Friday, March 9, 2018

An “apology” from Rev Elise Brown

Rev Elise Brown posted an “apology” on her Facebook page tonight. You can find it here:

(TW: binary language, emotion/spiritual manipulation.)

Two quick thoughts from me, then some excellent theological reflections
from a colleague.

1. “Sisters and brothers” is an inappropriate way to address the entire LGBTQIA+ community, as it leaves out anyone with a nonbinary identity. Rev. Brown ought to have known to use “siblings.”

2. The repeated use of “confidentiality vs transparency” is very odd here. Is she intending to imply that when Dr Latini “disclosed” her previous leadership of OnebyOne, she did so confidentially? That wouldn’t be much of a disclosure, is inappropriate for a job search/call process, and ought to have raised red flags. It seems Rev. Brown continues to confuse confidentiality with secret-keeping.

But these are not the biggest issues with this non-apology. My most excellent colleague, the Rev. Carolina Glauster, wrote this comment, which I feel gets at the heart of what a true apology, with confession and repentance, could have looked like:

“Elise, I don't know you well or in person, although I have been following you to some degree in your connection to ELM and now in your connection to these events.  I feel moved to comment here for two reasons: (1) because I see that you have posted this on your own wall rather than somewhere where most of the people your actions have hurt are likely to see it, and so the comments seem pretty skewed and I worry that will make it harder for people who are frustrated and disappointed by your words to post and (2) because the shape of the way you have held this "apology" is a shape I am familiar with and I think needs to be named to each other as best we can--and charitably I am willing to assume that maybe you don't see it.

I am definitely frustrated and disappointed by the way you've framed things here.  I am not jazzed that you used gender binary terms in an address to the queer community and I can't believe you've been at annual anti-oppression trainings with the ELM board and not had folks explain to you multiple times why that is wildly unhelpful.  But beyond that, and harder to name, is how you've managed to craft something that could be credibly defended as an apology but is basically functioning as a defence of your actions and your person and a plea for your friends to defend you.  You can see that it's functioning that way from the way the comments are running--people rushing to your aid.  It doesn't seem like you are interested in understanding the harm that you've done or how that is functioning for people or what they need, and it *definitely* doesn't seem like you are asking or helping your friends and facebook followers to understand what went wrong or learn how not to create that kind of hurt--even though you say your fervent hope is that healing and learning and commitments to do better will come out of this.  I don't see a lot of accountability from you, or a lot of pastoral concern for folks who have been harmed.

I guess my wish would be that you would decide that the doing better starts now, rather than in some unnamed future.  That you would show in a post that seems crafted to at least look like an apology that you were more concerned that we would see the hurt of those you harmed than that we would see your hurt.  That you would admit to some of what you don't know or are working to learn.  That you would point to the words of some of the folks who have been educating you on what you did wrong, so that we could all learn from them--including your supporters.  That you would display a Christlike willingness to sacrifice some of what you want if that turns out to be helpful to the healing of others less powerful and more vulnerable than yourself.  I know that stuff is hard.  I am not in your position, so it is maybe easy to wish for these kinds of things from the cheap seats.  But this just seems like so much about trying to shore up support for yourself and I simply expect more, under the circumstances.”

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

God in our Guts

This is an imperfect post, because everything I am saying I am also feeling today.

I follow a Jesus whose guts moved when he saw people hurting.

Beloveds, do you feel injustice in your body? That’s you feeling with Jesus. If you’re fearful or weepy or outraged or upset, if your digestion is off or your joints hurt or you get a migraine, if your energy is drained and you’re foggy brained- those are legitimate responses to an unjust situation!

(Allies, don’t imply otherwise. Fuck a bunch of that. You don’t get to regulate how people experience oppression, and your “rational” responses are not better. In fact, they’re farther from Jesus.)

And after a few years of feeling in his guts what his people went through, Jesus lost his shit at the religious establishment and flipped tables, drove people out of positions of power.

Within oppressed communities we can and will discuss the most strategic use of our emotions, and leaders will help each other moderate them to care for people. And we have an ethical responsibility about protecting the vulnerable, and/or other oppressed groups as we express our outrage.

*But our outrage is holy.* It is an expression of Divine Love. And “allies” aren’t allies if they tell us otherwise.

Do your things, beloveds. Feel your feelings. Care for your bodies. Don’t forget pleasure, whatever that means for you. These are all paths to God.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Spiritual Abuse at the Meeting at ULS regarding Dr Latini

TW: conversion therapy, spiritual abuse of LGBTQ+ people.

For factual background for this post, read this first.

For spiritual preparation before reading this post, pray this by yourself or with others.

Spiritual Abuse

What happened last night on Gettysburg campus was more spiritual abuse heaped upon LGBTQ+ people by the Board of Trustees of the ULS seminary.

There was spiritual abuse in the attitude of Bishop Dunlop, Rev. Elise Brown, and Charles Miller, who presented themselves as the unemotional adults in the room, who had the right or authority to control our pain and anger.

There was spiritual abuse in the way Bishop Dunlop claimed the ban on recording was to make this a "safe space" and his very act of presuming to be able to state what is safe space and what is not.  Nothing about that space was safe.

There was spiritual abuse in the way the board asked Dr. Latini to parade her pain before us.  Her story, told in another setting at another time for another purpose could have been a vehicle for healing and reconciliation.  Told in that way at that time it was a function of manipulation.

There was spiritual abuse in the request from a powerful figure (Dr. Latini) that those she has power over keep her secrets for her, secrets they didn't consent to having shared with them.

There was spiritual abuse of Dr. Latini in the board calling her to a position that she is not yet able to perform well.

I suspect there was more, but that's just the beginning of the list.

On Grace and Reconciliation

I believe Dr. Latini is sorry for what she has done, and is forgiven by God.  And I believe in change and redemption: that someone who has sinned can be and should be brought back into human community.  But I also believe that accountability and reconciliation is part of that grace.

A useful comparison made by many is to that of St. Paul, who persecuted the early Jesus followers before his conversion.  But afterwards, this story became a central part of his witness and testimony.  Everyone knew his history. They knew it because his repentance for the harm he caused, and the overwhelming grace of God to use him anyway, was a continual theme of his ministry.  He never minimized the pain he caused. 

If Dr. Latini had been open about her history, had confessed it with full knowledge of the damage she caused, had openly sought to make restitution to those she harmed, and sought reconciliation with the community, before it was forced upon the seminary by outside revelations,  I believe she would have been welcomed with open arms.  

On Secret Keeping

Dr. Latini told the story of her connection to One by One, her conversion away from those ideas, and some about her current sense of self, but she asked those present not to repeat any of this.  With profoundly mixed feelings, I am not going to.  But I am also going to say it was spiritually abusive of her to ask this of her students and employees.

No one walking into that room was told that they were about to hear deeply confidential and personal secrets, nor were they given a chance to consent to that exchange of information. 

Healthy confidentiality is when people in power control the personal information of those they care for in order to protect them.  Unhealthy secret keeping is when those in power ask those in their care to protect the powerful person's information for the sake and protection of the powerful person. It is inappropriate for pastors to ask church members to keep their personal secrets, for parents to ask children to keep personal secrets, doctors to ask patients, etc.

This is especially painful in a setting, as several students pointed out to me, where most seminarians are in candidacy, being asked to reveal their entire lives on paper, having their own personal stories and intimate details scrutinized by those in power over them, with no assurances of confidentiality.  For students to be asked to reveal all, and to simultaneously be asked to preserve the secrets of their seminary president, is a grave injustice.

I understand Dr. Latini's desire to control her own story and her own identity.  And yet she has applied and accepted a position as a public face of a religious institution before being able to talk about parts of her religious life that were very public.  Public theologians, and public representatives of institutions, need to be able to take responsibility for their public record, and to explain previous writings and actions.  It is especially important that the leader of a seminary be able to speak about her life with at least as much integrity as the institution asks of its students in candidacy. 

On the Board of Trustees Actions

In my opinion, the Board of Trustees of United Lutheran Seminary displayed shocking incompetence in one of the most important tasks that was set before them.  The failure to truly vet the online history of their candidates is incomprehensible.  I read every google result of any person I hire, and I am not hiring the public face of a multi-million dollar institution that is shaping the future of our church.

The board's indifference to the impact of conversion therapy upon the LGBTQ+ community is likewise shocking.  That is a critical failure in a competence in understanding one of the communities they claim to serve.  This is repeated in the inability to even say "LGBTQ" without stumbling, and in Bishop Dunlop's use of the term "a homosexual."

The Board of Trustees cannot simply expect us to forgive and overlook this.  Serious re-organization is called for- paid diversity trainers, resignation of key members, the inclusion of LGBTQ+ members who represent the community.  (And, while we are at it, people of color too.)

The inexplicable silence of Rev. Elise Brown needs to be addressed.  I cannot see any way forward for her after this other than resignation.

Rev. Brown also currently serves on the board of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries, making her inability to understand the severity of this situation all the more inexplicable.  I see no way for her to remain a leader in that community after these revelations.

On Students and the Seminary Community

The students I spoke to were all devastated by this breach of trust.  They were also, to a person, strong, faithful, powerful leaders.  The church is in good hands with them.  And yet they are also the most vulnerable people in this system, and need our support.  They were glad of my presence, and strengthened to hear of alumni and Queer Lutherans all over the country watching and supporting them.  I look forward to hearing them tell us what they need, and a community of people responding.

The faculty and staff were likewise hurt, worried, upset, and strong.  I am not sharing exact words or names of any of them, because I heard frequent concerns about retribution for speaking out.  (A fact that ought to trouble us by itself.)

It was very clear that, although hearing that crucial information about Dr. Latini had been kept from them was deeply upsetting, this was within the context of larger trends in the formation of the new seminary.  Faculty and staff were upset about this as a part of a pattern of no transparency and trust between board and faculty.  And students mentioned that faculty had been so far reduced and split between campuses that they didn't even have access to faculty members they trusted for appropriate pastoral care.

I heard, over and over again, that this crisis was bringing together the students of the two campuses, uniting Queer people in the community as a whole, and bringing faculty, staff, students, and alumni closer together.  Out of this crisis is growing a powerful community, no longer willing to stay silent, with students as leaders and the Spirit on the move.  I would have preferred no crisis at all.  And yet I see God's Spirit at work in the midst of it. 

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Meeting at United Lutheran Seminary regarding Dr Latini

(TW: Conversion therapy, general church mess) 

Last night I attended a meeting at the Gettysburg campus of United Lutheran Seminary, to discuss the revelation that Dr Theresa Latini, the seminary President, advocated for conversion therapy for LGBTQ+ people in the past. I am going to try to be as factual as possible in this first post, and to offer my reflections in a second post coming soon. 

You can read Dr Latini’s blog post coming public with this information here.

And the seminary board’s support of her here

If you have a strong stomach, you can read an example of her former writings here

Dr Latini was installed as the President of the newly formed United Lutheran Seminary in July, but the students, faculty and staff of ULS only learned of her former advocacy, as the Director of the Presbyterian group One by One, last week. The outcry from the seminary community, and the LGBTQ+ community throughout the ELCA, was instant and intense. 

Conversion therapy is more than bad theology, it is spiritual abuse perpetrated upon the LGBTQ+ community, and can be deadly. It is still very much a current and pressing issue for us, with many of us survivors of conversion therapy, or with survivors of conversion therapy in our social circles. Many of our friend groups also contain the memories of those who didn’t survive conversion therapy. 

On Monday, February 26th, an email went out from the ULS communications office inviting students, faculty, staff, and alumni to two meetings on Tuesday, Feb 27th, to "begin a restorative dialogue" about Dr Latini's past statements. Despite the fact that alumni live all over the country, and that many current students are distance learners or away on internship, this email made clear there would be no distance options for attending these meetings. A form was given for submitting questions in advance. An executive summary was promised, but as of this time, has not yet been released. Despite the meeting being so scripted the executive summary could have been written in advance, it has not yet been released. 

 The meeting was informative, as to what the board knew when, although none of it in ways that made the board look very good. 

 Bishop Dunlop, Bishop of Lower Susquehana synod, who sits on the ULS board, chaired the meeting, and began by making it clear that any recording would not be permitted, "in order to keep this a safe space." 

 The chair of the search committee spoke first. (I believe this was Charles Miller, but will double check this name when the executive summary becomes available.) He was clear that the search committee did not know of Dr Latini's past association with One by One, or her advocacy for conversion therapy. None of these were listed on her CV. He said the committee had asked her questions about the seminary's RIC status and LGBT inclusion, and was very satisfied with her answers. (His authority on what are satisfactory answers for LGBT inclusion was somewhat undercut by his inability to say "LGBT" without stumbling over the letters.) He admitted, and regretted, that the committee had not done due diligence in searching their candidates' online history. His quote was "although some committee members were googling during the interviews." He admitted, and regretted, that the committee had not asked the standard question if there was anything in Dr Latini's history that could potentially embarrass or harm the institution. 

 Then Rev. Elise Brown, chair of the ULS Board of Trustees spoke. She told us that shortly after the committee recommended Dr. Latini for the position of president, but before the board vote, Dr Latini called her to disclose her past association with One by One. The exact timing of this went unsaid, but the committee made their recommendation in March, and the board announced her name in April. She admitted she did not tell any other board members until November. She reported that she reached out to the director of More Light, the Presbyterian organization for full inclusion of LGBTQ+ people, who did not know Dr Latini. He asked other More Light leaders, and reported that the older ones did not know of Dr. Latini, and the younger ones knew of her vaguely as an ally. She also completed standard background checks, and confirmed with Presbyterian leadership that Dr Latini remains in good standing on their roster. She decided this was sufficient to satisfy her concerns. 

Bishop Dunlop spoke next from the board perspective. He said the first he heard of Dr Latini's past was in December, when a pastor in his synod called him to ask about it. (This is in contradiction with Rev Brown's account that she told the board in November.) He said the board met by phone on Dec 21st to discuss this, but that it was primarily a discussion about how to communicate this information, nothing more. He said that the board had no idea what a big deal this would be to the LGBT community. (Audible gasps were heard in the auditorium at that statement.) 

Then Dr Latini, visibly emotional, took the microphone. She told us that yes, she had been the Director for One by One. That she had believed and taught that sexuality was only expressed in a healthy way between one man and one woman in a marriage, and that she had believed and taught that it was possible for some people to change their sexual orientation. She admitted that she had advocated for conversion therapy (which she called reparative therapy) and that although she was not a reparative therapist, she did refer people to them. She utterly repudiated these beliefs, and apologized for them.

Dr Latini then told us her personal story, and asked that we not share it outside of the room. With very mixed feelings, I am honoring that request, although I think it is an illegitimate and abusive one, and will reflect on that in my next post. 

A very short time was allowed for questions, although most questions were not answered, and there were great and frustrating technical difficulties with questions from people on the Philadelphia campus. In the questions, it became clear that the faculty were not informed of Dr Latini's history before the larger community, and felt unprepared to support their students when they didn't have information either. When I asked about the board's cultural competency on LGBTQ issues, I was told they had "a homosexual" on the board. A few faculty and students gave powerful impact statements and requests for how future communication would be improved, and were not truly answered.  

 Bishop Dunlop tried to wrap up the questions after a few minutes, and a faculty member  said "Oh, we're just getting started!" After one more comment, Bishop Dunlap invited a faculty member to up to offer a closing prayer- a moment of awkwardness, as the faculty member had clearly not been asked ahead of time, and was clearly still reeling from information received.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Bodies are good and holy.

Bodies are good and holy. 

Your body is good and holy.

Your body is good and holy if you have more fat, or less fat, or more muscles, or less muscles, than is socially acceptable.  (Fuck socially acceptable.)

Your hair texture and skin color and nose width and thigh thickness are good and holy.

Your body is good and holy if it doesn’t do the same thing as everyone else’s, if it hurts sometimes, if it need care sometimes.  (Everybody’s does.)

Your body is good and holy if you use it to have sex, or if you don’t want to have sex, or if the person or people you want to have sex with don’t desire you.  Your body is good and holy if you are conventionally hot and other people impose desire you don’t want on you.

Your body is good and holy if someone or ones have done things to it that you didn’t want them too.  Your body still belongs to you.  Your struggle to reclaim it as yours is good and holy. 

Your body is good and holy if it is male or female or both or neither.

Your body is good and holy if it matches your gender identity or if it doesn’t.  The way you use or modify your body to express your gender is good and holy.  Your body is good and holy if it “passes,” or not, if it conforms to conventional gender or not.

Your body is good and holy if you menstruate, or if you don’t.  Your body is good and holy if it has carried children, or if it has not.  Your body is good and holy if you get erections, or if you don’t.

Your body is good and holy if it is aging.  Your body is good and holy if it smells funky sometimes.  (All bodies do.)

Your body will be good and holy when you die.

Your body is good and holy if it has disappointed you.  Your body is good and holy if you sometimes feel ashamed of it, or have a hard time taking care of it the way you know you should.  We all do.

Everyone else’s body is good and holy in the same way.  We are surrounded by good and holy bodies. We get to see them and smell them, and respect them.  Sometimes we get to touch them and care for them.  How good and holy!

Friday, June 2, 2017

Ascension Day Sermon at St Matthias

St Matthias Episcopal Church in Baltimore welcomed me as a supply preacher on Ascension Sunday.

I loved this little congregation!  If you are looking for a welcoming church in Baltimore, and like liturgy and social justice, give them a try! The friendliness of their leaders was genuine, playful, and infectious.  They proudly told me about several social ministries that met the needs of their community, but even more impressive, it was obvious that people who received these services and people who provided them effortlessly worshiped and enjoyed fellowship together.  They are leading several churches in a discussion of white privilege, and are clearly accustomed to wrestling with social justice issues. The congregation was diverse in ethnicity, economics, and sexual orientation.  The church dog, Gracie, a beautiful and gentle poodle mix, wandered through the sanctuary during the service.  The choir was astonishing, people responded with emotion to the liturgy and sermon, and nobody wanted to leave coffee and fellowship time after worship.

St Matthias has a leader who films sermons and posts them to youtube, so you can hear my sermon here.  Links to the texts of the day are included.  You can also feel the delightful energy of the congregation as you listen.

Monday, May 8, 2017

The ELCA's Poll Tax

"My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations, but you have made it into a den of robbers." Mark 11:17

Poor people should be able to vote just like rich people.  Money should not influence our ability to participate in public life.  We believe it in the church, as well as in the secular world.

In the church, as in the world, this isn't our current reality.  The votes and voice of the poor are suppressed.

I want to make this claim as strongly as possible, about the practical effects of our policies and systems, without making claims about intent-conscious, or otherwise.  The church rightly lobbies for Voting Rights for all people.  But sometimes we are oblivious as to how we replicate the same inequalities in our denominational structure.

My denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, (ELCA) has a de facto poll tax.

In the Jim Crow South, as in other parts of the world, a poll tax was the amount of money that citizens had to pay to be able to vote.  The amount was set such that it would not prevent middle and upper class participation, but would be substantial enough to prevent poor people from voting.  As part of Jim Crow, the poll tax was overtly racist, but poor white people were affected as well.

My friend, colleague, and #decolonizeLutheranism co-conspirator the Rev. Paul Bailie gave me the language of poll tax, in this excellent blog post on why he is not attending synod assembly this year.  His post raises several critically important issues, from racist worship to the dominance of certain cultural forms of Lutheranism to the exclusion of others, all of which are generating needed conversation.  But it is the concept of synod assembly registration as poll tax which I need to address.

Quick catch-up for those who aren't ELCA Lutherans: ELCA Lutherans are divided into regions called synods.  Yearly, we gather in these synods to do the business of the church: debating and voting on issues that will affect us all, from our policy on LGBTQ clergy, to the guidelines for paying our pastors, to refuting  past theological mistakes like the Doctrine of Discovery, to who will be the next bishop of that synod. Each congregation gets to send a certain number of voting members based on their size.

We have to pay the synod in order for our voting members to attend, and thus, speak and vote. If a congregation cannot afford to pay the assembly registration (and associated costs) they do not get to vote in church matters.

Like a historical poll tax, the amount that each congregation has to pay in order for voting members to attend, and thus, vote, is such that it is not a burden for larger and richer congregations, yet is a substantial burden, sometimes an impossible one, on smaller and poorer congregations. In Pastor Bailie's synod, the cost is $180 per voting member, not including transportation and hotel costs.  In the synod I served in, the amount is $250, again excluding travel and hotel.  The smallest congregations send three voting members, two lay leaders and the pastor, so the total cost for a small congregation to send voting members and pay for their travel and hotel can easily exceed $1,000.

When I speak of this, I don't get the impression that middle and upper middle class people understand what $1,000  means to a small congregation of people living in poverty.  $1,000 was larger than our entire yearly budget for Christian Education materials.  It was the difference between being able to pay the electric bill or not.  For a small congregation of people living in poverty, paying $1,000 to send three people to vote on church matters would have meant choosing not to make payroll, or to cut from some other essential expense. $1,000 for synod registration and associated costs too often prevents smaller, poorer congregations from attending.

(This still does not take into account the full cost of attendance, which includes travel, incidental meals, lost wages, etc.)

When smaller, poorer congregations do have the money to attend synod assembly, their voices and concerns are often systemically ignored.  They experience micro and macro aggressions, up to and including racist worship services.  The cost for attending is very high, in dignity as well as dollars.

I understand that there are costs associated with putting on a synod assembly, and that in a world where congregational benevolence to synods is decreasing, synod assemblies need to be funded in some way.  I simply do  not believe they should be funded in a way that prevents smaller, poorer congregations from attending, participating in debate, and voting.  Nor do they have to be.  One simple solution would be to more equitably distribute costs, by tying the cost of registration to the operating budget of the congregation, as reported to the synod in our yearly congregational reports.  Congregations with a operating budget below a certain threshold, such as the one Pastor Bailie serves, would not have to pay to attend, and larger, richer congregations would pay a larger fee.

In the church, as in the world, any policy that suppresses the vote of the poor is unjust.  And as we advocate for full Voting Rights in the world, we can change our church policies so that everyone has full Voting Rights in the church.