Sunday, November 27, 2011

Penn State, the Church and my Ego, Part 2

Last week I posted a message about the recent allegations and reported actions (or non-actions) of officials at Penn State University. I focused on the power of institutionalization and drew parallels to the process the early Church in determining what to include in the New Testament and to the recent scandals involving the Roman Catholic Church.
I also broadened this power of institutionalization to include the subtle power of my identification with race, with nationalism/patriotism, and with economic class. I concluded that if I am already a loved/accepted spirit simply having a human experience right now, it is easier (but not easy!) to keep my True Self separate from the institution with which I trade effort for pay/image/self-definition or from limiting concepts of nationalism, political persuasion, or perceived economic standing.
Since posting that message my thoughts kept coming back to my own initial experience of the power of identification and its influence on who I think I truly am.
I grew up in a small town in West Texas about 30 miles south of Lubbock. I went to some Texas colleges and experienced a little cultural broadening. All in all, my college experiences reflected a life basically the same as high school – same attitudes, same foods, same white students, same worship of sports.
Then I went to graduate school – the Presbyterian-affiliated Princeton (NJ) Theological Seminary. Since I had to work, I took a position as a Student Assistant Minister in a downtown Trenton (NJ) Presbyterian Church on Prospect Street. I worked with the congregation's youth and began an outreach program into the mostly black, mostly impoverished local neighborhood. After Seminary I took a position as a Street Gang minister – a position that was new and uncharted. I did that for two years before it almost destroyed my marriage.
What a wake-up call!  In the late 60's, culturally, Trenton's ghettoes were about as far away from West Texas as a person could get. Working as a street minister, however, taught me several very important lessons.
A group of concerned citizens in Princeton wanted to host a fund-raiser for my ministry. Most were members of Princeton's Episcopal Church. I was very grateful. However, for the first time in my life I was the VERY conspicuous minority. These Princeton residents, most of whom were black, were medical doctors or PhDs in biology or chemistry with the World Health Organization (WHO), senior analysts or managers with the United Nations, planning consultants with UNESCO, policy wonks with the Princeton Testing Service, physicists at Einstein's Institute for Advanced Study or with Princeton University itself. From the aspect of race I was the only white person there. From the aspect of economics I was the poorest paid. From the aspect of education there was only one other person – an Indian woman –who, like me, only had a Masters Degree. In terms of race, economic status, and education I was the little, poor, undereducated white guy. Talk about a blow to my ego! What kind of world was I living in? This was definitely not the world of "Leave It To Beaver."
I learned that Christianity is not synonymous with being a good little middle class Boy Scout. If I could've told churches that was my goal – to transform these angry young men into good little citizens, I would never have had a problem raising money for my independent-of-any-single-congregation ministry. But these were not aspiring little Boy Scouts. These were 17- to 24-year old, angry, young black men. They were proud of who they were and they violently resented attempts to make them Oreo cookies – black on the outside and white on the inside.
It was in Trenton, as it rioted following Martin Luther King's murder, that I came to understand:
·      The matriarchal nature of their society: I saw firsthand the inequities built into the administration of our political and religious/moral codes that kept husbands and fathers away from their homes so mom and the kids could get the help they needed. These policies applied to governmental assistance programs, as well as to private charitable organizations. So, in effect, our moral, Christian society was forcing the break-up the family unit in order to "help" them. We kind of did the same thing to Native Americans.
·      The middle class American whiteness of myinterpretation of Protestant Christianity: I had learned, for example, to share my lunch with someone less fortunate. That's what loving your neighbor as yourself meant. What do you say to a whole group that has no lunch to share? To a group that steals to pawn to get money for lunch? To a group that steals to "get back at the system?" So I said, "Why not steal cereal, powdered milk, fresh fruit? At least you can have some lunch and you can take the remainder home for your little brothers and sisters."
·      The power of acceptance and the meaning of"caring and sharing," which became our motto: During the MLK riots, there was a curfew at night. During the day I would conspicuously walk the streets so people could see I was still there – I had not retreated into the suburbs. One of my guys, named Ronnie, came running after me one day, trying to drag me back to the pool parlor where I made my headquarters. His cousin had gotten a pistol and was looking for me. Ronnie was willing to risk his life (and his familial relationships) to shield me.
All of this played a significant role in laying the groundwork for my desire for a spiritual path as opposed to the pursuit of a sense of "rightness" stemming from my religious dogma. In short, what I learned is the critical importance of always trying to use 2 little words: "…for me." I came to understand that my thoughts of "right, normal, accepted, and Christian" were influenced more by my cultural/racial/educational/economic sense of identity than by dogma or some form of religiosity. I found if I could simply add the prepositional phrase "for me" to the end of most sentences, truth would begin to penetrate all the way to my True Self.  For example, rather than saying, "The Bible is the source of truth in spiritual issues," I began saying the Bible is my source of truth in spiritual issues because that makes sense for me."
Those 2 little words began opening the door for me to accept someone else's different perception of the rightness of things – cultural or spiritual – as being just as valid as mine.
That was the beginning of my spiritual journey. That's how it all started for me.
If all I've been saying rings true for you relative to getting to your True Self, then the reality of the power of your perception becomes unmistakable. If what's real about my world is simply my perception of it, then my world really doesn't exist. If that's the case, how can one really be IN this world but not OF it? What world are we talking about? My perception or yours? That's a great question and I'll address it in next week's message.
Thanks for listening and, as always, it's okay to forward this, if you choose.
Don


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