Given at Atkinson Memorial Church (Unitarian Universalist) by, well, me on 10/10/10.
A Ritual to Read to Each Other by William Stafford
|If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.
For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
For it is important that awake people be awake,
A reading from Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer
There are at least two ways to understand the link between selfhood and service. One is offered by the poet Rumi in his piercing observation: “If you are here unfaithfully with us, you’re causing terrible damage.”
If we are unfaithful to true self, we will exact a price from others. We will make promises we cannot keep, build houses from flimsy stuff, conjure dreams that devolve into nightmares, and other people will suffer – if we are unfaithful to true self.
Last summer, during our series on Life Stages, the worship associates asked two of our children to preach. Sage Pagnozzi, age 10, and Brendan Swogger, then 12, gave two of the best two sermons I’ve heard all year. But Brendan also got me thinking.
Two things stood out for me in Brendan’s sermon. First, he said that he has trouble, as a member of a liberal faith community, talking about his faith with his mostly Christian conservative peers. He also said that, although he has no problem with gays and lesbians, he sometimes finds himself laughing and not speaking up when his friends say negative things about gays or when they tease other kids about being gay.
Brendan is in middle school, and as a former middle school teacher, I know that it is pretty much the closest thing there is to hell on earth. I don’t fault Brendan at all. Our own kids hid the fact that they had an unusual number of mothers when they were in middle school. But I do fault the adults in those schools, and our society, for creating a culture that allows kids to tease other kids that way, and for allowing and feeding an environment of intolerance toward diverse faith expressions.
Today is National Coming Out Sunday, and in the past few weeks, five young men, ranging in age from 11 to 18, committed suicide in all different parts of our nation because they were teased, bullied or outted in horrible and unmerciful ways. Whether all these young men were gay is unknown. But they were all harassed because other kids thought they were gay. And in our schools, in this century, being gay, or even being perceived as gay, is still often something terrifying to many young people.
According to the National Institute for Mental Health, 1 out of every 3 teen suicides is a gay or lesbian youth. Since many young people don’t identify as gay in their teens, that number may actually be significantly higher. Assuming the number of gay and lesbian people in our country is somewhere between five and ten percent of the total population, that’s a lot of gay kids killing themselves. That’s why the Living Room, a youth center for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, queer, and questioning youth in Clackamas County, is so important. The Living Room’s goal is to provide a safe space for kids to be themselves, with supportive adults and healthy role models.
As a teacher, I often heard students call each other gay, and I had to speak up. I would say something like this, “You know, statistically, there are at least two or three gay people in this room right now, and you just hurt them.” The kids would look guilty, or look around the room as if the gay folk all had giant pink triangles on their foreheads that might start glowing at any minute, giving them away. Sometimes the offenders would suddenly look very worried. Those kids, I suspect, were questioning their own sexuality and were afraid I might be able to out them. I certainly remember worrying about that when I was younger.
Now, you might think this sermon is about coming out. And, in a way, it is. But not about coming out as gay. It is about coming out for our beliefs, for our neighbors, for ourselves.
Much as Brendan is uncomfortable sharing about his liberal faith, I have often been afraid to admit that I’m a Christian. I know it’s no surprise to most of you, you’ve heard me preach about it several times. But being a liberal Christian in this country is hard. Being a liberal is hard enough. But Christianity has been hijacked and held for ransom by a conservative element, the same element, in many cases, that thinks it’s okay for middle school students in Texas to harass an 11-year-old boy about being gay. That child was bullied and teased by his peers until he took his own life. To make it worse, his parents had repeatedly contacted the school counselor and administration, asking that the bullying be stopped. The adults, who had the power to effect change, did nothing.
Edmund Burke famously said, at the time of the Revolutionary War, “All it takes for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing.” During the Vietnam War, Father Phillip Berrigan echoed this sentiment when he said, “The time is past when good men can remain silent, when obedience can segregate men from public risk, when the poor can die without defense. How many must die before our voices are heard? How many must be tortured, dislocated, starved, maddened?”
How many more young people must be bullied and teased and hounded to death before we, people who want to be counted among the good, speak out? I’m not talking to the gays and lesbians here, although I do believe that coming out does set us free. I’m talking to all of us who, like Brendan, are afraid of taking public risks, afraid that our coworkers, or neighbors, our classmates, or family members will think less of us if we tell the truth. Those of us who are afraid of admitting who we are and what we believe in a world seemingly overrun with fundamentalists and crazies of all stripes.
About 20 years ago, I tried an experiment. Lent, the 40 days before Easter, is a season in liturgical churches when people usually give something up as a spiritual discipline. But you can also take something on. I decided that it was time I came out as a liberal Christian, and I chose to do this by wearing a cross, visibly, outside my clothes, every day, no matter what I was doing or where I was going. I collect crosses, and have many of them. Some are the tiny, demure Celtic crosses many Episcopalians wear. Others are large and make stark statements. One, in particular, is made out of horseshoe nails and is about 3” long. I decided that, to really practice the discipline, I couldn’t just wear the little “tame” ones. I had to wear all of them, even the big one. Not at the same time, of course.
At the time I was working as a newspaper reporter. I knew that my coworkers were hostile to the Christianity they saw in the media. They knew I went to church, but they really didn’t know what I believed. They did find my church involvement suspect, however. (Living in a part of the country as unchurched as the Pacific Northwest, that’s a common experience. Many people have considered me strange over the years when they found out I was a practicing Christian.) As a reporter, I also had to meet the public, in a variety of settings, often without knowing who I was going to be seeing on any given day. I might end up in a courtroom, a jail, at a school board meeting, a political rally, or in a cow pasture. Or all of the above.
The first time I walked into the newsroom wearing a cross, I felt exposed and vulnerable. Some people stared at me, but most avoided the topic. Out in the field was different. I was amazed at the things that happened and the conversations that ensued. Most people, frankly, assumed that I was anti-abortion, anti-homosexual, conservative in all way. The conservative Christians thought I was just like them. The liberals I met thought I was some sort of nut.
One woman, a neighbor with an in-home daycare, was watching my four-year-old on a two-hour trial to see if it was good fit. She saw my cross and immediately told me, quite conspiratorially, that she couldn’t wait to get to heaven so she could watch all the sinners burn in hell. That’s not the teaching of the Jesus I believe in, and I couldn’t get my daughter out of there fast enough.
Others thought I was a religious fanatic. Being so out there about Jesus is not too well thought of in the more liberal mainline church. Many mainline Christians still believe that you shouldn’t talk about sex, politics or religion. With an emphasis on religion. It’s sort of a strange thing: Sitting through an hour long ritual all about Jesus, and then pretending you weren’t there soon as you leave the sanctuary.
Many mainline Christians saw my cross as a sign that I was either a Jesus freak or slightly mentally ill. Or both. My newfound “outness” about my faith was off-putting to say the least. I wasn’t following the plan. I was actually wearing my faith on my chest and it made people uncomfortable. I was acting like one of “them,” the showy Christians who put fish on their business cards and had bumper stickers about the rapture. I was certainly not being a good Episcopalian.
When I took on this discipline, I had also decided that, if asked, I had to tell the truth about the church I attended at the time. Back then I was a member of the greatest oxymoron on earth: a charismatic Episcopal church. This was not the Republican party at prayer, or God’s frozen chosen.
This was a church that was filled with the Holy Spirit, that gave a huge percentage of its income straight off the top directly to the poor, the homeless and the mentally ill. That clothed the naked, fed the hungry and visited the prisoner. Many of the people in the church had been baptized in the Holy Spirit with all the charismatic experiences that implies. We were even evangelical, which meant we recruited. Yet the church was incredibly liberal in so many ways. So when he asked, I had to tell my editor, the world’s nicest skeptic, that I went to a church where some people spoke in tongues. When I finally came out to him as a lesbian, just a few years ago, it was a piece of cake compared to discussing my faith with him.
The forty days finally ended, and I was free to take off the cross. But the discipline had forced me to speak the truth about something deeply personal, something I deeply believed in, and to respond honestly to people who thought Christians were either just like them in their smallness, or crazy, or frankly, deluded and stupid. Despite what some may think, I am none of the above.
I decided to leave the cross on. And for three years I wore a cross every day. During those same three years, I was venturing out of another closet. I was admitting to myself and to the world that I was, indeed, lesbian. So there I am, newly out in a major metropolitan lesbian community, wearing a cross. As Ricky Ricardo used to say, “You got some ‘splaining to do, Lucy!”
I found that talking to folks about why I was Christian in a community that has been so hurt by Christianity was a powerful thing. First, I had to really figure it out for myself. What was there that I found so life affirming that I continued to follow the Gospels in the face of folks like Lon Mabon and Scott Lively, leaders of the political campaign to have all gay and lesbian people declared perverse, abnormal, and unnatural? What made me stay in the Christian church with Fred Phelps, a fellow Christian and pastor of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church (the God Hates Fags bunch), standing across the street from my Episcopal cathedral with signs saying “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” He was blaming me, the lesbian mother-in-law of an Army officer who served three tours in Iraq, for God’s willful slaying of Todd’s brothers-in-arms because I happen to love another human being who happens to be a woman.
The exercise of confronting my own faith, and my own fear, in the context of a hostile world, helped me both deepen my faith and speak my own truth to people who needed to hear it, both in the world I covered as a reporter and in the lesbian community. And telling the truth about who I was as both a lesbian and a Christian created in me a more authentic life.
But what about Brendan and Sage and all the other kids growing up in our society? It’s so easy to say it’s not my problem. My kids are grown. But it is my problem, and it is your problem. Kids are dying and, some say, liberal religion is dying. Both killed by voices that are strident and shrill, fundamentalist and misguided, while we sit comfortably and shake our heads at the news.
There is nothing wrong with being gay, nor is there anything wrong with being Christian or Muslim or Buddhist or Pagan. There is something wrong when adults don’t speak up for their beliefs, whether it’s a liberal of any stripe who lets a fundamentalist misperception of faith stomp all over the true teachings of those faiths, or when it’s people like us who don’t speak up when we hear our kids or their friends using the word gay as a pejorative.
It’s up to us, those who want to do good in this world, to stop being silent. If we believe that gays and lesbians are normal and healthy human beings, we need to speak out against our coworker’s homophobic jokes, stop being silent when we hear our kids say, “That’s so gay.” Some of you might be thinking that it’s easier not to cause a stir. Or you don’t want to get into it with your coworkers. Or that you know your kids don’t mean any harm by it. But five young men, one as young as 11, took their own lives, taunted, teased, and bullied, just in the last three weeks. And those are just the ones that made the news.
If we’re not going to stand up and speak out, who is? Sure, our kids don’t mean it, but the kids who overhear them don’t know that. Our kids may not be the ones doing the bullying, but unless we stand up for what we believe, how will the Brendans and Sages of our community find the support and courage they need to stand up to their peers in that hormonal hell called middle school?
Just as liberal people of faith need to reclaim their faiths from the fundamentalists of all ilks who get all the press and give us all a bad name, so must those of us who are not homophobic, or who can admit we are but don’t want to be, speak up in defense of people of all ages who are being bullied and harassed.
As hard as it was for me to walk into the newsroom wearing a cross, it was worth it. Some people got a better understanding, not only of me, but of what I find so attractive in a religion rooted in peace and love. One even joined the church. And as hard as it is to tell people that you don’t want them to talk that way about gay people, or your kids that calling someone “gay” is not only hurtful but hateful, it’s worth it. Just ask the families of those five young men.
Blessed be and amen.