WE ARE ALL THE SAME: 1,000 Voices Speak for Compassion

 

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A few years ago, I went to All Saints Church in Pasadena and heard a sermon about a young, gay man who’d recently been bullied.

He’d been beaten up for the simple reason that he was gay.

According to recent studies, gay people are even more at risk than the disabled when it comes to bullying: they are 28% more likely than the disabled to suffer physical and emotional abuse in their lives.

All Saints has a strong presence of gay folks. LIke Desmond Tutu, who recently said he would “not worship a God who was homophobic,” All Saints is inclusive, refusing to honor or promote closets of shame.

That Sunday there was so much support for the gay man who’d been bullied, and the compassion in the community was palpable.

It was a profound experience of the energy of collective compassion.

Thich Nhat Hahn, a Zen Buddhist Monk I’ve learned so much from over the years, often talks about the importance of having a sangha, a community where  compassion and understanding are practiced.

In a talk he gave at Stanford, he suggested that scientists might one day be able to measure the collective energy of compassion, and help us to understand just how strong a force it is.

Several weeks ago, I talked to a cousin of mine who’s getting her degree in theology and disability from a seminary in Seattle. My cousin has a boy with down syndrome, and feels called to ministry in this area. She’s especially sensitive to bullying, and the negative attitudes many people have toward the disabled, since her own son is at risk.

We talked that day about the prejudice the disabled in our society have to overcome —  the perception many people have that they are less than other people, and because of their disability, inferior. And we also talked about the prejudice that gay people have to face.

Like many people, I told my cousin, I grew up thinking that gay people were strange, and different from me; but, over the years — mainly from contact with gay people — I’ve learned that we are not fundamentally different. We are the same. We are different only in sexual orientation.

For a while, I was active in musical theater. In one of the productions I was in, it happened that most of the dancers were gay.  I used to listen to their conversations when we were in rehearsal, and waiting on the stage for direction.

One day I heard one of the young men complaining to a friend about the fact that he gave his lover a present for Valentine’s Day, but his lover didn’t reciprocate.

Wow, I realized, he sounds exactly like me; he’s not different at all.

If I had any homophobia in me, that experience cured me of it.

That morning at All Saints Church, I was sitting next to a gay couple in their 30s.

During the passing of the peace (the part of the service where everyone turns to their neighbor and greets them), the couple embraced, and shared a sweet, short kiss.

When I felt the love and respect they had for one another, the fact that they were gay no longer mattered.

I enjoyed being with them, the same as I enjoy being with heterosexual couples who are happy, and in love. They give me energy, and hope.

That Sunday, no religious dogma was preached, and no religious answers were given to the problem of bullying. Still, I went away wishing that what I’d experienced that Sunday could be bottled and distributed worldwide.

Since then, I’ve become convinced that the world would be a much better place if we didn’t try to prove our strength by dominating and humiliating others.

Along with Desmond Tutu, I feel strongly that God’s arms are wide enough to include everyone — rich and poor, gay and straight, the beautiful and the not so beautiful, the disabled and the physically strong.

We are all precious in God’s sight. Everyone counts. No one is less than.

If that’s not the case, and I have to go to a homophobic heaven and worship a homophobic God, I will join Bishop Tutu in the other place.

 

BLACK LIVES MATTER: 1,000 Voices Speak for Compassion


“It is my belief that in the Presence of God there is neither male nor female, white nor black, Gentile nor Jew, Protestant nor Catholic, Hindu, Buddhist, nor Moslem, but a human spirit stripped to the literal substance of itself before God.”

     — Howard Thurman

Two months ago, on December 27, 2014, I went on a march in LA to protest the killing of unarmed black men and women by the police.

I felt frustrated after the Ferguson Grand Jury refused to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who killed Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri, in August of 2014, and could find no words to respond to the disappointment I was hearing from black friends with whom I’d been discussing his case.

I was moved reading articles written by black parents who were forced to have painful conversations with their children about the police and racial profiling — policies that I doubted would be tolerated for five minutes by white parents.

Many people, myself included, see these killings as modern day lynchings.

When a friend told me about an upcoming Black Lives Matter march in  LA (one of many taking place across the United States), I decided to go.

On a chilly morning (for LA), I took the bus to the LA Farmer’s Market, which is close to Pan Pacific Park, where thousands of protestors were gathered.

Some of the people on the bus were angry when the bus driver told them she had to go a different route because of the protestors.

“Protestors!” one man yelled, “I didn’t fight in Vietnam for this!”

“Well, I’m going,” I said, and asked the bus driver if she would let me off at the next stop, and point me in the direction of the March.

It was a pretty day, and in spite of the chill in the air, the sun shone, and the skies were blue.

I enjoyed the half mile walk to the park, and soon I was with the others — mostly black people, but there were white people there, too — marching and chanting, “No justice, no peace!” and “Hands up, don’t shoot!”

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After an hour or so, we turned a corner onto Wilshire Blvd., chanting “this is what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!”  20141227_144345We were in the sun again, so I took off my sweatshirt. As I was tying it around my waist, I tripped over one of the orange cones the police had put on the street to keep the marchers on one side of the wide Boulevard.

“This is what stupidity looks like,” I said to the two young black women who were marching next to me, as I struggled to regain my balance. They laughed, and then we all burst out laughing.

Then the woman who was standing next to me said, “Thank you for coming out.”

I nodded.

“It’s for a purpose,” she said.

“I think it is, I told her.

I was touched by her warmth, her grace, and her fire.

“Off the sidewalk and into the street!” she yelled when she saw the hundreds of people on the sidewalk along Wilshire Blvd., some staring at us, some cheering us on.

The march was peaceful. There was no tear gas, and no arrests. The police were there, but they were using a light touch. Many of the officers were hanging out on bicycles along the route, and appeared to be enjoying themselves (quite a contrast to what was happening in other parts of the country).

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Toward the end of the march, someone started playing a drum, and there was lots of singing and dancing, neighbors greeting neighbors, friendliness, and the joy that comes from being together.

After the Black Lives Matter march, as I pondered what to do next, I read an article by Parker Palmer that spoke to me:

“Imparting hope to others has nothing to do with exhorting or cheering them on. It has everything to do with relationships that honor the soul, encourage the heart, inspire the mind, quicken the step, and heal the wounds we suffer along the way.”

Compassion has less to do with charity and cheerleading, I realized, and more to do with solidarity and kinship.

The Buddhist Monk, Thich Nhat Hahn, wrote that compassion involves deep listening — the ability to hear the suffering of our neighbor — and it also involves deep looking.

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As James Baldwin wrote, “you cannot fix, what you will not face.”