I really love my seminary, the McAfee School of Theology, Mercer University. Faculty and staff there are committed to issues of justice and spiritual growth. It is also a place where only about 45% of the students are white. I want to support a place like that and more important, learn from the variety of perspectives and experiences of my classmates. It is a place where I can focus on issues important to me, like being a good ally by attending to my white privilege. I am convinced that my anti-racist work as a white Southern academic should also include theological and religious frameworks. I needed to get in touch with my Jesus.
Part of the institution’s commitment to spiritual formation is the annual faculty, staff, and student weekend retreat, which the founding faculty built into the design of the programs. We just recently had one at the Pinnacle Center in the North Georgia mountains, where we spend two days worshiping together and getting to know one another. We build deeper relationships as classmates at a setting like this, where we pray and take communion together. This year, the dean announced he had been working with friends in Union Point, Georgia, to plan a work day at a historic cemetery near the original location of Mercer University. Here’s what he said:
This summer I learned of a neglected African American cemetery located nearby the Penfield cemetery. I have partnered with African American activists and other leaders to help them with a clean-up effort on October 26. I would very much appreciate it if you would join me as we honor this sacred space and practice remembrance.
He noted that enslaved persons were buried there.
Here is what I wish I had thought: Does it make a difference that the dean is a straight, white, cis-male? Were faculty invited to discuss this topic, welcoming voices from faculty of color? Could groundwork have been laid so that the announcement would have had context for the benefit of the students, most of whom were African American? What is motivating me to want to participate?
What I actually did, though, was volunteer to clean up the cemetery.
A few days later, the dean sent a reminder and included additional information that a filmmaker friend and seminary grad would be filming for a documentary. A few days after that, I learned that a group of African American students had submitted a letter to the dean to express concerns about the project. I have not seen this letter, but the seminary grapevine is real. That was the day I discovered the “Savior Barbie” Instagram account. If you haven’t heard about it, below is a Huff Post article, along with 2 examples of Barbie’s posts.
White Savior Barbie pokes fun at people who suffer from “White Savior Complex,” the term used to describe the white Westerners who travel to third world countries and make the entire affair an exercise in self-congratulatory sacrifice. (Huff Post). The account owners, who remain anonymous, point out, “We have both struggled with our own realizations and are definitely not claiming innocence here.” “Barbie Savior, we hope, is an entertaining jumping off point for some very real discussions, debates, and resolves.” It isn’t that there is anything inherently wrong with doing volunteer work to help people. WSB targets the idea that Africa needs saving from itself and white people are the ones who can do it. Barbie Savior is there for a photo op, the ultimate selfie. This kind of thinking supported colonialism, conquest, and slavery. It is white supremacy.
Let me be clear: I am not suggesting for a minute that the McAfee dean is in error. I have no idea until and unless he discusses it what the process was for bringing this opportunity to the students. For all I know, he brought it to the faculty first for them to unpack together. The letter from students is said to contain references to a diversity strategic plan, which I imagine calls for voice and conversation and inclusion in initiative planning. I have no doubt he is prayerfully and profoundly considering what they have written and will respond appropriately. This is not about him; it is about my own complicity in maintaining racist systems in which the White Savior Complex operates.
So just what was I thinking? My first thought was what a great service project! As a Southern Christian who knows what “Decoration Day” is, I have cleaned old cemeteries for as long as I can remember. My second thought was about the historical significance of the place, for yes, I was in part motivated by it being a very, very old African American cemetery that was the final resting place of former enslaved persons.
My third thought was about my friend Edeltress in Baton Rouge, who had taken me on a detour to her ancestral cemetery one day while we were on a school visit for work. “Do you mind?” she asked me. “It’s been so long since I’ve been here. I was a little girl and my parents brought me.” So we drove to a countryside in Louisiana that I couldn’t find today if I had to. “Here it is,” she said. But looking around, I couldn’t see a graveyard. Just what looked like woods, undergrowth, weeds–way back, about a hundred feet off the side of the road. Edeltress laughed. “Oh, you’re looking for a white cemetery. This is how our cemeteries look.” We tramped around the site, being careful not to step on the graves, and on the way home, she told me stories about her father, who had driven an old broken-down truck so that his white neighbors would not recognize him for a landowner and successful farmer. My people were dangerous. So that is the image I got in my head when the dean asked for volunteers. I thought of paying tribute, in this small way, to my friend.
That is why I am going to acknowledge my white privilege, acknowledge the concerns of my classmates–for they hold us accountable for thinking of and processing these issues before complying–and then go clean up a grave yard. But you won’t see it on Facebook or Twitter. I will not take a selfie with a tombstone. Does this make me admirable? Is this sufficient acknowledgement, or am I assuaging my conscience? Am I asking the right questions? I don’t know, but it gives me something to ponder as I pull weeds.
White supremacy can look like skin heads carrying swastikas; it can look like angry white people wearing red hats. It can be masked by well intentioned white people who secretly voted for Trump. And it can be a white seminary student who fails to do the work of problematizing a workday over the graves of enslaved persons. There is another White Savior resource I find relevant here. White Savior: Racism in the American Church (2019). The film “explores the historic relationship between racism and American Christianity, the ongoing segregation of the church in the US, and the complexities of racial reconciliation” (imdb). I recommend it. The film closes with an African American minister from the Bronx discussing being an ally. “Being an ally,” he said, “means asking ‘What do you need? and sometimes that means just shut up and listen.”
At the end of the day, I believe in a place like McAfee. It exemplifies the complexity of racial reconciling and justice. The messiness of it. It is a place where we can make all the mistakes–and there are many–and learn that the sky doesn’t fall when we make them. It is a place where, sometimes, we can just shut up and listen.
Maybe at some point in your life you have been called by God for some purpose. If you have and you realize it, all I can say is wow. How did you know? Did you hear a voice? Did you have a feeling around your heart or stomach area? Was there only circumstantial evidence?
A call is different from a calling. I’ve heard teachers and nurses say that that they felt a calling toward their profession; a calling is a strong urge toward a particular thing, usually a vocation. A call is a divine summons. Let that sink in.
I grew up in a church that did not believe in divine summons or of being led by the Spirit. We were fundamentalist Christians who believe that the Bible is literal, mostly, unless it isn’t. People who talked about being called by God to the ministry were obviously Jesus freaks, most likely Baptists. And then, again, God laughs. Yeah, I was called. I’m not sure if I can stress how hard it is to understand that a call is a call when you don’t believe in calls at all. I think I would compare it to a dog being leashed for a walk for the first time. At first, it’s like, “Hey, wow, what is this I’m feeling?” And then, “Wait a minute….what is this thing?” Next, is pulling back and tugging, followed by flailing around from side to side. Until finally, you’re completely worn out from fighting it. Then you’re ready to walk. This is the first part of a process that is known as discernment.
Have you ever felt like God was just putting things in your way? Not obstacles, more like lit up “Entrance” signs in strange dark rooms. In that situation, what are you going to do but go in? That’s what happened to me. It started when I read the liturgy at church one Sunday morning (nope, I’m not fundamentalist anymore, nor Baptist either). I felt that leash for the first time. I’ll just take a course on Progressive Christianity, I said. I like this course; I’ll see if I can find a really good online program. Then, if the M.A. in Christian Ministry is this rewarding, I want to pursue the twice-the-credit-hours Master of Divinity. What was God putting in the way? Time, opportunity, scholarship support, people who kept saying, “Oh! You’d be so great at ministry!”
So what about the pulling back and flailing around part of this walk? It’s pretty much been ongoing to this point. I mean, I have a job, a doctorate, and an established writing presence in my academic field. I’m at the place where people usually arrive, not where they jump off from. Luckily, the first class you take in seminary is called Spiritual Formation, where you learn that discernment is being still and listening for God. It’s ok not to know what to do, just don’t get tied up in knots over it, which is my default. When I got serious about listening to God, I settled down and started walking.
So here I am: MDiv student at the McAfee School of Theology. I’m still working full-time at a job that is truly not bad. I’ve put academic writing on pause until the next page is revealed to me, no pun intended. That’s the background of it, and I think it’s sufficient for now.
This week a group of us from Pilgrimage United Church of Christ (PUCC) went to the 20th Transgender Day of Remembrance ceremony in Atlanta. Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) is an observance every year on November 20 that honors the memory of those whose lives were lost in acts of anti-transgender violence. We went to pay respect and to support two of our members, Monica and Darlene. Darlene organized the ceremony and is a strong presence in Atlanta’s transgender community. Her wife Monica is a Navy Vet who served on a submarine. Monica is extremely proud to be a veteran. She wore her USN cap when she was recognized at Atlanta Braves games–and when she was an Atlanta Pride Parade Grand Marshall this year. Monica designed the Transgender flag, below. The original is in the Smithsonian in D.C.
The first thing you should know is trans people are murdered, and when they are, they are victims of trans-related hate crimes.
These are persons who often leave homes so that they can live their true identities, their true selves, often at great cost to themselves. And when they die, as I learned at the Atlanta observance, that identity is stripped away from them. How? Families, obituaries, police reports, newspapers refer to them by their “dead names,” their name before transition. What difference does that make? Well, after having fought so hard for true self, dead naming erases that self in a final, crushing blow. Still not clear? Ok, when cis-people (those of us whose gender identity matches the one we were assigned at birth–e.g., I am a woman, who was assigned female at birth) drop dead in a parking lot, our drivers license matches our reality–both our name and our gender would be the same. The paper reports that “Ugena, female, 55, Marietta” was found, etc., etc. If I have been living my true self as Eugene for the last decade or so, guess what? The paper would probably still report Ugena’s death. My funeral service–if my family were not too ashamed to have one–would be a farewell to Ugena. Would anyone remember Eugene? Would anyone notice or mourn me? That is what TDOR is for–to remember and remind us why it is important to remember.
The Transgender Day of Remembrance seeks to highlight the losses we face due to anti-transgender bigotry and violence. I am no stranger to the need to fight for our rights, and the right to simply exist is first and foremost. With so many seeking to erase transgender people — sometimes in the most brutal ways possible — it is vitally important that those we lose are remembered, and that we continue to fight for justice.”
– Transgender Day of Remembrance founder Gwendolyn Ann Smith
The TDOR service is, as are most funerals really, for the living. For members of the transgender community, it provides critical space for both joy and lament, laughter and tears–that for all the struggle and turmoil and oppression, they live. Not just live, but prevail. As an outsider–an ally but still an outsider–I observed these persons comfort and lift one another up. Those of us there as friends, family, and allies needed to see the strength and vibrance of a community that asks only a life of liberty, justice, and dignity. We needed to laugh and break bread together–which we did Atlanta style with Fox Brothers Barbecue. When you think about it, there are a few times in life that an opportunity for justice, hospitality, and compassion–an “integrity moment”–taps you on the shoulder. This is one of them.
Every Transgender Day of Remembrance observance concludes with a Reading of Names to honor each victim (that’s the word used at the GLAAD TDOR link). This was done, followed by a tolling of the bell, for each of the twenty-five U.S. dead and for the unnamed trans people who died violently while incarcerated. Here are their names, and if you scroll to the end of this post, there is a screenshot of the TDOR program with their photos.
- Brooklyn BreYanna Stevenson
- Rhiannon Layendecker
- Christa Leigh Steel-Knudslien
- Viccky Gutierrez
- Celine Walker
- Tonya Harvey
- Zakaria Fry
- Phylicia Mitchell
- Amia Tyrae Berryman
- Sasha Wall
- Carla Patricia Flores-Pavon
- Nicole Hall
- Nino Fortson
- Gigi Pierce
- Antash’a English
- Diamond Stephens
- Keisha Wells
- Cathalina Christina James
- Sasha Garden
- Vontashia Bell
- Dejanay Stanton
- Shantee Tucker
- Londonn Moore
- Nikki Enriquez
- Ciara Minaj Carter Frazier
- Those Unnamed
Another of the photos below shows the number of deaths by state. Georgia has one: Nino Fortson was killed in Atlanta on May 13. Here is a description of Nino from the HRC web site:
Fortson, 36, also went by names Nino Starr and Nino Blahnik, and was a gender-expansive individual…An active participant in Atlanta’s ballroom scene, Fortson was a member of the House of Blahnik, a national organization serving LGBTQ performers of color. Fortson was known for walking in the “Butch Realness” category.
A “gender expansive individual”–I wonder why it is that more of us don’t understand this as a gift, or a superpower? The last photo shows the number of known violent deaths of transgender persons, worldwide. There are 309. The U.S. ranks third. I would really like to live in a world where we don’t need to have another TDOR, but sadly, we seem to be moving in the other direction. Step back and think about why there is such a violent need to legislate gender. I can’t think of a reason. Yet, see articles like this one and look up #WontBeErased:
I’m finding whenever it gets really discouraging to contemplate how humanity treats one another, it is helpful to turn to Mister Rogers and Dr. Seuss. Ever since Tuesday evening, I’ve been thinking of an elephant named Horton, who heard a small noise.
“Mr. Mayor! Mr. Mayor!” Horton called. “Mr. Mayor! You’ve got to prove now that you really are there! So call a big meeting. Get everyone out. Make every Who holler! Make every Who shout! Make every Who scream! If you don’t, every Who is going to end up in a beezle-nut stew!”
And, down on the dust speck, the scared little mayor quickly called a big meeting in Who-ville Town Square. And his people cried loudly. They cried out in fear:
“We are here! We are here! We are here! We are here!”
“Because a person’s a person, no matter how small.” We will remember.
Here is the feature article in Project Q: