Audre Lorde

 

“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.

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.

Reflections from the Women’s March, Washington, D.C., January 21, 2017

 

Pussy grabs back,
I was raised by a nasty woman and now I’m one, too,
Black lives matter,
We the People,
we bodies of the people,
are greater than fear,
keep your filthy paws off my sticky drawers,
this is what democracy looks like,
I stand with Standing Rock,
no disrespect, no going back,
we will not go quietly back to the 1950s,
my body, my choice, her body, her choice,
no to racism, homophobia, misogyny,
climate change is real, save the planet,
this man grateful to be raised by a nasty woman,
immigrants welcome, hatred not,
if I wanted government in my vagina I would have slept with a senator,
no human is illegal,
hands (or dick) too small to build a wall,
and on and on,
homemade signs and improvised chants everywhere,
notes of this land is your land, we shall overcome, on many lips,
sassiness, joy on many hips,
and arms, hands, smiles, laughter.

We came from everywhere
hundreds of thousands,
bodies gathering one by one, two by two,
young and smooth, old and wrinkled,
women yes the most but men, too,
children, parents, grandparents, college students,
tots in strollers, gay, lesbian, bi, trans, cis, straight,
Black and Brown, Christians, Muslims, Jews, immigrants
Dreamers, sex workers, clergy, lawyers, singers, accountants,
clerks, dock workers, athletes, unemployed, underemployed,
doctors, social workers, retirees, and all the rest.
So much joy, so many smiles, laughter and song,
dancing even when packed like sardines between monumental
buildings made small by roars of voices joined together
to stand, to rise—Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise resounding in every heart—
Angela Davis with hair out to here
reminding us of all the connections from
Ferguson to Orlando to Planned Parenthood,
from Standing Rock to Palestine.
We marched and when we could not move,
still we marched,
our hearts beating with the pulse of liberty
and justice for all. We were, we are, the People
whose claim on this nation does not cease
because voices of yesteryear now hold official power,
seeking to recapture some imagined golden era
when men were white and ran things,
while women, Blacks, queers, natives, Latinx, Muslims,
Jews, trans and physically challenged folk, and elderly,
all the rest of God’s people,
kept to themselves, not getting in the way
of those who keep anointing themselves
the powers-that-always-are and shall be.

Power to the people the long ago cry
of those marching, blocking roadways, and sitting in
to protest elites sending our beautiful boys
into senseless, ill-fated war—
now expropriated by billionaires and millionaires
to convince people with much less, so much less,
that they are all on the same side,
while cutting taxes for the richest
and insurance for the rest,
claiming science is a hoax
and Islam work of the devil—
a topsy turvy world,
growing more Orwellian by the day,
in which, for which, we must march,
more we must organize and write and speak
and sit down where we are not welcome,
learning from Dr. King and Malcolm and suffragettes
and so many more that there is nowhere
the arc of justice will not bend
and create the change we need
when we link our arms and hands and hearts
and minds and souls, becoming the angelic troublemakers
of which Rustin spoke and Baldwin wrote,
remembering as sister outsider Audre Lorde wrote, too,
our silence will not protect us,
only we claiming our power can do that.

We the people: This is our time, again.  

 

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