Aug 302017
 

Last week I finished my time working at Side by Side, and next week will officially be on staff with More Light Presbyterians. Wahoo! While I’m soooo excited about this new move, and am still trying to wrap my head around the fact that my job will soon be to communicate with faith community leaders on how to better serve LGBTQ+ people, leaving the youth at Side by Side was really tough. My life has changed so much in my time working there, and I am so grateful for having had the opportunity.

On my last night there, I wrote something for the youth that felt like all the stuff I want them to remember.

Some words for the youth on my last night at Group

There’s no right or wrong way to be you.

There is no right or wrong way to be you.

You are beautiful.

You are smart and courageous and stronger than you know.

Keep asking questions.

Keep challenging those who tell you your identity should fit into a box that was created by someone else. Keep breaking those boxes open – they could never hold you, anyway.

Next time someone tells you your identity is made up, remember that all identities are made up. It’s part of the creative genius of humanity.

Remember that words have power and claiming who you are will give you power nobody can take from you.

Your identity is something nobody can take from you.

Claim where you are. Own it. Your willingness to be honest about your process and to embrace the messiness of life will serve you well. People who are uncomfortable with your feelings are too small for you.

As best you can, surround yourself with people who affirm your identity. If you need someone to remind of your awesomeness, ask. Seriously.

Be proud of who you are. No matter what your pastor or your parents or your principal has said, your identity is nothing to be ashamed of.

Your identity is nothing to be ashamed of.

Your parents love you. Really, they do. They won’t move as quickly as you’d like them to, and they won’t understand stuff when you first tell them. But they love you.

Be gentle with yourself, as best you can.

Know that you are a complete person, just as you are – even if your body is still in process.

Be proud of who you are.

Most people go their whole lives afraid to ask questions about their gender or their sexuality. You have already torn down those barriers and challenged those assumptions. Own that. Be proud of that.

You may not know it yet, but you are exactly what the world needs and exactly where you need to be.

You are a beloved child of God, of the universe, of this world.

Be humble. Life always offers more to teach.

Speak your truth. And know when to shut up and listen.

Remember that you are never alone.

Trust your gut.

Own it when you mess up. Ask forgiveness.

And know that your identity is something you never have to apologize for, and anyone who even implies differently is too basic for you.

Stand up for those who need it.

Ask for help when you need it.

Remember to breathe.

Remember to laugh.

Your body is your own and nobody else’s.

Wear clothes that make you feel like you.

You are beautiful.

You are not a mistake.

Remember that it’s ok to be in process – you don’t have to have this stuff figured out yet. Keep asking questions.

When challenges come up that seem insurmountable, remember that you’ve already claimed who you are despite a world that tells you you’re supposed to be something different.

You are courageous.

You are strong.

You are beautiful.

You are not alone. Ever.

No matter how bad things feel or how much worse they may get, remember there is someone within reach who has experienced it, too.

You are not alone.

You are strong.

You are beautiful.

Your life is worth living.

Your life is worth living.

Your life is worth living.

Jun 152017
 

Six years ago I wrote this post about Father’s Day. I just came across it again and have to confess I have zero recollection of reading the poem or writing this post. True, it is short, but I typically remember things like that. My grief at the time was like a haze. In my experience, that’s kind of how grief works – it becomes a fog between our vision and everything else – the only thing we can see, yet also never really clearly visible. I still miss my dad and think of him often. So much has changed in the years since he died. Whoa, so much. Yet, I am far enough out to be able to say that I am proud to be part of his legacy, complicated as it may be.

His Stillness, by Sharon Olds

The doctor said to my father, “You asked me
to tell you when nothing more could be done.
That’s what I’m telling you now.” My father
sat quite still, as he always did,
especially not moving his eyes. I had thought
he would rave if he understood he would die,
wave his arms and cry out. He sat up,
thin, and clean, in his clean gown,
like a holy man. The doctor said,
“There are things we can do which might give you time,
but we cannot cure you.” My father said,
“Thank you.” And he sat, motionless, alone,
with the dignity of a foreign leader.
I sat beside him. This was my father.
He had known he was mortal. I had feared they would have to
tie him down. I had not remembered
he had always held still and kept quiet to bear things,
the liquor a way to keep still. I had not
known him. My father had dignity. At the
end of his life his life began
to wake in me.
May 292017
 

glitter_jars.png

If you ever want to talk about the ways public discourse about legislation can impact the lived experiences of folks, let me know, because I see it every day. Whether it’s a discussion about bathroom access, violence against trans people, an election, or a Netflix series about suicide, I often see the subjects of daily news enfleshed in the lives of the youth I work with.

This makes for an interesting challenge from a programmatic standpoint, because there is the need to balance stuff that will give youth (or remind youth about) the tools they can access for self-care, while also giving space for folks to talk about how difficult stuff is. One of the tools that’s been particularly helpful is glitter jars. Seriously! The youth can’t get enough of them, and it’s become a go-to on nights when folks are in the mood to craft.

Supplies:

  • 1 jar (any container that has a good sealed lid will work, but Mason jars are good because they have a tight-fitting lid. I’ve found the half-pint mason jars work the best.)
  • water
  • light corn syrup
  • 2 T glitter (the extra fine glitter tends to work best because it settles the slowest)
  • a few drops of dish soap
  • food coloring, if desired (note – a little goes a long way!)

Instructions:

  1. Fill the container ¾ with hot water.
  2. Fill the rest of the container with corn syrup (the more corn syrup you use, the longer the glitter will take to settle).
  3. Close the jar and shake the water/corn syrup until mixed.
  4. Open the jar and add glitter, dish soap, and food coloring.
  5. Close jar and shake again.

Once you’ve made your glitter jar shake it up, and focus on the glitter until it settles at the bottom. Be sure to take deep breaths, and try to block out everything else. This is a nice way to focus your attention, take time to breath, reground yourself.

 

May 272017
 

A while back I had the incredible opportunity to deliver a talk at TEDx RVA. It was an incredible opportunity for many reasons – the biggest of which was to talk to a group of people about the things I’ve observed and learned in my experience working with LGBTQ+ youth at Side by Side/ROSMY. I’ve included a roughly followed transcript below.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the first time a teenager asked me if they were going to hell.

I’d been in my job as the Youth Programs Director at ROSMY for a few months, working with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning youth, and was visiting a local high school’s gay-straight alliance to tell them about ROSMY. My goal was to let youth know about our support groups and our leadership program. And, I mentioned in passing that I had been to seminary and that I was in the process of becoming a pastor – so, the youth could talk to me if they had any questions about things they may have heard in the church.

Without realizing it, I had sold myself as someone who had the authority to answer questions about the state of their eternal souls.

While I believe without a doubt that people are not condemned to hell for their identity, I was totally taken off-guard by the question.

I wish I could say that this first time was the only time someone has asked me about hell. I wish I could say that I’m even surprised to hear it anymore.

To put that kind of question out there takes a lot of courage.

I know this because it’s a question I never had the courage to ask.

Like many queer youth today, I spent my high school years trying to navigate a system that was constructed for someone else. School dances were exclusively male-female couples, girls wore makeup and talked about their crushes, bathrooms and locker rooms were spaces where gender norms and expectations were reinforced. Though I never really felt like I was betraying any aspect of my identity by doing all of these things, it wasn’t until years after I graduated that I recognized how much the shame and fear I carried about my identity kept me moving forward – taking the “fake it ‘til you make it” approach to life. I thought that if I could try hard enough, work long enough, at being the right kind of girl, then eventually, I would be.

One of the places I did feel safe to be myself – even within the relatively limited confines of my personal closet – was church. It was at church that I learned that it was ok to ask questions, that it was ok to be my goofy, awkward self. I learned what it was to be cared for by adults who weren’t my parents. I was challenged and taught to live into my beliefs as it was shown to me in the lives of the people who took the time to teach Sunday school, direct youth choir, to lead trips.  The people in the congregation took the time to listen, to ask tough questions – they showed me what it was to be loved.

As a teenager, I was hard-working, did well in school, had a core group of good friends, active in all of the typical extracurricular activities. On the surface, I played the part of the typical American teenager very well.

Underneath, I carried a deeply-buried sense of shame over my identity.

The funny thing about shame is that it’s very easy to hide.

So, while I could smile through just about anything, I can remember thinking that I would rather be dead than have anyone know I was queer.

I carried that shame and fear with me even when I started seminary. I had been out for years by that time, but I still stood in a closet of my own fears about what a theological education would bring. I stood in a space somewhere between exhilaration and terror, excited about all that I would learn, and afraid that once I began digging into biblical texts I would find that my fears were right – that my queer identity relegated me to the margins of grace at best or at worst, outside the bounds of grace all together.

Imagine my surprise – and delight! – when I found the opposite. I didn’t find condemnation in the texts of my tradition, but a message of hope and liberation for those who’d been told they were impure or outcast. The issue wasn’t the texts – the issue was with the ways they’d been misused, utilized to reinforce structures that made very clear lines between who’s in and who’s out. Those boundaries that are so often set between ourselves and others, the clean and unclean, the holy and the damned – they are human-made, not divinely constructed.

In the summer of 2011, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the denomination of which I am a part, ratified changes to their constitution, which made it possible for LGBTQ people to be ordained. As you might suspect, many people left the denomination when it became possible for LGBTQ people to fully participate in leadership roles – including 75% of the members of my home congregation. Among this 75% was the bulk of the people who had been most formative in my faith formation.

The same people who taught me what it was to be loved by God, and who showed me the love of a church community, left the denomination because LGBTQ people – people like me – could be ordained.

Though I started working at ROSMY in 2013, I interned there during my final year of seminary – the same year the PCUSA changed its ordination standards. The same year my home church split up. It seemed especially poignant that the place that I’d found the most comfort as a teenager – even while I was never able to fully be myself, was breaking up as I was beginning an internship working with teenagers, many of whose stories from church were far more damaging than my own.

So, while I heard second-hand stories from home about things people said – about LGBTQ people being an abomination, fundamentally impure – or about the terrible move the denomination was making in offering space for queer folks in the leadership of the church – I was also hearing stories from the youth I met who’d been told they were going to hell, or that they were an abomination, or were kicked out of their homes, cut off from their families – all in the name of God.

Though there was no direct overlap in these communities, it was almost as if the youth I met had had the ground pulled out from under their feet, and the people who taught me what it was to be church were the ones pulling it out from under them.

I’d be lying if I said I’d never had my heart broken by the church.  There are some days when I feel as if it might crumble under the weight of the things said and done in the name of God. In these times, it is easier for me to give in to the hurt and weariness that comes with the things that have been lost, with the struggles ahead, and the feeling of futility that we might be able to live authentically in community with one another.

In the same way, there are times when I get bogged down with the work I do at ROSMY, with the struggles the youth face and conversations about suicide, or bullying – with the frequency with which teenagers ask me if they are going to hell. The distance between where we are and where we need to be is just too much. The work is too hard.

It always seems that on those days when the burden of it feels particularly heavy, that I am reminded of the awesomeness of the job I get to do. Sometimes it’s in a call or text message from a youth telling me that their paperwork is done and their name is legally changed, other times it’s in a youth who’s been busy and unable to come to group for a few weeks, stopping in because he felt homesick. Some days it’s in having a pastor of a local church call because a youth in their youth group has recently come out, and they want to know how to make sure they are educated and the space is safe for that youth.

I could focus all day long on the 75% of people who left, or on the overwhelming circumstances many LGBTQ youth face. However, in doing so, I am turning my gaze away from the connections made, from the love that is offered and shared, from the investment people make in themselves and in their community. I risk missing the excitement shared by the 25% who have remained in my hometown congregation, who have banded together beautifully to work and love, and who are in many ways bonded more tightly because of the difficult times they have had to endure. They know the ground they stand on and who they want to be in the world.

In a similar way, many of the youth who come to ROSMY have bonded more tightly because of the difficult times they have had to endure. In the midst of a world that moves between antagonistic, indifferent, and complacently silent, ROSMY offers LGBTQ youth the opportunity many of them don’t have anywhere else: the opportunity to belong. Time and again, youth come to ROSMY and bloom, empowered through a process of self-discovery to open up to the world around them, building friendships with one another and serving as leaders and mentors for new youth who come in. The community that is built provides a foundation not only for individuals, but also for future leaders. They, too, know the ground they stand on and who they want to be in the world.

A few weeks ago in group, the youth designed symbols to represent who they are, and then attached the symbols to capes. At the end of group, they all donned their capes and stood together, proudly sharing their superhero identities, standing in their best superhero poses. There was nothing particularly profound about it – the capes were made of donated fabric, the mis-matched symbols kinda of clumsily cut and ironed-on. And yet, looking around at the room of youth wearing capes – it was almost magical. It was magical not because they were wearing capes, but because they were able, if only for a moment, to feel good as they are – to be seen as they are, and to stand proudly in that identity.

I often wonder what faith communities might be able to learn from places like ROSMY. What would happen if faith communities focused first and foremost on making a space where all people knew that they were welcomed, honored, and loved – where they could be fully themselves and know that it was safe to show their scars, to bear one another’s burdens? What if we celebrated our individuality, and saw it as the opportunity to be part of something more? What if we actually lived into the notion that we are all worthy to be loved – that we can be messy and unsure – that we don’t have to have it all figured out? Would giving each other the space to bring whatever we’ve got give way to empathy, trust, accountability, and community building?

Might we then realize that we are all, in our imperfectly beautiful humanity, superheroes?

Apr 042017
 

Over the last couple of days, I’ve had this song running through my head:

 

Written and performed by Patty Griffin, the song is a tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr., and refers to his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, which he gave on April 3, 1968 – the night before he was assassinated. (You can read the full text of the speech, and see a video of it here).

Just to pull some excerpts from the speech:

…the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around…But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding….

We need all of you. And you know what’s beautiful to me is to see all of these ministers of the Gospel. It’s a marvelous picture. Who is it that is supposed to articulate the longings and aspirations of the people more than the preacher? Somehow the preacher must have a kind of fire shut up in his bones. And whenever injustice is around he tell it. Somehow the preacher must be an Amos, and saith, “When God speaks who can but prophesy?” Again with Amos, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Somehow the preacher must say with Jesus, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me,” and he’s anointed me to deal with the problems of the poor”

…It’s all right to talk about “streets flowing with milk and honey,” but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God’s preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.”

…Now, let me say as I move to my conclusion that we’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through. And when we have our march, you need to be there. If it means leaving work, if it means leaving school — be there. Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together.

…Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

There’s a reason Dr. King was as successful a preacher and leader as he was – It’s hard to read a speech like this one (even harder to hear it) and not heed the call to respond, to speak out in the name of whatever injustice we see before us.  He had the ability to appeal to people’s convictions in a way that could invigorate even the most passive listener.

The thing is, most of us haven’t been to the mountaintop.  We may get fired up by impassioned speakers and prophetic voices that remind us that it is possible to close the gap between the world as it is and the world as it should be, that praying and working so that things on earth might be as they are in heaven, is not an exercise in futility; but, usually this dream is met with the harsh reality that we are anywhere but the Promised Land, which makes it hard to trust those who have been to the mountaintop and can see a better tomorrow on the horizon.  The notion of a possible better tomorrow then becomes kind of a cruel joke – the perpetual carrot dangling in front of our noses; and, eventually we grow so weary from exhaustion and hunger that we just want to lie down in the wilderness.

Sometimes I feel like I’ve never been nothing but tired, and I’ll be working ’til the day I expire. Sometimes I lay down, no more can I do.  But, then I go on again, because you ask me to.

So, what do we do in the meantime?  What do we do when we feel lost, like we will be ambling in the wilderness forever?
We trust.
We trust that those whose vision is longer and wider than ours see more than a mirage.
We hope.
We pray.
We love one another with gentleness.
We welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, comfort the afflicted, feed the hungry.
We lean on each other when we are weary; and, in that leaning, we realize that we are are not in the wilderness alone.
We remind ourselves that the very notion that we are working together as equal partners with people of different races, classes, ages, gender identities, sexual orientations – is a radical shift from 100 years ago.
We acknowledge that we are living in a period in history when people are empowered enough to advocate not only for themselves, but for all the marginalized and disenfranchised, when folks are starting to wake up to their privilege and to really learn how to look it square in the eye, but to dismantle the very systems which uphold it.

There are times when it seems like we are standing in the midst of a darkness that will not dawn. As Dr. King said, it’s only when it is dark enough that you can see the stars.

Let us enjoy the stars even as we work toward the dawn.