Saturday, October 12, 2013

When Provocation Masquerades as Inclusivity, or Why I Don't Say "Queer" Any More

     I was at a training yesterday--in a CME church.  It was a diverse group--mainly African American and white.  I lamented again that more of our Latino siblings--so often present in the work we do together--were not present at this larger group meeting.  Most folks were Christian, but we also had Muslims and Jews; their presence marks growth for the organization.  We're trying to be more inclusive.
   The funny thing about inclusivity, though, is that it thrusts you out of your comfort zone.  Let me rephrase that:  the funny thing about real inclusivity, is that it thrusts you out of your comfort zone.  I used the word "siblings" above.  This is the direct result of being agitated by a couple of my younger members, who insist (rightly, alas), that the oft-used "brothers and sisters" doesn't include those whose gender identity doesn't fall neatly on the binary.  So I'm working on saying "siblings," though there is a personal cost, as I feel more named by the more particular phrase "brothers and sisters."
   There is always a cost to inclusivity.  Feel free to argue, but I'm quite convinced.  Sometimes it means letting go of language you love, of hearing yourself named in the particular as a "sister" alongside your "brothers" (who used to be named all by themselves, while the sisters stood invisible).  And sometimes it means letting go of your need to control language, to hear only things you want to hear.
   At the training, both the opening and closing prayers were offered to "Father God."  The phrase was repeated throughout the opening prayer.  I had a little fantasy after about being asked to offer the closing prayer and praying "Mother God" throughout.  It would have pleased me, and likely pleased the rest of the people in the room who pray to a less gendered God, a God who is father and mother, he and she.  That God was not named much yesterday.
   God remained unchanged, though.  And my standing to offer a prayer which was mostly intended to stand over against the language I heard earlier would have been much more about me than about God. I would have been sacrificing my desire to be in relationship with the pray-ers to my need to provoke them to think about their exclusive language.  I wasn't willing to do that, and I feel good about the decision.  "Father God" is the language used by that tradition.  If I am to be in relationship with members of that tradition, I will need to sacrifice my need to hear God named in the language I prefer at all times.  Comfort sacrificed to relationship.  Scratch a healthy marriage, or other healthy relationship, and you will find a sub-strata of sacrifice for the other.
   I went to seminary in Berkeley, California.  I came out then, and entered into the joy of Berkeley's Queer Community.  The capital letters are intentional--the Queer Community in Berkeley is singular.  Case in point--pretty much no one is offended by the word "queer."  The first undergrad course in LGBTQ Studies was offered at U.C. Berkeley in 1970.  Today those courses are more particular and tend to have names like "Interpreting the Queer Past:  Methods and Problems in the History of Sexuality" and "Queer Visual Culture."
   "Queer" is a nice inclusive word.  It frees one from what is often called the "alphabet soup" of alternative gender and sexual identity.  I was good with being "queer."  The people I knew who were queer didn't mind being called queer.
   Then I moved back to the Midwest, first for internship in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and then to take a call in Kansas City, Missouri.  In both places, I learned that there are people who find "queer" to be a deeply offensive word.  And maybe we could reclaim it, as they have done elsewhere.  But there would be a lot of human pain in the wake of that reclamation project, and that's a cost too high, I believe.
   So I don't say "queer."  I do the alphabet soup, or I name the particular group I'm referencing.  I refer to myself as a "lesbian" most often, but sometimes even say "gay" now (which would have been unlikely in Berkeley, where people are more sensitive to male hegemonic language usage).
   Living together in community is messy.  Relationships are messy.  Sometimes you have to give.  To get.

Friday, September 13, 2013


            The last week of July was a wild one at my church.
At our church, which used to be pretty quiet during the week, about three hundred people streamed in and out at all hours of the day and night, from late July through early August.  And then again, some three weeks later.
As recently as three years ago, our church lay fallow for most of the hours between Sunday coffee hour and the following Sunday’s worship on any given week. Then there was a merger, and a new mission of “building hope and proclaiming peace on the Troost Corridor.”  Our first real test of the integrity of that mission came a few months later, when we were asked to provide a home for Occupy Kansas City over the winter.  We said yes and coughed up a large office on our third floor.  Thus began our relationship with what is now the Midwest Center for Equality and Democracy.  MCED formed the Worker’s Organizing Campaign of Kansas City, and that’s how we found ourselves at the center of a labor rights movement unlike any seen in decades—the campaign to alleviate some of the pain of low wage workers.
The recession has been good for fast food restaurants.  Theirs is the segment of the industry which has grown since 2007.  According to Bloomberg, McDonald’s saw its profit rise 135% between 2007 and 2011.  It’s CEO made $8.75 million last year.  None of that largesse has trickled down to workers, alas.  The median salary for a fast food worker was $18,564 in 2012.[1]  Nearly all of them start at minimum wage, and raises are slow and difficult to come by. 
There are lots of moving parts to this campaign, but the its primary thrust has been provided by a pair of nationwide strikes meant to highlight the plight of workers making poverty wages.  In Kansas City, the strikes meant a whole lot of people in our church building.  And out.  And back in.  We began at six a.m. on the strike days, and went into the evening, layering actions at fast food restaurants with rallies and even a bar-b-que.  Then the walk-backs begin.  For days after, the workers were accompanied by teams of community leaders—elected officials, organizers, faith leaders—as they returned to work.  It was the job of the walk-back team to let managers know that their workers had been part of a legal job action, and that any retaliation would be unlawful.
Then we watched and waited.  When workers were threatened, phone calls ensued.     It is still too soon to know how effective the movement has been so far.  We know that some workers have actually seen an improvement in working conditions and hours.  There is still a mountain of work ahead to ensure a just and living wage for the workers, most of whom are over twenty years old, and many of whom are supporting families.  But we are proud of the movement so far.
And I am proud of St. Mark Hope and Peace Lutheran Church.  It is not easy to host a labor movement.  The day it rained, our floors looked pretty awful.  There were many bags of trash and boxes of recycling.  It was hot and humid, so our electric bill wasn’t pretty.  And we didn’t pay attention to the folks going in and out of the fridge, so we didn’t notice until Sunday that some hungry body ate the communion bread.  We used a hot dog bun a member brought from Chubby’s Diner after a frantic phone call from the communion assistant.  I hope we never have to do that again, but I wonder if it wasn’t rather appropriate.  A simple, even pedestrian representation of Christ’s body, on a week when we simply walked alongside the least of our siblings in Christ.  A wild week in which God gave us so much more than we gave away, and in which we were indeed building hope and proclaiming peace.

[1][1], December 11, 2012.