By Larry Jamison
In the book “An Ordinary Catholic: A View From The Pew,” one of the greatest gifts Thomas Arthur Nelson says he received is that of the birth of his gay son (when was the last time you heard that one?). The gifts Nelson gives us, in return, are his thoughts and experiences as a sobered (sometimes somber Catholic), and activist for the rights of LGBT people. Truth be told, none of us imagine having to fight for what is good and right in places that teach “Love others as you love yourself.” Yet, for many of us, we all come to that point in our lives where the last straw is pulled out of our psyches. For Nelson, that last straw was pulled at his place of worship in a message that judged gay people with an unforgiving verdict of condemnation — all on the heels of the loss of his wife.
The following courageous actions by Nelson shock and hook the reader early on – he makes a very public stand in the defense of his gay son. We are then pulled away from this lightning bolt moment (perhaps too quickly) and are taken back in time for the backstory. Using text, pictures, journal entries and letters, we experience Nelson growing up in Michigan as a Catholic. We travel with him from the innocence of the ’40s and ’50s, and through the questionable, turbulent times like the ’60s and ’70s. There are heartwarming family stories, interesting supernatural experiences and iconic settings like a terrific tale about riding out a storm on one of the Great Lakes. We soon witness a man who once considered himself a “roaming” Catholic, as he puts it, compelled to dig into his faith. His spiritual experiences are incredibly touching as he finds rich rewards, but also foreboding red flags signifying dangers to come. See, there are few things organized religion hates worse then someone who questions or challenges the status quo. Nelson has clearly set sail on a challenging course. Regardless, you can feel Nelson’s charm, passion and love which leap off the pages and gently embraces you. It is no surprise, then, that one of the most stalwart of Cardinals is forced to acknowledge Nelson’s questioning heart as life’s trauma’s has its way with this faithful Catholic.
Though Nelson himself would hardly admit it, he comes with the credentials of a graduate from Notre Dame, a veteran of the navy, and a past president of PFLAG for many years. Additionally, he makes a passionate case as an experienced father, for why his gay son was the biggest turning point in his life. Both whom, with a pension toward suicidal leanings, take turns saving each other.
The harsh treatment of homosexuals within biblical inspired organizations is a running theme woven throughout the book that sends Nelson’s family in varying directions in their faith choices. Tough as they are, the wounds are as apparent as much as their persistence to get the answers they demand.
We get quite a history on Nelson that comes across like a virtual kaleidoscope of stories and reflections. These stories will no doubt touch different people for different reasons. However, readers will find large portions of exhaustive detail and descriptions of events that really don’t add to the story. One example would be the actual birth process for all of his children whom we hear little of afterward. It clearly proves the point that even Nelson himself admits to: this book is part memoir for his family. Make no mistake about it, though, this book has supportive LGBT themes woven throughout. His gay son is not the focus of the book but rather a turning point in his life. It is a love letter to future generations, so who can fault him for that? For those with a spiritual leaning and LGBT loved ones, this book is well worth reading. If you are a Catholic, then it truly is a must-read.