June Becomes Even More Beautiful

My sermon from today at Living Waters UMC:

(Mark 5. 21-43) The gospel today says much to us about faith.

The faith of Jairus- a man who, out of love, calls Jesus to help.

The faith of the woman in the crowd- who dared, out of the desire to cease her suffering-

to touch the robe of Jesus as he passed by.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to have such faith?

Or are you a person of that faith now?

If you already have that faith, you can relax, because I won’t be talking directly to you this morning- but you can help me if I stumble.

I don’t think that will be very many of you.

I know, because I’m not sure I have that kind of faith.

I would like to believe as an ordained person, a professional Christian, that I have some sort of leg up on that faith, but it’s just not true.

I believe, but I’m not sure if it’s always faith.

I have many things that get in the way of that simple trust that God is greater than I am.

Fear does that.

Gets in the way.

Love of money gets in the way.

Anger and resentment and cynicism and pain- they all can keep me from trusting that God has things under control- or at least- like a parent watching a child make a huge mess and then helping them clean it up- God is still waiting with us to see how much of a mess we make before he has to step in again.

This week has been a particularly significant one for me. June usually is- with Gay Pride and my ordination anniversary and it’s such a beautiful time to be in Montana. June is beautiful, but it became even more beautiful for me in the last week, because there were three additional  things of major significance that happened in my life.

Because of chronic illness and preexisting conditions, I am subsidized in my healthcare by the Federal government. There was a chance that it could be taken away from me by the Supreme Court. But, in a move that allowed my soul and my family to rest more easily at night, those subsidies were preserved.

I seriously did not know what I (or tens of thousands of Montanans) would do if the decision were not in our favor.

But it was.

And I knew I would handle what I had to if necessary, but it felt like a wind of grace blowing through my life.~

Like you, I watched the news in horror to learn of the Charleston Massacre in an African Methodist Episcopal church. During a bible study. By a man who was embraced by that congregation as a seeker- before he shot at them- causing death and destruction and injury to a peaceful place dedicated to Christ Emmanuel “God with us”. That’s what Emmanuel means- God with us. It didn’t seem like God was with them, did it? ~

I am a man whose relationship was not acknowledged legally across our country until Friday morning. And I have to say, that for the first time in my life, I feel like a full citizen of these United States- even though many people still hate me for what I am without ever caring about who I am. I feel grace in the affirmation of my dignity by the court we hold Supreme in this land.~

Three different and yet enormously important moments in my life packed into a few short days. Sometimes when I think about it, I feel a little giddy, drunk with the craziness of this week.

Right now you might be saying, “Two of those things were really good for you, Greg- but the other one, the shooting was very horrible. How can you put them together?”

Fair question.

Notice I didn’t say they were all happy moments- they were significant.

Significant is the daughter of a murdered mother looking at the killer and saying “I forgive you.”

Significant is the amount of compassion that allowed a symbol of oppression to be swiftly removed as an accessory to murder.

Significant is a nation that mourned the good people who lost their lives for trying their best to have faith in a world that so seldom supports it.

Significant when the President of the United States gives perhaps the best sermon I have heard in my life to a grieving nation and especially a grieving race of Americans who have been particularly plagued with violence, oppression and prejudice.

Like I said, significant.

If you haven’t seen that eulogy offered by President Obama, I officially recommend it. And I’d like to quote a few lines from it, because it gets right to the point of the message today. We can have all the faith we want- but without grace- we are nothing.

“Blinded by hatred, the alleged killer could not see the grace surrounding Reverend Pinckney and that Bible study group — the light of love that shone as they opened the church doors and invited a stranger to join in their prayer circle. The alleged killer could have never anticipated the way the families of the fallen would respond when they saw him in court — in the midst of unspeakable grief, with words of forgiveness. He couldn’t imagine that.

The alleged killer could not imagine how the city of Charleston, under the good and wise leadership of Mayor Riley — how the state of South Carolina, how the United States of America would respond — not merely with revulsion at his evil act, but with big-hearted generosity and, more importantly, with a thoughtful introspection and self-examination that we so rarely see in public life.

Blinded by hatred, he failed to comprehend what Reverend Pinckney so well understood — the power of God’s grace.

This whole week, I’ve been reflecting on this idea of grace. The grace of the families who lost loved ones. The grace that Reverend Pinckney would preach about in his sermons. The grace described in one of my favorite hymnals — the one we all know: Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I’m found; was blind but now I see.

According to the Christian tradition, grace is not earned. Grace is not merited. It’s not something we deserve. Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God — as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings. Grace.

As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind. He has given us the chance, where we’ve been lost, to find our best selves. We may not have earned it, this grace, with our rancor and complacency, and shortsightedness and fear of each other — but we got it all the same. He gave it to us anyway. He’s once more given us grace. But it is up to us now to make the most of it, to receive it with gratitude, to prove ourselves worthy of this gift.”

At some point, my friends, we have to allow our imperfect faith to meet God’s perfect grace.

And we have to believe that our feeble attempts to love will be assisted by the Grace of God and become an offering of sweetness and peace and substance and good.

That’s the story of the gospel today.

Even when we but try, God meets us in the person of Jesus Christ and offers us help with the power of the Holy Spirit.

He has raised those from the dead we have thought were lost forever.

He has alleviated our suffering- and the suffering of many throughout the world, because we have simply -with whatever small faith we possess- reached out to touch his garment.

So maybe this Gospel isn’t about faith after all.

Maybe it’s just simply about God’s grace- which is just another word for love- about God’s grace being unstoppable.

That’s what we call the Gospel, the Good News. God’s crazy love for us is unstoppable.

Amen

LGBTIQA In Montana- What’s It Like?

The Human Rights Campaign wants to know- and I want Montana to be clearly and substantially represented. It took me 10 minutes. And you don’t have to be from Montana to take it- it’s nationwide.

Take the survey HERE.

Or here:

http://lgbtexperiences.cloudssi.com/cgi-bin/ciwweb.pl?studyname=HRC_MEMBERSHIP_LGBT_POLL&ID&hid_pagenum=1&hid_link=1&hid_javascript=1

HRC

Justice For Trayvon

As I stood on the Higgins Avenue Bridge Monday afternoon with friends and allies in the social justice movement in support of Trayvon Martin, I was horrified at the blatantly racist reactions from the passersby. My hope was that in participating in this demonstration on Monday, I would find some outlet for all the feelings the Zimmerman not-guilty verdict evoked in me as a young black man in America. I was heartened by the turnout for the event, and was moved that as a person of color I was not again forced to represent the whole of my race, but instead was supported by some wonderful allies who organized the event due to their own deeply felt feelings of injustice. During my participation in in the demonstration we received what in my activism in Missoula was a record number of negative responses to our presence and signs on the Higgins Bridge. We had people giving us the thumbs down, the middle finger, folks yelling racist tirades out their windows, etc. I had stood on that bridge for Choice, Healthcare, Marriage Equality, Peace, and many other issues, and never had I been so negatively received.

I had started my day on Monday lying in bed reading various news outlets and blogs discuss the emotional and moral responses to the verdict in the Zimmerman trial. Several of the “facts” surrounding the case I felt were totally irrelevant to this case. So I purposefully avoided any discussions of Trayvon’s past actions, Zimmerman’s level of security, whether or not people were going to riot in response to the ruling, and instead focused on the things I felt were important. How were black people being portrayed in the media? Was the victim of the crime being blamed for his murder? What did society see as an acceptable reason for killing a 17 year old child? I am an organizer for social justice, and have worked my entire career focusing on LGBT rights, racial justice, and women’s rights. This made my focus in this case not surprising…

After hours of anger, frustration, and fear in response to a constant slew of blatant racism disguised as social commentary, I found the outlet for my feelings. Some friends had decided to hold the demonstration in Missoula on the Higgins Bridge. As I prepared for this action, I found that I was having trouble expressing in a sound bite my complex thoughts. More disturbing was my trouble in finding a connection that I felt would resonate with people isolated from the case, thousands of miles away. I felt little distance from this case, as I was profiled, harassed, and threatened as a young black man living all over the country. I had spent several years of my life in FL, and had experienced much of the racism that exists there. But how was I to truncate these feelings and experiences that had created the late twenties black man that I was today? How was I to communicate the urgency and overwhelming despair that had caused me to cry in my kitchen only hours before? Was I allowed to reference explicitly my blackness? Would the mostly white population of Missoula resonate with me if I did?

In organizing we teach that when things get complicated, break them down to the most simple and identifiable elements. You can’t write a dissertation on a piece of foamcore board, even if your message is really important. So I landed on one of the familiar images of a black hoodie, “Justice 4 Trayvon,” and Black Skin + Black Hoodie Does not Equal Criminal. I did not want to attack Zimmerman, hash out the details of the case, or blame any of the players in the trial for a miscarriage of justice. I just wanted to express that I did not feel that the case ultimately ended in placing any responsibility with someone who had for whatever reason ended the life of a child, and that the constant attacks on the clothes that he was wearing, the language that he used, his alleged past indiscretions should all be irrelevant to the ending of his short life by a man who used bad judgment when he willfully exited his car with a firearm after following a child ultimately shooting him.

Many people around the country did not understand why so many of us saw race as an issue in this case. They didn’t understand why in this post-racial America, we need concern ourselves with the race of the perpetrator or the victim. The “unbiased facts” of the events of the evening should reveal the truth without any messy discussion of race relations. The only problem was that for many people of color, the case screamed racial motivation. Even before allegations of Zimmerman’s statements that night, or his passed activity on social networking sites; the narrative was familiar to us. Why? Because we live it all the time.

When I was young, a neighborhood friend of mine asked me to go to a Walgreens with him. He was an overweight white kid from a middle class background, and I a mixed skinny kid from a somewhat lower socioeconomic status. We had lived only a few blocks from each other for years in Rockford,IL. At the time the city’s population was around a quarter of a million people, and there was a definite race problem. I said sure, and we entered the Walgreens. As soon as we entered he said he had to go to the bathroom, and asked me to meet him in the toy aisle. As I walked toward the toy aisle I was immediately followed by the store clerk. I perused the toys, and then went to the candy aisle to grab a few packs of my favorite grape double bubble. My friend was already in the candy aisle, so once I had gathered my purchases, we went to the checkout line, the clerk eyeballing me the whole way. I paid for my gum, after turning out my pockets at the clerk’s request. My friend, who was standing next to me, said he had decided not to get anything, so after my purchase we left. When we got back home, my friend emptied his pockets to reveal his five finger discount purchases. He had liberated toys, cigarettes, and various kinds of his favorite candy. I was horrified, and asked him why he thought it was ok to steal. He replied that he had seen a dateline news episode on racial profiling, and wanted to see if it worked. Obviously it had. This is only one of my experiences with profiling. Since that day early on in my childhood in IL, I would be profiled by many more store clerks, I would be dismissed as stupid by teachers who were entrusted with my education, I would be assumed the assailant and not the victim when I called the police to ensure my safety, accused of stealing property by white friends when things went missing in their homes, ad nauseam.

I was a mouthy skinny black kid, fearless, and “entirely too smart for my britches” as my grandmother used to say. I really could have been Trayvon walking in a community, of mostly white people, with some “creepy ass cracker” following me. If I had been confronted by him, I would likely have responded with indignation at the attack on my basic human dignity, and the continued entitlement of those white people who assume that because I am black I somehow do not belong in the same places they do. And had I felt that my person was in danger, I likely would have fought back.

What saved me in my youth was that I was taught to expect racism, to trust the police but to always have witnesses, and to speak as eloquently as possible when interfacing with white people in authority so that they could identify with me. Growing up with mostly white relatives, I had watched them have positive experiences with the police, and get what they needed from government institutions. My uncles were all firefighters, and I learned early on to trust uniforms. When I was little my grandmother made me memorize the family telephone numbers, and she even sewed an old film canister into my coat to make sure that I would always have them with me. Had I been walking on a FL street I likely would have hung up with my friend, and dialed the police. Told them that there was a creepy dude following me. I might have even asked the dude what he was doing, and if I could help him find anything before I called the police.

What was different for me is that I grew up straddling two worlds. I know that for many black children, the narrative taught to them is not that the police are your friend. For many of them this is bolstered by profiling, harassment, and other barriers to justice. I remember the differences in narratives when I would visit my father’s family who is black, and hear all of the injustice and harassment they had experienced as a part of their daily lives. We did not want to see racism in this case, we couldn’t help but see it.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book some years ago called Blink, and as a student of Political Science, I was subject to pieces of it for years of my college education. In the book, much is made of Harvard’s Implicit Association Test, and for some it is quite the lightning rod. Some point to it to prove that Institutionalized Racism exists, and is alive and well.  For this discussion, the important part of this test is that those that hold these associations like black = bad are not consciously aware of this. It is important to note that this test does not claim to measure a person’s beliefs, only the associations they make about certain groups of people. Any class in the social sciences will likely have some reference to sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and racism. And without fail there will be students in the class who will deny the current existence of the bias, and state that in this day and age that we are beyond all that, and that “X” special interest group is just hypersensitive to their particular issue. For many, these biases are invisible. They are unaware of why having a jury of primarily white females who have been socialized in this country to fear black males might return a not guilty verdict when the defendant is a white male seen as the legitimate authority figure. And they are obliviously unconcerned as to why.

For many black Americans this case represented a great deal. It represented an opportunity to validate the existence of black people in society. It served as an indictment of profiling and harassment of black bodies. It served as a catalyst for discussion and change in our society about black people’s access to justice.

And when we heard the verdict, many of us felt disappointment, rage, frustration, all centered in our collective memories of oppression.

I found myself deeply saddened by the responses of my fellow Missoulians who I have lived alongside for close to seven years. I felt compelled to write something to express all the emotions and experiences that informed my participation in that demonstration. My dissertation that would not fit on foamcore board.

Many of us hope that the result of this case, and all the media attention it garnered will lead to momentum in our continued struggle to battle erasure, oppression, and lack of access to agency and justice for people of color. I hope that my fellow Missoulians and the greater Montana community will join me in engaging with empathy to ensure that we all can share this great state that we love.

Sincerely, John Blake

Student and Community Activist

John is a biracial, Montana transplant, twenty something, social change activist, agitator, and student. 

ENDA is Up – Again

What to do about ENDA? The Employment Non-Discrimination Act is up for committee hearing next week – again. It will likely pass out of committee on July 10, as all the committee dems (12) are sponsors and even one Republican is on board. We’ve been here before folks. It’s a long, hard road to pass a bill – think, “There’s a bill up on Capitol Hill.”

ENDA, originally introduced in 2007 by Sen. Ted Kennedy, has never enjoyed significant congressional support, however. And nothing appears to be much different in that old house. So, the efficacy and life of ENDA seems still doomed to be stalled in the Senate chute.

Ironically, ENDA is viewed by some as more of a transgender bill, largely because trans women have represented the historical sticking point – think Barney Frank. Yet, the twist here, is that trans people represent a class that has at least some discrimination protection under law since the EEOC decided Macy v. Holder in May, 2012 (recognizing transgender discrimination as a type of gender discrimination under Title VII). Sadly, if you are gay, lesbian or bi, you can still be fired or denied housing and public accommodation merely because it is so in states that offer no state or local protection. If you are transgender and you are fired you at least have a federal remedy.

Yes, ENDA is about LGBT Equality!!! So, what can we do to get this law passed? Some have suggested re-branding:

Following up on that bit of news, Michelangelo Signorile quotes former Bilerico editor Michael Crawford talking his ideas on how to get ENDA actually passed: rebrand it. I couldn’t agree with him more. Ditching the name ENDA and expanding the scope of the legislation would give LGBT federal nondiscrimination legislation some nice forward momentum.
‘When we talk about it as discrimination, it’s about bad things that are happening vs. reframing in a more aspirational way, framing it as freedom to work,’ he explained. ‘Everyone wants to be able to work and take care of their families. Framing it as something the general public can understand and connect to.’…

~ Filed By Bil Browning, Bilerico, 7/03/2013.

Good idea! But, regardless of how the law is framed, now is the time for all people concerned about LGBT Equality to get behind it.

I have mentioned before that I am concerned about the post-marriage victory let down amongst our movement. Will it be, or will we seize upon the momentum we seem to have accumulated over the last few years and extend it beyond marriage equality? I hope it will be the latter for the sake of those who have lost or been denied employment or associated benefits. And I can think of several people I know right off the top of my head who have endured these struggles right here in Southwest Montana. I can only imagine what it is like in larger urban areas of the country.

So, here’ my pitch: Don’t let down! Don’t stop! All the same cliches about equality and justice not being so until they are so for all remain true and unfulfilled. Please do your part to help pass ENDA.

Montana HB481: A Mom’s Perspective

On Friday morning, the House Judiciary Committee with hear HB 481. This bill adds “sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression” to the Montana Human Rights Act.

#128 (from me and the cigar store)

(Photo credit: romana klee)

Let me tell you a little bit about who I am and why this is important to me.

I am a 3rd generation Montanan, a business owner for 30 years, a taxpayer, a community volunteer and most importantly a mom.  I am very much like a lot of Montanans, I suppose. There is one difference, however; I have a wonderful son who happens to be gay.

Like any parent, I want my son to have the same opportunities, protections and rights that his brother and his dad and I take for granted every single day. These rights are not something that we have to think about; they are always there and we know that. My son has a lot of the same opportunities as well. He goes to school, he works, and he pays taxes like the rest of us. Yet he can be denied housing, a job and other rights simply because of who he loves.

It really is that simple.

When I hear people criticize this bill, they often do so citing their religious beliefs. I respect peoples’ rights to practice whatever religion they choose, just as my family does. What I don’t understand, however, is how my son’s rights to equal treatment under the law can be seen as less important to a society than the religious beliefs of some of that society’s members. Where in the bible does it say that we should treat some of our own as second-class citizens because of who they are? And why should anyone else’s interpretation of the bible be more valuable than my own?  Our country was founded on the idea of religious freedom.  That does not mean the freedom for me to practice your beliefs but instead to follow my own.

This bill is about peoples’ basic human rights and what allows them to be safe, giving, productive citizens of this great state.  Sometimes it is pretty easy to be against something that doesn’t really affect you personally. I ask you to please think about that carefully .  Equal rights are not special rights and special rights are not equal rights.  I hope the House will consider this important bill and not be led by unjustified fear. As we move forward in Montana with couples recognition and city non-discrimination ordinances, I hope that all Montanans will educate themselves and advocate for fairness for all people.

Thank you for hearing this Montana Mom out.

COLORADO: Civil Unions Bill To Be Heard By Senate Committee Next Week

From Joe My God: 

English: Great Seal of the State of Colorado

English: Great Seal of the State of Colorado (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On Wednesday the Colorado Senate Judiciary Committee will begin hearings on a proposed civil unions bill.

Senate Bill 11 would “authorize any 2 unmarried adults, regardless of gender, to enter into a civil union.” Last year, the Colorado House failed to vote on a civil union bill before the end of a special session of the legislature. This legislative session, democrats control the majority in the House and Senate. House Speaker Mark Ferrandino (D – Denver) says he would like to have a civil unions bill on Governor Hickenlooper’s desk by Valentine’s Day but has acknowledge it may take more time to get the bill through both chambers. 

Hot on the heels of Washington marriage equality, and with Wyoming considering marriage equality (and a civil unions bill), looks like the west may be getting more savvy.

THE ORDINANCE, II

Official seal of Helena, Montana

Official seal of Helena, Montana (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The recitals of the proposed Helena, Montana LGBT non-discrimination ordinance state that “it is the intent of the City of Helena that no person shall be denied his or her civil rights or be discriminated against based upon his or her sexual orientation or gender identity or expression.”  It is a wonderful statement, really, one that even a few years ago would have been unimaginable, coming from any Montana governmental subdivision, state or local.  Yet, here it is.

And I have been dubious for so long, even though I know in my soul that equality is a social inevitability, rather than a mere possibility.  It is here, and it is now.  But, do we have the will, collectively, as a community to make it happen.  The Helena City Commission is out there, and though we have not always appreciated some of their steps or the way in which they took them, passing this ordinance will be a bold step forward.  I for one appreciate the resolve and energy it has taken to come even this far.  They have done their part.

The advocates too, the Montana Human Rights Network, the ACLU, other organizations, and many individuals who work, live, play and pray here have done their part too.  They have stepped up and spoken out on behalf of a marginalized group that for too long has lived in fear and been denied equality.  They are not asking for something more, or something special, but just the opportunity to live as the majority do – without fear or denial of security in employment, to participate in social and  recreational activities with their friends, family and neighbors, schoolmates and fellow churchgoers, etc., and to be able to access all accommodations for basic needs including food, health, shelter, etc..  We owe these dedicated, courageous volunteers a great debt of gratitude for their willingness to fight the good fight, regardless of the outcome.

There have been the nay sayers too.  They have stood up and said what they believe.  And though we may disagree, we do not judge or condemn.  In fact, we very much support their right to hold their beliefs and to practice them and voice them as they do.  These rights are fundamental and vital to the life of this democracy.  We propose.  We discuss and dissent.  We resolve and we move on – together.

Then, there are the rest of us, the citizens of the Helena valley, the community and the people.

We too have a stake in this.  We have the opportunity to shape a community which truly reflects our values, one that can shine as a beacon of humanity for all of Montana, as the capital city should.  We enjoy diversity, for otherwise life would be boring.  We embrace the idea of a free society, for it is our heritage.  We love justice, as even the prophets proclaimed that we should.  Most of all, we thrive on patience, tolerance, kindness and love.  And the greatest of these is love.  The great ones proclaimed it, as even the wise and the holy ones have lived it.  The singers sing about it, as the preachers preach about it.  And it is all true, in the end.  We must love one another even as we have been loved – not some frothy and emotional, sappy appeal, but the kind of action that elevates others need and dignity above our own.  It is the kind of action which tolerates differences in deference to commonality and our shared struggle.

And so I ask – do we have it?  We talk, preach and pray about notions like peace, justice, and fairness, and I believe that we intend them and desire them.  But, do we do them?  If I have evoked even a moment of pause to consider this question, we need not be too hard on ourselves.  For in this action now before us we have the opportunity to redeem our lack of fidelity to our best of intentions.  I am asking you, the people of this community to come out and join me in supporting the Helena Non-discrimination ordinance which will be coming on for final hearing and approval by the Helena City Commission at 6:00 on Monday, December 17th, not just because it is of vital importance to so many, or because it is the right thing to do, but because it says so much fundamentally about who we are as a community, as a society, about being the change we wish to see in the world.  It is not enough to have good intentions, to talk, preach and pray about the world that we want to live in, that we want for our children.  We have to get out and build it.