Growing up as a little girl in the 1980s-90s in Paradise Hills, an area of Southeast San Diego rich in diversity, I had the pleasure of attending William Penn Elementary from kindergarten through 3rd grade. At William Penn, even with African-American history being part of the year-round curriculum, Black History Month was a special part of our year and always capped off by the school’s annual Multicultural Fair. School assemblies were guaranteed to relay captivating and courageous stories of Black men and women. The re-enactment of the Greensboro sit-in by Ms. Williams’ 4th-grade class sticks in my mind. The scene closed with my Black, brown, and white schoolmates gathering on stage to sing a rendition of “We Shall Not Be Moved.”
It wasn’t until my family had moved to an up-and-coming neighborhood in East Chula Vista and I transferred to a new school in a new school district that I realized hearing African-American spirituals at school events was not a common part of all elementary school formation. In my new elementary school, the scope of our history lessons was much narrower, and I found myself wanting. It felt like I was being given only the most central portion of a great panoramic picture, and I couldn’t help but wonder how much of the scenery I was missing out on.
I know there are critics within the church who argue that Black History Month (as well as AAPI Heritage Month, Latino-Hispanic Heritage Month, etc.) serves as a tool of division, and there are others who would dismiss the mention of Black History Month within certain contexts as a marketing ploy, or as a way of pandering to “woke” culture. I choose to continue to celebrate Black History Month as a way of widening my lens so that I can view this world that we Christians are called to serve. It is a chance to explore a more abundant understanding of God: God as Creator, and the divine and diverse ways Creator has formed each of us in our different bodies; God as Redeemer, in the abundant chances we’ve been given for conciliation across a history of oppression and ignorance; and God as Sustainer, hold fast those individuals and communities who faced violence, rejection, and erasure in the faith that their sacrifices and labor would bring our world closer to Beloved Community.
In that spirit, and honoring this year’s Black History Month theme of Black Resistance, here are three Black theologians and thought leaders whose work resists particular aspects of the dominant culture and seeks to move us all closer to collective liberation:
Ella Baker (1903-1986)
Those who know of Ella Baker’s legacy often refer to her as one of the unsung heroes of The Civil Rights Era. She served with the NAACP, and later helped to organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In 1960, Baker organized and later mentored the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Some argue that one of the reasons why she may be lesser known than Dr. King and some of her other contemporaries is due to her commitment to a way of leadership that sought not the spotlight but more to support others to step into a spotlight of their own. Baker is often quoted as saying, “strong people don’t need strong leadership.” Her wisdom regarding the effectiveness of group-centered leadership, and her belief in each individual’s personal and God-given power, often serve as anchoring wisdom for newer theological praxes such as Total Ministry, Shared Ministry, Mutual Ministry, or the Ministry of the Baptized: ways of doing ministry that seek to move away from a community centered around a minister, and more towards a ministering community.
In our diocese, particularly as we continue our collective journey in our Year of Service and explore how we might co-power our neighbors in our surrounding communities, what might we learn from Ella Baker, particularly in her wisdom regarding group-centered leadership? (If you’re not familiar with the term “co-powerment,” click here to hear Bishop Susan explain the concept during the January 30 episode of Faith To Go podcast).
For further reading: Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision, by Barbara Ransby
Tricia Hersey, who earned her Masters of Divinity degree from Candler School of Theology, is the founder of The Nap Ministry: an organization founded in 2016 that resists modern-day “grind culture” (“grind culture” = a by-product of extreme capitalism that idealizes working around the clock to prove one’s belovedness, sometimes using one’s proximity to burnout as a status symbol). The Nap Ministry instead seeks to restore the idea of rest as sacred, and to subvert the dehumanizing, sometimes numbing, tendencies that overwork can bring: “The systems make us hard. Rest keeps us tender,” reads a recent post on The Nap Ministry’s social media. “There is power in our collective rest and care.” A major part of The Nap Ministry’s resistance While the practice of the Sabbath has been around since the 7th day of Creation, Hersey and the work of The Nap Ministry provide a more modern and accessible lens that help todays working-aged folks that our belovedness is inherent.
For further reading: Rest is Resistance: A Manifesto, by Tricia Hersey. You can also follow The Nap Ministry on Facebook and Instagram (@thenapministry)
Cole Arthur Riley
Cole Arthur Riley is the creator of Black Liturgies: an online project started in 2020 that seeks “to integrate the truths of dignity, lament, rage, justice, and rest into written prayers.” Riley, who worked at an Episcopal Church as a liturgist, writes most of her offerings to follow our Liturgical Calendar. Many of Riley’s reflections and prayers resist Western spirituality’s tendency to favor a disembodied, intellectual wisdom over the sacredness and knowledge found in one’s own body. As Riley once said in an interview with the Boston Globe, “I refuse to live a disembodied life. [My body] contains more beauty, more mystery than I am able to articulate. And in befriending and honoring it, I communicate belief in my inherent dignity.”
For further reading: This Here Flesh: Spirituality, Liberation, and the Stories That Make Us, by Cole Arthur Riley. You can also follow Cole Arthur Riley and Black Liturgies on Facebook and Instagram (@blackliturgies)
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