Monday, June 29, 2015

Putting Sadness in Its Place

Just stay in this circle, and everything will be fine.

"Okay, we get it, divorce hurts. Now can't you please cheer up for a change?"

That's the message that finally drove me out of the ministry. As I've written more times in this space than I can remember, I never really belonged there in the first place. But I'd invested so much of my self--so much "blood and treasure," to borrow from language about the Iraq War--that I stubbornly refused to leave. Thanks to ministry, at the age of 38, I was now twice divorced, had no close friends, was always teetering on the brink of too much debt, and could only see my children by appointment. At least, I kept telling myself, I was working with people who cared, people who felt called to serve, to lift up the downtrodden, liberate the oppressed, blah de blah de blah.

And then my senior pastor told me people were getting impatient with me for being sad.

That's when I knew it was time to leave, and when this same senior pastor concocted a scheme to ease me out the door by going on disability, I accepted it. The church was free of my grief, and I was free to grieve.

I'd been in this place before. This was, after all, my second divorce. The difference this time was that four and a half years earlier, when the first divorce happened, I was serving a church community that affirmed my sadness, made room for it, helped me in whatever way they could, and when it was time for me to leave, sent me on my way with their blessings. I had plenty of hard work ahead of me in June 1995, but I went at it from a place of strength. In December 1999, I had no place to stand. The one thing I needed to do had been denied me.

Which brings me to sadness.

Last week I saw Pixar's latest masterpiece, Inside Out. It tells the story of what's going on inside the mind of Riley, an 11-year-old girl who, thanks to her father's work, has to leave the world she loves and make a new life in an alien place where nothing is right. Exacerbating the difficulty for her is her parents' expectation that she keep her grief in a container so she can be a ray of sunlight for them as they struggle with the harsh realities of their own new lives. It's an unfair expectation, and if they were to stop and take a hard look at what they were asking, they'd retract it in a moment. It's never explicitly spelled out, in fact, but children are geniuses when it comes to reading between the lines.

I was never told not to be sad in that last church. I was just told that it was a problem. I think the senior pastor was really just being frank with me. But a lifetime of understanding subtext had taught me that most people have an extremely low tolerance for sadness, especially in their leaders. A minister's job is to cheer people up, not to bring them down. "Physician, heal thyself!"

Inside Out showed me something I'd always understood, always appreciated, but had never been able to verbalize as well as this children's movie did: delete sadness from one's repertoire of emotions, and what remains is walking death. This is a hard lesson for the characters of the film to learn, especially Joy, who runs the show inside Riley's head. Sadness is always bringing people down, poisoning happy memories by touching them with her blue fingers. What Joy has to learn is that everything in life is tinged with sadness. No experience, no place, no friendship is forever. People move on, hobbies are outgrown, neighborhoods change, and children grow up. There's a poignant plea buried toward the end of the closing credits, a dedication "to our kids. Please don't grow up. Ever."

That's a futile plea, and not just with respect to children. The nature of existence is change, constant, endless, unstoppable change. And change hurts.

I moved six times as a child. By the time I arrived in high school, I had left so many relationships behind that I didn't know how to start new ones--and didn't really want to, as I knew I'd just have to say goodbye again in a few years. I didn't permit myself to get very close to people in my high school, even though I could tell there were many here who could be wonderful friends I'd cherish the rest of my life, if I just let myself.

But no. I didn't want to be hurt all over again. So instead, I was just lonely and sad. After graduation, I hardly saw any of those people again.

Then came college, the place where I finally opened myself up to friendships--and on graduation day, was an utter wreck. These were the deepest, most intimate relationships I'd ever had. I worked hard at staying in touch with these people. But within three years, most of them had drifted away, some to marriages, others to philosophies and theologies that were simply incompatible with my own.

Where did that leave me? Sad.

And then I fell in love, and it felt great, better than anything I'd ever known, so good that I wanted to lock it in, and proposed marriage before either of us knew enough about ourselves, or each other, to take such a step with any integrity. We spent the next eight years struggling to find our own happiness in each other, rather than in ourselves. That marriage ended for a lot of reasons, but the primary one is that we never figured out how to handle each other's sadness.

It took another failed marriage, the end of a career, a string of relationships, and, ultimately, letting go of my children for me to accept the hard, cold reality that all things change, all things end, and in that acceptance, to embrace the simple truth that sadness is the ground of all being and becoming.

We who teach know this better than most. Every year, we watch our students grow, evolve, transform, until the child who waves to us from the bus on the last day of school is a completely different person from the one who shyly met us for the first time in September. Summer vacation will change them even more, so that when I see them again in two months, I may not recognize some of them.

Meanwhile, I'm struggling to hold onto this golden time of warmth, light, and rest, maximizing time with partner and family, writing more, playing more, exercising more, resting more. There's almost a desperation to it: summer ends. I've got to make the most of it while it's here, and I'll miss it when it's gone.

That poignancy adds weight to all these experiences, however frivolous some of them may be. It also adds depth to even the lightest of memories: yes, that was such a fun time, but it ended, and we can never get it back exactly the way it was.

I felt this yesterday as I went through boxes in the attic of my mother's house, sorting things into three piles: one for my kids to go through, one for Goodwill, and one for the landfill. There is urgency to this task: my mother will be selling the house at the end of the summer (talk about things ending!) and finding a smaller place for herself closer to Portland, so everything that's up there--decades of me putting things in boxes, thinking I'll use it later, get rid of it later, make the hard choices later--has to have a new home. I don't have room for it all, and really, most of it should've been disposed of long ago.

Take the dozen or so boxes that are marked "Sarah." In them are dried-up markers, paint sets, nail polish, glue bottles, craft supplies, most of it utterly unusable after all these years. Getting rid of that stuff is easy. Mixed in with it, though, are bits and pieces of her life as a child and teenager: souvenirs from vacations, summer camp, trips, school, church, and more. I've studiously avoided reading anything she's written, but I've also sorted it all into a couple of boxes for her to go through herself. She may wind up sending most of it to the same place as those dry markers, but that's for her to do. Seeing all these things cut me deep.

I had the same experience going through Sean's things, which had been stored in Mom's basement, two weeks earlier, especially as I came across tokens of his own passions (Star Wars, pirates, the Titanic) and bits and pieces of his few years in Scouting.

And the stuffed animals. Oh, God, the stuffed animals. I'm tearing up now thinking of them.

Please don't grow up. Ever.

But they did. If they hadn't, I'd have much more to grieve. Instead, I am the father of two adults. I'm also the step-father of a college junior I've known since he was a high school freshman and a high school sophomore I've known since she was a fourth grader. The insecurities of young adulthood that had become distant memories to me are now front and center in their lives, and I see them experiencing the same passages I once survived. I want to shield them from these things, but I know there is no way around them. They must learn to fail, to be rejected, to grieve, to embrace the sadness that is essential to human existence. In the words of the Game of Thrones greeting: "Valar Morghulis"--"All people die."

Everything ends, so love every moment while it lasts.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Rainbow Banner Day

No, these are not actually the colors of their robes. Except for the black ones; those are real.

The sad part of the decision is that it was so close. This one should have been a no-brainer.

The vote was 5-4, a complete liberal-conservative split, with Justice Kennedy, author of the two previous decisions expanding basic rights to include gay and lesbian people, being the swing, deciding, vote, as well as author of this decision. All three decisions arrived on June 26, and human dignity was the common theme in each. The opposing justices were nearly apoplectic in their dissents, stooping in Scalia's case to critiquing Kennedy's prose, while Roberts fretted that marriage equality opens the door to the normalization of polygamy, and Thomas grumbled that dignity is not something that can be either granted or taken away by a government, citing slavery and internment camps as cases of human beings remaining dignified even as they were legally treated as subhuman by the United States.

In the end, then, as with the decision on the Affordable Care Act issued yesterday, the Supreme Court decided pragmatically and inevitably in favor of treating larges classes of Americans--in this case, gay Americans, in yesterday's case, the millions of previously-uninsured Americans now covered by the ACA--as exactly what they are: human beings deserving of all the rights and responsibilities accorded every other American by the Constitution.

In fact, both these cases reach deeper than the Constitution, to the very foundation of American identity: the rights, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Reading Justice Roberts's conclusion to yesterday's decision, and Justice Kennedy's to today's, what comes through most clearly is that the Court had the power to either protect or harm the lives, liberty, and happiness of millions of Americans, and chose to err on the side of protection. As I said at the outset, it grieves me that there were any "no" votes cast in either case.

It continues to grieve me that my former co-religionists, the membership of the United Methodist Church, are still so solidly on the side of the Supreme Court's minority on this decision. There are even efforts being taken to dilute the say of the entire Western Jurisdiction--much more than half the geographical territory of the denomination--in decisions made at General Conference, for the simple reason that western United Methodists are consistently more progressive than any those of any jurisdiction. It's as if Congress were to pass a law reducing the number of members who could be elected from blue states.

Much of my distress comes from how obvious this should be for anyone who takes seriously the teachings of Jesus: of all people, the church should be most concerned with the well-being of the marginalized, whether we call them Samaritans, beggars, prostitutes, tax collectors, prisoners, children, women, or gay. At its best, the United Methodist Church has placed such outreach at the core of its identity. At its worst, and all too often, it has sided with slave-owners, Klansmen, bigots, misogynists, and homophobes, positions that mirror the fluctuating role of the Supreme Court in expanding and contracting the rights of Americans.

I've been thinking a lot about the role of the Confederate battle flag in the ongoing divisions our nation is suffering. I wrote just after the Charleston shooting about how, contrary to what many of my atheist friends have been saying, the attack was not just an assault on African-Americans, but on religious African-Americans. I was delighted to hear this morning, then, that Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention (a denomination that embodies, in so many ways, all that is wrong with Southern Christianity--sexism, racism, homophobia, fundamentalism, and on and on) has called for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from all Southern Baptist churches, saying, powerfully, that
The cross and the Confederate flag cannot co-exist without one setting the other on fire
I couldn't have said that better myself. And I've tried.

The tragedy of United Methodism, and of so much other mainline Protestantism, is that these denominations are struggling so hard to maintain their unity that they are contorting themselves to make room for both the haters and the lovers. In the process, they lose all relevance, whether to progressives or reactionaries. Churches that fully embrace inclusion are vibrant communities where love is affirmed in all its forms. Churches that sincerely reject such radical equality marginalize themselves, as American society as a whole continues to progress toward greater and greater expansion of human rights. It's absolutely their right to express their bigotry, and the right of every other American to either ignore them or gently encourage them to take their protests somewhere less offensive.

I can go on ranting about the reactionary homophobia of the four members of the Supreme court who opposed this decision, and the conservative believers they represent. But I'd rather not. This is a day for celebration. Justice Kennedy summed it up beautifully with these words:
No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.
As was the case with Russell Moore's words, I could not have said this better myself. Thank you, Justice Kennedy.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Symbol Slam

From top to bottom: the Stars and Stripes, the South Carolina state flag, and the Confederate battle flag. The picture was taken in 2000, just before the battle flag was removed from the state capitol's flag pole.

I struggle with flags.

I learned flag reverence as a Boy Scout: how to present it, salute it, retire it, fold it and, when use had rendered it too tattered to respectfully display, how to burn it. The only proper way to wear the stars and stripes, I learned, was as a shoulder patch. To this day, seeing flags worn as articles of clothing troubles me. I'm aware that other cultures have different customs regarding their flags--the British, in particular, seem find with Union Jack underwear, hot pants, bikinis, etc.--but even so, seeing any flag displayed for purposes of ridicule, amusement, titillation, or symbolic disrespect gives me pause. I'm the same way with any symbol that has meaning to a group of people: seeing it desecrated troubles me.

And yet, at the same time, I completely understand how these nationalist symbols can intimidate, offend, anger people whose experience or creed leads them to respond differently to a symbolically patterned swatch. I respect the right of anyone not to sing "The Star Spangled Banner," recite the Pledge of Allegiance, or simply to remain seated during either of those acts of reverence. And I respect the right of protesters to display the flag upside down or even to burn it in public as an act of political speech.

Symbols are powerful things, conveying far more meaning to the initiated than any outsider can begin to imagine. To me, the American flag represents both the unity and diversity of our republic, the ideals to which we aspire, and the commitment to remain united even when our disagreements over those ideals seem irreconcilable.

Last week, another American flag rose to national prominence: the Confederate battle flag. This was the flag carried into combat by the army of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War. During the war, it represented the will of the South to secede from the United States in order to preserve its practice of human slavery. In the aftermath of the war, it became the symbol of white resistance to the progress forced on the South by its defeat: the abolition of slavery and the extension of full citizenship to former slaves, including the right to vote and to participate in government. Particularly during the Jim Crow era, the Confederate battle flag became a symbol of white supremacy, inextricably linked to segregation, cross-burning, lynching, and every other form of terrorism practiced against persons of color. It was to the Ku Klux Klan what the swastika was to Nazis. As demonstrated by its presence on the car driven by the South Carolina shooter, it continues to hold that significance for white supremacists.

Conversely, for the many who've been subjected to the hundred-and-fifty year campaign of southern white supremacist terrorism, the Confederate flag means one thing: genocide. Its ubiquity throughout the South may dilute its impact, but there's no getting away from its historic significance as, first, the banner carried by soldiers sacrificing their lives to keep millions of human beings enslaved and, once they had lost, by terrorists doing everything they could to keep those millions subservient, meek, and separate.

Between these poles are the many Southerners for whom the Confederate flag is a symbol of patriotism, pride, and heritage. They've poured all these emotions into this rectangle of cloth, and in so doing, they've lost track of what it really represents for them: denial.

Denial that the secession movement was about one thing, and one thing only: preserving the institution of slavery.

Denial that hundreds of thousands threw their lives away for this obscene cause.

Denial that, in the aftermath of the war, "patriots" engaged in a campaign of terrorism against former slaves.

Denial that the privilege enjoyed by white Southerners is the product of centuries of exploiting persons of African descent.

Denial that white terrorists have been, and still are being, sheltered, protected, and encouraged by upstanding Southern citizens and the politicians they elect to office.

Denial that the culture, the heritage, the very identity of the South is grounded in deceit, bigotry, exploitation, and genocide.

Confronted by these truths, as incarnated by the person of Dylann Roof, Southern politicians are finally waking up to the travesty that has been on display over statehouses and on capitol grounds throughout the South. Here's what South Carolina state senator Paul Thurmond, son of infamous racist Senator and Dixiecrat Presidential candidate Strom Thurmond, said yesterday:
Our ancestors were literally fighting to keep human beings as slaves, and to continue the unimaginable acts that occur when someone is held against their will...I am not proud of this heritage...We must take down the Confederate flag and we must take it down now. But if we stop there, we have cheated ourselves out of an opportunity to start a different conversation about healing in our state. I am ready. (Full story in Slate)
For many people, this will be a hard thing. When South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham reversed himself earlier this week, calling on the state legislature to remove the flag from its prominent position over a Civil War memorial, his Facebook feed was deluged with angry posts by South Carolinians announcing they would never vote for him again. I can't say whether any of these people is a racist, but clearly none of them want to believe the flag symbolizes anything other than honor.

Except that it does. None of us can control what a symbol means to anyone else. To Dylann Roof, the flag represents white pride. To his victims, it represents genocide. Faced with a symbol that has come to represent--or, in the case of this flag, has always represented--the violent power of one class of people over another, the right place to stand is with the oppressed. In the words of Paul Thurmond, "We must take down the Confederate flag and we must take it down now."

And if that hurts some Southern feelings, too bad. You've had a hundred and fifty years to trample on the feelings, dignity, basic human rights, and broken bodies of African-Americans. Giving up this piece of cloth is the least you can do to start making things right.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Hobby That Kills

The day after the shooting, this headline, this image, and this ad appeared on the front page of the Charleston Post and Courier:
That ad's a little hard to read in context, so here it is all by itself:
In case you're still not sure what it says, here's the text of the ad:
Ladies' Night THURSDAY! ATP Gun Shop & Range specializes in teaching ladies to learn to shoot for fun, sport & self defense!
$30 GETS YOU EVERYTHING! Eye/Ear Protection, Souvenir T-Shirt, Pistol or Revolver, Range Pass, 50 Rounds of Ammo, Instructor 
The morning after a young man, using a pistol purchased at a department store, shot and killed nine African-Americans at a Bible study, the local newspaper ran this ad, partially obscuring the headline announcing the killings. To its credit, the newspaper acknowledged the horrendous timing of the ad, as did the ADP Gun Shop and Range. What neither did was admit the irony of the juxtaposition--or make even the smallest admission that the ease with which the shooter procured his weapon might have contributed in any way to the high death toll.

There's a problem here, a problem that takes thousands of American lives every year: too many Americans not only own, but love guns, and these gun-loving Americans, the industry that manufactures their guns, and the lobby that speaks on their behalf have a louder voice in Washington than that of all the grieving parents, maimed survivors, concerned citizens, and pragmatic police departments struggling to bring some sanity to this nation's gun policies.

Just to be clear: the shooter was a white supremacist whose hatred and paranoia on racial issues are direct descendants of the brutal attitude toward persons of culture that was a part of this country's founding. I am in no way seeking to diminish the fact that this was, first and foremost, a racially-motivated hate crime; nor (see yesterday's post) am I seeking to diminish the fact that it was committed against African-Americans who were practicing their faith in a church. The third part of the equation, though, is the weapon, as President Obama stated in his own remarks on the crime. Had the shooter not been able to easily obtain a handgun, there would have been fewer victims, more survivors; in fact, he might have completely reconsidered his decision to commit the crime in the first place.

I know there are far too many "might haves" in that conclusion. I know the reality of American culture is that we are addicted to our guns. (Disclaimer: I don't count myself among the addicts. I've only fired a gun once, on the shooting range at Scout camp when I was 16, and never had the desire to do it again; so 38 years later, I have yet to touch another gun.) One wouldn't know this to read the publicity around gun shops and shooting ranges, which make this out to be a harmless hobby, like home brewing, model building, or gardening. And I must admit that, in the hands of a careful, responsible enthusiast, a gun is unlikely to wind up in the hands of a toddler, resulting in a tragic kid-on-kid shooting, or of a racist psychopath, killing nine community leaders at a Bible study. But here's the thing: as long as gun ownership is a hobby, it's going to go on being far too easy for the irresponsible hobbyists to leave the gun safe unlocked so a child can get into them, or for the psychopaths to walk into a dealer's shop and pay cash for a deadly weapon.

I've been writing on this topic since I started this blog two years ago, but I've believed these things far longer. (As parenthetically observed in the previous paragraph, I already found guns distasteful when I was of the age to think them cool.) This has not, I must add, kept me from enjoying the presence of guns in entertainment: I'm as fond of Star Wars and Indiana Jones as any other man of my generation, and I've enjoyed many a spaghetti Western, as well. I just don't see the need for them to be so easily accessible to children and criminals, and if keeping them out of those hands means curbing the rights of ordinary citizens to own paramilitary arsenals, then so be it.

Of course, this is not going to change anytime soon. Standing firmly against gun ownership is politically dicey; being involved with legislation that takes even the smallest steps toward mandating sanity in the gun industry is politically suicidal. That it's difficult should not mean, however, that we give up on it altogether.

But what if we stopped looking at gun ownership as a hobby, and began referring to it as a habit, an addiction, like smoking, drinking, narcotics? I'm not sure how federal gun regulation got grouped with alcohol and tobacco (ATF stands for Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms), but that should tell us something: in terms of commerce, firearms move in much the same way as alcohol and tobacco, feeding addictions through underground economies.

Alcohol consumption is not at any risk of becoming less popular, but at least in the Northwest, tobacco is fighting a losing battle to stay popular. I can go for weeks without smelling even a whiff of cigarette smoke. Somehow we've managed to make smoking far less cool without regulating it out of existence. It's still easily available in supermarkets, gas stations, and convenience stores. But it's far less tempting now than it's been in a very long time: people seem finally to realize that smoking causes lung cancer and, even if they're not worried about that, that there are so many people who'd rather not breathe those toxic fumes. Add to this public rebuke of the habit the growing number of municipalities and states that strictly limit public smoking, and the ever-increasing cost of purchasing cigarettes thanks to climbing "sin taxes," and it's become an expensive, inconvenient habit.

That could be the case with firearms, too. Second-hand smoke is an ugly inconvenience: it makes nonsmokers smell like ashtrays, exacerbates asthma, injures unborn children, and can cause cancer in non-smokers. For all those health concerns, second-hand firearm exposure is still vastly more deadly. Point your hobby weapon at me and I may wind up with a hole in my head. Leave it lying on the coffee table while you hunt for a snack in the kitchen and your toddler may kill one of her playmates with it.

I know there's no point in me, a lifelong nonsmoker, reminding a smoker of all the health benefits of quitting. Perhaps it's the same with those who have the gun habit. I have no personal experience of the agony of going cold turkey, the hollow craving to hold a piece of steel in one's hand, and I cannot say whether the less lethal substitutes--laser tag, paintball--are any more effective for curbing that craving than nicotine lozenges are for an ex-smoker. What I can say, and will not stop saying, is that the gun habit is a disgusting, filthy addiction, and that this country will be a safer, healthier, happier place once guns finally take their place alongside heroin and tobacco as a controlled substance we're better off without.

Friday, June 19, 2015

A Racist Attack on Religious People

Mourners pray at Emanuel AME Church for the victims of Wednesday's shooting.

He sat through an hour of the Bible study. Once captured, he told police he was having second thoughts about what he was about to do because everyone was being so nice to him. But then he took out his gun, called the people who had just been so nice to him rapists, said they were taking over his country and had to be stopped, and shot and killed nine people, leaving one witness alive so she could tell others what he did and why he did it.

The shooter's motives were clear for many reasons, most obviously the statement he made before opening fire. There were other clues: the confederate flag stickers on his car, the photograph that surfaced of him wearing patches of the flags of Rhodesia and Apartheid-era South Africa, and the particular church he carefully selected as scene of the crime, then drove two hours to reach. Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church--"Mother Emanuel," to its members, its community, and throughout the AME denomination--is the oldest AME church in the South, and has a long history of standing against first slavery, then the institutional racism of Jim Crow, and always for the full rights and inclusion of persons of African descent in American society. Soon after its founding, the church was suspected of involvement in an abortive slave rebellion. Of all the Black churches in South Carolina, none were as symbolic of Black resistance to oppression, or as empowering to members of the Black community, as Mother Emanuel. Killing these pious, dedicated, and--by his own account--loving people would, he hoped, touch off the race war coveted by militant racists.

I'm sick over this. Black churches hold a special place in my heart. I've always found them welcoming, generous, and accepting, making no distinctions about the ethnicity of visitors. Nor, it must be said, do they make concessions: worship in a Black church is authentically what it is, regardless of who's in the pews. If you don't care for it, you go elsewhere, but it's never because you were asked to leave.

The tone and spirit of Black gospel preaching and singing grabbed me the first time I experienced them, at St. Luke Community United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas, sometime around 1987. The sense of everyone working together to create something authentic, inspirational, and utterly interactive were a revelation to me. White Methodist worship--or Presbyterian, or Episcopalian, or even Baptist worship--never felt this spontaneous; nor had I ever known the welcome I experienced here. I came back whenever I could--not often, as I was usually directing church choirs on Sunday mornings in Dallas--and eventually I became an "Affiliate Member" (the only way an ordained Methodist can belong to a local church) of St. Luke's.

I held onto those qualities of Black worship throughout my nine years of post-seminary ministry, trying whenever possible to inject them into the services I led. This proved frustrating: white Methodists just couldn't get the feel for this style of worship. They tried, and I could tell many of them hungered for something more spontaneous than what normally went on in their quiet, comfortable sanctuaries, but old habits die hard. I also have to acknowledge that, however much my own preaching style was influenced by Black preaching, the result owed much more to Garrison Keillor than Jesse Jackson.

It was a great privilege for me, then, to be welcomed into the leadership of Church of the Good Shepherd, first as pianist, then music director and, ultimately, to be considered one of its ministers, and given a monthly preaching spot. Church of the Good Shepherd while, independent, was solidly in the tradition of the AME Zion Church. I sat in on some of their Sunday morning Bible studies, waiting for it to become time for me to move up to the piano and begin the prelude, and I was impressed by the seriousness of the leadership, the depth of thought evident in all interactions, and the love people clearly felt for each other.

At a deep level, then, I'm shocked and angered by this crime against a Black church. The fact that you're reading this tells me you probably have some sense of the place of church in African-American culture, so I'm not going to go into that here--though this article is an excellent introduction of Mother Emanuel's role in that rich history.

There's another level to my horror, though, as I intimated in the lede to this essay: the shooting took place after a Bible study. It's unlikely this was an accident: the shooter chose the church carefully for its historic significance, information he could have garnered from its web page, where he also would've found this listing of weekly events. He knew enough about the way churches operate to guess that the Bible study would be led by one or more of its pastors (there were actually three there Wednesday night, and all of them died), and that others in attendance would be pious, dedicated church leaders. Take out a Bible study, and you deal a mortal blow to a church.

I know this from my own experience. As much as I enjoyed preaching, the most rewarding work I did as a pastor was leading Bible studies. In white churches, Bible studies are meetings where people express themselves in ways they don't on Sunday mornings--most likely because it's a much smaller gathering of people who've known each other for many years, and who, before the study is over, pray for each other, often holding hands. It's an intimate meeting of the church's spiritual backbone, the people without whom the congregation could not go on functioning. Killing people at a Bible study, the shooter got the heart of the church as he would not had he sprayed a Sunday service with bullets or destroyed the church with a bomb.

There are many on the right who have been downplaying the racist aspects of this crime, trying to make it out to be religiously motivated. Progressive commentators--including humorists Jon Stewart and Larry Wilmore--have been quick to denounce the conservative fictions that America has solved its race problem, and that American Christians are objects of persecution, and I think they're correct to do so. But even though the motives for this crime were, I believe, entirely grounded in racism, there is no denying that the victims of the crime were church leaders, and that the greater victim was a church community. People of faith, engaged in the spiritual practice of searching the scriptures for meaning, were targeted and slaughtered because of what they found in those scriptures, the same things their ancestors found there: the good news of liberation, of God's preferential option for the poor, of Christ's ringing denunciation of bigotry, of a vision for a future that draws no distinction, that turns swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, of a coming kingdom that will cast oppressors from their thrones, in which the poor will eat and drink their fill while the rich are sent empty away.

Knowing as much as he clearly did about this particular church, I suspect the shooter had at least some experience of church during his own childhood, enough so that he knew a Bible study would be the best strategic target for his assault. That his own experience of Christianity never exposed him to the liberating edge of the gospel is an indictment of the many white churches that avoid that edge as assiduously as Fox News avoided mentioning racism in its coverage of the shooting.

From my perspective, then, I see this massacre as a racist attack on religious people. Knowing what kind of people the victims were makes it doubly horrifying.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Minority Envy

Rachel Dolezal

In almost every category Americans use to discriminate, I come out on top.

I'm white. Very very white. I don't tan; I freckle.

I'm a melange of European blood lines--French, German, Swedish, Scottish--that plant me firmly in the Anglo-Saxon camp.

I'm solidly Protestant: Baptist-Methodist, to be exact.

I'm university educated, with a Bachelors and two Masters degrees, plus enough post-graduate credits to put me on the top step of my district's pay scale.

I'm neither too tall nor too short, and have an average weight for a man of my age and height.

And last, but certainly not least, I have a Y chromosome.

With all these status points in my favor, one would think I would've lived a charmed life up to this point: privilege, wealth, career, easy credit, immunity from traffic tickets, and all the other benefits, both tangible and intangible, typically enjoyed by male WASPs. And in fact, I almost certainly have been given the benefit of the doubt by traffic cops far more often than I deserved. When it comes to employment, though, I've frequently found myself passed over for someone younger, more bilingual, and, frequently, female--all thanks to being a middle-aged over-educated man whose college Spanish is so rusty he needs to have the most basic sentences repeated to him S-L-O-W-L-Y if he's to parse them for meaning--in my chosen profession of elementary general music education.

But that's a side grumble. I know that my white complexion and graying hair have accorded me far more respect than I have any right to on many occasions (ahem, traffic steps), and that this is utterly unfair to the majority of Americans who are either female, non-white, or both.

The irony of it is that at least as far back as the fourth grade, I had minority envy.

It started with a YA novel I read about a blind boy and his seeing-eye dog. Wow, I thought, this kid is really different, and he has a wonderful relationship with this very special dog, and everyone can see how different he is. I liked the thought so much that I fancied myself vision-impaired--and in fact, if it weren't for the thick-lensed glasses I wore, my extreme near-sightedness would've rendered me disabled. But I lived in the twentieth century, benefitting first from glasses, then contact lenses and finally, a year and a half ago, LASIK; so thanks to technology, I could never honestly call myself blind.

All right, then, maybe I could belong to a religious minority. Learning about the Holocaust, I imagined what it must have been like to be a persecuted Jew, clinging steadfastly to my faith even as it singled me out for genocide. Or what if I had different-colored skin? What if I was Black, Asian, Native American, living in a culture that persecuted persons of color? I picked up Black Like Me and devoured it, fascinated by the idea of changing my skin and experiencing life under persecution.

And so on and so on and so on. My favorite science fiction novels were about aliens adjusting to life among humans or vice versa. I loved the theme of the stranger in a strange land, and coveted it for myself. Of course, from 1969-1975, I lived that life, and simply wasn't aware of it: being a Methodist in southern Idaho, a thoroughly Mormon land, put me in a very small minority. But I digress: I longed to know what life was like on the other side of the prejudice barrier.

This led me, in seminary and for years afterward, to dig deeply into African-American spirituality and gospel music, including my five-year stint as a gospel pianist in a small Black church in Northeast Portland. It's also informed my work with a thoroughly diverse student population at Margaret Scott Elementary School. I work hard at appreciating all the cultures represented in my classroom, trying to project myself into their experience, imagining what it's like to be Samoan, Vietnamese, Ethiopian, Mexican, Romanian, and attending an American school staffed almost entirely by white people.

But that's another digression. What occasioned this post is the sudden ubiquity of a racially white woman who has been not just passing as African-American, but as a leader in the Black community of Spokane, Washington. Why would she do such thing? How has she gotten away with it so long? How can anyone believe anything she says? There are plenty of questions people are asking about Rachel Dolezal, and with good reason. It's an amazing story, utterly unprecedented.

I don't know that I can shed any more light on it than the plethora of other bloggers and pundits who've held forth in the last week, but on a purely personal note, I can say this: my first reaction on reading what she'd done was, "Cool."

I say it because I had an opportunity to do, on a much smaller scale, what she did as head of the NAACP in Spokane. Toward the end of my five years playing at the Church of the Good Shepherd, Rev. Willie Smith was wondering, during one of our pre-worship bull sessions, who would take his place. He was in his late 70s, and as vigorous as he was, he knew he would eventually have to hand the reins of this church over to someone else. The way he was talking made me think he was fishing for me to offer myself. I was, after all, an elder of the United Methodist Church, officially appointed to the music ministry of Good Shepherd, and I was, at that time, preaching monthly, as well as filling in for Willie whenever he went on vacation. My spirituality was still nominally Christian. But the last thing I wanted was to take on all the responsibilities of pastoring a struggling congregation: I was just starting to get established again in music education, my most pressing concern was single parenting my children, and theologically, I was steadily moving toward unitarianism and, from there, to the post-Christian panentheist agnosticism I currently practice. I had also never been the kind of pastor who could inspire great things from a small congregation. They might say "Amen!" to my sermons every Sunday, but the doors would not stay open long with me as their leader. They needed someone far more inspirational, someone who could sincerely proclaim the Gospel as they understood it, and that someone was definitely not me. So I never took the bait. And when it came time for Willie Smith to, in failing health, step down just two years before his death, the pastoral leadership of Church of the Good Shepherd passed to Dapo Shobomehin, a community organizer and Nigerian that Willie had ordained himself.

Notice that nowhere in my description of my reasons for rejecting the implicit offer does the color of my skin appear. I never felt I had to pretend to be Black, though I was always honored to be welcomed by that congregation as one of their own (as was my father, who preached at Good Shepherd on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of his ordination).

Which is, in my mind, the saddest thing about Rachel Dolezal: not that, pretending to be Black, she became a Black leader, but that she felt she had to pretend. I've read about her troubled childhood, her right-wing Evangelical home school upbringing, and all the speculation about how enticing it must have been to be welcomed into a minority community after being so badly treated as a member of the majority. Maybe she felt like she had no choice: to seriously pursue her interest in Black community organizing, she had to be a member of the community she wanted to lead.

My experience was different, but it was, after all, just my experience. Still: if a ginger-haired Swede like me could be embraced by this small corner of Portland's Black community, why not Rachel Dolezal?

Saturday, June 13, 2015

And Are We Yet Alive?

Jumbotrons somehow manage to make Annual Conference look even more conventional.

Thursday night reminded me why I used to love going to Annual Conference.

I was there for the annual memorial service, when the conference lifts up the names of clergy and clergy family members who've passed away since the last conference session. I was there to honor my father. This was yet another in the long line of observations of Dad's passing that will culminate next month with the scattering of his ashes. I was prepared for the reading of his name, for the singing of traditional hymns, for the extended sermon by a retiring clergy person. What I wasn't ready for was how much it felt like coming home.

In so many ways, it was if I'd never left: all those faces I recognized, so many of them coming up to me before and after the service to warmly greet me, share their condolences, wish me and my family well. Participating in the service was like putting on an old shoe: everything about it felt familiar, easy to wear, no breaking-in necessary. The liturgy was the same mixture of litanies and unison prayers I used to lead from the pulpit, led earnestly by the pastor given this task, shared earnestly by the congregation. Being there, I could almost imagine it was sixteen years ago, and I was sitting at one of these tables as a clergy delegate, suffering through the endless reports, stirred up by the debates, luxuriating in hymns being sung with far more vigor than any of my congregations ever managed, delighting in being surrounded by so many people I'd known for so long. And those people were all there--those that were still alive--and there were very few I didn't recognize.

And that is precisely what is wrong with United Methodism in 2015.

It's the same people, the same dedicated, hard-working, sincere, caring, wonderful people. They've spent their whole lives making a difference, and now they're getting old, and there's hardly anyone taking their place.

One of the most striking things about the service was how few people were actually there. The memorial service was, in my time, one of the best-attended services at conference. It was traditionally held at the First United Methodist Church of whatever city was hosting conference, and the huge sanctuary of that church was filled to capacity. That's not the case anymore: this service was held in the same ballroom that houses plenary sessions, and the room only appeared to be about half full. 

The service itself felt low-energy to me. It may be that I've been spoiled by my years as a Metanoia Peace Community member--worship at Metanoia was always deeply felt, participated in passionately by all present--and the five years I spent providing music and frequent sermons for an African-American church. My experiences as a church musician in two other white Protestant churches was also marked by low-energy worship services. But I think there's more to it than that: conference worship when I was a delegate was genuinely energetic in a way that this service was not. This felt tired, defeated, as if, for all their sincerity, everyone present, whether in leadership or in the congregation, was going through the motions of worship.

That's consistent with the sermon, a well-considered meditation on how Methodists should be viewing their declining numbers. Working from the story of the feeding of the five thousand, Rev. Lisa Jean Hoefner, retiring this year, spoke at length about doing more with less. No, we don't have the resources or numbers we once had, but our faith is all about turning a little into a lot. It was an inspirational message, but the main thing I got out of it was the acknowledgement of how much we've shrunk.

There was talk both before and after the service about a potential merger of the Oregon-Idaho, Pacific Northwest, and Alaska Missionary Annual Conferences into one enormous conference that would both cover the greatest area and have the least members of any conference in the entire global United Methodist Church. Combining resources, sharing clergy, streamlining the work of the single bishop who already oversees all these conferences--it makes ample sense.

It's also very sad.

Methodism has never been big in the Pacific Northwest. Nor, really, has any variety of Christianity. Organized religion never took hold here as it did in other parts of the United States. Since the 1960s, what churches there were have been shrinking as each successive generation finds its spiritual needs met better by alternative theologies and philosophies. That Thursday's service could have been performed at the 1995 Annual Conference without raising an eyebrow is telling: Methodism's presentation isn't changing.

And yet, why should it? The active Methodists, the people who make up congregations on Sunday morning, who perform both clergy and lay ministries in their communities and elsewhere, are the same people--grayer, more wrinkled, but still the same people--they were twenty years ago. Many of these churches have attempted to create worship space that millennials will find welcoming, only to have none of them show up who weren't already there to begin with. Liturgy, I was taught in seminary, is the "work of the people," and as such it should be expressed in the idiom of the people worshiping, as opposed to those they'd like to have worshiping with them. "If you build it, they will come" just doesn't work.

The church that shaped me and, for fifteen years, employed me is declining. It may even be dying. That doesn't make me want to go back and save it: apart from all those reunions and being able to sing one great old hymn lustily, Thursday's service had little to offer my post-Christian spirituality. The Communion service, always my favorite part of worship when I was younger, offered me nothing but the chance to lip-sync every word the presider was saying (for an old clergy hand like me, it's like riding a bike. With your mouth.). All I wanted, during that service, was to have it be over so I could go back to embracing old friends. And that's what I got: one reunion after another, always with the shock of seeing how much older these people were.

But that's the life cycle of human beings--and, I think, of churches. Most of the people I was recognizing in that service are from the generation that came before mine. I wonder how large a room it will take to hold conference once they are gone.

Hell Week

Funny; Alice Cooper doesn't look that excited that school's out.

Time frame disclaimer: this post, started two nights ago, with two days of school remaining, is being finished four hours after the buses rolled away, carrying away children from the very last day of school.

It's the best of times, the worst of times, the timeliest of times when teachers and students are united around one basic measure: the countdown to the last day of school.

It's been running in the staff room for at least a month now, the counter on the whiteboard ticking off how many student contact days remain. Last week, I noticed it was also on a small sign just inside the entrance: how many "wake up days" remained for students. The most unavoidable measure of time remaining, though, has been the students themselves: fifth graders behaving like Soviet engineers counting down their last days on a meter stick, feeling more entitled to talk back with each successive day. This is not just a Reynolds phenomenon: two weeks ago, when I interviewed at a school in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in Tigard, the principal commiserated on how unmanageable her fifth graders were getting.

You may be thinking that both the kids and the adults are becoming impatient for their vacation, and that is probably a factor in at least some of the countdowns. But there's much more to it in than that. At Margaret Scott, there's a weariness that has been growing for months now, as the behavior issues that were already in place at the beginning of the year have settled deep into the bones of this school. We were told we had to use "restorative justice," and that high flying children could not be removed from our classrooms unless they were endangering others. With no further training in how to reshape the class psyche into something that fostered mutual learning rather than disciplinary chaos, those children's behavior escalated until endangerment was really taking place. Children had to be moved to other classrooms to separate them from bullies who laughed off the lightweight discipline they faced when their behavior finally got them sent to the office. Parents responded to phone calls with either a resigned "I'll talk to him/her...again" or an angry "Why are you always picking on my child?" (To be fair, the vast majority were in the former, rather than latter, category.)

This explains the burnout being felt by nearly the entire staff at Margaret Scott, as well as by the majority of students whose behavior adheres more closely to classroom expectations: We're done. We've held it together for an entire year, handling explosive children with as much equanimity as we can muster, struggling to maintain our cool as children talk back to us more and more stridently, refusing to cooperate, to let the lesson unfold, to permit their peers to learn something, anything, other than how much power one or two children can have in a school that has no effective means of moderating their behavior. We want it to be over, can't wait for it to be over, and that impatience is having an impact on our own effectiveness as students and educators. "Self Managers" (well-behaved children who are given extra privileges and responsibilities) have been shirking their task of being role models, and children who fall somewhere in between have begun to take their cue from the high flyers instead. The chatter level is up in every class, and the most difficult classes are marked by screaming and acts of physical aggression.

One last time shift: I'm finishing this post from the far side of the maelstrom. It's Saturday morning now, two and a half days since I waved to the departing buses. The last day--field day--was a day for as much fun as could be had with children who wanted desperately to get on those buses, and yet were terrified of what that might mean for them.

Here's where the poignance kicks in. Just over a year ago, during my one semester at Hartley School, my principal there sent an email to the entire staff, acknowledging the craziness that was growing throughout the building, pinning much of it on children just starting to realize how much they were going to miss us. Two years after meeting most of the children I teach, I have a far better sense of what that means. Many of these children are going to spend the next three months in a home environment utterly lacking in structure. They will be on their own for much of the time, unsupervised because whatever adults are responsible for them can't afford child care during working hours. Their parents are challenged in ways I can't begin to imagine: un- or underemployed, struggling with abusive relationships, fighting over custody, addicted to multiple substances, homeless, struggling to cope in a culture that speaks an alien language, having to rely on their children as interpreters. Many of the older children are on junior assistant parent duty, watching siblings while their parents are absent. Summer is an ordeal for children in situations like these, made more difficult by the loss of emotional support that comes with school being out.

I've been applying for other jobs for over a month now. I'm doing it to decrease my commute, to find a school and district with a truly supportive administration, and a dedicated music classroom I can count on being there when I enter the building in September. After what I've written, you could be excused for thinking I want out from Margaret Scott because of the extreme discipline issues, but that's not it at all. Knowing what a pressing issue that is for every teacher at Scott, I'm confident that the interview team will be seeking out a new principal who makes this a priority. In fact, I don't relish the idea of leaving these students behind. As I explained to that Tigard interview committee, I'm ambivalent about changing jobs, and all that ambivalence comes from the children at this school who, should I land a westside job, will have one more new face to get used to next fall. These children have so little stability in their lives. They deserve some continuity.

Realistically, I will very likely be providing that continuity for them. As an older white male who is not (and even with intensive training, probably cannot be) bilingual, and whose experience and education place me rather high on the pay scale, I've got a lot of checks against me in the hiring process. To even consider me for a position, an interview team has to be dedicated solely to the highest principles of music education. That's what got me that interview in Tigard, and why, after meeting with the team and teaching a model lesson for them, I wanted very much to have that job. But I didn't get it, and haven't had any other nibbles, despite applying for copious openings in the Beaverton School District.

So I'll probably be back at Scott in the fall, very possibly teaching in the gym again. I'll grumble a lot, come home too tired to play--and yet, at the same time, I'll be doing the work I love, with children I love, and most of the time, it'll be just fine.

And really, that's what all teachers, not just the Reynolds teachers, but teachers in every district, every school, however well-behaved their students, is feeling right now. We made it. Our students made it. In three months, we'll start making it again, holding everything together as best we can, loving most of our job, surviving the parts we don't love, initiating another generation of kindergartners into the primary culture, preparing another generation of fifth graders for the intermediate culture, smiling, hugging, admonishing, teaching, loving.