Attitudes about gun control can change

An excellent article I found in the New Yorker (it was the one Fareed Zakaria plagiarized) presents some interesting history of gun control and our present day attitudes toward it:

Battleground America

One nation, under the gun.


Read more

What this says to me is that just as our attitudes toward gun control have changed, they could change again, if we make it happen.

I’d take away the guns

I’m sick of gun violence and I’m sick of our fear of talking about guns. We are more terrified of challenging the NRA than we are of the home-grown terrorists who are gunning-down innocent people year after year in this country.

According to Mother Jones, “Since 1982, there have been at least 60 mass murders  carried out with firearms across the country, with the killings unfolding in 30 states from Massachusetts to Hawaii.” If you want to be reminded of this grizzly history, check out the story where they have mapped them, “including details on the shooters’ identities, the types of weapons they used, and the number of victims they injured and killed.”

And that doesn’t include “incidents” like the attack on Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, TN (July 27, 2008) because only two people actually died in that assault on a Sunday Morning worship service ( It takes killing at least four to qualify as a mass murder.

I no longer can sit idly by while students, elected officials, movie-goers, church members, and countless others are victimized by a gun lobby that continues to assert that guns have nothing to do with the violence. Yes, we have bigger societal problems to address before killing is stopped and yes, without access to legal weapons (75% of mass murders are committed with legally-obtained firearms), IEDs might become the weapons of choice, but we have to start with the obvious.

In Cheryl Wheelers’ 1987 anthem, “If It Were Up To Me,” which she wrote after the Jonesboro schoolyard shooting incident (, she posits,

Maybe it’s the movies, maybe it’s the books

Maybe it’s the bullets, maybe it’s the real crooks

Maybe it’s the drugs, maybe it’s the parents

Maybe it’s the colors everybody’s wearin

Maybe it’s the President, maybe it’s the last one

And the list goes on. But after all the possible causes, she ends with:

Maybe it’s the end, but I know one thing.

If it were up to me, I’d take away the guns.

Today, I can say with complete clarify, if it were up to me, I, too, would take away the guns.

The faces of hell

New essay: The Faces of Hell, published by The Other Journal: an Intersection of Theology and Culture.

On July 28, 2008, I received a call that changed everything. In reality, it was multiple calls and text messages urgently alerting me to the news that there had been a shooting at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church (TVUUC) in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Sign at TVUUC with balloons, flowers, and notes after July 28, 2008 shooting
Photo by Karen Krogh

As District Executive of the Southeast District of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), I immediately hopped on a plane and went there to assist in whatever way I could. With the help of the Unitarian Universalist Trauma Response Ministry, a number of local agencies, and the generous donations of hundreds of Unitarian Universalists, congregations, and others, the members of the congregation received immediate and ongoing trauma support to help them heal from this senseless act of violence.

The Reverend William Sinkford, then president of the UUA, was so inspired by the courage and love he witnessed by the members of the TVUUC congregation that, with the help of the Reverend Meg Riley, he launched the UUA’s Standing on the Side of Love campaign. This campaign has gone on to inspire thousands of people to live our faith through love into the world.

But this tragedy also caused me, and I’m sure others who were affected by this horrific act of violence, to examine another of one of the most fundamental religious questions: the nature of hell. Recently, The Other Journal: An Intersection of Theology and Culture, a publication of the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, published an essay I wrote called The Faces of Hell that explores this question as it relates to the shooting at TVUUC. I hope you’ll read it and share your thoughts and reflections.

TVUUC has come a long way since that tragic day in 2008. Through their care of each other, their openness to care from others, and their boundless love of all people, they have done much healing over the past four years. However, not a day goes by in which I don’t send this congregation the continued healing energy of the universe. Please offer them your thoughts and prayers also.

For more about the shooting and the response, please visit Unitarian Universalists Respond to Tragedy in Knoxville.

Standing on a street corner

When I first saw Sheila, she was standing on a street corner holding up a sign to cars that were stopped for the light. It was at the intersection of Azalea and Brook Avenues in Henrico County, Virginia, a place that proudly declares itself the oldest county in the United States of America—but it could have been anywhere.

She looked to be a rather small, middle-aged women with mousey brown hair pulled back from her face in a rubber-band. The sign she was holding was a piece of white poster board, the kind students use for school projects.  She was using it to beg for money. I couldn’t read all of the words she had scrawled there but what I read kicked me in the gut: “I lost my job. I never thought this could happen to me.” Who does? Who dreams of standing all day on a dirty, dusty street corner waiting for someone to take pity on them?

Sheila was one of marginalized people who occupy the corners of this country, left out of society, and in the cases of people like Sheila, thrust into a downward spiral that is ripping a hole in this country’s deteriorating safety net, a safety net very few of our politicians are working actively to repair.

As I sat in the comfort of my brand new 2012 Subaru Forester and ate my lunch, I studied her standing there. I tried to imagine her life and what it feels like to be so desperate as to beg for money on a street corner. My imagination failed me. While I watched, no one stopped and handed her money, or food, or anything. Most didn’t even slow down to read her sign. She was indistinguishable from the telephone pole and street sign she stood in front of.

I could see the pain coursing through her body as she took one hand off the flimsy sign, covered her eyes, and pressed it to her forehead, like she was trying to keep her head from exploding. I could almost see the tears she was fighting back.

She didn’t win the fight. She left the corner, sat down on the curb in the parking lot and starting sobbing.

I left my car and went over to her. “Hi, my name is Annette. I wonder if you feel like talking. I’d be glad to buy you some lunch.”

She looked up at me and through her tears said, “I just got kicked out of my house. I lost my job a little while ago.” She put her head back her hands. “I think it’s my teeth,” she mumbled through her hands. “I’m so ugly, no one wants to hire me.”

Although I couldn’t see for certain, it looked as if she had only one tooth on the top of her mouth and it protruded from her gum at an angle that made it appear as if it would fall out at any moment.

“I can’t afford to get my teeth fixed,” she said. “and now I’ve been thrown out of my apartment by the girlfriend of a guy I invited to stay there. He gets disability so the guy who owns the house now is letting him stay there and I’ve got to come up with $500 if I want to stay. And it’s my apartment and my stuff,” the anger in her voice intensified with each word. She looked up at me again. “But I guess it’s not mine anymore.” Her anger turned to defeat.

I reiterated my offer of lunch. She didn’t respond. I dug into my wallet and pulled out a $20 and handed it to her. She took it and thanked me.

“What’s your name, again?” she asked with enough composure I could imagine her welcoming customers to Hardy’s, where she said she used to work.

“Annette. What’s yours?”

“Sheila,” she said. Then she shook her head and said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

I asked her about life on the street corner. “Do many people stop to help?”

She told me how black women were the ones who helped her the most. “They seem happiest,” she said. White women her age helped the least. She figured they identified with her too much. She told me about the men who offered to pay her for prostitution. “I won’t do that. I’ve got enough problems,” she said. She smiled a little and added, “Some guy me gave me a double cheeseburger today. He gave one to me and one to his dog.” With that, she laughed a little, a laugh that only served to accentuate the poor condition of her mouth.

Dental care is one of the most obvious class dividers in our society. I’ve always been self-conscious of my teeth they are a little crooked but at least I have all of them. My mom took me to an orthodontist when I was a teenager and when she learned how much it would cost to fit me with braces, she swallowed hard and said we couldn’t afford it—and we were probably closer to middle class. No one living below the poverty level in this country can afford even the most basic dental care.

Sheila told me about her nineteen-year old son who is a student at the University of Richmond. “I can’t ask him for help,” she said. “My sister told him a bunch of lies about me. It’s all messed up.” She paused and looked down at the cracked cement in the parking lot. “That really hurts,” she said. I wonder what lies she told him. Sheila didn’t appear to be a substance abuser. She said she didn’t give in to prostitution. But whatever it was, it kept them apart. I wonder if he knows she is standing on a street corner begging for money.

She showed me how the heel of her black athletic shoe was falling off. “People gave me all my clothes,” she told me. “I just wish I wasn’t so ugly,” she said again.

“I’ve got some clothes in the back of my car you are welcome to take a look at,” I said.

She gave me wistful look. “I’d like some new clothes but I don’t have any way to carry them. All I have is that bike over there.” She pointed to a rusty, old, single speed women’s bike chained up to the light post across the street.

I asked her if she knew about the services that were available in town to help her. “I’ve used CARITAS,” she said. “They’ve helped me.”

CARITAS is an emergency homeless shelter and support service run in partnership with churches all over the city. I figured I could at least connect her to them but she already knew how to reach them.

I told her I hoped she found some help. “If I see you again I’ll stop and say hi,” I said.

She stuck her hand out and we shook, like we had just concluded a business deal.

“Thanks for talking,” I said and walked back to my car. It’s hard to help people, I thought. Maybe the money will help a little. Maybe the conversation helped her to know someone cares. But I suspect she’ll be back on some corner tomorrow. “There is no way for me to get out of this,” she told me. I hope she is wrong.

Maybe the politicians will suddenly find a heart. Maybe people will finally figure out that government austerity measures that continually cut holes in the safety net are not a pathway to recovery. But I think the reality is that people like Sheila will have to depend on the kindness of strangers on some street corner for a long time to come.

What would you have done to help Sheila? Is homelessness and poverty inevitable or do you think there are solutions that can make a real difference?

The women of Katrina

Women of Katrina book cover

I am honored to announce that excerpts from my online journal, originally published on the Unitarian Universalist Association website,, are included in a new publicationThe Women of Katrina book cover from Vanderbilt University Press, The Women of Katrina: How Gender, Race, and Class Matter in an American Disaster, edited by Emmanuel David and Elaine Enarson. My journal was about my experiences working as a mental health volunteer in an American Red Cross emergency shelter in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, in the days and weeks following  Hurricane Katrina. To read all of my entries, please visit “A Personal View of Disaster: The Diary of Annette Marquis

Description of The Women of Katrina: The transformative event known as “Katrina” exposed long-standing social inequalities. While debates rage about race and class relations in New Orleans and the Katrina diaspora, gender remains curiously absent from public discourse and scholarly analysis. This volume draws on original research and firsthand narratives from women in diverse economic, political, ethnic, and geographic contexts to portray pre-Katrina vulnerabilities, gender concerns in post-disaster housing and assistance, and women’s collective struggles to recover from this catastrophe.

I’d love to hear your stories of Katrina. What did you learn from work you have done post-Katrina?

Coming out in faith

Coming Out in Faith Book Cover

Coming out as a lesbian is an everyday spiritual practice. Some days, in some places, to some people, it takes more courage than others. My faith as a Coming Out in Faith Book CoverUnitarian Universalist has sustained me, bolstered me, and inspired me to be fully who I am. That’s why I’m thrilled to have an essay of mine, “The Long Road Home,” included in a publication from Skinner House Books, Coming Out in Faith: Voices of LGBTQ Unitarian Universalists, edited by Susan A. Gore and Keith Kron.

This collection of poignant testimonials illuminates the lived experience of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Unitarian Universalists. Coming Out in Faith also helps to raise awareness of Unitarian Universalism’s active role in promoting a vision of humanity that not only embraces LGBTQ people but actively seeks to learn from the unique strengths they bring to questions of personal faith and organizational vitality.

Do you have a coming out story tied to your experience of faith?

Doing my work

What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? Perhaps for some of you here today, I am the face of one of your fears. Because I am a woman, because I am Black, because I am lesbian, because I am myself — a Black woman warrior poet doing my work — come to ask you, are you doing yours? 

Audre Lorde

I first heard these words of Audre Lorde sometime in the late 1970s. At the time, I was a young white woman rebelling against her deeply entrenched Roman Catholic roots to accept herself for who she was, a woman who was sexually and emotionally attracted to other women. Lorde’s words echoed in my head like the incessant cawing of an angry crow trying to chase off a resting red-tailed hawk from her perch in the old oak tree. Perhaps it was the certainty in which she described herself. I didn’t call myself a lesbian then. If I used any label, it was gay. Homosexual was too clinical and before an adequate amount of therapy, which I was still undergoing, words such as lesbian carried for me an accusatory and scandalous tone.

Perhaps it was the challenge she presented in paring words such as woman and warrior. Women weren’t supposed to be warriors. Not only did that go against the pervasive patriarchal view of the passive women, it flew in the face of my growing feminist awareness that challenged the giant war machine fostered by men. And yet, here she was, calling herself a black, lesbian, woman warrior poet.

Lorde’s identities, chosen or not, were as much part of her as her arms and legs. She found meaning in her life by living into all of who she was and in doing so, established herself as a person worth listening to – a force to be reckoned with. I ached to possess the confidence to be unapologetically who I was without pretense or suppression. I wanted to know, in no uncertain terms, what my work was. Lorde’s words and her challenge to discover and do my work became a test that I have found myself taking over and over again throughout my life.

Now more than thirty years later, I am finally able to privately and publicly claim many of the identities that define me. I am an American woman with Northern roots who grew up in and again lives in the South, a white, anti-racist, lesbian-feminist writer and religious leader, a lover and wife, a friend, a women’s basketball devotee, a technology enthusiast, a nature lover, a gardener, a therapist, a trauma responder, and a social justice activist. And I am certain that this list only skims the surface. I am a complex person with a wide-range of skills, varied interests, and numerous passions.

As I’ve come to claim my multiple identities, I’ve learned that my work, the work that Audre Lorde calls me to do, is very little about content and all about process. What I do matters little compared to how I do it. I wish I could say I had a moment of enlightenment in which that all become clear. I wish I could say I followed an unambiguous path to defining my work. I wish I had the magic solution that I could package and give to anyone struggling with the same questions.

Sometimes I am envious of people whose life is defined around a singular passion and it seems everything they do is focused on that one thing. We all know about people like that – athletes, scientists, politicians, peace activists, and musicians. It doesn’t really matter what their profession is, when you think of that person, you think of that thing. It’s how they spend their time, how they spend their resources, what they talk about, what consumes them. I struggle with that idea for myself. Is it a sign of immaturity that I can’t settle on the one thing that defines who I am? Or are my diverse identities and passions a sign of strength?

It’s a romantic notion in a way – to be thought of by your one passion, to be seen as the person that does or knows one thing better than anyone else. Without people like this, from Martin Luther King to Yo Yo Ma, from Mother Teresa to Steve Jobs, the world would be a poorer place. We have a need to witness people exercising an undeterred commitment to achieving their goals.  We admire those people and, in many cases, try to emulate them.

But having only one known identity is also dangerously limiting. It creates one-dimensional, cardboard cutouts that fit neatly into pre-defined forms in our heads. We think we know someone because who know their cause, their interest, or their passion and we failed to notice that these same people have other aspects to their personalities, including flaws, misgivings, and trepidations. No story exemplifies this more clearly than that of Tiger Woods. He is the greatest golfer the world has ever seen. Millions of people from all over the world have witnessed his calm, his grace, and his mastery on the golf course. And yet when it became clear that, in addition to golf, he was obsessed with sex, his fans experienced it as a personal affront – they were shocked, disillusioned, and hurt. For many people, who were already cynical about our heroes, it was one more example of hero-worship gone bad. Because Tiger was seen for the one thing he does better than anyone, we never saw him as a whole person. His identity as a master golfer obscured all of his other identities.

In many cases, the superficial portrait of our heroes we have created in our imaginations serves us well. As long as we don’t have to think about the other aspects of someone’s life, about the entirety of the person, we can hold them in a cloud of innocence. They are stripped of the things we dislike about ourselves and become pure, almost holy.

Thomas Jefferson is a lot like that. This great American statesman is revered by many for his genius, his lofty writing, his grand visions, and his many accomplishments. Hardly one-dimensional, Jefferson authored the Declaration of Independence, served as the country’s first Secretary of State, served as Vice-President and then two terms as President of the United States, and founded the University of Virginia. He is honored for his stanch commitment to religious freedom and esteemed for his grand vision that resulted in the Louisiana Purchase, an effort that doubled the size of the United States. His image is literally carved in stone on Mount Rushmore as a great American hero with the likes of George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. And yet, not unlike his three compatriots, Jefferson was a complicated man, some would say, even a conflicted man.

Jefferson’s identities as a statesman, politician, author, Virginian, American, inventor, educator, and historian also has to include that of slaveholder, adulterer, racist, debtor, and some would even call him a rapist for having sexual relations with a woman who was his slave. It is hard for us to hold all those identities at one time about an American hero and yet Jefferson himself struggled with his own conflicted identities. In discussing slavery and the Missouri question, he said to John Holmes, “But, as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.” Jefferson was acting out of a conflicted moral code that Audre Lorde described as “tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own.” Our tendency to ignore Jefferson’s weaknesses and extol his virtues forces us to swallow those tyrannies, while, at the same time, by condemning him for his transgressions, we diminish his great accomplishments.

I was recently part of an 18-year-long struggle to change the name of a religious denomination’s geographic region from the Thomas Jefferson District to the Southeast District. The arguments of those who opposed the name change typically followed one of three threads: Jefferson was a man of his times and we can’t apply today’s standards to his life, the fact that he owned slaves was only a small thing when you consider the many contributions he made, or none of us is perfect and if we apply a standard of perfection to our heroes, we’ll have no heroes left. This third argument rang true for one 65-year-old man named Bob who said to me, “If you take away all our heroes, we’ll have nothing left to stand on.” Our heroes and the various identities we ascribe to them help us from our own identities, to hold on to those parts of ourselves that we want desperately so to believe in. If we can’t believe in Thomas Jefferson, how can we believe in ourselves? Bob, like so many others, feared that by losing Jefferson, he might, in fact, lose himself.

Those who supported the name change argued that by honoring Jefferson through the use of his name, we are ignoring the stories of all the people who do not experience Jefferson as a hero, who see his treatment of blacks, Native Americans, and women as deplorable and not something worthy of our adoration.  For these people, by holding on to Jefferson as a hero, we exclude people who do not see him as someone who represents them.

The fact that this question took almost two decades to settle is an indication of how much importance we place on identity. Which of Jefferson’s identities do we claim and which do we ignore? If we claim them all, how do we continue to admire him? If we ignore even some of them, what does that say about the people we are?

I’d rather be known for the complicated, and sometimes conflicted, person I am, even if that means, I will never achieve greatness. I have been fortunate to live a life that is dotted with accomplishments. Nothing to compare to Jefferson’s, mind you, or Audre Lorde’s, for that matter, but accomplishments nonetheless. I am seen as a leader and I tend to rise to the top in most of the roles I have assumed. I have a knack for developing organizational structures that work. People tend to respect me and as a result, will listen to me when I try to help them do their jobs better. I have experienced a lot of different things and have developed expertise in at least a few of them.

That doesn’t means I have extraordinary talents in all the things I love to do. In fact, far from it. I have studied Spanish for much of my life and I can barely converse with a six-year old native speaker. I have longed to have musical talent but no matter how much time I dedicate to playing the guitar, I find myself learning and relearning the same material over and over again. I can’t dance or carry a tune, and as much as I love basketball, I never have had the athletic ability to compete successfully.

But whether I am successful or not, I have accepted the fact that who I am is not defined by my achievements. My identities inform me, position me, provide me with opportunities, sustain me, fulfill me, categorize me, include or exclude me, but they do not define me. Who I am is defined, not by what I achieve or don’t achieve, but by how I engage in the task. My work, the work that Audre Lorde asks if I am doing, the work I am here to do, is to embrace the values that speak to me, most importantly, love, justice, compassion, equity, and honesty, and to live my life consistent with those values. That is my work. How I do my work is to surround myself with people who challenge me to live my values, to constantly challenge myself to examine my life, and to not let myself get away with being less than who I am.

I dream of being a great writer, of writing something so significant that it will literally change the world. I don’t know if I will ever accomplish that dream. But I know that everything I write has the potential of touching someone’s life. Audre Lorde challenges us come out of our silence and let our words speak our truth. That is my commitment today — to not allow myself to question whether I have something to say, whether what I have to say is good enough, whether someone else could say it better. I will let my voice be heard and in doing so, be clear about who I am. That is what I’ve learned in these thirty- some years since I first accepted Audre Lorde’s challenge.

“Doing my work” is simply being the best, most authentic me I can be.

Thank you, Audre, for showing me the way.

Rape is never a game

As part of my morning news-gathering ritual, I awoke today to a story on about the explosion of a new category of games whose objective is the stalking, raping, mutilation, and killing women. These games, called hentai, originate in Japan, and, partially because of the outrage they have generated, are going viral around the world. Understandably, women’s groups are actively trying to ban them. However, the ubiquitous nature of the Internet today makes this impossible. The games can be banned from store shelves and reappear as free downloads on the Internet. They can be banned in one country, only to appear in another.

In today’s technological society, we cannot squelch what people feel is their right to free expression (especially when it involves generating income), even if that free expression promotes violence and hatred against women.

Here’s the CNN story: ‘RapeLay’ Video Game Goes Viral Despite Outrage

So what is the appropriate response? Outrage can only begin to express the pain that these games cause. It is not the games themselves but the reality that there are men around the world who get sexual pleasure from raping women, from seeing women raped, and in this case, from imagining women being raped that is most disturbing. It is natural for women everywhere to feel the anguish of every woman who has suffered at the hands of a man.

Whether it has happened to us or not, we carry around a deep-seeded fear that we might be next. And even if we never are victims of overt violence ourselves, we have all, at times, felt powerless, humiliated, and abused by men and the society that they control.

Women have long contended that rape is violence, not sex. But that doesn’t change the fact that some men derive sexual pleasure from this violent act. Whether we like to claim it or not, power, control, dominance, and submission are part of sexual excitement for human beings. I am not saying that everyone gets sexual pleasure from these things but, as controversial as this statement might be, I do believe it is inherent in our genetic make-up, just as it is for thousands of other species on this planet. It is the job of males to perpetuate the species, whether or not the female complies. We women get pregnant, have babies, and in most cases, rear the children, but none of this can happen unless men first impregnate us. This is a biological power that men carry with them throughout their lives that even sperm-banks and in vitro fertilization cannot erase.

When you add to our biology, men who grow up surrounded by violence and fear, who witness models of male dominance and female submission played out every day by their parents, the very people who are supposed to teach them about how to treat others with respect, it’s no wonder that we create millions of landmines around the world ready to explore at the slightest provocation.

The question is whether we humans can overcome our biology, the complexities of our psychological make-up, and our negative life experiences to see sexuality, and all human interaction, as the beautiful, trusting, loving act it can be.

My first reaction when I saw this story this morning was an overwhelming feeling of hopelessness. It was a familiar feeling – one that I’ve  had many times in my life when I have heard about similar abuses. Will this ever change? Has our seemingly endless work toward a peaceful world made the smallest impact on the future? When people get enjoyment from even pretending to rape women, is there any hope for the future?

What I know with certainty, and this might be hard for some of you to hear, is that no matter how hard we work for it, we will never achieve a utopian society where everyone treats everyone else with the respect and dignity they deserve, where children are uniformly nourished and loved, and where the entire planet lives in peace. Human nature is much too complex, and our biology is too strong, to control all the factors that cause people to strike out against each other.

This does not mean, however, that I can or should stop working toward this vision of what the world could be. It is this vision that gives my life purpose, fills my life with meaning, and keeps me moving through another day. Perhaps it is a foolish notion, a cause as hopeless as preventing a river from overtaking its banks after a relentless rain, but it is my foolish notion, one that keeps me from letting the hopelessness overtake me, that keeps me flowing down the river.

I can and will express my outrage. I can and will support efforts to ban any activity that promotes violence against women, against all life forms. I can and will do what I can to improve conditions that contribute to violence. I can and will work to improve human interactions and to personally work toward discovering what it means to engage in healthy relationships (and God knows even this small thing is a struggle some days). And I will do that knowing that I am but one drop of water in that river.

I cannot change its course alone. For that I need you.