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Edna Webster Coleman’s remarkable life in the struggle for social justice

GLIDE’s Annual Fund manager Hallie Brignall spoke recently with Edna Webster, a longtime GLIDE community member and Bay Area educator and activist who has designated a portion of her estate for GLIDE and its work on behalf of the community. In the following account, Hallie offers a brief overview of Edna’s remarkable and very busy life, including her organizing with Rev. Cecil Williams and GLIDE as an extension of the civil rights efforts she pursued in the South. We are deeply grateful for Edna’s lifetime of commitment to justice and compassion for others, and we thank her for letting us share her inspiring story.

Edna Webster grew up in the projects of New Orleans. After graduating high school, she worked for a short while in her cousin’s restaurant and as a babysitter. Feeling unsatisfied, she yearned to do more. Unsure of what new direction to take, she walked down to the Custom House on Canal Street and exclaimed, “I think I want to join the Army.” She passed the test and found herself stationed at Fort Leonard Wood, near St. Louis, Missouri, where she exceled, eventually making Drill Sargent.

During her time in the army, Edna met her husband and earned enough money to pay for college. She enrolled in social studies and history at an historically black college, Southern University, in New Orleans. This led her to teaching in local schools, one of which was the William Frantz Elementary School, where Ruby Bridges integrated.

Beginning in the 1960s, while still in New Orleans, Edna became active in the Civil Rights Movement. She landed in jail three times due to protest actions for integration. At a young age, she and a group of friends participated in lunch-counter protests at Woolworth’s. They’d take their books down to do their homework, a very wholesome and innocent activity, but found themselves forcefully asked to move. They refused. Edna recalls what happened next.

“The server called us the ‘N’ word and threw lemon meringue pie at us before calling the police, who carted us off to jail.” The next day they were bailed out by the Congress of Racial Equality [CORE] and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee [SNCC]. That same day, they went back out on the street to protest for integration at a university in Baton Rouge. The governor shut down the school and the National Guard descended on the campus. The police used canines and water hoses on the protestors before taking them back to jail. Again, they were bailed out by various activist groups.

Edna poses with a large portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during Black History month.

Edna also worked on voter education. She taught older people how to vote at a church located in Uptown, New Orleans. Voting was next to impossible for African Americans in her community and nationwide. “They’d ask us all kinds of crazy questions like, ‘How many jelly beans are in that jar,’ or they’d say, ‘Uh, well, you can’t vote because you haven’t been in your home for six months to a year.’”

At one voting location, she was rifling through her large purse for a pen when someone shouted, “She’s got a gun!” to which she replied, “What gun? What are you talking about?” Security came and searched her bag, but there was nothing there. They resorted to telling her, “Well, you can’t come today!” Edna points out that we’re seeing these types of tricks and intimidation again today when African American try to vote.

During this turbulent time, Edna remembers meeting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he was a guest speaker at the Dr. Rev. Davis’s church in New Orleans. “He was a dynamite speaker and was very impressive, Edna remembers. “He spoke about continuing the fight against injustice. We were all students in our early 20s who were on the frontline, fighting for the cause.”

Edna’s family began putting down roots in San Francisco in the 1940s, when her grandparents and her aunt came out for jobs at the Hunter’s Point and Kaiser shipyards. Her family owned a home in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood and were doing well. After her father passed away in 1967, Edna and her mother moved to San Francisco. She recalls thinking, “Boy, I’m going to California.”

After she arrived, she found herself protesting again. “When is this going to stop? I thought I was coming to freedom and that it would be different out here. There were protests against the Vietnam War and protests at San Francisco State University [to create Ethnic Studies programs].” The SFSU Student Strike was especially violent. The president of SFSU, S. I. Hayakawa, called in the police to restore control. “The people got beaten up brutally by mounted police swinging their billy clubs.”

“And many jobs in San Francisco weren’t open to black people, not until the 1970s. I remember protesting MUNI for not hiring black drivers.”

As Edna found herself getting involved in local activism, one name came up repeatedly: Cecil Williams.

“When I got here, that’s when I heard a lot about Cecil because he was very active,” recalls Edna. “He led a lot of protests, would speak at a lot of different places and had a lot of good programs for the people. He got people to march against the Vietnam War.”

At one event, she remembers Cecil leading people to the Bill Graham Civic Center, where GLIDE’s Ensemble performed.

“When they wanted to close down the Charles Drew School in Bayview [Hunter’s Point],” she further recalls, “he got a group of his members and they came out there to protest.” The protests were successful, and the school is there to this day.

Edna not only attended Cecil’s protests, she also volunteered during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. Sometimes, she would even bring her students and their parents. She also attended Celebration. GLIDE was Edna’s first church when she came out to California. “I went to the church and I really enjoyed the services. The choir, mingling with the people—everyone is very friendly.”

Edna was equally ambitious about her education and career. While serving in the Presidio military reserves and working at Head Start, she was also busy earning her California credentials as a teaching and reading specialist along with a master’s degree. She then embarked on a 50-year career in the San Francisco public school system.

Edna teaches 5th graders in San Francisco public schools.

Eventually, Edna decided that she wanted to visit the places she’d been teaching about. As a result, she has traveled all over the United States and to several countries. She fondly remembers visiting Nubian villages in Ethiopia; Archbishop Tutu’s church in South Africa; Nelson Mandela’s former prison cell on Robben Island; Gorée Island in Senegal, which was a major slave-trading location; the village of Juffure in Gambia, featured in Alex Haley’s famous novel Roots, where she met an ancestor of Kunte Kinte named Binte Kunte; a Malawi village in South Africa, where she volunteered as an English teacher; W.E.B. Du Bois’s burial site in Ghana; and Cuba to tour their public-school system.

Edna on the Island of Gorée in Senegal, which was one of the key stopovers in the slave trade since the 15th Century. It is now a world heritage site and pilgrimage destination for the African diaspora.

In the early 1980s, the San Francisco Unified School District laid off 500 teachers. Edna was one of the first teachers to be let go. She went down to the Federal building on Golden Gate Avenue and filled out an application to be an Educational Specialist. She was hired as the director of a school at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. Eventually, San Francisco Unified rehired most of the teachers and she returned to San Francisco.

In 2002, Edna retired—sort of. Over the following decade or more, she worked for the San Francisco Unified School District’s after-school program; at City College, in their GED program; and as a consultant for new teachers. As you might imagine, Edna has received many awards for her stellar career, including “Teacher of the Year” and “Unsung Hero.” She continues to volunteer in after-school programs in Richmond to help kids excel.

Edna surrounded by her 5th grade students from Commodore Sloat School.

Edna admires the variety of GLIDE’s programs helping homeless individuals and low-income families—programs offering housing assistance, support for women who have survived abuse, and for children in need of daycare and after-school programming. “Cecil did a lot to help the community,” says Edna. “That’s what you really have to look at. Somebody that’s doing something positive.”

In 2018, Edna committed to making a legacy gift to GLIDE in her estate plans.

“You never know where you’re going to need,” she explains. “I got help when I needed it, and I’m in a position now to give back. You give back because you want to see these young kids make it.”

In addition to her generous bequest, Edna offers future generations an inspiring example of a life lived in the service of social justice, education and solidarity with others. And for the younger generations of today, both activists and those who haven’t joined them yet, Edna has this message:

“People ought to protest again, just like in the ’60s. They should keep it going. If you go to sleep on this and are passive, what’s going to happen? They are going to take away what you have gained. That’s the way it goes. We had to fight to get what we got. Young people are going to have to get out and keep it going. They need to keep things moving and not give up.”

 

Cape of Good Hope, Capetown, South Africa.

In May of 2019, Gregoria Cahill received her Doctor of Education degree in Educational Leadership for Social Justice from California State University, East Bay, and as she walked the stage and received her honors it vindicated the winding path of her pursuit of education and self-improvement.

“I remember my mom would tell me to get an education to have a better life and not be a farmer. So when I started, I thought, I was going to school for my mom, to make her proud.” Gigi recalled. “My mother was told to not go to school and was pulled out of school in 3rd grade.”

Gregoria, or Gigi, was born in Bolivia in Tocaña, a small community of Afrobolivianos, outside of Coroico. Tocaña had no hospital, only a midwife, and although Gigi was the 5th child born to Toribia Zabala Piñedo and Narciso Nova Zabala, she was only the third to survive childbirth. In Tocaña children often didn’t graduate from the local school, which went up to the 5th grade. Gigi wanted a different life. At the age of 12 with the blessings of her family, Gigi moved, a three-hours walk, into a town with a school that went up through a middle school curriculum. Gigi lived in that town with a woman who had her own restaurant, living there for a couple of years and attending middle school.

In order to attend high school, Gigi’s older brother, Roberto negotiated a living situation with the principal of the local high school and his wife, the high school nurse; she would help around the house in exchange for room, board and school supplies. Part of the high school curriculum at the school she attended required community service to graduate. Gigi served at an orphanage in Cochabamba called Madre de Dios. Here she reconnected with a volunteer from Notre Dame University that helped teach English. The volunteer began serving at the American International School in Cochabamba and suggested she talk to the principal of that high school about enrolling to continue her studies in English.

“I got a scholarship after graduating from high school and was taking classes at the University in Cochabamba and was going to high school again to take classes in English.’ Gigi said.

With the help of a counselor at the American International School, Gigi made her way through the application process to universities in the USA. This mentor conducted mock interviews, helped her draft a personal statement and helped her apply to schools.

“I was accepted at Beloit College with a 50% scholarship. Phyllis Kaplan and others were able to help me with the other half.” Gigi remembered.

Phyllis remembered clearly when the door between the kitchen and the dining room swung open. “Gigi and I met, eye and heart contact happened almost instantly! I was in Bolivia as a consultant to the American International School where Gigi was studying. She often reminds me that I spent the following week asking her, ‘what are you planning to do in the future?’”

All the mentors at this point in her life came together to support Gigi as she got her passport, travel documents and plane ticket to Beloit, Wisconsin. She arrived in August of 1997 right before the fall semester began, very confused.

“I had been telling people that I was going to Wisconsin, California not knowing that Wisconsin and California were two different places.” Gigi said. “About two or three weeks after I arrived, I saw the leaves change for the first time and I was so scared, I thought I had been sent to a place where trees and plants die.”

Gigi had a first tough winter in Wisconsin, but during breaks would travel back and forth to stay in California with her American mom Phyllis and her American dad Michael.

“Her first time attending GLIDE was Christmas of her freshman year at Beloit College.” Phyllis recalls.

Gigi graduated 4 years later with a major in Modern Language, minor in Linguistics and a certificate to teach English as a Second Language(TESL). She moved back to California to stay with her American family, and continued her pursuit of education with the future aspiration of being able to be supportive for others on their educational journey. She dabbled in teaching and eventually obtained a Masters in Counseling at California State University, East Bay. After a period of time as an intern at City College of San Francisco, she was hired as an Academic Counselor in 2004 and became full-time faculty in 2007. She then became one of the coordinators for the Puente Program.

“The Puente Program is a year-long academic and community leadership program designed to increase the number of community college students transferring to 4-year colleges or universities. To meet this goal, the national award-winning program emphasizes writing, counseling and mentoring”

Most recently Gigi was hired as the Interim Dean of San Francisco City College Mission Center and Transitional Studies where she hopes to continue to be able to advocate for students and encourage, empower, teach and bring the best out of each student helping them to navigate higher education.

“Not only is she a star and successful but she is amazingly giving, loving, incredible, professional and it is a blessing to have her as our daughter.” Phyllis Kaplan said.

It’s Latinx Heritage month, are there any words you would like to share with the younger generation?

Always remember where you come from. Anything I do I remember where I come from. Life hasn’t been easy but I remember the steps that I took to get me where I am today.

Trust in education, it’s really the key to moving forward. Always look for help, if you feel stuck then find somebody who can help you. I wouldn’t have made it this far without mentors, a lot of them are from GLIDE. I have so many mentors. If you don’t have the support at home or feel like you don’t have anyone to help you, a mentor can be someone you can go to and they will help.

If someone says, ‘no I can’t help you,’ find someone else! Don’t let that ‘no’ be a barrier. If someone said no to me, I found someone else that could help me, as shy as I was, I was able to find another person to ask for help. If you can find someone who can ask questions on your behalf, that works too! I wouldn’t have been able to get into the Master’s program without the help of Phyllis; without her I wouldn’t have known who to ask for help. Phyllis went beyond being a mentor to me, she’s my mom, she’s my American mom.

Remember, education is key. It opens the door to opportunities, a better life, a better paying job, it helps you make decisions. Your voice is more likely to be heard more clearly. I am still helping students, in a different way, and I’m continuing to advocate for any students who needs help.

There’s a huge achievement gap for Latinx, African-American, and Pacific Islander students. I am hoping to be able to make a different type of impact as Interim Dean.

We all have dreams; act on them. It might not be easy but you can do it. Make time to study; know that with hard work and dedication it is possible to have a more productive and successful life. Education will change your life. How has your path been shaped by your identity? At Beloit College people would assume I was from Africa. I would tell them I was from Bolivia and they would ask ‘oh where is Bolivia in Africa?’ I would have to correct them. Others would ask if I was African-American and I’d have to ask ‘well what do you define as America?’ I claimed my identity as an Afrobolivian to answer questions like these.

Sometimes people ignore the beautiful mixture of culture and identity that the world has and that’s their loss. Coming to GLIDE has been eye opening for me because in Bolivia there is no open LGBTQ community; knowing GLIDE embraces everybody felt right.

What impact has colorism had on your life or the impact of colorism that you’ve seen in Bolivia?

Bolivian discrimination is based on money; if you don’t have money you’re discriminated against. There are also certain last names that are considered to be less-than. I had a classmate that wanted to change their last name because it wasn’t European enough.

There’s still a struggle especially for people of African descent, only a few years ago were Afrolatins recognized as part of the Bolivian community and it was a struggle to be acknowledged. People told me I was destined to be a maid. They said, I wasn’t smart and I wouldn’t make it in school; I was even more motivated to prove them wrong.

My mother encouraged us to get an education, to have a better life, to not be a farmer. I really started to go to school for my mom. At first, I pursued education to make her proud.

I wanted to show my mom that I could do it, finish school and take advantage of any educational opportunities possible.

Whenever someone within my faith tradition has overcome something that seemed otherwise insurmountable, has been cured from something that had death as the prognosis, or survived something that no one has ever walked away from, my people say, “Somebody, surely, must have been praying for you.”

I believe that we are all the recipients, the progeny, the beneficiaries, and heirs to a promise, a prayer, a wish, a notion, and a freedom that our ancestors, seven generations back, sent ahead for us to access today, to use today, to enjoy today, and open today. Our ancestors played the futures market. And we are the answer to every prayer sent ahead into the unknown coming histories of our blood and claimed ancestors.

We are what became of them.

They knew somehow, that we would live into the dream, they had to defer. And I’m inviting you to imagine yourself being the recipient of so many carefully placed natural, intellectual, spiritual, psychic, psychological gifts and dreams. I’m inviting you to imagine yourself and everyone you come across, as the soul beneficiary of systems and intelligences—political, critical, analytic, scientific, artistic, survival and thriving that were sent ahead as tools for you specifically, but everyone specifically too.

And when they did not send tools. They sent ahead trophies. They said seven generations back, “I believe that we will win.” You are that winning hand. You crossed the finished line in record time. That’s you and your ancestors on the medal podium. And if your life is not a celebration of the victory that is your people, then we have to make your life be the word that we send back. “Did we ever get free?” And your good life, your forgiving yourself life, your overcoming adversity life, your move from self-harm life to self-love life, can be the only answer they here. If you have not sent word back, the ancestors know, you haven’t accepted the prize they knew that they would one day get. They know it means you have not yet decided to read the map they left for you.

What I am hoping today, as your minister, is that we can surface practices that teach you how to know, how to lead from, and how to locate the wisdom that has accompanied you in this life, as birthright. I want to help you to know that you have always had the master key. What doors you have opened, has been you. My mama used to say, “Don’t write no check, your ass can’t cash.” She meant, choose your door wisely. She meant, don’t use your key to open the crack, the abuser door, the bitter door, thinking you just gon’ close it. One of these doors, you gon’ walk right in. And you might stay for a while, for years, for the entire lifetime, for generations.

But, imagine knowing without a doubt, that there is, and has always been an answer key waiting for you. Imagine that key is to help you feel less alone in the world and in the work. Imagine your key equipping you to lead yourself to your highest self because the source of your wisdom is eternal. Imagine it is the key to not feeling like a failure, like the clock is ticking, like this fall off of this wagon, is your last shot. Begin by asking yourself, “What is the thought or the thing they sent ahead to me?” And, “Will I  honor them by fully enjoying, embodying and deploying their gifts?”

Let’s try this: Based on who you are in this moment, what does your being here say about what your ancestors (blood and claimed) seven generations ago, sent ahead for you to access (connect to, open, use, remember, learn from, use to heal, heal from) today?

Based on who you are in this moment, who you arrived as in this moment, and what you have been protected and guided by, to survive the plots against your life, what did your ancestors send ahead for you? They didn’t send your alcoholism. They sent your recovery. They didn’t send your unemployment. They sent your passion. They didn’t send your failed relationship. They sent your heart’s desire. They knew that you would be the one to remember family in the face of collective trauma around displacement. They knew that you would be the one to not perpetuate another season of cycles, but break cycles of violence, incarceration and poverty. They knew that you would be the one to become a new beat in the face of  negative “Feedback Loops.” A key is way to get out of a loop. The loop of responding to this hurt with the expected response of more hurt. The loop of seeing our neighbors as trash or garbage, when they are people just like you and me, with a key, but for them, no front door.

And in order to give them clear and precise direction for their keys, we have to move towards an ever increasing spiritual call upon our lives. And we have to insist on our spiritual growth; however you define what guides you, or however your self-contained guidance system compels you, our spiritual growth is paramount to meet this moment and it must be constantly and consistently attended to. But you gotta know who you are and what you have healed from and what chains you have broken, and what good doors have opened for you, because you remembered what your ancestors were trying to keep safe for you. If you want to help anyone know, heal and break chains for themselves, you have to do it for yourself first.

Because if we are moving, like I suspect, into a new prophetic and social justice movement moment, then we are required to train our potentiality to be innovative, nimble, and improvisational. The more they offer us doors of isolation, we look for doors of connection. We have to unlearn capitalist notions of “success,” because love’s key, will not be validated because you are making more money than you ever have. That’s not the key they sent ahead.  What is your ancestral gut telling you to do. Door No. 1, Door No. 2, or Door No. 3?

Here is a key: Did you know that there are as many nerve endings in your stomach as there are in your brain? Your gut is your ancestral knowing. Trust your gut and trust your ancestors. Your gut will let you know how quick your gift response activation time to “the call” will be.  Your gut will not have to call a joint commission to study the implications of the implications of the action you are going to take.  Rights eroded today? Phone bank the legislature today. Black man killed today? Take to the streets today. Our global family detained at airports? Organize to disrupt the entire airline industry today. Detainment camps at borders hidden from our imagination? We call out the reality of concentration camps.

All of us arrive at this moment at the same time for a reason.  We are each other’s best chance at walking into the brightest future. We are doorways for one another. Our lives should say, “Come through me.” You were not sent this far to be alone, without community or feeling isolated. No one was. You are what became of y’all. And if you are still in bondage, then you are not yet what became of your people.

Homelessness means, “We are not whole yet.” Addiction means, “We are not whole yet.” Violence means, “We are not whole yet.” Unbroken cycles of incarceration means, “We are not whole yet.” Our ancestors sent the key ahead to wholeness.

But we can’t be judges, we can’t be just outreach workers, we can’t just be a meals line, we are called to be “Practitioners” and the tools of liberation, in our hands are “spirited” — activated and animated, through the institutional naming and recognition of the wisdom in the instinctual, the ancestral, the unknowable, the mystery, the magic, the impulse, the muse, the spark, the imagination, and the light. We the new lock smith. We are here to rekey the world.  I don’t know who you are, but I see in the spirit, that you are not what you are injecting. Accept this clean needle. Accepting help is key.

You see, I am a “Social Gospel Interfaith Ministry” practitioner. I bring the radical love-truth of Christianity to the table. Key. My ancestors say, “meet them where they are, do not judge, remind them of their inherent worth, point out that their survival is what points to the ark of ancestral knowledge, of one day living in the full light, that is with them. Where they do that at? At GLIDE! I believe that everyone who enters into the door of the church, automatically gets the keys to The Christ. Nothing else to buy. No hidden fees in the contract. No contract. No Christ credit check. Here’s the keys to your new Christ. And it matters not if you smoke, drink, or gamble away your keys. It matters not if you think you lost your key, gave it away with your draws to that man, or pawned it. You come back next week, a new key. Every time.

So, here, in this church, we are beginning to see one another as “Practitioners”, so we understand that no one shows up empty. Here in this church, we are beginning to open ourselves up to practices that surface non-traditional critical and strategic ways of thinking; the nonsensical, the gut, and the knowing, from which love emanates. And none of it is based in scarcity. The Christ key chain has an infinite number of keys. The Christ is the Key Master.

So, let us continue to surface a leadership that centers practices which allows oneself to unlock the prophetic, intuitive, ancient, contemporary, indigenous, natural, mysterious, magical, cosmological and theological ways of knowing. I am not talking denominationally or dogmatically, but an invitational, generative, iterative, participatory and always liberative unlocking. But if we gon’ lead people out, we have to show we are being led in ourselves.  We have to reset the operational stage and preparing the ground & air spaces in our church, to invite people to “practice” unlocking doors. And that means you show up and bring your knowing into the GLIDE Ensemble, into the GLIDE Pride Team, Bridging the Divide, Bible Study, Speak Out, Keeping it Real, Bridging the Gap, Prayer Circle and Lay Leadership.

We begin “Practicing” in the ritualized daily, hourly, weekly knowing. I love that commercial that says, “Marvin: Windows and Doors!” Everybody is a “Practitioner.” This keeps us looking towards each other as the deepest wells of knowledge, as experts and intuits and knowers. This is what’s getting the ancestors excited, that we are paradigmatically defying the confines of systems solutions, by opening new doors, getting closer and closer to the answer, and accessing truths, and wisdoms.

They are excited because they know that when everyone is recognized as gifted, recognized as being endowed with gifts, and everyone is invited to bring all their gifts to the movement table, the work is sanctified. Key. Every aspect of our work and every person doing the work is sacred. Key. We are all in recovery. We are all doing the work. Key.

Sharpened tools have a better chance at sparking the divine. I don’t know if that’s a key, I just enjoyed writing that. But what the hell, KEY!

Here at GLIDE, our practices mean that new thinking emerges. New wisdom surfaces. Enlightenment appears. Movement workers become vessels as practitioners, and vessels accredited by “higher authorities” and not just higher education. Integrative. And our gifts are rooted in Indigenous, Multi-faith, Magic, Mystery and Mysticism. Practitioners give shape to the thoughts, disharmony and disjuncture, bringing the metaphysical to bear on the physical. Our keys don’t fit in the material world, because we have not yet unlocked our minds.

Homelessness is the shape of a people not feeling safe anywhere. What does your shape mean?

And what will it mean, when we begin listening to the still and small voice, the astral and the ancestral body, the prayer and the meditation, the ritualization of silence and the chant, the beer bottle breaking ground and the needle breaking vein, when we learn to speak only when spoken through our response, our joy offering, our justice, love and dignity offering, because Lord knows, love and justice and dignity, moves the needle of our multi-issue and cross-sector work, into multi-dimensional and cross-dimensional work. I’m telling what I see when I look at you. I’m telling you, “You are lit!” You can make better choices in the lit parts. And a lit thing; activated, channeled, summoned, operationalized, shared, taught, archived or invoked, speaks into, calls on, listens for spirit (Soul, Chi, Essence, Life, Lifeforce, Inner Self) to challenge, change and transform tendencies, atmospheres, and airs, into strengths, courage, character, will, force, mettle and the moral fiber. Who ready to get lit? Who ready to light up the world? Who ready to unlock the gifts that the ancestors promised them?

So, based on who you are in this moment, who you arrived as in this moment, what you have been protected and guided by, to survive the plots against your life, what did your ancestors send ahead for you?

Maybe you are the one who showed up with the gift of keeping your eyes on the prize of freedom. Maybe you are the one who held on to the recipe that satisfies the taste for freedom. Maybe you are the one left in charge of the ancestral healing of multiple generations of colonized people. Maybe you are the one whose queerness and straightness are actually tools to use as catalyst to bring change into the world.

Today, at GLIDE Memorial Church, they orchestrated, all of our ancestors orchestrated, this meeting, so that we could have yet another chance at seeing how they sent a deep sense of fierce loving ahead. They said, “One day, they gon’ need this hardcore, fearless and embodied love, for a future, in an unimaginable here and now, in service of a moment such as this. What are we going to do with this gift?

Amen.

Marvin K. White
Minister of Celebration, GLIDE Church


 

GLIDE Church is a spiritual center of healing, faith, justice and community for everyone. No matter who you are, where you come from or what you’ve been through, you’re welcome here! Join us for Sunday Celebration every Sunday at 9:00 and 11:00 am.

We also livestream! Follow us on Facebook to be alerted to our streams each week.

A Homoneutics of Liberation

This past Sunday, June 30, 2019, GLIDE celebrated Pride with almost a million onlookers as we marched, danced, sang and made our way down Market Street in the 49th Annual San Francisco Pride Parade. Our tradition includes a single Pride Sunday Celebration before we head down to march in community. The following is a transcript of Pride Sunday’s sermon by GLIDE’s Minister of Celebration, Marvin K. White.


 

Last week, I talked to you about applying a “Hermeneutics of Incarceration” to the bible as a way to interpret the bible by the ways that systems of incarceration and systems of liberation, are at work and still working on and in us, allowing us to see the bible through the lens of the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated. A “Hermeneutics of Incarceration” helps us locate those who are locked up in the bible and who need to freed still and now.

This week, I am going to introduce a new tool, a “Homoneutical” reading of the bible. A “Homoneutical” reading of the bible shows us potential sites of LGBTQ+ love. A “Homoneutical” reading insists that LGBTQ+ people have always existed. It points out the logical truth, that if abominations were created to quash our affectional and sexual attractions, then the bible authors knew about us. Had us in mind. And what a “Homoneutical” reading of the bible allows us to do is theologize that the queer eye, the gaydar, the read, the forced underground and undercover, the threat to heteropatriarchal frames of the bible, secret codes, drag, cross-dressing, AIDS, cancer, hate crimes and Celebration, are tools that help us hear queer folks who are still trapped in the closet of the bible. The bible doesn’t have to be queered, the bible has queer people in it. We are hidden in plain sight.

For instance, if you were taught to pray to a patriarchal God, “Our Father in the heavens…” then God is a man to you. So, it follows that it was God. But God wanted somebody in his image and created Adam. But he also gave Adam dust. And then gave him CPR. Then brought him to life. So, it was God and Adam. Just a couple of “Confirmed Bachelors” gardening in Eden (Or Palm Springs.) But Adam said he wanted to be polyamorous or at least bisexual. And God thought that Adam meant that God was not enough for him. So, God put Adam to sleep and took a rib out of Adam and made Eve. God thought a baby would save their relationship. God and Adam, the first couple, had Eve. Eve was not a baby. Eve was a woman. But now, God thought, we a family.

But Adam got turned on by Eve, and turned to God and said, “I think I am a woman.” And “I think I like women.” God, then served the first ever eviction notice and kicked them both out. So, the “Original Sin” isn’t disobedience, it’s heterosexuality.

That’s what you can do with a “Homoneutical” reading of the bible.

Read these scriptures through a “Homoneutical” lens:

1 John 4:11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.

Genesis 27:26 Then his father Isaac said to him, “Come near now and kiss me, my son.”

Genesis 27:27 And he came near and kissed him; and he smelled the smell of his clothing, and blessed him and said: “Surely, the smell of my son Is like the smell of a field Which the Lord has blessed.

Genesis 29:13 Then it came to pass, when Laban heard the report about Jacob his sister’s son, that he ran to meet him, and embraced him and kissed him, and brought him to his house. So, he told Laban all these things.

Genesis 31:28 And you did not allow me to kiss my sons and my daughters. Now you have done foolishly in so doing.

Genesis 31:55 And early in the morning Laban arose, and kissed his sons and daughters and blessed them. Then Laban departed and returned to his place.

Genesis 33:4 But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.

– Genesis 45:15 Moreover, he kissed all his brothers and wept over them, and after that his brothers talked with him.

Genesis 48:10 Now the eyes of Israel were dim with age, so that he could not see. Then Joseph brought them near him, and he kissed them and embraced them.

Genesis 50:1 Then Joseph fell on his father’s face and wept over him, and kissed him.

Exodus 4:27 And the Lord said to Aaron, “Go into the wilderness to meet Moses.” So, he went and met him on the mountain of God, and kissed him.

Exodus 18:7 So, Moses went out to meet his father-in-law, bowed down, and kissed him. And they asked each other about their well-being, and they went into the tent.

– Ruth 1:14 Then they lifted up their voices and wept again; and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.

1 Samuel 10:1 [ Samuel Anoints Saul ] Then Samuel took a flask of oil and poured it on his head, and kissed him and said: “Is it not because the Lord has anointed you commander over His inheritance?

1 Samuel 20:41 As soon as the lad had gone, David arose from a place toward the south, fell on his face to the ground, and bowed down three times. And they kissed one another; and they wept together, but David more so.

Matthew 26:49 Immediately he went up to Jesus and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed Him.

Acts 20:37 Then they all wept freely, and fell on Paul’s neck and kissed him,

2 Samuel 6:14 Then David danced before the Lord with all his might; and David was wearing a linen ephod. (There’s a gay fashion designer Homoneutical reading there.)

Jeremiah 50:37 A sword against her horses and against her chariots, and against all the foreign troops in her midst, that they may become women! (There’s a transgender Homoneutical reading there.)

1 Corinthians 11:14 Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him? (There’s a gender non-conforming Homoneutical reading there.)

A “Homoneutical” reading of texts shows that men kissed men all of the time in the bible and women kissed women. The kisses created “tender points” in the stories. Tenderness propelled the stories. We mustn’t allow the “Homoneutical” authority to be stripped from the same-sex embrace.

You see, my own understanding of the authority and role of scripture has undergone major shifts since I began my formal theological journey. Since I have seen so many left out in the cold. As a creative writer and a public theologian, I carry with me the storied wounds of marginalized folks who are still being crushed under the use of a special hermeneutics that deems their lives as sinful.

I think about the ways that LGBTQ+ folks are not included in a positive light, because of the theological “Fracking the Bible.” “The Church” has found ways to acquire “oil” that is buried deep in the bible. LGBTQ+ folks are not fossil fuel. Anti-LGBTQ theologian’s methods show no concern for the environment of marginalized believers. Acquiring the oil or the anointing, is made possible through a theological fracking, “a drilling technique used for extracting oil or natural gas from deep underground.” We are the underground. Our power buried under the bones of the oppressed before us. Both theological and scientific hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, involve the process of drilling and injecting unhealthy fluids or inputs into the holy ground at a high pressure in order to fracture shale rocks or hardened biblical books to release the natural gas inside.

Because it is in the bible or in the earth, the special hermeneutics considers the reaping, “natural.” Even when there are over 600 chemicals used in the fracking process of which several are known carcinogens and toxins, the process still bills itself as natural. During the fracking process the toxins leach out from the system and contaminate the nearby water sources. There is no oil shortage in the bible just a pipeline to poison those in the margins who are often told that they are the largest energy wasters. Achieving biblical authority without regards to the poisoning of any people is criminal. Drilling into the bible to get more fuel to consolidate power amongst oppressors and not share it with the oppressed is sinful.

I have seen the men and women, that are my beloved community, die from drinking the contaminated waters of a fracked bible for which they so desperately thirsted. I have seen them use their bodies and voices in service of a church that would offer them no oil or anointing, even on their death beds. They will perpetuate the claim, that we weren’t there, and that context doesn’t matter; that “The Word” doesn’t change, only the times change. A “Homoneutical” reading says, “I don’t believe that God saw us—POC, women, poor people, LGBT folks, the elderly, the addicted, the creative, the misfits, and cursed us before we got here.”

It’s Pride Sunday y’all, and the undreamt future of the bible is here, and the version or translation of a bible that does not consider us whole and holy will not be sold back to us as precious when it is poisoning us. It is not a bible, if at the same time it is used to turn profits off of prophets. Oppressed people in 2019 will not remain unimaginable to the bible. The ruse of bible fracking, is that it has to convince itself that it is the sole transcendent authority, even when it claims it never saw us coming. And we know, we were there, and we are here, and we are included a history coming.

Happy Pride

Marvin K. White
Minister of Celebration, GLIDE Church

 

 


 

GLIDE Church is a spiritual center of healing, faith, justice and community for everyone. No matter who you are, where you come from or what you’ve been through, you’re welcome here! Join us for Sunday Celebration every Sunday at 9:00 and 11:00 am.

We also livestream! Follow us on Facebook to be alerted to our streams each week.

A focal point of GLIDE’s Sunday Celebration is the “I AM GLIDE” testimony, in which a member of the community takes the pulpit and tells their story, in their words. GLIDE is a place for healing and recovery, and one of the ways we empower each other is by telling our stories. Indeed, we often refer to these testimonies as our “sacred text.” Recently, longtime GLIDE Ensemble member Titania Bucholdt graciously offered her story to the congregation.

In 1987, I was invited by friends at UC Berkeley to attend a concert at GLIDE, but it was not until my fifth invitation to GLIDE to attend Sunday services, in August 1995, that I made it into the building. I was reluctant to go to any church; my experience was that churches were nearly always segregated places run by men who were judgmental, privileged and clueless. Harsh words, but I decided to walk in the door at GLIDE anyway.

My GLIDE story didn’t start when I became a GLIDE member in 1995, or even when I first heard of GLIDE in 1967. It started when my parents decided to get married in 1957 and discovered that there was no Catholic priest in my mother’s parish in Los Angeles who would agree to perform their marriage ceremony.

My parents wanted to be married in the Catholic church. My mother had lived for nine months out of the year, for four consecutive years, on the Brentwood campus of a private women’s Catholic college with her dorm room right next door to the campus church. She expected that she could be married at her campus church—to her shock her request was denied. She asked to be married at the Catholic church down the street where she also attended church services from time to time, and she was turned down. She went to her priest’s supervisor and he told her that she was asking for the impossible. She asked at another Catholic church in her parish, and again she was turned away.

Five priests in my mother’s parish told her that she could try to be married in the Catholic church, but it was unlikely to happen. The reason they gave was that marriage was a holy sacrament, and although the marriage my mother sought was legal due to a relatively recent change in California law, the Catholic archdiocese believed that marriage between people of different “races” was not what God wanted. Marriages were meant to last, and surely my mother had to see that the marriage she sought could not possibly last, therefore it would not be proper to ask for God’s blessing.

My parents were married at a Los Angeles courthouse, with two attorneys who had been pulled out of the hallway by the bailiff as witnesses. Immediately after the ceremony ended, one of the attorneys gave my father a business card and told my father to give a call when he’d “gotten on the other side of this” (he was a divorce attorney). Fifty years later, at my mother’s funeral, my father tearfully said that it had finally happened, he had “gotten on the other side” of his marriage.

My mother was determined to receive the Catholic sacrament of matrimony, so nearly four years later my parents were married in a Catholic church in Nevada. My baby brother and I were there, though I don’t remember it. I believe that the circumstances of this second wedding created some relief, but not so much joy. My parents wore their best street clothes, but there were no photos.

By 1963, my parents had joined a desegregated Catholic racial justice group, one which was expressly unauthorized by the Los Angeles archdiocese. The activist group was named Catholics United for Racial Equality, also known as C.U.R.E. My father participated in a few civil rights marches down Wilshire Blvd. When I asked to join my father in the marches my parents told me that it was not safe. My father was taking chances by being seen in a desegregated group, and I would have an even greater risk of harm—I represented a future that so many people opposed violently.

One evening during the summer of 1963, as my father and I watched the national evening news on television, we were surprised to hear, “In Los Angeles at the Chancery offices of the Los Angeles Archdiocese there is a sit-in by members of Catholics United for Racial Equality.” I was thrilled to see the protesters on television. Father William duBay was on the news, someone I knew personally. While I did not entirely understand the concept or purpose of a sit-in, the reason for their protest was one that I completely understood: The Catholic Church in Los Angeles was refusing to address the issue of racial injustice.

But those protests did not create any immediate change. Father duBay reported to the C.U.R.E. membership that the Archbishop’s response to demands for church action to support the civil rights movement was dismissive. The Archbishop told Father duBay, “There is no race problem in Los Angeles.”

My family began spending long Saturdays at the home of Jefferson Park community activist Leon Aubrey, and soon my parents came to the understanding that “Los Angeles was not a place to raise children.” My father decided to take a work transfer out of state with the U.S. Public Health Service, even though he had been truly delighted by his work in Los Angeles as a public health field investigator.

My father had worked as a V.D., presently known as S.T.D., investigator, which meant that he was privy to the goings on at wild Hollywood parties. This included the world of “hookers and high-priced call girls.” As a result of that work, for years afterwards at parties, gatherings and meetings, my father would frequently and fervently declare that “The Civil Rights Movement should not end until there are equal rights for all; and equal rights will not exist until those rights are extended to prostitutes, who are considered by society to be the lowest of the low. We will not have achieved equal rights in the world unless prostitutes also have equal rights.”

In 1965, my father took a new job with the U.S. Public Health Service in Alaska. My mother set about finding a Catholic church near our home in Anchorage. She settled on a grand building that was walking distance from our home—but not walking distance during the winter, when it was safer to drive.

Shortly after the birth of my youngest brother, my mother decided to go to Sunday services and to bring the new baby. It was a dark winter morning despite the ice fog and about 15 below zero. My father dropped my mother and my little brothers in front of the church while he and I went to look for a parking space. When my father and I walked up to the church, we could see my mother still standing on the church steps trying to hide that she was upset. When she had tried to enter the church, she had not been allowed in.

There was a policy of not allowing brown people in the church, particularly when it was very cold outside, since the church administration felt that such people were only “just” trying to get out of the cold. African Americans were allowed in the church, because they were usually in Alaska as members of the U.S. military. Brown people, like my mother, were not allowed in because they were presumed Alaskan Natives, and were assumed to be homeless.

Once they saw my father we were allowed into the church, and after the service that morning the priest apologized to my parents for the error of the volunteer who had not recognized my mother as a member of the church. Eventually my mother came around to the idea that she needed to look for another church community.

My brothers and I were thrilled when my parents decided to join a nearby Byzantine church. What a difference! That church had the most amazing music. The entire church service was joyously sung, call and response, from beginning to end. Frankincense and myrrh were used freely, and it smelled like Christmas every Sunday. My father was very happy with the sermons of the progressive priest. I loved the homemade food that was served to the congregation members after every Sunday service, and every Sunday my family would stay for at least an hour after the service.

Alas that lasted only a few months. The progressive priest was labelled a radical by his supervisors. He was transferred to a very small town on a very large island, accessible only by plane. My father lamented that good churches were hard to find, and great preachers never stayed long before they were pushed out by “the powers that be.” We continued to attend the Byzantine church for some time, but the sermons were dry and boring and the congregation fled the building after each Sunday service.

In the spring of 1967, my father came home from an epidemiology training session in San Francisco. It had been his third week-long training session in San Francisco that winter, and my younger brothers were no longer interested in his stories of the sights of San Francisco, which they were having trouble imagining. But this time my father did not come home to sit at the dining table and tell stories of what he’d seen and heard at the Fillmore, or at Fisherman’s Wharf or Coit Tower. Instead, he stood in the living room too excited to sit down and told us about a church in San Francisco that he’d visited that Sunday.

The unbelievable news was that at this one amazing church in San Francisco prostitutes were specifically invited! The doors of the church had been thrown open to accept everyone: the homeless, drug addicts and prostitutes! It wasn’t that they were accepted, they were being recruited! My father never dreamed he would ever see such a thing in his lifetime in a major city. He was full of pride and hope. The late ’60s were a time of hope and of change.

In 1995, when I first came to GLIDE, I was curious about what my father had seen in 1967. I didn’t expect that it would be the same kind of place, but it was—it was even better. The music at GLIDE was incredible, it reminded me of the Byzantine church of my childhood. I sang along from the pews, and I joined the GLIDE Ensemble the following spring.

Although this great music has kept me busy at GLIDE, it’s not the reason I’m still here. I’m a proud GLIDE member because the GLIDE community does not reject people for how they look, their beliefs, their social status, or for how they’ve handled their own lives. It’s a church for everyone. It’s a church that fulfilled my father’s wildest dreams in 1967, and since 1995 it’s fulfilled my dreams too. My name is Titania, and I am GLIDE.

Marvin K. White, Vashti and Liberation

In honor of Women’s History Month, GLIDE’s own Interim Minister of Celebration Marvin K. White shares his gifts as a poet and theologian in a piece entitled “Vashti”. The poem and accompanying interview were originally published in the GLIDE Church eNews, Congregation Connect.

Vashti

I was with the other women
In the woman’s place
In the palace
And it’s only
The letter “A”
That separates place
From palace.

I was with the other women
When he called.
I had been up cooking all night
And had just wiped
The last of the semolina
Off my forehead
And we were finally ready to eat

When he called
We were in our one hundred
And eighty-seventh day of celebrating
One hundred and eighty-seven times
I was called up,
Pageanted for him
And the visiting priests, provinces, and princes.
He had been feasting for the last six days
Without calling.
I waited six.
I was queen.
He told me that.
I was clear.
Or tried to convince myself to be.
I was picked
Like the prized pie at the carnival
Because I was the fairest.

When he called
He never thought
I would refuse him anything.
I was lucky you know
And yes
I heard him calling
Cuz I hear everything.
I am a woman.
Ears trained to ground and sky.
I hear the women
Like myself
Breaking
Like the bread we ate that day.
Women
Who were picked over
For some beauty standard
That had nothing to do with us.

I wasn’t leaving this party.
It felt right.
And yes
I heard him calling
But I also heard God’s warning breath
Whisper my ear
With my mother’s fear,
“Say no girl,
say no.”

So, when he called
It was the seventh day.
He had been drinking.
His heart was merry with wine.
He was drunk.
And ordered,
because that’s what you can do
when you make someone a queen,
He ordered me
To him
In the crown royal,
Now,
He was ready to show me off.
And
I
Said
“No!”
Because I a woman
And I am moved
Like the women I am with
And the women I come from
Are moved.
And there is a place
And it’s only the letter “A”
That separates place from palace
In my belly now.
Fuller than the feast
Whose grease
Lingers on my fingers.
There is a place left
From gathering with my like,
Telling me what to say,
And I am finally ready to hear
This word
This bird
Flying out of my mouth
Turned song.
And I am sure
Other queens have heard it.
Put their tongues
To the roof of their mouths
And tasted it.
My sisters
Esther
Ma’a’cha
Bathsheba
Jezebel
Sheba
Candace.
We who have all said “No!”
And have not known
And known at the same time
Why.
“No!”
For our daughters,
The next in our broken royal lines.
“No!”
For their voices strong and spirit led.
“No!”
We can say “Mother God” and “Father God.”
Can think
That in the company of women
Quiet wars can be raged.
Battles birthing women and
Women birthing battles,
Who don’t forget their kindred
Or their people.
When he called
There was new breath in mine
Pushing this defiance
Out of my chest.

Like life
Collapsing in on itself.
Like rock caught in the craw of my throat
Coughed up.
Like tear and snot braced for pain.
Like we are getting ready
To sing
Or preach
Or pray
For the first time.

Like I said,
When he called
I had been up cooking
All night
And had just wiped
The last of the semolina
Off my forehead,
And we
Were
Finally
Ready
To
Eat.

How did this poem begin for you?

I really believe in locating stories in the Bible through a “Hermeneutics of Suspicion.” In theology, it’s a style of interpretation that bypasses the patriarchal and class readings of biblical stories, so that less-visible and “differently beautiful and powerful” stories can emerge. That’s how I found Vashti. Obfuscated by men, Vashti’s and other marginalized figures’ stories risk being untold. I couldn’t let that happen. I could hear her faint voice, still calling out, these many years later. I have learned to listen and be led by the voice of women all of my life.

What prompted you to write from the perspective of a woman in the Bible? 

I always try to remember when I am writing in the voice of women, that the aim is to be spoken through by women and not to speak for women. I was fortunate enough to have been “mama’s/grandmama’s boy” when I was growing up. My therapist would say that I was a “spousified child”. You know, “Mama’s little man.” But it gave me an insight and entry into “women’s ways.” I hold those intimacies close still. As an adult, I was also the primary caregiver for my mother and grandmother, who both, at different times in my life, lived and died with Alzheimer’s. I was a writer watching their stories disappear. I began having conversations with them by whatever relative’s name they called me. I learned their ways. And learned to be a person who dispensed wisdom. If I have any insight and compassion into women’s experiences and female bonds, it is because they speak through me.

From a feminist, womanist and liberation theological standpoint, Vashti displayed agency and self-valuation.

Can you please talk a bit about the context of Vashti in the Book of Esther? 

Vashti was the queen to King Xerxes, who had a habit of getting drunk and sending for his queen to show her off to his visitors. In one of these instances, Vashti said, “No.” and refused to come. Xerxes’ dudes got in his ear and convinced him that Vashti had dissed him in front of his homies and he was going to have to do something to show who was in charge. I’m being the worst exegete in the world right now! Xerxes declares that all wives shall obey their husbands.

From a feminist, womanist and liberation theological standpoint, Vashti displayed agency and self-valuation. She chose women over men. She made choices that were uncommon in a bible that casts men as the heroes. Her story is now sited as one of resistance, risk and threat to the patriarchy. And it’s not because she was “against” men, but simply and more powerfully, “for” women. There are still other women, and other marginalized voices, hidden behind men in the bible or in bondage by the bible’s storytellers. It is my job as a theologian to free them.

Crickette Brown Glad shares her truth and experience with GLIDE’s harm reduction outreach

GLIDE Church has a long-standing tradition of featuring voices from the community in a segment of Sunday Celebration called “I Am GLIDE.” Personal testimonies on the strength and power of unconditional love from our program participants, congregants, donors and volunteers provide what we often refer to as “the GLIDE sacred text.” We feature these inspiring stories here when we can.

Continue reading “We’re talking about our family”

Introducing Marvin K. White

Starting in January, Marvin K. White will become the Interim Minister of Celebration at GLIDE. Many people in our congregation have experienced and recognized Marvin’s deep creative and spiritual gifts. He’ll bring those gifts along with his strong commitment to GLIDE’s mission of unconditional love and radical inclusivity as he continues to help lead Sunday Celebrations and be one of the leaders guiding us through an adventurous time of transition.

On December 16, Marvin led Celebration in honoring the spiritual legacy of San Francisco’s very own Disco Super Star – Sylvester. This marked the 30-year anniversary of his passing. Where better than GLIDE to celebrate Sylvester’s time on this earth and shine a light on his lasting impact and the example he left for us today? In the following interview, published originally in GLIDE’s Congregation Connect newsletter and slightly edited for clarity, Marvin speaks to his inspiration as a preacher and the importance of commemorating our queer heroes.

Who is Marvin K. White, MDiv?


A poet, preacher, an arts leader, an arts organizer and a public theologian—those are the kind of identities I lead with. That’s what it says on my mailbox—that’s how I want people to be able to find me.

On the inside, I am a 12-year-old kid who was raised by his mom and grandma. I was creative but not in a way that was encouraged, so I had to really come into it on my own. So, this extension of storytelling by preaching makes sense to me because I have always told stories to myself. I could always find a way to write myself out of an uncomfortable situation.

What was your inspiration for a Sylvester-themed Celebration?


He was a black gay church kid, he came out of the church, he was born in the church. If you listen to his music, it was still church. I want to celebrate and elevate our queer heroes.

 

In my practice, I am deeply committed to understanding what my role in the divine is and how to make sure that people who are interested in spiritual gifts, no matter what they are, that they find them. That I say something or do something to help them realize their gifts.

When I was 21, I saw Sylvester perform at the Castro Theatre with Two Tons of Fun. The person who took me told me “you need to know this is historic” and honestly, it just changed my life! I was ushered into the larger meaning of what Sylvester meant.

Paula at Sunday Celebration on Cecil’s 89th birthday, September 23, 2018; guest speaker Marvin K. White.

 

What do you believe Sylvester’s message to be?


You have to activate God on your behalf, and spirituality, and the divine. In a way that’s different from how we are taught in corporate and organized religion: that there is somebody you have to go through to get to it.

It reminds me of what Andy Warhol said, “Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.”

One of the things I talked about on Sunday is that each of us is our own tabernacle. We carry with us this fire and this spark and this music that has been passed on to us (by folks who didn’t make it) and whether they physically hand it to you, or you dance with them once and they bumped it into you, or you guys were all on the same dance floor—I mean, that’s why the dance floor is like Pentecost. Everybody gets it at the same time—everybody starts talking in tongues, but everybody can understand each other. That’s what happened with Sylvester’s music on the dance floor.

People like Sylvester—a black, cross-dressing boy from L.A.—people without role models, even we can still come into ourselves. Then, in doing that, we provide inspiration to others to come into themselves as well.

Our identities are our pathways to spirituality. And to our divinity. [They are the] keys to get you into it—not locks to keep you out of it.

Marvin K. White preaching on Thanksgiving 2018
Marvin K. White preaching on Thanksgiving 2018.

Iona Lewis is a Case Manager with GLIDE’s Men in Progress program. Thanks to her father, Iona has been a part of the GLIDE community her entire life. Now, she and her husband Raphael are both employees here and their son, Carlo, attends GLIDE’s Family, Youth and Childcare Center (FYCC) during the day. Iona and Raphael were part of the GLIDE contingent to the opening of the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, in April.

In the following lightly edited excerpts from a recent conversation, Iona shares some memories of her father and growing up near GLIDE. With this offering from Iona, we wish everyone everywhere a loving Father’s Day weekend. 
Continue reading “A Father’s Gift”

Unconditional Love. Radical Inclusivity. And Doing Your Part.

GLIDE Church has a long-standing tradition of featuring voices from the community in a segment of Sunday Celebration called “I Am GLIDE.” Personal testimonies on the strength and power of unconditional love from our program participants, congregants, donors and volunteers provide what Rev. Angela Brown often refers to as “the GLIDE sacred text.” We feature these inspiring stories here when we can. Emily Cohen, Co-Chair of the GLIDE Legacy Committee, spoke to our congregation on April 29.

I grew up in Petaluma. I was raised Jewish and secular. My father is Jewish and my mother is I think what she would call a “recovering Protestant”. My childhood was good. It was safe. And I felt loved.

One thing I did not do growing up was go to church. I did go to Hebrew School but about a year before my Bat Mitzah I told my mom I wanted to be a Buddhist. I was 12. So I have always been spiritually curious. I have always believed that there is something much more magical and important to us than us. But I never believed it could be found in the walls of any church or religious institution. I never believed a church could be the vehicle for me to have a meaningful spiritual human experience… Until it was.

emily and amy volunteering
Emily Cohen (second from right) volunteering in the GLIDE kitchen with fellow Legacy Committee members.

The first time I came to GLIDE was with my father. We had no intentions beyond just checking it out. But after that service I felt like I had found something I had been looking for my entire life.

I continued to come back on Sundays ,  even when it meant skipping Sunday brunches with friends. I think it was confusing for people — all of a sudden I was going to church. “What has happened to Emily?”

But I was inspired by the message of GLIDE. Of their work for social justice and equality for all. Of unending compassion. And a commitment to serve people at the very margins — the places other religious institutions do not go.

For me, GLIDE has been a kind of mentor. It has shaped my sense of the world. Of what it means to be connected to humanity.

At GLIDE I’ve seen unconditional love through their work in harm reduction. In their free meals program. In their programs for survivors of abuse. For men unlearning violence. In their programs for children. In the Walk-In Center where someone can get a clean pair of socks and speak with a person willing to meet them where they are.

We live in a society that TALKS about being compassionate and loving your neighbor and serving and giving back. But we also live in a society that tells us every day to reject that message. To consume more and give less. To turn away from the things we don’t want to see or feel. To explain to ourselves that you are not my problem. Your suffering is your own fault. We live in a society that gives us every excuse to explain away our selfishness.

For me, GLIDE has been a kind of mentor. It has shaped my sense of the world. Of what it means to be connected to humanity. Of what it means to be compassionate. To understand that it might seem that I have nothing in common with the people sleeping outside of this church   or waiting in line for their next meal. But the truth is, we have everything in common. For someone who is privileged , that can be a painful truth to face. Because then you know you’ll have to do something. GLIDE gives me a place to recognize how privileged I am and then to do something with it.

emily christmas
Emily volunteering at GLIDE’s Annual Toy Bay Giveaway, December 2017.

It is easy for people of privilege to talk about poverty. It is easy to talk about mental illness. It is easy to talk about affordable housing. Or homelessness. Or addiction. Or suffering. Or violence. Or racism. Or sexism. Homophobia. Xenophobia. It is NOT easy to work to change these things.

We have enough people in this world — and in this city — who do nothing. Who don’t give their time, energy or money to anything outside of themselves. We see this every day in the glaring inequality and disparity that we accept right here, right underneath our self-proclaimed “liberal values.”

Am I listening to the voice inside that reminds me that the men and women suffering outside are still a part of me?

Too many people believe it’s not up to them. But you are not one of those people. I know that because you’re here at GLIDE, a place that values and inspires action above everything else.

I call on the people sitting here today and the people listening at home to ask yourself: “Am I walking the walk? Am I listening and RESPONDING to the voice inside me that is trying to remind me of what it is to be human? To be connected? To love unconditionally and to give back in all the ways that I can? Am I listening to the voice inside that reminds me that the men and women suffering outside are still a part of me?

I look around this room — full of so many different types of people — in color, religion, upbringings, down-bringings, in age and gender, all here because we believe in or are curious about this idea of unconditional love and radical inclusivity. And I ask myself “am I giving enough back to this incredible place? Are you?”

GLIDE, to me, is radical because it does not wait for a better, safer, kinder future for the world. It creates that future.

GLIDE has provided an avenue to focus my energy, time and money towards something much more important than me. GLIDE has taught me what it really means to be just one person. Which is that I AM ONE PERSON! GLIDE has taught me what it means to step up and step in and say “I am somebody with something to learn and something to give.”

I use GLIDE as my vehicle because it is reflective of my values, beliefs and my desires for making this world — and our community—a better place. GLIDE, to me, is radical because it does not wait for a better, safer, kinder future for the world. It creates that future. But GLIDE can’t do it without you and me. So I’m asking you this morning to give more than you ever have. Whatever that means to you. Whether it is your time, your energy, your money. Step up. There is much work to be done.

I read a quote a few years ago and for me, it embodies GLIDE’s mission:

“Compassion is sometimes the fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.”

Being an active part of GLIDE has changed my life and I am certain it will change yours too.

My name is Emily. And I am GLIDE.

legacy committee group pic
The 2018 GLIDE Legacy Committee. Emily is pictured in the front row on the far right.