Cursing a Vigil

Cursing a Vigil

It was a vigil. A candlelight vigil for a seventeen year old black young man who was shot and killed by a Chicago police officer.

The week after the verdict came back guilty in the officer’s trial, a friend of mine hosted the vigil at her small church in the Norwood Park neighborhood on Chicago’s northwest side. Her church is part of a coalition of churches in the area who came together to promote racial justice when a woman with a Puerto Rican flag on her shirt was harassed at a local park. They wanted to remember Laquan McDonald as more than a symbol, and stand with his family and friends in their grief at his loss.

No verdict can bring him back.

The church where the vigil was held meets in a train station in the heart of the neighborhood. It’s a lovely spot in the center of a small park filled with trees with a picturesque wrought iron fence around it. I arrived early and was startled to see bright royal blue plastic bunting tied to every post in the fence and an apparently semi-permanent sign firmly attached next to the sidewalk that said “Blue Lives Matter.” I wondered if all this was normally there (it wasn’t), or had just been put there because of our vigil (it had). As I walked up the path to the train station, every tree was wrapped in the blue plastic bunting.

It wasn’t subtle. Far from it.

Laquan McDonald had just turned seventeen when he was killed. Raised mostly by his great-grandmother until her death, he’d talked of becoming a nurse. He was back in school and had a part-time job learning to rehab properties. He liked working with his hands. He loved his little sister fiercely.

He was like my brothers, yours kids, our nephews – if they had the early childhood trauma of a mother struggling with addiction and abusive foster homes, if they grew up in a violent neighborhood with poor schools and few opportunities where people survive by self-medicating with readily available street drugs, if they had the symptoms and struggles common to those who suffer with PTSD.

His family loved him like we love our kids – by age five he was living with his great-grandmother, with a large extended family nearby. His mother worked to get her life on track and built a loving relationship with her son. His family misses him – like we would miss our kids.

In the face of obstacles I can barely imagine, Laquan was a kid trying to survive and find his way to a good life.

We met to remember Laquan, to pray for his family, and to pray for change in the system that resulted in his death.

And that was something part of the community could not stand.

When we walked outside with candles lit, the men (I saw no women) gathered along the edge of the small park began to yell. “SHUT UP, B****!” I heard that more than once above the blare of truck horns. They’d lined the block with trucks (some had more signs) and set of all their alarms. It was meant to be threatening, and it was. Particularly to the handful of black women who drove in from their neighborhoods to join us.

I kept wondering, what are these men so afraid of?

When I listen to friends who are concerned that “Blue Lives Matter,” they are worried that we are minimizing the risks police officers take in the course of doing their jobs. But our society clearly believes that the lives of police officers matter. We protect them with body armor and armored vehicles. We give them weapons to use and latitude to use them – batons, Tasers, guns. And when officers are killed in the line of duty, we honor them with funeral parades, salutes, and memorials.

(Where are the memorials for young black women and men who should still be alive?)

In the only interview he has given, the officer who killed Laquan McDonald said something that gave me chills. He said, “I might be looking at the possibility of spending the rest of my life in prison for doing my job as I was trained as a Chicago police officer.”

It’s something I’ve heard again since the verdict in interviews with other officers and representatives from the Fraternal Order of Police.

It’s part of the reason for our vigil after the verdict.

I suspect it’s a large part of the reason those men yelling expletives at us are so afraid.

Norwood Park is 80% white (down from over 90% in 2000) and home to many of Chicago’s police and firefighters. They see a colleague convicted and going to jail for doing what they consider to be his job, and it scares them.

The power to kill makes them feel safer (and we wonder why gun violence is so prevalent on Chicago’s west and south sides), and that power is being threatened by outside accountability and consequences.

And so they cursed a prayer vigil. They beat their chests and roared their roars and blared their horns and tied their blue bunting in a message that could not have said more clearly, “Our lives matter more than Laquan McDonald’s.”

Which is why we must continue to insist – Black Lives Matter, too.

Laquan’s life mattered.

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What I Saw

What I Saw

It’s been a week.

Most of us watched something this week that traumatized us in some way.

Whether we saw a brave woman, terrified as she described what happened to her when she was fifteen years old, or whether we saw an angry, belligerent man, terrified at being accused of something he has no way to conclusively disprove, or whether we saw a group of politicians trying to score points against each other, or whether we saw some of all of those things, it wasn’t easy to watch.

Personally, I’ve seen too many women who have not been believed when they screwed up the courage to tell someone what happened to them, or possibly as bad, women who have been believed and told that they should just keep quiet, that other things are more important. And I’ve seen too many men who either knew they were guilty or did not want to believe they had done such harm fight and belittle and lash out to defend themselves. And that all came very present to me this week.

Something else came present to me as well, the Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas hearings that I watched twenty-seven years ago. It was a different time, a time when we hadn’t been talking about sexual harassment as clearly or as long. Dr. Hill’s allegations were confusing to a lot of us. We had trouble seeing and understanding the power dynamics at play. And for a young woman from a very conservative context who only knew what pornography was because of how I had heard it condemned, the details sounded like something from a farce more than real life.

But I remember Anita Hill’s calm relating of even the most demeaning details, and I remember Clarence Thomas’s calm declaration that it was all a race-based attack on a black man who had risen too high.

Both were unerringly composed.

They had to be.

Both had a lifetime of experience in not being believed, in being dismissed or discredited or thought dangerous if they freely displayed emotion (and often even if they didn’t). Both knew that even (especially) the truth would require great care and deliberation from them.

I though about that as I watched the hearings this week. As I saw Dr. Ford’s careful preparation, deliberate words, and attempts to keep her emotions in check.

And I thought about it as I watched Judge Kavanaugh give his anger and frustration free reign, with little regard for protocol or maintaining order.

Clarence Thomas, Anita Hill, Christine Blasey Ford – none of them expected to be believed simply as a matter of course. Their experience had taught them not to expect that.

In America, only a white male would be incensed that he is not believed as a matter of course, as Brett Kavanaugh clearly was. Only a white man can afford to be incensed about it. We may all be angry and frustrated when the truth we tell is ignored or dismissed or denied, but only a white male can so readily display that he is incensed and offended and belligerent and expect that he will continue to be taken seriously.

It’s the American way, after all. Every right American citizens have was originally granted only to white men. As others have gained formal access to those rights, they (we) still have to fight for what white men have ready access to, because the whole experiment was constructed to work exclusively for them.

Part of the work of patriotism is to change that, to work to see the promises of America fulfilled equitably for all. It’s hard work, and made all the harder by those who, like Judge Kavanaugh seems to, take advantage of every advantage they already have, in the full belief that they have earned that right.

May we all be given eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to respond to to reality, however much it is not what we would like it to be.

And for the record, I believe her.

Adult Friendship – Finding, Keeping, Letting Go

Adult Friendship – Finding, Keeping, Letting Go

Every Sunday night I go to a church in a bar filled with people with stories, all kinds of stories. Stories we believe are “the word of God for the people of God,” because God is still speaking in and through our lives. This month we’ve been talking about adult friendships – finding them, keeping them, losing them, and starting all over again. In a world full of lonely people, we don’t talk about friendship enough, or even make room for it in all the things competing for our attention and priorities. And as adults? We often are at a loss when it comes to making the kinds of friendships we want. (The Nancy podcast has done some great stuff recently on how queers can find a “gaggle” of friends, but I think we all need that help.)

This is the story I had the opportunity to tell this week. It’s one that’s still going…

——

It was Easter Sunday 2014. We’d had the sunrise vigil, and the Easter breakfast, and I’d just finished leading the liturgy I wrote for our Easter service. I was walking with my friend Angela to our cars in the parking lot, and I remember telling her, “I think maybe this should be my last service. Everything is good, but if I want my life to be different – and I do – nothing’s very likely to change if I don’t change something.”

I was 41 and tired of being tired of being single. I hadn’t had a date in seven years, and I wasn’t meeting possibilities. Something needed to change and church seemed like the most doable thing.

And that was scary to say, because church meant more than the place I went on Sundays. Church meant six years of friendships, of lives lived together with a group of families and a few singles who lived in my neighborhood. We had dinner together every week. I’d known most of their kids since they were born. When I was sick, they brought me extra plates of dinner and DVDs. When there was a birthday, we threw a party. Some of their children were the only kids I’ve ever felt move and kick and squirm in their mama’s belly.

I spent the years after seminary building my life around these relationships, and now I was going to change that, and I didn’t know what would happen. What all that would mean.

So I started visiting churches.

At the first one, I met a pastor – another single woman – who came from a conservative background not too different from mine. We had lunch and met for coffee and started sharing our stories (she didn’t tell me then about her dream of starting a church where people could share good food and tell true stories and make beautiful worship together!).

At the second one, when I told a work acquaintance and his wife why I was trying to make changes in my life, Judy – a woman who is five feet (maybe) of major general, cheerleader, and CEO all rolled up together – gave me marching orders: “I’m proud of you! And I want you to go home and sign up with a dating site online! You need to go where the men are, and that’s where they are! And I mean today! Report back to me with a text this evening.” And like I imagine everyone in her life, I obeyed. (And had ten first dates in the next three weeks!)

At the third church, I found a community of gay couples who also knew what it meant to be a deep disappointment to a conservative family, as well as how to be a chosen family who could keep me afloat through that storm. I ended up landing in that church, and they gave me the support I needed as I started dating, then moved into the city, changed jobs, and even as I got involved in the queer, quirky new church in a bar my pastor friend was starting.

And when my last birthday came around, I looked across the table at the improv club where we were laughing and celebrating. There was my first friend from my new job, a beautiful friend from that new church, and two of my closest friends in the city – both of them men I met dating. And one of them came with his girlfriend of the past year, who I’d enjoyed hanging out with on many other occasions.

Those friends from my old neighborhood in the suburbs? They weren’t in the city celebrating with me that night, but they cheered me on through it all. I still go up north for the breakfast we all have together one Saturday a month. And I’m still a part of their kids’ lives. And this summer, they all loaded their kids up one Saturday morning (no small feat!) and hauled them into the city to have breakfast at my place.

One of the hardest thing I’ve had to do, the thing that never seems to get easier, is knowing how to keep friends in my life as a single person when life is changing for everybody. It turns out that sometimes that means letting go.

Swiping Right

Swiping Right

Online dating comes with inherent risks – I knew that when I waded in five years ago or so now. Anytime you’re meeting someone you don’t know, your expectations for reasonable human behavior can be upended. And anytime you have an intentional space for people to meet prospective romantic partners, you will have people who seek to use that space for their own purposes.

I knew there were risks, and I decided they were worth the potential benefits. I wanted to meet men who were interested in dating, and that wasn’t happening in my everyday life (and hadn’t been for quite a few years).

I approached online dating the way I approached most things in life, with reasonable precautions. It was a big step outside my comfort zone relationally, since I had been raised to completely avoid even a date with someone I didn’t already know to be basically marriage material for me (evangelical Christian with conservative beliefs, never married, committed to sexual purity, etc.). But in other ways, it wasn’t such a stretch. I’d been building friendships online for my entire adult life. I’m a part of online communities and friendships that are ten or twenty years old. I’d met several of those folks in person when we happened to be in the same city, and even transitioned a couple of friendships to regular in person connection.

So I knew to be careful with personal information – name, address, workplace, etc. I always meet new people in a public place, and let a friend know my plans and who I’m meeting. And I take the “trust but verify” stance – take someone at face value and verify what they tell you about themselves with Google.

It’s not easy to hide your life these days, and a person’s “online footprint” can confirm a lot. I’ve learned to check all the avenues where I protect myself to confirm that a man is who he says he is and that the circumstances of his life are what he has portrayed them to be.

And in five years, I’ve never been surprised by what I found. Until now.

After meeting a man for a lunch date, that went extremely well, we made plans for a second date. He’d told me enough about what he does for a living that I could look him up online even without his last name. I found him and quickly discovered that he has a wife and children and a bit of history that is less than savory.

He never outright lied to me – I never asked him directly if he is married or has a family. He gave a very intentionally crafted impression that he is single, and has to be because of a job that requires constant travel. He has carefully cultivated a way to talk about his life that creates a lie out of the truth (the circumstances of the job) and omission (the family he very much has). It’s not that hard for him to live a double life, it appears.

Needless to say, I back peddled out of the second date, but I didn’t call him out. Part of me very much wanted to, but it would almost certainly antagonize someone I don’t know. And the only likely change in his behavior would be to sharpen his hiding skills. The risk is not worth the possible benefits.

It’s a common cautionary tale, and I’ve heard even worse online dating horror stories from other women. I’m very grateful that I haven’t gotten lazy about those online checks.

But here is what I want to remember: this is the first time in five years it’s happened. I’ve easily met fifty men or more, and nearly all of them have been genuine gentlemen. Most men are decent human being who are trying to make life work as best they can.

Dating is not easy, and there are risks far beyond the one I had lunch with. But there are far more benefits out there, and I’ll never have a chance to meet them if I don’t start with swiping right.

Feeding the Lions

Feeding the Lions

Several years ago I had the opportunity to accompany a class of seminary students on several field trips to meet ministers working in different ways on the south and west sides of Chicago. They were eye-opening days, and I came away with a deep respect for the people in these communities and the pastors who work with them. It changed the way I listen to the news, the people I follow on Facebook and Twitter, and the assumptions I’d always had about violence in “bad” parts of town.

There are few things that make me angrier on social media than people who live in the suburbs and across the country saying something along the lines of “If ‘black lives matter’ so much, why aren’t these people doing anything about black-on-black violence? Just look at Chicago! Where are the protests about that?”

They have no clue how many vigils and protests there are in these communities, or how hard pastors and other community leader work to redeem their neighborhoods. And beyond their ignorance about what is or is not actually happening, they betray a deep ignorance about what exactly these communities are up against.

The racialization of Chicago neighborhoods has a long history marked by racist real estate and lending practices (supported by federal policies), preferential treatment of white neighborhoods and constituencies, and police brutality against black people. Reduced legitimate opportunities and choices creates an increase in illegitimate options, and an illegal, shadow system breeds violence.

Chicago has its own unique factors, but the overall dynamics are no different anywhere else in the country.

Individual responsibility matters. But it isn’t the only thing that matters. Social responsibility matters, too, and sometimes, more.

The Bible is full of this reality. We are called to recognize and help the individual in trouble – someone robbed and beaten and left by the side of the road. But we are also called to care for and support “the poor” – a whole class of people who, Jesus said, we will always have with us.

Can we help the whole class by ignoring the individuals? No, of course not, and that is the pitfall of the distant-humanitarian (or politician or bureaucrat) who is content to support an abstract idea even if (perhaps because) it hides the reality of people’s lives.

But can we help the individual and ignore the whole class? Yes, and many of us do it every day – some because the problem of the class seems overwhelming and unsolvable to them, and others because they refuse to believe the class even exists. To these, there are only individuals who are poor, no class of “the poor” or “the oppressed.”

Both are ways to avoid social responsibility.

Social responsibility recognizes that, while individual have real choices, the choices available to any given individual are shaped and limited (or expanded) by societal (social) forces beyond their direct control. Social responsibility recognizes that “status quo” societal forces are perpetuated by default by those individuals who are unaware or in denial of them, in addition to those who are consciously complicit. And social responsibility recognizes that it is individuals, aware and choosing to work together, who can change the possibilities for a given disadvantaged group of people.

One of those field trips I went on took us to a rally of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition on Chicago’s Southside, and after the rally we had a meeting with Rev. Jesse Jackson. That meeting was not what I expected. We didn’t meet a politician or public persona (though he is both of those), we met a pastor. “We need your help,” he told us. “When these families lose a child, and they don’t have a church, we’re the ones they call.” We don’t have enough pastors for them – there are too many families and too many funerals, he told us.

But we need to do more than bind up their wounds, he continued. The church is good at binding and healing wounds, but we send them right back out for the same lions to keep devouring them. We’ve got to deal with the lions, too.

I haven’t used quotation marks because I don’t pretend to remember his exact words that day, but I will never forget what he told us, or the pastor’s heart he opened up to us.

Individuals need their wounds tended, and that is our responsibility. But it is also our responsibility to fight against the lions that savage their lives.

There’s more than one way to fight those lions – racism, sexism, economic oppression, discrimination against people because of who they are or who they love. But we will never defeat them if we cannot even acknowledge they exist, and if we cannot admit the many ways we have knowingly or unknowingly fed them.

For some of us, those lions are harmless pets, or mythical monsters, or species that are rare and exceptional to encounter. Some of us even see them as protectors against the pests that would destroy our hard work, like the mousers on the great-grandfather’s farm. We see them as essentially separate from ourselves, rather than as extensions of our lives and choices.

The truth is harder. It requires us to accept a responsibility that is both individual and social. And that responsibility requires a response.

Fundamentalist Baptist Theater Majors

Fundamentalist Baptist Theater Majors

I was socialized by fundamentalist Baptist theater Majors. It’s not like being raised by wolves, but in that context….

People usually either laugh or look confused or bemused when I tell them. But it’s true.

After being largely rejected by my peers through elementary, the beginning of seventh grade was no improvement. I attended a private Christian school, an elementary and high school that was owned by our church and shared a campus with the large Baptist university it also owned. Seventh grade was the first year of junior high, and we shared a building on campus with the high school.

Seventh grade began for me with the same survival strategy that had gotten me through elementary: reading through lunch and pretty much everything else. But after a few months, I found myself sharing a table with another lunch-reader, a junior named Lisa. She was new to the school, and it wasn’t long before we were sharing book recommendations and her dad’s amazing oatmeal cookies.

Lisa’s older sister was a theater minor at the university, and their family lived only a couple of blocks from campus. By eighth grade I was part of the family, and Lisa and I were hanging out with her sister’s music and theater friends. When Lisa graduated and enrolled in the university, my entire social life moved with her.

I spent four years of high school (and then most of college) in the world of those theater kids (young adults, really), and to an awkward teenager, they were talented, glamorous, confident – everything I wasn’t. But more importantly, they were kind.

It was a season of years when the university’s theater program was thriving with an excellent faculty and some amazingly talented students. I saw musicals, Shakespeare, Faulkner, and Chekhov, among others. I learned every note of the soundtracks to Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables. I loved it all, absorbing other lives in other worlds.

But even more important than the escape of the plays and the songs, those theater students welcomed me as one of their own and gave me a space to begin to figure out who I was.

I’ve thought about them a lot over the past few years. As I’ve sung the songs I learned with them at Show Tunes night at Sidetrack in Boystown, and as I’ve walked alongside Christian gay friends and their wives as they unpacked their faith and undone their marriages to recreate their lives and families.

I’ve thought of all the stories they were trying to pour into those plays. All the things they had to keep in. How much we learned to hide. So many of them were gay. Not that they told me then, and I chose not to speculate – I saw the damage that could do. But as we’ve reconnected on Facebook, and I’ve seen many of them out, finally living out loud, I haven’t been surprised. I’ve been glad, and grateful.

And in retrospect, the journey my own life has taken over the past several years shouldn’t have been so surprising. Thirty years ago, I was socialized by fundamentalist Baptist theater majors – gay and straight, creating a family that welcomed outcasts and gave them (me) a place to grow up, a place to be ourselves that was probably as safe as we could make it in our context.

They lived in inherent tension – all of the contradictions are there in the description: fundamentalist Baptist theater majors. And I learned to be at home in that space – however ironically, to feel safe there in a way I imagine many of them never could. But they gave that gift to a “kid sister” who showed up one day in need of a family.

I grew up with preacher boys and theater kids, sometimes one and the same, and when I look around at Gilead on Sunday evenings, I see the same kinds of folks. Only now no one needs to hide a thing.

Radical Welcome

Radical Welcome

Welcome others as you have been welcomed. That’s right up there with “Love others as you have been loved.” (John 13:34, my paraphrase)

It’s a bit harder though when you haven’t been welcomed yourself first. I’ve always wondered and struggled with that. I was so definitively not welcomed by classmates and peers growing up, and it was agonizing years of unrelenting rejection. By nature, I’m almost a pure extrovert, but I was so isolated for so long, I spent years functioning as an introvert to survive. It was an experience that taught me to assume I’m not really welcome, which can make it hard to realize I am.

You’d think that, knowing how it is to be on the outside, I’d be all the more welcoming of others as a result, but it hasn’t always worked that way.

Sometimes my natural extroversion exerts itself and I welcome all comers with a more-the-merrier enthusiasm. But other times I fight an instinct to raise the drawbridge behind me and repeat the pattern of exclusion that kept me on the outs for so many years. And far too often, I struggle to feel like I have the right to welcome others – like I’m still a guest and only have probationary status at best. It’s not always easy to find the space inside of me that knows how to welcome others.

It’s hard to move yourself from outsider status to belonging. It’s something we need help from others with.

Welcome others as you have been welcomed.

Late each Sunday afternoon I head the two blocks east to a neighborhood bar where Gilead Chicago meets, a quirky bar church where we tell each other our stories, sing pop anthems like hymns, and welcome all sorts (including a surprising – or maybe not – number of former seminarians who weren’t sure they could ever feel really good about church again).

It’s a place where I’m learning more about welcome, but it’s not the only one. Most of the places that have taught me the most about welcome have been queer spaces to one degree or another. The LGBTQ storytelling night I go to each month. The classic Episcopal church in my old neighborhood where the gay families came around me as my own family began to reject my faith and life. Gilead.

There’s a common experience of being outsiders that is shared in those spaces, and with it, a radical welcome. Conservatives (including me when I was one) often complain that they aren’t welcome or tolerated in these spaces, and thus dismiss them as hypocritical. It feels clever, like playing a trump card, but I’ve come to realize it’s an exercise in missing the point.

Every community gathers around something, and these communities gather around a radical welcome. If you are unwilling to extend that radical welcome as well, you have excluded yourself.

It’s like a baseball enthusiast wanting to join a soccer league in order to play with baseball’s rules, and then complaining that no one will play ball with them.

It’s disingenuous at best, gross presumption at worst.

Radical welcome excludes no one, but it also doesn’t include everyone, because it leaves room for some to exclude themselves. It wouldn’t be very radical otherwise.

Ironically, it was fundamentalist separatists who first taught me that, with their insistence that God’s love welcomes all, but that those who persist in false beliefs exclude themselves. They removed themselves from all who held and acted on such beliefs –hence the identification as “separatists.”

That’s something Jesus didn’t do. He didn’t walk away from anybody, turned no one away – even the ones with good reputations who would only come secretly at night (John 3). And the one outsider he tried to turn away? She called him on it and he changed his tune (Matthew 15). Everyone was welcome with Jesus – including the scandalous, but many walked away.

It broke his heart, but he let them.

Welcome others as you have been welcomed.

So many people still need that radical welcome of Jesus, and the only way they’ll ever know a welcome like that is if it comes from you and me. “Christ has no body now but yours; no hands, no feet on earth but yours,” as the poem says.* I’m grateful for those who’ve given me such welcome. They continue to challenge me to broaden my own welcome of others.

And I ache for the day when no one any longer feels the misguided need to exclude themselves.

 

*Usually misattributed to Teresa of Avila, the poem is actually the cumulative work of a Methodist minister and young Quaker woman in the late 1800’s.