Discovering who I am through Unitarian Universalism

Archive for August, 2014

Remember who you are

Talk given on 8.24.14

I picked this song for today because it means a lot to me. I first heard it in 2001 at the National Women’s Music Festival in Indiana. I was living in Columbia, Missouri at the time and had recently gone through a break up. When I heard this song, I was amazed at its simple message: remember who you are. Not complicated, not multilayered, it didn’t require lots of meetings, or analysis, it’s pretty straight forward. Remember who you are. It was clearly a song that I needed to hear at the time and it continues to resonate with me today.

Roxana Ward wrote this song (and sang it in this video) but she didn’t record it herself, another performer by the name of Suede did. So, without knowing anything about Suede, I ordered her cd and I especially listen to it when I need to remember who I am. That sounds kind of strange doesn’t it? The need to remember who you are. Believe it or not, I have found that it’s easy to forget who we are. We get distracted, depressed, and we wander off the path that reminds us who we are.

I believe when we’re not remembering who we are, not acting out of that awareness, we get confused and lost, we’re not sure of what the next thing is to do in our lives and sometimes we do things that aren’t in our best interest.

I started thinking about this talk when I noticed patterns happening in my life, in our church and in the larger UU world. Thanks to this song, I keep having this voice in my head that says, over and over again “remember who you are.” Our church and the larger UU world has been going through a re-awakening process that I would call remembering. I will talk about this in a few minutes but first I want to give you a little background in my own remembering.

When I look back over the ten years I’ve been in North Carolina, it’s hard for me to believe it’s been this long. I moved to North Carolina in August 2004 for the purpose of being in a relationship. I followed a on-again-off-again girlfriend to NC, thinking that this time things would work out. But it became very apparent, very fast, that this couldn’t be the reason I came to North Carolina. I quickly learned that my temperament did not match with my now ex’s and I decided this wasn’t going to work out. I moved to North Carolina in August and on January 1st I moved out of her house. I felt defeated and depressed. I moved into a room in a house that was leased by the month while I tried to figure out my next step.

I assessed my options – do I go back to Missouri where I had quit my job and for a year prior to leaving I had stopped going to church meaning I didn’t have community to go back to – or do I try to stay in Greensboro? Now I can say that I am incredibly grateful I decided to stay.

In the spring of 2005 I found this church, became a member on January 1, 2006, and joined the board in 2007. When I came on the board I went to a week of what was then called “Leadership School” at The Mountain Retreat and Learning Center in Highlands, NC, “The Mountain” for short. The Mountain is located on Little Scaly Mountain. It’s in the far southwestern corner of NC, right at the Georgia border. I highly recommend going there, even just on a personal retreat. The Mountain is a really amazing place not only for its beauty but because of its people and how they live their values. How they live is what I aspire to.

One night I went to the top of the lookout tower by myself, looked up and saw the stars, and realized I had made the right decision. I had no idea what was going to happen next in my life, but I knew staying was the right thing to do. Seeing the stars confirmed that North Carolina was the right place for me, even if I didn’t know what was going to happen next.

Thankfully I had Roxana Ward’s song in my arsenal of music, both in my head and on the cd. It reminds me to remember who I am, especially when I’m lost and confused and the path is uncertain. One thing I know for sure about myself is that I’m happiest working in an academic environment. Right away when I moved to Greensboro I got a job at North Carolina A&T State University. I worked in the Graduate School and then later in the Development Office. While I enjoyed being on a college campus, These positions didn’t really fit who I am (and they were temporary positions without benefits) so I started looking around again and found a position at the SERVE Center at UNCG. It’s part of the academic world but it’s all contracts and grants. I eventually found my current position within the SERVE Center which I finally believe fits who I am. I’m able to use my skills and experience in a way that helps children and youth experiencing homelessness stay in school.

I feel incredibly grateful to finally find a way to get paid to use my skills to help other people. In many ways, that’s all I’ve ever wanted. The many years I spent, what I would call wandering in the dessert, trying to figure out where I belonged were really hard. I had multiple degrees but I didn’t feel like I fit anywhere. The feeling of “not fitting” can be very destructive. I went through years of depression and anxiety. I could figure out how to make enough money to support myself but I wasn’t doing work that fit with who I am as a person and honored my values. Finding my niche has made a huge difference in feeling like my life matters.

Sometimes I would remind myself of this particular line from Roxana Ward’s song: “There’s no other way to get to where you’re going than the road you’re walking on”

I kept struggling to be on some other road, kept thinking that this road wasn’t the right one for me. It only comes in hindsight that the place you are right now, is the right one, it just doesn’t always feel that way in the moment. We do what we do at the time because we don’t know different. It is the right place for us, even If we don’t understand it. It’s easy to look back and shame or blame ourselves for making “wrong” decisions but in reality we couldn’t make other decisions, it’s what we knew then. When we have new information, we make new decisions.

One of the things I like about being a Unitarian Universalist is that we give ourselves and each other grace to know that we as individuals and even institutions, change. We are allowed to think new thoughts and come to new conclusions. We don’t accuse each other of being wishy washy, instead we listen and help each other live our truth.

For me, finding my place in the world was about remembering who I am. As lost and confused as I have been at times, remembering who I am is always the thing that pulls me back to the right place for me.

Another way that I have remembered who I am is through our church and being a Unitarian Universalist. I grew up very involved in the local Baptist church because of my father’s passion for religion. We were in church every Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday evening, and Saturday morning. I grew up singing because of my mother and her love of music. My mother would sing around the house to the radio and of course we sang a lot at church. As a teenager and young adult I fought against both of these influences because I was trying hard to not be “like them.”

It was only as an adult later in life that I realized that I am as active in church as I am because of the faith I grew up in. Even when I felt like I wasn’t welcome in the church I grew up in, I always sought out a church to be part of. After I stopped associating myself with the faith I felt rejected me because I’m a lesbian, I worked hard to put lots of walls between myself and traditional mainstream religion, convinced that religion and faith were bad words. To protect myself I disdained others who I felt were weak. It is easy to make others bad when you’re putting distance between yourself and others. I was part of this church but being here allowed me to not have to deal with childhood issues because we didn’t use words like faith.

One day I realized I was terrified of my involvement in church because I felt like I was acting just like my father. My father was an abusive man who terrorized us as small children. I never, ever, wanted to be like him. It took a lot of healing on my part to realize that yes, there are ways I am like him, but in other important ways I’m not. Through my work in our church, I have been able to not only remember who I am, but to reclaim who I am. I am able to reclaim words like faith and religion, and reconcile my life now with the language I grew up in. Thanks to singing with the choir I have been able to reclaim my musical voice as well. Remembering who I am has helped me tremendously in reclaiming the gifts I received as a child although I wouldn’t have called them gifts at the time.

Another line from the song resonates with me: There’s no better dream than what lives on inside you once you have made it your own

How I understand this is basically, don’t live someone else’s dream. You only get one shot at this thing called life, make sure you’re doing what makes you happy. A dream doesn’t have to mean writing the next great American novel, it doesn’t have to be writing a symphony. My simple dream is living my passion, stating my truth, and continuously striving to live our Unitarian universalist principles.

And when the clouds of doubt catch you off your guard, just remember who you are”

Who has never had clouds of doubt? Truly, I have doubts all the time, but I have less than I used to. The more I am sure of who I am, the fewer doubts I have and the more sure I am that I’m on the right path. One of the things I love about being a Unitarian Universalist is that we are allowed to have doubts, we’re allowed to not completely understand everything, to not have everything figured out. For example, if someone asked me about my theological beliefs, today I might say I believe in God, but tomorrow I might not. Who knows? I don’t have to have it all perfectly defined. When I first started attending our church, I hated the ambiguity; I thought this was wrong. I grew up in a church that was about absolutes. Truthfully, sometimes this still bothers me. I have a little voice in my head freak out when we don’t have an absolute decision. My current self that is okay with ambiguity sometimes duels with the absolute. This is also a part of remembering who I am. The part of who I am that needs absolutes has to reconcile with my new self that can live with not having everything figured out.

But what does it mean to remember who you are? Shouldn’t we be aware of who we are all the time? Unfortunately no, we don’t. I feel like many of us forget. We forget that we have value. We forget our own characteristics, temperament and skills and do work or get involved in community activities that aren’t really who we are. And then we get irritated and annoyed but we can’t figure out why we’re annoyed.

My personal belief is that the closer you live to who you say you are, the more life starts to work together, doors start to open, and things start moving in ways you couldn’t imagine before. It’s not this simple, of course, but remembering who you are and acting from that knowing, made my life less stressful and I was better able to be a productive member of this church and my community.

As I was thinking about all these things, I realized there is a relationship to our church and the wider UU world. Over the last three years our church has been in a process of remembering who we are. We have re-vamped our organizational structure with a goal towards growing our church and reducing conflict, among other things. We have been struggling with big questions of who we are, sometimes taking multiple paths towards understanding and answering this question. In fact, one of our developmental ministry goals that we agreed on is our identity as Unitarian Universalists, who we are as UUs in the greater Greensboro area.

This “remembering” is also happening in the wider UU world. We are both remembering our history and looking forward to the future. There are many discussions happening on national and regional levels about how we live our principals. One example of this is the Living Legacy Project which was created in 2013. This project is about remembering our role in the civil rights movement. One outcome of the living Legacy Project is the Living Legacy Pilgrimage. Next March, UUs and other people of faith will be gathering in Selma, Alabama to honor the 50th anniversary of the Pettis bridge crossing on Selma.

Standing on the Side of Love is another project within the UU world that is both increasing UU visibility around the world and helping us to remember to live by our principles. The Standing on the Side of Love campaign was launched with the goal of “harnessing love’s power to challenge exclusion, oppression, and violence based on sexual orientation, gender identity, immigration status, race, religion or any other identity.” The Standing on the Side of Love campaign is quite visible because of their bright yellow shirts and banners. They have really been pushing the envelope of what it means to be a UU. The question that gets put out there over and over again is: what would I do in this situation if I were standing on the side of love? If I were acting out of love, what would I be doing? I think these are wonderful questions because they bring us back to our principles.

Another example of UUs living our principles is the 2012 General Assembly held in Phoenix, Arizona. General Assembly is the gathering of Unitarian Universalist congregations that happens annually. That General Assembly was designed to focus on Social Justice and making the world a better place, particularly for immigrants in Arizona. There was a lot of emphasis on actively living your faith, not just having an internal faith that is focused on our own member’s needs. The theme of this year’s General Assembly in Providence, Rhode Island was “Love Reaches Out.” I was thrilled that I was able to be there in person and experience it for myself. While I was at General Assembly I attended excellent workshops, went to amazing worship services, and made great connections with UUs across the country.

But the best – and most challenging moment for me was when I finally bought one of those yellow Standing on the Side of Love shirts. As I said earlier I’ve been in some type of leadership position here since 2007. I have served in many roles, some more visible than others. But while I was at GA I finally bought one of those famous bright yellow t-shirts. I asked myself why I’m willing to go to multiple UU events, everything from the Southeastern Unitarian Universalist Summer Institute, The Mountain, and now General Assembly, and serve in leadership positions and yet I had avoided the bright yellow shirt. Clearly I needed to be at this particular General Assembly to be reminded of who I am. One night at General Assembly they had a Public Witness event where we were asked to talk to people about our faith. I was quite nervous since I hadn’t done any kind of public witnessing since I was a young child. So I bought the shirt – here it is! – and went to the public witness event and actually had a few conversations with strangers about UUism. It was definitely a first for me, and hopefully it won’t be the last.

I’ve noticed a few things about my own faith development process. I’ve gone from coming to this church because I needed community, serving in various roles ranging from a Religious Education teacher to choir, to board member and now President of the board. I’ve gone from thinking “this is a nice place to be” to “I can get involved” to “I am a UU and I need to be visible as such.” I need to be living my faith in everything I do.

Remembering who I am, remembering who we are, has made me a better person, and I believe in time our church’s “remembering” will continue to help us live our principles as well. Our denomination has become known as the yellow shirt people thanks to these bright yellow shirts, but more importantly, we’ve become known as the people who stand on the side of love. We are remembering who we are.

 

 

 

Will you harbor me?

This talk was given on October 12, 2013.

I am going to start my talk with a confession: gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people can also be homophobic, biphobic and transphobic. It’s true. I think those of us glbt people who are active and vocal have a façade of having all our stuff worked out. But, believe it or not, we don’t. When you are raised in this culture you are constantly reminded of the norm and that norm is held up as the correct way to be. Anything outside that norm, whether it pertains to sexuality, gender identity, physical abilities, race, class or any other category is considered to be “less than” and not given the same status as the norm. GLBT people, since we live in this culture, too, also have these beliefs.

On September 14, two friends of mine Allison Woolbert and Debbie Duncan, came to our church and spoke about their life experiences, Allison as a male to female transgender woman, and Debbie as the wife of a male to female transgender woman. At the workshop, one of the ground rules was about recognizing our own internal biases. This ground rule reminded me of times in my life when my personal biases surprised me.
When I was a graduate student in Missouri, I worked as a graduate resident assistant at a local college. I was an out lesbian and everyone seemed to be fine with that. But an interesting thing happened. One day I found out that one of the resident assistants was a lesbian…and my first thought was…”I thought better of her than that.” Thankfully my next thought was “I can’t believe I just thought that!” That incident reminded me that even with everything I had gone through to accept my own sexuality, I still had issues with accepting others where they were.

When I moved to North Carolina in 2004 I played softball with a co-ed gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender softball league in Winston-Salem for a few seasons. Now, I clearly do not fit the stereotype of lesbians who play sports, have short hair, and know how to fix cars. I had never played softball in my life but I was willing to do whatever it took to make friends in the area. Thankfully a few people took the time to teach me how to throw a ball and I learned how to work with my weaknesses to become a decent player.

One of the great experiences I had with the league was getting my own stereotypes blown to bits. I got to meet gay men who fit lots of stereotypes our culture has of them (you know what they are)…and were also really fierce softball players. I was stunned. Actually, many of them have gone on to win regional and national competitions. I also got to meet gay men who were the absolute opposite of our cultural stereotype – big burly tattooed guys that at first I was kind of afraid of until I realized they were one of us. Who knew?

I feel that all of these experiences, and my involvement at this church, made a difference in my friendship with Allison. Allison and I met through facebook. Yes, facebook can be a force for good. I “met” Allison through a conversation she was having with Michael Tino, a former ministerial intern at this church. In spring 2012 I saw she was posting information about an event they were calling a Welcoming Congregation Summit. This intrigued me because as chair of the glbtq subcommittee, I’ve been wanting our church to renew our energy around actively living our Welcoming Congregation status.

Our church has been a Welcoming Congregation, a special status designated by the Unitarian Universalist Association, for at least ten years. Churches that are designated as Welcoming Congregations have undergone an internal study to increase their awareness of glbt issues. However, when our church became a Welcoming Congregation, the T for transgender hadn’t been added to the curriculum, it was added the following year. If you’ll notice on the sign in the foyer, transgender isn’t included. So when I saw the notice about the Welcoming Congregation Summit, I thought this would be a great opportunity to meet with other congregations, find out what they were doing, and bring some of that energy back here. There was just one hitch – this event was happening in Princeton, New Jersey on April 11, the same day as our Dance for Equality, an event we held here to raise funds to support defeating amendment one. So I got in touch with Allison and said that I really wish I could go but it wouldn’t work out. I found out that she is persistent. Then she told me they were doing a similar event again in the fall and would I like to come speak about our experiences here in our fight against amendment one? So I said yes.

It sounded like the craziest thing to do, I know. I flew to Newark New Jersey and stayed in the house of two total strangers at the time. Before meeting Allison, I had known a few transgender people but really only in passing. Staying in someone’s house is totally different than having a short conversation in the hallway. I’m not going to lie, there were moments I was uncomfortable. First, because I had never met them before but also because I hadn’t spent much time with transgender people. But thankfully I have years of experience of being a Unitarian Universalist and I take the first principle of the belief in the inherent dignity and worth of every person very seriously. I’ve learned that if I’m uncomfortable with someone, it’s my issue, not theirs.

Many years ago a friend recommended the book “When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times” by Pema Chodron, a Buddhist monk. I have read it several times. I highly recommend her work. Another author I’ve learned a lot from is Geneen Roth. She approaches life through a Buddhist and Jewish lens. What I’ve learned most in my readings and experiences is the importance of being truly present. Being present in the moment, allowing the other person to be who they are, as they are.

From Geneen Roth I’ve learned to use curiosity and kindness as a spiritual practice. So while I was with Allison and her friends, in a room full of all transgender people but me, I asked myself, “What am I feeling? What is it about this person or this situation is causing me discomfort? How can I be more present for them?” I have found the question, “I wonder why?” to be helpful in times when I’m having an uncomfortable response to someone or a situation.

At times during the course of the weekend I was reminded that gay and lesbian people haven’t always been welcoming to transgender people and I allowed myself to just be there, without being defensive in responsive, and just listen. And I realized they were right. Prior to going to this Summit I was aware of the gender spectrum and the sexuality spectrum but I hadn’t had my assumptions tested. When Allison said she was bisexual, I had yet another stereotype blown to bits!

The song the choir sang just now “Would you harbor me?” asked the same question over and over again, only with different groups of people. An alternative to the question is, “Would you be an ally for me?” All the time I feel like Allison is asking me, would you be my ally? Would you stand with me and my transgender community when the chips are down? Will you remember me when a transgender person is attacked, raped and killed merely for their gender expression? Will you help raise money for organizations that work to end discrimination against transgender people? Will you remember that transgender poor people, people of color, and who have a lower socioeconomic status are treated disproportionately worse in our society? Will you hold national gay and lesbian organizations to account when they dismiss the concerns of transgender people? Will you make sure that transgender people are welcome in your home, your life, your church?

Friends, as someone who is white, passes as straight, fits the gender expectations of women in our culture, and has a college education, I feel strongly that I have a responsibility to come out as an ally, to harbor, those who are less than in our culture. And this church does, too. I challenge each of us and our church to take a public stand for those who cannot come out themselves. Whose lives are in danger due to their gender expression. Sit with this idea for a moment. Ask yourself, “What am I feeling? How can I be present to this challenge?” I ask you to sit with the discomfort of being challenged about your assumptions. Ask yourself what can I do? What can my church do? What can we do as a community to be welcoming to all? How can we be radically welcoming?