Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Remembering Gesa

For those of you who don't know, Gesa Maria Lamers was a friend of mine in high school. She had that uniquely German combination of compassion, intelligence, and hardass-ness. She was a lovely person, shockingly intelligent, loyal, and blessed with a wicked sense of humor. After doing her med residency with a largely Native American population in south-central Colorado (Pueblo, specifically), she had settled into life as a baby-birthin' doctor in western Idaho near Boise with her husband and their belovéd daughter Aylin.

On 26 March 2008, Gesa and Aylin were driving along Piscataway Road near Clinton. A driver crossed the center-line and hit Gesa's car head-on. Aylin suffered substantial injuries but survived. Gesa was not as fortunate; she died at the scene of the accident.

Gesa and Aylin had been visiting Gesa's mother Elisabeth and brother Yermo for the traditional Lamers family Easter Bonfire in southern Maryland; in 2008, western Easter fell on the 23rd, just three days before Gesa's death. While it is perhaps consoling to know that the family had one final holiday together beforehand, I can only imagine the pain which will be with them for the rest of their lives and how it will forever be linked to the Pascha.

As we move toward celebrating His Resurrection, let us pause to remember the pain of the cross. And let us send some love to all who grieve the loss of a loved one; may the knowledge that His sacrifice has given our loved ones eternal life bring peace to us all as we continue to grieve.

Gesa, your friendship made me a better person. Thank you for that.

Ich vermiss' dich, Liebchen.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Learn This Name: BAYARD RUSTIN

I have a simple request for you today.
How about today, instead of celebrating a holiday that has degenerated into nothing more than a venue to further the stereotype of my kin as violent homophobic drunkards, we remember that today -- 3/17/2012 -- marks what would have been the ONE HUNDREDTH BIRTHDAY of a man named BAYARD RUSTIN.
Bayard who?
I challenge everyone who sees this text to enrich your understanding of American history by reading up on this hero whose name has been largely redacted from the narrative of the Civil Rights Era for one reason: HE WAS GAY. This American hero created the framework for the 1963 March on Washington. This man led a freedom-ride through the South MORE THAN TEN YEARS BEFORE THE ONES WE LEARNED ABOUT IN SCHOOL. This man was the first civil rights leader to recognize the world-changing potential in the oratory voice of a young hot-headed preacher from the deep South.

We owe Bayard Rustin a bigger debt than most of us realize.
Let us hope that starting today, on the 100th anniversary of his birth, we lift up his name to the heights of names such as Martin Luther King Jr, Ghandi, Malcolm X, etc. Let us lift our voices in remembrance of all who build the Beloved Community -- not just the ones we learned about in school.
God bless ALL of us.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Skeletons in the PSR-Closet

This week at PSR people have been deeply hurt by what Chelsea Handler would call an "whoopsie" of biblical proportion. For those who don't know what happened: the results of a community survey were published, and the publication included all entries within the freeform text fields ("additional comments or concerns" areas). A number of survey respondents wrote less-than-nice things, including naming specific people in hurtful ways. I write this response as a person who did not complete the survey but who has read over the comments and found myself conflicted about what was written. For the record, I did not complete the survey because I have been ill this week and I ran out of time. Had I completed the survey, I would have shared some but not all of the concerns voiced in the freeform text fields but I would NOT HAVE WRITTEN MY CONCERNS IN THE WAY OTHERS CHOSE TO DO. I would have had my say in a far less vitriolic, spiteful, and abusive way.

Let's start with the perhaps-obvious question: how did this happen? I don't mean the technical question; I mean this: how could a community that is so widely praised for so many things do this to itself? Well, it is time for some truth: we have many, many skeletons in our collective scary closet and they have a habit of exposing themselves when people's guards are down. Anonymous surveys are a classic trigger for turning on that light and exposing the things people don't want to say out loud.

The truth of the matter is that we are a community in transition and we have deep-seated internal conflict. We call ourselves an ecumenical seminary, yet we admit non-Christians and require them to take classes in Christianity when Christian students are not required to take classes on Judaism, Islam, neo-Paganism, etc., on an equal level. Ask yourself this: how would Christian students feel if we were required to take a class on the text of the Qur'an? Are we surprised that our Pagan colleagues might be just a wee-bit uncomfortable being required to take OT and NT?

But I digress.

This week's events do not in any way shock me inasmuch as I myself have been on the receiving end of some of the dysfunction at PSR. And I am sure that I have, whether intentionally or not, been responsible for propagating it. This is the way that human communities work: it is human nature to "dog-pile" emotionally, whether the emotions are happy and loving, or otherwise. It's a hard truth to accept, but humankind are very good at being very bad.

And make no mistake about it: whether we are part of the Beloved Community or not, whether we are gathered together by divine inspiration or not, we ARE a community made up of people by people. We come to the table with just as much baggage as any other community. Actually, no. We come to the table with more baggage than other communities precisely because we draw in those who the traditional church-world has rejected.

But however we got here, here we are.

What I see, under all of the intense feelings that have been called up this week, is an inability or unwillingness to LISTEN. From the first day I set foot on the PSR campus, I felt strongly that it is a community where people talk. And talk. And yell. And scream. And sing. And dance. And evaluate. And judge. Yes, that's what I wrote. JUDGE. We arrive on the hill thinking we are "all that" because we are from repressed communities but guess what, folks: we have fallen into a logical trap already. When I listen to the conversations I hear on campus, it seems to clear to me that the social norm is to assume that we are in a superior position of knowledge on issues, and then judge those who are less informed. It goes something like this:

Just because person-A is a white cisgendered gay man, he knows more about topic-1 than person-B who identifies as straight. Just because person-B is a transgender straight man of color, he knows more about topic-2 than person-C who is a cis-man. Just because person-D is a senior citizen, she knows more than everyone else on campus. And just because person-E is a millennial, he knows more about how things need to be than person-D can imagine. Meanwhile, quietly in the corner sits person-F who nobody has noticed. Person-F comes to campus quietly for dinner and often eats alone b/c everyone else is so busy touting their identity-credentials that NOBODY LISTENS TO ANYONE ANYMORE.

Perhaps it is time that we stop for a collective moment and reframe our community's communication-norms. Perhaps it is time to simply, just as an experiment, STOP YELLING AT EACH OTHER. SEE, IT MAKES YOU FEEL DEFENSIVE WHEN I YELL IN ALL-CAPS, so maybe it is time to lower the volume. Perhaps it is time that we stop telling white-folk that they are "only an ally at best" while we pre-assume that they are racist b/c of the color of their skin. Perhaps it is time to stop telling the cis-folk that they are so steeped in their own privilege that they just "can't understand" trans issues. Perhaps it is time that we stop telling the GenX and baby-boomer folk that they just "can't understand how things work now" in the online world built by millennials. Perhaps it is time we stop telling the people of color that "we're not like most white people" b/c we do activist work in the Global South. Perhaps it is time that we stop saying that we are individuals just like everybody else. If people "just can't understand" then why bother trying in the first place.

Perhaps it is time to realize that what makes us weak is what can also make us strong: us.

Can you imagine what it would be like if we took a moment to recognize that the PSR community contains dozens of social dyads where oppressed and oppressor break bread together, live side-by-side in the residence halls, and take classes together? Is it asking too much for us to realize that our campus community contains both the spiritual children of enslaved Africans and the great-great-great-grandchildren of plantation owners? Can we not see that we are blessed with a divine fishbowl in which privileged cis-gendered people actually do want to learn from their trans colleagues on how to begin dismantling the privilege of the gender-binary? Do the older students on campus not see that the younger students have an amazing ability to process large amounts of information in a way that GenX'ers never imagined when they were that young? Are the millennial-age students on campus not aware that the people honored as spiritual parents were the friends and family of the older students in class?

Are we so focused on being angry about the injustices in the larger world that we have developed myopia on what is right in front of our faces… a local snapshot of the world that we can begin healing RIGHT THIS VERY MOMENT? How many impoverished communities living in desperate need do we pollute by marching through without even feeding one person whose street we just marched on? Could it be that we need to remember to ACT LOCALLY while we are so busy with the THINK GLOBALLY?

That, at its core, is my opinion of what is at the heart of this week's unpleasantness at PSR. We are so good at talking, but we SUCK at listening. We are so good at talking the talk of inclusion, but we SUCK at actually being inclusive. Look at the way people self-arrange at the dining hall on a typical day; it speaks volumes. I apologize for the politically incorrect summary that follows, but here are some examples I see on a regular basis:

1. Resident-students have a clique to themselves. No commuter students allowed?
2. A large group of second-year MDiv students does not reach out to others. The larger community shies away from second-year MDiv's b/c they have a reputation for being socially abusive.
3. There are several gender-queer tables, but no men sit at those tables.
4. Separate from the gender-queer tables there is a table with one specific trans-and-allies clique, that never seems to occupy the same social space as others.
5. One table is almost totally African American.
6. A large group of Episcopal seminarians sit together at one table, overcrowdedly, next to an empty table. The group never splits into a second table.
7. One table of students speaks Korean.
8. The next table over is speaking one dialect of Chinese. And only one.
9. Scattered across the dining hall are tables with just a few, or even one, student. Almost always, that student is significantly older than the mean-age of the community and is a commuter student.

Does anyone see a problem here? THIS IS NOT A COMMUNITY; THIS IS A SEGREGATED SOCIETY. It is a balkanized set of sociological silos. And we wonder how it is that such a social location would produce the painful comments we saw on the survey this week? Wake up and smell the dog-poop, folks.

Now there is one core question that it is time for me to examine. I have just ranted about the problem(s)... do I actually have any solutions? It is ironic: I can already hear the woman who castigated me in Spring 2011 for my masculine aggression sharpening her knives to skewer me for splainin' ==> it's that white-person thing of speaking for the whole community. And, of course, my response is obvious: bare my mental claws at her and tear her apart in my mind as a bougie white-privileged re-colonizer but let her "win" the argument in person b/c, after all, as a white cis-gendered man I am absolutely responsible for anything and everything that has ever been done to every person of color, every trans person, and every woman throughout human history. Never mind that the very term splainin' itself comes from a mid-1950s sitcom that was predicated on a hot-headed Cuban immigrant man and his wife, a ditzy red-headed white housewife who always overspent her allowance. It was called I Love Lucy and when analyzed from a post-modern millennial mindset, it was clearly racist and classist. See, some of us older students actually know some shit sometimes.

But, again, I digress. Cutting to the chase: where do we go from here?

I would encourage each of us to take a look in the mirror and ask ourselves: where have we refused to see our own failings in building the Beloved Community? We are so quick to point out the failings of others. Why not take a chance to honestly look at yourself for once? When we are sitting at a table in the dining hall, surrounded by friends, and literally just 10 feet away there is a person eating alone... maybe we should consider reaching out to that person? Just to let that person know that, hey, we see you and if you want to break bread with us then our table is open to you?

And therein is the challenge-question: IS OUR TABLE REALLY OPEN? Do we actually have the collective courage to listen to each other? Could each of us take some personal responsibility to look at where each of us has excluded others rather than just blaming all these problems on the big grad-school terminology we love to toss around as a way to show our moral superiority? Could we have the courage to stop hiding behind big-word labels as a way to justify excluding anyone who doesn't look like a person who understands us?

Could we take a minute to recognize that people have reached out to us and we have rebuked them and hurt them, sometimes without even realizing it? Could we take a minute to realize that when someone says hello to us on the quad, or in the hall, and we barely acknowledge them, perhaps we are propagating the mistrust felt at PSR and hurting someone's feelings?

For, in the end, it comes down to the Golden Rule. Since starting my studies at PSR, I have been accused of being racist, of using masculine aggression to assert male privilege, of enforcing white privilege while trying to get a group-assignment finished, and the list goes on and on. But as I complete this essay, do I end on an accusatory note in response to such people? Do I engage in a pissing contest with them? Or, do I simply state the following:

My name is Philip Tanner. I am terribly afraid of hurting other people, and I wish I knew everything I need to know about how to operate in a more just and loving way. But I don't. So I hope, and pray, that you will perhaps show me a little bit of mercy when I fail. I hope that you will remember that I am here to learn from you. I hope that you will understand my intent to serve Christ in building the Beloved Community, and if I have acted in a way that causes you harm then I ask your forgiveness and your love in educating me. In return, I ask only that you be willing to treat me the same. I surrender to your compassion.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

And Here We Are.

Sunday, 4 March 2012, I took another step forward into that larger world. Of course, the truth is that every step I take is a step into the larger world in Christ... but today was a big one. As of today, I am officially taking the next step toward "in discernment" status with the Fellowship Of Affirming Ministries. For the civilians reading this... let's just say today I took the biggest step yet toward becoming an ordained minister. It's a very big deal.

And then Satan came after me.

One of my sisters in Christ warned me last week that she could sense that the adversary has me in his sights because I possess power beyond my own ability to conceive... and I am stepping up to serve Christ boldly and openly. I know this sister of mine is a natural and blesséd intercessor; I take her visions quite seriously. I did not for a minute doubt the truth of her warning. But what I was unprepared for, was that the adversary came at me in an emotional soft-spot, in my own congregation, during worship.

Let me state this clearly to you, Satan: you cannot have me. I am not on the market anymore. I have laid my burdens down, and I have been cleansed by the blood of the lamb. You do not own me, you do not rule me, you will not take me. I have been taken, loved, cleansed, and forgiven. That holy blood, spilled on my behalf, is stronger than anything and everything you can conjure up. You are a fool, you are a liar, and you are a thief, and I see you for what you are.

GET THEE BEHIND. I cast my lot with Jesus the Christ. His praise will continually fall from my mouth, in gratitude, because He protects me, He is stronger than you can possibly imagine, and I am His now. Period. End of story. GET LOST, MOTHERFUCKER. YOU ARE NOT WELCOME HERE

I am not asking God to pay attention to me, because I know He already does. This is not about getting God's attention. God has my back. It is YOU, Satan, the deceiver, who came at me and clouded my sight today. Nice parlor trick. But I can do you one better. I have Jesus. I win.