As we plow through the book of Acts like a John Deere on the Saskatchewan prairie, in the second half of Acts we turn to the story of Paul as he travels around the Mediterranean 2000 years ago. As I said last week, Paul certainly evangelized in a way that would make most United Church folk uncomfortable. I mean, I don’t know of any churches that have an evangelizing committee. Probably any evangelizing committee is doomed to failure. This might not be such a bad thing. The history of Christian evangelism is checkered at best. While there can be something beautiful about sharing your deepest beliefs about love and the universe and what it means to be a follower of The Way it is impossible to dissociate the practice from colonialism and subjugation. Perhaps that is not was intended or practiced by Paul. Perhaps we shouldn’t blame Paul for the ways in which the church has evangelized.
Still and all, it might be with some trepidation that we hear of Paul going down to the praying place when he arrives in Philippi. Paul, Timothy and Silas make their way down the dusty path to the river, water being a source of life and a source of the sacred. So Paul makes his way down to the “praying place” where he encounters Lydia. Now, Lydia is already a worshipper of God, so we might presume that she is, like Paul, Jewish. Remember that at the time the book of Acts was written the Jewish people and their religion as in flux. A generation or two earlier in the 70th year of the Common Era the Romans had had enough of the constant political turmoil in Palestine and had sent in the legions to destroy the Temple which was the center of the Jewish religion. Not only did they raze the Temple but they dispersed the Judeans through the Roman Empire. The Jewish religion, without the Temple was forced to change radically. This change took several forms, including Rabbinic Judaism, Gnosticism and Paul’s understanding of Christianity. So Lydia, down by the riverside, was convinced by Paul’s enthusiasm and agrees to become a follower of The Way and is baptized along with her household.
And the first thing Lydia did as a follower of the way was invite Paul, Timothy and Silas to stay at her home. This passage is touted as a beacon of Hospitality, a venerable Christian tradition. Hospitality is the practice of inviting people into your home and treating them like family or whatever is better than family. Lydia is lifted up as a paragon of hospitality. Of course hospitality isn’t exclusive to Christianity. It is an ancient Jewish practice but it is central to many religions. It is by no means limited to religions. Many secular communities and organizations do it as well or better than many religions. My point is that hospitality is a central practice of Christianity and Lydia is held up as a shining example.
But Lydia’s hospitality is not what is most peculiar about her and I am fascinated by the peculiar. No, what is most peculiar about Lydia is that she is the leader of a household. Under the Roman Empire, this would have been outrageous. The Roman Household, which was central the structure of Roman, society was exclusively led by men who were granted pretty much total control of everyone in the household, even their younger brothers, in fact all the younger males. Households were complex hierarchies which varied depending upon the size of the household but the head of the household was always the Patron, a man.
But here is Lydia, a woman, leading the household. The text says that, “When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.’ And she prevailed upon us. Lydia is a woman at the head of a household. Scholars differ about how well off she was. Some point out that she is a dealer of purple cloth and purple is the colour of Royalty. Surely, Lydia must have earned a fine living selling fine purple cloth to the Roman elite. Others aren’t so sure. Ivoni Reimer Richter questions the “evidence that the production and sale of purple goods ever played an important economic role in Philippi”; and that such production was in fact considered both “dirty work” and “the work of women.” She therefore speculates that Lydia and her household ran a small-scale, subsistence-level operation, near the river, since water was needed in the process, where the cloth was both made and distributed.”
Lydia and her friends had created an “Alternate Space” by creating a discrete societal unit that differed so radically from the norm: a household of women headed by a woman. It is easy to see the motivation behind the creation of such spaces. Women living under the Roman Empire would have an extremely limited level of freedom. You can see the draw of these alternative spaces.
The lure of Alternative Spaces exists to this day. As you may have noticed the council at Wesley has approved the starting of the process of becoming an Affirming Ministry. Of course Sunset has been an Affirming Ministry for many years and I know that Whitmore Park, like Wesley has an inclusive marriage policy. But a few folks from Wesley have wondered about entering into the process of becoming an Affirming Ministry. And if we enter into the process authentically, with a curiosity and with love then we may encounter some alternative spaces because they exist in the queer community.
One such alternative space that has fascinated me is the Trans Lady Picnic which was started by Red Durkin in Brooklyn New York. Durkin is a comedian and activist who noticed and experienced how difficult it can be for trans ladies to make friends. Even in queer communities it is hard. For some reason Trans Ladies often seem to get squeezed to the margins and there is a tendency for trans women toward isolation. Of course, this is part of the challenges that trans women face. Making friends is an important part of a healthy life. But I don’t want to turn this into a pity party because Trans Lady Picnics are supposed to be fun. They are supposed to be a casual fun space to meet people and make friends.
Durkin tells us that, “The Trans Ladies Picnic is not a structured meeting or support group. Name tags are not required. Sitting in a circle is not required. Roll call, getting-to-know-you games, and structured sharing are not required. TLP is also not an accountability circle, a space for group processing, a play party, a dating service or a symposium on trans theory. All that stuff’s great, but Trans Ladies Picnics are for organic, casual socializing. Leave your drama at the door, do your processing afterward, have accountability before you get there. TLP should be fun!” So I am not complaining how hard it is for trans women. That’s not what I want to do today. I just want to acknowledge a problem and an interesting fun way to address the problem.
One of the integral practices of the Trans Lady Picnic is that attendance is limited to trans women or other trans people who were designated to be male when they were born. No allies, or friends or partners or trans men or non-trans women. It is a space for trans women or other Trans people who were designated to be male when they were born. On the other hand you should never police people’s genders. If someone arrives who you think looks like a man and says their name is Susan the only to you the only possible response is “Nice to meet you Susan, the salads go over there and the pop and the chips are over by the barbecue.” Durkin days that if you make your intentions clear and trust that people will respect your wishes and if all else fails have fun anyway. She says it has NEVER been a problem.
As a trans lady, the idea of a trans lady picnic sounds awesome. I love its simplicity and creating a trans lady only space is important. It removes a ton of pressure and allows people to simply be. Of course, in a way, limiting attendance to trans ladies inhibits the hospitality. The exclusivity negates it. All are NOT welcome. But there is a reason for this. Part of the reason this is necessary because there is a hierarchy to hospitality. The person giving the hospitality has an advantage. They are offering something, whether it is space, a meal or even companionship. There are power dynamics at play which make hospitality difficult.
Durkin has taken other steps to alleviate and reduce these power differentials. She insists that the picnics should be free. Not pay what you can or free will donation. Make it a potluck with perhaps chips and pop supplied. This serves to flatten out the hierarchies that invade communities. She even says, “specifically they are meant to serve as an active disruption from the model in which trans women can only have what is provided and approved for them.” They are created by trans women for trans women so that trans women have control over their own community. Hospitality, with its inherent hierarchies, is not the model here.
Susan Kennel Harrison identifies another problem with hospitality. She acknowledges that it is an “important practice but she says that we can offer hospitality without commitment to one another. Instead she advocates friendship which she says, offers a kind of glue that has more staying power than hospitality. Hospitality may serve as the bridge to develop a friendship, but it does not bind us to one another in any concrete way. It may give us the window to discover and begin to understand each other as religious communities, as tribes, as different cultures, as nations, but if things get tense or uncomfortable there is nothing holding us in relationship, nothing that makes us return to one another.”
Friendship and hospitality are part of the Christian tradition. As is evangelism. However if I was at a trans lady picnic and Paul, Timothy and Silas showed up looking for converts then I would be more than little nervous. I’d be reaching for my mace. When they asked if I knew Jesus: Sssssssssst. I’m just joking. I don’t have any mace. I’ve stopped carrying it ever since the incident. Again, that’s just a joke. Honestly, given the history of the way the church has acted toward trans women and other queer folk I’d be silly not to be suspicious. Evangelism is not the answer.
Hospitality with its inherent hierarchies is insufficient as well. Perhaps friendship is the answer. But friendship must be offered without demanding a return. We must not offer friendship in place of evangelism but, instead, offer friendship for its own sake. The very act of the offering must be sufficient for us. And if friendship is offered authentically and in love, without reservation or expectation of return then maybe, just maybe the actual offering may be part of the healing of the world.
Susan Kennel Harrison, http://www.stateofformation.org/2014/07/hospitality-or-friendship/