Thursday, November 12, 2009

Post Bombay attacks this is what security looks like at the Chennai Marriott.  

After a quick stop in Brussells for a waffle, we are here. 

Today, November 12, we met at the Asha Nivas Conference Center for 12 hours of conversations about sexuality and faith.  

First, I am reminded of what a wonderful city Chennai is.  Over masala chai at Mocha, I learned why it felt so nice to be in Chennai.   The street culture in Indian cities varies from cit y to city.  Where I come from in Kerala, women expect to be harassed or at least stared at for walking down the street, especially alone.  After a certain hour, it is “unacceptable” to walk without a man.  In Chennai, men step aside to let a woman pass and don’t seem surprised by a friendly smile or a question for directions. 

Chennai has a lively coffee shop culture.  Alcohol is prohibitively expensive and sold only in 5 star hotels and there with a 50% sin tax, unless bought at a wine shop, and no one in our group could remember if the drinking age was 18, 21 or 25.   Coffee shops are all the rage for the young and educated.  It’s a fairly elite, English speaking crowd, and not one I’m used to seeing gathered informally in the middle of the afternoon to use free wifi.  I sat in Mocha and listened to two long time HIV/AIDS activists, Magdelene Jeyaratnam and Joe Thomas catch up about their years of activism in Asia.  They are long time work colleagues through one of the sites Joe manages Aids Asia, but had not met in person until today.  I sat quietly in awe.   I couldn’t say yes, I too understood the intricacies of local politics in Manipur,  tell my funny “getting through immigration in Myanmar” and yes, I would be on my way to Kabul as everyone else seems to be these days … .

Today has been full of people like this doing remarkable work.  Elizabeth and I are not as jetlagged as we thought we’d be.  Thanks  “No Jet Lag!”  but I did fall asleep completely asleep in our 8pm break out session.  I like to think it’s because the kitchen gods took pity on me and for our dinner fried up a Kerala style fish fry in coconut oil.  If you haven’t had it, I think it’s like the difference between the hills people and valley people in Manipur, either you get it or you don’t. 

This morning we began with a Bible Study, not sure how that got assigned to me.  We were so behind by the time we got to it, that I cut it short.  Romans 8, the second half, the creation yearning to be birthed that ends with “for I am convinced that neither height nor depth , nor principalities, nor powers, nor things below, or things above can separate us from the love of God.”  A liberation reading of the text sometimes just pays attention to the meanings those familiar words based on the lips reading.  You know, George W. Bush or a transgendered woman in Chennai.  Of course our prejudices, our small mindedness, culture, the church, Christians, parents and bad Biblical scholarship do their best to separate many of us from the God that seeks us out, but that seems like a dangerous place to put yourself.  I can’t recommend it, as a member of the clergy. 

Then we lit the Kutthuvilakku.   It’s worth a google.  We didn’t burn anything down, but I don’t think we did it particularly gracefully.

Then we began the marathon sessions from remarkable scholars, activists and clergy.

Dr. Pratap Tharyan
“The Evidence –Based Perspective and the Faith Based Perspective” on the biology of queerness.
Dr. Shivaji Panikkar
“From Structural Queerphobia to Queer Political  Assertions: Indian Cultural Practices”
Dr. Randall Giles
“I am different from others and it is a cause to celebrate”
Dr. Joseph George
“Involve Christian leadership to strengthen the sexual minorities”
Dr. Miriam Samuel
“Is the trans gendered person my neighbor”  (the answer was yes, totally!)
Ms. Madgelene Jeyaratnam, Director of the Counseling Center with out and proud colleagues:  Ms S. Noori, Saleem, Gabriel, Teja, Vikrant and Danam.

What was that the Anglican Communion Office keeps saying about how difficult it is to listen to the voices of LGBT Anglicans around the world.  There were a lot of Church of South India people at this conference.  Clergy, lay and transitioning (or seminarians, whatever) and last I checked that’s Anglican Communion.

We are going to hear more about the “reading down” of Section 377 tomorrow.  The church in India has an opportunity to run with the language of “constitutional morality” that the Delhi High Court has claimed, a morality for the common good that is a higher cause than popular morality.  Wow! 

The religious and political right have organized to take this to the Supreme Court of India when the time is right.  We are getting ready to begin to equip the rest of the faithful in India with progressive, inclusive, liberative, gospel language of justice as we reclaim a more just India from one more vestige of oppressive colonial law.    One of my mother’s relatives began the longest running case in the courts in India over church property.  We are not afraid.

Elizabeth has fantastic pictures up on facebook, and I’m off to try to borrow a few.  Not sure why I still look short in pictures here in TN.