But She Believed

I’ve grown more cynical as I’ve gotten older. I know this and I own it. Part of the issue is as I’ve become an adult, I’ve become less of a big picture thinker and more of a detail oriented person – not that being a big picture person is bad, or that being detail oriented automatically predisposes you to being cynical, but you start to realize how much work goes into things you thought would be so easy and natural.

The other part of it is more grounded in the times; every day my phone or computer delivers constant updates of tragedy and heartbreak. Every hour there’s another school shooting, police brutality, queer bashings, environmental crises, I could go on, but I’m fairly certain you probably feel the same way. Elected officials tasked with serving people serve only themselves and the corporations they get donations from. Church leaders cry about the name of Jesus being twisted in the public square for decidedly un-Christian legislative agendas but they don’t do much else about it but hem and haw and play it safe…All while people die easily preventable deaths.

It is hard to feel hopeful. It is hard to not feel constantly powerless. It is exhausting trying to convince people they should care about other human beings or about the planet they live on, about the kind of world they will leave to their children. There is a nihilistic side of me that rears its head from time to time, that says, “Well, we probably don’t have long on this planet anyway, at the rate we’re going.” I hate that my mind goes there, y’all. I really do. That isn’t who I am at my core. But some days, all I have is anger and pain and these feelings of futility, and that’s okay, because my emotions are valid, but I want to move forward. I want to hope again. I want to get off my ass and do something.

Psalm 37, which is today’s appointed psalm in the Daily Office Lectionary, really spoke to me this morning in this place of hopelessness (here are verses 1-2 and 11-14):

“Do not fret yourself because of evildoers; *
do not be jealous of those who do wrong.

For they shall soon wither like the grass, *
and like the green grass fade away.

In a little while the wicked shall be no more; *
you shall search out their place, but they will not be there.

But the lowly shall possess the land; *
they will delight in abundance of peace.

The wicked plot against the righteous *
and gnash at them with their teeth.

The Lord laughs at the wicked, *
because he sees that their day will come.”

Ironically, I realized later this morning that I had read the ‘wrong’ psalm, because today is the feast of the Visitation, so there’s a whole separate set of readings. Psalm 37 still felt right for me though. This feast is the day on the liturgical calendar is when we mark the story of Mary, Mother of Jesus, visiting her cousin Elizabeth to announce the good news that she was to bear the child of God (Luke 1:41-44, emphasis mine):

“When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.

Elizabeth reminds us that Mary could have told the angel Gabriel that he was full of it. “Me, bearing God’s child? Nah. You lyin.”

But she believed.

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Artwork by Brother Mickey McGrath, OSFS

In the subsequent paragraph, confirming that belief in a God who transforms and transcends limitations, Mary sings her song of praise, the Magnificat. She praises God for bringing deliverance, for casting the mighty down from their thrones and lifting up the outcasts, for feeding the hungry and sending the rich away empty handed. Her words are a prayer for many of us in the church who live under the weight of oppression.

This interaction between these two women experiencing miracles is subversive. It echoes the hope of the Psalmist quoted earlier, God laughing in the face of the world’s cruelty because God has other plans.

The hope and expectant joy of marginalized people- in this case two women living under an imperial regime- is a radical act!

In a world that tells us we are worthless, that tells us we are the cause of our own suffering, that tells us not to dream because our dreams are impossible – to refute all of that and say that our God is bigger than these human made chains, that’s fucking revolutionary.

That is Mary’s belief, her hope. Hope is what sparks revolution. Hope is the embryo of a new future, that with time and care, gestates into new life.

My beloved friend Hye Sung wrote recently that presently in our time Jesus is “calling together a people, shaping them even now in their shared pain, that they might birth something new. I like to think of these people of Jesus as doulas of the apocalypse: they are loving a new world into being. Present to the struggles of the people. Grounding the violent pangs of birth in mercy and through faith.” As I reflect on Mary and Elizabeth celebrating the life growing within them and the revolution that was to come, I know that I am part of this call spoken of by my friend. I hear the Spirit speaking to me, and sometimes I want to tell Her to stop bugging me so damn much, but I know She’s right. I know it won’t be easy work by any means.

But I will begin with hope.

Seeing Myself for the First Time

“I have chosen to struggle against unnatural boundaries.”

– Gloria E. Anzaldua

I have a distinct memory of being maybe 6 or 7 years old and really wanting to paint my nails.

I don’t remember whether or not I had been explicitly told by that point that nail polish was “not for boys”; I implicitly knew that I would be punished if I was found giving myself a manicure. So rather than taking a risk by putting on pink polish, I reached for my grandmother’s bottle of topcoat. “It’s clear,” I told myself, “So no one will see it.” It would be my little secret, and I would have the satisfaction of having painted my nails despite there being no color. Granted, my mom did find it odd that my nails were a little extra shiny that day, but I don’t remember being scolded or punished for it.

That’s how my gender has been for most of my life – skirting by, flying low, taking the tiniest bit of risk as not to be seen. I have always been drawn to softer, “feminine” things, they have always been innately appealing to me. I loved watching people put on makeup. When I would accompany my mom to the nail salon I would be mesmerized as I watched the nail technician create miniature works of art on people’s nails. I’ve always wanted to wear bright pastels and floral prints and dresses and all kinds of things considered to be “only for women”. And I have tried dipping my toes in the waters here and there but have managed to have those impulses socialized and shamed out of me by my family, my peers, and more recently in my life, hypermasculine gay men.

I have up until now accepted my cisgender-ness as a fact, never questioning, never asking “Well, maybe…?” out of fear and a desire to, again, fly low and out of sight. I have never felt safe to really think about the question. When your body is a site of violence, your trauma and anxiety demands you avoid everything that would jeopardize your safety, even in the smallest way.

So I kept shelving the conversation. Kept making excuses. My mind would ask me, “Are you really a cis dude tho??” and I would always answer yes. When people would refer to me as a “man” I would bristle and feel sick, but I would tell myself, “Well, that’s because masculinity and ‘manhood’ is associated with so much toxicity, you just don’t want to be associated with that.” But the more I probed that thought, the more it really didn’t hold up. As I tried pushing away the thoughts, they grew louder. I thought, ‘Well maybe I am more genderfluid or nonbinary, but I don’t necessarily feel safe exploring that,’ as I live at home with my parents. I became more depressed and frustrated.

A few weeks ago I was in Boston. I lived there for a year and I made a lot of really amazing, beautiful queer friends up there who always see me for me. Even though Boston is racist and blindingly white, it is a city that allowed me, free from the watchful eyes of family and peers, to step completely into myself in ways that Philadelphia has not. While I was up there, I made a spur of the moment decision to buy hella makeup – lip gloss, highlighter, some liquid eyeshadow, $5 press on nails that turned my hands into talons. I went over my friend Alice’s house for a birthday party that weekend and wanted to really glam it up. Because of the aforementioned press-on nails- which left me looking fierce but incapable of doing much of anything – my friend Lily did my makeup. I remember looking in the mirror when she was done. Looking at the highlighter, the lips, clothes that made me feel like me, and I said, “Look at yourself, bitch. You look like you.”

I wanted that feeling to last forever.

So when I came back home I thought about what that experience meant for me and named it, for the first time: I decided I want to use they/them pronouns because they feel most aligned to who I am.  Nonbinary femme is the best description. Nonbinary because the gender binary cannot hold me. Femme because…

Femme is everything that I am.

Femme encompasses all the words and phrases that describe me: soft, a little fiery, sensual, perra, loud when I want to be, strong, atrevida, extra, glam.

So this is me. Your favorite femme.

I still feel afraid though.

I think about the harassment and violence that queer & trans folks, especially trans women of color, face on a daily basis for being ourselves and living our truths.

I think about the physical, emotional, and spiritual violence I have endured over the course of my life for stepping even just a little bit out of the norm.

I thought about all this when I was in Boston, on the T, going on a Target run. I had painted my nails a bright, neon pink in a shade called “Girls Tell All”. I was a little nervous about showing my nails off and so I kept them either in my pockets or covered up with gloves, since it was cold out. My stop was coming up, and I got up to make my way to the door. I made a conscious decision not to cover up my nails as I reached for the pole to hold on as the train came to a stop. Sometimes even the tiniest actions are great risks that require courage. I was nervous, but in the same moment I felt a calm wash over me. I felt as though maybe a queer ancestor was speaking to me, inhabiting my body for a brief moment, because I began to tell myself:

“Nothing in life is without risk. Just stepping outside the house every day is a risk.”

Some sort of violence or danger could occur at any moment, regardless of how you go out into the world. We are never truly 100% safe, except perhaps in the spaces we construct ourselves and with the people who love us for us, and even then it is never truly guaranteed. But the point is, I don’t want to live my life in constant fear. I don’t want to fly low anymore.

I want to live boldly, as the person God made me and calls me to be.

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Recently my mind has been bugging me endlessly with the question of, “What are you doing?”

This isn’t a theoretical/philosophical question but more so the practical question of, “How am I contributing to the world right now?” Last week I attended a really wonderful gathering of folks my age called the Millennial Leaders Project at Union Theological Seminary in NYC and although it was really healing and great to share space and hear other folks’ stories, my imposter syndrome was constantly comparing myself to my colleagues and getting in my face asking me, “Well what are you doing now? Why aren’t you doing x, y, and z? Why don’t you read enough?”

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I recently took up embroidery as a hobby. I learned a little bit from watching my roommates Alice and Lily as they both began embroidery in their free time this past year. Embroidery is incredibly soothing, although meticulous. You have to thread a needle every time you want to switch colors, which is agonizing (for me, anyway), and you then have to engage in stitch after stitch after stitch until your design finally comes to life.

Something I learned quickly is that if I’m not careful and mindful of my stitching, my thread will inevitably get knotted really quickly. Sometimes the knot is easy to pull loose; other times a tiny knot can grow into a huge, unmanageable one that could take several minutes to undo. I’ve learned sometimes it’s a lot easier to cut the knot and salvage the usable thread rather than trying to spend all my time undoing one big knot. Some might say it’s wasteful, I see it as prioritizing my time and energy.

I just ended my year of service with Life Together. I had originally signed up to do a second year with this program, but after repeated experiences with institutionalized racism and intense soul searching, I rescinded my contract and decided to move back home to Philadelphia. Looking back, I had some great experiences at the church I was serving and I made some beautiful friendships – but I also spent a good portion of this year doing a considerable amount of intellectual and emotional labor for white folks trying to “understand” racism in my service year program. I witnessed cultural appropriation happen in worship spaces and then have white folks get defensive and emotional when called out on it. I heard the pain of other people of color who got passed over for leadership positions. I had to listen to white people time and time again apologize for racist actions and watch as they continued with racist behavior even after I and many other POC called them out.

I recount the above experiences to remind myself that they happened, because society has taught me to always second-guess and discount my experiences and those of other people of color. Society says we are not to be believed when we share our experiences of discrimination. Mainstream Christian society in particular discounts our experiences, or when we are believed, many white Christians look down upon the ways we speak the truth, or shame us for not desiring “reconciliation” with oppressors. I’ve internalized this narrative and I hear it in the back of my mind every time I remember my experiences with racism.

“You could have handled that better. You burned that bridge. That isn’t very Christ-like of you. You need to reconcile with them.”

In the minds of many white Christians, reconciliation and forgiveness on the part of people of color seem to be taken as a given. POC are so often pressured implicitly and explicitly to forgive and reconcile, without taking stock of what forgiveness and reconciliation would actually take. We are called to have limitless reserves of grace for white oppression, for white guilt, for white nonsense, and yet white society offers us none in return, or when grace it is offered, it is on the condition that we behave “respectably” and communicate ‘nonviolently’, i.e., censor ourselves.

When I think about my experiences with this community and how I handled it, I know that when I called people out and left without saying goodbye, I acted from a place of great anger and pain. And I’m fine with that. I don’t regret what I did. To have censored my language, my story, my pain, would have been doing an immense disservice to myself and other people of color who experienced the same things. In this case I chose to cut loose a knot in my spirit rather than painstakingly pulling it apart, because I knew that would have necessitated an immense investment of my own emotional resources that I did not have. It pains me more to twist and contort myself to be acceptable in the eyes of progressive white society than knowing my words and actions may ruffle feathers.

This experience also taught me a lot about what church is supposed to be and what it currently is. My internship program boasted that it aims to produce new ways of doing and being church, but it is also a microcosm of what the church is. And so the liberal white racism I encountered in my program is just a sample of what is going on in the church across denominational lines.

What I’ve learned more and more is that the church these days is not interested, despite what you may hear, in yielding its proximity to power. The church is interested in comforting the already comfortable. The church is interested in racial justice work because it is the Right Thing to Do, but not if it gets too uncomfortable. The church does not want to question the systems of economic and racial violence that keep people lining up at its doors for services – it just wants to continue providing the services. Mind you it isn’t wrong to continue feeding the hungry, but if we don’t question why people are hungry and if we don’t work with them to end ongoing cycles of economic violence, then the hungry will never truly be free.

I truly believe in my spirit that, in this day and age, if you are a person of privilege and you can walk out of your congregation on a Sunday not feeling shaken, not questioning the systems of power you benefit from, not ready to yield your resources to the most marginalized in your midst – then the church is failing. If all you take away from church on Sunday is a beautiful liturgical experience with the very best hymns and choral pieces and not an understanding of what the Gospel is calling you to do in the face of police brutality, violence against Black and Brown bodies, environmental degradation, and rampant xenophobia, then perhaps you need to revisit what it means to be a Christian.

I know that the church is dying. At first when I read the statistics and the think pieces, I confess that my initial thought was about job security – What does that mean given that I feel God is calling me to be a priest? Will I have a job? But now truly I think it is better to let the church that doesn’t use its prophetic voice to question and rebuke the powerful, out of fear of being “too political”, die. The Spirit will ensure that something new, something different, something bold will emerge out of the ashes. The Spirit will show me where my place will be in that new growth.

For right now, in this moment, my spirit is tired. I’m exhausted. I remind myself every day that it’s okay to rest. It’s okay to not know what is up next. I experienced a lot of messed up shit in the past couple of months, and I deserve to restore and heal myself. So for now I will keep stitching, undoing knots sometimes, other times cutting them out. And with patience, a new picture will emerge out of all those tiny stitches.

 

 

 

 

The other day during Morning Prayer I found myself reading a passage from Ezekiel, the famous “Valley of Dry Bones” vision:

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LordThus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. (Ezekiel 37:1-5)

This is probably one of my favorite passages in the whole Bible.

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Retrospective

2016 has been a year of reclamation, self-ownership, and renewal for me in ways that I never would have imagined. I rang in the new year with surrounded by my family in my aunt’s home in Puerto Rico. I was a Hindu convert in a family of Roman Catholics. I was a practicing priest and the founder of an affinity group for LGBTQ+ Hindus. As out of place as it seemed on paper, I couldn’t have imagined life any other way.

Then, the rug was pulled from underneath me.

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Seeing Over the Crowd

I delivered this sermon yesterday at the parish I am currently interning at. For the readings appointed, including the Gospel reading, click here.

Today’s Gospel reading is one of my favorite stories from the New Testament. The Gospel of Luke tells us that a man named Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector, heard Jesus was coming by. He wanted to see Jesus but was unable to do so because he was “short in stature” and couldn’t see over the amount of people surrounding Jesus. I can relate to that a lot because I’m about 5’4” and most people are taller than me. I’m afraid of heights though, so I haven’t tried climbing into a tree to see someone- but  I can relate to the experience of being unable to see Jesus because of a crowd.
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One Month Later

It’s been about a month since I packed up my life into a suitcase (well, the essentials, anyway) and moved away from home.

Boston is almost a new city for me. I dated someone who lived in the area a few years ago, so I did occasionally come to Boston to see him, but I never spent more than about an hour or so in the city before setting off to visit with him in New Hampshire.

Now that I’m here for a year, much of my recent life- aside from going to work and participating in training sessions-  has been centered around settling into my new home.

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Turning a Page

One of my favorite collects out of the Book of Common Prayer is part of the Order for Compline:

“Be present, O merciful God, and protect us through the hours of this night, so that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life may rest in your eternal changelessness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” (BCP, p. 133)

Right now I am a little weary and in need of some rest, and not just because I started writing this at 10 pm last night while watching coverage of the Democratic National Convention.

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Pulse

Orlando. Pulse. 50 dead, 53 wounded.

This occurred at a gay club, on Latinx night. Let’s be clear about that. The media, your social circles, your pastors, have probably glossed over this detail. The victims were queer and trans people of color, many of them Puerto Rican like myself. Innocent lives, gunned down in senseless brutality.

Bodies that were queer and brown, just like me.

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My Story, My Scars

I had the honor of sitting on a panel for my school’s Queer Student Union a few weeks ago. I was asked to speak as, what else, but a queer person of faith, a perspective that I have shared numerous times by now. I was joined by one of my professors-  a longtime mentor of mine- who is a lesbian rabbi, as well as three other queer students who identify as Muslim, Catholic, and atheist, respectively.

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Your Works are Wonderful

Note: I had the pleasure of being a speaker this past Thursday at the most recent installment of Queer Voice in the Worldwhich is a social justice-oriented, TED-talk style program highlighting LGBTQ perspectives, held at the William Way Community Center here in Philadelphia. The theme of this month’s event was “Body”, and so I gave talk on my recent spiritual journey and how it is so intricately and intimately tied to healing the divide between body and spirit in my life. The text of my talk follows. 

I was born and raised as a Roman Catholic, and I loved Jesus. Still do. I was really into church when I was younger. I memorized all the prayers during Mass and would recite them under my breath while the priest was saying them. I’m Puerto Rican, so you know I learned all of that in English and Spanish.

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