Presidents and Pulpits

SFG-Coral-Ghost-Eye-2-main-image-cropA response to the election of Susan Frederick-Gray as the next president of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

I am excited that the Unitarian Universalist Association has elected Susan Frederick-Gray as our next president and I wish her many blessings.  I will support her work enthusiastically.  At the same time, within this celebration of breaking one more glass ceiling, I feel compelled to continue looking forward in order to understand how Unitarian Universalists can truly live the lofty values we put forward.  This election is only one step in a series of many that must happen for us to accomplish that goal.  I will not rehash the troubled journey within the UUA over the last three or four months, nor will I debate the history of racial and gender bias in the denominational leadership.  Instead, as a new minister about to assume the great responsibility and privilege of leadership at the pleasure of a long standing and dedicated congregation, my question is much more basic: why must the President of the UUA be a minister?

On a simple level, it is very easy to see the structure of governance and the balance between “professional” and “lay” leadership that is attempted in our association.  Yet it is that same balance, that says to me having a minister at the helm of the entire Association seems an arrangement we should question in today’s world.  What is more, considering the specificity of how our ministerial leadership is developed in terms of educational pedigree, demographics, economics, age and ability it seems like we are perpetuating the very systems of exclusivity that we are asking our spiritual community to commit to unraveling.  Above everything else, the challenges of the world in which Unitarian Universalism as an organization is being asked to navigate are not challenges that our ministers are being explicitly prepared to meet as organizational leaders.

I’m well aware of some of the incredible professional histories that our past and new president bring to the table.  They are remarkable and multi-skilled people with passion and dedication.  They are immensely qualified leaders.  What is more, a minister leading a religious/faith organization just seems appropriate; one wouldn’t ask Elon Musk to lead the Episcopal Church.  But then again why not?  The assumption that a minister will lead a spiritual organization is status quo thinking and I’m sure that the progress we want to see over the next 10 – 20 years is not status quo progress.  When I look at the list and background of our history of Association leadership we have been blessed to draw the cream of the crop; but it is only a ministerial crop.  What are we missing by not looking across all of the crops within our vast acreage of talent?

I have had the pleasure to meet many incredible people in our congregations and the bulk of them are not ministers.  I have met lay leaders and professionals including Religious Educators, Musicians and Administrators.  They are former and current corporate and non-profit executives, they are lifelong organizers and activists, they are teachers and professors and they are deemed as somehow not qualified to lead this organization because they lack the title “The Reverend.” As a denomination, we place a lot of weight on the three-letter abbreviation (Rev.) But the title doesn’t make the person.  One of the greatest lessons I have learned through my own ministerial formation takes its cue from something Michelle Obama once said about her husband and the Presidency of the United States: “Being president doesn’t change who you are, it reveals who you are.”  Becoming a ministerial leader is the same way, it is a process of constantly peeling away layers until you are your most forthright and present self.  Even then you continue to evolve and change and discover new layers of truth and strength.  It tests you in ways that until now, I’ve only seen from the outside.  But coming to ministry from a very different background of management, it is also very easy for me to see that the crucible that is ministerial formation does not guarantee that one will always be an effective organizational leader or that they will peel away the most restricting layers. It also doesn’t guarantee that one will be the right leader at the right time.  Again, leadership, any leadership is something that is revealed.

As we embrace the new direction of leadership that will be revealed in Susan Frederick-Gray’s tenure, I say hallelujah let’s celebrate!  But I would also say that it is not the time for us to sit back with relief and sigh “whew…at last, we did it!”  We’ve only rolled on to the tarmac, we haven’t taken flight yet.  Rather, it is the time to embrace Susan’s forward thinking and the forward thinking of all the candidates and say “what a great FIRST step toward wholeness!”  We have a long way to go my friends.  We are preparing for a long flight.  Let’s continue to challenge the structures that cultivate complacency, dominant culture oppression and mono-cultural vision.  At last we’ve proven that our leadership can rock a pair of heels (if she wants to…thank you Sofia Betancourt, Susan Frederick-Gray, Alison Miller and Jeanne Pupke).  Now, let’s keep proving that both our leadership and our lived faith can reflect the economic, racial, social, cultural, ability and educational diversity that we talk so much about.

#Solidarity

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LGBTQ Support for Migrant Rights…NOW!

The LGBTQ machine must mobilize as an active agent of resistance to mass deportations and abuses by the current administration. In the midst of our own personal struggle, we cannot let go of our connection to the broader struggle against oppression.  #Solidarity makes us all stronger.

3.8 percent of the US population identifies as LGBTQ[1]. Imagine if the government decided that LGBTQ people posed such a threat to the financial security and personal safety of “traditional” families that they needed to be removed and were routinely “rounded up” and transported out of the country? This is what is starting to happen at this moment to the 3.5 percent of the US population that is undocumented[2]. Through a new wave of aggressive raids and mass deportations, the government has begun the next great humanitarian crisis. It is quite simply a crime against humanity that, if we allow it to play out, will be a stain as permanent on American history as slavery and the ongoing refusal to end rape.

US Presidents have been brought up on charges of crimes against humanity before, largely for their support of foreign governments who created unsustainable or lethal situations in their own countries. But we are currently walking blindly into a situation where our own government is creating the lethal situation in our own territory. American exceptionalism and American isolationism do little to keep us safe; they merely keep us exceptionally isolated. The sheer volume of undocumented people in this country cannot be treated like a small influx of evil or lazy vagabonds. Our undocumented residents represent an entire nation within a nation (nearly 12 million people); a nation that our government has not effectively grown to understand or recognize in the cloud of racist immigration policies[3]. This population is by and large a hard working, honest nation that is eager to succeed and is essential to our way of life. It is a nation whose only crime is having the audacity to want to be included in the possibility of prosperity and life without persecution. This is the exact same story that faces LGBTQ people and the precedent that is being established in the treatment of migrants is one that could easily be turned on LGBTQ people, on disabled people or anyone who doesn’t represent what one narrow slice of the ruling elite deems as worthy of including in the American Dream. The resistance against mass deportations is an LGBTQ issue; it is an African American issue; it is a Jewish issue; it is a Muslim issue; it is a white issue.

The great lesson that will go down in history will be based on how the United States responds in this moment.  How we are able to see humanity before looking at bank accounts and ethnic bloodlines. We cannot afford to see America through only one racial perspective, one gender perspective, one religious perspective or one economic perspective. The bottom line is that our nation and our government created the opportunity vacuum that brings countless people, documented and undocumented to this country. This should be a point of pride, and not a strategy of war and persecution. There is no crime in being not-white, or not-rich, or not-straight. The only true crime is turning your back on another human being out of selfish bigotry and fear.

#LGBTQ4MigrantRights, #Solidarity, #Resistance

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[1] http://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/Gates-How-Many-People-LGBT-Apr-2011.pdf

[2] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/11/03/5-facts-about-illegal-immigration-in-the-u-s/

[3] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immigration_and_Nationality_Act_of_1952

Slogan to the Right

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Lincoln Inauguration (incomplete Capitol) 1861

Four words that are
Not for all
Cast a pall
Build a wall
Straight and tall
Where only one side is right.

Four words that
Conjure an era
Make nostalgia dearer
Allay misplaced fear
Make it clear
There is only one way to be right.

These same four words
Erase black authority
Deny brown integrity
Evade gender autonomy
Remove migrant empathy
Define only one kind of right.

Four words,
one man,
300 million dreams,
An unending struggle to be “right”
That in the end will leave us all
Alone and afraid in a dark and starless night.

– ALD

Afraid of the Dark

Hold on to this moment
this darkness, this grief
this new uncharted place
this reflection where there is no light.

Is this the loss of a parent?
the death of a child,
a suicide,
a life with AIDS?
Is it cancer?
No, and it could never compare.
Those moments are the anchors reminding us
that to do more than just survive
we must thrive.
This is new darkness for some…
and all too familiar shadow for many.
But for everyone in this moment
it is a windowless room,
stifling, close.

There is no way out.
Do not pin your hopes to a symbol.
If you have to broadcast to the world
“I am safe space”,
you are not.
Live the symbol.

There is no way out.
Do not think you can outsmart the system.
If you are working with the rules
to win “the game”,
you are the system.
Learn a new way to play.

There is no way out.
Do not ask which action you can take.
If you are questioning what to do
and looking for direction,
you are doing nothing.
and really “we must do everything…”

Hold on to this moment
this darkness, this grief.
It is a new uncharted place,
it is a reflection where there is no light.
You must hold on
because the goal is not to be outside
but instead to finally face your fears inside.
Learn how to love the beauty, the richness, the power
of what is nurtured in this dark.

-ALD

This poem is inspired by the relentlessly prophetic words and work of Rev. Elena Rose and the army of Trans* Activists teaching us all what it means to live truth.

#DearAmerica

Thanks for reminding me who your really are. I had forgotten the degree to which you value white skin and a penis over pretty much everything else. It had somehow slipped my mind that words are not in the least bit important to you and that deeds and actions mean even less. I guess I had ignored how tightly you were still clinging to ideologies and mythologies about brash, unflinching men in golden palaces full of silent, submissive women under the eye of a vengeful God who would only reward an obedient and privileged few. Yes, I had forgotten who you really are.

And now that you have reminded me, I don’t think I will ever rest again. You see, you claim that your government was “broken” and that you needed to take back your country. But what you saw as broken was not the mistrust, the inaction, the intentional blockade of government or the sickness of capitalism run amok. What you saw as broken was the presence and the power of too many  women, Jews, Muslims, Indians, chinks, japs, niggers, spicks, trannies, faggots and aliens…folks who didn’t look like you, talk like you or worship like you. Too much control in too many hands that didn’t look like yours. You were having to wait in line for folks to pay attention to your needs and no one was listening to your tantrum. So instead of playing nice with the rest of us,  you have shattered the system into a million pieces. Despite your claims of defending the “founding fathers”, you have now ended 240 years of U.S. government solely to justify a narrow world order that you saw was in danger of being outshone by the very words “all men (people) are created equal”. You believe that by smashing the system to bits, you will remain safe and empowered without ever having to look in a mirror or see yourself as one equal among many in this human race.

Well, America, you are wrong.

What you have actually done is given the rest of us justification to play completely outside of the box, and to create a game that you don’t understand and that you will never be a part of. You will try to go it alone, but you will fail.  You have salted your fields and they will now lie fallow for years to come; and because you are alone, you will have no one to help plow it when (and if ) the land is ever healed again. Your crops will rot and fester in the sun as a reflection of your soul.  You’ve signed your own death certificate. So thank you America, for reminding me who you really are and most of all for reminding me that I am not you.

Love and good luck,

Adam

Goodbye Pussy Bow Blouse

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Teddy Roosevelt (Bo Peep) and William Howard Taft (her sheep)

I started this post with the intention of writing about Teddy Roosevelt and the word/phrase “bully!” I figured that would be a creative way to address some of the double standards in this disgusting election process.

Then the final debate happened.

Clinton, who is far from perfect (but remember Obama opposed same-sex marriage and had ties to the Chicago “machine” when he was elected) delivered one of the most gorgeous pieces of pro-choice rhetoric in a flawless manner that brimmed with the exquisite balance of an international politician’s skill and raw gut feeling. Her words were history…and neither of the men in her immediate sphere heard a word she said. But sure as hell when Clinton mocked Trump’s penchant for avoiding taxes he countered with the meme ready phrase “such a nasty woman” which everyone seems to have heard just fine. The other big thing everyone heard was Trump challenging the democratic process by avoiding an answer as to whether he would respect the decision of the American people if the election went against him.

The problem with us only focusing on these moments (Trump’s resistance to concession and his childish insult) instead of focusing on Clinton’s wisdom and insight is the basic problem we are facing in this election: maleness refuses to give up the spotlight. Calling Clinton a “nasty woman” isn’t about Clinton, it is about Trump. It is about every substitute word one could use in place of woman. Saying he won’t respect the outcome of the election, as well, isn’t about Clinton, it is about a democratic process that has been entirely male and is based on European male honor codes up until this point. Therefore, of course the election can’t be legitimate…she’s a woman. Of course a 40+ year political and legal career can be reduced to petty nastiness and namecalling…she’s a woman. This shit is messed up. What’s more messed up to me are the many women who are still supporting Trump. Messed up…but not surprising. One look at the history of women’s suffrage or the women’s rights movement and it is plain to see that sadly almost as many women who have been for progress have been against it.

Melania Trump, wife of Donald Trump, arrives before the second presidential debate between Republi can presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at Washington University in St. Louis, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016.(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Melania Trump, wife of Donald Trump, arrives before the second presidential debate between Republi can presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at Washington University in St. Louis, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016.(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

I am not an anthropologist, I am a minister. My study of history and data always comes back to asking the question, “where do people find peace?” As such, I spend a lot of time thinking about what motivates people in general and I’ve come to the conclusion that above all, it is the promise or premise of safety that drives people most. Whether it is seeking a better job or pulling the trigger of a gun, ultimately someone is making a statement about how they do or don’t feel safe in the moment. I have to believe that the women supporting Trump, much like the anti-suffragists are motivated by feeling the need to defend the way they see and experience safety and order in world. I would say that Clinton may even pose a greater threat to them than an Obama, simply because some of these women may have certain negative assumptions about Clinton that reflect the negativity that is projected about women in general. If you have been taught by male focused society to never trust yourself or as I believe is the case here, never feel safe with yourself, why would you ever vote for someone who mirrors your experience? That is not to say that Trump’s women supporters are ignorant or under the thumb of men or only capable of an emotional decision…they are grown people who can dig their own graves.  Rather, I am naming this cultural challenge to call out the toxic role of patriarchy that pervades all of our concepts of what we think a “President” should look like, sound like or how they should prioritize the value of life and the world.  We’ve learned that President = male identified embodiment and affectation.  One look at the criticisms of Clinton’s voice, demeanor and clothing over the last year proves this point and treating her position on women’s unique healthcare as a footnote in this last debate underlines the dominance of male privilege even more.

In this patriarchal society where the vast majority of women are pressured to present themselves in a way that is entirely about the male gaze and male based criteria of desire, the idea of a woman who is self possessed and who cannot be diminished by an irresponsible male partner and who is impenetrable to personal assaults on her accomplishments or her gender is not just anathema but may actually be mortally terrifying to some. It upsets the order that has been ordained by certain faith (1 Corinthians 14:34) and codified over the years by law (the eras pre-19th amendment and pre-Roe v. Wade, etc.) It flies in the face of how we have learned to navigate gender. It doesn’t let some people feel or aspire to what they know as safe. What does make some people feel safe? Melania Trump made up like a prize show kitten surrounded by expressionless hyper blond women who show no greater joy than promoting the “strong” “successful” man in their life who is someone who “tells it like it is” even if he’s not capable of telling the truth…least of all about himself. Seeing women as props for the male ego…that’s what makes some people feel safe.

I have two hopes for election night. The first is that Hillary Clinton is elected as the 45th President of the United States. The second wish is that she publicly and openly weeps with joy at the accomplishment. Not because she is a woman, but because it is a long over due achievement in erasing the ridiculous gender norms of politics that have been killing us all and for which the nation and our ancestors regardless of gender identity all deserve a good deep cry. Yes, Barack Obama opened the door to non-white men filling the office of President, but Clinton will actually take the door entirely off its hinges.

And you can be sure she won’t be wearing any (f**king) pussy bow blouse as she steps across the threshold.

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(c) Vogue Magazine

Hillary For President Because…Diahann Carroll

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Diahann Carroll in “Julia” (1968)

In the summer of 1995, I was standing back stage on board the cruise ship Legend of the Seas. It was my first week as Production Manager and the guest star for this cruise was about to go on stage. The phone rang and with less than five minutes to curtain, I was inclined to ignore the call, but I answered anyhow.

“Hello, this is Vic Damone…may I speak with Diahann?”

It was a reality check that I will never forget. At that moment, I had a legendary Hollywood star waiting in a dressing room and another legendary star (her ex husband) on the telephone calling shore to ship from Los Angeles to wish her well. What’s more, the star in the dressing room below was a groundbreaking actress on stage, film and television. And even more than that, she had been a symbol of black pride, beauty and the future of blackness throughout my youth. She was part of why I became who I am. I was about to introduce, Miss Diahann Carroll.

I asked our stage assistant to bring Miss Carroll up from the dressing room to receive her call. We would hold the curtain for as long as it took.

My time on board that week with Miss Carroll was not idyllic. I was new in the position and still trying to understand my authority; the ship was new and still technically under construction; Miss Carroll was nervous about appearing in her first live performance in several years plus being in preparation for taking on the role of Norma Desmond in the musical Sunset Boulevard. Ironically, the only thing that was flawless that cruise was the Alaska weather. Still, despite all of the potential and actual angst, I came away from my interaction with Diahann Carroll completely besotted and with a greater understanding of just how important someone like her has been to the world. She was a game changer. We need more game changers.

When Diahann Carroll appeared in the title role of the television show Julia in 1968, she was the first black woman to lead a national network television show that was not variety or one where she played a maid.

The question is what kind of game changers do we need in the world? This election cycle, there has been a lot of talk about how Bernie Sanders and The Dump represent “out of the box” thinking. They are both painting themselves as non/anti-establishment candidates who are presenting alternatives to political business as usual. But are they really game changers? The Dump talks a very aggressive game. He says things that politicians don’t say; he does things that politicians don’t do. His unorthodox campaign is successful in terms of garnering him people’s votes as well as media presence as well as stirring up xenophobia and racism (even if he is by political standards financially broke). But I would argue that he is not a game changer; he is putting on a show. He is simply applying to politics the same dreadful histrionics he has used in business (one could call them theatrical robber baron or huckster tactics). As he always has, he is leveraging both his whiteness and his maleness to be given a pass as a “bad boy” where any non-white non-male would have been submerged (or put in prison) a long time ago. That is definitely business as usual.

Sanders is a bit different. He is talking an innovative game. Sanders brings vision and inspiration and soaring aspiration to the campaign that is desperately needed. He voices the real goals and concerns of “the people” and does not lose touch with that crucial connection. He is authentic and extremely wise. This is exactly what he has done for 25 years in Congress. He has not been afraid to present radical ideas and independent thinking. He has been a vocal opponent of the establishment, big business government, hawkish politics and he has been a consistent and dedicated voice for his highly independent constituents. But with all that, he has played entirely by the rules. Many people forget that the rules of the United States Government allow for dissent…radical dissent even. He has been vocal and sounded the rallying cry, but Sanders has not dismantled any systems or successfully blocked any of the usual way things are done in our government. Bernie Sanders may be using radically different colors, but he is still very much so drawing within the lines.

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Scenes from “Julia” (I’m Dreaming of a Black Christmas)

When Diahann Carroll appeared in the title role of the television show Julia in 1968, she was the first black woman to lead a national network television show that was not variety or one where she played a maid. Her role was a professional nurse, and she was the star. It was also a show that spoke upfront about race in the middle of the most violent years of the Civil Rights Movement. Take for example the episode “I’m Dreaming of a Black Christmas” that opens with her young son arguing with a little white boy about the whether Santa Claus is black or white (see clip here). Prior to this, Miss Carroll had appeared opposite white actor Richard Kiley as a fashion model in Richard Rodgers’ No Strings on Broadway where she was also his love interest, breaking the color barrier in musical comedy. Because of her other powerful performances (Porgy and Bess, Carmen Jones, House of Flowers, etc.) she was a highly sought after guest on musical television programs with Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Sammy Davis, Jr. and other major white stars. She was not a ‘sex kitten’ a ‘blues mama’ or a domestic. Diahann Carroll was presented as a legitimate, mature artist who’s stunning voice, acting chops and statuesque beauty could not be contained in the racist attitudes of the day and could easily rival Doris Day or Barbra Streisand. In the 1950’s she had married white producer Monte Kay who was also 14 years her senior. imageIn the late 1980’s she stood toe to talon with Joan Collins in Dynasty.  She was powerful without being a cliché of black womanhood. Diahann Carroll was always true to herself which meant that she never played by the rules of her era. She was a real game changer.

Hillary Clinton insisted that the role of First Lady (both of Arkansas and then of the United States) was not simply to play hostess. Building on her role model Eleanor Roosevelt, she saw herself as both an extension of the President’s political power and effectiveness and as an independent player with a clear political agenda. Clinton then went completely against the grain of former First Ladies and opted to run for and win a seat in the US Senate instead of devoting herself to her husband’s legacy. Following a highly volatile battle for the Presidency against Barack Obama, she then went on to serve as his Secretary of State. We can and should argue about her record in each of these roles and we can find fault and favor with her decisions and motivations in certain circumstances, but it is undeniable that she has rewritten the resume of qualifications for people seeking high political office, particularly women. She has actually changed the game.

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Diahann Carroll today

We need game changers. This is the rhetoric that The Dump and Sanders are using. Sometimes you have to play outside of the box, or draw outside of the lines. But there is only one candidate who has consistently done this throughout their career. In fact, she has drawn an entirely different picture of what it looks like to find a path to the White House. One could argue that she has performed no better than any other white male politician. But I think you would be hard pressed to find any other politician with her public service pedigree and I believe we are a little to quick to assume that the playing field is so level that her being a woman doesn’t matter.  No one seems willing to use gender to Clinton’s advantage, but all too many are willing to use it as a weakness (criticism of her hair, clothes, voice, etc.) We need to invest in her as a whole and uniquely qualified person…a woman, an international statesperson, a Senator, a First Lady and an attorney…a game changer…and more importantly we need to insist that she see herself this way as well. She is the true radical by raising the bar for qualifications of all Presidents who follow, male or female.

The 2016 presidential election will not be won by the status quo, but in our current climate of ethical volatility, most people are focused on lofty ideology. It would serve the voting public to shift that focus more toward actual skills, political caché and battle tested durability that will be necessary to move the immovable object of the US Congress to action. This election should be won by the person who opens up a completely new way of thinking about what it means to be President of the United States and what that means to the context and relationship between our three branches of government. This next administration may not be as much about policy as some would have it as it is about the person. Just as the producers of Julia must have realized they had a unique opportunity, Hillary Clinton can be our nation’s Diahann Carroll.  What’s wrong with a black Santa Claus anyhow?