Open Letter regarding PCUSA 2015 One Great Hour of Sharing materials

Dear Linda Valentine,

I am very concerned about the posters for the 2015 One Great Hour of Sharing campaign that were highlighted in the December 3 PNS story:  https://www.pcusa.org/news/2014/12/3/special-offerings-take-new-look/  I find that these posters are quite offensive towards two groups that I minister to – those with addiction issues and people of color.

I am a Candidate for ordination and I am currently serving as the Resident Chaplain for the Capital Health hospital in Trenton, NJ.  Our hospital is an urban trauma center and is also the designated mental health in-patient crisis center for the county.  My particular floors include the trauma ICU and the in-patient mental health unit.

On both floors I work with patients suffering from addiction.  Some are victims of violence as a result of their addiction and are in the ICU.  Others are suffering from mental health issues including and related to their addiction.  Other patients are in the ICU because they have literally drunk or drugged themselves to death.

Those patients who survive and who will be released into the community generally express a desire to avoid the substance that they are addicted to.  They want to stay clean.  Those who come from a Christian background speak of needing God’s help to overcome their addiction.  I often recommend that these people connect with a church – either with the pastor or with the groups (AA, NA, Al-Anon, etc) that use the building.  On learning that I am Presbyterian, these people often express interest in getting help from a Presbyterian church.  In our area, there are many.

34323I would be horrified if any of these children of God that I spoke with walked into one of our churches and saw one of these posters.  Instead of the church providing a place of refuge for them, the church would reinforce the stigma that they already feel.  These ironic “jokes” aimed at addictions might be enough to send those church attenders with mental health issues back into the hospital.

Beyond the issue of addiction, these posters all include people of color, women, or the elderly.  I have also seen the presentation deck used by the ad agency back in September.  Only one of the five people presented was a white male, and he was middle-aged to elderly and his “drug addiction” was for a health issue.  The remaining figures were all people of color or women.  Are we really trying to imply that Asian girls have a drinking problem?  That Latino men get high?  At a glance, that’s exactly what these posters are implying.  If our aging Presbyterian audience suffers from presbyopia, the small print will never be read – those “ironic” messages will be all that people see.

specialofferings2_medium250I urge you to pull these posters from the campaign, and any other materials that use the drug addiction play on words.  I hope that an apology will be forthcoming for people with addictions and people of color.  And I hope that in light of this issue, and the 1001 New Worshiping Communities outside corporation debacle, that you will change procedures in Louisville to implement tighter program review.  It is my understanding that this campaign was presented to groups that highlighted these issues, and that their concerns were ignored.

Sincerely,

Mark Smith
Hamilton, NJ

cc:       Marilyn Gamm, PMA
Sam Locke, Special Offerings
Terri Bate, Funds Development

General Assembly, Border Patrol, and Me

June 18, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Current Affairs, Life, Miscellaneous, Religion, Travel 

This week I’m attending the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in Detroit.  At this meeting, many big and important things are being worked on and voted on and I’ll probably write about that later.  This is a story of something that happened to me during this week, unrelated to the GA meeting.

Because Detroit is only one river away from Windsor, Ontario, Canada, I brought my passport with me in case I had a chance to go to Canada for the first time.  Yesterday, I had that chance.  So two friends and I got into my car to go to Windsor for dinner.

Leaving the US through the Detroit-Windsor tunnel we were briefly stopped by CBP (Customs and Border Protection) folks, probably because there is a little unrepaired body damage to my car.  They looked at our passports and asked why we were crossing and let us go.  Note that these guys looked like they were in army uniforms, with flak vests.

On the Canadian side we drove up to the booth and spoke to a man in a regular linen uniform shirt.  We explained who we are and why we were there.  And 15 feet later we were there.  We had dinner at a Lebanese restaurant, walked around a bit, and headed back.  Total time in Canada – about 2 hours.

Entering the US we pulled up to a booth.  We handed our passports to the man in the booth, and answered the same questions (are you US citizens?  Where do you live?  Why are you in Detroit?  Why did you go to Canada?  How do you know each other?  What kind of conference?).  Our first sign of trouble was when he closed the booth door and picked up the phone.  After a conversation and a lot of looking at his computer screen, he opened the door.  He said something like, “I’m going to have to send you inside this time.  Mr. Smith – you have a mismatch and we’ll fix it so that you don’t have to do this again.  Please pull around the curve and into the parking lot – there will be someone there to direct you.”

This was not unexpected.  On several background checks (seminary, Red Cross) I was initially declined because there is a criminal in another state who shares my first name, middle initial, last name, AND exact date of birth including year.  I’m sure that was the problem here.

We pulled around the corner, and more guys in military-style uniforms and flak vests.  One told me where to park and asked me to turn the engine off and put the keys on the dashboard.  We were told to leave our cell phones in the car, and to take our passports and go into the building.  We entered and another officer looked at our paperwork and signed us in on a clipboard.  We were instructed to have a seat and wait.  After a while, we were called to a counter where we gave another officer our passports and answered all of the same questions again.  We were told to sit again.  During all of the sitting time (on surprisingly comfortable stainless steel benches) we chatted about the General Assembly and church stories.  Finally, the officer asked us to come up and take our passports and we were free to go.  I asked if he’d done what he needed to do, and he said, yes – that’s what I’ve been doing.

We got into my car, noted that nothing had happened to my car (no search or anything – phone was still on the same screen), and drove back to the hotel.

So …. something that only happens to me.  Most recent in a long series of such things.

 

But …. it triggered some thoughts.

1.  I don’t know why our border patrol officers have to be dressed like they are going to war in Iraq.  The bulletproof vest doesn’t need to be on the outside – it can be under the shirt like most police officers.  Their gun, cuffs, radio, etc can go on the same belt as a police officer.  I seriously doubt that a major armed incursion is going to happen at the Detroit-Windsor tunnel.  This seems to be intended to enforce (in our minds, and in the minds of the officers themselves) the idea that the officers are soldiers and not police.  This is intended to instill fear of outsiders, and fear of each other.

2.  The secondary inspection area is intended to demoralize people.  The seating is comfortable, but harsh stainless steel.  There is very little on the walls.  The bathroom is locked and must be buzzed open.  I understand that the bathroom is locked to prevent flushing of evidence, but still.  This doesn’t say “we have to sort things out,” it says instead, “you are a criminal.”

3.  I’m struck by the difference in appearance and demeanor between the Canadian personnel and the USA personnel.  The Canadians were friendly (though still wary) and welcoming.  The USA personnel were forbidding and suspicious.  They were doing the same job.  Both involved in the same wars.  And there’s no reason that our officers couldn’t be normally dressed and more friendly.

4.  This minor episode has clarified for me the plight of immigrants.  The song “Immigration Man” makes sense.  Our process is cold and unfeeling.  At all times the officers were polite and even friendly in one case.  But the process and design make it an unfriendly process.  This set up causes the fear, rather than the other way around.  And therefore fear of the other.  I will be paying more attention and trying to find a place to find action.

An Open Letter to the Mayor and Council of Tenafly NJ

December 27, 2013

Dear Mayor Rustin and Council,

I don’t usually write letters like this.  But when I discovered this story from WPIX today, I felt compelled to write.  http://pix11.com/2013/12/26/exclusive-nj-mayor-personally-asks-family-to-take-down-offensive-christmas-decorations/

I am a former resident of Tenafly.  I lived about five blocks away from this Joyce Road home.  I walked by this street every day on the way to or from the Middle and High Schools.  My father was the principal of TMS for a number of years, and I am a 1986 graduate of THS.

The Tenafly shown by Mayor Rustin’s actions is not the Tenafly that I remember.

When I lived there, the town was made up of a mix of Christian and Jewish residents, with some other religions represented.  For the most part we coexisted peacefully.  We went to each others’ Confirmation and Bar/Bat Mitzvah services.  We shared each others’ Hanukkah and Christmas toys.  While I was there, the high school performed both Brigadoon (loosely based on Christianity) and The Diary of Anne Frank.  I remember seeing Christmas decorations and a large menorah at Huyler Park.

I fail to see what is so offensive about candles in paper bags.  They are not overtly religious.  They do not directly pertain to any holiday.  They are simply pretty.  They were clearly not intended to offend, or even to send a religious message.

The “War on Christmas” idea is very much overblown in the media.  There is no war on Christmas in this country, where any religious holiday may be freely celebrated without fear of persecution or imprisonment.  But your actions fuel those who believe that there is such a war.  Your actions increase the divisions between religions in this country.

I urge you to apologize to the Alvator family, and to modify the relevant ordinance to allow for holiday displays.  I hope that you will work together to help create tolerance in a town divided.

Mark Smith

 

National Coming Out Day 2010 – I Am a Straight Supporter

October 11, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Current Affairs, Religion 

Today is National Coming Out Day.  It’s a rather bittersweet day this year, with a number of recent publicly announced suicides of teenage LGBT folks (and probably others we don’t know about).  A few LGBTQ friends are coming out publicly this year, and numerous straight friends are coming out as allies.

I’ve been out about this for quite a long time.  Over the past year my beliefs in this area have become more nuanced, but have not really changed.  What has changed is the risk to me for making this statement.  I’m now on the “becoming a minister” track in a denomination that doesn’t officially (or even clearly unofficially) support LGBTQ folks.  So what you’ll read below is not new.  It IS important for me to say, because while the risk to me is larger than it was a year ago, it’s tiny compared to what my LGBTQ friends risk in making their statements.  I salute them for their courage and love them as their friend.

I’m old enough to have come of age (my teen years) in the late 70’s and early 80’s.  Stereotypes about LGBTQ folks were rampant.  And I didn’t know anyone who fit that label (at least not that was open to me) except for one cousin of my mother’s, who was different in other ways as well (most notably drug addiction).  I was taught the stereotypes by my parents.  In fact, I can remember being told by my parents very clearly that gays were dirty, promiscuous, and drug users.  I remember it so clearly that I remember hearing it in the back of the station wagon, and even remember what intersection we were at.

Later I started getting involved in church work as a teen.  I went to our denomination’s regional meetings, and to the every-three-years youth conference.  At both I encountered Presbyterians for Lesbian and Gay Concerns (PLGC – the predecessor to More Light Presbyterians) at their exhibit booth.  I quickly learned that gay folks were just like everybody else.  This challenged and ultimately overturned my parents’ prejudices instilled in me.  This would never have happened if it weren’t for LGBTQ folks who were already out of the closet publicly.  At the same time, I was learning about how the church discriminated (and still discriminates) against them in ordination, marriage, and basic acceptance.

A few years later I had the opportunity to become the Presbynet (precursor to the Internet, roughly) Coordinator for PLGC.  I served in that role as a straight supportive person for about 6 years.  Unfortunately that relationship came to an end in tension.  My beliefs survived unchanged, but I am no longer a part of an organization around these issues.

Many straight folks who are supportive are using the term “straight ally” today to describe themselves.  A good friend has convinced me that the term “ally” is fraught with confusion and inaccuracy.  An alliance is an agreement between parties for mutual support.  Nobody can call themselves an ally unilaterally.  The LGBTQQI2S community has no central structure that could possibly bestow “ally” status on me.  So I use the term “supporter” instead.  Inside my head it’s more or less the same thing – I know what I believe, I feel the call to fix the problems that this division and discrimination cause, and I see my straight privilege (well, I see the privilege better than most and better than I used to).

So here it is:

I am a straight white married man

I am an Inquirer in the PC(USA), and I’m currently applying for admission to seminaries

I believe in fully equal civil rights for the LGBTQ community, including the right to marry

I believe in fully equal ordination rights for LGBTQ people within the PC(USA)

I believe in fully equal marriage rights for LGBTQ people within the PC(USA), for those who choose marriage

I reject the different treatment of anyone based on who they choose to love, so long as they are in right relationship to their beloveds.

In particular, I want anyone (particularly young people) who feels that they need to end their life to alleviate the pain caused by bullying or other poor treatment based on their sexuality to know that I am there for you.  Send me an e-mail.  If you have my number, call me day or night.  Or call 911 or the Gay and Lesbian National Hotline 1-888-THE-GLHN (1-888-843-4564).  You are worthy of our time and love.  Give us a chance to show you.

* I use the term LGBTQ because typing “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual, Transgendered, Intersexual, Queer, Questioning and Two Spirit” repeatedly is really hard on the fingers.  Please assume the longer definition.

Presbyterian Election 2008 chat

November 4, 2008 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Current Affairs 

The Presbyterian blogging community invites you to join us this evening for live chat about the November 4, 2008 election results.  We had so much fun doing this during General Assembly.

Writers should use this link:  http://www.scribblelive.com/Event/Presbylection_2008?Invite=E98861D8-5175-4F5E-AEAE-501BCD4D85A6

You can also just watch the chat at this link:  http://www.scribblelive.com/Event/Presbylection_2008

I’ll be there starting sometime between 6 and 7pm EST, and stay until we have a presidential winner (maybe later).

See you there!

VOTE!

November 4, 2008 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Current Affairs 

If you are eligible to vote, if you haven’t already voted, get out and VOTE!

There has not been a more important election in my lifetime, and possibly the lifetime of my parents.  We’re facing the perfect storm of a bad economy and a war.  Voting is particularly important this year.

My name is Mark Smith, and I approve this message.

Barack’s Fro

November 3, 2008 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Can't Make This Up, Current Affairs 

A few friends of mine made this video.  I’ve been asked to publicize it.  I DO find it hilariously funny.

Please tell your friends!

The Dangers of Being a Majority Supporter of a Minority Group

February 8, 2007 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Current Affairs, Life, Religion 

If you’re like me, you’re in a unique minority.  I’m white, male, straight, middle-aged, middle-class, live in the suburbs, protestant.  I’m a member of every majority group.  I AM WHITE BREAD.

Fortunately (or unfortunately), my genetic and environmental background have combined to form a desire for justice in my ethical framework.  I want to work hard for a society where personal attributes like gender, age, sexual orientation, religion, ethnic background do not have any effect on how a person is perceived.  We have a long way to go, but I really want to help get there.

This has drawn me to support, actively and passively, civil rights groups that I do not belong to.  In general this is fulfilling work – I am doing something to help people other than myself (a very Christian activity) and helping to reshape the world into a better place.

Unfortunately, I have found that there are a number of pitfalls to this activity.  Recently, I experienced some of them again.  My comments on the Washington State “Defense of Marriage Alliance” proposal drew some strong negative comments from members of the gay community, here and on other blogs and forums.  This echoed some more personal experiences that I had working even more closely with the Presbyterian gay rights movement about 12-15 years ago.

So, for your edification and to help me get past the pain recently experienced, here are some thoughts on what can go wrong when a member of the majority tries to work on behalf of a minority group.  These are generally addressed to the majority person trying to work on behalf of the minority.

1.  You will never be a member of the group.  Ironically, this can make you a 2nd class citizen in the minority’s community.

Don’t forget this – you are not and will never be a member of the minority (well, with sexual orientation or economic status that’s not strictly true, but you get the idea).  Some members of a particular minority are likely to view anyone not of that minority with serious doubt as to their commitment to “the cause”.  In some cases, there will never be trust of a non-minority person.

As long as you are willing to toe the party line, you are probably safe from criticism.  The minute that you choose to criticize the beliefs or tactics of the minority group (or even one faction of that group) you become open to having your sincerity doubted.  You may be attacked for being a 5th-columnist (someone who attacks from within) representing the oppressive majority or a group of such people.

In today’s civil rights movements, an insidious concept has been invented – a pathological fear or hatred of the minority.  This is true in some cases – burning a cross on the lawn of a black family shows a tendency to dislike black people.  However, this concept of psychological fear or hatred of a group has been turned into a widely-used insult.  Nowhere is this clearer than with the gay rights movement.  “Homophobia” is the term used to label those who do not believe that homosexuality (or bisexuality or transgender inclinations) is fully acceptable in today’s society.  A breakdown of the term itself would lead one to believe that homophobia is talking about fear of homosexuals.  (or perhaps fear of homogenized milk?)  In actual use it is an insult hurled at those who do not support full societal acceptance of homosexuality.

The problem with this insult is that in many cases the root definition is not true.  Most anti-gay people are not afraid of gay people.  They do not cringe in fear, crawl under their beds (or into closets?) and lock their door when two men walk down the street holding hands.  They have (to some degree and depth) made a personal judgment of the ethics and morals of homosexuality and rejected it.  No fear – just a personal decision.

So, back to our intrepid non-minority volunteer.  If you choose to openly criticize the beliefs or tactics of the minority group (or often any portion of it), prepare to be labeled with all of the bad attributes of those that you’ve chosen to fight against.  You will be seen as “one of them” and not “one of us”.  Your words will be devalued.  In short, the minority will try to make you feel as held down and victimized as they do.

Even worse – members of the minority itself experience this.  One member of the gay rights community talked to me about how any gay person who challenges the tactics of the group gets labeled as “self-loathing”.  He’s got his own internal homophobia.

I’m sorry – but this is all BS.  It’s just the use of names and labels in an attempt to control that majority volunteer.

2.  Members of the majority will decry you as well.

In order for there to be a civil rights struggle by a minority group, there must be members of the majority to oppress them.  (Side note – the oppression might no longer exist, but the fact that it once existed is enough to prolong the cause.  Ask a left-handed person.)  If you choose to be publicly associated with a minority group, you may draw the ire of members of the majority.  If you support minority group Z, you will be labeled as a Z-lover, and probably as a Y-hater.  You will be told that you (are you ready for this) have hatred towards your own people – your own self-loathing.

If the majority group has chosen to level morality charges against the minority, you will be open to them as well.  For gay rights, your sexuality and sexual behavior may be questioned.  You may be a “closeted gay”.  In racial conflicts, this used to lead to your ancestry being questioned – that you aren’t as “pure” as you thought.

Paradoxically, this criticism is often easier to take than the criticism from the minority group itself.  You are at least pointed in the right direction – you are taking fire from the front – from those that you have chosen to battle in your drive for equality for the minority group.  The attacks from the minority group will more often come from behind, forcing you to battle on both fronts at once (and stand sideways, apparently).

3.  You will be told that you “can’t understand” what the minority group is going through.

This is true.  You truly are unable to feel the day to day pain caused by attacks on you for what you are.  You might be part of one minority other than the one that you are speaking of, and in that case your pain is somewhat transferable.  If you are a member of more or less every majority – you truly are unable to feel the pain.

HOWEVER, you obviously have a reason to be battling on behalf of the minority.  You are expending energy and feeling pain (and joy sometimes) as you work for the cause.  These emotions may pale in comparison to what a member of the minority is going through, but you feel them nonetheless.

You are lucky in that you have an escape route – you can simply stop working on behalf of the minority.  It’s easy to melt back into the passive center of your majority group.  However, this too comes at a cost.  In order to stop the pain from your work on behalf of the minority, you must feel a different kind of pain caused by your decision to ignore your ethics and morals.  In order to avoid the pain caused by this work, you cause yourself new pain by not being true to yourself (and in some cases, not being true to your religious beliefs).  For those altruistic enough to try to help people without helping themselves in the process, turning your back is actually painful – an self-inflicted assault on your soul.

So what do you do?

Majority people helping a minority – remember that you truly cannot feel the pain of the minority.  Remember that you are working with wounded people – people who are under attack for being what God made them.  They will sometimes react illogically to you and to themselves.  Be sensitive, and try to learn as much as you can.  Avoid hot buttons.

Minority groups dealing with help from the majority – be patient.  Those who want to help you fall into two groups – those who truly care and those who want to appear to care.  Members of the latter group will generally fall away over time.  The former group are the folks that you want to keep – people who are doing this for no personal gain (other than maybe satisfaction of doing the right thing).  Help them understand the pressures that you face.  Teach them about your community.  And remember that they are unlearning behaviors taught to them by ignorant people – they will come around in time.

All – everybody has the right to their opinion.  Sometimes asserting that opinion may cause pain.  Sometimes that opinion is right.  Sometimes it is wrong.  Sometimes it is ignorant.  Educate each other.  Avoid using the tactics of hate and marginalization on each other.  You’re all facing in the same direction trying to accomplish the same goal – don’t confuse each other with the enemy.

Gay Civil Unions in NJ – February 23, 2007

December 20, 2006 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Current Affairs, Life 

Governor Jon Corzine plans to sign the NJ Civil Union bill into law tomorrow (Thursday, 12/21/06) at the Trenton War Memorial.

The law takes effect in 60 days – in order to give various departments time to create/update regulations.  That makes February 19 the first day to get licenses.  That’s a state holiday (President’s Day) so February 20 is the first practical day to get a civil union license.  There is a 72 hour waiting period in NJ, so the first practical day to get married (I refuse to use the term “unioned”) is Friday, February 23, 2007.

Invite me to the wedding – my company makes great wedding gifts!

In somewhat related news – yesterday the Governor signed legislation to add “gender identity or expression” to the list of banned discrimination categories.

New Jersey Civil Unions – passage and other things that were changed at the same time

December 15, 2006 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Current Affairs, Life 

Yesterday, the NJ legislature passed a bill that will create civil unions between two people of the same gender, with the same rights and responsibilities as heterosexual marriages.  The term “marriage” was not used, the term “civil union” was used instead.  The governor is expected to sign the bill shortly – he has indicated that he will.

I have read the bill.  The writers of the bill were very comprehensive in granting equality to gay civil unions and marriage.  It looks like somebody did a search for the phrases “marriage” and “spouse” in state law and the bill amends each section to add civil unions.  There was clearly some intelligence involved – it wasn’t just a simple cut and paste.

I support civil unions and I believe that they should be labeled marriages.  I believe that they should be recognized in churches as well – including my Presbyterian Church (USA) denomination.  I hope that the gay rights activists will be satisfied with equality under a different name, and will let enough time go by before pushing hard to get the term changed.

While modifying the bill, a few other things that didn’t pertain to gay people were changed.  Here’s a list of some of them, and some other interesting stuff in the bill.

Any child born to a partner in a civil union becomes a child of both partners.  The same goes for adoptions.  Those children will be treated equally by the law as those born to married heterosexual couples, particularly in terms of divorce, custody and child support.

Interestingly, the law concerning sanguinity and marriage was modified.  The NJ restrictions were rather loose – first cousins have always been allowed to marry but you can’t marry your aunt or uncle or niece or nephew.  The modification was done simply by adding the same gender to each line – brother was added to the sentence about men, sister was added to the sentence about women.

The marriage license law was changed.  The old rule had the license issued in the hometown of the female.  If she was not an NJ resident, the license was issued in the hometown of the male.  If both were non-resident, the license was issued in the town where the wedding is to take place.  The new law changes it to allow that a marriage/civil union license may be issued in either party’s hometown – for both homo- and heterosexual couples.

NJ law concerning marriage of minors (under 18) requires the consent of a parent (and for under 16, a judge).  However, there was an old law that said if a minor boy managed to make any woman (“of good repute”) pregnant and was arrested for sexual intercourse with her, he could marry her immediately without consent.  This clause has been removed.

Anyone who could perform marriages can now also perform civil unions.  I believe that this includes lots of clergy who would rather not do so ….

Premarital agreements (aka prenuptial agreements) are now also allowed for civil unions.

Civil unions can be nullified for all of the same reasons that marriages can be annuled, EXCEPT for impotence.  Interesting.

Name changes are allowed for either partner in a civil union – just like marriage.  Ditto for divorce – you can go back to the name that you were using before the union/marriage.

“Civil union status” is added to the list of discriminatory areas prohibited by law in NJ housing, employment and the like – alongside “marital status”.  “Affectional or sexual orientation” have been on that list in NJ for some time.  This means that it is now illegal to refuse to rent to a couple who are in a civil union.

Domestic Partnerships (the precursor to these civil unions, which had far fewer privileges) are no longer allowed for couples of the same sex.  They continue to be allowed for couples over age 62 (a group where an actual marriage could cause negative tax implications).

A New Jersey Civil Union Review Commission will be established to study the implications of this law and determine whether or not it should be changed and/or added to.  That commission will also study the option of removing the Domestic Partnership laws.  The commission will report back every 6 months for 3 years.

Any Civil Union from another state that is legal in that state will be recognized in NJ.  I suspect that this includes Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut and California.

Interesting changes.  Only 2 things change for heterosexuals and those changes are minor and to the benefits of the parties involved.  The rest is simple equality.  I approve.

Next Page »