Survivor-Centric Liturgy: An Example from Inclusive Church (UK)

Inclusive Church is a UK-based resource for making the Church of England more welcoming and sensitive to diversity around sexuality, race, class, disability, and mental health. The latter topic caught my attention during my ongoing search for materials for a trauma survivors’ Christian study group. What’s great about Inclusive Church is that they see the disabled and mentally troubled not merely as categories of consumers to be reached with an existing product, nor as objects of Christian charity, but as co-creators of theology from the standpoint of their lived experience. That’s been the goal of my “Survivors in Church” series on this blog as well. It disappoints me that most Christian books recommend using faith to suppress the socially uncomfortable symptoms of trauma, such as anger and rumination on the past, rather than heeding their radical challenge to faith.

This article from the Inclusive Church’s mental health resources page, “The Secret Holders and Bearers”, is by two community mental health chaplains who are willing to take up that challenge. In the portions quoted below, they consider how some standard prayers in the Sunday Eucharist service may reinforce abuse survivors’ distorted sense of themselves as broken and powerless. We need much, much more work like this.

…Are we prepared to be changed, transformed, outraged, and can the secret-holders enable our secrets to be borne more gently, even if they need to remain hidden for a while? Can we bear to hear when the practices and the theologies heard in some churches have not contributed to the empowerment of lives and voices but to their continuing silence? Even where genuine expressions of compassion and pastoral care have embedded the idea of ‘victim’ rather than the radical Gospel idea of partner and co- theological agents?…

…Let’s hear their words and attend afresh to our own and let’s attend to our liturgical language, see again the symbolism and architecture of our services and hear the clamour and the whispers, the invitations and the barriers that inhabit the theology in our liturgy and hymns. I am not saying that the brief account of these liturgical examples are wholly problematic but they are an example of a presently largely cataphatic liturgy with very little liturgy of lamentation and an apophatic perspective that speaks so much of human experience and especially the lived reality of those with long term and abiding mental health issues:

Just some examples from the present Common Worship Order 1 Service for Holy Communion:

Confession Prayer: We have wounded your love and marred your image in us (so many secret holders bear the woundedness that is wholly the responsibility of others and blame themselves throughout their lives and have been forced to blame themselves, lives overwhelmed by guilt. We tentatively suggest that such a statement echoes the feelings they already have about themselves, ‘knowing’ they are wholly unworthy of any kind of love, let alone the love of God).

… Lead us out from darkness to walk as children of light (on the face of it, who could argue with such a sentiment? However it represents a larger problem with the ‘darkness’ imaginary that suffuses Christian liturgy and theology. So many of us, in so many different ways, have found the metaphor of darkness wholly positive and therapeutic and the prospect of light almost unbearable at times. We need to look again at these intimately related metaphors.)

Prayer before Distribution: We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs… (We know this is an optional prayer but nevertheless, and because it has been taken wholly out of context from a biblical story which effectively says the opposite, a sense of unworthiness just before we break bread together is, for all of us, and especially for those who live every day with an overwhelming and unbearable sense of unworthiness, wholly unfortunate directly before the gathering at the feast. We are worthy, all of us; we do not have sinful bodies but beautiful bodies and minds. Neither of us, personally, has been able to say these words for a long time because of our own inner battle with a sense of unworthiness imposed upon us by others).

Lenten Reading: “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision”




In Holy Week, which begins next weekend with Palm Sunday, Christians all over the world meditate on Jesus’s suffering and death. Catholics and some Episcopalians enact the liturgical drama of the Stations of the Cross, depicting the events leading up to the crucifixion. There are many ways to find ourselves in this story, a large cast of characters with whom to identify, both guilty and innocent. And sadly, there are many LGBT people who feel crucified by the church itself, cast out and forbidden to imagine a Christ who is for them and of them.

Douglas Blanchard’s 24-painting series “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision” stretches loving arms across this divide. A new book by Kittredge Cherry (Apocryphile Press, 2014) brings these images together in book form for the first time. Cherry, who curates the Jesus in Love blog about LGBT spirituality and the arts, here gives invaluable in-depth commentary on the paintings’ inspiration and their place in art history. Each chapter includes a prayer to say while contemplating the image, like a Stations of the Cross liturgy. Toby Johnson, formerly of Lethe Press and White Crane Review, closes the book with reflections on new directions in gay spirituality.

This suite of paintings is radical by virtue of its traditionalism. Inspired by 15th-century master Albrecht Dürer’s woodcuts of the Passion, and visually quoting famous works such as the Isenheim Altarpiece, these paintings boldly situate themselves in the mainstream of Christian iconography. At the same time, Blanchard transforms the meaning of those scenes by placing them in contemporary urban settings that include LGBT characters. The Jesus figure, a clean-shaven, simply dressed, handsome young man, could be (but does not have to be) read as gay. There is no doubt, though, that his followers include people of diverse sexualities, gender identities, ethnicities, and class backgrounds, while the crowds attacking him bear close resemblance to the hellfire-spouting protesters on the fringes of Pride marches.

I found this book very helpful for my own prayer life. I would love to have a stronger heart-level connection with the person of Jesus, but often struggle to connect with the ubiquitous beard-and-bathrobe representation of the Savior, which feels cliché and remote from my experience. I felt a stronger bond with Blanchard’s Jesus, who could be a divinized version of my imaginary gay best friend/novel protagonist, or simply a safe male friend and ally to my queer family. I also loved the depiction of the Holy Spirit as a female angel.

Whether or not I picture Jesus as the man in these paintings, this book gave me permission to imagine “my own personal Jesus” in the way that speaks to my soul. What makes him Christ is not his gender, his archaic clothing, or the straightness and whiteness that Western orthodoxy has attributed to him, but his works of love: speaking truth to power, creating community for outcasts, laying down his life for his friends. By that measure, the Jesus in this book is the real deal.

Get your copy here!

Watch the video “Introduction to the Queer Christ” at the Jesus in Love blog. It includes a selection from Blanchard’s “Passion” and other artists featured in Cherry’s book Art That Dares: Gay Jesus, Woman Christ, and More.

Queering the Tarot: Gender Roles and Diversity

I wrote last month about my new attraction to tarot cards as a source of archetypal images that nurture my intuitive side. My starter guidebook, The Tarot Bible by Sarah Bartlett, works off of the Universal Waite deck, the most mainstream and familiar version of the modern tarot. As I discovered at Namaste Bookshop, there are many fanciful variations featuring dragons, kittens, angels, scantily clad fairies, and other characters that wouldn’t look out of place on a 10-year-old’s diary cover. However, I wanted to begin my studies with the foundational set of symbols. There’s one problem, though:

Who are all these straight white people in my tarot deck?

It’s funny, because tarot seems so transgressive and anti-authoritarian to me as a questioning Christian, but coming from a media literacy/social justice perspective, it looks like a step backward. After all, the Waite deck is a mishmash of multicultural symbols compiled by 19th-century bourgeois Europeans. It makes sense that the deck would be peopled with British storybook knights, ladies, and peasants. Although charming, these illustrations can make me worry that I’ve traded the radicalism of Jesus for a white hipster card game.

The implied gender roles can also be confining. I’m drawn to the cards that combine masculine and feminine energies in one character, such as the female personifications of Strength and Justice, and uncomfortable with cards such as the Empress, which seems to essentialize womanhood as fertility, beauty, and nurturance. These are good qualities, but not ones that I have wanted or been permitted to express for a lot of my life, a mismatch that has made me feel like a failure as a “woman”.

I’m a big fan of queer-identified writer Beth Maiden’s Little Red Tarot website. In an archive post from 2011, “Passivity and Activity – the High Priestess”,  she wrote:

“It’s only laziness that keeps us believing such things [active versus passive] are related to masculinity or femininity. My big bugbear with tarot is when I find it clinging rigidly to silly gender stereotypes, but actually, the more I study and learn, the more I realise tarot itself can totally elude those types of restrictive ideas–it’s only in interpretation that we get taught what is ‘masculine’ and what is ‘feminine’ as a shorthand for the qualities we assign to each.”

Her analysis explores how the two priest figures in the Major Arcana, the High Priestess and the Hierophant, can reverse our gendered expectations:

“By exploring the inner world and dedicating herself to understanding what is ‘behind the veil’, she shows courage, she encourages us to do some seriously hard work. Being quiet and listening to our inner selves does not equal passivity! Meanwhile the Hierophant receives knowledge from books/tradition. It’s not about thinking for yourself with this card–so in what way is this active?”

Now what about those white Disney princesses? A post from 2010 on the Integrative Tarot website questions whether it’s possible to have a multicultural tarot. We mustn’t simply repeat the Eurocentrism of the original tarot creators by appropriating Native American or African cultural symbols, as an overlay on what’s still a fundamentally Western feudal iconography (knight, page, queen, king, swords, etc.). The discussion in the comments is also worthwhile.

The Pagans of Color website recommends some decks with more inclusive imagery, though many of these are not readily available for purchase. The multicultural Daughters of the Moon goddesses deck looks intriguing.

Of course the one I really want is Lee Bursten and Antonella Platano’s Gay Tarot. Perhaps the Hierophant in this deck took Beth’s criticism to heart, since he’s breaking with tradition by officiating at a same-sex wedding!

“Bullies in Love” Book Launch Video

My new poetry collection Bullies in Love (Little Red Tree Publishing, 2015) had a successful book launch party this weekend at Forbes Library in Northampton, MA. My collaborator, fine art photographer Toni Pepe, gave a fascinating presentation about her artistic process, inspired by sources as diverse as Old Masters paintings, family snapshots, and Cindy Sherman’s conceptual portraits.

Please enjoy this 37-minute video of my reading, introduced by Little Red Tree editor Michael Linnard.


My Poetry Book “Bullies in Love” Now Available from Little Red Tree Publishing


My second full-length poetry collection, Bullies in Love, with fine art photography by Toni Pepe, has just been published by Little Red Tree Publishing (New London, CT)! Pre-orders available now.

The book launch reading will take place on Saturday, March 7, at 2 PM at Forbes Library, 20 West Street, Northampton, MA. Come buy a signed copy and see a slideshow of Toni’s beautiful photos.

American Book Award winner Pamela Uschuk says of this collection: “In her remarkable collection of poems, Bullies in Love, Jendi Reiter has created an complex odditorium of characters with unique and often disturbing voices: poems peopled with bullies, the disenfranchised, monsters, prostitutes, criminals, the abused and forgotten, all searching for meaning, for faith and love in a postmodern, often cynical world.”

Enjoy a sample poem below, inspired by the Young Master. (He took this selfie on Grandma’s phone.)



Son, it is time to begin breaking
your awakeness into wedges of five, twelve, sixty
rotations of pinned hands,
to pace off the sermon, the cartoon, the billable hour.

Why is it not spitting time? Why is the song over?
You pound like CPR on your teddy’s voice chip
till he squeaks again, That’s right,
a circle is round and has no corners.
Of the alphabet, you took to O first,
pointing it out on toothbrushes and tattoos.

Son, it is time to position P and Q
and fork and knife and light and dark washing
in the baskets where we say they belong.
Why is milk white? Why do shoes match?
You want to choose and cry at both choices.
Not that hat. Not that tomato.
Not that story.

Why is the bird lying on the ground? Why isn’t it tomorrow?
I read you the page about Pig Robinson’s aunts:
They lived prosperous uneventful lives, and their end was bacon.
Goodnight loom, goodnight soon.
You whisper to sleep
counting the wallpaper stars
with the only number-words you know:
two-three, two, three.