Self-Care for Activists, Community Leaders, and Volunteers

Help-the-Community

I’ve been involved in community-building work for most of my adult life, but it took me a while to realize the importance of developing a consistent self-care practice. Those of us who work with non-profits, activist groups, and community organizations can have a tendency to place more value on others than on ourselves.

I feel very strongly in the worth of every single human being, even on my most frustrating days. Yet, why is it so difficult at times to treat myself with the same care and compassion with which I treat others? Perhaps a part of the problem is due to the societal expectations that we should place ourselves last.

I’m not going to argue that we should prioritize our own selves in such a way that we cause harm or neglect to others, but I do believe that we could collectively do a better job with self-care in these arenas. I internalized this during the years of my mother’s terminal illness, when she lived with me and I served as her main caregiver. I realized that I could not possibly care for her unless I also took care of my own well-being, as even a common cold had the potential to put her safety at risk.

At that time, I justified that my self-care routine was necessary because someone I loved was dependent on my ability to care for her. In hindsight, I wish that I had been able to see my own inherent self-worth as part of the scenario, but back then, I felt that my health was important mainly in relation to how it contributed to the well-being of others. 

I have since accepted that my self-worth is not dependent on my accomplishments or my ability to help others. Along with this acceptance, I now focus on self-compassion in the ways that I care for myself.

Some of the obvious ways that I care for myself include eating nourishing food, exercising regularly, and getting adequate sleep when possible. Another component of my self-care routine involves a regular meditation practice. I have found that meditation helps to reduce my stress, which enhances my overall health, and I’m less reactive in how I relate with others. 

I want to be clear that, when discussing the benefits of meditation, it’s important to be careful not to use it in a way that shames others. There are some health issues that cannot simply be “cured” with meditation (or other practices such as yoga), and a meditation teacher is not a replacement for a physician. That being said, there are many instances where meditation can reduce the impacts of stress-related health problems, including heart disease.

It’s for this reason that I’ll be teaching a meditation session as part of a Community Care Day program that we’re launching at Flatirons Political Art in north Boulder. The modality that I teach is called Neurosculpting®, which founder Lisa Wimberger  describes as: “a method to enhance self-directed neuroplasticity through the union of neuroscience and meditation practices for the purpose of down-regulating chronic CNS [central nervous system] arousal states.”

The meditation component of the Community Care Day will involve one or two guided meditations, plus time to discuss how the brain neurologically wires to stress as well as higher-order cognitive thinking. We’ll also talk about ways in which a meditation practice can be supported through other aspects of our daily lives.

In addition to self-care, I’m increasingly aware of the need to cultivate community support. In a panel discussion at the recent Front Range Bioneers conference, every single speaker emphasized the importance of relationships for the development of sustainable communities. Because we live in shared spaces, we must nurture relationships with the friends and family who live around (and with) us.

The Community Care Day will provide a space for us to celebrate each other by caring for ourselves and each other. We’ll begin in the late morning with Qigong, led by Jessica Van Antwerp. Then we’ll share in a potluck lunch before moving into the meditation session. The day will end with a co-creative activity there in the art studio.

Please join us even if you’re unable to be present the entire day. We’re gathering at 11am, and we’ll be finished by 4pm. We are asking that everyone bring a potluck dish or $10 to contribute to the food, but we won’t turn anyone away due to an inability to contribute financially.

If we’re going to bring about the changes we’d like to see in this world, we need to design communities that nurture ourselves and each other. I believe that self-care practices are important because each of us matters on this planet. The added benefit is that caring for oneself allows for us to do more for others. And most specifically, stress-reduction in activist, non-profit, and community-engagement environments is crucial to staying grounded for long-term sustainability in the midst of high-stakes advocacy.

I can see Jesus in your eyes

I’ve been thinking a lot about something a disabled homeless elder said to me today in the course of our half-hour conversation on a busy downtown sidewalk: “I can see Jesus in your eyes.”

I posted the statement on Facebook in spite of my hesitation, as I don’t want my interactions to come across as “Hey, look at me and how great I am,” nor am I soliciting compliments or accolades. The reason I decided to post his comment was because I felt he needed to be heard.

Apples and rocks near the creek

But as I contemplate his kind words, I want to break down what he said because I think there are several important sub-themes in that short sentence.

1) “I can see.” He is conscious of his surroundings. He is paying attention. His disability does not render him completely unaware of what is happening around him. In his particular case, his vision is functioning, but even if he had been speaking metaphorically, the point is that he notices people.

Owl eyes

2) “I can see Jesus.” In the context of our broader conversation, what I heard was that this man has faith that his circumstances will get better, and he hasn’t given up on life. As a severely burned amputee with chronic related health problems, his daily struggles are sometimes overwhelming.

Some branches of Christianity might treat his declaration of faith as an evangelical victory—as if his life here on planet earth is merely a long-suffering prologue—but I didn’t experience his statement as being focused on doctrine-specific rules of “how to get into heaven.” Rather, I sensed that he felt a connection to something larger than himself that could sustain him during particularly difficult times.

3) “I can see Jesus in your eyes.” There have been times when I’ve encountered people who seem to view Christianity as some sort of game to see who can “convert” the most “unbelievers.” Sometimes this takes the form of long testimonials describing journeys of darkness into salvation. Perhaps more often, attempts at conversion involve telling others what they should believe and what they should (and should not) do in order to be saved from eternal damnation.

Socialize with compassion, kindness, and grace

But religious doctrine aside, I experience “seeing Jesus in others” when I meet people who are kind and generous to those who are typically judged, condemned, out-cast, or marginalized. Those kindhearted souls aren’t always religious devotees (and, in fact, there have been times when I’ve encountered self-professed religious devotees who are also incredibly cruel, judgmental, and hypocritical).

Just as Jesus challenged those who valued doctrinal rules over compassion, we’re called to follow that example by being generous and welcoming of those who have been socially rejected. I don’t see this as some sort of sacrifice or noble gesture on my part because, quite honestly, those who have been condemned or scapegoated by society tend to be the people I most easily connect with, perhaps because I also know what it feels like to be treated cruelly. Furthermore, I believe this type of compassion transcends any specific religion and can be an aspiration for us all.

Heart-shaped leaf

4) “I can see … your eyes.” Moving back to a simpler observation, this man reminded me that he could see me seeing him. Have you ever felt too uncomfortable to look someone directly in the eye? Imagine what it is like to be out on a street corner, holding a sign that asks for money, and know that people don’t want to look at you. I’ll go into this in greater depth in a follow-up blog, but for now, the point is that even people who are used to being ignored can still be aware of the fact that they are indeed being ignored.

Just because we turn and look the other way to avoid seeing something (or someone) that makes us uncomfortable, that doesn’t mean our actions go unnoticed. And when we do take the time to look someone in the eye, that other person might actually notice. The mutual recognition of visibility can be a reassurance that, yes, our presence on this planet does indeed have meaning.

Poverty and the Doctrine of Shame (part 1)

I’ve been mulling on this topic for a few days. It’s so complex that it could easily turn into a book, but I’m going to try to be semi-brief (well, in two parts, with this as part 1). Plenty of others have written about the complex factors that contribute to long-term poverty, so I’m not going to rehash those discussions. What I want to focus on is how our society shames and judges people who are poor.

A lot of the shaming comes in the form of puritanical super-virtuousness. The comment section of a recent blog post by emergent Christian author Rachel Held Evans was quickly filled with armchair poverty “experts” whose remarks were far removed from Jesus’ teachings that I wondered if we read from the same Bible.

This poster reads (and I cringe) "Welfare: You work hard so they don't have to!"

I hesitated about posting this pic, but I wanted to illustrate the stereotypes about welfare and poverty.

Here is an example from the blog comment section: “The poor fall into two categories – those without knowledge and the lazy.” During my childhood, my mother typically worked at least three jobs and still struggled at times to make ends meet. The blog reader’s declarative statement resembled childhood messages that I absorbed from the culture around me.

But generalizations sound quite different when we attach them to specific people. A rephrasing of the above comment might go like this: “Your mother’s struggles revealed that she fell into one of two categories – she lacked knowledge or she was lazy.”

Now, I have indeed encountered those who would have been so brazen as to insult my mother directly…or any other random person who has had financial difficulties. In general, though, a lot of these blanket statements are generic, and when pressed, the person doing the judging would most likely backtrack if I were to call out that kind of insult with a reminder that most of us know and love people who have faced financial challenges.

"Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor." James Baldwin

This leads to another type of comment (here, I’m paraphrasing things I’ve heard frequently): “Your mother [or someone else we personally know] was different. She was doing the best she could, unlike those other lazy people.” My internal response: “Really? Are you absolutely sure about that? How do you know whether or not others were trying just as hard as she was?”

And then a typical followup from the armchair poverty expert: “I know this person who is collecting welfare and is on Medicaid, but she uses her food stamps to buy junk food, and she has an iPhone. She is always bragging about how she doesn’t have to work and can just live off the government.” (It’s usually a woman, thanks to the 1980s “welfare queen” myth.)

iPhone screen

There’s a lot to unpack in that kind of statement, but again, others have tackled the sociological aspects of this topic much better than I can here. A couple of things in the “I know this person who…” argument stand out to me, though. For one thing, there is an assumption that if one person in a particular situation is exhibiting a particular behavior (such as “taking advantage” of the system), it must be the norm, even when there is a lack of evidence to support such a questionable logical leap.

But I wonder what would happen if this same type of rhetorical formula were used in a different context. It might go something like this: “I know this person who speeds on the highway, but he has a radar detector and texts while driving. He is always bragging about how he never gets tickets and how he’d rather pay for a ticket than slow down anyway.” For whatever reason, speeding (which regularly endangers a whole lot of people’s lives, including children) is considered more socially acceptable behavior and far less dangerous than the possibility that someone might collect food stamps without actively looking for a job.

Another thought also comes to mind with the “I know this person who…” statement. Maybe the anecdotal woman really wishes that she could find a decent-paying job, and she is embarrassed that she can’t. There are times when we as humans might not want to admit to our own disappointments, so we minimize or dismiss our feelings in order to save face.

IMG_2525

It can be as simple as saying, “Well, I was going to break up with him anyway,” when the reality is that we weren’t expecting to get dumped. Or perhaps after getting passed over for a promotion, it’s justified with “I didn’t want the extra workload,” when in fact we were excitedly anticipating the challenge of new responsibilities. Or for women who have had no luck conceiving: “I love the freedom of not having kids,” when we secretly picked out baby names years ago.

Vulnerability is difficult stuff. We don’t always handle it well, and a lot of us will go to great lengths to avoid letting others know how we really feel about things that are emotionally painful. This is especially true about poverty. When someone says, “Poor people are lazy” (or “parasites” or “bums” or “stupid” or any number of other negative words that are often associated with poverty), maybe it’s just easier not to admit how difficult poverty really is.

When someone has applied for countless jobs, only to be rejected again and again, it’s demoralizing. But when that same person has to listen to judgmental comments from total strangers (not to mention supposed friends and family), it’s even worse. Because these insults might be confirming the deepest, darkest fears that many of us carry inside us: that there is something inherently, horribly wrong with us. Taken a step further, when these attitudes are taught in church, or articulated by those who claim to be Christian, this is what might be heard (whether or not it’s intended): “God does not approve of you. Poverty is your punishment.”

IMG_1867

But poverty is not a punishment. Regardless of what our worldly, materialistic consumer-driven society might tell us, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Shame can drive us to do all sorts of destructive things to ourselves (physically, emotionally, and spiritually), and in my experience, I haven’t found a single beneficial value in shaming others. I’m going to continue this topic in a future post, but for now, I want to end with a message to the many friends I have who are struggling right now: I believe in your goodness. You matter. And no matter how difficult life might seem at times, I’m cheering you on.

Life among the ruins

A family I met last week in Haiti has changed my life. It’s hard to know yet how exactly this encounter will affect me because I’m still processing it, but I’d like to share the story as it is right now. This is just the beginning.

The Wesley Foundation work team from CU-Boulder that I traveled with spent the week at a clinic run by Partners in Development, a Boston-based non-profit whose mission is “to serve the poorest of the poor,” which is quite ambitious in a country that was already impoverished before the earthquake two years ago displaced countless people who are now living in tents where one-room homes without electricity or running water once stood. PID runs a clinic that provides free access to basic health care, a mobile clinic that reaches residents of a tent city about once a month, a child sponsorship program, and a small business loan program.

While the rest of the team was assisting with the construction of a new house, I stayed behind at the clinic because my still-recovering ankle wasn’t stable enough for me to be at the muddy worksite (it is, after all, rainy season). The director of PID learned that I had experience working with children and asked me to meet with a single mother whose two oldest sons were habitually stealing and staying out all night. The mother (I’ll call her Marie-Jean) was stressed out, neighbors were complaining, and there was nowhere to send the boys (I’ll call them Daniel and Josiah) in order to get them to start behaving better. My task was to attempt to learn why the boys were acting out. We weren’t sure if I would have any luck, but we figured it would be worth trying.

I had to work with a translator because my Creole is very limited, and the family doesn’t speak English. I started out by directly asking the boys why they were stealing, and the response was not at all what I expected: “I’m hungry and my stomach hurts,” Daniel said. “We don’t have anything to eat at home,” Josiah explained.

The vast majority of Haitians struggle to put food on the table, but I initially wondered if Marie-Jean was depriving the two older sons of meals because, from what I had heard from the director, she had expressed interest in placing them in an orphanage, which simply isn’t feasible, as the orphanages are still completely full in the aftermath of the earthquake. As for why the boys were running away from home, well, they knew that they would get in trouble when their mother found out they were stealing, so they would hide all night in fear.

Marie-Jean’s brows were permanently furrowed, and she looked terrified. She told me that she did not have any money, so she wasn’t always able to provide food for her five children. I thought back to a book I had recently read that asserted lack of money is not the biggest obstacle to overcoming poverty, and I started asking her about what resources she had in her life.

I learned that her husband had abandoned her and moved to another country before taking up with another woman, her parents had died, and her siblings lived so far away that she had no means to travel to see them. In other words, Marie-Jean was completely on her own without a family support network. Her three younger children need constant attention, so she doesn’t venture far from her home very often. At least she can occasionally visit with friends.

In the midst of this conversation, my brain was on overload trying to figure out what to say to the boys. How could I say, “Don’t steal. It’s wrong,” when they were literally stealing to survive? I felt like I was talking to a young Jean Valjean. They claimed to be stealing food and also money to buy something to eat, but I wondered if they were really stealing candy instead of nutritious food. But when I asked them what their favorite food was, one said “corn” and the other said “rice.” This…from a 12-year old and 10-year old! Where in the world was I? Oh right…Haiti.

I asked the boys what would motivate them to stop stealing, and Daniel said that he would be less likely to misbehave if he could go to church. He said that God could change his heart, and he would be able to endure being hungry. This was when I learned about yet another barrier in Haitian culture: church. You see, it’s not culturally acceptable to go to church in “regular” clothes. This is the one place where Haitians go all out and wear fancy attire, and while American churches have tended to become increasingly casual, churchgoers would be shunned if they showed up in clothing that was perceived as disrespectful or ir-reverent.

And, of course, Marie-Jean did not have the money to buy church clothes for her family. Nor did she have transportation to travel half an hour away to the nearest town whose stores and market sell this merchandise. It seemed surreal to me that money was standing between this family and their faith when Jesus was such an advocate for the poor. Plus, I couldn’t possibly tell a 12-year old boy that he should go to church because God would prefer for him to starve than to steal. Seriously. Surreal.

By this point, you might be wondering why I didn’t just offer to give them some food. This brings up yet another issue. I simply don’t have the personal resources to provide for everyone in the world (or Haiti…or just that village) who is hungry. It’s not like I could buy them a meal and then be done with it. This is chronic malnourishment and all the health complications that go along with long-term starvation.

And even if I could provide them with some food to solve the problem, well, I would be leaving Haiti in a few days, and PID would be left to cope with the aftermath when word got out that a “blanc” (white person) had been handing out food. One thing I’ve learned about visiting other countries is that it’s incredibly important to be mindful of the culture and not do anything that will create bigger problems.

I kept asking questions and trying to gather as much information as possible. I asked the boys how they felt about worrying their mother. They were ashamed and knew they were disappointing her. I asked Marie-Jean about what might make her situation better. She said that she would like to start a business selling food in front of her house because, even if she could find a job somewhere (there aren’t any), she would not be able to work away from home due to her younger children.

Now we were getting somewhere. The social worker for the clinic (a Haitian who had also benefited from the resources of PID) was present during this part of the conversation, and he might be able to come up with some ideas about how to proceed. In the meantime, I asked them if they could return the next day with all of the children. They agreed to, and then I hesitantly asked if they wanted to pray together. A resounding “yes.”

I say “hesitantly” because I made a vow a long time ago that I would not attempt to convert people to Christianity. Yes, you read that right. Some of you might have gasped and immediately started praying for my doomed soul, but the truth is that I don’t believe in classic evangelism. I’ve seen the dark side of this approach–African villages abandoned by missionaries who disrupt traditional family units (many of which are not nuclear families in the Western sense) and then leave the locals to fend for themselves when the mission appointment is finished. Faith is a lifelong journey, and conversion is not something that I think can happen in an isolated instant without continued followup in community-based relationship. Faith changes over time, and that’s OK…in fact, it’s probably desirable. Plus, I’ve seen God’s love in plenty of folks who aren’t Christian, I believe that salvation is universal, and the United Methodist Church (my denominational affiliation) overtly states that religious minorities should be respected.

So here I was sitting across the table from this family who probably hadn’t prayed with anyone non-blood relatedn quite some time, and I sensed that they craved a shared prayer. I offered it not because I wanted to convert them to Christianity (after all, they seemed pretty devout without my contribution) but because I was meeting them where they were, instead of where I was. Sure, I’d made a commitment not to proselytize or be “that” kind of Christian. But really, I wasn’t either of those things. I was trying to be present in a way that would be comforting to them. I was trying to model God’s love. 

They wanted me to lead the prayer, so I prayed for well-behaved children whose bellies were full of corn and rice, for a mother who wouldn’t have to worry about how to feed her children, and for peaceful souls who could have faith that God provides. I didn’t know if any of those things would ever come to pass, but I believed that it was possible for this one family to experience improved circumstances.

After the meeting, I reported to the director of PID about what I had learned. She responded that this was an “emergency situation” and that we should act fast before the boys had the chance to steal again. Alicia Fall, the director of Her Many Voices (the non-profit that coordinated our trip to Haiti) had brought quite a bit of non-perishable food that had originally been planned for our team members before we learned that our meals would be provided at the clinic site. PID was able to get food to Marie-Jean’s family by the end of the day, and the boys haven’t stolen since that first meeting last week!!!

I’ll tell you more about the subsequent visits with the family in future blog posts. In closing, I just want to say that I witnessed an amazing transformation in Marie-Jean and her children over the course of a few days. And as they transformed, I did as well. Sometimes in spite of my idealism that along with others I can help make the world a better place, my realism brings me down. I still can’t help but wonder about the hundreds of millions of other families who are in a similar situation. After all, almost a billion people in this world don’t have access to clean drinking water. And I can’t solve that problem alone. It’s too big. But our small work team, with the expertise of PID, has been able to help one of those families, and seeing them change so quickly has been quite incredible.

A tent city in Port-au-Prince

Homeless in the shadow of cathedral ruins

To all my sisters in this world: You are not a whore

I’ve been biting my tongue quite a bit in the midst of recent verbal and political attacks on women because, to be honest, it’s too emotional of a topic for me, but I’ve reached a breaking point where I can no longer be silent. Too much is at stake. Specifically, the dignity and respect for women in a culture that is increasingly divisive, abusive, and downright nasty. Here is my response to this statement by Rush Limbaugh: “What does it say about the college co-ed Susan Fluke [sic] who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex — what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex.”

…………………………………………………………
¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯

To my biological sister as you are celebrating your birthday today, you are not a whore. So maybe I’ve called you some not-so-nice names on occasion, but I hope you know how much I love you. I’m proud of who you are, the person you are becoming, and to call you both my sister and my friend.

To my sisters whom I count as friends and relatives, you are not a whore. We have shared laughter and tears, hugs and disagreements, and countless discussions about matters both serious and trivial. I’ve watched you raise children, bury loved ones, marry, divorce, graduate from school, learn to drive a car, run marathons, and cope with cancer or other devastating diseases. I love you all. Every single one of you.

To my sisters with whom I’ve worked and collaborated, you are not a whore. I might have disagreed with how you graded a paper or delivered a lecture or interpreted a piece of music. But I love you for putting yourself out there, and I suspect that at times I’ve done things differently than you would have liked.

To my sisters who have globe-trotted with me, you are not a whore. You have seen me at my most irritable, frantic, adventuresome, enthusiastic, and sleep-deprived. We’ve gotten lost together, discovered hidden gems, and learned more about ourselves than we ever could have staying put in our little insular comfort zone called home.

To my sisters I’ve encountered in passing, perhaps not even knowing your name, you are not a whore. I might have cast a disapproving look, but I’ve learned along the way that I probably didn’t know or understand everything that you were going through. I might have grinned and greeted you with a friendly salutation. I hope so. I hope you caught me on one of my good days, especially if that was the only day you’d ever see me. But I know that some of you have seen me at my worst.

To my sisters whom I’ve never met, you are not a whore. There are a lot of you out there. Billions, in fact. Some of you have done some stuff that isn’t very nice or loving. So have I. That doesn’t mean you deserve to be dehumanized and called cruel, insensitive, judgmental labels as if you’re an animal or an inanimate object. You are human, and you are loved. I’ll try to do a better job of showing it.

To my sisters who have walked into a doctor’s office or a college campus clinic or (gasp!) Planned Parenthood to have access to birth control pills or other forms of contraception, you are not a whore. You don’t need to tell me why you are on the pill. I really don’t need or want to know. It might be because you have endometriosis and are dealing with excruciating pain in your pelvic region. Or perhaps you’re secretly saving up money to escape from your abusive husband and hoping not to get pregnant as he rapes you night after night. Or maybe you have irregular periods with painful cramping, acne that’s so pervasive that you’re shy about leaving the house without wearing thick makeup, or some other hormonal imbalance that is easily regulated by the pill. Or, yeah, I’ll go there…maybe you’re having consensual sex and don’t want to get pregnant. It’s OK. I might not think it’s a good idea for you to be having sex. You might be too young to make an informed decision about whether you’re really ready, you might be doing it because you think it’s the only way to keep your boyfriend around, or maybe you were raped at a young age and don’t have a reference for what a healthy, respectful sexual relationship should look like. Or maybe you just enjoy having sex. That’s OK, too. A lot of people have sex. In fact, I think that I could count on one hand the number of people I know over the age of 18 who haven’t had sex. If I use all 10 fingers, I could probably count the number of people who waited until they were married. You don’t need to explain yourself to me. It’s none of my business why you choose to have sex. Whatever the reason, that doesn’t justify me–or anyone–dehumanizing you by calling you cruel names.

To my sisters who have become pregnant out of wedlock, you are not a whore. Goodness knows you’ve probably beaten yourself up enough as you watched your belly grow or chose not to continue the pregnancy. You might be dealing with the emotional highs and lows of raising a child on your own while the father continually says, “Not my problem; I shouldn’t have to pay for this kid just because you got knocked up.” I don’t know what that’s like, but I imagine it’s difficult, in spite of the immense joy of cradling a baby in your arms, watching your child grow, and trying to juggle parenthood and work, perhaps with very little support from judgmental, um, “friends” and family. But we all know that the only difference between you and most of the women you know is that they didn’t get pregnant for doing the exact same thing (sex) that you did. They might have even had a lot more sex–with a lot more partners–than you ever have. That’s the thing about pregnancy–it’s kind of random, and if we’re being honest, many of the people who are judging you could indeed have been in your exact same place. Who knows–maybe they will someday. You shouldn’t feel ashamed. Goodness knows the father doesn’t have to go through the same thing that you do.

To my sisters who stand up for your sisters, you are not a whore. You might be like me and have a friend who has needed the pill for one of the many reasons that I listed above. You might have been in the process of defending your friend who has ovarian cysts that could develop into cancer without the hormonal regulation provided by birth control pills when an insensitive radio show host accused you of prostituting yourself because you believe in speaking out against injustice. I know that you simply want your college-aged friend to have access to a relatively inexpensive pill that will alleviate her debilitating condition. And so do the many other women who have either dealt with cysts or know someone who has.

To my sisters who have tried to conceive but can’t, you are not a whore. Maybe you’ll end up adopting a child from one of your sisters who found herself in an unplanned pregnancy. I doubt that you’d call the mother of your child a whore, and I hope that you’ll have the opportunity to be a mother if that’s what you want to do. Children are amazing. If you want kids, that is. If you don’t, you might not think they are so incredible. You might find them intimidating, grubby little germ-transmitters, or incompatible with your lifestyle. That’s OK too.

To my sisters who are lesbians, you are not a whore. Isn’t it ironic that you are judged for being gay and yet you’re also the least likely female population to get pregnant? (which would otherwise seem to be a virtue in the eyes of those who reduce women to “whores” when we want access to affordable birth control.)

To my sisters with chromosomal abnormalities that make it difficult for you to decide how to establish a sexual identity or those who feel a disconnect between your biological sex organs and the way you experience your gender, you are not a whore. So you were born “intersex,” a term that has rather recently replaced the older reference to Greek mythology, “hermaphrodite.” Or maybe you’ve been called a “tranny” or other derogatory terms by those who don’t understand what you’re going through. It’s already difficult enough to figure out which box to check when you are given only two options (male/female) and you know full well that biology isn’t that simple. You might have recently learned that your parents and doctor chose to assign a particular gender to you as a young child without asking how you felt about the matter. Or maybe you’re frustrated and depressed because you don’t feel like you belong in your own skin and you don’t know what to do. You might look like a woman, or maybe you want to look like a woman. When you hear other women being labeled as “whores,” you might tense up because as bad as that word sounds, at least they “fit into a box” on forms.

To my sisters whom I’ve somehow left out of this list, you are not a whore. I tried to be as inclusive as I could be, but I am also aware that the diversity of the human experience is far greater than I can ever articulate here. I’m thinking of you, the 11-year old girl (although now you’re older) raped by your stepfather and who became pregnant with twins, only to be informed by the Catholic Church that your tiny little pelvis on your 80-pound frame should have attempted to carry the two fetuses to term even if it meant you most likely would have died because, according to an archbishop, “The law of God is higher than any human laws.” I don’t know how to explain that to you when you’re a child who is coping with the fact that you’ve been raped and violated in horrible ways that I can’t even imagine, only to be told that it’s God’s will for you to die in childbirth. That’s not the same God that I’ve come to know.

As I reflect back over this dedication to all my sisters in the world, I can’t help but notice that I still have a tendency to try to defend the morality of some of you more than others. It’s the judgmental side of me–my default mode–that I work so hard to overcome. I feel the need to defend the 11-year old who has been raped, but somehow that affects me in a different emotional way than those who are of consensual age and actively, repeatedly choosing to have sex.

Yet, the more I think about it, the more I become aware that there really isn’t any difference. For we are all connected, with every breath of shared air that we inhale and exhale, and it’s when we start to divide people into categories of morally “right” or “wrong” that we get into trouble. I’m not saying that we should excuse those who intentionally harm others or themselves. Accountability is important. It’s a question of how we go about holding one another accountable. We can do it by calling each other names like “whore,” but I don’t believe that such an approach is very loving or effective. Maybe we can shame people into “morally correct” behavior (although looking around, I’m not convinced that shaming has a very good success rate). Or maybe we could be a little more loving and grace-full in our approach.

Last week I had a conversation with a very wise pastor who also happens to be the director of the children’s home where I volunteer. He told me that his approach to ministry and life is based on a book by a theologian named Miroslav Volf who argues that exclusion = sin, and inclusion = embrace/grace. For God’s love encompasses us all–every single human being on this planet–even when we might not deserve it. And a lot of us have done some not-so great things. I think of Jesus’ words: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (Matthew 25:45). Every time I turn my back on one of my sisters (or brothers), I am turning my back on God. Yeah, so Jesus was nailed to a cross. It’s been almost 2,000 years since that happened. We need to stop nailing each other to crosses with our words, actions, and inactions.

Oh, and for you men out there who are reading this and wondering, “What’s with all this sister talk?,” here is my dedication to you:

To my brothers in this world, you are not a whore. Sometimes I get frustrated with you when you say mean things about us women, but I know that most of you are on our side. And really, we’re all on the same side. I’ve got your back, and I hope you’ll treat me with respect as well. We’re all in this world together, and I love you deeply, fully, unconditionally, and as patiently as I can manage. Even when my temper gets short (and goodness knows that some of you have seen that side of me…thanks for putting up with my imperfections…I’m eternally grateful…)

[Update on 3/4/12: Thank you to everyone who has commented here and shared this little musing of mine. I wrote it very quickly and had no way of anticipating that it would go viral. I am truly humbled by the kind words of support, and I feel much more optimistic about this dialogue than I did a few days ago. Peace and gratitude.]

[Update on 12/3/14: Originally I planned to let this post stand as it was first published, but every once in a while when I think back on it, there are things that I want to revise. Rather than do a massive rewrite, I’ll just add a brief thought on something that came up in one of the comments below. It’s been a while since I wrote this entry, so I’m not sure if I can recall every detail of what was going through my mind. One thing is for certain as I’m typing at this very moment: the stigma that’s associated with sex work is something we need to push back on. I used the term “whore” in part to reclaim it (and also because I believe it was being used by chauvinistic pundits at the time). But in instances where an adult sex worker chooses freely to engage in this line of work (in all its varieties), I want to be clear: I support you and will do my best to speak out if I hear attacks on you and your choices.]