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.