Transcript: Ep. 4 Church & State

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(intro music, synth beat melodic repeating medium tone voice singing "ah, ah, ah ah...")

Karen: You’re listening to Who Raised You Podcast? A Kitchen Table Conversation between Karen Jia Lian Yang and Treasure Shields Redmond.

Treasure: Unfurled and unafraid, we’re centering voices of color from flyover country. And we start every podcast with a poem. 

(music fades out)

(poem)

Come Catch These Waves – read by Brittini (Ree Belle) Gray

Come catch these waves
That sound like thunder
Look like butter
And feel like wonder

Naw this ain’t wonder woman
More like a natural woman

Draped in nothing more than what i came into this world with
How can we be so offended by the very thing we all have
The very vessel that carries us through this life

This chocolate coated, earth reflected skin is not sin
Nor is that pale sun sensitive one that covers a body more thin
They are simply the outer flesh of where we begin but certainly don't end

And for that reason, i have loved it since my foundation and shall until my end
So come catch these waves
That sound like thunder and look like butter
Painted by the creator
Streaks of lightning come creasing from places that have been stretched
Now in my skin they are etched, like a god given tattoo
I look at them in the morning and say i’m proud of you

They didn’t give when things got too heavy or too tough
They just gave a little bit more and then my body adjust
I wouldn’t be mad at a reflection of my resilience
That’s like also being mad at my own brilliance
That has shape shifted the same way
Creating new responses to situations everyday
So you see, It would be criminal to not acknowledge the labor that has gone unseen
That is why i will always call this body, this woman a queen
Because like the women who have come before me have seen
It is not class that determines if we have descended from royalty
It is the fact that our creator put within us that which many do not see
A burden, a passion, a gift, to be free!

 (music fades in)

{Song lyrics: Sometimes what I say ain’t right

Givin’ you such a hard time (time)

Ain’t nobody said I was perfect (perfect)

But baby, good love is worth it all and I won’t let you fall <fades out>}

Treasure: What if a black poet from Mississippi and a Taiwanese-American minister from Silicon Valley had a podcast?

Karen: We’re about to find out!

Treasure: We might even blowuptuate.

Karen: You’re listening to Who Raised You? A kitchen table conversation between Karen Jia Lian Yang—that’s me!--and Treasure Shields Redmond. As we explore how culture, family, and intersecting identities pave our way toward liberation, we wanna know: who raised you? We’re curious and we’re sometimes pretty irritated. Sit down; we have lots to talk about.

Treasure: Today, we’re joined by Brittini Gray, who is a Chicago native, and for the last five years has been a led organizer with the Metropolitan Congregations United. She’s a poet, organizer, activist, and healer in training, who holds a Masters in Theological Studies from Eden Theological Seminary in Webster Groves, Missouri. This year, she decided to move forward into a solo practice where she consults with organizations with whom she feels her mission is aligned with the hopes of expanding her work in healing Black communities. Brittini! The first famous question always is: who raised you?

Brittini: Yeah, so, I mean if we’re literally saying who, that would be my mom and my dad, as well as my grandma and my uncle. Those were the people who I grew up in the household with. I think more broadly speaking, Chicago raised me.

Karen and Treasure: Mm..!

Brittini: I would say I had a lot of elders in my life who were there in a lot of different ways. And probably not until recent adulthood have I been reflecting on just all the people that have come into my life. I also had a lot of kind of adoptive mothers, who—

Karen and Treasure: Mmm

Brittini: --who have taken me under their wings. And not as disrespect to my mother, but just in addition, you know? I’ve had a lot of women just love on me and help rear me into the person that I am.

Treasure: Mm, definitely. That’s—that’s important.

Brittini: Mmhmm

Treasure: It takes a village to raise an activist. <laughs> Brittini: Yes, yes.

Karen: It really does! And it reminds me of our conversation with Tara, because she said that she was raised by a lot of powerful women as well, and particularly she talked about her aunt, and it was kind of like she was never alone--

Brittini: Mmhm, right

Karen: --in knowing that, and yeah, for people to pave the way for you. That’s big.

Brittini: (affirming) Mhm. Yeah, yeah.

Treasure: Well, you know what? This episode is thematically tied around the issues of Church and State. And let’s expand that. Not just the physical building where people may have a faith congregation and the State as we know as government offices, but also the divisions we keep within ourselves. The secular and the spiritual, the religious and work. So, we’ll start off—how did you wind up in St. Louis?

Brittini: Yeah, so, I came to St. Louis five years ago specifically to work with MCU, Metropolitan Congregations United. I had done a year of service in Buffalo, New York, with Catholic Charities Service Corps. And my placement was at VOICE Buffalo, which is a sister organization and part of the Gamaliel network.

Treasure: Mmkay. Karen: Mm.

Brittini: I didn’t know anything about organizing professionally? Even though I would say Chicago has a very strong activist base. And so, you know, in a lot of ways, I was involved in activism and around organizing. I just didn’t know it, you know?

Treasure: Mmhm

Brittini: And so when I officially found organizing, I was like, “This is what I want to do with my life.” And I didn’t want to stay in Buffalo, NY, because one, it’s colder than Chicago—

General laughter

Brittini: --But also, just wanting to be closer to family, and a lot of my roots are in Chicago. I grew up on the west side. My mom’s side is from west side, my dad’s side is from the south side. Roots in Mississippi and Alabama. And so I wanted to be somewhere more centrally located.

Treasure: Mmhmm

Brittini: And honestly, what finalized coming to St. Louis was the staff. They were all ordained ministers. And I knew that I wanted to be somewhere where I could continue to grow my spirituality. And all of those reasons just made St. Louis the right move.

Treasure: And what year was that?

Brittini: 2012.

Treasure: 2012. Okay.

Brittini: Mmhmm.

Karen: Mmm.

Treasure: Okay. Interesting. Very interesting.

Brittini: Ironically, I had come to St. Louis in 2008 for a conference called Urbana, a Christian campus organization.

Karen: Yeah, it’s a pretty big conference, isn’t it?

Brittini: It’s huge.

Karen: Yeah

Brittini: They do it every three years, somewhere between ten to fifteen thousand young folks—

Treasure: Were you a graduate then?

Brittini: I was an undergrad.

Treasure: Okay.

Brittini: And the conference was in the Conference Center, the one downtown where the Rams used to play. And it was—I was in a session, and I heard something. That I have since attributed as the voice of God at the time.

Karen: Mm.

Brittini: Telling me that I was being prepared for this place.

Karen: Whoa…

Brittini: That I was going to do great things.

Treasure: (Intrigued) Really?!

Brittini: Now at the time, I had just started training for ministry at my local church. And so I took that meaning, like that was my call to be in that church, and to do ministry.

It wasn’t until about a year of being in St. Louis, I actually moved to 7th and Cole, which is directly across the street from the Center. I was there for a whole year before I remembered—

Treasure: Mm!

Brittini: --that experience.

Karen: Oh my gosh.

Brittini: So, now looking back, I think that it was a call specifically to St. Louis, not necessarily to just ministry.

Karen: Mmmm!

Brittini: But actually here to St. Louis.

Treasure: Interesting! Wow! That is—that’s fascinating.

Karen: Yeah

Treasure: So, Karen, what year did you come to St. Louis?

Karen: 2012! We—

Treasure laughs

Karen: --we didn’t start—we came here to St. Louis at the same time. And I started seminary I think in 2013 then. And so that’s when I met Brittini.

Brittini: Mmhmm, mmhmm

Karen: She was in some of my earliest classes. And I remember that you always were really dedicated to just speaking the truth! <laughs>

Brittini: Mhm.

Karen: You and your mother both. Because your mom lived right across from me, and we were taking classes at the same time. I think what’s funny is though, what you’ve talked about in terms of calling and—I think I also came here with the idea that calling is about, like, career or your job or your role?

And not necessarily about people or communities. And now I have such a different sense of calling. And the way I talk about it, especially to my Spiritual Director, or even think about it myself, is that I want to learn to love a community or commit to a community that I can love. Or peoples that I can love.

And earlier we were just talking about, you know, what should be the theme of this episode, and we were thinking maybe we’ll talk about shift, right? Shifting from kind of traditional, expected, structured roles, very 9 to 5, maybe within a certain organization where everything’s laid out to you versus taking a more creative path. But I almost feel like, based on what you just talked about, maybe twists and turns is kind of more accurate, right?

Treasure laughs

Brittini: Mmhmm

Karen: Because you come in expecting one thing; maybe you feel something that’s kind of like a conviction. You might name it God, you might name it Holy Spirit, you might name it, like, the Universe, right? <laughs>

Brittini: Mmhmm

Karen: Whatever it is, and then it can turn out to be something totally different.

Treasure and Brittini: Mmhmm

Treasure: Well, you know, I came here in 2009. When my marriage ended, I decided to move up here, near my father’s side of the family, which is in East St. Louis, Illinois, across the river. And I took a job at the community college there, Southwestern Illinois College, where I was an assistant professor of English. And I was kind of continuing the call that I had answered <chuckle> many years before that to work as an educator in mostly poor, mostly Black communities. And I continue to serve Black educational communities. But you know, what I find interesting about what Brittini said was, her spirituality has always been bound up in her quote-unquote ‘work mission.’

Karen: Mmhmm.

Treasure: So she didn’t just pick a radical organization of communists—which usually kind of eschews religion, right?

Karen: Yeah

Treasure: Like, if we were—I mean, you know, love labor movements, all about it, but spirituality isn’t a centerpiece in that sort of organizing.

Brittini: Mhmm.

Treasure: So, I wanted to know: why has it always been important to you, and is it still important to you, to have an acknowledgement of your spiritual core with your activism?

Brittini: Yeah, so, I always said if I would have entered organizing outside of faith-based organizing, I would not be an organizer.

Treasure: Mmm!

Brittini: Because I just generally don’t like politics.

Karen: Oh, wow!

Brittini: Which I know sounds crazy!

Treasure laughs

Karen: Oh! Our minds are being blown! <laughs>

Brittini: …because I’m an organizer. And, you know, whether it’s union labor organizing or just other secular spaces, they tend to feel much more political and mundane to me.

Treasure: Mmm.

Brittini: And so, definitely being in a space where faith, spirituality is interconnected with the work, quote-unquote ‘the work,’ is important to me. I think that given just the shifts that I’m making in and out of the Church, changing fields now, I have been able to expand that beyond just traditional language of faith and religion and into spirituality. Which is taking a lot of different forms for me now, because that doesn’t always look like people who are traditionally religious. I think spirituality for me is about kind of what Karen was saying, how we connect with people, how we show up in community, how we interact with all of creation. And so for me that’s always going to be central to who I am as a person. It may look different in terms of whether or not I am in the church or not—

Karen and Treasure: Mmhmm

Brittini: --but a spiritual core is the essence of who I am and I think of who we are as people.

Karen and Treasure: Mm.

Treasure: Well, I recently went and saw Karen Yang deliver a sermon. What was the name of the church, Karen?

Karen: Christ Church United Church of Christ in Maplewood.

Treasure: Okay, at Christ Church, where she put together this brilliant exegesis—

Karen and Treasure laugh

Treasure: --of the famous story that many of us who were raised in Christianity know of, where Jesus got into a boat, and it was prior to some other kind of signature events leading up to his crucifixion. And then I went to see Brittini deliver a sermon, and where was that delivered?

Brittini: Grace United Methodist Church.

Treasure: Grace United Methodist. And, lovingly, Brittini quoted from Karen’s sermon. And what was so interesting and interconnected about both of the messages that you delivered was that you tied spirituality, or Christ’s story, to the work of liberation. So this liberatory Christianity that we read about, those of us who are not <giggles> in the world of the Church, we read about it every now and then, and the claim is made that Black Christianity is naturally—naturally, if that’s a word that we can use—liberatory—

Karen: (skeptically, with humor) Hm-mm!

Treasure: --but I wanna know-- (Treasure and Karen laugh)

Treasure: …in some ways… (Treasure and Karen laugh)

Karen: That’s a whole discussion!

Treasure: Hello! (Treasure and Karen laugh) But I want to know, how do you—did you all move to tying the Christ story to liberatory work, and at what points do you recall realizing, “Oh! This is tied to anti-racist, anti-homophobic work…”?

Brittini: So, I grew up in an interfaith household. My mom is Christian, my dad is Muslim—

Treasure: Mm!

Brittini: --and I would go to both the church and the mosque. I got baptized at nine. And people always ask me, “Well, how did you choose Christianity?” And I say, “Well, Jesus felt more real to me.”

Treasure and Karen: Mm

Brittini: Outside of my bedroom door growing up was a Black Jesus. It was The Passion of the Christ as told through a Black artist’s lens. And so, I think about my base within Christianity, but also having my economic and social analysis shaped more through the mosque.

Treasure: Mm.

Brittini: And both of those together, along with the consciousness of my household have always presented a liberatory view of the Gospel for me.

Treasure: Mmhmm

Brittini: And so part of my exodus—short-term exodus from the church was about having an understanding of the Gospel of who the character of Jesus was not match up with what I was seeing—

Karen: Mmhmm, mhmm Treasure: Mmmm

Brittini: --as an adult. And so that disconnect is what actually drove me out. Also, having very strong anti-racist lens and trajectory but still holding a lot of bigotry and just, I’ll call it hatred for those things outside of racism. And so, you know, raised to believe that homosexuality was a sin. And part of what I think Eden helped me do, and I had other people, particularly a professor, Dr. Jaggi, in undergrad, expand my understanding of oppression and the way that it shows up.

Treasure: Mmm

Brittini: And so I also had to use that time to separate myself from the Church, because I needed to be able to shed those oppressions that I held.

Treasure: (emphatically) Mmm

Brittini: So only recently have I been able to say, “Yes, actually I’m both anti-racist and anti-homophobic and anti-“—you know what I mean?

Treasure: Mmhm

Brittini: And so that expansion felt like it didn’t belong in the Church. And it took me some time of contemplation to understand, one: what my faith looked like in the context of the Church AND how my spirituality was still bigger than the Church.

Treasure: Mmm

Brittini: And so, growing up, I think a lot people called me a free spirit.

Karen: Mm.

Brittini: And I didn’t really know exactly what that mean until I was able to break free to fully be me?

Karen: Mhm

Brittini: And I return to the Church because I still see value in it. I still see it as a place particularly where Black people are gathered with intention—and still, I have a lot of issues with it.

Treasure and Karen: Mmhmm

Brittini: So.

Karen: I think for me, the question really is about where do you see sacredness and where does that come from? Because when I was growing up, I grew up in the Church of the Nazarene. And so, it’s a holiness tradition, and what that means is they take very seriously exactly what the scripture is saying.

Brittini: Right

Karen: And so they look within the scripture for what’s sacred, and then turn that outwards to how you apply it in the world. So I feel very fortunate that I grew up in Silicon Valley within that tradition, because I didn’t get a lot of the fundamentalism, a lot of the kind of more hateful end of conservatism that I hear and observe in that denomination right now. I got a lot of geeks who were raising me, to be honest.

Treasure laughs

Karen: My senior pastor for the longest time was a vice president of a semi-conductor systems company <laughs>, so he would say his sermons, and there would be a power point slide with Venn diagrams all over it.

Treasure laughing

Karen: Those were the kind of people who were teaching me about the Bible. And then, coming here to St. Louis, because just of how race works in St. Louis, I learned a lot more about how it works in US-America. And then I was doing practicum and field work both in social work and at Eden Seminary, and what I was feeling I think is pretty similar to what Brittini was talking about, which is what’s more real?

Brittini: Mhm.

Karen: So on the one hand, I read the Bible a lot when I was growing up to the point that I was realizing that pretty consistently whenever God gets mad at people it’s because they’re not taking care of those who are oppressed. Widows, orphans, etc.

And I was thinking to myself, if I were to apply that to modern day, it would be people who are LGBT, it’s people who are poorer, etc. And so the focus on people who are marginalized in social work was why I wanted to pursue that field.

Brittini: Mmhmm, mhmm

Karen: And then I came here and really met people and got involved in communities, got involved in activism and organizing here, was really formed in social work and ministerial training in the Ferguson uprising. And I was realizing that what felt more real and where I was finding the sacredness and those kind of God moments were when I was working with people. When we were on the streets and everyone was chanting in unison, and it felt really like—this is what it feels like to be a part of something bigger. When I’ve been a part of bailing people out from jail, right?

Treasure and Brittini: Mmhmm

Karen: The movements that kind of have spread across the nation around that, and prison abolition. That is really what it feels like to set prisoners free, right? Like, that is literally what it is. <laughs>

Treasure: Come on, preacher! <laughs>

Karen: So instead—instead of like, I think the Jesus of my childhood, I think a lot of it was this like, space astronaut Jesus, where he’s like Superman in the sky kind of miracle-worker, and now I see Jesus more in the people around me that are doing these sacrificial things, that are thinking about other people before themselves.

Treasure: Mmm. Well, you mentioned something really important, which was the Ferguson uprising.

Karen: Yeah.

Treasure: But you wanted to say something, Brittini.

Brittini: I did. I wanted to respond to what Karen said.

Karen: Yeah

Brittini: So that was not my Jesus, but kinda was.

Karen: Okay

Brittini: So Jesus was both-and for me growing up.

Treasure: Mmhmm, mhmm.

Brittini: Very much kind of beyond our conceptions, a healer—

Treasure: Mmhmm, a lawyer in the courtroom?

Brittini: --but also a very real and relatable human being, right? I remember my grandma had a moment of temporary blindness. And like any good Black church folks do, called on the women to pray. And they prayed over her, laid hands on her, and her sight came back. So it’s moments like that, that are very concretely in my mind. About the spiritual nature of who Christ was, and I just don’t get it, how people can read, particularly the Gospels—

Karen: Mmhmm

Brittini: --and think of Jesus as anything other than a revolutionary.

Karen: Yup

Treasure: Mmmmmm

Brittini: That was clear to me at six years old. And so, <laughs> there’s this contradiction of Black church that you mentioned earlier, Treasure

Treasure: Mmhmm

Brittini: --saying that it is inherently liberatory.

Treasure: Mmhmm, mmhmm!

Brittini: Right? So when we think about the birth of the Black Church in America, in the US, particularly coming out of the insidious institution of slavery—

Treasure: Come on, bring the word!

Brittini: --there was this very embedded arch toward freedom and justice.

Treasure: Mhmm

Brittini: And a very fundamentalist reading of the Word, right? And so what we have now is a Black Church split between these two ideologies that it was essentially born with. And I think what has sustained me even in the Movement, was knowing that there was this revolutionary aspect of it. Even though the majority of churches that I have been in do not preach that way.

Treasure: Mmhmm

Brittini: That it’s still there. So.

Treasure: Well, you know, as a native Mississipian, (chuckles) I was raised in charismatic church. It was a personal Jesus. That was one of my favorite Gospel songs, My Personal Jesus.

And, there was this idea that every story in the Bible was about Black people. Not just the Hebrew children leaving, but every story was about Black people.

Brittini: Right. I mean the Exodus is our story. I don’t know of people who own the Exodus story more than Black people do.

Treasure: Yeah, yeah, AND. (high-pitched amused giggle) Even though our Jewish brothers and sisters would disagree.

Brittini: I’m sayin’!

General laughter

Treasure: But yes!

Brittini: But what I’m saying IS—

Treasure: But yes!

Karen: Black Jewish brothers and sisters, though!

Treasure: Right! Right, right. So, this idea, what I have found it hard to reconcile with church is the revolutionary Jesus and the need of people to find equality with biased systems. So, for Black people to aspire to a discrete heterosexual unit that has a mother and a father, 2.5 children, a dog, and a picket fence, was also aspiring to heterosexism.

Brittini: Mmhmm

Treasure: But the Bible was used to kind of justify that template of family.

Brittini: Mmhmm

Treasure: And all of that bleeds out into ideas about gender, ideas about worthiness, ideas about earning salvation. And all of those kind of, to me, hit ground zero when Michael Brown was murdered. And I want to move us forward. You guys entered St. Louis in 2012, I entered here in 2009. And when Michael Brown was murdered, one of my first experiences was going to Traci Blackmon’s church, where an emergency meeting was held.

Karen: I remember that.

Brittini: Mmhm

Treasure: And I saw the divisions between Black clergy. I saw younger Black clergy admonishing older Black clergy to not wear suits at actions. Because these were Black men who had entered in the tradition during King and Jesse Jackson’s time—

Karen: Right

Treasure: --when you had two choices: you could be a laborer, or you could run things and be a preacher. <laughs>

Karen: Mm!

Treasure: So they ready for their King moment. And the moment had passed them. The moment was now for young people, for millennial people.

For all those people who wouldn’t have been comfortable in their pews.  So moving back to our two clergy at the table: when the murder of Michael Brown occurred—

Brittini: Not clergy.

Karen laughs

Treasure: Oh, okay! Okay, to our two seminarians—

General laughter

Treasure: --at the table--

Brittini: Very well

Treasure: --when the murder of Michael Brown occurred, how was your call or your faith challenged or strengthened?

Brittini: Mmhmm. So here’s the thing: the moment of Movement is always for young people. Right?

Treasure: Mmhmm. Yes, God! (chuckle)

Brittini: They was young when King started and grew old. And so, there’s this balance of movements between the wisdom of elders and the energy of young folks. So I just, I want to make that clear. And, you know, from the beginning of the institution of the Black Church, clergy have always been in a position of authority, right? It’s not like it’s something that became new because of the Civil Rights Movement.

Like, that really was one of the only places where Black people could assert themselves and have their own autonomy. And so, that is a tradition that is very steeped in patriarchy, right? A system that Christianity entrenched in the founding of this country, right? So, part of it is they are not to blame, because they are simply living out a system that they have been indoctrinated into.

Treasure: Mmhmm

Brittini: (emphatically) AND…

Treasure laughs

Brittini: --mugs should just get their lives.

Karen and Treasure laugh

Brittini: Because Black women have always been the vanguard of the community.

Treasure snaps repeatedly

Brittini: So, I say that to say—(Treasure laughing)

Karen: She’s flipping her hair back—

Treasure: (agreeing) Right??

Karen: --<laughing> It’s like, when you’re talking truth, it gets a little warm…

Brittini: I say that to say… the first half of the movement, if we’re saying the past three years since the murder of Mike Brown, the first half of the Movement actually deepened my faith.

I poured myself deeper into study, deeper into the proclamation of the Gospel as my way to respond, and was being transformed by every moment that I experienced.

Until the point where actually I began to see all the contradictions that were there. Now for me, what actually solidified leaving the Church was my visit to Ghana.

Treasure: Mmm.

Brittini: And I went to Elmina Castle.

Treasure: Mmhmm. And what is Elmina Castle?

Brittini: So, it is, was a slave dungeon on the coast of Ghana that was established by the Portuguese and then the English, I think.

Treasure: All of whom were quite church-going! (giggle)

Brittini: And what did it was that the church was located on top of the female slave dungeons. And I think that was the epitome of what the system of Christianity has represented in terms of systemic oppression and white supremacy for my people.

And that white folks worship on top of the agony of Black folks. And I was so disgusted that I did not understand how we had come to a place where that was the religion that we had accepted. And I was both heartbroken and disgusted with that thought. I mean, we knew that the Bible was used to keep the enslaved in place, and we’ve known so many different things about how Christianity has shown up.

But something about that physical representation of the church on top of the dungeons that Black women were packed into with no place to relieve themselves, (she taps on the table) with no space to eat, (tap) with gun powder (tap) and the heat from the kitchen stove (tap) consuming that area (tap, tap). How dare you worship on that?! (tap, tap) And for me, that is what the Movement was about, also. It was about white supremacy worshiping in light of a Black body being slain (tap). Viciously.

And I just couldn’t do it. Much like Karen, I saw sacredness in the faces and in the spaces where people were convening for the Movement. And I did not see that same sacredness in the Church anymore. And my decision to go back to the Church now has been one of both strategy and discomfort. Because I am still wrestling with that reality. And I think that that was a gift from the Movement, to be able to wrestle with that.

Karen: (whispered) Yeah. Treasure: Mmhmm.

Treasure: It’s such a powerful connection that you’re drawing. The fact that ministers would come out and bless slave boats—

Brittini: (quietly) Mmhmm

Treasure: --and I’m trying—people can’t see it, but I’m looking up the poet who, how dare I not remember her name, Lucille Clifton, who has a poem called Blessing the Boats, which is a little bit more than a coded reference to that…

Treasure: --Karen Yang! (Karen sighs quietly) Emboldened, weakened, strengthened by the Ferguson uprising? Your faith. Which of it, or was it a combination?

Karen: You know, I’m still sitting with what Brittini shared. I remember when our classmates went to Ghana. And I remember people coming back and sharing what they had to say, and I also remember hearing second-hand how important that trip was to you. And I think a lot of what I was hearing was that you were still working through it. And I imagine that you still are.

Brittini: Mmhmm. I tell you what, I didn’t want to see a white face for a long time after that, I really did not!

Treasure laughs

Brittini: Most days still don’t want to see white faces!

Treasure: Mm! Mm!

Karen: Yeah.

Treasure: And you know, coming to a radical consciousness as a Black person, that can be a stage. Some people remain there. But that can be a stage, where you don’t even want eat white bread.

Growing general laughter

Brittini: Oh yeah, ain’t never ate white bread—

Karen: <laughing> Ey! There are no nutrients in there!

General laughter

Brittini: --wasn’t no white bread in my house, okay? I told you, Jesus was Black!

General laughter

Karen: We’ve had conversations about fried rice and whether it should be pale or not—

Treasure: Right, right, St. Louis’s fried rice

Karen: -- <laughing> that’s a whole other conversation!

General laughter

Brittini: The darker the berry, the fruit of juice, and the same goes for fried rice, too!

General laughter

Brittini: Yes, yes!

General laughter

Brittini: I actually, I don’t—unlike most St. Louisans, I don’t like they Chinese food.

Treasure: Mm Karen: Oooh?

Brittini: One of my requests is extra extra dark rice, please. Because in Chicago, it is the color of my skin.

Treasure and Karen laugh

Treasure: Okay, so it’s even darker than here?

Brittini: Yes.

Treasure: Oh, well, you need to come to East St. Louis, then. That’s a side conversation.

Brittini: Yes, honey. Yes, honey.

Treasure: They call it the Rice House there. Brittini: Mhm.

Treasure: Here, it’s a little slurry. Brittini: Yeah it is.

Treasure: I can make up a word, slurry? They call it the Chinaman.

Karen: Okay. (Treasure laughs)

Karen: Yeah, I heard that. I think when I heard it, I was like, “What is this?” And then I was like, “Okay, it’s a St. Louis thing.”

Treasure laughs

Karen: I’m gonna like, lean back, you’re gonna have your moment, you’re gonna have your Vess, it’s okay.

Treasure: Right, right

Karen: Crab Rangoon—I never knew what that was until I came here! <laughs>

Brittini: I didn’t know what that was, I didn’t know what no St. Paul was…

Karen: No! <laughing> I still haven’t had a St. Paul.

Brittini: I ain’t. And I won’t!

Treasure: Okay, I’ve got to—this may get cut out, but—But I’ve got to explain to the listeners that the St. Paul is basically—

Karen: We don’t cut this out! <laughs>

Treasure: --it’s an egg sandwich. And—

Brittini: It’s egg foo young. With gravy. On white bread.

Treasure laughs

Treasure: On white bread

Karen: See, I understand the egg part, what the foo young?

General laughter

Karen: See, like, I—I’ll need to try it to know, right?

Treasure: What the foo young is the name of our next episode! But yeah, in East St. Louis, they call it the Rice House.

Brittini: Mmhmm

Treasure: And that’s some African American rice right there. But <laughing> It’s black as Wesley Snipes! (chuckles) Well, Karen Yang didn’t answer the question, so—

Karen: No, I didn’t, but— (Treasure laughs) I do really resonate with what you said, Brittini, about strategy and discomfort, and the wrestling. Because I feel like there’s this narrative of faith where wrestling is a bad thing? But at the same time, we have all these stories, right?

Treasure: I’m gonna wrestle with him until he bless me!

Karen: Right! Exactly!

Treasure: I say that about every difficult thing that I encounter. I’m gonna wrestle with it until it bless me!

Karen: Right, yeah! You can apply it to people, you can apply it to so many things.

Brittini: Yeah, I mean, you know, I don’t know, maybe it’s true for you, too, especially in the Black Church, it was always this, “Oh, you don’t question God.”

Karen: Mmhmm

Treasure: True

Brittini: And why not?! If I got questions, I got questions!

Karen: Right.

Brittini: Who better to answer them than who we proclaim is the most divine?!

Treasure: Mmhmm!

Brittini: If they can’t answer the question, then who can?!

Karen: Right. Like, can—is God big enough to take it?

Brittini: Right, right

Karen: And I think my faith—what’s nice about it, in my experience, doubt has a way of expanding things. It has a way of—

Brittini: Mmhm

Karen: --like, breaking things open so the light can shine through. And I feel like doubt has made it so that I think of God or the sacred or everything that I have faith in, that I see as broken and shattered from experiencing reality, that that is big enough to take all my anger, all my questions, all the tears, all the doubt.

And I feel really similarly about strategy and discomfort with the Church, because I think something that I’ve learned around spirituality and faith is how to understand community, how to understand family. And I think one of the most revolutionary things we can do is dig deep in our relationships with people that we are connected with.

Brittini: Mmhmm.

Karen: And I think over and over again about how, since I was raised in the Church, I can speak Church language.

Treasure and Brittini: Mmhmm

Karen: And they understand it back. And so even if we’re not on the same page about our perspectives, at least we can be on somewhat similar ground when it comes to values. Somewhat similar ground when it comes to the stories we tell about what we hope we can see.

And then for me, I feel that my narrative around faith and whether it was strengthened or not in the Ferguson uprising? It was kind of similar. I think there is something that was somewhat magical and terrible about the first few days and weeks and months of the Ferguson uprising—

Brittini: Mmhmm

Karen: --because there was just so much energy and passion there. And people were out. And there was so much happening.

Treasure: Mmhmm

Karen: It was like impossible not to get swept up into it, unless you were just closing yourself off and hiding in your homes or hiding in your offices. And I remember being at Dean Krause’s house at 3 a.m. trying to write some sort of Moral Monday litany and at the time I didn’t understand what the arguments were going to be, and like the disrespect that was going to come out of the All Lives Matter phrase. And so I remember putting in the litany, Black Lives Matter and then All Lives Matter after that, thinking that what that meant was—

Brittini: Yeah

Karen: --that if Black lives matter, then all lives matter.

Brittini: Yeah. I almost never talked to you again after that.

Karen laughs uncomfortably

Brittini: I remember that moment starkly.

Karen: See? Yeah. That’s—

Brittini: But continue.

Karen: --and there was, there was a lot of patience, like what you mentioned, that people had with me. And part of the reason why I can be at this table having these conversations. And that to me was where I saw sacredness.

Brittini and Treasure: Mmm.

Karen: And at the same time, those moments of learning, where people were willing to have those hard conversations with me, like no, you can’t just say love, as an example, and as a way to deflect from the pain that people are feeling—that people were willing to hold me in that. That forced me to look at everything differently.

So, I remember going to an Episcopal church for the longest time and realizing when I looked around me that I was the only person of color there who was an adult. That everyone in that church was white, and then there were some kids of color. And I also remember when they were giving out the Eucharist and they were saying, “Are you a gluten person?” to me, who had attended there for weeks and weeks and weeks, and I’m like, “Do you just not know me?”

And then I realized that whenever people enter interacted with me, it was really to praise me for being involved. It was to praise me for doing something. And I realized what a token I was. And then when I got a job in another church, I left. And then when I got laid off from that job, I left. So, I think now it’s my hard work to figure out where sacredness is outside and within, but the strategy is also thinking that when I do have opportunities to speak with church people, even though I’m not obligated to do that, it is a chance to do that work.

Treasure: Mmhmm. (deep breath in) Mmm. Well, I have to tell you that for me, my permanent leaving of the church—I will not be returning, even though I’m keeping the Gospel music—they can’t have that, that’s mine!

Brittini: Sorry, can I interject? (Treasure laughs) …and say that actually, before I left the Church, I had stopped listening to Gospel music? I didn’t listen to Gospel music for about three years.

Treasure: Mm!

Brittini: So it’s so funny that you’re the opposite.

Treasure: Interesting!

Brittini: Go head, though.

Treasure: Well, I can’t—I have to say, I can’t listen to people like Tye Tribbett—

Brittini: Mmhmm

Treasure: --because they say things like, “Come outta homosexuality! Come out!” –Uh-uh.

Brittini: Mmhmm

Karen laughs

Treasure: It stopped somewhere right after Mississippi Mass Choir, so—

Brittini laughs

Treasure: --and below. So! <laughs>

Brittini hums

Treasure: But, it kind of took place in stages, and it actually started when I was about 14. We would have this spontaneous testimony service that Baptist churches have.

Brittini: Mmhmm, mhmm

Treasure: It was called Devotion. And it started before the sermon. And people would get up and say what God had done for them for the week. So people would say magical things. They would say, “I looked in my coin purse, I didn’t have money for my light bill, I prayed, I looked in there again, and all of a sudden, I had the twelve dollars and thirteen cents I was supposed to have.”

That didn’t bother me. That was normal. These miracles, minor miracles, were normal.

But there was one moment when  woman stood up; I remember she—a youngish woman, she had a baby on her hip, and she just wanted to say—sometimes people would just say, “Thank you God, thank you Lord, he’s a healer.”

Brittini: Mmhmm, mmhmm

Treasure: And she stood up with her baby on her hip, and she said, “I just wanted to say, I can’t wait to get to Heaven so I can praise Him all day long.”

Brittini: Mmhmm!

Treasure: And I thought to myself, “That sounds so boring!”

General laughter

Treasure: “Is that what we’re doing?! Is that what we’re in church waiting for?!”

Brittini: Low-key used to feel like that, too! I’d be like shiiit.

Treasure: “Is that what we’re preparing for?!”

Brittini: There’s a whole lotta stuff I wanna do, not that!

Treasure: “To kiss some guy’s ass! For an eternity??”

General laughter

Karen: It’s probably a real big one, too!

Treasure: Alright!

Karen: If God’s as big as they say!

Treasure: Yesssss! And that simmered for years, until I then became solidified in this consciousness, this anti-racist, anti-patriarchal, anti-capitalist consciousness. And while in St. Louis, I moved to progressively more progressive church. <laughing> I just—I couldn’t take it one place, so I would move here.

Brittini: Mmhmm

Treasure: And I wound up at a church in Webster Groves, which is now called Peace United Church of Christ.

Karen: Oh, I know that one.

Brittini: Mmhmm

Treasure: It’s right down the street. And the pastor at the time was a committed lesbian in a relationship with her wife. And they said all the right things. They had done what UCC church does. They had changed the Gospel songs so that they weren’t colonizing instruments! <laughs>

Brittini: Mm

Treasure: And I became representative there. There was only one other Black family. And I began to worry for my children, what that would mean to position them as representative.

Karen: Mmhm

Treasure: I made one last ditch attempt at Black Church, and I couldn’t deal with the contradictions and the homophobia.

Brittini: Mmhmm, mhmm

Treasure: And then I finally realized that I’m old enough and grown enough to continue this walk—

Brittini: Mmhmm

Treasure: --without feeling bad every Sunday. <laughs> So that’s what happened with me!

Brittini: Yeah! Yeah! Can, uh?

Treasure: You wanted to say something, Brittini?

Brittini: Yeah.

Treasure laughs

Karen: Would you like some more? <laughs> We’re doing wine, just so everyone knows.

Brittini: Yeah

Treasure: Who raised the glass?

Karen and Treasure: We did!

<sound of wine pouring>

<clinking of glasses>

Brittini: It’s funny that you say when you got to St. Louis, you found yourself in more progressive spaces—

Treasure: Mmhmm

Brittini: --well, positioned yourself in more progressive places.

Treasure snaps fingers

Brittini: I have always found myself in a space before I was ready for it.

Karen: Oohh. Treasure: Mmm

Brittini: And so, I have often grown into and then beyond kind of the theological spaces I have been in.

Treasure: Mm

Brittini: And that is part of why I have not gotten rid of spirituality altogether. Because I believe that the Spirit has known, even when I did not--

Karen: Mmhmm

Brittini: --what I needed.

Karen: Yeah, yeah

Brittini: You know?

Treasure: Mmm. Interesting, interesting. (sound of ice clinking in glass, liquid pouring) So, this idea of being led by Spirit, though. I guess I would have to say along with Gospel music that I’ve kept that as well.

Brittini: Mmhmm.

Karen: Is there a story that comes to mind when you think about having what you needed before you knew you needed it?

Brittini: I mean, everything!

Karen: Yeah

Brittini: I came to—and this is a very St. Louis context, so if there are people listening not in St. Louis, then sorry.

General laughter

Karen: We say this is St. Louis-centered, so it’s all good.

Treasure: Mmhmm

Brittini: I joined St. John’s UCC three or four months after being in St. Louis. When theologically, I should have been at Central Baptist.

Treasure: Oh, okay! Karen: Okay

Brittini: Do you understand what I mean?

Karen: Yeah, I understand.

Treasure: You should have been in a nice suit with some fur cuffs and a hat!

Brittini: Yeah, yeah! Like I— (Treasure laughs)

Brittini: --my theology at that time was more aligned with Central--

Treasure: Mmkay.

Brittini: --than it was with St. John’s. But I still chose St. John’s. And over the years it became apparent why. Right?

Treasure: Mmhmm

Brittini: So yeah, I would say that. I mean, I would also say, like, even your perspective of me in seminary that first year—

Karen: Sure

Brittini: --I think folks have often observed me as one way—

Karen: Mm. Treasure: Mhm

Brittini: --and it’s crazy because—

Treasure laughs

Brittini: --I mean I have done a 180 three times over since the Movement began! <laughs>

Karen: <laughs> Yeah!

Brittini: In terms of my own radicalism. And so, you know, to me I am a completely different person.

Karen: Mmhmm

Brittini: Than I was August 8th, 2014. And yet, to hear people affirm that there was this truth-telling, no-nonsense, keep all of your -isms, fuck white supremacy to me—even then—

Karen and Treasure: Mmhmm

Brittini: --you know, I think it’s just kind of a testament to that. I mean, going back to this Moral Monday piece that Karen did, I remember—

Treasure: I didn’t know about this, Karen!

Karen: Oh yeah! I have it written in a book if you need it!

Brittini: I remember—I remember the first--

Karen: <uncomfortable giggle> Don’t need to rehash it!

Brittini: --she did the refrain—

Treasure: Can we—I just need to stop you for just a second.

Karen: Mmhmm

Treasure: Because you guys do a lot of in-group talk, that people wouldn’t understand.

Karen: (quickly) Okay

Treasure: So, why was Karen reciting a liturgy that she wrote, and where was she doing it?

Brittini: Okay, I’ll give you that in just a second.

General laughter

Brittini: Because otherwise I’ll forget what I’m saying!

Treasure: Okay Karen: Okay!

Brittini: I remember the first time I heard the refrain, I said, “Who vetted this shit?!” Like, that really what I thought to myself.

Karen: No one. 4 a.m.

Brittini: Like, how dare they ask this—I’m just being real honest—

Karen: Yup. It is messed up.

Brittini: --how dare they ask this Asian girl to come to this motherfucking Moral Monday shit about Black folks—

Treasure laughs

Brittini: --and read this goddamned litany—

Karen: Mmhm.

Brittini: --and then got the audacity to put All Lives Matter here! This is why we can’t do—

Treasure laughs

Brittini: --cross-interracial work!

Karen: Yup!

Brittini: Because motherfuckers don’t understand the struggle that Black people go through!

Karen: Mmhmm!

Brittini: So, let me—I just need to put this out there.

Karen: You can!

Brittini: Because that was all that I was feeling! And, part of my journey has been growing patient. Because I didn’t have any patience then. (gracious, breathy voice) I have a whole lot now. I’m amazed at how much patience I have.

Karen laughs Treasure: Mmhmm!

Brittini: So, a lot of people—

Karen: And that’s not even an obligation, right?

Brittini: Yeah!

Karen: Yeah. That’s generosity.

Brittini: I came out of an organizing tradition where the organizer was in the background, kind of like a puppeteer, puppet master. Whichever one it is.

Treasure: Mmhmm

Brittini: I get confused. The puppets and the—yeah, puppeteer. Kind of controlling everything that’s going on, but not being seen.

So a lot of people don’t know that I actually was active in the Movement from very early on, even when I wasn’t visible. And so I had been in the background, planning a lot of different of the programming aspects for Ferguson October.

Treasure: Mmhmm

Brittini: And so Moral Monday was actually the conclusion of that weekend. Where clergy decided that they would gather and march down to the Ferguson Police Department for a prophetic proclamation and calling to confession and repentance for the policemen who were there. A lot of politics going on with that, a lot of reactions to that.

Karen: Mmhm

Brittini: And so, part of the programming piece of it was to have a moment in which, after clergy had confronted and spoken with police, there would be this blessing of the space and calling forward, kind of like um, I don’t know—just talk about what your liturgy looked like.

Karen: Yeah, yeah, so we had a litany, which is basically kind of a public ritual of saying things that bring meaning to what we’re doing.

Brittini: Right, right

Karen: And we did a call-and-response. And so, what I’m talking about, about going to Dean Krause’s house at 3 a.m., was, I think I did get the call from Dean Krause—

Brittini: Mmhmm

Karen: --and it was actually to me, and then my colleague, who is a white woman, so even more layers upon that, right? And reflection that there are times when you say yes to things and there’s times you say no to things, right?

Treasure: Mmmmm!

Karen: So there’s a lot, you know, as Brittini says, she did a lot of 180s, I hope that I did as well. There’s a lot that I have spoken to other people about that I regret, and yet I remember also that one response is that you did what you did at that time.

All you can do is kind of, move forward.

Brittini: Mmhmm

Karen: And so, and I think the other thing that I’ve learned in addition to that moment itself, is how it connected to the broader Movement as well, right? Reverend William Barber was doing this in North Carolina. It’s a strategy of reframing what we’re doing as not, again, like Brittini said, there’s a distinction between pure politics, where you’re just talking about the issues, the policies, versus when you really bring values into it, when you say this is an issue of morality.

Treasure: Mmm!

Karen: And that’s something that speaks to shifts in culture. When you talk about du jour segregation, and how even if you change the policies, that might not change the hearts and minds, right?

Treasure: Mmhmm

Karen: And so, that’s also to call into account elected leaders and police officers, and then also to say that we are working under an authority that’s bigger than you all.

Brittini: Right

Karen: That even though you have all the resources, that you have all the position, we’re not answering to you. We’re not going to take it anymore.

Treasure: Mmhmm. And I think it’s also a move to stop the institutions from just having conversations with themselves. Because as an academic, that is what has been frustrating to me about important educational institutions in the area. Everybody wants to have a panel full of their own people kind of talking to each other.

Brittini: Mmhmm, mmhmm

Treasure: No one speaks to the community. And, you know, the Church, it could be said that they do similar. They have their own conferences, they have their own panels. They’re talking to each other. So Reverend Barber’s move to bring clergy out to speak to power is, you know, of course in the tradition of lots of clergy, notably Dr. King, who asked his denomination if they would join him. And they said no, which is why he had to form the SCLC.

Brittini: Mhmm, mmhmm

Treasure: So, this idea of clergy, spiritual people, people closely connected with church being shocked and saddened at the fact that when the started singing “Come On and Go With Me,” they were like, “no, we’ll sit right here.” (Treasure laughs) ..you run on and see what the end gonna be! (chuckle) So, I guess I would have to kind of wrap up our conversation and bring it to a close.

It’s been so resonant and so important to have this conversation with young people like yourselves, who are doing the quote-unquote ‘work.’ So, I guess the last question I’ll ask is, is it a work, or a calling?

(pause)

Brittini: Um. What are you distinguishing between the two? How would you define each?

Treasure: So, if it’s a ‘work,’ it’s something that you do systematically, regardless of if you feel a spiritual tug around it or not. You do it because you think it is morally right or ethically right.

Brittini: Mmhmm, mmhmm.

Treasure: If it is a ‘calling,’ then the spiritual tugging is bound up in it, and you always test what you’re doing via that lens.

Brittini: Mmhmm, mmhmm

Treasure: So is it a work, or a calling?

Brittini: Yeah. So it’s definitely a calling. And I’m going to use this as an example to highlight why I feel that way. So when I started organizing, I saw it as the professional manifestation of what it meant to do justice.

Treasure: Mm.

Brittini: And part of why I am no longer with the organization I was with, is because I finally realized that the place that supposedly said it was committed to justice was actually keeping me bound.

Treasure: Mmmmm.

Brittini: And so, to be able to walk away from that was in honor of being called, not just to doing the work.

Treasure: Okay.

Brittini: You understand what I’m saying? And so for me, the calling is the only thing I move by, right? For me, it is about how do I understand the reason that I am on this earth? Not how can I make money? Not will people approve of this or not?

Treasure: Mm. Mhm?

Brittini: Simply, am I doing what I was put here to do? And that is always going to look different. And it not always going to appease everyone who is around. And I have to be committed to that, and nothing else.

Treasure: Fantastic

Karen: Good last words!

Brittini: Alright!

Karen: Thank you.

Treasure: Thank you, Brittini Gray. It has been an honor to talk with you today.

Brittini: For sure!

Karen: Yeah! And we hope you enjoy the poem that she shared with us! I know <laughing> she’s been working on something—always brewing something, right?

General laughter

Brittini: Mmhm. Amen. Ashe.

Karen: Where can people find your work? I know that you’re working on an exciting project right now. Do you want to shout it out, or anything else that you’re working on?

Brittini: What exciting project is this?

Karen: <mumbling, in an aside voice> Activist Theology

General laughter

Brittini: Okay, yeah, I’ve got so many projects right now! So I’m working on a website, I haven’t settled on the name yet so just be on the lookout for it. But! I am excited to be working on writing poetry for a book entitled Activist Theology.

Treasure: Oh yes!

Brittini: It is in collaboration with the wonderful Dr. Robyn Espinoza. Wonderful, queer, nonbinary, Latino, Latinx theologian.

Treasure: Mmhmm

Brittini: And it’s really about everything we’ve talked about: theology beyond the walls of the Church, which I tend to write a lot about in my poetry.

Treasure: Mmmhm! <laughs>

Brittini: It’s going to be awesome. We start doing some preliminary book tours this fall, and it will be out next year, in 2018! So, stay on the look for it!

Treasure: Awesome.

Karen: So, people, keep updated! I know you had a Kickstarter, and how was that?

Brittini: Yes. Successful, fully funded.

Karen: Woohoo!

Brittini: Overfunded, actually.

Treasure: I donated!

Brittini: About 105% funded, so thank everyone who donated to that. Yeah, it’s going to be dope. There’s a few other projects in the works. I’m doing a poetry series right now connecting my own experiences to the voices of the enslaved and their narratives, called Oaks and Magnolias. So that’s going to be coming soon. And newest Fellow over at Emerging Wisdom.

Treasure: Mmm!

Brittini: I am both Artist in Residence and Healing Justice Fellow, so—

Karen: Wonderful

Brittini: --some great stuff coming out in terms of Black healers forming a collective to be more responsive to the trauma that has been endured by organizers and activists and just communities of color!

Treasure: Wonderful!

Karen: How are you feeling about all of it?

Brittini: I am excited!

Karen: Yeah?

Brittini: Yeah! I feel so free!

Karen: Good!

Treasure: Whoo! <laughs>

Brittini: Even though I have just as much on my plate as I did before, this is a great time. It’s beautiful.

Treasure: It is!

Brittini: And I’m excited to know so many beautiful women of color, like y’all, to be collaborating on this stuff with. So, that’s that!

Karen: We’re happy for you!

Treasure: Mmhmm, mmhmm

Brittini: Thank y’all!

Karen: <laughing> That’s an understatement, right?

Treasure: Mmhmm

Brittini: I appreciate it!

Karen: Alright, signing off!

Who Raised You Podcast is cohosted by Treasure Shields Redmond and Karen Jia Lian Yang. Consulting by FarFetched Collective. Contact WeAreFarFetched@gmail.com to learn more about how they can help you launch or expand your project, business, or non-profit with their agency framework. Thanks to Brittini for being a guest on today’s show. You can support her by checking out Activist Theology on Kickstarter, a book project combining the poetry of Black liberationist organizer Ree Belle and critical liberation theology by Robyn Henderson-Espinoza, being published by Augsburg Fortress Press.

(synth music fades in)

{Song lyrics:

Baby I just need you to know

Your essence is beautiful

Yeah

I’ll always love you so (Oh)}

(music fades out)

Who Raised You Podcast