Tuesday, September 17, 2013

In Church on Birmingham Sunday

Sunday was the 50th anniversary of Birmingham Sunday. On September 15, 1963, white terrorists killed four African American girls in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. It was a turning point in the civil rights movement and began the long slow demise of the Klu Klux Klan.

This last Sunday, September 15, my friends David Kerr and Jay Stowsky celebrated their marriage and adoption of two children in Berkeley. Although the civil rights struggle for women, people of color, and queer people continues, we have made progress since that awful day half a century ago. People of different races can now marry in every state, and people of the same gender can marry in several states. Queer people can now adopt children (including children of all races).

Standing in the sunny little park in Berkeley, I wondered about the link between the two Sundays across these many years, in two very different places. And I return to a familiar refrain. In the face of adversity, personal and political, the one deep source of change lies in the power of individual love. It is amazing that Birmingham did not erupt into violence (although whites did kill a number of other innocent African Americans shortly after the bombing). This was because the leaders of the civil rights movement advocated nonviolence, forgiveness, and yes, love. Who was one of the key philosophers who converted Dr. King to this idea of nonviolence? One brilliant eccentric African American queer organizer named Bayard Rustin. We have been preaching love for a long, long time.

I first met my friend David Kerr 25 years ago when he was going out with my next-door neighbor. I knocked on the door and this tall young man with a big smile greeted me. He was wearing a light blue sweater. I thought two things:
  1. Is he 18?
  2. He exuded more kindness than anyone I could ever remember meeting.
On the first point, I was mistaken. He was in his mid-20s and was already finished with graduate school. Yet even now, he does not look his age. On the second point, my judgment was correct. His gentle generosity became a model for me.

A few years ago, I met Jay Stowsky. I confess I thought he had some of the most beautiful blue eyes I had ever seen. They were nearly the color of David’s sweater that I first saw all those years ago. He exuded the same deep kindness as David—you could say a slightly saltier sweetness. But he seemed a perfect complement to David.

After a few years together, they took their kindness and extended it into the world by adopting two children, Shayla and Jaden. It has been one of the most profound joys of my adult life to be included in this circle of love. I have learned once again that love is exponential.

Perhaps the only evidence of God is love. The love I feel with Jay, David, Shayla, and Jaden, and the love I felt yesterday in that oak-filled park, was holy. It was my kind of church. Open to the sky with boundless love. This is what allows us to forgive the killers of those four little girls a half century ago, allows us to heal ourselves of hatred towards others and towards ourselves, and allows us to save the world, wherever we are.