Randy R. Potts is a Texas based journalist, photographer, and writer. He is also a grandson of American televangelist and preacher, Oral Roberts. Potts’ new project, “The Bible Went Down With The Birdie Jean,” is a searing ‘reported memoir’ about his upbringing, Roberts’ legacy, sexual abuse, homosexuality, and memory, juxtaposed against 300 photographs taken over the past year in Oklahoma. The project is a serial – 33 Instagrams, posted every two weeks – and the excerpt below is from an upcoming cycle, “The Book of Munna,” a tribute to the memory of his grandmother, Evelyn “Munna” Lutman Roberts, Oral Roberts’ wife. When she was 65, Evelyn’s closeted gay son Ronnie was found on the side of a road dead from a gunshot wound to the heart. Seeking to better understand what that experience might have been like, Potts interviewed another mother who lost a gay son at a similar age: Lori Wilfahrt, whose son Andrew, a corporal in Afghanistan, may have been the last gay soldier to die under the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.
“In the winter, the whole hive forms into a ball around the queen and it moves the same way other herds do: migrating birds, buffalo, it’s all the same pattern: outside in. I got bees after Andrew. I think, well- it’s good to care for things.” Lori Wilfahrt and I had been talking for two hours at a cafe off Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis. I’d finally turned off my recorder. Lori had just been to the bathroom and when she came back I thought: she’s been crying. I put the recorder away. We sat across from each other quietly. The storm tapered off and, eventually, we talked about Lori’s bees: how do bees stay warm in Minnesota? In 2011, Cpl Andrew Wilfahrt died in Afghanistan: the last gay soldier, apparently, to die under DADT. My Munna also lost a gay son to war and I wanted to know: what was that like? // “After he came out he was like ‘Mom there’s a group that meets here, parents of gay kids, maybe you would go to something like that.’ I was like, I’m fine with you being gay! It’s cool. I’m fine. What I didn’t know was what a gay teenager could put themself through in their heads or what it was like outside the house. The house is fine. We’re fine. We’re not gonna kick you out. We love you. But outside of the house! It’s like – man, awful things. It’s better now, I think. I think he was bullied some. At some point, 17, he was like screw this, I’m telling people. He said he found out he had a lot more girlfriends, ‘this is a gay guy! It’s so cool’ but, there’s always jerks. Football team was pushing him around, he came home, ‘Mom I got a really funny story to tell ya. I was at my locker and a bunch of these football jerks started pushing me around and shoving me and then a couple of hockey guys came around the corner and the hockey team hates the football team so then they start fighting with each other, ‘leave him alone!’ pushing each other around and Andy said ‘and I just snuck away.’ He told it like a joke, so I was like, ‘that’s … pretty funny …. how often is that happening?’ I think at some point Andy became very tough about it, daring people. ‘What are you gonna do about it? I dare ya to do something about it.’
“I remember him telling my mom. After everybody knew, my mom still didn’t know. Andy loved my mom, he was so nice to her, such a big heart. So I asked my brother Dave, ‘should we tell her?’ So this is 1998, maybe, and he was like ‘naw, I don’t think you need to tell her.’ And that was bad advice. In my heart I wanted to tell her. She was always like ‘what’s going on with Andy? What’s bothering him?’ So, I told Andy, ‘I don’t think I want to tell my mom.’ He was like, ‘ok.’ So, every time we got together she would invariably say [in rural Minnesota accent] ‘so Andy, you got a girlfriend?’ and he would say ‘no, grandma’ and he’d shoot me a look, like, ugh. So one Easter Sunday we’re all at my mom’s, my brothers, their kids, their wives and we’re all talking and there’s this quiet moment and I’m like, here it comes. It’s coming. And sure enough, ‘so Andy, you got a girlfriend?’ and he takes a breath and I’m like ‘he’s gonna tell her.’ And he did. He said ‘grandma, I’ve wanted to tell you this for a long time. I’m gay.” And there was a little silence, and everybody knows except her, and you can see it in her face, she’s just tumbling through this, doesn’t know what to say, and then my brother Steve says ‘so Andy, you got a boyfriend?’ And everybody starts to laugh. It’s just like that was the perfect thing to say, broke all that tension. Later on I called my mom, ‘so how are you doing with that news?’ ‘Well, I’ve been thinking about it and I was so shocked! I was so shocked. But, he can’t help it, right? I mean, he was born like this, right?’ And I was like, right, you know in her simple way that was, like, ‘yup.’ The whole family was supportive. A couple of my nieces and nephews were like ‘oh Lori we always knew. He wanted to play Barbies with me when we were 5 and 6. And it’s true all the signs were there, the sensitive male, didn’t like sports, I guess those are stereotypes, but-”
“He’d be 37 now. A lot of the guys who got out after him, a lot of PTSD. I wonder what do they see every day, stuff they can’t talk about. What would he have been like if he’d come home?”
“Yeh. He was a lonely fella. Some people are just lonely. I don’t think he found people he could talk to really. His head was always somewhere else. I was looking through photos, all day, looking for photos of Peter before the wedding, and I’d see these pictures of Andy – a lot of pictures with Martha and Peter together, Andy wouldn’t be around. Or he’d be separate. Those two would be together in a group picture and he’d be here [points away from us]. He could keep up the small talk for awhile because he knew that was polite but he didn’t want to stay there very long, wanted to get into some crazy subject. I felt guilty about that for a long time. I tried to always let him know that I was there for him but intellectually we were not a match. I just couldn’t, he’d just go off somewhere and he’d say ‘you know what I’m talking about, Mom?’ and if I said ‘no’ he’d start all over again. It was like, this was hopeless, I am never gonna get what he’s talking about so it’s like ‘uhuh, yeh!’ – he knew darn well I didn’t. I sometimes felt kind of impatient too, it’s like ‘oh come on! This is exhausting!’ I felt bad about that. I don’t know that I feel like that anymore. It’s been five years now. I think after about three years of feeling numb I started to come out of my head.
“There wasn’t going to be a funeral. No way I was gonna do that. We had a party. My friend Anne, the day I told her: ‘what can I do?’ I knew she was an event planner. We went to the Ft. Snelling Officer’s Club, this 1940s-era club, she helped me figure out food, and time. So we had a big old party, lot of people came. Lot of weirdos came. People that I didn’t know, that didn’t know him. Lot of, random people. You know there was this receiving line that I didn’t want but it just happened and this lady came through, I was thinking ‘I don’t know who you are’ and she was you know, gave me a big hug and then she started praying really loud and she would not let me go and I’m like ‘oh my god oh my god oh my god get away from me!’ She was terrible. Get your voodoo away from me.
“Andy was into numerology. I grew up on 422 West Street and, now, I see the number 422 all the time. I will look at a clock many times during the week and it’s always 4:22. I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and look at Jeff’s alarm clock and it’s 4:22. Or the number is there, on a street sign – there it is again! – and so, I’m just, you know early on I was just convinced, well, that’s Andy saying hi to me. That’s absurd! You know, I know it in my brain that’s absurd but I kind of like playing around with that and I like thinking that it’s him. It doesn’t hurt anything, but – stuff like that, spooky things have happened after he died. We went to see our son Peter about a month after Andy died. Peter was living in Chapel Hill. Jeff and I have been mushroom hunters since we were kids, we went out with our families all mushroom hunting. So, we were there first part of April and it was too early for mushroom season in Minnesota but it was warm there and we were walking up to Peter’s house and there’s three little Morel mushrooms growing out of the landscape timbers in his front yard. And we’re like, ‘look at that!’ Find out later that Morels do not grow in North Carolina, they are extremely rare in that part of North Carolina, so it’s like, ‘oh it’s Andy.’ Well, I don’t know. But it’s like, I want to believe that, that he’s still around tinkering, checking in, and yet, I don’t believe in that stuff, I pretty much think when you die it’s done. Turn the lights out, it’s over. I think people entertain themselves – not ‘entertain,’ that sounds frivolous – but they like thinking about things like that. I know my Mom after my brother died, she was 81, she said ‘I felt Steve today, I just felt like he was right behind me.’ And we all said ‘well maybe he was’ you know, because you want to believe that that person isn’t really gone. He’s gotta be somewhere.
It was a Sunday morning, February 27th, it was overcast. I read the newspaper. I was thinking ‘I’m gonna go to the mall today and buy some makeup.’ You know. I thought, I better eat a bowl of cereal before I go. The doorbell rings and it’s like, ‘who the heck is that,’ maybe a neighbor. And then I hear Jeff just going ‘Oh my god! Oh my god!’ and it’s like, I went around the corner and I saw these two Army guys and it’s like, I know what that means. But it’s like, ‘they have the wrong house.’ ‘This isn’t for us.’ ‘Who else would it be for?’ But I’m already like trying to work with that. It’s like no, no it’s not us. And Jeff is just reacting before he even opens the door. And they walk in and he just, you know, ‘we regret to inform you,’ and my god. Just local guys. And then I remember thinking, ‘I wonder if I have milk on my face?’ What a dumb thing to think about! I invited them in. They sat down. One guy looked so scared. The other guy was like a minister for the Army, a religious person, wanted to know if we wanted to pray with him and I said ‘no. No.’ And then, ‘do you want the press to be contacting you, or do you want us to block the press’ or something like that and Jeff said ‘yeh I don’t want the press involved in this!’ and I said ‘you know what, I do. I want people to know.’ And the whole time it’s like ‘what is happening?’ That really bothered me for a long time, that inability to think or make decisions, like, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing. I go into a room and I don’t know why I’m here.’ Once all those phone calls were made, which were terrible to have to make, kids, my mom, Jeff’s parents, – once we all got together, the four of us, that was two weeks that were really pretty wonderful. We were all just in a terrible place but I mean we could laugh about him, and joke about him, and remember things, and Martha and Peter, they were really helpful to me. ‘Mom you gotta eat something.’ And Jeff too. Helping with decisions, how to honor him or celebrate him, you know, we weren’t church people.
They were out on a patrol. It was a Sunday morning and there was some call that somebody was seen doing something. They drove their vehicles to this bridge and, so it was three people in his vehicle and the guy who was driving said ‘you know, Wilfahrt your’e going on leave tomorrow so just stay here in the car’ and he’s like ‘no, I’m not gonna stay here.’ So, they went out and they were walking across this bridge and they were looking for some kind of IED I suppose and then they stopped, I don’t remember why they stopped, and then they went off, a couple of them went off, one was a dud and one was right underneath him and it was detonated remotely. Some dude somewhere with a cellphone contraption. They were watching. And then you play with that, too – ‘what are the chances of that! at that second, with him, right there, if he’d’ve been the last in line or the first in line or’ – you constantly play with that but there’s no – it’s unproductive, ’cause it’s already happened, and deep down you know ‘well somebody else would’ve died, somebody else’s kid would’ve died.’
So the day before he died – I’ll never forget this – I’m like ‘alright he’s coming home, I better bake some cookies and get some of the things he likes together’ so I was doing that and Jeff was in the other room, he had the same idea, so he was watching all these Afghanistan documentaries, Army things, like maybe he could relate to him or get an idea of what he’s been doing. And I was reading a book – when that French acrobatist strung the wire between the twin towers – and the chapter I read was all these moms had got together because all their sons had died in Vietnam – their grief, and how they could hardly keep it all together some days, and I was thinking, ‘I shouldn’t be reading this, this is not something I should be reading ever, not now’ and so I kept going back to that, almost like that caused it. I think we were twelve hours different, it might’ve been about the time that he was going on patrol, so I could play with that in my head: ‘it’s your fault, it’s my fault.’
Published with support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion in International Affairs.