Unlock the Trap–Part 1

 

“If we- and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others- do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world” 

― James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

Note to the reader: This is the first installment in what I hope will become some queer theological conversation, aimed most specifically at the faith community I love, Metropolitan Community Churches, but also available and helpful to any persons or people who seek wholeness and justice for all. I begin with some story, and then in subsequent posts will move to some analysis and theology. I invite your response at any time. 

I came into Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) in 2001, in my middle 50s, through MCC New York. I appreciated the racial, sexual, and gender diversity of the congregation and the focus on social justice in preaching and mission. Rev. Pat Bumgardner rarely missed, and still rarely misses, an opportunity to connect biblical readings with contemporary events and our spiritual and ethical responsibilities, including racial justice.

MetropolitanCommunityChurch New York
MCC New York

But in retrospect I realize that dialogue about white racism, privilege, and supremacy, was not part of congregational life. I don’t mean Rev. Pat and Rev. Kristen Klein-Cechittini, the pastoral leadership during my time at MCCNY, failed to preach about it (they certainly did), but rather that we did not have facilitated, ongoing, intentional conversations within the congregation.

Please understand I am not engaging in after-the-fact criticism of them or other leaders, who did and do so much to promote justice (and may have done much to promote dialogue after I left in 2003), but rather to reflect on why even progressive congregations and leaders so often fail to engage this topic, especially in sustained dialogue, that is so central to the social fabric of the United States. And I wish to hold myself accountable for my participation in this failure.

When I came to MCCNY I had completed a Ph.D. in Theology at Disrupting white supremacy from withinUnion Theological Seminary in the City of New York. My doctoral work and dissertation were focused on the theological value, beauty and power of darkness, especially in the writings of James Baldwin and Audre Lord. I had learned a lot about white supremacy, privilege and racism, and was actively engaged with two other colleagues in theology and ethics on a book of essays, Disrupting White Supremacy from Within: White People on What We Need To Do.

But I did not apply any of that to my life in the church, even when I became the Director of Adult Christian Education.

In 2003, I was elected pastor of MCC Richmond, Virginia. The city proper has a very significant African-American population, approximately 60% in 2000. The suburban counties around Richmond were far more white, 20% non-white, or even less depending on the jurisdiction.

Among other things, the Search Committee and Board charged me with diversifying the congregation. When I arrived there was one person of color, an Afro-Caribbean woman, in regular attendance.

MCC Richmond exterior
MCC Richmond

I included racial analysis in my sermons, made a vow to myself to include each week a quotation by, or reference to, a person of color, and I laid plans for observing Kwanzaa right after Christmas. That first year, all but one of the readers in that service were people of European descent.  One young African American man who had started coming with his white husband shared in the readings. We put kente cloth on the communion table.

I do not know if those steps, which I continued for the remainder of my time as pastor, had anything to do with slowly rising African American attendance at worship and the gradual inclusion of African American members in leadership. What I believe jump started that trend more than anything was that several transgender African American women, some would say “divas,” started attending church.

Their presence was visible—they did not shy away from being very much noticed. When one, who was widely known as a performer in the community, was murdered and I was asked by her mother to offer the eulogy and our church to host what became a standing room only funeral, there was a noticeable uptick in attendance and involvement. The death was tragic and awful, but it did open some doors for others.

I prevailed on some of our white leadership to join me for the post-funeral repast in the neighborhood, usually avoided by white people as an unfriendly and dangerous area, where she had lived and been shot. That opened the eyes of some of them—they discovered that these neighbors were good people and that they need not be so fearful.

Those changes did not necessarily alter the reality that most white members did not socialize outside church events with Black people, or have close African American friends. In fact, a reality I discovered during my candidacy to become pastor—namely that white people danced at one gay club and Black people at another, and the white people did not even know the name or location of the other venue—continued to be the norm until I left the pastorate in 2013.  There were individual exceptions, but they were few.

Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology at Virginia Union Unversity

I knew the name and location of that club (although I do not remember it now) but I never visited it, never even asked any parishioners or others about it. I decided at one point to seek connection with African American clergy but after a couple of less than satisfactory forays I did not persist. I did try to build some connection with the dean and faculty of the seminary at Virginia Union University, an historically Black institution.  But I did not put much energy into it, mostly attending an event from time to time. And other than members and leaders of the church, I did not seek out African American friends.

What I am hoping to discern and convey in this personal history are the dynamics at work in me, in the congregation, and possibly in those in the African American community to whom I reached out. I do this not merely as an historical enterprise but also as a way to better understand how white supremacy/racism/privilege worked, and works yet, in my life–so I can live now in ways that diminish their power.  As a queer theologian, I think stories, actual lived experiences and bodies, are vehicles for creating understanding and change.

As Baldwin said elsewhere, “White people are trapped in a history they do not understand.” It is possible that my story here may also help other white people in the MCC movement, and in other contexts, to examine their own stories and unpack the dynamics at work in them—in order for all of us to do more concrete, effective work to overcome the power of white supremacy, to dismantle the trap, in our church and our world.

In my next post here, I will offer some reflection on this history, sharing what I see as some of the underlying power and privilege dynamics at work. In the meantime, I invite you to ponder these observations and to reflect on your own stories—as part of beginning to understand the history in which we are trapped and to learn how to break free of it and change ourselves and the world.

Erotic Community with God’s Body

On February 22, 2018, I presented a ten-minute talk about men and erotic community on Jonathan’s Circle Live. Here is the link to that talk.

Jonathan’s Circle is a group of men, many in the DC Metro area but ranging as far as Australia, who share an interest in spirituality and sexuality, and engage in open conversation–sometimes in person for Circles, on a Google+ page, and through an online blog. Here is the link to blog, and here is the link to Jonathan’s Circle web page.

My talk certainly is not limited to men, so I invite all to check it out. Of course, I would be very interested in your thoughts.

I will be posting some additional writing on this topic here soon.

Stripping Down

In many venues, I identify as a Queer Theologian (and poet), but I have made a deliberate choice here to leaven that with the idea of nakedness–because I believe (I want to say I know if it does not sound too dogmatic), that when we are most vulnerable we are most true to our inheritance as offspring of God.

Queer Virtue book coverIn her graceful and very wise book, Queer Virtue: What LGBTQ People Know about Life and Love and How It Can Revitalize Christianity, Elizabeth M. Edman shares a definition of priesthood that was given to her by a friend:

A priest is someone who stands in a place of remarkable vulnerability, and by doing so, invites other people to enter the sacred. 

This expansive understanding of priesthood fits well, as Edman says, within the Protestant concept of the priesthood of all believers. In that way, it undercuts the clerical hierarchy that is so often an impediment to spiritual growth and health among “lay” people. Indeed, it may help end what is often seen as a binary of lay/clerical difference–a chasm which leads too many non-clerics to think they have nothing useful to contribute to spiritual life and too many clerics to think, or at least act as if, they have everything that is needed.

Robin clergy collar less smile Sept 2015 smaller3_edited-4There is institutional authority vested in the office of priest or pastor, or rabbi or imam–depending on the tradition and the community, it can be a lot. However, it is the authority of personal and interpersonal vulnerability that is far more powerful in ways that transcend the usual humanly created boundaries. And that authority is available to all the faithful. We are called to be, as Edman says, a priestly people.

I am a nudist at heart, but I did not change this blog name simply to take my clothes off (or feature others who do so) online–although that may happen from time to time. At the same time, I recognize being physically naked as part of a continuum of spiritual and emotional nakedness and vulnerability.

I still wear a clerical collar when I go to church, but I am not sure entirely why. I have no formal or pastoral role in worship, and even if I did it is not my clothes that make it possible. It may be a sign of comfort for some, but increasingly I chafe and wish to dress as more myself.

Robin with longer hair and beard (cropped)_edited-1I started this most recent journey in my life by taking off all my clothes and discovering much joy in nakedness by myself and with others. Now I see that I may want to consider each item of my costume–not as a form of striptease but as a way of really exposing, at some deep levels, all of me.

Taking off the collar may be a greater signification of my priesthood–a priest forever, as my friend and mentor, Carter Heyward, has written–than wearing it. Then I am more likely to stand in that place of remarkable vulnerability and thus invite people to enter the sacred.

That is my desire, and I believe it is God’s desire for me, and you, and all creation.

 

 

Naked in Philadelphia, Part 2

I had a blast in Philadelphia!

Riding naked with hundreds of others, maybe even a thousand, dressed or undressed as they chose, was a great joy. The cheers and thumbs up signs from passersby were numerous and exciting, and the feel of sun and breeze on my entire body (even on my bottom when we stopped and I had to get off the seat and stand up) was, as always, a pleasure.

I came away from this experience filled with eagerness for more opportunities to be naked with others, inside and outside. The sense of freedom and delight, exuberance and joy, was palpable throughout the entire event.

That’s me, with “Bare Is Beautiful” painted on my chest

It took me no time to stop feeling self-conscious about the details of my body–too much tummy and too many wrinkles, too small genitals–and to just enjoy the flow. There was every kind of body. I saw a man with only half an arm, and somebody who appeared to be intersex, and they, like me, wore smiles and laughed with neighbors.

I saw every kind of penis–including some smaller than Dick (or as I often call him, Cock Robin)–all shades of skin color, weight ranges from rail thin to obese, heights and ages of every sort, including children with their parents (kids clothed, parents naked) and people who looked well older than me.

It was not a strenuous ride, mostly level ground. The biggest challenge for me was navigating in a sometimes crowded grouping, moving slowly or even stopping and starting due to traffic signals. At 70, my balance is not always sure, so I teetered a time or two but did not go over. What I noticed was that when I did bump someone else they did not get angry; when I apologized, all responded with some variation of “Hey, it happens to all of us.”

Robin bare butt PNBRWe rode for a little less than two hours, and I was grateful for every moment of it. I met up with one friend although we got quickly separated during the ride, he being a veteran naked biker and very sure of himself.  We had never met but knew of each other through Jonathan’s Circle (a group of men who explore sexuality and spirituality together, but not a sex club). I wished I had come with a group. Everyone was friendly, but it would have been much fun to share the experience while riding with other friends.

It was great fun to see all the slogans painted on bodies–“Bare Is Beautiful” was painted on my chest in purple by one of the volunteer body painters (and the acronym for the ride on my butt)–and various costumes, head gear of all sorts, capes a couple of riders with fairy wings. Next year I will wear my helmet!

Yes, this was about promoting safe cycling and energy conservation–two very vital causes–but I have to admit for me the real deal was just being naked in a major city for several hours with a whole bunch of other naked folks.

How about it? Will you join me next year? If we car pool, we can really be more energy efficient. And here is a short video clip of me riding (note: you will see naked bodies)

……can’t you see how much fun we are having!!! (I appear at about the 15-second mark)

And next year, I am thinking I will go the day before to be rested for the ride, and I will stay over the night of the ride so I can share in the after-parties, at least one of which was a “Fuck Clothes” event. Now that sounds like fun, too!

I am becoming aware of my desire for nakedness in my life, no clothes, yes, and also being open and vulnerable in every way possible. I believe that is the way God wants me to be. The Philadelphia Naked Bike Ride was a grand step on this journey.

Stay tuned for more in this space, maybe even for the debut of The Naked Theologian!

 

 

 

A Life Worth Living

[This is the first installment in a series focusing, as I prepare to turn 70 in October, on what is so far the second half of my life, the 35 years that began in 1981, with looks back at earlier days as they affect the later ones.I am hopeful that this serialization of my life may provide some of the components of a memoir of a life rich in faith, hope, joy and love.]

Thirty-five years ago today–August 23, 1981–four people sat around a makeshift table to eat pizza and birthday cake. The occasion was the first birthday of Marjorie Elizabeth Gorsline, known then, as now, as Meg.

The setting was the second floor apartment of the Gorsline family–mother Judy, three-year-old sister Emily, Meg, and me, known as Daddy to the girls and Bob to Judy–in married student housing at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA. We had arrived two days earlier, driving from Milford, MI, so that I could take up seminary studies.

Our furniture had yet to arrive, so we borrowed two chairs from kind neighbors for the adults and a milk crate on which to put the pizza box and then the birthday cake. Emily sat on the floor and Meg in our laps (and often on the floor), a great dining adventure for us all.

Meg & Kevin Party 015
Just about my favorite picture of Meg, from a wedding shower in 2009.

This was the beginning of an even greater adventure for all four of us (and a third daughter, Robin, who would arrive 16 months later)–a huge life-change for me to come about one year later that would over the course of that following year throw all of us into new and often painful, and, for me at least, often joyful and sometime frightening, and ultimately fulfilling territory.

But for now, all we knew was that we had left our Midwestern roots for the storied East. Judy was seeking a job to provide financial stability, Emily and Meg needed to be enrolled in daycare, and I had to get ready for classes.

What had caused all this change in our lives? I had felt a call to ordained ministry, having grown dissatisfied with the limits of political life. It was near the end of my first term as a Republican member of the Oakland County Board of Commissioners, as I was seeking re-election in 1978 (a few months after the birth of Emily), that I had begun to discern disquiet in my soul about the vocational direction of my life. After an easy electoral victory, I told Judy that I was feeling pulled toward ministry.

As ever a wonderful helpmate, she encouraged me to talk with our priest, Rev. Jacob L. “Jake” Andrews, at St. George’s Episcopal Church, where I served as a lay leader and she an active communicant. It took me a couple of months before I gathered my courage and went to sit with Jake in his study at the church, a sanctum I had visited many times over the almost 20 years he had been our spiritual leader.

Jake said, “I wondered when, or if, you would recognize this. I am relieved and glad.” I shed a few tears–but not too many, because he was a Bostonian by birth with a quiet demeanor who seemed often to be embarrassed by displays of emotion. And then he began to help me chart a course that could lead me to seminary in the fall of 1981.

As it happened, Judy had grown tired of teaching fourth graders and was happy to contemplate possible new career paths. So both of us looked ahead with eagerness to a new journey together.

Before we would leave, she became pregnant again. I did not receive this news, initially, with gladness, having been convinced that she and I, both raised as only children (I had two older half-sisters but had not been raised with them, and Judy was truly an only child), would do best with one child.

But Judy, raised by unhappy, perpetually quarreling, mutually distrustful parents, felt she could not risk Emily being consigned to the sort of lonely, emotionally bereft childhood she had ensured. We had talked about all this, and I thought we were still debating the issue. But she, by then 39 and worried about her ability to bear another child, had decided on her own to stop using birth control.

When she told me she was pregnant just after Christmas in 1980, I was stunned and angry. I felt deceived. It was in some ways the forerunner of another, even more jarring time, when one of us would feel that way about the other.

But as I watched Emily grow excited at the prospect of a sibling (especially when we were able to tell her she would have a little sister) and saw the bloom of pregnancy and joy in Judy, I too was overtaken by happy anticipation.

And of course, this baby, named after Judy’s beloved Auntie Marge and my favorite older cousin, Elizabeth, turned out to be a delight, the greatest sort of joy any parent can have. At her birth, I loved my three women.

So on this day, I especially celebrate Meg, whose intelligence, wisdom, beauty, grace, and courage remind me so very fondly of her mother even as all of it is, of course, the mark of the particular embodied gift of God she was on her very first earthly day and all the rest since and into her bright future. There is none like her. She is her own person, beautifully, wondrously so.

[There is more to tell about our journey to, and our life in, Cambridge, and beyond; stay tuned for the next installment of “A Life Worth Living.”]

 

 

It’s National Redemption Time

en.wikipedia.com
en.wikipedia.com

Would the United States be better off if mothers were guaranteed paid maternity leave of five months? Or better if workers had at least a month of paid vacation every year? Or if workers had more say in the policies and operations of the companies for which they work? Or maybe if school lunches were actually not only nutritious but also sophisticated and tasty?  How about no death penalty? How about prisons that are not designed to punish so much as to simply deny freedom of movement and association to convicted criminals for a fixed amount of time and to help them during that time to build new lives when they are released?

These and other provocative questions are raised in Michael Moore’s new film, “Where to Invade Next.” The film is a sort of political travelogue around Europe, with a side trip to Tunisia, exposing policies and practices in those places that Moore posits would be good ideas for the United States of America. He even claims most of the good ideas originated in the United States, raising the question of why we are not using them now.

This is a spiritual question for me (although probably Michael Moore would not use that language). Or as others might say, it is a matter of values.

Part of the answer, as I see it, is revealed in a segment of the film where Moore contrasts the dogged insistence of Germans to learn from the horrors of their past–to expose the national involvement in the Holocaust, to remind each other in very public ways of how they rejected humanistic ideals and accepted, even celebrated, ugliness and monstrosity. Germany does not stop telling the stories of victims and its complicity in the evil.

face2faceafrica com
face2faceafrica com

Moore draws a sharp contrast between that behavior and the denial that pervades U.S. culture and politics around our racist, white supremacist past and our national white-privileged present. Moore shares graphic pictures and videos of police beating black suspects and inmates today and their counterparts in harsh pictures of lynching in the past. Have we made any progress?

Well, yes, of course, laws are more fair, and the equality promised by the Declaration of Independence and the constitution and fought over during the Civil War is closer to realization than it was one hundred years ago. But legislatures still pass laws whose effect, and I think intent, is to reduce voting by proportionally disadvantaged portions of the citizenry, and we are locking up Black men at an alarming rate (and we can’t blame this on higher rates of drug use in the Black community than among those who call ourselves white, because the reverse is true). As Michelle Alexander has written, this “incarceration while black” is the new Jim Crow.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander amazon.com
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
amazon.com

To be sure, the countries Moore visited (‘invaded,” he says, in an attempt to connect our militarism with our lack of social progress, a subject for another blog) are not perfect. They have problems, too. But they are doing things to improve the life of their citizens, and they are doing this through the social contract, through the governments they institute, as our framers instituted our nation “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

As I read these soaring words, these noble objectives, I hear the stark, deeply disturbing, contrast with the political rhetoric awash among us today.  The framers approached the national question, “Who are we called to be?” with hope, with generous spirits, with an awareness of divine providence and abundance. Too many of our leaders, and would-be leaders, today approach the same question with stinginess, with an underlying mentality of scarcity, with deep fear expressed in angry words of division and derision toward those who disagree.

Our national soul is at stake in this election season. We need to find it and claim it, really claim it for the first time since the early days of the new nation and perhaps the Civil War.

The fundamental question remains, will we, as Dr. King said in 1963 and as Lincoln said 100 years earlier in different words with similar import, will “this nation . . . rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed . . . . ?”  

boston.com
boston.com

Or will we continue to stumble over the ugliness of our past, denying the roots of our present-day tragedies, pretending that murder and mayhem, poverty and power-less-ness among whole segments of our people are simply the fault of a few bad actors and some weak, lazy individuals and even groups of people out to take advantage of kindness, care, and just treatment under law?

It’s confession time, my fellow Americans, my fellow “we are white” Americans. Black activists, artists, and others keep giving us yet another chance to clean up our act, keep marching and protesting and educating, and still too many of us look away. And the politicians who never even mention “race,” let alone racism, white privilege or white supremacy, are lying to us. They may be lies of omission not commission, but at some point not speaking a hard truth means you are complicit in the ongoing power of that truth.

Denial of a real problem is dangerous to your mental health. That is just as true for our nation as for individuals.

ejvictorsofa.tk
ejvictorsofa.tk

We need to go into analysis, as a nation, to name, face, hold up, and root out our demons. Michael Moore has given us a mirror to look into, a way to ask some questions of ourselves and our leaders. As a first step, I urge you to see the film.

And if you have not yet begun a conversation about our national disease in your family, at your workplace, your spiritual home, your neighborhood, or not yet participated in such a conversation, I urge you to start (or continue) that conversation now.

It’s redemption time, folks, and each of us has a role to play.

A Pilgrimage Home

These wintry days in the northern hemisphere mean layers of clothes even inside and more darkness, too.

winter darkness
flickr.com

As someone who likes to wear as little as possible as often as possible–barefoot is always my desire, and nakedness often a delight–this is not good news.

And yet the darkness can be a joy. I appreciate slowing down as dusk descends, preparing for dinner and an evening of quiet at home. Also, I most definitely enjoy morning darkness in which to meditate before dawn, and even to go walking in the winter grayness, seeing the tree limbs arched gracefully against the sky.

But more in these days of angry talk about people from other places and locking up more of our own citizens–usually people whose skin is darker than mine–I am cherishing even more darkness. I mean the darkness that actually expands our awareness of life, the beauty of cultures and lands and people and beliefs that have their own integrity, and challenge and enrich my own.

light shines in the darkness John 1-5
pinterest.com

It seems no accident that in a nation built from the ground up on the architecture of white supremacy there is little valorizing of darkness. Of course, this is in line with so much Christian theologizing that turns to light to overcome darkness. I have not done sufficient research to determine the intertwining history of all this, but clearly neo-platonic dualisms, Euro-American colonialism, manifest destiny, theological paeans for light over dark, all help produce an ideology of dark/black/native as less worthy than its “opposites,” and even downright bad or evil.

A key element in the work of those of us not dark–by whatever definition–to heal our nation is to begin to celebrate what is dark. It is right to oppose the targeting of immigrants and the mass incarceration of black men, and many other policies and attitudes built on negative views of darkness, because we believe in justice and equality, but we must go further: we must valorize, we must celebrate that which we have ignored, belittled, and oppressed and tried to kill. Even more, we must let darkness change us.

We must claim our own darkness.

Stanton MI map
simonhoyt.com

I have written elsewhere about how my mother and my aunt repeated many times to me that my grandmother was “the first white child born in Stanton, Michigan.” (map left) Somehow that was seen as a mark of distinction for her, for us, a heritage of which I was to be proud.

As a child, I suppose I did see it that way. But along the way I began to think about all the babies born there before her, and after, who did not, do not, meet the definition of “white.” There were, are, beautiful babies, too.

africa-flag-map
potentash.com

And more to the point, our ancient heritage, black, white, native, brown, is rooted in Africa. We are all, at base, African.

Perhaps it is time go home, not as missionaries, to change people there, but as pilgrims on a spiritual journey to be changed, to come into our own deep, dark selves.

And absent the opportunity for that, we can open our borders, our minds, our hearts, to those who have much to teach us right here, right now.