A conversation about Standing Rock, solidarity, and faith with GLIDE Seminary Intern Todd Whitley
How has Standing Rock figured in your time here at GLIDE?
The first time I preached at GLIDE I spoke about Standing Rock. I was scheduled to preach on the first day of Advent in 2016. The sermon was based on that verse that says, “To whom much is given, much will be required.” I used that verse as a way to talk about privilege—whether that’s white privilege or male privilege or cis-gender privilege — and leveraging it for groups with less privilege.
The Gender Summit that I am helping to coordinate for the weekend of May 5 — 7 is one of those ways of leveraging privilege. Part of the reason for the summit is to help people be allies. A lot of people just don’t know what to ask. And they are afraid to ask, or they don’t know who to ask, so they won’t do anything because they don’t want to offend anybody. That’s the last thing that they want to do. We want to tell people, “Here’s what you need to know, in a place where it’s safe to ask questions.” If you can’t do that at GLIDE, where can you do it?
The other group of people that this summit will serve is our LGBTQ community, particularly transgender people of color. We want people to know that you can bring your whole self to this place and we will welcome you as you are. Those are two different groups of people that we’re trying to bring in to this space.
Can you speak about your experience in North Dakota? And your perspective on the role of faith and faith communities in activism?
Once I got there, we were called into action right away, and that action resulted in me spending three days and three nights in jail. By the time we got out, it was time to come back to the Bay. We were already missing classes, although it was ok because our seminary, the Pacific School of Religion, has a lot of activists. People who come to PSR know what kind of education they’re going to get: Pushing social action. We had one of our professors with us. Our group was led by a person of Native descent, who asked us to go with her. We were allowed to camp alongside the Two-Spirit Camp that had convened there.
The whole thing, even if the pipeline goes on, is a victory because it showed the power of the Native-led movement. It wasn’t white people leading it. And [because it showed] what happens when other people show up—that powerful example of veterans going, apologizing and asking for forgiveness for what happened. Some kind of reconciliation occurred there. That was powerful. And that people did go and put their bodies into the space has so many lessons and parallels for other work. Fast-forwarding to one of the rallies in the city: Native, indigenous and mostly women-led. Seven hundred people were there and they were mostly white people. I looked around and said, “Wow. This is the work influencing, encouraging people to show up for people that aren’t like them, for causes that they think maybe don’t affect them directly. And for people of faith, that is actually what I think Jesus the Rebel expected from that movement that he started, a movement that later became Christianity. Standing Rock, for me, was a victory because it did start waking people up. It’s disheartening that capitalism and greed may indeed prevail in this instance, as it has many times when treaties have been broken. And yet the victory is that people’s consciousness has been raised.
One of my sons, he’s 24, he was talking about his bank account. He said, “Dad, I’m closing this bank account because B of A hasn’t divested its funds in the pipeline.” And I thought, “Oh my GOSH they’re listening!” little things like that make a difference! My son would joke that he doesn’t have much money and neither do I. My brother and sister-in-law are people of means and influence and privilege and they exerted privilege in Santa Monica where they live so that city is doing the same thing with their funds. In this way, Standing Rock was a victory. For me, as a gay man, any time that people in the Castro stand up for transgender people, that’s the lesson of Standing Rock.
All of that was framed in ceremony. As a person of faith, that takes on a different meaning for me. Ceremony is not just coming to church on Sundays. I think most people realize that. It’s in my own personal prayers. It’s how I interact with the people outside when I leave this building. How am I greeting the people that I walk by who are waiting in line, or who have just woken up from sleeping on the sidewalk? That’s ceremony! The way I interact with people on the train who are asking for money: that’s ceremony. Showing up at the action that the Natives led in the city, or Black Lives Matter, it’s all ceremony. It’s sometimes something that might cause you to face arrest or experience physical harm. Nonviolent social transformation has taken many forms, and I saw it at Standing Rock.
Why do you choose the word “ceremony”?
That’s how everything was framed in the camp. Everything was ceremony. Whether you were washing dishes or preparing the fire for the sweat lodge that we were invited into. We were trying to stand back and be respectful, and then they came and physically got us and moved us into the circle and passed us that pipe, and showed us how to smoke it. I will never forget that, the wider circle. [They] were inviting me to [their] ceremony so that when we were called to go do that action and stand in that road, that was ceremony. I didn’t leave those things and think, “Now I’m going to go to something else.” It was ceremony.
The work of Standing Rock continues. There are other places where pipelines are threatening people just like they are there. The white people who got the pipeline project moved out of their areas will still be affected by this. People down the river. Same kinds of things in Arizona and other places. And the call for resistance, which for me is ceremony, completely reframed everything I believed in a spiritual sense. The work is resistance. A lot of people say, “Oh, but I’m not an activist. How am I going to do anything?” Putting our bodies and our resources into action is what I learned, and also stepping back and letting others lead. I don’t have to lead, and they aren’t asking me to. They ARE asking me to take what I’ve learned and go back to my people and do that work there. How do we live that out? (GLIDE is not at all subtle when it comes to the values we profess, and being that when we leave the church building.)
It was important for people who were able to make that trek, to see it all, to take that story back. And I know that’s why I went—so I could tell the story that they gave me to tell.
One of two pastoral interns at GLIDE Church, Todd Whitley is a Masters of Divinity student at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley where he is also studying Spirituality and Social Change, and Sexuality and Religion. At GLIDE, Todd works with the PRIDE Team, the Prayer Team, and the Gay/Bi Men’s group. He is currently convening the GLIDE Gender Expression & Identity Summit to be held May 5-7 at GLIDE.
Todd is a father of four sons, grandfather of two, and partner to Miguel Atkins, whom he will marry in July.