Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Church of Roller Derby

I was raised in the Presbyterian Church. My father was and is a minister, and my mother was heavily involved in everything from directing the children's choir to bake sales and other organizational duties.

Every Sunday morning I had to wake up early to attend services, usually grumbling about being made to sacrifice one of just two precious chances to sleep in each week. When I was very young, I remember that my mom would wisely resort to scratching my back during dad's sermons as a way to basically pacify me, keep me from squirming or causing trouble during these longer periods of inactivity and introspection.

I never hated church. There are aspects of church life and community that I really enjoyed, in fact--mostly the potlucks, the holiday pageants (or the weirdly ambitious stagings of musicals like Godspell), the bake sales, and later the youth group outings to do service work restoring homes for elderly folks or bringing gift baskets to the residents of a mental health institute.

Still, as soon as I left home for college, I stopped going. Partially this was because I moved to a new state and wasn't familiar with any of the church communities in my new city, but mostly because I had decided that I no longer felt comfortable calling myself a Christian.

I had, and have, too many serious objections to the overall bent of the Church--too focused on outmoded beliefs about women and queer people (both groups to which I belong), too guilty of misdeeds against the very people the church is supposed to exist to help: the poor, the downtrodden, the oppressed, the minorities.

I saw too much lip service to serving God and too little actual service.

There has been much written about the worldwide decline in people who identify themselves as religious and/or who attend church on a regular basis, especially among younger generations. It is, most certainly, a time of major transition and transformation. Splits. Schisms.

I see that as a good thing. The Powers That Be need a stark wake-up call from the rest of the world--among all the religions and communities--that they've strayed too far from the path that I think the majority of us know in our hearts is the righteous one: to help those less fortunate, to strive for a better world, to be open and inclusive.

You don't need to believe in God to believe in that.

So where does roller derby enter into all of this, you might be asking at this point?

I've been a member of my local roller derby community for just over a year now. In that time, I've frequently joked that the sport and its community have become my new church. It often involves getting up for 8 a.m. practices on Sunday mornings, after all. And I do it gladly!

But I've been thinking. It's a whole lot more than that. And there's really something to the joke:

Roller derby is an amazing sport that requires an enormous amount of time, dedication, hard work, mental and physical discipline (don't believe me? watch the championship match between Gotham and Texas from this past weekend).

Roller derby is also an amazing community of people from diverse backgrounds and with differing abilities and talents, one that places a big emphasis on community outreach and charitable giving. The Mad Rollin' Dolls, my home league, has raised tens of thousands of dollars for local non-profits over the years. They've spent countless hours doing service work, too: packing Thanksgiving baskets for those in need, building homes for farm animal sanctuaries, serving up food at community events, being part of Make-A-Wish days, and a whole lot more.

They also band together when one of their own is in need. Right now, for instance, there's a massive fundraising drive for a Milwaukee skater who was shot during a mugging. I've seen derby folk from other countries jump in to help out with medical bills, housing needs, and more whenever called upon. We get each others' backs.

Roller derby is also, by and large, an incredibly inclusive community. We were founded by the outcasts and queers who wanted a sport of their own in a world that typically shunned them. We've built this thing from the ground up, mostly through the blood, sweat and tears of volunteer work. We have our troubles, our fights, like any family--but we stick together and find solutions. We take all-comers, so long as you're willing to give back in a positive way. Black, white, queer, straight, trans, religious, atheist--it's an open door policy.

This is my church. This is my home. This is the world I want to live in and want to help build for everyone. Whether or not you're interested in strapping on a pair of skates and ramming yourself into other human beings doesn't matter (I just happen to really enjoy that). The point is, we should apply this same ethic of service, inclusion, and community to all aspects of our lives.

You want butts back in seats at your house of worship but aren't willing to make real changes? I'd rather put on skates and roll into something better. But if you're serious, the examples of how to do more, to grow and evolve and bring people on board--they're right here, at the Church of Roller Derby.


Anonymous said...

Very well put...and I suspect, the wave of the future!

Your Minister Dad

Mr Tambo said...

This Unitarian Universalist minister offers a hearty Amen and Hallelujah to this post! This is great wheels-on-the-ground testimony about finding a way to channel and honor that deep sense of calling and purpose that is one of the taproots of religion.

To quote the Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman, "Don't worry about what the world needs; find what makes you come alive, and go do that! Because what the world needs is more people who have come alive."

Mr Tambo said...

And I'd be remiss if I didn't post this from one of my colleagues in ministry, the Rev. Dawn Cooley, who skates with Louisville's Derby City Roller Girls as Liv Fearless:

Unknown said...

Dear Emily,I really enjoyed your "testimonial"(ha ha religious joke).Seriously though I and my family experienced the church "thing" for too many years.Finally we broke away from the baptist cult that we were loyal to.None of us hopefully were damaged by this.That was some time ago and my family is doing quite well without a church building.Helping the homeless has been a passion of mine for quite a few years.There are so many ways to serve our fellow man as you have outlined.I am very happy for you and the fine sport of roller derby.Peace and Love from Michael.

The Lost Albatross