Under The Collar Experiment

Friday, January 31, 2014

Ils, elles sont

 “Images of God dictate who will feel worthy in society and who will feel inferior, who will be respected and who will get easy access to the material goods of a culture and who will have to fight for those same goods.”- Naomi R. Goldenberg

Images of God are created with words. Words are only tools.  They are not reality.  Language serves as a guide.  Sometimes it points us in a direction that is close to our perceived reality.  Sometimes it crystallizes a concept into an idea so difficult to conceive in any other way,  it  almost becomes law. Sometimes, language, upon reflection, takes us to a place we might never have visited otherwise.
Teaching French gave me many gifts. I find language and, specifically, grammar quite fascinating. I made every attempt to infect my students with my passion.  One issue that always baffled my students about the French language was gender. The masculine plural subject pronoun “they” in French was particularly disturbing for many of them…but more so for the girls.

In French, similar to many other languages, there is a feminine “they” and a separate masculine “they." This appears on the surface to be reasonable once you can decipher the difference in vowel sounds.  A group of girls would be they, elles e-l-l-e-s, a group of boys, then, would be ils, i-l-s. The students could generally handle being assigned their separate pronouns. Yet, after a little more explanation, the apparent bias leaps out from behind these pronouns and they discover a sort of separate-but-not-equal situation.  If there is one boy in a group of girls…just one…then the masculine plural i-l-s is grammatically correct.  In fact, any mixed-gender group receives the male plural subject pronoun.

Every year that I taught French One, the same situation unfolded.
After instructing them on the rules for subject pronouns, a moment or two would pass. The significance would begin to percolate. Then questions would come in rapid fire.
“So, if there are 10 girls and 2 guys?”
“Masculine i-l-s,” I reply.
“300 girls and 1 guy?”
“i-l-s,”  I say again.
I was always torn between the joy that they actually understood the concept and the angst of its implications.  
“1,000 girls, and 2 guys?” they would plead.
“i-l-s," I spell.
“Why?”  they inevitably ask.
I usually answer with much despair: “Because that is the rule and the rule has been around for a long time.”  I can blame the Academie Francaise, which is a French institution funded by the French government that “controls” and “sustains” the French language.  The Academie Francaise controls advertising and print material, newspapers, and journals. The French are very proud of their grammatical structure. Some women have chosen to counterbalance the standard pronoun choice by using e-l-l-e-s for a mixed gender group, but I have been told on numerous occasions that e-l-l-e-s used in this manner doesn’t sit right in the French ear.  It sounds wrong.  

Every year, I would have to justify, that even in my classroom, a socially aware choice would be counted wrong, and that on their standardized tests it would be counted wrong as well because they had to prove that they knew and understood the concept. Yet, there I was, training another group of ears.  And all the while my inner voice groans with the injustice of it all.

Nearly every year, one of the few boys in the class would protest, “It’s just a pronoun.” After the past few decades of sensitization to gender bias, I, too, have struggled with our attempts to neutralize or feminize the gender of our language in order to be more inclusive.  It is just a pronoun.   Why can’t we just say “he” for goodness sake?  “He” means mankind, which includes women, doesn’t it?  Well, actually no, it means Man-kind. Just as the French have been lumping whomever into i-l-s.

I am now trained to say humankind and mankind rings exclusive to me. I must admit, though, that my own ear still hears God when paired with she or her as distracting.
When I was teaching in Garland, Texas, there was a song on the radio:
                                                Tell me all your thoughts on God
                                                 Cause I’d really like to meet her.
                                                 And ask her why we’re who we are
This was my first real receptive encounter of God as “she" in popular culture, and it did catch my attention, distracted my ear, and made me think about my image of God.

As a minister, I choose very carefully when to distract the ears of those to whom I am speaking.  Often, my choice is to go with the male pronouns when referring to God in order to get a larger message across.  I bank on my relationship with the people hoping that they know that when I say God, I include an image that reflects me and other women. 

Maybe the very presence of a woman in a collar will stretch people's images of clergy and, therefore, God. Perhaps it will broaden their image of the divine to include all of the identities on the spectrum -- a God who looks like them, whatever gender they claim. Because my understanding of God includes the 1 in 1000.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Maundy Monday

Monday is my day off.  The only day I am not wearing my collar is Sunday.  So, on Mondays I also wear my collar.  This past Monday I went for a pedicure.  If the Bible had been written today and the holy land was instead Oklahoma, open-toed shoes on a woman without a pedicure would have made the list in Deuteronomy (right next to mixing fabrics and eating shellfish).  Most seasons in Oklahoma allow for open toed shoes. January is not one of them.  One could argue whether I have any excuse at all other than pampering.  Religion often concerns itself with the do's and don'ts of culture. I have a love/hate relationship with religion.  I find it to be the source of community that is so desperately needed in our current culture and a necessary binding to a community of accountability.  I am not for lone ranger spirituality.  And at the same time, religion's frozen cultural mores have caused much suffering in the world especially for the marginalized-- the very people religions should be looking out for.  

I have a change theory that guides me.  If we are to change religion we will be most successful working from within.  We must be religiously relevant.  Similarly, if we are to change a culture, we must be culturally relevant.  Relevant but not consumed.  Relevant but not enmeshed.  I am not out to change the culture of Oklahoma's pedicures.  I am clear that in this culture it is part of the expected grooming for me to have the position I now hold.  That position affords me an awful lot of opportunity to be in relationship with decision makers that I would not have had otherwise.

In The Soul of Money, Lynne Twist tells a beautiful story about her struggle with being a high dollar fundraiser for hunger worldwide.  She explains in detail the irony of having  a $5000 a plate dinner to raise money, when the money for a single plate could have fed a village for a year. In the midst of this struggle she visits Mother Teresa at her famous convent in India.  Twist is handed an orphaned infant to bathe when she walks in the door. She has a moment of feeling like this is the real work.  Mother Teresa teaches her over her stay there that should use the gifts and the privilege we have been given to change the world.  She also teaches her that the privileged are in need spiritually too, just like everyone else.  Our impact on this world comes from our spheres of influence. Twist would be letting go of those spheres of influence if all she did was bathe orphans.  (Not that she shouldn't also bathe orphans.) Somewhere in between the $5000 a plate dinner and those who do not have enough to eat is the person who has the capacity to walk in both worlds.  That person will do more good in bridging the gap than those who only dwell at either end.  Feeding the hungry happens because of the people who are actually doing the feeding and the fundraising required.  When we romanticize one over the other, we do ourselves and the hungry no favors.  Our power to affect change comes from our capacity to walk in as many worlds as we can and try to bring them together.

Getting a pedicure is one of life's little pleasures.  I have had my feet washed in ceremony and in a salon. I try to bring myself to both experiences fully. When I showed up in my collar to get my toes done on Monday.  I was not treated any differently than I ever am.  Time slowed down as Tony painted each toe with deliberateness that felt meditative.  He asked me about my daughter and about work.  I spoke to him about his upcoming marriage and the new room in the salon.  He has seen my tree of life tattoo and knows I am a runner.  He already knew I was a minister, the clothes didn't matter.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Waiting Game

It has been a particularly unusual week. I have sat in the waiting room of two hospitals in two different states for personal rather than professional reasons.  My wife had a small outpatient procedure in Tulsa, and our daughter had a one-month check-up in Dallas after doctors repaired a small hole in her heart.  It was a different perspective for me to be in a hospital wearing my collar and not working … just waiting … just like everybody else.  

My wife’s procedure was early in the morning.  What I wanted to do at that hour was chill with my eyes closed and my headphones on.  But my wife and I decided that there was no escaping my looking like I was “on duty,” and so if I did what I wanted to, I would inevitably look like an asshole. So, instead, I chose to sit quietly in a chair and journal, all the while trying to tune out the television. (A news story came on grading our city’s healthcare and hospitals a D-, heightening the anxiety of everyone in the room.)  I know I looked like a hospital employee or volunteer, someone with authority. So I wasn’t surprised when the other families would look at me when the waiting room phone rang.  I would dutifully leave my chair and answer it, “Surgery Waiting,” as though I had been doing this my whole career.  When I had been in the same waiting room months before and not wearing a collar though, no one had looked at me when the phone rang. But no one moved to answer it themselves either.  I, on the other hand, had answered the phone then as well, and in exactly the same way.

In the hospital waiting room there seems to be a leveling of the playing field. Brought together and faced with the commonality of the mortality of someone we love and, thus, our own, those in the waiting room are gentler with one another than they might otherwise be in the real world.  Love and fear seem to make way for a compassion that extends beyond our immediate family – to the human family.  People offer each other newspapers and food, they hold the door for one another.  Being dragged head-first into powerlessness cuts across race and class.  In the waiting room, fear meets fear soul to soul.  

In a collar, I am not afforded even-playing-field status.  My attire represents something for everyone, if not necessarily always for myself.  When I am in my collar, people think I am supposed to be caring for others, not anxious, not distracting myself, not cursing (see above).  At my daughter's check-up, her presence made me a mother as well as a minister. She made room for another identity. But regardless of whether she is there or not, I have a family, ministers have families. Ministers are people, ministers are mortal. And ministers need to chill and close our eyes, to rest.  (Even God rested, for God's sake.)  

The waiting room reminds me to care for the caregiver.   While we are waiting, maybe we could be kinder to one another – and ourselves.  While we are waiting, maybe we could stretch to see the humanity behind everyone’s role – even our own.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Got MLK?

Today I will wear my collar at the Martin Luther King Parade and ride on the church's float with our daughter.  The cover of the history book of America may have changed, but the pages are still being written.  Dr. King spoke of the lives of African Americans being crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. Today, segregation and discrimination still bind people of color.  However, the oppressor has changed clothes and is now disguised in the disparities of education, health care and the economy, sentencing laws and the war on drugs.   

Dr. King marched on Washington to cash a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. That note was a promise that all would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Today we should be focused not just on a common inheritance, but also on our own personal investment.  This is not an African American holiday.  It is an American holiday. 

“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” wrote Dr. King.  Our present must be about our common destiny. To make manifest the Dream of Dr. King, we must walk with the clarity that our destinies are intertwined and our freedom is inextricably bound.

We have come this far with a black problem looking for a black solution.  We have seen progress.  If we are to continue the arc of progress, our struggle for justice can no longer be a black problem. If you are white, spend time today learning about the privilege in this country of having light skin.

Racism is an American problem.
It is my problem.
And it is yours.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Spirit of the Law

I knew that this day would come.  I went to the liquor store in my collar.  Oklahoma has a complicated history with alcohol and some of the strictest liquor laws in the country.  Liquor stores are prohibited from selling anything but wine, beer, and spirits.  No corkscrews, bottle openers, koozies, lemons, limes, or ice, paraphernalia that would be marketable and profitable. Any alcoholic beverage containing more than 3.2% alcohol by weight or 4% alcohol by volume can only be sold at room temperature in state-licensed liquor stores.  That means grocery stores in Oklahoma cannot also be liquor stores.  We force manufacturers to create a special 3.2% (or less) beer and malt beverage to be sold in our grocery and convenience stores, a beverage that barely fits the criteria for consumable but can be sold chilled for those in a hurry.  This room-temperature law is also why an Oklahoman who even occasionally consumes beer or wine can likely tell you the fastest way to chill said beverages from 75 to 35 degrees.  The liquor stores are closed in Oklahoma on holidays, election days, and Sundays. That means, of course, that I have no option to refill my wine stock on my only plain-clothed days.

I am a wine drinker.  I lived in Belgium as an exchange student when I was 16 and had my palette sophisticated by the all men’s Rotary Club who hosted me.  They took turns inviting me to their homes and offering me incredible wines from their personal wine cellars, fearful that I would return to the United States never having experienced the luxury of good European wines.  In Oklahoma, that kind of generosity to a minor, if convicted, could be punishable by a fine and up to 5 years in prison.  

All this makes me a bit of a closet wine snob.  It has taken me a long time to find a wine I can both afford and that I really love.  Now that I have, I want to buy it by the case!  

But in my 8 years of ministry, this was the first time I had been in a liquor store in my collar. I went around 4 pm on a Monday, my Sabbath.  The store is in a strip mall, and the parking lot was busy.  When I got out of the car, I felt the most self-conscious I have ever felt in my collar.  I silently explained to all those I feared were judging me all the way from the car to the door.  “I drink responsibly.”  “I am fortunate that I do not have an addiction.”   The store had folks loitering around the door who quickly moved away and would not make eye contact with me.  As I entered the store, a man exiting came out with a paper bag under his arm and looked down at the floor as he passed me.  I was a walking billboard for guilt.   The culture of our state regarding alcohol was crafted from a parental relationship to liquor.  And those parents were likely to have gone to fundamentalist Christian churches.

I took a deep breath and told myself I had nothing to be ashamed of.  I went to the counter and asked whether they carried my wine.  They did and only had one bottle left.  I asked if they could sell it to me by the case.  The tattooed manager of my same age told me we would have to order it. So we did.  There was a feeling that I was getting away with something.   Like if my parents knew what I was doing I would be in TRUH-BLE. There was no reason for me to feel this way.  My congregation and my association know I drink.  So why would it not be ok for me to be identified as a minister when I buy wine?  

I believe that people want it both ways with clergy, and I even feel this tension in myself.  I am a human being and relate to people as a human being.  Jesus was among the people in his ministry (and drank wine BTW). I am not comparing myself to Jesus, but I do try to learn from his ministry.   It seems that today we both want our ministers to be perfect and holy AND approachable and human.  When I feel this tension, I try to lean into bringing the ministry role into my humanity and my humanity into my ministry. 

Religion at its best asks us to bring our whole selves to the church.  When we compartmentalize instead of integrate, we shut out the complexity of what it means to be human.   We can oversimplify in ministry, in religion, to the point of irrelevance.  I believe the spirit of the law suggests God can handle all of us.  

Friday, January 17, 2014


Before I went to seminary, I was a teacher of gifted-and-talented high school students in a small town near Dallas.  If you would have told me then that I would be some 12 years later wearing a clerical collar in Tulsa, Okla., I would have bet everything against it.  

I heard the first whispers of my call while teaching a course titled Theory of Knowledge.  The purpose of the course is to explore the ways in which we must make an intellectual leap of faith (in a sense) in every subject area – math, science, literature, etc.  Even A=A is an assumption at its core because we are merely agreeing that we have identified the same thing. It is nearly impossible to be absolutely certain. Absolute consistency ensures incompleteness.

As a reward system in this class, instead of sugaring them up with candy, I would ding (in quite a Pavlovian manner) a call bell.   Whenever someone contributed an idea to further the discussion at hand they would get a ding! When they had an intellectual breakthrough, they earned a ding! When the third replacement bell broke, as most things seem to do eventually in public education, I simply said the word, “Ding!” 

They pined, even begged, for these dings as small treasures of affirmation and confirmation that they were on the right track.  I was, in a sense, saving souls even then by disrupting their fundamentalist systems of knowledge grounded merely in the concrete.  It was the good news of broadened perception. It was a revelation of unexpected truths.

It was this class – these students – who pushed me into the church.  They were so bright, so earnest, and had such sensitive hypocrisy detection, that it had a profound impact on me when they asked, “How can you be so hopeful when you believe that you can’t really know anything for certain?”  It was a great question.  Why was I hopeful in the face of such doubt and uncertainty? 

I found a church and a minister to help me begin to answer that question.  After three years of sermons and exploration, a quiet voice began to suggest that I needed to go to seminary myself.   I visited an ecumenical school in Rochester, N.Y.  The idea of spending an entire year studying Genesis and that much snow made it easy to change my mind.  Yet, The Voice did not cease.  Despite a brochure touting all of the incredible non-state schools from which their current class had received their Bachelor’s (and many even a Master’s), I sent in my University of Oklahoma transcript and arranged for an interview at Meadville Lombard in Chicago.

After the interview, I decided to take a tour of the University of Chicago campus. I strolled into Rockefeller chapel and sat down in a pew to reflect on the interview, enjoying the quiet of that very cathedral-like space.  I was overwhelmed with the prospect that I might actually be doing this. “This” consisted of quitting my teaching job, selling my house, and uprooting my partner (along with her own separate support system) to Chicago. Like doubting Thomas (or more like the extremely doubting Gideon),  I found myself begging for a sign: a still small voice, something, anything, would suffice.

I expected nothing from my request, and, even as the thought was forming, I mocked my childlike demands on a God in whom I did not believe.  Gazing at the glorious stained glass window behind the pulpit at a flame that actually resembled a chalice, a single, ominous bell tolled and echoed throughout the sanctuary.

In that moment, I felt dinged by the Universe. 

Like any good free thinker, I immediately looked at my watch. Certain it was 1 o’clock, a rational explanation of my experience.  But it wasn’t. I was flooded with conflicting emotion, and I began to weep.  Jungian synchronicity? Circumstantial evidence? It really didn’t matter. Do I believe some outward God in the sky was speaking to me through church bells? No, I don't. The meaning I made was indeed my own.  No one else but me would have confirmed the meaning and the purpose of that moment in the same way.  Every area of knowledge requires a leap of faith, even the most rational, most scientific. 

Our tradition could stand a little space for the mystical and the revelatory, room for the personal discovery alongside the rational.  Maybe the experiment of wearing my collar is a means of evangelizing a post- post- modernism, what Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker call metamodernism: a philosophy that negotiates between a yearning for universal truths on the one hand, makes space for relativism on the other, between hope and doubt, sincerity and irony, clarity and humility, construction and deconstruction.   

I am interested in meta-theology: where we can explore the edges of hope and doubt, clarity and humility and reconstruct frame than can hold freedom's unfolding; where we have values in common but space to express those values in radically different ways.


Monday, January 13, 2014

Can I Get A Witness?

My first assignment was in the receiving and classification unit.  There was no electricity or running water.  It was January in Illinois, and it was drafty and cold. In many of the cells I could feel the breeze pass into the hallway from the window slits in the cells that were stuck open.  Instead of the traditional bars found on the regular units, there were steel doors with a 2-foot wide rectangular pass through at knee level and a wire mesh covered square opening at eye level.   

I wore my collar so as not to be confused with the lawyers and psychologists, doctors, and social workers who also walked the halls.  It also added a layer of asexualization, which I was grateful for.  If the lights were on in the cell, I would talk through the eye-level wire mesh, oddly reminiscent of a confessional.  I could just make out the inmate’s shadowy faces.  Most of the time, however, I would kneel down on the floor in front of the chuckhole.  The inmates would do the same on their side, and we would talk face-to-face through a hole in a steel wall.  I was terrified until I began to hear their stories, moving from cell to cell, and meeting them eye-to-eye.

I spent a lot of time the first few weeks explaining what I believed. I spent most of my time convincing them that I was not there to convert them.  Unfortunately, the role of chaplain is considerably warped behind the prison wall.  There is a monopoly of fundamentalist Christian volunteers. The inmates’ default perception of a religious person outside their door is someone whose modus operandi is to covert them.  There were actually many converted fundamentalists at Stateville.  They built their walls with Bible verses.  For those men, walled in by literalism, if I couldn’t site a verse, I immediately lost credibility.  (I must admit, I lost a lot of credibility with those men.)  

Religion is used as a tool to separate the men in that institution.  They intentionally separate themselves into religious communities and are segregated by the institution.  Inmates must identify their religion upon entering the institution.  If they do not choose an approved religion on arrival, None is inscribed on the back of their ID, denying them all religious privileges.  The inmates learn to use the system.    Catholic Mass often turned into a gang meeting.  Religion would often be used as a means for inmates to separate by race.  And if you are a vegetarian, the only way to receive a vegetarian meal is to become a Hebrew Israelite, (who are nearly all African American).  At the time, Unitarian Universalist was not an option if you wanted any services at all.

The men who coped best with the religion issue were those who had negotiated a theological compromise that all religions might have some threads in common.  They often identified with a single major religion in order to attend services.  These closet-theological liberals were often crafted from two men of different religious traditions placed in the same cell.  In this 6-by-13 foot space, bound by their powerlessness, they were forced to work out their differences in order to live together peacefully.

After talking with nearly 30 of these men, I realized that they were desperate for reading material and especially calendars. One way to cope with the present detention is to live in the past prior to incarceration another way is to live in the future focusing on an out date.  That day, I remembered that there were plastic wallet-sized cards in the chaplain office provided by the Salvation Army.  They had the calendar year on one side and the Footprints in the Sand poem on the back.

I told the men on this unit that I would be back.  When I returned, I announced “chaplain on the wing” as I was instructed to do and the cover of a Life magazine unfolded before me.  I looked down this corridor of 13 steel gray doors on each side. A narrow window lit up the hallway in a hazy glow.  Then, I saw, grasping for the calendars, hands and arms, mainly brown hands and brown arms, extending all along the length of the corridor from the chuck holes on both sides.

We are walling off entire tribes.  We are walling off the poor and the sick, the addicted and the mentally ill in our prisons.  I have seen this suffering behind the wall.  We are trying to keep all this suffering out of sight.  They are the forgotten, the dismissed, and we are walling off ourselves from experiencing reality as it is.  
My life is richer for having heard the stories of the men behind the wall – for having heard their failures and ours.  Most are guilty and have committed horrible crimes, AND we havefailed them miserably and left them to be the forgotten people.  Our faith teaches us that the truth of this world is bittersweet. Our best defense for addressing issues like violence, poverty,and mental illness is to be in relationship, to not wall ourselves off from the big picture or the truth.   Our faith encourages me to serve as a witness to suffering and allow it to break my heart and influence my decisions, and my collar affords me access to deeper truths.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Start Spreading The News

We live about 16 miles west of Tulsa on 3 acres along the Arkansas River.  Our house is off of a gravel road that borders a horse farm.  We are in the country.  My preferred grocery store is near the church, but our closest option is a Wal-Mart about 5 miles away from our home.   On occasion you will find me there, our daughter riding in the shopping cart on a mission for some forgotten item.  Once, before I began wearing my collar, while likely on a quest for yogurt or shampoo, Beckett and I were approached by a woman in her 80's, her long grey hair in a bun and a big smile on her face.  “Do you all go to church?” she asked.  In a state where our children are asked by other children on the playground if they are saved, it is key to be prepared for questions such as this, even at the grocery store. Looking at Beckett and proud to answer, I said, “Yes, we do. And we love our church. Thank you.”

She went on, “Well, we sure would like ya’ll to come to our church.  You are welcome to visit.”  I thanked her again and we moved on.  The church she invited us to was more than likely a large fundamentalist Pentecostal church nearby. I remember thinking, “If you really knew our family or what we believed, we would probably not be so welcome to visit.”   Most of the churches in the area believe in loving the sinner and hating the sin.  I would be considered a sinner – I do, in fact, consider myself someone who misses the mark regularly – but not because of who I Iove.  Three months later, on another mission for cornbread mix and butter, the exact same woman approached us with the exact same question. What are the odds? I thanked her again and said "No, thank you."

Yesterday, I attended the Day Alliance luncheon at our church for the first time in my collar.  The Alliance is primarily a gathering of women who meet monthly to eat, socialize, and listen to a speaker for current events or entertainment.  They have a long history of influence in the church and our community.  When I approached the podium to make a few announcements, I also explained my experiment and blog.  As I was about to step down, the hand of a beloved humanist in our congregation shot up. “Why would you want people in the grocery store to know you are a minister?”  I explained that while those at the church already loved and accepted me as a minister, I wanted to come out in the community as their minister where it was less obvious.  The group responded with hoots and applause, which was very touching. 

The odds that someone from my tradition would approach a person in the grocery story to ask where they go to church are slim to none.  Our Association claims that our members invite people to church an average of once every…26 years!  Really.  In our attempt to separate ourselves from those who evangelize, it seems we have kept others from even knowing we exist. There seems to be this idea that, “If they are smart enough to find us, they can come.”  But I managed to graduate from college and land well into my 20s before I knew our free faith existed.  I dream about how different my life could have been if I had known that a community like ours was available to me or what would have happened if my 16 year old self had met a minister like me.

Our free faith saves.  It is a place where we need not think alike to love alike.  It is a place where every person can feel valued.   It is a place where we are free to – and held responsible for – crafting our own relationship to the Holy, to what is most important.  It is a place where diversity of all kinds is seen not only as an asset but as essential to the community.  The congregation has a long way to go before they will be reaching out to others in the grocery store.  But maybe my collar will spark a conversation that offers possibilities where there once there were few.  And just maybe I can make a dent on that statistic of once every 26 years.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Riddle Me This, Batgirl

              A young boy and his father are in a car accident.
              The father dies at the scene.
              The boy is transported to the hospital and immediately taken into surgery.
              The surgeon walks into the operating room and says,
              "I can't operate on this boy -- he is my son!"

              The question:  Who is the surgeon?

Not long ago, this riddle was posed by the producers at Good Morning America to a group of adults -- people on the streets of New York -- and the great majority could not come up with the answer. Then the producers asked a group of fifth graders -- and the majority of them got it. Kids, it seems, have no preformed ideas about who a surgeon should be.  Interestingly, the kids who got it wrong had some out-of-the box answers.  They suggested it might have been the boy's step-dad, or that the boy's parents were BOTH dads. The answer they (who are they anyway?) are looking for is that the surgeon was the boy's MOTHER. Why is it so far of a stretch to imagine that the surgeon was a woman? 

Our daughter was born with a hole in her heart that did not resolve on its own.  She recently had a catheter procedure to close the hole.  As we were preparing her for the hospital visit, we bought her a doctor kit and played lots of hospital.  Family members and an ark of stuffed animals served as patients. Weeks before the surgery, the pediatric cardiologist, with whom we had developed a relationship over Beckett's life, was in a bicycle accident and was unable to perform the surgery. When I told Beckett there would be a different doctor for this visit, Beckett's response was, "Is she nice?"  Her assumption with little to no thought was that the doctor would be a woman.  The surgeon recommended as a replacement was a quirky Australian man.  On reflection, I realized that without any real intention on our part, we had helped craft that assumption.  Beckett's pediatrician and our family general practitioner are women, and so all the doctors she has known in her short life have been female.  Beckett would not be constrained by the riddle's initial gender trick.   I wonder if she might be more stumped by this twist: 
           A young girl and her mother are in a car accident.
           The mother dies at the scene.
           The girl is transported to the hospital and taken immediately into surgery.
           The surgeon walks into the operating room and says,
           "I can't operate on this girl -- she is my daughter!"

           The question:  Who is the surgeon?

When I help Beckett get ready in the morning and I am already in my collar for the day, I think about what her life will be like with no gender limitations concerning the ministry.  While the collar is new for Beckett too, seeing me in my collar simply means I am going to work.  But she knows that not all ministers dress like me and that not all ministers who dress like me work at the same church where Mama T works. She will grow up seeing women, black and white, robed and official, in the pulpit as well as praying, reading, and leading children's stories. 
The question: Who is the minister?

For Beckett, it will not be such a riddle.      

Monday, January 6, 2014

God at the Abortion Clinic

The first time I volunteered at the abortion clinic as part of Peaceful Presence, was my first year in ministry in Oklahoma.  I did not wear a collar.  Frankly I was not planning on telling anyone I was a minister.  I did not want to make anyone uncomfortable in that already volatile environment.  I spoke to a woman who was waiting to see the doctor. As I tried to support her she said boldly, "Why are you helping me?"  I told her I was a minister. and that I believe people who are making difficult decisions in their lives, should be treated with dignity. She began to cry and said that God brought me to let her know that she was going to be OK. At that moment, I knew I could no longer sit quietly while the loudest religious voice in our country proclaims to know whose side God is on.

In my last year of college, I accompanied a friend to have an abortion when she found out she was pregnant with her abusive ex-boyfriend's child.  As a teacher, I supported a student after she made the difficult decision to terminate so that she could accept her admission into an Ivy League school.  I have ministered to a woman who bore her daughter at 16 and was torn about what to say to her 16 year old pregnant daughter.  I have helped a woman write a letter to her unborn child in her grief and mark on her calendar what would have been that child's birthday.  I have witnessed a stillbirth and had a 21 week old little girl die in my arms after being removed from life support. I have sat in the foyer after a sermon on abortion and held a man as he grieved a child that could have been and his own powerlessness. 

I have never had an abortion. According to the Guttmacher Institute, one in three women will have had an abortion by the age of 45. I am also not yet 45. These numbers are not about one in three atheist women or one in three uneducated women.  It is one in three women.  Despite their age or ethnicity, financial situation or intention. 

A few years ago when Oklahoma landed on John Stewart's The Daily Show, yet again, for our embarrassing politics– this time for The Personhood Bill –I chose to respond by volunteering at the clinic again.  This time I wore my collar.  When you turn off the main road onto the street of the clinic, it is difficult to see the entrance through the throng of protesters. The Catholics have purchased the land directly across the street from the clinic, and they use that space to put enormous signs of imperative phrases written in letters that appear to be dripping blood and 4-foot tall signs with graphic images of developing fetuses. Often, there is a row of young people praying the rosary. (Rumor has it that students from a local Catholic school receive extra credit for showing up.) In addition to lining the opposite side of the street, they are also allowed to be on the same side of the street as the clinic because there is a publicly owned sidewalk.  Every car must drive between shouting protesters and the signs just to get into the parking lot. After parking the car, a woman is greeted by a Peaceful Presence volunteer wearing a purple vest who walks with them to the front door. We hope to offer them a kind face and a focal point until they can get inside.

When I arrived at the clinic in my collar, I was clear I was coming to bring a religious representation. The volunteers of Peaceful Presence do not actively promote any church or religion. Nor do I think they should. Although I am certainly still uniquely me, no one in a collar is standing solely for themselves.  We are in relationship with a community who has called us. When I got out of the car that Friday, it was like I’d poked a bees’ nest. Near the driveway entrance, the protesters had placed a CD player blaring Christian music.  In an effort to bridge the chasm, I moved near it and began to sing quietly.  After about 20 minutes of shouting from afar, while I stood singing to their music, one of the protestors came and began to pray for me, loudly.  I stood quietly as he yelled a prayer for my misdirection, for my false prophethood, and for my broken soul. When he was finished, I realized not only how important my presence was for the women but also to the larger context.  I wanted the protestors to know that God was not limited to one side of this issue.

After he prayed for me, I went to each of the Peaceful Presence volunteers and asked if we could pray together. Despite their varied theologies, they all agreed. We circled up near the driveway, and I prayed a prayer of thanksgiving to God for the opportunity to be present with those in their deepest time of need.  I asked for courage and clarity for the women during what would likely be a significant moment in their lives. And I prayed for the volunteers of Peaceful Presence – for their willingness to be the faces and hands and feet of compassion for those who were publicly being persecuted. The protesters were stunned into silence as they watched us pray. I found myself feeling sorry for them; I wanted to pray for them. So I crossed the street and walked from one protester to the next, reaching out to shake their hand. As I took their hand into mine, I looked each of them in the eye and said, “God is bigger than all of this. Bless you.”
It was obvious by some of the facial expressions that the impact on them had been significant.  Others were cruel in their responses to me.  On the outside, I was unwavering: smiling, compassionate, calm.  They said that I was blasphemous, that I shouldn't or don't represent the clergy. One asked me if I was willing to repent with him right there on my knees. I held my poise, and my ground, breathed deeply, and kept saying, "God is bigger than all of this." When I drove away and could no longer see them in my rear view mirror, I broke down and sobbed. I cried for the women who were in this situation, for the well intended people on both sides of this issue, for my inability to stop their hatred and for my relationship to God being called into question.

I had been dismissed. My religion had been dismissed – if we weren’t on their side, we must be for killing babies.  My religious authority had been dismissed – the clinic, the workers, the volunteers, and the patients had been dehumanized, so my presence was nearly inconsequential.  And my gender had been dismissed. For the Catholics and many of the fundamentalist Protestants, I was dismissed simply because I was a woman in a collar.  If you know me at all, you likely will know that I don’t do dismissed well.  So, I rallied the troops. I asked every minister I thought might be sympathetic if they would be willing to show up regularly.  By the end of the day, I had a schedule set up. For the next 16 weeks in a row, a different minister – white, black, women, men, older, younger – would show up in a collar to bring God to the abortion clinic. I was going to show the other side of the street that I am not a lone actor.  There is, in fact, an army of liberally religious clergy who will not be polarized, who will not oversimplify, and who are willing to shake hands with the other side to make sure they know we are standing in a balcony view above the politics and the polarization. We are now on our third year of Clergy rotation. I am one of a steady stream of about 20 ministers who consistently show up.   

I volunteered this past Friday morning again at the only abortion clinic in town and the only nonprofit clinic in the region.  I was in my collar.  I am glad I am no longer just that lone woman in a collar at the abortion clinic. I am one of a steady stream now of about 20 ministers who all look different and show up consistently.  God is now represented at the clinic with regularity.  We are on our 3rd year of Clergy rotation in this manner.  In a sense nothing has changed.  The protesters still show up in the same way they always do. A protester from outside the city named Bill, at one point yelled to a woman I was accompanying, "Don't pay any attention to that phony preacher." And then when I walked out again he called me by name.  I could hear him yelling "Tamara, Tamara, Tamara."  I did not respond because I was trying to stay present with the woman coming in for her appointment.  I remember thinking, "Oh Sir, I answer to someone way greater than you." In another sense, what has changed is that we know one another's names.  Maybe in creating more room for God at the abortion clinic, we have made a little more room for humanity.