Inherent Worth & Dignity and (Possibly) Defending Clarence Thomas (reblogged)

While at the national (with some international flavors, as well) gathering of Unitarian Universalists that just concluded in Portland, Oregon, public theologian Rev. Tom Schade was generous enough to invite me to occasionally lend my voice (and others — he must have passed Kindergarten with flying colors because he plays well with others) to his blog.

Here is the results of my first effort.

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Turtle Messengers

It was Friday, nearing sundown and the motley crew gathered to celebrate the union of my nephew and his partner was engaged in the ritual of Kabbalat Shabbat. This meant they were praying and reciting and swaying and singing. For the first half, I sat among them, siddur (prayer book) in hand, impotent in my goyish palm, respectfully, but culturally, apart.

For the second half, I stood in the back. I was not alone; not everyone was participating. After what felt like a decent enough interval of time, I removed myself completely and heeded the call of the nearby lake. We were at a Jewish camp in the Adirondacks, empty except for us, some Orthodox families, and the staff (who all, curiously, come from the UK). The accommodations are nicely appointed, but not luxurious. The lake is small, real, and offers itself simply.

I walked onto a wooden dock, three-sided. With the earthen bank as a fourth side, it made a square pool full of lily pads


and lake clover


and mucky stuff in the brown water. Pristine it was not. But it was water, it was sunset, it was beautiful.

On the dock, I slowed down. My shoulders were no longer up around my ears. My chest felt more spacious. I sunk gratefully into being here, mind and body.

Since the water was brackish, I expected to find frogs. So I slowed down even more. And I waited.

I knew they were hiding. In plain sight. That my eyes must adjust from months of looking at computer screens, the highway ahead of my steering wheel, even the peculiar motion of humans. My acclimation to those things of the world do not serve me well in this moment.

I stopped.

I beheld.

I saw the frog’s head just as it submerged (how did it know to disappear just as my eyes found it?). I felt a rush of joy. Just the right amount of tease to let me know that I was on the right track. I leaned on the grey-worn splintery rail – indicating not to the hide-and-seek frog, but to my monkey mind that I was going to be even more still.

I watched the evidence of underwater life. I was delighted. But also just the tiny bit confused: the rising air bubbles, the shifting lilly pads, the lack of splash lead me to wonder. Then I saw two beady eyes. My momentary confusion was assuaged. I waited some more. I watched some more.

This is what I saw: IMG_20150621_183132

And this


And these


A door to my heart I did not know was closed flung itself open when I realized that I was in the company of scores of turtles. Little ones floating with intention more than swimming, their little legs making due, but not gracefully. And BIG ONES – probably Snapping Turtles – that would give the Jabberwock a run for its money

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
      The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!


(I resolved then and there not to swim in the lake the next day. I cherish my toes.)

Who knew? Who knew there were turtles in the lake? That my eyes would adjust enough, like when you first enter a dark room, nothing visible, but still there, and eventually, they reveal themselves? That I would slow down enough to appreciate them?

(My heart hiccups and wonders what I have been missing this past busy year, my pace too fast for my eyes – my heart – to adjust, to see what was in front of me.)

There have been numerous signs that have shown up these past few weeks, signs that say it’s time to slow down, to leave some space in each day. Some of the message-bearers have not been pleasant. Some have been, in fact, painful. Others have contained enough grace and an obvious quality of dodging-the-bullet that I would be a fool not to pay attention.

Some have come in this shape:


Like I said: I would be a fool not to pay attention.

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Win-win: Exchanging the Law of Two Feet for Personal Mobility

Last month I attended the G.R.A.C.E. Summit — Growing Racial and Cultural Equity — and found it full of engaged and engaging people, hopeful energy, and creativity that will sustain the struggle.  I was introduced to the concept of the Law of Two Feet.

photo taken at GRACE Summit

photo taken at GRACE Summit

The Law of Two Feet means you take responsibility for what you care about — standing up for that and using your own two feet to move to whatever place you can best contribute and/or learn.

What a great concept!

Part of the Open Space movement, the concept is smart, if the language is disabilist.  It struck me as problematic then, but I wasn’t quite sure how to address it.

I have listened to a beloved colleague regularly express her righteous anger at language and attitudes that exclude her and others for whom agency and freedom and liberation does not take the form of standing.  I have learned from her and other disability activists.  I still have a long way to go but I am joining that path..

So I was rather pleased when, while attending my nephew’s not-a-wedding this weekend when they used a different, more inclusive version:

personal mobilitySame great concept, more inclusive.  I’m not sure where the shift originated, but thank you to whomever.  Blessings upon you.

image by inspirexpressmiami

image by inspirexpressmiami

image by inspirexpressmiami

image by inspirexpressmiami

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On the 150th Anniversary of Juneteenth: In the Shadow of Mother Emmanuel AME

photo by Chuck Coker Emancipation Proclamation

photo by Chuck Coker
Emancipation Proclamation

Today marks the 150th anniversary of Junteenth – 150 years ago, and two and a half years after it should have – word of the Emancipation Proclamation made it to the enslaved African and African Americans of Texas.  Reaction included initial disbelief, shock, and outright jubilation. There was what has become known as The Scatter: even in the face of an uncertain future or home, setting out, setting north, in the uncertain hope that life would truly offer the fruits of liberation. It was a new version of an old human activity: exodus, the likes of which other peoples of other times throughout human history have known too well.

Yet, the bitter residue of white supremacy, the entrenched legacy of slavery, was to unfold haltingly, resisting at every opportunity, remaking itself in every new generation.   Equality and safety from violence were to remain an elusive dream.

Think of it: even then, freedom did not come on time or all at once. Oh! how the events of this week remind us too tragically. The heinous murders at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina leave us wondering what quality of freedom came at all, given the lasting bequest of lethal racism set before us.

While history leaves scars of betrayal and demoralization, life offers us more: there are past triumphs of the human spirit and resistance to evil; of secret, sacred moments of solidarity; of peoples crossing divides and choosing peace. A communal, life-affirming spirit continues to ask, to aspire, and to proclaim: what liberations are there yet to be? How might we contribute our part to bend the arc of the moral universe towards justice?

In the shadow of Mother Emanuel’s loss,

let us fill our public squares with wailing,

let all in the streets shout, “Alas! Alas!”

Let us join our skills in lamentation,

mingling our tears, our grief, our outrage

with those who have lost so much.

May we choose to live into this truth that heals the world,

that evokes the spirit of Tikkun olam:

their loss is our loss;

we all are part of an interdependent web of existence;

our collective liberation bound up together.

My nephew and his partner are celebrating their union (I have been calling it a “not-a-wedding”) this weekend.  They asked me to share some words on Juneteenth and the #Charlestonshooting for the Shabbat service tonight.  Mazel tov to them!

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A Lamentation to Shatter Appalling Silence: #CharlestonShooting

This is the strange and discomfiting mix of these few hours before I find sleep. There is the everyday sensibility – I still had to floss my teeth – and the incomprehensible element keeping me awake – some white man sat as the guest of something like a dozen Black people in their holy house of worship, then shot and killed most of them.

My heart laments as I call their names:

Rev. Clementa Pinckney

Cynthia Hurd

Tywanza Sanders

Rev. Sharonda Singleton

Myra Thompson

Ethel Lance

Susie Jackson

Rev. Daniel Simmons

DePayne Middleton-Doctor

Much of my Twitterfeed is set to follow the Black Twitterverse. I would miss so much going on in our nation if it was not. Last night, when news of the massacre broke, I was already asleep, but the Twitterverse exploded — the remnants still live this morning.

As it has far too often these past months, this past year, these past years. Hell, ever since it became clear that Twitter spoke a truth the mainstream media was unwilling to disclose.

It did not take long for folks to rightly forecast that this shooter would be placed by mainstream media among the ranks of the mentally ill, rather than be labeled “thug” or “terrorist.” I have been meditating on this all day: diagnosable mental illness or not, these extreme violent behaviors of so many people are less a diagnosis of an individual and much more a symptom of our collective selves. Much more a sure sign of our shared sickness, our common disease.

It is far too convenient for white people to crowd around the “lone wolf” narrative. In a Facebook post, Unitarian Universalist Religious Educator (and amazingly awesome consultant/trainer) Cindy Beal said it so well:

Let’s be clear about how this works, this white supremacy that will act as if a white guy who enters a black church with historic liberationist public stances is somehow alone.

They will say he’s crazy.
And he might be. And while that is not an excuse for him, for everyone has a story and we are all in ways broken, focusing on that gives white supremacy, and us, a pass. Which means we will be able to go about business as usual and call this aberrant rather than the continued low hanging fruit of a system of white supremacy in this country that has always, always used the threat of sudden individual murderous violence to enforce itself.

It did not take long for folks in Twitterland to notice, just like when there was the big fatal white biker gang shootout in Texas, that violent gun-toting white men are treated less lethally than unarmed Black men selling cigarettes or running from police officers with their backs to them.

still from the movie

still from the movie

Survivors of the massacre relate how the shooter said, “You rape our women.” This is such a long-standing trope that may have made up the bedtime stories of this young man when he was a little boy, but it is also a story our society tells itself and has for a very long time. Emmet Till is the most well known of martyrs for this nasty myth of the African American male preying on white women.

This is not individual disease. This is systemic racism.

At the memorial service today, Congressman James Clyburne spoke and invoked this quote from Dr. King.

martin-luther-king-jr-leader-history-will-have-to-record-that-theWe may want this to be only Dylann Roof’s story, but it is not. This story is ours now. What are we going to do with it? Once the lamentations have quieted (but the grief still very much present) and the news-cycle has moved onto the next tragedy, what are we going to do with it?

How will we shatter that appalling silence?

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White Skin in The Game: Thoughts on Rachel Dolezal

I know Rachel Dolezal. I have met her.

2008-03-14_Convex_mirror_in_Atlanta_garage_entrance(Not really.)

(Well, kinda. Sorta.)

I have met versions of her. Diluted versions of her. I have even seen her in the mirror.

In case you have been hiding under a rock, the short version is

Rachel Dolezal, who until Monday was head of the local NAACP in Spokane, Washington, and who was born Caucasian of two Caucasian parents, has been allowing herself to be understood as African American and claimed African American descent.

I send her, her family, and her co-workers and colleagues my prayers during what must be a trying and confusing time, where the sense of betrayal is high and the sense of trust is decimated. May this media storm scour away the dysfunction and damage, leaving healthy, robust matter to form and reform connection and relationship. May we all remember that we do not have the whole history, so alongside our most excellent skills of constructive discernment and analysis, it behooves us also to practice humility.

It is easy to demonize (read the comments on any social media report about this), and if not quite that, then to distance oneself from the series of choices that Rachel Dolezal made which brought her to this point in time. “How could she?” is the same as “I would never do that.”

aw-4As a white person, I want to be very, very careful. I can’t help but hear Jesus of the Gospels inviting anyone without sin to throw the first stone.

How many times I have heard white people talk about Black culture in such lavish ways and in the same breath, demean white culture as boring, as “white bread,” or even worse: signified only by its oppressive tendencies? Examples abound.

Complaints about New England Protestant worship – about being the “frozen chosen” – are plentiful in the circles I inhabit. When that phrase is being used, it is typically not applied to religious communities of Latin@s or Black people.tumblr_losovterVJ1qf7r5lo1_500

There’s the scene from When Sally Met Harry wherein Billy Crystal makes fun of the way white people dance – coining the now infamous phrase, “the white man’s overbite.”

My current favorite is this short clip from Ken Tanaka called, “What Kind of Asian are You?”

That’s funny. Or, I find it funny. Not everybody finds it funny.

Often fed by white guilt, the Bennett Scale, sometimes known as the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity, labels this as the Defense-Reversal phase in which “one’s own culture is devalued and another culture is romanticized as superior.” It’s not so funny. In fact, there can have super serious consequences.

Too often white people act like we don’t have skin in the game when it comes to dismantling racism. This is ironic, given that, of course, we do have skin in the game. We benefit from racial privilege based on the color of our skin. We just have a hard time acknowledging this, integrating it, and acting from it. And sometimes we do stupid things, like think we are a “regular American” (really, watch the Ken Tanaka clip above) and that other people (re: people of color) are not.

I hear it when white people say they want to make sure there is a person of color in the room when we are talking about racial justice.

I hear it when white people question whether it is right for white people to come together as white people to find our authority to speak truth to power in order to dismantle racism.

I hear it when white people feel they cannot contribute to the conversation about racism or racial justice.

I hear it when goals for racial justice focus solely on creating a more multi-cultural community or congregation when there is plenty of work to be done before and alongside such a worthy goal, including understanding our own racial identities and worldviews and adding our voice to dismantling racial privilege.

I see it when Ms. Dolezal could not bring her whole white self to this necessary work to help bend the arc of the moral universe towards justice.

Just last week, in Hartford, CT, there was a #BlackLivesMatters action as part of the Moral Mondays justice organizing there. Seventeen people were arrested, one of whom was the Rev. Josh Pawelek who said, when interviewed by the local news station (starts at 1:46):

“White people gotta be concerned about racism. It’s that simple. It’s a white problem. It’s a system that white people created. White people gotta take responsibility.”

As the national NAACP has said in response to this crisis, leadership and membership in the organization is not restricted based on race. As a Unitarian Universalist, I know this because of our history. Rev. John Haynes Holmes, a white man, and Mary White Ovington, a white woman, were among the co-founding members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
This is what I find worrisome about Rachel Dolezal: it seems that she felt that as a white person, she could not do the kick-ass racial justice work she felt deeply called to do and for which, apparently, she had serious gifts.  She could see herself working to dismantle racism, but not as a white person. She could see herself working on behalf of racial justice, but not as the whole person she was.  Instead, she chose the path of cultural misappropriation, deceit, and a contorted form of white privilege, seriously tainting her contribution to the struggle and no doubt, negatively impacting the Beloved Community she has been trying to build.  (Update: Tim Wise says something similar here.)

My friend and colleague, Adam Dyer, wrote a beautiful blog post inspired by this controversy. He offered these words, which I offer here:

Being whole will never be just about an appearance,
Living a masquerade of someone else’s history…pain…journey…
Hiding behind makeup or hairstyles is, in the truest sense, a travesty;
Being whole is not.

Being whole begins within…
And being whole is not a choice when the other options are oblivion or death.

What we choose, and what is often truly brave,
Is how we share our wholeness with the world.

Being whole is the only choice.

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Hummingbird: A True Story in Two Parts (II)

Part II: We Do Not Fear Change, But We Do Feel Loss

(Click here for Part I.)

Sword-billed_HummingbirdWhat is smaller than a split-second? A mili-second? A nano-second? All long enough for my heart to skip a beat, worried I was too late. When I opened the nest of my hands, the slightest moment of fear sparked.

Then that bird jumped from those hands into the nest of the bush, into the wider world.  Into the Wide Open.

Surely this was a time for exaltation.

Yet I found myself sobbing. Uncontrollably. Surrendering to this crest of emotion I could not name then, still cannot name now, but could only ride and allow to flow through me.

Buddhists call this Samsara: the cycle of life, the continuous movement through birth, living, death, and returning to life. Our movement through freedom and confinement, liberation and illusion. Thanissaro Bhikku says that

Instead of a place, [Samsara is] a process: the tendency to keep creating worlds and then moving into them. As one world falls apart, you create another one and go there. At the same time, you bump into other people who are creating their own worlds, too.

We do best when we do not cling – a worthy aspiration, but rather vexing to live into.

My mind catches on that last sentence from the Bhikku’s wisdom. Maybe it’s true: we bump into other people. Just people. But given what took place in my tiny world and my spacious heart, both during the Animal Blessing worship and most certainly during my encounter in the Parish House with a jewel-throated hummingbird, I’m going to affirm that we bump into all sorts of creatures, including ones with wings, fur, or scales, who surprise us with wise and worthy lessons.

Quotation-Terry-Tempest-Williams-fear-love-prayer-Meetville-Quotes-225161May we always be reminded more of what we love than what we fear. May we all find our way out of the walls that keep us in. May we find our way out into the world that holds our collective liberation, so tender, so dire. May we – at birth, throughout life, and in death – surrender with humility and curiosity.


Posted in Buddhism, Earth, Hope, Prayers, Unitarian Universalism | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments