sacred space

The Evolution of a ChurchKid (or An Analysis of My Collected Church Fans)

I am the proud owner of two church fans. Yes, like… old school, we-don’t-need-no-music-or-air-conditioner church fans. But what they represent reaches beyond my upbringing in “a nondenominational church with charismatic leanings and (the perception of) clear doctrine on everything from Genesis to Maps & References”. These two fans, how they vary, and how they ended up in my possession speak to the evolution of a churchkid.

I. Fan No. 1: The ShePreaches fan

One of the church fans I’ve got is from an amazing organization called ShePreaches, founded by Rev. Neichelle Gudry. You can see their mission directly on the church fan below:

11102949_10108438973306734_810029384610910314_nThis fan came into my possession when I attended their Good Friday service. It’d been a while since I’d stepped into any formalized sacred space. [At this point of my life, I realize that sacred spaces, on an individual level can be as varied as the coffee shop, to a spot along the lake, to the home that you live in… but in this instance, I’m talking about a church / chapel / place of worship]. This fan, for me, represents the years of unraveling the theology I was taught, searching sacred text for images of God as an advocate for the marginalized. It represents making my way through a fear of disconnection to the Divine because I had so. many. questions. For God. About God. About life. About theology. About everything. It represents the gentle prompting I felt to build another, sacred, online Space to address questions like, “How have fundamentalist concepts of gender / gender expression impacted our understanding of dating rules, standards, practices that we learned in our churches?” It represents overcoming the long, heated, arguments with an ex, who served in ministerial capacities, about the ethical obligation for churches to allow women to pastor & to preach. It represents my path to a truer faith: one that knows it doesn’t have all the answers and doesn’t feel pressured to in any way, shape, or form. Or, as blogger, Katey Zeh put it:

“I (didn’t lose) faith. What I have lost are my desperate attempts to articulate my faith in a simple, logical, and convincing way. Letting go of this need has created space for faith to come in…”

10931117_10108440261170844_3716966510252661557_n

In my entire life (and I do mean EN.TIRE), I have been involved with ministry. To clarify, what’s true and real to me is that ministry is a) sensing a need, b) feeling a pull or call to address that need, c) growing internally from your service to that need, and d) authentically walking along the spiritual process of life with people.

Sometimes, this was formal ministry and sometimes it was informal. I spent a great deal of my childhood on the children’s choir, reading the church announcements, and eventually preaching sermonettes as a teenager. I could literally feel that I was being primed for formal ministry.

In college, I served as the official Director (and the unofficial chaplain) of a gospel choir. After college, I volunteered to assist in the diversity initiatives of a campus ministry. A few churches invited me back to preach (at the same time my previous partner suggested that women should not preach because… 1 Timothy 2:12).

However, I was raised in a home of independent thinkers, so in retrospect, it really is no surprise that I went through a foundational crisis of faith shortly after college. I declined speaking / preaching engagements, left my church, and began attending a super Reformed church with intellectually rigorous sermons. Perhaps, subconsciously, I thought that somehow I could intellectualize away my doubts & demons through the exegesis of the men I called pastor. I sang alto on the praise team and attended weekly Bible study small groups. It wasn’t too long until they asked me to minister in the capacity as a leader for one of the weekly groups (they didn’t believe in women pastoring but had no problem with women “ministering”).

But. then. came. grad. school. My already unraveling faith began unraveling even further. Though I was studying higher education, the intellectual rigors and encouragement of critique & analysis fostered the freedom to critique my own theology, as well. At first, this was absolutely petrifying, but the feeling gave way to a freedom I’d never known. It was the freedom of knowing that I was NOT alone in thinking that interpreting theological texts & affirming doctrines which supported exclusion of ALREADY marginalized groups was… well… problematic. It was the freedom to discuss truth & Truth. It was the understanding that the way we interpret ANY text (including Biblical text) has a lot to do with our sociocultural lens. [From what I hear, this is very similar to what happens in seminaries]. And all of this was happening alongside writing M. Ed papers on identity development in higher ed & a break-up with my ministry-boo. Ha!

So, at that time, my refrain was, “Don’t ask me to speak. Don’t ask me to sing on the praise team. Don’t ask me to watch the kids in Sunday school. Don’t ask me NAN (nothing / anything)”. So, the church I was attending at the time simply encouraged me, talked with me, and invited me to eat with them [I could get really deep here on how this is the work of the church as well, but #wordcount].

However, as time went on, I felt “called” in a very different way: to provide space for people who were asking similar questions and exploring new theologies. This wouldn’t happen in any huge, major way. It would happen in a quiet corner of cyberspace. It would be ministry that really didn’t feel like ministry at all… just a way to work some things out in my own life & encourage others along the road, if possible. And so… on a Good Friday night in April, receiving the fan that says, “She Preaches” felt like nothing less than an affirmation.

II. Fan No. 2: The Grits & Biscuits Fan

I wrapped up my hair, slapped on some of MAC’S Ruby Woo lipstick, & found my high-waist skinny jeans for the night out. A friend and I walked into the dimly lit club, floors sticky with spilled alcohol, and eyed the bar. Before we entered, they gave us this:
IMG_20150916_085506As stated on their website, Grits & Biscuits is “a premiere entertainment concept that celebrates the southern experience through urban music, cultural connections and nightlife moves in a down home environment”. What that really meant was a lot of Ludacris, Mystikal, Trina, Lil’ Wayne, etc. and wear your comfortable shoes because #twerkteam. After ordering drinks for both of us, the DJ said, “I have a suggestion… don’t use your church fans until you REALLY need them. It’s gonna get hot in here. You’re gonna be dancin’ & sweatin’. So don’t use the church fans until you REALLY need them to preserve the integrity of your church fan…” He let the beat rock a little bit, grabbed the mic again and said, “These church fans are Jesus-approved… let Him use ya”. And everyone danced harder.

I was able to “preserve the integrity of my fan” until the dance floor got absolutely packed: so packed you could hardly even dance anymore. At that point everyone was more-or-less pulsating to the beat or counter-beat. By the end of the night, my fan was well-worn. Right after the Project Chick track (ya’ll remember that song?), the DJ joked, “We got all kinda Black professionals in here… professors in here, doctors, lawyers, dentists, orthodontists in here… twerkin on Saturday, fixing my (expletive) teeth on Monday. It’s a judgement free zone… I’ll see yawl tomorrow at church too”.  Then, as soon as we left the club, the valet asked, “Why ya’ll leaving so early? Ya’ll got church in the morning?”

Once upon a time, this would have caused SO. MUCH. dissonance for me: church fans + twerkin’ + churchin’ on Sunday morning. (This might have made YOU uncomfortable when you read it)! But I could not deny that the thread of getting to church in the morning was present alongside the absolute turn-up on Saturday night. I also could not deny the irony that THIS particular church fan found its way to me as well. Receiving this on a Saturday night, reminded me of writer & preacher Candice Benbow’s Third Commandment of Red Lip Theology:

3. Thou shall twerk. 

We are taught that we should not own our bodies. We are taught that any expression of sexuality is deviant and demonic, despite the glory that is Song of Solomon. We must reclaim our bodies from the theological oppression that suggests our agency is sinful. And so, we must twerk. Twerking is theology and praxis at work. It allows us to reclaim our right to be, without seeking permission or validation from anyone. It enables us to take ownership of who we are and that ownership is a divine right. Misinterpreted as simply a lower body act, twerking is a full body movement and experience. You have to twerk your mind before you can twerk anything else. It was Paul who said, “be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind”. En Vogue said it this way “Free your mind and the rest will follow.”

If I could describe the feeling of watching everyone completely enraptured in dance, I would. But I can’t. Not with words. Yet, I do know that I needed to be there… just as much as I needed to be at the Good Friday service last April.

III. On Monday morning…

I looked at the ShePreaches churchfan in my living room & the Grits & Biscuits churchfan in my car. Two physical reminders that the sacred and the secular really aren’t that far away from each other. Two physical reminders that reshaping your theology requires you to take risks: to analyze in written / spoken forms and to take those moments of expression on the dance floor (aka the turn up). Even if you’ve got church in the morning. Especially if you’ve got church in the morning.

Pants in the Pew: The One-Sided Labor of Modesty

KJ* was an emerging stylist and fashion consultant. We attended the same nondenominational church, sang alto on the worship team together, and frequently used the “green room” to swap information about the best places to thrift and makeup tips to get through multiple services without sweating it all off. (Listen… the ‘singing 2-3 services’ struggle gets real). On one particular morning, I remember her bursting into the green room, pulling me to the side, and crying, “I am LIVID! I was essentially told by the worship team leader that I needed to go home and change into something more modest”. (She was wearing a black top with black pants. KJ and I had both gone through drastic weight changes that year and were striving to dress for our ‘new bodies’ in ways that were comfortable, practical, and fierce). For about 30 minutes, we talked over what she’d planned to do. “I am always so careful to dress for the occasion… and to say that I’m dressed inappropriately because my shirt is tighter than you think it should be is incredibly annoying!” (I will admit that I muttered under my breath, ‘And incredibly sexist’). In an earlier Pants in the Pew / Pulpit post, I talked about my mother’s choice to use her body and style politics as a site of resistance: resistance to being regarded as inferior and in need of more feminization (Weitz, 2011). In KJ’s story, there was yet another struggle: a struggle to resist her body being sexualized and objectified in a sacred space. The script on what women should and should not wear in sacred spaces is not necessarily a new one. In my lived experience, there is one such “script” that has been used to instruct women on what to wear, particularly in sacred spaces:

1 Timothy 2:9-10 Likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works

Often times, those who are using this text to hold sway over the clothing choices of women in sacred spaces do not offer any context, sociocultural & historical background – a picture of the climate in those times – to explain their use of the text today. Let me be clear: I have heard, seen, and deeply appreciate the theologians who choose to add nuance to texts such as this (i.e. understanding the damages of heteropatriarchy, preaching / teaching with sensitivity to the fact that these damages are real and impact women on a very systemic and individual levels, balancing it with sociohistorical context). Yet, I also acknowledge that on the whole, we have a long way to go, and asking congregants & church leadership to complicate theology with sociopolitical understandings or critical gender theories… does not always go over too well. So, in the past weeks alone, the script has been under continuous revision. I have seen a revision as entertainers advise women to dress a certain way to obtain a certain man (the counter-post on this by Anna Gibson is absolutely everything)! I can recount the times I’ve sat through retreats or workshops on dating, and hearing a wide array of content on how to dress for and / or keep dressing for a man as a partner in my life (interestingly enough, we did not cover issues of consent, emotionally healthy practices versus emotionally abusive /coercive practices, etc).

The script has been revised in the fair share of cautious admonishments for women to maintain their modesty as the summer months are coming up (argument: more heat = less clothes = ‘modesty compromised’). I can say that each year, around the summer time, the “What Not to Wear (for Women in Sacred Spaces)” revisions roll over and over in my screen, in church services, and in conversation. I cannot help but wonder: What is this obsession that we have with what women are wearing?!  

What many do not understand is that no conversation is without a framework. Think of it as a portrait or a painting. While we focus on the pictures of what women should and should not wear… we might be missing the frame of what we are implying: that women’s bodies are (foremost) sites of dangerous and enticing sexuality…distracting… and in need of guardianship & rules. Dr. Rose Weitz (2001) asserts in her study that “For millennia, women’s subordinate position has been justified by an ideology that labeled their bodies and brains as inferior (Weitz 1998) and has been reinforced by a unique set of disciplinary practices aimed at creating a submissive and “feminine” body…” p. 668. *emphasis mine

So, what might those disciplinary practices look like in sacred spaces? In so many of my memories, they have looked like KJ’s story: being ostracized and asked to ‘sit down’ because of clothing choices. In one such sacred space, I was told that women were not allowed to wear heels in the pulpit because “It was distracting to the men”. This meant that when they were in that space, they had to wear flats or go with bare feet. In another, women were instructed to always wear scarves over their laps, regardless of length, so that they “would not distract the imagination of the men”. You might also remember the public shaming of Christian entertainer, Erica Campbell of Mary Mary, for choosing a dress that hugged her curves.

From the time that I was 13, I began negotiating my style politics due to the natural changes that were occurring in my body. Sundays were often the most difficult days because I did not know what would be deemed as ‘modest’ or ‘immodest’. At one point, it was immodest to wear heavy makeup or earrings. At another point, it was immodest to wear a certain length of skirt. As time went on, it took longer and longer to simply get dressed to worship:  a V neck or no V neck because… boobs? A tulle skirt or no tulle skirt because… curves? If I decided wrong, the disciplinary practices of ‘being sat down’, covered up, or publicly shamed (in churchyterms they’d say ‘admonished’ and / or rebuked’) loomed over my head.

These disciplinary practices, in sacred spaces, don’t always look like disciplinary practices because they might also be hidden and enforced under a) the guise of rigid definitions of what Biblical womanhood is (i.e. all Biblical women wear / look like ____) and / or b) the concept of wisdom (i.e. Yes, you can wear whatever you want… but is it WISE if you know you will gain unwarranted attention). Instead of thinking critically about the question, ‘What makes it possible and / or ‘the norm’ for women to have to dress a certain way to be acknowledged as inherently worthy and multidimensional’there seemed to be more of an overall preference for conversation on which styles, cuts, and fabrics are most distracting (insert subtext: for those who identify as men in sacred spaces). Writer, Jessica Valenti explains it like this:  “This “distraction” standard for a dress code (for women) sets up a model in which the default student (person / congregant) we are concerned about – the student (person / congregant) whose learning we want to ensure is protected – is male”. The labor of modesty is very often a one-sided labor.

In an earlier post, I explained that my mother’s decision to wear pants in the pulpit, inevitably sent a message of resistance. Why? Because for so long the bodies of women have been sites of resistance of and / or conformity to patriarchal norms (Weitz, 2001). KJ decided to go home and change that day. I wanted her to stay and sing worship exactly the way that she came. But I also know that navigating style politics in sacred spaces can be incredibly murky and sometimes. Yet, I always wished that there was more that I could do for KJ. I wished I knew what to say, in the moment, for the women who told me they had to sing praise and worship with bare feet because their pastor said heels were too sexual.

I thought about all of the younger women I know who stress over what to wear each time they go to worship. It is then that I remember the two-fold mission behind this site and my writing: 1) to lovingly & creatively challenge secular and sacred systems toward greater levels of inclusion… and that INCLUDES making space for women’s voices, women’s stories, women’s leadership AND women’s style politics in sacred spaces.

Want to hear more on the subject? READ PT. I here.

Image Credit: DeathtoStockphoto.com, Retreat Collection Resources WEITZ, R. (10/2001). “WOMEN AND THEIR HAIR: Seeking Power through Resistance and Accommodation”. Gender & society (0891-2432), 15 (5), p. 667 – 686. Creative Commons License Pants in the Pew: The One Sided Labor of Modesty by Jade T. Perry is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

 P.S. Not even 24 hours after writing this post, WordPress’ Daily Post prompt asked writers to:… “ tell (them) how appearance impacts how you feel about yourself”. Ha! Serendipity 🙂

Healing from Sexism in Sacred Places

I write for those women who do not speak, for those who do not have a voice because they were so terrified, because we are taught to respect fear more than ourselves. We’ve been taught that silence would save us, but it won’t. – Audre Lorde

I knew that my life was changing drastically, but I wasn’t sure of the direction of change. I was preparing to attend graduate school on an assistantship that would allow me to engage in meaningful work. I had a partner, whom I thought was incredibly warm-hearted and funny. He’d stuck by my side through a year of disappointments, false starts, and a slew of rejections from professional opportunities.

We both grew up in evangelical Christian traditions. We knew many of the same worship songs and shared the same sense that there was something largely spiritual about the world we lived in. But I had my thoughts; thoughts on women’s reproductive rights, women being able to pastor, the radical inclusion of all marginalized communities, and I was not silent. I was not silent when we turned the idea around for months & months on women preaching. He was studying to become a Methodist minister at the time. “It would probably be a deal breaker for us,” he said, “I couldn’t sit under you.”

My capacity to ignore that comment for a year yet astounds me. But suffice it to say I had larger concerns. I was heavily focused on networking & preparing for grad school. At the beginning of my grad school journey, we maintained a long distance relationship for the most part, sharing life events virtually. Yet, the concerns about my career trajectory, theological views, and liberationist perspective became problematic for him.

Through seeking council from his pastoral care team, he came to resent that I was not the woman who knew how to “shut up and pray.” He came to think that my theology was off regarding women in leadership roles. He began to pursue other relationships. Eventually he asserted that God was calling him to a season of singleness. Soon after our break up, a friend told me that he had gotten married.

In her book Bad Feminist (2014), Dr. Roxane Gay writes an essay called How We All Lose. In this essay, she unpacks her deep discomfort regarding a quote that she heard from politician Richard Mourdock. In one of his debates, he connected the mistreatment of women through rape as God-intended if new life came from it. Gay (2014) reflects, “Just as there are many different kinds of rape, there are many different kinds of God. I am also reminded that women, more often than not, are the recipients of God’s intentions and must also bear the burdens of these intentions (p. 99).” What she is saying here is that our understanding of God is greatly connected to who we are and the systems that we have “bought in to”. She is pointing to an extreme example of the dangerous connections we might make when heteropatriarchy primarily informs the way we hear God.

During that time, I did what I knew to do in times of severe spiritual distress. I gathered with my faith community. I read books by prominent faith leaders. I scoured commentaries. But this was more than about trying to convince myself of whether or not I could teach in church. This was about the questioning of Imago Dei – the image of God in me – a Black woman. This is what was called into question in sacred spaces – the spaces of my intimate relationships with men and the physical constructs of the church. It took me a long time to hear any type of story which mirrored my own, and after reading the men in commentaries and listening to the men in the pulpit, I began to think that maybe there was no balm.

And then came, what I believe to be, Divine Intervention. I went to graduate school with a cohort of women. All women. Our primary professors were women. And the experience was unlike any other learning experience I have ever encountered. They bought coffee when I was tired. They gave hugs after each time I got into a car accident (lack of sleep + stress is incredibly dangerous in that way). They were academically brilliant. They were rigorous in their quest for knowledge. They called me out on all the ways I tried to bullshit them and myself by selling myself short in the classroom or not taking ownership of the strong work I was doing. They listened to me complain and told me to do the work anyway. And they introduced me to bell hooks.

Through them and bell hooks, I learned to teach for social justice & transformation. I also learned the theories that I needed for healing and eventually she encouraged me to create them, as well. She taught me that my lived experiences could be studied, analyzed, and turned into intellectual theory; theories that would empower. Though the subtleties of our lives were not the same, her voice began to both soothe and challenge.

Since then, I have been inspired by the works and teachings of womanist theologians and scholars and their words have sustained me in the journey. I have also been inspired by my personal she-roes who are so great in number that I would be remiss to name even a few. They opened a new world before my eyes: helping me to re-engage with faith in a new way. But most importantly, they administered the healing balm: a way to see both myself and others around me as sacred, spiritual, & worthy of love. They pushed me toward a healing process from sexism in sacred places all the way from the heart (the site of intimate relationships with self & others) to the church (the physical constructs that we use to express spirituality).

Through this journey, I have come to forgive: to know that ‘well-meaning’ people misinterpret the voice of God. To understand that no one escapes the messages of sexism that pervade both secular and sacred spaces. To offer my narrative in hopes of creatively challenging those in sacred spaces to inquire: in what ways have my congregants experienced the detrimental effects of sexism in this space? How might I address / change that? At the time when I needed it most, the women came to me, and offered me their story. And through their story, I was empowered to offer my own.

Image Source Credit: http://www.pinterest.com/pin/9499849190287889/

Resources:
Gay, R. (2014). Bad feminist: Essays.

Mitchem, S. (2002, January 1). “There is a Balm …” Spirituality & Healing among African American Women. Retrieved January 19, 2015, from http://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/mfr/4919087.0007.103/–there-is-a-balm-spirituality-healing-among-african-american?rgn=main;view=fulltext

Creative Commons License
Healing from Sexism in Sacred Places by Jade T. Perry is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.