Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A progress in work

Sometimes - okay, pretty often - I just have to say “wow!” about this small town where I live, with all the things going on and getting done here. And, here in my most recent column in the Claremont Courier, I’m not even talking about the eight colleges in Claremont which recently had their graduations, all but one in one crazy weekend.


Amy Andrews isn’t someone who we see as part of the Claremont community. We don’t think of her in Claremont.

We don’t want to think of her in Claremont.

Amy Andrews was a sex slave. She was a victim of human trafficking.

This happened when she was in her early teens, about 14. She had been in and out of foster homes, an incorrigible girl, a girl who was sexually abused in some of these homes, after being abandoned by her drug-addicted mother. A man, a man who she thought was nice, took her away, and she ended up in a locked house, working as the man’s prostitute.

This didn’t happen in some backwards, under-developed country. This didn’t happen in a far-off, impoverished region. This happened right next door, here in the Inland Empire. Ms. Andrews grew up in the Ontario area and met the “nice man” while spending time in Palm Springs. The man took her to a house in Los Angeles and later to Las Vegas.

She was probably driven through Claremont.

As much of a shock as this may be - it shocked me - it really shouldn’t be. It turns out that human trafficking, which includes not only prostitution but also domestic servitude and likely a range of things, is big businesses in America and that the Inland Empire is the “capital” of human trafficking in America.

News or not, this was the subject of an interfeith community forum last month in Claremont, sponsored by the Pomona Valley Chapter of Progressive Christians Uniting and co-sponsored by a range of groups, including the Interfeith Sustainability Council of the Pomona Valley, the Pomona Valley Affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the Democratic Club of Claremont and the Islamic Center of Claremont. It was here that I heard Ms. Andrews tell her story, giving a firsthand account of what happened to her. Ms. Andrews, now a successful mother and studying to be a healthcare professional, is quite a powerful and compelling speaker.

The lead speaker at the forum was Claremont’s State Assembly Member Chris Holden, who is sponsoring a bill to expand law officials’ wiretapping authority, with a judge’s permission, to those they suspect of human trafficking. As Ms. Andrews pointed out, most of the business of human trafficking. Again, Ms. Andrews was most compelling, and all the more so when she asked the audience to reach out and be compassionate to those who appear to be involved in prostitution (and to do so with discretion, for they may well be supervised).

The audience - that there was one there - was perhaps the most significant thing about the forum, which also included leaders from Christian and Islamic groups. The topic was one that is ugly, not nice, easy to ignore and dismiss, to say that it doesn’t happen here in Claremont, and the fact that there were people there to listen, to learn and to find out what they can do, says a lot.

It says that there are people here who care, who get involved in work that is not easy, who do more than attend the bright events, like the one that happened a few days earlier, when Uncommon Good’s Whole Earth Building had it’s grand opening.

Taking place on a sunny and warm Saturday morning, this was every bit a celebration of the good - the good that can happen and the good that does happen when people get together to make it happen. With music and blessings and excited speeches, this was a party for everything Claremonters can get done.

What’s more, this grand opening was groundbreaking. Literally. This building, right behind the Claremont Methodist Church on Foothill Boulevard, was built mostly by hand using materials, the dirt and the rocks and the plant matter, that was on the site, saving energy and resources and preventing further pollution and global warming. It was designed by “visionary architect” Erik Peterson, of the Claremont Environmental Design Group, for the Uncommon Good organization’s offices and events.

It was exciting enough to get to go inside this brand new unique and beautiful modern adobe building, opening right in time for Earth Day, with its thick walls and warren of small yet airy spaces. It was also a special treat to see Dolores Huerta, the legendary farm labor leader who worked alongside Cesar Chavez, giving some words of congratulations. She was joined by other officials and dignitaries like Claremont Mayor Opanyi Nasiali, Chief Anthony RedBlood Morales of the San Gabriel Band of Mission Indians and, again, Assemblymember Holden.

There were shouts of “Dolores! Dolores!” capturing the love, joy, accomplishment and pride - “Si, se puede!” - that the gathering was all about. It was indeed a bright celebration of what people in Claremont can do.

It was also a reminder that most of this work is just that - work. As Nancy Mintie, the Executive Director of Uncommon Good, emphasized during her remarks, putting the building up was exhausting, and there were days when she and her fellow workers wondered what they had gotten into.

Not only is this work that people in Claremont do hard, it is sometimes unpleasant, disturbing and downright dangerous. Reaching out to the Amy Andrews in our midst can lead to some dark, ugly and nasty places.

The people who are involved in this summer’s effort to end homelessness in Claremont know this. They are shining a light into a dark underside of Claremont, one that more often than not involves mental illness, addition and other distressing characteristics.

Not only are they shining a light on the problem, they are trying to bring light to the problem. The purposes of the campaign is not to ignore or ban the homeless in Claremont, as City officials have attempted to do in the past, but to reach out to them and help them get the resources they need - resources that are freely available but which can be not easy to get.

Like much that is done in Claremont, this is good, hard work.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

He who sings prays twice

He missed the music.

I met him when I was attending a P-FLAG meeting here in Claremont (long since defunct) about a dozen years ago. He said that he was looking for a new faith community, no longer feeling welcome in the faith community that he grew up in because of his homosexuality. I could tell that religion or faith was at least as important to him as it is for me, and a friend and I suggested he might like joining us at the Quaker meeting in Claremont.

He attended the meeting for a few months, and it was nice having another gay guy there. He said that he liked the quiet and the open-mindedness, the absence of dogma. He also said that he “missed the music” and ended up joining his boyfriend at the Church of the Brethren, close by in La Verne.

Earlier this month, I skipped meeting and checked out a service at the Church of the Brethren. I had recently attended a performance there by Peterson Toscano, a gay, Quaker performance artist who deals frequently with the Bible, and I figured that a church that invited him to perform would be cool. Also, I had long heard about the Church of the Brethren, that it is a “peace church” like the Quakers, and, besides, the La Verne church is a lovely, old church.

I saw my P-FLAG friend, who I hadn’t been in contact with in years, there, singing in the choir, and his boyfriend/partner was playing the piano and had written some music for the service. It was clear that they are very happy and totally at home at the church. It was nice to see this.

It was also clear that music is quite important at the church. It seemed to be almost a tenet. In fact, other than the simple stained glass windows, the only art in the sanctuary had to do with music, depicted in three scenes from the Bible.

It made me think yet again of what I saw on a poster or banner at a Catholic mass when I was growing up: “He who sings prays twice.” I have often thought of this, even putting it on a leather bracelet that I made for a summer camp counselor.

Yes, as I suspected, the Church of the Brethren is far more Bible-oriented, with scripture read, quoted - and, of course, sung. But it all seemed, at least on a initial visit, pretty mild, pretty gentle, without much pressure to believe certain things or in a certain way. I’m not saying there was no dogma, but it wasn’t like when I was visiting the gay-based Metropolitan Community Church a couple years ago and felt, in a weird and terrible irony, that I didn’t belong if I didn’t believe in or accept Jesus as my savior, assuming I’m a sinner and/or inadequate, in need of saving. In any case, I liked the emphasis on, as was said during the service, “doing, not saying.”

I didn’t get what I wanted at the MCC, but there are also times when Quaker meeting is just too quiet and small for me, especially, I recently realized, when I have to get up early on Sunday morning. There are times when I miss the music. And, although I usually resist it, there are times when I want to be guided and read to and even lectured (a bit).

I am at home at Quaker meeting, and I’ll always be a Quaker, an unprogrammed, silent-meeting Quaker. But don’t be surprised if I sometimes show up at the Brethren, or - who knows? - another church, now and then.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Guns for kiddies

Did you know that there are guns that are made for children? Not toy guns. (That’s already a problem right there.) But real guns. The kind that shoot real bullets. The kind that kill.

I didn’t.

I didn’t know this until I read a short article last week deep inside the Los Angeles Times about a 5-year-old boy in Kentucky shooting and killing his 2-year-old sister. It was an accident.

But this wasn’t another story about a child finding a parent’s gun, with tragic results. The gun - a rifle - was given to the boy. It was a gift. A birthday gift last year.

Apparently, there are guns made for little kids. According to the article, “The rifle is a Cricket designed for children and sold under the slogan ‘My First Rifle,’ according to the company’s website. It is a smaller weapon that comes in child-like colors, including pink, red and swirls.”

Sure, “this was just a tragic accident” and “very, very rare,” as the county coroner says, but, on top of wondering how the parents now feel about this gift, I am left with this question: When guns are made for children, “in child-like colors,” when guns are given to five-year-olds, how can we argue, logically, sensibly, for gun restrictions using a schoolyard massacre as a reason for doing so?

Monday, May 6, 2013

Play ball - like it or not!

I didn’t think I would get all shook up by a baseball movie.

The other night, I saw “42,” and there were a couple times when I almost bursted out crying. I had read a lot about this docudrama about Jackie Robinson, the first non-white man to play major league baseball when he begun playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1940's after playing in the Negro leagues, but I frankly wasn’t ready for how powerful and moving this film is.

This isn’t your typical movie about the glory and glamor of sports. And it’s not exactly a feel-good movie about making history. Sure, there are plenty of heroics and excitement, but they are more like those seen in a war zone rather than a playing fields, with Robinson facing boos, nasty racial epithets and violent threats from fans and players and with teammates and the whole team not welcome in some places. That this ugly, war zone of hate is this country is most disturbing (and seeing that Philadelphia, “the city of brotherly love,” a city known for its Quakers, was so viciously racist at the time is particularly eye-opening and jolting).

Robinson was famously told “to be man enough not to fight back,” and he famously was. In the film, it is absolutely heart-breaking to see him break down and let out all his rage in private.

Perhaps the reason why I was shaken up so by this movie is that I can relate right now. This Spring, as baseball season is well underway, I, as a gay man and with the nation waiting for key decisions, I know a bit of what Jackie Robinson felt.

If my heart didn’t break, it definitely sank when I read about the proposal by top officials of the Boy Scouts of America, up for a vote later this month by members, to resolve the controversy over the organization’s anti-gay stance by letting gay boys be scouts while continuing to exclude homosexual adults as leaders. As unsatisfying as this compromise position is to virtually everybody for numerous reasons, what I found really upsetting was the reaction to it, with people on both sides of the issue once again saying damaging, ugly things about the other. “I think it’s strictly the religious people saying, ‘They’re terrible people, they’re not moral,’” said Howard Menzer, who heads Scouting for All, a San Diego advocacy group, as Tony Perkins, the president of the conservative Family Research Council, called the proposal “an affront to the notion that Scouts are brave, reverent and ‘morally straight.’” Of course, what this means is that no matter what is ultimately decided, school people, if not everyone, will be unhappy to say the least.

It is hard not to feel, as a gay man, like the eye of a nasty storm, with a vital aspect of who I am being picked over and tossed about. At the risk of mixing sports metaphors, I said in an earlier post about court rulings on same-sex marriage, that I don’t like being a football, being punted between the opposing sides.

This is all the more the case as the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8, banning same-sex marriage, are in the hands of the U.S Supreme Court, with decisions due by July. Yes, it is encouraging that many commentators are saying there will be a partial ruling, if not a broad-based, nationwide ruling, in favor of gay marriage and that a few Republican U.S Senators have changed their minds and now endorse gay marriage, we really don’t know what the decision - which will no doubt make some unhappy - will be until it’s announced. And while it is encouraging that an active, professional, male athlete (a black one, to boot) has come out as gay for the first time - a situation not unlike Robinson’s - and that a state lawmaker (also black) in Nevada (!)recently came out, it is just plain not nice that U.S Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has compared homosexuality to murder.