Influences: History

The second half of the question I posted about on Friday was this: Name two historical events, either in your lifetime or before you were born, that have been pivotal in your decision to pursue religious leadership – and describe their importance to you. While my issue with the first half of this question had been picking the right options, I think I ran in to more trouble here with refining my ideas. I pretty quickly selected the events I wanted to talk about and though they certainly felt right, the framework of how I was talking about them never managed to seem anything other than intensely trite. A conversation with my friend Kim, a writer who was doing development work at my place of work at the time, helped me clarify what about these experiences was special. I had been speaking of these events as, basically, when my Grandma passed away and 9/11, which while certainly big events are almost impossibly generic – pretty much every American above a certain age has a story about how their life changed after 9/11, and anyone who had a relationship at all with a loved one who passed has a story about how someone died and their life was changed – but the reality was that it was specific events that happened after these things, details about my particular experience, that had been most pivotal for me.

It would be very easy to pick my Grandmother’s death as a moment that changed the course of my life, and sent me on the path I am currently on, but that’s not entirely true. Her death in and of itself had less to do with the path I wound up on as my reaction to my family’s desires for her funeral did. Though she had not been a particularly religious woman, or at all the sort of passive, docile woman that more conservative Christianity values, some of the more conservative Christian men in my family chose verses from the Bible for her service that emphasized what a “good” woman she had been in having had and raised eight children. I was upset. Yes, my Grandma absolutely had raised eight children and that certainly was an accomplishment, but I did not (and still do not) believe that she would be comfortable with her stated legacy being that she had been passive and had many children. Besides that, anyone who had ever met her would know that any suggestion that she had been at all passive or demure was quite far from the truth. Instead of fighting with my family members about what to include, I simply asked to be able to say something myself. They obliged, and I wrote a short piece about what I had learned from my Grandma: the importance of loving and caring for one another while we had the opportunity to do so. It was important for me, and for some of my family members, to provide an honest look at the legacy she had left, and the wisdom she had imparted to eight children and some twenty one plus grandchildren. After the service, the minister who had done the actual eulogy approached me and asked if I had ever considered being a minister. New to even attending church I looked at him and said “I’m a Unitarian”, he smiled and said “I suppose they need ministers too” and left. It would be over a year after that before I began to seriously consider the ministry, but that experience from the beauty of getting to honor my Grandmother in a way that I thought was appropriate for the life she lived, to the planting of that seed was definitely instrumental to my being able to notice my call later on.

My childhood best friend and I stopped attending the same school when we were still in elementary school, but managed to continue to be active participants in each other’s lives despite living apart and attending different schools. This relationship was easily one of the most important ones in my development as a person, and also lead to my having experiences that strongly altered how I interacted with the world. Since our schools had different schedules, we never had spring break at the same time so it became tradition for me to attend school with her and her friends on the Friday of my spring break, and to hang out over the weekend as they began theirs. I first did this in the spring of 2002, during our Freshman year of high school. This particular Friday, my friend (who attended a small Catholic school) had religion class, and told me excitedly that they were discussing Islam. I was nervous. In my world of small-town public school and conservative parents, I had heard only very negative things about Islam, particularly in the aftermath of September 11th. What were they learning about Islam? And why? No one in my world wanted to talk about anything but how hateful they believed Islam was, and I could only imagine that this tiny Catholic school would do more of the same. During the class I remember the teacher, a nun, discussing the importance of learning about people who believe differently than we may, because if we don’t know it’s very easy to be convinced that the unfamiliar is evil. We learned about the history of Islam, that it and its belief system was far more complicated than I had been lead to believe. I remember sitting there, stunned by how little most people I knew actually knew about Islam. I remember being further stunned when my friend later pointed out a classmate wearing a hijab and told me that she was really involved in student government and very nice and very smart. Looking back, I feel embarrassed that those things were so revolutionary for me, but in the world I lived in the response to the other was always ridicule and hate. From there, I became very interested in learning as much as I could about the world’s religions, the beliefs of their practitioners, and the commonalities that many of these religions had. I became convinced that the way out of what I saw as wildly unnecessary hate was simply to learn about one another, writing a paper and doing a large project in my Sophomore year on the importance of religious tolerance. It was during the research for that project that I initially encountered and considered Unitarian Universalism, and it was the whole process, from that one class onward, that resulted in many of the beliefs I hold today.


Influences: Artistry, Music, Writing, etc.

The application process for Starr King involves around 10 essay questions about a variety of topics. One of my favorite questions to answer was this: Name five writings, films, or artistic works that have influenced you and explain how they have helped shape your life. For me, the first challenge was a matter of cutting back from all the various works I could think of to the five that were most representative. I tried to get a mix of mediums, but the reality is that I’m most attached to words and music so everything is either writing or song. There is also callback to my first post here, and that e.e. cummings poem that inspired my first lay lead service. Beyond this being content wise interesting, I find the difference in writing style between the three pieces I’ve posted so far interesting; the blog post is casual, this is somewhat formal, the reflections are in between. 

I read Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle for the first time during a particularly formative period of my life. After a year and a half of undergraduate study of biochemistry, I had found myself deeply unsatisfied with the path I was taking and questioning what direction I would take and which decisions were the “right” decisions to make. At the suggestion of a friend, I began reading Kurt Vonnegut’s books and was immediately hooked. When I finished reading Cat’s Cradle, I laid on my bed and stared at the ceiling trying to absorb some of the experience I had just had. What was hitting me the hardest was the teachings of Bokononism, a religion that’s holy book begins with the words “All of the true things that I am about to tell you are shameless lies”. In this fictional religion’s fictional holy book, believers are told to “live by the foma [harmless untruths] that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.” As a person struggling to do the “right” thing, the idea that you didn’t have to know exact and perfect truth to make decisions that were good was world changing for me. This concept of foma in general was also important to me because I regularly felt like I was drowning in a sea of people, religious and non-religious, who were obsessed with “truth” to an extent that seemed to only really provide barriers between them. I knew very few religious people at the time, but those who I did know were very focused on making sure other people knew the “truth”, meanwhile the very large number of atheists I knew at the time were very prone to ridiculing religious people for believing things that weren’t “true.” I had long been of the belief that religion, science, and any other ways of knowing things were for the most part just different paths to understanding the universe, and that what really mattered was to be kind to others and live in a way that makes you happy without hurting anyone else, but in a world where everyone seemed obsessed with knowing the “truth” it was complicated to express that. Cat’s Cradle gave me a jumping off point to discuss this idea with other people, and laid the foundations for my current belief that maybe absolute truth is unknowable, and so we create metaphors to try to explain all of that vast unknowable reality.

“Twice The First Time” a song by spoken word artist and rapper Saul Williams was really my first introduction to conscious hip-hop, a genre of music that to this day is heavily influential in my life. In my youth in almost exclusively white exurbia, the only hip hop I had access to was top 40s, commercial rap, which was routinely criticized by both my peers and parents as being reflective of what was wrong with “black culture”. I was uncomfortable with that criticism, because it seemed strange to me that people could criticize popular hip-hop was reflective of “black culture” without also finding critiques of “white culture” in other popular music, and because I enjoyed listening to the music. As I developed a consciousness of privilege and oppression, that criticism became even more uncomfortable. I was introduced to Saul Williams (along with other artists such as Blackalicious, Jurassic 5, The Roots, and Mos Def) by a friend during my Sophomore year of college, and was instantly hooked. This song in particular stood out to me because it seemed so honest, to be telling so much truth in a five minute package. Toward the middle of the song, the beat-boxing that provides the foundational rhythm of the song drops out and Saul Williams states “not until you’ve listen to Rakim on a rocky mountaintop have you heard hip hop”. Though in the years since I first hear this song I’ve found on each listening a new set of lyrics that speak to me, this moment in this song is the moment where I realized exactly how wrong popular conceptions of hip-hop could be, and where I started to really grasp the importance of letting people tell their own stories rather than imposing culturally constructed narratives on them.

Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society speech is powerful both in its content – a progressive vision for America – and it’s style – a masterfully framed and beautiful piece of political speech writing. I read this speech first while reading a book discussing George Lakoff’s theories about political framing and ways in which different framing can be used to more clearly communicate progressive values. As different concepts were introduced, different speeches were presented and the reader was invited to consider how that framing changed how people would receive those messages. As I read the speech, I was struck by how different both the ideas and the language were than the political language I was used to. My political awareness was formed during the Bush years, and reading a president talking about the importance of quality education and caring for the poor was beyond anything I had considered would be possible in the future, much less in the past. Reading it made me, and continues to make me, hopeful for a public discourse that includes conversations about our duty to care for one another, and reminds me of the importance of saying these things in a way that people know how to hear. It reminds me of the possibility of public speech to transmit radical ideas, and that if a time existed in the past where a president would talk about a “place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community” and try to implement policies that could make that place real, certainly there can be a time in the future where we can focus on more than just the accumulation of wealth.

I became familiar with the musical version of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables as a sophomore in High School, and I believe that my deep love for it affected much of what I would go on to do in my life. Though some of my friends who shared my passion for the musical were mostly interested in the love story of Marius and Cosette or in Eponine’s pining for Marius, I was drawn to les aimes de l’ABC, and their passion for and dedication to attempting to change the world for the better. Now, it was obvious to me even then that they had failed to reach people and that more effective community organizing would perhaps have made their efforts more successful, but even though they failed to achieve their goal, I was still drawn to the idea that passionate dedicated people could make a difference.

The title line to e.e. cummings’ poem “love is the every only god” became stuck in my head at the end of the summer in 2011, as I was beginning my work at Preterm and my time as a Worship Associate. A fan since early in college of cummings’ disregard for proper use of punctuation, capitalization, or sentence order, I had been looking through a book of his poetry, idly in search of a clever or interesting sounding phrase when I happened upon “love is the every only god.” I sat and stared at the page and thought that perhaps it was the most true line of poetry I had ever read. I struggled with the god part of it though, as a person who had never been particularly comfortable with belief in God the lack of capitalization made is more simple for me. The phrase felt true though, true and powerful in a way few things have ever felt. Faced with the reality of this line of poetry feeling so true, while containing a reference to a thing called god that I had never quite believed in, I spent a lot of time thinking and dealing with the concept of god. Overall it was very good for me, and that line became the title of the first lay lead service I ever participated in as a worship associate.

On Abortion Care Provider Stigma and Buying Sandwiches

I originally wrote this for one of the many blogs I have had and failed to maintain over the years. I have spent the past two years of my life as a Patient Advocate in an abortion clinic, work that has changed my life in so many ways I am not even quite sure how to express it. I wrote this nearly a year ago, and it doesn’t even scratch the surface of what I will wind up having to say about this period of my life, but, it exists already and I think it’s important background information and that the point I attempted to make in this piece is as necessary as ever. 

Sometimes, I forget to take my lunch with me when I go to work. When this happens, I generally choose to wander to a sandwich shop down the street to get something to eat. Sometimes, in my hurry to eat and get back to work, I forget to take my name tag off before I go inside.

The first time this happened I about had a panic attack while ordering my sandwich. My name tag says my first name on it, and the lanyard it is attached to is covered in buttons that say things like “Condoms cause sex like umbrellas cause rain”, “Trust Women” and “Pro-faith, Pro- family, Pro-Choice”. A closer look makes it even more obvious that I work in an abortion clinic. The first time this happened, I awkwardly shuffled my lanyard, making it so most of my buttons and my actual name tag faced backwards. I didn’t know if the woman making my sandwich had noticed, and upon a tiny bit of reflection I realized that she probably didn’t care, but for that moment I felt incredibly vulnerable.

This same awkward dance has played out in other stores, where I will realize that we’re still wearing it and slip it in to my pocket. It’s awkward enough to accidentally wear anything that has your name on it in a public place, knowing that the message people can get from just looking at you being “Hi, my name is KC and I work at an abortion clinic” is that and then a few more steps.

This is what abortion care provider stigma looks like. This is what anti-choice terrorism has lead to.

I can think of a number of other instances in which I’ve gone absolutely out of my way to not tell people where I work. It’s kind of hard, people don’t ever expect you to not be okay saying what you do for a living so vague answers don’t always work. I am guilty of vague allusions to “women’s health” and just saying that I do “counseling work”. Another tactic is to say the name of where I work, but not what it is. Sometimes people are so self-conscious about appearing to not know something that if they don’t know from that, they just give up. On one really notable occasion I talked in circles to the point where a cousin of mine decided that I did potential end of life counseling for people about to have risky surgeries. I think I’m hardly alone in having made attempts to not tell people what I do.

This is what happens. This is the result of a society in which it is considered completely OK for Bill O’Rilley to call Dr. George Tiller “Tiller the baby killer”, and where no one bore any responsibility when Dr. Tiller was murdered. Where it’s acceptable to call doctors who perform abortions “abortionists” and people who bomb clinics, assault patients, and murder providers are not included in the FBI’s main terrorism database. These people do want to hurt us, we all know that. We all have little tips and tricks for “not attracting attention” and our understanding of how to respond to a threat. Sometimes, since it’s not really possible to tell who is dangerous and who isn’t, it just seems safer to just hide.

At the same time, I’m clear that some of my avoidance is about feeling like I don’t want to have that conversation. I don’t actually expect that the lady making my sandwich in front of me to follow me home, and I don’t think anything worse than an awkward and possibly very unpleasant conversation would happen with my cousin. Sometimes it’s easier to not make waves.

However, what happens when we hide is pretty bad. If we hide, we make it look like we’re ashamed of what we do, and we allow anti-chiocers to be the dominant voice heard in the abortion debate. If we’re ashamed of what we do how can we ever expect women who seek abortions to shake feeling ashamed of their choices? If we’re so afraid that we don’t speak up, how can we act confused when women take in the dominant narrative and are themselves afraid of us? How can it be at all surprising when a patient says that she expected the clinic to be dirty? Or when she wants to know if the doctor is a “real doctor”? If the political right in America is good at anything, it’s framing the debate. I wonder if the purpose of intimidating clinic staff isn’t to make us hide so that there is no opposition to their dangerous framing.

And here’s the thing: I am not at all ashamed of what I do, and I don’t know anyone who does abortion care work who is. What we are is cautious and very aware, but maybe it’s time to throw some of that caution to the wind.

Now, I’m not saying that we should all run around informing literally everyone of what our names are and where we work, but we’ve got to stop acting like if we just hide, no one will be violent towards us. We’ve got to stop acting like we could possibly be at fault if someone was violent towards us. Let’s not let that transform in to avoiding ever being identified as abortion care providers. Armed with a sense of our own goodness, let’s each take steps to end the stigmatization of abortion and abortion care providers. What we do is not only okay, it’s good. We care deeply about our work and about our patients, and people deserve to know that about us. We deserve to be able to tell people what we do without fear. Some of getting to that point is beyond our control and some of it will take a lot of time, but destigmatizing abortion care can start with something as simple as saying “oh, I work at an abortion clinic” or not worrying about leaving your name tag on in public.

By choosing to speak about what we do honestly and without shame, we give our patients the chance to speak about their abortions in the same way. By talking publicly about our work we add another voice to the conversation, countering the amplified voices of anti-choicers and allowing ourselves more ability to control what the conversation surrounding abortion is about.

When I go to the sandwich shop, I no longer try to remember to take my name tag off. It’s not much, but it’s a little step toward visibility. I wonder where a bunch of little steps could get us?

Love is the every only god

If I’m going to be talking about my time in seminary, it might be a good idea to talk a bit about how I got to the point of deciding to apply to seminary. Serving as a Worship Associate at my congregation (the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland) has been a huge part of my life for the past two years, and was a major contributing factor to my decision to pursue ministry. This piece was written for the first lay lead service I participated in, in December of 2011. The service’s title was” Love is the every only god” after the e.e. cummings poem of the same name. I suggested this theme at a meeting, expecting everyone else to consider it too silly or not well thought out enough, and was happily overwhelmed when my fellow Worship Associates responded positively. We put together a whole service, complete with colorful scarves to represent my synesthetic experience, and to this day building that very first service with the worship team is one of my favorite and most powerful memories.

e.e. cummings is probably my favorite poet. I love the way words that aren’t commonly put together look and sound together. I’m a sucker for an interesting sounding string of words – regardless of it it appears to mean much of anything. As such, I occasionally browse though his poems. One day as I was doing this I happened upon a poem that began “Love is the every only god”. What it said after that is unimportant, what matters is that that phrase stuck with me, it rattled around in my brain for days, maybe weeks. Actually, it’s still rattling around in there. Every time it shows up in my thoughts I can’t help but say to myself , “that’s so true.”

It’s been a little weird. I’m not used to or particularly comfortable talking about something called god. My family for the most part never talks about god, and my friends certainly don’t. But there I was, with that phrase and those words rattling around in my head. I kept thinking of when I was younger and briefly a member of a Mennonite church. They liked to say “god is love” quite a lot. This was basically just the same words backwards, I thought, but it felt different. Also, I believed these words, and it felt very strange to me to believe any sentence that claims to be about the nature of god. Eventually, in a characteristically over dramatic moment, I told a friend that I’d had these words stuck in my head for a while and that I was a little unsettled by the fact that I believed them. We talked for a bit and then he asked “so, what do you mean by ‘love is the every only god’?” This is the best explanation I have.

We all have walls. Some of these walls are basic and necessary, they say “this over here, is me and that over there, is you.” other walls can be less benign and are based on our ideas about “us” and “them”.  Regardless of why the walls are there, they are in fact there. Behind these walls each of us exists, all of our hopes, dreams, emotions, past experiences and everything. It can get very lonely behind these walls. It’s easy to feel isolated. Sometimes however, we open ourselves up to one another and manage to push the walls aside. In these moments where we connect, where we see our common humanity, I experience the only thing I’ve ever really thought could be called god.

This moment is illustrated very clearly in my mind. I’m synesthetic and for me part of that is that everyone I meet has a color. I, for example, am bright blue while Amy is a kind of warm pink. When we interact, those colors swirl together and modify each other. Whenever I have a positive interaction with someone, colors get brighter. When I have a really intense connection with someone, the colors get more saturated, and on and on.

However I also have interactions, positive and otherwise, where each person’s respective color stays very close to them. Though not everyone experiences interpersonal relationships how I do, I think most people have this sort of interaction at least sometimes.

I’ve found that one of the best ways to facilitate this sort of interaction is to show other people love. In the book “Kitchen Table Wisdom”, Rachel Remen writes “Of course love is never earned. It is a grace we give one another. Anything we need to earn is only approval.” When I talk about loving people, I don’t mean it in the sense of “like a whole lot” or in the sense that is meant when we talk about romantic love. To show someone love in this sense of the word is to look at them and actually see them;  To push aside whatever judgments we reflexively make, to ignore our biases, and to say “hey, I see you there. You have a whole life, a whole history, a body of experiences that I can never really know. There you are, existing, and I see that.” When we love people, we accept their lived experiences as valid and become more able to see in them the basic human-ness that we see in ourselves. Treating people in accordance with loving them in turn allows them to open up to you, to feel safe and accepted, and to see the basic human-ness in you that they see in themselves. Love is how we put down the walls and it is what we find beyond them, when we let ourselves. It can be scary to put down the walls, especially when we aren’t used to receiving love when we make ourselves vulnerable but in putting down those walls we find the ability to help others who are scared to be themselves, and a truly divine experience.

For me, places that are filled with love are places without judgment, where individuals are accepting and welcoming, these places are very brightly colored. I love the moment in a counseling session when my patient realizes or decides that it’s okay to actually open up to me. Suddenly everything is much brighter and the whole tone of the conversation changes.

When I first came here I was overwhelmed and confused by how bright the colors were and how much I felt able to actually just be myself. I remember wondering when people were going to stop being nice, or when I was going to learn what it was about me that was unacceptable here. Gradually I came to realize and believe that that wasn’t going to happen. My ability to believe that really came from the experiences I had, of people interacting with me in a way that showed me that it wasn’t necessary to keep my walls up, and experiences where I let my walls down and was received warmly and with love. I count myself as lucky, maybe even blessed, to have in my life a religious community, group of friends, and workplace where I have these sorts of experiences. Love and acceptance abound in these parts of my life, and that gives me an incredible amount of joy.

Unfortunately, not all places we exist in contain this kind of love. In these places everything becomes very gray for me. People’s individual colors are dulled, and they generally stay very close to the individual. There is not a lot of real connection going on in these places. Public places, or in my case, when I am with my own family, tend to take on this characteristic. When I’m in a space where I’m able to be myself and able to connect with other people who accept me, some of the hurt that is caused by this lack of acceptance is healed. When I show that same kind of love to others I can help heal them, and also heal myself. When the walls are down and we are able to truly connect with one another, we are showing and receiving love. This feeling, of acceptance and unconditional love is the single most holy thing I have ever felt.


(I need to remember to tell Erin Jeffreys Hodges about this)