Un-mugged

Sometimes all it takes is one word to start a conversation.  This is an invitation to start the conversation.

Choose a word, write it on an envelope or similar sized piece of paper, take a picture of your self holding that word like a ‘mug-shot’ and post it to your facebook wall, twitter account or here in my comments.  Share it everywhere you can.  We need these words if we’re ever going to get past the current conversation.

What ONE word would you use to start the conversation about race in America?

Listen - Un-muggedIn the last few days, I have seen people writing and posting about how hurt they are, or how justified they feel; I’ve heard people speak about feeling abandoned and feeling angry and also feeling proud and honored to be American.  My friends sit on both sides of the Zimmerman verdict and I have resisted the urge to unfriend those I disagree with because I believe in dialogue.   But REAL dialogue.  No matter how I feel, I refuse to discuss the case because I was neither victim, accused, judge, jury or witness.  The dialogue we can all legitimately have…and that we NEED to have, is the conversation about race, today in our society.  America has a problem. When communities start destroying their own property because of how impotent they feel in the system and when the media chooses only to talk about that destruction instead of the beautiful way those same communities that have come together to hold and reassure their children that they are safe and loved, we have a problem.  When we start comparing only black and white, not just in skin color, but in actual issues, we have a problem.  When we start whispering how we really feel instead of speaking it aloud, we have a problem.  This is how we know we have reached the end of the silent road, of suspicion and hatred.  This is the end of silence and the beginning, hopefully of millions of voices shouting “let me be heard!”

Why “un-mugged?”  I have spent a lifetime of watching women clutch their purses when they are alone with me on a subway car. I have also (just this weekend) watched someone cross a street because we were the only two coming toward each other.  I have spent 30+ years watching police cars slow down when I’m alone on a street, or follow me when I’m driving.  I am no criminal, no mugger, no thief.  But I have brown skin and dreadlocks and I look young.  I fit a profile.  And although you may think this is something in my imagination, there are millions of black American men who will back me up.  I should never expect to have a “mug-shot” taken of me unless I’m in a protest, but the odds say that my chances of that happening are much higher than any other demographic in the country.  I shouldn’t have to live like that.  I don’t intend to ever see it happen…and neither should you.  This is the only mugshot that will ever be taken of me.  This picture represents my way of eliminating that chance…being ‘un-mugged’.

Let’s get rid of both the racism we endure and the racism we ignore.

Too Quick to Covenant

“Should we create a covenant?”  These are familiar words to Unitarian Universalists.  I’ve found that in UU circles covenants are as common as coffee and dounts.  Bless our bleeding, left leaning hearts, it seems that UUs more than any group are always determined to be in “right relationship” with one another, and we frequently begin any kind of process or group exercise with a “covenant.”  Although I admire this eagerness to have level playing fields and understand how this can be a useful tool for helping groups stay on point, the specific use of the word “covenant” is a bit of a hot button to me.  As I delve deeper into understanding faith traditions and magnify that understanding in the lens of our modern world, I caution us all not to miss the point of true covenant or how the assumptions built into social covenants can actually harm us.

The covenants that most people are familiar with are those from the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and the New Testament.  The covenants entered into between God and Noah, God and Abraham, the Mosaic covenant, the covenant beween Jonathan and David and the Covenant of Christ are those which inform much of our modern interpretation of the word in Judeo-Christian culture.  I do not have the scholarly or linguistic heft to venture into a sufficiently deep explanation here of each of these examples, but suffice it to say that these are solemn agreements with God that assume two important absolutes: a) that one believes in God; b) that one believes in a God that believes in them.  Again, this is a much longer conversation…

I believe, however, it is useful to explore how in modern relationships, we take for granted a certain culture of covenant that has its own built in assumptions.  One of the basic definitions of a covenant is as an agreement.  It is first and foremost an agreement that two parties will fulfill certain obligations to one another.  One could call a covenant a “contract” of sorts.  One key difference however, is that a covenant is entered into between people or entities, or groups who know one another and hold a common goal or purpose, whereas a contract is generally between people who only have that agreement as their primary means of relationship.  A covenant serves to bind or enhance an already existing relationship.

The Biblical agreements that I mentioned before are definitely not just contracts. Often involving blood commitment, God (for those who believe and/or follow Abrahamic scripture) surely “knows” mankind.  God “knows” Noah, Abraham and Moses.  David and Jonathan “know” one another intimately and because of that intimacy, enter into their covenant.  The Covenant of God made through Christ, giving his Son for the forgiveness of man’s sin is one made based entirely on God’s omniscience, Jesus’ knowledge of his predestined mission and the acknowledgement man is willing to make in recognizing Christ as savior.  There is a lot of “knowing” going on here.

In today’s environment of deep political and social divide, it could be argued that we are in need of a covenant.  We are in need of an agreement that obliges us to protect one another and serve a common good.  Of course, we already have many agreements that are intended to do this, from the US Constitution to the Kyoto Protocol to NAFTA…and certainly the Judeo-Christian  covenants I point to should serve the purpose of making our world safe and nurturing.  We put on a good show in treating these agreements like covenants.  We see entire governments shaping the course of history based on some of these agreements.  We watch people protest for their rights based on their spiritual covenants.  But in a world that stumbles along on fractured social relationships…fractured by inequities and ignorance and fear and broad assumptions…even these solemn agreements with God become merely contracts that are too easily broken.

We all know what assumptions make….

The conservative LGBTQI hating Christian assumes that the world should want to function in their paradigm of truth.  The rich American capitalist assumes that everyone wants success in the way they see it.  Likewise, some of the the best ultra liberal Unitarian Universalists assume that the most damaging force to people of color is white privilege. These are just examples.  The point is that “right relationship” cannot happen until you are actually IN relationship with the other party. How well do you know me?  How well do I know you?  How deeply do our communities of trust actually engage one another in today’s world? Are we willing to sublimate our personal desires, agendas, guilt, etc. to acknowledge the world as it is seen through the eyes of others long enough to offer them the respect and love that would allow us to enter into a true covenant of human dignity?  A covenant is not a contract, so much as it is a commitment.  It is a commitment to be not just in right relationship, but to be in genuine relationship with one another.

Pardon the mixed cliches here…love your neighbor, but do not suffer fools.  If your neighbor is not willing to genuinely know you, and you are not willing to genuinely know your neighbor, you never stand the chance of embracing the true covenant of peace.

All of Me

When I look at all of the hubbub about next week’s impending ruling on Marriage Equality, I find myself aksing…does this matter to me?  I also find myself asking that question when we are engage in conversation about the economy and the real life impact surrounding Sequestration…again, does it matter to me?  When I hear about immigration reform, I also wonder…what does it matter to me?  And looking at the flurry of conversation out there about the newly elected Pope Francis, I wonder what do any of these issues have to do with me?

For the record, I am a single gay man.  I am also a graduate student in Seminary and I have steady well paid work with a non-profit.  I am a born US citizen who as the child of an immigrant, grew up with great respect for my born nationality.  I am also a Unitarian Universalist which means I am spiritually liberal to a fault.  My bills are paid, I have a nice circle of friends, I have paid for an expensive Ivy League education, I have a car and a roof over my head, good health…in short, an abundance of privilege.

I also however, have brown skin.  I also have, in the past been denied work, purchases and even housing for both my perceived sexual orientation and my race.  I lived with and loved and ultimately split from a relationship with someone who was undocumented here in the states.  I am also a Christian in a denomination that although it has Christian roots, has many members who are quite vocally anti-Christian. To that end, it does not serve me well to ask the question “what do these things matter to me” but rather, “what do these things matter to ALL of me?”

Next week when the Supreme Court hears cases on the un-Constitutionality of Proposition 8 and DOMA, they will be hearing cases that do not affect my current condition.  But rather, these cases and all of the issues I present in this post affect something much more precious than my immediate self.  These issues all affect my dreams.  I aspire to a committed and monogamous relationship with the person I love, who I know will also be male.  No government should be able to dictate or indicate the “validity” of that relationship.  If couples are being rewarded for steadfastly serving as pillars of their communities, either with or without children, but certainly by setting an example of fidelity and constancy, then I want to be able to garner that benefit as well.  I do not want to be singled out as a social pariah because of the gender of who I love.  I want to dream, dream big and know that somewhere, somehow, that my dream might just come true.

This goes for my economic stability as well.  I am not just someone who has had financial privilege, but I am also someone who has been intimately involved in navigating the social systems around aging parents; trying to dance between the goals of being a good son and the financial collapse of 2008 that took the value of our family home and a couple of family jobs with it.  All of me is disgusted by legislators who feel it is more important to spend 5 years posturing and avoiding solutions (while they continue to collect 6 figure salaries) as I bounce from job to job to pay for everything from bankruptcies to funerals and still try to eke out a weekend here and there to feel human.  I dream of security.

All of me feels the heartache of living with a partner who despite his love for me was paralyzed by the fear of being undocumented; someone who has made a good living since his arrival, never done anything dishonest and made a wonderful life for himself, but the system doesn’t work for him.  There is no clear path to resolving his issue and I have to live with the conflict and shame of leaving that relationship in part because of the anxiety and fear and limitations that this situation required we live under.  I dream of a place where two people who love are not asked to make a choice between their homeland and their life partner.

Lastly, all of me means that not only do I personally identify as a Unitarian Universalist and thereby embrace a strong sense of humanism and rational perception of life, but I identify as a Christian.  So within Unitarian Universalism I must always bring these two characters into balance.  Turning to the three legged stool of Episcopalianism (scripture, reason, tradition) I look at the Catholic church with both respect for its adherents and deep sorrow for some of its misguided leadership.  I dream of being able to embrace all of my religion without shame.

So although I am single, Marriage Equality matters to me.  Although I have money, resolving our national budget matters to me. Although I am a natural US citizen, Immigration Reform matters to me, and although I am a Unitarian Universalist, the Pope matters to me.  My challenge to you is this: ask yourself honestly as our world lurches toward important decisions this year and even as soon as next week, how does the world matter to you?  How does the world matter to ALL of you?

Not Quite Back to Before

When President Barack Obama won re-election last week, the first thing that came to my mind was hearing Marin Mazzie sing the song “Back to Before” every night while I was in Ragtime on Broadway.  That was always my personal favorite of Lynn Ahrens’ lyrics from the entire show.  It reads like a love poem to a cherished and familiar lover that one must let go.  There are so many lettings go that we do in life.  Close friends of mine know that my favorite poem is by Elizabeth Bishop (One Art) and the refrain “the art of losing…” speaks to the way we tumble through life leaving behind a trail of ourselves that can never be recaptured.  Truly on election night, the United States left behind many things that say we can never go back to “before.”

On a personal level though, this signaled a breakthrough for me.  I carefully considered what it must feel like for those who were not supporting Obama to see this shift.  There seemed to be much more at stake than just an election.  We see that now with all of the secession petitions being signed and rhetoric about conservatives wanting to leave the country.  There was something endangered and then lost to these people that was extremely dear.  Was it privilege or power?  Or was it the foundation of how they defined themselves?  Looking in the mirror, I realized that somewhere along the lines, in all of my own letting go of life, I had left a part of myself behind that I too deeply loved; something that had defined how I saw myself for my entire early life: music.  The whole reason I was able hear Marin sing in 1998 as part of the incredible cast of that original show, was because when I was 13, Dr. Theodore Davidovich from the New England Conservatory of Music heard me sing a solo in the Northeast Junior District Choir and then suggested that I speak with someone at the school about voice lessons…that someone was Kim Scown, tenor, who lovingly introduced me to the magic of making music with my voice.  This was supported by the careful, if sometimes unorthodox, methods of George Perrone at Framingham South High who drilled me in music theory and other life lessons and discipline and I emerged from my youth a fairly well formed, near professional musician. College, cabaret shows, concerts, choirs, cruise ships, Broadway and National Tours followed…

And then one day, I had to leave it behind me.

There are many reasons this happens.  For me, it was about the need to discover that I was really more than just a body and a voice.  As a performer, it is easy to feel reduced to those things.  A Chorus Line asks that wonderful question, “Who am I anyway, am I my resume?”  And it is true.  We feel reduced to skill sets and types.  I knew I had more to offer: intuitive people skills, analytical capabilities, leadership skills.  These were all things I needed to discover about myself in order to get to where I am today.

It is the same with this election.  Many of us thought that ’08 was about “change.”  Change from the nightmare that had begun in 2000.  But ’08 was only about setting the stage for change.  The real change only began with last week’s election result and it happened because of a shift in the status quo.  We are no longer defined by how white, middle aged and male we are.  We are actually defined by our total diversity (including white middle aged men) and how that diverse population wants to see the world.  Funny, back in 2002, I was inspired to start a web based movement about diversity.  Some of my conservative friends scoffed at it; well, just look where we are today!  As a country, we can never go back to ‘before’ and where we are headed has the potential to be much brighter for more of us than where we came from…if we give it a chance.  This is a defining and transformative moment in our culture.  If we are smart, we will embrace it and look at the beautiful evolution that is taking place for all of us.

For myself, I am looking at my own evolution and re-re-inventing myself.  But like the song says, I can never go back to before.  So, I am still on track to become a Unitarian Universalist Minister; but I’ve learned that my ministry must come from my heart and soul which is my music…but a ‘new music’ if you will.  My music doesn’t have to define me anymore.  I will never be the young singer with stars in his eyes who was willing to get on a Greyhound Bus at 3 in the morning to make the 6 hour trip from Boston to New York, just to be seen for a part in a show.  I left him and his selfish dream behind.  I am free.  I am now, approaching 50, someone who has embraced so much more of who I am as a person and a leader and a real “voice” committed to making real change happen for people.  I am am carried on the wave of the voices of millions of people who never really felt like they had a stake in this country before last Tuesday.  People who must now be heard in all of their glorious harmony everywhere there are ears and hearts to hear.

At last, it is time for me to really start singing.  I look forward to sharing my journey, not quite back to ‘before’ with you all.

The following is a montage of selections from two performances on Holland America Line in 2007.  Thank you Yeonae Nam and Paul Pappas for the accompaniment.