Ritual. Memory. Prophecy; bread, wine and belonging

(Image: Margaret Ackland: Last Supper 1993)

The purpose of rituals is to end, for a time, our sense of human alienation from nature and from each other. Ritual seems to be one method of reintegrating individuals and groups into the cosmos, and to tie in the activities of daily life with their ever present, often forgotten, significance. It allows us to feel biological connectedness with ancestors who regulated their lives and activities according to seasonal observances. Just as ecological theory explains how we are interrelated with all other forms of life, rituals allow us to re-create that unity in an explosive, nonabstract, gut-level way. Rituals have the power to reset the terms of our universe until we find ourselves suddenly and truly “at home.” – Margot Adler

 

“I don’t think I want you to say the prayers with me” she said as she looked over the cup, broken bread and Shabbat candles.

My stomach dropped. She had helped me learn these prayers and we had done this ritual together before. What had changed?  

“This doesn’t mean anything to you,” she said.

“It does.” I pleaded. “Probably something different than what it means to you, but it means something.”

She took a breath and looked up at me with trepidation “What does it mean to you?”

I felt a rush of anxiety, similar to what I felt before taking my SATs. I’ve never been a good test taker.

“I think Jesus had his last supper on Shabbat, and there was bread and wine and…” I scrambled to find an explanation—one that I hoped would quickly bring me back into the fold.

I looked up, wondering if what I said had sufficed, hoping my answer was good enough. She was crying. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I just…I don’t want your Christianity here.”

This wasn’t the first time that this chasm had opened between us, but it was the most painful. About four weeks earlier, she had told me that she had found herself in a bind. She had fallen for me, a loosely identifying Christian and a strongly identifying queer Mennonite, but had always imagined herself with a Jewish person.  

“No matter what decision I make” she’d told me, “I’m going to be so sad.”

It was November of 2016, and the waxing nights mirrored the gulf that had opened between us.

We’d met only four months earlier, but it felt like a radically different time. It was August when the days were long and full of hope and we were sure that a woman would be our next president.  

On our second date, we sat on a patch of grass and talked for hours. “I don’t agree with everything in conservative religion,” she’d said. “But, I do think there is something to not jumping in bed with someone right away.”

I paused in disbelief.  After eight years of dating in the bay area, I had given up on finding a person who might understand the sexual mores, that had been instilled in me from my religious childhood. I wondered if this was a person, with whom I could be my full self, both Mennonite and Queer.

In the months that followed, we found common ground in songs from our different, albeit overlapping, religious upbringings. Sure, she was Jewish and I was Mennonite, but when we sang together the harmonies were immaculate. We described our relationship using metaphors of sanctuary imbuing the space between in a holy aesthetic. Being contained in the boundaries of this relationship felt so good, like a hug so perfect I was afraid to move.  

But I did move. Jesus at Shabbat?  What was I thinking?  I said to myself, with ridicule. Up until this moment, there had only been small tears in the fabric of our relationship, but this was a massive rupture; abrupt and in the middle of a ritual.

What I felt, in that moment, was a flavor of loneliness that bypasses melancholy, searing straight into something more primal and familiar: panic. I have memories of this—of embrace, exclusion, belonging, and othering. The burgundy carpet that covered the church sanctuary in my youth was thick and soft, embracing the holy space and the people in it. I remember feeling comforted by its velvety texture, sleeping on it like a bed at youth group sleepovers and standing on its soft fibers as the congregation sang in perfect four-part harmony. 

The image of the carpet became mobile, within my mind, when I was six years old. It was 1990 and Operation Desert Storm had just begun.

“Tomorrow there is going to be a “Support the Troops” rally at your school,” my mother had told me.

“But,” she’d said, “We are Mennonites and we don’t believe in war. A part of being Mennonite is choosing not fight in wars or support fighting in wars. It’s up to you if you want to go or not. I want you to make that choice for yourself.”

This was a no brainer for me. Church was a place where I felt held and had a sense of identity. I was a Mennonite, above all else and the only one in my public school class.

The next day I sat in an empty classroom, just me and Mrs. Miller, a Jewish teacher, who volunteered to sit with me during the rally. Patriotic music and cheers wafted down the hallway from the gymnasium, as I held steadfast, a Mennonite with my image of the crimson carpet.

Back in the church sanctuary, I remember looking down at the deep hues, shoulder to shoulder with my brother during Christmas Eve services. Groups of five or six would walk to the front of the sanctuary and gather in small circles around tables of bread and wine. Whispers of “The body of Christ for you” and “Do this in remembrance of me” would then echo throughout the sanctuary. At the end, participants would turn to one another and embrace, symbolizing their connection to one another through this sacred ritual. 

My brother and I stayed seated because we knew that communion was reserved for those who had been baptized and we had yet to make that commitment. Heightening the importance of the ritual was the knowledge that our ancestors had died for the belief that baptism should be chosen, not forced onto little babies. Gruesome stories of early Mennonites being burned at the stake and hunted by Catholic persecutors during the Holy Roman Empire were passed from generation to generation. Choosing to be baptized and Mennonite was a life long decision: to be other.  It was clear that the risks, at least in our Mennonite history, were high. But, in the choice to be the ‘other’ and not of the world, you became one with your people and were granted access to the nourishment and embrace of the communion ritual.

janluyken_martyrdom

(Image: persecution of anabaptist from Martyrs Mirror)

Adolescence presented itself with opportunities to take classes about baptism and membership. But, at the same time, another type of otherness was emerging inside of me–one I did not choose and that made me hesitant to claim my baptism and adult identity as a Mennonite.

This fear was confirmed at age 12, when I watched a lesbian couple be denied membership to our church. They had been raised in Mennonite communities, bequeathed with the same Mennonite traditions, baptized even, but that didn’t seem to matter now. Burned into my memory is the sight of them weeping in the pews, after the pastor delivered the news about their membership request. I looked up at them and then down at the carpet. Will this happen to me? Maybe it was better to not belong than to belong and be cast out,—better to never declare myself holy, worthy of baptism and communion, only to be excluded later. That looks dangerous, I thought. Bloody even, like the history of my ancestors, like the color of this carpet.

But here I was, with my beloved, being asked to move from inside the ritual to the outside. This is exactly what I had been trying to avoid within my own tradition. On the heels of the 2016 election, the walls of our relationship’s sanctuary were closing in. The ancient divorce between Judaism and Christianity came out of the shadows and into the light of the Shabbat candles. Temples built and destroyed, the persecution and demonization of Jewish life, promises of safety, then promises of safety denied, forced conversions and marriages. All of this poured from her DNA and into the ritual space.

“What did we ever do to you?” she said as tears poured from her eyes.

She was speaking to those outside of her tribe who had caused so much harm. The ones on the side of the divorce who gained an empire and used it against her people over and over again: Christians… me.  I froze. My own response to trauma triggered by exclusion from my religion and ritual perpetrated by my own people: Christians, Mennonites…me

But what do you do when you are the thing that harmed you? Stay quiet. Look at the carpet.  

This relationship ultimately ended on a rainy Wednesday in January, just a few days shy of the Presidential Inauguration. Though there was great kindness in the breakup process and even the invitation to say the prayers with her, it was the experience of exclusion that circled my mind and heart over and over again after she ended the relationship. I could not shake the feeling of raw abandonment. I felt like my biggest fear had come true. I had let my guard down, by learning and saying prayers, singing religious songs and participating in religious rituals. I allowed a feeling of belonging, but like the lesbian couple of my youth, I felt I was ultimately denied membership and kicked out of the sanctuary.  

This spurred what can only be described as a period of spiritual mania. I embodied the archetype of a mad man, wondering the desert and looking for answers. I channeled all my energy through research. Less than four hours of sleep a night sufficed, as I became obsessed with early Christianity and first century Judaism, the history of anti-Semitism, human evolutionary biology, and Jewish-Mennonite relations amongst other things. Indeed, there is a certain type of madness that only grief knows. Mine was of course about the ended relationship, but also my own history of religious abuse. I was grieving all the times I felt unseen and unknown, unworthy and unchosen. I wanted answers for my pain. 

One night, at 2am, I found myself reading the Biblical story of Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, and Jacob from the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim perspectives. I saw that all the stories were similar, but had one main difference. Each tradition claimed that they were the true chosen people of God. I thought about all the wars that were fought over this idea of chosen-ness, as well as the violence that is still being inflicted to this day.

I opened my computer and wrote this poem.

There are two kinds of people in this world

Prophets (the play-writes)

and

The fulfillers of prophecies (the actors)

And so I ask…

What visions are you disseminating?

and

To what scripts are you adhering?

My brother, be careful.

This is how wars begin.

The good news…

This is also how they end.

I began to think about my own ideas of chosen-ness and the prophecies to which I was adhering. I had long resisted ideas of Christian superiority, but when someone chose Judaism over me, it activated a feeling of inferiority. What story was I perpetuating by pining for a place in a ritual and in a relationship, where I felt the need to make a plea for my right to belong? This was a story set into motion a long time ago, in a Mennonite sanctuary, with a red carpet. 

A release came by way of a dream one night. In the dream, I am walking around heaven with a tour guide. At some point, I see my former partner sitting in a circle of women who are enacting some sort of ritual. I think to myself, “This is heaven, I am sure it is okay to go over there. I’m here all alone. Maybe I can join her group!” As I move towards the circle the guide stops me.

“No, no! That is the section of heaven for Jews only.”

I turn to him. “What?! Even in heaven we have to be separate?”

To which he looks and me, smiles, and says, “You don’t have to be separate. She just chooses to be.” I felt all of my energy instantly pull into the center of my chest. Her boundary was her own and had nothing to do with me. It was not about me being wrong, or her being wrong, or either of us needing to be kept away for fear of contamination. It was simply her choice. In the dream, I understood and respected that this choice had nothing to do with me. I felt a deep feeling of love for her, and myself, and then…I walked away.

In waking life, I began a personal and daily ritual of chanting this mantra: I choose to be chosen and I choose to be loved, as if I was trying to wield a new prophecy, word by word. I wrote songs, poetry, essays and continued to research everything that I could think of on what it means to be human. I thought about the people who are being targeted the most with messages about their inferiority and un-chosenness. This led me to sign up for a training for people wanting to help immigrants who are seeking asylum. It was there that I met a woman, with brown, almond shaped eyes.

“I came to this country as a refugee,” she said to the group. “I am wanting to help those who are in a similar position today.”

On our first date she told me that she was from Belarus, the descendent of Holocaust survivors. Her family had come here when she was three years old seeking a place of where there was equal opportunity for Jewish people.

And on our third date, she said “I never fully learned the Shabbat prayers. You said you know them, maybe you could teach them to me.” I stopped straight in my tracks. I had stuffed a set of candle holders and a Kiddush cup in the back of my cupboard a few weeks after my break-up, almost as if I needed to hide them.  But, as we said the Hebrew words together, I couldn’t help but think. Is this why I learned these prayers?  Is this why I have these sacred objects?

It has been one year since we began chanting these prayers together, amidst, bread, wine and the light of the Shabbat candles. Bread and wine are still symbols that evoke stories and memories that are deeply Christian and Mennonite. I am who I am and I will always have come, from where I came. However, the experience with my former girlfriend has also been integrated into the meaning of the ritual, reminding me that Shabbat is deeply Jewish. Generations of Jews have preserved the prayers and ritual in the most dire of circumstances. That must always be remembered. But, for me, the deepest meaning is evolving out of the consistency of this practice with my partner. It is the meaning at the root of all human rituals.  It is a core need, as vital as bread to squelch hunger and wine to quench thirst. My partner, in all her wisdom, made this explicit on our one-year anniversary. After I opened her gift, a beautiful Kiddish cup, to hold our wine on Shabbat, she said:

“I am giving this to you so that when we are having Shabbat, you always remember… with me, you belong.” 

cup

(Image: Our cup, photo by Addie Liechty)

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On Sanctity

Disclaimer: I am not a neuro-scientist, but I incorporate some neuroscience in this essay. I do not cite sources in the body of this essay, but most of my points about neurobiology of from the disseminated works of Robert Sapolsky. Here is a link to some of his work about the insular cortex. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_biology_of_the_modern_political_divide

One of my favorite moments in church was when I was sixteen years old. I was sitting in the back of the sanctuary while a ceramicist, and church congregant, was providing the children’s story. She showed the children a communion cup that she made and said something to the effect of, “This is to hold the blood of Christ.” Without skipping a beat, a little kid yelled out, “Ew! Gross! Why?” This was responded to, with some awkward laughter, shuffling in the seats and a quick redirection back to the lesson on communion. Personally, I thought this was hilarious…and moreover, poignant. How did something that most modern humans would consider disgusting, the drinking of blood, even if just symbolically, become holy?

It is pretty clear that this child felt disgust, a primary emotion felt instinctively and reactively. This is due to a little part of our brain called the insular cortex that registers and processes this experience of disgust. It is located inside of the amygdala, the processing center of emotional responses such as fear, anxiety and aggression. Evolutionarily, this has served to protect us from ingesting poisonous foods and dying. All mammals have this part of the brain, however, in the human brain, it also serves to process moral outrage or moral disgust. When I think back to the little kid in my church, I can hear both the gustatory and moral disgust in his reaction. However, it is quite possible that a little religious indoctrination was able to shift the intuitive disgust, into a place where the child could one day drink from that communion cup, with a sense of reverence. 

Behold! The power of sanctification!

In Ryan Ahlgrim’s, July 24th article in “The Mennonite” Three reasons why gay acceptance has been so divisive in MC USA, (https://themennonite.org/opinion/three-reasons-gay-acceptance-divisive-mc-usa/) he articulates a theory regarding the differing moral intuitions of liberals versus conservatives. In full disclosure, I dislike articles that are titled “__ reasons why.” I find them overly trite and simplistic. However, I have been known to click on a buzz-feed or two about the 10 best man buns, from time to time. (I’m not on the furthest end of the Kinsey scale, but close). While I agree with some aspects of his essay, I find his conclusions to be reductive and even harmful. He writes,

“Liberals tend to use the moral intuitions of care, liberty and fairness to overrule the moral intuition of sanctity (as well as of loyalty and authority), but conservatives tend to give sanctity equal weight with the other moral intuitions. Such valuing of sanctity has clear benefits. Research suggests that moral rules based on a sense of sanctity help religious groups cohere and become more stable, outlasting non-religious groups or religious groups with fewer sanctity rules. We ignore the intuition of sanctity at our peril.”

On a personal level, I felt the harm of this conclusion at the Mennonite convention last year. As a queer person, I felt the projection very clearly, that my seat at the table, resulted in the absence of the former conservative contingent of the church. It was like a knife to the heart when people would lament the congregations that were ‘no longer with us.’ These words were said from the main stage and never once was there an acknowledgement that this was the first time that queer voices and bodies were sanctioned and invited to the table. Not once was there an acknowledgment of the trauma that had been caused to us, by never being welcomed and celebrated in the past. At best, there was tolerance, with a tinge of blame for the dwindling numbers of the larger church. I felt as if I was being made responsible for the ‘perils’ of choosing liberty and inclusion over sanctity.

Aside from the personal affront, I also find this conclusion regarding the moral intuition of sanctity to be fatalistic. It leaves out an analysis of how moral intuitions develop and the fact that they are not fixed, but changing all the time. Beyond the fact that there are some things that we can eat and somethings that will poison us, everything else that triggers an intuitive response of holiness/sanctity or the opposite, disgust/othering is a result of the manipulation of the insular cortex, by dominant culture or simply coming in contact with something new or unfamiliar. However, like a baby trying food for the first time disgust can shift to pleasure with time and encouragement towards adaptation and integration. Culture shapes to what and to whom we adapt. 

So, let me just get to the point; Sanctity is a myth. It is created through collective story telling, cultural and religious customs, iconography, aesthetics and propaganda; All appealing to the insular cortex in order to build a sense of what/who is holy and what/who is not. For the last two-thousand years the church has been tangled up with empire, often creating a Christian identity that is syntonic with those power structures.

Interestingly, most of us in the United States are so colonized, that our insular cortexes no longer hold intuition about what plants are edible and what plants are poisonous. (Some though, like me, have learned that all day buffets are a bad idea; something I hope gets imbedded in my DNA and passed on to any future generations) Moreover, many of us actually eat poison on a regular basis, via pesticides and ingredients found in overly processed foods, just not enough to kill us in one sitting. Research on the long term effects of ingesting processed and non-organic foods is pushing society to re-evaluate what is truly deserving of gustatory disgust. Perhaps we are also in a process of re-evaluating our ‘intuitive moral responses’ which are actually not intuitive at all, but rather the result of manufactured insular cortexes by White-Christian/hetero/patriarchy. 

Last year, at the Mennonite Convention, at least two people on the more conservative end of the spectrum looked me directly in the eye and said, “The changes in the church just make me worried for my children.” (‘The changes’ being euphemisms for more LGBTQ inclusion) What they did not know about me is that I am fiercely protective of children. Anyone who knows me, knows this to be true. I obsess over their safety and health, to the point of obsessive compulsive tendencies. None of this could have been seen and communicated though, through the fog of their religious indoctrination and homophobic insular cortexes disguised as ‘concern for sanctity.’ This is the same fog that has blinded us from actually protecting women and children from sexual predators, often in leadership roles, particularly those who are white, male and straight. Why? Because Christian hegemony sanctified everything white, everything male and everything heterosexual a long time ago.

As I write this, I want to make it clear that I am hopeful. Yes, sanctity is a myth, but it is a beautiful one and one that I believe in, deeply. To me, sanctification is alchemy. Ever since I came out, I have been in an alchemical-spiritual process, to sanctify my life, my body and my relationships. This process of alchemy through sanctification, is core to the Christian story. Remember, we are the ones who can teach our children to drink blood, even if just symbolically, as a most sacred act. We are the ones who sanctified a torture device as our most holy symbol. Come on, Christians, I know you all are some wild and crazy mo-fos. Lest we forget our love for finding the sacred in the profane! Look at all we have sanctified! Surely, you can find the holiness in my boring life. You’d better hurry though, because lately I have been preferring shabbat over communion, where the wine is just wine; holy, like me…just as it is.

The Body: Pain and Popsicles

visual art by Lydia Kegler, entitled “Anatomy”

It’s 3am and I am awake. This has been my 3am for the past few weeks. Ever since my injury, I have not been able to sleep for more than a couple hours at a time. The reasons have varied. Tonight it is due to full body itching, a result of withdrawals from opiate medication. This has definitely been, a physical challenge. All I long for is comfort; for a respite from something hurting, itching, throbbing, searing.

All I can think about is my body. This is very odd for me. I have a home video of me around the age of three. It was easter and my siblings and cousins were participating in an easter egg hunt, while I am seen in the corner of the shot, spinning in circles and looking at the sky. I was, in my thoughts, maybe even in some spiritual realm, but not in my body. I have had friends that have worried about me because of my ability to completely space out. The ability to escape into myself or out of myself, has always been a part of me. But, I cannot do that right now. There is no spacing out. There is no getting lost in some aspect of my psyche, or elongated meaning making. The insights have come, but that have been brief and simple.

They are:

1.With pain, comes opportunities to experience “Oneness”
I thought of this in a brief moment after falling down the stairs and fracturing 6 bones in my ankle and foot. This was incredibly painful and sent my body in to some sort of shock and I shook, in my girlfriend’s arms, for an hour. There was one moment, when the sky parted and I understood, “Everyone at some time will experience something like this. To live is to experience pain.” It was an odd moment of feeling something so personal to my own body, but the pain was so intense that it also felt cosmic. I felt a sense of connection with all humans.

When I woke up from the first surgery, I felt this same sense of oneness. I was terrified of the general anesthesia. How were they going to put me in a deep enough sleep to cut into me and screw/drill nails and plates into my bone, without me feeling it and not kill me? I have had bouts of intense death anxiety throughout my life and it came on in full force leading up to the surgeries. This is why waking up from surgery felt like a resurrection of sorts. After the first surgery, I laid in the recovery room in so much gratitude.  I was euphoric that I simply woke up.  The nurse gave me a popsicle to ease the throat pain from the intubation.  I love popsicles and I always have, but this one was the best one of my life.  As I experienced this euphoria, I opened my ears and heard a doctor talking to a patient a few stations away. He said something to the effect of “We got most of the tumor, but not all of it. We can start chemo in a few weeks.” I felt a sense of being inextricably bound to this person and therefore everyone else. In my prayers for personal recovery, I also send prayers to this person and their family.

2.The human body is a paradox
I live in a body that can be so damaged by missing a few steps on a tiny staircase while simultaneously having the biological intuition to regenerate bone and integrate plates and screws so that I will walk again with little trouble in a years time. We are incredibly fragile and incredibly resilient. I am warming up to this idea both physically and emotionally, of being vulnerable and strong, in tandem.

3. Without modern medicine, I’d have a peg leg, or would have died.
Not much else to say on that. It would be a different journey than this one. Much gratitude for my birth year being 1984 rather than 1884

4. Having a body is risky business
This past year included a spiritual awaking that originated from heartache and emotional pain. During the really painful moments, I wasn’t sure how much I cared about being alive. I wasn’t suicidal, but I wasn’t taking care of my body either. I also experienced a lot of spiritual awakening that felt almost manic, at times. I kept thinking, “I don’t know how to ground this energy, I don’t know how to slow down.” I felt disconnected from my body. Well, this might have been the fastest (albeit painful) way to ground my energy. I have realized that there is no true spiritual path if it does not include the body. But being in a body is risky business. We feel pain only in our bodies, whether emotional or physical. As I say to my clients, “They are called feelings for a reason, we actually feel them in our bodies”

Maybe our souls choose this embodied experience, for that sweet taste of euphoria (and popsicles), like I felt waking up from my surgeries. This is the type of euphoria that is always at our finger tips, yet seldom recognized…when we stop to realize that we are glad to just be alive. Often times the experience of pain makes the experience of pleasure all the more satisfying.  This is where we find gratitude. So, apparently being alive today, means full body itching and to be honest, I have a lot more attitude than gratitude. But, I’m sure if I ask nicely, at an appropriate hour, someone will bring me a popsicle…and it will taste so good.

 

Connecticut

the first victim was from Connecticut

male in assigned gender

and would have attractions (primarily) to those assigned female at birth.

He was

5 when his father told him to stop “crying like a girl”

7 when he was showed pornography, by the older boys, down the street and

15 when he was called a “faggot” for the status: Virgin.

He was 16 when he (kind of) heard his girlfriend say “no” or was it 
“wait, slow down” (he didn’t).

She was confused though she did not expect to be heard

because she was 6 when she was told to give hugs she did not want

and 10 when she laughed at the boys looking up her skirt.

She was 13 when she learned to make her voice high and breathy and to smile

always smile.

She was 18 and had 10 more experiences like her first until she found

Judith Butler, her voice and an attraction to her college roommate

whom, at 22, she left on the dorm room steps

They were

sad but did not protest because

they expected to be abandoned

they expected to be“novel,” an object with which to “fuck the patriarchy”, at best

but not real

never real

because they were 8 when they whispered “I’m gay” into the ear of the family dog

and 10 when they began to lose hours in front of the mirror searching for a self (a gender) they had never seen.

They were 15 when they accepted that making out was just to help their best friend practice.

This is why they were not surprised, at 22, when she left them for

a gender that was clear

her parents wishes

a nice young man, from Connecticut.

On the Mennonite resolution regarding Israel/Palestine: A snapshot of where we are as a Church

At the age of 10, I began going to Friedenswald Mennonite summer camp, in Cassopolis, Michigan. Being that I grew up in Indianapolis, with very few Mennonites, this is a place where I felt a sense of belonging. There was no American flag being raised in the mornings and no need to explain why I was abstaining from the pledge of allegiance or why would not put my hand over my heart for the National Anthem. Aside from that, many cousins were there and friends who were essentially like cousins because our parents had all grown up together, dated each other, vacationed together, etc. Some of the best memories were gathering around the campfire and singing each night.

Recently, I have had the looping memory of one particular song we used to sing. I cannot remember the entire song, but I do remember these lines, “I don’t want to be a Pharisee, I don’t want to be a Pharisee, ‘cause they’re not fair you see. I don’t want to be a Sadducee. I don’t want to be a Sadducee, ‘cause they’re so sad you see…” As I remember singing this and laughing with my Anglo-Mennonite friends, a feeling of nausea arises. I did not know this at the time, but Pharisees and Sadducees, were sects of Judaism, in 1st century Palestine. Essentially, I was a part of a group of majority white Christians who were gathered around a fire and singing, “I don’t want to be a Jewish person” Do I really need to draw the comparisons between that and a group of white men marching into Charlottesville, screaming “Jews will not replace us”?

I suppose the key difference is consciousness. I did not know that I was saying something anti-Semitic, but someone did. There were times when Christian superiority would seep out in a more direct way. The camp pastor, during my high school years, received a question about other religions and their validity. He said something like, “All the major religions are on the right track, but Christianity is the religion that all others are trying to live up to.” I had adored this pastor, but right then and there, I wrote him off. Similarly, I wrote off the idea of baptism because I could not affirm that “Jesus is the one truth, way and light.” When I was baptized in 2010, I made sure not to say those words.  These ideas did not resonate with me because of how closely tied I felt to the Jewish community, in Indianapolis. I went to the JCC for summer day camp, took piano, swimming, and worked there during High School. Aside from that, I had many more Jewish friends than Mennonite ones in Indianapolis.  Personally, the Jewish religious practices felt like they had more depth than other Christian spaces, like Young Life (I hated Young Life)  So, these subtle and overt messages of Christian superiority made absolutely no sense to me.

In the wake of the stark rise in all forms of bigotry towards minority groups, we are called to assess the unconscious permeations in our own families and communities. These very overt expressions of anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia shine a light on our own subtle and unconscious expressions of these -isms.

As I reflect on the Mennonite Conference this summer, I continue to think about our process regarding the Israel/Palestine resolution. I think it gives us a huge opportunity for self-reflection as we engaged in an internal process, which effected those outside of our community. The resolution that was submitted was the result of two years of work, put in by a ten-person reference group of composed of Palestinians, Israelis and American Jewish people. The resolution was presented to the delegate body and passed with overwhelming approval. The summary of this resolution is as follows:

As followers of Jesus and his gospel of reconciliation, we long for peace, security, and the well-being of all people living in Israel and Palestine. We have heard the cry for justice of Palestinians, especially those living under oppressive military occupation for fifty years. We are also acutely aware of antisemitism and violence inflicted upon Jews in the past and the present. The suffering of these two groups has too often been set against the other. We recognize, rather, that the legacy of Jewish suffering is intertwined with the suffering of Palestinians. In this situation, there are Palestinians and Jews who work for justice and peace for all, rejecting violence and oppression. We are blessed to count them as partners and seek to support them and learn from them. We confess that we, as Mennonites, as Christians, and as Americans, bear some responsibilities for the injustice and violence that both peoples have experienced historically and currently. We commit ourselves to take active and specific steps to redress these harms. On one hand, we will oppose military occupation and seek a just peace in Israel and Palestine; on the other, we will seek deeper relationships with Jewish communities and actively oppose antisemitism.

This resolution passed with an overwhelming majority and I was one of the delegates that voted yes. This, however, was not without some thought and trepidation. During the open mic time, I was able to observe a microcosm of the larger discourse as a majority white, American, Christian group stuck their nose in this conflict. With in our tiny Mennonite body, we stretched the gamut. On the far left, people spoke of this resolution “not going far enough” in terms of its support for BDS boycotts, pushing for even more of a cultural boycott of Israel.  On the right people spoke of Christian Zionism and that God was returning Jewish people to Israel, as part of the Biblical prophecies. And, furthermore, we even had an anti-Semitic fascist, who had pamphlets that basically denied the Holocaust.

It makes my blood boil to know that this man has been tolerated and allowed a seat at the table for many conventions prior to this one and this was the first one where I was tolerated as a queer person. He was allowed 2 minutes at the open mic, about the resolution, to spew his delusional rhetoric and I was given 5 to read a poem about bridging differences and singing a song with the words, “I won’t use hate to separate.” Let me just put on my therapist hat and say, “Mennonite Church USA, I am struck by that.” This is a snap shot of where we were, at the time of passing this resolution. If we are to take seriously the call to oppose anti-Semitism, this is a snap shot, a picture, we need to face head on.

The overt anti-Semitism of the fascist is obvious, but it is important to look at the more subtle anti-Semitism that may lurk in some of the other views, as well. On the left, there has been a tendency to conflate Judaism with the state of Israel, pushing some American Jewish people out of progressive spaces, leaving them more vulnerable to rising levels of anti-Semitism in the United States. I fear that some progressive are looking away and even participating in the scapegoating of Jewish people as a group.  Furthermore, context matters.  When we are speaking out against Israel as White-Anglo Christians, that is different than a progressive American Jewish person or an Israeli person.  We have different skin in the game.  We don’t have parents and grandparents who were killed, fled or survived genocide.  THAT MATTERS.  If we are prepared to do a full boycott of Israel, we must be prepared to do a full boycott of the United States. Take you money out of the banks, out of your retirement funds, out of the stock markets. Oh, and stop paying taxes.  If we want to talk about oppressive regimes and oppression of racial “others,” we don’t need to cross any seas.  We white Christians are the occupiers of this United States.

On the right, the anti-Semitism feels more sneaky and a lot more creepy, for lack of a better word. Basically, Christian Zionist view the Jewish people as pawns in their own salvation in the “end of days.” I think it goes something like Christians (and they are probably talking about a very particular type of Christian, certainly not LGBTQ ones) are the true chosen ones who will magically ascend to heaven, when the Jewish people are returned to Israel and the Messiah returns. Personally, I think that salvation theology has got to go or needs a great deal of deconstruction before it can be useful. I can only see its merit from the view point of the oppressed (which early Christians were, indeed oppressed, and White Straight Evangelicals are not). This is the type of theology that is deadly when it teams up with empire and with capitalism, where “others” become used for the ultimate benefit of those with the most power. It was used to justify slavery, the doctrine of discovery which massacred and continues to oppress Native people. Unsurprisingly, it has been the backing of much of anti-Semitic violence over the last 1500 years.

So, with all that baggage, why did I vote yes on this resolution? I thought it was a really good resolution and I trusted the people who worked on it. I wouldn’t have voted yes had there not been collaboration with Palestinians, Jewish Voice for Peace and Israelis. But, I also voted yes so that I could write this essay and attempt to hold us and myself accountable. I seek to ally with all marginalized people inside and outside of our Church body. Mennonite Church USA, you marginalized me as a queer person and now I am a thorn in your side. I am not coming back into the fold without the other marginalized people, nor will embrace a collective identity that boasts superiority in subtle or overt ways, or needs to denigrate “the other” to figure out who they are, or tries to whitewash the pain of others in the name of reconciliation and “togetherness.” I don’t want to belong to that. I want to belong to something new.

A few nights ago, I had a dream where I was back at Friedenswald Camp, in Michigan. I was walking around and looking at pictures on the wall. A woman, who is black, comes up to me and says, “You know, they have a picture of the KKK group that lives around here. Its up on the wall and they ask me to polish it sometimes.” (for the record, a former grand dragon of the KKK did used to live around the Cassopolis, MI area, during my childhood, when I attended the camp). The woman looks at me and I understand in this moment that it is too dangerous for her to confront this and it is as if a get a telepathic message from her that says. “What are you going to do about it?” I take the picture off of the wall and show it to my father (this is not my actual father, in the dream, just a representation of white-hetero-christian-patriarchy). I say, “What the hell is this?” He says, “What? It’s just a part of our history, it’s harmless.” I yell, “You want it polished and you ask this woman to polish it! That’s so fucked up! Why would you ever think that I would bring my Jewish friends and partner to this place with this picture on the wall?” I then smash the picture on the ground.

This dream left we wondering what are the photographs on our collective Mennonite walls right now?Among many, in a complex history, here are a few from Mennonite Convention 2017: Snap shot 1: LGBTQ Mennonites being tolerated for the first time being asked to listen to the laments about Evangelicals leaving the church because they did not want to sit at the same table us. Snapshot 2: People of color breaking down when talking about their experience of erasure and abuse while white Christian men complained about feeling oppressed. Snapshot 3: Stories of abusive pastors and men in leadership being protected, while women and other abuse victims are asked to forgive. Snapshot 4: The tolerance of Holocaust denier, while we pass a resolution that charges us to confront anti-Semitism. And here is one from my own past: Singing “I don’t want to be a Pharisee” as a 10 year old and thinking just for a moment, “Something doesn’t feel right about this. What’s a Pharisee anyways?” and then overriding it. “This is church camp after all…this is where I belong…it must be okay. It’s harmless, right?”

So, as the wise woman in the dream nudged, “What are we going to do about it?” Here is my initial plan. Picture number 1: SMASH! Picture number 2: SMASH! Picture number 3: SMASH! Picture number 4: SMASH! Picture number 5: SMASH! The privileged parts of us want to rush towards reconciliation or even peace building on the behalf of others (like the Israel/Palestine resolution) without doing the necessary smashing within our own psyches, lives and communities. Only in the courage to shatter these images, or at least de-throwning them, can we live into right relationship within our Mennonite boundaries and then with our neighbors. Amidst the shattered pieces, something new, something whole and something much less brittle awaits. This is the type of salvation theology that I can get down with.

Am I not also, holy? Reflections after Orlando, Mennocon 2017

My experience at the Mennonite Church USA conference was…many things. As some of you know, I signed up for this task in the midst of break up grief/mania. I was dumped and the reason given was irreconcilable differences in regard to religion. My check-list for processing through this break-up reads like this:

1. Sign up for Mennonite Conference with the hopes of healing all religious trauma

2. Stay up late researching all of the following things:
a. my own genealogy
b. The history of Christianity
c. The history of Judaism
d. Early Christianity and its split from Judaism
e.The history of humans
f.The history of Neanderthals (a particularly glorious rabbit hole)
g.The history of the world (It’s 4.4 billion years old!)
h.The history of the universe (it’s 14 billion years old!)
i.String theory and parallel universes

3.Write songs and poetry
4.Have many epiphanies that feel SO DEEP that will later feel rather obvious
5.Get a tattoo
6.Cry, a lot

I make jokes, but this is the type of break up mania that can only occur when it intertwines and triggers one’s own trauma. The trauma that was triggered was given to me, very clearly, by the Mennonite Church. This is the trauma of feeling like something that I could not change, did not fit into the boundaries of the community…that my otherness, my queerness, is a threat to the space and me just being me, could send my church into deep conflict…where people would yell, cry, leave and LGBTQ members would be denied membership and jobs/leadership positions. The image of two people being denied membership was recurring during my grief process, as were dreams/nightmares where I was wandering around, trying to find my place and asking “Am I not also, holy?”

During my first introduction at the Future Church Summit session (The dialogue process that delegates participated in to discuss the future of the Church), we were asked why we came to the convention. I said, I am a representative for my church, but I also came to seek some healing. We were asked to share a story with one other person, about our Mennonite journeys. My partner shared about her experience in the 60s of getting a divorce from an abusive husband. She shared with tears in her eyes that she was ridiculed, judged and told that she could not live with the other women, in the dorms, at Goshen College, because she might be a bad influence. Divorce in those days was what LGBTQ issues are today. She shared that she went to a Mennonite Convention in the 60s and stood strong, as she told her story. She stated that a leader of the Mennonite Church, gave her a public apology. As I told her my story, she made the bridge between our shared space of pain, though our stories have many unique differences. I felt this was a promising interaction for my intention around healing.

My memories of other parts of the convention (even though it was just last week) feel somewhat swirling and a mix of deeply healing moments, with moment of clarity and also fog and dissociation. Some of these clear moments include the message delivered by Regina Shands Stoltzfus at the inclusive worship service as she has an ability to cut directly to the truth and give the audience a felt sense of intersectionality (Kimberle Crenshaw). She holds that beautiful grounded heart space of both sorrow and hope, perhaps the place where new life can bloom.

Another moment of clarity was getting on stage on Friday afternoon, in front of 600 plus people in the delegate body. I was slightly distracted because my time had been cut from 20 minutes down to 5 and I found this out 20 minutes before I was supposed to perform. Swirling in some questions about the reasons for this last minute change, I flubbed some of the words to my poem (adding in a weird adage about “the lord” something that was not written, but I felt that maybe I would not be taken seriously if I didn’t say “God” “Jesus” or “The Lord”) However, there was this moment when I was singing my own words, “I have felt myself get tall and I have felt myself get small. Its what I do when I fall, for you. I won’t be less than you, I can choose to be chosen too.” I looked out to a room and felt like I was speaking directly to the archetype of the toxic patriarch. In that moment, I was free.

These were the types of moments when I felt like we might be moving forward, but there was another energy present. The energy that protected the powers that be and clouded the truth while talking in code. One such moment was when the executive board asked for “Prayers” about the “issue” that we all received in “an email” about “the state of things.” What they were referring to was the suspension of Doug Basinger, from his leadership position, due to his sexual orientation. Before I could even explain to my table what was being talked about, the moderator, Patty Shelly, started singing from the pulpit “Lord, listen to your children praying.” I don’t have any other description for this, except it felt gross. I think that song might be a little ruined for me, for a while.

These cloudy moments continued in smaller group discussions as people talked about their sadness that conservative churches had left the larger Mennonite conference. It occurred in comments about “the changes” and people in conservative churches being worried about “their children.” One of the more aggressive moments was when a woman said that God had been on a journey with her friend and led her back to being with a man, after she had been with a woman. She did this in front of group of 10 people, when I was the only queer person at the table. This was the story she chose to illustrate the theme of God being on a journey with us. She stared me down, as she told this “testimony.”

It was soon after this interaction that a tornado warning was issued and we could hear loud thunder roaring outside. We could have forgotten that there was an earth and elements, in that sprawling and overly air conditioned convention center. However, we were being reminded in that moment. I had a vision of a tornado bursting right through the “Love is a Verb” (the convention theme) icon that was at the front of the room and I thought to myself, “I am not dying with these people. I am not dying with the woman who just humiliated me. I am not dying with these white christian men, who are claiming that they are now the ones being oppressed. I am not dying with the man in the room, who has my last name, who got up during the resolution on Israel/Palestine and said that Jewish people had not experienced pain. There is nothing like an anti-semitic man, with your last name, that will make you throw all remnants of ethnic Mennonite tribalism out the window. That really sealed the deal for me.

In a moment, that I find kind of funny now, I left the main hall, during the tornado warning and went to the empty Pink Menno room, thinking it might be better to die there. This was a likely indicator that my system was becoming a bit overloaded, after exposing myself on stage, earlier that day. I think that heart-opening, left me a bit more vulnerable.

The next day, at the final delegate session, I had my 11th hour break down. As we were wrapping up conversations, I had a moment of panic. What did we even talk about? I don’t feel like I know anything about these people and they know nothing about me. We talked about wanting the church to be centered on Jesus and following Jesus, but what does that even mean? I think it means VERY different things to me, than for the man at my table who thinks that he is being oppressed. Someone mentioned AGAIN the loss of the conservative churches and I broke down.

I said to the man claiming oppression, “I know that you feel oppressed and are worried for your children and I don’t know what to say to that, except that I am sad. It feels like in order for you to feel safe and not oppressed, I have to not be here. When I came out at 21, while at Goshen College, my body was shutting down. I was losing weight and not eating. It truly felt like I had to either come out or die. If I could have stayed in the closet and survived, I would have. So, I really don’t know what to say to you.” I then left my table and cried in the arms of Michelle Burkholder, the pastor of the Hyattsville church and the third queer pastor in Mennonite Church USA . Interestingly, I had yet to have much of a conversation with her, but I just sensed that she was the type of person that could hold me…and, she was.

The final vote for the approval by the delegate body, for the statement put forth by the Future Church Summit, was a complete blur for me. There was an unplanned open mic and the statement, that called for a more inclusive church as well as attention towards issues of social justice became watered down. Then people were raising their hands to approve the statement and it all went very fast. If I had not been so exhausted and confused I would have voted no or abstained, but I didn’t do anything. I didn’t raise my hand at all. This was a big lesson in how power maintains, when whiteness, patriarchy, heterosexism and Christian hegemony are centered and unexamined. Those on the margins, just become exhausted and confused in trying to speak about the right just to be taken seriously or seen as fully human. If there is one thing this experience gave me, it was infinitely more empathy for those on the margins, who are having to do this more than I am, in the queer friendly bay area.

I am glad that the conference ended when it did because I could feel myself getting a little obsessed with my own pain and trauma. I can feel the spinning nature of that, as I read back this reflection. I watched the Bill Maher documentary, “Religulous” on the flight home and that helped with a feeling of levity. When I shared, with the person I am dating, some of the homophobic things that were said, she could not help but laugh. She did not grow up with this type of Christianity or any Christianity at all, so her outsider view could mirror something else to me, something that I maybe did not need to take so seriously and allow any more power over me. This was helpful and allowed a spaciousness and a shaking off. It is easy to get narcissistic and grandiose about pain. (I’m sure that my whiteness intertwines somehow with that, but that is another article)

When our identities get tied to pain, letting it shake off and finding levity can feel like a death or a betrayal. This, I think, keeps us from connection, especially across divides, that the white-heteropartriarchy power structures, would like to keep divided. My main intention is to keep this experience as an ever present point of empathy, not to overlay my experience, but connect into, just as the woman at my table did regarding her experience at Goshen, in the 60s.

My flight back, made a stop in Miami. When we landed, I looked out the window and saw a beautiful double rainbow. I later found out, that at the same time, there was also a double rainbow that arched over the convention center in Orlando. This was of course personally meaningful as the rainbow holds symbolism, in my psyche, that is both Biblical and queer. It felt like mine and I know that it felt like it was meant for us queer Mennonites that day. But, the truth is that it was there for everyone. It was also a rainbow for the woman who humiliated me, the white Christian men who feel oppressed and even for the man who made anti-semitic remarks. Do not get me wrong, I do not condone this and think this man should not be allowed at conferences with his hateful rhetoric, but I do affirm that even he is not out of the reach of the Divine. I cannot hold these people because as their fragility shatters, shards tend to fly every which way, but the Divine can. In the letting go of my own Christian grandiosity, I let go of any need to save anyone else.

My purpose is to save myself, or rather claim myself and then share that journey with others in the loving wish that they might do the same. The wish that they too might feel the freedom of a Divine Being that is too expansive for any church, any religion and any denomination. This is the Divine Equal that proclaims you as both whole and holy from the very beginning, to the very end. This is the Divine Self. The question that arose in my nightmare has been answered; Yes, I am holy too and so are you.

 

Flying Back into the Cage: Reflections on reengaging in the Mennonite Church USA (from July 21st, 2015)

First off, I am so glad that the article I wrote meant so much to so many people. Like a good Mennonite, this gratitude came in waves, interspersed with feelings of guilt and embarrassment for the recognition. I really have done nothing to contribute to the Pink Menno campaign and so many fellow LGBTQIA Mennonites put their bodies and hearts on the line, at the recent conference.

I don’t know if I could have or would have wanted to be there. It still deeply impacts me when I feel like anyone in the room does not approve of me. It sends me into a bit of an obsessive spiral and throws me completely off center. The constant, “What are they thinking about me?” can be paralysing, so I avoid those situations as much as possible. This is likely why I avoid MCUSA conferences and engaging on this topic in general. I feel so free in my Church and living in the Bay area. Why would a free bird willingly fly back into a cage?

I believe I outlined these reasons for re-engaging in my recent article. The inspiration for my tone was watching the transforming power of love as a couples therapist. I see that couples are able to change deeply ingrained patterns when they truly understand the impact they have on one another. Couples do this through eye contact, attunement, learning to tell their stories vulnerably and learning to listen vulnerably.

We are missing some variables for accessing this level of empathy in the cyber age, but I thought I would do my best. In my fantasy, my article would have the power to transform people with more conservative views, into acceptance. In actuality though, I think it just helped those who resonate with my message feel understood and heard. For those who inherently think my identity is a sin, well, I think that their Biblical interpretation holds more weight than my personal testimony.

For many centuries The Bible has been both a source of liberation and oppression. We as Anabaptist found spiritual liberation (though it came with 300 years of death and persecution) from the Holy Roman Empire, by finding different interpretations of the Bible. African Americans created spiritual and gospel songs of freedom, while down the street, at church, their imprisoners found justification for their behaviors within interpretations of the Bible. I imagine this trend will continue for some time.

I feel resigned, but not in a bad way. If I work with a couple for sometime and things don’t improve, sometimes the healthiest thing is to break up.

Yesterday, I engaged in a facebook comment chain about the recent change in hiring policies at Goshen. One man stated that he thought it was okay to hire LGBTQ people as janitors, secretaries, food workers, and maintenance workers, but not as professors. When I pointed out the hurtful nature of this comment he stated, “I know my comment is hurtful but, honestly, you’re always going to hurt someone’s feelings.” He goes on to say, “I don’t expect a (Sikh) to be like me. If his feelings are hurt because I am not more like him, that’s not my fault.” (I could write another article on all the layers of racism, classism and patriarchy here.) I am not hurt because he is not like me.  I am hurt because of the devaluing.  Essentially, this person conveys that he no longer cares if he hurts my feelings. His convictions outweigh his ability to feel impacted by my story and my feelings. I feel some relief in understanding that.

To him and others with similar convictions, I say, “I hear that me, just being me, is a threat to you. For that, I feel great sadness. I feel sad that my very existence threatens you and your beliefs.  I get how scary that must feel. Your comments are a projection of this fear that would be damaging for me to internalize. I will not absorb nor defend against your projection.  I cannot unleash a flood of mimetic verbiage. If I did, I would be colluding with the belief that your existence is a threat to me, leading me down a dangerous path towards extremism and annihilation. I don’t want to destroy you because I know that if I need to destroy you to be okay, I will also destroy myself. Dear one, I guess it’s time to break up. Sometimes it is better to walk away than dig our heels further into the ground. We will both be happier. Maybe we will get back together later, or be friends when we find something else in common or when you care about my feelings again.”

So, why would a free bird willingly fly back into the cage? Because I know that I am the one that holds the key.  I can fly away anytime I want.  Maybe I will go to the conference in 2017.

 

Artist Image: unknown, let me know if you know!

H.D.’s Truth

I love the fall.

That’s why I sat on this wall.

 

Yes, we know how the story ends.

But, maybe I did not want to be put back together again.

Certainly not by the King’s horses and men.

 

You see, I am not interested in preservation.

Nor am I interested in restoration.

I am awaiting transformation.

 

That is the work of what cannot yet be seen.

And for that, you, I and we, will need the vision of a Queen.

 

Bridging the Divides

My first offense happened at the Jewish Community Center in Indianapolis. I was 5 years old. We had joined the JCC because my Mennonite family was not really the country club type and the local swimming/exercise club had a history of denying membership to Jewish people and Black folks. My mother being who she was, did not stand for that because her mother being who she was, did not stand for that.

So, there I was, attending one of the many summer programs that the JCC offered, twirling around and singing my favorite song, “Jesus Loves Me.” One of the adult leaders caught wind of this and said, “You can’t sing that here!” I remember stopping in my tracks and feeling ashamed and confused. I don’t know if the counselor told my mother, or if I did, but I do remember the conversation that followed. My mother told me that Jewish people do not share our same belief in Jesus. I remember her iterating that this belief is good and okay, just different. She said that when I am in their space, I can respect their beliefs by not singing Jesus songs.

A few weeks later I was singing it at home, on the toilet and my grandfather walked by and said jokingly, “Hey! You can’t sing that here!” and then gave a hearty laugh. I was still a little confused. This became a sort of family lore for sometime. “Addie was singing Jesus Loves Me at the JCC” (enter laughter). Lately, and in light of our current political climate, I have been able to find the depth of this experience and the lessons.

Unless you are a straight, white, Christian, Cis-gendered, middle class/upper class, male, you are living in the crossroads or the intersections. Even if you have all of these privileged identities, you are still living in this system. For me, I am a female bodied, Queer, non-binary, white, middle class, Mennonite. I am living right up in the middle of all these intersections, with identities of privilege and identities of marginalization. Immediately following the election, I felt all the fragments of my multiple identities and a sensation of feeling trapped; on an island. I felt rage and anger towards many white men, cis-white-straight-women and gay white men. Basically, anyone with more identities of privilege. I just wanted them to shut up.

Meanwhile, I was feeling guilty, weary and insecure regarding my own identities of privilege. This, I believe, was causing me to make offenses left and right or at the very least creating some leaky boundaries. So, parts of me were rigid and angry while other parts flimsy and loose. What a fragmented and dichotomous place to be! I felt incredibly scattered and was experiencing a lot of mood swings.

One very odd experience summed it up, when I was trying to find a parking spot. Two white males, in a SUV proceeded to back up more then 30 feet, on a busy road. They did not look in their rearview mirrors and nearly hit me. I honked and swerved my little compact car, without looking in my rearview mirror and nearly hit an African-American man on his bicycle. He yelled into my car window, “What are you doing? Fuck you!” Without thinking much I yelled, “I’m sorry! I love you!” Sigh. We were all moving so fast.

In an age of tweets and outrage, action and reaction and 24 hour news coverage it can be hard to slow down. There was pressure to know what to do and everyone seemed to have an idea of what that was; what actions were wrong and what actions were right. One night I lay in bed and said out loud, “I don’t know how to bridge these divides.” I spent the next day wrapped up in a blanket, depressed and feeling isolated. Allowing myself to slow down, surrender and say “I don’t know” created an opening. I realized that the parts of me that were feeling flimsy and loose were in need of self-compassion, while the parts that were ridged, angry and judgmental were in need of more curiosity.

If you have an identity of privilege, you have made an offense at some point. For most of us in the liberal camp, it has more often than not, been unconscious. We live in a country that was founded on divides, on the displacement and murder of native people and the sociopathic ownership of other human beings. It is in our DNA. One of the best things we can learn how to do is how to recover from a trespass or an offense. For me, I have found that self-compassion is essential. Without this, I am looking to the person or group that I offended to make me feel better, creating those loose and leaky boundaries. If there is openness and consent about processing the offense, I own it and say “I’m sorry.” However, consent it crucial. It is okay if a marginalized person or group does not want to process with you and the best thing to do is provide space. In the space, I will sometimes light a candle for my continued healing around my own internalized oppressor identities.

In the past few months, since the election, my approach towards those with more privileged identities has softened. I have realized the need that we have for one another and I have a desire to bridge divides in this direction as well. It is hard to sit with the hypocrisy of a liberal white man, who claims outrage over Donald Trump, but then does not seem to listen when women, people of color or queer folks speak. At the same time, I know that I have committed these offenses. I too, have been guilty of white-splaining, I’m sure. It is easy for me to label them as hypocrites and dismiss them. What is more difficult is holding on to the complexity and even the innocence of an individual, while still acknowledging the impact of identity politics at play.

It is in these places of complexity and hypocrisy that I embrace the story of myself, 5 years-old, at the JCC. It is true that I needed to learn to respect the space of the JCC as well as learn the historical and generational trauma that likely yielded the reaction from the counselor. I needed to eventually learn about reverence and respect for different traditions, cultures and religions. And, at the same time, I was innocent. Following the election, I believe I lost sight of innocence. I lost sight of my own and the innocence of others. It is still a struggle, day in and day out. Some days I have more patience then others and that is okay. On the days when I have less patience is is just a signal that there is likely a part of me that needs to be tended to before I can tend to another.

The title of this essay might give false hope that I have the answer for bridging the divides right now. I do not. I am not in the business of telling people what to do, especially in such a difficult time. We are all coming at this from different places and I believe all lenses have something to offer. What I would like to do is offer a story, where I feel like I had a taste of what it might mean for me to be an ally in the intersections.

On the day of the women’s march, I was traveling on Bart to the march in San Francisco. I had my head phones on but felt an intuitive nudge that I was supposed to be engaged externally. Just then, a young man man began targeting a person who was gender-nonconforming, female bodied and a person of color. He held his hand up like a gun and mimicked shooting at their head. The targeted person became agitated and swiped at the young man. At this point, I just heard an internal voice say “move” and walked toward the conflict. I did not engage with the perpetrator, but was able to lock eyes with the targeted person. I stood in between them and engaged them in a soft smile. At this point, the young man began uttering all sorts of homophobic and transphobic slurs. Being that these were identities that I shared with the targeted person, I was no longer sure who was being targeted. At this point, I looked behind me and a cis-gender, white male, had followed quietly and was offering a layer of protection for the both of us. The train became silent and in a most amazing moment, the young man, who I believe was struggling with mental illness said, “I don’t know why I just said all that. I’m sorry” and he exited the train.

For whatever reason this intervention worked, on this particular day, at this particular time. There may have been a million different ways to handle that situation. For me, I was born into a pacifist religious tradition and I have never won an arm wrestling match in my entire life.  So, my interventions are probably going to look much like the one I chose.  We all need to listen for what we are called to do, at this moment in time, particularly around bridging divides. None of us are free of or can escape the healing needed internally and externally. May I, and may we, find moments of grace, innocence and of of course a fierce commitment to protect what needs protecting and embrace what needs embracing.

Reconciling with the Cross

The lectionary scripture Ezekiel 37 is referenced in this piece below.  Feel free to check it out, for context.  Below was a sermon spoken at First Mennonite Church of San Francisco. 4.2.17

The language of the soul is not one of words. It is one that speaks in symbols. In Christianity our main symbol is the cross. Personally, I have never felt very connected to this symbol. I have distanced myself from it as it has become wedded to Christian hegemony causing much harm all over the world. In our country’s history the confederate flag “X” is a derivative of the cross, after all. In my own genealogical history, the cross was likely utilized when hunting down and killing many of my anabaptist ancestors. In my lifetime, the cross has been used as a symbol that alienates me from Christianity and even the Mennonites due to my queerness. I would venture to say that there is no one in this room that has not been harmed, in some way, by the cross. Aside from that, when I think of it, I see those bloody images of an agonizing Jesus and the whole of it just feels violent. So, for most of my recent life, I have buried this image and much preferred the symbology of angels and hearts. When I picture the archetype of a Bible thumping, queer hating pastor, he is holding a bible or a cross, not a heart (although, trading the cross for the heart in my imagination is rather amusing and it takes some of the power out of it)

If it wasn’t for Jung, I may have spent the rest of my life cut off from this symbol and it would have remained like dry bones in my internal landscape.  Sheri told me about his interpretation a couple of weeks ago. Jung writes, “Nobody who finds himself on the road to wholeness can escape that characteristic suspension which is the meaning of crucifixion. For he will infallibly run into things that thwart and “cross” him: first, the thing he has no wish to be (the shadow); second, the thing he is not (the “other,”) and third the psychic non-ego (collective unconscious)” Many of the most well known religious symbols carry these same elements of, opposing forces and balancing with “the other.” The two intertwining but opposing triangles of the Jewish Star of David, in some interpretations, symbolizes the relationship between God and Earth, and the Yin and the Yang symbolize male and female as well as dark and light. The crescent moon and star of Islam also needs the contrast of the dark night sky to shine. Clearly the human soul has a deep longing for “the other” as this is reflected in some of our most sacred symbols.

Paradoxically, we have a deep fear of the other. We find ourselves crossed between these two feelings. Perhaps the greatest fallacy of all time is that the other must be killed or exiled, in order for the self to live. Within our own psyches we repress parts of ourselves that we do not want to see and project these qualities onto “the other”.  In the collective, these projections have resulted in economic, interpersonal and group violence. For instance, the traders and owners of humans, as slaves, would not have been able to survive the pain of their own consciousness with out the repression and projection of “darkness” onto Africa and those who were from that part of the world.

The dry bones passage, which is the lectionary scripture for this week, when contextualized comes at a time when Israel has been split into two nations, sometimes waring with one another, however, common in origin. In this passage Ezekiel is receiving the prophesy that God will restore the divided nations into one again. And here we are today, living in a nation divided. This text could not be more apropos for the current times. In the passage, Ezekiel reports that God speaks to him and says, “I am going to open your graves and bring you up from your graves,” harkening images of resurrection. It made me wonder about the dry bones that are in this country and the soil of this Earth.

I have felt what can only be described as a haunting, when in the South of the United States, visiting the old plantation homes. I felt this haunting acutely, biking in the rural southern region of Vietnam. I think what I have felt, in these settings, are the dry bones of those who have been oppressed, conquered, enslaved and unjustly killed. These souls are in need of recognition, resurrection and justice.

A few years ago I was coming out of the Bart station and a group of Indigenous people were participating in a traditional dance. A large crowd had gathered around, taking awe in this ritual. As I watched, I noticed myself becoming extremely emotional and I began to cry. It is hard to put into words what I was feeling because it is as if these feelings were rising up in me from the roots and soul of the earth, not somewhere rational or logical. I think what was happening for me is that I saw a people whose culture has been on the brink of extinction. I thought about the cement that they were dancing on and what might be buried beneath it. I saw their ancestors in holograms all around their dancing bodies and I wept for them, at the same time feeling reverence for the survival of this ritual and willingness to share it.

Perhaps the recent increase in discussion and awareness around identity politics is, at it’s core, a collective attempt at resurrecting the dry bones of women, Queer folks, Native people, religious minorities, people of color, poor folks and many more. As these souls rise up, white supremacist, capitalistic, patriarchy is meeting it’s cross.

Now, let’s pause here for a second. I can really feel myself getting revved up. (Sigh)  Having this term “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” is such a satisfying phrase to have in my back pocket. Mostly because I have a safe place to put all my blame. I am thinking that maybe I should create some kitschy symbol for being “anti white supremacist, anti-capitalist, anti patriarchy”, place it on a flag and then go wave it in the faces of the tech bros downtown. That would feel really good. That sweet taste of self-righteousness is so tempting, isn’t it?

Kahlil Gibran writes, “He who wears his morality but as his best garment were better naked.” As soon as self-righteousness and judgment creeps in, so does a hardening, so does armor and so does separation and “Us vs. Them.” Furthermore, it keeps us from doing our own internal soul work around internalized -isms. This is what Jung is talking about in his interpretation of the cross and the repression of the “other” and the “shadow.” We all have different soul work to do based on our social location, but without this internal process we will continue to see the projections and creations of more divisions externally. The internal fragmentation shows up in the external fragmentation, which then creates more internal fragmentation. It is a cycle.

For the we of us who are on the margins our soul work looks like giving breath and life to the dry bones that lie in the landscape of our hearts. I think that everyone does this differently and I am not here to tell anyone, especially those with different identities of oppression, how to do this healing. For me, one way this has looked is resurrecting the stories of feeling wrong for my gender and sexuality, from a very young age. The wounds of this continue to thwart me from showing up in my full power and full self and being the best ally, activist, friend, lover/partner, therapist etc. It is the part of me that is easily shamed, easily other-ed and will get small and keep quiet.

For the we of us benefitting from systems of power and oppression. The healing looks different. Primarily, it involves the allowance of a shattering, a surrender and a willingness to be continually humbled. In the external world this also looks like a re-evaluation on how we are taking up space, enough self-compassion to withstand being “called out” or as Joanna says, “called in.” It also requires a re-evaluation of how our money is being used, and a willingness to give up some aspects of comfort and some illusions of safety. It looks like a willingness to stand in solidarity with those on the margins, without the need to be the hero or savior, but rather a true equal and taking direction.

For most of us in this room, we fall in the intersections (Kimberly Crenshaw) of these social locations. So, most of us are required to do both of these types of healing, at the same time. Furthermore, there is not a one of us that gets through life without experiences and triggers around feeling other-ed. Exclusion is perhaps one of the most painful human experiences. As we navigate the sludgy complexity of identity politics and the task at hand, in our multi-cultural society and multi-ethnic world, many of us will find ourselves triggered by our very personal experiences of other-ing and exclusion. It is each of our jobs to do our own healing around this, especially the we of us with more positions of power, in order to decrease reactivity.

The claiming of identity is an important part of our collective soul journey and social justice work. However, we must remember that the task at hand, after God resurrects the bones in the Ezekiel passage, is not continued division, but reconciliation. Here a reinterpretation and reclaiming of the symbology of the cross is helpful for me. The mistake has always been holding the cross out in front of us, putting it on flags and walls and worshipping it. Anything we bow down to and worship is inherently separate from us and unable to be embodied. I think Moses really had something with this whole graven images and idolatry thing. It keeps us from internalizing this image that can be one of reconciliation and surrender. If embodied, the point at which the vertical crosses with the horizontal runs directly through each of hearts, breaking open compassion. This has the power to eradicate any divisions, internally and externally and any paradigms of “Us. vs. Them.”

The cross between what is other and what is self, what is shadow and what is light, can only be reconciled with the help of the heart. When I sit with people, as a therapist, I see that it is truly impossible for them to reconcile any painful childhood memories or other painful things without the awareness of their own hearts, also known as compassion. The heart is truly the place where our souls, spirits and egos can integrate. I like to call it the integration station. Surely, this must be true in the collective, as well.

We all have different purposes right now. Some of us are claiming our voices and our identities, speaking out and marching. Some of us are writing.  Some of us are contracting and needing to seek refuge. Some of us are expanding and hoping to build bridges and organize. There are many ways to show up right now and attention to each of our souls will let us know the direction in which we are being called. But, where ever you go and whatever you do, take with you an interpretation of your symbols that reflects the world you want to create.   For me, this is reconciliation and integration with all things, internal and external. Symbols and our interpretation of them have the power to change history. Christian hegemony has owned and interpreted the cross for far too long, shaping a very violent history. Our souls and this movement need to reclaim, resurrect and allow the spirit to breath new life into our symbols, or else they are just dry bones that will haunt us. So, this Queer Mennonite is taking back the cross and reinterpreting it.  I am not ready to put it on my body or even on my walls and I may never be.  I am going to start with something much more sacred; putting it inside of my body and letting it cross and crack open my heart. Amen