Friday, June 27, 2014

Forty-Five Years: A Celebration of the Saints

It was a hot night in New York City, 1969.  The actress Judy Garland had died of a drug overdose, and there was mourning in the gay community over the loss of one of their Hollywood icons.  Drag queens and kings, lesbians and gay men, had gone to the Mafia-owned Stonewall Inn for a night of drinking watered-down cocktails to let themselves "be" among those who were just like them.  That's when the police of the local precinct in Greenwich Village decided it would be a night of busting up the gay bar, and hauling people in for the crime of being queer.

But on this night, 45 years ago, the men and women at the Stonewall Inn had a collective uprising that said, "Hell NO!" to this ongoing harassment.  And for several nights, they pushed back, stood up, and refused to be bullied any more.   One of the people at the bar, the Rev. Magora Kennedy, recounted what she saw that night:
"This scene in 1969 was incredible -- like in an alarming movie.  I personally witnessed this one Gay boy who was marched out of The Stonewall Club, by what turned out to be plain-clothes cops.  The boy actually tried to escape and nearly escaped but was grabbed from behind, pulled to the ground outfront The Stonewall and then he was needlessly drop-kicked by a big uniformed cop.  The boy's nose must have hit the pavement because he was suddenly bleeding.  His standing up to this police abuse against Gays sho' nuff sparked the rebellion.  That scene was just too much for the growing and angry crowd of every type person you could imagine.  My friends and I observed a couple of cops take Williamson Henderson, though I didn't know him or his name then, off to a black and dark green cop car and did a little billy-clubbing along the way.  I really feared for Williamson's life, though I was in a circle of fear myself.  In 1969, those things actually happened."

"The Gay Rev.," as she's called, went on to talk about the turnaround on the police:

"After awhile, as the excitement and the crowds continued to grow and get louder and feistier, I saw this big, good-looking, black drag queen, with a fancy blue cocktail dress and some sparkly high heel shoes, yank loose a street parking meter "with a little help from her friends".  Funny, that was a sing-a-long song by The Beatles at The Stonewall a couple of years earlier.  Anyway, as anyone who was ever there or ever travelled that block knows, there was street parking there then.  At this point with the turning of the tables, many of the cops were now barricaded inside The Stonewall Club and we were all on the outside!   What a change of events that was.  The 'black 'n' blue' drag queen -- without a green light -- and her newfound, very Gay rebellious friends began to batter The Stonewall's door with the uprooted parking meter and bang on the front door of The Stonewall but nobody in the 'inn' was answering.  Hello?!  It wasn't too long before the cops called for some heavy duty reinforcements.   They arrived in uniform, with helmets, armed, dangerous and on horses!"

Out of this rebellion came the modern day LGBTQI Pride Movement.  This would be the beginning of Pride parades, including the one in 1973 when Jeanne Manford walked alongside her son through the streets of Greenwich Village, a move that would lead to the birth of Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG).

It was out of this rebellion and action that gave the backing to the truth that San Francisco Board of Supervisors member Harvey Milk spoke in the mid-1970s when he became the first elected gay official, and was subsequently martyred by a man let off from his murder by claiming he had "diminished capacity" that he was depressed and ate too many Twinkies due to his depression.

Preceding all these events, there were others who, in their own way, were heroes and heroines of this fledgling movement for equality.  One of my favorites is Bayard Rustin, an advisor to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who suffered exclusion due to his sexual orientation.  The FBI was all over the civil rights leadership, and they naturally kept a file on Rustin.  He was arrested for his homosexuality in 1953, an event that would dog him throughout his participation in the struggle for civil rights for African-Americans and workers' rights.  He never denied being gay, but because he was gay, he was often forced to take a back seat and not shine quite so brightly.  However, the famous 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. King delivered the "I Have a Dream" speech was all the organizational effort of Bayard Rustin.  

And, despite what the popular historical belief is about Dr. King's commitment to non-violent protest, King actually learned the strategy of non-violence from Rustin, a Quaker who went to India to learn from Gandhi's followers, and a man who committed his whole life and being to refusing to use weapons in the effort to reach equality.  You can learn more about this passionate leader in the award-winning documentary, "Brother Outsider."

On this day, I give thanks to all these men and women who paved the way to where we are now: a nation still struggling to accept LGBTQI equality.  We have made great strides since 1945, but we are still a country that is divided with 46-percent of the population living in a state or the District of Columbia which recognizes full marriage equal rights for gay and straight couples.   That leaves 54-percent still waiting for fairness to come our way.  

How long, O Lord, how long?

(To learn more about the history of the Stonewall Rebellion, go to the site:


Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Increasing and Decreasing: St. John the Baptist Day

This past Sunday, I heard a couple of different themes emerging from sermons that I either read or heard, based upon the Matthew Gospel lesson in which Jesus is telling his disciples, three times over, "Don't be afraid," as he then lets them know what kind of trouble is brewing.  It's biiiiggg trouble.  Jesus said to them that he wasn't bringing peace, but a sword.  Families are going to be divided because of him.  Take up your cross and follow me.  So, fear was one theme.  

The other major note was that one would have to be crazy to agree to follow someone if it's going to be this much strife and difficulty.  A supposedly sane person would never want to willingly go into a situation this divisive.  

Today on the calendar, we celebrate the man who, in the descriptions, sounds a little off his rocker.  St. John the Baptist (or "Baptizer)  is living out in the wilderness.  He's eating locusts and honey, wears a camel's hair tunic, and is calling out to all the people of Israel to "Repent!"  "Get yourselves back on track," he's saying, "Because God's kingdom is at hand and the Messiah is coming!"  Mind you,  John does not see himself as the Anointed One.  But he's got this inner gut feeling that tells him that one who was born six months after him is THE One.   He believes that Jesus is going to be the person who delivers Israel from being under the thumb of the Romans.  So, you can imagine how he might have been wondering if his instincts had deceived him when he's sitting in jail, and there hasn't been the kind of revolutionary movement that he had anticipated.   He sends some of his followers to ask Jesus if he really is THE One, or perhaps John needs to check his gut again.  And Jesus sends word back to John, noting that the wounded are healed, the blind have sight.  In other words: "Yeah, I'm the One you've been waiting for.  But this is a Love revolution, and that doesn't look like the human form of overthrow."   

Of the readings assigned for today, I find myself again drawn to the comment John makes to his followers who are fretting over the people leaving John to be baptized and follow Jesus.  John notes that "no one can receive anything except what has come from heaven."  He's not at all troubled by people turning to Jesus for leadership and concludes with, "He must increase, but I must decrease."  This is a challenging thought.   It runs completely countercultural to how one is supposed to be.  We are supposed to want to climb to the top of the ladder in all things, be it with our bank accounts or in our jobs.  There are those among us who want to control everything in their universe, be it people or situations.  Somehow "being in control" will give a sense of being "on top of" whatever needs to be controlled.   And if we don't maintain a firm grip on control, then nobody will and there will be chaos.  Our egos love to be stroked this way.  We love to feel important because importance gives us self-worth, and self-worth tells us we matter and we aren't irrelevant.   I'd argue that not only is it the common human experience to want to "increase"; we'd really like to super-size that, if we could!

Which makes the whole notion of decreasing seem weak.  And weak, in this case, would seem... well... wrong.  It's too bad we don't get to hear what John's followers had to say to this statement.  One might expect them to complain about it being the incorrect answer in the same way Peter rebukes Jesus when he describes the type of death he must endure in order for the fulfillment of God's mission to be complete.  Even Jesus understood that idea of decreasing to the end of having something greater increase.  

In this way, I see John the Baptist being an appropriate guide in how to perceive one's self in the face of the greater God and greater good that comes from God.  I think if any one of us really desires to live and work in the path that leads to greater awareness of God's grace and mercy for all in the world, then we have to let go of the illusion that any of that work is about us.   It's not.  It is only about God's power working in us.  The more we allow that light to shine within us, and quit attempting to direct or control or operate a dimmer switch on that light, the more wattage that light is going to put out to the world.  In order for God to increase in us, we must decrease in our own ego, give up control, and let God move through us.

Happy St. John the Baptist Day!


Sunday, June 15, 2014

Sins of the Past Revisited

"The repeated Johns Committee assaults on my integrity and my worthiness as a human being left permanent emotional scars.  To this day, my emotions are undergirded by dark feelings of unworthiness; of being "less than" when compared with others.  While one learns to cope with these feelings, they never truly go away.  For me, that is the true legacy of this dark period in the social history of our country.  Hopefully, enlightenment and eternal vigilance will preclude its return."--Art Copleston, one of the victims of the Johns Committee.

During this month of LGBTQI Pride activities around the country, it is fairly customary to pause and reflect on the road that we have traveled to get to the places we are now.  Such was the case last night at the Mickee Faust Club, where we screened a 30-minute documentary called, "Behind Closed Doors: The Dark Legacy of the Johns Committee."  The film, done as a thesis project by a University of Florida journalism student in 2000, tells the story of the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee headed by State Senator Charley Johns of Starke.  Johns had recently been defeated for Governor (he was serving in place of Governor Dan McCarty who had died in office), and had returned to the Florida Senate where he decided to make his legacy starting this committee of legislators, lawyers, and law enforcement officers to root out Florida's criminal element.  "Criminal element" is a euphemism for "civil rights leaders, communists and homosexuals."  
The group first went after the membership records of the NAACP.  The NAACP mounted a formidable resistance, fighting the committee in court, all the way to U.S. Supreme Court which said the organization did not have to turn over its membership list.  Having been stymied in this effort, they went to the group that had no defenders: the lesbian and gay community of Florida.  And for the period from about 1958-1965, the Johns Committee made the lives of gays and lesbians in public schools, universities and state government a living hell.  At Florida State, investigators would throw parties hoping to entrap gay male students.  They also patrolled the Greyhound bus station.  Students were either expelled or they were enlisted to become informants for the committee.  Professors were hauled out of classes by investigators and interrogated for hours in motel rooms.  It was state-sanctioned terror.

Part of what brought the committee's work to end was the publication of its infamous "Homosexuality and Citizenship in Florida" booklet, which was designed to shock the sensibilities of Floridians.  Instead, "The purple pamphlet" (so nicknamed because the cover was a swirl of purple) offended lawmakers who couldn't believe that Johns used taxpayer dollars to make a soft porn publication, complete with a glossary of terms and suggestive photos of anonymous gay sex and bondage.  

There was another factor that helped end the activities of the Johns Committee.  The population of Florida was shifting more to the south which meant there was a growing number of urban, and more urbane, up and coming lawmakers coming to the state Capitol.  And when the Johns Committee decided to go after gays and lesbians at the newly-created University of South Florida campus, legislators from the Tampa area, including former Congressman Sam Gibbons, were furious.  The committee's work came to a close in 1965, and Senator Johns moved to have the records sealed until December 31, 2028.   However, voters in 1992, passed a state constitutional amendment affirming our desire for open records which forced the release of the Johns Committee's work product, all 30,000+ pages of it.  Today, those records are maintained at the Florida State archives in the R.A. Gray building.

 As I thought about this record of past sins, I kept reflecting on the message I received above from Art Copleston, one of the students at the University of Florida who ended up on the wrong side of the Johns Committee.  He shared with me that he's soon going to be turning 82, and has lived a full and rewarding life as a gay man.  And yet, he expresses the fact that he's learned to cope with the feelings of inadequacy from that period where he was interrogated and made to feel as if he was a "pervert" in need of "help."  Those feelings are still there for him.  And it made me realize that there are many of us, perhaps even a whole generation, who, despite the confidence we have and our sense that we are good and right, we are somehow a "less than."  Even as our society evolves in its thinking on LGBTQI rights, the Governor of Texas and his state Republican Party are saying that we're like alcoholics, diseased and in need of a cure.  Our own Attorney General in Florida says to grant us the civil rights of marriage would do irreparable harm to the state.  And let's not even talk about what various faith communities, and bishops, might say about our righteous selves.  Sadly, these sins are still with us today.

When I wrote back to Art, I told him the truth as I know it:  he never was a "less than," and he still isn't today.  It doesn't matter what the committee's investigators told him.   I can only hope that when his days on earth come to an end, he will find himself standing with the other saints, Harvey Milk, Bayard Rustin, Stormé DeLarverie,and the many others and be finally freed from any lingering doubts that he is loved exactly as he is without an asterisk.  

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Winds of Change

Happy Birthday, Church!

Pentecost is the day we celebrate the arrival of the Holy Spirit, the part three of the Trinitarian God-approach to loving us back to life.  I don't really have any tremendous insights or great revelations.  But the main thing that came to my mind as I listened to the familiar reading from the Acts of the Apostles is the notion that total strangers entered into the upper room to hear this group of Gallieans speaking in native languages of the foreigners.  And what they were communicating was the Good News of Jesus Christ in a way that each individual could hear it.

I think this is part of the winds of change blowing through the church right now.  I think there is greater recognition that to communicate the gospel, the Church must be willing to speak in languages that can be heard and understood by all, so that all will know that they are included in the kingdom "on earth as it is in heaven."  The central language all those people were speaking in that upper room is the language of Love.  Having been given the words, and the tongue to communicate with people, the next mission was to go out of the safety of that room and keep spreading the good news.  Had they not done this, the "Church" would never have grown and been able to set more hearts on fire with the Love of God.  

That's the task that is before us, the Church, today.  We must be willing to speak with strangers, share who we are and the seed of God planted in each of us, and allow that anyone, and I mean anyone, can participate in this great commission, not just the few, the proud, the clergy.  That's the way to keep the Holy Spirit, and the birthday candles, burning bright.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Decisions and Destinations in Liminal Time

Call me a weirdo, but I really like this Seventh Sunday in Easter.  We've already had Ascension Day, but we haven't reached Pentecost yet.   This is like the period of suspension between Good Friday and Easter, except without that heartache of knowing that the man we regard as the only begotten Son of God was brutally executed.   

This is a time when we know something big is going to happen, but we're not entirely sure what.  And we aren't entirely sure  if it's a "good" big thing, or a "bad" big thing.  We just know that it is going to be big.  This is where the apostles are in the telling of our story.  The reading assigned from the Book of Acts is the opening, where we learn that Jesus has given what is essentially a final pep talk to his closest friends, and then he's gone.  And they're standing there, staring up into the sky.  And as they're doing this, and likely pondering, "What was that?" two men in white robes appear with them.
They said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven." (Acts 1:11)

The group trudges off to Jerusalem, where they sit in the upper room amongst other followers of Christ, to devote themselves to prayer.  This is the safe thing to do, and may be the only thing to do at this point.  When Jesus died on the cross, many of his followers were distraught and attempted to go back to their old lives working the nets in the sea.  But the resurrected Christ reminded them that they could not re-trace those steps as he continued to open their minds to their new reality.  Now, he's gone again, but they know they can't go back.  Still, they aren't really sure of how to go forward.  It's a scary world out there, as the First Letter of Peter notes.  "The devil" is like a "roaring lion" prowling and waiting to devour them.  So they must keep alert, and remember that others are in the same boat with them.  The reading from John's Gospel, which is a prayer Jesus is offering as almost a soliloquy, acknowledges that Jesus has prepared his followers to now walk on in his footsteps with God. But again, the apostles are not sure how to take those steps.  So they sit.  They pray.  They think.  They wait. 

In reflecting on this moment in the Biblical story, I see it  as being very similar to how things are here in the Southeast with the Episcopal Church in light of the events that have occured in the past week with regards to the blessing of a same-sex couple at Sewanee's All Saints' chapel.  The bishops, and others who attended the General Convention in Indianapolis in 2012, saw what the larger church was saying about blessing the relationships of lesbian and gay people.  An overwhelming majority voted for it, including some from the South.  The Church, in keeping with allowing bishops to know what is best for their individual dioceses, allowed them to go home, enter their own upper rooms, to consider what and how they might respond to this change.  They were given until the First of Advent to come up with a plan.  Many of them did this.  There were dioceses that accepted in whole the liturgy that had been adopted by the Convention, and some which would only accept a part of it.  And then there were some who returned to their upper room, shut the door, and no longer wanted to speak of this matter again.  Perhaps this was more than they could bear to handle at the time.

But even that huddled group in the upper room in Jerusalem was not going to be allowed to sit there in prayerful discernment forever.  As promised, another is sent, the Holy Spirit, to light that fire in their hearts, and under their butts, to get out there and let people hear the Gospel.  They've wondered, "What's next?" and "How do we do this?"  But the truth is, that Jesus had already given them his all in all and laid out a road map to follow; now they are fueled by the Holy Spirit to step out into the uncertain world and let the Spirit carry them forward both in their words and in their actions. 

Similiarly, the Spirit in this century has been doing the work of bringing people along to greater awareness about the love shared between two people of the same gender.  Nineteen states have realized that it no longer serves them to tell lesbian and gay couples that they cannot be married.  And as those states have come to this new understanding, the bishops in those dioceses have been ready to answer that they, too, will allow blessings to happen.  In fact, some of those bishops had already reached that conclusion before the state arrived at it.  But marriage equality has hit a brick wall in the South; hence, many bishops have been able to get by without having to do anything.  

This is why what has happened at Sewanee is significant.  Sewanee is its own peculiar liminal place in that it is owned by 28 dioceses in the South.  More than half of those bishops with a stake in the school have approved of blessing same-sex unions.  But they are not the ones sitting as the Regent Bishops nor as the Chancellor.  Still, the Holy Spirit doesn't back off or let closed doors or brick walls get in the way of a purpose.  This Voice of the Prophets may be thwarted, or put off, but the Spirit of God will prevail eventually.  Always.  And it happened: a same-sex couple will be blessed at the main chapel on the campus in the fall.

I think the Episcopal Church in the Southeastern United States is experiencing that fiery wind of the Holy Spirit.  Bishops may lock themselves in their upper rooms against this Spirit of Love, but it will keep blowing harder and harder like a hurricane until it breaks open their hearts and minds to see that its time to follow the direction the larger Church has given them.  For some, this may be their moment to be like the rich young man, and turn and walk away.  For others, this will be a moment of stepping out into that world that is fraught with danger, but they will find that they have been given the strength and courage to carry this out.  And they are never alone in their journey.  The inescapable truth is that Pentecost is coming.  They already are ready to lead on this.  And there are many of us eager to follow and bring us another step closer to equality for all.