God, Where You At: Notes from my Last Year in Seminary

by Candace Simpson

It is back-to-school season. I have my classes set and all my books are on the way from Amazon. When I tell people that I’m pursuing an M.Div., they look at me like they’re confused. To be honest, I’m confused too! I don’t know how I got here, how I learned this was the path I wanted to explore, or why I left a full-time teaching job with benefits and brilliant children for part-time hustles and french toast dinners. And with two parents who are wonderful pastors, I find myself side-eyeing… myself. I knew better. I knew I was signing myself up for some difficult conversations with friends and angry early morning prayers with God. Yet here I am. A second year seminary student.

But in 2015, and even with a supportive home and church community that values my gifts as a minister-in-training, I still find that Black women in Black churches are overlooked. In popular discourse about the Black Church, we talk about faith leaders as exclusively male. We will never say we are sexist, but we will rattle off the names of our favorite preachers, all of whom happen to be men. Anyone who pursues a call will experience self-doubt. But what happens when your doubt isn’t just all in your head? What happens when you see flyer after flyer of revival posters in which all the preachers are men? Or when you make it your business to attend a conference that promises to be worthwhile for your professional and academic goals, only to be treated like eye-candy by male participants?

On my last day teaching, one of my students brought me a card. Inside it read, “I hope you learn a lot about God and you get a new bookbag for all your books.” I’ve got a lot of stuff in my “bookbag.” I’ve had to reflect. What brought me to seminary, and what has changed within me since I got here? Here are some lessons I learned this past year.

1. I needed to know more about this God-thing since all these evil people claim to know this God-thing.

In my first class at Union Theological Seminary, I listened to Dr. James H. Cone make sense of his journey to theological studies. I distinctly remember his arms swinging and body bouncing as he Taught-Preached to us.

“Yes, these White theologians wanted to know if God was dead. I wanted to know what this Christian nation was going to do with the history of injustice to the poor, especially Black people.”

You don’t have to be a Christian, be a person “of faith,” or even believe in God to be concerned with God. It is an undeniable historical fact that people, who said they believed in a God, have done terrible things. Kim Davis is a Christian. Darren Wilson supporters are Christian. Bill Cosby supporters are Christian. What are these people saying about themselves and their God when they send children home from school for not wearing a tie? And whose God would sanction the arrest of a child who brings a homemade clock to school? Not mine, I pray. I’ve learned in the last year to find God where She truly is. Among the bothered, the angry, the working, the resting, the loving, the protesting, the cooking, the singing, the writing, the teaching and the reflecting. She is present where new worlds are imagined.

So for my own practice as a teacher, in the words of the prophet N. Minaj, I had to “step my [theological] cookies up” lest “they crumble.” If I was committed to imagining a world where my students could experience all they deserved, I needed a language that helped me articulate evil justified by people who call themselves Christian. We’ve got blood on our hands, and before we can proclaim the gospel, we must repent for the ways our faith has been used to condone violence.

2. Womanists have provided Theology and God-Talk with immense gifts.

For as much as we have been excluded from tables in the academy and in the church, Black women have used the unique location of race, gender, and class to think about the God and this world. Womanism, as a theology, has done great work to make God-talk practical. It honors the everyday agency and worth of everyday people. As a disruption to the often straight, cisgender, charismatic Black male preacher, womanist thought demands we see worth in the women who fold programs, in the children who cry at the most inopportune moments, in the people who have been ejected from our church spaces.

What might our churches (or schools, offices, homes, state capitols) look like if we saw worth in all people, but particularly in the historically marginalized? If we privileged voices like Jennicet Gutierrez instead of kicking her out for speaking truth to the symbolic leader of the American Empire? If, as Dr. Yolanda Pierce asks, we are given space to grieve as a holy act? What world might erupt if we questioned the ways this Police State imagines women like Sandra Bland? There is something about the sociopolitical location of Black women that allows for a new way of understanding oppression. We see it as linked and interlocking because that’s how it behaves on us. We know what it is like to deal with racist White Feminists, and sexist Black Nationalists. And therefore, we see the tentacles of racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, ableism, xenophobia and other oppressions attached to the same Monster of Systemic Evil. We know what it’s like to search, actively, for a world that holds us with two hands lovingly. What happens when the very people who have been entrusted to love and support you have harmed you? Those who have been hurt by the church and its leaders ask this question, and often go without answers. And that is why we provide our own. Because sometimes you have to encourage yourself and tell your own story.

3. I am entitled to feeling both unsatisfied and empowered by my faith tradition.

I found a friend in my now favorite text, Sisters in the Wilderness. Delores Williams mandates that Black women take our “slave heritage seriously.” For her, it was insufficient for Black women that Jesus be made the center of theological framework. Instead, she found a familiar narrative in the story of Hagar. While she understood how the Black Church’s infatuation with Jesus and the cross made historical sense, she pushed back on the ways Black women might experience Jesus. When we think of Jesus, we imagine a selfless divine being who suffered for us. He paid the ultimate sacrifice, and “never said a mumblin’ word.” Might that elevation of suffering bear dangerous consequences for Black women, who are encouraged to stay silent about sexual abuse or blamed for their “role” in domestic violence? What happens when suffering is glorified? It means we post graphic shooting videos for the sake of “waking people,” without any concern for the true trauma it causes on our bodies. Is God there? Does God want us to be so moved to pain that we act out of pain? I believe in a God who demands that I have access to the full spectrum of human emotion and experience. Asking these questions doesn’t mean we are bad Christians. It means we are responsible believers.

It is a privilege that I have three years to study this thing called “theology.” It’s my duty to do right by my God, my family, and my communities. More important than anything, I’ve met incredible brothers and sisters here. And if you’ve learned one thing in reading this, I hope you walk away knowing that the Black Church is more than just Dr. King and his lookalikes. If you happen to be a sister discerning a call to ministry, listen to that voice. You are not alone. We, the women, are here. With tambourines, songs, sermons, community workshops, non-violent direct action plans, hugs, love, lesson plans, red punch, and all. We are here.

Also, feel free to send me graduation gifts in May 2017. I’ll throw those in my bookbag, too.

Photo: Shutterstock

Candace Simpson is a seminary student and a Brooklyn native. You can follow her tweets about faith, Nicki Minaj, and shea butter at @CandyCornball.

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