Saving Grace

This is Lexington, a small town only an hour outside of Atlanta. But in this land of boiled peanuts and dairy farms, I feel worlds away. I’m in the Georgian countryside, at the home of Burl Salmon, my former high school English teacher and a graduate of Yale Divinity School. His neighbor is the photographer for the magazine Gun and Garden, the self-proclaimed “Soul of the South.” I’ve been here a few times to visit Burl on trips back from college, and the area has always felt familiar. Though I grew up in Atlanta, my family comes largely from rural Virginia in the Blue Ridge Mountains. There, as here, the pace is slow. It’s a sweltering summer afternoon and thunder-rolls reverberate through the surrounding pastureland, promising a storm. Still, Burl and I sit together outside on his porch, that sacred Southern meeting place for socializing and storytelling.

“Would you like a glass of lemonade? Sweet tea?” he offers. A slight Southern twang accents his speech.

The first time I met Burl, I was a teenager at a small, nondenominational Christian private school in Atlanta. Though my classmates would have denied being bigoted, gay people just didn’t fit into our conservative, privileged bubble, and we had never had a teacher as open about his sexuality as Burl.

He charmed my high school English class—and soon the entire school—into not only accepting, but also embracing his identity. For years, I have wondered how Burl managed to prove likeable even to the boys who called him a “fag” behind his back.

After I graduated, the school honored Burl with its most prestigious teaching award. Earlier that year, he had led the homecoming day parade in silver stilettos and a blond wig in the style of Aretha Franklin.

**

This fall, Burl will leave my old high school for a position as chaplain at an Episcopalian middle school in Charlotte, North Carolina. After making it through an unusually convoluted, decades-long process to become an Episcopalian priest, he is eager to start his first job in the ministry. He will commute to Charlotte during the week; on the weekends, he will continue to live with his husband Bob in their white-washed old farmhouse in Lexington. The house has fallen into disrepair, but they are giving the dining room a fresh coat of paint in a color I doubt it has seen before: “I call it coral, kissed by shrimp.”

“This is home now,” Burl explains. Here, in this old house, in a town where his ancestors once lived, he is finally putting down roots with his partner of ten years—and his cat, Caspar. “Never forget the cat,” he instructs me.

This place reminds Burl of the farm where he grew up outside Natchez, Mississippi—a town whose motto is, “Where the Old South still lives.” Imagine mansions straight out of Gone with the Wind lined up along the mighty Mississippi. These antebellum homes are still owned in large part by families who struck rich on “white gold,” when the town was a major cotton exporter in the nineteenth century. To this day, local families participate in the Natchez Pilgrimage, a celebration of Southern opulence involving hoop skirts, long white gloves, and scenes of Confederate life. Burl was an actor in these annual tableaus from kindergarten through his junior year in college.

“It must have been hard to grow up there, right?” I ask.

“Natchez is an odd little brigadoon,” Burl explains. “It is the most liberal corner of a highly conservative state. There’s this acceptance of the bizarre, which is so antithetical to what we understand as the South now, where everyone must be a Baptist and religiously conservative.”

There’s an old joke that most people hide their crazy relatives up in the attic while Southerners put them on the front porch. This is especially true in Natchez. For Burl, it was never unusual to see C.T. Kelly, a well-dressed, mentally handicapped man, wave to passersby while standing alongside a black servant paid for by his trust fund. Everyone waved back. It was equally unremarkable when a mother had a staircase installed down to the casket in her child’s grave in the Natchez City Cemetery because the girl was afraid of thunder, and her mother wanted to be able to sit with her during a storm.

In a town where oddity was the norm, Burl found it relatively easy to grow up as an openly gay boy—at least compared to the rest of Mississippi. The prevailing spirit of Natchez was aristocratic and laissez-faire, the kind of liberalism and sophistication afforded by longstanding wealth. Though sex and sexual orientation were never openly discussed in the community, Burl was just another eccentric local character.

“There were more than a few well-dressed antique dealers in town,” Burl says with a laugh. “I never knew what it was not to be out.”

This didn’t mean that he never got teased at school. He comments dryly, “It is unfortunate that the name Burl rhymes with girl.”

**

Growing up in Atlanta with technically Episcopalian, but essentially non-religious parents, I did not witness such acceptance. A classmate once told me she felt it was crucial that gay people never be allowed to marry. The Bible is against it, she said, “and if we don’t draw the line somewhere—then where will we draw it?” I wasn’t sure what to say. I didn’t know the Bible well enough then to counter that Jesus never condemned homosexuality, the way that Burl could have. I told her it seemed a little closed-minded.

For the most part, Burl, who grew up Methodist, did find acceptance, especially at church. There, he did not encounter the prejudice he did at school—even the anti-gay Methodists at state conferences practiced Southern politeness in all regards. “I never, ever heard anyone say homosexuality was sinful,” he says. “The message of Southern Methodism was that God is love. That’s how I was raised. And as a gay boy in Mississippi, that is a wonderful message.”

Everyone in Burl’s household ƒiattended church on Sunday, every Sunday. If you had time to stay out late the Saturday before, Burl’s mother would admonish, you have time to go to church in the morning. I would expect such a stern mandate to push a child away from religion, but Burl has been intensely spiritual his entire life. In college, he converted to Episcopalianism, the faith in which his father was raised. From an early age, church was his refuge, and he knew that he would devote his life to religious service.

“I believed I had a call,” Burl says. But he could not simply decide to become a priest; he also faced the task of proving to a slew of church leaders that God had chosen him. At any point in the long path towards priesthood, any Episcopalian official could stop the process, for any reason.

“It’s probably a medieval construct,” Burl admits. “It has become a place for the exercise of power for persons that might not feel they have power in other places.”

In 1995, he took the first step toward ordination by applying to seminary, and needed the official endorsement of his bishop, the elected head of the Episcopalian church in Mississippi. In New Jersey that same year, a bishop had ordained an openly gay man and been put on trial for heresy by the Episcopalian Church. If he was acquitted, it could be very good news for Burl, the Mississippi bishop said. But until then, he was simply unwilling to give Burl his support. Natchez may have been unusually liberal, but the state was still highly conservative.

So Burl enrolled at Yale Divinity School (YDS), the only seminary in the United States that did not require the official support of a bishop for matriculation. He hoped to return to Mississippi and complete the ordination process after the trial concluded.

At YDS, Burl found that the combination of his sexuality and his Southern background made him an object of fascination.

“They were like ‘Whoa—you’re gay? And you’re from Mississippi? And you’re Christian? How did you survive?’” Burl says. “I actually had people ask me if I’d received electroshock treatment.”

His classmates eventually got to know him better and, like at my high school, ended up respecting him. They elected him as student body president in his second year.

Yet a small group of Christian fundamentalists—some of his own YDS classmates—regularly spoke out against homosexuality, calling it a sin and even inviting an anti-gay speaker to lecture in the Divinity School’s quadrangle.

“I remember being prayed over by a student,” Burl tells me. “She asked if I would see the light.”

Burl holds that in the Old Testament, even in the Ten Commandments, “there are prohibitions against sexual expression. But there are never prohibitions against love or commitment.” And prohibitions against homosexuality, he points out, come alongside prohibitions against eating shrimp, getting a tattoo, and wearing clothes of mixed wool and linen fibers.

If someone tries to use one of the Old Testament passages against him, Burl says, he asks them if they are wearing polyester. And if they are, “I remind them that they should be stoned. And then we discuss the absurdity of what they just said. Maybe over a nice shrimp dinner.”

He hoped the Mississippi bishop would see the issue similarly and recommend him following his graduation in 1998. By then, the New Jersey bishop had been acquitted; the court had ruled that nothing in the core doctrine of Episcopalianism barred the Church from ordaining a gay or lesbian priest.

Yet when Burl went back to Mississippi, the Jackson bishop told him that ordaining a gay priest, even then, would be tantamount to political suicide in his current position—one for which he had been elected by a largely anti-gay state.

“You’d make a damn fine priest,” he remembers the bishop telling him, “but I’m not gonna touch you with a ten-foot pole.”

When Burl reflects on that second formal reflection, he says, “I felt like I had been let down by my own people. I was bitter at the church as much as I was bitter at my home state.”

But Burl still believed he had a calling, and he certainly hadn’t given up on God. He moved to Atlanta. There, unlike in Mississippi, the bishop allowed gay and lesbian members of the Church to be ordained as long as they did not have a same-sex partner.

For a year, Burl hid his sexuality for the first time in his life, and never talked about his partner, John. It was the first time in his life he was forced to be secretive, and it was nothing short of psychological torture, he says.

“That was the most wretched and damaging year I have ever had. It was so incredibly cruel. And in the middle of it, my partner left me and I couldn’t speak about it.”

Georgia’s rejection came insidiously and from behind closed doors. In the end, the church officially denied him the position on the grounds that he was “arrogant” and “lacked pastoral sensibilities.” But at a cocktail party a short time later, Burl’s friend heard a different reason: “Oh, you know,” a member of the Atlanta Ordination Committee reportedly said over his drink. “Burl’s just too gay.”

**

Burl finally gave up. He moved to Washington, D.C. He worked at a wine shop and a stationery store for a year. He met Bob. The ordination process was no longer at the front of his mind. After all these setbacks and rejections, you might expect some crisis of faith, or at least some disillusionment with the Episcopalian Church. Yet the Church continued to be a home to him.

“That’s the odd thing about me,” Burl explains. “I’ve never felt abandoned by God. I very often would ask God, ‘Why?’ But, if anything, I always found peace and solace in my relationship with God.”

Despite the years of hopes followed by disappointments, Burl realized that he still wanted to be a priest. He just didn’t want to go through the ordination process again, and he never imagined that he would return to Atlanta. Burl says, in retrospect, that he was running from God’s call.

After six years in D.C. and one in New Orleans, he received some unexpected news. The Lovett School, in Atlanta, was offering him a job. He had good reason to believe it was still impossible to become a priest there, but before declining the job, he decided to check. During his time away, the Episcopalian Diocese of Georgia had elected a new leader.

Burl decided to pay the new bishop and got on a plane to Atlanta. “I said, look, here’s the deal. I have been offered a job here, and I want to go through the ordination process. But I’m openly gay, I’m not making any apologies for it, and I have a partner.”

The bishop’s response: “So when are you moving?”

Burl was taken aback, and skeptical. “I had learned not to trust men in purple shirts,” he admits. Despite his mistrust of church leadership, he took the new job because he felt it was God’s will. He moved to Atlanta with Bob, and became my high school English teacher.

He was ordained as a deacon in 2011, two years later. In 2013, he was ordained as a priest. Even after the bishop placed his hands on Burl’s head, officially marking him a priest in the Episcopalian Church, Burl remembers thinking: “Did that really happen?”

After twenty years, Burl Salmon finally celebrates his ordination with friends and family.

Sitting on his porch, I think: surely the story can’t end that easily. I feel like one of the students at YDS, wondering how Burl has survived as a gay priest in the South. But I ask him anyway. People in the congregation must approach him to argue, to pray for and over him?

Burl admits that he has encountered quiet resistance. The committee of his local parish didn’t come to his ordination, nor did they congratulate him. But Burl also has other stories. Just this past June, Burl says, he was in the lobby of an Episcopalian church in Charleston, wearing the collar that marks his priesthood, when he happened to mention Bob in conversation. A middle-aged woman in a smart summer top, along with her seersucker-suited husband, came up to him and said, “I’m sorry, did you just say husband?” Burl responded yes, of course. Tears appeared in her eyes, and she hugged Burl’s neck. “Thank God,” she said. “My son is gay. And I needed to hear that.”

After twenty years of church resistance, it looks like the South is ready for a priest like Burl. “It’s like, what’s the big hairy deal?” Burl says, thinking back on all the years he spent in the ordination process. “If people are so insecure about sexuality and the church, then they need to go do their own work. Because God has already done his.”

In Burl’s New Testament class back in high school, I didn’t learn what God, Christianity, or the Church meant to him, personally. Now, hearing the saga of the path to his ordination, I have a fuller understanding of Burl’s theology, the set of beliefs tying him to the institution that nearly destroyed him. He tells me that he fundamentally believes that, “God is grieved by the faults and delineations of human constructs. He only desires the happiness of people.”

We’ve been sitting on the porch for two hours now, so I finally take him up on that lemonade. The rain still hasn’t come.

Ashley Dalton is a staff writer for The New Journal.

  1. “Episcopalian” stands alone, e.g., “I am an Episcopalian”; “Episcopal” must be followed by another word, e.g., “He is an Episcopal priest”. In other words, the above article should have said “an Episcopal middle school”, “process to become an Episcopal priest”, “any Episcopal official”, “the Episcopal church in Mississippi”, “Episcopal Church” (five times, six if you count the tags), and “the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia”.

  2. What a beautiful and beautifully written article…lovely tribute to Burl! Thanks so much for sharing!

  3. Insightful, tender article about a wonderful man, beautifully written and deeply thoughtful. But CS is right about Episcopal vs. Episcopalian. The latter isn’t an adjective even though it sounds like one.

  4. I grew up in Texas with a gay brother two years younger than me whom I loved with all my heart. I knew instinctively that he was gay in spite of the straight life he portrayed in high school. I was thrilled when he left for CA during college and was finally able to live the life he wanted. Thank goodness he didn’t waste years trying to hide who he was due to hostile intolerant attitudes. So I read about Burl’s life with tremendous admiration for his courage and his eventual success at living a joyful life on his own terms, both personally and professionally. He is an inspiration for all of us to be true to ourselves.

  5. I am glad to say that I served at Burl’s ordination to the priesthood. I do wish the author of an otherwise excellent article had done some homework. The Lovett School was originally an Episcopal School. The Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta severed ties with it when the school refused to admit Black children, among them the children of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

    Also, there are two Episcopal Dioceses in the State of Georgia. The Diocese of Atlanta is the diocese where Burl and his husband’s home is located and the diocese that ordained him. The other diocese in the state is the Diocese of Georgia and is a less progressive and significantly smaller in numbers than the Diocese of Atlanta. The two dioceses were created in 1907. The Diocese of Atlanta is the 10th largest diocese in the Episcopal Church.

  6. Correction to my earlier post: There was only one diocese until 1907 when the Diocese of Georgia was split into the Diocese of Atlanta and the Diocese of Georgia. The Diocese of Georgia dates back almost to colonial times.

  7. In my village I have an iaeidmmte neighboring couple (I don’t know what you call it there, party wall, duplex, whatever two houses contiguous and built in 1840) who are regular church goers, and I have noticed a study bible in an obviously well used condition and location, when I have been visiting. Others very nearby who have a light hearted argument going on about who is the most Catholic the widower is high Church of England and the wife in the Irish Catholic family runs a service in the village Hall. The only animosity comes from an ex-nun who chastises the wife for taking a lead role. The rest of my iaeidmmte neighborhood is atheist or apatheist.I think we are all grateful that there is none of the stuff you are describing here.Although, there was a bible study group for a while, cancelled for lack of interest.I think it is people who want to impose a very demanding and public face on their beliefs and activities that screw it for others. These people can be strict believers with strong views (like Henry with his anti gay rhetoric) or militant atheists (militant arthritis is more my problem) they all consider that they are right and every one has to show respect and give them their rights, I am old fashioned I think you have obligations as well as rights if you live in a community.

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