A Southerner To Remember This LGBT Pride: Rabbi Ben Zion Jernigan

During our time of remember LGBT heroes during LGBT Pride month, I can’t overlook a dear friend if mine who just passed, a hero in the fight for GLBT rights in my home town of Fayettevile  and the surrounding Ft. Bragg, North Carolina area.  Several of us who had joined in the fight for GLBT rights in the area joined to remember him at a memorial service a short time ago.

I feel he is a southerner worth remembering, whose life touched so many, so I am sharing the words I gave at his memorial.  I hope they inspire you and help you get a sense of this great man’s life.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

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It is hard to sum up in a few words the life of someone who has touched you so deeply. I have to admit I tried several times and the words would not come.

I first met Rabbi Jernigan at a gathering at the Unitarian-Universalist church related to the movement to try and prevent an amendment banning same-gender couples from marrying from being added to the NC state constitution. We struck up a friendship right away. He was full of passionate opinions, full of colorful humor, and incredibly open about who he was. To be honest, at first with his many piercings, tattoos, and colorful stories I did not realize he was a rabbi.
Rabbi and the RevBut rabbi he was. I remember standing with him together, both dressed in the symbols of our faith, myself as a Christian pastor and himself as a Jewish rabbi, speaking together at a gathering organized by the Alliance of Fayetteville and Equality NC, speaking up against the move to discriminate against GLBT people done then by the state legislature.

He spoke of his own faith that day. He talked about the Jewish principle of tikkunn olam, which calls people of faith and of good will to join in the work of “setting the world right”. He spoke of that call of his faith calling him to work hard to help repair those things that are broken and off-kilter, including the way here in North Carolina so many face persecution for who they are. And this is what Rabbi Jernigan consistently did.

I learned so much from his friendship. First of all, he was like family to all who came to know him. He would fill your heart with laughter. He could be fierce in defending those who mattered to him, yet tender in friendship to those close. I still remember the laughing way he would reach out to pet Kat’s service dog Isaiah, or the way he spoke with fatherly kindness to the exchange student who stayed with us one year.

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Yet his example for justice stands out. While his own faith was deep and strong, rabbi Jernigan did not let barriers of culture or religion stand in the way of reaching out. From his example I learned what it means to see all as one people, regardless of culture or faith. He would show up alongside Christians speaking up for GLBT rights, joining arm in arm; among atheists and Wiccans; among anyone on the side of justice. He would speak up for their rights alongside his own. We were all one family to Rabbi Jernigan.
I still remember him saying at one point how much it bothered him that people thought they were being friends to Jews by mistreating Muslims. I have to believe if the shooting of three young Muslim students that occurred where I live had happened in his community, Rabbi Jernigan would have joined the many who stood alongside their families saying their lives matter, and that we are one regardless of our creed or color of skin.

And Rabbi Jernigan was never afraid to speak his mind and to be himself. I remember at one point him telling me, “they’ve been trying to keep me quiet my whole life. My people we tried quiet. Then they gathered us up – Jews and gay people – and put us in camps.” He then showed me a tattoo with the number a relative who was gassed by the NAZIs had. “I will never be silent again.”

I think those words still speak not just to me but to all of us today. Rabbi Jernigan would challenge us – don’t let anyone silence you or make you feel you need to be someone other than who you are. Don’t let anyone tell you to not fight for your rights. Be true to yourself. He would say that the world has had too much of good people being silence.
I think he would remind us that there is still a lot to repair in our world. We won marriage equality but already our state is trying to put loopholes in place to silence those who want equal rights and to make it so in not all areas will counties honor that law. They are trying to build walls to keep gay people out again. I think Rabbi Jernigan would tell us that though he can’t be present to keep this fight alive physically, we can and, if we go remembering him, he is there in spirit continuing the fight.

hATE NO FAMILY VALUE I think he’d remind us to realize we are all family, and to not let attacks on others who are different cause us to avoid being there for each other. I think he’d tell us to treat each other like family.
He’d remind us of youth gay youth, and youth who like these three Muslim youth in my town, who need someone to be the parent, brother, friend, aunt, uncle, that their own won’t be. Who need people to believe in them and say their lives matter.

Then I think he’d tell us a colorful story, or an off-the-wall joke. I think his living life to the fullest, being as fully who he is as he can be, was our good friend’s way of living out the traditional Jewish blessing of L’Chaim. To Life!
Let’s all honor that L’Chaim blessing. And live our lives so we can fully say “To life!”

Rebel Cry

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I was recently meditating on the historic struggle progressives in my state of North Carolina have been in, with the moral Monday demonstrations speaking out against systemic racism, neglect of the poor, of our children, and many other concerns.  It got me thinking about some of the other struggles we have gone through — the fight for equal rights for all we had in combating Amendment One (a battle that we lost), the fight many in our community who were spouses of soldiers in same-gender relationships had with the fall out of DOMA (a fight we have won, in part).  I thought of fights we have seen progressive on — the sit-ins to fight racial segregation in the Piedmont of North Carolina.

This got me thinking of my experience of what it meant to be a southerner growing up in a conservative home, and now how I view my role as a progressive North Carolinian.   These thoughts birthed this poem, an ode not just to our Moral Monday patriots but also all fighting to help our state live up to its own best values.

And I’m not just whistling Dixie here!

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah Royal

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Rebel Cry

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“The south will rise again”

whispered in winds thick with smells

of honey suckle and jasmine

joining barns, creeks, church bells,

and watermelons

casting a kind of spell

shaping the landscape in

my childhood mind when hells

like slavery, Jim Crow,

and poverty weren’t known.

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I heard “the south will rise”

as a promise of grits,

cornbread, tea, pecan pies,

at tables all can sit

affirming our shared ties,

a re-union as fit

as a sight for sore eyes.

Then, at twelve, I was hit

by news of a black man shot

in the name of the rising south.

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That south which filled my sights

was falling, not rising, then:

falling into hate and fright

based on folk’s shade of skin,

if who they love was deemed “right”,

forgetting that the true sin

is not those whom we fight

but in not letting them in.

With waving flags, guns ablaze,

we plunged b’neath where we can raise.

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My heart sank til I heard

a Georgia preacher’s dream:

children unencumbered

by hate of color or creed,

from whom a new south is born.

Now I know that south’s rising,

rising beyond fear and scorn

of those different, with wings

of a new morning for all

without more dividing walls.

Yes, the south will rise,

will rise again

rise with justice

rise with equality

rise with shadows of hate forgotten.

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Kudzu Christian: Chuck Fager — A Voice Crying out in the Wilderness

 

This week we have our first “Kudzu” feature.

“Kudzu” features are based on the image of the kudzu plant. If you ever get a chance to drive up and down the country roads all over the south you will see tree upon tree covered with the leafy greenness of this plant. Not only are trees covered with it but its winding vines have been known to be on fences, on walls, on roadsigns, and on streetlamps.

This plant has become such a fixture of the southern landscape many tend to think it is a plant original to the southeast of the United States. In actual fact this plant’s origins go back to Asia. It came to the United States through trade, but after being transplanted on southern soil became such a prominent and beautiful addition to our fields and hills that we adopted it as our own. The “Kudzu” features highlight someone who likewise has been transplanted into the south but have become a fixture in the landscape of southern life. Though not born here they have come to call the south their home, and by the way they bring new progressive ideas and perspectives into the south, they are adding to the beauty of our community like the kudzu plant beautifies our landscape.

One such person is Chuck Fager.

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Born in Kansas, Chuck became involved with the south during the time of the Civil Rights movement. A true Kudzu, Chuck has become a transplant to the south who is working to make it a more beautiful place by his presence. As Chuck shares about in his book Eating Dr. King’s Dinner, Chuck began his career as a peace and civil rights advocate joining in the work for racial equality with Dr. Martin Luther King. This work led him to eventually attend Harvard University and become a leader in the Quaker peace movement.

Eventually this work led Chuck back to the south, where he served for ten years as the director of the Quaker House, a ministry in Fayetteville, NC focused on curbing the violence that has at times been very prevalent in that military town. While serving there, Chuck helped the Quaker House continue its peace witness, crying out against the excesses of the military-industrial complex. Chuck also led the Quaker House to continue the work of fighting for civil rights, spear-heading work toward racial reconciliation and acting as a host for the work of women’s rights organizations in town. Under Chuck’s leadership the Quaker House addressed issues of domestic violence, continued to run a hotline for soldiers whose consciences lead them to question involvement in war, and also to speak out during the time the military Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy held sway against the many abuses that policy created.

It is in the midst of the debate about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell that the congregation where I serve, Diversity in Faith: A Christian Church For All People, was formed as a new church plant of the Progressive Christian Alliance, and in that debate that I got to know Chuck Fager. Our church was focused on speaking up against the discrimination gay soldiers, many of whom were a part of our congregation, were experiencing. Chuck was a big help in that fight. And since then while he was in the Quaker House he was a constant partner in the work of speaking up against discrimination against people based on race, sexual orientation, disability, and gender.

Here is a video from that period, in which members of my church and of the Quaker House joined in speaking up against discrimination against GLBT people:

Since entering retirement from the Quaker House, Chuck has not stopped. He continues to be a voice for equal rights, for peace, and for God’s love who is changing the conversation in the south.

Below I include an article Chuck has written about a recent action Chuck has been involved in. Thank you, Chuck, for continuing to fight the good fight! You are changing the south for the better.

And I’m not just whistling Dixie here!

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

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My Moral Monday — July 22 2013

by Chuck Fager

Which Monday Is Best For Getting Arrested in Carolina? How About THIS Monday??

Why? A New Round of Racist Voter Suppression, for Starters. . .

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The “Moral Monday” protests in North Carolina’s capital have focused on various issues on succeeding Mondays: cuts in unemployment compensation & Medicaid; assaults on women’s reproductive rights; damage to schools — the list of depredations by the extremist legislature is so long that the protests could go on for months without repeating a topic. And on each Monday, those with special concern have entered the legislative building and submitted to arrest. The civil disobedience so far has been a model of discipline and decorum. The national media is starting to notice what’s been going on here for three months running.

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Today (July 22) the focus is to be the legislature’s blatantly racist efforts at vote suppression. It’s a multi-faceted assault, which I won’t try to describe in detail here; google to learn more. Suffice it to say that after attending several of these protests, today is my day to put on the plastic handcuffs.

Why? Nobody is trying to stop me from voting: I have all the IDs they want, and I’m white to boot. But struggling to end racist vote suppression is where I came in: 48 years ago, marching with Dr. King in 1965, I was arrested three times in the Selma, Alabama voting rights campaign which produced the Voting Rights Act and changed America.

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For 48 years, I thought that story had a happy ending. But a month ago the Supreme Court cut the guts out of the Act, opening the door to the current NC legislative assault, and many more like in other states.

Thus, if for nothing more than a kind of stubborn loyalty — to the memories of Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Reeb, Viola Liuzzo, and Jonathan Daniels and others who paid the big price for the cause–plus of course Dr. King, and the nameless hundreds more who endured jail, beatings, and other quieter forms of violence there — today will be my day. Or maybe it’s just a reluctance to let go of one of the few public acts of my adult life that I can still look back on and say: that–that accomplished something worthwhile.

The arrests are symbolic, of course; on our side, carefully choreographed and extensively prayed over; on the other, the cops have been on good behavior, so I’m unlikely to come home with bruises or broken bones. Nor do I expect our symbolic blowing of Joshua horns to bring the walls of this Jericho tumbling down: to speak plainly, the NC legislature has blithely ignored all the protests so far, and stuck to its agenda of dismantling almost all the institutions, laws, and safeguards that made this state at least in part a more humane place than, say, Mississippi.

(That’s my proposed slogan for the campaign of 2014 here: “Reclaim Carolina: Because One Mississippi Is enough.”)

All the same, I’m going to do it, so wish me luck. And if you’re here in NC, maybe next week it can be your turn. And if you’re not here, maybe it’s time to start something in your state . . . .

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The Power of a Southern Grandma: How My Southern Belle Granny Helped Me Become a Progressive Christian

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This Sunday I had a real moving conversation with David Gibson, the choir director of our church. We were discussing during my sermon people who influenced our faith. He shared how his grandmother is part of why he is a Christian who loves the Lord today.

Hearing David share about how the faith of his grandmother shaped him got me thinking. The power of grandmothers in our lives is something we often don’t take time enough time to reflect on.

Most of my grandparents died when I was too young to remember them, but one of my grandparents, Myrtie Mclamb Barefoot, left a lasting impact on me. In fact, in looking back, I realize she is part of why I am a progressive Christian too. Thanks to her I am today a progressive redneck preacher.

My earliest memory of Grandma Myrtie (or Ma Barefoot, as we all called her) is the taste of caramel. Before her stroke, whenever we would visit her at her old country home in Blackman’s Crossroads her soft, strong wrinkled hands would greet us with a pat on the head, a hug and then an old fashioned caramel chew. I can still remember the comfort I felt with the taste of caramel in my mouth and those wizened arms holding me tight. I think that will always be for me what safety and love feels like.

Grandma Myrtie had a grand old house with the sort of porch you could imagine someone sitting at for hours, looking out over waves of tobacco fields, while sipping cold sweet iced tea for hours. Though farming was long over for her, behind her home was a large tobacco barn. I can remember climbing into it and running through it with a cousin while playing a game of hide and seek on one visit.

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A little after her husband, Grandpa Charles, died, Ma Barefoot moved into our house. Approaching her 90s this grand old lady no longer could easily care for herself. A stroke, the loss of her husband, and just the frailty of her many years took a toll on her. So Ma Barefoot moved into our three story home in the city and lived with us until my early teens, when her health became so bad she had to be placed into a nursing facility.

Even though she had moved out of the family farmhouse, Ma Barefoot continued to be a southern belle. I remember her crisp, exact speech. Unlike grandpa Charles she was well educated – a school teacher – and just like she did with her charges, so she encouraged us to use good English and clear speech. I can still here her rich cultivated southern accent as she spoke to me, always telling me something aimed at educating me and whetting a desire to learn.

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One day, probably around the age of five or six, I had taken Ma Barefoot’s hand and walked with her around our little suburban neighborhood of green manicured lawns, so different from the rolling fields of Johnston County, as she began a history lesson.

“You know, this city where you live, Micah, it almost became the capitol. Back in the days of the revolutionary war, it is here they signed the bill of rights,” Ma Barefoot began.

I walked, awestruck and jaw agape, in wonder at the wisdom of her years, as she began to tell me the story of Fayetteville where I lived and the great state in which I had been born. I did not understand as I do now that Ma Barefoot meant the capitol of our state, North Carolina. So visions of Ronald Reagan (the only president I have ever known at that tender age) getting sworn in at our market house building.

The many talks Ma Barefoot had with me like this, helping create in me a love of learning. The fact that she was a woman of strong faith also impressed me. Throughout her life she always spoke with honesty and compassion. I never remember her saying a harsh or hateful word about anyone.

I still remember how, as a fervent Missionary Baptist, Ma Barefoot would always have daddy drop her off at a local Baptist church (we attended somewhere else) to take time for her beloved Jesus. Also I recall how, when she was later living at the nursing home due to poor health, she would end each day praying every night for each of us and asking “Lord let me see another day to be here for my children and grand-children”. Ultimately one night she ended her prayer “Lord take me home”. That next day she had congested heart failure and died. I have always known on some level that moment did not end her life but ushered her into a new and more vibrant life in the presence of God.

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Following that day there have been moments I have sensed this so strongly it has sometimes been as if Grandma Myrtie was standing right beside me again. I remember one point, after a turning point in my life. I had moved from the restrictive sort of ministry I had grown up in – where women, gays, and a long list of other folks were given second class place in the church because of the denomination who ordained me holding onto some of the slave-holder Christianity I spoke about last blog. I had left that type of ministry and begun the sort of ministry I do now which is welcoming of all. I had experience a lot of rejection and loss by former friends and colleagues who felt I was abandoning my values and my Christianity by welcoming gay and lesbian couples into the church. It hurt. My family members didn’t understand what I was doing, and in many ways I felt very alone, cut off. Those who grew up in the south where we prize family so much know how painful that can be. I remember waking up one night, sitting bolt upright. I had a dream more vivid than real life where I walking down a winding country path and ran into Grandma Myrtie again – but strong and healthy like I’d never seen her. She wrapped her arms around me and said “I am proud of you, Micah, for what you are doing. You are doing the Lord’s work and he will take care of you”. When I woke from the dream I felt the strong presence of her there with me, and knew in some way she was still looking down from heaven and praying for me, rooting me on, in my journey of faith. With the words “I am proud of you in my ears”, still feeling those loving arms around me, tears of gratitude poured down my face.

I have thought many time about that dream since, though I’ve only shared about it with a few people. The dream reminds me not just of the fact Grandma Myrtie continues to live in a fullness of life with God I can only begin to imagine. It also reminds me that is one of the gifts she gave me was how through her I found the way toward my progressive Christian faith. The love of learning that Grandma Myrtie placed in me at such a young age helped me realize that learning, questioning, and growing are not contrary to faith but a part of loving God with all my heart, soul, strength, and mind. Her example gave me a foundation where when I so both creation and evolution both make sense, I knew God did not require to pick between science and faith. I can use head and heart. It gave me the freedom to later realize if my science book said being gay was not a choice or a sickness, and my Bible say marriage is a gift of God and blessing to the world, I could affirm both by blessing same-gender marriages and saying hate is not a family value. Her love of family demonstrated to me an example of love and service to others I strive to walk in today. Her love of God expressed in those nightly prayers for another day to live and help her family which ended with a final prayer to go home to God leaves me with an abiding sense that in our darkest moments, God is with us. And that in our final moments we face not an end to be feared but the ultimate embrace by one whose love is as deep as Granda Myrtie’s was to all her grandchildren.

Have you, like David and me, had a southern granny that helped you find a progressive faith of your own? If so, please share it with me.

In honor of Grandma Myrtie and all grandmothers out there, here is a song about the power of a grandma.

Lets honor those who have gone before us, shaping us to who have gone before us. That’s another lesson Grandma Myrtie gave me.

And I’m not just whistling Dixie here.

Your Progressive Redneck Preacher,

Micah Royal

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