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Can’t March? Can’t Vote? 10 Justice Strategies from MLK’s Mountaintop Speech

I was ready to march today on #MLK50. I got my signs together and contacted comrades and gathered venue information. In my final research, right before departing, I learned this particular small event I was planning to attend was factioned and problematic. It was not organized with accountability to the communities for which it claimed to advocate, had consistently undermined efforts in other activist groups, and the sources where I had originally learned about it were unreliable.

This happens sometimes. This happens OFTEN in the White Moderate that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King warned about in his 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail.

We try to do good things, we really mess it up and hurt people, we try to learn and do better. I remember talking with my Republican grandpa about Martin Luther King, Jr.; Grandpa was honest with me and admitted: he and many others had been (Grandpa’s words) brainwashed by White leadership and media in the 1960s to believe that MLK was a menace, that King was un-American in his efforts, that his death wasn’t necessarily something to mourn. I remember being astounded to learn this.

Now I’m not astounded. My grandpa died in 2013 before #NoBanNoWall and #BlackLivesMatter came mainstream, but I can see now how contemporary activists put their lives and bodies and hearts on the line for the betterment of a country that does not protect them. I see how ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) targets activists for deportation. I see how beautiful movements led by Black and Brown Americans to end unjust incarceration and police brutality are labeled as “Black Identity Extremism” by the FBI. This is now.

And of course, every day, I question and am challenged to examine where/if my own voice is actually of use, of help in any of this. I am asked regularly, was firmly and rightly asked this Easter by a comrade: what place does a White Queer Christian Cis-Woman (add midwestern, add temporarily-abled, add middle class, add educated, and on and on) have in the struggle, if any? So I put on my glasses today and went back to what I could do, know how to do: return to the text. After all, I am a Lutheran, and returning to to a sacred source and reading with a subversive lens…well… that’s a Protestant birthright. Go back to the primary source and see what it ACTUALLY has to say, now. So I read Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s April 3, 1968 speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” in its entirety for the first time today. In all my years of all that education in our system, it had never been put in front of me. So I’ll put it in front of myself, and in front of all of you. I encourage you to read it too and sit with it, and become undone and emboldened by what is there. Here are 10 theses I’ve gleaned from MLK’s sacred text from the Mountaintop, and quotes from the transcript, in the order they appear in his speech. I bet you can find more. I am often asked: what can we do, where can we start? Here are some ways. Let’s begin.

Can’t March? Can’t Vote? 10 Justice Strategies from MLK’s Mountaintop Speech

Cross-posted at Religious Response

1. SEEK SOLIDARITY; beware horizontal hostility

“Now what does all this mean in this great period of history? It means that we’ve got to stay together. (Yeah) We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity. You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula of doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. [Applause] But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery. [Applause] Now let us maintain unity.”

2. CRITICALLY THINK about mainstream media coverage

“Secondly, let us keep the issues where they are. (Right) The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers. [Applause] Now we’ve got to keep attention on that. (That’s right) That’s always the problem with a little violence. You know what happened the other day, and the press dealt only with the window breaking. (That’s right) I read the articles. They very seldom got around to mentioning the fact that 1,300 sanitation workers are on strike, and that Memphis is not being fair to them, and that Mayor Loeb is in dire need of a doctor. They didn’t get around to that. (Yeah) [Applause]

Now we’re going to march again, and we’ve got to march again (Yeah), in order to put the issue where it is supposed to be (Yeah) [Applause] and force everybody to see that there are thirteen hundred of God’s children here suffering (That’s right), sometimes going hungry, going through dark and dreary nights wondering how this thing is going to come out. That’s the issue. (That’s right) And we’ve got to say to the nation, we know how it’s coming out. For when people get caught up with that which is right and they are willing to sacrifice for it, there is no stopping point short of victory. [Applause]”

3. DIVEST from unjust businesses

“Now the other thing we’ll have to do is this: always anchor our external direct action with the power of economic withdrawal. Now we are poor people, individually we are poor when you compare us with white society in America. We are poor. Never stop and forget that collectively, that means all of us together, collectively we are richer than all the nations in the world, with the exception of nine. Did you ever think about that? After you leave the United States, Soviet Russia, Great Britain, West Germany, France, and I could name the others, the American Negro collectively is richer than most nations of the world. We have an annual income of more than thirty billion dollars a year, which is more than all of the exports of the United States and more than the national budget of Canada. Did you know that? That’s power right there, if we know how to pool it. (Yeah) [Applause]

We don’t have to argue with anybody. We don’t have to curse and go around acting bad with our words. We don’t need any bricks and bottles; we don’t need any Molotov cocktails. (Yes) We just need to go around to these stores (Yes sir), and to these massive industries in our country (Amen), and say, “God sent us by here (All right) to say to you that you’re not treating His children right. (That’s right) And we’ve come by here to ask you to make the first item on your agenda fair treatment where God’s children are concerned. Now if you are not prepared to do that, we do have an agenda that we must follow. And our agenda calls for withdrawing economic support from you.” [Applause]”

4. INVEST in businesses owned and operated justly, by communities on the margins

“Now not only that, we’ve got to strengthen black institutions. (That’s right, Yeah) I call upon you to take your money out of the banks downtown and deposit your money in Tri-State Bank. (Yeah) [Applause] We want a “bank-in” movement in Memphis. (Yes) Go by the savings and loan association. I’m not asking you something that we don’t do ourselves in SCLC. Judge Hooks and others will tell you that we have an account here in the savings and loan association from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. We are telling you to follow what we’re doing, put your money there. [Applause] You have six or seven black insurance companies here in the city of Memphis. Take out your insurance there. We want to have an “insurance-in.” [Applause] Now these are some practical things that we can do. We begin the process of building a greater economic base, and at the same time, we are putting pressure where it really hurts. (There you go) And I ask you to follow through here. [Applause]

5. REDISTRIBUTE disproportionate burden from the few to the many

“As Jesse Jackson has said, up to now only the garbage men have been feeling pain. Now we must kind of redistribute that pain. [Applause] We are choosing these companies because they haven’t been fair in their hiring policies, and we are choosing them because they can begin the process of saying they are going to support the needs and the rights of these men who are on strike. And then they can move on downtown and tell Mayor Loeb to do what is right. (That’s right, Speak) [Applause]”

6. CULTIVATE radical empathy

“You may not be on strike (Yeah), but either we go up together or we go down together. [Applause] Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness…

One day a man came to Jesus and he wanted to raise some questions about some vital matters of life. At points he wanted to trick Jesus (That’s right), and show him that he knew a little more than Jesus knew and throw him off base. [Recording interrupted] Now that question could have easily ended up in a philosophical and theological debate. But Jesus immediately pulled that question from midair and placed it on a dangerous curve between Jerusalem and Jericho. (Yeah) And he talked about a certain man who fell among thieves. (Sure) You remember that a Levite (Sure) and a priest passed by on the other side; they didn’t stop to help him. Finally, a man of another race came by. (Yes sir) He got down from his beast, decided not to be compassionate by proxy. But he got down with him, administered first aid, and helped the man in need. Jesus ended up saying this was the good man, this was the great man because he had the capacity to project the “I” into the “thou,” and to be concerned about his brother.”

7. ATTEND churches with a clear justice priority

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

8. SUPPORT and offer resources + gratitude to those directly involved in resistance

“But there was another letter (All right) that came from a little girl, a young girl who was a student at the White Plains High School. And I looked at that letter and I’ll never forget it. It said simply, “Dear Dr. King: I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School.” She said, “While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I’m a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I’m simply writing you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.” (Yes) [Applause]

And I want to say tonight [Applause], I want to say tonight that I, too, am happy that I didn’t sneeze. Because if I had sneezed (All right), I wouldn’t have been around here in 1960 (Well), when students all over the South started sitting-in at lunch counters. And I knew that as they were sitting in, they were really standing up (Yes sir) for the best in the American dream and taking the whole nation back to those great wells of democracy, which were dug deep by the founding fathers in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.”

9. HONOR & recount victories and those who brought them about

“If I had sneezed (Yes), I wouldn’t have been around here in 1961, when we decided to take a ride for freedom and ended segregation in interstate travel. (All right)

If I had sneezed (Yes), I wouldn’t have been around here in 1962, when Negroes in Albany, Georgia, decided to straighten their backs up. And whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man can’t ride your back unless it is bent.

If I had sneezed [Applause], if I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been here in 1963 (All right), when the black people of Birmingham, Alabama, aroused the conscience of this nation and brought into being the Civil Rights Bill.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have had a chance later that year, in August, to try to tell America about a dream that I had had. (Yes)

If I had sneezed [Applause], I wouldn’t have been down in Selma, Alabama, to see the great movement there.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been in Memphis to see a community rally around those brothers and sisters who are suffering. (Yes) I’m so happy that I didn’t sneeze.”

10. BOLDLY PROCLAIM that justice and love are more powerful than fear

“And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out (Yeah), or what would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers.

Well, I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. (Amen) But it really doesn’t matter to with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. (Yeah) [Applause] And I don’t mind. [Applause continues] 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. (Yeah) And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. (Go ahead) And I’ve looked over (Yes sir), and I’ve seen the Promised Land. (Go ahead) I may not get there with you. (Go ahead) But I want you to know tonight (Yes), that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. [Applause] (Go ahead, Go ahead) And so I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. [Applause]”

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“MAY THE SPIRIT DISTURB YOU: RESPONDING TO GUN VIOLENCE IN CHURCH, SANCTUARY, AND SCHOOL”

“WE ARE A GENTLE ANGRY PEOPLE.” -Holly Near

“I wrote this song after Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone were killed in a homophobic hate crime in 1978.

We are a gentle angry people
And we are singing, singing for our lives

We are a land of many colors
We are gay and straight together
We are a peaceful loving people.”

After the mass shootings in Charleston, 2015 and Orlando, 2016 I gave the below sermon in summer 2016 on how Christians can respond to injustice with righteous/holy/peaceful/ productive anger that disturbs things as they are, and turns tables as Jesus did. Continues to be relevant, and this table-turning Jesus was the reading today at church. You can hear the recording HERE, but below is the full text: 

 Charleston & Orlando are Sacred Ground: Christians in Lament + Action

Written & Preached by Anna Czarnik-Neimeyer July 5, 2016 Holden Village, Washington

Three weeks ago, dozens of people from the LGBTQ community, mostly people of color, were murdered in Florida. A year ago, black churchgoers were shot down in South Carolina. Killing rage, in sacred spaces.

Sacred: Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Charleston. June 17, 2015.

Sacred: Pulse Night Club. Orlando. June 12, 2016.

Because when a church casts you out for who you love and cannot be a sanctuary, a nightclub can be. Vulnerable communities have historically been pushed out to the margins: underrepresented, ignored, underserved, attacked. And there, on the margins, beauty is made in spite of oppressors. In Black churches, in gay nightclubs. Sacred marginality, holy cocoon- in dancing together, in meeting together, in being free and fully embodied, fully self. As President Obama described: “The place where they were attacked is more than a nightclub — it is a place of solidarity and empowerment where people have come together to raise awareness, to speak their minds, and to advocate for their civil rights.” This, again, was violence and hatred in a sacred space.

Right now, my inclination is to overturn tables and scream as Jesus did in Matthew when he encountered sacred space defiled

Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’”

I remember as a child thinking this was a scary image of Jesus. This peaceful, quietly powerful prophet, here knocking around, making messes, causing others to look. I realize now what Jesus really was: he was disturbing.

Pain like that experienced this week in Florida, committed in places supposed to be safe, is unbearable. It bowls us over. It causes pause, which should be a sign that the Holy Spirit is moving. In the most radical, justice-oriented church service I’ve ever attended, we passed the Peace not by saying “Peace be with you,” but rather “May the spirit disturb you.”

And this is my wish for us now as a Church. To be disturbed.

Because this kind of pain is not logical. It is crazy. Noted theologian and ethicist Paul Wadell acknowledges that sin (personal and social) is, in fact, craziness. It is unnatural, irrational, and nonsensical. He writes, “There is an abiding absurdity to sin because when we sin we consent to an act that harms others as well as ourselves,” which cannot bring happiness. As Christians made for unity with God, we are called to seek God through emulating Jesus and the Gospels. And because Christ revealed the best example we have of being like God, we respond to the call for unity by making ourselves more Christ-like, working to help heaven– God’s Village– to break through. So when a particular group of God’s children are targeted, facing not only institutionalized oppression through racism and homophobia and yes, Islamophobia, but also widespread physical violence, make no mistake: it is the urgent call of Christians to respond.

And because we in the Church have been entwined in these systems, have historically (and presently) co-signed on White supremacy, on Islamophobia, on excluding LGBTQ neighbors, we have to start first within our own walls. Look at ourselves.

A day after the murders in Orlando, a friend told me that that though he is religious, as a gay man he could not bring himself to participate in a local peace vigil for Orlando, as it was hosted in a church still preaching anti-LGBTQ theology. Let’s listen carefully to that, fellow Christians.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, though he loved the Church, said it well:

“So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.” As a church, what should we do when we see that social sin like racism, homophobia, Islamophobia has trespassed into sacred space?

We should overturn tables as Jesus did, mourning, lamenting, disturbing.

OPEN WOUNDS

We must be disturbed. Now is a time for Christians– particularly White Christians, particularly heterosexual or allied Christians, to remain, as philosopher of race Dr. George Yancy calls it, “un-sutured.” Yancy explains: “…being un-sutured involves a continuous process of renewal and commitment.” He suggests that this process is extremely visceral, bodily, and involves critical self-reflection and confession that we are inextricably linked with the systems of oppression that have informed our lives. For us, this looks like sustained discomfort, not to be sewn or sutured up or closed off. It is to ask hard questions, to explore our own role in the problem, and to be potentially undone by what we discover in the answers. Writes queer theorist and justice scholar Dr. Judith Butler in her book, Giving an Account of Oneself, “To be undone by another is a primary necessity, an anguish, to be sure, but also a chance– to be addressed, claimed, bound to what is not me, but also to be moved, to be prompted to act, to address myself elsewhere, and so to vacate the self-sufficient “I” as a kind of possession.”

ONWARD, TO LISTEN AND BE MOVED

How can we move forward? When it comes to restorative justice, liberation theologians like Gustavo Gutierrez describe a process for addressing oppressive systems: it starts with listening.

Here, the first role as Christians is to listen carefully to the stories and cries of our neighbors in and out of our congregations–  members of color, LGBTQ members– and to believe those voices. As insiders navigating a system that was never meant for their survival and flourishing, these members have experience of not only the real pain and struggle, but also insight as to what can remedy and heal. I have too often heard dripping from the mouths of benevolent white or heterosexual Christians: “So sad, so sad. Why is there so much hatred in the world?” as if this were an inevitable malady, coming from nowhere, that we have no hand in.

True close listening means both seeking out the neighbor inside and outside of our church & living room walls and diagnosing our own role in social sin. We must be reading and watching, educating ourselves and not depending on marginalized groups to train us as true disciples who live the Gospel in word and deed, but looking for ways to take responsibility a train ourselves. Church leaders and members, we can take racial literacy classes and schedule documentary screenings, preach on racial justice, sponsor speakers, and ensure that our church libraries contain works on reconciliation. We can become openly LGBTQ-friendly parishes or denominations, welcome queer families and their children, partner with Pride organizations, host discussions on theology that includes rather than excludes. We can participate in interreligious dialogue, offer no easy generalizations about other religious traditions.

Though systems of oppression and social sin are nonsensical, we must believe that they exist and profoundly affect the lives of millions. And they affect us. They hurt us. Many bold, prophetic voices in scripture were at first held in disbelief or ignored, from Moses’ calls for Pharaoh to free the Israelites, to Mary Magdalene’s announcement that Jesus had risen from the tomb. We too must be receptive to the unthinkable, open to the inconvenient. Bearing witness to the voices and cries of lament from victims and their families, and our own internal cries that this is not right, this social sin is illogical and unhealthy for all of us.

Liberations theologians who recommend listening also warn against passive acceptance that this world is evil but heaven is the reward. Instead, they acknowledge that in Jesus we see that God’s Village has broken through into this world, and it is our role as Christians to usher in that Village of justice and creation on earth.

ACTION BEYOND THE RATIONAL

Here we are tempted to form a strategy. To lay out a step-by-step process for the game plan. But strategic plans can be a form of sanitizing a process that must be felt deeply. Sin is nonsensical and visceral, and we must feel moved to respond.

We sob for those who died in Orlando and in Charleston. We sing to remember them. We dance to honor them. We cry out in confusion and disbelief that they are gone. Black Catholic theologian Fr. Bryan Massingale Massingale describes that a practical, technical approach is no match for injustice, which he says is “impervious to rational appeals and cognitive strategies…Logic alone seldom compels action in the face of indifference…. We cannot save ourselves solely through rational analysis, study, and planning.” Massingale notes that oppressive systems like racism, homophobia, Islamophobia instill “selective sympathy and indifference” that “numbs us to the reality of injustice and makes us calloused and hardened to it manifold harms.” The truth is that we have to feel this. We have to be bowled over and shocked and knocked down because oppression does numb us. I for one will not be numb. I will read of the victims and their families. I will listen to their cries. I will be angry and confused. I will ask if writing these very words will do any good. I will mourn.

In her book Undoing Gender, Dr. Judith Butler explores mourning and lament in the queer community. She writes:

“I am not sure I know when mourning is successful, or when one has fully mourned another human being. I’m certain, though, that it does not mean that one has forgotten the person, or that something else comes along to take his or her place. I don’t think it works that way. I think instead that one mourns when one accepts the fact that the loss one undergoes will be one that changes you, changes you possibly forever, and that mourning has to do with agreeing to undergo a transformation the full result of which you cannot know in advance. So there is losing, and there is the transformative effect of loss, and this latter cannot be charted or planned.

HOW CAN I KEEP FROM SINGING: LAMENT THAT DISARMS COMPLACENCY

I close with this story. A year ago after the mass shooting in Charleston, President Obama gave his eulogy at the funeral of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Black preacher and senator gunned down at church. In his speech, our President paused, took a deep breath next to his fellow Black leaders on stage, and started to sing. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound…” Newspapers around the world reported not on the logic of his message nor the feasibility of change, but on his voice, gathering a moving choir of witnesses. This June around the country and the globe, during Pride month, the LGBTQ community and allies gathered in queer community hubs: in clubs, in parks, in the streets, at Stonewall: shouting for those senselessly lost. Raising angel wings, singing the same Amazing Grace to drown out voices of hate. And they still are. We still are: Singing. Dancing. Flags flying. Quoting Harvey Milk or Judith Butler, prophets with sacred messages to provide balm or fuel or both.

In his description of lament, Fr. Massingale describes the resolution of the song “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” in the following way: “This spiritual, then, exemplifies a core characteristic of the lament genre: it expresses the reality and pain of evil and suffering, and yet is more than mere mourning or catharsis. The act of lamenting overcomes psychic numbness and stunned silence in the face of evil. Its wails, cries, and pleas tear asunder the veil of complacency and the shroud of immobilizing fear. Lament facilitates the emergence of something new, whether a changed consciousness or a renewed engagement with outer events. It is indeed a paradox of protest and praise that leads to new life.”

Fellow Christians, especially those of us who are in positions of power or privilege: it will not do for us to be immobilized by actionless, sanitized, private grief. “The lament of the socially privileged” (that’s many of us) “is also a stance of hope that human wrongdoing is not God’s final act in the drama of personal and social salvation,” says Fr. Massingale.

The Christian Church has been among the worst culprits in perpetuating injustice and abuse over history. But Christians can unite in a powerful voice for justice because, grounded in the good news of the Gospel, we radically believe that there is improbable life after death, and a thread connecting us that cannot be severed by gunshots.  Are we brave enough to experience and name lament at the insidious lack of welcome in our own churches: For LGBTQ folks, people of color and others? I have hope.

Fr. Bryan Massingale agrees, “Hope demands a genuine ambiguity, where there is at least some possibility–however remote– for substantial change…” he concludes, “When one is doing the work of justice, one cannot fail, for one is doing the work of God.”

Lamenting, unlearning, becoming undone, remaining un-sutured, then moving to act–it is hard work. It is God’s work. And we are called to do it. Now.

May the spirit disturb you. Amen.

 

But What if I Cry?: Lessons on Allyship & Emotional Labor at the End of BHM

But What if I Cry?: Lessons on Allyship & Emotional Labor at the End of BHM

Two years ago, an esteemed colleague and I co-wrote a cross-racial collaborative piece for Ms. Magazine: “6 Simple Ways White Women Can Be Feminist Allies for Black History Month (and Always).”

I re-posted recently, since the piece talks about Black History Month (BHM) and Valentine’s Day. But on this last day of February, I got an important question from a friend, a White woman and a mother who does cross-cultural parent organizing especially with immigrant families, about the piece. She wrote, genuinely curious and from a place of care, related to the following excerpt from the original piece:

1. Listen First

Simple. White women, if you are going to start speaking, pause—do not take center stage immediately. Listen for the stories, struggles, suggestions and triumphs of Black women, and let the first reaction from your lips be one of support, not of questioning their truth. White women, before you talk about how you’re an ally, about all the Peggy McIntosh you know, how you’re been to the White Privilege Conference every year, just hold on. Ask questions that are open and honest; ask towards understanding, not to challenge. Don’t add your opinion of the truth that is shared; sit with the uncomfortability and don’t cry. Black women don’t want to see your tears. We want to see your solidarity.

HER FOLLOW-UP QUESTION:

“I remember appreciating this last year! I do have a question for you, though. If a friend, regardless of race, is struggling through something or has experienced a great trauma, there’s a good chance I’ll cry when I hear it. If they cry there’s an even better chance I will, too. That’s me. 
Is this just something I need to continue to work on? Thoughts?”

HERE WAS MY RESPONSE:

“Thanks for being so thoughtful on this! Sounds like you have a good instinct on how sharing emotions within close friendships is an important way to connect, especially if it is mutual sharing. Main point with the “crying” section of the piece relates to power and how it is allocated/ exchanged in relationships. The focus is to highlight that folks in superordinate (meaning privileged, or having power) identity categories ought to do their own work unpacking & unlearning that, and not to put the pressure/ expectation on people in marginalized communities to take care of that learning or the emotional processing that accompanies examining difficult realities of ones’ own identity. Also, it’s important for those in superordinate groups to acknowledge the processing work as actual time and labor, and to pay/compensate a trainer, teacher, or therapist to work on it with them or do that work within their own communities. That is, as a White person, it’s my job to do my own work & learning related to my Whiteness and how it functions/harms/relates in the world, and to not expect people of color, even friends, to have to listen to me process or give me resources, especially not for free. Here are two examples of White allyship groups that are utilizing an intentional model like this: European Dissent Seattle & Coalition of Anti-Racist Whites – CARW. This also goes for other identity categories and power ex)men not expecting women to educate them/ listen to them process sexism, but doing that work in their own communities or compensating when women do that work or emotional labor. See pro-feminist Men’s Movement: http://nomas.org/ (National Organization for Men Against Sexism).”

This was over social media, and she and I talked & decided it would be good as a blog post for more general reading and discussion. If we are guided by a spirit of care, curiosity, and genuine will to do better and bridge divisions, we can continue to dismantle oppression, heal, and keep moving, together. Thanks.

 

Stories from the Wilderness: building a prophetic (and proactive) LGBTQ+ Church

This summer I spent 8 weeks building queer community in a Christian village in the Wilderness of Washington state.

I departed one Wilderness, thrust into another: the Christian church confronting its jarring denial of full inclusion to LGBTQ+ people.

The recently released Nashville Statement, drawn up by conservative Evangelical “Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood,” hijacks biblical language towards excluding the LGBTQ+ community from full humanity in the Church. It was released 12 days after I left my Wilderness.

This summer I volunteered and lived at Holden Village, a Lutheran retreat center in Washington’s North Cascades, in the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area. I had visited Holden with my family for decades, lived there for a few years after college, served as teaching faculty, and last July, Holden was the place where I (finally, finally) came out as queer.

After having just spent a blissful week this May in my first ever queer-normative space (meaning built/led/populated by and designed for LGBTQ+ people) at A-Camp, a summer camp for queer women & nonbinary folks, I knew I needed to build some queer community of my own this summer. I also knew that as the teen coordinator, it was my responsibility to make that space available to youth as well. So I got to work.

ROUND TABLES AND SIMPLE QUESTIONS

On Mondays after dinner in the mountains, I hosted an LGBTQ+ “digestion walk” (okay, AKA “queer fart walk”) open to all LGBTQ+ villagers. It was simple. Before setting off on one trail or another, we went around the circle and shared our names, our pronouns, and our response to a brief queer question I’d come up with on the spot. “Who is a queer person you look up to?” or “What media was important to you as you were growing up?” or “What have you been pondering these days related to your queer identity?” Then we simply walked together. It was a revolution.

On Wednesdays I’d host an LGBTQ+ luncheon with the same opening ritual, sharing pronouns and stories, talking and laughing while eating salad or chili. We picked a round table in the giant, bustling dining hall, displaying a hand-painted cardboard sign “LGBTQ+ Lunch. Welcome!” and often had to squeeze in extra chairs.

This walking group and the round table were subtle and powerful ways to continue to claim space, come out to other villagers, and build a small, loving sanctuary for ourselves in a community that, just by nature of being a Christian space, however progressive it was, could feel hostile and alienating. It was also a way for me to come out to my youth and their families, and often some of my teens would join us at the table. Though I had private dialogues with villagers every day about LGBTQ+ identity and other justice issues (#BlackLivesMatter t-shirt day always spurred interesting convos from the crowd) it is essential to regularly and publicly claim space to bravely affirm the presence & inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in the Church.

FAITHFUL WORLDMAKING

One morning a twelve year old in my youth group walked up to me tearfully, pulling me aside asking if I could talk. She wanted to join the Queer Lunch, but her family was in the village and she was not out to them yet. So later that day another queer staff member and I took her on a special walk just for her, eating ice cream together while walking through the village vegetable garden, discussing queer stuff: “Are there safe people you can be out to?” and other stuff: “What kind of music are you listening to now?”

Sometimes the weekly digestion walks boasted 5-10 people, breaking off into small chatting clusters, kicking up dust. Sometimes it would be one-one-one, me hearing about what it was like for another villager to be queer in the military, the trouble of finding a queer-friendly therapist, the joy of finding a comic book with queer characters. One time we hosted a Queer Media night, listening to Cameron Esposito, guffawing on the floor. Another weekend we did a “Queer Qamping” overnight hike with other queer women, communing with the open Wilderness as a queer space, laughing in the freedom of a rugged Nature that doesn’t care who we love, that doles out the same beautiful and unforgiving elements to everyone who trespasses, wind whipping our queer hair and rain hitting our queer faces and bears tromping through our queer pathways.

And it was beautifully intergenerational. One of my youth who is trans bravely shared a piece they had been working on that week, “10 Things I’ve Learned About Coming Out,” with our multi-age lunch table. Another trans teenager tried out their name the first time in public for the week they were in the Village. On our weekly walk, this teen was then able to hear a 65-year-old gay man recount stories of being outed at his blue collar job thirty years ago, and how he made it his life’s work to be out in every church where he is a member. Later in the summer, a nonbinary church worker in his thirties was able to exercise the pronouns he never gets to use on the job, and recounted his fears and troubles working in a conservative state with few public allies. He smiled and teared up as a 60 year old lesbian woman across the table talked about how her partner felt it was too late to come out as nonbinary and stop “wearing the costume of gender” that didn’t fit who they truly were. We listened. We held the space.

We were building queer community within Christian community, and every meeting felt like a small victory, a small healing, making our own way in the literal physical Wilderness and also the spiritual wilderness of a faith community that has not always loved us back.

This is what we in the realm of identity studies call “worldmaking.” That is, creatively acknowledging with lament that the systems we live in, the world as it is, has not been built for the good, the welcome, the thriving of particular marginalized communities. So we come together to make our own way in the Wilderness of the mountains and the wilderness of the Church, to center our own voices, to build the communities that are missing, to heal ourselves, to love ourselves.

BOLD, PROPHETIC, PROACTIVE

I tell these prophetic stories to share how sacred space can be built and ought to be built within the Church, and to emphasize how it must be done proactively and intentionally. I reiterate to heterosexual Christians and pastors grappling with what to do next that because of historic trauma and present very vocal rejection, the Church must acknowledge that it always begins at a place of hostility in relationship to queer people. Because the Christian norm has been exclusion, denial, harm, and violence towards the LGBTQ+ community, sustained, vocal, visible, proactive action is required to even arrive at a point of neutral relationship, let alone positive and centered in trust & welcome. As queer people, the unfortunate truth is that we can basically assume, until proven otherwise, that any Christian church and its members will hold a hostile stance towards who we are. This is sad. I feel sad writing it. This is not God’s vision of community, welcoming all as beloved.

Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum describes a helpful metaphor for proactive action towards unlearning and working against existing systems of domination. Here she applies it to working against racism, and it is also useful in understanding full LGBTQ+ inclusion:

“I sometimes visualize the ongoing cycle of racism as a moving walkway at the airport. Active racist behavior is equivalent to walking fast on the conveyor belt. The person engaged in active racist behavior has identified with the ideology of our White supremacist system and is moving with it. Passive racist behavior is equivalent to standing still on the walkway. No overt effort is being made, but the conveyor belt moves the bystanders along to the same destination as those who are actively walking. But unless they are walking actively in the opposite direction at a speed faster than the conveyor belt – unless they are actively anti-racist – they will find themselves carried along with the others.” (Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together at the Cafeteria, 1997)

Understanding Tatum’s paradigm, that means that Churches must be swift and active, openly and emphatically affirming, and show it in myriad ways:

-Certification vocal and visible membership & affiliation with a pro-LGBTQ+ faith organization or certification like Reconciling in Christ

Organizational Statement blatant, clear, and clickable inclusion statement on the first page of the church website

-Visible Symbols rainbow symbols on church bulletins, doors, signs, and flags

-Public Declarations immediate and clear public confirmations of support after anti-LGBTQ+ statements like The Nashville Statement

-Affiliation Groups Specific resources particularly for LGBTQ+ members, with public support from the pastor, like Bible studies, youth groups, coffee hours, counseling resources and spiritual direction, or service trips

For further reading on why the above affirmative stances matter, see this helpful resource: www.reconcilingworks.org/resources/ric/whysayso/

TO WHOM SHALL I TURN?

Rest assured, the people who are anti-LGBTQ+ within these churches have literally hundreds of thousands of congregations around the world they can turn to, who will gladly welcome them if they choose to leave because their old church has taken a prophetic stance on love and inclusion. Conversely, there are very few churches I know I can safely turn to as a queer Christian. As an ELCA Lutheran from Wisconsin, as of this writing, there are zero churches in my home synod (which is like a region or diocese) that are designated as open & affirming of LGBTQ+ people. Zero as in none.

I understand and affirm that for their own safety and in solidarity or protest, many of my queer friends and colleagues, many of my allied social justice comrades, have chosen to leave the Church altogether. We must acknowledge that this is because of the Church’s failures, not the failures of those who must leave it.

As for me: I defiantly claim Christ’s common table as my own, like that round table at Queer Lunch at Holden Village, always room to squeeze in more chairs. I will not leave the faith and the denomination I love or let it deteriorate further into a limited vision of God’s abundant love. I won’t let it. I’m going to keep worldmaking. Join me. “Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God. Amen.”

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Photo: Wilderness of Holden Village.

FOR INSPIRATION:

-#DenverStatement: www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2017/08/the-denver-statement/

-Christians United Statement: www.christiansunitedstatement.org

-Liturgists Statement: www.theliturgists.com/statement

-“Why I Applaud and Fervently Deny the Nashville Statement: http://auburnseminary.org/applaud-fervently-deny-nashville-statement/

MEDIA COVERAGE (curated by Christians United):

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

HELP ME SAY YES: Does my work speak to you? Consider adding to the “tip jar” so I can continue to consult & write and work for justice, and say YES to new projects: paypal.me/annaczarnikneimeyer

Coming out Christian, Coming out Queer: I want to be like Jesus

 

“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.

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:

  1. Failure
  2. 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

hiking boots

and lipstick

and be white and have

blond hair

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.

I would.

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.

Stories of

“Are you sure?”

and

“Why?”

and

“How long have you known?”

and

“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”

He responded

“What changed?”

I said:

“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.

RECOVERY

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.

Amen.

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Me praising the opening act at A-Camp through Autostraddle.com: a social justice camp for queer women. Photo credit: Robin Roemer


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

HELP ME SAY YES: Does my work speak to you? Consider adding to the “tip jar” so I can continue to consult & write and work for justice, and say YES to new projects: paypal.me/annaczarnikneimeyer

 

I asked Margaret Atwood about religion, and this is what she said.

By Anna Czarnik-Neimeyer 

Yesterday I talked with Margaret Atwood. We asked each other questions. We smiled at one another. Her eyes are sharp. Her mind is sharper. I asked her about religion. I’ll tell you a story, then I’ll tell you what Atwood said.

This is the Story

I first read The Handmaid’s Tale a decade ago in a Feminist Theology class. Studying liberation theologians like Gustavo Gutierrez and hardcore social justice nuns and professors like Joan Chittister and Mary Daly, we small crew of midwestern twentysomethings paged through the entirety of Atwood’s beloved and infamous work in the comfort of discussion circles. I talked about it with conservative Catholic friends and Evangelicals, with atheists, with my roommates back in the dorm. Hell, I talked to myself about it. Each of us had scenes burnt into our minds. I’m sure you do too, if you are one of millions who read it over the last thirty years. Or if you’re seeing it for the first time through your computer screens via Hulu. It is brilliant. It is haunting.

In my class, at a politically moderate Christian college, Handmaid’s Tale was the first book of the course: we cut our teeth on this dystopian fiction, and compared & contrasted it to actual biblical texts. This was, for me at the time, a strange and pure bliss. I’m what they call “Very Lutheran,” so I like the Bible, and I know it relatively well, and I love analyzing it in justice-centered settings. I knew the texts that lawmakers in Gilead (Handmaid’s fictional theocracy, set in an overthrown USA) interpreted to build the totalitarian social structure. Axioms that popped up in the book as rationale for the horrors held in its pages… I could recite the actual scripture verses they referred to. I grew up in “Very Christian” circles, Bible camps, religious intentional communities. Both my parents studied theology and ministry from pacifist, anti-racist, pro-worker perspectives. I was baptized in an Episcopal church when my family were practicing Quakers, by a Lutheran pastor who used to be a Catholic nun. Like the handmaids in the book, I have lived, not just worshipped, but lived in camps and once even an entire village shaped by the Bible. I have been molded by scriptural axioms, too– religious ritual folded, baked into almost every aspect of daily life in my Christian communities: the way we did the dishes together, when we met for worship, how we mashed the compost, how we were to civilly address conflict. I know at least fifty ways to sing a table prayer. I have acted out skits as Mary, Joseph, a sheep, the good Samaritan, Gabriel, Moses, Jesus, God… I have posed, costumed, as a cup of communion wine, an offering plate, the ten commandments, a dancing holy mime, and even the Giving Tree. I have been leading worships since I was five.

Maybe you’ve seen communities or families like this in the media: in documentaries like “Jesus Camp,” or paraded across our screens through the reality-TV Duggar Family, producing baby after baby. I always knew that my experiences were very different from those, but I also knew how easily my own progressive faith communities could be mistaken for something else. One summer evening as a camp counselor, leading a candlelit vigil to close the week, I realized that if some random person walked off the street and into our camp community, they’d find a scene that looked almost cultish: I grasped a mirror, held it up to each individual kid in my group, reflecting their young faces and the flame that surrounded them. We each carried candles, real fire. We quietly chanted a song by memory, some kids were hugging, many had tears streaming.

Go ahead. Picture it. Freaked out?

How about if I explain?

I was holding up a mirror as a symbol to reflect my campers’ goodness, their wholeness, their worth– to show them that each of them is made in the image and likeness of our Creator, no matter who they were, and that there is something powerful in each of them, beloved. We were singing a song about fire- that our hearts might come alive and have an eternal flame to care for other people. They were crying because I had gathered affirmations throughout the week, specific gifts I saw in them and good things they had done, so they could know that they were seen; they mattered, and could go into the world and use those good gifts. This is all scripturally based ritual and, of course, a very different scene than the abusive religious rituals we read about in Handmaid’s Tale. The scary thing is, the basis for these drastically different rituals stems from the same source: the Bible.

The deep dissonance for me when I was in college, reading Atwood in my dorm room, was that I saw how easily my beloved, life-giving, Very Christian, Very Justice-Oriented, communities could pivot, hijacked, to become something like the terrifyingly possible world Atwood had cooked up. Indeed, Atwood has said there is nothing in her text that does not have some real historic precedence, or that we don’t already have the technology to make possible.

But, encouraged and informed by Christian communities, I grew up to be a feminist writer and scholar. The handmaids? Not so much.

So what’s the difference?

The difference lies in the people who get to interpret what religion means in our everyday lives.

And make no mistake: religion does mean something in our everyday lives. Whether or not we practice it.

They key is: who get to be the meaning-makers?

Religion is not the tincture that poisons our social systems. It is we- we who interpret it (or let others interpret it for us) that can deliver goodness or harm in how we manage and apply religion.

I have so many beloved friends in my social justice circles- activists, academics, nonprofit leaders- who describe themselves as recovering from religion. I get it. I hear their stories and I know why they left. I support them.

And I couldn’t do anything to prevent what happened to them to bring about such pain.

But I can do something now.

I tell my students, I write it, I speak it clearly for groups: Remember. Jesus was an activist. He turned tables and even broke unjust laws so that the poorest, the most vulnerable, the most marginalized groups would have a spot at the feast and in the conversation. He told stories of how we are to live together in beloved community. He was gentle and surprising and a wicked good storyteller. And he was a prophet, like Margaret Atwood, speaking truth to power.

The Bible is not perfect, but I’ve been raised on the best of it. Sadly, when the Bible is mapped onto a culture of domination, that’s how we get the horrors of Atwood’s Gilead. And we’re not there yet, as Atwood has said, but we could get there if we’re not careful.

I won’t let that happen. You won’t let that happen.

As for me: I refuse to let greed, domination, hatred, or fear hijack the verses that informed who I am, or take my God from me. I claim God as mine, in my image, in the image of Jordan Edwards who was shot dead by the police this weekend. In the image of my powerful Latina friend who marched today for workers’ & prisoners’ rights in Milwaukee. That is the mirror, the image I hold up for all to see.

I say no to Gilead and yes to the Bible. And I pledge to do all I can to build a better Village. Because I’ve seen it.

And this is what Atwood told me:

“People have sometimes said to me, ‘Oh this book [The Handmaid’s Tale] is really anti-religion.’

And I’ve said, ‘No, that’s not the point.’

Religion has been- and is in other parts of the world today- used as a hammer to whack people on the heads with.

But it also has been- and is today- a sustaining set of beliefs and community that gets people through those things.

So, in my book, I have the regime doing what totalitarian regimes do, which is eliminating the competition. They get rid of all the other religions as much as they can, and some of them go underground. Noteworthily, of course, the Quakers take the role that they have before, setting up underground escape routes for people. So [religion] has always had those two kinds of functions. And that is why the handmaid, in the book, she has her version of the Lord’s Prayer, which a lot of people don’t spot, but careful readers do.

That’s how it goes, and I don’t think that cultures in which the totalitarianism happens to be religious, I don’t think that’s a comment on religion, I think it’s a comment on totalitarianism. And there have been some perfectly respectable totalitarianisms that have been atheist. So that is not the factor.

My dad, who is a scientist, had a joke that he used to tell about the scientific method. There was a scientist who decided he was going to do a study to see what made people drunk. So he mixed up some rye and ginger ale, and then he mixed up rum and ginger ale, and mixed up some scotch and ginger ale, and each one made people drunk. So [the scientist] said, “Must be the ginger ale!” Sometimes we’re just looking at the wrong set of factors and drawing the wrong set of conclusions.

It’s the desire for power (which is a common human desire!). People get hold of something and think: this is going to deliver it. But that doesn’t mean that the original thing that they’ve distorted is necessarily the cause.” -Margaret Atwood. Green Bay, WI 4.30.17

Margaret Atwood and Me.

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This is Not an Ice Cream Shop: stories on stealing and free stuff and migraines and money

Migraine Weather and Shitty Brunch

There were no cabs to meet us at the train station at 9pm

We took that to be a good sign.

Walking a mile to our Air BnB above a little sewing shop awarded us the opportunity to tromp by boarded old houses and reclaimed storefronts. We smiled and passed a very bearded millenial helping his girlfriend out of their truck, and weren’t quite sure if the beard was irony or utility: maybe both.Throw a blue cable turtleneck and some steel-toed boots on the guy and we could have been watching a fisherman return home, tired and briny.

Hudson, New York is an old whaling town. In the city center, a chipped wooden case frames a giant whale puzzle made up of quilt square- like plaques depicting some part of the city’s history. One puzzle piece has fallen to the bottom of the frame.

“It’s changed even since five years ago,” rasps Meri, who has a migraine.

It’s migraine weather in Hudson, all shiny cracked cement sidewalks, drizzle on our travel coats and hiking packs, steamed windows of tiny downtown shops. Meri owns Sideshow Vintage, and has for several years: she has seen the town change, seen it become more touristy.

A Black Lives Matter Hudson sign sits in the corner of her shop window. I ask her if anyone has given her any shit for it.

“Mmm,” she thinks through the migraine. “One time. An older man (who, in my own mind, I immediately named Warren) and his wife came in and said the sign ruined their day. I told them if they wanted to have a conversation about it, we could.”

The sly smile on her face told me she really just wanted them to get the fuck out of her store.

I can already tell that Meri does not suffer fools gladly. We stopped in her shop twice. The first time I walked in all smiles and purple hiking pack, asking for a good place to have brunch. I always trust the locals more than yelp, or at least cross check yelp with locals.

“Brunch? All the food is shitty.”

To me, this meant not that the food was shitty but that Meri might be just a liiiittle tired of smiley white people coming into her shop, buying nothing, and asking for her free tourist advice.

“Well what if we brought you something?” I chirped. A little grin.

I’ve found that the best way to crack through the wall that store owners, food service folks, and other noble shop warriors must construct to deal with people like Warren or whiny customers that don’t recognize their humanity….

Is to recognize their humanity.

This is not an ice cream shop. You are not here for the food.

I spent a summer running an ice cream shop that should not have been there, should have been impossible.

In the middle of a remote mountain valley surrounded by Washington’s Glacier Peak Wilderness area, you can either spend 4 hours to take a boat up a glacial lake and a nearly broken school bus up switchbacks, or you can hike 10 miles off the Pacific Crest trail. It is in all the guidebooks.

And you can come visit the Snack Bar Queen, which was me.

I had a crown.

Are you surprised?

Every day I wore colorful costumes and capes and dipped my developing forearm muscles into buckets of sweet sugary dairy, for loggers and mine workers, exhausted hikers, my housemates, and guests of the Village.

I was 22 and felt such power: It was my realm and I curated every aspect of that shop: the flavors, the decor, the signs, the music, the volunteers and which apron they could wear.

But I couldn’t curate the customers.

Mostly they were pleasant (after all, they were on retreat). But sometimes they would hand me a sticky, crumpled dollar as they peered through me. Just right through me: a transaction machine that simply got them what they thought they had come there for.

They thought it was an ice cream shop.

They missed the community and focused too much on the dairy.

This is not an ice cream shop. You are not here for the food.

I would help them see what the shop really was.

Sometimes they would whine that the ice cream had melted a little.

Perhaps they forgot we were in the remote Cascade mountains. Maybe they were too tightly wound to remember that partially melted summer ice cream in the sunshine is what you dream of on cold February mornings. Maybe they had even missed my hand lightly resting on their arm, asking about their day of and walks and weaving rugs. Yes, this was a place where people wove rugs.

But, nope. Too melty, they said, looking away from my grin and into their bowl.

I would then pleasantly gesture to where we were, gesture up to the mountains. “All part of the experience,” I smiled.

Outside the snack bar windows I had once watched a mother deer give birth to twin fawns, not wasting a single speck of nutrient, eating their birth casing. I watched this beautiful, base, natural snack, a mother licking her offspring to life, with friends and customers looking at each other, eyes wide in awe and shared joy while we licked our own chocolate espresso swirls (my favorite flavor) or sweet strawberry sorbet.

So back in Hudson, NY when migraine Meri responded with some cynicism, saying nothing was good for brunch, I understood.

A shopkeep needs a wall sometimes.

Maybe I could remind her that this was not just a clothes shop.

For brunch, she finally recommended either a bakery across the way or a French cafe a few doors down.

Thanks to Meri, we walked five shops down and sat down in a corner booth, bathed in pretend sunlight peering through the raindrops. Remember, it was migraine weather. I pleasantly noticed the rainbow flag in the coffee cup pen case on the bar. I noticed the young, plaid-clad waiters, one with sharp, perfectly pastel petals etched onto his tricep as he served our coffee.

“Nice ink,” I admired.

“Thanks, everyone thinks I just got it recently because it’s so clear, but it was just a really good tattoo.”

“Wow,” I said.

I thought of how it would hurt to have hundreds of color-specked needles plunging into one’s 22 year old arm (he looked about that old) as he set our dishes. What made him get that tattoo?

Remember, we weren’t really there just for the crepes. I then asked our waitress what I always ask.

Sure, because I want a good meal.

Mostly, because I want the server to know that I see them. I am not looking through them, sticky dollar bill in hand.

“If it were your last day on the job, and you knew that you were about to walk out the door and get hit by a car and die, what would you order?”

I love to watch a smile creep across a server’s face as I ask them to reflect. If I ask it right, not too rushed, I can help them forget that I’m there, waiting to hear their answer, and let them consider the emotion of their imagined last work day (sometimes a welcome thought, sometimes poignant).

They often laugh because the question is absurd. I know they think I’m weird, and that makes them a good judge of character and it makes me laugh too. That means that we have begun this interaction by laughing together. Sometimes we talk about the type of car that would hit them. Once a server requested that it be a motorcycle instead of a car. I obliged. This is an imaginary world we were creating together as I ordered. We can do anything we want. Sometimes we talk about death a little. This time we laughed that there would be chips of car paint as an extra ingredient in whatever dish we ordered that morning.

Often I call them by their name on the nametag. This time there was no nametag, so I’ll call her Monica.

“I know. I would get the crepes,” Monica said.

Oh?

“Yeah– the best is the caramel with orange. It sounds like a weird combo, and usually caramel is just too sweet, but this version is perfect.”

And how about the savory?

“The salmon and leek. That’s what you want.”

I trust you completely, I said.

I Trust You Completely

That’s what I always say: I trust you completely.

After all, don’t forget that that is already what we’re doing. I’m trusting someone to deliver something base to me, really into me- sustenance that goes inside my body, fuels me.

In the United States we have necessary but sterilizing food service laws that help us forget there are people and animals who are part of the process of eating. And we trust them.

When I was living in Ghana, “I trust you completely” was very real, daily, though unspoken. You could not forget that you were trusting the other person to feed and nourish you well, because you often met the store owner, saw the cook. One time I sat up for hours in a hotel room incredibly ill, having gotten food poisoning at a resort from some fish that appeared well cooked, tasted good.

Two days later I sat in the community international school I worked at, where a local woman cooks Ghanaian lunches for the teachers as they order it. I had ordered chicken because I couldn’t really stomach more seafood after the hotel-fish-pocalypse a few days before.

Fish came on my plate.

Along with beautiful red rice and beans, green and red dipping sauces, yams.

I looked at the fish. I was hungry. My new Australian friend Damon had explained to me the day before that in many cases, street food and home cooked meals are safer because you can see the water boiling, you can see the meat roasting. You know the cook is proud. There is no pretending that refrigeration consistently works, so careful natural methods of storing foods (or eating them quickly) are practiced. He said in hotels, sometimes when there is “lights out” (which is Ghana local speech for– the power is intermittently interrupted in this country whose postcolonial infrastructure is still young) meat in a freezer will thaw and freeze several times before it comes to your plate.

I thought of my hotel food poisoning.

I thought of the local woman who cooked for teachers everyday.

I trust you completely.

The fish was divine.

Back in the whaling town, Monica put in the order and then rushed back with a smile, one more thing.

“Do you like goat cheese?”

Absolutely.

She looked excited, sharing a secret with us.

“My boss, the owner, once had me add goat cheese to the savory one you ordered, and it was great. Want to try it?”

Oh, totally.

The owner was gliding around her restaurant, as owners do. Not walking, gliding. Tanned, grey curly hair, a cutoff shirt that revealed her able arms that I knew could carry a tray, wash a dish, punch a tab, or flip the ‘closed’ sign swiftly and skilfully.

I told Monica and the owner that Meri at the vintage shop had recommended the place, and we wanted to bring Meri something with a coffee. The three of us schemed together, brainstorming.

“Oh! How about a croissant,” suggested the owner.

Perfect.

We smiled together at the thought of bringing treats to strangers.

Remember- this wasn’t just a coffee shop, and we weren’t there just for the food.

Make Haste

As we walked back to Meri, treats in hand, I told my travel partner how my family would sneakily pay double at the tolls near Chicago, giggling and looking back, scheming together and smiling at the thought of giving a treat to a stranger.

A poetry board hangs in the entrance to my childhood home. On the board:

“Life is short and we have never too much time for gladdening the hearts of those who are traveling the dark journey with us. Oh be swift to love, make haste to be kind.”

-Henri-Frederic Amiel

Oh, be swift to love, make haste to be kind.

Let me be clear:: The Black Lives Matter sign in Meri’s window and the rainbow flag in the French bakery are reminders that all the individual nicenesses in the world, all the beautiful coffee shop exchanges and laughs over crepes- these are still individual interactions. Important and real though they are, all of our shops and exchanges and food and how much money goes into a downtown and who is trusted to stash their bags and who can afford to live where– all of those things exist within a system of power: a structure of and laws and institutions that are often unjust if left unchecked, unquestioned. That’s why I have to write about beauty and kindness and goat cheese on Saturday then continue my activism on Monday. That’s why I eat a crepe with Monica for breakfast and then call congress about the Affordable Care Act at lunch. I cannot tell you the joy and power I have found in these individual interactions with people like Monica or Meri. They are fuel, fuel for the joy and power I feel when I march, when I scream chants in front of Trump Tower, when I step in front of 50 straight Wisconsinites to facilitate an LGBTQ ally training, or when I meet with corporations to discuss just policies and retention for people of color.

Make haste. It is urgent, now. Go, act.

We went through the rest of the day, drinking in a cast of characters in Hudson, NY and they told us stories. Rob owns the best instrument shop in town. He made a hirdy girdy in Scotland. I wondered if he would fetch it from his apartment so we could see, and he played it. His daughter Chloe writes books, hangs out with Lena Dunham. He signed Chloe’s book “Chloe’s Dad.” “She’s bashful about me selling these here, he said, but I buy them from the book shop across the way so it is recorded as an industry sale, then I bring them here.” He loves Chloe, I could see. He toured us around his store, showing us his treasures. He hesitated when I went to buy Chloe’s book, “Oh, I wasn’t telling you about it because I was trying to make you buy it,” I know, I said. I want to buy it.

We talked about genuine exchanges: exchange of story and also of goods and services. We swapped tales of international salespeople who were so good at their jobs and so personable that you didn’t care that you’d been been convinced to buy a rug in Turkey or a shoeshine in Myanmar.

I told Rob that in Ghana, it was beautiful to meet the actual people who owned shops, made things, cared about what they were giving you.

Dash it. I hope you come back.

I thought of Elizabeth the dressmaker in Accra, who gently measured me and sat with me on a Sunday.

I thought of Joyce the cloth peddler in Makola Market, who opened hidden bags to show me local batik. Oh Joyce, I said.

I thought of John, who took an hour to describe his acrylic paintings to me on the beach at the Gulf of Guinea where I surfed, let me record him as he described the weathered stone Ghanaian beads I was winding around my arms to bring home. After I made my purchase, he put his finger to his lips and looked over all the shop beads, carefully. He selected an thin orange strand and slowly placed it over my head.

I will dash you these, he said. Share our art. I hope you come back.

In Ghana, to dash means to give a small something for free, to indicate thanks for a purchase, to note pleasure in the interaction. Sometimes it meant that it wasn’t all about the money. On the beach on the Gulf of Guinea, after spending an hour with John and two teenagers, Ben and Jacko, I didn’t really care about the bag of beads I had in my pouch. That wasn’t my reward, that day. My time with them, that was everything.

We returned to Meri at her vintage shop, with the steaming cup of coffee and croissant.

This is for you.

She placed both of her hands around the hot paper cup, looked in the bag, looked up at us and said “I can’t believe it.”

Then we spent an hour talking with migraine Meri. I told her how the French bakery had let us stash our backpacks in their storage room while we walked the town. She told us about how she recently had to humbly beg for money in Cuba after she lost her wallet either to a pickpocket or to her own forgetfulness.

Meri remembered: “I told them, hey- I promise I’m good for it! I own a store! You give me $100, I’ll give you $200 back.”

I asked her about owning a business, since she had mentioned the possibility of going online. A simple, quiet life alone selling beautiful things. She said she couldn’t go totally online.

“So what do you like about brick and mortars?” I inquired.

I was proud that I knew phrases like “brick and mortars,” which I had learned from a friend who worked at a food justice organization in Minneapolis, helping women start food businesses with storefronts, buildings: brick and mortars.

Meri knew the phrase, too.

“Well I like the community of it,” she admitted with a smile.

The wall we’ve all constructed to protect ourselves, it cracked then.

Meri laughed about the town’s local message board, both maddening in its smallness and gossip but beautiful too:

“Once someone lost their cat. Put it on the message board. Cat was found in hours.”

I walked through the aisles of Meri’s shop, touching the skirts of rough wool and old silk. Her dog, Arrow, slept on a springy couch in the back. Meri told me she slept there sometimes. She told me she wants to sell her shop and move to Mexico.

Do I believe her?

As she confidently walked to the end of an aisle and cupped her metal clothes rack with one hand and grasped her migraine tincture- that “I can’t believe it” coffee- with another, I wasn’t so sure she really wanted to leave. Maybe.

As we checked out at Meri’s store, I bought red leather shoes. She told me a story of who used to own them, then she gave my travel partner two bowties for free.

You know, in Ghana, they call that ‘dashing,’ I said.

“Well then I will dash you these,” she laughed.

I hugged Meri and kissed her on both cheeks. We made pretend plans to go to Cuba together. We might, though. Maybe.

Back in the music shop, I squeezed Rob’s hand and smiled into his face as I bought his daughter’s book.

I squeezed his hand and he said to me:

“I hope you come back.”

—————

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CAST OF CHARACTERS (in order of appearance):

Meri Wanna, owner, Sideshow Vintage in Hudson, NY

The yummy caramel crepe, to be found at wonderful Le Gamin Country, Hudson, NY.

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Rob Caldwell, owner, Musica store in Hudson, NY.

Chloe Caldwell’s new book I’ll Tell you in Person, signed for me by Chloe’s dad Rob.

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Elizabeth Chibale, master seamstress + designer, Kakoara Clothing in Accra, Ghana.17358552_3261370745570_2263706394104369932_o.jpg

Joyce, whose shop is nestled in a corner of Makola Market, James Town, Accra, Ghana.17264470_3261374385661_7279809298517181840_n.jpg

John Eduafo (and Ben, 15, on the left) who makes pro-woman, antiracist art sold at Paradise Shop on Kokrobite beach, and with Ghanaian NGO Africa Sunrise Foundation.17388902_3263872328108_6537960961297490559_o.jpg

 

 

Announcing: Anna CN bell hooks Institute Residency + 2017 Tour d’Justice

I have big news to share.

Wow. It’s been. Full. It’s been…exciting. It’s been a nutty, surprising, wonderful, work/joy-filled last several weeks in Manhattan and Ghana: full of activism, scholarship, NGO visits, writing, and teaching + consulting as International Visiting Faculty in Residence at Lincoln Community School, an International Baccalaureate school in Accra, Ghana.

For more on my NYC experience: “What I’m Doing for Lent in order to Not Die”

Fore more on Ghana my experience: “How to Fight A Mountain Lion” & “On Ghanaian Independence Day: Whiteness, Freedom, Face Paint + see instagram photos: @ACNjustice.

And… I’m excited to share what I’ll be doing next:

It’s Happening: I’m thrilled to announce that I will be 2017 Visiting Scholar in Residence at the bell hooks Institute in Berea, Kentucky!

After months of planning and conversations, I can finally share that I’ll be in Kentucky this coming April: writing, speaking, and consulting with noted social justice scholar & writer bell hooks at her Institute. And on Monday, April 10, I will give a public talk titled “Our Sacred Ground,” on bridging the gap between faith and justice while doing intersectional justice work in identity & inclusion.

This Residency is of course a joy and an honor, especially because as a founding board member of the bell hooks Institute, I’ve been humbled and privileged to be part of the Institute for the last couple years, through several visits and much planning, and now will be there in this new capacity.

So. I invite you to follow this winding social justice consultant-scholar-writer path with me as I write, post, tweet, and instagram as @ACNjustice, and on my public facebook page: Anna Czarnik-Neimeyer. It’s big, it’s new, it’s exciting and well… it’s just one of many ways I’m working to move the dial towards justice and dialogue these crazy days. Below is what I’ve mentally been calling my “Tour d’Justice,” (so why not just call it that?) and it includes my upcoming consulting, talks, jobs, and workshops.

Won’t you join me? Want me to come to you or work remotely with your org? Contact me through annaczarnikneimeyer.wordpress.com. Onward.

ACN Tour d’Justice 2017: Where I’ll be & What I’m Working on

January

Identity Studies & Experiential Education Research, St. Norbert College (Wisconsin)

February

Activism & Consulting, United Nations/ For Impact Productions/ NY Indivisible +Katie Holten (New York City)

Writing & Consulting, Ms. Magazine Blog/ Center for Courage & Renewal

March

7-10 Visiting International Faculty in Residence, Lincoln Community School (Accra, Ghana)

Development Consulting, Holden Village

Commission on the Status of Women, United Nations

April

1-2 Facilitator, Association for Experiential Education Midwest (Wisconsin)

9-14 Visiting Scholar in Residence, bell hooks Institute (Berea, Kentucky)

*4.10.17 “Our Sacred Ground” public talk on faith + justice

May

**Alert, alert! This is the month I submit my thesis and graduate with my Master’s degree!**

June

8 Instructor, international Association for Experiential Education Webinar (2pm CST)

25-30 Speaker & Consultant, Feminist Camp: Seattle

July/August

Holden Village (Washington State)

September/October: TBA

November

9-11 National Women’s Studies Association (Baltimore)

16-19 Association for Experiential Education (Montreal)

December: TBA

HELP ME SAY YESDid this piece speak to you? Consider adding to the “tip jar” so I can continue to consult & write and work for justice, and say YES to new projects: paypal.me/annaczarnikneimeyer

SNC_bell hooks_SacredHour
bell hooks & Anna Czarnik-Neimeyer, ca 2014.

How to Fight a Mountain Lion: on shitting pants, scraping knees, living with risk, and surfing with sharks

When you Shit Your Pants and Tell the Truth About It

Well. There’s just no way around it. I shit my pants in my sleep last night.

The last time I shit my pants I was 14. It was summer. I was playing basketball at camp with my little sister and was having too much fun to go back to our house. I stopped at a random cabin on my rush home, but long story short (and poop story public): I shit my pants. I didn’t weigh time and fun and risk. This is what my parents called, “a natural consequence.” I misjudged, made a bad decision, and then I shit my pants. Live and learn.

But this time, this time around I shit my pants because of a good decision. I had carefully weighed it.

I’ve been living and working in Ghana for a month, and it is a priority for me to engage here in multiple ways, including eating local foods. My friends brought me to a beautiful beach for the night. Modest, but clean and well-loved accommodations. Gorgeous, delicious local fish on the hotel menu. They had snapper and I had another variety. Eight hours later I woke by sharp, intense pains in my stomach and, well I’ll just say it, a little surprise in my pajamas. Though not a total surprise- after all, my travel doc proactively prescribed me meds for traveler’s diarrhea, which Ghanaians delightfully call “runny tummy,” and most everyone gets it at some point, like the flu in Wisconsin. Nevertheless, I will cut the shit (hah!) and avoid hyperbole and just say… I felt profoundly unwell. But not scared.

I was prepared for this. And my recent mindfulness training has taught me to simply notice. To observe the conditions at hand.

Notice: It is the dead of night. It is 95 degrees. I am sweating profusely. I feel weak. This is my body.

Ask: What is my body doing? How is it helping me? What is this sickness doing to serve me?

Also: Remember to laugh. This is actually already funny.

The toilet was not a flush toilet: not enough water pressure. So I used buckets.

I sat for hours in the twilight, pouring over and over to push contents down the drain while my friends slept.

Methodically dipping in, filling the bucket, grateful that water was flowing from the spigot on this particular evening. It wasn’t always. Then, methodically, rhythmically, bucket-by-bucket, I dealt with my own shit. Dumping and flowing and more. Again, and again. For hours. I handled it.

I handled it because there was no other choice and because my body was speaking to me and telling me it was getting rid of something bad. And speaking again. And again. Speaking at 1am for two hours, then at 4am for another two. Sweet, listless rest in between, the local megaphones from Saturday all-night church in the nearby Village blaring through our barred, screened windows.

Even in that moment of intense physical suffering, of literal shit and stink and endless bucketfulls of redemptive, flowing, flushing water, it did occur to me that my repetitive pouring was a type of prayer, or at least a practice: of sitting with and acknowledging what was, this deep physicality. Sharp pain and bodily discomfort. Suffering while sitting, waiting for my body to speak to me again and again. I sat there and read a book of buddhist advice for the heartbroken, which I had purchased (and felt) the month before. What better time to read about emotional suffering than when my body was physically suffering in a way I have never quite experienced. I was noticing.

But I was not afraid.

If You Ask Me Honestly About Fear and Sharks

My fourth day in Ghana on my way to a surf lesson in the Gulf of Guinea, a 14-year-old boy spoke of his fear of sharks. We then talked about fears in the car. He asked me, “What is your biggest fear, Anna?”

“Do you really want to know?”

“Yes.”

“Well. Aside from my family dying, my greatest fear is being raped.”

Sweet, kind, and naive, he replied with real innocence. Not malice, not challenge, just innocence:

“Rape?!” He laughed softly, incredulous. “Oh but that would never happen though.”

He wasn’t saying it to discredit me, I knew. Maybe to try to comfort me. To retreat me into his safer world instead of the sharp reality of my own.

Patiently, I responded. “I think you’ll find that very often women fear this, and that it does happen. It has happened to some of my friends. And, unfortunately, to many women. Also some men.”

“Oh,” he said.

Oh.

“Yes- it is a concern for lots of women I know, and especially for women travelers like me.”

I made a decision long ago that I would constantly weigh and manage risk (like trying local food, or surfing with sharks) to work through fears and manage the reality of risks accompanying those fears, and to keep traveling and to use my life well.

My Mom’s Lesson on Knee Scrapes and Playing Well

My foster sister is eight. Sometimes (okay always) she returns from the park with a stain on her shirt, sporting bruised, scraped knees. When she was five, she would come home in this state and say “uh oh” or “oh no.” Repeatedly, my mother assured her with a refrain I knew well:

“It’s okay, honey. Good job. Scraped knees means you used your body well. Dirty clothes means you played hard. Let’s go get you a bandaid and throw your clothes in the wash and go play some more.”

Mom took a photo of me when I was eight, too. Among my favorites. I am in in a loose, brown cotton dress she sewed just for me. I am smiling, dirty, triumphantly holding up a giant mud clod: face streaked and sweaty and filled, just filled with delight. I remember: I had been wearing a brand new, not even hand-me-down powder blue ruffle shirt and pink velvet jumper and mom said: go play in the mud! but let’s get you some different clothes.

I see now that I was being trained: to prepare for messiness. Well, for joy plus messiness. To use my body well and to play hard. Not recklessly. Don’t needlessly stain the new powder blue. But mindfully. Explore. Wear the brown flower dress just for you and go get very messy indeed, Anna. Do not be afraid to play well in the messiness. Understand and anticipate the consequences. Skinned knees and stains and maybe sometimes also you shit your pants. Go, Anna. My parents read me my favorite book, Wild, Wild, Sunflower Child, Anna, featuring a strong and beautiful brown girl in a yellow dress who pretended to steer pirate ships and make flower crowns to be fairy queen:

“Anna climbs the hill/ and keeps on climbing.

Up up up a tree/ that turns into a ship/ Captain Anna stands on deck/ sailing to a new world.

Brave, bold Anna./ High in the air,/ tall please don’t fall Anna.

Running and jumping, silly and wild/ is Anna in the morning.

Wild, Wild, sunflower child Anna.”

Of course we know, though, that tree climbing sometimes means tree-falling. And that’s okay, even expected. My foster sister now returns from the park with happy stains and sweaty brow and doesn’t say “oh no” anymore. She says, “Can we go again tomorrow?” And she is free, adventuring, captaining, voyaging.

How to Fight A Mountain Lion

I deeply enjoy solo voyages, my travel friends know. We arrive together at a destination and I either plan an extra overnight or have taken a day to wander alone, through Atlanta and Amsterdam; San Juan and Dublin; Seattle and Montreal; Boston, Berlin and Brooklyn. At least in those moments, those bold and select moments, I can manage whatever comes my way. Captain of my day, navigating exchanges and connections and sweaty wandering on strong long legs, wild. I have handled it. Any joy or silliness. Any meanness or predator I’ve encountered. I have handled it.

One of my favorite things about living in the remote wilderness of the Cascade mountains in my early twenties was that human risks were replaced by natural ones. Human predators were mostly replaced by animal ones. We lived in a very safe, small, secluded village community, the most remote year-round populated site in the lower 48 states. It took me two days to get there, by train, boat, and switchback. There I was instructed how to manage natural risks: I know what to do if I get caught in an avalanche, how to respond to a fire, how to purify stream water, interact with a mother bear, or fight a mountain lion.

When I was 14, my grandfather taught me to kill a person with my hands. We talked about how and when I might use this (or not use it) as a woman. Usually, almost always the “or not.” Still, we practiced in the living room. I was prepared.

As a woman, after years of both formal and informal training on how to manage human, gendered risk (keys in knuckles, arrival texts, emergency words, whistles, sprays, stances, body language gauges) managing the natural risk of the Cascade mountains felt cleaner, less personal. Not more predictable. But much less terrifying and malicious.

On one occasion back in the city, a new man I was seeing invited me to his apartment to make a meal together. We had met up twice before and as I considered his texted dinner invite I closed my eyes and pictured him. This was not a romantic Julia Roberts Rom Com Moment queuing a montage of our imagined future together romping through daisies. I closed my eyes to remember his stature, his musculature, his heft. I did this not to objectify him, but to realistically gauge if I could physically overpower him or even kill him if he attacked me while we were alone in his house, cooking.

Let me be clear: this thought exercise AKA “what would I do if I were attacked and could I win or escape” is one that women around the world must conduct daily when navigating streets and schools and relationships and work. And sometimes they don’t win. All too often, they don’t escape.

But I decided that in this situation, I could if I had to, so I texted back, “Sounds great! Please don’t hurt me. :P”

Joking to make it clear: I was taking a risk and I needed him to know it. He did.

In a very open and honest conversation later that evening I revealed the thought progression that allowed me over to his house for dinner. Together we were sad about it, understood how real it was. Tried to promise never to hurt each other, tried to promise safety though we can never really promise that to anybody, even ourselves. There is always risk.

One evening, back in the mountains, I had snowshoed a mile out from the wintry village, into the valley of the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area, to meet friends at a yurt for warm drinks and a fire. We had planned to stay overnight all together, but I was managing a big project in the morning and decided I needed to sleep in my own cabin back in the village to get good rest.

It was 1am in the mountains. Very different than that 1am bathroom scene in Ghana. These Cascadian peaks were sharp, the air clear, cold, 10 feet of snow on the ground, packed high and stomped by skis and snowshoe paths we had carved into the woods. I knew I could find my way in the dark, tracing that mile almost daily when it was light. I knew the stars and moon would adjust my eyes. I knew my friends would stay and sleep in the smoky canvas yurt a mile out, would keep the emergency radio, would drink the purified mountain water we had lugged along with us. I knew they would rest sound, heads on cots in a circle, safe, together.

From my wilderness training, I knew something else, too.

It echoed in my mind as I weighed my decision to trek the mile: our large predator expert, Gus, counseled us:

“If you’ve been outside of the village hiking at just about any distance, chances are about 90% of you have been stalked by a mountain lion at some point.”

I knew this was true. We were trained to spot carefully camouflaged animals in photo after photo of barely visible predatory hiding tricks. I knew well the story of two village kids who were stalked by this giant cat and hid in an abandoned vehicle until help arrived. And many times I had seen fresh tracks, eye flashes, had heard twig snaps, even. Many times.

I closed my eyes, and did the thought exercise I knew well:

I want to go home and sleep soundly, rest well for tomorrow. And I know the way.

On my journey, I may very likely be stalked by a mountain lion. In fact, I might even be attacked. What would I do? Would I escape? Would I win?

I breathed and noticed my surroundings. I went over what I had learned: If encountered, get big. Make noise. Do not turn your back to run: it will catch you. Do not climb a tree: it will follow you there and you’ll be cornered. Stand ground. As a stalking predator, look it in the eyes to remove the element of surprise. If it pounces, fight back, or it could play with you and maul you to death like a kitten with a mouse.

I reviewed tools I knew to fight a mountain lion, and I realized that the way to maim an animal in self defense is very similar to how I’ve been taught by my grandfather to maim a human in self defense.

I thought again:

This animal does not wish me harm like those humans, unfortunately usually men, I’ve been taught to watch out for. This animal is not malicious. It does not wish to use or overpower me because of gendered norms or rape culture. This mountain lion may simply be wondering. Might just be hungry. Might only be questioning why there is a random woman in this vast expanse of wilderness it roams: curious.

And that to me- all that- was far less scary than all the twenty years of human situations I’d been trained to navigate, and thankfully so, for I’ve had to use that training to protect myself from men multiple times: to manage violent gestures, touches by strangers, grabbed at, taunted, propositioned, barked at, sworn at, followed, pinched, cornered, jeered, interrupted, threatened.

But this? This was just a mountain lion. And I’m tired. And I have work to do. And I can’t control if I meet one on my hike, but if I do, I will handle it. Or, well. Maybe I’ll die fighting it. I have to weigh that risk. But I’m not going to live my life afraid and protected and always free from danger.

I will shit my pants.

Scrape my knees.

Play with mud.

Eat new foods.

Cook with lovers.

Surf with sharks.

And learn to fight.

I will use my body well, mom. And my mind.

I will play hard, mom. And work.

After that night in the woods with my snowshoes, I would later go back into the built, human world of cities, remembering how to fight a mountain lion, and it would help me walk more roads, wander more paths, hold a higher head and a fiercer gaze and stand my ground.

But in that one moment in the mountains, I simply strapped on my snowshoes.

And, guided by moonlight, I crunched home.

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Wild Anna, mud in hand. 8 years old.