I heard about the festival last year, but could not attend. Several of my twitter friends went, among them some queer folk who wrote about their experiences here and here. Their experiences were mixed, feeling welcome but not affirmed, noting a lack of queer and/or trans speakers. At about the same time a few friends who are connected to the Outlaw Preachers group began to argue about safe space at their annual gathering. I had just attended a Presbyterian gathering where I was the only out queer pastor participating. Tired of the discussion, I wrote a blog post about the impossibility of Safe Space and called it a day. The last thing I needed was another space to navigate queerness: my plate was full. I had this to say:
Safe space is not always possible and is not always offered. I attended the Early Ministry Institute the last two years. EMI is a three year training program for new Presbyterian pastors in the Synod of the Northeast. It is intended as a safe place for newly minted pastors to share with one another, build friendships, speak deeply of our struggles, etc. It is not, however, a particularly safe space for queer folk. I lost track of the number of times I shared meals with pastors who believed homosexuality is a sin and felt comfortable dishing that out with the oatmeal breakfast. I still go, but I know the limitations of that space. I know the energy it costs me to be there. I set my boundaries accordingly. One of those boundaries is limiting the number of other conferences I attend that are not queer friendly. I can only take so much. Still, it is important to thrive in that space, even though it is not safe.I had about zero intention of attending Wild Goose this year either, associating it with a particular stream of evangelical-emergent-hipster crowd I most usually avoid. My schedule was full and my energy for navigating queerness in unknown spaces was about run out. I'm moving, I started new jobs, money's tight, the kids are out of school and it's otherwise complicated.
I went to Unconference, like I usually do. And at Unconference, my friend Hugh Hollowell was there representing his ministry work with homeless and housing vulnerable folks in Raleigh, NC: Love Wins. He brought his friend, Brian Ammons with him. I'd read a little of his work--here's a sample: "A Loose Garment of Identifications." They pushed me a bit to come to the festival. Hugh said if I worked his booth for a bit he'd bring me a tent. So I went. Because I adore them.
I was totally right, and it IS a particular brand of evangelical-emergent-hipster crowd that I most usually avoid. Kristen and Shannon are totally right and it is a welcome space but not necessarily affirming. It's a crowd suddenly realizing that they have centered heterosexuality and standard gender norms and trying to figure out if they can shift and whether they should. This is not the Metropolitan Community Church, or United Church of Christ or the Unitarian Universalists, most of whom affirm, celebrate and delight in queerness (although for Pete's sake, it's up to you to check out individual congregations to be sure).
But in terms of safe space, the festival's greatest threats were ticks and this spider. And I think this is the interesting question that kept coming back to me as I camped in this community for 4 days: How do we queer folk form our identity in the absence of hostility?
I walked into the festival and introduced myself to folks: I'm a queer/divorced/single mother of two children with special needs/pastor/feminist/anti-racist/woman with a chip on my shoulder. The people around me nodded and told me they were baptist/pentecostal/speaking-in-tongues/emergent/straight-out-of-habit/tattooed-pierced/married/hopeful-to-parent-someday/man.
If nothing else, this is a crowd embracing multiple identities within themselves while holding on to faith and spiritual practices. It would be easy to dismiss this group as a bunch of white, hipster, straight folk, but based on the events I attended over four days, these folks are grappling with all kinds of intersections of identity, including race, sexuality and gender. They don't have it exactly right on, but they are sure shooting for it. I have no idea what the atmosphere was like last year, but nobody gave a flying squirrel about my sexuality or the chip on my shoulder. Sexuality was a non-issue to almost everyone I interacted with. I'm not trans, but I expect gender identity would have gotten the shrug too. It isn't affirming, but I'm not sure we need to be looking for affirmation from unlikely sources. It's neutral and non-threatening and the question remains, how do we form a queer identity in the absence of hostility?
James Baldwin wrote "I would like us to do something unprecedented: to create ourselves without finding it necessary to create an enemy." (1) What do we do when we try to create an enemy, but the other refuses to be the enemy? I think we're left with no choice but to follow Baldwin's advice. It is profoundly unsettling.
I skipped a lot of things at the festival. This weekend fell in between two very busy weeks and mostly I just wanted to be anonymous, sink my feet into the grass, soak up the sun, and forget about all of my worries for a few days. I did that a lot this weekend. There were big names there. Jim Wallis was speaking and Brian MacLaren. Jennifer Knapp was around and David Crowder played one night. But I knew the big stuff would probably annoy me (here is my post about Jim Wallis and Sojourners last year), so I took advantage of the very wide open space at Wild Goose and I didn't go to those things. I went to smaller events with lesser known folk. I sat in the woods and I wrote. I actually got an essay done that is weeks overdue. It's badly written and cries out for fierce editing, but I finished it and hit send. What I'm trying to say is that I took care of myself. I let others who are feeling fierce and energized around LGBTQ inclusion and affirmation go fight that battle, and I spent my energy on writing about belly dancing. There was nobody at the festival who could make me feel shame about sexuality or interfere with my paycheck or ordination. I was safe, and I took care to reciprocate that gentleness.
The last session I attended was one of those smaller events. It was called "Choosing Family" and I had the impression it would be about creating family within the church or some such. Queer folk speak of "chosen family" as a way of creating family units of support beyond our biological ties. For some queer folk chosen family is all they've got. But I was totally wrong. The session was led by Sarah Cunningham and Geoff Little and it was actually about staying committed to family who are more conservative (or more liberal) than you are. By Sunday I had listened to so many beautiful stories of people's lives that I stayed seated for the talk instead of rolling my eyes and moving on. I'm glad I did.
They spoke movingly of their own experiences with family and friends who did not share their views. And they spoke of the pain that comes with bridging the gap of both sides. I don't normally have a whole lot of sympathy for the middle ground, but their entire talk was about love and the power of relationship to bring us closer in to Christ's longing for our lives together. It gave me a lot to think about, especially on this question: How do I create myself without creating an enemy?
Please don't get me wrong: there are a lot of doors shut because I'm out queer. But I've been ruefully admitting recently that those aren't doors I would walk through anyway. There's plenty of homophobia and transphobia to go around, but things are shifting in many places. And so what are the possibilities?
(1) James Baldwin, "Anti-Semitism and Black Power" originally published 1967 in Freedomways, reprinted in The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings, edited by Randall Kenan (New York: Pantheon Books, 2010), 203.
On a personal note, Wild Goose gave me some much needed time to sort some things out. I spent much of the weekend about 3 seconds from tears, partly out of exhaustion, and partly just feeling vulnerable. New space, new people, new stories. The people who hold my stories were very far away, and in truth they have been for a while. Seminary was a transitory/unstable community, and the last three years since have not been settled enough for roots.
I wrote a sermon in 2010 called "Burning Bushes and Other Such Foolishness."
The Spirit is sometimes sneaky and sometimes blatantly, obnoxiously PRESENT.That was two years ago, but it wasn't until this weekend that I had a chance to define and shape the longing that has been nagging me. Brian Ammons spoke on sexual violence and restorative justice this weekend. Part of his request of us as a gathering is that he didn't need taking care of, and he expected us to take care of ourselves.
Let us begin with sneaky. Burning bushes, the quiet love of a friend, tiny flowers in a place they should not be, a small chapel in the woods, a small act of kindness that causes a person to pause. The way a phrase floats on the wind to hit our ear in the exact right way, and then stays with us for days and years to come. Indeed, the way one word might define an entire decade or even a lifetime. My word has been “rootless”, and is perhaps now “longing”.
And yet I was heavily weighed down by the conversation--as I knew I would be. The people who hold my stories were very far away. I longed for physical contact that afternoon, but I was careful with myself; this was not my crowd or my space. So I walked a while after that session and ended up at a tent where they were offering spiritual care. A kind woman, perhaps named Stacy but perhaps not, offered to wash my feet. I sat in the sun with my feet in cool water, letting a stranger touch and seal the day. I was three seconds from tears. She asked about my spiritual journey but I wasn't willing to speak it. She asked after my image of God, "How do you picture him?" I said, "I don't see God as male." She finished quietly, still gentle.
I have an exquisite longing to share this life with someone, but it would need to be someone extraordinary who could hold the ridiculous complexity of my life. It is not a necessity, merely a longing. As I sink into the church communities I am working with there will be plenty of people to share pieces of my life. But I realized as I returned home last night that it would be really nice if there was someone who could check for ticks in the places I can't see.