Discovering who I am through Unitarian Universalism

This talk was given at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greensboro on November 30, 2014. The choir had just finished singing “When They Know Who we Are” by Jamie Anderson

The world will change when they know who we are. This sentiment comes from the idea that when gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people come out to friends, family, and coworkers, they/we will be accepted, understood, and even loved. This idea has proved to be true over the years when people realize they know glbtq people and that we’re not as scary as people think we are. When glbtq people become known, we are no longer “the other” that people feel justified discriminating against. Minds get changed, laws change, and discrimination is no longer acceptable. The same holds true for being an ally. The world will change when it knows there are allies to glbtq people.

The song says “when *they* know who we are.” I’ve begun to think there is another aspect to this, specifically, when *we* know who we are. When we know who we are, a deep down knowingness of who we are as a people, we take that knowingness into the world. We live this awareness, we know it deep down, and we integrate it into everything we do.

Next month the Strategic Planning Committee will announce a long term plan to work on creating the vision and mission for our church. We are going to be asking questions about who we are, how we see ourselves in the world, and how we are going to put this into action. These questions will help us get a grasp on what members and friends think of regarding our church which in turn will help us create the vision and mission. Some of these questions include: who do you serve? And what might you serve?

This is a conversation that’s been a long time coming; I am very much looking forward to getting started in January. Rev. Ann Marie wrote about this in her column for the December newsletter, I encourage you to read her column when the newsletter is distributed.

Right now our church is in a form of ministry called Developmental Ministry. For this stage of our church life we agreed to focus on four key areas: Stewardship, Right Relationship, Membership, and UU identity.

To help us understand our process with these goals, the board asked the Developmental Ministry Team to come report to the board their thoughts on what it will look like when we “graduate” from Developmental Ministry. These are their thoughts in this specific area:

  • UUCG will have in place a vision and mission statement that will guide congregational work. Congregants will “own” the statement and recognize themselves and their work in it.
  • The congregation will be able to identify the qualities and characteristics of a minister that will complement the congregation’s identity and the church’s mission. And finally,
  • Once identity has been developed, the congregation will experience a sense of pride in knowing itself.

There’s that “knowingness” again. When you know who you are, you own it and live it. You can’t help but take that knowingness out into the world.

What comes to mind when I think of UU Identity is my sociology classes when we learned about racial identity development and feminist identity development, among others. In faith development circles, the model that is used is Fowler’s Stages of Faith Development.

Fowler’s Stages of Faith Development are:

0) Primal or undifferentiated faith, 1) Intuitive Projective Faith, 2) Mythic-literal faith, 3) Synthetic-conventional faith, 4) Individuative reflective faith, 5) conjunctive faith, and finally 6) universalizing faith. This all sounds very academic and not in accessible language, I know.

So here’s my own experience as finding Unitarian Universalism as an adult, this has been my personal faith development process:

1) wanting to find other people who, as we like to say, “think like me”

2) feeling safe here every Sunday, feeling like I belonged

3) finding ways to get involved through the Religious Education program, choir, and governance,

4) moving from “this is a place I like to go” to “I have a role to play in serving my church” and finally

5) from “I’m an active member of this church” to “this is who I am as a person.”

Basically I’ve gone from saying “I’m a member of this church” to saying “I am a Unitarian Universalist.” There is power in saying the words I am. When we say “I am” anything, we take on that identity and, I believe, that responsibility.

When my wife, Michelle, asked me what I would be talking about today and I gave her the thumbnail overview about identity, she said, “you’ve talked about Identity several times, why again?” Of course, she had a point. I’ve mentioned before that I take spiritual guidance from Geneen Roth and Pema Chodron, among others. From these teachers, I’ve learned to ask myself, “Huh, I wonder what this is about for me, why is Identity important enough that I keep bringing it to you, my spiritual home over and over again?”

This question got me thinking about the adventure I feel like I’ve been on since last June. Accepting the request to run for President is I feel, the ultimate in being held to my values, living how I say I believe. If I’m going to say “I am the President of the Board of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greensboro” I better be willing to show up, represent, and live my faith. I believe that all leaders are held to a higher standard but as Board President I better have my act together – no pressure, right?

So, last summer I really began living this in a new way. Despite the expense, I decided that I really needed to attend General Assembly, or GA, the annual gathering of Unitarian Universalists that was held in Providence, RI. At GA I got to meet amazing people and attend great workshops and worship services. I learned new ideas and was given opportunities to do things outside of my comfort zone. I am by nature an introvert so truthfully, being surrounded by 25,000 people in and itself put me out of my comfort zone but I was determined to keep reaching out and stretch beyond what I am normally comfortable with.

One of the signature events at every General Assembly is the Ware lecture, a speech given by someone who is currently active in making the world a better place. This year’s Ware lecture was given by Sister Simone Campbell. Sister Simone is the Executive Director of NETWORK and a founder of “Nuns on the Bus,” a group of activist nuns who are truly living their values. These nuns are true heroes for marginalized communities. The audience for the Ware lecture treated Sister Simone like a rock star: she was given a standing ovation before she uttered a single word. It was incredible to be there in person.

The theme of Sister Simone’s lecture was “Walk Towards Trouble.” Over and over again she gave amazing examples of what happens when you walk towards trouble instead of turning away. I have since watched her speech and re-read the transcript several times; it’s that inspiring and motivating. She gave examples of learning about global immigration issues, about working across socioeconomic divides, and of just plain listening. She exhorted the gathered assembly to reach across differences, to pay attention, and to take action when we can to make the world a better place, not just because it’s the right thing to do but because it’s also part of our faith journey. This is part of living our faith, living who we say we are. If we say we believe in these principles and values, then we will keep walking towards trouble, keep showing up even when it’s uncomfortable, when it’s totally out of our comfort zones.

Taking the advice of Sister Simone Campbell, I’ve been walking towards trouble. I asked the board to walk towards trouble with me by having our retreat at an overnight retreat center and to spend some focused time together last fall. Even though there was some initial concern they agreed to go and it turned into a very good thing. We have been walking towards trouble together by taking risks: we’ve re-written our covenant and we’ve been intentionally vulnerable with each other.

We have been having conversations about effective leadership and at our meeting in September we watched a video that is a synopsis of Edwin Friedman’s book, “A Failure of Nerve.” The book emphasizes the importance of being a self-differentiated leader. Basically this means being clear about what belongs to you, not reacting to things that don’t, and learning the difference. I have tried to practice this for years while asking myself these questions: “is this about me or is it about someone else?” Is it necessary that I personally respond or does this belong to someone else? I believe that these questions are essential to the process of walking towards trouble and being aware of your own identity at the same time. Being a self-differentiated leader helps you be very clear about what’s yours and what isn’t.

So recently I’ve had several opportunities to put the UU principles and lessons about being a self-differentiated leader into practice.

Through a friend I’ve met other friends who are sometimes quite literally walking towards trouble. There is an organization in Greensboro that is trying to re-start called the Queer People of Color Collective or QPOCC for short. They had a re-start/kick off meeting on November 8th and I attended. I am queer but clearly not a person of color. I was the only white person in the room, which, truthfully was uncomfortable. Many people in the room knew each other and I knew no one. Despite that, I felt like it was important to show up, be present, and pay attention. If I only went places where I felt comfortable or safe, I wouldn’t be walking towards trouble or stretching my faith. The meeting was a good one. It was a great opportunity to talk across differences, learn, and listen. I committed to continuing to show up, learning and listening.

And then on November 22, Michelle and I did something totally out of character for us, again in an “outside my comfort zone” situation: we attended the Equality North Carolina gala. Equality NC is a statewide gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender advocacy organization. They work for equality under the law for glbtq citizens in NC.

Never in my life have I ever attended a gala. This really pushed up some class issues for me. I grew up poor and have never felt like I had some money to spend on things other than bills and regular life. But after Michelle and I got legally married on October 10, we decided to do something else spontaneously: go to the gala. We put on our nicest attire, our wedding clothes from our wedding here in April, and came on down to the gala.

When we arrived at the gala we found that there were anti-gay protesters standing outside the Elm Street Center. I found them annoying but it wasn’t going to affect our evening. As the gala continued on, I found out that counter protesters showed up, which I found surprising. Then later that night I saw an article from the News & Record about a couple of the counter protesters being arrested. In response to the arrests, the Queer People of Color Collective called an emergency meeting for last Monday night. They were disappointed with Equality NC’s lack of response to the counter protest. It should be noted that Equality NC is predominantly white and middle class. Before attending the meeting I really didn’t understand their concerns, and truthfully, I’m still mulling it over.

The meeting was very uncomfortable for me because for once I felt like I “belonged” with Equality NC. Growing up with the class issues I did, at no time have I ever felt like I fit in with people who I perceived to have money or be on a higher socioeconomic class. Despite this, I was actually feeling like I belonged while I was at the gala. So at the meeting last Monday night I was feeling really awkward because I was one of three people in the room who were actually at the gala. I found myself in a position of feeling like I needed to defend Equality NC, while also listening and being present to people from a different life experience than me, reminding myself that their truth has value whether I completely understand or not. I may not have completely understood or agreed with their statements about Equality NC, but it’s not for me to say whether their experience is right or wrong. My job was to show up and listen.

And last Tuesday night I quite literally walked towards trouble while participating in the rally in support of Mike Brown and Ferguson, MO. Rissa and her son Robyn were there as well, Steve arrived before I got there. I know that there are a variety of opinions on this case and that not all UUs are in agreement on the outcome of the grand jury decision, but I felt that it was important to be there both in solidarity with people of color and because to me it comes back to the first principle of the inherent dignity and worth of all people. It was truly one of the most powerful nights of my life.

I did all of these things, and will continue to do them, because I believe it’s the right thing for me to do as a Unitarian Universalist. I have no idea what the next adventure will hold for me in the future but I am committed to continuing to showing up, listening, and paying attention even when I’m afraid.

When we know who we are, we will live from that knowingness even if it means walking towards trouble. What will you do when you know deep down who you are? What will we do as a church? I can’t wait to find out what happens next.

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One night, in the Fall of 2012, I found myself at a dinner party in the home of a male to female transgender woman and her friend, the wife of a male to female transgender woman. I was surrounded by people transitioning between genders. Some had “fully” transitioned, whatever that means, others were still toying with the idea, others were comfortable with the inbetween stages, still learning their way. The people who had more experience on the journey gave sage advice to those just beginning, and those just beginning listened and asked questions with reverence given for wise words. I got to experience one person talking about how when he finally began to allow himself to “present” as male in public it was both terrifying and it felt absolutely right. I felt the support in the room when others said, yes, yes, it felt the same for me, too. It was especially poignant when it was a male to female transgender woman who affirmed this experience for my new friend. She was saying, “I understand why being female wasn’t right for you and at the same time it is right for me.”

There were so many stories of rejection and pain in the room. Of not being accepted for who they are. On a very basic human level we all need love and acceptance. These new friends of mine had to “prove” their worth, prove they were worthy of love regardless of the gender they presented as. Many of them faced divorce, loss of their children and their jobs; things that also contribute to our identities, to who we say we are as people.

And yet, they carry on because they know they are living in the way that is right for them. They know that living any other way would literally kill them from the inside out and so that is a path they can no longer take, that door is shut to them. They have to take a new harder road, but it is one that brings great joy because it is the road of self-acceptance and self-love. It is the road where you finally know, “Yes, I’m living the life I’m supposed to live. It is the right one for me.”
That night, I got to experience my own discomfort. I got to just be with my own questions and know that we are all deserving of love just for being human. And I got to experience love as they accepted me into their world, honored my discomfort, and loved me as I am. I am grateful for that evening and for that experience.

If you should find yourself at a dinner party and you are uncomfortable for whatever reason, remember we’re all on our life journey just trying to live life the best way we know how right now. Tonight as we remember transgender individuals who have been victims of violence, let us remember that we do not have to understand to love and that sitting in the discomfort is an act of healing.

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.

 

 

 

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?

I gave this talk in January 2014. I’ve been thinking about it again because this Sunday is Music Ministry Sunday and it is also when I am running for President of the Board. You can learn a lot from singing and singing with others. Here is some of what I’ve learned.

Give yourself to love
Love is what you’re after
Open up your heart to
The tears and laughter
And, give yourself to love
Give yourself to love

I learned this song many years ago when I lived in Columbia, MO. The church I attended at the time, Unity, had an annual women’s retreat. At the retreat, along with other things, we sang to each other and this was one of the songs we sang year after year. This song helped “create the space” if you will, for deep sharing and listening. While I was thinking about this sermon this song came back to me as a metaphor for what happens when you give yourself to leadership, to service. Service, done well, changes you and, in my experience, makes you a better person. When we serve in a leadership position, I’m sure we don’t think of it as love. Our work tends to be tied up in things like agendas and meetings. However, I believe that in actuality if we allow ourselves to, we will experience love.

My goal in giving this sermon today is to encourage more participation in our community, to help people see the value in contributing their time and energy to UUCG. In thinking about this sermon, I realized that there were many lessons that I’ve learned about leadership through my involvement in choir. The choir has a choir guide but none of these lessons are written in it, these are things I’ve learned along the way that I feel can make us better leaders both as individuals and in the community at large.

I began attending UUCG in 2005, became a member in 2006 and in 2007 I became a member of the board and served as a trustee for three years. I have also served as a teacher in the Religious Education program and as co-chair of the Fellowship Team, and I currently serve as chair of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender subcommittee of the Justice Action Team. In 2012 I became Vice President and serve with the members of the board to strive towards effective operations of our church. I believe I’ve sung in the choir since 2005, there was no official joining date.

I love to sing although I have no musical training to speak of. I sang in the choir for one semester in high school and I played the flute during the seventh and eighth grades. From this training, I learned about notes and rhythm. The first year I played flute my band teacher gave me a flute and instruction books and had me in a back room by myself because she said she didn’t have time to teach someone from scratch. So I learned how to count and what pitch sounds like through playing the flute. And, of course, I can’t leave out that my mom used to sing around the house all the time so from her I learned to match pitch. I’ve never asked her but I’m sure she’s a soprano II, just like me (or rather, I’m just like her). That’s it, my entire musical training before coming to UUCG. Before coming to UUCG I also had never taught 3-5th grade or served on the board of any church but that didn’t stop me from trying when the opportunity arose. I responded to a request and my life is better because of it.

Which brings me to the first lesson about singing that I think is really important: the courage to start. Believe it or not, this can be a major stumbling block. Not knowing the right note and the right rhythm can derail a piece before its even begun. But you know what’s trickier? When we do a song that a section stops in one part and then starts again later. No one wants to be the one who begins too soon. If you notice, we pay close attention to Mark, specifically Mark’s eyebrows because they tell us when to “enter.” One of the benefits of months of practice is that hopefully since we’ve sung a song many times, we’ve developed “muscle memory” in our brains so that when we finally perform the piece it flows right out of us, without having to worry about what is going to happen next.

Sometimes leadership can feel the same. I ask myself, “Is this the right time? Should I go for it? Should I say something now or later?” And sometimes I wait for outside signs. But without risk, when will we know what the right time is? I believe that leadership requires both risk taking and practice. You don’t get better at something by not doing it, you have to do the same thing over and over again to finally get comfortable with it. The same goes for service and leadership. The first time Mark introduces a song to us, we stumble through it and over time we improve. Because Mark is always introducing new music to us, we get better and better at reading new music. By taking leadership risks over and over again, we get better at it. Each time you try something new as a leader, your “muscle memory” improves, you gain confidence, and you realize that the next time will be easier. You just have to have the courage to start. And starting can happen at anytime. Even if you’ve been attending UUCG for years, there is no time like the present to decide that you are going to run for a particular office, serve on a committee or team, or be an RE teacher. Anyone can decide to become a leader at anytime. As we say here, all are welcome.

For whatever reason the culture at this church is that people don’t get involved unless they are personally asked. I understand the hesitancy to take part in something, but truthfully I think this comes down to our own insecurities, including mine. “What will they think of me if I do this?” I’m sure is in the back of our minds when we choose to sit on the sidelines. The thing is, people get asked to do things when they have a history of being involved. How will others know what you can do if you don’t step up? What can we learn from you, how we can we hear your music, if you don’t say, Here am I? Our Religious Education program needs teachers. Having experience teaching is not a requirement. A desire to open your heart to the teachings of Unitarian Universalism and to just be with our children is all that is needed.

I’m going to call out a newbie member of the choir, Jeff. If he hadn’t joined the choir, we wouldn’t know he has an amazing voice. He recently sang a solo, which, believe me, takes a lot of courage! The choir is a better place because he joined us. I know he was nervous when he first came to the choir and on his first Sunday, which is completely understandable. Sitting in the choir loft can be a scary place, but over time it gets easier.

But sometimes, an important thing to know is when not to sing. Not singing can be just as important, sometimes more so, than singing itself. Don’t sing when it’s not your turn! Don’t sing when it’s somebody else’s moment. For the choir this can translate to “don’t sing over someone else’s solo.” In leadership this translates to the importance of knowing your role. When I began singing with the choir, I joined the alto section because I thought I sang that part. For a brief time I sang with my church choir in Missouri (I discovered that the choir director’s style didn’t fit with mine so I quit) and the choir director told me I was an alto. I believed him. Within a few months of singing at UUCG I discovered that I was definitely not an alto because I had a hard time hitting some of the low notes. I learned that you have to sing in the section that has a range that is comfortable for you – not too low, not too high. A soprano would never sing the bass line, the basses would never sing the soprano line. We are very clear where our boundaries are and what our role is in the choir and we don’t sing outside our ranges.

In leadership, the same truth “know your part” also holds true. Never in a million years would I attempt to do Lonnie’s job as treasurer. He does an amazing job of keeping our current numbers in line while also keeping us updated about projections for the future. We ask questions, but we also know that he knows what he’s talking about in regards to our church’s finances. Whether we are board members, RE teachers, or part of the hospitality team, we each have a part to play. Some of our church’s biggest conflicts have been when there has been confusion over roles and boundaries. Rev. Ann Marie is helping us learn the differences between governance and ministry and gently reminding us when the board is crossing into the ministerial functions of the church. We are all learning, slowly but surely. Each of us learns from each other but we also respect each other’s roles and do our best not to overstep our boundaries.

Our church’s role in the community could also be looked at through this lens: what is our role? How do we make sure we are only doing what we are called to do? What do we do well? What do we do, how shall I say it, not so well? What do we really need to focus on? What is our church’s role within Unitarian Universalism and within our community? These are big identity focused questions that we have been trying to resolve. I have faith that we are going to continue exploring these questions over time. Over the last few years our adult RE program has had several UU history classes that remind us of our roots. We also have our Strategic Planning work that we’ve done last spring and this fall and we have our archives to remind us of our church’s history. We might stumble at times, but thankfully we have each other to gently guide our church along the path.

Something that we in the choir work on a lot is mindfulness, although I don’t remember us ever talking about it. The thing is, if you’re not paying attention to what’s going on around you, you could be singing by yourself. Not fun. Believe me, I’ve done it. Singing requires constant attention to the notes, the words, the rhythm, the intonation, and even the meaning of the song. It’s a lot to keep up with! If you’re not paying attention you could lose your place and end up singing at the same time. But if you’re truly paying attention while singing, you can’t be doing anything else. No other thoughts are in your mind, only the music. That is one of the beauties of singing. This moment, right here, right now, is all there is.

Leadership also requires mindfulness. When I’m in meetings I pay attention to not only who is speaking and what they’re saying, but what is happening in the room and how people are interacting. I try to listen to what’s being said – and not being said. I’m certainly not perfect at observing and responding but I do try. This is an area that I work on continuously.

Good performance requires preparation. At choir rehearsals, Mark has a white board that he uses to list the songs we are going to practice that night. It is the responsibility of the choir members to review the list before the rehearsal begins to see if they are missing any of those songs, and if so to get them from the music box and add it to their folders. If choir members don’t get the new music before choir begins, the rehearsal can be disrupted many times with people getting up and down to get music. Before the Sunday service, many choir members put the songs that are going to be sung that day at the front of their choir folders so they don’t have to look through them during the service.

Leadership requires preparation. There are things like getting agendas out on time, showing up to the meeting space early, setting up the room, reading reports ahead of time, and responding to emails. This makes it sound really boring but I look at it like it’s a way of showing respect to the people on the team, committee, council, or board that I’m attending. Being prepared is a way that I show that I care about good use of our time and resources.

In terms of spirituality, I think of it in terms of, “How am I preparing myself for new possibilities in my life? What am I doing to lay the ground work for new challenges and opportunities?” As a church, we have been preparing ourselves for a new settled minister for several years now. We have reorganized our organizational structure and we have done regular assessments of our operations and how we interact with each other. This will lead to being prepared when an opportunity comes our way. If we get a call to partnership with another local church or community organization, we will know how to respond; we will know who within our church are the right people to be part of this new partnership and we will have the structure in place to make this happen. We have made huge progress over the years.

My final lesson about singing I’d like to share today is, I think, the most important: It’s not about me. When we as individuals come to rehearsals or to the Sunday service we know that, unless we’re singing a solo, most people will not hear individual singers, which is how it should be. Each of us sings our part but if we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing, the congregation hears us as one body, one voice. Choral singing, done well means that we are not drawing attention to ourselves as individuals but to the whole experience of singing with others. I rely on those around me (remember what I said earlier about my lack of musical training?) but I try not to stand out on my own. We are all in this together. Each one affects the whole. We need each other and the experience of practicing together repeatedly to perform a song well.

It is the same in leadership. I did not decide to run for vice president because I wanted to call attention to myself but because I wanted to do what I could towards improving our church. It is not my goal for people to remember me as an individual but to remember the feeling of the church running smoothly and efficiently. My hope is that with each of us doing our parts, without making it about us as individuals, we can accomplish so much more together. When the community sees our church involved in a project or event, my wish is for them to see us as a whole, not as specific individuals. When our church marched in the Crop walk in October, we were one of many churches and organizations who contributed to the whole. I see our work as a constant balance in this area. Yes, we would like to be more visible in the community, but if we are doing our work well, people will remember that this is a place where all are accepted and loved just as they are. We don’t do good works in the community to say, “Look at the good works we’ve done,” instead we do them because it’s the right thing to do.

I want to end with telling you about the last women’s retreat I attended at Unity. I was co-chair of this event and was actively involved in the plan. The planning team had put together a really great retreat. But we learned quickly, when our keynote speaker was late on Friday night, that sometimes things turn out better than expected when we just let them happen. So we improvised and spontaneously created a new event for that evening which turned out better than any of us could have imagined. And on the closing morning of the retreat, just when we were about to sing together for the last time, a deer walked by our building. You could say that the morning did not work out the way we had planned, it turned out better. We had the courage to start the planning (the more I think about it, the more audacious I think it is to think you have what it takes to create an event like this), we prepared for months, we delegated tasks to others and did not try to take over their tasks, and when the time came, we got out of the way.

Friends, we all have a part to play. Whether the work you do has a position title or not, it matters. We all need each other. Here at the very beginning of 2014, ask yourself what you can do for our church, and what our church can do for our community and the world.

This is the second talk I’ve given at my church, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greensboro. I gave this talk in June 2013. It still makes me tear up.

———–

My first memories of music were of my mother singing. As a teenager I didn’t like hearing her sing and I was embarrassed, like all teenagers. But as an adult, I appreciate these memories more. The songs from my childhood reverberate in my head constantly. Sometimes they’re like an ear worm that you can’t get rid of but other times they’re comforting. I grew up without a television or radio so the music from church was our sole source of entertainment.

Part of the purpose of the music was to reinforce our identity as Christians and our purpose in the world which was to save others from their sins. Today I’m going to share with you a few songs I grew up with. For some of you this trip down memory lane will expose you to songs you’ve never heard before. For others, this will be a reminder from your childhood. I ask you to stick with me through the service and not run out screaming!

Play clip: I am a Christian. “I am a C / I am a C-H / I am a C-H-R-I-S-T-I-A-N / And I will L-I-V-E E-T-E-R-N-A-L-L-Y”

Isn’t that amazing! This song breaks down who you are: A Christian. Why you’re a Christian: you have Jesus in your heart. And how long you will live: eternally. It pretty much answers all the basic life questions in one song. An entire master’s thesis could be written on what I call these identity songs.

I shared this song not to denigrate Christians but to give you some background into my faith upbringing. These types of identity songs affected my thinking and my identity. I was absolutely convinced of who I was and how I was supposed to live my life.

I have one final song to share at this time, this one I’m going to sing to you, but only the chorus:
Untold millions are outside the fold
Untold millions will never be told
Who will tell them of Jesus’ love
And the heavenly mansion awaiting above

Wow, right? Here it is in very basic terms about what your job is on this earth. No doubt about it. We were to go save souls.

The church I grew up in was independent Baptist and it required active participation. We were at the church every Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday evening, and Saturday morning. Our lives revolved around the church. The church told us who we were: we were Christians and why we exist: to save others. We had absolute answers about everything from the creation of the world, gender roles, relationships, and rules for behavior. While the rules could be comforting at times, it could also be confusing. As a child, I couldn’t understand why some people in the world would be doomed to hell if no one told them about Jesus and saved their souls (yes, we actually did soul winning on Saturday mornings). That seemed unfair to me, what kind of a God would do that? But as a kid I didn’t dwell on that too much because not going to church wasn’t an option. My parents were certainly not the kind that gave choices. You did what you were told, end of story. We were clearly into the obedience and authoritarian mindset.

After my parent’s divorce my mother left that church. They were not supportive of her taking a stand against my abusive father and some of the men of the church actually watched our house during my parent’s separation period to make sure she wasn’t seeing other men. It was kind of scary! They were very strict about their gender roles and they felt like they had absolute authority.

As a teenager I started going to a Methodist church on my own and served as the president of the youth group. At my first undergraduate college I became active in the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and served as the president of that chapter my sophomore year. In addition, when I visited my relatives in Oklahoma I attended their churches. Yep, the church bug was strongly planted.

When I arrived at Wesleyan College, my second undergraduate college, the advisor for InterVarsity was excited I was there since I had served in a leadership role previously. What neither of us could know at the time was that my life was about to change radically. During the fall of my junior year I realized that I have an attraction to women. It was a scary and gut wrenching time. I went through at least a year of soul searching and Bible study trying to figure out what the Bible says about homosexuality. I had been told my whole life that it was wrong to be gay. It took me a while but I finally came to understand that the Bible does not condemn gay, lesbian and bisexual people (at the time transgender wasn’t in my awareness) and that it would be okay if I decided to pursue relationships with women.

I hadn’t a clue what I was doing but I decided that I couldn’t pretend to be something I wasn’t in order to please others. When I realized I was gay, instead of allowing myself to be rejected by InterVarsity, I just backed away and chose to end my involvement with them. It seemed like the easiest thing to do at the time. I knew I would be rejected by the comments I heard others making; I didn’t feel the need to confirm it for myself.

Making this decision had ramifications for my relationship with my family and my Christian faith. I eventually came out to one of my aunts. She wanted to send me her materials on homosexuality but I declined. I told her I had already been down the path of self-hatred and didn’t need to go back. When my grandmother found out, we talked over the phone and she not only said every cliché about gay and lesbian people you’ve ever heard at me, she told me that I wasn’t welcome for the family holidays. Basically: don’t come. She even put that in a Christmas card. Can you imagine?

But the biggest impact on my life was in my Christian faith. When I realized I was a lesbian I did a lot of research on what the Bible does and does not say about homosexuality. When I realized that the Bible didn’t say what I had been led to believe, I gave myself permission to explore the rest of the Bible. Basically, what does the rest of the Bible say? I came to realize that, for me, taking the Bible literally didn’t make sense anymore. I decided that while being part of a church was still important to me, I needed to expand my definition of what church meant.

Through a rather meandering course, I eventually came to Greensboro and this church. I can honestly say that UUCG saved my life. I had attended a Unitarian Universalist church while I lived in Columbia, Missouri, where I got my master’s degree, but that church didn’t feel like it was the right fit for me so I moved on and attended a Unity church instead. But when I moved here I actively sought out a Unitarian Universalist church. I needed people who worked for social justice in the world, who knew there was a war going on.

I went to a store on State Street called Eclectic by Nature, it’s a store that carries things like crystals, tarot cards and incense. I was sure that if anyone would know about a local Unitarian Universalist church, it was them. So I went in and asked if there was an active local UU church. The person I spoke to said, Yes – and that there was going to be a women’s gypsy tea that Saturday. So, not knowing anyone, I attended. Everyone was really nice to me and included me in the dancing. I was received warmly. One of the women there said to me “Come to church tomorrow and I will introduce you to people.” So I did. And I’m still here today!

When I came to this church in 2005, I had recently gone through a pretty major break up, I was in a temporary job, and I was in a temporary living situation. I felt really lost. I had no clue what I was going to do with my life now that I was in Greensboro. I decided to just keep putting one foot in front of the other and see what happened next; coming to UUCG was part of that journey for me.

I was welcomed to this church by people who actively live the first principle. The members of this church welcomed and accepted me exactly as I was. In addition, you saw in me what I couldn’t see myself. You saw my potential and kept pushing me to do and be more.

Relatively early after I started attending UUCG I was asked if I would like to be one of the teachers in the 3rd-5th grade Religious Education, or RE, class. I had absolutely no background in teaching nor did I know anything about UU history or beliefs. But, since no one thought that would be an impediment I jumped right in. The main requirement for being an RE teacher is a willingness to learn. So I did. I learned a lot about Unitarian Universalist history and heroes. Sometimes these heroes did huge amazing things for our faith and for civil rights but many times these were ordinary people like you and me who see what needs to be done and does it. My experience as an RE teacher makes me a passionate Unitarian Universalist because I know we stand on the shoulders of millions who came before us to make our faith possible.

But there was one thing missing from my life: music. At some point early on, probably in 2005 or 06, a friend overheard me saying to another friend, that I really liked the song the service just ended with. She came right up to me and asked if I was musically inclined. I said yes. She said she was coming off the music team and she had promised them she would find her replacement. She asked me if I would consider being on the music team. So I went to a meeting, (again having no idea what I was doing, the churches I grew up in did not have teams committees). I was told that the meeting was scheduled at that particular time because the next thing for the evening was choir: so, what part did I sing? It was quite an interesting way to begin my career in choir, to be sure.

I remember I attended my first choir retreat just a few weeks later. On the way to the retreat I asked someone what kind of music the choir sang. I was told “everything.” I thought, “what does that mean?” One has to have standards! One person told me she was an atheist. I was astounded. Before coming to this church I had never met people who outwardly identified as atheist. What an interesting place! What kind of church music would an atheist sing? Why would she be involved in a church? She said “I sing in the choir because the music is beautiful.” And so it is.

Due to my involvement in choir I have been introduced to amazing music from around the world. I have sung music in other languages, from other faith traditions, other cultures, and along the way I’ve become a better sight reader and hopefully a better singer. The song that we opened with today, Freedom is Coming, is not a song I learned as a child due to the fact that my environment and culture was largely Caucasian. It would have never occurred to them to sing music outside of their cultural comfort zone. I am proud to worship at a church that thinks big and works to learn of others’ cultural backgrounds.

I’m going to share a story of when I was on the music team and the Expressions service was on Sunday night. One Sunday I decided not to go to the Sunday morning service but to go to the Sunday evening service instead. When I arrived for the Expressions service, I was greeted with “How are you” instead of what I was expecting “Where were you?” It was an amazing experience to know that people care how I am.

But I have to tell you that attending this church hasn’t always been easy. Due to my upbringing, having a faith identity was very important. In the world I grew up in, it was IMPERATIVE that you know what you believe and why.

So at times, I struggled with the not knowing. When we would sing the song “mystery,” that we sang earlier in today’s service, or talked about such blasphemy as “cherishing your doubts” as we did in the responsive reading, I would squirm. I wanted absolutes. I wanted answers. I hated ambiguity! And so, I turned to what we Unitarian Universalists hold to be true, our seven principles. The seven principles helped me to figure out what was important to Unitarian Universalists. Our ideals and values are held in the principles.

I have come to believe that the teachings of my childhood very much resonate with these principles. We were taught to respect others. To be kind. To learn. And that most of all we are not on this planet for ourselves but for the service of others.

The song the choir sang earlier from Micah 6:8 is one that comforts me in hard times and guides me when I feel like I’ve lost my way. It breaks down how we should live in three basic steps: Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly with your god. It’s that simple. I believe that those teachings are repeated in the seven principles.

How these teachings carry into my life now as a Unitarian Universalist is that I believe I am held to our seven principles, and our church’s covenant, at all times. There is nowhere that I am that I am not a Unitarian Universalist. It applies in all of my interactions with everyone I come into contact with. There is never a time or place where I am not a Unitarian Universalist.

The most important lesson I learned from my childhood faith that applies to my Unitarian Universalist faith is that we must know who we are and what we believe. We do not come here on Sunday mornings because we have nothing better to do with our time. We are here for a reason. I want you to spend some time this week thinking about why you come to UUCG. There is something here that draws you back week after week, for months and years. What is it? How do you live out your faith on a daily basis? Think on this.

Many of us are refugees from other faith traditions. We have spent a lot of time trying to define ourselves by what we are not instead of what we are. And we are something: Unitarian Universalists.

The second big lesson from my childhood is that we cannot be afraid to tell others of this amazing faith we have found. I am absolutely serious when I say that UUCG saved my soul. In the years I’ve been attending here I’ve been through some hard times. And every time I’ve been lifted up and cared for by members here who continue to see my potential and make sure I don’t forget.

I believe we have a responsibility to “out” ourselves as Unitarian Universalists to others. Who are we to keep this amazing faith to ourselves? If I had access to a life saving, life changing medicine wouldn’t it be selfish of me to not tell others? That’s what I feel we are doing when we refuse to evangelize. Yes, I said evangelize. There is a world of hurting people out there. We must tell them there is a faith, a community of people who will love them exactly the way they are. And yes, I said love. I believe we are here to love. To quote from an affirmation we read “Love is the doctrine of this church.”

I am so very grateful for this church and for each of you. Please know that living the principles saves lives, sometimes literally. Know who you are. And don’t be afraid to tell others.

First Sermon

On July 15, 2012, I gave my first sermon at UUCG. I had been thinking a lot about the work I do and the first principle of Unitarian Universalism. I decided to give a talk on the intersection of my family background, my current work, and the 1st principle. The sermon is below. It was hard to get through without crying but it was worth it.

“Today I’m going to tell you some stories about my life I haven’t told many other people but I believe I can finally tell them here, to you, my chosen family. This story starts with my current work, weaves back to my childhood, and then does a full circle back to my Unitarian Universalist faith.

I work at the SERVE Center at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. Within the SERVE Center, I work for the National Center for Homeless Education. The National Center for Homeless Education works to make sure that children who are homeless can stay in school and receive a free and appropriate education. We give support to people on the state and local level to help them understand and apply a federal law called the McKinney-Vento Act. The Act requires that all children experiencing homelessness can remain in the school they were attending when they became homeless. There are other benefits received through the Act as well but the most important part of the Act is the way it defines homelessness.

The Act defines homelessness as not having a fixed, regular, or adequate residence. The word fixed means stationary, it cannot move; regular means that students can go to the same place every night, and adequate means that it is adequate to meet their physical and psychological needs. In addition, it also applies to families who are sharing the housing of others due to financial hardship or similar reason, families living in shelters, or in places that were not designed for people to live, such as abandoned buildings and bus stations. The part that throws people the most when explaining the law is the part about sharing the housing of others which is referred to as doubling up. Families can become doubled up due to financial hardship, loss of housing, natural disasters, fires, or family crisis. Each case is determined individually on its own merits because the law is very complex and we want to make sure that all children who qualify are served.

When we think about homelessness in this country, we tend to think of it in terms of adults standing on street corners with signs asking for money. Sometimes those signs mention the person’s children. However, most of the time we never see these children. But I assure you, they are there. Children and their families become homeless for many reasons such as foreclosure or eviction, domestic violence, an unstable family life, mental illness, and parental incarceration, to name just a few. Students can also be what is referred to as “unaccompanied youth” when they are not living with a legal guardian. This can happen when parents decide that they can’t support them anymore and they are told to leave, when gay/lesbian/bisexual or transgender children come out to their families and their families don’t accept them, or due to any other conflict or difficulty that the family might be facing. Regardless of how or why children are homeless, they have the right to remain in school.

My role at the National Center for Homeless Education is to assist with webinars, help create documents, fill in on the national helpline, give presentations, and give assistance to anyone who calls us so that they can better understand the law. Our job is to listen, give information, and help both families and school personnel understand and apply the law.

When I began working for the National Center for Homeless Education, I did what anyone does when they start a new job. I read all the documents, briefs, and research I could get my hands on. I wanted to understand the law and how it is applied. I wanted to better understand how I could help school personnel so they could serve children and families. I read about the research that led to the creation of this law and the ways that being homeless affect children’s ability to do well in school and the way it affects their behavior and relationship to the world around them.

During the course of my reading, I came to the realization that as a child there were times when I experienced homelessness. Of course, I knew that I had a chaotic childhood, that wasn’t news to me. What I didn’t realize was that under the law, I had experienced homelessness. The truth is that sometimes I would sit in my office and cry. The first time I went to our national conference I had a hard time making it through because the stories were so real and so close to my own experience.

My extended family is from Oklahoma. My father served in the military and was stationed in Fayetteville, where I was born. While in the military, my father was introduced to religion and he decided to enter a seminary in northern Indiana because there is a seminary there my father wanted to attend. It turned out that my father was barely literate so he was not able to complete seminary. However, we stayed up north and I grew up next to Chicago.

My parents had financial and emotional instability. They were barely adults themselves when they became parents. In addition, my father was physically abusive to my twin brother and my sister. For whatever reason I did not bear the brunt of his anger but it did impact me in other ways. My mother tried to get help from the pastor’s wife at the church we were attending at the time but she was told that “sometimes men get angry” and to try to live with it. Believe me, it was not something we learned to live with.

At one point while my parents were still married we were evicted from our apartment due to financial reasons and we lived with another family. This was the first instance where we lived “doubled-up” with others. We lived with several other families before we became stable again, at least financially.

When my parents finally divorced, things got both better and worse. My father was no longer around to beat my siblings but my mother couldn’t support us. We ended up moving in with various family members (again, doubling up), and then we moved in with my father who by this time was living on his father’s ranch in Oklahoma. Well, as most people know, a geographic change does not change behavior. My father continued abusing my siblings. In less than a year my mother decided that we needed to leave. We moved into a domestic violence shelter in Oklahoma City while everything got settled out in court. We then moved back to northern Indiana and stayed in a domestic violence shelter there until my mom could get into an educational program and we were able to get an apartment of our own. I have lived in two domestic violence shelters as a child. It’s pretty stunning to think about as an adult but that was the reality of my childhood.

After we got on our feet, there were many more years of chaos for other reasons but that was the last time I experienced homelessness. When I went to college, I told very few people about my childhood. And even as an adult, I like to get to know people before I tell them about everything we went through. My fear has always been that of being rejected because I came from such a chaotic family. My perception was that everyone else came from well put together families and that mine was too embarrassing to discuss. As an adult I’ve learned that my family, while unique in some of its particulars, was definitely not the only dysfunctional one out there.

For many years I would look at how I handled relationships and my inability to figure out what career I wanted as “evidence” that there was something wrong with me. I thought that if I could just figure out what this thing was that I could fix it and be like what I perceived other people to be. I was, as I learned later, comparing my insides to other people’s outsides. I had no idea that we all had the same worries and concerns.

When I began working at the National Center for Homeless Education and began reading about the effects of trauma on children and how it follows them into their adult years I had an epiphany. The reading I did for my job was more helpful than any therapist I ever had. It was the first time I finally got the message that there is nothing wrong with me! I finally realized that I am the way I am because of the circumstances I experienced as a child. I had to come to peace with my childhood in order to be a functioning adult. I had told myself for years that my childhood had no effect on me, that I had turned my back on everything I experienced and that I was fine. I was wrong. I needed to acknowledge my childhood and be patient with myself through the process.

But the bigger realization that I came to was about our first principle: the belief that all people have inherent worth and dignity. We Unitarian Universalists tend to think rather intellectually about this concept. We think “those people out there” have inherent dignity and worth. While I was reading and learning, I came to the realization that I too had inherent dignity and worth! That was a complete revelation to me. I began to understand just how powerful those words are and how incredibly radical Unitarian Universalism is. The idea that you can’t earn inherent dignity and worth, that there is nothing you can do to deserve it, that you have inherent dignity and worth just because you exist. For no other reason than that you are alive.

That is one of the most incredibly radical things about Unitarian Universalism. This idea that there is nothing wrong with you and in fact you have inherent worth and dignity just because you are is amazing. The notion that everyone, regardless of age, ethnicity, race, education, income, political leanings or any other way we identify ourselves has inherent worth and dignity is astounding.

A few months ago we had a visiting minister who had us do a call and response type reading. He said a line and we followed it with “And I am a Unitarian Universalist.” Some of the statements were easy and some were hard. It is much easier to identify ourselves with someone who has higher status in our society, such as a college professor, than someone who is a drug dealer, who’s been incarcerated, or committed a heinous crime. But if we honestly believe in inherent dignity and worth, and that everyone has it, it applies to everyone.

Now this is going to get a little more real for you here. Just for a minute call to mind someone you love dearly with all your heart. Can you imagine saying to that person, “you have inherent dignity and worth?” I’m assuming that’s pretty easy. Now think about someone you may be in disagreement with or someone you need to forgive, can you say to them “you have inherent dignity and worth”? What about someone on the opposite political spectrum from you? Remember that if we truly believe this that it applies to everyone.

Take a minute to look around the room. Can you look into people’s eyes, without speaking, and just silently acknowledge to yourself that everyone here has inherent dignity and worth. People you know, people you don’t know, every one of us, has inherent dignity and worth and there isn’t anything anyone can do to change that.

A quote that helps me sometimes when I’m quick to judge others is from Richard Bach:

“All we see of someone at any moment is a snapshot of their life; they’re in riches or poverty, in joy or despair. Snapshots don’t show the million decisions that led to that moment.”
~Richard Bach

This quote is a good reminder that we each have our stories, and all we know at any one time when we meet someone is how they are acting now. There is so much more we don’t know. I believe that the first principle reminds us to have patience with ourselves and others; it is something we strive for.

Another thing most of you don’t know about me is that Madrone is not my birth last name. I chose the name Madrone. Madrone is a character in a book called “The Fifth Sacred Thing” by Starhawk. “The Fifth Sacred Thing” is a utopian book set in the year 2025. The story is long and complicated so I will spare you the details but Madrone did something really amazing that I think is extremely relevant to the first principle. There was a war going on between two groups. In one of the groups, there was a soldier whose name was 09. In the society he lived in, soldiers were born and bred by the government and instead of being given names they were given numbers. 09 committed several murders because he was told to do so by his commanders but in his heart he was torn up about what the right thing to do was.

Madrone was a teacher and healer. She took 09 into a room and just sat with him in silence. She could feel all the pain and anger he experienced, all of his confusion and doubt. She allowed herself to acknowledge her own pain. And she came to realize that he needed to be “made human” if you will, given a name. She decided to name him Rio, River. She acknowledged his humanity despite everything he had done. And he became a contributing member of the society he was now living in. He came to understand that he had value and worth. I took this name legally in 1999 because I wanted to be that kind of person, someone who could see the humanity in everyone. I’m still working on it but it is what I am striving for.

Sometimes we have to go back to where we came from to understand who we are. Thanks to my work with the National Center for Homeless Education, my understanding of our first principle, and my journey of healing through my childhood, I now know that there is nothing wrong with me. My life is good and I am continuing to heal every day. I encourage each of us to heal our hearts and our lives. Remember in your daily interactions that we each have a story. And we each have inherent dignity and worth.”