Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A TIMELY ACCIDENT

My girlfriend Victoria crashed her bicycle on Sunday. I could bore you with the moment-to-moment details of the event, but other than being painful and traumatic for her and extremely upsetting to me upon hearing her scream and then seeing her bleeding from several places while sprawled out on the street, the accident itself was simply the catalyst for the profound experience which followed.

I have many strong opinions and feelings around organized religion, few of which I will expound on in this post today, other than to state that I have always believed that people should be free to do whatever they please, as long as they are not harming others or themselves in the process, a belief that has placed me in direct opposition to the teachings of all religions, as far as I can tell. I, like most people, have been approached countless times by people working for their local church, bearing a great many pamphlets and brochures, asking me if I've found Jesus or simply wanting to start a dialogue, presumably in the hope of awakening some kind of curiosity in me about their particular religious practice. The question I always respond with in turn has not changed over the years; it is the ultimate litmus test for me and so far has produced unanimously similar results: "I have friends and family, whom I adore, who happen to be gay. Where does your  church/religion stand on homosexuality?" Initially most will try to dodge the question, pontificating on the abstract. Upon further pressing, they usually end up talking about how "we are all sinners" and that they're taught to "love the sinner, not the sin" or some such avoidance of the direct question that was posed to them. At that point, I usually tell them that when their church is ready to stop practicing bigotry and discrimination and is ready to embrace all people, I'll be ready to listen.

That may or may not sound severe. Sometimes my mood might not be so militant and in those moments I wish those people well and simply move on without comment. But my position does not change: I have always felt passionately about the harm that has been done to so many over the centuries, and especially our gay brothers and sisters in recent times, in the name of religion, 'morality' and 'righteousness'. Any time I educe even the slightest scent of bigotry, of separateness, of someone saying that they are in any way superior to someone else based on some mode of behaviour that they choose to follow, I am ready to oppose and denounce. I am not saying that this aggressive stance is always or even usually productive; it certainly does not allow for much conversation to occur, a result which has produced unfortunate moments in the past. But that has been my inner reality upon coming into contact with most manifestations of religion and its practice.

Victoria and I were on our way to brunch with friends last Sunday morning when the accident occurred. We were on Franklin St, a busy neighbourhood street here in Los Angeles, and she lost control of the bike and hit the pavement right across the street from the Metropolitan Community Church of Los Angeles.  I've noticed this church before in my travels; it is clearly an 'alternative' place of worship- one would only have to see the congregation gathered out front after a service to know that this is a place where everybody would be accepted. In retrospect, it certainly shines a light on my own heated sense of judgment and bigotry to note that prior to Sunday, I would never have felt any positivity for the place or the people who frequented it. If anything, I might have thought them fools for supporting and worshipping a god whose writings so clearly denounced them. But, as with anything, it's all in the interpretation.

As I raced to Victoria to lift her bicycle off of her, I noticed that we were surrounded with people. My initial impulse was to repel them, so that I could tend to my girlfriend myself. But as I examined the many cuts that she'd sustained, I heard a voice say, "I work at the church across the street. Do you want to come inside and sit down?"

We didn't hesitate. Of course we would like to come inside. Inside sounded comforting at that moment; the street no longer seems a friendly place when it's just come into contact with multiple body parts, including your chin. Without hesitation, someone agreed to watch the bikes as we were escorted across the street and into the church.

There was a lot of activity going on. It was Sunday, so of course there were services. It was around 1030 and we later found out that there was an eleven o'clock service, a little more "upbeat" as was explained to us and evidenced by the band that I saw setting up as we were headed to a quiet room with a couch that they'd allotted us. All around us were the same people you'd see anywhere in Los Angeles, ranging from straight to gay to transgender, from white to black and all colours and ethnicities in between. Coffee and snacks were on offer as people did what they always do in groups: mingled, laughed, teased and flirted.

But in the immediate circle that surrounded Victoria and I, there were only three human qualities that made themselves strongly felt: kindness, generosity and concern.

I highlight 'concern' because to me that quality, when freely expressed toward us, is so keenly felt. We all remember those who have cared about us deeply, who have taken the strongest possible interest in our lives and trajectories, who have put their arms around us and have told us that no matter what, they will be there in our time of vulnerability and hurt. These are the people we call first with our triumphs and who want to be first to our door in times of need.

But what is it to feel that from strangers? To see people so genuinely concerned for our wellbeing, so ready to forget themselves and attend to any need? We sat and watched as one person would come in with water, another with a kind word, yet another with a caring touch or glance. Then there was the man who had a medical background who brought a first aid kit and tended to Victoria's bleeding toe. "Stay as long as you like", they said. "Don't worry about your bicycles, they've been brought in", we were told and I was stunned to see that our bikes were sitting in the welcome room, taking up space as people were preparing to head into the church hall. The bicycles had been brought in, just as we had been brought in, into a circle of kindness and loving concern that, looking back, feels all too rare in this society.

None of this should be exceptional...

But it is. It throws into relief just how rare this kind of pure kindness is. I don't see it very often out in the world. I don't feel it often enough myself. People like Donald Trump are revered for their achievements, their ability to "get ahead". I even heard a fellow in the gym recently say that "you have to tip your cap" to people like Bernie Madoff, because they were able to exploit people's ignorance, even if what they did was wrong. This is a large part of the world we live in, where avarice, ambition and climbing the ladder are traits that are valued most highly, even when their expression might be to the detriment of our ability as human beings to extend kindness, generosity and compassion to others.

But not at the church on Franklin St that day. I felt what it was to be enveloped by those warm, human expressions of what is, ultimately, pure love. Am I now a believer? Not in someone's God.

Yet I am, as a result of that experience, simply a more powerful believer in the transformative power of our greatest renewable human resources: concern and caring for others and acts of kindness and selfless generosity. When I think of how overwhelming it was to receive those gifts, I was inspired to know how often I have the power to give them.

After an hour or so, we decided it was time to leave. I was compelled to embrace Bill, one of the people who had looked after us. I could barely speak as I tried to express my gratitude and amazement at the attention we'd received. He simply said, "that's what we do."

In that moment, I would have given anything for every person who has condemned homosexuality as a sin to have been able to walk in my shoes for the preceding hour. I am confident that, having had the same experience as I, they would no longer be so opposed to gays and lesbians having a presence in their church, or at their altars in marriage.

Romeo said it best:

"My love is as boundless as the sea,
 My love as deep; the more I give to thee,
 The more I have, for both are infinite."

Victoria and I felt the glow of that infinite, shining power on a chance Sunday morning. May it be exercised and felt by every one of us whenever we get the chance.

7 comments:

  1. Beautiful! And that is the heart of it isn’t it? What you experienced was the essence of pure Spirituality as opposed to religion. Not the dogma, not the fear instilled in one and all of a “vengeful god”. Not the false “atonement” which can erase a horrible misdeed simply by sharing it with another on the other side of a partition. What you experienced was the pure embodiment of what the ancient sages and mystics have been telling us for ever…..that we are made to love, to care, to grow through the selfless interaction with All of Life, which embraces everything that you can name and even some things that are unnamable. Being connected to THAT is what keeps us in our joy and teaches us that all else is ego.
    I love you my son, watching you live and grow and share is a gift I cannot measure and which I treasure with all my Being.

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  2. Thank you for sharing a beautiful story, a glimpse of heaven.

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  3. As a regular attendee at Metropolitan Community Church of Los Angeles, I can only say to you that what you and Victoria experienced that day was the norm for us.

    It is meaningful for me to even say "us" in the context of my relationship with a church. You see, my experience is very similar to yours: I am not willing to worship a god who puts unachievable conditions on the persons who choose to worship god. Having grown up in the Pentecostal religion, I had enough of "church" by the time I was old enough to make my own decisions about whether or not I would attend. That changed the moment I entered my first service at MCC.

    I felt nothing but love there. Nothing but love. I have made friends whom I now consider family there. The hand of friendship, as you experienced, is always extended there. Unconditionally.

    Thank you for your words. I could never have expressed my joy at being a member of this church more perfectly. When you are ready, come worship with us. We will be happy to have you among us.

    Audrey Liggins

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  4. I have only attended MCC twice, but the love and compassion you experienced permeates everyone that walks through the door. Your story brought tears. Thank you for sharing it.

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  5. you saw Jesus in the lives of the GLBT people I love and fight for for equality in the Christian church. They know and exude grace.
    www.canyonwalkerconnections.com

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  6. Thanks for sharing this beautiful story. I'm a member of an MCC in Canada. I'm very proud of my church, and this story reaffirms why. We strive to be the hands and feet of Christ. That's a metaphor that works for me. I'm not a literalist, I don't believe the bible is TOWAGFAT (The Authoritative Word of God for All Time), and I'm not even sure what God is (I'm more confident about what God isn't actually). But the understanding of God that I see revealed in (most of) the stories and myths of Jesus show god as love and us as people who can be both recipients and bearers of that love. The really cool thing about MCC is that I, with my unorthodox understanding, "worship" and live in spiritual community with people who hold much more orthodox views. We learn to listen to and respect each other, even genuinely love each other. For so long churches have split into smaller, more rigid and narrow factions. In MCC we reverse that trend. I suppose in the beginning of the movement it was our shared oppression as "queer folk" that helped us bond together enough to learn to do this. Now more and more "straight people" are finding that the God of their understanding is better reflected at MCC than other places they have found. We had a big conference recently in Mexico with an emphasis on youth. Some of the youth have now grown up in our denomination, and they aren't necessarily Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgendered. They tell us they just want to get beyond all these labels. They want "world inclusion." Sounds good to me.
    Thanks again. I hope Victoria is fully recoverd.

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