Archive for ‘discernment’

June 12, 2013

Human Ecological Religious Leadership

My “call”

In seminary the most common question after “Wait, that’s due TODAY?” is “so tell me about your call”; in other words, “when did you know you were called by God/god/the Holy Spirit/the Divine/some higher force to go into religious leadership?” I knew some folks who have a very definitive “call” story but for me it was a long series of revelations. What it boils down to is that I loved social justice work but I felt like there was something missing and, for me, that something was spirit of community.

Discernment

When I started seriously considering religious leadership as a career path I contacted the alumni office and asked for a list of any COA alums who had gone onto religious leadership. Recognizing that not everyone keeps in touch with their undergrad and still others may be highly active in religious communities without having attained a professional degree in the subject, it was still a disappointingly small list.

There were four names on it.

Now I know that College of the Atlantic is not a large school but even within that reality four is a small number of people. Organized religion is just not a huge part of the day to day life of students at College of the Atlantic; it wasn’t really a big part of my life when I started there in 2007. Over time, though, I found myself being pulled in that direction and grasping hold of the thought that ministry was not an incompatible goal within the context of human ecology. I even wrote my human ecology paper on the 7 principles of Unitarian Universalism as my personal definition of human ecology.

I took those names and happily one of the people, Paul, was a minister from my own denomination, Unitarian Universalism; we were able to talk on the phone and even meet up in person at our national denominational meeting the following June. Later, when I was accepted into the Master of Divinity program at Boston University School of Theology, Paul shared that news with his congregation during their sharing of joys and sorrows.

Religious Education

Boston University School of Theology isn’t like College of the Atlantic in almost any way. There are students, faculty, staff, and buildings but beyond that they are pretty dissimilar. I’m at one of the larger research universities in the country, sitting in lectures with nationally renowned theologians, and a member of the Boston Theological Institute which gives me access to all 10 divinity schools here in Boston and the surrounding areas. Martin Luther King Jr. went to seminary here as the school is so fond of reminding people.

When I walked in here on that first day of orientation I was met with the nervous energy of a bunch of adults acting like middle schoolers at that first dance where nobody wants to step into the middle and just go for it. If you’ll remember COA orientation it involves a scavenger hunt and jumping into the ocean. Seminary orientation involved prayer and a whole lot of Jesus.

Unitarian Universalism is unique in that it’s not a specifically Christian denomination that grew out of the merger of the Unitarians and the Universalists in 1961. We’re historically very liberal; both denominations have been ordaining women since the mid-1800s, openly gay people since the late 1970s, openly transgender people since the 1980s, and we’ve often been at the forefront of various social justice campaigns.

While at College of the Atlantic my identity as an openly transgender social justice activist was never a concern to almost anybody; in seminary I realized I had little in common with my classmates. There were a few gay and lesbian people, and a person here and there who clearly had some understanding of LGBTQ issues. I wasn’t suddenly thrown into school with a bunch of people who were going to try to save me from the sins of my homosexuality but I wasn’t with people who I felt like I could relax around.

Now THAT’S what I call Human Ecology

I have a therapist. I swear the first two things ministers tell you when you tell them you’re planning to go into ministry are 1) “don’t” and 2) “get a therapist.” So I have this therapist who said to try to treat school as an anthropological exploration. She wanted me to act as an outsider learning about this other culture without fully immersing myself in it if that was too painful. That’s not how I learned to learn in my time at College of the Atlantic. As human ecologists we don’t learn only by observing but by immersion and participation in community.

As a human ecologist I am asked to study how I and others interact with our natural and human-manufactured environments. Seminary is a human manufactured environment; we sit in rooms and learn how to read ancient texts, or how to talk to somebody about a crisis in their life, or how to evangelize (yes, that is an actual class and no, I don’t plan to put it into practice as it was taught). I cannot learn from the outside; I have to jump in and try to carve out a space for myself while respecting that others don’t see that space for me as valid.

So I’m here. Things have calmed down a little. People are used to seeing me around even if a number of them don’t really agree with my “lifestyle.” I know that my own denomination is fully supportive even if some of the people I’m in school with don’t understand how that could be. I am serving my denomination on a national level as the Young Adult worship coordinator and on a local level I help lead worship, work with children, and provide pastoral care for people going through difficult times.

The future

I’ve only just finished my first year so I don’t definitively know where I’m going in the future. If I could pick my ideal future career I’d serve as an associate minister with a focus on social justice. I’d be able to continue my social justice work through a ministerial context while still working within a congregational setting. I think the liberal faith voice is essential when “liberal” and “faith” are often pitted against one another in our national dialogues. My background as an activist is integral to my future as a minister and my education as a human ecologist is the lens through which I act in the world. College of the Atlantic has been a non-traditional but hugely beneficial platform from which to approach seminary.

April 15, 2013

A prayer after communion

A friend was preaching tonight at the local Metropolitan Community Church and since he’s somebody I have a lot of respect for and whose ministry I value, I went. I figured “it’ll be a lot of Jesus” which isn’t a bad thing but it doesn’t really mesh with my theology. I was right; it was a LOT of Jesus.

It was a really small service, maybe twenty people in the room all told, and I think I was personally greeted by at least ten of them before the service started. I finally agreed to fill out a visitor card just so they’d stop offering them to me. When reading through the order of worship before service I noticed that they were doing communion and looked around for an explanation of their communion practices.

I’m not as stringently anti-communion as I was when the school year started. I spent a good part of spring break reading about communion practices and came up with my own “guidelines” about when I would and would not participate in communion. Suffice it to say I didn’t figure that an MCC church would have any issues with my participation in communion.

Most denominations that do communion have the same general principle behind it and then mess with it just enough to be “unique” and to “confuse newcomers.” At this church it is common practice to take communion and then receive a short prayer.

Honestly I couldn’t figure out how to not participate. Everyone else was and I was confused so I just made sure to step to the side where my friend was praying with people since, hey, I trust the guy.

I’ve had some bad experiences with folks praying over/with/about/to me. Lots of praying out the demons of homosexuality, praying out the demons that cause me to be rude to my parents, the demons that make me cuss and, when I was 10, the demons that led to my owning a CD by Hanson (perhaps that prayer was justified). Two years ago I prayed with a chaplain at general assembly which sort of made me okay with the practice in theory but it really needs to be somebody I trust in order for me to really hear the prayer rather than focus on the ten kinds of awkward inherent in the situation.

Tonight I held the hands of a friend and minister and he prayed for me and, like I said, I trust him and I respect his ministry and he’s a good person. But the really touching part was that this guy knows me. He knows I don’t really do the Jesus thing much. So he fit the prayer to me. He didn’t end with “In Jesus name” he didn’t throw much (any?) God into the prayer, and there was no hierarchical “Lord.” He held my hands and he prayed for me in a way he knew I would find accessible.

I’m always collecting bits and pieces of what effective ministry looks like but I’m not some cyborg seminary student who simply collects information whilst ignoring emotional situations. I’ve had a pretty rough year and it was really touching to feel cared for and ministered to in a different way than usual.

March 12, 2012

The Foreign Country of “College”

I went to the nicest college I’ve ever heard about.  It’s not the fanciest, or the most expensive (it’s not the cheapest by a long shot!).  We’re not churning out folks in congress (we do have one, though).  My college isn’t well known, and it doesn’t earn the same amount of immediate “respect” upon mention as, say Harvard or Brown.  But it’s a wonderful place where you learn a lot in and out of class and where the people are genuinely nice.

There aren’t really bullies at College of the Atlantic, not in the traditional sense.  If you lined up all the students, which wouldn’t be that hard since there are only around 300, you probably couldn’t pick out who the most popular ones were, or the ones who led student governance, or the ones who spoke the most in class.  In some ways we’re a school of misfits and outcasts who have a lot of good ideas and found a place where we were told to speak up.  You’re in a class of MAYBE 10 other people; if you don’t make your opinions known it’s noticeable.  So you learn to be heard.  Not necessarily to speak, but to be heard.

I learned to speak up before College of the Atlantic; I was carefully groomed by some well-known LGBTQ organizations on how to speak loudly, proudly, and on topic.  I’ve been through more media trainings that I know what to do with, and I know how to pick three talking points and stick to them.  I know how to not get injured while protesting and I know how to deescalate confrontation if it needs to be deescalated.  I know how to make protest signs that cannot be misconstrued by media on the opposing side.

What College of the Atlantic taught me was to be intentional; that it’s actually okay to “sit one out” when something comes up and you’re just too exhausted for it.  It’s perfectly alright to let a chance at organizing, protesting, or giving a speech pass you by and assume that somebody else will take it up.  College of the Atlantic was homogenous enough that I was able to fit in and, therefore, relax.  I didn’t have to be on eggshells there because I was just another one of the quirks at the school.

There’s this thing about college though; it ends. I graduated in 2010, moved out of town then out of state and suddenly I was back in the real world.  The world where my haircut signifies something other than “owns a pair of clippers” and where I can’t expect to introduce myself as Andrew and not have folks question it.  The world where it wasn’t accepted that folks would engage in debate about an issue while sticking, somewhat, to accepted rules.  The world where you can’t point out privilege to somebody and expect them to know what you mean.  The world where people lock their doors at night.

College of the Atlantic, and I’m assuming lots of places like it, gave you enough comfort to fight for what you truly cared about rather than everything that came across your path.  I took a ton of interesting classes there but that lesson, of fighting for what I felt was truly right rather than what I felt I had to fight for, was far more necessary than many of the classes.  It’s not something you can learn in a weekend retreat or a week long class; it took three years to even start making sense to me, and I’m still sorting stuff out almost two years after graduation.

In short, College of the Atlantic taught me to say, “no” when I needed so that I could say, “yes” to life.

And then I left.

It was almost like having lived in a foreign country during your formative years and then being dropped right back off in your country of origin as soon as you hit your stride.

I’m still struggling a little bit; misspeaking here and there, and having some major flops at times.  I forget that it’s not totally acceptable for me to speak up when I feel something isn’t okay in the same way I have been.  That’s not necessarily a good thing, but there are existing power structures that I get to play in to as I move forward toward ministry.  There are some pretty gross examples of people using their power and privilege over me in ways that I hadn’t experienced before because in the past that stuff would have been called out and stopped immediately.  It’s hard for me to step back and say “there’s a power structure here that’s much bigger than me, and I don’t have the right to change it right now.”

This isn’t better than the system at my school.  This doesn’t make those existing and limiting power structures okay.  And this doesn’t make the people abusing their power and privilege over others right or responsible or okay.  And sometimes I’ll explode a little because somebody is being so monumentally ridiculous in private and the antithesis of who they claim to be in public.

But we will get there.  Heaven knows how we will get there.  But we know within.

Right?  Please tell me that’s right.  Please tell me we will get there.  We’ve gotta.

December 26, 2011

Still a Little Broken Up

I’m really good at feeling like I’m terrible at things. Can’t find a job right now? Must be because I am completely unqualified for everything in the world. Can’t figure out how to pay for grad school? Only because I failed at getting a job and have had to defer my student loans. No girlfriend/boyfriend/partner/whatever? Clearly it’s because I suck at relationships and I’m doomed to live alone forever.

Ok, so it’s not QUITE that drastic (at least not all the time).

I applied to be the Young Adult Worship Chaplain at General Assembly this year. The position would have involved creating and leading worship services for the Young Adult caucus, helping plan the Synergy worship, and working with the Young Adult Caucus folks in general to make GA a worshipful as well as active and justice-focused time for Young Adults.

As you can probably tell from the awesome past tense of the previous paragraph… I didn’t get the position.

I got the call as I was playing a magi during the Occupy Boston nativity play (not sure which magi I was… which one carried the gift of housing, again?), so I didn’t answer. I listened to the message (a generic, “I’m calling about this position, please give me a call back”), called back with anticipation, and was told I didn’t get the position (a generic, “you were one of our top candidates but we went with somebody else, we hope to work with you in the future”).

I am proud to say that I didn’t cry until I was off the phone. How’s THAT for discipline?

“Clearly” I thought to myself, “it’s because I suck. It’s because they don’t see potential for ministry in me. I don’t even know why I applied. It was stupid to apply. I’m never applying for crap like that again.” Logically I suppose none of that is true.

One of my good friends serves on the group that picked the chaplain and I know they don’t feel those things about me. But it hurt because I wanted it so, so badly. I wanted it because I love worship and I see how much room there is to expand that and because we are going to be doing AMAZING stuff in Phoenix and I wanted to be a part of that.

I know that just being in Phoenix will make me a part of General Assembly, but I wanted to be a part of the inner workings, the “what makes it go,” and I wanted to be a part of what made it a worshipful experience as well as one where we got to live out our faith through social justice.

I love worship. I love the arts and actions and beauty of worship done well and I’m excited that I’m getting to the point where I have some of those skills and I’m even more excited to continue honing them. I love that I’m at the place where I can get up and offer a service with only days of angst, rather than weeks.

But I also love conferences. I’ve been doing conferences for years and years and years and I know what works and I know what DOESN’T. Conferences hold a special place in my heart, but I have been through so many conferences on so many topics that simply going as a participant is sometimes its own special form of angst-producing. I don’t “sit by” very well, especially when it’s something I care so deeply about.

I don’t even know if I’ll get to go to General Assembly this year since I’m unlikely to get the funding I did last year (and even attending last year still had me spending more upfront money than was really financially feasible for me). But if I do go it’s going to be hard. It’s going to be hard to not be a participant in making GA work, but rather somebody who GA happens to. I want there to be room for me, too, to do things. To engage and help and BE. I’m at a time in my life where I’m relatively unencumbered and I wanted so badly to throw myself into this. And I can’t. There just doesn’t seem to be that space for me to do that. And I’m still a little broken up about that.

December 11, 2011

A Whole Lot of Life

Occupy Boston has been evicted. I will, for the foreseeable future, be sleeping in my own bed. It’s not the end of the movement, at least that’s our mantra, but when I stopped by this morning to see it leveled and behind its own type of bars I had to cry. Just for a little, just because transition is hard. And then the police escorted me away.
At church we say, “our worship has ended, our service begins.”

Our physical occupation has ended, the next phase of our movement begins.

But it is so hard.

It’s been an amazing, hard, beautiful, hard, awe-inspiring, hard, flat out gorgeous experience. It’s an experience that I wish so fervently I never had to participate in but… damn. Damn.

I went to the jail where the women were being held this morning. We hugged and sang as people were released. We moved on. We marched to the jail where the men were being held. We hugged more, we sang more, and we waited. I stood by the exit, handing out food to each released protester and letting them know where to get something to drink, people with a charged phone, and a spot to be away from the media.

It wasn’t warm today in Boston, and even though I’m now starting my fifth winter in New England I wasn’t dressed appropriately. I left the house in that marginally frantic “I have somewhere so much more important to be” mode. I also forgot to eat for a good portion of today and I didn’t drink any water from the time I left the house until I got home.

(Self-care is on my to-do list, I promise.)

I was one of the point people for organizing a multireligious solidarity service prior to our first post-raid General Assembly. We wanted to call folks together, let them air some of their pain, let them be heard prior to entering a very procedural meeting. We wanted to continue the faithful, religious, spiritual voice that had been part of the Occupy Boston movement since before Dewey Square was even occupied. We weren’t leaving now.

I can only hope the service provided something of that space. I was so cold, so tired, so dead on my feet by that point that I don’t remember almost anything of what I said. I know we sang a lot. Snippets stand out; taking a minute to breathe while one of our wonderful and involved priests took the service in her way-more-capable hands for a few minutes, encouraging people to keep singing as somebody was screaming behind us, and making eye contact with friends who I didn’t know were coming and feeling reassured.

But it still felt so final.

The movement meant so much to so many people, but to me it meant that I’m in the right place in my life. I’m doing what I need to be doing. I feel good about who I am, where I am, what I am doing and where I am going. I’m proud of the decisions I’m making and I’m thrilled to be with the people I spend my time with.

I’m not always happy with the decisions that Occupy Boston folks made, autonomous action or not, but I’m thrilled with the role that I, and the Protest Chaplains, have played. I’m thrilled with what we’ve done with what we’ve had. I can’t wait to see what we do next.

After, of course, we sleep.

August 29, 2011

Influence and Discernent and… have I mentioned I hate puppets?

Sorry to all my UUs out there. And my childhood ministers. To the people who have sat with me for hours and listened to me discern or complain or cry. To the folks who have offered prayers in times of need, hugs in time of excitement or fear, or hundreds upon hundreds of Facebook comments offering advice, love, support, or joy.

I’m sorry because the most influential minister in my life was Mister Rogers.

How cliché, right?

I mean, really. This is turning into a “someone I admire” essay for my 4th grade teacher.

But I grew up in a not-so-awesome home. With a mom who was more concerned with drinking and the various men in her life than making sure her kids were being imparted with lessons like “you’re important.” With teachers who had little time to do more than control chaos. With a neighborhood that had more gang violence than picnics. And with grandparents who possibly did the best thing they could have done for me by accident; putting me in front of the TV on the mornings they watched me.

Oh, the other thing you have to know about this is that I hate puppets. HATE THEM.

Got it? Okay then.

I guess I learned some concrete things from Mister Rogers Neighborhood; what break dancing was, how crayons and bike helmets were made, and things of that nature. But mostly I learned compassion. And I learned that some adults wanted me to be curious, to question things I didn’t understand, and that I had things to teach other people. I learned that it was okay to be me, and that it was okay for other people to be who they were. I learned that it was okay to cry if I needed to; in fact, I had an adult man telling me so! I hated the Land of Make-Believe. Would turn off the sound during that part and grab a book to read so I didn’t have to look at the puppets. But I would keep the TV on so I could watch for when he came back, so he could feed his fish and say good bye and sing that he’d see me tomorrow.

Mister Rogers wasn’t a TV show for me. I didn’t really like TV. I liked the escapism that books offered me far more than any TV show. I learned to read at a really young age, mostly teaching myself, and I found a lot more comfort and safety in curing up in a corner with a book than sitting in the open living room with the TV on. I made the exception for Mister Rogers, though.

I think it’s fairly common knowledge now that Mister Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister; he was a deeply religious man that felt his calling was to show love and compassion and equity and kindness to all people, most specifically to children. He was a man of extraordinary heart who often showed that there was worth to every single person. He is quoted saying:

Those of us who are in the world to educate, to care for young children, have a special calling. A calling that has very little to do with a collection of special possessions, but has a lot to do with the worth inside of heads and hearts. In fact, that’s our domain; the heads and hearts of the next generation, the thoughts and feelings of the future.

When I think of who had the most straight-on religious impact on me the answer is probably the minister who brought me back to church, introduced me to UUism. But the minister who had the most theological impact on me? Unquestionably it’s Fred Rogers. The man who taught me to be curious, to never be satisfied with being treated as less than instead of equal to, and the person who sat with me morning after morning and sang to me and talked to me and told me that I was good, and I was worthy, and I was perfect as who I was, not as who others wanted me to be.

I do not want to be a minister because of Rogers. But I want to, in some small way, pay forward what he gave me. I cannot think that I will have the love and courage and wholeness to live each day with the sheer serenity that Rogers showed throughout his life in every interaction, recorded then or years and years later as a remembrance to his holy work. I can, however, hope and strive to use his words, his actions, and his strength of character to encourage me to be my best self.

August 17, 2011

Please stop asking when I’m going to seminary.

I know it seems counter-intuitive – after all, I talk about it all the time on my blog so I must want to talk about it all the time with individuals, right?

But the truth is that I’m scared. I am scared that I can’t do it. That I can’t get into any halfway decent school because I’m not smart/don’t test well/went to a weird school for undergrad. I’m scared that nowhere will want me and the plan I’ve been building up for my future will be shot down before it even gets started and I won’t know what to do. I’m scared that just through the admissions process they will somehow see “the real me” that even I don’t know about and just intuitively know I am “not minister material.”

I’m terrified that even if I did get in I wouldn’t be able to afford it because of my crappy finances and student loan troubles. That I’d have to give up on it because I won’t be able to scrape together the money to pull it off.

And what if those two hurdles disappear, and I realize I can’t do it? I can’t “do” the biblical history classes or the polity classes or whatever and I just fail? What if I’m just simply not smart enough to do it all and I realize it’s not for me.

Are we sensing a theme here, folks?

So many things terrify me about the whole process. Pretty much every step terrifies me. Beyond what I’ve mentioned above…

The idea of the RSCC terrifies me – that I could go through almost 2 years of school and then have them say “yeah, no, you suck.” The MFC terrifies me – that, hell, I could finish school, have completed all or nearly all the steps and still be told, “No.” It terrifies me that at nearly every step that there is one group or even one person who can decide “yes” or “no” and have that be, essentially, the final answer.

And it scares me beyond what I can articulate that I may be able to get through all of that, with the applications and the paperwork and the committees and the internship and the actual school part of it and then, just… not have a place to work.

My identity is still a big barrier for a lot of folks and I recognize and even appreciate that. But it scares me. Just like every other step of this process, it scares me.

It’s pretty much recognized and accepted among friends (and I suppose most who read this blog regularly) that I intend to go into ministry. That is true, I do. I have stopped using “maybe” because, really, I wasn’t fooling anybody. I want to do it; if other things or people stand in my way then I may not, but it won’t be because I don’t want it or decide against it at this point. But the blocks do seem stacked against me.

But what I said above? That’s not what people want to hear when they ask where I am in my discernment process. They don’t want to hear “well… here are the seventeen and a half itemized reasons it won’t work complete with subcategories and footnotes.” At least, I assume that they don’t and even if they do I don’t really want to go through it with every person. Because I don’t want to hear, “I’m sure you’ll be fine.” Or “everyone is nervous when they start out!” or any other platitudes that don’t carry meaning. You don’t know that I’ll be fine, that I’ll find the money somewhere, that I’d be great in ministry, that a congregation will call me, that a school will accept me, that I’ll find an internship or any of the other myriad of things you’ve promised me. You don’t know that. You may have faith that I will, but you don’t know it.

Thank you so much for caring; for asking where I am and what I need. But what I need right now needs to come from within.

(also, do you REALLY think you won’t all know immediately?  I mean, really – through some combination of twitter, facebook, this blog, texting, emails, or (for a very select few) exuberant phone calls… I promise, you’ll know)

July 20, 2011

Let me defend the Evangelical Christians for a moment…

My first sermon was not preached in a UU church. It was not carefully constructed with thoughts to both theology and current events on a Google Doc with input from friends. It did not have multiple drafts, quotes from folks, hymns that were thematically appropriate, or readings that both correlated with and enhanced the sermon.

My first sermon was given when I was 12, and I wrote it in purple glittery gel pen in my 7th grade pre-Algebra notebook. The topic was “why bullying is bad” and I basically quoted a bunch of Bible verses where people are nice to the folks who are different and then told people they were going to hell if they bullied people. It was not a good sermon. Yes, I still have a copy and, yes, it makes me cringe and want to crawl under a table and, no, I’m not going to post it.

I gave the sermon in front of about 200 twelve to sixteen year olds at a Wednesday night service in the Children’s Chapel. There was nothing special about the service – that was a fairly typical turnout for the youth group and we always had two sermons; one by our youth minister and one by somebody else, be it one of us, somebody brought in from a special group, a “special guest” such as a missionary or some Christian youth or young adult who had a particularly inspiring story about how God and/or Jesus had saved their life in some kind of real or metaphorical sense.

My rant-against-bullying-disguised-as-a-sermon was much less exciting than the “girl who was killed at the Columbine massacre because she said she believed in God” speaker (even though I later found out that that was totally not true). But it was my first sermon. My first time officially speaking out to a large group of people about religion and how religion could and, moreover, SHOULD influence our lives and I was hooked.

A few short months later I was kicked out of that church because I had come out at school as gay and the pastor had found out.

It was never that I thought that God hated gay people, or that I thought that there was no religion that would accept queer folks. I was from Los Angeles and I wasn’t blind – I knew what a rainbow flag outside a church meant. But I just didn’t want any church, I wanted THAT church. That church with my friends, my grown ups, my church grandparents, and the little kids that I SO loved working with during Sunday School and Children’s Church.

My energies turned elsewhere. I got really involved in activism, learned how to run meetings, speak at political protests, canvass and phone bank and petition and lobby and form committees and run committees and be on committees and combine committees and dissolve committees and occasionally even create meaningful change with committees.

I was angry at that church for years and I let myself get caught up in the hatred of all religion that so many of my peers (rightfully, to tell the truth) harbored in their hearts. I should be angry, I was told, and organized religion was the main thing screwing up our world. And it was true that many, many of the things I fought against were caused by the religious right in the first place.

But that church taught me so much. That church was my first experience with the concept of “chosen” family and for all of the hell and damnation talk that gets publicized what I remember most is a lot of hugs, and helping little kids make flower petal hats and singing songs about a God that loved us all the time. “God is good, all the time. And all the time, God is good.”

I remember hugging people, and feeling so grown up when adults said to me, “Peace be with you” and I knew to respond, “and also with you.” feeling like I was really participating when I knew how to open the hymnal, find the hymn number, and follow along. I remember endless games of tic-tac-toe with my little brother on the back of the offering envelopes and my ex-step-father (the person who brought me to church for years after he and my mother split because he knew I wanted to go) pretending not to notice.

I remember how pleased the pastor was when I came to him and was saved and all my 11 year old sins were washed clean by the blood of Jesus Christ my one True Lord and Savior and the enormous sense of relief and happiness I felt because I was now “in.” I don’t remember feeling better about myself, or that anything big had changed, but I remember how happy other people were when they heard.

Most of all I remember the pastors of that church, both official and unofficial. I remember looking up to them and respecting their faith and how certain they were in God and hoping and praying that someday I’d be that positive that there was a God there for me. I looked up to them because, for the first time, I had adults to look up to and respect. Who were living their lives well and righteously.

I don’t dislike them for it. I did for a long time; I accused them in my heart and to my friends of lying to me and of ruining the lives of so many. But now I come around to it and I can’t find it in my heart to dislike them. The people who intentionally ruin the lives of others are the ones I dislike; but these folks didn’t do that. They did not set out to ruin my life, or even to make it any harder. They wanted me to be so in love with God that I lived my life for Him that I may be greeted at the gates to Heaven with the words of my Father, welcoming me to eternal life, “well done, my good and faithful servant.”

And in their eyes I had chosen something that wasn’t going to lead me anywhere near there. I had chosen a life of sin and wickedness. The devil had a pull on me but clearly I was so young that prayer and study and just some good old fashioned growing up would win me back.

I was right to leave. Even if I don’t dislike the people of that church I know that they are misguided in how they approach a multitude of issues, including LGBTQ folks and people with mental illness, promoting prayer over acceptance, prayer over medication, and prayer over proper psychiatric care. I know that I would never have found acceptance there and I know that I would never have been encouraged to leadership without a lot of deception and unhappiness.

But my finding UUism is not my salvation from Evangelical Protestant Christianity. It’s simply the resolution of my, mostly unknown, want for a faith community and the right circumstances that brought the two together.

In the end I think it had to be queer issues that brought me back to faith; with anything less I would have been skeptical to their true motivations no matter how many rainbow flags streamed from the rafters. In the end I think it had to be a queer minister who said, “welcome. You are wanted here.” in order for me to believe it.

And in the end I think those experiences in middle school with an unaccepting church and my years of working through that to be happy again with religion were necessary for me to see a future for myself as a person of faith. I already knew how much I loved and valued religious community.

Now I know how much a religious community can love and value me for all of who I am. UUism has the necessary systems in place for change and growth and movement and while it may never be as quick as I may like it’s possible and, moreover, it’s expected and wanted. And with this religious community where we, as we say in so many of our faith communities, “strive to live Dr. King’s dream of unconditional love,” we have the chance to say, “you are loved, and you are welcomed, and you are wanted, and you are not less than.”

I do not think that every person in the world needs UUism as so many Christians are told that all of humanity needs to accept Jesus. I do think that every person in the world needs love and if that love happens to come to you in the form of Jesus well, then, awesome. If that love comes to you from your biological family that works. We all, it is hoped, derive love from a multitude of places. One of the places I get love is from my faith community.

I went to a “Unitarian Universalist Revival” a number of weeks back and ended up sitting next to my minister (rather, he sat next to me). We sang and we laughed and I was just as awkward as ever and we heard sermons that inspired and touched us and at one point we were told to turn to those around us and say, “I love you beyond belief.”

I’d just like to say right now that it was weird.

I found myself thinking, on the way home, what exactly “love beyond belief” was. Beyond who’s belief, exactly? “My own” was my eventual answer. The people around me loved me more than I was willing to believe. Just as I love those around me more than, I am sure, they are willing to believe. And just as many millions around the world are told that God loves them more than they can ever believe.

The point here is that love is the glue that holds us all together, and love is our best expression of our faith.

I don’t think that there should ever be qu’ran burnings, legislation based on religious ideals, or 12 year olds getting kicked out of church because of who they kiss in the corner at the 7th grade Valentine’s dance. I don’t think that those are good expressions of love; I don’t think many of the extreme actions of Church’s are actions grounded in love at all. I do think that we have to strive to look at what the perception of theology that actions are based out of is. I think we have to work from there, in love, to change things. Or to show that there is another side that doesn’t feel the same.

Many, many actions are inexcusable. My point here is, essentially, twofold. One is that nobody does something for no reason. Two is that if all actions have an equal and opposite reaction let us make our reaction one of love and expansion and hope not of fear and hate based retaliation. It is the only way we will grow.

And that growth is why my second sermon WAS preached at a Unitarian Universalist church.

July 15, 2011

Innate vs. Learned Understanding

Sometimes I am in “Official LGBTQ Educator” mode; I’m ready to change the world with knowledge and make everything better for everyone and absolutely nothing less will do.

And sometimes, most of the time really, I’m just not.

Usually I’m happy to say a few words on what I mean when I say I “prefer the pronouns he/him/his” or answer some questions on LGBTQ youth inclusion or expand a little on my work with various queer organizations. I will always always always answer, “what does LGBTQ” mean, but there are times when I don’t want to go beyond that.

And often those “times” are when I just want understanding. When I have been hurt, by my community or by a stranger or by somebody close to me, I don’t want to have to educate FIRST in order to receive sympathy and understanding.

I don’t want to explain why it bugs me that people don’t “get” my pronouns even though,

“yes, I know I look female” and,

“yes, I acknowledge that most people don’t have much in the way of trans education” and…

“ok, nevermind, you’re right, I shouldn’t be upset.”

Just because something is understandable doesn’t meant that I have to like it.

It becomes harder to find those folks who you don’t have to educate, first, before you can just be upset as your identity becomes more specific.

When I’m just looking for some understanding about something broadly related to queer issues? I really don’t have to go further than 2/3 of my Facebook Friends List, most of the contacts in my cell phone, or pretty much any of my friends I see on a frequent basis.

As I narrow my identity I have to scroll further in my contacts list, specifically search people out on Facebook. When we get down to the identity of “Genderqueer/Trans-masculine person interested in Religious Leadership” my options for who to contact are pretty small.

My denomination, Unitarian Universalism, pretty much sets the bar for LGBTQ inclusion in all facets of denominational life, from laity up through ordained ministry. And we actually do set it pretty high. This is not one of those “we set the bar but that’s not saying much” situations. But just because we are, officially, welcoming, open and affirming does not mean that all of our congregations are “there” yet, by any means.

And sometimes when that messy, hard, and infuriatingly slow growth work is happening, when those feelings are inevitably hurt by people who, likely, had the best intentions? Those are the times when I have to dig through my Facebook friends list, find the friend who I know will “get” what I need to complain about better than most allies can.

Living an oppression is different from observing an oppression. Even when you observe that something is “bad” it’s way different when that bad thing is not observed but acted on you.

I want to throw it out there that I love my minister. I came into the church and, fairly quickly, started asking things of him, both personally (oh, hey, talk to me about ministry kthx!) and of the congregation (um… here’s a list of ways in which that was SO NOT OK). He’s been phenomenal when what I have thrown at him, offering up solutions and understanding. But I’ll admit that after some of the stuff at the church around trans issues I called one of my queer minister friends for a kind ear before I emailed my minister about what was going on and how we could change it.

I called somebody queer because they have that innate understanding. I knew that she’d be able to “get” what, exactly, had made me upset even before I could fully articulate it. And she would be able to drag out more of the “why” than people who had not lived through similar things would be able to.

My queer and trans religious friends are the ones who keep me going; who encourage and uplift me, and who I share more of that bond with than I may with a non-queer minister I happen to friend on Facebook. We are a community, we are a family. It’s not exclusive, it’s just necessary. We want to see each other succeed because to see another succeed is to see part of ourselves succeed. Seeing a trans-identified person in the pulpit is a little beacon for me, letting me know that the path may not be paved, but that there is, in fact, a path.

It’s one of the reasons the chaplain at GA was so helpful to me. It’s one of the reasons I’m so glad our intern minister is who she is. It’s one of the reasons I came to, and stayed, with UUism even after my last church did so many awful things. It’s one of the reasons I believe in this faith.

It’s not the only reason. Every one of my queer minister friends is just a great person, at least from what I have seen and what I know. Being queer does not automatically mean you’re one of my new favorite people. But it does give me the idea that you, likely, have experienced a lot of the same stuff I have. It gives us a bond that goes beyond the individual. And it’s important.

It’s not the only reason, but it is a reason. And it’s a pretty important one to me.

June 28, 2011

Hold my hands and pray with me.

Charlotte, North Carolina is not what one would call a comfortable city in late June. Sticky and hot. Not perfect for somebody who doesn’t wear shorts and really feels that the bathing suits of the 1920s had a lot of promise.

So, yes, I suppose I was thinking about the weather when I was “supposed” to be praying. Prayer is emotional; it is, at its best, intense giving and receiving, release and retention. The weather is none of those things. The weather is not immediately affected by us. The weather is there. And, as Kate Braestrup says, “I’m a UU. We don’t do weather.” In that we (in general) do not pray for some deity to please make the weather work for our events and purposes.

I sat with the young adult chaplain, outside, thinking about the weather in hopes I could stop crying and look a little more human before the next workshop I was slated to attend. But it turns out that it isn’t that easy to block out a prayer being said for you, especially when you really need to hear that prayer. That is when your heart takes over because your mind is being too unwilling to grow or change. I gave in, I listened, I cried, and it helped.

It helped. And it was needed.

I was sitting outside with a chaplain in the middle of the North Carolina heat during General Assembly because we, as Unitarian Universalists, are amazing.

Amazing and affirming and beautiful. We are all of those things, but we aren’t perfect. And one of those imperfections had come up during a workshop session that morning.

The workshop was about welcoming transgender people and I attended hoping to watch how two facilitators, both of whom I knew and trusted, would handle a discussion with a larger group of UUs about trans issues, especially considering what is going on in my congregation right now. During the workshop we split into small groups and were given scenarios to discuss. Our scenario was the following (paraphrased from memory):

A member of your congregation has made it known that they are going to transition. You overhear comments about the person, calling them, “he/she,” “it,” and using statements like, “He will always be Dave to me!” What would your response be as a member of a right relations team? As a board president? As a newcomer?

Again, that is really paraphrased but it is the general idea. In the small group I said, “I have been doing trans activism for over eight years and I came to this workshop to gain a better understanding of the UU response to trans people, so I’d prefer to listen rather than participate.”

So I listened to my group and, well, yeah. They had ideas. But those ideas were all about group education; sermons, workshops, bulletin boards, etc. Nobody mentioned actually calling the person out, in a way that was compassionate and preserved community, but made it known that language that disrespected dignity and identity was not OK. At least, that’s what I scribbled down in my notebook.

I was chosen from my group to report back to the rest of the workshop and when I did I read off the notes that I had taken, and then I added my own piece about calling out offensive or oppressive language. I gave a strategy, I made suggestions, and I sat down. After the workshop a woman came up to me with a friend and said that calling people out on language was offensive. That, “Acceptance is a two way street,” and that I have to “accept other views on gender identity” if I am going to ask others to accept mine. A few minutes later a man came up to me and told me that, while these issues may seem really important to young people, there are a lot of bigger problems facing the world.

I responded to both in the best manner I could. I told the woman that if she could look at it as a sign of trust and love that a person felt strongly enough that she would react well and lovingly if they called her out on language that it may help. She blew that off entirely. To the man I said that we all can, and should, care about more than one issue of society but that trans discrimination was present in every demographic. In other words I drew on every nonviolent communication strategy I’ve learned in the past 10+ years.

I then promptly walked outside, got on the phone with my best friend, and cried at him for awhile. And then I furiously started texting other friends. People who would get my frustration and let me be in my anger. At least, I thought they would just let me be. Then a friend responded with, “why don’t you talk to somebody there? Somebody for some spiritual response to this?” “No!” I replied, “it’s fine. I’m just mad.”

“Andy, you are going into ministry with these people. These people will eventually be your colleagues and your congregants and your life. You can ask them for what you need.”

I’m fairly sure that that is one of those statements you aren’t actually allowed to argue with.

So I texted the young adult chaplain, asked if we could talk, and set up a time.  Admittedly I had assumed some things about their identity before deciding they’d “get” it if I wanted to angst about trans stuff.

We talked. We kicked off our shoes and talked while sitting on an uncomfortable metal bench outside the convention center. We talked about gender identity and acceptance and church and the intersection of the three.  And then the chaplain held out their hands and asked if I wanted to pray. And I said OK. And we held hands, and prayed about navigating the tight ropes and muddy roads and already paved streets of Unitarian Universalism as a trans person.

I did not intend for that to be essentially the defining moment of my General Assembly.

But in a lot of ways it was.

Anybody who regularly reads this blog knows I blog about two things: Queer issues and UUism. And you also know that there have been some issues with the intersection the two for me in the past few months. We, as Unitarian Universalists, are accepting of queer people in every official way, but because we are humans and we err and we do not change as a cohesive group there are issues and there is lag time and there is inevitable hurt, and I’m living through a lot of those issues, as are many of my queer and trans siblings.

I did not want to let that one workshop taint my whole conference but I didn’t really want to “let it go” either. I talked about it with a few other trusted friends at GA, but my mind kept drifting back to that uncomfortable metal bench, and that prayer. All through the rest of General Assembly that is where my mind kept going.

GA was not just a big conference for me, and that is something I did know was the case going into it. I went in hoping to gain clarity on my call, in one way or the other, and looking to figure out where I am and where I want to be within the larger community.

Any of my friends will tell you that I can be emphatically awful at asking for help. With at least two friends I am not allowed to say, “I’m fine,” when they ask how I am doing. They, of course, often answer in the same way, which is not a contradiction in their minds. What matters it that I not respond, “I’m fine.” Even when I actually am.

I’m learning, though. I’m learning that I am allowed to ask for help and, moreover, people want to help. There are people who devote their lives to that helping; to being that prayer. I’m considering devoting my life to being that prayer.

Prayer is what, if not just asking for good in the world? The “who” varies, the “what” varies, the when and the where and the why and the how all vary. But prayer is said to seek more good or to say thanks for the good that is present.

There’s this song, Sanctuary, that I have always loved though I insist it doesn’t really match my theology.

Lord prepare me / to be a sanctuary / pure and holy / tried and true. / In thanksgiving / I’ll be a living / sanctuary for you.

But if we redefine God as “the good in the world,” which I choose to do, then we are asking to be a sanctuary for good. We are asking to be that living prayer, that incarnation of asking and receiving and acknowledging good in the world.

One of the other big moments of my GA was the workshop called “Meet the Ministerial Fellowship Committee.” Thought FAR less emotionally charged it really got me thinking – when the MFC looks at me what are they going to want to ask? What will they be concerned about? How much of the interview will be focused on my gender identity, my relationship to the often painfully slow and frequently superficial-seeming growth work that would have to happen in almost any congregation before they call a young, genderqueer minister?

But combining those two things I do know that I definitely don’t have to, indeed I can’t, go through this alone. I have my queer UUs who have gone before me, and who will go with me, on this journey. My queer family who supports me because they have been there. And I know that these people will pray with me when I need it, listen to me when I want it, and hold me up when I inevitably stumble, as I do for them and for others. We are there for each other, as queer family has always, always been there for each other, even when none of us has a clearer view of what is next.

We are going, heaven knows where we are going, but we know within.

We will get there, heaven knows how we will get there, but we know we will.

It will be hard we know and the road will be muddy and rough,

But we’ll get there, heaven knows how we will get there, but we know we will.

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