Monday, November 16, 2009
This morning I am up far too early because there is only one more full day left here.
First, The Rev. Dr. Monica Melancthon celebrated her first Eucharist last night, and I was honored to be there with her. She is one of the leading, if not the leading, Feminist OT scholar in Asia. If you haven't read her work, please do. She will be at SBL in New Orleans next week.
Second, Elizabeth takes the best photos, so I can't arrange that until she is awake. Bringing her to India has been an eye opener for me. It shouldn't have to be her task to pry my eyes open, but hey, I guess that's one of the perks of life long committed?
For the priviledge of knowing my family, working in the church and travelling outside of the U.S., I slip very easily in and out of the closet. I haven't thought about it in a long time. I was excited about this trip because of the newly empowered LGBT movement in India, post 377, and I thought I had thought through all the tricky parts of this trip, but I did not. I would like to officially blame jetlag (and Satan), but it's probably deeper than that.
The first days we were here were remarkable for the level of openness and serious conversation, faithful Indian Christians were having with one another about the human rights of LGBT people in India. The seminarians were very open and had clearly already thought about these issues, some of them, I assume, were themselves gay, but there were a number of Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant ministers, most of whom work with the most marginalized in some way, who were seriously wrestling with what it would mean to support this movement. I was and remain deeply moved by the naive (in the best sense of that term) approach. I know it's more complicated than this, but person after person seemed to say, if these become our commitments, if we believe in full equality, and the term people are using here is full humanity in the human rights context, then we must accept our LGBT neighbors and make our communities accepting places.
Maybe it is difficult in these settings to talk about how difficult that might be to do, but I suspect that because some of the people we were meeting with have made it their life's work to be with the most marginalized, for some it really was that straight forward. These are people living in areas that take days in rickety vehicles to find, where the sick are cast out and left to die, where AIDS care centers soon become orphanages for the children of patients dead. There's not much these folks are afraid of, once they are convinced. Truly remarkable.
And then, last night, I was at a seminary, and honored to be there, invited by an old friend from Union who is now a great theologian here in India. Instead of arriving and being introduced with Elizabeth at chapel, strategically avoiding a few details, as usually happens, I was asked a day or so in advance if it would be okay if we were introduced as friends. I didn't handle it well. I didn't feel like I could decline the invitation so late, I sympathized with the position he was in, and I couldn't imagine Elizabeth, who has risked much over the years to be out, would find this as easy a place to slip into as I did, though I was secretly hoping she would.
I didn't respond, and she didn't come with me. I am not surprised by the request, or surprised by anyone's response, but I am surprised by myself and how sad these complicated relationships are. I'm not going to see my family on this trip for the same reasons. I think anyone who is out and works in church will understand this place. I wanted to say what I wanted to say in front of those seminarians. Maybe a preacher's vanity? Can't say it feels too good today. If I had responded in some way, maybe we would have had a chance to come to another solution, or at least talk it through. I can't imagine living my life exclusively in places where I can be out, but clearly, I accept the improbability of openness too easily. I know there's a a word for that, it's just too early in the morning... .
The coffee is not strong enough for me to laugh about life as an Olivia Cruise, yet... .
Next, Joe Thomas and George Zachariah ended the Sexuality and Faith Conference with a truly inspired visions of a liberal, diverse, rainbow hued India. Those are all positive words in most of India, where the boys look fabulously butch in all shades of pink.
Sunday, November 15, 2009
The apostle Thomas came to India, and legend has it that he arrived in Malabar, and also went to Chennai. I don't know if it was by land or sea, but the story here is that he landed on the beach and established a community. When he was being chased down by locals for beginning this new movement, he hid in caves and was finally martyred at the top of what is know St. Thomas Mount, spear in his back while leaning on a stone, very Gethsemane meets Abraham and Isaac.
We went to St. Thomas Mount yesterday.
First, in case you have any bad ideas in your head ...
We need one of those signs for the East Yard at St. Mark's. We have a problem with the pairs and merriment there.
You start the walk, stations of the cross, in the middle of the Anglo Indian neighborhood in Chennai. Anglo Indians are the community descended from marriages or less public liaisons between Brits and Indians. Usually soldiers and local women, but there are other interesting configurations as well. This is a community that has been marginalized historically and has, i think, also produced a disproportionate number of well known public figures.
It was a rainy day, and there were very few people around.
We began at street level and ascend a not very steep "mount" following the stations of the cross with the few people there who seemed to be using it as a walkway. There are houses built on both sides with entrances through the pilgrimage site. What a place to live!
As we got higher, we had a view of the city below through clouds and drizzle.
At the top we found Pope John Paul II, some ceramic elephants and a Catholic gift shop with all the usual stuff under a thatched roof.
In the church, our Lady of Expectation, I think. I don't know her, but she sounds with child, the altar piece was a section of the stone from the ancient church on this site. A black orthodox cross. Interestingly, you could walk all the way up and behind the altar and to both sides. Can you always do that in Catholic Churches?
I think my grandmother would see this site as the only pilgrimage worth making. She lives 14 hours away by train. She turns 99 next year, or 100, we're not sure.
We went back down the path in a light drizzle with Chennai coming up to street level as we walked the stations in reverse.
is a Clinical Psychologist who runs The Center for Counselling in Chennai. She is a leading expert in the area of LGBT people in Chennai, because they and their families come to her for support. She reports that post 377,July-Nov., she has seen a significant rise in requests for appointments. People are coming out! AND, conversion aversion therapies on the rise. Teachers and counsellors of many religious and non religious backgrounds are advertising their ability to convert LGBT people using some shocking techniques.
Then we got to Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, presented by a lawyer and HIV activistDr. Joe Thomas
Do we have either of those in the U.S.?
theRight to Equality, Non Discrimination
"It cannot be forgotten that discrimination is antithesis of equality."
Okay, then, the zinger, "constitutional morality vs popular morality." There is a notion of Constitutional Morality in Indian Law. It is a higher morality, for the common good, that is a higher bar than the necessarily prejudiced community and time limited understandings of Popular Morality. I think this idea exists because a nation founded on the strength of it's religious and ethnic diversity will necessarily have different expectations of private behavior by community, and there must be some common code of law. In response to this ruling, the National Council of Churches, India spoke out immediately encouraging all to “accompany people of different sexual orientations (PDSO) in their journey.”
We had a great conversation about different notions of privacy. The most interesting example was among Aboriginal Australians. Dr. Thomas described it this way, "Your neighbor protects your privacy, by not looking where he or she should not. The person, not the state upholds the value.
Saturday, November 14, 2009
Mamalapurim or Mahabalipuram is a historic site on the Bay of Bengal about an hour outside of Chennai proper. It's famous among the Thomas Merton-o-philes among us from his Asian Journals. The five rathas (of the legendary 7) are like an outdoor sculpture gallery in stone. When the tsunami hit here a few years ago, local people say that as they watched the water recede, before it came inland in 10 foot waves, they watched in awe as the two other rathas were revealed. They had been hidden by the sea for centuries!
The sculpture is mellowed and damaged by exposure. All of the buildings you see are carved from stone, not built. There must have been enormous boulders in this place, you can still see some smaller ones, that were then just carved where they were. There are no joints or stacked stone, except for the floor. There was some debate amongst the guides as to whether they were built in the 6th or 7th century, also a long talk to make sure we all understood they meant A.D.
It's a beautifully sensual place.
It rained while we were there, as it had for Merton. We ducked into the small interiors at the Shore Temple and the rathas to stay a little dry during the worst of it. Here's Elizabeth in one of our 5 minute homes.
We had a very tourist day and the confirmation was the busloads of school kids in uniforms that seemed just ahead of us on every stop. We missed the Crocodile Bank, it was raining, apparently it's about us investing in our Crocodile friends, not where the crocodiless stash their cash and definitely not a place to buy belts or shoes, CaminoPR!
After a drive through the flooded streets of Chennai, we joined some new friends for a filming of a news talk show called "Chennai Speak Out" on NDTV Hindu. We were told it's #2 in the ratings in the area. They were tackling "Sexual Minorities" today. That's LGBT or Queer, pronounced CU-EAR in South India.
That's the panel, plus Gabriel with host Jennifer Arul on the far left. She was fantastic. They crafted a well informed, sensitive, honest conversation between the host, panel and audience asking audience members what they think of their LGBT neighbors in Chennai. She is a brave journalist. It's not the kind of thing I would normally do, but what a priviledge to be a part of the conversation here. I learned that Chennai is a "live and let live" town with a reputation for being more conservative than it truly is. I was impressed by the fierce support of well informed, passionate young and not so young women for their LGBT friends, and the willingness of the audience to speak honestly.
The most ill informed person in the room, that spoke, was a pastor. Oh well, and the least tolerant women who spoke were also clearly Christian. I was wondering whether I looked like a moon rock, or an expat from a neighboring state. Riding home half the car was from Kerala, 2/3rds of the panel was Keralite as well. We are NRK-s, Non Resident Keralites. All the better for nostalgia and mental health.
Tomorrow, St. Thomas Mount and Gurukul Seminary.
Elizabeth is such a good sport. She must be over the mad pace and crazy English. I think she's starting to wag her head involuntarily for yes, no and not really. We are in the Executive Lounge at the end of a long day, because they serve beer and have wireless, watching the lightning over the Bay of Bengal. God is good.
Thursday, November 12, 2009
Thursday, November 5, 2009
This consultation is for Indian Christians, primarily Christians engaged in the HIV/AIDS work in India. The statement of purpose is below. The list of speakers is impressive. Almost all from distinguished local Universities and a few visitors from the U.S. like me. It makes me wonder who we've decided we're listening to in our Anglican Communion listening process. If you are interested in supporting these kinds of conversations, please contact me. We would like to do this annually, all over India.
I will post and/or twitter [wsvarghese] while we're meeting. Please include our meeting in your prayers.