macaroni and cheese

A Land Flowing with Milk and Honey: Food Justice & Soul Work

“Attitudes to food have always been integral to the spiritual life and a prime metaphor for vital energy for our goal…the nourishing of a community is inextricably bound up with the notion of eating together.” Shirlyn Toppin[1]

macaroni and cheeseThe way we think about food and eating is deeply connected with the way we think about ourselves, families, and communities. For Black women, cooking, serving, and eating are bound up with our faith, our families, and our culture. Eating together is a spiritual act that heals, redeems, and refreshes those who participate. Not every woman knows how to nor wants to cook or serve; yet every woman eats. The eating and sharing of a meal can be an opportunity for Black women to receive that healing, redemption, and refreshment.

Tina Turner asked one of the most important questions of all time in one of her biggest hits, “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” When it comes to food and faith, the answer is, “Everything.” Love has everything to do with food and faith. Food is an extension of oneself. Food is an avenue to show love to the others in our lives. Food and faith have always been a major part of Black lives, including in my life. The church is where many believers learn how to love and treat their neighbors; simultaneously, food gives believers the opportunity to demonstrate that love for their neighbors.

Growing up, I was expected to participate in worship every Sunday during church service and to be in the fellowship hall for dinner after service. I couldn’t wait to get into the fellowship hall to eat. Churching really does bring on an appetite! While the doctrine and dogma of religion restricted me, food seemed to free me. Food was never restricted. In fact, I had to eat all my food on my plate because it was rude not to and wasting food was prohibited. It felt good to be filled physically and enjoy tasty soul foods such as crispy fried or smothered baked chicken, creamy macaroni & cheese, rice & gravy, butter beans, cabbage, fresh yeast rolls, and pound cake or chocolate cake.

When food is scarce, it can feel like a trial not just to our bodies, but also to our souls.  My faith has been adversely challenged when I experienced those times of lack of food. I remember a time when no one in my immediate family had money to buy food and all we could make was bread. I felt the tears welling in my eyes and I immediately ran into my room so my family wouldn’t see me cry. I asked God why was God doing this to me? What was the purpose? Later, I learned through the Wake Forest University’s Food and Faith program about the systemic designs of hunger and lack of economic justice which, unfortunately, plagues many Black women and children.

Can faith move the mountains of hunger and lack of economic justice alone? Fannie Lou Hamer said, “You can pray until you faint, unless you get up and try to do something, God is not going to put it in your lap.” Read more

The Darkness Shines in the Light

The author smiling, wearing a light-colored shirt with dark-colored stripes and a bee on the upper left chest

The author

White privilege is marked by blindness to the ways our language hurts and harms others. The process of learning to see is, like the story in John’s gospel of Jesus’ healing a blind man by caking his eyes with mud made of spit and dirt, both messy and profound.

In January, I attended a gathering in Chicago called The Mystic Soul Conference. An outgrowth of the Mystic Soul project, the event combined spirituality, hospitality, community, and justice. The entire gathering centered people of color (POC), which meant that I, as a white woman, was invited to de-center myself. What this meant was explicit: I was not to be the first to speak up in group discussion; I would sign up for care sessions (massage, spiritual direction, body work) only after people of color had done so. White people were not presenters, or organizers, or leaders. The non-POCs present were there to listen, to follow, and to exhale into the work of justice that restored us to our rightful place as co-laborers instead of blind guides.

One of the most powerful lessons from the conference for me occurred in a session called “Dark and Divine: Healing the Light vs. Dark Dichotomy in Spiritual Speech.” Artist and educator Amina Ross led our group of POC and non-POC folk through exercises to explore the concept of darkness. A curator of an ongoing art exhibit in Chicago – featuring artists who use darkness as a medium – Ross invited us to do the same.

I learned that my understanding of darkness has been shallow, one-dimensional, paltry, and feeble. I’ve allowed the simplistic correlation of light = good, and darkness = bad, to rule the way I understand light and dark, both in life and in metaphor. I didn’t even know that I had forfeited so much truth and beauty in my thin imaging, but as I was invited to poke around and become curious about darkness (the world’s and my own), I realized that I had never spent much time asking questions or imagining other possibilities. When we shared our reflections at the end of the workshop, I was surprised by both the depth of other peoples’ answers – clearly, they had spent time considering the ways that darkness was simultaneously a gift and a liability in their own lives – and by the shallowness of my own.

I am ashamed to admit that I have lived, unconsciously but persistently, with the idea that darkness = evil for a long, long time, expressing that idea as anti-black racism in both overt and subtle ways. If light = good, and dark = bad, what does that mean for the ways I see and interact with sisters and brothers who live with darkness as a visible part of their identity? Read more

Lessons We Can Learn from Wakanda

The author

My flight has safely landed back into town after visiting Wakanda – the mythical and majestic homeland revealed in the film Black Panther – a journey that left me mesmerized. I was immediately pulled into the world of Wakanda, with its technological advancements, beautiful African fashions, futuristic architecture, and tribal rituals so intense that, when my visit came to a close, I did not want to leave. I truly enjoyed getting to know the king of Wakanda, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), his sister and Wakanda’s key inventor, Shuri (Letitia Wright), and the fierce Dora Milaje, all-female warriors who protect the king. During my journey, I witnessed T’Challa fight for his honor and birthright to rule Wakanda after his father King T’Chaka’s sudden death, all the while struggling to keep his country safe and of one accord during the transition of power.

My self-pride as a Black woman was immensely heightened by the bold presence and uniquely authoritative femininity of Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), spy and love interest of T’Challa. Equally impactful was this same powerful femininity in Okoye (Danai Gurira), the head of Wakanda security and General of the Dora Milaje. Certainly, my trip would not have been complete without the dramatic and complex encounters between T’Challa and villain Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), and Killmonger’s partner in crime Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis). The story unfolds with heightened drama for T’Challa when diplomacy becomes even more complicated by a would-be chance meeting with CIA Agent Andy Ross (Martin Freeman), the man with whom he became acquainted in Captain America: Civil War. Each complex character navigates their intertwined narratives and conflicting interests, leading to the seminal purpose of saving the world, or destroying it.

My Black Panther journey was made possible by the creators of that character: writer and artist Jack Kirby, and writer and editor Stan Lee, who also makes a cameo in every Marvel movie. Black Panther first appeared in the July 1966 issue of Fantastic Four. While the Black Panther character has been confused with the Black Panther Party (which was formed in October of 1966 in Oakland, California), the two are not synonymous. Black Panther first joined the Marvel cinematic world in Captain America: Civil War in 2016. T’Challa will make another Marvel movie appearance in the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War film (debuting in April 2018) where he will fight – and hopefully save the world – alongside Iron Man, Spider Man, Captain America, the Hulk, Doctor Strange, and others.

What made my trip to Wakanda even more special was that I shared this momentous occasion with millions of people in the world, particularly people of the African diaspora. Many of my friends and associates had already seen Black Panther twice by the time I saw it on the Sunday night of its opening weekend. I have never felt such an energy of love for Blackness blended with an anxiousness to see any movie in my life. Who knew that a fictitious movie would cause people nationwide to come together in one accord with Black pride, wearing Dashikis, African attire, or dressing in all Black, and taking selfies in front of countless Black Panther posters? Read more

Fungibility: A Vocabulary Lesson for White People

The author

The nerd force has always been strong with me. When other kids were competing in sports events over the weekends, I was competing in storytelling contests to see who could recite a story from memory with the most accurate detail. Middle school found me occupied with a group called Future Problem Solvers, who were given the task of “solving” invented, but based in reality, situations from ecological catastrophes to diplomatic disasters. (Designing the t-shirt for that group was the pride of those years for me.) During college, I ignored my chemistry homework in favor of reading theological tomes like David Bosch’s Transforming Mission for fun.

So, it should perhaps come as no surprise that I find myself to be something of a quasi-professional nerd these days: a full-time student, with a backpack to boot. Pastoral care conversations in parishioners’ homes have been swapped for intense chats with authors who don’t so much as offer me a glass of lemonade. During these chats, I’m frequently bombarded with words I’ve never heard of: leitmotif, interdiction, dehiscence, interlocutory, and thantalogical (and that is only in one article, alas). One word keeps cropping up again and again, especially in my studies of African American theology and ethics: fungibility. It sounds kind of cute, doesn’t it? The first images conjured for me were of gerbils who were the life of the party (fun-gerbility), or the special talents of fungi. But this word, despite containing “fun” within it, is not in the least bit fun. As I often do with confounding words, I consulted the oracle (Google) and discovered this:

“Fungible: being something (such as money or a commodity) of such a nature that one part or quantity may be replaced by another equal part or quantity in paying a debt or settling an account.”[1]

But here’s the rub: fungibility wasn’t being used to talk about bitcoin, or pennies, or bartered boxes of Girl Scout cookies. It was being used in my readings to talk about Black bodies. People as fungible: interchangeable, profitable, which made them understood not as people at all. Read more

Acting Womanish, Being Womanist, Living Womanism.

The author

Understanding your own identity is an ongoing process. Family ideals and traditions typically shape much of your childhood identity. As you grow into young adulthood, there are defining moments that continue to form you, and you begin to become more of who you desire to be. The stages of life redefine us, until we settle into a comfortable core identity that we will hold fast to and defend at all cost. For me, my identity was first defined as a young, Black girl growing up in Houston, Texas. It was many years later that I discovered the vocabulary to understand and explain the core components of who I was, who I am, and who I will continue to be as an adult.

Acting Womanish

Any young Black girl who has ever dared to talk back to an elder, or question a directive she was given, has probably been told she was “acting womanish.” Acting womanish means having the bold audacity to speak up in the face of injustice. It means daring to have her own opinions and thoughts, and rejecting the “go-along-to-get-along” expected mentality. Acting womanish means trying to “be grown” before your time. I remember my mother telling me to “stay in a child’s place” and “you actin’ womanish” in response to my speaking up too much and too often about things with which I disagreed. I also remember being told to save my arguments and disagreements for conversations with my friends; it was not the place of a child to correct their elders. It was a rather strange and delicate dance to navigate: be smart, be great, be the best you that you desire to be, but do it from within certain constraints. Don’t act womanish.

As children do when given such constraints, I learned to be quiet and contemplative. I learned to take mental notes of my disagreements with parental directives, and save my well-developed arguments for the privacy of journals and diaries. Rather than face possible consequences for “acting womanish,” I would wait until I became a woman to speak my piece, and speak it I did.

Being Womanist

August, 2005, was the beginning of my true development and understanding of myself as a grown woman. It was then I started my first year at Brite Divinity School on the campus of Texas Christian University. Concentrating on Black Church Studies, I had the honor and pleasure of taking classes with a Womanist Christian social ethicist who helped me discover my Womanist voice: Dr. Stacey Floyd-Thomas. Most pivotal were her words to me in that first year: “Dwalunda, you are Womanist to your core.” Read more

The author

The Messiness of Microaggressions

1 Corinthians 12:12, 26 NRSV

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

 

The author

The author

Hey there, friend. I have news: we are all a mess, and you are messy, too.

I feel called to tell you that because I love you, and I love the people with whom you come in contact.

While we may know each other well, marginally, or not at all, the fact that you were willing to click on this link and at least start reading this think piece means that I can trust you with a bit of truth. I am guessing that something intrigued you to mentally and spiritually lean in towards a topic that most of the world would still choose to turn away from, minimize, or utterly deny.

With that in mind, I am going to assume the very best in you; I am going to trust you with my truth. Because, as we see being played out in government (45, I am looking at you), the media, and in the comment section of almost any page online, communication has no worth without an explicitly expressed value of trust.

Along those lines, let’s establish our starting place, friends. I am assuming that you and I have a shared value for what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. named the Beloved Community. That is, the kind of community that respects the intrinsic worth of all members of humanity. The King Center writes, within the beloved community “racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood.”

If this is not your shared stance on humanity, please feel free to exit this article because it will be a waste of your time, and probably only offend you. Honestly, I love you enough to let you be who you are. If the work of edifying the beloved community of humanity is not your shtick, then this is conversation is not for you.

I will give you a few seconds to go if you need to: 3… 2… 1…

Read more

Shiphrah, Puah, Grandpa, and Me: After Charlottesville

This sermon on Exodus 1:8–2:10 was preached on August 27, 2017 at St. Bede’s Episcopal Church in Menlo Park, California.

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The author (left) and Rev. Erica Schemper (right) protesting in San Francisco.

My grandfather, Captain William Eigel, Jr., served in Patton’s Third Army during the Second World War. He landed in Normandy only a few days after D-Day and joined the long, hard push eastward towards Berlin. It was troops from Patton’s army who stumbled across Buchenwald, the first Nazi death camp liberated by the Americans.

Grandpa was not one of the liberators of that camp, but Eisenhower sent a number of American units to see it. He wanted the soldiers to know what they were fighting against. So it’s quite possible that Grandpa saw the camp, the stacks of bodies, the mass graves, the emaciated survivors. He was stationed in Germany for several months after V-E Day, trying to bring some order to the postwar chaos as evidence of Nazi crimes mounted.

Grandpa was horrified by what he witnessed in that year and a half in Germany. He saw what happens when one group of people decides they are inherently superior to everyone else. What made it worse was that he was of German heritage himself. The people who had done this were related to him. He never talked about it, but he never forgot. Twenty years later, my mom asked to go to West Germany as an exchange student, and he absolutely refused to consider it. He couldn’t stand the thought of his child going to the place that had done those horrible things, and living among the people who had done it and allowed it to happen.

We turned a corner this morning in our Old Testament readings. All summer we have been in the book of Genesis; we’ve been hearing the stories of the matriarchs and patriarchs of Israel. We ended last week with Jacob’s son Joseph making a life in Egypt, and his brothers and their families joining him there during a famine. Today we have jumped ahead four hundred years to the time of Moses in the book of Exodus. And the story of Moses begins in Egypt in the reign of Pharaoh.

In the days before Moses is born, there’s a new king in town, a new Pharaoh, who doesn’t know the Israelites or their history in Egypt. He’s nervous about having such a large, powerful group on the borders of his territory, they might ally with the enemies of Egypt, and Pharaoh’s worried about the Israelites outnumbering the Egyptians. Four hundred years the descendants of Jacob have been in Egypt, and still they are foreigners, untrustworthy, not one of us. So out of ignorance and fear, Pharaoh enslaves the Israelites. Read more

Dear Church: It’s Time to Get Out of the Boat

The theologian Karl Barth was known to have said that preachers should write their sermons with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. If he were alive today, he might have amended that statement to say that we should preach with the Bible in one hand and our Facebook news feed in the other. I have to tell you, there were two topics in particular that came up in my Facebook feed this week that we need to discuss here this morning. And while it might not seem so at first, they are actually related to each other.

The first was an article about church decline. I’ve seen dozens of similar articles shared by clergy colleagues, stating facts and figures about Christianity’s demise in the West: noting a decline in church attendance and a decline in young clergy and the impending leadership vacuum it will create. All the statistics that we faithful people who come to church every week don’t want to hear. These articles all speculate as to the reasons why people aren’t finding church to be relevant anymore: we’ve watered down the gospel to create mass appeal, the enlightenment, the industrial revolution, capitalism and individualism, the internet, televangelists and millionaire celebrity pastors, church scandals, an increasingly secular culture… Perhaps all of these reasons are true, to a degree. The sum of it all, though, is what we need to pay attention to: that in rapidly increasing numbers, more and more people find church, Christianity, a life of faith, simply irrelevant.

The second was what happened in Charlottesville this weekend. In case you aren’t aware, a debate over removing the statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee from a city park in Charlottesville led to white nationalists planning a rally they dubbed “Unite the Right.” There was also a call for 1,000 clergy and faith leaders to come to Charlottesville in prayer and community to counter-protest, and many Episcopal priests and bishops, as well as bishops and ministers from other Christian denominations, some of whom are personal friends, were among those gathered in counter-protest.

Starting Friday night, radical white supremacist protesters against the removal of the Confederate statue descended on Charlottesville. In a scene all too familiar to many who were part of the Civil Rights era, they marched through Charlottesville with torches in hand, shouting hateful racist slogans and terrorizing the counter-protestors. One colleague of mine posted a picture that he called “an enduring image” as to why he was there. It was taken inside the church where he and hundreds more faithful counter-protestors were gathered and showed a young girl, probably eight or nine years old, being held and comforted by the pastor of the church, with a terrified look on her face because white terrorists with torches in hand had encircled the church outside and were not letting them leave. The one difference was that now, there were no white hoods to mask their faces. Thankfully, the protest eventually was disbanded and they made it out alive.

The planned protest was for Saturday at noon, but it was cancelled before it even started. Saturday afternoon, in an act of domestic terrorism, a radical white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of peaceful counter-protesters, killing one person and injuring at least 19 more. Virginia declared a state of emergency, police were ordered to clear the area, and people were told to go home.

I’m so upset at this headline that I’m still struggling to find the words for it. I’m baffled, confused, and sickened. How was this allowed to happen? How can white supremacy—neo-Nazism—have such an organized stronghold, such legitimacy, in this country that literally fought against Nazis in a World War? Why are we calling this “white advocacy” and the “alt-right,” using words normally associated with political issues, to tame down a non-political movement that has proven itself to be nothing short of domestic terrorism? How can there be such strong bleed-over between radical Christian fundamentalists and radical white supremacists, while the church stays relatively silent and allows them to corrupt the gospel? Read more

Loving Across Difference, Living Without Fear

Not long ago, in conversation with a clergywoman I’d recently met, I mentioned that my husband is Muslim. “Cool,” she said, adding shyly, “Is that hard?” I laughed. “It sure is; but only because marriage is always hard. We’re not special.”

When Haamid and I started dating, it rarely occurred to me that being an interreligious couple might be an issue for other Christians. I grew up in a progressive Episcopal Church and a liberal town. My stepfather and stepsiblings are all Jewish, so I’d seen in my own family that love could not only transcend religious difference but be enriched by it. My brother married an African-American Buddhist; my sister, a Roman Catholic of Mexican heritage; and my oldest brother and his wife, a French national, are both atheists. (We joke that family holidays are like gatherings of the United Nations.) The San Francisco parish that sponsored my ordination, an overwhelmingly LGBTQ congregation deeply committed to social justice, had an expansive understanding of Jesus’ command to love our neighbors as ourselves. Also, did I mention that Haamid is kind of a great guy? No one in my Diocese or family hesitated to give us their blessing.

This is not to say that we had our heads in the sand. Haamid emigrated from Pakistan in the mid-90s. When he first landed in a Midwestern college town, he encountered both racial and religious discrimination. Unfamiliar with common bathrooms, he was frequently pranked when trying to shower alone or clean himself after using the toilet. It pains me to hear stories about that time. He sought refuge and greater opportunity in large cities, first on the East Coast and then the West. But as he built his home here, eventually becoming a citizen, he became keenly aware of white, Christian privilege.

I grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a city with a long history of combating systemic racism, but I had not encountered much religious diversity as a child. I was a senior in High School when the twin towers fell. Though that probably wasn’t the first day I’d heard the word “Islam,” it was the first time I remember. (On the other side of the country, Haamid was among countless Muslims legally living and working in the United States who suddenly had to be fingerprinted every year.) I went on to study Islam and Arabic in college, discovering a rich history and a beautiful faith, just as my country was declaring war on Iraq. This education sensitized me to the Islamophobia rampant in our media and wider culture. Read more

book of common prayer

One Book, Many Cultures

book of common prayerHidden away on our bookshelves is a little black book dating from the 1930s. When I hold it, my hand feels the imprints of my grandfather’s fingers on the cover. My thumb rests effortlessly at the end of the title: “Common Prayer – Hymns A & M.” Eight years ago, I brought this book with me from England to America to remind me of my grandparents. It never occurred to me that it would be a way of connecting with a congregation here, but that is exactly what has happened at my new parish.

Anglicans around the world would understand the shorthand in that title. “Common Prayer” refers to the 1662 revision of The Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England, while “A & M” means “Ancient and Modern.” The Book of Common Prayer was an attempt by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer to bring unity to the English church following the Reformation by mandating one form of worship for everyone. Hymns Ancient and Modern was an attempt to consolidate the most popular Anglican hymns of the late 1800s into a single volume. It was this little black book that British missionaries took with them as they went out around the world to spread the good news – and to reinforce the power structures of the British Empire.

I am keenly aware that what joins me as a white priest to my mainly black congregation is the colonial past, which includes the shared heritage of The Book of Common Prayer and the hymnal that went with it. My parish is around forty percent West African and thirty percent Caribbean, while the remaining thirty percent is made up of North Americans (both white and African-American) with a splattering of Europeans. There is also an emerging Central American congregation that worships separately in Spanish, led by another priest.

Ministering into this tension that is the shared heritage of the Anglican Communion means being aware of the privileges that I have as the priest and as a white person, and at the same time acknowledging the shared experience of being an immigrant. Almost everyone in the English-speaking congregation comes from a country that is a former British colony or still belongs to the British Commonwealth. A number of the Caribbean parishioners have told me that they remember being sent “the latest young priest from England” when they were growing up, and so there is something familiar about having a young, white English person pastoring their congregation. Although they have shared this a positive memory, I cannot ignore that our present reality together comes with a colonial power dynamic based in both culture and race.

Almost all of the members were also raised as Anglicans. Like me, they came to the Episcopal Church because it is part of the Anglican Communion. Read more