I’m posting my Kudzu interview for the coming week a little earlier. I usually try to post it early in the week, but I’ve chosen to re-post a previous Kudzu interview earlier than normal, to help make you aware of an up-coming event.
Tomorrow, August 17, marks the third anniversary of the founding of Operation Bullyhorn, an anti-bullying organization led by my wife, Rev. Katharine Royal. Here in Chapel Hill, NC, the anniversary will be celebrated with an advocacy and awareness day. Kat describes it like this: “We are taking the day to have a time of sharing, learning and growing. We will hear from youth and adults whose lives have been changed by the organization, meet professionals who have been helping meet the needs of our members and learn how we as a community can reach out to those dealing with bullying, self injury, abuse, eating disorders and thoughts of suicide. Bring a friend! Learn how to help save a life.” The event will occur at the Chapel Hill Public Library, room A, 100 Library Dr, Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27514. If you live too far out of the area to be involved, I’d encourage you to do something this coming week to raise awareness about bullying where you live.
Two of the features on the Progressive Redneck Preacher which are dear to my heart are Kudzu interviews and Country Fried Chicken interviews, conversations with individuals who are positively changing the shape of the south.
Country Fried Chicken interviews are with people born and bred in the South who are as southern as fried chicken and biscuits and are applying their experiences in ways that are flavoring their communities in transforming ways. There are many home-grown progressive voices that have never been heard because of the polarizing highlights to faith and life offered by the media.
In Kudzu interviews, we interview transplants to the South. We are so proud of our southern landscape and culture that oftentimes we southerners forget that some of the most beautiful parts of southern life originally came from elsewhere. Most prominent among these is kudzu, a plant that you see all over the southern landscape. It is hard to imagine the hillsides and forests I grew up in without that winding green leaf. In Kudzu interviews, I try to interview individuals who, like the kudzu plant, did not originate here in the south but were transplanted here from elsewhere, yet whose life and work is coloring our southern landscape with beauty.
I’m blessed to say I know this week’s Kudzu interviewee very well. Rev. Katharine L. Royal is not just a transformational minister working in the south, but also my wife of nearly 11 years. So, folks, you can thank me for sweet-talking this wonderful lady into coming and making NC and the South a much better place. Don’t worry, though. I’ll try to keep the lovey-dovey talk that might annoy some of y’all more sensitive folks to a minimum.
Katharine is a minister with the Progressive Christian Alliance. In her not-quite-a-decade in ministry, Katharine has pastored multiple churches in California and the Carolinas. She has been active in advocacy for children, people with disabilities and the LGBT community. She took an active role in the work to speak up against Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and NC’s Amendment One while pastoring two different churches just outside Fort Bragg, NC. She has also organized an online support community called “Operation Bullyhorn” which is supporting individuals experiencing bullying and harassment around the world. While pastoring a church in Robeson County, NC, Katharine wrote Between Two Worlds, a book about her spiritual journey as a person with multiple identities: faithful wife, person with spina bifida (a disability that places her in a wheelchair), a bisexual, a Christian pastor, and an advocate for civil rights. Finally, Katharine has a new blog, You Never Thought of That, where she is blogging about progressive perspectives on current issues.
Her ministry is truly adding beauty to the diverse landscape around us in the south. And I’m not just whistling Dixie!
Your progressive redneck preacher, Micah
Katharine, would you tell us a little about yourself and how you got involved in some of the progressive ministries you’re doing?
I live in Carrboro, NC, but I grew up in the Los Angeles, CA, area, between there and the Inland Empire area of California a little later. I didn’t grow up in a particularly religious home. I got involved with a Presbyterian Church (USA) around the time I was 8, but it wasn’t until late junior high, maybe high school, that I started to become interested in anything religiously and really have my own questions on faith. It wasn’t until college that I really began to question things and explore what it meant to be a Christian, especially in light of the fact of my bisexuality and working out how to live a life as a Christian. Living as a Christian who is bisexual, in a wheelchair and feeling called to the ministry left a whole lot to be worked out.
So, it sounds like you’ve been on quite a journey. What were some of the turning points in all this for you?
The first time I ever picked up a Bible is one thing I remember very distinctly. Somebody had quoted a passage to me that really bothered me. I went to look at it because I’d never really read the Bible. I remember coming into the den and showing my mother that there was a place in the Old Testament where it said that if you had a defect or disability you couldn’t come into the temple. As a child with a severe disability, I remember that real bothering me. That sparked my interest in starting to ask the question of “Do we really understand what we say we believe as Christians when we say we believe the Bible?”
I can’t imagine how disturbing that would be, at that young age, to turn to the Bible and see it describing – well, describing you — in that way. Is that the only time you’d seen that verse used?
That was the first time I’d read anything from the Bible at all. I’d heard about the Bible. My best friends’ family were Christians and I’d go to church with her when I was over, but that was mainly watching Veggie Tales movies. I’d never really looked into anything, and never really read the Bible before hearing that verse.
Wow. Again I say, that’s an amazing thing to imagine facing at such an early age. But you were starting to tell me where you went with that, and how it caused you to dig. Can you tell us more about that?
Well, at that point, every time I had a question about what someone was saying, I would try to find out about it in Scripture. This actually initially led me away from Christianity. By the time I was 11 or 12, I was just so fed up with all of my peers who were claiming Christianity and so many people in society I would meet who were claiming Christianity. So many of the things that they would say or do and explain were because of their beliefs just seemed so hypocritical and inconsistent with the concept of what they claimed was a loving God. I initially walked away from Christianity because of this. It wasn’t until probably the middle of high school, when I went to an all girls’ Catholic high school, that this started to change. I didn’t really have a great group of friends there that whole time, just two or three people. I got close to a few of the teachers and it wasn’t until then that I realized I wasn’t really walking away from Christianity because of not believing in God or that Jesus died for my sins. I was stepping away from it because I thought all Christians were hypocritical idiots. I started seeing people who weren’t like that. People who really stood up for their faith, who really looked at it and weren’t afraid to ask tough questions. Through them I started to realize you can be a Christian and have questions. You can be a Christian and not be saying you believe one thing while living a life that’s actually opposed to it.
That’s quite a story. So many things I could ask. I’m thinking of all the people who must have influenced you. You talk about some of the examples of people who helped you see that faith could make sense. I’m also thinking about the work you are doing. Could you tell us about some of these examples of folks who showed you that there was something positive in faith? I imagine you have to lean on some of their examples for the work you do now.
Tim Pendergast and Frank Dowling were two very influential teachers of mine in high school. Frank Dowling is one of the people who came out for my ordination. He is one of the reasons I actually became a Christian and decided I could become a minister. It was actually in his classroom that I first felt a desire to do that. He and Tim Pendergast, another of my religion teachers, really impacted me, as did Katy Sadler, the assistant principal of my high school. These were some of the few people who actually took the time to look beyond me just joking around and laughing, acting like the happy go lucky kid the planet thought I was. They took the time to really get to know me for me.
That’s amazing. I hear you saying that they took the time to look past that surface veneer and really get to know you as you. I think about the work you do and how what they did for you, in many ways, is what you are doing for others. Would you be willing to share a little about some of the main ministry work you are doing now, and how your journey has influenced it?
Yeah, absolutely. Back in 2011, I kind of accidentally created what has become an international organization, Operation Bullyhorn. It started out as a response to an epidemic I was seeing. I had already been in contact with a number of teenagers all over the place through friends of varying church members we’d had over the years. It was not uncommon for me to have kids and teenagers messaging me on Facebook, calling, and texting me to ask advice or ask questions, especially if they were members of the LGBT community or if they had disabilities. I’d already been hearing in the news about the growing number of suicides especially among teenagers and below, many of who were LGBT. These youth decided that because of what even people in their own families and churches were telling them, they were a mistake. So many were deciding that, rather than live a life as a LGBT individual, they should take their lives to save themselves and everyone else the heartache of their lives and what they viewed as their sins.
It was one particular day in 2011 when I received a message from one of the teens who regularly sought me out for help, when everything changed. They had received a message from a friend’s little brother that he needed to talk. They said he was very young and wanted to know if I could talk. I said sure. The next thing I knew I was on the phone with a 7 years old who, strangely enough, was home alone. That he was home alone at 7 years old I couldn’t believe, and what I really couldn’t believe was that at 7 he ended up home alone with access to a gun. Over the course of about 15 to 20 minutes, he told me all about how he felt called into the ministry. He felt called to tell people about Jesus. He felt called to teach people about God, but his parents and the church — and really everyone close to him — ended up telling him not only could he not do that, but he couldn’t even call himself a Christian. They said because of his disability he had obviously no faith because, if he did, God would’ve healed him. Obviously that meant he was being possessed by evil.
Over the course of the conversation, it went from despair to, within 20 minutes, the trigger being pulled and it was too late. This is when I realized something had to be done. Over the course of my life I had already attempted suicide two times by the time I was ending high school. There are too many of these kids who are not finding people like the ones I found who would actually take the time to build a relationship to get to know them as they are and take the time to help them answer the tough questions and look past the “I’m ok” and joking around constantly to cover up their pain. They needed people who would not just pass off their questions as if there is no problem, but see these kids for who they really are and see what they really need.
So, I was originally going to just start a little discussion group on Facebook. Within a couple of days, it went from a little discussion group to 200 people. Since then, we are about to come up on our three year anniversary on August 17. We now have 500 members in about 11 countries. We have a chapter that recently sprung up that is having some trouble because of the legislation in Uganda. We have a following in the United Kingdom, as well as Australia, and in Canada.
So it’s become a major support for many people. It’s turned into people having rallies around the world. Several of our members are going into the schools to do presentations. We’ve been talking to families and school administrators about bullying. We’ve been talking to doctors about situations of suicide attempts and self injury. It’s basically gone from a little gem of an idea to a huge network of individuals who do everything from support work to helping kids find homes when parents kick them out for their sexuality, to helping them find hospital and counseling resources.
That’s amazing work you’re doing. I wonder, what are some key lessons and concerns that you’ve seen that you think other people of faith, particularly in the south, ought to be aware of?
I think the prevailing theme I see again and again with these kids is something I’d wager all parents struggle with: when they have a child, they have all of these hopes and dreams for this child. Sometimes parents can actually end up living vicariously through their kids. So often the worst difficulties these kids have is that they are not who they feel they have to be in order to be loved by the people around them; whether that is family members giving them a hard time about their weight constantly, leading them to develop an eating disorder or self injury; or an issue of the family not being the same religion and the kid branches out, realizing “I don’t believe the same things as my parents. I don’t think this is right for me. ” Or maybe the kid ends up being LGBT and they are in an extremely religious family, so their parents end up feeling that’s incompatible with what they believe and say the child is walking in sin. It seems so many times these kids’ families have a preconceived notion of what their kid should be. It’s often communicated that they’ve got their whole lives planned out for their kids and, if they deviate from the plan, those kids feel their ability to be loved is threatened. They feel their ability to be accepted is threatened. The message they get is they aren’t good enough for their family.
Above and beyond, if you are going to have a child and be a parent: love them for who they are. Accept them as they are. Kids can tell if you have an agenda. They know if its “I’m going to pretend to accept you while secretly hoping you change.” They know if they are being tricked. They know if it’s just an issue of you having a bad day or if you really do disapprove of them. You really can’t pull the wool over a kid’s eyes when it comes to your feelings about them or their decisions. More than anything, you don’t have to agree with every decision your child makes. You don’t have to agree with everything they do. You don’t have to support everything they do, but it is your job as a parent to support them as people.
If I could talk to that child who is struggling as I did, I would let them know there are people out there for them, who love them and want to help them out. I’d let them know that they don’t have to fit a mold. They don’t have to do something specific to be worth being loved. They don’t have to grow up to be a particular thing, to get a certain set of grades, or a weigh a set amount to be worthy of love. They are, right now, worthy of love. They are worthy of love beyond belief for being who they are.
One thing I’m thinking about is that there are a lot of people who aren’t parents or teens impacted by this who are still impacted by what you are talking about – school teachers, coaches, youth ministers, pastors, aunts and uncles. If you could say something to them about what they can learn from the youth you’ve supported through Bullyhorn, what would you say?
Don’t just think this is a problem that is just going to go away. Don’t just say “this is kids being kids”. Don’t just say they need a stiff upper lip and thick skin. Don’t just say you got through being called four eyes and having your money taken at the playground, and think that’s all they are dealing with. Times have really changed in terms of the ways that kids and teens interact with one another. There are very different ways they can get their abusive words out into the public and really destroy each others’ lives.
This isn’t just something that is a rite of passage that kids have to go through. This is something that’s causing people’s lives to be lost. This is something that, whether you’re the parents, guardians or mentors to those being bullied or self injuring; or to the bullies themselves, has to be addressed. It’s not just something they will grow out of.
How can folks get involved either with Bullyhorn or some of the anti-bullying work Bullyhorn promotes?
There are several ways people can get involved with our group. We have our blog site, which has several different resources for parents, family, and individuals dealing with bullying. It’s operationbullyhorn.blogspot.com. We also have both a Facebook fan page and discussion group. The discussion group is our main hub of activity on Facebook. If they go to https://www.facebook.com/groups/operationbullyhorn/ that will take them there. They can also just search for “Operation Bullyhorn”. That will get them to all of our pages on Facebook, including all of our resources and hotline numbers. These include Operation Bullyhorn’s 24- hour hotline number, as well as other crisis lines. There are lines beyond the Bullyhorn number for veterans, for instance, and for LGBT youth. We have a wealth of resources we share that help with many of the issues we’ve experienced these youth facing.
One of the things we focus on in Progressive Redneck Preacher, in addition to talking about social issues, is discussing the relationship between southern culture and the progressive issues many of us share. You’ve already told us you didn’t grow up in the south, which would make you a “Kudzu”. I wonder if you would be willing to share some of your experiences in the south — both some of the positive and negative experiences you’ve had as someone who has moved to the south and is working to make the south a better place.
I would say definitely the positive is that what I’ve always heard growing up about the south has proven true — there is a lot of hospitality here. I think of when I lived in Fayetteville, how I would get stuck some places in my wheelchair. It was especially true in Fayetteville with the soldiers. They’d see me stuck by the side of the road and would pull over. They would offer me a ride home or a poncho if it was raining. Some woman I’d never met gave me a sweater one day because it was particularly cold and wet out, and I’d forgotten my jacket at the house. That’s the kind of thing I love. That part was awesome. The frustrating thing I’ve found is that sometimes the hospitality that’s offered can be very condescending. There seem to be a whole lot of people who believe that if you see someone in a wheelchair, they really can’t do much. They act like people with disabilities really need everything to be done for them. They think that people with disabilities need to be spoken to as if they may not have all the lights on upstairs and cannot understand what you are talking about. A lot of times, I’ve noticed that they would speak to me as if the minor things I was doing were these huge “climbing Mount Everest” achievements.
I mean, I’ve had people stop me in Wal-mart, breaking down crying, telling me how awesome it was to see me out shopping. People think that’s really sweet and being really encouraging. It’s actually kind of embarrassing. So it’s been a bit of a little bit of both for me. I’ve also noticed there’s a big emphasis in the south on what different gender roles should be. That may not be just a southern thing, but I’ve noticed it prevalent in a lot of the areas where I’ve lived. Less so since I’ve moved to Carrboro, but it seems pretty common still in the south. There seems to be kind of an assumption a. I’m a woman, b. I’m in a wheelchair, so here’s what I should and should not be doing. There are a lot of preconceived notions about what other people in similar situations should be able to do.
This connects with another topic I like to talk about on my blog, which I like to call “slave-holder Christianity”. It is ways of interpreting the Scriptures and Christianity, and living the Christian life, that are bound up in efforts to oppress and exclude people. One of the things I like to talk about in my blog is the tension between this approach to the Bible, which southern Christianity is so steeped in, and that other tradition of the civil rights movement which was spear-headed by southern preachers like Dr. Martin Luther King. I wonder if you have any thoughts about how you’ve encountered this tension?
Definitely! As someone with a disability, what immediately comes to mind are the glaring accessibility issues I’ve faced and that so many people with mobility impairments have faced in varying places all over the south — and really all over the world. So many times, because this is an area where so many people follow Christianity or at least claim it (many people claim it saying “well we don’t go to church but everyone around here is Christian and my people are Christian”), people will say things like “well we don’t have a ramp, and we don’t have a way for you to get in here, but look at the Bible. They carried someone on a bed and lifted them in through a roof. We can just carry your wheelchair and pick you up, lifting you over these stairs.
It’s almost as if they use these stories from the Bible and the ways that people were looked at in the Bible, times when they were begging outside the temple and couldn’t get from the place where they were sitting and go somewhere else or they couldn’t get through the crowd, as ways to make their current behavior sound loving . They use those examples to say ‘look how we are doing this now. Aren’t we being Christ- like,’ when, in actuality, they aren’t. In the Bible, we don’t see many examples of people who are told “You can be a productive member of society if you have a disability”. In the Bible, in essence, people with disabilities are treated by others as untouchables and people to be pitied. This mindset seems to be something that, in some areas, people can’t seem to break away from. No, that’s not a compassionate, loving way to treat someone. No, it’s not Bible times. It’s now 2014 and, though it wasn’t well known at the time, we’ve already had a president who was in a wheelchair. We have people who have disabilities who are running major corporations. It’s condescending to have the attitude of “hey we can carry you around like a rag doll and do all these things for you and that’s helping you to become mainstreamed in our society.”
A positive example would be events like Moral Mondays and all the positive work going on surrounding that. I go back to when Martin Luther King was alive and they had the march on Selma. I think of how different things were then, how horrible things could be for somebody just simply for having a different skin color. Things are still bad now. Things are still rough now. We still have Amendment One in North Carolina. People who are members of the LGBT community are still marginalized. Yet we are doing all these things while we have a bi-racial president, who most of society views as black. This was something unheard of in Martin Luther King’s time. We have leaders like Dr. William Barber, who is pretty much our modern day’s Martin Luther King, Jr. He’s an amazing civil rights leader. We are able to be on the front lines here in the south because, though we may not be there completely with racial equality, we are a whole lot further along than we were 40 and 50 years ago. Now we are able to start fighting and pushing on these other issues, moving on to include these other areas where people are being marginalized with the same logic that people with different skin colors were then. We can help people see that , if they realize this was the wrong idea with one group back then, it’s wrong with other groups today. Discrimination is discrimination, plain and simple.