Never give up on those you love
My life took a dramatic turn after my first year of high school. I knew I didn’t fit into the football-centered, pep-rally, boy-crazy culture of Rogers Senior High, but I still wasn’t close to understanding how my sexuality played a part in that. All I knew was that I wanted something different. Unbeknownst to my parents, I mailed a letter to the principal of a Catholic girls boarding school in Adrian, Michigan—run by the religious order my Aunt Millie had been a part of-- asking what it would take for me to go there. After receiving the principal’s encouraging reply, I approached my parents and successfully negotiated permission to go away to boarding school for my junior and senior years. They weren’t thrilled with the idea, my mom especially, but I knew my life was about to change for the better.
Sister Joy Christi greeted us as my dad pulled the car to a stop in front of the St. Joseph Academy dormitory. Joy remembers her first impression of me as a red-headed teenager armed with a Bible, a guitar, and an air of confidence. I remember feeling like an awkward, nervous girl, but one excited to be back in the familiar environs of Catholic school, especially one free of any expectations to impress boys. Joy’s boundless energy and broad smile obliterated all apprehension about whether I had made the right decision. I immediately felt at home.
If Sister Stephan had been my first infatuation, Sister Joy was undeniably my second. In my two years at the Academy, I took every class she offered from Algebra II to “Jesus the Man.” Because she was our dorm advisor in addition to being our math and religion teacher, Joy was around 24/7. Most evenings, me and several of my classmates would gather on the floor of Joy’s room as if sitting at the feet of a guru to talk about everything from relationships to spirituality. Joy’s thunderous laugh could be heard throughout the halls, so it wasn’t uncommon for Sister Barbara, our other dorm advisor, who we always figured was just jealous, to come down to shush us up and often shoo us out. That didn’t deter us though. We were back the next night ready to bask in the light of Joy.
I’ll never forget sitting on that floor one evening when I told her I’d decided to run for senior class president, and then again a few weeks later, when I told her I’d decided to drop out of the race. “Why would you do that?” she asked—not in an accusing way, but in a genuinely concerned way.
I explained that I didn’t feel I deserved it since I was the new kid on the block. The other students had known each other for several years already and who was I to come out of nowhere and upset that? Joy calmly reminded me that this was not a popularity contest.
“You have a deep spiritual center and grounding that these girls need,” she said. “You are a leader and that’s what this class needs right now. Don’t sell yourself short.”
That reassurance was all I needed to stay in the race and when I won, I knew I had Joy to thank. She helped me see myself and my role in a way I never had before.
Years later, after I’d graduated college and was living and working on my own, Joy decided to leave religious life. I invited her to come live with me for the summer as she prepared to begin her studies at Harvard Divinity School. By the time summer ended, our relationship had matured to another level and we became lovers. Joy began her studies that fall, and a few months later, I followed her with a plan to start a Master of Social Work program at Boston University the next fall.
Between the constant studying and many jobs as we both held to manage the cost of two graduate school programs, we didn’t have much time to spare. But that didn’t stop us from building and nurturing a rich community of friends and engaging in social action, from “take back the night” marches and pride celebrations to planning the first ever national lesbian and gay seminarians conference in our living room.
Within three years, though, our love relationship ended. I had fallen in love with someone else. It took a while for us to heal the hurt between us, especially the hurt I caused her by ending what we both believed would last a lifetime. Joy and I never lost touch though, even when things were strained between us--because that’s who Joy is. People come first, even when things are messy.
When we found ourselves both living in North Carolina in the early 2000s, we re-established our connection, tentatively at first, then more deeply. I treasured having her and our friendship back in my life.
Joy’s gift of forming and maintaining deep relationships with people she meets is a marvel to me. No matter what is going on in her life, she finds the time in her always too-busy schedule to send a text, mail a card, or make a call to friends new and old about everything from birthdays and holidays to anniversaries and illnesses.
When I invited Joy to my MFA creative writing program’s graduation in 2013, she didn’t know a soul, but that didn’t faze her. Rather than sit back as a quiet observer, like I might have done, she became an active participant, reaching out and connecting with anyone she found to be of interest. In fact, Joy is now married to one of my classmates she met that day, and students, faculty, and staff members alike treat her as family.
Even after watching her all these years, I admit that I’ll never be as good at it as she is; in truth, it requires more selflessness than I possess. But by watching how Joy interacts with others, how she truly values each and every relationship, I am called to nurture the relationships I have and, at the same time, open myself to welcoming new people into my life. You never know when someone you meet might eventually become the most important person in the world to you. It happens. Joy is a living testament to that.
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