Ode: A half-Jewish, half-Italian, genderqueer activist-parent-pastor persists

May 23, 2018

Credit Ally Karsyn

There comes a time in everyone’s life when they realize the world doesn’t make sense.

For me, it came early. The foregone conclusion was that there were only two kinds of people—boys and girls—and I was a boy.

But I didn’t feel like a boy. Rather than attempting to score goals on the soccer field, I picked dandelions. Instead of playing cops and robbers during recess, I put on musicals. My matchbox cars sat unopened on the shelf while I spent hours in my Playskool kitchen. It’s not that I felt like a girl. It was that both labels—“boy” and “girl”—seemed foreign, arbitrary, unable to capture anything meaningful about who I was or what made me me.

Most of my friends were girls. Beyond a few physical distinctions, I couldn’t understand what made us so different. When the neighborhood boys would set up a fort with “no girls allowed,” I found myself confused. Did I belong in this game? I identified with Kristina more than Nicholas, and if Kristina couldn’t play, then maybe I shouldn’t either.

That feeling never went away.

As I grew up, I learned that there were plenty of other things that didn’t make sense. My dad’s family is Jewish, and his mother, my Oma, came to this country in 1939 as a refugee from Nazi Germany. She told me stories from her childhood about how discrimination and segregation seeped into her school. First there was the field trip to the public swimming pool on which she couldn’t go because she was a Jew. Then she found herself banned from her school altogether, forced to go to a segregated Jewish school in the synagogue.


And then there was Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, when both her synagogue and school were burned to the ground, and the Gestapo arrested and abducted her father. In the days that followed, Oma and her sister secured a visa to emigrate to the US, brought it in person to Gestapo headquarters, and obtained their father’s release from the concentration camp at Dachau.

I was simultaneously awed by their brave determination—and bewildered to live in a world where such things happened. It didn’t make sense.

To cope, I read everything I could. It turned into an obsession in second grade when my classmates and I went to the library every week to check out books. Everyone else came back with Berenstain Bears, Amelia Bedelia and Dr. Seuss. I took home the biographies of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Josef Stalin.

Dad called it my “Dictator of the Month series.”

As time passed, my reading list consisted of fewer villains and more heroes. Mohandas Gandhi. Martin Luther King. Abraham Heschel. Ella Baker. Cesar Chavez. Dolores Huerta.

I learned that my dad had marched with the United Farm Workers during the grape boycott and protested the Vietnam War. I learned the history of the labor movement from my mom, who worked for a union.

I began to see the history of my country as a history of struggle. And while it still bewildered me that “liberty and justice for all” had never been the norm in America, there were always people who fought for those ideals, people who were willing to live and even die for truth and freedom.

In high school I read about the Poor People’s Campaign, conceived in 1967 by Dr. King and fellow movement leaders of all colors and creeds. Together, they mobilized poor people from across America for a march on Washington, where they built an enormous tent city on the National Mall—Resurrection City they called it—and demanded economic justice. “I think it is necessary for us to realize,” King had said before the Campaign’s launch, “that we have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights, from an era of reform to an era of revolution.”

Within a year, King was assassinated, as was Bobby Kennedy, one of the Poor People’s Campaign’s fiercest proponents. The grand vision of the Poor People’s Campaign all but died with them.

As a high school student, I wondered what might have been possible had King not been gunned down—and what might be possible still if someone were to pick up where he left off.

Last summer, I got the beginning of an answer. Not in a book but at my church’s national gathering in Baltimore. I was in a room with Rev. William Barber, the former president of the North Carolina NAACP and founder of the Moral Mondays movement, which brought thousands of North Carolinians from both political parties and all walks of life for weekly marches on the state capitol. There they engaged in nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience, protesting state laws threatening communities of color, transgender people, poor people, and the environment—and insisting that public morality demands justice for all.

In his thunderous Black preacher voice, Barber intoned that he had come recruiting. “2018 will be the 50-year anniversary of King’s assassination,” he said, “and the last thing our country needs is another commemoration. What is needed is a continuation. The only thing you can do with the assassination of a prophet to truly honor them is to reach down in the blood, pick up the baton and carry it the next mile of the way.”

Barber and a coalition of leaders from all over the country were organizing a new Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, to challenge the “evils of systemic racism, poverty, militarism and ecological devastation.”

It was time, Rev. Barber proclaimed, to shift the distorted moral narrative of Christian nationalism and to save the heart and soul of America. My heart sang, and I joined the modern-day Poor People’s Campaign.

So here I am: a half-Jewish, half-Italian, genderqueer, activist, parent and pastor in northwest Iowa. Life feels confusing a lot of the time. I have Christian neighbors who post articles asserting that affirming gender-nonconformity is child abuse. I have Christian neighbors who own stockpiles of guns. I have Christian neighbors who are certain that I am anything but Christian. I worry that those beliefs and those guns might someday result in violence against me and my family. I struggle some days to find hope.

But I find comfort in the words of Vaclav Havel, nonviolent freedom fighter turned first president of the Czech Republic. He said, “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

I don’t know how all of this will turn out. But moment by moment, day by day, I am finding ways to connect with others across boundaries of gender, race, class, religion, political party, ability and sexual orientation. I am finding ways to do the hard and messy work of building a country and world that honors and values all of us.

This—finally—makes sense.



Reverend Ryan Dowell Baum is the pastor of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Sioux City, where they strive to be a bold and faithful voice for love and justice. Ryan is a spiritual director and social justice educator whose work lies at the intersection of personal and social transformation.

Ode is a storytelling series where community members tell true stories on stage to promote positive impact through empathy.

Our next show is Friday, June 1 at The Marquee, 1225 Fourth St., in downtown Sioux City. The theme is “Belonging.”

The show starts at 7 p.m. with live music. There will also be a community art project on display inspired by stories of standing out, fitting in and finding your way.

Tickets are $10 in advance; $15 day of show.