And the Welcome Will Be Wide: It’s Not About the Bathrooms (sermon)

The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick, New Jersey

And the table will be wide. And the welcome will be wide. And the arms will open wide to gather us in.

We are fortunate that here in New Jersey: more protections for the rights and safety of transgender folks have been enacted. In fact, just a few months ago, the Assemblywoman who represents East Brunswick, and is a member of this congregation, Nancy Pinkin, co-sponsored some of those protections that came in direct response to actions taken by our current president that erased protections put in place by the previous president.

These are important strides for which to be thankful and yet there is more to be done. Garden State Equality is New Jersey’s go-to advocacy organization on topics related to GLBTQ+ civil rights. They identify two areas that in need of advocacy. One is the threshold when someone can legally change their gender – right now it is set at an outdated level that is out-of-reach of many trans folks. Secondly is access to health care for medically necessary treatment. In New Jersey, health insurance companies do not have to cover these treatments, so few of them do. I am so thankful that my daughter lives in a state where that is not the case. I can testify that not only is such treatment medically necessary, in some cases, it is life-necessary. I am pretty sure that my older daughter would not be alive right now if she did not have access to this kind of medical care.

And our hearts will open wide to receive. And we will come as children who trust there is enough.

So there is advocacy that remains to be done here in New Jersey. And there is always room for growing our welcome wide within our Unitarian Universalist movement. But we also have reason to be proud. I want to show you a couple of photos of some great folks.

[I’m sad to say that my blog is not accepting new photo media so I can’t include them here.]

These pictures are from last year and from this year – in fact, just a few months ago.

These are members of TRUUST: a UU identity group for religious leaders that advocates for the gifts, safety, liberation, and leadership of trans religious professionals in Unitarian Universalist ministries and institutions.

Look at these beautiful people, some of whom are dear to me, at least one of whom helped to raise my children by being their Director of Religious Education. My life is enriched by their presence within our faith movement. Yours is, too, even if you don’t know it.

And, yes, there is work to be done right here at TUS. We could talk about the language in the Bond of Union. In an early board meeting this year, one member raised the question of whether we might make the language of it more inclusive. Of course, the language has already shifted once in the lifetime of the statement, specifically for that reason: moving from just the word, “his” to the words, “his or her.” So we know how to shift language to be more inclusive and accommodate the changing understanding of what is acceptable language. Today we practiced what that might sound like: using the singular “they” or “their.”

So we could explore that. Instead, today I am going to talk bathrooms.

Bathrooms? But the title of the sermon says it’s not about bathrooms. And that’s true. Here’s what Reverend Miller Jen Hoffman says about that. He’s a minister in the MCC (Metropolitan Community Church) and he wrote a Huffington Post piece:

It’s not about restrooms. It’s about people and our lives and dignity and affirmation. It’s not just about civil rights and safety, but also about pleasure and well-being. We want to go beyond receiving the bare minimum of life and liberty and also demand the pursuit of happiness, go beyond ending discrimination and violence to expect and also lay claim to enjoyment and peace and good fortune.

He goes on:

And all of us who are on the side of gender self-determination and public accommodation, even as we fight for bathroom access and gender autonomy, we must recognize that access to one or two bathrooms will still be inadequate,…We must remember that some folks are genderqueer and nonbinary and agender, … And we must continue to imagine and achieve a world where it is safe for all of us to name ourselves, safe for all of us to express ourselves, and, sure, of course, where it is safe for all of us to pee.

And we will come unhindered and free. And our aching will be met with bread. And our sorrow will be met with wine.

So while it’s about so much more than public restrooms, like it was about so much more than lunch counters during Jim Crow South, it is about the restroom. In many public places in our nation, including in our schools, it is not safe for transgender people. It was getting better, but now there is backlash; things are going backwards. In states like North Carolina (most infamous for this) and Texas and elsewhere, there are laws proposed and being enacted that bar trans folks from using the public restroom that fits their gender identity as they know it.

Here are two people who, with these laws passed, would have to go to bathrooms where likely their appearance would surprise others there. This man would have to go to the “ladies room” and this woman would have to use the “men’s room.” Not right.

It’s not just access to the bathroom at is at stake. While rightwing pundits create ungrounded fears about transgender people somehow being creepers, it is, in fact, trans folks, and gender non-conforming folks who are at most risk of harassment and violence. Just for going about their daily lives and having human bodies that need to use the toilet.

And we will open our hands to the feast without shame. And we will turn toward each other without fear.

~~~

How do we create the world we hope for in large and small ways? For those of us who have privilege — in this circumstance, where the sex of our body has always matched our gender (this is called “cisgender”) — isn’t this one of its beneficial aspects?: use for the Good, like a superpower extending protections that come with privilege to those most vulnerable?

This is the thing about Unitarian Universalism: our first principle not only asks us, it is requires of us, that we honor the individual worth and dignity of each individual, and their essence, regardless of our own level of discomfort or lack of awareness. As I have said before: it is okay to be ignorant; it is not okay to stay that way.

If I were to make this decision, then I would have these signs – or something like them — up now. Up yesterday. Up before I even arrived.

And we will give up our appetite for despair. And we will taste and know of delight.

This is where explicit welcome comes in. Where a wider welcome is life-affirming and life-sustaining. This is where we open the table wide. Especially in a world where hostility and physical threat come too often into play, where laws are being enacted and those who are threatened by the presence of trans or queer people are emboldened in their hate. Explicit welcome matters. Open the welcome wider still.

A true story: it was just after the Orlando massacre, just about a year ago – where 49 dear humans had been slaughtered at a gay nightclub. It was the last week of serving at my internship. A request came from the nearby Shriver Job Corps — a no cost education and career training program for youth and young adults. I don’t know about other Job Corps programs, because it’s a national program, but at this one on the former army Fort Devens, this one is made up primarily of youth and young adults of color and from communities experiencing economic impoverishment. This program also had a strong commitment to welcoming to its GLBTQ students, many of whom were reeling and feeling the weight of this act of terrorism. They asked if our church could send a minister to speak at a vigil they were planning the next day.

I was honored to say yes. It was a powerful experience for me: 50-60 people, the vast majority under the age of 22. I was one of two white people. The level of grief and fear was high. As all the logistics were coming together just before the vigil started, there is an impatient energy in the room and not a small amount of chaos. The teacher who volunteered to organize the vigil seemed worried that some of the students might be disruptive or disrespectful – it was clear she wanted to make a good impression on me, which was not my worry at all. I know that grief, especially in young people, takes many forms.

As soon as the vigil started, the whole group settled and focused. There was respect. There was unity. Here are some of the words I said:

Some of us just want to cry. Some of us just want to lash out. Some of us just want to hide.

I am sad. I am mad. I am afraid.

Yes, these words repeat, but not only those words.   These, too, and I say them to each of you:

I am still here.

I am still alive.

Yes, I might be tired.

But I will also be brave.

Brave enough to meet violence with peace; to meet hate with love; to meet shadow with light.

I will try to be brave. If you are not feeling brave, you can have some of mine. If I am not feeling brave, I will borrow some of yours. We will add our brave together, add it all up, so that our brave-together light will outshine the shadow.

I am sad. I am mad. I am afraid. But I am also brave.

Afterwards, I asked the teacher who organized the vigil why they reached out to our church – we weren’t in the same town; and to my knowledge, we didn’t have a relationship with the program. It turned out that part of her job was to drive students in recovery to a weekly twelve-step meeting that took place in our church. She had noticed the big rainbow flag in the high church window and faced the town green. [show image] She knew it would be safe to ask us.

Explicit welcome. Open the table wide. To do so is to affirm life, quite possibly to save a life. It may be of people we already know, but it is just as likely to be people we don’t – people to whom we may have no idea that we have sent up a firework into the darkness of their life. A firework, or a rainbow flag. And the arms will open wide to gather us in.

I wonder who in our spheres – among our children, among the people who attend events here, who attend the Gay AA meeting that we host here on Wednesday nights – we can be a life affirmer and life saver. We cannot know who might need that life-affirming and life-saving message of a bathroom sign that says, “gender diversity welcome here. You are whole and holy,” but we do know it is needed. And we know that we can be the people who offer that message.

Like I said, I could put up the signs like I insisted for the installation. How many of you noticed the signs on the bathroom at the installation. [show image] How many of you, when you noticed that, felt gratitude or joy? How many of you noticed just a few days later, their absence, and felt – I don’t know – disappointment? Or confusion? One of our youth came up to me the following Sunday, expressing concern that they were gone. It was a youth I had no idea would care or notice but this person was very upset that they were gone. This person felt that the message was an important one and needed to return.

And we will become bread for a hungering world. And we will become drink for those who thirst. And the blessed will become the blessing. And everywhere will be the feast.

You can’t always know who’s going to be touched by these explicit acts of welcome, of inclusion, of living our faith OUT LOUD. But we can be certain that it will touch many and be a life-affirming and in some cases, a life-saving, message.

I could put up the signs. But I truly feel this needs to be owned by the congregation – that a critical mass of people are here to support this explicit welcome and to embody it now and going forward. For some of us, we are already there. For some of us, it requires further education. I ask those of you who might have questions about why such a message is necessary, or wouldn’t feel comfortable using a bathroom with such messaging, or who want to learn more about this whole gender identity thing – which does ask for a serious shift in worldview on something that many were raised to believe was immutable – I ask that you attend the workshop that is taking place here in the sanctuary starting at noon, facilitated by folks who facilitate this kind of workshop for a living and, lucky for us, are TUS members: Lauren Piciano and Pat Connelly.

The decision is not up to me. The decision is up to you. To a critical mass of you to say yes. To a board that has already expressed support for the congregation to engage this conversation about how we can be more welcoming – what is necessary? If we say yes to the signs, are they enough? Is there room for a rainbow flag to make wider our welcome?

And the table will be wide. And the welcome will be wide. And the arms will open wide to gather us in.

Amen. And blessed be.

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