Stop praying for peace in Ferguson

“You want “peace” in Ferguson—by which you mean you don’t want to see any more burning cop cars on TV. But you don’t want to do anything about a system in which people have no other way to make themselves heard?

Then what you want isn’t peace. What you want is for your privilege to remain untouched.”

Ben Irwin

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I’m done praying for peace in Ferguson. I can’t bring myself to do it.

Not when the word “peace,” spoken by those of us clinging to unearned privilege, means peace for us and our kind.


Not when peace means black citizens have to respond to yet another failure of the justice system in ways the powerful deem to be “socially acceptable”—while it’s somehow OK for the enforcers of that system to come at them with tear gas and tanks and military-grade assault weapons.

Not when peace means a return to the status quo, a resumption of normalcy—that is…

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Who Are My People? A Black Unitarian Universalist on Selma and Ferguson

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A Full Day

“Man, I don’t have any people. I’m with everybody, Julius.”
–Louie Lastik, Remember the Titans

Wintertime in Houston sneaks up on you. As children we sweated in our Halloween costumes and, some years, played the big Thanksgiving Day basketball game in shorts. That first 40-degree day in early December alerted us it was time to ask our parents for money for Christmas shopping.

It was such a 40-degree day in my ninth year, a Sunday, when an adult said words that still stick with me.
“It means so much that your family worships here with us, Kenneth. It shows how far your people have come.”

Baffled doesn’t quite say it.
I thought the folks at church were my people.

I am a proud lifelong Unitarian Universalist. My roommates will tell you that some days I sing Spirit of Life to myself as I make breakfast. Coming of Age and…

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People often assume that as a white female, I don’t have to deal with racism. And they’re right — I don’t.

Passion, caffeinated

IAmTooWakeForest

Somebody recently told me that this picture, originally part of the #ITooAmWakeForest campaign (which you can find here: http://itooamwakeforest.tumblr.com/), was incorporated into an article somebody published on the website Total Sorority Move. I wasn’t able to track down the article myself, so it’s possible that it was moved or deleted. The sign I’m holding in the picture reads, “I’ve been asked: ‘Are you a transfer?’ ‘Are you albino?’ ‘Are you lonely?’ Because it’s ‘crazy’ I would want to join a black sorority instead of a white one.” Yes, I have really been asked those things at Wake Forest.

A year and a half after crossing Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. in spring 2013, it still strikes me as odd how much fascination and interest is generated simply by my membership in a historically black sorority. I knew long before I joined that I would receive a wide variety of responses…

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Just Around the Riverbend: A UU-Pagan’s Personal Reflection on Faith and Discovery

     Below are the words that I shared with the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Roanoke as part of our “This I Believe” Sermon Series which highlights the diverse range of belief found within the greater UU movement. It is a short, but full account of my journey into my path as both a UU and Pagan and what they mean to me as a single, evolving tradition.

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     The development of my identity as a Unitarian Universalist Pagan, or as UU-Pagan for short is one that ironically mimics both the literal and metaphorical mosaic that is the greater UU movement. Formed by the merger of Unitarians and Universalist, two historically heretical traditions of old, Unitarian Universalism today is truly a living, evolving, and enriching tradition for those who have come to call it home. The UU Church, either with a big “C” or small “c,” however you prefer it, stands with its doors wide open saying, “Come, Come, wander, worshiper, lover of leaving, we will make a place for you.”[1] As a religious yet non-religious, creedal yet creedless, spiritual yet ethical movement as Unitarian Universalism is for many of us. It has become one that reaffirms to me both the beauty and complexity that is the human experience here on earth. A human experience in which I find both unspeakable challenges and breathtaking beauty, it is my faith and my understanding as a UU-Pagan that I find hope in this world in that it can truly become the “Heaven on Earth” that so many Wise Ones before us have prophesied about. A hope in this world that even in the mists of rather seemingly undefeatable odds, a Beloved Community is possible.

My journey into our liberal religious movement comes as a result of a deep personal questioning and the greatly desired human yearning for connection with others of our species. Yet ironically enough, my journey of faith, I believe, started as a result of an intensely spiritual moment when the world first came alive to me at a Christian summer camp. It was during a hot summer evening, during an outdoors service in which communion was being served that I felt the pulse of the earth around me for the very first time. I looked around wondering to myself, as any youth at the time would, and said, “What in the hell is that?” It was this rather strange sense of being bigger than myself and yet smaller than myself all at the same time. I have discussed this experience with many and several have come to describe this as an “outer-body experience,” and maybe it was, but I remember looking around at the others, all whom had their eyes closed tight as a communal prayer was said, and it was then that I now realize that I had stumbled into the mystery of the transcendent. I had somehow at that very moment, at such a young age, tumbled onto a path marked by both great exploration and age-old questions.

But in honor of both my limited time with you this morning and in honor of the other two speakers here with me today, I will try and sum up my last ten years within the greater pagan movement and five of those years within this our UU movement.

For those who know nothing of the modern traditions of Paganism and those who identify as members of such, these traditions and communities seek to recreate the practices and beliefs of the ancient Europeans as well as those of the Ancient Near East and northern-Africa. Paganism itself is not a religion per se, but a collection of traditions who honor a vast number of gods known by many names who have been kept alive through what some believe are just funny folk customs and tall tales. Many today believe that the Gods of the ancient Greco-Roman, Egyptian, Celtic, and Sumerian cultures have long been forgotten, but nothing can be further from the truth. Whole communities gather on sacred feast days and during the turning of the seasonal wheel to lift prayers, sing songs, and feast in the name of these mighty deities of old. But even in the mists of different beliefs and practices between traditions, there are two very significant beliefs that unite us all; these being the belief in the acknowledgement of the sanctity of the earth and the many blessings She gives and the sanctity of the human condition.

It was in these two very facts that brought me to Paganism in the first place, two things that I never realized I craved for within the religion that I was loosely raised in. The tradition of Wicca, the largest and most widely known branch of Neo-paganism today, taught me early own that we are created uniquely, beautifully, and are endowed with power of many and all types. For we come in many shapes and sizes, in different shades and hues, and are endowed with different ways to love others. Though I no longer consider myself a Wiccan, I acknowledge its revolutionary role within my life in bringing me into contact with the transcendent, and most importantly, bringing me into contact with myself as the individual that I was created to be. Not one to be pulled down by my shortcomings or by my oddities as compared to what society has coined as right and proper, but as one who is of the divine as much as the divine is part of me.

Outside of paganism bringing me into sweet euphoria with the natural world around me, it in fact also brought me to Unitarian Universalism. During my early years within Paganism, I read and heard of many accounts of elders within our community, who during the late 60s and 70s, were members of various UU congregations around the country. In fact many of such elders still hold active membership within congregations today. Interestingly enough, the very same individuals who worked to make Pagan circles, groves, and fellowships more radically inclusive and socially aware, were also in some small part responsible for the same within the greater UU movement. Of such elders stands Margot Adler, who many of you might know as longtime correspondent for NPR, who recently entered into to the realm of spirit this past week. Margot was both an active member of a UU congregation in New York as well as a prolific priestess and writer within Paganism. She as well also severed several years on the board of CUUPS, the covenant group of Unitarian Universalist Pagans that was created for Pagan-identified UUs in 1985.

So as all teenagers do from time to time, I took a chance and decided that I would see if there was one of these Unitarian Universalist churches within my areas, and as my luck would have it, there was. Now, I had lived my whole entire life within the mountains of the Roanoke Valley and many times I had driven by this very building but never did I stop to consider and wonder what the congregation believed nor stood for. So I asked another pagan friend to attend with me one Sunday morning and from there I was hooked.

I have since spent many hours wondering how my dual religious identity as a Unitarian Universalist and as a Pagan fit together, but it wasn’t until last year while partaking in an interfaith conference that the wise words of dear friend, who is also a UU, caused all the pieces to fit together like a great puzzle. It was due to Ally’s metaphor that it finally clicked. She said that for her, “Unitarian Universalism was a picture frame and her Catholicism was the picture in which she placed within that frame.” It was this picture and frame reference that gave her insight and perspective into our rather complicated religious identity. For me, UU-ism is my radically inclusive and social aware picture frame based on simple principles and global sources that allows me to slip my picture of paganism into, thus giving me a way to understand our convoluted world. It should be then no surprise to you all that I feel a deep and meaningful connection to our seventh principle, “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence which we are all apart of,” and to our sixth source, “Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.”[2]

In thinking about what my paganism is, what my Unitarian Universalism is, and ultimately what my UU-Paganism is, I concluded that it is more than incense and prayer, ritual and Sunday service, its more than human-inspired poetry and divinely-induced trance. It is ultimately, and most importantly, my connection to our shared humanity, my relationship to you and yours to me. It is about striving hard to create right-relationship with all those who I have the ability to call siblings in this world, at this very movement. It is striving to live in right-relationship with those who have walked before me and to live mindfully of those who will come after me. My UU-Paganism is about celebrating and dancing the sacred waltz of life and when I am affronted by injustice of any kind, I am called to stand tall to it, to witness to it from my sacred-humanity and to gallantly strive to end it. After all, as our Brother Martin Luther King said, “injustice anywhere is an injustice everywhere.”

We are a motley crew, with many beliefs and viewpoints, but it is within this space that I have found a passionate home for that very reasons. As President Morales pointed out to me and several others at last weeks Multicultural Leadership School, which centered on the roles that youth and young adults of color have in making our congregations more radically inclusive and welcoming, he said, “ours is a church not united by what we believe, but by what we love.” And it is within this simple fact that truth rings so loud and clear to me, in the midst of various beliefs and ideas about the nature of our cosmos and the reason that we are here. Even midst a vast difference in theological opinion within our movement; from monotheism, to duo-theism, from pantheism to polytheism and to no theism at all. We are connected by our love for the world and for all the wild things that call it home. We are united by our undeniable drive for justice within our fragmented world while being motivated by the love of both self and other.

In closing, I, this UU-Pagan, would like to leave you with a few words from a song entitled “Heretic Hearth,” by Catherine Madsen in honor of our UU-Pagan sibling, Margot Adler:

“I am a bold and a pagan soul
Come rambling thru this land
I judge the world by my own rights,
And I come by my own hand.
And if you asked me how I’ve learned
To live so joyously:
My skin, my bones, my heretic heart
Are my authority.

So while I breathe this glorious air
An outlaw I’ll remain
My body may not be subdued;
My soul shall not be saved.
And where I may not shout out loud
I’ll sing it secretly —
My skin, my bones, my heretic heart
Are my authority.”

[1] Leslie Takahashi Morris, “Come, Come,” in Voices from the Margins: An Anthology of Meditations, eds. Jacqui James and Mark D. Morrison-Reed (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2012), 5.

[2] Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 1993), x.

“We are butterflies sweeping in from the sea…”

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It is important for individuals like myself, those who too often live fully in the present yet reaming with thoughts of the mind, to find peace in whatever possible way. Life too often brings with it a natural course of highs and lows, ups and downs like the waves of a highly energetic frequency. Maybe this all is due to my mundane abundance of time, or in a more spiritual approach, maybe its due to this friday’s full moon and next week’s solstice.

I came across Axial (the band) a number of years ago by chance. From there I was propelled into the reach and ever moving sounds and chants of a variety of Caribbean cultures that spoke to my own primal spirit. In the tune above, Axial gives shape to a modern rendition of a Haitian song in honor of the Vodoun spirit known as Papa Loko, the “Father of All Hougans(Priests) and Mambos(Priestesses)” and the personified body of the mighty winds.

In times when I bristle in the seemingly oncoming lows of the waves of life, this song in honor of Papa Loko reminds me to take breathe. To be once again in the present moment that I find myself in, yet minus those thoughts that too often bring distraction. To take up wings like a butterfly and move through the winds of change and to be transformed in mind, body, and spirit following the journey.

May I, May We, never forget to fully extend our wings and to fly through the mighty winds of Papa Loko as he teaches the mystery of the winds of life.

Lyrics:

Papa Loko ou se van pouse n ale
Nou se papiyon na pote nouvel bay Agwe
E tou sa ki di byen je m la ye
E tou sa ki di mal o je m la ye
Papa Loko ou se van e
Oua pouse n ale nou se papiyon
Na pote nouvel bay Agwe
Papa Loko pote nouvel nou pawol Papa Loko
Na pote nouvel bay Agwe
Papiyon! Chemen an lon na pote nouvel nou
Papiyon! Chemen an lon na pote nouvel…
E tou sa ki di byen je m la ye
Tou sa ki di mal je m la ye

Translation:

Papa Loko, you are the wind. Blow on us!
We are butterflies sweeping in from the sea, bringing news.
All that is good and all that is bad we see.
We will tell you.

When Talk Becomes Cheap and Your Oppression Isn’t Enough

Throughout the course of the 1960’s, and several decades following, the writings and prose of Audre Lorde propelled people into deep reflection around a number of topics. Of such, for what today is now known as intersectionality, Lorde proposed a conscious and meaningful reflection on how different parts of a persons being effects them when moving about in society. This can best me seen in Lorde’s work entitled, “The Hierarchy of Oppression,” one in which I consider a divinely inspired essay is but a showing of how Lorde understood how her own intersectionality effected her identity and movement in society. Lorde so wittingly says,

            “As a Black, lesbian, feminist, socialist, poet, mother of two including one boy and member of an interracial couple, I usually find myself part of some group in which the majority defines me as deviant, difficult, inferior or just plain “wrong”. From my membership in all of these groups I have learned that oppression and the intolerance of difference come in all shapes and sizes and colors and sexualities; and that among those of us who share the goals of liberation and a workable future for our children, there can be no hierarchies of oppression. “

I will admit that a large reason there was no post here on Liminal Seasons last week was due to me looking through a number of pages and links for writings that better communicated my passionate feelings for this very point. A point that seems so obvious to me as an individual of multiple minorities groups yet seems to fall on the deaf ears of others, especially others within the realms of modern social justice movements.

I have spent a great deal in the last two weeks pondering and discussing this topic and host of other interrelated topics that I began to seriously doubt if the social justice work of today is making any difference or not…

In the past weeks we have seen a number of events that have effected us greatly, some more impactful to some than others, but nevertheless. From the horrifying shooting in California (mind you I was just made aware of another horrid act of violence in Seattle) motivated out of personal despair and misogyny, to the current up-roar in the LGBTQ community over the use of ‘Tranny’ and ‘She-Mail’ in RuPaul’s Drag Race. And not to mention the continued presence of systematic racism and the flippant use of the words like “privilege,” “racist,” and “bigot.” Where could we possibly begin to fix and prevent such troubling issues?

For many in today’s society, myself included obviously, we look to voice our concern for the continually perpetuated evils yet share our hopes for what is to come. Again, myself included, we see this occur on the interwebs, as it has become a popular space for activists to share their ideas and to show their support. However, I am noticing an unfortunate side effect due to our words, they are quickly becoming jaded and meaningless.

Our twenty-first century activism encapsulated in blogs, tweets, and Facebook statues are truly innovative ways to share our feelings and call to actions. But unlike our forebears, this is ONLY PART OF THE EQUATION. At what point do we leave our discussion boards, reflection circles, and blogs and actually do something about the injustices in our world?

 

When will we end our discussion about the implications of the NFL’s football team, the Redskins, and actually address the issues of poverty, alcoholism, lack of education and health care for America’s first citizens?

 

When will we stop discussing the implication of slavery and the existence of systematic racism and tackle the issues of education, poverty, healthcare, abysmal self-esteem among children who become adults, and unemployment within the Black community?

 

When will we depart from discussing the implications of the use of the word ‘tranny’ by cis-gendered gay folks and deal with the injustices that face both Trans individuals and gay folks alike?

 

And lastly, when will we fail to ponder, “If she deserved it or not due to the length of her skirt,” and pursue rapists to the highest extent of the Law? When will we teach our young ladies the value of their existence is not based on the size of their behinds and breasts, but on the intellect within their minds and the weight of love within their hearts? And most importantly, when will we begin to teach our young men that woman are not theirs to conquer as if a land of sexual-mystique, cat-call for kicks as if objects to be chewed up and spit out on a whim, or defiled as a plaything for jabs and punches?

 

In reading the posts and comments of others in these past couple of weeks my heart and mind alike have traveled across the world in back in ideas and emotions. I have seen people of all races, religions, sexual orientations and gender expressions attack one another for some reason or another. All to sadly it seems just to prove a point that one group tops as the ultimate villains and the other, the helpless victims. Mind we remember that though theory and questioning of who has more flack to carry is eye opening. It should never serve as the extent to discovering the sources of the ills within our society.

A great visionary at one time said it best I think, “there is no hierarchy to oppression.”

Additionally, another great modern prophet said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

When will we begin to realize that we are all in this great struggle of life together? Our individual communities neither sink nor swim without the varied other communities around us. And lastly, when will we realize that conversation is not enough nor will it ever be. Albeit, it’s a great place to start, BUT JUSTICE IS TRULY IN THE POWER OF DOING! Because sometimes, even talking becomes cheap.

In Memory,

It has been four days now and yet it is still hard to believe that he is gone. After years of repeated hospital visits and overnight stays, countless medications, and breathing treatments my Grandfather passed into the realm of spirit this past Thursday. I will admit these past several days have been hard. I have always thought what made Paganism so unique in terms of understanding death and the afterlife was our belief in reincarnation and yet this has not made this process any easier. The pain, the anger, and the sadness still remain.

Over the past several days stories have been shared; childhood memories of the times in which he would scare my mother and her siblings while spinning wheels in the snow, his pride in serving his country in France during the Korean War and the love he graciously expressed to my Grandmother in his final months. All of these remind me that I must rejoice that I was able to call such an individual a family member, let alone my Grandfather.

My great-aunt said it best yesterday as we were resting between visits from neighbors and distant family members bringing their condolences and dishes, “I can’t believe he is gone, I am sitting here waiting for him to come around the corner from the bedroom and sit here in his recliner beside me.” Unfortunately it is sad but true, there is something deep within me that says that he is just away visiting others and that he will be there at the house in the morning doing the crossword puzzle and drinking his usual cup of coffee. But I know he is gone even as much as I don’t want him to be.

Even now it is still hard to understand, the man who indirectly instilled within me the meaning of manhood, the meaning of being a human will no longer be just a phone call away. But there rings something far off in the distant, a rumbling of peace to come, a sense of understanding yet to be realized. Since his crossing, his continued journey in existence, I have not be able to stand before the shrine and give respect to the Mighty Ancestors… It is hard, by doing so; by acknowledging his presence among the Great One only requires me to admit it to myself.

I sit in this moment asking to be present, seeking to understand the mystery of existence in the human experience. Like I often admit now, as much as I would like to think and profess that I can conceptualize the life here after, I can’t. And this brings me peace, peace in knowing that I ultimately know nothing. Does that bring peace to anyone else? Maybe one day I will understand the seemingly priceless experience of union with the mystery that presses itself against our consciousness and sub-consciousness in that is, has been, and forever will be in some form or another.

To Granddad, the individual who instilled within me the idea of what a man can become, may you bless me along my journey as I wish blessings upon you in your own journey. May we remember that those who pass from the visible to the invisible do not cease to exist, for they carry on within our blood, our hearts, and into our very being. For they have truly joined into the “great dance of the shadow and starlight in fire meeting earth, in the wind on the ocean and the sweet kiss of life.”

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The words above came as I rode on a train from a conference in Washington DC back to Roanoke just days after my grandfather’s passing, and if that were not enough, it was also the day following his burial. I reflect on this all now due to this past week being his eighty-first birthday. Like the years before, we gathered at my grandfather’s house, eat his favorite meal of KFC’s friend chicken and fixings, sweet tea, and followed it with Coconut Cream Pie. Yet unlike years past, we were missing the most important part, my grandfather. It was great, but it was missing something. As to make this particular experience even “different feeling,” my Grandmother had decided some weeks before that we would leave a piece of his favorite pie upon his grave just below his tombstone.

Admittedly the most Pagan my family has ever been or ever will be, there was something reassuring in this our gesture. Though my mother scoffed at the idea, there was something tangible about those moments. I envisioned my Granddad standing before us with the look of both appreciation and bewilderment as to what we were doing, ultimately saying to himself as only he could, “Becky honey, what are doing?”

As we sang Happy Birthday, tears shed, and good byes said, I thought of my Granddad. The only man who I would admit to being more of a father than my own father, in his compassion, in his sternness, and ultimately in his life, I placed a kiss upon the stone that marked his final resting place and said, “See you later Granddad.”

Life is short, family is complex, and God(s) is a clever being, yet in this, in this earthly existence, there is beauty to be had. Time has made the wounds of loosing my Grandfather less tender, yet I miss him still even though I know he is watching over me more then when he was alive. In closing, Granddad told my grandmother and mother that he was so proud of me. Though I was never able to hear him say it directly, I truly hope I can live a life that will make him and the rest of my Ancestors proud. And even though I, a broken person, amongst broken people in a broken world; all I can do is try.

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Carlos Ray Johnson
1933 – 2013