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Speaking to the Future: Piecing Together Intention in a Social Setting

A paper presented for the Doctor of Ministry Class, The Congregation as a Learning Community RE-602, Professors Deborah J. Kapp and M. Susan Harlow, Written by Stuart D. Smith at McCormick Theological Seminary

Introduction

Frank Browning in his book The Culture of Desire analyses the stresses in the search for meaning and continuity in American life and in the gay subculture particularly. It is always difficult for a person who has been separated—often violently—from traditional modes of understanding family and community relatedness to step beyond being an isolated individual with no obligations or attachments and embrace the concept of a continuing community whether based on blood or affiliation. Browning refers to this struggle as the process of "reconstructing the extended family" (1994, 134-159). He chronicles several examples of gay men and lesbians attempting sometimes unsuccessfully to create new ways of connecting to human family when the biological family cannot or will not work for them.

Even more obvious than the struggle of gay men and lesbians to discover or create community, is the struggle of being a teenager. Healthy adolescence is a time of "killing the biological family" (to paraphrase Freud). A young adult develops a healthy sense of self only as she or he differentiates from Mom and Dad—often with great pain. It is a time of rejecting a previous place in ones' family and hopefully finding a new way of relating to it.

Café Pride is a setting where the problems of developing appropriate gay culture must be addressed. We have a responsibility to press for the development of a life-giving culture for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. But it is also a setting where young men and women between the ages of 16 and 21 (our average age is 19.5) struggle with adolescence. Additionally, although less central, is the racial, ethnic, and religious diversity that the youth and adult staff at this site are trying to incorporate into this new culture. The majority of our youths are from families of divorce, most are from working- or middle-class backgrounds, and a few work the neighborhood as prostitutes coming into the coffeehouse to get warm and enjoy a little company. Like most ministries, we are striving to teach and be a culture that none of us has seen anywhere before, but that all of us crave.

The Current Situation

In late summer, a game of "Celebrities" (like Charades but with several additional twists) demonstrated the failure of the coffeehouse's current culture to connect our youths to their community's history and issues. A short unpleasant outburst occurred when the frustrations of the youth at the staff's ignorance of pop TV and music names and the adult staff's frustration at the youths' ignorance of current politics and gay lesbian history collided. The adult staff had expectations about common knowledge, values, and responsibility that may have been unrealistic for a group of teens. But since that same month saw two violent attacks against gay young people within our block, and the highly publicized murder of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming, we felt that we could not shrug off this ignorance of gay history and community among our youth patrons. We felt it was important that enculturation at Café Pride provide history, heroines, and heroes from the gay past. It wasn't enough to know the names of the cartoon characters on "South Park." But we also realized that our direct approach sounded too much like a history or current-events class. To use Maria Harris's terms, the youth were not ready for leiturgia and were bored stiff by traditionally understood didache and kerygma. We opted, consequently, for a combination of koinonia and diakonia (1989).

Problems with the Current Situation

Paulo Freire, in his emphasis on conscientization (1968, 124-25), has taught us that every community must recognize the discontinuity between the ideal moral and just world and the real immoral and unjust world before that community will gain the ability to address the wrongs they suffer. It is not enough to want to end the suffering; one must become conscious of the suffering as more than just a personal misfortune but as systemic evil before one can act in such a way as to change the wrongs. I must admit that in a previous paper I stated that our youths already were fully aware of the wrongs done to them. I was wrong. Their ignorance of issues and injustice surprised me. Even such obvious issues as the lack of a safe, legal place for teenage men and women of any orientation to socialize was understood as a personal inconvenience and not as a larger issue of injustice. Their pains and unhappinesses are most often owned only as personal experiences and not as shared experiences within the community of young people. Many of them saw the Matthew Shepard murder and the Halsted Street attacks as personal misfortunes and not as indirect attacks on them and all like them. I recognize that I am showing my age, but I was troubled by the energy invested in arguments about the relative virtues of the Spice Girls and the Hansens. (These musical groups were hot in July and August but by this writing are apparently on the discount rack.) While, current political events were passé as soon as they happened.

My critique is that this flaw in the current enculturation was ultimately not a problem of lack of factual knowledge. Our youth patrons don't need more facts about Sapho, Bayard Rustin, or The Stonewall Riots. The problem was one of affective learning. They needed to value the larger community and to hope for its future. It is not a problem of factual knowledge; it is a problem of valuing something outside of oneself—a problem of insularity and self-centeredness.

Piecing Together a New Meaning

To address the problem I attempted to put together a project that would foster community and provide an opportunity for service. We are now in the process of creating an art project to communicate with the next generation of Café Pride youth. We are piecing together a quilt of cloth panels that the Café Pride patrons and staff will have painted, appliquéd, or somehow decorated to show the one or two images that each wants to pass on to the next generation of sexual minority youth. It will be a connection to the culture of the church where we are meeting, a connection to the community of gay youth including those who are yet to attend Café Pride, and a way to build community through a joint service project.

In Café Pride's home, the Parish House at Lake View Presbyterian Church, there hangs a quilt that was constructed by the patrons of the church's senior center. It was a project that Joy Douglas Strome assisted the seniors to complete in 1990 when she was a Seminary Assistant at that church. Joy is currently the pastor at Lake View and has shared with the Café Pride staff and a few of the youth patrons the stories around that quilt. It started as a project just to keep the older folks occupied and alert. It developed into a source of pride with some seniors still around today to point out their personal panel. The seniors regularly have "art" projects, but this may be the only project with which they are uniformly proud. It is also the most obvious non-disposable art project the seniors have completed.

Projects which are disposable and which do not lend themselves to being sources of pride to their makers can encourage acceptance of the dominant "throw away" culture. Many people, of all ages, feel that their efforts are not valued and that they themselves are often discarded has-beens. A project that can be displayed proudly for years and that can be successful even without rare professional skills communicates that the effort of the artisans is valuable and not just busy work. Construction paper and glitter projects are discarded week after week. The quilt stays.

The youths at Café Pride were given the project of finding images or messages that they could put on a ten-inch by ten-inch square of cloth. When we have 24 panels, we will stitch them together, quilt them, and present the end result to the congregation, which—through Joy—has been clued to what we are doing and has already selected a section of wall which we can use. The question that we have been giving the youths as they are given a square of paper to begin sketching a design is, "What would you like to put on this quilt to communicate to the youths who will be in Café Pride after you have passed your twenty-second birthday and are no longer here?"

Some of the Café Pride patrons admit to feeling that they don't really belong in any "straight" institution—that even when they are included it is a tenuous thing and that they can be kicked out at any time. Like the seniors they often feel insecure in the larger community. It is a source of comment and occasionally some discomfort to have the congregation and the pastor know that they are there. Do they really want us or do they merely tolerate us?

One of the older members of the session, a seventy-something year old straight man, regularly visits the coffeehouse. His presence is uncomfortable to some of the youths, but to others it is a part of the building of community (koinonia), a testimony that the congregation knows who we are and that we are in the church. His visits, the pastor's visits, and now the prospect of having a permanent art display in this mostly "straight" congregation's public space and the assumption that that space will be available to gay youths for years to come communicates a culture of acceptance and a new kind of community more effectively than any traditional kerygma or didache could. Much as have the large mass of "unchurched" young Americans, these youths have avoided association with "regular" religious institutions, not because they don't believe in God or because they don't wish to be a part of a faith community, but because they do not feel welcome. They do not feel "heard" (Steward 1988, 82-84). The youths who now feel comfortable when they enter Lake View Presbyterian Church to attend Café Pride are not responding to the rituals, symbols, history, heritage or demographics of that congregation. These lesbian and gay teens feel they belong because of the congregation's culture (Carroll, Dudley and McKinney 1986, 21-46). They come not because someone told them that the church's culture included a belief in hospitality, but because they saw it acted out (Pineda 1997, 29-42) in this case through the inclusion of the seniors and their quilt. A church that welcomes seniors, which have been discarded by the larger society, is demonstrating a culture that teaches these youths that they can feel secure in the welcome offered them as well.

The quilt is most obviously a way to connect with the community of gay people across time because it is a way of communicating to the youths who will come through Café Pride after these artists are grown and have moved on. It is also a good project to bring the youths together in a combined service project. Like all service projects, in addition to the value of the service provided it is a great way to build community as the youths share ideas and techniques and materials sitting around the tables working on their panels.

Learning from the Project

The things I learned from this project fit into several categories:

The first image to be completed and turned in by a Café Pride patron was of two hands clasping, one pink and one brown. I had expected to see more obvious gay and lesbian themes in the first few designs. I expected to see pink triangles, rainbows, gender symbols, and lambdas The fact that race was the first thing considered caught me off guard. Café Pride is integrated with a good mix of races and religious traditions. I have never noticed any serious stresses between the youths of different races. I believe, however, that the reason race would feature in the first image is that the difficulty of integration and cooperation across races is more readily discussed among these youths and their friends. Since the artist in question is also an African-American male, I expect there have been enough issues for him that sometimes acceptance across racial lines is a bigger issue than his orientation. It may also be a personal statement since his boyfriend is Jewish. Although the artist may merely have wanted to show a union between different types of people and race was the easiest difference to draw, in my brief discussion with this artist, I have come to believe that race is still a greater divide than orientation for many of these youths because all of them understand that they can "pass" as "straight" in the larger society but that passing as "white" is a great deal more difficult and even when possible requires more obvious self-censorship. Perhaps race is still a bigger divide than sexual orientation.

Another design that has not been completed but which the artist has described to me is a CD attached to the cloth with the song "Family" on it. This is from a young man who is living with his uncle because his mother and father threw him into the street at sixteen him when he came out to them. We talked about the song and the importance it has for him and afterwards I wasn't sure he was talking about the song at all. In fact the staff members listening to him were unsure whether he meant the song from the musical "Dreamgirls" or one of the several other songs with similar names. What the young man had communicated was his valuing of family even when of the "constructed" variety. He wasn't talking about a song; he wasn't even really talking about being gay; he was talking about the importance of a family where you can always belong. This is not a new learning for me but the strength of this truth still surprised me—belonging is more important than sex.

Following the legend of the construction of the seniors' quilt on the west wall of the parish hall, we have chosen to allow our adult staff to create panels if they wish to and if there is enough space. They tend to choose very different images than our youth patrons. Red ribbons, signifying HIV/AIDS awareness, and pink triangles, remembering the sexual minority persons who have died at the hands of their government, are more evident in the design of the older artists. For the younger artists the emphasis seems to be on personal relatedness and romantic love while for the older artist it seems to be protection from the crises that disrupted their younger years as a gay or lesbian person. It may also be that our older staff are less creative and are using commonplace gay images, but I doubt that. It seems to be that the biggest hope for the future for our young patrons is to live with a lover while the biggest hope for the future for the older staff is to live without the threat of disease or governmental oppression. This learning perhaps should have been self evident the young value community for the surrounding love it offers; the older value community for the protection it offers.

I learned that even though not every youth wants to participate in this project, it is still beginning to change the culture of the place. Apart from those who might think it is a lame endeavor, we have youths who don't have anything to say to those who are coming after them or who at least have little idea of how to say what they want to pass on. I am still trying to figure out what is occurring in these cases. I fear that some of these youths do not feel enough security in the present to consider the future. But the conversations particularly the salacious ones about needing to make the quilt "G-rated" when the things they want to say are "X-rated" reveal that some of the youths still struggle to find and communicate a gay identity that goes beyond sexual activity. This is sparking an interesting set of discussions. Is there a gay identity aside from sex? One of our youths is a student at De Paul considering the Roman Catholic priesthood. The discussion of celibacy while not denying orientation or sexuality is now a regular feature of our Friday nights.

In the 1960's and 1970's, John Rechy a former male prostitute from the streets of Chicago wrote several books about embracing the outlaw designation that the larger society pressed on sexual minority persons (e.g. The Sexual Outlaw: A Documentary 1977) but now only a few puritans and pornographers embrace that strawman. Most of the attacks on the gay community today are directly related to the attempt to move from outlawry to the mainstream (Browning 1994, 142). It is gay spousal benefits, gay union ceremonies, and gay adoptions that excite current vituperation. But these are less exciting to our teen patrons than the visions of promiscuity that once characterized gay identity. Many of our young men seem to have no real interest in a gay identity that sounds just like what Mom and Dad have. The learning here is that there is still much discussion to come about what if anything makes lesbian and gay people different. The question then remains. Will there be such a thing as a gay community for the generation to receive our quilt? To twist the title of John Fortunato's well known book, what ministry will we have to offer the larger community when we have no exile to embrace?

Conclusion

In 1991, Samuel Steward, a man who had taught English at De Paul during the 1960's and then dropped out of academia to become a local tattoo artist and writer of gay pornography and social commentary, published a book based on his observations of the gay underworld entitled Understanding the Male Hustler. His thesis was that money has almost nothing to do with prostitution in the homosexual community. The hustlers who lounged in front of the Newberry Library as John Wayne Gacy cruised them twenty-five years ago and the youths who work the corner of Halsted and Waveland and then walk down the alley to Café Pride today have in common a craving for more than money. They want to belong, not just to someone but to the community as a whole. It is a craving that makes a welcoming church and a place of hospitality like Café Pride desirable. It is also what leads them to risk arrest and occasionally death. The new culture that we are trying to teach at Café Pride is an attempt to address that disconnectedness and to provide a link to the future. What we are trying to piece together in our curriculum is more than a quilt. We are trying to construct a culture that encourages community and connects these youths to the future, to one another and to supportive institutions such as Lake View Presbyterian Church. Koinonia, what Maria Harris calls the "not yet realized reality" (1989, 80) should be the center of the curriculum at Café Pride. Not just the community of those who can name the Spice Girls or even those who can recite lines from gay-themed Broadway plays, but community created by a culture of inclusion, a culture that values and preserves input, a culture that connects to the future.

Bibliography

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