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The Yearning of Malcolm Boyd

(What To Do When the salt loses its flavor)

By Andrew Thomas for the Bloomsbury Review 

Five days a week, Rev. Malcolm Boyd drives to the Episcopalian Cathedral Center in Los Angeles and settles into his tiny office on the third floor. The sign outside the room identifies him as “Writer In Residence”. On the door is plastered an abstract portrait of Karl Marx, a reminder of the revolutionary zeal that has propelled the outspoken ninety year-old priest through the turbulent last half-century.

In the last few months, Boyd has finally married his long time partner Mark Thompson (former editor of The Advocate) and is participating in a new feature-length documentary film of his life, alongside an eclectic cast that includes Tom Hayden and Lily Tomlin. Yet it is the written word that remains his favored venue. 

Boyd is indeed a best-selling author with over 30 books to his credit, along with a lifetime of provocative theatrical scripts, controversial essays, and a continuing column in the Huffington Post. His writings, like his activism, find common ground between spiritual introspection and compassionate confrontation.  

It was 1965 when a cherub-faced Boyd in a clerical collar appeared on the cover of his breakthrough collection of free–verse prayers, “Are You Running with Me, Jesus?” – a modern redefinition of the meaning and articulation of prayer. 

“Prayer, for me, used to stand as something separate from other parts of life. But I have come to learn that real prayer is not so much talking to God as just sharing his presence… I can no longer conceive of lying to him in proper Old English or any other style of speech.”  (Intro to “Are You Running With Me, Jesus?”)

Focusing on the right questions has always seemed a greater, more immediate concern for Boyd than divining a single answer, and his best-seller targeted the triangulation of angst between God, Man, and those persistent evils born of an unsteady, existential age. Consider the titles of his prayers:

     “What was Hiroshima like, Jesus, when the bomb fell?”
     “This is a homosexual bar, Jesus”
     “I’m nowhere, Lord, and I couldn’t care less”

Controversy erupted upon publication, often because Boyd’s vocabulary is as raw as his ideas. He exposes himself in an almost reckless fashion, then frees us to do the same. And it seems perfectly natural that his writings can sometimes be better appreciated when performed – as he did in coffeehouses, nightclubs and jazz haunts, like his two-week gig at the hungry i in San Francisco in the mid-1960s. 

In taking dialog with God out of the stone sanctuaries and into the streets, Boyd laid down the gauntlet against hypocrisy while introducing a new tactic for promoting peace and justice.

“I am angered,” he wrote in the book’s introduction, “as are many students and other youths, by worshippers who deny in their actions outside church what they ‘pray’ about for one hour a week inside expensive Gothic or Colonial buildings. There is a hypocritical gulf between mouthing verbal prayers about Negroes and then resolutely manipulating a white power structure to keep Negroes in housing ghettos and interminable second-class citizenship.”

To say that Malcolm Boyd has always been a “work in progress” is an understatement, illustrated by his remarkable journey from the secular to the clerical, and all the hidden sacred places in between.

In the mid-1940s he was a Hollywood producer (partnered with the legendary Mary Pickford), though ironically this experience had a boomerang effect. “I got very close to the pinnacle of power and prestige and fame,” he reflects, “and then saw it as utterly shallow and tragic, therefore its appeal ended.”

In a sudden, life-changing moment, Boyd rejected his show business career, bid adieu to friends and the world he knew, and migrated from atheist to priest, entering a seminary in Berkeley, California. What followed were years of study alongside liberal intellectual theologians (like Reinhold Niebuhr, William Sloane Coffin, Jr., Thomas Merton)… alliances with cultural icons from diverse points of view, ranging from Hugh Hefner to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. …and a lengthy arrest record as a result of his activism against racism and war.

Malcolm Boyd still enjoys direct engagement – he has taken over the People’s Mic at Occupation gatherings, and “occupied” his own holding cell after being arrested a few years back while demanding that the City of Los Angeles take greater responsibility in dealing with the AIDS epidemic. For Boyd – an original Freedom Rider, outspoken provocateur, advocate, activist, leading Gay Elder and now a 90 year-old newlywed – controversy, non-violent action and the occasional incarceration come with the territory.  

    “Boyd is a full time disturber of the peace, 
    a jarring blend of Luther and Lenny Bruce, 
    who is attempting to shock religion into being relevant, 
    to get back to what he calls ‘armpit theology’.”

          – London Evening Standard
             March 22, 1967

Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote the introduction to a new biography of Boyd published last year (“Black Battle, White Knight” by Michael Battle), explaining that “Malcolm’s genius has been to show the world that God is everywhere, even for those who say they do not believe in God.” Malcolm strives to expose the divine lurking behind the mundane.

At the consecration of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco nearly fifty years ago, he presided over the world’s very first “Jazz Mass” with composer Vince Guaraldi, an unrepentant populist performance that critic Ralph J. Gleason compared to the pugnacious spirit of Norman Mailer. “Both were concerned with truth,” Gleason explained. “Both with salvation, and both with the link between the here-and-now and posterity.” 

A year later, Boyd was arrested for trespassing into the Pentagon and conducting an unauthorized Mass in the building’s bureaucratic labyrinth of hallways as an action to end the Vietnam War.  

Like every true pilgrimage, Boyd’s path has been beset by obstacles, threats, losses, betrayals, and trials seemingly designed to test the resilience of the righteous. The last time he joined forces with Martin Luther King, Jr. and interdenominational clergy to recite prayers over the graves of soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery, nervous military authorities won a court order directing that no words be uttered aloud by the assembled clerics. Armed security forces surrounded those clerics to make certain that not a sound was made. 

From the moment of his ordination, Malcolm Boyd struggled to “take off the masks” that society imposes on us, and some of the masks we impose on ourselves. In his autobiography, he recalls the veil that fell when first wearing the clerical costume:

“When I first wore the suit and collar in downtown Los Angeles, one man knelt on the street to kiss my hand, and another spat in my face. I will never forget the trauma of this. What was happening to me? I was still Malcolm but apparently not to anyone else. I got out of my clothes and lay face down on my bed. I tried to comprehend such mistaken, fierce love, and such mistaken, fierce hate. (They seemed to be the same.) Was I merely the representative of an institution? Did old superstition, and medieval inquisition, affect my relationships to total strangers? Image had, far more than in my old Hollywood days, taken over from humanness.”

Other times, it wasn’t clothes but color that others used to define him:

“During the summer (of 1964) I was in Mississippi and Alabama with SNCC, I lived and worked – shared my life – with four young men, all of them black and long-time veterans of the freedom movement. One had been sentenced once to a chain gang for a civil rights offense, and all had long experiences of jails, police brutality and rejection by white society. They told me at the outset, ‘We can’t make it with a white this close and for this long a time. You’re not Negro. So you’re going to have to be a nigger with us.’”

With this singular history spanning every major social eruption of the last six decades, there is perhaps no one better suited to explore the role of righteous protest in America today than Malcolm Boyd. In an interview for the Bloomsbury Review, he considers the connective tissue between activism in the 1960s and today, and how to persevere the complications woven into our contemporary social fabric.

[BR] Is there any correlation between the success or failure of social justice movements in the sixties versus today? 

[MB] They’re totally different situations, which is important to understand. But some people don’t understand, so they do an amalgam and there’s nothing there for them. 

I think that something a lot of people don’t understand about the sixties is that nothing was settled, nothing was guaranteed, and I think most people today who are perhaps younger don’t understand it at all – I mean, it’s history and they’ve not personalized it. They’re kind of saying that the Civil Rights Movement or the Anti-War Movement were inevitable, and that it was inevitable that we would win. That is not true, and a great many people who were imprisoned died, and were under enormous persecution. 

I think that the point is a number of people said “this is it, and I’m going down with it if I need to.” But the enemy was equally resolved. There were these horror stories of what happened to so many people. But then you had enough people – the Freedom Ride, let’s not forget, was about four or five hundred people, and was one year. No one ever understood the Freedom Ride, and no one today understands the Freedom Ride as far as I’m concerned – it’s just that there were a number of people, including myself at that point, who said “we care enough, we’re prepared to die.” And that’s extreme.

[BR] Perhaps history has misrepresented the turning points of social protest in the sixties and fifties – that Malcolm X had a much greater effect on the culture than we care to admit, simply for that one line, “By any means necessary.” 

[MB] That was true of all of us because the immorality of the enemy was so blatant. We didn’t pause and pray for 30-minutes about that, we just kept going. I don’t think that anyone understood us ever, to tell the truth. We’d been through racism, we’d been through it all, and here we are again. So when I as an individual got on the bus, on the Freedom Ride, I was kind of making a life commitment. I meant it. So did the rest of us, and I think that no one knew quite how to handle that, and no one obviously did because they didn’t win. And then King came along and added the Vietnam War to it.

In my view it all began in the fifties. I haven’t read that in important books, and I haven’t run into a great deal on that. 

[BR] Well that’s the intellectual underpinning of what erupted in the sixties. 

[MB] Yes, but when it exploded, a lot of people never understood the background that had to exist for it to explode, and particularly in such workable terms. In other words, we were disciplined; we weren’t all complete assholes working out something that we could do with a therapist. There was a Movement. And there was a Rosa Parks, and there was a Martin Luther King. 

I think the closest I ever was to King was when he invited a few of us to Selma, Alabama. King instructed us in non-violence at the time of the Freedom Ride. I didn’t know anything about non-violence. Gandhi… India… had nothing to do with me. Suddenly King was saying, “It’s the way you pick-up the phone.” Like if you’re the head of Warner Bros and you grab the receiver and roar “YEAHHH???” That’s not non-violent.  

And that has affected me deeply, particularly recently, because instead of trying to change the world with an angry determination it’s a switch-over to changing the world by changing yourself. 

[BR] Some tend to look back at the participation of religious figures in the Civil Rights and Anti-War Movements as if their presence gave a moral gravitas to the struggle. Was the idea of “keeping the faith” critical because at the time there was still a possibility that all these protests could end very badly?

[MB] A good number of people at that time were thinking, maybe praying – there was something more substantive there than we ever realized. I’m thinking of the Pentagon arrest. The war had gone on and on, and it wasn’t an event that precluded others but perhaps it had a meaningful impact. We were a small group. We were religious. And of course today we wouldn’t be able to get anywhere near the Pentagon! 

But we had on these funny robes, I mean these Eucharistic robes. We entered the Pentagon and no one questioned that, and we were doing a Peace Mass in the corridor against the Vietnam War. I’m the preacher and was asking, “What happens when the salt has lost its flavor?”, and then the policeman with the megaphone is shouting, “You are under arrest!” It’s a pure sixties moment.  

What got to me was that I had been arrested several times on Civil Rights and Anti-War things, and was a little sick of jail cells. So we’re being transported past the White House on our way to jail, and I’m thinking Billy Graham can have dinner with President Nixon as a guest of honor, but I with another viewpoint have to go to another jail cell. And I didn’t like that. 

A jail cell isn’t particularly romantic, but we had something funny in this jail cell though because someone had a bottle of red wine because we were going to do the Eucharist in the cell. The guards saw the bottle and thought that it was blood, and there was a reaction to that. It’s now funny, but it wasn’t funny at the time. 

[BR] Is the action of being arrested for civil disobedience a visceral testing of one’s faith?

[MB] I would think so, otherwise why bother with the mother-fucking situation, with the embarrassment? Otherwise, I see no raison d’être here. In other words, we’re into serious deep waters here.

I dealt with fear. It’s not that I didn’t fear, I just didn’t let it get in my way. Flying into New Orleans and going on the Freedom Ride, of course there’s fear. But there’s a lot of other stuff going on too. What did I really believe and wish to do with my life, and that’s what I wanted to do with my life at that moment. 

I think that the fear was very important. I mean you’re really standing up to society and saying that its mores are incorrect, and that you are prepared to pay any price around that, including being there. 

We’re now at a stage of looking back at this stuff and trying to interpret it. Who were the good guys and the bad guys? What was it all about? Who were these people? Oddly enough, simply because of age and having lived that long, I’m one of the survivors. Claiming no other credit, but I was there at least.

[BR] In the fracturing of the sixties popular culture was the emergence of the counter culture. You didn’t seem counter-cultural. You could be confrontational, but not necessarily abandon the culture.

[MB] I didn’t abandon the culture. I mean, abandoning the culture could be so absurd. I tried not to deal with absurdity. Also, I remember at Yale, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin were once both in the same room that I was in, but they were God-like. This was their constituency, and they were elevated as heroes. They were setting up the enemy, in specific terms, and I was always interested in dialog. If we were ever going to make it, it would be dialogical. It couldn’t be super-imposed. It couldn’t be another form of fascism by whatever title.

In 1966 I went with Tom Hayden and a few people to a meeting in Czechoslovakia with the Viet Cong and Nguyen Minh Vy. A very interesting meeting. What I learned there was that America could never win with the bombing because the Vietnamese had moved underground. The bombing couldn’t touch them anymore. 

[BR] So this dialog illustrated to you how the Establishment is generally unable to respond to changing dynamics in a timely manner?

[MB] The Establishment often strikes me like the Armada, which really doesn’t turn very quickly. Nor am I anti-institution. I recognize the necessity of institution, or the inevitability of it – including, shall we say, marriage, death, education, I mean define it as you will. So then I work within wanting to change institutions rather than abolish them. And I’m also not one who wants to shout “Fire!” in a crowed theater. So we’re into gradation here, we’re into interpretation, we’re not into a Civil War, we are in a situation where we’re able to talk to one another. If we will consent to it. 

At this point I’m a part of the system and it does accept me. And I accept the meaning of system and institution. But that’s not the whole story, only part of it. So I’ve worked out my own definitions.

I don’t have any problem with acceptance or non-acceptance anymore. I realize that I’m something of an enigma to some people, but on the other hand there’s a huge number to whom I’m not an enigma. 

[BR] But the “system” can absorb you if you’re not careful.

[MB] Any system that’s turning you out will make you a true believer. Certainly in Harvard law you are. When you go through Harvard law, you are changed. When you go through the Union Theological Seminary, you are changed. You believe it.  

[BR] But when you exit Harvard law you could become a Johnny Cochran or a William Kunstler.

[MB] Or you could come though the Seminary and become an absolute religious whore.  

[BR] You stood up on moral grounds. Why didn’t everyone who went through that seminary do the same thing?

[MB] Because a number weren’t on any moral ground and never would be. We’re individuals. So I was a stupid kid, wasn’t I? I mean, an awful lot of people were probably looking at me at the moment and saying “What an idiot he is because he’s giving his own life away”. The person saying that would mean “doesn’t he understand that he has no future in the church, doesn’t he realize that by doing that he’s cut his own throat?”

It’s very complicated. I once said to the press, “Look, I didn’t sign on for ‘Church-ianity’.” There’s a whole school that says, “There is no controversy. You obey, and if you don’t obey you should be punished because your allegiance is to the institution, to the structure. Your own ego should not even be a factor. There should be no individuality.” 

[BR] It sounds like the internal conflict of every institution, like what happened in the military with the case of Bradley Manning.  

[MB] It happens constantly with everybody. It’s that old question of the individual versus the structure of the institution. Some people would argue about the institution of marriage. They would say that it stifles and destroys love and relationship, that “I’m honoring marriage more by not being monogamous, and trying to find something that makes sense in terms of myself.” It’s deep because everybody’s life is affected by this.

My point is I was touching a nerve that touched all of us, and doing it in a very public way, and was probably clueless as to what I was doing out of context. I wasn’t thinking of the ramifications. I wasn’t thinking of church history. I wasn’t thinking how this would affect a Roman Catholic Priest in Argentina who was fighting his Bishop. 

[BR] To me you were in the perfect place at the perfect time.

[MB] For what?

[BR] To be an agent of change.

[MB] Well I was an agent of change and have remained one to a great extent. 

[BR] But building a coffeehouse congregation in 1959 on a campus [CSU, Ft. Collins, CO]…

[MB] Well where else was I going to go? At that point the parish ministry wouldn’t have made any sense because they don’t want someone doing this. They want someone to baptize the kids, do the marriage counseling, raise the money, and give sermons that don’t offend. “So what are we going to do with this man? Ah! The students! Those little motherfuckers don’t matter anyway. And they’re going to grow out of it and then they will sell insurance, and be in the church and support it. So let’s do the least volatile thing and put [Boyd] into that category. In fact that could help us because he’ll fit a popular image that will be attractive to the students.”  

[BR] The social institutions of America at that time seemed blind to the cultural blow-back of the experience of veterans from World War II. Black soldiers disillusioned by the contrast of honorably serving their country overseas and still being second-class citizens at home. Similarly older, experienced vets were now enrolled with the younger student bodies in universities – vets who viscerally understood the hypocrisy of war and government and politics – and both situations had a destabilizing influence on traditional cultural memes. Meanwhile academic and political establishments continued to act as if the old pre-war sensibilities were still intact. Isn’t that part of the basis for the Port Huron Statement?

[MB] It was a pure idealism that was completely valid. It was a call to conscience. It was a leveler. The point is if you don’t have that anywhere, what do you have? Why go on? At the moment we don’t have a Port Huron Statement, and very few people are reading it and maybe a very few ever read it. 

[BR] If were to be created today it would probably be a PowerPoint presentation, and likely less compelling.

[MB] You have to get down to what are people’s values, how much are they willing to sacrifice, whom are they trusting, and the question now is do we believe anyone? And that’s where Church-ianity comes into it. I think that at the core of it is a plaintive human cry for meaning. The cry is for love. I never ridicule or minimize the cry. It’s authentic. But I think that we have come up with almost no answer to the cry in the culture because we don’t get the answer in organized religion, although the cry would resonate throughout it.  

[BR] What is the enduring function of the church and the meaning of ritual to the individual? Is it simply a comforting submission to the familiar?

[MB] That’s the yearning. Take that yearning with you into institutions. Take your yearning with you into the University of Michigan. Take your yearning into your marriage. Take your yearning into your life with your kids if you have them. Take your yearning into the religion that was given to you. Take your yearning and see where it gets you. 

We’re on a common journey, and then there are the individual journeys. It’s a little scary at 90, but I think that it’s equally scary at 60, 50, 40, where you sit down alone, turn the TV and the computer off and say, “What’s it all about?” Which is what you have to do.

[BR] Why are people afraid of that? Why do they avoid it?

[MB] Because when they ask it, they don’t know the answer. And we yearn for an answer, or answers. If you were to go with me to Cedar Sinai Hospital right now, there would be thirty rooms where someone is dying, and they’re asking that question. And so are loved ones. And there are all sorts of answers floating around.  

I’ve almost given up at this point, reading the newspaper when the story is about Afghanistan or Iraq or Namibia or Israel or, or, or…. the stories coming from most places, because I can’t really handle it right now. It’s really kind of a tough world out there. This morning there was a headline in the New York Times, information that just reached me about how many thousands of children will die today from starvation or the lack of water. Well at that point what matters? Our meeting? Anything? The charade of my life? And there’s nothing I can do about it, because I can’t even do anything about it in Los Angeles.  

[BR] You traveled so much and met so many people during your activism, how did you determine who was authentic and who was not?

[MB] I’ve always known who was authentic and who was not. There have always been the people I’ve trusted and respected, and those that I didn’t. I respect whom I wish to respect, whom I’m able to respect. And that’s been quite an education, and I’m very grateful for it. 

[BR] It sounds like an ability that you’ve had all your life -- not something that you learned from experience, but something innate.

[MB] Let me try to explain that. I grew up a gay kid. That was no fun. And Dad was an alcoholic and a womanizer. So from the age of three or four I had to be a survivor. And I sit here before you as a survivor. So I made it. Part of that was knowing immediately who was a complete asshole and who was authentic. And I couldn’t have possibly survived had I not known that… including the authenticity and inauthenticity of one’s self. I’m quite willing to go there.

[BR] There are periods when we become exhausted, and the way that we tread water during these times is to rely on civility. But now when our culture is so polarized, self-important and terminal, can we afford civility? 

[MB] It’s a tough time because we’re being failed by so many people. Maybe by ourselves. We need to re-invent. We need to find new sources of wisdom and strength and faith. I believe we can. I’m sorry, it’s the way I am. 

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