Anonymity and Dissent

3/10: I have added some more thoughts below the essay as an addendum.


 

This post is a response to “Declaration of Dissent”  by a “we” who call themselves Friends of the First Amendment. The group is otherwise anonymous. The Declaration was published today in response to the ongoing dialogue about systematic racial injustice at Seattle Pacific University, particularly the SPU Unity Petition, formulated by the SPU Justice Coalition—a group of students who have disclosed their names and faces on their website. In what follows, I will focus mainly on rhetoric and some broad themes that struck me. I write, hopefully as always, out of love for SPU and for its students (including the Friends of the First Amendment), faculty, and staff, and in solidarity with the SPU Justice Coalition.

I have a number of concerns about the petition, beginning with the anonymity of its author(s). The name “Friends of the First Amendment” suggests that someone’s first-amendment rights would be violated by the measures listed in the Unity Petition. But the authors are exercising their freedom of speech in fear by remaining anonymous. You are allowed to dissent. In fact, I believe that the Unity Petition should be critiqued and discussed—critique leads to the sharpening of ideas and proposals. But there is a choice: put your name to your dissent or perform your own loss of rights. I worry that the choice for the latter was made out of fear of retaliation or fear of being held accountable. As I have mentioned, the SPU Justice Coalition has chosen to show and name themselves. If you have questions, you can find one of them on campus and say “hello.” In showing and naming themselves, they have also made themselves subject to confrontation, forfeiting the comfort of anonymity. So, consider this a formal challenge and encouragement, Friends. If you love the community you are addressing and truly wish to be part of a conversation, be not afraid: sign your name and make yourself visible and accountable. And allow comments on your blog. As it stands, you have left no means for those who would like to to engage with you in what you have called “this essential discussion.”

I don’t think that rights are really the concern of this Dissent (or not the only concern, at any rate). I would hazard that a major concern stems from agitation over the de-centering of whiteness. I noticed that none of the following words are found anywhere in the piece: Native American, White, Black, Brown, Asian, Hispanic, Latina, Latino, African American, Pacific Islander. “People of color” are spoken about a few times, but “diversity” is by far the word of choice. This is undoubtedly in order to mirror the language of the SPU Unity Petition, which also prefers “diversity” and “minority,” perhaps to place an emphasis on unity. But the same vocabulary falls on my ears differently when spoken from the mouth of a disembodied, anonymous, and presumably white “we” who seem to be for diversity as an educational principle but against any means of achieving it. The “we” also suggests that we should be pursuing “intellectual diversity” but does not seem to believe that expanding the number of faculty of color would increase “intellectual diversity” in an essential way—which it would.

In the places in which I grew up, we weren’t supposed to acknowledge that this person is white or that that person is Black. If anything, we could reference someone as being caucasian or African-American if we absolutely had to for some reason, but you would be embarrassed and perhaps nervous about that and would try to avoid it at all costs. The effect of this is to make race a topic of anxiety amongst white people and to make “Black” a word of embarrassment and shame. It also performs the deceptive white stance of color-blindness, from which one can ignore someone else’s experience of race by saying that race isn’t actually a thing that has any real consequences. So, perhaps this isn’t quite fair, but the combination of by-and-large color-blind language with the emphasis on “intellectual diversity” and the authors’ refusal to attach names and faces to their words struck me as an avoidance—the words being spoken are divorced from any particular embodiment, any particular lived experience.

In the vein of ignoring or disbelieving the experiences of people of color, the petition fails to take into account the hurt experienced by people of color due to our community’s failings surrounding race. As a people of faith, SPU should take very seriously the ways in which we have failed to love one another and, indeed, the ways in which we have harmed one another. The only nod I see to this in the text is a brief mention of oppression, but even then, the word is put in scare quotes: “President Martin has stated that the university will employ a Chief Diversity Officer with the purpose of representing students from non-majority identity groups and serving as a resource to alleviate ‘oppression.'” This is a calculated move to delegitimize the experiences of those who are oppressed. It betrays a disbelief in the stories of SPU’s people of color.

The word is used again in the context of anxiety over the implementation of an anonymous reporting system for what the Unity Petition calls “inappropriate behavior and speech.” The Dissent’s concern is that such a system would be used to “oppress unpopular, minority opinions on campus because it shifts the credibility of interpretation of statements to the ear of the beholder, which would be a completely subjective and immeasurable standard of discriminatory speech and behavior.” The phrase “inappropriate behavior and speech” is, I thought, fairly self-explanatory in the context of the petition, but would probably be too vague to be encoded in official policy as is and could thus be helpfully clarified (racist language and behavior, belittling of or downright rejection of minority perspectives, cultural appropriation, intimidation, etc.). But what is interesting to me about the passage from the Dissenters quoted above is how they cleverly reframe the discussion by labeling themselves as the minority and thus the ones in need of protection—the oppressed. The fact is, although they do not speak for the institution or its current leaders, the Dissenters seem to me to be writing from a place of privilege—attempting to discourage any sort of changes that would actually disturb the status quo.

The Dissenters also voice the concern that an anonymous reporting system would create a “safe space”—words not actually found in the SPU Unity Petition. The Dissenters:

However, we do not believe that such a space encourages persons to grow and to build meaningful relationships. We believe that the university is a place where students ought to learn how to face opposition with grace. This interpersonal skill allows individuals to cultivate patience and humility in order to develop more wholehearted relationships across one’s lifetime. Safe spaces undermine the development of this skill.

From what I can understand, the hope behind implementing the reporting system would be to hold people accountable for racist language and behavior. The sort of dialogue necessary to “build meaningful relationships” is not compatible with racism. And, frankly, the statement that “students ought to learn how to face opposition with grace” sounds a lot like a request for racial minorities to stop complaining about the oppression they experience. This is dangerous.

While there are more problematic aspects of the “Declaration of Dissent” (including its melodramatic or pompous title that seems to be intended to echo the Declaration of Independence), I shall leave my discussion there. I would be glad to learn that I am wrong about any assumptions that I make above about its authors. But I also hope that those who feel challenged by the empowerment of minorities—racial, sexual, etc.—might pause their dissent to sit, listen, and practice empathy. This cannot happen anonymously; it is only possible in community.


 

I want to address a presumption I make above. I presume in my essay, fairly or unfairly, that the authors of the Dissent are white or majority white. I do this because they resist the suggestions of the SPU Justice Coalition, which is largely comprised of people of color; because they choose to identify themselves as “Friends of the First Amendment,” which is reminiscent to me of the rhetoric of a certain conservative branch of white evangelicalism that approaches the founding documents of our nation with the same reverence with which it approaches the Bible; and because they hold to a certain mind/body dualism that assumes that one’s knowledge (or indeed knowledge in general) can be separated from one’s lived experience, a dualism that would seem useful to those who want to argue against the intentional hiring of people of color and argue that studying “Western” philosophy, theology, literature, etc. ought to be adequate for all (which has been referred to, I believe, as academic colonialism) in the name of resisting “an extreme homogeneity of perspective toward social justice questions,” as if it is the task of diversity and the job of people of color to orient others toward social justice. It just sounds white.

Would it make a difference if there are people of color amongst the Friends? I offer the following thoughts.

As a cisgender gay man—someone who is both a man and attracted to men—it is possible for me to be sexist. I could believe that women just don’t measure up to men in a variety of ways. I could believe that the male body is superior to the female body and that the female body, because I don’t desire it or understand it, is disgusting. Following from that, I could view lesbians with as much contempt as a straight man could have for me. Some gay men are indeed misogynists and even homophobes.

As a cisgender gay man who has experienced the overwhelming love of SPU’s community, I could listen to another queer person at SPU who has not experienced such warmth and wonder what is wrong with them. Surely they are doing something wrong. As someone who has attempted to work through the system to affect dialogue and change, I could look at someone who is more likely to protest and ask, “Do they not know how to act properly? What is wrong with them?” There are queer alumni, current students, and students who have left the school who have not felt as welcome as I did. I can either see their differences from me as a deficiency on their part and dismiss them, or I can listen and try to understand why other queer people might not feel the same way as I do and stand in solidarity with them.

I may be gay, but I am still white, middle-class, cisgender, male, outgoing, and from a theological tradition similar to SPU’s. While I am a sexual minority, I still benefit from many avenues of privilege.

As it is possible for a gay man such as myself to benefit from and be blinded by the heteropatriarchy, I believe it is possible for people of color to benefit from and be blinded by structures that promulgate whiteness and to stand up for those structures to protect their own place of relative privilege that comes through association with them. This is a complicated position to inhabit, and I will not pretend that I can fully understand it because I am not living it. I imagine it is actually a very difficult and frustrating position to be in, particularly because it produces tension with other people of color.

Would it make a difference if there are people of color amongst the Friends? I don’t think so. It doesn’t change the piece’s rhetorical or ideological stances, and it doesn’t change the fact that in-person, face-to-face dialogue must occur.

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Res Hall Traditions, Gender, and Empathy

The following essay has been stewing for a while. Seattle Pacific has been having a lot of great conversations about gender and identity recently, so this essay is in part a contribution to that discussion. I write with the conviction that good things are worth working on and the knowledge that the topics I explore here are likely relevant to many other institutions. It is also the first (I hope) of several posts reflecting on the wonderful and insane four years I have spent here. It has truly been a blessing.

Added 5/21: As this has been spread around quite a bit, I would like to add that what is discussed below, while certainly concerning and warranting change, is one aspect of events like Decade Skate, which are one aspect of communal life at SPU. It is, frankly, one of the few things that have concerned me during my time here. For people who are new to my blog, it is worth adding that overall, my experience here has been overwhelmingly good, and my blog, I hope, has been a testament to the powerful community SPU is. Thank you for reading.


Dropkicking two baby dolls into the crowd of underclassmen congregated in front of the library was about par for the course. Res hall traditions are always a spectacle of excitement, nonsense, and camaraderie, all of which I definitely felt then, having just crawled out onto the stage with my dads (a name guys on 3rd Hill call each other) in a mass birth train from underneath the legs of other dads, beginning to dance, dressed mainly in makeshift diapers, watching the two dolls soar unceremoniously through the air as the beat of our chosen soundtrack—a dubstep remix of Justin Bieber’s “Baby”—dropped.

When first arriving at college, a student might not know anyone else there; I did not. Even if he or she does, the new location, and all of the changes that come with it, can alter relationships. Some people just feel different in general, making it difficult for them to form friendships. The res hall floor provides, ideally, a new family with its own distinct practices, often called traditions, regardless of how long they have actually been observed. Traditions—floor themes, names, activities, and formal events—distinguish one floor from another, giving a group of hitherto unconnected people a common identity.

But these traditions, especially the activities and events, do change, sometimes frequently. The baby-dropping dance was for Fusion, a fall-quarter tradition instituted by Res Life with the goal of providing a positive, unifying experience for each residence hall. It may have also been an attempt to curb some of the more controversial floor-specific traditions that often involve(d) near or total nudity or possibly harmful behavior, which some defend by saying that they are more effective in forming intimate bonds. At any rate, Fusion is no longer. It was dropped.

Perhaps the most popular of the public traditions are those in which each floor prepares a skit that involves acting and dancing to a hodgepodge of songs, YouTube videos, movie soundtracks, and dialogue. For weeks, sometimes months, a floor will gather to choreograph and rehearse their dances and preen their soundtrack.

In my four years at SPU, I have participated in my hall’s version of this, Decade Skate, in all capacities. Freshman year, my floor did not compete, but we came and supported our sister floor. Sophomore year, we assembled a skit that we were very proud of, and, though we didn’t win, we got laughs, applause, and a sense of mutual accomplishment. Junior year, I was asked to host with a friend. This year, my senior year, hall council kindly asked me to be a judge. Having done all of this, and having attended as many Ashton Cups, I can think of a few things that tend to characterize these traditions.

Every year, at least two or three skits consist of a group of students exploring the SPU campus in some way. Another popular plot involves characters visiting various movies and TV shows.

Every year, the women tend to focus on plot, dance, and sets, while the men tend to focus on plot, dance, sets, and shocking the audience.

Every year, certain floors do certain things. Some are known for tight choreography, others for birthing scenes.

Every year, there are cringe-worthy moments, such as those birthing scenes, occasional insensitive racial caricatures, violence, and—always—over-sexed dancing from the men. Women’s floors exhibit this behavior sometimes, too, but by and large a lot less frequently.

Which leads to another observation: nearly every year, a men’s floor wins first place, even though there are far more women’s floors and even if a women’s floor has a far better skit. Going into judging this year, I had this in mind, but even then, the result was the same.

In addition to the immense creativity possible when so many people work together towards a common goal, our res hall events highlight the strange gender dynamics present at SPU:

It is no secret that college is a time during which many find their future spouse. “Ring by Spring” culture (encompassing Roomies Dates, the constant jokes during Welcome Week along the lines of “Your future husband or wife might be sitting next to you,” and the ridiculous significance given to getting coffee with someone of the opposite sex), even when participated in ironically, often makes the wedding ring, not the bachelor’s degree, seem like the real prize of four years at SPU. Combined with the infamous 68/32 women-to-men ratio, the urgency of “ring by spring” causes many of our students who don’t find their partner, women especially, I think, to feel like something is deeply wrong with them. It also is a source of distress for some LGBTQ people, who, especially at this time of life, may very well be torn about whether or not God (not to mention their university) allows their love in the first place. A final result of ring by spring and the ratio is that the vast majority of eyes on campus fall on the men; not that it makes everything easy for them, but straight guys are in high demand around here.

It is no secret that people—young people in particular, men in particular—try to show off in front of potential mates.

It is no secret that a large number of current SPU students were raised in church traditions that embraced the Purity Movement, which we now know has harmed a generation of Christian women by causing them to view their body as a commodity that can be ruined after one inappropriate use, while the men are more or less rapped across the knuckles and told to man up. Purity culture’s just-cover-it-up approach to the human body and its functions, particularly sex, has also caused a number of us—men and women—to feel ashamed of our naked selves and our desires.

Nor is it a secret that this generation of Christian men is comprised mainly of porn addicts who are much more familiar with the bodies of women than the other way around. Women, too, struggle with this, but not, I believe, in such high proportions.

So, given this stew of sexual confusion and frustration, maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that, taken out of their home contexts and dropped en masse onto a stage in front of their peers, young SPU men—without fail—tear their clothing off and grind on each other, almost as if you can demonstrate your masculinity by showing how far you can go with the same sex in front of the opposite sex without enjoying it, while doing it crudely. Should we find it surprising that men’s skits can demonstrate intense violence, sometimes towards women? I wonder, should we find it surprising that the audience roars with laughter and cheers in response? Should we find it surprising that these skits often win?

Perhaps some people reading this—especially underclassmen—think that I’m blowing a little bit of harmless fun way out proportion. But hear me out. I write this because I care about the SPU I am soon leaving. I worry that this pattern, along with the continued changing of individual floor traditions, the (don’t laugh) removal of the circular tables from Gwinn, the closing of Gwinn between lunch and dinner (thus making impossible the Gwinn Challenge), and other seemingly minor changes could harm (or already are harming) the number one thing people say they love about SPU: the community.

The moment that it occurred to me that the sexual and violent content of our performance-based res hall traditions can actually be harmful to SPU’s community was during this year’s Decade Skate. I was underneath a blanket at the time, which I brought in case Royal Brougham was cold. But the main function it served that night was to shield me when a few minimally dressed SPU men came unusually close to the judges’ table and began to hip-thrust violently in our faces. I didn’t think such a thing could be done so angrily, but within the context of the broader skit, which was equally angry, it felt like a thinly veiled “fuck you.” I didn’t realize until afterwards that another judge, a wonderful woman in the year below me, was also trying to get under the blanket. Looking back at this, I find this image to be a particularly revealing one about how such forceful displays of puerile heterosexual masculinity violate women, gay men, and others alike. Like a dog humping your leg.

I understand that parts of this particular skit were meant to protest the decision of Res Life to discontinue a certain tradition of theirs that involves Nerf guns. But, even though I understand the frustration behind such a protest—even though I too would be angry to lose a particularly fun floor tradition—I also know that when the context of an act or symbol changes, the way it is perceived changes as well. When a member of our community is shot to death on our campus, guns on our campus—even obviously fake ones—become symbols of the saddest and scariest moment in our community’s memory and potential triggers for horrifying episodes of PTSD. The shortsightedness or callousness of anyone who fails to see or care about that astonishes me. It is an idolatry of the self and of one’s own favorite practices over the love of neighbor.

The things we do are never neutral; they tell us about who we are, where we are going, and what we desire. And the “we” here is intentional—within the larger circle of SPU, the res halls house multiple levels of community. At every level, leaders and other community members should ask themselves those questions: Who are we? Where are we going? What do we desire?

In her essay “Imagination and Community,” Marilynne Robinson writes, “I am persuaded for the moment that this is in fact the basis of community. I would say, for the moment, that community, at least community larger than the immediate family, consists very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly.” She continues, “I think fiction may be, whatever else, an exercise in the capacity for imaginative love, or sympathy, or identification.” What are Decade Skate skits and the like if not fictions, the artistic expressions of res hall floors? Could they be an opportunity to exercise imaginative love, sympathy, and identification?

To end this essay, I don’t really have any answers. I just have hopes—high hopes. And I do have more questions for you to think about—particularly those of you who are future leaders at SPU and, potentially, other Christian colleges with analogous traditions.

What communities are you a part of?

What traditions do you value?

What do your traditions say about you and your community?

Whom do your traditions leave out or alienate?

Are there other ways in which your traditions are harmful?

Do your communities and traditions glorify God?

If you don’t like your answers to any of these questions, what can you change? What specifically can you change? Are there rules that can be rewritten? Grading sheets that can be weighted differently?

Entering our sophomore year, the Hill Hall Council I was a part of was extremely mindful of how we might influence the hall’s culture. We did our best to bolster the idea that Hill is a place of love—a true home for those who live there. Who are we? Family. Where are we going? Into the unsure future. What do we desire? To get there together. As my four years here come to an end, it is my prayer that SPU will continue to be a place redolent of God’s love and a people who listen well, think critically, love generously, and, to do this, are ready to let some things drop.

along the way

and so along the way
we’ll pick things up
we didn’t know we had to say—

refrains that shake
the condensation
from our cataracted window panes

that we may be found again
by tendrils of the reaching sun

and speak the words
we one day had begun

[for SPU, at the start of a new year]

Until We Rest on Thee

I have felt very lost this summer.

The summer began in the wake of a shooting that left my friends and school family lost in time and space, floating in a nightmare. The sudden realization of what a bullet can do to a person, family, and community has made watching the news (read: going on Facebook or Twitter) all the more jarring. With the horrors of Israel and Palestine, Iraq, and Ferguson, two feelings have left me paralyzed: the (1) outrage of knowing that while the hurt I’ve had since June 5th is indeed painful and the result of a needless and senseless act of violence, it is what many around the world are experiencing as day-to-day life due to their religion or skin color, and the (2) utter disbelief that such things can and do happen so frequently.

The violation of the shooting and the frustration of not being able to find a summer job in Seattle sent me flying home to Caledonia for the summer. Everything seemed impossible in Seattle. Bussing an hour both ways to Capitol Hill for Latin lessons (with an admittedly wonderful woman), being so close to campus, taking the short bus ride to the church I love, buying groceries, and cooking alone for a second summer—all of these things felt like islands that my body had the impossible task of bridging, connecting into one life. The constancy and familiarity of suburban Western Michigan beckoned mercifully, and I came running.

In Michigan I began a summer job and Latin lessons with a man who can speak the dead language nearly fluently. These two things fell into place before I even left Seattle, for which I am very grateful. I am also grateful for my parents. Earning a paycheck will make you appreciate the generosity of the people who raised you.

My parents went to Austria for a week and a half early in the summer. My dad had a conference to attend there, so he and my mom took some days afterwards to travel around Vienna, where my mother once lived. It was a well-deserved and long-overdue vacation for them. Being twenty-one, I was hoping that I would be fine home alone, but I went to bed every night for the first few days convinced that someone was hiding in my house, waiting for the perfect moment to shoot me.

I was hoping that I could return to my hometown without increased depression, paranoia, and anxiety about my sexuality, but the conversation about homosexuality is just starting in the Christian circles here. While I am grateful that that discussion is being had, it comes with a cost to those involved. When my sexuality and my future are daily being debated around me it is hard to think of anything else. I am so frustrated that I am stuck in ruts I thought I had long since left behind. I left my summer job early when I became incapable of focusing on my work due to such thoughts.

I have felt very lost this summer, which makes me wonder what it would mean for me to feel found—to be found.

When the shooting and murder of a student left my school lost we were found in prayer. “We were found” means three things here: that (1) were you to walk through campus during those days you would have seen SPUers in prayer circles on Tiffany Loop, in First Free Methodist Church worshiping and lamenting, and outside Otto Miller Hall, stopping to offer prayers and flowers, that (2) we were unified by the act of praying together—we were found by each other, which means we were not alone—and that (3) we were found in Christ. Because we came together not only as a family but as a worshiping community we were, I believe, members of a community of believers that transcends time and space—a community that ultimately cannot be separated by death because it is a community that shares in eternal life with Christ.

Although people say Seattle is the most Godless city in the country, it is where I have known most fully what it means to be Christian, to pray with others, and to walk amidst the company of saints. Separated from those people I have had a difficult time keeping my prayer practices and discerning the presence of God. With two weeks left before I return to England, I’m going to renew my effort to observe Morning and Evening Prayer. I have been lost enough times to know that I am found in Christ—a consummation of seeking and being sought.

Lord, may we rest on Thee.

 

in response to the shooting

[For those who don’t know: there was a shooting at my school on June 5th. One student was killed and others injured. I haven’t known what to write about it. This is all I’ve been able to do to describe those days, grieving together and being utterly lost, laying our flowers down on the sidewalk.]

we are all quite
wide awake
and simultaneously
dead
adrift in our
own reveries
adrift within
without our heads

my feet fall right
next to you
and others follow, hit the
grass
none of us knows
what to do
hearing heli
copters pass

blind the windows
call a friend
she says yes with bated
breath
classes taught her
time could bend
now she knows just
what that meant

my knees fall right
next to you
and others’ follow, others
bend
they brought flowers
we did too
for this garden
of cement

Walking the Canterbury Trail

Seattle Pacific has a class called University Foundations 1000, which is a required course in basic Christian belief. The culminating assignment in the class is a project in which groups of three or four students attend a church in a different denomination than the one they grew up in. In addition to the visits, they research the denomination and one of its historical figures. Everyone writes down their top picks and the professor assigns groups. My choices were the Orthodox Church and the Episcopal Church.

The group I was placed in was assigned to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in lower Queen Anne. Growing up, if we were traveling, my family would attend an Episcopal parish if no Covenant church was around. As my dad pointed out, “You pretty much always know what you’re going to get.” Episcopal parishes all follow the Book of Common Prayer’s service order, so even if, heaven forbid, the sermon is boring, that’s alright because the sermon is just one part of the structured liturgy that tells the Christian story.

My group attended a couple of services at St. Paul’s that fall, which was fall quarter of our sophomore year. We learned that St. Paul’s is an Anglo-Catholic parish. Anglo-Catholicism comes from the Tractarian Movement, or the Oxford Movement, which was a shift in Anglicanism starting in mid-1800s Oxford amongst Anglicans who desired to restore spiritual vibrancy to the Church of England by returning to some of the traditions that had been forgotten or removed. It was a return to some of the “high church” traditions still found in Roman Catholicism. Anglo-Catholic parishes use incense, liturgical vestments, bells during communion, chant parts of the service, and stand, sit, bow, kneel, and genuflect together. Smells and bells and holy yoga. One thing I appreciated about the liturgy from my first exposure was the space it left for silence. At a time of life when everything felt very turbulent, the collective stillness of a parish meditating on Scripture and listening for God distilled in me a sense of peace that remained with me for the day.

The priest at the time (who has since been called to be the bishop of a diocese in Canada) was Mother Melissa Skelton, a truly amazing woman who was once a high-ranking official at Tom’s of Maine, earned three Masters degrees, writes beautiful homilies, and exudes the love of Christ. At the end of a service she would stand at the door leading into the narthex to greet anyone who wanted to say hello. After taking advantage of the monthly ask-a-priest-about-our-traditions at the Mary shrine we introduced ourselves to Mother Melissa and went downstairs for coffee hour. As a teenager I thought coffee hours in small churches were just sort of hokey and awkward, but through two or three coffee hours at St. Paul’s I met people who, astonishingly, remembered my name the next time I visited. Even when I returned in the spring someone recognized me and asked what I had been up to. That blew me away.

Before my first visits to St. Paul’s, through a conversation with a good friend, I became convicted that I needed to be honest with myself about my orientation, a move that brought me much peace and clarity. After that moment my depression retreated for a solid year. Prior to that moment my pain and loneliness were what kept me returning to God every night. I knew how to pray as a depressed, closeted teenager: God please hear me, help me God, deliver me. But once my depression lifted, I realized that sorrow had been my only spiritual discipline. Without it I did not know where to meet God. I no longer knew what to pray for. I no longer knew when to lift my hands in worship songs, which used to be emotional times when (often thinking about my struggles with sexuality) I sang, sometimes cried, bared myself to God, and praised God despite my sadness. The primary way I experienced God was through my emotions, which I’ve learned are pretty shaky things on which to build any faith or relationship.

Still attending the church that I had been for a year and a half or so in Seattle, I started to become worried. Many artists who are inspired by their suffering fear that their creativity will vanish with their pain. As a sometimes-writer that was certainly a fear of mine. I did not, however, anticipate that my experience of God would change when I became more joyful. I stopped feeling God in worship so I stopped knowing when to raise my hands. While singing, I debated whether or not to stand up or remain seated and whether or not to lift up my arms, and I soon realized that most of my attention in church was spent on myself—not worshiping God.

Around the same time, it occurred to me that, although I had been attending the same church for a year and a half, the only people I knew were the other SPU students I went with. Every Sunday I met someone else during the shake-your-neighbors-hand part but I never remembered their names and no one remembered mine. I never did join a small group and I only attended the college kid hangout once, so I felt relatively anonymous. The church I grew up in in New Hampshire was maybe sixty to eighty people large. We had potlucks and a hokey coffee hour and everyone knew everyone’s name and we all prayed for each other. At my home church in Michigan, which is fairly large, I developed many strong relationships through youth group, hokey coffee hour, and playing in the worship band. I missed that sort of church family feeling.

At the end of sophomore year I wrote a paper on globalization’s role in how the worldwide Anglican Communion has dealt with homosexuality. Briefly put, homosexuality has created much tension within the communion. This is the story of many denominations that make a decision one way or the other on ordaining and marrying gay people, and it breaks my heart that it is so. But over the course of my junior year, in England and then back in Seattle, I spent a bit of time learning about Anglicanism beyond the recent divides. I participated in St. Paul’s Enquirer’s classes back in Seattle, two five-hour sessions on Episcopal and Anglo-Catholic history. I also recently met with the current Priest in Charge, Fr. Samuel Torvend. Through these things I learned about the beautiful heritage of Anglicanism: the church’s heart for the marginalized and its love of art, its Baptismal Covenant and its care for the earth, its practices of prayer and its embrace of mystery.

In the 1970’s, when AIDS first began killing off a generation of gay men, my parish provided free burials to anyone claimed by the disease. Gay people go to my church. They are regular attenders—people who have been practicing Christians since before I was born. They are also leaders. One hard part about being gay in a denomination that doesn’t really talk about homosexuality is the difficulty I had in finding role models—people who have wrestled with the questions I’m asking and who can provide insight and wisdom about how to live faithfully while holding those questions. Without such mentors it feels like you always need to be a trailblazer, which might sound exciting sometimes but really is just pretty exhausting and lonely.

Another difficulty I used to have, which I mentioned earlier, was getting stuck dwelling on things like the uncertainty of not knowing how people would treat me if they knew that I was gay (which only increased after I came out on this blog), trying not to say or do anything that might draw negative attention to myself, the persistent thoughts that—wrong though I knew them to be—kept popping up: that I’m different and obtrusive, that I need to retreat. At St. Paul’s I haven’t been so focused on myself and my sexuality because I know that no matter where I end up—in a relationship, with a family, called to celibacy, or just plain single—my church will be there to support me and celebrate life with me. And likewise, I will support the Church I love, not as a trailblazer, but as a servant, whether that be as a layperson, musician, member of the vestry, deacon, or priest.

On May 18th at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle, surrounded by my fellow confirmands Amanda, Mary, Mollie, and Emily, my church, priest, Episcopalians from the Diocese of Olympia, housemates, roommit (roommate), dear friends, and my mom, who flew out from Michigan to be there, I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church (USA). And I’ve got a certificate to prove it!

 

 

I’m not sure when yet, but one day I hope to go through the discernment process for ordination. I’ve been reading about liturgy and would love the chance to formally study Scripture, theology, and church history. But regardless of ordination, I hope to live a life steeped in the rhythms of Morning and Evening prayer, Lent and Easter, confession and absolution, baptism and communion, worship and justice, death and new life in Christ.

Love to David and Trevor, two of my housemates this past year. We spent hours… HOURS together talking about faith and our denominational adventures. I miss our conversations already.  And, of course, much love to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal, who swiftly accepted me as one of their own. I’ll see you in January!

Lodged and Loving

This post is in response to a post by Laura Nile, who says that Seattle Pacific University is hiding its faith. It is a thoughtful post by a wonderful woman who is genuinely concerned with the affairs of her university. The following are musings on themes raised in her post.

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That SPU doesn’t talk about Jesus enough wasn’t something that ever crossed my mind until this summer, when, after a panel discussion for people previewing the school, a family shuffled over to me. The mother, who seemed flustered, introduced herself and said, “Thank you. We have been touring the school all day—going to presentations, talking with advisors—and you were the only person who has said anything about Jesus. When we visited [another Christian school in the state], they spoke about Jesus a lot. Does SPU even care about him?”

I was a bit flabbergasted. In response I reassured her that Jesus is very much at the core of what SPU does, even if we don’t say his name a lot at all events for prospective students. I think part of her disappointment as a previewing parent (which is, granted, different than a student) comes from trouble differentiating between the role of evangelism and preaching in the church and the role of recruitment in the university. Talking about your love for Jesus when discussing your faith with believers and nonbelievers alike is a good and necessary thing that we as Christians must do. It is different to talk about your love for Jesus in the context of an admissions event designed to convince prospective students that this school is the school you should attend (and send your money to) over that school. I think it is possible to do so tastefully, but you run the risk of muddling the goals of the two institutions. The goal, or function, of the church is to be the body of Christ—worshiping God and showing God’s love to the world. The primary goal of a university is to educate. A Christian university does this differently than other universities because it sees an individual’s education and vocation as parts of the larger mission of the Church.

In her post, Laura shares pictures of banners from SPU’s new “FROM THIS PLACE” campaign that tell of alumni who have gone on to end river blindness in Ecuador, launch Washington state’s first Asian giving circle, and engage the culture and change the world (the final of these being the school’s motto). Laura writes,

These are wonderful achievements from some talented and gifted alumni, but not one of them mentions a single thing about Christ. Not one of them even hints at our Christian identity. We will boast about non-profits, development work, social justice, and professional athletics, but Heaven forbid we boast about Jesus Christ.

Advertising and branding campaigns are intended to pique curiosity. As a university, SPU wants to showcase its graduates, hence the “FROM THIS PLACE” campaign. It is true that the banners from this campaign do not mention Christ, but the variety and nature of the jobs they describe (treating “veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” or playing pro soccer) suggest the sundry ways that someone motivated by a their Christian education would go forth into the world to serve their God. Not everyone is the same; people serve in different ways. The body has many parts. If the banners were to “boast about Jesus Christ,” I worry that the line between evangelism and recruitment would be too blurred, given that the purpose of the banners is indeed to advertise. What would such banners say? “We believe in Jesus Christ” or “Our students lead lives of Christian integrity” or “Christ has risen!”? There is something I don’t like about putting credal truths and other things about Christian living onto advertising banners. Let them know we are Christians by our mission statement, our magazines, our non-mandatory chapel services, the Bible verses engraved onto the stone of our buildings, and yes, our love.

Laura also raises the concern that our advertising runs the risk of being dishonest to non-Christians about what is most important to us—our Christian identity. She writes,

Sadly, the false advertisement is hurting the non-Christian students who we attracted, who feel tricked into coming to a Christian school.

Another mother approached me after that panel last summer, along with her daughter. During the panel earlier she had asked questions pertaining to SPU’s faith. When she spoke to me afterwards I learned that she was curious because she and her daughter are liberal Jews, wary of SPU’s Christian class requirements. They didn’t need a banner to tell them SPU cares about Jesus. The mother was concerned that because her daughter had a different faith that she would feel alienated here. “She’s bright and she doesn’t let other people say things that they believe without questioning them to see if they’ve actually thought things over.” I told her that SPU’s faculty does not let their students’ beliefs go unchallenged. Many students struggle with ideas like creation or the possibility that some of their beliefs were formed through careless eisegesis. I told her about how the community supported me so amazingly—students and faculty alike—when I came out a year ago. I also told her that being different is both hard, when you feel like no one understands you, and good, when you are able to engage in tough conversations about those differences. By the end of our twenty minute talk the mother and I pretty much agreed that we’d be best friends if things were different, and in retrospect, I don’t think I had to ignore Jesus at all.

Putting the banner issue aside, I really appreciate Laura’s post. While my experience has been a bit different than hers, I think, (or perhaps we just have different expectations), I admire the courage she has to critique something that she loves. Many people are quite willing and eager to point out the flaws in things they dislike (ex: “NASCAR—it’s just driving in circles, amirite?”), but it is more difficult to give a thoughtful critique of something dear to you. Compassionate criticism is necessary in the Church. It calls us to ask ourselves questions like “Why are we here?” and “Why do we do what we do?”—questions whose answers reveal what lies at our core. And, like Laura, it is my prayer that SPU continues to remain firmly lodged in Jesus. I also pray that SPU does this without forgetting that to be in Christ is to “Walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2, emphasis mine).