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chalkboard with mathematical equations on it

Bricks Without Straw: Hidden Figures, Young Clergy Women, and Intersectionality

chalkboard with mathematical equations on itI have been excited to see Hidden Figures for months. The trailer gave me deeply satisfied laughter, hope, and inspiration. The poster gave me goosebumps. I knew I was going to love this movie from the moment I learned that it existed. It exceeded my expectations.

Hidden Figures tells the story of Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), one of the finest mathematicians (called “computers”) in the history of NASA. Her parents advocated for her to have appropriate education for her mathematical brilliance. Through hard work and a supportive family, Katherine belonged to a team of black female computers, referred to as the West Computing Group, resourcing the space program.

By Johnson’s side were Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), who functioned as the supervisor for the West Computing Group, and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), a budding NASA engineer. America’s race to space depended largely on the mathematical and scientific work of Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson. Not only were these women solving some of the most complex mathematical and scientific problems of their time, but they were doing it while juggling racism, sexism, and classism (all while in high heels).

There are many points of genius in the movie, and its Academy Award nomination for Best Picture is well-deserved. One of the most significant is its subtle pedagogy. The movie appeals to a wide demographic of viewers: fans of its actors, space enthusiasts, nostalgists, movie lovers, music lovers, women, audiences of color, teachers, etc. Whatever brings you to the theater will not begin to scratch the surface of what you’ll gain from this movie.

Hidden Figures demonstrates the complexity of racism and racial reconciliation. The movie opens with potential police brutality and the delicate balance between good citizenship and accepting oppression. Though religion is not a major theme of the movie, the characters attend the same church, which is the center of their community. Mr. Johnson’s military career success points to the anticipated double victory of freedom abroad and at home for black soldiers during the world wars, and the importance of affirming black male leadership in integrated public arenas. Segregation looms large in signage, work accommodations, and access to public places like libraries and court houses.

As a former engineer, I appreciated the way the movie depicted women’s second class citizenship. Leaders referred to mixed groups of staff as “gentlemen” or “you guys,” and told them to call their wives. Though they are among the leading minds in the country, the women of NASA are often assumed to be clerical staff or housekeepers, treated as expendable workers. In spite of putting in long hours doing demanding intellectual work, dress codes stipulated that they should wear dresses and heels. While some of the women had supportive helpers at home (largely other women), others began a second shift of domestic responsibilities even while defending their right to work. Many women in the movie, white and black, performed duties beyond the scope of their job responsibilities, without additional recognition or compensation, and without avenues for requesting advancement.

The movie honestly depicts the third and fourth class citizenship of black women. Read more

#BlackGirlMagic-alMinister

Kaji S. Douša

“Just make it magical,” I said.

I looked at the makeshift learning space: a hallway, really. This was where our church would be asking our children to go in-depth about Jesus for the next year and a half, while we completed our all-encompassing construction project.

Everything had to be added to the space; it came with nothing. But, quite quickly, it began to host the ragtag miscellany that inhabits all spaces that are not carefully controlled. It became a storage room, a hallway, and a place to learn about Jesus. Some of this could change—we could be more disciplined about where we put things—but some was simply the reality of where we were. Yet if the children were asked to do this, then the least we could do would be to make the place… magical. So we designed something exciting and beautiful that might have been too difficult to pull off in a larger space. Magic could make this work.

If only we had a wand to make everything else magic. Read more

Go Back To Your Country

just-race-dec-2016It was on the way to pick up the kids from school.

I slowed to a stop at the crosswalk that connects a paved walking trail with a rails-to-trails path on a fairly busy street in Bloomington. I had seen the bicyclist slow down to wait to cross, but even though I was in a hurry, I waved him on anyway. My eyes flicked up to my rearview mirror, and I noticed the car behind me abruptly stop, like the driver hadn’t been paying attention. Maybe he didn’t expect me to stop for the lone person waiting to cross the street. Maybe he was on his phone. Maybe he was in a hurry to pick up his kids.

When I drove further down the road, the lanes opened up, and I got in the left-turn lane. That’s when I noticed the same car behind me come up and zip around even before the lanes split off. As I turned to watch him drive by, he slowed down a little with his driver’s window down and screamed out:

Bitch, learn how to drive or go back to your country.

Then he sped through the intersection. I missed my chance to turn left as I watched him drive away, my knuckles turning white from gripping the steering wheel. I couldn’t help but immediately default to thinking: Was I not supposed to stop for the bicyclist? Did I do something wrong? Am I a bad driver? Read more

Strong Women and White Privilege

Gia Hayes-Martin

Gia Hayes-Martin

“You come from strong women,” my grandmother said. It was late on a Monday evening in the winter of 1991. We were up late on a school night, and my grandparents were visiting, because I had been confirmed that evening. Granny gestured to the small photographs of her parents that sat in a double frame on the desk in our guest room. My great-grandmother, whom we called Muzzy, was approaching the end of her very long life. We hadn’t known until the last minute whether my grandparents would be spending the week with us or five hundred miles away at Muzzy’s bedside. Looking at the photos, Granny said it again. “Never forget it. You come from strong women.”

I’d heard Muzzy’s story before. In 1924, her husband, my great-grandfather, was found dead in bed of “acute indigestion.” (Someday I will find out what that might have been.) Muzzy was twenty-eight years old. She had four children under the age of seven and was pregnant with her fifth. They had moved from Louisville, the city nearest their hometown in rural Kentucky, to Akron, Ohio, so my great-grandfather could find work on the new streetcar line. Now that she was a single mother, Muzzy knew she needed to be near family. She returned to Louisville, where her sisters helped care for the children and her parents sent produce from their farm to put food on the table.

It was common in the 1920s for the children of widows to be institutionalized in state orphanages. Muzzy was determined to keep her family together, and she reasoned that if she owned a home, the state would have a harder time proving that she could not care for her children. She used the money from her husband’s life insurance to buy a little shotgun house on Greenwood Street in Louisville’s West End. It became my Granny’s childhood home. Muzzy took in washing and sewing, and once her children were older, she went out to work as a seamstress. She did it: through shrewd thinking, hard work, family support, and sheer bloody-minded strength, she kept her family together.

Muzzy was a remarkable woman. Read more

Why we don’t always feel like talking about race (and what to do about it)

Picture of the author, Nicole Martin

The author, Nicole Martin.

The time is ripe for race talk. The problem is, some people don’t always feel like talking. A variety of recent events have added to a surge of desired dialogue on the black experience, but after years of talking, some black people are too tired to engage. As an African American clergywoman, I feel this tension nearly every week in some tangible way. There’s always some group seeking insight on what it means to be black, including Presidential candidates vying for the “black vote;” Christians debating on whether black lives, blue lives, or all lives matter; new research within my community on the psychological outcomes of blackness; and so much more. While this is extremely fruitful, it can also be extremely taxing, especially for those of us who are able to articulate our lives in ways that others can understand.

I sensed this for the first time growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood. Like most young children, I never had a concept of what it meant to be black until a white student pointed it out to me. “Why are your hands two different colors?” they asked while laughing on the playground. I had no idea what they were talking about. In that moment, I looked at my hands from front to back, and sure enough, the insides of my hands were lighter than the skin that covered my body. I was never good with comebacks, so I just put my hands in my pockets and walked away. This was the beginning of an intense process of discovering that my hair, lips, body, speech, food, and family would all one day be spaces of curiosity for well-meaning white people. Read more

Worshippers at Holy Angel Roman Catholic Church on Chicago’s South Side

I Take the Saints With Me

Worshippers at Holy Angel Roman Catholic Church on Chicago’s South Side

Worshippers at Holy Angel Roman Catholic Church on Chicago’s South Side

Growing up, church was… interminably slow. Not bad, just slow. Like the waving of a cardboard fan in the hands of a church mother, it was steady and sure, and time just sort of “hung” in church. So there was lots of time to people-watch. The people I especially loved were the old saints, these mahogany/ tan/ebony/cream-with-just-a-hint-of-coffee ladies and gentlemen who occupied the prime seats in the church, who nodded knowingly when the preacher was especially inspired, who sang in the senior choir, and whose hands lifted to the air meant church was going to last an extra five, ten, twenty-five minutes.

I was not a regular (my parents weren’t church goers), but I was a regular visitor to two churches in particular, because my extended family were every-Sunday church folks. Even before I had ever heard of the “communion of saints,” in which we profess our faith each week in my own Episcopal church, I believed in it because I witnessed and experienced it. When we sang the old hymns and spirituals, I felt myself lifted up, beyond. I would imagine Ida B. Wells-Barnett or Frederick Douglass sitting in a church just like that one, singing those very songs. Their pictures, and those of other “Heroes and Heroines of Our Faith and People” were hung along the church’s hallways and on the walls of its fellowship hall, and their solemn, noble faces told stories of faith in Jesus as my people have lived it, of sojourning and thriving in this harsh and wondrous America we call home.

This has been a bloody, bloody summer to be Black in America. In this wearying time, I take with me the saints of my beloved Black church. Read more

The author’s sons, Isaac and Micah

A Prayer for My Sons

The author’s sons, Isaac and Micah

The author’s sons, Isaac and Micah

A Prayer for My Sons:

God, protect them.
Protect them from ignorance of their privilege and the advantages they will have as white men.
Protect them from entitlement.
Protect them from being indoctrinated into a system of white, male violence against women and against people of color.
Protect them from the temptation to stay silent and complicit when they witness injustice.
Protect them from the illusion that we live in a post-racial society of equality and justice.
Protect them from insular living that might threaten their empathy or release them from righteous anger when any of your children are hurt or in need. Read more

Ask a Young Clergy Woman: Anti-Racism Edition

6654679597_3f8dbb67ef_zDear Askie,

I love my congregation, but I’m starting to think I might have to close my Facebook account. I have a few congregants whose postings are driving me crazy! We do disagree politically (I’m more liberal, they’re more conservative), but I think it goes beyond that. I often see them posting racist and Islamophobic things that I find really offensive. I’ve seen vitriolic posts criticizing the #blacklivesmatter movement, things about kicking all Muslims out of the country, and “jokes” based on racial stereotypes, with the comment “I’m sure someone will try to accuse me of racism, but you’ve got to admit this is just funny!” It makes me see red, Askie, and I want to do something about it, but I’m not sure what. So far I haven’t engaged. What’s a pastor to do?

-Anti-Racist Pastor

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Being the Church in Pre-Post Racial America

Young Americans

Young Americans

Rarely can a book successfully weave together complex theological concepts, social justice frameworks, and the stories of ordinary people of faith. Pre-Post Racial America: Spiritual Stories from the Front Lines does just that. The book’s author, Sandhya Rani Jha, is deft at the art of storytelling. Her insightful analysis of the theology of racial/social justice-making plays a perfect melody against her counterpoint: a subtle but devastating critique of the ways we as mainline Christians are tempted to separate the (spiritualized) Good News from God’s call that we build the Beloved Community.

Jha does theology by participation, and through her willingness to locate herself, to tell her story, and to listen intentionally to the life stories (both spoken and unspoken) of others, she invites us to do the same. She lifts up both the deep theological roots of knowing and loving one’s neighbor, and the deep socio-economic roots of our systems of racial and class-based injustice.

It is these twin balances that define the book. Her essay “#Every28hours” is a Jeremiad in the truest sense. It comes after she sets the context with nearly a dozen stories of people committed to the work of justice, and just before her final three chapters, which are filled hope, wry humor, and deep optimism. She wisely notes, “We can’t get to hope without acknowledging what’s happening that robs us of our hope: despair is a necessary word, even though it is not the final word.” Amen, Rev. Sandhya. Amen.

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Invited into ‘Between the World and Me’

Between the World and Me
Ta-Nehisi Coates
152 pp. Spiegel & Grau.

TNC book coverWhen my son Moses was baptized I wrote him a letter about what baptism means for me. It was very much a letter from a pastor-mom to her son, touching on both the personal and theological, each in their turn. I read the letter that morning in lieu of a sermon, inviting the congregation to “eavesdrop” on my conversation with Moses, my baptism gift to him.

As I began reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, I was reminded of my baptism letter. Coates wrote this book as a letter to his son, and the book is an invitation to eavesdrop on that father-son conversation. That invitation is a tremendous gift to anyone who picks up this small, but powerful, memoir. Coates invites the reader into his experiences as a black man in America, and offers a perspective I was stretched in experiencing. Coates is well known in the journalistic community for taking strong and often controversial positions on issues of race. Several days later, I’m still mulling over this book, and wondering what changes it may have wrought in me.

Coates’ writing hovers somewhere in the vague, liminal space between poetry and prose, Read more