'Twas a busy weekend. A few notes:
Saturday morning, five of us went out for a twenty-mile trail run. Thanks to last week's heavy rain, the fire danger in the national forest has disappeared, temporarily at least; the forests have been reopened to runners and hikers and bikes and horses. We had a fine outing, though as soon as we met (we start at the Rose Bowl and then head up to the forest), I laid down the law: no discussion of politics on the run. Period. No exceptions. Our running group on Saturday was made up of three liberal Democrats, one conservative Republican, and one moderate independent (who happens to be married to the Republican). Usually, our most liberal member (not your blogger) and our most conservative member end up verging on nasty clashes over Iraq, abortion, what have you. Twice in the past two months, one or the other has either raced on ahead or dropped back from the pack in frustration. I am happy to report that my edict was honored throughout the entire morning.
Saturday afternoon, after a shower and a nap, I headed over to church for our first overnight retreat with our 2005 confirmation class. One thing about belonging to a liberal church: it's hard to get some kids and parents to see this kind of spiritual work as really important. Three of our ninth-grade future confirmands did not attend the overning. Two were at their school "homecoming dances", one was cheering at an afternoon football game and then going to an afterparty. None of the parents of these kids considered confirmation class to be of equal importance with these other activities! Somehow, I suspect that priorities might be clearer at a more evangelical church.
Still, I love our first retreat of the year. At this point, most of the kids (who are all either 14 or 15) don't know each other well, if at all. They are shy and apprehensive. But we soften them up with games and icebreaker activities, as well as an unending supply of snacks. (Hugo, fresh from his 20-miler, decided to eat somewhere between 25-30 home-made chocolate chip cookies over the course of the afternoon and evening.) My favorite game comes in the evening: "Spin the compliment, spin the web." It's a variation on "spin the bottle." We sit in a circle with an empty bottle in the center; a kid spins the bottle, and then offers a sincere compliment to the person at whom the bottle ends up pointing. (This is done, obviously, after the icebreaking work.) The kids also have a ball of yard, and the complimenter tosses the ball to the complimentee when finished, while holding on to a strand of yarn herself. By the time we're finished, everyone has been affirmed and has had a chance to affirm, and we are all bound together with yarn in a web of interconnectedness. For the touchy-feely ones among us, this is definitely a favorite. We finished the evening with a movie and discussion. We watched "Saved", the splendid and gently biting satire of American Christian high schools. (I was reminded again why Jena Malone and Patrick Fugit are two of my favorite young actors.)
The movie led to lots of discussion about what it meant to be a Christian teenager, and to a discussion of the perils of being an openly Episcopalian teen. At least half of our kids reported being harassed or teased at school by more conservative kids because they attend All Saints, a so-called "gay church." That is a much higher number than in previous years. Invariably, the teasing and ridicule they related centered around issues of homosexuality. Thanks to the current high profile of the Episcopal Church on the issue of homosexuality (and the especially high profile of our parish, the largest progressive Anglican parish west of the Mississippi), our youth are more of a recognizable target. The teasing they reported was predictable, and centered around questioning one of two things about our kids:
1. Our kids were often told "only gay people go to your church, so you must be gay."
2. "Real Christians don't believe in gay marriage, so anyone at All Saints isn't a real Christian."
As an adult who is instinctively protective of young people, it's easy for me to get very, very angry when I hear about kids I love being teased, ridiculed, and denounced for their faith (and, just as often, the faith of their parents.) I want to protect them from this sort of thing. Yet of course, there's another part of me that thinks that this rise in "anti-Episcopalianism" (however mild that form of bigotry may be) is actually good for the kids. Sometimes, our young people need to hear that following Christ (something we at All Saints understand ourselves to be doing) is painful. Sometimes, there is a cost for standing up for the marginalized. And for ninth-graders, obsessed as most of them are with just fitting in, it seems that there are few greater crosses to bear than that of being singled out and made fun of. Indeed, I confess I'm almost grateful that the kids at our progressive, inclusive church get to discover that indeed, there is a "cost of discipleship" for those of us who believe in gay marriage.
Of course, I also have some misgivings about glamorizing this. Sometimes it seems as if everyone in this country is eager to claim the mantle of a persecuted minority! Reading the internet scribblings of religious conservatives in this country, there's little doubt that the Christian Right has a strong persecution complex. The rhetoric is familiar: "People of faith are an oppressed group, under ever-stronger attack from a rabidly secular culture!" (Sound the klaxons! Blow the shofar! Crank up Third Day, and vote Republican before the ungodly hordes take away our right to worship! You know the drill.) Persecution narratives are flattering to all of us -- they make our personal spiritual choices seem brave, counter-cultural, even dangerous. They allow us to cast ourselves and our co-religionists in the pleasantly romantic light of near-martyrdom (and gosh, don't we all look better that way?) But it's specious, even offensive, for Christians in this country to characterize themselves as genuine victims of persecution. Last time I checked, the churches are not being driven underground as they are in China and the Sudan; more to the point, no religious conservative kid had been beaten to death (ala Matthew Shepard, who in addition to being gay, was an Episcopalian and former acolyte).
Frankly, in most American high schools outside of liberal urban areas, I'd be willing to bet that "my kids" (who attend a gay-affirming church) would be far more likely to be ridiculed and threatened than teens who belong to a conventionally conservative, evangelical community. Still, there's no point in letting this post degenerate into a vulgar discussion of "competitive suffering." In our increasingly polarized and uncivil religious climate, there's plenty of ugliness on all sides. The job of those of us who work with youth is not to encourage a sense of persecution, but to emphasize that a life of faith does have costs and consequences -- as well as extraordinary joy.