Archive | Public Theology RSS feed for this section

the right hand of fellowship?

10 Jun

These words were given during the Ordination of Christe Lunsford at First Unitarian Church in Louisville, KY on June 9, 2019.

Rev. Lunsford (!!!), over the years I have watched you grow in your ministry. From those early days of being the music director at First Unitarian, to working with you on the ministry team, through your discernment to enroll in seminary and all that it entailed.

And so I am thrilled to be with you today. THRILLED!

The offering of the right hand of fellowship is one of our oldest traditions, which comes from the Christian Scriptures. In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he writes that during his commission as an apostle, he received the right hand of fellowship from the other apostles. It was a symbol of their mutual relation, their equal authority, and their common affection. It was a pledge that they recognized each others gifts and that they were colleagues on a greater mission. Though they knew they might never meet again, they pledged fidelity to each other and were, in effect, bound by the ties of faith and suffering and hope.

It was the right hand, as opposed to the left, in part because offering the right hand was a show of peace, demonstrating that one had no weapon.

So this ritual is one that is grounded in our history. Offering you the right hand of fellowship today suggests a covenant among colleagues. We are fortunate to be part of a living tradition that has inspired our lives and has been passed down for generations. Fortunate to be a part of a vocation and a role that is much bigger than us as individuals.


Let’s get real. Most of those who have participated in this ritual through the ages have been cis-white men. They haven’t looked like me until relatively recently. And they haven’t looked like you until really recently. And sometimes, we fail in our collegiality with each other. We fail to recognize one another’s call and gifts for ministry. As our colleague the Rev. Elizabeth Nguyen recently reminded us at the ordination of Sara Green, professional associations are fallible, and even collegiality and the collegial covenants we create can be weaponized to serve white supremacy, patriarchy, heterosexism and capitalism.

I can offer you my right hand and still stab you in the back with my left.

And so, I have the temerity to suggest an adaptation of this ritual as a part of our living tradition – an update to better fit the times we find ourselves in – times when it is no longer only cis-white men welcoming one another into collegiality, times when our ministers represent a much broader array of genders, orientations, cultures, races, ability levels and more.

Instead of the right hand of fellowship, I would like to offer you the hug of collegiality. With your consent, of course.

Unlike a handshake, a hug demonstrates true care and concern. With a hug, I make myself vulnerable to you, and you do to me. We welcome each other into our personal spaces. We use both hands (no side hugs!) so no hand is free to backstab. And a hug says: I have your back, and I know you have mine as well.

I offer you this hug of collegiality, knowing that it has not and it will not be easy for you. That you will have to continue to demand your right to exist, even within our faith tradition, even, sometimes, among your colleagues. But you are not alone. Many of us already have your back, and will support you, and challenge you. We will move with you in the world, in whatever ways we can, knowing that your very presence as our colleague makes us all better. Knowing, too, that we need each other.  Because the mantle of ministry is impossible to bear alone.

So in offering you this ritual today, I say for myself, and for our trusted, faithful colleagues: We are here for you. In the good and the bad, the ups and the downs. And we expect you to be there for us, too. May this ritual be a symbol of our mutual relation, our equal authority, and our common affection. Know that we recognize your gifts and that we are colleagues on a greater mission. We exhort you to be faithful to this sacred trust. I have no doubt that you will be – indeed you have already proven your faithfulness.

And so, Rev. Lunsford, in an update of the custom of our congregations, as a part of the living, changing, growing tradition we share, on behalf of myself and our trusted colleagues, may I give you the hug of collegiality?

eulogy at #StopTheBans

21 May

The eulogy I gave over those who “died” during the die-in at the Louisville Stop the Bans rally today.

Me, with my daughters dressed as handmaids, picture taken by my mom. Three generations of pissed off women, united around the right for all people to have bodily autonomy.

We gather today to remember and to grieve. These people, these women, these human beings who were our mothers, our children, our sisters, our partners, our friends, have died.

We gather in the shadow of death because the spirit of justice demands to be heard.

We meet with sorrow in our hearts, and anger at the travesty of their deaths.

We meet to give form to our grief, to seek the comfort of one another’s presence, to loudly declare that laws banning abortion are an affront to human life and dignity.

We come together with age old questions in our minds, and on our lips and in our eyes – why her? Why them? Why now? Why did it have to be like this?

And in our hearts the deep wisdom, knowing, without answers, that even in the shadow of death, the spirit of justice cannot, will not be silenced.

We know that 65,000 women die each year world wide because they don’t have access to safe, legal abortion. And we know that here in Kentucky, we were the first to pass the bans, we lit the fire to all the bills sweeping across the country.

But those who have died are more than statistics – they have stories for why they could not complete their pregnancies, and their stories demand to be heard.

They are people for whom having a baby would dramatically interfere with their education, work or ability to care for their children.

They are women who have completed their child-bearing years.

They are people who did not feel ready to be a parent or want to be a single parent.

They are women living under domestic violence who are afraid.

They are children who have been raped.

They are women for whom pregnancy will harm their health.

They are people who were denied essential reproductive healthcare, and it cost them their lives.

They are people who should have had agency over their own bodies, their own futures, but who have, in some ways, more bodily autonomy now that they are dead than they did when they were alive.

But the brutality of their deaths started long before the injustice that killed them.

The brutality is found in the denial of comprehensive sexuality education, and in lessons that wrongly teach that abstinence is the only moral answer.

The brutality is found in the lack of access to health-care options as clinics closed around the state.

The brutality is found in the fact that poor women of color will be disproportionately harmed by these laws.

The brutality is found in the men with power who insist that ectopic pregnancies can be re-implanted (they cannot) and in the men who believe that if women just close their legs they won’t bleed during their periods (also false), and in the men who insist that the body has ways of shutting down and not getting pregnant after a rape (ridiculous).

The brutality is found in the outrageous idea that a woman should be expected to know she is pregnant before she has even missed a period.

The brutality is found in punishing healthcare providers for doing their jobs.

The brutality is found generations of white men united in their dedication to restricting our bodily autonomy, who have made political war over those of us with a uterus.

Now the work is left to us, the living, to carry forth the demands for justice even as we grieve. To demand, in the names of those who have died needlessly, that our bodies are sacred, and that we are endowed with the dignity and right to make our own healthcare decisions.

We gather today to remember and to grieve. These people, these women, these human beings who were our mothers, our children, our sisters, our partners, our friends, have died.

To grieve is to love and to love is to cry out for justice where it has been denied.

If so much that is precious can be so easily lost, let us work tirelessly to ensure that not one more follows. We won’t go back. No matter what.


Paying Attention

4 Apr

This is for my White friends and acquaintances who I still see talking about #JesusChristSuperstarLive but who aren’t talking about the role race played in the show.

I don’t normally watch the “Live TV” events that occasionally happen because I find them pretty awkward, but I will confess I was excited about NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar. It is a musical that I love and the cast looked fantastic. I figured we would give it a try.

The opening was amazing, but when Mary (played exquisitely by Sara Bareilles) began her iconic Everything’s Alrightmy focus shifted and I realized that I wasn’t just watching a new staging of an award-winning musical; I was watching a commentary on black/white relations in the United States: Mary, a White woman, was pleading with Judas and Jesus (played by two Black men who knew things were escalating towards disaster) to calm down and not take things so seriously. “Try not to get worried, try not to turn on to problems that upset you, oh. Don’t you know, everything’s alright, yes, everything’s fine.”

White friends – Did you notice this? Did you notice that it was a White woman who was telling these Black men to calm down. How often do we White people get uncomfortable at Black rage? How often do wetone police? And here it was, starkly presented, right here before 9.4 million viewers, most of whom were probably white.

We’ve seen before how flipping the racial narrative on a cast can give new understanding to an old story. Hamilton, anyone? If we want to become allies, the first steps are to educate ourselves and to pay attention.  #JesusChristSuperstarLive can give us a lens into our own commitment level to confronting racism and white supremacy, especially in the context of systemic oppression via police brutality, militarism and the prison/torture industrial complex.  Here are eight other ways that I caught (and I know I didn’t catch it all) that race played an essential role in the production:

1) Having a Black Jesus.  I don’t know about how other white people grew up, but Jesus was never ever black in the traditions of my experience. At best, and I mean at very best, he was a bit brown. But even that was unusual.White people seem to get upset when Jesus is portrayed as anything other than White. I would link to site after site trying to argue that fact, but I don’t want to push traffic that way. Look it up yourselves: many White people can’t handle that Jesus was not White. But he wasn’t. Having a Black Jesus is an important corrective to the dominant narrative. Especially as we will see below.  Seeing someone who looks like you on tv, in books, in advertising, in the toys children play with – this sort of representation is crucially important. We know this. From the chatter I’ve seen on facebook from Black friends, having a Black Jesus was absolutely a game-changer.

2) Having a Black Judas. Now, Judas has been portrayed as black before. In fact, Judas (played by Carl Anderson) was one of only a few black characters in the 1973 movie Jesus Christ Superstar. What was new here in #JesusChristSuperstarLive was the dynamic between a Black Judas and a Black Jesus. In the song Heaven on Their Minds, Judas sings “Listen, Jesus, do you care for your race? Don’t you see we must keep in our place? We are occupied! Have you forgotten how put down we are?” These lyrics take on a totally different meaning when Judas is singing to another Black man. We are reminded of the distinction Chris Hayes introduced many of us to in his book A Colony in a Nation, which highlights many of the ways that Black communities and Black men in particular are treated as if they were unruly colonists who must be controlled and managed by those in power.

(The fact that the part of Judas was played by Brandon Victor Dixon, who gave the Hamilton cast speech when VP Mike Pence attended & who did a Wakanda salute at the end, just added to the awesomeness.)

3) Notice how both Herod and Pilate are White. The men making the decisions, the men with the power, are White. Just like 7 in 10 senior executives and just like the vast majority of our elected national representatives in the House and Senate. Yeah, Pilate may be tortured about his decision, but he also caved under pressure. How many of us white people have done something similar? Maybe we have cringed silently and not spoken up when we we were in a situation with a work colleague spouting racist ideas. Maybe we strive towards being colorblind and don’t even realize how we are unwittingly contributing to racism.

4) So now you might be saying, “But Caiaphas was black!” And that is true -Norm Lewis was amazing in the role. But Caiaphas, as a Pharisee, didn’t have the power to have Jesus arrested on his own, did he? He just made the recommendation to Pilate (a White guy), who had the actual power. Having the Pharisees all be people of color invoked classic Uncle Tom imagery of a Black man who sells out his race in order to get a little power – just like the slave drivers who would beat their own for whatever scraps the white slave master would throw his way. Dynamics of divide and conquer and starvation economics where there isn’t enough power so we grab what we can are both at work in this dynamic. I’m reading Trevor Noah’s book Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood right now and the passages on the creation of apartheid are stunning to me in that this was a system that was intentionally created to turn the black Africans against one another by giving different groups different sets of rights. How else do you control a population 4 times as large as your own? It is a stunningly effective strategy for mass oppression.

5) Let’s go to Mary again. This time, singing I Don’t Know How to Love Him when she asks in the chorus “Should I bring him down, should I scream and shout? Should I speak of love, let my feelings out?” – How many of us White people are in that situation? We are trying to be allies, but we don’t really know what to do. Do we join the with the anger? Do we fight back with love? What does it really mean to be a White ally to Black people in the United States in 2018? It can get complicated and confusing. But unfortunately, our confusion and our fear of making a mistake often leads us to wring our hands and offer vague comfort from afar.


Steps to Ask Yourself Before Calling the Police

6) When the police show up in Gethsemane, Judas kisses Jesus and they embrace, and the police try to pull Jesus away. Judas has suddenly realized how this is not going the way he expected, and he holds on to Jesus and tries to pull him away from the police. Judas learned the hard way: if you call the police on a Black man, prepare for it escalating. White people, in particular but not exclusively, who think the police are benevolent forces of law and order often have a difficult time realizing that a call to the police about something innocuous like vandalism might result in the murder of an innocent Black man with a cell-phone in his backyard. In case you are wondering, there are some excellent online resources for trying to determine whether you should call the police.

7) After Jesus is taken away and Peter has betrayed him, Mary comes to comfort Peter – to offer him forgiveness. Both of them are non-black. While they are both rightfully upset, they turn and walk away. They have the privilege to be able to sit with each other, comforting one another, while Judas and Jesus are both tortured (Judas internally) and die. How often do we, as White allies, return to our bubbles to lick our wounds? What would it be like if Mary and Peter had gone to Judas and included him in their circle of grief? Instead, far too often, we retreat instead of laying our lives down on the line for the beloved community that we crave. What would it look like if we didn’t let each other off the hook quite so easily?

8) This last one is about what you didn’t see rather than what you did. Rather than invoke the imagery of a slave receiving a whipping by having Black Jesus flogged, the creative choice was made (brilliantly, in my opinion) to instead have different members of the community beat Jesus. Yes, it showed up as whip-marks on his back, but in this case, it is Jesus’s own extended community that turned on him. How often and in how many ways do we turn on the Black men in our community? Eric Garner shouldn’t have been selling cigarettes. Tamir Rice shouldn’t have been playing with a toy gun. Stephon Clark shouldn’t have..what? Been in his grandmother’s backyard with a cell phone? We blame the Black victim – sometimes because we are trying to make sense of a situation that makes no reasonable sense and other times to try to protect ourselves from a world of violence that feels out of our control. But the system is doing exactly what it was designed to do. As White people, we have power and we need to use it to end systems of oppression like our prison industrial system, policing system, and work for solutions like felon voting rights. Can you imagine what our country might look like if 2.3 million Black men weren’t incarcerated? If 1 in 8 of them weren’t disenfranchised from voting?

So there you have it. Here are just 9 (including the first Mary example) creative decisions, brilliantly made, that expose a mainstream audience to the epidemic of violence against Black men. And I know I missed quite a few.

I had no idea when turning it on that this new production of Jesus Christ Superstar would be an allegory for what it means to be a Black man in the United States in 2018. #JesusChristSuperstarLive used an old story to offer a new challenge to those of us who wish to be White allies: Pay attention, and then go educate ourselves on how systemic racism and white supremacy culture are alive in the United States today, so that we might be a part of the solution.

long committee meetings and why few people are willing to attend them.

6 Mar
We have 200 children in RE and 8 teachers recruited.

photo credit: Joy Berry

So you are a leader in your congregation and you are having a difficult time finding volunteers for the XYZ committee. You feel like you’ve tried everything – advertising in the newsletter, asking people directly, but still, it is the same few folks who say “Yes” and they are getting burned out. You are worried about what the future might hold. You wonder: Is your congregation alone in this struggle?

Absolutely not. Many congregations are struggling with this same issue. And there is not a one-size-fits-all solution. So let’s take a few minutes to look at why congregations are struggling, and then look at a a few possibilities to think about.

There are three primary reasons why the volunteer landscape is not as lush as it once was: time, commitment, and relevance. Once upon a time, long ago, many congregations could rely on a stable volunteer force: stay at home mothers. They ran the church – from volunteering in the church office, to religious education classrooms, to music/membership/worship committees and so on. But in these days where many families have two working parents, this is no longer a viable source of volunteers (and indeed, it hasn’t been for quite a while). Parents, in particular, are pulled in many different directions as their children’s sports, music, art, and academic enrichment programs keep them hopping each evening. When families can barely find time to eat dinner together once a week, how can we expect them to make time for a 2+ hour committee meeting? Many of our congregations are still structured in a way that depends on exactly these folks and we find that the same people who were volunteering when their children were young thirty (or so) years ago are still the go-to volunteers when it comes to operating the church today.

Combined with a lack of time, many congregants today are also struggling with making the commitment to an ongoing volunteer position. We see this in the way they pledge, as well. Many people don’t want others to rely on them in case they (or a family member) gets sick and needs care, or if their work schedule changes, or if they’ve just had a rough week and need a night off. In their minds, it is better to not make the commitment than it is to let someone down. For many years, nonprofit organizations that rely on volunteers have found that the number of people interested and available for key volunteer positions (which require an ongoing commitment) has dropped off dramatically. However, this does not mean people are not willing to volunteer in other ways – the number of people willing to volunteer episodically has risen dramatically. Episodic volunteers participate sporadically (perhaps only certain times of the year) and volunteer without an ongoing commitment.

Finally, volunteers are concerned about relevance. In those long gone halcyon days, church was often the center of a congregant’s social life, and as such featured long committee meetings with loosely structured conversation, often complemented by drinks and snacks. Today, however, volunteers are usually not looking to make the congregation the hub of their social lives. Instead, they want to know that the work they are doing is important and has meaning and is directly tied to the mission and impact of the congregation. They want the time they put in to be efficiently utilized and impactful in the community. It isn’t that they don’t want their volunteering to have a social component – far from it, but having a social component to a relevant, efficient volunteer opportunity is different than a volunteer opportunity that (intentionally or unintentionally) centers the social and puts the work as secondary.

So what might adjusting to this new(ish) volunteer landscape look like at congregations, where volunteers are often difficult to find due to time, commitment and relevance issues? Interestingly enough, I think that the three factors impacting the volunteer landscape are the same three factors congregations can use to address the issue.

First, since potential volunteers have less time than they used to have, a congregation would benefit from having flexible ways to participate. Allowing participation from teleconferencing software such as zoom enables people to stay at home and still participate. For each committee, evaluate whether the standard monthly 2-hour meeting is really necessary, or if perhaps shorter meetings, or less frequent ones, might be possible to get the work done. Because many congregations are still using the committee structure of a generation (or two) ago, and often just keep adding on new ones, it would also behoove congregations to look at what work is essential to the mission of the church and what might you stop doing, in order to do that which remains even better.

In terms of commitment, congregations would benefit from looking to see how they could better use episodic, task-oriented volunteers. For instance, is it possible to have an usher/dishwasher/greeter/fill-in-position-here checklist so that someone who shows up and wants to help on Sunday can easily follow what to do? Episodic volunteers sometimes find the work so fulfilling that they want to volunteer more, so having commitment tiers (low, moderate, high) of volunteer opportunities allows a volunteer to contribute in more meaningful ways as their commitment to the congregation grows.

Finally, to address concerns about relevance, it is essential to make the connection between the volunteer opportunity (whether it is episodic or key, low/moderate/high commitment level) and the mission of the congregation. How does this volunteer opportunity serve the congregation and/or larger community? How does it bring our values and our faith alive? What will a volunteer expect to get out of the experience? This can get done at an orientation, or during the opportunity itself, or in a volunteer appreciation event the congregation might hold.

The volunteer landscape has changed substantially in the last fifty years, and our religious communities need to adjust as well. Volunteers are an essential human resource to accomplish the mission of the congregation and to keep the doors open. Volunteerism thrives in organizations where there are multiple ways to contribute and where the expectations are clearly stated and connected to the mission of the organization. It is essential to approach this task and manage volunteers at least as carefully (if not moreso) than a congregation manages its financial resources.

faith on a plane, part 2.

26 Jan

As I passed through security, something unique happened. An older man looked at me, smiled, and asked what denomination I was with. For a year now, I’ve made a practice of wearing my clerical collar when I fly. I haven’t worn it every time – but probably about 90% of the time I do. I would guess I’ve been on around 50 airplanes in that time, so we are talking about a substantial number of flights. My uniform is pretty standard: collared shirt, sweater, jeans, and, of course, the pins that I wear every day (Black Lives Matter, rainbow flag, world religious symbols and a safety pin). After all this travel, this man was the first to comment on my collar and ask my affiliation.

Instead of asking me about it, I’ve found that most of the people who catch the collar quickly look away as if they don’t want to be caught staring. Whether it is staring at a clergy member in general, or at a female clergy member in particular, I don’t know. Interestingly enough, I’ve also found that seatmates talk to me less when I am wearing a collar than they do when I am in regular clothing. I don’t know if they don’t know what to make of me, or are intimidated – but my collar provides a strange boundary that allows me more personal space since for decades I seem to have had a neon sign above my head that says “Tell Me Your Problems!”

I began wearing the collar when I fly after reading story after story about unruly, rude, oppressive behavior on planes. I was hoping that people would be on their best behavior around a clergy person. Or that I would be a calming presence. I’m not sure my presence has stymied any potential fights, but I do know that the woman who I was seated next to on one flight, who was very angry with the couple in front of us, felt she had to tone her vitriol down since she was seated next to me. So maybe that is something.

Here is what I think is going on: people still don’t know what to do with a female cleric. It makes them confused from the get-go. And if they happen to look at me long enough to see the pins, they get knocked off-balance. I should make it explicit: I don’t get any negative comments about the pins. Maybe I would if it were just a rainbow flag pin, or just a Black Lives Matter pin. But the combination of the pins makes is quite clear that I am in support of those who are oppressed and marginalized in our society. Unfortunately, this is often in direct opposition to the image the clerical collar presents. Generally, I think the intersectionality of a woman in a collar wearing these pins makes most people especially confused. When I have a chance to interact with someone for more than a couple of seconds, if that person is a person of color, they almost always comment on how awesome my pins are. The only white person who ever said anything presented as gender non-conforming.

Meanwhile, I don’t believe I’ve gotten any special treatment while wearing my collar. Due to my obliviousness of things that happen behind my back, I have no idea what sort of snickers or other comments might follow in my wake. I suspect it changes my own behavior more than anything else – I find I smile much more at people, and am unerringly polite – this behavior doesn’t feel like a burden, though. Instead, it feels more like a way to gently bless the world with my care and consideration.

It seems a small thing, this little piece of plastic tucked into my shirt, but it makes me a walking, breathing testament to what should be impossible in many people’s minds, and it makes me move in the world with just a tad more grace. I’ll continue to wear my uniform when I fly.

If you are a clergy member who wears their collar when you fly, what are your observations?

leaving Indivisible Kentucky.

21 Sep

It is with deep sadness that I announce that I am severing my ties with Indivisible Kentucky.

Like many of you, I was distressed at the outcome of the November election. It was clear to me that I had to act, particularly since I live in the home state of Mitch McConnell. When I read the Indivisible Guide in mid-December, I thought I had found a format that might work and began contacting the connections I had made in the social justice community. What appealed to me, in particular, was the section on Diversity and Advocacy:

As you conduct outreach and expand, keep in mind that we’re all stronger if we represent a diverse set of voices and perspectives, and especially when we center the voices of those who are most affected by Trump’s agenda. So please make a conscious effort to reach out to a diverse group of people as you build out your group. Women, members of immigrant, Muslim, African American, Latinx, and LGBTQ communities, as well as people of different incomes and education levels, health and disability statuses, and ages, are some examples of those whose engagement and leadership are especially valuable and needed in this work. This can also be particularly meaningful for those of us who identify across these categories. Resistance needs solidarity to succeed.

My vision was to use the guide to create an intentionally multi-racial, multi-cultural, truly diverse organization in Louisville that would unite people to hold Mitch McConnell (in particular) accountable to all the people.

Along the way, we did a lot of good work. We were first on the scene with regular rallies outside Mitch McConnell’s office. We worked with others in the community to pull together a rally when VP Pence came to town, and then turned around and did it again with Trump did two weeks later. We had Rep. Yarmuth attend a packed meeting. Over 3000 follow the organization on social media.

Unfortunately, however, my vision was not to be. With primarily white, middle-class, middle-aged people in leadership, the people of color who joined us were marginalized and tokenized. We did not center their voices or experiences. Time and again we proved ourselves to be the white moderate progressives who tone-police by telling those who are marginalized to not be so angry, or to just wait, or to follow our tactics. We were patronizing. We did not have enough voices at the table to help us make good decisions in what messaging to use. In short, we were bad allies.

Though we tried to educate ourselves and our followers – through getting online training and having a leadership retreat that focused on ways that we unintentionally participate in and reinforce oppressions like white supremacy and misogyny – it was not sufficient. Perhaps it was because the message of Indivisible appeals primarily to new, white activists who are not fluent in the languages of oppression and intersectionality. Perhaps it was because we were all volunteers and did not have the time or energy to make the needed course corrections. Certainly, it was in part because the crises from the Republican administration kept coming, which kept pushing our education pieces to the back burner as we felt we needed to respond to one crisis, then another, and another, in a never-ending flow of disgusting material coming from Washington. It is difficult, if not impossible, to build a bicycle while also riding it.

Regardless of the reasons, it has become clear to me that I have been unable to lead Indivisible Kentucky, the organization which I co-founded, into the organization I envisioned. Though I am deeply grateful for all those who have dedicated their time and energy towards the ideals of the organization, I regret that it has divided, rather than united and find I can no longer be a part of it.

faith on a plane.

25 May

Talking with a colleague recently, he asked about the increased travel I am doing as a Congregational Life Consultant for the Southern Region of the Unitarian Universalist Association. I told him I enjoyed it, and that I had worked out most of the details – what processes work for me, what hotel chains I like, when to fly. At that last point, we talked about how difficult it can be to fly as clergy – as soon as our seatmates ask what we do for a living, it opens all sorts of doors for conversations we may, or may not, want to have.

When I told him that, for the past 9 months, I have been wearing my clerical collar whenever I fly, his face took on a shocked expression. “Why on earth would you do that?” he asked me.

I shared with him that I was bothered by the increasing violence that is occurring on planes, and that I wanted to be prepared to be a force for good if something happened in my presence. I know that people respond differently to me when I wear a collar. If I were to witness something violent on a plane, in a collar I could stand up and be a witness in ways that are more powerful than I could as a mid-40 year old woman. Especially if I then started singing or praying.

I also want people to know that I am a safe person – that I am willing and able to try to de-escalate a situation, or be a good ally if that is needed. So in addition to my collar, I also wear my Black Lives Matter/Pride Flag/World Religions safety-pin (which I wear every day).

I completely understand why some of my clergy colleagues prefer to travel anonymously. But for me, this public witness is a part of my spiritual practice when I travel. It is a away to claim my religious authority and put my faith in action and declare that I am on the side of the marginalized. As a white minister, I have so much privilege. This feels like a good way to use it. I hope I am never needed in such a way when I travel, but if something does happen, I am ready.

Beyond the Balcony and the Dance Floor

10 May

Originally shared in the Southern Region blog, but I like it so I am sharing it here, too.

It’s been quite a while since I last joined a mosh pit. No, I am not speaking metaphorically (yet). For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, a mosh pit is an area, usually near the stage at a live concert, where people engage in some pretty full-contact dancing – bodies slamming into each other, usually to loud, energetic music. I loved being in the pit when I was younger, but as I was nearing my 30s moshing evolved into people throwing elbows at the faces of other dancers and I decided that I had had enough.

When my spouse recently got us tickets to one of his favorite punk bands from the 70s and 80s, we decided, rather than getting general admission tickets which would put us down on the floor, we wanted to be up on the balcony with secured seats in case we needed to give ourselves a break. It was worth the extra expenditure, but not because of the seats. Instead, I found that I spent nearly as much time watching the dancers on the floor as I did watching the band (who were amazing). And I saw something I’d never noticed before.

There was a group of young adults, slamming away. Old school – no elbows, just running into each other, bumping shoulders. Full-contact but not violent. As I continued to watch, I noticed that there were a few big, older guys around the edge of where the pit had formed. They stood in front of people who didn’t want to be slammed into, protecting them from the dancers and simultaneously allowing the dancers to lose themselves into the abandon of the dance. These guys would also push the dancers back into the pit if they strayed too far, picking them up if they fell down – occasionally even getting the dancers going in a circle pit.

I’d never noticed this role when I had been in the pit in my younger days. I’m not sure if they existed, or if that is a role that has developed over the years as moshing and the pit have evolved. It almost made me wish I was down on the dance floor – these “conductors”, as it were, made the dance floor a safe space not only for the concert-goers who didn’t wish to be bumped into, but for the young people in the pit as well.

So now let’s expand this into metaphor. Business and leadership guru Ronald Heifetz often refers to the concept of “getting on the balcony” when he talks about leadership. He talks about how our view and experience of something is different depending on whether we are on the dance floor, or if we are able to get up on the balcony. From the dance floor, there is just the music and the dancers, but from the balcony we can see all sorts of patterns. In Leadership On the Line, he writes “The only way you can gain both a clearer view of reality and some perspective on the bigger picture is by distancing yourself from the fray [by getting up on the balcony]…[but] if you want to affect what is happening, you must return to the dance floor.” The magic spot is the place of balance, going back and forth between the two, using our experiences on one to shape the other.

In leadership development, we often encourage those in leadership to “get up on the balcony” – particularly when there is a situation that is fraught with conflict. Remove yourself from reactivity, from the heat of the moment, and get up to the balcony and watch the patterns, the process. Then you can go back down to the dance floor with greater clarity about a situation.

But after my experience at the concert, I’m going to add a new role when I talk about the balcony and the dance floor -“Floor Conductor” – for those times when we are on the dance floor and see that space needs to be made, both for people who need to dance a bit more exuberantly than others, and for those who just want to enjoy the music. Floor conductors can help ensure that all participants are able to dance and participate the way they want, and need to, safely.

So get up on the balcony when you want a view of the big picture and the patterns that you can’t see from the floor. Go to the dance floor when you want to impact a situation beyond making observations about it. And be a floor conductor when you want to help create a safe place where all can dance however they choose.

safety, comfort, law and order.

22 Apr

As conversations around racial justice and white supremacy (both covert and overt) dominate our culture and my faith tradition, I have found myself thinking about the difference between safety and comfort.

In the past few months, I have been approached by numerous white people who want to share with me their discomfort over something a black or brown person has shared, usually (but not only) on the topic of police violence. “Is this a safe place for ME?” the white people are usually asking, even if there are only a few people of color in the room.

When white people do this, we put our own comfort ahead of the safety of people of color.

A while ago, Reading While White had a great blog post about this:

let’s stop worrying so much about creating comfortable spaces and worry more about whether our spaces are truly safe for all….creating a space that is truly safe for people of color and First/Native Nations people often necessitates making that space uncomfortable for White people.

Read the whole post. It’s a quick, powerful read.

What I really want to share with you today, however, is a connection to safety and comfort that I made while reading Chris Hayes’ new book A Colony in a Nation. Hayes uses his experience in Ferguson to discuss the concept of the second part of the phrase “Law and Order.” In Ferguson, Hayes experienced no law breaking, but the people in the street, backing up traffic, making a lot of noise, created a lot of disorder. Disorder that white people found uncomfortable. Worthy of having a police presence. Even though there was nothing unlawful happening where he was.

Hayes writes that over the 50 years since Nixon referred to black Americans as “a colony in a nation,” we have built just that. We have created “a territory that isn’t actually free. A place controlled from outside rather than within. A place where the mechanisms of representation don’t work enough to give citizens a sense of ownership over their own government. A place where law is a tool of control rather than than a foundation for prosperity. A political regime like the one our Founders inherited and rejected. An order they spilled their blood to defeat.

He says that in the Nation, which is made up of white people, “there is law; in the Colony there is only a concern with order. In the Nation you have rights; in the Colony you have commands. In the Nation, you are innocent until proven guilty; in the Colony, you are born guilty.”

Law and order are not the same thing.

Safety and comfort are not the same thing.

May our desire for order not outweigh our need for justice for people of color.

May our desire for comfort not outweigh the need for safety for people of color.

As we confront systems of oppression, I encourage those of us who are white to step into the discomfort, step into the disorderliness. Because it is there that we will begin to make progress.

sharing stories.

30 Mar

I had to laugh when my Public Management professor was giving me feedback on a recent paper. “The content is good, but you sure use a lot of words!” Yup. I do. Not just because I’m used to writing sermons, but because I’m used to writing in such a way as to tell a story. Not because I use metaphors – I wish I was more adept at that – but because when I write I like to have a beginning that flows into the middle and then comes to a conclusion that makes perfect sense given all that has already been shared. Apparently, this is not how public managers generally write.

His comments got me thinking about why I write this way. I think it is because I am so curious about the whos/whats/whys/wheres/hows that I end up incorporating that sort of detail when I write. And because personally, when I read someone else’s narrative, this sort of flow keeps me engaged, nodding my head. I get it better.

I remember hearing a piece on This American Life about how canvassers, going door to door in California to change minds about Proposition 8, were able to do so by having lengthy conversations with the people who opened their doors. Conversations where they shared their stories. The evidence that TAL quoted has been disputed and retracted, but based on my own experience, I think there is a lot of truth here: When we listen to someone’s story, it has the capacity to change our hearts, and maybe even our minds, in a way that listening to a recitation of facts does not.

I was thinking about this a recently when I attended one of Donald Trump’s rallies here in Louisville. The place was packed. I went inside with a few clergy friends of mine, in collars and stoles, because I had heard it was a mad free-for-all of violence and hate and I thought we might be able to be a calming presence.

But where we were in the arena, it was all families. With babies, toddlers, children of all ages. They were excited to see the President. I don’t even know how many of them were Trump supporters (many of them left 5 minutes after he started speaking). I was curious – what were their stories? Why had they come? It was not at all what I was expecting.

I realized, too, that listening to their stories wouldn’t only satisfy my curiosity, it could also be a good strategic move. If I know what motivates someone, then I am more able to speak in such a way that they will hear. I wondered what would have happened if I had had time to listen to the stories of some of those families, and if they could have heard the stories of some of my compatriots outside at the protest. How might that experience have changed us?

Sharing stories, our own stories, helps us understand each other. It gives context to dry demographic details and helps us understand each other. It allows us to deepen our empathy for one another. It gives us a chance to experience someone else’s perspective, at least for a short while.

I wish we had more opportunities for such sharing.

%d bloggers like this: