September 2014 marks the beginning of a new school year, and my first year as co-mentor of the EfM (Education for Ministry) group at St. Francis Episcopal Church in Palos Verdes, California. The theme for EfM this year is, Living Faithfully in a Multi-cultural Context. In keeping with the theme, every EfM
student co-learner is asked to write a spiritual autobiography that describes how the person’s multi-cultural experiences have shaped their spirituality and their relationship with God and their fellow human being. This is what I presented to our group during our session on Monday, September 29, 2014. Each presentation is asked to run 15-20 minutes, so what I’ve written focuses on a few pivotal moments in my life. And, due to the time limit, the implications of each experience haven’t been as fully explored or elaborated as they could be in an ideal world. Questions, comments, suggestions, insights, etc., feel free to comment below the post.
As I reflect on my multicultural experiences, I have identified six key points where my interactions with other cultures have influenced on my attitudes toward others.
- Experience begins in my own family.
- Followed by living with Southern racial tensions both in public school, and
- In the church of my childhood.
- Then in my 20s, encountering atheists, and
- The ancient Asian wisdom of Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism.
- Finally, leaving the empowered majority to become a self-described minority by coming out gay in my 30s.
First, a little about my family and me. I am a white male, in my late 40s, who was raised in the southern United States.
My parents’ families are both from the south: my father’s family is from Tennessee, and my mother’s family is from Alabama. My brother and I grew up with our grandparents living just a few minutes away. Even today, my parents continue to live in the same house they moved into when I began Kindergarten. My father has made it clear that he has no intention of ever moving.
My father is the oldest of three boys. Both of my uncles got married and moved away from Florida—one to Arizona, one to New Jersey—to launch their careers and raise their families. I knew other kids whose families had moved several times, and I was curious why our family was different. When I was in college, I asked my father why we had never moved away from Pensacola like his brothers did. His response was, “I’m like a turtle, I never want to be too far from home.”
There is a stability of place in my background that I didn’t fully appreciate when I was young. Not everyone gets to know their extended family the way we did, and I still have a very strong sense of home being located in Pensacola and in my parents’ and my grandparents’ homes. That sameness of place was also insulation against having to experience or learn about people who are different from us. Our neighborhood was a suburb on the far north of Pensacola, and was mostly undeveloped land when we first moved there. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, everyone around us was white, middle class, and living the suburban American dream.
My earliest memories of people different from us are from church. My family on both sides are Church of Christ for several generations back. In Pensacola, and in Memphis where I lived in my 20s and 30s, all the Church of Christ churches I have known are largely self-segregated. In the white neighborhoods, the Church of Christ members are nearly all white. And in the black neighborhoods, they are nearly all black.
I would hear taught from the pulpits how in Jesus there is no black or white, slave or free, but in practice I saw a separation that didn’t match the ideal I heard preached. We may have been equal in God’s eyes, but in the pews we kept things separate. The people are free to worship wherever they wish: it just seemed that birds of a feather flocked together.
This was perhaps the first warning sign to me that the Church of Christ tradition had a problem: it didn’t live up to its stated ideal. And if they didn’t practice what they preach in this aspect, what else was I being taught that was being ignored in practice? My bull-shit detector was set, calibrated, and alert from an early age.
3. Public School
In the States, a great deal of the conflict between African-Americans and Caucasians are due to socio-economic class differences. The attitudes about these differences expressed themselves in my family environment in a number of ways, usually assumed or taken for granted rather than explicitly taught.
In Pensacola, the black part of town was literally on the other side of the railroad tracks. At church, we had a few, older black members, but they didn’t live near us and we didn’t socialize with them outside of church. My mother’s side of the family often used the n-word, but not as an insult the same way it is used today. That was just the Southern dialect pronunciation of negro.
I remember being at my father’s parents’ house and seeing on the television a news report come on about Martin Luther King, Jr.—I think it may have been an anniversary of his assassination or of the Memphis sanitation workers strike—and hearing my grandfather say something disparaging, about how all King did was get “those people” all riled up and causing problems.
My great-grandparents on both sides were farmers and working class people, so it isn’t as if we came from nobility or the upper class. Yet there was this idea that that we were superior, and that they ought to know their place in society. It was with this mindset that I began public school.
The first multicultural experience I had as a child outside of church was when I started public school. In Kindergarten, there were 5 or 6 black children in my class of about 25 or 30, but two of them were mean, and, sensitive little boy that I was, they teamed up to terrorize me on the playground. I can remember running crying to our teacher more than once because of something they had done.
When I reflected on these early experiences, I was surprised to remember that our Kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Anderson, was also black. She was the kindest, sweetest, most wonderful woman. And yet, her goodness wasn’t enough to counter the negative associations I formed with the two boys being mean to me. It may sound petty and childish to admit that my attitudes toward black people were significantly negative for most of my life due to that early experience, but it is the truth and I was a child then. If Maurice and Anthony had been white, I would have just hated them for being bullies. But since they were black, that difference was the hook I could latch onto, it became a focus for my anger, an excuse to hate others even when there wasn’t an actual cause for it.
The situation didn’t change much when I entered middle school. In our area, what had been the black high school during segregation became the integrated middle school during desegregation, and what had been the white agriculture high school became the integrated high school.
During those years of segregation, the neighborhood that grew up around what would become Ransom Middle School was, of course, black. It makes sense that families who wanted their children to get a good education would want to live near the high school their children would be attending. But for this white boy, starting Sixth Grade, and having to ride a bus into the middle of what seemed to me to be a very poor, black ghetto, was shocking and scary. It didn’t help that adolescence was hitting everyone full-force, hormones were raging, and angry teenagers were looking for a fight. Racial differences were as good a reason to pick a fight as any. More than once there were school-wide rumors that race riots were about to break out.
I can remember clearly eating lunch in the cafeteria, with three rows of tables in that large lunch room. The right and middle rows were where the white kids sat, and the left row was where all the black kids sat. There was little if any mixing of the races during lunch, even among friends.
In those days, there wasn’t much empathy or seeking to understand the other. I felt a lot of fear: fear of difference, fear of the unknown, fear of random violence. Overall, my experience was of wishing I would be left alone, and I actively steered clear of anyone who I thought might want to give me a problem. When I advanced to high school, I was back on familiar territory, and had minimal interaction with people of other cultures. In my college years, and especially once I moved to Memphis to attend the Memphis College of Art, I interacted with a lot of different kinds of people in my classes, but rarely socially.
The first multicultural experience I’ve had that I would describe as a positive one happened after I graduated college and began working in an advertising agency in Memphis. My parents and the Church of Christ had taught me that anyone who didn’t follow their clearly defined formula for salvation was going to go to Hell, and non-Christians in the world were all immoral, lying, stealing, cheating, hateful people to be avoided at all costs. So when I began working in advertising, I expected I would have to watch my back and be careful around all these heathen people. Without God, they couldn’t be moral or good, and I expected any one of them might try to take advantage of me in some way. I was naïve, to say the least. So you might imagine my shock when I learned that some of the nicest, most generous, loving people I was getting to know were also… ATHEISTS! It was these encounters that began to open my eyes to what the world is really like, and not just the worst-case-scenario, fearful concept of the world my parents had instilled in us. I was in my mid-20s, and my eyes and heart were beginning to open to the people around me and to view people different from me in a new light. I began to question the type of God who could send such good, honest people to an eternal Hell when they were better people—more moral people—than many so-called Christians I knew.
5. Taoism (as well as Confucianism and Buddhism)
As I settled into my career, I was feeling a lot of stress, since advertising is a stressful business. I began to be curious about alternative exercise and meditation techniques, primarily as a form of stress relief. The advertising agency where I was working began offering a yoga class after hours. I attended a few classes, but yoga wasn’t for me. Holding static poses didn’t fit my personality.
T’ai chi, on the other hand, is a form of moving meditation—what our teacher referred to as “body prayer”—and I quickly found that I enjoyed the slow, deliberate, continuous movement of the form. I took a six-week continuing education class at a local college, then began taking classes with the teacher in a small studio behind the teacher’s home. For the next three years, I practiced t’ai chi and took classes from our teacher twice a week. Part of learning t’ai chi is learning the eastern concepts of how the breath and life energy—the chi—move through the body. I read the Tao te Ching as well as other books and essays written by contemporary Taoists and Buddhists.
It may have been during this time that I heard someone say that Christianity is in fact an Eastern religion. But, much like how English is actually a Germanic language heavily influenced by Latin, Christianity as I have known it is an Eastern religion heavily influenced by Western philosophy. In learning about the Taoist philosophy, I saw a lot of wisdom there, and began to appreciate how truth can be found outside scripture. Even today I see no conflict with calling myself a Taoist even as I call myself a Christian.
By the time I had reached my 30th birthday, I had come to understand that there are other paths people can follow that will lead them to live a good, moral, and ethical life. I’m not to the point even today where I would be willing to say that all paths to the holy are equal, but I’m much less likely to be critical of good people just because they don’t profess to follow Christ. In the Gospel of John, Jesus himself is quoted telling his apostles, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me…” But he also tells them, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.” (John 10:14-16)
In her book, The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness, Karen Armstrong writes the following:
“If your understanding of the divine made you kinder, more empathetic, and impelled you to express sympathy in concrete acts of loving-kindness, this was good theology. But if your notion of God made you unkind, belligerent, cruel, or self-righteous, or if it led you to kill in God’s name, it was bad theology.”
This paragraph has become a touchstone for my evolving understanding of how wisdom and goodness can come from anywhere and anyone, and I can put down my Christianity litmus test in favor of looking at who people are rather than what they believe.
6. Coming Out
Each successive stage of this journey has built on the other. I was moving away from the dogmatic approach to religion I had been taught in favor of a more inclusive, loving, and kind approach to people and to difference. As I look back on this process, I realize it is probably this growing willingness to be kind to others that led me to be kinder to myself. I had been taught that being gay was sinful, which meant the best I could hope for—and remain faithful to the Church of Christ’s dogma—was a life of celibacy and of living alone.
By the time I had reached the age of 30, I had seen more than one wave of friends and acquaintances marry and begin having children. I would read the story of Creation in Genesis where it says, “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone…” and I would add my heartfelt “Amen”… and the next phrase, “…I will make him a helper as his partner.’” Or, as the New International Version reads, “…a helper suitable for him” (Gen. 2:18) and I would wonder: where was the helper suitable for me to be found?
Regardless, I was tired of being alone. I wanted someone to share my life with. Now that I was willing to admit to myself and to others what I wanted, then I needed to take action to make it happen. My concept of God was changing, and if God was a loving God, then I had to trust that God would approve. I began coming out to my close friends and co-workers.
I had a very easy coming out process. My close friends all had the same reaction. “It’s about time!”
My family, on the other hand, haven’t been so generous. By accepting my sexual orientation, and by entering into a same-sex relationship, my family has labelled me an unrepentant sinner. And, in accord with some of Paul’s prescriptions to separate from erring Christians, they have banned me from their home. They won’t even eat a meal with me.
So I am grateful that I haven’t been evicted from my home, denied a bank loan, or been fired from my job just for being gay. I am also sad that my family has been willing to let their prejudice sever our relationship. One of the main reasons I stayed closeted as long as I did was because I knew my family would react this way. This reaction to a family member coming out is not unusual.
According to the Massachusetts 2006 Youth Risk Survey, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth are up to four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. In addition, the San Francisco State University Chavez Center Institute has found that LGBTQ youth who come from a rejecting family are up to nine times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers.
( http://gayteens.about.com/od/sexuality/f/suicide.htm )
In coming out of the closet, I left behind my status as a member of an empowered majority to become a self-identified minority. I have experienced oppression from my own family, but also in our wider culture in subtle and no-so-subtle ways, from the ban on gay men donating blood, to the Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriages, to hearing people use the phrase “that’s so gay” as a put-down.
In conclusion, you may ask, how have these experiences and influences affected my spirituality: my relationship with God and with my fellow human beings? I recognize that I inherited a religion of intolerance which I questioned, and that questioning led me to a greater tolerance of others. I began in a situation of privilege, which I gave up in order to live an authentic life and to achieve what every other person in the history of the world has wanted: to love and to be loved. I gave up being judgmental and critical in favor of finding a more compassionate way to live. In all these things, I thank God that I’ve had the presence of mind to question and the ability to survive in this world with the freedoms we enjoy in this nation. God told Abraham, “… I will bless you… so that you will be a blessing.” (Gen. 12:2) I, too, feel blessed. My continuing discernment is how I can be a blessing to others.