Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Spiritual LGBT Life in Detroit

Not one month into my tenure as pastor at Spirit of Hope in Detroit, the first guest in our community kitchen came out to me with his positive HIV status that was threatening to develop into AIDS.  It counts as one of the most humbling moments of my life.  A twenty-six year-old spiritual student of life, allowed to wear a plastic collar attached to his neat black dress shirt, is exposed to the reality of a man one generation older who lives on the streets.  The man and I still talk regularly, but I do not know how or if he defines his sexual orientation, nor do I know anything about his sexual activity or gender preference.  I do not even know how he contracted HIV. 

Many in our Spirit of Hope community who define themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender are with us in the first faith community that ever accepted them.  Not only our members, but many we serve and with whom we live in our near west and southwest sides of Detroit are estranged from family, friends, their home faith communities, their workplaces, neighbors and more.  Yet the differences between the LGBT community defined in our church community, and the publicized and funded arm of the movement fighting for deserved civil rights, are all about economics, race and often even gender.

As the national conversation about the rights of the LGBT community revolve around marriage, our local community focuses on survival, on the man who came out with his HIV status.  While I do not know his sexual orientation, I do know that the LGBT community here has embraced and supported him.  At the risk of over-dramatization and negating the joy that outweighs the hurt in our community, it is not unheard of for our people to face beatings, homelessness, health risks and just plain loneliness in a world that is hostile to their, and our, very existence. 

Marriage issues are important.  Marriage rights put front and center the reality of the existence of LGBT people in our country.  Marriage rights, when achieved, will increase the visibility of people suffering from oppression throughout our community.  Yet we in the movement must be careful, because marriage rights must not be our final goal.  The goal must be the lifting up of all members of our community in every context and reality of our peoples’ existence.  Marriage is one of many tools to achieve that goal, but not the only one.

The prevention of HIV, the housing of those who are rejected by family and friends, the building of relationships across racial and gender lines while being aware of systems of discrimination and prejudice, the use of our wealth to build long lasting systems of hope and the support of our LGBT elders who never had the luxury of being fully out must be at the top of our agenda as well.

Nine years ago, not long after I talked to the man mentioned above, I walked three blocks from Spirit of Hope to a local, more fundamentalist Christian youth organization that has a strong influence on many youth in our community.  In those three blocks, I walked past abandoned and falling structures, one functioning drug house and several groups of youth milling about at bus stops and on street corners.  Upon my arrival, one of the adult advisors at my destination informed me that the biggest threat to our youth is the rapid expansion of lesbianism in Detroit high schools.  It was as if there was a Santorum bubble around this man that did not allow him to see reality, including the reality of a gay pastor standing before him.

Faith leaders must step forward now to teach and, if necessary, to shame those who abuse outsiders to uplift their own moral righteousness.  Soon we begin the annual National Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS ( ).  Women’s history month is here in March.  Pride celebrations begin in June.  Every day of the year we have an organization supporting and sheltering youth in Detroit and vicinity ( ). We must lift up all of our community and get out of our spiritually neutral closets. 

And to my fellow leaders in the establishment LGBT fight for justice, we must turn our eyes to our entire community.  Race, gender and income are serious parts of our struggle.  It means even more risk for our entire community that lives at the precipice of demoralization every day, especially in Michigan where beating up the LGBT community is a conservative sport.  It may not feel like we have privilege, but comparatively, many of us do.

We have strength in numbers.  Even battered and journey-weary travelers have power in the binds of common purpose.  More people are on our side than we think.  And even when we cannot see it happening, conservative shackles always yield to the spirit of justice that resides in the base of our historic living faiths.  Truth always wins, even if it takes time to come out.  Let us all come out together.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Faith Groups a Detroit Lifeline

Every now and then I get the strangest looks walking into a group of hip, relatively new Detroiters working on development plans for the city or our church neighborhood.  The looks come because I am wearing my clerical collar.  Even when without the uniform, my presence is often questioned with side glances, questioned expressions or hesitant greetings of “um, nice to see you.” 

What do you do with a clergy person at a development meeting?  Or when planning new street art projects?  Or building a board for a new non-profit?  Am I there to give them lectures on abortion, gay marriage or contraception?  (Pro, pro, and pro, just for the record.)  Do they think I am going to take up a collection?  (Well, only if they ask me.)  Worse yet, will I try to “save” all of them in Jesus Christ?  (I usually do not carry my life preserver.)

Spirit of Hope ( ), the Christian community where I serve as pastor in Detroit, serves almost 11,000 free meals a year.  We give out 50,000 pounds of food in our pantry.  Thirty young men are mentored every year in our Pray and Play Basketball League.  We built Spirit Farm, four city lots of love to grow food for ourselves and our neighbors that also beautifies a stark major intersection in the city.  Forty people attend our weekly Spirit Spit Open Mic.  Forty families are served each year with our own Sunshine Community Preschool.  Countless neighborhood meetings, projects and programs are launched from our property annually.  We clean up local vacant lots, parks and the streets.  We provide a place for some to dry out from their addiction, be welcome in their HIV status and find power in their respective sexual orientations or gender expressions.  Addicts who lost everything at the casino down the street come by for gas money or a ride.  And yes, we do have Sunday morning worship where we praise God and participate in the sacrament. 

So yes, we have opinions and a stake in the future of our neighborhood and our city.  We will be at every table possible to influence the physical, cultural, environmental or spiritual direction of our community.  Hundreds of small and middle-sized congregations all over Detroit are making a difference.  When people fall through the cracks, we are there.  And in Detroit, hundreds fall through the cracks every day. 

While those who grew up in the city usually know the value of faith communities to Detroit, many newcomers near the center-city do not.  Of course Christian leadership of the past several generations has done a phenomenal job of alienating, abusing and hurting people, something for a later blog post.  Nevertheless, the micro-level work of countless churches has been essential to Detroit.  Many neighborhoods would not exist today without them. 

As Detroit development becomes more foundation-based and government grant-orientated, smaller organizations, including faith communities, are being left out of the conversation.  It is our responsibility as those communities to make sure we are at the tables of influence and cross streets of decision-making.  However, without community power-brokers paying attention to the faith-based work going on in their neighborhoods, they will miss a massive resource.  Without the street-based voice and experience-soaked souls of the faith community, decision makers and resources holders will fail in understanding significant dynamics of the places they seek to transform.  The largely hands-off approach of mega-church non-profit corporations, local foundations and government agencies cannot make up for personal relationships that are the building blocks of our communities.  Of course faith communities are not the only places these relationships happen, but they are among the oldest, most stable and most reliable.

Still, many are hesitant to work with us.  Yes, we will challenge.  We will bring up issues of class and race, and the more progressive of us will also name gender and sexual orientation as places of justice that must be planned for in development projects.  (I remember some years ago, as I began to speak at a development corporation meeting, a member cursed me out under his breath out for bringing up the issue of racial injustice, again.)  However, it is better for difficult and life-changing conversations to happen at the beginning of a project than the end, when opportunities for buy-in and local support are long gone. 

Lutherans, Episcopalians, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, members of the UCC, and hundreds, even thousands of others are here sweating and loving this city.  We ignore them at our own peril.   

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Big Failure

In a conversation this morning I was reminded that I am a failure.   That was not the intention of the person speaking with me, but a conclusion I came to on my own.  It is a striking realization.  After four weeks of a mini-sabbatical, it has been difficult getting to a place of reflection, debriefing, healing and letting go.  Perhaps more than nine years of significant failure takes its toll on the back, shoulders, head and heart of anyone living and working in a place like ours in God’s city of Detroit.

The truth is Spirit of Hope fails far more often than it succeeds.  I am not going to say that twice because it is hard enough the first time.  More people go back to their addiction than come out.  For every victory at Spirit Farm we encounter two more obstacles.  When new souls come to the community they bring their gifts, but also their baggage.  As many people reject us for being welcoming to same gender loving people as embrace and admire us.  With every place we provide positive change and improvement in our neighborhood there are several places that get worse.  No matter how much change we affect, the push back against us seems so much stronger.

Spirit of Hope fails in programming all the time.  We believe we have the greatest idea, support from the community, and the tools to make it happen.  Somehow, it flops.  If we were a sports team we would be up for the first round draft pick every year because we always have the worst record.  Still, without question, the only ministries, events and programs that matter have come from major failures. 

Wisdom knows, in the midst of failure, whether to abandon a ministry or program altogether, or modify it for improvement.  Wisdom knows how much to invest oneself in the heart and life of another person, knowing that person is likely to abandon the love being offered free of charge.  Wisdom grants strength to heal, dream and hope even when clouds of heaviness seek to weaken, harm and depress.  Wisdom is the spirit of hope that has become the very stitching in the seams of those who work for love and justice and change. 

Sitting at the feet of Dr. James Cone at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, just a few weeks after the events of September 11th, 2001, when our nation was screaming for blood, he reminded his students that Jesus was a failure.  A success would have made Jesus king or emperor, embracing his teachings and making his words and calls for justice the mainstream thought of the culture.  However, Jesus died poor, rejected, and murdered for his beliefs and his lifestyle of bringing liberation to the people. 

Failure is a lifestyle.  All those who dip their toe into the pond of justice work will find it cold and treacherous.  Not many, especially not many with privilege, will stay there long.  The failure becomes too heavy of a burden and the water is too deep.  Yet failure is necessary, because every now and then the powers and clouds of ugliness and oppression yield because they cannot take it any more.  The push, the wind, from those who are not afraid to be failures, becomes too strong for them to remain in place.  

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Woman In the Sun


As she removed her shirt, exposing her breasts to the late day Detroit sun, I crashed the lawn mower into the sign that said, “Spirit of Hope.”  She is exposed, changing clothes in a space without walls.  Across the street from my lawn mower crash, the western rays were catching full glimpse of her curves and beauty marks, while her face showed no sign or irregular thoughts or discomfort.  She was half naked at the bus stop at a very busy six-way intersection, and she didn’t seem to care.

The men on my side of the street looked my direction and wondered what the reverend would say and do.  The best I could do was a shrug, and continued mowing as if nothing unusual was happening at the bus stop, to the woman at the well, across the street. 

This sister’s exposure and Mary Magdalene scandal became the fuel for hen-ish male conversation, gawks and lustful glares.  Exposed to the world, her issues were laid before us in a way we men on our side of the street would never understand.  She was naked, her issues lay bare before the world. 

We are in a neighborhood where a woman’s struggles are exposed.  In Rick Santorum’s America the scandal was a naked woman at the bus stop.  How dare she expose herself to anyone that walks by?  Whatever will we tell our children?  In our Detroit neighborhood, the scandals are a lack of affordable housing for this woman, lack of mental or physical health treatments if she needs them, not enough police to protect her from harm and not take advantage of her themselves, more liquor and drugs than quality food in the neighborhood, not enough quality early childhood centers.  I can list many more scandals exposed by her undressing that day.

This woman is getting naked on a corner of judgment, where naked women of her kind, her ilk, are scrutinized every day.  Judged by men in suits sending out proclamations of righteousness while remaining behind closed doors with blue pill erections.  Placed into categories of hopelessness by those who know them least, but who judge them best.  Exposed to the world?  Many have no choice.  Always naked no matter how many sets of clothes are in their bags or on their back. 
With her new shirt in place, she reached for her waistband, and in one fell swift motion pushed her loose-fitting pants to the ground, underwear too much of a burden on such a day as this.  The cackling of the male hens crescendo as necks twisted heads in this direction and that.  Her former outfit was placed neatly in her bag, a new pair of pants pulled out in a deliberate, not too hurried, not too slow, dressing process.  With all in place, the awaited bus pulled to the corner, consuming the rays of the sun that once fell upon this naked human sister, and she was gone. 

I choose to think her only exposure that day was that of her naked flesh.  It is the only thing I can see clearly, without further assumptions, guesses or pseudo-psychological evaluations or judgments.  I don’t know a thing about her issues.  But perhaps if we all got to know each other a bit better….