Saturday, December 28, 2013

An Open Response to Peter Morales

Dear Reverend Morales:

I handle complaints and questions a lot. My work involves providing medical supplies to people with multiple chronic conditions, including many instances of mental illness. Things sometimes go wrong, and I have to deal with them. As Co-Moderator of my congregation, I’ve put myself in the position of hearing out other people’s ideas and concerns regarding governance and other issues. And as Moderator of Leather & Grace, I’m constantly hearing from both kink-oriented UUs and others in our faith.

I’m no stranger to this, having served in student government from junior high through college, and as an activist on many issues since my senior year in high school. And yes, sometimes I get annoyed by someone who seems overly petty or fault-finding. But one thing I’ve learned is that even someone who comes with a seemingly endless list of complaints can still have something useful to contribute. So I strive as best I can to pay careful attention to the other person, and to respond in a way that still holds up both their intention and the potential for the two of us to work together.

That’s why I’m writing to you now. Imagine, please, that you have a family member who is seriously ill. You’re trying to get a hold of some supplies which your family physician says will help this person recover, or at least ease their pain. Getting the insurance to pay for it, however, is frustrating. Now imagine that you can choose between two supply companies. The first one you call, the representative explains what needs to be done, answers all your questions, and does her best to walk you through the process. When you express the frustration you feel having to jump through hoops just to care for your loved one, she responds: “I understand, and you’re not alone. I hear this all the time from other clients. But I’ll do my best to help you all I can.”

Now imagine you call the other company, and the conversation proceeds the same way, up to the point where you express your frustrations, and this person responds with a rant of his own, accusing and blaming you and others for carrying a chip on your collective shoulder, “bullying” people like him and “trivializing” other people’s “real” problems, perhaps even dismissing your worries as “silly.”

Wouldn’t you feel like hanging up on the second person? But, more importantly … does this sound rather familiar?

When some Unitarian Universalists, concerned about classism and ableism within our faith movement, raised the issue of language that was chosen as a holiday message from the UUA, did you not use the term “pre-offended” as a description? You then talked of working together – but on whose terms, and to what ends?

Just as many people become frustrated at the numerous rules imposed by insurance companies, so it is that the culture and institutions around us impose rules as to who has privilege and who is on the margins. That is where groups like ours – and leaders like you – come in. Should we as progressive people of faith, strive to work with and help those who are frustrated by all of this, and do our part to make things better, even if just a little? Shouldn’t that also include thinking more carefully of what we say, whether in a holiday greeting, or in response to an attempt to raise awareness? Lastly, given your choice of words, can you see how some would now be hesitant to approach you with any question, concern or idea, regardless of its merit?

Please give what I've said here careful thought, and thank you.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Church of Now

Lately I’ve been hearing much talk about Unitarian Universalism and the future. How do we survive and thrive into the next generation, especially when it seems that so many other religious groups appear to be faltering? Do we need to embrace new technologies and media venues? Reorganize to be more efficient and/or effective? Raise more money, still more money, and yet again moremoney?

It seems to me that all this talk about (re-)making ourselves into “the religion of the future” focuses an awful lot on externals, and frets even more over what we think we’re lacking. So, with that in mind, let me begin my response to all of this with a simple observation …

The future begins now.

Whatever we plan and ponder for future times, our actions this very day – this very moment – set the course for that future. And all the technology, media outlets and fancy dressing-up still doesn’t answer the more essential questions of who we are and what we offer.

Before we can become the “religion of the future, I would posit that we become the Church of Now, defined by values and inspired by vision.

Love thy neighbor … now

Welcome the stranger … now

Comfort the afflicted … now

Let justice flow like waters … now

Be the change you want to see in the world … now

Look at the largest and most influential religious movements in history. They didn’t need capital campaigns, high-tech gadgets, marketing strategies or feasibility studies. They didn’t even need hierarchical bureaucracies – all that came later. They had their people, their vision, their values, and their belief that a better world could be created right then and there.

Perhaps, rather than worry about preserving the institutions and material possessions of our faith movement, we should consider what our faith is about, and how to empower and embolden our people to live our faith principles more fully … now

Saturday, August 10, 2013

One Couple, Two Congregations

The couple mentioned in this story have given their consent to share the details of their experience. All identifying information, including references to gender, have been removed to protect their privacy.

Dana and Jordan were looking for a spiritual community, and the UU church in their city seemed the right balance (Dana had grown up UU, and Jordan had left a conservative denomination). After attending and making new friends, they decided to formally join. Jordan became part of the choir, and Dana joined the Religious Education committee.

What they didn't share with others in the congregation was their interest in BDSM. Given how they saw it as "irrelevant" to their church life, they saw no reason to tell anyone outside of the local kink community. And they found it not too difficult to keep the two separate.

Then the RE committee began plans for their Coming Of Age group, including teaching Our Whole Lives. Someone wondered, with worry, about what to do if one of the teens asked about "weird stuff" like bondage and sadomasochism. Dana spoke honestly that it might be helpful for the OWL facilitators to know some background information about BDSM, in case such questions were posed in class. "What kind of information?" another committee member asked, and Dana talked about some of the basics, but nothing explicit. After the meeting, the RE director took Dana aside and asked: "How do you know about this BDSM stuff?" Nervously, Dana replied about having "researched" the subject earlier.

Things went downhill soon afterwards. The couple started to get phone calls with "all sorts of bizarre questions and snide remarks" about their sexuality. A number of friends at church stopped talking to them. Dana was no longer receiving notices about the RE committee, and became "shut out" from discussions during meetings. The choir director related that some members of the choir were pushing to have Jordan removed, saying they were "uncomfortable"; to this person’s credit, the director refused to acquiesce to their request.

The worst, however, was when our couple went to the minister for support and guidance. They expected at least a sympathetic hearing. "We'll never forget [the minister’s] only words to us on this: 'There's nothing I can do, even if I wanted to.'"

Around this time, Dana was being considered for a new job in another city. With all that was going on, they did not hesitate to accept that company’s offer and relocate. Once they settled in, they considered whether to join the larger UU congregation there. "It was difficult at first," Jordan admitted, "but when we first went in, we could see the difference was night and day, [the previous church] seemed UU in name, … [the new church] really takes seriously what that means." And, to top it all off, they eventually found out that a couple of the new congregation’s members were also part of the local kink community!

It seemed they could now begin a fresh start, albeit at a more cautious pace. Then, the minister for this new congregation asked to meet with them. The reason? Someone at their old church had sent an email, not only outing them, but outright defaming them. "They accused us of wearing fetish gear on Sunday, trying to push a BDSM workshop on the whole congregation. We’d done none of that, not one, and we said so upfront."

And here was another difference between the two congregations. "[The new minister] made it clear from the get go: 'I don't care about your sex lives, I just want to get your side of the story here.' And [the minister] was so supportive, so open to hearing what we had to say … even suggesting that the staff have some sort of training around being sensitive to alt-sex issues."

In fact, it was that minister who directed this couple to Leather & Grace which led them to me. After an email and a long telephone conversation, I gave them some options for how to proceed, especially given the very real fear that some in the old congregation might continue to harass them.

This tale gives me very mixed emotions. I am delighted that this couple has found a spiritual home, and a pastor who will genuinely hear and respond to their needs. I am also infuriated that they had to go through such horrid treatment in another congregation, and especially by a minister. I've heard others say that we should be loving towards those who would marginalize, defame and harass. All well and good – but too often, this well-intentioned message lacks a prescribed remedy, and becomes yet another way of telling marginalized folks to develop a thick skin and forbear the wounds inflicted on their souls. We can love the sinner, but that doesn’t mean we put up with their sin. It means we expect better, and that we offer them a way to grow and change.

And yes, I said that dreaded "S-word" that Unitarian Universalists are loathe to use: sin. But there’s no other word I can find that is appropriate. Discriminatory actions and attitudes are sin, regardless of whom they are directed against. If someone we love commits such a sin, the most authentically loving response is to bear prophetic witness and provide means for penance and redemption. Likewise, those who are sinned against require an authentic response of support, affirmation and healing. Yes, it is demanding, but that is the cost of the covenant, and anything less is cheap grace.

UPDATE: Since this came to our attention, the Steering Committee of Leather & Grace has called for a day of silent witness, to bring greater awareness to the issues facing kink-oriented Unitarian Universalists, and to underscore the continued silence of UU leaders. Sunday, September 29th has been chosen for this action of witness. We call on our members and supporters -- including and especially vanilla UU allies -- to pledge to join us in Silent Sunday.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Silence of Our Friends

Two articles have prompted me to write this post. The first, written by CNN’s John Sutter, explored "The County Where No One’s Gay". Sure enough, he found there are gay and lesbian folks in Franklin County, Mississippi – but, as is often said in those parts, "There are some things you just don’t talk about." Your hetero neighbors can talk about feeling lonely, falling in love, getting married – while you sit and endure jokes, slurs, and even beatings.

But before that piece came an article in the Washington Post, titled "Many Unitarians Would Prefer that Their Polyamory Activists Keep Quiet". As soon as the link was printed in the discussion list for UUs for Polyamorous Awareness, the spin-doctoring began, with people saying the article read like it was ten years old, and must have been dragged out of mothballs to fill space on a slow news day. And I admit that I joined in the crowd, blaming the journalist for not doing any follow-up research.

Well, I’m beginning to think I was too quick to blame Lisa Miller. Perhaps she did do some follow-up after all. It might not have been much, but …

Take a look on the UUA website. About the only up-to-date information is that UUPA is now on record as a "Related Organization." The only official statement from the UUA, dated from 2004, declares that "the UUA has never supported the legal recognition of polyamorous relationships, nor has this issue ever been considered by any official decision-making body of the Association," and that "related organizations are not endorsed by the UUA board of trustees." And while the UUPA offers a curriculum on polyamorous families, there’s no indication that the UUA itself is educating its ministers or congregations on the subject.

In short, if you were looking for signs of progress in how Unitarian Universalists address polyamory, you’d really have to hunt for it. Queer identity and marriage equality, sure. But polyamory? Well … there are some things you just don’t talk about, even in a faith that embraces "a free and responsible search for meaning and truth."

It’s even worse for Unitarian Universalist kinksters. While UU polyfolk have minimal recognition, kinksters have no official existence. Some congregations are accepting, and some individuals will express their support – privately. But don’t expect them to suggest that we do more education around the topic, even with mainstream media outlets like The New York Times and the Oprah Winfrey Network. Don’t expect them to talk about the uncomfortable truth of people being discriminated against in various ways, even in supposedly liberal places like UU congregations. After all … there are some things you just don’t talk about.

That’s all too convenient when you’re in a position of authority and relative privilege. All too convenient to minimize, to dismiss, to avoid, to not talk about it. Whether it’s racism, homophobia, transphobia, polyphobia or kinkphobia, it’s all too convenient to talk about other people’s ignorance, and overlook our own "ignore-ance" – our tendency to marginalize and rationalize why you "just don’t talk" about such things.

The problem, for those of us who have to put up with all of that, is that we can’t do that. This isn’t just another abstract issue that challenges us – it’s our lives. And when others in our lives decide it’s just not convenient to talk about or think about, while the damage continues to be done, … well, I hope you the reader get the picture.

What I find most ironic is how those of us who have been allies, and who have spoken up against all the damaging "-isms" and "-phobias" out there, find no reciprocation. Many polyfolk and kinksters are white, and have spoken up about racism, including within our own communities. We’ve spoken up for GLBTQ rights, including marriage equality, and anti-gay bullying. It’s not that we’re asking for payback – we’re just surprised that the people we’ve been supporting all these years, and whom we expect to know better, seem so quick to apply double standards.

When I preached about BDSM and kink this past summer, the first question asked was: “What can we vanilla folks do to support you?” Three simple things:

First: Acknowledge that we exist.

Second: Learn all you can about us.

Third: Don’t just tell us that you understand or support us. As much of a boost as that can be, the ones who need to hear that most are those who continue to ignore, dismiss and marginalize us. Don’t just speak to us, and about us – speak for us.

Martin Luther King is credited with saying: "In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends." From my own experience, I constantly wonder if those who refuse to speak up are doing so because they’re reluctant to listen. And that’s the real shame, because there are some things we just shouldn’t ignore.