Sunday, August 30, 2015

Unintended Blessings of the Long Journey to Justice

A few weeks ago I traveled to Kansas to celebrate my 35th (!) high school reunion. The festivities were held on Friday and Saturday night in Topeka, where I grew up, but Sunday I was to go to my sister Lori’s in Lawrence, KS. We had a full day planned: a first birthday party for my grand-niece, Averie, and a birthday dinner for my 26 year old niece, Rachael.

But Lori wanted the day to start with church. Her daughter, Rachael, had discovered a new church and had told her mom about it. I first heard of this church a few months ago when Lori and I were on the phone. “It’s contemporary and really simple,” Lori had said, “There’s just a few songs, the sermon, a prayer and a closing song. Then you’re done.”

She went on to rave about the rock band and the casual appearance of the ministers, their fun use of videos and their small group ministries. I was pleased she and Rachael had found a church where they could  feel comfortable, though I was not sure I wanted to attend; I worried about the theology. In my experience, “contemporary” non-denominational churches with praise bands and coffee bars have a conservative, evangelical bent that focus on “loving the sinner and hating the sin.”

Still I was curious about this church and so I headed to Lawrence after getting in an early morning run. Lori was especially excited to tell me about what the topic of the sermon just happened to be for my visit: Gay marriage.


Still, I gamely smiled and marched like a good little soldier into the Lawrence theatre where Eastlake Church rents space each Sunday morning. My niece, Rachael met us there.

“Did Mom tell you what the service is on today,” she asked with a big smile. When I said yes, she responded, “I’m 90% sure we won’t have to worry about what they’ll say.”

This made me feel a little better, but as the lights dimmed and the young members of the band walked on stage, I felt my gut tighten. Listening closely to the lyrics of the praise songs (like any good Unitarian Universalist would do) I felt my sense of unease growing. One song mentioned over and over again, how the singer would call to Jesus from a miry pit, “rescue me! Deliver me!” This sounded a lot like something ex-gay ministries would tout—Jesus can save us from the pit of homosexuality.

Finally the lead minister, Matt, came out and began his 40 minute talk. This was the last of a four part sermon series called “Survey Says” and each week, one of the ministers would address questions people wanted answered. This talk actually addressed four questions: would there be an increase in persecution of Christians in America, Is there a heaven and hell, If I’m afraid to die does that threaten my salvation and the Big One: What Do You Believe About Gay Marriage?

As Matt spoke, even though I really appreciated his perspective (for the first question he said people voting differently than you is not persecution, it’s democracy, and atheists are not anti-Christian, they’re anti-asshole, they’re anti-douche bag) I still kept waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Finally he got to the marriage issue and when he said he believed in marriage equality and all three ministers would be available to officiate at any legally sanctioned marriage, I thought I was going to burst into tears. I mean seriously.

You have to understand that for most of my ministry I was with MCC-- a predominantly queer Christian denomination-- and I can't recall how many times someone walked through the doors of that church, broken and beaten down by their former church's interpretation of homosexuality. I couldn't tell you how many times they had to recover from being told they had to be ex-gay, in ordered to be loved by their god. So maybe my trepidation that Sunday morning at Eastlake Church was understandable.  Even though by then what Matt would say shouldn’t have been a surprise, I still didn’t trust where the message was going. I thought he’d say, gays and lesbians are welcome but marriage is between one man and one woman. 

Instead he fully affirmed the human dignity and worth of queer folk, and unequivocally welcomed all into their church. Instead of delving deep into scriptures and the translations, he offered two links for those who wondered how he had reached this decision –this one from 2005, written by John Thomas, then General President of the UCC, and this one by Justin Lee, author of the book Torn: Rescuing the Gospels from the Gays vs. Christian Debate. In summary, Matt simply stated that homosexual relationships mean something different than what was depicted in biblical times and that of all the things Christians were called to, loving one another was chief among them. Then, just as promised, a prayer, a closing song, and we were out the door.

As the lights came up, I looked at the other folks gathering up their belongings and exiting; I thought about how many of them might be struggling with their sexuality or know someone who was. I thought about how this simple validation in a contemporary Christian church- complete with a rock band with a thumping bass line might have saved lives that day.

In June I wrote about the historic decision on marriage equality given by the US Supreme Court and I focused on its relevance, on the struggle to win that fight but I failed to mention the unintended blessings it would also give: a reason to live. As many of you know, I belong to a facebook page called Sibling Survivors of Suicide. In the wake of the Supreme Court ruling, I was amazed to see how many of my fellow siblings posted their joy at the decision and said that they only wished their brother or sister could have been alive to witness this day, adding their siblings killed themselves because they had been gay or lesbian, because they didn’t think their god could love them, because someone told them they were going to hell, because they had been bullied in high school- or middle school- because of their sexual orientation, because they were raised in a culture that said they were second class citizens, at best.

I thought about how long the journey, how arduous the struggle, how Sisyphean a task justice-seeking is; and yet, with each small victory attained, with each nudge that topples the dominoe
s of injustice, somewhere in some small town, a life is saved, a love is lifted up, and liberty and justice for all seems, at least in this moment, ours.
That’s what I experienced at Eastlake Church that morning, as I blinked back tears of joy. And that was at the center of the bittersweet celebration of the Supreme Court’s decision on my sibling survivor page.

In 2004, long before I could see the unexpected turn this journey would take, I wrote a paper on Marriage and the Patriarchy, in which I questioned if that issue should be the building we put our ladder on, but in the end I believe that this struggle for equality will have ramifications beyond two people’s decision to say “I do.” Perhaps, by legitimizing love we can finally begin the process of detaching qualifiers such as gay or straight marriage and just say marriage. Perhaps, we can begin to dismantle the hierarchies of love that have held sway for so long. Perhaps then we can join together, all of us members of the human race, to care for our planet, in all its diversity, and one another, in all of ours. 

Friday, August 21, 2015

Cry Me a River

Recently, I’ve been very emotional. I suspect hormones might be in play here, but I can’t talk about Cecil the lion, recount a moving passage from a book I read nearly a year ago, or watch certain commercials without getting verklempt. Well, more than verklempt, really; almost on the verge of ugly crying. I’m serious here.
I’ve always been a touch sentimental but it is getting worse (better? You be the judge.) There are two things, however, that I have never been able to talk about for long before the tears well up in my eyes and my throat constricts with a mass of grief struggling to get out or go deeper in; I’m never quite sure which: my brother’s suicide and the US AIDS years. Both of these have created deep canyons in my soul, brimming over with grief. For these two things, no matter how many tears I cry, I will never be able to empty out these canyons; there are vast untapped reservoirs waiting, still.
I tapped into one of these canyons last night, while my son, Sam, and I were watching the movie “RENT.” It’s one of our favorites; we know all of the songs and sing along, assigning ourselves different parts (you be Mark on this duet, and I’ll be Roger, and so on.)
Midway through, a song entitled Without You comes on. It focuses primarily on a broken relationship between two of the main characters—Mimi and Roger—but interspersed with their montage of heartache is a montage that brings me to tears just writing about it (see what I mean???) in which an AIDS support group is shown; nothing much-- just a small circle of people in folding chairs, only as the song goes on, the people disappear and you understand that they have died.
When the song came on last night, Sam said, very solemnly, “This is such a sad song.” I, of course, was making that strangled sound you make when you’re trying not to cry, while tears poured down my face. Sam looked at me with compassionate concern. I struggled to say, “It’s really sad to me, because I lived through those years. I lost 33 friends to AIDS and knew many more who died. And did memorial services for untold numbers.”
“Think of it,” I said. “It would be like you losing 33 Brandons or Sams (friends of his.)”
Suddenly I was struck by the realization that there are many of us survivors—mainly queer folks, but straight allies, too— for whom those first 15 years, 1980—1995, (the year Sam was born) when the protease inhibitors came on the scene and stopped the floodgates of death-- cut deep canyons of grief, with untapped reservoirs of tears, and now we have children who know nothing at all about how those years impacted us, impact us still. It’s like escaping from the pogroms or ethnic cleansing and then going on to have a family that knows nothing about it.
In some ways, though, it is like the entire country wants us to keep silent, to move on, and to let it go. Not just now, but then, too, during those dark days. As one ACT UP activist said, it was like fighting a war that only the combatants knew about. No one wanted us to talk about it then and no one wants us to remember—at least not so viscerally—now. Unfortunately, that is impossible. It is always with us. It moves through the rivers of blood in our veins, always very close to the surface. I realized that anew last night.
And it got me wondering: how has this history impacted my parenting? How has the grief shown through the cracks? How can I explain this to my son in a way that will make sense to him and not just be a dry history lesson? (Note: intentional pun; no way my eyes will be dry through that conversation.)
I don’t have any answers here, just a clear understanding that our children, our collective children, need to know about this era in a deeper way, they need to understand how it changed us, how we are marked, how we wrestled with the angel of death through that long, long night and now forever walk with a limp. They need to know, Sam needs to know, the source of these tears. These tears aren’t related to hormones at all.