Sunday, September 16, 2012

My Twin Companions: Cynicism and Hope


Honestly I did not think I would be posting on this topic today. Fate however intervened. The other day I expressed on a private list how I felt a bit cynical about the chances of people rising up and taking back this country from the politicians who respond to those with money rather than those with citizenship. Soon after several people mentioned the need to take action. Of course I agree. But as I thought about it more deeply, I came to realize that within me resides both hope and cynicism each perfectly valid feelings. I needed to explain what that meant to me and how I respond to these opposing feelings. What follows is my response to that private group. Several responded positively to it, so it seemed appropriate to post it as a blog entry also. Without further ado, here's what I posted:

I should allow that while I have my moments (days, weeks, years) steeped in cynicism on certain matters, I have come to understand that cynicism must be tempered with hope. Fortunately I've lived in an age when hope has trumped the cynic right there in front of my own eyes. For example, I look to African Americans early on in the Civil Rights struggle. Growing up in the Jim Crow south, the early efforts to change the status quo seemed terribly difficult if not impossible. As people were beaten,killed, set on by dogs, the only thing keeping them going was hope. I marveled at the strength of their hope, and it became mine as well. Either yesterday or the day before, the bombing anniversary that killed 4 children in that southern church in Birmingham marked I think the shift of public opinion in that day of struggle even among the complacent in the south and around the country. Hope despite the pragmatism of despair trumped, at terrible cost, and change came.

Growing up, there was a colloquialism I heard often among local African Americans. It was a simple thing really. If someone asked for help, or someone was going to help another, the word help was replaced by the word hope. "I'll hope you do that." "Can I hope you?" Such a simple thing and yet even then I recognized the power in what they were doing.

For that matter, who back in the late sixties thought even for a moment that within our lifetimes we'd be having an open debate on whether we could get married and the President of the United States would be on our side? Hope was triumphant beyond our dreams.

So yeah, there are matters I'm cynical about right now. Like Americans standing up to change the current status quo. Still alongside the cynic resides hope. So I talk to people, march in marches, and ALWAYS vote my values. No one can predict that magical moment when despair and cynicism gives way to hope's realization. But I want to be there and be a part of it when it does. In the meantime we need to hope each other as we await the day of victory. May it come soon.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

What Makes a Faith Community Indispensable?


So, in his blog at

Rev. Justin Schroeder at First Universalist Church (my congregation) asked for input on the following question:

"So what makes a church indispensable and relevant? What are your thoughts/experiences? What makes a church truly indispensable to the neighborhood and community, as well as those who attend?"

I don't pretend to have all the answers, but I do have some thoughts along these lines, including a past membership in another congregation when I was still living in Houston who asked similar questions. In committee we discussed these matters openly, and perhaps some of what we came up with might be of importance.

The church to which I belonged was Resurrection Metropolitan Community Church, an outreach church for lesbian, bisexual, gay, and transgender people as well as our allies. Our membership and the people to whom we served in the community were about as diverse as one can get. We came from all ethnic, racial, religious, economic backgrounds and it could be a real challenge. Here are some of the points we came up with in finding our answers:

1. Our church should reflect the community in which we live. I'm not really talking about creed or doctrine here so much, but rather the cultural elements of our community. In a city with a large number of Latinos, we included services in Spanish. Many of our members came from a past in African American churches. It's amazing how much music means to people who attend church. Our congregation numbering around 800 (and growing quickly) at the time had several choirs. We had one choir that sang the traditional choral music many UU's would be most comfortable with. Another was based upon traditional African American choral music. STill another sang the gospel sounds familiar to those who grew up in a Charismatic tradition. And yes, traditional Mexican hymns were common as well. The services varied. The primary service was more akin to the Episcopal while other services offered more of an African American flavor, and on Friday evenings a charismatic service was available as well. Now a UU church would not make necessarily the same choices, but there could be a variety of cultural options that reflects the community in which they live.

2. The leadership within the church should also reflect that community. Just as the programming should.

3. To be relevant in a larger community, congregants must be open to stepping outside their comfort zone. In preparation for such changes, there needs to be culturally relevant training on an ongoing basis. New members as part of the course to be admitted would cover areas of sensitivity in diversity. We also trained around how to proactively intervene when disagreement or unintentional offense should take place. If a congregation for instance is only okay with traditional services like they might do in Boston and are not willing to expand their perspective, then they will always be of interest primarily to people just like them.

4. Community outreach must be relevant. A wonderful example was I think the march we joined with others a couple weeks ago against the voter id amendment. When you take a stand for issues the community holds dear, you make yourself relevant in that community. One way back in Houston we did so as well, was by partnering with other churches, particularly in poor areas. We did not limit our alliance to a monetary one however, but engaged in social activities together. Nothing breaks down barriers so well as does breaking bread together. I think relevance means having ordinary folks in the neighborhood recognize you and see you as an ally and a friend. Hey, there's Jessica! She was there for us when this or that circumstance arose. Her and a bunch of other folks from that First Universalist Church. That sort of thing doesn't occur accidentally. Intentional outreach must occur.

I'm just thinking out loud here. Clearly doctrinally we might have substantial differences from many of the other churches in our community. But say this or that church, or a local community group was having a fundraiser, or a tornado or lightning struck their church or offices etc. The recent issues over at Simpson Shelter come to mind. Stepping up as a church concerned about our neighbors could mean so much. How about at the neighborhood festivals we see every spring and summer. Participating in those as a church could mean a lot. When our citizens are gunned down by gang violence or devastated by disaster, a church coordinated response could mean so much.

I think to be relevant, we've got to be involved. Not to raise our membership numbers though that would happen I think. People miss you when they know you. You become indispensable when they rely upon you.

I would share one other personal experience that drives home that point. As many know, I was seen by the community as a gay male before I transitioned to become female (but still gay, long story there.) When I began transition, there was a world of distance between the tg community and the lesbian and gay community. AT one point, a vote was taken by the lesbian and gay political caucus in Houston to include transgender in their charter. It was defeated. A few years later, a similar vote was also defeated. At that time, a decision was made among a number of transgender women and men in the Houston area. We began joining various groups as volunteers. In my case I offered a lesbian film night through the community center and was an active participant in Lesbians in Business. All the community groups saw trans volunteers working amongst them. A lesbian woman running for city counsel was swamped with trans volunteers in her campaign. She won that race and was the first elected official to ever even utter the term transgender in a public venue, her acceptance speech. I know because I was there. She went on, and now Annise Parker is the mayor of the city and is now known by many nationally. The point is,our work was not in vain. Another vote was held by the political caucus, and trans inclusion was overwhelmingly ratified. We had made ourselves indispensable and relevant.

My congregation will make its own plan for relevance I'm quite certain. Here are my thoughts on what we need to do to be more so, for I think we are already relevant in many ways. My ideas can join others, for as always, it is in our diversity where our strength lies.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

On This Anniversary of the 9-11 Attacks: Some Thoughts


Here we are again, this being the 11th anniversary of the day Islamic Fanatics flew jet airliners filled with people into the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington D.C. I was wrestling with illness at the time, and so had slept in that morning. Robin called me and told me to turn on the tv right away. I tuned in just in time to see the second jet fly into the second of the two twin towers. Like Americans everywhere, I felt horror at what I was seeing. As I watched another very real dread swept over me. How would we respond towards these attacks? I could see nothing good in our foreseeable future.

AS would be expected, Americans came together. Blood donations were at an all time high. We were one people during that time in a way we rarely really are. But something else happened that day, and that something threatens the very fabric of our democracy. I've come to realize in the intervening 11 years that besides the tragic loss of life, we lost much more besides. American optimism was replaced by American fear. Not so much at first. But daily the politicians turned out, warning of the terrorists in our midst, preaching fear at every turn. Legislation was enacted in the name of safety that undermined our democratic ideals. Laws like the Patriot Act. They are still with us today. Surveillance went way beyond any semblance of constitutional compliance, and when caught and called on it, they just rewrote the laws to permit it, using the war powers exemption and getting court sanction to do so.

We invaded Afghanistan. Now clearly whether one agrees with the invasion, their compliance in the efforts of Bin Ladin could reasonably be argued. But then the drums began beating for war with Iraq, who had NOTHING to do with the attacks. On went the propaganda, of weapons of mass destruction, of a non-existent Al Queda link to Sadaam. War was declared, but not against any individual country or persons, but against an idea. With a war on terrorism, we could be assured that the war would never end, because terrorism has always been with us. Every day if I turn on tv, I'm bombarded with new threats to fear around the world. If you looked in the dictionary for "over-reaction" I think there should be a picture of the U.S. post 9-11.

History teaches me that Caesar wanted to invade Gaul but the senate was reluctant to give him permission. At that point they were still a Republic. But he used the name of a much feared barbarian and told the people that if he did not go after him, then Rome could well be sacked. In the name of fear they allowed him to do that, and upon his return, began unraveling the republic in favor of the empire. Confidence and optimism was replaced by fear, and the decline could begin.

So it is that today I mourn for a number of things. I lament the loss of each precious life that was taken that day. I really am glad they got Bin Ladin and the folks associated with that heinous crime. I mourn the thousands of lives lost on both sides in Afghanistan, Iraq, and various other covert activities around the world in this nebulous "war on terror." I mourn the loss of freedom. The vary idea that so many cities now have drones spying on their citizens is an outrage to me, and I would assume anyone who loves the promise of the American dream. Bin Ladin said he wanted to drain the American resources and undermine our democratic ideals, using fear as the tactic through his terrorist attacks. We have indeed drained our resources critically, and freedom has been the casualty of our response. It does not have to be this way. But first we must set aside the fear. Mourning our dead is appropriate. Continuing these bloody conflicts and eroding our democracy is not appropriate. Using the harsher language of my youth, I think we need to grow a backbone and kick some politician butt to change the paradigm. I know we can never get back the lives who were lost. But given the will, we can sure take back our government. They need to be serving us, not spying on us.

"O, let America be America again--
The land that never has been yet--
And yet must be--the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine--the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME--
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose--
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain--
All, all the stretch of these great green states--
And make America again!"

- excerpt poem by Langston Hughes