Discovering who I am through Unitarian Universalism

Posts tagged ‘Pema Chodron’

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?