Kwanzaa Learnings for People of White Privilege

As a man with White privilege I feel anxiety about offering any comments about a celebration of African/African American history, culture, and wisdom. I do not intend to appropriate the spiritual traditions of other people. However, as I told a friend, “It is not my heritage, but oh my, the wisdom is so powerful, so needed.” 

A bit of personal history is in order. One of the things that happened when I was the pastor of Metropolitan Community Church of Richmond VA that really makes me proud, is our decision to observe Kwanzaa on the Sunday immediately following Christmas. I do not know for sure which year we began, but I know that by 2007 (I had been pastor since 2003) the local paper ran a story with pictures about our observance.  We had purchased a kinara, a beautiful carved wood holder for the seven candles, as well as the required green, red and black candles (I don’t think I had ever seen, let alone purchased, a black candle before this). 

I was moved to promote this because I was acutely aware that this congregation of 80 people was overwhelmingly white-identified—in a city in which African Americans constituted a majority of the population (of course, the suburban counties were very different!). I admit that my reasoning included appealing to African Americans, especially LGBTQ people, to check out our congregation. This was not the first time White-dominated institutions used Kwanzaa as a marketing ploy (Hallmark cards come to mind). At any rate, I have come to appreciate Kwanzaa over the years, although I admit I have not always actively observed it. With this post, I am committing to active year-round engagement. 

Dr. Maulana Karenga

One of the seven principles of Kwanzaa is Kujichagulia, self-determination. Dr. Maulana Karenga, the creator of Kwanzaa, said that he wanted to give Black people an opportunity to celebrate themselves and their history, not as a subset of or exception to other holidays, but their own self-designed, self-actuating celebration and foundation for personal and communal life, to define and name themselves, as well as to create and speak for themselves. 

That is why I think Kwanzaa is so vital. It can help people with White privilege come to grips with the reality that Black people, as is true of Indigenous, Brown and other people, have not only a vibrant self-defined culture but are agents in their own well-being. It is essential that we with White privilege massively change the ways we have set up, and continue to set up, the world to deny that. 

All of us, and each of us, who benefit from unearned White privilege need to get our collective knee off the backs of BIPoC people, but we also need to realize that even though we continue to victimize them they already have their own dignity, their own values, their own history. That dignity, those values, and that history are a powerful testament to the vibrancy of the human spirit from which we can learn much.  

We, all of us, need the wisdom that is collected and celebrated in Kwanzaa.  People with White privilege could learn so much from the peoples we have devalued, abused, slaughtered—and continue doing that today. At the same time, we who benefit from unearned privilege need to be careful in our own observance of Kwanzaa to avoid bleaching it (an example of bleaching is what is done each January to the life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., removing all the edges of his words and work that might upset us, so he becomes a faint caricature of the giant he was and still is). 

I have already mentioned Kujichagulia, self-determination. Let’s look at the other six. 

Umoja (Unity)—To strive for and to maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race. 

Unity is so missing in our nation today, and really around the globe. Let the coming year be one that helps all people come together. A vital way people with White privilege can contribute to this is to give up some of that privilege, and work to eliminate it entirely. We can’t keep clinging to ideas and practices of superiority over others if we really want unity.

Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility)To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems and to solve them together.  

Collective work and responsibility is in short supply these days, especially with the number of people who continue to deny the reality of COVID-19, not to mention the Climate Emergency and the continuing scourge of White supremacy, and engage in behavior which endangers not only them but the rest of us, too. You know who you are and you can change if you care enough about the well-being of all. And the rest of us can promote this change.

Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics)—To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together. 

Cooperative Economics seems foreign to our capitalistic, monopolistic society. Imagine, encouraging everyone to use their gifts to build their own dreams in ways to benefit all. One small way I am trying to encourage this is to buy as little as possible from the online giants and give my patronage to local and smaller companies and especially to those owned and operated by BIPoC people. 

Nia (Purpose)—To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness. 

Purpose as an expression of collective focus seems foreign to the deep strain, the dominance, of individualism in the United States. This principle raises up the truth of the beauty, wisdom, and power of African cultures so often belittled and degraded by Western supremacist views. That needs to change, of course, and frankly people of White privilege also must think and work to draw upon parts of our heritage that call us to more universal values and behaviors. 

Kuumba (Creativity)—To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it. 

Creativity is an aspiration to contribute our fullest potential to the well-being of all. This is not motivated by profit and power for a few but by an awareness of our own innate and developed gifts, and a desire to use those gifts to bless, serve the world. There are people of privilege engaging in philanthropy but this is more than that; this is giving our whole selves, and continually stretching ourselves, to create a better world for all. 

Imani (Faith)—To believe with all our hearts in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle. 

Faith speaks to the fundamental human need to believe in each other. In the context of African and African American history, this is a reclaiming of the beauty and power of the various cultures and movements of the people. For White privileged people, this needs to be understood as a challenge to us to affirm the dignity and value of all people, AND to ongoing critical conversation and action that challenges and changes the people, attitudes, and practices that create and maintain hierarchies of value denying the dignity and value of others. Frankly, I, we, have much work to do in this! 

In case you hadn’t noticed, at the heart of Kwanzaa is community, communal living. May this new year be a time where more and more of us live in ways that acknowledge the truth that we all—of every nation, color, racial identity, religion, language, sexuality, gender, age, tribe, education, economic status, as well as all the non-human creatures of this world—are in this together. 

Indeed, the lessons of Kwanzaa tell us we people of White privilege must change. We can share in celebrations of this special time created and led by others, but if we do not show up to work on our own transformation we are only engaging in making ourselves look and feel good.  

We’ve got a year to show some progress. Let us get to it. 

If you want to learn more, you can visit https://www.officialkwanzaawebsite.org and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kwanzaa

Note: As always, I invite you replies as an opportunity for us to continue the conversation. The best way to share in the conversation not with me but with others is to use the comment option on this page. You also can sign up to become a subscriber to this blog. I would be so glad of your continuing participation in the dialogue. 

Chanukah: A Reminder to Resist

Chanukah began last evening at our house with the lighting of the first candle and the singing of

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tsivanu l’hadlik ner shel Chanukah.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to kindle the Chanukah lights.

Tonight is Shabbat, and Jonathan and I will sing the above as well as 

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat.

Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to kindle the light of Shabbat.

Every other evening we pray before dinner in the kitchen–first with our beloved Standard Poodle, Cocoa—prayers for the world and our loved ones, giving thanks, whatever we feel called to share—and then on non-Shabbat nights we conclude that by singing 

Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu melech ha’olam hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.

You will notice that the root of each prayer is identical. I really appreciate that, because each time I am reminded of the centrality of God in my life, indeed all life (at least as I believe). 

I am a lifelong Christian, a queer theologian guided by my ever-evolving sense of what being a follower of Jesus calls me to be and to do, AND I am also blessed to be connected to the ancient and contemporary Jewish roots of that faith. Let me be clear, I can’t help but come to Judaism with my Christian heritage and life, but I also come to this beautiful faith for its own truth and wisdom. To put it simply, I am doubly blessed. 

Actually, the blessing is rooted in my 23-year marriage to the love of my life, Jonathan, a Jewish man who helped and helps me engage with Judaism more than simply coming to love what was called in my childhood, and even in seminary, the Old Testament, the text truly known as the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh. He has helped me appreciate Jewish ritual and music and worship and values so now I want to participate more and more in it. I also am educated about the many Jewish spiritual texts by our rabbi and Jewish writers and scholars, which enriches my understanding and appreciation and grows and deepens my faith. 

Another way to appreciate this shift is that I am repeatedly reminded that God, the God of my understanding, is larger than any one faith, any one religious or spiritual system. So blessings abound. 

Tonight, at 6 p.m., Jonathan and I will join our community and Rabbi Joseph Berman online at the New Synagogue Project (newsynagogueproject.org) for lighting the Shabbat candles and the candles for the second night of Chanukah. I am honored to be a member along with Jonathan. 

Then, on Sunday, I will join my community at Metropolitan Community Church of Washington, D.C. (mccdc.com) for worship at 11 a.m. The pastor, Rev. Dwayne Johnson will be preaching on “The Gift of Wilderness.” That congregation and our pastors are a huge blessing in my life, too. 

Then, at 3 p.m. that same day, I will join online the local community of Jewish Voice for Peace (https://jvpdc.org/jvp-dc)for a Chanukah party/celebration. Our special guest will be a young, gifted writer, Massoud Hayoun, author of When We Were Arabs: A Jewish Family’s Forgotten History. It is a splendid book of story and cultural/religious insight. 

Jewish Voice for Peace is a national organization working for justice and liberation for the people of Palestine. Both Jonathan and I are members. Most members are Jewish, but I am far from the only Christian involved. It is a wonderful movement. We began our involvement with the cause while still living in Richmond, VA (where I pastored the local MCC church) through Richmonders for Peace in Israel-Palestine. When we moved to the D.C. area in 2015, we joined JVP Metro DC. 

I connect all this to Chanukah because, although it is not a High Holy time like Passover, Rosh Hashanah, or Yom Kippur—and is often thought of as more for kids than adults (many view the contemporary focus on Chanukah as primarily a response to the dominance of Christmas in our culture)—I also understand Chanukah as a symbol and encouragement of resistance, resistance to oppression, injustice, and the failure to care for each other and the world.

I want to quote extensively from Rabbi Brent Rosen’s recent piece about Chanukah [the name of his blog, Shalom Rav, refers to an evening blessing of Abundant Peace]. He writes, 

Chanukah, of course, is based upon the story of the Maccabees, the small group of Jews who successfully liberated themselves from the oppressive reign of the Seleucid Empire in 167 BCE. The legacy of this story, however, is a complex one because the Jewish struggle against religious persecution took place within the context of a bloody and destructive Jewish civil war. In contemporary times, the meaning of Chanukah has become even more complicated given its proximity to Christmas, subjecting it to the uniquely American religion of unmitigated commercialism.

Beyond all these complications, I’d argue that the essence of Chanukah is the theme of resistance. At its core, the Chanukah story commemorates the victorious resistance of the people over the power and might of empire. On a deeper level, we might say that the festival celebrates the spiritual strength of our resistance to an often harsh and unyielding world.

You can read his entire article, which focuses on how we can resist Covid-19 through mutual aid, at https://rabbibrant.com/2020/12/10/Chanukah-is-about-resistance-lets-resist-this-covid-spike-through-mutual-aid/. Whatever your faith or lack thereof, I encourage you to read it and ponder your own ways of resistance, not only to Covid-19 but also to the other viruses infecting our world (including White supremacy/racism, militarism, the climate crisis, inequality and inequities of all sorts, and rampant capitalist exploitation). 

It may be the season to be jolly and joyous, as we are told—and it is also the season to resist, to work together to create the world God (however you understand God or the Universe or what/whomever) really means for us to have and be, not just you and me but every single body, human and non-human. 

So I say, “Chag Sameach” (pronounced “hahg sah-mae’-ahk) and/or “Chanukah Sameach”, or simply Happy Holidays or Happy Chanukah! 

And may the resistance be strong, resilient, and joyous.  

 

Time to Begin

 

Many of my friends know of my love affair with James Baldwin (no we did not have sex and sadly I never met him), that began in my ministry studies and continued with my doctoral dissertation, “Bearing Witness to the Dark: Resources for Anti-White-Supremacist, Pro-Same-Sexes, Pro-Feminist Theologizing in Queer Modes” (1999). 

Baldwin and the womanist warrior poet and essayist Audre Lorde were my inspiration and interrogators in that project. At that time, in the 90s, I had read and re-read everything Baldwin ever published or was written about him. And since, I have stayed abreast of texts and interviews and the like that were not available then as well as books and articles and films focused on him. 

So none of them will be surprised that I am extolling the wisdom and power of a new book that focuses on Baldwin and his relevance for our own time. The book is Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Lessons for Our Own by Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.  It is a valuable resource in our time, and especially for those who are considered or consider themselves White. The title is taken from a passage in Baldwin’s novel, Just Above My Head (perhaps my favorite Baldwin novel despite many negative reviews): 

Not everything is lost. Responsibility cannot be lost, it can only be abdicated. If one refuses abdication, one begins again.

Glaude is the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University and also the author of Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul. But his treatment of Baldwin and Baldwin’s importance for us today is no dry academic treatise. 

Glaude not only discusses Baldwin expertly but also channels Baldwin in our own moment. The liveliness of his writing and the personal experiences and observations he shares bring the already powerful witness of Baldwin’s observations and writing to a new level, a new depth, from which we can draw sustenance and challenge and courage today. Indeed, Glaude draws upon Baldwin’s view, espressed in an interview conducted by Julius Lester, of what it means to be a writer, namely “to bear witness. . . . to what life is—does—and to speak for people who cannot speak. That you are simply a kind of conduit.”

For me, one of the most important lessons from the book is Glaude’s rendering of what he calls “after times.” He takes the phrase from Whitman who wrote about the time after the Civil War when the echoes of slavery and civil war remained in view in contrast to Reconstruction coming into view even as it was highly contested and ultimately undone.

Drawing on Baldwin’s powerful 1972 book, No Name in the Street, Glaude takes us through what he calls Baldwin’s personal after times.  In that works, Baldwin recounts the despair and anger he and so many others felt after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., especially when White America turned away from the struggle for justice (ultimately making King into an icon who was no longer challenging us).  Baldwin called it “the lie,” the denial of White people about white supremacy and our central role in sustaining its dominating power in our society. 

Glaude relates that to our own day, with the after time that is the age of Trump—the turning away, indeed undoing, the hope engendered by the Obama election, just as it was evident to Baldwin after the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcom X, and King, into the 70s and 80s, as it is clear from what happened after Reconstruction with the rise of Jim Crow, lynching, etc. 

Thus, he says that Trump is not a new phenomenon but rather the latest manifestation of backlash against forces of change, hanging on to the idea of America as “an identity that white people will protect at any cost.”

Telling the the truth of the history and current reality of White supremacy

In the final chapter of the book, Glaude discusses his visit to the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama built by the Equal Justice Institute. He is deeply moved by the exhibits witnessing to the ugly history of American White Supremacy and by the memorials to hundreds of lynchings of Black people all over this country in the latter 19th and early 20th Centuries. He notices a quote on the side of the Legacy Museum from Maya Angelou, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” 

Glaude concludes that “what we need is a third American founding,” to try again to achieve what the Founders thought they were doing in the Revolution and the Constitution, and then what others thought they were doing in Reconstruction after the Civil War, to undo what horrors had been done until then—and then the after times of that took us back so we still rely on and glorify the first incomplete founding, despite the horrors that permeate everything to this day. 

Glaude writes, “We need an America where ‘becoming white’ is no longer the price of the ticket. Instead, we should set out to imagine the country in the full light of its diversity and with an honest recognition of our sins.” Or as Baldwin would say, it is time to do our first works over. 

To do your first works over means to reexamine everything. Go back to where you started, or as far back as you can, examine all of it, travel your road again and tell the truth about it.

It’s time, America, that we, and especially White America, stopped looking into the distorted mirrors of our alleged greatness, uniqueness, our special call, and spent serious time and effort to look at the true mirror of ourselves as it is revealed by so much that is fundamentally wrong. We must overcome the repeating practice of ignoring the foundation and finally choose  to allow ourselves to see what we have become, a country that pretends to be a democracy, and nation of equals, while acting on the deeply ingrained belief in the superiority of White people.

Glaude does not offer a plan to do this, but it is clear the timetable he sees is to get started now (it is one minute to midnight). A good place to begin is reading this book. But then what? What will you do? What will I do? What can we do together, and what must we do individually?

I know I will keep reading and writing (a book I have started to read is White Too Long:The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity by Robert P. Jones). And I will keep writing about my exploration of White Supremacy and my own complicity in it, knowing that for me writing is how I become more honest. 

But I need others. I need you because none of us can do this alone. And as we journey we need to welcome BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Color) calling us out when they feel the need to do so (but not asking them to teach us yet again what they have been telling us for centuries). 

Please offer your own thoughts and let’s begin and continue a dialogue. 

Wholeness in My Soul and Body

[Note: This post was prepared 6-8 months ago, but due to technology issues I have been unable to publish it. Please know that this blog is about far more than my, or your, being naked, but through it I am claiming and celebrating my naked soul and body.]

by Robin Hawley Gorsline

On two successive days —a Sunday and Monday—I spent time being naked with other naked people. 

The first event was the inaugural meeting of a group in the D.C. area (what is locally called the DMV: District, Maryland, Virginia) called Christian Gay Nudists (CGN). We met in a private home in Langley Park for more than two hours, sharing stories of personal experiences and ideas about nudism and our religion. I had been invited by my friend Darryl Walker, founder of the group, to share some perspectives on the topic as a way to generate discussion. We had no shortage of conversation! 

The second was a visit to a clothing optional club operated by the Maryland Health Society. The club is named MAHESO (as in MaHeSo) and is located in Davidsonville, MD, not far from Annapolis. It is a rustic facility with an outdoor pool, trails, picnic area, and spaces for camping, RVs and a few cabins—and on Monday, so peaceful. 

Robin-in-the-woods
Adventure in the woods–the t-shirt says, “Queerly and Fabulously Made”

The combination of the two visits enriched my soul. Some years ago, I wrote in this space about my decision to publicly proclaim my love of, and commitment to, nudism (or as it sometimes called, naturism). See these posts if you are interested: Naked in PhiladelphiaNaked in Philadelphia Part 2Inaugural Address How Mature Is It?  My engagement since then has been less than consistent. I am changing that.

It was a pleasure to be with the five other men at CGN and I felt especially happy the remainder of the day.  I felt happy the next day too and I experienced serenity at a level far deeper than I have in a long, long time.  

Sitting quietly at Maheso, chatting with my friend Michael Hartman (who is a member and drove us there) and floating in the pool, eating lunch outdoors and walking on some trails after lunch—all while completely, gloriously nude (okay, I had shoes and socks on for the trail walking)—I just grew more and more peaceful. I think I have a new understanding of the Hebrew word shalom, which means not only peace but also wholeness. 

Skyclad at MaHeSo

This wholeness is what nudism manifests in me, in my soul and body, united and unashamed. I have come to believe that when God sees me, as God does all the time, I am seen not with my clothes on, not with my defenses and masks in place, but instead as the naked, vulnerable child of God (and Robert and Jessie Gorsline) that I am. 

God loves me just as I am, an out-of-shape, wrinkled, arthritic elder who is less than steady on my feet and more bent down than I would like. That’s who God sees and loves and is always trying to get me to pay attention not only to God but also to my own self, my inner self where God resides. 

As I write this some weeks later, I still feel this shalom, and I realize it is why I so want to go out today to work nude in my garden. Working in the soil, with the plants (both weeds—the plants that are out of place in my realm but are still living beings—and the ones I do want to thrive), is a place, a cathedral if you will, of divinity for me, a place where I experience God very directly. 

The same is true when I go walking in the woods—again, I want to be naked, like the trees are naked, vulnerable, yet standing and proclaiming their natural beauty.  And it is true when I leave my home to walk or drive to the grocery store and go to meetings and certainly to church—engaging the communities I cherish, places I also find and share God. 

Sadly, I must satisfy myself to be nude as I write this and generally in my home, except when it gets too cold. We try to keep our thermostat down in winter to save energy and money, something I want to change, at least in my study where I spend much of my day.  However, even if I am not nude “out there,” I know God knows who I am and how I really look. 

Sharing my nude joy outdoors

Still, I have decided to be a nude-vangelist wherever and whenever I can, believing that I have been given good news to share with the world. I wish I had the courage to truly be a street nude-vangelist by standing on the corner or at the Metro station unclothed with flyers about the joys of nudism, but I do not. For one thing, I am not ready to spend my days in jail, nor to create trouble for my husband and my larger family. 

But please know this: when you meet me, I am nude in my soul, and I really want to be bodily nude with you and you with me—because I want to be whole, I want you to be whole, and I want us to be whole together.  Of course, I will do nothing that violates your bodily and spiritual integrity. 

Note: I have many interests–anti-racism, Palestinian liberation, queer theology, sex and gender justice, fate of the planet among them–and I am returning to this space to write about many of them, but, fair warning, you can be sure that I will be nude-vangelizing at times here and elsewhere. I hope you will subscribe to this blog or at least check in from time to time. We can create a new world, we might call it Eden, together with the God (or Higher Power, or Universe, whatever your term or concept is) of your and my understandings. 

Unlock the Trap–Part 1

 

“If we- and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others- do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world” 

― James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

Note to the reader: This is the first installment in what I hope will become some queer theological conversation, aimed most specifically at the faith community I love, Metropolitan Community Churches, but also available and helpful to any persons or people who seek wholeness and justice for all. I begin with some story, and then in subsequent posts will move to some analysis and theology. I invite your response at any time. 

I came into Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) in 2001, in my middle 50s, through MCC New York. I appreciated the racial, sexual, and gender diversity of the congregation and the focus on social justice in preaching and mission. Rev. Pat Bumgardner rarely missed, and still rarely misses, an opportunity to connect biblical readings with contemporary events and our spiritual and ethical responsibilities, including racial justice.

MetropolitanCommunityChurch New York
MCC New York

But in retrospect I realize that dialogue about white racism, privilege, and supremacy, was not part of congregational life. I don’t mean Rev. Pat and Rev. Kristen Klein-Cechittini, the pastoral leadership during my time at MCCNY, failed to preach about it (they certainly did), but rather that we did not have facilitated, ongoing, intentional conversations within the congregation.

Please understand I am not engaging in after-the-fact criticism of them or other leaders, who did and do so much to promote justice (and may have done much to promote dialogue after I left in 2003), but rather to reflect on why even progressive congregations and leaders so often fail to engage this topic, especially in sustained dialogue, that is so central to the social fabric of the United States. And I wish to hold myself accountable for my participation in this failure.

When I came to MCCNY I had completed a Ph.D. in Theology at Disrupting white supremacy from withinUnion Theological Seminary in the City of New York. My doctoral work and dissertation were focused on the theological value, beauty and power of darkness, especially in the writings of James Baldwin and Audre Lord. I had learned a lot about white supremacy, privilege and racism, and was actively engaged with two other colleagues in theology and ethics on a book of essays, Disrupting White Supremacy from Within: White People on What We Need To Do.

But I did not apply any of that to my life in the church, even when I became the Director of Adult Christian Education.

In 2003, I was elected pastor of MCC Richmond, Virginia. The city proper has a very significant African-American population, approximately 60% in 2000. The suburban counties around Richmond were far more white, 20% non-white, or even less depending on the jurisdiction.

Among other things, the Search Committee and Board charged me with diversifying the congregation. When I arrived there was one person of color, an Afro-Caribbean woman, in regular attendance.

MCC Richmond exterior
MCC Richmond

I included racial analysis in my sermons, made a vow to myself to include each week a quotation by, or reference to, a person of color, and I laid plans for observing Kwanzaa right after Christmas. That first year, all but one of the readers in that service were people of European descent.  One young African American man who had started coming with his white husband shared in the readings. We put kente cloth on the communion table.

I do not know if those steps, which I continued for the remainder of my time as pastor, had anything to do with slowly rising African American attendance at worship and the gradual inclusion of African American members in leadership. What I believe jump started that trend more than anything was that several transgender African American women, some would say “divas,” started attending church.

Their presence was visible—they did not shy away from being very much noticed. When one, who was widely known as a performer in the community, was murdered and I was asked by her mother to offer the eulogy and our church to host what became a standing room only funeral, there was a noticeable uptick in attendance and involvement. The death was tragic and awful, but it did open some doors for others.

I prevailed on some of our white leadership to join me for the post-funeral repast in the neighborhood, usually avoided by white people as an unfriendly and dangerous area, where she had lived and been shot. That opened the eyes of some of them—they discovered that these neighbors were good people and that they need not be so fearful.

Those changes did not necessarily alter the reality that most white members did not socialize outside church events with Black people, or have close African American friends. In fact, a reality I discovered during my candidacy to become pastor—namely that white people danced at one gay club and Black people at another, and the white people did not even know the name or location of the other venue—continued to be the norm until I left the pastorate in 2013.  There were individual exceptions, but they were few.

Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology at Virginia Union Unversity

I knew the name and location of that club (although I do not remember it now) but I never visited it, never even asked any parishioners or others about it. I decided at one point to seek connection with African American clergy but after a couple of less than satisfactory forays I did not persist. I did try to build some connection with the dean and faculty of the seminary at Virginia Union University, an historically Black institution.  But I did not put much energy into it, mostly attending an event from time to time. And other than members and leaders of the church, I did not seek out African American friends.

What I am hoping to discern and convey in this personal history are the dynamics at work in me, in the congregation, and possibly in those in the African American community to whom I reached out. I do this not merely as an historical enterprise but also as a way to better understand how white supremacy/racism/privilege worked, and works yet, in my life–so I can live now in ways that diminish their power.  As a queer theologian, I think stories, actual lived experiences and bodies, are vehicles for creating understanding and change.

As Baldwin said elsewhere, “White people are trapped in a history they do not understand.” It is possible that my story here may also help other white people in the MCC movement, and in other contexts, to examine their own stories and unpack the dynamics at work in them—in order for all of us to do more concrete, effective work to overcome the power of white supremacy, to dismantle the trap, in our church and our world.

In my next post here, I will offer some reflection on this history, sharing what I see as some of the underlying power and privilege dynamics at work. In the meantime, I invite you to ponder these observations and to reflect on your own stories—as part of beginning to understand the history in which we are trapped and to learn how to break free of it and change ourselves and the world.

Erotic Community with God’s Body

On February 22, 2018, I presented a ten-minute talk about men and erotic community on Jonathan’s Circle Live. Here is the link to that talk.

Jonathan’s Circle is a group of men, many in the DC Metro area but ranging as far as Australia, who share an interest in spirituality and sexuality, and engage in open conversation–sometimes in person for Circles, on a Google+ page, and through an online blog. Here is the link to blog, and here is the link to Jonathan’s Circle web page.

My talk certainly is not limited to men, so I invite all to check it out. Of course, I would be very interested in your thoughts.

I will be posting some additional writing on this topic here soon.

Stripping Down

We are called to be a priestly people.

In many venues, I identify as a Queer Theologian (and poet), but I have made a deliberate choice here to leaven that with the idea of nakedness–because I believe (I want to say I know if it does not sound too dogmatic), that when we are most vulnerable we are most true to our inheritance as offspring of God.

Queer Virtue book coverIn her graceful and very wise book, Queer Virtue: What LGBTQ People Know about Life and Love and How It Can Revitalize Christianity, Elizabeth M. Edman shares a definition of priesthood that was given to her by a friend:

A priest is someone who stands in a place of remarkable vulnerability, and by doing so, invites other people to enter the sacred. 

This expansive understanding of priesthood fits well, as Edman says, within the Protestant concept of the priesthood of all believers. In that way, it undercuts the clerical hierarchy that is so often an impediment to spiritual growth and health among “lay” people. Indeed, it may help end what is often seen as a binary of lay/clerical difference–a chasm which leads too many non-clerics to think they have nothing useful to contribute to spiritual life and too many clerics to think, or at least act as if, they have everything that is needed.

Robin clergy collar less smile Sept 2015 smaller3_edited-4There is institutional authority vested in the office of priest or pastor, or rabbi or imam–depending on the tradition and the community, it can be a lot. However, it is the authority of personal and interpersonal vulnerability that is far more powerful in ways that transcend the usual humanly created boundaries. And that authority is available to all the faithful. We are called to be, as Edman says, a priestly people.

I am a nudist at heart, but I did not change this blog name simply to take my clothes off (or feature others who do so) online–although that may happen from time to time. At the same time, I recognize being physically naked as part of a continuum of spiritual and emotional nakedness and vulnerability.

I still wear a clerical collar when I go to church, but I am not sure entirely why. I have no formal or pastoral role in worship, and even if I did it is not my clothes that make it possible. It may be a sign of comfort for some, but increasingly I chafe and wish to dress as more myself.

Robin with longer hair and beard (cropped)_edited-1I started this most recent journey in my life by taking off all my clothes and discovering much joy in nakedness by myself and with others. Now I see that I may want to consider each item of my costume–not as a form of striptease but as a way of really exposing, at some deep levels, all of me.

Taking off the collar may be a greater signification of my priesthood–a priest forever, as my friend and mentor, Carter Heyward, has written–than wearing it. Then I am more likely to stand in that place of remarkable vulnerability and thus invite people to enter the sacred.

That is my desire, and I believe it is God’s desire for me, and you, and all creation.

 

 

Naked in Philadelphia, Part 2

The sense of freedom and delight, exuberance and joy, was palpable throughout the entire event.

I had a blast in Philadelphia!

Riding naked with hundreds of others, maybe even a thousand, dressed or undressed as they chose, was a great joy. The cheers and thumbs up signs from passersby were numerous and exciting, and the feel of sun and breeze on my entire body (even on my bottom when we stopped and I had to get off the seat and stand up) was, as always, a pleasure.

I came away from this experience filled with eagerness for more opportunities to be naked with others, inside and outside. The sense of freedom and delight, exuberance and joy, was palpable throughout the entire event.

That’s me, with “Bare Is Beautiful” painted on my chest

It took me no time to stop feeling self-conscious about the details of my body–too much tummy and too many wrinkles, too small genitals–and to just enjoy the flow. There was every kind of body. I saw a man with only half an arm, and somebody who appeared to be intersex, and they, like me, wore smiles and laughed with neighbors.

I saw every kind of penis–including some smaller than Dick (or as I often call him, Cock Robin)–all shades of skin color, weight ranges from rail thin to obese, heights and ages of every sort, including children with their parents (kids clothed, parents naked) and people who looked well older than me.

It was not a strenuous ride, mostly level ground. The biggest challenge for me was navigating in a sometimes crowded grouping, moving slowly or even stopping and starting due to traffic signals. At 70, my balance is not always sure, so I teetered a time or two but did not go over. What I noticed was that when I did bump someone else they did not get angry; when I apologized, all responded with some variation of “Hey, it happens to all of us.”

Robin bare butt PNBRWe rode for a little less than two hours, and I was grateful for every moment of it. I met up with one friend although we got quickly separated during the ride, he being a veteran naked biker and very sure of himself.  We had never met but knew of each other through Jonathan’s Circle (a group of men who explore sexuality and spirituality together, but not a sex club). I wished I had come with a group. Everyone was friendly, but it would have been much fun to share the experience while riding with other friends.

It was great fun to see all the slogans painted on bodies–“Bare Is Beautiful” was painted on my chest in purple by one of the volunteer body painters (and the acronym for the ride on my butt)–and various costumes, head gear of all sorts, capes a couple of riders with fairy wings. Next year I will wear my helmet!

Yes, this was about promoting safe cycling and energy conservation–two very vital causes–but I have to admit for me the real deal was just being naked in a major city for several hours with a whole bunch of other naked folks.

How about it? Will you join me next year? If we car pool, we can really be more energy efficient. And here is a short video clip of me riding (note: you will see naked bodies)

[wpvideo vYvCuV35]

……can’t you see how much fun we are having!!! (I appear at about the 15-second mark)

And next year, I am thinking I will go the day before to be rested for the ride, and I will stay over the night of the ride so I can share in the after-parties, at least one of which was a “Fuck Clothes” event. Now that sounds like fun, too!

I am becoming aware of my desire for nakedness in my life, no clothes, yes, and also being open and vulnerable in every way possible. I believe that is the way God wants me to be. The Philadelphia Naked Bike Ride was a grand step on this journey.

Stay tuned for more in this space, maybe even for the debut of The Naked Theologian!

 

 

 

A Life Worth Living

This was the beginning of an even greater adventure for all of us . . . .

[This is the first installment in a series focusing, as I prepare to turn 70 in October, on what is so far the second half of my life, the 35 years that began in 1981, with looks back at earlier days as they affect the later ones.I am hopeful that this serialization of my life may provide some of the components of a memoir of a life rich in faith, hope, joy and love.]

Thirty-five years ago today–August 23, 1981–four people sat around a makeshift table to eat pizza and birthday cake. The occasion was the first birthday of Marjorie Elizabeth Gorsline, known then, as now, as Meg.

The setting was the second floor apartment of the Gorsline family–mother Judy, three-year-old sister Emily, Meg, and me, known as Daddy to the girls and Bob to Judy–in married student housing at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA. We had arrived two days earlier, driving from Milford, MI, so that I could take up seminary studies.

Our furniture had yet to arrive, so we borrowed two chairs from kind neighbors for the adults and a milk crate on which to put the pizza box and then the birthday cake. Emily sat on the floor and Meg in our laps (and often on the floor), a great dining adventure for us all.

Meg & Kevin Party 015
Just about my favorite picture of Meg, from a wedding shower in 2009.

This was the beginning of an even greater adventure for all four of us (and a third daughter, Robin, who would arrive 16 months later)–a huge life-change for me to come about one year later that would over the course of that following year throw all of us into new and often painful, and, for me at least, often joyful and sometime frightening, and ultimately fulfilling territory.

But for now, all we knew was that we had left our Midwestern roots for the storied East. Judy was seeking a job to provide financial stability, Emily and Meg needed to be enrolled in daycare, and I had to get ready for classes.

What had caused all this change in our lives? I had felt a call to ordained ministry, having grown dissatisfied with the limits of political life. It was near the end of my first term as a Republican member of the Oakland County Board of Commissioners, as I was seeking re-election in 1978 (a few months after the birth of Emily), that I had begun to discern disquiet in my soul about the vocational direction of my life. After an easy electoral victory, I told Judy that I was feeling pulled toward ministry.

As ever a wonderful helpmate, she encouraged me to talk with our priest, Rev. Jacob L. “Jake” Andrews, at St. George’s Episcopal Church, where I served as a lay leader and she an active communicant. It took me a couple of months before I gathered my courage and went to sit with Jake in his study at the church, a sanctum I had visited many times over the almost 20 years he had been our spiritual leader.

Jake said, “I wondered when, or if, you would recognize this. I am relieved and glad.” I shed a few tears–but not too many, because he was a Bostonian by birth with a quiet demeanor who seemed often to be embarrassed by displays of emotion. And then he began to help me chart a course that could lead me to seminary in the fall of 1981.

As it happened, Judy had grown tired of teaching fourth graders and was happy to contemplate possible new career paths. So both of us looked ahead with eagerness to a new journey together.

Before we would leave, she became pregnant again. I did not receive this news, initially, with gladness, having been convinced that she and I, both raised as only children (I had two older half-sisters but had not been raised with them, and Judy was truly an only child), would do best with one child.

But Judy, raised by unhappy, perpetually quarreling, mutually distrustful parents, felt she could not risk Emily being consigned to the sort of lonely, emotionally bereft childhood she had ensured. We had talked about all this, and I thought we were still debating the issue. But she, by then 39 and worried about her ability to bear another child, had decided on her own to stop using birth control.

When she told me she was pregnant just after Christmas in 1980, I was stunned and angry. I felt deceived. It was in some ways the forerunner of another, even more jarring time, when one of us would feel that way about the other.

But as I watched Emily grow excited at the prospect of a sibling (especially when we were able to tell her she would have a little sister) and saw the bloom of pregnancy and joy in Judy, I too was overtaken by happy anticipation.

And of course, this baby, named after Judy’s beloved Auntie Marge and my favorite older cousin, Elizabeth, turned out to be a delight, the greatest sort of joy any parent can have. At her birth, I loved my three women.

So on this day, I especially celebrate Meg, whose intelligence, wisdom, beauty, grace, and courage remind me so very fondly of her mother even as all of it is, of course, the mark of the particular embodied gift of God she was on her very first earthly day and all the rest since and into her bright future. There is none like her. She is her own person, beautifully, wondrously so.

[There is more to tell about our journey to, and our life in, Cambridge, and beyond; stay tuned for the next installment of “A Life Worth Living.”]

 

 

It’s National Redemption Time

en.wikipedia.com
en.wikipedia.com

Would the United States be better off if mothers were guaranteed paid maternity leave of five months? Or better if workers had at least a month of paid vacation every year? Or if workers had more say in the policies and operations of the companies for which they work? Or maybe if school lunches were actually not only nutritious but also sophisticated and tasty?  How about no death penalty? How about prisons that are not designed to punish so much as to simply deny freedom of movement and association to convicted criminals for a fixed amount of time and to help them during that time to build new lives when they are released?

These and other provocative questions are raised in Michael Moore’s new film, “Where to Invade Next.” The film is a sort of political travelogue around Europe, with a side trip to Tunisia, exposing policies and practices in those places that Moore posits would be good ideas for the United States of America. He even claims most of the good ideas originated in the United States, raising the question of why we are not using them now.

This is a spiritual question for me (although probably Michael Moore would not use that language). Or as others might say, it is a matter of values.

Part of the answer, as I see it, is revealed in a segment of the film where Moore contrasts the dogged insistence of Germans to learn from the horrors of their past–to expose the national involvement in the Holocaust, to remind each other in very public ways of how they rejected humanistic ideals and accepted, even celebrated, ugliness and monstrosity. Germany does not stop telling the stories of victims and its complicity in the evil.

face2faceafrica com
face2faceafrica com

Moore draws a sharp contrast between that behavior and the denial that pervades U.S. culture and politics around our racist, white supremacist past and our national white-privileged present. Moore shares graphic pictures and videos of police beating black suspects and inmates today and their counterparts in harsh pictures of lynching in the past. Have we made any progress?

Well, yes, of course, laws are more fair, and the equality promised by the Declaration of Independence and the constitution and fought over during the Civil War is closer to realization than it was one hundred years ago. But legislatures still pass laws whose effect, and I think intent, is to reduce voting by proportionally disadvantaged portions of the citizenry, and we are locking up Black men at an alarming rate (and we can’t blame this on higher rates of drug use in the Black community than among those who call ourselves white, because the reverse is true). As Michelle Alexander has written, this “incarceration while black” is the new Jim Crow.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander amazon.com
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
amazon.com

To be sure, the countries Moore visited (‘invaded,” he says, in an attempt to connect our militarism with our lack of social progress, a subject for another blog) are not perfect. They have problems, too. But they are doing things to improve the life of their citizens, and they are doing this through the social contract, through the governments they institute, as our framers instituted our nation “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

As I read these soaring words, these noble objectives, I hear the stark, deeply disturbing, contrast with the political rhetoric awash among us today.  The framers approached the national question, “Who are we called to be?” with hope, with generous spirits, with an awareness of divine providence and abundance. Too many of our leaders, and would-be leaders, today approach the same question with stinginess, with an underlying mentality of scarcity, with deep fear expressed in angry words of division and derision toward those who disagree.

Our national soul is at stake in this election season. We need to find it and claim it, really claim it for the first time since the early days of the new nation and perhaps the Civil War.

The fundamental question remains, will we, as Dr. King said in 1963 and as Lincoln said 100 years earlier in different words with similar import, will “this nation . . . rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed . . . . ?”  

boston.com
boston.com

Or will we continue to stumble over the ugliness of our past, denying the roots of our present-day tragedies, pretending that murder and mayhem, poverty and power-less-ness among whole segments of our people are simply the fault of a few bad actors and some weak, lazy individuals and even groups of people out to take advantage of kindness, care, and just treatment under law?

It’s confession time, my fellow Americans, my fellow “we are white” Americans. Black activists, artists, and others keep giving us yet another chance to clean up our act, keep marching and protesting and educating, and still too many of us look away. And the politicians who never even mention “race,” let alone racism, white privilege or white supremacy, are lying to us. They may be lies of omission not commission, but at some point not speaking a hard truth means you are complicit in the ongoing power of that truth.

Denial of a real problem is dangerous to your mental health. That is just as true for our nation as for individuals.

ejvictorsofa.tk
ejvictorsofa.tk

We need to go into analysis, as a nation, to name, face, hold up, and root out our demons. Michael Moore has given us a mirror to look into, a way to ask some questions of ourselves and our leaders. As a first step, I urge you to see the film.

And if you have not yet begun a conversation about our national disease in your family, at your workplace, your spiritual home, your neighborhood, or not yet participated in such a conversation, I urge you to start (or continue) that conversation now.

It’s redemption time, folks, and each of us has a role to play.