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I’m Still Here: A Review

Austin Channing Brown’s I’m Still Here:  Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness was released this year and I commend it to you. Brown’s memoir is essential reading. Especially Christians who are white and living in the United States will benefit from listening to Brown’s wisdom and perspective as a woman of color.

Her absorbing book starts with a surprising story that immediately draws the reader in: Brown describes an encounter she had at the age of seven when the librarian was suspicious and questioned whether the library card actually belonged to this young Black girl. When Brown confronted her mother afterward, her mother confessed that she and Brown’s father had intentionally chosen a name most typically given to a white male, because they hoped that potential employers in the future would give “Austin” a chance not normally extended to people of color.

After this powerful chapter, Brown tells her story chronologically. She describes attending a private Christian elementary school in Toledo, visiting extended family in Cleveland, and she shares experiences—both positive and negative—with teachers at her Catholic high school and majority-white college in Chicago. After graduating, Brown worked at a number of Christian non-profit organizations. Brown is someone who is well acquainted with white evangelical culture, and she writes with persuasion and spiritual strength.

Going into the working world after college, Brown admits that she had assumed that she would be able to fearlessly combat racism, slaying racist nonsense as if it were a dragon. What she discovered, however, was that racism was not so much an “imposing beast” but a “poison” that “seeps into your mind, drip by drip, until it makes you wonder if your perception of reality is true.” My guess is that many young clergywomen could resonate with this experience. We may enter a ministry with idealism and a desire to effect change, but systems that oppress continue to oppress, and others undermine our truth at every turn. Every time we seek to name the problem, we are told that the problem is with us. It can be wearying.

For this reason, I am grateful for Brown’s tenacity: throughout her memoir, she fearlessly challenges the presence of white supremacy within the American church. At the same time, it was clear to me that she wasn’t using Christianity as a punching bag: there was no malice in her evaluation, only love. She writes, “even though the Church I love has been the oppressor as often as it has been the champion of the oppressed, I can’t let go of my belief in Church—in a universal body of belonging, in a community that reaches toward love in a world so often filled with hate. I continue to be drawn toward the collective participation of seeking good, even when that means critiquing the institution I love for its commitment to whiteness.”

In the workplace, Brown discovered how insidious white supremacy is. She writes, “Whiteness constantly polices the expressions of Blackness allowed within its walls… It wants us to sing the celebratory ‘We Shall Overcome’ during MLK Day but doesn’t want to hear the indicting lyrics of ‘Strange Fruit.’ It wants to see a Black person seated at the table but doesn’t want to hear a dissenting viewpoint. It wants to pat itself on the back for helping poor Black folks through missions or urban projects but has no interest in learning from Black people’s wisdom, talent, and spiritual depth. Whiteness wants enough Blackness to affirm the goodness of whiteness, the progressiveness of whiteness, the openheartedness of whiteness. Whiteness likes a trickle of Blackness, but only that which can be controlled.”

There were times as I read this book that I had the same sensation as when I watched the James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro. What I had previously seen as benign in American culture was exposed, by Baldwin and Brown’s keen insights, to be grotesque. Brown rightly observes that the white church has viewed power as its birthright rather than its curse, and her memoir is a testimony of the damage done by the curse of whiteness in the American church.  Read more

“Even when they call your truth a lie, tell it anyway!” — Remembering Katie Cannon

headshot of The Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon

The Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon

It was April 7, 2014, and my friend and I boarded a bus from Washington, D.C. for a daylong adventure in New York City. We were headed to Union Theological Seminary in the for the premier of
“Journey to Liberation: The Legacy of Womanist Theology and Ethics at Union Theological Seminary.” The film was an offering by the late filmmaker (and Union alumna) Anika Gibbons, and it featured the founding mothers of Womanist theology and ethics as they told their stories in their own words.

My friend, another African-American woman, was newly ordained. I was still navigating the ordination process and fighting off discouragement. The call to which I believed I was called didn’t seem eager to make room for me. Oh, it was much deeper than experiencing some difficulty with a justifiably rigorous process. I respected the boxes I was asked to check, and I checked them. I finished my Master of Divinity program with high marks. I passed all the ordination exams on the first try. I was “call-ready,” but there was no call ready for me. And even in an otherwise pastoral relationship with my Committee on Preparation for Ministry, I sometimes felt as if I was speaking a different language from them.

[Read the full article in The Presbyterian Outlook]

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

when they call you a terrorist book cover - title, authors names on a colorful background

Homegrown Terror: A Review of Patrisse Khan-Cullors’ When They Call You a Terrorist (a Black Lives Matter Memoir)

when they call you a terrorist book cover - title, authors names on a colorful background

When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele, with Angela Davis (St. Martin’s Press, 2018)

When I think of my own childhood, I remember playing barefooted in the backyard with my sisters. I remember planting pumpkin seeds beneath our jungle gym, that eventually grew into a reaching vine, stretching for the house. I remember an idyllic, safe childhood. This is not how Patrisse Khan-Cullors’ work, When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, describes hers. Her childhood was defined by terror. Love, too, but the terror was most haunting for me as a white person reading this book.

You see, her memories include the normative regularity of her brothers being harassed by the police and arrested. Her memories include being handcuffed in front of her school class at the age of twelve for suspected drug use, even though no drugs were found on her. Her memories include attending a gifted middle school, and befriending the daughter of her slumlord, the very man responsible for the year her family did not have a working refrigerator in their apartment.

Hers was a childhood marked by pain and trauma, yet at the same time, vibrant life and fierce love: the love of siblings who care for each other, the love of a mother who works damn hard to feed her kids, the love of a father who claims her even though she is not biologically his, the non-judgmental love and honesty of her biological father, the love of friends who become family to her. While Khan-Cullors and I both experienced deep love in our childhoods, the contrast between my sheltered childhood and her terrorized childhood is one example of the painful difference between the experience of being a white person and being a person of color in the United States.

Perhaps this painful experience fueled Khan-Cullors’ powerful passion to later become one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, and why her memoir, written with asha bandele, is a heartbreaking and inspiring call to action. When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir seamlessly weaves the particularity of Khan-Cullors’ story with sweeping statistics of brutality against people of color.

This accessible tapestry breaks through the lies us white people tell ourselves about our individual responsibility and unquestioned assumptions of the “good” intentions of police officers. In particular, the story of her brother Monte’s struggle with schizoaffective disorder, his torture in prison, and inability to get proper care at home (even after calling 911), is a scathing exposé of the terror Black communities experience daily.

The reader cannot help but notice that the title of the book is a reference to the Black Lives Matter movement being branded as a terrorist movement, even when it is they who are on the receiving end of terror. Khan-Cullors reveals how sheltered we white people are from our own complicity in terror (through raids, murders, prison systems, and the like), and she will not let us ignore or forget this any longer.

Yet, just as her childhood was not only marked by terror but also by love, so this book is more than a stark documentation of terror; it is an inspiring text of hope and survival. It powerfully reveals glimpses of what Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz would name the “kin-dom” of God – a radically inclusive community marked by equity, justice, and peace. 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

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

Race and Gender: What Being a Woman Preacher has to do with Racial (In)Justice

The author

The author

I am a woman.

I am a woman who preaches.

Though we are not many, one of the greatest gifts of knowing other women called to preach is when we are able to sit together, share a meal or a drink, and talk about the complex and difficult realities of being a woman in a world/field/church wherein men have ruled for centuries.

When I’m alone, it’s too easy to question the anger that surfaces when men consistently cut me off or (consciously or otherwise) insist their voices have a louder hearing. When it’s just me in the room, I too quickly reject the painful emotions of not feeling heard or seen, or I suppress the frustration of having to jump through yet another hoop in order to secure a seat at the table. But when I’m with my sisters, when I’m surrounded by other women whose reality mirrors mine, I am free. I can shed the felt need to hold it together or represent all women or not show too much emotion, and I can simply feel all that I feel and name all that I experience and find it/myself validated.

There is nothing like it.

The reason I desperately need community with fellow women preachers is because they see through a similar lens. They encounter similar experiences. They hear what I hear, and none of us has to convince the other that any of it is real. This is not the case outside such a circle. As a woman who preaches, I hear and see and experience life in a particular way. I notice and observe certain realities—both subtle and overt—that others don’t. This is not a critique; it is simply true.

We are called “speakers” instead of “preachers.” Our “sermons” are sometimes labeled “lessons” or “presentations.” We are allowed to speak, but only if a man remains on the platform with us. We’re asked to sit as we teach in order to show deference to male authority. We are given the title “coordinator” when men performing the same tasks are referred to as “pastor.” We are allowed to teach on certain topics but not others, irrespective of our training and education.

And on, and on, and on. Read more

I Could Not Know

This is the testimony of a white woman, written primarily for other white people.

I did not know, I could not see. I had no idea. Now, years later, I’m frustrated that my not knowing, my not seeing, was hurting people. I’m finding ways to live with discovering the harm I’m causing without reducing myself to paralyzing shame. I’m slowly in a process of unlearning defensiveness. To do this, I need to know where I’ve come from and how different parts of my life and the system interact.

The place where I was first taught that white bodies mattered the most was in church. Before I could read, all the pictures of God and Jesus were white. All of the children sitting on the laps of the deity in the painting were white. All of the children in my Children’s Bible illustrations were white. This, despite the fact that Jesus was a brown Middle Eastern Jew, as the children in his company would have been, as well as his disciples.

This is what I mean when I say that I was taught to ignore some bodies and to value others from an early age through pictures. And I had no idea. Now, I wonder how black, brown, and indigenous children walking into our churches understand their place (or lack thereof) in the kingdom of God, when everyone pictured in it is usually white.

My school books were the same way: mostly white characters, mostly male characters. Some people are the main characters in stories (white males), while others are either nonexistent or there to support the main character.

The adults in my life, without intention, taught me to have stereotypes: People who don’t speak English are stupid, “colored people’s time” is about people being late because they are lazy, people who are unemployed just don’t want to get jobs. No one admitted that they were subtly teaching these things through offhand comments while reading the paper or watching the news. People said, “We’re nice to everyone and value them equally.” I could not see that simply saying and believing we can be nice causes harm, because the world does not treat people equally. This is not only about me being nice to people of different races; I also need to understand that the world does not treat them as equal and work toward changing that.

Thanks to Brene Brown, I am aware that my shame over being a racist will only paralyze me. Thinking of myself as a terrible person, or hearing that I’m a terrible person when someone calls me a racist or tells me to behave differently to cause less harm, does not help anyone. It only gets me stuck, and only serves to protect my ability to do harm, instead of helping me learn to do less harm.

So how do we not get wrapped up in the guilt and shame of understanding that to be white is to be participating in a racist system? Read more

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