From Sunday evening of June 17th to just this past Friday June 22nd, I was at an intensive week long training organized by ISAIAH at the Kahler Hotel in Rochester. ISAIAH for those of you who don’t know is a congregation based community organizing organization that fights for racial and economic justice in the state of Minnesota. My name is Ollin Montes, and I’m a graduate from Macalester of the class of 2017, and a resident of the Circle of the Beloved and organize with ISAIAH as an Immigrant Rights Organizer in Saint Paul in three Catholic Latino parishes. The majority of the leaders in my base are undocumented.
I really wrestled with whether or not to accept Craig Lemming’s invitation to give a sermon on this sermon series “Stories of Rest, Renewal, and Resistance”. Because to be honest, I have been really bad at engaging in rest or renewal in the past 6 months. Unfortunately, my boyfriend Joe can attest to this. Part of it is due to my job. I work between 40-60 hours a week. I don’t have a typical 9-5 work schedule. Often, I finish with work late into the evening because the leaders that I organize with aren’t off work until late in the evening which makes this time of day the ideal time to have meetings.
Part of it has also been my own lack of personal accountability that I haven’t made consistent space for me to engage in moments of rest and renewal. However, the week long training I attended became an amazing sabbath for me. It gave me the opportunity to pause in the rhythm of my life and dig deep with spirit. The sabbath I had over the last 5 nights was renewing, clarifying and uncomfortable to the 10th degree. And that’s what I feel called to talk about today. That there is value in experiencing discomfort during times of Sabbath. This is the wisdom found in the Quaker tradition and this is also the message I’ve discerned in the scripture for this week.
Before that I want to share some key aspects of the Quaker tradition.
Early Quakers came to the conclusion that there is that of the light of god within each of us. This light is an infallible guide that enables us to walk the path of truth. It reveals aspects of our living that we find both beautiful and affirming. But this light also points to the things that we fear the most but don’t wish to see.
One Quaker elder I learned from early on in my formation as a Quaker expressed that “A Quaker is someone who is willing to be still. Enter a silence. And to actually be penetrated by that silence”
This phrase captures the posture one takes in Quaker meeting, our form of sabbath which consists of an hour of silent worship where one digs deep and listens for the spirit of god and if touched by god shares a message with the rest of the meeting. This posture requires both courage and vulnerability. To be penetrated by the silence is to allow yourself to to no longer remain bulletproof. It entails letting your guard down and to receive what arises in the silence.
Another element of the Quaker tradition is queries. Queries allow us to dig deeper in collective discernment while also receiving distinct answers given the unique story of each individual in the meeting.
I want to us to keep this present in our hearts for the rest of our time together as we make sense of the verses of the gospel for this week.
The training I attended over the past five nights prompted participants to face the inner storms and gales inside of us we wish to hide from. The entirety of the training is structured around prompting participants to have to confront whether or not they wish to have a public life, to step into the public arena, to transform their private pain into public action and to claim power for their liberation and those they care about.
The training accomplishes this by triggering your instinctive reaction to coercive forms of power.
Although ISAIAH is not a Quaker organization, what I went through this week felt like someone took an hour of silent worship and extended it into a 5 day experience of grappling with silence and calling, but with greater intensity and intention.
ISAIAH uses a method of leadership development called agitation. Agitation is a sophisticated form of Quaker queries. Agitation consists of posing a combination of challenging questions and conclusions to someone you agitate. It’s like showing a mirror up to someone so they can see the disconnect between the goals and vision of their leadership and power in contrast to how they are showing up in the world. The questions and conclusions delivered to the person being agitated enable them to find the lies and pain they don’t realize hold them back.
There were three moments during the training where I was forced to confront coercive forms of power. I failed two out of those three times. Through agitation and deep self-reflection I learned why I failed. They were due to lies that I had come to believe about myself that prevented me from building power. They were rooted in the experiences I have had in my life’s story. My life as a gay man and a second generation Mexican-American living in the United States with an immigrant father.
My father is someone who express his love through food. Often, when I came home from school Dad would cook dinner. He has an impressive repertoire. He can master all the classics like Enchiladas, Arroz Rojo, Frijoles refritos but he could also surprise by whipping up things like stir fries or rice noodles with shrimp in a marinated red sauce hamburgers, Fettuccine alfredo. I was fortunate that he showed me a lot of loving and also that I have a fast metabolism.
For me, this is how I came to understand my Dad’s way of loving. Because growing up we could never have a conversation about my challenges with friends or romantic interests. I could never come to him with the things I feared, made me angry or sad. My Dad was robbed of being able to do that at an early age.
My father grew up with an emotionally and physically abusive father who was also an alcoholic. My Dad never learned how to be able to share his emotions because his father never could. At age 17 he was kicked out of his house. At age 18 he became a father in the city of Juarez Mexico that borders El Paso Texas. So as a confused, afraid young man with the responsibility to the lives of two other people he and his wife at the time decided that the only place they could find opportunity was the United States.
My Dad went through alot. A failed marriage and grueling jobs at the start of his career which included working at a steel foundry throwing pieces of metal into iron vats in what my dad called a factory that smelled and felt like hell. Throughout these experience my dad felt a lot of pain and anger.
The way he coped was through alcohol and spending money he didn’t have.
I grew up with having to answer the calls of debt collectors calling the house and my dad telling me to say he wasn’t home.
I grew up at times not going to bed after hearing my Dad clamber down the stairs to bed when he got drunk because of the fear I had that if I fell asleep something could happen to him.
I grew up having a Dad that could become angry at a drop of a pin and would throw cups and plates and slam doors when he became angry.
I grew up with a Dad who when he started to suspect that I was gay began to teach me how to man up by showing me how to punch people and play football.
I grew up believing that God couldn’t love me for being gay and that I could never be loved by people of faith.
I have seen how in my Dad’s new job he can dole out the work that two to three men can. I know that his company is taking advantage of him, but that he is too afraid to say something because he knows that at the age of 60 he won’t be able to find another job and he only has 5 years before he can retire.
I live in a culture saturated with toxic masculinity that robs men of the ability of being transparent about their pain and as a consequence they become self-destructive to themselves and the people around them. I live in a country that will only ever see my Father’s value in terms of the amount of wealth that can be extracted from the limbs and back of his body. I live in a culture of White supremacy that seduces us into buying into the myth that me and my father are more worthy of human dignity than our immigrant brothers and sisters because we are light skinned and speak English. My father and I live in a system of casino capitalism that has taught us to self-medicate our pain and anxiety through debt and consumption that enrich others at the expense of our wealth, health and spirits.
All of these experiences made me internalize the lie that my worth in my family was predicated around being the perfect and good kid that pleased everyone and got nobody angry, and who put his needs and voice last to keep the peace. This lie doesn’t stop in my private life. It prevents me from pursuing a public life because when I contest power I fear I will make other people unhappy, angry and that they will judge me, and that I won’t be worthy. It prevents me from building power to undo the myriad of systems that keep me and other people from having dignity and prosperity in this country.
Yet there is another way.
This way is apparent in the verses of the gospel of Mark I read earlier. As the storm rose around Jesus and his disciples. Jesus “woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.” He turned to his disciples and “He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’
This is what happened to me on my third try at the training. I decided to choose “faith not fear”. In this third training experience, I felt the lie that I have internalized all of my life arise. I felt afraid that I couldn’t take responsibility for leading others in that training simulation. But I chose to have faith instead and not listen to my fear. Since that moment, I have felt a stronger well of energy and resolve in me I didn’t know I could find. But what I did was not new, it was something modeled centuries before me in the pattern of living found in Christ.
What then does this mean for all of us in our times?
It means that we need to build more moments in our lives of pause grounded in facing what we fear and in a community of accountability.
We need to be willing to let ourselves be “penetrated by the silence”. It means that each one of us has to begin to wrestle with the private pain that becomes a powerful storm in our lives that stops us from taking responsibility to act in order to bring about the kingdom of god.
To be frank, it means that white people in American society must recognize that they too have private pain caused by the myriad of systems in our public life. The children who have been separated from families will not be saved by White people, or any people for that matter, who are not engaging in the work of surfacing their own pain and becoming clear how in standing in solidarity they will also become free of that pain. They will become liberated by people who are clear on what they have to lose for themselves, what pain they have that has been caused by our status quo and what the cost is if we do not challenge this culture of division, fear and hate that is contaminating our body politic. The only antidote is for us to walk into our faith and act even while have fear, even when we don’t know the answers and when we don’t have certainty of what the outcome will be.
In order for us to build that kind of a practice, I’d like to make some time for us to grapple with three queries. I’d like to ask you close your eyes and for us to sit in some silence as I ask them. Know that this is going to be uncomfortable.
What is the private pain you carry that you don’t wish to acknowledge?
Do you want to do something about that pain?
If your answer is yes, what’s the first risk you must take to transform that private pain into public action?
Thank you for sitting in silence with me. The reason we celebrate pride is not because of the rainbows or corporate sponsors. It’s because there was a small group of young queer people at the Stonewall Inn who decided to transform their private pain into public action. They decided to take their pain of having to leave their families at a young age because they found out they were gay, of living in the streets without stability or enough to eat, of experiencing repeated verbal and physical abuse by the police and they took all of that pain and made a decision to take public action. They chose their faith over their fear, the faith that there was something better than the intimidation and invisibility they lived in. Because of their courage and faith they created the opportunity for someone like me to work in the job that I do and stand before you and share in the word of god. In spite of their liberatory work, I still don’t know who many of these everyday heroes were and their contributions. Their names continue to be invisible. Let’s not let another generation not know their names.
In the spirit of pride then, let us step out from under the shadows of the storms that rage inside of us and in our society and into the light and let’s not let anyone tell us that we can’t look fabulous in the process.