Seven years and a day ago, my family said goodbye to a most remarkable man. He was the Dr. Reverend Thomas Barth, but to me he was simply “Uncle Tom.”
It is a rare and beautiful thing when you have the opportunity to connect with someone whose spirit is so loving, so disarming, that you can truly be yourself – all of you- without hesitation. Keenly and wisely connected to a God greater than himself, there is no question that Uncle Tom was steadfast in his Christian beliefs. But unlike many others who so deeply believe and identify themselves as Christians, Uncle Tom was comfortable in the midst of anyone. Atheists and agnostics were not welcomed in with a plan to convince them otherwise; they were welcomed in with a plan to love and accept exactly as they were. I will say this boldly: more than anyone else I’ve ever known, Uncle Tom embodied the spirit of Jesus Christ.
Uncle Tom’s story, as he told it to me, was that when his older sister Sally – my mother- was on her deathbed, she cautioned him, “Life is short. Go be you.” This life-altering exchange put him on a trajectory to take an honest inventory of himself and his life. Over the course of the next 18 months, Uncle Tom lost and buried many more people in his life, including his own parents. He struggled with his own health challenges and faced his own mortality. As dark and lonely as this time of his life was, it ultimately led to him ending his marriage and telling his family after 40 years of painful secrecy that he was gay.
Now I would love to tell you that my family applauded his efforts to be true to himself and sprang into action to provide loving support, but that simply is not the case. It took years and countless hurtful exchanges for some people in the family to arrive at a place of peaceful acceptance. I have no doubt that there were some very dark days where Uncle Tom felt the searing pain of a broken heart. Even so, he stayed the course. He had left the corporate world so he could follow his passion and return to seminary school. He eventually received his doctorate in theology and was installed as a pastor in the United Church of Christ. After being part of a few different churches, he found his home as the pastor for a small, fledgling church in Waukegan, Illinois – a church I had affectionately dubbed “The Church of Santa’s Misfit Toys.” It was the perfect place for him to be, because no one can heal a broken soul like one that has been previously broken itself.
It was over the course of these years of painful growth that Uncle Tom’s life really coalesced. He met and married a partner who was a partner in every sense of the word, and was eventually assigned the term of endearment “Aunt Bill.” He built an incredible allegiance with his two children, Todd and Carrie, and loved them as fiercely as I’ve seen any parent love. When he moved just an hour away from my sister and me, he welcomed us in as part of his “Christmas family” and treated us as affectionately as he did everyone in his life. He told us stories and made us laugh with his silly, outlandish antics, and he helped my sister and me keep the memory of our mom alive. He even provided mentorship to our friend Matt, and helped him understand that it was possible to fully reconcile being gay and a Christian – a reconciliation Matt desperately needed and carries with him to this day.
Greater than any of this, though, Uncle Tom lived out the values he so frequently preached. In short, he forgave. It is the single most important thing I learned from him, that the key to a happy life is forgiveness. He lived it, he breathed it, he taught it by example. His forgiveness of those who had hurt and betrayed him in his times of desperate need was one of the most profoundly beautiful things I have seen.
He left us in the blink of an eye, but Uncle Tom stays with all of us in subtle and tender ways. A cardinal landing on a branch to pause and sing their sweet song, a bowl of chocolate ice cream before going to bed, a hearty laugh at the absurdity of life. Seven years and a day have gone by, and I’ve never stopped missing him. I’ve also never stopped knowing my life was richer for having had him in it.