Reading together is radical

In 2022, one of the most radical acts we can champion is reading together. I know it sounds simple, maybe even boring, but in times like these, we need to read.

We find ourselves in the middle of politically charged arguments about pandemic precautions, reentry into schools and churches, classroom book bans, critical race theory, looming elections, Supreme Court nominations — all filtered through endless Zoom and Microsoft Teams meetings, Twitter chats, Facebook and Instagram feeds, TikTok dances, hybrid conferences, and a wary sense of heightened tension about almost everything else.

We remain in a season of change and unrest. Now more than ever, we need shared exposure to our history, our present and our unknown future. When we read together, we dream together. And we are in desperate need of collective dreaming.

Historically, literacy has been a privilege. Those who are able to read can speak as equal conversation partners with others who have access to written resources.

When we think about the Protestant Reformation of 1517, let it not be lost on us that it was launched by a written document. Martin Luther wrote and posted his 95 Theses to challenge the Catholic Church as it stood at that time. The Reformation was launched by a written document that was read and interpreted during the 1500s. As the Deseret News put it, “Probably the most important engine of rapid intellectual and spiritual transformation during the Reformation was printing and expanding literacy.”

For those who weren’t able to read, clergy would interpret the medieval art and stained glass among them to explain the biblical stories and teachings orally. While this might initially have been seen as an act of benevolence, it created an imbalanced power dynamic between the literate and the illiterate.

This class divide became painfully evident by the time enslaved Africans had been forced to live in North America under the brutality of slave owners who used their own reading and interpreting of the Bible to justify their horrendous acts of subjugating Black bodies. Howard University political science professor Clarence Lusane, quoted on History.com, has pointed to the increasing sense in the 19th century that “an educated enslaved person was a dangerous person.”

Dangerous, certainly, to the status quo. As historian Sarah Roth, the creator of The Nat Turner Project at Meredith College, noted in that same article, “Literacy promotes thought and raises consciousness. It helps you to get outside of your own cultural constraints and think about things from a totally different angle.”

We now find ourselves at another literacy-related crossroads. Church members and leaders may continue to be limited in what they read by barriers and boundaries beyond basic literacy — the social climates they find themselves in, the biased algorithms they scroll through, even their own misunderstanding of what kinds of literature Christians should be consuming.

We need look no farther than Florida, Texas, Tennessee and other states to recognize that the power of reading is such a change agent that some leaders have gone to the extreme lengths of banning books on or by Martin Luther King Jr., Toni Morrison, Ruby Bridges and others in an effort to control the scope of the narrative to which children are exposed.

This is why reading groups at our churches are a radical act. We must reclaim the work of exposing our people to liberative texts, engaging our people on their thoughts and ideas, and encouraging our people to push the envelope.

At the start of this year, my faith community, The Double Love Experience Church, launched a book club suggested by one of our members, Brian Lindsey. The group chose to read “All About Love,” by bell hooks. We never anticipated what would result from creating a space for people to read together: the depth of the conversations, the camaraderie that emerged, the questions that were raised, the new people in our community that were attracted.

In March, we read poems written by Black women in honor of Women’s HERstory Month. What we didn’t expect was that our members would also read short stories from writers such as Deesha Philyaw, J. California Cooper and Audre Lorde. I quickly realized that there is a deep hunger among my congregants to read both fictional and nonfictional accounts of lives similar to their own.

And therein lies the revolutionary, radical power of reading groups within Black faith communities. Discovering their own identity and shared experiences in the company of their church family creates another way for people to bring their full and real selves to church. It’s another way to support authenticity within a congregational setting.

With so many attacks on people’s personhood and self-agency, how powerful would it be for the church to be seen as a safe space again? What might it look like for children who have had texts banned from their classrooms to be taught those books in Sunday school? What might it look like for adults whose days are stretched thin to have Bible studies with their pastors breaking down in one hour the texts they’ve not had time to read?

Over the past two years, my church has offered Bible studies around books such as: “for colored girls who’ve considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf,” by Ntozake Shange, “The Fire Next Time,” by James Baldwin, “Heavy: An American Memoir,” by Kiese Laymon,Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” by Isabel Wilkerson, “Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength,” by Chanequa Walker-Barnes, “Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church,” by Barbara Holmes, “The Black Christ,” by Kelly Brown Douglas, and more.

We paired biblical texts with each book and taught from a theological perspective, allowing the content of the book to be our guide for cultural ethnography and real-time examples of issues that our people currently face. Every time we’ve dug into one of these books, our members have been radically affected by the intersectionality of this work and the liberative gospel of Jesus Christ.

So be radical. Read together. Expand your canon. Create safe space. Engage your people. Enrich your people. Encourage your people. In the process, you’ll engage, enrich and encourage yourself too.

Each time we dive into these texts, we construct a different kind of world for our members to dive into. Churches have done well to read faith-based books, but in this season, I’m calling on Black churches to imagine reading books on our culture and from our writers. I believe there is something revolutionary and reconstructive in this kind of work, because one cannot read without also interpreting.

So read, beloveds. Be radical. We need you.

When we read together, we dream together. And we are in desperate need of collective dreaming.

“What do you see?”

That was the question I posed last year during the Advent season. Now, as Advent begins again, I’m still curious: What do you see?

May I be honest with you? I see fatigue. I see lament. I see exhaustion.

Despite our collective greatest hopes, I see a community that is still living through a pandemic that none of us anticipated would ever last this long.

What do you see? I see congregations that have reopened but church leaders who still hold their breath week to week praying there’s no COVID-19 outbreak. I see communities arguing over whether we should be vaccinated. I see people with masks in their glove compartments, pocketbooks and briefcases — wearied by the mundane duty of masking up daily after nearly two years of this new normal.

I see pastors who pivoted to prerecording services and preaching to empty sanctuaries now pivoting once again to meet the needs of our current moment, reengaging physical touch points with congregants.

What do you see? I see people rushing to business-as-usual, hoping that if they behave as though things are safe again, they somehow magically will be.

In the words of public health epidemiologist Jennifer Nuzzo, articulating the current challenge: “It [the pandemic] doesn’t end. We just stop caring. Or we care a lot less. … I think for most people, it just fades into the background of their lives.”

Yet we can’t simply stop caring. We must continue our vigilance — even in our exhaustion.

You might be thinking that this isn’t a very hopeful picture of where we are as a nation right now.

My response would be, “Look again! Hope is there!” The first glimmer I see is that we are wrestling with different questions than we were this time last year.

For the most part, our doors are back to being open. We have been given the opportunity to be vaccinated. Our children are back in school. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has offered guidelines for safe travel and gathering during the holidays. Many of our congregations now have viable streaming and online options for worship.

Beloved, we are in a different place than we were 12 months ago. I see hope!

I see hope alongside our troubled hearts. I see duality. We’re exhausted because we’ve endured much, yet we’re hopeful because we’re still here. We’re hopeful because we’ve learned a lot about ourselves and we’ve seen that we have the capacity to adapt. We’ve proved that we can change. And that realization can bring hope to our wearied souls that we can still expect something better, even in times like these.

Beloved, we are in a different place than we were 12 months ago.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it this way in a Christmas sermon delivered Dec. 2, 1928: “The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come. For these, it is enough to wait in humble fear until the Holy One himself comes down to us, God in the child in the manger. God comes. The Lord Jesus comes. Christmas comes. Christians rejoice!”

So what do I see? I see a nation of leaders troubled in soul yet ready for something more. I see people who have given the best of themselves all year, completely spent yet ready to be wowed by something greater than they are.

We’re troubled in our souls because we’ve been fighting so many battles simply to exist, operating daily in crisis management mode. We’re troubled in our souls because the physical and spiritual well-being of those we serve is directly connected to the public health and public safety decisions that we make.

We’re troubled in our souls because we’ve been putting out fires, working through vacations, juggling back-to-back Zoom meetings, home-schooling our kids, skipping date nights, performing virtual pastoral care, testing ourselves regularly for fear of spreading the virus, comparing the decisions we make with the decisions our colleagues make in their contexts, and so much more.

We’re troubled in our souls because more than 770,000 Americans have lost their lives to COVID-19, and more than 5 million people worldwide, and those numbers do not even include people with near-death complications who have survived the initial illness. Those numbers aren’t just numbers. They represent our communities and the people we have lost.

If we are honest, we must name our weariness. Yet that very weariness lifts our eyes toward hope. Being troubled in our souls sets us up to receive Advent hope and Advent possibilities more fully. It empties us of false platitudes and requires us to truly opt in to the belief that new possibilities come before us with Christ. Restoration is before us. Healing is before us. Miracles are accessible. Beauty is possible. Newness is possible.

Let us not forget — when our Savior became incarnate in human flesh and was born in a manger, God’s people were troubled in soul. God’s people felt out of options. They had done all they could to fight against empire. They were weary. They needed something greater than themselves. They needed someone to advocate for them.

Christ came in crisis. Never assume that being in crisis means you are apart from Christ. My lived experience tells me that Christ is always present when I’m in crisis.

Can I get a witness?

I experience Immanuel — God with us, God with me — in some of my lowest moments. When I’m at the end of my rope. When I’m trying, as Tupac would say, to make a dollar out of 15 cents. When I’m weary and heavy-laden, Jesus walks into my situation.

This is the character of God. In our despair, God sent God’s son to remind us that we would be delivered from the horrific conditions of our present. God has not forgotten, and God has chosen to fight our battles.

In the midst of a genocide of baby boys, Jesus comes. In the midst of oppressive conditions from empire, Jesus comes. In the midst of Mary and Joseph’s state of housing insecurity, Jesus comes. And with Jesus comes new hope.

So what do you see? I see a society in crisis. I see a people who have collectively exhausted our inner capacity to keep going. But just before we give up, our liturgical calendar reminds us that the Advent season is here. We have something new to look forward to. Christ is coming. Christ is here. New hope and restoration are here. Christmas miracles are here.

What do I see? I see leaders of every race and creed ready to receive Advent hope. I see revival. I see replenishment. But most of all, I see that we have been seen by God. Advent hope is here. Receive it. I still see hope.

Do you?

Growing up in the Black church, we used to say, “This joy I have; the world didn’t give it, and the world can’t take it away.” Joy is unspoken hope that floods your being. It’s that “it is well with my soul” that resonates deeply within your spirit.

It took becoming an adult for me to understand the subversive power of a mantra that held joy as personally sacrosanct. What we were saying was that the conditions of this world didn’t produce joy for us; rather, something within us created the joy that the world continually tried to steal. Time and time again, systems of this world tried to steal our joy, our dignity, our hope and our future.

We fought as a community to get back what those systems took while keeping ourselves from internalizing what they said about us. We began to define ourselves. And out of defining ourselves came our ability to value ourselves. Out of defining and valuing ourselves came our ability to believe in ourselves. Out of defining, valuing and believing in ourselves came our ability to create joy. Hard, gritty, sustainable — our joy that the world didn’t give.

It is with that communal formation as my spiritual and sociocultural backdrop that I have renewed my commitment to being on the lookout for joy, even in the midst of a pandemic. As a New York City pastor, I have been proximate to such widespread sorrow and grief that they have made joy seem like a luxury, not a right.

I found myself so weighed down by the realities of this crisis that joy was the furthest thing from my mind. Black Americans are three times more likely to die of COVID-19 than white Americans. My heart broke as I saw the economic and residential insecurity that the pandemic exposed, as well as the preexisting medical conditions of folks in my community that it exacerbated. As is said, when the nation gets a cold, marginalized folks get pneumonia.

Our community had to find a way to protect ourselves from an unseen virus, mind the preexisting socioeconomic inequalities, monitor our own pre-COVID health issues, and be on the lookout for potential exposure to a new disease that none of us had ever experienced.

On top of that, in the midst of the pandemic, fatal encounters with police or just everyday citizens made Black people’s names into viral hashtags — Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Nina Pop. It seemed that joy was hiding. I knew that I needed to access some form of joy for my own well-being, but bad news was all around me. I pushed myself to preach and teach about the very thing I was in search of: Black joy.

Barbara Holmes’ book “Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church” has helped me. Holmes calls our attention to the concept that the most powerful response to Black death is Black joy, and she reminds us that we cannot live in an ongoing state of resistance. The joy that she speaks of is a kind of resilience that refuses to be dictated to despite the horrific conditions it is forced to transcend.

Among the practices Holmes encourages is being mindful of our breath — particularly powerful in a moment when our ability to breathe feels endangered on multiple levels. She writes: “Breath is the sustainer of life and also the vehicle for entry into the contemplative center. We take deep breaths to still our thoughts, center our being and connect to a wisdom that permeates the universe. We breathe together individually and communally to invoke the spiritual strength to withstand and resist injustice.”

In this difficult season, I am intentionally looking for unexpected joy, mindful of the quote attributed to Dinos Christianopoulos, “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.”

People are buried under the pressures of life. They’re buried under the weight of having to say goodbye to loved ones taken by COVID-19. They’re buried under job loss and under health disparities, under foreclosure and landlord disputes. They’re buried under the inability to home-school their children, as well as a lack of child care. They’re buried under fear — hoping that their names aren’t the next ones converted into hashtags.

But I find joy by asking the “what if” questions. What if this societal burial is of seeds in the ground? What if, while buried under job loss, we discover new vocational purpose? What if, while buried under health disparities, we find natural ways to heal our bodies? What if, while buried under foreclosure, we spread our wealth by moving two or three families under one roof to ensure that we have what we need?

What if, while buried under home schooling and a lack of child care, we discover new things about our children and begin to teach them according to their own personalities and needs versus what the school system says they need?

The possibilities of “what if” connect to where my joy lies. This is the joy that the world didn’t give. It lies in our ability to redefine what these conditions might be able to produce.

The lesson from the seed is that it may have been dropped into the ground and forgotten, but it is going to live again. The seed is going to live into its possibilities and sprout into its best hopes and dreams. But seeds don’t sprout on their own. They need water, sunlight and external support.

Likewise, for us to make it, we all need a little support while we are buried. We need unjust systems to be overturned. We need ways out of no ways to be made. And we need joy. We need a counternarrative. We need to be reminded that joy is our right. And we need to be reminded, as Nehemiah 8:10 proclaims, that the joy of the Lord is our strength.

Take a lesson from the seed. Find your joy. In that discovery you will also find your strength.