After hearing the news of a pastor, Teddy Parker, whom I do not know, it was clear to me that I should wait to post anything about it in this forum – first, out of respect for his family and those who knew and loved him; second, because of what it triggered for me on a personal level, I needed a minute.
Hearing stories such as this one, hits way too close to home. I not only ache internally, but it hurts so deeply that the pain becomes physical. As I sat weeping and sorrowful a few thoughts came to mind as I thought about not only this tragedy, but many more people who struggle to keep living – people for whom deciding to live or die is a daily decision; hell, never mind “daily,” but a moment by moment, hour by hour decision.
Relating to Parker, I did not want to assume mental illness played a role, yet I am not surprised as it is now being reported that he perhaps endured years of struggle with mental illness.
As an African American with a historical association and rearing in predominantly African American communities of faith, I was disappointed (not surprised) by a few of the reactions I read.
Most of the responses/reactions I read said things like:
Pray for pastors, they have a hard job
The devil is busy
Congregations/church folks need to take it easy on pastors
Pastors are human just like everybody else.
The above statements are not only lacking, they are also a bit. Let me explain.
“Pray for pastors.” It is easier to say “pastors have a hard job,” and we need to support them, not be a burden them than it is to address issues of mental health care. It is easier to spiritualize issues than to address practical needs. But easier doesn’t equal helpful. As a fellow struggler, many faith filled people sincerely believe that the way healing and wholeness happens is for me to go to church, pray, call on Jesus and trust God to make a way – period! I am not opposed to praying and such, but when that’s where it stops, first it make me want to cuss, then it moves me to educate and enlighten in hopes of dispelling ignorance.
Should we pray for pastors? YES! Should we pray for those who battle, and I do mean battle mental health challenges? Also yes! Is that all we need to do? NO. Will prayer alone keep pastors or anyone else from ending their lives? Not at all!
“The devil is busy.” OK, and the point is what? That’s my first reaction. But beyond that, I am not convinced that the devil had anything to do with this suicide. I believe we need to take a deeper look at reasons why people end their lives. As one who has walked through depressive episodes, I find that there are a host of “spiritual” people who take the easy way out by being hyper spiritual and glossing over real issues – somehow unable to open their minds to the realness of mental illness and mood disorders – medical conditions that need treatment, not statements like “the devil being busy.” Once it is discovered that such phraseologies are impotent, some walk away, abandon the struggler and just stand aloof.
“People need to take it easy on their pastors.” What the hell?! The first problem is that this statement is an indictment on congregations and to say such things in the context of this young pastor’s death is to accuse and make assumptions regarding how his congregation treated him. Second, though I have been in church all my life and have awareness that church folks are a bit trifling and downright cruel and unreasonable at times, there are some things that we as spiritual leaders have to take ownership of – our self care, utilization of the word “no,” refusal to play into being put on pedestals and the like. Perhaps ego won’t let us destroy that beast? Perhaps our passion and drive for ministry and serving God won’t let us quit or take regular breaks? Who really knows?
Pastors are human just like everyone else. This is true – very true, but the fact that there is such a big deal being made over the fact that a “pastor” completed suicide suggests we don’t really believe that. Perhaps a shift in thinking is necessary – the position does not make one less human nor super human.
So in thinking not only about Parker, but about how we relate to each other, more specifically those who endure mental illness, I offer these alternative responses:
1. Give people permission and space to say “I’m not ok.”
2. Be a “safe person.” Meaning, when someone musters up courage to bare their souls and expose their hearts, be trustworthy, be loving and nonjudgmental and if you can, resourceful.
3. See pastors as “people who pastor” rather than “pastors who are people.” There is a difference. If pastor was no longer the profession, she/he would still be a person. Experientially I have been a staff minister (paid & volunteer) and in a few instances what I did/my work was important but my person/who I am did not. That’s enough to send anyone over the edge. Value people not simply positions.
4. Don’t assume the worst about people who end their lives. Ending their lives does not make them bad people. They are not selfish people. They are not weak people. They are not crazy people, they are not demon possessed. They are not Hell bound. They are people whose hope ran out, people who tried until they could try no longer. They are people who live with an illness, yes it is an illness, some illness is physical & some illness is mental. They are people who would have continued to live if they could. And most likely, it hurt them deeply to have to leave those they love.
5. Check in on people. It’s not enough to be aware of a person’s struggle and distance yourself from them, waiting for the next time they reach out to you or if it’s a leader just wait for their faith to kick in. Check in from time to time, ask how they are doing, be a friend.
6. Remember that it is not necessary nor appropriate for you to fill every space or moment with your words. Presence is a priceless gift to offer, just be there.
7. Some situations don’t need a bible verse. Nuff said.
8. The absence of a smile does not equate to the absence of faith, but often an indicator of pain.
9. The presence of a smile does not equate joy and the absence of depressive conditions. Some of us are skilled at putting our smile on like we put on clothing. Not every smiling face is content and at peace, sometimes if appropriate it is good to gently go a little deeper [with a person's permission of course].
10. If you don’t know, say you don’t know. Some will appreciate that because it opens the door for them to share their story, open their hearts and help you with “knowing” more deeply.
11. Never ever never, under any circumstances be trite or offer empty platitudes or clichés. Mental illness for some people, at given points in the struggle, is a matter of life and death.
Well, that’s a long list but not at all extensive, so if you have other things you would add please do so in the comments section. Gone are the days when we can just keep the stigma going regarding mental illness and think it’s ok. Lives are lost because of our silence and refusal to engage the topic. People give up because they feel the need to suffer in silence and hide their truth rather than let people in. We can do better.
Here are just a few resources that might help:
Talking Mental Health in the Black Community (Huff Post Live recording)
Not Alone: Reflections on Faith and Depression - Monica A. Coleman
Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting - Terrie Williams
Beyond Blue (the blog)
Say Yes to Grace: How to Burn Bright without Burning Out - Kirk Byron Jones
Rest in the Storm: Self-Care Strategies for Clergy and Other Caregivers – Kirk Byron Jones
I might as well start off with an admission that I am not aware of solid details regarding the mental state of Miriam Carey, the young mom whose life ended tragically this week as she was gunned down after a complex situation in our nations capitol. However, because mental illness has been offered as a possible contributing factor in her actions in Washington, DC, it once again causes me to reflect on the issue of Mental Illness/Health in a general sense – even apart from Miss Carey.
It cannot be denied that the system of care when it comes to mental illness, is woefully inadequate and underfunded. Not to mention, the accessibility of professional mental healthcare for the financially challenged are limited.
Certainly, I believe that professional psychologists and psychiatrists are worthy of due salary, my issue is not with them. However, I do take issue with a system that is not set up to offer assistance to those who are uninsured, unemployed or employed but barely getting by. The average cost for a 45-50 minute therapy session is between $150 – $185. When you add the cost of multiple sessions together, for impoverished individuals, the care is just not feasible.
Contact many professional counseling centers and you will be turned away. Even centers with sliding scale fees only slide but so far, most, not less than $45. And even then, you are not always offered the care of a licensed, credentialed professional, but someone with only an MA, if that. The message the ill person hears in that is that they are worthy of lesser or lower level care.
So, does an under resourced person actually receive the treatment they need and get their issues addressed in a manner that puts them on a path to wellness? Maybe, maybe not.
The truth is that if you don’t advocate for yourself, and aggressively pursue and seek out help you can afford, you will likely not get the help you need to resolve your mental health issues. AND, the truth is that most individuals who suffer with mental illness or mood disorders rarely have the strength of mind, and energy to do that – especially when they have no idea where to look and when they think they may have found a place that can help them, they get rejected and referred to someplace else; and then that “someplace else” rejects them and refers them to someplace else. And this happens over and over again, which causes people to give up and lose hope of wellness. And the end results are not usually good, lives end badly and tragically.
In all of this, there are things that I long to see:
1. The normalization of Mental Illness where it reaches a level of being treated as well as any physical illness
2.The erasing of the stigma and imposed isolation experienced by those who suffer with mental illness and mood disorders.
3. For churches and other faith based institutions offer support for the mentally ill within and without their congregations. And that can take on many shapes and approaches
4. For churches to let go of hyper spirituality and accept that people need more than encouragements to “pray more” and “trust God.” And for others, to cease considering mental illness demonic.
5. Mental Healthcare Funding stops experiencing budget cuts
6. Increased education regarding care for those who battle mental illness and humanization; there is too much stereotyping, broad brushing and assumption
Statistically speaking one in every four adults experience mental illness; one in seventeen experience major mental illness. Consult NAMI for more detailed stats. But it is worth mentioning in that it highlights the seriousness of the issue. We can do better and we should. Bemoaning the tragedies that stem from mental health issues is not nearly enough.
The use of paradoxical and polar opposite concepts seems unavoidable to me these days. Perhaps indicative of where I am with life right now; perhaps it is because paradox is important and needs acknowledgment and pondering. Some realities are nonsensical in the truest sense of the word. When bad days turn into bad weeks, and bad weeks become bad months; when “one of those days” turns into multiple bad days; when the God of more than enough seems like the God of less than enough, barely enough, not nearly enough – believing and doubting appear simultaneously possible.
Dialog with others reveals that one can be in relationship with God for years, and still reach a point in life where the existence and involvement of God is questionable. They are not sure whether what they have believed is truth or a hoax. Would we still classify them as believers though they are in a place of doubting?
Sometimes disillusion and discouragement replaces clarity and hopefulness. No need to deny this – if God is God, it makes sense to me that God prefers honesty above pretense. Crying, praying and wondering, yet hoping, and shutting down, going silent in prayer and drawing odd conclusions.
Quite a few Christians that I know are ok with reading about ancient Bible characters that doubted, experienced and even did negative things. Yet somehow, when it comes to people today having some of the same experiences, we gasp, point fingers of shame and should not, as if God does not understand and as though God also gasps. Hiding behind the stories of others and denying our own realities is hypocrisy at its best.
A notable difference in our stories and their stories – both positive and negative, faith filled and doubt plagued, is that their stories are recorded in a book published for all of us to see and read. With reluctance we expose our hearts and put aspects of our lived experiences on display. We share the good, and hide the bad, thereby creating an allusion for others, conveying a message to others who struggle that the struggle they face is somehow unique. Falsehood helps no one! Though our lives are not recorded for any and everyone to read about, we are still just as human as they were. But it’s easier to talk about “them and those,” than it is to acknowledge “me and mine” – distancing ourselves from their stories as though they are somehow not our stories too.
But the question remains, is it possible to be a person of faith who questions? Is it possible to believe and simultaneously doubt and question everything you once believed and were nearly sure of – especially when God seems distant and uninterested in us and the things that are hurting us? Could it be that even when doubt overwhelms our existence, there is still a minutia of faith that remains?
There are places within ancient biblical text that allude to the possibility – people such as the dad of a child in trouble who cried “Lord I believe, help my unbelief,” or Thomas, a follower of Jesus whom we label according to his moment of doubt as though “doubting” is his first name.
Being honest about our doubts is somewhat scary. But could this being we refer to as God be more compassionate than a finger pointing, shame on you type of God, welcoming our doubts and receiving our questions as prayer or at the very least honesty? Perhaps God understands when no matter how hard we try, things don’t change? Perhaps God understands when smiles are replaced with frowns and laughter with tears? Perhaps God even understands when our faith and confidence turn into doubt and fear. Maybe God is “standing” gently by us, listening, guiding, and compassionate towards us.
I have doubts, no sense in lying about it – moments when I question as deeply as Job and laugh as boldly as Sarah and Abraham. There are things that I don’t know, there are things that I thought I knew, but I am no longer so sure of. But if God is in fact real, I know that I am loved by this God. What I don’t know is how much I trust/believe.
Many Christian folks will never admit to having doubts, after all we are referred to as “believers.” Truth is, sometimes we feel abandoned, alone and disregarded by God and by others. Sometimes the strength to hope, to dream and to continue moving forward eludes us. What I have discovered is that when courage does comes and we feel free enough to acknowledge doubts, a friend or two walks away. They may not call it walking away, but their silence speaks volumes, their decision to no longer interact with you, and ask “how are you?” are not so subtle hints that they have abandoned you. Individuals who only desire to hang around you when you are a happy, believing faith filled, positive Christian and stand aloof and at a distance when you are filled with pain, and not so happy and positive, are…, well I don’t know what to call them???
All I know is that pain – whether physical or emotional, is real. Some pain leaves us speechless. We want to talk, but no words will come; we want to scream, but our vocal cords won’t cooperate (plus, it might disturb our neighbors too). Sometimes all we can produce are moans, sighs, tears.
Sometimes it doesn’t matter how hard you try, because even in the trying nothing works out and all that remains is disappointment. Sometimes just when you think you are moving forward, growing and progressing, you discover that you are bound to the place where you’ve always been.
Sometimes we have more questions than answers. And whether we believe the character Job in Hebrew text is real or fictional, reading the book of Job reveals a clear picture of questioning as a result of what one is experiencing – questions for God, questions for himself and questions for his friends. Here are a just a few:
QUESTIONS FOR HIS “FRIENDS”
But why? Have I ever asked you for a gift? Have I begged for anything of yours for myself?
Have I asked you to rescue me from my enemies, or to save me from ruthless people? Honest words can be painful, but what do your criticisms amount to? Do you think your words are convincing when you disregard my cry of desperation?
Look at me! Would I lie to your face? Stop assuming my guilt, for I have done no wrong. Do you think I am lying? Don’t I know the difference between right and wrong?
“Is not all human life a struggle? Lying in bed, I think, ‘When will it be morning?’ But the night drags on, and I toss till dawn.
QUESTIONS FOR GOD
Why won’t you leave me alone, at least long enough for me to swallow! If I have sinned, what have I done to you, O watcher of all humanity? Why make me your target? Am I a burden to you?
QUESTIONS FOR HIMSELF (reflection)
Why wasn’t I born dead? Why didn’t I die as I came from the womb? Why was I laid on my mother’s lap? Why did she nurse me at her breasts? Why wasn’t I buried like a stillborn child, like a baby who never lives to see the light?
I don’t have a lot of answers. I do, however, have a plethora of questions. And I choose honesty over pretense and I believe God is honored in honesty.
All of the questions may not get answers, but we can still ask them as a means of being honest about our hearts, what we feel, what we wonder about and to release some of the pain we feel; to help us process our grief, suffering, pain. And who knows, we may eventually arrive at a place of peace with the unknown and incomprehensible even if the questions and doubt never go away. Having doubt does not mean that I don’t have faith; it just means that faith is not the only thing I have.
When we clean up our stories and present the censored, sanitized version of those stories, concealing the truth of whom and how we are – sure we maintain the image of perfection, but that doesn’t make it real and actual or helpful.
Having doubts and denying those doubts doesn’t somehow make them less real. Being annoyed with unanswered and unanswerable questions due to the trouble not only in our individual lives, but also in the world around us – racism, injustice, poverty, illness, the list goes on, is natural and human.
Life can cause us to identify with Job who in essence says that no matter where I look or which direction I face, I cannot find God and the evidence says that God is not there (Job 23:8-9). This is not Job’s starting point in relation to God and if we keep reading, it is obvious that this is not the ending point. BUT it should not be denied, dismissed or ignored that these words are also part of his experience in relation to “God.”
I am guessing that quite a few of us have these experiences, but to avoid shocking, confusing and devastating those near to us, we remain silent about these times, and only give voice to our faith filled, confident moments. The problem is that this approach is not real – it makes us a fraud, hypocritical, and quite frankly insensitive to others. So own your doubts, be unashamed of where you find yourself in life and try to keep moving forward.
When all others have stopped, God is still applauding you.
- Kirk Byron Jones
1. One of the greatest gifts we can give to folks having a difficult time is letting them know they are not alone. Never underestimate the gift of presence.
2. Having people around you who believe when all you can do is doubt, is priceless
3. The theological perspective of “you must have done something wrong to be going through what you’re going through” is flawed, twisted and a bunch of #%&@%#!
4. Just because a person is still holding on doesn’t mean they’ve never considered giving up.
5. It’s ok to question God, correct or argue with crazy responses from friends, and admit that you despair of life and sometimes despise the day you were born like Job did (eventually, I must write about that brother and his wife too).
6. When you are so angry that you don’t have anything to say to God, having praying people in your life helps. They pray for us when we can’t (and don’t want to) pray for ourselves.
8. Folks who claim that they have never been pissed off at God or wanted to give up could possibly be lying or maybe just need to live a while longer in order to find out that it is possible to get there.
9. When people are courageous enough to expose their heart/soul, we should be compassionate enough to support rather than run away from them/avoid them.
10. Sometimes the people you never expected to “be there” are there in ways that provide healing and a sense of relief. They listen more than they talk, they call, they check in with you….
11. [In relation to claiming the status of "friend"] Asking people what they need is so much better than assuming you know what they need. It might even preserve/strengthen a friendship
12. Sometimes people ignore you in the name of “I didn’t know what to do/say,” which leads to an increase in your feelings of isolation.
13. Sometimes forgiving those who add to your pain (knowingly or unknowingly) is frustrating and difficult.
14. God provides others when some neglect you and say they “thought” they needed to give you space. What!?
15. Every smiling face is not happy…. When you take time to look beyond the surface, sometimes you’ll discover the pain of a soul that is crying. Be kind. Be gentle.
16. God can handle expressed anger and doubt and will love us anyway.
17. Faith = holding on when everything in you has quit, given up.
18. People say a lot when they are silent and sometimes the silence is just plain loud!
19. Presence truly is a gift – just being there goes a long way. Nuff said. (I know I said that already, but it’s worth repeating). :)
20. Scars are evidence that not only have we been hurt, but that we have been healed. But when the wound is still fresh and open, gentleness is appropriate.
I am pretty sure that the list is not complete, I am continually learning…. What would you add to this list?
Very recently I experienced a major life storm. OK, let me stop lying. Truth be told, I am right in the middle of it at this very moment. Some days it is difficult to get out of bed, other days I wake up disappointed that I woke up alive.
As I talk to people and watch folks move through life, my senses are heightened and my eyes come open to the pain that tons of people are experiencing. I am not the only one. Whether it is something as traumatic as the recent attacks in Boston or as traumatic as the emotional and mental anguish that is felt day after day or losses – small and great; there are even some who can’t imagine life getting better and face each day with dread as they endure the illness of Depression and other emotional or mental illnesses. Sometimes life hits hard. Many times it is beyond our control.
As a person of faith my first instinct is to look in God’s direction for help. I look to God because I realize that I need a source greater than me to draw strength from. It’s almost automatic for me. However, as I hear statements such as: “You don’t know that God is all you need until God is all you have,” it makes me want to holler.
Some profess this as though it is absolute truth. Certainly I have had moments when things were stripped away and God proved to be present in the middle of it. But is God really enough? Is God all that we need? God is all powerful and all loving, yet in a crisis God is not all that we need. Sounds contradictory in a sense – “all” sufficient and yet not enough? Hard times have a way of revealing this. Hard times also raise awareness regarding what types of friends you have in your life. I have found that the following are some of the types in our lives.
Midnight Hour Friends - These are the people who you can call on and count on. They are dependable, they see through fake smiles and know how to reach into the core of your being and leave you feeling loved unconditionally.
Fair Weather Friends - They like to hang out with you when things are good and you have on your happy, fun face but disappear or stand aloof and gawk when times are tough for you, waiting for you to get it together so they can rejoin your presence.
Fickle Friends - They are unpredictable, you never know where you stand with them. They are usually unreliable and are great at making promises that they don’t keep – and they give you no explanation
New Friends - These are the relational surprises. When you met them, you never imagined that when things got tough they would be there with a shoulder to cry on and strength to lean on when you are weak.
Strangers who Behave Like Friends - These are the people you encounter from time to time who lend a helping hand when they see you in need (and they don’t expect anything in return except a “thank you).” They don’t know you well at all, but still care about you enough to help.
Faithful Friends - These are people who have seen you at your best and at your worst and still see you as valuable. They are confidants, conversation partners, people you can talk to for hours and have it seem like minutes. Everybody should have at least one or two of these.
I suppose we need all of these types of people in our lives. Sometimes the tricky part is figuring out who’s who and discovering that the folks you thought were one type of friend were actually another. But what is not tricky is knowing that we need more than God, we need each other.
On a personal note, if all a person has for me when I am in deep trouble, heart hurting, and a “can’t pick myself up” kind of pain is a sermon or a scripture to quote, keep that, because I can preach a sermon and read a scripture my damn self. But the ones I have found most helpful are people who can push past the religious jargon and egotistical tendencies to try and prove how spiritual they are and simply lend a listening ear, give a hug, and yes, let me yell a while when I need to without a whole lot of commentary or put “offness.” These things and more help people make it through life storms.
One of the many messages of the Resurrection of Jesus is that it’s not over when it looks like it’s over – there’s more to the story. I know this, but from time to time I must admit that I am a walking, living breathing contradiction, i.e. I believe yet I don’t believe. I believe need help with my unbelief. Some will be honest and admit that there is a level of hell that we can go through that can cause wondering, doubting, despair. We still have faith, but cannot and should not deny the struggle. The evidence that faith is still present is seen in our courageously getting out of bed day after day even when it doesn’t make sense to do so.
Sure, we have promises given by God [to others] as read in biblical text that modern readers can live by that inform faith in the ever present presence of God. But as God seems absent and inactive (and even when we sense and believe that he is present), we need the people who know us and love us to be there. God’s presence is not the only presence needed to sustain us through hard times. Each created person needs another created person (or two or three or more).
There are people who love me so deeply that they refuse to let me walk through life alone. These individuals grasp the concept of what it means to be the living, breathing, realized compassion of God and presence of love. Not only do I value them, I aim to be like them in this way – they show me how to care by caring.
During seasons of life when I experience more defeat than victory, more tears than smiles, and more frustration than peace, pious platitudes won’t do, neither will empty “I’ll pray for yous.” I need the physical presence of human beings whose compassion won’t let them abandon me. How about you? And more importantly, who can you be this kind of person for?
It’s amazing how death makes you think about life. It’s also amazing that when someone amazing passes away you wish that everyone would have been blessed with the opportunity to know them. As I posted updates on Richard Twiss – health status, progress and eventually the taking of his last breath on February 9, 2013, I discovered that only a handful of my friends knew or had been privileged to experience the wisdom, knowledge and spiritual insight of my Native American brother in Christ. And yet so many in other facets of my life and around the world were privileged with the opportunities to learn from Richard.
As I sit here with weeping heart, I am reminded of how kind, genuine and humorous he was each time I heard him speak. His commitment to being fully who he was as a Native American Christian gave me more freedom and peace about being fully who I am as an African American who is Christian without pressure to conform to the dominant White cultural norms. I am grateful. When you have some time check our some of his messages/videos.
I am also hopeful that more will take time to listen to videos of him speaking, contribute to the organization he founded with his wife, and read his work though he is currently no longer with us. His impact was huge, many tributes have been written in his honor by those impacted – you can read a few of those here, and here. You can also visit the LEGACY PAGE that has been created.
Rest in Peace Taoyate Obnajin, thank you for standing with your people, and for considering all of us your relatives – you taught us all well.
On this day, not because of any special holiday set aside for the commemoration of modern African American women, but because of sheer gratitude, I pause to celebrate the lives of a few African American women whose voices and contributions to society and to me, are worthy of acknowledgment. These are those who are not quoted on Facebook/Twitter, are not found in history books just yet, but I consider them worthy of applause, admiration and appreciation. These women provide the necessary encouragement for me to be fully me. They teach me the meaning of bringing my whole self to the party.
As a mature, and continually maturing woman, their wisdom and courage to live authentically into who they are, has shaped who I am and who I am becoming. In short, they inspire me to “be…!” Half of them are individuals whom I know personally, others I have learned from at a distance, but each of them through written and/or spoken word – whether via books, video, blogs, or invaluable one-to-one conversations, are in part responsible for the courageous woman I am becoming. This post is my way of saying “Thank you.”
For those who wonder why I have chosen to highlight African American women, please know that it is not due to prejudice. Rather it is due to an awareness of my history and the challenges that women of color have faced in regard to the silencing of our voices. So, here they are.
Dr. Zina Jacque - During a time in my life and ministry when I lost all hope and confidence that there were woman in ministry who had achieved high accomplishments without wearing a cloak of arrogance, God placed Zina in my path. Her mentoring, advice, strategic ability to pose the right questions to me, and most of all her friendship has transformed my life. She seldom tells me what to do/what she thinks I should do, but through the skillful use of questions she helps me think more deeply. I’m grateful. She knows my flaws and STILL sees me as good – never once has she been a voice of condemnation. Everybody needs a “Zina” in their lives – what a gift, and what a true friend!
Dr. Jossie Owens - My former pastor who demonstrated what it meant to be secure in her role as a leader. My plethora of questions were not a threat or source of intimidation for her. Her door was always open to me, and her love was without condition. During a time in my spiritual journey when I was wounded by the actions of other church leaders, her compassion, patience, wisdom and humor brought healing to my soul and gave me courage to give ministry another chance.
Dr. Wil Gafney - Her bold Kingdom voice often leaves me wondering how she gained the courage to write the way she does, serve in the setting which she has chosen as an African American woman – I have never encountered anyone like her. She is one whose life gives me “permission” to be different and know that it’s ok to be my authentic self. Dr. Gafney is fierce, a skillful communicator (written and verbal), and one of the boldest scholars I have ever beheld – she tends to leave me asking “did she just say that?!” When I “grow up” I want to be as bold, daring, knowledgeable, and wise as she is. Classy, to say the least!
Dr. Pamela Lightsey - Her commitment to scholarship, social justice, diversity and inclusion in the face of opposition not only amazes me, but instructs me in what it means to believe so deeply in equality for all people that I am willing to bear the cost of my convictions. She consistently holds nothing back, and refuses to mince words to appease the majority. In her absence I refer to her as my “hardcore” older sister in Christ. She inspires me, perhaps more than she realizes, and her approach to life and ministry has gradually caused me to resist the temptation to “punk out” when others desperately need me to stand up and speak up about subject matters that many within the Church would rather keep a hush about.
Princess Kasune Zulu - A women of tremendous courage, faith, and hope; and my friend. When she prays with and for me, I never doubt that God is listening; when we talk I walk away much wiser. She has overcome the loss of both parents at a young age, she is a surviver of HIV/AIDS, world-wide speaker and advocate for those living with disease, and an entrepreneur – leader of Fountain of Life in Zambia. Her Beauty is both external and internal. Though she has sat with US Presidents, she maintains a common touch with whomever she encounters. We’ve talked with each other, prayed through challenges, and I am honored to call her friend. This is my sister, a confidant, a spiritual leader in my life and one of the most humble sisters I have ever met.
Dr. Monica Coleman - There are societal issues that most spiritual leaders shy away from or only whisper about behind doors of privacy. However, Monica Coleman holds nothing back when it comes to public dialog regarding depression, sexuality, abuse, and the female body. She opens her life to us, unashamed to own her struggles, and as a result, the stigma of these issues is being erased.
Carol Louis-Maire - One of my biological sisters. Her triumphant spirit, sisterly love, and courage to endure sickness and pain has inspired compassion in me for individuals who battle illnesses with stigma attached to it. She is why I am in ministry today. She is why I have way too many books on my shelves. She is why I believe prayer works. I started ministry because of her mentoring and gentle nudging to study, learn and live into the call and plan of God for my life. I couldn’t ask for a better older sister – and in all of this serious stuff, her sense of humor is slightly outrageous, and she is the only one who can get away with referring to me as “youngest.”
Willie Mae Kelley (1931 – 2000) – Yes, this is my mother! Not only did her love for family stand out to me, but her love and intentional care for other families in the neighborhood was equally outstanding; she loved me with spontaneous, thoughtful gift giving – no holiday needed, but with each small/great thing given came the phrase “I saw this and thought about you….” Whether it was flowers, a card, miscellaneous item that she knew would make me smile, it was all her way of telling me how special I was to her. And through this as well as the things that she hoped to achieve in life, but never did, she inspires me to keep pushing forward with love for others an determination not to waste my time or rob the world of my good contribution.
Yvette Flunder - Songstress, preacher, advocate, organizer, trailblazer for justice and equality. I could write more than a few pages about this woman of God. The opportunity to sit in a seminary class with her on the topic of “sexuality and spirituality” changed my life and reminded me of the significance of making space for all of God’s children. There are points where we absolutely agree, and other points on which we differ. Nevertheless, her life shows me a different way, and a fresh approach to what it means to love all people.
Dr. Emilie Townes – Scholar extraordinaire! The embodiment of wisdom, and by her example of following God and using the uniqueness of her voice and story she empowers those younger than she to go further, deeper and grow stronger. I admire her so deeply that when I saw her recently on the campus of a local seminary I was too awestruck to say anything. Sometimes being in the presence of greatness leaves me a little speechless, but luckily for me I later had the opportunity to join in on a conference call with her and just listen! Now if only I can sit in on a class, seminar or workshop with her – surely this will add to my respect and admiration.
Terrie Williams – We’ve never met, but her journey through the darkness of clinical depression which she has chosen to publicly share in Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We Are Not Hurting in order to give voice to the challenges of mental illness within the Black community, is noteworthy. She speaks up when it is no doubt safer to be silent. This deserves recognition.
Renita Weems - Her skilled use of words captivates me even when I don’t want to be. Works such as What Matters Most, Battered Love, and “Just a Sister Away” make me rethink what I thought I might have known about the Old Testament. She’s my elder sister in the Lord! The lens through which she sees and understands biblical texts never ceases to challenge me and provoke deeper thinking. Her style awakens adventure within me.
As time goes on, I am hopeful that this list will expand, but for now I salute the women whom I have named and described above along with a few others such as Kentina Washington, who embodies compassion; Kim Thomas, who is more amazing than she realizes; Alise Barrymore, who models a different way to pastor, Olive Knight, who believes in others and helps them find their voice, Keyonda McQuarters, who is the best example of parenting I have ever met, and Alisha Lola Jones, a young woman who encourages me to be about all that I need to be about. There are countless others who keep going even when they could easily quit – thank you for hanging in there! For the multitude of African American scholars whom others tried to convince me didn’t exist, and the women whose faith is large, passion for their work intense, and skills unmatched, I am grateful. Through their lives and witness they have taught me to be bold, vocal, compassionate, and reach toward all that I have the potential to become.
Who are the African American women who have shaped who you are/are becoming? Leave a shout -out to them in the comments.