Sunday, March 22, 2015

What's in a name?

Since I named this blog Gay Pentecostal Atheist a couple of years ago I have received a fairly steady stream of reactions to the name itself. Those generally fall into one of two camps: (1) Awesome!!!! and (2) I know you and you are NOT an atheist.

In light of the steps of my journey in the intervening time frame, perhaps it is time to revisit the label. What do I mean by that? Am I actually an atheist? What does the term "atheist" mean? Where am I going with this?

First a bit of reflection: I believe that we are all journeying, regardless of the signs and labels we hang on ourselves. Thank goodness, we can discard and pick up different signs as we move along life's path. Wouldn't it be horrible if we couldn't do that? Perhaps that is one of the benefits of living in a linear time frame. So what's that label Gay Pentecostal Atheist about? At the time I put those three words together I was in a very specific place. I had already dealt with questions of sexuality for years and after more than a decade in a wonderful, life affirming love relationship I had reached a place of deep understanding in myself about that part of me. There is no doubt that I am gay, whether god-given or otherwise. But I, like many people my age and older have struggled to see how gayness can exist in a godly life.

In fact, I moved into adulthood suddenly on a May evening in 1988 but only after I began a deliberate process of separating from and rejecting the Pentecostal god of my parents. I needed to do this to resolve the internal conflict between the good I knew was in me and the evil I had been taught was in me. I had to do this to survive, to find some clarity. A few years later I was able to look back and explain my journey in this way: In order to survive I had to kill god. That explanation honored the fact that I had spent at least 10 unproductive years surrendering myself to god and accepting internal conflict as a personal fault. My teenage years were spent in prayer and it was prayer without resolution, without healing. So I found myself at a decision point: kill god or kill myself.

Who are you after you kill your god? How does one then live a good life? If even god himself is false what can be trusted? Who can provide rules for good conduct, models for proper behavior? I think a lot of gay kids from conservative religious backgrounds go through the yo-yo phase where they abandon all the rules and then struggle through a morality void. They have to work hard to regain a more meaningful grounding. I know it was a slow process for me. I probably never lost the core value of kindness to others but most everything else was up for negotiation. In that process of testing boundaries and building a new morality for myself I probably found a lot of comfort in reminding myself of the failings of religion. Pentecostalism, in particular, is rich in failings so there is plenty of fertile ground for ex-verts to find fault.

So I found solidarity in the ranks of atheism. One of the strengths of atheists is their ability to recognize and call out hypocrisy. This resonated with me and, hey, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. I never quite fit in with the atheists though. I wasn't angry at god (even though I had to kill him), but in the process of building my own morality I came to believe that he didn't actually exist outside of people's minds. I put a lot of really hard work into my new morality so, of course, I wouldn't want to give some distant god the credit for that. Then I discovered the sentiment attributed to Voltaire: "If God did not exist we would have to invent him."* That really resonated with me and it still does (although for different reasons) now.

However, I never stopped quoting scriptures in my head. Any regular Bible reader knows how remembered scripture can explain things, how it can comfort and support you in times of need. Eventually I found myself to be a scripture quoting atheist. After a few years I no longer felt the same relevance in that old idea that I had killed god in order to live. I have kept a journal since I was eight years old and part of my process has always been to look at old journals every few years, to review decisions and outcomes.

No doubt that reviewing helped me eventually revisit my killing god explanation. I found myself thinking more and more about one specific event recorded in May 1988: a prayer I prayed on one particular day. This was the day when the unnecessary guilt in me had grown to match my will for life, the day I might have killed myself but instead grew up. This prayer concluded two tearful, prayerful days spent hiding in my bed, in a dark room, in a lonely college dorm room. I was 19 and on this day I decided to be a man, make a real world decision and to then live with it. This was when I first accepted that all the praying in the world wasn't going to change my nature and that to continue to ignore the obvious was an even more basic transgression than being gay. Remembering the prayer I prayed helped me re-name this day as the day I stepped out in faith. In those last moments of dusk before I rose from my bed I prayed something like this: "God I don't know what's going to happen next but this can't continue. I'm going to find out tonight what it means to be gay. I don't know if you will go with me or not. I don't want to leave you and I don't know if or when I'll come back but your word says you will never leave me..."

It was very much an unfinished prayer because I had no idea what lay ahead. I just knew I couldn't stay where I was. I sat up on the edge of my bed, in silence, in dark, for a few minutes. Then I got up, dressed and went out into the world. So after a while I was able to remember this moment not as a defeat but as a really pivotal and trusting decision that there was a future for me but I would need to discover it. The story changed from "killing god to survive" to "stepping out in faith into the unknown".

I eventually fell out of love with atheists. In my experience many atheists are in a place of anger. The public figures we are most aware of as atheists seem to be fighting against religion and against the concept of god. Their discourse doesn't honor the good that lives in religion, the beautiful impulse that comes out of human souls. There seems to be little or no place in atheism for an inner life. What I came to realize a decade ago is that I still have an inner life. Even though I can't find something that is real out in the world that I can label GOD, my inner need for the god-like stuff, for meaning, for context, for love -- that's all very real. I also have allowed myself in recent years to revisit the songs, the rituals and the scriptures that brought me such comfort as a child and sometimes as a teenager. I discovered that the comfort felt real and true even while god remained unreal for me so I decided the need was real too.

How do you satisfy a need when the original solution was a made-up figment of someone's imagination? Does the need exist as a product of believing the hoax? Once I have recognized the conundrum, can I live an authentic life without exploring it? Am I running from or am I running toward?

Then I found myself in a serious crisis a few years ago. This is the kind of crisis that ruins lives, ends marriages, breaks people forever. I needed to pray and I found myself unable to pray. I couldn't bring myself to pretend that someone out there was hearing me and I couldn't pretend to believe just in case someone was listening. So I just prayed from my heart and I directed that prayer back into my heart. I needed help so I sought it as authentically as I could, as an atheist, just where I was. I prayed something like: " I don't know if you're there. I have no faith at all that anyone is there. But I need the kind of strength I used to get when I prayed before." I'm still praying a version of that prayer and it still feels like the most authentic thing I can pray because I truly do not believe in an old man in the sky. For so many reasons. But the prayer is authentic and it feeds my heart.

So I have come to a place that does not fit comfortably with some of the major paradigms of our society. I am gay but I am moral. I am atheist in belief but I am drawing on the strengths of my Pentecostal cultural background. None of this makes any sense at all but I still exist. These three things live together in me and my existence is sufficient evidence that there can be a gay Pentecostal atheist. If you can't understand that join the club. Understanding isn't the only game in town though. Reality often surpasses understanding.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The four faces of Shaw

Its been a while since I've sat down to write anything, mainly because there has been so much to process lately and the old squishy bio-RAM has been working overtime! After the death of Vonderrit Myers and the ensuing protests many of our neighbors here in Shaw stood up and joined the ranks of the righteous and the outraged. Lots of others responded differently, trumpeting the most racist of sentiments and turning all opportunities for thoughtful discourse into argumentative Round Robins of name calling, self-centered whining and downright bullying against those they saw as their opponents. Most of us just hunkered down like little baby birds, hoping the storm would pass soon. What once seemed to be a peaceful neighborhood full of kindly neighborly folks has turned into a cesspool of cliques, some of which remind one strongly of St. Louis from the 1950's.

But maybe that's just me. Maybe the jerks were just as jerky last year but, for whatever reason, I ignored all the warning signs and I've actually been surrounded by jerks all along. Anyway, let's look at what Shaw actually seems to be in the light of this new spring -- in the spring after so many of us got angry, behaved like children, refused to show compassion and ignored our neighbors' pain as loudly as we possibly could.

They say a crisis shows you what you're really made of and is that ever true in Shaw! This crisis has laid our reality bare with near X-ray clarity. As revealed by recent events, Shaw is like a body whose organs are in revolt, a corpus whose limbs take independent directions, a being with no agreed upon sense of direction. From my point of view there are four main groups of people in Shaw and none of us are on the same page. If you do not find yourself in this list then you may live in Shaw but you are an outsider. There are a lot of us here too. 

Those who hold the most power in Shaw are a diverse group but they in no way represent all of Shaw. I call them the Old Standards. These people are invariably and strongly linked to St. Margaret of Scotland church and school. Many of these people have lived in Shaw for decades and they are almost exclusively white. In collective, this group has always been in control of the most important political and fiscal decisions in Shaw. They often run the neighborhood improvement association to one degree or another. They use the association, the alderman, city government and the courts to redistribute property ownership in the neighborhood. Perhaps the most visible effect of this group's power over the last 30 years is the transfer of about 20% of Shaw's housing stock from rental property to single family ownership. This group is used to making the big decisions for everyone else and they don't take challenges to their power kindly.

The secret weapon of the Old Standards is the undeserved social status that comes with residence on Flora Place. Not all Old Standards live on Flora Place but many do or have in the past. Those who live elsewhere in the neighborhood often strive to buy on Flora Place. At social events and in meetings of the neighborhood association Flora Place residents generally receive a certain amount of kowtowing from the other, less worthy residents of Shaw. Street of residence, religious affiliation and race are the three most important qualifications of an Old Standard. You might become one if you can provide two of those qualifications, but you'll be lucky if you do!

The Old Standards are often supported by the Reliables, a sizable but shrinking number of off-Flora working class whites. Some of these people have spent their whole lives trying to fit in with the Old Standards and never quite make the grade. Others accept their inferiority and settle for supporting the shady class structure imposed upon the neighborhood by the Old Standards. Quite a few of the Reliables have either given up on this fool's errand or were never really into it in the first place. These are the people who repeatedly rise to the occasion in times of crisis and actually do something worthwhile! They provide the rest of us with inspiration and hope for the future. Reliables are generally good folks with good intentions and some actively work for change but too many of them remain silent when they should be sharpening their pitchforks.

There is another group of people in Shaw who have been here even longer than the Old Standards and the Reliables. I call them the Neighbors. This group is made up of the African American families who anchor nearly every block in the neighborhood by virtue of their longevity here. In many cases four or five generations of these families live in and around Shaw. Their matriarchs have been here since time immemorial. Many of the Neighbors own their homes but younger family members tend to rent. The Neighbors all seem to know one another and they form a network of care and support that flies completely under the radar of the Old Standards. The Old Standards don't know (and don't seem to want to know) any of them. When the Old Standards are not ignoring the Neighbors they are doing their level best to get rid of them - one family, one house at a time.  BTW, the Neighbors don't seem the least bit impressed with the Old Standards.

It's hard for me to imagine how a place could include two groups of people so separate and isolated from each other. In fact, it might be closer to reality to say that there are two Shaws - one white, one black, coexisting uneasily, seldom interacting, seldom even acknowledging the other except when forced together at a court hearing. It's rather like an old episode of Star Trek where two star ships exist at the same place and time but in different realities.

Of course I am generalizing but this is, in broad strokes, the reality I encountered when I moved here 15 years ago. Some of this has become clear only in the past few months, but most of it was readily apparent on Day 1. There are no significant bridges between the Old Standards and the Neighbors. Never have been, never will be. Some of the Reliables have coexisted more easily with some of the Neighbors but overall there's not much going on there either.

During the past decade a very important fourth group has emerged in Shaw. The Newbies are quite diverse when it comes to religion, race, and political bent. Early arrivals were mainly from out of state but in recent years they have been joined by an increasing flow of local suburbanites. The Newbies are mostly younger and better educated than Shaw's entrenched groups. They tend to have more money than either the Reliables or the Neighbors.

For me, this is where it gets really interesting. If anything is to ever change for the better in Shaw it will be because the Newbies make it happen. Many in this group are uncowed by the Old Standards and they bring a real desire to live in a just society and the energy to work towards it. Our streets were crowded not just by Ferguson protesters this fall, but also by Shaw Newbies.

Unfortunately, success is in no way assured. Quite a few of the Newbies are as racist as any of the others here. As Newbies buy homes on Flora Place they seem to be falling hook, line and sinker for the same sham promise of meaningless social status that has plagued that street since it was built. Other Newbies are poised to join the ranks of the quiet Reliables - good of heart but more concerned that the neighborhood looks good to outsiders than that it becomes a place of justice. The poison vat that passes for our neighborhood social media website has become what it is largely through the inability of some Newbies to really hear one another and through others' unwillingness to rock the boat. 

So what can be done to change this place for the better? My hope is that the Newbies vote -- in every election. I hope Newbies pay attention to how power is meted out and how decisions are made in Shaw and the 8th Ward. I hope the Newbies realize that while we work, eat our dinners and watch our TVs, there are a handful of people who are deciding the fates of so many of our neighbors. What do you want this place to be in the next 10 years? Are you going to trust that the right things will get done for the right people without your input? Shaw doesn't exist as it does by accident. Our own little apartheid regime is the result of lots of those decisions getting made by a few people while the rest of us sat around and trusted our leaders to do the right thing. As you know, they haven't been doing the right thing - not by a long shot. If they had, we wouldn't be where we are now.

Most of all, I hope the Newbies resist with all their might the tendency to join one of the entrenched groups in Shaw. As you come in your hundreds, do not become an Old Standard or a Reliable or a Neighbor. Instead become a bridge. Shaw has about 5,000 homes. That is 5,000 different families. Imagine what a wonderful Shaw this would be if we had 500 real and permanent bridges. Imagine what that would do for our children and for our city. Imagine what it would do for all of us.

Monday, December 1, 2014

All this church going is having an effect on me.  I don't know if it is making me harder or softer but I think it is making me stronger.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Dear SLU, are you racist or just a bunch of privileged assholes?

That moment when someone close to you, someone who works with you every single day, has a son who dies - actually dies - but you are too sleepy/ bored/ busy/ racist to stand up and offer him some community support. Yes, that moment.

That was you, last night. We made it easy - we came to you at a time when classes were over and you were doing nothing that couldn’t wait. You know, smoking weed, watching that shitty Teen Titans show or sitting on the toilet with your dick in your hand. You could just as easily have waited until tonight to stain the tiles but you have your priorities.

A lot of you came to the rally and participated, felt the love and left feeling like better people. A few of you might have even learned something. But more of you stayed in whatever sad little space you were in and cranked out intellectual turds on YikYak.

Dear SLU, after seeing these rivulets of racism trickling out from under your front door I can only imagine what a seething mass of horribleness must lie within.

  •         Stop protesting and make something of your lives
  •        I want my concealed carry license. Asap.
  •        They are waiting for the new Nikes to drop and SLU has nice grass to sit on.
  •        Protest at the police station. They won’t go near a police station. lol its called warrants.
  •        Sitting around a clock tower disrupting a college campus instead of getting a job.
  •        There are 2000 ex or future cons at the clock tower
  •        It is such a shame these protestors have made so many people uncomfortable and lose their pride in SLU.
  •        Shouldn’t these people be at their job or school??? Oh wait.
  •        If you’ll notice all those tax deductions from your paycheck…
  •        SLU was SO FUCKING STUPID for letting these people in.
  •        Fuck these protestors
  •        We gotta give these boys a good lynching
  •        You can’t ‘axe’ me anything
  •        Way to be late for your own event. Just like a ...
  •        I blame the BSA
  •        My thoughts? Leave our campus
  •        I feel truly sorry for all the freshmen who have this tainted view that this is normal for SLU
  •        Get the fuck off my campus cause you dont pay tuition
  •        This is bullshit and they should be off our campus
  •        I did not leave the south side for this
  •        I hope nobody at the clock tower brought a sandwich
  •        This is just a time bomb waiting to happen
  •        Why the fuck are there so many SLU kids standing in the crowd? Why the fuck are you even there?
  •        I have pepper spray and I’m not afraid to use it.
  •        SLU gets free attention for being not racist, but whatever.
  •        I paid to go to private school for a reason.

Alright I’m going to stop right here because I’m tired and I feel sad. This is just the entries from 3 hours.

Old folks might not know about YikYak. It’s a 100% anonymous social media platform that exists only to ruin reputations and allow cowards a safe place to express their most shameful thoughts. College students seem to love it.
Tweeting protest @on_detonty

Sunday, October 12, 2014

What I learned when #FergusonOctober came to #Shaw

This is a (hopefully) ordered explication of what went down last night, why every person in Shaw should have been there and why Vonderrit Myers doesn’t have as much to do with it as we think.

What I thought before: Watching the news closely for the past few weeks I had developed a picture of the protests as disorganized and violent and characterized by lawless elements doing awful crap. Then I started watching Twitter and that impression was only reinforced by the flood of emotion-laden tweets that included “they do this because…” “they are racist because…” etc. Sorry, but making blanket statements about things going on inside other people’s heads doesn’t convince me. You might be right but you might be wrong too.

News coverage from the Post Dispatch and local TV stations has been incomplete. Even a casual reader with the intelligence of a Q-Tip might suspect that much of the real stuff is not getting reported. We all know only the most salacious details get featured, the violence, the crying, the drama. That’s just how they do that thing they do to sell ads. Even so, my overall impression of the protests was not a favorable one - probably because the messages coming from alternative media are too diverse and chaotic to present an intelligible counter story.

When I headed down to the protest early in the evening I wasn’t feeling it. I was going to see what might happen and to help keep some of the more fearful neighbors informed through the security committee. I was a little apprehensive but was determined to see what was going to happen in my neighborhood. What happened was this:

The protestors assembled and marched straight out of Shaw. They reassembled at the QuickTrip on Manchester, over on the edge of the Grove, had a sit in, marched back to the store at Shaw and Klemm, had a quiet debrief and went home.

I doubled back to the neighborhood during the sit-in but rejoined the group about twenty minutes later. During the march I was impressed with the calm, collegial atmosphere that was all around. I did not see a single person who was violent, there was no haranguing of the police and I did not see any negative behavior directed towards the neighborhood. My view of the protestors as volatile and potentially violent was challenged by every moment I spent with them.  The most interesting part of the night was the debriefing and it put it all into perspective for me. By “all”, I mean #Ferguson, #Handsup, #MikeBrown, #Shawshooting and #FergusonOctober. But first, this:

I started getting really interested in the Twitter feeds around the protests a while back. As mentioned, lots of that is over the top but a few individuals really popped out of the flow as level headed, passionate and whip smart. When I walked down to the protest yesterday I already knew that four of them were on their way to Shaw and Klemm and I made up my mind to try to find and meet them if the crowd seemed approachable in general. I’m not going to gush about personalities because that’s stupid but, as usual, my intuition was dead on. These folks were exactly as I had hoped - focused and clear headed, but also nicer than I had expected. As I talked with them my mind went back to the leaders and organizers I worked with in #ACTUP way back before there were @ and #’s. I was still a little apprehensive about what the night had in store for the neighborhood but as I accessed old memories about the world of direct action I could see the signs of planning all around. Nothing was left to chance. This was not a riot.

In my previous post I voiced confusion about why the previous protest in Shaw seemed so disconnected from the death of Vonderrit Myers. Why is he already barely even a ghost? This might be the biggest thing I got from last night. The protests are not about him. This protest wasn’t even about Michael Brown. This was about the living, about us. The organizers chose the QuickTrip, not Shaw. We were the staging area. The police were ready but the protesters had them outflanked before they even came to Shaw. People in the crowd were from Shaw, from all across our city and from elsewhere. I met people from many states, of various ages and races. The organizers kept it clean and calm and let the police demonstrate their intimidation and brutality for all those people to see. It worked. Apparently the reporters on the scene don’t understand but I totally get it. I wish all my neighbors could have seen that too. You might feel some of the admiration I felt for those kids last night.

When I got up this morning I read the Post Dispatch just for kicks. Wouldn’t you know it, they did it again. They talked about the arrests, the sit-in, but there was almost no sense of who the protesters are and what the night was like overall. Reading the article I couldn’t recognize my experience in that “news”.  There was that glaring blank spot in the middle of the article too. To paraphrase:  cops said move, protestors chanted, police advanced on protesters, protesters were detained.

So what happened between the advancing on the protestors and the detentions? The police chief said rocks were thrown. Plenty of videos and photos from the event are out there and I don’t see any rocks. Of course no one can see everything at once in a big event like this and I wasn’t there at the moment so I guess anything’s possible. What I do know is this:  If you can watch that and not be upset I don’t know what to say. I also know that before and after QuickTrip the crowd was calm and the atmosphere was one of solidarity and love. That’s amazing after what happened at the QuickTrip.

When I rejoined the group the arrests were in progress. The protestors were walking back to Shaw in several clusters. They were still calm, moving quietly and staying on the sidewalk, not chanting. The organizers were in control and were managing the crowd. The police presence was tremendous though and very intimidating. I would not be honest if I didn’t say this was the worst of the night for me. I heard that marching sound and the chatter of their batons striking boots from the top of the Manchester bridge, long before I caught up with them at Vandeventer and Sarah. The armored formation was marching the protestors out of the Grove. This much was viscerally clear: leave now or we are ready and able to fuck you up. Pretty basic. That message was in no way proportionate to the spirit of the protest and I can’t logically defend any other conclusion: we’re not as free as we want to believe. This is the message the organizers wanted to demonstrate. They set it up and the police did the work for them. My moment: All the burned flags in the world can't protect us from our own police.

So Shaw neighbors, why should you have been there? The protestors were not violent. It was as much a community event as any I have ever been a part of in Shaw. I have wondered why some people have taken their children to the protests. What I saw last night was a family friendly environment (aside from the police action). I wish you had all been there and had brought all your kids to see and be a part of that crowd. That crowd was our neighbors, not thugs defending dead criminals. That got redefined for me last night because I was there, I participated, I felt it all. 

The fear you feel is real but in my opinion it is not based on our city's reality. Our peace and property is not threatened by a handful of smart and organized young people who will undoubtedly transition into political leadership soon. Our security is threatened by the inability of our police protectors to know us and love us the way we need to be known and loved. I’m still a law-and-order guy. I don’t want bad guys with guns running around Shaw. These folks aren’t - and that is not what they are defending. They are defending us and we need to find some way to be a part of that effort.

What I learned when #Ferguson came to #Shaw

Here’s what I learned when #Ferguson came to #Shaw last night.

  1. #Ferguson will likely spawn some political leaders who will be elected to regional offices during the next decade. There are some really passionate individuals who also have charisma, good judgement and determination. That’s a winning combination for electability. I hope some of them transition successfully beyond #Ferguson. Keep your eyes open for @Nettaaaaaaaa.
  1. The #Ferguson movement is fizzling. It  now lacks an identifiable focus. It is all over town, its mainly about the fear and anger of the participants and all the haranguing of those in my Twitter feed has begun to sound desperate and pleading. Bassem Masri wasn’t able to get a single supporter to help him storm SLU hospital where @HotepTNT was being held “hostage” despite      multiple emergency tweets. Also, in the middle of the march on South Grand the Cardinal protests organizer and live streamer Mustafa Hussein (Theodore Barrett) was exposed by @ChuckCJohnson to be a registered sex offender, child molester and all around psychopathic bad guy. Ouch!
  1. #Ferguson is unable to fully capitalize on new events. They showed up in Shaw but if you hadn’t heard the news you wouldn’t have learned ANYTHING about Vonderrit Myers at the protest. Vonderrit is already a ghost, the coda for #Ferguson.
  1. My respect for the St. Louis Police Department went through the roof last night. They were cool and professional under some really stressful abuse. I’m a law abider for the most part so I don’t usually have a problem with the popo but I do get the issues. I was young once with waist length hair and I know exactly what it means to get locked up for walking home late at night after work with long hair. Twice. And that was even with me remaining calm and respectful, not      talking back or resisting. I get it.
  1. I love my neighborhood even more. We were solid last night. Mostly people stayed in but some folks were out at local drinking establishments, others were out walking, some paying respects, some looking. There were several church services and the one I attended (I know, right?!!!!!!) was inspirational, loving, thoughtful. We did good and we looked good y’all.
  1. Even with the incredible Twitter storm of misinformation and incitement from some in the #Ferguson crowd very little actually happened. I walked around much of the night and there were protesters. There were people from Ferguson looking to create a situation. But there were lots of locals out watching the show, looking for some late night entertainment in 3-D.
  1. I made the right decision when I bought into St. Louis. I already knew that though.