Nebraska Feed

"Padre, You've Been Shot"

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My colleague the Rev. Darrell Goodwin, Associate Conference Minister for the Nebraska, Iowa, and South Dakota Conferences of the United Church of Christ, picked me up around 5:30 in the evening so we could head downtown to work as clergy providing pastoral care and de-escalation in an effort to avoid more violence, particularly loss of life while also bearing witness to those who were angry about yesterday's decision not to charge the killer of James Scurlock.

We parked on the outskirts of downtown, donned our clergy stoles, and began walking.  As we came up to the first of five police cordons we went through, I lowered my mask and introduced myself and explained why were were there, intentionally speaking first as the white man in the duo.  The first two cordons of officers sent us ahead.  At the close of each exchange, I wished those officers well and said I was praying for them.  In all the officers you could sense their worry and the tension of the day.

At the third cordon, we encountered a commander in military style fatigues who then walked us the remaining few blocks and through other cordons to where the protestors were gathered.  We walked up to the first officer there, who just happened to be Deputy Chief Kanger.  We again introduced ourselves, and he gave us elbow bumps.  We said what we were there to do and asked if we could be of help. He seemed very pleased and thanked us.  He asked us to talk to people who seemed particularly emotional, which is what we spent a lot of the evening doing.  This was the first of many conversations over the next few hours with the Deputy Chief.

Darrell and I headed to the front of the line.  We walked along between police and protestors introducing ourselves to both.  I generally led next with, "How are you feeling this evening?"  Which often elicited a long response.  In each exchange I'd close with offering to be of help in any way I could and told them I was praying for them.  One young man asked specifically for me to pray over him.  Many thanked us for being there.  A few talked about how churches needed to talk about these issues.

The protestors were almost all so young.  They were upset and afraid.  They didn't understand this injustice, why people keep getting killed, why nothing ever seems to improve or does so so very, very slowly.  A number of the protestors at front were engaging the police in conversations.  Occasionally they took pictures together.  

A few, and it was only a few, were more aggressive, yelling at the police.  Often other protestors gathered around those folk to try to de-escalate them, and the few clergy there (I think I counted six total over the course of the evening--fifty clergy would have radically altered the event for the good) also tried to engage those folk in conversation.  My experience was that most people just wanted their pain and anger heard and after someone listened to them, they appeared not as agitated.  Darrell did amazing work on more than one occasion talking someone down, including one person who early in the evening wanted to rush the cops.  

Occasionally I had to explain to some protestor why what they were demanding some cop to do was something that couldn't be done last night, trying to help them see how unreasonable demands didn't work, but that those demands could be channeled, were legitimate, and could be pursued.  

I talked for a while with one of James Scurlock's brothers, who was so heartbroken and was there to thank people for peacefully representing the family as they had asked.

Shortly after we arrived one very young woman was asking the front line of police if everyone could march together.  A pastor from Zion Baptist heard her and brought her to the Deputy Chief to talk and eventually the Deputy Chief okayed that, so the crowd, with some police included, marched around the Old Market.  For a good part of this march I walked alongside the Deputy Chief and we discussed how to help the situation when the 8 o'clock curfew rolled around.  During the march around I also ran into a church member there protesting.

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I was most troubled by one very angry woman who had a toddler with her who walked along the line screaming at all the cops.  I tried talking to her child, and she snatched him away and then wouldn't talk with me.  Darrell tried, and she wouldn't talk with him.  But eventually she did, and Darrell kept trying to talk her into taking care of her baby.  She did eventually seem to disappear.

Some of the young people were wonderful positive influences on the crowd.  One young man, crying, got everyone to kneel and asked all the cops to, and when they did, the crowd erupted in positive cheers, suddenly the cops were swarmed with hugs, hand shakes, and selfies.  This occurred shortly before the curfew, and I believe is one reason that many of the young people left before the curfew.  They had been heard and their pain acknowledged.

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Suddenly as the curfew fell, the crowd was very different.  Many of the folk who had been there on the front lines for hours had left and there were new people.  It was also a much whiter crowd than earlier.  At that point Darrell and I began trying to talk them into leaving peacefully.  One couple asked, if we do leave, which way do we go, we look boxed in.  So, I asked the Deputy Chief, who told me to the North, so we began passing out that information.  It was clear that some did not trust us or the information.  It was during this time that I had protestors asking if I was really a cop.  Or I overheard them say to others after I had talked to them, "You know he's a cop, right?"

I saw two young women, the eyes above their masks revealed their fear.  I stepped up to talk to them.  "What happens now?" one of them asked.  I told her that those who remained would be arrested.  "I can't be arrested.  Where do I go?"  I told her she was to walk north.  I took the two of them to the Deputy Chief and had him confirm that for them.  So those two young women started out the exit route.  A trickle of others began to follow.

And suddenly, some idiot in the departing crowd through a water bottle, and some police began shooting pellets at the people leaving.  I was horrified, as I had sent them that way.  I ran into the street screaming at the cop who was firing to stop as the Deputy Chief had sent them that way.  The look he gave me, I thought he was going to turn his weapon on me, but he did not.  He did quit firing.  A media person nearby said, "Yeah, they fucked that up."

We kept encouraging people to leave peacefully, even after that happened.  There was a moment when the protestors were completely closed off from the exit route.  Darrell and I were standing together with the media across the street and began yelling for the police to make an exit route.  Which they listened and did.  Suddenly, some shots and tear gas were released not far from there and so many took the opportunity to run for the exit.  Darrell and I were walking along and got a little separated.  A couple of cops began insisting I move along.  I told them I'd been working with the Deputy Chief in getting people out and was waiting for my clergy colleague right behind him, he told us snidely, "You should have left already, it's after curfew."  He didn't listen to our explanations, but we moved along, encouraging those leaving to keep going and not turn around and yell or anything as doing so risked everyone going that way.

The gas now came our direction and I was coughing and struggling momentarily to breathe.  A woman came up and squirted water on my face and in my mouth.  Moments after that, as I was walking along behind the protestors with my arms raised and yelling, "Leave peacefully" I was knocked to the ground by an impact on the back of my neck.  I yelled "What hit me?" as the realization and fear began to dawn on me.  A young man ran up to me, "Padre, you've been shot." Darrell grabbed me and pulled me against the wall of the building to make sure I wasn't bleeding.

At that point we rushed along behind the exiting protestors continuing to encourage them forward.  We finally turned a corner and found four police to whom we explained what had just happened, who we were, that we had been told by the Deputy Chief to go that way but had been shot and gassed.  We asked what was the safe way back to our car and they directed us.  We had to repeat this conversation a number of times.

We finally made it back to our cars and had to drive a circuitous route back to my house where Darrell dropped me off and then drove himself home.

I've never seen so many cops. So many of them in full military gear.  There were military-style vehicles in the streets.  It was horrifying.  There are so many different and better ways to let people express their justified anger without creating a war zone.

Today my entire body hurts, but my soul hurts even more.


Transforming Manhood

Transforming Manhood: A trans man's quest to build bridges and knock down wallsTransforming Manhood: A trans man's quest to build bridges and knock down walls by Ryan K. Sallans
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In his first memoir, Ryan wrote about his transition. In this second memoir, he writes about the last decade being a public figure and educator in the trans community and some about his marriage and personal life. The story here is still about understanding your identity, but now within the public glare. I appreciated much of what Ryan wrote, particularly about dealing with criticism from younger folk in our movement, as I too have experienced this shift. Ryan is an educator and bridge-builder in a time when bridge-building has become more difficult, taking heat even from ones allies. I appreciated his candor in this volume.

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Kings of Broken Things

Kings of Broken ThingsKings of Broken Things by Theodore Wheeler
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I timed the reading of Wheeler's novel to fall this week as Omaha observes the centennial of the lynching of Will Brown, the event that climaxes this story.

Wheeler's writing has influences of DeLillo, as he follows a handful of teenagers and young adults, mostly immigrants, in World War I era Omaha.

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24th & Glory

24th & Glory: The Intersection of Civil Rights and Omaha's Greatest Generation of Athletes24th & Glory: The Intersection of Civil Rights and Omaha's Greatest Generation of Athletes by Dirk Chatelain
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A engaging, moving read. The story of significant American social movements told through the lens of one neighborhood in a Midwestern city and the prominent characters who lived there. A essential read for Omahans that will be enjoyed by many others.

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River of No Return

A powerful essay by Ted Genoways (whose book This Blessed Earth I just finished reading) on the flooding in Nebraska this spring and how this demonstrates two failures--a failure to maintain our infrastructure and a failure to cope with climate change.  He lays the blame on the far right ideology of the GOP and Democrats ignoring the realities of rural life.  The essay is a moving portrayal of the damage done to Nebraska farmers.  


This Blessed Earth

This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family FarmThis Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family Farm by Ted Genoways
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I moved to Nebraska in 2010 all new UCC and DOC ministers gathered at Camp Kaleo in the center of the state in the Sandhills near Burwell for an orientation to ministry in Nebraska. One of our speakers was a western Nebraska rancher. He talked about rural-urban divides and how urban folk don't understand ag issues. I pointed out that many urban people were deeply concerned about agriculture as evidenced by the growing interest in eating locally and organically; I almost mentioned my long fondness for Wendell Berry. The rancher was very dismissive of what I said. Later, I was talking to my Conference Minister and asked him about it. His answer, "For a family to have survived farming in Nebraska, they have bought up the land of their neighbors and they now run such big industrial farms that the ideas of organic farming challenge how they've been living for a couple of generations." It was a good learning moment for me.

Genoways book is a story of one year in the life of one Nebraska farm family, a liberal family at that, but ones who still farm with contemporary industrial practices. The book helps you to understand why and the history of getting there. I deeply appreciated it for conveying how difficult and complex farming is today and the breadth of skills and knowledge required to be successful--from mechanical and IT know-how to grasping global trade, chemistry, bio-engineering, energy policies, climate science, and more. SO different from the life my grandparents led and their farm I have such nostalgia for. The book left me dizzy and wondering why anyone does it anymore.

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300 Miles to Ranching Country for a Funeral

The weather report indicated that there was a chance I was going to drive into a snowstorm.  I didn't relish the thought.  Obviously.  But I still left my house at 5:30 a.m. Friday planning to drive almost 300 miles into north central Nebraska ranching country to attend a funeral of a woman I'd met twice.

Agatha Forsyth was the wife of one of my United Church of Christ clergy colleagues, the licensed lay pastor Diana Jahn.  Diana I have interacted with numerous times over the years at denominational meetings, always enjoying my conversations with her.  My fascination has always been that she was serving as an openly gay clergy person in a tiny country church.  There was a time when she and I were the only openly gay UCC clergy in the state.  I deeply admired in 2015 when she signed our Ready-To-Marry statement and the Lincoln Journal-Star focused on how even this small rural church was gay welcoming.

So, to honor my colleague, in more ways than one, I wanted to travel those hundreds of miles into a snowstorm for her wife's funeral.

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Purdum, Nebraska lies deep in the Sandhills, far from any major towns or highways.  The Sandhills are one of North America's most interesting and unique landscapes, though often overlooked for more dramatic mountain vistas.  The grass covered hills and small lakes and ponds make this ideal ranching country.

A few years ago Diana and Agatha were already living and ranching in Purdum, having moved there 13 years ago from Maine, when the church needed a new pastor.  The congregation itself asked Diana to become their pastor.  She received the training and was licensed to the church.

The forecast had predicted rain changing to wintry mix for most of my drive, but that held off.  Because of flooding and washed out roads and bridges, the quickest route wasn't the most direct.  I traveled west along I-80 to Grand Island, Nebraska and then turned northwest for more than two hours along the Sandhills Scenic Byway of Highway 2.

In Broken Bow, Nebraska, almost four hours into my journey, sleet changing to snow began to fall.  It quickly became very thick, covering the road, and making travel slippery.  I began to contemplate turning around.  I feared driving into more remote country (and spotty cell coverage) with bad weather.  Plus, the snow was slowing me down such I feared I wouldn't make it on time, but I only had a little more than an hour left to travel, so I continued forward wondering what to do, when suddenly the heavy snow let up and the road became easily traversable again.

An hour later there was a lovely moment as I rounded a bend in the road which lies in the river valley of the Middle Loup--the Burlington train was moving west along rails lying beside the highway, a lone cow was grazing in the foreground, the Sandhills were rising in the background, and Classical music was playing on the radio.

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I arrived in Halsey with time to spare, so drove on past my turn to see the Nebraska National Forest.  If you are puzzled by the idea of a national forest on the Great Plains know that the forest was hand planted.  While driving through the forest, a massive hawk flew majestically overhead.

Purdum, an unicorporated village, lies 18 miles north of highway 2 at Halsey, and those 18 miles are directly through the abrupt rolling hills of the Sandhills.  What a fascinating landscape with almost no trees or shrubs and only the occasional turnoff for a ranch.  I wondered what the drive will be like in a few weeks with green grass and wildflowers.

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And suddenly there's Purdum, with the church as the primary public building.  The place was full, as it seems the surrounding community all turned out.  Nine of Diana's clergy colleagues were in attendance, almost all from the eastern side of the state, so we shared our adventures in driving that early morning.

The music for the service included "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You," Bette Midler's "Wind Beneath My Wings," and closed with k. d. lang's version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."  One of Agatha's friends celebrated "this marvelous, crazy woman."  The eulogy was delivered by a local woman who talked of how central Agatha and Diana have been not only to the church but the community.  Near the close of her remarks she thanked Agatha and Diana for teaching the community "not to judge."

And I found myself crying after those words as Bette Midler sang on the recording.  Here in the remote ranching country of the Sandhills was this wide, inclusive, gay-affirming embrace of the Christian church.  In a place that stereotypically it would be least expected.  And it was being honored and celebrated.

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After a delicious country funeral lunch with multiple pasta and jello salads (maybe 7 of the latter?) and a smorgasboard of desserts (I limited myself to three), I got on the road for the return trip.

The radio kept warning about the snow in western and north central Nebraska, but I hadn't needed a coat in Purdum and there was very little precipitation until once again I neared Broken Bow where it started in almost the exact same place it had stopped for me en route almost four hours before.  Now Broken Bow was covered in what looked like 3 inches of snow.  It snowed until the other side of the town.  In my entire 600 miles of driving it snowed only in Broken Bow, both coming and going.  So odd.

In Grand Island I stopped for coffee with the Rev. Stephen Mitchell and his husband.  Stephen has been pastoring our UCC church there since last year, but we hadn't yet had time to really sit down and get to know one another.  I needed the stop, as I was beginning to tire, but the rest fortified me for the final leg home. Stephen and Paul have 30 grandchildren.

I told Stephen I had joked with Michael that morning, "I'm on my great gay clergy tour of Nebraska, seeing all three of us."

I arrived home around 6:30, 13 hours after leaving.  Michael had fixed a delicious dinner of roast pork.  After dinner it was my night for bedtime routine with our son.

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Anne Boyle

Anne Boyle

Today I attended the funeral of Anne Boyle, former Public Service Commissioner and Chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party and husband of former Mayor and current County Commissioner Mike Boyle.

Michael and I met Anne and Mike shortly after we moved to Omaha when she was running for Lieutenant Governor.  And then whenever we saw them, usually at some sort of public event advocating for progressive causes, especially LGBT equality, they greeted us warmly as if they had known us for many years.  They helped make us feel at home in Omaha.

It was immediately impressive to us, who had been LGBT activists in Oklahoma in the Aughts, that these prominent public officials were such staunch advocated for LGBT equality.  That had not always been the case even with Democratic politicians in the first decade of this century.

Sometime last year our family was out to dinner at La Buvette and Anne entered the restaurant.  She saw us, her face lit up, and she came over to chat.  My mother was with us at the time, and she had a nice chat with Mom, but what I remember most was how she engaged 3-year-old Sebastian in conversation.  Even he remembers it, as I showed him Anne's picture and asked if he remembered when he last saw her.

Anne was a political force but always kind and compassionate.  Her funeral was filled with memorable stories and observations on her character.  I appreciate Jeff Koterba's cartoon in the paper this week, where a young girl asks her Mom, who is preparing to read a bedtime story, "Instead of a story, can you tell me more about Anne Boyle?  About her boldness and advocacy, her integrity and compassion?"  Those are four virtues I'd like to be remembered for.