Being an ally = WORK: I don’t care what you call yourself.

posted by aaron

Lately I feel a little burned out.  I feel burned out on educating people who are allegedly already on Team Revolution.  I feel burned out on putting up with liberals who want to claim my voice as representative of theirs when it’s useful, and shut me up when I offer criticism of the ways they have left me/others out of their vision for the Kingdom.  I feel burned out on lines like, “But they’re still a good person, even though they just did that incredibly racist/classist/misogynist/heterosexist/transphobic/xenophobic/ableist thing—don’t judge them!” and “Let me tell you what REAL radicalism is, silly ladies.”

However, I do NOT feel burned out on being a witness to real conversions of heart and mind.  I will labor and pray for those my whole life.  Keeping myself and my community open to the movement of God among the people is incredibly life giving.  I am not tired of that.  I am tired of “allies” who get street cred and book deals and interviews simply for being sympathetic to the oppressed.  I am tired of “allies” building careers off of their own “sensitivity” instead of redirecting media/resources/followers to leaders who are oppressed people themselves.  But I am not burned out by real transformation.  I have a lot of inspiration for that.  And it does not generally come from people who make a big fuss about their own sensitivity and awareness.

Perhaps I should explain my position.  I do not live, work, or worship in a radical lefty bubble.  Or a liberal bubble.  I am a trans clergy spouse in a whiteline denomination, at a church with evangelical leanings (in the areas of worship and, to an extent, biblical authority).  My partner and I live in a small city which is politically conservative-to-moderate, with white supremacist streaks running through it here and there.  We are both white and able-bodied and out about our queerness.  Our county had the highest unemployment rate in the state last year, and there are a lot of hurting folks here—lots of vets of all ages, lots of people continuing to lose their homes, no new jobs in sight for the past several years, lots of anger about all these things.

We generally find ourselves surrounded by people who do NOT think like us, or share our analysis about the roots of the world’s woes.  A few times, we have found ourselves in flat out hostile territory (usually for reasons of queer/trans phobia).  And yet, more times than I can recall within this past year, I have had my mind and my expectations completely blown by the folks in our parish—who were not looking to be a nice liberal/progressive church, who had mostly never heard the phrase “ally”, who were widely unaware that Christians were responsible for much violence against queers (not to mention lots of other people).

I am discovering this year, after 6 years of life and work in liberal-to-left leaning spheres of NYC, that my moderate-to-conservative church people can be better allies than the liberals, progressives, and anarchists I left back east.  I am discovering, in this community, that becoming part of a church means THROWING DOWN for other members of your church.  Don’t get me wrong, we definitely are not perfect—many folks still have BIG gaps in what they notice as injustice, and like everywhere else, there are some cranks and haters.  But I am discovering that there is a real, concrete response here once folks have opened their hearts and spent some time digesting new information.  It is not a detached response, and it is not theologically/ideologically abstract.  It’s more like, “I just discovered that this other member of my family in Christ is hurting.  I see them at least once or twice per week.  I can do something.  I can make them a casserole.  I can pray with them.  I can tell them I am PROUD they are part of my church.”

Deeply imperfect.  But deeply personally invested.  And open to the reality that they may be changed, and moved, and not know everything already.  Because only God knows everything.

I am burned out on self-identified allies and progressives because I am currently immersed in a community that doesn’t speak progressive “ally” language, and yet is showing REAL and COURAGEOUS love—a community, btw, that loathes vegetarianism, sometimes shoots its own meat, values a nice haircut and clean shave, lifts its hands in the air for praise music, and prays every Sunday for our community members serving in the military.  THIS community has my back.  THIS community is hungry for empire-critical Bible scholarship.  THIS community gets excited about the free class we’re teaching right now on the legacy of MLK.  THIS community just put out a parish-wide survey that included the question, “Are you male/female/transgender?” (Honestly, I was shocked… and so proud!).  THIS community collects a biblical tithe for the poor in our community—10% of our annual budget goes right back out the door to pay for electric bills, rental assistance, and emergency food needs.  THIS community is beloved.

I don’t want my people talked about like they are The Enemy because they are from a small place, a praying place, a Bible-reading place, a hunting/fishing place, a place where people enlist in the military in high rates because of severe lack of other jobs.  I want my people recognized as brave people because they are doing this thang in their OWN language, on their OWN terms, with honesty, and with recognition of the power of the Spirit to move hearts and minds.  Also, they get zero Revolution Points for whitepeopledredlocks, veganism, and DIY gentrification, which makes me love them even more—they think these things are weird and are unafraid to say so.

I want more self-proclaimed allies to show this kind of openness to the truth that you do NOT know everything, but you will try your damndest to be responsible in concrete ways and in daily life.  I want more self-proclaimed allies to pray a minute before you open your mouths or organize an action.  I want more allies to leave urban white hipsterdom and gentrification churchplants and get your ass someplace where you are daily working with folks who are NOT on the same page as you politically, culturally, and theologically.  I mean, shit, we’re out here, and they haven’t killed us yet… so don’t complain about how uncomfortable and challenged you feel by this.

7 responses to “Being an ally = WORK: I don’t care what you call yourself.

  1. I LOVED this post!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Your congregants remind me of my grandmother and other family members who are just doing the right thing and saying the right thing without political theory or hoopla. After reading a post about Keith Olberlann (MSBNC) it really confirmed for me that as followers of Christ we can’t align blindly with the left or right but we need to follow a 3rd way that liberation. I also love that your church does emergency assistance(“pay for electric bills, rental assistance, and emergency food needs”) -can I be the social worker there? LOL

  2. WE WOULD HIRE YOU IN A HEARTBEAT! except i totally love the saucy older lady who currently holds the job (btw i was part of her hiring process, and at no point did anybody say, “she’s too old to be good at this or relevant to this work,” or “she can’t do this because she has a disability”… emergents, take heed! you miss out when you fail to attract gems like her).

    outreach is another exciting thing– we’ve recently started having serious conversations about how to use our outreach funds/capacities even more effectively. like, beyond immediate short-term assistance– how do we make our church overall more accessible, safe, and spiritually nurturing to low-income people, immigrant people, people of color (all of whom are our immediate neighbors– surprise surprise! yes, the burbs can be incredibly diverse!). and those conversations have been really honest and self-aware– folks already know they don’t have to leave our city or our neighborhood to encounter deep poverty and structural discrimination. however, they also realize that among the poor, we’ve mostly only been good at drawing poor white folks into worship and church life (poor people of color access our outreach services regularly, but rarely join us in other areas of communal life). and there is 100% admission that “this is on us. we have not tried very hard to speak and celebrate the Gospel in other cultural forms and languages.” almost zero defensiveness about it, almost unanimous desire to change for the better. BREATH OF FRESH AIR after so many years of hearing self-righteous white progressives say, “well, clearly if we are not a racially integrated space, the problem must be the backwards ideas/politics/cultures of POC. we couldn’t POSSIBLY be alienating people.”

  3. This post was like an underground stream for my soul.
    Moving to the East Coast from England the first year of seminary was a greater culture shock than moving from Oregon to England. I mean sometimes English people would take pot-shots at my Americanness, but it was usually in good fun.
    Then I got to Philly. I wasn’t attacked personally, but people did constantly (or so it felt at first) mention the “red states” the “fly over states” “those ignorant racists with their guns and trucks” (no really, someone said that). Some people were also surprised that I called Wyoming home because, “you don’t seems like you’re one of those people.”
    I called people on this for a while, but it wasn’t until Bush was out of office that this type of thing slowed down.
    Yet, when the ELCA was voting about homosexuality my Bishop and the entire Rocky Mountain Synod stood up with a united voice for the rights of gays and lesbians–for that matter the only trans-folk I met there were from Texas.
    Thank you for pointing out the faithfulness of the praying-casserole brigade.
    I must confess for having whitepeopledredlocks for a time. Move a little progressive child from Cheyenne to Eugene, leave him alone for Easter break, don’t correct him when he speculates that yogurt would make a good locking agent… well… these things are bound to happen.

  4. @Chris: Lucky for both of us, we live a faith where repentance, atonement, and redemption from the sin of whitepeopledredlocks is possible. I did mine to impress a girl, at the tender age of 18. They came off at 19 or 20. Oh, the things you must learn as a hick teen transplant to NYC. And thank you, Jesus, for the learning!

  5. I hear ya about progressive/left/urban/democrat folks constantly talking about how the problem is “over there,” refusing to see injustice in our “progressive” enclaves, and even their own complicity in it. There’s a lot of anti-rural, anti-working-class, anti-poor, anti-religious attitudes that inform this “Oh it’s so pooey over there and so wonderful over here.” I have faced more anti-gay harassment in New York City then anywhere else.

    And I want to caution us about swinging too far the other way. A few of my (queer, Christian) friends have said “It’s harder for me to be Christian amongst gays than gay amongst Christians” and I really have to call bullshit on that. First, there are definitely vocally anti-Christian queers out there, and there’s also definitely vocally anti-queer Christians. And even when anti-queer Christians aren’t name calling, we experience degradation subtly through language (or lack there of) about our lives and relationships. I’m really not convinced that more interpersonal meanness is directed from queers to Christians than from Christians to queers. But *even if that were the case* it is a Christian dominated society that holds immense power over queer lives (and other types of “others” too) and Christian churches which dictate who are and are not acceptable. So while, I think it’s important to hold us all accountable, saying it’s *harder* to be Christian than queer is just not fair. (There’s a whole other discussion to be had about how lots of folks experiencing multiple oppressions find solidarity and community in their faith communities)

    Likewise, I think it’s important that we don’t substitute one utopian fantasy for another when it comes to liberals/progressives/urbanites. I may have experienced more anti-gay harassment in NYC but I’ve also experienced more queer affirmation here. I’ve known openly queer couples, I’ve had straight pastors talk about gay sex positively at church, I’ve had friends demonstrate and donate and advocate. It stands in stark contrast to my mostly white, conservative Christian church that recently proclaimed in a sermon that God loves some people more than others.

    I’m totally stoked for your experiences at your church and in your community. I just want to make sure we don’t forget the lived experiences in small towns, “red states,” Christian communities, suburbs, etc. that don’t find affirmation.

    We’ve got lots of work to do everywhere.

    PS I too am SO OVER congratulating “allies” for their crumbs and half-loaves of bread. If you want to claim the mantle of ally, then taking a bold stand for justice every day!

  6. @Brian: Totally. There is truly nothing romantic about where we currently work/live/worship. Just like there is nothing romantic about the circles I left in NYC. But I hear very few voices lifting up the work of small town justice-making. And in a world where a handful of rich folks are making BANK off pitting all hurting people against one another, I think bridge-building in unexpected places is key for liberation and love and getting shit done. Breaking out of red state/blue state mythology keeps a movement from stagnating.

  7. Yes, yes, yes. Thank you.