My high school years were spent in the desert of Southern California, but to me it felt more like a wilderness, vast and empty. During the summer it was so quiet that many shops and restaurants would close from Memorial Day until Labor Day.
But my mother had a different view. She knew that each person counts, especially in a wilderness, and so she would “collect strays,” people who didn’t quite fit in, who felt like they didn’t count.
Among the “strays” was Don. Don was tall, good looking and really funny. And he was a a 30 something gay man struggling against the challenges of not having family support, His joy and humor made an impression on me, a 14 year old kid, still in the closet.
My mom regularly brought in people who were on the outside; people whose family or community didn’t or wouldn’t support them. As a high school student in the 1970’s I saw how difficult life was for, people like Don, like me The discrimination of lesbians and gays, deprived them of even the most basic rights. So many battles for things we take for granted today, were yet to be fought. To be openly gay or lesbian came with so many risks, personally and professionally, against which there were no legal protections. To be accepted for who you were, to be in a safe place was a treasured gift. For Don and the others my mother welcomed at her work and into our lives, our home was an oasis. By modeling inclusion and hospitality, especially for these young men, I learned a lesson in acceptance and the value of each individual person.
Many decades have passed I am now at the opposite end of the continent, I live in Maine. Maine too is a wilderness for many people, after all it is a state reputedly with more moose than people. Here in this beautiful, sparsely populated place there are those who know the value of every person, every marriage, and every community. And they are willing to stand up and fight for the rights of others.
The best example of this valuing was demonstrated in the work done in 2011-12 to bring marriage equality to Maine. The marriage equality campaign understood the best way to educate our neighbors on the value of equality was to treat everyone as if they mattered. This meant walking door to door and meeting face to face. The goal was to meet and to educate, to share and to listen. The message of the campaign was about the value of marriage and marriage equality. Every marriage should count; every family be valued.
Today in Maine the conversation has shifted to ensuring the rights of transgender people. However, the message is the same, we all count, we all deserve to be safe in our communities, our state, and our country. There have been successes and yet there is much work to do.
Nearly every year, the LGBT pride month coincides with the reading of the Book of Numbers/B’midbar. The Book begins not only with the Israelites wandering in the wilderness traveling toward the Promised Land but also with a census of those on the trip. The dual titling of this book of the Torah teaches us an important lesson: In the Wilderness/B’midbar — Everyone Counts. Each one of us matters as we make our way to our common future. In fact that is is the only way we can reach the “promised land”. We are still wandering, though we are closer, and by joining in with your voice, you can help take us a step closer. Until every person matters we will always be wandering in a wilderness.
Rabbi Darah R. Lerner serves Congregation Beth El in Bangor, Maine