Category Archives: Diversity
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.
The topic of diversity is one that many find intriguing, others are passionate about it, and still others are apathetic regarding the subject of diversity. Certainly the topic of diversity holds a variety of meanings for different people, but since the setting I am most familiar with are church or religious environments, I approach the topic with that as a backdrop.
I have discovered that to say that you as an organization or a church are “diverse” or “multicultural,” along with other descriptive terms is on some level trendy and it can even draw individuals to a place or group. However I find that with many Christian groups, whether it be churches, universities or otherwise, it can end up being only that which is on paper or on a computer screen. Some even go as far as to display photo stock pics of diverse groups of people as though it were a reflection of the realities of their group.This is not limited to groups/organizations – every group is made up of “individuals.” The actions of individuals also have bearing on what takes place in the area of diversity. I find that we all at some point can suffer from a disease I call the “Diversity Delusion.” Here are some of the symptoms:
1. All of your friends (whether real or via social media) “look” just like you. The only people you have deep conversations with or friendships with are of the same race, class, etc that you are
2. Failing to notice dominance of one cultural group or be aware of who is culturally missing and never wondering why.
3. The books on your shelf are all written by authors of one dominant group or cultural perspective.
4. With the exception of maybe one or two or less, the people you listen to and learn from are all people of your specific race, culture, social and economic status.
5. Because you are familiar with certain cultural stereotypes, you assume that you know a particular culture.
6. You precede your references to people of a culture different from yours by adding a race description – “African American man,” “Asian woman,” instead of simply saying a woman or man.
Awareness of the symptoms can be remedied by choosing different actions from this day forward. During my attendance at an event titled “Experimenting with Diversity:Using the College as a Laboratory by Marvin Worthy, he mentioned that “Not everything you face will be changed, but nothing will ever change unless you face it.” I don’t believe that lack of opportunity to embrace diversity and learn not only about, but from others is the problem. I believe that the problem is that we fail to extend ourselves beyond what makes us comfortable…
Is local church diversity possible? Not too long ago I had the experience of joining the staff of a local church as the only African American staff member. During the interview process the church had mentioned a desire to become a diverse congregation where everyone was welcome to come. However as I spent time on staff I would soon discover many challenges that accompanied this plan.
Now that I have recovered from the experience of being there, I can honestly say that the experience helped solidify my convictions even more deeply regarding church diversity. Many lessons were learned and insights gleaned. Here are some that flow, not only from my experiences there, but from internal places within the fibers of my being.
When it comes to diversifying local congregations, cowardice really has no place. (I will refrain from using terms such as being a wuss, punk, chump, etc). The Church needs leaders who love people deeply – all kinds of people and refuse to become satisfied with status quo and always doing what has always been done. Leaders who aim to lead the way in the area of diversity take hits that can be avoided if only we keep the majority culture in our individual settings happy. We could avoid criticism and having people question our motives if only we didn’t launch into difficult conversations about race, cultural injustices, and issues of discrimination. Are you up for the task – pain and all? Today’s Church needs leaders who aim to please God rather than appease people/be a people pleaser. Are you that kind of leader? There are some noteworthy leaders in the conversation of diversity that model courage for leaders, individuals such as Soong-Chan Rah, Mark Deymaz, Brenda Salter-McNeil, Daniel Hill, and David Ireland, to name a few
Long-Term Commitment to the Process
I suppose I don’t need to say much here. But I include it because I realize that starting out in the pursuit of diversity is one thing, and continuation is another. Some never start. Others start and quit when things get tough and even give “God” the credit for their lack of commitment to continuance, assuming that if they encounter opposition then it must be a signal that they should stop. However, opposition can and usually does serve as at least one indication that we are on the right track. Keep God’s vision for a diverse, yet united humanity in mind and keep going!
Celebrate Rather than Tolerate
A few years back after visiting countless churches during my time in New Jersey and leaving disappointed, I decided to give it one last try by visiting a fairly large church. I went with low expectation, because I was weary with the search and on the verge of giving up finding the place for me. As I entered the area it became clear to me that this was “the” place! As I walked from the parking lot to the church building I noticed that I was surrounded by a variety of cultures – Asian American, African American, Caucasian, Latino, Middle Eastern, etc. I entered into a space where I was greeted at the doors by Greeters of mixed cultures, encountered people from these different cultures interacting with each other. As morning worship began, the diversity was visible and audible again as staff members of different races and styles were present and those who lead musical worship were not only a mixture of races, but the music selections were from genres that appealed to urban gospel, instrumental, contemporary worship, etc.
It became obvious to me that this church did not only invite all people to come and then ask them to conform to cultural norms that were not there own, but each person could come and be celebrated for who they authentically were and were encouraged to celebrate who others were. The presence of people different that you are should not cause us to simply endure their presence among us, but to rejoice in the beauty of our differences! Willingness to let go of things always catering to our particular group, styles, etc we much be willing to join with others and celebrate their styles as well.
Willingness to do What Does NOT Come Natural
I suppose the Caucasian gentleman that once said to me “it’s natural for people to gravitate to those who are similar to themselves” was correct. When I enter a crowded space it’s natural for me to look for other African Americans and move in their direction as a point of connection. But after thinking about this concept of doing what comes natural, I shifted my thinking to biblical text and saw that God’s design is the extend us beyond what simply comes natural to functioning supernaturally. What I mean by that is that we should be willing to let God empower us to reach beyond ourselves and do some of the things we would not naturally have the tendency to do. Even a brief skimming of the book of Acts gives us a glimpse of what it means to reach beyond our specific cultural groups. A look at the life and ministry practice of Jesus also gives us a clue – as He talked to Samaritans and other marginalized groups. The very purpose He came for was to break down walls that divide us from each other and eliminate the barriers (Ephesians 2). So, maybe God doesn’t excuse the Church from diversity as easily as we excuse ourselves from it?
Shared Power and Authority
It’s one thing to invite people of various cultures to the table – changing them positionally from being an outsider to an insider, it’s a totally different dynamic to share the authority that comes with the position. I learned this during my time on staff at the Caucasian congregation as I was repeatedly left out of important meetings and decisions, as my authority even in the area where I was invited to lead was even nonexistent. The dynamics of being a women on a male staff, and not only a woman, but the only African American made it nearly impossible for me to lead. I had a position, but I soon discovered that the authority that was to accompany the position was not a reality. Sadly, this eventually lead to feelings of tokenism. If you are a church leader, particularly if you are a member of the dominant group/race/culture, remember not just to embrace the lofty idea of giving positions to people of minority groups/race/cultures, but be prepared to also share the power and authority that is appropriate for such positions.
I believe that church diversity CAN happen! I must admit that it disturbs me to encounter diversity everywhere I go schools, malls, neighborhoods, restaurants, etc and then attend churches where homogeneity is the norm. When I enter into neighborhoods that are clearly diverse, and then enter a church in that same neighborhood and see a homogenous group of people it creates a sense of unrest. And though this unrest is uncomfortable I am inclined to believe that God is in the discomfort in that the discomfort compels me to action. So maybe dissatisfaction is actually a good starting point? What do you think?