A Light That Never Goes Out
June 30, 2013
This is not a sermon about El Salvador.
True, Donna and Michael asked me to preach a bit on my two recent trips to that beautiful country, but the truth is, I feel about as comfortable objectively exploring my experience of the history and situation of El Salvador as I do objectively exploring most any verse of the Bible, which is to say not very comfortable at all, but please don’t tell anyone at Union Theological Seminary until I have my diploma safely in hand.
No, this is not a sermon about El Salvador. But this is a sermon written after two immersive and life-interrupting trips to El Salvador and I believe it to be the first of a future lifetime of sermons that will probably always be, in at least some way, informed by my time there.
So let’s look at the quotation on the cover of today’s bulletin. It’s not something I read in a book. It’s a simple statement that was offered to me in a meeting with Patricia García, also known as Paty, who is a member of COMADRES, which is the Committee of the Mothers and Relatives of Prisoners, the Disappeared, and the Politically Assassinated of El Salvador.
COMADRES formed in 1977 with the aid of Archbishop Oscar Romero and, through the unshakable strength of the organization’s first members, this group overcame constant threats, rape, and torture before, during, and after the country’s brutal civil war. Their main focus, from the start, has been to support individuals and families as they search for the bodies of their loved ones who have been assassinated and “disappeared.”
Now, this word, “disappeared,” is a different kind of verb in El Salvador. It’s something that is done to a person. A person doesn’t simply disappear. A person is disappeared by another person or, in most cases, a death squad of persons. Many of these disappeared have never been found, alive or dead, and COMADRES insists on its existence until every last one of them is found.
Paty has much to say about pain and about the word, “disappeared.” She even shocked me by casually introducing one of her stories with the words, “The second time I was kidnapped and tortured,” without ever having described the first time, leaving my own imagination to fill in the blanks.
But one of the most significant pains that Paty noted was the fact that COMADRES, after twenty-six years of struggle, has yet to be officially granted status as a Non-governmental Organization. And why is this? It’s because they refuse to extract the word “disappeared” from their name. Apparently, the Salvadoran government will let COMADRES acknowledge that scores of people have been murdered, but it won’t let them acknowledge that there have also been scores of Salvadorans who have simply been disappeared, never to be found again.
The pain that propels Paty is common in El Salvador. When I returned for the first-ever Salvadoran LGBT human rights conference in March, the pain took on an even more complicated dimension. I saw queer communities struggling to pinpoint just how to fight for rights attached to their sexual orientation and gender identification in a country that is still reeling from a civil war that stripped most citizens, regardless of their identity, of the basic right to live.
By the way, most of you know that my favorite letter in our acronym is the “Q,” but I leave it off when talking about El Salvador, because they haven’t yet officially added it to their own version of the acronym. In fact, when my group used the traditional LGBTQ version in our meeting with a Salvadoran United Nations executive, I watched as he whispered to his assistant, who whispered to her assistant, who whispered to her assistant, who whispered to another executive, until they finally looked quizzically at all of us northerners and admitted, “We do not know what you mean when you say, ‘Q’.” So they leave it off. For now. But we cannot.
El Salvador changed my life. So why is this sermon not about El Salvador?
Because, even though I thought I needed to fly south to a quote-unquote developing country in order to combat anti-queer violence, upon returning home, I was quickly reminded that anti-queer violence and hate is happening all around us, all the time, even in our fabled gay ghettos. By now, we all know that the recent upswing in reported anti-queer violence is skyrocketing into double digits.
Our community is scrambling to hold candlelight vigils, organize rallies, promote marches, and this is all absolutely necessary.
But, as I myself have been scrambling to join these vigils and rallies and marches, I’ve come into contact with some members of our community, particularly those of color, those who are homeless, and those who identify as transgender or genderqueer, and they have reminded me that this violence goes unreported all the time, particularly when it is inflicted on our trans population, our homeless population, and on our populations of color. As I hear these stories, it’s Paty and COMADRES and their struggle to hold on to the word “disappeared” that sticks in my mind.
See, in El Salvador, the queer folk know that their world is not post-queer. And now, as violence rises in New York City, we savvy post-queers are being reminded that we’re not safe, not yet, and we actually never have been. Sure, we white queers, particularly the ones who resemble the white, affluent couples in most every Marriage Equality ad, we have been able to lull ourselves into believing that the only people who really want to inflict harm on us are the surreal members of the Westboro Baptist Church. But we’ve been wrong and our privileged blindness is disappearing our fellow queers, those who we don’t see attractively redecorating apartments on television.
We, as a queer community, even as we celebrate immense progress, are in danger of inactively disappearing our own people. Our Marriage Equality campaigns have embraced the institution and ignored the less easily assimilated members of our queer community. Our visibility is helping kids to come out at younger ages, but some are being kicked out of their homes, coming to New York City to find community and, in a terrible twist, being booted off of the piers by the very residents of the Village who came here decades ago to find their own safely queer space.
Now, I realize that this brand of “disappearing” is different from a systematic and active disappearing, but it is our inactive participation in this disappearing that troubles me the most.
One of my favorite authors, Steven Millhauser, has a short story called, “The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman,” in which a woman literally dematerializes one day, much to the surprise of her inobservant neighbors. As the townspeople struggle to understand how Elaine has disappeared into thin air, they discover that it is the years of collective disinterest from those around her that has been her downfall. As this realization dawns on them, the narrator laments:
“[Elaine] is not alone. On street corners at dusk, in the corridors of dark movie theaters, behind the windows of cars in parking lots at melancholy shopping centers illuminated by pale orange lamps, you sometimes see them, the Elaine Colemans of the world. They lower their eyes, they turn away, they vanish into shadowy places…they are fading, fixed as they are in the long habit of not being noticed. And perhaps the police, who suspected foul play, were not in the end mistaken, for we are no longer innocent, we who do not see and do not remember, we incurious ones, we conspirators in disappearance.” 1
That’s gorgeous prose about an ugly reality. But it’s not my intention to leave us depressed, even gorgeously depressed, this morning. Because I think, even with this devastating increase of reported anti-queer violence, we have hope, we have a light, and it comes from acknowledging the pain that still haunts us and using it, much like Paty, to push us toward a blindingly bright future.
So let’s take another look at the photo on the cover of today’s bulletin. This mural adorns one wall of the COMADRES office and is one example of countless walls throughout the country. You can barely walk ten feet without being faced with the pensive smiles and suggestive silhouettes of those who have been murdered or disappeared in the country’s history. And the remembrance doesn’t stop with the mural. Salvadorans want to talk to you about each mural, each face, each life that has been lost. These murals make up the background of Salvadoran life, but they don’t simply sit, unnoticed. They are maintained, they are displayed, they are discussed.
In El Salvador, the veil between life and death is so permeable as to be non-existent. The dead are always looking out at the living from their fixed places on each wall and the living encounter the dead on most every corner they pass. This is not morbidity. This is life at its most viscerally activating.
Many of you in this room joined the rally that followed the assassination of Mark Carson just blocks from this building. Two things amazed me that day. The first was how many of us took the time, probably because we were so furious and terrified, to come out in the middle of a weekday afternoon to raise our bodies and voices in protest and solidarity. The second was how many of us I saw on my walk uptown, through Chelsea of all places, casually sipping happy hour cocktails, and asking me why I was carrying a sign.
“Mark Carson was murdered,” I would answer.
“Who?” I heard several times.
I was apoplectic by the time I reached 38th Street.
This is not an exchange that should take place when we are under attack. And we are under attack much more often than many care to believe. Amazing things happen when we choose to accept and believe that pain is happening all around us and must be countered with light. Stonewall happened when we chose to believe. ACT-UP, the AIDS RESOURCE CENTER, Bailey House, the GMHC, and our very own safer injection and sex kit parties here at Judson happened when we chose to believe. It’s time to believe again that holding a candlelight vigil for one night and a rally for one afternoon can’t and won’t keep our lights lit.
Every afternoon must be a rally and every night must be a vigil. This isn’t morbidity. This isn’t living in the past. This is staying true to the wounds of our ancestors, staying true to the wounds of those around us who need the most support, and staying true to the gospel of what a queer-celebrating country and world might look like and achieve.
Many of us have gotten pretty good at not disappearing ourselves, but that hasn’t always been the case. Even I kept the fullness of my self from my family for years, fearful that they might not accept me. When I finally, tentatively, came out, they basically said, “Thanks for catching up. We’ve been waiting for you.” They un-disappeared me within seconds.
But many others are disappearing in the noise of our hopes for Marriage Equality. Don’t get me wrong. Marriage Equality is a necessary thing. Equality is a necessary thing. But this fight sometimes leaves behind those queer folk who are just trying desperately to survive without compromising who they are. Our vigilance against HIV/AIDS has softened into a cool acceptance of the disease that breeds a dangerous, lazy relationship with sex. Our coolheaded attempts to promote ourselves as happy, often white, abnormally attractive couples has created a new binary in which genderqueer and transgender folks are left in the dark. And don’t even get me started on the Voting Rights Act debacle that came down like some evil sibling of our more celebratory rulings this week.
So what do we do? Well, I think the answer comes from the queerest one of them all, and you know who I’m talking about. I’m talking about Jesus. He says to hold tight to our saltiness, to keep our brightness, to refuse to be thrown out into the world just to be trampled because we’ve forgotten what made us queerly unique in the first place.
Our queer identities were designed, as Oscar Romero says, to provoke, to disarm, to get under people’s skin. Our lights were designed to flame freely and to get us in trouble. That’s why our past and present are so filled with pain. And it is the embracing of and the transformation of this pain that not only gives us the pride that we should have every day of our lives, but also gives us the imperative to continue to take care of those most in need of community, those who are being raped, killed, and harassed every day of their lives, those who can’t yet dream of freely sipping a happy hour cocktail on a Chelsea sidewalk.
If we disappear the pains of our past and the saltiest lights of our present, we will eventually forget who we are and why we exist at all. If we disappear those who still seem the “queerest” of our population, we will eventually disappear ourselves. And then there will be no saltiness to make the world take notice and question its assumptions. There will be no light to burn ahead, showing the liberating queer possibilities that come from questioning the false gospels that have gotten us into this binary-based mess in the first place.
We have some of the most amazing ancestors in the world, we have some of the most miraculous martyrs, and, even if their faces don’t cover every wall of the city, we must keep the memories of them emblazoned on the walls of our minds, we must fill our conversations with talk of those who came before us, went before us, died in front of us, or died all alone. We must hold these portraits, like David Johnson’s paintings of the residents of Bailey House that you see behind me (Bill, Maria, Gino, Gwen, Clarence, and all of our ancestors who are not represented here), close to our hearts.
Because we are the ones who are surviving, we are the ones who now carry the candles and the signs, we are the ones who now embody the salt and the light of queerness. We have the power to un-disappear all of the fabulous people of our community who are lost in the shadows of even our most profound victories. Let us keep both our saltiness and our light held tight enough to keep us remembering and raised high enough to keep us moving, leading all toward an idea of equality we’ve only begun to imagine.
Let us pray:
Creative Hand of the Universe:
Thank you for the trust. Thank you for the salt. Help us to be a light that never goes out.
For Your Meditation
“In addition to the strength given to you by God, I think it is pain that pushes you forward.”
Patricia García, member of COMADRES
You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
From Archbishop Oscar Romero
“A church that doesn’t provoke any crises, a gospel that doesn’t unsettle, a word of God that doesn’t get under anyone’s skin, a word of God that doesn’t touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed–what gospel is that? Very nice, pious considerations that don’t bother anyone, that’s the way many would like preaching to be. Those preachers who avoid every thorny matter so as not to be harassed, so as not to have conflicts and difficulties, do not light up the world they live in.”
1 Steven Millhauser, “The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman,” in Dangerous Laughter, 35-36.