Publisher’s Perspective: Tweeka Knew Jesus

By : Tom Dyer
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TomDyerHeadshotI met John Barber when he performed at the first Beach Ball in 1997. I’d heard stories about Tweeka the outrageous drag character he created for the stage but I wasn’t prepared for that dazzling smile, those electric crescent moon eyes and a personality even bigger than the looping Marcy Singhaus costume he wore. There were lots of distractions that night, but I tagged along with Tweeka. Even at Typhoon Lagoon, a 60-acre water park, he created energy.

I saw him perform many times after that, most often for charities or non-profits. When I heard stories fueling his reputation as a charismatic, never-ending party, I thought, Who would be more fun to party with than Tweeka?

Years later, when he moved his salon to a location not far from Watermark’s offices, John cut my hair and I got to see his serious, sensitive, super-intelligent side. Watching him multi-task in the salon mirror, it seemed to me that Tweeka was in many ways the truer manifestation of this vividly hyperkinetic person.

John died two weeks ago of a particularly insidious and rare form of cancer. He was just 38. We weren’t close, but I thought I knew John well enough to get him. That was until I attended a celebration of his life at the Episcopal Church of the Messiah in Winter Garden last Friday.

Tweeka knew Jesus. And his memorial was a glimpse into the Norman-Rockwell-in-an-orange-grove world that produced one of Central Florida’s most exotic creatures.

I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd. John 10:16

Winter Garden is a sleepy, courtly town west of Orlando. The well-kept houses have big yards with sprawling oak trees that drip Spanish moss. John grew up there, conspicuously. His father was mayor, and head of a high-profile household that included a lovely and industrious mom, two beautiful blonde daughters and one attention-grabbing son.

The Barbers knew everyone, and it seemed like most of Winter Garden came to say good-bye to John. Inside the SRO worship hall, church-going locals sat shoulder-to-shoulder with Tweeka’s colorful downtown friends. When it came time to sing “Amazing Grace’, half the audience grabbed their hymnals, the other sang by heart.

Grannies and trannies, said one Facebook post. Blue hair, blue collar and Baby Blue, said another, referring to John’s good friend Blue Starr, the well-known lesbian dancer and choreographer.

Knowing that his death was rapidly approaching, John asked Pastor Billy Brath of Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church to deliver the sermon at his memorial. The theatrical Pastor Brath, who would be a hit at Bear Bust, touched everyone in the crowd.

People like John, who was so full of life and love and joy, aren’t supposed to die. People like John aren’t even supposed to get sick, Pastor Brath said. My gosh if he went to bed before 2 a.m. people worried.

Pastor Brath described his first visit to the hospital after he learned John was sick.

I knelt down and told him, ‘A lot of people are worried about you.’ And John wrinkled up his nose and gave me an incredulous look and said, “Why are they worried about me? I know Jesus! Don’t they know I’m going to heaven? I’m sick right now, but big deal. So what.

As Pastor Brath and others described the John they knew, I understood that my conception of him had been limited and two-dimensional. He was not just a gay fantasia of hedonism in high heels. He was also a small-town boy from a close-knit family who believed in a loving God. The hybrid was spectacular to behold.

Outside the worship hall there was a table with pictures of John at different times in his life. One, taken when John was an infant, struck me because all that irreverent, exuberant joy was clearly present in him even then. A little eyeliner and it was Tweeka.

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.     
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.     
My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.     
Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. Psalm 139

I’m not religious, not Christian. The scripture quoted here was read at John’s memorial, at John’s request.

Skeptics and I count myself among them rely too much on observation and provability. The proof of John’s spirituality was the power of his belief, and the way it helped him create a life that touched so many.

John asked me to speak at this celebration of his life because he wanted you all to know he is happy and at peace, said Pastor Brath. Honor John the rest of your life by loving each other with the same passion showed all of us.

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