LGBTQ

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!

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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.

 

On choices and Orlando

When I was in eighth grade, I saw a bumper sticker on a car (in Akron, Ohio) that said, “Honk if you support civil rights, religious liberty, gay rights, disability rights, women’s equality…” I turned to my mother and said, “I would honk for the rest of them, but gay rights?” My mother is really smart and so said nothing, knowing I would have to do the math in my head about who deserved rights and who didn’t. Because she had raised me to know that everyone deserves rights and deserves self-determination.

Some folks still talk about homosexuality being a choice. You know what I got to choose every day of my cis-gender heterosexual life? I got to choose whether to acknowledge the basic human dignity of the LGBTQ community as a whole. I got to choose whether to stand with LGBTQ individuals or whether to be silent and therefore participate in violence done to LGBTQ people and the LGBTQ community. Because when I throw the LGBTQ community under the bus (through my words OR through my silence), I’m also doing harm to every individual within the community.

That’s what choice looks like.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe this tragedy is about access to horrifically dangerous weapons. I believe it is about “toxic masculinity.” While I think it has very little to do with Islam or even ISIS, I believe it is about the values cultivated in relationship to craving a role in militarized organizations. Since the instance of gun violence closest to me is connected to two people’s struggle over their sexual identities in relationship to one another, I have no problem believing this might be about the murderer’s internalized hatred unleashing itself on others0cb090198565d4b5fa9c50f5fcfaf2be. And it is about lack of exposure to consistent teaching that God loves all of God’s children and that God never wants to see unmitigated, unrestrained violence against God’s children. For millenia we have failed to teach consistently and strongly that above all things God abhors violence.

But the massacre at Pulse is also about over 100 anti-gay bills in 22 states this year, creating a growing culture of acceptance of contempt for LGBTQ life. And it’s about pastors and politicians preaching hate that creates a culture of bullying and suicide. (More here and here .) And it’s about the ways race and gender identity have been pitted against each other as if there’s only enough tolerance for one, and we might have to choose us versus them…and if you’re both a racial/religious minority and LGBTQ, then there is no room for you. Millions of people helped set the stage for this tragedy. And that’s where my choices matter.

I’m not Orlando. And in all the ways I haven’t fought to reject efforts to legislate against the basic human dignity of LGBTQ people in the past year and for decades, in all the ways I’ve not fought hard enough for LGBTQ incusion in the church, in all the ways I’ve not created space for people to know that they are not bad people for struggling with their sexual or gender identity, I’m the people who let Orlando happen.

Can we talk about “the talk?” – teaching children how to protect themselves from “Protect and Serve”

I remember an incredibly uncomfortable Thanksgiving during Occupy Oakland. Not the cliche uncomfortable of Republicans and Democrats getting into immigration policy over the mashed potatoes and gravy.

A friend of mine who had been arrested during Occupy for carrying an umbrella (the citation indicated it was a temporary dwelling, which had been banned from the plaza in front of city hall) was regaling us with stories about what it had been like to be in jail, and how they sang together and made jokes to the arresting officers.

Across the table, another friend was clearly not amused, while his daughter’s eyes got wider and wider.

See, my friend had been working really hard not to normalize jail or prison as a regular part of life for Black people in his daughter’s eyes. He wanted his daughter to believe that to be Black in America did not mean an expectation that jail or prison would be a regular and normal part of life; even though they have people in their family who have been to jail and prsion. He did not want her to see it as “no big deal” or a laughing matter. Now, he was also raising her to know about civil rights and justice and fighting for fairness, and when she reached the double digits, they would likely start talking about the prison-industrial complex, because he knows how real the New Jim Crow is. But the light, comical treatment of jail life at the dinner table was the opposite of what he was going for at this moment in his daughter’s formation.

Parenting is hard. Parenting a Black child in America is harder.

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Upon receiving the Christian Church of Northern CA-NV’s annual MLK Award

This award was given to me on January 11, 2015 at Lafayette Christian Church during the CCNC-N’s annual MLK service. Following are my remarks upon receiving the award.

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I find myself thinking a lot about the previous recipients of this award, because they have all deeply shaped me.

I’m in the land of Pacific School of Religion, and many of you know that PSR’s slogan is, help me with this, “a tradition of boldness.” And that is true. I am in a sea of boldness in this region. But as far as I know, there have only been five graduates of the Disciples Divinity House at the University of Chicago in this region, and … I am the fifth to receive this award, following:

  • Carl and Esther Robinson, who lost his parish in the 1960s for refusing to kick a gay youth out of his church’s youth group;
  • Robert Lemon, who lost his parish for standing in solidarity with Cesar Chavez and the migrant farm workers’ movement;
  • Vy Nguyen, who hasn’t been fired from anything yet, but is leading Week of Compassion and helping us respond to disasters across the globe and here at home;
  • and while David Kagiwada is no longer with us, his widow JoAnne received this award, acknowledging her work to make sure that Japanese American internment camp survivors received recompense from our government.

So in the land of the tradition of boldness, I’m grateful to have had the chance to import a little boldness from Chicago.

I am also shaped by other award recipients:

  • There is no one who stands with poor people more powerfully and inspiringly than Sandy Perry;
  • I have learned much of what it means to participate in civil rights from Clarence Johnson, who was at the March on Washington, but who was also an ardent worker alongside Stokely Carmichael, which is a reminder to us all that radicalism can be held deep within the most humble servants of God;
  • Ben Fraticelli was about the work of building multicultural community in Oakland decades before the Oakland Peace Center started its work three years ago; and
  • Jim Mitulski, who led us in the chant “Stand Up! Fight Back! Fight AIDS!” buried more bodies than most of us can count, because so few churches in the 1980s were willing to acknowledge the human dignity and divinity of the mostly gay men dying of AIDS.

I am an Asian American who was shaped strongly by Black civil rights: 4th grade was the first time I heard about India in school, when we learned that Dr. King’s commitment to nonviolence was shaped by Mahatma Gandhi’s anti-colonial movement in India. I was hooked; I read every book on Dr. King in the library, and for a long time it was the closest reference point I could find to make sense of my experience as an Asian American in northeast Ohio. (more…)

My sermon at Cathedral of Hope a year ago

I am really honored that I got the chance to preach at Cathedral of Hope in Dallas when Jim Mitulski was interim minister there. I got to lead an anti-oppression/anti-racism training filled with 45 of the most amazing folks, and I remain in contact with several of them today.

Cathedral of Hope has done so much to create healing and love in the face of hatred and harm. On MLK weekend a year ago, I got to share a message with an inspiring congregation at the invitation of an inspiring friend and colleague.

https://www2.cathedralofhope.com/worship/2014-worship/118-2014-january/2512-january-19-sermon

Christmas values – Day 9: Gloria in Excelsis Deo!

“Why do you think churches led by people of color are thriving while a lot of White liberal churches are dying?” asked a student at a class where I was on a panel of people of color representing the racial/ethnic ministries of our denomination. The person who asked is a friend of mine whom I value, who is going into the ministry, and whose church full of kind people was preparing to close.

The other panelists talked about the depth of faith of those leaders and their courage in talking about faith as opposed to White people. I was intentional not to contradict them, so I paused before adding my own comment:

“There is a sense of urgency in our communities,” I said heavily. “When we experience oppression daily, the hope that can be found in church is necessary. The challenge of the liberal White church is that it has forgotten the urgency of what it has to offer. The values of inclusiveness, of fighting for justice, of worshipping a God of the oppressed, those things are literally life-saving, but because of White privilege, the church has been lulled into a false complacency that is literally costing lives as well as souls.”

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