Brutalizing Black bodies is an assault against God
The torture inflicted on Black people dates back to enslavement and continues to this day as a denial of their humanity, writes the dean of Duke Chapel.
Sometimes, being shot in the back is just another day of living while Black. The case of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, is only one example, its visibility heightened through protests, politics and, most recently, professional athletes who stepped away to redirect our focus.
Some strive to see isolated incidents, but in fact they are part of a long, long line of real-life stories revealing anti-Blackness, in our country and in American Christianity. As a Christian minister, I must name this truth. I must also name another truth of the gospel: The incarnation of Jesus shows us a different vision for human life, in which God embraces Black bodies, all bodies, all flesh, so that being for God means being against anti-Black violence.
The torturous terror against Black bodies has roots in the history of this nation through the brutal and inhumane colonial practices of enslavement, humans transported in the belly of slave ships on a bloody trail from Africa to the Americas known as the middle passage. Cargo enrobed in Black flesh bled, moaned and groaned through a ritual of oppression and death.
Upon arrival in the “land of the free,” these Africans were deemed property, not humanity. As Allen Dwight Callahan has noted, “American slavery unleashed an all-out assault on the black body.”(link is external) Assaulted Black bodies were deemed nobodies, nonbeings and chattel to be sold at auction blocks. They were dehumanized and dishonored. The enslaved were possessions that at the liturgy of the auction block were just bodies. Their humanity erased, their bodies were wounded, broken and even murdered by such heinous acts as lynching. Today, we see that this story of Black torture is not just past history but present reality.
The horrific heritage of slavery, dehumanization and corporeal devaluation is interwoven with religious practice, particularly Christianity. Christian slave masters prioritized the soul over the body, and the Black body was especially purported to signify evil and the demonic, worthless for the life of faith, valued only for what it could perform; thus, anything could be done to it.
Neoplatonic philosophy has influenced Christianity for centuries with its emphasis on the immortal, spiritual realm and discount of the material, bodily realm as “less than” and not a part of the spiritual life. The goal becomes to escape bodily reality as a path to a deeper spirituality. Historically, this disembodied Christian legacy has viewed the body as threatening and dangerous if not controlled -- a perspective that opened the door for nations to torture, exploit, shoot and murder bodies, particularly dark bodies, because they were deemed irrelevant to faith.
Yet despite the hurtful legacy of Christianity that denigrates the body’s potential, at the heart of the Christian faith is the incarnation of the divine into a human physical body, signifying the divine embrace of the human body.
Barbara Brown Taylor, in “An Altar in the World,”(link is external) explores the incarnation’s claim “that God trusted flesh and blood to bring divine love to earth,” revealing that if one wants to become more spiritual, one should become more embodied as a human and person of faith. Religious faith is a material one, not just a spiritual or a virtual one on Twitter. It takes place in and through bodies. Thus, bodies are vital to the practice of faith, and how we treat Black bodies, and every body, matters.
Whether wounded or whole, the incarnation of Jesus is the affirmation and embrace of all bodies, all flesh, all Blacks. Our bodies have been graced with the presence of God; indeed, human beings are created in the image of God.
This is the power in symbolic actions by athletes, especially Black athletes. By interrupting the entertainment provided by sports, they are using their hearts and minds to make the point that Black bodies are valuable beyond their labor. In their way, the athletes are reminding us that Black bodies are image bearers of God.
As a Christian, I recognize that Jesus was flogged, crowned with thorns and struck in the face. He carried the cross by himself, was crucified and was pierced in his side with a spear, blood and water flowing out. The Gospel writings reveal that his body was tortured on crucified lockdown and that he died gangsta style, like all the crucified peoples of the world.
In many ways, the heart of the Christian faith is a tortured, bruised and wounded body of God, which is an aspect of theological memory that interweaves with Black cultural memory, such that theologian James Cone calls the tortured Christ a lynched Black body.(link is external) A tortured Black body ignites the cultural spiritual song -- “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” Were you there in Kenosha? Were you there in Minneapolis?
The death and torture of the Christ is neither a glorification of violence and torture against bodies nor a promotion of it. It is an indictment against the way we live, the way we promote violence, even state-sanctioned violence, and the way we perpetuate death. Jesus’ death is supposed to put an end to death altogether, representing the death of death and the end of violence ultimately. Modern-day police brutality is a modern-day form of crucifixion, and it says that nobody matters, which is antithetical to the life of faith.
Every time we enact violence against another human being -- like Jacob Blake -- we destroy the beautiful image of God found in the human collective body, and we reveal a distorted, immature and anorexic spirituality. Any move toward the destruction of a body is a gesture in the direction of the destruction of God; to embrace a human body is to embrace an enfleshed God.
To embrace and love a Black body is to embrace and love God. To be human is to have a body, and to be a person of faith is to affirm the body as vital to the spiritual life. Thus, to be anti-Black body is to be anti-human and anti-God, because within the Christian tradition at least, God became a human body to redeem and heal bodies and claim them as vital for life in the Spirit.
You can’t be pro humanitate, pro-human, and be for anti-Black violence. You can’t be for God and be for anti-Black violence, regardless of the source of the brutal violence, because all human bodies are temples of the Spirit, and what we do with them and to them should matter for people of faith. Every body matters, and any body is a somebody to God.
Under the Rev. Barry Randolph, a thriving Detroit church has brought a young community together to improve their lives with their own ideas.
By now, no concept or idea is too off-the-wall for the Rev. Barry Randolph and his congregation at Church of the Messiah in Detroit.
More than 200 affordable housing units run by the church? Check. Free internet for residents who didn’t have access? Done. A growing list of incubated businesses with products ranging from tea to deodorant to a clothing line? No problem.
This innovative Episcopal church anchors the Islandview neighborhood on Detroit’s east side. In a city with an estimated poverty rate of 36%, more than three times the national average, Randolph is driven by a desire to foster an equitable community whose residents have a stake in its success.
“You can’t throw money at it. It’s not about just getting somebody a job. Now you have to teach people how to keep the job,” said 57-year-old Randolph. “And it’s not about just bringing people up. Sometimes you gotta bring up the whole community.”
What challenges does your congregation face that cannot be solved with money?
This approach helped Randolph transform the church, once on the verge of shuttering, to a community hub that’s now more than 300 members strong, racially diverse and majority young.
Randolph and his parishioners see the church as an incubation center. At the church, someone with a business idea can team up with accountants and attorneys to get it off the ground, and many have.
“You need your phone charged? Here’s a charging station,” said Bishop Bonnie Perry of the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan, referring to Church of the Messiah’s four solar-powered community charging stations. “The entrepreneurial spirit, that kind of spirit, is what our church longs for.”
Leadership Education at Duke Divinity recognizes institutions that act creatively in the face of challenges while remaining faithful to their mission and convictions. Winners received $10,000 to continue their work.
People returning home from prison can seek help getting a job from the church’s employment office. The church is also the home base for a marching band that secures college scholarships for teens who once thought they wouldn’t graduate from high school.
To Randolph, it all ties back to providing people a path out of poverty.
A relatable approach
Ask members at Church of the Messiah(link is external) their impressions of Randolph and his leadership and they’ll likely say he’s the “realest” pastor they know.
Before he became a priest, Randolph was a businessman. He co-owned a distribution company, dabbled in catering and managed the deli at a local market for a decade.
He doesn’t write down his sermons. He doesn’t preach from the pulpit, because he doesn’t like to be elevated above his congregation.
He dresses casually, wearing a short-sleeved button-up and khakis during a recent outdoor service.
His congregation calls him Pastor Barry, not Father.
Of the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan’s 90 active priests and deacons, he’s one of six Black clergypeople.
Bucking the trend of the majority-white denomination, 60% of Church of the Messiah’s members are Black men under 30. Randolph says 70% of his congregation is under age 35.
“It was kind of different for me seeing people exactly like me, the exact same mentality,” said 22-year-old Samijai Blanks, a Black man who has been involved with the church since he was a boy. “A lot of people my age wouldn’t even think about church.”
Randolph lives at the church and doesn’t take a salary. He has a large family -- 11 brothers and sisters, and 31 adult nieces and nephews -- who pitch in to support him financially. His relatives pay for his groceries and help with transportation, because he doesn’t own a car.
Foundation funding, philanthropic donations, and a mix of spiritual and secular collaboration sustain the church’s ministries. Over the years, the Ford Foundation, the Kresge Foundation and others have financed efforts such as the business incubation program and the employment office.
“We never do anything based on money. We do it, and then the money seems to follow,” Randolph said. “People see the work, and then they come in and they help us to be able to build.”
What could your church do if you pursued an idea first and trusted that the money would follow?
Church of the Messiah’s work in the community has drawn interest from as far as Latvia and Uganda. The church is spearheading what it calls The Master’s Plan, a coalition of 103 religious organizations seeking to rebuild communities and lift people out of poverty by drawing on the talents of their congregations. Randolph is leading churches in doing an asset assessment to identify members who work in the medical field, skilled trades, education and other professions to “help build the kingdom.”
“We’re trying to use other churches to be able to do it in their community and neighborhood with no excuses,” he said. “It’s worked for us.”
The hardest aspect of this type of community building is for churches to shift their mindset from focusing on what people are missing to realizing what they have, said the Rev. Michael Mather, the pastor of First United Methodist Church of Boulder, Colorado, and a faculty member at the Asset-Based Community Development Institute at DePaul University.
What would it take to shift your church’s focus from what’s missing to what assets are present?
Mather is a former pastor of Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, where he revamped the church’s approach to ministry by asking people what their gifts were and looking for opportunities around those talents.
“One of the rules that we followed and that we’ve tried to think about a lot was that money should always flow into the hands of the people who don’t have much,” Mather said. “In the past, what we’ve done is we would pay ourselves to run programs for people whose problem was they didn’t have money. But we didn’t see the irrationality of it when we were doing it.”
Making the word of God tangible
Randolph first came to Church of the Messiah in 1991. He attended a service to hear his mother, a member, speak about faith.
He hadn’t been to church in two years. Raised a Baptist, he’d always believed in God. “I just couldn’t stand organized religion,” he said.
He found the Episcopal service ritualistic and dry. He hated the chanting. The hymns reminded him of a funeral march. Bored by it all, he swore he’d never return.
But the church was looking for someone to tutor kids in reading, and Randolph agreed to it. The church’s commitment to the community, demonstrated through efforts like the Church of the Messiah Housing Corporation founded in 1978, and his respect for the people behind those efforts, including then-rector the Rev. Canon Ronald Spann, eased his skepticism. Randolph eventually became a member.
His relationship with the church deepened thanks to his love for working with kids. He became the Sunday school teacher, then the youth director, then the worship leader.
Randolph moved to the Islandview neighborhood in 1997 to be close to Church of the Messiah. He grew up six blocks away, but unlike Islandview, his childhood neighborhood had no concentrated poverty. When he moved there as an adult, he realized that while his upbringing had been more privileged, he felt more at home in tightknit Islandview. The residents were the jewels of the community -- they just needed opportunity.
Becoming an Episcopal priest wasn’t in Randolph’s plans. But in 1998, God spoke to him and called him to bring more young people to Church of the Messiah as a priest.
The church’s numbers had plummeted to 40 members by the time Randolph became ordained in 2002. The situation only worsened over the following years. With Church of the Messiah in debt and the building in disrepair, Randolph knew he needed to do something different.
“Church of the Messiah was always a community church in the sense that people knew that we did housing or summer camps or after-school programs,” he said. “What they didn’t get was how we worshipped. They didn’t come to worship. They came to everything else.”
The traditional service didn’t resonate with the community, so Randolph redesigned it. He added a noon service to attract young parishioners. Mindful that some people might be illiterate, he got rid of the collective readings. The outline of the Episcopal service remained, but this new version was wrapped in a package that was accessible to first-time churchgoers.
“He attracted all these young people,” said Kenyon Reese, 48, who has been a member nearly all his life. Reese recalls the service dwindling to just eight or nine people before Randolph switched it up. “He just changed the energy,” he said.
Randolph geared the service toward bringing out parishioners’ greatness, with the church acting as the incubation center to help people realize their goals. Through the doors came formerly incarcerated people, former gang members and individuals who’d dropped out of school. These new parishioners wanted to know how to tap into the greatness Randolph preached about. What did greatness mean for them when they couldn’t find a job? Randolph directed them to the church’s employment office and entrepreneurship mentoring.
How might you make your church and its offerings more accessible to more people?
“We were putting things in place to where we were making the word of God tangible, regardless of your background,” Randolph said.
Word traveled in the neighborhood and beyond. The buzz attracted professionals, doctors and attorneys curious about the church’s growing reputation as a business incubator, an employer and a housing provider. The church’s membership grew to 100 people within six months, Randolph said. Then to 200 the next year. Within three years, Church of the Messiah was home to 300 members.
Investing in second chances
Some arrive at the church out of necessity and come to view it as a community center and a home.
That was 26-year-old Dwight Roston’s path.
At 16, Roston said, he was getting into trouble -- skipping school, fighting and stealing cars -- a product of being young and bored and unable to find a job. He showed up at Church of the Messiah to do community service as a condition of his probation. He wasn’t looking for guidance, but Randolph quickly noticed that Roston was artistically inclined.
How can you train your parishioners to notice and affirm the gifts of others?
Randolph asked him: Why was he stealing cars if he was this good at drawing?
So Roston stuck around. At the church, he learned to use a screen press to make and sell his own T-shirts. He recorded music. He worked for Nikki’s Ginger Tea, the longest-running business incubated by the church, which showed him the ins and outs of wholesale and retail. He learned to install free internet in the neighborhood through the church’s participation in the Equitable Internet Initiative.(link is external) He learned video production, worked on a project with PBS and started his own company, I Am Productions.
The church service is only an hour on Sundays, but Roston finds himself at the church every day.
“It has all these different programs, and you can’t find that anywhere else,” he said. “They don’t care about what kind of past you have or anything like that. Are you willing to be a productive person? Everybody has something to bring to the table, like a bunch of puzzle pieces.”
Kimberly Woodson, 50, credits Randolph with helping her find a job and launch her own nonprofit after she served 29 years in prison for a murder conviction as a juvenile.
Woodson was pregnant and looking for housing when someone brought her to Church of the Messiah a few years ago. She shared her story with Randolph and later became a member.
Woodson told Randolph that she wanted to help others reenter society after incarceration. He introduced her to a woman who works in prison ministry and could walk Woodson through the process of starting a nonprofit. She helped Woodson fill out paperwork for articles of incorporation and apply for an employer identification number, steps that Woodson said would have been overwhelming without guidance.
The ministry of introduction can be a simple act with profound repercussions. Is there someone you know who needs to be introduced to someone else?
Now Woodson’s organization, Redeeming Kimberly, has been operating for a year and hosts events such as clothing drives and resource fairs at the church.
Randolph could help the community by simply giving away food and clothing, Woodson said, but instead, he chooses to invest in people and their ideas.
“He don’t just give you a fish. He’ll give you a fish and a fishing rod, tell you how to get to the water, the best methods to make the bait and how to catch the fish,” she said.
Randolph believes that people have been blessed with talents from God. And at Church of the Messiah, he invites them to grow those gifts.
“We’re created in the image of God,” he said. “So we need to bring it into fruition. We don’t want to waste that gift or talent.”
Intentional self-care, a church’s ethos of care and congregational openness to new approaches are notable factors that contribute to the thriving of Black clergywomen, a researcher has found.
Not too long after I joined the pastoral staff of a church, another team member gave me some feedback from our senior pastor’s wife.
“The pastor’s wife is uncomfortable with you sitting in the chair next to her husband,” the staff member told me -- she feared that congregants would think I was his wife.
I sat in the pulpit’s second row for the next five years. Hyperaware of my presence as a single woman on the pastoral staff, I never spoke about this conversation again.
I often felt alone and misunderstood, and I wondered, do other Black clergywomen experience such challenges? I resolved to find out, and applied for a Reflective Leadership Grant(link is external) to conduct an ethnographic study of Black clergywomen.
I wanted to explore the challenges, but I also wanted to talk to women who were flourishing and cultivating space for other women in ministerial leadership. I focused on the question, What makes Black clergywomen thrive?
I interviewed 11 Black clergywomen and 25 congregants, along with scholars whose work includes areas of Black women and religious studies. There were seven denominations represented.
During my research, I came to realize that I was not alone in my challenges.
The Rev. Dr. Renita J. Weems aptly articulated the shared experiences of a majority of interviewees when she told me, “Black women, especially single ones, make the best work mules -- grossly underpaid and obscenely overworked. We forget our boundaries because Christianity and ministry have elevated sacrifice and silence in women as a virtue. Women have to learn the importance of boundaries, saying no and saving parts of themselves for themselves.”
Yet that’s not the whole story. In spite of the opposition that Black women have faced for centuries, I saw that they are dismantling that which is destructive, oppressive and seeks to limit their thriving.
I heard many hopeful stories. Women are refusing to give most of their time and energy to demanding respect or legitimizing their work, instead devoting themselves to preaching in pulpits, writing books, transforming communities through social activism, traveling abroad and living dreams that would have seemed impossible to their ancestors.
I am sharing some of the findings of my project, from which I identified three key factors that contribute to the flourishing of Black clergywomen.
Black clergywomen who flourished were not only committed to providing care for communities; they prioritized it for themselves. They were committed to rituals, rest, friendships and activities that nourished their souls.
“We [Black female pastors] try to bear [the] whole world and lose ourselves. … Joy has to be our active form of resistance,” said the Rev. Cece Jones-Davis, who serves on the pastoral staff at The Table in Oklahoma City.
She said that part of her routine was watching a comedy show before going to sleep, “even stuff that’s not good, because I need the lightheartedness before I can rest.”
Clergywomen said they exercised, received regular massages, cooked meals and went on vacations.
Others learned to ask for what they needed to thrive, including sabbaticals, therapy sessions and, in some cases, travel funds for a spouse or a child to accompany them to ministry engagements.
Congregational ethos of care
Black clergywomen flourished in congregations that had an ethos of caring for them. In these spaces, they were paid well, and their contributions were valued and respected.
Elders and other congregational leaders understood the importance of supporting their well-being, including paying for professional and personal development.
Yet even where Black clergywomen were flourishing, they were often carrying more than their share -- and suffering for it. Some churches claim to be progressive and egalitarian, but when you examine the roles, responsibilities and organizational charts, those ideals are not borne out in practice.
For those who hire and work alongside Black clergywomen, consider it your responsibility to assist in dismantling practices that silence, harm and prevent them from being able to speak up and show up as their full selves.
Congregational openness to new approaches
I also found that Black clergywomen thrived in places where congregations and their leaders showed an openness to dismantling systems and practices that hindered their expression of their whole selves.
In some churches, leaders were willing to re-envision and restructure hegemonic leadership and worship practices destructive to Black clergywomen -- and the wider community.
Congregants at St. Paul’s Baptist Church in Philadelphia told me about changes that happened when the Rev. Dr. Leslie D. Callahan became the senior pastor in 2009. Among them: learning to use inclusive language.
“The God-talk is different here. It is not what we were raised with or accustomed to,” an associate minister at St. Paul’s told me.
I found that Black clergywomen who were flourishing had been encouraged and permitted by denominational and congregational leadership to re-imagine new ways of leading and loving themselves and their congregations.
Their churches tended to show more signs of collaborative leadership; people in the decision-making circles did not all look alike, think alike or share the same educational and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Through making changes in liturgical practices, church governance and teachings that expand the imaginations of their congregants, Black clergywomen are modeling what it means to invite others into their liberation.
Their very work shows promise in that the life-giving traditions that have sustained Black people for centuries can be amended and overhauled to give more possibilities for the flourishing of wider communities.
What will it take for churches to consider other models, beyond the personality of one (usually male) person in the pulpit and the work of women behind the scenes?
It was not until I had the space and time to listen to the stories of Black clergywomen that I allowed myself to wrestle with the problematic situation I encountered in my previous church setting.
Why did I feel I had to stay silent? Why did we as a staff not teach people that a woman who holds power and is next in line to the pastor does not have to be his wife? Why did I move to the second row instead of working with my congregation to dismantle the prevailing assumptions about a woman’s role in the church?
I was heartened to talk with Black clergywomen who are doing just that -- taking care of themselves while changing the church. My hope is that they will not be left to do this work alone.
Pastors can benefit from adaptable, restorative practices, writes a leading researcher on well-being in the workplace.
I spent my summer away from the thick of all things COVID-19. I was at our home in the Blue Ridge Mountains, which means I was outside every day, could easily spend time with our wonderful neighbors and still maintain appropriate social distancing, and had ready access to fresh food from small local providers. No visits to crowded grocery stores, no trying to walk on busy sidewalks. As a professor, I had no work responsibilities that required me to adapt.
Pastors are at the other end of the pandemic impact spectrum with no clear relief in sight. They are trying to preach effectively with empty church pews as their audience. They are suddenly required to be technology experts -- available 24/7 to handle computer problems -- and still carry out their usual responsibilities.
They feel the intensity of working from home in new ways. They struggle to create appropriate space for pastoral care in the middle of a now-packed and privacy-strained home. They wrestle with the terrible reality that they cannot make hospital visits or, even more wrenching, officiate in traditional ways at funerals. Life for pastors has become immensely harder.
My colleagues and I at the Flourishing in Ministry project(link is external) have developed some practices based upon our research that I think will help pastors, especially those who are bearing significant burdens from the pandemic. We call these “wise well-being practices” -- in part because they are based on solid scientific evidence, and also because they can be tailored to fit into a pastor’s unique ministry and personal situation.
A basic triad of wise well-being practices can help us build solid ground from which to move forward.
First is acknowledging that anxiety is a natural response. We are hard-wired to experience anxiety in times like these, followed by fatigue, frustration and fear when challenges persist. The key goal is to be able to acknowledge that these responses are normal and not somehow evidence of personal “weakness.”
One simple but effective strategy is to explicitly name the troubling thoughts and feelings and then to recognize that they are natural and understandable -- that they are OK. Certain kinds of prayer can help with this. The shift in thinking and feeling will probably not be immediate or comprehensive, but research shows that this simple practice, repeated over time, is very likely to help.
The responses may recur, and if they do, that is normal as well. Again, building solid ground starts with accepting that these times are very difficult and quite naturally will evoke anxious, worried thoughts and feelings.
Building solid ground continues by engaging in at least one joyful practice on a regular basis. Joyful practices foster positive, peaceful, hopeful thoughts and feelings. Examples include centering prayer, lectio divina, hymn singing, the reading of beautiful poems, walking meditation, listening to hopeful music and jubilant dance.
I have several joyful practices I turn to, including reading positive nonfiction like Barbara Brown Taylor’s “An Altar in the World”(link is external) and listening to podcasts like “The Slowdown.”(link is external) More recently, I have been listening to music that inspires me, like Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.”(link is external) Even five minutes of a joyful practice each day will produce meaningful benefits over time.
A final way to build solid ground is to get enough rest. Even in good times, we hear a lot about how important getting sufficient sleep is for our health and well-being. During challenging times, it is especially important to ensure that our minds and bodies are rested and restored.
Short catnaps can be very effective. Even if sleep is difficult, finding ways to physically relax can help. And yes, being a couch potato for short periods can be beneficial if that brings rest. But worrying about getting enough rest is counterproductive, so if sleep becomes an ongoing challenge, getting assistance from a physician or heath care professional may be in order.
In times like these, it is important to affirm our core life values and beliefs. Researchers consistently find that when we feel uncertain or threatened, returning to our core values is a balm.
Consider an exercise such as this: Dwell on at least one value. Think about what that value means to you, why your living out that value matters so much. Next, acknowledge the ways you are living it out -- you need to be able to embrace concrete things you are doing that represent that value. Then imagine new ways you can live in consonance with that value in several aspects of your life: work, home, civic activities, etc.
Try to be vivid and specific in what you imagine. Make it real for yourself. Finally, create some reminder of the value: an icon, a quotation, an objective that represents it, a song that reflects it. When practiced over time, such affirmations can be powerful antidotes to life’s most challenging experiences.
We invite pastors and other ministry workers and leaders to visit our website(link is external) to find more resources, including our WorkWell mobile app. WorkWell offers users an opportunity to build their own personal well-being profiles, as well as access to more wise well-being practices by experts including Barbara Brown Taylor, Parker Palmer and James Martin, with new practices from Robert Franklin and others coming soon.
Simple practices that require small amounts of time really do create benefits, as long as we make them rituals, activities that we engage in regularly. My colleagues and I sometimes say “five for flourishing,” which is meant to remind us that we can all find five minutes to help ourselves.