Prelude Vide: Hole In The World
I’m going to tell you a story about love. It’s the hardest kind of love of them all. And it’s the most uplifting and inspiring. It’s a story that has been playing out for millennia. It’s a story that’s still unfolding right now. You may be part of the story, or you may be watching it from a safe distance. Or maybe the story is about you, and you don’t even know it yet.
For me, it’s a story that took place in the Tower Grove neighborhood of St. Louis on June 24, 2012.
It was a sultry day. As it was only the start of what would become a month-long heat wave, people poured into the South Grand corridor to celebrate the steady progress towards the liberation of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and trans-gender people in St. Louis. It was Pride Fest, St. Louis, of course, and I arrived to a surreal and colorful world. There were youth with brightly dyed hair, motorcycle gangs, roller derby chicks, skinny teenage boys parading around in their underwear, and naturally the most outlandish collection of transvestites I had ever seen up close and in person.
But at the same time, Pride Fest was no longer just about those non-conventional folk on the fringes of society. You know there must be some kind of social progress when the corporations embrace the event by sending out their buxom babes to promote energy drinks and owl-themed casual restaurant chains. At least I’m pretty sure those were actually women. There were fire trucks and politicians, even the Budweiser Beer wagon.
So what was I doing there, other than gawking at the array of colorful signs, outrageous costumes and scantily clad people of all genders, shapes and sizes? I was there with “my people.” Unitarian Universalists were there in abundance – joining forces from First Church, Eliot Chapel, Emerson Chapel and First Unitarian of Alton. We sported our specially made yellow shirts, which declared that we UUs were "Standing on the Side of Love." We had our signs, we had our banners—one Dad even sported a pink feather boa. And boy did we stand on the side of love. We stood, and stood, and stood…and we sweated, and sweated, and sweated…waiting for the parade to start. No one said love was easy. But we were committed, well-hydrated and slathered in sunscreen—and we were ready to march. But more on that later.
So what do you know about this UUA campaign called Standing on the Side of Love? So far you may surmise that it has something to do with LGBT rights and yellow T-shirts. And you would be right, but there’s so much more to tell. How many of you have noticed the big yellow banner hanging on our fence near Kingshighway? I’ve overheard conversations at coffee hour speculating about what it meant and concluding that it probably didn’t mean anything concrete so it wasn’t worth the effort of removing it.
So let me tell you about Standing on the Side of Love, at least from where I sit. It’s much more about us, here in St. Louis, than you may realize. It started in 2008 as the UU response to the tragic church shooting at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church near Knoxville. The father and former husband of members of our own congregation was present at that shooting, in which he survived but two people died and seven others were injured after a crazed gunman entered the church during a children’s production of the show “Annie Jr.” and opened fire.
One member of the Knoxville community remarked that, quote, “We think a church should be more of a place for love," unquote.
I’m not sure if it was that comment specifically that launched the campaign, but that was exactly the idea. So Standing on the Side of Love is all about standing firm, grounded in our first UU principle, which is the inherent worth and dignity of all people. This movement is our answer to discrimination and acts of oppression and violence that are directed at whole groups of people based on their identity.
Given that mission, it didn’t take long for Standing on the Side of Love to become firmly aligned with the movement towards marriage equality, other LGBT rights and also with the plight of immigrant families, particularly those from Mexico. So it’s about taking a stand against hate in all its forms, whether it be home-grown bigotry in our own neighborhoods…or state-sanctioned oppression from our elected local, state and national legislatures.
Then, one day last year during the holidays, I found that I and my family were suddenly part of the story in a much deeper, more personal way. My younger brother, Don, announced quietly to my mom and me that he was finally starting to date again after his divorce a few years ago. Only this time he was dating men.
It took a lot of courage for him to come out to us. He had clearly not been happy or fulfilled in his long-time, childless marriage to a college friend. Finally, with this missing puzzle piece finally filled in, the picture of his life started to make much more sense. My mother accepted him with open arms, just like always, and I was very proud of her for that.
So, there I was at Pride Fest parade, with all these thoughts going through my head, when the parade on South Grand finally started to lurch forward. We hoisted our Standing on the Side of Love banners and started to March. I had no idea what to expect. How many people really showed up for this thing? It was hard to tell from the back of the parade line. And what people were here watching the parade? Would they be local residents coming out of their houses and apartments? Would they be everyday people just like us? Would there be jeering hecklers shouting anti-gay slogans? Would all these LGBT activists think we were just suburbanite do-gooders who didn’t belong there? Would people assume I was gay? Or wait—maybe even worse—would they think I was so boring that I couldn’t possibly be gay? Would someone I know from my office see me in the parade? And how would they even know about my brother, who was far away in Indianapolis?
But I should not have worried. After all, my wife was there by my side, and it felt really good to do this together. And I was very proud that my minister was there – and his wife was there, and our congregation president Sue Herzberg was there, and they were not afraid. In fact, Thomas was ecstatic, as was everyone in our group, and that encouraged me greatly.
And we needed our courage, because hate is always lurking just around the corner. A small band of protestors from the infamous Westborough Baptist church were positioned just around the corner from us. You know, these are the people who march around with signs shouting “God hates fags,” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” It’s when you are forced to confront this kind of hate that you realize Standing on the Side of Love is not some pretty slogan that’s just good public relations. There is very real and serious work to be done to balance hate with love, to be a bright light in the face of darkness and fear. We can’t stick our fingers in our ears. We can’t cover our eyes. And we can’t keep our mouths shut and delude ourselves by thinking that it’s someone else’s problem.
Because we, as people of faith, have affirmed the worth and dignity of all people, it is not only our right, it is our duty to stand on the side of right…on the side of the oppressed…on the side of love. White 1960s civil rights activist Sarah Patton Boyle wrote of the difficulty of standing firm in love amid a swirling storm of hatred: “Like a flame, love consumes fear, and thus make[s] true defeat impossible.”
“Love consumes fear.”
And that’s really so much of what hate is about, isn’t it? It’s about fear. Fear of the “other” – fear of the destruction of your own values and traditions, fear that you’ll become a minority in your own society, fear that your daughter might turn out not to be like the traditional woman you married, fear that your son might some day put on lipstick and attend a parade in his boxer shorts. Or worse… or much worse.
Love consumes fear. And that’s exactly what happened for me.
As our small sea of yellow shirts flowed down the parade route, with members of Emerson Chapel throwing miniature Frisbees to the crowd, I quickly noticed that the people were CHEERING US ON. They saw our big hearts on our signs and I like to think they could see the big hearts beating inside our chests, and we looked them in the eyes and they looked into our eyes. And no one was afraid.
They saw that we were taking a stand for love and they loved us right back. There were all kinds of people, like you’ve never seen before. Clean-cut families with children, groups of friends, groups from local businesses, same-sex couples, opposite-sex couples, people dressed in normal street clothes, people dressed in leather or lavish, sparkling costumes, and a lot of young men dressed, well, not dressed much at all. And they were cheering us on. Fist pumps, whoops and shouts. When’s the last time you heard of people jumping and shouting for Unitarians?
Then two things occurred to me:
First, it occurred to me that maybe people were only excited because they wanted the little hot pink Frisbees. The Frisbees were very cool, it’s true.
Then the second thing occurred to me – that maybe this parade and this marching and sign-waiving and Standing on the Side of Love stuff was not just about “them.” You know, “them” – the people who are different from you, or at the very least whose lifestyles and love lives may be very different from your own, or whose skin color or mother tongue may be different from yours. Maybe this experience was just as much about us. Maybe it was just as much about me. For giving out love is not merely a gift that we give to those in need, the way we would hand out canned goods to the hungry. Love, by definition, is a mutuality—a two-sided equation. Standing on the Side of Love changes us as much as it changes “them.” Many times there is no difference between us and them. Standing on the Side of Love heals our own broken places, both for those of us who do suffer from identity-based discrimination and those who simply want to stop it from happening to our brothers, and to our sisters and to our kids, friends and neighbors.
So when is he going to be getting to the Sparks part? We were promised sparks!
So this idea that there is no real difference between “us” and “them” is where the sparks begin to fly. The divine sparks, that is. I’ll never forget when Rev. Suzanne Meyer first introduced us to the Hebrew myth about the shattered vessels. And how all those sparks by some cosmic accident got scattered throughout the universe and that it’s now our job to engage in Tikkun ha-Olam, restoring the paradise of the creator. The notion that all people contain within themselves the Divine Spark is even broader, being common to Gnosticism and the mystical traditions of Kabbalah and Sufism.
As an agnostic, I can’t say whether there was actually a God who created the sparks. Regardless of how they got there, I do believe that there is a spark of the divine within all people, and in fact, scattered among all of creation. It’s a bit trite perhaps, but I believe the inverse of the traditional expression God is Love, believing instead that love is God—truly, that the act of demonstrating unselfish love toward our fellow human beings, and toward all of creation, is the original source of divinity. The sparks are already inside of us, sometimes visible, and sometimes hidden behind a veil of fear, or sickness. But more often than not, we don’t take the time to look for the sparks. Look into the eyes of another human being. Look long and deeply. Truly see them from the inside out. And you’ll find a spark of recognition, of divinity, of fellow-feeling.
Best of all, the presence of a well-developed social movement like Standing on the Side of Love gives us courage. Who among us would be prepared to stand alone against the Westborough Baptists, or those who advocate for writing anti-gay and anti-immigrant discrimination into our state constitutions or administrators of religious schools who ban children of same-sex parents.
We don’t have to stand alone, because Standing on the Side of Love is something that we do together. That’s what makes it powerful. “Love consumes fear.” Both the broader fear in society and the fear we feel inside ourselves.
So that’s the story. Now, maybe next time you drive past that large yellow banner facing Kingshighway, you’ll know that Standing on the Side of Love is about our number one priority, the worth and dignity of all people; and that it’s about people in our families and our own communities; and most importantly, that it’s a story, not about “them” but about us.
So…Where do you stand?
Postlude Video: Love, Love
July 11, 2012
St. Louis, Missouri
Bill Drendel & GW Grimm-Howell