Community-Developed Knowledge

At the end of an article* in the fall issue of the journal n+1, sex worker Lorelei Lee notes:

“This essay could not have been written without community-developed knowledge. Any mistakes are my own, and anything I got right is the result of living, working, and thinking in coalition with hundreds of brilliant people in the sex trades.”

(*that outstanding article, Cash/Consent, is preceded immediately by another insightful piece entitled The Evangelical Mind by non-practicing evangelical Adam Kotsko – and the mere juxtaposition of these two pieces, let alone their thought-provoking content, is a sharp move)

I’ve been reflecting on the notion of community-developed knowledge since I read the piece several days ago.

I’ve always had a thing for epistemology (the mechanisms of knowledge production) – and this concept is right at the edge of what is wise and what is problematic in our world today.

For the most part, we have ceased to grant collective authority of knowledge to central figures – whether those be individuals or institutions.

Diffusing power in this way can be a good thing.

However, in our knowledge processes, we have fallen prey to (a) the market-driven cult of celebrity and (b) an overly uncritical willingness to accept sources that simply reframe what we already believe, regardless of whether they are rigorous or merely speculatively profit- or attention-driven.

I don’t know exactly how Lee defines community-developed knowledge, but I hear the potential for a useful corrective to these problems.

Community-developed knowledge is meaningful when it centers the experiences and expertise of perspectives often excluded from discussions of ‘what is known.’

Community-developed knowledge is generated not by a single human savior source, but by collectively sharing in work, commitment, and respect.

Community-developed knowledge can be geared to reject shallow trade in convenient sound bytes that erase nuance, instead weaving insights gathered over time through living and learning (both formal and informal).

Obviously, it can also go wrong, so that homogenous communities of relative power simply reinforce problematic ‘knowledge’ about others and the world – but that’s an ongoing risk no matter what.

We work with and within the world as it is.

On the UMC and the Real Way Forward

Well, let’s give up on the illusion that I’ve been able to maintain any significant degree of professional (or personal) distance from the whole UMC situation.

The things I have said that have been meaningful to people have not come from that place anyway, so I’m just going to talk about pain and promise as I understand it. I have written elsewhere of the depth of my lifelong personal connection to the UMC, so I won’t rehash it here. 

Like so many issues, this battle is situated in a particular setting, but reflects a much larger cultural struggle between those who seek to widen the circle of care and belonging and those who seek to preserve their own power for their own benefit.

So . . . as it turned out, yesterday as the global body of the UMC gathered for its final day of General Conference, I had agreed to be a part of a 5-hour community conversation hosted – of all places – at East Lake UMC, a congregation to which I belonged at the time God called me to seminary.

The folks at East Lake and their brilliant pastor have never been anything less than 110% supportive of me and my calling – and the group gathered yesterday were community-engaged folks from all over the city, BUT STILL. . .

I drove over there mumbling about how it was the absolute LAST F—ING PLACE I wanted to be on that day.  And that was the God’s honest truth.

I walked in doing my feeble best at a game face and after registration turned and ran into my friend and brother, Ali. He innocently said “Hey! How are you?”

I promptly started crying and mumbling uttering incoherent things. Ali, baffled but enduringly kind, just hugged me, a perfect gift of peace in a wrenching moment.

It was a shaky few hours, but I was lifted up – as I always am – by the kinship of good people, some of whom knew it was a hard morning and others who didn’t have a clue.

meandli.jpg Me, hanging in there, and Ali

I took a couple of breathing moments in East Lake’s sanctuary, which I consider the most beautiful traditional sacred space in the city (go ahead, fight me).

The smaller stained glass windows that feature the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Talents are my favorites. They sit in what used to be my line of sight when I sang in the choir there and I would often go at other times and just perch in front of them.

stainedglass

The lessons of those parables remain as important as they always have been – perhaps all the more so. And the shattered shards of East Lake’s beautiful current altar setting felt especially fitting.

meandaltar

After East Lake, I moved on elsewhere to  a difficult but restorative conversation with someone with whom I’d had a conflict – and then on to drinks with good, hurting UMC people, followed by conversation with good, kick-ass queer clergy friends.

It was the people who made the difference. Therein lies both the pain and the promise.

For many of us, church is family.

Yes, you can worship God anywhere because God is everywhere.

Yet worship in isolation nearly always tends toward our cultural narrative of self-preoccupation, this noxious attachment to ego gratification and capitalist manipulation of desire.  

Following Jesus – as with other religious traditions – is (blessedly) a communal endeavor.

No wonder the rejection hurts so much for so many people, including me.

It cuts to the deepest parts of the safety we find (or ought to be able to find) in family and community.

It is a devastating refusal of the God-given gifts we offer into family and community.

We are formed in faith and then violently ejected from its circle of care.

It is a sinful, human-driven, patriarchal-power-rooted, grievous misinterpretation of holy Scripture.

(okay, now please DO NOT oversimplify any of what follows. Hear it through before you decide what you think I’m trying to say)

I was given this UCC emblem when I was installed as pastor at Beloved Community Church. I’m not a big accessories person, so it mostly stays in a drawer. I took it out yesterday and slipped it in my shirt pocket before I went to East Lake.

uccpendant

Its weight there served as a tangible reminder of where I have landed – and how I have found a place to use my gifts and honor my calling.

I was trying to say something last night in a text reply about my adopted church and accidentally wrote that the UCC had adopted me.

And once I wrote it I knew that phrase got to the heart of the matter.

The UCC adopted me and loved me. (ain’t nothing perfect, but hopefully you can grasp the grace extended there – that’s the point).  I have learned that one does not have to be a United Methodist to be a Wesleyan. 

To those outside of such a relationship of love and care –

LGBTQIAP CLERGY AND LAY PEOPLE OF THE UMC –  I completely get why you would choose to stay – especially if you feel a particular calling to do so.

I also fully understand why you would leave (that’s what I did  – and it was utterly necessary and second only to coming out as a liberating action in my life). If you need help figuring out where to go, I’d be glad to help. I’m partial to Beloved of course, but not at the expense of wanting people to find places that truly resonate with their spirit – that is my primary commitment.

If you stay, please send out those who leave with your blessing as they seek to follow God’s call on their lives.

If you stay, please understand that you are in an abusive relationship. No matter how good your congregation is (and there are some fantastic UMC congregations locally and globally), as long as it remains in the UMC connection, it is not autonomous.

The relationship of the UMC to LGBTQIAP people is abusive.

So stay if you need to, but protect yourself.

Protect yourself.

Please.

Because you are loved fully by God and God wants your wholeness and your well-being so that you may walk in your calling, so that you may be God’s hands and feet in the world.

If you ever need safe space to talk, pray, grieve, or just be, let me know.

STRAIGHT, CISGENDER UMC CLERGY – I begrudge no one the necessity of making a living.

I am heartened by the solidarity and care I have seen expressed over the last couple of days not just by the usual bold souls, but by people whose positions make it harder to make those affirmations publicly. I dearly hope that you have glimpsed God as you have pushed the boundaries of your own courage.

Please remember that there is no neutral here. If you do not side with the marginalized, then you are siding with the oppressor. And when you compromise for the sake of unity, you are compromising the lives of LGBTQ+ people within your congregations (and there are more than you know) and far beyond those walls.

Please remember that in the days ahead and let that knowledge be reflected in your actions.

And if anybody is looking for an exit strategy for themselves or their churches, I’d be glad to connect you with good people not only in my denomination, but in other affirming denominations and with good non-denominational folks who can talk about their experiences.

STRAIGHT, CISGENDER UMC LAY PEOPLE – Many of you are dedicated allies in the struggle for justice – and many of you are hurt and angered by what has happened.

You too have the choice of staying or leaving. If you are leaving and you need a place to land, I’ll be happy to talk to you about progressive churches in the area, including but not limited to my own.

If you stay, please take care of your hurting queer church folk – and please understand that your hurt and anger are a fraction of what they are feeling. Be there for them, but don’t make it about you.

The heavy lifting of change in the days ahead remains with you. If you don’t change the UMC, it will not change.

That must be an active process. You all will have to organize and act to match and surpass the organizing and action strategies of the WCA-types.

Otherwise it will get worse and not better. It may get worse anyway. We do not control the outcome, but we do control our own efforts.

It’s up to you.

PEOPLE IN CHURCHES MORE CONSERVATIVE THAN THE UMC – please just go sit down. If you (or not you personally, but your church) are satisfied by the triumph of homophobia and transphobia in the UMC, I don’t care to hear about it. I think you’re wrong and causing great harm to vulnerable people (which is a sin), but you probably already know that and there’s no point in our discussing it.

PEOPLE IN CHURCHES MORE PROGRESSIVE THAN THE UMC – yes, we are more progressive. Some of us are handling our solidarity and shared pain on behalf of our UMC friends and neighbors with grace and skill. Others of us are being rather heavy-handed in our too-blatant efforts at recruitment or expressions of superiority. The first is good. The second, not so much. If you’re struggling with the difference in your efforts to reach out, give me a holler and maybe together we can figure out a way to word it that sounds loving not sheep-stealing or smug.

I have been writing throughout this experience from my own pain of exclusion from the church of my deep roots, so I have an odd insider/outsider dynamic that informs what I say – and that gives me some legitimacy to speak into the conversation (I argue – not all agree). When in doubt, try love and leave it at that.

Concluding lessons as I see them –

The pain is real.

The situation is heartbreaking.

The call to solidarity can take many forms. We are one body in Christ – and there are many ways we can be one body and in solidarity with one another. Those relationships can be – and I’d argue should be – more creative than those we’ve devised in the past.

Justice for the oppressed matters more than unity.

Oppressors are very skillful with the gathering, hoarding, exercise, and manipulation of power. Those who would dismantle oppression need to be equally sophisticated – though more ethical – in their relationship with power.

People make all the difference.

None of us is free until all of us are free.

The work to enact God’s transformative justice and God’s abiding mercy in the world goes on.

Amen

 

What You Can Do

I’m hearing a lot of overwhelmed from people right now – and understandably so. Here’s what I’ve got to offer – take it to the extent it is useful:

Keep speaking truth to power with love.

Keep doing works of mercy.

Keep learning so that you gain ever more clarity and ever more skill in those tasks.

Rest as you need. You are allowed to rest. All living things require it.

Pay attention – and discern when it’s useful to speak and when it isn’t. Both issues and people reveal themselves – and are changed in and by – the stresses of the world.

Remember that this work (all of this work, wherever you are) is a long haul. There are acute moments, but it is most certainly a (life-) long commitment to a better world. It was here before you. It will (sadly) be here after you. Each of us is but a small part of that work.

You are called to do what you can. You are not called to do more or less than that. Work on discerning what is within your control and what is beyond it.

Be kind when you can – for the sake of your own heart as well as those around you.

There are contextual variations on these principles. And I’ve got more thoughts for my fellow Jesus followers (and that’s what I preach on each week). But I’ve found that these notions hold true in most contexts and for most people.

Peace and blessings for the day, friends.

Social Justice and the Healthy Self: Parenting for a Better World

When my daughter was around a year old, I took her with me one evening to a peace movement meeting. Never one with much patience for quietly sitting still (can’t imagine where she got that from), she wiggled and wriggled and made all the quiet and not so quiet noises that little ones make. We got a couple of looks from people.  I ended up trying – and failing – to slip away silently, reflecting with some sorrow on the seeming incompatibility of parenting and social justice work. It wasn’t just this episode, but that night epitomized the complexity of trying to be dedicated to so many things.

A few days later, I encountered an older-than-me activist friend and I told her about my dilemma. “What am I supposed to do?” I mourned, “I feel like I can’t be everywhere I am supposed to be. There’s so much to do.”

I can still see us standing there on the sidewalk, me in my angst and her with her kind smile and thoughtful energy. “It’s okay,” she said, “take care of your daughter. Do what you need to do. There will always be work to be done.”

While it counts as a tragic fact that the need for social justice organizing may never end, what she said is true. It brought me necessary peace and new clarity about pacing myself for the long haul.

It’s like this – now that I’ve been a parent for 15 years, I can assert with confidence that good parenting is an inherently important, albeit ever-challenging, task. Dedicating our time and love and energy to raising the next generation matters. These are the people – even if it’s hard to see it while they’re in diapers – who will guide the steps of our world long after we are gone.

Our humanity begins at home. It’s the crucible from which we find our place in the world, whether we are 3 or 23 or 53 or 93. Creating a home that fosters love and kindness and justice and mercy is a gift to the world. It is a moral good to do that work and no one should feel guilty about it.

At the same time, It’s a continual invitation to see beyond the boundaries of one’s own family.  You remember the whole “it takes a village to raise a child” concept? It’s true. And we are all a part of that village for other people’s children (and everyone who is breathing on this earth is someone’s child).

Parenting is an intimate lesson in our interconnectedness. It is an immersion course. And while the intensity of daily routines, especially with young children, may consume every waking moment, it is possible to view that work as both intrinsically morally justified and as unique preparation for an ongoing lifetime of loving the world and the people in it.

You don’t have to do all of the work at once. The fact is you probably can’t. That you are concerned about this problem reflects the depth of your commitment to both your family and the cause of a better world. That helps to keep you from sinking into the pernicious view where the only thing that matters is you and yours.

But please let go of the guilt and frustration about what you can’t do in this moment. Just put it down. You’ve got enough to carry without it.

And by all means, when it seems the right thing to do, carry your kids to meetings and protests and lobbying days. Let us as a movement cultivate connections and community among social justice-oriented parents and between parents of young children and the other generations around them.

We as that movement have the obligation to create kid-friendly spaces and to nurture both the young children in our midst and the families that care for them. That is a part of how we offer concrete care for those around us.

What I am saying is not limited to biological and adoptive parents, for there are many ways that people care for others. A lot of parenting gets done by people who are not the actual mother and father of any given child – and that is a huge blessing. We also care for parents and grandparents and others who at any given time may need some extra help.

That too is necessary. It is vital to our very humanity as well as the needs of the moment. It should be seen as a part of the work for a better world, not as a distraction from it. The methods connect on every level to the ends we seek.

These days when we get home after school, my daughter sets herself up at the kitchen table and disappears into hours of homework. Since I’m now the mom of a disciplined and independent-minded high school student, I have a little more time to be involved in social justice work. I’m glad of it.

But some things don’t change. When my daughter, having a hard week in the way that can happen with GEOMETRY-HOMEWORK-IS-IMPOSSIBLE-I-DON’T-KNOW-HOW-TO-DO-IT (yeah, that’s a quote) wanted me to stay home last night instead of attend a community event that was on my calendar, I had no trouble making the choice. Balancing obligations can still be tricky. I continue to regularly examine my own priorities and their effects on the people close to me, on my broader community, and on my commitment to justice in the world.

But I long ago put down that parental guilt (well, at least that part of it) to claim the challenging and satisfying role of social justice parent. I invite others to do the same.

Social Justice and the Healthy Self: Starting the Conversation

Social justice work is supposed to be selfless, right?

We’re out there trying to make the world a better place for everybody. The work demands all that we have to give – and then some.

For those of us driven by a passion for social justice – whether our work is religious or secular –  the needs of the world are so great that they tend to eclipse any focus on ourselves, on our own wellbeing and balance.

Organizing and activism and protest and movement building.
Speaking and arguing and writing and fundraising.
Issues and outrage.
Showing up and showing up again
and showing up again.

Caring.
Caring a lot.
Caring so much,
even when it’s frustrating,
even when it seems futile,
even when the world feels like a bleak, dark, mean place.

It’s the work we do.

And when we’re tempted to set it aside for a minute to tend to our own needs or our family’s needs, it’s mighty easy to feel guilty about that. For most people I know, that guilt is self-imposed (‘but I’m not doing ENOUGH’). Yet if we happen to escape the self-imposed guilt, there’s usually someone around to raise an eyebrow. We’re supposed to be selfless.

Except there’s a problem.

We can’t be selfless. We are always our own selves. I carry my physical body, emotions, spiritual life, mental processing and cognition, personal and professional relationships, personality quirks, and history and experiences with me everywhere I go.

All of this is a part of me. I can ignore it – until something happens and I can’t ignore it any longer. Or I can work with it with in community with as much honesty, grace, and wisdom as I can muster and develop.

I am not suggesting feeding our own egos just for the sake of their insatiable ego-appetite. I’m talking about equilibrium. About integrity – not integrity-honesty (well, that too), but integrity as in structural integrity. Something that’s not going to fall in on itself when the winds or waves pick up or the ground starts to tremble beneath us.

There’s always a danger of self-indulgence. It can happen. But it’s much less likely to happen when we find equilibrium and stay both nimble and grounded. Most of us operate in communities that help keep us accountable. That also means that those communities need to recognize the need for the care of their members.

We work best when our mandate to care extends to ourselves and to the others around us. Better work – more honest, wise, and skillfully executed – comes from a better place.

Our selves are our strengths – they are our wit and wisdom, our intelligence, intensity, and insights, our willing hands and reflective consciousness. It’s our laughter and our joy. It’s our role as friend, parent, partner, spouse, cousin, neighbor, congregant, or student.

If we don’t take care of ourselves, we can’t take care of anybody or anything else.

I’ve been a part of many conversations over the last few months and years that have dwelled on issues in the social justice community of physical health, mental health, burnout, despair (both personal and global), financial insecurity, family stress, nagging guilt, and spiritual melancholy. I hear how we’ve made an idol of busy-ness (a problem endemic in the larger culture as well). I hear how people are tired, aching physically and emotionally, overwhelmed with worry, and utterly joyless, how they mean to but don’t address their own spiritual malaise and critical health needs.

I bear witness to the transgender activists who have committed suicide over the last year and to Ohio Black Lives Matter organizer MarShawn McCarre who shot himself on the state capitol steps last week. We don’t take time to eat right, move our bodies, and kick back and enjoy good company. And if we do, we worry that we’re not doing what we’re supposed to do. I heard 3 different parents in one day lament that they feel like they’re neglecting social justice work because they are (wisely, rightly) tending to their young children.

We need to fix that. We need to change the narrative. The work will continue. It must continue. But we must also create a sustainable paradigm for social justice work. We must make a priority of our own health and wellbeing, our own deep joy, and our life-giving relationships with others.

There’s much more to say about this multi-faceted topic. Over the next few weeks, I will be writing in greater depth about different aspects of the problem. I’ll be posting other things as well, but these posts can be found  under the ‘social justice and the healthy self’ category.

I’d love to hear from social-justice oriented organizers and activists and clergy and academics about their thoughts and experiences on this topic. The About/Contact tab at the top of the page is one way to get in touch with me – and folks who know me can also reach out by other means.

Let’s work on this – for our own sake and for the sake of the causes we care so deeply about.