Category Archives: Featured

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 

Stop Choosing Guns Over Grandchildren

“Please explain the specific situation you would need to kill so many people in one minute like you can with a military grade assault weapon,” my niece questioned her grandmother under the photo my mother had posted of a woman holding an AR-15 style gun shortly after the shootings in El Paso and Dayton. “An armed citizenry is the best way to deter an oppressive government,” my motherimage1.jpeg defended her stance. 

As I watched them go back and forth, my niece being dismissed over and over agin, I could only think: None of this makes sense. I grew up in an anti-gun household.

A child of the 80’s, in the height of the Super-Soaker and Nerf gun era, I was not allowed to touch either one. I was not allowed to play with the little colored water pistols that seemed omnipresent at the time. I was not allowed to play paintball. I was not allowed to be like other children. We were an anti-gun household. 

Somewhere along the line, the worship of guns had become a fundamental doctrine of the political religion my parents practice. It was now a necessary shibboleth of this religion where joking about shooting people on 5th Avenue and still getting elected desensitizes one to the fears of the children among us.

It was not always this way. 

In the fall, once hunting season began, I was not allowed to play outside as a child. One close call too many had made my parents decide that it seemed better to keep the kids inside for months on end, than risk another close encounter with the hunters who resented the boundaries we tried to assert when we moved to my grandfather’s house in the woods outside Philadelphia and invaded “their” territory. 

From October through Christmas, once bow-hunting season ended and gun-hunting season began, I was terrified to leave my house. Our property was a favorite spot for killing deer, and the hunters did not care how many signs we put up or how many calls we made to the County or the State Police. Nothing we did seemed to matter. They would walk right up to the border of our yard if they wanted. They would shoot bullets through the “No Hunting” signs until the tattered metal was no longer legible. They felt entitled to kill things on our property, and their constant intimidation limited the carefree nature of my childhood. I was always looking for orange clothes, bright clothes, something that would keep me safe. 

I was a sophomore in High School, more concerned with AP classes than with playing outside, when heavily armed teenagers walked into Columbine High School and changed reality for my generation and those that have followed. I was the same age as the kids they killed in 1999, and the same age that my niece is now in 2019. 

All these 20 years later, when the shooting in Parkland happened, my niece was one of the many brave students around the country who led walk-outs at their schools to demand action. Watching her fearlessness and compassion, I felt overwhelmed with pride for who she is, but I also felt remorse. 

It hurt so much to know that she has to feel the fear that I felt at her age. I wished that my generation had been able to stop this. I wished that we had the capacity to do more.

As I watched the alacrity and eloquence with which her generation responded, I reflected back on the shock that we felt at her age. What a different childhood they must have had from us – a childhood that required of them this capacity for maturity and leadership. We were still children in a way that they are not. We were still given the space to recover in our bubble of shock in a way that they have never been permitted. These shootings do not come as a surprise to them, and what a tragedy that is.

They have been watching the adults and politicians and people with power in their lives allow kids their age to be murdered their whole lives long. My niece was a couple years older than the kids that were murdered at Sandy Hook, and she grew up watching the majority of people in this nation do absolutely nothing to stop more of her generation from being invaded in the places where they ought to be safe. I could have done more. I should have done more. I wish I had done more. 

I remember seeing the black revolver that the nice retired couple from my home church liked to leave out on their kitchen table when I came over, in order to make a statement. The way that I had grown up made this torture for me, I was terrified to be around the guns that they casually left in front of me in order to make a political statement. It grated against everything that my parents’ had raised me to believe, and like a cat being pet the wrong way, I fought the urge to react. I wish I had. I wish I had raised holy hell. I wish I had spoken up and confronted the leadership of my home congregation, back in another era, back when they listened to me. I wish I had told my pastor how much it broke my heart that he permitted a radicalizing environment to flourish in the congregation. I wish I had told him how confused I was that he seemed so kind, but permitted so much unkindness to grow around him. 

I could have done more. I could have said more. 

Instead I’ve spent my life trying to prove quite a different point. Rather than fighting the power of guns, I have fought to disprove the power of guns. I have fought to show that truth and kindness and courage is more powerful than fear and racism and control. I have put my body in front of guns again and again to disprove their power. I have fought fear with every inch of my being. I have faced death in order to break its power. 

I faced those guns unarmed in order to reveal that the power I serve and the power I fear is the power of God. I faced them unarmed to show that “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” I did it to reveal the heresies of racism and the hypocrisy of those who sit in pews on Sunday and serve the god of violence on Monday. 

I spent the first half of my life terrified to be around guns, and the second half of my life trying to show that there are things that are more powerful than artillery. I fought guns with faith, with hope, with love, with perseverance. I refused to let them control me anymore.  

Somehow, while I was looking one way, the guns were advancing in another direction. I never thought that I would have to worry about them coming into my parents’ home. When hunters’ guns surrounded my house and killers’ guns came into our schools, my parents’ house had been the one place in the world where I could trust I would never find them. 

Yet, now, the same parents who forbid me to touch brightly colored pink transparent water pistols as a little girl, now own guns themselves. Now defend guns themselves. Now glorify guns themselves. 

My niece closed one of her arguments with this plea, “I’d like to think the people who love me want me to be safe.”

We need to do better. My generation did not have the preparation to be the ones that could stop what is happening to kids in classrooms and Walmarts and concerts now, but we get it. We know what this fear feels like, we know what this fear tastes like. We know what it is to know where the exits are and not want to go to school the next morning after a shooting. We know that this is a different fear than the one felt during the Cold War, because those bombs never dropped on the desks our parents hid under – but these bombs, these bullets, are falling on their grandchildren constantly. Our kids are not in a training exercise, they are in the trenches. 

I am so sorry. This burden does not belong to you, but you have taken it up. We must do a better job of showing that we stand behind you. You are loved, deeper than words, which is why the only thing sufficient to show you how much you are loved is action. 

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.

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Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckleberry
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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.”

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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.