Friday, January 25, 2013

You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone

In posting my column which appeared in Wednesday’s Claremont Courier below, I just want to add that I didn’t know how much of a pioneer Mary Ellen Kilsby was in getting Christian churches to welcome those in the glbtq community. Apparently, she got several congregational churches, including the one in Claremont, to be among the first “open and affirming” churches. According to the obituary in the Courier, in one of her first sermons at the Claremont UCC, she said that Anita Bryant was wrong about homosexuals, and some people walked out. Wow! I wish I had known. Also, I’ll add that John York attends the Claremont Quaker meeting.


“You know the Byrds?”

“The what?”

“The Byrds. B-Y-R-D-S.”

“The Byrds?... The band?”


Yes, my friend had heard of the Byrds. He is almost half my age and probably wasn’t even born when the band was playing, but I figured he had probably heard “Turn, Turn, Turn” or “Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man” on the radio, maybe in a diner or a thrift store or an auto repair shop.

Not only that. My friend knew that the Byrds had been an important band, well-known for its jangly, folky, sunny guitar sound. He was in town for the weekend, and we had just seen that John York was playing in the area.

“He was in the Byrds,” I told my friend.

“That guy was in the Byrds?”

“And he lives in Claremont.”

“Really? Mmm!” my friend said, no doubt making a mental note to google or youtube John York later on his phone. Or maybe he was doing it right then.

Really? Who knew? I hate to say this, but I have to admit that this is what I thought when I read the obituary for Ray Collins in these pages a few weeks ago.

I had seen that there was an obituary for Ray Collins a few days earlier in the Los Angeles Times (although I didn’t read it). And I had seen the man around in the Village for years. But I hadn’t put the two together.

I didn’t know that the guy with the headlining obituary in the Los Angeles Times was the guy in the Village. I didn’t know that he had been in the Mothers of Invention, another influential 1960's rock band. I didn’t know there was this quiet treasure trove of rock history and colorful stories, complete with partnering with and then not speaking to and sometimes speaking ill of Frank Zappa, in our midst.

And now he is gone, no longer in our midst. Ray Collins is no longer here, where he chose to live out the end of his rich, creative life, making Claremont all the more rich and creative.

I wish I knew this before now. I wish I knew about Ray Collins like I know about John York. Like my friend now knows about John York.

And about how he, along with many others, is what makes Claremont such a rich, creative community.

I’m certainly glad - all the more now - that I knew Mary Ellen Kilsby, who died a few weeks ago. As I write this, I think about going to a memorial service for her on Sunday.

I also think about how, last year when I saw her for one of the last times at Pilgrim Place where she then lived, she hugged me so hard that it hurt. It occurs to me that she hugged Claremont in the same way.

For years, when I was growing up and before she and her husband Bud moved to Long Beach, Mary Ellen Kilsby embraced Claremont, giving this community much of her remarkable energy. Among other things, she served on the Claremont school board and was its president, all while I understood she was a pastor at the Claremont United Church of Christ, Congregational.

It was actually not until later in my life, when I became friends with her daughter, Kathy, and after she moved to Long Beach to serve as the head pastor of the big congregational church downturn, that I met Mary Ellen. But I had always heard and read about her and what she was doing in Claremont. While here in Claremont, she was always one of those people making this town a better, more caring community.

She still cared about Claremont after she left. I would occasionally see her, and be subject to her enthusiastic hugging and kissing, at events at Pomona College, where she was active - once again, active - in the alumni organization. One year, she gave the address at the colleges’ baccalaureate service. And it felt right, like a circle closing, when, a year or two ago, after her retirement and the death of her husband, I saw that she was living in Pilgrim Place.

The circle is always closing, just as the years keep going and coming. And people like Mary Ellen Kilsby and Ray Collins, with their wild stories and boundless enthusiasm, come and then go, enriching our lives and our community. Do we know them and the many others who make Claremont before they are no longer here, before the circle closes again?

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Not gun shy, to say the least

“[Ryan] Girard said he tried to go to the show Saturday but the out-the-door line was more than four hours long. He opted to come back about 6 a.m Sunday, three hours before the event opened. He said about 500 people already had staked out spots by the time he arrived.

“‘I’ll tell you right now, Obama is the No. 1 gun salesman in the nation,’ Girard said. ‘The NRA should give him an award.’”

- - - From an January 7 Los Angeles Times article about the Crossroads of the West gun show, held (on the last days of the Christmas season, when the Three Kings offered their gifts, by the way) at the Ontario Convention Center not far from here, and the enormous crowds there, similar to those at gun shops, shooting ranges and other such events, spurred on by the desire for protection after the Newtown school shootings and fear of stronger gun control measures favored by President Obama and other officials.

“Public Defender Matthew Hardy argued that the boy’s sense of right and wrong was corrupted from growing up in a household filled with violence and hate. Neo-Nazis frequently gathered at the family home in Riverside, family trips to the shooting range were common and loaded guns stashed around the house.”

- - - From an article in the Times on the same day about a 12-year-old boy on trial for (and since convicted of) fatally shooting his father, Jeffrey Hall, a Neo-Nazi leader, while he slept on a couch in the living room. The boy, who was 10 at the time of the shooting and who was no longer allowed to live with his drug-addicted mother, allegedly feared that Hall planned to leave the boy’s stepmother and shatter the family and was also allegedly beaten and berated by Hall, an unemployed plumber, during drunken rages.

“Guns are not for hunting. When will you people figure that out? Guns are for hunting down politicians when they steal your rights away through tyranny. Hello! Any call for gun control is treason... You can’t protect your freedom when the government has more guns than the people.”

- - - A phone message left for Times columnist George Skelton a few years ago, as quoted in his column on Monday.

Wow! Hello! As my friend Chris would say - and although there is plenty more I can mention, like the shooting yesterday at Lone Star University in Texas (yee-haw!) and gun show advocates referring to the shows as “family affairs” - ‘nuff said.

Friday, January 11, 2013

An answer to hate

Last year, at just about this time, I posted a column I wrote for the Claremont Courier about a very visible nativity scene in front of a church here featuring same-sex couples that was vandalized. Here, in my column that came out in Wednesday’s Courier, is an update.


When I was in high school and college and for many years afterwards, my dad would see my hair and what I was wearing, and he would ask, “Are you making a statement?”

For years, I would adamantly deny it. “No!” I would proclaim hotly, both indignant and guilty. “I am not making a statement!” Like he was both accusing me of a crime and catching me red-handed.

Like making a statement is a crime.

It took me a long time to face up to it. Not that making a statement is not a crime. It took me a long time to see and understand that I was making a statement. Of course, I was.

Perhaps I was not sure of the kind of statement I was making. Perhaps I didn’t know exactly what I was trying to say. Or was it that I didn’t know that I could say something in this way, that it was okay to make such a statement?

Most likely it was all of the above. And no doubt par for the course for those working their way to becoming their own person.

I have been thinking about my father’s question since seeing the nativity scene in front of the Claremont Methodist Church over the holidays. With its seasonal tableau, it seemed that the church on Foothill Boulevard was offering an intriguing lesson on making statements. Either it was scaling back and toning things down, or it was making a bold comment about making bold comments.

That the church may have wanted to tone things down this Christmas is understandable. In recent years, the church has been known for its provocative nativity scenes. Jesus has been depicted being born in a homeless encampment and in a jail, among other places.

Last year’s nativity scene - the one closing out 2011 - turned out to be exceptionally provocative. A more abstract tableau depicting same-sex couples following a star, it was so provocative that it was vandalized. The star was taken down, and some of the figures were set askew or knocked over.

The vandalism took place late on Christmas Eve or early on Christmas Day and was written up in the Los Angeles Times. It was not good Christmas P.R for a church.

So I wasn’t sure what to expect when I went to see this year’s nativity scene, and I was both disappointed and not surprised to see a fairly standard version of the birth scene, complete with straw bales and cardboard camels. It was a nice touch, though, that Joseph was wearing a Claremont Community School of Music tee-shirt.

There was also a small sign explaining that “historical Nativity scene...stands as a symbol of acceptance and even celebration of those who have been outcast” and that Jesus “was born in poverty, out of wedlock and from a foreign land.” It went on to state, “In our effort to give meaning to OUR holiday, we have often stigmatized the poor and the undocumented people among us by creating customs and ceremonies that include those with means and say to the poor and those who do not look like us or speak our language ‘we were not thinking of you when we planned this’ or ‘you don’t belong.’”

This was a powerful statement regarding the outsider and what the Christmas message says about how we treat the outsider. But, as a friend commented after hearing this description, it was too bad that it wasn’t more evident in the scene itself. It is too bad, my friend commented, that there wasn’t an even bolder statement made after the vandalism the previous year.

But wait - what was the chain-link fence that the sign was on, that surrounded the scene? There was an opening at the front, but it was nonetheless weird and disturbing to see this ugly, stark barricade. Even more jarring were the two other signs that stood out much more, the bold red and white signs - one that said “No trespassing, loitering, unauthorized parking” and the other one warning that there was 24-hour surveillance.

I wondered if the fence and the warning signs were there to protect the nativity scene, to keep the vandals away. This made sense, but it sure was sad. I saw that, of course, this was the point, this was the statement. The ugly, stark fence and the bold threatening signs and the way they were weird and disturbing and jarring, the way they made me feel a bit like an outsider might feel, was the statement.

As another friend said after seeing the tableau, “This is what you got after a hate crime.”

This is just one statement in a world full of more and more statements. But it reminds us to take care and have the courage to make statements that need to be made and at least as much to take them.

Not a bad statement as we venture into a new year.