were what they were and in an initial moment of weakness, I convinced myself it would be OK “just this once.” I fully intended to pay it back, after all. It wasn’t like it was stealing, I assured myself.

I could go into more detail as to the circumstances around that first time I used mission trip money to pay for sex, but let me just say I regret it more than anything I’ve ever done.

Now, this next paragraph is not one of my confessions, but it needs to be included. 

I specifically came to this church because it billed itself as being open and affirming. I was extremely disappointed and felt very threatened when, after I’d been in this new position for less than six weeks, the interim search committee recommended a young conservative to be the next temporary pastor. This individual opposed my eligibility to be Elder or Minister of the word and sacrament (governance positions within the Presbyterian Church). I really felt betrayed. I’m not using any of that as an excuse for what I ended up doing. But I can’t help wondering if I might have remained more stable. I can’t help but wonder if I would have had the sense and strength enough to tell myself “no” when the notion of borrowing money that wasn’t mine to pay for escorts first entered my head. 

Anyhow, I had every intention of paying it all back from the first time I did it. “Surely I’m bound to meet someone and live happily ever after and pay the money back with nobody being ever the wiser,” I figured. 

I desperately did not want to have my misdeeds exposed, not out of fear of the consequences to me, but out of guilt at having betrayed the trust of a whole lot of good people. I didn’t want to hurt them. They had already been burned by a former director of education for sexual misconduct with one of the senior high youth. 

I did everything I knew to do to try and meet someone beyond hiring escorts. I moved from Gaithersburg into Logan Circle, D.C. I joined the Lesbian Gay Chorus of Washington. I regularly went to a couple of gay restaurants in my neighborhood. Still nothing.

I didn’t meet anyone and the job wasn’t working out. I was offered three months severance. I had only a couple of months to pay back the money, something that just wasn’t gonna happen. My new plan was to use the severance to pay back what I had taken. 

I figured I had two choices: skip town with what little was left in the account and live the rest of my life on the lam, or step up, fess up, and let the cards fall where they may. 

I agonized over that like few other decisions in my life. I eventually decided on the latter choice. I was lucky to have been a white man admitting to a white-collar crime. I received two years suspended sentence, a year of supervised probation, and had to pay restitution. Oh, and of course the church revoked the severance.

I was told by my boss that the church had been legally advised, should they be contacted as a former employer, that prospective new employers should be notified that they may want to ask me about a matter of financial misconduct. Fortunately, I had already lined up a new job before anyone knew anything and my new employer, the Conference on Opportunistic Infections (CROI), never found out about the embezzlement.


 To be continued in Part 3, “Pimping, penance, and poverty.” 


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