We Are Interconnected: A Conversation with Rev. Dr. Pamela Lightsey

In her book Our Lives Matter: A Womanist Queer Theology, Rev. Dr. Pamela Lightsey writes, “Black spirituality is deeper than-and can also be absent from-any relationship with the Church universal. Black spirituality, especially Black women’s spirituality, is connected to our very being.” In this second episode of Contemplating Now, Rev. Dr. Pamela Lightsey shares about contemplation’s role in activism and asks, What does protest mean for a scholar?”

The Rev. Dr. Pamela Lightsey is the author of Our Lives Matter: A Womanist Queer Theology. She is a scholar, social justice activist, and military veteran. Since January of 2018, she has served as Vice President of Academic and Student Affairs and Associate Professor of Constructive Theology at The Meadville Lombard Theological School. Before that, Dr. Lightsey served as Associate Dean of Community Life and Lifelong Learning, Clinical Assistant Professor of Contextual Theology and Practice at the Boston University School of Theology.

Her work centers on the causes of peacemaking, racial justice and LGBTQ rights making note of her belief that “humanity is interconnected. This means, I have a responsibility to the world to agitate for justice; I also have a responsibility not to lose my love for the human soul and human dignity in the midst of that work.”

In her book, she writes, “Queer womanist theology makes the claim that those bodies of LGBTQ persons are important for the tasks of helping build a peaceable and just world. That happens in relationships.” and “At the end of the day, eradicating oppression is the heart of queer womanist theological reflection. We must examine not just racism but sexisms, not just homophobia but transphobia, not just poverty but war, and not just the fluidity of boundaries but the hegemony of the status quo.”

Transcript:

Dr. Lightsey [00:05]: As human beings, we are interconnected. And we really do–I mean the survival of humanity is dependent upon the well-being of one another. We’ve seen that no better than during this pandemic.

Cassidy Hall [00:23]: Welcome to Contemplating Now, a podcast about the intersection of contemplation and social justice. Through interviews with scholars, mystics, and activists, this podcast will focus on contemplative spirituality’s direct relationship with issues of social justice. I’m your host, Cassidy Hall, a filmmaker, podcaster, pastor, and student, and I’m here to learn with you. Today in the podcast, the Reverend Dr. Pamela Lightsey. She’s the author of Our Lives Matter, a Womanist Queer Theology. She is a scholar, social justice advocate, and military veteran. Since January of 2018, she has served as Vice President of Academic and Student Affairs, and Associate Professor of Constructive Theology at the Meadville Lombard Theological School. Before that, Dr. Lightsey served as Associate Dean of Community Life and Lifelong Learning, Clinical Assistant Professor of Contextual Theology and Practice at the Boston University School of Theology.

Her work centers on the causes of peacemaking, racial justice, and LGBTQ + rights, in her book Our Lives Matter, she writes “Queer Womanist theology makes the claim that those bodies of LGBTQ persons are important for the tasks of helping build a peaceable and just world––that happens in relationships.” And she also writes, “at the end of the day, eradicating oppression is the heart of Queer Womanist theological reflection, we must examine not just racism, but sexism, not just homophobia, but transphobia, not just poverty, but war, and not just the fluidity of boundaries, but the hegemony of the status quo.”

Well, Dr. Lightsey, thank you so much for joining, and for taking the time to be with me today.

Dr. Lightsey [02:06]: You’re welcome. It’s my pleasure.

Cassidy Hall [02:09]: Your book, Our Lives Matter, a Womanist Queer Theology was completed during Ferguson in 2014, published in 2015. And with that, you took the time to add an epilogue to the work, which voiced your outrage and despair. And also, as a veteran, you wrote that you felt a “sense of deployment” as a scholar and an activist. And in this epilogue, you specifically asked, “what does it mean to be a theologian who’s placed for doing theology is within in alignment, and or perhaps even as a participant within the activist movement?” And I’m wondering today, and you know 2021, could you speak into that question?

Dr. Lightsey [02:48]: Sure. I was particularly concerned when I was writing, and as I was doing the work, I mean, the reason that I was in Ferguson, and later in Baltimore, I was in Ferguson for more than just a brief period of time. My relationship with Ferguson spanned across years, after Ferguson. So I established deep relationships and, you know, commitments that lasted beyond. And that was good, and it should be so. My question was a question about the way that scholars have generally done their work. I saw scholarship as being work that’s done almost as a spectator, if you will of the events and the issues of our time, that we somehow are disattached-or believe to be unattached from those issues.

And I saw it in the book, and in my work, to make it clear that I was not trying to be an unattached presence in the commitment to liberation and justice. And that my scholarship, that I was committing my scholarship–as I was committing my body to being in the midst of the protest. Now, here we are in 2021, there’s an insurrection that has taken place at the Capitol. What does that now mean? You know, what does protest now mean for a scholar? I think in many ways, it means, even more: the necessity for the scholar to understand the goals and the motivation of the protest prior to committing even on paper, a connection to that movement and affinity that even saying that one resonated with the movement, you really have to understand it.

And it’s really important that we do that now more than ever before. You don’t want to be… You don’t want to naively engage a protest whose goals, whose motivations, whose ultimate aim is the overthrow of the government, you see. Black Lives Matter, the aim of Black Lives Matter was justice and the end of excessive police force, ultimately, the killing of Black bodies, which we’ve seen on repeat over and over and over and over again. That in contrast to the insurrectionists, who saw, and who articulating, I mean, a primary goal of taking over the United States government, to control the government. They’ve not said what they’re going to do. They didn’t say what they’re going to do once they control it. What is the plan once you get in, once you have the, you know, the Capitol, have a legislator? What are you going to do for the people, people like me? You know, and during that time was really a lot of criticism against Black Lives Matter saying, you know, what do you all…what’s your goal? What are you shooting for? I don’t know how many times the goals of Black Lives Matter, and before that– Hands Up, Don’t Shoot, had to be articulated for the public. So that’s where I am on that issue.

Cassidy Hall [06:15]: Thank you for that. You know, it strikes me that you were writing a book when Ferguson happens. The death of Mike Brown, more specifically happened, the murder of Mike Brown. It strikes me that you were kind of in this maybe, maybe contemplative space, you were writing, you were processing, you were doing these kinds of things. Yet, the urgency, right, the urgency occurs. And I wonder if you could speak a little bit to maybe the need for contemplation to know that, that we’re aligned with something does that allow us to more urgently respond to things?

Dr. Lightsey [06:47]: I don’t know that I have an answer to that…I can…And I hesitate to speak with a broad brush, I can only speak to my sensibilities and my sensibilities have been shaped by any number of things. One by growing up in a community that very much understood its place in the scheme of things, And that just not being the material world, but understanding that there was a spiritual world at work and that we were in the middle. We were but human beings in the middle of many things happening that we could see and not see. And that there were some things happening that were outside our control.

I grew up understanding that not everything is going to be in my control as a human being. Okay. That understanding that there are matters in this world that are outside human control, have suited me well, both as a person of faith and as a scholar, it has given me the luxury to rest easy with the questions of life, with things not being resolved totally, with also understanding that my work is a continuation, and may not always be a period at the end of a sentence, but maybe some ellipses, or commas, or, you know, continuations.

You know, I am a contemplative person also, because I’ve experienced a community of Pentecostal believers who also very much so reminded me of the spirit world. Now, sometimes that experience was really raggedy and lacked sound theology. And over the years, I’ve had to kind of reshape myself without totally tossing away the very fine things that Pentecostalism, excuse me, offered me, and gave me. But it certainly gave me an appreciation for the contemplative, for sitting oneself down and just resting, you know, connecting with another dimension of life.

Cassidy Hall [09:12]: I think for activists in particular, it’s important to acknowledge rest, even sleep is a form of contemplation, right? It is a regeneration, a meeting place, a sacred pause.

Dr. Lightsey [09:25]: I think it’s good. I hesitate to speak for all activists in terms of a kind of spirituality or religiosity. Because I speak through the lens of a Christian, and there are activists who are not Christian, there are activists who are agnostic, atheist, and are doing very fine work, and I respect and appreciate them for that. So I wouldn’t go so far as to articulate it in that way, although I know very much so that a good number of Black activists because such a large percentage of Black people in America are ascribe to spirituality at the very most, and Christianity, I say now at the very least. I would have switched that up maybe a decade or two ago but we do believe and understand ourselves to be spiritual beings. That a sense of or an appreciation for contemplative space, for one’s health and well-being, is certainly necessary. We talk about it all the time, and that is taking care of yourself in order to take care of others. And I’m with a group of activists who are committed to resistance but also committed to our well-being, it has really been good for me.

Cassidy Hall [10:48]: There reminds me of in your book, you write oppression on one level intersects with oppression on other levels, there is no safe quadrant of society if we allow unchecked and unprovoked hostilities to occur against any single community of people.

Dr. Lightsey [11:02]: Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, are equally discriminatory. And we do a disservice to humanity, when we try to parse them out, and level them up or subscribe, a percentage or, you know, a certain magnitude to one over and against the other. They’re all horrible. They’re all equally destructive to the human being, to our society, and to our communities. And I think as we’re paying attention to one, we are also making invisible, the other, you know, until that other demands its attention, you know, you ascribe attention to sexism, then what about racism, you know, so it’s a journey. It’s not a juggling act, but it’s a journey towards giving, giving attention to the fullness of who we are as human beings, while at the same time trying to resist, I think, in some ways, human nature to make subordinate certain other human beings on the basis of categorizing: that women are less than men, that Black people are less than white identified person, so on and so forth, that heterosexual persons are, you know, better than the LGBTQ community. As human beings, we are interconnected. And we really do, I mean, the survival of humanity is dependent upon the well-being of one another, we’ve seen that no better than during this pandemic. The race to a vaccine has been dependent upon human beings across a spectrum of diverse identity, and we’ve needed those persons.

Cassidy Hall [13:13]: Yeah, that’s another thing I really appreciated about your book and actually wrote about for a class is, recognizing the dynamic and the expanse of the Imago Dei, the image of God, as we see these intersectionalities, right? As we see each other, God expands, and more specifically identify as a queer woman, and in your book you write, “as queers, we declare that God cannot be limited, God is not finite.” And I think along with that queerness has something to offer to activism, to movements in the way that it expands the appearance of God. And again, of course, we’re talking in Christian terms in particular right now, but I wonder if you could speak into that a little bit.

Dr. Lightsey [13:53]: For me, the beauty of queerness is that it encourages people to deal with the ambiguity of life and the complexity of the human being. That’s the beauty of identifying as Queer, I identify as Queer Lesbian, for any number of reasons, which we don’t have time to go into today. But the beauty of queerness is that it asks us to accept ourselves as complex as we really are. And I’m still working with accepting some human beings in their complexity. Some things I don’t like about them, some things I read about and I say, oh if I knew about that, I wouldn’t. Oh. I wouldn’t. But then that part of me that understands human beings as complex says, okay, well, will you just throw this away? Will you throw this brilliance away because of this, you know? Is humanity totally irredeemable? I don’t think so. I think there’s something redeemable about humanity. Even though I have a low anthropology on most days. I think there is something that is redeemable about humanity. I mean, I deal with myself, you know, I’m my worst critic. So I think there is something redeemable. And queerness allows us space, not only for the complexity and the differences, but also for the imperfection. And we don’t…I don’t think we talk enough about that in queer space. Queerness allows us the capacity to embrace imperfection, more than anything else that I have really worked on in my academic career.

Cassidy Hall [15:47: Thank you for that.

Dr. Lightsey 15:48 You’re welcome. Thank you for the conversation.

Cassidy Hall [15:52]: Yes, likewise.

Dr. Lightsey [15:53]: I bid you well on your scholarship and your writing. I see all your beautiful books!

Cassidy Hall [15:59]: Oh, thank you. Thank you so much.

Dr. Lightsey [16:02]: Take care.

Cassidy Hall [16:03]: You too.

Dr. Lightsey [16:04]: Bye. Bye.

Cassidy Hall [16:05]:  Bye.

Outro: Cassidy Hall [16:08]: Thanks for listening to today’s episode of Contemplating Now, to support this work, and get sneak peeks of new episodes, join me over at patreon.com/Cassidy Hall. This podcast is created and edited by me, Cassidy Hall. Today’s episode features the song “Trapezoid instrumental,” by EmmoLei Sankofa, which she has generously allowed us to use. Please find the song and more from EmmoLei Sankofa on your favorite streaming platform or by visiting E-SANKOFA.com. The podcast is created in partnership with the Christian Century, a progressive ecumenical magazine based in Chicago. The podcast is also created in partnership with Enfleshed, an organization focused on spiritual nourishment for collective liberation. For liturgical resources and tools, head over to enfleshed.com.

And for those still here, one last reading from Reverend Dr. Pamela Lightsey’s book, Our Lives Matter, a Womanist Queer Theology. On page 63 she writes, “Black spirituality is deeper than and can also be absent from any relationship with the church universal. Black spirituality, especially Black women’s spirituality is connected to our very being.”

New Podcast: Contemplating Now

NEW PODCAST ALERT 🚨

Contemplation has been a part of my life since I was a child taking long walks to pause and process. In 2011, after reading Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation, I quit my job and traveled to all 17 Trappist monasteries in the United States. But as I journeyed, I sensed there was something lacking. As a Queer white woman, it took me an embarrassingly long time to recognize what was missing: voices and truths beyond white, male contemplatives like Merton, Rohr, and Keating. Voices speaking into the work of justice and liberation, while also hosting a contemplative interior life that fed their activism. Rev. Dr. Barbara A. Holmes speaks of  “public mystics,” leaders whose “interiority and communal reference points” must intersect, including Fannie Lou Hamer, Malcolm X, Sue and Howard Thurman, Rosa Parks, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and more. 

Since 2017 I’ve co-hosted the Encountering Silence podcast with my colleagues Carl McColman and Kevin Johnson. Through 100 episodes of interviews and discussions about the importance of silence, I continued to be drawn to the contemplative lives of the marginalized. Now in seminary,  I continue to see the ways a white-washed, patriarchal contemplative Christianity hinders collective liberation and justice.

The founder of Spiritual Directors of Color Network, Therese Taylor-Stinson, says contemplation “must consist of both inward solitude and reflection, and an outward response to the situations in which we find ourselves present and awake.” The Contemplating Now Podcast was birthed from the desire to learn from scholars and activists who embody that fullness of action and reflection. During my studies for my MDiv and MTS at Christian Theological Seminary, and in my own contemplative practice, research, and deconstruction, I realized how whitewashed the field of contemplation was and began to seek out the work of Black women and nonbinary folks. In this podcast, I wanted to give them the mic and bring attention to their important contributions to the study and practice of contemplative spirituality and mysticism. My goal is to listen and learn from my guests alongside you. 

How to find it and more info:

Find it on all podcasting platforms, and if you’re so inclined, leave a review to help other folks find it more easily.

The Christian Century (progressive Christian magazine based in Chicago, the “journal of record” for mainline protestants, the first to publish “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in 1963), will be hosting the podcast on their site.

This labor of love project is created, produced, and edited by me. With no funding or financial support for the project, I hope you’ll consider helping keep the work afloat by joining me over on Patreon.com/cassidyhall

I’m also delighted to have support in the form of loving-kindness from my friends over at enfleshed, an org which offers liturgical resources focused on collective liberation. Thanks also to the brilliance and eagle-eyed editor Jessica Mesman.

Finally, I am so very grateful to EmmoLei Sankofa for her delightful music in the opening and closing credits, and a perfect logo from my pal, Patrick Shen.

Sacramental Action

Many of us feel a complication between what is urgent and what is important. In my experience, contemplation has always taken me closer to the truth of urgency with a clarified mind and settled body. It has shown me the marriage of that which is urgent and important. In this way, I believe urgency can be an embodied means of reaching for justice and collective well-being. In this way, I see urgency in the minds of contemplatives attuned to the present moment and in the struggle of the activists’ pursuit of change. In this way, I see “activism” and “contemplation” as interchangeable dimensions of the same expression.

Often times, contemplative life errors on the side of silence and solitude instead of a meeting place for speaking out and showing up. But in order for contemplation to be whole, writes Therese Taylor-Stinson, “it must consist of both inward solitude and reflection, and an outward response to the situations in which we find ourselves present and awake.”

Similarly, in his work on mysticism and social action, Howard Thurman talks about action as sacrament. He writes that the mystic “recognizes that he shares in the collective ills of his society… In him is mirrored the very life of the society of which he is a part, but he must begin with himself. For the mystic, social action is sacramental…”

Responding to these two voices I ask myself: To what am I willing to be present and awake? What ills of society am I identifying with? How am I yielding to social action as sacramental? How am I weaving together the indisputable connectivity of contemplation and social action? In recognizing they belong to each other, their beauty is enhanced wherever we find them coexisting.

The image I chose to share with this brief writing is a well known image of the late John Lewis standing his ground before the oncoming beating by the Police which would leave him severely injured. And, the reason I chose this image is because in his backpack at this very moment, Lewis was carrying Thomas Merton’s spiritual autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain (it’s been noted before that perhaps it was a different book by Merton). In the summer of 1998, Lewis said, “I had a book by Thomas Merton when I was walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, marching from Selma to Montgomery…I would also sometimes carry books by Gandhi and about Gandhi; books by Dr. King and about Dr. King; and Thoreau’s ‘Civil Disobedience.'” Why is this important? Why would a man with the conviction of activism carry a book by a Trappist monk? I believe this image exemplifies a visual embodiment of Action as Sacrament. It shows what we all know that Lewis was a man of deep thought, sincere courage, and a man whose action was born out of his contemplation. Lewis was a man whose life was a constant weaving together of contemplation and social action. So, I give him the last word…

“When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something. To do something. Our children and their children will ask us, ‘What did you do? What did you say?’…we have a mission and a mandate to be on the right side of history.” John Lewis, December 2019 

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The Absurd Vocation

“One person plus one typewriter constitutes a movement.” –Pauli Murray

Coming off a week-long class on activism, organizing and social movements in Durham, North Carolina (and my first full year of seminary at CTS), I climb back into the quiet walls of a Kentucky monastery: Gethsemani Abbey. Here, the silence seeps into my bones like a forgotten nourishment as my ears wade through the heightening sounds of the natural world––the birds and the wind erupt in chorus around me. Suddenly, I’m able to more fully engage with myself, my senses are overturned until I begin feeling what I hear, tasting what I see, and even knowing all that I’ll never know. This, for me, is a place of letting go, of opening up, of deepening my common humanity with all human beings.

The tension of paradox is not lost on me. And in being present to the paradox this suggests, I’m remembering a different way of being which allows the contemplative to be an activist and the activist to be a contemplative. It may be seen as absurd to come to such a place after a class on activism. Yet, I’m reminded that for me, there is a vocation of solidarity in the solitariness found here. This “absurd vocation,” as Thomas Merton puts it, is a vocation which yields to a “supernatural unity.” Merton goes on to write that the solitary, “seeks a spiritual and simple oneness in himself (themselves) which, when it is found, paradoxically becomes the oneness of all men (humans)––a oneness beyond separation, conflict, and schism. For it is only when each man (human) is one that mankind (humankind) will one again become ‘One.’”

In her book about contemplation and justice, Therese Taylor-Stinson writes, ”So that contemplation can be whole, it must consist of both inward solitude and reflection, and outward response to the situations in which we find ourselves present and awake.” In other words, for me, it is the step away which allows me to both awaken and stay awake. It is the time of opening up and overturning my very being which allows a deepening within myself for and with all beings.

While the world so often sees the contemplative life as an excuse to do nothing, the contemplator most often sees this way of being as a path to feel everything. This solidarity of and in suffering that the contemplative often gets in touch with is rarely reached in our days of chaos and discourse. That being said, there are indeed times in which this way of being can be misused as a means to back away where action is necessary. And contemplation without action is as good as silence in the face of injustice.

“What is the contemplative life if one becomes oblivious to the rights of men and the truth of God in the world…” –Thomas Merton

While in the Durham class, I was able to engage further with my understandings of activism, organizing and social movements. Our new friend (and professor) Tim Condor led us in an intensive week of exploring and making sense of these things, while maintaining deep respect and kindness towards the number of different paths the class approached such information. Yet the central truth was far too evident to ignore — it is all about relationships. Deepening our understanding of ourselves, each other, and whoever we may deem as ‘the other’ is the core to our ability to create more love, more truth, and ultimately change for the better.

“… As you get used to this idea you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And there too a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, as you yourself mention in passing, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.

–Thomas Merton to peace-activist Jim Forest

One day in class we met in pairs to practice relational meetings. My friend Kerry and I naturally paired up and went outside to chat. A little bit more about Kerry is this: She is a wonderfully bold woman who cares deeply (and not quietly) about the injustices in our world—rightfully so. She is a blogger, author of the forthcoming book Good White Racist (Spring 2020), and a kind of perfect (seemingly opposite) match to navigate this little assignment with. As we sat down and began talking, it became more clear what we might be bringing to one another––my voice surprised me and emerged asking, “Okay, so what would happen if you slowed down more and had more solitude and contemplation in your life?” — her eyes welled up with tears as her expected voice of challenge came charging through to me—“And what would happen if you spoke up more?” We looked at each other a knowing look and began to laugh. Both of us were reminded in that moment of the unique balance our individual scales hold and the importance in lovingly challenging each another to ensure we are remaining true to ourselves and our fellow humans.

I needed her nudge to remember to open my mouth more, to push pen to paper more, to know I will make mistakes in these ways but there are quite literally people dying when I sit silently—whether I do something or not. So why not try and do something? She needed my nudge to remember the necessity of respite to listen, breathing room to reignite our voice, and that sacred step away into solitude that our work might carry longevity beyond our lives.

“The world needs both ways,” we concluded. And those ways need one another in order to host the possibility of lasting change. While the world’s insistent demands often require an urgent response––that response needs undying endurance, abiding fortitude, and an overwhelming stability we cannot possess on empty, and we sure as hell cannot possess alone. 

At the end of class that evening, I walked by a mural of Durham native Pauli Murray: a civil rights activist, lawyer, author, and the first African American woman to be an Episcopal priest. The mural read, True community is based on upon equality, mutuality, and reciprocity. It affirms the richness of individual diversity as well as the common human ties that bind us together.” Once again, I smiled that knowing smile Kerry and I shared earlier in the day and kept on walking. 

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