Home is Where Commitment Calls by Taryn Strauss

Religious Bullying

I spent the first twelve years of my life in Chicago, at which point family suddenly relocated to the strange new land of Knoxville, Tennessee.  This was where my mother served her first call as senior minister at Tennessee Valley UU Church.  Finding myself in my first wilderness experience, I faced an onslaught of challenges to my religious identity.

Every single day at school I was pressured and taunted for my absence from Young Life meetings.  Kids liked to inform me I would one day burn in hell because earlier that week my mom’s picture had once again graced the front page of the paper for officiating a gay wedding.  Cloaked in discomfort and unease, my days became focused on surviving and dodging the accusations of heresy.

The only way forward was discovering the healing power of revolutionary love.  I attended my UU youth group like the way you reach out for a life preserver when you are deep in murky waters and aren’t ready to drown.

Each day I faced a new religiously motivated bully armed with my chalice necklace and Mountain Camp T-Shirt, and soon I became one of the youngest and clearest articulators of UU principles and a personal belief system rooted in religious humanism.  My Unitarian Universalist faith called me to love my faith and use it to shine outward.

Every single day at lunch, I manned the Amnesty International table, asking Knoxville high schoolers for yet another signature to free a political prisoner who was far lonelier than I, trapped in prison in a faraway land.  On International Human Rights Day I covered the school in post-it notes emblazoned with stick people, each figure representing political prisoners across the globe.

I worked for the local AIDS service organization and started an AIDS Awareness Club and peer sexuality educator program at my school. I knew exactly who I was, because my UU faith called me to my commitments. I had been lost in the wilderness of religious bullying, and my UU faith enabled me to bring revolutionary love to my community, and find my way forward.

Wilderness:  Losing the faith home

Around this same time in the 1990s, the church sold their longtime building and moved to a new property where they constructed the church of their dreams.  I remember my adolescent perspective of this wilderness moment.  I was petulant:  But where will we play sardines?  What will happen with the mural we painted on our youth group wall?  I’m sure the adults and church leaders were filled with their own fears and trepidation as entered this unknown territory.

But the newly constructed church was magnificent! The new stone sanctuary featured a dramatic light scoop behind the pulpit, and words from our seven principles were strategically carved into the stone walls of the building, so the architecture reflected our commitments and values.

I remember the new building project as a joyful undertaking where we named our wildest dreams together, and ultimately fulfilled many of them.

Revolutionary Love met us in the wilderness of not knowing where we were going, and we triumphed-abundantly.  And our new Youth Group room had a really cool pool table, so I hardly remembered what I had worried me in the first place.

Wilderness:  Hatred

Then in the summer of 2008, a man walked into that sanctuary during a children’s performance, and opened fire on my faith home.  He managed to murder two people, but was swiftly confronted and overtaken by a few of the elders in the congregation.  What I’m telling you is my best friend’s dad, and the former board chair walked in front of a semi-automatic weapon and physically charged the shooter, and together a group of middle-aged men held him down until the police arrived.

How did those church leaders in Knoxville summon the moral courage to step in front of bullets?  Some of these men had already trained years ago at Highlander Center during Freedom Summer, they had marched for peace in Vietnam and then in Iraq.  They sat at lunch counters during Jim Crow, they disobediently crossed the property line at the Oak Ridge Nuclear Plant.

I wondered, didn’t they tire of the perpetual wilderness work?

Their UU church was the well to which they returned each week to draw the water of revolutionary love.

Their Unitarian Universalist faith acted in them, evidenced by their moral courage, and propelled their response of revolutionary love.

The next Sunday after the shooting all the former ministers returned to Tennessee Valley UU Church to re-consecrate the space.  I came over from Asheville, NC to serve as DRE for the day, because the current religious education director was too traumatized to re-enter the building.

There were still blood spatters on the pews, and bullet holes in the walls of the pristine, white sanctuary, evidence that we were “bearing the responsibilities and difficulties of our liberation,” as Desmond Tutu tells us.  I remember sitting huddled with the teenagers, who leaned on each other as if to make a fortress.

Only a week ago the room had been corrupted by terror, hatred, and violent white rage. That day, I was witness to the holy sanctuary being reclaimed by revolutionary love.  The powerful, revolutionary love flowed over us that day, we were baptized by it and made new.  It was there, in that moment that I received my call, out of the wilderness to be a Unitarian Minister, to serve this revolutionary love that looks like moral courage when it is activated.

I experienced Revolutionary Love and it has culminated in a call to ministry.  But I have felt revolutionary love in other ways too.  In the same way Irshad Manji experienced.  She experiences it as the willingness in the heart to make a mistake and self-compassion and the resolve to right a wrong.  Like Manji, I too have failed, and allowed my failure to form a new strategy towards revolutionary love.

As a community educator for an AIDS service organization in Asheville, NC, one of my jobs was to support community leaders living in government subsidized housing projects, to stop the spread of HIV/Hep C and STDs.  Entering these housing communities was a wilderness experience for me, and I was afraid.

My community contact was named Alicia, and here was how I worked “with” her.  I would ring her bell, say hello, drop off my education supplies to her, and get out of there.  She often invited me to stay for food, or to sit and chat, but I simply asked for her encounter numbers for my paperwork, and told her I needed to get back to the office.

After a few months of this, she called my co-worker, and asked if he would be her contact.

She said I didn’t seem to care about her, and I didn’t know what her community needed.  That was a tough moment: to hear that my own fear and need for comfort was disrespecting her and impacting the health and lives of people in her neighborhood.  That I was perceived as impassive and ineffectual.

So I cooked some food, and brought it over to her place.  I apologized for offending her, and told her I wanted to get to know her- for real.  I blocked out no less than two hours for our visits and together we sat and watched her daytime soaps.  I watched her do hair for the other ladies who lived in the housing community, and joked with them and got to see a bartering economy in effect.

I came over on Saturdays when one of her neighbors hosted a barbecue, and just continued to show up as me, sharing my own life struggles or joys with her too.  Together, we established a trusting and mutual relationship, based on the common goal of wanting a healthier community.

Eventually, a group of women came to me and said they wanted to start a Women’s Sexual Health Education and Cooking group.  I trained them and got them supplies and funds so they could get to work.

My initial failure opened up the path towards revolutionary love.  Like Irshad Manji, my embarrassing mistake revealed a new way forward, calling me into deeper commitment to my faith.  Fifteen years later, that women’s education group still exists at the Hillcrest Apts.

Irshad Manji’s early failure to act propelled her to start a global organization devoted to spreading acts of moral courage.

Because of my experience charting a more loving path out of failure, I am convinced that whatever mistakes we make individually or collectively, we can be transformed by them and they can help us live more deeply into our calling.  Some of the most profound transformations come out of our compassionate analysis of our mistakes.  We can love ourselves and love each other into a more authentic solution grounded in revolutionary love.

Desmond Tutu reminds us liberation requires unity. This is how we will enter the wilderness of our time-we will not be alone.  We’ve seen the old American legacy of white supremacy and violent hatred recently in Charlottesville and other cities, and we UUs are going to confront this racism and bigotry with the moral courage and revolutionary love that revealed itself in the congregants in Knoxville ten years ago.

My past wounds from religious prejudice were reopened this week as I read the divisive Nashville Statement coming out of evangelist Christianity.  In fact, each week it seems we are being pummeled by personal and public crises that require our response.  But we do not have to respond alone.

Friends, I am so humbled to join you right now, in this divine moment of wilderness.  We will confront religious bullies together.

We will confront systemic racial injustice together, we will face catastrophic storms together, hand in hand, we will confront moving this religious home to a new location- together.

With revolutionary love pouring over and unto us, baptizing us anew, giving us moral courage throughout our weeks and days.   I am grateful to be your intern minister right now, to learn from the moral courage I have already witnessed here, and to journey into our wilderness and confront it together, again and again, armed with our UU faith that calls us to revolutionary love.