Finding the Echoes in our Stories and the Grace in our Hearts

Stories are powerful.

My last post told a piece of the story of how I became an LGBTQ-affirming Christian. That story began with someone else’s story, with a novella and a film and a character whose humanity got under my skin. Curiously, over a decade after I first saw Strawberry and Chocolate, the process of digging up reading materials for my international cinema class led me to another story of a gay man of faith. This time, it wasn’t a fictional character, though, it was a blogger by the name of Kenny Pierce.

At the time, his name didn’t stick with me, but his story did. It was a story of coming out in the 1980s, of alienation from the church, and of surviving the AIDS epidemic while many friends weren’t so lucky. It was a story (as I remember reading it then) that staked out Kenny’s unlikely place as a Christian against two opposing camps: anti-gay Christians and anti-Christian gays. It was a story of a faith that could not be escaped by fleeing the church or be drowned by alcohol. It was also a story that radiated pain and love, and it stayed with me.

About two years later, around last August, I happened to cross paths with Kenny on Twitter because we were both following The Moonshine Jesus Show, and eventually I made the connection between him and the blog I had read long before. Since then, Kenny and I have struck up an online friendship, and so naturally I shared my post about Strawberry and Chocolate and my journey to becoming an LGBTQ ally with him. He’s a film buff, so I expected him to appreciate it on a couple of levels.

I surprised by one of his responses, however. He found an echo between my story of struggling with belief and his own experience of coming out, and he commented that I had “described the earliest feelings incredibly well.” Curiously, both of our journeys had a cinematic catalyst; Kenny wrote, “It was a film (Making Love) that sent me driving for an afternoon, staring at the road and just feeling terror…”

As we talked over our experiences, Kenny added this wistful comment: “I wish to God that the conversation that we’re having now had happened with the 21 year old kid in 1985 that was Kenny.” He went on to wonder what would have happened if he and so many others like himself had not been ostracized from their church and home communities, only to take refuge in big cities where they felt safer but where many would fall victim to AIDS.

I found that I didn’t have the words to respond to Kenny’s wish, and I finally settled for “I know. Me too.”

The thing is, I don’t know. My experience is a world away from Kenny’s. We are decade and a half apart, thousands of miles apart, and different in gender, sexual orientation, and countless other life experiences.

Yet, in spite of that, he found an echo of his story in mine. And when I think about it, I can find many echoes of my own story in his: feeling alienated in a community where I once fit in, finding myself adrift, only tenuously connected to my childhood faith, and yearning to be accepted without having to hide part of who I am. Of course, the degree of those experiences and the pain that they caused are different, but the echoes are a start, if not toward total understanding, then toward the possibility of empathy and grace.

If I needed a box of bandaids to knit together my spiritual scars, Kenny needed a team of surgeons. But here we are, finding the light in each other’s scars.

I’m glad I stumbled across Kenny’s story. I’m glad that I paused to listen, and that such a simple act can be a source of healing and affirmation.

The tragedy is that no one can go back and listen to 21-year-old Kenny’s story. It is too late to prevent a great deal of pain, too late to right a great many wrongs done to Kenny and those of his generation.

The good news is that we have opportunities all around us to do better. Behind every kid struggling with identity, behind every hard choice, and behind every screw-up is a story waiting to be heard. Often, if we pause to listen, we can find echoes of our own stories in the most surprising places, and in those echoes we can find compassion and grace that we never knew we had in ourselves, or that we never thought we deserved from others. We can find a chance at understanding, healing, and reconciliation.

Stories are powerful, but only if we keep listening until they resonate with our own, until familiar echoes overwhelm the distortions of fear or ignorance or misunderstanding and remind us that where it counts, we are much the same. We all need to speak and to be drawn into conversation, we all need to hear and be heard, and we all need to be greeted with grace and love no matter where we are in our own story.

May we listen until we find ourselves alongside the other, and in doing so, may we turn our stories into tales of love, grace, and transformation.

Thanks to Kenny Pierce for allowing me to share his comments. If you would like to check out Kenny’s blog, I recommend these posts: On Death, Dying, and Those who Still Wait, The Light in My Scars, and That’s my Given Name but a Lot of People Call me HIV.

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How I Found Gay Cuban Jesus and became an LGBTQ-Affirming Christian

When I was a senior in college (that is, 15 years ago now), I took a Hispanic literature and film class in which we watched the Cuban movie Strawberry and Chocolate. It was an uncomfortable experience for me.

I didn’t know what to expect from the film because as a fledgling reader of Spanish, I hadn’t made much headway with the short novel that the film is based on (The Wolf, the Forest, and the New Man by Senel Paz). For starters, I was a little shocked and embarrassed by a brief but strong (and very hetero) sex scene at the beginning of the film, and I remember surreptitiously glancing around at my classmates, thinking, “Did I really just see that in class?”

What followed left me even more unsettled, but for different reasons: A gay man (Diego) makes a play for a young straight man (David), and through various twists and turns of the plot, the two of them develop a genuine friendship and respect for one another. At the end of the film, they share an emotional embrace as Diego prepares to leave the country because of the communist regime’s repression of intellectual freedom and persecution of LGBTQ people.Screenshot 2015-02-04 15.18.58

It has been 15 years, but I still remember how that embrace bothered me. Despite the bright Cuban sunshine streaming in through the window, the act seemed sinister and threatening. Worrisome. The big bad wolf had somehow managed to get friendly with little Red Riding Hood, and that wasn’t how the story was supposed to end.

I didn’t really understand the film, but I knew that it contradicted what I had been taught: that homosexuality is a sin and that it should not be normalized and promoted, much less embraced. The film got under my skin despite the fact that Diego’s initial ploy to seduce David does not succeed; as Roger Ebert noted in his review of the film, Strawberry and Chocolate “is not a movie about the seduction of a body, but about the seduction of a mind.” At the time, I guess I was not quite prepared for either possibility.

This all happened before the term “gay agenda” gained traction, and before a one’s stance on homosexuality and same-sex marriage became such an important litmus test in certain circles for whether or not one is a “true” believer and practitioner of the Christian faith. In fact, the topic of homosexuality seemed distant and almost unreal as I grew up in rural south Georgia, far from the epicenters of the AIDS epidemic and blithely ignorant of any gay subtexts in the Queen songs that I learned from listening to the radio with my older brothers.

Homosexuality was a sin, but from my sheltered perspective it was a theoretical one, like making sacrifices to pagan gods . . . who did that? Not anyone that I knew! A year or two into college, I did have a bisexual friend (one of my best, in fact), but I was conveniently spared from having to confront the issue when she started dating a guy shortly after we met.

In this context, I wasn’t exactly homophobic, and I didn’t hate or gay-bash LGBTQ folks (that is, the two or three whom I knew at that point), but nevertheless, when I was suddenly confronted with having to think and write about gay men and their stories (we also read and watched Kiss of the Spider Woman), I was profoundly unsettled by the contradictions between what I believed and what I felt, and I was caught between the impulse to identify with the characters or to keep them at arm’s length as foreign and possibly dangerous others.

So, you could say that Diego was the first (albeit fictional) person to seriously challenge my beliefs on homosexuality and LGBTQ people, and that first time around, I couldn’t identify with him. I couldn’t accept that final embrace.

Several years later and quite a bit farther down the road of my Christian journey, I decided to rewatch Strawberry and Chocolate when I was choosing films for a Hispanic cultures class (mostly, I confess, because it was one of only two Cuban films that I had ever seen).

I was looking for relevant cultural content for my students, but what I found instead was Jesus.

Gay Cuban Jesus, to be precise.

That, and a change of heart.

As I rewatched (and then re-rewatched) Strawberry and Chocolate, I came not only to identify with Diego, but to love and respect him just as David, his young straight friend in the film, does. I learned to see his goodness and passion, and to see the evil of the regime that oppresses him and ultimately forces him to leave the country that he loves. I also noticed something that I think I completely missed the first time around: Diego’s identity in the film is not limited to that of gay man, or even that of passionate, oppressed intellectual.

Diego is also a creyente, a believer . . . one might even go so far as to call him a Christian. Not quite the same variety as most of us, for sure, but a believer nonetheless. When I first saw the film, I hadn’t known what to make of his odd relationship with the statue of his patron saint, or with the troubling and potentially sacrilegious statue of Jesus that is hidden under a sheet in his apartment, waiting to be shown at an art exhibition.

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The statue is a fairly standard representation of Jesus, but it is pierced in several places by the communist sickle, resulting in an image that I originally saw as a statement against Christ and Christianity on the part Diego’s artist friend, who is also gay. Oh boy, did I miss the point.

The statue is more likely a criticism of the communist regime that restricted religious practice and that spied on, discriminated against, and even persecuted people of faith . . . just like it spied on, discriminated against, and persecuted gay men like Diego.

Regardless of his love of Cuba and his desire to contribute to its betterment, Diego is pierced over and over by rejection and censorship. When he takes too firm of a stand for artistic freedom, his life, like the plan for the exhibition of the Jesus statue, is ruined. Diego, like the subversive statue of Christ, is forced to exist in hiding. When he objects, he loses his job and is blacklisted and forced into exile away from the country that he has loved so dearly . . . and that he still loves despite the rejection and persecution that he has suffered at its hands.

Kind of like Jesus, still loving the people who nailed him to a cross.

At one point in the film, Diego insists, “I am a part of this country, like it or not, and I have a right to work for its future! . . . Without me, you’re missing a piece!”

He was right . . . the Revolution lost something when it silenced his voice, when it ostracized him and forced him into exile.

How many LGBTQ people have been silenced or exiled by the church? What suffering have we caused, and what have we lost as a result?

How many times have Christians done the persecuting? How many times have we been the Romans with nails, the ideologues with sickles?

And how many times have we excused ourselves by talking about “sin” when none of us has the right to cast stones?

This is not a post about whether homosexual behavior is sinful or not (if you want to read more on that, check here, here, or here). This is a post, in part, about why “sin” isn’t the point.

The point is that people of faith–gay and straight and both and neither–are all part of the church. We all deserve the chance to be in community and to contribute to the future of our faith. We all lose when we exclude and ostracize others who want to be in community.

The point is also that LGBTQ people are just that, people, who have stories that we need to hear, respect, and find ourselves in. When I took a step back from my ideology and really listened to Diego’s story, I could no longer find it in myself to reject and condemn him. In the end, like David, I was seduced . . . not by “sin,” but by Diego’s quirky, passionate, flawed, and honest humanity. By the person behind the label.

Through Diego and David’s story, I understood how I was part of the regime–how I was the crucifier, not the crucified. I realized that I was on the wrong side.

I finally found the joy of that embrace, a joy which has been translated in my life from the fiction of a film to friendships that I treasure and people that I love.

Thank you for that, Diego. Thank you for being my gay Cuban Jesus.

This post is dedicated to my LGBTQ friends and students, and to the first same-sex couples being officially married in the state of Alabama today. Love wins!  

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#StayWokeAdvent: On How We Dismiss Gender and Racial Violence as Other People’s Problems

Last week I wrote my debut blog post about differing racial realities, and I am glad that it has resonated well with some people. My only expertise in this area, however, is my own experience: growing up in the South, going to a high school where racial tensions were sometimes in evidence, and being awake for a while now, paying attention and listening to the stories of others. My academic expertise is on a different topic: gender ideology and violence against women. I have read thousands and written hundreds of pages on those topics, and as I was chatting with someone about last week’s post, I realized that there is a troubling parallel between reactions to racial violence and reactions to gender violence.

Before I jump into the comparison, though, I want to clarify my terms: racial violence and gender violence. Although the term is not perfect, I am using “racial violence” instead of “police brutality” or “police violence” because while the police have been a focus of this problem recently, I want to cast a broader net that includes individuals like George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn.

On the other side of the comparison, “gender violence” is a another term for “domestic violence”: physical, sexual, or psychological violence perpetrated on the victim (most often, but not always, a woman) by a current or former romantic partner or spouse.

Like racism, gender violence has always existed in our culture, but it has not always been a subject of critique and activism. It was (and to a lamentable extent, still is) a normal part of life in a society dominated by men where laws were written by men in favor of men.

Centuries ago, patriarchal ideology put men in charge and relegated women to a status similar to that of children. Men were the rule makers and the disciplinarians upon whom the stability of society rested, and a man who exercised physical discipline to keep his family in line was fulfilling his role in society. Even if some men were abusive, it was better for discipline to be kept, for women to be in their place and controlled, than to take power away from men. Obviously, parallels can be drawn between male dominance and white supremacy and the abuses that they foster.

We have gotten better at identifying and critiquing the ideologies behind racial and gender violence, and many people in privileged positions (white, male) genuinely reject those ideologies and seek to give respect and dignity to people of any color or gender. However, even people who would never intentionally be racist or misogynist often make a harmful mistake in the way that they react to gender or racial violence. That mistake is in attributing the blame for these violent acts solely to the individuals involved, rather than extending it to a broader system of ideology and power structures.

The aggressor becomes an aberration from the norm, a pathological case, a lone wolf. The abusive husband or boyfriend is simply a drunk or a jackass; he isn’t a representative of centuries of gender ideology that have told him that he has the right to be in charge; the right to enforce his power over a woman who is lower on the totem pole simply because she is female.

The flip-side of that coin is victim blaming. The crudest form of victim-blaming in gender violence scenarios is to assume that the victim deserves it, but equally damaging is the assumption that the victim could easily prevent or escape violence if only she took the initiative. People ask, “Why does she choose men who treat her that way?” or “Why doesn’t she just leave?” as if there are always easy answers to these questions.

Just as ingrained ideology still encourages male dominance, it still encourages female submission. Just as societal structures still favor men economically, they make it harder for women, especially women with children, to make a living independently. And even these reasons do not take into account the psychological effects of violence, which can leave victims without self-esteem, feeling that they can never act effectively to end their victimization. We do the victim an injustice when we assume that by herself she can make a simple decision and change the outcome.

In regard to racial violence, the same dynamics operate when well-meaning people ask “Why do we have to make everything about race? Why can’t we just be upset that one person shot another person?” and similar questions. It is true that individuals do commit these acts of violence, and those individuals should face the consequences of their actions. It is also true that victims sometimes make mistakes or act in a way that precipitates or exacerbates violence, but that does not mean that the violence is justified or that the victim is solely to blame for their victimization.

Maybe someone did make a bad decision out of fear, frustration, or desperation that caused them to become a victim (or an aggressor) more easily. However, we are complicit in the problem if we do not ask what helped make that person fearful or frustrated or desperate and how our society may have contributed to those conditions. Individual choices are certainly significant, but they are always contextual, always informed by ideology, history, and lived experience.

The problem with reducing racial violence to the decisions and actions of certain individuals (whether we vilify the aggressor, blame the victim, or some combination of the two) is that it puts all of the blame for the problem on someone else. Someone we can contrast ourselves with, someone we can blame, someone we can scapegoat. It relieves us, the “good” and “well-meaning” people of all responsibility.

It perpetuates the illusion that the system works, that equality has been achieved, but that there are outliers–racists, psychopaths, etc.–who will always commit these types of crimes no matter what we do as a society. In short, it excuses us–the good people–from having to act to create a society that is as egalitarian and as just as we want to imagine that it is already.

If we want to stop the victimization of disempowered people in our society–whether it is an abused wife or a murdered black youth–we have to go beyond the individual aggressors. We have to wake up, step up, and rewrite the ideology that empowers some and disempowers others.

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For more information about #StayWokeAdvent, search the hashtag or visit Theology of Ferguson on Twitter. 

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#StayWokeAdvent: Reflections on Waking Up to Another’s Reality

This morning as I scanned my social media feeds I felt overwhelmingly burdened by the tragic story of Eric Garner, as if the weight of all the other stories that have haunted us recently—Michael Brown, John Crawford, Tamir Rice . . .—had come to rest together with his on my chest. #Icantbreathe became more than a hashtag; it became a physical reality. Part of the pressure forcing air out of my lungs was the weight of injustice and the sadness of such a senseless loss of life. The other part was the weight that kept me from adding my voice to the protest: there are police officers among my family and friends. Do I stay silent? Do I run the risk of offending people that I love? In the end I decided to write this piece in observation of #StayWokeAdvent because silence is complicity. It’s high time to wake up and speak out. I am writing as a white American, and when I say “us” I am talking first to myself and second to people like me.

I have seen a meme circulating on Facebook that says “Not all cops are bad. Not all black people are criminals. Not all white people are racist. #StopLabeling.” All of those statements are true, and “Stop Labeling” is an admirable sentiment, but there are two problems: 1) When there is injustice, we need to label it for exactly what it is, vocally and incessantly, and 2) We need to realize that even those of us who reject those labels are complicit in the system that perpetuates injustice. This is especially true when we remain silent, when we take refuge in the dream that we can simply reject labels and everything will be okay. We need to be awakened. Even more, we need to #StayWoke.

It is easy to reject a label. We see people do it all the time when they say “I’m not racist, but . . .” followed by something that is invariably racist to some extent. We can tell ourselves that we are not racist, and even comfort and justify ourselves with that thought in the face of the systemic injustices that often play out on television or via social media without affecting us directly. We can easily excuse ourselves and think that this is not our problem. We may be momentarily jolted awake by a tragedy, but then we shrug it off—after all, it isn’t our fault—and we sink back into our dream.

Like many white kids in the south, I grew up exposed to racist language and ideology. Most of it came from people who would reject the label “racist,” and most of them were good people. But they were, and probably still are, asleep, unaware of the divide between their ideology and reality. All of those words and ideas that I heard in my youth have not gone away; they still rattle around in my brain and sometimes surface. Although I hate to admit it, sometimes they probably do affect my actions even though I make a conscious effort to avoid them. As the Avenue Q cast sings with truthful humor, “Everyone’s a little bit racist,” and though sometimes the effects are inconsequential, other times they are deadly. That’s why it’s so important to #StayWoke. To pay attention. To actively work against the stereotypes and assumptions that have been subtly or not-so-subtly ingrained into us since childhood. To listen to one another’s stories and see the truth of how people of color experience the world and of how we are complicit in that experience, whether by commission or omission.

At various moments in my life, events have broken through to wake me from my complacent “I’m not a racist, it’s not my problem” slumber. I may share more of them before #StayWokeAdvent is over, but for now I will only share one. It isn’t an event that I can pinpoint precisely, but rather a gradual realization that solidified and hit me one day with a jolt hard enough to startle me awake.

I have several black female friends and acquaintances who, like me, have sons. I identify with them when I see pictures of their kids on Facebook or on a desk at work. We are moms of boys. We are alike.

But when a black man—especially a young black man—dies unjustly, we are not alike. I am sad. I am perhaps indignant. I think something needs to be done to keep this from happening to someone else’s child. But they . . . they are afraid. They are angry, I’m sure, but from what I see (and I see only a tiny glimpse), mostly they are frightened and worried about how to raise and protect their little boys. About how to ensure that this does not happen to their child.

I cannot imagine that anguish. I worry about my boys, but not in that way. I lie in bed at night with my boys and read books filled with police cars and police motorcycles. The boys point to them excitedly and we talk about sirens and lights and policemen who are there to help when someone is in trouble. That is our reality, but assuming that everyone else participates in that reality is only a dream. At some point I woke up. Now I lie there and I wonder if the black moms that I know read those same books to their little boys. If they do, what do they say? I suspect that it isn’t the same thing that I say. Their reality is not my reality.

To assume that our version of reality is the truth is to be asleep. In the light of recent events, however, it is even more pernicious than that. It is to intentionally ignore the stories that have startled us out of our slumber. It is to turn down the volume, roll over, snuggle into our blanket of privilege, and drift back into an American dream that exists only for some of us.

I don’t want to be caught sleeping through the pain of others like the disciples in the garden.

I want to #StayWoke.

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For more information about #StayWokeAdvent, search the hashtag or visit Theology of Ferguson on Twitter. 

Feel free to join the conversation! For verification purposes, commenters will be asked to provide a name and email address. Your email will not be displayed, shared, or used in any way. If you would like to follow the blog via email, use the button in the righthand column of the blog.