The United States of America has elected Donald Trump its next president. It’s sinking in as I type that.
We (the royal “we”) elected Donald Trump, a beloved child of the Most High God.
We elected a man who has painted immigrants, migrants, and refugees with the broad brushes of “rapist,” “drug dealer,” and “terrorist.” He has used ableist language in his stump speeches. He has generalized African-American communities as “hell.” He has called for Third-Reich-like treatment of Muslims in America. He has bragged about sexually assaulting women, even as a married man. He has called women vile names, insulted their natural bodily processes, and rated them based on how attractive he finds them (or not). He has eschewed the common gesture of transparency to the American people by refusing to release his tax returns. He has incited violence among his supporters by promising to pay their legal fees should they be arrested for assaulting anyone who protests at his rallies. He has been incidiary toward the LGBTQ community, people of color, Muslims, immigrants — you name the community, and he’s insulted them.
He is, again, a beloved child of God.
Yet, instead of categorically rebuking his behavior at the polls, we rewarded it. With the presidency.
What, then, has our country said to its citizens of color? What has it said to LGBTQ Americans who are legitimately scared of having their rights and protections rolled back? What has it said to those Americans who worship in a masjid rather than a church? What has it said to Americans who are differently-abled? What has it said to the world?
To be fair, Trump appealed to a segment of the population who felt they’d been left behind because in many respects they had been. Certain industries have left America, possibly never to return. Wages for many remain stagnant. How he did this, however, is rooted in the age-old strategy of convincing them that the real enemy is the “other” — the migrant worker “taking their jobs,” the woman who wants to “take their guns,” the “political dissident” challenging civic authority and the inherent goodness of the country. It was a classic example of throwing stones and hiding hands. The working class struggles, but not because blacks dare to protest inequities in policing. And not because refugees want to come to America to escape terrorism in their birth lands. And not because people of the same gender want the legal rights that come with marriage. And certainly not because concerned mothers don’t want another school shooting in one of our communities.
Those of us in the margins who have been implicated in Trump’s rhetoric have long been concerned, yet perhaps some of us were naive enough to believe that America would never actually elect him, not after what he’s said. Surely, our fellow Americans would stand up for us at the polls. A “nation of immigrants” would never allow xenophobic rhetoric to pave a road to the white house. Women would surely categorically reject someone who would brag about grabbing women “by the pussy” (in fact, more than 60% of white women voted for him). Sure, some would take him seriously, but he’d never come within a stone’s throw of 1600. We were protected in this way.
Or so we thought.
And now, the margins are again reminded of their marginality (as if they needed to be). Immigrant families whose members are both documented and undocumented now wonder if they will be able to stay together, even as they have worked for years to do so legally. Blacks will wonder if the white nationalists groups that endorsed Trump without so much as a rebuke from the campaign will feel emboldened. LGBTQ people wonder not only about legal protections, but that anti-LGBTQ sentiment is further legitimized. While well-meaning souls call for love, calm, and unity, the rest of us have very real concerns.
We can no longer trust in “love” and “goodwill.” Love and goodwill should have never made this a possibility. Love and goodwill should have demanded better of this child of God and strongly condemned the vitriol that came from his mouth. Instead, that vitriol was validated.
How then will we respond? How will the church respond? No matter who prevailed in the election, someone would be grieving, for sure. But how will we wrap our arms around those who are not only grieving, but are genuinely scared? How will we step up to be in solidarity and offer protection and validation to those the electorate did not stand up for on Tuesday? What of the woman who was sexually assaulted and triggered/retraumatized by hearing Trump’s own words? How will she know her country — her fellow Americans — will stand for her?
Yes, we all know that God is sovereign. We are aware that we need to pray for those in office, whether or not we voted for them. We understand that any and all candidates are problematic and imperfect. But seriously, church, how are we prepared to minister to those who are frightened right now — and whose country has shown them that they have reason to be? How will we stand with and for them? It is not simply about one beloved child of God; it is about the behaviors and attitudes that have now been legitimized that have other children of God living in fear.
The following is a sermon I preached at Unity Presbyterian Church in Temple Hills, Maryland on this, the 15th anniversary of the September 11th attacks.
7 The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; 8 they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ ” 9 The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. 10 Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.” 11 But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, “It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. 13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, “I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’ ” 14 And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
1 Timothy 1:12-17
12 I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, 13 even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14 and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15 The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. 16 But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. 17 To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
1 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3 So he told them this parable: 4 “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. 8 “Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9 When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Fifteen years ago today, we all lived through a horrible nightmare. As the news reached us that a plane had flown into one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, and then that a second plane had flown into the other tower, I remember watching my television in horror, my mouth agape and my heart in complete disbelief. It looked like something out of a movie, but it was on the news. It was real.
As NBC’s Jim Miklaszewski reported from the Pentagon on what was unfolding in New York, he interrupted his own remarks to say that, though he didn’t want to alarm anyone, they’d just heard a loud blast there at the Pentagon.
I need you to know a few things about that moment. First, I had a connection with the Pentagon. My mother had been stationed there as an Senior Master Sergeant in the Air Force just two short years earlier. She’d served there throughout my high school and most of my college years, and so DC was my second home growing up. She’d recently retired, had moved back to southeastern Virginia, and was working in a civilian position with the Navy. We still, however, had close family friends who were working at the Pentagon. In fact, one of my mother’s best friends — a woman who is like an aunt to me — worked on the side of the building the plane hit, yet she happened to be in another part of the building at the time. What’s more, my mother, in her position with the Navy, was in the city that day on official business. It was clear now after not one, not two, but three planes had flown into epicenters of American economic, political, and military power, that we were under attack. As reports filtered in about car bombs in the city (which were later debunked), I asked, “What’s next?” The next question I asked was, “Where is my mother?”
I could not find my mother. I was a recent college grad who’d just moved to Northern Virginia looking for work, and I could not find my mother. Attacks were happening across the country, and I could not find my mother. Mobile phones were useless as the lines were completely clogged, and I could not find my mother.
I panicked. I hyperventilated. I prayed. I bawled.
I kept trying.
Finally, my mother was able to use a public phone and reach me by landline and let me know she was okay. She was at Bolling AFB, which, she assured me, was the safest place she could be at the time. I’d found my mother!
I’m mindful of the countless similar searches others carried out that day. Some reconnected with loved ones and rejoiced. Others were not so lucky. And yet others still never retrieved what they were looking for, as their loved ones remain missing.
I read Jesus’ parable about the lost sheep and the lost coin and I think back to that fateful day when I had ostensibly lost something that was precious to me, but found it once again. I think back on what that felt like. I think about the woman’s frantic search for that coin, the energy expended by her feverish house cleaning, and the anguish she must have felt. Was that her only source of income at the time? Was she risking starvation without it? Did someone dear to her give it to her? Whatever the matter, she needed that coin. It didn’t matter that she had nine others, because this coin still mattered. It, too, was valuable, and she would not rest until it was found. Moreover, when she did find it, that was cause for celebration. When the shepherd found that one sheep out of 100, that was cause for celebration.
Jesus’ teachings were attracting tax collectors and sinners. As a reminder, tax collectors, though agents of the state and officers of the law, were known for usury and exploiting the poor. They were state-sanctioned thieves essentially, using shakedown tactics and lining their pockets wherever possible. These fellows were known scoundrels. The Pharisees and scribes — the religious elite who lived and breathed Scripture — took note of how Jesus welcomed them. And they grumbled about it! Now, we love to beat up the Pharisees and scribes in these cases. I’m not going to do that. For one thing, I know as a person of faith and a religious leader I have more in common with them than I care to admit. For another, if I saw someone who persistently cheated me coming to Jesus and consequently being embraced, I would have some feelings about that, too!
Jesus, then, has to frame for us what a known sinner coming to hear the good news of forgiveness of sins through repentance feels like to heaven. It’s like the shepherd finding that lost sheep. It’s like that woman who finds that lost coin. It’s like that young woman finding her lost mom. Because no matter how many other things and people are still in their employ, no matter how many more sheep the shepherd has, no matter how many more coins the woman has, the ones that are lost still matter. They have not been written off, nor does it ultimately matter why they were lost. They are yet precious in the sight of the One to whom they belong.
The Greek word for repent, μετανοέω, means “after think.” It means to change one’s mind, to stop a course of action, thought and practice, and to turn around. To make a u-turn, so to speak, in one’s thoughts and behaviors. It’s interesting that we read in Exodus 32 about a time in which God apparently changed God’s mind. Our understanding of God often is that God is steady, unchanging, unflinching — that God does not change! But here, God actually models what it looks like to change one’s mind, not simply for the sake of changing it, but for the purposes of restoring right relationship. Moses appealed to God’s inclination toward relationship. Metanoia — thinking after the fact — is to reorient oneself when it becomes clear one has fallen out of right relationship with others.
If anything, a state-supported thief making a u-turn in life should indeed be cause for great celebration, because that means at least a few less robberies. A person being brought into right relationship with God means they have more right relationships with humans. And the peace which so often seems to evade us — especially on days like the one we had 15 years go — is a bit more in reach.
After the attacks on 9/11, the Rev. Jack Rogers who at the time was Moderator of the General Assembly and whom we lost just this July, said of that awful day, “This is the way it is every day in Jerusalem and Ramallah and many other places in the world.” Indeed, we are mindful that this is the way it is in Aleppo. This is the way it is in South Sudan. This is the way it is on the Southside of Chicago. God, we are lost!
What should be good news to us is that God is still in the business of searching. God is still looking for those wayward sheep who grazed themselves away from the pasture. It does not matter how or why we got lost; all God cares is they we are found. And nothing is more evident of that than a God who would become flesh and dwell among us, who would spend his life teaching, and yes, correcting us, who would submit to death just so it could be defeated, and who would endow us with power and a place in his continued work of finding the lost, teaching them a better way, and creating a more just and peaceful world. God intends to find us and keep us close!
To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
While at General Assembly, I was blessed to participate in a panel luncheon hosted by Covenant Network of Presbyterians. The theme of the luncheon was “Toward a Truly Inclusive Church.” In my portion of the discussion, I offered an illustration that one of the attendees encouraged me to share on my blog. So, I share it with you now!
Imagine that you are in a grocery store doing some shopping and you run into someone you know. This is someone you respect and like and who you’d probably call a “friend.” In his shopping cart, he has all manner of steaks, ribs, burgers, hot dogs, buns, and condiments, more than one family can eat in a single sitting. It’s clear he’s preparing for a big gathering. You remark about the contents of his cart and he says, “Yeah, I’m having a cookout tomorrow. Oh wait, you can come if you want!”
Now, what if, when he first started planning the cookout weeks ago, this friend had called you personally and invited you to his cookout? What if he had asked then if you had any dietary restrictions that might impact his shopping list? What if he’d had you in mind from the beginning?
In the first scenario, the invitation is passive and you are clearly an afterthought (perhaps not maliciously so, but an afterthought nonetheless). In the second scenario, the invitation is active. You are and have been part of the equation. There is intention behind the invitation, and that has been informed by your relationship to the friend.
When it comes to being an inclusive church (or any other institution), there is a difference between “you can come,” and “you’re invited!”
Often, we want people to come join with us in what we’re already doing. We have in mind what we want or how we expect a thing to look. Except, including others and sharing voice with others automatically changes how the thing will look. If you invite a vegan to your cookout, you might have to try a new recipe, which likely requires you to step out of your comfort zone. But you do so because not only is their presence important to you, but so is their participation. It is the same with the church that seeks to be inclusive. We must be mindful of the ways in which we extend our invitation. Switching metaphors now, how can we move from asking people to board the bus we’re already on and instead work together to figure out which is the bus we should be taking?
Since that luncheon, I’ve been thinking about passive vs. active invitation and inclusion. Who has been an afterthought to me? I hope that before every, er, “cookout” we plan, we ask this very important question. I don’t expect us to get this right every time. I certainly won’t. But it’s a habit we must form if inclusion is truly important to us.
Over the past week, I and my colleague Jan have had the honor, privilege, and responsibility of serving our denomination as the Co-moderators of the 222nd General Assembly. We have ushered our assembly (and been fabulously supported by staff) into some thoughtful and often difficult proceedings. And throughout the assembly, I’ve been deeply impressed by our members’ graciousness and resolve. When the hour got late and the questions got confusing or frustrating, we made a point to remind everyone that we’re going to be alright.
And we were. In fact, I think we’re better than alright. These faithful people tackled issues such as fossil fuel divestment, the merits (or not) of BDS in the Israel-Palestine conflict, organizational restructuring, and repentence for our role in oppression and violence with such grace, class, and love. Even those who didn’t get their way never lost their way. They stayed engaged, lovingly dissenting if they felt called to do so, and remained in the conversation and around the Table.
I come away from this assembly with more hope for the church and our denomination than I think I’ve ever had, because the 222nd General Assembly let me see anew what beloved community looks like. And for anyone who thinks young people are disconnected from our church, I’d suggest they meet our Young Adult Advisory Delegates, as well as the many young commissioners we had!
A lot of great work was done here in Portland. We’ve adopted a new confession — the Confession of Belhar — that rejects the sin of racism and division and lifts Christ’s call to the “visible unity” of the church. We elected a Stated Clerk to lead our denomination. And, while I understand that some feel some of our overtures didn’t go far enough, such as our acknowledgment of harms done to the LGBT community, I’m hopeful and confident that what was passed has set us on the right path. Wherever we landed this past week, it’s clear to me that God is not through with us, and to paraphrase our new Stated Clerk, we’re not dying, we’re being reformed.
To the commissioners, advisory delegates, volunteers, and observers of this year’s General Assembly, you have no idea how profoundly you’ve ministered to us! You have served and conintue to serve not just your denomination, but your Savior incredibly well! To the staff, I’m convinced you will never be appreciated proportionately for the work you’ve put into this, but I intend to try!
Presbyterian Church (USA), may the Lord God bless you “real good.” And, indeed, we gon’ be alright.
As I write this, it is the 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C) and I’ve just preached in part on the reading from 2 Samuel 12. David has been confronted by Nathan for his violation of Bathsheba and Uriah in the slickest of ways. The prophet tells the king a story of a cruel, thoughtless, and callous sin by a powerful person against someone with considerably less power. He paints a compelling picture of a wealthy monster who steals what little bit his poor neighbor has. Nathan then turns the canvas around and shows that he’s been painting David’s portrait.
“You are the man!” Nathan says. A moment before, David was ready to pronounce death and condemnation on the theoretical monster, until he realized the monster was him.
Early this morning, fifty lives were stolen in a well-planned act of anti-gay violence. Fifty LGBTQ children of God lost their lives because someone didn’t like the idea of them kissing in public. During Pride Month. Fifty. The worst mass shooting (not mass killing, but mass shooting) in the history of our country.
Cue the political rhetoric about Islamic extremism and how it (and, by extension, all Muslims) should be stopped. During Ramadan.
Let Christians be confounded by (or, worse, silent in the face of) such a vile act. Let the church offer prayers and sympathy, scratch its collective head and wonder how such a thing could happen, as if we don’t already know.
Forty percent of homeless youth identify as LGBT, most of whom were kicked out of their homes by families who refused to accept them, leaving them vulnerable to addiction, crime, and human trafficking. Somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of LGBT youth have attempted suicide. Much of this can be attributed to religious teaching. A pastor who counseled parents to turn their backs on their gay son, or submit their lesbian daughter to conversion therapy. Flippant comments about “sissies” thrown carelessly about from the pulpit, without regard for who they may pierce. Relegation of gay men to the choir loft (entertain us!), but kept from the Trustee board. Scapegoating same-sex couples as the purveyors of moral erosion. That’s our doing. That’s our assault weapon.
Church, we are the man!
This particular gunman took out fifty people in one night. How many LGBT sisters and brothers have we — the Church — gradually and systemically killed over a longer period of time? He and we have been in the same business. We’re simply not as efficient as he was.
This is not to suggest there can’t be a variety of theological leanings in the church. What I do suggest is that we have not experienced our differences in healthy ways. We can have hermeneutical diversity in ways that do not kill beloved children of God. We in the hetero-normative center have every advantage, comfort, and privilege available. Why, then, do we come for the sanctuaries, safe spaces, and treasures of those in the non-binary margins?
Sadly, many in our own ranks aren’t too idealistically different from this gunman. And, though he may have been a “lone wolf,” this kind of hate does not develop in a vacuum. It is nurtured. It is facilitated. It is given permission to thrive and grow. It is provided with a safe space. Church, for whom/what will we provide sanctuary? I believe God is calling us to make that decision today.
Note: It has been suggested that this post calls out any one specific denomination (namely my own), or conservatives within it. This post calls out hatefulness, which was the shooter’s ideology and, sadly, is present in all denominations and religions, right and left. We must, whatever our theological leanings, fight concertedly and fervently against such ideologies, because they do indeed kill. Then and only then will we be a distinct witness to the love of God through Jesus Christ. Additionally, I am proud of my denomination’s recent moves to live into the visible unity of the church by adopting the Belhar Confession and by acknowledging harms done to the LGBT community. We have a ways to go still, but I believe we’re on the right track!
On Sunday, April 24th, I delivered the benediction at my church, immediately hopped in my car, and drove some three hours away to Princeton, New Jersey to attend a very special service at Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church. It was a worship service “Witnessing for Unity, Reconciliation, and Healing,” correcting a more than a century-old injustice imposed upon the congregation by its own Presbytery.
In 1879, Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church called its first black pastor, the Reverend William Drew Robeson (you may also know him as the father of Paul Robeson). Rev. Robeson served Witherspoon Street for twenty-one years before the pastoral relationship was dissolved by the Presbytery of New Brunswick. By all accounts, his removal was racially motivated. Robeson was an ardent opponent of Jim Crow and was a force in the church and community for the rights Princeton’s Negro community. The congregation vocally opposed dissolving the pastoral relationship, and his removal severely decimated its membership (see the story explained at Presbyterian Outlook).
This week’s worship service was the culmination of efforts on the part of the Presbytery of New Brunswick and the Synod of the Northeast to rectify a racially motivated injustice that left a church ravaged and a minister and his family in dire straits. Acts of restitution have included a public apology from the Presbytery of New Brunswick and the forgiving of the remainder of the debt on the Robeson House, which the church had to sell after Rev. Robeson’s departure but was able to repurchase in 2005. A series of powerful acts indeed by a Synod determined to live into its call to racial justice and a Presbytery that understands that, even though no one living was guilty of these injustices, to paraphrase remarks given at the service, those who are here now are yet responsible.
And it only took 115 years.
There I worshiped with sisters and brothers from throughout and beyond the area, from all different races, backgrounds, and walks of life, all committed to justice and reconciliation, and I thought about how chronological distance might be facilitating such an act. I suspect it’s easier to apologize and make restitution for something from which we have a good amount space (the distance helps us see it clearer). It’s much more difficult to reconcile and apologize for something that’s more “fresh.”
At my denomination’s General Assembly this summer, an overture offering an apology to the LGBTQ community for harms done will come before the body for a vote. So far, the overture has been received in a variety of ways, ranging from enthusiastic support to concerned rebuke, and some offering compromise on the parts that may be viewed as problematic. It’s certainly one overture to watch as we go into our proceedings this summer. Yet, I often wonder how this overture would have been received if it were presented 10, 20, or even 50 years from now, once some distance has been created. It has only been five years since ordination of LGBTQ candidates was allowed in our denomination, and a little over one year since same-sex marriage rites were permitted. Similarly, we have overtures calling for the repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery, offering an apology to Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians, and acknowledging and reconciling for killing Korean civilians in July 1950. None of those overtures have elicited the same response or fervor as the one calling for an apology to our LGBTQ family. Is our reaction to this particular overture informed by our proximity to what it addresses? I have no answers; I simply wonder.
Sunday’s service certainly has me thinking about reconciliation — when it’s easiest to do, when it’s hardest to do, and what realizations facilitate it. And I hear the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words in my spirit, “The time is always right to do what’s right.” I would hope that when institutional sins and injustices are brought to light, or when we recognize there are breaches that must be repaired, we courageously address those things and do so sooner than later. Witherspoon Street should not have had to wait 115 years for justice and reconciliation, but Sunday’s moment gives me hope. It gives me hope that the breaches we’ll bravely face this summer can and will be repaired. I don’t know what the final outcome will look like, but I have faith that it won’t take over a century to do it this time.
While at the NEXT Church National Gathering last week, I engaged in a number of conversations about race. Some were about encounters with race and racism. Others were about racial justice. But the one that was most resonant for me was a conversation I had with a few other people of color about representation. In that discussion, and in subsequent conversations I would have with other people of color, we talked about what happens when people of color are “at the table” in conversations and in leadership. An interesting phenomenon occurs: it becomes obvious to us very soon that we are there because it is assumed we are “safe.”
By “safe,” I mean that we are expected to (no pun intended) color the conversation, but not necessarily challenge assumptions. We are there to basically affirm the direction of the mostly-white entity and assure them they are on the right track. They may even value our input or our push-back, but that doesn’t mean it’s well-received when it’s given.
This is the case even in spaces where people have the best intentions. They really do want to hear from you, but that’s the nature of white privilege — it’s not used to being challenged. They may want you there, but they hadn’t entirely counted the cost of your presence. This is why I’m very selective of the “tables” at which I sit, and the teams and boards on which I sit are the ones who “get it”. I am prepared to bring me — all of me — but those with whom I sit must be prepared to receive it all.
So, on that note, I just want to make a general appeal to all my beloved white friends and colleagues: Please don’t expect me to be the “safe” one. I’m not her. I can’t be her.
I will be laudatory when praise is due. I will be supportive, genial, and pastoral, because that’s what I aim to be in my interactions with all. What I won’t do is placate. What I won’t do is soften harsh realities to spare sensibilities. As a pastor, I care deeply about your feelings, but I care nothing about your fragility. Because I care about you, I’m not going to let you do well-intentioned harm (especially if I am the one in harm’s way).
Thankfully, most of the people in my life don’t ask that I bring anything less than myself when in their presence, which is largely why I call them “friends.” There is so much freedom in being able to give audience to a voice that would be otherwise marginalized. I offer that none of us will ever be free as long as we give so much power to our fragility. That fragility is the biggest obstacle to justice, I argue, because people will go to great lengths to protect themselves and their notion of their inherent goodness, remaining unaware of the harm they continue to perpetuate. Know that if you invite me to a conversation, I will bring my own words. I will tell my own truth, not with the intention of attacking or making anyone else feel bad, but because I know my truth is valid. I will be the one who lovingly challenges you to do and be better, so that we can all get free! Trust me, I love you, but if you respect me, you will not expect me to be “safe.”
Today’s read is the second in a series of guest posts from Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Charnessa K. Pleasant. Charnessa is sharing a series on the importance of self-care in the work of activism.
You know, on most days, I really dislike my relationship with social media. I seriously do! I am one of those people that when the alarm goes off at 5:30am, my phone is the first thing that I grab (I’m really working on being consistent on thanking God for seeing another day, I really am, ya’ll). I grab that phone and I check all social media sites to see what I’ve missed. And without fail, it doesn’t take long for me to reach a point in my timeline where I hit the one story that attempts to set the tone for my day. Pick any one: the blockage of federal funding for Flint, Michigan; the refusal to hear Supreme Court nominations during the current administration; MSNBC parting ways with Melissa Harris-Perry”, the shooting of another African-American male in Salt Lake City, Utah. After some time, I begin to see recurring articles, even articles that were published years ago that speaks to events that are happening in today’s climate. I immediately begin to feel overwhelmed and heavy in spirit because it becomes all too much. So, I keep scrolling along to the next postings rarely stopping to give space or voice the feelings that were provoked due to the previous post.
I want to speak a bit on the intersection of witnessing, activism and self-care and why it matters as to how we witness when we talk about self-care. The notion of witnessing is one of personal significant to me. In 2008, I found myself at a crossroads in my personal life. Without belaboring the story, all of my coping mechanisms had shut down, any set of skills I had for managing my life were totally worn out. I was stalled out in life. It wasn’t until after several years in therapy (yes, I am a therapist who has a therapist) that I finally gained a gem of insight as to what was happening to me in 2008: I was moving through life (similar to how we scroll) without fully witnessing. Let me provide some context for what I mean by witnessing. To witness, by definition, is: [noun] an “individual who, being present, personally sees or perceives a thing; a beholder, spectator, or eyewitness”; [verb]: “to bear witness to”.
When I say that I was moving through life without witnessing, it’s not in the way that you may be thinking. I was fully aware of my lived experiences, trauma, pain, etc. I would sit in my therapist’s office for weeks and run my story up and down; what happened, who the players were, the coping skills that I used (which included narratives that I told myself about what was going on). I had witnessed it, for sure…or so I thought. It wasn’t until my therapist introduced one simple concept that changed the way that I interacted with myself from that point forward: the concept of curiosity. She sank my battleship! What I realized today is that up until 2008, parts of my life has been witnessed in the noun form of witnessing; I was a beholder, an eyewitness to things external of me. When my therapist introduced the tool of curiosity, I shifted from being a visual witness to a witness who bore (verb: to carry, hold; to birth). What she was challenging me to do was to set aside the events that I experienced and to bring forth the emotions that it triggered. This.Was.Heavy.Work!
We witness well with our sight while paying little to no attention when we witness by way of our emotions or intuition. We come by this behavior rather innocently as we do not live in a society that supports or cultivates effective and meaningful leadership of self, which requires us to rely a great deal on listening intuitively. There are experiences taking place within us that pierces past our visual sight; a conversation being held about where we are hurt and what we need. As I mentioned in my previous piece, we have a tendency to override this second layer of witnessing and in doing so, it has the potential to start a rapid decline in our mental and emotional wellness. So, why is how we witness important in social justice activism and our self-care?
Let’s go back to the beginning of this piece. I started out talking about my experience while scrolling my social media timeline. On first glance, I am reading story after story on all kinds of topics that are of importance to me: domestic violence, gender and racial inequality; discrimination. As I read, I am witnessing the shit that we do to one another. Immediately, I am hit with anger and frustration so I scroll along while completely ignoring the fact that I am still suspended in anger and frustration. I do nothing with it (that I’m aware of). So I go on about my day, I throw myself in my work; I repost these articles feverishly with the hashtag #staywoke. I engage in heated dialogues; I through my hands up when I see that people “just don’t get it”. I come home exhausted….and I am still unsettled in my spirit.
Ok, hit pause! Had I taken the time to become curious about my anger and frustration, what I would have really gotten to was how helpless I feel when I read about these events. Curiosity would have me sit with the feelings of what it is like to feel helpless, afraid and scared; to not feel protected. Anger is an easy state of being to access and we have endless [most times harmful] coping mechanism to help us ease anger. I am not arguing for or against anger; it most certainly has its place. The fire and passion that accompanies anger serves as a primary catalyst that motivates us towards activism. We may convince ourselves that “the cause” is larger than my feeling. I may even give myself a half hearted pep talk and get back on my grind because at the end of the day, a mother is without her child; a family has been torn apart; someone has been hospitalized, [insert your field of advocacy here]. So we keep going….unsettled and all
However, helplessness and fear requires a different kind of attention from us and these emotions and feelings are oftentimes neglected as we advocate for forward progress. It requires a raw vulnerability with oneself, one’s abilities and one’s limitations. For me, it forces me to acknowledge that progress is slow that the road to change may have a lifespan that is longer than my natural life. This is the narrative of my witness that bears and carries the heaviness. I get why we hate to acknowledge it…I get it. But I also understand that in acknowledging the emotions invoked by my secondary witness, I learn to hear clearer what I need in that moment: a hug, reassurance; someone to hold space as I grieve. It’s from this place that I learn to give myself permission to step back as I see fit because I understand that it is really okay to take care of myself AND come back to advocating when I am recharged and well. This is where meaningful self-care takes place.
Charnessa is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the state of North Carolina where she currently serves as a therapist in community mental health. Her private practice, The Healing Collaborative, PLLC, focuses on address the needs of women’s emotional health and wellness. She received her B.A. in Political Science and Women’s Studies from Virginia Commonwealth University and earned Masters in both Women and Gender Studies and Social Work from Eastern Michigan University. She currently resides in North Carolina with her husband where she enjoys discovering micro-breweries, catching up with her DVR and perusing the aisles at her local bookstore. Find her on Periscope at @thehealingcollab, on IG at @thehealingcollaborativepllc or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to learn more about her approach to the world of mental health and wellness.
Another installment of Our New Day Begun is in the books, and I feel incredibly blessed to have heard from some dynamic leaders in our denomination. A few closing observations:
1 – None of those featured are “cradle Presbyterians.” Like me, everyone I spoke to had come to the denomination from another (or no) tradition. I was surprised by this, actually. I expected at least one of them to have been in the PC(USA) from childhood. And I wonder about the implications of that.
My colleague, Aric Clark, recently posed the question of what the PC(USA) will look like in the future. Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I replied, “Browner.” But that’s not a joke, or even a misty hope; it seems to be a trend. And I find it fascinating that these leaders came from somewhere else, bringing with them those perspectives and experiences to this tradition. It’s apparent to me that we’re being called here. What is God saying in that? If I were to posit what it means, perhaps it means our denomination must resist any temptation to be insular in our thinking, and be open — truly open — to the “new” things God desires to do with us. We do not and will never again look like the denomination of reunification, and that’s a good thing.
2 – They are saying the things we need to hear. I loved all of what they had to say, but there are nuggets that I think are especially resonant and need to be heard.
When asked what he most appreciated about our tradition, Carlton Johnson said, “I most appreciate the PCUSA’s interest in matters of social justice, both locally and around the world. I most appreciate this because I believe it to be consistent with the primary interest of the God of the Oppressed and Jesus the Christ who was very clear of his call ‘to bring good news to the poor.'” I do hope we continue to make him proud in this area, and not abandon this important witness.
Aqueelah Ligonde lauds the contributions of Black Presbyterians to this denomination: “As a whole, I believe that the voices, hands, and hearts of Black Presbyterians have helped to shape conversations and propel movements for the denomination. I think the contributions and dedication of Black Presbyterians has given life to this Church and will continue to give life as we explore new ways to engage and embrace each other across the board.”
Similarly, Perzavia Praylow shares how she has been inspired by the contributions of Black Presbyterians: “…even before I became a member of a Presbyterian church or attended a Presbyterian seminary, I developed an interest in the social and civil contributions of Black Presbyterians in the development of our nation, particularly in the southern United States.”
And yet, Eric Thomas encourages us to look intently to the future: While traditions are important, my experience is that young people aren’t interested in being replicas of their grandparents. Times have changed, and in many locations around the country young folks ‘get it’ in terms of multiculturalism, communications, various expressions of gender and sexual identities, and other multiplicities that Baby Boomers and Gen Xers are still trying to catch up to.”
Finally, Joseph Morrow warns us not to make inclusion about numbers: ” To put such a goal at the center of our witness puts it in danger of becoming just another form of status seeking in a newly forming multicultural society. Rather than seek status through numbers, let us first seek God’s reign, justice and righteousness through ministry and learning with people of color.”
3 – Next year’s feature will, I hope, include African immigrants in the church and/or their children. Blackness is expansive. African immigrants are one of the fastest-growing demographics in our denomination. As Joseph Morrow put it, “There is an emerging generation of Black Presbyterians whose families hail from West and East Africa, who will add new dimensions to our cultural identity and its influence on the PC(USA) and US society.” These sisters and brothers come with their own perspective and understanding of their location in this tradition. I’m interested in hearing more about it.
4 – I remain encouraged and excited for our future. God continues to do something amazing, and is in large part using people of color to do it. As much as we may wrestle to find our voice here, it’s needed, and it’s needed because God says so. We have much work left to do, but I’m hopeful for an increasingly inclusive church and look forward to what God will do in and through this tradition.
In our final edition of this year’s Our New Day Begun, I am so honored and excited to present Eric Thomas. Eric is a DCE in Brooklyn, progressing through the ordination process, and pursuing a PhD. He’s also a writer and presenter par excellence, and we are blessed to hear from him.
Tell us about your ministry. What are you currently doing?
I am the Director of Christian Education at First Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn (FPC) and am in my third year of study toward the PhD in Biblical Studies and Early Christianity at Drew University in Madison, NJ. I’m also a Candidate for Ministry in the PC (USA). In both my church and academic work I advocate for people to honor their lived experiences in the process of making meaning of biblical texts, their own theologies, and the implications for the practice of their faith. This process takes on significant depth (in my opinion) when the experiences of women, racial-ethnicities, the spectrum of identities, sexualities, and physical abilities are taken seriously. In my academic work, the study takes the form of hermeneutics or the many lenses through which we can interpret texts. In my church work, being able to listen to each other’s stories reinforces that we are on different paths and parts of our Christian journey. The fact that we choose to journey together strengthens our awareness of being part of the body of Christ and agents of God’s justice. We’ve just completed a four-session series called “First Talks Race” where the members asked each other tough questions and listened to difficult answers especially having to do with privilege (white and otherwise). We brought these reflections into our current exploration of “The Beatitudes NOW” during the Lenten season.
You have a background in marketing and the arts. Tell us about that and how (if at all) it informs your ministry.
In most of the arts organizations I’ve worked with (including Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Lincoln Center, National Black Arts Festival) my job was to connect people who did not ordinarily connect with the arts to opportunities to participate. I found that the most effective way to bridge the gap was to make an invitation of welcome on behalf of the institutions. There is a correlation between many “major” arts institutions and the “church” in terms of how they represent symbols that are signifiers of belonging or un-belonging. For example, most New Yorkers know Lincoln Center as a cultural icon but never go because they assume or have been taught there’s nothing there for them. The same can be said of churches. Many newcomers to FPC enter because the music draws them in – not the building, not the denomination, but the music. So much can be said about where the “church” “is” today, but part of our challenge seems that we aren’t bridging gaps towards welcome. Both the institutions of the arts and the Church can suffer from the intentional or unintentional assumption that new audiences /new members appreciate and strive towards what the institution has to offer. The inconvenient reality is that people live full lives without ever attending the symphony or a worship service.
What led you to seek ordination in the PC(USA), and how is the process going for you so far?
I grew up in an African American Baptist Church in the Bronx, but spent most of my college years being a soloist or “ringer” in multiple denominational churches. Many doors can open when you’re a tenor who sight-reads music. When I moved to Atlanta, I found a Presbyterian congregation that truly modeled what I thought “church” should be. That community called me out and suggested that I should think about seminary and the path to ordination. I knew that church music would always be part of my life (my grandparents sang in the Senior Choir, my aunts sang in the gospel choir, I had music lessons throughout childhood in the Bronx). It was quite a paradigm change to relocate myself physically and theologically from the choir loft to the pulpit. My teachers at the Interdenominational Theological Center (ITC) helped me to realize that I had gifts at the intersection of academia and the church that I should cultivate. I was given significant opportunities for leadership in and as a representative of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary. Members of the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta were invaluable in their support of my ordination exam prep and general morale building. I am indebted and grateful to them (ITC, JCSTS, and Presbytery friends) for that. They model what it means to be “under care.”
Tell us about your Ph.D. studies.
My research in Biblical Studies and Early Christianity focuses on Africana Studies and Queer Theory as bases to foreground the lives of queer people of African descent. This work illuminates the problems of gender and sexuality in African American biblical interpretation which assumes a heterosexual subject, and the problems of race and class in queer biblical interpretation which assumes a white subject. It is complicated by geographical locations. My options as a same gender loving man in the NY/NJ area are different from those of a gender fluid person in Iowa, or a person of trans* experience in Kingston, Jamaica. However, we are real people who not only fight to survive socio-political circumstances, We. Read. Scripture. and thus fight to survive and thrive in religious communities. My work explores what happens when our lives are placed at the center of biblical interpretation.
What are your hopes for your ministry post-ordination?
I subscribe to the adage that we make plans and God laughs, but ultimately I want to be a Reverend Doctor. I would like to pastor a church and teach Biblical Studies (intro courses, exegetical electives, Koine Greek). It would be great to be able to combine cultural and literary studies with biblical exegesis to be able to teach classes like “Baldwin and the Bible,” etc. I hope to continue working with national and community groups that further the causes of LGBT inclusion (and actual hiring) in the Church, as well as with opportunities to support the #Blacklivesmatter movement at whatever local level that I end up in.
How can we encourage other young Black people to pursue leadership in our denomination?
I think we need to provide opportunities to hear from young Black people on their own terms. While traditions are important, my experience is that young people aren’t interested in being replicas of their grandparents. Times have changed, and in many locations around the country young folks “get it” in terms of multiculturalism, communications, various expressions of gender and sexual identities, and other multiplicities that Baby Boomers and Gen Xers are still trying to catch up to. In an age of sermon streaming the preachers of our choice, iTunes, YouTube, SnapChat, Bible apps, and various hang out platforms, the older “we” have to determine how to make the congregational experience relevant for them, in ways that are relevant for them. It might mean considering other “young people” times and formats. It might mean “we” have to get out of the way.