Comments, criticisms, or (one can hope) compliments are more than welcome! Please let me know what you think, tell me I'm crazy (I suspect this) or what you'd like to hear about. Comments are screened before publication, so if you want to share something with me only, just put that in the comment and I'll keep it to myself.


Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thank You, and Please


 "Thank You, and Please"

I am grateful.  See me give thanks.  I rub against their legs and purr, look into their faces, and thank.  They know when I give thanks.  My thanks are always followed by "please."  I can make them sound alike.  If they won't give me more, I walk away as if satisfied, like my paws, wash my face, and pretend it was a feast.  But I am washing for the next course.  I am ready in case more is coming. My giving thanks may be rewarded.  I will give thanks, even if nothing more comes.  A cat can be grateful.  But they have been good to me; they will be good to me again.  "Thank you" and "more please."  I am their cat.  They are mine.  I am thankful.  I expect more.

From Cat Psalms: Prayers My Cats Have Taught Me by Herbert Brokering, 2003

The Christians and the Pagans

Clement - Bishop of Rome (100)

St. Anne's Morrisania
Photo by Chesley Kennedy
This past weekend, a handful of us journeyed northward at (for me) a crazy-early hour for a Saturday, to St. Anne's Episcopal Church in the Morrisania section of the Bronx.   The church is well over 100 years old, and -- as the name and suggests -- was the home and is now the resting place of Lewis Morris, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and his half-brother Gouverneur Morris, who is credited with writing its preamble.

Today the church's ample property is literally an oasis.  Surrounded by low-rise apartments and bodegas, the lumbering hill peppered with trees and ancient gravestones is one of the few green places for neighborhood kids to play.  The Mott Haven section of the Bronx is one of the nation's poorest, although it has enjoyed a significant drop in crime in recent decades.  The church's website speaks of the success of its after-school program, and the sprawling building was alive with activity for much of the day we were there.

The purpose of our visit was a workshop for congregations more seeking to be more welcoming of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people who might come in seeking a spiritual home.  As part of the Believe Out Loud program, The OASIS and Integrity are trying to encourage all area churches to learn about LGBT people's "issues" with the church and how to be sure everyone feels safe and included.

St. Anne's Morrisania
Photo by Chesley Kennedy
The turnout began with two panels of people from various backgrounds speaking about their faith journey and how they came to be involved in this work.  Being in an urban setting, some of these were not the same stories we hear in the suburbs.  We heard from both a mentor and a graduate of "The Church," a Saturday night outreach program for LGBT youth, many of them homeless or otherwise at-risk, who congregate in the West Village. This program offers workshops in art and dance, as well as access to health care and social workers, and a hot meal coordinated by a professional chef.  For many of them, being "out" in their families or neighborhoods is simply not an option for reasons of their actual safety.  The same day we were meeting, there was a rally and march in protest of recent gang-related violence in another part of the Bronx.  The brutal attack against a local man and two teenagers, which has been ruled an anti-gay bias crime, was yet another reminder that we were a long, long way from Christopher Street and the relative safety we take for granted.  Its organizer was another of our speakers:  Dirk McCall is the director of the Bronx Community Pride Center, which provides myriad services and activities for the region.

Then, on Monday night, I joined some local friends at the 20th Annual Pagan Thanksgiving, held this year at Halcyon in Montclair.  This tradition has grown from a rather haphazard gathering of friends (plenty of turkey and beer, not so much napkins or forks) at an Upper Mountain Avenue residence known as the Home for Wayward Garden Tools into a pretty lavish event.  The hosts provide turkey and ham; everybody else brings homemade side dishes (although I can report there was a run on the deli case at Whole Foods by folks toting their own Corningware to be filled.  Did we all suddenly become eco-friendly?).  A collection of both cash and non-perishables benefited the Human Needs Food Pantry.

Monday, November 22, 2010

When You Don't Hear From Me

Clive Staples Lewis - Scholar and Spiritual Writer (1963)

There is not always anything worth writing about, but sometimes, a bunch of things happen at once, and I can't process it fast enough to set out there in bite-sized blobs for you to share. "Once the excitement does down," as my paternal grandmother was fond of saying, I try to piece it together after the fact as best as I can and still try to present each day as it occurred. Sometimes this causes wonky things to happen with the blog-eating software and I have to do shady things with the posting date to get it to show up in the various sources of shameless self-promotion. Thus there may be an absence of posts, and then a bunch all at once. I'll try to be better about this.

I really wanted to participate in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), but didn't.  I have several novels in my head, that have never made it to paper.  Maybe I should try some of Latka's cookies.  Alex ate them and wrote an opera because he couldn't sleep.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Playing the Goat

So tonight, we saw the premiere of the Nutley Little Theatre's production of Edward Albee's The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?. The theater kindly donates the proceeds of each opening night to a different nonprofit, and The OASIS has been the beneficiary of their generosity a number of times, for which we promote the shows in return.

I don't know how many of the fairly full house (and, as the name would suggest, we're not talking huddled masses) were there because of us, but I have to suspect that if they were, a few of them might have wondered if we had read the script in advance. I thought being connected to the production of The Little Dog Laughed, with its brief nude scene, would have raised eyebrows, but I was not prepared for just how far outside the white picket fence we were going tonight.

Fortunately, we don't belong to a church that has its collective head in the sand. That said, this play is disturbing, even if you go in knowing what it's about. Without digging in too far, the male lead (Martin) is a successful middle-aged architect, husband in a good (and still passionate) marriage, seemingly okay with his gay teenage son (Billy). Picture of happiness in Suburbia, right? However, for reasons even he does not seem to understand, he has taken up with, yes, a goat, that he encounters while trying to find a weekend home in farm country, a request that ironically was made by his wife, Stevie.

His TV-newscaster best friend (Ross), set to interview him about a big upcoming project, immediately notices how distracted he is and drags the truth out of him, then subsequently takes it upon himself to share the news with Stevie by way of a letter. She -- quite understandably -- loses her mind, destroys the living-room, and takes off, telling him, “You brought me down and I am going to take you down with me!”

What was interesting to me was the way each character interpreted the situation. Ross implies that some other kind of infidelity would have been almost fine, but feels completely vindicated in betraying his friend's trust. Stevie seems more angered by each of Martin's repeated attempts to make his interactions with Sylvia (yes, the goat) sound like an actual relationship, wailing “How can you love me when you love so much less?”

Billy (the son), who darts in and out like a startled deer as his parents dismantle their marriage and their living room, finds that having the carpet of normalcy pulled out from under his home life is bringing more unresolved feelings to the surface. And Martin, bless his heart, knows on some level that what he's doing is wrong, but seems woozily unable to process why everybody is so focused on the physical act and is unwilling to see it as the natural expression of what he feels for the apparently irresistible Sylvia.

Even as they battle, Stevie and Martin share their normal compulsive debate about correct grammar and syntax. The laughter that resulted felt odd in the midst of such credible portrayals of pain and anger, especially from Stevie (deftly rendered by Victoria Steele, whom we loved in last year's And Miss Reardon Drinks A Little). They also had a habit of responding to the second-to-the-last thing someone had just said, by which A Certain Party said he was reminded of the repeated device in Airplane!:
"The cockpit?! What is it??"

"It's the little room in the front where the pilot sits, but that's not important right now."

I will not spoil the ending. As uneasy voyeurs to a situation beyond anything we will hopefully ever have to face, we left there feeling, as one says, "the need to bathe," to rid ourselves of some unpleasant residue. Which, I suspect, is exactly the effect Albee was aiming for.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Postcards from the Edge

So a Certain Party, in his duties as Archwarden, received a postcard in the mail co-authored by two well-known anti-gay organizations. The message therein frantically warns all churches and synagogues that their tax-exempt status is in imminent danger. Apparently "pending court cases and legislation" will restrict same from "preaching scriptural truths" without fear of IRS agents beating the doors down.

The postcard breathlessly instructed all recipients to visit a website for a "Judeo-Christian Voter Guide" which they could freely print out and distribute to their congregations. "It's perfectly legal," we are assured, to attempt to sway voters in this manner.

When I was done laughing, there was no way in hell I was going to said website, so I would remain in the dark about what "scriptural truths" may soon be illegal to discuss from the pulpit, except that they are listed for us right on the card, and they include the usual suspects of same-sex "marriage" (can you see James Dobson doing air quotes?) and "the sanctity of life" e.g. abortion.

I am pretty good about following the news, and I have yet to hear anything said about it becoming illegal for churches to preach whatever moose-caca they want. The only "threat" I am aware of was in fact made to a progressive church during the reign of George the Younger which dared to suggest that Jesus was against war.

I do know that said organizations have tried to make religious groups worry that -- were same-sex marriage to be come legal -- they would be forced to conduct such weddings whether they agree with them or not. Case in point, the "gathering storm" video which was so immediately and effectively lampooned here, and here... oh and here.

Locally this paranoia has been fueled by the debate about the Methodist Camp Meeting Association in Neptune Township, which refused to rent a public shelter on the boardwalk in its Ocean Grove enclave to two lesbian couples on the grounds that it is sometimes used for religious services and would be somehow desecrated by a same-gender wedding ceremony. This despite the fact that it is an open structure on a public walkway and has historically been rented to couples of all or no religious background for similar events at which its clergy did not officiate. Just not gay ones.

One of the two organizations whose names appear on said postcard tried and failed to escalate the skirmish to the Federal level. Further complicating matters is the fact that the Association has received about a half-million dollars of "Green Acres" tax money for maintenance and repairs on its facilities, stating in the process that they are open to the public. This, says Congressman Frank Pallone (who coincidentally helped them get the money during his tenure as a state representative) means the Association should be subject to the state's anti-discrimination law, which protects on the basis of sexual orientation. While this is battled out in court, the Association ceased allowing any weddings on its property. Also left out of the argument is the fact that dozens of LGBT-owned homes and businesses lease land from the Association, and in fact the New York Times went as far as saying the gay community helped the area's resurgence.

The couples in this case were not asking for the church to give its approval to their relationship or the decision to solemnize it. They simply wanted to avail themselves of a facility that had been rented to numerous other couples (about whose fitness for marriage the Association had no knowledge when it accepted their check) for the same purpose.

Pardon me while I apply some window-treatments to the bus-sized hole in the theory that the free exercise of religion will be lost if same-sex marriage is made legal:

As far as I know, it is legal everywhere in the U.S. for persons who have been legally divorced to remarry. In New Jersey, as I assume in most states, marital status is already a protected class under non-discrimination law for places of public accommodation.

However, the Roman Catholic Church, among others, will not marry a couple of whom one or both parties have been divorced, unless they have also obtained an annulment, which is a church procedure. Technically, one could argue that this violates the law, by discriminating against divorced people (a marital status).

Have you ever heard of any court trying to force a church to marry a couple it didn't see as fit for it? I sure haven't.

Belonging to a church is a voluntary thing, and by doing so one would assume you are either willing to live within its rules or follow whatever internal procedures there are (if any) to get those rules changed. You wouldn't ask a court to intervene on your behalf, because you could just leave and find a church that agreed with you. The state has no interest in making churches marry people they don't want to. It receives no free toaster for each couple that ties the knot, and it has its own agents in place to handle what is -- from its perspective -- a legal contract that simply requires someone it has verified is not a crackpot to witness it.

The thing that continues to stymie this conversation is that none of the "anti" folks has managed to articulate exactly what it is that will change in their lives if the same-sex couples around them are allowed to wed. During the Perry v. Schwarzenegger Proposition 8 hearings in California (I still giggle when I think of the Ahnold being a party in this case, and in fact the state put very little effort into defending the proposition which Schwarzenegger personally opposes), the defense was unable to produce a single concrete argument. The American people are slow to accept change, but watching these bogeyman tactics in contrast to current culture and mindset is becoming increasingly comical. Seriously folks, if an eleven-year-old gets it, what's your excuse?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Believing Out Loud

Matthew Shepard*

This past weekend, I was in Orlando, Fla., along with 300 other Christians from twelve denominations for the Believe Out Loud Power Summit.

Believe Out Loud is a cooperative effort between members of twelve Protestant denominations to identify and develop places of universal welcome (including gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people) among their member churches. To be identified as "welcoming and affirming" a congregation must have a conversation about what this means, deal with any discomfort that individuals or the group may have, and take steps to be visible and intentional about making anyone (including people of all affectional and gender identities) feel at home in God's house. Among these lessons, we discussed the kinds of assumptions even allies can make about a person's relationship status, gender, or attitudes.

Believe Out Loud is the product of unprecedented cooperation between a number of religious and secular organizations to get the word out that God loves everyone. The conservative camp has been far more coordinated in its message that the Bible condemns homosexuality as an "abomination" and thus Christians should do nothing that could be seen as promoting that "lifestyle". We learned important tips for how this conversation gets "framed" within themes that resonate with people, such as "traditional family values".

Among the moments that stood out for me was the sermon by the Rev. Debra Peevey, a minister in the Disciples of Christ. Rev. Peevey quotes the passage in the Book of Esther where the is implored to beseech the king to rescue her people from a decree of annihilation at the hands of the evil Haman:

"Do not think for a moment -- silently within yourself -- that within the king’s palace you are safer than any other Jew. But if you persist in silence in waiting at a time so crucial as this, the Jews will still be delivered, yes saved in another way, by another hand, but you and your family will pass away like a moment of truth turned away from. For you are only yourself for a reason and who can know if you were not brought splendidly into favor in the palace for such a moment like this—of action."
- ESTHER 4: 13-14

That passage can strike a chord, if we let it, with those of us who have "arrived". For folks in a diocese that was way out in front on this issue, it's very tempting for us to stand under that "Mission Accomplished" banner and Purell our hands. After all, over fifty percent of our congregations feel strongly enough about LGBT inclusion to financially support the work of our OASIS ministry to those communities, a model which has been replicated in four other dioceses around the country. We count among us clergy and people in leadership roles at all levels. We could easily sit in our churches and feel included and valued and blithely assume the same is true everywhere.

However -- as evidenced in the news and in the witness of some of the people I met this past weekend -- it's very clear that there is much more to be done. It's wonderful, and I won't discount it, that many of our churches are welcoming once someone is in the door, but that does no good to someone who doesn't know they are, and which ones are. If your congregation welcomes LGBT people, does it say so in your literature? On your website? From the pulpit?

This can feel scary. The topic of homosexuality, or sexuality at all for that matter, is still somewhat taboo in our church culture. We agree in principle with the notion that God loves all of us equally and calls us to do the same, but we really don't often go out on a limb for that belief in the public forum. We're not marchers and banner-wavers, generally, for ANY topic, preferring a place of comfortable moderation. We are not unkind, and we will write a check, but ask us to stick our necks out and we start to get itchy. To do so might unveil notions and discomforts we didn't know we had, and wouldn't it be better if we just sang the hymn, had some cake and went home?

As The Right Rev'd. Gene Robinson, the first out gay bishop in the Episcopal Church stated in his recent Huffington Post column, the recent string of violence against those who are LGBT or just fit the stereotype is a reminder that this truth is not yet evident to many of our brothers and sisters, and we are called to respond:

It is not enough for good people -- religious or otherwise -- to simply be feeling more positive toward gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. Tolerance and a live-and-let-live attitude beats discrimination and abuse by a mile. But it's not enough. Tolerant people, especially tolerant religious people, need to get over their squeamishness about being vocal advocates and unapologetic supporters of LGBT people. It really is a matter of life and death, as we've seen.

I learned this in my dealing with racism. It's not enough to be tolerant of other races. I benefit from a racist society just by being white. I don't ever have to use the "n" word, treat any person of color with discourtesy, or even think ill of anyone. But as long as I am not working to dismantle the systemic racism that benefits me, a white man, at the expense of people of color, I am a racist. And my faith calls me to become an anti-racist -- pro-active, vocal, and committed.


For some congregations, there is a position against being more vocally welcoming that goes something like this: "We don't want to become known as 'the gay church'". In other words, "we do not want to allow this one issue to define us as a faith community." That is understandable, but taking on one issue and really unpacking our notions and discomforts about it often leads to a greater awareness of ALL social issues and involvement in the community.

In a 2008 study of welcoming congregations by the Institute of Welcoming Resources:
  • Over half of the pastors of Welcoming congregations agreed that their work on LGBT issues made your congregation more active on other justice issues.
  • Just 7% of the respondents indicated that their congregants have difficultly talking openly about LGBT issues.
  • Less than a third (29%) reported any significant conflict within the congregation within the last two years. Among these, the most common sources of conflict were pastoral leadership, finances and worship, not homosexuality or gender identity.
  • Nearly three-quarters of the respondents disagreed with the statements, “Our congregation risks losing members by talking too much about homosexuality” (73%) and, “Becoming more welcoming to LGBT persons could hinder our congregation’s ability to reach racial/ethnic minorities” (72%).
From my own experience, having learned what it means to live into universal welcome, we as a congregation moved on to look at what other barriers we unknowingly put up against some members of our community. Five years ago we undertook to remove many physical obstacles from our building and added an individual gender-neutral restroom that can accommodate a wheelchair user and offers a private place to change a baby.

We have out gay and lesbian members, including in positions of leadership, and have had transgendered people visit us and feel welcome. But they are by no means the majority, and in fact most of the growth (yes, growth!) we've seen in the past few years has been heterosexual families, many of whom felt drawn to us because of the deliberately inclusive way we promote ourselves.

I am not trying to imply that we are perfect, but intentional inclusion has been a success story for us. I realize that much of what I said here will be "preaching to the choir," but when you look at the headlines, it seems obvious that those who believe God's love is universal need to be doing more, because the message our country is getting from the majority of religious voices is a destructive one, and it's having a deadly effect on our kids. Quoting a vocal proponent of inclusion, the Rev. Susan Russell, past present of the Episcopal Church's national LGBT organization (Integrity) whose blog is on my roll:

Thirteen- and fifteen-year-olds are not 'adopting a lifestyle,' they're trying to have a life! They're trying to figure out who they are, who God created them to be and what on earth to do with this confusing bunch of sexual feelings that they're trying to get a handle on. They need role models for healthy relationships -- not judgment and the message that they're condemned to a life of loneliness, isolation and despair.


If your congregation is "already there" on the issue of LGBT welcome, congratulations! I invite you to take the next step and add yourselves to the national Believe Out Loud database of welcoming and affirming congregations. If you have some work to do, there are workshops and educational materials on the site to help start the conversation. Who knows? You may save a life.

NOTE: I observe Matthew's anniversary on my personal "kalendar" in memory of all the LGBT victims of violence.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Brother Sun, Sister Moon

Francis of Assisi - Friar (1226)

I am supposed to be going through the giant jumble of CD's, shucking them from their jewel cases and installing them in a giant album, along with the little booklet that accompanies most of them. Needless to say, tedious work. I have the attention span of a fruit fly under the best of circumstances, but this is just plain eye-crossing, and the little booklets really don't want to fit in the little pockets, so instead I keep getting up and finding other things to do. Then there is the problem of what to do with the jewel cases, which have an annoying tendency to slide off their stacks into a jumble of 'eighties synth-pop chaos that fuels my desire to eject them from my home. But do I just throw them out? Surely someone, somewhere can do something with them, since they sell new empty ones in the store. There must be a market, but who? Where? Thus, the project has been oft-delayed.

And if I didn't feel bad enough about the entropy that surrounds me, I see that in a New York Times interview, folk legend and community activist Pete Seeger, 91, feels guilty if he stays in bed past 8 a.m. "There's letters to answer," he explains, and in my head I hear it in the voice I know so well. "There's logs to split." My association with the Seeger and Guthrie families goes way back, so of course I let Rhythm Nation (don't judge!) slip off the pile and sat down to read.

Grabbing whatever is handy from the "icebox", Pete is out the door to tackle whatever project the day brings. He is still writing and recording music, and active at the Beacon Sloop Club, which he "tricked people" into helping him build several years ago by promising (and presumably delivering) a pot-luck dinner. "Food is one of the great organizing tools," he confides.

Seeger's association with boats goes back a long way: in the 1960's he and Toshi-Aline Ôhta (his wife of 67 years), along with Don "American Pie" McLean and others raised the money for the construction of a handcrafted sloop, the Clearwater, which they sailed from her birthplace in Maine to the South Street Seaport and then up the Hudson in 1969. The Clearwater Foundation has had notable success in driving the cleanup of industrial contaminants, and a report two years ago noted a "significant decline" in the mercury found in sampled fish. The Clearwater is now joined by the gaff sloop Woody Guthrie and at times by the schooner Mystic Sailor, in providing educational cruises to schools, environmental groups and the public. Funded in large part by the annual two-day Clearwater Festival, the organization is credited with influencing much of the progress in local and national environmental policy.

G.E. (the company who bore much of the blame, and the cleanup expense, for the Hudson River mess) notwithstanding, Seeger is not without his critics: His early concerns about the rights of workers drew him to a brief involvement with the Communist Party. That and some recordings he made prior to WW2 landed him in front of Joseph McCarthy in 1955 and eventually in contempt of Congress, although the ruling was later overturned. In 1995, Seeger told the New York Times Magazine, "I still call myself a communist, because communism is no more what Russia made of it than Christianity is what the churches make of it."

Politics aside, it's difficult (and probably unwise) to argue with a 91-year-old man who heats his house with wood he chops himself. I couldn't help but notice the coincidence of reading this on the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, an Italian who shunned the comfortable circumstances into which he was born as Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone, choosing instead extreme poverty and charitable work. We know from his writings and the folklore that surrounds his legacy that he loved animals, referring to them as brethren.

The life of St Francis is of course enacted and vivid theology. To understand him we must be careful not to detach him from his context and refashion him as a kind of non dogmatic, leftist eco-freak. He was nourished by the praise of God as seen in his creation which is one of the great themes of the psalms and the canticles which he used in daily worship. Francis does not use the word “natura” and instead talks of the heavens and the earth, the world and all creatures under the heavens. Unsurprisingly he does not have a modern concept of nature as a complex of scientific laws governing the universe. Instead he was profoundly aware of the communication between creatures and their creator as we participate in the God-spun web of life."


Francis exemplified putting the greater good ahead of personal desires, sacrificing much in the process. According to a 2005 sermon delivered by The Right Rev'd Richard John Carew Chartres (Anglican Bishop of London), in the early 1200's, Francis traveled to Egypt in the midst of a Crusade and attempted to win the conversion of the present Sultan. While unsuccessful, he did earn the leader's respect and a trusted role for the monastic order which he established that remains in the region to this day.

Seeger and his family are not churchgoers, but "we use the word God quite often. One of my most recent songs has God in every verse. Every time I’m in the woods, I feel like I’m in church." Wherever he is, I like to think St. Francis would look with approval at all he has managed to (and continues to) accomplish.

Now, can either of them clue me in on what to do with these CD cases?

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Into the Light


I hated gym class. Skinny, uncoordinated and myopic, I knew that whatever activity they dreamed up, I wasn't going to be good at it. Some things, like crab soccer and pillow polo, were okay, because they really didn't require much skill. But I dreaded anything where some kids, invariably the jocks, got to pick teams, because I was certain to be damn near last, and with good reason.

None of us kids was particularly athletic, although at least one of my sisters played softball on a real team and was apparently popular to acquire a non-derogatory nickname from the P.E. teacher. I was afforded no such cool moniker; instead, one of the other kid's dads who was brought in as a guest teacher said I "wrestled like a girl". I find that interesting because I don't think mud wrestling was popular yet, so I don't know upon what experience he based his assessment.

But I guess I was lucky; I didn't go to the school in Decatur, Ala., where the teacher invented a game called "smear the queer" in which a single student is singled out to be slogged by volleyballs by the entire rest of the class.

Seems kind of shocking that only happened about twelve years ago. Would we tolerate such a thing now? Apparently, we would. In the past few weeks, no fewer than three high school boys committed suicide after enduring sustained torment at the hands of their peers.

Seth Walsh, 13, of Tehachapie, California, hanged himself from a tree on September 19th. He was found alive and placed on life support, but died a few days later. Despite a program to prevent such abuse and a principal whose principal boasts of her degree in child counseling, investigators were told by Seth's peers that he had been the victim of sustained bullying. They determined, however, that no crime had been committed and no charges were filed.

Asher Brown, an eighth-grader from Houston, shot himself in the head last week. His parents say they have complained repeatedly to the school, by phone and in person, about the four classmates made hassling Asher a full-time job for the past eighteen months, simulating gay sex acts on him in gym class and making fun of his inexpensive clothes. Administrators say they were never told about the bullying.

Billy Lucas, from Indiana, never told anybody he was gay, but his classmates apparently decided that for him. Administrators claim he was "happy and well-adjusted", but yet classmates tell a different story which should be getting sadly familiar by now. His family found him in their barn where he had hanged himself.

One could ask what the hell is going on in these schools that there could be so much opportunity for kids to lash out at one another unchecked by a teacher or other adult. Maybe all the budget cuts have made it impossible to know who's doing what to who. I would like to hear from those who work in schools: Do you see kids like Billy, Asher and Seth? What is done about it?

I have to wonder, however, how many teachers and coaches and parents think such behavior is normal (et tu, Darwin?) and thus allow it continue or even encourage it. You know, it'll make a man out of you. And if this was limited to a few embarrassing moments in gym class, it might be survivable. But I shared with you in a former post the case of Roy Jones, a seventeen-month-old boy who died from a beating he got from his mother's boyfriend, because he "acted like a girl". I liked that ABC called him a baby, even though technically he isn't, because it emphasizes the mania in our culture around gender roles and the lengths to which people will go to make sure the traditional ones are enforced, even at an age where a kid doesn't even know what they mean or whether he or she is exhibiting them or not.

Today's story was the proverbial straw. News is spreading tonight about the case of Tyler Clementi, a first-year Rutgers student from Ridgewood, N.J. and classical violinist. Tyler had either told his roommate he was gay or at least it was suspected, because when he asked for a few hours of privacy, a webcam was left running to record his romantic time with a male visitor while the roommate provided a running commentary on Twitter as well as a video feed on the Internet. Confronted with this invasion, the shy student was so distraught that he lept from the George Washington Bridge to his death.

I do not know all the facts of all these cases. I don't know these boys' mental health histories or to what degree either parents or administrators were forthcoming in what they told the media and the police. What I do know is that our kids learn what they know about what it means to be male, female, gay, straight or somewhere in between from us. From what we say, how we act, and how we treat people.

34,000 Americans commit suicide every year, and -- among young people -- every suicide is shadowed by 100-200 unsuccesful attempts. LGBT youth are four times more likely to commit or attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. I don't believe that is due to some genetic trait: I think it's because growing up is hard enough without being told repeatedly by peers, trusted adults and the media that there's something abnormal about you.

If it outrages or saddens you that so many young lives have been diminished or snuffed out, than know this: These are just a handful of extreme cases... this goes on all the time, in varying degrees, in every school in this country because some kids don't live up to other people's expectations of how they should dress, talk or throw a ball.

Teachers, look out for the Trevors and the Billys. Think about the words you use and understand the difference between good-natured teasing and outright terror. Maybe you could be the one adult that they can count on if things rough. Parents, you can't expect the school to teach your kids that it's not okay to treat people this way; they need to hear it from you. And maybe you should let them read the stories about these boys: Seth, Asher, Billy, Tyler, and poor little Roy, so that they see what it does to them inside.

I was lucky to have enough of a support system to reach adulthood and understand that people who act this way are saying more about themselves and their own insecurities than they are about you. In college I started lifting weights, finally finding an athletic activity that I didn't need great hand-eye coordination to accomplish. Current deadlift, 300 lb, thankyouverymuch, and I no longer feel like a victim. Most of the time.

On October 17th, friends and I are participating in Out of the Darkness, a Community Walk to benefit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. If you are in a position to contribute anything to help this worthy cause, please visit this link. It would be much appreciated. If you would like to know more about anti-bullying, LGBT youth and suicide prevention, please visit the links below:

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

On the Shoulders of Giants

Richard Rolle (1349), Walter Hilton (1396) and Margery Kempe (%1440) - Mystics

It's hard for me to know where to go with this blog sometimes, especially when I surround myself with people who can say the things I believe so much more compellingly than I can.

Telling Secrets: The path to hope

Friday, September 24, 2010

Jesus Loves Me, This I Know

This was started a while ago and got lost in the shuffle

Charles Chapman Grafton - Bishop & Ecumenist (1912)


For the past ten years, gay and lesbian organizations in and around Jersey City have staged their own Pride festival on the last weekend in August. This nicely brackets the summer and allows them to avoid competing with the statewide celebration in Asbury Park and the original commemoration of the Stonewall riots in New York, both of which take place in June.

A seventeen-month-old Long Island boy was beaten to death by his mother's boyfriend because he "acted like a girl". Tinky-Winky aside, do we really expect a toddler to be aware of rigid gender roles, much less adhere to them??
This event centers around three blocks or so of Exchange Place, a street that ends at the Hudson River in the heart of the city's financial district. As the surrounding office towers are mostly abandoned on weekends, the streets can be closed with a minimum of disruption, and there's plenty of parking to be had. For the first time, this year's celebration also included a short parade from City Hall a little bit further inland.

Several organizations of the Episcopal Church have taken part in these events at various times. The OASIS, the LGBT ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, has sponsored a table where area parishes are invited to give out information and meet community members. This year the OASIS, as well as the NYC-area chapter of the its national equivalent (Integrity) and the Episcopal Response to AIDS all shared the time and expense for this outreach. It also gave us the opportunity to discuss plans for some future collaboration.

What none of us had really given much thought to was the possibility of any conflict. Surely we were past this; our immediate area has become pretty comfortable with LGBT issues, with the majority of the population even supporting marriage equality even if the governor and legislature do not agree.

So I was somewhat surprised when -- dispatched to the pharmacy for twine and duct tape to keep our rented canopy grounded against the fresh breeze coming off the river -- I saw a handful of people with placards and a bullhorn organizing themselves on a street corner a block or so from the festivities.

Truth be told, they've been there before. They showed up several years ago and walked up and down the sidewalks on the perimeter of the event using a bullhorn to bray their various threats of hellfire and damnation at the passing crowd. After a quick ecumenical "Situation Room" discussion, the various church groups responded in a way that we knew would probably infuriate them, but could not be labeled as combative or even really acknowledging their hateful rhetoric: We followed the same path up and down the street, just INSIDE the event, and sang hymns, loudly. Hymns such as "Jesus Loves Me, This I Know", "God Loves All the Little Children" and so forth, in an effort to counter their efforts.

Don't leave home without it!
The only problem is, we quickly discovered that we didn't collectively know much beyond the first verse of anything, and in some cases the Methodists knew one version that might be different than what the Episcopalians or Lutherans remembered. Thus was born one of my bright ideas, that -- as is typical -- gets immediately forgotten until the next time it would come in pretty darn handy. I had made up my mind that I would put together a handful of common, public-domain hymns that suited the occasion and have copies of the lyrics ready to facilitate the singing.

Then, for the next few years, the protesters didn't come, and I forgot about it. But I can see that -- maybe as a hallmark of the progress we've made with the general public mindset -- this event is back on their radar. And apparently, once they figured out where the church tables were, they parked on the nearest corner and kept the commentary up all afternoon. Interestingly, there were two "groups" of them this year... the hellfire gang were joined by one or two people from a more "compassionate" crowd: they represented an "ex-gay ministry" ... something the American Psychological Association and most other credible witnesses describe as pointless and more likely harmful. When it was that guy's turn with the bullhorn he kept telling us how we didn't have to be this way, we could change like him, etc. I recently met a young man who endured eight years of this "therapy" only to realize that sexual orientation is not something that can be "cured", and luckily today he is learning to celebrate and live into the identity he is meant to have.

One event-goer was apparently either prepared or resourceful, because he appeared with a sign that said "I'm with stupid" and an arrow and followed the protesters up and down the street.

Truth be told, with a few exceptions nobody was really paying very much attention to them, and everyone -- even the cops -- were getting annoyed with the bullhorn after a while. We were too busy networking and trying to keep our tent from blowing away to "gracefully engage" them, let alone regale them with ecumenical hymnody.

As the afternoon wore on, the commentary got more random and dejected, wandering between taxes, the speaker's kids and Lady Gaga. I'm not really sure what they were trying to accomplish, but I don't think they won over any supporters, and the tone was in stark contrast to the merriment going on all around them. Nobody present seemed to be experiencing the shame and misery they kept insisting are part and parcel to same-sex attraction.

Would that everybody would be so lucky. In the weeks since, news (and by news I mean blogs and the independent press, since these stories never seem to make the papers) broke of yet another teenager who committed suicide after enduring years of bullying. This follows on the heels of another case, this one in Minnesota, in which the mother reports she had been asking the school to intervene for years. They are hardly alone, as a recent survey by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network shows that nearly nine out of ten LGBT teens endure harassment at school.

Does anybody else find it ironic that supposed Christians, trying to portray themselves as "compassionate", would come to a LGBT event and preach conversion to a crowd that is apparently pretty much okay with its sexual identity? The underlying message is, of course, that to be LGBT is to be somehow broken or "less-than", and unfortunately, despite logic, experience and the advice of medical experts, this message continues to imbrue our young people's collective consciousness, courtesy of trusted role-models including preachers, teachers and coaches, and apparently with the tacit approval of parents and other community leaders who refused to stick out their necks when this was pointed out as a problem.

And this abuse does not always wait until a child reaches the age where (s)he even knows what sexual identity is, let alone aware that his or her mannerisms, speech or clothing might be advertising it. In a heartbreaking story this summer that didn't seem to make it past the Huffington Post, a seventeen-month-old Long Island boy was beaten to death by his mother's boyfriend because he "acted like a girl". Seventeen months old. Tinky-Winky aside, do we really expect a toddler to be aware of rigid gender roles, much less adhere to them??

These are sobering reminders of how much work remains to be done, and they stand in sharp contrast to the joyous community gathering I witnessed. I can only hope that -- whatever it was they were trying to accomplish -- the protesters couldn't help but notice that what they were witnessing was not a depraved orgy, nor a gathering of unhappy deviants crying out for help. It was ordinary folks of all persuasions, enjoying the freedom to be who they were and love whom they love. Even if they didn't get to hear us sing.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

An Embarassment of Riches

Philander Chase - Bishop (1852)

Our house is a mess. I don't mean it's dirty; people who know us don't have to wonder who is Oscar and who is Felix, but neither of us has the time or patience to go around doing the white glove test. We manage to keep it sanitary and -- especially after an alarming episode of Hoarders -- we guiltily nudge ourselves into action to disperse recyclables, junk mail and obsolescent electronics to prevent it from devolving into a complete Collyer Brothers situation.

I'm referring more to all the little things about it that I want to fix. The kitchen floor is worn to the point where it never looks clean, the dining room did not come out the color I wanted and the curtains remain on a Certain Party's ironing pile despite a number of hints, subtle and otherwise. The shutters out front were not the right wood for outside and are now coming apart at the seams, literally. Nobody's sure exactly how it is that the furnace continues to function when I think it enjoyed a former life as a boiler on the Mauretania before coming into our employ.

Everywhere I look, I see mismatched, unraveling or scuffed beyond repair. There's never enough time, and there's never enough money, to make it look the way it does in my head. I looked back at old blog posts to see when we got the giant captain's bed (I immediately nicknamed it "the tree fort") thinking we'd get the mattress to fit it the next month. It was Lent, and we're still on the old, too-small mattress.

As I am sure is the case with just about anybody, no matter how much money comes in, there always seems to be someone, or something, that is clamoring for a piece of the pie. We are both lucky to have full-time jobs, me for long enough to have some of the benefits that new entrants to the job market may never see. But that does not make me any less worried about there being enough to get by on during those golden years, which suddenly don't seem so far away.

But by nature of the fact that I'm sitting in a room that doesn't leak, using a computer, had a healthy dinner, and don't have to share either of those items with anybody, I've already got more than 99% of the world's population beat. And if you're reading this, in all likelihood, so do you.

In the midst of my frustration that my little patch of the American dream is not blooming as rapidly as I might like, I was humbled by a beautifully written reminder by my friend, the Rev. Elizabeth Kaeton, that my priorities are just a shade off when I fuss about such things. Not that I should need to be told: the headlines and statistics are a daily grim reminder of the suffering that people endure every day. What touched me was the way she articulated her appreciation for something as simple as twilight, which is free for the taking, but yet goes unnoticed by me and every fool who is too busy finding fault with our charmed lives to appreciate all the gifts that surround us.

Telling Secrets: The Universe of the Anawim

Saturday, August 21, 2010

One Man's Family


Today was our final stop, St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands.  Technically American turf, St. Croix is a bit of an anomaly due to its rich history. At various times it was occupied by Spain, France, Britain, Denmark and even the Knights of Malta, each of which left their mark with place names, architecture and other reminders.

Driving on St. Croix is on the left, which confuses Americans who think they are "home", especially since most of the vehicles have the driver's seat on the left where we're used to it.  We were told that the government tried to change it after the U.S. took over, but the residents couldn't get used to it and it caused too many accidents.   

St. George Village Botanical Garden
Without a plan for the day, I signed onto one of the ship's excursions with two members of our group, which included three stops:

The first was the St. George Village Botanical Garden.  Located on a former sugar plantation, the garden is a rich oasis of plant and animal life, explained to us by a knowledgeable guide as we strolled around the grounds.  Among the more curious finds were giant caterpillars who only feed on a particular type of tree, and a 15th-century Danish worker's grave.

Lawaetz Family Museum
Next, following a drive through the forested interior of the island, we visited the Lawaetz Family Museum, the homestead of a Danish farmer who moved to St. Croix in the 1890s and raised a large family there.  The house is still much as they left it (the family still owns it and assembles there for Christmas Eve), with childhood pictures and household implements neatly in their places, including the giant wooden bed that was patriarch Carl's first big purchase when he secured a good job.  

Our guide for this tour was a transplanted New Yorker who moved to St. Croix several years ago with the intention of writing a novel, a work that is still in progress.

Rainbow Beach
The final stop was at Rainbow Beach, a picturesque spot with an open-air bar and grill as well as a stand where you could rent jet-skis and other equipment.  We could see our ship in the distance down the beach as we took in our last round of fruity drinks before heading back to reality in the morning.

More photos from St. Croix

Friday, August 20, 2010

Hold On to Your Hat

Bernard of Clairvaux - Abbot, Theologian & Poet (1153)


This morning we arrived at Phillipsburg, St. Maarten, the only of our cruise stops to which I have been before.  In 2000 I was on a cruise on the Norwegian Sky that called here, and in 1998, my family rented a condominium on the island's southern coast for a week.

Much of my focus on St. Maarten centers around the airport.  On our way to our first visit, a combination of ineptitude and lack of information on the part of US AIr led to our being stranded in San Juan's airport. Both the ticket counter of US Air and our connecting carrier LIAT were abandoned at 3 in the afternoon, and when I finally roused a young woman by shouting "hello!" through the open doorway into the office, she half-listened to my story and then said casually, "All the flights are full.  You come back tomorrow night."

In those pre-9/11 days I was a little more, um, assertive with airline people than I would be now, and my family unanimously elected me to make it clear to US Air that spending over 24 hours of our vacation in this airport was not an acceptable option.  There were a bunch of sightseeing companies with planes for hire right there in the terminal, with tanned pilot types standing around doing nothing, so I asked the ticket agent why one of them could not bring us the short distance to St. Maarten.

"Oh, it's very expensive," she said dismissively.

I went for broke.  "Not for ME, it won't be. I already paid to get THERE, not HERE, and at this point I don't care if you have to BUY the plane.  Go ask somebody."

Apparently realizing at that point I was not going to give up, she shuffled off to make some phone calls, probably interrupting several more naps and finally speaking to the airline's headquarters in Virginia before returning with the pretty startling news that they could -- in fact -- pay one of these planes to get us to our destination, leaving within the hour.  I was pretty proud of myself, until I saw the plane:

Mom, Dad and our pilot with the Air Culebra Piper Aztec we
flew from San Juan to St. Maarten in 1998
This thing had none of the stuff I associate with planes.  There were no walkway or even stairs to get into it: you trotted across the tarmac, stepped on the wing and dropped right into your seat. There was no aisle, no bathroom, and no flight attendant.  And even if there had been one, there was no beer for him to grab if he decided he'd had enough of us and made a break for it.

Once my parents and sisters were settled in, the only seat left for me was right inside that open door, i.e. that normally reserved for the co-pilot! 

"Don't touch anything!" my sister stage-whispered from the third (and last) row.  Yeah, not a problem.  My experience skippering one of these puppies was limited to the Microsoft variety, and I was not about to try to change that now, even in the highly unlikely event that it was offered.  I contented myself with alternatively holding on for dear life and taking pictures to the degree that I could.  Our pilot pointed out Culebra, the small island in between Puerto Rico and St. Maarten where he lived, and then -- asking if I wanted a photo -- tilted the plane to get the wing out of the shot.  Um, thanks!

Now, I'll say this.  If you had asked me under different circumstances if I wanted to go up in a plane the size of a Volkswagen Microbus, I would have most likely laughed at you over my shoulder as I hurried back towards the sane people.  But when that plane was the only thing standing between me and a night on a drab gray chair trying to drown out 24 screens of CNN, I didn't think twice about it, and I don't think anybody in the family did either.  And -- having done so -- I can tell you it was an awesome ride, especially being able to look right out the front as we approached St. Maarten and landed again.

Air France A340 about to land.  Thanks to Gina for this shot.
The Princess Juliana International Airport is on the Dutch half of St. Maarten (the French spell it St. Martin), and its single runway begins just a dozen yards or so from the famous Maho Beach, where planespotters delight in the jets thundering close overhead as they  are about to land.  Supposedly people used to also hang on the fence when an airliner was getting ready to talk off (the prevailing wind is normally such so that flights take off and land with their backs to the beach) and then allowed the accelerating engines to blow them backwards towards the water, but now there are signs warning against such activity.

There are bars at either end of the beach with the flight timetables posted and radios tuned to the conversation between jets and the tower. We had intended to spend some time there today, but we ended up only being able to pass by it.  Friends from our cruise got to enjoy it, however, and shared some of their photos with me.

Instead, a Certain Party -- who does not beach -- and I contented ourselves with crepes at a sidewalk cafe in Marigot, on the French side.  But next time I'm bringing my earplugs and making a day of it.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

You Have Arrived... Maybe


Today was a little more low-energy.  Not long after we docked at St. John, Antigua, the heretofore tranquil sky opened up and we had quite a rainstorm. One of the interesting things about the tropics is the abruptness with which the weather can change.  We literally saw the rain coming towards us like a curtain, and -- briefly -- it was raining at one end of the ship but not the other.  We had experienced the same thing on our day at sea on Monday:  A sudden squall drove us off the deck, but by the time we reached the elevators amidships, the sun had returned.

In this case, we again had only a short while to wait, and then Bobby, Amanda and I walked ashore, through the prerequisite cluster of shops and kiosks that seem to greet you at virtually every Caribbean pier, and for a short walk around the town of St. John as the sun dried things off. 

St. John's Cathedral, Antigua
Plainly visible from the ship is the imposing facade of St. John's Anglican Cathedral, and that was one thing I hoped to see.  However, upon arrival we discovered that -- due to a structural problem that came to light last year -- the church is closed until further notice.  We took a handful of pictures and headed back towards the pier, not finding much else in the town to explore.

A short while later, we had hired a cab and were headed towards a beach one of our fellow passengers had mentioned.  "Towards" it being the operating word, because we are not sure that the beach we eventually visited was the same one we had requested.  Having cleared the city limits and meandered for a half-hour or so through the countryside, our driver left the main drag for a bumpy driveway, past a salt pond, and coincidentally (?) ran into a handful of people he knew standing in this barren spot.  At his direction, we somewhat doubtfully trudged a short way further on the road and discovered what was in fact a beautiful, but sparsely populated, beach, as well as a small but elegant looking bungalow resort.

Coco Beach Resort, Antigua
Since the driver was apparently willing to wait with his friends while we enjoyed the beach, we were not about to complain.  We had no proof this was not in fact where we had asked to go, although Bobby had seen pictures of the place on the shipboard TV and it looked considerably more developed than what we saw before us.  And there was nothing wrong with the location, which we think was called Coco Beach, when the one we had been looking for was Coco Bay.  Looking at a map later, I believe there was in fact a much larger resort by that name a short distance away.

As is often the case with foreign travel, one finds oneself at the generally benevolent mercy of the local tourist machine.  Unless you do a lot of homework and come across as knowing exactly what you want and what it should cost, there is always a slight haze of doubt that you are getting the best deal as opposed to something that has been engineered to create the illusion of same for the profit or convenience of others.

Nevertheless, we enjoyed ourselves, and when we returned to the taxi at the appointed time, we found that our driver had calculated enough time get us back to the ship (always a concern, because -- unless you are on one of the excursions organized by the cruise line -- if you miss the boat, you're on your own to get either home or to the next port).

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Lunch With Herod's Mom

William Porcher DuBose - Priest & Theologian (1918)


Today's port-of-call was St. Lucia.  A little more than a hundred miles from Barbados, it allowed the Serenade of the Seas to chug along at a leisurely pace while we slept.

Herod explains how bananas grow
St. Lucia is mountainous and a large swath of its interior is relatively unspoiled.  Today I took a tour with several parties in our cruisecritic.com "family", again researched by one of them in advance.  Our guide, Herod, restricts the tour to ten people, which meant minimal waiting and plenty of flexibility to stop when something looked interesting and ask questions.

We had more exposure to the local people today than in Barbados, where we spent most of the day on a boat.  As we twisted through the forests and towns, men and women would wait patiently at the  roadside offering handicrafts, fresh fruit and (in several cases) the opportunity to get cozy with large snakes.  The sales pitches were not aggressive or frequent enough to be really annoying, and I expect our guide -- who does this every day -- knew who could be trusted.  

Among the things we saw were coconut and banana groves (with the opportunity to sample fresh fruit right off the tree), an ancient volcano which still emits sulphur-ripe steam, and a small waterfall surrounded by lush vegetation teeming with birds and butterflies.

But the highlight for me was when Herod announced that he was taking us to his house, where his mom had prepared lunch.

Anybody who knows me will roll their eyes at this; all you do is mention food and you immediately have my attention.  However, I loved this idea.  I know folks who will seek out familiar brands wherever they go instead of chancing some culinary misadventure, and the McDonald's and T.G.I. Fridays' folks have capitalized on this from Reykjavík to Dubai.  But I don't know of a better way to experience a place than to go to someone's home and share food with them that they prepared.

Lunch with Herod's Mom
Herod's mom was warm and gracious, and their house has a big terrace with a splendid view of one of the Pitons, the twin conical lava domes for which St. Lucia is famous.  We were treated to a buffet of curried chicken, fried codfish, rice and beans, plantains, and various other goodies.  

After lunch, we took a water taxi to a remote resort, situated between the two Pitons, to spend an hour or so on the beach.  We shared this space with just a handful of other tourists, and so were able to take in the rugged beauty of the place in peace.  Having gotten more than my share of sun the night before, I commandeered a chaise lounge under a canopy of overhanging sea grape and just took it all in.

Our return trip was accomplished by speedboat, much to the delight of the youngest members of our party.  Somehow these two pre-teen girls ended up right up in the bows, and every time the boat crested a wave, they would be literally tossed airborne, only to thump back down onto the (thankfully cushioned) seat.  They screamed and laughed all the way back to Castries, where the boat deposited us veritably at the ship's doorstep.

Tonight was formal-dress on board.  This is the subject of consternation for some, while others -- like me -- enjoy it on the rare occasions that I am required to dress up.  On some lines (Cunard transatlantic in particular) you will still be politely turned away from the dining room without a jacket, but In the Caribbean on most of today's mass-market ships, the dress code is more of a suggestion than a rule, and we saw people wearing everything from black tie to tank tops as we headed to dinner. 

Everyone in our party made an effort to comply without going crazy buying new gear which we would not have much future use.   I own a tux, for the simple reason that it was de rigueur aboard the Queen Mary 2 and I scored a sweet deal on one when we were preparing for that ship's maiden transatlantic crossing to New York in 2004.  It dawned on my last week that I should probably try the darn thing on and make sure I could still get in it, since it hasn't seen the light of day since Emily's wedding a few years ago.  Thankfully, I have neither packed on enough muscle or fat to require any alterations. 

At Barbara's request, we posed in various groups on the swank glass staircase in the ship's lobby, sporting our finery while the Company photographers snapped away.  These souvenir photos are mind-bendingly expensive, but it's part of the experience, so -- as many times as we say we're not going to do it -- we always end up buying at least a few.  Barbara had special reasons for wanting to document this trip, so for that purpose it was worth having the professional shots done.

The dinner was wonderful, and the Serenade's classic double-height dining room complete with a ceremonial staircase provided an elegant backdrop for our fellow passengers in their fancy duds.  But -- if I had to choose -- I'd still take that lunch under the Pitons, served up with a smile by Herod's mom.