Greetings from New York – by Michael Bernard Kelly

Manhattan, September 2017

Dear Family and Friends,

I am writing to you on a sunny autumn afternoon in New York State, and sending you love and warm greetings.

It is now a bit more than three months since I set off from Tullamarine airport for Manhattan, and it seems high time that I wrote and let you know that I am thinking of you, as well as sharing with you some of my experiences. Please excuse this group email – I am not a fan of the genre, but at least it allows me to reach out and say hello to you.

It has been a very rich time on many levels – but not without its challenges and demands. Still, every time I was tempted to complain about the intensely hot and humid summer in Manhattan, I reminded myself that missing Melbourne’s winter was not a bad trade-off – some nights in July, for example, could be 26C with 80% humidity!

The month-long Research Colloquium, which I participated in in July, was a great experience, and one moment stands out. As part of the program, we each took at least an hour to share something of the overall project we are involved in, and then invite discussion, questioning and ideas. When we had gone all around the circle – which was about half way through the month – I sat back and let myself be amazed by the many diverse ways in which these twelve people were working for transformation in our world.

That week I had the chance to have a discussion, in some depth, with Dr Christian Scharen, one of the key people who organised the Colloquium, and I asked him how these specific individuals were selected from the fifty or so who applied. He said that a key factor was that the scholars had to be more than just academics – they had to be people who were actively engaged, in some radical way, in bringing about change.

So, we had Francisco, a fiery young Lutheran leader who is studying a once all-white Lutheran congregation in New York that had transitioned peacefully and organically to being mainly a black community – and this would become part of his challenge to the whole Lutheran church in the USA. We had Amber, a dynamic young academic from St Louis, who is trans and a person of colour, and who is writing a book-length ‘Letter to my Gender-fluid child’. We had Mark, a professor from Tennessee who is seeking to re-invigorate the Protestant left in the USA, and revitalise its commitment to social justice. We had Ann, a university lecturer and poet from York in the UK, who is seeking to develop a ‘wild, Gaia-like sensibility as a way of rethinking our current world problems’ in social, political, personal and environmental areas, and who is passionate about ‘staying with the trouble’ as a strategy of hope. We had Kate, a theologian from Cincinnati who does radical work with prisoners who are transitioning back into the community, and who is passionate about developing theological and prophetic approaches to ‘the new racial caste system that is mass incarceration and which decimates families and communities materially and emotionally’. We had Zaynab, a Muslim woman of colour who is studying the roots of the exclusion/regulation of women in traditional Muslim and Jewish ritual spaces, and seeking to find new ways to reform ancient practices. We had Ursula, a Lutheran pastor and theologian from Germany, who is studying and writing about the church’s attempts, and failures, in dealing with Luther’s anti-semitic writings, and seeking to explore new frontiers in Jewish-Lutheran relations. We had Lek, a young Buddhist monk from Thailand, who was formerly a lawyer and an environmental activist, and who is now committed to developing a radical new approach to social justice within the whole Theravadan Buddhist tradition. We had Aimee from New York, who is studying how governments, local councils and real estate developers have used racially based policies to change whole neighbourhoods, to distort patterns of home ownership, and to accumulate wealth by systematically disenfranchising black communities. We had Sharon, from York in the UK, who is studying the emergence of women priests in the Anglican church in the UK, and exploring the ways they have become co-opted by the power structure, or, by contrast, have become resistors and reformers. And then of course, there was this fellow from Australia …

As I looked around that circle, I was moved to tears by the many different stories, by the differing passions and pathways, and by the common commitment to do what we could, in our own corner of this troubled world, to nurture more hope, more light, more justice, more compassion – and new kinds of vision. As I write these words, I am also deeply aware of you, dear friends, and the many different ways each of us tries to nurture a future that is more hopeful, more loving and more just.

When the Colloquium ended I was invited to spend August at a small retreat centre about ninety minutes north of Manhattan – it is run by a gay couple who are old friends of mine from my time in California in the early 1990s. It was lovely to spend some time in the country after the buzz of the city, and to settle into a gentler pace …

Throughout September I was back in the city, apartment-sitting for some friends, and catching up with some new contacts and colleagues. One the gifts of New York is that it brings all kinds of people together. One of the new friends I have made this time around, for example, has been Fr Bryan Massingale, who is a professor of moral theology at Fordham University – a Jesuit college in the city. He is the foremost theologian specialising in issues of racism and the Catholic Church. Getting to know him has been a highlight of my time here, and his interest in my own writing has been a real gift and a great affirmation. Knowing him has also made events like those in Charlottesville feel much closer and more urgent. Bryan was deeply disturbed and angered not only by the marches, the torches, and the racist and anti-semitic chants – he was, in some ways, even more distressed by the lukewarm responses from so many Catholic bishops. This is a dangerous and uncertain time in the US, and it is an honour to know someone like Bryan.

On Friday night last I took the train from Grand Central Station – on an unseasonably warm night, and headed back to the retreat centre – where autumn is finally beginning to colour the leaves. It’s good to be back in the quiet – and I need to get to some serious writing if I am ever to deliver on my book deal with Routledge! My time in the city was great, though, with many meetings with friends, lots of meals, and a range of theatrical experiences – from the sublime to the (almost) ridiculous. As you can imagine, I have to manage my health and my energy very carefully when I am travelling and staying in one apartment after another, and New York City is both irresistible and exhausting.

I keep up-to-date fairly well with news from home – and it seems lots of people are working hard and with great passion to bring about marriage equality. It is especially great to see Fr Frank Brennan, the two major Jesuit schools, and countless Christians from all denominations speaking up for LGBT people, and for our relationships. Just a few years back, when I was deeply involved in the Rainbow Sash Movement, voices and views like these would have been unimaginable. Hopefully Martin Luther King was right, and the arc of history does bend towards justice …

Being here in the US, though, as this time is unsettling and disturbing. More than once a New Yorker has expressed real concern about the possibility of the city becoming a target in a North Korean conflict – and everyone who is sane continues to be horrified by the dangerous antics of Donald Trump, who is really exposing the deep darkness that has always been there in the soul of America. As Fr Massingale puts it, ‘Trump is an exaggeration – but he is not an aberration’. This is undoubtedly the most unsettled and disturbing time I have ever experienced in the US – and I have coming here for extended periods since 1989.

For all that, however, there is so much about this country, and especially about New York, that is extraordinary and wonderful – for example, I attended a recent open debate/discussion on LGBT issues and the Catholic Church at Fordham University here in New York. A well-known Jesuit, Fr James Martin, has written a book about ‘building bridges’ between the LGBTI community and the hierarchy of the church – basing it on the teachings about sensitivity, compassion and respect. It’s important work, but it does skirt the deeper issues. He was challenged by the man who is Chair of the Theology Department at Fordham, who is openly gay and married to his partner. This is the kind of event that New York offers …

I must admit that it is reassuring to have a ready passage back to Australia, even with all of our own craziness and darkness. Speaking of which, my current plan is to head across to the west coast, probably San Francisco, in early December, and then fly back home, arriving on December 14. I am sure I will be very ready to be home.

For now, though, I will enjoy the changing of the leaves and the brilliant autumn colours and the cool crisp days – just as I hope you are enjoying the coming of springtime. Please know that, despite the distances, you are in my thoughts and prayers each day, and I look forward very much to our next coffee, meal or glass of wine – preferably somewhere by the beach!

Michael Bernard Kelly PhD is an Adjunct Research Associate with the Centre for Religious Studies at Monash University. He is the author of Seduced by Grace: Contemporary Spirituality, Gay Experience and Christian Faith, the video lecture series The Erotic Contemplative, and Christian Mysticism’s Queer Flame: Spirituality in the Lives of Contemporary Gay Men (Routledge, 2018).

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