“Who told you that you had to fit,” were the words that stirred my soul and peaked my interest to a new posture at the recent Evolving Faith conference.
Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes, a clinical psychologist, public theologian, and minister located in Atlanta, delivered the nourishment that this forest wanderer needed to chew, swallow, and rest in. What Dr. Barnes provided during her session was powerfully prophetic and grace filled. What she did for me personally was give me the permission I didn’t need, but desperately needed to hear – “you can be different.”
“Little bits of me were getting shaved off while I was trying to fit in,” she shared of attempting to fit a hexagon into a round hole. “I began to wonder what would it look like if I embraced myself and stopped being involved with communities that came with prerequisites?” – Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes
It’s a question I toil over every day in seminary. It seems ever present to me and my anxiety that countless humans around me have their denominational loyalties, know whom will ordain, and can’t wait to jump into their ministry roles.
As a queer, non-binary, compacted trauma informed and experienced human – this above statement is not my life. Where is God in that?
Dr. Barnes, graciously and vulnerably, walked 2,500+ gathered through her church wilderness filled with congregation after congregation, baptism covenant redefinitions, and break ups of taxing toxic environments to her present space holding.
“I needed space away … my family and I would sit and talk church instead of going and not once was God not with with us. I no longer need to package that experience for me – I was experiencing the divine how I wanted.” – Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes
“Being fit-less doesn’t mean being alone,” was the moment where I collapsed into my spine and relinquished an audible sigh.
Being fit-less means I’m tethered to the new reformation.
That new reformation begins in unmasking the unknown, the truth we’ve accepted without questioning, and grief of the latter.
Evolving Faith was full of grief in a variety of forms.
Curators, Sarah Bessey and Jeff Chu, were unashamed and unapologetically grieving the loss of friend and colleague Rachel Held Evans. And alongside their public truth telling of “we will not pretend we are utterly heartbroken,” the 2,500+ mainly white wilderness congregation groaned with them.
Mass grief, after all, was my main reason for attending Evolving Faith. My trip’s core purpose was to participate in a communal grieving experience. What does mass grief look like? The answer for Evolving Faith was filled with bright sadness.
On the conclusion of day one, this misfit wilderness congregation met for a lament and grief service. The Rev. Dr. Jenny Morgan of Highlands Church North Denver led the service instructing participants to clinch a tiny pebble in the palm of their hand just enough to feel the pain of their grief; to note its existence. Holding our pebbles – tight or loosely – liturgy was read, song was played, and as the last note ended the rain began.
Pebbles trickled from the top bleachers of our hockey arena church to the floor. Pebble after pebble, the room’s energy shifted from tense weightiness to a mass memoriam of the grief that laid presently in front of our beings. Tears, sighs, and wide eyes remained post rain.
What happens when our pebbles lay collectively on the ground? What happens when we can all see our harm? Our open wounds? Our honest nature? Our shaved off edges? The lies we have told?
Looking at these pebbles collected, I began to think about the systemic trauma held in the room. We were, after all, a collective majority of 2,500+ white humans and speakers represented across several classes, race, sex & gender. Within this hockey arena, all spectrums of oppressor to the oppressed existed. And together all were wrestling with the pebbles of truth amongst them.
It was alarming and equally unsurprising at the remarkable sea of whiteness that surrounded me at Evolving Faith. After all, we were in Denver and in my own privilege I was able to front the $1,000+ cost to be present. I remember exchanging tweets with a friend of color who tweeted toward Evolving Faith about not receiving word on scholarships. I told them I would tell the truth in what my experience as a white queer Christian was like and also tell the truth on the representation and weight carried by the speakers of color.
This is me telling the truth.
Most of the participants at Evolving Faith were progressive Christians having recently left their evangelical backgrounds and in search of healing. They too were fit-less, as Dr. Barnes stated, and searching for belonging.
What I found and witnessed was the majority voice of our Christian context flailing and unsure of how to handle people of color naming White Supremacy, the murdering of black and brown people, and speakers of color presenting grace and truth telling fire.
On day two during a Decolonization, Soul Care, and Justice talk, Dr. Barnes shared with a white woman who asked, “forgive me, I’m new to this – help me” that “it isn’t a sin that you’re white.”
Alicia Crosby, a Chicago-based justice educator, activist, and minister, shared during this same talk the “desire in whiteness to have things wrapped up nice & neat – y’all got to resist that shit. Don’t rush past, dwell, deal.”
Whiteness is nice and neat, y’all. As a white person, I know where I fit societally. I know the privilege I hold in my whiteness. I know the hierarchy of my whiteness and how I can and have abused this fact to remain secure. And in that I must continue to do the work to sit in that acknowledgment, to dwell on my task to unmask & unravel, and deal. And even though I inherently know this to be true, I did so much self-work, reading, and listening to be more aware of my whiteness. I will do this wrestling and unraveling for the rest of my life – imperfectly and at times utterly messy – but I am committed.
My queerness marginalization does not and will never equal understanding the oppression of black and brown bodies. What I can do is educate myself on my privilege and then use it to create an equitable environment for all. This is the same ask of humans who want to engage me about how to be a better queer ally:
Learn your privilege. Name your privilege. Share your platforms. Unravel the narrative. Repeat.
An uncomfortableness set in during this second session, as I listened to white person after white person ask questions like “explain this to me, “I’m white.” I cringed and watched speakers hold such brave space.
At one point I tweeted:
This unraveling that was taking place for those gathered is needed and I’m not suggesting that all white people are ignorant or insensitive. I’m stating that if this is the representation of the emerging mainline christian context, we have work to do.
White people cannot rely on the backs of those against the wall, as Howard Thurman would suggest, to lift us out of our fragility of our reckoning with what is true about our post-assumptive world. That is our own liberating work of what White Supremacy does to the narrative of our being and others.
This work is something we must task ourselves with reading voices outside of our context, supporting black and brown people in the pulpit, in politics, and in general.
As William Matthews, artist and activist shared, during his talk, “If y’all had listened to Black Christians in 2016 perhaps we wouldn’t be where we are right now?“
What if we listened?
When we lose our belonging, I think, it becomes easy to look past injustice to find our safety. After all it’s systematically ingrained in us to find people who look like you, as opposed to opening up a wider more diverse table. Are we hearing all the stories? We must do as Alicia Crosby suggests – don’t rush past for safety – sit, dwell, and deal.
Evolving Faith offers space for the wilderness wanderers in a beautiful way and I believe so many humans were blessed by all the speakers present. But I wonder how many noticed the demographic and stopped to ask why? I wonder how many people had visceral reactions to the evangelical hints of space making? I wonder how many had questions like I did? I wonder now what my role is here back in my home of Atlanta. Because I am equally far from doing enough.
What I valued most was Jeff Chu’s truth telling on the close of day two during his session.
He acknowledged that for many hearing the truth spoken by Evolving Faith’s brown and black speakers was uncomfortable and pushed back against. For him, he was grateful for such brave sharing and call to holy justice. And, I agree – it is holy justice.
“We’re so glad you’re on a journey of reconstruction, but your reconstruction is not just for you. Reconstruction is only worth while if it fits in God’s given picture of all creation.” – Jeff Chu
May the holy call of observing the pebbles collected of shattered truth, fractured faith, and injustice still be resonating with those that gathered for this year’s Evolving Faith. “May we be honest and tell the truth,” as Rachel Held Evans practiced.
- It is to be noted that Evolving Faith hosted a POC room and had an LGBTQ+ lunch on the main event floor.
**It is also to be noted that Jen Hatmaker gave a powerful session on discerning good fruit. She named whiteness, her lack of support of LGBTQ+ humans, a verbal apology, and named narratives that must be shifted. Here are some quotes from that session:
“White people have a place in the kingdom of God but that place is not at the center….We adhered to doctrines that broke peoples hearts and bodies. We said our bad theology wasn’t the cause of your pain, just your human error…. When white, mostly-male, straight, married, able-bodied people with a certain threshold of power and money are at the center of the narrative, we will never be able to identify good fruit.”
I choose not to share this within the context of my post because I wanted to center the conversation around the black and brown speakers who spoke during Evolving Faith.
I am immensely grateful for the daring and brave work of every voice who participated in Evolving Faith.
Why did I attended:
I journeyed to Denver to experience mass grief & lament and to be an observer. What I left with was a call to be more aware of my role in justice work within my whiteness. And, immense gratitude for the black & brown speakers who held such brave space to a majority 2,500 white crowd.
I attended this conference to participate in this grief, as a human who was impacted by Rachel Held Evans work. And because of my personal work in holding belief & healing. I chose this conference for my Introduction to Practical Theology class. Writing this reflection piece was incredibly difficult. I am not an expert. I do not have whiteness figured out. I do not have grief or healing mastered. What I’m doing in this piece is being honest and telling the truth.
I am grateful for the space Sarah Bessey and Jeff Chu cultivated alongside Rachel. I’m beyond grateful to all the voices whom spoke at Evolving Faith. And I am hopeful for what it stirred, healed, and brought to all gathered.