Monday, July 28, 2008

Self Righteous Attacks - Knoxville Hate Crime

I had some many things I wanted to post about this week, but found myself busy-bodying around my house, cleaning out my garage, putting up my curtains in my newly redecorated dining room, making time to take in an Art show yesterday, and meeting an incredibly talented young man, who's mother was overwhelmed at the attention he was receiving at this, his first show.

All those topics, some interesting, some silly, some mundane will have to wait.

Because while I was puttering around, and enjoying the beautiful, sunny, July Sunday afternoon at Mount Union College's Art Fest with my mom and my cousin, somewhere someone else was mourning losing their parent, sibling, grandparent, foster dad. And others, are praying their critically injured loved ones heal. Because Sunday morning a man walked into a Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Knoxville, TN and open fired.

It isn't the first time a hate crime has focused on a church or religious organization. It isn't even the first one involving my own religious institution. But this time it really hit home.

I watched the tape on CNN news, forwarded through my church's web group, and was brought to tears. I watched as children stood on what should be safe and hollowed ground, their church play interrupted by gunfire and death. I watched as a woman was trying to dial her cell phone to tell someone she loved what had happened, her hand shaking so badly, she could barely hold her phone. I looked on as fellow congregants hugged and consoled each other.

I read, that when the gun fire first occurred, the congregation thought it was a sound effect, part of the kids play they were watching. They were confused, and it took a minute before they panicked and dropped to the floor. And I imagined how the parents of the kids on the stage performing, ran right in front of spraying bullets to grab their precious children.

I was inspired by the bravery of some of those congregants, one in particular who lost his life by standing in between the man firing, rather than stepping aside for him to hit someone else. Others who in an instant seized the opportunity of the assailant reloading his weapon, to take action, tackling him and bringing him to the ground, risking death themselves to save their fellow church members.

Sadly, they couldn't save all of them, and two are dead. Five more are critically injured. As we know from VA Tech, it could have been oh so many more. I thought about my tiny congregation, in our small new home, sitting watching our religious education kids give a service on their own. With our backs or our sides to our door, relaxed, smiling, video taping our children.

My own church is such a small tight group. Last I heard, our membership was around 50. Though my congregation has been meeting on Sunday since the early 90's, they only recently were able to purchase their own home, a small office building just five short minutes up the road. This was a difficult transition for our group, as some were opposed to the building due to its limited capacity of seating and parking. But we also needed a permanent home due to twice having to end our leases on short notice when renting other venues. The first "eviction" came after a service on euthanasia, where someone inadvertently left a pamphlet on the topic laying on a chair when they cleaned up. They had been meeting in a retirement center, a resident there found it and the board received a "get out now" phone call the next day.

For years we were settled into the basement of a United Church of Christ, our fellow religious liberal family. The building was old and showing years of wear and neglect, as was the congregation of UCCs attending it. When the members upstairs were out numbered by our members downstairs, the UCCs decided to fold, blend into another local congregation, and handed the building back to the national UCC. The new congregation coming in, needed the whole facility, and we were given a few months notice to relocate again.

We settled into the Arts in Stark building, which has a beautiful sanctuary, where I took this photo. It was pretty, but not ours. Once again we could not have our library, our piano, our pamphlets, our hymnals, or our sign, permanently out front.

And our flaming chalice was snuffed out, as no open flames were allowed in our lease. Once again, there was a sense of transitional home, a lack of security, a fear that any moment we could be asked or told to move again.

Some members were gained with all the change, and some were lost, and so it goes when things seem impermanent and unstable.

We searched and finally found this small office building turned sanctuary, and called it home. We could hold Coffee House nights again, game nights, special speakers, new classes during any day, any time of the week we wanted. It may be small, and imperfect as a church, but it is OUR church, OUR home.

MY home. My first religious home. We attended my Grandma and Kurtpa McClellend's church, Otterbein United Methodist, every Christmas and Easter while I was growing up. But I didn't really know the people or the kids, was always in guest mode there, not quite sure what they were talking, about or what the few rituals the Methodists held onto really meant. After my brother was head injured in 1981, then my Grandma passed away a few years later, we stopped attending at all.

After my divorce I went "church shopping" and only made it to three of them. First of course, was Otterbein, most familiar and welcoming. Went with my mom, who still knows many people there. Next was Bethel Lutheran, where my exhusband's family attended, and I had been there several times while married to him. Lastly, to a non-denominational Evangelical church called Temple of Praise, where my sons had attended daycare for several years. I went to all of these first, because they were familiar, I would know a person or two, and it wouldn't seem so foreign.

And though I found them somewhat interesting and moving, they never felt like home. I just sit right in between rationalist and idealist. Between all thing supernatural and all things scientific. Actually, if anything seems most reverent, magical, mystical, mythological to me, it is science, with the space for all things God falling into the deep realms of those things too intricate and inexplicable. You see, that's where I believe miracles lay waiting. So where to find all of those things wrapped up in one church?

One Saturday morning, when my sons were at their dad's house, I pulled out the Canton Repository to look at the "church adds" for my next visit. I hadn't really done this yet, but I had just exhausted all those churches I was familiar with, so now I needed to step up my research and step out of my comfort zone.

Isn't that always the way we make amazing personal discoveries?

I opened the local section to see the headline, "Spiritual Search Leads Some To Customize Their Journey". The article seemed to be an obvious "God Wink" in the right direction.

The first man in the article was Agnostic, and didn't attend a church. The other woman in the piece called herself UU Hindu, and attended the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Canton. What a mouthful.

It was the first time I had ever heard of the combination of UU with another religion. Five years down the road, however, I am quite familiar with the practice. Many UUs introduce themselves as UU Christian, UU Hindu, UU Buddhist, UUMuslim, UUJewish, UU Humanist, UU Deist, UU Atheist, UU Agnostic. Many more of us call ourselves UU only at first, then as conversation ensues, we will define themselves more by what they are not, as in “Hi. My name is Zen and I’m a ‘recovering’ Catholic, Baptist, Pentecostal, Latter Day Saint, Jehovah's Witness, Methodist etc, like a religious 12 Step program.

Everyone together say, "HI ZEN."

And then, there are just UUs. That's me. Still searching to see if I have a calling to one particular realm. BUT finding out more and more that I am really in love with all world religions to pick just one.

So I got up early one February Sunday, and got ready for church (still a foreign and unfamiliar ritual given my twice a year, C and E status growing up). I went out to start my jeep to discover that a huge winter storm had descended upon us. Was God in fact "winking" me back into hibernation in my warm and cozy cocoon? Or was He challenging me to see if I was really ready to step into worlds previously unfamiliar.

Undaunted, I shoveled enough to get to my jeep, and headed out cautiously down the drift covered paths previously known as roads. I arrived a little late, but was comforted by the thought of something the Hindu woman, (I now know well as Mary Strickland) said in the interview. "Where else can you show up late, and no one minds when you go back and poor yourself a cup of coffee before settling into your seat?" These really sounded like my kind of people. I do, as I have mentioned many times, come from Circus stock.

I walked into the door, saw the little sanctuary already in the middle of their service, of UCCs. There was a sign indicating the UUCGC was down the stairs to the right. I went. Slowly, listening to a piano playing a prelude, by the elderly hands of a gentleman I now know as Eric Beu.

I walked behind the three sided rows of chairs and settled into one in the back row. I glanced around during the rest of the prelude, until my eyes came to rest on this poster

I studied it smiling. Every single world religious symbol, with the words, "We Celebrate Diversity" in bold and colorful print in the center. There were a few on the top I didn't recognize, but now know are the flaming chalice. The symbol of UU faith, of light, of love, of knowledge, of connection to all living things, no matter how small.

The symbol of my faith.

I was home.

So as I said my congregation now has it's own home. We have been featured several times in UU World Magazine, the national UU publication put out by the Unitarian Universalist Association of America. Now we are taking the next leap of faith and searching for a part time minister. This too is challenging as everyone's ideas are so different, and all voices will be heard throughout the process.

It's an exciting time for us. We are growing. The parking lot some of us were concerned about is full, and many Sundays we have to walk across the street from another business who's not open on Sundays.

There are some challenges in taking this less traveled individualized spiritual path. First of all, the name our faith chose, as a result of two churches merging in the 1970's, is a tongue twister, and little known or understood outside our own small circles. I have been told I have no faith, because we don't enforce any creed or dogma. I have been told we're just a group, a club, of liberals hiding under a church to get a tax break. That sounds like a lot of work for 50 or less people if you ask me, but it has been casually tossed my way at times.

It isn't easy, being the the most religiously liberal and diverse church in the Ohio "Bible Belt." My own church didn't even settle into the most open minded section of the county. A new multiplex fundamentalist conservative Christian Church goes up in our church "neighborhood" (which is also mine) every 6 months, or so it seems. I am surrounded in my allotment by people who attend every other church but mine. Many of my neighbor's kids go to a local Christian school through high school.

I take Anna to a young mom's play group next door, a neighbor I love dearly. Though her thoughts on parenting are similar to mine and her young friends are always welcoming to me, feel sort of out of place. They all attend the same conservative church, share the same core religious values, which do tend to be conservative fundamentalist. And because I am a guest there, I would never feel comfortable expressing my full opinion, though I am privy to theirs because, well they all share them with each other. And now that I have finally found my own religious and spiritual home, I find I am less at ease among those I'm not sure would tolerate my beliefs, if they really looked into what they were. My neighbor does, and I think she has some understanding. But her friends? I have discussed perhaps opening my home to them to give back for their welcome into the playgroup. However, I am slow to offer when my own UU poster, the same as the one I first saw in my own church, greets people in the first few feet of my home. My book shelves? Well, The Holy/King James/ New Living Bibles, sit right next to the History of God, History of Buddha, History of Muhammad right next to God is Red, Conversations with God, the Lost Scriptures, Thank God for Evolution, and finally...

Tarot Cards for Dummies.

And that shelf is second. My writing books are all on the top shelf place of honor.
Let's not even get started on my collection of Buddhas that occupy every room, as well as other varied religious symbols. So am I just a closet UU? Or should I be an "Evangelical" of sorts, sharing my Gospel with any who will listen.

Like the woman in Family Video the other night, who saw me eying the Golden Compass, and couldn't help herself from cautioning me, "That movie is AGAINST GOD."

I was a bit taken aback, and not expecting to be in the position to have a religious discussion (isn't that when they always show up?) I simply responded, "Oh. Well, I don't think that would bother me." To which she hummphed self righteously, "Well, I guess if you're an Atheist." I said, "Well, I'm not an atheist, I just am not concerned about the movie."

Of course I thought of a million things to say AFTER we left. Everything from, "Oh? It's an Atheist movie? Hey honey- I found one for the kids!" To "Oh? An atheist movie? Honey, did you find Brokeback Mountain for us yet? Here's that one I read about that we wanted for the kids!" To "No I'm not an atheist, but I know some from my UU church right across the street from here."

I was wearing an OM necklace, not a cross. I do own a cross and I do wear it sometimes. I revere that cross above all my other pieces of religious jewelry. Not because it represents Christ, though of course it does. It is also one of the last remaining gifts I received from my grandmother for graduating high school. I honestly think this type of person is so convinced they're possess the only possible truth, that can't imagine anyone in their right mind wouldn't agree and appreciate their good intentions toward my children's immortal souls.

Speaking of immortal souls, I did finally become enlightened as to the Golden Compass anti-God reference. My teacher was the young clerk who was totally unaware of her other patron's attempt to shepherd me toward more family value friendly fair. As in two movies in which the lead characters have one night stands, never find out about the resulting child until 5 or ten years later. Interesting choices. Anyway, the young clerk was enthusiastically confirming I'd made the right choice after all, as she had seen it in the theatre, not expecting to like it, and was "blown away." Well... at the ripe old age of 40, I hardly expected to be blown away by a fantasy movie, but you never know. When I told her I was pleased to hear that, since another renter had tried to warn me away because it was "against God," she looked irritated, and responded like a pro who had fielded this particular criticism one too many times.

"Ok...first of all, it's fiction, and it's author was atheist. It deals with another world where peoples souls walk around outside their bodies in the form of animals-" I assured her more explanation was unnecessary. I may not be Atheist, but I'm not afraid of them. Perhaps because the Atheists I know and love never once have told me I shouldn't watch, shouldn't read, shouldn't think anything I want to. They may think my beliefs silly or unfounded, but we have learned to agree to disagree, and don't really see the point in arguing about it. Then again, we are not Evangelicals of our faiths, and don't feel compelled to save, convince or spread any sort of gospel truth.

Although, as a 40 year old I am compelled to say one truth. I wasn't that interested in the Golden Compass, nor did my kids get involved deeply in it's "Atheist" plot. Actually, I think if that was the intention of the author, he missed the mark, as the characters seemed deeply, spiritually attached to their animal souls. If I had not heard anything to the contrary prior to viewing The Golden Compass, I would have assumed it to be about the spiritual teachings of indigenous peoples, given all the animal soul companion stuff. I found it ironic that any plot involving souls would be considered remotely Atheist. Though I did see a lot of anti organized religion themes. But then again, I find those in most sci-fi/fantasy and mythological story telling.)

And so I return to the sad report of the killing of two Unitarian Universalist church members. Who's congregation is part of a larger community, who by and large fight for social justice, against oppression, and believe in the inherent worth and dignity and interconnected web of every living thing. Who accept your belief system whatever it shall be, as long as it does not infringe upon the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of someone else on their own individual life path.

That means that though we celebrate diversity, we don't let anyone and everyone join us. We will welcome all who come in peace, and usually let it go when someone approaches us with self righteousness. We do this because as liberals, we believe you are allowed to your opinion, even if we don't agree with it. We don't generally try to change your mind, but rather to understand why you feel the way you do. It would be lovely, if this respect would be returned rather than seen as a weakness to exploit and target.

However, this intolerance we often face, which comes from our tolerance for diversity, has challenged us enough in the past that we are also tough. I am incredibly proud of the brave UUs throughout history, many of whom died helping to bring about the birth of our nation, or helping African American slaves through the Underground Railroad. Some were murdered while helping poor southern blacks to register to vote in the 1960's, and, on this past Sunday, some who were gunned down in their sanctuary because "all are welcome" including gay, bi, and transgender people.

Please keep the members of the Knoxville TN Unitarian Universalist Congregation and their families with you in your thoughts and prayers.

Make your voice heard.
Intolerance against violence...
Against Hate crimes....
Against those who celebrate diversity.

Blessed Be.

"Ever since there has been only one true God, there has been killing in His name."
~ The DaVinci Code

1 comment:

tracy said...

I can't believe I hadn't heard this story!
My husband and I were married in a UU church and attended in Northern Virginia.
I've never subscribed to any organized religion, but felt the energy of the UU as close to something I could embrace as possible.
This story is appalling. However less than surprising when you hear people's response to something presumably simple, such as a children's book/movie like The Golden Compass, regardless the undertones. Intolerance in its various forms is alive and well and from what I can tell as the presidential campaign heats up, going nowhere!