Discovering who I am through Unitarian Universalism

Posts tagged ‘Unitarian Universalist’

Lessons from the Bread:Joy, Love, and Beginning Again

[This sermon was given at the UU Congregation of the Hudson Valley on October 16, 2016]

If you had told me a year ago that I would make bread for a communion service, I would have thought you were joking. I would have thought that was the most bizarre thing I had heard in a long time and assured you that there’s no way I would be caught dead going to a communion service, much less participating in one. And yet, I did.

I deliberately chose to attend Union Theological Seminary because of its incredible diversity. Its racial, chronological, geographic and religious diversity was a huge selling point for me. What I didn’t know was that there is a chapel service every Monday through Thursday and a communion service happens at the Thursday chapel, every week. The chapel services are an opportunity for various groups to create a service around a theme. It’s a way to experiment, do things that don’t happen anywhere else, and possibly fail in a safe place. But the communion services? I didn’t know how I would respond to them.

I haven’t participated in an actual “this is my body, broken for you” kind of communion service in many, many years. What would it actually be like? Would the language be inclusive of people who don’t necessarily believe in God? Is it okay if I believe in God today but not tomorrow? Will my belief or non-belief be okay in a communion service? Would I truly be welcomed as I am? I decided to acknowledge my fear and try it out and see. Chapel services aren’t mandatory but they are encouraged. I began attending them because I was curious; I keep attending them because they feed my soul in ways I can’t explain.

As someone who believes in living the values I espouse as a Unitarian Universalist, about contributing and making the world a better place for others, when the request was put out to students to bake bread for the communion service, I thought back to my life decades ago when an ex partner and I got on a bread baking kick. We tried our hand at multiple styles of bread and various techniques. I can’t remember why we started baking bread or why we stopped but the memory affirmed for me that I can bake bread, I do have that capability; it’s nothing to be afraid of. I decided that baking bread was a way I could contribute to a service that I was learning to appreciate from a new point of view.

A few days later during a Gospel Choir rehearsal, when we were talking about how to be with anger during worship services, I mentioned that one way to deal with anger is to knead and pound bread. Immediately after the rehearsal I was asked if I’d be willing to make bread for the following week’s communion service. In a moment of desire to contribute to my newfound community, I said yes, not having any idea what kind of bread I was going to bake. I did some research, found a recipe and was determined to figure out how to do this thing called taking yeast, water, flour, sugar and salt and creating a loaf of yummy bread.

I followed the recipe but realized that it wasn’t going to work because of the way part of the recipe was worded. After the bread rose, the recipe said to divide it in half to create two loaves. After I divided them, I realized that two smaller loaves would be too small for the purpose of the service. However, I came to this conclusion after already dividing one large loaf into two. I decided that the only way to rectify the situation at that point was to put both halves back together and see what happens.

What happened was a loaf that had a big ridge across the middle. It clearly was not picture perfect and truly, I was kind of embarrassed when I saw it. Here was my first loaf of bread in many, many years, made specifically for this community, and it had a seam across the middle. I was frustrated, I was annoyed but I also knew that at least it was bread and that’s what I promised to bring to the service.

The next day I brought the imperfect bread to the worship staff before the chapel service began and they all exclaimed about how beautiful it was and affirmed for me that it would be just fine the way it was. They turned out to be absolutely right. My imperfect, seamed bread was welcomed and praised just as it was. It nourished and blessed those in attendance, whatever their religious beliefs were. For me it felt like the ultimate reminder that something imperfect could bless, serve and contribute to imperfect people, which we all are.

Unitarian Universalism holds that, among other things, all people have inherent dignity and worth. Some UU leaders are taking that one step further and saying we are all loved.  Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker, former president of Starr King School for the Ministry, wrote a meditation that says “There is a love holding me / us. There is a love holding all that I / we love. There is a love holding all. I / We rest in that love.”

Saying we are all loved implies we are loved by some kind of entity, an entity not all of us are comfortable with or even believe exists. When I first heard someone say this, my initial reaction was kind of a flinch because when we hear this we think we are being told that an entity called God loves us. But what if we could believe that we are loved by other people in our lives? Most of us know on an intellectual level that we are loved, but do we know this as a down-in-the-gut, I know I’m loved kind of way?

As a seminarian, recently I’ve been told that UU ministers are thinking about and praying for me. Until a few years ago, UUism wouldn’t have even talked about prayer and now people are saying, “I’m praying for you.” We as a movement are coming back to our spiritual roots.

I am now in a place in my spiritual understanding that I can be open to some outside source of love, knowing that putting restrictions on where love comes from and who love comes from doesn’t serve to keep me safe, it keeps me from being open to others and to spirituality.

When I was told the theme for this church for October was awe, I thought of the communion bread and how it reminded me that we are all imperfect and yet have the ability to make the world a better place. Our imperfect selves are loved whether we are loved by other humans, the animals in our lives, or our understanding of God.

Whenever I get an opportunity to speak, I think about what religious holidays are happening during that time of year. Turns out, this is the beginning of the Jewish New Year. I like to think on it every year even though I’m not Jewish. The Days of Awe are between Rosh Hashannah, the beginning of the year and Yom Kippur. The Days of Awe is a time for serious introspection, a time to consider the sins of the previous year and repent before Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur, also known as the Day of Atonement, is the holiest day of the year in Judaism. Its central themes are atonement and repentance. Rosh Hashannah was October 3-4 and Yom Kippur was October 12.

I find it fascinating that I have been reconnecting with Yom Kippur for many years in different ways, usually by re-reading a version of the Al Chayt in Geneen Roth’s book, “Appetites” but until this year I was unaware of the Days of Awe, which are inbetween these two holidays. It’s funny how an opportunity to speak presents opportunities to learn.

As I was thinking about this sermon,  and what exactly awe means to me, I noticed that a friend of mine posted the poem read earlier in the service on facebook and these lines in particular made me stop and pay attention:

And also weep at words said once as though
They might be rearranged but which
Once loose, refuse to return and we are helpless
Because we are imperfect and love so
Deeply we will never have enough days,
We need the gift of starting over, beginning
Again: just this constant good, this
Saving hope.

The secular new year does not include a time of repentance, it is usually all about merrymaking. The Jewish new year, on the other hand, emphasizes repentance, forgiveness, and beginning again, a good practice for all of us to undertake regardless of our religious affiliation.

In my  classes at Union, which is not affiliated in any way with Unitarian Universalism, I’m learning of our early days in the very beginnings of Christianity itself and in the 1800’s when we were practically forced to take on the mantle of Unitarianism (that is a fascinating piece of history I encourage you to look up). At the same time I’m paying attention to the current discussion our UU leaders are having and I’m noticing that we are always in the process of beginning again, of re-evaluating, of re-learning, making space for new ideas and blessing the old ones as well.

UUism doesn’t come with answers but it does come with the beautiful place of imperfection and being willing to start over, much like the Jewish faith, one of the places of our origins. We begin again, and again, and again always believing in the indefinable good that we all are. We have a song in our teal hymnal that says “We forgive ourselves and each other, we begin again in love.” This is one of the songs I keep in my heart when I am most struggling with how to keep pressing forward.

Awe holds a space of graciousness and hope. It holds that even when I don’t know what the next step is, or how the bread is going to turn out, I am loved – and you are loved. Awe reminds us that even in the midst of this insane political season we are all living through, the sun still rises, beauty is all around us (especially in the fall leaves), and our common humanity is affirmed. May we know we are loved in all our imperfection.  

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.

On Love and Vulnerability

This talk was given at my church, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greensboro, NC on February 28, 2016. It was our pledge campaign kickoff Sunday.

——

One of my favorite movies to watch during the Christmas season is “Love Actually.” It’s a British movie filled with all kinds of hokey stories and totally improbable things happen. Even though I know the outcome, I still shout at the screen and wish people made different choices every time I watch it. One of my favorite story lines in the movie is about a kid who’s mother just died (I promise, it gets better). His adoptive stepfather is trying hard to pay attention to him but he’s having difficulty because his son isn’t talking much. So the father takes him out of the house and down to the River Thames and really tries to get at what’s bugging his son when the son admits something horrendous: he’s in love. The father says, “Is that all? I thought it was something worse.” The kid says, “Worse than the total agony of being in love?” and the father says, “You’re right. Total agony.”

This scene is funny because we can all relate in some way. Thinking back to previous relationships I can certainly understand talking about being in love like a kind of agony. There are the intense feelings but also the fear that the feelings you’re feeling are not going to be reciprocated. And what could be worse than that?

There is incredible vulnerability in love. Here you are, holding your heart out to your hoped for beloved, knowing there is a chance that you could be turned down. Can you imagine anything more terrifying than that? I’ve never had children but I can imagine that raising children could have its own kind of terror. Here you are responsible for keeping this tiny human alive, having absolutely no idea what the future holds for either you or this child, but you are committed anyway.

A few months ago when Rev. Ann Marie asked if I would like to do today’s service, I wasn’t 100% sure the shape the service would take. But I decided to be open to what would come to me. It seems like a really terrifying thing, writing a sermon for the kickoff service for our Annual Commitment Time, pledge campaign. Can you think of anything more terrifying to talk about than money? In our culture we are much more comfortable talking about sex than money but I decided to take it on. Without risk, there is no growth.

I began thinking on a quote from Parker Palmer in his book, the Courage to Teach. I read this book many years ago and no matter how much I looked I couldn’t find the right words but I remember he talked about love and how educators need to acknowledge that they do the work they do out of love. That memory coming back to me has been influencing my work on the board and other work here. I’ve been changing my email sign off signature and using the word “Love.” In my January pledge campaign newsletter column, I encouraged us to remember that the leaders here at UUCG do the work we do out of love.

The interesting thing is, we rarely say the word “love.” That doesn’t mean we don’t love each other, it just means we rarely say it. Over the last few months I’ve worked on getting more comfortable with saying these words and allowing myself to express it to myself and others.

Gary Chapman, a Christian writer, is well known for his books on love languages, how people understand and need to receive love. Each of us understands and expresses love differently. According to the love languages, if I am constantly doing something for my wife Michelle, but it’s not something she recognizes as love, I might as well be talking to the wall.

For some people here at UUCG, coming to the Workday yesterday and doing tasks is love in action. For others, singing in the choir is how they show love to the congregation. For others still, setting out coffee and cleaning up afterwards, is their own way of showing love. But we never say it that way, do we? We say, “We need someone to take care of coffee after the service” or “We need teachers to work with our kids in Religious Education” not, “There are many ways to express love in action here at UUCG. Here are some opportunities.”

In wondering why this is, I came to think of it as being very risky. Going back to the “total agony of being in love,” the agony is in the fear of the love not being reciprocated. In our world we tend to think of risks as physical things like climbing a mountain, kayaking in rough waters, and major life decisions as true risks. What are some areas in your life, either right now or in the past that were risks?

Would any of you think of love as a risk? I want to suggest to you that love is one of the riskiest things that we humans do. In the larger Unitarian Universalist world, this kind of conversation is happening around our anti-authoritarian streak and debates between individualism vs. the community. Our faith was founded by people who were all about supporting individuals and many of us ourselves are what would be called “refugees” from other religions. We have been so tied up in not being our previous selves, and put so much focus on being individuals, that we are forgetting that we are community. Actually, I think “forget” is a strong word. We know it, of course, because how else would we have this building and our staff, how else would we have the relationships we have where we are known for helping each other out when we are in need? On the other hand, what are we willing to risk for our church? What are we willing to risk for our faith? Are we willing to be public about our liberal religious beliefs? At our strategic planning listening sessions, people have brought up that they want us to be known in the larger Greensboro community, but do we? Is that the truth?

If we really want that, we will need to expand our Director of Religious Education’s hours because we can expect more younger families with children. If we really wanted that, we would say yes to Rev. Ann Marie’s request for an increased salary, not only for her but because it will help get us in line with what will be needed for us to attract the right settled minister for us. If we really wanted to be known in the larger community, we would send leaders to leadership training and we would support leadership training that happens right here at UUCG so that our leaders become more and more grounded in our Unitarian Universalist faith. And yet, all of these things take risks. Risk on my part in even talking about this, and risk on your part in truly evaluating what you want to give to our church, not only to sustain and maintain but to grow and live our values.

When I think of our denomination’s struggle around individualism vs. community, I think of the total agony of being in love. The individuals want to be who they are, no questions asked and certainly don’t ask them to change in any way. They think to themselves, “I come to this place where people are nice and accepting but in no way is my identity changing and I’m not changing anything about myself.” At the same time, they know that we are better together but because they haven’t completely bought into this concept on a deep down, in the bones kind of way, they are still holding onto their individualism.

Well, isn’t that what we are like when experiencing being in love? We are standing on the verge of possibilities, not having any idea what is going to happen if we put ourselves out there. Will we continue to stand in our own place of comfort or will we be willing to risk our hearts and our identity by being in community in a very real, we are in this together, my future is bound up in yours kind of way?  Are you willing, my friends, to move beyond “this is a place I go to on Sunday morning” to “I am a Unitarian Universalist and I am willing to stretch my finances just a bit more to support the work of this church”? I would like you to think on that.

When I began thinking about today’s service, I realized that every year the board, through the Annual Commitment Time pledge drive, asks our members and friends to stand in a place of vulnerability and possibly fear as they examine their budgets. We ask you to think about your income, to think about your commitment to the church, and we ask you to make an annual pledge that supports our church. We ask you to truly consider what you are willing to commit, what you are willing to sign on the dotted line and say, Yes, I’m committed and I will give x amount of dollars every month, quarterly, annually, whatever way works for you.

The board asks you to do this every year but we ourselves have never acknowledged that it’s a scary thing for us, too. We put out the ask, we follow up, and at the same time we are nervous. Will people give what is needed so we can maintain our current level of operations? Or, will our members and friends increase their pledges so we can continue to build our foundation, expand our ministry, and grow into our values? It is a scary process indeed. I wanted to acknowledge that while it can be fear inducing for you to make a commitment, it is also nerve wracking for us while we’re in the process of waiting.

Today the board is going to take an unusual step, something we’ve never done before and literally stand in the place of giving to you. We are doing something called a reverse offering. We ask you to give to the church every year, today we are going to give to you. This gift is coming to you from our church budget. We are going to stand in the place of giving to you from our budget, acknowledging that can be scary. Our gift to you comes with absolutely no strings attached. We ask you to do with it what you want to. We will have more than enough money – yes, we’re giving away money – for everyone here. We ask you to take what you feel is right for you.

When you get this money, I ask you to take it from a place of receiving, a place of love. Can you open your heart to this moment, this time and place, knowing that we do love you. From the bottom of our hearts to the hours we spend writing agendas, to our meetings, to examining budgets, it is all from a place of love.

Parker Palmer has this great quote: Community is not a goal to be achieved but a gift to be received. This is how the board and all our church leaders approach our work. What we do is a gift to ourselves and to our community, to you. Are you willing to receive?

Now I’m going to ask the board members to come up.  Board, can you give to the members and friends here today from a place of love? If so, say yes. Members and friends, can you open your heart to receive from a place of love? After the service can you say, “thank you” instead of feeling embarrassed about receiving? If so, say I do.

We will begin the reverse offering with the choir then we will give to the rest of the congregation. When the plate is passed to the rest of the congregation, the choir will begin singing. We encourage you to join with them. We truly want you to receive from the heart. You may keep the money yourself, give it away, buy what you need. It is for you.

Afterwards: We gave to you out of love. You received from love. I love you.

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.

Karen & Michelle’s ‘love, joy, and happiness’ blue celebration of love#comment-551691

Karen & Michelle’s ‘love, joy, and happiness’ blue celebration of love#comment-551691.

This is a link to a profile of me and my wife’s wedding on http://www.offbeatbride.com. Writing is always nerve wracking because you’re never sure if you’re “getting it right.” I think in reviewing this there are things I might change but overall I think it’s perfect. I’m grateful to Offbeat Bride for featuring our wedding, especially for couples who aren’t “traditional,” whatever that means. Life is too short to get caught up in rigid gender roles and set expectations.

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.