“Computer says no…” Andy Pakula – Making Necessary Waves Across the Pond

I had the great fortune to connect with Andy Pakula, Minister of  New Unity Church in Islington (London) UK. After a couple of months of planning and me getting completely lost in a neighborhood I know well, I was finally seated opposite him to share stories and drink in what his experience has been as a UU Atheist in the UK. I can’t really summarize his experience, so instead I will let you discover him on your own through his response to a recent interaction with the BBC that is getting press over here (see link below.)

Many blessings to you Andy and to the work you do tapping into what many people are asking for. More proof that if we are to be inclusive, we need all voices at the table…even if the BBC says no.

Andy Pakula in the Guardian

Mega Church

OverlakeWhen I walked into Overlake Christian Church, I half expected the walls to come crashing in.  OCC is what you would call a modern day “mega church.”  In a building that more resembles Costco from the outside than any other kind of structure, it is a teeming city within, just as any of the more ornate ancient Gothic mega churches such as Notre Dame de Paris or Chartres Cathedral were in their day.  There are legions of volunteers, several varieties of youth spaces including a youth chapel and a fully staffed nursery, a full gymnasium, meeting rooms, offices and a cafe with (this being the suburbs of Seattle) what seemed like endless gallons of coffee.

But also like the ancient cathedrals, Overlake is serious about the business of faith.  The sanctuary put me in mind of the largest theaters I’ve performed in with capacity for some 5000+ people.  I imagined that when full, as I was informed that the space gets for the later service, this place was off the chain. This church sits in the heart of the evangelical nouvelle vague where young families in increasing numbers are flocking to a message about Christ that doesn’t judge them because they are struggling to make ends meet or because maybe they didn’t finish school or because they believe in traditional conservative values.  This is a place where these particular young people find community that offers them unconditional support and love in a language they can readily understand.  Yes, there were surely gun owners; yes, plenty of McCain/Palin supporters; probably a lot of anti Obamacare people as well…and me.

If you have read any of my other posts, you know immediately that I did not support McCain/Palin, I don’t believe in any kind of gun ownership (private or otherwise) and I am a rabid supporter of the Affordable Care act.  I am also black and very, very gay.  Walking into Overlake or any conservative community, I know that by the simple appearance of my skin, most people will assume my political positions, but the one thing they can’t and usually don’t assume is my sexuality.  This is a squirmy discomfort that I’ve lived with my entire life, whether it was as a teen meeting people who would ask me if I had a girlfriend yet or in a locker room where guys talk incessantly and rather defensively about sex with women (hmm, there’s a blog post in there) or as a cruise director where the singularly most frequent question I was asked was if I was married.  For some 35 years, I have had to “come out” to every single new person I meet.  One of the reasons I am pro marriage equality, outside of personal interest, is because maybe by “normalizing” same sex relationships it will chip away at the assumptions that force someone like myself to have to repeatedly go through this public explanation process that more than being embarrassing is just plain exhausting.  This kind of daily “coming out” is heightened even more in a church setting…let alone an evangelical one.  But, as I said, I’ve been doing this dance for many years so when I was invited by my dear friends to attend their church, it was easy to put my own disquietude aside and let myself feel deeply flattered that they wanted to include me in their spiritual experience.

After dropping off the kids, we made our way through the throngs of beaming faces to the sanctuary where the house band was already in gear.  The music was youthful guitar heavy rock.  The voices were clear and again…the beaming faces.  In the house, many people swayed and sang along (the words were projected on the largest of the flat screen monitors…a 20×30 foot jumbotron at the back of the stage) and many stood with their eyes closed and palms turned upward to receive the spirit…with beaming faces.  The music built a certain frenzy so that when the pastor, Mike Howerton arrived on stage you wouldn’t expect anything less than being inspired.  His message, “Hope Restored” was clear and hip (he wore jeans and converse sneakers) with no “thou shalts” and “wherefores” other than what might appear in specific scripture.  The service ended with a tricked out version of “Oh Come Emmanuel” that was just plain fun to sing. The experience was, in a word, thrilling and I left feeling inspired and elated.  I thought to myself, why can’t Unitarian Universalists do this?  Wanting to stay focused on my time with my friends, I didn’t stay to socialize or chat.  But on my way out, I made note of what seemed like a whole lot of nice people enjoying church the way they wanted to enjoy it, giving their families the grounding that they felt was important to being successful and balanced people.  I should have been content with that.

But after I got home the next day, I did my usual skeptical due diligence to see where this community stood politically.  It was not enough for me to see them first hand and accept them in their natural habitat.  I had to see if they would have strung me up had they known I was a card carrying ‘homosexualist!’  A simple Google search (“Overlake Christian Church LGBT”) turned up the following article from the Christian Telegraph:

Overlake Christian Church Provides Aids Test to “Remove Stigma”

The article is very definitely anti-Gay (a clue should have been seeing AIDS not capitalized.) But looking past the article at the actual act of an evangelical church asking members to take an HIV test, I was blown away.  Again, I found myself asking, why can’t Unitarian Universalists do this?  At the center of this article were Linda and Rob Robertson who lost their gay son in 2009.  I did a bit more research and came across, or rather was reminded of Linda’s blog, Just Because He Breathes.  Their family story of transformation through their faith to embrace their son in all of his beauty as a gay Christian before his death is extremely powerful.  I had read her article in the Huff Post in July and suddenly felt ashamed that I was in her church and didn’t know…or feel comfortable to seek her, or someone like her out.  I immediately reached out to Linda through her blog and to my amazement, she wrote back.  I am hopeful that I will be able to continue a dialogue with her, not only to support her work, but also to learn from her.  I see a lesson for progressives and liberal church goers as well as Atheists and non believers here.  Linda is a Christian.  She lives what she believes.  From the most painful experience that any parent can undergo regardless of their faith, she learned that she cannot judge.  As a Christian, I imagine that she knows that judgment is in God’s hands.  But that is not to say that for those who are not Christian that they must play by those same rules; judgement, peace, balance are what we come to in our own experiences and we cannot require that others accept something just because it works for us…and ultimately, it is out of all of our hands.  Just as someone who is LGBT cannot be judged by the rules of heteronormativity and just as Christian evangelicals should not all be judged by the same rules of liberal intolerance.

Personally, I am tired of religious irony.  My own snarky, judgmental attitude about a Christian mega church, no matter how much in check I was able to keep it in the moment, almost kept me from making a beautiful discovery about the depth and capacity of the human heart.  Every religious leader or aspiring religious leader should be so lucky as to be able to float in the warmth of what I witnessed at Overlake, and every religious or faith community should be able to provide that warmth to whoever comes into their midst, whether it is a liberal black gay guy in an evangelical church or if it is an evangelical in a community of Pagans.  We are in the business of creating community and those communities are built on “common unities”…shared experiences of our worlds.  There is no possible way that everyone is going to have the same common unities…and we shouldn’t really want to have the same ones.  But it is the impulse to gather and share those common unities that is the same among all of us and that is something in which we can all share; that impulse is love.  I am a Unitarian Universalist and I will celebrate your joy at commemorating the birth of Christ.  You are straight and I hope you can celebrate my thriving in a relationship with the man I share my life with.  We are Jew, Gentile, Muslim, Atheist, Lesbian, Transgender, Cisgender, HIV+, black, Latino and white and we can celebrate one another and be much better for it.

Blessed be…he said with a beaming face.

A Love Letter to That 60’s Boy Dancer

This is a love letter to Bobby.  No, not Bobby Kennedy, Bobby Brown or even Robby Williams…Bobby Banas.  You probably don’t know his name.  But you probably know his work, particularly if you are a fan of old musicals.  I had a beautiful reminder yesterday morning about a huge part of my past that I rarely take the time to really hold on to and appreciate.  Dance.

My friend Mimi Quillin posted a clip from the 1963 Judy Garland Show of a dance called the “Nitty Gritty.”  In it you see your typical 1960’s dancers for the most part (women with beehive hairdo’s lacquered into place, flirty chiffon skirts and heels…gentlemen in skinny tuxedos.)  They are performing a dance that has shades of the Frug and the Mashed Potato and they are dancing with great reserve…except for one.  This one male dancer is letting his head fly about, his back slip and his hips literally wiggle (gasp!)  The camera moves in for a closeup and the expression on his face says,”I could care less that I’m on national TV, I’m just dancing for me, baby”…wheeeee!

That is Bobby Banas.

Why am I writing a love letter to a 1960’s dancer?  Because, quite simply, when I was a little boy, I wanted to be him.  Other little boys wanted to be astronauts and policemen (it was the 60’s and 70’s) but I wanted to point my toes and stretch my legs and make beautiful shapes with my body.  What’s wrong with that?  According to the world at that time: everything.  Officially, I was a little boy in the 70’s and despite the whole free love, peace, hippies, Black Power and any host of other liberation movements that gave rise to the age of disco…boys still didn’t have hips, and definitely wouldn’t or shouldn’t wiggle them if they did.  The message was very clear that ideally, I should probably stop wiggling my hips by the time I was 10, despite the best efforts of John Travolta to change a generation.  Alas, by the time I was 11, I was still wiggling.

My parents tried to embrace my wiggling by pointing me toward great black male dancers (Arthur Mitchell, Alvin Ailey, Geoffrey Holder) but I knew that they were hoping I would outgrow this fantasy and settle into wanting to change the world as a lawyer…or at least something with a good stable income.  I accepted their desire and outwardly focused my dance ambitions on the most regal and noble art of the ballet.  But what they didn’t know is that my ballet fixation was a clever rouse; in my heart, I really wanted to be one of those dancer boys on TV or in the movies…like Bobby Banas.  I had seen the movie Sweet Charity with Shirley MacLaine and the Rich Man’s Frug became my life ambition.  But how does one tell one’s parents that not only do you want to be a dancer, but you really want to be that third dancer from the left who has just a little bit more spice and body English than the others.

Bobby Banas’ career is amazing.  He danced with Marilyn Monroe (she kisses him at the end of the opening number of Let’s Make Love), Ann Margret and Debbie Reynolds, in movies like The Unsinkable Molly Brown and the Holy Grail of Hollywood Musicals, West Side Story.  He was a Jet.  He was sexy.  He was strong.  He was impish and Puck-like; an unpredictable beatnick in a world of dance that was careening toward the great cliff of the 1970’s when the great movie musical would go out of vogue.  He wasn’t in front like Russ Tamblyn, Elliot Feld or George Chakiris, but he had just that right kind of quirky freedom that made you look, more than once.  He is part of a generation of dancers who did the hard work of the movie musicals.  They made the impossible choreography of Jerome Robbins, Gower Champion, Gene Kelly, Onna White look not only easy, but fun.  I can only imagine choreographers seeing him come on to the set, looking at his elfin face and feeling his raw energy and saying, yes, yes, please make my dance look much better than I could ever have imagined.

I was very, very lucky.  I had enough talent to be able to pursue the whole ballet thing and get a good foundation.  It was good enough foundation for me to eventually drop ballet altogether and focus on musical theater, but not before taking class with people like Bobby Blankshine and Michael Vernon where I danced (poorly) alongside the likes of people like a retired but still magical Allegra Kent.  Although I happily left 180 degree turnout and stretching my feet for a better pointe, I will always be grateful for the discipline that ballet gave me.

But why a love letter to Bobby Banas?  I guess its a bit like those boys who watched Joe Namath or Doug Flutie or Willy Mays.  Not only did I want to be part of that club, I learned an important lesson about my masculinity by watching dancers like him.  I learned that it was good to be able to express myself physically with joy and not violence;  I learned that my wiggle had nothing to do with my sexuality.  I learned that I had value and uniqueness that no one could take away from me.  In my pursuit of dance, I gained an appreciation for my body as an instrument that required constant and loving care, from the food I put into it to the way I trained it, to the things I asked it to do.  I also gained appreciation for those who came before me and achieved much, much more than I did working with the greats.  My chance encounters taking class with or meeting people like George Chakiris, Suzanne Charney, Donna McKechnie and others were moments of touching greatness that I will never forget.  There is a wonderful You Tube channel out there, Dancers Over 40 (http://www.youtube.com/user/dancersover40)  where you can see some of the great dancers from “back in the day” remembering their early careers and the spectacular times in which they lived and created great work.  The were and still are incredible

But I write a love letter, primarily because my dancing didn’t just stay my dancing.  It became life experiences on Broadway and abroad; it became a career in the fitness industry including my appearance in P90X; most importantly, as I’ve grown out of the body that could do 10 Russian splits, it became perspective on the changes that we go through in life, both physically and emotionally and has given me a foundation for my path as a minister that lets me respect the beauty that once was and the beauty that one becomes.

I can think of no greater gift than to give a little boy the freedom and encouragement to dance.  Even today, boys aren’t encouraged to move their bodies in ways that aren’t goal driven.  Why must a little boy run toward something, or faster than someone?  Why do we ask young men to be able to push someone over, hit harder than and be strongest?  Let boys move just for the sheer joy of moving.  Somewhere in that boy who can bench 250 and can knock down a line of defensive linemen on the football field, there might just be a man who would rather be doing something else altogether…he might actually want to wiggle instead.  And because of that wiggle, he might just turn out to be as remarkable, inspired and inspiring as someone like Bobby Banas was to me.

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Waiting for a Bus While Black

whec_student_arrest_131202a-615x345The title says it all.  I am following the development of this story and eager to see faith communities like First Unitarian of Rochester, mobilize on this.  Please read this and spread it around.  Then have a look at the PDF I’m attaching that lays out a few ‘slave’ rules from Manhattan in the 16 – 19th centuries.  Little seems to have changed.

Three Black Students Waiting for Bus Arrested…

Laws_Affecting_Blacks_in_Manhattan

We have just begun the season of Advent in the Christian church.  We are coming to the end of Hanukkah.  We have just had Thanksgiving.  In each of these celebrations is a very deep sense of both anticipation and longing for wholeness and peace.  Let’s fix this.

– Adam