Category: Quakerism

Doin’ Time in Estes Park

They say a picture speaks louder than words. So here are three photos of where I am staying this weekend in Colorado. Sweet! The air is crisp, clear and fresh. The Colorado regional meeting of Friends (Quaker) brought me out to Colorado to deliver a keynote address about inclusion. I will also lead an interest group and help facilitate a session with the teens.

Traveling in the ministry (which is technically what I am doing since I received my travel minute) becomes a dicey thing for me. For one I am a comic and a theatrical performance artist. I work from a script most times. Among unprogrammed Quakers I have gotten the impression that Friends value it when a speaker does not spend too much in preparation before giving a message.

How often I hear people praise speakers who go to the podium without any notes. The message I hear inferred is that one needs to wait on the Spirit/Light and be led in what one says. Too much preparation may limit the intent of the Spirit. As a result, when I start outlining a talk, I experience Quaker guilt (which is far less severe than Catholic or Evangelical guilt). I wonder if I should primarily spend time in silent worship listening to what God has for me to say trusting that when I get up there I will know how to proceed instead of writing notes.

But then I feel like I’m being lazy or irresponsible for not having a plan and a specific direction before I get to the podium. Perhaps somewhere in the middle of that tension lies the answer. I have heard that George Fox spent hours in the fields preaching to the sheep before he spoke to his fellow humans. I often talk through the many ways of saying something before I appear on a TV or radio program. Shoot, even when I go to the doctors or have to talk to a friend about something important, I rehearse various scenarios out loud.

Today I spoke on the phone with my friend Doug in Portland, told him my dilemma and some of my thoughts of where I would like to go/feel led with my talk today. This helps because Doug knows me and my work and we have spent time together in silent prayer over the last year. I got off the phone feeling at peace that it’s going to work out fine with or without notes.

Perhaps the biggest barrier is discerning between what I think the group needs to hear with what I need to say, even if it makes little sense to me. In my mind I may have a clear idea that can be reinforced or influenced by the leaders among a group, but the Spirit may have a completely different direction for me. I’m aware that this kind of talk may drive some of my atheist friends mad. But part of my belief system is that I trust that in each of us is something of God–something wise and beautiful and merciful and thoughtful and revelatory. It is like that treasure that Jesus spoke about in the parable where a man went and buried the treasure and then purchased the field where he hid the treasure.

Sometimes I think that the spiritual life for me is a treasure hunt–a quest to find the treasure buried deep in other people (often a challenge when I am faced with someone who stands as my opponent), and the work of unearthing the treasure that lies within me. We have this treasure in jars of clay, so looking at the packaging, we can so easily assume nothing of value exists in ourselves or others.

Part of the work of worship for me (even when I am not sitting still and quiet) is to tap into that hidden treasure part of me–that kingdom of God within me that Jesus promised–the comforter, the teacher, the seed, the Spirit. And just maybe I can share a little bit of what I find with those around me as I receive from them the treasures they have discovered.

And if all else fails, I can tell a joke.

Quaker Art

Art by Quakers fills my life today. Some months ago Robert Batson, a member of Hartford Friends Meeting (aka Quaker), exhibited some of his work at the meeting house. The art captured my attention, and I purchased piece. Today I brought home the 18″x24″ Untitled painting by Robert. I love the colors and the use of space and the emotions, some contrary, that piece expresses to me. (click on it for larger view)
Then after meeting we had our monthly potluck lunch where I met a visitor, a retired high school art teacher. Sadly I did not catch his name, but he offered to draw something on my journal cover. He created this dove.
Finally while sitting with Jamie Taylor, a Friend from meeting, we chatted about literature and art (and a thousand other things. A PhD candidate doing research in public policy and homelessness, Jamie embraces many interests–poetry, meditation, social justice issues, dynamics of relationships, etc. So we converse broadly)

As we talked about art and the strange fit for the artist in the Quaker community, I doodled something I have titled Quacker Worship. I think Alex in Sweden inspired me as he attended a Quaker retreat near Stockholm this weekend (note the colors).
Quaker Art–a strange fit. As a performance artist working in comedy, I find that presenting to a Quaker audiences fills me with anxiety and concerns that I rarely experience in other venues. Some Friends enjoy and “get” what I do, but I regularly meet Quakers who do not (and tell me so as they offer their critiques, suggestions and sources of offense). I find that some Quakers offend easily. Some focus so much on words that they miss the point. I do take some of what they say seriously and consider it to see if it speaks to me (usually it does not).

Art for me comes from a place of worship–it serves as worship infused with messages. It is ministry (and yes I still shrink from that word but begin to accept it). I do occasionally speak in meeting (vocal ministry). But my art is my worship and includes more than words.

At the Ex-Gay Survivors Conference Christine Bakke organized an art show, created collages of the ex-gay experience and currently curates our on-line gallery. Seeing the impact of that art on those who have viewed it reminds me that people need more than vocal ministry. In fact, vocal ministry can get stuck in the head (and we Quakers can be a heady bunch). Words get clogged and can miss the mark, but art–visual, musical, performance, dance, film–can bypass the filters and get to a deeper place in us.

Often an audience member tells me they feel moved by one of my shows, but they do not fully understand why. They sometimes hear messages that I never utter or script. Art wedded with Spirit aids our abilities to grow, heal, feel challenged and find hope.

Come Out, Come Out Wherever You Are

On the road I meet loads of people who live partially out of the closet. They do have some queer friends, especially on-line. They may have someone in their lives “who knows” but they tell virtually no one on their job, in their family, or in their place of worship that they may be lesbian or gay or bisexual. (I don’t mention transgender people because I can understand many of the healthy reasons to be silent about the trans experience).

And I can see why many LGB folks silence themselves about their orientation. I get the e-mails and talk to folks who perceive that to come out would be mean loss–colossal loss of relationships, jobs, housing, financial support for college, and even expulsion from precious faith communities. In most states in the USA, one is not protected on the job in regards to sexual orientation (and it is worse for trans folks).

Then there is the physical danger. Even in parts of liberal NYC, to walk hand-in-hand with someone of the same sex provokes violence–verbal and physical.

So yes, we experience real impediments to coming out, some external, but for most of us the biggest obstacles remain internal. Through years of living under the weight of homophobia and in a society that insists that heterosexuality is the ideal norm, we build up storehouses of shame and fear and self-loathing. We may even express disgust at what we view as “the gay lifestyle” mirroring what our oppressors say about us.

The Coming Out process takes time. It takes courage. It takes building a network of safe people. It means that our lives may turn upside down, or even more surprising, that things won’t really change that much at all.

When we walk around with shame about who we are, we send out the message that it is okay to treat us shamefully. When we embrace the depth and beauty and uniqueness of who we are, even if people do not like us, they will treat us with respect.

People often remark to me that when I speak in public about my life, one of the things that sticks out for them is how comfortable I appear in my skin. They say it disarms people the way that I express my contentment with who I am as a gay man, as a Christian, as a Quaker, as a vegan, as ME. I don’t see it myself with all of the various insecurities I carry, but I do know that the coming out process for me has contained much more than simply announcing “I’m here, I’m queer, get over it!”

The process has become more than just coming out gay. Rather it has meant coming out as ME. In a world that claims to celebrate individuality and uniqueness, we experience tremendous pressures to conform, be it in the conservative church, the gay party boy culture, the Quaker meeting house, the lesbian drum circle or a thousand other groups that draw us.

The act of self-discovery, leading to a fearless willingness to truly be ourselves, creates conflicts and challenges for those around us. But with the potential difficulties, it also brings much needed wholeness and health.

I became a born-again Evangelical, fundamentalist, conservative, Republican Christian at the age of 17 (even though I presented as a flaming homosexual without even trying). That is when I went to war with parts of myself. At the same time I began to suffer lower back problems with my back going out almost every six months, sometimes for as long as a week at a time. The problem continued and grew worse. It happened the week before I got married. I ultimately developed a herniated disc that hurt so much, I could only lie down or sit for 20 minutes at time before having to stand or walk to relieve the pain. I never got surgery for it and just endured the pain for six months until it began to heal.

Once I came out and worked through years of gunk I piled on myself, my back stopped going out. My body sent me a message all those years. Something is out of whack. My body mirrored the imbalance inside me. Today even with all the plane travel and the many different hotel beds, my back stays solid and has not gone out in over seven years.

Today is National Coming Out Day. At his blog Journeyman notes how dark the closet can be. Even if you can’t imagine fully coming out and you feel you must keep a foot in the closet (or more) turn on some light and invite someone into your life. As the 1980’s AIDS activists taught us Silence=Death. And we experience death in the closet in thousands of ways. Similarly waiting for us outside we will discover thousands of ways to live.

Spiritual Aids

Monday at Greenbelt, Trevor, James, James, Bill and I ate at Nuts Cafe and chatted with a nice Christian couple who joined us at our table. Not sure how the conversation got on the topic, but somehow we began to talk about Adult Bookstores, well, not so much about their contents of porn and sex toys, but about the irony of calling these places “bookstores” for “adults”. It all seems rather adolescent.

Similarly misnamed are items sold under the heading Marital Aids. Although there must be testimonies of married couples who have been aided by the use of whips, chains, porn videos and sex toys, I have a feeling that many (most?) consumers of marital aids are not looking to deepen their relationship with their spouse. (Of course I may be wrong about all this, and I am sure some of you will sort me out 🙂

Over the weekend I witnessed Matt Redman perform Greenbelt’s Main Stage. Technically Redman doesn’t perform; he leads worship. His sweet and upbeat songs encourage people to open up and draw near to God.

He possesses a warm, friendly voice–emotive, not afraid to show his intimacy towards God, his passionate desire to worship Jesus. I own two or three of his albums and through the years have enjoyed his voice, melodies and most of his lyrics. Seeing him listed as a Greenbelt presenter, I jumped at the chance to experience his worship leading.

I sat in a shaded spot as the music began. Redman called us to worship. Clap your hands! Shout to the Lord! Dance! He gave lots of instructions and pushed the audience to respond enthusiastically. Like many pop and rock singers do, at one point he called out to the crowd, How is everyone doing? He received a tepid response, so he repeated the question with emphasis. I said, HOW IS EVERYONE DOING? And on cue, the crowd went wild.

As the “worship” continued, a large group of audience members in the center, up towards the front lifted their hands, jumped up and down, and shouted along with the songs (much like I had done for years in the charismatic church services I attended).

But as the crowd cheered, I grew quiet. The more Redman sang and rallied for us to join in the worship, the more I withdrew. I suddenly felt like a stranger speaking a different language. Instead of warming, my insides felt still and cool and distant.

I questioned myself,

Has my heart grown cold to God? Is this because I am gay and I am bold enough I accept this fact? Have I lost my “first love”?

The answers came quickly and confidently. No, I still love to be in God’s presence. I still love to worship. But I no longer need to be ushered to the throne of God like in the past. I no longer need a cheerleader pointing me to Jesus. These past six years, as I sat in silent worship in Quaker meetings, in that stillness, I have found that “hearts unfold like flowers before thee, opening to the Sun above.”

It is not that I think that Matt Redman-style worship is worthless or bad. But I have outgrown it. I don’t need it like I once did. Instead of a call to worship it sounded more like clanging cymbals to me right now. It serves as an outmoded prop to help me worship or aid, a spiritual aid. Today I don’t need all those bells and whistles and exhortations. I just need a quiet room, silence among Friends, and then I find I can usually enter into a place of openness and listening and surrender.

Here is a crude analogy for those of you who remember tests like the SAT.
Right now, for me, a porn film is to marriage as Matt Redman is to worship. It serves as a distraction, a pleasant but unnecessary stimulation that I have outgrown.

Impressed by My Friends

Friends (and friends) have impressed me lately with their faithfulness and commitment.

Ex-Gay Survivors Christine Bakke (along with Darlene Bogle) headed to Nashville this week and stood in front of the Southern Baptist headquarters to share some of their experiences as ex-gay survivors.

The Baptists recently appointed “a Texas pastor to become its “national strategist for gender issues” — a position designed to promote “ex-gay” ministries to SBC congregations.” In other words they will be welcoming, but not affirming. Soulforce sponsored Christine and Darlene as part of the Survivor Initiative. These two spoke up as witnesses to the harm that can come as a result of seeking to suppress and change one’s sexuality.

In Portland, Oregon this weekend, PFlAG, The Community of Welcoming Congregations, GLADD and some Quakers offered a positive response to the Focus on the Family Love Won Out Conference that rolled into town on Saturday. The Salem Press reported about the event.

As part of their interfaith prayer vigil, Jonmarc Ross, an ex-gay survivor, a birthright Quaker (and a dear friend I have gotten to know this year) shared some about his 14 year quest to turn away from homosexuality, the devastating results that ensued, and how he reclaimed his life,

“I was having a complete mental breakdown and seriously contemplating ways to end my life,” said Portland resident and survivor of the ex-gay movement Jonmarc Ross. “It wasn’t being gay and holding on to my faith that nearly killed me; it was misguided faith in the belief that I had to change.”

He continued, “Today I celebrate that I left that scared self loathing boy behind and began a very long and painful journey to a place where I can finally see a man that God loves.”

And here in Rhode Island, I am witnessing something amazing among the Young Friends (high school) gathered for New England Yearly Meeting. I volunteered to be one of the adults to sit in with them during their Nominations Committee (NomCom) deliberations. Each summer the Young Friends form a committee to create a slate of possible young Friends who will be leaders throughout the coming year at retreats. They take this task on as a sacred charge and all togerther spend five or six hours throughout the week in meetings (often while their peers are off playing or napping).

Yet again I felt amazed at these young people’s depth of spirituality and commitment. (They blew me away two years ago with their response to the less than centered worship time by adults at gathering) They gather for each NomCom meeting and sit in silence. They then speak thoughtfully, lovingly and carefully about their fellow Friends as prospects for the Ministry and Council (M&C) board. Often throughout the meetings these young people ages 14-17 stop and settle into silence, seeking direction and insight with every step they take. They consider the needs of the community as well as the needs of the possible M&C members. They ponder what each brings to the community and how the experience of being on M&C will affect each one, and with tremendous care, they discuss their Friends’ strengths and weaknesses.

I cannot adequately express the wonder of these meetings and how each time they floor me with their depth and compassion and insight. I feel honored to be part of their deliberations. During these time with these Young Friends I learn to listen to the Spirit and how to speak the truth in love.

I feel so encouraged by the love and good works I see going on in the world this week.

Off to NEYM

NEYM=New England Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quaker) in Smithfield, RI.

This will be my 6th NEYM and the 5th time as a resource person (RP) for the Young Friends (high school) group.

As an RP, I serve as a FAP (friendly adult presence) helping oversee activities, being present for worship and meeting for worship with attention to business. I also co-lead an Affinity Group (this time with the amazing Anna B!) that meets nightly for check-ins, discussions, games and snacks..

Early on I learned two key lessons when working with Quaker teens.
1. I am judged by the quality of the snacks I provide.
2. Respect that of God within them and let them lead as the RPs facilitate.

I also learned early on that these teens don’t want or even need advice from me. They get that all the time. They want to be heard, and they want to hear each other without a lot of talk by well-meaning adults. Therefore, my role is to help maintain a safe space where that sort of sharing takes place.

This year will be different from past years because we lost a recent graduate in a car accident this winter, and we will have a memorial for Chris during our sessions.

I feel honored to be with these young Friends, to see them grapple with spiritual, social justice and personal questions.

I set my intentional to be present with them and to limit my time on-line and on the phone. Lots of other folks will be busy this week sharing their ex-gay experiences around the country (can’t tell you anything yet, but you will hear more next week).

My part this week is to be present, to stay open to the Spirit and these young Friends, to listen deeply, be slow to speak as I trust God to be in our midsts.

Interview on Northern Spirit Radio

A few weeks ago when I was at the Friends General Conference, an annual gathering of Quakers in North America, I sat for an interview for the Spirit in Action program on Northern Spirit Radio. Mark Helpsmeet, the interviewer, has a great vision to create programming about Quakerism for both Quakers and non-Quakers.

In the interview I talk about my faith–my journey from Roman Catholic to Fundamentalist to Quaker, my ex-gay struggle and the role of Quakerism in my life today.

The piece starts with some music that you may or may not like. I reserve my comment on the music (it is just intro music)

You can listen to the interview here.

And to listen to post-Quaker Joe G. talk about nothing of real consequence, check out his podcast at his blog.

The Chalk Talk

Many people have written to me about how meaningful the Chalk Talk experience was for them this weekend at the Ex-Gay Survivor Conference. The folks at Soulforce displayed some photos on their site that I have posted here as well.

The Chalk Talk provides participants an opportunity to engage in a group discourse through writing and drawing. The facilitator (Jallen Rix and me in this case) provides a large blank writing space (white board or sheets of paper), plenty of markers and enough room for people to move around so they can write and see. The activity is conducted in silence.

The idea comes directly from my work as a CFG Coach and my training with the National School Reform Faculty. CFG coaches provide ways for teachers to improve their teaching practice through peer professional development facilitated through the use of various protocols. The Chalk Talk is one such protocol. They have many others–may favorites being the text-based protocols and the Future Protocol.

As a high school teacher at the Watkinson School in Hartford, CT, together with my fellow teachers, we adjusted the protocols for use in the classroom. And since then I have tried them out in other venues. I love the protocols because they embody much of what I value in Quaker practice.

As we gathered in front of that large sheet of paper with the two trails of paper on the ground, we settled into what felt to be a hushed sacred silence. So much pain, so many memories stirred up and appeared on the page. Bit by bit we built this wall, which some said felt like a memorial. Our prompt–Ex-Gay Experiences–The Good/Harm drew out responses including drawings. Many people claimed the good they received from their ex-gay experiences as well as listing the deep deep harm they experienced.

We then debriefed the experienced and began the process of storytelling, of mourning and of healing.

This week I am in River Falls, WI (near Minneapolis, MN) for the Friends General Conference (Quaker) for our annual gathering. All this week I lead a three-hour a day workshop for 21 high school students. The workshop is entitled Looking In–Looking Out, a forum where we explore our own lives and the world around us. We do art, worship, play games, discuss, study the Bible, do drama and of course have snacks.

Today we focused on our faith journeys and did most of our sharing through a Chalk Talk (on a proper chalk board for a nice change). When with Friends I refer to the Chalk Talk as Meeting for Worship with Attention to Graffiti. Our prompts God/Belief/Me. The spirituality of high school students consistently floors and humbles me. Today they wrote so many profound and witty and insightful and heartfelt comments.

One of the young Friends put up a phrase that provoked much discussion:

God is an ugly creature
to test our faith

Some people objected and felt put off by it. Others said they could relate to the sentiment particularly if you have a God who is always testing you and putting you through hard times to prove a point.

The author of the statement finally shared her intent. She said that so many people call themselves Christians. Some are kind people, but some are mean and talk about a mean God. They say all sorts of horrible things about God as they share their faith. She said she sees God as this battered creature who shows up at our door for us to take in and nurse back to health.

This concept moves me deeply, that we can be called to shelter and nurture a battered God, to make room within and a nest of sorts for this God beaten by believers.

So often young people and people in churches and ex-gay programs rarely get to share their thoughts, their feelings, their beliefs. It so often is a sit down, shut up and listen sort of affair. What I love about the Ex-Gay Survivor Conference (and I desire to do in my workshop this week) is that we sought to create a space for people to speak out and be heard.

This threatens some people who have more to gain from our silence. It is frightening for us who engage in the process because so many thoughts emerge, some which seem to be in conflict. But in this deep communal sharing, we come to a broader truth and understanding. We break away from the polarized debates to the heart of the matter. We get to the people and we get to the things that matter most to God–love, mercy, justice and relationship.

What a week in the Ex-Gay World!

It has been a whirlwind! Do a Google News search on ex-gay and you get scores of article written in the past week. We had the LA Times article which announced that Alan Chambers doesn’t believe anyone truly changes their orientation. Then all the fallout from that by folks who disagreed.

Then we had the big news with a press conference sponsored by Beyond Ex-Gay and Soulforce where three former Exodus leaders came forward to issue a public apology. That story got picked up by the LA Times, the Associated Press, CNN, tons of bloggers and papers all over the globe.

Then we saw some ex-gay survivors inviting Exodus leaders to dinner with some of them coming to listen.

Then we had the Ex-Gay Survivor Conference with a powerful Chalk Talk, interactive workshops and some powerful healing and networking. You can see photos here.

Then after some spectulation Morgan Fox at the QAC confirmed that after two years of activism the Love in Action Refuge program (for participants under the age of 18) has officially closed.

Phew, I need to catch my breath. Can there possibly be more? Well, can there? Hmmmm.

I left LA on Saturday night after the Ex-Gay Survivor Conference Closing Gala and hoped on the red-eye to Minneapolis. Then my new buddy, Kathy, picked me up and drove me to the University of Wisconsin in River Falls for the Friend General Conference (Quaker) yearly gathering. The morning I arrived (was that only yesterday???) I kicked-off a 6 day workshop with a group of 21 high school students. It’s called Looking In/Looking Out. We will spend time explore ourselves–personalities, interests, passions, fears, etc and then look out at the world to the needs and beauty around us. Lots of art, theater, discussion, movement and worship.

After all the activity, these young people really help to ground and center me. I mean after a week of cameras and microphones and conference organizing, it grounds me when a teen turns to me with their major concerning being “Wait, aren’t having snacks!”

It’s great to be among Friends, but I also feel sad that I had to leave so soon after having such a deep experience with so many other survivors. I feel I am so connected to all of you who shared so much of yourselves in Irvine–Dee, John, Zion, Shawn, Worthie, Karen, Jaylen, ahhh, so many more.

But the lunch line just died down (Quakers have a major vice at these types of gatherings–We EAT a lot of food).

Thank you all for your comments and thoughts. I know Alex was away in Stockholm to see Rufus Wainwright (I am so envious!). But thank you all for all the ways you have walked with me through this week.

Among Friends in North Carolina

I arrived yesterday in Asheville, NC for the yearly meeting of unprogrammed Friends from this region that extends throughout Tennessee, and North Carolina and into Virginia and Georgia (and I imagine South Carolina).

SAYMA invited me to come and give a plenary address tonight about my faith journey as a Quaker. I will also adress the teen group as well as lead a bibliodrama. I appreciate prayers, warm thoughts and holding in the Light so that I can speak from the heart and in the Spirit.

One thought that keeps coming to me is how I am a refugee. (no not a Yankee from the stiff cold North seeking refuge among friendly folks in the South–although it does feel great to be back down here). No, I am a spiritual refugee. I had to flee my own faith community, in part because of my unwillingness and inability to conform to sexual norms.

But it is no longer only about my sexual attractions. I am a refugee in regards to how I look at life and faith and even politics. I don’t fit any longer in the Evangelical church that I once called home and family.

Not that I am a perfect fit among unprogrammed Quakers. Oh, they don’t have a problem with the gay thing (well most don’t) but I talk far too much about Jesus for some.

Too gay for some Evangelicals and too Christian for some liberal Quakers. Not quite at home. Which I guess is how many refugees feel, particularly those from other countries. They find refuge, a safe place, but that doesn’t make it home.

I sometimes feel that way among Friends. Perhaps we are never fully at home no matter where we are.

Update: Sunday June 10–The time here with Friends at SAYMA went very well. Funny how when you come out (as gay, as Christian, etc) how other people come out to you too. I also had some wonderful talks about how some Friends struggle with a lot of Jesus talk because of how they had been abused in their previous faith communities. I can understand that and see how that could get in the way for some people when they hear lots of messages that use similar language. Christine and I often talk to each other about the post-traumatic stress folks can experience even in affirming churches once they hear the language and see the images from their former church experiences.

Last night I got to meet up with Kevin and his friend Brian. Kevin is another graduate of Love in Action and an ex-gay survivor. He had finished the program before I did, and we would get together for lunch once a week (we had to get special permission for this). He said he remembered how depressed I was during those times which reminded me of the days I just broke down and cried in my room sometimes for hours. No one could console me.

Yesterday in speaking with a reporter from a German newspaper, she asked, “Did you get anything good out of your experience in the ex-gay movement?” I told her that I met some amazing people, people who have become my closest friends. We went through hell together and have bonded deeply.

I get to spend the evening with a friend in Asheville and head back home to Hartford tomorrow where I will sit tight for at least three days. phew!