Storytelling for Survival: A Morning with Dr. Judy Fentress-Williams

Unusual tactics, unlikely allies. That’s the pattern of survival stories, said Dr. Judy Fentress-Williams, our McClendon Scholar last weekend. And these stories, which push back against a traumatic reality and engage our imaginations, can help and inspire us as we navigate our lives today.

The book of Ruth is a story of survival, she said: Naomi and Ruth are unlikely partners who employ unusual tactics that lead them not only to survive, but to thrive and become part of Jesus’ genealogy.

Families tell survival stories too. Fentress-Williams told of her husband’s grandfather, Milton Benjamin Flowers. Having built a good life and land equity for his family, he applied for an educational loan. “Negroes aren’t allowed to get educational loans,” said his banker.  But Milton discovered he did qualify for a property improvement loan. And so he “improved his property” each time a child went to college. When his last child was ready for college, he again went to the bank. “Milton, what are you doing on that farm?” the banker asked. “I use the money to invest in this land for my family,” said Milton.

Milton’s story and the book of Ruth begin with trauma. In both, a short sentence tells a deep story. For Milton, the sentence is “Negroes aren’t allowed to get educational loans.” In Ruth, it’s “there was a famine in the land.” And in both, unlikely partners and unusual tactics, combined with imagination, overcome the impact of the trauma.

The power of these stories is in the telling, she said. Milton Benjamin Flowers was not Judy Fentress-Williams’ ancestor; it is not her family’s story. “But if I tell it enough times, it will eventually become mine.”

Dialogic Interpretation. For Fentress-Williams, to read the bible is to engage in dialog. What we call the bible is a collection of writings collected from different sources over an extended period of time: “The truth that it has to yield to us is a dialogic one.” The bible is in dialog with itself; and we are in dialog with the bible.

And we cannot separate our own experience from our experience with the scriptures. For example, early in the pandemic, the story of Noah’s ark was one of sanctuary for Fentress-Williams. But after George Floyd’s murder, she no longer felt she was safely on the ark. The story told a different truth: Instead of being about safety, it became a story about the need for a larger ark.

Trauma and Survival. These scriptures come to us out of the trauma of the Babylonian exile, and that should have an influence on how we read the text, she added. The exiles collected these texts to help them survive, and when we read stories in the Bible from this perspective, we can find key tips for survival in an uncertain world.

Stories of the Israelites were “told in ways that defied their experience, that pushed against reality,” said Fentress-Williams. They created a safe space for those who needed it, and they engaged the imagination, “perhaps our most important survival skill of all.”

The Gift of Imagination. She then walked us through quick readings of Exodus 1 and 2, showing how these stories push back against trauma, and engage our imaginations with unusual tactics and unlikely allies.

In Exodus 1, the extended introduction detailing  the Israelites’ oppression highlights the trauma of this story. In addition, she noted, the first violence in this story is the act of making the Israelites “other.” This act of othering comes before the enslavement, before the calls for physical violence.

But the story takes a turn, pushing back against the trauma with a short phrase that establishes an alternative reality to Pharoah’s: “But the midwives feared God.” Then the action plays out with unusual tactics and unlikely allies: The midwives align themselves with God’s reality by disobeying Pharaoh’s order to kill the Hebrew babies and lying about it – “the Hebrew women are vigorous and deliver before we arrive” – a lie Pharaoh believes because of his othering of the Hebrew people.

The survival of baby Moses in Exodus 2 also includes unusual tactics and unlikely partnerships, she pointed out. Not only does Moses’ mother put him in a basket, but the partnership of Moses’ sister Miriam and Pharaoh’s daughter is certainly unlikely! This story also pushes back against Pharaoh’s reality with God’s reality. Pharaoh’s daughter saw, heard, and took pity on baby Moses. These are the same verbs that describe God’s response to the Hebrew’s cry from bondage. “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering” (Exodus 3:7).

Telling the Story. “So many of us are asking what we can do. One thing all of us can do is to tell the story,” Fentress-Williams concluded.

We can tell how the story of our walk with God pushes up against the realities of our day. “We will find ourselves in unlikely circumstances with unlikely partners,” she said, and we will be able to act, facilitated by our imagination.

The talk concluded with a discussion with Rev. Heather Shortlidge and a Q&A session. A full recording of the talk will be available soon at https://www.nyapc.org/mcclendon-sir/

Congregational Sunday: Mission Fair

20190929_102336Today, we celebrate your special participation in New York Avenue Presbyterian Church’s Stewardship Campaign for 2019 and 2020 – what impact you have made and will make on our programs and mission.

Sometimes just a bit of history can put how we got here to this Share Fair – and to our Stewardship Campaigns each year in perspective. Philanthropy and giving can be traced all the way back to Cotton Mather in 1662 who said “Let no man pretend to the name of a Christian, who does not approve the proposal of a perpetual endeavor to do good in the world.”

Voluntary charitable organizations established by religious groups originated in the colonial era and in the mid 1700s, Benjamin Franklin “trained” early Americans in giving for charitable causes and civic benefit.

Presbyterians as a domination were a major part of colonial life as far back as the colonial war. And in 1789 during our first General Assembly, our earliest national church members emphasized the connecting nature of our church and encouraged educational, missionary, evangelical and reforming work.  Outreach mission to Native Americans, African Americans and populations all over the world became a hallmark of the church. This broadened to women’s issues civil rights and other social justice issues along with diversity in congregations.

There is an inherent belief in our core values that giving transforms the giver, making meaningful contributions in the aggregate collectively makes a real difference in the life and expressions of true partnerships and making an impact, for our church and ourselves as members of Christ’s body.

Support of our mission as manifested in our spiritual nurture to us as members each Sunday assures continuous support in our daily lives and decision making; informs and reinforces our moral compass. In tandem, our support assures that staff and volunteer solidarity and mission outreach like you see represented here are expanded.  

Giving to churches by Americans continues to be the largest sector by far of all giving, more than 31% of the total given each year. We join hundreds of thousands of other Christians in supporting so altruistically the work of Christ in our own lives and in the lives of those we serve in our community and the world.

By your gifts your dedication, your thoughtful generosity, you make a difference at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. Your gifts help us open our doors every day. Your gifts help support our very special ministers, and make our wonderful choir and music program, the Radcliff Room Ministry, Community Club, Cuba Partners, McClendon Center and McClendon Scholars, and Kenya Partnership living breathing impactful and beneficial programs that touch the lives of many every week, every month.

For the Stewardship Campaign, please join with us again for 2020 in making a profound difference in the world; we are grateful for all of you who have stepped forward thus far, and who give of your time and financial resources here.  

This church – and Christ’s love and work – provide strength and spiritual sustenance in your lives. Your generous giving reciprocally to this resource that helps so many not only provides invaluable financial partnership in our programs – but also provides incalculable well-being in our own hearts and minds, each day, all year.

Laura Brouse-Long, Stewardship Co-Chair20190929_100947

Soul Justice and Social Justice: Where Do We Go From Here?

From a talk by Rev. Joe Daniels of Emory Fellowship, a United Methodist Church in Washington, DC.

The McClendon Scholar in Residence Program concluded its four-part series, Spirit and Action: Learning from Howard Thurman, on May 20 with a talk by Rev. Joe Daniels of Emory Fellowship, a United Methodist congregation in Washington, DC. Rev. Daniels took the title of his talk from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? Howard Thurman’s work substantially influenced Dr. King’s thinking.

Daniels emphasized the need for deep spirituality in fighting injustice. Citing a long list of economic and employment statistics that illustrate the divide between rich and poor, between whites and black and brown people, Daniels said, “If there’s not a deep involvement in our lives with those who are cut off, then our faith means nothing.”

Sadducees, Pharisees and Zealots
“I want to be a follower of Jesus,” said Daniels, but not necessarily a “Christian”—that word has been used by too many who don’t seem to follow Jesus. He pointed to Howard Thurman, who asks: Are we Sadducees, Pharisees or Zealots?

  • Sadducees imitate the status quo, becoming like the Romans for security.
  • Pharisees stay on the sidelines, reducing contact with the enemy, keeping their resentment under rigid control.
  • Zealots resist, but with a violence that it the end “doesn’t get us anywhere.”

Instead, said Daniels, “the answer is to go deeper into our faith … through really understanding what salvation is.” Salvation comes from a Greek word meaning “to make complete or whole.” This wholeness isn’t only spiritual: It’s physical, mental, relational, emotional and financial.

Going Deep
Traditionally, the right has focused on what Daniels called soul justice, the left on social justice, but we all need both: “We need to go deep,” he said, holding his hand low across his belly. “So that how we’re living is in line with the God who is living in us.” We need to confront our own racism, sexism, fear, deceit—“to have that purged” in soul work. This is “a daily walk,” he said. Without it, “we cannot begin to go forward in a way that transforms reality.”

We must “read the gospel with those whose backs are against the wall every day.” Daniels urged prayer, silence, meditation, fellowship, scripture reading, and study. “Until we do that, we are part of the problem, not the solution.” We should ask ourselves “Is my life having influence on the lives of others in a God-transforming way?” We must “step outside our privilege” and cross boundaries. We must act “informed by the fact that Jesus served me … and by the God that’s working inside us.”

For information about upcoming McClendon Scholar in Residence Programs, go to your website.

The Spiritual Work of Prophetic People

A Talk by Rev. Bill Lamar, Metropolitan AME Church, May 6, 2017

How do we gain the strength we need to take “prophetic” action in today’s world? Rev. Bill Lamar of Metropolitan AME Church addressed this question in his May 6 talk, the third in the McClendon Scholar in Residence Program’s four-part series, Spirit and Action: Learning from Howard Thurman. The series focuses on Thurman’s book, Jesus and the Disinherited, which had a profound influence on Martin Luther King, Jr.,

In his talk Rev. Bill Lamar of Metropolitan AME Church pointed to insights from Howard Thurman that can help us gain the strength we need to take action in today’s world. In particular, he talked about two spiritual resources that are available to all of us:

  • special places that renew us and give us a sense of the sacred, and
  • the strength of our ancestors—both our direct relatives and others who have come before us.

He gave examples of ways that Thurman drew on these resources and urged us all to do the same.

The McClendon Scholar-in-Residence Program brings scholars to Washington to speak on their most recent research and to share their learning and their vision. Established through the insight and generosity of the late Rev. Dr. Jack E. McClendon, associate minister from 1957 to 1991, the program is one fruit of Dr. McClendon’s vision that justice, service, and action can only be sustained when a community of faith grapples with profound issues and is equipped to engage in a deepening of faith. To this end, he wished to bring to the church and the larger Washington community noted scholars whose unique gifts, knowledge, and lives would inspire both ongoing reflection and action.

For more information, including our schedule of future programs, go to our website.

Spiritual Activists: Five Lessons for Today

By Rev. Karen Brau

On Saturday, April 8, Rev. Karen Brau gave the second talk in a four part series, “Spirit and Action: Learning from Howard Thurman.”  The presentation was sponsored by the McClendon Scholar in Residence Program at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church and was held at Luther Place Memorial Church.  Below are notes from that presentation.

Rev. Brau focused on lessons from Howard Thurman’s teaching that she said were directly relevant for those who work for justice today.  She gave specific examples of insights and practices that enable us to draw on the spiritual/mystical tradition that Thurman wrote and talked about.  She discussed Thurman’s emphasis on a direct experience of God and how it can sustain us, quoting Thurman’s example of people who were enslaved and told they were worthless and yet they discovered God on the inside and knew they were of worth.

Rev. Brau explained that when Howard Thurman went to India and met Gandhi, he was asked by Gandhi to sing a spiritual.  Thurman obliged by singing “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” and she used that as an example of how important spirituals are for tapping the religious experience. She then paused her presentation to invite Jeremy Grenhart, director of music at Luther Place, and four students from Howard University to sing several spirituals.

After the musical presentation, she summarized five specific lessons from Howard Thurman for today’s spiritual activists:

1)    Engage Spirituals—Music, especially music that is rooted in deep suffering, can help open us up to an experience of God.  In many ways, “spirituals are miracles” which can transform how we see things. Rev. Brau urged all of us to engage with spirituals on a regular basis and be open to what they can reveal.

2)    Articulate Hells—It is important to tell the truth about the suffering and evil we see around us.  Thurman talks about hell being “fear, deception and hate” and we certainly regularly see examples of all of those.  In particular, our politics seems more and more characterized by these indicators of hell and we need to be aware of and acknowledge that.  Rev. Brau also pointed out that the title of Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermon that he was to preach the Sunday after he was killed was “Why America May Go to Hell.”

3)    Love, Love, Love—There are many way in which Thurman expresses the power of love, and we need to hear his message that love is the greatest expression of the spiritual experience.  We need to focus on this type of love and practice it as regularly and fully as we can.

4)    Engage Inner Life Practice—Rev. Brau talked about various practices Thurman and other mystics have used to develop a rich inner life.  In particular, she talked about the simple power of silent prayer, reflection and meditation.  She gave an example of a “breath prayer” which can be used to calm and focus the spirit and then stopped talking and asked everyone to engage in that prayer for three minutes.  After three minutes of silence, she again spoke to the group and pointed out how regular time nurturing the inner life is so crucial.

5)    Be Mystic Activists—Rev. Brau reminded us of the challenges we face, especially in this political environment, and urged us all to be as active as possible.  She said we need to draw upon our spiritual resources and be bold in responding to the injustices we see around us.  We also need to stay in touch with other “mystic activists” to support and encourage each other.

Rev. Brau closed her presentation by summarizing these five lessons and then once again calling on the musicians who presented two more spirituals.  After the music, there was a time of brief silence and then a discussion between participants and Rev. Brau.

Mysticism, Social Action and Reconciliation

On Saturday, March 18, Rev. Lionel Edmunds gave the first talk in a four-part series, “Spirit and Action: Learning from Howard Thurman,” sponsored by New York Avenue Presbyterian’s McClendon Scholar in Residence program.

FullSizeRender

________________

Just move on up, for peace you’ll find,

Into the steeple of beautiful people

Where there’s only one kind.

–  From the spiritual “Move on Up,” by Curtis Mayfield

 Mayfield’s lyrics “capture in song our topic today,” said Rev. Edmunds as he began his talk on the spirituality of Howard Thurman and Thurman’s book, Jesus and the Disinherited. Mayfield, a contemporary of Thurman’s, expresses an African American spirituality: “Our spirit is traveling in an upward way, expressed in music, dance, and also social justice. … Acts of social justice and reconciliation are spiritual acts that move us toward that beautiful steeple of beautiful people.”

For Thurman, social justice and reconciliation came from a “profound spiritual root,” said Edmunds. Thurman’s prophetic witness was an “overflow of mysticism, a response to a personal encounter with God.”

All of God’s Children Got Wings. Mysticism is a fairly recent word in Christianity, Edmunds said, noting that you won’t find the word in the bible. But it has always been a part of the faith. “It’s natural for a bird to fly and it’s natural for a Christian to be a mystic. … ‘I got wings, you got wings, all of God’s children got wings.’ Whether we use them is another thing!”

Edmunds emphasized mysticism’s connection to the world. “Some folks think mysticism means that you got God on your quick dial,” he said, and that it’s about the personal “God told me to tell you.”  But it’s connected to the political, he argued, quoting Isaiah. “In the year king Uzziah died, I saw the Lord” (Isaiah 6:1). Isaiah’s encounter with God was intertwined with what was happening in Israel’s political life.

An Overflow of Spirit. While Thurman didn’t call himself a mystic, saying the word had come into vogue after his own experiences, Edmunds noted that Thurman’s spiritual life fits the classic definition of mysticism offered by Bernard McGinn: “Mysticism is more about presence that it is about ecstatic experiences.” It’s always a process, a way of life.

Edmunds urged contemplation in silence: “At its root, prophetic activity is an overflow of what’s going on in your spirit. … Cultivate a quiet time, get in touch with your spirit, and that’s going to help in you in your activism.”  Edmunds said it takes at least 13 minutes for the body and mind to become quiet — “And you shouldn’t be listening to Morning Joe!” In addition, various tools, what Thurman called “clotheslines,” can help with distracting thoughts. Edmunds held up his own homemade rosary, and noted that words, scripture or lines from songs can be helpful.

Pray Without Ceasing. You don’t need a class, he said. “Just take the bird out of the cage, and it will fly by itself. The Spirit takes natural ascent to be in the presence of God.”  It’s about fostering an awareness that you can carry with you into your day. That’s what Paul meant by “pray without ceasing.”

Mysticism isn’t just individual; it is communal. And communities that have been oppressed “are uniquely positioned” to understand the teachings of Jesus, said Edmunds.

While Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited is often called black theology, “it’s about spiritual theology that transcends black liberation. It’s human liberation,” said Edmunds. “It’s beyond feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, it’s about liberation from anything that tries to deprive me of who I am as a child of God.”

________________

This was the first talk in a series of four sponsored by the McClendon Scholar in Residence Program. Please join us for future programs!

 April 8, 10 to noon, at Luther Place Memorial Church
Rev. Karen Brau of Luther Place Memorial, Spiritual Activists: Five Lessons for Today
 May 6, 10 to noon, at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church
Rev. Bill Lamar of Metropolitan A.M.E.,  The Spiritual Work of Prophetic People
 May 20, 10 to noon, at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church
Rev. Joe Daniels of Emory United Methodist, Where Do We Go From Here?