Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Dream It. Believe It.

This just in from Occupy UC-Davis. Thank God for the young.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Those People at That Church

Just north of Market Street, and across Church Street from probably the cruisiest supermarket in San Francisco—recall that it was in the Church and Market Safeway that Mary Ann Singleton tried to pick up Michael Tolliver at the beginning of Tales of the City—stands an unassuming little brick gothic church, built by Danish Lutherans in 1906. As the Castro came to be the Castro, the congregation could hardly fail to see that the neighborhood around them was changing. But more importantly, and perhaps more surprisingly, its pastor and members recognized that life meant embracing change, and they chose life, opening their doors to the burgeoning LGBT community that flourished around them, as to the marginalized and often homeless population along a very down-at-heel street.

In 1990, the congregation called Ruth Frost and Phyllis Zillhart as its pastors, lesbian graduates of a Lutheran seminary who had been disqualified from ordination on the grounds that they refused to pledge abstinence from sexual relations. (First United Lutheran in San Francisco at the same time called an irregularly ordained out gay man.)

Keep in mind that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America presents itself as heir to the radical ecclesiastical disobedience of Martin Luther, when I say that nothing, nothing freaks the Lutheran hierarchy out like a refusal to capitulate to its authority. Years of wrangling led eventually to a classically Lutheran judgment. A commission struck to address the unsanctioned ordinations found that the congregation had acted in accordance with the dictates of the Gospel, and recommended that the ELCA in fact ought to reverse its position; but because St. Francis had failed to comply with good church order, the congregation had until January 1, 1996 to revoke its call to Ruth and Phyllis or else would be excommunicated from the national church—unless the national church in the meantime reversed its policy forbidding the ordination of out gay and lesbian seminarians who refused to pledge celibacy.

On the night of December 31, 1995, the congregation walked the walk by celebrating what they dubbed the Feast of the Expulsion with a big party in the church basement. As the congregation’s website ( puts it in describing the next chapter of its history, “In the face of this judgment against us, we, along with our companion congregations, continued to stand by our decision, and continued to celebrate our diversity as part of our everyday journey with Christ.”

I first walked into St. Francis in 2000. There were maybe thirty-five people in a sanctuary that a hundred and twenty would pack to near capacity. As the Gospel book was carried in a very short procession into the middle of the congregation, everyone turned to face the reader, business as usual in “high” Lutheran congregations. Not so business-as-usual was that as people turned, they also crowded from the pews into the central aisle, hands laid on shoulders in a web that knit the whole assembly into a single body with a living voice at its center. And I lost it.

I was a mess all over again after Mass, when I walked out into the columbarium garden that flanks the church to the south, where the ashes of dozens of members rest—most of them gay men who died of AIDS in the 80’s and 90’s, when this church was a place of refuge from the complacent indifference of denominational hierarchies.

But long before I’d walked through the door of St. Francis—and long before I’d made the decision to reclaim the flawed, problematic inheritance of the faith I was reared in—I knew Those People at That Church: The St. Francis Lutheran Cookbook. It’s long out of print. If you can find a copy, grab it. This isn’t a volume of jello salads and tuna casseroles. It’s got the best broiled polenta recipe I’ve ever made, a wickedly spicy and variously flavored corn salad, and the cookies baked for Bill Clinton’s inaugural gala.

But far, far better, its cover sports a collage of the campiest, most joyful parish photo album imaginable: octogenarian matrons offering strawberries to the viewer, middle-aged guys wearing colanders as Easter hats, a lesbian couple standing back to back and crossing turkey drumsticks as they look over their shoulders to the camera, buff shirtless gymboys in barbecue aprons, smiling eight-month-old babies holding cupcakes. (Oh--and heterosexual couples. Did I mention heterosexual couples?) Sidebars flanking the recipes tell the story of the congregation and its witness, up to the date of publication in 1994, when expulsion from the ELCA loomed.

The lumbering behemoth that is the institutional church finally caught up to St. Francis Lutheran in 2010, and the congregation was readmitted to the ELCA. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s the ELCA that was finally reunited to St. Francis Lutheran Church. I know where the promise of freedom and grace lay, for me and people like me, during those intervening years that this quirky, outrageously brave little community went its own way for the sake of Truth and Love.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Get Over It

At left, Keith Haring's AIDS altarpiece at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York City.

I’ve talked with a lot of queer men, over many years, about their experiences of organized religion. If any of us has completely escaped being wounded by the God Squad, I haven’t met him yet. Some of us have internalized vast, toxic reservoirs of homophobia. Some of us push back against the lies and bigotry with rage and alienation. Some of us learn just to switch off the voices of oppression—but end up switching off along with them everything else that speaks of spirit and soul in our lives.

If I reflect on my own experience, I’ve more or less done all three, more or less in turn. And I’ve gone on to rebuild my spirituality through long struggle, enabled by sheer gifts from unlooked-for quarters—the kinds of gifts that go beyond good fortune and can best be described as Grace. But if I’m really honest, I have to admit that those earlier stages still operate in my life, layered on top of each other, sometimes coming to the surface in turn, like geological strata of soil and rock.

I’m grateful—more grateful than I can say—that the homophobic guilt that robbed me of so much joy and spontaneity as a young man doesn’t any longer control my life, but its trace still lingers. It shapes the way I think about the ethics of sexual pleasure. It tinges with a certain defensiveness even my most sex-positive understanding of my inner life as a gay man: I may assert that my sexuality is a gift of the Mystery I choose to call God, but I always, somewhere deep within, have something to prove, and I’m never completely free of the need to push back against the repressive voices of my earlier years. Sometimes I push back with a renewed rage against the likes of (these days) Michelle Bachmann and Rick Santorum. (And take great delight in what Dan Savage succeeded in doing to Santorum’s Google profile.) Sometimes I want just to ignore those voices as irrelevant, and unworthy of my ongoing attention.

I see our spiritual woundedness as queer men—and our erotic woundedness as spiritual men—continuing to shape the possibilities of our lives whenever we close ourselves off from practices tainted with the association of past repression. I’m thinking here of the queer Catholic boys who can no longer look at a rosary; of the queer Jewish boys who haven’t darkened the door of a shul in decades. I’m thinking of my own deep aversion to many of the liturgical practices of Lent, which way too often conjure up for me self-hating celebrations of denial and retrogressive notions of personal, individualized guilt that inevitably include an implication of sexual impurity.

The toxic associations of the rituals of our upbringing often close us off from continued participation. I’m the last person in the world to suggest that gay men shouldn’t trust their instinct for the aspects of their spiritual pasts they have to leave behind in order to affirm themselves and move forward. But I’m also struck by how complex a blend of anger, empowerment, and regret can be involved in such refusals.

I’m struck by the number of possibilities we close off by not remaining open to rituals, symbols, and language that shaped our early experiences. We tend to get away from such trappings of our early religious indoctrination as fast as we can, avoiding the pain, or discomfort, or embarrassment, or impatience, associated with them. But instead of rejecting them outright, we might choose to take control over them and repurpose them in ways that serve our growth.

Here’s what I’m suggesting, then, for something new in 2012.

Pick some specific practice that you’ve left behind because it no longer serves you. Maybe it’s saying grace at the beginning of a meal. Maybe it’s Shabbas Eve dinner. Maybe it’s praying the rosary. Or Friday prayers at the mosque. Or lighting a votive candle before an altar. Or turning a prayer wheel. Or a Pentecostal altar call. Maybe it’s reading the scripture of the tradition you grew up with and have more or less left behind.

Perhaps go out on a long walk while you think about it. Notice what associations it calls up, what you feel in reaction to it. Ask yourself whether, beneath the negative associations, there’s something you regret about losing access to it. And ask yourself, what would it be like to revisit this practice, as the man you are now, without apology, on your own terms? Could you claim it as your own, as an out queer man, and assert that it no longer means what was handed to you, but what you choose to understand that it means, now, for you?

You may not decide to reclaim it as an ongoing part of your spiritual experience and practice. But you’ll expand your world and claim back territory you’ve relinquished. Two of my teachers, Michael Cohen and Collin Brown, often observe that our task is to turn our wounds into gifts, and that we create safety for ourselves not by avoiding risks, but by taking them. This is as true of revisiting the site of our early spiritual woundings as it is of other, more easily visible risks that we might take.

Light the candles at sundown on Friday. Or answer the altar call. Or say the rosary. Or turn the prayer wheel. Say to yourself, this is mine, to make into what I need it to be, to keep or to let go of on my own terms.