A Son’s Death, A Father’s Journey

Posted on April 27, 2013


myers leadBy David Ettinger

Through his son Richie, Bob Myers has taken many journeys.

• There was the journey of living and coping with his son’s homosexuality.

• There was the journey of realizing his shortcomings as a father.

• There was the journey of watching his son battle the punishing ravages of AIDS.

• There was the journey of watching Richie succumb to the deadly disease.

• And, finally, there was the journey of a man being shaped and molded just a little bit more into the image of God.

The story behind the journeys is a difficult one to tell, but for Bob, head of Pastoral Care at First Orlando, it is one he knows must be told.

“I was on the staff of a Baptist church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in 1964 when Richie was born,” Bob began. “From there I served in two churches in Virginia.”

Eventually, he landed at a church in Suffolk, Virginia, where he was the head pastor.

“We had a talented young man, our church organist, who came to my wife, Hope, and said, ‘I have some concerns about Richie,’” Bob said of his then 10-year-old son. “He said, ‘I see a lot of tendencies and behavior that remind me of myself.’”

According to Bob, the young man had a same-sex attraction, but never acted upon it.

That was the first time Bob was aware that there was a problem.

“But we never said anything to Richie.”

The next clue came a few years later, in 1976. By this time, the family had moved to Fort Worth, Texas.
“There was a couple in our church who taught at Richie’s high school,” Bob said. “They came to us with the same pressing concern.”

Still, Bob did not confront Richie.

Meanwhile, more years passed and, in 1979 the family moved to Florida, where Bob became the Minister of Education at First Baptist Church of Winter Park.

“We have a daughter, Rene, who is three years younger than Richie. His behavior was impacting her, but it really didn’t upset the dynamics of the entire family until a year or two after we moved here, when Richie was a junior and senior in high school.”

It was a tough time for the teen.

“He did not adjust well,” Bob said. “He never told me why, but there were several times when he was disappointed because he wanted an appointment to speak with the youth pastor at church, and, for whatever reason, he could never get one.”

Richie reacted with bitterness.

“He became very disillusioned, very angry toward the youth pastor.”

Today, Pastor Myers has the happy pleasure of performing weddings.

Today, Pastor Myers has the happy pleasure of performing weddings.

By now, more stories about Richie’s behavior were beginning to filter their way to Bob and Hope.

“Rene began hearing rumors – from several sources – that Richie was spending most of his time on campus and socially with a young man who, at the high school, was known as ‘the gay person.’”

The Myers were definitely paying attention.

“This put a lot of fear in us,” Bob said.

That fear was justified.

“One day,” Bob recalled, “Richie had called a couple of his friends to go to the beach with him on a Saturday. That morning, I heard him in his room crying. It turned out that both of these guys called and told him that they couldn’t go.”

Normally, that wouldn’t be a concern, but the situation was anything but normal.

“He was having feelings of rejection,” Bob said. “Because of all the other information I had, I knew that this had the potential to be a significant struggle for him. He said to me, ‘Dad, for some reason, I can’t seem to get accepted and fit in with my youth group.’”

He then said something that sent chills up Bob’s spine.

“Richie told me, ‘I’m going to get friends, and I’m going to get them somewhere.’”

It did not take long for him to make good on his promise.

“It was not more than a few months later that we began getting reports of his being seen at a place on South Bumby called ‘Southern Nights,’ which was a gay social club.’”

Bob knew something had to be done.

“We confronted Richie in sort of a low-key way,” he said. “He denied it.”

But not for long.

“One Sunday,” Bob said, “he came to his mother and I and said, ‘There’s something I’ve got to tell you.’”

And tell them he did.

“It was the first time he was honest. He said, ‘I’m gay.’”

What up to this point was but a dark suspicion had now become cold, hard fact. The blunt, stark truth hit the Myers like a thunderbolt.

“That was when it started becoming a long process for me as a parent, as a father,” Bob said. “Up until then, everything was sort of ‘under the rug.’ Now it was out in the open. Hope was beside herself. Rene had a very difficult time with it.”

And Bob wasn’t doing all that great himself.

“I became very angry. I asked Richie, ‘How could this happen in our kind of family?’”

His answer stunned Bob.

“He said, ‘I hate the kind of family I’ve grown up in.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ Richie said, ‘Let me put it this way. I have two or three friends who are gay. I go to their homes and there’s no rejection, no controversy. They accept them and love them. But here in our home, I don’t feel loved. I don’t feel accepted. I feel rejected.’”

But Bob was conceding nothing.

“At the time,” he said, “I was feeling pretty spiritual, so I said, ‘Richie, the difference is, we’re a Christian family. We’ve got values. We’re trying to live out our lives based on biblical principles.’”

What Bob didn’t realize back then but does now, was that he was judging his son by what he saw on the outside.

“I was only looking at his behavior. I was not affirming his personhood. I was telling Richie that what he was doing was a sin.”

It was a classic case of “If I only knew then what I know now.”

“At the time, I wasn’t in enough control of my emotions to sit down and have the kind of conversation where I listened more than I spoke. That was a journey that God had to teach me.”

Only much later on did Bob realize the truth.

“My son was crying out for help and I was part of the problem.”

But back then and over the next year, Bob had trouble coping with the stress. The situation deteriorated as Richie’s homosexuality was becoming more known at church.

myers 2“I made the choice to leave church ministry and go to work in a different Christian ministry.”

In the meantime, though, Bob decided to see someone outside the family about the issue. He went to Eleutheros Ministries, now Exchange Ministries, which primarily ministers to those overcoming homosexuality. Bob convinced Richie to see a counselor. He went twice, but things did not work out.

“I never could convince him to get involved and stay involved in any kind of counseling. So, instead of things getting better, they continued to get worse.”

Soon after, Richie graduated from college and enrolled at the University of Central Florida.

“He remained at home,” Bob said, “but things got more chaotic and stressful. Richie began to drink and the drinking got out of control.”

He was also staying out all night and causing the family sleepless nights.

“He was beginning to divide us. Hope and Rene thought I was mishandling Richie and that I should throw him out.”

Bob didn’t do that. Instead, he looked for a solution.

“I tried to make every effort I could to rebuild our relationship, but nothing worked. Richie was throwing himself more and more into the gay lifestyle. His relationships were going from one young man to another.”

By Easter day of 1988, things were spiraling down to deeper depths.

“We were finishing our meal,” Bob said, “and Richie came in the front door. He came up to me and collapsed in my arms sobbing. He then looked at me and said that he had tried to commit suicide the night before.”

What happened was this:

Richie was working as a waiter, a job, Bob said, that his son enjoyed and at which he was making good money. However, not realizing he was doing anything wrong, at the end of his shift Richie ate a discarded meal, which violated company rules.

He was fired – and devastated.

“He went to a liquor store,” Bob said, “loaded up on booze, got drunk and ran his car into a tree. The car was totally destroyed, but he didn’t get bruised. He definitely overworked his angels that night.”

Finally, Richie’s eyes were open.

“He admitted for the first time in his life that he was out of control and that he needed help.”

So, Bob got Richie admitted into Rapha Christian Counseling, where, incidentally, Bob had gotten a job about six months earlier.

“Rapha treats Christians who are struggling with addictions.”

The program Richie was admitted to was in Clearwater.

“One day he called us and said, ‘Mom and Dad, you need to come down here as soon as possible. I’ve got to talk to you about something.’”

Bob and Hope’s hearts sank as they suspected what Richie was going to tell them.

“I had done enough study to know what some of the symptoms of HIV were,” Bob said. “The past few months, I’d see him sleeping, sweating . . . He started getting warts. These were all the things that I was reading that were signs of HIV.”

When the Myers reached Clearwater, their fears were confirmed: Richie was HIV-positive.

“I remember walking out of the hospital that night. Hope collapsed and just began wailing,” Bob recalled. “She said, ‘This is too much. I don’t know how I can handle it.’”

It was a long drive home.

“We were both crying and said very little.”

Richie, meanwhile, stayed in the Clearwater hospital for another seven weeks, then returned home.

Grace Before Dying“As part of the follow-up care plan,” Bob explained, “Hope and I were required to get into a support group and I had to take Richie to Alcoholics Anonymous.”

But more than anything, Richie had re-dedicated his life to Christ.

“His life changed,” Bob said, “but I can’t say that he was ever totally victorious over his homosexuality.”

And, up to that time, neither really were the Myers, who were now members at First Orlando.

“Besides one couple who also had a gay son, we never talked about Richie’s situation with anyone. We kept it hidden.”

In fact, they kept it so hidden that no one else found out about Richie until he got ill in November of 1989.

“Richie had a bad cold,” Bob said. “We were concerned that he had pneumonia. He had no immune system.”

So Bob took Richie to the doctor. Then, Richie said an amazing thing.

“We were sitting there waiting for the nurse to come out,” Bob recalled, “and we were both reading magazines. He asked, ‘Dad, can I talk to you for a minute?’”

Of course, Bob said yes.

“Richie said, ‘I’m reading this article about [the pop star] Madonna.’ She was one of his heroes. He continued, ‘I’m reading about her philosophy of life and lifestyle and you know what I’ve concluded?’

“‘What’s that?’ I asked.

“He said, ‘My generation has believed a lie. Dad, you gave me the Truth. And I turned away from it.’”

Bob was stunned.

“I was in tears,” he said. “I couldn’t believe what he was saying. I said, ‘Richie, that’s wonderful. It’s so encouraging that you’ve come to that understanding.’”

Spiritually, Richie’s realization was wonderful. But physically, his body was dying. On December 8, 1989, he was hospitalized.

“He was living in an apartment in Altamonte Springs,” Bob explained. “A friend from North Carolina was visiting with him. I was out of town, so the friend called my wife and said, ‘Hope, I’m taking Richie to the emergency room. There’s something terribly wrong.’”

Richie was put in intensive care.

“He was there for seventeen days,” Bob said. “It started out with us being told that there was no problem. So we thought, ‘Good, he’ll get treatment and go home.’”

But that wasn’t the case.

“About eight days later, everything went downhill. Richie had three kinds of pneumonia that no antibiotics or medicine could touch.”

Richie, now age 25, was put on life support as his life began to ebb away.

“Hope and I were put through two experiences where we were told to tell him good-bye,” Bob said. “But each time he rallied. His body was strong and fighting death, but his lungs were going.”

And Bob was not handling it well. On top of that, he had a fever.

“After the second time we said good-bye, a few days later, I was angry, I was hollering at God. I was saying to God, ‘Why are you letting my son die from AIDS? God, you’ve got to do something.’”

And God did.

“Soon after, my fever broke and I started sweating. I jumped into the shower and went back to the hospital. It was like God saying, ‘I’m extending your son’s life a little longer because I’ve got one final mission for you.’ And it wasn’t something I wanted to do.”

When Bob arrived at the hospital, Hope said, “What are you doing here?”

“I told her that the fever broke, I felt better and that I wanted to go in and see Richie. God was telling me that I had to go back in there.”

Meanwhile, the nurse gave him some bad news.

“She said, ‘Reverend Myers, your son is not going to respond or recognize you. You’re going to have to lean down and tell him who you are.’”

Which is what Bob did.

“I leaned down and whispered, ‘Richie, this is Dad.’”

Unexpectedly, Richie responded.

“I was shocked. With all these tubes in him, he sat up in the bed, grabbed me and pulled me down to him.

“I said, ‘Richie, what’s wrong?’”

He couldn’t speak, so Bob handed him a writing pad and a pen, but his son didn’t have the strength to write.

“In that moment, the Holy Spirit said to me, ‘Richie’s trying to tell you something. He’s trying to tell you, “Thank you for loving me.”

“So I leaned down and said, ‘Richie, I believe I know what you’re trying to tell me. You’re trying to tell me, “Dad, I want to thank you for loving me.” If that’s what you’re trying to tell me, then squeeze my hand as hard as you can.’”

Bob felt Richie squeezing his hand.

That was on Christmas Day 1989 – and the last time he ever saw his son.

At 11:15 that night, the doctor came out to speak with Bob and Hope.

“He said, ‘Mr. and Mrs. Myers, I’ve got some good news and some bad news. I’m going to give you the good news first. Two thousand years ago, God sent His only Son to this earth. On this Christmas Day, God decided that He wanted your son back with Him.’

“I thought that was such a beautiful ending to a pilgrimage that, if I ever get around to writing my book, I think the title will be, Loving the Father’s Way.”

From there, the healing began.

For Bob, the journey with Richie was over, but a new one began as he started to minister to young men who were dying from AIDS.

myers 5“I had to learn how much my heavenly Father loved me, so that I could love a son that I didn’t like and was loving the wrong way. God had to reprogram my whole thought processes and feelings so that I could be restored.”

And now, more than two decades later, Bob is left with a greater appreciation of God’s mercy.

“God never did heal Richie physically,” he said. “It wasn’t until later that it became clear – as I began to minister to young men with AIDS and saw the suffering they were going through and how their bodies deteriorated – we came to the conclusion that God was good. Our son would not have wanted to go through that experience.

“God was merciful.”

Posted in: Feature Stories, News