Portrait by Chris Millette.
Douglas Shaffer was given six months to live when he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1996.
Despite doctors’ instructions to get his affairs in order, Shaffer continued working at the restaurant he owned while completing nearly 10 weeks of chemotherapy. The cancer never returned.
After living cancer free for the next two years, Shaffer’s oncologist couldn’t explain why he was still alive.
“As a person of faith, I said, ‘I have an idea,’” he says.
Shaffer’s doctors were quick to assume the disease would kill him – considering he is HIV positive.
“HIV and lymphoma – HIV and anything – are not a good mix,” he says. “My immune system was obliterated. The cancer was aggressive in its growth, and they thought it would be quick and messy. You don’t tool up for your next dream or your next career move.”
After living his life on hold for four years, restarting life was a challenge for Shaffer. When he moved from Iowa to Dallas in 2000, he wanted to get back to the business of living.
Within five months of joining the neighborhood, he found White Rock Community Church. The East Dallas congregation was born in the LGBTQ community at the height of the AIDS crisis to meet the health needs of the community.
Shaffer, 55, got involved singing in the choir, becoming a deacon and volunteering at the church’s HIV outreach service, White Rock Friends. The organization provides counseling, meal assistance, hygiene products and cleaning supplies to those who are impoverished because of illness. Shaffer calls the service “trench work” because volunteers work face to face with those devastated by a fresh diagnosis.
“I remember one man who was processing a new reality,” Shaffer says. “I told him to find a new normal. Find what’s possible. In my experience as a clergy person, some of the darkest, most shadowed parts of our lives can become the most empowering because we can pass wisdom along to someone else.”
“Some of the darkest, most shadowed parts of our lives can become the most empowering.”
When the church’s pastor resigned in 2009, the search committee nominated Shaffer as the lead pastor. Since then, he’s expanded services to more than 7,000 clients and increased programming to neighbors outside the LGBTQ community.
Shaffer, who graduated seminary at Texas Christian University, returned to ministry decades after first starting his career as a children’s pastor in Iowa. Ministry is a family business for the Shaffers, who are members of the conservative Assemblies of God denomination. His spiritual background made Shaffer a good fit at White Rock Community Church, which was founded by theological conservatives with an evangelical bent.
The church has become a sanctuary for all – gay and straight – who have felt wounded and abandoned by religion.
“I’ve been told many times over the years, ‘I’m so glad your church does this because if my church knew I was HIV positive, they’d kick me out,’” Shaffer says. “History has fought against allowing same-gender-loving couples and Christianity to coexist, but I know they can coexist because they coexist here.”
The unconditional love of Jesus that Shaffer preaches and practices at White Rock is a lesson he says he learned from his former wife. Shaffer was openly bisexual when he married his wife at 19. For more than a decade, they had careers, great friends and a nice house. But Shaffer knew he would never feel deeply for his wife.
“My wife used to say, ‘Our life would be perfect if you were just straight,’” Shaffer says. “One day she looked at me and said, ‘You’re a gay man, and I love you for who you are, not this pretense.’”
One year after they divorced, Shaffer moved to Dallas, where he met his longtime partner Daniel. They shared their life together for 18 years and have been legally married for more than five years.
A few years into their relationship, Shaffer came out to his parents. He was 40 years old, but he feared it would be the last conversation they’d ever have. When he spoke the words, they showed him the same unconditional love as his ex-wife and the same unconditional love as Christ.
“There’s nothing extraordinary about my life from my perspective,” Shaffer says. “I just take each day as it comes. If I flourish, hopefully I can help those around me to flourish.”
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