Friday, December 17, 2010

Why It Matters to Me, Part 3: Gender and Sexuality

Why It Matters to Me: Gender and Sexuality

By Troy D. Smith

A month or so ago I posted a couple of blogs that were to be the first two parts of a three-part series, “Why it Matters to Me.” I looked at the ways my own experiences with race and class had informed my views on the subject and compelled me to champion various causes. This last portion, gender/sexuality, has been delayed somewhat by the end-of-semester madness that runs amok in academia, but now at last here it is.

Because my encounters in this particular area have mostly been on the periphery (being a heterosexual male and therefore not an object of imposed power, other than the adolescent societal pressure of maintaining what scholars on the subject call “heteronormativity”), many of my experiences have actually been watching the experiences of others. Since it’s not my place to broadcast other people’s private, or inner, lives –or to “out” anybody that has not chosen to announce their sexual identity –I plan to be as circumspect as possible in this essay, being vague in places and changing details in others.

That being said, I’ll address the same question I asked myself about race and class- when did I first become truly aware that there was such a thing as gender/sexuality classifications? Obviously, that kind of thing is presented to us all, culturally, from birth, and kind of sinks in by osmosis. Girls are “supposed” to act one way, and boys another. There are “tomgirls” (like Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird) and “sissies”- kids who don’t exactly conform to the “rules” of gendered behavior.

I was in a bit of an unusual situation –although it only seemed unusual compared to the ideal families of television, I guess. My parents separated when I was quite young, and I have no memories of them together. My formative years were spent in a household with two very strong women, my mom and her sister Essie. I had no real positive male influences. There was my older cousin, Essie’s son Stanton, who was as close to me as a brother, but he –though several years older –was still just a kid like me. Two of my mom’s brothers also lived with us, and I adored them, but never pictured them as someone I wanted to be like (they were fun-loving, hard drinking, quasi-employed bachelors.) I loved to read- and devoured comic books even before I could decipher the words, either having my cousin read them to me or figuring out the plots by the pictures alone. I loved movies, too- basically, I suppose I just loved stories.

So I took my models for masculinity from the stories I read and watched. Cowboys, superheroes, war movies. My dad and his brothers were all in the military; when I was three my Uncle Arthur came to visit us, in his Army uniform, and brought me a huge play-set of plastic Army men (in four different colors, to better facilitate imaginary warfare.) He and my Dad looked a lot alike, and I actually thought he was my Dad… in fact, I think I was thirty before I mentioned the incident to my mom and she told me who it actually was. Because I associated my father so much with the military –mostly because of that three-year-old’s confusion –it’s probably not surprising who I wound up choosing as my main masculinity models at ages 3 to 5: John Wayne, Clint Eastwood… and Nick Fury. Fury was a Marvel Comics character who had two ongoing series at once –one set in the (1970s) present-day, in which he was a middle-aged leader of a government spy organization, and one set in his younger days as a commando leader in WWII. The character has been played on screen by Samuel L. Jackson and David Hasselhoff, neither of whom capture the essence of the 1960s and 70s Nick Fury:

NICK FURY (drawing by Joe Sinnott) at:

In my young mind, real men sported whisker stubble, chomped on cigars, often wore hats, and frequently dressed in leather, flannel, and boots (if you know me, you know I often do all those things, though the cigars are a very infrequent treat .) I think those images were substitutes for my missing father, and that dressing myself accordingly –in pretend clothes and paraphernalia as a kid, and real ones when I grew up –was a way of clothing myself with my father, which is in essence clothing one’s self with the essence of comforting (or yearned for) masculinity.

When I got a little older, I was still turning to fictional characters for masculinity guides, but on a more sophisticated level. Later in life I realized how profoundly influenced I had been by certain characters from my pre-adolescent years: Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird; Gary Cooper as Will Kane in High Noon; Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine in Casablanca; Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life; and perhaps most of all Spider-man, who co-creator Stan Lee portrayed as learning that “with great power comes great responsibility.” From all those characters, I concluded that real men are good men, and honorable ones. Their defining characteristic is the willingness to do what they know is right, no matter how hard it is or how much it costs them. I later realized that I had come up with the definition of, not just a man, but of a good person of any gender. Anyone who knows me knows that the me I have cultivated and constructed –and all our selves, inner and outer, are a combination of our own constructions and the fears we fortify ourselves against, with a healthy dash of genetics –has elements of all those fictional characters. With a little Andy Griffith thrown in.

But of course, it is never that simple. I had other qualities as well, which did not fit into the American cultural paradigm of masculinity, and I had no stereotypical male figure around to teach me that I am supposed to suppress those things. I was extremely sensitive, and extremely emotional. I was “bookish,” and lived in a world of my own imagination. Those are all qualities I would encourage and nurture in any child of mine, no matter their gender… but in the late 70s/early 80s, and no doubt still today, they are qualities that mark a young boy as a target by his peers.

Which leads me to the first hints I received that gender and sexuality are categories people can be put into. My first exposure to the concept of homosexuality came when I was around nine… Fred Sanford was describing a “sissified” (I knew that term) man as “kind of…you know…” and then made that famous Fred Sanford “comme ci, comme ca” hand motion. His friend Bubba, as I recall, said “Oh, you mean he’s gay.” Fred was confused by the term, and so was I, both of us thinking gay meant happy. I asked my mom what the heck he was talking about, and she explained that some boys liked to kiss other boys instead of girls. In that same time period I saw Archie Bunker interacting with a transvestite, and Billy Crystal’s character on Soap wore women’s clothing and wanted to get an operation to turn him into a woman. Well, all this seemed rather strange to me, but I didn’t give it much thought. I sort of chalked it up to just another weird thing grown-ups talked about which I didn’t understand.

I was pretty sheltered in some ways during elementary school, in part because of my school, Baker Elementary. It was small- only about a hundred students total –and only went to the fourth grade. Basically, then, you had a group of about twenty kids that you went to school with every day from kindergarten through 4th, after which you all went to the much bigger “city school.” I never rode the bus in my Baker years, and my older cousins –like older cousins and older siblings from time immemorial –avoided me like the plague when their friends were around. What all this means, and the reason I am bringing it up, is that I was never around any “older kids.” In my experience as a father and step-father, kids’ first exposures to the seamier concepts in life often come from older kids on the bus. In my case, at the age of 10 I had never heard the f-word (though I’d seen it carved into a chair arm at the movie theater, and wondered what it meant), or the term a-hole, or any of the sexuality centered insults. I had seen the word “queer” on a bathroom stall –again at the movie house (or as we called it, the Show) –and just assumed it was an expression of postmodern bemusement (although of course I didn’t have those terms for it.) “Queer” was a word my grandmother used often to describe anything strange, pronouncing it “qwar.”

Then it was on to fifth and sixth grade at the “big school”- as well as riding the school bus (and being around high schoolers) for the first time. It was a whole new world. Almost every single fifth grade male swore in practically every sentence, often using words I had never heard before. One kid, a well-known bully, approached me on the playground my first week there.

“Hey,” he said. “You look queer. Are you queer, boy?”

Well, this was an easy enough question. I delighted from a young age in the idea of being a non-comformist –of course this would make me seem strange.

“Why yes,” I said. “In fact, I’m probably the queerest kid in this school.”

This was not the response he was expecting. He was dumbfounded. He gathered his friends around.

“This kid is crazy!” he said. “Go ahead –ask him if he’s queer!”

“Um, hey kid, are you queer?”

“I sure am,” I replied. “It’s no big deal, I’m kinda proud of it.”

Needless to say, I was not getting off to a good start in my new social circles. It didn’t take me long to figure out what the word meant when they said it, and to absorb it –and a lot of other cool dirty words- into my vocabulary. By the end of that school year I, too, was “burning” my friends by questioning their heterosexuality. A favorite tactic –and one that, with my verbal skills, I excelled at –was to turn someone’s words around to make it sound like they were admitting that they were gay (for example, someone once called me “queerbait” and I said “it works, too, ‘cause here you are.”) This was often accompanied by gestures whose significance none of us really understood at the time. Somehow it seemed to be ratcheted up several degrees when we entered middle school.

So, then, was I introduced to that world of burgeoning male adolescence, so lovingly portrayed in Lord of the Flies. It was a good thing, in some ways, that I had a sharp wit and a sharp tongue, because I needed them. I was a scrawny, cerebral, artistic kid, and looked like easy pickings for bullies. When confronted, my usual tactic (if there was a crowd around) was to verbally humiliate the oppressor, then refuse to “meet him outside” to fight. He would eventually figure out that picking on me was more trouble than it was worth, as it would get him ridiculed; if they caught me outside alone, of course, it helped that I could run really fast. The bully would then move on to easier prey.

This is the part of the story I am ashamed of. I wasn’t really joking in my Lord of the Flies reference; kids aged 12 to 14 can be very, very nasty to one another, and it is not uncommon at all to see them engage in masculine (or feminine) bonding that involves singling out some outsider and attacking them. The weaker the outsider is perceived to be, the better. Here is a basic truth about middle school: there are four types of kids, bullies, victims, defenders , and bully enablers. There are very, very few defenders, and for good reason. The whole process is about developing community by choosing an “other” to define yourself against- and at this age, peer community is just about the most important thing in one’s life. If you see another kid being bullied, and you come to his aid, you risk ostracism as well- and that goes against the grain of self-preservation.

There were certain boys that were always singled out to be victims. They were usually the more sensitive ones, who did not fit into the prevalent view of “proper” masculine behavior. Some of those kids later came out as gay; others were perceived to be gay, and that was enough. They were considered fair game. Sometimes, as I said, I was singled out as the prospective victim. I can remember several specific instances where I was the defender, and I felt really good about myself afterwards. But most often- I either ignored it, or joined in (both forms of bully-enabling.) I joined in to take the heat off myself. And I was extremely cruel. Sometimes, I was the bully.

Now I’m going to be vague. I know a lot of people who were victimized for their perceived sexual orientation or relative degrees of masculinity. I knew such people in middle and high school, at church, through the extended church network I was hooked into, and when I was college age. I know six people who were either gay or perceived to be who committed suicide. Most were casual acquaintances, one was a very good friend several years younger than me. Some of them I defended, some I ignored, some I helped persecute here and there. I’m haunted by all their memories. And despite that, I found myself doing the same thing as an adult in the workplace years ago. I’m quite embarrassed about that; it goes against all the ideals I have tried to define myself by. I wouldn’t do it again, and it hurts to even think about it.

I have also known people who belonged to conservative churches who felt that their desires were sins they needed to struggle against. They tried to make themselves straight, getting married even though they had no sexual desire whatsoever for women. That’s their right and their choice. Most of the ones I know have had sad lives, though (as have their wives.) I often imagine what their lives could’ve been like if they’d had the freedom to just be themselves.

I tried to raise my daughter to be open and accepting, and to have a concern for social justice. When she was eleven or twelve I was proud of her for getting into arguments with older relatives in defense of gay marriage. I was touched when, around that time, she asked me: “Dad, if I were to grow up and tell you I was gay, would you disown me?” We had been discussing the tragedy of a teenaged girl who committed suicide in the 1950s because of her sexual orientation. “Of course not,” I said. “I am your father, and I’ll always love you and stand beside you no matter what. Unless you become a Republican (which was only a joke, by the way.)”

When she was sixteen, my daughter told me she had realized she was gay. It was one of those situations where you are very surprised, but not surprised at all; a lot of things sort of clicked into place and made sense. She has been wrestling with concepts of identity, sexuality, and gender since then, refining her understanding of who she is and how she wants to be known. It is a very important journey, and like any parent I have been worried about her on the road while also finding joy in her journey. It is a journey that has been very instructive to me, as well, as I’ve seen this person I love so much face obstacles and challenges that I have never really known.

Recently she told me that there was something very important she wanted to discuss as a family. I knew that since starting college she had become very impassioned about gender and sexuality studies, and seemed to be learning about herself at an accelerated pace in her new academic setting. I had a pretty good idea what she wanted to talk about. She was very nervous, but she did not need to be. She told us she did not feel that traditional gender classifications fit her as a person, that she felt neither male nor female but somewhere in-between, and always has. It is a form of identity known as genderqueer, or GQ. Again, it made sense when I thought about it. She was frustrated at the unfairness of being put into a box that was not of her own making, of having an identity thrust upon her. She asked us to think about calling her by a different, ungendered name, and to refer to her with gender-neutral pronouns. Henceforth in this essay, therefore, I will refer to them as my child. My very beloved child.

I am going to share with you what I said to my child that night, as best I remember it. Maybe I’ll add a little that I should’ve said and left out. I have permission from her to discuss it in this forum, and I’m glad –because it is the thing parents should say to their children, whatever paths they take. Maybe their is someone in your life who needs to hear it, too.

“I love you with all my heart. I don’t love you just because you’re my child; I don’t love you for who I want you to be, or who anyone thinks you ought to be. I don’t love you because you’re a reflection of who I wanted to be. I love you because you are you. I am proud of your courage, in approaching me (and ultimately the world) with this. I am proud of your passions, and compassions, and desire to help others and make a difference in the world. What you ask of me is not easy –I feel a sense of bereavement for the little girl I knew, who is gone forever. But she would be gone anyway; you’ve grown up. Whether you are still that little girl or not, or whether in fact you ever really were, you are still YOU, and it is you I have loved, not an image. I told you once not to feel bad about leaving me some day –it is your job to leave me; it is my job never to leave you. Wherever you go, whatever you do, whoever and whatever you are- I will always be your father, and I will always love you. And I am very, very proud to have had a hand in bringing the world such a beautiful person. Despite my part in that, I have no proprietorship in you- your life, and your identity, are yours, and that is as it should be.”

In the process of writing this essay, I’ve realized a couple of things. For starters, unlike the essays about race and class, this effort to sift through my early experiences with gender resulted in me talking at length about who I am, and why. Wouldn’t it be simpler, and better, if we could move beyond societally imposed barriers and boundaries, drop the terms gender and sexuality and sexual orientation, and just call it who-I-am-ness? Or maybe just call it “me” and “you.”

The other thing I realized: I started out to pinpoint when in my life I first became aware of race, class, and gender-and-or-sexuality, and it turns out all three were at around the same time. Middle school, around age twelve. All three of those identity markers are socially constructed, and it seems they get constructed at around the time of adolescence (this would be a good point to clarify something; sex refers to the genitals you have, gender refers to how you view yourself and are viewed by others.) We get to middle school, and segregate ourselves by race and class in ways we never did before, not of our own volition. And within those constructs, we pick out a handful of people who don’t fit in and put them on the outside, to further define ourselves as insiders, like chickens in a barnyard. It makes sense that things would play out this way; adolescence is the transition between childhood and adulthood, when we are struggling mightily to come out from under our parents’ shadows, to become our own people and find our own identity. Pack mentality has a tighter hold on us during those years than at any time in our life. If we want to minimize friction centered on race, class, and gender/sexuality among teens, they need to be better educated –and their teachers should be, too. I thought we had made a lot of strides in that direction in the last couple of decades, but the evening news seems to indicate otherwise.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

I have found my tribe

I'm spending the weekend with an amazing group of folks that call themselves the Outlaw Preachers at a (re)Union of folks most of whom have never met IRL until this weekend. I came late to the party so I may have some of the history messed up but as I understand it the group started as a hashtag on twitter and has grown into somewhat of a movement in the emerging/postmodern church conversation. I am fortunate enough to know one of the group, Connie Waters, because she went to school with my husband from grade school on through high school so I've been on the edges of this movement as it was forming.

The first night I felt like the new "in-law" relative at someone else's family reunion. As the Outlaws gathered there were hugs and exclamations of great excitement from those who have been communing regularly in the online world while my daughter and I and a young man named Joel from Chicago who goes by the twitter handle "filmsgeek" and I sat together watching and wondering how all these people seemed to know each other so well. That feeling, thankfully, didn't last long. If there is anything these "Outlaws" are exceedingly good at it is accepting and welcoming new members into the family.

And it IS a family make no mistake about that. It is not a family bound by denomination or creed as there are people in it who are neither denomination nor creedal. It is not a family bound by an agreed upon set of doctrines or rules. It is, as one of the speakers put it yesterday, a family bound by having walked through hell together and being willing to continue to walk through hell together. We are the walking wounded trying our very best to transform our pain into something beautiful and healing and accepting rather than transmitting our pain and becoming "just another bunch of pissed-off ex-evangelicals". And something beautiful is happening here.

Last night there was communion and a service of healing and in the embrace of my new Outlaw family I was finally able to lay down the pain of the last two years. It is funny that even from the fringes, the darkest edge of the circle of the outlaw campfire, I was never truly alone. I found "queermergent" when I was looking for answers to help me deal with some serious drama among my kids and it helped me make sense of how to integrate being GLBT and Christian in a way that I hadn't stumbled upon on my own. I sat in the healing circle next to Adele, the founder of queermergent, last night and we prayed over and laid hands on each other in turn along with the rest of the family gathered there and it was beautiful.

As "leaders" we rarely have space to feel our hurt much less to deal with it. Somehow, although there really wasn't a planned "theme" to the weekend, these first two days have become about having that safe sacred space to allow healing to happen. I am blessed beyond measure to be a part of it and thrilled that at least a half dozen or so of the folks attending are actually local to me and are meeting regularly.

I am an agenda driven person, not knowing what to expect going into this weekend made me a little tiny bit crazy. Yet in the lack of expectation and the absence of a plan God has met me in a way that my soul has been starving for. I have a wonderful church, don't get me wrong, I am convinced that God led our family there and I want some of our pastoral staff to experience this bunch of folks next time we get together. This time was for me. This time was to bring me the rest of the way out of the "licking my wounds" stage of recovery and back into the desire and ability to minister again at some point after what happened during my last two years at the local MMC.

I didn't know what I was getting myself into when I signed up for #op10 but I knew it was somewhere I needed to be. Now I am catching a bit of a glimpse into why. And I'm glad to be a part of the #outlawpreachers family.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Annual Christmas Rant

I am just being honest in the title of this post because I do expect that this will become an annual event for as long as the whole "Keep Christ in Christmas" campaign rages on in the culture war.

Lest anyone think I'm an anti-Christmas curmudgeon I want to make it clear that despite suffering from SAD (seasonal affective disorder) Christmas is actually one of my very favorite times of the year. I love Christmas. I love the lights, the music, the gathering with family and all that goes along with celebrating Christmas. I love Advent. I love this season in the church calendar where we anticipate the coming of Emmanuel into the world. I just don't feel obligated to make the rest of the world feel or do the same.

As far back as two weeks before Thanksgiving I was seeing the yearly "loyalty test" posts start appearing as the facebook statuses of my friends. You know the ones. The ones that say something like, "I'm keeping 'Christ' in Christmas...who's with me?" (Sponsored I might add by a site called "SonGear" which makes money off selling 'witness wear' to the masses but that's a rant for another time.) Those always make me 1) wonder what my friends think when I don't join the party and 2) want to be REALLY snarky in a way that would upset some well meaning folks that I care deeply about. So I keep my thoughts to myself on facebook, hit delete on the spam e-mails with the same messages and then come here and subject the blogosphere to my ranting and raving.

I guess for me it comes down to this, what message are we sending to the world when we insist upon acting like this season is the exclusive property of the Christian religion? What does it say about us as a Christian culture that we are so determined to have our holiday acknowledged as superior to all others that we consider the term "Happy Holidays" an outright attack on our religious liberties?

First of all we stole the date from the Pagan religion. That is an undeniable historical fact so it seems disingenuous at best to then claim, loudly, that "Jesus is the REASON for the season". Secondly the other two Abrahamic faiths ALSO have holy days (holidays) in this season typically. Hanukkah always arrives around Christmas and quite often Eid in the Muslim world is near Christmas as well. This doesn't even take into consideration cultural holidays like Kwanzaa, St. Nicholas Day or Boxing Day. Given all of this where do we get off insisting that the proper greeting for this season is strictly "Merry Christmas"? It seems to me that the more accurate, and the more respectful, greeting to those whom we do not know well enough to know what holidays they celebrate is in fact "Happy Holidays". To those we DO know well enough we should be gracious enough to wish them a Happy Hanukkah, or Eid mubarak or Happy Kwanzaa or whatever it is that they celebrate. A good Yule to our Pagan friends perhaps?

And perhaps that is the root of the issue, do most American Christians even HAVE friends outside our stained glassed ghetto? Have we become so insulated from the world that we really believe that we are and should be the top of the heap? I don't know that I actually know anyone who celebrates Kwanzaa, among my African American friends there seems to be some contempt toward it as a made up holiday but I do have friends that celebrate Hanukkah and Eid and even the Yuletide and I hear our insistence on "owning" the holiday season through their ears and it's not a sweet sound.

Sometimes I think the American church would do well to take heed to Peter's admonitions to the wives of unbelieving husbands. 1 Pet 3:1-2 "...if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words...when they see the purity and reverence of your lives."

Oftentimes I fear that the purity and reverence is often drowned out by our words and the "battles" we choose. This season is one of those times.

Friday, November 12, 2010

I'm in love with academia.

So I was thinking about going to seminary.

But let's face it. I can't do the complicated infra-structure keep-everyone-happy bullshit. I have quickly realized that keeping everyone happy with my decisions annoys the heck out of me. I'm partial to the "haters gonna hate" policy, and then I just keep swimming. So being a church leader has minimal appeal to me at this point in my life, and it's definitely not where I'm called.

But that's fine, because I am head over heels for academia. Oh, sweet coptic texts. Oh, applying cognitive science of metaphor to ancient Roman poetry. Oh, learning about myself through scholarship. Oh, having three different Bible editions, two Qurans, five different editions of "Gnostic" texts (although the use of the word "Gnostic" is debatable, but that's another story), among a giant pile of other books, articles, and scholarly journals. Oh, language classes that give me a different access to religious texts. Oh, long debates about gendered pronoun translation. Oh, long papers, short papers, presentations, and long conversations.

I am so in love with books and learning and writing at the moment. I have never been so challenged or so enthused by my work. I probably sound like I'm gushing over some significant other or a baby or a puppy or something, and I guess in a way I am. There's just something to be said for knowing when you're on the right path, for intellectually and spiritually realizing you are "home."

A Second Class Grace

Last night I went with a dear friend who I hope will soon become one of the regular contributors to this blogging effort to see Elaine Blanchard's amazing one woman show, "For Goodness Sake". It is a powerful piece of theater touching on themes of racism, legalistic Christianity, GLBT issues and more. If it ever comes to your area I highly recommend it. As we sat at dinner processing the show, a habit of ours that I love, he asked me how I had moved to the more progressive side of faith given where I came from and specifically in the area of GLBT issues. I found myself at a loss to articulate the process of my own "coming out" as a straight ally. The best I could do was share a series of vignettes of pieces of the journey from right to left-of-center. I wasn't satisfied with that and as I drove home I found myself still pondering his question and what I finally realized was that at a very specific point in my life I became unwilling to settle for a second class grace.

See I was raised in a church that gave lip service to grace but that held an awful lot of stock in how things looked and the things people did in order to be “good Christians”…God how that resonated with me tonight. It wasn’t nearly as oppressive as what Elaine went through but enough that I could identify with her. I was raised in a church that was so afraid of “cheap grace” that we settled for second class grace instead. Extravagant grace was so unfathomable that it was threatening. So we boxed God in with rules and law and settled for the safety of second class grace. I’m no longer willing to settle for that. I’m no longer willing to saddle others with that.

Eight years ago I got involved with a prison ministry called Kairos. Each team spent six weeks prior to the Kairos weekend in intensive team preparation part of which included training on how to listen without comment or judgment. Over and over and over again we were reminded that our job was to “Listen, Listen. Love, Love” Acceptance was critical if we were to be effective within the walls of the literal prison that the ladies we were sent to minister to occupied. Now you’d have to understand that my “life verse” is the passage of scripture that Christ nearly got stoned for proclaiming that it was fulfilled in their hearing, Isaiah 61:1-3

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion-- to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.

To proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners…that was a big huge deal for me. Here we were though being told that the greatest work we could do, the greatest gift we could give was to accept, to listen and to love. Grace would do the rest.

Going inside that prison changed me. I sat at a table with four women two of whom were doing life sentences for killing their abusive boyfriends/spouses and I was brought face to face with the fact that literally there but for the grace of GOD went I. Before I started dating the man that is now my husband I dated a series of jerks. The last of those was horribly abusive. The night I fought back, it’s a miracle that I didn’t kill him, because I damn sure tried. I broke a broom handle over his head and shoulders beating him with it. In those women I saw how easily circumstances could have been reversed. I had been prepared that God’s grace was sufficient for their crimes. It was a small step to begin to ponder was it sufficient for mine?

After Kairos the idea that I had to “do” all this stuff, all the orthopraxy that I had been trained to nearly worship, seemed hollow. It seemed that we went into the prison and offered those women grace…real, true, transforming grace…but that we settled for a second class grace for ourselves. We saddled ourselves with rules and expectations and behavioral conditions that we would never have placed on those women, our sisters, to whom we sang every night before we left them to go back to their cells to bed:

“You are loved, you are beautiful, you’re a gift of God, his own creation…You’re a gift to all mankind, his gift of love to them, you are loved…God danced the day you were born. “

If this was true of prisoners was it not true of the rest of us?

If it was true of the rest of us was it not true of everyone?

Could it be that God’s grace is so very much bigger than we dare to dream? Could it be true that "It’s all grace or its not grace at all."

It seems to me that how we respond, what we do, what our orthopraxy is has to arise out of the freedom and security of Grace alone or it is nothing more than a works based faith trying to earn its own way to heaven. Do I believe in sanctification? Absolutely! I also believe that God alone knows the hearts of his children well enough to know what each individual needs to work out and work on and that we foolish mortals rush in where angels fear to tread when it comes to trying to fix the perceived sins and shortcomings of others. We need to work out our OWN salvation in fear and trembling and leave others to do the same trusting in God to guide us all on our own path and to finish the good work he began in us. It was a small step from refusing to settle for a second class grace for myself to refusing to offer only a second class grace to my fellow man.

And that’s how, by going to prison, I found the freedom to embrace Grace and let go of judgment and to trust God to deal with his other kids without my help. In that trust and freedom there is room to act with compassion. There is room to allow others their own path. There is room to live out Micah 6:8. To do Justly. To love Mercy. To walk Humbly. To live a life of first class grace.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Why It Matters to Me, Part 2: Class


Troy D. Smith

Last time I talked about how a grad school assignment had inspired me to think seriously about when, and how, I had first become aware there was such a thing as race or class. That thought process was extremely valuable to me; the act of isolating the ways I became aware of those things helped me to understand how those awarenesses had affected my life from that point forward, and why I felt as I did about those topics. In that blog, I expounded on my experiences with race; now I’ll do the same with class. I do run the risk of repeating myself, because I have discussed some of these things in earlier posts –if so I hope you’ll bear with me.

I’ll begin, as before, with a little background. I was born in the small town of Sparta, pop. 5,000, in the Upper Cumberland region of Tennessee (see map below.) The Upper Cumberland stretches across northern middle Tennessee and southern middle Kentucky; the Tennessee portion is comprised of ten counties. (At this point you are probably wondering why I have wandered into a geography lesson, and may be nodding off –I’ll try to control myself, I promise.)

I have a reason for bringing all that up. Tennessee became a state in 1796, and by that time the ancestors of all four of my grandparents were already living in the Upper Cumberland; there are cemeteries in White and Overton counties where I can visit the graves of multiple generations of them. The region has also been home to Civil War guerrillas (and archenemies) Champ Ferguson and Tinker Dave Beaty, World War I hero Alvin York, Louis L’Amour’s fictional Sackett clan, bluegrass legends Lester Flatt and Benny Martin, and a couple of politicians named Albert Gore. There are a lot of families like mine, who have been there for a couple of centuries… and in that time, especially in the smaller towns (and the largest town, Cookeville, has a whopping population of about 20,000), there has not been a lot of social mobility among those families in all that time. If you are from there and your family has some wealth, odds are they had it before the Civil War; if your family is poor, they’ve probably been poor the whole time as well.

My paternal grandfather was a farmer –a sharecropper, really –and he did prison time in the 1940s for making moonshine. He later worked the fields many years for one of Sparta’s most prominent citizens. My maternal grandparents were townfolk, living in Sparta –my grandfather worked as a freelance gardener and handyman for several of the town’s wealthy families. My mom and her seven brothers and sisters grew up with hunger as a frequent companion. She was born in 1951 –a baby boomer. Everyone knows that baby boomers grew up in suburban houses with pipe-smoking Ward Cleaver dads in gray flannel suits, right? Not where I’m from. My mom did not have electricity or running water until the late 60s, when she was married to my soldier father (I was born in ‘68.) In the early 70s my grandma still heated with a cast-iron wood stove in the living room- I never saw that sort of thing on TV.

My mom and her siblings are all extremely intelligent, and love to read- go to my Aunt Essie’s house and you’ll see Faulkner and McCarthy lying about (their books, not them personally), my mother has an impressive library of her own (she particularly likes African American history and fiction, and historical fiction in general), and when my Uncle Gordon (the eldest) died, my mother found among his effects 1950s rejection letters for a novel manuscript. Those facts are especially significant when you consider that none of them graduated from high school. In fact, to the best of my knowledge, most of them never even attended high school. In fact, I am the first male in my family –on either side, ever, so far as I know –to graduate high school, let alone college and grad school (a couple of my older female cousins did so ahead of me, and to be fair my Aunt Essie’s son Stanton would have had he survived his senior year.)

Suffice it to say, even a town as small as Sparta had a set of tracks, and I was from the wrong side of them.

My earliest memories are of being three years old, and living in a small house (near one of the black communities I talked about last time, Black Bottom) with my (recently separated) mom, her sister Essie and her son, and two of their brothers. My mom got remarried when I was five- she and her husband, and many of their siblings, worked for minimum wage at one of the garment factories in town. There were several such factories- they’d moved into the area in the mid-20th century because labor was ridiculously cheap, since Appalachian Southerners tended not to unionize; some miners had made a go at a strong union during the Depression, which led to a good bit of murder and mayhem in Wilder. At any rate, none of us had very much in the economic department.

My Aunt Essie worked in the factory office –and ended up marrying the owner, a Czech Jew who was 20+ years her senior. Edgar Lebenhart was a kind, gentle man- the son of a Prague bureaucrat, he had escaped Europe during the Holocaust (many of his family did not.) He was educated and cultured –he spoke five languages and collected Palestinian artifacts –he was a huge influence on me. He provided me with a treasure trove of history books; no one had ever even mentioned college to me, and here was someone saying that I should be a professor someday. They bought a very nice house, and then a smaller one next door which my family rented from them. It was a nice set-up all around, especially for me: I had two families, really, and those years were a break from the poverty we had mostly known. It didn’t last long, though; Edgar died of a heart attack when I was 9, and a few months later Essie’s son Stanton –who had always been a big brother to me –died in a car wreck on his 18th birthday. Over time, Essie’s health problems ate away at the money Edgar had left her until it was all gone. The nice houses at the edge of the woods were gone (that place is still the home I go to in my dreams), and my family was back to moving from one rented trailer to another. Sometimes they had big holes in the floor that we covered with ply-board; one was so small that I slept on the ironing board built into the hallway wall. My step-father developed tuberculosis and was usually out of work, leaving us to get by on my mom’s minimum wage job. There were many days when I would not have eaten at all had I not had free lunch at school. Food stamps were a fact of life –but once Reagan’s trickle-down economics came into play, they were cut way back. To this day when I think of Ronald Reagan I think of the harsh growling in my stomach as I looked into the cupboard after a hard day of being a 7th grader and saw nothing but a small can of Crisco, and knew there’d be nothing there tomorrow either. And to this day when I hear people deride those less fortunate than themselves as lazy and undeserving welfare bums, I am enraged. My family did nothing to deserve the poverty they suffered, except be heirs to generations of it with no tools to get out.

The Upper Cumberland was one of the country’s most active moonshine-producing regions in the first half of the 20th century. In the 70s and 80s it was one of the country’s top marijuana producers; nowadays it is a center of meth dealing. Several of my relatives and friends have been in and out of prison. People need to stop crowing about how hard they are on crime and start asking themselves why people in this one region, for a century, have been turning to drugs and alcohol as both an escape and a career; is it because Appalachian people are naturally lazy and/or criminal? That is the image the rest of the country sometimes seems determined to focus on, but it is not true. There just aren’t very many opportunities there- and, with most of the factories I mentioned earlier having moved to Mexico in pursuit of even cheaper labor, it is getting worse.

So –sometimes my family had stuff (like adequate shelter and food) and sometimes they didn’t. That wasn’t hard to figure out, even for a kid. When, though, did I realize that there was more to it than that, and that there was such a thing as social class? I was forced to cast my memory back, for that grad school exercise, and I realized it was around the same age that I had started to recognize racialization.

I really wasn’t aware of class in elementary school. I went to one of the smallest schools in the county, and its location made it an interesting mix. It was near the black communities known as Black Bottom and Bluff City, and by extension was therefore near the poor white neighborhoods which bordered them. At the same time, though, it was also close to a neighborhood which included a place called Sugar Hill –a scenic area where many of the town’s well-to-do lived.

At this point, I have to clarify something. When you grow up in generational poverty in a small town, the people you view as “rich big shots” are really nothing of the kind. In any other setting, they would be considered as average middle class folks- small business owners, professionals and the like. But to poor people, middle class seems rich, and that’s how Sugar Hill denizens appeared to the rest of us. Or, more accurately, to our parents.

You see, the kids at Baker Elementary played together –black and white, poor and not-so-poor, and never thought anything about it. I had very close friends from all three neighborhoods, and there seemed to be no difference. But when I wanted to have some of my Sugar Hill friends over to the house, or go to theirs, my mom was always horrified at the prospect. She was still deeply hurt by the way kids of that class had tormented her as a child, and feared my experiencing something similar. Nevertheless, we played at one another’s houses, and I never thought anything about it.

Then, elementary school was over and middle school began. Without even realizing what was happening or how, we started self-segregating… the “popular” kids (and somehow you just never saw many poor “popular” kids) banded together, the black kids did the same, and the group known in some circles as white trash hung together. Many of my best friends had been a part of that “popular” group- and all of a sudden, none of them ever talked to me. They didn’t even seem to notice when I was close by, like I was a pigeon. It was like I ceased to exist altogether. It even seemed that many of the teachers knew who the “proper” kids were. I gradually realized that I was no longer considered an important person –because of who I was, and what I did or didn’t have. It also sunk in for the first time that those upper middle class types had things I did not, and never would, because of who my family was –not just physical things, but privileges. And the unfairness of it burned in me like a flame fed by a bellows. To this day, one of the worst things anyone can do, and the quickest way to arouse my fury, is to imply that I am intrinsically not good enough. The second worst thing you can do is to imply that poor people in general are not good enough- that they are automatically lazy and worthless, and imply that they deserve whatever they get (or don’t get.) I take it very personally. When you say that, even in a general sense, you are talking about my family. I also despise being ignored because of who I am or what I do. I was a janitor for many years, and most people never looked into my face or even seemed to realize I was there.

Both race and class issues cut straight to my sense of justice, which –because of the things I have discussed here and elsewhere –is one of the core parts of my psyche. The difference is, I approach racial issues from the perspective of someone one the privileged end of the social construct, recognizing its iniquity and trying my best to disown that privilege. With class, I approach things as the unprivileged one (even though, from what they tell me, I am now on the verge of being a middle class professional.) And unprivileged people react to the concept of privilege by –taking it personally, and getting pissed off. It is human nature.

There are people out there who will say that someone from my background isn’t really unprivileged at all –that I escaped poverty, and that proves anyone can if they really want to. To which I say, bullshit. I am extremely lucky. For every person who tried as hard as I did and succeeded, there were three more who tried just as hard and failed because the deck was stacked against them. And seven others who never tried at all –not because they were lazy, but because poverty creates fatalism. I am in no way better than my friends and kin who wound up in prison. I am fortunate. They are not. And a big part of my good fortune was having an influence early on –my Uncle Edgar –who could envision something better for me and make me believe in my potential.

Some people start in the basement and scale the walls of the tower, until they reach its peak. Very, very, very few. And some, once they are there, become smug; I am here because I am exceptional. Let those still in the basement do the same, if they can. But that’s not how I look at it. I want to do all I can to throw wide the doors that bar their way, and welcome them all. Because I know most of them deserve to be here just as much as I do. I do realize that opening those doors is a tall order, and not one I can realistically do- but maybe, if I really throw my weight into it, I can budge it a fraction of an inch, and other people can pitch in. At the very least, in the meantime, I can try to treat people like human beings –no matter who they are and what they do for a living.

Because that’s what I expect, and demand. Whether I am a professor or a janitor- I am still me.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Why It Matters to Me, Part 1: Race

As originally posted on:

I often find myself, in loosely constructed essays that begin as tirades on Facebook and turn into posts on my (erratically amended) blog, addressing social issues which are very important to me: they are more often than not race, class, and sexuality issues. I suppose one could frame them generally as social justice concerns. In debating people with opposite views it becomes increasingly clear to me that one’s stand on these issues is informed largely by one’s own experiences. Duh, you say. Well, yeah… that statement does reflect perception of the obvious. But knowing that your experiences inform your politics, spirituality, and et cetera, is one thing- truly understanding it is another thing entirely.

My focus on social justice has informed my whole adult life. The volunteer work I did with Haitian immigrants in the late ‘80s, the ministries I undertook when I was a young man, the poetry and fiction I continue to write, the themes I explore as a professional historian, the approaches I take in the classroom, all have been driven in whole or in part by the fuel of my social passions. So have my efforts to understand my own place in the universe; who I am, and who I aspire to be.

In my first year of grad school, I took a course on the Black Freedom Movement taught by Professor Sundiata Cha-Jua, whom I greatly respect and admire. One of the first assignments seemed, on the surface, ridiculously simple, and yet turned out to be so complex that it still echoes in my thoughts several years later. The professor instructed us to write a short paper addressing the earliest moments in our lives when we fully realized that there were race and class differences in our society. The very act of sifting through my memories for those epiphanies made me think about my life, and myself, in ways I never had before. I have cared about these things for most of my life –but why? I think a similar exercise would help anyone develop better understandings of themselves and of these particular issues. Perhaps you are a person who does not particularly care; well, why not? Maybe isolating the answer to that question can lead you to future experiences which will make you care more.

I intend to structure this endeavor in three parts, and explain the moments in my life that have made me care about race, class, and sexuality. It may seem like a self-absorbed endeavor, and the first time I did it, privately, it was. In this case, though, I hope that seeing how someone else’s thought processes led them to a position might give you a starting point to find where you are on the spectrum of opinion/engagement, and why. I am going to start with race.

I come from a small town in Appalachian Tennessee (Sparta- population when I was a kid, it has not changed much, was 5,000, or about one-quarter of the people in the county. The rest lived in one of a handful of hamlets, or in the rurals.) There were two or three hundred black people (the 2000 census recorded close to 250), making the town 5% black and 95% white back when I was growing up. It may sound weird, but that gave Sparta the highest percentage of black citizens of any town in the whole Upper Cumberland Region- Cookeville has more numerically, but they make up a smaller percentage of the overall population (in 2000, about 700 individuals making up 3% of the population.) No other nearby town was even close; in fact, two –Crossville and Gainesboro –were “sundown towns” and when I was a kid in the 70s and 80s had virtually no black inhabitants at all. My point is, Sparta TN has a black community, and small as that community is it is one of the biggest in the area. Very few of those African Americans lived in the rurals (virtually none, in fact.) Most of them lived in two distinct neighborhoods in town: one was referred to as Bluff City (not on maps- none of these black neighborhoods were ever marked on maps.) The other, larger neighborhood was in the center of town. It was known, to every white person in the county, as Nigger Hill. Forgive my use of that word- I hate it, but I fear that euphemisms or asterisks will weaken the impact of knowing that such a term could be tossed around so lightly so recently. Over the years most folks –except some, in private conversation- have shortened that offensive title to just “The Hill.” There was a third, much smaller, neighborhood not far from Bluff City called Black Bottom. All three neighborhoods were clustered around the Calfkiller River.

I noticed when I was a teenager that white folks from the rurals were much more likely to be vocally prejudiced than white folks from town, and I have always suspected that it was because they rarely interacted with black people. My mom was raised in town- her family had been extremely poor, and they lived on the outskirts of the Bluff City / Black Bottom area. Her childhood friends, neighbors, and babysitters had been black, and she knew them as people instead of scary “others.” There were still social differences, of course; my mom didn’t have to sit in the balcony at the movies or drink from a different fountain. But she did not raise me to think of black people as inferior, scary, or even different- and I suspect many of my white rural classmates had a different perspective offered to them at home. A few years ago I attended a Black History Month expo in Sparta, organized by my friend Louvenia Gardenhire, and couldn’t help noticing that half the audience was black and half was white, and I noticed that the majority of whites I recognized were “townfolk.” This is not to say the townfolk weren’t prejudiced, I just think it was a smaller percentage and more subtly presented. When I was a teenager in the mid-80s one my biggest influences was an elderly black man in the Bluff City area who had been childhood friends with my maternal grandfather. I used to sit and talk with him for hours, and I learned a lot.

None of that, however, answers the question asked of me by Professor Cha-Jua. When was the first time I really, really saw and understood the significance of race? The answer lay, not in personal experience, but on television.

It was 1980, and I was not quite twelve years old. The family was gathered around the set –I believe we were watching 60 Minutes, but it may have been a similar news anthology program. The program did a piece on Emmett Till, who had been murdered twenty-five years before.

If you are not familiar with the case of Emmett Till, he was an African American teenager from Chicago. In 1955 he visited relatives in the Mississippi Delta. Accounts vary, but the 14-year-old Emmett –unversed in “proper” behavior for blacks in the 1950s South –managed to offend a 21-year-old married white woman. Some reports were that he whistled, others that he called her baby, others that he put an arm around her waist and asked her for a date using “lewd” language. Whatever it was he did, it offended the woman and her relatives; Till was later abducted from his great-uncle’s house, taken to a barn in the next county, beaten and tortured, and murdered. His body was dumped in the Tallahatchie River. His mother insisted on an open casket; photos of his terribly disfigured body, and details of his death, were in newspapers all around the country, leading many Americans to reflect on the racial problems of Mississippi and the country in general. Despite an abundance of evidence, an all-white jury acquitted the two accused murderers.

I watched the 1980 news segment in horror. The infamous open casket photo was shown; relatives of Till were interviewed, and I remember one woman –I assume it was his mother but am not certain now –broke down in sobs. I was overwhelmed. I quickly ran and locked myself in the bathroom because I didn’t want anyone to see me cry, and held in the deep, painful sobs that welled up from my soul. I prayed, silently, fervently and desperately: Why, God? How could the world be such a place –how could people do something like that, because of the color of someone’s skin? I prayed that the Lord would help me understand. And I prayed, with all the sincerity of an 11-year-old, that He would somehow let me do something someday –even if it were only a little something –to help improve that world, to help set those balances straight. It was not until I thought back, while working on Cha-Jua’s essay, that I realized how profoundly those moments affected me.

Concern for racial justice became an ingrained part of who I was. A few years later, when I was in high school and looking for a church to attend (my family was not religious at the time), one of the things that attracted me most to Jehovah’s Witnesses (a religion I would join as a teen and leave when I was in my late 20s) was the racial harmony I saw at their meetings –this when I was from a town where churches self-segregated. Once, when I was 18 or so, I heard a sermon about “Freedom as the Children of God” in which the speaker pointed out that many people thought they were free, but were not. That set me to thinking about freedom- what it is, where it’s found –and (history nerd that I was) I was reminded of how the slaves were freed after the Civil War, yet both the Reconstruction South and the industrial North were not really havens of freedom for them. I decided I wanted to write a book someday –not about slavery, but about freedom. First, though, I spent several years in the full-time ministry. Two of those years I worked exclusively with Haitian immigrants (this was the late 80s, and unrest in Haiti brought a large number of Haitians to America –looking for freedom.) The first year was spent in South Florida, and the second was in New York City. I was living and working at Bethel, the Witnesses’ world headquarters, while serving and preaching in a French-speaking congregation comprised almost wholly of Haitians (La Congregation Francaise Centrale de Brooklyn.) It was while I was there, going door to door in Bedford-Stuy and Crown Heights, that I had another epiphany about race.

There was a lot of racial unrest in Brooklyn in the late 80s and early 90s –ever hear of the Crown Heights riot, or see the film Do the Right Thing? When I was working in those neighborhoods, I was often the minority. On many occasions, angry black people called me names, swore at me, threw glass bottles at me, and on two occasions threatened to kill me… because I was white. It hurt, terribly. I was trying to be a good person. I was trying to help people. I hated racism with every fiber of my being. And yet, there were people who despised me and threatened me –because just from looking at my skin, they thought they knew who I was. It was so unfair. It burned like nothing I had ever experienced. And then, one day, something dawned on me. If I wanted to avoid such treatment, all I had to do was leave that neighborhood and go –almost anywhere in the country. The unfairness would melt away, and I would once more be treated like a person. But if I had been born black instead of white, there would be nowhere I could go in the entire United States where I could completely escape that horrible feeling. And all of a sudden –even though I could never fully understand –I understood better. A few years later, I did write that book about the meaning of freedom: Bound for the Promise-Land. It won Western Writers of America’s Spur Award, and was complimented by many who read it for its verisimilitude. The truth is this: when I wrote that book, the story of a former slave who spends his whole life looking for peace and trying to understand freedom, and tried to put myself in that character’s place, all I had to do was call up the memory of the feelings I had on that day in Brooklyn when people were throwing glass bottles at me from their cars as they drove by. And I had an inkling of how my character felt, and of how the bottle throwers felt.

Flash forward now to the past few years. While at grad school I worked for awhile, as part of a teaching fellowship, at the University High School. Every year a group of those Uni High kids take a weeklong trip to Clarksdale, Mississippi to work for Habitat for Humanity there. That is a noble goal in itself, but the experience involves much more than just that. The teachers –particularly Dr. William Sutton –make the whole thing an educational experience, spending the evenings after a hard day’s work discussing race and class issues with the kids, most of whom are from privileged middle class homes in Illinois, and to whom the poverty and even the history of the rural Mississippi Delta are so foreign as to be virtually incomprehensible. I have accompanied my friend Bill Sutton on many of those trips now, both with student and church groups, and Clarksdale almost seems like a second home to me –it feels more like home, to a Southerner such as myself, than Champaign, Illinois ever could. I have discovered that my own background of poverty has helped me be able to present fresh perspectives to those students, and some have told me they were encouraged by my words to aspire to lives of greater public service. Those are some of the most wonderful words I have ever heard in my life.

On the last such trip, this past spring, I realized something. I was at the Habitat dorm, at a singalong with the young college students from my church group and several of my Clarksdale friends, and a couple of the songs we sang were old Civil Rights standby’s: “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” and “We Shall Not Be Moved.” It dawned on me while singing those songs that I was only a few miles away from the spot where Emmett Till was murdered in 1955. In a way, I had come full-circle… and along the way, maybe, just maybe I have done a little something to make a difference. I keep trying.

And that’s why race matters to me.

In a week or so I’ll talk about class. Right now I better get back to work on that almost-finished dissertation before I get grounded. It’s about race, by the way.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day

I promise I'll write about something other than "Days" again eventually but this one is close to my heart not because I have experienced it myself but because I have so many friends that have and because I have seen those losses handled so poorly by the Christian community.

We live in a time when we know very early on, sometimes even before our cycles stop, that we are pregnant. This new knowledge comes with a downside in that we also know where perhaps we might not have before that that "late period" is actually a very EARLY pregnancy loss. I am on a message board GCM for Christian mommies and "Cradled in our Wombs" is a very active forum there, unfortunately so is "Empty Arms". Over the decade I've been on GCM I've celebrated many BFP's (big fat positive test results) only to have to turn around and grieve the loss of those babies. It is constantly in my awareness. For most of us though its not...we have have no idea how many of our friends hold their breath until that magical second trimester is reached before sharing their news with the world. Or how many of them grieve quietly and alone because that little one will never be. Even when these moms do speak of their grief they find it too often dismissed because it was "just a miscarriage"...ask nearly any mom who has experienced one if the dismissive little four letter word "just" ever belongs in the same sentence as the word "miscarriage".

I have a very close friend who has lost 11 children prior to their birth. Unless you know her very well you would never know that about her. I am honored to be one of the ones that not only knows but knows all their names. This time of year is especially hard for her because over half of her losses happened around this time. Four of them happened just two weeks before my own daughter's I am always aware...always...that she should have quads just months younger than my daughter. She came to my house directly from the doctor the day she lost the quads. We cried together and she stayed with me until her husband could come and get her. I remember standing at the sink, my hand resting on my hugely pregnant belly, and crying and asking God "WHY?" Yet as close as we are I had somehow never understood, never realized, that losing a 16 week pregnancy isn't passing some tissue...its birthing a perfectly formed tiny person too small to survive outside the womb. Times four. And because it's a 16 week pregnancy rather than a 21 week pregnancy, it's "just" a miscarriage. No birth/death certificates, no burial, nothing except painful memories to prove that those children ever lived. And a wall of silence where there should be others to mourn with those who mourn.

Thankfully there are now days like today...and websites like silent griefor miscarriage support and for later term miscarriages/losses where memorial photography is a possibility there is now I lay Me down to sleep. But still there is too much silent grief and I for one am grateful for days like today where those who have experienced a loss can speak it aloud and be supported in their grief. So I am posting today for all my friends and family who are grieving and I'm remembering with them today if I know of their losses. Hugs and prayers to you all.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

National Coming Out Day

October 11th is National Coming Out Day. Today as part of that observance my daughter and I participated in a March for Gay Rights in Memphis. It was an historic event in this city. Never before has the GLBT community and their straight allies come together in these numbers to protest and to demand equality. And make no mistake Christian IS about equality.

Most of us in the straight Christian world have no idea what life in the GLBT community is like. We don't get what it is to be a minority, despite our incessant whining about how persecuted we are because people want to wish us "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas". We don't comprehend what it is like to live in fear day after day in our places of employment. We don't contend with hatred day in and day out simply because of who we love. We don't have to consider anything other than age of consent when the issue of whether we're legally able to marry comes up. No, that's not even right...the issue of whether or not we're legally able to marry simply doesn't come up. Its just a given. So much of what we take for granted is denied our GLBT brothers and sisters.

March organizer Michael Hlidebrand told WMC news "Nobody knows you can be fired for being gay. They don't know about all of the rights we don't have that straight people have." And we don't and worse we don't care. We stick so dogmatically to the one note song that being Gay is a sin that we cannot hear the chorus of voices around us asking, "So what? Even if it is what does that have to do with denying us our HUMAN rights?"

Because I believe that marrying the person you love is a HUMAN right. I believe that the ability to live openly without fear is a HUMAN right. I believe that the ability to be who you are at your place of employment is a HUMAN right. For so long we've followed the hateful, hate-filled rhetoric of the so called "Religious Right" that we have swallowed the lie that the "Gay Agenda" is pushing for "Special Rights". It is simply not true. Our GLBT brothers and sisters want and deserve the same rights that we in the straight community take for granted as our birthright.

Today I am "Coming Out" and standing alongside my GLBT brothers and sisters and saying: Enough!

WHAT do we want?
What do we WANT?
What do WE want?

Separate is NOT equal and HATE is NOT a Family Value.

I am a straight ally and I love my GLBT brothers and sisters. Equality NOW!

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Happy Blog-iversary!

One year ago today this blog was born as a place where I and my friends could ramble about issues of life and faith.

It has been a crazy year for me. In May my house was one of hundreds (thousands?) across the state of Tennessee to be damaged in the flooding. I've been kind of consumed with recovering from that ever since. When I started this blog I was still a member of a Methodist Mega-Church (MMC for short) and I was struggling with the decision of "do I stay or do I go"...the flooding brought me, unexpectedly, the answer to that question. The response of the congregation and pastoral staff at FBC Memphis to a family who were "just visitors" brought into startling contrast the way things were done at the big MMC. By Memorial Day, four weeks post flood, we had moved our membership and we have spent the last several months making our home at FBC. It was the right decision for so very many reasons. I am thankful for this community every day. It has created a safe space to BE an Unconventional Christian unlike my experience in the MMC.

I am blessed to have such an awesome group of co-authors. I gain insight each time one of them posts and I'm glad that the rest of the blogosphere gets to share that experience with me. I am hoping to add a couple of new co-authors in year two so stay tuned! Thanks for joining us this year and Happy Blog-iversary!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Let's Talk About Growing Up Bullied

This is not an easy post for me to write but I am inspired by Dan's courage over at Single Dad Laughing and I am accepting his challenge to use our voices and tell our stories. I'm hoping my co-authors here will do so as well. I know parts of the story of at least one of them and I know he has something very valuable to offer to the conversation.

I tend to minimize what happened to me as a child, I think most of us who were bullied do this in order to survive, but I have come to believe that we are doing our children a disservice by continuing to edit our stories now that we have made it through to the other side.

I was SIX when it started. I look at photographs of that little girl and I realize now that the words that were thrown at her had no bearing in reality. But when you're six and your peers are telling you that you're fat, you're going to believe them. And I did. I remember vividly being taunted and I recall at least one physical assault, the other girl grabbing me by the collar and skirttail of my brownie uniform and throwing me bodily across the playground.

I am fairly sure that was when I came home and told my mother I wanted to do weight watchers for the first time. I was SIX. I remember choking down a required weekly meal of liver and trying desperately not to throw it back up, so badly did I want to be "normal". I was SIX. Decades of yo-yo dieting and disordered eating find their origins in that year. I was SIX. Six year old should not be counting slices of bread and servings of fruit for anything other than math problems.

It ebbed and flowed, getting better some years and far worse others. I had a bit of a reprieve with a change of schools in 4th through 6th grade but in seventh grade in our small rural county all the elementary schools merged into the single middle school and my old tormentors were right there waiting for me to arrive. I remember laughing to keep from crying when my nicknames in band included such things as "Two Ton Terri with the No Ton Tits" (nothing like being both overweight AND flat chested) which mercifully was often shortened to the initials TTTwiththeNTT so at least my peers outside the bandroom didn't know what that meant. Until now.

I am done laughing. Those words hurt more than any of the boys who spoke them will ever know. Or perhaps they will. Some of them are on my friends list on facebook. If you find your way here know that even as I tell the world what you did to me, I forgive you. This is not about you. This is about speaking my truth to the world and hoping that it will prevent some other young girl from hating herself, some other young boy from deciding life is just not worth the pain.

It is hard to write this. Harder still to know that some of the worst, most hurtful things, took place at church. Yes even God's house was no escape. I will be forever grateful to Pastor James Lee who found me crying in the stairwell that day and who had the courage to share with me his own story of being a bullied child. Who told me I was beautiful and who held out the confident hope that somewhere out in my future there was a boy growing up to manhood who would see that beauty. Who told me that it did get better and who did so from a position of authority as one who had been there and survived to tell the tale.

To those of you who are in the trenches being gets better. Life is NOT high school. Thank God! It gets better and life is worth hanging on for. Living well truly IS the best revenge.

I love my life. I love who I have become. I did find that man Jim Lee told me was out here waiting for me and he does find me beautiful. Yet even without that, I find me beautiful. I love me just the way a I am. I am a person of worth and value and I know that about myself now, despite the best efforts of the bullies in my life to convince me otherwise.

I'm no longer a huge fan of CCM but Hold Fast by Mercy Me is one of those songs that speaks to me. It reminds me of the reality that there IS HOPE. It Gets Better.

I'm inviting my readers and my co-authors to share their stories here. It is important that we speak our truth. It is critical that our children know that it DOES get better. Please. Your story may be the one that a hurting child needs to come across and identify with to gather the courage to face one more day.

If you have stumbled across this blog and you're living the hell of being bullied and are wondering if its worth it...there is help. Organizations like Cindy Lauper's True Colors Project and groups like the Trevor Project focus on GLBT youth while To Write Love On Her Arms exist to help anyone who is struggling with suicidal thoughts, addictions, cutting and so on.

You are a unique and unrepeatable miracle of God. Don't let the bullies convince you otherwise. There is life on the other side and it is worth it.

Friday, October 1, 2010

How Many Before We Say "ENOUGH! "?

This week the news has been buzzing with accounts of the completed suicides of four gay or gay perceived teens. How many more of our children have to die like this before we stand up to our own prejudices and say ENOUGH!? The suicide rate among GLBT teens has long been known to be at least four times the rate among their straight counterparts but this fact has been not only dismissed but twisted by those with a right wing agenda to illustrate their belief that being suicidal is part and parcel of being GLBT. It is not. This is one place in the GLBT world where straight allies can make such a huge difference. Be supportive. Be willing to stand up when others use hateful, hurtful words and to step in when violence is being committed against ANYONE. Be willing to confront the bigotry and ignorance and in doing so bear the burdens of our GLBT brothers and sisters as Christ would have us to do.

And another thing...stop holding up the myth that being bullied builds character. I have heard this countless times in regards to homeschooling my daughter...that by doing so I am sheltering her from having to deal with the reality of bullies. Newsflash! Bullies exist outside the walls of brick and mortar schools. The mythology that surviving bullying is somehow uniquely character building is part of what enables this nonsense to continue. It completely negates the negative impact, the long term scars, that even "survivors" bear. It totally marginalizes the experience of these kids that are telling us, with their last desperate acts, that YES WORDS CAN HURT ME!

Bullying is NEVER ok. It is never a positive thing. That it has been allowed to be spun as such makes it particularly insidious when trying to have it taken seriously as a problem. Asher Brown's parents tried in vain to get help for their son. Seth Walsh transferred into independent study to escape it but the damage had been done. Billy Lucas was actually told by his bullies to "go hang himself" and was suspended for fighting back. The hate and hurtful words actually followed him beyond the grave when a memorial page set up in his memory was bombardedwith homophobic messages. These children and others like them who are being bullied about their weight, or their looks, or their IQ, or whatever their "differences" may be are suffering. They may be suffering in silence or their pleas for help may be falling on deaf ears that believe that bullying is just a normal childhood rite of passage and "kids will be kids". We MUST listen. We must hear what is being said and what is NOT being said and we MUST teach our children better than this.

We must start with our own beliefs and biases. We must make, in the words of AA, a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves and be sure that the words our children a hurling at each other are not the ones they are hearing from their parents and their religious or political leaders. We must open our mouths when those role models say something horrific and not let that stand.

We must stop this.



Sunday, September 26, 2010

Different Books, Common Word

Today I attended an event that I am sure I will be pondering for a long time to come. My new church, First Baptist Church - Memphis, hosted a screening of the documentary Different Books, Common Word followed by a panel discussion between our pastor and a Baptist laywoman who has lived 14 years in the Middle East and two local Imams. It was powerful. 250 Muslims and Christians gathered together in one room to explore our common beliefs and to try and begin to understand our differences. So many things about this event blew my paradigm to pieces.

I find myself pondering how much of my own ignorance about Islam is a result of an American patriotism that makes exploring/studying their holy scriptures somehow seem disloyal. After all I have read, without fear, The Book of Mormon, the Jewish scriptures in my own Bible (and some of the Talmud), the writings of Confucius, even bits of The Satanic Bible (authored by Anton LaVey) so what has kept me from exploring the Qur'an for myself if not a misplaced sense of American patriotism?

For most of my adulthood "the enemy" has been defined for me as "Islamic Terrorists" just as for most of my childhood "the enemy" was defined as "the Communists" and just as I did not explore the writings of Marx and Lenin until I was an adult and they were no longer the "script" for the things I had been taught to fear so I have not explored the Qur'an to see for myself what it says. I know a lot of things I have been told are in the Qur'an. I know a lot of things I have been lead to believe about Islam and the supposed desire of all devoted Muslims to see me convert or die. I don't know, for myself, whether any of what I have been told or taught is true.

One of the statements today that struck me and prompted this line of thinking was when one of the Imams in the video remarked something to the effect of he would not disrespect Christianity by attempting to speak to what the Bible says because it is not his holy book yet Christians feel free to speak what they believe the Qur'an to say even though it is not our holy book. I'm probably butchering the quote but the concept was that we feel very free to make claims about what Islam believes and teaches when we are not students of Islam and do not study the Qur'an...a book that even Muslims often have a tough time understanding.

Another comment that was made was about the rush to judgment that occurs when a terrorist attack happens. The example used was the Oklahoma City bombings where within moments of the attack a so called expert on terrorism made the claim on national television that it had all the hallmarks of "Islamic Terrorism"...and where the perpetrator was ultimately found to be a White American veteran who had received the Bronze Star during the first gulf war. A man who, prior to the bombings, would have been rightly regarded as "an American Hero".

I am sure that there will be more I will be processing here as I view the DVD again (I purchased it and would love to screen it with my churchkids over the Christmas break) for now though I am on a mission to read the Qur'an for myself and to find out what it really says and where our Different Books offer that Common Word.