I’m Not a Sunday School Teacher, I’m a Public Theologian
A Series Introduction
I want to start this blog with a story.
Picture a children’s gym open for free play. There is an open room of gymnastics equipment, and it’s full of preschool aged kids running and climbing and their caregivers on the sidelines.
I am one of those caregivers.
I watch as two little girls enter the space with two adults, presumably friends before arriving. They look to be around three. One of the little girls is Black, and the other is white. They leave their adults to talk and make their way towards the slides.
A third little girl runs towards them and approaches them. She is also white, and she specifically approaches the white friend to play. She tries numerous times over the next 45 minutes to separate the two friends who arrive together, wanting to play with the one child adamantly.
At first the white friend tries to redirect her and encourages that all three play together, but as she observes the attempts to exclude, she finally states, “I’m not going to leave my friend, and I want you to stop asking me to play without her”.
The third child continues to make invitations to play, but a boundary has been introduced.
No adults get involved.
I observe this unfolding interaction and have only one thought. What have these children learned that influences their play so differently? What equipped the white friend to intervene in subtle racism?
In 2018 I left my director position at a rape crisis center.
This story is from 2018 in the early weeks when I became a fulltime caregiver for my one-year-old niece. She is now four and a half, and I additionally care for her two siblings.
As a white caregiver for three biracial children, I study my own behaviors, and those of other adults and children very deliberately. This scene I described above is unique not for its racism, or the lack of adult engagement, but for the peer support present. Without adult guidance, two children created safety.
I’ve learned that it is rare to witness children equipped to recognize and intervene in racism that includes their friends, which is why this story left an impression. This is not to say that it has to be rare, or even that caregivers haven’t set priorities that center intervening in harm and self-advocacy, but it is an acknowledgement that fewer white children that I’ve encountered have those skill sets.
In pre COVID routines, my niece and I spent three to four days a week in public spaces with other children. More recently, as children and caregivers adjust after a year and a half of social distancing, behaviors of exclusion are pronounced, and caregivers are further disengaged from monitoring how children play. In our immediate return to playgrounds, my niece asked to leave abruptly each time, prompted by being excluded from group games in majority white spaces.
I offer this as context for how my other professional identities are informed by my experiences as a caregiver. This has been a purposeful evolution, and includes purposeful narration.
The lengthy aftermath of leaving my job now blends with the aftermath of completing graduate school, resigning as Council president, nearing hybrid norms and more frequent in person interactions, and continuing to navigate safety and working relationships amidst a pandemic.
Yesterday I attended the one-year Celebration of Life for a dear friend, and it prompts me to revisit our final interactions.
Over the last three years, more than a handful of advocates that I trained have been pushed out of their roles, and more than a handful have left their roles to avoid being pushed out. They’ve contacted me.
My friend was one of them, and she agonized over how to respond.
She called me during my first week serving as Council President and we talked for four hours.
A week later, she was intubated and we said goodbye on Zoom minutes before I facilitated my first meeting.
She died the next day, and our final conversation started to play.
As a white advocate, supervisor, and educator, I study my own behaviors, and those of organizations very deliberately. This scene I described above is unique not for its distress, or the ambiguous loss, but for my awareness of a fuller pattern. Gaslighting attempts to obscure patterns as clues.
I’ve learned that it is rare to witness advocates equipped to recognize and intervene in gaslighting because retaliation is swift.
To avoid being the target of retaliation, we assimilate into environments where gaslighting is too routine to stand out to us. As routine is the fact that it goes unchallenged, and that sends a message to us.
I’ve written extensively on gaslighting in the workplace, repeating myths, and gaslighting as a tool for white supremacy.
I’ve also routinely been retaliated against, and my friend knew both of these facts.
I am not cavalier about the cost of violence targeting you, and I don’t believe we can choose for each other whether or not it’s worth it, or whether or not our support systems can hold us adequately.
This history enabled me to vocalize in a listening circle, “I am worried that I am entering an abusive relationship with this institution”.
And, it enabled me to choose, at every step, what unsafety I could be resilient to, and for how long.
Before joining Council, I dipped my toe back into congregational leadership through another role — public theologian. I agreed to support the shaping of a new paradigm for faith formation, providing content, resource selection and facilitation. This role I understood, would determine how congregational life was witnessed, processed, narrated, and rooted in Scripture.
What we eat determines what we have an appetite for, and in this way expanding our pallet nurtures further, wider, deeper expansions to come.
And more immediately, how faithfulness is described frames so many other words like goodness, oneness, wholeness, prayerfulness, spiritual discipline, Bible study, public church. And yet, not only insular terms, but liberation, care, safety, accountability, gatekeeping, and yes, gaslighting.
How could actions used to pervert self-trust not pervert trust in God?
How could irreverence for bodies not create irreverence for God’s activities?
How could erased and minimized experiences not decenter the price of solidarity?
What role does a disconnected faith have in connecting us to one another?
I acknowledge that everything we say about God matters as much as I acknowledge that everything that we don’t say about God matters.
I acknowledge that we have to be equipped, prepared and supported in navigating power dynamics.
I acknowledge that unlearning harmful behaviors is spending our capacity to learn different truths.
I acknowledge that ignoring and enabling abuse is a lesson we are teaching and passing down.
I acknowledge that I have no interest in continuing that lesson, or keeping institutions alive.
In my last conversation with my friend, she was seeking permission to burn a bridge. She was looking for an alternative path that enabled a relationship she now knew to be violent to be what she remembered.
She was ready for the gaslighting to be true if it preserved her memory and her trust.
And yet, she came to me knowing I could not deliver that message, and I would not choose for her.
I would remind her that in the end, she could take the risk, and either way she would lose something.
After a year of reflecting, I’d add this last question.
What if who you are is not a problem, but it was a problem for this institution?
What if this institution is a problem, and that is not yours to conceal?