“He spent His life in doing good;
I want to be like Jesus.
In lowly paths of service trod;
I want to be like Jesus.
He sympathized with hearts distressed,
He spoke the words that cheered and blessed,
He welcomed sinners to His breast.
I want to be like Jesus.
A holy, harmless life He led;
I want to be like Jesus.
The Father’s will, His drink and bread;
I want to be like Jesus.
And when at last He comes to die,
“Forgive them, Father,” hear Him cry
for those who taunt and crucify.
I want to be like Jesus.” -Hymn
YOU HAVE TO THINK ABOUT IT, DOING WHAT I DO
In the past year, I’ve thought a lot about Jesus. And I’ve thought a fair amount about dying, too.
We have seen people die before, die for justice. Get hurt or slammed to the ground at lunch counters and on busses, had acid dumped on their bodies, set on fire. Crucified.
Three years ago I had just started my job helping to found an inclusion and diversity center in Northeastern Wisconsin.
I sat at my computer in the morning that first month on the job, surveying the news for the day.
An image of hung bodies flashed against my screen. Nailed bodies. Crucified. Contemporary rebels in some distant land who were punished for thinking what they thought, believing what they believed, being who they are.
I stared at the screen in my glass office.
I cried loud in that clear glass room, exposed.
I had begun public work that I realized could expose me. Expose me to danger.
At that point, not “real” danger, maybe. But what is real?
Maybe danger of being scoffed at.
Danger of being misunderstood.
Risk of being labeled, judged.
The next year our office welcomed a controversial speaker to campus and I encountered something that helped me do this thinking about risk and danger:
Hatred directed my way. Personally, my way. Individually.
I did not answer my office phone for months because of hate calls. A student recorded the messages for me.
Each day we would get some voicemail from someplace from someone telling us we were going to hell. That God would damn us. I got a postcard that said “shame on you.”
Sometimes I got a phone call on my cell from a number I did not recognize.
Did they know where I lived? Could they find me?
Shame, on me.
That year, I had people scream at me. I sat calmly behind a desk as students raised their voices and their faces twisted in anger. I listened. Sat still. Blinked more often, the force of their rage me hitting me in the eyes. But I took it, I let it land on my body.
Then I had a loved one scream at me. Shout at me about my work. Standing, pacing violently. I sat peacefully. I was not at peace, but I could be still and take it. I had encountered this before.
It hurt me, though.
It made me think- could I be hurt more? Could someone who hated me enough decide to do something about it? Would they attack? Because hateful words and screamed obscenities and dominating someone by standing over them: these are violences I felt. I was 24.
Flash forward to a few weeks ago, on the road in the American south for work. I felt the crushing weight of division heavy in my heart. Division in my extended family, division in my broken state of Wisconsin, division in our country, our world. I thought maybe I could heal this division my running for public office.
I did a thought exercise to chronicle my worst fears about being a public figure in politics. My top two:
- Physical Harm or Death
I strategized, frenzied, for days. Slogans, fundraisers, campaign team. Because over time I’ve needed to come to terms with the fact that engaging in this justice work, this work of bridging divisions, of bringing dangerous truths to light, is a process and the process is the work. There is no end result that gives me an A or an F. There is really no one to tell me that I have done any good, either. Many people who hear my words or go to my programs or attend something I coordinated or read my work will never tell me anything about how it moved them or not. Sometimes they fill the comments section with obscenities and insults to my thinking and my writing.
But once in a while. Once in a while they come to my office, in quiet moments. Once in a while a student will walk up to me and he will tell me I am the 5th person he has come out to, and he’s about to make someone in his family the sixth. Once in a while I will hear of a white person in Alabama who read my piece and had a conversation about racism with their next door neighbor because of it.
These have happened, too.
So if there is one person free-er. One person more wide awake. One person more loving than before, there can be no failure. Says black Catholic theologian Rev. Bryan Massingale, “When one is doing the work of justice, one cannot fail, for one is doing the work of God.”
BUT I COULD DIE
You know I have to think about it a bit, being what I am.
The central narrative in my life- the central story, the overarching myth that has captured my mind and heart and work ethic and family—is that of loving sacrifice.
As a Christian, what I know is that people hated Jesus because he loved so hard.
They hated him for saying a clear, firm NO to structures of domination.
They hated him for changing the rules, for turning the tables, for casting money changers out of the temple, healing on Sabbath, welcoming the stranger, dining with women and lepers.
They hated him.
And I have seen videos of lunch counters.
I have seen burnt out busses from freedom riders.
I have seen footage of the shot bodies of King, Kennedy.
I have seen exhaustion– too many activists and writers meeting early death and deteriorated health.
And all of these things, over all of these years, has called me to question:
Could I do it? Would I do it?
That meme that went around—”ever wondered what you would have done during civil rights? Well what you are doing now is what you would have done.” It weighs heavy on my heart, my hands each day as I type, as I teach, as I march.
I have never been so scared of myself as when I have been powerful enough to transcend the fear of death because, like Jesus, I believe in God’s justice, which loves and welcomes all.
And I have never been so liberated.
And I have never been such a channel.
I CAME OUT
On president’s day I stood at the foot of Trump Tower in New York City.
I held a sign: “Christians in solidarity with Muslim neighbors.”
I always had folks ask me about that, at the varied marches I’ve been to.
I held it high, always.
I opened my body up, my Black Lives Matter shirt over my coat, a human billboard, a corporeal message printed on white skin:
Black. Lives. Matter.
After the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., a group of red-hatted white men told me “all lives matter” in the dusk of the evening and I was prepared to love them into knowing better and learning better and I quietly and calmly responded: “Yes, all lives WILL matter when black lives matter.”
Because the march was always only part of the activism. On the bus or at the gas station or in the subway or sidewalk to each event, I wore the shirt, held the sign, smiled my big white, my tall blonde smile, and talked and answered questions with people who wondered what I could mean. Who challenged what I would mean. Whatever could I mean by that. However could I:
say have a blessed day and
smile and ask them about their hunting knife selection in rural Illinois and
wear a Black Lives Matter shirt and
and be white and have
and mean all of it.
And have all of it be true.
On those streets, marching for justice, it occurred to me more than once that I could be beaten on my way to activism. I often went alone- I always met comrades at the march but I needed to go alone. Sometimes the march would end after dark, and I would make my way through the city with my sign and my shirt and my heightened awareness and I thought:
This is something I can do.
I can use my body as a tool for justice.
I read work about white allyship and activism.
How white bodies can serve as barriers against guns and billy clubs.
How white bodies can shield bodies of color if requested, stand in solidarity with those we see routinely beaten and killed on the news. I answered a call on facebook that asked that white people, white feminists pledge to put their bodies on the line for people of color and other marginalized communities.
I thought about if I could do it.
I decided I could.
And that cold March day, I was ushered up to the front steps of Trump Tower by my fellow marchers.
I grew up in summer camps and choir rooms.
I know how to lead a crowd of hundreds in a chant or a song.
I have been doing that since I was 8.
I led the calls on those steps. I invited women of color to stand at the front with me, if they wanted. We stood together.
One wore leather gloves.
I wore my shirt.
A counter-protester blocked us with their giant sign in front of our faces.
Screamed at me.
Oh, but I have been screamed at before.
I have been hated before.
My body was wide and open.
It did occur to me that I could be the target of a shot.
The target of an arrest, certainly.
A clear ringleader, later I found out I was the first story on Snapchat that day- throughout the globe, the first click was this white woman screaming, more angry than I had ever been. More desperate, more sad.
Screaming and chanting. Drums joined me. The crowd offered additional chants and I knew what to do, incorporated their calls:
“Native Lives Matter”
“Queer Lives Matter”
We cycled through them/
“Show me what democracy looks like: this is what democracy looks like!”
“If we don’t get it? Shut it down. If we don’t get it? Shut it down. If we don’t get it Shut. It. Down.”
I stomped and snarled and thought of all the things I had not consented to that year. Had not said OK:
To see my family cracked down the line of partisanship.
To watch Hillary get jeered at, dominated, effigied, dragged through the mud.
To know that my country was shutting out lives. Was repeating old patterns of thinly veiled exclusion and religiously fueled blockades, under the thin, weak guise of self-protection.
To read story after story of children shot down, of black and brown bodies shot down. Of trans bodies murdered and lost again and again.
I did not cosign on this.
But I can work against it.
I screamed because I knew there were parts of me that were part of this. My body is and was and always will be stamped with whiteness, and marked by the Christianity of my childhood.
But I did not agree for those things, those parts of myself, to be hijacked and used for violence and hatred.
After the shooting at Pulse Night Club in Orlando last summer, I felt such deep despair that I missed class, wrote for hours, sobbed in the pew at a Catholic church and knew it would never be enough. I wrote hard, sat still and let the words flow out of me for eight hours in a coffee shop in small town Wisconsin. I crafted a service that summer, wrote a sermon, used all I had: every ounce of every gift and trait I possess to help people see that the shootings at the Church in Charleston at the prayer circle and the murders at Pulse Night Club were connected, strung through by a common chord of domination, violating sacred space, safe space.
To help people feel something, anything. To help us change together.
And I’ve never been black. I can’t know what it is like to kneel before my child and give them instructions for what to do in order to not be shot walking down the street with hood up. In order to not be pushed to the ground.
And I’ve never been trans. I can’t know what it is like to enter a bathroom wondering if I’ll be violated, harassed. I’ll never know what it is to have a body that is up for debate quite like that.
But after I gave that sermon about the nightclub murders in Orlando, the Church violence in Charleston, the hatred that spurred gunshots.
I came out.
In Christian community, I came out as queer. I wasn’t strong enough yet to say it in my sermon. I hinted. I preached my pain and sorrow and my fear. Perhaps the congregation could tell, as my voice cracked at the pulpit when I said I would pray for the nightclub shooting victims and their families.
Because I knew that I could die, too.
I knew that now I belonged to that group. In fact I had always belonged to that group. It could be me shot at that club that night. I knew that I could be hated, scorned, beaten or shot or rejected or cast out of my family or my community because of who I am.
And that’s perhaps too much to include in my first ever sermon. Well the first of many really. But also really not the first, because preaching is talking with truth, with fearlessness, with vigor and salt and everything I have.
And I’ve done that before.
But not like this. That week last July, I preached on a Tuesday, came out to myself on a Wednesday, and on Friday, as a visiting faculty I was slated to give an LGBTQ Ally training, one I had given many times before, across the country, all in Christian settings.
I did not sleep at all before the training. I quietly watched the sun rise over mountains as I gathered my supplies: stickers and charts and comics and mnemonic devices and claymation video clips that could help people feel and see.
Ready or not.
I have watched trainers skillfully slip it in: mentioning their partner. Talking about their first pride parade.
But for me it was new. I had none of this.
So I just told the group- they didn’t know it was the first time I had uttered my queerness aloud in public.
In my training that day, the tools that I had built over decades for teaching—the patient listening, the gentle reframing, the ability to shape a dialogue and offer reflection- all were still there.
But my walls of protection were not.
And someone said the word “abnormal” about queerness, and I was cracked open.
I finished the training. It was a good one.
Maybe my best.
Turns out it is freeing to be free. Better to be honest.
And I walked upstairs and broke down with a few strangers, other queer women of faith who would hold me. Who told me to eat familiar things and wear comfortable clothes and surround myself with goodness because yes this is hard and yes this is painful and yes it is worth it.
I’ll write more about coming out later. I’ll craft stories of the people I told, beautiful embraces, tearful explanations, stories of relief and anguish, secrets and judgements, vocabulary and disbelief.
“Are you sure?”
“How long have you known?”
“Anna you told me this six years ago.”
And also, from my wonderful, loving grandmother:
“Anna, do you feel more free?”
And I said yes.
LOVE FOR NEIGHBOR
Jesus tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves.
But what happens if, for a long time, I have not loved myself as I have loved my neighbor?
And then, what happens if I give myself up for something?
What happens if I have given everything I possessed to a movement I believe in so fully, guided by my vivid image of Jesus on the cross, killed for doing the work that had to be done.
And I know I’m not a savior.
But I might be like a prophet.
Because prophets tell the truth.
They speak it to power.
Even when they know they could be harmed.
And right now- the people I love have a kind of power over me because they could reject me- hurt me because I am speaking the truth. Trying to be like a prophet. Trying to be like Jesus. I’m trying.
And I’ve chosen that as my life’s work.
Not work- my call.
And actually, with a call, we don’t always choose it.
So yeah, I haven’t really consented to this.
But it’s something I must do. I am compelled by everything, everything in me.
I have been whipped around, bowled over by the holy spirit:
In the form of waves off the coast of Ghana, that cauterized my wounds and made me cough salt water and baptized me to better understand that I can be moved or carried or pelted and will not always be in control, but I will live.
In the form of relationships that have pushed me, sometimes too quickly, towards truth, not always in control, but I will live.
In the form of finding myself in the role of a writer now, telling my own stories and swearing an oath to tell and to protect and honor stories of other people of faith, whatever faith, who are also doing this hard work.
I have seen bodies tied to fences, cracked mosques, baptisms in glacier water, temple walls filled with prayers, faces of my marching comrades wrapped in sparkling hijabs. I have seen truth tellers pushed to the ground, and a body crucified, beaten without fighting back.
I did not ask for this, but I do say yes to it.
I say yes to living fully who I am, which is a queer woman.
I say yes to prophesying, looking death and power and hatred in the eye and not letting it destroy me for good and then still telling what I came to tell.
And I say yes to being fully Christian, arms spread wide, hands open in prayer and surrender that I’m shaped and molded by an ancient story of someone who loved so hard, cared so deeply, that death did not matter to him. Death could not win the day. And he rose.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise. -Maya Angelou
AT THE DEVIL’S LAKE
A month ago I went on a hike to Devil’s Lake State Park in Wisconsin.
Many times before I have walked these trails that snake up sheer cliffs and veer towards edges.
I went with strangers I met that day who had become quick friends.
As we trudged the dirt pathways, I found myself saying aloud: “People have died here.”
I knew it was true—fallen and broken by sandstone and granite.
My new friend said: “But not today.”
We breathed through elevation and slipping mud and got to the top and I walked out to the edge. I have been scared of heights forever. Today I was not afraid of falling.
I told my friends: I am going to climb out onto this ledge to see the view.
My footing was sure and careful. I went slow.
My hands grated against the sandstone, legs clad in spandex, feet enshrouded by boots with good grip.
I placed my hands on the stone and settled onto my belly, looking over the edge, a drop many hundreds of feet that could kill me, a view that was spectacular.
I called out to my friend:
“I used to be afraid of this”
“I have come to learn that death is not the worst thing that can happen to me.”
I was safe and came back from the gorgeous view I got because I was no longer afraid.
Easter has come and gone and I saw and felt what death can do. How it can clear out a sanctuary. How it can cause quiet and bring up other pains we had long buried. Bring them out.
And on Easter morning my body woke me at 4am.
It brought me to a service at a church in Nashville where I was a stranger, visiting.
I sat in the chair as the sermon surprised me, a meditation instead of a lecture. We were invited to imagine a garden, imagine a healing, friendly presence beside us, to then come to imagine it was Jesus. I decided that Easter weekend, finally decided after many years, that I will someday be a pastor.
Afterwards, I looked at the program as I ate breakfast sandwiches and blueberry compote with new friends that welcomed me to this church.
The program said: “A service for recovery.”
It made sense: A serenity prayer as part of the liturgy. A clear announcement about non-alcoholic wine.
And what was I recovering from?
Pain of being stymied by untruths- to myself and others- about who I am. Pain of divisions.
Queer. Christian. By some standards, yes: abnormal.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
I have let myself go to the brink trying to change things that will take time- our country’s fissures and my own- screaming and self denial and self hatred and not enough sleep and not enough food and not enough quiet and not enough time, never enough. When I feel the fabric of our country being torn, I am torn too. Frayed and afraid.
I have not loved myself as I have loved my neighbor. Not quite yet.
I am working on that.
God, grant me serenity to accept myself. God, grant me serenity to change systems that hurt your dream of love for our world.
God, I’m not afraid of dying, but let me live long enough, free and open enough, to do your work, and to do my own.
NOTE: Pride@Church. I first came out in a loving, welcoming Christian community. Now it’s my call to help other communities to be more equipped for this ministry with LGBTQ+ people. God calls us to be our full selves. Please consider sharing & donating: www.gofundme.com/prideatchurch