Feminism & Womanism

#MillenialWomanism: Excerpt of a Collaboration of Thinking Women of Faith, Healing, & Activism

An excerpt from the #MillenialWomanism forum, curated by Liz Alexander & Melanie Jones

“The current iteration of my work as a “millennial womanist” started as an approximately six person online book club, a website domain name purchase, and a post about “inheriting mysticism from my Christian other-mothers”. Up until that point, my M. Ed journey in Higher Education / Student and subsequent years spent working in university contexts had me informally considering the many ways in which students of color learn and / or unlearn toxic theological lenses that might impede upon their identity development. Additionally, my own “biomythography” [i] writing allowed me some space to unpack how I was unlearning toxic theological lenses. I didn’t go into any of this work considering that I would be contributing to the emerging millennial womanist framework and I didn’t understand how quickly the work would expand. However, I realized that if I needed more formal space to question how the Christian faith intersected with the lived experiences of Black women, queer people of color, persons with chronic illnesses & disabilities, etc., others might need it too.

Thus, the online book club grew to a closed group platform whose formal outcome is to support “those who are seeking solidarity, community, and intersectionality as they navigate feelings, experiences, and questions that come with theological shifts”. It is a fully affirming, recommendation only space, with a community library, and dialogue series on a range of topics. The domain name purchase, jadetperry.com, became a way for me to do autoethnography work around matters of inherited spirituality, womanism, and more. Perhaps most surprisingly, the post on inheriting mysticism from Christian other-mothers grew into co-founding a non-profit called Mystic Soul, which seeks to center the voices and indigenous spiritual practices of people of color “from the Christian tradition and beyond”.

Currently, I am working with other millennial womanist scholars to consider theory on sexuality for Black churched women, curating a specialized list of resources for holistic wellness, and more informally, supporting the spiritual processes of faith & community leaders by offering intuitive tarot readings & pursuing reiki certification. The “sacred platforms” on which I stand most often often bring me into “hybrid” (interspiritual & interdisciplinary) spaces to work with visual artists, storytellers, scholars, preachers & ministers, reiki healers and acupuncturists – all working towards the collective healing & wellness of Black women. It has been a work of healing justice and decolonizing spiritual practices. It remains difficult to find a singular definition for this type of work, because it is continuously revealing itself…”

“So, I approached my spiritual activism work with an ethos similar to that of interdisciplinary millennial womanist & popular R&B singer, Solange Knowles: “We aren’t thanking anyone for ‘allowing us’ into these spaces… until we are truly given the access to tear the got damn walls down” [ii]. I don’t believe that the assertion here is that gratitude is inappropriate or that access to additional opportunities are unnecessary. I believe it channels an ethos connected to the millennial womanist framework of “moving beyond respectability politics with an intentional call for recognition and reciprocity”. Moreover, I believe millennial womanism envisions our work by moving through walls, when necessary, and at times, disregards the niceties that keep walls intact…”

For the FULL piece, click here!

What I Mean When I Tell You that Ability is Constructed & Temporary

And one day it was hard to walk.

Chronic illlness & chronic pain are realities that consistently sit in the background of my mind & the forefront of my body. However, everything seems so heightened since the recent calamities of the American healthcare system (deep sigh).

Fortunately, I have a social media sphere that seems to be familiar with the terms ‘ableism’ and have the basic understanding that living a ‘good life’ cannot and does not prevent pre-existing illnesses & conditions. However, there always seems to be the ghost of what is often difficult to name, to reason through, to accept.

Ability is constructed. Ability is temporary…

Or in the words of Wendell’s 1989 feminist theory of disability:

“Our culture idealizes the body and demands that we control it. Thus, although most people will be disabled at some time in their lives, the disabled are made “the other,” who symbolize failure of control and the threat of pain, limitation, dependency, and death. If disabled people and their knowledge were fully integrated into society, everyone’s relation to her/his real body would be liberated” (p. 104)

I admit that I have often relied on this meaning. It’s understandable. It’s feminist (and even with all of the issues I hold with particularly White feminism, this piece is still helpful for me – or as my Grandmother would say, succinctly, “It helps to chew on the meat and spit out the bones”). It works for illustrative purposes, especially now, when we can see that reproductive issues go in and out of ‘covered’, ‘uncovered’, ‘ability’, ‘pre-existing condition’ (another deep, deep, deep sigh).

Yet I must also admit that this is only the beginning of the phrase’s personal meaning for me (even though I comment on the construction of ability and the temporary ability of our own bodies about four times a month, at least). This essay is a personal attempt to go a bit further.

I.
I am the child of a medical professional. I’ve seen my mother come home, take off her coat, plop down on the couch… only to receive more illness-related phone calls from friends & relatives.

“My daughter has a persistent cough…”
“My grandfather fell down the steps two weeks ago, and now…”
“This is kind of embarrassing but I’ve had these symptoms of…”
She was direct. She would refer. She knew that some symptoms would pass and others would not. And the trembling voices on the other end of line betrayed that no one ever expected that they would be the ones who would have to call her for advice. Until they were.

Ability is constructed. Ability is temporary…

So, I learned how to listen to the subtle shifts of the body including which coughs would pass & which coughs were precursors to larger threats. She taught me to read vital signs & good breathing techniques for when shots were being administered. She tutored me in discerning when there might be signs of ‘wellness’.

“Look at the face, Jade. What do you see?”
Perhaps, more fat. Fuller cheeks. More or less dilation of the pupils. More hair. Less skin abrasions. And so on.

Some days she would come home & I would smell blood, faint cigarette smoke, and Lysol lingering on her coat. On harder days, I could smell that she had been close to someone who was experiencing physical decline, decay, or death. I’ve known my mother to be proficient in stalling these effects.

II. 
I called my mother, first thing, on the day that it became difficult to walk. My father, former gymnast, taught me how to wrap my feet with tape & bandages to construct better support. My mother told me to when to ice them, when to administer heat, and how many NSAID’s were too many NSAID’s. “There’s a good chance that this will go away, but there is also a small chance that it won’t… keep watching it.”

Whenever I’d visit, she would sit on the bed and take my feet in her hands. She would press her palm to the balls of my feet & stretch them upward. She followed each stretch on the sheet that my physical therapist printed. I winced. She prayed. We both tried to breathe through each movement.

III.
My family went to the beach on holidays when I was a teenager. I spent hours in the water, wading in to breast level so that my feet barely touched the sand. I stood-swam-floated for hours with the assistance of the water. Yet, back on land, my feet struggled against me. My mother offered her arm to me for balance but the 7 minute walk still took 25 minutes in total. We walked in silence for most of the way, both a bit baffled (one of the few times I’ve experienced my mother that way) because one day (it was a day in September), it was just hard to walk. And this persisted in June. My feet could not hold me as they once did, so the muscles frayed instead. The cortisol shots, intended to offer relief, only deepened the pain. Mom cut the silence: “It’s time for you to consider a wheelchair.” I still hear echoes of this phrase in my mind at times.

IV.
I was a teenager and I resisted the wheelchair. My only concession was renting one when we’d go to amusement parks, malls, or other places where I knew it was inevitable that my feet would fail me. My mother couldn’t understand why I was resisting so much and why I put both of our bodies under such strain. (The wheelchair was easier for both of us since I wouldn’t have to hold onto her arm in order to continue walking).

I didn’t really understand my resistance either, until this year, when I read a perfect description in Maranda Elizabeth’s piece on magic, pain, & trauma:
“my feelings (were) all tangled up with internalized ableism and fears about pain (will it get better? will it get worse?)”

Those things were paired with the way I’d seen people patronize me in the wheelchair, the doors & rooms that seemed near impossible to get into, and the people who watched with confusion and (sometimes) disgust upon discovering that I was, in fact, able to stand to transport into and out of the car. I wish I had the words then:

Ability is constructed. Ability is temporary…

One day my father put a cane in my car. I found it when I was unpacking. There was a sword inside of it.

V.
“Breathing in, I see chronic pain.
Breathing out, I smile to it”.
(a personal adaptation of the meditation practices written by Thich Nhat Hanh in No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering)

This year, I’ve made it a point to take more baths. Of course, baths can be very helpful for pain management but suffice it to say, I’ve taken it to another level this year: rose petals, epsom salt, crystals, white noise or a podcast playing in the background.

On one such occasion, I was listening to a dharma talk (the name of it escapes me now). The teacher noted that every morning he chanted about the suffering of life & the impermanence of all things. This made me feel like I could breathe.

I understood chronic illness and ability as constructed in a much deeper sense when I began to study Buddhism. A key tenet in the Buddha’s teaching is that all is impermanent. Everything. The configuration of our relationships. Our daily life. Our bodies. All changing constantly. All impermanent.

I grew up with a strong sense of Christian ‘striving’. (Let me be clear, I do not think that this completely coincides with the teachings of Jesus’ embodiment, but perhaps I’ll do some writing on Jesus, chronic illness, & the impermanence of the physical body at a later date). I grew up in a church tradition that suggested illnesses could be mitigated and even eliminated by sufficient prayer & belief. My Grandmother was fascinated by healing services (both televised and real-time) and she would take me when she could. I began thinking about transcending the body at an early age & still contend with Christian theologies of what it means to heal. Some, I accept. Others, I reject.

So, it’s accurate to say that in this sense, Zen Buddhism gave me a much-needed break from all of this processing: Your body will change because everything changes. Give up the delusion that it won’t.

Noted.

VI.
And one day it was easier to walk.

Except if it gets too cold. Except if I have been standing too long. Except if I’m wearing flat shoes (very ill advised in my case). Except if I danced too hard.

And if I wear the boot when I sleep. And when I hang my heels off the curb to stretch them before I continue walking. If I take off my shoes under my desk & roll my feet on a small, green tennis ball. If I wear my inserts. If I park close.

And some days, it is easier to walk just because ability is temporary

This piece was inspired by (life) and Maranda Elizabeth’s writing on magic, pain, & trauma. Please read that piece because it is beautiful.

“I Still Want It”: A Review

Also titled: DiShan, the Matrix of Domination, & Deconstructing Binaries of “Holy / Horny”

My friends send me videos, clips, flyers, etc. about churchy (1) things to file away in my “Why do we do things like this?” folder. Last week, I was introduced to DiShan Washington’s body of work through her newest “online symposium” (titled then as) Single, Saved, & Still Wanting Sex:  I Still Want It – A Transparent Conversation about being Holy & Horny.

Initially, I laughed (like… a lot. It turns out there’s a large bandwidth of things to cackle on given how this was rolled out). Yet, as the virility of the symposium increased, I decided to do some research about where it was coming from. It is important to walk through that context for the purposes of this piece. Please bear with me for a moment:

DiShan Washington is a writer, speaker, and primary author of a genre that she calls Christian erotica. The distinguishing point in this genre is that “all of (her) characters are married“. In her personal life, Washington is the daughter of a preacher, married to a 20 year old minister at the age of 16  (2). During this time, she experienced “bouts of low self-esteem, depression, two suicide attempts (3)“. After her marriage ended (due to infidelity), Washington writes that she went “from living a life of luxury to homelessness and even days of wondering where her next meal would come from” (3).

It is important to call out that many of DiShan’s formative years as an emerging adult were spent as a “First Lady” (read as: pastor’s wife). Depending on the church’s context & relationship to patriarchal norms, this could indicate learning & practicing wifely subservience, dependence, & service to God, the church, & their husband above self (3).

In an NPR interview, Washington clarifies:

“I was raised by a generation of women that said sex was for the man […] (I thought) when this marriage ends, what will I deem the cause[…] How do I get Christian women to remove the stigma that being erotic was sinful”.

All of these things are important to note. If we look through our Black feminist lens, we can see certain themes emerging in her specific story and sociocultural context (4).

Washington, like many Black churched women, seems to be (publicly) navigating the “matrix of domination”: the oppression that is connected to racial stigma, gender, mental illness & ability, & class (Collins, 1993). The context provided above allows that the church served as a primary institution in perpetuating the aforementioned “axes of oppression”, in addition to sexual subservience, and economic dependence through marriage & patriarchal norms. In my lived experience, I have also seen similarities of story with many other Black churched women – age differences, notwithstanding.

From the NPR quote above, as well as various live feed posts, it seems that Washington is attempting to create new ways to navigate these spaces.  Creating genres such as Christian erotica & affordable online symposiums that deal with holiness, being horny, & transparent conversations about sex & sexuality might be intended towards this goal (4).

The rhetoric of the symposium fell short of that goal. This was not necessarily surprising, given the way that this symposium was framed (i.e. the symposium itself was not accessible to “men”; a prelude video states that within this conversation, the goal was to “still remain saved” which is read here as coded language for upholding puritanical beliefs on sexuality).

The conversation went back & forth without imagining new pathways of destigmatizing sexuality & the erotic for Black churched women. For example, I could see Washington’s attempt to complicate our understandings of the Bible (she did this in context of masturbation). However, this was situated along her point that masturbating (as a single Christian woman) promoted lust, which was still a “slippery slope”. I appreciated the assertions that our sexual desires are good & can occur at many different moments (i.e. “sometimes, my hand will graze my nipples and they will get aroused”) but cringed at the suggestion of disembodying ourselves (i.e. “our hormones aren’t ‘saved”). A few of the final notes included smoking as a metaphor for premarital sex (or as my good friend Anaya* said, ‘Fuckin’ is to your spirit as smoking is to your lungs’).

In the case of Washington’s symposium, there is an underlying premise that sex & erotica can only be normalized IF it is within the scope of marriage, patriarchy, and heteronormativity (briefly defined here as the assumption that heterosexual coupling is the “norm”, the standard, and the preference for all persons). Let me state plainly: this premise is dangerous. It allows no room or space was given for persons who identified outside of the “man / woman” gender binary or have chosen partnerships / relationships outside of the gaze of heterosexuality. It allows no space to craft an individual sexual ethos inside of or outside of state sanctioned marriage (which costs money & has gatekeepers). We cannot decrease & disrupt sexual stigma by attaching additional stigmas. We further marginalize ourselves & others by functioning within the realms of heteronormativity & patriarchy.

These impacts cannot be overlooked, regardless of intent (5).

I’m working on a longer form article & what I’ve found in that process is this: Black churched women, at various ages, have capacity to internalize gendered oppression even within efforts to resist gendered oppression. Disrupting internalized oppression is key in gaining sexual & gendered freedoms for self AND for others. This is what I wanted to see in Washington’s symposium… despite the sense of knowing that I wouldn’t likely see it.

I’m writing about this because “a great deal of my work (coincidentally or in-coincidentally) points to dialogue with and about Black church(ed) women. I facilitate & curate resources on sex & sexuality for a private space for women (primarily WOC) who have been and / or are currently church(ed). This is important to me, because there are so many spaces & scenarios where parents weren’t talking about sex, sexuality, consent, etc. and  churches / private religious schools weren’t giving that information either. It is important to me that particularly church(ed) WOC have a space to ask these questions to better discern how they prioritize their sexual health” (6)and construct their sexual ethos OUTSIDE of patriarchy & heteronormativity dressed up as ‘holiness’.

(Black church-ism: You oughta shout right there. Nods head churchily).

In other words: We have to find better, freer, more expansive ways forward. 

Washington stated that a key reason she chose the path of celibacy included a moment of unsatisfying sex. She also announced a forthcoming book on the topic of “remaining holy while horny”. With this in mind, a neat “summary” doesn’t seem appropriate. There are questions yet to be answered and modalities of thought yet to be ironed out, including:

  • How might the sexual lives & choices of Black churched women look different if we prioritized pleasure & found instances of sexual pleasure in sacred text (7, 8, 9, 10)?
  • How can we more readily recognize when gendered oppression is masquerading under the guise of holiness? How do we disrupt, disengage, & divest from in commitments to White, Western norms of morality (10), gender (11), and sexuality?
    • Who can / should partner in this work?

There are a great deal of scholars who are coming back to these questions (and more). I plan to commit to these questions as well. I believe that working towards the answers require our time and helps us to get free.

Vials of Oil for Anointing & Souls Behind the Eyes: Exploring Spirit*

This biographical essay is written for the #52essays2017 challenge by Vanessa Martir.

I.  It is a brave thing to write about Spirit. It is much easier to write, solely, about God, or colonial Christianity, or even decolonizing Christianity. Yet, matters of Spirit are often unwieldy. We can theorize them, but even that comes with its risks. Keating’s exploration of the spiritual work of Gloria Anzaldúa notes:

After all, those of us working in academic settings are trained to rely almost exclusively on rational thought, anti-spiritual forms of logical reasoning….

We might admire Anzaldúa’s bold spirit vision yet fear that if we explore it in our work, we will harm our careers. Not only will our colleagues scoff at us, but we will have difficulty publishing such explorations. As Lara (2005) suggests, these fears can be intensified for Chicanas and other women of colors who are often already viewed as interlopers in the academy. (Keating, 2008, p. 55)

However, matters of Spirit are often unrelenting. They show up, most often, when I want to write fluffy, easily-shareable pieces. They are determined.

Whenever we speak of Spirit, or spirits, we are both aided and blocked by our language. “What do you mean by Spirit”? In the past few months, I’ve been asked this question in so many different ways. I never give specifics because it’s typically already been decided I’m in need of re-Evangelizing.

The women in my family are always negotiating spirit*. For the purposes of this piece, I define it as the essences / life forces which we cannot always understand… yet find ourselves either intrigued or repelled by.

The women in my family are brilliant and can intellectualize most things. Yet, I often hear behind the words, because I came from them. And there is much concern about holy & good spirits – “wait, do you believe in one Holy Spirit or many other spirits” – staying away from evil spirits. But then there are the metaphorical spirits* – the energies & memories of the things we’d rather forget or leave alone. There is always the risk of being blocked by language, of being misunderstood, of being seen as “at-(spiritual)-risk”. It is a brave thing to write about Spirit*.

II. My Gramma was always intrigued with the concept of exorcism. She chased the next revival services, healing events, and traveling “prophets” like ones who would chase a storm. Seeing where it began. Seeing how it ended.

She had a library of books on methods to keep evil spirits away. A hobby? A passion? A fear? All three?

As a child, she would tell me about these excursions of spirit. Sometimes, I could travel along to a service – if she felt it was safe enough. She kept a vial of oil, anointed for the task of both blessing and protecting – warding off evil & inviting in good. “Spirits ain’t nothing to play with”. She told me, “You’ll know when it’s a bad one. Your stomach turns. Your throat feels like it’s hot and dry. Look into the eyes. See if it looks like a soul is behind there“.

She often retired to the back room to pray. It used to be my play room, but I grew too big for the walls. I grew too big for the house, itself. I grew too big for the entire state, I suppose. Years later, she asked me to mind my size – and help her clear out that back room.

I spent hours on the dusty pink carpet, eating home cooked meals, pausing to look up at the sparkly popcorn ceiling, and sneaking journals full of Bible study notes from 1985 into the garbage bin. She would catch me, occasionally. “Grandma, I can type these up for you”. But she preferred the hard copies all around her like a shield. So, in one month, I could only clear one chest. After she passed, there was so much more clearing to do.

III.
“Mother, are spirits real?”
“Why are you worried about this?”
“I just am…”
“You’ve got God inside. You have nothing to fear”.

My mother’s jaw clenches when she is trying very hard to be patient. My Gramma often regaled her with stories about faith healers, far and wide. How much she was intrigued by them. My mother is a medical professional with complicated thoughts around faith healing (life sets up the most beautifully ironic situations). She listened carefully, because this was her Mother, and they were good friends. Only I could see, standing underneath her with my childhood body, that her jaws were clenched & her smile required effort.

IV.
I began getting bored with my church at 16 years old. How many more Sundays could I watch the parishioners march up to the altar, seeking more deliverance from the spirits which were real, imagined, a mix of both, who knows? I craved “something intellectual”. I was young and wanted more of everything, really. So, I took a sharp turn, tried out Reformed Calvinism. I was intrigued by their use of the word “eschatological”  , the thought that perhaps life could be figured out by a few “simple” tenets, and the added surprise of walking in to church with multitudes of handsome brown men. I was young and thought I knew everything.

I theorized everything then – the life of “spirits” didn’t seem to be worth as much exploration as the “doctrine of election”. I stopped dancing at religious services. I kept up with the rhetoric – until I realized that believing in “totally depravity”  left my soul dank & depressed. Until I saw how much violence it did. Until I realized that beyond my Black church, most of the prominent scholars in the denomination were White. They believed & taught that a spiritually elected-somewhat-Divinely-yet-arbitrarily-decided group would access heaven. The implications of that horrified me. I was young, and old enough to know I needed to get out.

V.
One of my favorite tarot cards is “The Hermit”.

hermit

The Hermit, Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck

In the dark, deep, blue glow, the Hermit carries one single light and walking stick. They are walking across the cold, craggy mountains. They are looking down, inward. They are reaching deeper spirituality. Some people feel this card is a bit obscure (and sometimes, I agree haha). However, the Hermit is a guide – that sense of “knowing” inside of ourselves when we need a “container”, a “cocoon”, somewhere dark, quiet, and even a bit windy to shake up our previous understandings. A figure, resembling a Hermit, found me in a church in the middle of Nowheresville, Pennsylvania (population 50,000). I was living in the LITERAL, actual mountains during this time. “The Hermit” showed me that there was a healthier way of Christianity & of spirituality, itself.

Then, I moved to Smalltownsville, SC (population 9,000) to continue my journey in further shades of solitude. I spent time with myself. I didn’t write.

VI. It is now 2017 & a few conversations with friends have turned into a nonprofit organization which “centers the voices, teaching, practices, and wisdom of People of Color at the intersections of mysticism and activism”. It is interesting that it is built on Christian contemplative tradition, deconstructing what this means, and breaking open space to include indigineity & diasporic religious traditions – a chance to bring our ancestral knowledge out of “hiding”. Equal parts Howard Thurman, Barbara Holmes, Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, the saints, the Christian mystics, and our Grand-ancestors teaching us prayers, songs, and ways to invite God in. Equal parts “what we know” and “what we’re open to discover”. Someone inboxes and says it sounds like potential to the slippery slopes of “idolatry”.

I wish I could explain how western colonization has prompted us to see these practices as “idolatrous”. I wish I could explain how it was demonized… not inherently, demonic. I wish I could read them the quote I read today – from the long process of resource sharing we’ve undertaken. I would read slowly:

“Ostensibly, all women in colonial Mexico and Latin America, like their counterparts throughout the Christian world, were suspected of being witches on the basis of gender, but women of colonized groups were suspect on multiple grounds. Indian women, African-origin women, and racially mixed women—whether Indo-mestiza or Afro-mestiza—were suspect by virtue of being female, by virtue of deriving from non-Christian, or “diabolic” religions and cultures, and by virtue of being colonized or enslaved people who might rebel and use their alleged magical power at any moment. —Antonia Castañeda, “Engendering the History of Alta California, 1769–1848, as seen in Lara’s 2005 work.

Most of all, I wish I could explain that I see this as “spiritual activism” (Keating, 2008) – a way forward that allows us to get into deeper touch with God, self, & others, as we fight for social justice in this world.

But I sense their fear. I’m close to them. And I swallow these words with my morning tea. Perhaps, another time. Perhaps, never.

VII. 
The next night, I dreamed of my Gramma. First, I described the dream on Facebook (because #millenial). In this dream, I was preparing for my meditation practice. I wore bright yellow.

My Grandmother sat where my teacher usually sits. She wore white and gold. She said to me: “I want you to meditate on this mantra ‘I ain’t got time’.
(Let me pause here to say that everyone who is familiar with AAVE / African American vernacular English understands all of the nuances of that statement. It is not concretely translatable in Standard American English. ‘I ain’t got time’ means something between “I have time, but refuse to engage something”, and “Something is distasteful to me and / or hazardous to my health, so I will reserve my time for the things that help me to thrive”. This is a loose translation).

I cackled, as per usual. She smiled and said, “Yepp, say it, ‘I ain’t got time”.  Sometimes in your life, there will be giant pizzas rolling toward you – moving fast…”

This was very typical of her – to take a somewhat random object & work it into a life lesson.

“In that moment, you have to decide. Do I want to take a bite out of that? You can only take a bite with it moving that fast. Do I want to knock it down and share it with friends? That’s an option too. And sometimes, you’ll say to yourself, “I don’t even WANT pizza” & just let it roll by. That’s when you say to yourself, “I ain’t got time”.

I woke up to the Twitter-news that Mercury was in Pisces & that my dreams might hold some keys for deep learning at this time (@starheal). It’s funny how that works.

VIII. 
I believe that art allows us forms of exorcism – appeasing the spirits of things our families, sociocultural histories, and personal journeys leave us with. Moreover, it invites us to welcome in all that is “true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious” (Phil. 4:8-9, The Bible).

My Gramma’s lived in enough awareness of what could be bad. These days, she’s telling me “She / we / I ain’t got time”. And the only spirits* I deal with are good ones.

Resources & Further Reading

Keating, AL (2008). “” I’m a citizen of the universe”: Gloria Anzaldúa’s Spiritual Activism as Catalyst for Social Change”. Feminist studies (0046-3663), 34(1/2), p. 53.

Lara, I. (2005). BRUJA POSITIONALITIES: Toward a Chicana/Latina Spiritual Activism. Chicana/Latina Studies, 4(2), 10-45. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23014464

Image Credit: Createherstock.com

Feature: Taylor Johnson-Gordon, Food Healer, Herbalist, & Urban Gardener

Taylor Johnson-Gordon is a Black womanist, food healer, herbalist, and urban gardener. Her work intersects food sovereignty, healing work as a form of political resistance, and the Black Church. Taylor believes that the body is our first site of resistance and her mission is to help black women and girls heal and build physical resiliency through real, affordable food.

I met Taylor Johnson-Gordon at the #BlackChurchSex convening. I immediately noticed t an effervescence that was so refreshing. Upon our conversation, we realized just how many mutual friends & connections we had. Her good work proceeded her, as well as the praise of our mutual friends on just her generous spirit!

It has been a wonderful journey as I’ve become more familiar with Taylor & her work in food healing – adjusting my own diet & herb cabinets to include some of the staples she’s introduced me to! So, I wanted to e-introduce her to my readers here because I truly believe that her passions & thoughts around healing as resistance are integral to us getting free! Text below is largely her own, to preserve the integrity of her words.

sistah-of-the-yam

The break down of Taylor’s work is extensive. It includes adult nutrition in corner stores, supermarkets, churches, housing complexes, farmers markets, and community centers in North Philadelphia with The Food Trust. Taylor is also an afro-vegan and founder of Sistah of the Yam, a webspace and a series of community programs for Black women and girls that prioritize healing, nutritional wellness, and self-sufficiency through the act of growing food and cooking. The target audience of her work is clear: Black women & girls. To this, she states:

“I unapologetically center the lives and needs of Black women and girls, because we are routinely told that we are not deserving of being at the center.

I unapologetically center Black girls and women because I believe that we as Black people are only fully free to the extent that our Black women and girls are free.

Black women are known for lighting the torch for freedom and doing the work by any means necessary, yet we are routinely erased and abused in the process. Our self-sacrifice leaves us with broken hearts, reproductive disease, emotional eating disorders, low-self esteem, deep loneliness, and unresolved anger.

So, my work involves creating a space for Black women to engage in Black liberation work by concretely focusing on themselves via the food they eat. My tools are my hands, a good knife, and a cast iron skillet. In my experience, saying “yes” to prioritizing physical health has been the biggest obstacle for the women that I interact with. As a result, I rarely interact with a Black woman who has not had a diet related illness or dis-ease. This a result of a white supremacist system that is anti-black and that positions black women at the bottom. This is also a result of a lack of community support. I often think about how Black women are the most churched demographic in our pews, yet we are the poorest and least supported and visible. In my work, these are the very women that I am accountable to. This is why my approach to health and nutrition is always through the lens of affordability and practicality. I encourage making homemade stews/soups and eating beans and rice and leftovers, because these are affordable and highly nutritious. I don’t encourage buying specialty vegan meats because they have a lot of sodium, additives, high processing, and they are  also expensive. I try to teach the art of cooking intuitively, using substitutions for things they don’t have, and knowing how to listen to what their body is telling them that they need.

Taylor’s path to facilitating healing through healthy food is as interesting as the work itself!

“This work really chose me (via God and my ancestors). Growing up, I always thought that I was going to become a medical doctor. I entered college with that determination, studying biology and spending half my time as a pre-med student. Midway through my sophomore year, I realized that it wasn’t “me” (though I couldn’t necessarily pinpoint the “why”). I quit the pre-med program but continued with my biology degree.

My sophomore year was an extremely intense and dark time. I had to create a new identity for myself – outside of what I had thought my chosen path was. Now, almost 10 years later, I have the clarity to see how that experience was preparing me for my current work. To be clear: I think we still need Black doctors in the health care system and medical field. However, my path towards becoming a healer outside of this system (through food education, integrative nutrition, black foodway history, and herbalism) has allowed me to go through the growing pains of healing first hand. The fact that this work is very personal to my own wellness and healing allows me a greater level of authenticity in my work.

Taylor formally received her Bachelors in Biology and a Master of Arts in Christian Education. Currently, she is pursuing her Master of Science in Nutrition & Integrative Health with a focus on Herbal Medicine.

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From @sistayoftheyam #BlackHistoryEats food nutrition campaign on IG

She leaves with us the following information, ideas, and tips:

1. Food is inherently political. Eating real, nutrient dense food is a deeply political practice. When we eat real food we are saying that our bodies matter … not only to us, but to God, our community, and our ancestors.

2. Cooking nutrient rich food from scratch doesn’t require fancy tools. Don’t spend your money on fancy sauces and dressings; those things can be made at home with half the amount of sodium and no trans fat or additives — save that money for something else. Get yourself a good, sharp knife (Ross and Marshall’s sell pretty great marked down ones!), a cutting board, and a good skillet. Start building up your spice and herb cabinet and getting a couple of great heart-healthy oils on deck (I recommend always having one for low heat/baking and one for high heat).

3. Black women can be vegan and/or vegetarian and still have curves! Some many sisters are really nervous about dropping a ton of weight if they choose a plant-based diet. While that may be true for some, it is by no means everyone’s reality. Being a Black woman who is thick, curvy, healthy and vegan is in itself a paradox for most folks. I am not what many folks picture when they think of veganism (or nutrition for that matter)! Even though I have struggled with this in the past, I have come to realize that it’s also one of my greatest advantages in the work that I do. It makes me relatable.

4. I am convinced that being well is our birthright as black women. I believe that wellness through food can be developed and expanded to include every black girl and woman, regardless of class and economic status.

Taylor lives in Philly with her husband Jason (they are both amazing) & you can follow Taylor’s work at http://www.sistahoftheyam.com and @sistahoftheyam on Instagram!

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Taylor Johnson-Gordon, @sistahoftheyam, enjoying the fruits of the earth!

Feature Photo Credit: Jason C. Johnson-Gordon

Toxic Concepts I (Un)Learned from Church – On Sex & Throwin’ It In a (Prayer) Circle

“Once you know the truth, you can’t ever go back and pick up your suitcase of lies. Heavier or not, the truth is yours now”. – Sue Monk Kidd

“What are the heavy truths that are yours now”? – Journaling exercise

In the past, I’ve chronicled the toxic concepts that I have unlearned from church and / or church adjacent spaces (campus ministries, study groups, etc.).

Today, I’m picking up the series with three more posts on toxic concepts I unlearned (because…word count).

Toxic Concept: Women’s sexuality can be and SHOULD be treated as a commodity, define her level of “purity”, and only be used in the service of gaining & keeping a husband.

Lena, a youth group minister*, sat us all down for one of her infamous ‘talks’. You never really knew what to expect from Lena, so the best course of action was to brace yourself for whatever was coming. In this talk, she took out a box of tissues:

“If I need to wipe my nose, then I use one of these tissues”. She feigned wiping and dramatically dropped one to the ground. “Now that I’ve done that… who wants to use this tissue”.

Of course, the room was enveloped in silence and stares.

“Some of you want to be hoes in the hallway and sluts in the stairwell. But once it’s gone, it’s gone. Once it’s used, it’s used. Have some more pride and dignity in yourself. You ought to carry yourself in the manner with which you want to be treated!”

Humming under the surface of my consciousness, I learned that having sex (and moreover, having it freely) would bring my worth down to the size of a snotty, used tissue – fit only to be discarded.

If you’re not familiar with this type of rhetoric, then this example can seem pretty extreme. To be clear, there are many spaces where similar analogies are made: “Your virginity is a gift – you don’t want to give your husband an opened gift”. Joshua Harris, author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye (and icon of the Evangelical Christian movement in the early 2000s), likened virginity to a rose. “Losing it” or giving it away would result in all of the petals being plucked off – there would be nothing left to give for your someday-husband.

So, I learned to be afraid. Afraid of my own body and its desires.
I learned that good Christian women “keep their legs closed” (as if that’s the only way to… you know what, let me not get ahead of myself) until marriage and that THIS would result in procuring a wonderful husband – and at that point, he would be provided with access to your body as a gift, an unused tissue, a fully blooming rose.

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I know it sounds like… a lot. But it is this rhetoric that reinforced what we now refer to as ‘purity culture’.

So, why am I writing about this again and why am I writing about this now? First, because this culture still exists and is now being further distilled down / spread abroad via memes. (Help us, Jesus). Second, because many Black churches have adopted, repackaged, preached, and profited off of these ideals. (Help us, Jesus).

It suggests that women who do NOT make the choice to abstain until marriage are unclear about their body’s worth. Not even THEIR INTRINSIC worth. The worth. Of their body. Yikes.

But perhaps most importantly, I bring it up now because these beliefs have such harmful ramifications in day-to-day life. These ramifications are things that some of the people I love are STILL living with & through. The No Shame Movement chronicled an entire chat  regarding some of these lasting impacts.

I want to tell you about the countless moments of attempting to comfort friends who really & truly felt like / feel like “losing” their virginity means losing their greatest “commodity” and “asset”. (Shudder). I want to tell you about the private spaces I’ve curated with the help of some good friends – in order to address the feelings & even questions that come up when you’ve grown up with this type of toxic belief. I could tell you about the women I’ve known who married hastily – simply because they had sex with their partners and felt that penance meant marrying that person.

I could tell you about the panic attacks that came over me in waves – even after I knew that my sexuality wasn’t a bargaining chip. Even after I knew I could make my own decisions about my sexuality AND have a secure relationship with the Divine. Even after I knew that my virginity wasn’t just some commodity for a husband to enjoy. And I want to tell you that I’m not the only one who experiences this – that after healing from this, I went on to curate private spaces for other women to process unlearning this shame & to ask basic questions about sex & sexual health after the gaps that abstinence-only education left in their path. I could tell you, from first-hand conversations I’ve had, that sometimes your body has to unlearn the trauma of this toxic concept… has to learn how to experience pleasure without guilt. But the word count it would take would be too great for just one post…

So, I’ll end by sharing a story about its ramifications in my own life.

A friend of mine is doing research on this very topic (and it’s going to be amazing when it comes out). I’d agreed to help out with a research query she had – and responding opened up my own experience to me in a way I’d never considered before. I told her:

I saw the toxicity of this belief first-hand when I ended up in a pretty bad relationship with an aspiring minister. I was beginning to do more formal study into this topics at the time, which really wasn’t agreeing with this partner. So, asking for what I wanted resulted in being seen as “domineering” and / or a temptation to deviate from the Gospel. I listened to their stories about they repressed their own sexuality and was told that even passionate kissing paved a way to the slippery slope of eternal damnation. (This is not hyperbole). It was clear that the only circle I was going to be throwing it in… was a prayer circle.

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The hilariously awkward Netflix show, Chewing Gum, does a great job of showing this type of dynamic

Who knows whether that choice was actually mine – I was too busy worried that my “feminine wiles” would steer us “off the path”. Hashtag the patriarchy is a mind-fuck.

Of course, over time, I had to re-imagine my role in that relationship (read: chile, we broke up – Mama didn’t raise no fool). But after debriefing this period of time, I realized two major things:

1) My partner got this from somewhere. They got these notions from the pulpit, from their Bible college, and from their socialization into male privilege.

2) This didn’t just happen to me. 

There is an unbalanced pressure on women in religious spaces to view their sexuality as nothing more than a commodity – something to preserve and give away in service of a husband. Given the huge industry that purity culture makes through selling rings, books, and multimedia efforts – sex is selling – even the lack of it.

So, what I’m saying is this… and this alone… WHENEVER we feel we have the right to be prescriptive about every woman’s body & sexuality… we’re already in the wrong. And although not under the same circumstances, it’s still helpful to ask the question that James Baldwin posited (one that gets me free every. single. time): Who benefits?

Who benefits from the mass sexual repression of women? And how does it point to making money off of our bodies?

Ending Notes:
In the pursuit of answering this question, do feel free to check out Dr. Tamura Lomax’s work on religion & the erotic, NoShameMovement.com, and the #Blackchurchsex thread on Twitter.

*The title “throwin it in a prayer circle” stems from a popular meme which made its rounds on Twitter & Instagram

This post is a part of a larger series. You can read the other posts in the series here.

“Tried (It) Again” – Examining ableism & homo-antagonism in Burrell’s sermon

Let’s talk about what’s going on in the Black church, at present.

On Dec. 30th, I spent an evening-to-morning good time with my gurls from my college years. It’s not often that we get to see each other, so we spent most of the night sharing life updates and talking about almost every topic under the sun. Despite those good vibes, I woke up late the next morning (read: early evening) to a barrage of texts & inbox messages about singer & pastor Kim Burrell’s homo-antagonistic sermon.

My initial response was anger.

My thoughts swirled for days after, as I reviewed the sermon itself, her subsequent faux apologies, and many spot-on analyses from friends, peers, and colleagues.On a personal level, I needed to wait to weigh in. Far too often, the name of the game is to “cover xyz topic first” and in this case (like many others), there are far more connections to make – and some of the connections take some mulling over to explore or even articulate.

One such connection, for me, included Kim Burrell’s display of both homo-antagonism and ableism in her recent sermon. She begins the clip by lambasting the LGBTQI community with a barrage of insults and accusations of “perversion”. She, then, goes on to use Andrew Caldwell – recent internet sensation best known for the viral clip from the COGIC Convention in which he states he was “delivered” from being gay – as an example. This is where she implicates that sexuality and disability are both at the whim of ‘spirits’; and / or and indicator of ones relationship with God.

Burrell states:

“Mr. I Am Delivert with all these different types of spirits… on Jimmy Kimmel… you see what the enemy is looking for?… The minute somebody comes out with a deaf and dumb spirit… a mute spirit… one that can’t even talk… and that has a perverted spirit says that ‘I am delivert’ and makes it all the way to Jimmy Kimmel. You think the enemy isn’t trying to make a mockery of the church?”

To be clear, her sermon was primarily (read again for emphasis) antagonistic for community members within the LGBTQI community. This was her key focus, and the reason why she has been / is being uninvited from many opportunities.

However, what she also did as (a perceived) “aside” included situating gender identity, next to disability, next to sin. The implications here are HUGE – because in this, she implies that both LGBTQI identities as well as disabled persons are inherently possessed by spirits / dealing with sin.

Inclusive Jesus, help us.

Dr. Fiona A. Kumari Campbell (2007) asserts:

“A chief feature of an ableist viewpoint is a belief that impairment (irrespective of ‘type’) is inherently negative and should the opportunity present itself, be ameliorated, cured or indeed eliminated. What remain unspeakable are readings of the disabled body presenting life with impairment as an animating, affirmative modality of subjectivity” (p. 5-6)

Thus, Burrell’s sermon included statements which were both homo-antagonistic and ableist. Whether or not this was intended is beside the fact.

We ought to know that it is highly offensive to even use the phrase “deaf and dumb”. It is even an issue to suggest that the ways in which folks walk through the world (as it pertains to both queerness and disability) are due to “spirits”. So, to check* her (a colloquial term, rooted in AAVE, which means to correct and / or unequivocally challenge) via social media on one aspect, without examining both is something we can’t afford to do.

Surely, we ought to understand in 2017, that being LGBTQI does not involve or imply a spiritual shortcoming (as resources, please refer to Darnell Moore’s works on this, Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas’ 1999 text Sexuality and the Black Church: A Womanist Perspective, Dr. Pamela Lightsey’s 2015 text Our Lives Matter: A Womanist Queer Theology, and then some…).

Surely, we ought to understand in 2017, that being disabled does not involve or imply a spiritual shortcoming (refer to Belser & Morrison’s 2011 article, What No Longer Serves Us: Resisting Ableism and Anti-Judaism in New Testament Healing Narratives).

Surely, we ought to be able to see that in this instance (like so many others), further marginalization happened from the pulpit – and as a minister of the Gospel – this should not be so. At this point, we need to understand that systems of oppression are inextricably linked – especially when we cannot / refuse to see its connections.

Additional Resources & Notes:
Belser, J. W., & Morrison, M. S. (2011). What no longer serves us: Resisting ableism and anti-Judaism in New Testament healing narratives. Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, 27(2), 153-170.

Campbell, F. A. K. (2008). Exploring internalized ableism using critical race theory. Disability & Society, 23(2), 151-162.

*Title references Kim Burrell’s 1997 album & single by the name of “Try Me Again”

*This essay is posted with special thanks to those affectionately know as my “e-cousins” for helping me to flesh these thoughts out more fully

Photo credit: The MEPR Agency via VisualHunt.com / CC BY-ND

Creation in the Time of Death

“They ain’t tryna’ to see me shine, shine
Bullet on my time, time
But fuck it, I’ll live forever…” -NoName, Telefone, Track: Forever

One of the hardest questions I’m asked is, “What is your creative process?” It’s even more difficult to answer from where I’m sitting in history today.

At this moment, I’m alive in a nation of police brutality and state-sanctioned violence. At this moment, #BlackLivesMatter is the rallying cry – the reality that we deserve to live and to thrive. This cry has consistently been met with the pithy and subversively racist #AllLivesMatter cry – diverting focus from those whose Black bodies are being ripped from our Black souls in these United States of America.

At this moment, I’m alive but grieving the death of Korryn Gaines – a 23 year old mother whose home was broken into by the police – after her on some bullshit traffic violations. This encounter ended with her murder, the wounding of her son, and her story obscured and picked apart.

At this moment, I’m alive but grieving the deaths of Joyce Queweay, who passed because her boyfriend and his friend thought they would teach her a lesson about “submission” to male authority. She was murdered. And at this moment, I’m grieving the death of Skye Mockabee, a transwoman, murdered and left in a parking lot.

My sisters are being murdered. My brothers are being murdered, too. And everyone’s fighting about the fucking details.

And someone’s asking me about what my creative process is. Now.

I’ve never been more sure of the importance of writing, rapping, singing, sharing personal and cultural pain, joy, healing, lament, and strategy. I’ve never been more convinced that the writers of color are called to be the griots, healers, and purveyors of cultural / ancestral knowledge. There is necessity of creation in the time of death.There is something healing about the practice of wrangling cohesion from chaos – even if the healing happens only in the Self.

But this shit is heavy. It gets heavy. And it BEEN heavy.

“What’s your creative process?”

These days? Cry a bit. Write. Wipe tears. Cry a lot. Stop crying. Feel numb. Writers aren’t made of numbness. Stare out the window, and look at what is alive. Trees. Birds. The moth that just settled on the window. Write a bit. Stop writing. Allow my sisters to sing and speak to me…

“And I’m afraid of the dark
Blue and the white
Badges and pistols rejoice in the night
And we watch the news
And we see him die tonight” -Noname, Telefone, Track: Casket Pretty

Allow my sisters to write me through:

Erica Thurman’s, Black Folks Are Dying and I Just Keep Buying Lipstick. And Crying: On the Emotional and Economic Expense of Existing Through Trauma
The Churched Feminist’s, Litany For Black Children Who Became Collateral Damage
Brittney Cooper’s, Connect The Dots: For Korryn Gaines, Skye Mockabee and Joyce Quaweay
Nicole JhanRhea’s, Korryn Gaines I Speak Your Name

Try really hard not to play the videos or recount the events. End up doing both of those things anyway. Hoping that somehow they could live forever. Knowing that they will, somewhere, even if in the Remembrances of their Stories and the Saying of their Names. Lavishing sisterly love on them, carefully listening for the lessons they want to teach me, and wishing them well from the other side – from this fucked up plane of reality.

 

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.

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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”