Thursday, March 30, 2017

A New Place

My partner and I moved last month. Yeah, that has to do with lack of posting. It turns out, moving sucks a lot of energy for several weeks.

We moved to a bigger apartment. We moved closer to his work. We moved to be on the light rail so he wouldn't have to fight rush hour traffic every day. It's been a good move, despite a longer commute for me. Actually, the biggest change has been living in acute awareness of my privilege.

Privilege, as we know, is least evident to those who have it. I've never ranked at the top on quizzes like this one or this one, but I've never been at the bottom either. My family was and is fairly stable. My parents always managed well with resources, even if those were limited. We did spend my youngest years below the poverty line; there was pride that our family didn't take free lunch, even though we qualified. However, my accent is largely gone, because it had to disappear in order to be taken seriously. I remember getting asked if I wear shoes because of where I grew up. True, I'd largely prefer not to wear shoes, but that would be considered weird in eastern Kentucky, too.

We could talk a lot about privilege, including living with an extra bedroom, an extra bathroom, and a washer and dryer. What is most evident, though, is the difference in environment.

Where we live now is poorer and more urban than where we lived before. A couple miles east is very poor. A couple miles west is on the wealthy side of things. The apartments on the other side of the freeway that were also on the light rail were well outside our budget. It's not what most people would consider a bad part of town, but neither is it the best part of town. Honestly, if not for the gentrification happening around the light rail, I'm not sure we would have moved there.

Here, especially in the stores closest, my neighbors are all shades of skin. Here, the grocery stores block off one entrance after dark. The Wal-Mart in the town near where I attended college did the same, but only after 10 p.m. It's strange to encounter it at 7 p.m. We don't go to the grocery store nearest our apartment because it's not as well stocked as the same chain just a mile or two in the other direction. The produce section is lacking. Boxes of macaroni and cheese are always on sale and piled in bins near the front of the store. The music is rather terrible country, too, which doesn't help anything.

I walked over to the park across the road and was the only person present who would be considered white, of the European descent variety. Expletives were occasionally shouted in the skate area. I only caught snatches of the conversation happening among the men playing cards; those snatches made me steer clear. Homeless people were gathering here in the evening. A few had already made camp in the nearby field. A few shared dinner in one of the ramadas. I didn't feel unsafe. It was also the first time I saw that sort of community in the park; it was obviously a regular ritual. The presence of these homeless neighbors made the bars on the benches make sense. They were divided into seats, the arms added after manufacturing, to prevent sleeping on the benches. Most parks I've been in certainly didn't bother with adding arms.

The differences are subtle. There are no more sounds of sirens than where I lived before. My neighbors are quieter, even. The grocery stores, though, have MPower stations, the pay-as-you-go version of electric service here. I didn't even know it existed for at least a year of living here. The rate is slightly higher and you load cash onto a debit card; you also don't end up with a bill you can't pay. Knowing that regular accounts require a deposit or credit check, of course this exists.

The St. Vincent de Paul thrift store is just across the road. Small almost bodegas are plentiful along the stretch of road, as well. People walk on the sidewalks most all the time. Many are students at ASU, but many are not.

I know one day these things that point to the difference in place will disappear into the background of where I live. Maybe. Four years later, the spring smells of the desert are still a beautiful surprise. Saguaro surprise me in a way green trees don't, even when I haven't seen them for a year. And maybe, if I can keep those differences in sight, I will step more fully into the reign of God.

After all, this is part of the benediction I give often at the close of worship:
               May you see as God sees.
               May you hear as God hears.
               May you love as God loves
               as you go out into the world.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Abundant Life

We sat in a circle, holding on to stars. Some of us held on to our stars the whole time. Some of us folded back points. Some of us tore off the points of our star. It was an exercise in understanding the life impact of being LGBTQ.

The church I serve has welcomed LGBTQ people for a long time. There is welcome of everyone who walks in, sure, but deep welcome of people who had to seek out a church where they'd be welcome. There are treasured memories of same-sex couples whose names still come up regularly. The two women who led the charge to rework our patio are names I know well, thought I've never met either of them.

I smile when folks in my congregation avoid pronouns if the person can't answer the question of, "What's your pronoun?"

"Ok. That person is like God," someone responded to a particular visitor. And so, for the duration of a visitor's somewhat short time with the congregation, we avoided pronouns and said, "Welcome." That visitor is, indeed, a long story. But no one ever doubted that visitor should be at our church, and was worthy of love.

Doing this particular exercise, called Star Training, was a bit unusual for a congregation that has the welcome of the LGBTQ in our DNA. When talking with the faith director of One Community AZ, who offered the training, he wondered a bit about the benefit. It turns out, he's not a fan of The West Wing, but still, I quoted Toby Ziegler, who said in response to the cry, "You've got me preaching to the choir," "That's how you get them to sing." He laughed and understood.

Even though I'd done the Star Training before, I wasn't quite prepared for the tears, and the raw emotion in the room. Part of being a church that welcomes LGBTQ people is that, for most members, there is deep investment in this choice. Sometimes, it's deeply personal, as an LGBTQ person who has been shut out of church. Other times, it's a child, a sibling, or a parent who you need to know would be welcome in your church, too.

The conversations are always strange for me on a personal level. My hair is often short enough that people assume I'm a lesbian, then see me in a dress wearing make-up and aren't sure. I've dated women, but married a man. Of all things, I married a Scotch-Irish Christian man, despite dating far more Indian men and Middle Eastern men, Hindu and Muslim, respectively. I've gone through various butch phases, including the cargo shorts and men's t-shirts phase. It's strange. Bi and straight both seem weird labels for this definitely not far left person on the Kinsey Scale. I live my life, right now, on the femme side of things. It took recognizing the horrible cultural expectations of women for cisgender to feel right. There are a lot of traditional roles of women I've shunned, but the body suits me well enough. I recognize my own baggage around gender, in particular, and I fit the molds well enough. I even have the wedding gifts to prove it, and the pictures of me in a white dress.

I remember a morning back in my life as a fundamentalist, a time when I certainly didn't fit the molds as well. I was walking down the stairs along the hill one morning. The buildings of the college campus were just visible in the first light of day. For some reason in that moment (I'm guessing because I'm generally grumpy until 8 or 9 in the morning),  I remembered a promise of Jesus, "I came that they may have life and have it abundantly." I realized that had never been my experience of faith.

Looking back, I see the community of that place as an incredibly abundant experience. Well, at least most of it. Things like a ridiculous worry about sex detracted from that abundance. In that place, though, the gauge of, "Is this life-giving?" became life-giving to me. My own life took lots of twists and turns as a result. More importantly, though, it has become the gauge for pastoral ministry. "Is this life-giving?"

That question becomes a lens to interpret other scripture. It becomes a way of making decisions. It often prods a yes instead of a no. Above all else, that question always prods compassion. There is nothing life-giving about hungry people. There is nothing life-giving about poverty wages. There is nothing life-giving in illiteracy. There is nothing life-giving about sleeping on the streets. There is nothing life-giving in absurd clich├ęs when someone dies. There's so much that is not life-giving that we encounter every single day.

And be sure, there is nothing life-giving in kicking children out of homes, or denying people a romantic relationship, or forcing someone who wants to wear pants to wear skirts. As we sat around the circle on Sunday, holding our stars, we also heard those sorts of terrifying statistics. Kids who come out as LGBTQ are still far more likely to be homeless than any other demographic. The suicide rate remains alarmingly high among LGBTQ people. Holding a job, which most of us take for granted, is a privilege that may be lost at any time. There are all of these things that other people do that offer death instead of life--often quite literally.

I come back to the words of Jesus that aren't quoted nearly as often as I'd like, "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly." It's a worthy goal for those of us who follow Jesus.