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