Monday, February 7, 2011

Standing up & Proud: Vietnamese Tet Celebration

I was invited to participate at a Vietnamese Tet Celebration in Orange County on Saturday 5 October 2011. The invitation was extended by an Asian LGBTQ organization. The Celebration included a parade followed by a luncheon reception and then, a panel discussion with religious leaders. Last year, the Interfaith Council, specifically the Catholic hierarchy, opposed the participation of the LGBTQ Asian group in the Tet Celebration. That opposition encouraged bigoted slurs being yelled at the Asian LGBTQ group as they marched in the parade.

That prompted the LGBTQ Asian group to invite various religious leaders to participate in the parade and a panel discussion on religion/spirituality following the parade. The organizers had hoped to present a more sensitive and enlightened theological view of LGBTQ persons. Organizers asked me to arrive by 9 AM at the staging cite for the parade. They were informed they were to occupy spot number 75 in the parade, nearly at the very end. When I discovered this, I instantly thought of Rosa Parks and smiled.

Shane introduced me to Gina, one of the LGBTQ organizers of the day’s events. Gina is an attractive young Vietnamese-American woman. She was attired in traditional Vietnamese festive garb. “It is a pleasure to meet you Father, thank you so much for joining us today.” Shane pointed out that Gina’s mother had decided to march with us in the parade. “Perhaps your mother would like to meet Father” Shane suggested to Gina. “Oh, yes! She would be so happy to meet you Father” Gina asked. We walked over to Gina’s mother, a woman in her fifties with graying hair holding a sign that read, “Proud Asian Mother of a Lesbian Daughter.”

Gina’s mother extended her hand and smiled politely as we exchanged introductions. Her dignity and silent strength moved me. Her she was marching with her lesbian daughter down the main street of little Saigon. The very same street where one year earlier people had yelled angry and vile threats at the LGBTQ marchers. She was marching down that street in the plain light of day in front of the whole community at her daughter’s side.

We started to march at 11 AM and Gina was concerned that they had started us out so late in the morning that much of the crowd would disperse. “If the Vietnamese don’t like something they ignore it” she said. The Interfaith group had not ignored us the year before. An ambulance from the Red Cross drove slowly past us and the drivers gave us a thumbs-up, “We support you!” they shouted out at our group.

As we started to march, I noticed that motorcycle police was escorting our contingent. “They want to make sure that we don’t get attacked” the Unitarian Minster marching next to me told me. A middle aged Vietnamese man ran up to me and asked, “Are you a Catholic priest?!” “Yes, I am.” The man literally began to shake with anger. “But the Church is against gays!” he said emphatically. “No, many Catholics are accepting of us.” Our conversation was abruptly ended as a young Latina police officer came and informed the man he had to step behind the parade line.

The Unitarian minster commented on the man’s rage, I responded by quoting from Shakespeare “Me thinks the woman doth protest to much!” She nodded and we both laughed. I noticed the faces of the people behind the parade lines. Many of them smiled and waved. The Episcopal priest at my side explained that many of them were LGBTQ people who were afraid to march with us, because they feared being outed to their families.

A short while later, the same Vietnamese man who had run up to me earlier returned. This time he was escorted by a cameraperson and was holding a microphone with a news outlet logo affixed to the handle. “Are you a Catholic priest?” he asked as he pointed the microphone at me. “Yes, I am Father Geoffrey Farrow of the Diocese of Fresno.” The man became visibly angry once again. “What message do you have for the Pope?” “The same message Jesus delivered two-thousand years ago, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Holy Father, love your lesbian and gay children.” My response elicited yet another question. “When will you all change and come back to the Church?” “That would be like asking Latinos, Blacks or Asians to change.” He became more upset and asked, “What do you say to parents who have a homosexual child?” I responded, “Love your children and treat them as you would your other children.” As a police officer approached, the “journalist” quickly left.

We reached the end of the parade route; Gina and the other organizers were jubilant that this year there were no hecklers and no violence. They thanked us for our participation and directed us to the community center for lunch followed by a panel discussion.

I was part of a panel with a Buddhist abbess, a Buddhist monk, an Episcopalian priest and a Unitarian minister. Each of us had prepared a statement and mine follows here:

In the early 1990’s, I read an article in a Jesuit magazine that made a very interesting point. The author stated that we were reaching a point in the United States where Fundamentalist Protestants, Traditionalist Catholics and Orthodox Jews would have more in common with each other than they would with their own progressive co-religionists.

That fault line that runs through the major western religions demarcates two very different approaches both to Sacred Texts and to religion/spirituality itself. The Fundamentalist/Traditionalist/”Orthodox” approach is essentially a literalist approach to the Sacred Text. In this mindset, the text is self contained and fully received. There is nothing more to be said; the text is seen as an “Answer Book” for all of life’s personal and collective questions. Within Catholicism, the Magisterium (the teaching Office/authority) of the Pope and bishops becomes the final word that must be accepted and to which all must conform.

The appeal of such an approach can be found in the writings of Fyodor Dostoevsky. The Grand Inquisitor referring to the common people states “We shall lift from their shoulders the unbearable weight of freedom.” Religious Fundamentalism accomplishes precisely that for its followers. You simply have to follow along and you are absolved of personal responsibility.

Ironically, if you read the Gospels you find Jesus challenging this approach to religion/spirituality. Luke 10: 25-36 in this particular passage Jesus is asked to comment on what is essential. There were six hundred and fourteen laws that an observant Jewish person was expected to keep. To break one, even the slightest law, was to break them all. There existed at the time of Jesus a rabbinical tradition of discussion and questioning. What does God expect from me? It is in this spirit that the lawyer asks this question of Jesus “Rabbi, what must I do to inherit everlasting life?”

In the text, Jesus answers the question with a question, “What is written in the law [Torah/Bible]?” and “How do you read it?” By answering the question with a question, Jesus is requiring the person seeking an answer to think and to become personally engaged in the process. Before any further commentary on the text, it is very important to note this process

In reading Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, we need to comprehend that we are not reading a book that was written last week. We are reading a collection of writings that include multiple sources, poetry, history, and apocalyptic literature. Additionally, these various texts have been combined into what we call “the Bible” which is in fact a library of books written over a 1,500 year time span. As a final twist consider that the authors DO NOT share your culture; therefore, you must first attempt to understand their historical and cultural context, so that you may correctly capture their meaning. You cannot read it as if you are picking up your hometown morning newspaper.

Beyond those technical considerations, Jesus’ question to the lawyer is equally applicable to you and me “How do you read it?” In other words, what is your spiritual disposition in coming to these texts? Do you ask questions to seek personal growth, a deeper understanding, a more compassionate spirituality; or in an attempt to manipulate God and others?

In the cited text, the lawyer (in order to justify himself) asks “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds by telling the story of the Good Samaritan. Samaritans were considered beyond hope of everlasting life, since they had corrupted Judaism with pagan practices. Jesus deliberately selects a Samaritan as the hero in this parable about practical charity. He does so to both challenge popular preconceptions about holiness and to underscore that what God desires is not legalistic perfection; but rather, compassion [charity/love].

The Sacred Text/Religious Authority is not the final word, but rather the starting point for thought and discussion. That thought and discussion must be guided by humility as well as compassion.

John J. McNeill, a Jesuit priest, in his book: “The Church and the Homosexual,” makes the following point: “The persons referred to in Romans 1:26 are probably not homosexuals that is, those who are psychologically inclined toward their own sex—since they are portrayed as ‘abandoning their natural customs.’” The Pauline epistles do not explicitly treat the question of homosexual activity between two persons who share a homosexual orientation, and as such cannot be read as condemning such behavior. Therefore, same gender sex by two individuals with same sex orientation is not “abandoning their natural custom.”

In 1973, because of a greater understanding of human psychology, the American Psychological Association declassified homosexuality as a mental illness. In 1975, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the Church’s watchdog for orthodoxy) produced a document entitled: “Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics.” In this document, they made the most remarkable statement. They stated that there are “homosexuals who are such because of some kind of innate instinct.” While these statements are hardly glowing affirmations of gay and lesbian persons, they represent a watershed in human perception and understanding of gay and lesbian people.

These new insights have occurred because of the birth and development of the science of psychology and understanding of brain development in the 19th and 20th centuries.

An elderly Monsignor, under whom I had the privileged to serve, told me “we are not bakers, we work with souls.” Twenty-five years of ministerial service have taught me that we cannot, like Cinderella’s evil stepsister, “cut the foot to fit the shoe.” Attempting to force people to conform their lives to inhuman standards is nothing new in religion. “Jesus answered: Woe to you lawyers [religious leaders] also! You lay impossible burdens on men but will not lift a finger to lighten them.” [Luke 11: 46]

The hierarchy in ignoring the findings of science and their own statement that there are “homosexuals who are such because of some kind of innate instinct” are in Jesus’ words laying impossible burdens on people and do not lift a finger to help them. What is the hierarchy saying to people with same sex orientation? What are they demanding from them? What would it have meant to you personally to hear from the pulpit at church that you could never date? Never fall in love, never kiss or hold hands with another person? Never be able to marry? How would you view yourself? How would others hearing those same words be directed to view you? How would you view your life and your future?

What would those words mean to someone in junior high school who discovers that he/she is attracted to people of their same gender? The greatest fear that he/she would have is that they would be rejected by the people they love the most—their family. So, their solution is to try to pass as straight, deceive, and in effect—lie. Of course, this leads ultimately to self-loathing. It should come as little surprise that gay teenagers have elevated suicide rates. According to the Center for Disease Control’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey (1999), 33% of gay youth will attempt suicide.

When the hierarchy prohibited artificial birth control, most of the faithful in the United States, Canada and Europe scratched their heads in wonderment and proceeded to ignore them. There is an expression in theology: “the voice of the people is the voice of God.” If your son or daughter is gay/lesbian let them know that you love them unconditionally. Let them know that you are not ashamed or embarrassed by them. Guide them as you would your other children to finding true and abiding love. Let them know that marriage is a union of love and life and is possible for them too.

If you are LGBTQ stand up and speak out. The moment you stop being “invisible” you challenge the preconceived ideas and prejudices about LGBTQ people. The moment you challenge homophobic slurs and comments you help to defeat bigotry in our society.

At the conclusion of the panel discussion, Gina went to the podium and thanked all the panelists. She then raised her arm towards her mother who was seated in the audience. “I would also very much like to thank my mother for being here today.” Gina’s composure was slightly compromised as her eyes swelled with tears. Her mother looked at her daughter from across the room and smiled. It was a good day.


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