Balloon Jesus

A week ago Saturday, I found myself doing something I never imagined: making Balloon Jesus dance in Rochester’s Pride parade.

When my friend, Nancy, explained that our little church group (Sophia Community) would join other local church communities to march at Pride, I knew I wanted to join – and bring the girls. Given that we have both family members and close family friends who are gay, Ella and Annie are completely un-fazed by the thought of same-gender people loving one another; in fact, hearing that others don’t believe that this is completely okay and normal absolutely astonishes them. “But mom – they’re people! No one can control who they love!”

Participating in the parade would be an opportunity for us to actually demonstrate our acceptance and support at an event where the LGBTQ community feels not only safe but celebrated for exactly who they are.

Also, let’s face it: the gay community knows how to throw a party!

In the aftermath of Orlando, I wanted our outfits to be focused on spreading the love. We spent the morning before the parade decorating some t-shirts and psyching ourselves up for the joyful spectacle that was sure to occur along the parade route.
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Annie’s shirt: “PRIDE” {plus drawings of same-sex couples holding hands and a heart with “love” written many times}
My shirt: a geeky music reference that reads |: love is : |  (get it??)
Ella’s shirt: “LOVE is a magic to live by” (the parade’s theme was “Let’s Make Magic”) {also, a drawing of a magic wand}

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Me: “fill the world with music, love, and PRIDE – LMM” (from JLo and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s new song, “Love Make the World Go Round,” written in tribute to the Orlando massacre)
Ella: “Love Is Love Is Love Is Love”
Annie: “LOVE is PRIDE”

On the drive over, I attempted to let the girls know that we would encounter some… unusual… costumes, displays, signs, etc. I also shared my not-so-secret hope that we’d be marching near some drag queens, ’cause ever since seeing Kinky Boots, I’ve had a bit of an obsession with men capable of pulling off “female” waaaay better than I ever will be.

Due to blocked off streets, we had to park in a church parking lot about a mile away from our assigned gathering spot and wait for Nancy’s husband, Paul, to shuttle us closer. Paul wasn’t there when we arrived… but a complete stranger another man was. He approached us, saying, “Are you looking to get to the parade, too?” I acknowledged that we were waiting for a ride, but didn’t want to engage in conversation. Being polite to strange men is totally cool, but more than that? Nope. Need to set a good, cautious example for my children.

Then the man said, “Are you waiting on Paul, too?”
Um, yes actually, we are.

“Was he supposed to bring you to Nancy?”
Um, yes actually, he was.

“You’re meeting at 210 Alexander Street, right?”
Yep.

“I’m driving people, too. I can just take you!”

And that is how we wound up riding to Pride in the backseat of a sedan driven by a man we’d met 30 seconds earlier. As soon as we got out of the car – after thanking the nice gentleman for the ride – I whirled around to Annie and Ella and said, “You do understand that accepting rides from strangers is usually a DEFINITE NO, right?”

Good examples, y’all.

Although it took a while to make our way to 210 Alexander, the walk over gave us an opportunity to pass the other participants, floats, etc. I had to stop and collect myself at the We Are Orlando group, where marchers held photos of each of the massacre victims, but otherwise, it was pretty much the very definition of happiness.

All ages and races, rainbow everything, glitter, spandex (so much spandex), butterflies, mermaids, leather bodysuits and masks (the Rochester Kink Society float was particularly eye-catching), tutus, Speedos, unicorns, a log cabin-esque float for a local gay campsite, muscular bare-chested men with towels around their waists atop a float advertising “Bathhouse: The Musical!” … and more smiles and laughter than I can remember seeing in one place in a long damned time.

Oh – and Balloon Jesus. Gimme a sec.

After taking only 20 steps or so, the girls’ eyes were so wide, they looked like young Botox patients gone awry. I leaned close to whisper, “Normally, I’d tell you it’s rude to stare… but everyone here is dressed up specifically so you’ll look at them – so feel free to look! Just try to make your expressions more ‘interested’ than ‘terrified,’ okay?”

I’d seen some in-progress photos of the Sophia Community float, but didn’t know what to expect from the final product. When we rounded the corner to 210 Alexander, I could  vaguely make out a large balloon structure in the distance. This didn’t surprise me – Nancy and I have a friend, Kelly, who makes incredible balloon sculptures for a living (how cool is that!), so having a balloon sculpture as part of Sophia’s float wasn’t particularly unusual.

I briefly considered the possibilities – a balloon cross? Doves? Angels? – but then, upon realizing what it actually was, said aloud, “Oh my gosh. It’s Balloon Jesus.”
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The first great thing about Balloon Jesus was all of the phrases he inspired. “Let’s go meet Jesus!” “I know we’re where we belong because we’ve found Jesus.” “We’ve been touched by Jesus!” 

The second great thing about Balloon Jesus was the sculpture itself. Kelly always does a remarkable job of turning balloons – balloons!! – into incredibly realistic-looking re-creations of whatever she’s modeling, but Balloon Jesus was particularly fantastic. I mean, he looked like Jesus (or whatever I imagine Jesus looks like). To make him more authentic, Nancy had requested that the balloons for Jesus’s skin not be pink or peach – as a Middle Eastern man, Jesus wasn’t light-skinned – and the tannish color of his radiant face was pretty terrific.

The very greatest thing about Balloon Jesus, though, was the reaction that onlookers had upon seeing him. One of the floats behind us was for a local nightclub, and it blasted pop-y music as we made our way along. (This float also featured drag queens; score!) Marching to the celebratory sound waves, Nancy and I – who were each holding a stick propping up one of Balloon Jesus’s hands – decided to move Jesus’s arms so that he appeared to dance.

The parade route was a relatively straight shot, so it was pretty easy to see the folks on the sidelines before we reached them. We watched as they scanned each float or marching group, shouting affirmations (“Happy Pride!”) and cheering. We also watched as their eyes eventually panned to our float, narrowed with contemplation about what on earth they were viewing, and then widened with joy-filled realization.

That’s when the awesomeness really began.
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Other awesomeness: tossing candy!

It was fun, certainly, hearing people call out some version of, “Balloon Jesus is dancing!” and calling back, “Yes, he is!” It was affirming and lovely hearing a good half-dozen onlookers delight, “Hooray! Jesus isn’t white!” or “It’s black Jesus! YASSSS!” 

But I was unprepared for how it would feel hearing people yell, with triumph and utter jubilation, “Hey – you’re right! Jesus loves EVERYBODY! Even us!!”

I never thought I’d feel comfortable shouting to the world, “Jesus loves you!” And yet, as these rainbow-bedecked onlookers gleefully cheered at the thought of Jesus accepting them, when maybe their faith communities had not, it felt not only comfortable but pure, real, beautiful. “Yes, he does! JESUS LOVES YOU!”

I am so grateful to have found Sophia Community, whose members espouse what I’ve always felt about Jesus: that we are, indeed, loved just as we are. That’s the grace and power of God’s love; it is endless, boundless, and meets us right where we are. God’s love is for Ella, Annie, and me. It is for those who go to church every Sunday and those who will never step foot inside a cathedral. It is for those who pray religiously (yes, a pun; God has a superb sense of humor) and even for those who don’t believe.

God’s love is for everyone marching and everyone on the sidelines – the married heterosexual couples with kids, the older men in dapper hats holding one another’s hands, and the younger women with multiple piercings wearing rainbow tank tops that said, “GAY AS F*CK” (there were a good many of those). God’s love is, sometimes to my annoyance, even for the guys on the corner shouting through megaphones that God says gay people are going to hell.

I’d worried that, by marching in the parade instead of standing on the side, we’d miss out on (what I assumed to be) the best part: seeing all of the participants. Now, I understand that, by marching, we had the remarkable opportunity to spread the Love Wins message, to see people feeling accepted and celebrated for exactly who they are… because of Balloon Jesus.

It just doesn’t get any better than that.
Amen!
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One thought on “Balloon Jesus

  1. Pingback: Tuning out and tuning in | All Together in a Scattered Sort of Way

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