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.

Inside the Lines

It is a test.
Not as functional as potty training
or as complex as matching shapes and colors
but a test just the same.
And so you sit doubled over
in a position that defies bones
with smudgy fingers working carefully
face screwed with concentration
and an occasional, focused and exasperated huff.
The blue cannot bleed to the red.
The red cannot touch the yellow,
because you are guided by solid black lines.
Working in earnest
to make the crayon behave in your hand.
Learning that if you press hard
the color is dark;
if you press lightly, it is barely there.
Finding wild abandon at having filled the edges
so you can broad stroke scribble through the middle.
Just the same, it is a test.
Rewarded even when what should be white in the eye is green
and the tongue is yellow
or the nails are striped.
The main goal is always staying inside the lines.

In one stroke you are 50
and all the books are filled
with tidy, neat inside-the-line precise shade.
What do you do when the borders disappear?
The sudden death,
your own breaking body
the change in course
a blank page.
What do you do when you must
create the image from scratch?
When your tiny hand only knows how to behave
and never learned how to give birth,
to improvise or riff?
So you dread the first un-girded mark
of your life that isn’t a test.
You self-medicate
and obsess a little I guess….
Somehow, you just have to learn to love the mess.

-ALD

primary_crayon_colors

Pray

I had the great opportunity to present this poem as part of the arts and culture initiative at the Equity Summit 2015 in Los Angeles this week.  What an amazing experience to be part of this gathering of people who are changing the world through policy and practice that promote equity!  This poem was the opening for a session titled Faith Leaders Delivering on the Promise of Equity.  My hope is that we are able to make a difference regardless of how we do or do not acknowledge the presence of faith in our lives.

http://www.policylink.org/

Pray

How will you pray for me?
Will you summon your God
Will you call on your symbols
Will you tell me your ritual
Is that all you can say?
How will you pray?

How will you pray for me?
When you see me in chains
Will you judge
Will you jury
Will you sentence my stay
How will you pray?

How will you pray for me?
When my head is covered and yours is bare
If my language is ancient
And yours barely there
If my day of rest
Is your hardest day of play
How will you pray?

How will you pray for me?
Will you see my skin
Will you feel my body
Will you know my mind
Will you understand my words
Or will you put them each
In a separate place
Or order or way…
How will you pray?

How will you pray for me?
If I don’t pray at all
If I am not called or calling
Deemed or damaged.
If I see myself not broken
But beautiful every day.
How will you pray?

And if you’ve never prayed
And if you don’t have the time
And if you see faith as sanctified crime
And too much of a price for your sense of self to pay
Can you still look in my eyes
Hold my joy or hear my cries.
Can you love me,
Love me,
Love me,
Love me just enough
In your own way
And pray?

Does God Still Work?

I have not read the full report…only seen the headlines. Frankly, I suppose at this rate it is fitting that I would choose to come back from a self imposed month long social media blackout today, and more relevant that I would come back with the question that came to me in the wee hours of this morning before whoever decided to start shooting on yet another college campus…

Does God still work?

I don’t pose this question to be provocative, or to call into question anyone’s personally held beliefs. Nor do I pose the question as a rallying cry to Atheists or Theists to offer the “right” answer. You see, I am studying for my Masters of Divinity degree and today, I have my Intro to Theology class and tomorrow, I have my Intro to Old Testament. Ironically, in both classes, we are at a point where we are discussing/questioning the many names for “God/god.”  I will hear plenty about God in the next 48 hours.

So, I will spare you technical analysis, exegesis or deep theological reflection or sources and footnotes. For the record, I can handily jab a parry with some pretty hefty brained people at this point and there is a place for that. This isn’t it. My question comes from the gut wrenching feeling that we have to question whether we (the human race) have actually got it all wrong at this point. I am overwhelmed by a feeling of sitting in a school that is not unlike the many places where it suddenly feels very unsafe to be. I am surrounded by people who are invested in the greater good and understanding of human life as a spiritual journey, yet I have the overwhelming feeling that it is simply a bunch of crap. Hundreds of thousands of hours, millions of dollars, lifetimes, spent trying to explain, justify, affirm, deny life in relationship to one word: God.

…and a shooter can walk around a school and kill innocent students. A tsunami can kill hundreds of thousands of people. Governments attempt to exterminate people who disagree. World leaders are assassinated. Cancer still spreads. Death comes to the young…

And it has always been this way.

…and a child is born, the sun still rises, illness is overcome, prophetic words inspire, art is created from nothingness, people are fed…people are freed. There is love.

And it has always been this way as well.

We no longer live in a time of intimate communication. When I went to get a coffee this morning, I watched an entire line of people with their heads dangling into electronic devices, bumping into each other, unresponsive to the barista’s cheerful “good morning!” unengaged with each other. Many would make the excuse that in a coffee shop in the morning, people are still not awake. Frankly, that’s bullshit. This zombie parade is a product of the smart phone…which has made dumb people…and the commercially driven technical age. Even sleepy people can say good morning to one another…if they aren’t texting, tweeting and obsessing about things that aren’t actually present. Eye contact is dead. The simple return of the question “…and how are you?” is met with surprise, because it has fallen out of vogue. There is too much emphasis put on what’s next?, what am I missing?, aspiration and acquisition combined with self reliance and independent spirit. An entire culture of Generals…and no one willing to actually be a soldier…no, no one willing to be daisies in the gun barrel, or better yet, a daisy among the field. Everyone is starring in their own personal reality show. In an age when we are surrounded by bright shiny things, science as the rule and capitalism as the goal, is seems in so many ways that God has been totally left behind.

Yet, we are still alive, we are still human, we still question our existence, we still search for meaning in the way time and experience unfold, we still yearn for hope and comfort…and contact.

And it has always been this way as well.

Leaving the coffee shop, I saw a friend who spends a lot of time in the street. As such, he is often outside of places where I simply breeze in and out. He asked me how I was and I replied that I was fine. I returned the question and he answered that he had a bit of a cold and a stuffy nose as a result. He asked if I could get him some tissue from inside the coffee shop. I did so without hesitation. Simple for me, not so simple for him, but if my head had been buried in text messages, or my ears plugged with my music…I would never have heard his soft voice with the simplest fillable of human needs.

…we are still alive, we are still human…we still yearn for hope and comfort and contact.

I don’t know if God still works. But I do know that everything that compelled us to speak the name of God, or not speak the name…whatever it is that caused us to deny that there is a God or to see god in our human experience of nature…whatever brings us to church or the mosque or temple…what keeps us at home watching football instead….what makes us genuflect, wear religious garments, respect symbols of faith…and even what makes us believe that the only thing is here and now…all of that does still work.

And it always will.

Where Is Your Faith?

Unitarian Universalists have struggled in the past year to embrace the “Black Lives Matter” movement. In June, we passed our action of immediate witness to embrace the movement officially, but not after a contentious, overly “processed” and public debate at our General Assembly (UUA AIW). Our congregations have been struggling with the questions of whether or not to put up public banners on our churches resulting in strained relationships between congregants and sometimes clergy. We have had ministers preaching non-stop from the pulpit about race and racially motivated violence and some of us have seen numbers drop off as a result of fatigue. Now, we are seeing hate speech appear on our Facebook pages and banners are being cut down or vandalized (See this beautiful statement from UU Fellowship of San Luis Obispo: READ HERE.)

“Why can’t we just stay a nice club?”

This is a sentiment that I’ve heard in our churches repeated over the years all over the country. It is echoing louder than ever in my head these days, and it has me scared…

Scared that as a predominantly white community, Unitarian Universalists don’t have the stamina or the self education to do this thing we call “anti-racism/multi-culturalism”…that I call “being a person of color in America every day.”

Scared that we will retreat from the “fad” of “Black Lives Matter” in the reality of today, and only resurface 25 years from now to commemorate “Michael Brown Day” and converge on Ferguson, Missouri where we will cry and sing spirituals and march praising our UU presence while forgetting the thousands of people outside of our denomination who have died seeking justice for blacks in this country.

Scared that we will climb on the bandwagon to start electing old white men to the Presidency again because they talk a good game, entirely missing the point that it is more important to continue changing the face of the US presidency (and more importantly change the gender) than any political platform at this moment in history.

Scared that Unitarian Universalists and other folks of “liberal religion” are actually more concerned with protecting their white enfranchisement (regardless of their racial identity) than having a nation that is balanced in opportunity, safety, security and government.

I’m scared most of all that Unitarian Universalism isn’t strong enough as a faith.

So I ask that you don’t applaud, critique, or “white-splain” my honesty here… I don’t need the flattery of your attention. I need you to prove that my fears are wrong. Dig deep. Find the wellspring in your core that sustains you as a change agent. Where is your faith? We are on a long journey; we’ve only just begun marching up the hill…we aren’t even close to the crest. Where is your faith? We are entering a new reality where people of color are going to tell white people that they have no say; where whites are going to feel helpless and ineffectual; where people of color, trans* people and people of different abilities are going to disrupt, dismantle and disrespect the “order” that has been put in place to disrespect and disempower them.  They/we know exactly where our faith is.  Where is your faith?

Certainly, none of us knows where this will end. But we are sure as hell clear that it is headed away from single culture dominance, single gender influence and single ability perceptions.  That is the only way we will ever have real multi-culturalism and anti-oppression…

So, go put the banner back up. Let the trans*woman of color speak. Learn ASL. Trust someone else’s leadership…repeat.

And ask yourself, where is your faith?

Is This the Place?

San Diego Temple

San Diego California Temple

This morning, I began my day by reading a Huffington Post article about the “mass resignation” of at least 500 members from the LDS church (see the Facebook page here.)  I think this caught my eye because I was speaking with a dear friend just this weekend who grew up Mormon and enlightened me to the fact that the Mormon church is shrinking drastically; that like other denominations of organized religion in the United States, the LDS church is having trouble not only keeping members, but growing new ones as a result.  I was surprised by this personal report because there is a good deal of information out there (mostly generated by the Mormons) that says quite to the contrary (here is an interesting article on the disconnect between some of the reported numbers.)  But whether or not the LDS church is growing, doesn’t concern me as much as whether or not Unitarian Universalism has a place for them if they do leave their home church.

I love engaging people who come to the UU faith from other traditions.  In fact, these have been some of my richest interactions.  Frequently, the conversations are prompted by some statement that someone who self identifies themselves as a spiritual “refugee” has made when I invite them to tell me what brought them to a UU church or to explain or dive deeper into why they carry bitterness, or dismissal or outright hatred for their birth faith.  I have encountered Mormons in our circles as well, who are challenged not so much by negative feelings about the church they left or by UU free thinking, but more by what can sometimes feel like a lack of spiritual and theological discipline and rigor in UU spaces.  It is that ever reverberating question “what do you believe?”

My friend and fellow UU blogger, Andrew Hidas, this week posted about “The Difference Between Faith and Belief” which has me thinking about this question as well.  Not everyone who comes to UU churches from other faith traditions is coming damaged, or as a “refugee.”  Some (and I would even argue most) are coming because they believe in “both/and.”  They still believe in their faith tradition (or would like to), but they also want to be in authentic community with others who may not share that faith; they also come with genuine questions about faith in general.  This is my personal predicament.  I identify as a Christian.  In fact, I’m about to embark on a deeper exploration of my Christian faith, specifically as a part of my Unitarian Universalist journey and to deepen my understanding as to how to bridge the gap between Unitarian Universalists and historically Christian communities of color.  As a seminarian, I am often asked, why then don’t I just seek ordination from the UCC or Episcopal church?  My reply is twofold: a) I believe in a religiously pluralistic community and b) am I not welcome as a Christian?  Much like the children’s hand game, I often wonder if Unitarian Universalists are distracted by the monolithic organizations (the church and the steeple) before they are able to see the individual people inside of other churches.

The larger percentage of religious people that I encounter, regard their religion as a framework.  Whether taken literally or figuratively, the texts, practices, creeds, and even dogma etc. serve as a reference point that allows them to move through their everyday life with a feeling of security that gives them perspective on what is frequently a turbulent ride (here is a Gallup poll on the numbers of people who interpret the Bible literally as one example.)  Also, I don’t believe that most people consider themselves intellectuals.  They are not primarily concerned with the more esoteric and broad societal implications of a doctrine that speaks to a greater, less tangible good. They are concerned with putting food on the table.  More plainly put, most folks just want some help, either in the form of kindness or by being told that someone once suffered more than they did and it came out okay.  On a basic level, this is what organized religion does for many “believers.”  I look at some of the Mormons I’ve known over the years and I see this.  On the most basic of levels, they are a close community that believes in family and generosity and life with a purpose.  I am not for one minute ignoring or excusing the fact that the same church organization banned blacks until the 1970s, and created Proposition 8, but I have to believe that there is a middle ground between a belief structure that inspires one toward rich relationships with humanity and political mind control and abuse of power and privilege.  Religion cannot be all or nothing.

Unitarian Universalists have a unique calling.  As we have evolved (and specifically as a non-creedal faith where “all are welcome”) we must find a way to actually support people in their various beliefs and non-beliefs.  It would do us no good to say to the Hindu, “you are welcome in our church, but leave your belief in Dharma outside.”  Just as it would be equally problematic to say to a Mormon “come on in…but don’t bring Joseph Smith.”  If we are truly “multi religious” we can’t just paste up the symbols of multiple religions in the back of the pulpit and say “we’ve got it covered”…Clarence Skinner and the Universalists who founded the Community Church of Boston discovered the challenges with multi religious community first hand, and in fact, reflecting on our Universalist history in particular might be a good starting point to get us closer to fulfilling our modern calling.  Unitarian Universalists’ greatest and most challenging task is still ahead of us: reconciling the relationship between the “non believing” and the “believing.”  Creating a space that celebrates faith, belief and non belief while offering a connection to them all through our shared, common existence.  Only then, will we be able to call ourselves truly multi-religious and be able to give a genuine shout out to everyone, including the Mormons, in the house.

Black Male Achievement ≠ White Male Failure

Equal UnEqualScenario 1: Hair There and Everywhere

A white woman was shot to death this morning after an altercation with a black man at a lunch counter.  “She kept hitting me with her long hair when she tossed it” the man said as he was led away in handcuffs “They’re always tossing their hair, never minding who it hits and where if flies…and this one had one of those whiny, whiny voices and played with her food like a two year old…it was too much, I just snapped.”

This actually happened inside my head last weekend when I was having lunch in Los Angeles.  Seated at a counter, the woman next to me kept flinging her hair and droning on and on about some nonsense with a boy she was texting, while mashing a piece of pie into a vile baby food like paste; not easy to ignore in the close proximity of counter seating.  But as it was, this is a scene that I’ve been a part of repeatedly through my life, where a white woman with long hair thinks nothing of tossing it in my face, on my body, in my food.  I have learned great patience with this.  But to my knowledge, no one has pulled a gun on someone for this casual, though exceedingly personal rudeness.  It is a cultural behavior with built in assumptions: “all girls do that,” “she didn’t mean any harm,” “gee, its a little sexy”…all in all not considered a life threatening situation, despite being a direct invasion of personal space.  Yet, the state of Florida has once again been through a racially charged trial based on another kind of cultural behavior that somehow, has, once again been treated as a life threatening situation. Rest in Peace Jordan Davis.

Scenario 2: White Male Guilt

“Why does it always have to come back to race?” His face was a perfect picture of genuine frustration and vulnerability. “I mean, every time I hear about the economy from a person of color, I feel like I want to crawl under a rock.  It makes me ashamed of the color of my skin…and it makes me angry that I can’t disagree.  I feel helpless”

I have had several recent interactions like this with white men where they ask or say something to the effect of “can I do anything right?” and “why do I always feel guilty?”  and “why are white guys always wrong these days?”  What is most surprising is that these are the liberals; progressives who are supposedly living lives that are dedicated to social, racial and economic justice.  I read a lot of blogs and online content and often when a piece involves statements about colonialism or inequality and race, there is increasing backlash in the comments from white men who feel vilified and targeted as being the source of all cultural ills.

Scenario 3: A “Black” President

President Obama is poised to launch the “My Brother’s Keeper” Initiative.  This is not only a first in American history by specifically targeting improvements for men of color from a National perspective, but it is seen as a fitting legacy for the country’s first black president who is uniquely positioned to leverage his own identity to address the United States continuing challenges around men of color.  Praised by most progressives, there is also backlash from predominantly white groups who feel this is too narrow a focus for a US president and also some from women’s activist groups who feel there is already too much focus on outcomes for men.

President Obama has made it clear that one of the legacies he will leave will be to have made a commitment to helping black men counter the institutionalized cultural barriers and hurdles that still linger in our national consciousness.  Although he is mixed race, he identifies as a black man and sees an opportunity to leverage this social location into real and positive change.  But already there are ugly attacks on his Presidency and threats to his and other black men’s personal safety for highlighting this work.  Part of me wonders how is this different than George Bush and his commitment to faith based communities based on his identity as a Christian?

Where This is Heading

I lay out these scenarios because I believe that they are the formula for a perfect storm.  We are facing the very real prospect of a true revolution unlike any we have seen before and one for which, in our techno driven, isolated, “me centered” existences we are ill prepared.  As a nation, we have never before faced a critical mass of empowered people of color and marginalized populations who were not so much asking for change in the cultural narrative about equality as they were making the change.  In California alone, there are community organizations that are pointing toward redefining the place for indigenous sensibilities in the lives of young men of color; organizations that lift up the unique relationship between Latino communities, parents and LGBTQ people; others that are dedicated to new educational models for young people of color or re-imagining how people of color can access healthcare through school communities…the list goes on.  These organizations represent the result of cultural fatigue of asking but never receiving from the dominant hierarchies, from the government systems and agencies.  The result is marginalized people and specifically people of color representing their communities in state and local legislature and making changes that will help the people they come from.  The history of missed opportunities for people of color, is part of the fabric of what this nation comes from and goes right back to the beginning.  The best example is how the founding fathers of the United States had the opportunity in early drafts of the Declaration of Independence  to significantly alter the prevalence and conversation around slavery in the fledgling country (see full text HERE).  However, it was determined that this language would imperil the success of securing independence over all.  Basically, dealing with the injustice of slavery, took a back seat to the priorities of the white landed men who were more concerned about separation from British rule and protecting their own interests.  People are through with waiting.

But there is a bigger lesson here.  The title of this entry is “Black Male Achievement ≠ White Male Failure” (if you are unfamiliar with the “≠” symbol or your computer doesn’t display it properly it stands for “does not equal.”)  In the fight for rights in America, we are at a crucial point.  Those fighting for rights are no longer looking at success as being defined by the standards and approval of the dominating culture (largely white men.)  And as a result,  instead of looking at polarizing in-equalities we have to explore unifying equalities that exist in a broader cultural landscape and increasingly varied social locations.  Where the language was once “level the playing field” and “war on: poverty, sexism, racism, etc.” (language that subtly implies winners and losers) the language must now speak of community, interdependence and universal balance if we are to actually avoid negating (or worse obliterating) one another all together.  The “stone soup” analogy fits here: independently, we will starve; blending our ingredients together, we will all be nourished.  Therefore, the “enemy” (if you subscribe to that language) is not just white and male; the real enemy is anyone who has adopted and perpetuated the attitude from colonial culture that excluding “the other” for more selfish opportunities is a positive thing.  Adopting an attitude of “I’ve got mine” is cultural violence that ultimately will not sustain progress.  Shockingly, the “I’ve got mine” violence usually takes the form of silence.  Yes, the violence is conservative white politicians changing the landscape of voting rights, and the violence is in “Gay Jim Crow” laws in Kansas.  But the violence is also in white LGBTQ silence on issues of race and African American silence on Immigration rights and Asian American silence on issues of financial disparity and minimum wage increase.

So in the end, would I be justified blowing the brains out of a blonde for flinging her hair at me? No.  Is a white man justified for killing a black kid who’s music was too loud. No.  Are white men always wrong. No.  Are black men always right. No.  The only way we can actually know one another is by sharing real relationships with each other without value judgements and comparisons.  My gayness does not diminish your straightness; her Judaism doesn’t diminish your Islam; and indeed, black male achievement does not mean white male failure.  There is plenty of room at the counter and plenty of soup for all of us.