Bonds and Betrayal

This was originally published last year on my old blog. Recently I have began republishing some of the older posts that are no longer online. If you have something of mine you liked and can’t find, let me know, and I will republish it here.  – HH

I have a friend who, as a child, idolized his grandfather. His grandfather and he were inseparable. The grandfather taught him how to be in the world, how to navigate life, how to act like he thought a man should.

The grandfather was a minister, and highly respected in their small town. My friend became a minister himself,  in part to be like his grandfather. His most prized possession is his grandfather’s Bible, which he received at his grandfather’s death.

A few years ago, (long after the death of the grandfather), it came out that his grandfather was a serial child molester. He had not only molested children in his church, but his own daughter, my friend’s aunt. The aunt that was always quiet and withdrawn as an adult. The aunt that had trouble navigating the world. The aunt that had always seemed, somehow, broken.

I always wondered how you navigate that – what you do when you discover that someone you loved and respected, who taught you so much, who you idolized and wanted to be like – when you find out that they did monstrous things.

What does that do to your story? Are the things you learned from him now invalid? Is your judgement flawed? How do you know he didn’t try to turn you into a monster too? How do you process those memories? Are they now questionable?

# # #

When I was in my late twenties, the questions I had around faith were no longer capable of being answered by the Methodism of my childhood, and I went searching. I flirted with Buddhism for a while, but I am far too much a practitioner to ever be happy sitting on the floor.

I discovered the activist Catholics (like Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin) who taught me you could be Christian and work for justice, too. They led me to death penalty protesters, who led me to nonviolence, which, if you stay there long enough, will lead you to Mennonites.

To a person, everyone that I asked who I should read to understand the Mennonite position told me to read John Howard Yoder. So I did – I bought Politics of Jesus and realized I had came home. These were my people. I followed that up with Body Politics and What Would You Do – a primer on nonviolence – and I was sold. It wasn’t just that it made sense to me, but it made sense of me.

I joined the church, and then was pulled aside and told by several elders, that it was obvious I had a call to be in ministry. They would query me, shelter me, love me and, eventually, ordain me. They groomed me for leadership.

My work now among people experiencing homelessness is directly because of my Anabaptist convictions – convictions I was first exposed to in the words of John Howard Yoder.

In recent years, it has come to (more public) light that during his lifetime, Yoder was a serial molester – that it is estimated he abused, molested or raped more than 100 women, in the name of pursuing “the perfection” of his theology.

The man who taught me the basics of nonviolence was a perpetrator of violence. The man who wrote in Body Politics against abuse of power was an abuser of power.

What does this do to my story? Is what I learned invalid? Does this invalidate nonviolence? Are the theories I learned about power wrong? Is nonviolence just a pipe dream? How much of my story does this put into question? Hell, how much of the theories around my work does this put into question?

# # #

These days, I pastor people, most of whom have been hurt by the church.

I have had deep conversations with so many people who have been sexually abused by church leaders I have lost count.

A significant portion of my little flock identify as LGBT, and many of them attribute their homelessness to being kicked out of their family’s life once they came out, because of their family’s religious convictions.

My friend Lindsay was kicked out of her home at 16, when she came out to her mom. Her mom called the preacher, who said that tough love was the only thing that would change her sinful ways. Her mamma kicked her out and has refused her calls since then. Lindsay is now 26 and a survival sex-worker, with a crack habit and HIV. And she hasn’t been home in 10 years.

Or the woman – one of the most gifted pastoral personalities I know – who was told she could never be a pastor, because she was a woman. And while she knew there were churches that did not believe that, none of those churches were her church. So she didn’t go into ministry, convinced what she thought was her call from God was invalid.

I know all these stories, and more. They are legion.

But none of them are my story.

I had a wonderful time in church. I was always loved, and taught to love. I belonged, I felt safe there, I grew up there, developed life-long friendships there. The problems I had in my twenties were about religion – they weren’t about church.

I loved church – right up until I learned the truth. Until I was a trusted pastor person, who got trusted with other people’s stories. Until I learned that many people did not have my experience. I loved church until I learned that for many people, the church was their molester, or at the least, the enabling system that allowed the molestation to happen.

I am a pastor. I preach most weeks, and I bury and marry people. I say the words of institution at The Lord’s Supper every week, and I baptize a couple of folks a year.

But I seldom go to church anymore – at least, not when I am on my own. Not when I am not paid to be there. Not for my own benefit.

Because I have too many questions: How much of what I learned was invalid? How much was fake? How much was abusive, but I didn’t recognize it? How much was coercion? How much was propaganda?

How much, dammit, of my own story is now in question?

Notes: I recognize that a large reason I was groomed for leadership was my maleness and my whiteness and my social skills I had learned – in other words, a lot of it wasn’t just my being lucky, it was factors beyond my control. It was privilege. That said, I also recognize that those of us with privilege have a responsibility to use it to the benefit of those who do not.  

The oppressed never have an obligation to educate the oppressor, but I am grateful to those people who have been patient with me, who have taught me, who have educated me and who teach me still. Every single time, it has been a gift. 

Thanks to my friends Jasmin and Jay for looking over this before I hit publish, to make sure I didn’t make an ass of myself. Any credit goes to those who have taught me, and only the mistakes are mine. 

The Day I Did Not Die

Content warning: Descriptive narrative of a suicide attempt. Please take care of yourself.

Chris Cornell is dead. They are reporting he killed himself.

I have a confession: I am not sure I know his music, or his band, or anything about him. I am pretty sure I never heard his name before today.

And none of that matters. Because it is being reported that he hung himself, and according to my Facebook feed, most of my friends were his fans, and so that news is everywhere. And every time a high-profile suicide happens, all the old fears come back, even if only to remind myself that they are never far away.

It is a common story, and I am not claiming to be special. I was a smarter than average kid who looked differently than his classmates – I was scrawny, pimply, socially awkward and most of all, afraid. I was always afraid. These days you would say I was bullied. In those days, I would have said I was in hell.

I was 16 years old, and my parents were not home. I don’t know how to describe it – it was just a wave that came over me, and when it did, I was ready.

I had read countless accounts of suicide – no mean feat in that pre-internet age. I had read all the dictionary entries, all the encyclopedia accounts. Then I researched famous suicides – Socrates, Hemingway, anyone at all who had made their way into the Britannica. I had a morbid fascination with death, and with suicide.

So when the dark wave came, I was ready.

I had received a shotgun for Christmas when I was 14. There were strict rules around its use, but it was unlocked. I sat on my bed and loaded it with buckshot. I took off my shoes, because I had figured out I could pull the trigger with my toe – a “trick” I had learned in a book I read about famous deaths. I put the barrel in my mouth – right now I can taste the bitter, acrid taste of the oil and the metal on my tongue – and placed my toe on the trigger.

And then I took the barrel out of my mouth, unloaded the gun and put it away. I don’t know why. The darkness receded, just like it came. I was horrified to find myself there. And it would be more than 10 years before I would tell anyone that it had happened.

It wasn’t the last time I thought about self-harm, however. Maybe three times since then, I have been in that same vicinity. The darkness just comes on sometimes, and it seems an incredibly rational solution to end the pain. It is always late at night (more accurately early morning). I hate waking up at 3 or 4am – not because I am afraid I won’t go back to sleep, but because I am afraid of where my brain will take me if I stay awake.

Please don’t mishear me – I have a good support structure in place. I have people who know my history, who love me, who I feel safe calling should I need them. There is a list of people Renee knows to call if I scare her with my moods. Mentally, I am in pretty good shape these days.

And I figure, from everything I read, that Chris Cornell had it pretty good, too. It is obvious he was talented. He had a family that loved him, he had kids. He had extremely devoted fans. He had a lot going for him. I bet that brother had health insurance.

And that is why, when I read of the high-profile suicides, it scares me a little bit. Because it reminds me that the wave is never really gone, even if it has been quiet for a really, really long time.

If you feel like hurting yourself, please don’t. The National Suicide Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. And if you don’t want to call them, please call someone. 


Why I Stay in the South

Jekyll Island, GA in September 2016

I live in the Southland. I love it here. I was raised in the south – in fact, further south than I live now, in a childhood filled with honeysuckle, sweet tea, fishing, lightning bugs and church potlucks.

The earliest memories I have involve table fellowship with other folks, of lessons drummed into my head about hospitality and being told to “remember who I was”. I have vivid memories of elderly, blue haired ladies telling me they knew my grandma (who died when I was very young) and my daddy and that they knew I had been “raised right”.

In the South I grew up in, I was taught we had to take care of each other, because none of us had much. So Daddy (I am 42, and still call him that) would miss supper sometimes, because he had worked more than 10 hours that day, crawling under houses in a shirt with his name on it for barely over minimum wage and he went straight to the volunteer fire department to get trained on some new piece of firefighting equipment. Because we had a responsibility to watch out for each other.

I learned that the things that make for a good life involve other people – the people who bring you a casserole when you are sick, the rounds you make at Christmas, taking tins of divinity fudge to old ladies who would wipe the snuff off their mouth and say with amazement, ‘I’ll swan…” as they bit into the creamy goodness of that confection. The neighbor who knows your daddy is sick, and comes down and cuts the grass and stacks the firewood.

My grandmother’s sister – my great-aunt — was a fierce lady. Born in 1907, she had been divorced in the 1930’s, when that was rare. She told me her first husband was a drunk, and “damned if I was gonna do all the work and watch him drink”. She told me that she might go to hell for it, but she had been in hell for the years she had been married to him, so she knew how to live there. She refused to take the Lord’s Supper at church, because “I am lots of things, Hugh Lawson (that’s what they call me back home), but none of them are a hypocrite.” I learned to not be a hypocrite.

In that church, I learned about Jesus, who told us to love each other, and who had long hair, but that was OK, because he was God and, most important, he didn’t live in my daddy’s house. But more than learning about Jesus, I learned about church – about community, about people who would cut the articles about you out of the local paper when you won the spelling bee and put them on their refrigerator and pray for you every night.

God was the Father, and demanded obedience – which made sense to me, as my own father demanded obedience. I figured Jesus had been told, ‘Because I said so!” any number of times as a kid.

I learned other, more complicated things, too. I learned that we were “poor, but proud”, and that we were not afraid to work. But I also learned that some people would look at your black friend’s hard work and tell you he was “a credit to his race”. And that would confuse you, but not as much as trying to understand why he wasn’t allowed to spend the night at your house, or eat supper at your table.

As I grew older, I learned that complicated lesson that the very people who taught me to love can be, themselves, unloving. That the people who taught me to be hospitable can themselves be inhospitable. It means learning early on that the people who loved me into being are flawed, and fall short often of the ideals they gave me.

Being a child of the Southland means feeling things fiercely, and so I learned that you stand up for people who can’t stand up for themselves, and I learned that I had “responsibilities” to my community. That I learned to draw the circle of community larger than my people did is not my fault – I was taught that “red and yellow, black and white – they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.” They taught me that, and I believed them.

Being in and of the South while being a progressive white straight male means your liberal educated friends from North of here will watch how your state votes and will call your friends back home “inbred” and ‘hillbillies” and “white trash” and ask you how you stay there.

And sometimes you tell them those people are some of the kindest, best people you know, but folks in power have made them afraid in order to maintain power. That your people have been played and told that their diminishing paychecks and their insecurity and their inability to keep the land their granddaddy farmed and got 49 harvests from – that all of that is the fault not of the people who are in power, but of people who have brown skin and less power than even they do. And your people believe it, because scared people will believe anything that will make them less scared.

And sometimes you tell them that you stay because you love it here, and that this is your place, and your roots run deep here, and one day you will be buried here amongst your ancestors. And that to ask why you don’t leave means that you are supposed to believe that there is a separation from the values you learned as a child and the values you believe now, when the reality is, the person you are now is just the person you were taught to be then, only writ larger.

And for them to suggest you leave is to suggest that you cannot be the person who longs for table fellowship and church meetings and cape jasmine and sweet tea and cornbread and also be the person who fights for justice for your community and who yearns for the day we can all sit at the same table and eat cornbread and sweet tea together. And that is not true.

I can be all of who I am, and also be southern. In fact, I am all of who I am because I am southern. And to suggest I move is to suggest I deny all of that. And that I cannot do.

Because those people taught me to be lots of things – but none of those things was a hypocrite.

Eight Beautiful Things to Give as Gifts

Every Monday, subscribers to my newsletter get an email with links to at least five things I thought were beautiful. This past week, I sent them these – links to books, CDs and useful things that would make perfect gifts for someone – maybe even yourself.

  1. Peter Taylor is a writer read most often by other writers, in much the same way that Townes Van Zandt is a musician most often known by other musicians. A Summons to Memphis, his best known novel, is filled with family pathos, the experience of trying to return home and a father that is strong willed, yet incapable of managing his affairs. In other words, the perfect story of the Urban South.
  2. Shelby Foote was the soul and voice behind Ken Burns’ documentary on the Civil War. And he is the masterful craftsmen who wrote what is perhaps the best single treatment on the War Between the States, titled simply, The Civil War: A Narrative History. But before all of that, he was a novelist of wide acclaim. His novel Shiloh, about the bloodiest day of the bloodiest war in US history almost cannot help but to be amazing.
  3. MFK Fisher is probably my favorite writer that no one knows about. She was a fierce woman and a feminist before the word existed. She wrote about food, mainly, but saw that as her way of writing about love. She was someone who knew what it meant to face the world on your terms, and yet still have time for a glass of wine with a dinner you made for yourself. In the midst of the food rationing of WWII, she wrote about what to do when the wolf shows up at your door: You cook him.
  4. My favorite thriller of all times is The Silence of the Lambs (if you only know the film, make it a point to read the book, which is so much better). The sequel to that was Hannibal, where we see clearly in the mind of a serial killer. One of the plot devices in both books is Hannibal’s prodigious memory, and in an interview, Thomas Harris mentioned an obscure book that heavily influenced him called, simply, The Art of Memory. Part instruction book, part history lesson and part philosophy tome, it is delightful and instructive.
  5. In the Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal asks his prison guard for a copy of Glenn Gould’s 1955 performance of The Goldberg Variations. It’s perfect in every way – but in 1983, they recorded him doing it again, and it too is perfect, but in another way. Both versions are available on one CD.
  6. Thoreau said that a thing costs however much of our life we had to trade for it. In Your Money or Your Life, the authors take that to heart. It’s sorta a self-help book, but much more a “How to think about money and your life” book. It doesn’t promise you will get rich if you read it, but does promise to change how you think about money.
  7. Lots of us wish we were creating more – we wish we were writing more, or painting, or building or whatever our art is – but something keeps getting in the way. The author Stephen Pressfield gave that something a name, and wrote a book about how to kick that something in the ass and do your cool thing. If you know a person who just can’t seem to get that thing written, this is the perfect book.
  8. I love beautiful things that are also useful. Like the Opinel No8, a French pocket knife that has 4 pieces, no springs and costs less than 15 dollars. Perfect to keep in your bag for slicing that apple, opening a box, or cutting some string. And the design is so epic, it has won awards and been featured in design museums.

And while not beautiful, certainly useful:

  1. And while we are talking about useful – I use my Kindle tablet every day, and it’s less than $50. A computer you hold in your hand for $50. What a world. And if you don’t like sitting down to read, you probably ought to get an Audible subscription, where you have access to almost 200,000 audiobooks for less than $15 a month. And the first month is a free trial.

I Miss You

When I moved to Raleigh, I didn’t know a soul here. I didn’t have a job here, I didn’t have new co-workers. Nothing. Zip. Zilch. It was incredibly isolating.

So I decided to change that. My goal was simple, but not easy – one conversation with a new person each day, and coffee or a meal with a new person each week. I kept that up for years. As an introvert that needs people, it was both a challenge and fun.

And it worked. I soon had a wide circle of friends and acquaintances, from many different segments of society. It worked so well I quit doing it.

These days, I have a set of coworkers I love, but that I spend most of my daylight hours with. Instead of walking the streets all hours of the day and night in pursuit of my work, these days I do most of my work at our Community Engagement Center, so in effect the streets come to me. I feel rushed a lot, and always behind, so it’s easy to not prioritize outside meetings or meals.

It is incredibly isolating.

I hate that it is so easy for me to feel so busy that I don’t have time to prioritize relationships, when the reality is, those relationships are my work.

Facebook makes this both better and worse. Better, because I have friends I first met nine years ago in one of those weekly coffee meetings that I have been able to keep up with, see their kid’s pictures from recital, and hear about how they have learned new things, developed new passions, heard about their marriages, their divorces, their hopes and their struggles.

And it makes it worse, because some of those people live six blocks from me and I haven’t laid eyes on them in more than a year. Because I still feel “connected” to them. It’s maddening.

Not only is it bad for me – it’s bad for business. Love Wins Ministries was born as a result of those conversations years ago. So many of the projects I have developed over the years began in conversations over coffee. Much of what actually fed me and kept me alive in those early years came about because of those meetings.

So I intend to make 2017 the year of intentional connection. This is the year I begin having intentional meetings to develop relationships. It is the year I begin to commit to coffee dates again, to meeting new people, to finding new opportunities, to learning new things. This is the year I commit to lean in to the hard work of relationships – because, as I am fond of saying, all of us are better than any of us.

So, if I haven’t seen you in ages – I want to have lunch. If we are really only “Facebook friends”, I want us to be real friends. If you only see yourself as one of my “fans” – I hate that term, but more and more people are introducing themselves to me that way – please let’s really connect. And if my assistant reaches out to you with a lunch invitation, please know that means I thought it was important, and that you are important. Because honestly, if my assistant doesn’t schedule it, it probably isn’t going to get scheduled.