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Open Letter to Presiding Bishop-Elect Joseph W. Walker III and the “By Invitation Only” Attendees of the Inaugural Meeting of the SHIFT

On Monday, December 9, someone forwarded me a post on Facebook about an initiative by the Bishop-Elect of the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship. I read all of it and was disturbed. I posted about it on WomanPreach! Inc.’s Facebook page. People asked whether I would respond further. I pondered it and decided, “Yes.” And then, my response became OUR response, taking on a life of its own. I appreciate the people who signed this letter and the people who wished they could have. This is what justice-making and beloved faith community-building look like to me–a group of people from the church, not all whom would agree with each other about everything, but who know that the table of God is expansive and who know that it takes all of us to change the world for good. I’m glad to be on the journey with you all (and the many unnamed and unsigned people not reflected on this post).

December 12, 2013

Open Letter to Presiding Bishop-Elect Joseph W. Walker III and the “By Invitation Only” Attendees of the Inaugural Meeting of the SHIFT

Brothers,

How an initiative begins significantly affects how it goes forward.

We read with interest the well-crafted December 9 press release of the coming “SHIFT,” a new initiative spearheaded by Rev. Joseph W. Walker III, Presiding Bishop-Elect of the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship. We paid special attention to the quotations and looked at the pictures. What a curious title: “Rebranding in the body of Christ: The Ultimate Leader Shift.”

As we read the letter, we became increasingly more disturbed and troubled. Although our first response was “no women were in the room,” in fact our concerns are deeper. It was just sinful and wrongheaded for a group of men to gather without active, real participation of women. We want to be clear about what disturbs us in this moment. Generally, we ignore lists of “100 most influential,” “10 best preachers,” etc.—how could we know who are the 10 best preachers, given all the powerful preachers who will never have a stage? So we read “chosen ones” and “greatest movement” with a grain of salt. But if those gathered intended to communicate an inclusive, progressive, dynamic, forward thinking agenda, your images and rhetoric failed you.

The post-letter from Bishop Walker—apparently written in response to comments made about the absence of women—said “a number of women who were invited… many were unable to attend” (though there were NONE present). We are hard-pressed to believe that all those busy men could come to the SHIFT meeting, but not one woman was available at the time. Quite frankly, if scheduling the meeting proved to be that problematic for women only, then one would be forced to rethink its planning strategies and organization. In the interest of being in solidarity with your womanist sister clergy, if this initiative really intended to be “new,” “progressive,” and “bold,” we think our Womanist/Black Feminist allies in the photo ought have refused to meet or release anything without a critical mass of sister leaders present, not as tokens, but as full participants. If there were men in that room who were in fact appalled by the lack of female representation because they did not know beforehand who would attend, we would hope that our brother allies would publicly declare their disappointment that a meeting with no women present was not rescheduled.

That’s what solidarity and ally-ship look like.

We’ve been chastened not to call black male church leaders out in public. We’ve been told that we have misunderstood. The rising bishop responded in his follow-up letter in what he called “a teaching moment” that we should “ask questions” rather than assume, presumably to correct his errant critics. We say that the gathered brotherhood of clergy should make their commitments clearer. What exactly do they hope to accomplish on behalf of the church? Does it matter to anyone other than women that women are invisible in a gathering of putatively this import? The Bishop’s letter read like a justification for male privilege. The usually “invisible cloak” of arrogance and male-only leadership was visible. All the rhetoric sounded like everything we’ve ever heard from male-dominated meetings.

As Womanists-Feminists-preachers-scholars-activists our responses come from several places. We are not making assumptions. Your press release and its attending images speak volumes. You are not interested in iconoclastically breaking from tradition. You’ve made clear that even if women were invited their insight, input, or wisdom was not considered significant enough for the group to wait. Indeed, the notion that women have to be “included” is itself a male privilege power move. Surely, you are aware that most black churches are comprised of as much as 80% female membership. We also know that women do the majority of the work of the church, without whose labor the organization and mission would fail. To be crystal clear, women’s gifts and capacities in all aspects of church leadership are as critical to the survival, relevance and progression of the church as men’s. Are women not already included in God’s plans?

You’ve communicated—loudly—that (male) “Generals” would strategize and tell all the foot soldiers what to do. A clear inference one gets from your invitation to meet is that God only calls “Generals” who are notorious and already “celebrity” preachers, i.e., those considered “important” and “special” people. Only those with thousands of members know anything about impact or leadership. We understand. That presumption makes sense in an entrepreneurial understanding of the church, where faithfulness is measured only in dollars and size. It smacks of religious elitism. What could an inner-city pastor with only a few members who’s faced gangs and helped people who are poor and struggling to thrive possibly have to offer? You’ve communicated that the hierarchical, “Fathers-know-best,” male-centric table works for you and you’ll scoot over and cram in a couple more of some you deem “worthy.” It is presumptuous and ill thought-out.

We will take you at your word that you didn’t intend to communicate most of the above, if you’ll take our word that’s how many people who care equally about the future of the church received it.

Intent and impact are two very different things. Be clear. Images matter. Rhetoric matters.

In this climate in which the black church finds itself on the brink of becoming irrelevant in the public’s eyes and where black preachers are portrayed on TV as money-grubbing pimps in the pulpit, it would seem that preachers serious about redeeming the times and restoring the reputation of the black church would be committed to justice that reflects genuine shared leadership with women. More than 27 years ago, Rev. Prathia Hall challenged the black Baptist Church on its rampant patronizing exclusion of women, and we find ourselves having to do the same. Dr. Renita Weems once asked, “What will it mean in the history of the church if record droves of women experience and accept their call and we go on with business as usual?” By your omission, you dishonor the legacy, ministry and lives of the biblical general Deborah and prophet Huldah; the church house leader Chloe; and deacon Phoebe and co-workers in the gospel Euodia and Syntyche. You dishonor the work and ministry of women such as Jarena Lee, Septima Clark, Ella P. Mitchell, Brenda Piper Little, Shirley Prince, and Bishop Barbara Harris, and countless of notable and unnamed others.

The challenge with critiquing SHIFT and movements that exclude more of God’s people than they include is that onlookers immediately think it’s personal. Religious male-centered leadership is “normal” and “sacred” and any attempt to question it is deemed perverse or personal. Our call is not for women to have access to patriarchal power, but that we all work together to create new, healthier, more humane—and therefore more godly—systems. We ask you to consider, not only those at the table you’ve spread, but those who are not present. We believe such consideration is central to the ministry of Christ. Women are invisible at the table, but so are many others, including, self-identified same-gender loving Christians. As you consider what or who has their feet on the necks of those you want to liberate, consider whose necks your feet may be holding down. Self-reflection and self-critique are deeply important in justice work.

In response to your invitation for dialogue, here are a few questions to get the dialogue going: How do leaders who claim to fight for justice not know that sexism—excluding women or only including them as afterthoughts—is just as vile and sinful as racism and that it takes intentionality to transform, if in fact you intend to do so? How do self-proclaimed Womanist allies not include women and men who are Womanists and/or Black Feminists in the shaping of vision? Womanist/Black Feminists are not concerned only with the “inclusion” of women in public religious life. That’s about numbers. As people of faith, committed to the cause of radical inclusion, justice and love, we would be remiss in our integrity and derelict in our respective vocations, if we did not speak to injustices and oppressions as evidenced by this introduction of your initiative. We are interested in vision and shared influence and the building of the Commonwealth of God, beloved communities where everyone is valued, heard, protected, and helped to thrive, even if we disagree with them on a number of fronts. Jesus modeled this expansive community best and thus was persecuted for it by self-styled religious movers and shakers of his day.

One last point. You can understand, can’t you, why talk about “core family values” by a fraternity of male preachers raises concern for many of us? We have seen from this last election cycle what happens to women, poor families, and same-gender loving people when right-wing conservatives draft laws and draw up policies in the name of God and family values. Is SHIFT an initiative of black men merely reflecting the same toxic politics and policies? In other words, who is permitted to sit at the table and to fully participate as self-possessed people? Are single people okay as single, or are they people who need to get married? What about single people who’ve adopted children and built families on the village model—a very African approach to family? Is there room for LGBTQ families already among your ranks, or is yours a movement bent on silencing, demonizing, or maligning them? Is there enough emotional, theological, and intellectual bandwidth within the organization to partner for social change with people with whom you don’t agree? I wonder what would happen if you thought Dream Defenders, New Black Man (in Exile), Moral Monday activists or Black Youth Project members, leaders of The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries, for example, were just as important collaborating partners FROM THE BEGINNING?

Bishop Walker noted that women’s full inclusion is a key priority. If so, one social justice organizer said, “If you say it’s for ‘us,’ don’t do it without us.” A noted activist once said that if you’re comfortable with everyone in the room, you’re not leading a revolution.

Finally, you may ask: “What do you want to happen?”

We want this group to commit that all future SHIFT meetings will include women religious leaders around the table, clergy and lay, pastors and academics—the presence of women whose voices you admit are critical and crucial to participating with male religious leaders in redeeming the times and redeeming the future of the black church.

We want members of the group to publicly acknowledge that, though you may not have intended the slight, this first gathering was sinful and flawed by these exclusions. If this exclusion was not the intended message, take a good faith opportunity to correct that error.

We raise these concerns and questions because it is faithful and just to do so. As catalyst for this letter, Dr. Valerie Bridgeman, along with any number of the undersigned, is willing to be in an open dialogue with Bishop-Elect Walker and any of those in that first meeting.

In the Struggle and in the Spirit,

Rev. Valerie Bridgeman, Ph.D. Biblical and Homiletics Scholar President & CEO of WomanPreach! Inc. Board of Trustees, Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference  *  Dr. Iva E. Carruthers General Secretary Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference  *  Renita J. Weems, Ph.D. Biblical Scholar Nashville, TN  *  Rev. Carolyn Ann Knight The Seminary Without Walls Smyrna, Georgia Bishop  *  Yvette Flunder Presiding Prelate, The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries Pastor, City of Refuge San Francisco, CA  *  Rev. Leslie D. Callahan, Ph.D. Pastor, St. Paul’s Baptist Church Philadelphia, PA * Jaha Zainabu, Poet  *  Rev. Maisha I. K. Handy, Ph.D. Pastor, Rize Community Church Associate Provost Interdenominational Theological Center  *  Robert Hoggard, Founder & President American Baptist College Affiliate of S.C.L.C  *  Matthew Wesley Williams, Lithonia, GA  *  Rev. Donna M. Vanhook, Burlington, NC  *  Rev. Marsha Foster Boyd, PhD, Englewood OH  *  Brittney C. Cooper, Ph.D., Departments of Women’s & Gender Studies & Africana Studies Rutgers University  *  Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright Board of Trustees, Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference  *  Myia Williams-Sanders  *  Rev. Martin L. Espinosa, Senior Pastor, Ray of Hope Community Church, Nashville, TN  *  Rev. Vivian Nixon, CEO, College and Community Fellowship & Founder, Education Inside Out Coalition  *  J.T. Thomas, Cleveland, OH  *  Rev. Dr. Gary V. Simpson, Senior Pastor, The Concord Baptist Church of Christ, Brooklyn NY & Associate Professor of Homiletics, Drew Theological Seminary  *  Keri Day, PhD, Professor of Ethics & Director of Black Church Studies, Brite Divinity School  *  Rev Toni DiPina, Pastor, Rockdale Congregational Church Northbridge, MA  *  Rashad D. Grove  *  Rev. Carla A. Jones  *  Jeralyn B. Major  *  Pamela R. Lightsey, PhD, Boston University School of Theology  *  Rev. Asa J Lee, Arlington, VA  *  Rev. Carolyn Hutchinson, Temple Hills, MD  *  Rev. Rashad D. Grove, Pastor, First Baptist Church of Wayne, PA  *  The Rev. Dr. Violet Lee  *  Tamura A. Lomax, Ph.D., Assistant Professor Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies, Virginia Commonwealth University  *  Darnell L. Moore. writer and activist  *  Estee Nena Dillard  *  Rev. Tawana Davis, Executive Minister, Shorter Community AME Church & Assistant Coordinator, Rocky Mountain District Women in Ministry  *  Rev. Cherisna Jean-Marie, Atlanta, GA  *  Rev. Dr. Alice Hunt, Chicago Theological Seminary, Chicago, IL, UCC  *  Karlene Griffiths Sekou, MPH, MTS  *  Rev. Cedrick Von Jackson  *  The Rev. Wil Gafney, PhD,  Chair of the Biblical Area and Associate Professor, Hebrew, Jewish and Christian Scripture, The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia  *  Min. Jamie Eaddy  *  Rev. Dr. Emma Jordan-Simpson, Executive Pastor, The Concord Baptist Church of Christ, Brooklyn, NY  *  Rev. Andrea Clark, Assistant Pastor, Antioch Baptist Church Tulsa, OK  *  Rev. Quincy James Rineheart, M.Div., S.T.M.  *  Rev. Dawnn M. Brumfield, Associate Pastor, Urban Village Church Chicago, IL  *  Ashon Crawley  *  Pastor Michelle E. Freeman, M.Div., Houston, TX Min.  *  L. Proverbs Briggs, Atlanta, GA  *  Rev. Dollie Howell Pankey, MACM, MTS, Pastor, St. James Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, Jasper, AL  *  Rev. Catharine A. Cummings, M.Div., Pastor, Wesley UMC Church, Springfield, MA  *  Rev. Earle J. Fisher, M.Div., Senior Pastor, Abyssinian Baptist Church (Memphis) & Adjunct Instructor of Contemporary Theology at Rhodes College  *  Rev. D.r Mitzi J. Smith, Ph.D  *  Charles Bowie, Ph.D  *  Rev. Carla Patterson, Associate Minister, Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, Charlotte, NC  *  Rev. Vanessa M. Brown  *  Karlene Griffiths Sekou, President Dignidad International, Cambridge, MA  *  Rev. Felicia Y. Thomas  *  Rev. Carla Patterson  *  Rev. Alisha Lola Jones, M.Div., CEO & Founder InSight Initiative, Inc.  *  Rev. Margaret Aymer, Ph. D., Associate Professor, Interdenominational Theological Center  *  Min. Brenda Summerville, M.Div. Chicago, IL  *  Roger A. Sneed, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Religion Furman University  *  Rev. Andre E. Johnson, PhD., Pastor, Gifts of Life Ministries, Memphis, TN & Dr. James L Netters Associate Professor of Rhetoric & Religion and African American Studies, Memphis Theological Seminary  *  Rev. Althea Bailey  *  Rev. Yvette A. Assem, M.Div., Womanist Missionary Language of the Black Woman’s Touch  *  Min. Robin P. Sessoms, M.Div.  *  Rev. Dorothy Harris, J.D., Pastor, Unity Fellowship Church of Columbia (Maryland)  *  Carla E. Banks  *  Jamall Andrew Calloway, S.T.M., Associate Minister Mt. Aery Baptist Church, Bridgeport, CT  *  Rev. Benjamin Ledell Reynolds, PhD student, Chicago Theological Seminary  *  Fallon Wilson, M.A., ABD, University of Chicago  *  Rev. Karyn Carlo, PhD  *  Rev. Dr. Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, Assistant Pastor for Special Projects Union Baptist Church, Cambridge, Massachusetts & John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor Colby College, Waterville, Maine  *  Rev. Charisse R. Tucker, Minister of Administration, St. Paul’s Baptist Church, Philadelphia, PA  *  Terry T. Hocker, Sr. Pastor/Founder, Bound By Truth And Love Ministries, Cincinnati, OH  *  Rev. Jamie D. Hawley, Chaplain University of Michigan  *  Rev. Kendal Brown, Dean of Students, Lancaster Theological Seminary  *  Rev. Melva L. Sampson  *  M. Brandon McCormack, Ph.D., Assistant Professor Departments of Pan-African Studies and Humanities (Religious Studies), University of Louisville  *  Charlotte Caldwell  *  Rev. Brian Foulks, Lexington, SC  *  Lisa Ann Anderson  *  Obery M. Hendricks, Jr., Ph.D., Professor, Biblical Interpretation New York Theological Seminary & Visiting Scholar of Religion & African American Studies, Columbia University  *  Min. Hazel M. Cherry, Oakland, CA, M.Div. Candidate, Howard University School of Divinity  *  Bishop Andre L. Jackson, Founding Pastor, New Vision Full Gospel Baptist Church, East Orange, NJ, MA in Practical Theology/ M.Ed Candidate Regent University, VA  *  Rev Candace Lewis, United Methodist clergy  *  Rev. JoAnne Marie Terrell, PhD, Associate Professor of Ethics, Theology, and the Arts, Chicago Theological Seminary  *  Rev. Dianna N. Watkins-Dickerson, Chaplain, USAF  *  Larry T. Crudup, M.Div. Candidate, Perkins School of Theology  *  Rev. Rosalyn R. Nichols, D.Min. Organizing Pastor, Freedom’s Chapel Christian Church (DOC) Memphis, TN  *  Min. Guy Sebastian Johnson, Leesburg, VA, M.Div. Candidate, Lancaster Theological Seminary * EL Kornegay Jr., Ph.D., CEO/Founder The Baldwin~Delaney Institute, Chicago, IL  *  Liz S. Alexander, Seminarian, Chicago, IL * Candice M. Benbow, Durham, NC  *  Rev. Toni Dunbar, D.Min., Associate Pastor & Dean, City of Refuge United Church of Christ, Oakland, CA; Executive Director, YA Flunder Foundation; and Founder & Director, Refuge Leadership Development Institute  *  Rev. Gwen Thomas, M. Ed., Author, LGBT activist, & Huffington Post blogger  *  The Rev. Canon Terence Alexander Lee, Rector, St. Gabriel’s Episcopal Church, Hollis, NY  *  Rev. W. Jeffrey Campbell, Executive Director, Hudson Pride Connections Center, Jersey City, NJ  *  Evan R. Bunch * Pastor Genetta Y Hatcher, Detroit, Michigan  *  The Rev. Fr. Marcus G. Halley, Associate Priest, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church – Kansas City, MO  *  Rev. Dr. MarQuita Carmichael Burton  *  Rev. Don Darius Butler, Pastor, Tabernacle Community Baptist Church Milwaukee, WI * Rev. Raphael G. Warnock, Ph.D., The Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, GA  *  Dr. Tony McNeill, DWS, Director of Worship & The Arts, The Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, GA  *  Rev. William I. Spencer  *  Min. Davica Williams-Warren, M.Div., Miami, FL  *  Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, Pastor for Formation and Justice, The First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain (Boston, MA)  *  Rev. Dorian Mendez-Vaz, President & Founder, Within Her Reach, Inc.  *  Min. Ryan Hawthorne, M.Div., Princeton Theological Seminary  *  Rev. Kimberly Henderson Philadelphia, PA * Rev. Raedorah C. Stewart, MA, Preacher, Poet, Mother of a Son  *  Rev. T. Renée Crutcher, Founder/President, Sankofa Ministries & Tellin’ Our Story Publishing, Inc. Atlanta, GA  *  Min. Kamilah Hall Sharp, J.D., M. Div. Candidate, Memphis Theological Seminary  *  Bishop Dwayne D. Royster, Senior Pastor, Living Water United Church of Christ & General Secretary, Higher Ground Christian Fellowship International  *  Dr. Donique McIntosh, Associate Pastor, Namaste’ United Church of Christ  *  Minister Kelli X, M.Div., Madison, TN  *  Rev. Sharon L. Bowers UMC Pastor, ITC Alumna  *  Rev. James A. Hardaway, M.Div., MACE, Pastor, Mount Gilead AME Church, Columbus, GA  *  Rev. Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder, Ph.D.  *  Keith Crawford, Jr.  *   Dr. Irie Lynne Session, Senior Pastor The Avenue – Warren Avenue Christian Church | Dallas, Texas MDiv. Black Church Studies Concentration | Brite Divinity School DMin. Transformative Leadership & Prophetic Preaching | Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School  *  Rev. Dionne P. Boissiere, M.Div., Consultant for WomanPreach! Inc. & Director, Women’s Center @ New York Theological Seminary  *  Rev. Stephanie A. Duzant, MSW, Hollis, Queens NYC  *  Min. Louis J. Mitchell, South Congregational Church, Springfield, MA  *  Min. Rhonda White-Warner, M.Div., D.Min. Candidate, SF Theological Seminary & Founder Alabaster Jar Ministries, Oakland, CA  *  Toby D. Sanders, Pastor, Beloved Community  *  Rev. Reginald W. Williams, Jr. Pastor, First Baptist Church of University Park, University Park, IL  *  Bishop John Selders, Pastor, Amistad UCC & Bishop Presider Interdenominational Conference of Liberation Congregations and Ministries  *  Rev. Marilyn E. Thornton, Director/Campus Minister, The Wesley Foundation at Fisk University, Nashville, TN  *  Rev. Wm. Jermaine Richardson  *  Dr. Safiyah Fosua, Assistant Professor, Congregational Worship, Wesley Seminary @ IWU  *  Rev. Frank A Thomas, Ph.D. Director of the Academy of Preaching and Celebration & The Nettie Sweeney and Hugh T. Miller Professor of Homiletics, Christian Theological Seminary  *  Min. Kymberly McNair, Social Justice Coordinator, Antioch Baptist Church, Bedford Hills, NY  *  Dr. Teresa Fry Brown, Director, Black Church Studies Program & Professor of Homiletics, Emory University, Atlanta, GA  *  Rev. Dr. Yolanda Pierce, Director, Black Church Studies, Princeton Theological Seminary  *  Dr. Sharon Ellis Davis, Director of the Center for African American Ministries & Black Church Studies & Adjunct Professor, McCormick Theological Seminary, Chicago, IL & UCC Pastor  *  Rev. Kimberly G. Walker, Pastor, Village of Hope CME Church, Stone Mountain, GA  *  Joshua Crutchfield, Nashville, TN  *  Rev. Dr. Judy Cummings, New Covenant Christian Church, Nashville, TN  *  Rev. Dominique C. Atchison, M.Div., Associate Minister, Brown Memorial Baptist Church & Sacred Conversations on Race Coordinator, Connecticut Conference UCC  *  Rev. Chaka S. Holley, MSW, M. Div.  *  Dr. Lynne S. Darden, Assistant Professor, New Testament, Interdenominational Theological Seminary, Atlanta, GA  *  Rev. Dr. Judy D. Cummings, Senior Pastor,  New Covenant Christian Church, Nashville, TN  * Rev. Bianca Davis, M.Div., Associate Pastor of Children, Youth, & Young Adults, God Can Ministries, UCC  * Rev. Christina Dawn Reed, Pastor, Mount Zion AME Church, Duffields, WV  *  Rev. Paris Lee Smith, Sr., M/Div., Sr. Pastor of First Congregational Methodist Church, Louisville, KY  *  Min. Brandon J. Perkins, M.A., Providence Missionary Baptist Church-Christian Education Intern, M. Div Candidate Columbia Theological Seminary  *  Rev. Cassandry Redmond, M.Div., Christian Methodist Episcopal Church Richmond, CA  *  Min. Xavier Coombs  *  Vance P. Ross, Sen. Pastor, Gordon UMC, Nashville, TN  *  Rev. Ramone R. Billingsley. Th.D. Student, Wycliffe College at The University of Toronto  *  Rev. Dr. Gina Stewart, Pastor, Christ Missionary Baptist Church, Memphis, TN  *  Bishop W. James Thomas, II  *  Dr. Marvin McMickle, President, Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School  *  Jacqueline Glass, CEO, At The Well Conferences, Inc.  *   Rev. Alfie Wines, M.Div., Ph.D., Pastor, Bible Scholar, Theologian  *  Rev. Lisa M. Allen-McLaurin, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Church Music and Worship, The Interdenominational Theological Center, Atlanta, Georgia  *  Rev. Courtney Clayton Jenkins, Pastor & Teacher, Euclid Avenue Congregational Church  *  Rev. Addie N. Peterson, Messiah Presbyterian Church, Norfolk, VA  *  Dr. Rosetta E. Ross  *  Rev. Starsky D. Wilson, M.Div., Pres. & CEO, Deaconess Foundation, Pastor-Teacher, St. John’s UCC-St. Louis  *  Rev. Dr. Cassandra Gould, Pastor-Teacher Quinn Chapel AME Church Jefferson City, MO & Co-Founder Women of the Cloth  *  Rev. Dr. Cassandra Gould, Pastor-Teacher Quinn Chapel AME Church Jefferson City, MO & Co-Founder Women of the Cloth  *  Rev. MacArthur Flournoy, Director for Faith Partnerships and Mobilization for the Human Rights Campaign  * Dr. Melanye Price, Assistant Professor of Africana Studies and Political Science, Rutgers University  * Rev. John M. Gilmore, Open Heart Spiritual Center, Memphis, TN  * Rev. Angela Denise Davis, M.Div., M.S., CRC, Founder & Spiritual Director, Sister Harriet Spiritual Collective, Atlanta, GA  * Rev. Nichelle L. Jenkins, J.D., LL.M., M.Div.  *  Deirdre Jones, Seminarian, Chicago Theological Seminary & Assistant Minister-Youth Pastor, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) *  Deirdre Jones, Seminarian, Chicago Theological Seminary & Assistant Minister-Youth Pastor, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)  *  Dr. Valerie Y. Holmes, Religious Chair for NAACP of the Prince George’s County Chapter  *  Rev. Dr. Noel Hutchinson, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Lauderdale, Memphis, TN  *  Rev. Jacqueline Pinkney, M. Div.  *  Rev. Jamie Kaufman M.Div, Pastor, People of the Way of Jesus * Rev. Dr. Clyde W. Oden, Jr., Senior Pastor of Bryant Temple AME Church, Los Angeles, CA * Rev. James Forbes, Healing of the Nations * Rev. Dr. Lorena Parrrish, NYC

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Way Opens

Today I am thinking about the many gifts and dreams I don’t want to die inside me before I die. I am thinking about poetry and preaching, consulting and team building, I am thinking about dancing and laughing well into the night. I am thinking about love. And lovers.

Life isn’t a straight line. I don’t know where I heard that phrase first. But my own history tells me it’s so. Sitting here staring at the approaching end of 2012 (where did the YEAR GO???), I am struck by the constant yearning in my own heart not to waste time, to be useful on the planet. I want my life to have counted for good. To have changed and grown more and more in love. I want to be Love in the earth. To leave Love as a legacy. I want Love to be ablaze on my face and afire in my body. And for everyone I encounter to know that she or he has encountered love, a kind of god-with-skin-on encounter.

And so I am attuning my heart to the way/s in which the doors to yearnings fulfilled are opened/opening. And I am leaning into the acting toward all the possibilities of passionate living. The Quakers say that the way one knows that Way Opens is that Way Closes. That is, doors shut in and around us and we begin to look for New Ways and New Possibilities. That”s where I am today…. leaning into Way Opens and I hear the shutting of old and creaking doors.

Violence-Free Parenting: (NOT an oxymoron III) Emotions are Human and so are Hormones

“We hate children.” ~ My pastor as we were talking about the comments people were making on Facebook about punishment (not discipline)

“STOP Crying!”

“I’m going to give you something to cry about!”

My older son came in from school one day very angry and slamming doors. I was in the kitchen and heard the huffing and puffing and the slamming and rushed in to the living room. “What is WRONG with you!???” I demanded. “You better STOP slamming my doors, boy!” He looked me in my face and through his clenched teeth with a ferocity he said, “Mama, teenagers have bad days, too!” I softened my face and put my arms to my side. He was heaving. I didn’t really know what was going on and I had charged him without any concern for him, but for the door and for my own peace of mind. “You’re right son. You’re right.” We stood there and I waited for my words to soak in. He started sobbing. I reached for him and he came to me and let me hold him. He wasn’t ready to tell me what had happened. But he was ready to let me comfort him. When he calmed down, I said: “You’re right. We all have bad days. I”m sorry you’re having one. If you want to talk about it, let me know. But you can’t slam doors.” With that he went to his room with his own emotions, free to share them or not.

We reminded ourselves and our children that it’s okay to have emotions. We have tear ducts for a reason. We get disappointed, frustrated, angry. None of these emotions is sin. They are human. And my husband and I had to remember that preteens and teens have the added rush of hormones coursing through their young bodies, with changes rapidly happening that they neither understand nor could control. Add a menopausal woman to that mix and the interactions could be volatile. Unless. Unless we allow each other to be human. Unless we are kind and tenderhearted toward one another. Unless we refuse to keep a record of wrongs.

But expecting our children to “grin and bear it” when privileges are withdrawn, restrictions are imposed, or when we refuse a request is not fair. As adults, we don’t expect ourselves not to feel disappointment, grief, sadness, or anger. We learn to govern our emotions, not deny them.

This particular son had emotional outbursts often before this moment, or as he came to say, “anger issues.” I taught him a proverb (Proverbs 16:32) when he was very young. That text reads,” One who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and one whose temper is controlled than one who captures a city.” I told him that if he learned to manage his emotions it would make him a mighty man. It became our touchstone when he was out of control. And he disciplined himself with it even now. But my discipline that day was to re-train myself as to how to react to human BEING. He needed to emote. He didn’t need to slam the door. But if I had focused only on that door, I would have unnecessarily provoked more frustration and anger. Instead I nurtured him and made space for him to bring his full self into that room. I admonished him not to destroy anything in the process (thus the “don’t slam doors”). Both were warranted.

We were NOT perfect parents. We prayed often and repented as much. We didn’t get it right all the time. But I had a delightful conversation with my now 32-year-old son about parenting: mine, his dad’s, his… And the fact that we managed to live into our commitment to violence-free parenting. He said the whippings he can count on ONE hand (without using all the fingers) he absolutely deserved. I argued that he did not; that we could have found other ways for consequences to be in play. But to hear him talk about discipline (not punishment) and the fact that he NEVER (his word) felt we were being punitive in any correction he received blessed me beyond measure.

We were committed to treating our children with respect and dignity. After reading all the horrific comments on Facebook and twitter advocating for brutal and violent parenting euphemized as “spanking,” I had to reflect on key moments rearing my children. I’ll keep posting about it until I’m done. I will post some Epic Fails as well. But I start here. Because I can’t believe how cruel we are to our own children–in the name of love.

Violence-Free Parenting (NOT an oxymoron II): We do not own our Children

“I worry about us. We treat children with such disdain. We hate children.” ~ My pastor when we were discussing the Creflo Dollar episode

Sweet Honey in the Rock put to song the poem by Lebanese poet/prophet Khalil Gibran. “Your children are not your children.” These words no doubt make some people bristle as we really believe that we “own” our children, like slavers “owned” slaves.

Rearing children is daunting. I often said to my sons: “You have the seed of a man in you, but you’re not yet a man. I’m trying to rear boys into men that I’d be glad to be friends with were I to meet you in your grown self.” Most days I think we pulled that off. My daughters-in-love think so most days as each have thanked us for the men we reared. I remember a conversation between my older son and me. I was lamenting that neither of them had, as yet, finished a college degree. He begin to recount who they were in their character: men of integrity who respected women and children and loved God. “Mom,” he said, “you didn’t get it how you wanted it, but you got what you wanted in grown men.” I had to stop crying. And I had to remind myself that they made their own choices and would have to live their lives. They do. Not perfectly at all. They’ve had their struggles.

That is the way growing up can be. Full of struggles. But as parents we sought to give them tools to handle life–tools suited for their individual lives. My mother taught me that “train up a children in the way he or she should go” means exactly that: each child has her or his own path. You can’t treat all your children “exactly the same” as people often argue. The parent’s role is to be discerning and try to bend each child in her or his own direction. Sometimes we pull it off. Sometimes not. But as my ethics professor said to us: parents should take neither too much credit nor too much blame for how their children turn out, for good or ill. They are their own persons. We can “screw” a child up and they can become phenomenal in spite of us. Or we can give them all the loving boundary-laden discipline with a home full of laughter and joy and they can choose a deleterious life.

One of the things we gave our children was the right to speak their own mind at a very early age. You can say anything you want to say to me as long as you are respectful, we said. Ouch! They sometimes told us about our selves. And MOST of the time–they were right. Once we went out to dinner at a swank (enough) restaurant to honor an award my younger son had received. Something happened in the car that ticked me off. I began a tirade at the table that was, in fact, ruining the celebrative mood. My older son looked at me and said, “Mom. You’re out of control and what you’re saying is way over the top.” He said it in a low (and I admit, loving) tone. I was stopped in my tracks. I got up from the table and went to the bathroom to cry and then to laugh. I had just heard myself coming out of his mouth. And he was RIGHT. I went back to the table after fixing my face and thanked my child for calling me on my bad behavior and apologized to my family. We had a lovely meal.

But they were not always that respectful in their language. Once I walked out of the living room as my son (15-years-old at the time) was yelling. My first instinct was to yell back and to yank him. Instead, I walked into my bedroom and locked the door. He banged on it, screaming that he was talking to me. About 20 minutes later, when he calmed down, I went back into the living room and asked whether he wanted to talk with me. I was talking to you, mom, he said. I said, “No, you were yelling. And it occurred to me that I was being yelled at by someone who paid nothing to be in this house and for whom I bought all his food and clothing.” He dropped his head and apologized. It didn’t always go this way. We valued violent-free parenting, even if we didn’t always live it. But these kinds of interactions were more common than the violent ones we sought not to have.

Both my sons (and ALL my godchildren) have a stubborn streak. I mean an “I’ll-take-the-consequences-because-you-can’t-make-me” streak. And they often did. So my husband and I often had to check ourselves on who did the disciplining, to answer the question whether we were responding to a teachable moment or whether our buttons had been pushed. I walked away a few times with the words, “go deal with your son because I’d be beating the Valerie out of him.” That is, many times what we respond to in our children is the shadow side of us that we despise or with which we have not dealt.

I thank God that we were able to communicate to our sons the integrity of their own personhood–the fact that they were not “mini mes” and not beholden to think, believe, act, or emote like their parents. They are not ours. They belong to the future to which we cannot visit, not even in our dreams. They belong to God. We were given the daunting responsibility to see them from helpless baby to productive adult, allowing them their own mistakes and learning along the way. But we don’t and never did “own” them.

Violence-Free Parenting (NOT an Oxymoron)

“We hate children.” ~ My pastor as we talked about the Creflo Dollar episode

I reared two sons alongside their father in a two-parent home. Black parents. We had a commitment to be as “violent-free” in our parenting as possible. We didn’t always pull it off. My children can tell you how many “whippings” they got because they were that few. And even then, those whippings were borne out of their parents’ lack of restraint, sense of embarrassment, frustration, or sense of having been disrespected. My ex- and I often checked one another’s behavior with these boys with these words: “We’re the adults. ACT like it.” Expecting toddlers not to throw tantrums is ridiculous. Expecting teenagers not to be insolent or even disrespectful is a sign that parents know nothing about stages of development, OR that they don’t remember their own growing curves. Granted, neither of us came from much parental violence. I didn’t say “any,” I said MUCH. My husband liked to tell the story that his father would talk to him to the point that he WISHED for a beating. I have story after story of my mother choosing more creative ways to discipline me. Which is why I remember two whippings in my life from my mother, neither of which I thought I deserved; both of which she said later (when I was grown) that I was right.

I was appalled in the light of the Dollar family story. This post is not about Creflo Dollar (though I do think it’s about my sympathy and concern for his daughters, the 15-year-old who was attacked and 19-year-old who was there). And yes, if you beat a child with a shoe and wrestle him or her to the ground because you want to “give them something to cry about,” you attacked her. OK. Maybe this post IS about the Dollar episode. But several people have written very good pieces on this matter, like the one at Crunk Feminist Collective  or the one by Mansfield Frazier on Creflo Dollar’s corporal punishment defense.

I was appalled because consistently I saw statements like: “Good for him for yanking her butt,” or “these children.” I was shocked that people were quick to give Dollar the “benefit of the doubt” (“we don’t know what happened”) while immediately and virulently vilifying the daughter who called 911. I confess. I once told my then 15-year-old son who threatened to call the police on me: “Do it. And we’ll see who’s standing when they come; one of us will go to the hospital; the other one will go to jail.” I hadn’t put my hand on him, but I was threatening him. I am not proud of that statement or that moment.

I have been stunned by people’s willingness to call a violent act discipline, even as I confess (and have repented to my children that I’ve participated in this behavior). Discipline comes from the same root as “disciple.” Discipline assumes the more mature parent seeks to teach not to punish. But much of the language on Facebook among black folk has been punitive. I had a flash of that scene in the movie, The Color Purple, when Harpo asks Celie for insight on how to “control” Sophie. Celie, who has been brutally beaten and sexually assaulted from it seems birth, says, “beat her.” And THAT is the point I want to make on this post. People tend to go with the brutality that was visited upon them (as in, “I was beat within an inch of my life and I turned out okay.” I really want to say, “No, you didn’t, boo. You survived brutality and you’re still working that ish out on people. Get you a good therapist and work on that”).

I’ll say more on the next blog on how we think we own our children… we don’t.

On Loving Harold

I love Harold McMillan.

I could end the blog there. It would be sufficient to say I love him. Harold. The man. Harold. The bass player. Harold. The keeper of cultural history. Harold. The storyteller. Harold. My friend. Harold. My collaborator. Of the people I miss from Austin, Texas, Harold Mac is in the top 5.

So when his brother died and I couldn’t be there for him, I prayed and sent him all the love and light I could, hoping he felt it. And then, and then. THIS. Harold manhandled by police at Hermann Memorial Hospital in Houston, TX  on April 5 when he went to gather his brother’s belongings. Please don’t stop by to tell me we only have Harold’s side of the story. Just don’t. I can’t say much here except I am SICK of police brutality, assault, and murder. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I KNOW there are some “good cops.” But I am SICK of police brutality, assault, and murder. Because I love Harold Mac. And Darius. Antonio. Deon. Anthony. Greg. Joseph. Vance. Raymond. SahLeem. Joshua. Jonathan. Thomas. Joey. Kendal. Keith. Derrick. Derek. Markiese. Markevious. Chris. Christopher. John. Brandon. Cedrick. Daryl. Robert. Aaron. Charles. Charleton. Kirk. Kevin. Ronald. Ronnie. Reginald. Larry. Lawrence. Quentin. Tony. Toby. Jervay. JeRoy. Jason. Justin. Earle. Andre, Terry … and many, many more…

I Pray for you: the BEST way I love you

Ruth Forman: “I Wear Prayers Like Shoes…”

I post these words, ever so often, on my Facebook page:  “I love you. I REALLY do love you. VERY MUCH. And I take you with me into my prayer place to offer you before the God of grace and love. It is the BEST way I love you. I hope you receive it as the gift it is–from my great big heart. Love is my calling card, and I pray to breathe.”

Ruth Forman speaks of prayer as shoes that steady her for the day’s journey. For me, it is my very breath, the cloak of life that sustains me. Prayer is not a cop-out, an easy fix. It is an act of love so I may garner my strength and resolve to act. I wrote the poem below 10 years ago:

When I Don’t Know What to Do, I Pray for You

When I don’t know what to do, I pray for you,
A voice ascending to a distant and present throne,
The sound of a crone professing faith in you
And the divine impress imprinted on your soul

You cry into the hollow of my hands,
Confess your night terrors
And the times your mother caressed your manhood
Like a woman in need

You tell me how confusing it all was
And that the first time, you sneaked into the liquor
Searching for the elixir that would guarantee
You would forget—
You never did

And, though you loved her madly,
You could never look upon her breasts and be comforted
The way only a mother’s bosom can comfort a son
You explain to me the sacred math of reason,
How you went for seasons after women 20 years your age,
How you found yourself wanting a mother,
And yielded to this Oedipal urge that drove you
All the while you abandoned her—your own Jocasta
Who troubled you with her demons

You cry into the hollow of my hands,
Lean a heavy burden on my shoulders,
Sigh your curses into my hair
When I don’t know what to say, I hold you
Gently against my body and pray for you,
A silent petition for the healing
Of that first and fractured bond
Between a mother and her son

You tell me how confusing it all was
And how you found a toke and dipped it
In formaldehyde and stroked yourself
To sleep, crying softly and whimpering “Mama”—
How she tried to take it back the second
That she touched you, begged you
To forgive her, told you she was sorry—and drunk

You shrunk from her pleading
And told her to go to hell
Your words break and swell
In telling me as you cry your pain
Into the hollow of my hands
And I pray for you and hold you
To keep you from drowning
In your own confusion

When I don’t know what to do, I pray for you,
A voice ascending
A silent petition
A holy struggle
To deliver you from the fires
That scorch you still

(c) Valerie Bridgeman [Davis],
2002, 18 September