Friday, September 27, 2013

Courage On The West Coast

Berto Gandara
Integrity Blogger

3,730 miles is the distance from my hometown in Puerto Rico to where I am currently living: Orcas Island, Washington. This enormous distance reminds me of the vast journey I have witnessed these past eight years. I am astounded at the many changes I have experienced in myself and the world around me. I have gone from being a Puerto Rican Roman Catholic priest of a missionary order in the Caribbean to an openly gay Episcopal priest, married to another priest, and immersing himself in this new culture, language and church. From not thinking possible to be open about my sexuality, or any way LGBT people could be more welcome, to experience major victories for LGBT people in the world and in the country and to be told my by father how proud he is of Hugh and I as a couple. There are so many things have I seen transformed in these past eight years since I moved to New York City. I have witnesses changes that as a nineteen year old boy going off to seminary in 1983 I would have never dreamt of, and if I had had the courage to dream them I would probably would have been terrified.

Yes, there is still so much evil and ignorance in the world as we have witnessed with the killings in Pakistan and Kenya and nearer to home at the cold hearted attack on a plan to make accessible healthcare for all. On the other hand the LGBT community has found signs of hope, although so much more still needs to change. Arriving on Orcas Island, three weeks ago, I was greeted by a story that illustrates this journey. I share this small story because I wish to give hope and encouragement to all who continue to struggle and find it hard to be who they are as LGBT people.

Orcas Island is small, just 57 square miles and under 5,000 inhabitants. It is a rural community, accessible only by ferry or plane. When my husband and I arrived at Orcas we were surprised to find the main town, Eastsound, awash in pride flags. It seemed that every store had a pride flag. After a couple of days we inquired if there was some pride celebration going on and we were told this heartwarming story. This summer a gay couple, David and Lee, had established a bakery in the island. As part of the opening celebrations they had flown the pride flag out of their establishment. Soon after someone approached the couple to convey a message from a group of anonymous community members that wanted the flag removed. They told the owners, “We’re okay that you’re gay, but don’t throw it in our faces.” They also told them it might damage their business. After a very troubled summer to get their business started and a terrible car accident in which they almost died, it seemed the community was not welcoming them in their midst. Lee and David decided to remove the flag. They wanted to be good neighbors and not ruffle any feathers. When locals noticed that the flag was gone a letter to the editor was sent to the local paper titled: “Fear is ignorance; anonymity is cowardly.” In a very short time the letter received enormous attention, an outpour of support for the bakery and a cry of “put back the flag” came from all corners of this little community. This incident galvanized the community and soon not only the bakery but what it seemed every store in town had the pride flag. This past Sunday I attended the Eucharist at Emmanuel Episcopal church, here in town, and what a pleasant surprise was to hear that the vestry, the adult forum, and the staff of the parish had decided to join and fly the rainbow flag from the church flag pole. Indeed we have come a long way, there is reason to hope which gives us strength to continue working for the rights of all!

I am looking forward to contributing to "Walking with Integrity" and in my following articles would like to explore on how Latinos and Latinas respond and address the issues around LGBT rights.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

WWJD for Queers Fleeing Terror, and Why Should Integrity Care?

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
-Matthew 25: 34-40

One day my friend and I were stopped by the police in a remote area.  I was tortured and raped by the policeman [because I was gay].  I can still hear the other policemen who were watching laughing and jeering. The pain was like none other I had ever experienced.   I went to the hospital.  I didn’t report to work for days.  When I did go back to work, I quit my job. I was too terrified to step out of my house.  I tried to report this attack, but the police officer who took the report laughed in my face.   The very next day, the policeman who had tortured me came to my house and shouted, “Open up!  We already know who you are and we are going to kill you.”  So I left my beautiful country.  I left my job, my home, my belongings, my studies.  Two friends helped me get out.  I came to California and stayed with some relatives, but soon, after realizing that I was gay, they kicked me out and I was homeless.
-“Juan,” a gay man from El Salvador
More of Juan’s story is available here

It is illegal to be openly lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender in approximately 80 countries throughout the world, including five that impose the death penalty.  Unchecked violence against LGBT people is rampant in many additional countries as well: violence like murder, torture, mutilation, and gang rape.

At least 4,000 people flee to the United States fleeing that terror every year, but until they are granted asylum by the U.S. Government many of them face months of friendlessness, fear, and desperation.  They are not allowed to hold jobs, or use most medical or social service programs. Often they find themselves without any money, living on the street or in detention facilities, doing whatever they need to do in order to survive from one day to the next, unable to communicate well in English, confronted with more anti-LGBT bias, facing culture shock, excluded by their ethnic communities, and struggling for their health after so many traumatic experiences. They are tremendously resilient people, but these challenges can be crushing.

But – yes – there is hope!

“Juan,” whose story appears above, is being helped by Hadwen Park Congregational Church and the LGBT Asylum Support Task Force in Worcester, Massachusetts.  A growing number of churches and LGBT community centers are taking asylum-seekers like him under their wing: Providing them with a sense of community, food, shelter, and a helping hand until their asylum applications are approved by the government and they are able to find work.

The Task Force is part of a national network called the LGBT Faith and Asylum Network (LGBT-FAN) that aims to encourage and help more churches and community centers reach out to people who have fled to America seeking safety.  We have established a website with stories and information about how groups are providing help, who “asylum-seekers” are, and how people can get involved.  Within the next year we plan to set up a charitable fund that will provide grants to churches and other groups that are supporting asylum-seekers’ living expenses. Integrity USA is part of this effort, as are the Episcopal Public Policy Network and leaders from dozens of other faith-based, policy, and human rights organizations.

While I served as Executive Director of Integrity USA, and now as a member of the New Orleans chapter, I have often heard the question raised: Now that we can have our relationships blessed by priests, there are a lot of friendly Episcopal churches, and openly LGBT people can even serve as bishops, what is Integrity for?  Is it time to declare victory and move on?

One answer to that question is that Integrity must continue to exist in order to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit those in prison.  One of Integrity’s special missions might be to follow these Christian commandments, with a special focus on people who have landed on our doorsteps after fleeing for their lives because of anti-LGBT bigotry and terror.

If you feel moved to consider that possibility, please visit LGBT-FAN’s website and send us a note through the contact page.  You can check out and for more information.

-Max Niedzwiecki, Ph.D.
Coordinator, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Faith & Asylum Network (LGBT-FAN)
Principal, Daylight Consulting Group
Former Executive Director, Integrity USA

(Photo Credit Jessica Rinaldi - Reuters)

Friday, September 20, 2013

Groaning in Labor Pains: the String of Anti-LGBT Hate Crimes in Seattle

Therefore, keep awake — for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake. — Mark 13:35–37

by Sean R. Glenn

Sean R. Glenn
​Though a little over two months away, the Feast of Christ the King — and along with it, Advent — is barreling toward us. I have come to enjoy Advent because it gives liturgical communities pause to consider our own restlessness as we await the fleshy Incarnation of Christ. What kind of restlessness is this? I imagine it is a kind of restlessness known to early communities of Christ followers; a restlessness — or, as Paul aptly names it, συνωδίνει (sunodinei, labor pains) in Romans 8 — that might not be so different, despite the chasm of time separating the first century from now. To be sure, the modern world does plague us with its own unique challenges. Yet, there is a theme we can share with the expectation of occupied peoples of the first century; just as God’s logos became flesh and dwelt among us in a world of violence, so too do we continue to face the taxing burdens that the imagination of violence weighs upon us.

​Christ was incarnated into a world of violence. We, too, live amid the specter of violence; but, some of us more than others. While I have, for the time being, made Boston, Massachusetts my home, I am a native of the Pacific Northwest, and lived for four years in Seattle’s queer neighborhood, Capitol Hill. Capitol Hill was my first exposure to communities of queer folk, and I quickly made it a home not only physically, but emotionally and spiritually (Saint Mark’s Cathedral, the Seat of the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia, my eventual church home, resides on the northern end of Capitol Hill). I began the journey of adulthood there, and the neighborhood still tugs at my imagination every so often; a place of true character, vibrancy, and multidimensionality. 

​But lately, the news I hear coming from Seattle paints achanging picture. Many of my friends continue to work, live, and play on the Hill (though this is slowly changing), so naturally I receive a lot of information about what is going on back home through phone calls, emails, and social media. What has me the most worried is the string of anti-LGBT acts of violence that are on the rise. A local community blog, Capitol Hill Seattle, reports a small, but worrisome increase in violent crime on Capitol Hill, namely assaults involving firearms, supported by data from the Seattle Police Department from 2008–2012. As Daniel Hanks of Social Outreach Seattle states, “While crime may not be getting worse, it does seem to be getting more violent and involve weapons — guns in particular. That is what has prompted SOSea to say that violent crime is on the rise.” Myriad other sources demonstrate this trend, both in Seattle and across the nation, including two recent attacks within a month of each other.

​This is all the more troubling because it suggests that, while Washington joined the ranks of those states to legalize same-sex marriage in 2012, it would appear that our choice victories on the political stage have done little to quell hatred on the ground. Such victories, while not unimportant, might tempt us to lay down our guard a little too easily, prompting us to believe something is realized when it is, indeed, not; that our work is done. This is perhaps analogous to Paul’s concern regarding a kind of “realized eschatology” prevalent in some early first century churches (1 Thessalonians is a prime example). I have written elsewhere on the dangers of a realized eschatology, but in this instance I ask a practical question: is our work done? The answer is no. We may be tempted, in light of our recent victories, to ask “well, that’s over; what possible role would an organization like Integrity have in a region where the battle is won?” To such reasoning I humbly respond, “The battle is not won; keep awake.”

This is, I believe, a new chapter for organizations like Integrity in regions where many of the intra-ecclesial struggles are beginning to settle. The Seattle area is a region where many Episcopal churches do indeed embody a kind of incarnational radical love, striving to live into that final, but most important article of our baptismal covenant: that we “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” Although the presence of Integrity’s affirming work is still direly needed in areas where the imagination of the closet is still hegemonic, it is also necessary in areas where LGBT folk are already fully welcome to sit at Christ’s table. The work now is to look outwards. As we are nourished by the sacraments within the liturgy, we must turn beyond the narthex and seek to bear witness for, serve, and stand in solidarity with those communities we may not already see: queer people of color, trans* communities, those under the heel of poverty, and even those of us that are already recognized, even if only on paper.

Therefore, let us keep awake.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Witnesses and Pilgrims: A Journey Into the Church

Earlier this week, I was asked if I might offer my work as a contributor to the Walking With Integrity blog. I humbly and gratefully accepted, and, as such, this post is offered as an introduction to the Integrity readership; a chance to tell my story and discuss topics about which I plan to write.

I grew up in Edmonds, Washington, a small sea-side suburb near Seattle, Washington, a city to which I would eventually move during the duration of my undergraduate career as a student of cello performance at Cornish College of the Arts. Although my family taught me the value of spirituality during my upbringing, I was not raised in a Christian context (though I was, in many ways, raised with the Christian values of justice, equity, respect, and the recognition of human dignity). For the most part, the Church was viewed with a characteristic West Coast suspicion. For most of my youth, I flatly rejected the premise of organized religion and, for that matter, religion on the whole. It was a dangerous folly of the human condition (or so I assumed).

Yet, from an early age, I recognized a personal affinity for music, art, and architecture of a particular liturgical bent. I was not able to put words to this affinity until my first eucharistic liturgy as a member of the choirs at Saint Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle. I had, of course, supplemented my income as a teenager by playing cello for other liturgical contexts, but it wasn’t until the liturgy in the Anglican tradition, connected with an historical imagination, that I felt suddenly less apprehensive about the religious subject. Within that context, music was no longer an adornment, a commodity, or a consumer product. Music became peculiarly alive; music became multidimensional, transchronological, and ministerial. This was not the museum veneration of the concert hall; this music transformed from historical artifact into living reality. I say this knowing full well that many of the elements of liturgical action are, indeed, affect—that is, somehow “unauthentic.” Yet, it was this very affectation that became real, honest, and authentic. Paradox, it seems, became a close companion.

And so, within the context of my first liturgy, I resolved to change my trajectory (though little did I know that this trajectory held far more for me than I initially expected). This resolve, however, confounded a growing internal struggle that had begun my first day of conservatory training. It was difficult to concentrate on my cellistic studies; though I am glad my teacher at the time forced me to work through it. After completing my bachelor of music, I set off on a new adventure: I moved to New York City to begin a master of arts in music composition at Queens College, during which time I was recruited to sing as a chorister at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine under the inimitable improvisateur, Bruce Neswick.

During my second year of graduate study, I began to discern a call to ministry in the Episcopal Church, though I did not know what that would end up looking like; though a confessed Episcopalian on the outside, I still had my doubts. I decided to apply for a Master of Sacred Music at the Yale ISM and Boston University. While neither institution accepted me to the MSM degree, the BU School of Theology rather unexpectedly offered me a place as a candidate for the Master of Theological Studies after the completion of my M.A.Mus.

Then, quite monumentally, my life changed again. On January 10, 2011 I was diagnosed with the HIV virus. It was a blow I had not expected, from which I did not know if I could recover spiritually. Not three days after my diagnosis, however, I attended a daily said Eucharist at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. It was the height of Epiphany season, and the Celebrant’s sermon that day spoke to me in uncanny ways. I thanked the priest afterward and divulged the reason for my gratitude. “Your words hit me at my core today,” I said, “for you see, I was diagnosed with HIV three days ago.” The Reverend Canon took my hands, looked me in the eye, and smiling said, “We live now. This is when God comes to us.” It knew right then and there what the role of a priest really was, and I resolved that, someday, I would seek ordination (though I kept this to myself for two more years).

Theological education changed my life forever: now, no conceptual or ontological stone is left unturned; no assumption is left unquestioned. It was at BU that I discovered Queer Theology, social activism, and a burning desire for justice. I have since graduated from the MTS program at BU and am working as a liturgical musician in Boston, teaching cello, composing, and working, in my due time, toward becoming a priest in the Episcopal Church, should the Spirit carry me that direction.

The work I offer to Walking With Integrity, given my own interests and educational trajectory, will focus on the arts—music, architecture, dance, and visual craft—as well as related topics in Queer Theology (my MTS thesis was the formulation of a queer theology of music) and their relationship to Anglicanism. The first piece I hope to offer (sometime toward the end of September) will focus on Anglicanism’s great patron of twentieth century arts, the Reverend Walter Hussey.

I look forward to sharing my thoughts with you, and I am grateful for the opportunity to talk about that which I most love. 

Friday, September 13, 2013

Pilgrims and Witness: LGBTQ Lives in the Episcopal Church

Since the announcement that I was going to be the next executive director of Integrity, I've had a couple of folks come to me with the same question. There are variations, but the basic form is "Do we still really need Integrity? DOMA's been struck down, all over the country there are communities that are friendly to LGBT people, what else is there?"

Each time I'm asked that question, I'm reminded of the incredible blessing of community. Yes, there are some of us who are doing pretty well. There are some of us who are out and proud, who have families and friends and congregations that love us, who have gainful, meaningful employment that provides us with a livable wage, who are basically free from the specter of discrimination and bias. There are a few of us who have our slice of the pie, our shot at the American dream.

By taking a wider view, though, by taking everyone in our community into account, we can see that the situation is much more complex. Many of our Episcopal sisters, brothers, and siblings face issues of employment discrimination, health care insecurity, racism in and out of the LGBTQ community, transphobia, and other challenges besides. To understand what these challenges mean, we need to take the time to listen to those who face them. 

I'm pleased to announce our new project, Pilgrims and Witnesses: LGBTQ Lives in the Episcopal Church. Over the next few months we will be featuring a series of articles by new bloggers on Walking With Integrity. These writers come from a many places across our Church. They will have the chance to talk about their faith and explore their experiences as Episcopalians and LGBTQ people. In engaging with these incredible people's unique stories, in hearing a diversity of voices, we have the opportunity to come to a deeper understanding of our faith, our work towards equality, and all the possibilities opened to us by a life with Christ.

Look for these articles starting next week!

Friday, September 6, 2013

Justice Rolling Like A River: Hello From Vivian

One of my father's favorite Bible verses comes from the prophet Amos. “Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” He had it hung over his desk at his law office. I grew up seeing that verse over and over, and have always loved it. Our work as followers of Christ is to love each other and to love the world, and in loving, to bring that justice and righteousness to the benefit of the whole world. I've thought of that verse often as I have prepared to meet the incredible blessing of becoming the executive director of Integrity USA.

Last night I took a walk through my neighborhood in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I happened to pass by a broken sprinkler head that was pouring out a strong, steady flow of water onto the sidewal
k. The sidewalk was made up of old, uneven bricks and ran down a slight incline to the street. It seems simple, there's water, there's an incline, there should be a straight course from the broken sprinkler to the street.
What happened instead was more complex. The water pooled in some areas and branched out in others. The water was affected by the unevenness of the bricks, the texture of each brick, and the variations of sand and twigs and pebbles between the bricks.

Instead of flowing straight to the street the water meandered back and forth. Some areas in the middle of the flow of water were left dry, others out at the edges were inundated.

I see the work of Integrity and the situation of those of us who care about the rights and well being of LGBTQ people as a lot like that water flowing from that broken sprinkler. We have had great success in working towards justice for LGBTQ folks, and we have won incredible victories. Still, there is so much work left to do. While LGBTQ people are safe in some dioceses, welcomed and celebrated, there are still many areas of the Church and the nation where people are not confident in their security. There are people unsure if they will be able to follow their call to vocation because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, there are people still afraid of what their children might learn in their parishes, there are LGBTQ folks who do not feel welcome in the LGBTQ community. So long as trans women of color are still being murdered for being trans, so long as our community continues to disproportionally face poverty, so long as hatred and ignorance remain, we have work to do.

There is no one size fits all solution for the diversity of challenges that we face. Like that water had to pass through each crack and over each brick in a unique way, so we must face each challenge across the nation and Church in it's particular existence. That means that I intend to have a focus on the local level of our organization across the Church. What is effective in one place may not be effective in another, but we can always learn from one another.

As we go forward, I do want to maintain three focuses in all of our work. We need to be mindful to work for inclusion of LGBTQ people of color in our communities and our work, to support LGBTQ parent families, and to work toward education about and inclusion of transgender and non-binary people. In doing that work together, we follow Jesus' example of crossing all boundaries to show the perfect love of God. We do this work so that God's justice and righteousness will flow throughout the entire world.

I leave you with the video I made for the Not All Like That Project. This project is focused on giving pro-LGBTQ Christian the opportunity to speak out and speak up for our brother, sisters, and siblings. If you would like to speak out, I invited you submit a video as well.

Thank you,

Vivian Taylor