Sexism & the Church, Pt. 4: What Can I Do?

I confess, I have struggled to figure out how to conclude this series. My hope was to provide a meaningful way forward for those of us who continue to wrestle with the question of “what we do” in response to sexism in the church. For those of us in positions of social power the question is complicated, for it is not only “What can I do?” but also, “How do I engage in ways that are helpful and not harmful?”whatcanido

The unfortunate reality is that oftentimes when we ask the question of “what we do,” it is our subconscious attempt to escape the discomfort of the space in which we find ourselves. Sometimes it’s worth it to sit in the discomfort, to wade through murky waters without necessarily knowing the way out. Removing the discomfort sometimes has the inadvertent effect of masking the problem altogether, which is precisely what we are trying to avoid. Constantly seeing the ways in which we are falling short of our ideal is disheartening, to be sure, but I hope it spurs us onward in our struggle for freedom.

With this in mind, I do want to offer some reflections on how we might move forward. These certainly aren’t the only answers to the question, and I truly believe that ending oppressions in various forms requires the creativity and brainstorming of myriad voices. This is my small contribution, informed by the many voices that I have read and heard. These reflections are addressed mainly to those in positions of social power who are asking the question “What can I do?”–which includes myself as a white woman:

1. Know how and when to use your voice. The other day, I was participating in a discussion group that was predominately male, and I noticed some gender dynamics that bothered me. I brought it up, and immediately felt resistance from one of the men in the group. I said what I needed to say, knowing full well that there was a chance my words would never get through. As I concluded my thought and turned to talk to someone else, I overheard another male in the group talking to the man who had resisted my words, offering me support in what I had said. He didn’t just affirm my words, he also told the other person in the group why it was important to listen and take my words seriously. This, to me, is what solidarity looks like. The man who affirmed me didn’t silence me in his own attempt to solve the problem—when I started talking about my experience, he didn’t jump in and steal the mic. After I had finished and moved on and it was clear the conversation hadn’t had the impact I wanted, he stepped in and affirmed what I had said, and explained why it was important to listen. In this moment, he used his privilege for my sake and for the sake of other women in that room. The reality is that because of the social realities in which we live, his voice was able to get through in a way that mine could not. Ending oppressions requires partnership, and recognizing where you might have influence that others might not.

2. Start noticing places that need tending. When you look at the leadership team at your church, how many women hold those positions? What do the roles of women and men look like at your church? I had a friend who told me that he loves children and wanted to be on the leadership team of the children’s ministry at his church, but because the church espoused more traditional gender roles, it would have been perceived as weird, and even creepy, if he asked to do that. Remember that sexism doesn’t just negatively affect women—it negatively affects everyone. To figure out what to “do,” we first need to notice what’s happening around us.

3. Don’t just hire a marginalized person for the job because you want to fill a quota. This is a tough one. Let’s pretend that now you’ve noticed there are no women on the pastoral teaching team at your church, and you want to fill this gap. The answer isn’t simply to hire someone and call it good—without a culture change, this action serves only to make the church look more inclusive rather than the church experiencing real transformation. If you make the decision that you need to have more women fill those positions, understand why you need them other than for the sake of filling a chair with a “different” face. How do you want inclusive hiring practices to change the very fabric of your church community? What do you want to learn from this person because of her particular social location? What needed perspectives does she bring to your church leadership team and your congregation? Failing to answer these questions means that your new teaching pastor is simply coming under the same structures that were there before. Not only this, but the new hire will certainly not feel welcome in the community if the culture does not change. Creating real change means not just “diversifying” the church, but also recognizing why this is important, and changing the culture of the church to meet these needs.

4. Recognize that sexism affects people in different ways. I as a white woman am still in a position of privilege, for sexism doesn’t affect me in the same way that it affects women of color, LGBTQ women, and especially LGBTQ women of color (this goes back to the intersectionality conversation in my last post). One of the roles of people in positions of social power is to understand the ways in which different kinds of oppressions intersect to further marginalize a person. Imagine a circle in which the dominant group (white, male, heterosexual, cisgender) is the center. As a white heterosexual cisgender woman, I would fit just outside that circle because I’m not male—but a transgender person of color, for example, would be even further away from the center of the circle. As I’m fighting for the church to hear my voice on this topic, it is important for me to recognize my own privilege and be willing to fight alongside those who are even more marginalized than I am (and I am still figuring out what this looks like!)


Photo Credit: Miriam Dobson

5. Realize that it is not simply about doing something, it’s about being someone. This conversation is equal parts about justice and reconciliation, and this work requires a kind of presence that isn’t just about “doing” things—it requires a transformation of heart and spirit— it’s about who you choose to be in the conversation. For me, it was when my heart was transformed that opportunities to “do” opened up, and I didn’t have to go looking for them too hard.

6. Put yourself in intentional learning situations. For example, I’ve been thinking a lot about the intersection of race and gender lately, so I’ve been finding books that discuss these things, reading blogs by women of color and LGBTQ women, and finding spaces to engage with people in other kinds of marginalized social locations. By participating in these conversations and attending various community events and church forums, different kinds of opportunities have presented themselves to me as ways to get involved. This brings me to my last point—

7. I firmly believe that what we are passionate about and what we are gifted for align in particular ways for God’s glory. This work cannot be done without prayer, so my last encouragement is to be prayerful about how our passions in this area might align with our talents, and that God would open our imaginations to envision how we can participate in God’s work through our particular giftings. I think oftentimes people are so concerned with “doing” that they do things they aren’t gifted for—the clothes don’t quite fit, it’s uncomfortable, and it produces a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness. This person might say, “Well I tried, but I wasn’t effective, it didn’t work out, so I guess I’ll just support people who are truly good at this from the sidelines.” Our participation in this work will be different depending on what we’re gifted for—so think about the ways in which your passions and giftings might align.

This concludes my short little blog series. My hope is that even as we are inspired to fight for change, we will not allow a simple list to provide easy answers for us. My hope is that even as we engage in this struggle and seek to end oppression in all its forms, we will not limit ourselves to believing that these are the only answers to the questions. My hope is that we will constantly seek to have our eyes opened in new ways, to let the Holy Spirit convict and change and transform us, to reveal our unconscious biases and prejudices and have the humility to ask God to renew our minds.

Thanks for those who have followed this project to its conclusion, and if there are any topics that you think would be good to discuss in future posts, please comment!

Lastly, as I am constantly trying to learn more on the topic, I always have a list of books that I’m planning to read. Here are some book ideas that are on my reading list for this winter—these are titles that have been life-changing for some friends of mine. Will you join me in reading some of them?

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

Embracing the Other: The Transformative Spirit of Love by Grace Ji-Sun Kim

A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans

Our Lives Matter: A Womanist Queer Theology by Pamela R. Lightsey

Jesus Feminist by Sarah Bessey

Colonize This!: Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism ed. by Daisy Hernandez and S. Bushra Rehman

The Intersectional Approach: Transforming the Academy Through Race, Class and Gender ed. by Michele Tracey Berger and Kathleen Guidroz

Liberating Tradition: Women’s Identity and Vocation in Christian Perspective by Kristina LaCelle-Peterson

Sexism & the Church, Pt. 3: What I Learned From Womanist Theology (or: What White Women Don’t Know Actually Does Hurt)

In honor of National Women’s Equality Day a couple weeks ago, Facebook posted the following message to its users:


Not too long after, the following photo appeared on my Newsfeed with the caption, “fixed it for you, @facebook.”


For the rest of the day, most of my white friends who were posting about National Women’s Equality Day were excited to commemorate the occasion, while my friends of color remarked, “Wow, Facebook, way to fail,” or, “Facebook exposing its white feminism.”

Unfortunately, although white women in America were given the right to vote in 1920, women of color were not. In fact, many of the white female pioneers of the suffrage movement ignored and sometimes even actively worked against women of color in order to secure the vote for themselves. Although many of the white pioneers of the suffrage movement had been Christian abolitionists, some eventually aligned themselves with racist campaigns in order to gain traction for white women’s suffrage.

White people tend to forget that although white women gained the right to vote in 1920, Native American women received suffrage in 1924, Asian women in 1952, and Black women in 1964. These rights, however, were continually infringed upon as states exercised their power to deny them the vote. In 1965 the Voting Rights Act was enacted, which prohibited any racial discrimination in election practices. (See a more comprehensive timeline of voting rights history here). That solved the problem, right?

Well, no. To make this even more complicated (and horrid)— disproportionate incarceration rates among white women and women of color affect the conversation as well. Black women are three times more likely than white women to be incarcerated, while Hispanic women are nearly 2 times more likely than white women to be incarcerated. Black women “represent 30% of all incarcerated women in the U.S., although they represent 13% of the female population generally,” and “Hispanic women represent 16% of incarcerated women, although they make up only 11% of all women in the U.S.” People of color are disproportionately convicted for the same crimes as whites—even though crime rates among whites and people of color are similar. In the case of drug convictions, white people actually engage in illicit drug use five times more often than Black people, yet Black people are incarcerated ten times more often for illicit drug use. In many states, if one is convicted of a felony one loses the right to vote altogether. These things have resulted in what Michelle Alexander has termed “the new Jim Crow,” which you can learn more about here.

Job discrepancies are rampant as well. While white women are paid only 78 cents to every dollar a white man makes, Black women earn only 64 cents, and Latina women only 56 cents. In scientific vocations specifically, Black, Latina, and Asian American women were more likely to report an obligation to “prove” their competency to male colleagues than white women. Asian-American women were more likely to report an expectation of assuming the role of “office mother,” “dutiful daughter,” or other feminine roles. Latina women report expectations “to do large loads of office housework, including literal housework (making coffee), administrative work typically performed by support personnel, and emotion work in helping students with their emotional problems.” Although Black women report an ability to be more assertive than white women, this only applies if they aren’t deemed the “angry Black woman.” Black women were “more likely than other women to report a sense of bleak isolation,” and Latina and Black women were more likely to be mistaken as janitorial staff. (This study is definitely worth reading in full, check it out here.)

The particular issues that women of color face in this country significantly differ from those of white women, and thus all discussions of feminism must take this into account. Intersectionality is defined as “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.” Intersectionality teaches us that in discussions about sexism and feminism, one must always be careful to look for the ways in which the conversation may be erasing the experiences of those who do are not members of the “dominant” group.

It is because of this that it’s important to say: if a church claims that it cares about women, then that church must also care about the particular discrimination that women of color face in our society.

In its conversations about sexism, churches have certainly been guilty of erasing the experiences of women of color, something of which I have grown increasingly aware as I’ve researched these topics. In March of this year, I had the opportunity to lecture on feminist and womanist theology for an undergraduate class. Generally speaking, feminist theology challenges patriarchal interpretations of theology and Scripture and seeks women’s liberation from these strictures, while womanist theology is the study and perspective of these things from a black women’s perspective specifically. Alice Walker, who coined the term womanism, states: “When I offered the word ‘Womanism’ many years ago, it was to give us a tool to use, as feminist women of color, in times like these . . . We are not white women and this truth has been ground into us for centuries, often in brutal ways.”

I had originally planned to devote equal amounts of time to both types of theology and treat them as their own mini-lectures. When I began to dig into my research, however, I discovered that it was impossible to talk about one without the other, primarily because womanist theology was formed as an active push-back against feminist theology’s erasure of black woman’s experiences. I began to see this when I discovered a letter written by womanist writer Audre Lorde to white feminist theologian Mary Daly. Daly had used an excerpt from Lorde in her theological tome Gyn/Ecology, and Lorde had this to say in response:

“To imply . . . that all women suffer the same oppression simply because we are women is to lose sight of the many varied tools of patriarchy. It is to ignore how those tools are used by women without awareness against each other . . . . To realize that the only quotations from Black women’s words were the ones you used to introduce your chapter on African genital mutilation made me question why you needed to use them at all. For my part, I felt that you had in fact misused my words, utilized them only to testify against myself as a woman of Color…. So the question arises in my mind, Mary, do you ever really read the work of Black women? Did you ever read my words, or did you merely finger through them for quotations which you thought might valuably support an already conceived idea concerning some old and distorted connection between us? This is not a rhetorical question.” (1979)

The discovery of how white feminists had co-opted black women’s voices for their own gain didn’t stop there. I learned about Alice Walker’s daughter, Rebecca Walker, who wrote an essay titled Becoming the Third Wave in 1992. Rebecca Walker is credited with coining the term “third wave feminism,” a movement that began in response to the 2nd wave’s failure to account for women of color and women in other marginalized spaces. Whereas the 2nd wave (in the opinion of some) presents a monolithic idea of woman, 3rd wave draws in varied expressions of woman, and empowers women to determine for themselves what their feminism looks like.

In our culture today we talk about feminism all the time, and yet what many do not know is that our current iterations of feminism have their genealogical roots in womanism. Black women paved the way for my current participation in feminism, and I didn’t even know that until a few months ago. White women talk about feminism all the time, and yet, even though the way we understand it now can be directly attributed to women of color paving the way for all of us, feminism still fails women of color—and it often fails them because white women appropriate the narrative and erase women of color altogether. Oftentimes this is actually done unintentionally—but this does not make the process any less harmful to women of color.

I am a white woman, and the majority of my life has been spent in predominately white spaces and white churches (something I have been very intentional in trying to change as I’ve grown more aware of these issues). In those white settings, when we talked about feminism we never talked about intersectionality. When we talked about women’s experiences in the church, we never talked about the particular challenges that women of color face, or the fact that theological perspectives and ways of experiencing God and Scripture are different among women of different cultures and races.

The hard truth is that my freedom as a white woman was paved on the backs of women of color, and even now—even as I wish it weren’t so—I continue to benefit from it while women of color continue to be crushed to the curb. There is a reason that if I as a white woman am ever pulled over for a traffic violation, I can expect to come out of the situation alive, while a woman of color fears arrest and even death if faced with the same situation. (Here I am referencing Sandra Bland, a black woman who, on her way to start a new job in Texas in July of this year, was pulled over for a traffic violation, arrested, and found dead in her cell two days later. Read about her story here.)

When I hear discussions about feminism or egalitarianism in the church, oftentimes the particular experiences that women of color face are glossed over entirely. I wonder if it has anything to do with the fact that we are still so segregated in the church—it makes sense after all, that a predominately white church would have little engagement with and understanding of the particular issues that women of color experience in our society.

True feminism must account for all women, not just white women, and egalitarianism in the church must begin to engage justice issues on all levels, not simply the things that affect white women. What will it take to get there? This is a question we all must begin to ask.

If you are interested in learning more about theology from the perspective of women of color, here are some potential starting points. I’ll be reading a few of these in the coming months, and am always up for a good book club:

  1. Women Encounter God: Theology across the Boundaries of Difference by Linda A. Moody
  2. Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk by Delores Williams
  3. Mujerista Theology: A Theology for the Twenty-First Century by Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz
  4. We Dare to Dream: Doing Theology as Asian Women, editors Virginia Fabella and Sun Park
  5. A Native American Theology by ClaraSue Kidwell, Homer Noley, George E. Tinker (although the whole text isn’t specifically from a Native American woman’s perspective, certain chapters are devoted to women’s perspectives).

Another good book to check out is Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. I’ll be reading it this winter if anyone cares to join me.

Have you read any books that you think are “must reads” on this subject? Drop a comment and let me know!

Sexism & the Church, Pt. 2: Don’t Look Like Marilyn Monroe (or: Microaggression)

1d89187125d59cffc7f8ba24634c2c3bRecently, I attended a lecture for church leaders on methods and practices of pastoral counseling. About halfway through the training, the instructor began speaking on the ways in which a pastoral counselor should dress when meeting with a parishioner. He showed a picture of Marilyn Monroe as an example of how women should not look, then instructed the women in the room on what they should wear, how they should do their hair, and how they should conduct themselves in order to prevent (male) parishioners from experiencing sexual temptation. The men in the class were not given a similar charge—rather, the men were given tips on what to do when experiencing sexual advances from female parishioners.

This occurred in a setting that supports and advocates for egalitarianism in the church. The lecture was attended by both male and female leaders, and the instructor knew that both sexes were acting as leaders in some capacity in their church contexts. Despite this, the training continued in this way—a barrage of microaggressions against women that made us feel small, silenced, and invisible.

Microaggressions are defined as “the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.” Psychology Today provides these examples of what microaggressions against women look like (for those looking to learn more I highly recommend their article on this topic, which also addresses microaggressions against people of color, LGBTQ individuals, and more, linked here).

Gender Microaggressions:

• An assertive female manager is labeled as a “bitch,” while her male counterpart is described as “a forceful leader.” (Hidden message: Women should be passive and allow men to be the decision makers.)

• Whistles or catcalls are heard from men as a woman walks down the street. (Hidden message: Your body/appearance is for the enjoyment of men. You are a sex object.)

After the training was over, I spoke with a few of the other women in the class in order to determine whether it was “just me” or if they felt similarly. Some responses, paraphrased, are below:

“I felt like what he was saying was sexist, but then I thought maybe I was overreacting.”

“When he started talking about women like that I started feeling this sense of shame, and that made me not want to speak up.”

“I knew what he was saying was sexist, but I also knew that he probably didn’t mean it that way, so I didn’t want to say anything and make him feel bad.”

“This experience has given me a glimpse of what it will be like to be a female pastor—I was pretty sure I didn’t want to be a pastor before, but now I’m REALLY sure I don’t want to be a pastor.”

The curious thing about all of this was that, from personal interactions with the instructor, it seemed that he actually approved of female leadership in the church. To this day, I am unsure whether he realized that the way he was presenting his material was sexist. I learned something important that day, however: even in settings that espouse egalitarianism in the church, sexism still happens.

In a way, microaggressions, when identified properly, are useful in that they expose deeply-rooted prejudices often veiled behind a veneer of equality. Microaggressions are often prefaced by, “I’m not sexist but…” or “I’m not racist, but…” They are unique in that they are sometimes very subtle. Those who experience them often wonder whether they are overreacting, which causes feelings of confusion, angst, shame, guilt, and victimization. I once heard microaggressions described as “death by a thousand paper cuts.” They are so slight that unless one becomes adept at identifying them, they may go unnoticed—but eventually, those tiny cuts amalgamate into one giant, gaping wound.

I have experienced many kinds of microaggressions as a woman, but I thought I would leave space for some of my female friends—all seminarians, pastors, and/or church leaders—to provide some examples of how they have experienced sexism and microaggressions in their seminary or church contexts. The purpose of sharing these stories is to highlight the fact that even when an individual might not intend to perpetuate sexism, our society and religious history have shaped us in such a way that sexism is often inevitable unless we work to intentionally dismantle the ideologies that influence our actions. Sharing these stories is not for the purpose of causing guilt or shame—rather, the purpose is simply to raise awareness.

My personal hope is that as women can begin to share the experiences that we’ve had, it will create more opportunities for us to identify and confront sexism and microaggressions in our particular contexts. A big thank you to the women who contributed their personal stories for this post—it gives me hope that the women in these stories are pastors and leaders, and that God has given them strength to pursue their calling despite the obstacles they have faced.

While in seminary I guest-preached at our church. My mother came with us to church that day and afterwards she and I drove together to lunch. She does not support women in pastoral leadership and so, even though she supported me by coming to church, she then started asking me why I wanted to preach and how my preaching that morning was any different than standing up in front of people when I was in high school theater. Wasn’t this just a performance too?  Did I need to be in front of people like that?  I tried to explain to her how preaching was different than a theatrical performance, all the while thinking of all the times she had heard my husband preach with no questions asked. She totally accepted that my husband had God’s call on his life to be a pastor without question, but my first chance to guest preach was met with questions about my motivation and my right to be there. Honestly, it made me more determined to speak out in public leadership in the church. Women are very underrepresented in the pulpit and I think that that contributes to an attitude of suspicion and a hesitation to consciously support women in ministry. I think that the more opportunities our congregations have to see women in leadership, the more likely they will be to accept women’s right to be there.

When I preach the comments that are made about my sermons have little to do with what I have said and more about what I am wearing/how I look. These comments 80% of the time come from men. My first experience with sexism happened like this: I had just finished preaching for the first time. I was wearing my robe and I was waiting at the back of the sanctuary to greet people as they came out. The first 3 people out the door were women, each of whom said I was inspirational and could easily relate to what I was talking about. Then came the first man. He said to me, “I couldn’t pay attention to what you were saying because I was so distracted by what you were wearing. I can see you are wearing some kind of bright colorful top underneath your robe, maybe, if you preach again, you should consider not wearing bright colors.” I smiled and thanked him for coming, and moved on to the next person, a woman, who again talked about what I had to say and how she found a greater appreciation for the woman I preached about. After her was another man, he said “Good sermon. Did you know you touched your hair 23 times? You should have pulled your hair back. It was very distracting, and probably not the best thing to do leaving it down, if you want to be taken seriously as a preacher.” A few other people congratulated me, and a few more comments were made about how I looked in my robe, and my hair. I’ve noticed since then, I get a lot of comments about how I look whereas the male pastors do not get those comments.

During my first seminary class (a four day intensive) I was having lunch with classmates who decided that I was the “mom” of the group (FYI, I am not a mother). This label has followed me ever since. While they may mean it as a way of acknowledging my care for them, it also asserts that the only caring feminine role is that of “mother.” In a place that trains ministers, those who love their neighbor with a sacrificial (some might say motherly) love, why would we not call the loving amongst us pastor, minister or simply resist the urge to assign labels beyond the person’s name? It’s good to acknowledge the gifts we cherish in our friends but sometimes our labels point to the fact that we simply do not have space for these people we claim to cherish. We are telling them to get back in their place.

My first year in seminary, I was part of a required small group that met once a week. I was one of four women and there were two men, one of which was the leader. His facilitation style felt somewhat harsh, dominating and confrontational to me and, I found out later, was bothering the other women as well. One meeting, he was absent from the group and when he asked the other man, whom he had a class with later that week, how the group’s time went, the other man said that we were all “clucking like hens” the whole time. When it was his turn to share each session, he would make deprecating remarks about his ex-girlfriend, which the leader did not seem to be aware were making the women in the group uncomfortable. I finally attempted to address some of these issues with the leader, asking if we could spend just one session talking about group dynamics and how things were going. He refused to do so, saying it was “outside the model of the group,” and made me pray for the other man out loud in order to help me forgive “whatever” he had done wrong. I did not feel safe enough to continue participating in the group so I withdrew.

I work as the Student Ministries Director at my church. A few months ago it became necessary for us to change the format of our Winter Camp. I had the idea of gathering with other local churches, renting a camp, and putting on our own retreat. I spoke with a group of men who were also local youth leaders and asked them if they’d be interested. They said they’d think about it and then get back to me. About a month later I found out that they had met together without me and planned out what they wanted to do. They then contacted me via email and said, “We planned this whole thing out and here’s our invitation for you to join.” They didn’t want my input or thoughts. I also found myself struggling to voice my thoughts and opinions. I was really concerned with being viewed as a “Bitch” or “Bossy.”

My second year in seminary I was the only woman in a class with 8 men and a male teacher. I began to notice that I rarely was allowed to speak in class. The guys would jump in, cut one another off, and I would raise my hand just to be able to speak.The professor usually would say at the end of class: “let’s end the class by giving [narrator] the last word, as she’s been so good sitting quietly there waiting her turn.” I didn’t really know how to address this situation, but towards the end of the class we were discussing a book and one of the guys brought up the fact that the male author never used inclusive language, and he thought because of this that the author lost credibility in what he was saying. This provided me an opportunity to bring up the fact that just because someone is being unintentionally sexist, does not mean we cannot find worth in what they are saying. The guy pushed back on what I had said, so I pointed out that for almost a year the guys in this class had been unintentionally sexist towards me by “allowing” me the last 2 minutes of class to share my opinions, after I had sat so quietly waiting my turn. I asked “should I not give you credit for your opinions because you have perpetuated the idea that a woman should sit quietly and wait her turn?” When I pointed out that no one seemed to have an issue with me as a woman not being able to have input in the class, the guys got quiet. Then the conversation moved on. After class was over, one guy came over to me and said, “Any time you have an opinion or a thought, you just get your hand up in the air and we’ll call on you if there’s time.”

I noticed in my denomination we have a special Sunday where we honor the gifts and talents of men in ministry but we do not have the same for women in ministry. I pointed this out to my professor and asked why this was the case. He responded with, “I’m not really sure, but it probably has to do with the fact that we’ve been honoring women in ministry for the past 30 years, since they were allowed to become ordained, and we haven’t honored men in ministry since then.” Another time I asked why our women’s groups were required to “hold fellowship & mission events” but our men’s groups were required to “train our leaders of the future, support and encourage our pastors, lead our administrative teams, and guide the decision making of the church” and his response was “well, the men have always had that requirement as they have had the experience. Women have been in charge of the mission and fellowship of the church because that is where their gifts and talents are.”

As a single woman going into vocational ministry full-time for the first time, with a head pastor who was a white older male with three daughters, I felt like I was viewed like one of his daughters, and therefore as someone he felt the need to father. And so with that came a struggle of how to conduct business and how to communicate within the church, and it eventually dampened my voice. I would often be brought into his office and told I was too emotional, too reactionary during meetings, I was hindering the process of the group because I was too reactionary. My voice was silenced a number of times and I was tired of fighting it. I was there for five years. A lot of my process after that has been reclaiming my voice and being able to claim it proudly.

I am asked nearly every Sunday by a different person when – not if even, but when – I am having kids and sometimes even how many. Sometimes, it’s assumption, so not “When are you having kids?” but “when you have kids…” While I find this to be an offensively personal question and unmerited assumption, I had presumed that my husband was being asked it as well…until he overheard me trying to lightheartedly brush it off and change the subject and he commented, “Well, that was awkward.” I agreed and then realized that he has not once been asked this question at church. On Mother’s Day, it was repeated ad nauseam that motherhood is the hardest job in the world, to the point of making me feel broken and unworthy as a woman who has never wanted biological offspring. The youth of the church handed out a rose to each woman because, evidently, “all women are mothers in some way.” Whether we want to be or not, I guess. I even tried not to take a rose and someone chased me out of the church shouting, “Don’t forget your rose! You are special!” Because I’m a woman and therefore a mother in some way (and if not biologically now, then someday for sure)? The sermon was about the unbelievable gift God gives us in our mothers, how strong and beautiful we women are to raise children, etc. When Father’s Day rolled around, there was no mention of every man being a father and a gift (a fancy pen) was handed to each biological father; the “extras” were left on the stage and any man who wanted to get one could. The sermon was about father wounds and how God can be the father some of us may have never had. There was no consideration of those who may have mother wounds, or how God can be just as motherly as God can be fatherly. The assumption (as it seems to me) that mothers are (and should be) perfect has consequences for all women since “all women are mothers in some way,” and repeating the idea that “mothering is the hardest job in the world” not only devalues the vastly needed other work women do in the world but made me feel guilty for “not working hard enough” at my job because it was “nothing” compared to raising a child.

As I started to sense a call to seminary, I decided to ask one of my close male friends his opinion on it. He began asking questions about what I would do if I got married someday and also became a pastor, but my husband wasn’t a pastor. “Can you really have authority over your congregation if a member of your congregation has authority over you?” he asked. Then he added, “What if your husband gets a job somewhere and he says that you’re moving? You’d have to give up being a pastor, at least at that church. Is that really good for the congregation?” He pretty much made it seem like I had to choose between getting married or being a pastor—I couldn’t have both. I didn’t have a strong understanding of God’s call for women in ministry at this point, so his words caused me to really wrestle with whether pursuing ministry meant I was giving up the opportunity to be married someday. I wasn’t even sure if I ever wanted to be married, but I just remember that I felt an enormous burden to choose between the two, all before I even started classes.

To the reader: On behalf of all the women who contributed to this post, thank you for taking the time to read these narratives. I truly believe that as we begin to listen to one another’s stories, we will learn how to better serve one another, love one another, and journey together as Christian disciples.

Note: The concluding post of this series will be a “Where Do We Go From Here?” post. The bulk of this series is meant to raise awareness of sexism in the church and to highlight women’s particular experiences of it. The posts are meant to allow the reader to wade in those murky waters for awhile, because the reality is that these kinds of experiences often feel confusing and debilitating. Though we wish for a different reality, we often don’t know how to get there—and I think it’s okay to sit in that struggle for a bit. My last post will contain some practical advice from theologians doing work in reconciliation studies, as well as resources for continued learning on this topic.

Charleston: Yes, It’s About Race. So Pastors, Preach.

Less than two days ago, a white man walked into a black church in Charleston SC, opened fire, and killed nine people. Fox News was quick to offer its commentary by finding just the “right” pundit to propagate its long-established refusal of the reality of racism in this country. Bishop E.W. Jackson said,  “Wait for the facts, don’t jump to conclusions . . . Most people jump to conclusions about race. I long for the day when we stop doing that in our country.”

So let’s look at the facts that have been reported.

The shooter, Dylann Storm Roof, entered a black church and prayed with the congregants for an hour before stating that he was there to kill black people. He announced, “You rape our women and have taken over our country, you have to go” (an epithet that reminded me of racist propaganda from the Jim Crow era). Roof’s roommate later stated that Roof “was big into segregation,” and told him that “blacks were taking over the world [and] someone needed to do something about it for the white race.” A former classmate stated that Roof would often make “racist jokes,” which the classmate now realizes “the things he said were kind of not joking.” After being brought into custody, Roof confessed that he wanted to start a race war.

A Facebook photo of Roof shows him sporting the flags of apartheid-era South Africa and Rhodesia (a former colony in South Africa that attempted to establish itself as a white supremacist state). These flags are “popular in some white supremacist circles as a way to advertise to others in the know without being as obvious as wearing a swastika.” Roof also displayed a Confederate flag on his license plate, a symbol of white supremacy and racism.

Roof chose to kill black people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The AME denomination was founded in the early 1800s by black Christians who sought to create a space where they could worship God free from the racism and discrimination they experienced at the hands of white Christians. Emanuel is the oldest AME church in the south. One of the church’s founders, Denmark Vesey, planned a slave revolt for June 16, 1822, which reportedly would have been the largest slave revolt in the history of the United States. Vesey was arrested and hanged along with thirty-five others, and the church was burned down by white supremacists. The shooter’s heinous act of terrorism occurred one day after the anniversary of this planned revolt.

Among those killed was Reverend and State Senator Clementa Pinckney. He was an advocate for racial justice and police reform. On April 4, 2015, unarmed black man Walter Scott was murdered by a white police officer. A citizen’s release of cell phone footage exposed the officer’s lies surrounding the event, resulting in the officer’s arrest and a murder charge. Rev. Pinckney attended the vigil for Walter Scott and advocated for legislation requiring police to wear body cameras. He delivered an impassioned plea to the Senate, stating:

When we first heard on the television, that a police officer had gunned down an unarmed African American in North Charleston by the name of Walter Scott, there were some who said, “Wow. The national story has come home to South Carolina.” But there were many who said, “There is no way that a police officer would ever shoot somebody in the back 6, 7, 8, times.” But . . . when we were able to see the video, and we were able to see the gun shots, and when we saw him fall to the ground, and when we saw the police officer come and handcuff him on the ground, without even trying to resuscitate him, without even seeing if he was really alive, without calling an ambulance, without calling for help, and to see him die face down in the ground as if he were gunned down like game, [we] said, “I believe.” . . . It is my hope that as South Carolina senators, that we will stand up for what is best and good about our state and really adopt this legislation and find a way to have body cameras in South Carolina.

Emanuel AME is “not just a church. It’s also a symbol … of black freedom . . . it’s a church that represents so much about the rich history and tradition of African Americans in Charleston.”

So here’s the reality. The Charleston shooting was not some random act of violence. Nor can it simply be understood as an act of persecution against Christians. It was a premeditated, strategic act of terrorism against black people. It is indeed about race, and it is symptomatic of the disease of racism that has ridden our country since its inception.

JPEG image-A39B78B9B7C4-1Here’s my special word to pastors and church leaders, especially for those in predominately white churches. If you are a pastor, do not fail to talk about the evil of racism in our society. Do not let this Sunday come and go without naming this act for what it is. Do not let this Sunday’s services happen without your congregation hearing you renounce the evil of racism in this country and this world. Do not diminish these events by limiting the discussion to violence or guns or church persecution. Please acknowledge the fact that there are people of color in your congregations who will be thinking of racism, terrorism, death, fear, and trauma as they sit in the pews. Do not ignore their pain. Do not let the service go by without naming those lost to this wicked act: The Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41; Cynthia Hurd, 54; The Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45; Tywanza Sanders, 26; Ethel Lance, 70; Susie Jackson, 87; Depayne Middleton Doctor, 49; The Rev. Daniel Simmons, 74; Myra Thompson, 59.

If you’ve never preached about racism, about Ferguson, about the consistent murder of black people by the state and white vigilantes, about God’s desire for those suffering under the oppression of racism to be liberated, about racial justice as a component of our Christian discipleship—now is the time. Now is the time.

Sexism & the Church, Pt 1: When the Church Calls You “Whore”

The following is an introduction to a short series I am writing called “Sexism & the Church.” Though I’ll be focusing primarily on the church, I will also be thinking about sexism in other social contexts. f you have any suggestions for areas to explore, please leave a comment at the end of this post. I do not pretend to have any of these reflections 100% tidy and polished, but I hope you’ll come with me on my journey.

Recently, a friend of mine responded to a Facebook wall comment I made back in 2008. I forget the main content of the post, but at the end of it I called my friend a “whore.” I didn’t mean it in a derogatory way—rather, this term was used as a token of my affection, a term of endearment that I only used with my closest friends. In my social group, “whore” meant “bestie,” thus using this term was a sign that you’d somehow crossed over from “good acquaintance” into “sacred friendship.”

It has been years since I’ve interacted in a friend group that talked with each other in this way. To be honest, I had completely forgotten that we referred to one another as whores until my friend, for whatever reason, took a trip down memory lane and commented on my 2008 post. Because I’ve been thinking a lot in recent years about feminism and women’s situation in the church, the reminder of how I inadvertently participated in this form of oppression was particularly jarring. It raised some significant questions for me—when did it become normal for women to use these terms for one another? What is happening on a psychological level when women engage one another through oppressive language and power structures? Where does the church fit into all of this?

Even a year ago, I would have dismissed our language as simply a childish means of friends attempting to relate to one another. Recently though, I have begun to see the ways in which this kind of language roots itself into our consciousness and validates narratives of oppression and violence. I have spent the past year interning at a middle school where I’ve provided counseling services to students. I hear girls refer to each other as whores all the time, and the word is used both to denigrate and to express affection. It is used to create solidarity in a social group, and also to bully. It is used to elevate a girl’s status and also to crush her, depending on the context in which the word is used. In this paradigm, every girl is a whore—it’s just that the kind of whore she is determines the rung of the social ladder she will land on.

The church is not immune to these kinds of ideologies. Just recently, in fact, I was in a Christian context in which women were consistently portrayed as sexual temptresses that male leaders must protect themselves against. “Whore” is not just a word for scaling the teenage social ladder, or a description of a particular social identity. It is an ideology of hatred towards women that has deeply infiltrated our social structures and institutions.

I have spent the last quarter in school studying the Jewish Talmud, which contains laws that were passed down orally through the generations and finally recorded between the 2nd and 5th centuries. The ancient laws present women as sexual temptations, and thus a man must be careful of how many women he is around and when he is around them. Men and women were siloed into particular gender roles because they could not accidentally find themselves alone with one another—this was a violation of the law. It was amazing to me to read the ancient laws and hear parallels between these edicts and contemporary evangelical recommendations for how the sexes should interact. I cannot count how many times I have heard stories, particularly from women, that echo these laws. I remember hearing a story in which a woman and her male co-leader were the last two people at church after an event, and the male co-leader literally told her that she needed to find her own ride home because he could not be alone with her in the car.

Many women have so internalized this sexism that they feel ashamed of their bodies, their lives, and their dreams. It is easy to identify sexism when the word “whore” is thrown around—but when sexism couches itself in Scripture and theology, it is far more covert. These ideologies have created a church in which many of its members believe that women are not permitted to lead, teach, or even have formal seminary training. People cherrypick verses that demand women be silent in the church, but fail to take into account historical context, as well as the myriad examples of female leaders in Scripture.

Although I don’t hear pejorative words in my adult professional circles in the same way that they are used among my middle schoolers, I certainly hear the ideology. I hear it every time a man panics when he finds himself alone with a woman. I hear it whenever a male Christian leader refuses to meet one-on-one with a woman because it might be “improper.” I hear it when women are refused leadership positions or pastoral jobs precisely because they are women. I hear it when women are paid less for the same job that a man holds.

What has been most discouraging for me is witnessing the ways in which women have internalized this sexism and allowed it to permeate their lives. My own past is filled with internalized sexism that has both shaped my identity and hindered me from pursuing my dreams. It has obscured my vision so much that until recently, I was not able to see myself as a theologian or a pastor at all. I did not think I was capable or worthy of such a calling.


Last week, I attended a conference in which we considered the various ways that social oppressions have affected our lives and communities. We participated in an activity in which we created human statues that embodied these oppressions, and I helped to enact the oppression of sexism. I chose to portray a woman who is being silenced in the church—she is on her knees, while a man is pressing the Bible into the back of her head as he preaches. After holding this pose for awhile, observers were asked to enter into the statue and imagine how they might help the oppressed. I felt a featherlight touch on my shoulder, but that was all that changed. Because my eyes were fixed toward the ground, I could not see the person who was trying to help me. Though I sensed that the touch on my shoulder was sincere, the pressure on my neck was not alleviated. I knew the person was trying to help, but I got the sense that she did not know how to help me.

In a strange way, I realized that the woman placing her hand on my shoulder was me. There have been times that I have thought a featherlight touch would be enough to heal from these wounds, but what I truly needed was to find the courage to throw off the chains. What I truly needed was to lift my eyes up and see possibility, to dream.

I have been a part of many contexts in which women were not permitted to lead in the church. It is only recently that I have realized how deeply these ideologies affected me, and how much they have stalled me from pursuing my dreams. I hear “whore” when I am told I cannot be a leader, a pastor, or a theologian because I’m a woman. I hear “whore” when I am told my only important accomplishment in life will be to make my spouse happy and bear children. I hear “whore” whenever I worry whether people at church will think my skirt is too short or my top is too low. “Whore” is a never-ending mantra.

This blog post is the first in a short series that will be engaging the topic of sexism in the church. It is my attempt to cease the placating featherlight touch and instead break the chains of bondage that have enslaved me. My hope is that through my reflections, bonds of oppression will crumble—not simply for me, but for anyone who happens to find themselves reading this. My hope is that women will find freedom from the ideologies that deem them “lesser” and will break free of the ways in which both church and society has called them “whore.” To the extent that women have come to believe these things about themselves, I desire that they will begin to discover the deeply rooted oppressions in their own lives and weed them out. And I pray I would find healing where I need it, as well.

I encourage your thoughts and comments along the way. Where have you seen sexism in your own life, in the church? What do you think of when you hear the word “whore”? What resonates with you?

From a Protester to Seattle Church Pastors and Leaders

(Author Note: Though this is written specifically toward Seattle pastors and church leaders, it can easily apply to leaders in other locales.)

IMG_11801Last evening, Seattle Pacific University and First Free Methodist Church hosted the event “Seattle Evangelicals for Racial Justice.” Church leaders from various denominations and churches all over Seattle came together for worship, confession and lament, and expression of righteous indignation over systemic racism. The congregation corporately confessed that through its silence, the church has perpetuated and upheld systems of oppression and violence, both historically and in the present. Church leaders were specially commissioned for the task of racial reconciliation and justice, and were given the charge to bring this message to their various contexts. Leaders were invited to make a pledge to actively engage this issue in their particular contexts, and to commit themselves to the work of racial justice in our society.

All of these things are good, but the church must not stop there. This worship service of confession, lament, and commissioning was a necessary first step in beginning this work together, but we must be careful not to become comfortable with the idea that participation in this worship service means we’ve now “done something” and the work is complete. Church leaders were charged to “act” with this message, to “do,” and to put feet to words.

IMG_11791Every leader is on a different level when it comes to this task. Many have been doing this work for a long while, some are just getting started, and others have no idea where to start. I want to affirm that this is an overwhelming task, and for leaders that may never have specifically engaged the topic of racial justice before, it can be difficult to know how to begin.

I am aware of how burdensome this might feel for church leaders, particularly for those whose ministry contexts have not historically engaged this issue in an overt manner. I am not unsympathetic to the fact that the charge to work toward the dismantling of systemic oppression and racism is a heavy one. I know that as church leaders begin to push for this in their contexts, the backlash they will inevitably receive from some members of their congregations will be exhausting and painful.

It is understandable to be hesitant in participating in this fight for justice. It is not easy. But hesitation, or feeling overwhelmed, or the threat of potential backlash from congregants does not absolve one from responsibility. Recently when I was talking to a friend about the role of church leaders in this fight, I was told that church members can indeed act outside of leadership, that “we are the church” and perhaps we don’t need to push for church leadership on this issue. I agree that parishioners “are the church” and we certainly need to be doing this work of our own volition and motivation. However, it is also true that the church’s pastors and leaders are crucial to the building up of the body. There is a reason that at the service last night, church leaders were called to the altar in order to receive the charge to fight for racial justice. Church pastors and leaders have a very particular and special role to play. The good news is that there are many church organizations in Seattle that are doing phenomenal work in this area, and the leaders of these churches provide amazing examples in how to move forward in this effort. Moving forward can have a lot of different “looks” to it, but there is one thing in particular that I want to address.

Just before the commissioning at the end of the worship service, one of the organizers of the event stated that he had recently met with students of SPU who are participants in the downtown Seattle protests. These students were in tears, lamenting the fact that the church has been profoundly absent from the streets. These Christian young adults are using their bodies to disrupt the status quo, to cause discomfort, to shake people from complacency. Christian young people are responding to their theological convictions of justice by marching for hours in the rain, standing with one another in solidarity, and risking being maced, physically assaulted, and arrested. They are participating in and facilitating corporate prayers of lament and truth-telling through protest chants of “black lives matter,” “no justice, no peace,” and “hands up, don’t shoot.”

These Christian young adults are becoming pastors on the streets of Seattle. They are encouraging those who are weary, praying for protesters, fighting for the kingdom of God, being the visible presence of Christ. And they are tired.

Church/protest outside the Seahawks game

This is a moment in which the church has an amazing ability to be the presence of Christ on the ground, to show the most marginalized and oppressed individuals in our society that their lives matter and that the church will fight for them and care for them. It is an opportunity to build up and stand with the young Christian leaders who are facilitating, organizing, and participating in protests. It is an opportunity to begin paying attention to the justice work that people in your congregations might already be doing, and to ask how church leadership can begin to support and participate in that work as well.

One question I have heard consistently over the past few weeks is where someone might begin in this work. From the perspective of someone who has been protesting regularly, and who has heard Christians who are leading and organizing the protests lament over the lack of clergy on the ground, the following are some suggested action steps. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but these are things that I think might be helpful.

1. Attend a protest. To find out when Seattle events are scheduled, visit these Facebook pages: Justice for Mike Brown-Seattle. Just as we need legal observers on the ground with protesters, we also need pastors on the ground in prayer. The visible presence of church leadership in the streets with protesters is a powerful thing. When one of the leaders of the protests revealed to other leaders that she is a Christian and is protesting because of her belief in Christ and her theological convictions, they were shocked that a Christian even cared about this. I can’t imagine how protesters would react if they saw someone with a stole or a clerical collar in the streets with them.

To learn more about the downtown Seattle protests and its leaders, read independent journalist Casey Jaywork’s blog post, “Among the Outsiders at Seattle’s #BlackLivesMatter Protests.

2. Be aware that at a protest, there are all different kinds of folks with all different kinds of beliefs and ways of expressing themselves. Don’t be afraid to interact with people who are “radical.” Remember, Jesus did that too.

3. If you attend a protest, make an effort to meet the leaders and keep in touch with them. Treat them to coffee. Encourage them, pray with them, and ask them what they need right now. Ask them how they would like to see the church getting involved in the work of fighting for racial justice. Let them know you are there for them. They might want to meet with you, they might not – but the fact that you cared enough to ask will mean a lot.

4. If you know people who are protesting on the streets, meet with them and ask them about their experience. Try to check in with them once in awhile. Even an email of encouragement is helpful.

5. If you know any young people who are participating in these efforts, make a special effort to reach out to them. Many young people are reconsidering their chosen educational/career paths because of their efforts in this movement, and a little encouragement and/or counsel might be helpful (particularly from church leaders who are more experienced on this topic).

6. Visit protesters in jail. Go to their arraignments if possible. Be the presence of Christ to them in a place where Christ may feel absent.

7. Be bold about your stance on racial justice in your churches. If a sermon hasn’t been preached on Ferguson yet, preach one. If there aren’t any conversations happening in your church right now about how the congregation can participate in the effort toward racial justice, start one. If the church isn’t very diverse, start asking questions about why that might be. Make the topic of race and racial justice a primary focus of your gospel message. Build a culture in your congregation such that when people hear the name of your church, they know you’re about racial justice.

8. Dedicate yourself to learning more about this topic by staying informed on local and national news. Follow Facebook pages or blogs that highlight these topics. My favorites are Urban CuspThe Root, and Colorlines. Read theological texts on racial justice and racial reconciliation and start community groups and sermon series. Check out these suggested texts for that purpose.

9. Try not to move too quickly into peace and reconciliation language. We pray and hope for the day when peace and reconciliation will be our reality, but right now we are drowning in systems of racism, oppression, and violence. Calling out these systems and breaking them down might not look very peaceful. Jesus didn’t look peaceful when he was turning over tables in the temple. If our language prevents us from doing the work that would dismantle oppressive systems, then perhaps our language needs to sound different. We live in the “now” and “not yet” – although we see the presence of Christ and the ushering in of the kingdom of God through the body of believers, we know that sin still exists in our world. We need to figure out how to hold that tension better – our kingdom of God language must not render invisible the suffering and affliction that are still present in our world.

10. Establish partnerships with other churches that are already engaging in this work. As churches form more intentional partnerships with other churches and parachurch organizations, the presence of the body of Christ in our city will be powerful.

These are just a few examples of ways to begin this work and to support young people who are leading the charge on the streets, and it’s certainly not limited to this. If meeting with people is not your gift, if acts of service are not your gift, if encouragement is not your gift – figure out how to utilize your unique gifts for this movement, and commit to engaging in the fight for racial justice in the best way you are able to. Although in this blog post I’ve used the word “protest” to reference street protesting, there are many different ways to protest. For more ideas, check out the article “Eight Ways to Support Protests Against the Criminal Punishment System, if You Can’t Get Out on the Street,” and also see Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil’s new blog series #ProtestProfiles, in which she highlights people performing everyday acts of protest through their particular giftings and contexts. Whatever your spiritual gifts are, use them as your act of protest. Be vocal about it, and encourage others to do the same. To the extent that the church is silent on the issue of racial injustice and oppression, it is complicit – so let’s get loud.

Christian leaders cannot, on their own, do all of these things. But what would it look like if every Christian leader in our city committed to doing just one of these things? How would our city change? Would people who have long ago given up on the church have their faith restored?

There’s no way to know until we try. I implore you, Seattle church pastors and leaders, to begin this work with intention if you haven’t already. We need you. If you have already been doing this work, thank you, and I pray that God will give you the strength to keep going, and will raise up others who will help to shoulder that burden with you. I truly believe that the time is now for the church to stand together on this, and I hope and pray we will answer that call faithfully.

Ferguson: Why White People Need To Talk About It

protestI’ll preface by saying that this message is mostly for white people and white Christians in particular, though I offer it as a confession to all of my friends of color as well.

On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by an officer in Ferguson, MO. Following this event, people took to the streets of Ferguson to protest not only the unjust killing of Michael Brown, but also the systematic oppression and racism experienced by people of color in that city and in our country. The police responded to these protests by deploying SWAT teams and utilizing military-grade equipment and protocols, including tanks, tear gas, and rubber bullets. The event facilitated a wave of protests in both Ferguson and around the country which have continued more than two weeks later. If you are unfamiliar with Michael Brown or the events that have been occurring in Ferguson, MO, go here to familiarize yourself.

Since the event, I have posted article upon article upon article on my Facebook page in an effort to keep this on people’s radars. One week after the killing of Michael Brown, all I was seeing on Facebook were videos of the ice bucket challenge, and barely anything about Ferguson. (For an interesting article regarding the ways in which the ice bucket challenge may actually be obscuring/ignoring systemic injustice, read this.) The events of Ferguson deserve at least as much attention as this viral campaign has received, and my endless Facebook posts have been an attempt to keep this event at the forefront of people’s minds.

At the beginning of this entry, I posted a link for people to check out if they are not yet aware of what’s been happening in Ferguson. The title of this blog post is “Ferguson: Why White People Need To Talk About It.” The reason for these things is that—18 days after Michael Brown’s death, 18 days after protests started and continued, 17 days after the SWAT team was called in and tear gas and military-grade weaponry was deployed, 8 days after this police officer on the ground in Ferguson was suspended for pointing a weapon at protestors and threatening to kill them, 5 days after another police officer was suspended for a video that surfaced in which he said things like, “I’m into diversity. I kill everybody, I don’t care”, 2 days after Michael Brown’s funeral service occurred, which was attended by thousands (4500 people according to CBS news)—after all of this, I am still encountering white people who do not know who Michael Brown is and who do not know what is happening in Ferguson.

Yes, you read that right.

There are hundreds of reasons why this might be so. We could talk about the fact that “75% of of whites have ‘entirely white social networks without any minority presence,’” that “on average white Americans live in communities that face far fewer problems and talk mostly to other white people,”  and that maybe this lack of presence is rendering the experiences of people of color invisible to white folks. We could talk about the phenomenon that people who use Facebook are half as likely to bring up controversial political topics in fear of causing conflict or losing friends. Christians could talk about the fact that, according to a study performed in 2008, “only 7 percent of American churches are racially integrated” (we can only hope it’s gotten better since then), and consider whether the church’s separatism has something to do with the lack of integration.

For now, I’m choosing to talk about the decision of white silence.

White silence is something that I’ve been complicit in, largely because I will never know what it’s like to walk in the shoes of a person who’s not white, and there’s a sense of not knowing how to deal with that tension. I never feel my skin. I never think about my skin until I’m in situations where white people are the minority in the room—and these situations are few and far between. I never worry when I’m around authority figures or police officers that they might be threatened by my skin color. I remember once after a cop pulled me over as a teenager, I opened the glove compartment to retrieve my identification. I didn’t have to think about whether the cop might mistake that as going for a weapon. I didn’t have to tell him why I was opening the glove compartment. In fact, I never once wondered whether I would come out of that experience alive. I never once wondered whether I was going to be unfairly arrested. I never once thought, “I better be careful right now because I’m white.”

It’s hard to think about the fact that my friends of color have to think about these things. I don’t know how to resolve that tension, and I don’t always know how to talk about these things with people of color. What I’ve come to understand, though, is that my inability to know how to resolve the tension does not mean that I have the right to be silent about it. In his blog post, “This Is What We Mean When We Say It’s About Race,” Jelani Greenidge says, “When impassioned people of color are saying that a particular event or issue is about race, what we’re aiming to both uncover and dismantle is the racialized system of interlocking societal institutions that perpetuate these kinds of outcomes. We’re not necessarily trying to blame you for what happened, as much as we’re asking you to consider your situation, consider the reality around you, and try to make it better for those of us who, for a variety of reasons, aren’t getting a fair shake.” As a white person, I have the immense privilege of not even having to think about race if I don’t want to, which means, of course, that I have the equally immense privilege of remaining silent—because I don’t have to worry about whether or not I’m going to get a fair shake as a white person. (As a woman, that’s a bit of a different story—though as a white woman, I’m still not too worried.)

White silence, or what can also be viewed as “impartiality,” is “the logic of privilege, the logic of those who are actually protected and served by the system and are so safe to give or withhold judgment freely.” It is this white privilege that not only gives me tacit permission to be silent when I read the stories of injustices that people of color have suffered, but it is also white privilege that renders these stories invisible. White privilege means that the following stories, all of which happened since the killing of Michael Brown, might not be something white people know about:

Kajieme Powell, a black man, is killed by police in St. Louis. Police fired 12 shots because Powell was displaying erratic behavior and approaching them with a knife. Those who knew Powell state that he was suffering from a mental illness.

TV-Producer Charles Belk is cuffed and booked outside of a pre-Emmy event for being a “tall, bald head[ed] black male,” the description of a suspect in a nearby robbery.

Kametra Barbour, a black mother with four children in her car, was pulled over and detained at gunpoint—apparently her burgundy red Nissan Maxima looked a bit too much like the beige Toyota they were looking for? (Or maybe they saw a black person driving and figured she must have done something wrong anyway.)

White privilege means that the names Eric Garner, John Crawford, Ezell Ford, and Dante Parker, all unarmed black men killed by police in the last month, may have been unfamiliar before Ferguson, and may even remain unfamiliar now. Read more about their stories here.

These are just some stories. How many more have occurred that I don’t know about?

In the past year I’ve taken two seminary classes about race, and it’s made me think a lot about privilege and silence. Silence means that racism goes unchallenged, that these things might never change. Silence means that violence will continue to occur and be deemed normal. As I’ve wondered how to challenge the notion of privilege and its oft-accompanied silence, the first step for me was to begin asking some pretty hard questions, both of myself and of the institutions in which I have found myself. Here are some of them:

In the two years that I served in AmeriCorps, the team I served with was overwhelmingly white, and in the school site where I was placed, most of the teachers and principals were white. The communities that we served were diverse, but the leadership was not always very diverse. Why?

Seattle does not lack diversity, but in the past two years the spaces I’ve found myself in have been incredibly white. The private Christian university where I’m in graduate school is really white. The church I’ve been attending for the past four years is really white. Most of my friends are pretty white too. Why?

The neighborhood I live in isn’t all white, but the majority of the neighbors whose names I know are white. Why?

After the death of Michael Brown, various social media sites began listing the names of other black men and women who lost their lives to police brutality. Some of the names I knew, many I did not. Why?

I don’t know the answers to many of these questions, but by asking them, I’m breaking a silence. I’m confessing white privilege—privilege that I didn’t ask for and wish I didn’t have—and attempting to step into a different kind of reality than what I’ve known in the past. I’m confessing that in the ways that I have been silent in the past, I have been complicit in this oppressive structure of white privilege. I am confessing that, as a church and as a society, we need to begin a deeper process of listening to the stories of people of color in our lives, to attempt to understand the history of racial injustice and oppression in our country, and to actively seek out opportunities to learn under the leadership of those whose experiences and perspectives are different from ours.

The following are some of the ways that I am going to attempt to live as a result of this confession, and are ways that perhaps can be useful to some of my fellow white friends.

1. Find and participate in environments that value diversity, especially nonprofit organizations that work in areas of community building, poverty relief, and education.

Find an organization in your community with a diverse population and volunteer there. Make a concerted effort to get to know people of a different race and/or culture than you, whose experiences may not have been as easy as yours. I know many people who thought they knew everything about how to solve poverty, welfare, and racism, without ever having worked with people who are affected by these realities every day, and when they began volunteering in nonprofit agencies, their perspectives drastically changed. It is problematic if someone thinks s/he knows how to solve the problem of poverty, but has never known people who are experiencing it. It is problematic if someone judges a person on welfare, but has never known anyone trying to live through that system. It is problematic for a person to claim that racism doesn’t exist in our country, when that person does not have any friends of color from whom s/he can learn.

2. Find some news sources that consistently report on the experiences of people of color in this country, and check those sources often.

After seeing the names of people of color who have been killed or profiled by police in recent months, I wondered why I did not recognize a lot of them. I realized that the news sources I relied on were not reporting these things. I have since started following The RootUrban Cusp, and ColorLines, where I’m sure it doesn’t take military tanks rolling down the streets of a suburban neighborhood for news to make headlines.

3. Learn some history.

In my undergraduate program, I read a book titled Long Memory: The Black Experience in America, which profoundly shaped the way that I think about the experience of black individuals in American society. The authors state in the preface, “Convinced that the ideas articulated by blacks in poetry, song, folklore, novels, cartoons, plays, speeches, autobiographies, newspapers, and magazines reflected their attitudes and significantly affected their actions in the political, social, and economic arenas, we have relied heavily on such material in developing our themes.” The inclusion of various art forms in this history book not only makes for an incredibly interesting read, but also reminds me that the people in these history books are real, their stories are real, their pain is real. Other books that have been recommended to me in recent days are The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander, Racial Domination, Racial Progress: The Sociology of Race in America by Matthew Desmond and Mustafa Emirbayer, and The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America by Khalil Gibran Muhammad. I hope you’ll join me in reading some of them.

4. Be willing to be unpopular.

This week I attended a local event in which artists, activists, columnists, and scholars presented on the events of Ferguson. One presenter urged participants that if they wanted to be a part of a movement of change, they needed to be okay with being unpopular. One of my professors, Brian Bantum, said something similar once—that affecting change in the area of racial justice means being “that person” who always brings up the topic of race, who is always willing to say something and challenge people when it is clear that a racial injustice is happening. As a white person, talking about race has not made me the most popular kid in the club. People have argued with me, put me down, called me an idiot, and made me feel both incredibly angry and “less than” all at once. Despite this, however, I have committed to speaking up. It’s too important. I would rather lose friends than stay silent when black men and women are being systematically oppressed and executed by the very systems that have served to keep me privileged. If I am silent, I am complicit.

As the church, in this moment, it is incredibly important to be a part of this conversation. It is important for white people in the church to listen to our brothers and sisters of color, to learn from their experience, to come under their leadership. As Christena Cleveland notes, “The gospel calls us not only into individual faith in Christ, but also into the multi-racial family of God.” This means that white Christians must be intentional about forming relationships with people of color, learning about the experiences of people of color in our society and elsewhere, and working to build bridges across racial divides through education and raising awareness.

I will conclude with this, from Brenda Salter McNeil and Rick Richardson’s book The Heart of Racial Justice: How Soul Change Leads to Social Change. They state, “What should the church’s response be in a world being torn apart by prejudice, hatred, and fear? We believe it is imperative that the Christian church regain its integrity to address injustice. This will require that we relinquish the individualism and isolation that have been prevalent among evangelical Christians in the past, so that we can develop new models of racial reconciliation, social justice and spiritual healing. Our unity and reconciliation efforts could be the greatest witness of the church to the power of the gospel in the twenty-first century” (Kindle Location 148).

There is indeed hope. Hope is found in the body of Christ uniting as one to “loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yolk, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke” (Is. 58:6). White Christians—don’t be silent. Don’t be complicit. Ask questions. Listen. Become more informed. Don’t be afraid to start conversations, and don’t be afraid to be unpopular. This conversation is simply too important to ignore.