Tuesday, June 3, 2008

And the Pilgrimage Continues

Readers, brothers and sisters on the journey with me, thank you for your patience during the few days I have been silent. I appreciate the messages on the blog (and will respond to them) as well as several emails asking about me, and a query from a friend who saw me at a party this weekend and asked when my blog would return.

Because I’ve been silent for several days, this will be a lengthy posting—my apologies. I want to make some connections between my own pilgrimage in faith, my journals from a year ago, my vocation as a theologian and educator, and some specific questions I am encountering at this point on my pilgrimage. The questions are at the very end of this blog posting, for those who don’t have time to slog through the entire entry below.
The question I am asking there does, however, connect to what I am posting today. So for those who have time to read the posting (and those who don't), and who may have information to provide in response to my question, I will definitely appreciate feedback. And so for my posting as I resume this pilgrimage:
This is an important day in my life. As readers know,
was a communion Sunday for this Methodist church, and the day following, something happened to me that so grossly undercut the meaning of communion, I now find myself estranged from a church that has meant much in my life. I find myself estranged from my own Catholic church for the same reason.
My very belief in the sacred meaning of Communion (and communion: it is impossible to celebrate Communion as sacrament—and mean it—without intending to live in communion with those with whom one breaks bread) makes me abhor the thought of returning to churches where I encounter those who celebrate Communion on Sunday and break communion Monday through Friday. What can the Lord’s bread mean when we intend to shove anyone from the table of daily bread even as we partake of the Lord’s bread?
I speak very specifically out of the gay Christian experience. What I have experienced in churches is no different from what other gay Christians experience. Because some other Christians do not consider us human in the same way that they consider themselves human, we are often savagely expelled, with the expectation that we will simply accept our chastisement and be silent.
Our humanity is not obvious to those who frame our human lives as less than human. Thus, our feelings of pain, exclusion, diminishment, anguish at the injustices dealt to us—some Christians overlook these as emotions that don’t really count, as if they are not the same kind of pain these Christians themselves would feel, placed in similar circumstances. Many Christians proclaim mercy while practicing injustice to gay brothers and sisters because they are, simply and shockingly, oblivious to the pain they cause us. They just do not hear us and our cries of pain, having relegated us to subhuman status and shoved us from the table.
What I experience as a gay Christian is more than that, though. It is more than pain. It is blessing and calling. When I am excluded, I grow stronger. When those who practice injustice while preaching mercy try to stop up my mouth, I speak all the louder. I believe, with Oscar Romero, that any attempt to silence me—even one that results in my ultimate silencing—will never truly silence me.
Who we are and what we do live on in the world even after we leave the world. When we live for what is right, true, and good—when our lives flow in the river of divine love through our attempt to love each other—all that we have done remains as testimony and constructive influence, even when we leave the world. Not long before he was assassinated while celebrating the Eucharist at the altar of his church in El Salvador, Oscar Romero stated, "I do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me, I will be resurrected in the Salvadoran people."
And so it is. The soldiers who murdered Oscar Romero did not succeed in silencing him at all. Because of what they did to him, they released his words to go around the world with a power the words did not have prior to his martyrdom.
As I reflect on these themes in light of this anniversary, I turn to my journal to see what I wrote last year at this time. I find that I did not record an entry on 3 June, but I did record the following reflections early in the day on 4 June, a day with great significance for my life as a theologian reflecting on the connection between spirituality and social justice.
The dream mentioned in the entry is one I had had a few days earlier, in which I had returned to my grandmother’s house to turn her entire yard into a garden:
So the dream is about how I continue planting the grandmother's garden—à la Alice Walker? Those female virtues run strong in my life, Bridget (Tobin) to Kate (Ryan) to Hattie (Batchelor) to Clo (Simpson).

What are they? Determination. Determination to survive. Determination to thrive. To keep on keeping on.

To live humanely under inhumane conditions. To plant a garden, regardless: famine, five children dead, exile to a strange new land; 16 children borne, 5 died, and still containers of moss rose on the porch; husband dies as one has the 6th child, Depression hits, one raises 7 children, and one plants prize-winning peonies; husband's an abusive, philandering drunk who gambles away a family's livelihood, and one plants coxcomb. I have a heritage to live up to . . . .

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[I then record a different dream from the night of 3 June]: And then I awoke, thinking, "[Name deleted; someone with the ability to make decisions that affected my life] dislikes me because I have a canopy over me. She can't harm me. And she resents that she doesn't have a canopy."

And the word "bima" came to mind. I looked it up and found it's "bema," Greek for a ceremonial stand in Greek gathering places. In Judaism, it's a bimah, and is where one stands to read Torah in the assembly.

In Shavuot—this year, May 23 and 24—it’s covered by a canopy with flowers. It was on May 23 that I wrote my essay re: my grandmother . . . and the contemporary academy.
The reference to a May 23 essay is to something I had been asked to write at my workplace in response to a workshop about transformative leadership in the academy in a journal-type reflection. Here are some excerpts from that essay:
As I begin this ‘journal entry,’ I’m aware that I am writing it on the anniversary of my grandmother’s [Hattie Batchelor Simpson] death in 1968. My grandmothers—but, in particular, my maternal grandmother—played key roles in my upbringing. Since my immediate family’s life was often turbulent because of my father’s propensity to drink (and sometimes to abandon his family), my grandmother played an important role as a point of stability and comfort: she was always there. With its familiar smells and beautiful garden, its assortment of relatives, including my beloved unmarried aunt who provided care for her mother and brother while teaching school full-time, her house was the focal point of family gatherings.
My grandmother’s death in 1968 was not entirely unexpected, since she had long suffered from crippling heart disease. Nonetheless, it came as something of a shock to me, since it occurred three days before my high school graduation.
I last saw my grandmother the Sunday before her death. She died the following Thursday morning. As I left her house, I begged her to come to my graduation. She called me back to talk to her as I walked to our car. As she stood inside her kitchen’s screen door, she told me, ‘When you were born, you had eyes that were looking for something—always looking, peering intently. I hope that you find what you are looking for in life. Remember that Mama expects great things from you.'
Those were her final words to me. Her calling me back was out of character. This was something she had never done before. I have to believe she knew her death was imminent. So I have always regarded her final statement to me as a kind of ‘commissioning’—to do precisely what, I am not sure, but what is very clear to me is that she affirmed me and called on me to do my very best in life. Her legacy to me was a request to become the best person I am able to become.
When I gave my salutatory address the following Sunday, I did so with my grandmother’s words ringing in my head. Though I felt loath to stand up and speak before that large group of people, I did so with conviction and passion because, in my mind and heart, I was doing so as a tribute to my grandmother. The text I chose as the basis of my address—Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, with its insistence on not merely enduring, but prevailing—seemed entirely appropriate, as I pondered the commission my grandmother had given me.
Why go on at such length about these personal memories? Because a major thread of the workshop was the need for faculty to build a learning community that engages in dialogue that reaches the affective domain of learning. We can mentor students in forming learning communities only to the extent that we are successful in forming such communities ourselves.
We call on our students to risk much as they learn: to expose their inmost thoughts, to dare to be vulnerable in sharing life experiences, to put painful life experiences on the table and discuss them in a communal context. But we don’t often follow suit, as colleagues in the academy.
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For me, the workshop lit a fire in my soul. It brought me back to the passion that informs my vocation as an educator—a passion for social transformation, a passion to understand the world in transformative ways, a passion to build a community engaged in such transformative learning in order to create an academy that becomes an agent of transformation in the world at large.
Though the experience of walking in the valley has diverted me from that passion in subsequent weeks (even as it smolders inside), I continue wondering about the heart and soul of American higher education. I wonder what it is in our worldviews and practices that predisposes us to talk about collaborative learning, about reaching the affective domain, about sharing life experiences—but to retreat to the safety of liberal managerial practices of academic life after we’ve had such discussions, when those discussions threaten to change the way we do business. I wonder why it is that we seem unable to see that we cannot be agents of transformative change without being transformed ourselves, and without transforming the academy, so that it conforms in practice to the rhetoric we proclaim.
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In the postmodern period, there is contestation of the rules of liberal managerialism—an agonistic approach to truth that recognizes the need of those shut out to struggle for their voices finally to be heard. The postmodern academy struggles against the dominative model of liberal managerialism bequeathed to it by modernity, in order to become something new—a new space for dialogic interaction of many different voices, proceeding from many different perspectives, in which no voice and no perspective is valorized over other voices.
I find many parallels between this postmodern worldview (and its attendant view of the academy) and the vision of Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune. Dr. Bethune’s insistence on the inclusion of African American and female voices in the dialogue constituting American democracy was based on the contention that democracy contains within it a logic of inexorable extension: to include any marginalized group, on democratic principles, is implicitly to recognize that all marginalized groups must eventually be brought to the table.
Martin Luther King articulates the same understanding of American democracy, and prefigures the postmodern world (and postmodern academy) with similar brilliance and force. As a scholar of the American social gospel, it interests me that both Dr. King and Dr. Bethune depend in many respects on the social gospel’s reading of the American experience and of the logic of American democracy.
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How do we form that safe space for dialogic interchange in an academic context still often dominated by liberal managerial concerns and techniques of control? How do those of us who are within church-affiliated institutions deal with these concerns and control techniques, when they dominate the behavior of the churches with which we are affiliated? In both church and academy today, a pressing question is how to build anew within the crumbling foundations of the old. The commitment of both institutions to liberal rhetoric has not allowed for a happy or fruitful transition to the postmodern world.
In a world in which it is increasingly difficult to shut out marginal voices and the information they offer us—because technology makes such transmission of knowledge much easier everywhere in the world today—how do we struggle to reinvent the academy? Within the ruins of modernity, how do we form a new safe space for the interaction of many different voices incorporating many different perspectives, none of which can lay claim to objectivity and ownership of the truth?
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I am moved as well by questions arising out of my solidarity with gay and lesbian persons. As M. Paz Galupo notes in an article entitled ‘Advancing Diversity Through a Framework of Intersectionality: Inclusion of LGBT Issues in Higher Education’ (Diversity Digest 10,2 [2007], 16-17), though the modern academy commonly pays lip-service to diversity and inclusion of all voices and perspectives, it lacks systematic or thoughtful strategies for integrating lesbian-gay concerns under the rubric of diversity. The academy still resists first-person testimony by its gay-lesbian members, and disallows such testimony as biased, self-interested, or distasteful.
Galupo (who is bi-racial) speaks expressly of HBCUs. She notes that HBCUs ‘typically have no institutionally recognized LGBT student groups’ and that ‘structural barriers’ in HBCUs prevent the successful integration of lesbian-gay persons into the academic community.
Galupo calls on the academy (and the HBCU in particular) to ask the following ‘hard questions’ about such structural barriers, if the academy wishes to be truly inclusive:
Why do we advocate for LGBT inclusion in general, but remain afraid to challenge homophobia within our racially diverse communities? How can a dialogue about the experiences of LGBT persons of color inform…our work within the larger African American and LGBT communities? How can our successes in advancing racial diversity and gender equity inform our advocacy for LGBT inclusion? And conversely, how can arguments for LGBT inclusion be used to shift our discussions about race and gender to creative and more effective directions?”

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And so, dear readers, the pilgrimage continues. You will note that I have added to this blog some ads. I’ve done this at the suggestion of a reader who suggests that this will enhance my site for a number of reasons. Traffic has increased dramatically on this blog in recent weeks, both in the U.S. and in places around the world. I take heart from the increased traffic. I interpret it as an expression of interest in the questions this and other blogs are pursuing—questions of great importance to people interested in spirituality and justice throughout the world. I am trying the ads not to commercialize my discussion, but to assist in making the blog accessible to more readers who may be interested in these issues.
And, finally, a question: if any readers anyplace know of instances in which churches or church organizations have ever sought to use legal threats to shut down blogs discussing theological issues and issues pertaining to social justice, I’d appreciate hearing about this attempt to suppress free speech. I’m gathering information about the claim of churches or church institutions that they have the right to buy the free speech of scholars, theologians, or citizens in general, and in doing so, to censor what a scholar, theologian, or citizen might write on a blog.
Thanks to any readers who can assist me in this quest for information.

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