Category Archives: Papua New Guinea

Life uncustomized…

Upon leaving New Guinea for furlough, it became clear that neither of us kids were ready for re-entry into the full-swing, 80’s, North American, upwardly mobile, yuppy experience. The materialism we encountered was striking: we knew nothing of Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, Guess watches, Izod shirts, or Polo cologne.  In fact, neither of us were certain of our shoe or clothing size.  In general, we’d spent the previous years sorting through what was available for what might fit, not for what we preferred–whether in used clothing boxes or at the local merchant in the city.  On our way back to the U.S. on furlough, we had a layover in Brisbane, Australia, and spent some time getting acclimated to western stores, crossing streets, ordering food, etc.  I recall walking in a department store and going up to a clerk and saying “I think I wear a size 10.”  She just stood there looking at me dumbly.  I repeated myself.  She then asked what it was I would like to see.  “Whatever you have in my size, please.”  She laughed and said, “But honey, we have everything in your size.”  I was overwhelmed.

I remember one of the few times we had to special order a customized item (at least as a kid, this is how I thought of it).  We’d each had complete physicals prior to leaving the United States, and had received the requisite vaccinations and medications for our protection against tropical communicable diseases.  The shots were not fun, but as it turned out, the anti-malarial medicine was much worse.  Chloroquine tablets had to be consumed weekly in order for a beneficial level to build up in the bloodstream.  One might not imagine that swallowing a small pill each Sunday was a big deal, but it was incredibly bitter and rarely could one of us get it down without gagging uncontrollably. Worse yet was the fact that this bitterness took days to leave; everything consumed for the following half week was tainted with the odor and taste of chloroquine. To add insult to injury, the chloroquine didn’t prevent us from getting malaria.  It only supposedly made our frequent bouts with the disease less life-threatening.

Along with the nasty taste were some extraordinary side effects: scar tissue turned a deep purple color (making any disfigurations all the more noticable), and our vision gradually became impaired.  Within six months of our physicals and beginning the chloroquine, we went from having 20/20 vision to needed glasses.  Like most kids who aren’t aware they need glasses, I didn’t know what was happening to me.  All I knew is that whereas I’d been in the ‘gifted’ classes in the United States, suddenly I was stupid.  I sat in my fourth grade class unable to read the chalk board (actually, unable to even tell there was writing on the chalk board).  I covered for my visual impairment poorly, without consciously being aware that I was doing it, until one day the teacher asked me to read something she’d written on the board.  I sat there dumb.  She thought I was being impertinent and demanded I read it.  I told her I couldn’t.  In what seemed to be a typical British form of pedagogy, she began openly mocking me in the classroom.  When I told her I couldn’t even see what was on the board, she whipped my desk up to the front of the room, and had me sit there with my desk flush up against the blackboard, asking me to read at her convenience.  I was humiliated!

Mom and dad took both of us kids to the eye doctor and were immediately surprised to find out that we’d both had severe visual changes over the last 6 months.  It became clear that not only did we need glasses, mom and dad’s prescriptions had also changed.  And while we were able to secure a prescription for glasses there in the capital city, there was no optometrist shop to actually procure the lenses and frames.  With such a large sudden expense (all four of us requiring glasses immediately), it was clear we couldn’t all fly to Brisbane to see the eye doctor.  It was determined that dad would go and choose glasses for each of us (including mom).  My poor father recalls a very stressful afternoon with an Australian store clerk as she tried on various frames and he tried to imagine what each of us might look like in them. I ended up as a 10 year old with an adult-size set of frames. Needless to say, the results were less than desirable.

Me playing the guitar at 10 years old... with my giant glasses.

Me playing the guitar at 10 years old… with my giant glasses.

Life in the stone age…

Occasionally anthropologists and archeologists would show up at the boarding school and ask for one of us kids to translate for them when they went to a village or site.  I went along one day with two such scientists and a local guide to explore a cave the scientists had heard about.  This cave supposedly had a hidden entrance and ran from one side of the mountain to the other. It wasn’t that the cave was a secret to any of the local tribes: rather it was the river that ran through the cave that often made it inaccessible and dangerous.  New Guinea is famous for its bi-seasonal weather: the wet season and the wetter season and flash flooding was a real possibility.

The local man walked us on a well worn path, barely wide enough for one person to pass.  We walked several hours into the bush and up a gentle slope towards the mountain.  Our guide stopped short suddenly and parted some foliage exposing the entrance to the cave. We stood at the entrance, per the guide’s instructions, and listened carefully. We could hear the sound of water running deep in the mountain.  We secured our torches (flashlights), wrapped in plastic bags, slipped long sleeved shirts on over our bare skin (to protect our hides and prevent leeches from getting on us), and entered the cave.

The water was ice cold and at its deepest we were wading with it around our waists. The cave, it tuns out, ran the length of the diameter of the mountain–several miles deep with little change in elevation from the initial decent into the cave opening.  It didn’t take long before walking became difficult as our legs were numb from the cold. We’d pause on the occasional boulder and sit above the water level, trying to warm ourselves. During these pauses we played with sound (listening to echos) and darkness (there is NOTHING as dark as when you turn your flashlights off while spelunking).

At one point, approximately half way through the cave, the guide stopped us and had us climb up onto a large ledge. The cave opened up into a large room, and the guide pointed up to the ceiling and had us shine our lights onto the rock walls.

The scientists inhaled sharply. The walls were covered in cave man drawings.  They immediately jumped up, reenergized, and began shooting photos, filling the cave with blinding flashes of light.  Our guide was startled and frightened by the sudden onset of inexplicable lightening.  I quickly explained the camera and flash and asked one of the scientists to ‘flash’ us on cue.  Soon we were all laughing.

I listened while the anthropologist and the archeologists explained the nature of the drawings, including what various symbols meant.  It was then I remembered our guide was local–perhaps he knew some of the folklore behind this ancient artwork.

The guide seemed puzzled at my question, then described a lengthy ongoing battle between two local tribes.  “We carried our pigs and children here. The women came too so the men could fight without worrying about them. These drawing were done while the women waited.”  How long ago was this, I asked?  “Oh… I think two or three Christmases ago.”

These ‘cave men’ were outside in the village, planting gardens, telling stories, and laughing. They were not ancient tribes. They were contemporaries.  I explained this to the scientists, who sat in silence. There was no good way of explaining their initial interpretation to the guide. There was no way of explaining to him, as he shone his flashlight in our faces, that he was from the stone age.

One among many…

Boarding school was presented to us missionary kids as the pinnacle of achievement: that is, you knew you were finally grown up when you were ‘allowed’ to attend with the big kids.  I’b been attending an international primary school for 4th and 5th grades and had been largely bored and lonely.  My grades were good, and my folks offered to let me choose to skip the 6th grade and advance to 7th–and therefore to boarding school.  I was 11.  I visited the school, met with the instructors and passed their oral examinations and was welcomed to Ukarumpa High School.

Ukarumpa, the international boarding school, was situated in the highlands of New Guinea at the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) near Aiyura (where the airstrip was), about 13 kilometers from Kainantu.  I moved into our denominational hostel (one of several hostels on campus which were denominationally funded) and became the youngest child in a house of 12 kids ranging from age 11 (me) to 19.

The denominational hostel I lived in starting in 7th grade.

The Naz Hostel.

The twelve of us were ‘parented’ by whichever couple in our mission drew the proverbial ‘short straw’.  These people weren’t called to the mission field to take care of each other’s kids.  They’d sold their belongings and moved half way around the world for the singular purpose of spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ.  That the missionary kids required education and tending to was at best an afterthought.  The couple stationed at the hostel were only assigned for a short period of time (usually upon arriving back from a year’s deputation in the US, while they were waiting for their position at the Bible College or the hospital to be vacated). We kids were a bump in the missional highway–an assignment most missionaries tried to avoid.

As such, the turnover of house parents was rapid and frequent. We would go through periods of time where we had a different set of ‘parents’ every six weeks.  Often the people the mission hired to take care of us were barely older than we were (one couple was only 5 or 6 years older than the oldest ‘kid’).  It was a chaotic and disruptive existence, never knowing what expectations were, what meals would be like, what might be considered funny and what might very well offend.  Some people had their own children to tend to, and found the disruption of the other missionaries’ kids in the household to be nuisance.  Others felt a need to save the mission money and doled out food and supplies as if there was significant scarcity. Some were not any more mature than we kids were.  Many felt free to criticize the parenting style of our biological parents—the missionaries they took exception to: often humiliating their kids who were at their mercy for 10 ½ months of the year.  Some couldn’t cook; others couldn’t even speak the local language and go to the market by themselves. Most had little to no theological training and functioned on a folk theology where sacrifice was uplifted as their highest calling, souls were at stake, and we were frequently told that to create problems (that is, to not behave and do what we were told, or to complain too much) would force our parents away from the work that God had called them to—the consequences were dire as souls might be potentially ‘lost’.  If our parents were tending to us, they weren’t doing God’s will.

During my tenure at Ukarumpa, there was one set of house parents who stayed for a full year without disruption.  They were an older couple, fresh back from furlough.  Their own kids were grown and they had enough distance from them to provide some stability in our lives. They laughed a lot, spent time alone together, and cooked together.  They were not perfect: his tolerance for childish nonsense was slim, and he spent a lot of time talking about “Blessed Quietness”—an old holiness song—especially when we got too rowdy or raucous.  He paddled the boys occasionally when they were bad, and looked upon misbehaving girls with contempt.   If we were late getting up in the morning, he’d walk down our hall with a pan from the kitchen and a metal spoon and bang until we got up.  When the hostel’s dog, Beast, got old, he waited till we kids were out of the house, then shot the dog and buried him.  When we cried, he told us it was ‘just a dog’.

She was lovely—tall, stately, elegant.  She played the piano and the violin and had an infectious laugh which was accompanied by an impossible twinkle in her eye.  Everyone loved her with a reverence which created space—quite literally.  She held herself at an emotional arms-length from us, treating each of us with professional competence and the care only a nurse could offer.  But she hardly mothered us.  She had favorites, and I was not one of them.

They had their own living space apart from the dormitory we kids lived in.  It was taboo and we kids were forbidden to enter.  They would disappear behind closed doors each evening, not to emerge again until morning.  Each night when I went to bed, I wrote in a notebook: a diary of sorts describing to her my day and thoughts, sometimes just the love letters of a little girl in need of a mother close by.  I would slide the notebook under her door and go to bed.  In the mornings, I’d find it on my desk—in pristine condition, without evidence that it had been read or even opened.  Nevertheless I’d write.  I think it was my way of having a little time with her alone (an impossibility with 12 kids, but also given her ‘distancing’ personality).

Years later, when I moved to Kansas City to attend Seminary, I was delighted to find out that these house parents had retired nearby.  My own parents had moved to Vietnam, and I found myself ‘orphaned’ once again in a strange country.  I imagined contacting these newly retired house parents, and having a place to ‘go’ occasionally and a ‘family’ to fall back on if I needed support.

It was a harsh reminder of childhood days the first time I went to visit this retired couple.  Whereas I considered them “mom and dad” for a year of my life and a real source of stability, they saw me as a painful reminder of a year of lost ministry—a year doing a job they never wanted and didn’t feel called to—I was one among 12 kids who never really were theirs.   The emotional arm’s length had stretched miles.  It shook me to my core.

And I began to feel more at ease being the orphan, than the less-than-desirable foster kid.

Why do whites have so much cargo?

The opening narrative of “Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies” by Jared Diamond depicts a man named Yali from New Guinea asking the question, “Why is that you white people developed much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?”  I was 34 when I first read this book, and the question Yali posed made me smile.

When we moved to Papua New Guinea from the United States, we were afforded by the mission a certain sized crate to ship belongings over.  We were warned that at best, the shipment would arrive 3 months after our arrival by plane, thus we were encouraged to bring as much as the airlines would allow with us on the journey, knowing it needed to last us that whole time. My folks had two small children in tow: so our suitcases contained not only clothes and towels and toiletries, but toys as well. At that time, the airlines would allow one carry on bag, and two checked bags free of charge.

Our flight left St. Louis, with a layover in Los Angeles, and another in Honolulu.  My parents scheduled us a few days in Hawaii as a means of adjusting to the time change, climate and temperature change, etc.  When we arrived in Honolulu, and attempted to hail a cab to take us to our hotel, we realized this could be quite a production.  We’d need a van or a large station wagon to carry us as we had so much ‘cargo’ along for the trip.

When my father finally flagged down a large station wagon cab, we crowded to the curb with all our luggage.  The driver opened the back of the wagon, then rounded the car to the curb we were waiting on.  He eyeballed our bags-all twelve of them-with obvious amusement and skepticism.  “Just how long are you visiting Hawaii?” he asked.  Mom’s response was quick “Three days.”  He stood there gapping, then shaking his head laughing, loaded the car.  When we arrived at the hotel, mom quietly asked dad why the cabby acted so strangely.  Dad explained, “He thought we each had 3 suitcases for our visit to Hawaii.  That’s one suitcase a day for each of us.”

Little did we know that this interpretation of our baggage would serve as a metaphor for our whole tenure in New Guinea.

When anesthesia isn’t an option…

My eleventh birthday, April 7, 1982, was a remarkable day. I’d gone to school that morning as usual, in my blue and white uniform and patent leather shoes.  On and off during the day, I’d experienced pain.  I mentioned it to my teacher, who in the best of the British educational tradition, told me to “steel yourself and carry on.”  By 2 pm I was miserable.  My family lived about a mile away, and the pain became such that I finally just walked out of class and out the front gates under the threat of a caning by the head mistress–I walked home.

Mom said I was blue/green around the mouth by the time I climbed the steps of the front veranda. I could barely stand upright. Mom and dad immediately bundled me up and drove me down the road to the general hospital in Port Moresby. Upon arrival it became clear that my appendix was hot–if not ruptured already, then just about to.  They handed my mom a razor and a bottle of Phisohex and told her to prep me for surgery.  Dad ran out to the car and got the blanket they’d earlier bundled me in.  He held me up in the shower while mom prepped me.  They dried me off in the blanket from the car.

Dad carried me to the gurney, and laid me down.  The doctor indicated one of them should accompany me to the operating theater.  They carefully instructed my dad to take his shoes off prior to entering the ‘sterile’ environment.

For reasons my family never quite understood, the doctors gave me a very mild sedative but no anesthesia.  They strapped me down to the bed and removed my appendix under the sedative effects of Benadryl. When I rose up in pain onto my elbows, they instructed dad to hold me down.  He leaned over me with his full weight, and talked me through the surgery by describing the equipment in the room until I finally passed out.

I came to in a general surgical ward which consisted of eights beds, four on each side in rows on a concrete pad, surrounded by mosquito netting.  There was a sink at the end of the aisle between the 2 rows of beds.  Mom laid on a bamboo matt under my bed, waiting for me to wake and ensuring my safety. I was in severe pain, and mom wasn’t able to convince anyone to give me any pain medicine–they had left my belly open with a drain intact, out of fear of infection.

Mom stood by the bedside and we watched rats climb the mosquito netting. After a few hours, the doctor came to the bedside and suggested that my folks take me home, as “it is likely cleaner at your house, than it is here”. Dad bundled me up in the same blanket we’d earlier used as a towel, and trying to be as gentle as possible, laid me in the back of the car. We drove the long bumpy ride home slowly and painfully.

I believe my parents were more traumatized by all this than I.

Tu kina meris and haus lotu

Expatriates don’t buy land in Papua New Guinea.  Instead you can make application to the government for a 99 year renewable land lease.  You can request specific locations, but it is up to the government’s current agenda for development as to where they parcel out a lot.  Such was the case when our denomination applied for land in the capital city.

The land grant the government designated for our mission was located in an underdeveloped part of the city which consisted of several acres of tall kunai grass (6-8 ft tall and razor sharp) and a grove of rain trees.  This area was crime ridden–the grass hid a prostitution ring. Each fortnight there was excessive drinking and gambling under the rain trees while men lined up, freshly minted paychecks in hand, and waited for their turns with the tu kina meris (or in English, two dollar women).

The denomination received a grant for three acres and promptly built a fence around its parameters to protect the property. This security fence was 8 foot tall and had 3 additional feet of barbed wire strung along the top angled outwards to keep the undesirables out.  As it turned out, the property line shifted the prostitution ring out from under one set of rain trees and pushed them over to another row just outside the fence the church erected.

The displacement resulted in an underlying hostility between the pimp, the prostitutes, the ‘customers’, and the mission.

The first thing the mission did after erecting the fence, was to construct a house on the property.  The domicile then served to house the mission workers while the church building was under construction.  My family lived there.

Because of the underlying animosity against the mission for displacing them out from under the comfort of the rain trees, the prostitution ring began practicing right outside our front gate under a few trees just outside the fence.  Drunken brawls were not unusual, and on occasion, my father had to phone the police to ensure our protection: drunken threats were made towards those within the safety of the fence; beer bottles hurled against the house; etc.  We hired a security man to live onsite, and had guard dogs which roamed the property.

One fortnight was particularly memorable: my folks counted over 300 men lined up outside our gates.  We watched one prostitute get beaten bloody. Dad phoned the police to help break up the crowd.  The police sirens scattered the crowds into the kunai grass, long before the constable arrived onsite.  They picked up the women, put them in the back of the paddy wagon, and drove off down the lane.  About 1/2 a mile down the road we watched the paddy wagon pull to the side of the lane, the police take turns in the back with the women, then drop them off and head on their own merry way.

The anger levels of the crowd, now returned to our front gate, escalated to levels previously unseen.  Men attempted to climb the fence; threats were hurled against me and my mother; my father’s life was ‘marked’.  We could do little but pray for the alcohol to wear off, and things to calm down.  Our security man sat on our veranda with the porch light on, a machete in hand, in full view of anyone who might try to get to the house.  I spent the night under a bed, shoved back against the wall, being told to keep quiet.  Dad and mom armed themselves with boat oars and sat there in stoney silence.

The next morning, when things calmed down, Dad went out and introduced himself to the pimp, offering him and his women water to drink.  He hired Wi to be our ‘gardener’–thus giving Wi a legitimate role to play should the police arrive again.  Wi’s whores were deemed his ‘wives’, and they continued to hawk their ‘wares’ just outside the gate.  Thus we lived in a symbiotic relationship–the church and the prostitution ring–offering mutual protection and a strange circumspect form of respect.

In light of the CoastWatchers…

The mission owned a house on the north shore of Papua New Guinea in the resort town of Madang.  Only 4 degrees south of the equator, and 250 miles north of the Great Barrier Reef, this tropical paradise was home of some of the most amazing snorkeling and scuba diving in the world.  The Coral Sea was virtually pristine, the waters warm and crystal clear.

In honor of not being understood

The mission house was all of 50 yards from the harbor–a country club and golf course stood between our house and the open water.  To the North, about 1/2 a mile from our veranda stood The CoastWatchers Memorial Lighthouse.  This was a very modern looking monument erected post-World War II in honor of the Navajo US soldiers whose intervention in the pacific saved countless American and Allied lives from the Japanese.  Why the Navajo?  Apparently their language and syntax is wholly unique from any other documented, known language.  They could sneak into the mountains and watch the bays below for Japanese war ships.  They would radio in coordinates of the enemy ships to American bases speaking in Navajo–the unbreakable code which was their native tongue–and tip off the US Navy to the enemy’s whereabouts.  US planes would swoop in and take out the Japanese, leaving the US soldiers largely unscathed.

The lighthouse was a comforting presence in Madang.  I could lay in bed in my room and watch the light periodically glide it’s way through the window and around the walls of my room as it slowly turned in endless nocturnal circles.  I thought a lot about those Navajo men- how very displaced they must have felt, fighting a battle for the honor of a nation who has treated them as second class citizens; how odd it must be to be celebrated for being incomprehensible.

I must confess: I identified with the Navajo. I was a third culture kid-not really “American” any more, not really Papua New Guinean, but some thing in between.  Some tertium quid. That we lived in such luxury half the year as ‘missionaries’ also created dissonance.  How could we ex-patriates wander the beach, the resort, the golf course and then minister to those without adequate medical care, nutrition, clothing or shelter?  We lived in the light of the CoastWatchers, as well as in its shadow.  We were incomprehensible.

Liminality observed…

During 1985 my family served as missionaries in residence at a denominational university in far suburban Chicago while we furloughed from Papua New Guinea.  As part of their ‘deputation’ responsibilities, my parents traveled the U.S. extensively, preaching, telling missionary stories, and raising funds for their next four years of service.  Their itinerancy left my brother and me often fending for ourselves—we were registered at the local high school and charged with the task of continuing our education: I, as a sophomore; my brother, as a junior. My mother reports having been gone 47 out of the 52 weeks that year.

Alone much of the time, my brother and I found ourselves restless—unaccustomed to the stability of a household, the flat lands of the Midwest, the banality of television, and the light work that the American school system demanded.    On weekends, we’d catch a ride to University Park and there embark on a journey to the city via the Metra.  Once in Chicago, we would sightsee and play, but ultimately our destination was the Blue Line of the El—out to O’Hare airport where we’d polish off the evening watching planes take off and land.

Hours were spent speculating from whence folks came, or what their destination might be.  We fantasized about working in such a place where people of all nations and creeds mingled seamlessly.  The airports and the train systems seem like such finely tuned mechanisms—a means out of the Illinois flats and what I remember perceiving as a cultural narrow-mindedness that contradicted the endless horizon.  We were comfortable in the transit systems.  These liminal places marked the threshold between here and there—the in-between space that seemed to be joint possession of both expatriates and natives.

As a commuter in her 40s, the romance of the CTA has worn thin.  It now constitutes a minimum of two hours of my day, and a good 10 percent of my waking week.

Rather than energizing, the crowds often deplete my resources, and I find myself occasionally in need of escape.

And while I can now recite every stop between Noyes Street and Washington and Wells, the unreliability of the schedule and unpredictability of my fellow sojourners marks each excursion as its own venture.

It is both stimulating, and over stimulating.

But old habits die hard, and even in my most exhausted states, I find myself wondering about my companions on the way.  The trains in Chicago, it seems, serve many purposes.  For some, they are merely a means to an end: suburbanite commuters; globetrotting professionals; city-locals who live without the luxury of personal transportation—all setting about their daily tasks, etc.  For others, however, the journey appears to be an end in itself: transients seeking warmth ride the trains in endless circles during the winter months, and in the summers find comfort in its air conditioning; a child exclaiming in delight as she kneels backwards in her seat, peers expectantly out the window at the passing landscape; tourists looking for the ultimate ‘Chicago’ experience, board the ‘El’ for the sole purpose of bragging rights.  What is perhaps most fascinating about these is the differing perceptions of teleology and their subsequent ecbatic interactions that such liminal space creates.

Hidden in plain view…

This is a piece I shared with at my church a couple years ago.

When a systematic theologian is asked to write a concise statement of what it is she believes, the temptation is to simply repeat the Nicene Creed or some other ecclesial-sanctioned confession of faith and let that ‘timeless classic’ stand for itself.  I suppose there are ways in which I could in good faith do this: not that I personally can give rational assent to each aspect of the creed (I’m not unwilling to entertain the idea that there are aspects which might not bear up under the weight of ‘historical’ or scientific scrutiny), but rather that I trust that there are those in the community who can say for me, and therefore hold for me, the things of my faith tradition which I cannot simply hold on my own.  I am unwilling to dismiss the witness of those who can hold them.

So how does a closet creedalist find herself at home with a congregation who is proudly (and at times, defiantly) non-creedal and non-dogmatic?

It seems I’ve spent a lot of time in closets in my life—literal and figurative closets.  I was a hider as a child.  Not that I had anything particularly shameful to keep hidden from others, but I was the child that hid in the hopes of being found.  The household I grew up in was passionate about ministry—so much so that as a kid I often felt erased from view in contrast to those with ‘real’ needs (whether physical or spiritual).  I tested this theory of erasure at a very early age. My mother reports occasions when she would suddenly become aware of my absence, and eventually find me in repose in the back of a closet somewhere—I’d waited so long for anyone to notice my absence that I’d fallen asleep.  I became consciously aware of this personal ritual while my folks were missionaries.  At the age of 13 I’d come home from boarding school after having been away for 10 months, closed the door of my bedroom and laid under the bed for hours.  I remember quietly playing with the geckos who shared my hiding place, all the while imagining that my parents were frantically searching for me.  I emerged, disappointed and unnoticed, only when I was hungry enough to go to the kitchen for food.

I hid in similar closets at boarding school where we missionary kids were indoctrinated with the notion that our parents were out and about doing “the Lord’s will”.  Any trouble or infraction we committed was chastised with the fear that if we were disruptive enough to merit parental intervention, we were likely distracting them and preventing them from their real calling—spreading the Good News.  Even when circumstances felt abusive or I was just plain homesick, I stayed in my closeted state.  I remember our scheduled time on the ham radio early on Sunday mornings—that 10 min weekly window where we could talk ‘privately’ with our parents in the village—with the whole country listening in (what else was there to do when there is no TV or radio?).  Their questions of ‘how are you?’ were met with dutiful and respectable closeted answers: “I’m fine.”  

During my first seminary degree, I became a closeted woman in a mostly-male school. No, it wasn’t a ‘Yentl’-type moment—I wasn’t into breast binding or cross-dressing.  But as one of just a few women out of 350 students, I learned the patriarchal philosophies and theologies that served as currency.  I had purchase because I excelled at the argumentative, combative learning style—besting the brightest men around me. I was ‘one of the boys’.  Eventually graduating with honors, I was hired as the seminary president’s ghost writer and became professionally closeted—writing sermons and speeches for which he received credit.  In my writing I could pass as a man.

I spent years as a young woman, closeted in the heterosexual world where everyone assumes the young are marriages-waiting-to-happen.  Just this spring I was invited to speak to the General Executive Council of the American Baptist Churches—USA, and was both surprised and tickled to be introduced as having been invited to speak because they wanted to hear the perspectives of “a young adult”.  I joked about this as I took the podium, asking the group just how long I might be able to continue pulling off that moniker—seeing I’m almost 40.  One gentleman spoke up and explained, “you are considered a young adult until you get married”. “Wow…” I thought, “I never will reach maturity in your mind, given my orientation.”  Apparently, I’m also a closeted adult.

Closets are functional spaces: rooms for shelving and storing the parts of ourselves we aren’t prepared to deal with (either personally or publicly).  I believe this is how I’ve remained a closet creedalist at Lake Street Church: the bits and pieces of my faith heritage which don’t quite fit often sit shelved—only to be pulled out and worn on special occasions, if at all.  But I’ve also experienced the liberation of spring cleaning, where closets are opened and laundry and baggage are aired.  Items are sorted: some cleaned and restored and replaced in the closet to return to someday in the future; these are often items of sentimental value.  Other items don’t seem to fit any more—and these are sent out on consignment.  Finally, some items are deemed rubbish and are simply trashed.

These periodic spring cleanings do me good.  Spring cleaning helps me find hidden treasures—items I’d put away—maybe they were inappropriate for the season, or the size wasn’t right at the time—but are now comfortable and wearable—available for public viewing and consumption. It also reminds me of bits and pieces that were forgotten and repressed and allows me to clean house and open up more space within.

So here I stand before you, out in the open: an uncloseted, single, adult woman who refuses allow her needs and desires go unseen or unheard any longer.  It is after all, Pride Sunday.  Interestingly, it is also the Sunday of the American Baptist Church’s Biennial Meetings.  The irony of the two coinciding is not lost on me.

I believe I’ve also been a closeted Baptist (and I suspect I’m hardly alone in this).

I became a member of Lake Street Church 4 years ago.  The decision to join was not undertaken lightly.  Oh, it was easy to want to count myself among the members of such an inclusive and warm community.  It became more difficult, however, when I realized that joining such a community meant embracing the ‘baptist’ moniker in my professional life.  The bi-lines of articles of mine in print would heretofore read, “Baptist theologian”.

Frankly, my Baptist closet was pretty full.  As I began sorting through this closet, I discovered all sorts of musty old baggage: stereotypes of Baptists which did not meet my experience with either the leadership or the congregation of LSC (such as blatant sexism, homophobia, and fundamentalism).  When I thought “Baptist” it was images of Jerry Fallwell, not Bob Thompson, that immediately came to mind.  At the very least, I knew that becoming “Baptist” would raise some eyebrows amongst my feminist colleagues in the academy.

But it was a particular congregation which captured my imagination and forced open the doors of that Baptist closet.  And I began to explore the theological underpinnings of what it was that could possibly allow for both the Jerry Fallwells of the world, and the Bob Thompsons of the world, to co-exist under the same rubric.  And I was delighted to discover that the theological foundations for such diversity were at the core of Baptist theology itself—understandings of freedoms which all Baptists claim: the freedom to have access to and interpret sacred texts; the freedom of the individual to work out their own spiritual journey in their own unique way; the autonomy and freedom of the local congregation to create communities of grace and justice that are relevant in their particular locales and to their particular congregants; and the freedom of the church from the state.

It turns out that being Baptist provides for the very conditions under which we can be who we are.  Being Baptist allows space for me personally to open up my closets and begin that painful but necessary process of spring cleaning.

I suppose what has appealed most about the Lake Street (and therefore Baptist) tradition to this feminist is the inherent modesty in the church’s theological claims.  Our divisions are not hidden or protected.  Our history and politic is not (nor can it be) swept under the rug.  And because opinions range vast, we cannot pretend to speak decisively and representatively ‘for all’.    To quote a well-crafted line of Ted Peters, “Tentativeness, as opposed to dogmatic swagger, can be a virtue in theological situations such as this.”

It is in recognition of this theological heritage that I have begun to embrace and take pride in Baptist Life.

So here I stand before you, out in the open: an uncloseted, single, adult Baptist woman who refuses allow her needs and desires go unseen or unheard any longer.  It is after all, Pride Sunday.

*Of course, the perpetual adolescent in me (I am a closeted adult after all) wants to arrive at the next Biennial meetings in full Lake Street force proclaiming in honor of the Stonewall riots, “We here.  We’re Baptist.  Deal with it.”  Or better yet, in the spirit of Sojourner Truth: “Ain’t I a Baptist?!?”

Therapy unleashed

After 8 years of intensive therapy, I know well the cathartic release of telling one’s story.  Airing the words which went unspoken for so many years has been a painful but healing exercise.  And I find myself at the point where I finally feel free to write (to put in print, so to speak) some memories and reflections from the ‘war zone’ of life growing up in the home of a holiness minister and missionary.  These ‘stories’ are occasional and won’t show up in chronological order. For numerous reasons that aren’t necessary to list here, I believe it is important for me to write these, and instead of fussing with the details of ‘when’ and ‘where’, get them down ‘on paper’ as they come to mind.  So if I’ve given you permission to read this, please forgive the disorienting time warps which might cause slight vertigo.  These are a collection of anecdotes, and singularly don’t tell a complete tale. However, I’m confident that their collective effect can be revealing.