In Public: #Yeson3

Dr. Cornel West says, “Justice is what love looks like in public,” and in our congregation, Laura Ruth and I have been playing on those words in the past few months.  In the past few weeks, though, Dr. West’s words came into sharper focus for me through the Yes on 3 campaign.  A few weeks ago I attended the Transgender Education Day interfaith event at Temple Israel in Boston.  Last night I was at the Congregational Church of Needham at the “Why Yes on 3?” event featuring Sarah McBride, the national press secretary of the Human Rights Campaign.  Over and over again in these weeks, the common thread has been person after person advocating for the right of transpersons to exist in public spaces, free from harassment or harm.

As a queer, femme-identified cisgender (not trans) white female, the vigilance I feel required to exercise in order to move through the world is real, but at least on paper, there are protections in place for me, should (God forbid) harm befall me.  I generally hate using the South as a foil to our sense of Massachusetts as a bastion of liberty (because all the -isms that are so readily apparent in southern states are just as deeply rooted but far less readily visible here), but as a native southerner, these are the experiences that form and inform my passion for the work.  A year and a half ago, when my grandfather died, my newly-out-as-transmasculine partner and I flew to Arkansas.  We rented a car and drove through the hills of Arkansas between my mother’s house and the place where my grandfather’s funeral and burial would be. On our way from the funeral back to my mom’s house, Auggie had to use the restroom.  The winding two-lane highway didn’t offer any bright service stations or even state-sponsored rest stops.  The tiny gas station that was our only option for miles looked straight out of Deliverance.  Auggie didn’t even have to ask if I would go inside with them; we had months earlier, on another visit to Arkansas, had the hard conversation about how to help them feel safe.  On that previous trip, Auggie had felt itchy to move one wintry afternoon, and in the woods of northern Arkansas, Walmart offers a place to go, to wander indoors, to get a snack and try on weird hats.  They went alone to one of the local Walmarts and came home visibly shaken.  They wanted us to make a plan around their safety. To feel safe, Auggie would not be alone in public unless we knew the place was queer-friendly, and they also asked me to accompany them when they needed to use public restrooms (I can only imagine the indignity of feeling that my safety depends on using my partner as a bathroom buddy). Because we’d discussed it months prior, it was already understood when we pulled into the Deliverance gas station that I was the femme and the Arkansan, and I wasn’t leaving their side. The gruff men inside glared from beneath their caps as we walked in.  Auggie used the restroom, and we (well, I—at Auggie’s request) bought some kitschy souvenirs and tried, unsuccessfully, to make small talk.  The whole thing was uneventful, except for my heart in my throat.  I could not wait to get back to the car, back to my parents’ house, and back to Boston.

Over time, through many conversations with my partner and through all the choices we make for safety’s sake when spending time in public, I have learned how much legal protections impact my anxiety level…which means I can only imagine the difference it makes for transfolx.  Unfortunately, I’ve also learned how my cis-femme fears only exacerbate the worries of my trans partner, the one who actually moves through the world in a masculine-of-center body.  When we vacationed in North Carolina, the first state to pass a so-called “bathroom bill,” it was a place where I knew transphobia had been legislated, not to mention it was a southern state with which I was not familiar and where I had no family or friends.  That vacation was a different kind of visit to the south than going to the town where I grew up, where we usually spend much of our time in public surrounded by family. The NC laws caused us a lot of anxiety during our stay. If Auggie used the bathroom that corresponds to the “sex” listed on their driver’s license, which is the law, is that going to be unsafe for them if it looks like a guy is going into the women’s room behind a dad’s young daughter? Or, does Auggie “pass” enough to justify using the men’s room? Would that be safer or would that be less safe?  And if they use the men’s room, how long do I wait before I panic?  Our vacation was dotted with moments like this—where are we, do we see other visibly queer couples, do we see a rainbow flag or a confederate flag, how safe is Auggie, how safe are we?

In Massachusetts, it’s not that trans persons don’t have to consider which bathroom to use, or which healthcare provider to work with, or which spaces will be welcoming.  No matter where a trans person lives, the second they leave their home, the thousands of choices cis people make without flinching can become big deals.  The current law protects trans persons, so that they can make decisions knowing they are protected.  They can’t be kicked off the T, or ejected from a locker room, or discriminated against at the doctor.  This law doesn’t inherently change the minds of people who think either a) trans people are predators or b) predators will use transness to prey on innocent people—neither of which have proven true since the law was passed, by the way (and a cursory Google search can point you to many surveys and studies indicating that transpersons are more likely than cispersons to be victims of harassment in restrooms)—but it does change the experience of a world that was once unwelcoming.  Possibilities open before one’s eyes: freedom of movement, to go to the gym, to ride the T, to choose a bathroom that feels comfortable, to receive competent and respectful medical care.  Every time my partner and I leave Massachusetts, my hypervigilance goes through the roof, adversely affecting almost every adventure we have.

As the partner of a transperson, Question 3 is deeply personal to me.  As a pastor and an advocate for trans equality, my answer to Question 3 is not just about my partner—it is about my community, my congregation, and most of all, my faith.  It brings to mind the psalmist’s words: “I will both lie down and sleep in peace/for You alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety (Psalm 4:8 NRSV).”  Safety–the heart of the protections bill, the difference between living in fear or living in love.  Opponents of Yes on 3 are not wrong when they say this is an issue of safety, especially for our children; they are wrong about which children are most at risk.  Trans persons in general and trans youth specifically are exponentially more likely to be harassed in public spaces from bathrooms to schools and everywhere in between.  Trans persons in general and trans youth specifically have exponentially higher rates of depression and suicidality.

Other states are watching us, we are told time and again. You know what? I want them to be.  I want them to see the positive impact of legal protections on the quality of life for trans persons with no discernible detriment to public safety and a huge boost to the safety of trans persons.  Scripture says “perfect love casts out fear.”  I want every state in this country to see what it looks like when fear has no place in the ballot box so that love is legislated into justice.  I want everyone watching this ballot initiative to see that We the People are building the beloved community, one person, one community, one state at a time.  I want them to know we are relentless in our pursuit of justice.  Our work is not done until we see and protect the image of God in every person—of every gender, every race, every sexual orientation, every class, and every age—in every state.  We will not rest until every person can lie down in safety in a home, use public transit in safety, use their name and pronouns in school in safety, and yes, use the restroom in safety.  For ourselves and our children, I support #yeson3.

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One Fair Wage

Last week, I was asked by a friend and colleague who works at Restaurant Opportunities Center-Boston to participate in a legislative briefing at the State House.  After hearing her impassioned pitch, Laura Ruth and I agreed that this was a function of our mission to repair the world, and I accepted my friend’s invitation.  So last Tuesday, I was one of several  people to speak about One Fair Wage, a campaign to raise the minimum wage for tipped workers, whose sub-minimum wage in Massachusetts is $3 (plus tips, of course, which vary by restaurant, by location, and even by station within a given restaurant).  Those who spoke on this panel included Saru Jayaraman, author of Behind the Kitchen Door, as well as restauranteurs who pay just wages and a tip worker who beautifully articulated the realities of those whose livelihoods rely on tips.  We heard about the high incidence of poverty among tip workers, the high incidence of sexual harassment in the workplace (by customers and supervisors alike), and how it actually can improve the restaurant economy to pay just wages to every food service worker.  I was asked to speak to the spiritual/moral imperative at stake when we legislate sub-minimum wages.

It was an amazing opportunity to see the intersection of race, class, gender, and justice in this struggle for fair wages for restaurant workers.  My remarks are included below.

(Also of note, the lunch portion of the briefing was catered by The Just Crust, a pizza company in Harvard Square that bought out the Upper Crust franchise in the wake of a wage theft lawsuit.  The Just Crust is celebrating its second birthday tonight, June 30, so if you’re looking for delicious food that also supports just wages for those who serve it, head over and join the party!)

Here is my speech from the panel:

I am one of the pastors of Hope Central Church in Jamaica Plain, a Christian congregation affiliated with the United Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ. Our congregation’s mission is to seek ultimate meaning, to move toward the heart of God, and to repair the world.  So I want to say that my remarks are contextualized by my work as Christian clergy in a congregation that is diverse in many ways, including economically.  I am here today because I believe that One Fair Wage is part of the work of repairing the world.

In faith communities, we look to our holy writings for guidance on questions of morality, and as I have been meditating on what One Fair Wage could mean for our communities, cities, and state, I remembered the words of the prophet Amos: let justice roll down like water and righteousness like an ever flowing stream. In Hebrew scriptures, when we see the words justice and righteousness used together, that was translated in Hebrew communities to mean “care for the poor.”  I was appalled to learn that not only is there is sub-minimum wage, but that wage is so minimal that it effectively requires workers to live on tips–workers actually receive a paycheck that says, “This is not a check,” because their base pay goes immediately to taxes.

Martin Luther King Jr. said injustice everywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, and it follows that indignity to any person or community threatens the dignity of all of us. As a pastor, I follow in the way of Jesus. Food was an integral part of his life and ministry. We tell a story about how he took five loaves of bread and two fish and fed 5,000 people. We tell a story of how one of his last acts was sharing the Passover meal with his disciples, his friends. And yet, in 2015, we legislate a sub-minimum wage such that those whose work is to feed others cannot feed themselves or their families.

What this is ultimately about is human worth and dignity. Jesus was man who befriended tax collectors and prostitutes, those regarded as the lowest and most loathed members of society. When society dehumanized them, he ate with them and talked with them and reflected their worth to them. So I am here today because I believe that One Fair Wage is a justice issue, an opportunity to restore some dignity to the lives of those on the margins of society. We want to believe that in the United States in 2015, we are a bastion of equality, liberty, justice. But we know that gender and race and class and a hundred other factors still leave the playing field uneven. One Fair Wage is an opportunity to even the playing field for single mothers and their children, for immigrants, for people of all races and genders. We who believe in justice, in righteousness, in a better future for our children—we cannot build that future while tipped workers are two and a half times more likely to live in poverty than the rest of the workforce.

I live on the Roxbury/Dorchester line, and I recently asked some of my neighbors of Latin-American and African descent what they would do if they could do anything to create racial justice. They said, they would change the education system, because in our schools they were educated for the purpose of joining the minimum-wage workforce. It is hard for some of us to imagine the expectation that minimum-wage is all we should expect; but it is harder for me to imagine that minimum wage is something to which some people aspire.   You who can inspire and create a future in which no one serves food while going hungry, I encourage you to Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

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Trans* Day of Remembrance

“Let us create humankind in our image and in our likeness.”—Gen. 1:26

Today is Trans* Day of Remembrance. It is a day when we remember those trans*-identified persons who were killed in the past year. We remember that a staggering number of trans* persons attempt suicide each year—in this report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 41% of respondents said they attempted suicide at some point (compared to 1.6% of the general population). It’s a day of collective sorrow, a day when we face the intersection of racism, trans*phobia, misogyny and violence—we must necessarily acknowledge that a large number of those whose names are read today are trans* women of color. It’s a day that makes visible what is often invisible, a day that speaks aloud what often remains silent.

This is also a day when I feel called to say a word in praise and gratitude for all the trans* persons and gender warriors I know.   This is a word to you who have been berated for being in the “wrong” restroom, to you who have made yourselves bigger or smaller for safety’s sake, to you who have escaped violent home situations and to you who maybe haven’t yet been able to find a safe place to land, to you who have had to justify your pronouns again and again. This is me saying, “I see you. I love you. I will do everything in my power to protect your life, your dignity, your humanity, the spark of the Divine that is in you.” I thank God for those whose lives have led me to educate myself so that I can be a better friend and ally, those who have been patient while I unlearned old language in favor of words that make space for a variety of gender identities and expressions, including my own. This education has taught me something new about my friends and about myself, but it has also taught me something of the complexity that is God, the One “Who is Who [They are] Becoming (Exodus 3:14).” God unfolds with and in and through us to continually make all things new—even us—such that there could actually come a day when all genders are recognized and beheld as holy identities.

So I guess this is a word of hope, too. My prayer is that everyday becomes a trans* day of remembrance, that eventually we are so mindful of the inherent worth and dignity of our beloved gender warriors that we are able to celebrate their lives and learn from their experiences in real time rather than needing to take a day to mourn their deaths.

Amen.

*Ever wonder what the asterisk (*) after trans* is all about? This piece by The Q Center in Portland, Oregon, says it better than I could.

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Reflections on the Tragedy in Ferguson

Dear Beloved,

We are called to repair the world, and in recent weeks the world has felt particularly broken. This week, 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot by a police officer in Ferguson, MO—another unarmed young black man killed. The image of outrage coming from Ferguson, of nonviolent protests and policemen armed to the teeth remind us that violence and racism are, sadly, still realities for us and for our children. Since Michael Brown’s death mere days ago, Ezell Ford, 25, was likewise unarmed when police killed him. These deaths are senseless tragedies, the result of entrenched systems of privilege and power. Yet I believe in a God of liberation who called Israel out of slavery and to a land flowing with milk and honey, and I follow Jesus, who resisted violence and stepped between an angry mob and the woman they planned to stone to death. Our tradition is a foundation on which we can stand as we seek to stand in solidarity with the city of Ferguson and people of color who face racism and violence in our own city on a daily basis. Still I find myself echoing the Psalmist: “How long, O God?” How long until no more families grieve the deaths of their children or fear for their children’s safety? And how I can be one who contributes to the repair of the world in the face of such seemingly insurmountable challenges?

I thank God that we are a learning congregation, learning ways to be community across race, class, gender, sexuality, and all the ways we claim our space in the world. We are learning to find the heart of God by speaking the truths of our own hearts, by noticing and naming power dynamics and systems of oppression, by following Christ’s example of nonviolent resistance and truth-telling in hopes that our work will prevent another person’s divine light from being extinguished. One of the things we can do is name those who have been victims of violence; we can learn the stories that humanize them. We mourn, we pray, and we heed President Obama’s call to continue to be in conversation in ways that contribute to healing.

There is an impulse, I think, as a white person, to notice and be sad and sorry, maybe even to feel guilty or complicit, but then to move on. That’s something I’ve noticed in my own life—that issues move me, and then I move onto the next emotionally charged thing. Because I don’t have to worry about walking down the street and being killed for the color of my skin, if I am to be an ally, I must be vigilant in a different way. I must be vigilant about my words and actions, vigilant about stepping back, listening harder, and learning how to not continue to be complicit in racist systems that lead to violence against unarmed men of color. In these days and weeks, I think part of our job is to keep noticing, to keep learning, and to keep naming the injustices we see until they exist no more. What I hope for us is that we will find ways to act, to repair, to be the change we most long to see, to be builders of the beloved community.

Laura Ruth has written a blog about Michael Brown’s death; it’s a beautiful piece. Please click here to have a look at it. If you need anything or want to talk further, please be in touch. I pray peace for you, beloved ones.

Love,
Courtney

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Home for the Holidays

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” John 1:5

When I was three or four, my parents and I played a game, one that spanned two or three Decembers (and one my dad still sometimes likes to recall).  Once our lights were up, each time we drove down our street, as our house came into view, I cried, “Oh, that house is beautiful!  I wonder who lives there!”  My parents would feign ignorance, too, until we pulled in the driveway, and we were all pleasantly surprised to find that this most beautifully decorated house was our house.  Mind you, there was nothing particularly gorgeous about our house, really.  In truth, it probably wasn’t even the best decorated house on the block, but to my young eyes, nothing in the world could be so radiant as the house I called home.

I’m older now, having lived in many houses, dorm rooms, and apartments since then.  Although my dad still lives in that same most radiant house of my childhood, it no longer feels as homey to me as it once did.  I’ve traveled far and wide and have discovered a different, more nuanced sense of home that includes Boston, Arkansas, and all the communities that shape my life.  Nonetheless, each year as the holidays approach, my family begins asking about when I’m coming home.  I book plane tickets and make plans for my dog while I’m away, all the while thinking it ironic that I’m leaving my “normal” life to go “home.”  When I see the lights on my dad’s house, they are lovely, but they are the lights on his house, not my house.

Maybe the holidays are like this for you, too.  Perhaps Christmas is a time when you go back to visit rooms that hold your old trophies and mix tapes, a mausoleum of knick-knacks and baby pictures that tell the story of previous incarnations of you.  Or possibly it is a time when you wish you could get back to your family of origin, but for whatever reason that cannot happen.  The holidays kick up all kinds of nostalgia and all kinds of feelings to go with it; even watching that tired old Christmas movie for the hundredth time can bring up a tidal wave of feelings.  I, for one, can’t watch A Christmas Story or White Christmas without remembering all the Christmases my family and I have spent watching the various movie marathons on TV (and quoting the movies verbatim, of course).

This Advent, we are exploring the theme of worthiness, and we understand our journey to be spiraling toward the heart of God.  In the heart of God, we know our God-given worthiness–that we are worthy of love and belonging, of being liked and of liking others.  It is a journey toward a Light that shines in the darkest night, a light the darkness has never been able to fully overcome.  In the heart of God, we find a deeper sense of home.  It’s not the sense of home I had as a child, where my house was the beautiful beacon in the night.  It’s the more complex sense of home we gain as we grow into our lives, where communities and people and even pets are symbols of “home” for us.  When the places that formed us no longer hold us as they once did, it can feel alienating until we remember that our grown-up understanding of home can travel with us, so that we are at home in ourselves wherever we are.  I pray that no matter where you find yourself this season (and no matter what myriad feelings or experiences the holidays bring you), that you find yourself at home and at peace in the heart of God, the most glorious home on the block.

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Advent

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.”–Isaiah 9:2

I spent my Thanksgiving holiday with friends in Vermont.  With our leftovers barely even cold, we piled into their car to tour the valley where they live, looking at holiday lights.  All over the valley, tiny lights twinkled from houses on the mountainsides, from cozy shop windows, even from trees along the river.  When we returned from our tour, I walked into the field next to their house.  Through the clear, cold night air, I saw more stars than I have since I left the woods of Arkansas…maybe even more than I ever have before.  My friend said, “See that?  That’s the Milky Way.  On clear wintry nights, you can see it with the naked eye.”  I was stunned, mouth agape.  What an amazing view, even more spectacular than the sweetest shop window or bedecked mountain inn.

As I stared and spun, mesmerized by the countless stars I’m usually unable to see in my city life, I thought about how sojourners of all kinds used the stars for navigation (and how if I had used the sun and stars rather than my trusty GPS, I probably never would have made it to my friends’ house in the first place).  Once upon a time, so the story goes, shepherds and magi used the stars to find a child born in a stable.  This is something like what the Advent journey is for me: it begins with feeling small and surrounded by a kind of darkness that is somehow replete with possibility.  Then comes the promise of inbreaking–a Light that punctuates the shadows and guides us in the darkest nights, when the path forward is unclear.  Next we have the joy of saying yes to a complex journey with a simple end: to know our belovedness, to understand that God is well pleased with us, to know that we are deep in the heart of God.  It’s not so different from the shepherds and magi who undertook a journey that began in darkness, following glimmering lights above and Spirit within, and ended with unwed parents and a newborn in a barn.

The heart of God, the place to which we are journeying, is hard to define.  For me, in the topsy-turvy life of faith, it ironically looks like the beginning of the Advent journey.  In a snowy field, spinning below the stars that spin above me, I am both small and expansive.  I see the light, and I want to follow.  Won’t you join me on the journey?

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We Are All Theologians

Once upon a time, in a land far away (okay, modern-day Turkey), a man named Eusebius decided that Christianity needed to rethink what Jesus was.  What does it mean to be fully human and fully divine?  Was he of the same substance as God, or were they just made of similar stuff?  Long story short, a council was called, and the men at the council decided that Jesus and God were the exact same substance.  Not similar.  The exact same.  If you are in a theology or history course in seminary, you will learn everything you never wanted to know about this story, because early Christian controversies show us a history of how our current theologies developed–we inherit them, reject them, modify them.  We are part of a legacy of people who stirred up trouble, who asked seemingly unaskable questions.  These ancestors were doing theology.

At the hospital this summer, I was called to a room where a patient had just died.  I stood with her large, Catholic family, listened to their stories, let them weep.  Eventually, we held hands around her bed.  I prayed some lyrical prayer, giving thanks for the way she will live on in the hearts of those who love her.  It was beautiful, if I do say so myself.  After we prayed, one of the men sidled up to me and said, “But she’s in a better place now, right?”  I had been doing theology in my prayer, but he was doing theology, too.  And his theology was calling mine out; my prayer was beautiful but theologically insufficient for him.  Our theological questions were different from those of the church fathers, and no councils were convened outside that hospital room.  But we continually do theology.

I recently heard one person say to another, “We’re not theologians like she is.”  They were comparing themselves to me, and it’s true, I do consider myself a theologian.  But more than that, I consider you a theologian, too.  Anytime we name what we believe, or anytime we act a certain way because of what we believe, we are theologians.  We are doing theology in one way or another.  If you are not ready to serve the bowl or cup at Communion because you still are working through childhood language of “body” and “blood,” you are doing theology.  If you are working through how you think and feel about confession and assurance of pardon, you are doing theology.  If you are engaging our online Bible study: theology.  If you ground your giving practices to Hope Central or to other religious and/or non-profit organizations in your beliefs about God or humanity or faith: theology.  If you are one of our church’s knitters, it’s theology.  Poetry, music, art–these forms of expression can also be theology.  All theology really is, is an attempt at meaning making or naming what is true for someone in light of Ultimate Things (whatever ultimacy is for the person–God, the Universe, Love, Light, etc.).  We are constantly looking for how to ground what we do in a larger narrative–the narrative of the Church in history or the narrative of Spirit moving in communities across time and space or the narrative of who we are and how we want to live here and now.

Beloved Fellow Theologians, I have to confess I’m dying to hear about what you believe and why.  What moves you?  What challenges you?  What comforts you on your worst days?  In what or whom do you put your faith?  What speaks to you spiritually?  In February, Laura Ruth and I will be co-hosting a small group dinner to discuss these very questions.  In the meantime, if you’re like me and enjoy reading about these kinds of things, here’s what I’ve been reading lately: Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint by Nadia Bolz-Weber, When Spiritual but Religious is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church by Lillian Daniel, and The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Love,
Courtney

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