Conversations About Masculinity – Real ‘church’ is for Men

Napier CathedralI am a regular church goer.  A few years ago when I started to get serious about my commitment to becoming a Unitarian Universalist minister, I figured that a more frequent appearance than Christmas Eve was probably a good idea.

Going to church is not a big stretch for me.  I come from a fairly churchy family and was a regular until I was 13.  Even when I left at that tender age, I knew that I wanted to return some day.    But as an adult things have been different.  Before entering seminary, I often felt that I didn’t have the proper time on Sunday to go to Church, which made it difficult.  Even now, I’m writing this blog on a morning where I’ve had to make a choice between getting my school work done and being part of my church community.  I think many men struggle with this.  Work all week; ‘honey do’ list on Saturday…leaving Sunday as the one day that you can be unscheduled.  Of course Sunday options are limited: watch or play sports, read, shop, do more work (case in point)…or, as a last resort, go to church.  Most men choose the sedentary version of the first on this list (sports), making it ‘their time’ and even though most professional games (whether they be baseball, football or basketball) don’t begin until well after even the late church service has ended, there’s that thinly veiled excuse out there about not wanting to miss the game, which requires watching the pre-game and the pre-game pre show and of course you have to get as much rest as possible leading up to that, so really there is no time for church.

Bullshit.

Now, I am not at all writing this as some kind of holy roller, Bible thumping, hellfire and damnation preacher who wants to blame men for the downfall of religion in America.  No, really, organized religion is doing a good enough job of imploding itself without any help from men.  As I said, I am in seminary, but I’m studying in the Unitarian Universalist faith and for those of you who don’t know about UUs (as we call ourselves), this is as good as saying that I might (stress might) just decide to wear clothes to church and if I do choose out of my free will to be clothed, my garments will most likely include sandals and some form of fair trade hemp.  You see, among the Unitarian Universalist seven principles is the free and independent search for truth and meaning (although contrary to popular belief, most of us go to church clothed.)  We genuinely believe that everyone is welcome at the table…even if they don’t believe in a God, or a supreme being…or tables.  So, my reason for wagging my finger at men who don’t go to church and choose football instead is simply because a lot of men have walked away from the church experience for the reasons I listed before and in doing so, have left themselves out of something that is damaging men everywhere.  This absence of men in the pews supports a bizarre cultural stereotype that church and therefore spiritual connection is somehow only for girls.  And lets be clear here, I’m not talking about supporting the challenging and historically oppressive patriarchy that has come out of some traditions.  My point is that the real spiritual life of men and masculine identified people matters; in fact, it is more important now than it ever has been…hence the title of this piece, and we owe it to ourselves and the world around us not to ignore the spiritual and communal aspect of our humanness.

When I’m referring to “church” here I am definitely referring to small “c” church.  In fact, I also mean to include temple, mosque, prayer garden and any place that people gather or put themselves to engage in a spiritual experience.  But this dearth of men in what are traditionally shared spiritual experiences is most visible in Western Christian churches.  We are currently in an age when, in Western culture, increasing numbers of people have no church affiliation and a significant portion of those people are male identified.1  As a seminarian, I spend a lot of time reading about this and talking to people about why or why not they attend church.  Fairly consistently when I speak with men, they mention that their  mother always wanted them to do it growing up (guilt) or if they are married to a woman…their wife goes (she’s holding the place for both of you), but they aren’t interested and more than anything how they find it boring (no beer, smashing heads or cheerleaders.)

But I would conjecture that it is not so much church that is boring as what Western men have been trained to look for in church that is boring.  After working all week long when you are asked in your job to follow rules, or fulfill needs or meet deadlines, why would you go to a place that is going to tell you about more rules, make you feel guilty for the needs you haven’t met in others and put you on a schedule that makes you get up on the one morning when you can choose to stay asleep?  By these standards, church (still small ‘c’) is the antithesis of what Western men want to do with their free time.  I was just reviewing some more great statistics from the Pew Forum.  On the surface, the numbers tell the story where 59% of men in America identify as “Unaffiliated” where as only 41% of women identify as such.  Jehova’s Witnesses and the historically black church lead the way with the percentages of women who identify with these traditions outnumbering men by some 20%.2  But then in the same chart, we see Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu men outnumbering the women in their self identifying by nearly the same margin.  At first glance one might look to the prominence of men in each of these traditions to be the reason behind these numbers.  The male role in each of these non-Christian traditions is worthy of several dissertations let alone a Sunday morning blog post.  Plus, each of these non-Christian traditions maintains a certain amount of rigor in terms of practice (prayer rituals, rites of passage) and lifestyle (diet, clothing) which on the surface appears to be significantly more time consuming and restrictive than being asked to teach Sunday school once a week or simply put a dollar in the collection plate.  But at the same time, each of these traditions, and their many variants, also offer a more specific connection to cultural and racial identity.  It is certainly worth asking how this element plays into keeping men identifying as Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu.

In the long run, what I’m really talking about is what I call capital ‘C’ Church.  It is bigger than any one tradition or organized group, though it includes and welcomes them all.  You might call it “spirit” another might call it something else all together.  Regardless of the word or language or tradition, this is a connection to one’s inner life; a connection to one’s community; a connection to one’s family and taking the time to embrace and acknowledge these; a connection to what it means in an authentic sense to be male identified and how it is neither a burden nor a privilege, but one of the many states of human being to be celebrated and cherished without hubris.  This ability to connect to the web of humanity, is something that can be beautifully experienced with others through ritual, or it can be experienced in solitude alone on a beach.  What matters is that this crucial part of what makes us, does not go un cultivated and under nourished.  We are even seeing Atheists in growing numbers, who are coming together to acknowledge the need and desire to enrich themselves through acknowledging their humanity.  Many of these “New Atheists” are indeed men, although in a recent series of Salon.com articles the prominence of men in Atheism is called into question as a symbol of patriarchal structures held over from other traditions3…again, another dissertation.

Ultimately, most American men are spiritually out of shape.  What they need to realize is that there are options for how to tone up the spiritual flab and yes, it might mean missing a football game or two.  By occasionally praying to something other than the Heisman Trophy, one might just find a deeper connection to and understanding of themselves, other men, masculine identified people and the women and children in their lives.  If you choose to go to church on Sunday morning, instead of going like a petulant brooding 12 year old, go like an adult who is looking to invest more deeply in the experience here on earth or in the next life or whatever will take you into your particular spiritual place.  Even if you don’t attend an organized formal service, or if you don’t do organized religion of any kind, it is important to find the time in your regular routine to check in with that part of yourself that’s not all about yourself.  Going to your particular ‘church’ and understanding ‘Church’ as it relates to your masculinity is as important as a prostate exam.  You might be uncomfortable at first, but after probing around, you will feel much more at ease knowing that you’ve really got a handle on what’s going on in there.

Footnotes

1. “Nones” on the Rise – PewResearch: Religion & Public Life Project, October 9 2012
2. Religious Landscape Survey – PewResearch: Religion & Life Project
3. 5 reasons there aren’t more women in Atheism – Salon.com, July 29 2013

Body

adam_2In the Fall of 2003 I was asked to be a model for P90X.  It is now the world’s best selling workout DVD.  If you’re unfamiliar with it, there’s a link at the bottom of this page.  At that time, I was in the midst of a grand personal experiment.  I had come to Los Angeles at the end of a national tour determined to be “LA Adam.”  When I started the experiment, I wasn’t actually sure what that meant.  But I knew one thing for sure, it involved having what I called the “LA Body.”  This was a body that would always be camera ready, shaved, sculpted and looking 10 – 15 years younger than it actually was.  Prior to the LA body, I had lived with people commenting on my body as a dancer, for its shape and definition and flexibility; sometimes, welcome, sometimes not.  The most disturbing and regular comment on my body was “you black guys, never have to work out” or “you all look like that” or “dark skin always makes someone look better” or some variation on that theme.  I will happily admit that my parents gave me some good clay to work with, but it was up to me as to what I did with that clay. The idea that my body simply appeared the way it did is naive to say the least.  I started exercising when I was about ten or eleven.  I secretly did hours of ballet exercises in my basement throughout high school.  My freshman year of college, I spent more time in a dance studio than I did in class and then throughout the rest of college, the gym was my refuge from feeling like an outsider.  This past year is the longest I’ve gone in 30 years without a gym membership or regular access to an exercise facility of some kind…only because I spend so much time blogging…but I still, run, do pushups and situps and ride my bike to work.  Yeah, my body just happens because I’m black!

Black men and women have been objectified since day one in America.  Being paraded, proded and peddled as livestock meant we had to have strong bones and teeth, good backs and healthy genitals for breeding.  Stories of auction block antics surrounding the treatment of slaves would disgust most of you so I will let you explore that on your own (see links below.)  But it is that same history that expects us to be good athletes and day laborers and not necessarily bookish and un-athletic.  It is the same history that is behind racial profiling and is history that sits behind the assumptions about Trayvon Martin’s physical ability to inflict harm on George Zimmerman. Black women who are called “Brown Sugar”, black men who are called “Mandingo”…these and the dumb jock mentality are gross assumptions and the worst kind of stereotypes because the black community has frequently adopted them as well.  Blacks have played into a self objectification that makes us out to be nothing more than collection of wildly exaggerated body parts.

It has been a very dicey business for me personally to separate just what is the perverse racially motivated fascination with black bodies in America and what is the perverse fascination with sexuality in America in general.  Living at those crossroads is at times unbearable.  How do you know if someone is going out with you because they like you or because they want to sleep with the ‘P90X Ab Guy’ or because they are expecting nothing short of a sexual freak when they get in your pants?  Or how do you know if that same fascination isn’t just part of the whole “body=sex” equation here in the US?

Simply, you don’t.

I’d love to see us change the dialogue about how we not only talk about black bodies, but how we talk about ALL bodies.  Objectification, racialization, gendering…these are all aggressions we throw at each other, sometimes all too casually.  This fall I will be teaching a course at the Starr King School for the Ministry, In Your Hands: The Language, Ethics and Spirituality of Touch.  My hope is that in this class I can lay the groundwork for changing the game.  When I think of racially motivated violence, both physical and verbal, it is very clear to me that people are only capable of doing these things if they have never been intimate (in the platonic sense) with someone who looks different than they do.  I also believe that faith community leaders have a unique power to introduce a new language of touch.  The crimes of the Catholic church in abusing this power, show just how much power really exists in the ability to influence how someone sees their body.  Repulsively, this power was used by certain members of the Catholic church to horrific ends.  If we only punish them, no matter how severely, they have still won.  We must make a concerted effort to not only make sure those crimes don’t happen again, but to establish a new way to communicate through touch.  The answer is not to eliminate touch…that is inhuman.  The answer is in exploring the deeper meaning of touch as it relates to our physical identity, sense of physical well being and creating a language of liberated body justice where we can not only touch one another, but we can enjoy what that means, without fear or threat.  Imagine a room full of gang members (of any race), or people who hate one another, or total strangers, who are put in a room and simply asked to hold hands…no words.  The potential is tremendous, if we do the tough work…exploring our fears about touch, bodies and physical intimacies.  Faith communities have been vilified in terms of how they view the body and how they use the body.  If faith communities and spiritual people can lead the way to reclaim touch and body awareness, we literally can change the world.

P90X

Starr King School for the Ministry Course Descriptions (mine is at the bottom)

Slave Auction History 1

Slave Auction History 2

Slave Auction History 3

Slave Auction History 4

Do the Work at Hand

The bloggosphere is electric with reactions to the Trayvon Martin case.  I will keep this brief.  If you are in the clergy, bring your people together and comfort them, regardless of their race.  If you are preaching tomorrow, preach the sermon you intended, do not change your subject, rather offer a prayer for those who have come to this bizarre decision and a prayer for real change and real solutions to our colonial sickness.  If you are the member of a church come together with your youth and explain to them that they are safe; particularly if they are black and particularly if they are male.  Do not look for a reason to cause more harm here.  If you are not religious or part of a religious community, talk to your friends, your brothers and sisters, your family, and keep on talking.  We are stronger than this.

Tomorrow I will preach a sermon on Islam to a mostly white congregation.  I will preach about how I am as flawed as any racist or bigot and that in order to be the person of faith that I wish to be, I must acknowledge my failings and face them.  I ask you all as I will ask that congregation, before you react to today’s news, before you tell yourself that you are a good liberal; before you assume that you are immune to bias, look at yourself, ask yourself in your heart where you are broken and where you are flawed and dive deep into working with it to fix it in your heart.  This will allow you to see in the broken hearts of those who have just placed a young person’s life on a lower rung than that of a scared vigilante.

No injustice was ever solved by created greater injustices.  We can take back this country and our dignity and our future if we first learn how to truly love ourselves and one another.

A prayer to us all.

A Prayer…

Yesterday I had a wonderful dinner with good friends who share in a community of love and modest prosperity.  Just prior to that, I stopped in Starbucks, another privilege of wealth and stability, and there I encountered a man who one might just dismiss as a ‘crazy homeless guy.’  He was wandering around the shop picking up bits of paper from the floor and moving too quickly for the number of people in the space, he had dirty clothes on and hadn’t bathed.  His eyes didn’t meet any focused point and he muttered to himself.  He then went over to the ‘fixins’ stand and proceeded to drink the half and half out of the dispenser.  I was on my way out and went by him and as he was standing in my way said “excuse me”, which I think were the only words anyone said to him the whole time he was in there.  He then went off, still fairly under his breath, cussing me out for “excusing” him, but was still deeply engaged in making a meal out of sugar packets and milk.  It was jarring to some extent and came back to me this morning.  Having experienced dementia in my family, it was a reminder to me that even at the most “sane” of times, we don’t know each other’s journeys.  We aren’t in each other’s heads; all we know is what we present to each other and how we perceive that experience all depends on how we experience our reality…and that is entirely up to our personal view point.  Some may call it God…others may call it life.  We can’t judge…we must find ways to accept it and move forward as one.

Spirit of life, God, Goddess, Power that is…

Some of us experience this life as a community

With goals and obligations related to one another,

But what of those who when most of us see a bird,

They see a cat;

When most of us hear music,

They hear a drill…

We pray that just as you walk with us into our churches,

Synagogues, Mosques and Temples,

Just as you comfort those of us who look for individual personal peace,

And just as you are the immediate experience of life that for some only exists in the now,

All of us who “know,”

Protect and walk with those who have no words

Or have no connection

And don’t know that they are in a struggle with our limited reality;

(or is it us struggling with their unburdened freedom?)

Love them just the same.

In your many names, Amen.