Saturday, February 24, 2018

Taking Up The Cross and a Cause

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.--Mark 8:34

It was one week after the Valentine's Ash Wednesday massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and the word had been spreading far and wide throughout Tallahassee: come to the state Capitol and show the students that we are going to fight for their right to go to their public school and not be mowed down by a semi-automatic weapon. Our school board and school superintendent thought this rally was important enough that they granted excused absences to any student wishing to attend. Marches organized on both the Florida State and Florida A&M University campuses, approaching the Capitol from south and the north sides. And then there were just the ordinary, work-a-day folks like me, who laid aside whatever was on the day's agenda to make this event the priority.

I don't have kids. I have never wanted to have kids of my own. The "biological clock" that I, as a woman, supposedly have built into my system must have broken back when I was a teenager because I haven't felt less feminine or upset that I didn't experience pregnancy and birth and then the responsibility of raising a child. All that said, I still have a tender spot in my heart for children. I delight in their successes (often shared with me by their proud parents), and I feel empathy for them when the world knocks them around because I remember that for my youth. But I never had to practice what to do in the event of an active shooter entering my school. And I never had to worry about someone wielding an AR-15 or other weapon firing multiple high-powered shots at me and my peers. Today's children are facing greater dangers than I ever did. And it's not OK.

So, just as I have done for Black Lives Matter, and standing up for Muslims in the face of a travel ban, and joining in silent peaceful protest for indigenous people fighting the Dakota Access pipeline, I went to the state Capitol not for me and my kind, but for those who are under attack: kids in public schools.

And what an experience! I arrived about ten minutes after the appointed gathering time of 11am. Already, there were probably about 300 people at the state Capitol, many of them teenagers from the local schools. I felt my heart swell with love and pride in these kids as they led chants of "We Want Change!" and "Vote Them Out!" Their voices were clear and loud and there was an urgency to their calls for action. The crowd kept growing. More people, young and old, and even a man in a WWII veteran baseball cap being pushed in a wheelchair carefully made his way through the growing throng of people. By the time the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School arrived, there were more than 3,000 people crammed into the area in front of the Old State Capitol. It was amazing. The crowd was so large that the PA system they were using wasn't quite powerful enough for the people standing out in Monroe Street to hear the speakers. But it didn't matter. The speeches weren't "the thing"; it was the presence, the witness, and the commitment to the Parkland students that we, the grown-ups, won't let them down again.

Because we have let them down before. As I said, we have accepted a society where the children of today must not only practice how to leave the building during a fire drill, but must know what to do in an active shooter situation. Really? Shouldn't we be about making sure that there are no active shooter situations? Is there a reason that we have tolerated the expansion of the gun culture?

One day after the rally in Tallahassee, and a follow-up town hall on CNN, the National Rifle Association was peddling its agenda of fear and horror to conservative voters at the CPAC meeting. NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch actually said that the mainstream media, or what she called the "legacy" media, enjoy mass shootings because it's a ratings booster to show "sobbing white mothers." NRA leader Wayne LaPierre tried to feed into the paranoia that the Democratic Party is attempting to use a "new European socialist" approach to taking away everyone's guns. Some NRA members have decided to make death threats against the kids from Parkland, FL, who are speaking out about the shooting at their school. How ugly can you get?

But the voices of the children are vibrating at a frequency much higher than what we've seen before. Corporate America, which had been offering all kinds of membership benefits to people who flashed their NRA card, have started dropping the gun enthusiasts like the hot potatoes that they are. Politicians, refusing to cut loose from their NRA overlords, are feeling the pressure from voters in ways they are not used to experiencing. They're hearing from teens, parents, grandparents. But they are also hearing from the childless people such as me. Because this issue is bigger than me, or any one individual. This is a collective fight for the restoration of sanity to our country. I will pick up that cross and carry it into the streets, and into the voting booth this fall. 

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Ash Wednesday: Mortality Too Close to the Surface

I was going to write a post yesterday noting that Ash Wednesday this year landed on Valentine's Day and my 50th Birthday. Fifty--the Jubilee Year--a year to celebrate freedom and returning to one's roots.

But I made the mistake of looking at Facebook. And there was the live stream from one of the south Florida TV stations doing coverage of the 18th shooting at a school in the United States, this time in Broward County at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. 

Two dead. Then seven. Finally, the number climbed to seventeen. The shooter, a 19 year-old former student, was captured after initially eluding police. The details about his life and what was known, and not known, about him are coming to light and will continue to surface over the next several days.

And then, the story will fade from the headlines. People won't be talking about it. News crews will leave Parkland, Florida. Nothing will change.

One of the most striking images I saw from Parkland was that of a parent holding her teenager, arm around her, rushing her away from the scene with the unmistakable black ash of a cross on the mom's forehead. 

Wow. That's right: it was Ash Wednesday. "Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return." But do we really believe that a child at 14, 15, 16 years old or even an otherwise healthy thirty-something year old adult are going to return to the dust? Does a parent really think that kissing their child good-bye and sending them off to school is akin to sending them to a war zone? 

This sobering thought was on my mind for the rest of the day and into my own trip to an Ash Wednesday service. I couldn't stop thinking about the image of that mom, the terror that must have filled the hearts of both the kids and the adults. Tears came to my eyes as I watched a family go forward for the imposition of ashes. As the rector traced the sign of the cross on the forehead of the toddler, it felt like a punch to my gut. I looked at that and thought, "Newtown." 

Ash Wednesday is the beginning of a 40-day journey into self-examination and reflection. And while I can't do the spiritual work of anyone other than myself, it seems we are dying--literally--to examine our political leaders inability to do anything to address the wide-spread availability of semi-automatic weapons and reflect on whether we want something different. 

The Broward County Sheriff, the Governor, and several politicians described Wednesday's massacre as "evil." I agree. And a mentally-disturbed person armed with a semi-automatic weapon is more dangerous than a mentally-disturbed person who is unarmed. Refusing to acknowledge and address the issue of guns is like Peter in the courtyard pretending he doesn't know Jesus in those hours before his execution. The good news about Peter's betrayal is that he felt remorse and he had the opportunity to undo his denial by affirming his love for the risen Jesus. Perhaps this could be something for our political leaders to contemplate while they are down on their knees praying for the victims of gun violence. Maybe if they listen closely they'll hear a call to stand for something other than the money they receive from the NRA.

Lent would be as good a time as any for lawmakers to change their ways and take this issue seriously.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Going Quiet, Remaining in Love

It has taken me awhile to get to a place of writing this particular piece. I have had to take a week of processing the experience of, once more, having to face-off against Nazis masquerading as simply loving their Southern heritage. I'm talking about the League of the South. When they were here in Tallahassee two years ago, they were proudly displaying their confederate battle flags. This time, they were flying their black and white Southern cross, and displaying their SS symbols on the colors of their black shirts. When I say they are Nazis, I mean it. When I say that I have to face-off against them, I mean that, too.

There were no guns present at this rally, except for the hundred or so police officers from different law enforcement agencies. State troopers, Tallahassee and Capitol Police, and the Sheriff's Department put their bodies between the two groups and made sure everyone knew that they could hold whatever demonstration they wanted, if everyone kept to their quarters and didn't attempt to attack each other. Luckily, unlike what happened at Charlottesville, everyone complied.

There is a spirit that is deep within me that says that these ideologies that promote racial superiority for whites and extermination of Jews, Muslims, and LGBT people cannot be ignored or pretend that they aren't out there. This is especially true since the election of our current president who has defended people who are bigots as "good people," has advocated divisive policies that ban Muslims from entering the country, has attacked the military service of transgender people, and is threatening to deport the children of illegal immigrants back to countries they've never known. To remain silent, or turn a blind eye to this is simply not possible for me.

At the same time, I can't meet the hatred of the fearful bigoted Nazis with anger and rage. Yet there I was, amidst people screaming, "Nazi Scum: Fuck you!" I needed to be there, but there were certain things I couldn't shout. Singing? Yes. I could even join in chants of "Shame!" and "Read a Book!" (which I actually thought was a funny answer to some of the whackadoodle things being said back at us from the other side). But as I was holding my handmade protest sign made from the brown cardboard flat of LaCroix club sodas with it's simple message of "One Love," I couldn't bring myself to yell obscenities or descend into anger.

Next to me was a very tall black man. He was wearing the traditional colors of African nations...with black, green, red, and gold. He never said a word. He just stood and stared at the smirking and taunting white men and women on the other side of the line of state troopers. I decided that he was going to serve as my guide. If I felt myself slipping into mean-spirited snarkiness, I would glance up at his face, take a breath, and then join him in staring back at the bigots. Another young man was on the other side of me with a bouquet of flowers. He wanted to offer them to the Nazis, but the police wouldn't let him pass. So instead, he shouting to them, "I love you!"

I had been live streaming the demonstration on Facebook. At one point, I looked at one of the comments left on the stream from a stranger, informing me that one of the main screamers on the Nazi front was named Ken Parker. He had been banned from the University of North Florida's campus. I shared this information with the young man with the flowers.

"Ken Parker! Hey Ken!" 

Ken looked in our direction, and seemed a bit surprised that someone knew his name.

"Ken," the man continued. "Why are you so angry?"

I watched Ken's face. For a few seconds, it changed. He probably had never contemplated that question before for himself but having it posed to him in this moment by a stranger holding flowers  made his face soften. For this brief moment, Ken's face revealed that he, indeed, is one of the many wounded people of the world. Whatever has happened to him, whatever has influenced him from the time he was in utero to now, has shaped him into a screaming, Dixie-playing angry young man. And much as Jesus had compassion for the people who were executing him, I found myself looking at Ken with a sense of sadness and remorse for him. What in the world took place in his life to make him adopt such hate-filled and nasty disposition? What fears have forced him to think other people inferior so that he can feel better about himself? I looked at all of the LOS people. Some appeared to have faces that were deformed from carrying so much anger. Others looked like they could be the white guy in line behind me at Publix. Every one of them needs love.

And the same applied to the compatriots I was standing alongside at the Capitol. They are young and they are refusing to let an older fear-filled philosophy hold them down. For some of them, that heads in the direction of anger because that's a powerful emotion that shows they won't stand for any more racist, misogynistic, homophobic, xenophobic crap. But while anger rages like a wildfire, it doesn't have enough fuel to sustain the fire needed for this long haul struggle for the soul of our country.

My spouse and I have talked about this some. The answer for me...and for the need to get spiritually grounded before we head out to the next one of these demonstrations. Because, sadly, there will be a next one. Less shouting. More quiet. More singing, less screaming. Remain in Love because it is the love that drives out hate.