Category Archives: Featured

Dear White Men: An Invitation to Resist

I am addressing this invitation to White Men, particularly Progressive White Men, particularly Cis Progressive White Men (although there may be many things contained herein that may apply or resonate with you, my other White Siblings – or others that benefit from Heteropatriarchal Anti-Blackness – and so you are welcome to listen in and receive the parts of the invitation that fit your story.)

I am writing this to you at a crucial moment, as the cries for justice in the street that you have so enthusiastically joined – in a moment when it had become the acceptable thing to do – now begin to catch the foreshadowing of the soft wind of comfort and complacency that so often causes White folxs to turn our faces back away from the storm. 

There is still – even now – the sense of so much possibility, so much transformation. The world shudders to its core and threatens to crack wide open and give birth to something new. I wonder if this is what it felt like to live in that great moment of opportunity that was strategized by Bayard Rustin, organized by Ella Baker, and galvanized by Fannie Lou Hamer.

I wonder also, if this is what it felt like to live in the aftermath of the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., when Black voices demanded Reparations and we – White church leaders – offered and funded systems of “Reconciliation” instead. Choosing even in our response to hold on to the myth that we knew best. Choosing a form of investment that would allow us to continue to collect the receipts, control the resources and determine the outcomes – rather than accepting the invitation to divest from colonization and trust Black wisdom.

We failed then. Help us write a new story. 

In order to do that, I am asking you to understand, White Man, that we need you, we just do not need you at the front of the line. Just because the teacher told us to all line up behind you, does not mean you need to cooperate if you know in the pit of your stomach that you truly have no idea where to go.

Release the burden of leadership placed upon you by White Supremacist systems and Heteropatriarchal institutions. We need you. We just don’t need you there. 

Your education, your formation, your experience, and your perspective are inadequate to lead us to where we need to go.

This is an invitation to release that pressure on yourself. You do not need to lead us. You do not know where to go. 

I know you are feeling anxiety about this. Cramming in as many books, articles, documentaries as possible to make up for lost time and find the language to use so as not to embarrass yourself, to reestablish yourself as an expert.

This is an invitation to release yourself from that expectation. We do not need you to absorb the wisdom of Womanist Theology and regurgitate it in brief quotes in your speeches. We need you to give the Womanists the mic. 

This is an invitation to understand that we don’t need you to be our experts. No amount of book reading is going to change that. That chapter where White men got to do all the writing and speaking and leading and deciding is over. Grieve it if you must, but move on, do not let it hold you back from the new and useful life that awaits. 

There is within this moment and movement certain Shibboleths by which those who have been in the trenches recognize one another, and recognize those whose lead we’ve learned to follow. You will not find those signifiers in a book. You will not find them on social media. There is no code that you can study to crack. You will only find your way by living. By losing. By sacrifice. 

Don’t misunderstand me: You must study. It is true that you must do the book reading. But what the book reading is going to do is equip you to be a help rather than a hindrance in getting us where we need to go. It is not going to equip you to lead us in getting there. Lay that burden down. 

This reading you are doing must be paired with accountability, because without it we become dangerous. Like the Karens and the Amy Coopers – or should I say the Kens and the Brock Turners – using our knowledge of the corrupt system to our own benefit.

Release that need for stability and respect. Let yourself be unsettled. Set off balance. Disturbed. Stay there. Do not fight the discomfort. Remember that the whole world has been set up to give you an exit that the rest of us have never had. Resist the urge to use the eject button. 

Resist the urge to reestablish yourself. Not being in the lead is a completely legitimate way of living. I know that our White Supremacist heteropatriarchial culture has taught you that there is only one respectable role for you, and there is anxiety in not fulfilling it. But what you have been taught is a lie. 

Please, siblings, be set free from this particular burden and wound we carry into this conversation about White Supremacy. The belief that has been taught to you in subtle and direct ways that your place is at the head – at the head of the march, at the head of the church, at the head of the family. Lay that burden down. There are many other legitimate ways for you to live. We need you, we just don’t need you there. 

Receive this as an invitation to another kind of life.

You came to me once, White Progressive Man, and told me your excitement about planting your own church. You told me about how your plan was to find a Black woman to be your associate pastor at your new church start, so that you could build a diverse congregation. I suggested that instead you should find a Black woman to be your senior pastor, and you could be the associate at her church, and serve under her leadership. Like the rich young ruler, you turned away, albeit with a bit more resentment than sadness. 

I was trying to pass on the favor of what has been done for me, trying to intervene on your behalf. 

You and I have been making very intentional decisions for the past couple decades, and it has taken us to very different places. None of this has been by happenstance. I’ve had people kind enough to intervene on my behalf, to refuse to let me give in to comfort; Black women who have gripped onto my calling when I couldn’t even see it myself. They intervened on my behalf time and again, offering me direct opportunities to sabotage my privilege, and I am now trying to pass on that favor. If you’re open to it, I’d like to intervene on your behalf. I’d like to intervene on behalf of the calling you have, and the faith to which you hold. 

The sooner you realize, grieve, and release the reality that your education, experience and perspective are inadequate to lead us where we need to go, the sooner you can start the very important work of following the leadership of those directly impacted by the system of injustice that we claim to want to overturn.

Society has too often placed you at the top of a pyramid built upon the labor and tears of the marginalized. The quickest way to fix that is for you to voluntarily come down. 

May I suggest following the lead of Black women? I have found it to be a very fulfilling way of living. 

Instead of pivoting to figure out which books to read to reposition yourself as an expert and regain some sense of stability and control in the midst of a world that is spinning out from under you, I’d like to invite you to lay down that burden and accept that you will never be the expert again. That the world never needed to be under you, and that if it is spinning out of that postion, let it spin. 

Be at peace. 

Release. 

Start the journey. 

We need you. We just don’t need you there. 

Guilt paralyzes, but conviction leads to action. Reject your guilt, embrace your conviction. 

We are in a crucial moment, when we can already start to feel the foreshadowing – if not the reality – of the tone-policing, the adjustments, the slight turning towards voices that make White people more comfortable. You will soon be offered ways of assuaging these intense emotions you’ve been feeling in ways that cost you little. You are probably already being offered exit ramps off the streets where you’ve been marching. You are probably already being offered theories and language and responses that will let you feel like you are still a part of building justice, without feeling so unsettled, off-balance – open to criticism and accusation and loss.

Resist your urge to re-establish Stability. Respectability. Control. Balance.

If the world is about to turn, lean into it. Don’t fight it.

When you’ve been through this cycle enough times, you know how to recognize the warning signs, how to feel the shifts in the wind. This is the moment to lean into the wind, not to be swept away by it. This it the time to resist the pull of the tide that is tempting you back towards the complacency and comfort that we have been taught we deserve. 

Do not trade in the cries of the people for the docile demands that promise to decrease your discomfort while restoring your sense of equilibrium. 

Stay off balance. 

White siblings – because deadly racism is not a pain we feel, but an injustice we observe – we struggle to have the heart and energy to keep going. Do not lose courage as we begin to think about the implications for our own lives. If we truly understand that the police were originally created to protect us – and only us – could there not be a bias that would enter into our perception of the demands being made? Do we really want to live in a world without that disproportionate protection that we have learned to enjoy? Do we really want to give up the ways that we benefit from the violence inflicted upon others?

As White people we are tempted to give up, to soften our tone, to turn down the volume and the energy. Sometimes we are scared, sometimes we are confused, and sometimes we are just tired. 

I have been hearing from so many of you, telling me how tired you are, asking me how I’ve done this for years. Beloved, now is no time to grow weary. And the brief decades I have been living as a race traitor in no way come close to the reality of living one’s life as the target of racism and White Supremacy. We cannot grow weary after we have taken only a few steps. We have only barely stopped crawling and begun to learn to walk. We are still wiping the goop of The Matrix out of our eyes. Don’t stop now. 

Whiteness always rises up and colonizes and occupies and reframes and controls the narrative and tries to rewrite the story. We make of radical Brown Jesus a White Stained Glass window. We make of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a pithy quote, a street name, a warning to Black radicals to stay in their place. It’s happening. It’s beginning again as it always does. Do not accept this. Dig in your heels. Refuse to go back to the comfortable rooms from which you emerged. Rage, resist. This is where we need you. 

Not to lead us. Not to get us back on track. Rather, to sabotage the tracks so that we cannot go back to “normal.” Refuse the cup of power and comfort.  For once in your life, become a true enemy to your own privilege. 

I want you to be set free from the myth that you need to lead. The story that White Supremacy and Patriarchy have told you. There is another life, another world, another reality, another possibility. 

The very way that you exist in the world is a result of the system that you claim to want to destroy. If enough of you chose to divest yourself of power, you could deal a real blow to the hierarchy upon which you preside. 

I heard you speaking recently of all the privilege that you can bring to the table. Instead of grief, there was a hint of excitement in your voice. As if you’d cracked the code. As if you’d found the solution. The path out of guilt and back into leadership. I know it feels good to feel useful. Yet, as I watch you don your robes and stole – enjoying being called Father here in the Southwest where the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church endows you with increased deference from the general population – I wonder as you enjoy that attention if it occurs to you that you are relishing the fruits of White Supremacist Patriarchy even as you strive to protest it.

There’s a shortcut out of all of this. Instead of us working to dismantle the systems that give you the privilege, that make you the Senior Pastor instead of the Associate, you could sabotage the system. You could refuse to cooperate. You could deny the opportunities and positions offered to you. 

I’ve been called a Trojan horse more than once in my life, because the package doesn’t match the contents. Be a Trojan Horse. Help us bust through the walls that were built to protect you. Tear the system down. 

Help us change this for our children. 

Don’t support the movement in visible, performative ways, while simultaneously resisting its momentum in subtle, invisible ways. 

Lay your burden down. 

Ask yourself, can you see yourself as Mary, sitting at the feet of Black Woman Jesus. Can you choose the “better part.” Or is your imagination incapable of seeing yourself anywhere in that story except presiding and leading and speaking and teaching and writing from the seat of White Jesus. 

In the great words of Lauryn Hill in her song Freedom Time: 

“Everybody knows that they guilty
Everybody knows that they’ve lied
Everybody knows that they guilty

Resting on their conscience eating their inside

It’s freedom, said it’s freedom time now
It’s freedom, said it’s freedom time now
Time to get free, or give yourselves up now
It’s freedom, said it’s freedom time.”





Things you can do (i.e. some of the rules I’ve lived by): 

Educate yourself in order to be useful, not to be an expert.

Follow- @CandyCornball, @BreeNewsome, @WilGafney, @AliciaTCrosby, @RevEmmaJ, @DrChanequa, @DesireeAdaway, @RevDrIrie (Womanists etc. who want follows post in comments and I’ll edit to add them here)

Read- Fish Sandwich Heaven, WilGafney.com, (Comment and I’ll add you)

Listen- Concord Baptist Church of Christ (Brooklyn), Intersectionality Matters with Kimberlé Crenshaw (Comment and I’ll add you)

Support- WomanPreach! Inc., The Gathering, (Womanists, drop your Venmo, PayPal etc to me, and I’ll add it)

Engage- Whiteness at Work Summer Series

Don’t even apply for jobs that you do not think should be held by a White man.

Apply this to all kinds of opportunities – scholarships, trips, fellowships, etc. 

When you turn down opportunities, suggest they not be given to another white man. Use your voice in that moment to advocate for change within the very system. Let them know you will be following up to see if they did it.

Refuse to be a part of White-only groups with benefits.

Seriously. I’m talking panels, revivals, conferences, leadership societies, etc.

Except if they are a privilege accountability intentional working group.

Sabotage the system.

I’m talking not cooperating with an itinerancy that gives you benefits in advancement.

I’m talking stepping down to make room for others, like Reddit founder Alexis Ohanion did.

I’m talking speaking up Every. Single. Time. that something is said that demeans, diminishes, and mocks those whose exclusion is the foundation for the opportunities your demographic hoards. 

I’m talking refusing to let White male colleagues get away with profiting off of the labor of Black men and women

I’m talking speaking up so that they don’t have to. You getting fired INSTEAD of them. 

I’m talking not simply figuring out how you can use your power for good, but seeking to actually destroy your disproportionate power with the ferocity of a dog that has spotted a piece of discarded burger on the street. 

I’m talking not using “I have to provide a good life for my children” as an excuse to snatch up the good opportunities that come your way. Ask yourself, what exactly do you mean by “a good life”? Changing this unjust world is how you provide a better life for those children. Refusing to bequeath to them the same unjust privilege you have enjoyed is how you provide a better life for those children.

I’m talking recognizing that the system will also use those very children that you, Man, “must provide for” as a justification for offering you the opportunities it denies to women and Queer folxs and Black folxs and Undocumented folxs and so many others. Do not let the system trick you in this way anymore. Do not let them leverage your children against you to make you compromise your morals, convictions, ideals, and calling. 

Let go of the need to understand and approve of the plan and the demands.

Learn instead to trust that those who have experienced injustice know exactly what they are doing. You do not need to give it your stamp of approval, because – remember – we need you, we just don’t need you there. We used to sing “Trust and Obey” in the pews of our churches. Try that instead. Trust and Obey. The rest of us have been doing it for millennia – take a turn on the dance floor.  

Put your body in the way of harm and injustice.

You’ve been watching me do this for years with such intensity that it has become muscle memory, the traumas survived feeling like they’ve woven themselves into the structure of my cells. If this small body can do it, you can too.

Remember that the point of any of this is not ever to re-establish yourself as the center, so be careful that you put your body on the line in order to protect the vulnerable and not in order to be the picture on the front page of the news. This takes so very much effort, strategy, accountability and mindfulness, because we still live in a system that if left on auto-pilot will recenter you again and again. You have to actively fight that tendency.

Put your body in the way. Put your career in the way. Put your future in the way. Put your wallet in the way. Put your access in the way. Put your everything in the way.

I encourage you – within systems of accountability – to come up with new and creative ways to take this even further.

The reality is, I’m a Queer woman in a perpetually vulnerable position, so my imagination may be somewhat limited because I have lived with only a partial measure of the full measure of power and privilege you posses. I’m sure that if you accept this invitation to new life, you will be able to come up with even more ways to divest, resist, and sabotage this system that has been built by the efforts of your foreparents, and upheld by your own participation in it. 

The system can only work if we participate. That is how it has survived this long. It is long past time to end it. 

 

The UMC in 2020: God Overrules Our Rules

(On January 1, 2020 legislation went into effect that had passed by 53% at the United Methodist Church’s General Conference in February of 2019. This legislation – if obeyed – seeks to impose harsh penalties on those who stand with the LGBTQIA+ community, and drive LGBTIQIA+ clergy, like myself, out of the church.) 

“It is plain to me that the whole work of God called Methodism is an extraordinary dispensation of His providence. Therefore, I do not wonder if several things occur therein which do not fall under ordinary rules of discipline.” – John Wesley, 1771, Letter to Mary Bosanquet Fletcher

Every once in a while, when we have made gods of ourselves and set up our own words as idols, God has to step in and remind us who and whose we are, and who it is that calls us. God seems to prefer to do so by loving people we did not love, by calling people that we would not call, and by using people that we threw away. 

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” they asked of the colonized form of a middle eastern carpenter. The answer that made them so uncomfortable was ‘yes.’ Not only could good come from Nazareth, but God chose that place exactly because they did not expect – did not want – their Savior to be “one of those people.” Jesus entered the world in such an unexpected way that it frightened the powerful, humbled the proud, and disrupted systems of oppression. 

God likes to use the people we would not choose ourselves to remind us we are not God. 

John Wesley, failed missionary, was just such a person. 

Plagued by accusations of disruption and disobedience to the Order of the Church, John Wesley wrote to his brother Charles in 1739 to explain his resistance. “I have both an ordinary call and an extraordinary,” he wrote. The ordinary call, John explained, was his ordination, that moment the Bishop lays hands on our head and says, “Take thou authority.” The extraordinary call is what God commands us to do with our ordination. 

In John’s view, the ones who ordain are not the ones who call, and the ones who ordain are not the ones who have the final word on what we do with that ordination. 

The evidence of the extraordinary call is not an adherence to the Discipline, nor the approval of the Bishop, John explains, rather “God bears witness in an extraordinary manner, that my thus exercising my ordinary call is well pleasing in His sight.” 

It is God who calls. It is the Institution that ordains. Yet, it is God – once again – who determines how we are to live out that ordination. While the institution may affirm, honor and even credential our call, the call belongs to God. We must always be ready for that moment when God reminds us of that.

This moment in time, this tiny measure of history, is that moment for United Methodist clergy and laity all around the world. That moment when God is using LGBTQIA+ folxs, and the call God has placed on our lives, to remind us that God is God and we are not.  

We are faced with a choice, all who stand as leaders in the United Methodist Church in this moment. Will we hide in the ordinary, or accept the extraordinary call offered to us in this historic moment in the church? 

John Wesley, himself, never felt like he had much of a choice in the matter. From the beginning of the third rise of Methodism, in the year after John felt his heart “strangely warmed”, he was under constant critique from his colleagues. He was accused of disrupting the order of the church by allowing lay preachers, and later women preachers. He was accused of interfering with the ministry of other pastors, by preaching in the fields of their parishes when he was denied the pulpit.

John was accused of ‘dismissing church order,’ of disruption, of risking schism. Specifically, his Clergy Order accused John of breaking Article 23 of the Anglican Order, their Book of Discipline, which forbade preachers from being sent out without the institution’s authority. 

Frustrated, John wrote to his older brother Samuel, “What is the end of all ecclesiastical order? Is it not to bring souls from the power of Satan to God, and to build them up in his fear and love? Order, then, is so far valuable as it answers these ends.”

With his brother Charles, John could be more transparent than with Samuel, writing, 

“‘But,’ they say, ‘it is just that you submit yourself to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake.’ True; to every ordinance of man which is not contrary to the command of God. But if any man, bishop or other, ordain that I shall not do what God commands me to do, to submit to that ordinance would be to obey man rather than God.”

John Wesley, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Harriet Tubman and Jarena Lee, found that the way that we answer our call is more than pragmatic – it is also about the integrity in our relationship with God. If we are determined to obey God, we will from time to time be called to disobey man in both his governmental and religious authority. This is inevitable in a world where both our governmental and religious institutions are often tempted to place themselves on the throne.

We are living in just such a moment. A moment when the world seems upside down, because they want us to believe that we are disobedient and rebellious simply because we seek to be obedient to the call from God.

Mary Bosanquet Fletcher knew well this game that Institutions and powerful men play, when she wrote to Wesley in 1771 to plead with her friend to finally have a little backbone when it came to women’s leadership, to stand with them in their right to preach. She used his own words to argue that some of us have an extraordinary call, and we have no choice but to answer it. She held him accountable to give the same grace and flexibility with the Discipline to others that he had allowed for himself. 

Her words – and more importantly, her witness and her fruit – worked. He assented to the fact that she held a truthful claim to the same extraordinary call that he had claimed for himself. Women began to receive license to preach thereafter. 

This is what has always been powerful about our movement – that a group of people so intense and disciplined and focused on Scripture and Tradition, could also be so open to our understanding being transformed by Reason and Experience. 

It was our Order that organized us, but it was Grace that transformed us. It is our Discipline that informs us, but it is the Spirit that guides us. Let us not prioritize the former over the latter.

Woe be to those who make an idol of their own words. Woe be to those who abandon the fruit of the spirit that is self-control, in order to seek control of others. 

Our desire for understanding and control – our desire to be like God in our mind – has plagued us since the beginning, clashing with God’s desire for us to be like God in our hearts. Our lust for order and power clashing with God’s compassion and grace.

Focusing on what LOOKS like a speck in another’s eye, we fail to remove the log out of our own eye in order to see them clearly in all their glory.

Like James and John, men struggle for the seat at the top, bickering like apostles over the seats at the left and right hand of the throne. Even John Wesley struggled with Whitefield, struggled with Asbury, struggled with Garrison, struggled with his brothers Charles and Samuel, seeking to protect the power and control and order that had been accumulated. 

We have always been a stumbling, bumbling crew, that require signs and wonders to believe. That demand that those God has chosen will let us kill them before we will trust their call.

I have stood at the end of a gun, at the edge of a knife, before. The gun-cocking on computer screens did not scare me out of my calling. Warnings to “Go back to the church of Satan” did not make me budge. I know what it is to have my ordinary call interrupted by an extraordinary one. I know what it is to face fear and refuse to give it the final word. 

I have stood on sacred grounds with these Queer feet; held the Holy Book and broken the Bread with these Queer hands; proclaimed the timeless Gospel with this Queer mouth. And God has rendered my witness irrefutable. 

In the words of John Wesley, “God bears witness in an extraordinary manner, that my thus exercising my ordinary call is well pleasing in His sight.”

All throughout the world there are members of our LGBTQIA+ community – clergy and laity – living out these extraordinary calls, with great faithfulness and deep sacrifice and profound courage.

The United Methodist Church is made up of many more people who will have to make the choice between protecting their own ordinary call – their ordination and leadership positions – and listening for and yielding to an extraordinary call that is summoning us out of our stable, secure place. Do you hear it?

All of our careers, they have been telling us that it was on our shoulders to save this Institution. What would happen if we choose to save the church instead?

Will you be a true Methodist? Will you rebel, resist, disobey unjust laws? Reject stability and professional advancement when it gets in the way of God’s call? Read, write, and create vociferously? Preach the Gospel with courage and compassion? Care about the health of people’s bodies like you do their minds and souls? Reach out constantly and stay connected? Empower people no one has empowered before?

Will we look threats and cruelty square in the eye and resist harm together? Will we declare that all belong?

Will you refuse to stand under the shelter of a mutilated tree if these LGBTQIA+ limbs are severed?

We build towers. We build walls. We make rules. But God tumbles towers, God tears down walls, and God most certainly overrules our rules.

“But what if a bishop forbids this? … God being my helper, I will obey Him still: and if I suffer for it, His will be done.” -John Wesley, 1739, Letter to Charles Wesley

 

Looking for resources to aid in resisting? Check out the resources for individuals and communities at #ResistHarm. Look into the efforts at All Belong. Find liturgy and add your support to the work of enfleshed. Find resources specific to your context at RMNetwork. Heard about something? Suggest other ideas in the comments section below!!

 

Power Exists to be Given Away – Reminders from Movement Living

Power exists to be given away. 

The reminder of this came as I listened to the Rev. Dr. Emma Jordan-Simpson preach at the historic Concord Baptist Church of Christ in Brooklyn via podcast last week, in a sermon entitled “Another World.” I hit pause when I heard her words, “It’s that exousia power that we share with one another, that gets bigger and stronger and bolder the more we pass it on to one another. You would be dangerous if you ever understood how powerful you are.”

To know this in your bones is to have experienced that dangerous power that erupts when courage, compassion and community collide into a force that threatens Empire. To know this is to have experienced the transformation that is only possible through a community that relies on one another. To know this is to have seen how power can multiply when we hold it loosely and share it liberally.

Power was meant to be given, to be received, to be shared – not to be taken. 

It was a human hand, reaching for a piece of fruit, that was the first power grab. Seeking to take what was neither given nor offered. Interrupting the flow of power that knows its source only in God. Knowledge is power they say, scientia potestas est, and in reaching for it, the first humans sought to take what was not offered, to undermine and supplant the role of God as giver and install themselves – ourselves – in the role of taker.

To serve an omnipotent God is to serve a God who possesses all power, from whom all power is derived, to whom all power will return. To serve an omnipotent God is to hold loosely the power that is given to us, and discern wisely how we might best give and share it with others. In so doing, we move as we were intended to do within that limitless ocean flow, sending out our waves and anticipating their return. The ebb and flow of shared power connecting us to God and to one another. 

When we fail to grasp this, we grab and tumble and struggle for power, driven by fear, striving not to slip beneath the waves.

Power, whenever grasped too tightly, held too closely, guarded, hoarded, defended exists within that tradition. We fear power, and we fear losing it. We know something is amiss, just as the first people did when they hid in fear and shame. 

Knowledge, being one of the many forms that power takes – when hoarded and guarded from the community – continues to exist as that fruit ripped from the tree, growing rotten in our hand. A divider rather than a unifier. A rift between us and God, between us and Creation, between us and one another.

Even children, in their innocence, know the damage that this does. Even they feel this truth as they sing their schoolyard rhymes, “Secrets, secrets are no fun. Secrets, secrets hurt someone.”

Power exists to be given away. In its giving and its receiving, love is made manifest, and we are bound to God and one another. 

Sitting with twelve students around a fire on an overlook at the top of Mount Lemmon this weekend, the sounds of various conversations mingled together until one student asked me, “What do Methodists teach about hell?” All conversations stopped, as silence fell immediately. I answered, shared my thoughts, then said, “What do you think?” What followed was more than two hours of what many would later describe as the most significant spiritual conversation of their life. All because they were invited into the conversation as people with knowledge, voice and power. All because power was shared and not asserted. My power and spiritual authority in the group was not diminished, even when opinions differed; it was strengthened. We all were strengthened. Power grew because it was shared.  

It is easier for me to talk about campfires and baking cakes than it is to talk about my life’s work in advocacy. Most people would know my work, but do not know my name; that has been a result of great intentionality and a particular orientation towards power that neither seeks it nor flees from it, but rather disperses it. 

Power is not something we can flee from or avoid or reject, because we do still live in a patriarchal world that inflicts violence and oppression. We do still have a responsibility to work together to diminish that harm. 

For instance, I have spent the past 20 years watching young men get paid more, promoted more, heard more. I have watched them nonchalantly step in and fill the spaces that I have tried to step back to leave for others, blissfully unaware that the default in this life is injustice and inequality and it is only through intentionality that we create a different world. To be silent about this, would be to adopt the position of accomplice in condoning the taking of power that our culture encourages. That is not the sharing of power to which I refer. 

How then do we live in this world that seeks to crush the vulnerable? We live by different rules. We live as followers of the one who emptied godself of power, not the one who grabbed for the fruit, the knowledge, the power. We live by building another kind of power, serving another Kin-dom. We cannot set ourselves free by transitioning the power from their hands to ours. We must create a new kind of power, a new way of living. 

When Dr. Janet Wolf brought me to the Children’s Defense Fund’s Samuel Dewitt Proctor Institute this past summer, I came weary and desperate to be in beloved community, to saturate myself in this different way of living with like-minded people. Yet, I did not know that what I really needed to see was exactly what I found in Janet – the image of what this life looks like in the long term. There have been so many risks I’ve taken in this journey towards justice, so many moments that many feared I would not survive, that it has been hard for me to envision the longterm. Yet, she and others are living it and sharing it and inviting others to experience it – this beautiful power, flowing rather than contained.

This orientation towards power is a lifestyle. It is not the social viewpoints or convictions that must change in order to truly set us free. It is the way we relate to power altogether.

Whereas the first humans grasped for power that was not offered to them, our true guide, Jesus Christ, emptied himself of power – kenosis. He lived a very human life and was tempted in very human ways. He was tempted three times: to assert his power, to demonstrate his power, and lastly to seek more power. In all three instances, while he was tempted in the wilderness, his response was to resist the temptation, to reject an orientation toward power that would have created a distance within the divine and between the divine and us. He was focused and sacrificial in creating a different model for us. 

This is why it is so important that we follow that example that has been set for us. It would be easy to say, “Why should we try this again? People have been trying to live this way for millennia, and injustice still exists.” Yes, true. And now it is our turn, our chapter, our moment to carry this particular orientation towards power forward, trusting the Messenger, the Creator, the Guide.

It is easy to point to the dangers inherent in trying to live as creators and not controllers. It is easy to see the way that fear tugs on our attention, turning our head aside from the beauty that God holds for us. 

It is therefore incumbent to say clearly what a generous orientation towards power is and is not. 

It is not to surrender to violent forces. It is to confront them.

It is not to surrender the vulnerable. It is to center them.

It is not to trade power in alliances and exchanges; giving the appearance of sharing power, while truly hoarding it for ourselves. Trading it rather than releasing it. Making a market of what God has given to us.

Rather, it is to acknowledge the Source of power, its ebb and flow, and that it is only passing through us as it flows forward to connect us to someone new. 

It is to ask, What do you think? – sharing the task of theological creation, both intellectually and practically. 

In 2015, when Sandra Bland died in a jail in Texas, I was a speaker and writer living forty minutes away. Four hours before she was arrested on July 10, 2015, I had just submitted the first chapter of my first book, a writing journey that had begun years before in another country. Sandra was a Methodist woman with a powerful voice, who also had many powerful things to say – and in the hours and days following her death I listened as she said them in the vlogs she made in the six months before her death. Beyond all the work that we did to make sure that her death was not erased, there was a more personal commitment that I made to her than simply to sit vigil in rural Texas for the months that followed her death and caused me to face the possibility of my own. The commitment was that wherever my voice was heard, her voice would be heard. That meant that every microphone that heard my voice, heard her voice – as I held the speaker of my phone up to the microphone. Whether a pulpit, a conference, or a protest – if I had the mic, then she had the mic. She spoke in the midst of sermons, at a planning meeting for the World Methodist Conference, at trainings for the Forum for Theological Exploration, and City Council Meetings. It wasn’t always easy, it wasn’t always welcome – but it was always just, and it was always necessary. In the sharing of power, in the way it flowed, something shifted, something changed. Praise be to the Source of all Power that shares with us that we might share with others. 

Power exists to be given away. 

If this seems impractical, and out of touch with the needs of institutional survival, then we must wonder what kind of power do we seek? What kind of community are we building? What kind of god do we serve? 


“I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.” 

-Toni Morrison 

Governmental & Catholic Powers Partner to Force Will on Tucson Community

“So your plan is to do everything through one site, utilizing Catholic Community Services and your location at the jail, and not include any of the other faith communities that have been caring for immigrants because it is easiest for you?” County Administrator Chuck Huckleberry was asked at the Humanitarian Crisis Roundtable that met on Monday, July 15th.

170329_Chuck Huckelberry_001
Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckleberry
Screen Shot 2019-07-18 at 9.55.28 AM
Bishop Weisenburger of the Tucson Diocese

 

“Yes,” was his simple answer, confirming that this was not merely a decision to move guests from the Monastery to the Juvenile Jail, but further a decision to seek to end other faith communities hosting guests. It was a decision that had been made by Bishop Weisenburger, and the undisclosed members of his committee, without consulting the greater network of hosting sites. In a letter to the County on July 3rd, Bishop Weisenberger had conveyed the idea that the faith community in Tucson was not able to handle the work of continuing to host guests and needed the government to step in and help.

Engaging in a collegial and collaborative manner by engaging the input of colleagues doing the same work, rather than given the appearance of speaking for the faith community as a whole, would have been a simple thing to do because the mechanisms had already been being put in place.

Several months before, the Southern Arizona Border Care Network met for the first time on December 6, 2018, to dream of creating a community of transparency, support, and collaboration. They dreamt of shifting the culture of humanitarian aid to center immigrant voices, knowing how often decisions were made in a way that did not include directly impacted people. Little did they know how soon those dreams of collaboration would be shattered as a display of institutional power would assert itself over the community and decree that the families they aided would be moved to cells within the Juvenile Jail complex.

As people filed into the small chapel off of the sanctuary of St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church that first day, the number kept growing and growing and more and more chairs were pulled into the circle. In a few seats by the door were a cluster of Unitarian Universalists; over on the far side of the room were clergy who were immigrants from Mexico themselves, serving and offering hospitality in Nogales, Tucson, etc. In the room, there were people who knew each other well, and people who were just meeting for the first time.

P1070205
Rev. Dr. Dottie Escobedo-Frank assists with intake at The Inn in 2017.

 

Intentionality had been taken in the planning of the meeting, with an awareness of the faith community’s propensity to call upon white clergy to lead and speak. Therefore, a Latina woman who had grown up on the border in Nogales, who had her roots dug deep into the sand of the Sonoran desert, was chosen to lead the conversation. The Rev. Dr. Dottie Escobedo-Frank was deeply familiar with the work of providing hospitality to asylum seeking families after having served as the Chair of the Board of The Inn Project since 2016, during which time over 10,000 courageous people had walked through its doors. 

The Rev. Dr. Dottie Escobedo-Frank led the meeting in a gentle, but intentional way, that drew in the voices of immigrant clergy and centered their stories. It felt like something different was happening. It felt like there was a glow in the air. It felt like a family curse had been broken, as the voices of pastors who were immigrants themselves found themselves heard in a new way. People leaned into the warmth of the moment and stood for long minutes chatting afterwards at the door. Women of color – accustomed to being ignored in these kinds of meetings – talked about the confidence and inspiration that Dottie’s leadership and centering of them had awakened. The truth that they mattered and that their voices mattered was unapologetically proclaimed in that space.

In the meetings that followed, stories would be shared, a narrative and invitation of hospitality would be written, and an atmosphere of trust and transparency would be built and assumed.

In March 2019, the group would approve a statement to be released to the community that would detail the militarization we experience in Southern Arizona, the ministry of hospitality on the border, and the need for support from others. Groups signing on as members of the Southern Arizona Border Care Network would include: The Inn, Casa Alitas, Casa Mariposa, El Mesías United Methodist Church, First Christian Church, Justice for Our Neighbors, Keep Tucson Together, Mariposas Sin Fronteras, Menlo Park United Methodist Church, Mountain Vista Unitarian Universalist, Southern Arizona Sanctuary Coalition, Southside Presbyterian Church, St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church, St. Francis in the Foothills United Methodist Church, Unitarian Universalist Justice Arizona Network, Borderlands Unitarian Universalist. 

One line from the narrative that they signed was, “An increased number of asylees are being detained in mostly for-profit prison-like facilities. They are not given legal options. They are herded through our legal system without due process. Children are put in detention with parents, as well as unaccompanied minors being detained in prison-like tent facilities. We are treating the immigrant among us as criminals, instead of asylees or refugees or neighbors.” 

The group would meet again on May 2nd to discuss how to support one another and reach out further into the community.

A couple days later on May 4th, however, the first cracks in the veneer of transparency would appear when a press conference would be held by the City to begin to frame the narrative in Tucson in a very different way. The new narrative centered the work of only one of the members of the Southern Arizona Border Care Network in a way that erased the work of the others and the community of trust that they were trying to build. 

This member, Casa Alitas, had expanded their capacity a few months earlier and were seeking community support in maintaining the numbers they were serving.

In the months that followed, the narrative would be continually strengthened that all other sites providing hospitality in Tucson were small, temporary satellite sites of Casa Alitas, solidifying power, in the perception of the government and the public, in the hands of one group. This appearance of dominance would give the Catholic Community Services that oversaw the work of Casa Alitas, and specifically the Catholic Bishop, sole negotiating power with the County over the fate of asylum seeking families. 

Conversations would happen behind the scenes, amongst the stakeholders that Bishop Weisenberger chose to include, about what would happen to the families. By speaking of a “committee of faith leaders” making the decision, it would give the impression that others doing the work were included in making the decision. Yet, despite the fact that Casa Alitas had signed on as a member of the Southern Arizona Border Care Network, key members of that community would not be invited to the table, nor would it be made clear and transparent who was. An agreement would be made privately between the County Government and the Catholic Bishop to relocate asylum seeking families to cells in the Pima County Juvenile Justice Complex, then shared afterwards with the community. 

The news was shared with the public in a news article on July 8th, with the acknowledgement that it would create dissension and divisions in the community, “Kozachik concedes that putting the families inside the Pima County Juvenile Justice Complex doesn’t look good at first glance, but said it should not feel like asylum seekers are being kept in custody.”

Immediately there was an outcry from many Women of Color in Tucson, most notably prison policy expert, Tiera Rainey, who was well schooled on the effect that incarceration atmospheres have on individuals. In contrast to how Women of Color were treated at that first Southern Arizona Border Care Network meeting six months before, their voices were dismissed by those forcing the plan forward.

According to the Tucson Sentinal, Councilman Kozachik said, ”Look they’re well-intentioned, but we’re not incarcerating Guatemalans,” he said. “I think people when they see the changes, they’ll be on board,” he said, adding that the county was picking up costs for the facility, including maintenance, food prep and laundry costs.”

And Catholic Community Services Director, Teresa Cavendish said, “Right now we’re having our hands tied, while work that we’ve been doing for five years is being second-guessed by people who don’t do this work.”

The community was told to just trust the government and the Catholic Church, without being given a reason to do so. We were thrust backwards into the atmosphere where the white men with power make the decisions, and the rest of the community “trusts” that they know best. The very definition of paternalism. We remembered those who have not experienced incarceration themselves may have a hard time recognizing it when they see it. 

In reality, the community had actually been given a very clear reason not to “just trust” as the Government and Catholic Community Services had partnered with the media in creating a narrative that was inaccurate and that intentionally and strategically erased the work of their partners in order to position the Catholic Bishop as the sole person to make the decision about what to do with asylum seekers, and to position Catholic Community Services as the sole controller of spaces for asylum seekers in Tucson.

The work of the Latina woman who had been laboring to organize the Southern Arizona Border Care Network was erased and strategically undermined.

The voices of Women of Color like Tiera Rainey were demeaned and dismissed, by decision makers, by the media, and by community members that insisted we should “just trust.”

The meeting to approve the plan was moved up from August to July 22 in order to accomplish the power play before the movement resisting it could gain traction, and before community members and faith leaders had a chance to talk.

According to the Tucson Sentinal, Councilman Kozachik threatened, “If this falls off the rails,” because of objections, “(opponents) own the street release option, if we don’t get this facility.”

Intimidation flourished. Institutional authority took precedence over expertise and experience. The community floundered under the sense of manipulative urgency that was being thrust upon them. The desire for power, control and funds were prioritized over the unity and well-being of the Tucson community.

Federal funds could be used to reinvigorate County facilities, with the Catholic Church sharing credit with the government. It was a win for decision makers, but a loss for those they had excluded from the table.

What will it cost our soul to insist that a jail cell is a dorm room? What did it cost those that called a tent city a summer camp just a year ago? 

Voice your concern. Sign the petition now: http://chng.it/7ChGrbsy

Stand With Us Now: An Appeal to My Generation

“Well, we’ll have retired by that time anyway,” they laughed. I remember the first time older clergymen joked with me about the predicted inevitable decline of our denomination, and the reality that it would not be their problem. It would be ours – my generation’s problem – and in that moment, in their joke, it would be mine. We were being handed a tattered kite, that had been held by many other hands, and told to make it fly. We gave it everything we had. 

They were using humor to cope with the reality that we have been facing since we began our paths as pastors. Yet, there is a truth behind every joke, and that truth is that they did know they would retire before the hardest days came, and they were relieved. I do not think they could have known the weight they were placing on our shoulders. They could not understand, because they did not have our experience of starting out in serving the church during a time when it was no longer the center of culture, amidst a generation that was often more likely to flee away from the church than towards it. 

A few months before I graduated from seminary and joined the ranks of my generation of clergy, “The Crisis of Younger Clergy,” by Dr. Lovett Weems and Dr. Ann Michel, was published. The book raised the alarm about the dramatic decrease of young clergy numbers, and increase of congregants’ ages. In a later interview, Weems called for a realignment of priorities, saying, “I am afraid that if we do not, when the death tsunami, as I call it, washes over the United Methodist Church between 2018 and 2050, it could very well wipe out the United Methodist witness in vast portions of some states.”

This is the pressure cooker into which the earliest members of my generation entered ministry. This is the pressure cooker that the generation above us – we love you Gen Xers – as well as young laity in leadership, were already navigating. 

We have carried this heavy burden for the past decade. We have committed time to cohort programs like the Lewis Fellows. We have worked at Lilly Funded programs like Duke Youth Academy and Youth Theological Initiative, to try to invest in younger members of our generation. We have done extra trainings, and given our own time and money to earning DMins. We have worked hand in hand with young laity to plant churches and to make new places for new people. We have built communities and networks to support innovation, like UMC Lead. We have watched as the General Conference poured millions of dollars into helping more of us answer our calls.

This pressure, and the attention that came with it, sometimes made our beloved Gen Xers feel passed over, and our cherished Baby Boomers forgotten. 

The pressure weighed on us. It cost some of us our health. It cost some of us our marriages. It cost all of us dearly. The weight of extra labor fell even heavier on young women and people of color, and heaviest on young leaders who were both.

Each year, on the day the young clergy statistics came out, I would scan them, always finding my Conference near the bottom, rotating places with a couple other Conferences for lowest percentage of clergy under 35. I clung to “The Crisis of Younger Clergy” because it was one of the few things that provided direction and understanding. I began charting trends, and mapping out the locations of young clergy in the Conference so that I could show people where there were colleagues they could reach out to for support. I wanted people to have hope and feel less alone and continue to be able to stand together.

When I was commissioned, I sat down with my new District Superintendent, the same man who had baptized me, and I told him, “These are my priorities: First, God. Second, my generation’s relationship with God. Third, the United Methodist Church. Fourth, this Conference. Fifth, this District. If any of the latter three conflict with my ability to be faithful to the first two, I will choose the first two.” I kept my word. 

What does this commitment look like now? I cannot easily ignore the effect that our violence towards LGBTQIA folxs like myself is taking on my generation on the margins of this church. Neither can I easily ignore the struggle of those deeply entwined within this church, with whom I have struggled in the trenches under all this pressure as “young leaders,” spread out over the four Jurisdictions and seven Conferences where I have worked and lived. 

At this moment, as the intersectional energy of UMForward goes back out across the nation, and so many are turning their attention towards Kansas City and what will happen at UMNext, I cannot help but think about the fact that it is possible that the majority of the room will more closely resemble those approaching retirement than those entering ministry. 

I have to ask myself, what is true? 

We have been told our whole careers that this problem was ours to solve.

We have been told that we have to stop the death of this denomination. 

Yet, now as it lies here on life support, and the family is deciding whether to pull the plug, only a minority of us will be allowed in the room. 

What do we make of that? Why were we so necessary before, when death seemed nigh, but less necessary when it is on the doorstep knocking. Might our presence in some way hinder the adequately financed exit that some of our colleagues have so long teased us they would be making before the end came. Might circumstances be different now that those pensions and retirement are not looking quite so secure. 

Those young & youngish people who enter the UMNext space do so with the weight of a generation held on the shoulders of only a few. We all know the labored, cautious walk of those made to feel like tokens, whether for their age, race or ethnicity, gender or orientation. Simultaneously they bear the burden of representing the many who are not in the room, while also knowing how easily they can be replaced – exactly because of how many are in waiting outside the room. 

Perhaps, in this moment, we can be kind to one another, my beloved generation. Perhaps we can remind those that enter as the few that we have your back. We are praying for you. So be bold. Speak up as if you have nothing to lose, because the time for caution has long since passed. The ladders some once wished to climb lead to nothing but questions and chaos. Go to the spaces you are called, but stand with us. Stand with us, here on this solid ground, your feet firmly planted, rooted, grounded. As you make choices and speak words, do nothing out of fear, beloveds. Do everything out of courage, for perfect love casts out all fear… and love is the work that has been given to us. 

All our lives, all our careers, we have been told that someday, we would be the only ones left standing. Do not let the anxiety of this moment make you forget that now. We will someday soon be the only ones left standing – so make your decisions in such a manner that you will not be standing alone. Stand with us now, so that we can still be here to stand with you in the near coming future – wherever that ground may be. Nothing is worth more than us – than the community – than the people.

You know that our generation will not stay with us if we build a church with no understanding of intersectionality, still laden with white supremacy and patriarchy, continuing to allow violence against LGBTQIA folxs like myself for the sake of “unity.” 

I have spent the past several years placing my life and body between weapons of destruction – both literal and figurative – and those they seek to harm. I ask you now, will you be just as uncompromising in your solidarity?  Will you refuse to allow structures to continue to be constructed that permit harm and spiritual violence against myself and other members of the LGBTQIA community? Will you continue to work to dismantle the systems of white supremacy and patriarchy that do violence to people of color, Black and Indigenous leaders, and women?

Stand with us now, dear friends, so that in the time to come we can still be here to stand with you.

 

What are you fighting for?

Riding my bike along the narrow inches of shoulder between the paved road and the deep ditch, I struggled not to fall in the water, and thought about the children I was told had walked these same treacherous trails to come to church. It was about a decade ago, and I was in my first appointment, a rural community where folks worked hard and loved harder. I would hear many stories before then and since then, but no other story would haunt me the way this one did – if by haunt one means accompany, travel with, teach, convict and inform. 

It all started when the congregation that I had come to serve had hosted a vacation bible school at their church. They had a great time and so did the kids. There were two children, in particular, that were so drawn to the love that they found that week that they began to come to church on their own. There was no one in their family willing to bring the two young kids, but they would not give up. So they walked to church along that dusty shoulder by themselves. 

Living in the marshes, where flooding was a constant and a way of life, an intricate system of ditches interlaced our landscape to control, or diminish, the interruptions that the water brought to our lives. The ditches meant that roads were sometimes narrow ribbons, curves were sometimes sharp, the shoulder was sometimes eroded, and the cars were sometimes fast. Walking to church was never the safe option, it was always the brave option. And brave they were.

The church members were overjoyed by the children’s commitment to coming to church, but as time passed some of them decided that they needed to “love” the children better by telling them what they were doing wrong. To start with, the kids were not wearing clothes appropriate for church, they were just wearing jeans and t-shirts, the only clothes they had. Secondly, with all that walking in the dust, the kids were showing up dirty and dusty and not quite presentable. Eventually, somebody took it upon themselves to sit the kids down and explain to them what they were doing wrong. 

The children never came back. 

The woman who narrated the story to me told it with so much grief. A justifiable grief. A grief that many of us have felt over similar missteps in our journey, as we mistook our own discomfort for someone else’s problem; as we mistook our need to control the behavior of others for love; as we mistook our exclusive actions for welcome and embrace. 

That was, for me, in a nutshell, the relationship between young people and the church. They come to us longing for a place that pushes them away. They walk such treacherous and sacrificial paths to get to us. And, often, as soon as they decide to trust us, they end up wishing that they had not.

At that time, a good decade ago, my solution was to protect young people from the excessive criticism and control that the church is so prone to exert by being perfect myself. I thought that if they were happy with the most visible young person in the space, then maybe they would not notice the torn jeans and flip flops worn by the rest of us. Maybe I could distract them. 

I got up each morning, in my big, country parsonage, and dressed in slacks, a button down, and dress shoes. I did my hair and my make-up. I ruined more shoes than I can count walking out into my all-too-often flooded front yard, trying to look the part  in attire that was not built for the rigors of marsh life. Some days, the roads would be too flooded to leave my house, but that did not stop me from putting on my armor. I never knew when someone might drop by unannounced to check on the young pastor. Besides, even if no one came by, twice a day, the elderly gentleman across the street could be counted on to pull his big brown sedan out of the driveway and up the street to the garage where the men gathered, to get a coke and report on the movements of the young woman in the parsonage. 

I knew I was loved and respected in that parish, and the love and respect was returned, but I still felt the eyes upon me. I concluded that if folks were happy with the young pastor and I gave them no reason to complain in how I presented myself, then the young people of the community would draw less criticism. For my part, if my appearance did not draw any complaints, then I’d have more space to stir things up with my words, as I preached about the Gospel that rejects racism and sexism on a regular basis. 

When I was commissioned and was moved north, all that began to change in my second appointment, in another rural part of another state. One day, looking out at a congregation where many young people wanted to just come as they were, something clicked. I decided that the best way to be a good shepherd and to shield the young people was not to look less like them. I decided to come to church looking like me, looking like them, looking like us. I decided that if people wanted to be mad and complain about the young person in blue jeans, that young person should be me. 

So I put on my blue jeans before I walked into church the next Sunday.

I decided, if you want to judge someone, judge me. 

If you want to complain about someone, complain about me. 

If you want to push someone out, make it me. 

Not them. Not our beloved young people. Make it be me. 

I learned that distance and respectability and authority will never be so transformative as solidarity. That is why Jesus gave up all of those things to come and walk amongst us, to look like us, walk like us, love like us, break like us.

We often do not have any idea what a young person has gone through before they walk through the doors of our churches. Maybe they have walked for miles in the dust along the narrow shoulder of a country road. Maybe they have spent three years in therapy trying to get over the ways they were rejected the last time they trusted a church, before walking in that morning and giving yours a try. Maybe they did not have the “right” clothes, or the “right” hair, or the “right” look, but they came anyway because they knew that this was the right place for them and they hoped you agreed. In so many different ways, they risked themselves, they risked their lives, they risked their hearts… on us

In November, after more than a decade in ministry, two decades if we start before licensing, I had listened to more tears and broken hearts and shattered dreams than I could even begin to count. I had ministered to too many mothers of gay sons, and brothers of Queer sisters, and non-binary youth.

I finally realized that it was time to put on my blue jeans again. I acknowledged to myself and to others that I was Queer, just like so many of the young adults I had ministered to from the Eastern Shore of Maryland, to the poetry events of Houston, Texas, to the college students of Tucson, Arizona.

It was not enough to tell them, “God does love you” while wearing my armor, when I had it in my power to say, “God does love us.”

So I put on my blue jeans.

I decided, if you want to judge someone, judge me. 

If you want to complain about someone, complain about me.

If you want to try to push someone out, make it me.

Not them. Not our beloved young people. Make it be me.

I will not let them be pushed out onto the street alone. 

I’ll be there. You’ll be there. We’ll be there.

When the final vote came in at Special Session of General Conference, I thought of all the millions of dollars, and countless hours and thousands of initiatives that had been launched to create new places for new people. Could it be true that they were all rendered null and void with the push of a button?

In her book, Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements, Charlene Caruthers reminds us that we must not get so caught up in thinking about who we are fighting against, that we forget to ask ourselves what we are fighting for… 

…I am fighting for those kids walking along the dirt road to get to church because it is a place they believe they will find love. I am fighting to make us worthy of the trust they offer us, the risks they take for us, the sacrifices they made for us. I am fighting because I want our promises to ring true again. I am fighting for love. I am fighting for them. I am fighting for me. 

What are you fighting for?

Grief on the Margins of UMC General Conference

Amidst the concentric circles that sat within The Dome in St. Louis this week, it was the outer ring that leaves my heart hurting most as I walk away. We gathered for this Special Session of General Conference to discuss human sexuality and bring to a conclusion the battle that had raged in the church since the 1970’s. On the floor of The Dome, where football rivalries are usually waged, a different game played out. In the center, on that floor, the voting delegates, elected from around our global church, both clergy and laity, convened to cast their votes on our Queer family’s place in the church. Around them were the Bishops, and pages, and various support folks given access to the space. Above all that, in the stands, were the Observers, folks like me, who had come from far and near to witness what would take place.

Yet, even they were not the outer circle.

Outside of the stands, on the Concourse Level, were the non-unionized employees working the concessions stands of the Dome, serving us overpriced water and soda and popcorn. Positioned to their left and to their right in each opening were large television screens, broadcasting the images and sounds of everything happening inside on the microphone into their ears. The screens were there for the people in line to stay up to date on what was happening inside, and few of those people probably thought about the effect they were having on the people behind the counter, handing them their hotdog and taking their cash. 

As the Conference moved through the first couple days, something beautiful began to happen. Seeing those of us in rainbow stoles, our beautiful brothers and sisters behind the counters began to feel excitement and hope. Many of them began to wear rainbows themselves, at first just a little, and then fully bedecked. There was something of a sense of celebration to it. It was as if they were not only showing solidarity to us, but also celebrating an affirmation of themselves as supporters of LGBTQIA+ folxs who had found church people who agreed. 

Yet, as we got into discussions, there were those screens above their heads, the speakers blasting every word that was said into their hearing. They were not passive recipients of our presence, they were active participants in our church community this week… for those of us who had the eyes to see them, the ears to hear them, the hearts to love them. 

They, in kind, heard every ugly word we said from the microphone. They heard every bit of gaslighting. They heard every snide conversation held between Traditional Plan supporters waiting for their soda. They saw the results of every vote we passed to condemn our Queer family.

It did not take long for the rainbows to vanish, disappearing as quickly as the joyful smiles left their faces. 

My heart ached most of all for them. 

The amazing Rev. Sara Baron had a bag full of small yarn rainbows with notes that said “You are loved” that had been knit by a woman at her church and prayed over by the children of the congregation. She had given me a bunch of them to hand out to people who needed them, and as I walked by a concession stand, I handed them to one of our family behind the counter. “Wait, I want one!” the person next to her called out. They took them, and slipped them into their pocket, away from condemning eyes but still close to their hearts

The small bundles of colorful yarn matched the large yarn rainbow stole that I was wearing, and so word spread quickly among the workers that if you wanted one of the notes with rainbow yarn, to look for the lady in the big yarn stole. I found myself being hailed down as I walked through the halls, dropping pieces of rainbow yarn into people’s eager hands. The colorful drops of love, that matched the stole my Aunt Jackie knit, became like water running off the edge of the cup that overflows with mercy.

When the Traditional Plan passed, and I rushed down to the lobby to make sure that Queer family and allies were safe from police, we found ourselves locked out. Police barred us from re-entering to the closing worship service. I could not get to my belongings, and I could not get to my family behind our Concession Stands. I could not remind them they were loved. I could not tell them we would still fight. I could not tell them this changed nothing about how precious and beloved they were. I could not tell them that I will still put my collar on this Thursday and serve Holy Communion. 

Yet, though separated by police, and gates and distance, the air between us was clear. So, when we sang out at the top of our voices there in that lobby about the unconditional love of God, I know they heard us.

I know they heard us.

I know they heard.

I know. 

Father, forgive us, for we know not what we do.

 

We don’t live on crumbs anymore.

Crumbs. Gathering them used to be the first task of sacred ritual with my mother. I would sweep them into a pile, and off the edge of the table into my cupped hand, while my mother put the teapot on to boil. Brushing them off my fingers into the sink, the dance continued as she pulled down the box of English tea from the cupboard. I would select two of the fine, china mugs from the corner cabinet, and finish my portion of the ritual with a pirouette-like turn back to the table. All that was left was to sit and wait, as she brewed the tea extra dark, extra strong, extra bitter, then poured it into the cups – mine with raspberries, hers with a peacock – as we settled in for our two or three or four hour chats. 

We talked about all kinds of things at that altar. Bullies at school. My mom’s concern for my lesbian aunt. The boy that I dated for 4-6 years (depending on how we define it) without ever being able to muster up an interest in him to match his passion for me. 

My mother’s nickname for me was her Second Brain. I picked up the things that spilled over the edge and held onto them until she needed them. I kept a careful mental record of every time she mentioned that she liked something, so that my father could always know the perfect gift to get her. 

Crumbs. Pushing them around on my plate, I sipped tea from a styrofoam cup the day that all of this began to crumble. I sat in a large fellowship hall in a Methodist Church in Pennsylvania. I had driven up from the southernmost tip of Maryland’s Eastern Shore peninsula, where I was appointed to my first two-point charge. It was 2010, and I was there to attend one of the many conversations that my Bishop was hosting on LGBTQ+ inclusivity, in between the General Conferences of 2008 and 2012. I watched as the sacred privacy of my family was broken, as the conversations that were held around our kitchen table were taken into the public. My parents rose to talk about my aunt, about how she had a sad, hard life because she was a lesbian, and how if we were loving we would not encourage people to accept themselves as LGBTQ+, because to do so would be to condemn them to such a hard, sad, sinful life. I had expected to avoid this, having driven the further distance to attend a different District meeting than the one where my parents lived. Yet, I was informed upon arrival that my parents’ passion to speak out against LGBTQ+ inclusivity was so strong that they were driving to each and every District’s meeting to share about my aunt’s sad life. 

IMG_2394 copy
Amy K. Lamb

I wept all the way home. Ashamed of my silence, of my failure to speak up for my aunt. Ashamed that I let my parents begin to build a platform on her back, while she sat somewhere in Pittsburgh unknowing. Yet, I could never tell her, it would break her heart. It was one thing to speak of my aunt that way in the privacy of our own home, but another to speak of her as a sad sinner and a cautionary tale publicly. It had been the constant refrain of my childhood, continually ensuring that this queer little kid would push down the questions that I had about my own identity; ensuring that I would hear the words, “I don’t care who you end up with as long as they make you happy,” without ever thinking that those words were really true. Happiness was not possible for the Queer community. As much joy as my Aunt brought into the world, it was all a performance, because Queer people could not be happy and could not live a full and abundant life. It was a logistical impossibility. 

Crumbs. It is no wonder that my Aunt seemed hungry around us, if that is all we were ever willing to feed her. The partial acceptance of who she was. The withholding. The gaslighting. The unspoken undertones of “I love you, but not all of you” – of “I want you to be happy, but that’s just not possible for you” – of “I accept your partner, I just wish she wasn’t in your life” – of “You are the most loving person that we know, it’s just too bad your love is a sin.” Yes, she was sad around us – who wouldn’t be. Yes, she had a hard life – like every other person in my family regardless of their orientation… only the rest of us didn’t get to hang out with NFL players and movie stars.

Let me be clear, my aunt may have been hungry around us because we fed her crumbs, but boy did she eat well elsewhere. Nobody pours the kind of love and light and talent and joy and sacrifice into the world that she did without some of it splashing back on them. She loved hard and she was loved in return. She was a home to the homeless, a mother to the motherless, an anchor for the aimless. She was joy. She was the favorite person of everyone she met. She had the kind of talent that most can only dream about. My grandmother had a closet full of musical instruments in her house; when I asked who played which ones, the answer was Amy every time. Amy, who hung out with Katherine Heigl on set, and insisted she was a sweetheart to the crew. Amy, who talked people off the ledge, both literally and figuratively, and saved lives whether it was bridge-jumpers or Queer kids being fed crumbs of love just like her.

butterfly
Butterfly at Amy’s burial

Amy K. Lamb, like her sister Jackie, was also a cancer survivor, and in 2011, a year after my tearful drive back to Maryland, that cancer would finally take her life. I would take the pulpit in Pittsburgh, in front of her NFL friends and her fellow film producers, and I would lead the final celebration of her life. I would stand beside her partner, my Aunt Ana, as we laid her ashes in the ground. As I walked away from the grave in the cold, Pennsylvania wind, a butterfly would appear where one should not have been able to survive. Of course it did, because this was Amy K. Lamb’s burial. 

Crumbs. I have struggled my whole life with how to explain that starving someone will not change their appetite, will not change their orientation, will not change their identity. It may make them more willing to gobble up the crumbs we are willing to give them, but it will not change their desire to be loved for the wholeness of who they are. 

I remember walking out of a poetry event in Houston a few years ago to find a woman in her 50’s collapsed on the front steps. She was inconsolable. Triggered. She kept insisting that God couldn’t love her, that her momma couldn’t fully love her, because of who she loved. I sat on the pavement with her and others for hours, but there was nothing I could say that could convince her otherwise. It did not matter that I was a pastor. It did not matter that I promised her God loved her. She had been trying to survive on crumbs of love her whole life, and she did not know yet how to eat anything else. There is no other moment in my life in which I felt more impotent as a pastor. 

Three years after my aunt’s death, in 2014, I saw Amy’s face come across my computer screen in an article from UM News. “Sister believes in Jesus’ love for lesbian sister”, the headline read, the last painful crumb of postmortem gaslighting offered to my aunt. 

“Amy died of cancer in 2011, and Jane is certain she is in heaven. Just as certain as she is that a “gay lifestyle” was not what God wanted for her sister.”

IMG_0356
Aunt Ana and I

I remember the first time I met my Aunt Ana, Amy’s partner. I was a little kid, bouncing on the bed at my grandmother’s house in a town outside Scranton. Ana did not scold, instead she made me laugh harder than I had in ages. She brought me joy, just like Amy, and without a moment’s hesitation, I let her into my heart as my youngest, funnest Aunt. When I was assigned to my first church, and had to make that long drive down to Maryland the day after Thanksgiving, Ana was the only person who would make the sacrifice to help me move. I had just turned 27, and I was driving alone five hours straight south, and then twenty minutes west into the marshes. I was moving into a big, empty house, all by myself, and becoming the pastor of two churches on the same day. Ana was the only one willing to go with me.

Ana was not my Aunt Amy’s “gay lifestyle,” she was the love of her life. When Amy met Ana, she was in Paris, on her way to a tour of French wine country. She left for the trip with her friends, but could not get Ana out of her mind. She rushed back to Paris, found Ana, and they were inseparable for the rest of Amy’s life. Theirs was the greatest romance in my family’s history. 

I scrolled below the pictures of my mother and my aunt, to the article below. 

“Jane L. Bonner is president of the Eastern Pennsylvania Evangelical Connection and a strong advocate for The United Methodist Church’s position that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” and that God intends marriage to be only between a man and a woman.”

“Bonner attended both days of the trial of Frank Schaefer, the pastor who performed his son’s wedding ceremony. She also helped write a letter sent to Johnson calling for her to hold the pastors who officiated at the Arch Street same-sex wedding “accountable to their ordination vows.”

On cursory glance, the point that was being attempted was that people could be gay and sinners, but still worthy of love not condemnation. The point that was truly being made was that people could call their family members sinners and tell them they were not receiving the abundant life Jesus had planned for them, and still expect them to receive that as love. 

This article was not about Amy. It was not about fighting to make the church more accepting of Amy. This was about proudly fighting to make sure that Amy could never be married in a Methodist church, while simultaneously pretending that my Aunt did not know whether my parents would have supported her marriage. 

It does not work that way. One cannot fight with every part of yourself to keep lesbians from being able to marry, and expect your lesbian sister to not know your feelings on the topic.

Neither can you commit every fiber of your being to the fight against Queer clergy, commit vocally to vote against their existence at General Conference, and have your Queer clergy daughter not know your feelings on the topic.

Crumbs.

When I finally came out to my mother, I heard an angry tone on the other side that I had not heard before, that could not be hidden anymore. “Well, I feel sorry for you,” she spit out. “You are going to have a hard, sad life. But don’t think you get to surprise me. I’ve known for a long time. Don’t think you get to pull a fast one on me. I’ve known for a long time.”

“Do you realize what you’re saying, mom? The biggest fight of your life has been against Queer clergy, and you’re saying that you knew that is what I am?” 

It was my worst fear coming to life. That my mother knew that I was Queer clergy, and that she still had committed her life to fighting against our existence, to stripping me of my credentials and banning me from my vocation.

“Well, you’ve never heard my perspective,” she said.

This she said to her Second Brain, to the one who listens so carefully and retains everything; to the one who had heard little but her perspective all my life, but who had never truly told her mine.

“I have to go mom, we can talk about this later.”

“Well, don’t think you’re going to change my mind.” 

“I have to go mom.”

Somehow, it was worse than I could have expected. She reacted as if she had been bracing for this. As if she had been preparing. As if I had an agenda to use my queerness to hurt her. Didn’t she know how many years I had been choking it down? How many years I had been resisting being used against her by those who found it humorous that they could guess the daughter of Jane L. Bonner was queer? Didn’t she know how that robbed me of the support that I needed, and made me a joke instead? Didn’t she know how I had been protecting her, while she waged war on me?

It may not make sense, until you think of all the odd ways that we protect the ones who hurt us… all the ways that Aunt Amy fought like a lion for my mother. Part of me still was, after all, that little girl who swept up the crumbs from her mother’s table, and focused all her imagination on what would make her happy. The little girl who brought home art history books to try to revive the spark of the passion her mother had given up for her children. The little girl who fixed the VCR and the toilet, and put in new countertops, and did whatever she could to make life easier and happier. 

I was the little girl, living on crumbs, pieces of love to match the pieces of myself that were acceptable.

I was the little girl, who just wanted to protect her mom, and make her mom happy, and earn her mom’s love. I love my mom; I understand that sometimes we can only give to others the crumbs that have been given to us… but I also know that I am worthy of more.

Which is why… we don’t live on crumbs anymore. You hear me, Amy K. Lamb? We don’t live on crumbs anymore. 

I’ve become a baker, and I’m going to bake so many beautiful things for you, so that the Queer kiddos that you loved will never have to live on crumbs again. 

You hear me, Amy K. Lamb?

We don’t live on crumbs anymore.

I’m going to bake you cakes with icing so decadent that it will make your teeth hurt.

I’m going to bake you pies with butter-crust hand pressed into the pan so that I leave my mark with every finger print.

I’m going to bake you cookies that are vegan and gluten-free so that anyone and everyone can take a bite. 

I’m going to bake you cakes, beloveds, because we don’t live on crumbs anymore. 

We don’t live on crumbs anymore. 

We are worth so much more than that.

You are worth so much more than that. 

Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother

“You are the answer to our prayers,” Madre Irene said in delighted surprise as we entered the quiet church yard. She had just finished breakfast with her fellow sister in the Order of Mary the Sorrowful Mother, when we came through the gates of Cristo Rey. The two nuns had been discussing the children in the tent city, within just a stone’s throw of their town. They had been struggling to think of what they could do. In this quiet town, on the Mexico side of the border, they could see and hear the children play in the mornings through the slats of the wall, with helicopters flying overhead to watch them. Yet, while they could hear them, and they could see them, still it seemed there was nothing they could do. 

“We had decided that all we could do was pray, and then I walked outside, and here you were!” she informed us. 

For months in Tucson, Free the Children had thought and planned and worked. We raised money, and bailed a father out of detention. We raised awareness, but we wanted to do more. Finally one of the mothers in the room, Carolina, simply insisted, “Why don’t we go there? Why don’t we see what we can do?” Now, here we stood, before the answer to our prayers, only to discover that we were the answer to theirs as well. 

When the tent city had opened at Tornillo in June, as housing for immigrant children separated from their parents, the tents had been set up a short distance from the border wall. They were put together on federal property, exempt from state laws regarding children, at the Tornillo/Guadelupe Port of Entry between – on the Mexico side – the State of Chihuahua, and – on  the United States side – the State of Texas. As the statements that the tent city would close constantly transformed into falsehoods, the cluster of tents itself transformed into a militarized town that dwarfed the population of Caseta, the Mexican town. As the tent city sprawled outward, closer and closer to the border wall, it also came closer and closer to the people on the other side of the wall, making it impossible for them to ignore. Their hearts became deeply grieved by the constant sight and sounds of children imprisoned between fences, guards and the border wall. 

By the time, we walked through the gates of Cristo Rey Catholic Church in Caseta, it had been four months since I had first spotted their spires. Sitting at the gate to the tent city throughout the month of June, I had spotted the distinctive twin steeples of the church and felt comforted by their presence. I hoped the illusion of watchful eyes, that the twin arches of the steeple created, would be comforting to the children as well. I dreamed about what it would be like to be able to send a more direct message, a message that they knew was for them. We had tried, from the US side, to do so with a balloon, and ended up with a vigilante sticking a gun in our faces. At the time, in June, the promises that the tent city would close seemed so certain, that it did not seem worthwhile to risk lives to pursue it any further.

Yet, the tent city did not go away, and neither did the desire amongst all those around it to let the kids know that they were supported and loved. Over the months, the tent city transformed from a temporary crisis intervention space for separated kids, to a long term incarceration facility for all manner of kids who had been classified as unaccompanied minors. As the classification of kids expanded, so did the numbers, from hundreds to thousands, until the sounds of their play vibrated the border wall and echoed over to the town of Caseta. 

The Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother, standing and watching the children from across the wall, could not have been more aptly named. Where were all the sorrowful mothers of these children scattered? How many were back home in the countries from which they had journeyed? How many of them were waiting somewhere in Topeka or Boston or Durham, unable to claim their children because it would ensure their own deportation? How many of them had been deported and were unable to communicate? 

Where were the many sorrowful mothers in whose place these Sisters now stood? 

Where were the many sorrowful mothers whose grief mirrored the original, Mary, who watched her wandering son arrested, criminalized and bound? 

IMG_4731
After greeting us in the courtyard of Cristo Rey, Mother Irene invited us all into her living room: Mari, Summer, Carolina, Becky, Juan, Marla and I. She sat us down and began by ascertaining which of us was baptized, and more significantly which of us was baptized en la Iglesia Catolica. She was not disappointed to discover a few Catholic saints among us. We talked about the kids, and what we could do to bring hope to them. We told her about the dreams of being able to let them know they were not alone, “No estan solos,” the message that was to have been hung from the original balloon. She ushered us over to the church when the service was to start, and we were able to join the mourners at the morning’s funeral. 

It was hard to leave when the time came to return to Arizona. Mother Irene took Carolina’s head in her hands gently and prayed a blessing over her, and then over all of us. The surreal and sacred time that we had shared with the Sisters was hard to release. Yet, they assured us – and we assured them – that it was only the beginning. We would return with a banner, with a message for the kids. They would hang it from their steeple so that if any kids might be able to see it, they would know that they were not alone – that God, the Church, and the people of Caseta were with them. 

Over the next couple weeks, we communicated with our new friends, this sacred friendship giving birth to a profound mission of hope. The Sisters decided on a message that would be a little more direct. Rather than “No estan solos” – you are not alone – they preferred, “Liberen a los niños” – Free the children. This was not the time for subtlety. People were suffering. Mothers were suffering. Children were suffering. The Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother had spent decades inhabiting lives of contemplation upon that sorrow, and service in response to that sorrow. Who better than they to know what to do and what to say, in response to sorrow and injustice? 

As soon as was humanly possible, we returned. Piling into a minivan, we embarked once again in this journey of friendship, across state lines and border walls to Cristo Rey. Arriving, a group of people from the town had joined the Sisters in gathering to greet us and to make it known that Caseta supported this mission of mercy that the Sisters were pursuing. Members of Cristo Rey stood in the shadow of its steeples to make sure that their would be no impediments to the task. They explained that they were fed up, that they were tired of watching the kids imprisoned, that it was the right thing to do and they were the right people to do it. They wanted to send a message of hope and unwavering support. 

PUULDZm+QHioCgPH9GvpNg

Unfurling the banner, the Sisters smiled in approval and fetched a smaller matching banner that they had printed as well. We would take it to Joshua, who was their watchful mirror, keep vigilant watch on the US side of the wall. 

Climbing the steeples on ladders, the men of the town hoisted the banner into place, suspended between the two towers that pointed skyward. The Sisters stood proudly looking up at the banner, watching as their prayer took the shape of action, and their compassion took the shape of courage. 

Driving away from Caseta was even harder the second time than it had been the first. We had broken bread together, and heard more of one another’s stories. The Sisters had sung happy birthday to me as we walked through the streets of the town where Madre Irene had lived since before I was born. There was a sort of peace in knowing that the kids in this tent city were cradled gently in loving watchfulness between Joshua on the US side, and Madre Irene on the Mexico side. And now, thanks to their banner, we could pray that they would know it too.

 

 

fullsizeoutput_23eb

Knit Together in Love

The knit rainbow stole lay warm and heavy across my black clergy robe as I stood in the pulpit of my aunt’s Presbyterian church in West Chester, Pennsylvania.  I looked out into the congregation from the pulpit, and down into the eyes of my young cousins, nieces, and nephews.  I told them that the rainbow stole my aunt had knit was – at the same time – both the heaviest and the lightest weight that had ever been placed upon my shoulders.

Days earlier, I was in the air somewhere between Houston and Philadelphia when my aunt passed away. Rushing to be at her side, I had gotten there too late. I landed in the arms of her son, my cousin Jeff, who took me from the airport back to her house. Now, he and I, the two ordained pastors of the family, shared the pulpit and this momentous task of sacred remembering.

Touching the yarn of my stole as I stood in that pulpit, I remembered watching my aunt’s slender fingers move nimbly as she knit it together two years earlier. Jackie was still in chemo sessions, and it was the last time that she and I had time together to talk – just the two of us – without all the noise and beautiful chaos of our family gatherings that makes quiet, private moments hard to come by.

I always remember the last sacred conversation that I share with someone – the blessing.  The moment is not always the same as the last time I see someone, although there may be some awareness of finality. For my younger Aunt Amy and I, it had been that evening in her garden, where we laughed and talked. When she insisted, despite her frail condition, on walking up the street to the point where Mount Washington overlooks the city of Pittsburgh. We watched as the street lights overcame the falling darkness, and she shared with me her happy memories, her plans, and her dreams. A few years later, with Aunt Jackie, that conversation happened in the side room of her house in West Chester. I kept her company while she knit rainbow stoles for the Presbyterian General Assembly that convened in 2014 to discuss marriage equality.

Jackie sat in the rocking chair, and I sat on the couch, watching and chatting. She explained that knitting these stoles for the General Assembly was her way of making sure that LGBTQ+ folxs had full equality in the church. She told me that she wanted LGBTQ+ folxs to know they are loved and accepted in the church. She had witnessed so much pain, and she wanted it to stop. She believed they should have the ability to both stand in the pulpit as preachers, and to sit in the pew together as spouses.

I had always been able to tell Aunt Jackie my secrets, ever since I brought my first boyfriend over in high school. She had told me not to elope with that boy, and I had told her there was no chance of that happening. Yet that evening, all those years later, words failed me. A silent question hung heavy in the air between us.  An unspoken wondering. I looked at my feet, and somehow we reached an understanding. I did not say a word, but my face was so hot and my heart beat so fast – I could hear the blood pounding in my ears and I felt sure she must be able to hear it as well. She, in turn, told me everything I needed to hear, the relentless clicking of her knitting needles telegraphing love out with each and every stitch.

When Christmas came, my mother arrived to my sister’s house with the usual packages from Aunt Jackie. For as long as we could remember, all five of us kids had received five identical boxes from Aunt Jackie. One year it would be five sets of slippers in five different colors in five different boxes. Another year it would be five sets of gloves in five different colors in five different boxes.

This year was different.

The wrapped Macy’s box that my mother handed me was shaped the same as everyone else’s, but there was an unmistakable heaviness to my gift. When I opened the box, the rainbow spilled out. Aunt Jackie had sent me one of her protest stoles; perhaps the very same one that I had watched her knit. My breath caught in my throat. I wondered if I had turned pink, or worse red. I wondered if my family guessed at the meaning of her gift, a meaning that would have felt treasonous to my conservative Christian parents. If they did, no one spoke of it. My mother admired the colorful “scarf” that had – for the first time in our family’s history – broken the predictable rhythm of five different colored gloves or slippers for the five Bonner children.

I never thanked Aunt Jackie. As the days after Christmas turned into weeks and then months, I thought about what I should say to her. I had plans to call. I wanted to write. Yet, I never spoke to her of the stole that she had knit with so much love and given with so much meaning.

I was not ready to acknowledge what I believed she wanted to affirm. I had been brought up in a world that daily shamed and condemned this part of me. I needed more time, but it was time that Aunt Jackie simply did not have. She would not be able to be there when I was ready. She would not be able to put her arms around my shoulders when I needed to find my courage, so she sent me something else to lay across them instead.

The next couple years were grueling for both of us. As she went through chemo and radiation, getting weaker and weaker, I began my vigil at the Waller County Jail. Our lives were both under threat, mine from the social cancer of racism and hers from the ravages of the physical one. Like the rest of my family, she worried about me but never tried to talk me out of it. Those that know me best know how futile it is to try to dissuade me once I have set my mind to something.

In January of 2017, I placed my body between a white nationalist and a group of Muslim women. I ended up with a knife close to my back. It shook me like no other close call in my life had been able to do. It plunged me into a space of deep withdrawal and reflection about the value of my own life. It was a couple months into this period, in April of 2017, that Aunt Jackie passed away.

I spent that week with my cousins preparing for her funeral. I discussed her life with her daughter, Beth, and liturgy with her son, the Rev. Jeffrey Nagorney. I contemplated what I would say and what I would wear to her funeral. I had put the rainbow stole that she had knit for me into my suitcase, as I usually took it to stressful places for comfort. I felt it’s bulky, chunky weight in my hands, and I decided that I would wear it over my black academic robe.

Stepping into the pulpit that day, I was finally able to thank her properly. In that moment, I realized that the best way to honor my aunt’s life was to live mine; not just to stay alive as I had been struggling to do in Texas, but to truly live. I knew the joy it would have given my aunt to see me go from survival to thriving. That, I decided, was how I would thank her.

The night before, I had received a phone call about a position in Tucson, Arizona. As a coast-hugging water-lover, I had always said I could never live in the desert. Yet, for some reason, I had told them I would call them back after the funeral.

I dialed the number. When they picked up, I told them I would come to Arizona and interview.

My soul and body longed for rest. Longed for distance. Longed to be close to the earth. To the dirt.

Landing in Arizona, I fell in love – with the desert – with the heat – with the wind that swept away all the whispers of what others said I should be.

The strength of the saguaros called out to my soul. I sat and watched the sun set. I woke up in the morning and had tea with an old friend. I knew in that moment that this was a place where I could live. Not just stay alive, but live. Maybe for the first time in my life.

I began building a home again for the first time in many years. I felt safe enough to see the parts of me that I had spent a lifetime hiding from myself. I was surprised to find that the shame that I had expected to feel was not there, nor was the fear. I felt only joy, relief, and celebration. Freedom. Acceptance. Wholeness. Health.

My queerness did not treat me like a stranger, even though I had spent a lifetime turning away from it. It simply settled comfortably and quietly on my shoulders. Familiar, like the gentle weight and warmth of Aunt Jackie’s stole. Comforting, as if it had always been there – because it had been.

At first, I held it close to my heart, knowing that eventually I would have to let it out into the sunlight. I knew I could not spend a lifetime fighting for liberation and wholeness for others, and not be willing to give the same gift to myself. My life had been too defined by transparency and authenticity to make it possible for me to keep for long this treasure to myself.

So, in the words of Darnell Moore, I now invite you in…  into this beautiful knowledge of myself as a Queer woman. I invite you into this celebration of life and wholeness and healing. I invite you to embrace with me this confidence that every part of me is beloved, is beautiful, and belongs. 

I write this now, with Aunt Jackie’s stole laying across my shoulders, her love and acceptance knit into every stitch.

I know that Aunt Jackie did not need a thank you. What she needed was for me to have the warmth of her love with me when I finally saw myself. When I finally loved myself. When I finally accepted myself.

Thank you Aunt Jackie, for loving all of me before I could love all of myself. Consider this your long-delayed phone call. Your stole welcomed me, comforted me, emboldened me. It did exactly what you created it to do. You can trust that I will continue doing exactly what I was created to do, for I too was knit together in love. 

For you created my inmost being;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
    your works are wonderful,
    I know that full well. (Psalm 139:13-14)