Why Women of Color in Christian Social Justice Need a Retreat, and How Others Can Support

On November 14, 2015, the Christian Community Development Association will host its first (but hopefully not its last) post-conference retreat for Women of Color. A few months ago, I wrote about the need for the retreat. For 24 hours, African-, Asian-, Indigenous-, and Latina-American Christian women who are engaged in social justice, community development, and reconciliation ministry will gather together for fellowship and renewal. For some of us, it will be the first time that women of color gather across racial/ethnic lines to discuss our common needs and interests, as well as the impediments to our solidarity. woman-mixedrace

Many of us spend the vast majority of our days as racial-gender outliers. We are used to being one of few people of color in white-dominant circles, one of few women in male-dominant arenas. And we are almost always the first or only woman of color. We are the marginalized among the marginalized. We are used to walking on eggshells, filtering our words and behaviors so as not to make waves, having our opinions discounted even as people affirm how important it is for us to be present. Being a woman of color in evangelical social justice organizations is akin being a three-dimensional creature trying to live in a two-dimensional world. We’re constantly flattening ourselves. Next week, we get to take a big inhale and puff up again.

There has been some pushback. It has been outweighed, however, by the outpouring of support that we have received from White women and brothers of all races who have supported us. Several have donated scholarship funds to pay for the registration of women who want and need to be at the retreat, but who cannot afford it. Some have volunteered to handle registration and logistics to free the steering committee and women of color on the CCDA staff to attend – rather than work – the retreat. Others have spread the word about the retreat to the women in their ministries and encouraged them to attend.

We still have people asking how they can help. Below are a few suggestions.

Pray for us. Pray that the women who need to be part of this healing, safe space will get the support that they need to attend. Pray for the speakers, worship team, steering committee, and CCDA staff who will be supporting us, even as they are worn out from an already full conference schedule. Pray that the Holy Spirit will show up and do her work, that she will meet each participant where we are and give us what we need to continue.

Provide financial support. There is a waiting list of women who would like to attend but who cannot afford the registration fee ($79) or the additional hotel stay ($149). Many women of color do CCD ministry on a volunteer or part-time basis with organizations who cannot afford to pay for their attendance at the conference or the retreat. You can donate to the retreat online. Be sure to check the box at the bottom stating, “I’m donating to a specific event” and enter “WoC Retreat.” You can also call the CCDA office at 773-475-7370.

Do some self-examination. Examine your own relationships and organizations to determine how they can be more hospitable to women of color’s three-dimensional existence. Reflect upon your vision of indigenous leadership development and how dimensions of race, gender, and power may be at play. Did you think the indigeous leaders would all be male or perhaps assume that the development would be done by Whites?

Educate yourself on the needs and experiences of women of color in social justice ministry. Learn how our needs differ from those of white women and men of color. If you’re attending CCDA, go to workshops and plenaries that feature women of color talking about our experiences. There are plenty of opportunities this year, with speakers such as Alexia Salvaterria, Christena Cleveland, Rahiel Tesfamariam, Sonia Stewart, Sandra Van Opostal, Q Nellum, and Catherine Gilliard, among others. There are workshops on women’s leadership development as well as upon issues that disproportionately impact women of color, including domestic violence, human trafficking, and trauma. There is a Wednesday night art and jazz session featuring Shanequa Gay, who uses art to address issues of race, gender, and justice. On Thursday at 1:30pm, I’ll be teaching a workshop on the StrongBlackWoman. Buy and read books by and about women of color. The more you learn, the more you will understand the need for the retreat. If you still don’t understand, it’s because you haven’t learned enough, you haven’t listened enough.

Spread the word. Tell other women of color about the retreat. Ask friends and colleagues to support the retreat. Direct them to this article as well as other blogs by women of color.

Riding the Reconciliation Roller-Coaster

During my first year as a parent, I often marveled at how quickly my newborn could cycle through emotions, and how easily I was carried along the same journey. One second he would be cooing contentedly; then out of nowhere he would start crying. At times he’d be inconsolable, prompting me to burst into tears along with him. And suddenly we’d be back to happiness, both of us smiling and giggling. The entire range of emotions sometimes happened within five minutes.

roller-coasterThe journey of racial reconciliation is a lot like that. In rapid succession, we celebrate signs of the hope of reconciliation and lament the continuing evidence of racism. We even do both at once. The emotional roller-coaster can be draining.

At this moment, I am feeling the fatigue. I am tired of the reconciliation roller-coaster. This past week has had some incredible highs. On Sunday, The Nett Church held its first preview service. I’m the discipleship pastor for this new worship community that is trying to become beloved community. It was refreshing and inspiring to be able to name that openly in the context of worship and to invite others to join us on the journey.

There’s also my ongoing racial reconciliation course. Each week I am energized by my students and their openness to engaging a difficult subject in a different way. I am grateful for their willingness to journey with a professor who is, as Dr. Gardner C. Taylor would put it, complicit in the brokenness against which she preaches. I am excited by their affirmations of the significance of the course and their grappling with how to extend their learning beyond the classroom.

If racial reconciliation were simply about focusing upon and healing past divisions, I could probably bask in the promise and possibility of these experiences. I wouldn’t have to also confront the fear and anger that comes from passing the full-size confederate flag that a neighbor (about 1/4 mile down the road) posted at the edge of their front lawn last week. Technically, it’s the old Georgia flag, which pisses me off even more because if they’re gonna make a statement, they should just do it. georgia-flag-former

Nor would I have to keep getting angry with white people – especially so-called liberals – telling me that I don’t know when I’m experiencing racism: the neighbors who told me it wasn’t about race last year when a white man aggressively tailed and photographed an African American woman visiting my home for the first time on the very same block where the flag now stands; the psychology colleagues who insisted that “You speak English very well” is not an example of a racial microaggression in last week’s continuing education workshop on diversity.

Sometimes I wish I could utter the prayer of Gethsemane: Lord, if it be thy will, take this desire for reconciliation from me. But having been seduced into God’s mission of reconciliation, I could not, even if I wanted to. So I keep pressing forward, training my gaze to focus on the visible signs of hope as I endure the pain of the struggle.

And when that fails, it’s time to get a massage.

White Friends: Here’s Your Bill for My Racial Labor

Dear White Friend,

Thank you for choosing me as your consultant for your recent questions and concerns about racism and/or racial reconciliation. I trust that your needs were met and you were satisfied with the level of grace, thoughtfulness, and honesty with which I responded to your inquiry. Below you will find the invoice for my services.

You may be surprised at this new billing structure. For many years, I have provided these services freely. Being a racial ambassador is part of my call to God’s ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:16-20), and I am grateful for the privilege of working with you. But the “worker deserves [her] wages” (Luke 10:7).

I am sure that you will find this new billing structure to be significantly reduced given my credentials, which include:

  • 40+ years of lived experience as an African Racial labor invoiceAmerican woman living in the southern United States, with a multigenerational legacy of slavery, sharecropping, and involvement in the Civil Rights Movement.
  • 13 years of formal, self-funded education in cultural and gender studies, theology, and psychology, resulting in 2 bachelor’s degrees, 2 master’s degrees, and a Ph.D.
  • 12 years as a scholar and teacher in these areas, with dozens of academic and lay publications, including my recent book, Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength.
  • 20 years of clinical and ministerial experience with people of color and economically disadvantaged populations.

The attached invoice does not bill for prior expenses. It is limited to expenses incurred directly as a result of our recent conversation, specifically the time for services rendered (time that could have been devoted to professional activities for which I am paid) as well as the considerable emotional distressed induced by our conversation.

Racism is not an academic subject that I study objectively or from a safe psychological distance. It is a systemic oppression that envelops my daily existence. When you come seeking answers to your questions, you are asking me to delve into thoughts, memories, and experiences that are bathed in emotion. Memory cannot be separated from emotion. So when you ask me to recall an event, you are also asking me to recall – even re-experience – the fear, anger, and sadness that accompanied it.

Further, each time I engage in conversation with you on these topics, I do so fully knowing that you may dismiss my experience. You may employ your white privilege to tell me that my interpretation is invalid, that you know more about my experience than I do, that your limited time thinking about race trumps my four decades of living with it.

Even if you do listen to and trust my experience, at the end of our dialogue, you get to walk away from it. I, in turn, slip further down the rabbit hole of painful racialized memory.

There are also the costs of continuing education. I work constantly to be informed about issues of race. This includes keeping up with the latest publications on race and gender, even those not in my discipline, so that I can serve as your personal reference librarian. That in itself is a costly endeavor. I am also required to keep informed about national issues such as Ferguson, Baltimore, Rachel Dolezal, and the Charleston shooting. That means that I am continually subjected to cultural trauma, which has significant impact upon my health and well-being.

Previously, I have simply absorbed these costs. I am unable to continue to do so. Thus, I am requiring beneficiaries of my expertise to compensate me for the financial, emotional, and physical costs associated with this labor.

It is impossible to estimate the actual monetary value of my services. Instead, I am billing you for the therapeutic services required to recover my equilibrium following our conversations. These include flotation therapy, massage therapy, and acupuncture. You may remit payment by calling FLO2S or Massage Associates of Atlanta to put a credit on my account.

For high-frequency clients, I strongly recommend that you put my services on retainer by purchasing a FLO2S monthly membership or a Massage Associates of Atlanta acupuncture series.

If you are unable to work with this billing structure, I would be happy to refer you to an alternative provider for future consultations.

Sincerely,

Chanequa Walker-Barnes

Attachment: Racial labor invoice