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.

Happy Birthday

Today is the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  It was a pivotal day in the history of the Civil Rights movement in America.  Although it had been conceived before (reference is made in the film Brother Outsider to a plan in the 1940’s for a march of this nature) it was the first time any demonstration of this magnitude had ever come together in this country.  A mixing of races and religions and economic backgrounds came together and stood united in demonstration of the need for change for one specific demographic sector…black people.

These kinds of demonstrations aren’t so simple now.  As we progressed from the era of fighting for the rights of one marginalized population, other groups began to find their voices in the song of freedom.  Women, Gays and Lesbians, Latinos, Asian Americans, people with disabilities, Jews, Muslims, Atheists.  But eventually people started to realize as well that they weren’t just part of one group.  We used to joke (before political correctness) that if you were a black Jewish lesbian in a wheelchair, you had the ultimate minority status.  But we don’t make those jokes anymore; in fact, we are starting to see the value of recognizing what a black, Jewish, disabled lesbian would represent in the mix.  She would represent the degree to which we all sit at intersections of cultures, demographics and social standings.  Each of us has privilege; each of us has disadvantage.  The Civil Rights Movement ushered in an age of self identity that has now culminated in all of us finding multiple self identities.

As we look back on the March on Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech, the brilliance of Bayard Rustin’s organizing and the willingness of the people to buy into the effort and gather en-masse during a weekday, it does seem clear that somethings have definitely changed.  But it is also clear that some things have not really changed at all.  People have died for a cause who’s banners would be just as relevant today.  A white man can kill a black man and walk free.  We talk about how demographics are shifting to make people of color the majority in this country by 2050; but that kind of binary based demographic still leaves white people as the “norm” or the barometer against which everyone else is measured.   Change…but the same.

Progress…real progress, will mean a time when we are able to look at the world through something other than the binary lens: black/white; gay/straight; male/female; rich/poor; able/disabled.  We will look at each other as hearts and minds and we will look at life and maybe even God as a continuum…a spectrum of experience.  We will have no need for demographics because we will no longer be judging each other.  We will fully embrace our selves as black lesbian disabled Jews and our society will actually not raise an eyebrow when it is asked to embrace us back.

But over all, my point is, this day, in 1963 is when it began.  Certainly others fought hard before and after this date, but it is the one date we can point to when we know that at least 250,000 other people were thinking pretty much the same thing: “we need to do something about this mess.”

Today is also my friend Stacey’s birthday…in fact at the exact moment when those 250,000 people were gathered on the National Mall, when Martin Luther King, Jr. declared “I Have a Dream”, while Mahaila Jackson sang “How I Got Over,” Stacey sent her first cry to the heavens.  And although both Mahalia and Dr. King are gone, Stacey is still here and still crying to the heavens, singing jazz.  In 50 years, she has changed of course…as we all have, yet she is the same; just like this country, just like our dreams for justice and equality for all.

So, today, rather than lamenting how much things are the same after 50 years, let’s celebrate what is good about those things that haven’t changed…our basic desire for honesty, humanity and humility; our basic desire for good.  Our need to see the arc of the moral universe bending toward justice.  Our God given talents and gifts that lift one another up and unite us as one people to declare that we ALL have a dream; and of course the fact that we are still singing jazz.  For without dreams, whether they be great or small, what else do we have to live for?

Happy Birthday Stacey!

History

First Lady Michelle Obama meets with campaign supporters   - VA

Michelle Obama recently traced her white ancestry…

This post is part of a series this week that will honor the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963.

– For Kimberlee – 

So the other day, a young black friend of mine posted on her facebook about being African American.  She had been asked “what African?” and of course she doesn’t know what the “African” part was because, as she said, well, she’s African American and we basically don’t have any history of our “African” ancestry.  It got me thinking…it is very, very true.  Many people have been oppressed throughout the history of America (both North and South) and particularly in the history of the United States.  The particular brand of colonialism that gave birth to our nation was pretty much all about standing on the backs of whoever was handy.  But in that history, only Africans were sytematically separated from their history and culture by the oppressing majority.  The Irish immigrants were scoffed at and beaten but were allowed education; the Jews were ghettoized and restricted in their movements but continued to practice their faith; Native Americans were outright slaughtered but they fought to the death maintaining their cultural beliefs and practices.  But Africans were denied their language, their religion, their customs.  In fact Africans were stripped of nearly everything except their usefulness as labor.  Referred to as soulless heathens by white society, the accepted concept of the African slave was that they were brutish blank slates and any “culture” they possessed was worthless.  The result of this is that today, those of us who can identify as “African” American have no idea what that actually means.  We carry the pigment and other physical characteristics, but we are absent of that original culture.

So what does that leave us?

On one level it leaves us with young black people who grew up in this world with no sense of belonging or feeling as if they had something great to aspire to that belongs to them; they’ve assumed that they will always be “the other” and vilified; their only future is in what they “take” from society that is made for and by “the man.”   They live on the margins of society with maybe a glimpse here and there of something called success, only to see it taken away or held just out of reach.

But maybe there’s another way to look at it…

When our “African” history was obscured, and when we were raped and shuffled around and traded like so much grain, true to anything as resilient and old as the human race, we were still fertile…so fertile that even in a place with no soil and no nutrients, we grew.  We grew not just in terms of finding and equaling our education, not just in terms of flourishing creatively, not just in terms of discovering our political and communal strength, not just in terms of evolving spiritually.  We grew as a brand new and unique race with a unique set of potentials that is still waiting for us to acknowledge.  Like jazz music, we were a blend of everything we carried in our genetic code, plus all of the hardship and obstacles put in our way.  Eventually, we had to ignite.  We are not just “African” Americans, we are Native, Irish, German, Spanish, Asian…and we are the only ones who can truly lay claim to being all of those things…the embodiment of the melting pot.  We are the worst nightmare of colonial European cultures that prided themselves on racial “purity”…we are the combination of all of the strongest parts of all of the cultures that have mixed here in the United States; and we are irrepressible.

I had a lovely conversation with a friend recently where we were talking about potential.  We were discussing how some people can look at someone based on one world view and see them as a “waste” of potential.  On the contrary, potential is never wasted.  Potential is a well that is always ready to use.  Each time you access any part of that potential…any time you dip into that unfathomable reservoir of ability, you will pull out something that is far beyond what those with less potential are capable of achieving.  Whether it is Nobel Prize winning diplomacy or cooking dinner.  This is how I view the black American; a people who contain the richness of many cultures, visible in skin and facial features, but also language, faith, creativity, aptitude and a host of unmeasurable gifts.  These aren’t wasted.  They are present and ready to use at any moment in time.  It is simply up to more young black Americans to use them.

The different and distinct cultures that people lift up and identify with so strongly are beautiful and deserve their spectacular place in our modern society; but so does the melting pot “African” American. So to Kimberlee, I say, yes, you may have no idea where your “African” really comes from, but you have something that is completely unique.  Think of yourself as the “Jazz American.”  You can swing and waltz; you can paint and calculate; you are mother and father, child and parent.  You are the dynamic blending of all of cultures that are gathered here as one.  You more than anyone, own this American experience and with it you can change the world.

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