Thursday, October 01, 2015

On Not Smoking the Pope Dope

got the T shirts, didn't go....

Last Thursday, I happened to be in New York City as final preparations were underway for the arrival of Pope Francis. I didn't see any souvenirs, T shirts or banners, but as I made my way toward Penn Station, the streets were being cordoned off for what I imagine was a motorcade to happen in a few hours. The same day, my stepmother was transferred to Cooper Hospital in Camden for some tests. My immediate thought was: How will we get in and out of Camden this weekend? The city was to become an access point for folks walking in to see the Pontiff.

As it turned out, there were few problems. Camden was pretty much deserted, and I heard on NPR that only 250 of 8,000 parking spaces had been sold. Furthermore, just a small fraction of the day's reserved train tickets had been claimed, and there were still rooms available as well. It occurred to me that possibly, just maybe, the local Catholics were not smoking the Pope Dope.

Camden is a city that sits directly across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. Notorious for its high crime rate and urban blight, it stubbornly resists efforts at renewal. It has one of the highest rates of poverty in the nation.

I grew up here, ten or 15 miles from Camden. And yet, I can count the number of times that I've driven through its streets. So when, upon making the trip to the hospital on Saturday, I was routed through its residential section, I was unfamiliar with this town I have lived near for most of my life.

I came upon a mural. Hands, reaching up from bodies submerged or buried. People are drowning here. Calling for help. I saw people, on stoops and sidewalks, people of color, children, teenagers, old people. I knew the Pope was right across the river being shown the gleaming and glorious parts of Philly, and mostly white faces. It struck me then that this was where he needed to visit.

I grew up with Catholics. Italian, Irish, Polish and German Catholics. Some were just first or second generation Americans. But I can testify that even in the 1960s and 70s, those Catholics were not adhering to Catholic teaching. Maybe they felt guilty about it, but birth control, pre-marital sex, and even abortion were not off the table. I used to joke about how many times I might have gotten into someones confessions. Meanwhile, my father forbade us to go out with Catholics. So, Catholicism was something I didn't understand.

But I lived, for almost 40 years, in a world that did not acknowledge Camden, that didn't have to. When I reached the hospital, its gleaming plaza and the surrounding blocks of gentrified row homes were a stark contrast with the blighted buildings I had just passed.

Cooper Plaza, Camden

There were many things that troubled me about the Papal visit. But the one that may have disturbed me the most was the number of liberal and progressive people who expressed unqualified delight over the visit.

I watched with growing concern as he skimmed over the very serious question of child sexual abuse. This scourge is rampant, not only in the church, but throughout society, and with the Pope's influence, it might become possible for change to occur. As is, pedophiles are nearly free to go on with their abuse until enormous damage has been done. This is especially true when. as is often the case, the victims are in the perpetrator's family. A father, step-father, or close relative has almost carte-blanche to sexually abuse children in his care, and our so-called Child Protective Services look the other way. I have first hand experience of this, and of the lack of will to change it.

I couldn't believe that he canonized Junipero Serra. Where were the Native Americans who should have been protesting this? Here's a rather generous spin: Click here.

And , yes, there were attempts made by Native American rights groups, but where was the media? Click here.

Next, his refusal to acknowledge the role of women in leadership positions continues. The women priests who protested are courageous and determined. Two of them were ordained to the Priesthood at the UU Church of Lexington, KY while I served there. Click Here.

So, finally, when one of these moments came to light, one that has not been orchestrated for the press, but instead held in secret, people started back-pedaling. I'm guessing some may have gone back and erased their Pope-posts on facebook. Even I, who had remained skeptical and yet happy for the progress Francis represented, was stunned to hear about this. And yet, if we stop and think: the truth was there before us all along.

It actually helped me. Once I heard about Kim Davis, and the clandestine meeting, I decided something. I had been studying the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement. I was thinking about Camden, and Newark, and Jersey City, and asking myself how these balkanized cities are any better than the Indian reservations or internment camps or Jewish ghettos. Mostly, it became crystal clear how the lies, myths and half-truths we'd bought into have perpetuated all of this. It is hard for me to disentangle this from the institutional church, because this, along with family and school, is how myth, or truth, get learned. I'd been thinking a great deal about how change comes about, about power, systems, and organizations. I realized that I am completely over doing things the nice, kind, conciliatory way (those who know me will wonder when I ever did them this way.) I think the idea of revolution has merit, and an older person with less to lose has a part to play.

Black Lives Matter

This isn't about Francis at all. He may be a very kind man, or whatever you wish to believe. But anyone who steps into that role is bearing the weight, the burden, of the Catholic Church and its centuries of sins. I respect people (like many nuns whom I love and admire, or the woman priests) who stay in the church and wait and pray for its betterment. And I think it's also fine that he visit here. I am not a Catholic. Perhaps Catholics have reasons to be hopeful, or joyful, at signs of progress. To me, the stakes are high, and time is growing short.

But I admit that I am disheartened by how easily Americans allow themselves to be swept away by surface things, so much so that they fail to examine the underlying implications, the residual damage, or the potential left unmet. Yes, the Pope's visit was beautifully orchestrated, and everyone, Catholic and non, was able to see his finest qualities.

Interestingly, I am probably one liberal whose opinion of Francis did not change when the Kim Davis debacle broke. I never saw the man as infallible; I assumed he'd probably been somehow duped or misled into it; and yet it neither revealed him to be a homophobe nor did it turn out that he was indeed not opposed to what Kim Davis does. He is still, to me, the most humane Pope, and therefore, the one who has an enormous opportunity. 

We can do better than jump to conclusions and we must. We are being bamboozled in so many ways, and the future of this planet and its people depends upon our thinking clearly, reflectively, and acting courageously.

Camden, NJ.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Words and Worlds Part Two: Safety

I am writing this on the 52nd anniversary of the bombing of the Birmingham Baptist Church, an atrocity in which four little girls were murdered. The horror of this crime reverberated across the nation, and still does. While in Birmingham last Spring, for the 50th anniversary of the march on Selma. I took our son Seth to see the church, the memorials, and the park dedicated to the children of the Civil Rights movement. Seth understood, and was moved to caress and sit with the statues of the girls, especially the one who shares my name: Cynthia.

May we never forget

We didn't mention them, or the anniversary, in our service this past Sunday, however; in fact, I'd vowed not to mention anything related to the Black Lives Matter movement. Why? It had caused, as of Sunday, two members of the congregation so much distress that they felt the need to take a leave of absence. Not that they opposed the sentiment. They simply felt that we had exposed ourselves to far too much danger and risk without adequate safety and security in place, something they had lobbied for since the new and beautiful facility was constructed in a wooded site partly obstructed from view. It had become clear that the stress occasioned by the online attacks, threats, and now this departure, albeit temporary, of beloved members, had set everyone on edge.

My mind and heart was, I knew, in a different place. To me, the risk was a calculated one, and small: after all, the church's liberal stances were well known, and it had stood, undisturbed, for 7 years. And UU churches, nearly a thousand of them, functioned all over the country without incident. The one shooting that had occurred, in Tennessee, could have happened anywhere. A bitter ex-husband, who hated the liberals because his wife had gone there, came in one Sunday, determined to enact revenge. There was no way anyone could have prepared for or predicted that.

What I saw, and had witnessed, in my interviews, my reading, and my conversations, was that African Americans lived every day with the heightened level of threat that we had experienced for approximately two weeks. I saw this as a kind of opportunity to examine our white privilege.
But to have said so this Sunday, after this couple announced their leave, would have been a bad move.

It was Water Gathering Sunday. People bring waters collected from the places they've traveled that year. I did manage to mention that we ought not celebrate these moments without an acknowledgment that so many on this earth exist without water, or with contaminated water, and this year, in particular, refugees are being drowned trying to reach safe shores. Even here, we are being faced with the realities of drought on our West Coast. In reality, the Water Communion has become less and less meaningful to me, a rather inward-looking ritual that points to our utter lack of awareness of our privilege. But, I digress.

So, that same week, that issues about the safety of our building really came to a climax. with a Board meeting, followed by other special meetings, a large budget request, and many action items to improve our security (not only because of the sign, but because they were always needed, and the sign issues brought them to light), I could not help seeing the irony as I corresponded with a new member of our congregation.

Aaron & Stephanie's kids w/ kids from the AME congregation at our dedication

His name is Aaron. He and his family have attended regularly, and joined the Anti-Racism Task Force. One of the things his wife told me is how frightened their kids have been that he or another Black male in their family will be killed by police, since they have seen and heard the news this past year. So, on the Sunday after our sign was defaced and then re-hung, Aaron and Stephanie had offered to teach the kids about the Black Lives Matter movement. Of course, they didn't know that it would be painted over with white paint by the time Sunday came. Here's Aaron & Stephanie.

I was home in Kentucky that Sunday, and had to do all my connecting by phone and email, but while on the way back, I met with my Interim mentor in West Virginia. I was telling her about the sign, and the vandalism, and our decision to return it to the roadside with the vandalism. I then read Aaron's emails to her, and she was very moved. She asked me if she could include them in her sermon, so I asked Aaron for permission to share: 

Hi everybody,

 First off,  this is a very bittersweet moment for me personally.  It's great to see so many of us coming together for this cause but at the same time,  we're still coming together to fight a fight that has been started in this 60's,  civil rights. 

One thing that bothers me is how the word "black" automatically means the "black" race when it's deep than that.  The "black power movement" was a movement that focused on giving "power" to the oppressed people. The "blacks only" sign also applied to any and all POC (people of color).  I'm not the founder of "Black Lives Matter" but I feel it's the same concept.  

Teaching the kids Sunday really opened my eyes to how many people are affected by racism,  not just people of color.  The fact that KIDS are being threatened for who they want to hang out with makes sick.  It showed me that POC are not the only ones going through this nightmare. 

We only hear in the media the extreme cases of police misconduct.  But we don't here about the countless times of harassment that POC endure from law enforcement and the community daily. Where's the governors?  Mayors?  Judges?  Lawyers? How can we reach out to them and get them involved?  Reaching out to Stockton and even ACCC is a GREAT idea.  The more people we can get involved the better. 

 Later, he writes.....
I can't thank you enough.  Your words means so much to me and the acceptance I feel for me and my family from the congregation is nothing short of amazing.  How ever I can help/contribute I am more than willing.  This is very new to me so I'm trying my best not to "vent" but for so long it seems my concerns for this community (Atlantic County) falls on deaf ears.  I've been close to a lot of people in the "streets". Growing up between Atlantic City and Pleasantville for most of my life,  I've seen the good and bad from the residents and law enforcement.  With that being said,  the only time I've ever had a gun pulled on me was by a police officer,  on several occasions. Me being unarmed of course,  getting of the SCHOOL bus,  coming home from playing basketball all day,  and even jogging home from the gym were the times I've encountered this situation to name a few (it's happened a few more times)  all to be told "I fit the description". Again,  I can't thank you and the congregation enough for welcoming me and my family and making us feel at peace outside of our home.

I look forward to helping anyway I can.Thanks again,


 It was only then, upon re-reading, that I saw their import: Aaron had told me that it was only in our church that he and his family could feel peace outside their home.. could feel, in other words. safe.

So we have this collision of worlds. People who think we are in great danger because we have posted a sign supporting Black Lives Matter.. and people who feel, finally, a haven. 

To be continued.

When Words (and Worlds) Collide

First Baptist Church Springfield, KY

My current situation: serving a congregation in New Jersey, 3/4 time as a two year interim pastor, living in my childhood home, and returning to my family and permanent home/farm in Kentucky one week per month, can be confusing. Both places are "home."  But since I have markedly increased the active work on racial issues in both places, the juxtaposition and collision of worlds has grown even more. 

Don't be fooled by easy assumptions! Indeed, my worst nightmares with overt racism are coming true NOT in Kentucky, but in the rural Pinelands of South Jersey where, evidently, the Southern Poverty Law Center's statistics are accurate, as are those of members of our congregation who say they know: hate groups are active, and mind sets are conservative and reactionary. And, when it comes to race, conservative means bigoted. 

There is no large city in South Jersey equivalent to Lexington or Louisville, where folks can find bastions of sanity and progressive, egalitarian values. Long time residents, it would seem, have chosen to co-exist with these racist and dangerously hate-filled individuals without speaking up or challenging them, and so, the mere fact that we, a church, dared put a sign on our own property, with three little words proclaiming a rather modest sentiment: Black Lives Matter, is seen as an affront that must be put under attack immediately. In 2015.I am still in shock over this. Nonetheless, I find that even with each of my two "worlds," I am constantly making adjustments and shifting my ability to listen and learn based upon where I find myself.

Pansy Valdez, right, co-creator of Springfield project

 Here is one example: While in Kentucky, I have started to attend the AME Chapel in Springfield, which is, of course, primarily African American. I first visited to meet Australia Poole, one of the men I interviewed for my book/project, who is a deacon there. Now I enjoy going because the  of the greatpeople, the choir (led by Tyrone, an out gay man in a town that heretofore as far as I could tell, had NO gay people, Black or white) and the Pastor, Michelle Washington, whose preaching I can only describe as fiery! Meanwhile, Pansy Valdez, with whom I am conducting the interviews, has urged me to attend her church (the other Black congregation other than the Black Catholic church), so I went for Sunday school.

The first woman I had interviewed was teaching the class. I was already a bit discomfited at finding that we walked on past a classroom filled with men, and entered an all-female class. But I was delighted to see familiar faces, women I'd met via the project. I was warmly welcomed. The lesson was from Acts 4:31 "And when they had prayed, the place was shaken where they were assembled together; and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and they spoke the word of God with boldness." Within the first ten minutes, our teacher informed us that she could not help thinking of Kim Davis, "that poor woman in Morehead," who had been speaking and standing up for God's word, and was being persecuted for it right now. 

This was so unexpected for me, so alarmingly unexpected, that I just listened for as long as I could. The entire hour turned into more or less a diatribe against homosexuality. The best thing I can say is that about half of the people (including Pansy) did not take part, and were quiet. But Wanda, the teacher, was one of the strongest and most articulate leaders in the community and she was leading this conversation. My biggest thought, aside from the fact that their literal interpretation of scripture needed some challenging, was that these very same people who were supporting Kim Davis were the people who would be out flying Confederate flags and supporting racist-tinged rants by would-be Presidential candidates. They went on to talk about how people would "roll over in their graves" if the saw what some people are doing today, and how the government is allowing it; how "those" people used to move to the city, but now they are right here; and finally (this is where I also saw a glimmer of hope) they have always been around, there is nothing new under the sun. 

Finally, she asked if anyone else had something to say. I raised my hand, realizing that my hopes and dreams for the project might be going out the Sunday School windows. I  guess I need to say that nowhere in Jesus' teachings did he speak about homosexuality. He loved everyone, even the worst sinners. I understand that you might oppose gay marriage, or maybe you even believe homosexuality is a sin, but I have many friends and family members who are gay, my church is inclusive of gay people, and it is hurtful to hear you talk this way. Jesus loved everyone, regardless. I'm just being bold, as you taught us, and asking you to consider that. Of course, they became defensive and told me that they didn't HATE gay people, they just hated the sin, and that it WAS in the Bible (Sodom & Gomorrah) etc. Still, I hope they heard me. I left a few minutes before 11 to go to Johnson Chapel. Chris, another woman I'd interviewed, followed me into the hall. She had not joined the harangue. She hugged me and told me her sister was gay, and she understood. 

Just a minute later, I reached the steps of the AME Chapel, and ran into Pastor Michelle, who was getting something from her car. "I didn't know you'd be here!" she exclaimed. I asked her how she was: Not good. Oh, do you have a bug? No, the Lord hasn't spoken to me this morning. Oh! I showed her the article in the paper that I was carrying, about our sign, and told her that it had just been vandalized, we had had threats made against us, and then asked for her prayers. But I also told her that I was still shaking because of what I'd heard at the Baptist Church, and she looked alarmed. They are saying that there? She lives in Louisville, and although she has pastored in the small, remote village for many years, I do think the parochial mindset is still distant for her in some ways. 

I was never so delighted as I was to be in that place that morning. Pastor Michelle gave a gorgeous homily. There was a warm and relaxed atmosphere, and a great deal of humour. Tyrone was absent, so the choir had to muddle along without him. Mistakes were made. We had communion. I felt so at home, because the words were so close to those used in my faith of origin, the Episcopal Church. The litany was a special one, called "Commitment to End Racism Sunday." The text for the sermon was: Ecclesiates 1. There is nothing new under the sun. Yes. The very same words I'd just heard uttered with scorn at the Baptist Sunday school. But Pastor Wasington took these words, and preached up a storm, as is her wont, about how all the material things of this earth mean less than nothing if you don't have God, if you don't fix your mind on higher things, if you don't open your fist from grasping and give to others, help others, and ; love others. Same words, used to increase love instead of increasing hate. 

When words and worlds collide. To be continued.

All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full.
Unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.
All things are full of labour, man cannot utter it.
The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be.
And that which is done is that which shall be done.
There is nothing new under the sun.