Discovering who I am through Unitarian Universalism

Posts tagged ‘1st principle’

This is what transformation looks like!

black-lives-matter

This video is the first minute or so of our talk

 

This is the majority of our talk

 

On July 19, 2015 I delivered a talk with Tim Leisman, a member of my church, about our experiences in the Black Lives Matter movement in Greensboro, NC. Below is the text of our talk.

Karen: It is our duty to fight for our freedom.

Tim: It is our duty to win.

Karen: We must love each other and support each other.

Tim: We have nothing to lose but our chains.

Karen: This chant is one that we have learned through our involvement in the Greensboro Black Lives Matter movement. I have since learned that it is a quote from Assata Shakur. Assata Shakur has a long and complex history with the American legal system. I won’t get into whether she is innocent or guilty, but I will say that I have learned a lot from her writing and thoughts. She is an example of an interruption to the system, whether one agrees with her methods or not.

Sometimes it takes interruptions to help us see the systems we are operating in. Tim and I see the Black Lives Matter movement as a necessary interruption in our lives. Today we are going to tell you about our experiences and observations, and share with you some of our reflections into this movement, with the caveat that we can only speak for ourselves. These are strictly our individual experiences, we cannot speak for everyone.

We are going to go back and forth. We ask you to use your imaginations as we weave our stories together.

Tim: Thinking about how I got from sitting @ Faith Community Church, repeating “I am here because I believe this movement could be the movement” in December to July when I haven’t attended any rallies since April. Why?

When mental health issues that I thought I’d left behind in high school lifted themselves up, I turned around and realized I had no support system. All my closest friends from Guilford College had left and distance changed the nature of those relationships significantly. I couldn’t count on that anymore. Those were the same friends I talked with about whiteness. Shame. Multiculturalism.  I found myself spending time with my neighbors – white and not always covert about their racism – although they would vehemently deny that jokes about Mexican immigrants are racist.

Why couldn’t I catch myself on the support offered by Greensboro’s burgeoning black lives matter movement, full of people of color and white allies committed to change and building compassionate communities? To find the answers, I would have to look farther back in my life at deeper identity issues.

Karen: I’m dedicating my part of today’s talk to Sandra Bland. This month Sandra was pulled over for improperly signalling. She was arrested and then three days later she was found dead in her jail cell. The police are saying she committed suicide. I didn’t know her but I, along with everyone who did know her, am not buying it. This is for you, Sandra Bland.

In December I gave a talk here about my early exposure to this movement. I told about my own discomfort at being in new and different situations. I told about being confronted with my own assumptions and biases and how sometimes I’d rather not be there.

I’m telling you that sometimes I want to throw in the towel. I want to stop caring. And then another horrific incident happens and I am once again reminded of the world we live in. A world where a white 21 year old man goes into a black church, sits down with church members for an hour, and then kills nine of them.

The night this happened I saw on my facebook feed that there was a shooting in Charleston. And I have to admit that my first thought was, “Another shooting” and I went to bed. This is the situation we’re in friends, where we can have another shooting and I brush it off as just one more shooting.

The next morning I woke up to the reality and a more complete picture of what happened and I cried. Sitting on the edge of my bed I cried for the families and I cried for our world. That Thursday night I, along with many of you, attended a church service at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. We UUs were in a place with people who have a very different theology but we were able to be there to reach beyond our differences and see our common humanity. At the end of the service, there was an altar call.

Now, in the church I grew up in an altar call meant that was the time to come accept Jesus into your heart. So I was hesitant. But then I saw that everyone was going to the front. We all looked at each other and decided to go, too. We went up to the dias, held hands with the other service attendees and sang “Amazing Grace.” We prayed. We sang. We cried. And we hugged. Over and over the members of Bethel AME thanked us, a bunch of white members of UUCG, for being there. We showed up. We felt our own pain. We empathized with theirs. I was humbled by their gratitude that we showed up. Never, ever, underestimate the power of being there.

Tim: As a young white man, my life was shaped by the violence of contemporary racialization in schools. Schools are cultural indoctrinators – we learn how to act around our peers, whom to listen to and take messages of authority from. My first memory of experiencing racial difference was probably not the first time I experienced it – just the first time I remembered, because it was public and somehow humiliating. I gave a presentation about Thurgood Marshall and said at the end that without him, some of our friends might not be here, and named a black classmate. There was a strange moment. In front of the whole class, I had just named an unspoken difference; a truth that was meant to be left unspoken. How do we connect across racial differences? What keeps us separated, and Was I guilty? Was I a part? An 11 year old needs help with those questions; a 24 year old needs help with those questions; a 70 year old needs help with those questions.

But I didn’t get help. Our schools and youth programs are generally not effective at building compassionate communities – yes, even the Montessori school that my white, liberal parents could afford to send me to. At summer camp being harassed by other white kids about speaking with a lisp is my first memory of heteronormalization. From the beginning, we are part of a society that enforces these “normals”. As well-meaning as most of the dedicated, compassionate people who work with youth are, these institutions are an engine for normalization. It becomes normal to see racialized groups of kids sitting together. Whether we notice or not, it becomes normal to see teachers give preference to the raised hands of white students over those of black and latino students. And eventually, the kids indoctrinated in these schools become employers who unconsciously filter job applications by who has a white-sounding name.

And my experience, as traumatic as it may have been, was the experience of a privileged individual; an individual whom the culture wishes to indoctrinate (by force if necessary), rather than an individual who faces the greater violence of marginalization and exclusion. Perhaps that was why I wasn’t really ready to be a dedicated, authentic anti-racist ally: I had never truly confronted my past, my shame of being part of this culture. Any racially charged incident forces me to confront my privileged identity, but to be an effective interruptor, I would have to be intentional about exploring my identity every day, not just after tragic events.

Karen: Two days after the Charleston shooting, on Friday night, I found myself in another AME church, this one Trinity AME. This time with the local Black Lives Matter movement. Through the Black Lives Matter Movement, my vocabulary is being expanded. I’m learning to do things like “take up less space” and “de-center whiteness.” I’ve learned about “respectability politics” and “changing the narrative.” I’m becoming aware of how much I don’t know. Before November I had never heard the term “white supremacy.” If I did, I applied it to the KKK, not to systems in our culture. And certainly not to systems that I personally benefited from. I had heard of this concept called white privilege but had no real idea of how it applied to me and my life. I’m learning that I never knew the words white supremacy precisely because I have white privilege.

I’m learning to question my assumptions and be open to stories and learn from others in ways I never considered before. That night at Trinity AME we prayed, we called on the ancestors…Bayard Rustin, Ida B. Wells, Audre Lorde, among others, we drummed and we chanted. The pain of the last few days came up and through us while we were there for each other in ways that are hard to articulate. What I can say is that the connections are real. The ways I am being challenged to live my values as a Unitarian Universalist are real and I am committed to the process.

Tim and I come to you as people on the journey, not people with answers. I personally come to you to plead my ignorance and say that I’m learning and continue to learn, about systems of racism and how they work in our society.

Tim: At Guilford College we learned about systems of racism, about how an oppressive culture affects everyone – both the oppressed and privileged individuals. But I had never unpacked that, or truly looked into it. How do Anglo-Europeans, with all the privileges that come with living in a Euro-centric culture, suffer violence? I had a loose sense that this had to do with the psychological phenomenon called “cognitive dissonance”. It wasn’t until my senior year that an amazing individual, Jada Drew who at the time was the co-director of the Multicultural Education Dept, told me that I “didn’t know as much as I thought I knew”. Looking back, that was the piece of advice I should have taken and run with, going deeper into learning more about myself and my white identity.

At the end of one invigorating meeting with Black Lives Matter organizers and supporters, I got into a conversation where I was checked on my privilege. What did I think about being a young white man who just got a great job, living in a historically low income neighborhood? While I don’t think he intended to shame me, and he wasn’t attacking who I was as a person, I felt shameful. Being called out on privilege can always bring out a sense of shame, because so much of our identity is wrapped up in privilege. More so, I felt stupid because now it was public and clear that I didn’t know as much as I tried to present.

Did white shame prevent me from engaging with the fierce activists with whom I had been close while interning with the Beloved Community Center (around the “safer” cause of voter turnout)? Maybe. Was it overwhelming depression, worse than I had experienced since middle school? Maybe. The new and greater-than-expected challenges of balancing my life with my first full time job? Maybe.

Part of white people working with people of color for justice, to dismantle systems of white supremacy from which we outwardly benefit, is the recognition that we don’t know as much as we think we do. The acceptance that we may not always be articulate about our feelings, and that the answers to these questions are not succinct. And This sermon will not provide the answers.

The answers are in holding each other accountable, but also in laughing. In healing each other, seeking therapy alone and in groups, grieving together and forgiving.  I know that I can fall back on this community for help searching, searching for transformative support. Transformation looks like organizations working to empower youth in schools with messages of anti-racism, anti-homophobia, and the tools to stand up against bias. Transformation looks like white people attending meetings organized by black leaders and lending their support. It means saying Black Lives Matter. Transformation looks like challenging and sometimes it doesn’t feel comfortable.

Karen: Recently I was in a conversation with my friend April Parker who is a local leader in the Black Lives Matter movement. She has several criticisms against the mainstream gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender organizations, one of which is this: Is their work transformative? Are lives being transformed? Are communities being transformed?

That really struck a nerve with me because as a leader in our church, I have a strong investment in our church being an agent for
transformation. It got me wondering if we actually are. Our governance structure is based on a book written by Dan Hotchkiss called “Governance and Ministry.” In the end of the book, after lots of explanations about policies,  why we have them, and what they’re for, (only things that a governance geek like me cares about) he breaks it down like this: churches, whatever denomination they are, no matter how we practice our faith, should be about the work of transformation. The bottom line is this: we need to be transforming lives. If I am personally not being transformed, if our church is not transforming lives and our community, what are we doing?

The Black Lives Matter movement, as little as I’ve been involved in it, has transformed me. It has made me a more conscious and aware person about many issues including race.  And I can honestly say that this church has transformed me as well. So my next question was: What are we as a church doing to transform both ourselves and our community?

If you’re thinking, what in the world can I possibly do, racism is HUGE and I am but one person, here’s one simple thing you can do: become of a member of the NC NAACP. It is really easy. In fact, they are having a meeting tonight. You can come with me.

You can address comments you hear at work, at the grocery store, in your own head – internalized racism is real. You can learn to question your assumptions. You can be willing to learn and you can be willing to serve. You can join me and Tim in reading Rev. Thandeka’s book, “Learning to be White.” You can come to our meeting on Tuesday, July 28.

Tim: In closing, this is what transformation looks like: two white people willing to talk about our experiences, being vulnerable with you, and saying, let’s go on this journey together. Transformation is my journey learning why it’s important to say black lives matter in this moment. It’s important to affirm the value and inherent dignity of all lives, as our first UU principle does. But to say Black lives matter is to recognize that something needs to change in 2015 in America, that I am ready to be transformed and to behave in transformative ways. Are you willing to be transformed?

Karen: If you are willing to be transformed, listen to the choir chant “Black Lives Matter!” and when you are comfortable you are welcome to join in.

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Not for ourselves alone: who or what are we called to serve?

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.

Transgender Day of Remembrance 2014

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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.

 

 

 

Will you harbor me?

This talk was given on October 12, 2013.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”