Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series

“Faith Rooted Organizing: Public Theology, Healing Justice and Moral Imagination”

An hour-long teleconference with

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza, Jennifer Bailey, and Micky ScottBey Jones
from Faith Matters Network

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

1 to 2 p.m. ET

Mary E. Hunt: Welcome to the second WATERtalk of the 2017-18 season. We are delighted to have all of you with us for what I anticipate will be an hour of stimulating and helpful conversation with our three guests.

Like all of WATER’s efforts, our purpose is not simply theoretical. Rather, we are focused on changing the cultural and intellectual assumptions that ground discrimination, exclusion, and destruction. As we engage in this important topic of “Faith Rooted Organizing: Public Theology, Healing Justice and Moral Imagination” we think too of the people affected by recent floods, hurricanes, and fires, especially our friends in California.

Picture us at WATER having lunch at our table. It is my honor to welcome to the table—because it is an important image in the imaginations and strategies of our speakers—Robyn Henderson-Espinoza, Jennifer Bailey, & Micky ScottBey Jones, who come to us from the Faith Matters Network. See their website “Established in 2014, the Faith Matters Network is a people of color led collective that trains, connects, convenes, and amplifies marginalized people of faith to chart a new moral horizon.” They say, “We are committed to creating a culture where the lives of those most marginalized are healthy and whole and able to bring forth a moral imagination that will heal our broken world.” They focus their work in the South of the United States where low incomes and high religious participation make it a unique place.

Three of the collective members are with us:

  1. A WATER compañerx, Robyn Henderson-Espinoza, knows that borderlands are a place of learning and growth. Robyn draws on their identity and heritage as a Trans queer Latinx in everything they do. From doubt to divine and everywhere in between, their call as an activist-theologian demands the vision to disrupt hegemony and colonialist structures of multi-layered oppressions. As an anti-oppression, anti-racist, non-binary Trans*gressive Latinx, Robyn takes seriously their call as an activist theologian and ethicist to bridge theories and practices that result in communities responding to pressing social concerns. They did a doctorate at Iliff School of Theology at Denver University. Their writing can be found in the Huffington Post, Sojourners, Religion Dispatches, and many other places. Robyn has been in the WATER office so you can picture us here. And several of us hope to see you at the American Academy of Religion meeting in Boston and WATER’s Feminist Liberation Theologians’ Network, Nov. 17, 4-6 PM. Welcome, Robyn.
  2. Jennifer Bailey was named one of 15 Faith Leaders to Watch by the Center for American Progress. She is an ordained minister and itinerant elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, a public theologian, and an emerging national leader in multi-faith movements for justice. Rev. Bailey is the Founding Executive Director of the Faith Matters Network, a new interfaith community equipping faith leaders to challenge structural inequality in their communities. Jennifer has a decade of experience at nonprofits combatting intergenerational poverty. Her writing can be found in On Being, Sojourners, the Huffington Post, amid other publications. Welcome, Jennifer.
  3. Micky ScottBey Jones – the Justice Doula – is a womanist contemplative activist, healer, nonviolent direct action organizer, and consultant who facilitates conferences, workshops, pilgrimages, retreats, and online conversations. She writes and speaks on healing justice, communal self-care, contemplative activism, intersectionality, and theology from the margins. She is the Director of Healing Justice with Faith Matters Network. The Huffington Post named Micky one of the Black Christian leaders changing the world. Her writing can be found in such publications as The Porch Magazine, Sojourners, the Voices Project, Evangelicals for Social Action, and Red Letter Christians. We are delighted to have you with us, Micky.

We invite our speakers to take 25 minutes to present some ideas/ strategies and then we will engage in conversation. I hope folks have had a chance to watch the two videos and read the several articles found here and here to get a sense of their work. Thanks and welcome to all of you as you address: “Faith Rooted Organizing: Public Theology, Healing Justice and Moral Imagination”

Jennifer Bailey: Thank you so much. I’m so honored to be at the table with my dear colleagues. They are indeed family. I’m going to begin by giving a little bit of context to our origins at Faith Matters Network. Then we’ll talk about the two verticals of our work, Public Theology and Healing Justice, which are deeply intersectional.

Faith Matters Network began as a dream. I was in my third year in Seminary at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. I was doing food justice work. I felt a dissonance between the work I was doing in the world and how we talked about inequality and public theology in the academy. That seed became the root of the Faith Matters Network. Things changed for me when Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014. As many of us drew our attention to anti-black racism in the United States, it became apparent to me that what was needed in the moment was a space for leaders to cultivate a sense of holistic wellness and wellbeing so that they could empower themselves and their communities to be in this work for the long haul.

So Faith Matters Network really functions as a leadership incubator, focusing primarily on those voices that have been written out of religious narratives. It’s an attempt to redefine who we look to as moral authorities in the public square. We focus specifically on the leadership of people of color, women, LGBTQI folk, and religious minorities.

We are based in the South, but we work nationally. There’s something about developing and grounding ourselves here in the South where racism and white supremacy still operate but where models of resilient leadership are ever-present in the work ahead. I’m pleased that I get to do this work in community with Micky and Robyn who are geniuses and my teachers. They are the people I turn to when I think the world feels helpless and I feel hopeless. I am so pleased to be able to pass this conversation off to them so they can describe our work more deeply and what it means to embody the ethic of Public Theology and Healing Justice through activism in the world.

Micky ScottBey Jones: Hello to everyone. I am very thankful to be here and to get an opportunity to have a discussion and to share a little bit about our work in the world. As Mary said, I am the justice doula. I used to be a birth doula. I helped people bring more life into the world. Now I help people birth more love, justice, and shalom into the world. That still brings life. It’s the same kind of support. So I want to talk to you about Healing Justice today.

Through Healing Justice we support people in a lot of different ways. We do adapt to answer the call depending on what people need, what the world needs. Sometimes that’s informational support, sometimes that is leading a workshop or giving a talk or educating people in some other way, exchanging information. Sometimes it’s hands on walking with someone, supporting them on their journey, nurturing emerging leaders and folks who have been in the game for a long time. We want resilient leaders and community members, people who can heal even as the traumas continue to come.

At Faith Matters Network we believe justice isn’t just about fair wages or fair housing. Justice is also about being able to be full, healthy, whole human beings. Justice is being able to love, have pleasure, deal with our hurt and pains, do the things that are necessary for our healing. This is part of establishing justice in our world.

We interact with that in a variety of ways. I work together with Robyn and Jen because our theology directly impacts our healing. We see both our public and personal theology as being intertwined. So how we nurture and work with each other is a part of how we do our outward-facing work.

Two things I’ll mention: 1) I lead a program called the Hush Harbors Initiative for black women. This initiative creates a space for black women to just be together. Hush harbors were originally places in the woods where enslaved people would worship, be together, and develop their own spirituality outside of the gaze of anyone who might hurt or oppress them. We have a Sisters of the Yam group who are committed to each other to meet every month. Then we do larger Embodying Resilience seminars with larger circles of women and femmes in the community.

We’re also developing movement chaplaincy. What does it look like to take the skills and wisdom and wells of our faith into movement space in a way that reduces trauma and harm? We want to increase accompaniment in movement spaces. So we’re currently developing skills and teaching around what that vocation will be.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: I was talking to a youth group recently and they asked me how I got into this work. I’ll tell you something similar I told them: I never intended to be an activist. I wanted to be an academic, to be in my office with my door closed, with my books and my ideas. What I realized is that, a) that is not my reality and b) I was concerned with the ways of the world and the ways in which black and brown bodies are systematically executed by the state through a militarized police force.

As an out, non-binary, trans, queer I use my academic training to focus on translating theory and theology into action. I want to believe I will be able to liberate theology from the academy and move it into the streets. When Jen Bailey asked me to get into this work, there wasn’t a question in my mind. I knew that it was a way in which I could align my interior life with responding to social concerns. Together, the three of us imagine what Public Theology is. I do public writing on various platforms, speaking to different groups. I recently spoke to a youth group in Richmond, Virginia on being a scholar-activist.

Our hope around Public Theology is to help folks harness their own theological imaginations. To be able to align who they are and who they want to be with a lived practice deeply rooted in the theologies of resistance of the South and practices of deep resilience. So Public Theology and Healing Justice are deeply intertwined. It’s an entanglement that speaks to the ways in which we are trying to increase our moral imagination. If theology can be done in the public square, it will expose the parasitic relationship between Christian Supremacy and White Supremacy and can actually motivate people for radical social change.

We do this through the practice of storytelling–where we are from and where we are going as marginalized people in a world where the boot is always on our necks. We have found time to come together and do public theology in community and deep collaboration. Mary, you’re familiar with my academic partner, Nikki Young and our commitment to collaboration. In many respects, Jen, Micky, and I model this collaboration in our work and practice.

JB: I would just tie this all together by saying that our core task at Faith Matters is to cultivate moral imagination among young leaders for whom the current state of the world is insufficient. There are many among us in this country who are under direct threats–of being silenced, of families being torn apart. When you are in the midst of immediate harm, when you are grieving, it can be difficult to see past the current realities into the future. Both parts of our work, Healing Justice and Public Theology, will help us to imagine a world in which all of us can live more fully and flourish.

One of our recent projects where we’ve begun to do some of this work practically is through a collaborative project with an organization called Hollaback! and The Dinner Party. It’s called The People’s Supper. This is a space where folks around the country can gather together across lines of radical difference (politically, ideologically, racially). Check out their website to learn more about it. Since January, we’ve hosted over 200 dinners in over 60 cities and towns across the United States. This is a tangible way we’re attempting to live out our core values of Healing Justice and Public Theology.

MEH: I want to thank each of you for these opening remarks. I would love to hear from you all, who are some of the people that you read, work with, and trust?

RHE: I have spent the past 20 years reading queer Chicana feminist, Gloria Anzaldúa. It’s her work around bridging that brings me to the work of bridging across lines of radical difference. I read her work as a contemplative exercise. She is known for her deep coalitional work in the San Francisco Bay Area where she brought together folks from different backgrounds. She was really responsible for an intersectional movement back in the 70s and 80s. I continue to sit with her work and ideas, poetry and prose alike. There’s a spirit to the work she was doing. She used a variety of religious traditions to get at intersectionality, to get at the things that animate us. For her, spirit or divine spark was central to bridging work. I continue to go through her work. I’ve been to her archives several times at the University of Texas.

I’m continually devoted to folks who are just plain speak. People who will sit down and have a cup of tea, spill the tea a bit. There’s such rich theology that comes from spilling the tea with one another, to enjoy one another, “shoot the shit,” as I say. It helps to really learn what the people are talking about and how to connect these with theory and theology to have a more robust conversation.

MSBJ: I would say there are people that I am in actual conversation with and people I’m in conversation with their work. I’m deeply impacted by bell hooks, her work, and Sisters of the Yam. I’m impacted not only by her work but also by her presence in the world, how she navigates the world, how she speaks. Also people like Alice Walker–the time I’ve spent with her, the work and writing she’s put out into the world.

There are also people who I did not have the pleasure to meet like Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker, who I consider mental mentors. I’m also grateful and privileged to have friends who are activists and theologians, moms and dads, aunties and uncles, people living in the community all over the world. Being in virtual community with them, and sometimes in their presence, helps me to stay grounded. It reminds me that I’m responsible to others around the world. The world doesn’t revolve around me. It’s important to visit with these people, spill the tea, as Robyn says.

JB: My favorite writers right now are two people on the line. I read a lot of Micky and Robyn’s work. I also read a lot of Adrienne Maree Brown’s work. She writes about what she calls emergent strategy for social movements. It builds on themes throughout nature to rethink the way that we convene and treat one another within our social movements. I’d invite you to check out her new book Emergent Strategy. She also wrote a book called Octavia’s Brood using science fiction author Octavia Butler as an entry point to imagining new social movements.

MEH: Great, thanks for those wonderful recommendations.

Q: Hi all, I feel lucky and blessed to be able to participate with you. My question is for Micky. I’m a white, older activist who struggles for justice with others in different ways. I’m always, in an intersectional way, looking for ways to help nurture my own contemplative and prayer life so that I will be able to participate and not burn out. I’m looking at your website. You mention contemplative activism. I’m wondering if you have any wisdom about avoiding stress and burnout?

MSBJ: Thanks for your question. First of all, I don’t watch the news. I know it’s harmful to my spirit. I’m also careful about what audio I get. I’ve had to avoid scrolling through Twitter and Facebook lately because some of the videos auto-play. It’s very important for me that I protect what comes into my spirit in the first place. I know I don’t actually need to know everything. The news I need to know will come to me, so I don’t have to be on a 24 hour news cycle. That’s one practical way I protect myself. Different people have different relationships with news, social media, television, etc.

I’ve had my own mental, spiritual breakdown. This thankfully led to my own awakening of what I needed to do for myself. I was originally in the birth field. I wrote a book on stress and burnout for mother-baby professionals. I haven’t yet revised this for the activist world, but hopefully that will happen soon. One of the lessons for myself was that I needed times of reflection and rest. I tend to be a doer and I feel deeply that we need to act and act now. But sometimes I did this at the expense of sleeping, eating, cuddling my children. Sometimes engaging in contemplative activities, for example meditation or chanting, things like taking a walk or hike, humming and singing, dancing. All of those, especially if you look at their roots in the traditions of people of color, are contemplative. I had to value my life enough to engage in these things.

Mary E. Hunt: In listening to you, I resonate with so many things you have said. It reminds me so much of the work we do here at WATER. Sometimes it’s hard to quantify this work. It’s hard to respond when someone asks you, “so what is it you really do?” What would you suggest would be one or two concrete strategies that people could engage in? What are the most helpful practices? What about the people and places who we can’t sit down at the table with?

JB: I think the top strategy that we’ve used is just gathering around tables. I think there’s something really powerful about radical hospitality. We’ve been talking a lot about the concept of “brave space.” There are a number of tools around this concept on The People’s Supper website. You’ll find some very practical tips on how to gather people well to hold sacred space. Micky, do you want to talk a little bit about brave space?

MSBJ: I’ve put together a short poem called An Invitation to Brave Space. It came out of some places of deep need for me as a woman of color and out of deep love for yet frustration with white co-conspirators who can sometimes be paralyzed by their own fear of engaging. I want us not to expect safety in our spaces but to create brave spaces within ourselves. To call one another to step out and be brave, to make mistakes. Our intent and our impact will not match. We’ll do things that hurt each other. What do we do when that happens? How can we be brave enough to confront each other and ourselves? I think that’s the only way we can move forward and have both personal and social transformation. Sometimes the contemplative work can get navel-gazey. But if the people around you are still suffering, it can be indulgent instead of transformative. Personal and social transformation is the brave space we have to exist in to have real talk about how change gets made.

RHE: Let me also just add to that. I think Micky is right. There’s a disconnect between broad social transformation and personal transformation. We don’t know how to be together in community. The concept of gathering is supported by a theology of togetherness, which is not what this country lives. In our attempt to create community, there needs to be a politics of gathering, but the gathering needs to be rooted in a togetherness in community.

JB: When we talk about doing bridging work with communities that don’t share the same core values as we do, we have to remember that not everybody has the emotional capacity to have these hard conversations. For me, for example, it might be someone who voted for President Trump in the last election. We need to also hold true to our own core values around bridging and community building. It doesn’t always work to bring people together, and that’s okay. Different people are being called to different things in this moment. Some folks are being called to look at their own community. I would encourage people to recognize that not everybody is being called to bridge.

MEH: Thanks, those are all very helpful, especially the insight and reality that bridging work is a call and not mandatory. It’s important not to romanticize this work. My last question. What role does religion play in all of this?

MSBJ: I’m a Christian and the main metaphor for me is the table–getting people to engage in an actual meal together.That is deeply important to me and it’s deeply rooted in our scriptures and practices as Christians. I’m theologically trained and raised by indigenous folks so protocol, a love and respect for elders, having generations together, is also very important to me. I also get this through my African American heritage. I believe in these practices as deep spiritual principles.

RHE: For me, I am trained as a Christian social ethicist and theologian, yet I’ve spent many years studying Latinx/indigenous traditions in Latin America. There is a focus on connection. The Latin root of religion is about returning to a connection. What I find so troubling about Christianity is that it’s empire religion. Inasmuch as I am trained in a tradition that glorifies a religion of empire, I simultaneously enjoy the crossover and transgressing of traditional orientations of Christianity with that of more indigenous religious traditions from Latin America.

JB: I would say, as a collective, our commitment is not to just one faith or another, but for all those who are deeply rooted in spirit. I’m a clergywoman. I’m very much a confessing, believing Christian. I emerge from a historically black tradition in which the role of faith is deeply connected with my quest for social justice. I’m also a millennial, third-wave womanist.

I was also deeply affected in my youth by the interfaith movement. I’m married to someone of a different faith. I think the thing that ties us together as a collective is our experience of being on the edges, the borderlands, as different religious communities. We have to see how the quest for truth, wholeness, and love can be found across traditions. Our job is to create the conditions for people to fully be able to breathe into the way spirit shows up in their own lives.

MEH: Thank you very much. I think we’re just getting started. Our guests today from the Faith Matters Network have an enormous amount of faith rooted organizing to do. It is our hope here at WATER that we can collaborate with you over time and that lots of people will find your work inspirational. I encourage people go to their website to learn how we can do the kind of work that is terribly necessary today. I think you’re doing it with such a creative and well-intentioned approach. I’m sure others will want to collaborate with you.

WATER thanks Robyn Henderson-Espinoza, Jennifer Bailey, and Micky ScottBey Jones for their work. We look forward to further collaboration.

Our next WATERtalk will be on Wed. Nov. 8, 2017, 1 PM ET, with Susan Heyward and Katherine Marshall about their book Women, Religion and Peacebuilding: Illuminating the Unseen. All are welcome so please join us. REGISTER HERE.