Against the Grain

The Provost sat behind his oak desk, which had a noticeable wood-grain pattern. As I waited, my thoughts followed a line which began at one corner and meandered across the length of the desk. Before the tree that furnished this wood had been harvested and constructed into furniture, that same line once marked a pattern of growth. The desk’s owner was sitting across from me, reading and frowning as he read the single sheet of paper I handed him. He paused to look at me, and my attention moved up from my intense exploration of the oak veneer to meet his gaze.

“You don’t actually need my signature,” he said. “No one even uses this form anymore. All you need is a transfer.”

I knew that was true. I had been accepted to another University, and I simply needed to request my transcripts. But, this meeting wasn’t about my academic status. He knew that, too.

“I wanted your time, not just your signature.” That truth seemed to get his attention. “I hear that you said the values of Social Work were incompatible with Christianity. I disagree, and I wanted to explain the rationale for why.” My intention was to move into a well rehearsed speech about the radical inclusion reflected in the teachings of Jesus which ran counter to the culture of the place and time in which he lived. I was about to begin with an argument grounded in the writings of Peter Berger and planned to move on to contemporary theological applications of social action which mirrored the historical foundations of Jane Addams and the settlement house movement. I had spent the past year reading, studying, and forming my own understanding of the spiritual and vocational shift that was taking place in my life at that time, the dawning of my second decade. I was prepared to discuss it in a manner befitting the academic standing of a Provost.

I wasn’t given the opportunity, though. The Provost leaned across his desk and said, “The decision is made. It’s final. We are not having a social work major here.”

“I want you to tell me why.” I said. I was feeling bold: I was a Sophomore (thus, I thought I knew everything) and I had already effectively, and successfully, transferred from this “Christian” College to a public University. The developing Social Work program here had come under fire during its first accreditation attempt for one reason: the school’s refusal to not discriminate based on gender or sexual orientation. I knew this was the reason, but I needed this man to say it. I wanted him to hear his own hypocrisy. “This school is founded on Christian Values, and that is all there is to say.” Indeed, that was all he would say. No logical or critical reflection was allowed; that defensive, rigid veneer was it for him.

He signed the paper and handed it back to me. He didn’t rise. He didn’t shake my hand or wish me well. He didn’t even acknowledge me as I rose, thanked him for his time, turned, and let myself out.

Like the tree that furnished wood for his desk, my growth had also been sliced through. I felt this truth viscerally, deep in my soul, as tears welled up in my eyes once the interview had ended and I was alone. I was still wounded from those blades, the sharp losses that had severed my spiritual life from my professional development. The argument I would have made to him if I had been granted the opportunity to do so wasn’t even from religious conviction. My faith had been ripped from me already. My dearest friend had been cast out from religious community when it was revealed he was HIV+, my most challenging and thought provoking faculty mentors were asked to leave for allowing young adults to question accepted “fact” through critical dialogue, I was told I was flawed to my own core simply for loving who I loved, and now the profession of Social Work that had reached out to embrace me after the church abandoned me was itself banished from the school I was attending.

I had aligned myself with the outsiders, those who were cast out, the persecuted, those who were discriminated against. It reminded me of another historical figure, one whose name the people doing the discriminating seemed to toss around pretty freely. The guy who hung out with social outcasts and debated the meaning of holy scriptures with women, and fish catchers. The one who questioned tradition, who argued with the leaders, who used critical questioning and metaphor to encourage people to get at deeper truths instead of superficial meanings. Yeah, that guy. The same one who, if those stories were true, would certainly not appreciate his name being used to justify discrimination.

On my walk across campus to pack up my dorm room, I walked by the pristine pillars of the John and Charles Wesley Chapel. They looked like giant bars. I wondered: were they trying to keep something out, or trying to control something they were afraid might slip away?

Earlier that week, I had written a letter to the church to which I belonged at that time asking to rescind my membership. I originally considered asking to rescind my baptismal vows, too, but later changed my mind. I didn’t really have any animosity toward Jesus himself, nor his teachings. I would give him the benefit of the doubt, and recognize my heritage. Like it or not, it had formed me to this point. Maybe I would have hung around and fought for justice in the church as I once thought I might, but I wasn’t willing to use the Christian label any more. It had been tarnished beyond repair for me, no matter what color it was stained and how much it was polished. Call it whatever you want, but discrimination in the name of religion is still what it is: discrimination. Hate. Dismissal of the divine spark of life and potential inherent in every human being. I wanted no part of that, even if it cost me my faith.

Ironically, I now realize justice is where my faith has lived all along. Over time, each has fed and strengthened the other.

Now, it is twenty-five years later. As if we are children who have to keep repeating our mistakes, we are still trying to mix religion and discrimination. I read today about a group of people in Arizona who have taken their polished veneer of religion and convinced the state Senate (via SB1062) to use it to make discrimination look nicer, more appealing, all glossed over just because they applied their understanding of “God” to their hatred and fear. Jesus would not be pleased. Incidentally, neither would the Buddha, nor hundreds of spiritual and religious leaders across multiple traditions who understand that no one benefits from discrimination and hate. In fact, it is discrimination and hate that keep us from a knowledge of divine love and grace, in all the beautiful and multi-faceted ways in which the religions and spiritual traditions of this world allow us to experience and express.

Where is the small point of light in this? It came to me today as I signed a petition to veto SB1062 in Arizona. I added my name, and a favorite quote from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Dr. King knew a thing or two about religion, and about politics. He understood deeply that any form of discrimination of people against people pulls us away from the knowledge and love of the divine. Putting that into law further separates our civic and our spiritual lives. Why must great leaders and teachers die to convince people to take that seriously?

The small point of light in this story is in the wood grain that runs through my memory. I have learned that it is worth it to go against the grain, to trust and invest in the divine dignity and worth of every human being. My Social Work ethics tell me this. The baptismal covenant of my own faith tradition reminds me of this. My respect for and worship alongside diverse family and friends convinces me of this. My calling to a life of vocational ministry that mixes social justice, human compassion, and divine love is a response to this.

May our religion and faith not lead us to discrimination, but invite us to the grace and growth of inclusion.

If you are interested in signing the petition to ask Arizona’s governor to veto SB1062, you can visit:

About harasprice

Professor of Social Work and Priest in The Episcopal Church, parent, teacher, learner, writer, advocate, and grateful traveller along this journey through life
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