Thursday, December 18, 2014

TREC Response: Lessons from the Episcopal Service Corps

I’ve gone back and forth on whether I wanted in on this Ready 5 Blogforce. I did force myself through the report. I enjoyed the introduction; and the shout out to Acts 8 & the Episcopal Service Corps made my day. But by page 7 my eyes glazed over. The following resolutions felt like they were written in vague terms that I assumed had a hidden meaning. I wondered if I had somehow missed the “secret church language” course at confirmation. After reading Crusty Old Dean’s report I realized that I wasn’t missing anything, the resolutions were just that vague.

Sitting on this for the past couple of days, watching as insights from across the blogosphere have poured in I’ve found myself asking:

What is the link between the goals and ideals that were so beautifully articulated in the introduction and the practical day to day restructuring we will be doing in the coming years?

While I’m still lost on the technical side of things I’d like to offer some thoughts from my experience with St. Hilda’s House and the Lawrence House Service Corps.

11)      Everyone* is needed in the conversation. 
              One of the best parts of the Episcopal Service Corps (ESC) is you never know who you are going to be living with. ESC interns are functionally forced into diversity as you quickly learn how different people are when you live together. More importantly you learn the value of every voice. The people who’ve taught me the most are often the ones I’d set out to avoid, but couldn’t.
         For us to grow we will need to seek and listen to the voices that have been silenced in our communities. Because listening is uncomfortable we may want to look at structural systems that facilitate the Spirit pushing us out of our comfort zone.
         I’ve seen that push working within my experiences with racial injustice. As a white kid from Kansas race wasn’t even on my radar when I joined the ESC. Through my work in a New Haven Soup Kitchen I began to develop an academic awareness that there were “issues” out there to be addressed. Then at Lawrence House one of my housemates invited me to share her pain. All of sudden race wasn’t a political or social issue to be theorized about. I’ve come to watch the news through the light of my friend, whom I love, and who is hearing over and over again that she shouldn’t exist. Through her I’ve come to see the Gospel  anew as we traveled from Western MA to join Millions March in NYC, stopped traffic with the students at Mount Holyoke College, and born witness to the God given strength of people who refuse to be silenced. It is her voice, along with others, that is teaching me to hear God more clearly.

22)      Intersections, Intersections, Intersections: EVERYTHING Connects
A pattern I’ve noticed in the church is one of division. Activities are divided by gender, age, and topic. Missions are often hyper-focused on one aspect. But when you live within a community of people who all do social justice work intersectionality becomes far less of a theory and more of a daily exchange.
The populations we serve overlap ALL THE TIME. Threads of homelessness, mental illness, addiction, incarceration, and hunger weave a tapestry of suffering that we often tug at uselessly. If we as a church keep pulling at one thread hoping it will be “THE” thread to make the stifling fabric disintegrate, we’ll be pulling for a quite a while.
In community we have to let things coexist. We dwell at the intersections, living with and working beside people who are often isolated, pushed to one service or another. As we focus on our specific tasks of our worksites we constantly look for ways we can interface with each other. Even when our work doesn’t coincide through conversation we are able to pull back and see the larger picture, taking note of change even when it feels microscopic.

3)      Check-in’s: The Beauty of Shared Meals
                I cannot begin to put words on the value of sharing a meal with other people. The simple act of listening, of caring about their good and bad days changes ones’ perception of the world. The more I share with my housemates the more I feel the resolutions we are seeking won’t come from “magic pill” legislation or perfectly worded theories but from heartfelt conversations and sharing each other’s lives.
                 So many of the ills we battle through our work are rooted in distance. Those with oney cannot comprehend what it is like to go without, those who've never dealt with the mental health system have no idea what it is like to be dehumanized when you are most vulnerable and those from different races and political background can exist in their own segregated worlds.
                 Yet at the table this falls away. No longer are we able to isolate the identities we don't understand. With the breaking of break the breaking of bodies becomes something more than an abstract crime; it is a direct attack on the heart of who we are. Bound by the food we share and the revelations casually revealed as the salt is passed we are transformed within ourselves and among each other. This transformation is so powerful that through it we carry an enhanced awareness of God's vitality in each person out to the rest of the world.

44)      No Topic Is Off Limits
My worksite this year is campus ministry for the Five Colleges. On an average day this means I set up a table, cover it with a rainbow flag, a sign that says (W)Holy Queer, ask a question and wait to see who shows up.
What I’ve learned from this is that young adults are craving real conversation. They want to talk about the queer dynamics of a heterosexual mixed-race couple and explore what the incarnation means for trans bodies that are so often labeled “monstrous”. They come to me, with deep, meaningful spiritual reflections that they’ve been told don’t belong at church.
The worst part is their fear is justified. While I am blessed with an amazing community that is willing to delve into the depths of depression, engaging animatedly about what a holy relationship looks like, and love me when I am told my gender is invalid; many people don’t have that. I’ve had several painful encounters in the Episcopal Church where my zeal to allow God into the darkest parts of my life has been met with a wall and a reminder that “churches don’t look like that”.
If we are to live into the resurrected Christ we need to accept that God is dwelling in the topics that are not “church appropriate”.  We need to be open to the spontaneous conversations which challenge us, and to embrace the topics which scare us.

Overall I am excited and hopeful for the future of the church. While the TREC report didn’t live up to the expectations, the responses have. The thoughtful conversations I’ve watched unfold through this blogforce scramble, the fire I see burning in my housemates and the permission to question that is bubbling up are all brimming with potential.

Almighty God, in whom all things are one, as we draw closer to the remembrance of your nativity may we remember that you who merged heaven and earth in the person of Christ are the same God who will be present with your church, no matter what it looks like. Give us ears to hear your love, and lips to proclaim your praise. May we find joy in your timeless future, even as we embrace the grief of change. Amen.

*) Despite the best of intentions there is a big asterisk on participation in ESC programs due to economic concerns. Interns live on personal stipends of around $150/mo. Without support from families or savings interns who come from lower socio-economic situations either don’t have access to ESC programs or need to work on top of full-time positions at worksites and the demands of intentional community.  Correcting this discrepancy of economic privilege should be a part of the ongoing conversation on how formal systems can facilitate active ministry.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Striped Naked: Called to Vulnerability

The following pieces of writing both stemmed from a prompt at a writing workshop. I've left them sit untended for a while, uncertain about how I felt going public with the immense vulnerability that they are rooted in. After an extremely painful conversation today where I was reminded that many people see my gender as a curiosity, a lack of self-understanding or something to be frightened of I decided I did not want to hold back any longer. 

To live into the gift God gave me in my gender I have been asked to accept the responsibilities of a marked life. I am invisible in much of mass media, and often struggle to find representations of others who share my gender experiences. At the same time I am highly visible, and a simple request to be addressed by the correct pronouns is often derailed into detailed questions about my hair and voice, my history, or even if I have had surgery. The worst part is no matter how well I explain, how open I am, I am still rejected, objectified and erased on a daily basis.

There are no easy solutions, no instant answers. For tonight I'm not even going to try. All I can offer is a peak into the window, a glimpse of what that burden feels like, as once again I've been cast out into the night. 

When I am naked I feel…
            This question is wrong because it focuses on the end. Naked is a state, a destination, the end. But the journey is what is important, where the feeling begins. The end means nothing if it never begins
            Naked in a crowd, stripped down to my deepest parts, no secrets left, you’ve torn all from me. Every shred of privacy is gone, no clothing remains, no tattered fabric to shield my dignity. I consented to this torture, this daily routine. The erasure of self-worth, to reclaim what might have been. I let you do this day by day. Taking away my freedom, in the hope that I might be someday.
            I answer your questions, comment on your forms. I repeat again and again the secrets I’ve born. My scars are a story, as is my life. Told so often, that I no longer can claim them. The feelings are gone, worn down by the stares. Yes I repeat, I was really there. I lived in hospitals, the streets and alone. I’ve been chased out of bathrooms, churches and home.
            These stories were clothing, that wrapped me tight. Now you have taken them, along with the light. Darkness closes in, wrapping my frame. I’m naked again, and again and again. Will I ever be like you? Free to stay dressed? My story my own and not your quest? I’m not an activist, a hero or a saint. I’m a person whose shivering from giving all I have left.
            I held nothing back, sold all as demanded. So I stand before you naked and spent.
But this isn’t the journey I’ve wanted to take. To become a display, a model, a saint. I just wanted a chance to explore this gift.
To lay down the lies.
 Shedding the fabric of illusion that we might embrace what it written. 
I want to take off my clothes myself for a change. I want to see you as naked as me, not as a punishment, but a gift. I want us to embrace, to come together. To let the boundary fall. To see ourselves as ourselves and to delight in being naked together.
            But I stand at the door, my clothing rent.
You stand in front of me, clothed and aware. Can’t you see what it’s like at the mercy of the air?
Don’t you feel awkward, secure in yourself, stripping me again and again to satisfy your curiosity, yourself?

Clothed in Love
            Standing naked in the cold, the door blown open wide,
            I have nowhere left to run, nowhere to hide.
Shivering & shaking as hope grows dim
            I dare to ask myself what might have been.

            I chose this path, this stripping routine
            To invent the self that I hoped could be seen.
            Fatigue settles over me, one final try.
            Is it almost over? Can I be set free to die?

            No, a voice whispers, close and aware
            Don’t fall victim to Babel’s despair.
            Be clothed in my love, I’ll hold you tight
            Shielding you, my dear, from the dangers of the night.

            A thin fabric winds its way around
            The force of eons held in its bonds.

            Invisible and sheer, I’m still exposed
            But Love is the answer that blunts all your blows.

            All the trips and careless words.
            The countless times my pronouns go unheard.

            I feel them crash in,
            Their power strangling the might have been.

            Yet I cling to this love,
            To this skin that binds

            Myself to myself
            Freed from prying eyes.

            I can share without fear
            Answer any question

            For wrapped in your love
            There is no hesitation

            I’m clothed and I’m nude.
            The boundary is broken.
            Stripped naked again
            But never forsaken.

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Blazing Butterfly Saga Part 1: Origin Story (Acts8 BLOGFORCE)

 This is a fitting time to open the caverns of memory and begin the tale of how I became the person of faith I am today. You see, this Wednesday, November 19th is golden anniversary of my baptism.
Me, November 19, 1995

I was raised in a conservative evangelical church and heard the message that baptism equaled salvation for my entire conscious life. Even as a precocious six year old I knew I needed to be baptized. So I asked, and asked and kept asking until the youth pastor agreed to baptize me. A tiny girl in a dress came forward, and upon being asked “Amanda, do you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God”; I answered with a loud “YES”, eliciting chuckles from the congregation. A reading from Acts followed, with another short homily, providing time for me to change. Then we headed out again, my head barely visible above the foliage that decorated the baptistery. A quick splash, and bang, instant Christian.

Or so I thought. In fact I kept believing this was it throughout most of my childhood. I spent my summers at VBS and church camp, amazed the AWANA’s leaders, was a card carrying member of the 66 club and competed in Bible Bowl.

By high school I was about as “Christian” as you could get, fully indoctrinated into the fundamentalist ideal. For example I once got in trouble in zoology for arguing against evolution. Not only was I a Christian, but I was THAT Christian, the one you didn’t want to sit next to for any length of time.

Summer 2012
For all I appeared to belong with that church, as I hit my teen years I began to have questions, and began to realize the answers I was being given where  on the cheesy side (another example: 1 cross + 3 nails =4given was considered adequate for theological reflection). At the same time my youth group gradually became the source of the most painful peer-pressure, feminization & the purity culture. Warned repeatedly about the evils of sex & sexuality I didn’t learn what “gay” meant until college. Worse my withdrawn tomboyish tendencies were seen as my fault, a failure to be the good Christian girl I was supposed to be. 

Christ in Youth, 2012

All these influences culminated at the 2012 Christ in Youth Conference. In order to help me “fit in” better the youth group girls decided to give me a makeover. My hair was straightened, my face painted and I was told to wear the one dress I had brought with me. As we walked to the evening worship service I was aware of an intense discomfort, like everyone was staring at me.

Then the first song started to play, and I found myself seeing a woman dressed in armor standing in a field. I heard, well it would be more accurate to say felt, the following words within my bones. “You have a battle to fight, but I have chosen you and I love you.” The intensity of the contact, the fullness of love and belonging were foreign to me, and I was scared.

I asked one of the youth pastors for help that night and was told that I was demon possessed. If I just prayed harder the demons would go away and I’d be able to be normal. 

Actual Sign in KS
That was the day I left Christianity, turned my back on the church and accepted that I was going to go to hell if such a place existed. The years flew by, I dropped out of high school, got my GED and started college all before turning seventeen. At college the counseling center directed me to the campus Gay Straight Alliance. There my world was finally opened to the possibility that I could exist. This group also taught me a new form of hatred, an unquestionable belief that Christians were the reason we could be fired, denied health care and being kept away from our families. In all fairness, this assessment of Christianity in Kansas wasn’t entirely flawed. Christian signs and symbols are everywhere, proclaiming a message of hate. 

Eventually I realized that I was transgender, and began to transition in earnest. As I grew into the young man I needed to be at that time I found myself embracing a new confidence. I began to smile more, to enjoy getting up in the morning. As I settled into this new identity, as Andrew manifested his realness, I found myself freed to reexamine some of my abandoned questions. Around Christmas 2011 I realized this included faith. I went to church on Christmas that year because I missed the carols. As I was going back to the church I had grown up in I planned for two contingencies. A)I would be accepted as a stranger as no one would realize that I was the same person as Amanda or B) They would be furious at me for showing up and I need to have my arguments on why I could be transgender & Christian ready to go.

What actually happened was option C. No one said anything to me. I felt disjointed and out of place, sitting in the back, watching people I had grown up with move past me as though I were a ghost. Then the music started, and I found it reaching me in a way that the people couldn’t. Keep looking something inside me whispered. As we closed with Silent Night I felt a longing that I couldn't explain, yet still couldn't avoid.

So “see if I can tolerate Christians” made its way into my New Year’s resolutions. By this point I was active as a transgender educator on my campus, routinely taught workshops that explained exactly why tolerance was insufficient to offer another human being. Still, tolerance was the best I could muster for this unspecified “enemy”.

In early January I set out to make good on this resolution. I’d chosen the one church in town that had sexual orientation included on it's website, a family sized Episcopal parish I’d heard mentioned as friendly several times at work. Reluctantly I pushed my way past the bright red doors and found a seat in the back row and tried to look invisible as I wasn't sure I even belonged here.

Thelo! Mission Trip May 2012
Invisibility failed, I was quickly approached by someone who realized I was unfamiliar with the service. She welcomed me fully, showed me how to use the prayer book, and whispered instructions about communion. The sermon could have been written for me specifically, it’s exploration of the life-long nature of baptism fed the little girl I’d spent years running away from. In the midst of that Eucharist I found myself being held by something that I had thought was behind me.

 Over time tolerance evaporated, edged out by respect and love for these people who dared to show me that I could fully exist. For the first times I heard that the eager childlike faith I’d tried to abandon was completely compatible with my queerness. I found this was a church I could be, grow and find myself transformed.

Thus began my journey, the first steps towards coming home.

Tune in next week for EPISODE TWO: CATECHISM, CONFIRMATION & THE FORMATION OF A SUPERHERO (or something like that!)

TL;DR, Superhero Synopsis:

Strange forces surrounded Andrew Amanda from their earliest spark of existence. This young hero has undergone a gut-wrenching transformation in the depths of hate and despair. Brainwashed as a child, exiled as a teen, they have recently broken forth into new life. Meet the eager faith of childhood, watch as it is cruelly twisted into a mockery of religion before being dissolved in the acid of ignorance. Watch as the brave hero-to-be battles the forces of hatred and fanaticism within two communities. Will they make it to the shelter of the fortress guarded by the bright red doors? Can they survive the pressures of this world pushing them to conform? Welcome to the first installment of the BLAZING BUTTERFLY SAGA!