Pulse

I’m with blogger Anjali Sareen, I’m sick of this shit (see her blog post HERE). I’m tired of writing about death in the US and abroad (see my post on the Paris Attacks).  I’m sick of writing about people’s religiously motivated biases.  I’m sick of writing about terror.  I’m sick of guns.  I’m sick.

So with the killing in Orlando at the Pulse Nightclub, I’m now waiting for someone to make a statement that blames all Muslims for the latest attack.  I’m also waiting for someone to say that gays get what they deserve living their “sinful” lifestyle.  And like Anjali, I’m waiting for us to all too quickly forget and continue with business as usual.

But there’s one thing that we can’t forget or run away from or pray away or extinguish with bullets: the human condition.  Its greatest gift and challenge for us all is the perpetual state of being utterly different than every other human on the planet.  Although we might gang up on each other because of a perceived threat of skin color or idea of the divine or sexual partners, we’re still stuck with the fact that we are in the human soup together.

Folks, we can’t get over being human…so deal with it.

Pulse

When someone’s eyes meet yours
and you know that it is either sex or love
…or both…

When you say the words to your family
and wait for the tears,
shouts,
silence,
embrace…

When you march in the parade
being spat on
and verbally attacked because
“God hates fags!”
still holding your head high…

When you break up with a lover…

These are the pounding beats
of the racing heart
that skip and dance and fight and play
in our veins.
This is life being lived
not a “lifestyle”, choice or sin.
This is a way of being “human”
as old as the planet
that throbs in us all.

No gun,
No religion,
No politics,
No hate,
Will ever stop this
Pulse.

(for all of the kids who just wanted to have a good time last night, the staff and owners of the club and the families and community that is now torn apart.  We…loving, breathing human beings…are with you.)

Personal Infrastructure: Building the Post Ferguson Beloved Community

Barney RubbleOften when the expression “Personal Infrastructure” is used, it is in reference to either technology or specific systems and ways of being in the business world. But I believe there is a much more important way to apply this concept. What about those systems that we use to choose friends or create partnerships? All of these kinds of interactions are based on ways that we have learned to be in the world and together they create a framework, an infrastructure that supports us. Simply put, real Personal Infrastructure is the set of systems we use to support the decisions we make that determine how we live in community.

This week, I read my friend Kenny Wiley’s blog post on Unitarian Universalists in the aftermath of Ferguson and in the run up to the 50th Anniversary of Selma, Alabama. Like me, he continues to struggle with the ignorance and “Barney Rubble” eyes of blank though well meaning confusion that he is met with as a black man in a predominantly white denomination. Like me, he feels both Ferguson and Selma in ways that cannot be understood unless you are wearing brown skin.  And like me, he is left wanting at Unitarian Universalism’s response to today’s race wars.  The questions and the isolation make one genuinely wonder why pursue this faith at all; yet we persevere. His post is very timely for me in that I am working on a longer piece about race in Unitarian Universalism where I raise some very challenging questions about “why” the racial divide continues to persist in a faith tradition that touts its ability to be multi-cultural and welcoming.

This awareness (persistent Unitarian Universalist whiteness) made me think that there is an underlying element of Personal Infrastructure that may be worth exploring more deeply. Before diving in here, I want to be clear that when I speak of Personal Infrastructure, I do not intend to place a value judgment on that structure.  Instead, the intent is to simply and objectively highlight the underlying structures that people create that result in certain outcomes. This is different than in technology and business where, when Personal Infrastructure is raised, there is always a “good” or a “better”, or an “effective and ineffective”…or worse a “failure.” The attempt here is more arithmetic than algebraic…more empirical than it is philosophical. I am looking at the “x + y = z” not the “x if/then y = z2” of how we relate to one another.

Personal Infrastructure as a way to look at community came to me when reflecting on some of the planning issues facing San Diego, my current city. In the world of public policy and urban planning, infrastructure will most often refer to sidewalks, utilities, roads, and sometimes schools and even healthcare. These are the tangible systems that are in place that allow people to live in a modern Western society. I thought then, what about applying this same concept to how people are in social community with one another. What are the “roads” and “utilities” that must be in place for people to be able to thrive and relate to one another and share values and a way of life together?  Even more pointedly for my ministry, what are the systems in place that result in the continued racial segregation within Unitarian Universalism?

Unitarian Universalists

Unitarian Universalist churches are predominantly white. They desperately explore ways to find deeper connection with people of color and ways to attract more people of color, but they continue to miss the mark. Despite some prominent people of color being present in the broader movement and despite Unitarian Universalist presence in several political discourses that center around people of color, on Sunday morning, Unitarian Universalist churches are almost entirely white. Here is where we can look at the question of Personal Infrastructure. The systems in place that bring people into the church relate to location and community. More specifically, these are the same systems whereby members bring people to church. The personal infrastructure of most Unitarian Universalist congregants includes a social circle that is entirely white on an immediate level, between family and intimate friends.  Significantly, this is also true for people of color who are already within Unitarian Universalist congregations (a point also brought up by Kenny.)  Again, without value judgment, it is clear that people come to church because of people they know or people they want to know. If no one in the church knows any people of color, people of color will not spontaneously appear.  Therefore, whiteness as a Personal Infrastructure keeps Unitarian Universalist churches white.

Cautionary Tale

The danger here would be slipping into value judgments and by default simply labeling the situation outlined above as “racist.” But it is not. Again, Personal Infrastructure is not about motivation or even intention, it is about observation and about the system. It is the same with gun violence.  A gun is a system and therefore a gun never killed anyone; people use guns to kill. The system (congregants bringing people they know into the church) is not racist, but the system can be used for racially biased outcomes. The subjective choice to be surrounded socially by one demographic is based entirely on social location and it is not a system in itself. So the solution exists in using the system differently or creating a new one. By understanding this system, the effort can then be applied to where it will make the most difference.  For instance, using the system differently could look like asking Unitarian Universalists to explore who they are in relationship with and how that translates into congregational diversity. Creating a new system could mean intentionally planting churches in communities of color with local residents after doing outreach to community leaders.  No matter what, the system that must change is in the Personal Infrastructure of existing Unitarian Universalists.

By looking at real Personal Infrastructure, I believe we can take an objective view of highly problematic systems and come up with realistic and well thought out solutions. When I was a personal trainer, I often said that it is crucial to let go of punishment narratives and negative influences in order to make real progress.  Constantly dwelling on white guilt and slapping down oppressive behaviors will not fix Unitarian Universalism’s race problem.  Instead, because the goal is objective and non judgmental, the exploration of Personal Infrastructure has the potential to dive deeper into actual problem solving. For instance, by looking at a congregation and assessing the level of actual engagement of congregants with people of color outside of the church, one can create a plan and awareness. One can then ask congregants to look for times when they may have missed opportunities to develop relationships with people of color, then and only then should they ask “why?” Is this a cultural choice that has been passed on or learned? Is this motivated by fear or discomfort or some other way of being in the world? Looking at Personal Infrastructure paves the way toward asking these tougher questions.

Infrastructure supports the way we live in our society. Knowing our real Personal Infrastructure supports the way we choose to live both in our society and within ourselves.  And if Unitarian Universalists are willing to really explore their Personal Infrastructure as it relates to race, it could potentially change the dialogue within the denomination and give us a voice outside of the denomination when it is most needed.

What community will you build on your Personal Infrastructure?

Check it out!: Kenny Wiley – Who Are My People

Let Him Cry

Another shooting.

100_8700While I was waiting for my laundry to finish this morning, I sat in my car writing.  Across the street from the laundromat is a residential care facility.  I’ve often sat in this spot and I watched as women, who I will assume are mostly Muslim (by their headgear) and possibly immigrants, walk in to this facility also wearing the typical care facility garb of scrubs and comfortable shoes.  This morning, I realized that in all the time I’ve looked at this place, it hadn’t registered in me that there are people living there, and possibly living out the end of their lives there.  I thought of the vibrant world around this place: gentrifying hipsters, long time black, Latino and Asian families, young people on skateboards, politics, street fairs, muggings, joggers, commuters, busses, bikes, all literally passing this place by and with it the people inside.  The women in scrubs, caring for each, maybe doing their jobs well, maybe not
, but doing what they can to both earn a living and to actually accomplish some small part of caring for someone who cannot care for themselves.  And it made me cry.

There was a recent article (PolicyMic, May 15 2014 – Eileen Shim) that looked at the quality of tears based on why they were being shed.  Rose-Lynn Fisher goes into wonderful detail of this phenomenon on her website. As I recall there were several types that were easily identifiable, but never did it mention the tears of mixed emotions.  My tears would have been a good sample for this.  Seeing this care facility, my tears were angry…that there weren’t bigger windows or more family visiting; my tears were touched by the dedication of the staff who may not be making more than minimum wage to deal with the messy bodies and emotions of the sick and dying; my tears were filled with sadness…for the families that had been lost by the people inside, whether physically or lost in the lack of commitment from others for their care; and my tears were the memories of having seen my own mother in such a care facility.

The first shooting death of 2014 in Oakland was a 13 year old boy.

When I was a little boy, I was a “cry baby.”  I was constantly criticized for responding to every challenge and every confrontation no matter how small, with tears.  It was eventually impressed upon me that this was inappropriate behavior for a “man” and I remember consciously turning off that part of my reaction and suppressing my tears, adding a healthy dose of guilt and shame to my natural reaction.  Nevertheless, I learned how to be remote and stoic.  Never mind that I also became an enormously angry teenager who channelled that anger into compulsive and destructive levels of over achievement, often pushing himself well beyond his physical limits.  Never mind too that I developed esophagitis and the early stages of an ulcer.  

All of this changed a few years later one day in college when the movie Diva was shown on campus.  In the scene where “La Diva” and the young man walk around Paris to the haunting melody by Vladimir Cosma (Sentimental Walk) there was something triggered in me; the combination of the tune, with the lonely light and the two characters in their shared isolation…it made me bust out sobbing.  It was the first time I had really cried in 7 or 8 years and something in me said that I shouldn’t let it be the last.

Having so consciously cut this part of myself off  and then just as consciously reclaiming it, I have thought a great deal about what happens inside me when I cry ever since.  Something happens within all of us when we cry.  I suppose we try to hide it because it can be as intimate yet universal as a sexual orgasm.  It bubbles to the surface, it swells and wells up until it bursts in us and we can’t and don’t want to stop it.  Yet, terrifyingly, it can also feel so much like falling.  There is an uncontrollable feeling of cascading that comes with surrendering to the emotions that bring tears.  But where do we land?  This is the trouble for men.  Our culture doesn’t tell boys and men that it will catch them when they fall down this well of tears.  In so many ways, men are asked to bargain with society in order to justify their emotions and that bargain rarely includes tears. 

Tears for Western men are a sign of weakness; that is, not being physically strong enough to overcome the emotional tide of tears is contradictory to our misshapen male identity.  With the extreme emphasis put on men to have a monosyllabic physical strength, there is no place for that strength to be vulnerable.  Be strong = hit, push, run, jump, lift.  But if that physicality shows any opening to the inner world (dance, sway, rock, hug, kiss) our culture looks at it as a hole that should be plugged, like an opening in the hull of a boat.

74 school shootings in 18 months; almost all young white males; mostly teenagers; We are training killers.

I remember well the feeling I had in high school before my Diva moment.  I used the word “trapped” to describe it.  I felt as if there was no way out, that even once I graduated, I would be stuck in a way of living, on a path that I hadn’t chosen.  Always, I had this feeling as if I was supposed to be living up to an ideal “male” pattern that I increasingly didn’t fit within/live up to.  I hated that feeling.  I imagine that with all of the images of “ideal” men with all of the talk about what men are supposed to be and with all the competition for increasingly fewer resources of all kinds, young men today must be in a constant dance between devastation and desperation.  I can’t imagine being told to not cry in those circumstances.

But, we are too familiar now with the images of fathers crying on newscasts; the fathers of teenage boys who have been existing in today’s pressure cooker of a world, being told to “suck it up” and “man up”, not maybe in so many words, but in the shape of a world that still looks to Superman as the male ideal.  We are all guilty of creating this generation of murderers.  Every time we defend a classic “strong silent” type or tell a boy to be a “man” and assume that that means somehow acting less vulnerable.  Every time we look the other way when a parent puts a tool instead of an experience in a boys hands….a bat instead of a flower.  Every time we joke with our teenage boys about objectifying girls and women.  Every time we use the word “fag” as a term of derision; and definitely every time we tell a boy or a man either through our own embarrassment or actual words to stop crying.

1 Samuel 20:41 – After the boy had gone, David got up from the south side of the stone and bowed down before Jonathan three times, with his face to the ground. Then they kissed each other and wept together – but David wept the most.

The Bible is full of men crying and expressing themselves.  I don’t recall a single passage where the Bible says “thou shalt not show emotion if you have a penis.”  Quite the opposite.  Men express joy and love (even for one another) and frequently cry to God, to Christ, with other men with women…

How can we re-imagine a male equation that no longer holds on to emotion?  Like canned goods in the sun, boys and men without emotional outlets (beyond anger) are bound to explode some day: maybe in dangerous behavior, or in aggression toward those who are weaker, or in a career spent proving ones “manhood” over and over and over again.  Or maybe they will literally explode in the chamber of a gun.

For God’s sake, why can’t we just let him cry.

Touch Me in the Morning

In Your Hands For Moodle

I want to thank my friend and student Jasmine for pointing me toward the following article:

Touch Me…PLEASE! – Elephant Journal

In the midst of national crises about gun violence, racial profiling, privacy, our role in international war and the like, we forget that we are in the beginning and in the end just human beings…not human DOINGS, but human BEINGS.  The most accessible aspect of that state is our ability to touch.

This semester, I am teaching a class: In Your Hands: Spirituality, Language and Ethics of Touch at Starr King School for the Ministry.  It is geared toward students in seminary, to get us thinking and open up the dialogue about touch.  You see, I believe that the solution to the problems listed above is finding a way to reclaim our ability to be in physical contact with one another without it being commodified.  We have stepped so far outside of our bodies and our embodied experience that we immediately associate touch with exchanges of power, particularly of a sexual nature, and although touch is intimate, intimacy does not always mean sex.  The way a child breastfeeds is intimate, but it is not sex; the way we touch the hand of someone when they need help is intimate, but it is not sex; the way we embrace others in a time of joy is intimate, but it is not sex.  The intimacy is determined by the emotional context that we share when we touch, not by the act alone.

Why do a graduate class on touch in seminary?  Because faith communities have simultaneously done the most to destroy the language of touch and also have the most to lose by eliminating touch.  There have been abuses in every religious denomination…it is not just a Catholic problem.  It is an issue of power and using touch as a tool to gain that power.  Inappropriate touch is the tool of people who are scared and desperate and who have no other way in their understanding, to find what they really seek.  They understand that as people of the big monolithic religious body, they have certain power to direct people’s lives…yet they still feel out of control within themselves.  I am no psychotherapist, but I am a body therapist and I have seen reflections of this kind of behavior in the massage room; where someone who is struggling to feel more in control of their own body is looking for something more from the massage…they never quite surrender to the experience of touch and may direct or anticipate your every move.  Some will make an out and out a pass at you. Not at all to say that this is every case, but I’ve seen it first hand.

Let me be clear, I am not teaching people how to touch in church.  However, I may be trying to teach people how to ask why and why not to touch in church.  If faith communities can make an effort to not just enforce boundaries, but learn about and teach through our natural boundaries, we might just be able to reclaim this thing.  I am not a Christian minister (though I identify as Christian within the Unitarian Universalist Church) but there are countless examples of Christ touching people, or people touching Christ (Matthew 9: 18 – 22 is chocka) and these are beautiful and inspiring examples of faith.  By reacting to those who would abuse touch by saying “don’t touch” we all lose and the abusers win.  Suddenly, we are agreeing with those who misuse touch and in our tacet response we are saying “you’re right, touch is bad and evil and can only be a no-good thing.”  We don’t deserve that as human beings.  Instead I say, don’t let the abusers win; let’s explore and thoroughly discuss the ways and the reasons why we touch in the open.  Shine a light on it and leave the  abusers nowhere to hide.

Already, two weeks in, my class is deeply fascinating and threads of thought and engagement are emerging that I could never have  anticipated.  We’ll see where it goes.  At the very least there are seven future religious leaders in the world who are asking questions along with me.  Its not much, but an avalanche starts when just one stone comes loose.

Peace.

20130916_075406Thank you to everyone who has been reading my blog. My last post Heartbreak received about 1000 hits and numerous comments.  Again, I am deeply grateful to those of you who read, but it is bittersweet that tragedy would have to touch us this way.  I have not written, and may not write about the shooting in Virginia, because truly, my heart is too heavy with the combination of these stories.  I only offer a prayer for those we lost, including the gunman, their families and for our nation to find a solution to feeling as if we need to carry around life and death in our pockets.

Heartbreak

1379273594000-AP-Charlotte-Police-Shooting-DeathI wept on BART this morning.  Reading the news on my phone as most people do, I read the story of Jon Ferrell, the former football player who was shot in North Carolina over the weekend.  I am numb to these stories.  Not to say they don’t register in me as deeply troubling examples of a twisted culture, but I have lived most of my life with news of black men being killed for one reason or another.

At that same moment, a black man came on to BART with his little boy.  The man was dressed in a fashion that (per my previous post) would probably have women clutching their purses, had he not been accompanied by a 6 year old; he wore a football jersey, sagging jeans, baseball cap, many tattoos, etc.  The man and his son sat down and the boy immediately began to read from Dr. Seuss to his dad. The man encouraged him to read it aloud to understand each word and if he had trouble, he didn’t just give the answer but gave him ways to figure it out.  And when they finished that book, the man pulled a ‘grown up’ book out of his bag, opened it to a page and asked the boy to do the same thing.  The boy struggled with the bigger words, but again, the man encouraged him.  The entire time this went on, the man had his arm around his son.

I remembered a similar scene some 43 years ago, with my own dad on the New York City subway, reading Dr. Seuss and being encouraged to figure out the words and when I had questions being asked to think about the answers instead of just expecting to be given the answers.  We were not rich and lived in the pre-fashionable Upper West Side.  My dad, in those days attired himself in what would have been considered the 1970 equivalent of hoodlum gear: large afro, African chain, daishiki print shirt, black ankle boots, etc.

And then I thought back to Jon Ferrell, and Trayvon Martin and Emmett Till and I realized that this beautiful scene of a father lovingly nurturing his son in the art of thought and engaging his world could end with that same father standing by a grave wondering why someone would have assumed that this beautiful and gentle creature who he had so carefully filled with curiosity and knowledge…why someone would assume that because he was wrapped in brown packaging that he was less worthy of living.

Every morning I walk through the armies of broken and searching black men in downtown Oakland.  They have narrowly escaped being targets of fatal gun violence, but they have not escaped being the target of our country’s institutionalized fear.  They live on the periphery, bonding and surviving any way they can.  Some are on drugs.  Some are looking for the next person to take from what they don’t have the opportunity to earn.  Some are genuinely angry.  Some are just heartbroken.  They didn’t start this way.  I wonder how many of them sat with a parent embracing them as they learned to read, never knowing that they would end up reading about their brothers being gunned down just because someone was afraid of the color of their skin.