Dr. David Williams: Hope and healing, from the operating room to the pulpit

Dr. David Williams: Hope and healing, from the operating room to the pulpit

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Dr. David Williams is a man of many skills. In addition to being the interim pastor at Metropolitan Community Church-Christ the Liberator in Hamilton, N.J., he is a trauma surgeon and an engineer. Since there’s so much to tell, let’s get right to it.

PGN: Where are you from?

DW: I was born in Jamaica: English mother from Jamaican extraction and my father was American, also from Jamaican extraction. I went to elementary and high school in Jamaica.

PGN: My grandfather is from Jamaica, and apparently the men in our family have distinctive features. When my older brother visited, people asked if he was a Nash.

DW: Interesting, when I saw your name I immediately thought of my childhood pediatrician, Phillip Nash. The motto of Jamaica is “Out of many, one people.” We’re a big melting pot. My mother’s father was an Irishman, Graham. My father’s father was Indian. I went to high school with white and Chinese friends who had stronger Jamaican accents than I do.

PGN: Cool. Describe the neighborhood you grew up in.

DW: So, it wasn’t a typical childhood; I grew up in different places — partly in Kingston, partly in London but the majority of my time was in St. Mary with my paternal grandmother. It was a very rural area with a lot of cousins around.

PGN: Siblings?

DW: I have a sister who’s eight years younger than me.

PGN: What did the folks do?

DW: My mom was a nurse and a midwife. My dad was an engineer-turned-accountant.

PGN: And now you’re in medicine and engineering. Which came first?

DW: I studied engineering, biochemical engineering and then medicine.

PGN: What was one of the hardest parts of all that schooling?

DW: Well, my senior thesis was on anti-retroviral therapy. I hated it for one major reason. We’d just started using computers back then and I wrote it in Word Perfect. I remember the sheer pain of it; if you made one mistake, you had to start all over again. We had a dot matrix printer in the computer lab and it took me eight hours to print out 40 pages!

PGN: Where did you go to school?

DW: I went to Seton Hall for undergrad, then Columbia University.

PGN: Who was an influential teacher?

DW: [Laughs] Mrs. Brody. It’s funny-looking back, I was a bright kid but always opted do to the absolute least amount of work possible. As long as I wasn’t dead last in class rankings, if I had one person worse than me, I was happy. I was one of her favorites despite, but one day she just got fed up with me. She took out the strap and I got two across the back and that turned me around real quick. I went from last to first in a day. Different times …

PGN: When did you come to the States?

DW: Right after sixth form.

PGN: When’s that?

DW: At about 13 years old. In the Jamaican and British schools, we had to take what’s called “The Common Entrance Exam” between 10 and 12 years old. You sat down with every other child that age on the island for an exam that lasted about eight-10 hours and tested everything from English composition to arithmetic to mental ability. It happened on the last Friday in January and the results were printed in the newspaper “The Gleaner” in June telling you which kids scored high enough to advance to high school. About 75,000 kids take the test but they only had room for 5,000 to go to high school, so it was very competitive. [At this point, he tells me about the class load and other testing to advance to the next form, etc. It puts the U.S. to shame …]

PGN: Wow! So it must have been a shock to get here, where they advance kids who can’t even read functionally.

DW: Yes, it made college easy for me initially. Most of my credits were accepted, so I was a 16-year-old in class with 19- and 20-year-olds. It was an adjustment, especially without my mates around.

PGN: What was a favorite subject?

DW: [Chuckles] None of them! I was involved in student government and the international students association but apart from that I just wanted to get in and get out.

PGN: What did you enjoy doing as a kid?

DW: I ran track and I was part of what was called the School Challenge. Jamaica at the time had one television station, the JBC, which operated from 4 p.m.-midnight. Each high school selected a team of four to compete against the other schools. It was basically a quiz format, knock-out matches until you were the last team standing.

PGN: What was your best moment, when you knew an answer no one else did?

DW: I answered a math question that up to this day I’m still trying to figure out how the hell I knew! My job on the team was to cover biology, chemistry, general knowledge, history, literature and math. We had a speed round and the host asked us to solve an equation. As soon as it was out of his mouth, I knew the answer. I didn’t write it down or anything, I just knew. I still remember it to this day, the answer was 0.2 but I still don’t know where it came from.

PGN: Tell me what you do now and how you got there.

DW: I’m the interim pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church in New Jersey. MCC has about 240 churches and 30-40 countries and I serve as the global program officer for health and wellness and HIV/AIDS. I also served on the board of the New Jersey AIDS Partnership. And I still work from time to time in the medical field.

PGN: You were a trauma surgeon. What was the craziest thing you’ve seen?

DW: [Laughs] Oh boy. I worked in grad school as a paramedic in New York. Let’s just say one incident involved a woman and a Coke bottle that had to be removed surgically. I received a lot of sexual education that year. Another case involved two men who came into the ER. They insisted on a male doctor before they would say what was wrong and then gave me the third degree asking if I had any issues with gay men or if I’d ever been with a man. It was none of their business but to put them at ease I answered truthfully. Turns out they had been experimenting with sounding; that’s a practice where a stainless-steel rod is inserted into the urethra to enhance sexual pleasure. To each his own, but these two numb nuts decided to try it without having the proper equipment so they used one of those little cocktail swords that you get in your drink with an olive or cherry speared onto it. He was fine and it was one of the few times that I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing.

PGN: I was in New Hope last week and we wandered into a fetish shop. I saw a rod kit in the display case and had a guess that’s what it was used for, but didn’t know the name.

DW: Ha. Over the years I’ve learned not to ask questions I don’t need explanations for. Because if you do, you have to put it on the official record for the insurance company. “How did that man’s hand get up that guy’s anus?” “I don’t know, maybe the first guy was on a ladder painting and as he was falling his friend tried to catch him … ”

PGN: When did you know you were gay?

DW: I always knew but growing up in a country like Jamaica, there’s a term for it that you may have heard of, Batty Man. Being openly gay was at the peril of your health and your life. So I never experienced “gay life” in Jamaica but teenage boys experiment no matter what they claim. When I was a teen, I had crushes on girls but never felt compelled to go anywhere with it like my friends did. My family on my dad’s side were Pentecostal Christians, as I like to say, “Saved, sanctified, Holy Ghosters, water-baptized, Jesus-saved, Halleluiah, Amen!” So it was not the best environment to come out in as a teen. Even as an adult, I’m the only out family member and it’s still whispered about to this day by my extended family. I fortunately was blessed with a wonderful immediate family. The first person I told was my sister. Her exact words were, “Great! Finally something interesting in this boring-ass family!” My father’s reaction was, “OK, are you the same person as before?” I said yes, and he said, “Well, I don’t understand it, but I do love you and that’s that.” I was thinking, Who are you and what have you done with my father? I expected this whole, “Get out of my house, I have no son” tirade and it was nothing like that. My mom sussed it out when I came home on vacation. I had this whole fake story about a girlfriend and when I left my mother interrogated my sister, asking her, “This ‘girlfriend’ of David’s is not a girl is it?” She said, “Uh, why don’t you ask him yourself?” instead of saying, “What are you talking about, Mom? You’ve got it all wrong.” I said, “Dummy! That’s about as close to an admission as can be!” My sister said that my mom cried for three days about the loss of grandkids and weddings and that sort of thing and on the third day she called me and asked if I was gay. I hesitated and she snapped, “Boy, don’t you think about it! It’s a yes or no question!” I said yes and she said OK and moved on to another subject. She was supportive from that moment on, they all were.

PGN: Nice. Have you been back to Jamaica?

DW: Yes, every few years to visit my sister but when I go back I’m the straightest guy around. A lot of people know, but as I mentioned, it’s a safety thing so I keep to myself and family. I hang around with a lot of Jamaican folks here but they’re all educated people. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people at home who are not educated and the church latches onto them and beats them over the head with homophobia, preaching chosen portions from the Bible while ignoring others. At MCC, we refer to it as spiritual violence. A lot of it is left over from Victorian laws brought to the island along with the hyper-masculinity that pervades the culture.

PGN: I’m sure being colonized and enslaved, emasculated and castrated for so long contributed to that.

DW: Yes, you just know there were slave masters going to the auctions thinking, Oh yeah, I want him … The men were just as vulnerable as the women in that situation but you don’t hear about it.

PGN: How did you get involved with the church?

DW: It’s an interesting spiritual journey. I was baptized Anglican, aka Episcopal, then went to Catholic boys’ school for two years. Because of my rambunctious actions and refusal to conform, I didn’t fare well. The final straw was when they put me on Ajax duty, which was supposed to entail me coming in on a Saturday to scrub toilets. My mother was not having it so Nurse Graham — make that Sister Graham — drove to school in all her regalia, cape and all, and told the priest that no way in hell was her son scrubbing anybody’s toilet and it was because of priests like him that we had the Spanish Inquisition.

PGN: Mom is the bomb!

DW: Yes, though getting that same priest drunk during Friday Mass didn’t help. I was caned for it but it was worth it! After that she said, “I don’t think David is adjusting well here, I think he needs to be transferred.”

PGN: You have a wild side.

DW: [Smiles] I prefer to call it mischievous. I have since tamped it down a bit. So my paternal grandmother was full-blown Pentecostal, which meant getting up on Sunday mornings. People would come from far away to gather at her house and stay until Monday morning. I still have memories of being woken by the choir singing “Hallelujah.” I really admire that woman; she had two kids of her own — my father and uncle — but raised 16 kids: cousins, children that had nowhere else to go. She was religious but practical. I remember one of the church sisters getting pregnant and everyone wanting to shun her and she said no, this is the time when she needs us most. The horse is already out of the barn, so there’s no need for outrage, it’s time for compassion. She always challenged the hypocritical side of the church. Somehow I got out of going to all the sermons and also got away with not having to do any of the farm chores. When I started college, my dad and stepmom were heavily into the Baptist Church and as the child of one of the church leaders, they made it clear that I was to attend and to comport myself properly. After that, I went away from the church but always had a strong sense of faith. I went to one of those mega churches but there you’re just a number and I was completely lost. You’d just have a guy up there pacing back and forth, sweating and preaching but saying absolutely nothing. I became a C&E Christian.

PGN: C&E?

DW: Christmas and Easter. I’ve never been in one place for long, I’ve always traveled the world on different assignments. But in 2008, I was living in Jersey and decided to Google “gay church” and Christ the Liberator popped up. I went to a service and I haven’t left since. It was like coming home. I joined the board and began doing public speaking for them. I sometimes joke that it’s like a cult: They grab onto you and show you the gifts that you didn’t know you had. I love the work that I’m doing, especially as a gay man of color. There’s such a disproportionate number of us being affected by it. It’s even worse if you’re transgender. I was just in Baton Rouge, La., and the epidemic there is out of hand and there are no resources. So we try to do what we can to reverse the tide.

PGN: What’s causing it? Just lack of knowledge?

DW: There are what I call barriers to care. The stigma is a big part still and the churches contribute to that. Preaching that [being gay is] an abomination and sick silences people. When people are afraid to get tested, it just perpetuates the situation. Also when people are poor and marginalized, they often take to drugs or alcohol to numb the pain, which makes them more vulnerable for HIV/AIDS. And on top of that, you have a government slashing money for treatment. It’s the perfect storm.

PGN: A favorite Christmas past?

DW: We decided we wanted a Christmas tree for my grandma’s house in Jamaica so my cousins and I scoured the area until we found one of the few evergreens on the island and cut the top. We made the decorations out of cartoon strips. There was no Elmer’s Glue so we made paste out of flour and water. We cut aluminum foil to make tinsel and found candles to light the tree since we didn’t have string lights. Five minutes after lighting it, the whole thing was ablaze. Thankfully my grandmother had the forethought to have buckets of water on standby. Looking back, it was hilarious.

PGN: Where do you get your sermon topics?

DW: I usually go by the lectionary, but at times I stray. I once did a lecture on hospitality inspired by the gospel comedian Pat G’Orge Walker. She’s the author of “Sister Betty! God’s Calling You, Again!” and writes fun characters like Sister Ima Hellraiser, Lyon Lipps and Deacon Laid Handz from the Ain’t Nobody Else Right But Us — All Others Goin’ to Hell Church. Recently I did a sermon titled “Desperate times call for desperate measures: WTF.” It stands for “Where’s the Faith?” n

For more information on Metropolitan Community Church-Christ the Liberator, visit http://www.mccctl.com.

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