April 23, 2015

I Am Starr King: Interview with Kevin Mann

Kevin Mann

3rd Year M.Div. and 1st Year M.A.S.C. Student

2015-2016 Hilda Mason Teaching Fellow

Kevin MannWhy did you decide to become a religious leader?

I decided to become a religious leader because I really felt that, as a queer person of color and also a person of faith (a Unitarian Universalist), I had a really strong calling to serve in the LGBT community and in Filipino-American community. I am just coming off of three weeks of being with the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Philippines and seeing what Universalism looks like in the Third World, in the Philippines. Doing HIV/AIDS advocacy, doing LGBT rights advocacy in a nation trouble even with reproductive rights. Divorce is not legal in the Philippines. And the need for liberal religion has never been clearer to me than after my pilgrimage to the UU Church of the Philippines.

I came to seminary and I came to Starr King after about ten years of social justice organizing. I wanted more sustainability, more theological grounding, and more internal resources that, as a social justice organizer, I could really rely upon. When times get hard and it is the 60th hour in the week and all you have eaten is pizza and there are phone calls to make and coalitions to organize—I know from personal experience I can burn out very quickly and can not organize in a healthy way. And what I am learning at Starr King is that there is a way to be a sustainable social justice organizer; that throughout the world’s faith traditions there have been methods, practices, and time-honored ways of healing yourself, of connecting to something greater than yourself, and of connecting to resources greater than yourself.

Starr King has taught me so much. I have learned so much and it is an amazing opportunity and privilege and experience so far. And I am excited to be here in this time of transition, in this time of looking at who we are and where we want to go. I think we are in an exciting place right now as a school community, despite circumstances, despite broken relationships, and despite really intense feelings that are still out there. I feel like we are finally moving towards a place of restoration and towards a place where we can all move forward together.

Why did you decide to study on Starr King?

Starr King was the only seminary I applied to. I visited Union in New York. I visited Meadville Lombard in Chicago. I did some research on Stanford and other places. But in the end I really knew that I wanted to be at Starr King School for the Ministry. I wanted to be part of the Graduate Theological Union. I wanted to be steps away from Berkeley. I wanted to live in the Bay Area—that’s always been a dream of mine.

Starr King has a multi-religious, counter-oppressive focus. It is really the core of the school. The Master of Arts in Social Change program was a big draw too. I used to be just a M.Div. student, and then I ended up wanting to combine them both into a joint degree. Just the fact that I am going to have a Master of Arts in Social Change—where else can you get that type of degree?

I was looking at Masters in Business Administration programs. I was looking at Masters in Public Administration programs. But for how I wanted to be in the world and what I wanted to do—in terms social justice organizing, in terms of spirituality, poetry, creativity, and art, and just becoming more of who I am as a queer person of color theologian— it has only really been possible at Starr King. I am learning so much.

I am currently in an internship with the Faithful Fools Street Ministry, and that has only been possible because of Starr King—because of the relationships, because of the alumni, because of how our school has been so well respected in our denomination. One of the first times I came to the Bay Area, I remember touching Starr King’s walls and just crying and being moved by this historic building, this amazing place that, since 1904, has been turning out people who changed the world and who are changing the world. I want to be part of that legacy.

What inspired you to do an independent study program in the Philippines and how was it important to your ministerial formation?

The whole trip was only possible because of the Starr King student body and their emergency fund, funding from the MASC program, and the scholarship opportunities that my advisor and professor, Dr. Gabriella Lettini, helped me find.

I was able to spend three weeks in the Philippines—one week with my family from Central Philippines and about two weeks with the 11 other Unitarian Universalists who were on this pilgrimage. They do this pilgrimage every two to three years—when they have enough people—and I have never had the financial resources or the time to be able to go before. Because of Starr King and the community that I am part of, I was able to go there. And that really changed a lot of things for me.

When I was an undergrad at the University of California, San Diego, I was able to spend a summer in Philippines studying abroad at the University of the Philippines Manila. The final two weeks of trip, my partner and I did a renegade pilgrimage of the UU churches tour. And the president [of the UU Church of the Philippines] at the time picked us up on his motorcycle, and we toured five small Universalist congregations on the motorcycle.

Meeting people after people in church after church, and seeing the flaming chalice… In the Philippines they have eight principles, and the first is “God is love” and then they list the other seven. So to see all of our UU principles in not only Tagalog, but in Dumaguete in Negros [where the UU Church of the Philippines is located], they also speak Cebuano— the same language that my family speaks.

To see my faith, my culture, my identity as a Filipino American, as a queer person, and a UU all be able to be in the same place at the same time, and to meet people—there are two thousand Filipino Unitarian Universalists—and their families… I met the first openly lesbian minister in all of Asia. Her name is Rev. Tet Gallardo and she is a UU minister in Manila. She is amazing. She has been marrying LGBT folks. On their church sign, in a very prominent location, it says, “An LGBT-Friendly Church.” And that congregation is thriving—there are over a hundred members. It is place of radical love and a different message, one that nobody else in the Philippines is talking about. They are talking about multi-religious pluralism and the divinity of LGBT people, and working on domestic violence in rural, rice-planting villages.

The work that the UU Church of the Philippines is doing is incredible. If there is anyway I can figure out how to live and work in the United States and support the Philippines churches and see them thrive… There are 30 congregations in the Philippines. Only seven of them have US partner churches. There are over a thousand UU congregations. There is no reason that every one of the 30 congregations shouldn’t have a partner. I feel like a lot of times a lot of the focus ends up in Transylvania—and that is important. But I feel like it is also important for Unitarian Universalists in America to understand what Unitarian Universalism looks like in the Third World, what it feels like in the Third World. And I feel like if we strengthen our relationship with the UU Church of the Philippines, it will help us work on our own anti-racist, counter oppression issues that we struggle with.

Every UU church I have ever visited has struggled with anti-racism, with anti-oppression. We have diversity of religious beliefs and identities and backgrounds, but we still do not look like the communities that we serve in. And that is a tragedy for our faith. If Unitarian Universalism is going to be relevant in this day and age, we have to become a multi-cultural, anti-racist community. So for me, visiting the UU Church of the Philippines, seeing how they practice our faith in the context of a multi-cultural and multi-religious communities and LGBT-friendly and women rights, to hold all of that…There is so much we can learn from a two-way relationship, that is not about UUs giving money. Because I feel like a lot of time international relations is focused on ‘Where’s the money? Here’s the money.’ There isn’t a lot of genuine transformation and accountability in a charity-model. So if we can figure out a social-justice empowerment model of having First World and Third World Unitarian Universalist Churches talking to each other, being in relationship with each other, I think that would go a long way towards our efforts to become a stronger multi-cultural faith.

What do you hope to do with your Starr King education going forward?

As I have gone through Starr King, I have learned more and more about what it means to be a religious leader and a religious professional. Before Starr King, I had no idea that chaplaincy was even a career option or that I could live my life as a chaplain in a hospital or prison or even the military. In terms of career options, I came to Starr King thinking of parish ministry and nothing else. And I am still open to parish ministry and do hope to one day have a parish. But I am also open to any type of chaplaincy as well.

Working in a hospital last semester, I served my first unit of Clinical Pastoral Education at St. Luke’s Hospital in the Mission District. And I loved it. It was an amazing experience. St. Luke’s Hospital’s staff is about two-thirds Filipino American and the patients were about one-third Filipino American. So it was amazing for me, as a queer Filipino American UU, to have to take on the role of chaplain and to be a minister in the context of my culture, in the context of my faith, and in the context of me trying to reclaim parts of my Filipino Catholic faith that I am still recovering from. So it was a really great learning process, and I can definitely see myself becoming a chaplain.

I also love social justice organizing. I was a community organizer, an electoral organizer, and a union organizer for about 10 years before I came to Starr King. So maybe doing community ministry. Ideally something with the Philippines. That would be amazing—working with the Partner Church Council, churches in the US, and the 30 churches in the Philippines. Any sort of international work would be amazing as well.

So parish ministry, community ministry or chaplaincy—any and all three. (Laugh) Anything that will help me pay back my loans after I graduate (laugh).


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