This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Being somebody

Real Families: Meditations on family life

Ibelieve in the power and beauty and wonder of diversity. I believe our faith calls different people together in order to be a brand new people. I also believe this coming together is radically more powerful when we are grounded in the places and the people we come from. These places and people matter.

Shands_stoltzfusThis year marks 47 years since Martin Luther King Jr. spoke from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. This march was for jobs and freedom, for justice, and the speech drew upon and echoed the words of the biblical prophets. The speech encompassed all kinds of people while being grounded in a specific tradition. It was a way of affirming the “somebodyness” of African American people.

King used this word—somebodyness—to express the worth and dignity of an individual, combined with the agency through which a person can make things happen. Our “somebodyness” is derived in part from those who look like us, talk like us and come from where we have come from. They give us anchors, places in which to secure ourselves. But we don’t need to stay anchored. We can venture out and work with others who don’t look or think like us but are committed to the same values and want to create a peaceful and just future for all.

I have been collecting stories of African American women and their journeys as Christians who strongly identify with a biblical call to justice. Part of what I wanted to hear from these women is how they sustain themselves for the long haul—what keeps them grounded, what keeps them going. One woman works with a multiracial, multiethnic peace group that offers space for people to explore being community and learning together to follow Jesus in ways that seem unorthodox to “mainstream” Christianity. Here she meets people who may disagree but who are committed to a way of life. It is not a space to retreat from the pains and struggles of life outside that space or be a sheltering bubble. It is a space that gives life and energy for the activities that take place outside that space.

Another woman has committed herself to helping shape culturally appropriate worship and church life by producing worship materials for the life of the black church, including a hymnal project that includes hymns by African American composers and worship resources that tell the story of black Christianity.

In such stories I identity several ways these women have been empowered to work across boundaries of difference. Each woman has developed a way to ground her activities from the center of her own cultural identities and giftedness. Each spoke of being nurtured in identities affirmed and appreciated in their communities, even if not in the broader society.

One woman speaks of taking the opportunity every Sunday to teach black history through acts of worship and liturgy. Another dispersed community regularly shares information about their individual experiences but also reflects corporately on articles, books and sermons in online forums. Once a year, a face-to-face gathering incorporates community building, worship and education on such issues as sustainable farming, consensus training and why the prison industrial complex is an issue for peacemakers.

Both women speak of a sense of belonging and a system of accountability. A community, or a network of communities, has been essential to sustaining them for the long haul, for adapting their passions as a way of life. While having relationships with those who share racial/cultural backgrounds is important, authentic cross-racial/cultural relationships are also important. And while having a shared commitment to working for peace is important, authentic relationships are built upon more than this. Being intentional about knowing each other as fully rounded human beings matters. This means part of the “work” is play—cooking and eating together, watching movies, going to events, bringing families together, just hanging out. In the midst of this, the work continues—the development of a common language to talk about injustice, building resources and skills, confronting those who misuse power, and working to create new institutional structures built upon the dignity—the somebodyness—of all people.

Being intentional about relationships that cross differences means that hard conversations happen. This is where many coalitions break down. People who have no other commitment to each other except for the “work” can easily walk away. We need to carve out spaces where we can be our authentic selves with one another.

Regina Shands Stoltzfus is working on a doctorate in theology and ethics at Chicago Theological Seminary.

Sign up to our newsletter for important updates and news!