My friend Rev. Marty Troyer, pastor of Houston Mennonite Church asked me to write a guest post at his blog for a series he’s doing on Self-Differentiation and the connection between Identity, Community and Mission- blog.chron.com/thepeacepastor (great blog to follow!). This is what I wrote, http://blog.chron.com/thepeacepastor/2013/06/black-woman-proud-part-3-in-a-series-on-identity-community-and-mission/
“… and dear God, help us focus on being united and not divided or divisive.” His words jammed my ears and echoed a few minutes. The prayers of a young white male in a congregation directly after I delivered a sermon which included reflections on my struggles and joys of being a black woman in an all-white church. I remember hearing that several people had problems with my talk, and this guy verbalized his discomfort through prayer. Afterward, I spent days pouring over what I said that sounded divisive. Today, after other similar experiences I’ve come to the conclusion that whenever a woman or person of color states their own reality of being who they are to a white and/or male group it is often heard as being divisive. “Why can’t you just get along and be like the rest of us?” Well, because I can’t.
The fact that I acknowledge the obvious, my blackness and femaleness should not arouse discomfort in others, but at times it does. Perhaps it’s the old “I don’t see color, I don’t see gender” racist, sexist rhetoric that drives the uneasiness. But what’s so wrong with seeing color and gender and even celebrating it in community?!!
As a black woman (see, I did it again) who has chosen to be intentional about engaging in community with Christians who are not necessarily like myself, I have come up against a few walls including the huge Mennonite wall which is a hard one to climb. The temptation to shut up, blend in or become invisible is often with me however I resist that solution because healthy self-differentiation is critical for my own mental and emotional wellbeing and yours too. In 2 Corinthians 12:14-18 we’re reminded “to think about how all this makes you more significant, not less. A body isn’t just a single part blown up into something huge. It’s all the different-but-similar parts arranged and functioning together. If Foot said, ‘I’m not elegant like Hand, embellished with rings; I guess I don’t belong to this body’ would that make it so? If Ear said, ‘I’m not beautiful like Eye, limpid and expressive; I don’t deserve a place on the head’ would you want to remove it from the body? If the body was all eyes, how could it hear? If all ears, how could it smell? As it is, we see that God has carefully placed each part of the body right where God wanted it.” We are a beautiful effective whole when I am who I am and you are who you are, together.
Desiring to please others by diminishing myself and muting my stories and life experiences for the sake of the group is harmful. And so as I happily engage the theology, songs, food and culture of the larger white group I also share my own without shame, without apology.
Marty’s working definition of Self-Differentiation- having the capacity to claim and embrace what is so for me (my beliefs, feelings, emotions, experiences, story, etc…) in the face of pressure to conform while remaining fully engaged with my community. It’s neither fight nor flight, but a third way of being myself in community and encouraging others to embrace the same freedom. Clarity of Identity and authentic Community lead to faithful Mission.
The alternative I fear, for me as a black woman is shamed identity, 2nd and 3rd class citizenship, and inauthentic mission of the church. A frequent reminder of lines from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) stalk me, “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.”
I will not be invisible.