Monday, October 19, 2015

AT THE WILD FIG: A Long, Strange, Wonderful, Love-Filled, Sadness & Joy-filled, Trip.

Gurney Norman, Divine Rights' Trip
A regular! at Wild Fig Books & Cafe

I was home for only six days. in less than 48 hours, I had to go to court with a friend who is fighting for custody of the little girl she has fostered (more on that later,) run over to Louisville for a wedding rehearsal, take our ten year old Seth up to Lexington to see his Grandma (my sister,) and then head back to Louisville for the 5PM wedding. Squeezed in there was a special favor.

A few months ago, I got a note from some former church members whose service of union I'd performed four years ago, when I was the UU minister in Lexington. A few things I recall from the day are the joy with which they elaborately decorated the church, and the sadness they expressed that Martin's parents would not be attending due to religious convictions.

They stopped attending services not long after that, because Martin is a nurse, and Brandon's two kids from his former marriage often spent weekends with them, and the long drive from Pikeville became too difficult. But until then, they were surely the folks who came the farthest to our UU church. Pikeville is a true Appalachian community, a good 2-3 hours drive, deep in coal country and on the Kentucky border. But now, Same sex marriage is finally legal in Kentucky, and they were hoping that maybe on their anniversary, I might be able to sign their genuine wedding license.

Brandon, Martin & the boys

I told them I would be delighted, and that in fact it was on a weekend I would be in Kentucky... BUT I'd already committed to a wedding in Louisville, so the best I could do was meet in Lexington. They said they'd meet me anywhere. They'd even drive to Louisville! But we didn't get too detailed about where we'd meet. If it were a nice day, I thought, we'd do the ceremony outdoors, then maybe go to lunch. It was a bit cool, upper 50s, but sunny, so I told them we'd meet at the Arboretum. Plans (mostly) made, we set off. Seth and I to his grandma's and then to the meeting, Martin and Brandon on the long drive to Lexington.

Our texts must have crossed! We simultaneously realized that we needed two witnesses! To be fair, I've done nearly 300 weddings and have no idea why I didn't think of this. We kidded about it being a good thing they didn't live in Rowan County and they told me the clerk in Pike County had been really nice to them. Quickly, they called the few people they knew in Lexington.. but all were busy. Understand that since I am still "barred" from my former congregation until the new minister has been there for a year, I was limited in the number of people I could call. I tried both of my sons. One working, the other at a seminar. Almost went out to the construction site where the one was working. What else are kids for? They owe you. Then I remembered the Wild Fig. I was headed there anyway!

The Wild Fig Books & Cafe

The re-incarnation of a great new & used bookstore, the Wild Fig had recently opened, and I'd saved up for some titles that I wanted to buy anyway, to support a small & locally owned bookstore, as well as an African American business. I'm praying that it will take off because it's in a part of town that is really starting to hop and have a funky arts scene, but that still needs some convincing for the stuffy folks to head over there. The house it's in is cozy and the interior is sunny and inviting. 

As soon as I got there, I knew it would be perfect for the little ceremony! Owners/authors/artists Ronald Davis & Crystal Wilkinson were, I knew, GLBT-friendly, and would probably agree to be witnesses if they were there. But, when I arrived, Crystal's twin daughters, Elainia & Delainia were on duty... and no one else there. I introduced myself, took a deep breath, and... soooo,"I have a question!"

They were great. Not only did they agree to be witnesses, they were photographers, videographers, wedding planners, and they even, when I told them how much Brandon & Martin LOVED Dolly Parton, pulled some Dolly music up on their Spotify for the men to walk in to. 

As we gathered round to take a few group photos, trying to set the automatic shutter, a regular customer came in, a hip looking guy with his baby in a front pack and another tyke hanging onto his leg. I think his name was Griff. He walked over, the little blond boy dragging across the polished floor like a ball and chain, and snapped a few photos. He offered to buy pumpkin muffins for wedding cake.

Then he said, "I know you guys are going to make it, because your shoe laces match."

We'd already observed that everything Martin, Brandon & I were wearing was either blue or orange that day. By then, nothing would have surprised us. Call it God, call it coincidence, call it synchronicity. So many horrible, ugly, mean, and spiteful things are happening all over.

But every once in a while, you just gotta testify, something truly beautiful happens. Love walks right in the door and stays awhile. And we get the strength to rise another day.


Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Movement for Black Lives, Change & the Liberal Conundrum

There is no longer only Black & White. Or, person of color, and then "white people." When I hear the rhetoric of Minister Farrakhan at the #JusticeorElse rally, I am partly there, and partly not with him. He is preaching a white-devil rant that has not been successful in moving things forward yea, these past forty years. This is a musing about people, white people, liberal & progressive people, who are working against racism, and working on their own white privilege, and why it seems so hard. It is also a collection of my thoughts on why so many progressives seem not to be on board right now.

First: Farrakhan. I understand the genesis of his words, and the roots of his rhetoric.

I, a white person, stand accused. If not guilty of overt racism, surely I am guilty of white privilege and of not hearing the many calls to see this in my own life and community.

But this is a new day.

This day, in this era, we see, if we look, that a whole generation of young people, people of color and non-POC, will not tolerate the racism, or the bigotry, or the heterosexism of the past. We who are older, we who tolerated it, and we who benefited from it, must support them, engage them, encourage and empower them. How will we do it?

One: example. Our children, grandchildren, and the young people in our neighborhoods and religious communities are watching us. As we do, so they will follow. When someone says to me that placing a Black Lives Matter sign in front of our church might endanger the children downstairs, I say: If you are so certain that people of the calibre you speak of surround us even now, then allowing our children to grow into this world without seeing us speak up and speak out endangers their very souls... not to mention, continues the mortal threat to the well-being of people of color faced daily.

Whence comes the resistance of liberals to full engagement in the movement for Black Lives? Those of us who've jumped in feet first have seen it. We've been unfriended, unfollowed, disliked, and not-liked on facebook. I get dozens of "likes" for a post on pumpkins, but 2 or 3 (with over 1,000 friends) for one on Black Lives. The silence is audible. Almost all of my friends and "friends" are progressive.

But, they want, it seems to me, progress in a way that doesn't take away anything they have. That includes material things, but more: safety, security, their 'stories' of their lives, comfort, clean consciences, the myths we all cherish, shared rituals & holidays, patriotism, and a reasonable belief in a future in which these givens will continue.  So, two: work through grief.

(If you are able to enlarge the chart above, you can see how the stages of change/grief correspond with the process of becoming Anti-Racist. In my opinion, many people revert to resistance/denial because they are unwilling to give up the comfort, safety and familiarity, not to mention needing to be "right."

To acknowledge that for almost all of Black America, none of this is guaranteed, the future is an ever-shifting mirage, the present a fragile and threadbare tightrope, is too painful, too destructive, for most people, even, or perhaps, especially, most liberals. Because we, liberals and progressives, want so much to feel good about ourselves. We're rather self-righteous and we can be, well, smug. The way we all watched Jon Stewart every night, thinking okay, now I feel vindicated, the way we come together in our liberal circles, and laugh or despise people like Donald Trump and Rush Limbaugh without questioning: What is it, though, that people are seeing in these pontificators? 

How do I know all of this? Because: I am one of these people. This is my story. I have walked, and waded, and trudged through my own white privilege this past few years. I think lots of us have. I sometimes wish there were a tattoo or a little badge we could wear to identify ourselves to one another: "I'm here. I'm working this out. Hey! You too? It's so painful. But it's so good to finally see the truth." Then, three: Find allies.

I want to compare the feeling of actually recognizing white privilege, seeing it with unclouded vision, day unto day, in all of one's affairs, so that you cannot make a purchase, enter into a contract, or engage a conversation without an awareness of how privilege you have been and always will be with an experience people will recognize. So let me try:

For me, it was like realizing that what I had believed was a reasonably happy childhood, albeit marred with sadness due to the early death of my mother, was actually one in which two of my siblings were suffering repeated and severe sexual abuse at the hands of a stepbrother, a person who has still not been legally prosecuted, and who still, despite extreme efforts of my behalf, has young children in his custody.

I can only imagine that it might be like thinking you've been happily married or partnered, and finding that, indeed, your spouse has had one or many long-term affairs of which you were blissfully unaware. Not only are you chagrined, disturbed, and shocked, and impelled to do something to bring about justice, you have to reimagine what you thought and felt your life actually was.
Four: Move through grief, and be willing to re-write your life story. The whole version of your life as you imagined it. This may be more painful than anything you have ever done, and it may take months or years.

God is in the details. Once one starts to wake up, to really see the interconnected web of oppressions and lies and myths and to listen to stories, again and again, reflecting a reality that many white people will never experience, there is really no turning back. You will dedicate your being, your time, your money, and your soul to healing this evil. You will hear and answer every call.That's why I think Farrakhan is partly wrong. Cornel West said it when he addressed the UUs at our General Assembly: "I think there are people in this room that are willing to go down swinging like Muhammad Ali." And then he turned and walked off the stage.
And, five: Enter the territory of the enemy. Give up all of your privilege and everything it contains, and walk right out onto the field as an ally, a co-sufferer, armed with love, truth, God, and courage. Go to death if need be, because you know that this is one cause that is absolutely worth it. Become a warrior.

I know some of these people. Some are UU people, and some are just people.

But they keep me going, and I love them with all my heart, from up close & afar.

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.