Sermon for Wendy Davis

The year I met my husband, I didn’t have health insurance.

I left a well-paying job at Rice University where I had great insurance coverage, because I was miserable there and I wanted to return to teaching.   I knew, also, that I wanted a certain kind of teaching job, which meant I might have to scramble for a while to find it.  That year, I worked 4 part-time teaching jobs: I taught a section of 9th grade English at my current private school, I taught 7th graders for Writers in the Schools, I worked in the Houston Community College Writing Center, and I taught an adult memoir-writing class in the Woodlands.  I made a total of $19,000, barely enough to place me above the poverty line.  But I was blissful, using my best skills and talents in the best ways, and living my life on my own terms; and, luckily, I had parents willing and able to supplement my income to help me regroup and recenter my life around my educational and vocational interests.

When it came time for my annual well-woman exam, I went to Planned Parenthood, where I was treated with respect and professionalism.   I went through the normal array of tests–the pap smear, the breast check–and waited to check-out.   A nurse called my name from behind the waiting room door, a different nurse than the one who had examined me.

“Can I talk to you?” she said.

Listen.  No one ever wants to hear their name called after a pap smear and then be pulled into a room to talk privately.  My hands started shaking.

“I was reviewing your paperwork and exam as part of our normal routine,” she said.

“Okay.”  I waited.

“It says here you’re mother had breast cancer before the age of 30–is that correct?”

“I think so,” I said.  “I mean, she was around 30.”  I couldn’t remember her age; I could only remember crawling onto kitchen counters to reach into the higher shelves of the cabinets when she couldn’t because of the bandages wrapped tightly around her chest after the partial masectomy.

“Well, I just want to make sure you have a mammogram,” she said, and then handed me information for a clinic in Houston that would provide me with a mammogram at reduced cost because I was uninsured.

Then she smiled and let me out the door.

At check-out, a young Hispanic woman helped me fill out a form to enroll in the Women’s Health Insurance Program, which covered my basic care for the next year and a half until I finally landed the teaching job I wanted.  When my husband and I decided to consider contraception options together, he came with me to Planned Parenthood. When he left, he said, “That’s not how I imagined it.  So normal.  So helpful.”  We didn’t see a single woman there for an abortion, although I’m sure there were some.  We did see two meager protestors outside the parking lot holding badly made posters and wiping sweat from their hair-sprayed bangs.

Planned Parenthood serves many women in many ways.  Some of the women look like me: white, educated beyond the college level, professional, smart, healthy.  Some of the women do not look like me.  All of them, including me, want choices and some solace in a society that doesn’t always offer us any fiscal rewards for being good, decent human beings or people who want to live outside of restrictive expectations.  All of them want a little help creating meaningful, workable lives that best serve their families, their partners, and their own personal dreams and desires.

The way conservatives and religious people reduce Planned Parenthood to an “abortion provider” is adolescent.  It’s the level of thinking that my 14 year old students have: simplistic, willfully blind, comfortable.  In short, it’s embarrassing coming from grown men and women.  It’s also often hypocritical: I’m sure many of those senators backing SB5 in Texas have wives who’ve conceived through IVF or donor eggs or with the help of fertility drugs, most of which wasn’t covered by their insurance.  They have choices because they have privileged lives.

This week I remember why I can’t back away from this issue as much as I’d like to back away from such an ugly fight.  About eight years ago, I wrote an editorial aimed at Catholics, but I think it still holds today, especially in light of upcoming immigration reform.  Substitute Michelle Bachmann for Sarah Palin, or “drones” for the Iraq War, or Christians for Catholics, and everything written here remains achingly relevant.

Here it is:

For Catholics, It’s Time to Take Down the Old Signs and Erect New Ones

Yesterday I picked up the paper and read this headline: “Houston Planned Parenthood site draws protest”, and saw photos of religious women carrying signs depicting bloody fetuses. Then, as I was driving to visit my parents’ home in Southwest Houston, I passed the Catholic Church in which I was confirmed at the tender age of 14.  Outside the church, someone had posted a large sign, which read: “Choose Life.  Your Vote Matters.”  The “o” in “Vote” carried a baby, as if inside the uterus.  The message was clear, and I found myself angry, and then extremely disappointed.

I worry about the motives of a church that focuses its efforts on supporting candidates who think criminalization is a better deterrent to abortion than access to social services, education, and health care, and freedom from fear and violence in the home.  According to the Guttmacher Institute, 57% of women in the U.S. who had abortions last year were economically disadvantaged.  Single or married, 61% already had one or two children for whom they were trying to provide care.  Those statistics say nothing about women who have been raped, or are emotionally or physically incapable of caring for a child because of abuse, addiction, or mental illness.

But I am not interested in a debate about the morality of abortion, or the best way to make it rare. I know that even if I preface my pro-choice position by saying, “I believe a fetus is a human child, and I believe every abortion is tragic”, my argument will be lost on conservative Catholics, who, unfortunately, still harbor a deep-seeded misogyny that is fostered by too many leaders of the Church, a misogyny internalized in the psyches of men–and as Sarah Palin and others prove, women too–who endeavor to lead us.

And that is my point.

I wonder if the conservative churches in America focus so much attention on abortion because the purported sinners in abortion cases are women, and mostly poor.

And even if it were appropriate to post political signs outside a church—which it is clearly not—why not urge parishioners to be proactive and vote on other issues that appeal to the good Catholic’s sense of social justice and caritas? For example, imagine a poster that said:

1. “Choose peace.”  The Vatican has made it expressly clear that the Church opposes unjust wars, and has labeled the Iraq War as unjust. When Bush and the Senate members who supported him sent our young men and women into battle they started a war that failed to meet most of the conditions for “just” war, including just cause, competent authority, right intention, probability of success, and proportionality.

2. “Choose human rights.” In 2006, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, reminded all of us that immigration policy, in any country, should be based on Judeo-Christian ethics and a respect for basic human rights.

3. “Choose love.” Poor men, women, and children in this country often suffer from a lack of health insurance, which limits their choices in terms of employment, education, and family planning.   Many Catholic and non-partisan organizations in this city offer opportunities for churches and concerned citizens to speak truth to power and help solve this crisis, including Catholic Charities and the Texas Metropolitan Organization.

I worry about the motives of a church that shames women for their choices, but does not shame a government whose choices endanger women and children, often the most vulnerable and innocent victims of war and ineffectual social welfare and economic policy.  I worry about a church that puts more effort into promoting the opportunity for its members to pray publicly outside Planned Parenthood—a surefire way to shame young women—than promoting an opportunity for service to the hungry, unsheltered, and imprisoned.

In the end, the sign posted outside that church does not say much about the devotion of its leadership and parishioners, which I believe in my heart to be strong, nor their concern for their fellow citizens.  It says much more about their cultural, economic, and gender-related biases.  It says more about their need to place the blame for society’s ills, and the responsibility for the cures, on someone else.  And like so many other times in history, the scapegoats for our sins are women.

As Catholics we are called to service, by participation in the sacraments as well as by praxis, “the reflexive relationship between theories and action.”  But, whenever possible, praxis should be preventative, not punitive.   Too much time is spent preaching about immorality and sin—and how, impossibly, to protest and vote against it—than in enacting the virtues spelled out for us in Scripture and Church doctrine.

In our politics and in our faiths we spend too much time finger-pointing, and not enough time actively loving one another.


Sermon as a Faith Story

I grew up Catholic.

I was baptized, confirmed and educated in the Church, but I learned what it meant to be Christian mostly by example.  When I was a child, my father resettled refugees for the YMCA, and then worked for many years as Vice President of Catholic Charities in the Houston-Galveston diocese, and my mother taught science at a troubled, inner-city high school.   We often had 3 or 4 people living with us while they were transitioning from one country to another, and my parents also welcomed several foster children and exchange students into our modest home. 

We were not a typical “parish” family—I was only required to attend CCE classes until I was confirmed, and even then, my parents did not require regular attendance at mass.  However, somehow my brother and I still intuited that we were to act within the walls of our home and in the larger world as loving followers of Christ’s example.  We were not told this in any explicit way; rather, we witnessed it.  Both of us can recite the Corporeal Works of Mercy faster than we can the Nicene Creed. 

In this way, Catholicism for me became a familial, cultural, and private aspect of my identity, a thing I was born into, a thing I could no more choose than I could my hair color or height or Southern accent.  I never felt the need to proclaim it or restore it in public—it was as deeply hidden and powerful in me as my chromosomes. 

 I did not recognize my Catholic upbringing as an influence on my behavior or my writing until recently.  In 2007, a man I loved asked me to marry him, and I said yes.  He was raised in the Baptist and then Presbyterian traditions and after our engagement began to push me about my spiritual life.  At the same time, I was experiencing a crisis in my writing life.  I spent three years in an MFA program swinging back and forth between writing fiction and nonfiction, having much difficulty discerning between the two and convinced one—fiction—was the higher form.  This crisis grew out of an earlier one.  When I decided to dedicate my energy and time toward writing by leaving my job at a human rights non-profit organization, I suffered a crisis of conscience.  After all, I had been heavily schooled in the idea of vocation and service—how could my writing serve the world in any real way?

 What saved me was my teaching obligation.  Teaching was certainly a form of service, as I knew from watching my mother.  I still believe that teaching is sacramental in that it is a kind of “anointment”—teachers anoint their students with knowledge and thought.  And teaching, of course, is a kind of communion, the classroom a sacred space.  

But at that time, as my fiancée began to push harder—our disagreements as political as they were religious—I found solace in reading and writing the personal essay.  As a friend of mine once described it to me, the personal essay is a space for provisional truth.  That is, the essayist never reaches her destination but is ever-arriving.    The personal essay, then, becomes a space for deep contemplation, a tool for the vital attempt we all make to transform the private and personal into meaning.  The essay form offered me a way to voice what I like to refer to as my “intellectual faith”, or what Marilynne Robinson refers to as “faithful doubt.” In my romantic relationship an expression of doubt was a touchstone of failure and in my academic community of writers an expression of sincere Christian struggle was laughable.   This paradox often left me feeling bound and voiceless.  The personal essay unshackled me.

I began to study and be moved by writers like St. Augustine, Robert ColesSimoneWeilThomas Merton, Marilynne Robinson, and Andre Dubus.  Formative books for me during this time were Dubus’ “Mediations from a Movable Chair” and Coles’ “The Harvard Diaries” as well as his biographies of Weil and Dorothy Day and his writings on the relationship between story-telling and moral imagination in children.   One particular passage of Coles’ rang true to me.   He writes:

…in the lecture halls and seminar rooms of our colleges and universities, where relativism and deconstructionist criticism make a mockery of any person’s struggle to find a faith that persuades, convinces, and even a mockery of the attempts that particular novelists, or poets or short story writers have made to find meaning in life, and render it through words, through images, through narration that bespeaks of, well, the utter essence of their humanity: we are the creature of language, and through it a moral awareness that gives us a sense of the ought, and naught.

For one thing, I felt protective of my fiancée.  His increasingly traditional and conservative religious practice and beliefs left him susceptible to ridicule by my university colleagues and contemporaries.  In my soul, I agreed with them.  But I also knew from my experience as an undergraduate student in the Northeast that liberals and academics, many of my closest friends, could be some of the most intolerant people on the planet.  I did not want to be intolerant—what kind of liberal would that make me?  How could that kind of intolerance inspire people to change?

Still, a fierce loyalty to my family’s variety of Catholicism made it impossible to abide my fiancée’s shifting beliefs about homosexuality and abortion.  My own relationship to God, while cultivated and real was less literal than his, and occasionally his language and the language of his church alarmed me.  We both worried about raising children together.  Most of all, both of us wanted to be loved for who we were and not in spite of it.  Our friends and family members, at best, were good skeptics.   Every day we endeavored to avoid name-calling and blaming, to praise each other’s sincere efforts, and to hold each other accountable for our actions and beliefs so that we could live together peacefully.  At that time the country was in the thick of the 2008 election season; the political and religious climate heightened our awareness of discrepancies in our worldviews.  I was all in for Obama.  To my dismay, my fiancée was not.  In many ways we became a microscopic reflection of the painful reconciliation required at much higher levels in the nation.

In the end, while the nation found the common ground to say, “We can,” my fiancée and I failed to say, “We do.”  I left him.  In one of the saddest and more pathetic moments of our demise, I cried and screamed at him, “I don’t want to marry a Republican,” and he whispered back, “I know you don’t.”  At that point neither of us could tell the difference between “Republican” and “Christian” and “conservative” much like the rest of the country.  I threw myself into writing essays in the wake of our dissolved engagement.  While my pain was personal and private and real, in my writing I did not want so much to vent or confess as to relate and work through what I recognized as an essentially American story—a Red State story, a Christian story.  I also began to see my nonfiction writing as a form of service and vocation that harkened back to my spiritual upbringing.  I recognized what I thought of as a failure of liberal Christians in the face of rising Christian fundamentalism.  We had lost our voice, or at least our willingness to use it. The ascension of fundamentalism and its hold on vulnerable young people like my ex-fiancée was, as Marilynne Robinson writes, “the fault of the liberals in large part, because they have neglected their own tradition, or have abandoned it in fear that distinctiveness might scuttle ecumenism.”

I think what I have been trying to achieve in all my essays is a return to the beautiful “story” of Jesus, because as I writer I know the metaphor moves people, the symbol.  This is because when an artist uses a metaphor she is reaching toward something God-like that is unreachable.  The metaphor is the artist’s confession: the best I can do is approximate.  There is no symbol, no representation that will suffice, there will never be a symbol that will suffice, and so those symbols must be graceful, thoughtful, and sacred. I think the writers of the Gospels instruct us to read their words metaphorically, and encourage us to use our own metaphors.  Each book of the New Testament is replete with similes, sentences that begin, “God’s Kingdom is like…” or “God’s love is like…” We cannot know God, we see, as Peter reminds us, “through a glass darkly”.  Our imagination brings us closer to God—to be a Christian (or religious in any way at all) is to have a wealth of imagination.  St. Paul says in is a hard life, Kierkegaard says it is a foolish life precisely because it requires a faith in the improvable thing. (I cribbed that line from my father.)

It is not important that I write my life from a doubtless and fixed place, and therefore reduce God to a concept that fits neatly into my narrow vision, and then live a rigid life according to that vision.  No, what is important is that I seek in the direction to which those symbols point—that I look unflinchingly toward redemption, forgiveness, and hope even when I suspect these things might elude me in my work and in my life.  The artist’s job is to open new avenues of hope, widen the space for definition and representation, and welcome others into grace.

 Or, as Thomas Merton advises in his New Seeds of Contemplation, “Let no one hope to find in contemplation an escape from conflict, from anguish, or from doubt.”

 I will always be “catholic.”  But when I go to church now, I attend the Episcopal church—close enough to Catholic that I feel comfortable (I don’t want my grandmother rolling over in her grave), but the Episcopalians have demonstrated great foresight by moving with the tide of history in terms of gender and sexuality issues.  I am most recently inspired by the writings of Henri NouwenAlain de BottonRebecca Solnit, and Bishop John Shelby Spong.  My (new) fiancée finds the ritual and serenity of the Episcopal Church inspiring, having grown up, like my first fiancée, in more spartan churches.  We live inside our doubts; they form the walls of our home and church.  Inside these walls we observe our own unique brand of shared faith.  We will both vote for Obama in large part because his story more closely resembles our own faith story.

 Architects build skyscrapers to withstand wind load by making them bendable at the top, much like nature’s trees.  A tall building’s ability to lean in strong wind protects it from falling.  I think the long tradition of intellectual debate, contemplation, and personal writing in more progressive Christian sects—as in Judaism and other faiths—acts in a similar manner.  Moreover, this tradition matters a great deal in a culture where ego-driven confession is sold on television and in bestselling books as entertainment and our politicians and religious leaders engage in nuanced debate less and less frequently. Our doubts and fears, thoughtfully considered and expressed, are the wind-bearing architecture of a kind God, given to us so that we may bolster ourselves and construct meaningful lives.