An open letter to my Durham / NC community

Dear friends,

It’s hard to believe that I’ve spent the past five years building a home here in North Carolina. When I first moved here in 2012 to begin graduate school at UNC Chapel Hill, I thought, “2 years, and then I’m headed back to the west coast.” That’s not at all how things worked out. My decision to stay in North Carolina was originally one of practicality and convenience – lower cost of living, more professional connections with which to find my first job out of grad school. But now I believe that there was far more at play. I believe my ancestors were calling me home. “You have work to do here,” they said to me, “and we have work to do on you.”

Moving to North Carolina was the start of my (long overdue) politicization. It was here in North Carolina, and in Durham specifically, that I developed a political and social analysis that was able to deconstruct patterns of oppression. Moving to North Carolina also supported my continued racial identity development. Durham is where I learned that there are all kinds of ways to be Black, and that I have no reason to apologize for my particular flavor of (often bourgie) Blackness, to white folks, or folks of color. Durham is where I turned thirty, battled breast cancer, battled suicidality, grew into the person I am today.

Knowing all of this history, it is hard for me to believe that I am leaving Durham. Soon. At the start of September, my parents and my partner will help me load a U-Haul with all my possessions, and drive 8 hours to my new home in Montgomery, Alabama. I have accepted a job with URGE, Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity, as their Alabama State Organizer. The short explanation is that I am moving to Alabama to be closer to my partner, who lives in Selma. The truer explanation is that I am moving to Alabama for myself. In moving, I am admitting that I desire and need and deserve romantic love, and that I can make choices to prioritize that need and desire, something I have rarely if ever done in my past. It has been an extreme paradigm shift for me, talking with B about building a life together, forming and growing a family together, integrating the communities that make up our constellations of support. Until our relationship began to reveal itself as “the real deal,” I had assumed that I would forge my way through life unpartnered, have a child unpartnered, do my best to live a full and gratifying life, unpartnered. Not that those who are unpartnered are less worthy or less whole or less adult than those who are. Spending 28+ years unpartnered showed me the ways in which our society treats single people as less than, as though they are waiting in some sort of purgatory. In my experience, people don’t know how to categorize or place you when you’re single.  I remind myself regularly that I am no more or less worthy, no more or less whole, no more or less alone, partnered to B than I was before he became a foundational presence in my life. Neither of us subscribe to the “partner as lover and best friend and primary/solitary source of support” mentality. And so in some ways, moving to Alabama is going to be hard work for me, as I seek to build a new community of support, and seek to maintain my ties and bonds to folks here in North Carolina.

In moving, I am also acknowledging my desire for growth and challenges (like, extreme challenges, apparently). For at least a year now,  I have claimed a commitment to the southeastern United States. This is where my people are from. This is where I want to be, and where I believe I belong, even in my areas of difference from the people around me. Within 30 seconds of hearing me talk, people know that I was not raised in the South. Strangers in barber shops have told me that I “look educated” without me even opening my mouth. Fears of being scene as “uppity” plague me in a variety of predominantly Black spaces. I am aware of the ways that I am “other,” even among people of color here in North Carolina. But I have gained a level of security in my sense of self to own it, and laugh it off, knowing who I am and what I’m about and what work I still have left to do.

I see now that my claim of commitment to the southeast was a somewhat shallow one. By southeast, I really meant North Carolina. I would throw a fit anytime I had to drive through South Carolina and actually exit my car, always looking around to make sure I saw at least one other Black person before deciding it was safe to make a stop for gas. This move is an opportunity for me to put my money (what money?) where my mouth is, and make good on my commitment to this region so rich in civil rights and social movement history, this region that has taught me so much about self-love as a Black woman, and what it means to fight for my own liberation, and the collective liberation of us all.

If you had told me five years ago that I would be accepting a job as an organizer, I would have called your bluff. I was very adamantly not an organizer. A facilitator, a trainer, a coordinator, yes, but never an organizer. I think I had it in my head that my introverted self was too reserved to do the work of mobilizing folk, that my bourgie self was too privileged to do the work of empowering marginalized folk without it being paternalistic, that as a young woman who didn’t realize she was Black until age 25 would never be sufficiently politicized or radicalized to take a leadership role in social movements. And yet here I am. I think my understanding of organizing has changed and matured, with much maturing left to do. I see organizing as another means of facilitation, facilitating communication between people who share areas of struggle, facilitating opportunities to build power, training folks as leaders and change agents in their own lives.

I am, in many ways, broken-hearted to leave Durham. In other ways, I am confident that the relationships, intimate and casual, and connections, close and loose, that have sustained me while I’m here in North Carolina will continue to sustain me as I move into this next chapter. What I’m saying is, I need you. Yes, you. To be available for in person visits and long distance phone calls and Skype sessions. To visit me and spend time with me and my partner as I build a new home. To remind me that I am good, that I’ve got this.

What I’m also saying is, I thank you. For all the ways you have invested in me and allowed me to learn from you, the ways in which we’ve learned together. From my process of politicization, to my process of racial identity development, to my expanded understanding of gender and sexuality, to my deep love for doing work with young people, to my process of battling physical and mental health crises, you’ve been there, and you’ve supported me, in large and small ways. I am forever grateful.

Now… let’s do all the fun things before September 2nd.

Much love and solidarity,
Mawiyah

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A spiritual history, part 3

If you follow my blog, or know me in real life, you know that I have had a complicated journey with racial identity. By complicated, I mean that I didn’t know I was Black until I was about 25 years old. This is a key factor in this third chapter of my spiritual history.

Just before I turned 23, I was hired onto the staff of a large predominantly white evangelical church in San Diego, the church I had called my home for a number of years. At the time, I was going through the struggle that many people my age were going through, proudly wielding a bachelor’s degree and finding it completely insufficient to secure meaningful full-time work. So, getting the job at my church was a dream and an affirmation of my passions at that point in time. My role was to manage and co-direct our local and global impact efforts, which meant partnering with local community-based organizations to create volunteer opportunities for church members; partnering with the local high-school from which we leased Sunday meeting space to offer tangible support to students and staff; and partnering with international church plants and nonprofit organizations to coordinate overseas trips focused on community service or leadership development conferences. I worked most closely with two other staff members, the local and global impact pastors, both men, both people I knew from my time interning at the church, and both people that I cared about deeply.

My work at this church felt like the epitome of my “Don’t tell me; show me” mantra. It felt good to work in the company of people who understood why service to “the least of these” was the most natural outgrowth of our faith. In retrospect, some of my values around this were problematic, as reflected in the language used. The whole idea of “service” implies some altruistic sacrifice by individuals of means toward individuals without means, for which the latter should be demonstrably grateful. The word “impact” makes me cringe now, as I imagine two cultures or communities coming into contact with one another, like a collision, and the dominate, more well-resourced culture or community obliterating the other. It’s a dramatic image, but not entirely inaccurate. In all of my work, the idea was that we, with God’s provision, could be a blessing to others. We often failed to acknowledge that the communities or individuals we “served” might have things to teach us as well, or that they might not be interested in our service at all. It is hard to do ministry work without being paternalistic. Then again, it’s hard to do social services work or nonprofit work without being paternalistic. So, there has been some consistency in my life the past decade after all.

Working at a church never felt as right as it seemed it should. I constantly wrestled with the same issues I had been for the past several years. I felt inadequate, I felt like I didn’t belong, I felt like I had not lived a life of sufficiently radical sacrifice because I hadn’t lived in a developing country for two years and I didn’t make my own clothes out of hemp. It was during this time that I began meeting with a therapist for the first time. That is a true gift – not to be understated – that this community gave me, the assurance that it was okay to need therapy, and not only that, but maybe mental and emotional well-being is God’s will for us, and God would have us pursue those things through additional means besides fervent prayer.

I needed therapy during this time because I was drifting in and out of depression, as I often have, but also because I was struggling relationally. The thing about being a part of an evangelical community is that, generally speaking, everyone is coupled, and everyone is on the marriage train, with most folks headed toward the child-bearing terminal as quickly as possible. Just as I had during my college days in the on-campus fellowship, I waited patiently for my turn to pair off, but it just didn’t happen. The birthdays continued to pass by, to my horror, without ever having been on a date and without ever having kissed anyone.

I think it was at the prompting of my therapist that I started online dating. She presented me with a logical argument, and that was it, I couldn’t refute it. The argument was, essentially, how the hell else did I think I was going to meet people? The strategies I was using (meeting friends of friends, going to church community groups, waiting for cupid to let loose his arrows in a grocery store or coffee shop, avoiding interaction with anyone I was remotely interested in) weren’t working. And I’m forever grateful to her for recommending that I try online dating, not because I found the love of my life, but because I stumbled upon a long awaited revelation. I realized I was Black.

My first foray into online dating was Match.com. I don’t think I told a soul, minus my therapist, about what I was doing. What you need to know about Match is that not only do you fill out your own basic/demographic information – hair and eye color, height, body type, level of education, race/ethnicity – you also indicate what attributes you’re looking for in a potential partner. I was fairly liberal with most categories, telling myself that it was good to be open at this stage. I did indicate a minimum level of desired education, and I articulated some preferences around body type, but when it came to race/ethnicity, I checked every box. This was the late 00s, so Match’s algorithms weren’t intelligent enough to prevent matches from showing up in my list if didn’t meet their criteria, even if they met mine. And so what resulted was profile page after profile page of men of all races including Black who had indicated they were open to dating women of all races, with one very clear exception. Black women. I was genuinely shocked by this. All this time I had believed the post-racial narrative, because I had lived it, I had found belonging in a multi-ethnic (I thought) community, and I was seen and respected for my gifts and intelligence. And so it was shocking to me that so many men were uninterested in dating me right off the bat, without knowing anything else about me, simply because I was Black. In retrospect, anti-Blackness was all around me, always. It was in statements from my friends, “Mawi, you’re not really Black.” It was in our willingness to send missionary teams overseas to Malawi and Uganda or south of the Mexican border to Tijuana, while we ignored Black American and Black immigrant neighborhoods in San Diego County. It was in the tokenism and exceptionalism that surrounded me in my role on the staff of my church. And, it was rampant in online dating communities. Articles like this one published by OkCupid confirmed that I wasn’t imagining it.

What does all this have to do with spirituality? Realizing I was Black by way of experiencing racial discrimination on Match.com was a catalyst for my realization that the pastors of my church were not telling my story. There was a strong, even if implicit, narrative in our church that you find love by following God’s call to be in church community, that Godly man meets Godly woman, and after a Godly number of months dating, Godly marriage awaits. It happened this way for so many of my white female counterparts, and I expected it to happen for me. But Match helped me see that there was more to my particular circumstance. I did not have the same options available to me as white women did. The Black men who were (more) likely to be attracted to me were nowhere to be found in our church community, or the hipster San Diego community at large. I had denied my Blackness in most every facet of my life thus far, but I could not deny my Blackness in my romantic life.

I realized I was going to be faced with choices if I was serious about seeking a partner. The “Godly” (white) Christian men I had spent 8 years surrounded by did not seem interested in me. I could not continue with the same effort and expect different results. One by one, the limitations and standards I had set for myself were called into question. Was it really that important that the person I dated was a Christian, or would it do for them to be a person who shared my moral values and respected my spiritual beliefs? Would I choose to be single and never experience sex until I was married, even if I never found a person to marry, or would I consider sex in the context of a committed relationship? What if I met someone with whom I felt I could be in a long-term relationship, but with whom I didn’t want to raise children? Would I consider cohabiting without marriage and children, for the sake of companionship?

I found myself considering decisions that I never had before, all because I had not understood my own story, and the spiritual teaching I had received did not tell my story. I began to wonder who else had been left out, and who else was experiencing criticism and judgement for choices that I simply did not understand because I had not lived their story. It became difficult to judge or criticize people who were gay or queer or who smoked or used drugs or who were caught in “unhealthy” relationships and behaviors. There were trauma histories that a white evangelical church could not fathom. Their were identities that were relegated to the margins, invited to the table, but never allowed to set the norms at the table.

As I started to lean into my newfound Blackness, and examine my racial identity and my experiences around race in the church, I felt increasing discomfort within our church staff and the broader community. I began to see whiteness everywhere, and it was suffocating me. When I tried to give voice to what I was experiencing, when I tried to name that maybe our “multi-racial” church was a lot whiter than we were willing to acknowledge, and maybe that was a problem, I was gaslighted or told that if it bothered me, it was my responsibility to change it.

It was one of the saddest times of my life, witnessing this growing distance between me and these people I cared for so deeply. There was also a rift that grew between me and God, as I came to realize that my understanding of God was wrapped up in whiteness. The God I knew was a God who was principally concerned with the affairs of white people, not a God who desired that we work actively to eradicate structural racism and sexism and homophobia. My experience of church and religious community was forever changed, and I’ve yet to feel completely at ease upon reentering a place of worship.

Not all who wander are lost. This was the start of my wandering, and years later, maybe I am still wandering. But I feel more like the person that God created me to be now than I did then. God created me to be a person who writes transparently about her lived experience, even when it is scary, which is always. If I’m brave enough to keep writing this spiritual history, parts 4 and 5 will delve deeper into themes of spirituality and sexuality, gender, race, and ancestry. Until then.

A spiritual history, part 2

If I feel mild embarrassment about my teenage conversion experience, I feel some major regret over the evangelicalism that dominated my college years. I would like to accept that this is one of many seasons and experiences that shape me, but when I feel the dull ache of the wounds I still carry, it’s hard not to wish that I had bypassed this phase. But again, I am the me of ten years ago as well as the me of today, and the people who were in my life then, some of whom are still in my life now, have left their mark, and in the case of many it was for the better.

Let me connect the dots on the timeline a bit. After becoming a Christian in high school, my faith in God rose to the top of my list of priorities and values. Coincidentally, and strangely, the majority of my close friends already identified as Christians, and a piece of me relished in this newfound sense of belonging I felt among them. I took the elements of spiritual practice very seriously, eager to prove my devotion to my new “heavenly father” through my commitment to prayer and being a good person.  I remember attending Bible study during the lunch hour at school, where a teenage white dude monologued his interpretation of a daily passage of scripture, verse by verse. I remember feeling confused, thinking, “Isn’t Bible study, like, an interactive activity? Am I allowed to raise my hand? Am I allowed to speak at all? Or am I just supposed to swallow his interpretation as fact?”

Even early on, at the height of my religious fervor, I wasn’t much for theology or reading the Bible. I just had a really hard time sitting down and doing it. I think it’s because, both now and then, I’ve tried to live my life by a principle of “don’t tell me, show me.” Thus, in my mind, the way I lived my life would be a product of my faith and evidence of my spiritual identity, moreso than my ability to recite scripture on demand, and it was in that way that the seeds of altruism and social justice were planted in my heart. When I went away to college, I initially planned to study Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, with the goal of becoming a conservation biologist. I had done this random stint as a volunteer on a research project about leatherback sea turtles in the U.S. Virgin Islands… long story (cool story too, actually), but the point is, I felt that my contribution to the world, and God’s plan for redemption, was to help humans be better stewards of resources and ecosystems.

Based on that plan and motivation, I took an undergraduate seminar in conservation biology, but it just didn’t resonate with me. I changed my major to Human Biology, because it had the word human in it, and I wanted to help people, so it made sense, right?

While I was trying to find my academic path, I was also grasping for social connection, and I found it in an on-campus Christian fellowship. There were multiple at UC San Diego’s campus, each one with a different sort of personality, but most all with the aim of providing community among Christian college students, AND encouraging them to evangelize to other students. Somehow, I found myself involved with Campus Crusade for Christ (they’ve since realized that is a terrible name, and rebranded themselves as Cru, which is ambiguous and vague enough to also be terrible, in my opinion); this may sound like an extreme statement but… white supremacy and internalized racial inferiority is what brought me to CCC. It was the “cool” on-campus fellowship, predominantly white, full of hot surfer dudes who also happened to love Jesus. This is what I thought I wanted, who I thought I wanted to be affiliated with. If I could find belonging here, I’d have found the thing that had eluded me all my childhood and teenage years. There was something mildly incestual about the way members of on-campus fellowships paired off with one another, and yet I spent four years anxiously waiting for my turn, not realizing that I existed in this community primarily as a token for diversity, and was only offered belonging because I defied most students’ racist stereotypes about black people.

The thing is though, people are complicated. That’s not really the ONLY reason I was offered belonging. I was also offered a space in this community because I was kind and fun and interesting. I was a token, AND I believe I was genuinely loved and cared for by many people. The two are not mutually exclusive. We can love one another in very sloppy ways, that aren’t at all the type of love that the other person needs. I’m guilty of the same towards other people.

I have a lot of journals from these years of my life. In them, I am typically struggling with two primary issues: the question of ‘calling’, i.e. a predetermined life path that one tries to discover; and the question of partnership, which was inseparable from the question of whether something in me was fundamentally broken and therefore repulsive to other people. I know. Oh, the angst.

I remind myself of this incessant angst now, at moments when I miss faith purely for the comfort it brought. It did bring comfort, but it also brought a fair amount of insecurity and self-doubt, always wondering whether I was a good enough Christian, always wondering if my life was sufficiently uncomfortable to confirm that I was following the call of God. The Bible says one must give up their life in order to find it. At that time, my understanding of calling was characterized by extreme sacrifice, rather than being characterized by an affirmation of one’s talents and desires. If I could speak to my twenty-year-old self, I would tell her that calling does not have to be painful, nor should it be. 

My uncertain journey toward my calling led me to vocational ministry, when, during my senior year of college, I applied for an internship at the church I had been attending in San Diego. The year I spent in that internship, and the subsequent three years I spent employed full-time were some of the most challenging, and formative, and painful, and complicated years of my life. I was also surrounded by a strong network of imperfect love and community. It was during those years that I discovered many of my gifts, that I clarified my passion for social change, that I joined Match.com, and that I finally realized I was Black. The last two happened back to back. It’s a good, sad story. Until next time.

A spiritual history, part 1

The other day, my mom asked me if I ever pray. I said not really. She also asked me if I believe in God. I think I said, sometimes, or, I think so, or, kind of. We were talking on the phone, so I couldn’t see her face to assess her reaction, but I worried that her heart was breaking a little.

My mom and I have very different spiritualities. It has sort of always been that way, although there have been seasons when we were more closely aligned in the language we used to talk about faith and God. I was baptized in the Christian (Baptist, to be specific) church just days before my sixteenth birthday, and I remember it as a proud moment for young-me. I think it’s safe to say that most of us feel pretty different from our sixteen-year-old-selves; but nevertheless, now, my thirty-first birthday having just passed, I feel very distant and disconnected from this young woman who was so moved by the story of Jesus and the cross that she felt compelled to make a public declaration of faith before her community.

I grew up attending church with my mom, and with my older brother for a short while. When he became a teenager old enough to use his “no” assertively, he stopped going. I continued, mainly because I didn’t know how to say no, and I knew it was important to my mom. During those years, from roughly age eight to fifteen, I would sit in the pew and mostly tune out the pastor, and the choir. When I was younger, I would bring a book to read, but at some point I realized that felt really rude, which I didn’t want to be, so I stopped. I would sit through the two hour service, daydreaming, or sometimes listening to the sermon, and questioning whether I could find any truth in these words. Mainly I thought religion was a self-induced delusion that people leaned on out of necessity, in order to not feel so alone in the world, in order to have a roadmap for morality. It didn’t bother me. I just didn’t feel I needed it.

I didn’t feel I needed God, until one day I felt that I did. I was pretty depressed as a teenager, though I didn’t realize it at the time. Growing up in a very white neighborhood, and very white schools didn’t help. Belonging eluded me. But it wasn’t just an issue of race; I attended a predominantly black church with my mom, and Sundays were the most black people I ever saw at one time. And even there, belonging eluded me, in part because of the disconnect between their spiritual beliefs and my own, but also in part because of the dynamics of self-expression. Ours was a church where a good service meant someone caught the Holy Ghost, and fell out crying in the pew, shouting “Thank you, Lord!”, or went running up and down the aisles in an outburst of spiritual energy. I didn’t relate to this showy expression of faith. I was quiet, reserved, never wanting to be noticed, and simultaneously never wanting anyone to question my belonging.

Mostly I succeeded in avoiding attention. I attended Sunday school class, and could skate by with minimal participation, convincing people that I was one of them. To this day, I don’t know why I didn’t just refuse to go. Was I that reliant on my mother’s approval? Was there a part of me that was searching for the same spiritual comfort that I internally criticized others for needing? I don’t know.

But I do know that making the decision to believe in God, and Jesus, and the Holy Spirit probably saved my life. Like, my actual physical life. As I said, I was depressed for a decent portion of my adolescence, and passive thoughts of suicide were a regular occurrence. Believing in Jesus, believing that I wasn’t alone, believing that there was a story written for my life, helped. I remember the day that things changed for me; I remember the passage in the New Testament that we were studying in Sunday school. I am the vine and you are the branches. Apart from me you can do nothing. These words stuck with me, and I remember awkwardly asking my Sunday school teacher for her phone number, mumbling something about the fact that I thought it might be useful to have. I called her that evening, crying, confessing my need for God.

For the me of the present, the whole idea of a conversion experience is a little uncomfortable, and I struggle not to feel embarrassed in describing my own. But I remember a genuine desire to know God, and a genuine hope that He was good.

He? She? They? Capitalized, why? These are the things that trip me up today, the reasons that I answered my mother’s recent question with “sometimes” or “kind of.”

Our paths that brought us to the present day are as much a part of us as who we are at this very moment, I believe. I am that sixteen-year-old girl, newly in love with Jesus, eager to please him, desperate for love and belonging. The ten years that followed were heavily shaped by that desperation. I am also the twenty-six-year-old woman, wounded by the whiteness, racism, sexism, and capitalism, of the evangelical church in the U.S. And I am also the thirty-one-year-old woman writing these words, feeling the strongest kinship with the cynicism of her early adolescence, yet filled with longing for the comfort that faith brought through my years of young adulthood. I think I would have experienced less pain during those years had I not conflated my desire for love from God with my desire for love from the people around me.

I like to use the language of faith journey, even if it sounds a little… whatever it sounds like. To me it feels like a dance, a clumsy one, falling in and out of step with faith, at moments seeing God eye to eye, moving towards one another, then retreating, not always having enough trust in God to catch me during the dips. This is part one of the history of my faith journey, and I hope I can come to accept and embrace each clumsy step.

 

Talking to God (a poem, from years ago)

Hi… (ahem)… hey… (ahem, ahem)…
Hello
No, that’s too formal
And I am done with formal
We are through with these formalities
Let’s be honest, you and I

I saw you yesterday
I saw and smelled you in the air
Your healing rain had brought the
Whole world into focus and
I can see, clearly now, that you
Are healing the whole world, and me

I heard you the other day, in
The lengths of waves crashing all
Along the shore; and I recalled
That you are anything but safe,
And yet I am irresistibly
Drawn to you, and if not to you
Then surely to
These waves that you have made

I’ve found that I find you
With the most ease when I am
Splayed on the ground, on the floor,
Feeling the mass of the world below me
The expanse of the world above me

I’d much rather see and hear and
Touch and taste and feel and find
You here, cocooned in the warmth of
The sun, smelling the wetness of dirt,
Talking back to the leafy green trees
Than find you in sanctuaries that
Do not shelter

I’m so glad you’ve agreed, we can
Put away pleasantries,
Bows, and curtsies and courtesy,
And instead speak to one another in
The pure poetry
Of all things alive, all things made