Faith & Spirituality

What the [Cuss] to Say While Suffering?

“When did you begin experiencing Writer’s Block”?
“After the election…”
“How does that feel”?

I get it. The point of therapy is to talk about our thoughts and feelings – the ones that threaten to undo us subtly, bit by bit. Breaking our resolve in increments. Or the ones that come flooding into our minds and hearts before we can even catch them. Knocking us on our asses. Forcing us to see them.

But I did not want to talk about this.

“It sucks. Like, it literally just sucks. You can make up all kinds of philosophy about why Trump’s election sucks. Sure, we are reckoning with the practices of White supremacy in new ways due to his impending office / administration. We’re also reckoning with the fact that he doesn’t seem to know what he is doing – in a literal sense, he doesn’t seem to know what a “President” does. But no matter how many angles I take to look at this – the bottom line is that it sucks. How do I feel? I feel that it sucks… on a deep, subconscious level”. 

I always imagine my favorite writers sitting at their desks with a steaming hot cup of tea or coffee. I imagine their well formed thoughts – sounding immediately beautiful all the page. I also know this vision is oft-times, a scam.

And I thought about my friends who must address people after “the Tower” has crashed: after all of our constructions about the world we live in have been violently toppled. I thought about the friends who write and preach – who create art and engage in direct action. And I thought, “So, what the (expletive) does one say…”

Especially now that the one thing I don’t want to say is even the name of the newest President-to-be. I figured if his presence could be absent from my written world, perhaps I could deal with it a bit more in the material world. I also know that vision is a scam.

I found my words this evening, as I reflected on a Dharma talk by Buddhist monk Ajahn Achalo (Peace Beyond Suffering). In “Waking up to Deeper Peace”, he explains that the monks begin the morning chant that goes a bit like this:

“Birth is suffering”

Acknowledging this, he asserts, is a step toward less suffering. (I’ll be reflecting on this for a GOOD while).

As a note of review, I was raised in a nondenominational Christian tradition. While we had some view of suffering (especially the suffering of Jesus), there were also implications that “if we lived right” there was also a chance of circumventing this type of thing. Another popular theory in that space is our experiences of suffering were due to cosmic battles between Light & Dark. Thus, it flowed that all suffering – from cranky coworkers to cars that ran out of gas – were game to be included in the endless “tricks of the enemy (the Devil)”.

I moved away from these theories long ago, in my teenage years, but that doesn’t mean they have left my subconscious. So, I battled with my thoughts: What in the literal and figurative heavens were the Deities DOING? I heard many theories on that question in the weeks that followed. Some were okay. Some, I understood and believed (’cause no one can tell me that White supremacy isn’t demonic). Others were… well…

There is immense pressure to explain away why things happen the way they do. On both a spiritual / cosmic level. And on a material level. To a large degree, I appreciate this. Let’s be clear: I spent a good amount of time constructing a theory of my own work that is based on Critical Race Theory and sociological concepts. In that respect, I can tell you precisely why this happened – this upswing of fuckery…

Yet, as I reflected on the dharma talk I realized that right now, the message (for me) is to first acknowledge the suffering and the potential to suffer due to circumstances BOTH inside and outside of our control. Internally facing the fuckery that is to come is… It’s brave. It readies us. It steadies us. That doesn’t mean we don’t fight against it. But as someone who does a lot of “addressing”, I’m feeling rather done with the empty platitudes of “It’s going to be okay” and “The Deities are in control”. Perhaps, they are. But that does not provide me with any “today” comfort.

Right now, my synopsis and synthesis is…
This sucks. 

This present moment. Sucks.
And at the same time, I’m still here. As my good friend, *Jae says, “I’m still. the fawk. here”( say it aloud until you get it 🙂 ).

My amazing friend Alicia just got back from Standing Rock, in solidarity with the Water Protectors. From the trip, she found this beautiful mural by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, in Oklahoma City, OK:
credit-tatyana-fazlalizadeh-wheat-pasted-oklahoma-city-ok

So, the inhale on which I acknowledge “This sucks”, becomes the exhale that “We’re here”. And because of this, our intentions and commitments for moving forward are important. I believe this deeply.

So, I’ve spent some time lamenting, some time doing some deep facing-of-fears, and some time making my commitments a bit more clear. I can’t say that this will help you, reader, as much as it does me – but that is my sincere hope. Join me in these commitments, if you can, and let’s see what we can do together:

And neither are you.

Things I Would Add to My Resume if I Could

It’s been a while since my last post. Part of that is because of election day anxiety (Jesus in God, the Saints, all of the Orishas, and more). The better part of that is because #BookMe2016-2017 has really been fruitful. I’m absolutely loving the projects I’ve been able to take part in and many of them have had me thinking about my own “professional identity”, both online and offline.

During my time at Kansas State University, I talked a lot about how we can use socioculturally centered theories to assist us in our career process. It was a two day stint of thinking deeply about this notion of “professionalism” which many scholars posit can be inherently rife with issues. Writer, Carmen Rios, says “Often, the way professionalism dictates we should act at work also falls in line with stereotypes and predetermined roles based on our race, sex, gender, or class” (2015).

My initial foray into Student Affairs work was in the realm of Career Services. So, I know all too well how delicate of a dance this is… especially when it comes to advising. For example, general advice posited that we should tell women to keep their hair off the face in interviews. But as a woman with natural hair that is not easily “swept up”, I realized that this advice isn’t always inherently helpful. The same went for gender and professional dress. The same went for the affordability of formal business wear. Lordt.

Yet, these are the waters we often find ourselves navigating and *sigh*, it gets deep. 

Earlier this week, I spent a few days talking with students, staff, and administration about some of these nuances. I spent the rest of the week thinking about how I bring my own identity into the work that I do (both formally and informally). So, today, we’re going forward with a light-hearted post, if I can help it.

Resumes are often used to navigate current and potential forms of work (I’ll leave it to you to interpret what that work is / could be / looks like). However, here are some of the things I would add to my resume if I could:

  • Interdisciplinary bridge-builder – Because all of my seemingly random interests and levels of expertise would probably fit really snugly under this title. It’s pretty much like when I studied “Integrative Arts” in college. Folk didn’t usually know the details of all it meant… but I could always say it like I was out here doin’ the damn thing.
  • Language

    Because if I could add that, I would. I’m also conversational in Beyonce gifs. Beginner’s level in all other gif forms. (Because when you’re fluent in Prince gifs you have a large spectrum of reactions to choose from). One of my personal faves:
    princegif3

  • Teaologist – Do you have a headache? I have a tea for that. Folk on your nerves? I have a tea for that. Your hands ashy? Tea. And lotion. But first, tea. I didn’t get the nickname “The Apothecary” for naught.

    (Head over to Amazon to purchase the Lionel Richie mug and the Mana-tea infuser).

  • Musichead – It has been a longstanding value of mine to spend as little time as possible listening to trash music. Live instrumentation is important and I feel like our ears need it. In just a few minutes, I can likely come up with some dope music recommendations to fit your preferred style and genre. I will also encourage folk to stay on their note, and that’s important in life. It builds teamwork competencies. Cause don’t nobody want you jumping up on their note all the time.
  • Natural hair and organic beauty product tester – If there were a such thing as a “tab” at Lush Beauty Products, I would have one. If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me about natural hair care regimens and products I use, I would be sending big bucks to my past student loan providers. Sooooo…
  • Petty Theorist & Petty Flow Chart Co-Curator – I don’t talk much about #pettyflowcharts here but it’s one of my favorite side projects. However, I literally spend time with a good friend curating flow charts to help people get clear on a variety of things. I can’t add it to my resume because… well… petty. But it sure is fun!
    petty-flowchartYou can check these out on IG: https://www.instagram.com/pettyflowcharts/
  • Churchy Linguist – Fluent. Can I get a degree in this? I feel like that’s a possibility. Being raised in an eclectic nondenominational Black church afforded me an entire lexicon of churchisms that I randomly use in everyday life. Last heard at a keynote speech: “I’m feeling moved in that direction”. Announcing a performance, as an MC: “Please clap for them, as they come”. Recently seen on Facebook:https://www.facebook.com/terrynredd/posts/10112034039704854My friends and I have a running joke that I am “Culturally Churchy, Theologically Complicated” because my spirituality includes sacred texts, rituals, and practices from quite a few traditions. However, I just cannot shake churchy linguistics. Pray my strength.
  • Crystal Collector – Beginner’s Level. Because who is tryna be out here with their chakras out of balance? Not I. Go talk to my friend Ebony Janice of the Free People Project about why it’s so important to balance those chakras.
  • Headliner for the Shower & Car Concert Series – Some of you may know this, and some may not. A few years back (like… a GOOD few), I provided background vocals for a few local Philly artists. A while before that, I was the director of the student-led gospel choir in college. I don’t sing formally at the moment. (Bae does though, check him out). However, my car concerts are on. point. To me, at least.What would you add to your resume if you could? Leave it in the comments below! Or you know, wherever else you find me on these Internet streets.

Featured Photo Credit: Createherstock.com

Story Time – Family Vacations, Healing Services, & Smoke Machines

What I’m about to tell you is certified “family business”.

For the sake of context, you should know that for the past few months I have been doing some emotional and spiritual work in the areas of familial relationships. It’s been equal parts exhilarating and tiring – charting out the emotional / spiritual histories of family members (for as much as I know). This year, I’ve realized that family & ancestor dynamics shape us in deep ways – some we see readily, even written in the features of our face! However, uncovering other inherited traits, dynamics, spiritual practices, and emotional ‘fallbacks’ can take a bit more work.

The fun part about all of this is that I’ve been re-acquainting myself with some very colorful family stories that we share. In the past, I’ve written quite a bit about my family (it may or may not be fodder for our ‘family meetings’. I’m not sure if they would ever tell me that. Ha)! However, these stories have mostly been serious in nature – the time my Mother ‘stuck it to the man’ in a sacred space, the very deep and multifaceted levels of my Gramma’s spirituality [I’ve written about that twice, actually].

So, this tale is a light-hearted family account that includes smoke machines, driving all across Florida, healing services, and shenanigans. If you’re looking for something a bit more serious, look here. If you’re game for this, come sit with me while I share! (Be careful about drinking water during the tale; you just might spit it out a few times and Mercury is in Retrograde. No one has times for those kind of technology-games).

My Gramma taught me a lot about the mystical side of life – the things that could not be seen. We often disagreed often on the details of these things, but nevertheless, she’s gotten me familiar with a very interesting view of the world.

One year, my family decided to change up their approach to ‘family vacation’. Each member would choose an activity for every day of our trip. The other family members… well, we would deal. This sounds mildly stressful but it was actually quite enjoyable since, generally, I trust them to not have me “out here”. We spent the week going to parks, doing mini golf, riding on jet skis, exploring new restaurants, and more. All the things you think of when you consider those fancy-schmancy vacation and travel blogs.

Then, it was my Gramma’s turn to choose her activity for the day.

We would be going to The Holy Land Experience, which – for those who dont’ know – is described as “a Christian theme park”. (No, I’m not making this up. The hyperlink is there so feel free to explore… Also know, I’m REALLY fighting with myself to refrain from unpacking all of the dynamics of the fact that this is a thing… oh the bed mates that are White Evangelical Christianity and Capitalism… I’m stopping here. The point is that my Gramma wanted to see it… because ‘Christian theme park’… and what Gramma wants, Gramma gets. Who gone argue with my ancestor? Nobody).

It was also decided that we would be going to a healing service afterward. In Tampa. We were going to drive. From Orlando. To Tampa. Gramma’s excited smile was the gavel slam. We were doing this.

I’m going to take a moment here to shout out my Father. Dad was the one doing most of the driving for the entire trip. This morning, he woke up to find that he was driving us about an hour and a half away from the resort space and back. After the theme park. I can remember catching his eye and learning a valuable lesson: Sometimes, in order to keep peace and show love, you gotta drive an hour and a half away from the pools you thought you’d be swimming in by sun down.

It would take an obscene word count to explain the theme park. So, if you are able, I suggest that you go, then call me, we’ll both pour a really big glass of wine, and compare notes. I’m going to focus here on our time in Tampa.

Here is what I was expecting from “healing service”:

It seemed like a logical conclusion, given the strong data from our collected familial, cultural, and spiritual backgrounds. At about 8 pm, I woke up from my car-nap, to my Dad saying, “This looks like… was this maybe a supermarket before… are we in the right place?”

Here’s the picture:
Four family members (myself, Mom, Pops, & bro) are hanging back trying to figure out where in the ham-sandwich we’ve landed. We were also trying to figure out how Gramma heard about a healing service in this church, at this time. She wasn’t on social media. Perhaps, a friend told her. Perhaps, she saw it on tv. Perhaps, it was an unction. I’ll have to consult other family members to get their working theories.

Nevertheless, we were there and in front of us, I think Gramma was enclosed in a ray of metaphysical light. She smiled as she pushed the door open. Everyone else looked around – possibly hoping that one of us would suddenly feel queasy and we’d have to go home. That didn’t happen.

We were greeted by the sounds of heavy metal worship. This is not hyperbole. I am not kidding. And it sounds exactly how you imagine it sounds.

Everyone meets new experiences in different ways. My mother is the most logical person I’ve ever known. I could see her mental wheels spinning in this moment – perhaps, recounting the decisions that got us here. My brother attended to his physical health, as his asthma made itself known – given all of the smoke machines that surrounded the pulpit space. I’m sure I texted a friend – I don’t remember, but it sounds about right. My father chose to count all of the congregants there who had on matching camouflage outfits.

My Gramma was certain that some powerful healing was going to take place. So, as a note for those who aren’t up on the general charismatic church order of services:

  • ‘Healings’ typically happen during altar call
  • Many times, altar call is at the end (after worship, tithes & offerings, announcements, any additional sermonic selections, preaching)
  • Guess how long we were staying…

The preaching started approximately 30 minutes after the heavy metal worship set. My family tends to have a natural aptitude for music. So, after a few measures of each song, my Gramma could get the melody. She sang along during the entire set – a consummate cultural anthropologist.

This next part will be hard to describe in words – which, is ironic, because I’m using a print medium to tell this story. However, I called my brother, and he agrees with me. This experience… words will fall short and that’s where I need you to use your imagination at some pretty epic levels.

The minister / healer approached the pulpit (I use both minister & healer loosely here). I’m hesitant to describe her in too much detail, but the image of a shiny green skirt suit with a brooch, hair that was whiteish-grey yet dyed in pale blue and secured into a bouffant ought to suffice.

After her brief sermon (approx 15 minutes), she introduced us to her practice of “prophetic rapping” (approx 2 hours). The practice (and some people would say ‘gift’) of prophecy entails some sort of divine insight into a situation partnered with the ability to speak on it with clarity and conviction. Prophetic rapping… well I’ve seen it, obviously… but I’m still unclear on the details. It sounded a lot like… well, regular rapping. Key words like Jesus, God, healed, Bible, holiness, were placed into the lyrics as well.

Soooo… I’m going to steer clear of making value statements on that. But I will open an invitation to my religious-scholar-friends (and by religious scholar, I mean… actual religious scholars): Is this a part of a larger charismatic movement? What religious studies classes do I need to understand this? Who has receipts? I need answers. 😉

Meanwhile, back to Gramma…

At this point, it was about 10:30 pm, and we had an hour and a half left to travel back to the hotel resort. My Dad was asleep with his arms folded in his chest (to his credit, again, he was doing all of the driving). My brother’s head was on my shoulder. My mother was trying to reason with Gramma that perhaps it was time to make our exit. My little brother piped in with a performance of Grandson-Charm that I will never forget. We were out within 2 minutes.

We left and debriefed – leaving the actual ending of this encounter still unknown. But it’s a story that my brother and I still recount. It’s one of my favorites and here’s why:

Besides the fact that it’s just a good story and these types of shenanigans follow me around…

I learned a lot that day from my Gramma. We never practiced faith in the same ways. However, she taught me an openness to at least see and bear witness other people’s expressions of the Divine. In the midst of our side eyes, she was game to see whatever that encounter might bring.

I remember her posture whenever I’m invited into a new sacred space – and to be clear, that doesn’t automatically mean “a church”. Since then, I’ve found myself in all kinds of spaces – places I never thought I would get to see. I’ve been in labyrinths, temples, and edifices with a host of different customs and scenery – all with the intention of touching the Intangible.

So, I learned about my capacity to stretch, suspend, and reserve judgment for the things that my ancestors thought were important to watch. Even if I found them to completely unexpected and different. ESPECIALLY if I found them to be completely unexpected and different. I was a teenager at the time this story occurred, so trust, that was a big lesson. I also learned about the allowances we make for love’s sake. (Because if it was anyone other than my Gramma making the request…)

I miss my Gramma’s physical presence on earth. Yet, I also understand her better now. Small annoyances become life lessons. I’m grateful for each one now… even the ones that involve smoke machines and camouflage church-wear.

Image Credit: Isha Gaines, Createherstock.com

 

 

 

I Didn’t Choose Mystic Life, It Chose Me! (Also titled: Inheriting Mysticism from Other-mothers)

Monday – Group Meditation and affirmations
Tuesday – Chat – “Sounds like your sacral chakra might be out of balance. Let’s see if there are any exercises we can do to help with that”
Wednesday – Too-good-to-be-true coworkers lovingly refer to me as “The Apothecary” – known for having an assortment of herbal teas at the ready to ease things like stomach discomfort, lack of focus, headaches, and so on. 
Thursday – Text from friend: “Thanks for letting me know about the sage! It seems like things are looking up”
Friday – *Research on contemplative practices rooted in my cultural heritage

Many of my friends refer to me as “mystical”. I grew up in a pretty theologically conservative (yet, sometimes subversive) place for most of my childhood. In that space, we were discouraged from that which we could not easily understand through literal readings of Biblical text.

Yet… at the same time…

My other-mothers, who are now my ancestors, taught me to have a life filled with mysticism.

My godmother, Lynette, was one of the joys in my world. She became my mother’s best friend when they were both in the fourth grade. She was a consistent force of love in my life. She passed when I was 12 years old. For years, after my dear Mother woke up early, kissed my forehead, and set off on her long commute to work, I spent the remaining hours before school at my godmom’s house. She made sure I was washed, dressed, fed, and that my hair was neatly arranged before I went out.

She lit a candle for me everyday, so that I would have something delicious to smell, first thing in the morning. She regularly brewed me cups of Lemon Zinger and Raspberry tea, and introduced me to new blends when she could. I learned mindfulness from her as we sat at her dining room table, slowly sipping, sometimes listening to music – mostly, just being present.

My godmother believed that what the earth offered us was good. My mother, a medical professional, taught me about biology, different types of medicines, and their effects on the body. Simultaneously, my godmother, a children’s occupational therapist, took me to orchards to pick fruit and taught me their properties. She explained the usages of tea and the benefits of the probiotics in yogurt. She made things from scratch and believed in the healing of laughter.

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Circa Age 5-6 at Net’s Home

My grandmother was serious about God. She grew up in the Baptist church, in the lineage of the Reverend Lewis Rice, who helped to form  African Zion Baptist Church,  with “a group of free Black families” in 1852. She would often tell the story of how she was “born again” in her 40’s – converted towards a charismatic, nondenominational, Evangelical display of belief in God. When I wasn’t home, I accompanied her almost everywhere – to her home town of Charleston, West Virginia, in the summer, through her everyday errands, and to countless tent services and churches during their Revivals and Healings.

My grandmother believed in God and in spirits -in benevolent angels and vicious demons. She believed in the power of anointing with oil and the symbolic protection of a Cross drawn on the foreheads of her grandchildren. She believed that healing could happen through prayer and “laying on of hands”. She took me to places where I might encounter healing energy. She hid me in her car, armed with snacks and a coloring book, during services that intimated that an evil spirit might be nearby. She would stand watch and pray.

Afterward, she told me that when I’d encounter an evil spirit, I would know it by my “gut” and by the Spirit. She gave me rides through our city, casually making conversation about where she believed the warlocks and haints might be. She taught me to be vigilant against that which would steal my joy and peace.

When I got older, when I learned more, when I started using “big girl” words like hermeneutics and epistemological, I found a great deal of her expression of belief to be a bit odd and a bit “problematic”. I craved and loved the intellectual rigor and on visits home, I would share what I’d learned with my Gramma. She would smile deeply and genuinely, saying:

“Jadey-Mae, sometimes I don’t know what you’re talking, but you sure are talkin’ it good”. 

For a long time, I distanced myself from this type of faith and mysticism… for so many reasons. It took me a while to see the deep spirituality in what my Grandmother and Godmother were offering me – even if we didn’t verbalize these things in the same way.

As I grew older, I began making my own tea blends to assist with some of my ailments (ginger/licorice root/cinnamon & clove for stomach upset, chamomile and lavender for sleep), and I thought of my Godmother. I learned about chakras and practice of reiki – energy healing – by the hovering or laying on of hands and I thought about my Grandmother. I recalled the way she would whisper prayers and rub our backs, lingering on those places where she felt a bit  of tension. She was the first person to verbalize the importance of regarding our bodies with loving and healing touch.

I learned about mindful meditation, and then, circled back to the shared moments at the dining room table with my Godmom. I made decisions and reflected on my Gramma’s lesson that I’d know what would serve me well “from my gut’s response” to a person, place, thing, energy, spirit. I began buying essential oils for varied reasons (eucalyptus for cold / flu season, lavender for calm) and mapped it with my Gramma’s Christocentric understanding of “The Oil”. What I gained from Gramma’s impartation is that not all energies are good ones, and that I must be vigilant against that which would harm me. What I gained from Lynette’s impartation is that slowing down, meditating, stretching, brewing, were all gifts that could center me throughout my life.

In the year 2016, I opened up a chat with my good friend and asked, “Gurl, people swear I’m mystical. They might be right”. Her response told me that I was probably the only one still working through this fact (lol)! I responded offhandedly, “I didn’t choose the mystic life – the mystic life chose me” and then I realized what I said was true.

BTLI Fifth Day 062

Delivering the Invocation at Princeton’s Black Theology & Leadership Institute – Photo Credit, Dr. Regina Langley


I talked about these experiences with Ebony Janice of the Free People Project on her vlog. You can view that here!

Featured Image Credit: Createherstock.com

 

 

 

Toxic Concepts I (Un)learned from Church (and How Rituals Helped Me) – Pt. II

In a previous blog post, I unpacked “3 toxic concepts that I (un)learned from church, and why they were important to name”. I intimated that I would pick up with these concepts at the end of the initial post, so  I’ll do that in this post!

My religious context began with a church-of-origin situated as a nondenominational Black church (with Pentecostal leanings). Its doctrine was fundamentalist and there was the perception that we were Biblical literalists. This sentiment was offered every time a new member stood for our welcome. Leadership told them, “We believe the Bible from Genesis to Maps & References” (which were often offered in the back pages of the King James Version Bible). It was a space that was often given to charismatic movements of the Spirit, which taught me a great deal. Yet, when I became a teenager, I longed for a practice of Christian faith that I THOUGHT was more intellectual.

So, I started rockin’ with Reformed Calvinists on a quest for urban missions.

One of the tenets of Reformed Calvinism is total depravity. When I arrived to this place of worship, much of the framework was centered around the notion that humans came into this world ‘totally and morally depraved’. Thus, now that Christ had saved us from moral depravity, we were now to sift all of our thoughts, intentions, hopes, dreams, relationships, friendships, etc. through a rigorous process of self denial and spiritual questioning.

To that end, I learned how to distrust myself.

I offer commentary from John Piper (deep sigh… Lawd) to help illustrate my point of this particularly type of teaching:

Not relying on God in any action or thought takes power and glory to ourselves (1 Peter 4:11; 1 Corinthians 15:10; Galatians 2:20). That is sin, even if the external deed itself accords with God’s will.

An example might make this radical indictment of much human “goodness” clearer..

So, in this post, I will unpack just one more toxic concept that I (un)learned from church and that is, “My thoughts, my body (my Self) is inherently flawed and not to be trusted”.

I. My Thoughts

Years after I’d left formal fellowship with a house of worship, I sat in a meditation group with other women and femmes of color. Our facilitator, Sojourner Zenobia, guided us with care throughout the process. In the beginning, my thoughts were all over the place. I would try to concentrate very hard on ‘meditating’, my thoughts would wander, and I noticed that it was almost a reflex for me to think badly… about my own thoughts.

After quite a bit of fidgeting, I’d gotten to the place where I could be STILL, in every sense of the word. In the space, I heard our guide tell us, “Develop a ‘thank you’ relationship with your thoughts”. In this moment, I realized I needed to unlearn what I will name here as ‘thought penance’. A quick Google search of the word penance brings up the definition that it is “voluntary self-punishment inflicted as an outward expression of repentance for having done wrong”. Thought penance, for me, was a reflex learned over many years and many times of hearing that even my good thoughts were not necessarily good. Even after YEARS of abandoning (and critiquing) a Reformed Calvinism faith practice, I found myself at meditation group still distrusting all the things that came into my mind.

“I shouldn’t be thinking about that! I should be meditating! Oh forgive me!”

In that moment, I heard (literally like… from our meditation guide lol), “Develop a ‘thank you’ relationship with your thoughts”. While I had intellectualized that my thoughts were good, this called me deeper – to embody this knowledge.Each time my mind drifted from meditation, I began to say, “Thank you”. Even when my thoughts got a bit… interesting… I showed gratitude to the mind that created the thoughts. I started off awkwardly. There’s no immediate switch from thought penance to thought gratitude. But by participating in this ritual, I decided that my days of reflexive thought penance were over. I decided to be mindful and learn to hold positive emotions around my thoughts.

II. My Body

I also learned that my body was not to be trusted as a girl in these worship settings. Countless sermons rolled down from the pulpit (and were further enforced in the mouths and sentiments of church parishioners) that my body – my curves, my legs, my lips, my thighs, and ESPECIALLY my vagina – were inherently dangerous and filled with lust. In these settings, a woman’s body could cause men to “fall from grace”, to become irredeemable. So, I learned to cover myself. I learned to overthink my wardrobe choices in sacred spaces (to read more about that, click here). I’d heard that sexuality was only appropriate in a marriage context, but also that my body could not even be trusted to “make it” to that social institution. So, I shied away from all things sensual.
Needless to say, for those who’ve followed my work here, I am NOT about that life anymore. LOL! I am clear that human sexuality is good and is a gift. Yet, I am ever-embodying that knowledge #bodyroll.
In a guided meditation practice, we were led to practice loving touches. We began with the third eye (the space a bit above your eyebrows, middle of your forehead) with gentle, loving, light touches. Then, we went down our body, exploring our neck, limbs, thighs, hands, feet and learning to extend kindness to our bodies.
I thought about how my past context taught me shame through pulpit preaching and through touch as well: the pulling down of my skirt, the covering of my shoulders, thighs, breasts with a scarf, the pulling of my shirt closer over my cleavage. Yet, until that moment, I had not noticed it. Unlearning the distrust of my body began as an intellectual journey (resources for that are below). However, it was essential to continue the unlearning process by being open to and receiving loving (platonic and sexual) touches from my self and from others. These rituals have been helpful and effective.

(For more notes on church, women, & sexuality, please read Ebony Janice’s ‘A Love Letter from an Erotica Goddess: Because the Body is Not an Apology, and Candice Benbow’s A Church Girl Confession: How Embracing My Own Sexuality Made Me an Ally)

Closing Notes

One day, I was sharing all that I’d learned with an old friend who was at a different stage of their journey. Their face projected a look of concern:“Well… are you angry? Angry with the church? Angry with God?”

My instant and most authentic answer was:

“No, I’m just clear”.

I’m clear that the church can be so valuable and helpful when we acknowledge people in holistic ways. I’m clear that the feelings that I get in ‘my gut’, those truths that I ‘know in my Knower’ are valuable and effective for my everyday life! I’m clear that the God that made me, made me good and desires my wholeness. I’ve also learned that it is important to name that which I’ve learned and that which I’ve unlearned on this journey.  That means, these types of posts will be flexibly-ongoing! In the mean time, check out my first blog post on this subject. If you’re in the Chicagoland area, you can check out the formal panel called #DetoxifyChristianity which will be taking place tomorrow evening. (Shout out to Alicia Crosby & Pierre Keys for letting me know about it!)


This post marked the beginning of a larger series, which can be read here.
Image Credit: Creatherstock Photos, Isha Gaines’ “Black Women in Formation”

Notes on Survival & Advocacy: Reflections from the Goose

It’s been quite a while, and I’m so grateful ya’ll are still rocking with me! This post will feel more like a stream of consciousness for a LOT of different reasons. So, it’s important for me to be up front about at least one of them in the beginning.

America’s history of White Supremacy is still snuffing out Black Lives and the lives of People of Color in this state.

I was preparing to co-facilitate a session on Re-Encountering Beliefs & Forging New Faith Identities at the Wild Goose Festival when I heard the news about the state sanctioned murder of Alton Sterling. (Pause. Collecting breath. Breathing deeper). While I was there, the news about the murder of Philando Castile broke. I was out in a mountain town, in the woods of Hot Springs, NC, which meant I had limited wifi and could not see the videos. Yet, the grief that I felt… that most POC (people of color) felt… at yet another life killed, brutalized, and terrorized by White supremacy was overwhelming, consuming. (Pause). Grief, disappointment, anger, and pain hummed as both an internal monologue and as a community dialogue in the midst of the teaching we had to do, the life we had to live, and the outpour of ideas & stories about faith, spirituality, & justice.

“People of color see spirits where others don’t”. 

I said these words friend as I walked through the beautiful landscape of Hot Springs. It was quiet and night was falling. I sat between peace and grief. Peace at the comfort that nature often brings. Grief that this land was stolen from Indigenous Peoples; that their stories have been misconstrued and the names of their landmarks fundamentally changed. Grief that these trees had likely marked sites of death for Black bodies. Grief that I would go home to the streets where blood was still crying out. Spirits.

I usually have to do some type of small ritual when I’m entering a new space, and Hot Springs, NC was no different. Although I grieved, the space also felt sacred, holy, blessed. (I don’t think that was a coincidence as there were so many ministers, shamans, contemplatives, and healers there). I needed to learn how to decolonize this space in my mind, so I focused my intentions on doing that when I arrived on the first night. In this tension between grief, struggle, and enlightenment, I learned a lot of valuable lessons about inward (and outward) survival and the conditions necessary for life in the times of death. So, I’ll share as much as I can remember and articulate.

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Notes on Survival

  1. Feeding the Body. Engaging the Body.
    There are so many great resources circulating about both self care AND direct action for people of color and accomplices who are doing the work of justice during this time. Yet, one of the things that I have yet to see is a gentle reminder to feed your body. (This is not to say that it doesn’t exist… I’ve just not seen it yet). Wild Goose Festival held a LOT to see, do, talk about, respond to. As an extrovert, my first instinct was to immerse myself in the talking & doing pieces. However, there was a gentle nudge to sit with my schedule and prioritize feeding my body as a non-negotiable, for as much as I was able / had the resources to.

    Like many, I work in the 9-5 hours. Then, I go home and work in the evening hours on other projects. On the weekends, I’m off supporting a friend or trying to take time to do all-of-the-things. So, oftentimes, feeding my body is an after-thought or completely neglected altogether.

    I have a very interesting relationship with my body, as I live with chronic illness. Yet, I gained a very real physical balance once I committed to feeding my body and REALLY listening to what it wanted / what it was telling me. If it was time to eat, I ate. If my body felt like it needed to be engaged in a walk (despite chronic pain in my feet), I did what I could to engage it in that way (stretches, medicine, and loving touches to the areas I felt the most pain). Engaging with my body in this way felt very radical to me for two reasons. The first is that it gave me a moment to de-compress from the effects of capitalism on the body, which scholar, Johanna Hedva (love. her.) talks about in her work with the Sick Woman Theory (2015):

    Sick Woman Theory maintains that the body and mind are sensitive and reactive to regimes of oppression – particularly our current regime of neoliberal, white-supremacist, imperial-capitalist, cis-hetero-patriarchy. It is that all of our bodies and minds carry the historical trauma of this, that it is the world itself that is making and keeping us sick.

    The construct of capitalism-over-personalism means that often times, we see our bodies as “good” when they are able to produce at high levels, at all times. This, I believe, is what makes us skip meals, work past times of work, and push our bodies to dangerous spaces for the god of productivity. This, I believe, is what makes practices such as touching our bodies lovingly seem superfluous and unnecessary.

    The second reason why this was so powerful as a survival strategy hearkens back to Baby Suggs’ sermon in The Clearing, written by Toni Morrison (Beloved, 1987):

    “Here,” she said, “in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh.

    With this passage, Toni Morrison goes on to articulate the effects that racism has on our bodies. You need only look at the news to see how racism kills the physical flesh either immediately or chronically (through healthcare discrimination, chronic anxiety and trauma). Thus, our intentional choice to feeding the body, take it for walks (if possible), stretch it, and listen to what it needs are powerful practices of love and survival. Being in the physical space of the Wild Goose Festival this year really drove this lesson home for me.

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    Image credit: Createherstock.com

  2. Feed Your Soul
    One of the things that I appreciated the most about Wild Goose was that it gave so many opportunities for us to feed our souls. There were sessions on all types of topics: justice, spirituality, theology, etc. There were prayers offered throughout the day and a station for spiritual direction. There was engagement with nature – water, earth, trails, hills. Yet, I found that my soul felt the most “fed” in brilliant conversations with new friends and in the times I purposefully spent alone, reflecting or walking. [Sitting in silence was hella uncomfortable at first, but I learned to appreciate it]. There are a great deal of resources on caring for your body and soul, so I’ll offer just a few of my favorites here.

Black Bodies Need Love Too: 7 Resources for Self Care, Amani Ariel, 2015
8 Basics of Self Care, Nicole Jhanrea, She Blooms Black
Caring for Ourselves as Political Warfare, Adrienne Marie Brown, Adaku Utah, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha and Susan Raffo

Notes on Advocacy & Action

  1. Speak. 
    Before co-facilitating the session and doing the work that I was there to do, I needed to re-read Audre Lorde’s words in Sister Outsider.

     “What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?”

    This is a passage I come back to over and over again. One of the things I wanted to talk about at the festival was honoring the spiritual practices that the Black church taught me that help me to thrive, daily. Yet, I also wanted to talk about what it felt like to move away from strict, literalist, non-inclusive theologies & practices as well. That was what that particular moment called for.

    This particular moment in the blog-o-sphere calls me to speak on what helps me to survive and to do advocacy, in the hopes that this provides helpful frameworks for others. The more you challenge yourself to speak, the more you push back against those voices that silence you (internally and externally). This is not a new concept, it’s simply one that at least I need to be reminded of very often.

  2. Reflect on the space of advocacy that you can contribute to.
    Two of my favorite recent pieces of writing have been ’26 Ways to be in the Struggle Beyond the Streets’ (Anderson, et al; it’s brilliant) and Candice Simpson’s ‘We All Have Work to Do in the #BlackLivesMatter Movement’. Seriously… read those. 

    One of the things that has been so disheartening is language that suggests that we all need to have our physical bodies on the streets. This is something that has really been hurtful as someone who would love to be on the streets, yet has chronic illnesses that make that pretty difficult to do. So, while appreciating and supporting the essential work that people are doing in the streets, I’ve also had to find what advocacy looks like for me – in relationship to what is going on elsewhere. Two of the things that I’ve found powerful are 1) holding safe spaces for people of color (in my case, this happens most often digitally), and 2) sharing our thoughts / stories and adding my own thoughts / stories when appropriate.As a writer and someone trained in Theater, I understand the deep impact that stories have. One of my favorite African proverbs is, “Until the lion has (their) own storyteller, the hunter will always have the best part of the story”. The intellectual and artistic work that we do to create, reframe, reinterpret, and even critique stories is SO important. To be clear, these stories do not have to be shared to PROVE our worth. These stories have to be shared, written, reflected upon because they hold our collective and community wisdoms. These are the things we’re talking about, reflecting upon, critiquing and improving. Advocacy, for me, includes sharing the writing, the art, the scholarly work, the notes, etc. of people of color because it amplifies our voices in a general context but it also provides spaces of mirroring, recognition, and wisdom. (I found it very serendipitous that the theme of the Wild Goose Festival this year was Story, as I began to think about what advocacy looked like for me). Sharing the stories of others also checks the ego. It’s important to actively remember that liberation requires the contributions of many people. It’s not just your work that needs to be centered, because your work doesn’t hold all of the collective wisdom.

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Image Credit: Createherstock.com

Reflections from the Goose:
These days, I’m honing in on practicing gratitude in the midst of grief. So, I want to end by saying, ‘Thank You’. For those of you who contributed financial resources to ‘Get Me to the Goose’, thank you. The session went well and I hoped to have made you proud of your investment in me. Thank you to all of the speakers, storytellers, musicians, mystics, and contributors who gave of their time and their expertise. Thank you to the people of color who held space while we collectively grieved and planned. Thank you to the allies who stood at the perimeter to make sure the space was uninterrupted. Thank you to the Mystic Action Camp, who allowed me to share a creative, magical, and healing lodging space with them. Thank you to those who invited me to speak. And finally, thank you, readers. Ya’ll are the realest and the trillest.

Image Credit, Createherstock.com

Chance the Rapper Got Oil*: What I’m Learning about Faith via Coloring Book

Oil* – (working definition) The concept of ‘having oil’ occurs in many Black church contexts and is attached to both the practice and the praxis of anointing someone with oil. To ‘have oil’ means to carry a special anointing or grace to do whatever it is that you have been charged to do.  Although this is primarily used in scenarios where people are offering musical gifts (singing, playing an instrument, etc), this also could mean that a certain person has a particular way about them that facilitates freedom, openness, and joy.

Chance the Rapper got the oil.

Chance the Rapper released his newest mixtape, Coloring Book, last Thursday, and suffice it to say that I was. HYPE. There are two rappers, currently, that have my unending support. These two rappers that could release an album, a literal coloring book, a designer line of Sharpie pens, a recyclable fork (you get the gist) and I. would. buy. it. Those two rappers are Kendrick Lamar (whom I’ve already written a considerable amount on) and Chance the Rapper.

I appreciate Chance’s overall musicality, the way he hears songs and how it is evidenced in his interpretation. I appreciate his flow and how he communicates emotional realities alongside clever rhymes. However, I also appreciate Chance…

Because churchy folk know churchy folk like real recognize real.

Let me give you an example. When my partner played Chance’s ‘Good Ass Intro’, from his previous Acid Rap mixtape, I immediately noticed both the piano stylings and the shout / bump track looming in the background.

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^My FIRST inclination, when I heard the Good Ass Intro – you cannot deny the ring-shout realness.

In his SNL debut of Sunday Candy, Chance was both musically signifying a Sunday church service and alluding to a sacred text, namely John 6:51, where Jesus tells the people to eat the bread that symbolizes his flesh.

But Chance reached oil* status with Coloring Book. Let’s talk some specifics:

On the record, Chance channels a practice of many Black church spaces by taking a mainstream Christian contemporary tune and adding on vocal / cultural / musical signifiers i.e. re-interpreting  Chris Tomlin’s How Great is Our God . (I cracked up because my previous church sang it with those exact harmonies).

It was an intentional choice to feature Kirk Franklin, one of the absolute game-changers of 90’s gospel music. We also saw Chance add the lyrics on Fred Hammond’s chorus of  Let the Praise Begin to his song, Blessings.

Chance demonstrated some of this oil* in his lyrical content, which explicitly acknowledges his understandings of the Divine:
“Jesus’ Black life ain’t matter / I know, I talked to His Daddy”
“I do not talk to the serpent / that’s that holistic discernment
(Come through, Chance, and channel the favorite word of church mothers across the States).

Discernment

Apart from these specifics, Chance has oil because he can teach us a great deal about faith and spirituality. I find in Chance’s Coloring Book, a creative and freeing way to engage with the Divine – outside the proverbial lines of how Christianity (as an institution) prescribes. It is, in my opinion, a healthier way.

I grew up in a church context that loved to focus on  “going right or getting left”. For those who are unfamiliar, this meant doing things the “right” way, according to the standards and edicts of the church or being abandoned in the case of a literal rapture. Needless to say, I was a bit stressed in my youth about what it meant to be a ‘good Christian’.

In 2010, I begun a very long crisis of faith. By 2011, I realized that you can’t just pray those things away. You can’t just place a few Scriptures over your already crumbling theological frameworks. There aren’t enough church services or pithy sayings to adequately address the angst of reconsidering your expectations of the Divine. By 2012, I realized that relationships between humans and the Divine have always been complicated (to say the least).

So, in Coloring Book I hear Chance the Rapper alluding to a comprehensive understanding of what it means to be a human in relationship with the Divine. Coloring Book invites us into a conversation about a faith that affirms us. Through this lens, we are not just spiritual misfits waiting to be judged – but that there is the possibility and reality of mutual love and respect. As one example, Chance offers:

I speak to God in public, I speak to God in public

He keep my rhymes in couplets

He think the new shit jam, I think we mutual fans

Blessings, Repraise

Coloring Book illustrates a faith context that has space to dialogue about the sexual, the juke, the twerk – the sensual, the drink and enjoyment – the social, intimate relationships, family, romance, geographic context – and the transcendently spiritual. Coloring Book is a working theology of what it means to live.

Featured Image Credit: Youtube.com, Cover Art for Album by Brandon Breaux 

 

Gramma & Me: A Re-Telling of Religion & ‘Right Minds’

“(God) woke me up this morning, (I was) clothed in my right mind” – based on Mark 5:15

I. My Grandmother (Gramma) is the most sophisticated and complicated woman I’ve known. She was known for her quick wit, generous heart, impeccable sense of style, and solid taste in music. She’d thrown out most of her ‘secular’ records after what she referred to as ‘getting saved’. But it was still my favorite thing to sing a few bars, watch her face light up, and hear her say, “Whatchu’ know about Sarah Vaughn?!”

Recently, my Gramma transitioned from this life. The calendar tells me there are only 29 days left until the anniversary of her passing. I’ve struggled to find my words for 1 year.

As Gramma grew older and she took on leadership positions in our family church, I think that folk glazed over her complexities to see only the service, just the love for God, only the way she rocked their babies to sleep in the nursery, only her encouragement, just the times she’d play piano and organize a service for those in the nursing home.

These things have a deep impact and should be remembered. However, my Gramma was a full person. Although I could only see fractals, I know that those fractals are “infinitely complex patterns, self-similar across different scales”(1). I knew her as a woman who grew up in the Jim Crow South and found ways to survive and thrive. I knew her through the stories that my mother and I shared.  I realized that through her relationship with my siblings. I realized that when I went back to Pennsylvania to help clean her home. Re-telling a life is complicated.  To present her as one dimensional seemed dehumanizing.

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Source: Family photo albums, College graduation at PSU

II. We sat in an office and sipped filtered water as the sun went down. A researcher and I were discussing equity for LGBTQI* persons within a Christian context along with some of our personal experiences. However, the conversation wound around a few sub-topics as we began to share. “I’ve noticed a trend of deep anxiety in these stories about religion…”

Anxiety about hell. Anxiety about punishment. Anxiety about being unloved / unwanted. Anxiety about being attacked by spirits. Anxiety about just… not getting things “right”.

I think about that conversation often. Because I know, from watching my Gramma… from knowing my ‘ownself’… of the delicate dance: the balance between religion (at least, the type my Gramma and I knew, the kind I detached from in some respects, the kind she leaned into) as both a coping mechanism and a source of stress.

My Gramma sung hymns when she was stressed and overwhelmed. This got her through an incredibly difficult relationship. She recited Scriptures from moment to moment. I’d catch her mumbling prayers on our many trips to West Virginia together. She carried anointing oil in her bag – for commemorating new beginnings, for healing sick grandchildren, for warding off spiritual darkness. For managing anxieties about the things that could and could not be seen.

III. My Gramma and I had a lot of things in common. She would often take me with her on her shopping trips. This was where my love of sequins, furs, and fabulous-ness was perfected. I would accompany her as an assistant; helping to choose Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday’s best. I’d go with her to the nailery (as we say in Philadelphia). I watched her long nails shaped into almonds and painted mauve. I hated the smell of the chemicals in the shop… but I loved the glamour.

Gramma and I both shared somewhat complicated relationships with the Divine. Where she leaned in, I critiqued. What I critiqued, she often would not understand. But we both knew it was complicated. It was the complication of temporal and divine relationships marked by love and disappointment.

Gramma and I placed a high importance on ‘safety’. These days, I open my mouth and it’s uncanny how quickly I find one of her key phrases: “That’s risky!” She played movies about being safe from temporal dangers: strangers, getting lost, falling down, being poisoned, etc. She watched shows about being safe from “spiritual dangers”: hexes, (certain) secular music, the Seven Deadly Sins, and more. I didn’t know there was so much to be afraid of. Though her face didn’t show it… I often wondered, “Is Gramma scared, too?”

IV. We were between declarations of ‘clothed in my right mind’ and profound internal anxieties. We were between the salves of whispered prayers and travails of ‘warfare prayers’. It was her house that told me that. It was cleaning her house that reminded me of my own need to let fear subside.

V. My Gramma had a deep interior world, of which I will never fully know. Yet, there are times when I see its connections through our ancestry. There are times when I see it through the presence and brilliant testimonies of her neighbors, students she taught, children she’d soothed (now-grown), women she’d mentored.

What I wish is that she could see this for herself.  Cleaning her house was discovering her psyche. Journals holding pages full of desires to get closer to the Divine – feeling that she had fallen short. I learned that in my adult years, she had given up understanding me (especially my spirituality). So, she decided to love me instead.

I realized how much we were alike – in complexity, beauty, and humanity.

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Cookie Communions & Sacred Parking Lots

I grew up churchy.

Yet, I have a complicated relationship with the Black Church. It is a relationship filled with both wonderful and painful memories. It is a place of deep community, culture, and love. It is also a place I’ve had to critique and live in tension with. The past few years have marked a shift for me, regarding all church spaces. In this iteration of my life, most of my Sundays are spent as a ‘rent-paying member of Bedside Baptist Church’.

But I love the church. And I love the Black church. So, recently, I ventured out to a Communion Sunday church service with friends who I hold in high regard. They are artists, ministers, activists, scholars, and each absolutely brilliant in their own way. We’d all heard amazing things about this service. It gained a fair amount of notoriety in the area and as something that we ‘just had to see’. So, we went to see.

The choir stood flat-footed in the loft and gave us good-Gospel-sangin realness. (Wished I had a tambourine but I managed to fit some varied stomp-clap sequences into the mix). However, when we were all seated, the Minister began a message that was both difficult to follow and deeply triggering.

It’s sufficient to say that we spent an hour and a half experiencing what I can only identify as corporate gaslighting, which Shea Emma Fett defines as “the attempt of one person to overwrite another person’s reality. (Gaslighting) uses threats as well, but has the goal of actually changing who someone is, not just their behavior” (2015).

Some of the refrains shared over the pulpit looped around and around in my mind:

  • “We’re tired of you… We can’t love you… because you’re rebellious”
  • There are spirits always lurking around from “before you got saved” (and when you’re prideful, they can jump back into you)
  • You’re transforming before our very eyes and turning into a monster
  • We need to get back to the days when church was uncomfortable
  • “People will believe their own lie until it seems true… Some of you are believing you’re actually a woman…”

Gaslighting.

I scanned the room to see if anyone outside of my group of friends (and our ongoing Facebook group chat) was vexed and upset by the harmful theology and anti-trans ideology. If this was the case, it didn’t show. Instead, scores of ‘Amens’ and ‘That’s right’s’ filled the room. We decided we would leave directly after prayer / altar call and forego the sacred meal of Communion at this particular place.

But we didn’t even make it to ‘Amen’.

We stood in the parking lot to debrief. My mind immediately recalled the years I spent ingesting harmful theology, unlearning harmful theology, and finding ways to live freely. It was deeply upsetting to watch the transitions on the faces of the congregants: looking physically pained as they listened with furrowed brows but split-seconds after, filled with anticipation that maybe today was the day that they would be able to ‘get right’.

In the parking lot, a friend pulled out some cookies she’d baked for us before the service, prayed over them, and prayed over us. The words that were spoken were both healing and life-giving. They re-affirmed our constant community with the Divine and with each other, JUST as we are.

The power in this moment was not just that we were breaking bread. It was that we were breaking bread in the parking lot outside of church, after a service gone desperately wrong

The parking lot has an interesting spatial function. It’s not quite here… and not quire there. It’s meant to hold you and the vehicle that you came in. It’s a place of entry and exit.

I often employ ‘The Parking Lot’ method when I’m teaching or facilitating a session. The Parking Lot is an intentional space for all of the questions that we need to address, re-address, and think through. In this context, the Parking Lot holds individual and collective tension with the material provided.

That night, the parking lot held us and our collective tensions. The parking lot held us until we figured out how to proceed. (For the record, we had drink specials after Cookie Communion).

I believe that Jesus knew how powerful it was to ‘break bread’ with people outside of the temple walls, in the places that held them… using whatever sustenance Providence gave. This experience reminded me that for all of the harmful theology that is yet in action, there are also those that will come alongside you, love you, pray for you, hear your story, affirm your person hood, and break delicious dark-chocolate-almond-cherry cookies with you in the parking lots of life. It is my deep hope that persons of faith continue to find creative, healthy, and affirming ways to engage with God and with God’s people.

RePurposed Cookie Communion

Captured mid-bite!

For more on gaslighting in theology, check out this post.
For more on ‘recovering from damaging church experiences’, click here..
Also, feel free to contact me, should you simply need a listening ear / debrief of the post.

3 Toxic Concepts I (Un)Learned from Church… (and Why They’re Important to Name)

Let me give some context straight-from-the-gate:

I was raised in an Evangelical church setting. The doctrine taught there was very theologically eclectic and there was heavy emphasis on the charismatic, on the supernatural, and on an assurance of faith / church doctrinal statements. As I grew older, I began a very intense and intentional process of rethinking my faith, spirituality, and what being a (progressive) Christian looked like for me. Although the process was initially terrifying, the way faith looks now for me has both expanded and deepened.

This means that I’ve given a lot of thought to both the positive things I learned from my faith background (care for others, belief and ease with the Unknown, attention to / care for those who are systemically marginalized, the concept of beloved community). Yet I’ve also given a lot of thought to some of the more toxic things I’ve learned along the way. I’ve given space for unlearning some things. SO, if you aren’t comfortable with the dissonance that comes from learning, unlearning, and critique (even of the things we hold dear to our hearts or that are a part of our spiritual / cultural DNA)… then this post isn’t for you. I promise this post isn’t as troll-y as the title may suggest. These things are named to foster inquiry and perhaps, in some cases, further contemplation and freedom. So, before you are tempted to tell me HOW and WHY this post isn’t for you, take a moment of self assessment and reflection. Always remember that you can read another post if this feels deeply uncomfortable for you.

With that context, we press forward. Here are 3 toxic concepts I learned from church:

  1.  Always… in every case… wait for supernatural signs that God has spiritually released you from something… before you leave it.
    There’s been a few posts making the social media rounds that talk about God not releasing you from absolutely problematic situations… toxic relationships of all kinds, toxic environments, problematic churches, etc. I can remember the days of waiting for signs, signals, wonders, etc. that God had released me from a certain situation… and then I realized… this is what wisdom is for. I’m not Bible scholar but if there is an entire Biblical book in praise of wisdom then… I have questions about why we don’t feel free to use it when the situation calls for it. Especially for and in situations that suggest that leaving is our best course of action, health, and well being.I unlearned this particular messaging a) as I grew older and learned the story of my mother, and b) as I got in tune with my own heart, wants, desires, and needs.Anyone who knows my mother, knows that she is absolutely pragmatic. One of my favorite stories from her is about her first time doing a surgical procedure in PA school. In that moment, she remembers being very hesitant… but in the medical profession, time is precious and essential. Her supervising doctor leaned over to her and said, ‘Make a decision. If it goes well, you may have saved a life. If it doesn’t, we can triage and fix it. But if you do nothing, then we really can’t help you’.When she told me this story, I immediately thought about my spiritual development. There were SO. MANY. DECISIONS I’d put off because I didn’t see the writing in the sky that God was ‘releasing’ me. When I began talking to mentors and working with my therapist, I realized that we have been equipped with wisdom, emotion, and intuition to discern when we need to leave a situation. For too long, I ignored the signs of my own body including a tight stomach, a rapid heartbeat, constant anxiety or sadness, waiting to be ‘released’. I suppressed thought processes about why a church was problematic, ignored stagnant spirituality, waiting to be ‘released’. Now, I know better. When my body tells me it’s time to leave a situation… I leave it. When wisdom tells me it’s time to leave a situation… I leave it. I trust that I’ve been equipped with all I need to live an authentic and purposeful life, and that I know when it’s time to move on. I trust that in you, too.
  2. “God told me…” trumps all.
    The work of spiritual development and formation is important for many reasons. However, one of the reasons I’ve found to be most salient in my life is because without doing that work (and finding mentors to guide and encourage you in that work), you are susceptible to believe all the things that folk say… God said. I didn’t learn this lesson until I was involved in a very toxic dating situation. At the time, my partner was taking steps to pursue full time ministry and trying to make sense of all of the things involved in his own spiritual formation process. However, the way this was expressed was through directives in our relationship that began with, “God told me…”. Once I realized that the ‘God told me’s’ did not line up with my personal truth of God… nor what I’d been learning in my faith development process (which, in all transparency, included sitting with / contemplating womanist / liberationist theology) I realized that far too many times ‘God told me’ is used as a tool of silencing and / or perpetuating faulty theology under the guise of supernaturalism.
  3.  Hegemonic masculinity is God’s design. First, I will preface this concept with a few connections to other pieces. #Bearwithme 🙂 Scholars R.W. Connell & Messerschmidt defined and re-defined hegemonic masculinity as “the pattern of practice (i.e., things done, not just a set of role expectations or an identity) that allowed men’s dominance over women” (2005, p. 832). Hegemonic masculinity happens in cycles and it represents societal and cultural practices men’s dominance and subsequently, women’s subordination, is normalized. In an article that rethinks this term, they explain:

    “Consider how an idealized definition of masculinity is constituted in social process. At a society-wide level… there is a circulation of models of admired masculine conduct, which may be exalted by churches, narrated by mass media, or celebrated by the state. Such models refer to, but also in various ways distort, the everyday realities of social practice….Hegemonic masculinities can be constructed that do not correspond closely to the lives of any actual men. Yet these models do, in various ways, express widespread ideals, fantasies, and desires. They provide models of relations with women and solutions to problems of gender relations. Furthermore, they articulate loosely with the practical constitution of masculinities as ways of living in everyday local circumstances. To the extent they do this, they contribute to hegemony in the society-wide gender order as a whole”. (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005, p. 838, emphasis mine for the interpretation of text)

    Earlier this month, writer Libby Anne, wrote about The ‘Real Men’ of Evangelical Christianity for Patheos.com (this article was so well crafted and interesting to read). Libby Anne broke down the ways in which memes, such as the one below, further codify and normalize hegemonic masculinity. I’ll add here that not only do they normalize men’s dominance and women’s subordination but they do it under the guise of true spirituality, faith, and Christian faithfulness. Here is an example of one of the memes she referred to in the text:


    To be clear, what happens on the Internet in this regard mirrors what can and what has happened in various churches as well. However, since I count it bad practice to speak for every church space, I will illustrate the concepts already fleshed out by Connell, Messerschmidt, & Libby Anne with my previous lived experiences.

    When I think about my years spent in 2 nondenominational Evangelical churches and one urban-focused Reformed Theological church, I also think about the ways that I dated and the functions I did while there. I was taught, from these perspectives, that women could only have certain roles within the church (recall R.W. Connell’s words: “models of relations with women”, p. 838)I was taught that the answer to issues related to gender / gender expression lay in a) conforming to a certain Biblical interpretation of gender being man or woman, b) submitting to a male partner in dating, courting, and marriage, and c) submitting to male leadership and pastoral care. This type of hegemonic masculinity was also seen as God-designed. So, the “widespread ideal or fantasy” included waiting for a man of faith to choose you, remaining abstinent, marrying, submitting to that man, and teaching your children to do the same… (thus perpetuating hegemonic masculinity but no one explicitly says this. In a lot of scenarios, this connection is denied or spiritualized).

    So, it was a game-changing moment when I began to integrate knowledge of Biblical text with historical context, gender studies classes, and the scholarship and Biblical interpretations of folk who were NOT White, Evangelical, male pastors (refer to Mujerista Theology, Womanist Theology, etc). I found that there were many people and many sacred spaces who were / are challenging these notions. I was able to find mentors, women of color in ministry, and other Christians that were along the journey of deconstructing and decolonializing our minds, hearts, and spirits. These things encouraged me, empowered me, and emboldened me (…. #churchyalliteration… some things you just keep) on my own journey.

    I don’t name this toxic concept to call forth debate on what others beliefs are. I name it to say that what I’m clear on is that hegemonic masculinity does not equate to God’s design. I’m clear that it speaks more to codifying women’s subordination. Since I’ve moved from that place… since I’ve allowed myself the space to believe that God. is. for. women in ways that don’t feel like spiritual reduction or through patronizing methods… my own spiritual life has deepened. I clearly see the Image of God in relationships and gender dynamics across the spectrum and no longer feel constricted or confined in what ‘ministry’ can look like for me as a woman of color and as a woman of faith.

There were quite a few more that I may introduce in a Pt. 2 or Addendum post, but I’ll stop here for now because I want to make my parting thought clear. Naming these concepts is important. It is important because these toxic concepts can be quite insidious and can seem very benign. But (pardon my colloquialism), these jawns can have you bound. They can foster deep doubt about your own thought processes, your faith development in light of your sociocultural identities, and the ways in which you experience God.

Questioning these concepts can feel risky when you’re working through your own spiritual identity development processes and if you’re being taught that faith always looks like being ‘right’. So naming these concepts is something I find value in, because I know there are folks who may be processing through these concepts as well and because I know that questioning, critiquing, reformulating your theology is an absolutely important and life-changing practice.

This post marked the beginning of a larger series, which can be read here.

RESOURCES For Further Reading & Inquiry!

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