Thursday, October 22, 2009

San Francisco: A Sanctuary City?

San Francisco, being the city that it is, finds itself once again embroiled in struggle: the mayor vs. the board of supervisors, the City-By-the-Bay vs. the US goverment.  This time the issue is about the rights of immigrant youth.

For the past 20 years, San Francisco has been a sanctuary city, meaning that the city is on record as not working cooperatively with the federal government in the enforcement of immigration laws.  In fact, the city has reached out to immigrant populations to offer city services regardless of one's immigration status.

In 2008, when Tony Bologna and his two sons were murdered by a suspect, Edwin Ramos, who is an undocumented immigrant, Mayor Gavin Newsom unilaterally decided to change the sanctuary city ordinance and required local law enforcement officers to immediately hand over to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents suspected juvenile offenders, without due process which would ultimately determine their criminal guilt or innocence.

On October 20th, there was much cheering in the Board of Supervisors meeting, when, by a vote of 8-2, the city supervisors voted to restore due process for immigrant youth, thanks to legislation drafted by Supervisor David Campos.  In response, Mayor Newsom instructed city law enforcement officers to ignore the supervisors vote, and continue to hand youth directly over to ICE, prior to trial and proof of innocence or guilt.

I am in support of the restoration of due process for immigrant youth.

The great city of San Francisco has long been a city that knows how. Knows how to value its residents, knows how to honor diversity, knows how to advance justice, knows how to promote innovative thinking, and has historically known how to implement policies that bring all these elements together. Whether being a sanctuary city, providing health care for all, or extending domestic partnership benefits to gay and lesbian couples, this city has been willing to step up to the challenges of our day and find inspired ways to protect the vulnerable and ensure equality and justice for all.

Mayor Newsom's current policy related to immigrant youth does none of this. It has resulted in increased tensions between law enforcement and immigrant communities, it has torn apart families, it has wrongly detained innocent youth, and it has isolated young people from their families and communities of support and placed them in unfamiliar and unsafe situations.

This policy fails to live out our highest values as a city.

This City has always welcomed the stranger and embraced the outcast. San Francisco has provided a home to those who have no home, to those who have been cast from their homes, and to those who have to flee from their homes. Whether sexual orientation, gender identity, faith background, race, class, ethnicity, or country of origin, what has made San Francisco the great city it is has been the result of this ability to extend a home, a place of safety and belonging, to those who are often marginalized or oppressed.

Restoring due process to immigrant youth who are picked up by the police is consistent with this city’s historic tradition of ensuring that the marginalized and oppressed are not further marginalized by unjust policies.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Medical Marijuana and the Risks of Faith

I was glad to learn of the Obama administration's decision regarding medical marijuana, shifting resources away from the investigation and prosecution of medical marijuana users, growers, and suppliers.

In 1996, the California attorney general's office ordered that all medical marijuana dispensaries in the state be shut down.  Knowing that this would increase the suffering of those who relied on the drug to ease the pain of illness, several other progressive pastors and I were invited to turn our churches into medical marijuana distribution sites.  I was invited see what that would entail so went to an "undisclosed location" (or so we thought) to see how the drug was given out.

The following day, I woke up to grab the morning paper and read on the front page of the SF Chronicle: "Rev. Karen Oliveto is considering allowing her church, Bethany United Methodist Church in Noe Valley, to be used as a medical marijuana site." Oh no! I had made no decision, said nothing to my congregation, and now they were all learning this bit of "news" along with their Saturday bagel and coffee.

Needless to say, I was more than just a little nervous about what Sunday morning would be like. The first thing I did was apologize to the congregation and correct the zealous journalistic reporting. I then promised to send each congregational member a packet of information about medical marijuana and the legal risks involved. I also asked them to pray every day for discernment about what we as a community should do.

The following Sunday, we gathered after church to discuss whether or not we would become a distribution site.  One by one, members stood to voice their opinion: "Well, it is illegal...but what would Jesus do? Didn't he break laws if it meant relieving suffering or healing the sick?" "I wish, before my Harold died, I could have eased his pain with this drug. I hated to see him suffer so..."  "It is illegal, and we could lose our church assets if the government came after us, but doesn't God ask us to put people first?" 

It looked like we were coming to a consensus when suddenly Inez, one of the community's "grandmothers", raised her hand and stood. "Just hold on here a second."  Uh-oh, I thought. Here comes the controversy. "Do you hear what we are saying? 'Sure, they can come and use our building.' What's so Christian about that? We need to be here, when the sick come for their medication, and offer hospitality. We need to be here and love them as they receive the marijuana." So every Tuesday afternoon, an 84 year old woman would lead a band of church folks as they welcomed the sick into our building and helped them access medical marijuana.

It was a transformative experience for our community, one that we often turned to as an example of extreme faithfulness.  We are called to take great risks as a people of faith. In fact, if we aren't taking risks, we probably aren't being very faithful.  Because living our faith out loud is countercultural.  It is nothing short of revoluntionary activity.

I learned an important lesson from this experience.  People in the pews are hungry for a lived expression of faith that makes a mark in the world, that calls them to be their very best selves as individuals and as community, and that calls them to step out and risk it all as a disciple of Jesus.  The Gospel demands nothing less.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio? To Colma...

When I was in the 2nd grade, my teacher required us to recite a poem by heart. The poem I chose got seared into my brain-I can still recite it without pause. It was a Robert Frost poem entitled "In a Disused Graveyard":

The living come with grassy tread
To read the gravestones on the hill;
The graveyard draws the living still,
But never anymore the dead.
The verses in it say and say:
"The ones who living come today
To read the stones and go away
Tomorrow dead will come to stay."
So sure of death the marbles rhyme,
Yet can't help marking all the time
How no one dead will seem to come.
What is it men are shrinking from?
It would be easy to be clever
And tell the stones: Men hate to die
And have stopped dying now forever.
I think they would believe the lie.

Looking over this poem, I realize it is a strange one for a 7 year old to choose to memorize! It is also oddly prophetic. Now, as an adult, I live in the only necropolis on the United States: Colma, California.

Colma has 1.5 million dead people, and 1500 living residents. My neighbors include Joe DiMaggio, Wyatt Earp, Levi Strauss, Emperor Norton I (one of my favorite San Francisco legends), and Tina Turner's dog (wrapped in one of Turner's fur coats), all buried here in Colma (there are 17 cemeteries--including Pet's Rest, the pet cemetery run by Glide member Phil C'de Baca).

I love walking through the cemeteries (my "parks"), looking at tombstones, reading the inscriptions, noting which graves are still lovingly cared for and which have been long neglected.  I am happy to report that my neighbors are fairly quiet, seemingly content in their final resting place.

Colma is also the backdrop of an indie film, Colma: The Musical. It is the coming of age story of three friends who recently graduated from high school. Living in that "in between" time of adolescence and adulthood, they must make a choice, to leave Colma and live, or remain amongst the dead.

Isn't this a life-long task? It is one thing to visit and remember the dead, it is another thing to reside in the past with them. I know too many people who can't let go of the past, of what once was, of the way things were.  Jesus said, "Let the dead bury the dead."  We must leave the cemetery and enter the land of the living, choosing life, over and over again.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Standing on the Side of Love

On October 11, I participated in the National Equality March in Washington, DC. This march brought together activists from around the country to call for full civil rights for lgbt persons at the local, state, and national levels.

I had the privilege of standing on the rally stage as Rev. Troy Perry offered an invocation. There we were, at the foot of the Capitol Building. I looked out at the tens of thousands of people gathered before us, saw tens of thousands more still marching in, and then looked across the reflecting pool and mall to the Washington Monument. I couldn’t help but think of the many millions of people who have stood here, witnessing for equality and justice. So many streams of justice-making, calling our country to be the very best it can be.

What is it about this country that causes so much division?  Why do we fear and hate difference? Why is it so hard for us to recognize the sacred worth of every person? Why don't we understand that none of us is truly free as long as some of us are oppressed? Democracy hinges on each of us standing up for the rights of each other.

There were many critiques from within the lgbt community leveled at this march: its timing, how it was diverting energy and resources away from local and state battles, how it was asking for too much too soon.  Needless to say, those outside the lgbt community had things to say against this march as well.

For me, I will always choose to stand on the side of love.  Because of my relationship to God and my commitment to follow Jesus, I can do no nothing less.  Love calls us to work for each other's liberation, to take a stand even when it is unpopular or inconvenient, to join together to mobilize love's power to transform. Love's imperative is always "now", never "not yet".  October 11th was the time, DC was the place, to stand on the side of love.

*Photos by Tyler Shaw

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Quotable Bible

My first pastorate was in upstate NY, in the northern foothills of the Catskill mountains.  In a closet that was clearly long forgotten, I happened upon a most interesting artifact: a book entitled "The Quotable Bible". Someone had gone through the Bible and omitted verses, chapters, sections, entire books that were deemed "unquotable"! It was very interesting to read familiar passages and note what parts the editor felt was extraneous and what needed to remain in the text.

Well, according to the Huffington Post, another group of people have decided to go through the Bible in order to remove its liberal bias.  This has caused me to scratch my head and wonder what would be left!  Economic justice is one of the rallying cries in the Bible (forgive debts, share one's resources, do not hoard one's wealth but give to the poor...). Is this a liberal or conservative bias?  If these mandates are ommitted, what's left?

Is the love of neighbor a conservative or liberal bias?  Does healing the sick (even the sick without health care) reveal a liberal leaning?  Would Song of Solomon be considered a liberal celebration of wanton sexuality?  What would they do with that wild woman, the woman at the well?  What about Judges 19, which is a text some folks use to condemn homosexuality while overlooking the rape and dismemberment of a woman? Oh yeah, and then there's Jesus himself, who broke rules, overlooked religious laws, touched the untouchables, and hung out with outcasts. Conversative behavior or liberal behavior?

It is not just as simple as discarding the parts of the Bible we disagree with. What makes this ancient book a modern, living document are the tensions that exist within it.  When I read the Bible, I am challenged, pushed out of my own comfort zone, forced to see beyond my own limits and biases as I listen for God's Word.  The contradictions, the offensive and distasteful parts force me more deeply into text and tradition, into the story of faith, and invite me to participate in it.  To sanitize the sacred book robs it of its transforming power.  Why would anyone want to do that?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Guy on the Corner

I share the corner of Taylor and Ellis, where Glide is located, with a remarkable patch-work quilt collection of humanity: staff, clients, congregants, tourists, the homeless and the strung-out.  After a year and a half, I've come to recognize the "regulars" and note the tell-tale signs of a tourist (it has less to do with their camera and everything to do with their clothes--most people come to SF expecting warm weather and wind up buying SF sweatshirts).

One man, in particular, is someone I always look for. Graying hair and beard and in a dirty white coat, he is a ghostly presence on the corner.  Sometimes I pass him, asleep alongside the building. Other days, he is sitting on a planter, talking to an unseen companion. Still on other occassions, he is standing in the middle of the road, shouting and gesturing like a fiery preacher.

Today, I realized he hasn't been around for a while.  We have been passing each other daily for 18 months, and I can't recall when I last saw him on the corner.  What was it about today that made me realize that he was gone?  How long has he been gone?

I don't even know his name.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

"Pastor, You Were Angry"

Today, someone came up after Celebration and said, "Pastor, you were angry."  I had brought to the attention of the congregation an email I had received before church.  Last May, eight of us from Glide went on a mission trip to Kenya. While we were there, we met with Rev. John Makokha, one of the few pro-glbt clergy in Africa.  He introduced us to a gay couple, who told us their story.  They told us how, in Kenya, it is against the law to be gay or lesbian.  One of them had, in fact, done jail time. The other had been fired from a bank because it was suspected that he was gay.

This morning, the email informed me that one of the men had been beaten in his own home. His partner was out of the house when the intruders--who were known to the men--broke in and began to beat him, telling him, between the blows, that he deserved to die.

Yes, I was angry in church this morning. No one should be subjected to violence because of who they are.  I was also extremely sad this morning.  We humans have such a hard time with the diversity found in the human family. Instead of embracing our differences as a mirror of God's greatness, we are frightened and threatened by it.  How can we learn to love the God-given differences that are found in our brothers and our sisters>

Friday, October 2, 2009

Why I Practice Sabbath-Keeping

I am troubled by the fact that I have to schedule times with friends at least two, if not three weeks in advance to fit into each other’s schedules.

I am troubled by the fact that so many kids today live lives that are as heavily scheduled as many adults.

I am troubled when couples tell me that they often don’t get to reconnect with each other until after 10 at night.

I am troubled when single people tell me they don’t have time to date.

I am troubled when folks tell me that their work load is so great that they have to make a choice between attending a church meeting or coming to worship (a side note: if work is that demanding, always err on the side of attending worship).

I am troubled that all these technological devices which are supposed to allow us to work anywhere have resulted in us working everywhere.

I am troubled by all of this because many of us are going through life terribly off-balanced.

We are overloaded, overworked, overcommitted, overanxious, overextended and overwhelmed, .

I recently read a book by Steve and Mary Farrar that described the contemporary American lifestyle that contributes to overload as deficit living. They wrote, “Overloaded people live in deficit—emotional, relational, or spiritual. When our checking accounts are overdrawn, we experience immediate stress and pressure, don’t we? It sets off an adrenal rush to find a way to immediately cover that shortfall. But where do you find a surplus when you’re already short? Where do you get money when you’re completely out?

“It’s also possible to get overdrawn in life. When we are overwhelmed, we find ourselves living in deficit—emotional deficit, relational deficit, spiritual deficit. We get overdrawn in our relationships and overdrawn with our kids. We run out of currency—the emotional and relational “cash” that it takes to live life well. And before long we begin to get anxious and panicky, because we think there is no way out.”
(from Overcoming Overload by Steve and Mary Farrar, Colorado Springs: Multnomah Books. 2003)

This deficit living is one reason why I try to observe a Sabbath every week. Sabbath is a time for me to unplug, keep my calendar empty, and do nothing that is even vaguely related to "have to" "must do" or "should do". Sabbath helps me breathe unconstricted, stretch my body and my soul, and relearn the rhythm of grace in my life again. Sabbath is a time of reconnection: with God, with those I love, with myself.

The weeks I fail to observe Sabbath, I feel as if I am running on empty and out of sync with myself and God. By keeping Sabbath, I ensure that in my busy, overextended life I have made room for God. And God never fails to show up in the midst of my Sabbath to sustain me the rest of the week.

Do you observe Sabbath?

What difference does it make in your life?