Friday, August 30, 2013

Requiescat in Pace: Anita Jones

Anita Jones
A memorial service was held August 15th for Anita Jones, Integrity Lifetime Member and former Convener of the Atlanta Chapter.  She died August 2nd in Louisville at the age of 64.

An actuary by trade, Anita graduated from the University of Louisville and worked for Capital Holding Corporation and Ernst and Young.  But friends point to her work in social justice as her true calling.  In addition to Integrity, she was active in the I Have a Dream Foundation, an organization that promotes equal access to higher education by equipping children in low-income areas with access to tuition assistance and guidance to prepare them for further study.

Anita's funeral took place August 10th at the Church of the Advent in Louisville, and she was interred at Louisville Memorial Gardens West.  An additional memorial service was held at St. Luke's, her Atlanta church home, on August 15th.  The sermon from that service, by the Rev. Liz Schellingerhoudt, Associate for Pastoral Care, follows:

Anita Jones. Friend, sister, daughter, and companion in the Christian faith. Last summer, we said our goodbyes to Anita, but only superficially, knowing that she was on the other end of the phone and email, and that she would periodically come to visit us. Today we celebrate her life among us, her gifts to the world, and mourn her leaving us for good, much sooner than we would like.

A friend told me that she visited Anita this spring, and while driving to lunch, the car behind them laid on the horn in frustration with Anita, who wasn't turning right on a red light. Anita quipped to the driver behind her, "My friend, right on red is an opportunity, not an obligation" and she remained sitting at the light until it turned green. She would not be moved to do what she did not want or think appropriate to do. This little story says a lot about Anita, about her sense of humor, her sense of what was right to do at any given moment, her ability to stand firm in what she believed, and her ability to frustrate us at times!

Today's Gospel lesson is part of what's known as Jesus' Farewell Discourse, his last will and testament if you will. It is an intimate conversation between himself and his closest friends, his disciples. He is talking about his impending death, and imparting his teachings to them – the wisdom that he wants to be sure they carry with them even after he is gone. His prediction that he will not be with them for much longer is deeply troubling. His encouragement to them in their grief and confusion is one of the reasons that this passage is used so often in funerals. If you spoke to Anita this last month, you may have had a similar experience. She calmed us with her calm about her impending death.

Jesus says, don't be troubled, don't be distressed, don't be in despair. I'm not abandoning you, but I am going ahead of you, and preparing a place for you, a permanent, life-giving dwelling. A place where you can abide. It is comforting and continues a theme of radical hospitality and love that is Jesus' message. But his disciple Thomas isn't having it. When Jesus says it's going to be OK, I'm going to show you, Thomas's response is something like, how is this OK? It's OK, Jesus says, because I have shown you the way, and that way is through truth and love. The way of Jesus is the way of Love - radical, hospitable, and sacrificial love.

The promise of Jesus to his disciples is that although he will die soon and be gone, he has opened the path to God in a new way that will remain open to them even after he is gone. In John's telling of this story, he is helping his small, persecuted faith community recognize and claim the distinctiveness of their identity as a people of faith, as people who have chosen to follow Jesus.

Anita, as do many of us, had trouble with the last sentence of the Gospel reading though: "No one comes to the Father except through me." It rings of an exclusivity that is at odds with the way that Anita lived her life. In the Gospel story, John's community has been kicked out of the synagogue, the place where God can be found, and they are worried about how they will continue their relationship with God. Jesus assures them that they cannot be excluded by anyone from God's presence. They do not need to belong to any particular group or worry about being accepted by the religious establishment – they belong because Jesus has brought them before the Father, and that's all they need.

It is, in this sense, a statement of radical inclusion. No one or no circumstance, as our passage in Romans proclaims, can separate us from the love of God. We make a mistake if we think it is a statement about who is in and who is out. It is a deeply intimate conversation between Jesus and those who have chosen this way of knowing God, and how Jesus has broken the ways in which we try to decide who is in and who is out.

Anita was familiar with being excluded because of her sexual orientation, and made it her life calling to include the excluded. She lived out her favorite bible verse from Micah, "what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" 

Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God. Anita's life reflected a commitment to do these things. In this way, she was a philanthropist in the classic Greek sense of the word. The concept of the philanthropist was first introduced in Ancient Greece by the author of the play Prometheus Bound. From the play, the word developed the meaning of someone who has a "love of what it means to be human" in the sense of caring for, nourishing, developing, and enhancing "what it is to be human." Love of humanity asserts that our nature and purpose in life is educational to make ourselves more fully humane through self-development, pursuing excellence of body, mind and spirit. Loving what it means to be human is reflected in our baptismal covenant – to respect the dignity of every human being and to work for justice and peace.

Anita at a Kentucky Derby party
Anita was definitely a philanthropist in the classic Greek understanding. She committed her time to Integrity – acting as convener for several years; she committed her time, almost full time, to her Dreamers; and to her church. Once Anita got behind something, she had laser focus and commitment. Supporting justice for gay and lesbian folks in the Episcopal Church through Integrity; supporting education for our Dreamers; and praying daily for our St. Luke's community and the world in Morning Prayer are just of few examples. And once she moved to Louisville, she didn't waste any time getting involved in Church of the Advent, even becoming a vestry member and attending Morning Prayer at another Episcopal Church. The philanthropist in her pushed her and us to do more than we thought we could do. She held us to a higher standard than we would have held for ourselves.

There is another meaning of philanthropist, though, a more contemporary understanding. That understanding is of one who gives of their personal financial resources to support the public good. Unfortunately, the ancient understanding, of one who gives in other ways, has been lost.

But Anita was both. She gave, with strict anonymity, to the causes she cared about. Her sister, Debbie Jones, talked to her about disclosing her generosity after her death. Anita was open to the idea, only because Debbie wanted her life to be an inspiration and challenge to others. Her extreme generosity enabled Integrity, our I Have a Dream Chapter, St. Luke's and many others that we'll never know about to do important work. She lived frugally and managed her money well so that it could be a resource for the greater good, to make justice possible for those denied full access to the enjoyment of their own humanity – whether it was exclusion from full participation in the church because of sexual orientation or exclusion from education by being born into one community as opposed to another. Anita put her resources of time, energy, and money to improving the quality of life for so many.

I want to add a comment to the Dreamers here today. She loved you, each of you. She prayed for you daily. And she always expected your best, and wants you to continue to do your best. She was so very proud of you and you are her children. What Anita had to give, she gave intentionally, with purpose. She made a commitment to work for you, without pay, to volunteer her time, for 10 years, and she did this almost full time. The money she contributed, she earned herself, through an education, hard work, and developing expertise in something she loved doing. She denied herself a much higher standard of living than she could have lived because giving was of such high importance to her. It's the reason she was able to give more of herself than you'll ever be able to count, so that you can become the full persons you were born to be. She gave you her time, her expertise and her financial support, and she wants you to love your life.

Anita's whole life was a prayer. She had an often quiet, but always strong, presence. With the precision of her actuarial mind, she examined everything carefully – from the details of the IHAD program to how we prayed together in Morning Prayer. She insisted that our prayers pay attention – when we prayed for the president, governor and mayor, she insisted that we also pray for all local leaders, arguing that not all St. Luke's members live in the city of Atlanta. She insisted that we pray for the women religious of the Catholic church when they were struggling for justice with Rome. And when the news broke about the Atlanta Public Schools several years ago, we prayed for the victims of the scandal – children and parents in particular, but we also prayed for the school board members who had caused the scandal.

Anita's challenge to us is to look at our lives and ask "In what ways can we do more?" In what ways can we become philanthropists lovers of what it means to be fully human – and how can we challenge ourselves and enable others to be fully human, the best we can be? In what ways can we make our whole lives a prayer and do as the Lord requires, to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God?


Friday, August 9, 2013

Cloud of Witnesses: The Rev. Bill Richardson & UpStairs Lounge Victims

On June 22nd, Integrity New Orleans held a memorial service at St. George's Episcopal Church in that city, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of a fire at the UpStairs Lounge, a gay bar in the French Quarter which also served as the home of the local Metropolitan Community Church, a protestant denomination founded specifically to minister to the LGBT community. 

Thirty-two people were killed in the fire, three of whom were never identified. The bar was located on the second floor.  Air Force veteran and bartender Buddy Rasmussen was able to help some patrons escape, but many were trapped by locked doors and barred windows, including the Rev. Bill Larson, pastor of the MCC congregation; his assistant, the Rev. George Mitchell; and Mitchell's boyfriend, Louis Broussard.

A man named Rodger Dale Nunez, who had a history of causing trouble and was ejected from the bar earlier that night, reputedly confessed to a number of people that he started the fire, and was even seen purchasing incendiary materials on the security camera of a local drug store.  Nunez was never charged, and committed suicide the following year.

The Rev. William P. Richardson
Especially remembered at the service, celebrated by the Rev. Richard Easterling, was the Rev. William P. "Bill" Richardson.  Richardson, who was rector of St. George's from 1953-1976, held a similar service the in the days after the fire, in defiance of his own bishop (the Right Rev. Iveson Noland) and other clergy who refused to permit their churches to be used or provide any other pastoral response.  City leaders also did little to acknowledge the event, the largest targeted killing of gay people in the nation's history.  Richardson died in October of 2007 at the age of 98.

In a letter to Integrity, Richardson recalled the conversation with Noland: "'Bill, this is the Bishop. Have you read the morning paper?' I said, 'Yes, Bishop, I have.' 'Is it true that the service was at St. George's Episcopal Church?' 'Yes, Bishop, it was.' 'Why didn't they have it in their own church?' he asked. I replied, 'For the simple reason their own small church holds about 18 persons. Without any publicity we had over 80 present.' 'What am I to say when people call my office?' I replied, 'You can say anything you wish, Bishop, but do you think Jesus would have kept these people out of His church?'"

"Father Richardson saw to it that a memorial service was held for the grieving families and members of the gay community who were not held to very high public esteem at the time," recalls Integrity New Orleans member Billy Soileau.  "Protesters had lined and blocked the entrance, holding 2 x 4's and threatening mourners, and Fr. Bill went out and escorted each attendee personally through the disdainful crowd." 

While much attention is focused on the Stonewall Riots, Soileau recalls life in New Orleans was little different. "We had already experienced harassment along the lines of Stonewall when -- in 1962 -- a private gay Mardi Gras Ball was raided, many were arrested, and publicly exposed in the Times Picayune. Many were fired from their jobs and had their careers ruined, and several suicides also resulted."

"The tragic deaths in the fire lit a spark to begin the movement on the local scene toward equality and justice for LGTB persons," wrote June Butler on her popular blog Wounded Bird, which she maintains under the pen name Grandmère Mimi. "Fr. Bill Richardson's courage in agreeing to hold the memorial service at St George's placed the Episcopal Church squarely in its midst.  Many, even those within the movement, are not aware of this pivotal event in the history of the struggle for gay rights."

At the service Lynn Koppel, a parishioner at St. George's, recalled another occasion when Richardson did not waver from his pastoral ministry.  As Soileau tells it, "He went into a really rough neighborhood to an institution of ill repute to ask to see a young man whom had left his family due to their lack of acceptance." Approached by the boy's father, Richardson located the young man and reassured him that his family did love him, convincing him to return home.

The responses to subsequent anniversaries of the fire are indicative of the shift in public opinion in the intervening 40 years. In 1998, 300 people attended the 25th anniversary service held by the MCC, and exited the church to face TV cameras without feat.  This year, the sitting Roman Catholic Archbishop of New Orleans, the Most Rev. Gregory Michael Aymond expressed regret in an interview with Time over the actions of his predecessor, the Most Rev. Philip Hannan, and other clergy.

A documentary, called simply The UpStairs Lounge Fire, was also released this year.  The building, at the corner of Chartres and Iberville Streets, is still there, with the still-damaged upper level unused.  It now hosts a nightclub called the Jimani Lounge on its ground floor, which acknowledges the building's tragic history on its web site.

"Fr. Richardson was married and a father of two children and his family was adored by many," recalls Soileau.  "He recounted to me that this experience sparked his continued lifelong support of the gay community for equality locally, as well as within the Episcopal Church. It was simply the right thing to do. Born on Groundhog Day, he certainly emanated brightly until his departure from this life, when he was nearing the 100 year mark."

May he and the victims of the UpStairs Lounge, rest in peace and rise in glory.

Integrity Stakeholders' Council Chair Christian Paolino compiled this article with the generous contributions of Billy Soileau and June Butler

Friday, August 2, 2013

Integrity Announces Executive Director: Vivian Taylor

Integrity USA is pleased to announce its new Executive Director, Sarah Vivian Gathright Taylor. Taylor will be the first openly transgender woman to lead a major mainline protestant denominational organization in the US.

 “I am thrilled to have this opportunity to serve both Integrity USA and the wider Church. Working together in the love of Jesus Christ, there is nothing that can prevent us from opening the full Love of God to all people regardless of their orientation or identity,” she said.

Vivan Taylor
Currently residing in Somerville, Massachusetts, Taylor is a North Carolina native who enlisted in the United States Army at age 18. She served as a Chaplain's Assistant in the U.S. Army National Guard from 2003 to 2010. After graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a B.A. in Religious Studies, she deployed with her unit, the 1/130th Aviation, to southern Iraq from 2009-2010. 

Taylor has also worked as a freelance writer since 2009, and her work has been featured in newspapers and other publications across the country including the Huffington Post, Charlotte Observer, Chapel Hill News,  and others. She writes about being a solider at war, veteran life, LGBTQ issues, trans and genderqueer life, body positivity, Christianity, and her adventures in the world.

Taylor has worked since 2004 to promote a greater understanding of gay, lesbian, bi, transgender, and queer people in the Episcopal Church, and has worked with both Integrity USA and TransEpiscopal to advance diversity and acceptance in the Church. She testified before the Episcopal General Convention in 2012 in favor of adding gender identity and expression to the Church's nondiscrimination clause and was a member of our communications team, helping to produce the daily news briefings we provided.

In September of 2012, Taylor was invited to the White House to meet with Vice President Joseph Biden and a number of other national leaders. She used the opportunity to advocate for full inclusion in the U.S. military of all transgender people willing to serve.

Taylor is also among the first trans women to enter the Episcopal ordination process. She is an avid Sung Compline promoter and participant, and is currently working to develop a new intentional community in the Allston neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts.

Integrity's President, the Rev. Dr. Caroline Hall commented, “We are delighted to have Vivian taking up the helm of Integrity. Her appointment is in line with two of our strategic goals: to bring more young people into leadership, and to increase our diversity. She was an integral part of the Communications Team at the last General Convention and has the leadership skills and ability to think strategically which are vital as we move into a new organization in a very different, more inclusive church. The future is looking very bright.”

Requiescat in Pace: Dr. Felipe Sanchez-Paris, Husband of Bishop E. Otis Charles

Felipe Sanchez Paris
Bishop Charles & Dr. Sanchez-Paris

The board and staff of Integrity USA were saddened to learn of the death on Tuesday night of Dr. Felipe Sanchez-Paris, husband of the Right Rev. E. Otis Charles, retired bishop of Utah.

"Felipe was a charming and delightful man who will be sorely missed," stated the Rev. Dr. Caroline Hall, Integrity's President. "One of the many courageous stands he and Otis Charles took was in 2004 when they held a controversial public blessing for their relationship. It is people like Felipe who have laid the path we walk today."

Dr. Sanchez-Paris is a graduate of Georgetown University and received his doctorate from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.  He served on the faculty of a number of universities, retiring in 2000 after 18 years as a Professor of Public Policy and Administration at California State University, Bakersfield. 

Bishop Charles, who served as Bishop of Utah from 1971-1986, came out as gay in 1993, the first Christian bishop to do so.  The couple met in 2001, and have been members of St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco and involved with OASIS California, the diocesan LGBT ministry.  They were married in Los Angeles on October 29, 2008.

"Felipe was a man who embodied the fullness of life — a great intellect that was always routed through his compassionate heart," said the Right Rev. Marc Handley Andrus, Bishop of California, in a statement published July 31st.

Both Dr. Sanchez-Paris and Bishop Charles appear in Love Free or Die, the award-winning documentary about the episcopacy of the Right Rev. Gene Robinson, the recently-retired Bishop of New Hampshire whose election as an out gay man sent reverberations throughout the church.  

Bishop Robinson recalled the couple's testimony on the resolution to create a provisional rite for same-gender blessings, which was adopted at the 2009 General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Anaheim.  "In our documentary film, Bishop Otis described his attempts at heterosexual life as a suit that just didn't fit. Then, he describes meeting the love of his life, Felipe, and 'the suit fit!'  Felipe sits beside him, radiating delight and joy at Otis' tribute to their love. We will all miss our beloved Felipe, but none more than his husband, Otis."