Peripheral Vision: A Sermon on the Widow and Her Mite

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This sermon was originally preached in the UUMC chapel on November 11, 2012.

Text: Mark 12: As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces,39and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

41He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Sermon:

Friends, the election is over.

Can we all take a big breath of relief together?

Whether you’ve been celebrating or mourning or just laughing all week, we can all share in the relief that the debates, the inflammatory rhetoric, the unashamedly smug facebook status (guilty!), and the yard signs will, at least, be minimized for now.

For the last few months all eyes and ears have been on American politics. Across the globe, people have been waiting and watching –tuning in to every word that comes out of the mouths of Obama, Romney, Biden, or Ryan. They have had our complete attention. Even those who aren’t interested much in politics can’t avoid the media coverage, the dinner conversations, or the political tweets.

Eagerly we went to the polls, some in anticipation, some in fear, and all of us with the need for a little patience for a long line. Overall, however, we were fortunate here in Texas that we could make it to the polls without a great deal of trouble. Our friends in the north east did not have it so easy. Thanks to Hurricane Sandy, many struggled through the voting process due to their displacement – they voted from unexpected locations, over e-mail, and some not at all, much to their dismay.

While we might have been able to keep our attention solely on the election season, hundreds of thousands of our sisters and brothers in New Jersey and New York have struggled in the aftermath of Sandy. While the media drew most of us in for a few days  – with curiosity about this strange storm or fear about the possibility of its repercussions – when the climax of drama was over, the media turned our attention right back to the election and away from the northeast .

It has become all too easy to forget that residents throughout New York and New Jersey remain without power, heat, and properly functioning water systems in the midst of snow and freezing temperatures. Thousands of public housing tenants, most of whom are physically or mentally ailing or elderly, remain trapped in upper-floor apartments. They are receiving no assistance from the national guard, fema, NY City housing authority, or the red cross. Their only hope has come from the kindness of strangers who took the time to notice them and send blankets, food, and water.

My best friend called me last week and shared some of the stories of suffering surrounding him in Manhatten. He asked me, “does anyone there even know how bad things are? Are people talking about it?”

This situation has had me wondering: To what, or to whom, do we give our attention?

The attention of Americans is a prime commodity. We have incredibly low attention spans, a million different forms of social media vying for our gaze, terribly busy schedules that keep us in an unconscious frenzy, and a million headlines that reel us in to the “breaking news” of the moment, only to distract us with something else a day later.

If we are not careful, we can be programmed to give our attention to certain issues, certain people, certain concerns for certain periods of time without a conscious thought about it.

Simone Weil, Christian mystic and activist, says that “absolute attention is prayer.” By paying attention to something, we are, in fact praying. Are the people, places, or issues that garner our attention, the same people, places, or issues that actually need our attention and thus our prayers?

This is not to minimize the importance of paying attention to the election or politics. I am the justice associate after all – of course I think that’s important. But I mean to highlight the need to consciously choose to widen our vision to those on the periphery, and see who might not have the power to turn our faces in their direction.

In our text, Jesus had just warned his disciples to beware of those who demand our attention for selfish reasons. He points to the leaders who show off their good deeds, flaunt their status and perfect their religious piety. Blinded by all of the ways they meet the highest of social standards, Jesus reminds us, we can easily overlook those in our midst who are suffering under the weight of the invisibility we cast upon them.

Standing in the midst of the temple treasury with his followers, Jesus breaks the cycle of routine and steps back from the crowd. With people flooding up and down the treasury to deposit their gifts, Jesus removes himself from the chaos and makes a conscious decision to simply observe the room.

He sees the rich giving large sums of money.

It is good that the rich are generous in their giving. The temple undoubtedly needs their funds. But they do not need the attention of the masses. In the chaos of the temple treasury, they will be the ones noticed. Only Jesus, who took a step back to question the point of focus, notices the poor widow, giving everything she has.

The leaders of the temple are supposed to be concerned with her and with all the widows of society – those without resources, those without influence, those who are vulnerable. The scribes, with all their status and privilege, should be using their influence to draw attention to those who need it.

Be it by choice or by institutional oppression, everything the widow has is given up when her last two coins have been deposited. The greek text says she has given “her whole life.” And while the return for this should at minimum be the care, attention, and concern of the temple leaders and the community, no one will notice her – all eyes are on the influential. The crowd treats her as if she is invisible, but she is not. She is flesh and blood as much as anybody in the room. And Jesus has no trouble seeing her – all it took was the decision to look around.

This text reminds us that we cannot always rely on the influential, the powerful, or the religiously pious to direct our attention to whom it is needed. If we don’t stop, look around, and consciously question where our attention is going, we may never notice the widows amongst us.

We must take control of our attentiveness. When we do, we will see the widows of our current day society. They are the ones the media will never talk about. The ones who society will try to hide. They are in our children’s schools, shopping beside us at the grocery store, passing us on the sidewalk.

Our widows are the billions of animals we send to atrocious factory farms each and every day where they are tortured and brutally killed without regulation, all so we can have a hamburger. Our attention is directed only at the final product – meat. It is always directed away from the life they live in these factory farms or the way they are killed.

We choose what we want to see.

Our widows are the African American men we are systematically filing into our prisons under the guise of the war on drugs. There are more black men behind bars or under the watch of the criminal justice system than there were enslaved in 1850.

But if we don’t look, we won’t see them there.

Our widows are the families living without homes on the East side of Austin. 70% of Austin’s homeless are single mothers with children. Many of these families are living out their cars.

We don’t see them, but they are our neighbors.

The local piece of last week’s election included seven bond proposals. All of these were tax-free decisions, and totaled together a $385 million dollar package which would cover things like parks, street repairs, locker rooms for female firefighters, library restoration, and additional clinics.

All amazing things and Austin citizens were eager pass each of these, with the exception of the one bond which would directly benefit low-income individuals. Prop 15 would have provided $78.3 million dollars for low-income and permanent supportive housing and housing repairs, but it was the only bond we did not accept.

We are called as Christians to work for justice, but what should compel us to such work, is the fact that we recognize the value of all God’s creatures. We cannot be agents of change with and for widows until we first stop and see them – see them as equals, as living….. breathing…. Beings who feel, who work, who struggle. But most importantly, beings who carry within them the Divine.

I say all of this knowing it is not easy to be attentive. It comes at a cost. When we begin to take control of our own minds, break the routine of where our attention is going, and look around, we run the risk of locking eyes with those that make us uncomfortable and those that remind us we are responsible for one another.  But this is a risk we are called to take. There are lives at stake.

The widow gives her whole life. But she shouldn’t have to.

May we be people who see.

Amen

A RESPONSE TO REV. WES MAGRUDER: WHY WE NEED SAFE CHURCHES

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This post was originally published at Reconciling Ministries Network blog on December 11, 2012.

Yesterday, Wes Magruder wrote a lovely piece on LGBTQ people and our relationship to the church entitled “Why gays should be glad church isn’t safe.” His heartfelt and honest words illuminated the difficulty a pastor has in protecting her or his congregants. He shared the struggle of responding to a gay couple who asked if his church would be a safe place for them to visit. The reality, he reminded us, is that there is really no such thing as a completely safe space in church. The beauty of the church, in fact, is partly that we are all diverse people made of various ideas, experiences, theologies, and opinions. He even spoke to the truth that “church committees are full of folks who are racist, sexist, homophobic, and xenophobic.” After highlighting the reality that there really is no way to promise anyone they will always feel truly safe and accepted in a church space, or any space for that matter, Magruder shared some beautiful words about what it means to struggle in a community and find love in the midst of tension.

There is so much that I respected about Magruder’s article. He was honest, authentic, and clearly moving in the right direction. However, there are a few things that might be helpful to hold in tension with his good words. It is absolutely true that a church pastor, or any individual church member, can never guarantee that a church will not cause harm to someone. As Magruder implied, relationship is inherently risky – real interactions will inevitably cause conflict and there’s no avoiding that. However, Magruder’s article does not illuminate the very real difference between interpersonal conflict and the violence that is perpetuated daily towards LGBTQ folks, especially in the UMC.

LGBTQ people are well aware of the reality that there are absolutely no spaces in society that are guaranteed to protect us from homophobia or heterosexism. Painful words still come from the best allies, our closest friends, and often our families. If possible at all, undoing the deep threads of heterosexism weaved into the foundation of our traditions, values, and culture will take centuries. Enduring some painful misconceptions or hard words, even from those who most have our backs, is a part of daily life for many of us. I know when I am looking for a “safe place” I am not referring to these slip-ups, to an occasional judgmental glance, or even a close-minded attitude. I am looking for some things much more basic than that, which are unfortunately, very hard to find in a UMC church.

When I am asking if a church is safe, I want to know if my very being will be condemned. Am I going to hear sermons from the pulpit about how my life is inherently sinful? Will the “looks that kill, glances that judge, attitudes that quietly condemn” be the norm, or the exception? After finally overcoming repression and stepping out of the closet, am I going to believe that God wants me back in? If I show up with my girlfriend, will anyone come up to me and “ask” us to leave or “inform” us that we are somehow immoral? We will be embraced as a couple or will we just be considered two individuals while our lives together are ignored? If I am asking if a church is safe, I genuinely do want to know that no one will attack me physically – because that’s a very real and present fear I carry daily. Violence towards LGBTQ people, even in public spaces, is always a possibility.

The point of the Reconciling Ministries Network is to show there are safe churches. This doesn’t mean no one will mess up, but it means that, in a denomination that is unsafe in its condemnation of LGBTQ people and its perpetuating shame, violence, and judgment, there are churches that actively commit to standing alongside this marginalized group. Becoming an RMN church is a step towards creating a church that is safe – it shows that a community understands the risk it requires of LGBTQ people to invest in the church. It shows that a church is willing to make changes in order to welcome those it has previously shut out. It recognizes that stepping into a church that has a very real past and present seat at the table of discrimination, while young LGBTQ are still committing suicide, still representing a large portion of homeless youth, still being bullied, and all LGBTQ ARE still being denied equal rights and enduring violence, is simply very different than walking in the same church as a straight individual.

Yes, pain will inevitably occur for all individuals in the midst of community and the beauty of church is that we are encouraged by the gospel to work out our relationships in love. This is wonderful. But the chances are, that unless a church recognizes the particular needs of the brave LGBTQ people willing to enter a religious space, it will not be safe. This lack of safety is something this gay, will never be happy about. 

When I Stopped Making Excuses For Homophobia

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This post was originally posted by Reconciling Ministries Network Blog on November 15, 2012.

I used to believe that imagining someone’s intentions was the best way to make a moral judgment on their action. If they didn’t mean to cause harm, then they should get a sort of by-pass on any condemnation. I also used to be “against homosexuality.” My understanding of scripture had me in the “love the sinner, not the sin” camp. While at first these two pieces of my history may seem completely irrelevant to one another, they are deeply intertwined in their theological grounding.

Although I would not have described it this way at the time, I used to hold a theology which suggested that our being and our doing were not necessarily one in the same. Somebody might say something sexist, but they are not actually sexist in their being. Or, someone might do something that is “homosexual” but that doesn’t mean they are “a homosexual.” The advantage of this perspective was that it justified my treating everyone equally. For the most part, I was able to respond to people who did or said things I disagreed with the same way I would treat people who thought or acted in line with what I thought was “right.” The downside was that while I might secretly judge people if they said something offensive or treated anyone wrongly, I had no grounds or conviction to speak up – because to me, they always meant well.

Over the years, however, I have had experiences that have taught me to think differently. My previous theology began to reveal itself as dangerous. On what grounds could I ever speak up for myself or anyone else if I was always imagining the other person’s good heart and letting things slide? On no grounds, and thus my understanding of what it meant to be a Christian was ultimately one of passivity and putting up with a lot of awful things. My basis for loving others was built upon the idea that they were “good” inside even if they did “bad” things.

Since coming out as a lesbian, my thoughts have shifted greatly. While the language of the Book of Discipline might suggest otherwise, it is not the case that “homosexuals” practice – we just are. I am not only lesbian if I am actively engaged in any sort of sexual act. I am lesbian in my being. If I never dated anyone the rest of my life, I’d still be lesbian. My acts and my being are one in the same. I have similarly come to believe that the hurtful things I, or other people say, actually reflect our being.

I used to say things about the “sinfulness of homosexuality” because I was homophobic, even if repressed. I had the best of intentions built around my understanding of scripture and how to best love people, but that doesn’t change the fact that I was in the wrong and causing others harm. People excusing my ignorance time and time again because of my intentions is not what changed my perspective. My friends who challenged my thinking, told me I was wrong, and helped me understand the harm I was causing are the ones who changed my perspective – and I couldn’t be more grateful for the path to freedom they paved for me. The same goes for my racism. As a white woman in a racist society, in spite of my good intentions, I still say and do racist things because my being is racist. I work every day to make it less so, but I need the firm love of others to continue calling me out rather than giving me a pass because they know I mean well. This is part of the work of Christian community.

It is time we Christians stop making excuses for homophobia or any other form of oppression because people “don’t mean to be mean” or because “they’re just ignorant.”  We claim a theology which suggests no one other than Christ is yet free of sin, so why are we so unwilling to reconcile the fact that we each hold sin in our being and not just in our action? Instead of giving people a pass, why don’t we correct them – in love for those they speak against and out of love for them? Because being lovingly called out on things like homophobia, is indeed a path to freedom.

While it might make sense to love people because we imagine they are “good on the inside” even if they do or say homophobic things, it is more transforming to love one another because, no matter what, we are claimed by God – even in our homophobia. The love and compassion we are called to live out toward others should not be founded upon naïve excuses or claims to internal goodness. It should be founded on the fact that we are all “flesh of each other’s flesh” and “bone of each other’s bone.” We are all struggling to free our being of sin and love should be less about turning a blind eye to harm and more about saying to one another, “you are loved even in your sin.” By kindly and compassionately calling one another out on our participation in systemic sin (while remaining open to being shown our own sins) we can actually create healing change in the world which, it turns out, is much more powerful than being nice. There is a difference in being nonviolent Christians (in language, thought or deed) and passive Christians. We are called to one but not the other.

An Unfinished Story

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A modified version of this post was originally post on Reconciling Ministries Network Blog on October 17, 2012.

If there’s one thing you learn in seminary, it’s how to tell your story. I had to share my “call story” so many times during the process of earning my MDiv that I got absolutely sick of telling it. “I was born in Pensacola, studied communication, moved to Nigeria, blah, blah, blah.” The major talking points of my life have become somewhat rehearsed in my telling.

Since graduating from seminary, I’ve taken a position at a UMC church as Youth Director and Justice Associate. As a relatively new employee, I am occasionally asked to speak in Sunday School classes in order for the congregation to get to know me. This past week, I was honored to speak to a small class of senior women and share a bit about what brought me to the church. I ran through the usual stories which include the three years of high school wherein I left my home of the UMC for a “hip” nondenominational church. It was during those three years that I began to explore a call to ministry. It was also there that I learned, as a woman, I was not qualified to be a minister. I hadn’t realized! My youth director was kind enough to point me in the direction of 1 Corinthians 14, and there it was – “women should remain silent in church.” At the time, I didn’t know what to do but trust that this proclamation was true. I decided I’d marry a pastor (male, obviously) so I could sneak my way into leadership. This is funny now for numerous reasons.

So my story goes. The next chapter led me back to the UMC where a more open-minded theology and biblical interpretation invited me to reconsider what I had come to believe about my call. It took me about two years of struggling with all I had been taught about “a women’s role in the church,” to move past it, but thanks to a supportive home church, I managed to find my way to accepting the call I felt God placed on my life. The UMC was a means of liberation from the sexist views I had come to accept. As I share this piece of my story, it’s something I’m proud of and always eager to offer to fellow members of the UMC. Afterwards, I then move on to my year in Nigeria and following, seminary. Seminary was a continuation of the liberation I needed. I was introduced to Feminist, Liberation, and Queer Theology. The new theological frameworks these provided for me helped me to grow further into my identity as a capable woman but also as a lesbian. It was theology that helped me come out and understand myself as beloved in all aspects of my identity. In telling my story, it ends on a happy note: liberation, coming out, freedom! And then I wrap it up with a nice bow about being in my current church position.

There have been some serious bumps and bruises along the last few years, of course, but the way I share my story is authentic in my gratitude for what the UMC and theology have offered me. However, it didn’t hit me until I found myself in worship this Sunday reflecting on my story – in the same way I have a million times – that I leave out the part that suggests I have come full circle. Somehow, it dawned on me for the first time, that while it was the UMC that freed me from sexism to pursue my call to ministry, it’s the very same denomination that now proclaims, I am again, unfit for ministry. Like my youth minister of old, the UMC points me to a select number of scripture verses and says, “see…it’s clear and simple.” Fortunately, I have since learned a thing or two about how to handle such proclamations.

Nonetheless, it was for me, a sad realization. I like sharing my story with the UMC being a hero of sorts in my life. It makes me proud to be a part of it. But now the UMC is one of the few mainline protestant denominations that continue to deny LGBT women and men the call God has placed on our lives. Where our denomination was once a forerunner of social change, we are now the caboose.

Fortunately, my story is not yet finished, and either is the story of the UMC. I hope that where the UMC once freed me from living into a false understanding of God’s call on my life, I can now help, hand-in-hand with many others, to free the UMC of its current false understanding of God’s call on its own life. I eagerly await to turn, together, to a new page.

Kickstarter: A tool for grassroots change?

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This weekend was ACL in Austin. While I was lucky to borrow a friend’s wristband for a brief period of time (and got to see the Roots!!!), it’s generally a festival I can’t afford. The perk of ACL weekend, however, is that there tends to be pre or after party gigs that are more accessible for those of us with uh…lesser dough.

The Outlander Project, promoting music to the LGBT scene, happened to be just one of those events. With no plans this past Saturday evening, I checked out the artists who were signed up to play and eventually found myself on a kickstarter page for a featured artist, Gina Chavez. I hadn’t heard about her before, but after watching her seven minute introduction, I was already contemplating contributing. Not only did I dig her music, but she’s a local Austinite, a bilingual singer/songwriter, annnnnd committed to empowering young women in El Salvador. Well, all of that, and her kickstarter video was impressively creative and adorable (you should check it out and see for yourself). I couldn’t help but pitch in.

Later that same day, I was reflecting on whether or not it was completely absurd to give to an artist I had just been introduced to. “Was I tricked?!” I briefly wondered. No, no I wasn’t – but I was starting to recognize the uniqueness of what Kickstarter is doing. I reflected on my past experiences with this site and was reminded about “The Miss Zee Coloring Book” kickstarter page I had visited in the past – promoting a coloring book “created to help uplift underrepresented and forgotten girls of color.” I also remembered that one of my favorite blogs, Autostraddle (culture, news, opinion, and entertainment for feminist queer ladies of sorts) just raised tons of money to expand the site and finally pay the writers. These are all sorts of things that would really struggle to make it in the mainstream world. They’re too edgy, too real, too counter-status quo. Kickstarter, I soon realized, is an incredible tool for grassroots change via art, music, new websites, etc.

I started imagining a future wherein things like Kicstarter grew. Would it remove power from the mainstream entertainment industries which produce, more often than not, characters and plots which only affirm our prejudices and worldviews? Would it allow for more movies like “Dear White People,” a satire film about “being a Black face in a white space” that challenge our society to change? Could we have a music industry that didn’t restrict artists to “what sells” and actually let them sing their minds? Could we begin to see more people of color, more LGBT people, more strong women in merchandise, pop culture, reporting, journalism, etc? Woah.

Far off for this to become the norm, I know, but I can’t help but feel a little hopeful about some of the ways the internets can connect communities of people with similar hopes, investments, and experiences, even if we’re spread across the world. When we can choose, not from what’s produced by the mainstream market, but from artists, entrepreneurs, and journalists who still have the freedom to live out their vision, we really have an opportunity to decide what values we want to invest in.

I wish I had bunch of money to just scroll through the site and promote projects I believe in. “YES! We need that ‘photo and research exhibit documenting stories of Jewish refugee children rescued to safety in Switzerland.’ I want more low environmental impact, fair trade, delicious coffee! And we are certainly in need of sexy men making cupcakes!” Okay, so maybe not that last one…for me…personally. Of course Kickstarter has a million projects that also feed the status quo, but when you have a few extra bucks you can give, its a means of promoting something different – and sometimes, that opportunity is all too hard to come by.

Why I Bother: Voting as a Young American

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This post was originally published by State of Formation on October 12, 2012. 

Last week, I was pleased to be an audience member in the first taping of a new series on why Texans have one of the lowest rates of civic participation in the country. This particular taping was specifically focused on young people and was appropriately titled, “Why Bother: Voices of a New Generation.”

A wide range of young people from various backgrounds shared their reasons for not voting and outwardly discussed the struggles they encounter when they try to engage. The all too expected words like “cynicism” and “apathy” were mentioned occasionally, but many other reasons were discussed. There was some mention of barriers to voting created by systems like racism, ageism, and classism while other young citizens shared the feeling that their vote just doesn’t make a difference, particularly in such a polarized state.

Some expressed frustration with our education system which does not prepare future voting citizens to be well-informed (i.e. how many people are taught how to choose a good Railroad Commissioner?). One young man struggled aloud with his lack of desire to elect either president given that, in his opinion, they’re both working towards the same goals – goals he doesn’t agree with. So why vote?

While I understand the frustrations and struggles of many of my peers, I understand my personal context to morally require me to vote. I do not think the political system is the answer to all of our problems nor do I idolize any candidate. I also respect some of the reasons some don’t vote and acknowledge and condemn the barriers that keep those who want to from doing so. Yet, as a young American, I hold many identities. I am young, but I am also white, female, lesbian, educated, and Christian. As such, here at the ten reasons I believe I must vote.

  1. Because of my faith. As a Christian, I am compelled by my faith claims to do all that is within my power to create a more just society, to contribute to the healing of the world, and to work towards right-relationship with humans, nonhuman animals, and the greater ecosystems. Politics are not the answer to all of the brokenness in the world, but they are one of many systems I affect and am affected by and  can act as one tool I can engage for living out the values of my faith. Even when it feels like my vote doesn’t count for anything, to stand true to my values requires me to put forth the effort regardless. This reason runs in and through all of the following.
  2. Because my privilege demands it. I’m white. I’m Christian. I’m American. These aspects of my identity, along with some others, come with privilege and thus, power. Where racism, religious intolerance, and unjust foreign policies are intertwined with political options I can choose from, it is my responsibility to use the power of my privilege to vote for a more just society – locally and globally.
  3. Because of the suffragettes. It’s been just 92 years since women were granted the right to vote. The struggle many women endured to earn that right – actually, to be given the right that should have been ours from the get go – was full of grief, harassment, energy, violence, time in prison, hunger strikes, etc. The sacrifices which were made so I could vote,  demand, at minimum, I exercise the ability.
  4. Because we have created an ecological crisis.  The more I learn about environmental issues, the more I wonder how much things like our national deficit are going to matter in 75 years. When climate scientists are starting to realize that the Arctic sea collapse isexceeding worst case scenarios put out by the UN International Panel on Climate Change, I can’t help but begin to see environmental policy as a top priority. I’ve contributed to climate change, species loss, abundant waste – I owe it to the whole cosmos to care enough to vote.
  5. Because it can make a difference.  Voting isn’t only about the final results, though it may feel like it the day after your candidate/legislation doesn’t pass. However, the number of people who vote for something has influence beyond the day at the polls. Legislators, party platforms, candidates, other voters etc. will take note if something loses by 5% rather than by 90%. Even if I think what I’m voting for doesn’t stand a chance, my vote can still have an influence on the future. More importantly, perhaps, I vote because local legislation can make a drastic difference in individual lives. For example, in Austin, TX we will be voting on seven bond propositions that will, without tax increase, contribute millions of dollars to things like health and human services, parks and recreation, and affordable housing. These are non-partisan issues and, if passed, can change lives for the better. Beyond choosing a presidential candidate, there are many ways voting can have very direct influences on individual lives and cities. These votes make a difference.
  6. Because it affects me. I’m a woman. I’m also lesbian. While it’s simple to say that all politicians are corrupt and that everyone is the same, I couldn’t disagree more. My life will change in, at least, indirect ways depending on the issues/candidates decided on in November. All views are not equal between local or federal politicians in regards to how women should be treated, on the right to choose an abortion, on access to contraception, or on what constitute things like rape or violence against women. To say everyone is the same is to completely ignore what it means to be a woman in America. Just as obvious are differences between many politicians on LGBT issues. Some will support things like marriage equality, ending job discrimination, and creating policies that appropriately acknowledge the violence towards the LGBT community which is contributing to higher rates of suicide and homelessness in the lives of our young people. Others will support legislation that works against me and the issues I care about. Choices matter.
  7. Because legislation that affects me isn’t the only thing that matters. There are policies that will have no direct impact on my life. These issues are no less important than the ones that will. To dismiss legislation just because it won’t affect me is to also choose to dismiss those it will affect.
  8. Because not everyone can. Last year, a number of new laws were passed which made it harder for many people of color, the elderly, low-income individuals, students, transgender people, and people with disabilities to exercise their right to vote. Under the guise of preventing voter fraud, these new laws are silencing a number of voices and dis-empowering our citizens.  I, on the other hand, can vote with ease. To not vote (and work to change this problem) would be to completely take for granted the privileges I have done nothing to earn.
  9. Because others will hold me accountable. When future generations ask what I did about the ecological crisis, the War on Women, or the lack of civil rights for LGBT people, I want to say I did everything I could. This includes voting.
  10. Because I refuse to give up my power. One young woman reminded us all at the “Why Bother” taping of some good words by author and activist Alice Walker. Walker once said, “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” I vote because I think she’s right.

The Truth of An Alleged Lie

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This post was originally published by State of Formation on August 25th, 2012. 

In the midst of last month’s Chik-fil-A blow-up, I wrote a piece which attempted to clarify the particular reason so many LGBT people were actually upset. It wasn’t Cathy’s opinion about “traditional marriage,” it was his millions of dollars which were donated to anti-gay organizations. In my post, I wanted to highlight the correlation between anti-gay organizations and the everyday violence that happens to LGBT people across the country. In order to do so, I used Charlie Rogers as an example. Her story was one of being attacked, having gay slurs etched in her skin, and having her house set on fire. Within the following month, police have found several pieces of evidence that suggest Rogers filed a false police report and staged the attack. She stands her ground and pleads not-guilty.

When I began reading articles about her likely having created her own attack, I felt such a mix of emotions. I imagined the ways her story will likely be snatched up as a symbol of all the “lies” perpetuated by LGBT people. Somehow, a surface level interpretation of this woman’s story will act as blindfold for all the other violence experienced by queer people. After all, they could be lying too. Even if such words are not expressed, I believe they will be thought. It happens every day in regards to women and rape.

Unfortunately, it seems to be the norm to hear a woman’s story of sexual violation with deep suspicion from the beginning. This is a horrendous norm in our culture which only invites us to ignore the reality of violence against women. For fear that will also become the new normal for the queer community, I wanted to offer a few other things to keep in mind as we digest the possibility that Rogers did indeed fake her attack.

First of all, while Rogers was the example of violence against LGBT people I happened to highlight, the unfortunate thing is I could replace her name with a thousand others. I could have just as easily used the example of the 17 year old that had a pit-bull unleashed on him in Missouri. I could have written about the gay night club that was set on fire in Illinois, the 16 year old who committed suicide, or the lesbian couple found shot in Texas. These are but a few of the cases of violence against LGBT people reported inJune 2012 alone. Whether or not Charlie Rogers was attacked, violence against LGBT people is alive and well.In fact, 2011included the highest number of hate violence murders ever recorded by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs. These reports only include the extreme cases. The only way to truly understand the daily violence experienced by LGBT people via unwelcoming spaces, street harassment, vandalism, or homophobic slurs is to talk to a queer person. Everyone holds his or her own stories.

To make a case for a connection between anti-gay organizations and violence against LGBT people, we need not rely on Charlie Rogers’s story alone. There are many others. However, if Charlie Rogers did in fact fake her own attack, she nonetheless has things to teach us. The message posted on her Facebook account just a few days before the alleged attack stated,

“So maybe I am too idealistic, but I believe way deep inside me that we can make things better for everyone. I will be a catalyst. I will do what it takes. I will. Watch me.”

Rogers had recently been a part of a heated debate over a city ordinance that would ban LGBT discrimination. Rogers’s City Council passed the ordinance, but it was overturned by groups who gathered enough signatures to force a popular vote. It is possible that the overturning of this ordinance had a strong effect on Rogers’s morale, but it is likely that it was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back.

With such insight, we would be remiss to make a passing judgment about the incident. If she is found guilty, instead of using her as a means of ignoring violence, pretending there are no ugly effects of anti-gay organizations, or even getting frustrated with the perception she is painting of LGBT people, we must ask ourselves what sort of society we are perpetuating when someone feels the need to fake their own attack to gain momentum for a movement. Nothing about such a story suggests “it’s not that bad” for LGBT people – it really only highlights the problem.

Whether or not Charlie Rogers lied about this particular incident, there remains an indisputable truth – violence against LGBT people is happening. Meanwhile, millions of dollars are being invested in various anti-gay organizations that disseminate harmful liesabout LGBT people – that we are pedophiles, that we participate in bestiality, or that we can be “changed.” While I certainly condemn the shooting that occurred at the Family Research Council and express sympathies to the injured officer, I do not understand how such organizations continue to receive such mass funds.

Be it through Chik-fil-A, individual bank accounts, or even churches, funding anti-gay organizations perpetuates violence against queers. When they convince others that LGBT people are a threat to society in any form, this will inherently lead some people to believe acting strongly against LGBT persons is a “righteous” or justifiable act. These organizations are not simply sharing a different “opinion,” they are creating unsafe environments for a mass of our population. This should be concerning to anyone, regardless of their “stance” on LGBT rights.

I hope that if the news of Charlie Rogers’s alleged lie spreads, we will not criminalize her, dismiss her, or even assume we really know what happened. Instead, let us hear the story that stands even where her account may fall apart – a story of an unsafe culture that leads to various forms of violence, sometimes even against ourselves, and a story begging to be changed.

Gay Friends and Waffle Fries: Thoughts on Having Both

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This post was originally published by State of Formation on July 29, 2012. 

Last week, Charlie Rogers, a lesbian woman in Nebraska was attacked in her home by three men. They stripped her, tied her up with zip ties, carved words such as “dyke” and other gay-slurs into her skin, and set her house on fire. Incredibly, this woman bravely stated just a day later, “I’m not going back in the closet. You’re not going to scare me back.”

I am inspired by her bravery to endure such an experience, and within 24 hours, be able to assure the world and her attackers that even such extreme trauma would not keep her from being who she is.

I cannot help but think of Charlie as I read the mass coverage on Chick-fil-A this week. As she begins a long and difficult process of healing, many others are waving flags of support of a restaurant who donates to anti-gay organizations. I am surprised at how many people I know who are proudly passing along digital flyers about the Chik-fil-A Appreciation Day on August 1. As I read through comments on Facebook and comment sections of relevant articles, I came across a few common thoughts that seem to be driving support for the organization by otherwise loving people. I would like to offer a response to much of the reason people feel inclined to support Chick-fil-A.

A lot of the support comes from the notion that Chick-fil-A is being bullied by the LGBT community. There is a feeling that they are being attacked for holding “Christian values” and that the queer response to Chick-fil-A’s “opinion” is limiting free speech. People seem to be confused as to why there is suddenly such an uproar when all along everyone has known Chick-fil-A is a “Christian organization.”

However, most of the people who are upset about Chick-fil-A are not shocked or outraged by the simple idea that the founder of Chick-fil-A holds “traditional Christian values” or even that they are anti-gay. Many of us have assumed this for a long time. Perhaps this knowledge/assumption has kept people from eating there for a while now, but it is not the reason for the mass outrage that is currently taking place. They are not simply holding an opinion or living into their right to free speech. Chick-fil-A is actively supporting groups which are working against the civil rights and emotional well-being of queer people. This is where our problem lies.

In 2010, Chick-fil-A donated over two million dollars to anti-gay groups including Exodus International which is known for their history of trying to “cure” gays. Chick-fil-A doesn’t just have an opinion to which they are entitled. They are funding abuse and hate targeted at a marginalized community – one which suffers from high suicide rates, hidden lives, self-hate and violent attacks.

To those who wonder why LGBT people are so upset, I would ask you consider the connection between anti-gay groups and the hate crime endured by a woman in Nebraska just this week. I am not saying these groups or Chick-fil-A are the direct cause of such crimes, but they certainly feed into and encourage a culture which still reeks of homophobia.

Some Christians continue to make claims that Chick-fil-A is maintaining integrity by standing firm in “biblical values” As a Christian, I have been taught that the Bible speaks of the Kindom of God as a space in which there is no fear, no violence, no hate. Yet, when I read stories about lesbians having gay-slurs etched into their skin, those are the only things I can think of. I get scared – scared because stories like hers are real. Scared because it could be my story, or my best friend’s story, or my congregant’s story. I think of the violence that queers endure everyday – at the hand of others, in the words of the media or religious voices which paint us as degenerates, or at their own hand via self-loathing due to internalized homophobia. I think of hate – for purposeful efforts to make the queer community suffer. So when I hear about Chick-fil-A living into “biblical values” by financially supporting a narrow understanding of family which breeds all of these things, I have a hard time connecting the dots.

Chick-fil-A is not the first or the only company to support anti-gay groups. But it is one. My hope is that the reason the queer community and our allies are responding so harshly is that we are getting sick and tired of fear, of violence, and of hate. There is a wave of courage passing through the queer community and with any luck, together, we can learn from the brave woman in Nebraska and claim for ourselves: “[We are] not going back in the closet. You’re not going to scare me back.”

As we live into this courage, we may choose to no longer give money to Chick-fil-A or other organizations which breed, support, or encourage fear, violence, and hate. As a Christian, I do so on the foundation of biblical values. Some of us will take another step and participate in a “Kiss-in,” a nonviolent protest at Chick-fil-A’s across the nation this Friday. However we respond to Chick-fil-A’s funding of anti-gay organizations, it is not an effort to revoke anyone’s free speech. More than words are at stake in this case and no one is claiming they cannot share their opinion. It is not a case of bullying Chick-fil-A because they “bully” us. They have too much structural power – it would be like David trying to bully Goliath. It is not an act of the LGBT community shoving our “agenda” in anyone’s face – it’s a tired and frustrated demand for a society which no longer breeds fear, violence and hate.

Chick-fil-A can keep their values. They can say whatever they like and no one can legally do a thing about it. But as citizens, we can also choose to boycott, to protest, and to criticize their financial support of organizations which are dangerous to us.

As the “Day of Appreciation” approaches, I know this conversation will continue. I hope, however, that those who choose to support Chick-fil-A will remember their loved ones who are queer – their coworkers, their neighbors, their family members. When I think about those I know who have posted or communicated support of Chick-fil-A, I am confused. I wonder how they can hear about violence towards gays, be in relationship with me or others who are gay, and justify their concern for us, all the while cheering on Chick-fil-A.

Even if you do not share the same perspective as queers (not that we all have the same ones), I imagine many people don’t actually wish us harm. However, to see your active efforts to make a statement via patronizing Chick-fil-A feels like you don’t care about the harm we endure on a regular basis or that you are not remotely affected by stories such as the woman in Nebraska or the many like hers. I wonder if this is what you intend.

An Unexpected Turn

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This post was originally published by State of Formation on June 26, 2012. 

In my last post I struggled with my place in and expectations of the church. A few months later and now I am a youth director and justice associate at a local church. Funny how life works.

As a UMC lesbian graduating from seminary in Texas, working in the church didn’t seem like much of a possibility. Who would hire me? Not only am I lesbian but I talk about queer issues…a lot. On top of that, I’m just as bound to bring up other things like racism, sexism, animal rights, etc and expound upon them theologically. Amidst my job search, I thought church wasn’t an option. Fortunately, I was wrong. Not only did a UMC church hire me, but they seem to like me for these very reasons.

I have to admit – after having been out of the church for over two years, it’s a little scary to re-enter in such an intimate and committed way. I now live with both the famous feminist voices of old and the voices of my religious tradition constantly battling one another. While I now understand, more than ever, what feminists mean when they claim you can’t be both religious and feminist, I want to challenge them. It’s not that I disagree with their claims. Participating in religion inherently perpetuates sexism and I think it will for years and years to come. But I also think we need religion. I think it offers something unique that, somehow, also challenges sexism.

And while I hear the passionate cries of those faithful to the Christian tradition, I also want to open their eyes to the truth of feminist and other marginalized voices. So scared to lose what we have, so many religious leaders do all they can to protect the church and the wounds it has caused and continues to cause. I get it, but I also think we need to stop, own up, and consider our past as we move forward.

Both “sides” hold great truths and where I find myself betwixt and between them is a struggle. With this new job opportunity, I am choosing again faith. Faith that the church will be worth the inevitable cost. Faith that I can have more of a positive impact than a negative one on the youth with whom I will talk theology, tradition, and Christ. Faith that I am participating in the healing of the world, more than the harming of it.

On my first day of work, my senior pastor and I met with other clergy from across the central region of Texas at a maximum security prison. We were taken on a tour by the warden with hopes of focusing on the administrative segregation section where inmates are housed alone, 23 hours a day. The cells were disturbingly small with three tiny slits of glass providing incredibly little visual space. Many of us on the tour were concerned, with many others across the country, about such quarters being a form of psychological torture. It was an educational, albeit disturbing, day.

However, on a more abstract level it was also incredibly hopeful. My senior pastor does this sort of activism on a regular basis – and the church encourages it. The other clergy present were also there because they cared about the inmates behind the walls. My job is to be a part of this sort of work, not in spite of being a part of a religious community, but because of it.

Coming Out: Stepping Out of the Closet & the Church

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This post was originally published by State of Formation on April 2, 2012.

I came out as a lesbian this past year. I spent the first 25 years of my life living with straight privilege but struggling internally with what was “wrong” with me. Coming out has been indescribably freeing but also incredibly tiring.

Sadly, most of the weariness comes from being a lesbian at a Christian seminary. On any given day it is likely that I will walk into a classroom or through the dining room and overhear students chatting about issues of sexuality. They may be discussing various takes on scripture and homosexuality, or the schism in the Presbyterian church over lesbian and gay ordination, or even general administrative or legislative policies towards queer people. The church’s relationship to LGBT issues, I imagine, is a hot topic in more than just my own seminary.

The actual discussion of these various issues is a good thing. I’m glad the conversations are happening and often start them myself. I am grateful to be at a seminary where the majority of the student body is open and accepting of queer people. I would never want these conversations to stop.

Nonetheless, being a part of them as conversation partner or object of conversation often wears me out. Arguing over the nuances of “practical” justice and how to be inclusive while maintaining “unity in the church” can be very hurtful. When it takes you 25 years to finally accept yourself for who you are, “dialoguing” with others about how to “handle” LGBT issues requires serious patience. It takes a lot of energy to constantly vouch for your own place in the church or in the world.

My experiences of church since I have been out have been few. I haven’t been going to church regularly since my first year of seminary. My growing frustrations with the built-in sexism, racism, and heterosexism of my own tradition and most mainline traditions give me little reason to attend.

I have struggled with this immensely. I am not anti-church. I think it is a unique and important place which is often doing good work. I owe much of who I am today to people I knew through church who supported me in incredible ways. I wish in no way to mark the church as “good” or “bad” as if things were so simple. I’m just not sure it’s a safe space for me at the moment.

For a while, I believed in the “be the change you want to see” mentality in regards to being a woman and a queer in a Christian community. But such a mindset doesn’t take seriously the odds of power over the powerless. It ignores the seriousness of the push-back and overlooks the isolation of being a voice of contention. A once powerful idea has become a naive cliche used without regard for the power of systemic issues in the church.

Marginalized persons cannot be the ones to create change on our own. We absolutely have to have people in power who are willing to stir the waters of their congregation regardless of the effect it will have on budgets. We need to hear voices that are not tip-toing around LGBT issues in hopes of keeping everyone happy, voices which are boldly declaring the radical inclusivity of the gospel. We need people who recognize that just because something overtly discriminatory wasn’t said doesn’t mean it’s an inclusive church. Until the leaders of the church are living this way, I probably won’t be there.

I think Christianity has much to offer to the world – I’m just not sure many of its congregations are actually living into it. I have heard so many stories from my fellow seminarians about the meaningfulness of their faith when they were engaging with people who live on the street, or with people living in poverty, or with people in a hospital bed. They were inspired by what they thought Christianity had to offer to people who felt isolated or estranged. I have heard these stories enough lately that I have been wondering why this faith seems to only manifest outside of the church.

Where the rubber hits the road, where people are suffering for various reasons, the church has something helpful to say. You are not alone. You are loved. It is not a fragile message. But why, once we step back into the sanctuary, is this same meaning and radicalness so hard to find? Suddenly, practicality, budgets, false unity, being “nice”, and maintaining the status quo take priority over the very meaning of Christianity. Where there should be hope, and rest, and community for marginalized people, there is too often, only another fight.

 

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