2017-02-16

No Place here for Hate


In 2005, I was living in Lexington, Massachusetts, a rather affluent progressive suburb of Boston with an award-winning public school system, high level of parent involvement, and a diverse school population. In May that year, the town caught the attention of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, founded by Fred Phelps who was known to be physically, emotionally and spiritually abusive. The Westboro group’s forty or so members continue to espouse hatred and intolerance toward gays and others and
picket about six locations per day.

The Westboro group was targeting Lexington after a town resident had filed a law suit against the schools because a book called “Who’s in a Family?” was being used in his son’s kindergarten class. The book includes depictions of families headed by same-sex as well as opposite-sex couples.
           
The Westboro group had selected five churches where they intended to picket. They hoped to provoke reactions from onlookers and bystanders in the hopes that their rights to free speech will be infringed upon. If that happens, the lawyers in the family file and often win legal suits against the individuals or, most often, the town or city. This is how they supplement their own donations to fund their travels and hate-filled appearances across all fifty states.

Lexington rallied in anticipation. The interfaith clergy, community organizers and the town’s police department worked together to educate and train concerned citizens.
Many were from churches and temples that worked intentionally to welcome, accept, and appreciate lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer folks. I was among them.

We were trained in how to respond – or more specifically, how to not become reactive.
We role-played staying calm while having hate rhetoric spewed in our faces nonstop for five, six, seven minutes. That was challenging. Even more disturbing, though, was having to play the offenders, embodying and voicing their hateful views. We worked together to find common language to use in our counter-protest to help us stay centered and to support and encourage one another. That was an invaluable piece of the work.

The day arrived, the signals were sent, and we mobilized at the entrance drive of the Catholic Church. We were about 50 or 60, I believe, linked arm in arm, creating a semi- circle in front of the church to shield those who were coming to or leaving the church services from the verbal and visual assaults of the dozen or so protestors on the sidewalks.

Their rhetoric was even more vile than we what we had expected. We had been prepared to see and hear their young children and teens spewing hate, as well, but I was unprepared for my own visceral reactions to the abusiveness inflicted upon and perpetrated by the children. After some minutes of the hate display, we all turned our backs on the protestors, shutting off eye contact and the “in-your-face” heckling taunts.

The volume of the rhetoric went up. Would we remain calm? We would. Our resolve to meet hate with love, and defend all our sisters, brothers, and kin remained strong.
At last, the Westboro group departed for their next picket site -- and our group departed in smaller groups to reconstitute our human shields at each of the remaining smaller churches. There was plenty of news coverage and, fortunately, no incidents.

The Westboro group returned the next day to protest at the elementary school whose walls harbored copies of the book, “Who’s In a Family?”, and at a middle school in the neighboring town where a rainbow flag labeled “gay pride” had been hung in the hallway. And they were met at those locations by other counter-protestors meeting hate with love.

The arrival of a hate group in our town mobilized Lexington to declare itself a “No Place for Hate” community. Loudly and clearly, NO PLACE FOR HATE was the message throughout the town, in the schools, in civic discourse and the local paper, in the businesses and restaurants and our houses of worship.

That was 12 years ago. Sadly, today we face an alarming rise in intolerance, exclusionary language and policies that far outstrips the reach of the Westboro group. The number of hate crimes has escalated so much in the current political climate that “No Place for Hate” initiatives are again underway across the country. Meanwhile, we now have fresh stories nearly every day of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arresting undocumented immigrants in communities around the nation.

Has there ever been a more important time to roll out our “Standing of the Side of Love” tee shirts and banners? Yet again, the time is now to link arms with others of all, or no, faith and join together to create and recreate, as often as necessary, human shields to protect the most vulnerable among us. May we strive to Answer the Call of Love and show our neighbors, communities and government that we believe Love trumps Hate.

2017-01-05

Risking Hospitality

There are good reasons that hospitality is difficult. It takes time... And we’re so busy... Doing, um, work... So we can buy things... Things we’re just as happy without... And so we can earn respect... The respect of the kind of people whose respect is earned that way.

Hospitality takes time, and hospitality is risky. You might get taken advantage of. Or you might be unwittingly facilitating someone’s self-destruction: there’s a time for offering someone a beer, and a time for resisting that impulse, and we don’t always know which is which. We risk getting it wrong.

Imagine that at the center of your life were the question, “What does this guest need?” Putting that question at the center doesn’t mean we will always know the right answer to that question. But to live in the space of that question – always having our radar up for where the need is, and going toward the need we discern – is a life of healing. The payback is the growing, softening heart.

The risks are worth it. Deep down, we humans don’t crave safety. What we ache for is acceptance, and acknowledgment of our worth. Therefore, embrace others as worthy guests, even if they don’t meet our needs. Even if they scare us. To embrace the worth in the other, even when their actions don’t meet our needs, is a radical notion. It might change your world into one in which you don't have to be smart or witty, deep or cultured, beautiful, young, healthy, enlightened, or handy. All you have to do is open the window of your heart and let the outer light in -- and let the inner light out. In that light, you can see and be seen; love and be loved.

It is revolutionary, risky, and world-rattling. Radical hospitality isn't safe or cozy. Commitment to radical hospitality is challenging. I want to be real with you about not only the good intention, but the skills, the emotional and social intelligence, that it takes to simultaneously maintain boundaries while tearing down walls.

Sometimes we’re up for making the initial opening, but aren’t equipped for the follow-through. I was struck by one example of a family whose heart was, or seemed to be, in the right place, but who just didn’t have the skills and resources to pull it off well.

Tanya and Tracey Thornbury of Montevido, Minnesota, were among the many Americans who, in August 2005, felt it was their duty to help victims of Hurricane Katrina. Over the Internet the Thornburys made an offer to open their home to hurricane refugees. They were put in touch with Nicole Singleton, an impoverished 33-year-old single mother of six children, ranging from age 3 to 16, and Nicole’s mother, Dot. The Thornburys, with three children of their own, welcomed Nicole and her children into their home. Tanya Thornbury bought Nicole a bathrobe, pajamas, sandals, helped her find a fob, offered to help make financial decisions about the federal aid. The Thornburys accepted the doubling of their electricity costs and tripling of the natural gas bill. They were good and generous people.

Then problems arose. Nicole’s mother, Dot, refused to live by the rules of the house, allowed her grandchildren to watch violent, inappropriate movies in the presence of the Thornbury kids. The guests wanted to download rap and hip-hop music on the internet, and Tanya said no. Nicole had a boyfriend just released from prison that she was surreptitiously corresponding with – and she revealed to him her new address, which made the Thornburys nervous. Tensions and quarrels began. Six weeks after it began, the merger was over when the Singleton family moved to a donated house in Minneapolis.

From the Thornburys’ perspective, they felt keenly the sting of ingratitude. Tracey Thornbury vowed, “I won’t help anyone again for the rest of my life.” (from Robert Emmons, Thanks!)

Sometimes gifts bring joy. At other times they come with pride, and, the gifts can evoke envy, jealousy, and thus greed, and even hatred. Receiving a gift can place one in a position of inferiority – in which case resentment is be more likely than gratitude. Hospitality requires our humility. It also requires skills and tools.

Among the tools that might have been helpful for the Thornburys and Singletons is a covenant. With a neutral third-party facilitator to help them develop their covenant, they might have been able to clarify what to expect of each other and of themselves. Clarifying expectations at the beginning can be a huge component of creating the space within which hospitality can work.

Congregational life affords a way to sharpen our hospitality skills and habits. Before we're ready to welcome strangers into our individual homes, we can warm up the hospitality muscles by welcoming them more graciously into our collective home, our congregation.

Congregational hospitality may be a little easier in some ways, but it raises challenges of its own. Newcomers might be different from us. If we were to make them feel at home, they might, you know, actually, feel at home. And stay.

We would have to change to be hospitable – to meet their comfort needs. I might need to stretch the way I preach and pastor. They might connect better with different music in worship. They might have different ideas about child-rearing, or what should happen at a committee meeting. Hospitality is inconvenient. It will change us – and transformation is always inconvenient to the interests of the person that we were.

It’s also what we’re here for.

Hospitality is job one. This being human is, as Rumi said, a guest house.