Testimony to the CT Judiciary Committee

I gave the following testimony to the CT Judiciary Committee this afternoon. The words that are crossed out were in the written testimony I submitted but had to be cut out of the verbal delivery due to time constraints).

In Support of HB 5723, An Act Concerning Discrimination
Connecticut Judiciary Committee, 19 March 2008
Mr. Barb Greve, M.Div.

Thank you Chairman and members of the Committee.
My name is Barb Greve and I testify before you today as a transgender guy and person of faith, currently residing in Hamden, Connecticut. I serve as the Interim Director of Religious Education at the Unitarian Society of New Haven and am a candidate for the Unitarian Universalist ministry. I am here in support of HB 5723 because I believe it is important to protect all people from discrimination. I care not only because I myself would be protected by this legislation but also because many people I know and work with—family, friends and congregants, fellow clergy and many people of faith—want and need these protections to become law.

In 1995 I came out as a transgender guy in order to live a more authentic life. As I became more public about my transgender identity I was pleasantly surprised by the acceptance I received from my colleagues and other religious leaders. In the 10 years that followed my coming out I was privileged to work with religious and secular institutions as they struggled with how to best be welcoming and supportive towards transgender people. Through both my professional work and my own lived experience I am encouraged that while many people do not understand transgender identity and expression, they are willing to learn about it in order to be supportive towards transgender people. This bill is part of the ongoing process of making it possible for all people to live their own authentic lives in safety.

During the past 5 years I attended Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, California where I was fortunate to be a graduate student in an academic institution that had already done some work around understanding a multiplicity of gender identities and expressions. My arrival at the school gave me cause to interact with many aspects of the institution, from the Registrar, to my advisor, to the President of the school, to the staff – all of whom were understanding and supportive as I navigated through endless forms and protocols. I was relieved when my seminary created and posted transgender-inclusive signs on the bathroom doors, as it was one small sign of their commitment to anti-discrimination.

I was raised just north of here in Massachusetts and was delighted to be hired by the Unitarian Society of New Haven for it gave me the chance to return to New England and live closer to my family. While both my family and congregation are supportive of me, I know that they worry about the discrimination I face in my daily life and for good reason.

Shortly after I moved to Connecticut I went to the Department of Motor Vehicles to transfer my driver’s license. I had in hand my valid Massachusetts driver’s license and the proper documentation for proof of identity. After a long wait I was denied a Connecticut driver’s license. When I asked for a reason the clerk told me he did not believe the documents were real or accurate. Since the documents are both real and accurate, I can only understand this as transgender discrimination. Just as the current law protects others who are in danger of discrimination, this addition to the law would have made it possible for me to simply get my driver’s license without harassment. This is a chance for the State of Connecticut to say that discrimination against anyone is wrong.

Three times in my working life I have clearly been discriminated against in regards to employment. The inability to support myself was discouraging and embarrassing. The pain and worry that these times of unemployment caused are immeasurable. In recent years I have limited myself to working in arenas where I know some transgender education has been done. In serving as an intern minister and as an interim director of religious education, my experience as a transgender guy has proved to enhance my work and deepen the relationship between my congregants and myself. But whether or not I or anyone else publicly identifies as transgender shouldn’t matter. None of us should have to fear that we may be denied equal access to work, housing, or education because who we are challenges other people’s ideas about gender identity and difference.

Even with difficulties in finding employment, I have been extremely lucking compared with many other transgender people who can’t find work or housing and are harassed and beaten for who they are. No one should have to rely on luck to find housing. No one should have to rely on luck to be hired or to keep their job. No one should have to rely on luck to obtain a driver’s license or to safely live their lives. I hope that you will make it possible for people like me to rely on the law rather than luck.

I have been blessed to work in a congregation and denomination that strives to support all people. So let there be no mistake: there are many people of various religions who are supportive of transgender people, and there are many transgender people who are people of faith. The covenant among people of my faith tradition calls for us to work for “…peace, liberty, and justice for all” and to “…promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” HB 5723 is in keeping with our covenant, and I am proud to support it. I urge you to support this legislation and ensure that the legislature has an opportunity to pass it. Thank you.

Published in: on 19 March 2008 at 19.32  Comments (2)  

Prize-winning smile

Gwen holding World Series Trophy

Trophy Prize-winning smile Six-year-old Gwen Lorimer, of Needham, holds on tight to the Boston Red Sox 2007 World Series trophy at Massachusetts General Hospital for Children yesterday, where the trophy was brought around the rooms for children to see. METRO (Foto: NATHAN FRIED-LIPSKI/METRO)

Gwen is my god-daughter’s sister and has been in and out of the hospital most of her life. This most recent stay seems like it has been forever and your prayers for her and her family are most welcome! The above picture was printed in today’s issue of the Metro: Boston paper. It’s great to see her smiling. Oh, and can I just mention how jealous I am that she got to touch the trophy???!

Published in: on 15 March 2008 at 1.31  Leave a Comment  

Though I’ve Broken My Vows a Thousand Times

9 March 2008
Unitarian Society of New Haven; Hamden, CT
Mr. Barb Greve

READING:
Aurangzeb the Hat Seller

There was a young man called Aurangzeb who used to roam from town to town selling hats for a living. One day he would be in one town and the next in another. One summer afternoon, Aurangzeb had just traveled across a vast plain, so he felt tired and wanted to take a nap in the jungle. He found a mango tree with lots of branches and cool shade. Placing his bag of hats beside him, he went to sleep.

Aurangzeb was fast asleep in no time. When he woke up after a refreshing nap, he found that there were no hats in his bag! ‘Oh, no!’ he said to himself and shook his head sadly, ‘Of all the people, why did the thieves have to rob me?’ Suddenly, he looked up and noticed that the mango tree was full of cute monkeys wearing colourful hats. He yelled at the monkeys and they screamed back. He made faces at them and they returned the same funny faces. He threw a stone at them and they showered him with raw mangos. ‘How do I get my hats back?’ Aurangzeb pondered.

Frustrated, he took off his own hat and threw it on the ground. To his surprise, the monkeys also threw their hats! Aurangzeb did not waste a second and hurriedly collected the hats and went on his way to the next town. Fifty years later, young Habib, grandson of the famous hat-seller Aurangzeb, who worked hard to maintain the family business, was passing through the same jungle. After a long walk he was very tired and found a nice mango tree with lots of branches and cool shade. Habib decided to rest a while and very soon was fast asleep.

A few hours later, when Habib woke up, he realised that all the hats from his bag were gone! He started searching for them and to his surprise found some monkeys sitting in the mango tree wearing his hats.

He was frustrated and did not know what to do, but then he remembered a story his grandfather used to tell him. ‘Oh, I can fool these monkeys!’ said Habib.

‘I will make them imitate me and very soon I will get all the hats back!’ Habib waved at the monkeys and the monkeys waved back at him. He blew his nose and the monkeys blew their noses.

He started dancing and the monkeys also danced. He pulled his ears and the monkeys pulled their ears. He raised his hands and the monkeys raised their hands. Then, he threw his hat on the ground. One monkey jumped down from the mango tree, walked up to Habib and said, ‘Do you think only you had a grandfather?’

SERMON:
Mulla Nasrudin preached on Fridays at the village mosque. One day, having nothing to preach about, he asked the congregation:
“Do you know the subject I am going to discuss today?”
“No” said the people.
“Then I refuse to preach to such an ignorant assembly. How could you not know given the events of the past week?” asked Nasrudin and left hurriedly.
Next Friday he went up the pulpit and asked: “Do you know the subject of my sermon today?”
People fearing a repetition of what had taken place a week before nodded and said: “Yes yes, indeed we know.”
“Well, then. There is no point in telling you what you already know”, said Nasrudin and left.
On the third Friday he ascended the pulpit and asked: “Do you know what I am going to speak about today?”
Not knowing what to say, some said yes and some said no.
“Then those who know can tell those who don’t”, said Nasrudin and left.(1)

Mulla Nasrudin is a satirical Sufi figure believed to have originated in Persia in the 13th Century. Sufi stories are often paradoxically simple and profound while also using humor to make their point. I appreciate this aspect of Sufism as much as I appreciate the ritualized practice of prayer.

Sufism, the mystical side of Islam, has “For thousands of years… offered a path on which one can progress toward the “great end” of Self-realization, or God-realization. Sufism is a way of love, a way of devotion, and a way of knowledge.

There is no single, systematic approach to Sufi teachings, and not all of its teachings can be communicated in words. The wisdom of Sufism can be found in stories, poetry, art, calligraphy, rituals, exercises, readings, dance movements, and prayer.

Sufism is often described as a path, suggesting both an origin and a destination. The aim of Sufism is the elimination of all veils between the individual and God. Traveling this path, one can acquire knowledge of Reality.” (2)

Thus Sufism has much in common with Unitarian Universalism. Both religions put a higher emphasis on the journey to the answers than on the answers themselves. But that is not all we have in common. We have some overlap in our history that perhaps helped to form our similarities. To understand these overlaps we must look back to a time and place in the world’s history called Al Andalus.

In the year 712 C.E. Muslims were expanding their empire through North Africa and Spain. As far as empire expansions go, this was a relatively non-violent expansion due to Qur’anic rulings requiring that mercy must be extended to surrendering opponents. The Qur’an further requires that conquerors must allow people of the lands they capture to continue practicing their faith of origin. As a result Jews, Christians, and Muslims worshipped peacefully side-by-side.

During the centuries of Muslim occupation, peace reigned in Al Andalus as it became a center of academic and cultural exchange. Together Muslim, Jewish, and Christian scholars worked to translate the classics from Greek and Hebrew into Latin.

By 1492 Trinitarian Christians had re-conquered Spain, driving out over 800,000 Muslims and Jews and destroying the peaceful collaborative culture that had existed in Al Andalus. But the lessons of the peaceful cultural exchange would continue on.

In 1511 Michael Servetus, one of our Unitarian martyrs, was born in northern Spain. Servetus was a bright young man, who came of age at a time in history when people were being killed for their beliefs. In 1531 Servetus published “On the Errors of the Trinity” challenging the doctrine of the established Church and was burned at the stake for holding to his beliefs 20 years later. But before he was killed, Servetus taught Ferenc Dávid, who would become the court preacher to Queen Isabella of Hungary.

Ferenc Dávid continued in Servetus’ line of thinking, finding no Biblical basis for the Doctrine of the Trinity. He is credited as the father of Unitarianism and perhaps best known nowadays for his declaration that “we need not think alike to love alike.”

Queen Isabella’s son John became King John Sigismund, the first and so far-only Unitarian king. In 1568 King Sigismund issued the Edict of Torda, which proclaimed freedom of religion for all people under his rule.

From Al Andalus to Transylvania, a spirit of religious freedom and cultural exchange existed in both Unitarianism and Sufism. And it was in this spirit of cultural exchange that I found myself sitting in a Sufi Dhikrullah, or Ceremony of Divine Remembrance. A dear friend of mine had invited me to observe the ceremony – I had no idea it would have such a profound impact on my life.

The room was nothing special – your standard multi-use carpeted room. As we arrived at the entrance we were asked to remove our shoes before entering. Once inside, we sat in a large circle on the floor – about 20 of us all told. The Sheik, or spiritual leader, sat at the front, if you can imagine a circle having a front. For the next four hours he led us first in a series of sung chants and later in a group whirling. For the group whirling, we stood, remaining in a circle with all facing to the right. We placed our left hands palm up at the small of our backs and our right hands in the hand of the person in front of us. Slowly we moved, stepping forward with our right foot and sliding our left to meet it. We continued our chanting while we whirled.

As if by some unspoken instruction, two members of the group broke from the larger circle and began to whirl alone inside the circle – it was wondrously beautiful. The end brought us spiraling out in such a way that we greeted each person in the circle, looking deeply into one another’s eyes and hearts before offering blessings and thanks. And when all had greeted and been greeted, we broke for a feast.

I left that night still holding the warm embrace of the holy presence that I had just felt. That embrace was palpable and as the days passed I yearned to feel it again. I asked my friend if I could join him at another Dhiker thinking that it would be months before they held another one. Imagine my surprise when he told me they held weekly gatherings.

I asked my friend to teach me about his Sufi order – the Nur Ashki Jerrarhi order. I learned that currently they have a woman as their Sheika and that they are queer-friendly. This was important to me, given my identity. My friend gave me a reading that has become one of the foundations of my spirituality – it matched up so well with our Universalist theology:

“Love is the bond that binds hearts, the basis upon which to build. If love is the foundation, your building will withstand all earthquakes and storms, and you may build it as high and wide as you please without it being in danger. Therefore, our Way is the Way of Love. Leave what is keeping you from following that Path and turn to follow it with perseverance, follow this path all the way to your destination…”(3)

I began to study more about Sufism. I learned that “The Sufi way is not a path of retreat from the world but a way of seeking the Divine while still actively engaged in the world. Engagement in the world provides opportunities for spiritual growth, opportunities to practice love, awareness, generosity, and nonattachment. The Sufi approach is summarized by Sheikh Muzaffer, a modern Sufi teacher: “Keep your hands busy with your duties in this world, and you heart busy with God.”(4)

I find comfort in the idea that such an intensive form of prayer and spiritual practice did not mean disengagement from the world. There is too much that needs doing in the world and I didn’t want to choose a spiritual path that would isolate me from the work at hand. Among the Unitarian Universalist teachings I value greatly is that prayer is lived through our actions. I didn’t want to lose that idea as I began to integrate a new spiritual practice into my Unitarian Universalist identity.

Thus I found great comfort in what is now one of my favorite stories, about Rabi’a al-Adawiyya, the famous Sufi mystic and saint. She lived in Basra, Iraq in the 8th century and the stories of her say she was consumed with the fire and love and longing for the Beloved, her name for Allah or the divine.

The story teaches that one day, Rabi’a was seen running, carrying fire in one hand and water in the other. They asked her the meaning of her action and where she was going. She replied, “I am going to light a fire in Paradise and pour water on Hell…”

I love both the symbolism and the idea behind Rabi’a’s actions. For me it is a reminder that we can’t get too complacent – that even in the moments when we feel we have reached enlightenment, there is still more work to be done – within our own beings (souls if you will) and out in the world we live in. On an internal level, for me this meant lighting a fire under my Unitarian Universalism and opening myself up to the possibility of connecting with a Divine presence. And on an external level, Rabi’a’s actions seem right in working order with my Unitarian Universalist values of full engagement with the interdependent web of which we are a part.

Another place where Unitarian Universalism and Sufism seem to overlap is in our willingness to see human beings as holy and flawed. Sufism teaches that it is inevitable that we will break our vows, thus what is more important is our intent to not break them and our willingness to return again and again to the Path. I am appreciative of this teaching – it helps me to not give up when I fall short of my vows.

The words from our first hymn this morning come from a Rumi poem, which when read in its entirety reads,

Come, come, whoever you are.
Wonderer, worshipper, lover of leaving.
It doesn’t matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vow
a thousand times
Come, yet again, come, come.

I believe what Rumi is reminding us of in this poem is that not only will we break our vows, but that even when we do we are still welcome on the Path. Our vows can be broken in numerous ways – through broken promises to others or ourselves, but falling short of our intended goals, or by shutting our hearts to the world’s suffering.

As Sheik Ragip Robert Frager al Jarrahi writes in the introduction to his book Essential Sufism:

“Our hearts have become frozen, armored against the pain and suffering we have all experienced in this world. With the help of a devoted teacher and sincere [companions] along the path, we can defrost them.

Love, service, and compassion help us reopen our hearts and come closer to God. One of the greatest services we can perform is to help heal the injured hearts of others. Our hands are made to lift up those who have fallen, to wipe the tears of those who are suffering from the trials of this world. Sheikh Muzaffer also said, “A kind word or glance softens your heart, and every hurtful word or act closes or hardens your heart.”

And so I leave you with one final Sufi story, as told by Idries Shah :(5)

A small boy banged a drum all day and loved every moment of it. He would not be quiet, no matter what anyone said. Various people were invited by the neighbours to do something about the child. The first person told the boy that he would burst his eardrums, if he continued to make so much noise, – but this was too advanced an idea for the child. The second told him that drum beating was a sacred activity and should be carried out only on special occasions. The third offered the neighbours earplugs while the fourth gave the boy a book. Some of these cures worked for a short while, but none worked for long. A Sufi came along. He looked at the situation, handed the boy a hammer and chisel, and said, ‘I wonder what is inside the drum?’

May we each remember to follow the paths that keep our hearts open and our minds ready to hand over a hammer and chisel. May it ever be so.

Amin and Ashé.

ENDNOTES:

(1) http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Nasrudin#Preaching

(2) Fadiman, James and Robert Frager. Essential Sufism. (San Francisco: HarperCollins 1997) 1.

(3) Mawlana Shaykh Muhammad Nazim Adil Hakkani al-Kibrisi al-Naksibendi

(4) Fadiman, James and Robert Frager. Essential Sufism. (San Francisco: HarperCollins 1997) 35.

(5)Fadiman, James and Robert Frager. Essential Sufism. (San Francisco: HarperCollins 1997) 35.

(6) http://www.katinkahesselink.net/sufi/stories.html

Published in: on 9 March 2008 at 19.56  Comments (22)  
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