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7.17.2009

Last of Six


This last selection come from the section of topical columns. This evening happened in the Spring of 2007

Star-Belly Sneeches and Modern Day Cossacks

So there I was ...

walking the halls of democracy and sitting in the midst of hostility.

The Capitol Building of the State of Oregon is a short distance from my house. I had received a phone call from a clergyperson I associate with and she was trying to turn out bodies for a series of evening hearings at the Capitol. The legislature was considering two bills, one to limit discrimination against gays, lesbians, and trans-gendered people, and one to set up a way for the same people to legally protect their relationships in a manner akin, but not equal to, the institution of marriage. I could go, so I did.

My problem was that I was two weeks home from a Central African war zone. I still had a pretty bad case of the social/emotional/spiritual bends. It takes me about a month to re-adjust from the effects of genocide to the comforts and concerns of American life. I cannot do counseling during this time. I just cannot immediately work up compassion for normal American problems after being emotionally present to people living in actual Hell. I get over it. I reset all the dials. But it takes a while.

That night as I walked into the Capitol, I was not real enthusiastic. But I remembered that I normally felt quite strongly about this issue and I figured I could be bodily present, if not spiritually present.

The first thing I noticed as I entered was that everybody was labeled. It was Dr. Seuss and the star-bellied Sneeches. Everybody was wearing stickers to designate their side. There were folks in the doorway discerning what party you belonged to and handing you your sticker. I don’t really like stickers on my person. I was picked out by the Basic Rights Oregon person and offered my progressive sticker. I was not real sure how I was spotted, but I declined out of sheer rebelliousness. The young man then took another look at me and spotted my grandmother’s cross that I often wear around my neck. He actually took a step back, and said “Oh, sorry.” That was my first clue.

The next thing I noticed was that the building was overflowing with people. I had trouble finding any of my friends. There was the main hearing room and then many overflow rooms with closed circuit TV and because those were all full, the lobbies were filled with chairs and people and additional TV sets. And security. Lots of security people. The security people looked nervous. Second clue.

By observing stickers, I noticed that all the gay families were huddled together in the hearing rooms. The lobbies were full of their opponents.

The next thing I noticed was that the people opposing the bills all looked like each other, really - they did. Round, scarved, middle aged women who looked like nesting dolls, and droves of tall, good-looking, clear skinned, brown haired blue-eyed men. A smattering of pretty blonde girls.

I found my clergy friend.

“Who are these people?” I asked.

“They are all from one church here in Salem. It’s a Slavic fundamentalist church. They can turn out 300 bodies any time the pastor calls for it. Thanks for coming, Peggy.”

“Where are your folks?”

“They are all together in the hearing rooms; nobody feels comfortable mingling.”

Well then, that gave me my mission for the night. Mingle with the Slavic Christians and see what was what. I don’t like fear-based segregation. I do not often find that it is based in reality. I like to challenge it and look for the good in the other side. That’s my default setting.

There was a seat open in front of one of the TV’s right in the middle of a knot of young men. I took the seat. The energy was really quite amazing. I could feel it in the air. Primal, like big sexual energy only about anger, not sex. Anger pheromones. I watched as people testified before the legislators - three pro, then three against. The rule for the evening, both in the hearing room and in the lobby, was no vocal demonstrations. But the young men around me were having a hard time containing it. Quietly cheering the people who predicted the fall of civilization if a couple of lesbians made a civil union, and jeering, hissing, and spitting invectives at anyone who disagreed with that analysis. There were many dozens of testimonies that night. I got weary, but the young Slavic men did not. They seemed to gain steam from each chance to hate, which did not dissipate with the speakers who they supported. They had a one-sided reaction that ratcheted up with each round.

I was touched in some way by all the testimony. I was pretty put off by the fear-mongering, but when someone stood up and spoke eloquently on behalf of their alternative family, it warmed me, gave me hope, and trust that love would eventually win out. One young woman did an especially good job, and I just couldn’t help but say a quiet “Amen, preach it sister.” The young men on either side of me, sat bolt upright and looked at me.

“Hi, my name’s Peggy, I’m with the other side – I just didn’t get my sticker.” I put out my hand to the young man on my left.

He did not take it.

The next speaker was a clergyman from some progressive protestant denomination. He wore a Roman-style collar. He spoke of God’s love for all people. This really heated up my area. Much gasping and hissing. They really didn’t like the pro-gay clergy guy.

The young man on my right sat with his fists and probably a few other body parts clenched. “Using God’s name to defend an abomination! God should strike him dead,” he hissed. I had the distinct impression that if God didn’t do it, that this young man would volunteer to be God’s agent.

I suddenly remembered why I cared about this issue. These fine Christian folk, would, if they knew everything I believed and everything I preached, and if given a free rein, likely stone me dead without a second thought.

Think that couldn’t happen in America? Quaker preacher Mary Dyer was hung in Boston Commons by fine Plymouth Rock, Thanksgiving Day, Christian folk. The framers of our constitution knew that well and attempted to prevent it from happening in the new union. But they knew it was a real problem that needed to be addressed.

I remember something Garrison Keillor said about the Puritans, his forbearers. He said, “They came to America to practice religious persecution at a level not actually allowed under British law.” He was right, the Puritans, of course, thought they were fleeing religious persecution and protecting their faith by hanging Quakers. The Slavic Christians gathered around me also fled religious persecution and believe that they are protecting their faith.

There was one other person sitting in that group that stood out even more than I. An orthodox Jew – side curls, hat, fringe – the whole thing. We don’t see a lot of that in Salem. From his sticker I could see that he was in harmony with the Slavic Christians on this issue. When I got the chance I moved and sat by him.

“Hello, Friend, so you agree with these folks?” I said

“I do, they are on God’s side of this issue.” He said, stiff, not looking at me.

“Don’t they remind you of anyone?”

“I do not know what you mean.”

“Like, I don’t know, Cossacks, maybe?”

“You do not know what you are talking about.”

“Probably not, no, I’m sure I don’t. But are you really sure that if they managed to put down the gays like they wish to, that they wouldn’t come next for, oh, say the Jews?”

Then he looked at me.

“Just a thought.” I said and I moved on.


Comments:
I try really hard not to get pissed off in a distinctly unchristian way when people practice bigotry in God's name like the people from the Church that was so threatened by gay people in your essay did, but I am not always as evolved and loving as I aspire to be. I happen to feel that the commandment against taking the name of the Lord in vain is really about this stuff.
 
I was impressed by your artful and efficient delivery of a response. Sometimes people's believe systems don't take into account cause and affect. Maybe that's why Jesus spoke in parables.
 
There are churches like the one you wrote of in Seattle too, and not only among people from the former Soviet Union but from some other countries too. One day at a bus stop I was listening to someone I guessed might be Korean go on in similar vein.

Sometimes when I am doing well on the compassion front, I think of people not only delighting to practice their faith freely but also of the forces of social cohesion in the face of many, many crosscultural adjustments. Sometimes it helps; sometimes I also just try to think of the right words of faith for the ones who grow up gay in such communities.
 
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