Below are a series of reflective responses that I was asked to write by and for Soulforce. I have been involved with Soulforce since 2007 when I took part in the second Equality Ride, visiting colleges and universities that have anti-LGBT policies and practices. Since that faith-filled bus ride for justice, I have participated in Soulforce’s action at the General Convention of the United Methodist Church in Dallas, the 2008 96 mile Equality Walk for Marriage Equality in Phoenix, the 2009 witness at the Vatican Embassy in New York City, and lastly the delegate program which was a part of the queer pilgrimage to World Youth Day in Rio. My journey with Soulforce has been soul-filled teaching me the transformative force one’s testimony can bring as we live into solidarity with marginalized communities (a solidarity with myself and with others).
As Soulforce turns 15 they are working to create a Living Nonviolence Archive, a collection of personal stories and experiences about how folks have lived into and out nonviolence as a “guiding philosophy for us since our inception, calling us to be creative, self-reflective, and intent on subverting power.” I was asked to be part of this oral-history/herstory/theystory project and I wanted to share glimpses into my testimony as a way of introducing (or reintroducing) folks to the transformative intersectional solidarity of Soulforce. To learn more about this project and learn from the witnesses of others, visit: http://soulforce.com/resources/living-nonviolence-archive-toolkit/
What does nonviolence mean to you? Especially in terms of the organization, how do you see nonviolence play a core role in terms of what Soulforce does and what Soulforce is about?
Expressing nonviolence in its fullness is tough but I will try to give a glimpse into what it has meant and how it continues to evolve for me. Nonviolence is something that is lived everyday from words to deeds to thoughts…however is not about perfection or always getting it right. Nonviolence is open to bloopers and good intentions and to learning from one’s mistakes.
Soulforce has complemented and enhanced my principles as an activist theologian who strives to create a space where we are meeting people where they are. Its not othering the other but trying as best as one can to inhabit their space and see the world from their perspective. Nonviolence moves away from the right vs. wrong, us vs. them, privileged vs. disadvantaged…it creates a narrative of us, we, together…allowing all of us to recognize our privileges so we can use that power to make it better for all of us AND to recognize where we are disadvantaged so that we can live our solidarity with others more authentically and less misappropriatingly.
For a long time I spoke about not reducing or limiting folks to just one aspect of who they are…I constantly fought being reduced into a box…Soulforce gave me the language of nonviolence in which I learned about words like intersectional and queer and both/and.
In living nonviolence, we must remember that all of us are not just one thing or can be limited/reduced/boxed into one aspect of our mosaic of identities; we are complicated beings whose identities coexist and clash…nonviolence as lived by soulforce affirms and celebrates that we are many identities; in my case queer, trans, catholic, Catholic, latin@, child of immigrants, social worker, theologian, activist, married, sibling, hyphenated US American, person of spirit, scholar, flatfooted, fullfigured, lives with depression…all of the identities make me, me. I cannot pick and choose or allow systems to pick and choose…its all or nothing.
When we embrace nonviolence it is embracing all of who we are and all of who others are. Its confusing, its messy, its real.
What are the most important stories to tell? When you think about Soulforce and nonviolence, is there a particular story that comes to mind?
On the 2007 Equality Ride, I co-organized the visit to University of Notre Dame. As a person raised Roman Catholic and whose relationship with the institutional church has been wrought with many different emotions, the stop took on many different feelings. It was my first time engaging the possibility of direct action which my family was not a huge fan of.
My mother did not agree with what we were doing and kept telling me that Notre Dame was a private institution who could do what they wanted…leave them alone and focus elsewhere. Though her maternal practical logic made sense, I couldn’t leave Notre Dame alone. A message needed to be sent to LGBTQ folks on and off campus of solidarity, a message that church was not limited to the hierarchy in the Vatican or the hierarchies created at Notre Dame…we are all church.
As a Latin@, openly questioning religious figures is a no-no, even if you disagree with a priest or other clergy person, you don’t question much less protest or defy whatever it is they are saying. Notre Dame was countercultural for me personally and spiritually; I was taking a step of publically calling out the Church and the church on its teachings and practices based on discrimination, contradiction, and severe misunderstanding of sexuality, gender, and Christianity.
It was the first time that I truly understood what it meant to come into voice and that the church was and is the people, not just its leaders. Change was not limited to the top but could be sparked and spread from the bottom…as a lay person I embraced my prophetic calling of priesthood that all of us receive.
Notre Dame also showed me how activists show their solidarity to each other; when I was escorted out of the student center and interrogated outside the chapel, a cool soft hand gentled touched my hand and my shoulder…I look back to see not only Haven but also Wick who was asking the police force how silencing a group of students and visitors is sound catholic social justice teaching.
Just as I was putting myself out there to show that LGBTQ students, faculty, and staff as well as members of the South Bend community were not alone…I was reminded that I too was not alone and that I had a whole group of folks who were I solidarity with me as we together embodied solidarity with marginalized individuals and groups…who in turn were also in solidarity with us…it was and is a big ol’solidarity lovefest.
Notre Dame was a stepping stone for me; it showed me what it meant to live into and out “grace under fire” and that speaking out against injustice is not a matter of perfection or not being nervous…it is the exact opposite, it is bloopering and risking and leaning into one’s fears and insecurities, reminders that we are human who are learning as we go (and sometimes as we make it up as we go). Notre Dame was a rebaptism for me…a welcoming into a community and communion of social justice rainbow warriors.
Were there strategic moves that contributed to our success? Do you have any activist tips or details about the action that come to mind that really helped it all to work?
In looking back at Notre Dame and at other actions I have participated in with Soulforce (Methodist Convention, Equality Walk 2008, Vatican Embassy, and Delegate Program), I pick up on things to perhaps do differently but don’t get caught up in dwelling on mistakes made. Nonviolence is ongoing and evolving practice of taking chances, making mistakes, and getting messy. That written, what I think all of the actions have in common is that it is a mix of individuals who are connected to the challenge being addressed supported by allies who may not fully understand, in this case what it means to be Catholic, but who know that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” It is about meeting all involved where they are on the journey in order to find ways to co-exist.
Going into Notre Dame ranting how G-d is queer and trans, Jesus bisexual, and the Virgin Mary a feminist along with calling out discrepancies in church teaching and misuse of church power/authority…though this could be a lot of fun, it will also create barriers where conversations are not possible and where the encounter of mutual presence is not created.
However, going in wearing a polo shirt and khakis reciting the prayer of peace attributed to Francis of Assisi while sharing what it meant to go to CCD and praying the rosary as a family and sharing stories of growing up Catholic…that created a safe space for people to come together and talk and more importantly listen. It was not a proving match of who was more catholic or the right type of catholic, but more of lets share what catholic means to you and how we can create a church where all are welcome truly means all are welcome.
Fast forward to summer 2013 where I led a group of pilgrims to World Youth Day in Rio, many of the lessons learned and insights gained from and with Soulforce helped frame the trip. We were not angry outsiders participating in the largest gathering of Catholic youth..we were proud and queer Catholic youth who love our church and want to see OUR church welcome and embrace all.
Our message was that all of us are equally blessed and expressed that through sharing rainbow rosaries, rainbow sashes, soulforce /dignity/newways pamphlets, participating in Mass and in Catechesis sessions…our tactic was simple, to simply be Catholic and through that witness, show that a rainbow church is possible. Similar to other experiences, it was sharing stories rather than getting muddled in theological, ecclesial, and biblical debates (which to be honest we did have those but caught ourselves and moved the conversation back to story sharing).
Just being us, humanizes that being LGBTQ is just an aspect of who we are and enriches our experience of faith individually as well as communally.
How do you imagine the action would have been different if the commitment to nonviolence was not a core part of Soulforce’s identity?
I don’t think it would have happened and I think the seeds would not have been planted…at Notre Dame as well as in Brazil, we had folks come up and share their stories of being LGBTQ or knowing a LGBTQ person…if we went in violently, those narratives would have been lost. People may have been pushed deeper into the closet and fractured even more. Soulforce is about solidarity not imposition, it is not replacing one oppressive dominant narrative with another…it is about being with people and together finding ways to transform community into spaces where all are welcome and where all coexist, across and because and with our differences.