Rev. Jennifer Crow
Copyright (c) 2007
From Song of Myself by Walt Whitman
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,And what I assume you shall assume,For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.I loafe and invite my soul,I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.My tongue, every atom of my blood, form'd from this soil, this air,Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,Hoping to cease not till death.Creeds and schools in abeyance,Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,Nature without check with original energy.
I loafe and invite my soul,I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
My tongue, every atom of my blood, form'd from this soil, this air,Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,Hoping to cease not till death.
Creeds and schools in abeyance,Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,Nature without check with original energy.
“A Litany for Survival” by Audre Lorde
For those of us who live at the shorelinestanding upon the constant edges of decisioncrucial and alonefor those of us who cannot indulgethe passing dreams of choicewho love in doorways coming and goingin the hours between dawnslooking inward and outwardat once before and afterseeking a now that can breedfutureslike bread in our children’s mouthsso their dreams will not reflectthe death of ours;For those of uswho were imprinted with fearlike a faint line in the center of our foreheadslearning to be afraid with our mother’s milfor by this weaponthis illusion of some safety to be foundthe heavy-footed hoped to silence usFor all of usthis instant and this triumphWe were never meant to survive.And when the sun rises we are afraidit might not remainwhen the sun sets we are afraidit might not rise in the morningwhen our stomachs are full we are afraidof indigestionwhen our stomachs are empty we are afraidwe may never eat againwhen we are loved we are afraidlove will vanishwhen we are alone we are afraidlove will never returnand when we speak we are afraidour words will not be heardnor welcomedbut when we are silentwe are still afraid.So it is better to speakrememberingwe were never meant to survive.
For those of uswho were imprinted with fearlike a faint line in the center of our foreheadslearning to be afraid with our mother’s milfor by this weaponthis illusion of some safety to be foundthe heavy-footed hoped to silence usFor all of usthis instant and this triumphWe were never meant to survive.
And when the sun rises we are afraidit might not remainwhen the sun sets we are afraidit might not rise in the morningwhen our stomachs are full we are afraidof indigestionwhen our stomachs are empty we are afraidwe may never eat againwhen we are loved we are afraidlove will vanishwhen we are alone we are afraidlove will never returnand when we speak we are afraidour words will not be heardnor welcomedbut when we are silentwe are still afraid.
So it is better to speakrememberingwe were never meant to survive.
There’s no doubt about it. This has been a difficult week for all of us. Yesterday we held a memorial service for XXXXX -- long-time member and social change advocate -- we marched in the gay and lesbian pride parade as a church, we spoke out at a protest rally on Thursday evening when the word came in that the New York State Appeals Court had voted to deny equal marriage to gay and lesbian people, and as you well know by now -- our church’s banner supporting same-sex marriage was cut in half by a vandal. It has been a hard week, indeed, a week full of emotions -- full of pride in this congregation and gratitude for this community, and full of anger, disappointment and fear. Of all these experiences, though, the hardest one came for me in a private moment as I drove to church on Thursday morning.
I hadn’t had much time to really process what had happened yet with our banner though as I said, my emotions were reeling, and the court decision remained unknown to me at that point -- but as I drove down XXXX Road a fear crept up in my heart that terrified me. I wondered for the first time if I would be safe at church that day. I wondered if there would be more vandalism, and I wondered if this wouldn't be the day when instead of the absolute avalanche of supportive emails and phone calls I had received from church members thus far that today might be the day we were peppered with voices of dissent -- voices saying we should not replace or re-hang the banner at all -- voices saying we should shut up and just let this all go away. I was afraid, and as the fear crept in, I felt my old familiar armor falling back into place piece by piece.
This armor, I know, is something that many folks struggle with -- the defenses that rise up when fear comes in -- the distancing we do, one from another, when we worry for our safety -- when anger takes over and we divide into this side and that side -- when we believe, as Audre Lorde said, in the illusion of safety that the heavy-footed use as they hope to silence us. It's an armor that many folks are familiar with, and I felt mine coming back on Thursday morning. You see, in the course of responding to the vandalism of our banner, I found myself on the phone with XXXXX, a woman at the Gay Alliance who tracks hate crimes against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people in our area. After she took some information about our banner, letting me know that an act of vandalism not accompanied by a specific threat or derogatory comment could not be classified as a hate crime, but instead would likely be registered as a misdemeanor -- she shared some information with me about an incident that had occurred just two weeks prior. Perhaps you’ve already heard about it.
On the evening of June 17th, as two women left a bar together on XXXX Avenue here in XXXXX, they were approached by two other women asking, "Hey, is that your girlfriend?" The women who approached came forward and attacked the others -- kicking and punching and biting them as they yelled and swore, "I’m going to kill you, you dyke." This was undoubtedly a hate crime, and unfortunately it was just one of three that have occurred in the short span of a month here in XXXX.
Hearing this news shook me up -- and it shook XXXX up too. We agreed that while just about every gay, lesbian, and transgendered person we know has a story to tell about hatred, about violence, about being the victim of a hate crime -- this story was particularly disturbing. It got to us, it got under our armor, and as we went on talking we shared about how so often lesbian and gay, transgendered and bisexual people get up in the morning and put on their armor as they brush their teeth -- often without even thinking about it consciously -- struggling for a thin layer of protection against the hatred that exists all around us. We didn’t need to explain ourselves to each other as we talked -- we both knew exactly what we meant.
I know that I've been working consciously for years now to take off that armor. After I came out as a lesbian, I literally wore my armor everywhere. Each morning I pulled on my heavy black biker boots with the silver chain around the thick inch heel, ran a comb through my 1-inch flat-top hair, and reached for the black leather jacket that served as both my literal and figurative armor. I checked myself in the mirror, practiced my scowl, and approached the world with either head down, or disgust visibly showing. On the surface I was angry, yes -- but not far beneath that anger lay the real truth -- I was scared beyond belief. I trusted almost no one and I knew, I just knew that you and everyone else would be no different.
My fear kept me distant from people, as I ran or they ran -- my fear kept me distant from the world, and even from my own heart. It led me to dark places in my soul -- places where I could not and did not sing myself as Whitman does -- for years to come. That armor led me to silence myself -- to feel the fear imprinted like a line down the center of my forehead. That armor, even in its comfort and familiarity, even though I loved and clung to it at the time, never did serve me well.
And so it was with alarm that I felt the armor making its way back onto my body this past Thursday morning. This is not how I wanted to face the world, and this is not how I've been taught to be in the world since I first let that armor slip off my shoulders. You see, as young adult, one Sunday morning I found myself inside a Unitarian Universalist church in a small town in Massachusetts and later I found a home there. I walked into Unitarian Universalism frightened and broken, scarred and scattered and angry -- not sure if it was safe to hope that this place might be different from all the others, and you loved me back together -- slowly at first, as I learned to trust again -- and then with growing speed as I let you in. You offered me a safe place to come to know myself -- and you gave me support and encouragement on the long journey to wholeness and integration. You along with others I began to reach out to in time, taught me that I was a valuable, beautiful person -- that I had gifts inside me to give, and that I could indeed learn to trust the world again -- learning from the pain of the past and making my way forward toward reconciliation and strength. With your love then and now, I became whole again, feeling the original blessing we tell one another about when we dedicate our babies, trusting that I could face the world, that I could be in the world, without the armor I held so dear.
That image of the black leather jacket -- of the armor that so many of us put on like a habit each morning as we brush our teeth -- that image remains with me so that even now, when I find myself becoming guarded and afraid as I did in those awful moments this past Thursday morning driving to church -- I can bring the image of myself clad in that black leather jacket to mind, and literally imagine myself uncrossing my arms, taking off the jacket, letting a deep breath in and choosing to lean into the good of the world again. In those moments of fear when I feel myself pulling away -- I remember what I was taught here -- that hatred will never cease by more hatred -- that only through gentleness and love and perseverance will hatred and ignorance be overcome. Today, when I take off my armor, I do it not only in my mind -- but I do it, also, when I meet strangers with kindness in the supermarket -- when I look up as I walk and offer a smile to those around me -- when I remember with love all those who stood with me and stand by me in my struggles. I take off my armor when I remember -- that the heavy-footed never meant for me to survive in this world with my heart and mind intact -- and when I go on to speak anyway.
Let me be clear this morning, friends. This sermon is not only about the vandalism of our banner, it is not only about equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people, and it is not only about me and my experiences. This sermon is about the journey each of us can make from shattered self to regathered whole, from doubt to confidence, from silence to speech -- it is about a journey of the soul as we learn to sing ourselves and create an environment where everyone feels safe, it is about a journey that can begin when we hear the words, "I believe in you," from within or from without.
This experience of integration -- of learning to recognize and accept and value all of who we are -- this experience of regathered wholeness is not limited to transgender, gay, lesbian, and bisexual people -- this journey toward integration -- is shared by all who seek growth in their lives -- it is a path with heart, a path of the spirit -- and it is a journey which can and will make change in the world.
There is much we can learn from one another on this journey as we talk and as we listen, and there is much we can learn from those who have gone before us. Audre Lorde writes, "Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society's definitions of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference -- those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older – know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change." They will never enable us to bring about genuine change, she writes. If we seek genuine change -- if we wish to go on a journey of the spirit, a journey of growth -- we must learn how to take our differences and make them strengths -- we must do the alchemy required in ourselves each day to turn our anger and hatred and fear into kindness, compassion, and love -- letting go of the armor that we believe protects us -- and sharing ourselves fully and confidently with the world.
For it is our calling, I believe, as religious people, to move from silence to speech. To go on the journey of the soul that requires us to lean back and take a good clear look at ourselves -- to see fully the blocks we put up between ourselves and others -- the obstacles that cause us to see ourselves as separate, isolated individuals fighting for the largest piece of the pie in a starving world. It is our calling, I believe, as people of faith to take off our armor -- to remove to the best of our ability the fear that distances us from one another, to face hatred with calm and gentleness, to sing with love as we pass those who might call us an abomination, to stand together with all who are oppressed as we use our own experience of wholeness and liberation to help liberate others. It is our calling, I believe, as people of faith, to create for others and for ourselves the conditions in our church and in our world community in which we can all say -- I believe in you, my soul -- and know our uniqueness, and know our sameness -- and feel our deep connection.
So this is our great task this morning and this lifetime -- to continue to create the conditions right here in our church and in this world we share in which all of us might have the opportunity to feel our connection and to know our uniqueness -- to sing ourselves and celebrate ourselves -- drawing upon that feeling of wholeness and liberation we may feel as we in turn welcome and liberate others. As we rededicate our banner this morning in support of equal rights and equal marriage for all people -- let us feel the fire of urgency in our bellies, let us feel the power of love in our hearts, and let us hear one another into speech -- that no one might feel silenced any longer for the illusion of their own protection -- that no one might live in a state and feel like a second-class citizen -- that one day we might all be whole, standing without armor and living into the dream of the beloved community we long to create here on earth.
May we make it so, and Amen.
 Audre Lorde, Sister, Outsider. The Crossing Press, Freedom, CA., 1984, p. 112
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