Archive for October 2009

97-year-old L.A. homeless woman gets a home

October 21, 2009

Nice to see a happy ending, even if it’s only enough to get them through the winter.
Follow up to story that I posted earlier:

October 19, 2009 |  7:05 pm
Bessie, 97 and homeless
A 97-year-old homeless woman who was living with her two sons in a battered 1973 Chevrolet Suburban in Venice has received a temporary home, compliments of a nonprofit Los Angeles housing group.

Bessie Mae Berger and sons Larry Wilkerson, 60, and Charlie Wilkerson, 62, had parked nightly on Venice Boulevard after losing their home in Palm Springs and failing to find a place to stay in Northern California.

But a Times story Friday that detailed her plight prompted authorities from the city, the county and the state to step up efforts to assist the trio and led the Integrated Recovery Network to offer them immediate shelter.

The three are now staying at the California Villa Retirement Hotel in Van Nuys, Charlie Wilkerson said today. “We can make arrangements for the first three months,” said Marsha Temple, the recovery network’s executive director.

She said her group will also work to obtain additional long-term benefits for the three. The recovery network is funded by Kaiser Permanente, the Corp. for Supportive Housing and private donations and can provide placements for those who fall through the cracks for governmental services, she said.

— Bob Pool

Photo: Bessie Mae Berger sleeps in the front seat of the 1973 Chevolet Suburban. Among the items on the dashboard: lottery tickets. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)


We Don’t Want to Talk About It!

October 19, 2009

I posted John Shelby Spong’s “Manifesto! The Time Has Come!” the other day ( My friend Will McGarvey commented on that post, wondering “if enough of us ministers would go public – not just on our blogs, or congregations, but on the floor of presbytery – if we could change the conversation. Perhaps we are too silent in the fact that we won’t participate in the spiritual abuse of the ongoing conversations in their current form.”

BTW, I served for some time on the board of a now-defunct inclusive church organization, the Lazarus Project, that had made the same prophetic we-won’t-debate-because-it-gives-legitimacy-to-their-arguments decision twenty-some years ago…

But Will’s comment triggered a connection in my brain about Spong’s thinking and the counterpoint of an overture that is being proposed by a church in my presbytery. Here is the text of that overture:

Stated Clerk
Presbytery of San Gabriel
630 N. Dalton Ave.
Azusa, CA  91702

Dear Mr. Wendel,

Re: Overture to the Presbytery of San Gabriel

The Session of Glenkirk respectfully overtures the Presbytery of San Gabriel to overture the General Assembly to charge the Moderator of the General Assembly to appoint a Task Force to evaluate the correlation between the debates over G-6.0106b and the accelerating decline of membership and congregations in the PC(USA) over the past 43 years and to estimate the number of congregations that are likely to leave the PC(USA) in the event that G-6.0106b is eliminated or significantly revised; also that the General Assembly declare a moratorium over debate of G-6.0106b until reasons for decline are identified and a strategic plan is developed to stop the decline of the PC(USA).


According to the denomination’s reporting (, the denomination has lost 399,645 members since 1997. The same source states that the PC(USA) has lost 475 congregations since 1997. At the end of 2008 there were 10,751 congregations and 2,140,165 members in PC(USA), a net loss of 69,381 members from 2007 and a loss of 69 congregations during that period.

In a 2006 research paper entitled Recent Changes in Membership and Attendance in Mainline Protestant Denominations by Perry Chang of Ministry Services of the General Assembly Council, Chang states that the decline of nearly 200,000 members between 1999 and 2004 in the PC(USA)’s membership is noteworthy since this was the steepest decline of members of any mainline Protestant denomination during that period. Chang points out that one of the causes for decline may be debates over social issues, and he urges that the decline merits further research and discussion and that such discussion may in turn slow the continued decline of the denomination.

The movement of the PC(USA) from a straightforward interpretation of the Scriptures to a “progressive” one which accepts ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals has created publicity for the denomination which is potentially a deterrent to growth. It may likewise have a significant impact on the financial strength of the denomination. Because of the defeat of the movement to revise G-6.0106b by the denomination’s Presbyteries in 1998, 1999, 2002 and 2009, and because of the accelerating decline of the denomination, a moratorium on further debate is appropriate until an assessment of the correlation between this long standing debate and church decline can be made.

As we watch the debate within and the decline of the Episcopal Church in the United States linked to the same issues with which the PC(USA) has struggled for so many years, it is incumbent upon our leaders to evaluate the role this issue has had on the continuing decline of the denomination and to develop strategies to stop the flow of members and congregations in order to ensure the stability of the PC(USA) and its missions.

Very truly yours,
Patricia Albert
Clerk of Session

[This overture comes from a large, rich church that refuses to pay their per capita assessment (“dues”) to the PC(USA) because they disagree with actions that have been taken by the denomination, despite the fact that the conversation has been going on for over thirty years and they have prevailed at each step along the way. Ironically, funds for their proposed study would be taken out of per capita paid by other faithful Presbyterian congregations–but not by them. A further irony is that their pastor’s sermon yesterday was entitled “Why Are Christians So Legalistic?”]

The PC(USA)’s Book of Order (constitution) on ordination standards reads (in part):

“Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman (W-4.9001), or chastity in singleness. Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledge practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders, or ministers of the Word and Sacrament.” (G-6.0106b, The Book of Order)

This overture to the presbytery that would be sent on to the denomination’s General Assembly next summer is a very unhealthy attempt to squelch debate, particularly on the ordination of openly same gender-loving people in the church. The Presbyterian Church has a history of conversation–indeed, it is considered to be part of our “call” as Christians to try to work things out.

I am reminded of a scripture passage from Matthew 5:

“If you bring your gift to the table and there remember that your sister or brother has a grudge against you, leave your gift there at the altar. Go to be reconciled to them, and then come and offer your gift. Lose no time in settling with your opponents—do so while still on the way to the courthouse with them. Otherwise your opponents may hand you over to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the bailiff, who will throw you into prison. I warn you, you won’t get out until you have paid the last penny.”

How is it that I can justify Spong’s call to squelch debate while rejecting Glenkirk’s call to do the same thing?I will list only three most basic ones here, but there are more:

  • First of all, Spong has been involved in conversation and debate on this topic for many years. His decision is one to discontinue further debate. Glenkirk (and many others who have adamantly supported keeping LGBT people from full participation in the church) has always done what they could to keep the conversation one-sided, systematically excluding the voices of LGBT people.
  • More importantly, Spong recognizes and honors the people who are impacted by the exclusionary policies and actions of church and society, while Glenkirk et. al. talk instead of the “homosexual issue” as if it weren’t something making a difference in the lives of real people, but instead mere theory.
  • Bishop Spong is saying that HE, HIMSELF will no longer participate in such conversations; Glenkirk is saying that they want to mandate that all of us–THE WHOLE CHURCH–shut up while a study (which is impossible to successfully conduct) is done.

[The most current civil parallel is that of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue policy of the US military; thousands of people are serving and have served this country proudly and honorably, and when they are kicked out for being gay or lesbian, not only do they lose their current livelihood–they lose all accrued pension benefits and other post-service benefits that their straight counterparts receive after leaving the military. But many who want to retain DADT speak as if it were an issue in a vacuum.]

As always, let me know what you think…

Manifesto! The Time Has Come!

October 17, 2009

Powerful statement from John Shelby Spong, who was bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark for 24 years before his retirement in 2001.

Thursday October 15, 2009

I have made a decision. I will no longer debate the issue of homosexuality in the church with anyone. I will no longer engage the biblical ignorance that emanates from so many right-wing Christians about how the Bible condemns homosexuality, as if that point of view still has any credibility. I will no longer discuss with them or listen to them tell me how homosexuality is “an abomination to God,” about how homosexuality is a “chosen lifestyle,” or about how through prayer and “spiritual counseling” homosexual persons can be “cured.” Those arguments are no longer worthy of my time or energy. I will no longer dignify by listening to the thoughts of those who advocate “reparative therapy,” as if homosexual persons are somehow broken and need to be repaired. I will no longer talk to those who believe that the unity of the church can or should be achieved by rejecting the presence of, or at least at the expense of, gay and lesbian people. I will no longer take the time to refute the unlearned and undocumentable claims of certain world religious leaders who call homosexuality “deviant.” I will no longer listen to that pious sentimentality that certain Christian leaders continue to employ, which suggests some version of that strange and overtly dishonest phrase that “we love the sinner but hate the sin.” That statement is, I have concluded, nothing more than a self-serving lie designed to cover the fact that these people hate homosexual persons and fear homosexuality itself, but somehow know that hatred is incompatible with the Christ they claim to profess, so they adopt this face-saving and absolutely false statement. I will no longer temper my understanding of truth in order to pretend that I have even a tiny smidgen of respect for the appalling negativity that continues to emanate from religious circles where the church has for centuries conveniently perfumed its ongoing prejudices against blacks, Jews, women and homosexual persons with what it assumes is “high-sounding, pious rhetoric.” The day for that mentality has quite simply come to an end for me. I will personally neither tolerate it nor listen to it any longer. The world has moved on, leaving these elements of the Christian Church that cannot adjust to new knowledge or a new consciousness lost in a sea of their own irrelevance. They no longer talk to anyone but themselves. I will no longer seek to slow down the witness to inclusiveness by pretending that there is some middle ground between prejudice and oppression. There isn’t. Justice postponed is justice denied. That can be a resting place no longer for anyone. An old civil rights song proclaimed that the only choice awaiting those who cannot adjust to a new understanding was to “Roll on over or we’ll roll on over you!” Time waits for no one.

I will particularly ignore those members of my own Episcopal Church who seek to break away from this body to form a “new church,” claiming that this new and bigoted instrument alone now represents the Anglican Communion. Such a new ecclesiastical body is designed to allow these pathetic human beings, who are so deeply locked into a world that no longer exists, to form a community in which they can continue to hate gay people, distort gay people with their hopeless rhetoric and to be part of a religious fellowship in which they can continue to feel justified in their homophobic prejudices for the rest of their tortured lives. Church unity can never be a virtue that is preserved by allowing injustice, oppression and psychological tyranny to go unchallenged.

In my personal life, I will no longer listen to televised debates conducted by “fair-minded” channels that seek to give “both sides” of this issue “equal time.” I am aware that these stations no longer give equal time to the advocates of treating women as if they are the property of men or to the advocates of reinstating either segregation or slavery, despite the fact that when these evil institutions were coming to an end the Bible was still being quoted frequently on each of these subjects. It is time for the media to announce that there are no longer two sides to the issue of full humanity for gay and lesbian people. There is no way that justice for homosexual people can be compromised any longer.

I will no longer act as if the Papal office is to be respected if the present occupant of that office is either not willing or not able to inform and educate himself on public issues on which he dares to speak with embarrassing ineptitude. I will no longer be respectful of the leadership of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who seems to believe that rude behavior, intolerance and even killing prejudice is somehow acceptable, so long as it comes from third-world religious leaders, who more than anything else reveal in themselves the price that colonial oppression has required of the minds and hearts of so many of our world’s population. I see no way that ignorance and truth can be placed side by side, nor do I believe that evil is somehow less evil if the Bible is quoted to justify it. I will dismiss as unworthy of any more of my attention the wild, false and uninformed opinions of such would-be religious leaders as Pat Robertson, James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart, Albert Mohler, and Robert Duncan. My country and my church have both already spent too much time, energy and money trying to accommodate these backward points of view when they are no longer even tolerable.

I make these statements because it is time to move on. The battle is over. The victory has been won. There is no reasonable doubt as to what the final outcome of this struggle will be. Homosexual people will be accepted as equal, full human beings, who have a legitimate claim on every right that both church and society have to offer any of us. Homosexual marriages will become legal, recognized by the state and pronounced holy by the church. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” will be dismantled as the policy of our armed forces. We will and we must learn that equality of citizenship is not something that should ever be submitted to a referendum. Equality under and before the law is a solemn promise conveyed to all our citizens in the Constitution itself. Can any of us imagine having a public referendum on whether slavery should continue, whether segregation should be dismantled, whether voting privileges should be offered to women? The time has come for politicians to stop hiding behind unjust laws that they themselves helped to enact, and to abandon that convenient shield of demanding a vote on the rights of full citizenship because they do not understand the difference between a constitutional democracy, which this nation has, and a “mobocracy,” which this nation rejected when it adopted its constitution. We do not put the civil rights of a minority to the vote of a plebiscite.

I will also no longer act as if I need a majority vote of some ecclesiastical body in order to bless, ordain, recognize and celebrate the lives and gifts of gay and lesbian people in the life of the church. No one should ever again be forced to submit the privilege of citizenship in this nation or membership in the Christian Church to the will of a majority vote.

The battle in both our culture and our church to rid our souls of this dying prejudice is finished. A new consciousness has arisen. A decision has quite clearly been made. Inequality for gay and lesbian people is no longer a debatable issue in either church or state. Therefore, I will from this moment on refuse to dignify the continued public expression of ignorant prejudice by engaging it. I do not tolerate racism or sexism any longer. From this moment on, I will no longer tolerate our culture’s various forms of homophobia. I do not care who it is who articulates these attitudes or who tries to make them sound holy with religious jargon.

I have been part of this debate for years, but things do get settled and this issue is now settled for me. I do not debate any longer with members of the “Flat Earth Society” either. I do not debate with people who think we should treat epilepsy by casting demons out of the epileptic person; I do not waste time engaging those medical opinions that suggest that bleeding the patient might release the infection. I do not converse with people who think that Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans as punishment for the sin of being the birthplace of Ellen DeGeneres or that the terrorists hit the United Sates on 9/11 because we tolerated homosexual people, abortions, feminism or the American Civil Liberties Union. I am tired of being embarrassed by so much of my church’s participation in causes that are quite unworthy of the Christ I serve or the God whose mystery and wonder I appreciate more each day. Indeed I feel the Christian Church should not only apologize, but do public penance for the way we have treated people of color, women, adherents of other religions and those we designated heretics, as well as gay and lesbian people.

Life moves on. As the poet James Russell Lowell once put it more than a century ago: “New occasions teach new duties, Time makes ancient good uncouth.” I am ready now to claim the victory. I will from now on assume it and live into it. I am unwilling to argue about it or to discuss it as if there are two equally valid, competing positions any longer. The day for that mentality has simply gone forever.

This is my manifesto and my creed. I proclaim it today. I invite others to join me in this public declaration. I believe that such a public outpouring will help cleanse both the church and this nation of its own distorting past. It will restore integrity and honor to both church and state. It will signal that a new day has dawned and we are ready not just to embrace it, but also to rejoice in it and to celebrate it.

~ John Shelby Spong (

LA Times: Woman, 97, has a front seat to homelessness

October 17, 2009

I wrote about homelessness the other day. Yesterday the LA Times ran this story. Part of my family is Wilkersons, and we are preparing to have a family reunion in two weeks…


Woman, 97, has a front seat to homelessness

Bessie Mae Berger and her two sons, 60 and 62, live in a rusty 1973 Suburban. Getting a place is hard because they insist on staying together.

Bessie, 97 and homelessBessie Mae Berger sleeps in the front seat of the 1973 Chevolet Suburban she shares with sons Larry Wilkerson, 60, and Charlie Wilkerson, 62. Among the items on the dashboard: lottery tickets. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

By Bob Pool
October 16, 2009
She’s 97 years old and homeless. Bessie Mae Berger has her two boys, and that’s about all.She and sons Larry Wilkerson, 60, and Charlie Wilkerson, 62, live in a 1973 Chevrolet Suburban they park each night on a busy Venice street.

For the most part, it’s a lonely life — days spent passing the time away in public parks, parking lots and shopping centers around the Westside.

Occasionally, when they need cash, Bessie sits by the side of the road and seeks handouts. She holds a cardboard sign in her lap: “I am 97 years old. Homeless. Broke. Need help please.”

This has attracted attention — both wanted and unwanted.

Randall Zook, a Culver City TV advertising producer, pulled over on a recent day when he saw her holding the sign in front of a Costco on Washington Boulevard.

“This little lady hit me deeply. I said I have to do something. I just can’t pass by her,” Zook said. “I went over and talked to her and was moved by her dignity. She wasn’t begging. She just asked, ‘Do you have a home for me?’ ”

Zook didn’t, but he gave her “more money than I’ve ever given anyone.”

For everyone who gives, there are many others who just drive by or simply stare.

“It makes me feel like I’m a bum,” Bessie said. “I don’t mind living at the mercy of the public because some of the public is good — they’re nice to me. But there are some that are nasty. Some of them laugh at me and my sign. They say they don’t think I’m 97 years old.”

Reaching slowly into a pocket, she pulls out a laminated California state identification card that shows her date of birth: March 2, 1912.

Los Angeles police have warned her not to beg. And some passersby have turned to her sons, questioning why they cannot properly care for her.

“They ask why we aren’t able to get her off the street. But we can’t. I have no income whatsoever,” Larry Wilkerson said.

“A few days ago, my mother was sitting out with a sign over at Lincoln and Olympic. We were sitting four hours and she was doing pretty good. But then a police officer came along and said, ‘You can’t do this’ and ordered us off.”

Nighttime is the most uncomfortable part of their lives.

About 8:30 p.m., when Bessie tries to fall asleep, they use magnets to stretch a thin blue blanket over their SUV’s windshield to block the streetlights.

Charlie and Larry listen to a battery-operated portable radio-TV (the television doesn’t work) or chat quietly until about 10, when they try to doze off.

They sleep fitfully against the backdrop of cars roaring down Venice Boulevard and the distinctive screech of MTA buses.

Bessie spends the night hunched over and wrapped in blankets.

Larry curls up in the back seat and Charlie folds himself into the rear of the Suburban, moving aside a tool box, a gas can, piles of clothing and boxes holding food and other possessions. The largest items are stacked outside.

They awaken about 7, when the morning commuter rush is beginning and the sun is starting to peek through the trees that shade the neighborhood near the Venice Public Library.

After reloading the Suburban, they drive to a nearby Albertsons supermarket. There, they wash up in a restroom in the back of the store.

On their way out, they buy bananas and small containers of yogurt or cottage cheese for Bessie, and sandwich fixings — often sliced turkey — and grapes and other fruit for Charlie and Larry.

They eat inside the Suburban, Larry behind the wheel on the worn front seat and his mother at his side. Charlie sits on the back seat.

During the day, they make short trips in the battered vehicle, which they have spray-painted a flat black. The Suburban gets about six miles to the gallon, so they try to stick to Venice as they hunt for inconspicuous places to park for a few hours.

Weekdays, they pull into a Venice Beach parking lot, where they can enter for free with their disabled parking tag. They spend afternoons there, watching the sun set and hoping that circling sea gulls don’t bomb the Suburban with sticky white droppings.

“We talk to other homeless people,” Charlie said.

The three use the Westside Center for Independent Living in Venice as the mailing address for their monthly Social Security and disability checks.

Once a week they drive to Hollywood, where free showers are available at a drop-in center. Sometimes, free hot meals are served from a food truck. Last week they had a spaghetti dinner.

During this week’s trip there, they encountered actor-comedian Kevin Nealon at a gas station. He bought gas for them and introduced them to Laugh Factory owner Jamie Masada, who gave them pizza for dinner and said he may attempt to organize a fundraising show for them.

They live mostly on Bessie’s $375 monthly Social Security check, Charlie’s $637 disability payments, Larry’s $300 food stamp allocation and cash from bottles and cans they collect and recycle.

Bessie can add a few more dollars to the budget by panhandling. When she leaves the Suburban’s front seat, her two sons ease her into a fold-up wheelchair they carry in the back.

Bessie was born in the Bay Area city of Richmond six weeks before the Titanic sank.

“My mother carried my oldest brother through the earthquake and fire in San Francisco,” she said. “I’ve seen all the wars from World War I on down to the last one.”

Bessie spent her young adulthood in Northern California and worked as a packer for the National Biscuit Co. until she was in her 60s. She gave birth to 11 children, eight of whom are still living. She remains in contact only with Charlie and Larry, who were both born in San Francisco, grew up in Santa Rosa and have high school educations.

Their father, who had worked in San Francisco-area shipyards and as a Hollywood stunt driver, died in 1966. In all, Bessie has outlived three husbands. Charlie has been married four times, and Larry was briefly married once. Neither has children.

Charlie worked in construction and as a painter before becoming disabled by degenerative arthritis. Larry was a cook before compressed discs in the back and a damaged neck nerve put an end to it. Twenty-six years ago, he began working as a full-time caregiver for his mother through the state’s In-Home Supportive Services program.

That ended about four years ago, when the owner of a Palm Springs home where they lived had to sell the place. At the same time, the state dropped Larry and his mother from the support program, he said.

The three have tried at various times since to get government-subsidized housing. But they have failed, in part because they insist on living together.

They say they have driven the Suburban around the state looking for a housing program that will accommodate them. They have been in Los Angeles about eight months, following a stint in the Concord area.

They thought Bessie had finally qualified for federal Section 8 housing — she had been promised a rental voucher, they say. But then she needed surgery to replace a pacemaker and spent three months in a recovery center. Housing authorities in Northern California awarded the voucher to someone else during her absence, according to her sons.

Living in the front seat is miserable, she said. Still, she is glad to at least have that.

The Suburban is a constant source of headaches for the three. It is riddled with rust, and a tailgate window is permanently stuck open. During a recent trip to a storage unit they rent in Palm Springs, the Suburban’s rear axle broke. It cost them $600 to replace, they said.

As the season’s first rainstorm approached, they purchased a large piece of plastic to duct-tape over the vehicle’s rear window.

They would like to find a way to stay together in a house or apartment. Bessie qualifies for government-paid senior citizen assistance, but her two sons are too young.

“There’s a million empty homes here in California, but they can’t seem to find one we can live in,” Larry said.

But help still might be available, said Shirley Christensen, assistant to the director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services.

Larry might qualify for Social Security disability benefits without having to sell the Suburban, as he had feared, if the old SUV is considered to have no resale value, she said. He and his brother might both qualify for general relief benefits.

At 97, Bessie is eligible for a referral to the county’s Department of Adult Protective Services, Christensen said.

But that might not lead to a housing arrangement that will keep her and her sons together, officials acknowledged.

“Housing is really tough in L.A. County right now, but there are programs that provide housing assistance,” said Mary Sanders, community liaison with the office that handles hotline screening for Adult Protective Services. “I’m not sure that would be with her and her sons.”

If nothing else, a protective services caseworker could help the three determine whether they’re receiving all of the benefits they are entitled to.

Told this, Larry took the protective services agency’s phone number and said he would call.

The three were at Venice Beach, where Larry cursed at the swooping gulls that were splotching the Suburban with droppings.

Earlier this day, the three had spent $40 on a money order to pay for a Northern California storage unit and $52 to replace their pre-paid cellphone after it was accidentally doused with coffee. They use the phone for emergencies, to keep tabs on their storage spaces and to call the facility where they get their mail.

Larry watched a passerby glance with apparent disdain at Bessie’s cardboard sign, which was taped to the Suburban’s passenger-side window.

“They think we’re liars,” he said.

Bessie sat alone inside the vehicle as the blue blanket over the windshield shaded her from the late-afternoon sun.


Copyright © 2009, The Los Angeles Times (,0,7618199.story)


My Representative Judy Chu: Out and Proud in Support of LGBT People

October 15, 2009

Last night Melinda and I watched “Outrage: Do Ask, Do Tell” (currently showing on HBO — see This is a documentary naming a number of elected conservative Republicans who are gay and who have consistently voted against bills which would have a positive impact on the lives of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons in this country. I definitely recommend that everyone should watch this film.

One of those named, David Dreier, is the Congressional Representative in the district just east of where I live. The district is so close, in fact, that our ZIP Code is partly in his district. Dreier’s “secret identity” is such an un-secret that Melinda has called him “closet boy”–since even before she and I got together seventeen years ago. While I can’t imagine the tremendous pressure of living a dual life like he does, the worst part is that his closeting and self-hatred are so deep that he feels that he has to vote against LGBT legislation.

We were represented by Dreier until the redistricting took place following the 2000 census; at that time we were made part of California’s 32nd Congressional District. What a joy and a delight to be represented by Hilda Solis–someone who “gets it” about LGBT issues, along with all justice and environmental issues.

When Hilda Solis was named as Secretary of the Department of Labor, I was proud. Not only was she my Representative, but she had grown up in the same poor little Southern California town where I grew up–“just another girl from La Puente,” I like to say. But I had mixed feelings because I hated to lose her vote on the Hill.

Then Judy Chu was elected. I could not ask for a better choice. Not only does she vote favorably on LGBT (and ALL progressive) issues, she puts herself out there for the cause, and has done so for years.

When I contacted her office about support for the Respect for Marriage Act (H.R. 3567) on the day that it was introduced, I knew that she would be supportive, but she wasn’t yet listed as a co-sponsor. I was requesting that she do so–something she has subsequently done. Since my representative is so out and proud on behalf of LGBT people, I can do no less that be out and proud about my support for her. Thank you, Dr. Judy Chu!

Here is the letter that I got from her:

Dear Ms. Swenston,

Thank you for taking the time to write to me and express your support for the Respect for Marriage Act (H.R. 3567). I appreciate hearing your thoughts and welcome the opportunity to respond to your comments.

I strongly support the Respect for Marriage Act and am proud to be a co-sponsor. I know how important this issue is to thousands of families throughout our country and in our community.

As you know, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) became law in 1996. DOMA declares that the legal definitions of “marriage” and “spouse” exclude any same-sex marriages with regard to any federal law. It allows states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. This effectively bars legally married same-sex couples from receiving the same rights as heterosexual couples like federal employee pensions, social security survivor benefits, and federal tax benefits. The Respect for Marriage Act (H.R. 3567) would repeal DOMA. This bill has been referred to the House Committee on the Judiciary, where it awaits further action.

LGBT families are just like all other American families. They pay taxes, participate in their communities, raise children, and care for elderly parents. The federal government affords critical obligations and benefits to individuals based on marital status, yet thousands of married same-sex couples do not share the same rights as married heterosexual couples. As a result, married same-sex couples and their families from across the country are not provided equal treatment under law. The discrimination enshrined in DOMA is fundamentally unfair and it should be repealed.

Throughout my career in public service, I have worked tirelessly to build bridges among different political parties and people of different backgrounds. As a member of the California State Assembly I voted in favor of AB 849, which would have legalized same-sex marriage. I pledge to continue to champion for the equality of all persons as your new Congresswoman. You may be interested to learn that I recently participated in a hearing on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (HR 3017), which would prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. This is a bill which I am also proud to co-sponsor.

As Congress continues to debate and vote on these important bills, I encourage you to monitor them as they make their way through the legislative process at

Again, thank you for taking the time to contact me about such an important issue. As your newly elected Congresswoman, I would like to invite you to visit my website at for updates on healthcare and other issues important to you and your family. My office is here to serve you, so please feel free to call (626) 448-1271 or (202) 225-5464 for assistance.

I am honored to work on your behalf and all who reside in 32nd Congressional District of California.

In Friendship,
Judy Chu, PhD
Member of Congress

Don’t Feed the Homeless!

October 13, 2009

One of my efriends posted a message on Facebook this morning that we shouldn’t feed the homeless on Thanksgiving. The tagline is that we should be feeding the homeless in October and April and any and all other times of the year: that we shouldn’t feed the homeless exclusively on Thanksgiving.

This message is right, of course. When I go to a soup kitchen on Thanksgiving to plop mashed potatoes on someone’s tray, it is more about me trying to make myself feel good than it is about the person holding the tray. Although I’ve done a good thing, it is not the justice to which Jesus calls us me.

A family I am friends with knows about homelessness. This family consists of two moms and six kids. Several years ago they lived in a nice home with multiple bedrooms, a nice living room, a fenced-in front yard, a swimming pool–and affordable rent. In addition to these eight people, the mom of one of the moms and her two boys lived in the home with them. One day the youngest child slipped away into a closet; he was playing with a lighter, and he set a fire that soon engulfed the house in flames. Everyone in the household got out safely and–amazingly–uninjured. But they had lost everything but the clothing they were wearing at the time.

The local church to which I belong took a special offering to help them get started again, and also donated some clothing. Church people–many of whom are also low-income–appreciated that this could be any of us, so many gave generously. And we felt good about ourselves.

Then the hard part started for this family. They started looking for a new place to live. Their landlord had every intent of rebuilding, and was willing to have them live in the home again, but it would be awhile before that even got started. This family needed a place to live immediately.

They determined that it would be completely unfeasible for them to find another place for all eleven of them. The mom / grandmother and her two sons were able to find a place before too long. The two moms with the six kids did not. In addition to the sheer size of their family, they had other issues: one of the moms is undocumented and not able to seek employment; tatoos and body piercings were off-putting to some potential landlords; and their ability to pay rent was limited. Despite good references from the old landlord, the pastor of the church, the employer of the other mom, etc., they would get down to being among the final renters to be considered–and then would be turned away.

They moved into the garage of a relative.

The church again got involved, holding a drive to collect jackets and sweaters, blankets and sheets–lots of blankets, because living on a concrete slab in an uninsulated building in the winter (even here in Southern California) is cold.

They had access to a bathroom in the home, which is something many homeless people don’t have access to. Once or twice a week, the relative let them use the kitchen for cooking; otherwise they did have a small refrigerator and a hot plate in their garage space.

This went on and on. Day after day, week after week, month after month for over a year. Although the kids were fed and clothed with a roof over their heads, a neighbor called social services. The social worker gave them 30 days in which to find a place or take the kids away (making it know that even that was beyond any legal requirements), but no assistance in finding a place for them to live.

Finally, very close to the 30-day deadline, they found a something. The employer of the working mom owned a small place, and the tenant had moved out. This place has three tiny bedrooms, a small kitchen and living room, one bathroom, and a small yard–space for their little dog. They have in an outdoor breezeway with room for a washer and dryer and a small freezer. For most of us, this place wouldn’t be much. It might even be called depressing. But they call it home.

They invited family and friends and church folks and coworkers over for a housewarming party. And we all came. They fed us all despite the fact that they had just paid first and last months’ rent plus a security deposit. We jammed into the house and the doorways and peered in the windows as the pastor gave a houseblessing prayer and the couple and each of the kids talked about what it meant to them to have a home.

They moved in September 2008.

Shortly after that–well, after Halloween–the kids started looking forward to Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving in their own home. Just like we all do.

But then one day when were in the car going home one day, they saw a woman out on the median strip of the boulevard near their home; a woman with one of those ubiquitous signs: “Hungry, homeless. Please help.” Alongside this woman were her two small children.

These kids, who until recently had been homeless themselves, decided that they didn’t need Thanksgiving after all. They made plans to give their dinner to this woman and her children, to this other family. The moms convinced them that they could do something for this family, but not what they had in mind, because one of the grandmothers was purchasing Thanksgiving dinner for them.

Well, okay… But they wanted to do something NOW then. They packed into the car, found the woman, went out into the street and talked with her and her kids. They found out that they were living under some bushes alongside the freeway. They shared their story with her, and soon came back with jackets and blankets and sandwiches and milk for her and her kids. These two young kids couldn’t remember when they’d had milk.

A few weeks later when Thanksgiving came, the family did have their Thanksgiving dinner in their own home. The grandmother was there with them to enjoy it. But as soon as their meal was over, they put all of the leftovers into containers and went to a prearranged meeting place, giving everything to this family who had nothing. Dinner, along with brand-new socks.

* * * * *

There is no happy ending to this story for the woman and her two kids. I went by her place on the median strip a few times, giving her a few bucks when I most likely would not have if I hadn’t learned about her from these six kids, this family I had come to love so much. But soon I didn’t see her any more. I asked, but they hadn’t seen her either. There was a story in the local paper about a sweep to rid the area of the homeless living along the freeways.

And so there is no ending to my story, no clean ending to this post. And there is no end to the problem of homelessness. But in honor of these six kids who know what it is to be homeless who tried to make a difference in the lives of someone worse off than they were, I will be doing something to try to help on Thanksgiving. And I’ll do something today. Hopefully I won’t forget on all the rest of the days of the year.

My Story: to the PCUSA Civil Unions and Marriage Task Force

October 9, 2009

Dear friends in Christ,

I have read a number of the letters that have been submitted to the committee. Many have been moving; some have been so eloquent that I feel intimidated and awed. Yet I still feel that it is my responsibility to offer my story as well.

I promise that I won’t tell my whole life story, but I was born in a Presbyterian hospital to a non-Presbyterian, non churchgoing family. Perhaps I was born to be a Presbyterian. The reason that I became a Presbyterian is that a neighbor–the mother of a friend of mine–offered to take us kids to church; this neighbor had been born in the same hospital as me (1200 miles away).

Church was very important to me. I had deeper friendships with other kids at church than elsewhere. I had great adult role models. I learned about peace and justice. I went to summer camps and synod youth events. I developed a wonderful relationship with God, with Jesus.

* * * * *

In 1973 when I was 21, when I was away at college, I was quite surprised to fall in love with a woman. Not that I had ever been the same as most of my female friends in the way they related to their boyfriends, but I did date and had a boyfriend in high school. Indeed, I just thought that I hadn’t “met the right boy” yet. But falling in love with a woman was so strong, so powerful, so fulfilling, that I realized in retrospect that my attraction to women had been my sexual orientation all along.

My relationship was important enough to me that I returned to my parents’ home that summer to tell them that I had fallen in love. With a woman. They did not take it well. My father, with whom I had always had a difficult relationship, had little to say; my mother called me names. She next decided that I needed therapy. I agreed that we had lots and lots of issues as a family, so we could go to family therapy together. She found a family therapist, who was also a Methodist minister. After us spending an hour talking, he said (in very 1970s language) that he “viewed homosexuality as a valid alternative lifestyle,” but that we could benefit from family counseling. My mother did not want to hear that, so she then wanted to find a different therapist–one who would agree that I needed to be “cured.” She had also contacted the pastor of the church–MY church (remember that my folks were non-churchgoers)–and talked with the pastor; he, too, made a half-hearted attempt to convince me to be straight.

This was enough to push me out. Out of my family, out of the church. I returned to my college town and awaited the return of the woman I loved from her summer with her family. It was three years before I heard from my parents again. My absence from the church lasted significantly longer; I was gone from the church for almost twenty years.

This latter one was not an insignificant separation for me. It had been my plan–indeed, my calling–to finish college and then to go to San Francisco Theological Seminary, only 30 miles to the south of where I lived. But the pastoral counseling that I had received from my minister was so hurtful that the church immediately seemed a foreign place, and alien place, and a place where I was unwelcomed. So leaving the church was both inevitable, and me turning my back on God’s voice calling to me.

* * * * *

Three years later, my parents called me from completely out of the blue. They wanted to come see me. I told them that this would be okay, as long as they realized that they would be visiting me and my partner as well (the woman mentioned above). They agreed to that. We got together. We went out to dinner, mostly uneaten, and had uncomfortable table talk. We drank too much. Finally, we returned to our home. We all talked for a little while, until my mother excused herself to go to bed. My father then talked about how he had started going to community college. His association with students the age of his children but not his children had taught him unexpected lessons. He summarized those lessons by saying that he had learned that in life we must “figure out what’s right, do it, and not make apologies for it.” That was his way of saying that he had come to a place of acceptance of me as a lesbian (and as a whole person).

* * * * *

My partner and I continued in our relationship for another three years. A serious car accident (mine) and graduate school (her) took too much of a toll on our relationship though, and we broke up after nine years together. It was too much for me to remain in the small rural community where we had lived for so long, so I moved to San Francisco for the next part of my life.

* * * * *

I had a good friend in San Francisco, a gay man named Etienne. He and I worked together, but we spent lots of time together as friends. He had also grown up in the church, had considered seminary, had become disaffected with the church. Together, we decided that we would give church a try. After several false starts, we screwed up our courage and went to the door of the Metropolitan Community Church in San Francisco. There on the marquee, just below “Welcome” were the words “Guest Preacher this Morning: Janie Spahr.” That was the beginning of my journey back to the church, of God’s welcome home to me. (Etienne died of HIV/AIDS shortly after that. In his illness, he was able each morning to awaken to feel God’s hands gently holding him.)

* * * * *

In 1983 when I lived in San Francisco, Candy–a friend from my youth at church–called me to share with me that she was a lesbian. When I came out, I had share my story with her, and we had stayed in touch over the years. She lived in Los Angeles, but she wanted to come visit me, to come and introduce her partner to me. I was a couple of years older that she was, and had always been like the older sister she had never had. They came to visit. I liked her partner. Over the next nine years, I would visit them when I came to Southern California, and they would visit when they came to the Bay Area.

Sadly, Candy died in 1992. She was in the hospital, and her partner had to lie to tell the doctors and nurses that she was Candy’s sister in order to get visitation privileges.

I came to Southern California to attend her memorial service, as well as to console her partner. By then we had become good friends. In the process of consoling each other, we somehow crossed the line from loving each other as friends to a deeper, romantic love.

I returned to San Francisco, deeply in love, but not knowing what our future would be. One afternoon, I got a phone call from a delivery service, asking if I would be home for the next hour. I had no idea what it was about, but I said I would. When the delivery person showed up at the door, there was a huge rainbow balloon bouquet, accompanied by a card with these words: “Will you marry me someday? Love, Melinda.”

Not long after that, after conversations with my now-supportive mother (my father had died in 1983) and figuring out if I could return to Southern California after being a Northern Californian for so long, I moved in with Melinda. On October 16, 1992, the moving van arrived with my stuff, we opened a bottle of Dom Perignon, read to each other from the book of Ruth and the love chapter from Corinthians–and so married one another in a very Quaker-like way.

* * * * *

Candy’s memorial service was held in the church where we had grown up. The pastor who had counseled me so poorly was long gone. Since then, the church had gone through the discernment process and had become a More Light congregation. Melinda had also grown up in church, and we decided that we wanted to go to church. We went one week, then another. The third week, the pastor asked if he could call on us. He came over and had tea and cookies with us. Soon we joined the church.

* * * * *

In August, 2001, Melinda was on a business trip. She rushed home because I wasn’t feeling well. She insisted on taking me to the hospital. In doing so, she saved my life, because I had Stage III colon cancer, which had progressed to an almost inoperable condition. Things had changed significantly for same-gender couples in California by then; we were legally-registered domestic partners, and we also had signed durable power of attorney documents for each other. In addition, my health plan had a philosophical policy that included all sexual orientations. My surgeon treated Melinda with the respect that any spouse would receive. And Melinda was able to spend 24 hours a day in my room if she so chose.

* * * * *

On May 15, 2008, I sat in front of my computer, watching as the words VICTORY! and WE WON! filled the screen. The California Supreme Court had handed down their ruling that excluding same-gender couples from marriage was unconstitutional. As the 30-day waiting period passed and the time that couples could get marriage licenses approached, Melinda and I started talking about wedding plans. Neither of us proposed: she had done that sixteen years before when she had sent me the card with that balloon bouquet.

We knew that we wanted to get married in church. In our church. In our Presbyterian church, officiated by our Presbyterian pastor. We were both elders–I the Clerk of Session, Melinda the Treasurer–and loved by the congregation. It seemed only right that we get married in the presence of our church family, by our pastor, while being recognized by the state. The pastor agreed, the session agreed, and we were married on August 2, 2008, after being together for sixteen years. During the service, our scriptures were once again the readings from the book of Ruth and the love chapter from Corinthians. In attendance were about 140 people–including family members, work colleagues, neighbors, friends, church members, and about 30 ordained clergy members. While we married each other, it was just as important for those who attended the service to be a part of it with us. Even though we had been together for a long time, on that day, making our declarations to one another, our relationship changed for the better. As a matter of fact, just the process of planning–of sending out invitations, of answering RSVP phone calls, of thinking about food and beverage for the reception, and all of the other zillions of details–changed our relationship for the better. When a couple becomes domestic partners, they fill out the forms, go to the notary public for signature and seal, send it off, get the certificate back, put it in the safe–and go on with their lives. When a couple gets married, it is a celebration–from the minute they make the decision that this is what they want to do; and something that we are still celebrating and plan to celebrate for the rest of our lives.

* * * * *

It was painful for us on election night to watch the results coming in showing that Obama had been elected President while, at the same time, seeing that we were going to lose Proposition 8. Some very dear (heterosexual) friends had invited us to spend the evening with them, and we went to two parties with them. It was sad to see that the very progressive (heterosexual) people at these parties did not share in our dismay. When we returned to our friends’ home, we ate our leftover wedding cake and drank champagne as a sign of hope–even while not knowing what the future might hold for our marital status. The subsequent Court decision to uphold Prop. 8 while still counting our marriage as legal left us feeling bittersweet. We feel that we are a third class of people in California, a small class that no one else can join.

* * * * *

We are a couple who believes that God had a hand in bringing us together, and we do our best to work to serve God in the church and in the world. We had a pastor who believed that joining us in legal and holy matrimony was a responsibility and an opportunity provided by God. We have family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and church colleagues who believe that our relationship is blessed by God, and that we should have the same standing in the church and in society as do any other (heterosexual) couples. Those who are called to not participate in same-gender marriages are already provided that opportunity; it is only right that those who believe as we do be provided with the opportunity to marry in their churches, or to officiate in those marriages.

Thanks for reading my disjointed comments, and thanks for your consideration.

In the love of God,
Sonnie Swenston
Covina, California