Sunday, October 25, 2020

Pulpitations: "A Taste of Oppression"

 My church became what's called an Affirming Ministry back in 2014, meaning we had completed a course of education and dialogue together and then voted on our commitment to joining a national body (Affirm United) in working for the inclusion of people of all gender identities and sexual orientations in the United Church of Canada and in society. We had a party that fall to commemorate the occasion, and every year at that time, on our Affirmiversary, our Affirm Team volunteers to lead the service.

It is a privilege to be able to do the sermon for such an occasion, even if it is a bit daunting to do so with both of our ministers in the audience (gulp!). As a team we talked about themes and ideas we wanted to address, and we ended up settling on oppression, as well as ways to overcome it.

I had only the barest outlines for this when we learned Nitti would need to be put down, and it was very hard to get back to it after that. It didn't come together quite as cohesively as I had hoped, but I think the message came through strongly regardless. I put the readings at the end of this post for those who are curious.

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Happy Affirmiversary! A lot has happened since last year, hasn’t it? I mean, obviously I am concerned about the possibility of our neighbour to the south becoming a failed state in the next few weeks, but really, the big news has been COVID. Man, what a shake-up!

I mean, my household got off kind of easy in most ways. I’m still working, only from home, Audrey is still needed to help in her school, for however long that lasts, Fenya is taking her university classes online, and Glory is working in Churchill, where they are just starting to put measures in place that we’ve had "down south here" for a while now, like public masking.

But it has been bad, right? Here in Alberta, there have been nearly 20,000 cases and over 250 deaths. People have their household incomes diminish or even vanish, and nearly everyone is feeling the strain of restrictions on our lives that we hadn’t even imagined a year ago. We can’t do what we like, see who we want, eat in most restaurants or enter many spaces outside our homes without a mask. I mean, I do it, and I do so without hesitancy so others can be safe, but I still hate it.

You could almost describe it as oppressive, couldn’t you?

Is it possible that this horrible, destructive and pervasive virus has given many of us our first, small taste of oppression? To have our livelihoods impacted or removed entirely, as if by a whim? To have our movements, gatherings and other actions restricted? Do we perhaps have a marginally better understanding of the coercive loneliness of the abandoned senior? Or of the dominance that many minorities, both racial and sexual, live under everyday?

If nothing else, has COVID-19 been an effective reminder of the privilege many of us enjoy in our everyday lives? And perhaps a bit of empathy for those who don’t?

Oppression is still a real thing in our world, sadly, and it certainly applies to our siblings in the LGBTQ+ community. In the six years since we have become an Affirming Ministry, we have done a lot of education and I think a lot of us have come a long way in understanding how it feels to walk in those shoes, but bet there are still some who will hear this, or read it, and think “well, come on now - that is hardly a community that is oppressed.”

Just because no one is making queer people wear armbands with pink triangles on them or because there are finally legislative protections in place for many of them doesn’t mean they are not oppressed. Consider:
  • Bi-sexual and trans people are over-represented among low-income Canadians
  • There are higher rates of depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive and phobic disorders, suicidality, self-harm and substance abuse among LGBTQ+ people
  • They are at double the risk for post-traumatic stress disorder than heterosexual people
  • LGBTQ+ youth face approximately 14 times the risk of suicde and substance abuse than heterosexual peers.
  • 7% of trans respondents in an Ontario-based survey had seriously considered suicide and 45% had attempted suicide
Closer to home, my nephew, who identifies as queer, showed up unexpectedly on my doorstep at 9 am on a Sunday morning earlier this month. I had slept through his text from 3 hrs before telling me he was driving up from Rocky Mountain House.

He was really upset. Up early and unable to get back to sleep, he was checking Facebook on his phone and had come across a post about his former church appointing a lesbian woman to a position of some authority. But there was a reply from a former pastor he knew personally, and who he thought was someone trustworthy and understanding, listing his opposition to it and saying the scriptures are clear on this [they aren’t], and that he “fears for the future.”

With no place he felt he could go to in town and unable to stay put, Mark came to my house, hoping I could put him in touch with someone from an affirming ministry. Rev. Deborah was able to call him for a chat that afternoon, and I am so, so grateful she could address some of his concerns. The root problem remains, though: there are forces in the world that want to make the different among us feel like they are somehow lesser folk.

So let’s agree on a couple of foundational points: oppression is bad, sexual minorities (among others) are subject to it, and maybe some of us have a marginally clearer idea of what oppression feels like now than we did perhaps last year at this time. Where do we go from here?

Kamand Kojouri’s poem paints a powerful picture of silence overcoming noise, not a quiet and acquiescing silence - this is important - but a loud one, appealing for acknowledgement, demanding to be heard. It is a silence louder than the jeering shouts or fearful chants of the oppressors and their ilk. But it’s tough! Intuitively, when we hear hate, when we hear lies, we want to shout back, drown out the deception, the distortion, the deceit with the truth, and I think there is still a place for that, but there is also value in establishing silence first, to create a space in which the truth can be heard.

And what do we do with that silence?

The reading from Ephesians about the “Armour of God” is often co-opted by readers wanting to focus on spiritual warfare against otherworldly creatures and their influence, even going so far as to call them out as “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” But here in the temporal realm that we live in day-to-day, it lists the tools needed to triumph over the rulers and authorities, those who would maintain the status quo and those who fight to preserve a state of injustice.

“The belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.”

I am not even close to being a biblical scholar or theologian, but as a person trying to follow the example that Jesus set and someone hoping to make God’s world a better place, truth, righteousness, readiness and faith sure look to me like a recipe for the end of oppression.

And then, in our reading from Matthew, Jesus again underscores the behaviours that we need to display in order to be numbered among the righteous: to give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothing to the naked, visits to the imprisoned and welcome to the stranger.

I changed the order a bit, because I think that last one is really crucial to remember today, on our Affirmiversary. To be actively, affirmingly welcoming, to a community that has not always been treated well by Christianity in general, and at times, by our own denomination.

But the words of Jesus also remind us of the allure of the status quo,the inherent human resistance to disruption and the fact that if no one changes their mind, nothing really changes. As is perhaps typical for the New Testament, the way forward is not necessarily to defeat or destroy the oppressors, but to change their minds - to shift them from being oppressors to being supporters.

Frankly, a straight-up fight might be easier, and it would almost certainly be more cathartic… but we understand in our hearts, it would never end.

Kamand’s poem ends this way: “My silence speaks.” It is not an encouragement to remain silent in the face of oppression, but to use silence to call it out, quietly affirming what is right. Letting people know that transphobic language is hurtful, that homophobic slurs are not to be tolerated, that laws impinging upon the rights of LGBTQ+ people are not fair and must be changed.

And it won’t be easy, because some people benefit from injustice, some people draw a false sense of safety from oppression, and others simply have little to no empathy and just don’t care.

But we won’t stop. We will keep pushing an agenda of fairness and inclusion for everybody until we get to a point where we can’t imagine it another way, where injustices immediately prompt a wider silence - followed by action.

The South African anti-apartheid activist Steven Biko once said “The revolutionary sees his task as liberation not only of the oppressed but also of the oppressor. Happiness can never truly exist in a state of tension.”

And happiness should be the goal of all ministries, not just affirming ones, and I don’t mean to be a bummer on this, our sixth Affirmiversary.

Let’s be grateful for the headway we have made!

Let’s be grateful for the leaders and educators we have who are helping us to get there, like Rev. Mervin and Rev. Deborah, and our friend Shylo from Robertson-Wesley!

Let’s be grateful for our Affirming Team, who puts this service together every year and gets us amped up for Pride!

And most of all, let us be grateful to each other, the people of St,. Albert United Church, proud to be a welcoming, loving and Affirming community of faith for six years now!

The fight against oppression may never truly be won, but God has given us the tools - truth, righteousness, readiness and faith - and Jesus has shown us the way. The best is yet to come!


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Our Affirmiversary should always have a certain degree of focus on the LGBTQ+ community, but I do wish I had taken some time to call out the Black Lives Matter movement and other similar initiatives around the world focusing on freedom from oppression. On the whole, though, I felt pretty good about it, and it seemed to be well received. One fellow, an RCAF vet I chum around with a fair bit at church, told me he appreciates my messages because he can tell they come from the heart, so I guess if I stick with that, I will continue to make out all right.

(A video for the entire service can be found here, and you can jump to my reflection at 29:32 here.)


Ephesians 6:10-17 (NRSV)

The Armor of God

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 

Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 

In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Matthew 25:41-46 (NRSV)

Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 

Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 

Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

A Poem by Kamand Kojouri

“Let my silence grow with noise
as pregnant mothers grow with life.
Let my silence permeate these walls
as sunlight permeates a home.

Let the silence rise from unwatered graves
and craters left by bombs.
Let the silence rise from empty bellies
and surge from broken hearts.

The silence of the hidden and forgotten.
The silence of the abused and tortured.
The silence of the persecuted and imprisoned.
The silence of the hanged and massacred.

Loud as all the sounds can be,
let my silence be loud
so the hungry may eat my words
and the poor may wear my words.

Loud as all the sounds can be,
let my silence be loud
so I may resurrect the dead
and give voice to the oppressed.

My silence speaks.”

Sunday, October 18, 2020

A Tattoo Tale of Two Tails

As mentioned previously, Glory has been working in Churchill, Manitoba, at the restaurant run by my cousin's wife, Belinda, since early July. She is having a grand old time and has only been homesick on a handful of occasions. The rest of the time she has been paddleboarding with beluga whales on multiple occasions, spotting a polar bear mother and cub while on a Zodiac on the Churchill River, and having mad, occasionally concerning adventures with Belinda. (Her boss, in case that wasn't clear.)

On our video chat 2-3 weeks ago, we noticed something on Glory's arm and inquired about it. Sure enough, it was a tattoo, her first, that she had gotten done just a few days earlier.

She told us how the whole thing had come about, and it was a cute yarn so I asked if I could blog about it. When she agreed, I asked her to send me her pictures and a timeline, but her write-up was so good and so evocative of her voice (which I miss even though we have protracted video chats about once a week), that I thought I would just apply a few gentle edits and let her tell it in her own words.

Saturday September 20
Belinda invited me to a small bonfire at the beach with her friends. While at the fire, the topic of me wanting to get a Churchill tattoo came up. I told her I was thinking a whale tail would be nice because I’ve been whale watching on both coasts and have always loved all whales and loved all of my experiences with them - crazy zodiac drivers, singing with a famous Newfie, paddleboarding with Belugas, and so on. 

Belinda was immediately like "YES." Then somehow we decided that we should get matching ones (I’m not entirely sure how this came to be but it did). She told me about this guy Dan who is an aspiring tattoo artist in town and said she would contact him to get them done! 

That night after the fire I looked on Google for simple whale tail line drawings and screenshotted three different ones and sent them to her. She said she didn’t like the second one and I needed to choose between the first and the third. I chose the third but still wasn't sure when or even if this would be happening.

Sunday September 21
I went berry picking with Belinda and her friend Erin, and while we were together Belinda just casually says “oh yeah, we’re getting tattooed on Tuesday.” 

I was like, "This Tuesday? I’m not ready!" (Spoiler alert: I was fine.) I had drawn the tail on my wrist with a pen to see if I would like it there and I became a little obsessed with it.

Wednesday September 23
Belinda had some meetings so we had to change our tattoo date to Wednesday night. I arrived at her house and there was music playing and Dan was setting up all his gear on her coffee table in the living room. Belinda gave me a shot and a cocktail and then we sat down and decided for me to go first. I was pretty nervous mostly because I had no idea what to expect for pain/sensation but as soon as he started I was like, okay this isn’t bad at all. I didn't even really need the wooden spoon she had given me to bite down on!

Certain spots definitely made me cringe at times but I can see how people get sort of addicted to the feeling. Before I knew it I had my first tattoo! 

Then Belinda got hers and we hung out for a bit and then I went home. It felt kind of anti-climactic really because it was all so casual. But I love it so, so, so much! And I am so happy I went through with it and got it done, and that I got it done with her here in Churchill.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Farewell, Nitti: 2005-2020

It was the toughest of weeks, putting down our beloved dog Nitti after 14 years. We had hoped that we could wait until Glory returned from Churchill in November but his decline was just too rapid and we could no longer keep him comfortable, so the hard decision was reached to let him go on Thursday, October 8.

Nitti came to our house rather quickly as well, actually. We had only been living in our house for about six months when a chance conversation between Audrey and one of our neighbours revealed that she liked to peruse the adoptable animals on the local Humane Society website - an animal companion matchmaker, of sorts. When Audrey said we were interested in a friendly, sturdy (due to the dayhome children with us at the time) and hypoallergenic dog, Patricia said she would see what she could do.

Less than a week later, there was a handwritten note from Patricia in our mailbox, referencing an entry on the website. I had to go to work, but Audrey checked it out, noting the dog in question was a Bichon Frise cross and under a year old. It was promising enough that she loaded all the dayhome kids plus Fenya and Glory into the car for an impromptu field trip to the Humane Society.

When she found Nitti's cage (although he was currently known as Snoopy), he was a shaggy mess in a cone, having just undergone surgery, skulking at the back of his cage. A couple knelt in front of the cage trying to entice him forward so they could pet and inspect him, but he sat unmoving. Audrey casually reached above their heads and took the clipboard with the dog's information on it, brought it to the front and told the person there, "I want this one." They called me to verify that all the adults in the household were on-board with adopting a dog, and for about $240 we added a pet to our family. Even with the ensuing costs for food, medication, vaccinations and licensing, it is hard to imagine a better bargain.

Because Audrey got to choose the dog, it was agreed that I would get to choose the name. I have always loved the juxtaposition of names contradictory to a dog's nature or appearance, like the massive Neapolitan Mastiff named "Pansy" from Andrew Vachss' Burke novels, and the Bichon's all-white coat reminded me a little of Billy Drago's white suit and hat in the movie The Untouchables. I suggested his character's last name, Nitti, and Audrey saw the humour in it, so it stuck.

He was so shaggy when we got him that he was actually wearing three collars simultaneously, as staff and volunteers assumed he had none when in fact the others had simply been subsumed and overwhelmed by his white curls. After his first haircut, he truly looked like a different dog.

We were told Nitti's original owner had to give him up when she moved in with her grandmother. Presumably he was an apartment dog, as he was very apprehensive around stairs the first few weeks in our house, eventually getting comfortable enough with them that he would follow us down to the basement and later come down and explore on his own, or to cool off in the summer.

Nitti was preternaturally quiet the first couple of weeks with us as well, giving only the occasional whimper or whine. There was a period where we wondered if he even could bark. But one day another dog walked past our window, and he let loose with a bark that was not only surprising but shocking in its volume and resonance. For a split second, I thought a second dog had somehow gotten into the house, but apparently that big chest of his amplified and deepened what we had thought would be a more yappy vocalization. Thus came one of Nitti's many nicknames - the Subwoofer.

Bichons are known as easy-going dogs, bred foremost for companionship, and not requiring a lot of exercise. They are largely content to be around their people or simply lounge around. Periodically though, they can be seized by a surge of energy, followed by a frenzied burst of activity known as "the Bichon Blitz." We called it "puppy rodeo" and one of my great regrets was never thinking to catch it on video. Watching this stumpy-legged canine race around whatever room he was in, sometimes barrelling up or down the stairs, full tilt, or leaping over cushions placed in his path like a steeplechase horse never failed to make everyone present laugh.

He loved romping in the snow as well, especially with the girls, and didn't even mind serving as an impromptu and ersatz sled dog the first time we took him with us to the toboggan hill at Government House Park. 

Nitti was also a wonderful travelling companion, accompanying us on camping trips to the mountains, visits to Audrey's family down south and even road-tripping with us to Vancouver Island one time. 

Back when we had the Taurus station wagon, he would sometimes clamber over the back seat and into the cargo area, where he would lie down on the top of the cooler or whatever other flat surface he could find.

But mostly, he wanted to do whatever we were doing, or at least be nearby when we did it, whether that was playing boardgames, watching movies on television (which meant popcorn "dropped" fairly regularly), or just sitting with one of us while we were reading. It's no wonder that most of the pictures we have of Nitti are of him laying down with us or close at hand, just looking adorable.

Nitti also had a level of patience for children that put many adults to shame. He would tolerate exuberant ear-pulls, excited tail tugs and hugs that looked like wrestling moves, and never snap or even growl. He would simply walk away when he reached his capacity. He was the guest of honour for many sleepovers and Christmas parties.

And then there was all the dressing up he endured so well...

Nitti was a comforting presence to us as well, staying close at hand when I was off work last year and jumping up on the recliner next to me almost every day when I started working from home in March. He had also asked to be placed on Fenya's tall bed while she has been taking her university classes online this year. And once, when she sat at the kitchen table, tearfully telling us about a traumatizing experience, Nitti leaned up against her leg the entire time, as if to let her know that he was there. 

Love without condition, ears without judgment, friendship without measure, and all without words. 

Nitti's hearing began to peter out a year or two ago, leaving him only able to hear high whistles or loud claps. This meant we could no longer let him wander the back yard and alleyway without a leash, for fear he wouldn't hear an approaching car. His cataracts, though visible, didn't stop him from seeing other dogs almost a block away, but prevented him from coming downstairs on his own unless the light at the top of the landing was on.

Even last week, he could still jump onto chairs or couches without assistance, if somewhat hesitantly. But his daytime naps became longer and longer, often prompting us to do a double-take as he lay sleeping so still, breathing so shallowly. His breathing and movements became more laboured in the past week or two, or he would groan quietly while lying down, and he would be terribly restless at night, keeping Audrey awake as he pawed relentlessly at his bed next to ours, fruitlessly trying to make himself comfortable.

Nitti's first veterinarian visit on Saturday sounded promising, especially since we had steeled ourselves for the worst (and the inevitable), but he did not react well at all to the pain meds prescribed to him. He went off his food nearly completely, and when I took him back on Wednesday, we were given the option of x-rays and further diagnostics, but the vet surmised this was a dog with only a few days to live. 

I called Audrey at her school and told her the news, and we agreed that if we loved this faithful friend, the best thing we could do was let him go - but not without saying goodbye. I checked Nitti out and accepted a different pain medication, made the appointment for him the next day after work and brought him home for the last time. I lingered outside in the alleyway with Nitti on the leash, letting him explore the smells in the flowerbed and along the fences, but even this did not hold his interest for long. 

When we entered the house, Fenya asked how things had gone, and I stared at her speechlessly until her expression changed, and then said "Not good, sweetie. I'm sorry."

I video-called Glory in Churchill and tearfully explained the situation. I apologized that she would not get a chance to say goodbye in person, and because she is a champ, she understood.  I spend much of the rest of the afternoon simply sitting with him between my legs in the recliner by the window, probably his favourite spot in the house. 

That evening, Glory's best friend and her mother came over to say goodbye, and the next day Fenya's boyfriend Bobby came to do the same. The two of them were even able to get Nitti to take a few nibbles of KFC from their lunch, the most food he had eaten in days. I put in a day's work because frankly, I needed the distraction. Watching the clock make its way towards our appointment at 5:15 would have driven me mad. I did visit him in Fenya's room while Glory was on a video-call with me, so she could take a last look at him and say goodbye.

We arrived at our veterinary clinic in Spruce Grove at 5:15. I sat down in the waiting room, holding Nitti in my arms while Audrey sorted out our payment and in the examination room while we waited for the vet. We had already agreed that Audrey would be the one to hold him for most of the procedure. Our vet was excellent, explaining to us exactly what she would be doing and why, as well as what we could expect, and a few things that might or might not happen. 

She and the animal health technician were exceedingly gentle and respectful with Nitti, and with us, giving us all the information as well as all the space we needed in order to say goodbye. Who can tell what is in a dog's thoughts? I just hope he felt safe and loved and comfortable as he left this world.

I won't say it was easy, because it wasn't, but all three of us were there for Nitti and each other. Half-an-hour after we had come to that fateful room, the vet checked with her stethoscope and told us our friend was indeed gone. Ten minutes after that, we were finally able to lay his little body down on the towels they had kindly laid out on the steel examination table, and leave him behind.

That was four days ago, and we aren't done being sad yet. I suppose we will never stop, really, but if my past lessons with grief have taught me anything, it is to have faith that eventually we will be able to remember with more joy and less pain. Eventually.

Fellow humans in our lives have been exceptionally kind, recognizing the impact that losing Nitti is having on our household, and many of them mourning his loss themselves as well. When they ask how we are doing, I say, "For a 26-pound mutt, you would have thought Nitti was a whale for the size of the hole he's left here." And it's true. Audrey slept in the basement the first three nights after Thursday, as she couldn't bear to be so close to where he had slept. We all catch ourselves looking for him and listening for him, and when I came downstairs Saturday morning to do some work on the computer, I slapped my thigh to invite him to join me.

We have taken both of his beds out and donated them, and stowed his food and water bowl in hopes that someday we will find another pooch to live with us. We have also gotten rid of the cream-coloured throw that Nitti was practically invisible when he lay on it, and which we would sometimes mistake for him even when he was in another room.

But we don't do this because we want to forget him because we can't. We just need fewer reminders while the pain of his loss is so fresh.

"Every puppy is a countdown to tragedy" as the saying goes, and we have been preparing for this moment, or trying to, anyway, since Nitti's hearing started to go. This was the first real sign of ageing in a dog that seemed old when he was a puppy but remained puppy-like long into his adulthood, and a reminder that all good things must come to an end. Knowing this, Fenya cast his paw print in plaster last year, and earlier this year the girls made a colourful painting with his paws. When Glory returns, there are plans to put his tags, the casting, some pictures and a lock of his hair into a shadowbox.

For myself, I am grateful for such a reminder, but I know that I will be forever looking for Nitti out of the corner of my eye, and wishing to see him with his head out the window whenever I drive. Every morsel of food dropped on the floor is a reminder that he is not there to snatch it up, and the view out the living room window is diminished knowing his silhouette will no longer be there.

But we have had cause to smile as well, collecting all the pictures of him into a folder, and watching the few movies of him actually in motion. Recalling so many wonderful moments over the 14 years we were lucky enough to have him in our lives. 

On this saddest of Thanksgiving weekends, we are actually grateful in some ways that Nitti's decline was as rapid as it was - that it was not prolonged and that he didn't suffer unnecessarily. But mostly we are thankful to have had so many good years with such a great little friend, who we will all miss dearly; a perfect fit for our household that we were lucky to find.

Godspeed faithful hound. Be at peace. We love you.