Friday, April 25, 2014

Waiting for Binoculars Guy

Last fall, the second or third time I led a Lingam Puja ritual in New York's Riverside Park, a man in his sixties came up the trail a few minutes after we'd started, clearly focused on the group though still a hundred yards away. A latecomer, I thought. I smiled in welcome. He marched up and announced, "You can't do this here."

"I'm sorry--what are we doing that's against park rules?" I asked.
"You're off the path in a bird sanctuary," he said, and then added. "People do it all the time. They let their dogs run in here, but they're not supposed to."
"I didn't see any sign."
"Well, it's a rule."
"I'm really surprised I didn't see a sign. I'll look for it when we're leaving."

"You're obviously holding some sort of ritual. That's not allowed."
...and a little more dialogue after that. I think he felt heard, if not satisfied, and after a few minutes  he stalked on up the path.
The next time he appeared, a couple of months later, binoculars around his neck, he objected that we'd moved some brushwood to form the circle in which we meet. The third time he confronted us, his complaint was less focused but just as full of frustration.
This man clearly loves the park and feels called to care for it. He finds meaning in his vigilance for a greater community good. The unfamilarity of seeing a small group of men engaging in a ritual he doesn't understand raises anxiety and suspicion.
Dealing with him always knocks us off balance in unwelcome ways. The impulse to push back rears up among us all. I struggle to go on anchoring our practice despite the turmoil of my own reactions. His hostility tears at the integrity of ritual time and space, as he exercises every New Yorker's God-given right to object to every other New Yorker taking up space.
The glorious early spring afternoon of our last gathering, I braced with more than a little anxiety for his next appearance. I combed the web to print out all the relevant park regulations I could find. I recruited a friend to act as spokesman and keep him if possible out of our midst. In my introductory words  to the group, I mentioned our earlier run-ins and encouraged everyone, should he appear, to stay mindful. Could we make a conscious choice not to receive his energy full on and absorb it, nor simply to reflect hostility back to him? Could we instead hold the integrity of our space, and let anger dissipate around us?
With all this practical and emotional preparation as our talisman, Binoculars Guy never appeared.
But I don't want to be too quick to rejoice in the good luck of avoiding him. I don't want to discount the gifts Binoculars Guy has brought us. If it weren't for Binoculars Guy, we wouldn't have had the incitement to become more grounded in our response to the energies that inevitably flow through the space we take up in a Manhattan park: helicopters overhead, sirens on Riverside Drive, dog owners calling their off-leash pets back from a circle of strangers they regard with wary curiosity. He's helped us to become a more cohesive community. He's helped me to become more conscious of all that holding space for this improbable, eccentric  ritual practice entails,  to think more deeply about how to mediate between our group and passersby, to consider how we can minimize our impact on them and yet stay focused on why we're here, on who we are and who we hope to become.

Monday, April 14, 2014

On the Shore of Safety

Just a few hours before the beginning of Passover, one day into Holy Week after Palm Sunday, this is my twofold prayer: that queer men find resources and sustenance in the religious traditions that shaped us in our early years—Jewish and Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist—and also that we claim the power to demand erotic justice from those who speak for those traditions.

My prayer is that we hold those two realties of our spiritual histories together: that we call churches and bishops, synagogues and rabbis, mosques and imams, temples, monks and priests to account; and that we refuse to relinquish to our oppressors the treasures that rightfully belong to us.

The New York Times yesterday carried an extraordinary example of the courage and integrity we’re required to show in order to do both those things at once. Page 7 of the front section was entirely taken up by an open letter to Pope Francis from Carl Siciliano, the Executive Director of the Ali Forney Center in Manhattan, which serves homeless lgbtq youth. Siciliano writes as a Roman Catholic, a former monk, and a member of the Catholic Worker movement. His letter offers example after damning example, drawn from his experience as director of the Forney Center, of the suffering queer kids go through when religious bigotry trumps parental love and institutional benevolence. 

What gave the letter such power was Siciliano’s willingness to go on standing with one foot inside the tradition that shaped his own spiritual life, even as he bore witness to the damage that tradition has done. It was uncompromising in its indictment of the effects of religious bigotry. It was heartfelt in its appeal to values of compassion and love over dogma that Francis’s public statements have endorsed over the still-short period since his election as Pope.

And it was savvy. Its publication coincided with the commencement of the holiest week of the Christian liturgical year. Its appeal made sense in the context of what is and isn’t possible, at least for the moment, in the evolution of Roman Catholicism. It let go of Francis’s dubious record, as Archibshop of Buenos Aires, of vociferous opposition to same-sex marriage in Argentina. It made reference to the reform of doctrine around human sexuality, but it focused on the lived human effects of intolerance, much as Francis’s own pronouncements have done since his elevation. It was sponsored (and we’re talking the cost of a full-page ad in the Sunday Times) by the high-end funiture retailer Mitchell Gold+Bob Williams, in a happy reminder that the use of private wealth actually can be genuinely benign.

We stand at a time of amazing possibility. Less than fifty years after most of us would have lost jobs, homes, and friends with the revelation of our sexual difference, at least some of us have the safe space to claim the integrity of our erotic and spiritual lives, and to advocate for those who still suffer the effects of homophobic injustice. We’re the ones who’ve made it to the far shore of the Red Sea. We’re called to look back, put out our hands, and  pull those behind us up the slope to safety.