Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Dispatch from Portland

Walking my dog this morning along the tranquil William Stafford trail which is an easy little stroll from my apartment, it occurred to me how distant it seemed from the protesting last night. We are only a few miles away, but I could already feel the experience of a couple hours ago melting in morning sun and floating away down the Willamette River. Since I am here, and saw it first hand, I thought how much more surreal it must seem to those of you in other parts of the country - or housebound locally for any number of reasons - to comprehend what is truly happening here, so I thought Id try to write up what I’m seeing and understanding. 

The little Stafford poem I pass on my dog walks.

I’m not in any way close to the center of any of the organizing. I am just a supporter of the protesters, who I believe more strongly than ever after last night are the thin line of defense between fascism and the rest of our nation. I encourage you to seek out the queer, youth and BIPOC voices that are the leaders of this movement, listen to them, cede your authority to them, to give them your money, and support them however else you can.
First: Some assumptions:
Black Lives Matter. Fascism is already here and is bad. The Portland protesters are freedom fighters, not insurgents. People are more important than property. Peaceful protests make change happen. Peaceful protests may include destruction of property. Jesus was a peaceful protester who sometimes destroyed property. Christians are called to follow Jesus.
Monday, about 7:30pm

I’m working on a double sided sign. One side says “Jesus was a protester. -Luke 19” (pastor-me wants to say look it up but non-annoying-real-person me says it’s Palm Sunday) and on the other “Jesus resisted fascism too -Luke 13” (a whole bunch of juicy stuff, but mostly the Healer calling Herod “that fox”). I locate some string and it hangs around my neck. I joke-not-joke that it will act as a shield too.

We have a lot of tradition, Christians, some of it pretty problematic, of writing Jesus’ name on shields and marching into battle. I think about all those other (self) righteous warriors who have gone before. I wonder what separates me from them, what joins me.

Monday, about 8:45 pmd
Partner Tara and I get into collars and text the kids where we are going. I put my ID and debit card and a twenty dollar bill and a phone into my pocket. Pull on the purple vests from Portland Interfaith Clergy Resistance that say “clergy witness” over our heads. We are serious, not talking much, each of us getting ready in our mind, in our own way. I dont feel afraid, exactly but I definitely have a shit-getting-real feeling.

Monday, About 9:00 pm
In conversation with other clergy, we have decided to be a presence as often as we can, now that federal forces have been brought into the picture. Although the Portland Police have a similar history to other police departments around the country, and we have been working to address that, the addition of federal forces adds a layer of urgency and intensity. We are not just trying to reform a department. We are battling a fascist regime.

That said, T and I dont have a specific agenda except to witness - and testify to what we have witnessed - and to be supportive however that is requested. As we drive close, downtown Portland is quiet like you’d expect on a Monday night in summer in the middle of a pandemic. The actual area of the protests is maybe four square blocks.

Tara uses her magic powers to find a parking spot right next to Chapman Square, the park across the street from the Justice Center and kittycorner from the Federal Building. The next block is also a park - Lownsdale Park. There are several hundred people here already.

It’s supposed to be night three of mom bloc night (and dad bloc is meant to me here too), but most everyone I see is very young - late teens or early twenties. There are speakers, but I can’t hear them from the back of the crowd where we find ourselves, so I stand on a park bench to see if I can get a better look. My first conversation is not super inspiring to me, or, I’m sure to the person I talk to.

Dude next to me: “It’s good up here, right?”

Me: “Yeah, I like being able to see but I’m hard of hearing so I cant actually hear anything anyway”

Dude: “Well, you heard me, heh heh.”

Me: “What?”


Me: :::::::::

The gathering is in front of the justice center. Someone, we later heard they were activists from Seattle, project the words POWER TO THE PEOPLE and FED GOONS OUT OF PDX on the wall of the justice center and the crowd roars. People are shouting, and tagging the building. The energy is high and intense, but still definitely a peaceful protest.

Although my first conversation was kind of a bust, I still feel happy and expectant, which in general seems to be the mood of the rest of the crowd too. Except for the extreme kindness people are showing each other, and the sense that everyone has one another’s back, it’s like a festival or a concert when everyone’s waiting for the main thing to start but just grateful to be there.

Someone comes by with 6 boxes of pizza piled in his arms, handing out slices. Someone else comes by with a huge bin of something - when I go closer to see it turns out to be thousands of tiny plastic pigs that make squeaky noises when they are squeezed, and all around me people are grabbing handfuls of the pigs and squeaking them at each other and laughing joyfully like kids on Christmas morning. 

I meet someone older than me (notable!) who tells me his dad was a UCC pastor back in New Hampshire. A law student comes by with green hat that says Legal Aid Society of Oregon and offers to write his number in sharpie on our arms in case we get arrested. I ask him what will happen if I call the number. He says some people need help with kids, pets, or (if they are unhoused) their possessions being seized. I think of the terror of arrest, compounded by the terror of losing so much that is precious and thank him sincerely. We run into some people from Tara’s church and she takes pictures of them and their signs for the church facebook page.

I make eye contact when I can, but with everyone wearing masks, all my regular social cues are muted and awkward. I think one person is trying to engage me in conversation and smile so he’ll see my eyes crinkle up and say “What?” and even with the mask I can tell he’s flustered to have caught my eye. “I grew up catholic...and the...collar...and...I’m just glad you’re here.”

Monday, About 10:30 pm
The crowd that’s been listening to the speakers begins to march up the block. Last time I was here and that happened, I followed and ended up way across town, so I opt to stay in the park this time. Someone comes by sounding remarkably conversational, considering she’s talking into a bullhorn: “the group has gone to look at the memorial, in case you were wondering.”

We sit down for a minute, check twitter to see if we can get a better sense of the big picture. I pick up a thread about how the swooping - taking groups of people out of the park and on little marches - is met with disapproval because it just dissipates the energy of the crowd. There’s a mild conspiracy theory that maybe the swoopers are in league with the authorities somehow.

We decide to move across the street to Lownsdale Park. As we cross the street, we pass a wagon full of shields made from thin plywood, like the ones I’ve seen in the park before; a long time ago when I took the kids out for a day of LARPing. But these kids are not playing. They are really going to use these flimsy looking little toy shields to protect themselves against armed adults carrying the military-grade weapons that are carried into combat against other soldiers. Now I start to feel a little bit afraid. 

It’s pretty smoky and I’ve been coughing since we got to the park. Riot Ribs is a pop up restaurant that basically runs 24/7 and is comprised of several tents and dozens of coolers. They are running a bunch of grills - so maybe it’s that. Someone has started a fire where the elk statue used to be. That could be it. Or it could the clouds of smoke from cigarettes and pot, which is omnipresent.

Im coughing but one thing I’m not afraid of is getting sick. Everyone’s wearing masks. Some people have been deputized (or self deputized?) to go around picking up garbage. There’s hand sanitizer everywhere. “I’m just here for the hand sanitizer,” I tell the young person behind the serving table at Riot Ribs. “Sure, honey, you go right ahead and there’s more down there,” she’s so warm and present in that little interaction, that her youthful smile brings me to tears, even though I havent felt weepy at all until now.

A guy pulls up his shirt and shows a small group on a bench a red bruise where another night he got hit with a tear gas canister. Someone with PRESS handprinted on their hat is furiously typing into a phone. On a bench across from them, a couple is making out. There are a dozen or so people sleeping in the park and it occurs to me that we are in their bedroom. I wonder what it must be like to have the place you usually sleep turned into a combat zone/carnival.

Monday, about 11:30 pm
The mom bloc and the rest of the marchers come back on down the street and gather again - this time in front of the Federal Building. Someone with a bullhorn, maybe the same someone who was being conversational before, is now leading chants, the energy rising and rising and rising. All around me, people are pulling on gas masks and strapping on shin guards and popping in ear protection. Someone offers me ear plugs which I unwisely don’t take. It feels like any minute Something is happening.
Then, like an ocean wave going out, I can feel the energy start to wane. The moms start leaving in groups of two and three. We didnt know how we’d know when it’s time to leave, but it’s starting to feel like now is the right time. A medic asks if they can use my sign, because “one of our elders” wants to lay down but doesnt want to get his shirt dirty. I give him Jesus Resisted Fascists Too, and as we make our way to the parked car, I put the other half on the fire that’s still burning, still sending its smoke into the night.

Tuesday, about 12:00 am
The protesters are moving barricades in what seems like a pretty practiced and organized maneuver, across the road where we’re parked, but we get int he car and start off in the other direction, when we see a wave of people moving fast toward us. T stops the car and I look at her. “I want to get back out.” “Ok, i can stop for a minute, but just a minute.’
From where we are, I cant see the federal troops moving, but I see the clouds of smoke a block away almost at the same time that we’re hit with a gut punching percussion sound. People are streaming past me, as I stand still, trying to see the soldiers. I feel like if I could just see them, I could understand better what they are doing and why.

But then another boom, this one much closer, and I realize I’m getting in the way of people trying to get out of harm’s way - the one thing I really didnt want to do. I turn all the way around, back to the car and there on the sidewalk in front of me I see a can sputtering and shooting sparks. My mind says “wow a firework!” before my mind says “that is a can of tear gas that did not hit me somehow.” I skirt around it, and get in the car, coughing - eyes and nose not streaming but itching. EVen in the car, T was taking in tear gas, which I guess is actually a powder?, as well. There was no escaping it at that point.
Theres no way to leave the car now, in the middle of the road, in the middle of the crowd. Driving is the only way out. A guy in the crowd is covering his mouth with one hand, trying to keep his pants up with the other. I think he’s one of the people I saw in a sleeping bag earlier. A medic pulls him over and without a word drops saline into his eyes. The crowd is moving all around and past us. Someone (I think it is the former Catholic?) helps stop people for a second so we can move past the crowd that seems to be assembling to go back, back toward the smoke and the flying canisters and the rubber bullets.

Tuesday 12:48 am
As we drive toward home, I wonder what that warm hearted young woman - the one who called me honey - is doing at Riot Ribs back at the park. I imagine her putting on a gas mask, picking up the scattered coolers and plates and donated granola bars, compressing someone’s rubber bullet wound, and getting back to feeding the people who keep coming and coming and coming.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Pride Sunday Sermon

What you can bear to hear
Rev. Jennifer Garrison Brownell
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31 and John 16:12-15
Pride Sunday/Trinity Sunday at Vancouver UCC
June 16, 2019

This year marks the 50th anniversary of stonewall uprising which most historians consider the beginning of the modern gay rights movement. The Stonewall Inn in Greenwich village was one of a kind in the late 1960’s New York.  Racially integrated, it was frequented by a mix of gay men, butch women, street kids who lived in the park near the bar, prostitutes, drag queens. It was the only bar  in new York at that time where men could dance with each other
            It was most definitely not a glamorous place – there was no running water behind the bar, so they would rinse the glasses in tubs and then pour more drinks into those glasses.  The walls and ceiling were all painted black and lights were dim. Toilets frequently backed up.  
            The Stonewall Inn was run by the mafia with back up from the police. The mafia who owned the club would pay the police and the police would inform them when raids were going to happen.  As often as monthly, the lights would cme up and everyone would be lined up and have to show id cards. Men could not be in “too much” drag and women had to be wearing “at least three items of women’s clothing.”
            But one night in June, instead of lining up like usual and producing their ids, the patrons of Stonewall Inn refused arrest.  Pushing and shoving turned more violent – at first they threw coins as a way to mock police corruption. The police barricaded themselves inside the bar for almost an hour.    

Michael Fader was there: “We all had a collective feeling like we'd had enough…It wasn't anything tangible anybody said to anyone else, it was just kind of like everything over the years had come to a head on that one particular night in the one particular place, and it was not an organized demonstration... Everyone in the crowd felt that we were never going to go back. It was like the last straw. It was time to reclaim something that had always been taken from us.... All kinds of people, all different reasons, but mostly it was total outrage, anger, sorrow, everything combined, and everything just kind of ran its course. It was the police who were doing most of the destruction. We were really trying to get back in and break free. And we felt that we had freedom at last, or freedom to at least show that we demanded freedom. We weren't going to be walking meekly in the night and letting them shove us around… There was something in the air, freedom a long time overdue, and we're going to fight for it. It took different forms, but the bottom line was, we weren't going to go away. And we didn't.”

Press coverage of the event was not kind at the time.  And even other organized groups of gay people (or homophiles as they called themselves at the time) wished that the whole thing would calm down, go away, be quiet.  But in a world set up for sameness, for what we now would call a heteronormative experience that day in June an alternative expression burst out of those dark and cramped and smelly walls and into the streets the world was changed for ever.

Today, by a quirk of the calendar, is both Pride Sunday and Trinity Sunday.

Trinity Sunday reminds us that God’s first impulse is relational, about connection.  God comes to us not as one but as three – each part of the trinity is distinct and unique, but also inexorably linked.  On Trinity Sunday, we celebrate our fundamental relationality as God’s creations.

And Pride Sunday, too is at its core about celebrating our impulse for connection, our fundamental relationality as gods’ creations.  

I’m celebrating that both Pride and Trinity are together on one day, because  our sexuality and our spirituality are so fundamentally connected – both are the deepest parts of our beings and both are born of our most profound  longings for connection with others and with the divine.  

Pride for me personally is a joyful occasion this year as I step into the fullest expression of myself. 

I was just asked to introduce myself via email to a group of new friends and I said: In January, I would have proudly told you about the rest of my drama-free settled life, but in February of this year that life was unsettled by new love sprouting from an old friendship.   I was married for many years and I was proud  of my marriage– but the hubris kind, not the kind that is the opposite of shame. I was proud – the hubris kind - of how well ordered my life seemed, even to myself.  It was reassuring to live within the bounds of cultural expectation – but I have been reminded again and again in the past few months, that’s not how God’s love works.

As one love has diminished and the other grew,  became poignantly aware of how separation is always complex. Separation comes in stages not all at once. I know from experience that you can live in the same house with someone and be separate from them. And I know that you can live apart, and still be connected. And we feel the complexity of separation deeply, since connection is our most basic impulse.  

It’s been 50 long years since the stonewall uprising, but stories of coming out are still happening.  I want to tell you a little of my story this morning. I grew up in a  family and church and culture that was very open and accepting.  In the town I grew up in, no one ever told me that being gay was an abomination, no one fired me from a job or kicked me out of my family.  And yet, in my early twenties, I was very tentative when I told my parents on a long dark car ride that I thought I might be a lesbian.  I guess I had been acting weirder than usual, because my mom’s response was, “Oh, thank God!  I thought you were on drugs!”

In the years that followed I became active in the LGBTQ movement, had a serious relationship with a woman and lived pretty openly as a gay person. But when I fell in love with a man and married him, I put that time behind me. It was more comfortable to hide in the privilege of what people assumed about me than to be out, and so I went in.

There is still so much discomfort with being born different from the dominate narrative.  God’s call is persistent.  It took me a long time to stumble into my call to ministry (for a long time, I tried to work at other, more normal jobs!) and a long, long, long time to come out fully to myself, to my family and to you.

For many years, I have told you and others and in my ministry that God calls us to be who and what we are created to be – to be authentic and to have integrity.    Just at the time as I came into a more authentic acceptance of how my marriage had changed, I also came into acceptance of what it meant to live fully as a same-gnder loving person. So while this has been a difficult time, it has also been joyful – as I become more and more who God made me to be in a relationship that is spiritually and emotionally connected.

For some of you, I know this has been an unsettling and difficult.  As I have shared my story with you, many of you have opened up and shared your stories with me. And I have learned again what I thought I already knew – that most people’s lives are way more complicate than you’d think. Life is a web of relationships built over time – some painful, some joyful – most a mix of both. For some of you, hearing of the ending of one relationship and the beginning of another has brought up issues of promises broken, and this has been very painful for me, as being trustworthy is an important value to me.  I’m not sure how to heal this, except to continue to be as trustworthy as I know how to be and that Spirit who has been there since the mystery that is before “in the beginning”  has brought you and I into relationship too.

Wisdom is still dancing, and God – who spoke a word and from nothing created mountains and oceans and snails and whales and eagles and drag queens and daisies and you and me – is still speaking.  It’s ok if my experience, if experiences of others is hard for you to understand – even Jesus said some things you can’t hear until you’re ready.  God understands and continues to draw you and me and all of us into a dance of conversation and relationship.

I feel so blessed to be on this particular journey in this particular time and this particular place.  We are an Open and Affirming congregation, joining other UCCs in articulating that because the dominant religious message is anti-gay, it is tremendously important that we are explicitly Christian and explicitly welcoming
And now,we have an openly gay pastor.

Hearing your stories and telling mine reminds me that the fight that began on the streets in NYC 50 years again front of the Stonewall Inn is not over – we have a long way to go.  But this new day is a new opportunity to walk our talk – celebrating the diversity of relationship that makes us who we are – God’s love created new each day – a joy and a delight.   


Thursday, December 13, 2018

An Advent Journey

Our faith in Christ Jesus, who was himself an immigrant and whose untimely death came at the hands of agents of a militaristic state, compels us to speak truth to power, to cross borders and boundaries, and to stand with those on the margins. Especially in this holy season of Advent, we are called to embody our faith in a real and transformative way.

For many months, I have been praying for guidance on how to respond to the crisis at the border.  A couple of weeks ago, when I heard about Global Immersion’s Day of Learning and Solidarity, I knew immediately it was what I had been seeking.  Here was a chance to learn directly from those most affected by the immigrant caravan – those in Mexico who are working with the travelers on the front lines – and to hear from them directly how people of faith in the US can be helpful advocates without getting in the way.

Guidance was sought and arrangements were made and now the time has arrived.  Tomorrow, along with my 16-year-old son Elijah, I will travel to San Diego along with more than 150 other people of faith from around the nation.  We will spend a long day in Tijuana on Saturday December 15th and then return early Sunday morning (in time for church!). 

Our day on Saturday will include a visit to a church that has become a shelter for Haitian and Central American immigrants where we will meet the pastor and bring supplies he requested – ponchos, sleeping pads and activity books for children.  Then we will have a visit to the border wall, where we will spend some time in prayer and participate in a Las Posadas litany with participants calling across both sides of the border. Finally, we will engage with some local activists about how to best be supportive of immigrants and activists going forward.

I’m so inspired by - and grateful for - the powerful and faith filled testimony of American pastors and people of faith who are protesting and have risked arrest at the border in recent days.  Protest is an important aspect of our faith expression of resistance.  The particular day Global Immersion has planned and in which I am participating is for learning and growth and building of solidarity.  Although these are also acts of resistance, it is not our plan to risk arrest on the 15th.

I’m so grateful for the support we have already received, especially from my husband Jeff and from the people of Vancouver UCC.  Some of you have asked how you can also support this trip.  This would be helpful for me:
-       Pray for and with all those traveling to San Diego and Tijuana on December 15. If fasting is one of your spiritual practices, you might declare a fast day.
-       Come to the airport to see us off!  We will be gathering near the Alaska Airlines ticket counter from 10:00-10:20 am TOMORROW Friday, December 14 for a farewell and blessing.
-       Check social media on Saturday, December 15 – I’ll be posting as I can throughout the day.

With love, Jennifer