Or, Why Pride Day is a Unitarian Universalist Holy Day
James Ishmael Ford
21 May 2017
Unitarian Universalist Church
Long Beach, California
If you wonder whether you’re an introvert or extravert, I have a small thought experiment that can clarify the matter for you. Simply ask yourself what you think of bed and breakfasts? If you like them, you’re an extravert. You may think you’re an introvert, but you’re not. Me, on the other hand, I draw up just short of rather dying than staying at a B&B. The thought of having to sit down in the morning and making small talk with the inn-keeper makes me feel ill. In the morning I want to sit in my underwear with my coffee made the way I like it, by which I mean made right, read the news, and check my emails.
So, as you might imagine, I’m not a big fan of parties, either. And I wasn’t overjoyed to learn our downstairs neighbor in our condo had invited us to a Pride themed party this past Friday evening. Oh, I’m not a big fan of going out at night either. Although I admit that’s less about being an introvert and more about getting old. Jan serves on our condo association board and John is her closest co-worker on the project and both of us are quite fond of him. And the long and short of it is Friday evening there we were in a disco themed party surrounded by a lot of younger men in tight T-shirts. Mostly. But, John’s circle is wider than that first blush, and so there was a seasoning of women and older people.
I was introduced to another of the grey haired, John mentioning I was a Unitarian Universalist minister. He offered how there were years where the Unitarians, as he called us, were almost the only safe-haven for gay people. And he said “thank you.” That’s all. Just thank you. I’ve been thinking about that all weekend.
We’re not perfect in our living into our aspirations. But, this has been one area we’ve been pretty good at. My mentor as a Unitarian Universalist minister, the late Reverend Dan O’Neal liked to say while we like to think otherwise, we’re not actually cutting edge people. We’re more down the bevel a little. Early, but not earliest. In seeing the wild injustices of prejudice against people not fitting into a neat complementary sexual binary, well, that’s one where we did see it right pretty early on. Only the Friends were ahead of us as far as organized, or in our case, semi-organized religions go.
Not long ago I was interviewed by a seminarian. And I was asked what were the highlights of my twenty-five years of service as a parish minister. And, I knew what the number one thing was. Thanks to being a blogger, I actually have my own contemporaneous memories of some of those moments.
When Jan and I arrived in Providence we came at a moment when the question of marriage equality was among the central political questions of the day. Rhode Island is a very small state, for all practical purposes little more than a city-state. The coffee shop I frequented, was also frequented by the governor. Also, here in California people confuse Unitarians with Unity or when they were more a thing, a group called the Moonies, who were officially called the Unification church. But that’s not so true in the East.
In Rhode Island our congregation was the third oldest in the state, and we’ve been part of the political scene from the beginning. Both senators, both congressmen, the mayor, and several state representatives were all figures that passed through our church during my tenure. Most on a near regular basis. We actually had a place in the front row of state politics.
And, our congregation was the principal religious community witnessing for marriage equality. Now the decision there was made by the legislature. Not the best way to deal with human rights, but that was the way it was. My blog from 2013 describes one moment in that race. If you’ll forgive me for quoting myself about the night of the final vote:
“I was with a team of clergy lobbying the senators ahead of their vote. The House had already passed a bill, and it has passed the Senate judiciary committee earlier this week. It was exhilarating.
However, because we were lobbying, we didn’t get any of the seats in the gallery to actually witness the vote. So, when the time came most of us crowded in the “bell room,” really an alcove in the State House where a closed circuit television was set up. Having spent the last moments before they closed the floor with my senator talking with her about some of those who were on the fence and each our efforts, she was strongly with us, I was late for that, as well. After a moment feeling sorry formyself I recalled the Secretary of State’s office down in the basement had a couple of closed circuit televisions, and cushy leather couches, and I didn’t recall when my colleague Gene Dyszlevski and I walked down, but also air conditioning. It was a hot and humid evening.
It was nearly empty. So, we had lovely seats watching the politicians gas on. My goodness, they put preachers to shame in their ability to wax eloquent with numerous self-references. Then finally, finally, the vote!” I look back at what I wrote then. Two words. Just two words.
“We won.” I read those two words from four years ago, yesterday morning, and my eyes welled wet. I thought of Friday evening and that party, I thought of that man my age who has seen so much, suffered so much I hope those young men there never, ever have to know. I think of that thank you. I think of the moments that followed, the tears, the laughter, the hugs, the kissing.
You want to know the highlight of my time as a parish minister, well, that was it. And, and it’s a peek into who and what we are as Unitarian Universalists at our best. There are deep reasons for this. Reasons we might forget here in the bubble of our Southern California lives.
Of course that was just one marker on a very long journey. A journey I hope we all know that is not yet done. Cris, our acting choir director pointed me to an interesting statistic. According to the most recent Gallop poll some sixty-eight percent of Americans now support marriage equality. That’s a dramatic shift over the last few decades. And one we UUs have had a strong hand in.
At the very same time the litany of horrors inflicted upon LGBTQ people is long. Today in Chechnya, there are death camps for gay people. Death camps. Do not forget. Now, I’m conscious of the weight of making this statement right after noting death camps. And it might make some of us uncomfortable. But that Gallop poll also means a full third of Americans do not think there should be marriage equality. Yes, these are not qualitatively the same thing. But, if you can deny human beings basic human rights, there is, by god, a slippery slope. And to pretend there isn’t a hell at the bottom of that slope is to miss why we are called to this work.But, let me pull back a bit here, and just reflect on us, American Unitarian Universalists, for a moment. Right now we are in the midst of a serious self-evaluation about our engagement with the great and terrible questions of race and racial relationships, and how the poisons of institutional racism affect even the most open hearted.
Did I mention we’re not perfect? Let me assure you, we are not perfect. Of course we would be if we weren’t an organization that let human beings into it. But we do. We are as human as humans can be. And there is something in the magic of the two great principals that live at the heart of our liberal religious message: the individual is as precious as life itself. And all of us are woven out of each other and the world in some seamless fabric of destiny. That’s a saving message.
As an example of what that looks like, let me tell you about a colleague. My dear friend Gail Geisenhainer has just retired as a Unitarian Universalist parish minister. Part of my cohort. Her last settlement was as the senior minister in Ann Arbor, Michigan, one of our flagship congregations.
What I particularly recall is her preaching the concluding worship service at the 2006 General Assembly, our annual denominational gathering. It was in Saint Louis. I remember vividly that afternoon as she told us:
“I was thirty-eight years old, living in Maine, driving a snow-plow for a living and feeling very sorry for myself when a friend invited me to his church. He said it was different. I rudely refused. I cursed his church. “All blank-ing churches are the same,” I informed him, “they say they’re open – but they don’t want queer folk.
“To Heck with church!” (I suspect Gail cleaned up the language a bit for her sermon. She then went on.) My friend persisted. He knew his church was different. He told me his church cared about people, embraced diverse families, and worked to make a better world. He assured me I could come and not have to hide any elements of who I was. So I went. Oh, I went alright.
“And I dressed sooooo carefully for my first Sunday visit. I spiked my short hair straight up into the air. I dug out my heaviest, oldest work boots, the ones with the chain saw cut that exposed the steel toe. I got my torn blue jeans and my leather jacket. There would be not a shred of ambiguity this Sunday morning. They would embrace me in my full Amazon glory, or they could fry ice. I carefully arranged my outfit so it would highlight the rock hard chip I carried on my shoulder. I bundled up every shred of pain and hurt and betrayal I had harbored from every other religious experience in my life, and I lumbered into that tiny meetinghouse on the coast of Maine.
“Blue jeans and boots. Leather jacket, spiked hair and belligerent attitude. I accepted my friend’s invitation and I went to his church. I expected the gray-haired ladies in the foyer to step back in fear. That would have been familiar. Instead, they stepped forward, offered me a bulletin, a newsletter and invited me to stay for coffee. It was so… odd! They never even flinched! “They called me “dear.” But they pronounced it “dee-ah.” “Stay for coffee, dear.” I stayed…”
Gail then went on to describe the next and equally important turning point for her. This was when people weren’t yet sure what AIDS was beyond that in America it appeared to be a “gay disease.” One morning still early in her time in that tiny Maine congregation someone stood during their joys and sorrows and opined that all gay people had AIDS and should be quarantined and put to forced labor, where at least they’d be productive. I think a lot about that confrontation in our little UU congregation in Maine.
In that sermon Gail told us how “That congregation had reached a crossroad where one among them had begun the use of language that would depersonalize and endanger others. She tried to create a class of less-than-human persons toward whom violence would be acceptable. The congregation gently refused to follow.”
I heard those words, “the congregation gently refused…” And I felt tears welling up. This was a large stadium, and I wasn’t the only one who leaned in, wanting to be closer, wanting to hear how to deal with this great hurt, to know what would be a skillful way, what would be a Unitarian Universalist way to engage this hurt. One by one people stood in their joys and sorrows and spoke the truth from their hearts.
And there was a method in how they did this. Gail told us “The congregation refused to depersonalize, refused to dehumanize the original speaker. The congregation stayed in what Martin Buber called an “I-Thou” relationship with her. They did not start calling her names, “that homophobe! That gay-basher!” None of that happened. While the speaker tried to turn homosexuals into objects to be manipulated, the congregation never referred to the speaker in a way that was less than embracing and respectful of her full humanity.”
This is so hard. I know I fail so regularly at this. Just by holding this issue up can be oppositional. And it is hard not to be angry. I see the wrong and I feel myself filled with anger, and I’m ashamed, right after that how I can then be filled with self-righteousness. But there can be no place for that in this work. It isn’t about winning arguments. It is about changing hearts.
And to do this we need constantly to search our own hearts, to witness, and to learn. A great teacher pointed out how the spiritual path is one continuous mistake. Homophobia is a terrible thing. Like racism. Like so many demons that lurk in our hearts that deny the full humanity of another person, that denies our inescapable connections to each other. So, every person has worth and every person needs to be respected. Our two truths. The good news is our hearts are big enough to hold both truths. And in discovering that, we discover a different way than mere anger.
Gail put the final touch on this when she said, “Later, in that same church, I opened the hymnal to find the words attributed to the Buddha, “Never does hatred cease by hating in return.” He taught, “Let us overcome violence by gentleness, only through love can hatred come to an end. Never does hatred cease by hating in return.” Now that’s something to find in a little church on the coast of Maine.
Or, on a sunny Pride Sunday, in a church in Long Beach, California.
Dear friends, the message is clear. Each of us precious, each of us connected. Know that and know love. Know love and the way will be made clear.
It’s that simple. It’s that hard.
Blessings on this day. And blessing on each and every one of you.