During a recent doctor’s visit, anxious at what the news would be, I prayed. “WTF?” I asked the God who I often am ticked off at or don’t believe in, “Why is this happening to me?”
The Rev. Malcolm Boyd, an Episcopal priest, author and gay and civil rights advocate, who died at 91 in Los Angeles on Feb. 27, would have understood my profane prayer. Boyd, one of the first clergypersons to come out as gay, championed the lonely, the underdog, the pissed-off-at-God – everyone praying in un-churchy language in places from bars to highways. In his writing and ministry, he brought prayer and social justice advocacy away from stained glass platitudes and hypocrisy into soulful prose poetry and the streets. Boyd is survived by his husband, the author and therapist Mark Thompson.
Boyd, who blogged for the Huffington Post until nearly the end of his life, wrote more than two-dozen books, from his 1969 memoir “As I Live and Breathe” to his 1978 work on coming out as a priest “Take Off The Masks.” His bestselling 1965 collection of prayers “Are You Running With Me, Jesus?” became a spiritual classic and secular, cultural phenomenon. Boyd’s jazz-like riffs to God on everything from loneliness to racism to traffic jams spoke to believers and non-believers, who decried injustice and hungered for meaning in their lives. “It’s bumper to bumper, and the traffic is stalled,” one prayer in the book begins, “I don’t feel like being loving or patient.”
“These are some feelings…I wish I could share…with another of your prophets,” wrote Boyd, one of the first white religious leaders to join the Freedom Riders in the South in 1961, in a prayer on racial justice. “I saw and heard you the week before you died. You were as exasperating as ever to everything in me that wanted to be complacent.”
Boyd knew that many of us aren’t comfortable with the language of prayer. In “Are You Running With Me, Jesus?,” he wrote of Daniel, an intellectual, who stood, not knowing how to pray, by the grave of his son who’d been killed in a car accident. “Slowly, it dawns on him that he is praying by being there,” Boyd said.
Half a century ago, before hardly anyone spoke of being queer as anything other than a sin or psychiatric illness, Boyd wrote in this classic of spiritual writing, “This is a gay bar, Jesus, quite a few of the men here belong to the church as well as to this bar. Won’t you be with them, too?”
Most “inspirational” writing is as original as Velveeta and just as appealing. Perhaps, because his language wasn’t “devotional,” Boyd became a phenomenon — appearing on the “Tonight Show” and performing his “prayer poems” with guitarist Charlie Byrd at the Newport Jazz Festival and at the hungry I nightclub in San Francisco with Dick Gregory. (He gave his $1,000 weekly paycheck to a civil rights group.)
Yet, Boyd, born to a wealthy New York family that lost its fortune in the Great Depression, didn’t originally intend to enter the ministry. He was a Hollywood TV and film producer and believing that his life lacked meaning, he was ordained in 1955. Boyd earned a bachelor’s from the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, Calif. in 1954 and a master’s degree from Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1956.
Boyd didn’t languish in 1960s nostalgia. He was one of the leaders of one of the first masses for people with AIDS in 1984, and he helped to start a University of Southern California gay archive. “Is this asking too much?” he wrote in a 2014 Huffington Post column urging Pope Francis to chat with him about religious prejudice against LGBT people.
Thank you for running with us, Malcolm. R.I.P.
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.