Thursday, January 15, 2015

I Think I Have Become The Man

I’m “The Man.” Not a dude, no. But this kind of man:

I didn’t start out this way. I started out wanting to fight The Man.

As early as high school, I wrote a mock piece of legislation providing state-sponsored free childcare for low-wage workers. I am pro-worker-justice, anti-colonial, pro-God’s-option-for-the-poor. I have student loans. I was a feminist before I could tell you the definition of the word. I used to walk the streets and distribute clean needles, bleach kits, and condoms. I used to demonstrate in my clergy collar for worker justice. My parents taught me about boycotts (NestlĂ© and grapes, in my day), marching in gay pride parades with one’s church, standing for peace and against the war with other religious leaders, and solidarity among minority groups. I thought endowments were ridiculous because they enable the dying and dwindling and mismanaged to last far beyond their useful years.

But I’m now on the executive staff of a denominational agency. I travel so much I can no longer take office time to go march or demonstrate. My schedule is so erratic I don’t know if I can engage in long-term volunteering. The last time I marched, I decided not to get arrested because I want to keep my precious TSA PreCheck. I can see how endowments can be good for healthy organizations. I’m there when decisions are made that impact working conditions. I hear the back story to the unpopular decisions made by colleagues. I’m surrounded by things I can’t talk about (thus my difficulty in blogging regularly).

My 22-year-old self would be disgusted with my 36-year-old self. I have a certain affection for people who are the way I used to be, because I wish I had stuck with it. (A 50-year-old who acts the way I acted when I was 22, though, that gets old.) I have in-home laundry and a cabinet we use as a bar, for crying out loud. I wear makeup and heels. I catch myself telling my nieces I like their cute outfits. I worry about retirement. What is wrong with me?

Well, I work in an institution. I don’t just work here; I’m good at it. This is my skill set and my personality.

I’m fortunate to work with people who are, on average, more diverse by age and race than the average mainline Protestant church member. I work with people who are highly competent. I work with people who are passionate about their work, and will do it no matter what. I work with people who are fun and funny and brilliant.

Because I work in an institution and can’t choose my co-workers, I have colleagues who are despised by my closest friends. Liberal racist? Check. Means well but doesn’t get it? Check. Patriarchal? Check. Clueless about how to interact with people of color/gay and lesbian people/women? Check. Makes verbal blunders constantly and offends subordinates? Check. Makes decisions that don’t make sense to anyone on the outside? Check. Makes mistakes? Check. Made the right decision that was unpopular? Check. Decided not to upset the status quo? Check.

I don’t think this conglomeration of people is different than the average workplace. What makes my workplace different is the church’s claim to be reaching toward the reign of God, and its commitment to serving God and God’s people. When an institution serves a reason greater than the bottom line, or shareholder value, we at the institution are generally expected to mess up a little less.

Is the expectation fair? Probably not. We’re human. We are going to mess up. We are going to play into the same structural sins in which everyone else participates.

Yesterday, at chapel (I attended two weeks in a row! I’m a rock star!), we celebrated the life and work of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A line of the liturgy that stuck out to me is: “My dream is that one day soon I will find a way to stop just celebrating the dream and start living it.”

Now that I’m The Man, executive staff for a church agency, I’m afraid I got stuck in celebrating the dream instead of living it.

I’m afraid I have become the person who posts social justice rants on social media, but won’t be able to shift the culture of the institution to become justice-oriented. I’m afraid I will die and the church, the institution, will be the same messed-up place it has always been. I’m afraid that my soul will get sucked out and chewed up, just because I was foolish enough to think I could make a difference.

(Yes, I have only worked here 1.5 years. I’m aware that I’m being a little dramatic.)

A group of friends and I were attending a meeting at the church conference center in Stony Point, New York, when a grand jury decided not to indict the officers who killed Eric Garner. Because we were working a gajillion hours that week, and because we were with Stony Point people (pro-peace progressives), a large group of us took an evening to join in the vigil/protest/march in Foley Square. It moved beyond the square into a march, and the whole group kept up with it. Four of us women of color got separated from the rest and marched as long as we could before the police began arresting people: a denominational staff person, the vice moderator of the 221st Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly, a dean at a seminary, and an antiracism/diversity consultant who has been a denominational program staff director.

In the midst of the march, I felt a sense of yearning. I hadn’t marched in awhile. I forgot what children’s voices sound like when they join in chants. I forgot how often I disagree with certain protest tactics, but agree with the long-term goal of changing cultures that devalue some lives. I forgot how much of a pounding my body can take walking over hard cold streets. I forgot what it is like to look at the face of a driver whose car you have just blocked, and see solidarity.

I came back to work the next Monday. I’m still just someone who fits really well into an institution. I’m good at being The Man. I love my work. I even love this church as it is. But I’m tired of celebrating the dream instead of living it.

I know others in the institution of the church want to live it, too. So how do we do that?

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Nothing New

I texted my colleague, “If I go to chapel, how much will I regret it?”

She responded, “LOL depends on who leads.”

She is right. Unlike worshiping in a church, which typically has consistent worship leadership, worshiping at work (I work at the Presbyterian Center) with colleagues means going with the flow. Like the seminary I attended, worship leadership is shared. In the case of the Presbyterian Center, worship leadership is divided up among the four different church agencies in the building, and different ministry areas within the largest agency. I do not know who is leading each week. And the real kicker for someone like me (Uptight? Structured? Type A?) is that worship is set for 30 minutes, but the adherence to the time frame depends 100% on who is leading worship. A typical sermon plus communion usually equals more than 30 minutes.

The delightful thing about worship here (and at the seminary I attended) is that worship can be meaningful no matter who leads it. It can be a nice surprise. It also ensures a wide diversity of themes and styles. What I find stressful is that not all surprises are good surprises. There is a wide variation, shall we say.

I love many different kinds of worship, thanks to a wide-ranging exposure to different denominations and traditions, as well as different cultures and languages. But the kind of worship that stresses me out usually involves me realizing that I am thinking a lot, from the pews, about worship logistics, because it’s clear that those leading worship did not think about worship logistics. This is fairly rare, but when it happens in a church or a workplace chapel service, I question my decision to show up.

After worship, I texted my colleague: “That was depressing.”

Not because it wasn’t worshipful. Because it was real.

Worship was a service of empathy centered on the Ebola crisis. The church has a lot of connections with countries most impacted by the Ebola virus, so we do not have the luxury of seeing it only as a vague threat. And I was reminded, even after having a great new year, with a couple of weeks to be with friends and family, whatever was going on in the Gregorian calendar year of 2014 is still going on in 2015.

I knew that, of course. But I had that feeling again, that Ecclesiastes feeling that makes me the resident dream killer/joy buster, there is nothing new under the sun. A new year is just one way of counting time. We could count time by how long it takes for reform in the criminal justice system and in policing. We could mark the months of bigotry and ignorance here in the U.S. toward people who have been in proximity to (or are from the countries with) Ebola sufferers. If we mark time that way, we are still in the same year. We are still in Ferguson. Ebola is still around, destroying lives, families, and communities. How many school shooting since Columbine? We still have no national commitment to reasonable gun control. The church is still arguing with itself. 16.2 million children in the U.S. face hunger at home. People (mostly men) still shoot their partners or ex-partners (mostly women). We are still losing polar icecaps, with little real commitment by governments or corporations to changing behaviors that would slow global warming.

Yet, it is good to go to worship.

It is good, specifically at work. I will pass the peace with people who are different than I am, because the church (especially national staff) brings together people from many countries, regions of the U.S., racial backgrounds, languages, and theological and political beliefs and commitments. I will see colleagues I usually only see when we are out at conferences, working booths in exhibit halls. I will see colleagues, members of the same body of Christ, with whom I have significant disagreements. Yet I will not hear in worship that women shouldn’t be in leadership. I will not hear that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people are suspect, or more sinful than others, or an affront to God.

We will eat the same bread, drink from the same cup. We worship the same God.

It is good to go to worship because worship just isn’t about me. And sometimes I need the reminder. God is faithful whether or not I show up, but when I show up, I’m showing up for the dialogue into which God has called us (Stevens & Waschevski, p. 3). “In worship we experience God’s welcome, grace, and love… Worship is not a time of escape from our real lives. It is not a fantasy journey into the long ago and far away. It is always a matter of what is happening now” (ibid.).

There is nothing new under the sun, but there is always something happening in the world that demands our attention as Christians. Worship is not an escape. Worship is about real life. And this morning, real life was very painful.

What shall we do with this new year?