Touching the Earth

Thursday – from Blanca and Lily

Thursday was another day full of wonder. We learned more about the history and present day struggles of El Salvador as we met with, and gained inspiration from, additional individuals sharing powerful stories.

*Over breakfast, Jenna Knapp of CRISPAZ, presented an overview of her work with gang-involved youth in San Salvador. Jenna uses art therapy and poetry workshops with these youth, many of whom are or have been incarcerated under inhumane conditions, especially in the detention centers. These young men and women are especially vulnerable to extra-judicial executions by the police.

*We spent the remainder of the morning in a riveting conversation with Francisco Mena Sandoval, a former member of the Salvadoran military, who defected at the start of the Civil War to join the FMLN in 1981 as a guerilla fighter and captain. (Francisco is the father of current CRISPAZ Director, Francisco Mena Ugarte.) Mr. Mena Sandoval told us of his experience participating in election fraud in 1977—a trigger event for the rise of the Salvadoran people in protest—at the direction of his military commanders. It was at this time that he came to know Roberto d’Aubuisson, a member of the National Guard and later a major in the Salvadoran army, who became the ruthless political leader in the onset and early years of the Civil War (from 1980 to 1985) and the principal proponent of assassinations by death squads. (Roberto d’Aubuisson is widely believed to be the mastermind of Archbishop Romero’s assassination in 1980.) Three times during Mena Sandoval’s military tenure, he received training from US military personnel – twice in Ft. Benning, GA at the School of the Americas (SOA) (renamed in 2001 as the Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC)) and once in Argentina. Mena Sandoval explained his intense internal moral conflict during his time as a military leader. Pivotal to his change of heart was his personal relationship with Archbishop Oscar Romero.  At the risk of death, Mena Sandoval met with Archbishop Romero on a weekly basis and provided information about the atrocities being committed by the military, which Romero then reported in his Sunday homilies. It was after refusing to conduct a massacre of innocent and poor people in 1980 in Rosario, a small town in the Morazán district, that Mena Sandoval defected from the military and joined the FMLN’s liberation army in the Morazán district as captain of an elite force of guerrillas. During the Civil War, Morazán was able to become a liberated district.

*Before lunch, we had a brief opportunity to visit the CRISPAZ office and appreciate the handcrafted arts made by communities of Salvadorans as part of a program to promote local artisans by providing a marketplace with fair trade prices.

*Over lunch, we met with three people involved in a nascent LGBTQ advocacy movement in El Salvador. The LGBTQ community is also vulnerable to extra-judicial executions. These three individuals are focusing their efforts on creating an official organization, collecting data on human rights violations, seeking funds to hire a lawyer to represent members of the LGBTQ community, and advocating for enactment of anti-discrimination legislation with provisions to enforce those statutory rights.

*Thursday afternoon we made the two-hour drive to Bajo Lempa in Morazán where we met Noemi Ortiz, Elena Jaramillo and Father Pedro LeClerq at the Cultural Center of Oscar Romero. The three discussed their experiences working with Christian Base Communities (CBCs), which are organized around principles of a people’s theology grounded in the reality of oppression of the people. Over the past several years, Union’s very own Jenn Wilder has worked alongside CBC community leaders in various communities in Morazán. Morazán is a rural and very poor region of El Salvador where the people live mostly by the land. The end of the Civil War did not usher in economic reform and this region continues to face difficult socio-economic and environmental challenges. Rooted in their reality, the CBCs live out the Gospel of Christ by organizing economic cooperatives and other community, even infrastructural, projects to improve their lives. It is this type of Christian praxis, not dogma, which characterizes the CBC’s ideal of what the Church must be. During our conversation, Father Pedro talked about the importance of “touching the Earth.” This community’s way of living in reality, struggling and working together, and celebrating life and their accomplishments impressed us as genuinely joyful and inspired us.

*Following our meeting at the Cultural Center of Oscar Romero, we drove to the small village of Nueva Esperanza in Morazán. That evening, we had a lovely dinner at the home of Nina Conchita. Then, we danced the night away at our hostel with a group of local young musicians who played both traditional and contemporary dance music!

Here we are with the musicians in Nueva Esperanza.

Space does not permit us to do justice to how moving this day was for us. That said, we’d like to add just one reflection. It cannot be gainsaid how unjust our own incarceration system is. Still, it was absolutely horrifying to hear of the typical detention practices in El Salvador where detainees, mostly young members of gangs who bear childhood scars of neglect and abuse, are held for months without even being charged with an offense, are kept in such crowded conditions that they must sleep standing up, and are not fed. Family members must bring food and drink, which is often confiscated by the correctional officers. It is not uncommon for detainees to have to drink their own urine. It is in the context of these extremely dehumanizing conditions, that Jenna Knapp seeks to uncover and preserve the humanity and dignity of these young people through the healing powers of art, poetry and narrative work, which gives these young men and women a means of expressing themselves and processing their traumatic experiences. With Jenna’s permission, we share one of the poems published by FESPAD in a recent book titled Duras Lecciones (Hard Lessons). As Jenna expressed, not only does this art prove hugely meaningful for the incarcerated youth, it also helps reveal the humanity, dignity and profundity of these youth, who are so often demonized and associated only with violence. To us, the poem also represents the spiritual profundity of the Salvadoran people, who despite the extreme repression and atrocities committed against them, maintain hope and their dignity, while also speaking to so many situations around the world.


By Andy

Justicia. ¿Quál justicia?

Si la juventud se pierde cuando nos cierran las puertas

y nos dejan como guitarras.

Sin cuerdas.

¿Cómo esperas de tu justicia una rosa

si lo que siembras son espinas?

¿Cómo esperas escuchar

si nos exigido silencio?

Nos has cerrado las puertas,

nos has quitado la libertad

y nosotros solos pedimos una oportunidad.


¿Por qué nos das la espalda cuando te pedimos una mano?

¿Cómo nos pides amor

si nos has arrancado el corazon

y los tienes en una jaula

de la cual no puede salir?


¿Acaso no fuiste joven?

¿Acaso no cometiste errors?

Pero a nosotros nos dejan en el olvido,

Nos hacen perder nuestra juventud.

Siembran odio y quieren cultivar amor.

¿Por qué no extiendes tu mano y le das a mi corazón libertad?


by Andy

Justice. What justice?
Youth is lost once they lock the doors
and leave us like guitars without strings.
How do you expect of your justice a rose,
if what you sow are thorns?
How do you expect to hear,
if you demand of us silence?
You have locked the doors,
You have taken our freedom,
and we only ask you for one chance.

Why do you turn your back to us when we ask you for a helping hand?
How can you ask for love
when you have ripped out our hearts
and keep us in a cage
from which we can not escape?

By chance you were never young?
By chance you never made mistakes?
But us you leave in oblivion,
You make us lose our youth.
You sow hate and want to cultivate love.
Why not extend your hand and free my heart?

Bishop Senyonjo’s Courage

A quick heads-up that Religion Dispatches has an article on Union alum Bishop Christopher Senyonjo currently running on their site. For those who do not know, the Bishop has been the sole voice of religious support for the LGBTQ citizens of Uganda.

He has been doing a great service both in Uganda and in the United States. The churches need not only more Christopher Senyonjos, but more of us to recognize and publicize efforts like this. Please share this article far and wide.

Thank you, President Jones

Thank you for your contribution to Project Union Responds.  You were the first to answer to our call for a Christian witness to LGBTQ youth–and your involvement as the leader of our community was crucial.  Without knowing it, you inspired us and galvanized a whole community into action–straight people, genderqueer people, queer straight people, lesbians, gays, queer people of color, butches, femmes, bisexuals, queens, trannies, aggressives, tomboys . . .  we turned up.  Thank you for helping to ignite the flame that’s turned into this roaring blaze.

Follow the link to view President Jones’s uncut contribution to Project Union Responds:

Click to view

A Love that Would Not Let Me Go

When we tell our stories, we are transformed. When others hear our stories, they are transformed. The story telling for Project Union Responds stirred up the Union community. We were stirred up because sharing our stories was an action of liberation, affirmation, by re-claiming our selves, our bodies, and our faiths. We were stirred up because sharing our stories required us to reflect on how we had been (and still are) harmed. As a community we received, held, and honored all that has been stirred up in us throughout the process; specifically during an evening, candle-light service on Wednesday, October 13, 2010, in James Chapel.

The following is a copy of the reflection offered by Barbara L. Rice. Ms. Rice has a master of counseling and is a first-year, master of divinity seminarian here at Union. Her employment portfolio includes working with LGBTQ youth. As a community, we are graced by her presence and voice.


A Love that Would Not Let Me Go

When Zach was a child I loved him. When Elizabeth was a child I loved her. When Luke was a child I loved him. When Erica was a child I loved her.

[Hosea 11:1–12] is one of those passages of scripture that I have always been drawn to, never fully knowing why. I’m sure my 16-year-old interpretations of this text were age appropriately simplistic and egocentric. But there was something in my initial and naïve draw to the passage that was innate—that was calling me back to some womb-like recognition of my connectedness with a love that would not let me go. I would not have used those words, but there was a desire to ingest these images into my being. I wanted to know that type of security, that type of love. I wanted to watch an old home movie of God bending down to feed me when I was a toddler. I wanted to see, feel, and touch these cords of human kindness and bands of love. I wanted to know that they would catch me, would hold that space, would keep me safe. And I wanted the people in my life to know and feel that security and love in their own lives.

And I think in many ways those bands of love were very real in my heart and in my life. At the risk of being stereotypical, I was very much a tomboy, and it was considered cute to run around in my baseball uniform all year long. And I was always picked fairly quickly in the process of choosing kick ball teams in elementary school. I would occasionally be called dyke, but had no idea what it meant, and I didn’t care. I had friends because I learned early in life that if you listen to people they tend to like you. So, I could fit in pretty well and for the most part was spared the personal pain of bullying.

As I grew into adolescence I had that familiar gnawing sensation that many of you can relate to – that sense that something about me just wasn’t right. And it would creep into my thoughts now and then, this utter terror, that there might just be some tiny chance I was gay. This nightmare sat in the back of my mind and would rear its head, and I would think that if this is in any way true then I probably didn’t deserve to live. This belief that, if I were indeed gay, I would be unworthy of taking up space on the earth, mostly came from my family narrative which was passionately homophobic in the name of following Jesus. So, if this secret, this nightmare, was possibly true then it would mean that I was beyond the point of any repair.

And so I would sit with these images that I sought out in the Bible—pictures from Isaiah of loving protection amidst storms and scary things, the intimacy of Mary washing Jesus’ feet and his defense and love for her, and then this one in Hosea of having been known and loved intimately since babyhood regardless of my attempts to escape. And I would try to connect with that love and tell myself that this was enough, and tell myself that I could get through this life devoting all of it to God, and that I would be given the strength to keep myself together (i.e. not fall to the temptation of living in that ‘lifestyle’) until I died and could experience ultimate union with the Divine. My life was full of sports, friends, mission trips, school work, and service clubs. By all appearances I was a pretty happy teenager and as long as I could keep the terror silenced or distant then I was OK.

I wasn’t externally tortured for being gay, but I was internally tortured. I’ve thought about this a lot these last few weeks. I can’t imagine what I would have done if there had been this added layer of ostracism, of being targeted, or being ridiculed. I truly do not know that I could have survived that, and I look around at my friends in this room, not knowing each story, but knowing that for many of you it was a struggle that words can’t capture. And I sit with gratitude and awe realizing you have survived.

In my therapy practice in Greensboro, NC, I had the privilege of working with many teens and adults struggling to come to terms with their sexual orientation. Their struggles were often based on their understanding of what religion or the Bible said about same gender love, but they inevitably faced peer and family ostracism. In doing trauma work with my clients incidents of extreme bullying would often come up, and these memories would be so vivid that, as they were described to me, I felt like I was there. It was as if in their description I could see, hear, touch, smell and taste the terror, the fear, the punches, the tears, the shame. As if their spirits had been branded like cattle, we would work together to deconstruct the internalized messages left by these incidents. We would work to untangle and heal those messages, until they could become scars as opposed to gaping wounds, and we would work to take away the powerlessness of the memories.

However, the consequences of some of these marks can’t be avoided. I think about a 26-year-old gay man I worked with who suffered such horrendous bullying and abuse in high school that he stopped going to school to avoid being tormented, which led to him eventually dropping out altogether. He completed his GED and now works a minimum wage job while trying to go to community college at night. He struggles with just making it day to day—not only financially but also emotionally. He stays in relationships with fairly abusive partners because, as he would honestly share, if he didn’t have a partner with whom to live he would be homeless. The bullying and peer abuse that led to him dropping out of school has left its mark and he is trying to dig his way out, and it’s a long, dark path.

I recall checking my voice mails early one morning before work, and listening in heart breaking horror, as I learned that a queer mutual friend of several of my teenage clients had hung herself the previous night. I was familiar with this girl, who had committed suicide, because they both frequently spoke of her. When I saw these two clients that same day, they were both obviously wracked in pain with all the things that go along with the ones left behind by suicide—what could we have done, why didn’t we see this coming, why wouldn’t her parents get her help? But, as if that wasn’t enough, one of the girls, who also identified as queer, sat sobbing on my sofa as she told me how unsympathetic her parents were to this devastating loss. By her reports her parents were not at all accepting of her orientation, and did some ridiculing of their own. So, the night my client learned of her friend’s death she was hysterical, and went to her mother for comfort, only to have her mother respond by saying, “well, that’s what happens to gay kids, they end up hanging from rafters.”

Well, I’m here, we’re all here, to say ‘no.’ That’s not the inevitable fate of gay kids. Swinging from rafters, jumping off bridges, shooting themselves in the head… this is not the unchangeable fate of our queer kids!

How I wanted to transmit to these clients, to my friends, and so many others, a sense of the tenderness of God’s love, of these totally devoted images such as this passage from Hosea. I wanted them to know that they too had access to a love bigger than all this pain; that they too could tap into a love that would not let them go. This is our job – to take this love to the people, to be living examples of this determined devotion.

As some of us have been telling our stories for the video, I’ve wondered about who didn’t make it among us. Who would have been here, sitting with us now if they could have made it a little longer? How has God grieved for the lives cut short due to hate? Who are we missing? What ghosts are among us who dreamed of seminary and theological education, but who didn’t survive the crucible of a queer childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood? Where would they be sitting right now? How would they enrich our community and our lives here at Union? Who would be their boyfriend, girlfriend, their partner? Who would be their best friend on the hall? And so I look out at your faces and am filled with gratitude that you made it, that we have the chance to become the beloved community; that we have the chance to share our stories with each other. I also am grateful to have made it, and grateful that I have been able to cling to my daughtership during dark times.

And out of Egypt I called my daughter. Out of Egypt I called my son. Out of Egypt I called my child. Daughtership, sonship, beloved child…. What does it mean to be called out of Egypt, out of bondage, out of slavery? What does it mean to be called to freedom, to life? Sometimes we prefer the bondage we know over the freedom we don’t know. But we are called, if we can hear – and I believe we can hear when something inside of us is ready to hear – to take the first steps of a journey towards freedom. Sometimes that first step is a commitment to find support, to find somewhere you can be honest.

For me I heard the call towards freedom one day in 1997. I was a campus minister with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship,a conservative parachurch ministry, and I reached a point after years of being in reparative therapy, where I could no longer live with my internal incongruence. I reached the point where I didn’t care if I was indeed going to go to hell, because I was already in hell – my life was hell, my internal struggle had driven me to the brink of again wanting to be on the other side of this existence into the next one, just wanting Jesus’ arms around me. So I picked up the phone and called my supervisor. And, as I suspected, I was asked to resign, I was then asked to leave my non denominational church, which led to loosing most of my friends, and my family relationships experienced a type of death from which they have never fully recovered. And, it was in this wilderness space that I spent a lot of time reading and praying and wrestling with what to do. Regardless of what others said, what did God say? Could I still have a relationship with God and live this earthly life in a way that honored all parts of me, including my sexuality? I had wanted to be in vocational ministry since early childhood, and I thought that dream was over, and I was not sure who I was without this dream. I knew I did not want to live without a palpable connection to God, because to me that has been the only thing that gives life meaning. So, I decided I would take the first step. I would just move forward with what I could, and live, and see what happened. It was kind of an experiment because I was out of options, other than suicide. Of course what I found was more connection with God, and that God did not forsake me, but met me in ways I could have never known without taking that first step.

In this way, I was experiencing something similar to what Hosea describes at the end of the 11th chapter: “They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes.” The freedom of flying, even though you’re trembling. The sense of soaring even though you’re shaking – but heading to your true home. I happen to believe that home is always and only coming home to that love, that Divine love, that claims us and declares us perfectly made. In essence I believe coming home is a kind of coming home inside of ourselves, to rest in the love that waits for us there. As these tragedies in our queer community have moved us to share our own stories, as we have been moved to do anything we can to give a struggling kid hope for one more day, I have come to feel that we can become, that we are becoming the beloved community. And I believe it is from that grounded place that we move out into the world to serve, to stir, to rage, to liberate, to mourn, and to ultimately heal. As Hafiz said, “God revealed a sublime truth to the world, when He sang, ‘I am made whole by your life. Each soul, each soul completes me.’”

When Tyler Clementi was a child I loved him.

When Billy Lucas was a child I loved him.

When Seth Walsh was a child I loved him.

When Asher Brown was a child I loved him.

When we were children God loved us.

—Barbara L. Rice, MS LPC

©2010 Project Union Responds. Reprinting available with permission.

All of the sudden…

This past week I have been uplifted and angry.

I am overjoyed that Union Theological Seminary students, staff, and faculty have come together to voice a positive and inclusive message to LGBTQ youth. The comments we have received have been heartfelt and grateful. One in particular says “This is the first and only message from Christians about LGBTQ people that I’ve ever heard that was supportive, loving and in the spirit of Christ. I am deeply moved and profoundly grateful for these words today. Thank you and God bless you.”

I am also deeply heartbroken and angry. Over the past week I have heard from friends and family who ask “what is happening all of the sudden?” To them, I reply, “all of the sudden? What do you mean all of the sudden?”

The media has recently started to pick up on the LGBTQ issues, most popular being violence and suicide. They are feeding off of these headlines, which gives them the ability to create revenue and promote themselves. In a few weeks the issue will most likely be dropped. This is another reason why it is important for the Christian community to speak up.

Yes, it took us hearing from the media to get this project going, I’ll admit that, but it comes at a time when we are aware of these two problems:
1. There aren’t many positive Christian messages of inclusion that are being heard and recognized outside of our safe churches and affirming communities
2. The media will use the stories of violence to promote themselves, because it sells, and soon it will all be forgotten. And, we in turn, will shake our heads and move on.

I must confess to being slightly complacent and comfortable on these issues over the past few years, excusing myself for being young and thinking that someone, somewhere was already doing the work. However, I realize that my ability to reach out to the community is supported by the Seminary and I have access to resources for networking and sharing compassionate stories of hope and love. It was most regrettable that there were no headlines from churches or religious leaders across the country speaking against hate crimes, hate language, exclusion, quality of education, equal rights, youth and young adult services, etc, etc, etc… It is devastating.

Please, let’s all work together and create an on going positive Christian message to our communities so we do not have to ever answer “what is happening all of the sudden?”

–Stephenie Stovall