Discovering who I am through Unitarian Universalism

Posts tagged ‘Lesbian’

Lesbians, Softball, and the Church Board

I gave this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Winston-Salem on April 24, 2016. The text is below as well as a recording of the sermon itself (which includes a bit of ad libbing).  I am grateful for this opportunity to speak to their Fellowship.

Lesbians, Softball, and the Church Board

A few months ago Rev. Lisa saw my post on facebook about a recent sermon I gave at my church, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greensboro. I said that I have given several sermons over the years so at this point I see the Order of service as I do a recipe, merely guidance not an absolute and so for that particular service I changed things around a bit. Well, I think that piqued her interest because she messaged me and said, “Hey, why don’t you come speak at UUFWS?” Not being one to turn down an opportunity to speak, I said, sure. When we talked through the stage I’m in regarding seminary, sermons I’ve given in the past, etc, I remembered something I had held way back in the outer reaches of my memory: Ya’ll are actually part of my process of becoming a Unitarian Universalist. So we talked it over and the title of my sermon became, “Lesbians, Softball and the Church Board.” While yes, this is a provocative title, all of these items really do tie together. Hold on and you’ll see.

I moved to Greensboro, NC from Columbia, MO in 2004 to follow a relationship. Of course, like all relationships, I thought this was “the one.” It turned out not to be true. I moved out, worked several jobs, and realized I needed community. If I was going to survive living here, I needed to have other like minded people in my life.

When I moved to Nc, I began attending a church that was in the same denomination as the one I attended in MO. I went to that church but this particular one didn’t fit quite right. Do you ever know the feeling of sliding on an old jacket, thinking, yes, this is me- only to discover that the shoulders are either too loose or too tight? You wear it for a while but realize it doesn’t fit who you are at this point in your life. So you decide to let it go.

That’s what it was like for me. The people were good, I still have their spiritual beliefs guiding me, but I decided I wanted and needed something more. I needed people who were coming together on Sunday morning, yes, but also taking their beliefs out into the world to make it a better place for everyone. I decided to give the Unitarian Universalist church another try (I had tried it for short stint once before when I lived in MO). Much like Cheryl Walker’s story last week, my being welcomed in – and staying in – were about the people. I came to a women’s gypsy tea on a Saturday and a woman there, Janet, said to me “Come back tomorrow and I’ll introduce you to people.” The next morning I was a little nervous but I knew this little Scottish woman was waiting for me and I knew she would welcome me in. The rest is history.

Within a year of beginning to attend church at UUCG, I served on the Music Team, realized that wasn’t my thing but choir is. It’s been a glorious experience to open my heart and expand my musical abilities with others. In addition, along the way someone asked me if I would teach a children’s religious education class. Now friends, this required a lot of grappling with the faith of my childhood. There were modules where we talked about Bible stories. As someone who has been bashed by family members because of their particular religious beliefs, I have a complicated relationship with the Bible, as do some of you, I’m sure.

When I came out as a lesbian, I went through a long soul searching, what some people call a dark night of the soul. Eventually I decided to do my own research to find out what the Bible actually says about homosexuality. I needed to find out for myself. When I came to find out it didn’t say what I had always been told, I decided that the rest of the Bible could be examined also. I came to believe I could not take the Bible literally. That was both freeing and terrifying.

So in children’s RE, this time in learning about the Bible, I got to learn the larger metaphysical stories behind the stories. This time I got to learn about UUs, both past and present, who made a difference in the world as a way of living their faith. I got to juxtapose the two and find truth and meaning in both.

And so at the same time as teaching RE, and singing in the choir, I began playing softball in a coed, glbt league that plays in Winston-Salem called the Triad Softball League.

Now friends, I know then, and probably still don’t know, one single solitary thing about softball. I do not fit man of the stereotypes of lesbians, the biggest of which is being someone who plays or cares about sports.

However, I was new to the area and, as I mentioned earlier, in need of community. But not just any community. I wanted a glbtq community of people who weren’t making assumptions that I was straight, believe me that gets old fast. In MO, I was part of several glbt groups and I really missed that.

So, having no idea that there were different kind of gloves for catching a ball, or that there were specialized shoes, I decided why not? How hard could it be, right?

You can imagine that this had disaster written all over it. Thankfully, however, the people in the league are patient and kind. Several of them took me under their wing and explained the nuances of timing, both in swinging the bat and in catching the ball in left field, which was where I played defense most often. There would be Sunday afternoons when I’d get the ball thrown at my face or I’d fall while running and think to myself, “There must be a better way to make friends.”

One of the friends I made is a member of this Fellowship, Ellen. She was incredibly patient with my softball ignorance. In addition, we began an email correspondence where we talked about what I call “life’s big questions.” One of the things we talked about was UUism. She talked about how her faith impacts her life and her work as an attorney, then mediatior.

This was my first in-depth conversation with someone about what they believe and they they’re a UU. At my church I felt welcome and safe, but as I’m sure many of you can attest, there isn’t always time to have these kinds of conversations.

Soon at my church I was asked to wear another hat, that of board trustee, which was a three year term. Eventually wearing three hats at my church and two hats in softball – I agreed to serve on the board there and be a manger of a team – began to wear thin. As much as I enjoyed the various things I was involved with, too many times I was making hard choices: do I go my minister’s wedding or do I go to the opening day of the season? I chose opening day. Do I go to a choir member’s celebration of life service or do I go to game, knowing this means the team might be short handed? I decided to go to the celebration of life service.

As my life became more and more centered in Greensboro, I stopped playing softball. Ellen and I also stopped with the long emails, again, who has the time for those kind of in-depth conversations? I know at this time in my life I don’t.

When Rev. Lisa asked me if I would like to come speak here, I remembered those conversations. They came back to me as a reminder that they were foundational to my understanding of Unitarian Universalism.

When this memory came back, I particularly wanted to talk about that here because I want you to know that how you live matters, how you interact with other people, and being able to talk about your UU faith matters. More than you will ever know.

When Rev. Lisa and I talked about the title and she threw in the word “lesbian” at first I laughed nervously because in my regular life I don’t really think about being a lesbian most of the time. It’s like living an identity that there is the potential to be discriminated against at any time just for living and at the same time I really do have a non-threatening life. Most of the time it’s quite boring.

But then I remembered – see what memory does? – one of the reasons I left the church I attended when I moved here. That church was more than happy to do same sex wedding ceremonies but they refused to get involved in political issues. The church here in particular wasn’t involved in local issues at all. It was one of the reasons I decided I needed a change.

Here’s how I look at it: when the mud starts slinging at me – and it has and will again – I need to know that you’re on my side. It’s not enough to say, “I support you.” If you’re truly my friend and ally you have to be willing to stand in the trenches with me and get mud slung on you as well. It is incredibly humbling to know that UUs around the country are standing on our side, for example, regarding House Bill 2. I know that UUs are quite literally standing in my corner. I have so many stories about this which is a whole sermon in itself. Never, ever underestimate the importance of standing with others who are being marginalized even when you’re not.

UUism sees the connection between our faith and our daily lives. We believe that everything is connected. We believe that where you worship on Sunday morning isn’t nearly as important as how you live your life.

Nowhere was this more evident than my position on the church board. After I completed my three year term as a board trustee, I took one year off, then was asked to come back as Vice President. This meant on taking quite a bit more responsibility so I let go of teaching RE and focused in on governance work. Now I know, this doesn’t sound very exciting. I have come to believe, however, that governance is foundational to who we are as UUs. A bit of reading about our history tells you that our govenance defines who we are as a denomination.

I began to move from someone who was filling a leadership role to someone who began to view everything through the lens of UUism and what is best for UUCG. I became more and more aware of having and practicing having a non-anxious presence while also knowing that that doesn’t mean being passive. I learned that my particular skills set fit exactly what was needed at UUCG at the time.

By the end of my second year as Vice President, I was feeling the call to ministry. At the same time I got a literal ask to be board president (at my church President doesn’t automatically follow being VP). My wife Michelle and I weighed both options. We thought long and hard about our lives at the time, thought about the church, and decided the best thing to do was to wait while serving as board president for two years.

That decision was absolutely the right one. There are certain lessons that can only be learned while getting your feet held to the fire. I cannot begin to summarize being board president in a couple of sentences, I’m sure it is something I will continue to learn from for years to come. What I can say is that my experience as president has informed the specific type of ministry I want to do: interim and developmental. My church has experienced several transitions within the last five years. I have come to understand that my skill set andd personal qualities are suited to this type of ministry at this time in my life. Truly, all my life I have felt called to ministry but never knew what that would look like. Experiencing transitional ministry myself helped me see myself in UU ministry in a way I would never have otherwise.

Leadership is service. That is really and truly what it is. Leadership is service. My mantra is, “It’s not about me.” When something is going on and I’m having a response, I ask myself, “am I making this about me? What is going on for me in this situation?” I am absolutely certain that leadership is spiritual practice you cannot get anywhere else.

And so, my friends, Michelle and I began the stepping off into the unknown last fall when I visited Union Theological Seminary. It continued when I applied, was accepted, we informed people in our lives, and we put our house on the market – and it sold in two days while we had no idea where we would be living next. All of the pieces are falling in place for us to turn our car north on August 25. It feels humbling to feel all of the pieces of my life coming together in this one direction. This combination of knowing – and not knowing – at the same time is both exhilarating and terrifying.

Friends, yes, I am called to ministry, but so are you. All of you. I have come to see our daily interactions with clerks, other drivers, and just ordinary events to be ministry. Not all of us will go to seminary and put our houses on the market, but we can all serve, wherever we are. That. Is. Ministry. I encourage you to think of the places in your life that are calling to you and I ask you to be willing to stand in the not knowing, willing to move forward with courage.

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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.

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?

My process of becoming a Unitarian Universalist

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.

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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.