Planting Our Gardens


This was a week of planting flowers.

A few days ago, I’m able to tend some flowers in our town’s community garden. Over a cup of coffee, a young man and I talk about changing attitudes in this community. Two street preachers have periodically shown up on Main Street, condemning homosexual love, accosting young people, telling them they are going to hell.

One brave high school girl made a sign, and stood next to them on the street corner, contradicting their views. Her hand-lettered sign spoke of the idea that love is the highest human value, that everyone should be able to love who they choose to love, that homosexual love is an aspect of Christian love and compassion.

She was joined by others, and a Facebook group was created, #TillamookForLove, its members now close to 3,000. The preaching and the counter demonstrations became the talk of the town. The young girl’s actions were mentioned around the world, tweeted by Ellen DeGeneres and becoming a featured story in the Huffington Post.

The young man I had coffee with joined the girl and her supporters, taking a public stand on an issue dear to his heart.  As often happens in a small town, and across America, people criticized him, condemned him, telling him he’s a sinner because of what he is willing to say. His job was at risk for what he believed in, what he spoke about on his own Facebook page.

Yes, fear and bigotry and discrimination, right in his face.  Change his opinion or lose his job. The old beliefs, the old discriminatory, bigoted ways aren’t just something to talk about, not just some textbook First Amendment clash between freedom of religion and free speech. Now, it’s seeing the reality of imposing one’s own religious beliefs, and beliefs about who you can marry, to the point of crushing someone else’s right to their own opinion, to the point of getting fired.

Our coffee cools as we wrestle with his story, his pain and anguish, his moral dilemmas hitting his wallet and his conscience.  Being called out for what you believe in and threatened with losing his job, his challenges and choices aren’t just an academic debate. He’s on the battlefield, and the spears and the clash of swords on the front lines aren’t confined to a history book. The blood being shed is real.

Bigotry and fear run deep in our little town and across our country. He’s still in shock about how deep the cancer grows, how quickly the moral question got personal. The ugliness is something we both don’t like to see, don’t like to admit is thinking that is all too common. What is the price of his own conscience?

Yet, he knows his own mind, and he knows his standards of ethics and morality. Quietly, firmly he speaks his mind, knowing that he can sleep well tonight, knowing he made the right call, knowing that his beliefs are truly his own, that getting fired for what he believed in was really the best response to his boss, his own epiphany for what we are facing.

I shake his hand, seeing real courage across the table, feeling proud that he knows himself well enough to know his own mind, that he’s confident enough to follow his Truth, and live according to his own heart.

This flower garden is growing well.  The weeds have been called out and named. Weeds are being pulled and beautiful flowers have been planted. Strong plants send their roots deep into the soil of this young man’s heart, his morality strong and fertile.

Today, I plant some flowers of my own, going to a nearby prison and planting flowers inside the fence, behind the locked gate that slams shut every time I leave.

The young men I visit, several other volunteers, and I weed flower beds. We work on setting the supports for a new arbor in fresh cement, finish the week’s projects, and tidy up the garden. This weekend, the young men will host a Family Day, with food and games, and tours of their garden. Proudly, they will show off their hoop house, their raised beds and chickens, showing off all the growing that has been going on.

The youths clean up the garden and carry out their tasks, making the place shine, their flowers and vegetables thriving under their careful and meticulous gardening skills.  They are learning a great deal in their class, where they are studying a wide range of subjects.  I help correct their homework, and work with them, one on one, as they delve into the hands-on work of both the academic work and their hoop house and raised bed projects.  Their work is top notch, and their gardens reflect the pride they are taking in their agricultural work, and the rebuilding of their lives. It is garden work on many levels.

We work happily together, asking questions, sharing our knowledge, expanding our curiosity about how sunshine, dirt, seeds, and tender care can produce vigorous growth.  The young men ask great questions, get their hands dirty, and do the weeding, pruning and fertilizing they need to change themselves, and move on with their lives, becoming healthy, and vigorous young men. I’m given the task of adding several flats of marigolds to some bare spots in the flowerbeds. I create my own slice of Eden, being a role model for the young men, and adding some beauty to this world behind the fence and the barbed wire. A young man takes the time to admire my work, and ask me some questions about pruning. Our talk goes deep, until I answer what he is really asking.

Lives are changed here. I’m thankful I’m able to dig my trowel into the receptive soil of these young men, and plant some flowers.

This week, the gardens of our community have needed a great deal of work. Hard decisions have been made, and the spade work, hoeing and planting have made us sweat.  The gardeners have new blisters, some new aches and pains.  We’ve pulled the weeds and planted new flowers, and we are ready for a little more sunshine and truth in our lives.

—-Neal Lemery, May 29, 2015

Three Cups of Joy

“When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.”
― Rumi

Three amazing experiences and celebrations in the last few days have blessed my life and filled my heart with joy. Each has reaffirmed the power and the gifts that love brings to my life.

I was honored to attend the wedding of a dear, long time friend, and to celebrate not only her marriage to her beloved, but also a welcome change in the law in my state, a law that now holds that marriage is a relationship, and a commitment that any two adults can share. Love, I realized again, is such an amazing force. Love in marriage, and the ability to share that love in this world, is the essence of our humanity.

Love filled their house, and we feasted on the sweetness of commitment, dedication, and respect to who they are, their marriage. We celebrated that love is the amazing and healing light in a person’s life, the basic reason we are here on this planet.

“Love me tender, love me sweet, never let me go. You have made my life complete, and I love you so,” were the words Karen sang to our friends, my guitar adding more sweet notes to the occasion.

The second cup of joy was listening to a speech given by one of the young men I mentor in prison. He spoke before a large audience of fellow inmates and their families, gathered for the annual family day celebration. He spoke of courage and determination, and the super heroes in his life.

His speech was a month in the making, the words coming hard to him, as he focused on who he is becoming, and where he wants to go in his life. He’d practiced, and rewrote, until the words on the pages held by his trembling hands in front of the crowded room were just right, just what he wanted to celebrate.

We marveled at how he has grown, and the wisdom in his words. His road in life has not been easy, yet he is seeing the fruits of his hard work, his decision to make real changes in his life, and to move ahead. Now, he truly loves himself, and believes that the good things in life come about through the power of love and self respect.

His confidence, and his powerful message of self actualization rang across the crowd, inspiring all of us to love ourselves just a little bit more, and believe in our dreams.

The third cup of joy was watching a young man be recognized for all the hard work he has been doing in his first year at a university. A little over a year ago, he moved ahead in his life, taking big steps, working hard to attend a respected university. Now, he’s studying to earn his bachelor’s degree. He is Mr. Determination, and diligently works to balance a full life of school, a job, and family.

He dove into academic life, studying hard, asking questions, being active in study groups and class projects, going out of his comfort zone to succeed in college. In that new world, he achieved, and he grew, and he’s heading in some great directions in his life. He’s achieved a 4.0 GPA and was tapped to join the university’s honor society.

We sat next to him this weekend, joining all the other honorees and their families, listening to the presentations and all the congratulations. These students are the best and the brightest, and he fit right in. Looking into his eyes, I knew that he knew that, that he really was one of the best and the brightest, that he was living his dream, and he was achieving his goals.

He beamed with pride, and satisfaction, proudly showing off the plaque bearing his name and the title of University Honor Society Member. I could sense the light in his heart, that flame of passion and self confidence that, a couple of years ago, was only a flicker. Now, nourished by his hard work and his determination, and the recognition of his professors and fellow college students that he was smart, capable, and especially talented, that flame burns bright and clean. That flame is hot with passion, and lights up his world.

We, and a number of other folks, helped him keep alive that flicker of passion and desire for a better life, back when he was facing some tough challenges. Some of his past was telling him he couldn’t do it. We all slowly added some fuel and blew on the embers when there were times we thought the flame might go out. And, now, his determination and his ambitions in life keeps that flame ablaze on its own, with our quiet words of encouragement, our belief that he can do anything he puts his heart and mind to. He knows that his future is what he wants it to be, and there is no stopping him, in pursuing his dreams.

Three events, three times of sitting there, letting tears of joy flow down my face, three times of feeling the power of love in the room, knowing that love is what changes the world, overflowing my heart with hope and joy.

—Neal Lemery 6/2/2014

Cheering With My Best Friend

He would have liked yesterday. Yesterday, my state made history, ending a legal ban against letting people get married to the ones they loved, ending a time when our state constitution wouldn’t let people enjoy their right to be married, simply because of their sexual preference.

We would have one of our deep discussions in the car, listening to the radio and the reports of long lines of couples lining up at the county clerks offices across the state, getting their licenses, and getting married today. We would have talked about all of the possibilities we have in our lives, and social change, and people being happy, raising kids, and moving ahead in their lives.

Best friends in high school, we always had those serious discussions, and challenged our teachers and our classmates about what they believed, and where we needed to go as a society. We grew up during Vietnam and the March on Selma. We skipped class that day that Robert Kennedy came to our small town, and spoke in the town square about our country being a land of opportunity, of freedom, how each of us had a voice, and a duty to move our country forward.

We read Thoreau and Ginsberg and Malcolm X and listened to Pete Seeger and Joan Baez. We had deep discussions about war and poverty, racism, sexism, and how we could change our town, and our country.

We headed to college, and our separate ways, and drifted apart, as friends do after high school. Once in a while, we’d send each other an essay or a book review, offering more ideas to each other about making a difference in the world, how things needed to be changed.

Ten years after high school, he came back to town and we went out for coffee, taking up our conversations where they had left off, doing what good friends can do, the years apart really not changing our friendship, and how we challenged each other’s thinking.

He came out to me then, telling me that he knew he was gay, back in high school, but had been afraid to tell me, to tell himself, afraid to really be who he was, deep inside. He knew his dad would probably kill him if he came out to his family. He was beaten up for a lot of lesser sins, and couldn’t wait until he could run off to college, and live his own life.

He’d always struggled with love and relationships, and we lived in a time when being gay was looked at with more suspicion and hatred than it was for folks who were trying to live their lives by being black, or being against the current war our country was waging, or for the language they spoke.

He cried when he told me of coming out to his family, how his dad had disowned him, of wanting him dead, of telling him he didn’t have a son now, that his son was dead. And, how his mom had called him later, telling him that she loved him more now than ever, that she was proud of him and the man that he was becoming.

Yesterday, I listened to the radio, and all the celebrations and stories of joy and love, and the happiness people were willing to share, being proud of being gay and in love, proud of the families they were nurturing, proud that they could now be married, and publicly love their partners. We would have talked about how times have changed, so much, about how we’ve all moved ahead in our thinking, how we live our lives.

He would be proud, too, proud that he could marry his lover, and live in a state where his love and his family was respected, that he could be married, and respected for who he was, for who he had become. Knowing him, he’d have been one of the parties in the lawsuit that brought us to this point. He’d be leading the charge, speaking out, willing to take a stand, willing to publicly fight for civil rights, for bringing a bit more equality and liberty to our country.

We’d get together for coffee, to talk about his work, and his activism. We’d talk about this week being the fiftieth anniversary of Brown vs Board of Education, when racial segregation in schools was finally seen as something that we didn’t think was right in this country. We’d say that fifty years really wasn’t that long ago, that racial bigotry is still around, and we needed to keep working to change how people looked at each other, how we treated other human beings, about how we looked at opportunities for real change in our world.

He’s gone, long gone from this Earth, taken from us by AIDS, back in the 1980s, back when hatred and bigotry against gays was at its height. Yet, he’ll always be a part of me, his courage always something I can tap into, when I need to take a stand, when I need to speak my mind, and make a difference in the world.

Yesterday, I felt the people in my state take a step forward, taking on a serious discussion about our lives, about equal opportunity, and civil rights, about families and happiness, about who we were becoming, we Oregonians. We’re on uncharted ground here, pushed into this new world by some people willing to take a stand, willing to speak out and sue their state to bring about change. We’ve got a federal judge willing to look at the law as a means to achieve justice, to think about equal protection and civil rights in a way that moves us forward. We’ve got his words to think about now, to push us forward, to think about who we want to be.

Yesterday was another Brown v Board of Education day, and fifty years from now, a lot of us will think that where we were the day before, when this kind of discrimination was legal, when it was part of our state Constitution, was so archaic, so old school thinking.

Yesterday, I heard my friend again, his voice clear and strong, speaking about his commitment to be someone who was willing to work for change, someone who was willing to be comfortable with who he was, and who he wanted to be. Yesterday, I felt him close by as we Oregonians realized that our state had changed, and we had taken a step ahead in how we looked at ourselves, how we looked at families and relationships, how we looked at our laws, and how we really felt about equality and human dignity, how we felt about ourselves.

I heard his voice, and felt his energy, deep in my soul, as I drove down the freeway, listening to the radio, adding my own voice to the cheers of the newlyweds walking out of the courthouse. We cheered together, we Oregonians, cheering for freedom and liberty, cheering for each other.

Neal Lemery 5/20/2014


by Neal Lemery

“We holds these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal…” — the Declaration of Independence.

Treating people the same; equal opportunity; equal protection; one man, one vote.

Equality is in the Constitution; it is a paraphrasing of the Golden Rule. We like to think our government works this way, that our community lives this way. It is not just a principle of law, but a basic essence of our culture. It is a personal moral tenet.

Our spiritual saviors and our holy scriptures call us to not just give lip service, but to live this ideal of equality, as the word of God, divinely inspired.

We are confronted by reality, however. The reality of poverty, of discrimination, of
disparity among classes, races, genders, ages, sexual orientation, the powerful, and the powerless is here. Every day, we reap the harvest of anger, of hopelessness, and fear. Bigotry and fear are big in our culture. Most of the time, we sidestep these, and move away into easier issues.

“Them” and “us”. It is neat, and tidy, and insidiously easy to teach. The dichotomy is the instigator of war, and the fuel for much of our social woes.

This week, our newly re-elected President boldly proclaims that we should aspire to a society where anyone, regardless of their sexual orientation, should be free to love, and to marry. He asserts that such freedom is a fundamental, inherent right of any person. He reminds us of those “equality words” in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and in the depths of our humanity.

After all, we have taken great strides in incorporating other classes of people into our society: women, people of all races, youth, the mentally handicapped. The acceptance of women, people of all ethnic groups and religious groups is now, at least, part of our laws and public policies. We pay lip service to such acceptance, and many of us, in our actions and our beliefs, do not segregate others from our lives.

The President has changed his mind. He has changed his perspective of what freedom and equality mean. In the last two years, he has given great thought to these issues, these questions. As a lawyer, as a politician, as a Black man, as a father, and as president, he has weighed the questions and wrestled with the debate. And, now, he takes his oath of office with a hand on the Bible of Lincoln and the Bible of Martin Luther King, and boldly speaks his peace. He leads us into change.

Equality. Of course.

It seems simple and profound, like most great ideas.

In nine states, gay people can now freely marry. In the last election, voters in three states decided the issue, saying now, in their states, marriage is open to all. The government will not restrict your right to marry the one you love.

Yet, I cannot find any newspaper stories relating the predicted chaos in social institutions and communities where these marriages now occur. In these states, gay marriage is not a disaster, not a major event, but commonplace, accepted, the norm.

If we read our country’s most cherished legal documents, our most inspiring speeches, the essence of our assorted holy scriptures, there is no debate. Of course, loving others unconditionally, and being free to love the one you love, without barriers, without caveats, would seem to not be debatable.

Not that long ago, I recall church burnings and lynchings, and the police dogs attacking civil rights marchers in the South, and how Black people couldn’t go into some places in my home town. And, women not being able to do some jobs, and hold public office.

And I remember the day the Supreme Court said that White people could marry Black people, that such a right was part of our Constitution, and it was a remarkable event. And, when Black people voted and went to college, and won elections, and women could work where they wanted and live fuller lives, the world did not end. Chaos did not ensue. And, lives became richer. Some walls came tumbling down, and life became a little more equal for all of us.

Young people gawk at me in disbelief, when I tell them of these things from my youth and early adulthood, of the cross burnings and lynchings, and voters taking out the racist language in my state’s constitution. It is, perhaps, ancient history, and yet, that fear, and that divide between “them” and”us” remains. Such fear, while it is ancient and deep seated, lives among us today.

Yet, we are deeply divided, even angry about whether or not people of a different sexual orientation than ourselves, can have the same rights, the same freedom. People cling to their readings of scripture, their own fears and doubts, keeping the barriers to accepting others raised high.

“Not here, not in my family, not in my community. It is not the Will of God.”

Yet, the neighbor, the person next in line at the grocery store, maybe even your son may be “Them”. Other discriminations, other segregations are easier. The color of skin, one’s gender, one’s language, they are easier to spot in the crowd. This category of “them” and “us” is harder to see, harder to root out. Somehow, it digs deeper into us, into our sexuality, into topics not prone to rooting out over coffee with a friend.

Are we not all human, are we all not endowed by the Creator, as having certain unalienable rights, to pursue happiness and liberty, to love, and be loved? Are we not entitled, as human beings, to enjoy families, to raise children, to be part of our communities, and be free from prejudice and not being labeled as someone apart from the norm?

Are we all not children of God?

“What would Jesus do?,” is an oft-asked question, used by those teaching morality, and instilling good parenting and decent morality in the lives of our children and in the affairs of our community.

Indeed, what would Jesus do? I have not found His views on homosexuality in the New Testament. Yet, His Sermon on the Mount and His other teachings speak of loving others unconditionally, of finding acceptance and brotherhood. He spent his time with religious outcasts, prostitutes, the poor, the sick, and politically impotent. He berated the money changers in the temple, and spoke extensively of forgiveness, acceptance, and love. He honored marriage as a celebration of love and partnership, and performed His first miracle at a wedding.

Love. It is found in your heart, and not in the color of your skin, or in your genitalia, or in how you seek to understand God.

In other faiths, there are profound teachings of love and acceptance, brotherhood and community without conditions. What would Jesus do? What would Buddha say? What would Muhammed preach? The answer seems clear.

I also look back to my youth, in spending time with my best friend. We shared our lives, our schooling, our hopes and our dreams. We would hike the beaches, and explore the forest, going through life and growing into men. We shared deeply, as best friends do, of fears and doubts, and what type of men we wanted to be.

Years later, when I had settled down a bit, he came by to visit.

“There’s something you should know,” he said. “And, its about me.”

He told me then that he was gay. He had stumbled through life, sorting things out, running away from himself. There were the stories of alcohol and drugs, of anger and loneliness, and broken relationships. There were the stories of fear and despair. There were stories of acceptance and love, forgiveness and healing. And, at last, relief and honesty.

He was coming out, and he was proud of himself.

“This is who I am,” he said. “And, now I know that about me. And, I want you to know, too.”

We hugged and cried, rejoicing in his acceptance, and in my acceptance. We rejoiced in his healing, and him finding his rightful place in life, and in finding a partner he could truly, and honestly love. That was what we had dreamed about, and that was what we talked about, deep into the night, around the campfires of our teenaged years, looking for love and finding our rightful place in the world.

Honesty. Best friends being honest, going deep, accepting each other for who we were. It was a rich gift he gave me that day. It was the best gift.

It was a day of freedom, and liberation. It was a day I would want everyone to experience, deep in their heart.

Would I not want the same for my son, or my neighbor’s daughter, or for the barista at the coffee shop, or the person next to me at the grocery store? Don’t they deserve to be loved and to love, to be with someone they cherish and adore?

And, shouldn’t that love be celebrated and embraced, by all of us? Isn’t love, unconditional love, and sharing all that that is with each other, isn’t that why we are here in this world?

Isn’t that really what equality is?