Healing Does Not Always Happen in the Church

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I was driving on the back roads of Alabama when I realized the danger of my body. As an African-American woman living in the South, I’m prompted to think about my body more readily than when I lived in Chicago.

Perhaps it’s the legacies of oppression attached to blackness. While I’m not completely sure, I do know that  my awareness is real and my experience still sticks out in the front of my mind.

Let me explain:

In 2015, I was headed to teach in African-American literature in a maximum security prison in Birmingham, Alabama. My trip required that I exit the main expressway and drive through some unknown territory where I usually lost cellular service. On one particular morning, I was stopped by a police officer who asked me, “What are you doing here?” By “here” he meant in the white community that I was driving through. In that moment, for the first time in my life, I knew what it felt like to fear my body.

I told the police officer that I was headed to the prison to teach–my active duty as a responsible citizen committed to social justice. The officer asked for my license and insurance information and went to his vehicle to run my info through the system. When he left, I noticed that my hands were shaking. Just a few weeks prior, Sandra Bland was killed.

Now, as a Chicagoan from the inner city, I thought that I was accustomed to policing. However, I realized that I was used to black men being policed, and now that women were being targeted and killed it caused me to be unsettled even more.

When the officer came back, he must’ve noticed my parking decal in the rearview mirror because he asked if I were a student. “Yes, I go to UA,” I responded. He then asked if I could produce my ID as proof (ultimately, I need to show my “freedom” papers). After he saw my ID, he handed me all of my identifiers and asked me two disturbing questions:

Will you be traveling this way often?

Do you need an escort?

Whether the officer was showing concern or extending protection, I do not know, but what I do know is that I was made hyperaware of the fragility of my black body.

As a Christian, I struggled with the moment, and if I’m honest there are times that I still do. See, I was taught that if I got an education, stayed out of trouble, pursued God, and was a responsible citizen, certain things would not happen to me. I was told that I wouldn’t be subjected to certain treatments, but that is a lie!

And, I didn’t know where to turn because in that moment, the church house was the last thing on my mind.

Yet, as a student of African-American literature, I had an arsenal of books at my disposal. I needed validation and quick so I looked to the authors who readily spoke to this struggle–this policing of black bodies. The words of Angela Davis, Octavia Butler, James Baldwin, Martin Later King Jr., and Malcolm X brought my solace. Their words confirmed that what I experienced was traumatizing and that I wasn’t alone. In essence, their words helped me cope.

Now, this is not to say that I couldn’t have found this in the church, but this is an admittance that I’ve discovered that healing is not a linear process but takes place in multiple forms. And, more times than not, my access to education has helped me in more ways than I willingly admit. In essence, education has caused me to create community with individuals that I may never meet. It has helped me learn from their experiences, and in using discernment, I am able to figuratively take the meat and leave the bones.

I’m able to stand on the shoulders of the people who fought before me, while still being rooted in God. What I noticed in that moment, and what many Christians don’t like to admit, is that God called me to a mountain of influence and not just a pew. He gave me an experience to which many can relate, but equally put me at the intersection of christianity and social justice.

Ultimately, the words of the activists before me performed a sense of textual healing, and my personally cultivated relationship with God helped me to not grow bitter.

 

 

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October’s Booklist

Each month I try to read a spiritual book to further encourage spiritual growth. This month, I was so anxious to read Tim Sheets’ Angel Armies and Matthew Stevenson’s Abba that I couldn’t choose between the two, so I decided to tackle both.

angel armiesSheets’ text enlightens readers about the nature and assignment of angels. It tells about their significance in the earth, why their presence is important to the believer, and how they assist with our purposes. Unfortunately, while several of us know about angels, we don’t necessarily know how to partner with them to help bring the plans of God to the natural realm. In essence, we could be missing out on instructions as well as opportunities to partner with angels. Now, I’ve heard many people talk about seeing angels materialize in church services, or relay instances when they’ve entertained angels unaware, but I’ve never studied them. And, I can admit that Sheet’s book is helping me not only understand the angelic realm, but also the protocols and nature of heaven. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in learning about how angel armies are designed with humankind in mind.

Now this next book is taking me a little longer to work through and for obvious reasons.

Stevenson’s book directly confronts our perception of God. Now, until fairly recently I didn’t have the best relationship with my father because I was raised in a single parent home. However, as God started to mend our relationship, I noticed that there were areas abbaof myself that I reserved as “off limits” for my father. These were the areas in my emotions. In guarding against my natural father, God began to show me how I also guarded my heart from him. Because of my fear of the new relationship with my dad, largely due to our broken past, I transferred those feelings to my interaction with God. Ultimately, I didn’t have the courage to see God as Father, but rather as Lord and King. This broken relationship with my dad seriously impacted my ability to be vulnerable with God even in private. I had trouble seeing him as Father who loved me because I once didn’t believe that my dad did. I was sadly mistaken. As I work through Stevenson’s text, I notice that layers are falling off of my heart. I am aware that my callousness is dissolving, and that I am more willing to try to open my heart to receive both of my Father’s love.

In essence, I believe that it is important that we feed our spiritual selves just as much as we feed our physical bodies. We must continue to educate and stretch our spirits if we ever hope to FULLY become who God created us to be.

-B

When You Feel Like Your Work Is Not Enough

The Day of Small Beginnings-2
Sometimes I have moments where I feel like my voice isn’t loud enough. I’m not talking about the 3 octaves that my voice climb when I’m in a heated debate, or the outburst I have when someone does something unsafe in the middle of the road (pray for me). What I’m talking about is my work in the kingdom and the unique position that I occupy.

People who know me know that I’m not the most churchiest Christian. While I do believe in the assembly of believers, I don’t spend majority of my time in its walls. In fact, most of my time is spent on a college campus, or in front of a computer. I am a researcher and an emerging scholar in academia, but I am also a believer.

Due to the intersectionality of my position at the crossroads of scholar, Phd candidate, Christian, and activist, I often feel a bit insecure about my voice. Sometimes in academic settings I have the potential to come off as churchy. When I’m in church, there are moments that my critical lens turns on the congregation. These things happen without effort. They intertwine with my personality so seamlessly that I wonder about my effectiveness.

I, of course, have never seen a prophetic academic. Now, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t any, but just means that I haven’t made their acquaintance. This reminds me of the prophet Elijah who laments to God that he’s the only one who hasn’t bowed to Jezebel in 1 Kings. The Lord responds to him that there are hundreds of prophets in caves who haven’t bowed.

Honestly, God’s response to Elijah is convicting for me. It shows me that because of  limited knowledge that I reason immaturely. See, I don’t know who my work is impacting. I don’t know who my positioning encourages, but what I know is that no matter how insecure I may feel about the my assignment, I must remain faithful.

God uses who he will, how he will. He decides our destinies and our paths. He knows who we were before the foundations of the world. And, while I may think that the work I’m doing is insignificant, he does not.

Ultimately, this is where we have to find our grounding. We cannot measure our duty by someone else’s notoriety. We cannot decide through emotionalism our worth, but we must stand on the truth of God.

His word says that he called you. It says that he ordained you. It says that he knew you. Do not despise the day of small beginnings. I know that seems cliché especially in our hyper saturated world, but it isn’t impossible.

In essence, we must keep our eyes upward if we hope to have the victory.

Social Justice and Christianity

social justice
I wish that I could say that I do social justice work because I am a Christian but that’s not the case. The truth is that I grew up in the inner city on Chicago’s South side, and I’ve seen a lot of black people die by our hands and others. When I was around the age of 6, I recall one night when some gangsters ran into my house searching for a family friend who supposedly stole money from one of their family members. They beat him in the head  with an iron on my aunt’s bed. There was blood. His nickname was Meatball. He left the house stumbling and I don’t think he made it to the corner before he died on that summer night. I was eating dinner at the kitchen table when this happened and the scene has not left the margins of my mind.

When I stayed on 76th and Stony Island as an elementary school student I remember living across the street from the Black Stones. From what I recall they were a local street gang that occupied that section of the Eastside but they were always nice. They stayed in a yellow house filled with people and everyone knew they cherished their grandmother.

My graduating year in 2008, 34 Chicago Public school teenagers were killed. Though this is a low number today, this was an all time high and some of those students were my classmates. And, one time while visiting my friend in the projects I saw a gun for the first time being toted across the street in broad daylight. The gunman fired into a crowd of people after warning me to go back into the house.

I was not a professed Christian then but did believe in God.

In 2014, I packed my life in a moving truck headed to Alabama from Missouri just days before Michael Brown was killed. I frequented lots of those places that were destroyed due to riots. In fact, I lived a couple blocks over from the scene of the murder. I wondered if Mike Brown could’ve been my brother. At the time, one of them could’ve easily fit his description. As I contemplate the war zones that I’ve frequented, the things that I’ve seen and been silent about, and the thoughts that I struggle to articulate, I can’t help but wonder has this made me believe in God more or less?

So why did I volunteer to teach men inside a prison? Because who else would? I volunteered because I have 5 black brothers who could be any one of the men behind bars. Two of which can easily be targeted because of their build as they migrate in the world. I often hear my mother tell them to be cautious of their size as they wear it like a badge of terror. Their only crime is being big and black. But we are Christians. We even pray in the Holy Ghost.

Just recently I realized that my black body can be taken from me. Yes, me. Educated and Christian. I’ll tell you a story:

One day I was headed to the prison  around 7a.m.  I had to exit the main expressway and travel along the back roads of Alabama to get to the facility. I always lost cellular service on the way there, which made me nervous because there were lots of Confederate flags. I saw my first real one when I moved South.

One morning, in the midst of the Sandra Bland case, I was stopped by an officer in one of those white towns. I went through a speed trap–one of those things where the speed limit suddenly decreases and if you aren’t paying attention then you’re in trouble. Well, I wasn’t paying attention. In fact, I was thinking about the lesson that I would teach that day, Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940).

When I saw the lights of the police car, I pulled over and prepared to hand over my license and car insurance card. Remember it’s 7a.m. My hands started to shake violently and for the first time I knew what fear of the police felt like. I was unarmed, didn’t have cellular service, and was in a foreign territory though I was an American.

The last thing on my mind was to pray.

The officer’s words shocked me when I rolled down my window. “What are you doing here?,” he asked. To make sure I heard him correctly I hesitated to respond because for the first time I had to account for why my black body was in a white space. Silence.

Silence.

Silence.

Silence. Echoing loudly like the time that I didn’t call my white classmate out for saying “Nigger” followed by a giggle. We were talking about William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom. 

I regretted being silent in the classroom just like I regretted being silent with the officer, but he had power and I did not. My white classmate had a power that I did not, and a recognition of that caused my tongue to stick to the roof of my mouth. Because, as we know, the spectacle would not have been what either of them did to me but how I responded.

Silence.

How many times have black people been silent?

I told the officer that I was headed to the prison to teach, which was evident in my bright orange 2x men’s shirt printed with Prison instructor. My hair was braided into two braids and I wore my glasses with no makeup. He asked if I were a student then requested to see my school identification card. He needed more proof that justified my existence.

After he ran my information through the system, I noticed that another cop car pull up and as he exited the car I started to voice record on my phone. Why was this my first response? Why didn’t I tell him that I was a Christian and that I was just trying to do my duty to the country by educating people whom the world had forgotten?

Because in that moment, my faith only mattered to me and I left it on the passenger side of my seat as I reached for my phone.

Too long I’ve tried to separate the social activist work from my walk with God. Too long I’ve tried to silence myself because I felt that Christians were only supposed to preach a gospel that was edifying and ignore the realities of our world. Too long I’ve been blinded by fear and ignorance.

In essence, I taught in two prisons because I am black, I have black brothers, a black father and sister, a mother, and my body will produce more blackness. I do social justice work because as Christians we are called to make a change and not just stay in the pews having midnight musicals. We are called to be the light, the world changers, the history makers, but many of us have fallen asleep. Pacified by a pretty gospel, but that’s not the type of God I serve.

I believe that several of us have failed to build the necessary relationship with God that helps us understand that he is interested in justice.

My social justice pursuits don’t make me any less of a Christian but assist me in understanding why I believe in what I believe.

I think about the public intellectual Ta-Nehisi Coates and his current stance on America. If you haven’t read his latest book Between the World and Me (2015) you definitely should. But, Coates laments in several ways that he has no hope for white America. Specifically, he has no hope in change. I find his positioning very valuable and at times find myself wrestling with the same dystopian thoughts, but this is where my Christian walk works for me.

My only hope for humanity is God.

God. Not a white God or a black God, but the I AM.

And, if that means that I have to take up my cross and fight for the cause of my brother then I will. If that means that I have to pray in the schools then I will. If that means that I have to write more pieces like this to draw attention to the fact that some of us have taken the easy way to survive that isolates us from the causes and the plights of our fellow people then I will.

What I’m saying is this…My life has been far from pretty. I come from scarce means. But, I didn’t make it to where I am today without understanding that the environment that I was raised in, coupled with personal intimacy with God helped shape my political outlooks on society.

I have something to say.

In a world where the sacred and secular grow together, I must announce that I am Christian and an activist. Both of them inform the ways in which I process my journey.

-B

 

Enduring…

enduringThere are times when I just don’t want to continue doing certain things. You know, those times when you start to feel the pressure of a situation and you’d rather opt out than move forward. I’m speaking about the moments when you realize that you didn’t count the cost of building but started anyway. What do we do, then, when we realize that we are not invincible? How do we continue with the vision when the odds are against us?

Last week was a tough one for me. I am at a crossroad in my life where my next move is crucial. For the first time I feel like I’m playing chess. I have to think a couple of steps ahead. I have to anticipate my opponents next move. I have to be calculated, or at least try. But, my calculations all come up short. The game is down to the last two moves and the pressure is on. Will I go left or right? Should I move forward or stay? Am I too far gone to retreat? These questions and more swarm in the margins of my mind as I struggle to stay focused.

This morning I asked God for strength. I asked him to give me the power and resolve to finish the journey set before me. I asked him to help me endure the process. While at the gym he reminded me of Hebrews 12:2:

Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God (KJV).

The scripture reveals that Jesus did not enjoy his journey to the cross. He did not like being there, the feelings it produced, or the shame attached to it. He did not feel comfortable with it. He did not have peace about it and though he wanted to stop he didn’t. But, why not?

Jesus endured the cross because of the promised outcome. He went through the process to receive the ending reward. And, this is the place where we have to find ourselves when we want to give up. While the road to success or destiny might not be pretty, we have to focus on the end . We have to walk through the darkness to get to the light. We have to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus no matter what.

The reason that I became discouraged is because I started looking at the water. I gazed at my surroundings instead of looking to the sky. I started to count the reasons why things can’t work instead of the reasons why they could. I stopped believing that I was enough. I stopped looking…looking for the reward.

It is imperative that you look to God if you hope to endure your season. You cannot get so entangled with the what ifs that you lose your footing. What did God tell you to do? What did he entrust to you?

Think on these things.

I was Conditionally Admitted

In 2014, I started the last phase of my academic career—the PhD program. While I was excited to embark upon this new journey there was only one stipulation, I was conditionally admitted into the program! I don’t know if you’ve ever been told or made to believe that you weren’t good enough to do something, but the feeling sucks. In fact, it can be a major blow to your self-esteem if left unchecked and this is definitely true for me.

Being conditionally admitted meant that I was on academic probation the first year of my professional school career. As a result of a low GRE score, the institution felt that I was a possible risk to the university. While they recognized that I had the potential to do great things—evidence from the rest of my application packet—my profile did not check every box on their checklist. Have you ever been given an opportunity with strings attached? How did it make you feel? Did it cause you to grow or shrink back?

I struggled with the reality of my admittance for a long time. In fact, it haunted me for the first 2.5 years of my stay at the school. Why? Because the decision of the school meant to me that I wasn’t good enough. Granted, I wasn’t waitlisted, but by labeling me as something less than, as a risk, caused some trauma to my psyche. There were times when I would compare my seat in the classroom to my classmates’. When I heard them speak, I heard them in a way that “proved” they deserved to be there and I didn’t.

When we adopt or adapt to the labels placed on us by other people it has the potential to have damaging effects. I can attest that my mind started playing tricks on me once I entered the program. I had a lot of self-deprecating thoughts as well. How do I get over this? I mean I’m only on probation for the first year, right? It wasn’t like they completely rejected you like the other 3 schools, right? In fact, the institution half accepted you! Do you know that rejection is rejection no matter how it presents itself? Half acceptance is rejection!

In order to put our reality into the proper perspective, we have to be able to discern the times and the path for our lives. We have to have a strong understanding of our identity and what God called us to do. We have to be able to push through the bad to get to the good. This process is perhaps the most challenging but it is one of the most fruitful.

While I openly rejected their perception of me outwardly, inwardly I believed them. I believed the lie that they offered by placing a conditional label on me. I secretly resolved to prove them wrong, and in seeking to prove something to “the powers that be” I volunteered to play their game. It is important to realize that you cannot seek to “prove” someone wrong without agreeing to play on their turf. While you may reason that you don’t have anything to prove, that is not the truth. Since people thrive on validation and approval—human needs—it is unlikely that you will move on without momentarily internalizing the expectations of others.

For me, there were times when their grouping of my profile into the possible risk category played on my mind. If I can be honest, it hurt to not have the full support of my school. Yes, it was my own fault that I didn’t earn the high score on the GRE, but I worked hard, and there are so many factors to taking that exam. Arguably, I worked harder than some of my peers and I wanted desperately to add to the academic world. But what would that mean for me?

I’ve learned that in trying to prove “them” wrong, I slightly succumbed to their perception of me long before they met me. In essence, I couldn’t seek to prove them wrong because I believed what they said about me. Being rejected admittance from several other schools prior, I was discouraged because it felt that no one believed in me. Let me be clear, I had a steady support group, but the people who were making decisions about me at other schools didn’t believe I was good enough. They judged me not based on my character, but on their needs.

So what door did their decision open up? It opened the door of insecurity—which I was already battling—restlessness, depression, anxiety, and self-doubt. On the outside I worked hard, and I produced a lot of academic work, but on the inside I deteriorated rapidly. The stress of their decision and the demand I placed on myself to prove them wrong worked against me until I learned the valuable lesson about my identity in Christ. I stopped trying to prove them wrong and decided to get into alignment with Christ.

I had to learn that everyone wouldn’t believe in me, and be okay with that reality. I had to willingly accept the road that God designed for me even if it caused me to look weird. More importantly, I had to learn to rely on God in spite of what I saw. God didn’t design me to live based on the approval of man. He didn’t save me to live mediocre. I was challenged to ask myself the hard question, “Whose report will you believe?” I believe the report of the Lord.

When I completed course work, I looked back over my admittance condition and laughed. I laughed because for the first time I achieved my goal of earning straight A’s. It took me to get to this level of schooling, with the odds against me, to live up to my full potential. In retrospect, their labeling was good for me. It challenged me to come from under the opinions of others, and submit my will to the will of God.

Perhaps, being conditionally admitted was the best decision for me because it helped me overcome the feelings of inadequacy.

The “S” On My Chest

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t find myself at an intersection. Largely mirroring a liminal space, my life has always reflected that of a hybrid. Living in the borderlands, rifting off Gloria Anzaldúa’s mestiza concept, I think of myself as a boundary breaking being. Never fitting comfortably into any box that I attempted to limit myself to, there has always been an inability to grow comfortable. Perhaps, it’s like the baby eaglet feels when its mother stirs her nest.

The “S” in which I am referring stands for scholar. Yes, scholar. While I once thought of my school work as isolated from my personal life, I was wrong. In fact, my personal life has largely informed my academic pursuits. In essence, the two are not separate from one another, and can be used interchangeably in a lot of ways.

For instance, in order to study and understand black women’s spirituality and practices, I had to conduct research. While that is expected of one in my field, the research in which I am referring is within myself. I could not approach texts with a closed mind, acting as a voyeur in someone else’s life. I mean, I could but that would do the text injustice. Largely, in literature, we read through the lens of our experiences. Whether we realize it or not, we superimpose our lifestyles and rearing onto the characters in the text. My practice is no different.

When I read a novel or autobiography, I am prompted to search within myself to establish some form of common ground. Several texts prompt me to examine why I am the way I am. They ask me to question my beliefs and lack of decisions in most cases. The books also pose as a mirror to show a reflection that asks “where are you?”

My walk with Christ largely informs the way that I interact with books. Yes, I used the word “interact” in talking about books because the narratives are timeless. In fact, when I read close enough the characters come to life, and I find myself entangled in someone else’s life. I give the characters advise, laugh at their jokes, and feel anxious if I think something bad may happen to my favorite character. However, this is not the only reason why I love literature.

My interest and investment in my personal growth leads me to certain texts, especially the ones where women grow spiritually. I think to be stagnate in life is to first be stagnate in the spirit. If change comes from the inside out, then the physical is only manifesting what is internally present. Interestingly, I did not learn that from a literary novel, but from the bible.

While I understand the intellectual’s reservations about Christianity and its problems historically, through personal time with Christ, I’ve learned how to separate man’s actions from Christ’s. You know how they teach students to close read in school: the practice of reading things into a text that might not otherwise be there? It is called having revelation from a theological perspective. Therefore, I approach the bible as well as literary texts seeking revelation. I do not wish to simply see what others see, nor do I wish to regurgitate what they have already spoken. I do, however, seek to be original in my interpretation of both areas of my life.

If African American literature teaches us that the same time the sacred was arising, so was the secular, then why can’t we think of our academic pursuits and our spiritual walk in the same manner, especially when they inform one another? My answer is that for so long we’ve been taught to choose because no one has been able to be  vocal successfully about two areas of concentration and be great. We’ve been taught to stuff our big minds and big God into an either/or category only to be left frustrated because the box we’ve stepped into is too small.

You don’t have to choose! You don’t have to conform to the mediocrity of other people’s intellect. You don’t have to bend to occupy a space that is too low for your destiny. You can be both/and. You can defy the expectation of people in your position and set a new standard.

With that being said, I am a scholar in every sense of the word. I am an avid researcher, teacher, reader, and writer. But, more importantly, I am a student of the Word.

That is the “S” on my chest.