Saturday, May 31, 2014

Christians Say "I'm Sorry" at Gay Pride Parade

June 1 is Winnipeg’s Gay Pride parade. Unlike in previous years, there will be no Christians lining the route as part of the I’m Sorry campaign. Here’s what I wrote last year about the campaign, and the response of local LGBTQ members to it.

"I'm sorry."

That's what a group of Winnipeg Christians will be saying from the sidelines on June 2 during the annual Gay Pride Parade.

"Christians have caused a great deal of harm and alienation for people in the LGBT community," says Jamie Arpin-Ricci, pastor of Little Flowers Church in the city's West End and organizer of the Winnipeg I'm Sorry campaign.

"As Christians we have done wrong, and we want to say sorry," he says. "This is one way of making an unqualified apology and publicly committing ourselves to do better."

The Winnipeg I'm Sorry event is part of an international I'm Sorry movement started by the MarinFoundation of Chicago, a non-profit group that works to build bridges between the LGBT community and the church.

Christians who participate in the Foundation's I'm Sorry campaign take the "I'm Sorry pledge." Through it they commit themselves to "listening to the stories of others and seeking to understand," striving to "make things better for the LBGT community," and affirming "God's love for everyone."

Since starting at Chicago's Gay Pride Parade in 2010, the I'm Sorry campaign has expanded to Pride Parades in 20 other cities in the U.S., England, Scotland, Guatemala and Canada.

The first I'm Sorry campaign in Canada was held in 2012 in Winnipeg, when about a dozen people from two congregations held signs offering their apologies.

Response to last year's apology "was humbling," says Arpin-Ricci, who also helped organize that I'm Sorry event. 

"Hundreds of people marching in the parade stopped to thank us, hug us, take pictures and ask questions."

Most moving for him, he says, were those who shouted out: "We forgive you!"

As he looks ahead to the 2013 I'm Sorry campaign, Arpin-Ricci acknowledges not all Christians would agree with their effort. 

But, he says, even those who believe homosexuality is a sin could still agree that the church has treated gay people badly over the centuries -- including "demonizing people's character and intentions."

Plus, he adds, the I'm Sorry campaign isn't about expressing a theological stance on homosexuality.

"More than anything, all we want to do is show love and respect for all people, regardless of orientation, as Christ would love them."

For Jonathan Niemczak, president of the Pride Winnipeg Festival, the I'm Sorry campaign is a welcome addition to the event.

"I think it's great," he says, adding it's "an amazing campaign."

What Niemczak particularly likes about the I'm Sorry campaign is how it presents a different view of Christianity to the LGBT community.

Most gay people only experience the church as "blasting out hate," he says. "It's nice to see that there are some people in the Christian community who are trying to help us."

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Replacing "I Do" With "I'm Sorry"

A friend's divorce was finalized recently. After it became official, he wrote: "It [was] pretty anticlimactic, honestly." It reminded me that while religions have rituals for getting married, there's not as much available for getting divorced. But a few groups are trying to help marriages end with a sense of religious closure, as I wrote in 2003.

I've been to a lot of weddings in my life. But so far I've only been to one divorce ceremony.

It happened in 2002 when I was visiting a Mennonite church in Pennsylvania. Near the end of the service the pastor asked the congregation to stand to read a blessing of separation for two members whose marriage had come to an end.

During the brief ceremony, we read a litany that invoked God's blessing on the former couple as they went their separate ways. It was a sad occasion, yet hopeful at the same time.

Later, I was told that this couple had tried counselling. They had worked on their issues. But in the end everyone agreed that divorce was the best option. 

The ceremony was a way for everyone in the congregation to formally acknowledge the end of the former couple's marriage, and the beginning of their new lives as single individuals.

That Mennonite church is not unique. Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Unitarian and Anglican churches also have offered blessing ceremonies or special prayers for people who are divorced. Reformed Judaism has also added a "ritual of release" to its list of services.

For some, any talk about blessing ceremonies for divorced people is tantamount to encouraging divorce itself. But none of these groups has abandoned their belief in life-long marriage. They are simply coming to terms with the reality that religious people get divorced, too.

Two proponents of divorce ceremonies are Phil and Barbara Penningroth, authors of the book A Healing Divorce. 

In it, they note that while faith groups have rituals such as christenings, weddings and funerals to mark a transition from one stage of life to another, there is nothing for couples whose marriages end.

"Whether one sees it (divorce) as a failure or as a sin, it is without question a major life transition for millions of couples and their children," they say.

For most couples who are divorcing, the end of the marriage is "handled coldly and impersonally by law and the courts."

The Penningroths -- who themselves participated in a divorce ceremony to mark the end of their 25 years of marriage -- see divorce rituals as a way to replace the acrimony that often accompanies divorce.  

"Using ritual to facilitate the divorce process can heal hearts and transform lives," they say.

Divorce ceremonies vary. In one, couples repeat their vows, replacing the words, "I do" with "I'm sorry." 

In another, couples confess their failures to their former spouses, ask forgiveness and then release each other from their vows.

Divorce ceremonies can be done by one member of the couple, too. Two people I know invited friends and clergy to their homes to witness their transition to singlehood with prayers and blessings. One ceremony concluded with a friend symbolically removing her wedding ring.

One Canadian pastor who has officiated at a divorce ceremony is the Reverend Canon David Luxton of St. George's On-the-Hill Anglican Church in Islington, Ont.

"I was really glad I did it," he said, adding "it was wonderful to be able to provide a healing service for them, rather than having only a civil statement to mark the end of their marriage."

During the ceremony, Luxton led the couple's friends and family in a litany that said: "On behalf of the church which blessed your marriage, we now recognize the end of that marriage. We affirm you as single persons among us, and we pledge you our support as you continue to seek God's help and guidance for the new life you have undertaken in faith."

Faith groups should do whatever they can to help couples stay together. But if marriages begin with religious rituals, maybe they should end with them, too.

Monday, May 19, 2014

A Newfoundland Story: Lanier Phillips and Healing the Wound of Racism

When I checked the Winnipeg Free Press online today, I found that one of my old stories from 2012 was the fourth most popular on the site--just below a report about Justin Bieber but above one about Michael Jackson's hologram. I can't imagine any reason why; maybe a class somewhere in the U.S. has been given an assignment about Lanier Phillips, an African-American sailor who had an extraordinary experience with racial understanding in Canada in 1942. You can read about his experience from that 2012 column below.

There's an old adage for journalism that bad news always travels faster and farther than good news. That's why stories about crime, accidents, terrorism and other tragedies are more likely to make the headlines, while other stories often get less attention.

That was certainly true last month for a good news story involving an African-American sailor, a Newfoundland outport community, and a case of colour blindness that took 70 years to make the headlines.  

Lanier Phillips, who died March 12 at the age of 88, was born in rural Georgia, the great-grandson of slaves. 

As a child, he was told by his great-grandmother to never look a white man in the eye or, as he recounted her words, he'd "get a whipping, or maybe lynched."

When African-Americans in his community built a school for their children, the Ku Klux Klan burned it down. It was then, he said, he knew he had "no future" in Georgia.

In 1941, during the Second World War, the 18 year-old Phillips enlisted in the U.S. Navy. 

Life as a sailor was not much better; the U.S. Navy in the Second World War was deeply segregated. Phillips served as a mess attendant on the USS Truxton--the only position African-Americans were allowed to hold on ships. 

"The navy was as racist as the state of Mississippi," he said in an interview.

In February 1942, the Truxton and another ship, the USS Pollux, were caught in a storm off Newfoundland. The fierce waves smashed both ships against the rocks; more than 200 of the 389 sailors on board the two vessels died. 

Phillips was the only African-American to survive.

Covered in thick, dark oil, the survivors were helped ashore by people from the nearby mining town of St. Lawrence. From the beach, they were taken to the first-aid station, where women from the town gently scrubbed the oil off their skin.

As Phillips's later recounted the story, none of his rescuers had ever seen a black person before. As they scrubbed him, they thought the oil wouldn't come off. 

"Oh my, it's gotten into his pores," he remembers a woman saying.

"It's the colour of my skin--you can't get it off," Phillips told them, fearing the worst now that they knew he wasn't white. 

But they didn't stop; they treated him just like the other sailors, speaking kindly and warmly as they gently removed the oil from his skin.

Phillips was amazed. "I had never heard a kind word from a white man in my life, and I had hatred for white men," he told the Washington Post in 2010.

The experience took away his hatred of white people. 

"They just rained humanity on me," he said. "It just changed my entire philosophy of life. They changed my way of thinking and it erased all of the hatred within me."

After he recovered, Phillips went on to spend 20 years in the navy, becoming the first African-American sonar technician. He cited the kindness of the people of St. Lawrence for inspiring him to be all he could be.

After retiring from the navy, Phillips worked as a civil engineer. He also joined the civil rights movement and marched with Martin Luther King--again, citing his experience in Newfoundland.

"I just had to join up with Dr. King and that's because of the change they did for me in St. Lawrence," he said.

Recalling King's words, Phillips said that a child exposed to racism was "wounded in mind and soul. But the people of St. Lawrence healed that wound and I have hatred for no one."

Phillips's story entered Newfoundland lore, being featured in songs, books and a documentary. But it was pretty much unknown outside of that province until his death. 

After his passing, St. Lawrence Mayor Wayne Roswell said "Lanier never forgot his unconditional welcome, love and acceptance in St. Lawrence some 70 years ago. His pursuit for a just and equal society has been a lasting effort."

Although well known in Newfoundland, it took a long time for Phillips's story to reach the rest of Canada. But even though it happened many years ago, it still speaks loudly, reminding that even the seemingly simple and small things we do for others can have important and lasting consequences.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Getting Home Before Dark: Dealing With Dementia

CBC Radio's The Current is running a series on Alzheimer's Disease this week. It reminds me of a column I wrote in 2010 about how the rising rate of dementia, and what people of faith could be doing to help.

“Let me get home before dark.”

That was the prayer of my former Mennonite Central Committee colleague Peter Dyck—also known as "Mr. MCC" for his tireless work on behalf of the agency—asking God to let him die before age robbed him of his memory, and of his ability to be kind, trusting, loving and generous.

In one of the reflections in Getting Home Before Dark, a book of meditations about aging, he wrote about friends who succumbed to darkness

"Once they were young and strong, kind and loving, but something happened," he wrote. But then "their generous spirits shrivelled, their minds became suspicious, and they became something we thought existed only in horror stories, not in reality.

"O Lord, please, don't let that happen to me. Let me get home before a darkness like that overtakes me."

Dyck passed away Jan. 4, 2010 at the age of 95 in Scottdale, Pa. According to those who were with him to the end, his prayer was answered.

There were some difficult days, his son-in-law told me, but until then end his mind remained clear and he continued to be positive and encouraging.

Like Peter, I also pray that I will get home before dementia takes hold; I can't imagine anything worse than knowing I am slipping away into a dark place, far from family and friends. I'm sure many others feel the same way, and pray the same prayer.

But growing numbers of people won't have their prayer answered. A study by the Alzheimer Society of Canada predicts that more than a million Canadians will be afflicted by dementia by 2038—double what it is now.

The rising rate will pose a challenge for people of faith. As Canada ages, places of worship will age, too.

A few groups are beginning to think about how they can minister to people with cognitive impairment and to their families. 

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, for example, is encouraging congregations to create "Care Teams" who are trained to respond to the needs of people with Alzheimer's and their families, including giving family members much-needed breaks by looking after their loved ones.

One subject that is also beginning to receive attention is the role of ritual and music in serving people with dementia. Holy Cross Family Ministries in North Easton, Mass. has published Pray With Me Still, a prayer guide to help patients and family members live with Alzheimer's.

"A prayer like the rosary is very helpful," said Father John Phalen, who says that praying with an Alzheimer's patient can be a way to reach them. The disease can take people away from the present, he says, but the past is still deeply imbedded in them.

"The 'Our Father' and the 'Hail Mary' are often two of the first prayers a (Roman Catholic) learns as a young child," he says, noting that reciting the rosary can take the patient back to that time and provide them with comfort.

A care home run by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Utah is using Sunday school nursery curriculum to minister to people with Alzheimer's.

Sally Dietlein, a counsellor at the facility, says that the visuals and familiar hymns from the curriculum stimulate the spiritual senses and memories of people with dementia. "The primary music is perfect" for people with the illness, she adds.

Much more should be done in the area of religion and dementia, says Gisela Webb, a professor of religious studies at Seton Hall University who watched her mother slip away through Alzheimer's.

In the fall 2001 issue of Cross Currents, she writes that she came to appreciate the "positive dimension of sacramental religion"—the way rituals, prayers and music "reveal the presence of the divine" to people who might otherwise be unreachable.

She goes on to say that even in the most advanced form of dementia, there is a "body memory" that "remains much longer than mind and linear thinking, and so the feelings of religious ritual, music, chant, poetry, body postures, and, particularly, the quality/essence of music . . . continue to be enjoyed and clearly partaken in, even after life-long rituals can no longer be performed and life-long prayers can no longer be articulated."

In Psalms 88:12, the writer asks God: "Are your wonders known in the place of darkness, or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?" The answer, I think, is yes—even if we pray we will never go to that dark place.

Dyck's book, Getting Home Before Dark, can be purchased from MennoMedia.