The North Tower Circle sits on a short connecting road between two one-way streets on the edge of Fresno's predominantly gay Tower District. Surrounded by small businesses and old bungalow homes, it's one of only four gay nightclubs in this conservative central California city--a circular wood building with peeling white paint that locals affectionately call "the Circle."
It was here seven years ago, then as a 21-year-old, that Nathan Christeffersen first found comfort in being gay. Having just moved out of his parents' house in the small farming community of Madera, north of the city, he made new friends and danced all night to the beat of techno music.
Then in September 2005, when the nightclub was destroyed by fire, it was here that Nathan's newfound passion for gay rights activism really Now just a charred wreck--still covered later in blue plastic tarps behind a jumble of hastily assembled chain-link fencing--the Circle had fallen victim to a string of arson attacks on gay and nongay homes and businesses in the area. Police had suspects but couldn't say whether it was a hate crime. And once the ashes cooled, it might well have faded quickly from the local consciousness.
Christeffersen, who had recently found his footing as a local gay rights leader afar moving back in with his parents due to a number of personal setbacks, wouldn't let that happen. He organized press conferences, pressured the fire department for answers and progress reports, and wrote articles for GayFresno.com in an effort to get at the truth.
"Nathan had a lot of energy," says Chris Jarvis, who was a DJ at the club. "He was very forceful in his involvement. He was on the phone all day long some days. He really inspired me."
In a very short time Christeffersen inspired a lot of new people in and around the rural community where he grew up. He had signed up to volunteer for the statewide gay rights group Equality California the previous summer, and he quickly took the lead in organizing protests and circulating petitions. He put together a National Coming Out Day event in October and solicited support for California's same-sex-marriage law, which was passed by the legislature in early September before it was vetoed later in the month by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. He seemed fearless in a place where antigay evangelical Christians far outnumber gay allies.
"Without him I wouldn't have been out by myself trying to get people to sign [petitions]," admits Jason Scott, the Fresno County chapter leader for Equality California and editor of GayFresno.com. "He really enjoyed doing it."
Then Christoffersen was gone. At dawn on December 16, he was found dead on the stoop of his parents' house. While police reported an absence of foul play, the cause of his sudden death remains murky.
But the story of what has happened since Nathan's death offers lessons for communities of faith nationwide. It's a story of conversations waiting to be had; of the uncomfortable space people share in the middle of a bridge between mere acceptance and a full place in society. It's a bridge that Nathan was helping his family cross. And the fact that he's gone doesn't necessarily mean they won't reach the other side.
Four days after Nathan's death, his father, Al Christoffersen, handed out a letter describing the "reverent" position in which he found his son on the front stoop of their home around 5:30 A.M., just nine days before Christmas. Nathan had gone out the night before with a friend who dropped him off at his house around 11 P.M. But Nathan never made it inside. On Friday morning Al checked his son's bedroom and found it empty. When he opened the front door he discovered Nathan kneeling almost as if in prayer, facing away from the house. His body was in a collapsed Z, knees and shins on the ground, his butt against his heels, his torso bent all the way forward, his hands limp at his sides. …