UCC General Synod Resolution 8 and the Need for Church to not Mimic the World’s Polarization

What do progressive faith metaphors of a wide open table and a tent for everyone actually mean? If we take that call seriously, who are we compelled to let in and how does that break the “purity” of progressivism we often like to maintain?

Church, Bench, Wood, Sunbeams, Religion, Christianity

As a delegate to this year’s General Synod of the United Church of Christ, I experienced this tension the moment I read Resolution 8 (note that this is the post-committee version. See the red strikes for the original language or the original text here). Immediately, it placed me in a difficult spot between my confidence in UCC values and the need for Church to protect and affirm my personhood. Yet the resolution didn’t sit right with me and here’s why:

  • One of the UCC’s core values is autonomy of the local church. This means that the UCC church in your town is not forced to align with whatever stances the wider church takes at General Synod. For example, if General Synod passes a resolution calling for an end to mass incarceration, individual churches are not then required to pour resources, energy, etc. into that specific cause. Likewise, General Synod may affirm that LGBTQ people are made in the image of God and are not sinners by virtue of our love or gender, but this does not require every single church to be open and affirming.
  • Despite the very real tension and frustration this model creates, I believe it’s best to let churches and organizations within the denomination to adopt certain social justice stances or ideologies naturally rather than being forced with the threat of losing affiliation.
  • This does mean our resolutions lack teeth. But the alternative is a hierarchical model present in other denominations. However, it also means that the UCC makes space for a range of views on a range of issues because the communion table isn’t limited to only those who think the right way about the right things.
  • This is why 1/3 of UCC congregations are open and affirming, and why only 1/3 of UCC congregations are open and affirming.

Rainbow, Different Fabrics, Colourful, Colorful, Splash

I value this setup. So reading Resolution 8, unsettled me. It directly targeted a tiny faction within the church (around 80-100 congregations) and established a precedent that any group presenting itself in the national setting of the UCC couldn’t dissent from General Synod resolutions. That would work great for me in this case with this specific group, but what if a historically underrepresented group in the UCC didn’t affirm LGBTQ personhood and civil rights? Would that group then be banned from having a display in the exhibit hall? And what would that say about the UCC not allowing that group a space to organize interested members? It gets messy quickly.

What concerned me most about this resolution wasn’t the content, but the context. Once I learned how this resolution came about, I couldn’t support it. The authors of the resolution had no dialogue with the Open and Affirming Coalition of the UCC (ONA) when creating it. While it certainly isn’t a requirement to get input from movements within the church that would have interest in the issue a resolution speaks to, it should be a common sense course of action to simply ask. It seems to me, based on what I’ve heard from ONA leaders, conservative church leaders, and the proponents of the resolution, that no dialogue occurred. ONA wasn’t involved and certainly neither was Faithful and Welcoming Churches (FWC).

In the days leading up to General Synod, I was engaged in direct conversation with ONA Coalition leaders who outlined concerns about the negative impact that this resolution could have on the Coalition’s work. Those views and concerns are found here. Note that this statement was published before the committee did its work in changing the language as you see in the resolution I linked above. FWC’s response is here.

Furthermore, the whereas clauses of the resolution missed some context when quoting content from FWC’s website. I learned this from my direct conversations with ONA leaders who have been in dialogue with FWC. Basically, the language about encouraging churches to change their bylaws to not allow calling LGBTQ ministers was given as an emergency solution to prevent an exodus of churches from the denomination back in 2005 when the marriage equality resolution passed. At that time, FWC formed and was trying to convince churches to stay in the UCC. These bylaw changes, along with withholding contributions to Our Church’s Wider Mission (OCWM, which funds denominational operations), were given as actions that dissenting churches could take. Again, this all goes back to autonomy of the local church. I live in tension with that.

Church, Orthodox, Religion, Architecture, Christianity

As for why that language was still on FWC’s website long after the moment of its relevancy passed, well, the explanation I got is that FWC is a small organization that rarely maintains its website and once this resolution came about, they removed that content. Make of that what you will. Personally, I want to trust the ONA leaders who told me that they believe FWC when they say that language no longer had any relevance and should’ve been removed long ago. Additionally, despite my very existence being a point of disagreement for FWC, I have had experiences with their leadership that have led me to view them as reflective people who do not organize around harm or exclusion of LGBTQ people from the denomination. Rather, they seem more focused on having their little corner and reminding people that not everyone in the UCC must be progressive in order to be part of the church.

They are conservatives who want to be in communion with a progressive denomination. They want conversation and they value it. I simply don’t see this phenomenon in the secular world. The president of FWC shared a story when he spoke to my caucus one morning during General Synod. He said a mother had come up to him worried that her son was gay. She asked him what she should do and his first response was “Your job is to love your son and make sure he knows this doesn’t change your relationship with him.” He then told us that 10-12 years ago, that wouldn’t have been his response, and he attributed his own transformation in thought to his relationship with ONA and the wider UCC.

I can be at peace with the culture he aims to foster among his group, as he encourages the type of response he gave to that woman. He could very well be shifting even more conservative folks away from much more sinister responses. I also believe he strives for authenticity within his own moral and ideological framework, which is more than I can say for the current U.S. president and the legion of “evangelicals” in the Republican party.

At that caucus meeting, I had the opportunity to ask the FWC president how he believed the churches in his group as well as other conservative congregations in the UCC would respond if this resolution were to pass. He expressed concern that the more ideologically rigid conservatives would double down on their views and that some congregations would certainly leave the church, cutting off whatever dialogue and progress was made. That tracks with what I heard from ONA leadership.

Mountain Church, Kaiserstuhl, Church, Architecture

I wonder if the authors of the resolution would have gotten any of this context from FWC’s side or been able to work with ONA’s concerns if they had asked questions of these groups first rather than crafting this resolution so independently–to the point where ONA leadership only found out by coincidence of attending the Michigan Conference that it even existed. I truly wonder why they never sought ONA’s input, even if they ultimately came to disagree. Frankly, I think it’s irresponsible to stir things and go around groups working on a justice matter without talking to them first. All it took from my friend and I was a simple email asking questions because as delegates, we wanted to understand everything we could about this issue. ONA leadership was very responsive to our questions.

There was so much context to this seemingly simple (from a progressive standpoint) resolution that I took every opportunity I had during General Synod to make sure my delegation understood it all, because you get none of this from just reading the text. I wanted every voting person I talked to for more than five minutes to have the same information I had, and at the same time I extended spiritual support to ONA leaders who had been dealing with the stress of this for several months. Just talking about it over and over across the span of a few days became exhausting–I can’t imagine the toll it took on ONA leaders.

So, the committee assigned to Resolution 8 did its work and brought the revised text I linked at the beginning of this post to the voting floor with a recommendation to reject. Debate still happened and I had my one-minute remarks ready to give. Needless to say, my anxiety acted up.

The deliberations were painful. The nature of plenary debate is that you either speak at a microphone marked in support of a resolution or in opposition. This setup made it appear that LGBTQ folks were fighting among ourselves–that those of us who were against the resolution were also, by proxy, not listening to the youth–that “the youth” had a monolithic opinion and experience of FWC. Being under 30, I’m a “youth” by the church’s standards. A couple teenagers also spoke at an opposing microphone. What does the denomination’s tendency to tokenize “the youth” make of that?

The debate carried over into our plenary session the next morning where the first action was a motion to table the resolution and call on the UCC Board of Directors to create a behavioral covenant for the exhibit hall booths, which currently does not exist. I supported this decision and thought it was the best outcome we could’ve had. My anxiety levels sharply declined once it passed, even though I was entirely prepared to speak.

Church, Building, Mood, Black, Simple, Iceland

So, here is my one minute, given with all of this background I’ve written that I couldn’t possibly have expressed at the microphone anyway.

As someone in the LGBTQ community, I agree on paper with every word of this resolution. But I support rejecting it because based on my experience with conservative group leaders in the UCC and leaders of the ONA Coalition, I do not believe this particular group is a threat. I believe their dialogue with progressives in the church has transformed them and us, and will continue to do so as long as they are at the table. It is because of graceful engagement that there are over 1500 ONA churches in the UCC. But I do not see this resolution as graceful engagement. I worry that it tells all groups within the church that they can’t be present in the national setting if they dissent on resolutions. We are called to imbue our progressivism with the grace of Jesus that our wider culture rarely affords. UCC stands for “United Church of Christ,” not “United Church of Cancel Culture.” I will continue to guide everyone I know toward only those church that are fully affirming while keeping my peace with the existence of these conservative churches.

And indeed, LGBTQ people and allies should only go to UCC churches that are officially open and affirming if there is one in your area. And FWC must look at the fruit their ideology bears–pain, suffering, exclusion–and ask if it really reflects the love of God. A theology that can be abused, as FWC has admitted and attempted to distance itself from, should be critically examined. Are such beliefs worth having?

And ONA needs to feel more like a movement with history and elders that are here for this generation and less like a reunion of folks who were pioneers in their time but have lost connection with those coming up after them. I don’t know if the teens who spoke and cried at the microphone now see the Coalition as a group they could join or get support from. That saddens me because the Coalition formed in the 70s and existed through the AIDS crisis and has a lot of history to be passed down. At the same time, it’s a strong movement that young people should be excited to get to know.

And the UCC Board of Directors, who is now charged with creating this behavioral covenant, absolutely must have the dialogues that were not had when this resolution was created. I know at General Synod that they already began listening. I urge them to continue to seek input from every corner of the denomination because not all queer experience is monolithic and not all conservative experience is monolithic. There are pressing questions that need deep discernment:

  • If the UCC gets money from groups paying for table space in the exhibit hall, should it be okay to receive funds from an organization that limits full participation and validity of specific types of people in the life of some congregations?
  • If we’re going to invoke the story of Jesus chasing the money-changers from outside of the temple, should we even have an exhibit hall at all?
  • What does every ONA church need to do to ensure that it means what it says when it comes to being ONA?
  • How would a behavioral covenant limit or change the way groups call attention to their booths?

Lines, Rainbow Colors, Spectrum, Color, Colorful

This is only the beginning and it’s only a summation of my experience. I’m not the only one with a complex, nuanced story around this issue and I also won’t be the person getting all mad about it but then never communicating with the national setting of the church. I urge the UCC Board to receive everything I’ve said here and to continue receiving.

As for the rest of us, we have to actually communicate.

 

Reclaiming By Erasing: A Guest Post By Lest I Know Your Weakness Author Taylor Ramage

LGBTQ Reads

Please welcome author Taylor Ramage to the site today to talk about erasure and her recently released poetry collection, Lest I Know Your Weakness. Before we get into the post, here’s a note from the author on the book’s actual crafting:

I made this poetry collection by taking words, phrases, and letters from the 1872 novella Carmilla and reorganizing them into poems. That’s what erasure or blackout poetry is in a nutshell–transforming the content of an existing text into something new.
Although Carmilla does have undeniable lesbian representation, it was still written in 1872 by a white man and has a tragic ending like we’ve seen on some mainstream TV shows that kill off their wlw characters. But creating erasure poetry from this old text allows Laura and Carmilla’s narrative to be reclaimed and redeemed, even though it’s certainly still angsty. It’s another form of adaptation, much like the…

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From 2018 to 2019

I can hardly believe that I’ve had this blog for almost 10 years. Naturally, I’ve grown and changed a lot in that time and, as you might infer from my long hiatus, I’ve been focusing on changes in other aspects of my life. Simply put, I just don’t have the time or energy anymore to write those long pop culture analysis pieces that I used to post here pretty regularly. I have a few drafts sitting in my folder, but I look at them and think “Who really cares? Why am I spending my time on this instead of my fiction, which is where I want to take my career anyway?” Between that, my day job, maintaining a healthy, active life style, and life in general, my creative energy simply must go into my fiction.

I’m proud of the articles I’ve written over the years, even the cringey ones from early on. I won’t delete them, but I’ve closed comments on them. I greatly appreciate those of you who have said kind words about my thoughts, given me new angles to think of, and even took the time to send me a nice email with your compliments or a description of how my work has impacted you. It means a great deal to me to know that something I wrote had a positive impact on someone’s life. Nonfiction to me was always a platform-building tool–a way to simply get work out there and make connections.

But I’m ready to use this space more consistently to focus on my own creative output and works that directly inspire that output. I may post WIP updates or reflect on different writing techniques I’m trying or works I come across that in some way speak to my own work. I’m not entirely sure. Most certainly, I’ll be using this space for updates about upcoming published work (keep an eye out ;D).

This isn’t to say I’ll never return to the sort of nonfiction analysis that largely populates this blog. If something intrigues me so much that I feel the need to pick it apart with words, I’ll absolutely do so! In fact, I have an idea for such a post brewing now. But I can no longer attempt to do that with every piece of media I consume and I do want to connect those writings more with how they inspire me or relate to my creativity. So I need a bit of closure between my old posts here and new posts to come. As I said before, my old work isn’t going anywhere, but my way forward is a different direction.

Thanks to all of you that have followed me over the years and enjoyed my writing thus far. Your support means a lot to me and I hope you’ll stick with me as I open up more about who I am as an artist.

Happy 2019!

Anorexia/Nervosa: 10 Years Later

In high school and college, I had a tight circle of friends that gushed about Christian hardcore music. These bands weren’t the contemporary praise and worship groups we heard in church. They screamed, they had odd vocal styles, and they spun some of the most creative and disturbing lyrics I’d yet heard in religious music. To this day, I cite these bands as major influences in my college years and now I take a look back at the first album that exposed me to this world: Showbread’s Anorexia/Nervosa.

Anorexia/Nervosa is a double album. It tells the stories of two sisters who manufacture their own depravity and then experience salvation. Anorexia’s aim in life is to build a tower to reach the sky. Nervosa’s is to dig a hole deep into the earth.

Each CD’s lyric insert booklet contains a story that you read along while listening to the music. Both stories are largely metaphorical, but there are flashes of real-world accounts aligned with most songs. For Anorexia, it’s her tireless work clamoring for the spotlight in creating a nonprofit children’s hospital. For Nervosa, it’s working at a strip club/slaughter house.

The booklets contain time stamps for each track directing you when to read each part of the story as you listen. The full experience of these albums is jarring, disturbing, uplifting, and still intensely emotional after all these years.

Anorexia hit me hardest when I first got into Showbread, and it still has the same effect. I cried ten years ago and I cried again when I re-experienced the album more recently. In her real-world story, Anorexia is doing this supposedly selfless thing by opening a nonprofit for children, but the entire time she only cares about the acclamation she’ll receive for doing such great work. She overexerts herself building this legacy that will surpass all the crap in the world. When children die, she espouses a Calvinist “only some of us are chosen to thrive” mentality, so her sense of her own greatness overpowers the compassion she should have in those moments. Anorexia finally gets the legacy she wants when a child stabs her with an infected needle and she contracts a deadly disease. She’s dying, but church buildings and streets will be named after her.

anorexiavid1
From “The Pig” (Anorexia)

The tie to the metaphorical story about building a tower is clear–it’s all about creating something larger than herself to be elevated above the rest of the world and last well beyond her. The part that cuts me each time is when Anorexia believes she has finally finished her tower only to look over the edge and find that she is barely an inch above ground. The real-world story also ends at this point, with Anorexia relishing in the promise of a movie made about her life.

The metaphorical story continues, however, and Anorexia is carried away from her so-called tower by a small Lamb, who dies from the burden of removing her from her own mess. The Lamb is obvious symbolism for Christ, and not only does his work completely restore Anorexia, but it also reunites her with her sister. It’s quite a happy ending for such an intense story.

Anorexia speaks to a very deep part of myself that on one hand wants to build a legacy but on the other hand is terrified of becoming too prideful. When I first experienced this album in 2008, it was one year after a spiritual crisis I endured in China the summer before where my pride came crashing down. It was painful and one result was that I physically destroyed several notebooks full of an epic story I had been writing because, in my theology at the time, I had made it a false idol.

So Anorexia really resonates with me and I want her to be totally alive and saved at the end of her story because that is just such a powerful tale of redemption. Yet now another reading has presented itself to me.

I now see a strong interplay between the real-world story about starting the children’s hospital and the metaphorical story about building a tower such that Anorexia may very well die in body, but live in spirit. This is not nearly as optimistic as I had once seen this story, and if I’m honest it has discolored the sense of joy I once had when reaching the end of this album. I used to think that both Anorexia and Nervosa are bodily saved in the end of their stories, but I now I’m not 100% certain that that’s the true outcome. It may well be that the Lamb meets Anorexia in her metaphorical story to carry her to heaven/safety as she dies physically.

Nervosa begins her story wanting to discover everything within the depths of the earth so that she might feel something. So, she begins digging a hole in her metaphorical story and in her real-world story, she works as a stripper despite admonishment from her sister. She projects an air of excitement, but we quickly see that her behavior spawns from a deep sense of emptiness. The tracks on Nervosa have the same titles as those on Anorexia, but the lyrics and music are different. Nervosa even meets the same characters Anorexia does, but has vastly different interactions, some of which are sexual assault.

nervosavid2
From “The Pig” (Nervosa)

 

Unlike Anorexia, Nervosa’s default perception of herself is that she is lacking. The chorus of this album’s first track says, “Yeah, I am the empty, empty. Yeah, I am the nothing in me.” In the real-world story, she doesn’t seem to be as aware of her sense of lacking, and has a mindset of “why try being perfect? I’m gonna have fun and experience the world instead.” Metaphorically, she wants the adventure of digging and can’t believe there might be horrible things deep in the earth unless she experiences them first-hand. She also compares herself to Anorexia. This is evident in the song lyrics on the third track, “you are the queen of clean; I am the world’s trash” and the story text where she looks at the sky and sees her opportunity to be something wonderful fade away.

“…something inside Nervosa wilted, and she relinquished any hope of the sky or even a life outside of the hole she was digging.”

Over the course of her real-world story, Nervosa takes a new job at a particularly disturbing strip club with a transparent dance floor that allows patrons to view animal slaughter that occurs on the bottom floor.

“The next night I’m dancing and when I look down over my body I can see the death and it looks good.”

It’s in this job that Nervosa hits her lowest point. She becomes pregnant after a rich patron assaults her and then she gets an unsafe, back alley abortion. The real-world story ends there with ambiguity about whether she survives the procedure unharmed. There isn’t as much of a sense that she might be dead as there is with Anorexia, but it’s still a possibility.

The metaphorical story continues graphically with Nervosa nearly rotting in dirt and darkness before the Lamb appears to carry her to the surface, out of the dirt, away from the hole, and back to her sister.

nervosavid3
From “The Pig” (Nervosa)

Whether Anorexia and Nervosa die is ambiguous enough that you can come away with multiple readings, and that’s part of the unsettling nature of these albums. Regardless, each story has a few hopeful threads woven in the narratives and the music. One is the intermissions. Musically, these tracks are soft and melodic, a stark contrast to the heavy screaming in every other song. In the narratives, these are pauses in the chaos where “the Lamb knocks.” God meekly and quietly attempts to cut through the noise of the sisters’ self-destruction. We hear this clearly as listeners, but Anorexia and Nervosa don’t. They only notice the Lamb when they are on the verge of “death.”

Additionally, the music often weaves in “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross” as a refrain that signifies both the helplessness Anorexia and Nervosa reach at their lowest points and the salvation they ultimately experience. Now that I’m in a high church tradition, the presence of this classic hymn has a deeper significance to me.

The juxtaposition of graphic imagery and God’s presence in these albums is still refreshing to me now because they were my first exposure to an expression of God and Christianity that truly meets us in the depravity of the human existence.


My blackout poetry collection, Forgive Us Our Trespasses is available as a paperback and an ebook! The poems explore faith, doubt, lament, and hope. Check it out and discover why readers have called it “pithy,” “insightful,” “visually stunning,” and “emotionally challenging.” Be sure to add the book to your Goodreads list and leave a review when you’re finished!

The City of God is Made of Intersections: Reflections on the ONA Coalition Gathering and General Synod

Intersectionality is growing as the preferred approach to unpack identity and justice. I heard the Church discuss this term much more than I expected during the Open and Affirming Coalition gathering and General Synod.

The United Church of Christ’s Open and Affirming (ONA) movement is celebrating 45 years of diligent work to change the Church from a hostile space for queer people to an affirming space. Currently, 1,400 UCC churches are officially open and affirming.

Every year, the Coalition holds a national gathering and this year it happened in the days before General Synod. Through personal connections and powerful workshops, Coalition ended up being more transformative than I expected.

New friends made the experience richer with shared meals, long conversations, and local beers. I had volunteered to help at the gathering and didn’t expect to do much more than work, but I ended up experiencing much of the programming, much of the relationship-building that is still ongoing.

Aside from that, I found space and permission during Coalition to more publicly own my latina identity and to feel less ashamed of my broken Spanish. I didn’t expect Coalition to meet me at that level either.

Perhaps the most powerful meeting of all my identities in my own House of worship was the presentation of a quilt depicting the 49 victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. I heard the story of the woman who weaved it with heavy details that I don’t think I have the right to relay, yet they revealed and confirmed to me that to be latinx is to feel deeply.

The names and faces aren’t clear in this picture, but some of the signatories included friends, family, and leaders such as Hillary Clinton.

That quilt is now in the Smithsonian. But it was presented at Coalition on its way there. Know that many of the victims were Puerto Rican (as am I). Know that some of them were not out to their families. Know that some of their parents refused to claim their bodies.

On the last day of Coalition, I read the benediction in my broken Spanish, and I relished in thinking of the Church as a place for me to be imperfectly bilingual, because I’m so used to slipping comfortably into white, American culture.

The meeting of my intersections continued at General Synod, where one night I accidentally ended up at dinner with a segment of the United Church of Christ with an opposing philosophy to Open and Affirming.

It began innocently enough. I roomed with an older lady who needed some help getting around. She spoke like Lorna Morello and was a minister like Sister Ingalis. She often got her details confused, so when she invited me to dinner one night with “these very nice people” she’d had lunch with, I agreed.

I had known this conservative faction of the UCC existed–Faithful and Welcoming Churches, they’re called, or ECOTs (evangelical, conservative, orthodox, traditional)–but I never intentionally sought them out. However, the day before this accidental meal, I had genuinely wondered aloud to some friends why such a group is even in a denomination as progressive as the UCC (especially in the national setting of the church) when they could easily have more of a voice and more community among those who agreed with them in more conservative denominations.

I didn’t actually expect an answer to that question.

Yet I walked in to that private dining room in the restaurant wearing a Kill la Kill shirt and pronoun buttons on my sleeves (English and Spanish). I introduced myself in an impeccable two minute blurb where I named my conference, my association, my church, its ONA status, and its three main ministries.

“Do you know who we are?” the gentleman hosting the dinner asked me from across the table, his face serene.

“An ecumenical group?” I said, repeating what my older!Morello roommate had told me.

“We are Faithful and Welcoming Churches, and we formed in response to ONA.”

Cue a mixture of nerves and divine humor settling in me, as well as a quick blessing that poise, diplomacy, and reserve are my defense mechanisms in uncomfortable situations.

Yet overall, the dinner wasn’t nearly as terrible as it could’ve been. In fact, it was oddly comforting revisiting my evangelical roots for a couple hours. Of course, only the people around that table heard of my alma mater and even knew several key figures associated with it (Shane Claiborne, Tony Campolo).

Despite the fact that I would never feel wholly welcome in any of their churches, this group made sure I clearly understood that I was invited to eat with them and that they were paying for my meal. As we waited for our food, they each spoke for a couple minutes about why they’re in the UCC, answering the very question I had asked the previous day and had considered rhetorical.

Most of the people around the table stay with the UCC because it is their denominational home, or they strongly believe in social justice in most other spheres (though they cannot extend their ideology to affirmation for every marginalized group). Some were welcomed in the UCC whereas in other denominations, they had no voice.

I listened, because despite how much I say when I write anything of any sort, I’m a good listener. I get a feel for any new group I’m in before participating in the conversation. I chose to see their intersections rather than whittle them down to an ideology that, at best, doesn’t know what to do with me in the church and, at worst, would rather I change before being among them. It’s harder to view a person as mere rhetoric when you’re looking them in the face and hearing their voice. I’d like to think they experienced this, too.

And I told them so, though not in those exact words. Surely, we were all blessed because only God could make such a meeting an occasion of radical hospitality. Anyone in the UCC or anyone who calls themselves a Christian at all ought to be theologically, mentally, and emotionally prepared to practice radical hospitality in spite of and because of our intersections. The presence of conservatives in the UCC tells me that this church is serious about its progressivism. I am not confident that a more conservative denomination would allow its progressive churches voice in the national setting or give them a table at its gathering. If progressivism means a wider inclusion, then when I am face to face with people who may not see my intersections at all or consider them valid streets, I prepare myself nonetheless to take communion with them at the church on the corner. Yet I cannot do this perfectly this side of the eschaton, for if a bigot comes at me in the street with a torch and a clenched fist, I will either run or block and land a finger strike to the eyes. How far can I extend this ideal to those who have lost any semblance of their humanity?

Some may find my position weak or coddling, but the dogmatic progressive and conservative ideology I see all over social media would have us become ever more siloed and fearful. This doesn’t mean we have to willingly associate with those who harm us, but it does mean that we receive the bread and the cup together and attempt, albeit imperfectly, to live out their implications.

Additionally, I have held for several years now that some white people will only listen to other white people discuss racism, some men will only listen to other men discuss sexism, some straight people will only listen to other straight people discuss homophobia, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. It shouldn’t be this way because theoretically we should all listen to each community itself, but that is not the reality. So likewise, there are some conservatives who would only listen to other conservatives talk about a church like the UCC. For the people around that dinner table discussed how remaining in the UCC has caused them to reflect and change in positive ways (their words, not merely my interpretation).

All of this said, I now more strongly encourage LGBTQ people to make sure a church is officially ONA (or any equivalent in other denominations) before visiting or deciding to join. At the very least, ensure that your prospective church is not Faithful and Welcoming (here is a list of such churches). You should be able to bring all of who you are to Jesus and do so safely or else you won’t grow.

The UCC cannot and should not force every local church to be as progressive as it is in the national setting. This is, at times, frustrating and means that marginalized groups still have to exercise some extra caution when looking for a church. But believe me when I say that there are affirming churches out there and being part of one has spiritually enriched me in ways I never would’ve imagined.

One of those ways is the stark imagery that Rev. Traci Blackmon provided in her sermons during both Coalition and General Synod. At Coalition, she preached about Paul’s shipwreck and our movements for justice. So long as we stay on the ship together, we will make it to the other side. The ship may not, but we will. At Synod, she preached about wheelbarrows, tying the imagery to a performer in the early 1900s who crossed a tightrope over Niagra Falls. He would ask volunteers from the audience if he could carry them across the water and they’d say he was crazy, but he’d always make it. Once, he asked a volunteer to get in a wheelbarrow and he’d push the wheelbarrow across the tightrope over the falls. This is the connection Rev. Blackmon made to Jesus, and since her election as the Executive Minister of Justice and Witness Ministries at General Synod, Rev. Blackmon has been living into this in a big way. She was arrested for protesting the GOP healthcare bill, and as of this writing has become a strong voice on the front lines of the Charlottesville aftermath, for white supremacy has no place among the people of Christ.

Lastly, I’ll mention a few resolutions that passed at Synod. I’ve already written about boycotting Wendy’s, but the UCC took a stance on several other justice issues at General Synod.

The UCC has much more to say about so many other issues. Like everything else in this world, it will never be perfect this side of the eschaton, but this church makes me proud–this community makes me proud. In so many spheres in so many sectors of society, we do work that attempts to make the gospel good news for everyone.

This display at General Synod served as a backdrop for honoring the youth of Standing Rock.

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

-Micah 6:8 (NRSV)

4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
5 God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
6 The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
7 The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah

-Psalm 46:4-7 (NRSV)

 

My Church’s Witness: United Church of Christ Joins #BoycottWendys Movement

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Every two years, the United Church of Christ gathers for General Synod, where church members from all over the country come together to worship, learn, complete acts of service and sometimes civil disobedience, and vote on resolutions concerning social justice issues and the church’s operations.

This year was my second General Synod and my first time as a delegate, meaning I had voting power when resolutions came to the floor. Delegates are assigned to committees that discuss and change resolutions during General Synod, then vote to recommend the resolution to the voting floor or not.

I served on the committee for the resolution “Affirming the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Boycott of Wendy’s,” which ultimately passed on the Synod floor. I haven’t seen much buzz about this issue, so I’m writing about it now.

Step one of our committee work involved attending an educational intensive where we heard from a subject matter expert (SME) who gave us background and insight about the conditions farm workers face and why we’re being asked to participate in the boycott. Here’s a quick summary of the SME’s presentation:

  • The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is an organization based in Florida consisting of farm workers and growers. Over the past decade, it has pushed multinational companies to join the Fair Food Program, which ensures fair wages and human rights protections for farm workers.
  • This group’s work has been successful. Due to their efforts, including a past boycott of Taco Bell that the UCC endorsed, companies like McDonald’s, Sam’s Club, and Burger King have joined the Fair Food Program.
  • Wendy’s has been the holdout despite efforts to convince them to join this program.
  • This concerns the CIW because, historically, Wendy’s has purchased most of its tomatoes from Florida farms. Recently, the company switched its suppliers to farms in Mexico.
  • Working conditions on farms are terrible. Workers are subjected to slavery conditions, sexual abuse, and low wages that have remained stagnant for 20 years.
  • In-depth reporting by the LA Times revealed the working conditions on some Mexican farms and it has been confirmed that some of the farms profiled (e.g. Bioparques de Occidente) grow tomatoes that Wendy’s purchases.
  • The UCC has a long history of advocating for farm workers’ rights, including an instance during General Synod in 1973 when the delegates voted to suspend business for 24 hours to charter a jet to Coachella, California and join protesting farm workers who were facing violence at the time.
  • Wendy’s claims that it has high standards for conduct in all of their suppliers and notes that they have a third-party inspector who visits the farms and ensures that operations match those standards. However, Wendy’s hires that third-party, and as is common in these types of relationships, it’s like that this third-party isn’t telling the whole story in the interest of keeping their client.

Frankly, for a church as progressive as the UCC, this resolution was largely a no-brainer to those of us on the committee. Our two sticking points regarded unintended economic consequences of a boycott, such as less money going to the Dave Thomas Foundation for foster children and culling of minimum wage employees at Wendy’s restaurants. We made an earnest effort to work through these concerns and see if we could add to the resolution to account for them. However, we ultimately found that adding in language to provide exceptions weakened the original resolution. While those of us in the room understood the nuances of the concerns raised, we felt that we couldn’t clearly express that in additional resolved clauses without creating the perception to readers that the church was weakening its call to action.

Of course, these exact concerns came up on the voting floor. A few delegates asked that in supporting this resolution, we also

1) support foster children in our local communities,

2) support a living wage, and

3) remind and encourage Wendy’s employees at all levels to speak with their managers/bosses about why people aren’t purchasing their products.

Personally, I rarely eat fast food to begin with, so I haven’t been eating at Wendy’s anyway. However, simply not purchasing a product doesn’t always clearly convey the message of a boycott. So if you choose to boycott Wendy’s, do so actively. Here are a few action steps:

  • Use #BoycottWendys for any articles or images you share on social media.
  • Stop retweeting and reblogging viral tweets from Wendy’s Twitter, or if you do then let your followers know about this issue. I know their banter is cute, but their corporate practices aren’t.
  • Sign this petition.
  • Write a letter to Wendy’s corporate offices explaining the boycott and asking them to join the Fair Food Program.
  • Donate and stay up to date with the movement.

As far as I can tell, this has fallen off people’s radar since last year. Keep the conversation going and increase the pressure on Wendy’s until they amend their practices.

Antigone in Ferguson

On Saturday 1/21/17, over half a million people gathered in Washington, DC for the Women’s March and hundreds of thousands more gathered in cities across the nation. Several members of my church family went to DC, making it known that whatever version of Christianity that is now in the White House is not in line with the promise of God’s love and justice for all people, all of whom are fearfully and wonderfully made.

I did not make it to the march, but I did go to a performance of Antigone in Ferguson in Baltimore. It was a collaboration between Theater of War productions, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Choir, and local leaders.

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Before the performance, the organizer explained the genesis of the show–how St. Louis embraced the production and claimed this 2,500-year-old play as something relevant that speaks to their experiences today. After all, Antigone is a young woman who wants justice and proper remembrances for her brother that died in war and was painted as an enemy of the State by the new, irrational king who decreed that the body should be left unburied to rot.

Antigone becomes the mothers, daughters, sisters, and all those left behind when a black person is killed by police. Police officers, as enforcers of the law, carry the power of the State behind them and that is one among many reasons why this particular injustice is so hurtful. Michael Brown’s body was unmoved for four hours after he was killed.

Ismene is that well-meaning person who is saddened by the death of her brother, but will follow the law and the decrees of the king, even if that means not giving her brother a proper burial. She urges Antigone to follow the law, but then later when Antigone is receiving her punishment, she wants to be put to death as well as if she had a part in Antigone’s actions. Ismene is the late ally–the one who stays back in the moment and then later wants recognition for something she had no part in. But also, she feels powerless as a woman to defy the law like Antigone does. She fears the consequences.

Creon is the new king who is impulsive and stubborn, making rash decisions and refusing to listen to reason. He is the State and it is his power, his agenda, and his system that results in all the death by the end of the play. He’s the one who makes the law that Antigone’s brother not be buried and that anyone who disobeys this law will be punished. He clings to law at the expense of his humanity and his own family, which he does not realize until it’s too late. Creon is the oppressor who benefits from the system he creates and cannot see the devastation it causes. It’s only when he finally reclaims his humanity and casts himself away from Thebes that the city is freed from his impulsive, irrational ruling (i.e., the system is dismantled).

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The actors sat at a table on stage with a gospel choir behind them that sang the parts of the Chorus. They performed a dramatic reading of Antigone and afterward, four Baltimore community leaders took to the stage to share their immediate impressions of the performance as well as the work that they do for the city. Then, the floor was opened to a community discussion with the audience.

Some were police officers or justice department employees. Some were community advocates and organizers. Some were people of faith. Some were white people trying to navigate themselves through the discomfort that will always comes with these sorts of discussions–when white supremacy, racism, and white anxiety are named and analyzed.

One big difference that I have to note between these conversations in person and the ones on social media is the perceived tone. One of the many reasons why moving your feet is important, as John Lewis said at the Women’s March, is that you get a fuller picture of someone when you look in their face while hearing what they have to say and you hear their tone of voice. Too often, it seems like people are put off by discourse on social media because they’ll read a Twitter thread or Tumblr post by a black person (or any marginalized person) and hear in their head loud, screaming anger or even hatred. I’m certain that if the discussion were typed up word for word and posted on Tumblr or Facebook, some people would read an abrasive, hateful tone into it and may not even realize that that’s how they’re processing the information. That just has never been the tone I’ve heard when going to events like these in person. Passion and conviction? Absolutely. Frankness and sternness about naming realities and experiences that are sometimes uncomfortable to hear about? You bet. But never hatred.

So the feel of the evening was shared discomfort and that’s not a bad thing. It’s a necessary thing. The refrain that stood out to me the most was go into your own communities, your own spheres of influence, and effect the changes to the system because there’s already black community leadership in the cities that is working and getting things done. They are just unseen, unreported, and often face barriers in getting grant money that other non-profits have access to.

Sonja Sohn, an actress from The Wire played Antigone. She also talked about the documentary she’s directing, For the Love of Baltimore. She said that when she first had the idea to make a film shortly after the Baltimore Uprising, she approached a few directors and producers she knew, two of whom were white and all of whom were male. She figured that since they had better connections and more experience, she needed to have one of them direct it. Instead, they all said that she had to do it, that she was the only person who could. Sohn explained that this is the sort of support and empowerment that’s needed–not for men and white people to lead and execute on a black woman’s idea, but for them to be the voices that build up and support what that black woman creates.

It’s not white people’s task to go in and create new structures to save whatever struggling area outside of our community that we come across. Instead, we have to listen to and support the leaders that are already there doing work and do our own work in our own spaces–work, school, church, every community that’s a part of our own daily lives.

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The community discussion largely centered on justice issues, but the performance itself contained some interesting theological themes. With a gospel choir playing the part of the Chorus, the Christianization of ancient Greek culture was more evident. The final song, performed after Creon exiles himself in the wake of his entire family committing suicide, declared, “I am covered by the blood of the Lamb.”

I found the juxtaposition strange at first–a praise song right after this man exiles himself as he’s laden with guilt for his actions? But that’s the classic dramatic narrative of salvation–hitting rock bottom and finally turning to God for redemption. Taken another way, it’s the Chorus of the city singing this song, so they’re praising God after having been liberated of this terrible leader. Yet who was the “lamb” that paved the way for Creon to reclaim his humanity? Antigone, her future husband, and Creon’s wife.

This begs the question, why do the oppressed have to die for the oppressors to realize the error of their ways? It’s a reality that this is what happens, but the outrage and concern for people should come while they’re still alive. The silver lining that fiction and art provides us at least lets us see this dynamic in action without a real person actually dying.

That’s the takeaway and the continuous challenge.