Embracing the Dangerous and Sacred

By Suzi Spangenberg

Delivered at Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation, Fremont, CA

On 6 May 2012

(Winner: Mission Peak Sermon Contest )

 

Indulge me here, as you are able, please stand up or if you can’t, you can also do this
from your seat.
Now streeeeetch as far as you can.
Feel that?
Now…hold it.
Take a breath, let it out and stretch a little bit further.
Not so much that it hurts.
Just so that you feel it.
Now,
Mark that feeling.
Really take heed of it.
Make sure your body really remembers it.
Ok…now go ahead and take your seats.

I want to tell about my name.  When my parents decided to marry, my dad was an atheist and my mom Catholic.  To get permission from the church to marry, my dad had to agree to raise any children they had in the Catholic Church.  My dad agreed, but only if he was allowed to name the kids.

Now my dad had a unique sense of humor.  It took several friends intervening rather forcefully to get my dad to agree not to name my brother Anthony Scott Spangenberg.  They convinced him that the initials would have set my brother up for a lifetime of pain.  So, my dad relented and named him Scott Russell.

10 years later I came along.  My dad, in his infinite wisdom decided to buck Catholic custom and not name me after a saint. To ensure that there was no mistaking his intention, he chose to spell my name S-U-Z-I.

Paragraph 2165 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: In Baptism, the Christian receives his name in the Church. Parents, godparents, and the pastor are to see that he be given a Christian name. The patron saint provides a model of charity and the assurance of his prayer.

So not naming me after a saint was no laughing matter.  Every year in Catholic School I was grilled about my name.  Every time I fill out a legal document, I am asked, “No, what’s your LEGAL name?”  One day I will have to calculate just how many hours I have spent saying “That IS my legal name!”  Thanks, Dad.

Elizabeth Kubler Ross wrote:
The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggling, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths.  These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern.  Beautiful people do not just happen.

When I read that quote to a friend, he said "Oh, I wish that were true because then we could all be Brad Pitt" and I replied "Or the Dalai Lama".  He just looked at me and then said "Honey - you go with the Dalai Lama...I'm sticking with Brad"

The thing is, my friend immediately identified with Kubler Ross's statement.  He recognized that the LGBTQ community has certainly experienced defeat, suffering, and loss.  I don't know any member who hasn't struggled on some level.  We know the defeat of trying over and over to secure the same civil rights as straight people in our society.  Not special rights.  Equal rights.  We have suffered when we have been separated from partners in hospitals or until recently, partners who served in the military.  And we know loss - oh how we know loss. Whether it is the loss of a friend when we start to figure out who we are, the loss of a family or job when we come out, or the more permanent losses that we experience as a result of violence or illness, loss is something that most of us know altogether too well.

Perhaps that is why there are so many beautiful people in the LGBTQ community.

Last year, in preparation for a Day of the Dead service, we were asked to bring in icons representing those we have lost.  Along with photographs, I also brought, a small address book.  Remember these?  For those of you who are younger, this is an address book.  Before cell phones we used to carry these in our pockets or purses and they contained the names and numbers of  important people in our lives.  This particular phone book is special - I got it when I first moved to Berkeley for college and used it for several years afterward.

When I started college, I was 16 and didn't know I was bi-sexual.  I just knew I was different from the other kids at my Catholic school.  I know that someone was looking out for me when an apartment opened up next door to Bill-my future best friend.  Bill took one look at me and saw through my punk rock facade.  He recognized the confused, naive, lost queer girl that I was even though I didn't recognize her myself.

Bill took me under his wing, brought me into the community and introduced me to his friends.  They snuck me into clubs so I could dance, helped me with my homework, nursed my first broken heart, and pretended to like the Thanksgiving turkey I cooked which was so dry, it could have been used for kindling.  We all learned to love and support each other. For the first time in my life, I got to experience what it was like to be truly accepted for who I was.  We were a family.

I didn't know a lot about politics then.  I started interning at a radio station and crewed with the news team as part of my internship.  When Dade County, Florida overturned a recently passed civil rights ordinance that made discrimination based on sexual orientation illegal, we covered the protest marches.  You may remember that the legislation was overturned as the result of the “Save Our Children” campaign by Florida Orange Juice spokesperson Anita Bryant.  Her involvement sparked a long boycott of Florida orange juice.  In fact, I still have trouble buying Orange Juice from Florida.

Shortly after that, CA State Senator John Briggs introduced the Briggs Amendment, which would have banned gays and lesbians from teaching in public schools.  At a press conference at San Francisco City Hall he called the city a "sexual garbage heap" because of “homosexuals”.  A week later, a gay man named Robert Hillsborough died from 15 stab wounds while his attackers gathered around him and chanted "Faggot!" Both San Francisco Mayor Moscone and Hillsborough's mother blamed Anita Bryant and John Briggs.

The response was immediate and strong.  Weeks later, 250,000 people attended the 1977 San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade, the largest attendance at any Gay Pride event to that point.  Shortly after that, Harvey Milk was sworn in as a San Francisco City Supervisor - the first openly gay man in the United States to win an election for public office.  What is important to note is that Milk, who won by a landslide, did not focus solely on gay causes.  He advocated for larger and less expensive childcare facilities, free public transportation, and the development of a board of civilians to oversee the police. He opposed the closing of an elementary school-- even though most gay people in the Castro did not have children.  He advanced important neighborhood issues at every opportunity.  He recognized that we ALL needed representing.

When Supervisor Dan White murdered Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone, we covered the press conference when then supervisor Dianne Feinstein made the announcement.  I will never forget the sight of normally hardened reporters in tears.  I called my friends -- my family--, and we all took part in a candlelight vigil march through the City.  It was my first, but by no means, my last.

Harvey Milk is in my address book.

A few years later, When LaDean got sick, we were all shocked.  He was young, ran daily, and was vegetarian even before it was cool.  He went so fast we didn't have time to process it.  One day he had the flu, the next he was in the hospital with pneumonia, 3 days later he was dead.  We grieved together, never realizing that LaDean was just the beginning.

Suddenly, men in the community, my family, were dying.  My family and friends were dying and no one outside the community seemed to care.  Sue Hyde, from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force said, "An entire political movement grew up around the silence of the Reagan administration. The AIDS activist movement took as its call to action 'silence equals death' because literally the silence of the Reagan administration was resulting in the deaths of thousands and thousands of gay men in our communities across the country."

Once again, it took people organizing to form a movement and demanding change before any took place.

LaDean is in my address book.
And so many more.
Every single male in this phonebook is dead.  Every single one.

The devastation of those early days of AIDS cannot be overemphasized.  Yet, as we grieved, we somehow survived.  We all found ways to do it.  Now, no one talks much about AIDS.  Medical advances have made it possible for those diagnosed with HIV to live a full life.  Yet, we can usually identify each other - those who went through this time.  It's in the eyes.  You see it in the eyes of those who have experienced loss or great struggle.

I saw those same eyes in Sonora when I spoke with a woman who months earlier had been deported with her young children and did not know where they were--ICE deported them to a separate location.  Alone.  She was afraid that they would become victims of the sex trade - the predators wait at the border for unaccompanied children.

I saw it in the eyes of Javier, a 72-year-old widower who was deported after living 71 years in the US.  He had cancer, and no means of even contacting his family to tell them where he was.  When I offered to let him use my phone he told me he didn't know their telephone numbers - they were all in his phone, which ICE had kept, along with his wallet, money, and identification.  He was afraid that stopping his medical treatment would mean that he would die without getting to see his children and grandchildren again.

And yet...they both were volunteering at a makeshift aid center --doing what they could to assist the newly deported.  They were helping others with the kind of compassion that comes from real empathy.  Their ability to practice loving kindness at a time of great loss was a profound and beautiful act.  They both expressed that they felt better when they were helping others.  By helping others, they were also helping themselves.

That interconnectedness, that is something we as UU's know well.  It is one of our principles:  As UU's we commit to affirm and promote our respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.  So when a family is torn apart because of our immigration policy, the ripples stretch out and affect us all. When a queer kid is bullied to death, when a transgendered person is brutally murdered...those ripples affect everyone too.  Not just those in the community...everyone.  Because we are all connected to each other through the good and the bad.

It's that connection that compelled white UU ministers to leave the safety of their homes and congregations and answer the call of Martin Luther King, jr. in Selma to march in the Civil Rights Movement.  It is that same connection that compel straight UU's to rally for marriage equality and an end to bullying.  It is that same connection that compels us to speak out against an Immigration policy that tears apart families and destroys lives. And that connection holds true for love as well.  For every loving act we do, the ripples spread out and affect people we may never know.

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said  “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.”  He also said "He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it."

Sometimes it's so difficult to know which battles to take on.  Sometimes after years of struggle we win a battle like we did for marriage equality in Maryland and after celebrating, our inclination may be to get off the activist train and take a well-deserved break.  You should!  Recharging our batteries is important and taking the time to practice good self-care is critical to any long-term movement.

However, after those batteries are recharged, it's important to get back on that train.  As long as civil rights are denied to any of us, they are denied to all of us.

I have a favorite tree that I like to sit in.  Going there is a form of meditation for me.  I like to climb up into the trees branches and look out over the Bay.  It is one of my favorite places to sit sipping a cup of coffee while I watch the sun set.  The birds’ fly around me and my cares just melt away.  I feel like I am in a sacred and safe world.  I love it.

Sacred and safe.  There is nothing wrong about sacred and safe spaces.  We need them.  We need them to balance out the challenges and realities that we face as we work to create a more just and sustainable world.  We need sacred and safe spaces.  We all do.  And it makes sense that we would want to remain in a safe space.

But what happens when we don't leave those safe spaces?  What happens when we choose the comfort of the sacred and safe over the discomfort that often arises when we actively work to counter oppression and create a just and sustainable world?

Like our muscles that become tight and then atrophy with disuse, so do our spirits.  If we do not stretch ourselves, then we become disconnected from our humanity.  Because spirit is not about closing up - it is about breaking open our hearts and minds and embracing all that life holds not just the safe and sacred but also the dangerous and sacred.

And by danger, I don't just mean the danger that comes from risking arrest for a cause you feel is just, I am also speaking of the danger that comes from opening your mind to people, ideas, painful truths, ugly realities and your own prejudices and privilege.  Because facing these things is dangerous - and probably one of the most sacred things we can do.

Each time we stretch just a little bit, it helps make it easier for the next time...by stretching just a little bit; we can accomplish things we would not have thought possible.  We very well may begin to like that feeling – of being stretched – and especially appreciate learning that we are a lot more flexible than we ever thought.  We can begin to experience interconnectedness in ways that we could not have imagined.  Our capacity for growth is boundless.

And in learning to like that feeling, I also learned what a gift my father gave me in my name.  He helped prepare me for a lifetime of stretching.  Of learning to be comfortable saying "THIS is who I am"

So by all means find your sacred and safe space.  Go there.  Re-charge.  Delight in it.  But don't reside there.  Come out of that space.  STRETCH yourselves.  Reach out.  Remember that feeling of being stretched earlier?  Reach for that feeling.  Embrace the dangerous and sacred.  And remember...to stretch yourselves - a little bit...each and every day.

Forum Activity

Fri, 10/31/2014 - 08:11
Mon, 06/16/2014 - 07:09
Tue, 10/01/2013 - 22:01

Acknowledgments

wizdUUm.net is made possible in part by generous support from the Fahs Collaborative