This sermon was given at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greensboro, NC on May 22, 2016. It was the final sermon I gave at my home church before beginning seminary. The reading I used before the sermon was the lyrics from the song I’m not my father’s son, written by Cyndi Lauper.
Last fall when I visited the seminary I will begin attending in September, Union Theological Seminary in New York City, I had an opportunity to see the Broadway musical, Kinky Boots. I have seen the movie several times and absolutely love it. When I had a free evening in the city, a myriad of events conspired to get me closer to Broadway than I initially planned. Funny how life works, isn’t it?
So at the encouraging of an old friend, I went to the box office of the Al Hirschfeld Theater an hour before show time and got the last available seat in the theater, in the second to the last row in the house. I ate my dinner, came back, and was totally blown away. By the final act, I was crying and laughing at the same time. It’s that good.
Billy Porter, the actor who played Lola in the original Broadway cast, sums up the show by saying it’s about two guys with Daddy issues. He goes on to say that it’s kind of a sneaky show. It appears to be about drag queens and fancy shoes, but it’s really about finding your life’s calling and believing in yourself. In ministerial formation language it is called: claiming your authority. Theater goers think they’re in for a light and easy show, by the end they’re cheering for these two guys who seemed lost at the beginning but by the end have found their way.
Why is Kinky Boots a Broadway hit? Is it just because of the flashy costumes, big shoes, and amazing music? Friends, it’s the story. A good story, is, as Cyndi Lauper would say, the hook.
Our resident story tellers know all about the power of story and why we humans have been passing down stories for millennia. They speak to who we are as people, they tell us who we are, we resonate with them, and they show us the way. Stories have characters who are archetypes, we see ourselves in them, their struggles and their triumphs. Characters need to be both who they are as individuals, but the story is universal. The story of Kinky Boots is actually based on real events but it was made into a movie and then into a Broadway musical because it is relatable.
Kinky Boots has four main characters, Charlie, Lola (who is also Simon), Don, and Lauren. When the story begins, Charlie is leaving the factory town he’s grown up in to go live in London with his fiancé. His father wanted him to stay and work in the shoe factory that he built over the years, in fact the factory is called “Price and Son.” But Charlie thought it would be better to follow his fiancé and begin a new life away from the life his father dreamed for him.
A little while after living in London he gets a call that his father has died so he comes back to the factory to figure out if it can be saved, and how to do so since he’s living in London. He comes to find out that the factory is going bankrupt. He had no idea. The factory had been making men’s dress shoes which are no longer in style so no one was buying them.
In an effort to save the factory, he goes back to London and met with a friend in the shoe business for advice. When he left that meeting he saw a woman getting harassed in a back alley. He comes to her rescue, only to end up getting hit by her left hook. He wakes up in her dressing room where she, or rather he, is a drag queen named Lola.
Eventually Charlie and Lola realize they both need something: Charlie needs to figure out how to save the shoe factory because he really hates laying people off, and Lola needs shoes and boots that are made to hold the weight of a man. They decide that working together, perhaps they can both accomplish their goals. Through this joint venture, Lola discovers that she has drawing and design skills and Charlie learns that although the shoe factory wasn’t part of his original life’s dream, he’s come to make it his own, doing it his way. He could live the life he wanted.
But, everything’s not easy peasy of course, or it wouldn’t be an archetypal story, right? There has to be conflict. Enter Don. Don is, in very stereotypical terms, a man’s man, and is very put out about having Lola around the factory. He has a hard time taking any kind of instruction from what he calls a man in a dress. The two of them, and the entire factory actually, end up in a dialogue about what a real man is and what a woman wants in a man. Sound familiar? Everyone has opinions about these ideas, we can’t help it. Gender roles are in the air we breathe.
And so, Don and Lola work out their differences by each giving the other a challenge that they both have to do. Don, thinking because he’s bigger than Lola, challenges Lola to a boxing match. Unbeknownst to Don, as a child, Lola, or rather Simon, took boxing lessons from her father. Simon’s father was insistent on knocking out anything feminine by teaching him how to fight. As an adult, for the most part, Simon lives as Lola the drag queen, but the boxing lessons are always readily available when needed. Don has no idea.
Although Lola could use that opportunity to beat Don up, she knows it’s important for Don to have his dignity in his community and lets him win the fight – and Don knows it. It is then that Lola gives Don his challenge, which comes just in time for the next big crisis in the story.
Charlie has decided that they need to not just produce women’s shoes for men, they need to exhibit them in Milan. They need to attend a special exhibition and there is a tight deadline. Charlie has discovered his inner perfectionist and it begins to make the workers frustrated and angry. They end up walking off the job.
Charlie realizes his mistake but it’s too late, his dream is going to fail. But just in time, his new love interest (yep, that engagement didn’t work out) Lauren, a woman that Charlie grew up with but is now seeing him in a whole new light, tells him that they need to go to the factory. And there, as they walk in, they find everyone working diligently to get everything done in time for the shipment to Milan. Charlie is stunned. He sees Lola and asked her if she made this happen and she says no, “Ask Don.”
Then Don admits that yes, it was him. Lola’s challenge to Don was to change his mind about someone. Don changed his mind about Charlie. He had one vision of Charlie, the sniveling, spoiled son of the boss he worked for, but now understood that Charlie has his own authority and is worthy of respect on his own, not just as someone else’s son. So Don got all the workers back to the factory, they finished the shipment, and the shoes were a major success in the Milan exhibition.
I think we can all see ourselves in these characters. Who doesn’t know about others’ expectations of us? Whether it was from a parent or other relative, somewhere along the way many of us grow up with expectations that others have of us. Other people put their story on us, their projections, and hopefully as adults we decide if that story is true for us. Charlie and Simon/Lola both had a set of expectations that was handed to them by their fathers. Both had to take that story out into the world, examine it, and make their own choices in life.
This, my friends, is what UUCG has done for me and it is what we do for each other. This story, Kinky Boots, is what Unitarian Universalism is for me. Our first principle, the inherent dignity and worth of all people, holds that each and every single person in the entire world, regardless of anything they’ve ever done, has value and should be respected exactly as they are. When we are standing in our awareness of that principle, we know that how someone identifies their gender or expresses their sexuality is not a reason to not respect them. In fact, I personally have an even stronger respect for people willing to stand in their own power and say, “This is who I am” in whatever way is right for them.
Our third principle, “Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth” says “Yes, you have inherent dignity and worth but I’m going to encourage you to keep on growing. You are stupendous and amazing but you can continue to grow as a person.” If we are doing church well, we are constantly challenging ourselves as individuals and our church as a whole to keep growing, to keep challenging our ideas of who we say we are.
And then our fourth principle comes in with the “free and responsible search for truth and meaning” which I interpret as, you are welcome to change your mind about what you believe and we are open to changing our minds about each other as well. When we live our principles, when we are living our faith in everything we do, we are living from joy and authenticity.
When I came to UUCG in 2004, I was much like Charlie. I had recently moved to North Carolina, just experienced a major breakup, I had no idea what I was going to do with my life, and many, many times I was quite literally lost. I came in these doors looking for safety. In charting my own faith development, I can say that I went from seeking safety to wanting to contribute in some way, to being in a leadership role, to being Board President, to being a ministerial aspirant and beginning seminary in the fall. And what a ride it’s been.
I am incredibly grateful that you not only offered me safety, you said, “Hey, do you like to sing?” Do I like to sing? Of course I like to sing. But my confession is that I’m really terrible at knowing what the notes are. I can match pitch and I can read rhythm but if you handed me a sheet of music and I had to sing it by myself there is no way I could do it. But. As a choir, with many other talented singers around me, I can sing. Together we can do more than I ever imagined on my own.
I was asked, “Can you teach our youth?” I thought, “Well, with others, surely I can learn.” And so I taught the third – fifth grade Religious Education class for about three years. I learned I can do things I didn’t know I could.
And further along the way I was asked, “Would you like to serve on the Board of Trustees?” And I, not having any idea what I was getting into, said yes. I served a three year term as a Trustee, took a year off, and then I was asked to come back and serve as Vice President and then President.
Through this service to UUCG, an old dormant part of myself began to awaken. Something I thought I had put on the back shelf, far, far away. It began to say, “Remember me? Remember that old dream? Don’t forget. Wake up.”
You see, I grew up in a very fundamentally religious home. My father attempted going to seminary himself but it didn’t work out for him because he was illiterate. Although he didn’t finish seminary, church was, and I’m assuming still is, extremely important for him. Due to my parent’s divorce and other events, I no longer have a relationship with him.
I have worked a lot of my life trying to not be like him due to the way he treated us as children. Despite my efforts to not live in his shadow, I stayed in church, even after coming out as a lesbian and finding my own church home. Somewhere along the way I got the message that not being like my father also meant not devoting my life to religion and faith. I felt like church involvement was something to do but it wasn’t me, it wasn’t my identity.
But this church changed that for me. Through my service at this church, particularly on the Board of Trustees, I came to live my faith in a very real way, ways I never imagined before. I was presented with challenges that required me to really think about how I am going to be in this world, how I am going to live what I say I believe. And that drove it home for me: I am not just volunteering, this is who I am as a person, this is who I want to be, this is how I want to live my life, for the rest of my life.
And so I find myself in a very interesting place where in the fall I will be living my father’s dream of going to seminary, albeit one I’m absolutely certain he wouldn’t approve of. Life has taken me full circle in ways I could have never imagined.
I came here as Charlie, all of you have been my Lola. You have seen right through my fears and insecurities and said, “we love you as you are.” But then you said, “We’re not leaving you as you are: here’s a challenge. We know what you can be.” And sometimes some of you have been Don, seeing me in only one way for a long time but then being willing to change your mind as I changed. That is one of the gifts of this church, that is one of the gifts of this faith.
Each of us is Charlie some days, who isn’t? Some days we need to be reminded of what we can do and who we are. Some days we’re Lola, living life out loud and proud and encouraging others along the way. And some days we’re Don, stuck in our ways of thinking. When you find yourself stuck, consider being willing to change your mind. Ask yourself, “Could I change my mind about this?” One of the mantras I’ve learned here at UUCG is “I could be wrong.” Why don’t you practice that with me now “I could be wrong.”
I’m going to close with the Price and Simon six steps to success, which could be a whole sermon unto themselves but here goes:
1. Pursue the truth
About yourself, in particular. Learn about who you are and what matters to you. Live from that.
2. Learn something new
If you’ve never sung in the choir, if you’ve never taught young people, if you’ve never served in a leadership position, don’t let that stop you from doing it. This is a great place to try new things. Be willing to be a beginner.
3. Accept yourself and you’ll accept others too
The more you are on the journey of self acceptance and love, the more you can accept others. You come to realize that we are all doing the best we can with what we know now. I ask each of you to have patience with each other and be open to differences.
4. Let love shine
Be willing to say I love you. Be willing to say it out loud. Can we acknowledge that we do the work we do with and for each other because we love this church and each other? It’s a vulnerable place to be but it makes a huge difference in your outlook.
5. Let pride be your guide
Pride gets a bad rap but I’m going to encourage you to claim that word. As UUCG moves forward on its very important mission and vision work, I want you to lay claim to who you are, say it, name it, and never forget it. This church literally saves lives. Never forget that.
6. You’ll change the world when you change your mind
Be willing to say “I don’t know” and “I could be wrong.” Be willing to see each other and this church with new eyes. Change your mind about yourself, each other, and this church and I promise you the road will become clearer than you can see right now.
Finally, perhaps Kinky Boots isn’t Unitarian Universalism personified, but I know both it and you have been life changing for me, for which I am forever grateful.