I Matter! What a Concept!

I always find it interesting that life is a series of coming out or coming into oneself. #BlackLivesMatter is not just a powerful protest slogan.  It is a coming out.  I look in the mirror, which ain’t always easy to do and say, “Black Lives Matter”.  And you know what for the first time in a very long time I see myself . . . mattering.  The struggle to be me has always stemmed from wondering if my body mattered to anyone other than myself, my people, my tribe, my folks.  In the grander scheme of things it means that I have spent a lifetime seeking out places and people where my Black Life, where my Black Body matters.

And I holler!  Who in the world gave the powers and municipalities I encounter everyday to doubt whether I matter or not.  Who in the world gave the powers and municipalities I encounter everyday to determine how I matter and when I cease to matter.  No one in this world has the right to make me question the veracity of my being.  But it was I.  I gave the powers and municipalities I encounter every day the power to instill that doubt, to determine my existential fate, to lead me to doubt the veracity of my being.

I am grateful to a generation of people who are standing up and resisting the authority of those powers and municipalities to determine how and even if they matter.  I am grateful to a generation who refuse to let theology look the way it has always looked.  I am grateful to a generation that bring their bodies to the streets—black bodies, brown bodies, sepia bodies, peach bodies, muted golden bodies, white bodies, etc.—screaming “#ThisIsWhatTheologyLooksLike!”
Bodies that reflect the very nature of God.  Bodies that know how to be in the library and live the learnings in the street.

There are so many lives that have been taken from the world, from black communities by the authority—police, district attorneys, investigators, the justice department, the FBI, the CIA, the UN an others too many to name.  There are too many black men dying in this new era of authorized and televised lynchings.  Hey ABC, CBS, NBC, NY 1, CNN, FOX do you think my children need to see murder on the television screen at every turn.  Do 12 year old black youth need to see a grainy video of a Tamir Rice being gunned down for playing in the playground?  Do my people need to see Eric Garner choked over and over and over and over and over every time his name is mentioned?  I understand that we need to see that Mike Brown’s body laid a “smoldering in the street” for four and a half hours underneath the white sheet the photographer’s lens so salaciously lingered upon?  But how do we not let it get so engrained in our conscious that we do react like I find myself doing—experiencing trauma at the sound of sirens and lights?

Hey you out there!  Black lives matter!  What are you so afraid of when you see us walk down the street?  Michael Brown was not a hulking giant.  Darren Wilson was tall too but he had a gun, pepper spray and a wall of blue behind him.  Eric Garner was what we call a big boned man.  But the officers that grabbed him weighed more than him in their combined weight.  They had guns, batons, etc.  And as Eric Garner lay on the sidewalk dying the EMT watched.  How are EMT afraid of an incapacitated man?  Oh yes, his skin was black.

These are my ramblings to be sure, but and may not make much sense.  But let’s be clear I am a black man and am shocked to find myself just now in my life shaking of the fetters of this deeply entrenched injustice as normality.  It’s easy to preach it and to shout for justice from the hilltop of Harlem Heights, but to actually loosen the chains that have had me bound—to dislodge that poisonous bit of mentality from my psyche and my spirit is intense and powerful.  I feel like a tumor has been removed and I must find take the time to adjust to life without said tumor.

Reading this,  you may not get the sense of how powerfully important this moment in time is for an SGL Black Man of a certain age.  But in the totality of myself I stand tall with hands up not asking “please don’t shoot” but actually demanding “Don’t Shoot!” and reclaiming my life from the bullets headed my way.  Before when I said, “I can’t breathe” it was a solitary grasp for air, for life.  Now when I say, “I can’t breathe” I know it is because “we can’t breathe”.  And when enough of us can’t breath God hears and sends the breath of life to us.  The world can’t have my breath because it’s God’s breath.

At this time and in this space something is changing from the inside.  No baton can beat it down, no bullet can pierce it, no jail cell can stop it, and not even death can make it not matter.  A change this deep can never be taken away.

Just some thoughts . . .

Coming Out Muslim @ UTS

 Sitting at the table in front of me were faces that I recognized and yet had never met.  Sitting at the table in front of me were young faces that carried the history of their families, their faith.  Sitting in front of me were calm and reserve faces ready to tell their stories.  Sitting in front of me were faces . . . and one face on Skype!

These faces were here to talk about “Coming Out Muslim: Radical Acts of Love.  These young Muslims would go on to speak about their relationship with their faith and families.  It is a perspective that many simply assume does not exist when talking about Queerness, when talking about the LGBTQ community.  And yet the reality is that sexualities are represented in every spectrum of human alliance—religion, race, creed, color, you name it.

And these voices spoke from a wellspring of faithful understanding of a foundational knowing, “Allah makes Muslims . . .” And so the equation resolves, “Allah makes queers.”– Terna Tilley-Gyado.

The simplicity of this statement coming out of the computer screen and scripted so beautifully on a business card, belies the profound nature of statement.  Listening, I found my head nodding in concert and my heart beating with unexpected surprise thinking, “I remember making the same claim as a young Christian as a pre-teen about Creator God!”  This basic claim of belonging to faith because God belongs to all was comforting to hear in this room on this day because I felt in solidarity as a child of God.  A God that does not begrudgingly claim me simply because there are people and institutions that do so.

As the evening progressed, something else struck me. I listened to a woman recount her unconscious notions that come to light when contemplating coming out a person of faith within the community but most importantly family.  As she spoke I recognized the similarities between Muslim families attitudes about their child’s sexual life and that of my African American family and church attitudes about the same.  Everybody knows its going.  If nothing else, everyone knows that everyone is thinking about it in some way, shape or form.  But knowing and thinking about it is much different then acknowledging the sexual beings that we all journey to understand.  (And let it be stated firmly that asexuality is a journey as well.)  She reminded me of a time when I was a teenager, when my family talked about me having children devoid of a sexual union with anyone.  Nobody wants their baby to grow up.  But can you imagine?  If you can’t talk to your family or community about sex period, how do you talk about your sexual identity?  It’s a weird kind of thought—we are sexual beings granted, but we are sexual beings that don’t want to address our sexualities.

Before I go on and with this musing, let me just say that Coming Out Muslim is a project that not only tells of what it means to be a practicing Muslim but it tells of how powerful it is to be queer and a faithful child of the Creator.

http://comingoutmuslim.com/

coming out muslim

radical love: queer muslims live and love

CAN YOU NAME THAT TUNE?

Recently, John Bell of the Iona Community of Scotland visited Union Theological Seminary. In an uplifting and provocative workshop on issues of worship, song and liturgy he raised a very, very powerful notion. The general premise he presented was how our personal theologies, based in the worship music imprinted upon us early in our worship life, influence our experience of God, worship, theology and sense of self in relationship to God. He then spoke of his own memories of the songs and types of songs that ‘stuck with him’ from childhood and how, upon truly assessing their influence, they shaped who he is today.
It got me thinking about my personal relationship with church, my relationship with God and my religious ideas in relation to myself. I grew up singing the same songs as most children. Songs meant to assure us that God and Jesus loves us—“Yes, Jesus Loves Me”, that we belong to God and are wanted—“I’ll Be Sunbeam”, and because of this I can sing, “I’ve Got the Joy, Joy, Joy”. But as a full worship participant in an African American Baptist Church from at least the time I was four, the songs that are primarily imprinted in my theological psyche are quite different. I was shaped by the plaintive cries of songs like “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”, gospel songs like “Oh, Happy Day” (when Jesus washed my sins away), and hymns like “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood”.
Standard fare for many African American worship communities of the time, often they were to assure us that God was with us in our hardest of times, that happiness was there for us when and if Jesus washed our sins away and that by accepting the brutal and grisly images of “There Is A Fountain Filled with Blood” we were to be ‘plunged beneath the flood that flowed from Immanuel’s veins’. As graphic as those images were, it struck me completely differently as a young man becoming aware of his same gender loving sensuality. Songs like “Oh, Happy Day” and “Fountain” would only give you the joy of Christ after your sins were forgiven. For me, I grew up with preaching points directed toward me that my “sins” would never be forgiven. And yet that tied into the motif of the suffering Black Christian, waiting for a reward on the other side. How confusing, right? There was forgiveness for sin with an joy sublime to come…but apparently I was the embodiment of sin that could never be forgiven.
Strangely enough, though Tommy Dorsey’s “Precious Lord” spoke about a personal relationship with God that wasn’t contingent on me fitting a mold of righteousness as defined by very real humans in their imperfections. James Cleveland’s gospel rendition of the Gladys Knight hit, “Jesus Is The Best Thing” shifted my view of how I could be in relationship with God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. It showed me that I wanted an intimate relationship with God. One so intimate that I could sing a love ballad to God and the Spirit would make my heart glad.
So how does all of this speak of my theology? I was speaking to a group a few years ago, speaking my narrative. And I realized the reason why, after all the church tried to do to me to convince me that gay was bad, that blacks must suffer, that the other side is the realm of God to strive for, that I didn’t buy it. I came away from my early church experiences with a personal theology of being in intimate relationship with God. It wasn’t that I ever felt unloved by God, I was being judged by the church. And that didn’t matter because I see God’s and my love as the primary goal for which I strive.
I believe that John Bell has hit upon something very powerful. Classical music and hymns are losing favor in the newer generation of worship (as opposed to the “younger generation”). This question of how our musical imprint influences our theologies and worship practices can help all of us evaluate the worship needs of those to whom we are responsible.  I am not judging new generation worship patterns or music as bad. But as providers of a worship experience for others, I would be interested in exploring new ways of understanding the needs of worshipers and how to vary worship options by considering others personal theological needs for worship. To often worship does not reflect the diverse, cultural or spiritual needs of others outside of those ideas of what is best for people as put forth by worship planners. I think John Bell’s question can break open the relational connected experience of worship leader and worship for an optimal existential way of being in worship.

A sentiment of Christmas…

Merry Christmas to all who see this…
there’s room around the manger for us all…we all belong, we are all loved, we are blessed with the gift of being able to work for peace, justice, love and joy…
the trick is simply to start by knowing this day of Christmas commemorates the day when a star told all of us,
“You are loved now and forever…”I share this sentiment of grace from my heart to yours.

Eartha Kitt’s Lucasta with Joan Crawford’s Mildred

 

 

On August 7, 2012, the New York Times printed a review of David M. Halperin’s “How to Be Gay”. The reviewer Dwight Garner entitled his review “How ‘Mildred Pierce’ Explains the World. I must admit, that as a Mildred Pierce fan my fascination was piqued enough to read the review. After reading the review however, my fascination was not piqued enough to wan to read the book. It’s not that Mr. Garner’s review was a bad one and it wasn’t that it wasn’t well written. By the time I finished the review I felt that this book had completely dismissed an entire population of readers: gay men of color.

David Halperin is is a professor at the University of Michigan who teaches a class with the same title of his book. His work was groundbreaking especially because the state legislature proposed a bill that would allow the Legislature to veto course offerings at all of Michigan’s public universities. The proposed legislation failed.

The class, who many thought was a proselytizing effort to recruit straight young men into homosexuality, was in fact a course designed for men who are already gay build, “a conscious identity, a common culture, a particular outlook on the world, a shared sense of self.” A touchstone example of this common culture is Joan Crawford and her classic character of Mildred Pierce. Without repeating the review in this piece, let’s just say that Joan Crawford’s strength, fierceness, grit, determination and glamour are lifted up as resonant characteristics found in the building sense of self as a gay man.

Mind you, I suggest that you read the book and the review for yourself. It’s not that the work isn’t an informative statement of the arc of gay identity formation. I think, however, that the work could be complemented perhaps in the next edition with a look at other cultures. Specifically, by taking a look at how gay identity and common culture is formed in gay communities of color. Asking questions about the impact of Eartha Kitt, Carmen Miranda, Bessie Smith or the Geisha tradition and others has helped build a particular outlook on the world.

My first inkling in regards to writing this piece was to blast Halperin as being an isolationist only concerned with the gay Caucasian community. After all, the LGBTQ community is commonly defined by the white gay male experience. And this reality is hurtful, demeaning and seemingly invalidates the experiences of persons of color. But after serious consideration, I decided to thank Mr. Halperin for his work and the foundation he has laid for further work to be done on the issues his work raises. In his role as academic, however, I do hold Professor Halperin accountable for accepting criticism and hopefully learning how to expand his important work for communities rendered invisible.