Sunday, February 15, 2015

Standing on the Side of Love

Rev. Kit Ketcham, February 15, 2015
With Michael Rowe

            Thanks, Michael.  I have loved hearing your story and how your experiences with love have shaped you as a human being and as a spouse.  I’m so glad you have come to Astoria and our congregation.
            The story of Unitarian Universalist advocacy for civil rights for sexual minorities and Marriage Equality for all couples started many years ago, in the 70’s, as we began to question many of traditional religions’ homophobia and outright discrimination toward sexual minorities---and our own shortcomings in that area. 
            The Source of UUism we are considering today is the one that states that we draw from Jewish and Christian teachings, which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves. 
            However, as we considered this deeply, it became abundantly clear that we as a religion were NOT loving our neighbors as ourselves.  At least not those neighbors whom we perceived as different, as having sexual attractions that were not “normal”, that were hidden and somehow worthy of ridicule or even persecution.  We had no right to cast stones at other traditions.
            We had ordained ministers serving congregations who lost their jobs because of their sexual orientation.   Not because we had church policies against homosexuality, but because we were afraid.  We had fears about being perceived ourselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, if we defended or befriended certain people. 
We were afraid we’d become known as “the gay church or the transgender church”.  Even though we knew intellectually that there was nothing intrinsically wrong with being gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender, there was still a lot of fear and confusion about homosexuality and gender. 
            We felt uncomfortable knowing that there were human beings whose sexual attraction or gender identity was different from our own.  Sometimes we questioned whether we ourselves might be gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender.  We weren’t completely comfortable with our own sexuality.  Somebody else’s sexuality---well, that was more comfortable to obsess about.
            We often didn’t think twice about using derogatory terms to describe people whose sexuality made us squirm.  We joked and laughed, even when we had friends who were openly gay and lesbian. 
We were baffled by males who felt female and wanted to change their gender and females who felt male and went to the extent of having surgery to transform their bodies.  It was scary!   What did it all mean?
            It rapidly became clear that we had a job to do—on ourselves.  We had ministers and members desperately unhappy because they could not be themselves, who even committed suicide rather than deal with the prejudice they were facing, even from their own congregations.
Some Jewish and Christian groups were refusing to allow them to join congregations, to serve as leaders, and to ordain them, they said, was totally against God’s law.    Marriage, of course, was impossible!    
What did it really mean to love our neighbor as ourselves? 
            I remember my first introduction to the idea that I actually knew people who were gay and lesbian.  I was about 35, living in Denver with my husband and small son, when one of my best friends from Linfield wrote me a letter.
            “Kit,” she wrote.  “I don’t know how you’ll feel about this, but I am tired of hiding who I am.  I recently attempted suicide by driving into a steel beam on the Hawthorne Bridge but paramedics patched me up and I’ve decided to be honest about myself.  I’m lesbian, I love women, not men, and I’m telling the people that I can trust.  I hope we can still be friends….  And by the way, I’m going to be in Colorado in a few weeks.  Can I visit you?”
            Well, I was definitely in the “fear” stage at that time.  I was scared to see her but couldn’t bring myself to jettison somebody I cared for because of my fear.  So, Fern came to visit and it was fine.  She was the same person I knew in college, still funny, still an artist, still my friend.  And the honest way she answered my questions opened a door in my heart.
            In the years after that experience, I was a teacher and school counselor, where I met teenage students who were desperately unhappy because of their attraction to the “wrong” people, whose churches preached openly against same sex attraction.  Some of these kids attempted suicide.  Some just endured the bullying and the public ridicule.  Some I didn’t find out about until years later, when they wrote me notes and told me their news.
            This became my personal civil rights cause.  In 1994, I asked our minister at Jefferson Unitarian Church, the Rev. Robert Latham, to help me put on a service about gay/lesbian rights.  As far as I know, it was the first time ever that homosexuality and the pain of injustice had been linked at JUC. 
A group from the local Rainbow Harmony chorale, a mixed group of Denver men and women, performed selections from “Boys and Girls with Stories”, composed by David Maddux .   And, my knees knocking, I offered a reflection on my own experience entitled “My Friend Fern”.
The sanctuary was packed that morning.  I saw people there who I didn’t know were gay or lesbian, friends who had never dared say who they really were.  A teacher from a school I’d served—and his partner; the parent of three of my students; a colleague who was a counselor at a local high school.  The extent of my ignorance felt overwhelming.
As a minister, in the next few years, I had chances to extend my knowledge and my experience and my group of friends.  My friend Fern had given me a great gift that continues to affect my life today and, I hope, all my days.
When I moved to Portland in 1999, to serve Wy’east UU Congregation, Oregon was debating Lou Mabon’s hateful ballot issue, a measure to forbid any mention of homosexuality in the schools and to discipline teachers who dared to discuss the topic with students.
We UUs and other progressives fought back and defeated that referendum and turned our sights on civil rights legislation to protect sexual minorities from job and housing and insurance and inheritance discrimination.
In 2003, I moved to the Puget Sound area to serve the Vashon and Whidbey Island congregations and immediately became involved in an interfaith clergy group we named the Religious Coalition for Equality. 
As a clergy group of Jews, mainline progressive Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, pagans, and UUs, we accompanied four couples who went in a group one day to the King County Clerk’s office to apply for marriage licenses, kicking off a years’ long campaign to secure increased civil rights for all couples, starting with anti-discrimination laws and domestic partnerships for same sex and older unmarried couples, culminating in legislative action approving Marriage Equality.
Marriage Equality legislation was approved in Washington in 2011, when the legislature passed a bill granting the right of civil marriage to same sex couples, after a tense session on Whidbey Island in which our Island County senator, Mary Margaret Haugen, was persuaded by an impassioned group of Whidbey Island citizens to be the 25th “yes” vote on the legislation in the divided Senate, forging the final link in the chain of progress.
The legislation was, of course, challenged and then survived a vote statewide , becoming the law of the land in 2012.  I had moved here by that time and could neither vote on the issue nor take part in the celebrations, except at a distance, but, as is always true, it doesn’t matter who gets the credit as long as the work gets done.
As the opposition dominoes have begun to fall, one after another, as state and federal judges nation-wide have recognized the terrible injustice of denying equality to loving couples on the basis of sexual attraction, marriage equality has now become a reality in 37 of our United States, including Oregon. 
And the Supreme Court has even hinted, through Justice Clarence Thomas’s published dissenting rant, that it’s about to become a reality across the land. 
Even Alabama, once the stronghold of George Wallace and the attempted fortress of dissent of Justice Roy Moore, is now granting marriage licenses to same sex couples in Alabama.
None of the horrific consequences predicted by opponents has come true.  Instead, women who have been loyal partners to each other for 50 and more years are now married.  Men who grew old together, caring for one another through sorrow and illness, no longer hide their relationship but sport their wedding rings.
I’ve had the joyful opportunity to marry women and men whose relationships have survived the insults, the discrimination, and the fear of discovery.  Being part of this remarkable sea change in our nation has been one of the greatest satisfactions of my life.
Love and Marriage, love and marriage, go together like a horse and carriage, as the old song goes, but we UUs gradually recognized that this wave of social change meant that our slogan “standing on the side of love” didn’t just mean romantic and marital love.  And we began to realize that loving our neighbor means more than just our gay neighbor.
What about homelessness?  What about immigration and the treatment of families split up by troubling deportation policies?  What about racial profiling and the treatment of young black men who are presumed to be thugs?  What about economic injustice, the fearful prospect of oligarchy, the rule by the wealthy, as corporations wield more influence than individual voters?  Where does love stand then?
As we here at the Pacific UU Fellowship renew our efforts to contribute to the larger society in loving ways, we are asking ourselves these questions.
In the questionnaire we compiled recently, we learned that everyone who participated in that survey is serving in the community in a variety of ways and as we talked at the board meeting last week about the results of that survey and where the preferences lie, we noted that one of the  two top vote-getters was environmental work.
We talked about the many ways we can contribute to environmental causes, how the congregation could be part of road cleanup and tree planting and that sort of thing, waxing enthusiastic about all the possibilities.
And then one voice brought us back to the other top vote-getter:  (Paraphrasing here).  “Environmental work is fine, but I really want us to be involved in actual social justice work.  I want us to have an impact on people’s lives.  We have homeless people, hungry people, out of work people, mentally ill people, all in this area, who need our help.  Let’s not forget them.”
In the next weeks, we will make some decisions about the direction we want to go with our social action work, and I’m hoping we will decide to choose projects that will serve the environment as well as the humanitarian needs of our community.
Unitarian Universalism has, as a faith tradition, grown strongly in the years since we decided to stand on the side of love.  I think of the closing words of the song we sang together a little while ago:
 “We are standing on the side of love, hands joined together, as hearts beat as one.  Emboldened by faith, we dare to proclaim we are standing on the side of love.”
We have set forth on this course, to defend and protect those who need love, those persons who are hungry, exhausted, lonely, homeless, and sorrowful.  They need our love.  And we, as fellow human beings, have the ability to provide that love.  We may not be sure yet what this decision, what this ability means, but we are ready to serve.
And, because we also love this planet, our home, we stand on the side of love for our natural world, ready to defend and protect it, ready to stand against harmful practices toward the land, water, and air which provide us with life, the animals and vegetation which depend on us for their care, as we fulfill our place in the interdependent web of life, of which we humans are only one part.
Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.
Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place.  Let us go in peace, thinking deeply about what it means to love our neighbor as ourselves, as we have learned from our Jewish and Christian spiritual ancestors.  May we find in ourselves the resources to act in love toward one another, toward the universe, and toward ourselves.  Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

1 comment:

RS Williams said...

Absolutely wonderful, Kit! Thank you for this sermon, and for supporting marriage equality.