LGBT

The Power of Symbols When People Seek to Make Us Hide

I’m excited to be speaking at a remarkable church in Ft. Worth this weekend about intersectionality. I’m even more excited about how much intentional hospitality they have already shown me. I don’t know if it’s that it’s this church or that it’s Texas or that it’s healthy church or that their pastor told them to be nice to me or they’d be in trouble. Whatever it is, I’ll take it! How lovely to feel welcomed in a new place.
A kind couple picked me up from the airport (even though I arrived at midnight instead of nine!!!). I asked how they ended up at this church. They said they had both grown up Christian but were not welcome as a same-gender loving couple in so many churches. They were driving somewhere about a month ago and saw the rainbow flag on the church and thought, “maybe we should give this church a try,” and it has been a gift to them; “we feel complete,” one of them said, to have a community and not only to worship at home with each other. And they seem like a couple any church I know would be thrilled to have.
 
I used to work with a lot of churches struggling to survive in a consulting job I had. Many of them wanted to invite LGBTQ people. So they would put out a sign saying they were open and affirming. (That’s the term for LGBTQ+ inclusive in UCC and Disciples churches.) In my reports I would always note that no one knows what that means, but everyone knows the rainbow flag. This couple’s story reminded me of the power of symbols. 
It also reminded me of how much fear can constrain our ability to welcome even the people we want to welcome.
I think the churches I worked with knew that other than LGBTQ people who were already UCC or Disciples, no one knew what open and affirming meant. But many of them were trying to hold together a group of people with a wide array of theological beliefs, including people uncomfortable with being too enthusiastic in their welcome of queer-identified people. The way the church had stayed together was by not talking about it, far less owning it publicly, which is what a flag would have done.
Because of fear, I suspect most of the churches I worked with never made that bold statement by flying a rainbow flag.
I have no idea how many of them remained open, but I suspect few of them experienced growth. Growth and functioning out of fear don’t usually align.
Either way, though, I remain haunted by one story that gets at the REAL cost of fear, which isn’t whether a church grows or dies.
I met with a church in a small mountain town. It was the only progressive church in a very conservative area and dealt with a lot of marginalization in the community because of their reputation. They were the only Open and Affirming church in town. They MAY even have had a rainbow flag out, although I am not confident of that. Among conservative pastors and city council members they were held in contempt, and they supported each other as the town liberals. In some ways they reminded me of the Disciples huddled together in the upper room.
As they drove me around town, we went past a park and they told me about a junior high boy who had killed himself in that park the previous month. He was being bullied for being gay, or at least that’s what the kids were calling him — it wasn’t clear whether he was or whether that was just a fun thing for them to say about him.
“I wonder if he knew that one church in town welcomed him,” I commented later during the all-church meeting.
And the weight of that sat in the room.
Their fear and sense of embattlement had caused them to forget that they had Good News to proclaim to people who had no other source of that. Lives were quite literally at stake.
I believe that the vast majority of our work is around addressing fear and fear’s shadow side, greed.
I am so grateful for the witness of the church I am visiting. I am reminded that hospitality is a spiritual discipline. I am reminded that symbols matter and have meaning. I am reminded that the way we extend our welcome can have life or death consequences.
Because I have lost too many people who had received too many messages that they did not deserve love or life. And I am grateful for churches taking a risk in order to save lives.

Could your church help your community find hope in the wake of the election?

Last weekend, people started reaching out to me because they were afraid, and they didn’t want to stay that way. They didn’t want to rage or burn things down; they wanted to find a way to contribute to their community, to help others overcome fear.

So with the help of a PHENOMENALLY gifted intern, the Oakland Peace Center created a resource fair. The goal was simple: to help people feeling a sense of urgency discover that they have a power to make a POSITIVE contribution in their community, that they need not dwell in anxiety and fear but can overcome it by coming together.

The reason I’m writing this is that within four days, we had thirty organizations agree to table and four hundred people attend (in the rain!!!). Check it out!

crowdcrowd2

What this tells me is that people are hungry for positivity, and that people are hungry right now for a sense that they are not alone.

Now, the Oakland Peace Center is made up of forty organizations who are working to create equity as the means of creating peace, so we had a good baseline. But our partners are mostly small, scrappy organizations working to help people at a local level. We wanted folks to connect with them, but we also wanted to provide resources for people looking to get engaged in work we didn’t have covered: advocacy with Muslims, health care access, learning how to intervene when someone is being assaulted (verbally or otherwise), women’s rights, environmental justice. So we needed to reach new organizations as well as new people.

Here’s how we did it:

We listened and we checked in: On the Friday and Saturday after the election I got several messages from people saying “what do I do to engage in protecting people’s healthcare?” or “a lot of people are asking me what they can do to protect immigrants’ (or refugees’ or LGBTQ people’s or Muslims’) rights. Where do I point them?” Then a facebook friend shared an event happening in LA that weekend and asked if anything like that was happening in Oakland. I said no, but it might help me field the questions I was getting. I was at an OPC partners’ retreat so asked them what they thought, then spent another day or so asking organizations what they thought. We began to sense that people were hungry for the opportunity to do something pro-active. Youth were walking out of school; people who had never marched were marching; whole congregations were wearing safety pins so they could express their solidarity with people for whom they feared. We had a sense that this could be meaningful and helpful to the community. In our community, we felt a need to capture the energy of the present moment, so we moved quickly (four days!!!! whew!), but we might do another one in January or February. Another listening we did was during the event: we thought our next event would be more about training people, but what we heard was people wanted another of these resource fairs so that their friends could come and so other organizations could be in the room. So we’re shifting focus from what we thought was best to what the community has told us would be best.

Our message was positive: In both our email blast, our flyers and our facebook messaging, we didn’t focus on hostility or negativity or anxiety. Truthfully, many of us feel those things, and they are valid feelings. But we believe at the Oakland Peace Center that what we are building is even more important than what we are tearing down, even though there are things that need to be torn down in order to build. Our facebook message read “If you feel a drive to do something about the environment, immigrants’ rights, healthcare, Black Lives Matter, indigenous rights, reducing bullying, increasing a culture of peace and inclusion, or any other issues to make this community better, please come to this gathering and learn about the ways you can participate! Whether you are a long time activist or have never attended a rally in your life, your contributions matter!” My sense is that right now, people are feeling negative, powerless and isolated. So our message was positive, reminded people of their power, and reminded them that they were not alone. And the event reinforced those themes.

We Honored Multiple Ways of Creating Positive Change: The other beautiful thing that emerged out of who the Oakland Peace Center is (and which I believe churches and faith communities can create for the same reasons) was that we had multiple dimensions to how people could be engaged. “Get In Where You Fit In” was a slogan our intern Virginia used, and it was true: we had organizations working on policy issues national and local, we had organizations engaged in community service work (who were not afraid of the organizations doing policy work), and we had organizations connecting people to inner peace so that they can take care of themselves in order to take care of others. The OPC is committed to creating peace-filled communities, and we need different policies, and we need people engaged in service and solidarity with each other, and we need people who are able to heal from trauma and find peace within themselves. All of those resources were available, and some of them even got taught right there during the event, like intervention during assault and the basic skills of HeartMath and anti-bullying techniques.

We made sure that as many of the communities potentially impacted by upcoming policy changes were in the room as possible: we reached out to Muslim organizations, disability rights organizations, environmental groups, women’s groups, LGBTQ+ organizations, organizations supporting the Movement for Black Lives, immigration organizations, and so on. There are usually organizations doing both advocacy and social service around these communities in every state in the nation as well as in most major cities.

We created an air of celebration: People who came wanted to experience hope. And part of how hope gets crushed is by replacing joy with fear. So we created a festival atmosphere: popcorn and fun, high energy music, and a kids’ table with children’s books representing both themes of inclusion and justice (which we promoted in advance so people knew it was a family-friendly event). Joy is an underutilized tool of creating justice! We even had a woman who creates justice-oriented children’s coloring resources volunteered at the kids’ table! (Here are some of the pages we provided the children.)img_6597childrens-books

We didn’t create anything new: With any issue we are concerned about, there are folks doing really good work who are underresourced. This is a moment to connect, not necessarily re-invent the wheel.

We created spaces for people to cast vision, share their commitments and offer words of hope. We had poster board where people wrote what they were committing themselves to and what their hopes were. We didn’t create a physical space for grief, although one restorative justice partner gathered people who wanted to really let their feelings out and feel heard, and that was beautiful. One of the organizations, Faith Alliance for a Moral Economy, invited people to cast a vision for a moral economy when people visited their table: fame

We learned some really inspiring things:

  • People were so excited about this that even without asking for them, we ended up with phenomenal volunteers!
  • There were a lot of young people who came because they want to become activists. But there were also senior citizens who felt that they could no longer stay uninformed or unengaged. I believe that is true of church folks as well: as OPC intern Virginia White reflected to me after the event, “people have care about these issues but haven’t known how to engage, or didn’t think they should. This is not about convincing people to do something new.” That’s who our event was for, and they came in the rain by the hundreds.
  • Some people were puzzled by why we would do something like this until we explained that part of the mission of the OPC is to connect people to each other’s work. And they were also puzzled by the fact that the church (in our case, First Christian Church of Oakland) played a role in this gathering as the folks who created the OPC. What a beautiful moment of puzzlement to help the community realize that the church can and should be engaged in this work of standing with indigenous and Black and LGBTQ+ and environmental and civil liberties organizations. What a teachable moment.
  • This event created hope. Let me say it again: at a time people are experiencing fear, we created a space of hope. Participants thanked us, and so did the organizations, some of whom have been in this work for decades and feeling a little out of hope themselves. At our best, isn’t that what the church is supposed to be about? Hope conquering despair, not just in the abstract, but in concrete ways.
  • Over and over, people said they felt a sense that there really is a community dedicated to supporting each other. During my introductory announcement, I reminded people that “we need us. We need to have each other’s backs. In the coming days we will need to be able to trust each other, and that happens when we really show up for each other.” So I told them to talk to all of the tablers but also to talk to each other, because we have each other’s backs best when we know each other, and that can start here. And people did. And it was transcendent.

I was asked to share our methodology so others can borrow from it. I decided to write it in a way that I hope churches in particular can borrow from it. It took a lot of time and effort, but it was not difficult logistically to manage. Once our facebook numbers started looking good, some of the organizations that had never heard of us before suddenly thought this would be a great opportunity.

 

Christmas values — day 2: joy

I woke up this morning feeling sorry for homophobes.

If you know me, you might be surprised by this reaction, because I don’t tend to suffer intolerance. And at some point in my young life I realized that God doesn’t screw up people, so if God made people gay, I probably shouldn’t keep telling God to stop making mistakes.

But I realized afresh today that some of the people who have brought the most beauty and love into my life are LGBTQ. And people who want to make people “pray away the gay” (and hate away and threaten away and terrorize away the gay) clearly need more beauty and love in their lives. This, I know, is an incredibly straight-privileged position to take. If I were LGBTQ, I would probably be a lot angrier than most of my friends are at the world.

All of this came to me as I started thinking of a series I meant to start yesterday for the twelve days of Christmas, lifting up the values of Christmas and how I see them showing up in the world around me.

And not long after I woke up, I read an article about a couple who had “Faggots” scrawled into their apartment door and responded as follows:

front door

I was struck by the joy-over-pain bravery of the response, and I found myself thinking about how joy is a choice. (more…)

The Myth of Street Smarts versus Book Smarts

Delivered June 13, 2014, at Disciples Divinity House at the University of Chicago annual Convocation.

I looked, and a hand was stretched out to me, and a written scroll was in it. He spread it before me; it had writing on the front and on the back, and written on it were words of lamentation and mourning and woe. He said to me, O mortal, eat what is offered to you; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel. So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat. He said to me, Mortal, eat this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it. Then I ate it; and in my mouth it was as sweet as honey.

–Ezekiel 2:9-3:3

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

–Matthew 13:44-46

 

 

They say we lose our greats in threes, and that has certainly been true this month: we have lost Vincent Harding, heroic leader of the civil rights movement; we have lost the great poet Maya Angelou and we have lost Yuri Kochiyama, Asian American activist, Black Power leader and survivor of the American concentration camps. (more…)

One straight Christian’s journey into Ally-hood (and a plea for ally-hood with people in the hood)

You may know the weird and sad story of my first college boyfriend.

I don’t talk about this a ton, because it was a messy and complicated and deeply personal issue, and publicly I usually only talk about it in terms of how it shaped my commitment to gun safety. But the fact is, it also cemented my commitment to GLBT inclusion within the church. (more…)

Oppression Olympics

He fumed about gay (white) men being the most oppressed group in the Disciples because our version of middle management (regional ministers—the equivalent of bishops or conference ministers) was afraid to trust that a congregation might like a pastor for who he was and then not really care that he was gay. The more he universalized his story and the more heavily he carried that mantle of oppression, the more irritated I got. Which is funny, because I care a lot about GLBTQ rights. And it makes me furious the ways the church has dehumanized faithful GLBT members and leaders by speaking in generalities when they know that their music program, their deacons, their after-church coffee set-up crew has GLBT folks forced to stay in the closet by their rhetoric, while those pastors and churches continue to benefit from the very gifts of the people they marginalize.
And yet something about the conversation was making me crazy. (more…)