Finding Life in Detention

(Finding Life in Detention was originally written for the BeZine, an online “e-zine” produced by the Bardo Group. Please check out the other amazing writing found in this and other issues of the BeZine!)

SEC Logo copyI’ve only been working as a chaplain with youth in detention for a month. I could have chosen a number of different seminarian internships; campus ministry, church administration, advocacy. But I chose chaplaincy on purpose because I felt a “call.” It is why I’m studying an MDiv; it’s why I stopped running away from ministry.

In this month I’ve heard stories of rape, assault, grand theft, vandalism and trafficking in narcotics. There is something fundamentally disturbing to hear the voice of a child talk about getting so drunk and high that carjacking an elderly woman sounded like a way to “have fun.” All this from the mouths of youths who should be worried about their SATs rather than their next court date. So I’ve been asked the question, “How do you do this?” My answer is, “Because my faith demands it of me.”

fhouseAs a Unitarian Universalist, I believe that salvation is IN my life. My faith as I choose it requires me to work towards the inherent worth and dignity of all people and all creation, not for heavenly reward but for humanity. Which means pushing myself to be in places and meet with people which make me uncomfortable. To speak truth to power. To give witness. To expand beloved community. To be where the Spirit of life needs me to be.

Yes, it is hard to sit in active listening, asking questions, attempting to sift through the psychic refuse to find the innocent child underneath. But let me be clear; there is an innocent child underneath! Because I have also heard these same children’s voices ask for mercy, beg for forgiveness and plead for a fifth, sixth or seventh chance to turn away from the paths well worn by their incarcerated fathers and addicted mothers and economically and educationally depressed neighborhoods. These children’s eyes reflect back at me; “Help me! Heal me! Love me! Save me!” And my faith and my humanity will not let me say “no!”

seedEven though a minister’s trade is in miracles, I expect none here. My ministry is to listen. To be present. To plant seeds of hope. To challenge my world to change for the sake of it’s children. And to push and pull with all my might to bend that arc of history just a little bit further toward justice. It is in this hard work that I find the Spirit of life seeking reconciliation and my own salvation.

In this way, working with youth who are incarcerated is life giving! It reminds me of who I should be. It wakes me up from the soma of my off-white middle class American social location. The work allows me to be so filled with gratitude for my family and baby boy that I have to respond in thanksgiving. And because I did very little to deserve my blessings and privilege, I must pay it forward. Which is where I am confronted by mystery and miracle! The more I give, the more I find that I am being transformed by these youth into a better human being.

What can I teach my son about violence?

3811620119_american_flag_gun_xlargeWith another mass shooting by an armed white male, I am once again reminded (as if I could ever forget) that I live in a society with the potential for murderous violence. And no matter what the NRA and Fox News or any other pundit tells me, I agree with President Obama’s assessment: “Now is the time for mourning and healing, but let’s be clear: at some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries.”  It doesn’t. Not with the frequency as it has been happening. Not with the body count. There is something wrong with us as Americans.

I’m at a loss, because I don’t know what else I can do. I already work for a peace and justice non-profit. I am studying in ministry so I can work and preach out against violence and promote systemic change. I try to be an active part of my neighborhood and community. But it is not enough. None of it seems to stop the killing; not in a park or a school or even a church. I confess, I am afraid not for my life, but for the life of my partner and son.

flat,1000x1000,075,f.u2No amount of armed escalation on my part is going to keep them safe. I cannot be with them 24/7. I am also not arrogant enough to believe, should I ever own a gun, that my preemptive killing of an assailant will make things better. One thing I’ve learned through studying ancient texts; violence only begets more violence. So what else is left other than being a man of peace? I can raise my son to be a man of peace, too.

I will teach my son that Black Lives Matter.

Tobias will also be taught that all lives matter. But in particular, he will know from an early age that specifically, black lives matter. Because it is black lives that have been put through our cultural meat grinder. I will make sure he understands, at least as much as he is able, what the black community has gone through in our country. I will not sugar coat the history or the reality of the killing and the incarceration and the lack of educational and economic opportunities his black brothers and sisters have had to endure. I will raise him to acknowledge his own prejudices when he finds them, and to challenge the prejudice around him.

I will teach my son to respect Women.

I want Tobias to learn the history of patriarchy and the importance of equality. He will learn about women who have shaped the world through religion, science, literature and politics. I will work to make sure he sees women as partners who are just as capable as he is in everything from sports to education to work to family. I will make sure that he understands that a woman’s body belongs only to her and that he has no right over it at all. I want to show him that taking away the rights of women and girls only hurts our world. I will raise him to be a feminist ally.

I will teach my son to respect Sex.

I can teach my Tobias to respect his own sexuality and the sexualities of others. He will be shown a healthy respect for his body and that the bodies of other people are just as sacred as his. I want him to see himself as beautiful, and acknowledge that the beauty in others comes not from their appearance but from their humanity. I will teach him that sex is good and fun and healthy and so very special that he should never be ashamed of sharing intimacy with another person.

I will teach my son about his Privilege.

Not the kind of privilege that makes him better than other people. I will teach him about the responsibility that comes with his access to education, a safe home, new clothing, clean water, healthy food, electricity, and access to computers and information. I can impress on him that, because he was born to my partner and I, he has already won the lottery and lives better than most of the world. I hope he can understand and accept the guilt that comes with receiving what he has not earned. I pray that he uses that guilt to change the world; to understand that with great power comes greater responsibility. I will raise him to know that his privilege requires him to be a servant leader.

11406657_709812235797484_1988572270914461636_oThis seems like an impossible task. He has everything working against him, from history to mass media, education to religion. And as much as we want for our children, I know that I can only do so much; he is his own person. But if I can make the world a better place through my son, I will. Along with my partner, through gentleness, love, guidance and prayer, I will try to shape his young mind toward justice. I will teach my son how to be a better man than I could ever be, for him and for his future.

Why I go to church…

collapse-michael-ceraWorking at a peace and justice non-profit is an emotional double-edged sword plowshare. It is emotionally fulfilling to have a small part in making the world a better place. It is emotionally crippling because every day I am confronted with the injustice and inhumanity of human trafficking, war, ecological destruction, greed and corrupt power. Compassion fatigue is real; I can only watch/read/research so much before the pictures/videos/stories become numbers/statistics/calculations instead of real people.

My symptoms include bypassing petitions instead of filling them out; deleting email action-alerts instead of reading them; turning the radio station from KUOW to KEXP when a challenging story comes on; binging on Netflix instead of keeping up with current events. If I let the fatigue persist it would be easy to just give up. Heck, sometimes giving up looks pretty damn attractive. It would be much easier to just give in and become just another consumer who doesn’t give a f*#k about anybody but myself. But I don’t want to be this person. I choose to fight the good fight. Therefore, I go to church.

giphyWhen I announced I was becoming a Unitarian Universalist, some of my atheist friends questioned why I just didn’t give up on religion all together. They all have very good reasons; as an institution religion has been as much a problem of the world as a solution to the world’s problems. Why would an atheist or agnostic attend a church service? Those are places for believers. My answer is simple: To stay a sane, healthy man of peace, I need religion.

Religion provides me with a community, sanctuary and covenant that is focused on peacemaking. It reminds me that I am not alone in working to build a more just world. It cures my compassion fatigue because it restores my faith in people. When peace and justice work becomes too heavy, it is my church that lightens the load. In a space filled with atheists, believers, agnostics, questioners and religious refugees, our attendance shouts to the universe: “We will continue the work! We will not give up! We crave peace!”

rocky-training-oIn order to do the work I do, to continue to read the stories, watch the videos, and look at the pictures; to keep on filling out the petitions, contacting the representatives, and raising awareness; I have to feel like I’m not alone. And every Sunday, along with other justice-seekers, it is in singing our doxology that I am spiritually renewed to keep on fighting the good fight:

“From all that dwell below the skies,
let songs of hope and faith arise!
Let peace, goodwill on earth be sung
through every land, by every tongue.”

May it be so. Amen.

Why I (still) believe in miracles…

That's right... I married into a clan of Scots...
That’s right… I married into a clan of Scots…

I have two families. The one I was born into and the one I married into. I know plenty of people who don’t get along with their in-laws. I’m one of the lucky few who not only get along with them, but love them deeply. They’re genuinely kind, overwhelmingly generous and welcomed me into the Ferguson/Marty clans with open arms. When Heather and I married, I truly gained another Mother and Father.

Having two fathers is a blessing. Both are men of deep faith, conviction and kindness. Neither are perfect, but they don’t have to be. Whatever flaws they have, they overcome them with courage and forgiveness. Which is why my heart broke when, just after Thanksgiving, I learned that my father-in-law was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Doctors give him 6 months to 2 years to live.

Who else can get away with this? Not me!
Who else can get away with this? Not me!

Mr. Ferguson Andy has pretty much done everything right. He has a healthy prayer life, exercises regularly, doesn’t smoke and drinks only sparingly. He just recently retired with my mother-in-law after a lifetime of service to our national parks. He lives in his dream house in his dream community. He lived life in accordance to the laws of God and man. If anything can be called premature, horrible and utterly unfair, it’s this diagnosis.

His response has been shockingly simple: listen to the doctors, follow the treatments, continue living life with integrity and purpose, and most importantly “God’s will be done.” It almost sounds absurdly zen, especially for a man who would be justified in being confused, angry and in crying out:  “As surely as God lives, who has denied me justice, the Almighty, who has made my life bitter…” (Job 27:2) Yet this is who Andy is; “God’s will be done.”

Generosity abounds!
Generosity abounds!

As the son-in-law, my role in all of this is to be the supporter; the solid foundation for Heather. She’s the one losing her biological father. I’ve only been able to call Andy “father” for 7 years. Which has been much too short; but I’ll continue to take what I can get. So I smile and love as much as I possibly can for both of my families.

The truth is, I’m hurting inside. I’m barely holding my grief in check. Like a little boy, I want to be selfish and cry and tell life to get the hell away; to tell death to stay away from both my fathers. To cry out and say “THIS IS UNFAIR! I WANT MORE TIME!”

But I’m not a little boy. I’ve learned a few things from the men in my life. The strength I have right now comes from what my fathers have taught/shown me:

Listening to sage advise or talking about girls. Can't remember which...
Listening to sage advise or talking about girls. Can’t remember which…

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

I also know a little secret. I’ve experienced a certain amount of serendipity in my life and Andy has a track record of beating the odds overcoming obstacles. He was in a serious motorcycle accident years ago, was told he may never walk (much less run) again; he ran anyways. He has already beaten cancer twice while finding time to work on his house, never mind the chemo treatments. He is a man of no excuses. If ever a man can defy the odds through strength of character or will of God, it is my father-in-law.

I love you dad.
I love you dad.

Which is why I still believe in miracles. Just being part of this family; my being married to Heather; my privilege in having more than I deserve… they are all small miracles, and they exist. Therefore, there’s hope. Always hope…

(Sometimes) I have to draw a line…

well said sir... well said...
well said sir… well said…

I’m a pretty liberal guy. I believe in gay marriage, immigration reform and socialized medicine. I vote democrat. I try to respect different points of view and cherish the beauty in different kinds of people. However, there are times where I have to draw my tolerance line in the sand. One of those times was when this video popped up in my Facebook feed. Creationism=instant rage.

Don’t get me wrong. I fully support a creationist’s right to believe their scientifically incorrect bastardization of the Christian Bible. Just like I support the KKK holding white supremacy rallies–I absolutely hate what they believe and will do everything in my power to stand against what they preach. But I agree they have the freedom to believe it as long as they aren’t breaking any laws.

3p12z7
but that means I would have to question God, right?

However it is people like this, so inflexibly attached to their way of thinking, who fly jetliners into tall buildings. Parents who brainwash their children into creationist beliefs are child abusers, just as much as a racist brainwashes their children into hating people of color. It’s how all fundamentalist systems are perpetuated; through rejection of debate and critical thought in lieu of a creed which has no other backing than “because I told you so.”

#ohsnap
#ohsnap

My wife and I were volunteer educators for the Clark County Wetlands Park when we lived in Nevada. It was our job to take groups out into the wetlands and desert and talk about the flora, fauna, ecosystems and geology of the area. My favorite part was seeing the look on children’s faces when we would come across coyote tracks or find an owl pellet to dissect. I helped make science and the natural world fun and amazing! Every group was great…

Except for one. My wife and I were signed up to lead a small group one morning of a few parents and their kids. I didn’t think anything was amiss until one of the adults pulled us aside before we began and told us that the children were home schooled and if we could please just leave out any mention of geology and evolution. For a moment, I had no idea what this guy was talking about. Heather had to explain it to me, and even then I couldn’t believe it.

wait! remember when Lot's wife looked back!
wait! remember when Lot’s wife looked back!

This guy didn’t ask me to lie to the kids (the parents did that themselves). But they did ask me to withhold the truth (which I shamefully did). Heather and I tried to sneak in bits and pieces of science into trip. Unfortunately, instead of an experience of exploration, this time our tour was more like visiting the zoo. “Oh look, a bird. Isn’t it pretty?” and “This is a tree. Isn’t that wonderful?” I felt sorry for the kids and pissed off at their parents for the lies and misinformation they fed into their minds.

That was the day I drew my line in the sand. I went from merely tolerating creationism to opposing it. There is a reason I work at a nonprofit that fights against injustice, poverty and slavery. I believe these things are wrong and that I can do something about them. I see creationism as an injustice just as bad as homophobia and racism. It makes our society and culture worse. I’m a peaceful guy; I really just want to live and let live. But sometimes you just have to say “No! This is wrong!”

And this is wrong.