Birds, Religion, and Resilience
My earliest memories of joy and happiness as a child were playing in the garden alongside my grandmother, helping her.
But really watching her engage nature, feeding birds.
She used to do flower arrangements and things like that, and we would go along these country roads and clip things off the fence post. This particular plant was called bittersweet.
The scriptures that are part of my religious traditions—birds are all over the place, like doves and eagles for example. Jesus says in Matthew's Gospel: "do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you-you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?”
“Being queer is not somewhere else—I am it.”
Flower Power Infusions
“I think it was April 16, 2000, in front of the World Bank in DC. That one experience helped me feel more comfortable opposing the war in Iraq in seminary and becoming part of the fight for marriage equality and then participating in the climate movement.”
So in my family there was a real clear infusion of kind of the flower child/flower power worldview of sorts…My dad was a social worker, and mom was a teacher. When I was four or five, they had the neighbor across the street be my babysitter for a while. In 1984 she went to go vote—Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro were running against Ronald Reagan and George Bush. I remember being taken into the voting booth with her, I was 4 or 5 at the time. She brought her daughter and me inside with her. And she later told my Dad that I was very insistent that she vote for Mondale and Ferraro. I don’t think I knew much at the time about these different candidates, they lost terribly, as did Michael Dukakis four years later. I remember being engaged in an art project in fourth-grade. We had to make these toothpick sculptures. A classmate and I became friends because we both made stick people that were holding Dukakis/Bentsen signs.
Back in the early 2000s, late 1990s, there was a growing movement that was challenging corporate-driven globalization. People were becoming more aware of the harmful effects of certain trade policies, particularly on the environment. Activists, students, indigenous groups, labor organizers, farmers, etc., were challenging the World Bank and IMF whose policies were having negative ecological, agricultural and economic impacts. When you have a large demonstration with people from all over—it was amazing, the diversity of people protesting. I think it was April 16, 2000, in front of the World Bank in DC. That one experience helped me feel more comfortable opposing the war in Iraq in seminary and becoming part of the fight for marriage equality and then participating in the climate movement.
The Side of the People in the Streets
“We are losing so much, our people, and we’re losing more now than we were when I first started.”
Over time I've started to notice that a lot of people can get involved in green efforts but in the end really just want to be close to power. Often that access to power can be at the cost of relationships with grassroots movements. I feel now that if I want to be serious about my religious and ecological path, it matters more to me that I am on the side of the people in the streets who are calling for more dramatic actions.
We are losing so much, our people, and we’re losing more now than we were when I first started. We’re in more trouble, and I don’t believe that I’ve been an effective environmental activist. I hope that I’ve helped and contributed in a meaningful way and I want to do more. I am certainly part of the struggle, but it's important not to inflate one's individual role and engagement. I worry about any movement that lifts up too many individual leaders at the expense of the whole movement. We should remember that next to Martin Luther King, there was a Fanny Lou Hammer and Bayard Rustin… there were many other people for whom we are really responsible to steward those movements and people's stories, and that is what frees us—liberationist movements sometimes involve some charismatic leaders, but it’s not about them. It’s about a shared vision that the people share and work together on.
Bring Your Queer Haircut into These Conversations
“Because of the hybridity of my identity—I’m religious, an environmentalist, and queer—when I got involved in climate stuff, I almost felt like the queer stuff is there.”
You can’t take the queer part out of me so that I can be a respectable non-threatening heteronormative environmentalist. Or religious… [Some people might say] we don’t want to know anything else other than that you’re a religious leader, so don’t bring your queer haircut into these conversations…
I struggle with that a little bit, and I worked in an organization that represented a broad spectrum of religious traditions, and ones that are not kind toward queer people, who question our right to exist and have marriages and use the bathroom, and/or are intolerant of women’s rights. I said to myself that my commitment to the environment trumps my other commitments a little bit. I’m willing to be here, but I’m also not willing to hide. I never hid my spouse or denied my engagement with religious movements for LGBT rights. I never felt like I should have to apologize for not being something I wasn’t.
I think having queers come out and self-organized in their own way or alongside religious or labor group or whatever, I think that’s fabulous if that’s your primary community or primary voice you want to speak in. In my case though because of the hybridity of my identity—I’m religious, an environmentalist, and queer—when I got involved in climate stuff, I almost felt like the queer stuff is there and it wasn’t like I denied it was there or hid it… these things are together and other people did that too and it was reassuring and I would meet people in the movement and it would be like, “Oh you’re balancing this commitment too and it’s different but we’re doing it.”
Fighting Coal Locally; Fighting Coal Globally
“Why just fight this coal export terminal [though]? You fight the one in your backyard, but there is a responsibility to know about and care about that oil refinery down the road or that fracking across the street.”
Most of the religious people had been to [No Coal in Oakland] demonstrations with each other before, especially post-Trump. The Bay Area has a broadly painted progressive energy, and that was why it was harmful that the developer made overtures to take a portion of our coalition and use them. The way that the developer used people and manipulated people, and continues to manipulate and use people’s knowledge or absence of knowledge about certain aspects of climate change or the way it was played off—environmentalists look like this, and they’re the gentrifiers, and they don’t know the challenges of our people. This was painful, for me, some church leaders got mislead and misdirected and paid by the developer.
When our organization [California Interfaith Power & Light] got involved it was after that, we were called upon to help build a coalition of diverse religious leaders from different traditions. If there’s anywhere in the country that you can bring together Buddhists, Jewish people, Muslims and all different arrays of types of Christians you could do that here in the Bay Area and we could say no to this Coal Product in this particular location. Why just fight this coal export terminal [though]? You fight the one in your backyard, but there is a responsibility to know about and care about that oil refinery down the road or that fracking across the street or that decision from the city council to not support this clean energy initiative, which are things that we can be much more conversant and communicative about. More coal burned overseas that would harm other people… we live in a globalized world, so if it burns elsewhere, it doesn’t mean we’re not affected by it.
We were able to bring people together to oppose it and also wanted to say to other communities you can fight these local fights too. It wasn’t just religious, it was nurses, it was teachers—it was a whole array of people from many different neighborhoods. It was a unanimous vote by Oakland city council. It wasn’t just the Sierra Club leading the way, and they were certainly important and critical, but they weren’t the only ones. They were alongside the community. When I was tweeting for CA IPL [California Interfaith Power & Light], I wanted to help people recognize that there was a religious call to the work and I was quoting different religious leaders like the Pope and various religious statements on climate change and the need to move away from fossil fuels. There are different roles that someone like me can play, and often best in the background. But sometimes it feels like it’s just helping environmentalists and others realize if you’re going to work this through all the way we need each other for it.
“Being queer is not somewhere else—I am it.”
There’s a dignity and courage that queer-identified people, anyone in the LGBTQ spectrum… that when we show up… one person was wearing a t-shirt the other day that said, "my existence is resistance"… when I saw it I was like "uh huh, yes, I hear you."
So I think that as queer people we understand and can empathize with other beings that are told they’re not wanted or are undesirable or are imperfect and in need of being fixed or are in the way.
We’re also creative and resilient in the way we respond to the encroachment of others into our space. I think animals, plants, are resilient are creative in the way they respond to human oppressions that we inflict but they also themselves are living constantly in a vulnerable space.
Nature is queer. And I think also coming to acknowledge that we are real… we’re not mythological unicorns that didn’t exist on the face of the earth before. We’ve existed for centuries and millennia and in many, many cultures and have had to adapt and choose to adapt in a variety of ways in relation to all of that. Being queer is not somewhere else—I am it.
Holding a sense of affinity and relationship with this narrative and history of our people—it made me more interested in people like Edward Carpenter who were like freedom fighters in another era. Edward Carpenter, to me, holds a vision, he cultivated ecological values and commitments as a queer person in a community more than 100 years ago. I feel like that leaves the possibility available, that in my life I might be part of some intentional community whether it’s in a physical lived environment or purely a virtual space. One where there’s a simpatico.
How do we as queer people find our alignment with the natural world? I think the world we want to live in, we really belong to it… it belongs to us, we belong to it. We actually are essential to its thriving.