Currently there are 351 anti-LGBTQIA+ bills in the U.S.*, most of which are direct attacks upon transgender youth. The very existence of these bills (whether they pass or not) impacts mental, spiritual, and physical well-being of LGBTQIA+ folks everywhere. 293 of those bills are currently advancing,** coming closer to becoming laws and moving towards perpetuating an irreparable harm. Last month alone, bills in 14 states were pushed forward by lawmakers targeting drag performers and even drag story hours at libraries. And just this past week, the current state I call home (Indiana) advanced two anti-LGBTQIA+ bills including Indiana’s very own “Don’t Say Gay” bill (HB1608) and another (SB480) opposing medical science, standard treatments for trans youth, and human dignity–which just passed yesterday.
Instead of reminding LGBTQIA+ folks of our innate belonging, these bills perpetuate a false notion that belonging must be fought for, that belonging is not a birthright, that belonging isn’t entwined with the Divine’s image already upon us.
As I mull over these issues and bills in my head, I am brought back to the ways LGBTQIA+ existence, LGBTQIA+ embodiment, LGBTQIA+ minds in schools, LGBTQIA+ intelligence in healthcare and therapeutic resources –– continues to establish a firm foundation of innate belonging, persistent existence, and celebrated personhood.
And, as a pastoral leader, theologian, and queer woman, these bills remind me that perhaps it’s time to queer our spaces even more – our places of work, our homes, and our places where we host faith gatherings. Maybe it’s time to queer our liturgy more boldly––to queer biblical stories in order to more clearly recognize our innate belonging, our persistent existence, and our celebrated personhood.
Perhaps, the last supper was a drag brunch.
Communion Liturgy: Drag Brunch
The Divine among us be within you.
And also within you.
We lift our spirits to the Divine’s shine.
We lift our light to meet the Divine’s brightness.
We fill ourselves with gratitude.
We embody an abundance of gratefulness.
On the night Jesus was unjustly arrested by the systemic structures of oppression and hatred, even as he saw the moment approaching, he chose to gather friends and share a meal.
He wanted celebration to be a part of his memory.
He longed for an abundance of love to carry him into life eternal.
Letting his friends know where and when to join him, he gathered wine and bread at the biggest table he could find.
As they came together, the table elongated,
Until all of the faces he loved were present––
Until all presentations of the Divine’s image in gender/agender, sexuality/asexuality expressions were among them.
In the overflow of love,
In the delight of celebration,
In the wonder of the vastness of humanity,
A drag brunch ensued.
Jesus and his friends gathered to see the kings, queens, and those in drag among them,
Fawning and fanning themselves as they glided around the room,
Dancing, singing, and storytelling in their most bold expressions of self,
Most fantastic reflections of the Divine.
In the joy of gathering,
Exhilaration of life,
Pleasure of extravagance,
And the deep peace of togetherness,
Jesus sat delighted to be among his friends,
Jesus sat pleased with his chosen company.
Then, John, Jesus’ beloved, leapt up from his seat to go behind the curtain and prepare to join the show.
Upon emerging in drag, she leaned over and whispered in the ear of Jesus,
“I’ve always wanted to do this.”
Jesus smiled, as if seeing his most beloved come fully alive for the first time.
The celebration continued until amid the noise and clamor, entwined with the joy and elation of life most alive,
Jesus took the bread in the middle of the table, lifted it and exclaimed,
“May the joy among us now, live amid you in my absence. May you remember to love one another, love yourself, and live in the abundant beauty of exactly who you are.”
Then, Jesus raised his glass, and toasted his friends, saying
“This is to joy, to the possibilities within and among us, to the newness which will live within you in my absence.”
All are invited to this table.
All genders, gender-nonconformity, all sexualities, asexuality…
All expressions of the Divine among us.
All are welcome to remember in body or spirit our innate belonging, our persistent existence, and our celebrated personhood.
All are welcome to receive in body or spirit the gifts this table offers.
Divine Light, you shine most brightly in us when we are most fully ourselves.
Your holiness awakens within us in our wholeness.
Your image is upon us as we gather at the table and continue to elongate its welcome. May our everyday lives also reveal the ever-expanding, ever-becoming table, and an openness to the most profound possibilities of love.
Divine love, may this food and drink be a reminder of our innate belonging, our persistent existence, and our celebrated personhood.
Your image is one of belonging, expanding, celebrating––and lives among us and within us.
Go with us now, to live lives of the great celebration, to live lives true ourselves and true to your love.
Dr Elyse Ambrose: I start to think of mysticism as an openness to mystery, not as something that I go and do or that one goes and does and sort of sets the scene for that sort of openness per se, but I see it more like as an orientation to life.
Cassidy Hall: 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.
Dr. Elyse Ambrose, PhD (they/them) is a blackqueer ethicist, creative and educator whose research, art and community practice lie at the intersections of race, sexuality, gender, and spirituality. Ambrose’s forthcoming book A Living Archive: Embodying a Blackqueer Ethics (T&T Clark, Enquiries in Embodiment, Sexuality, and Social Ethics series), centers blackqueerness and constructing communal based sexual ethics. Ambrose currently serves as visiting assistant professor of ethical leadership and society at Meadville Lombard Theological School as a Louisville Institute Postdoctoral Fellow. You can find out more about them at elyseambrose.com.
Well Elyse, thank you so much for joining me today.
Dr Elyse Ambrose: It is my pleasure to be with you.
Cassidy Hall: So one of the ways I love beginning the conversation is asking how you define the words contemplation, and mysticism.
Dr Elyse Ambrose: Mm hmm. Yeah, I appreciate the framing of the questions in terms of seeking definitions, because I think that it’s interesting to be in conversation with people, and then at some point in the conversation, discover that you’re working with different definitions of everything. And maybe that’s partly why, from time to time, we’re not able to see eye to eye about particular things. But you gave me an opportunity to really think about how I see these words, and I thank you for that invitation.
So I start to think of mysticism as an openness to mystery. And I see that not as something that I go and do, or that one goes and does and sort of sets the scene for that sort of openness per se, but I see it more like as an orientation to life, knowing that we’re going to be encountering mystery, what is the orientation that I have to mystery? And how am I willing to be changed by what I encounter in the mystery? I think those are the questions of mysticism. And that’s where they leave me. And then when I think of contemplation or contemplative processes, I think I experience a pause because so much of how I encounter contemplation is not solely in my mind. And sort of, I think usually when I hear the word contemplation or contemplative, it has to do with reflection, and it’s pretty much framed as a rational process. But I think of contemplation in terms of like, listening with one’s whole self. And so that’s attunement through the body, attunement through previous experiences, and being able to integrate all of that within the realm of mysticism. So it’s being willing to go where the listening leads. I guess, the way that I frame both of these is kind of scary, but it’s also illuminating and exciting. And I think there’s a quote that goes, there’s treasure in the pathless woods.* And it makes me just think about yeah, like when you’re in that unknown depth, there’s a great deal of treasure to be found in those places if we are brave enough to go there.
*(Lord Byron,Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage)
Cassidy Hall: Yeah… I mean, first of all defining mysticism with questions seems incredibly appropriate to me. And then similarly with contemplation, you talked about the sense of integration and going where the listening leads. So like also like this openness, both as this openness. How would you say you see mysticism and contemplation lived out in the world today? I know that’s kind of hard because I mean, I think, you know, based on your definitions the mystical can be in the seemingly mundane, everyday moments as well as the seemingly profound.
Dr Elyse Ambrose: Yeah, I appreciate you pointing to the everyday-ness of mysticism and really, the profundity of the mundane. Womanist Ethicist, Emilie Townes, talks about the everyday-ness, and thinks of it as a resource of thinking ethics. So yeah, I think that everyday-ness ought to be a part of our conceptualizations of the ultimate because it makes me think of an earlier time in my faith journeying where — and I think a lot of people experience this, but I feel like I was always looking for that profound moment, that time when a prophet will come and speak a word, or when some sort of vision would take place or some enrapturing moments or something like that. And I was constantly seeking that, to know that the divine was present. And I think my faith really took a turning point, when I leaned into the everyday-ness of the divine and that it’s not just those super meta moments, but that it is in necessarily must be in the every day, and that I ought to take it as just true. Whether I feel it or not, whether there’s this amazing thing happening, whether there’s the heavens have parted for me or not, just this willingness to believe what it is that I say I believe and to just live into that as true and allow anything to speak to me, in terms of how I — and that’s what I’m signaling towards in the openness. Like being able to look at a pattern in snow and receive some message from nature or to listen to a conversation between people, maybe eavesdrop on a conversation, and learn something about myself in the process. And just to be open to the many ways that I would say not only God or the divine, but that all that is speaking to me and reaching out to me, and I’m reaching out to it. And it’s a very beautiful, organic and reciprocal relationship that we can be in, if I’m aware of it.
Cassidy Hall: Yeah, one thing I love that you’re touching into that, that I’m going to try to figure out how to ask is this pairing of bringing our most full authentic self to the openness or the listening or the wonder or the questions even. I think my question is, do you think we can really have those moments maybe of whether we want to call them mysticism, or transcendence or authenticity, or even a sense of self liberation if we aren’t bringing our full, authentic self, because you also talked about, you know, when you allowed your faith to be what your faith is? So I’m wondering about that authenticity of self, the importance of that.
Dr Elyse Ambrose: Yeah. I’m really inspired by this quote of, and maybe it’s a paraphrase, but I feel like I’ve picked it up in engaged Buddhism sort of circles, but this idea that healed people, heal communities. Healed people, heal communities.And I feel like I was speaking with someone recently about how we have lots of thoughts around like, what social healing might look like in terms of like reconciliation or repentance, even forgiveness and all of these things about what these processes might look like or calling out or calling in etc. it occurs to me that if we, and I learned this in these communities of Buddhism, like if I’m not willing to sit on the mat and face myself, my shadows, when we’re talking about authentic self, we’re not just talking about that good. Yes I am beloved, I am a kind and compassionate person. Yes, yes. And also there are shadows. And that’s authentic to me. And I think the sooner I can be truthful with myself about that part of me, I can see it in other people and not be jarred and not be totally self-righteous, and be like, Oh, I can’t believe they’re that way, it’s sort of like can we look in the mirror and not turn away from what we see. And if we’re able to do that, and be authentic in that, and say this is where I am, then we can do for other people too, and be able to create a community where that sort of imperfection or that proneness to mistaken-ness, or that proneness to even hurting people, not harming but hurting people, can be a part of what makes our communities and our settings what they are. They are messy places, they are places where transformation is taking place. So if there’s transformation in me, transformation in you, we’re bound to clash every now and then, and even be transformed by what we mirror in one another. And I think that that’s a really beautiful invitation that we can offer one another, and we can see it in our everyday lives. Again, if we are open to the mystery of what happens when we see ourselves and when we see another person. And that’s hard. Because I think our structures do not lend themselves to truth. And I hope that, you know, we don’t get too caught up on the word truth or what is truth? But I do know a little bit about truth, in that I know the truth of myself, I know the truth that is revealed to me in this particular time and space, and I am invited to live into that truth. But I feel like our maybe obsession with appearances of appearing righteous, of appearing to have the right answers, of appearing to be justice-oriented and liberation-seeking, is really a hindrance to our actually becoming those people.
I think about with my students sometimes it’s not hard to come across the right answer in this time in our world. We have Google, we have blogs, so many ways that we can come across the right answer of how to engage a person who inhabits difference, or a person who’s experiencing marginalization. We have the right answers of how to do that. But I often wonder sometimes, if when you’re giving me the right answer has the truth of that taken residence in you. And something takes residence in you typically, through a not easy path, is I guess the simplest way I can put it. So I think living into — I might say the wrong thing, I might appear to be racist, I may appear to be transphobic, being okay with that and then when that person calls you out, or calls you in, or when you reflect on your yourself in that moment and say, wow, that was racist of me or that was transphobic of me or that was classist of me, what have you. Then that’s when the transformation is able to take place. Because I don’t know maybe there’s something to confession and repentance and then going another way, like being able to face the thing and be transformed by face truth and be transformed by it. But we’re afraid of truth and therefore short circuit, the process of being transformed in the interest of preserving our comfort.
Cassidy Hall: That was wonderful. And I’m led to thinking too about how, you know, in our world of like quick-fixes and easy-outs, how much of this transformation requires staying, requires being like you’re, you know, you’re talking about this discomfort, like sticking in that discomfort, being uncomfortable and not just being corrected and then moving on, but being corrected and staying, and being corrected and really deepening those connections no matter how uncomfortable. And I love the clarification between hurt and harm. Can you unpack that a little more? Because, you know, I think it’s so important to name that when there’s harm of course it makes sense to maybe to go; when there’s hurts maybe we need to stick with it and move through it together?
Dr Elyse Ambrose: I don’t want to put it full blanket on that, but I think that that sounds like a great way of creating that distinction. But if I could add to the brilliance there, I have really been taken by this metaphor that I learned, it feels like years ago, of what happens when there is tension. At the encounter with tension, there’s sort of two ways to go and pardon the binary, but let’s go with it for just for the sake of this conversation. It’s we can go in the direction of creative tension or destructive tension. In the course of a conversation, in the course of sitting with one another, I think we gain a sense of, is this going creative or is this going destructive, particularly for the person harmed or the person who’s experiencing some sort of pain, I should say. For the person who’s experiencing pain is this leading in the direction of creative or is this leading in the direction of destructive, right now. Maybe in time, that idea can change. But in the moment, if it’s leading in creative, I think we can say that perhaps there is a hurt that’s taking place and we can think creatively about how to address it, how to redress it. And then if we’re going in the direction of destructive, then perhaps there’s a harm and a need to create a boundary that can help in the process of healing for that particular person, or of that relationship, or maybe not, I don’t know, but I want to lean maybe to thinking about like creativity versus destruction in the encounter with tension. And that takes attentiveness, attunement, maybe a mediator, you know, maybe there’s something about intention there too. I know that intention and impact, intention in the face of impact doesn’t have as much weight but I think there’s something about a person who’s willfully raucous, rambunctious and unwilling to see the ways that they may be creating unjust situations for other people; that feels harmful too. I’d be willing to see what people think about those sorts of distinctions.
Cassidy Hall: Yeah, I think, you know, the distinction between the things that are creative and the things that are destructive, the power of creativity, also kind of puts us in that sense of wonder and questions. And also, you know, the communal aspect of that, it makes us co-creators, it makes us more bound to each other in the ways that we’re like innovating and imagining and thinking beyond, it’s kind of an invitation.
Dr Elyse Ambrose: I think that’s a powerful way to think about it. Because creativity carries with it circling back. Like, we don’t know what’s going to happen in this creative encounter in terms of mystery. And so, what does it take, I wonder, to bring oneself to a creative moment? And to be willing to engage that process with someone or someone’s and to choose to go creative, rather than destructive? I think that seems like a really big question and it’s actually making me feel a bit a bit full and emotional, maybe because it’s hard, and not just hard, like, you know, first we have to do this and we have to do this and we have to do that, like hard in terms of like number of steps, but more like hard because trauma is real and hurt, harm, pain, and suffering are all real and they inform how we are willing or unwilling to come to one another and be vulnerable. And so much of creativity is vulnerability, and it’s like there is no way to be like maybe we can cut out this part and still get to the amazing, creative outcome that might be awaiting us. There is no cutting the vulnerability, there is no cutting the tension, just erasing that part of the process. And so it really pushes me to think how important it is to be in community and for lack of a better term invest oneself in community making, and to make that investment with the knowledge that I’m going to encounter humans that are going to rub against me in some ways that I’m not going to like. And am I willing to, to listen to my own humanity that yearns for connection? And to take the thorn with the rose as it relates to connection and what that means to be in community with others? Yeah, maybe thinking about what does it take to invest oneself in that process? That must be — it’s a doozy.
Cassidy Hall: Yeah, the way the creative-destructive tension lives in all our relationships, and all of our interactions, it’s just really, really profound. And in a way to be creative without discounting, things like the trauma, the triggering, the real disruption in one’s life, that that can really disable us and put us in fight or freeze or etc.
Dr Elyse Ambrose: Mm hmm. And I think I love the insight that you’re providing, because it makes us think of creativity as sort of a spectrum. So maybe we’re not ready to go full-fledged from day one. But we can move at the speed of trust, as I’ve heard in community, and be able to invest in the creativity, and that’s a process and to approach creativity in a way of like, I love the idea that every encounter is an opportunity to choose, creativity or destruction. And then when we in turn, in terms of creativity, if we want to orient ourselves in that way to the world, where on the spectrum do we want to enter? And how can that sort of openness and intention, and willingness to be building as well as tearing down if necessary, and rebuilding; how much we’re able to do each of those things, given where we are and where the other person is, meeting them at a place where they are and being able to do that building together. And again, that takes community, that takes trust. And when I say community, I don’t mean just proximity as in like, oh, we’re in community because we go to the same place or we’re in community because we live in the same neighborhood, but like community that has accountability, community that has shared values around responsibility, and growth, and mistakes, and returning to the table again, and again. That sort of community I think can lead us in some creative, beautiful, ugly places that are ultimately for our good
Cassidy Hall: Yeah, yeah. Especially when I’m willing to sit through the ugly, yeah, and stay the same. So going back to this, you know, you named mysticism as an openness to mystery, as an orientation to life and added all these questions about how am I willing to be changed and you named contemplation as a listening with one’s full self, attunement to our bodies, which was so important, so powerful to remember the embodiment of contemplation and that integration. Do you find either of those things in your own life in your work as a blackqueer ethicist, educator and creative?
Dr Elyse Ambrose: Definitely, I feel like I have to have that orientation, those orientations in all of those in all of those parts of myself. I’ll take, you know, education, for an example. Students are coming to the learning moment with so many experiences prior to entering my classroom, our classroom. And I’m coming with a lot of experiences prior to entering our classroom together. And I’ve learned from my mentors, I guess, again to this point of like, right answers versus transformation. I think that for some people, it’s really easy to be a good student. And I heard this actually, at a religious Educators Conference recently easy to be a good student, that is somebody who can process information in a way that’s much like what I said, or process information in a way that’s clear and cohesive, rather Western and get an A for it. That’s a good student, quote-unquote, good student, but the person who’s going to be transformed in the space, I mean, that’s not measurable. And it may not show up as evidence for years. So as a teacher, as an educator, as someone who’s trying to invite students to see education as a practice of their own freedom, as a way of getting free and inviting others to be free. Like, as I’m inviting them to that I cannot be consumed with outcomes, and wanting to see what I want to see in a student to say that okay, this, the student has done well in this course. I have to be open to the process that they are in and create a culture in the classroom that says we are open to one another’s processes. And yes, we will disagree, from time to time. Yes, we will encounter a reading and want to throw it across the room, what have you, that’s fine, let’s do that. And let’s be open to what can happen in the process. And sort of my openness means that if a student says something I don’t agree with, very frankly, if a student says something I don’t agree with, maybe my reaction isn’t to jump on them. And… cause them to retract from the entire learning experience. I have to have an openness to their journey, as well as to what I can be learning in the moment. As the as the educator in the space––thinking about the word educate, like to pull forth, what is being pulled forth for me in this moment and how can I add it to the space and invite them to add what they’re feeling into the space in a way that can help us all to think differently about something. That’s my goal. Let’s think differently about something and in our thinking differently about it, and really sitting with it and allowing it to take residence, and that’s when sort of transformation can take place. And again, that’s long term. That’s a long investment. But, you know, we do our best, as I say, in my syllabus, we do our best and grace will abound.
And then in terms of my blackqueerness, the two that I hold together, I make that all one word, black queer, because both of those identities, which are also a politics, a way of relating to the world, speak to me of liminality, of making a way out of no way, of returning to the table to rebuild as frequently as I need to, of recognizing my interconnectedness and the community that makes me, and I am because we are. All of that is integrated in the blackqueerness. And it allows me to be open to the mystery of me. And that manifests in my art the Photo-Sonic work, it manifests in how when I collaborate with an artistic subject to bring forth some sort of art piece, it’s about when my mystery meets your mystery, what can we create that might speak something to a public in a way that is generative? Yeah, I feel like if I can’t be and become this being who is invested in expansion, then I guess I’m just going fold in on myself and implode and I really don’t prefer that for myself in this lifetime. I feel like, at least for myself, and I wouldn’t put this on anyone else but the invitation that I feel myself receiving in this lifetime, in this time and space is just expansion and abundance and more and not in that greedy sort of way, but in the way of like, there’s so much more to encounter. There’s so much more to know about what’s without and what’s within and won’t you journey with your ancestors and spirit and your community to discover that?
Cassidy Hall: Yeah, when my mystery meets your mystery, I love that phrase. And you know that a lot of this conversation is revolved around this notion of creativity. And you name the intersections of your work as race, sexuality, gender, and spirituality. You know, I’m realizing maybe the common language of all those things, comes down to creativity, comes down to when my mystery meets your mystery. And also accessible language, because of the ways maybe, you know, the intersections of your work aren’t always the intersections for every person. Yet, as we find and meet each other, when our mysteries meet each other it requires creativity and agility, to have those hard conversation, have that staying power. And I think where I’m going with this is, how would you relate your understanding of creativity and your work creatively, would you say that, that in and of itself is spiritual?
Dr Elyse Ambrose: Yeah, it is that necessarily. And maybe I want to — when I’m thinking of the word spiritual, I want to say that I’m thinking of animation, not like a cartoon, but like that which animates. And so that’s automatically a material project as well and concerns all that is. Spirituality and creativity, I mean, they’re kind of like, we’ll call them bosom buddies, in a lot of ways. Because they interdepend, you know, creativity animates and moves like the Spirit, it blows wherever it wishes. And then and then spirituality must, or Spirit necessarily creates and is creative in its orientation to the world. And so it’s like, I really can’t think of one without the other. And I think that thinking of them together, helps to bring out the artist in me, and perhaps helps us all to see the ways that we are able to be creative people, that there is a propensity that many people have, particularly people who are like Type A to say like, I’m not creative, and it’s like a creative doesn’t only look like what you see among the pilfered items in a museum, or the sort of Western Art History that tells us what creative looks like. I feel like when I’m when I’m creating a meal, or when I’m thinking about how can I be more attentive to partners, or how can I in this very moment, I see this student struggling, how can I engage. I feel like that’s a creative process but it also takes that interconnected-ness that Spirit affords us because it’s and through me, and in and through you. And we’re able to inter connect in that way that we can respond to one another, respond to one another in a way that gets us somewhere.
Cassidy Hall: Amen. Amen. I want to thank you so much. The things we touched on today were just really, really powerful and important. And I’m just so grateful for your time and your work in the world. So thank you.
Dr Elyse Ambrose: I thank you so much for the invitation and the opportunity to be creating with you. Yeah, thank you.
Cassidy Hall: 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 dot com slash Cassidy Hall. This podcast is created and edited by Me, Cassidy Hall. Today’s episode features the song Trapezoid, instrumental by Emily Sankofa, which she has generously allowed us to use. Please find this song and more from Emily Sankofa on your favorite streaming platform or by visiting E Dash s-a-n-k-o-f-a dot com. The podcast has 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 Resource Is and Tools head over to enfleshed dot com.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.