When it was time to find support as the spouse of someone with Alzheimer’s disease, I did my usual thorough research. I consulted the Alzheimer’s Association website and found a list of groups in my area. I started trying them out, but none of them seemed to fit. I didn’t care for the facilitator, or too few people attended, or the time and place were all wrong. That was until I tried the group at an evangelical African American Baptist church about a mile from my house.
Initially, this did not seem like a match made in heaven. After all, I’m white, Jewish and a lesbian. I really wasn’t sure what kind of reception I would get. Fearless is generally my middle name, but even I was somewhat anxious entering the church that first time.
It didn’t help that the building itself is a maze. I wasn’t even sure I would ever find the meeting, but I did. When it was my turn to introduce myself, I hung it all out. “My name is A and my wife has Alzheimer’s disease. I’m not a member of this church and never will be. I’m also gay. I’m looking for a place where I can connect with other people who are dealing with loved ones with Alzheimer’s disease. If any of this makes you uncomfortable, please be honest with me. I assure you there will be no hard feelings on my part.” Then I shut up, and the acceptance I felt was immediate and palpable.
Over the last two years, I have gotten to know our facilitator, who single handedly cared for his mother with Alzheimer’s disease and now is planning to adopt a 13-year-old boy from foster care. I met D, whose husband suffers from Lewy body dementia. He now lives in a continuing care community where she often takes the overnight shift. I became acquainted with P, whose mother alternates weeks living with P and her brother; and S, who has not enjoyed a date night with her husband in years because one of them must always care for S’s mother. They are my friends, my confidantes, and my heroes. I have learned so much about the disease and resources in our community. I hope I have shared information and equaniminty with them. More than anything, I have learned about love and grace and community.
Earlier this week, my support group hosted a gathering that included our loved ones with Alzheimer’s disease. It was wonderful to meet the parents and spouses of my support group friends, and I was happy for them to meet J. A number of people asked if we were legally married and reacted with approval when they learned we were.
And so my stereotypes of African American evangelicals were burst. We are, after all, every one of us children of Abraham. We are facing similar challenges. It just doesn’t matter that our skins are different colors, our loved ones are different genders, or that we are on different paths to the divine. I’m still not 100 percent comfortable when all prayers are in the name of Jesus Christ, or when the pastor made a pass at converting me to Christianity. But I respect that I am a guest in their house. And I wonder how different might the world be if every group welcomed a stranger as my support group has welcomed J and me.