A Girl Plays Football

“Hey, the Packers are going to beat your Cowgirls!” a student said.

And I corrected the student, “Don’t put down a team by calling them girls.” See, I believe in gender equality. I am a follower of leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who believed that everyone should have equal access to opportunity.

Last year there was an ad on during the SuperBowl. It was about running like a girl. Did you see it?

The commercial spoofed the stereotype that girls could not run well. But they can. The ad showed that many kids thought the phrase, “run like a girl,” was an insult. But it’s not. It’s the opposite. Run, fight, throw like a girl. That takes courage. We all must do things that require courage. We all must be unconventional.

I’m going to tell you a little story.

This is the story of a girl who played a lot of two-hand touch football with her brothers and cousins. Her Uncle Tom N. was a great coach in Park Ridge, Illinois. One boy who went on to play college football and become a coach himself said Mr. N. was the best coach he ever had. Uncle Tom was patient, kind, smart. But he made one big mistake at a family party.

See, at this big party with lots of cousins, Uncle Tom was throwing a nerf football around the dining room to only the boys. But one girl jumped up and caught it. An interception. Yes. the girl.

“Hey, you’re pretty good. Too bad you’re a girl. And you can’t play football.”

“I can play,” the girl said.

“No you can’t. But just to prove it — If you want to try out tomorrow for the team, you can. But I won’t give you any special consideration because you’re a girl or because you’re my niece,” he said.  “Don’t feel bad if you get cut — Only half of the boys who try out make the cut.”

So this girl showed up with her little brother John to try out for the Mighty Might football team, the Vikings. She was very scared. But she did not let on.

She did her very best. There were tires on the ground and she hiked up her knees and hopped in and out of the tires. And there was a catching practice. And she caught it just like she always did when playing with her brothers or her cousins – one hand on top, one hand on the bottom and she hugged it to herself and ran fast. Faster than the boys.

And during the scrimmage of the touch football – they didn’t have their equipment yet — she was so scared of getting tagged, she ran even faster. She played her heart out. She even got to throw the ball and she jerked it back next to her ear just like she always did. ‘Cause see, she played like a girl – a fast, athletic, capable girl.

After the tryout, when her father picked her and her brother up from the tryout, she told him that she and John had done well. She felt proud. She felt like a winner.

And that night they got a phone call. The girl made the team, but her little brother John didn’t. (In fairness to John, he did not make the age cut off. It had nothing to do with ability.) But she never went on to play in a team. She just wanted to prove that she could make the team. And she did.

And that girl was me. So, never say, a girl can’t play football, because she can. She just might not want to.

When I was a girl, schools did not really implement Title IX yet. You know what it is, right? It’s a law that says public schools have to give equal funding to girls’ sports as boys’. And there were other ways that schools, when I was little, weren’t fair. I loved wood shop, but I could only take shop one quarter of the year and three-quarters of the year, I had to take cooking and sewing.

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That didn’t seem right. So in middle school, I ran for and became the first girl president of Lincoln Junior High. I’m not sure if I made much of a difference. But there was an article in the local newspapers and maybe some minds started to change through my small acts of resistance about what girls could do.

Although women are not represented very well in the government in the U.S., in many countries half of the elected officials are women. In churches too, we have come a long way but we have a ways to go. As a girl, before Third Grade, I attended Saint Joan of Arc school in Skokie, Illinois and I could not be an Altar Boy. In Communion class in Second Grade, I asked the priest, Why can’t women be priests? And I’m still asking that.

So my message is: we must judge one another on the content of our characters and not on the way we look.

We can do better. We must do better.

  1. Girls are just as good as boys.
  2. Do not judge a book by its cover.

In English class we talked about how cool it is when a character is not how they, at first, appear. Take Chewbacca in Star Wars. How does he look? (Wait) Big, scary, mean. But you couldn’t have a better friend — a gentle giant.

Dr. Martin Luther King talked about we need to do in a sermon that is often called “A Tough Mind, A Tender Heart.” He talked about a creative solution to resist inequality. Thank you to Rev. Andrew Stehlik of Rutgers Church for his sermon on Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, which inspired me.

Dr. Martin Luther King said:

Jesus recognized the need for blending opposites. He knew that his disciples would face a difficult and hostile world, where they would confront the political officials and protectors of the old order.  He knew that they would meet cold and arrogant men whose hearts had been hardened by the long winter of traditionalism. So he said to them, “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the mist of wolves.”

And he gave them a formula for action, “Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” It is pretty difficult to imagine a single person having, simultaneously, the characteristics of the serpent and the dove, but this is what Jesus expects. We must combine the toughness of the serpent and the softness of the dove, a tough mind and a tender heart.

That was what he said. We must have soft hearts. We must give everyone a chance and we must be aware of the potential in everyone. We must encourage everyone. We must ask, Why? Why can’t we all be equal? Why should we put someone down for how they look? Or whether they are a boy or girl?

What can we do? Resist the status quo. Do not become lazy or timid when you hear someone put another person down. Or when you hear a boy call another boy, ‘a girl’ as an insult.

And this goes for ourselves too. Do not put yourselves down.

I tell you:  be more loving. To each other and to ourselves. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that. So did Jesus. Dr. King said we have to love everyone, even those who were hating on us. He said, “Through nonviolent resistance we shall be able to oppose the unjust system and at the same time love the perpetrators of the system.”

In other words, love the hater but reject the system that encourages hate.

At the end of his sermon, Dr. King said,

When we are staggered by the chilly winds of adversity and battered by the raging storms of disappointment and when through our folly and sin we stray into some destructive far country and are frustrated because of a strange feeling of homesickness, we need to know that there is Someone who loves us, cares for us, understands us, and will give us another chance.  When days grow dark and nights grow dreary, we can be thankful that our God combines in God’s nature a creative synthesis of love and justice that will lead us through life’s dark valleys and into sunlit pathways of hope and fulfillment.

I want to end with one more upshot to my brief career as a football player. After that Vikings football season, between fifth and sixth grade, I took a summer school class on newspaper reporting. I wrote about my experience playing football. And a lot of other students, and even teachers and parents, said they saw my article in the school paper and they liked it. It made them think. And that summer school class probably inspired me in high school to work on the school paper, and, years later, to become a professional writer.

I saw that writing might start to change people’s minds –and I would not have not known that, had I not tried out for the football team. So take a risk, try something new. Just because everyone says you’re good at football doesn’t mean you can’t knit too. In fact, when I was a girl, there was a football player named Rosie Grier and he was a writer too, He wrote a book, Needlepoint for Men.

He was unconventional. So was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. So was Jesus. You should be unconventional too.

This is a slightly revised version of a chapel talk I gave to elementary school students after Martin Luther King Jr. weekend.

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Blessing of the Animals

Last Sunday I went to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine to celebrate the Feast Day of St. Francis. It was so peaceful even though there were so many animals in the sanctuary. The music of Paul Winter filled the immense Gothic cavern with the sounds of whales and wolves.

A restless set of boys and dogs in the row in front of us left before it was over so they missed the exotic animals as they paraded (processed) down the center aisle.

The procession of animals was lovely and mind-blowing. You can see a rat carried proudly by preteen girl. I loved the humility of the goats and sheep, made all majestic by a wreath of flowers around their necks! There is beauty in the humility of animals. There was a pig and my favorite, a kangaroo. On the way out, a yak!

I so dug the anomaly of animals in church – the sacredness of animals. That which is ordinary became extraordinary.

I am not really an animal-lover, but I appreciate their lack of subtext.

I left the cathedral, oddly, filled with reverence. There is a variety to life — a vastness of our ecosystems and our living relations that is truly awesome. I can only imagine there must be a creator when you see the variety in God’s creation (and in the crazy matrix of evolution).

Here are some pics I snapped at the service. Thanks to Joanna Parson for getting me to St. John the Divine this year, something I have always wanted to do and now have done! I recommend you experience this beauty too!

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Yes pets resemble their owners. A lot of dogs, cats, hamsters exist peaceably in the sanctuary.
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The Cathedral of St. John the Divine
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Restless kids with hamsters and dogs, waiting for the blessing of the pets.
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The communion line with dogs.
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llama
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pig in church
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Glorious turtle
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This parrot loves NY
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little pony in the sactuary
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white goose
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my favorite, a kangaroo!
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I have no idea what this animal is
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All this beauty in the largest Gothic cathedral in the U.S.

“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred . . . let me sow love. Where there is injury . . . pardon. Where there is doubt . . . faith. Where there is despair . . . hope. Where there is darkness . . . light. Where there is sadness . . . joy. O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek To be consoled . . . as to console, To be understood . . . as to understand; To be loved . . . as to love, For It is in giving . . . that we receive. It is in pardoning . . . that we are pardoned, It is in dying . . . that we are born to eternal life.” – St. Francis (c. 1181 – 1226)

In other words: Today, let me get out of my way. Let me find beauty in my ordinary world. Let me hear the music of nature. Let me be someone who goes with the flow. Let me not judge people harshly. Let me be kind and generous. Just for today.

Is the Pope Better Than You and Me?

At a disco party in the early ’80s, I snorted something and my heart raced, pounding like it was going to beat right out of my chest. I prayed to God, “Please God, let me live. I will never do that again! Let me get beyond this moment and if I do, I will be good. For the rest of my life, I will be good, God.”

I don’t know if it was at that exact moment but at some point in my life, I decided to be good. I prayed to God to be good. It was my trajectory. After all, as a girl growing up in a big Catholic family, I put stock in goodness.

Yesterday, I saw the movie, Oz the Great and Powerful. There is a theme in that movie about being good and doing good. About how pursuing the good is better than being a great man. And, of course, there is the theme that people need a leader to whom they can project their hopes onto.

And I think about these things as the world wonders about the next pope. Does he pursue good? Or simply greatness?

Is he better than average? Is he holier than you and me?

I wonder why good people don’t get ahead or to the top of institutions. Having worked for a church bureaucracy for years, I’ve noticed that church leadership values intelligence. Perhaps only colleges or universities value intelligence more than religious organizations. But just because you’re smart, does that mean you are holy? Or kind? Or Christ-like? Or have an attitude of servant leadership towards the world?

I bet the new pope is smart, probably smarter than me, and probably more diplomatic too. But does that make him good? He probably knows the bible better than me. But has he held hands with the sick or dying? Has he helped people who feel alone to become a part of a community? Has he loved the poor? I am good, but I am not always that good.

This I know: the greatest saints were the worst sinners. I hope this pope smoked or snorted something he shouldn’t have. I hope he had a revelation when he thought he was dying, like I did; and I hope he then dedicated his life to being and doing good. And I hope he is like Oz, not all that great and powerful after all, but simply a good man. He is, like me and like you, someone who is human, has made mistakes and now has stories to tell.

I want to be inspired by someone who is more than an intellectual, a bible expert, a magician or a diplomat. I want to be inspired by someone who is and who values the good in all of us.

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a window at Duke University Divinity School
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a stained glass window at Duke University seminary.

Christian Women in Mainstream Media

Tricks the Devil Taught Me, photo by Carol Rosegg

The other night at the theater, I got that sickening feeling. Not again! I was watching the usual depiction of Christian women as hypocritical gossips. Why do Christians and especially Christian women get such a bad rap in movies, plays, TV?

Chris and I were at the play, “Tricks the Devil Taught Me” by Tony Georges at the Minetta Lane Theatre. The play was overall good, but the scene with the church ladies was comically grotesque as the women feasted on another family’s misery, gossiping about town teenagers. They delighted in discussing another couple’s rocky marriage and the potential there for “sin.”

In another scene, one woman who sang for the church choir said she sang only for the money. The church choir was simply a conduit for money, not a spiritual experience.

I know, work with, worship with, sing with (although I wish I was good enough to sing in a choir!) Christian women. (“I knew JFK and you are no JFK.”)

The Christian women I know are anything but mean, shallow and sin-loving. They are thoughtful, hard-working, joyful. They organize peace vigils, letter writing campaigns to end wars. Christian women feed the hungry and wash the feet of the homeless. (Do I exaggerate? Not much.)

Christian women laugh together in bible studies but not at other’s misfortunes; we laugh at our own struggles to be human. We try for transformation, to be more loving. Conversations are about compassion, hope, redemption, grace, struggle, not sin.

My experience with Christianity must be quite different from other writers’ experiences.

I also do not believe that one sect of Christianity is better than another. I was raised Catholic; married in the Lutheran church; baptized one child Episcopalian; baptized the other two Presbyterian; consider myself Methodist.

“Love ‘em all. Let God sort ‘em out.” That is the message on a tee shirt my friend Nancy gave me when she was moving. The gift and the message epitomizes my experience of Christian women — a nonjudgmental, generous and active Christianity.

When I see how Christian women are depicted in popular media, I could cry. And I feel defensive. Hey, I am not conservative, stupid or mean. (Although, occasionally, God help me, I do gossip.)

I wish that I did not get that sickening feeling when I see how Christian women are presented in plays and movies. The way I see myself is far different from the reality that is presented to me. I do not recognize myself; that makes me very sad.

West End

The front doors were locked. So were the side ones. I didn’t see a bell to ring. Maybe the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, has the churches closed in solidarity. It’d be nice if religions were in solidarity with one another. I’ve had my religious tolerance reinforced as a member of United Methodist Woman and the Religion Communicators Council, and working at the Interchurch Center.

I think people who embrace religion in their lives have more in common than they realize. We are all searching for meaning. Any religion is a leap of faith and a personal decision.

imageI am proud of all the United Methodist and Christian groups that have preached and taught tolerance since Sept. 11th.

My friend Sarah worked with Faisel Rauf (the founder of the Cordova Center near the World Trade Center) on a performance piece about religious tolerance at the theater that’s a part of St. Paul and St. Andrew’s Church in ’03, (I think that was the date). She said the Imam and his wife were wonderful, kind, regular, all about building bridges of understanding.

I’m meandering. My point is I tried to get into the West End Collegiate Church around 6 pm but the doors were locked, probably unrelated to Rosh Hashanah.

I’d been cleaning all day. I’d wanted to get to a museum with the kids, but there was too much to do. Living in an apartment, we have no attic, garage or basement to stash and dash. Minimalism is a goal.

The girls started school yesterday, but they are off for the Jewish New Year today. Tomorrow too.

When the church was closed I went back to the park to hang out on my usual park bench near the playground. My daughter and her friend were rollerblading. They were holding hands. Have I mentioned how much I love that? I hope they never stop holding hands. 

Saying Nothing

The Jamaican horn-player was testifying to a handful of people. He wore a yellow polo shirt. “It’s easier to build someone up than to criticize,” he said.

The church seemed on its last legs. On 57th between 9th and 10th, the church had peeling paint and rotating fans. It was super hot.

I think it was a Brazilian Church because the Brazilian flag was draped over a pew in the back and a sign outside listed a 7 pm Brazilian church service. I wandered in around 7:50.

I had been walking in the city after my writing class. My classmates and teacher liked this new writing project, A Church A Day, especially they liked me mentioning the people I met.

I had reported in class that many of the men who guarded the church doors, the guys who allowed me access to the sanctuaries, seemed just one step away from the soup kitchen themselves. The church caretakers had seen it all but were were still good-hearted and hard-working.

The Jamaican speaker at the Brazilian church last night was no exception. “I play in the subway. That’s my job. When the police come up to me, I move on. Then they’ll say, ‘Weren’t you just here yesterday?’ ‘I have to make a living,’ I say. It’s tough to make a living as a musician. I have 3 students. I pray for 20.”

At one point he asked the congregation, “What does faith mean?” A few people called out, “Jesus’s love.” “Forgiveness.” He waited. I said nothing. He said, “You in the back, say anything.”

That was me — the one in the back. My tongue was tied. I didn’t feel comfortable speaking. I wanted to say something, to help him out. But I wanted to give the right answer. I liked his sermon. But I didn’t know what faith meant.

I smiled. I hoped that I looked European, perhaps slightly non-English speaking. He moved on. I couldn’t help thinking he was disappointed in me.

Then later he asked, “Who is there for you? No matter what? Who will always be there?”

I shouted out, “Your mother!” A few heads turned. He did not acknowledge my answer. I think the question was rhetorical.  The correct answer may have been God and not mother. I’m not sure. I slunk down in the pew in embarrassment, feeling ridiculous — unable to answer when called on, shouting out the wrong answer when I was not called on.

It’s hard to understand the rhythms of worship. There were several Hallelujahs shouted out during the sermon. It seemed okay for everyone else to yell out randomly. Like when he’d ask, “How am I doing? This is my first sermon. But it won’t be my last.” “Hallelujah!” someone yelled.

Even though I felt inept, I dug this guy. I liked, “Knock and the door will be opened. But you have to knock. No one is going to come knocking on your door.” And he said, “For me the ultimate sin is laziness. You need faith, honesty and hard work.” “Hallelujah!” someone called out.

At 8:15 the service was over. I wanted to tell the speaker I liked his message. But I felt shy and didn’t want to engage. Maybe they’d try to get me to come again. I couldn’t commit. I want to visit a lot more churches. I walked back out into the hot summer night.

Sowing Seeds

Yesterday I visited a church I’ve driven by a thousand times, but never went in. The Westport Federated Church. The pastor, Leon Hebrink, is a friend on Facebook whom I’d never met in person.

I was nervous about going into a new church and meeting a new friend. I don’t know if regular churchgoers realize how much courage it takes to venture into an unknown church.

Since starting this project a week ago, I’ve gotten used to having the sanctuaries nearly all to myself — having time to think my own thoughts, my peace and my quiet. I have been able to avoid the whole church scene — of feeling I must respond a certain way at a certain time and have someone telling me what to think or what to believe or how to act. (I wonder if I have a problem with authority.)

Leon’s sermon was about that — about the seeds of love God throws. The seeds of love and faith will keep being thrown, it doesn’t matter if you miss them. It doesn’t matter if you have a problem with God’s authority. If they fall on stone or on dry land.

He was good with the metaphor. Leon explained that the seeds in his top desk drawer will go to the mice unless he plants them. He offered people who are not gardeners another metaphor. If you have books in your bookshelf for show, and you don’t read them, they’re just gathering dust.

After worship I told Charlotte about this part of the sermon, she said, “Like your Encyclopedia Britannica?”

“Exactly! Those are the same books I was thinking about! No one ever reads those!” I should give them away. During service I thought about decluttering my bedroom shelves. I often think about decluttering when I can’t do it. Then when I can do it, I prefer to goof off on the internet.

The sermon was awesome. Leon slipped in some social justice issues too, about the seeds NOT being like the Monsanto seeds sent to Haiti, which will not reproduce but force an unnatural corporate dependence. I was like, “That’s right, brother!”

Leon was younger than I thought he’d be from his Facebook profile.

I felt I knew Leon pretty well from Facebook and from the sermon and on my way out, I struck up a deep conversation.

“I get that whole thing about Christianity is a decision. And people think you’re a Christian, just because you’re born that way and is that good enough? But another problem I have is with evangelism. That it goes against the Commandment to Honor Thy Father and Mother. Because if you are supposed to obey your parents and follow their ancestors’ faiths, then why should anyone seek to convert anyone? Or drag them away from obeying their parents. See what I mean? Becoming a Christian might mean disobeying your parents?”

Suddenly, I saw that look in his eyes. Like I was a crazy person and he had to shake a dozen hands and hug a dozen more folks behind me. Maybe, just maybe, not everyone wants to engage in a theological discussion as they file out of church. Some folks might want to go to breakfast. Not me.  I was happy to be talking about God and church and faith I guess, happy to be chatting with someone who wasn’t related to me. I was nervous. I don’t know.

In any case, it was great to meet Leon and finally worship at the Federated church. I want to go again.

And, really, people, I’m not crazy!

Let me keep sowing those seeds.

Incidentally, I did try to go to church tonight. On my way home from Penn Station. (Lead me not into Penn Station, but deliver me…) I stopped at my beloved Rutgers on 73rd and Broadway, but it was locked. It was 9:15 pm, so I guess it’s no wonder.