Discipleship, it has been said, is learned on the inside of the church and lived on the outside. Deacons are a special order of ministry in The United Methodist Church that lives out this life of service and compassion beyond the pews and pulpits in ways that make the church relevant and meaningful. Join Bishop LaTrelle Easterling as she talks to two well-storied Deacons, the Revs. Leo Yates and Stephanie Moore Hand, as they explore how each of us is called to bring our best gifts to the table.
Rev. Dr. Stephanie Moore Hand is a Deacon who works as a vitality strategist in the Western North Carolina Conference. Before being called into ministry, she was an executive for a Fortune 500 company. During her time in the corporate arena, Hand was one of the youngest African-American executives in America running airports. She earned a doctorate from Wesley Theological Seminary, with a concentration in transformational leadership.
Rev. Leo Yates is a Deacon serving as a chaplain at the Western Region Hospital Center and the BWC’s coordinator of Accessibility and Inclusion. He is a nationally known activist and advocate for Deaf and hard of hearing ministries. Yates’ secondary appointment is at Emmanuel UMC in Laurel. In addition, he holds a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor license in the state of Maryland and is a board-approved clinical supervisor. Yates chairs the BWC’s Order of Deacons.
Questions for Reflection and Extending the Conversation
Bishop LaTrelle: Beloved of God. I am excited to welcome our guests to Thursdays at the Table. We're going to explore the order of Deacon within our denomination, and I know our guests will help us unpack the whole truth about their experience within our denomination as servant leaders who are ordained into the order of Deacon.
Let us welcome Reverend Dr. Leo Yates, chaplain at the Western Region Hospital Center and Coordinator of Accessibility and Inclusion with the Baltimore-Washington Conference, and a well known advocate and activist for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Ministries.
We also have Reverend Dr. Stephanie Moore Hand, Metro District Vitality Strategist with the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church. Welcome both of you to Thursdays at the Table.
Stephanie Moore Hand: Thank you, Bishop, for the opportunity to be here with you.
Leo Yates: Absolutely. Thank you.
Bishop: Wonderful. Looking forward to our conversation. We need to get to some important matters first though. Coffee or tea?
Bishop: Oh, okay a tea. Coffee, Leo?
Bishop: All right. Decaf or irregular.
Leo: I actually do both and I just finished the decaf. Afternoon is always decaf.
Bishop: Herbal. All right. There you go. I have to say Stephanie, you're our first tea drinker so far, and Leo, you are holding it up for the decaf because everybody else so far has been leaded. As a matter of fact, I must confess, we've been joking, like why would you? I repent Leo. I repent of joking about our decaf drinkers. Straight up or enhanced?
Stephanie: Straight up for me.
Bishop: Straight up. No cream, no sugar?
Leo: I would do enhanced with some cream and sweetener, and I was just in Germany and they didn't have just sweetener there. I don't know what it was, but it was good.
Bishop: I don't know what it was, but it was good. You should have brought some back over the pond. You should have brought some back. Amen.
Well today's cup, I often have cups with sayings or things on them, but today's cup is from Wesley Theological Seminary. I think somebody on this podcast, can both of you relate to that? Is that the alma mater?
Bishop: Right. Right? Wonderful. Well, I want somebody to let President David McAllister Wilson know that this Boston University School of Theology grad was repping her Wesley connection today. All right?
Stephanie: Will do.
Bishop: That's the cup for today. Wonderful, thank you so much. I want to start with both of you helping us to understand some of your call story. How did you know that you were called into ministry and specifically to the order of Deacon? Leo, let's start with you.
Leo: I feel like I've repeated my call story quite often, and it always goes back to 1999 when I felt I had this vision where I saw myself signing a sermon to a deaf congregation, and there was this moment of peace that I had not experienced in such a long time. I came out of that moment realizing that I knew God was calling me into the ministry as it runs in my family. My grandfather, my two great uncles, my uncle and my cousin were all ministers in the Holston Conference. I'll be honest, I was more like Jonah or even Jeremiah, like "Me? No Lord."
It took some time, but I searched through that and spoke with Bishop Peggy, Rev. Dr. Kirk Van Gilder, who's in our conference, and my uncle and my cousin about it. I felt more at peace when God had called me when I accepted it and then pursued the process, the ordination process. I knew very early it was all around deaf ministry, and a good part of my ministry now revolves around that and continues to.
Bishop: Right. I want to make sure I understand, Leo, when you talked about this vision, were you awake and you saw a vision or was this a part of a dream?
Leo: Good question. I was awake. I was actually in my aunt and uncle's dining room and I had it. It's almost, sounds like, it felt like a trance in a way, and I just saw myself preaching in sign language and ASL. I was interpreting that church at Community United Methodist Church and so it didn't take me by surprise, but at the same time, I wasn't so sure. No offense to all the clergy here, I wasn't so sure I wanted to be a minister, but I felt like the role of a deacon definitely better fit my, as you were saying in an earlier conversation, my need to be an activist. I really felt like I have a better opportunity to do that in my role as a deacon.
Bishop: Amen. I so appreciate you sharing that aspect of your call story, that reminds me of a mystical experience. I don't think we talk enough about mystics and individuals who have these kinds of visions. Joel, right? The scripture talks about, I will pour out my spirit and folk will have visions, they will dream dreams, and there's a distinction between the two, and so that's part of why I asked you. Thank you for talking about that. As I said, I don't think we really explore and delve enough into what it is when God speaks to us in that mystical way.
I have a whole part of my bookshelf that's dedicated to mystics, and so I'm going to have to find something from Leo Yates and put it in there now with the mystics. That's powerful. That's powerful.
Leo: I did have a dream about it, I will say that, which took place about three or four years later, of the reassurance this is still the right path and again, with this overwhelming sense of peace.
Bishop: Amen. Stephanie, tell us about your call story.
Stephanie: Interestingly enough, I used to run airports, work at the airports, running through all of the things that you see inside an airport. I was the operations manager at the Charlotte Douglass International Airport and became general manager at the Little Rock National Airport, and then regional manager from Florida to LaGuardia in New York City, as well as my portfolio was Concord Mills Mall. So I was doing pretty doggone good. Then I got married when I was living in Little Rock and turned the airport around, and it was a big move for me to move from Charlotte to there. I'm from Morehead City, North Carolina, moved to Charlotte for undergraduate and then began working at the airport. When I came back, my husband and I, Walter 'Chip' Hand Jr, we decided it's time to have -- well I decided it was time to start having some children. I was pregnant and shared, it was on a Monday, I shared with him and the family that I was pregnant. Then Wednesday I had complications, and then Friday complications got worse, and they told me over the phone that I had miscarried. I had challenges all through the weekend and then on Monday, my doctor was a personal friend of ours, and he called me at midnight Sunday, and was talking to Chip.
He goes, "Doc, she's having some challenges," so he said, ''Come on in.'' I came in the next day and they did an ultrasound, and so she was doing the ultrasound, the nurse, and my husband and I were in the room together and she goes, "Yes, we got some challenges here." Then all of a sudden she says, "Oh my God, I see a heartbeat." And we were like, "Why is she calling on God?" What has this got to do with it. We were both down because we heard what he said on Friday. She said, "Go in the room and get dressed, we need to talk to the doctor." I was like, "Okay." So I go in the room, and back up a little, even when I was at the height of my career, there was something missing and I didn't know what it was. I was groomed to lead and I was groomed, and I got there and I was at the height of my career. I was the youngest African American female in the country running airports at that time, and I thought that's what it was going to be, but there was an emptiness. Fast forward to this this room getting dressed. I'm in there getting dressed and I heard the audible voice of God say to me, I get emotional every time I talk about this. "Stephanie, I'm still in charge." I turn around and I thought it was my husband coming in there and saying the seed of Abraham is powerful!
Stephanie: There was nobody in the room with me but me, and I'm like, "What was that?" Then I heard the audible voice of God say to me, "Stephanie, I'm still in charge." Because see, I grew up in the church, but became estranged from the church, because my mom died when I was 22. Then a year later at 23, my grandmother died, and those people were rocks in my life. I didn't get along with God and so I left.
Bishop: Oh, tell the whole truth. Tell the whole truth.
Stephanie: I hated God, and I was mad as Sheol. So I left the church and I said, "I'm not doing anything with you God, because there's no kind of God that would do that to these salt of the earth kind of people." They're not perfect, but they were salt of the earth. My father died when I was three months old. Here I was on my own living and so I was done with God. I met this guy named Chip Hand who brought me back to church.
Here we are thinking we're pregnant and I was praying, God, there's got to be more, there's got to be more. Fast forward from that incident, Ashley is 21-years-old. I was able to journey, but she was a twin they believed, and so I lost one. In that, soon, when she was born in February, I was still going, "God, what are you calling me to do?" People were like, "You should go and be a spiritual director." I was like, "I don't even know what that is, but okay, maybe."
I began exploring, some things came to me, and I went to Pfeiffer University. Because I was on a spiritual journey internally, I took a spiritual formation class. In that class Dr. Patty Myers was my professor. It was a small class. She goes, "We're going to do the labyrinth walk," and I'm like, "What the heck is that?" She goes, "We're going to put it out in the parking lot and we're going to do it on this day." I was the only Black student in the class and I was sitting there going, "I ain't doing that."
They went outside and I'm still journeying and I took the class to journey. They lay this thing down and she says, "Now, when you all are ready to walk through, start, just go ahead, take your shoes off, go ahead and when you get to the center, pray." I was like, "Oh, I guess I need to go," and I did it begrudgingly because I ain't understand it, I ain't understand the historical context, but I'm a firstborn, so obedient. I was the last one to go, and I was going, whew, let me walk in this circle. Let me get in this circle. I got in the middle and I began to do an about face, and because I'm a rule follower, for the most part, I was like, "Oh, I got to pray."
It was a cloudy day, parking lot is full of cars because school was in session. I got in the center and I closed my eyes and I began to pray. All of a sudden I was standing there by myself.
Stephanie: It was sunshine, and the birds were singing and it scared me, because I knew there were at least 20 people out there with me. I quickly got out and I didn't tell the story. God began working on me on this journey towards ordination, because I had no aspirations of it. I just wanted to seek God deeper.
Stephanie: That was the journey towards being in the church, number one, and then as I was in the church, these things birthed, and I went through the process. It was clear to me that I had the ordination of deacon. Now, everybody else was saying, no, don't waste your energy and time on that, you need to be an elder. What a waste. I was like, "Okay, well let me pray about it." I went through the process and a couple of pastors walked me out when I was doing it, and they was like, "No, you really need to consider being an elder." I said, "Well, why?" They listed the order of elders and then we listed the order of deacons.
I went home and I prayed, I was like, "God, everybody is telling me." This is what the Lord said to me. God speaks to me audible, and God said to me, "You've been at the top of a mountain in corporate America, and in order for you to impact community, I need you to be in the second tier." I was like, "Y'all, I'm called to be a deacon." I now understand fully, and you didn't ask us that, but as an order of deacon, my experience has been sometimes people continue that conversation as if this is a second-class seat.
Bishop: That's right. That's right.
Stephanie: As opposed to a mano a mano, different path seat.
Bishop: That's correct.
Stephanie: That's why, and I said it finally affirmatively to say, "No, I'm supposed to be here because it's treated sometimes by some people as a second-class seat."
Bishop: My God. Both of you, what powerful stories. What I appreciate about your call story, Stephanie, much I appreciate about it, but I too heard the audible voice of God when I was called. There are some people who look at you like, “Hmmm, okay, you need to go see somebody about that.” I recall specifically in seminary, I was talking about an assignment I had been given, and I'm in class, and I said to the professor and to the class. I said, "I was really getting worried because you told us that we had the freedom to pick a topic and a topic wouldn't come to me and finally God spoke to me and said this was my topic." The professor literally stopped, turned, and looked at me, and said, "You really believe God speaks to you?" I was able to have enough chutzpah in me to look at him and say, "And you don't?" Now, praise God I still got an A- out of that class.
Stephanie: Come on. Come on.
Bishop: Part of my call story is God waking me up at 3:33 for an entire week saying, “Preach my word.” Again, this notion that God can speak directly to us and into our lives, into our experiences is very powerful. Stephanie, you did open that door, so let's go ahead and walk through it.
Stephanie: All right.
Bishop LaTrelle: I hear people making these statements. “Oh, just a deacon. Why do you want to be a deacon?” I must confess that I often hear it in even more sexist way. Like, "Well it's okay if she's a deacon, if she's a woman, but why would a man?" I've actually seen people on Boards of Ordained Ministry put their arm around young male candidates for ministry and say, "Now you don't want to be a deacon, do you?" Leo, have you ever had an experience like that? Has anyone ever spoken to you as if you were doing something? Again, Stephanie talked about this second-class order.
Leo: For sure. When I went through the process, and I'm on BOOM now and I mentor candidates, so it's a little different. When I went through the process, there was this ushering to be an elder. I think for the most part it's because of its guaranteed appointment, you think you got a guaranteed job. I will say to my credit that I also have a Bachelor's in business. I have gifts for the order piece of being an elder and was approved as a licensed pastor. My spirit was just revolting or rebelling at the whole elder piece of this. I've had numerous elders, especially at DCOM and right after like you just described about trying to see if I would like to be an elder instead.
When I decided to take time away from the process, I did my own spiritual search, kind of like what Stephanie was sharing. When I took a career counseling-- I'm a licensed therapist, as a part of my ministry, I do counseling, and one course is in career counseling. From that course, just this light bulb went off and I just knew at that point, being a deacon is what I'm going to be, and I'm not going to let elders, no offense, try to talk me out of this. When I returned to the process, when I was done with my counseling degree, everybody seemed to be on board with it, and here I am today.
Bishop: Excellent. Stephanie, you spoke to it a little bit, but do you still encounter people who attempt to encourage you to go on? I shared with you earlier, I'll say it now, that we're in the official part of the podcast. I was in conversation with someone recently who expressed that, "Oh, it was a shame that you, with all of your giftedness, all of your brilliance, that you didn't pursue elders' orders." Do you still hear that?
Stephanie: All the time. It's affirming to me that I'm in this to help change the lens of the second, because I'm not a second, none of us are second-class citizens. If we're kingdom people we’re equal. Even in the church, we delineate people and relegate them whether we mean it harmful or not, and we put this status on being an elder. At the end of the day, I want to be a follower of Jesus Christ, and Christ-like, and these titles get us in trouble. We all have to be careful with that because when we pull the titles in and the exterior world looks at us, they don't care whether we are elder, deacon, bishop, they just want some help. They want some hope. I just hope that one day that we would treat this order equally in Western North Carolina. I am the only African-American ordained deacon in Western North Carolina and I was the first.
Bishop LaTrelle: Really?
Stephanie: Yes. I'm not a unicorn. If we examine conferences throughout the United States, some of that might be there. There's a lot of work to be done. At the end of the day I'll say this, one of my appointments, there was a elder there. We had a conversation and that individual said to me, she's gone on to glory now. She said, "If I had not allowed them to make me switch my orders as I felt that I was called to be a deacon." She was miserable.
Bishop LaTrelle: Really?
Stephanie: Because she took the pressure of man and woman and not the calling of God, and she believed that God called her there to be a deacon. Everybody has their path. Everybody has their reasons. I just hope that Boards of Ordained Ministry, allow people to live into the calling. I know you have to sometimes say “but I see in you.” If that's truly what you see then say it, but I want everybody to pray and discern.
Bishop LaTrelle: Now you've said something right there because we in our human experience, our human limitations, sometimes we can try to speak things into people's hearing that is incorrect. Individuals always need to pray and get that confirmation from God. Your friend, your loved one, your whoever may be trying to tell you something but if God has not called you to it, you will find yourself somewhere by yourself trying to figure it out, or as you said of your friend, miserable. Miserable.
Stephanie: She was miserable. I'm a piece of clay that's being molded, and who knows what God's going to do. I always say I am open to the movement of the spirit.
Bishop: Amen. That's powerful. I have to tell you the first time that I was in your presence was when you were invited by Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar to come to the New England Conference. What I remember, first of all, you are a powerful preacher. Both of you are powerful preachers.
Leo: Thank you.
Bishop: I remember you, Stephanie, with that basketball preaching going up and down the aisle of the church with that basketball. If there was any concern about why has the bishop invited this deacon to come speak to us. If there was any concern of that in the beginning, it quickly evaporated, because you commanded the room. You commanded that sanctuary.
This notion of less than, second class, I believe the United Methodist Church is doing a better job holistically explaining all of the ways that people can come into ministry. Set aside ministry because we know that there's ministry of the laity. We believe in the priesthood of all believers.
Stephanie: All believers.
Bishop: But in terms of set apart and set aside ministry, there's missioners and home missioners and deaconesses. There's all kinds of ways that people can answer the call that God has laid upon their lives. I hope in our exploration summits, we're doing a better job of explaining all the expressions of ministry and really allowing persons to receive that information and then go into prayer and say now God, how are you calling me to serve? Where are you calling me to use these gifts and graces that you have given me?
Leo: I would even just add, the good thing about deacons, especially when they are called to a specific setting or a particular ministry or program, it's such a wonderful opportunity to extend the mission of the church in those areas, in those ways. Many more deacons are receiving appointments beyond the local church. It's just another footprint for the church to be there but also to interrelate the different needs with the church. Often we're so focused insular, inward where elders are. What is it Reverend Clark said? That elders are primarily related to the gathered church, deacons are primarily related to the dispersed church. It's such a wonderful way to just get the church even more out there and continue its mission.
Bishop: You make me think about something that we are trying to do here in the Baltimore-Washington Conference and that's through our missional action plan. We're really working to have all of our churches be 100% at 100%. What do we mean by that? Have 100% vitality, vibrancy, for all ministries to be engaged and alive. I firmly believe for us to live into that, we're going to have to shrink to grow. What do I mean by that? Now, don't hear me to say in this explanation that it's about size. It is not about size. A small membership church can be vital and a very large membership can lack vitality.
Regardless of the size, for me, a church that is able to have a multi-layered staff. Right? To be able to compensate those staff persons, that they can give their full attention to the mission and ministry that they have been assigned or invited to undertake. Yes, a lead pastor who's able to focus on leadership development, able to focus more on their preaching and teaching office. Then perhaps a deacon who is again, according to our Book of Discipline, it says that deacons are called to word service compassion and justice. To live in to those ministries of compassion and justice, as you said Leo, to be that bridge to the community.
The pandemic forced us outside the walls of the church. One of my fears is that as we are being vaccinated and we are reentering those spaces, that we're going to forget the community, we're going to forget where we've been and what we've learned during that time. The deacons can help us to keep that door open. To keep that door open, to build those relationships, to strengthen those ties. I hope we continue to live into that. Has it been your experience that there are pastors who don't know how to work with deacons or refuse perhaps even to work with deacons? Have either of you had that experience?
Stephanie: I haven't personally had that experience. I think that particularly with, I'll just use mid-size to small churches, they can't afford number one, another staff person on staff, so they're single staffed. I've served two Anglo faith communities where I was the first African-American serving as a deacon in that, as an African-American deacon, in those spaces and places. I personally have not had that word they say, no, we can't serve with that individual. I have had some language around and there's some equity challenges around the work in which deacons are and this is throughout the country.
Those are some of the things that just have to shift and to people's ideology of who we are, and again, I'm going to use the second class citizens. We're gifted, all of us are gifted by God, and your gift is not greater than my gift and my gift is not greater. I just hope that one day we can get to that point to say no, please bring your gift to the table. I think it gets to finances of a church as to whether or not…and someone said to me, I'll say this, one of my appointments they said, "Well, we hired you because you're cheaper than an elder."
Bishop: My Lord. My Lord.
Stephanie: I was like, "Okay, thank you." Oh my God.
Bishop: I know that it's too bad because so often you hear the phrase, you get what you pay for, well they got a lot more than what they were compensating. Leo, I'm going to come to you to respond to that as well. It was in a 2019 article in the Christian Century where it was written, and these were deacons speaking of their experience. Congregations don't know how to incorporate deacons in ministry, and if they do, they seem to have a hard time paying a deacon a salary. Leo, again, have you yourself experienced that or have you heard other deacons talk about their experience with pastors not knowing how to incorporate them, or churches not wanting to compensate deacons for their ministry?
Leo: I will say yes and yes. For me, I was under one appointment, which I'll leave nameless. The senior pastor said to me and the other deacon, he just was very kind about it, but he said, "I just don't get deacons." Me and this other deacon just looked at each other like, "Really? We're ministers just like you.” I think that's where part of the education needs to continue, in seminary, but even for those who have already graduated from seminary to be more aware about the Holy orders, this is very organic to the church.
Going back to the very start and the Apostle Paul mentioned it in his letters, and Jesus Christ being the servant. Quite often, diakonia is this, I would say the very front line for what most people would see the church serving in some way, trying to encourage individuals to know what their gifts are so they can tap in to that grace and then also serve.
In terms of being salaried, I have in my secondary appointment, it's sometimes often that deacons are not compensated as long as they're compensated in a primary appointment. For me, I have been compensated because I found grants to help fund my positions.
Bishop: You had to go find the grant for the funding.
Leo: I did. During my SPRC meeting, and I was like just ready to go, just let me know kind thing, I came prepared, but it's not across the board. I also know of another deacon who's in full connection, where when she was a provisional deacon, the church did not want her to even use the title Rev. or Deacon. There's conversations between do you use Reverend or Deacon as your title, and they didn't want her to use either/or, and at that point, you're just being oppressive.
Bishop: That's right.
Leo: You just arr. I've seen that, and this is where we have to make choices and not to serve and those type of overly oppressed Christians.
Bishop: Right. What I also hope will happen is that those kinds of statements, those kinds of experiences, will be shared with superintendents, with Boards of Ordained Ministry, with bishops, so that real time conversation can be had. Because again, there are no second class citizens, there are no second class ministries. All are worthy, all are equal, and all need to be respected because it really comes down to respect.
You talk about service and servanthood, and again, Christ reminding us that Christ came to serve and not to be served. I know that I myself, often introducing myself as the chief servant of the Baltimore-Washington and the Peninsula-Delaware conferences. I've actually had a couple of people take me on about that. "Why do you keep expressing that servant part? You're a bishop, you're a leader." I had someone say that I shouldn't say that because again, this notion of coming out of people who were enslaved and you shouldn't keep talking about servant, but we have to get our minds, we have to rest our minds out of the thinking of the world.
Out of the etymology of the world, and put it where it belongs in sacred writ, and in the way that God has created us. Being a servant ought to be seen as the highest calling; ought to be the place of utmost respect in our society, but so often it's just the opposite. Oh, you're a servant? And we look down upon that. We need to, how does the song go? Free your mind and the rest will follow. We need to free our minds about how we think about servant ministry. You also make me think about this notion of treating our deacons as if they're volunteers. We don't compensate volunteers, so you're here volunteering your gifts and your graces. That's another word I wish we'd take out of our lexicon. We're disciples, we're not volunteers. We are all disciples using the gifts and graces that God has given to us.
What can we do to help education? Leo, I almost, am ashamed to hold this up, because I remember you once in conversation saying, "There are other books out there about the order and ministry of a Deacon." I bet you if people have any book, this is the one book that they have. Again, nothing against the book, but The United Methodist Deacon: Ordained to Word, Service, Compassion, and Justice by Margaret Ann Crane. If folks have any tangible resource they can put their hands on beyond the Book of Discipline, this is probably it. What other resources do we need to bring into our use so that we do have a broader, fuller, more robust understanding of the order of deacon?
Leo: I think since I've been the chair of the order, I will host one or two deacon exploration sessions a year. I usually will invite or send an invitation to it to the Dean of the Cabinet, not just for the cabinet, but for everybody, for SPRC leaders, lay leaders who are working with deacons, and specifically for seminarians and those then who are seeking the ordination process. It gives a good overview and it's grounded in certain -- like for deacons, part of our theology is what I would call this emissary servant role that we have. In terms of, because deacons, we are called and sent.
Ordained elders are itinerant, while deacons are still itinerate in terms of where God is calling us and we're going, but I think there are different books out there, the one that comes to mind is an older book that was written around 1999 to 2000, that gives a strong history of the order of deacons going from the early church to now if a person really wants to get this broader idea. Because one of the issues, and maybe Stephanie would agree, is there are different understandings of what a deacon is because in some denominations, they are not ordained as in our denomination. There's like Lutherans, Anglicans, Catholics, Methodists, and there's a few more who are ordained. I think that probably adds to the confusion somewhat.
Stephanie: Correct. I Concur.
Bishop: In some denominations, there is still that two-step process where one becomes a deacon before they go on, but it is not a separate distinct equal order. It is still the stair step, if you will, to the elders orders.
Leo: It's that transitional office. We, thankfully as a denomination, moved away from that. The Anglican they continue to have it even though they have an order of deacons.
Stephanie: To your point, Leo, I think that's a part of the cultural or the historical context of deacon that has not necessarily escaped, evaporated, if you will, and say it's it truly is. We are called from laity to elder and deacon to be in ministry. I would just add to the question of resources. It's time to write some new resources.
Leo: For sure.
Stephanie: I think it's time. I think we're in a season for folks to write some new resources, to bring even a clearer understanding of who we are. Because I will go back to Dr. Peter Story’s statement in a podcast I did last year. He says, the church is in waiting when the church is inside. He didn't say elder or deacon or laity. He says, when we're inside and we're worshiping and we're administrative council and we're Bible study and missions inside the walls of the church. He says, but we are the fullness of God's church when we're apostolic leaders and that has nothing to do with deacon, elder, and laity. That has to be a disciple. That's a person who says that they're a disciple being learned on the inside to then be apostolic to go outside. I think we don't talk about that enough, and we don't insert that enough, because it is growth. We're growing into being sent, not just the deacons should be.
It is the elder, the bishop. That's why, Bishop LaTrelle, from a justice standpoint, I observed throughout the nation who was out on the front lines marching. I'm just saying, I observed, and I was like, "Lord, have mercy. Jesus." Bishop LaTrelle Easterling was out in the streets being the apostolic leader in which I understand biblical text calls us to become, so grateful for the example of what that is.
Bishop: Praise God. You humble me, and we've had that conversation once before. It is so easy to remain in waiting, to remain in the church, and folk will support us in that. There's still some laity who get upset that their pastor is not sitting in the office every day because they might want to drop by. They never seem to, but they might want to drop by. There are folk who will help us to remain in that place, in that literal posture. As far as I'm concerned, not that we're never supposed to be at the church, but for me, that's an antiquated notion of ministry. We do need to be out and engaged. We are losing our relevance to the world because we are cloistered, because we are inside.
I don't want to use the term hiding, but sometimes I wonder if that's not what we're doing, because we are afraid to engage. Let me tell you, everybody out there is not friendly. Yet in one of those times, Stephanie, when we were in Baltimore and we went from Lovely Lane to Sharp Street, marching, some of us had on stoles or collars and people were honking, people were waving, but we came across one person who literally was in tears and said, "Wow, you all care enough to be out here with us."
Now, we ought to be ashamed that that was the statement that was made. To me, that's nothing to celebrate. We ought to be ashamed that somebody would take that deep a note of the church being in the community. We've got to reclaim that ground, the great commission. The great commission was not about drive from your home to the church and have service and get back in your car and go home. It was being sent, being really itinerant. Leo, back to your point, being really itinerant.
Leo: Absolutely. We just need more of that. I love what the Eastern Church does. In the East Orthodox Church, each church has at least seven deacons. Just imagine if you had that many deacons helping to lead and to equip the laity. Really, part of all of our work, not just clergy but laity as well, is what I call making space for grace. That’s Wesleyan theology, that's where we make change, is in our moment of grace. I wish we had more, [laughs] just more deacons.
Bishop: Absolutely. I want to take note of that, again as a missional action plan, 100% at 100%, that we can touch more people both inside the church and beyond the walls of the church. It takes greater numbers to be able to do that. Yes, 5 deacons, 7 deacons, 14 deacons for us to be able to put our hands on and spend time. I think about when you go to the doctor. You know what it feels like when the doctor comes in, and you can tell they are already, they are done with you, they're ready to move on to the next person because that's just what their days demands. I wonder if parishioners ever feel that way, that we, as clergy, they can tell we're already onto the next thing because we're so busy and we need to go. To have enough clergy persons to be able to sit down and be fully present to see each other, "I see you." To really be engaged, that's phenomenal.
That's my vision for who I want us to become across this affiliation in these two conferences, is to have the time and the intention to be present. As you said, Leo, that is how we effect change. It's taking that intentional time. I believe that's what we're called to do. It says we are making disciples of Jesus Christ for the what? Transformation of the world. Not that we have more tithing units in the church, but I digress.
Leo: It’s about relationships as well. It's so important, even when I think about what's facing the-- well, one of the things that's facing the denomination with the UMC and the GMC, it's so important that we can still be in a relationship because it's difficult to make change if you're not in the relationship. It reminds me of Paul's letter in 1 Corinthians. The body has many members, and we all need one another, and it's relationships.
Bishop: Absolutely. Absolutely. Speaking of relationships, speaking of transformation, speaking of making a difference, both of you, again, are known advocates and activists. Both of you also are boots on the ground making a difference. Stephanie, one of the ways that you and I had an opportunity to work together-- God, is it about a year ago now? I think-- Really? Right? It's coming up on a year. Time flies.
You were on the front lines yourself doing some anti-racism work at a time in our country where we're becoming more polarized, when we see Christian nationalism on the rise, which often has an element of supremacy and racism connected to it. What gives you the courage to be on the front lines doing this anti-racism work?
Stephanie: When you get wake up calls at 3:00 AM in the morning and the phone ain't ringing, and God is nudging you to do more, nudging you to get out of your comfort zone to do more, because God has gifted you with the tools and then gifted you to see the resources around you. You're shaking on your knees but you're being obedient. I believe obedience is better than sacrifice.
I stepped out to say-- I'll be honest with you, I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired as an African American woman in America. I have a 21-year-old daughter and a 19-year-old son. If not me, then who? If not now, when? I, in a denomination that is 98% Anglo brothers and sisters, had-- God said, "Now go." I pulled some people together and said, "Hey, this is what I'm thinking. This is what's on my mind." They were like, "Yes. Yes, do it."
I was, I'll be honest, I was nervous about it. I didn't want to get threatening phone calls, but I began to look at the history of the people, the abolitionist, and I just started reading and watching movies. I asked the question, "God, how did Sojourner Truth have so much courage? How did Martin Luther King when he knew that they were trying to kill him, how did he have so much courage?"
They were led by the Holy Spirit. I said, "If they can be led by the Holy Spirit, Lord, here am I, send me." It was a transformational moment. This is a third-- it was a third iteration. The people came and the people engaged. They said, "We didn't know what we didn't know, but we've got to be a part of this movement to do better." I do believe this, and this is a scripture, the text-- I don't quote well, but the scripture text is that the church is the hope of the world.
During my doctoral work, I realized, I do believe the church is the hope of the world. I also believe the church is the problem. When the church gets it right, the world will be transformed. That's why I'm on that front line. That's why-- I ran for public-- That's why I'm doing it. I go-- I'm telling you, I have sleepless nights, but God gives me the covering of, "Do my will."
Stephanie: "Be obedient and I will provide provisions for you."
Bishop: Amen. Amen. Well, you say you don't quote well, you certainly quoted Fannie Lou Hamer well. I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired, and sometimes that's the impetus that we need to be propelled right into motion. Leo, you are certainly an advocate and an activist on behalf of the deaf and hard of hearing communities. Help us understand how the church is failing our deaf and hard of hearing brothers and sisters.
Leo: Thank you. I think it starts-- my parents are deaf, which is one of the reasons why ASL is my first language. I grew up in this community and I attended a deaf church where the pastor was hearing but could sign. I grew up with that background, and God had continued to instill in me that sense of urgency to advocate, to be a voice with, not for, and to support.
Leo: When it comes to deaf and hard of hearing church members and where they are in many churches, quite often they are there but they're often overlooked because if you think about it, one in three seniors have mild to moderate hearing loss. I've visited many churches where I have this radar, kind of like gaydar, but this radar, I can sort of sense, especially when you're not answering me. I just wrote an article just last week about audism. Not autism, but audism.
Leo: In that article I explain how many of the persons who have hearing loss are often overlooked because it tends to be more of a silent community. Also, when it comes to audism, hearing people have hearing privilege. When we have privileges, whether it's White privilege, male privilege, Christian privilege, we're blind to the other realities. With hearing privilege, we're blind to the realities of deaf and hard of hearing people until we know, ourselves, or we're in a relationship with someone who is sharing with us what's going on. Relationship part is key.
There was this course, there's always somebody who did a reply to that article about "woke," making quotes…Of course, instinctively, I wanted to say something negatively, but I also know that I need to leave the door open so we can have future conversations. This is what makes space for grace. It doesn't mean that I will agree with the person, but make space for grace, because I also know as a clinician, not everybody when they're being defensive are going to hear what you want to say.
Churches could do a much better job, but making sure communication access, at a minimum, communication access. If we want, let's talk about theology. Liberation theology. One of the things I've been studying is Black liberation theology of disability, because deaf ministries has also grown for me to get involved in disability ministries, and that's because my mother who had multiple disabilities.
There's just so much more, even for our work internally as hearing people, as people who are abled-bodied, or temporarily abled, because if you live long enough, you'll end up getting a disability. I just think that churches could do a better job at being more sensitive, more educated, and also know what resources are available in terms of grants. That's the easiest thing, if you need a system for your church. Discipleship Ministries has grants for this. Not waiting to turn on captions until after an event has been done. Well, you just excluded the deaf and hard of hearing people.
Bishop: Right. You make me think about the church that says, "Oh, we'll think about a Sunday school when the family shows up with the children." Well, guess what? They may never come back because they came to your church and you didn't have anything for the young people. I would imagine if there's an individual who's visiting a congregation and they are deaf or hard of hearing and there is nothing there, there is no sign there for them. By sign, I don't mean a literal sign. I mean there's no sign of preparation for them, there's no way that they feel included. They may never come back. Waiting until, is waiting too late to really be a welcoming and inclusive congregation.
Leo: I would just add, if I could.
Leo: Inclusion is often used-- I'm on the side-- people need to feel like they belong. Inclusion is opening your door for them, but the relationship is so key and people will want to come back if they feel like they belong.
Bishop LaTrelle: That's a great point, Leo. Tell the whole truth. That's exactly right. We see all these memes where they talk about diversity is this, and then you take the next step, and yes, inclusion, but it says, "But what of belonging?" Belonging. When folk really feel like they belong. Thank you for that. Thank you for pushing that just a little bit further.
Stephanie, I want to come back to something you said, because you opened another door. You touched it and then you came back. Political office. You were a candidate most recently in your community. Talk to us about running for political office and what that experience was like?
Stephanie: Running for political office was an amazing experience. Why I say that is that I realize some things that I have to work on as a Christian and a leader in the church. I think all of us are leaders, is that when people called me and said, "You should consider," I was like, "No, I'm good. I'm good, I'm good." They were like, "Well, I don't know. Why don't you consider it?" All year long they did this. Then about November I was like-- I have a prayer circle, and they're like, "Well, Stephanie, have you prayed about it?" I was like, "Heck no. I haven't prayed about it."
Bishop: "I don't want to hear God say!”
Stephanie: "I don't want to know.” [laughs] I know the Lord talks to me. I called my bishop and I said, "Listen, I'm in this season of discernment about running for political--" I had a whole speech, and he interrupted me. [chuckles] He said, "That is the ethos of the Black church. That is the ethos of the church." He went on and rattled, all the things from biblical into historical course, into present persons who are clergy, who are elders who are in political office today.
He goes, "Well, that's right. You said you had to discern it." I was like, "Well, Bishop, okay, could you cover me?" He goes, "I got you." For three weeks I prayed and I clearly knew what God said but I was like, "Well, I don't have--" I filled in the blank. "I don't have this person," and the next morning at 8:30 in the morning someone called, who was checking on me every single month about this.
I told them that. I was like, "I can't do it because I don't have this," and they said, "That's why I'm calling you this morning, because I have that person for you." I yielded. Fast forward to the election, I won the primary, 38 out of 38 precincts won, and then went to the general election. This is what I learned on the front lines. You talk about apostolic leadership. I had people call me out my name. I had people call me expletives.
I had people say that I was a communist, that I was a socialist, "And we're not voting for no d--" fill in the blank. As individuals said that to me or my poll workers, I became angry inside. How dare they? Then the Spirit said, "Pray." I would pray for each individual who did that. Every time they would come back out to me and they were like, "Excuse me, can I have a moment with you?"
I'll share this one. This woman said to me, "I don't know what it is about you but I'm a Christian and I need to come back out here and just tell you my thoughts." I was like, "Lord, [laughs] I ain't say nothing the first time."
Lord's like, "Listen," and I listened to this woman. Her mother came up. I listened, I said, "Well, let me tell you a little story about me." I told her about my great grandparents, where they owned land and some Anglo brothers and sisters decided that their land was now their land. They came and set up shop on my great grandparents' land. I said, "We need government to intervene." I said, "But nobody in my town would take the case, because these were Black folk back in the time of Jim Crow.”
I said, "We're Christians, right?" They were like, "Yes." I said, "We all have a story, but we don't have to treat each other inhumane because we may differ." I said, "I see y'all's big rings on your fingers, big diamonds." I said, "You got your husbands." I said, "Y'all agree all the time?" They were like, "No." I said, "But there's a common thread that keeps you married, together." I said, "That's what we're called to do as opposed to abusing each other. We can have differences." I knew then that I did not know necessarily the hurt and the pain of the people who may or may not be in church on those front lines, and they have to see another way.
That's why I ran, because I now believe wholeheartedly the polarization in our country, we are going to implode if we don't have leaders who stand in the gap and say, "There is another way, another north star." I believe in it. I think we got to raise up more leaders to get outside the walls of our church to be on the front line in the government because I think somewhere in scripture it said the government will be on my shoulder. I'm just saying.
Bishop: "Upon my shoulders," I believe.
I believe it's in the book.
Stephanie: We just got to fan that flame and do more than what we're doing and stretch ourselves. I ain't got no background in political office, but I do love the Lord and I want to be obedient. I made history. I'm just telling you what the people are telling me. There was a historical moment in North Carolina and even in our region that I was able to come this close.
Bishop: You did come close. It was just a few points. I checked the results. You were defeated by just a few points.
Stephanie: Yes. I just give God glory that we have to-- we're called to go out, because if we examine Jesus' life, 80% of his time was not in the temple.
Bishop: That's right.
Stephanie: He was on the streets with the least, the lost, the underserved in community, and Jesus was the King of Kings. If the King of Kings can be on the front line in danger, in harm's way, and people that don't look like and don't act like, and all those things, and don't smell like, then we're called to do the same thing.
Bishop: Amen. I appreciate your laying it out that way because there are some who still say, "Oh, well, if you're in ministry, you shouldn't be involved in politics." Or some people that even go as far as to say, "Oh, the church shouldn't be involved in politics." I really don't know how they read scripture and come to the conclusion that this Jesus that you just talked about was not-- Jesus was speaking to empire. Jesus was speaking to those in the polis, in the city center. Jesus was speaking to them.
You said most of his time was spent out in the community. He was not always just talking to religious leaders. Now, sometimes he was rebuking them too, but he was also taking on those in political leadership out in the world. For me, I see no conflict. I see no conflict. I'm more concerned when churches are trying to tell people who specifically to vote for, and, "If you don't vote for this person, you're going to hell," and all that kind of thing. I'm seeing more and more of that. That troubles me.
This notion that we are not supposed to be engaged in helping to bring about change in our community, I've never quite understood that. Thank you, first of all, for your willingness to allow God to use you in that way, and thank you for helping us to understand there is a place for us to be serving in that way.
Stephanie: I will say this, Bishop, is that my opponent, he publicly stated in the papers, he goes, "She's special," that, "She was very kind and professional, and gracious." He has it in print everywhere when he talks. I say the same. He's got some challenges, but I say the same thing, that to me, he was gracious and he was kind. We ran a race and we shook hands when the polls closed because that's the communities in which I desire to see.
We can disagree. I think all of us together, we're going to disagree on some stuff, but dawg, don't let it splinter us because there really is an enemy out there, and so we have to start working better together in the common things that bring us and make us humanity, make us American citizens, make us who we are as the church.
Bishop: Again, that's exactly why-- we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against rulers and principalities, and evil, wickedness in high places. We need to stop fighting each other and really understand that there is an evil at work in the world. Back to where we started, this notion of mysticism and not being afraid to speak about what's really happening. Not just temporally, but what's happening spiritually around us.
Being in tune with that, not afraid to speak it, not afraid to name it, for those who feel called to it and equipped with the anointing of the Holy Spirit to take it on. That can be within the church, that can be within the world. I want to see some folk who are deep servants of God in medicine.
Stephanie: Come on. Yes.
Bishop: We may not have another Henrietta Lacks. I want to see some people who have an anointing and understand the word of God and have studied it in politics. I want to see folk who have that same thing in education. Maybe we'll stop banning books and talking about prayer in school, but yet there was prayer in school and they were still segregated, all of those kinds of things.
For me, people who are anointed and have a deep relationship with God out in the world, making a difference, that's what's important. Not to proselytize. I'm not talking about that, but to just create a better world where all can belong, back to Leo's point. See, I was about to say more inclusive. See, Leo, you helped me with that. I caught myself.
Where all can belong.
Bishop: Amen and amen. Last question for both of you. Leo, I'm going to start with you. What do you want leaders in the church to know about the Order of Deacons? If there's one thing that folk can take away from this conversation, what do you need for us to know?
Leo: I would encourage that all leaders, deacons as well, all leaders, to look around the table, and if they don't see a deacon to invite, make sure you invite a deacon to be present in the leadership. In our own Order of Deacons meeting, I've mentioned it. I really think, even with NEJ Conference coming up, I sent an e-mail of advocacy to ensure that deacons will be consistently present and visible during the jurisdictional conference, because when they're not there, who are you typically seeing? It's the elders.
Then we're, again, perpetrating this only one order, where really we need to see the bishops and the elders and the deacons working collaboratively together. My point is, I would ensure to invite a deacon to be in leadership, at whatever table or space that you're presiding in or you're at.
Bishop: Excellent. Stephanie, same question.
Stephanie: That we're all children of God. We all have gifts from God. My gift is not greater than your gift and your gift is not greater than my gift. We have assignments. Let's celebrate the assignments that God has given us in an equitable manner so that we all have room at the table.
Bishop LaTrelle: Amen. Well, in nomenclature of the young people, it's clear that both of you understand your assignments because you are leading powerfully in the places God has given you the opportunity to serve. Thank you. Thank you for being a part of this Thursday At The Table, and thank you for who you are. May God richly bless you as you continue to lead and serve.