Felicia Howell LaBoy, Northern Illinois Annual Conference
Although I am often in situations where I am one of a few clergywomen of color present, if not the only one, or I am the first woman or woman of color to serve in a previously male-oriented or Anglo-oriented role, I would not say that I always speak the truth with gentleness in ministerial or academic situations. Given my northeastern sensibilities, specifically my northern New Jersey upbringing, more often than not, I tend to speak the truth plainly and clearly in times of covert and overt racism, sexism, classism, and privilege—no sugarcoating, no beating around the bush. I say what I mean and let the chips fall where they may. Contrary to how others may perceive it, when I speak against an injustice, I speak from a position of love. Sometimes I speak directly because I sense that situations will lead to festering and cause more harm—with regard to hurt feelings and missed opportunities for ministry, to those within and outside our Church—if these situations are not dealt with directly or at least put on the table openly.
While church members have sometimes misunderstood my directness, often it has provided the right catalyst for us to move forward in a particular circumstance. In my nine years of ministry, I have found that to speakdirectly with love is also a way to speak the truth with grace. I have discovered that in addition to conveying the idea of gentleness, the New Testament understanding of the word grace implies the idea of empowerment (Acts 4:33; 14:3, 1 Cor. 3:10; 2 Cor. 12:9). According to Paul, God’s grace abides in us (2 Cor. 9:14) and empowers us for the good work for which we have been predestined (Eph. 2:10; 2 Thess. 1:11–12). Simply put, when I take time to meditate on the grace that has been given me through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection and that transforms me daily into who God already says I am, when I take time to discover all the gifts that God has given me and am conscious of God’s will in my life, and when I refuse to bow down to a false sense of humility or someone else’s expectations of who I should be or what I can do based on my gender, race, or socioeconomic condition, then I can boldly state as the Apostle Paul did, “But by the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Cor. 15:10a). From the position of grace, I can speak and work with boldness and with some bodaciousness, regardless of the obstacles I face. I have repeatedly found that when I do all these things and remember that God’s love for and acceptance of me means that I do not have to earn acceptance or love by pleasing people, people usually see my approach as enlivened, helpful, and insightful rather than as blunt and destructive. In addition, I am able to set clear boundaries around who I am and what I am prepared to do and not do. As my good friend the Reverend Dr. SanDawna Ashley reminds me often, all God asks of me is to be me—the real me and no one else—for that is the gift I bring to whatever table I find myself and that is the gift that is usually needed (as 1 Cor. 12:12–31 suggests).
In two recent events, I was reminded of how being myself fully is a masterful way to speak the truth with grace. The first occurred during the unveiling of the bust of Sojourner Truth at Emancipation Hall in the Capitol Visitor Center. As an African American woman born in the 1960s, I watched the ceremony with much pride and encouragement. Not only was Sojourner Truth the first Black woman to be honored in this way, the speakers and the audience included many women who looked like me. Some of these beautiful Black women, who included First Lady Michelle Obama, the sculptor Artis Lane, representatives of the National Congress of Black Women, and members of Sojourner Truth’s family, wore regal “church hats,” what Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry refer to as “crowns.”1 Immediately, I recalled the hundreds of Black Christian women who, from my youth to now, had encouraged me to be bold and bodacious by word and example and to know that God is on my side, as I continued my journey of often being the only African American and most often the only woman, or one of a few women, in the classroom or at work. The presence of these women spoke to me, reminding me of the importance of saying what needs to be said and doing what needs to be done—of speaking the truth from a divine enablement of power.
More boldly than these women, First Lady Michelle Obama spoke the truth with grace with her presence, words, and actions. In addition to acknowledging how Sojourner Truth’s outspoken and bodacious way of speaking truth with grace had called some to accountability and others to freedom, Michelle Obama herself modeled that boldness and consequently affirmed both her own presence and the presence of those “less privileged” in the room. Let me give two specific examples of Michelle Obama’s actions that day.
First, Michelle Obama obviously had not received a memo regarding the proper protocol to follow after the Ron Clark Academy choir had performed the special song they had written and choreographed in honor of Sojourner Truth. While others in the room clapped demurely, Michelle Obama showed how muchshe had enjoyed the performance by clapping enthusiastically, swaying in her seat, and smiling proudly as if the young people were her own. Clearly, she had enjoyed the ministry that the young people provided and had no problems with expressing her pleasure. As she clapped, I saw that others, who had been afraid to be more open, had begun to clap enthusiastically with her.
Second, Michelle Obama highlighted the special significance that the bust of Sojourner Truth meant for all Americans, specifically the African American women in the room. When Michelle Obama took the podium, like the speakers before her, she highlighted Sojourner Truth’s significance as a role model for women’s rights and talked about how Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s roles were a continuation of that significance. While speakers such as Clinton and Pelosi had emphasized Sojourner Truth’s accomplishments as a woman, nowhere in their speeches had they mentioned that she was a Black woman—a fact that sat in the room like an eight-hundred-pound elephant. Then, Michelle Obama spoke the truth in grace to everyone in the room by affirming her presence and other Black women like herself by stating:
And just as Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Mott would be pleased to know that we have a woman serving as the Speaker of the House of Representatives, I hope that Sojourner Truth would be proud to see me, a descendant of slaves, serving as the First Lady of the United States of America. . . . And just as many young boys and girls have walked through this Capitol, I see them now. And they see the busts of suffragists and hear the stories of the struggles of women—what they had to endure to gain the right to vote. Now many young boys and girls like my own daughters will come to Emancipation Hall and see the face of a woman who looks like them. And all the visitors in the U.S. Capitol will hear of the story of brave women who endured the greatest of humanity’s indignities. They’ll hear the story of Sojourner Truth, who didn’t allow those indignities to destroy her spirit, who fought for her own freedom and then used her powers, young people. Then she used her powers to help others who fought for the right to vote and for the rights of all women. The power of this bust will not just be in the metal that delineates Sojourner Truth’s face. It will also be in the message that defines her legacy. Forevermore, in the halls of one of our country’s greatest monuments of liberty and equality, justice and freedom, Sojourner Truth’s story will be told again and again and again and again.2
With these words, Michelle Obama lifted up for everyone in the room the idea that diversity does not mean colorblindness or assimilation; instead, diversity means acknowledging that each person brings unique and necessary cultural capital (that is, , race, gender, and socioeconomic status) to the table from which current and future generations can benefit. Michelle Obama refused to sit silently and ignore that being Black was a critical component to Sojourner Truth’s legacy and success, and that her blackness—as much as her gender and her humanity—has something to say to all persons who share her race. In the words of James Brown, Michelle Obama bodaciously spoke the truth with grace by “Say(ing) it loud! I’m Black and I’m proud.”3
The second event that reminded me of the importance of speaking the truth with grace and boldness occurred during evangelism training in August 2009. I was rather straightforward when I reminded the laity present that they had spent too much time in Bible study, Sunday school, and Sunday worship services to have to rely on the clergy to be the primary ones to evangelize others. To those in the room who thought that the call to Christian discipleship and accountability is solely the purview of male—and more specifically African American male—pastors, I said out loud what some of my colleagues and I have shared privately. In fact, if I recall correctly, some of my exact words were “shame on you for having faithfully come to worship services and Bible studies year after year, and for not applying yourself so that you would know enough to share your Christian experience of God with someone else or help disciple a babe in Christ. Shame on you for always having to be carried, comforted, and babied, rather than stepping up to help lead, given all that has been invested in you spiritually and all the Christian resources at your disposal (for example, Disciple).” I also remember chastising persons for always needing to be ministered to instead of allowing themselves at some point to mature in the faith and become equipped to minister to others. I asked them to remember that they are not called to either a comfortable or a convenient faith.
Admittedly, during the training, I was more than a little worried that I had been too blunt. I reminded myself that I was only doing what I had been taught to do and that a sense of urgency to evangelize people within and outside the Church warranted my bluntness. I also reasoned that I had only about six hours to get my message across, so I did not have much time to mince words just to keep people comfortable. Much to my surprise, after the session many people commented that they were leaving encouraged and empowered to begin to figure out how to evangelize, based on their areas of giftedness and temperament. I also received an e-mail a couple of weeks later from one of the participants asking for additional resources so that she could be better prepared. Furthermore, one of my own members who had participated in the training asked me to pray with her as she discerned where God was leading her.
While it is not easy, I have found that speaking the truth with grace means not only that I speak with a kindness and a graciousness that reflect my experience of God’s grace, but also, more often than not, that I speak that truth boldly and bodaciously. I must boldly acknowledge and affirm all that I am, recognizing that when I fully demonstrate and work in areas of my giftedness, then my very presence speaks truth with grace. I do not have to deny my race, gender, or God-given temperament by trying to blend in to keep everyone comfortable, doing what others have done before me, or doing what is based on their cultural context. All I have to do is “be me” and help create an environment where other persons can do the same. In my experience when this happens, sin is exposed, wounds are healed, and grace abounds so that new ways of being in our Church and in our world are revealed.
1 Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry, Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats (New York: Doubleday, 2000).
2 Michelle Obama, speech given at the tribute commemorating the unveiling of the Sojourner Truth bust, Emancipation Hall, The U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C., April 28, 2009 (C-Span Video Library).
3 James Brown, “Say It Loud: I’m Black and I’m Proud,” from the album Say It Loud: I’m Black and I’m Proud (Los Angeles, Calif: Vox Studios, 1968).