Friday, December 25, 2009

Season's spirit

I am posting my two most recent columns that came out in the Claremont Courier. They are about what I think the holiday season is - or should be - all about.

The first deals with an annual two-day festival, put on in mid-November by the residents of a community of retired Christian missionaries here in Claremont. I don’t think the second one needs explanation.


The golden leaves all but glittered on the green grass. There was a brisk snap in the air. At long last.

Fall came, at long last, on that Friday last month - I had to put another blanket on my bed, finally, that night - appropriately enough, the first day of the Pilgrim Place Festival. It came only after it rained that morning, just after the festival opened with a brass band playing.

It wasn’t supposed to rain that day, one person after another said. I bought my annual persimmons and some other things - the festival is a cool place for Christmas shopping - as it began sprinkling, and the sprinkling just got heavier. I didn’t hear anyone talk of leaving of breaking down, but, when I went home with my rain cape on and with the rain falling harder, I wondered if the pilgrims would be washed out after all their preparations. Such a shame.

But, before long, it was sunny again. I decided to return in the afternoon. I had heard and read that the pageant was not only completely revamped and updated this year but also now included music by the Pilgrim Pickers. I wanted to see this, so I headed over, with the hope that the sun was out for a while, that the festival hadn’t been shut down and that the show would go on.

It turned out that the festival was very much still going on, with cars parked blocks away and with the booths bustling with business. Not only that, but, along with the leaves shining on the lawn and the crisp snap in the air (or at least suggested and coming that night), there was a large crowd eagerly awaiting the 1:45 performance.

It also turned out that the new pageant was every bit as sparkly as those brilliant leaves on the green. It had almost been rained out but instead, as if with the rain, went on reinvigorated, full of bright ideas and with a renewed, inspiring message.

I have to be honest and say that I hadn’t seen the pageant for years and years, perhaps since I was a child. Even then, it was a bit musty - a straight-ahead re-enactment of the first Thanksgiving, weighed down with stuffy "thees" and "thous" and perhaps more than its fair share of stereotypes. I remember feeling even then that there was something a bit or very wrong about the Indians - the Native Americans - being painted red and festooned with feathers.

It here been my sense that people have watched the pageant because it was tradition, if not duty. It was the thing to do at the Pilgrim Place Festival.

Not this year. And not only did these retired Christian missionaries rip a huge hole in the myth that senior citizens can’t change. They gave us something, in an enjoyable, entertaining way, to think about and even to challenge us.

In this pageant, the first Thanksgiving was just the beginning, only a starting point. Two pilgrims come onstage, ready for the usual tale, only to be confused by the presence of two modern-day narrators, a man and a woman, as well as the Pilgrim Pickers. To mollify the lost pilgrims, the narrators offer to tell them what has gone on in this country since the first Thanksgiving .

A remarkable thing about the ensuing hour-long journey, accompanied by the Pickers’ folk music and the audience singing along on many songs, was that it not only hit America’s high points - freedom, civil rights, etc. - but also its low points. It didn’t shy away from telling of the Native Americans having their lands taken and being put on reservations, of black people being enslaved and then discriminated against, of Japanese-Americans being interned during World War II, of Mexican and other immigrant laborers being exploited. At one point, the narrators wondered how to explain the atom bomb to the two pilgrims.

This all was certainly not meant to be depressing or to signal that the U.S has failed. Indeed, the point of the presentation was that this country has always striven to get better. This was a review - truly a pageant - of America’s on-going progress in trying to fulfill the original pilgrims’ vision of building the kingdom of God on Earth.

Yes, the kingdom of God. This was another remarkable thing about the play is that it didn’t shy away from talking about God. A lot. But this wasn’t the God that is heard of so much these days. This wasn’t an exclusionary, threatening, side-taking God.

This was welcoming, embracing God, open to all. So, while the performance sometimes sounded like something going on in a church, it did not seem strange that it was out in the open.

Still, I couldn’t help but wonder if there were people there who see this God as too accepting, too inclusive. I wondered what their God would do, what their Jesus would do. About women? I wondered. About gays? And what about the people who don’t have a God, who don’t believe in God?

What I heard being said in the performance, ultimately, was that all of these people were included in the original pilgrims’ vision. The blessed community is indeed open to all - people worshiping freely and in different ways or not at all - living together harmoniously.

Building and maintaining such a community is not easy and often requires much work. In illustrating this work, this striving, this progress, the new pageant showcased the work done by Pilgrim Place residents. One man spoke about working with Martin Luther King, Jr. A Japanese-American man talked about having to live in an internment camp. Another man spoke of his experience working with Ceasar Chavez. The pageant ended, appropriately enough, with pageantry, a parade of men and women living in Pilgrim Place who have done much in the effort to bring about that community.

In front of me where I sat was a group of boys and girls sitting on the lawn, holding their balloons, guarding their Glue-In creations, while they ate sandwiches brought from home and hamburgers and hot dogs purchased at the Festival. They eventually wandered off - the boys first, of course, followed by the girls - but before doing so, they were clearly drawn in by what was happening on the stage, singing along with the large audience.

On this beautiful day shared by all, saved by and saved from the refreshing rain, this was truly a pageant, reminding us of the goodwill and hope of the season.


Puppies are easy. Prisoners? Not so much.

"Although the project...angers some, for the most part the community appears supportive."

Who can get angry about seeing puppies? Who can not be supportive of puppies? Who can resist puppies?

What can be wrong about a recent project at Chapman University , providing puppies for students to play with as they study for final exams? The puppies were brought to the Fullerton campus by the Active Minds Club, a studying organization promoting mental awareness, during "cram week." The event was called "Furry Friends for Finals."

"It has been proven that having a dog helps relieve stress, so we thought it would be a cute idea if we brought some furry friends on campus," said sophomore and integrated educational studies major Jennifer Heinz, who helped organize the event.

The puppies, provided by a Torrence-based company called Puppies & Reptiles for Parties, were positioned outside the university library for students to pet and play with during study breaks. As Ms. Heinz emphasized, "It’s a nice way to step back from reality and just be stress-free for a moment."

Besides, according to Megan Brown, a licensed marriage and family therapist who is the Active Minds Club’s advisor and a counselor for the school’s Student Psychological Counseling Services, many students miss the pets they leave behind at home.

Awwww! How cute! I thought about heading over to Fullerton for some cuddly puppy therapy. I can really use a break, studying or not. After all, it’s the holidays!

Or how about this being done at the colleges here? Like outside the friendly, remodeled Honold Library?

Certainly, no one can object to such a puppy project...?

No. The quote above about there being anger is not from the Los Angeles Times article about the Chapman University endeavor. It is from another recent Times feature about a help-giving undertaking in Claremont - the Prison Library Project.

Unlike the puppies at Chapman University, the Prison Library Project is not new. Since 1987, the project, which has been associated with the Claremont Forum and is currently located in the Packing House, has been sending out books to prisoners throughout the U.S and beyond. One new thing that I learned from the article was that Rick Moore, the Claremonter who runs the program, moved the program from Durham, N.C, having taken it over from Bo Lozoff and Ram Dass, famed for taking L.S.D trips with the likes of Ken Kesey and for writing books on eastern spirituality.

How the project works is well-known, at least in Claremont and, apparently, in prisons everywhere. Without any publicity other than word of mouth, the project receives letters from all over the country and a few from overseas requesting books and other reading materials.
More than 250,000 books have been sent out in the past two decades by the volunteer staff.

The shelves are kept full by community members dropping of books and publishers discarding old stock. Requests for dictionaries are the hardest to keep up with. Dictionaries? Yes, while novels are popular - men prefer westerns and anything by Louis L’Amour and Stephen King, and women favor romance novels - but most of what is sent out is educational, spiritual and self-help in nature. The Prison Library Project is really about helping their clients improve themselves.

As Tom Helliwell, a Claremont resident whose church donates money to the project, says, "It’s important for them to have access to tools to use their brains in a constructive way."

Sometimes, this involves tough love. Requests for true crime novels, anything by British crime novelist John Wainwaight and such works as John Grisham’s "The Chamber," set in the Mississippi State Penitentiary, are turned down. Other guidelines include no hardcovers (they can be fashioned into weapons), removing all handwriting left by previous readers and wrapping packages in plain brown paper. And inmates who sell the books or use them to curry favor are put on a do-not-send list.

Tough love, indeed. But what the Prison Library Project does is a wonderful example of the good will and hope that is both praised and yearned for during this holiday season celebrating the light and warmth found when it’s darkest and coldest. It reminds us that not even prisoners should be forgotten and forsaken.

This isn’t easy - in more ways than one. Yes, this isn’t easy, like Santa and puppies, but who can object? Apparently, even with the love being tough, people do. "Although the project’s correspondence with convicts angers some..."


Who, I wonder, are these angry people? Who are these people who would throw away the key and not give others any hope, any second chance to better themselves? Are they the same people who throw rocks at the gay church I recently visited?

I went to the Good Samaritan Church in Whittier a couple Sundays ago. This is part of the Metropolitan Community Church, a Christian church for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. During the potluck after the service, I asked the pastor if the church had ever been vandalized. She explained that the stained windows had been broken and had been replaced with shatter-proof glass - the kind used on police cars. Also, the street-side sign had been "fortified, so that nothing can knock it down."

Talk about tough love!

Peace on earth and good will to all isn’t just cute, warm puppies. It is often, as at the Good Samaritan Church and at the Prison Library Project in the heart of Claremont, hard, necessary, lonely work.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

What would Jesus do - if anything - for Christmas?

I’ve always thought there was something weird, something bizarre and schizoid, about Christmas, at least in America. For one thing, Christmas is such a huge deal, while Easter, which marks that for which Jesus is supposedly celebrated - or celebrated by many - is barely a blip.

Then, there’s the mind-boggling fact that, until relatively recently, Christmas was banned - illegal in certain countries, like Scotland, and Christian denominations that saw it as pagan. Now it is the biggest of holidays - and not only in the U.S. When my family lived in London for a year and Christmas was on a Saturday, we didn’t get a newspaper for three days.

And finally, why is Christmas such a huge holiday, let alone a federal holiday, in America, which takes pride in its line between church and state?

With all this, it is hard not to think that Christmas is there to make money. Like what my parents always said about Mother’s Day and Father’s Day - that it was made up by the Hallmark card company. After all, I’m reading everyday in the paper that merchants make about a third of their annual income during the Christmas season, and it is like whether or not Christmas is good this year hinges on how the merchants do.

I’ve been wondering what Jesus would make of Christmas. What would Jesus say about his birthday and how it is celebrated?

No doubt, he would be disgusted, at the least. He would be appalled by how Christmas, at least in this country, is very much about money and very little about him and what he said and modeled.
I keep thinking of Jesus getting mad, getting furious - yes, he was human - in the synagogue and kicking and knocking over the tables of the money-changers, screaming that they violated the holy, the sacred.

I can see Jesus doing that in a mall today.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Anything but Jesus

There was a workshop on shamanism. There was a workshop on Hawaiian spirituality. There was a workshop on making a medicine wheel.

It was pretty typical at this past weekend’s gathering of a men’s group that I’m involved in. Over the past eight years that I have been attending these weekend gatherings with other gay men, there have been workshops on any number of spiritual issues - yoga, meditation, mandalas, totems, magic, labyrinths, sweat lodges, atheism...

Anything but Jesus.

I saw the same thing in the Radical Faeries, and I see it in the queer community at large. There are workshops, classes and groups for all these issues plus others - tantra, solstice, witchcraft...
These are all cool, but where is Jesus?

Let me be perfectly clear about three things. First, I’m down with all these practices. Like I said, they are all cool. Secondly, Jesus shouldn’t be forced on anyone. I’m not out to convert Jews, Buddhists, Muslims.... Yes, I go around with Jesus plastered on my chest, but I’m no evangelist - at least in the classic converting sense. And, yes, I do know about GLBT-friendly Christian churches, the Metropolitan Community Church, etc.

What is also achingly evident to me is that queer people are hungry - no, starving, famished - for a spiritual life. Equally clear is that they don’t want it to involve Jesus. They want anything but Jesus.

To me, this is one more tragic sign of how many in the queer community have been hurt by Jesus. As I have written before, Jesus has been taken by right-wing fundamentalists and used to bash gays. I suspect that many of the guys at the gatherings grew up in Christian churches and then fled when they came out, getting as far away as possible.

Now they are searching, desperate for something - anything - that’s not Jesus.

At the gathering this summer, I was thrilled that there was a workshop on Jesus. Finally! A small number of us showed up - me in my Jesus bibs, of course! - but we were passionate.
As we agreed, the sad, sad thing about this is that Jesus was all about love. He never drew lines regarding who should or should not love each other. What’s more, Jesus made a point about loving - indeed, reaching out with love to - the stranger, the other, yes, the enemy.

And now he is used to hate and to hurt.

We also agreed that it is important to not be quiet and shy, to speak up about Jesus and his message of radical inclusion. I try to do my part, but it is a challenge. It is so much easier to hide and let a snide comment slide, not be sneered at and ridiculed. I often feel like Prior in ANGELS IN AMERICA - a weak, disabled, gay man asked - commanded! - to spread the message. Why me?

Why not me?