Archive for February, 2011

February 27, 2011

Letter to a Young Activist

Recently on the Standing on the Side of Love blog they featured a letter a young girl wrote to President Obama, asking him to help her city pass a non-discrimination act. Writing to the president was a class project, and the students were not told what to write about. According to the blog post most of the students asked what the president’s day was like, or how their dog was doing.

Activists are born. Activists function just a little differently than mos tpeople. There are so many thins I wish I had been told when I was just starting to get involved. This is the letter I desperately wish somebody had handed me in middle school, or even before.

Dear Wonderful Person,

You have already changed the world. Just by existing and being you you have made the world different and better, more beautiful and more fun. Don’t forget that – it’s VERY important!

Activism is wonderful, and it will change your life in hundreds and thousands of ways you never, ever though possible. You might find yourself speaking in front of thousands of people, or traveling across the country to talk to elected officials. You will sing some of the silliest songs you have ever heard, and do really embarrassing activities to get to know other people. That is all really, really important.

You will spend hours and hours stuffing envelopes and stapling papers and putting stickers and stamps and address labels on things. You will make hundreds of phone calls and sometimes never talk to a single person, and you will go door to door in neighborhoods near and far, sometimes getting lost and sometimes being ignored by people. You will sit at booths at state fairs and farmer’s markets and sometimes with you were on the Ferris Wheel instead of handing out stickers or asking people to sign petitions. That stuff is even more important. And you should always go on the Ferris Wheel anyway. The stickers and petitions can wait.

You will get to experience the excitement when you win a campaign. There is no way to describe the amazing feeling of winning a campaign, or seeing a bill pass, or watching the effects of your efforts pay off! And when you try to explain it to friends who aren’t activists they wont’ get it at all. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter, so try not to let them get you down.

And sometimes you will lose a campaign. Sometimes you will lose a lot of campaigns in a row and you may start feeling like you will never be part of a winning team. Change can be a really, really slow process, but know that even when you lose a campaign you have still made a difference. Pretend you are trying to cut a new path through a jungle. One person can’t do it alone; 10 people can’t do it alone, but if a lot of people keep working at it for a long time the path will get complete. Sometimes you can’t even seen where the jungle ends, but it always, always ends. Celebrate the fact that you made the path better, more open, even if you don’t find the end that time.

Once people find out that you want to help you might be asked to do a lot of stuff. It’s always, always totally fine to say, “no, thank you, not right now.” Even if you aren’t busy, even if you have the time, and even if it is something you care about more than anything else, you can say no. You can say no for a day, or a week, or a month, or a year. It is OK. Campaigns are won and lost by community, not by individuals. It’s never your fault if a campaign doesn’t win.

But don’t give up when you do lose. Look to the people around you who have been doing this for years. Let them comfort you when you lose, let them rejoice with you when you win, and let them help you figure out where to go and what to do next. Our elders have wisdom and advice way beyond what we may know. Listen and learn and grow from and with them. Don’t forget to speak up, though, when your voice needs to be heart. You have things to say and reasons to say them and your age doesn’t make those things any less important.

With all of that said, let me just say, “welcome!” Welcome to this super fast, super slow, sometimes boring, sometimes too exciting, and always always always changing world we call activism. We are happy to have you!

Keep fighting and keep believing,

Andy Coate

I made the above letter into a PDF so you can print it out and give to the young activist in YOUR life who may need to hear those things. And this can be the activist who is young in age, young at heart, or simply new to a movement.  Click the link below to download the PDF.

YoungActivistLetter

February 23, 2011

New Churches and Old Recipes

Nobody will ever make tamales as well as my grandmother. Nobody. I don’t care that her ingredients weren’t the “best” or that she didn’t do things by the book or that her idea of making me something vegetarian was that there was no “visible” meat. I grew up eating her food. When I think “tamale” her tamales are the baseline. When I order a tamale at a restaurant or have one at a party* my mind automatically compares it to my grandmother’s tamales.

The churches in Boston aren’t like the church back in Maine. This is one of those “well, duh!” statements. But it warrants mention. The church in Maine was my first Unitarian Universalist church. It was in no way perfect. It was, however, what I knew. I went into it not knowing differently, so it became the norm.

It has definitely been hard for me to get a grasp on the churches here and to recognize that they are not bad, that they are just different. I have had to come to terms with the fact that diversity and change and individuality are all parts of Unitarian Universalism and that if I DO want to go into religious leadership, or simply if I want to experience this religion and this world more fully, that it does me well to embrace those differences, that individuality, rather than constantly compare and contrast and make value judgments on what church is better at what aspects of being a church.

That was a ridiculously long sentence.

Yes, all the churches are different. So instead of comparing and contrasting and building a verbal Venn Diagram I want to celebrate those differences AND embrace the similarities. I’m simply going to talk about what I love about church services.

I love when we light the chalice. I loved using the same chalice lighting, week by week, at the church in Ellsworth because it called us all back to the same place, the same time, from wherever our minds had wandered. It was routine, it was ritual, and it was beautiful. A different member always lit the chalice but our minister led the spoken part. We really got to reflect on the words because we said them each week. At the church I’ve been to a few times now they have a different member or family of the congregation do the chalice lighting each week. It’s not as meditative or grounding, but it’s beautiful in its own way – we get to see and hear from different members of the congregation each week and learn a little about them.

I love when a minister leads the whole service, start to finish. These are people who went to school to learn to do this. They understand the importance of ritual, the necessity of wording things well, the beauty behind worship, and the meaning it has for the congregation. I also love when members of the congregation lead different parts, from the covenant to the readings. It is putting worship in the hands of the congregation, truly allowing them to drive the church.

I love timeless sermons that make just as much sense now as they would have twenty or forty or a hundred years ago. I love knowing that talking about the beauty of spring, or the power of prayer, or the meaning of family is something that has been happening for a long time and will happen for a long time. And I love when current events and church meet, to bring out the best of our political selves to fight for causes that our faith upholds. I love that it was not church but a protest that taught me to pray. I love that the two can mix.

I love trying new things out in service, whether it is dancing in the sanctuary, trying to get our heartbeats in sync, or having a talk back session during the service. I also love when the order of service remains the same, allowing some of our defenses to slip away, allowing us to become comfortable enough to become spiritual.

I love when we try new songs or new arrangements or when the choir does something beautiful that makes everybody stop and pay attention. I love when we sing a song that everyone knows so well that picking up the hymnal is a matter of formality that some don’t even bother with. I love when the music swells because everyone is confident in what they are singing and feels good about it.

I love the old recipes. I love new twists on old recipes. I love it when people throw out the old recipes all together and decide that we’re going to have something else, instead.

*Who the hell am I kidding, nobody in New England has tamales at their parties… le sigh

February 18, 2011

Salt water and frozen toes

The dock at my school was my favorite place to study, to rest, to meditate, to think.  It gently bobbed, our school boat, The Borealis, next to it, the dinghy providing a back rest when it was on the dock.  You could look out at Bar Island, where we swam at the start of term, and out further were the Porcupine Islands, named (from left to right), Sheep, Burnt, Long, and Bald.

Sitting on the edge I’d dip my toes in, and breathe deeply the scent of the summers of my childhood, salt and sun and sweat.  But it was different in Maine than in Los Angeles.  There’s the woods mixed in, no grit of sand under your feet, and the water is never as warm.

That dock has memories of a hundred different things.  The night my grandfather died I went to the dock and cried.  Sweet kisses and holding hands in silence.  Amateur astronomy while we laid on our backs, the sky completely open to us and our interpretation.  Skinny dipping in the middle of the afternoon, the cold water enveloping our whole selves.  Waking up early to sit on the dock alone and just think.  My last day at college I said goodbye to the dock that had seen me through three big years of my life.

February 16, 2011

Keeping my mouth shut about religion.

I once said to my former minister, “ever since you forced me to recognize religion wasn’t evil I’m a lot less prickly.”

Her response was, “I’m not sorry.”

I’m not sorry either, but it sure has made my life more interesting. It’s made me think a lot more deeply. It’s made me question stuff.

I talk about religion a lot. That, in and of itself, is not a new thing. What is a new thing is not being combative or mean spirited about it. It’s only within the last few years that I’ve started to be OK with religion again. And until I found a church I still wasn’t GOOD with religion, I just tolerated it. So when I say that I talked about it a lot, it was usually about how awful organized religion was; all the lives it ruined, how all religions were cults… I was angry.

And my friends, by and large, agreed with me. We could get some long rants going. Some LONG rants. Talk about preaching to the converted…

Lots of those friends were in my day to day life saw the kind of slow transformation from

“Uh.. I went to church.”

to

“I can’t hang out Sunday morning, I have church.”

to

“Hey, I’m helping a little with the stewardship campaign at my church, want to help me cut out a lot of little paper people?”

to

“Um, ok… I might be kinda thinking about ministry.”

They built up a tolerance to my religion talk. Sometimes they even engaged in it. They came to church a few times, especially if I was going to be speaking. They knew it was important to me.

Now that I’m in Boston it’s a little different. A few of my friends read my blog, but most of them don’t (most of my readership is actually not people I know, which is really odd). Most of my friends, unless they check my facebook, wouldn’t really know that I’m doing the church thing. I gotta say, I am not really helping myself out in that regard.

I’m keeping my mouth shut about religion.

I want to say that embarrassed isn’t the right word, but it’s actually exactly the way I’m feeling. I don’t want to admit how much this religion means to me, how I actually think that organized religion is a good thing, something that should be encouraged. Sure, I’m still against a lot of the ideals that other religions preach, but I definitely respect how passionately the followers feel about what they advocate. I’m scared, embarrassed, and hesitant to say that in front of these friends. It’s nervewracking to sit there and think, “crud, this person is totally going to judge me.”

I find myself making excuses for going to church.

“A friend invited me.”

“It’s a special service.”

“Eh, it’s something to do.”

“I am trying to build up a community.”

I never mention the W word, though.

Worship.

All those things I mentioned above? Those are all true. But they aren’t the reason I am going to church. I am going because I believe in the core values and principles and I like worshiping with people who have those same values.

I go to worship.

And I have no idea how to admit that. To stop making excuses to those friends who I have spent so many hours rallying against religion with in the past. Religion is responsible for murdering abortion providers! Religion is the reason gay marriage isn’t legal everywhere! Religion is the reason for everything bad, it seems. But religion is the reason for so much good, too.

I’m going to stop evading and lying.

Yes, I am going to church this Sunday.

And, yes, I will worship at that church.

And, yes, I plan to go the Sunday after that.

And, yes, I am considering ministry.

And, yes, I am proud of all of those things.

February 9, 2011

I dressed .so. carefully.

I love those special things that happily get caught in your head, forcing you to ruminate on them, flip them over, dissect them, observe them from every angle. They make me happy, they make me feel engaged. Sometimes it’s something quick that enters, excites you for awhile, and is replaced by something else. But sometimes it’s something that won’t leave your mind for weeks or months; not that it is at the forefront constantly, but it pops up enough that it’s certainly not been filed away in the dusty cabinet in your mind labeled “stuff that was cool one time” alongside your Troll Doll collection from 3rd grade and mediocre date memories.

One of those things for me is Rev. Gail Geisenhainer’s sermon from the 2006 General Assembly. You should go listen to it. It’s totally worth it.

I have listened to it no less than a dozen times, probably more. I really like it. I first read it almost a year ago, somebody linked to it online, but I didn’t put some stuff together then.

But then a friend had me sit down and watch it.

She was talking about my church.

She was talking about my people.

Not in some weird metaphorical sense – she was literally talking about the church I attended and the people I attended with.

And, in the totally metaphorical sense, she was talking about me.

So I went. Oh mama I went alright. And I dressed so carefully for my first Sunday visit. I spiked my short hair straight up into the air. I dug out my heaviest, oldest, work boots, the ones with the chainsaw cut in the toe that exposed steel. I got out my torn bluejeans and my leather jacket with all the fringe. There would not be one shred of ambiguity this Sunday.”

The first Sunday service I attended at that church I, too, dressed carefully. I wore my MEN’S dress shoes thankyouverymuch, a pair of MEN’S dress pants thankyouvermuch, a MEN’S button-up thankyouverymuch, a black sweater, my short hair combed very carefully.

I looked like a miniature Mr. Rogers.

Perfect.

“Those people would embrace me in my full amazon glory or they could fry ice.  On my way in I carefully arranged my outfit to highlight the rock hard chip I carried on my shoulder.  Bundled up every shred of pain and hurt and betrayal that I had harbored and nurtured and carried with me from every other religious experience.  I lumbered into that tiny meeting house on the coast of Maine.”

(I also made two friends go with me. It didn’t even require that much threatening or begging.)

Additionally, I had something that Rev. Gail didn’t have available to her at the time: I had the INTERNET. I spent HOURS between the first event at the church I attended (the prior Wednesday there was a special Standing on the Side of Love service about the loss of Question 1 – the minister had hugged me afterward and invited me to come the next Sunday, which is why I was even contemplating this all in the first place) and that Sunday service on the UUA website. Not in an effort to learn more, but in an effort to talk myself out of something I was positive was going to be a mistake.

There simply HAD to be something wrong with this denomination.  But I could not find a thing except for one guy in Canada who protests some UU church and posts his incoherent ramblings to his blog.  Alright then.

“All blanking churches are the same” I informed him “they say they’re open but they don’t want queer folk.  To heck with you, and your church.” Was Rev. Gail’s opinion on the matter before her first service.  A sentiment I had expressed more than a few times.

Sure, they had rainbow stuff all over their website, but that probably didn’t mean anything. Sure, they SAID they were cool with queer people, but that probably just meant that they liked assimilationist gay families. Sure sure sure, that was all fine and stuff, but let’s see how you deal with transgender people.

“Now I expected the little gray haired ladies in the foyer to step back in fear.  That would, in fact, have been familiar at that point in my life.  Instead those ladies stepped forward as I entered.”

Pretty much the same way they handled Rev. Gail. They stepped forward. Handed me an order of service. Asked me to make a nametag. Called me “dea-uh.”

I took the sharpie, carefully wrote “Andrew” in big, bold letters. Take THAT!

“Nice to meet you.”

“They offered me a bulletin and a newsletter and they invited me to stay for coffee.  It was so… odd.  They never even flinched!  ‘Stay for coffee, dea-uh.’  ‘I stayed for coffee.  I stayed for Unitarian Universalism.’”

Damn. Being wrong is always hard.

There were still fumbles and awkward moments. I’m really bad about offering up my pronouns, and rarely correct people. But enough people there already knew me that it was mostly OK. And the minister was kind of blatantly queer, which made me feel really comfortable.

I kept rallying against it, though. I couldn’t like CHURCH! It was… CHURCH! Eventually, I was sure, I’d learn something about the denomination that I hated and then I could leave, feeling all manner of superior.

“This was the mid 1980s.  During the worship service on my second or third Sunday there a woman stood during joys and concerns to announce that all homosexuals had AIDS, all homosexuals were deviants who could not be trusted with kids, health, or civil society.  All homosexuals should be quarantined, packed off to work camps to provide useful labor for society and keep their filthy lifestyle and deadly diseases to themselves.”

And eventually the congregation did something that made me really upset. That made me question this whole church thing. They got rid of our minister with almost no explanation, a minister who had brought me into this religion, showed me church could be a good thing. But it was more the glib attitude of a few members about how they’d never really liked her. I was so angry. I cried a lot. At the church and at myself. I swore up down and sideways that I was never going back.

“I left that week immediately after the service.  What about next Sunday.  Would I go back?  Why on earth would I go back?  Going back would be well, you fill in the word.”

But that sermon kept coming back to me. Her experience with the woman who said hateful things during Joys and Sorrows, a story I had heard for at least a half dozen people by the time I heard her tell it. How something bad had happened and she stayed with the church because, “that’s not how human change works” she says. Immediacy and spontaneity are “not how human change works, not the pace of human learning, nor the pace of effective world change.”

Sometimes I just want the UUA to change, right now, to suit all the people they are not effectively serving. But that isn’t how it works, and intellectually, as an organizer and an activist and as a student I know that. Emotionally I like to pretend it isn’t true, but intellectually I know it is.

My posts here often seem negative, or like I’m complaining. I’m making an effort to change that. But things aren’t perfect, and it is when flaws or different opinions are pointed out that people can gain a different perspective. I WANT things to change NOW. Intellectually I know that that isn’t going to happen, but I can still want it.

All italicized quotes from Rev. Gail Geisenhainer’s 2006 General Assembly Sermon.  Which, again, you should all totally go listen to.

February 7, 2011

I was insufferable at 14.

It makes me sad that I spent so many years rallying against religion. Insisting that organized religion was all manners of awful for the LGBTQ community. I was, shall we say, somewhat insufferable on the topic? By the time I was 16 or 17 I was OK with the fact that people went to church or shul or mosque or whatever else people went to, but I didn’t really want much part in it. If a partner had to go to a service for some reason then I’d usually attend, but by and large I wanted nothing to do with organized religion and I assumed that organized religion wanted nothing to do with me.

Fast forward to last night.

Last night I was in a chatroom, something I do every couple of months when I can’t sleep and I can’t think of anything else to do. It’s a chatroom for trans people and usually has between 5 and 15 active people at any one time.

I was also listening to Gail Geisenhainer’s sermon from the 1996 General Assembly, a sermon I’ve listened to no less than a dozen times. She’s talking about the church I attended in Maine, and saying things I really relate to. It’s a great sermon.

At some point somebody said “So what is everyone doing right now?” and everyone started answering.

“Eating dinner. Spaghetti!”

“Watching TV.”

“Um… doing homework. (playing WOW).”

What the heck, I thought? So I put my fingers to the keyboard and tapped out:

“Listening to a sermon. And eating M&Ms.”

“…sermon?” asked one person.

“Intentionally?” quipped somebody else.

I swear sirens went off in my mind. Flashing warning lights, like a submarine under attack. I’d said the wrong thing.

CHANGE THE SUBJECT CHANGE THE SUBJECT CHANGE THE SUBJECT

“Why?” asked a third person.

Oh what the hell, I figured.

“Because I really love this minister’s preaching style and the topic of her sermon.”

“All trans people should be atheists.” explained one person.

At this point the moderator jumped in and gave the official spiel on treading lightly when talking about religion.

“How could you believe in a God who would fucking make us like this?” the same person asked.

I think, maybe, I’d touched a nerve…

“God must be pretty fucked up if he made us like this in a world that hates us. Name one fucking church that doesn’t hate trans people.”

“Would you like to discuss this privately?” I asked.

It was like I was talking to my 14 year old self. And, honestly, I was insufferable.

This person claimed to be 28, and I suppose I have no reason to not believe it. They first went off on the bible, bitching about how it was full of hatred.

“Just so you know,” I said, “I’m happy to talk about my views of the bible, but I’m not Christian.”

“So why were you listening to a sermon?”

I explained a little bit about UUism (which they deemed a pretend religion), and talked a little about the United Church of Christ (Christians who want to pretend the bible is all happy, they explained) and finally, in a moment of frustration, I said, “You seem really angry about this.”

“Stupid people make me angry.” they explained.

“Can you say more?”

“You make me angry. You are being stupid. Pretending there’s some God that loves you and shit when God doesn’t love any trans people.”

“I don’t happen to believe that. I’m not a creationist, I don’t believe that God created us, and I certainly don’t believe that God created us to be mocked.”

At that point I said “you seem pretty set in your views, and I respect that you are an atheist and that you may have been hurt by religion in the past. Here’s a couple of links to different LGBTQ-friendly denominations. Look them over, if you like.”

I logged off.

I was insufferable at 14.

Am I just as insufferable now that I’m on the other side?

February 6, 2011

Speak loudly a culture

(I make the humble promise to you all that, some day, I’ll stop doing rabbit trail blog posts and stick to a point.  That day is not today.)

……….

When I was 7 years old my mother read me a newspaper article from our local paper about an old man who lived somewhere in our area who was thought to be the last person who spoke the language he spoke. When he died the language would die with him. I didn’t get it, at all, when I was 7. How could a language die? How many languages were there? I’d always pictured somewhere in the two dozen range… that seemed about right. I had no idea that there were thousands upon thousands of languages. It made me sad to think of a language dying. It didn’t understand it, but it made me sad.

This story refused to leave my mind, popping back to me at the strangest moments – in the supermarket, on the bus, driving to the top of my favorite mountain, and many nights laying in bed, listening to traffic, or the lack thereof. I had this image in my mind of an old man, sitting alone, looking out a window. He had a whole culture trapped in his mind that he couldn’t express. Not just words, but a culture. There is a poet I absolute adore, Shailja Patel, who has a poem titled Dreaming Gujurati.

Words that don’t exist in Gujurati:
Self-expression.
Individual.
Lesbian.

And then later she says

If we cannot name it
does it exist?
When we lose language
does culture die? What happens
to a tongue of milk-heavy
cows, earthen pots
jingling anklets, temple bells,
when its children
grow up in Silicon Valley
to become
programmers?

Language IS culture. Sitting there, fumbling to describe a word or concept, trying to drag a word out of another language when the word is not to be had. Eventually you give up. It simply does not exist to other people. Simply is not in their minds as a word. It’s yours. Your word, your culture. Sometimes a word becomes known in other languages; words seep, languages morph, people adapt. Every day I use words that aren’t English; Spanish was my first language as a toddler, quickly replaced with English, but Spanish still seeps into my mind. It will always be a lavanderia, not a laundry mat, adios before goodbye, mercado before market. I never say these things now, but they come first to my mind when I think.

Other languages seeped in when I was older. I kvetch all the time, when moving recently I had a box labeled Tchotchkes and Important Papers, and often I will use ASL to sign along to myself to keep from getting distracted during something and to help me remember. Sitting on the train the other day I heard conversations happening in 4 different languages at the same time. Language, culture, is everywhere.

It is everywhere and it’s more accessible than ever. When I was in 9th grade, in Spanish class, our teacher pulled up an internet translator, typed in “The house is blue.” and translated it to Spanish, then Greek, and a couple of other languages, and then back to English. At that point it had become something ridiculous like “Blue barn is therein.” His point was “don’t try to use online translators to do your work.” But now you can get online, pull up Google Translate, type in a sentence, pick the “to” and “from” languages, and it will usually give you a fairly good translation and pronounce the end result for you. I just tried the “The house is blue.” experiement and after cycling through English, Spanish, Greek, Mandarin Chinese, Portuguese, and Hebrew the end result was… “The house is blue.”

I can’t help wondering if that is better though. Is it better to have “everything” so accessible and easy without having to work for it? I grew up after the melting pot idea. Distinction was good, culture was good, language was good. One monolithic culture was bad. We sang Christmas Carols, Hanukkah songs, Kwanzaa songs, and a revamped version of “this little light of mine” that somehow related to the solstice in one particularly memorable, and insufferably long, Winter Holiday Song Festival when I was in 1st grade. We were going to Celebrate Different Cultures, damnit, and we were going to like it. Complete with paper crowns and the lilting voices of 58 six year olds.

Every so often, though, that is what church feels like. I’ve been watching a lot of old General Assembly videos, especially the worship services. Celebrating cultures is fabulous and fantastic. Picking and choosing the fun bits isn’t so OK. In watching these videos I’ve seen African American Spirituals, Nordic chanting combined with Sufi poetry set to music, and a couple of incredibly painful attempts at singing in other languages. I’ve seen a Indian story of a rich man and something to do with heaven and multiple gods. And I just find myself sitting there (or laying there – let’s be honest, I watch these in bed when I can’t sleep) thinking “… that makes me uneasy.”

We celebrate the fun parts of cultures. Cornucopia for Kwanzaa! Fun dinner with botched Hebrew for Passover! It feels like we are taking holidays, songs, cultures, picking them apart for the fun shiny parts that translate well to a 18 minute sermon and leaving out the inconvenient history that doesn’t fit in. When it’s children singing songs celebrating every culture it’s OK, but when we are condensing hugely significant pieces of cultures to Picture Books for Adults? It makes me, well, uneasy.

I seriously doubt that many UUs are melting pot theorists. If you threw out the phrase “melting pot” at coffee hour I have no doubt that you’d hear everything from “vegetable soup!” to “salad!” to “mosaic!” and definitions of those things as what we believe, likely with connections to our principles and sources. But vegetable soup/salad/mosaic/bread sticks means more than saying “This is an African American Spiritual!” it means having the education, somewhere, explaining what African American Spirituals really were, where they came from, and why (most importantly, I think) we are singing it. Because it is pretty? Sure! Because it’s fun? Yes! But also, and this is what’s so important, because we have learned, we respect, and we want to grow as people, as congregations, and as a denomination into a more vibrant, diverse, beautiful thing, and culture is part of that. And education is part of that. And learning beyond picture books is part of that. And recognizing that we have the PRIVILEGE to learn is a really big giant part of that.

February 4, 2011

It’s all for you, Nerdfighteria

There’s this author named John Green. He’s written a couple young adult novels, and they rock. John has a brother named Hank Green. A couple years back, 2007 to be precise, Hank and John decided that they were going to get to know each other as adults, and to do this they were going to communicate only via video blog for a whole year. Each weekday one would make a video, and the next day the other would respond. They were not allowed to communicate with any text – no emails, or instant messages, or text messages. Those videos were put up on Youtube. They called the project Brotherhood 2.0. They called themselves the Vlogbrothers.

A few days into January 2007 I started watching. Honestly I started watching because I was sad, and needed something funny. I was working at a sucky job, I had no friends, school was boring me out of my mind. This was during the time I lived in Virginia. The months passed, and each weeknight I wouldn’t go to sleep until the video was up, because I needed that something funny at the end of my day. I was never a super active commenter, but I watched every single video.

Those videos became linked in my mind with various things – my birthday, the day I got my acceptance letter for the college I’d applied to transfer to, Harry Potter and the end of that whole era, and then moving. A community of the people who watched their videos grew, and became known as the Nerdfighters. There are a million inside jokes – fishing boat proceeds, who is Hank?, blenderized stuff, Strawberry Hill, Zombies vs. Unicorns, video montages… it’s all SO silly, but it means a lot.

I moved from Virginia to Maine, and because it is the internet the Vlogbrothers and the whole Nerdfighter community came with me. I was so lonely those first couple of days at my new college that I sought out a computer that had internet not with the intention of talking to friends, or emailing people and letting them know I was alive. I just wanted that little bit of normalcy on Youtube.

And that December I sobbed, literally sobbed on the guest bed at a friend’s house where I was over winter break, during the final Vlogbrother’s video. It had been a year of a lot of movement and growth, and I almost felt like the Vlogbrothers had been there with me the whole time. They had in an obscure, social media kind of way. They officially ended the Brotherhood 2.0 project on December 31st, and videos became less frequent, but they do still make them.

I have introduced numerous friends to the Vlogbrothers, and two summers ago when I was working at summercamp one friend would send me handwritten letters describing the recent videos. It was quite literally the only positive part of that summer. In November 2009 I ended up working with John’s high school ex-girlfriend on a campaign, which was hilarious. I’ve attended a Nerdfighter gathering in Boston and we walked around singing Accio Deathly Hallows. I’ve sang more than a few of Hank’s songs at open mics, and my friend and I have reprised John’s 50 last words video more than once on stage.

And now it’s year five.

And it’s commonplace for me to check for an updated Vlogbrothers video, to feel that little bit of familiarity when I see John or Hank and know I will get to see Hank’s exuberance over something or John’s congenial but in depth look at the world’s problems. It’s still that little nugget of familiarity whenever I watch one of the videos. Whether I am in Virginia or Maine or Boston, or at a conference in New York or Los Angeles. Last summer I had been waiting outside the Maricopa County Jail until nearly 3am for those arrested for civil disobedience to be released and when I finally made it back to my homestay I was exhausted beyond all comprehension, but I still watched that day’s Vlogbrother video before going to sleep. Traditions are, after all, very important.

I am not looking forward to the day when John and Hank stop making their videos. Part of me wants to think that I’ll still have them to look forward to when I am in gradschool, when I am starting whatever job I end up at. It’s absolutely ridiculous that a couple of guys with a couple of video cameras would mean so much, but they do.

Thanks, Hank. Thanks, John. You both matter.

February 1, 2011

The 11 and a half year circle.

July 18th, 1999 was a Sunday. I was 12 years old. It was in the high 90s in Los Angeles, as it had been most July days of my life. I went to the Assembly of God church that we regularly attended that morning with my ex-stepfather, his new wife, and my younger half-siblings. I went to Sunday school and the first part of the church service and they reminded everyone that there was going to be a mission trip to downtown that afternoon, and that anybody was welcome.

When the kids left for Children’s Chapel I left, as usual, to help out with a couple of the special needs kids that usually fell to my care being, frankly, the only person who really paid attention to them.

After service that day I asked my ex-stepfather’s-new-wife about the missions trip that had been mentioned. If she was going. If I could go.

It was held in an older parking lot, temporarily transformed into a place for music and fun things for kids to do while their parents were given such life-sustaining goods as bibles and prayer. Looking back I really, really hope they were given some kind of food, too, but I don’t think they were.

I was helping out with the children, specifically a little boy named Tomas, who was 2 years old, and his older sister Maria, who was 5. Tomas sat on my lap, and Maria sided up against me, not letting go of my leg for hours. They didn’t speak any English so I was translating the necessary words.

There was a sermon by a man named Luke who talked about the importance of loving God, because God loved you. There were songs, and dancing, and I helped lead “Father Abraham” and “Rise and Shine.”

“Monitors” walked through the groups of kids sitting on the ground, handing out tickets for things like “sitting quietly” and “paying attention.” At the end all the tickets were put in a big basket, and names were drawn for some cheap prizes that were on the stage. Tomas won a prize, and when I carried him up to pick one he chose this grubby little stuffed owl, much to his big sister’s chagrin.

That was eleven and a half years ago.

That was the day I was introduced to the idea of missionary work.

Two Sunday’s later we had a guest speaker at an evening service. She talked about her work in Ghana and all the fun they had. Her name was Cynthia and, frankly, she was gorgeous and funny and basically everything that I wanted to be. She talked about working with kids and adults to improve their lives, about going around with the local people and learning about their life and trying to buy food and ordering a coca cola and getting it in a sandwich bag because bottles were too expensive.

That was the day that I decided I wanted to go into ministry. I had this long, crying talk with our youth minister, Bobbie, and I started to get even more involved with the youth chapel. There was lots of crying, lots of praying on my knees, I started to get a sick feeling in my stomach if I had to miss any church because it meant I wasn’t serious or good enough.

The various youth ministers encouraged me – I gave testimony and helped at services and, if nothing else, got way more comfortable speaking in front of crowds. The pastor’s wife told me I had a gift for preaching, and that I would be a great youth minister (not a parish minister, mind you, because girls shouldn’t strive for that – but I’d be a great youth minister).

On May 10th, 2000, a month and a few days before I was to turn 13, one of the youth ministers found out that I had been outed at school. I guess, technically, I outed myself – I went with my best friend to the final school dance of the year and we weren’t shy about dancing together, hugging, and holding hands.

The youth minister told me that that was not OK. It was immoral. It was against God. It was against the Bible. We should pray about it.

Two weeks after that they called in the big guns – my ex-stepfather and the minister of the church. I was told that we needed to pray about the part of me that the devil had gotten a hold of. They tried to take my hands. I refused. They held hands. They prayed about me. It went on forever. And at the end they looked at me, asked me to recommit my life to Christ.

And I stood up and walked out. It was a mighty uncomfortable ride home.

That was the last time I ever went to that church. It was the last church I went to for a long time.

That summer I read the bible. And in the next couple of years I read the Qu’ran, and the Tanakh, and lots of other books on spirituality and religion. Then I really got involved in activism, and I realized that I was doing my idea of missionary work without the moral superiority that was present before. Without the exceptions or the caveats or the gays need not apply.

I feel like I’ve almost come full circle. I have people encouraging me toward ministry again, people telling me that I’d be good at it. Ministers telling me I’d be good at it. Friends who are saying “dude, if it’s what you want then go for it.”

So what comes next? Is it bad or good? Affirming and soul-fulfilling? Or heartbreaking because, damnit, there still really isn’t a place for me in religious leadership? Questionsquestionsquestions.

(Overactive memory? me? what? Noooooo.)

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 61 other followers