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.