The Rev. Willie Frye's courageous love
Unsigned postcard sent to the Rev. Willie Frye, addressing him as Willie "Nut" Frye, Aug. 12, 1993: "Wake up, stupid. God did not create homosexuals anymore than he created TB and heart problems etc."
As the world opens up to acceptance of gays, ranging from the Pope's words to favorable rulings from the Supreme Court to the decision by the North Carolina National Guard to extend benefits to the same-sex spouses of uniformed service members, it's easy to forget that things were in a far different place 20 years ago.
I realize that many people of faith remain steadfast in their condemnation of homosexuality. Almost two years ago, they prevailed when North Carolina overwhelmingly approved an amendment to the state constitution that defines marriage as between one man and one woman.
That was a hard hit to advocates like the Rev. Willie Frye of Winston-Salem, a Quaker pastor and Guilford College graduate who was at North Carolina's forefront in accepting gays. Frye died earlier this month of cancer at the age of 81. He was a heterosexual who loved his wife, Agnes, with all his heart. She was there with him when he took his last breath. He was a loving father to Kathy and his identical twins, Bob and Rick. Bob is straight. Rick is gay.
Back in 1976, in response to a question from his father, Rick, then 21, basically told him he was gay. At first, Willie Frye, then the pastor of Winston-Salem Friends Meeting, and Agnes Frye didn't know what to think. "Coming out" was not a common thing then.
"I think we all struggled with it," Bob Frye told me last week. His parents went to the library to read up on the subject. But the books, Agnes said, didn't really tell them a lot.
"We just decided that this was our son and we were going to stand with him," she said.
Rick Frye said: "I felt a lot of love from my father and I'm very proud of him."
His parents became outspoken advocates for gays, preaching love and acceptance. They counseled gays and their parents.
Critics let Willie Frye know they vehemently disagreed. They told him so face-to-face, in letters and in phone calls.
"That was very hurtful," Bob Frye said. "I think it would hurt Daddy the rest of his life that a lot of people were so mean about it. But I think it just made him more determined to carry his message."
Agnes Frye said: "You don't like to be in the thick of a fight. And we didn't mean to be in the thick of a fight. We just thought we were doing what God wanted us to do."
North Carolina Quakers are not stereotypical liberals. Many continue to oppose gay marriage. As a Quaker myself, I've witnessed this. I occasionally talked to Frye about it for stories in the Journal.
Frye was no stranger to such battles, having stood up against segregation and the Vietnam War in the 1960s.
Agnes Frye said her husband took seriously Jesus' commandment to love God with all his heart, soul, strength and mind and to love his neighbor as he loved himself.
Even if Rick wasn't gay, his family told me, Frye would have eventually embraced gay rights. Maybe so. But time and time again in the debate over gay rights in America, we've seen the pivotal role of personal relationships.
Frye advocated with love, both for his allies and his critics. There were career costs. He never got to lead a big meeting (what Quakers call churches). By the early 1990s, he was at Mount Airy Friends Meeting. When his advocacy for gays caused controversy in the state Quaker organization, North Carolina Yearly Meeting, Frye offered to resign from Mount Airy Friends.
But the meeting members liked Willie and told him to stay.
Kathy Frye Adams said one parishioner told her father: "I don't agree with you at all. However, I love you and I'm going to support you."
Willie Frye stayed on at Mount Airy Friends, past his retirement date. He continued to stand up for gays.
Rick Frye and his partner, Scottie Carratello, said Willie Frye held on to the postcard alluded to at the top of his column.
"He kept it all these years," Scottie said. "Even though it was hate mail, it represents the fact that he stood up and he said, 'Love is love.' And some people hated him for that. And some people loved him for that, including me."
Agnes Frye said: "Willie didn't think it was right to be quiet. He was a brave guy."