Wednesday, August 28, 2013

They Have A Dream...

Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Thomasville, GA, from their website.

There are exciting times ahead in Thomasville, Georgia, for the Episcopal churches in that city, and one of them in particular: Good Shepherd Episcopal Church. 

I have never been to Good Shepherd, but I know of its existence and have been supportive of their efforts through my work with my former spiritual director, Rev. Nancy Mills.  I know that when Rev. Nancy was their priest, there was a simple lunch prepared for those attending services on Wednesday.  I am aware that it serves a predominantly black congregation, and that it is in one of the poorer sections of Thomasville.  So, I knew these particulars about the place.  Then I went to church at St. Thomas on Sunday, and was immersed in a dream of what could be in Thomasville at Good Shepherd... with God's help and a little elbow grease from the Episcopal faithful in this small southern city.

For approximately a year, members of St. Thomas, Good Shepherd, and All Saints have been diligently working and hammering out the plan for what is being called the "Episcopal Development Agency Thomasville" or EDAT.  The bishop of Georgia is a supporter of this cause and has secured some initial grant funding to help get it under way.  The EDAT has a goal of starting a community garden on the grounds of Good Shepherd that would allow people in the neighborhood to grow their own food.  There are hopes for classes on nutrition and teaching people how to can and preserve some of their bounty which they may be able to market down the line.  There is a desire to renovate the Good Shepherd vicarage, built in 1908, and turn it into a community center with arts and other activities.  The hope is to build up the people in the Oak Street neighborhood of this church, and have Good Shepherd be a catalyst for change that lifts them up and improves their lives.  As one lay member at St. Thomas noted, and I'm paraphrasing,  "Jesus said that we would always have the poor among us, but he didn't say we don't have an obligation to build up others and give them the tools they need to break free from the cycle of poverty."   Amen to that!

The excitement about this project was palpable on Sunday.  There were people making inquiries, and offers of tours of the church and vicarage for those, like me, who have never been there.  Parishioners were piping up with offers of equipment, like tillers and such, to break ground on the garden.  And, best of all, it was a joy to see representatives of all three churches sharing and talking with people in the parish hall of St. Thomas.  Like most churches in this region, there have been divisions in the past, and splits over prayer books and women, etc.  But this project is bringing the faithful from these different congregations together to show how, in Christ, there is one body... and this body is determined to make all of its members healthy and whole. 

Work on the garden project is slated to begin on Saturday, September 7th.  God speed!

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Really, Rowan?

Every day, I say a prayer in the daily office which is designed to keep my heart from growing cold and hard in the face of a world of people who mean to do me harm, or hurt people or things that I value.   This prayer is enormously helpful, and it has buoyed me up at many moments when I could have succumbed to anger and hatred.

I definitely needed it as I read this article in the Guardian about remarks from the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams in regards to how he handled issues of human sexuality during his tenure.  In short, he didn't do squat, and, in fact, compounded problems for LGBT people in the Communion, especially Africa.  Dr. Williams was speaking at the Edinborough International Book Festival.  He talked about how people in the west overuse the word "persecution," and that Westeners have no idea about persecution in light of what happens to Christians in other parts of the world.  And then he got on to the topic of LGBT people in the church, and whether he had failed them as the Archbishop of Canterbury and titular head of the Anglican Communion:

“I know that is what a great many of my gay and lesbian friends would say that I did,” he said.

“I look back and I think, ‘at what point would it have been constructive to do something different that would have made a difference and take us forward?’, and I don’t know, it’s quite soon to say.

“It’s a slow fuse. The best thing I can say is that that is a question which I ask myself really rather a lot, and I don’t quite know the answer.”

I have an answer for his question: Yes, you did.  And the fact that you are still asking yourself a question which you cannot seem to answer tells me that you know, in your gut, that those things you did, and the things you left undone, damaged LGBT Anglicans, and betrayed Christ's commandment to love one another.   

I just want to say to the man: You ask, "at what point would it have been constructive to do something different?"  Perhaps at the point that Jeffrey John had been called to serve as a bishop in the Church of England, and instead of standing with your 'gay friend,' you retreated into the darkness of homophobia.

Or, perhaps at the point when the Episcopal Church in the United States consecrated Gene Robinson as the Bishop of New Hampshire, you could have acknowledged the difficulties this was presenting and encouraged dialogue instead of backing an attempt to institutionalize discord through an Anglican Covenant.  Maybe it was at the point of the 2008 Lambeth Conference when you could have included Bishop Gene instead of intentionally, publicly, and stupidly, excluding him and thereby, by extension, excluded not only LGBT people but the entire diocese of my beloved native home state.

Perhaps it was at the point when the growing grumbling of the Global South, and the likes of Bishop Henri Orombi in Uganda, began fomenting discord in dioceses far beyond their own borders while tacitly approving local legislation in their own countries that called for the deaths of the likes of me.

Perhaps when Mary Glasspool was elected and consecrated a bishop in the Diocese of Los Angeles in 2010, you could have used that as an opportunity  to respond differently, instead of issuing yet another warning about "grave consequences" because of that rogue Episcopal Church.  Or maybe you could have determined it was time to respond differently when David Kato of Sexual Minorities Uganda was brutually murdered after a newspaper published his picture and that of others, including former Ugandan Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, and called for their executions.   If Kato's murder didn't spur you to the need to respond differently, then maybe the disrespect shown at Kato's funeral by the Anglican Church in Uganda could have been a signal that something was rotten in Africa.

Or, maybe, as your own Church of England woke up to the many problems with adopting an Anglican Covenant, you could have taken that as a sign that, perhaps, you were wrong.

Of course, all of this would require you to do some actual self-reflection that cannot be rationalized through an intellectual prism of when was the "right time" to start following the direction of the Holy Spirit.

Really, Dr. Rowan, the time when it would have been "most constructive" was the moment that you were enthroned as the Archbishop of Canterbury.  That's when you were called to be the leader of the Communion in a time of post-modernism and growing understanding of human sexuality.  You chose to let the wolves encircle the LGBT sheep.  You did not choose wisely.   Stop asking yourself questions to which you don't want a real answer.  Repent and seek forgiveness.  You'll get your answer then.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

True Sacrifice: In Memory of Jonathan M. Daniels

I had never heard the name Johnathan Myrick Daniels until about five years ago when I began doing the daily office.   Imagine my delight to discover a modern day martyr of the church had grown up in one of the major cities in southern New Hampshire!  And, better yet, imagine my awe when I read that his sacrificial deed was to die protecting the life of an African-American teenager in Alabama named Ruby Sales.  How could the public schools in New Hampshire have failed to tell this man's story along side their teaching about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.?  How different would that period of history have looked to all of us white children in very white New Hampshire if we had learned that one of the people killed in the struggle for civil rights was one of us, a native of the Granite State?   When that history is presented as solely the story of African-Americans fighting against the Jim Crow machinery of Southern white oppression, it turns a complex, multi-dimensional history into a cardboard cut-out version of itself.  And that lack of nuance, I think, contributes to a disconnect from the understanding that we really are all in this together.

That disconnect was something that Jonathan Daniels began to recognize as he went about the task of integration in a hostile Alabama atmosphere.  Daniels had been part of a group that had come down to Selma from the Episcopal Theological School (now Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA) at the encouragement of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for the march from Selma to Montgomery.   He and a classmate, Judy Upham, missed their bus to return north, which turned out to be exactly the prophetic accident that was necessary.  Both of them acknowledged that it must look pretty awful to the folks from Selma to have these Yankees show up, do their civil rights duty, and then go home to read about the struggles happening in the south from the comfortable distance of their homes in Boston and New York.  And so they stayed the rest of the semester, flew home to take their exams, and came back to continue their ministry as seminarians-on-the-ground, taking groups of African-Americans to Episcopal Churches where they were not welcomed, and tutoring young black children.  And, of course, protesting and picketing.

There is one story that James Kiefer relates from the diaries of Jonathan Daniels that, to me, shows how his faith was getting shaped in each encounter with prejudice.   It was a rainy day in Selma, and there was a protest, with the civil rights advocates standing firm against a hostile squad of Selma police officers.  Daniels recalls he was standing in an ankle deep puddle when his part of the line pushed forward.  He heard the voice of one of the African-American teenage girls calling to him from behind.  He reached his hand back, but she kept beckoning him to pull away from the cops.  Affirmed in the rightness of his cause, he says, he refused to retreat, and instead, pulled this girl forward with him... through the puddle.  The officer across from Daniels scolded the young man: 

"You're dragging her through the puddle. You ought to be ashamed for treating a girl like that." Flushing--I had forgotten the puddle--I snarled something at him about whose-fault-it-really-was, that managed to be both defensive and self-righteous. We matched baleful glances and then both looked away. And then came a moment of shattering internal quiet, in which I felt shame, indeed, and a kind of reluctant love for the young policeman. I apologized to Emma Jean. And then it occurred to me to apologize to him and to thank him. Though he looked away in contempt--I was not altogether sure I blamed him--I had received a blessing I would not forget. Before long the kids were singing, "I love ---." One of my friends asked [the young policeman] for his name. His name was Charlie. When we sang for him, he blushed and then smiled in a truly sacramental mixture of embarrassment and pleasure and shyness. Soon the young policeman looked relaxed, we all lit cigarettes (in a couple of instances, from a common match, and small groups of kids and policemen clustered to joke or talk cautiously about the situation. It was thus a shock later to look across the rank at the clergymen and their opposites, who glared across a still unbroken "Wall" in what appeared to be silent hatred. Had I been freely arranging the order for Evening Prayer that night, I think I might have followed the General Confession directly with the General Thanksgiving--or perhaps the Te Deum.

Daniels joined with others to protest segregated businesses in Fort Deposit, Alabama.  They were arrested on August 14, 1965, and held for six days in a crowded jail cell, refusing bail unless they were all bailed out together.  That day of release came on August 20th, and Daniels along with a Roman Catholic priest and two African-American teenage girls were let out of jail in Hayneville, with no way to get to Fort Deposit.  They went to a local store looking for a cold drink.  It was on the steps of that store that Tom Coleman, a state highway worker and special deputy, leveled his shotgun at Ruby Sales.  Daniels pushed Sales down and took the blast of the gunshot full force.  He was killed instantly.  Coleman also shot at the Roman Catholic priest, getting him in the lower back as he ran with the other girl.  An all-white jury acquitted Coleman of manslaughter, and he was never tried again.  The murder, and the appalling lack of justice, shook the Episcopal Church, and helped motivate the ECUSA to take up the social justice gospel message of the civil rights movement.  One of ours, a white seminarian, had to die to bring the church to fight for societal change.

Which brings me back to that question: why isn't Jonathan Daniels story told in the public schools of New Hampshire, especially during that mandatory section in 4th grade social studies, where students learn the importance and meaning of "Live Free or Die?   Why not share his legacy, how he ultimately understood that all his self-identification as a Yankee was dropping away as just so much crap when in reality he was part of the One that connects all people of all races, ethnicities, orientations. Perhaps New Hampshire is teaching about him now.  I'm sure the children attending Jonathan Daniels School, one of the elementary schools in Keene, must know the story of their school's namesake.    

The collect for Jonathan Daniels Day in the Episcopal Church gives a nod to the Magnificat, the Song of Mary, which spoke deeply to Daniels and his call to go south:

O God of justice and compassion, who put down the proud and the mighty from their place, and lift up the poor and afflicted: We give you thanks for your faithful witness Jonathan Myrick Daniels, who, in the midst of injustice and  violence, risked and gave his life for another; and we pray that we, following his example, may make no peace with oppression; through Jesus Christ the just one: who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.


Sunday, August 11, 2013

Walking By Faith


He brought him outside and said, "Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them." Then he said to him, "So shall your descendants be."  And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness. --Genesis 15: 5-6

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old--and Sarah herself was barren--because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, "as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore." --Hebrews 11:8-12

I sometimes wonder what the patriarch Abraham must have been thinking when he submitted to following God.  What did he think as he stared up at the sky and saw all those stars?  Without light pollution to ruin the view, what went through his mind looking at all those blinking lights shining back at him, and the echo of that promise: count the stars, if you can; this is how numerous your descendants shall be?  Did he try to count them?  Or was this sight so marvelous, and his awe at these words so great, that he simply stared and stared and uttered a breathless, "Yes, God."?

This level of trust is what is asked of all people of faith.   For, as it is noted in the reading from Hebrews, all that Abraham did in submitting to God, in that moment under the stars, was totally dependent on his absolute trust and willingness to go where God was going to take him.  I know this is what is expected of me, too.  And I tremble.

It's not like I haven't stepped out into the abyss before.  Certainly, I did it when I left for college.  I made the decision to leave the familiarity of New England, and go halfway across the country to the University of Missouri.  I didn't know anything about Missouri, other than the University in Columbia had a Journalism School that was renown.  I remember when my parents dropped me off and drove away as I stood on the sidewalk outside Brady Commons, one of the two student union buildings. I thought, "Oh, wow.  What have I done?"  Suddenly, and for a moment, I was panicked.  Had I just done something really stupid?  I intentionally put myself far away from everything I had known.  And I did experience some bumps along the way.  But fortunately, Calvary Episcopal Church was only a few blocks north of the Mizzou campus.  And while their service was a bit "higher" than what I had been used to growing up, it was Episcopalian, and it felt like a touchstone to home.  

Upon graduation, I did another wild and crazy thing: I accepted a job in Tallahassee, Florida.  I had never been to Florida before in my life.  I had one relative living in the Sunshine State, my dad's Uncle Fred, who lived over in a nursing home in Pensacola.  But other than that, I was stepping out into a vast new territory, and again, having to make my way in a new place with new people.  I didn't know how long I'd stay.  And after being here a week, I was already applying for jobs to get me as far away from Tallahassee as possible. 

Unlike in Columbia, I floundered, attempting to find a church that really fit me, the lesbian me.  There was no place that felt like "home."  I really was a stranger in a strange land where even the places of safety, such as the Episcopal Church, had figurative bars on the doors and windows.  But, just as I had managed to navigate a path and make connections while I was in college, I was able to find a niche in Tallahassee through the Mickee Faust Club, a refuge of creativity and outlet for my frustrations with my work of coverning the state legislature.  Nothing is more therapeutic than to write a satirical sketch about boneheaded legislation and the people who write the bills.  

But bearing witness to such ugliness as executions by electric chair, and the heartless debates about humanity in the halls of government forced me to to take another leap into the great unknown: I left journalism to attend massage school in Gainesville, another place that was new, learning skills that were completely the antithesis of the heady work of public radio journalism, and delving into the hands-on healing of bodywork.  This career switch was as much an act of faith as anything I had ever done, and I graduated with very little money left in my account, and the daunting task of building a practice ahead of me.

In all of these moments, I was operating outside of any acknowledgement of God, or God's promise to always be with us to the end of the age.  In other words, I was one of those "unchurched" who was making these moves in the belief that I was alone.  It was as if I was standing outside under the stars, staring up into the sky, only to have all those twinkling lights hidden behind a collection of clouds.  But even then, even in a time when I wasn't aware of God's presence and purpose for my life, God was there.  I just didn't realize it.     

Since my re-entry into the church, and the deeper I go into this journey as I seek God, I feel that same sense of stepping out and heading off into a great unknown.  I tremble, but I know that this is not a trip I'm taking alone. 

"By faith" Abraham leaned himself into God, and allowed God to work out God's purpose on his life.  By faith, I must do the same.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

An Honor Long Overdue

Often when we think of saints, we come to visualize the St. Luke's, the St. Michael's, maybe even the St. Mary's.   Saints are those people of ancient times who did miraculous things, or, at the very least, hung out with a miraculous guy named Jesus Christ, right?

OK, so the Episcopal Church does recognize other saints, like Friday, we recognized Herman, who brought Orthodox Christianity from Russia to Alaska (let's not talk about the Russians and their current exhibition of "christian" values concerning the LGBT community and our allies!)  But, for me, one of the saints I sing of is that of the queer African-American Quaker named Bayard Rustin.  President Obama is posthumously awarding Rustin a Presidential Medal of Freedom, probably in part due to the petition drive signed by many, including me, that asked him to bestow this highest citizen honor on the late civil rights leader.  

Rustin's life and witness are an inspiration for me.  He grew up in the Philadelphia suburb of West Chester, Pennsylvania, in the 1920s and was raised by his maternal grandparents.  His grandmother was a Quaker; his grandfather was African Methodist Episcopal (AME).  Rustin's grandparents were also part of the NAACP and the young Bayard encountered such notables as W.E.B. DuBois in his childhood.  These encounters helped to shape Rustin's politics, and thirst for justice through non-violence.  He had an unwavering sense of his true self, including his homosexuality.  He became involved in the effort to end racial discrimination in the 1930s when he entered college.  In 1942, he was arrested just outside of Nashville for boarding a bus and taking a seat in the second row (yes, before Rosa Parks).  He was pulled from the bus and beaten, and even as the police officers were striking him, Rustin reportedly kept saying, "I'm not fighting you.  Why are you hitting me?"  Rustin was so thoroughly committed to the principal of non-violence that he went to India, and studied under the students of Mahatma Gandhi.  When he returned to the States, he had learned of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s efforts to challenge the country's racially discriminatory laws.  Rustin went to meet with King, and, according to a film about their encounter, Rustin lectured Dr. King on getting rid of his armed guards at his house and truly adopting an ethic of non-violence.   Dr. King was reluctant at first:  who wouldn't be in an age when black families faced the threat of Klansman and bombers?  But Rustin persisted, and ultimately, it was Rustin who taught Dr. King the value of non-violence in the struggle for civil rights.  

Rustin was an advocate for the working poor, and was the brains behind the famous March on Washington in 1963.  You can see him in the background behind all the more famous speakers, including Dr. King.  It was Bayard Rustin's efforts to organize the sanitary workers in Memphis that brought Dr. King to that city in April, 1968, where King was assassinated, one of the many dark moments of that tumultuous year.  

Rustin remained largely in the shadows of other figures in American civil rights history due in large part to his arrest in 1953 on a charge of homosexuality (yes, it was a crime to be gay.)  That arrest became like an albatross around his neck, not so much for him, but how others would treat him.  At one point, there was an attempt to undermine Dr. King and the civil rights movement of the 1960s by saying that King was having an affair with Rustin.  Many groups, and causes, often became "concerned" about Rustin's presence because of "the gay thing."   Rustin was all too aware of how everyone else was uncomfortable about his homosexuality.  Even the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) which Rustin helped to start, forced him out because he was gay.  For Rustin, the cause of justice and equal rights was  too important to jeopardize, so he would often remove himself from the spotlight, so as to not draw attention to his gay self.  Still, by the 1970s, and the beginnings of the gay liberation movement, Rustin was among those saying that gay rights was the new civil rights struggle and he became a vocal advocate for equality.   In a speech before the New York legislature, Rustin referred to the gay community as "the New Niggers."

"Today, blacks are no longer the litmus paper or the barometer of social change. Blacks are in every segment of society and there are laws that help to protect them from racial discrimination. The new "niggers" are gays. . . . It is in this sense that gay people are the new barometer for social change. . . . The question of social change should be framed with the most vulnerable group in mind: gay people."

Rustin died on August 24, 1987, of a ruptured appendix.   At the time, he was involved in missionary work with Haitians.   His obituary in the New York Times mentioned his partner of ten years, Walter Neagle.  

I once described Bayard Rustin as being like a mighty river.  Even when he encountered obstacles, and people attempted to push him aside, he always just kept flowing and moving and pressing forward and going around anything that stood in his way.  He was socialist at one time, but understood the need to build coalitions with like-minded groups and hence began working to put labor and the Democratic Party together as allies.  And never once did he apologize or hide that he was gay.  He didn't need to, and neither does anyone else.  This man's life and witness, to my mind, is worthy of the title "Saint."  And I mean to be like him, too.

O God, the Great Spirit who knows the struggle of humanity to bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice; we give thanks for the life of Bayard Rustin and his non-violent witness to that struggle.   Give us the grace and strength to embrace his ideals, and recognize and react to injustice in the world, so that we carry forward his dream, and yours, that we all love one another and lift each other up; in your Holy Name and with all the saints we pray.  Amen.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

I Still Remember

August 2nd would have been the Rev. Canon Lee Graham's 93rd birthday.  In a fitting tribute, the rector of St. John's remembered Fr. Lee at the Friday noon day service, the service which the late Fr. Lee used to celebrate every week.  We prayed for the repose of his soul, and we lifted up his widow, Betty, and his whole family.  I know they miss him.  We all do.

And some of us seem to get periodic reminders of how his presence in our lives moved us out of our comfort zones, and our natural tendancies to want to sleep walk through this life.   Such has been the case with me.  I cannot encounter some passages of Scripture, or certain psalms, or think of the phrase, "Read, mark, learn and inwardly digest it" without hearing the voice of Lee Graham.  I cannot contemplate the actions of the Dream Defenders, and their ongoing peaceful protest of our racially-divisive laws without thinking about how Fr. Lee would likely have commented on this, and drawn upon Scripture to tell us in our comfortable place at St. John's why we should be stirred up... and out of our comfort zone... to care about this issue.

He was on my mind this summer as I read through Andrew Harvey's critique and position on who Jesus was, and how the Church, through its councils and concepts of Christ, have missed the mark... and in the process... also crushed the feminine presence inherent in God.  Each time something Harvey argued made me squirm, I had this sense of a miniture Lee Graham sitting on my shoulder, reminding me, "You have to question your faith!"   That's what he wanted people to do as he argued against the phrase, "You are dust and to dust you shall return."   He didn't want people to go as sheep to present themselves to a priest for the imposition of ashes without first asking themselves the question, "Am I dust?  Am I as worthless as dust?"  For Fr. Lee, the answer was, "No!  I am a child of God!" and he believed the Church put this practice of ashes on the forehead at Ash Wednesday as a means of guilt-tripping people.  If Andrew Harvey could have met Lee Graham, I think they would have hit it off!

I definitely felt his presence at the Eucharist this noon-day service when the phrase that popped out at me was how Christ, "stretched out his arms upon the cross in obedience to (God's) will..."  I thought about Fr. Lee, and the sacrifices he made in Alabama, and even in Tallahassee, in pursuit of racial justice, peace, and really making us live up to the promise to treat everyone with respect and dignity.  His stories of showdowns with vestries and others over the integration of the church, sometimes prevailing and sometimes finding himself the minority voice in a room filled with bigots, used to give me some comfort.  Like Christ, all of us who have ever stood up against the machine of "the majority" when it was necessary to do so in an effort to prevent the machine from rolling over a minority, know what it's like to be the one standing in front of that steam roller.  In this way, we, too, are stretching out our arms on our own metaphorical crosses, trusting in God, even if we are about to get nailed.  When I heard Fr. Lee talk, I heard in his stories similarities to some of my own.  I guess misery loves company, in this case.  

At his funeral, Fr. Lee requested that I read a passage from 1Corinthians: 

Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ 
 ‘Where, O death, is your victory?
   Where, O death, is your sting?’ 
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. 
Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labour is not in vain. 

I have read, marked, learned and inwardly digested this passage, especially that last line. In The Lord, my labor, my pursuit of justice and desire to see Love spread beginning with what flows from my own heart, will not be in vain.  Thanks be to God, and to Fr. Lee Graham.