A giant figure in the tiny world of the Episcopal church died last week. Louie Clay, known for most of his life by his “maiden” name of Louie Crew, was the founder of Integrity, which through its activism since the 1970’s attempted to transform a church that was once called “the Republican Party at prayer” into something like a gay bath house where Unitarians parade around in vestments. When I was on the front lines of the Anglican wars a decade ago he was a towering figure, and came to embody the flamboyant radicalism of his wing of the Episcopal left. He was revered as an elder statesman by everyone on that side of the aisle.
But a funny thing happened while we were fighting each other. We became friends. We only saw each other in person a couple of times, but through the strange portal of Facebook, we communicated often. For the last several years, we always made it our habit to wish each other a happy birthday, not through the usual posting on each other’s page, but in a brief private message during which we exchanged a few pleasantries and wished each other the best in the coming year.
Last June, on neither one of our birthdays, I sent him a message out of the blue to let him know his name had come up in a conversation which reminded me to check in on him. His health had been in decline for quite some time. He related a recent fall he had endured, and our chat quickly turned to a topic he and I shared a strong interest in: Food. In our annual chats, we would almost always end up talking about what kind of culinary kick we were on at the time. He told me in detail about his remarkable weight loss a few years ago – in excess of 130 pounds. During that last chat back in June, he extended an invitation to join him and his husband at their home outside NYC for a dinner in which he would prepare for me “the fatted calf and all biblical trimmings.”
We were ideological opponents to the very end, and our visions for the church could not have been more different. Louie succeeded wildly in his quest, while I failed. And although I recoil at his vision for the church – the realization of which he is largely responsible for – I have to tip my hat to him, however grudgingly, for his laser-like focus and decades of persistence. The movement he helped set in motion ended up having a huge impact on my spiritual life, and eventually connected me to the dozens of bishops, priests, theologians, and writers I now call friends.
The very last thing he wrote to me in that chat from June is, I believe, as good an example of Louie’s disarming charm as there could be. He had thanked me for checking in on him, and asked me what culinary pursuits I had been up to since we last talked. I told him about my struggles trying to perfect New York-style pizza. He told me about his attempts to replicate Luciano Pavarotti’s spicy Neapolitan pasta, after watching the Ron Howard documentary on the famous tenor. Then, as the last thing he ever wrote to me:
I wish we could break the transportation boundaries for olfactory and gustatory delights. Step into a capsule and immediately access a Bedouin feast. A Moroccan poet brought me a vial of Argan oil. Some nomads feed animals with the hard nuts and retrieve them from their droppings, much in the same way the Chinese revere bird droppings in caves to make their delicious Bird’s nest soup — which along with shark fins soup — is a staple of all weddings for the poor as well as for the rich.
Thank you for your prayers. I appreciate them more than you can know. You are in my prayers too.
Rest in peace, Louie.