Faith in Action

Reflection by Vandalyn Kennedy – Day 4

Every minute of every day has been amazing here in El Salvador, however today’s experience resonated with me in a POWERFUL way. If you are reading this blog you know that a group of 12 students and 3 Faculty members from Union have traveled here to study the Liberative Spirituality of Bishop Oscar Romero. One of our classmates, Blanca Rodriguez, made a statement this week that is symbolic of our time here.  She said, ”We cannot solely be educated through books but must have experience.” This statement became truth to me today like no other. Before coming to El Salvador, we spent the semester in a Guided Reading group learning about the life of Romero, examining the context of the country both before and after his death, seeing films, reading books and analyzing the impact Romero had on this war torn country. However today, WE LIVED IT!

Today we visited the Divine Providence Hospitalito, the place Romero was killed. We filed into the Chapel and were met by a young religious woman (nun) Mercedes, who facilitated our session. Students from Dayton University also joined us as she took us through a moving account of events of the day of Romero’s death. She also gave us a clear history and timeline of events from his early priesthood to death – for me the clearest that I have heard so far. She described his conservative background but how he slowly converted to becoming the people’s pastor after seeing his people suffer unjustly at the hands of the oligarchy and military. She was very engaging and gave full account as to the physical place he was standing and exactly what he was doing at the time he died. She also pointed out that he had to have seen the shooter, as he was standing behind the altar in the center and the doors of the modest sized church were open. During his homily, a red car pulled in front of the church but instead of Romero running, screaming, or doing what most of us would do if someone was pointing a gun at us, he continued his homily. The reality was that Romero received many death threats and could have had bodyguards and taken all precautions to protect his life. However, that day, he told the altar boys and others who usually serve at the altar with him that he wanted to serve alone. In essence, he offered up his life, and in a homily given a few days earlier said, “If they kill me, I will be resurrected in my people.” Like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he knew the imminent danger, however he chose to sacrifice his life for his people.  If I had to put him in US context, Romero is definitely the Martin Luther King Jr. of El Salvador.

The Chapel at Divine Providence, El Hospitalito, the site Romero was killed.

When Mercedes began the session she told us to choose a word that represented our thoughts about Romero. One by one we gave the word we felt embodied Romero, and at the end, she asked us to come to the altar, say our word one at a time, then take a place in a circle around the altar. That was simple enough – I chose the word COURAGE, and proudly announced it before taking my place in the circle. Then, as we stood in the exact spot Romero was killed, she challenged and charged us in an unexpected way telling us to think about our word and how it applies to our lives and the struggle against social injustice. She asked us to take the word home with us and make it our business to utilize that word in a way that will make the world better. My eyes, like many of my classmates’ were filled with tears. With all the talk about Romero, King and every other person who has helped to make the world better, we have to ask ourselves, “What about me?” Am I just learning about others or have I made a personal commitment to fight against political and social injustice? This is not just about Romero, but how to apply the principles of Romero’s life and use his example as a way to integrate faith with social justice issues. I may not have to physically die for a cause, however, I ask myself, as I ask you- what are our lives being used for?

After that experience, we went to Romero’s house, on the campus of the Hospitalito. Though he could have had a big house elsewhere he chose to live in a very modest home, furnished with only the necessities. The home has been converted into a small museum that houses his clergy attire, church papers, and other personal articles.

Romero’s bedroom in his modest house on the grounds of Divine Providence. He wanted to stay with the people instead of moving to the larger home offered to him by the Diocese.

We then headed to the Monument to the Truth and Memory at the Cuscatlan Park, dedicated to the victims of the civil war. The site that has over 30,000 names of people disappeared and killed during the years of political unrest and is a result of the Peace Accords signed in 1992, in which the government agreed to give reparations and honor victims by at least acknowledging them in a public way. This is significant, as many families do not have graves to visit, as many bodies have never been recovered. On the National Day of Remembrance, many Salvadorans go to this monument to honor their loved ones. (This monument is missing over 45,000 names, as it is documented that over 75,000 people in total were killed or disappeared).

Monument of Truth and Memory at the Cuscatlan Park, dedicated to the civilian victims of the civil war.

We then boarded the bus and headed to the beach where we spent the afternoon. After such an emotional day, it was the perfect place to reflect on our word given by Mercedes as well as everything we witnessed thus far in El Salvador. We ate dinner beachside and ended the evening with our nightly class reflection, again beachside as the sun set.

To say that my life will never be the same would be a gross understatement. I am so thankful and blessed to be here, learning and growing with this community of students and faculty-things I could have NEVER learned from a book. I am also thankful that Dr. Knitter and his wife Cathy Cornell chose to share their experience of solidarity and love for the El Salvadoran people, Romero and social justice. Unfortunately, I had never heard about Romero before this class but believe that EVERY seminary student should learn about this man who embodies Union ideology. He is a perfect example of faith in action. In learning about the strength and courage of a Priest, I also discovered the fortitude of the people this priest served. Romero has risen in his people, and they have taken his principles, organized, and now continue the fight for the poor and marginalized. I pray that the spirit of Romero will rise in me as I seek to do my part in fighting against injustice and helping to make the world a better place.

Painting in Divine Providence chapel by Artist, depicting Romero’s love for the people and faith in action.

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.

Union Responds to LGBTQ Youth Suicides

When we heard about the death of Tyler Clementi, the most recent in a string of queer youth suicides (a list which gets much longer if we take into account all of the queer suicides that we don’t hear about) we asked ourselves whether there might have been something–some act, some word–that could stop other queer youth headed down the same road to complete self-destruction.  In this video, a whole community has mustered just that.  Seminary students, post-docs, faculty members, and the President of Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York speak to LGBTQ youth at risk and to those who find themselves being bullied and ostracized just for being who the Divine created them to be.
– Atticus Schoch Zavaletta

Click on the image below to view the video:

Click to view

–Video coordinated and produced by Project Union Responds team. ©2010 Project Union Responds

Sucker Punched

I am fifteen years old and have decided to run track. I’m no good but figured I should give it a shot anyway. I get up one Sunday morning before church for a run in Dover, NJ. After a two mile or so run I am about 5 blocks away from my home and I stop at a red light to check for traffic. A red car barrels up the street and screeches to a halt, “You are going to be the next Atlanta murder, victim nigger!!” is screamed at me by a car load of 5 white men. One of them starts to get out of the car and I start running for my life. The car’s tire burns rubber and the smell of that tire hits my nose and I am more scared for my life now then ever. Behind me as the car speeds up I hear the men in the car laughing hysterically. I jump over a fence and cut through a parking lot to lose them and run so fast…As I am running an image comes into my head that I just can’t get rid of–I see image of my mother and brother with their throats slit. I cry and run, my body on automatic pilot because I can’t see a thing. I run up the stairs 3, 4 at a time to see my mom sleeping peacefully, and my brother sleeping like an angel. I tiptoe to the farthest reaches of the kitchen and cry for 40 minutes.

You see this is the time when no one knew how or why little black boys and black teenagers were disappearing and turning up dead in Atlanta, GA. Those five white men in that car have no idea how much they scarred me that day. And even if they were to ever apologize, I’m sure they would say, “It was just a joke.”  You see they had the privilege to joke about things like that. That was their reality.

One person’s idea of reality can be so hurtful and damaging to another. And I must say, Mr. Beck, listening to your take on Liberation/Black/Theology (I lump them together because you did) I felt sucker punched. You have single handedly given millions of people permission to hate and distrust Black me simply because you seem to enjoy wanting the world to live in your reality.

I feel very much like that scared fifteen year old again. I can’t get the image out of my head of vitriolic hate speeches coming my way again. I can’t get the image out of my head of people in the name of democracy stepping on others dreams just to get ahead. And yes, Mr. Beck, it is this serious to me, I can’t get the image of dead black bodies turning up in swamps and city alleys out of my head. You give permission for hate, Mr. Beck. And whether or not you know it, I am the one who suffers for it. Me, this Black man, this African American, this Same Gender Loving human being who, as tired as I am, must keep fighting for survival because with each word you speak you unleash the hounds of hatred–against me.

I applaud my fellow seminarians and seminary President, Serene Jones for responding to your diatribe of intentional misinformation regarding Liberation/Black/Theology. I couldn’t watch more than ten minutes before my eyes streamed with tears for what you are doing to this country.

Please do come to Union, Mr. Beck. At least then you will have at least three years to try to digest the information we study, the Bible we try to live, the love we try to spew. If your staff can digest Black Theology in one day with the help of one person then you all deserve a theological scholarship to Union.

By the way, let’s clear up a couple of things. Mr. Beck, the Good Samaritan is a parable…Jesus’ teaching tool. Stick to Jesus’ script if you are going to use it and don’t add your take. It’s stood this long without your take on highway maintenance in the Roman world. The other thing, while we’re on the Romans. Be careful the way you spit out how the Jews killed Jesus and he would have come back to get ‘em. That’s the way you think, don’t put that on Jesus. And the last time I looked, it was the Romans that stripped Jesus, beat him, nailed him to the cross and pierced him in the side! No Jewish person had that much power under Caesar.

And one last thing, while my stomach is still in knots, while I still fear for the safety of those I call my own, and while I know that your work hurts me more than you will ever know…this one thing I can say:
I have nothing but the love of Jesus Christ for you and hope the Holy Spirit will crack your heart wide open so that you see the simplest words of social justice that Jesus ever spoke, ‘Love God, Love your neighbor as yourself’. If you can do this one thing for Christ, Mr. Beck, then you will see that everyone deserves to live in the bounty of God’s creation.