Tuesday, September 30, 2014

You can't always "Shake it off"

And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate
Baby, I'm just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake
I shake it off, I shake it off

Two weeks ago as I was going in to have dessert and drinks with some friends another told me that his new jam is Taylor Swift's "Shake it off" (video above). It has a catchy beat, there are issues of cultural appropriation in the video, and can have a positive message ideally — be yourself, don't let others bring you down, keep being you even if there is disapproval from those around you.

This kind of message of affirmation works great on the dance floor: be there to dance, enjoy yourself, shake it off when the haters hate. It does not, however, work well in the board room or faculty meetings. A perpetual mindset of shaking it off prevents one from being open to hearing criticism and necessitates taking on an air of perfect superiority.

And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate
Baby, I'm just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake
I shake it off, I shake it off

A letter was just released from the faculty of General Seminary to the Board of Trustees from almost two weeks ago. The board interpreted it as letters of resignation (that is to say corporately decided that instead of talking to the faculty it would be easier to fire them) while making no mention of what how they were handling the very serious allegations against the current Dean and President.

If you read the letter (available here) you'll note that there are charges of sexism, racism, and homophobia not only from the dean to the faculty, but also in the interactions of the dean with students. I take personal stock in some of the comments the faculty say the dean made, notably that I'm a gay man who went to General which he is scared of being seen as the gay seminary (even with 1/3 of my class being gay men — that's still not a majority by any means) and emphasizing "normal people."

And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate
Baby, I'm just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake
I shake it off, I shake it off

I'm not sure who he envisions the normal people to be, but based on his general tone and lack of awareness about cultural sensitivity to anything but being a straight white man, it would appear that's the kind of normal people he wants. More straight white men even as the patriarchy loses just a tiny bit every day...and as non-religious friends on rare occasion will think about coming to church with me — because the people inside aren't quite as homogenous as they'd imagined, and because the leadership definitely isn't — and that's with a major awareness of just how many faithful old white people are in our congregations.

As I've read the writings of the dean and the letters from the faculty something that strikes me as out of touch not only is seeking "normal people" but the refusal and insistence on non-collaboration. Various sources have said that in the interview process Dean Dunkle said that he didn't like collaborating. Why, oh why, would a board of trustees charge someone who doesn't believe in collaboration with leading formation for those who will see the church into the future? Has no one read Tweet if you <3 Jesus? Has no one ready anything about how millenials function? As a millennial those pieces often drive me up the wall, but are sometimes spot on. It's terrible modeling to rule by fiat and expect the Church to stay alive. 

And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate
Baby, I'm just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake
I shake it off, I shake it off

In April 2010 I wrote, "Andrew Sullivan points out that most of the reaction from the Vatican and American bishops has been either denial or to attack those who are critical, often by calling names. This is denial after decades (centuries) of this being not talked about and not dealt with. And now we have more people saying 'I didn't know,' 'It wasn't my fault,' and that they won't 'be intimidated by the petty gossip of dominant opinion.'

I think there are times when people just want those who bore responsibility to own that responsibility. Not to have closed door meetings and be less than forthcoming about what is actually going on, but to include the people who have been, are being, and will be affected in the process of determining next steps, for justice or for institutional advancement."

And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate
Baby, I'm just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake
I shake it off, I shake it off

The financial ills at General have changed, and there's a new Dean and President. Ills are running anew, though. When confronted with reports about the Dean and President the board instead of claiming they didn't know seem to be trying to just shake it off because the professors must be haters. 80% of the faculty, who have been there for varying degrees of time — from I've never met in the two years since I graduated to before I was born (literally). 

Twice in five years I've had major challenges and frustrations with the Board of Trustees at my alma mater. Their only communication with alumni to this point has been commenting on Facebook posts or critically messaging them privately about posts concerning money saying, "Good people with good hearts and mere human capacities are of course struggling with this. Public postings taking away gifts from GTS are not helpful in building the Body," which also implies that the situation is normal and shouldn't be criticized or aired — although nothing at all has come from the seminary in any form or from the trustees in any official form. As the faculty points out, the board continues to investigate accusations against the dean but ignores his impact on the working relationship with the faculty.

We shall know the truth, and it will make us free...but it will make us free by transforming us, which it can't do if we just shake it off.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

On striking and (not) communicating

If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. —Matthew 18.15-17

On Thursday morning I was reminded that it was the last Thursday of September, Matriculation Day at General Seminary. As the tradition has developed, I changed my profile picture on Facebook to an instant from the last Thursday of September in 2009, when I matriculated to the General Theological Seminary.

Yesterday morning as I got ready for work, a classmate with whom I matriculated and graduated, messaged me and asked if I'd heard about our seminary. I asked if I'd heard what. There has been much to hear since September 2009: a financial crisis, a dean's resignation, separating the offices of dean and president, selling property, rebuilding the endowment, ending debt, appointing a new dean. I  had not heard the latest, which was this email sent to students
Dear students,
We have a serious conflict which we are seeking to resolve and are taking to the Board of Trustees. Until they respond we will not be teaching, attending meetings, or attending common worship. Please be assured that we have not taken these steps hastily or lightly. Trust that we have acted in what we believe to be the best interests of your formation, our common life and the future of General Seminary. We hold you in the highest regard. Please pray for us, the Board, and the Dean and President.
The email was signed by almost all of the faculty, many of whom I know from my time as a student. I thought it odd and that the conflict must be serious: if these professors who I cherish deeply and greatly respect as lay and ordained Christians were willing to boycott chapel, it must be extremely serious. I hoped for more information throughout the day.

In Spring 2010, as I ended my first year and prepared to be a chaplain at a hospital, the seminary community learned the depth of the seminary's financial challenges not from a  meeting with the dean or faculty, not from an email from the administration, but from The Episcopal Cafe and Episcopal News Service. A press release had been sent to the press — but not to the students. Students and alumni/ae learned of the challenges (partially) from the news, even as some were living in Chelsea Square.

After I learned of the faculty strike from my friend's Facebook message pasting the email to me, I heard nothing from the seminary as an alumnus. As of this writing I still have heard nothing at all from the seminary, which has access to alumni/ae mailing lists, even as the faculty have said more and as speculation simply swirls. Yesterday evening The Episcopal Cafe had another letter to students which referenced some sort of issues the faculty finds with the current dean and president of the seminary and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail.

I come at this current situation as an alumnus of the seminary wondering what the hell is going on and as a diocesan communications officer — a role for which the seminary did not directly prepare me, but encouraged me to explore my interests which led to my being ready for such a position. It's disheartening to see that the seminary has not said anything at all via email, not even to acknowledge the situation or release an official statement.

The faculty who have elected to strike seem to be communicating with the students as the principal stakeholders, but they aren't the only ones. They seem to have attempted to raise their concerns with the dean and president, and that hasn't worked. It seems they've done it as a group and as individuals, and that hasn't worked. Now through initiating a direct action they're bringing the whole church into it.

Jesus tells us in Matthew to point out the fault at each of the phases. The communications that have been received from the faculty — secondhand — are vague about what the faults are. The longer letter from the faculty references the Letter from Birmingham Jail, but there is a sharp difference. While the faculty note that they hope to negotiate — but not what about. King and civil rights workers engaging in direct action had a clear goal (in Birmingham specifically it was the removal of Bull Conner).

I trust the faculty who have chosen to participate in a strike and hope that negotiations begin soon under the direction of the board of trustees...however in making semi-public half-statements they have introduced anxiety for their concerns, yet not enumerated those concerns. This half speech leaves rumors to build and gain traction or people to simply be dumbfounded and not know what's going on.

I appreciate the value of direct action — but have witnessed it being more effective when there are clear expectations and requests that are set out publicly beforehand. I live in California where everyone strikes, from nurses to transit operators to produce workers. These strikes are powerful by effecting others and raising awareness of the concerns. They annoy people who have to take buses, but those riding the buses learn about drivers' lives...but those striking don't say "We've got some problems, and we want to tell you we have problems, but we don't want to tell you what they are," which is how the letters from the faculty read — perhaps in an attempt to save embarrassment for students or to avoid discomfort...but they aren't clear communication.

At the end of the days, I am praying for the seminary because that's all I can do — and ask others to do. However I think that yet again what's happening at General Seminary can teach the church what its missing about communication. Everything gets out. Quickly. We as a church need to be prepared for that, and know what we want to say to avoid the wonderings and the stresses. Ignoring events doesn't make them not happen, it makes us look like we're out of the loop, even as the loop is growing bigger.

What helped the anxiety at General in 2010-2011 was how blunt and honest the administration was about the financial challenges the seminary faced. When we knew the truth we were set free. I pray that much sooner than later we will know much more about the challenges the seminary is facing now so that we can be set free of this anxiety and continue about our mission of restoring all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Please stop hugging me

I am a touchy person. I enjoy touching others and touching things. One of the reasons I became an Episcopalian is that in our belief in the Incarnation — that God became human and walked on two feet and touched and felt with two hands — we live with substances we can touch, feel, taste, and smell in water, wine, oil, incense.

I greatly value touch to convey relationship. As I get close to friends my arm is regularly around shoulders, or around my husband's waist if we're out and about. When I was in the 7th grade I was oblivious about my privilege and my experience of randomly putting my cold hands on others' faces or necks — even after they'd asked me not to. I was "just playing." The thought of it makes me shriek now.

Different kind of touches — romantic, friendly, ritual, etc. — all convey different levels of intimacy. As a general rule the first time I meet someone in a social or professional setting I shake their hand. If we become friends in time we may come to hug one another or offer each other a kiss of greeting. Unless we've met electronically and developed a certain kind of relationship, however, we never start with a hug. I suspect this is true for most people in their lives. Lately I've been more conscious as my touches grow beyond a simple greeting hug to ask, "Is it okay if I put my arm around your shoulders?"

Hugs convey a certain level of intimacy. The first thing I did upon seeing my mother after my wedding was hug her. My best friend and I greet each other with a lasting embrace when we're reunited across the continental US. I briefly hug my brothers and friends as we greet or part, sometimes but not always both.

I've found myself wondering lately, largely as I have become less and less comfortable with it, why people insist on hugging me when passing the peace — regardless of if I'm vested or not. In Celebrating the Eucharist, Patrick Malloy writes, "The Peace is a ritual act of reconciliation, just as the Eucharist is a ritual meal. It need not be protracted to be genuine, nor does every person have to greet every other person." (p. 127, emphasis in the original).

Part of what's made me increasingly uncomfortable is not that people want to give hugs inasmuch as they don't care if I do or not, whether they know me or not. This has been apparent when people have ignored my extended hand to put their arms around me or say, "We just hug everyone here!" Malloy wonders, "What sort of formation can help the entire assembly to recognize the Peace as a ritual action in which they all participate, not a recess in the ritual?" I have attended churches that not exactly that in the bulletin...

However Elizabeth Drescher noted, "Might be helpful to add what is not obvious to many: a handshake, a hug if you're more familiar with the person, or a friendly wave constitute the 'passing' gesture or 'greeting.' I've had students tell me that they thought some object was going to be passed around." Why are people so comfortable ignoring a social norm — to the point of ignoring someone's non-verbal communication — and hugging strangers? What does it say to visitors when their preferences about their bodies are ignored? How might survivors of assault, sexual and otherwise, respond to being violated?

Earlier today I read a New York Times opinion called "Losing our touch." In it the author wonders how much digital communication — replacing touch with touch screens and such — contributes to excarnation. As Christians we value the Incarnation, the messy earthliness of being human. I wonder if we lose our touch by not having appropriate boundaries about it, where it doesn't mean anything to hug a new person.

Our rituals offer places for safe touch: administering bread, passing peace, anointing with oil, smearing ashes. We chew and we drink, noticing texture and burning. What happens when the space isn't safe, though, when the level of touch is unwanted and unsolicited?

What is your experience? Are you comfortable with hugging strangers — or being hugged by them? How do you communicate your preference? Those in leadership, what training do you do about the Peace as a ritual action and what level of touch is appropriate for it?