Image: My rainbow scarf and mardi gras beads at Arlington St. Church, Boston Pride 2017.
Oh I am waking up, to find my world
Between the dying and being reborn
I see what is and I see what could be
Can’t close my eyes again, and go back to sleep. [Zo Tobi]
Tomorrow, I am formally joining the congregation of Arlington St. Church, a Unitarian Universalist congregation with roots that stretch back through Boston history to 1729. I have been attending services regularly since November 2016 and have known for about a year that I wanted to become a member, with a certainty that actually gave me pause and was part of what led me to delay joining until now. I wanted to make sure my commitment to this community was something more than a passing urgency borne of the national turning point of the Trump/GOP ascendency to power.
As part of the joining process, I was asked to reflect on what led me to Arlington St. Church; since I think best in writing, I wrote down some of the threads of my life that have led me to participation in this particular community, at this particular point in my own life and in this harrowing era we are living through. And, having done that, I thought I would share some thoughts here with all of you.
Ancestors all behind
And before me every child
I bring the power of a long unbroken line [Zo Tobi]
As most of you reading this likely already know, I grew up in the Midwest — in Holland, Michigan, to be precise. In the 1840s, religiously-motivated immigrants from the Netherlands arrived on the shores of Lake Macatawa, land that formed part of the territory of indigenous Odawa (or Ottawa) peoples. While Holland has substantial Latinx and Asian communities, the politics and culture of the city has long been dominated by the descendents of these white Dutch Protestant settlers (one branch of my family firmly among them) and the Reformed Church in America (RCA) and Christian Reformeed Church (CRC) denominations that they established. I grew up with a Catholic church and school on one end of my city block, an RCA church on the other end, and the church that my family attended for some portion of my childhood (a story I will tell below) two streets over. My grandfather was a professor of New Testament theology at the RCA seminary in town, which sits adjacent to the RCA-founded liberal arts college that my grandfather and grandmother, my father and mother, and myself and my sister all attended. While I was never baptized in, or formally joined, the church it was an inescapable part of my childhood — I was culturally mainline Protestant, and more specifically steeped in the internal contours and divisions within the RCA/CRC world.
Until I was a teenager, church was not something my immediate family participated in on a regular basis. When the church bells rang on Sunday mornings, we were more often to be found settling in for pancakes or waffles, or setting out on our bicycles for a Sunday morning ride. But as I reached adolescence, playmates of mine who did attend evangelical Christian churches began to invite me to church events, and — coached, no doubt, by the adults in their lives — sought to convert me, asking me to pray with them an accept Jesus into my heart. In part to counter this evangelical message (at least, that is how I remember their decision), my parents decided to return to regular worship at the church where my grandparents were active members, along with many seminary and college faculty.
Hope Church was (and to my knowledge, still is) widely known as one of the most progressive RCA congregations in the area, with a long tradition of women in leadership and openly defiant of the denominations prohibition on ordaining gay and lesbian congregants as elders and/or deacons. Members of the worship team responsible for the lay-led service my family attended included a man who had served prison time as a tax protestor during the Vietnam War, people who organized to protest at the School of the Americas, and anti-racism activists. I remember congregants weeping when Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa in 1994. I remember a church-sponsored field trip to visit a portion of the AIDS Memorial Quilt when it was on display in West Michigan. At least two of the women who had served as pastors at the church had come out (though not until after they had left). We used to joke that the church as the last stop for people contemplating leaving the denomination, or the faith, entirely.
I say this not to claim that the congregation was perfectly progressive. I spent a lot of my teen years angry that it wasn’t progressive enough for my own uncompromising adolescent sense of social justice. Nevertheless, those years did introduce me to many progressive Christians. People for whom faith, and religious practice within a community of fellow travelers, provided the moral imperative to work for a more equitable, inclusive world.
Fill my days with blessed unrest
And my nights with dreams of justice
Make me a vessel for the turning of the tide [Zo Tobi]
In the fall of 1998, when I was seventeen and just beginning to take courses at Hope College — a liberal arts college with deep roots within the RCA and the local community — the campus-wide fall symposium was on the theme of “feminism and faith.” This event opened windows and doors for me to feminist, queer, and liberation theologies that I embraced with unabashed joy and enthusiasm: finally — finally! — here were Christian (and Muslim and Jewish and Buddhist) feminist thinkers who grounded their religious faith and practice in global human rights struggle. I went on from that fall symposium to take two advanced-level courses in feminist theology and eventually designed my own major in Women’s Studies. At the same time, we students and faculty who embraced feminist ethics as a core part of our religious beliefs and practices faced strong objections from students, faculty, and staff who rejected feminism and queer sexuality as incompatible with Christianity. I’ve written at length about this part of my Hope College experience here and here.
Looking back on my experience of Christianity in college (1997-2005) with the benefit of hindsight, I can say a few things now that I wouldn’t have been able to articulate at the time. Growing up where I did, and when I did — largely pre-social media — it was incredibly difficult to extricate yourself from the cultural ecosystem of white, reformed Protestant reference points. Any discussion or dispute about morality and social justice in my hometown and my academic community returned to Biblical and other Christian theological texts. Most of the students and faculty I engaged with, no matter their current political or religious beliefs and practice, had grown up steeped in Christian — and often very conservative Christian — faith communities. The queer people I interacted with struggled to leave faith communities that did not support them, and find communities that did. The feminists I knew often wrestled with painful estrangement from their families and church communities of origin. Christianity was an overarching discourse that — whether progressive or fundamentalist or somewhere in the muddy middle — determined the range of what was possible. Even students who left the faith in anger and proclaimed themselves athiests or non-believers still wrestled with the legacy of a Christian worldview.
It was exhausting.
As I dug into feminist and womanist theologies as a college student, I gradually stopped attending church because Sunday services. Even worship at my liberal-progressive congregation (where my feminist theology professor was herself a member) felt like a constant battle between the progressives pulling in one direction, the reactionaries pulling in another, and people in the middle seeking to hold the church “family” together across painful divides I felt strongly should not be divides at all.
The late 1990s/early 2000s in the RCA (and across the wider mainline-to-conservative Protestant community) was also a fairly hostile environment in which to come out as a bisexual woman. Throughout college — though I privately acknowledged my queer desires — I was a vocal LGBTQ+ ally but struggled to see my own experience in the lives of my fellow queer students. They were so wounded by and (rightfully) angry at the churches of their youth; their journey to self-acceptence through the valley of self-loathing was not one that resonated with me. This alienation from their struggles as queer and Christian, queer and feminist was one small part of why it took me until my late twenties to reckon with how I wanted to act on my embodied sexuality in queer, feminist ways. I saw rejection of conservative teachings (sacred and secular) all around me, but little example for what being queer and feminist in the absence of struggle against these Christian theologies might look like.
The experience of coming of age in contentious relationship with the Christianities that were omnipresent in the world of my youth led me, eventually, into my graduate work as a historian. With my Master’s thesis on the pedagogical and religious origins of the Oregon Extension program, I sought to put twentieth century struggles between left-progressive Protestants and fundamentalist-evangelical Protestants into historical perspective. I was particularly interested in the way both education and religion provide pathways for making meaning, and how liberal arts education sometimes offers alternatives for those who find the religious communities of their upbringing incompatible with their own well-being and a just community. The interplay between religion, identity, and social justice continues to be an abiding interest of mine as both a scholar and an individual whose identities — whiteness, womanness, queerness — are implicated in many of the most high-stakes political and theological divisions of our era.
When I moved to Boston in 2007 it was a relief to have discussions of religion and politics recede into the historical and scholarly for a time. Barack Obama was poised to win the presidency and in Massachusetts marriage equality was settled state law. After eight years of battling a federal government that was hostile to my feminist and (emerging) queer identities, my pacifist and social justice values at every turn, it felt like a new chapter had begun. Emerging from beneath the long, horrible shadow of the Bush II years, I looked forward to working with rather than against the federal and state governments in furthering a social justice agenda. And it was a relief to gradually become more open about my same-sex desires, bisexual identity, and eventual relationship without having to address religious opposition at every turn. My family — including my church-involved relatives — embraced Hanna as my girlfriend and later my wife. I was starting to think of myself as an agnostic raised in the Protestant tradition, and Hanna was unchurched as a child, finding spiritual solace in Buddhist teachings; when we married we had a civil ceremony that did draw upon traditional Christian vows but took place at a coffee shop not a church; we both agreed that our community of support was not one organized by faith but by friendship and family instead.
Image: Arlington St. Church sanctuary, Boston Pride 2017.
The November 2016 election of Donald Trump and the GOP ascendency changed this equation in a way that neither Hanna nor I predicted. In the wake of the election, my basic commitments to living my values remained unshaken. I felt equipped to make decisions and be responsive to the slow-rolling disaster that was our incoming a federal government of nihilistic haters. But I also knew, on a bone-deep level ,that in order to carry on during whatever horrors lay before us I needed to connect with a local community of accountability.
How can I change our course, just a lonely voice?
Wish I could lose myself, in all the noise
But if we all would rise, a generation proud
With a mighty song, we could turn this world around [Zo Tobi]
Image: Candlight service on Christmas Eve 2017, Arlington St. Church.
If you’ve made it this far, you may have noticed that this story about faith is thin on questions of metaphysics or belief. Is there a God, and if so what is God’s nature? What happens when we die? Where or how did we exist before birth? In what way does God (if God exists) interact with human beings? What is the nature of evil? Questions, the theologians and philosophers might say, of ultimate concern. The reason for that is, quite simply, that I tend toward the pragmatic. Is religion or belief useful to the person in question? Does it alleviate their distress and enable them to participate in the human community in creative and constructive ways? Do our shared stories lead to living well and fully in community with one another? If they do not, we should revise them; if they do, we should tell and retell them. I am primarily interested in the now, and will cope with the future when (and as) it comes.
Love is the spirit of this congregation,
And service is our gift.
This is our great covenant:
To dwell together in peace,
To speak our truths in love,
And to help one another. [ASC affirmation and covenant]
A friend of ours, raised Catholic, was baffled when Hanna and I first tried to explain how the affirmation and covenant of Arlington St. Church is not a creed in the usual sense of outlining doctrines concerning the nature of God(s). Instead, it’s a relational commitment between members of the community “gathered together,” as we say each Sunday morning, “in love and service for justice and peace.” This is, for me, one of the strengths of Unitarian Universalist practice, and one of the reasons that I feel comfortable joining the community; I will continue to identify my spiritual persuasion as agnostic raised in the Protestant tradition and that’s A-okay.
So when our time is through, I want to know
Did what we came to do, for the Future Ones
So in our darkest days, may we all be strong
And give our lives so life may go on [Zo Tobi]
I have a lifelong history of coming to things later than most, and out of the usual order. I learned to read at the age of seven after showing near complete disinterest in the skill, only to jump straight to reading chapter books. I became a degree-seeking college student only after taking four years of upper-level classes, and my last semester as an undergrad was full of first-year requirements I had never bothered with. I had already been living with Hanna for a year before we became a couple. But I find that these late-breaking commitments, however circuitous my path to them may seem, are both deep and certain. With the exception, perhaps, of my journey through higher education (about which I remained deeply conflicted), my decisions are usually unequivocal. Once I started reading, I never stopped. Once I found a way to be queer, I had no doubts. I chose Hanna (who, in turn, chose me) and I have never looked back. And for reasons that are not entirely clear to me yet, that is how Arlington St. Church has been. I have known from almost the first service I attended that I would join this community.
Image: Affirmation from Arlington St. Church in the form of a rainbow flag with text reading: “At Arlington St. Church, we believe: love is love; black lives matter; climate change is real; no human being is illegal; all genders are whole, holy, & good; women have agency over their bodies.”
As part of the joining service at Arlington St. Church, I was asked to name what gifts I bring to this Unitarian Universalist congregation. Thinking about what I wanted to say recalled to me another reason I feel in this moment that membership in a religious community is an act of resistence: the purposeful honoring of human beings as more than their work histories, professional training, or future promise as workers. I have done social justice work within my chosen field of libraries and archives — and will continue to do so. But we live in a world of aggressive neoliberalism in which human worth is valued almost solely along the axis of economic “productivity.” We are valued first and foremost in modern America as workers. In that context, participation in a religious community that — among other principles — values “the inherent worth and dignity of every being” seems urgently required. It was freeing to think about what I bring to such a community without reference to the labor I do as a wageworker. I took a step back and reflected on the me-ness of what I do and how I try to live. And these were the skillset I chose to bring forward to my fellow congregants:
The capacity to imagine new possibilities.
Patience and persistence,
…and growing skill with a sewing needle.
Tomorrow, I will sign the membership book, participate in the Sunday morning worship service and the corporation meeting that comes after — my first as a voting member! — wearing the rainbow scarf I bought for my grandmother’s funeral and the earrings I wore at our wedding and be grateful that Arlington St. Church exists and that I (and Hanna as she so desires) can play whatever part is required of me in the years of blessed unrest to come.