Thursday, December 6, 2018

Charles Bewick

During this period of national mourning, I remember Charles Bewick. He was a native of England, from Kingswood in Surrey. He was from an affluent background, what he called "the gin and jaguars set." He knew personally a lot of musicians and dancers including Michael Tilson Thomas, Lynn Fonteyn, and Rudolf Nureyev. He told remarkable stories about some very wild parties he attended with all those folks both famous and not so famous.  I remember one story he told about a party where 6 people shared a bed and passed champagne bottles across the bed.  The bottles each ended up empty by the time they got to the other side.  All six were very drunk, but had presence of mind to suddenly realize that they had to go to a wedding at St. Martin in the Fields by a certain hour.  Among the revelers in the bed were the bride and groom.  They were all so drunk they could barely stand, and yet they made it to their wedding on time.  At the time, Charles was a young City stock broker who made and fortune and lost a fortune, as he described it.

Very unexpectedly, Charles became an Anglican priest.  He was very close to his father, but his father tried to talk him out of it.   Charles persisted and he did his first tour of duty as a priest among auto-manufacturing factory workers living among them and taking a job at the plant. While serving as a priest on the staff of Southwark Cathedral in London, Michael Marshall the Bishop of Woolwich hired Charles to be a chaplain.  In 1983, Charles accompanied the bishop to Saint Louis, MO in the USA to found The Anglican Institute at the Church of St. Michael and St. George. While there, Charles became seriously ill and was diagnosed with AIDS. Bishop Marshall immediately fired him and tried to have him defrocked (only the intervention of William Jones the local Episcopal bishop in St. Louis prevented Bishop Marshall from defrocking Charles) Charles Bewick found himself seriously ill, unemployed, and marooned in the USA. Trinity Episcopal Church in St. Louis hired him as an assisting priest where he lived out the rest of his days.
Charles was a founder and served on the board of directors of Doorways, an interfaith organization that provided housing for AIDS sufferers facing eviction in St. Louis. Most of them were people of color. Charles faced down very hostile racist landlords in order to find housing for AIDS victims at the height of the panic and hysteria over the disease.   He found himself often a target of verbal abuse and threats of violence, but calmly persisted in his work.  Landlords and hostile neighbors described his clients with the N word and the F word, and frequently addressed Charles as the "N word loving F word" and ended their rants with something like "... and you call yourself a priest!" Charles would usually let them rant on and on, and when they were finished or exhausted, he would calmly continue with "this is what we are looking for and this is what we are willing to pay, do you have anything available?"   Sometimes they would storm out of the room, but greed plus the expense of maintaining vacant units would usually overcome their bigotry.

Charles died of AIDS in 1989 at age 42. On his deathbed, he forgave a very penitent Bishop Marshall, and asked him to preside at his funeral, which he did.

I was very privileged to know Charles in the last years of his life. He now rests in peace with the saints in light.

A panel from the National AIDS Memorial quilt commemorating Charles and two other AIDS victims from Trinity Episcopal Church in Saint Louis.

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