Episode 4: love in practice
Young adult voices too often go unheard in the church and too often their leadership and perspective is not fully respected, included and valued. In this energetic episode, Bishop LaTrelle Easterling talks with two young thought-leaders, the Rev. Dorlimar Lebrón Malavé and JJ Warren, about identity, the future of the church, the meaning of love, and theology – including Womanist, Activist and Queer Theology which is about de-centering that which has been traditionally prioritized, and allowing room for other expressions, other beliefs, other methodologies. Queer Theology, and the discussion in this podcast, seek to create a place where we offer one another grace as we walk together through our differences.
The Rev. Dorlimar Lebrón Malavé is pastor of the First Spanish United Methodist Church, commonly known as FSUMC/The People's Church in East Harlem in New York. Born in Puerto Rico, her passion centers around de-cloaking, naming and resisting injustice in our society. She is a sister, a daughter and believer in change. In all things she strives to create spaces where love, hope, peace, justice, and liberation are imagined, created and sustained.
JJ Warren is the founder of the Young Prophets Collect, a nonprofit that seeks to equip and empower a global community of young religious leaders who use their voices for liberation. After making an impassioned plea for the inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons at the 2019 General Conference, his speech went viral and he became a powerful witness to the inclusion of all people in the church. He is currently pursuing a doctorate at the University of Vienna in Austria.
Questions for Reflection and Extending the Conversation
Bishop Easterling: Beloved of God, I am so pleased to welcome the guests that we have today to Thursdays at the Table. I do believe that we are really going to tell the whole truth as we talk about what it is to be young clergy in this aging denomination, where if those of us like myself weren't dying our hair, you would see the grayness that we have because of the age of our United Methodist Church. I am so pleased to welcome Rev. Dorlimar Lebrón Malavé, pastor of First Spanish United Methodist Church in the New York Annual Conference, also known as The People's Church, and JJ Warren, founder of Young Prophets Collective, a nonprofit that seeks to equip and empower a global community of LGBTQIA+ religious leaders and allies who use their voice for liberation.
JJ is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Vienna, so he is joining us from Austria. If there appears to be any delay in my questions and his responses, it's because we are truly on different sides of the globe from one another. I'm so grateful to have both of you here, JJ and Dorlimar. Welcome.
JJ: Thank you so much for having us.
Bishop Easterling: Excellent. Wonderful.
Dorlimar: Thank you.
Bishop Easterling: I'm looking forward to a rich conversation. The first question I have to ask you, the first couple are really important, so I really need you to give me your honest answers. Coffee or tea?
JJ: Yes, coffee, but mostly milk and sugar and a little bit of coffee.
Bishop Easterling: See, that was the next question I was going to ask. You put anything in it or is it straight up?
Dorlimar: It depends. It depends on the mood. Some days I'm a black and sugar person, some days I'm a light and sweet with a little splash of coffee, but yes, definitely coffee.
Bishop Easterling: Caffeine, or no caffeine?
Dorlimar: Caffeine unfortunately. JJ is like, what is the blasphemy?
Bishop Easterling: Right, because for me it's like, why bother if I'm not getting caffeinated, why bother with that? Today's coffee cup reads, “Lord, I offer my prayer as my work and my work as my prayer.” I'll be looking at that throughout our time together. Thank you. You've answered some of the most important questions of our time together today. As I've thought about this segment of the podcast, the phrase that kept coming to me was young, gifted, and… whatever you as our guest wanted to insert.
Of course, that's a riff off of the song, Young Gifted and Black by Nina Simone. In her writing that, she aimed to capture the joy in Black identity amid the bloody civil rights struggle that was happening at the time that she wrote that song. I hope to capture the joy of you younger, brilliant, gifted clergy amid this season of division and turmoil and struggle within our United Methodist Church. How would each of you then fill in that blank? Dorlimar, young, gifted and?
Dorlimar: In Spanish there's a word that says “sin vergüenza,” like without shame. I would say young, gifted and daring. As I was thinking about young, gifted and daring, you have to be daring to be in this line of work that we're in. You have to be daring to believe in the impossible, daring to believe in what you don't see. I think that that is a very significant characteristic for me, is that I am young, gifted, and daring to believe.
Bishop Easterling: Amen. I appreciate that. JJ, young, gifted, and?
JJ: It's funny that you prefaced it by saying it's about the joy that we have, and that was going to be my word of young, gifted, and joyful. That's been my motto as I've been working with Methodist churches around the connection is finding joy in what we have. Following joy has meant a lot for me personally in my discernment in so many different ways in my life.
Bishop Easterling: Amen. Thank you for saying that because I do have to say almost every time I see a picture of you, you're smiling, and it doesn't look forced, it doesn't look prescribed. It really looks like a genuine joy that you have. It reminds me of that phrase growing up. I don't know if it's just in the Black community, but certainly in my community, we would hear often in worship this joy that I have, the world didn't give it to me so the world can't take it away.
JJ: Come on.
Bishop Easterling: I really appreciate that there's an embodied joy when I see you amidst, as I said, this conflicted denomination that we're living in. Continuing then in that thread, what is keeping you connected to the United Methodist Church, because certainly during the pandemic we've experienced the great resignation both inside and outside of the church, but I think even before that, so many articles were being written about the burnout of clergy and how some of our young clergy were saying, "Yes, this is nice, no, thanks." I think that there's other pathways that I could live out my calling. I'll come back to you JJ, what keeps you connected to the United Methodist Church right now?
JJ: Dorlimar's church is called the People's Church. For me, that's-- at its best, that's what keeps me in the Methodist Church, is the people. Ever since I was a youth in high school, the Methodist Church connected me to people who I never would've met. I'm from a small town in rural upstate New York where there are more cows than people. Connection meant so much to me. When I was in high school, I got to go to India to see the Methodist Church in India with other young people from the United Methodist Church in the Northeast.
Since then, I've gotten to travel around and see United Methodist people all over the country in about 30 states. I just got back from Kenya visiting Methodists there. It really is the beauty of our diversity that we have yet to embrace fully in the Methodist Church. I stay for the possibilities that exist in these relationships that we haven't utilized well or even justly yet, but that have so much potential for goodness and for joy and the church.
Bishop Easterling: Amen. Amen. That word relationship, I tell you, in every opportunity I'm having to do this podcast, to talk to those who are guests, that word relationship just keeps coming up. We know that scripture calls us into a relationship, that's what it's all about, into a relationship with God, into a relationship with Christ, which can only be had authentically if we're in relationship with each other. I so appreciate you lifting up that it's the relationships that you have, but also the possibility, the possibility. Dorlimar, what keeps you connected?
Dorlimar: I'm coming at this having served in my first appointment now for five years. I'm starting my fifth year now in July. It feels like what has defined or what could define my ministry as chaos and one disaster after the next particularly in my context, I'm in a church restart which is very similar to a church plant. In a lot of ways I feel like it is a way to transition the old and also like midwife the new. When you're restarting your church, you're thinking, taking something that was, you're holding onto these traditions and you're making it contextual to what this moment requires.
I think that in a lot of ways what keeps me connected is very similar, this idea of like, there are still people who need to know love, there are still people who need to be transformed by love. As someone who is third and fourth generation Methodist from the Methodist in Puerto Rico to now United Methodism here in the United States, the two sacraments of our church are some of the things that keep me the most grounded. The idea that the communion table, that our theology, whether we embody it or not, whether we live it out in practice or not, whether it comes through in our everyday lived experiences in our local churches or in the institutional church, at the crux of our theology is this theology that's a communion table, that this table of God, of Jesus displaying the greatest act of solidarity, the greatest act of love of saying, "You know, what, in this moment where I'm going to bring my people together and where I'm going to say things are going to get hard but you're not going to be alone. That we're going to continue to do this and we're going to--" That powerful act, is open to anybody. You don't need to be a member of a church, you don't need to be a believer, you just need to want to be a part and have a willing heart. Then our baptism, this belief that literally before you were in your mother's womb, God knew you, and God chose you, and God made you a part of this family, whether you want to or not.
Bishop Easterling: Come on.
Dorlimar: Whether you are aware of this or not. Those things are the theology that-- when people ask me #BeUMC, I'm like these real theological pillars of our faith that have everything to do with inclusion, that have everything to do with justice, and making room at the table for all of us. Those are the things for me, when you asked me BeUMC, this is why I am UMC, because I want to live in a world where there is more than enough room for all of us. I want to live in a world where regardless if we know it or not, regardless if we've messed up, regardless of where we started, that God has already claimed us.
Bishop Easterling: Yes.
Dorlimar: That's the world that I want to live in, and as people of faith, as pastors, as leaders in the church, we have to be prisoners of hope. You can't be doing this work if you're not daring enough to believe and joyful enough to know that the joy that we have, this world, whatever comes our way, can't take it away.
Bishop Easterling: Yes.
Dorlimar: Those things have been keeping me really grounded and really clear about-- we don't know these beliefs, these sayings. That's what I learned in this pandemic, all these sayings that I knew my whole life. These sayings like this joy that we have the world didn't give it to me. These songs that we've been singing we really believe in them now because you have no other choice. When we say that there is no way that God will make ways that have no way, there's a whole generation of people of faith that are seeing those things differently now.
Bishop Easterling: My Lord.
Dorlimar: That are really knowing what that really means in the midst of hard times what it really means to stand on what we say we believe.
Bishop Easterling: That's right. Well, faith isn't tested, when things are going well, when the sun is shining, when the cupboards are full and the bank account is flush, that's not when faith is tested, faith is tested when none of that is true. Then as you said, then we'll see if we believe what we say we believe. Now look here, you almost had me running around this room, I just want you to understand.
Okay, praise be to God. One of the things I almost said when I was asking you that question, tying it to what JJ said about possibility, I almost thought pregnant with possibility, and I said, "No, don't say tha.," But in your answer, you talk about a midwife, you talk about birthing, you talk about being knit together in our mother's womb and God knowing us before. What I was thinking, you went ahead and espoused and of course, you also made me think of that beautiful song, Come to the Table of Grace. “It's not our table, it is God's table. It's not yours or mine. Come, come, come to this table of grace.” Thank you, those are powerful responses and give us a lot to think about. Wait, but just a second Dorlimar, when you talk about being in your appointment for five years, your first appointment, you're talking about the People's Church?
Dorlimar: I am.
Bishop Easterling: I just got to take a little issue with that because I thought you were appointed to a church before this one in another conference.
Dorlimar: I was, you're absolutely right. It is technically my second appointment. My first appointment was in the Metro Boston Hope, is it still Metro Boston Hope?
Bishop Easterling: It isn't now, it is not now, they have reorganized themselves in the New England Conference.
Dorlimar: I was like, "I don't know what exactly”
Bishop Easterling: I'm not sure what its name is now.
Dorlimar: Yes , I still hold East August in my heart that my dear Bishop was kind enough to let us, you know, really allow God to use us because that was a completely different experience from where I am now.
Bishop Easterling: We didn't ask permission, remember? We embarked upon that, and I didn't. I was the superintendent then and I went to the table and said, "Here's what we've done."
It was like ask forgiveness rather than seek permission, but anyway, I digress, but I just had to get that in there that you had one other appointment before.
JJ: I remember reading about that, and I thought it was so cool to see young people, and you were a seminarian at that time, am I right?
Bishop Easterling: Yes.
JJ: Seeing seminarians having, you know not just saying, "Okay, let's have a young person on the committee," but given actual power to say, "You all can run a church now together," and to know that there were people within the institution like you Bishop, that were willing to stand up and say, "Yes, let's do this," I'm here with you and I'm going to make sure that we find a way to empower young people in real practical ways like that. I just remember reading something about you serving at that church and I was like, "This is awesome, I want to do that one day."
Bishop Easterling: They had phenomenal ministry, and the persons that were there still talk about the ways that they were blessed by Dorlimar and Jonathan's leadership in ministry. Again, thank God that we didn't seek permission first, that we were willing to take that risk.
Dorlimar: Sometime we got to heal on the Sabbath, you just gotta -
Bishop Easterling: Well, come on
Dorlimar: -go on and heal on Sabbath day, it just works out that way.
Bishop Easterling: It does work out that way, it absolutely does. One of the things that you talked about, Dorlimar, was love, and I'll be honest with you, I struggled for a while with the definition of love. We throw around this word all the time and I think we reduce it to this Hallmark, sappy kind of love and that was so unfulfilling for me. It wasn't expansive or radical enough for me at this present time in my life and ministry. I found though, a definition that I could live with right now in All About Love by Bell Hooks.
She was adopting the words of Erich Fromm, as she wrote, "Love is the will to extend one's self for the purpose of nurturing one's own or another's spiritual growth.” Right? About helping each of us to become everything God intended for us to be, not what we think each other should be but everything God intended for us to be, again, as we were being knit together in our mother's womb, she then goes on to say that, "Love is as love does, love and abuse cannot coexist."
Perhaps the most important thing for me that Hooks notes in this book is that, “loving practice is not aimed at simply giving an individual greater life satisfaction, it is extolled as the primary way we end domination and oppression.” Now, does that definition of love resonate with you? How would you define or express love right now where you are in your life and in your ministry?
Dorlimar: That's a text I go back to often. I was introduced to that text from undergrad and it's a three-part series. Definitely, if you're listening and you haven't checked it out please check out Bell Hooks and her All About Love series. I think that it's so interesting because yesterday a text that has been lingering for me about love is the book of Philemon. Seeing the Book of Philemon as a love letter, a love letter that is not a romantic love, it's a very agape love, it's a very much like we're brothers, we're family in Christ, we're believers.
Paul is writing this letter to Philemon asking him not only to take back a runaway servant of his, but to embrace him as a brother. To say the same way that you have been converted and you have become a believer through me, now this runaway servant has also become a believer to me. Now, it doesn't make sense for you to receive him as a slave anymore, you must receive him as a brother. It does because it's similar to that quote, "Love and abuse cannot exist in the same thing." That is what God's love is about.
The thing is that if we are going to say we are going to be followers of Christ, we're going to believe in God and God is love, then all of our relationships must be based on that understanding of love. It goes back to again, where I feel like our Wesleyan tradition offers these core values that are deeply based on love. This is a basis of love that establishes our relationship. All of us are welcome at the table. All of us are baptized from the moment that we're born because all of us are part of God's body. Love.
This is what love is and so Philemon for me is a love letter, is an example of what love looks like, is an example on so many levels. You have the character of Paul who is calling out Philemon saying, if you're really about this flight, because this is what it looks like. I know you say you're my follower and I'm drawing this from your space. This is not coming from thin air, if this is what you hope so it's that kind of love, tough love. It's also the love of Philemon having to find his own transformation and forgiveness for the runaway who probably never believed in who he could be in his whole life.
He's encountered with Paul and Paul is saying, “Listen, you have so much more potential. There's so much more that you can do.” Again, all of that aligning with that definition of Bell Hooks. How is your relationship? How is the way you're loving someone, helping them be everything that they have the opportunity and the potential to be? How is what you're doing-- the story tells of all these different kinds of love. Then you have someone like this runaway who has to learn to trust this new thing. That's love too.
Bishop Easterling: Right. Trust, right, being able to have enough trust in the change because our relationship had been this, but now because of the love of Christ that we have taken on through baptism, through our belief, there's a change. I tell you, and JJ I'm going to come to you in a moment and ask you if this definition of love resonates with you or how you would express love. As I read Bell Hook's definition and the way she goes on to expound upon that, I had to repent.
When I was raising my children, I grew up in a home where spanking was acceptable. As a mother, I spanked my children and I repented of that as I was reading what-- because again, Bell Hook said, you cannot, she said, ''I know in the black tradition, in the African American tradition, this is a part of who we are as families, many of us.'' I'm not talking about that I beat my kids. I'm not saying that, but even spanking with my hand because again, that was a part of my formation as a young person.
I had to repent of that, because I truly began to understand that love and violence, love and abuse cannot exist in the same context. Again, that's part of that transformation. You talk about Philemon and what needed to happen as this brother was being sent back, there had to be some repentance and some change in that relationship, otherwise, it's lip service. All we're offering is lip service, making ourselves feel good about who we say we are, but it's not causing any change. JJ, let's look, get you jump in here in this conversation. Do you resonate at all with what Bell Hooks is talking about? How do you express or need to have love expressed for you?
JJ: I really love this definition. Going off of what Dorlimar said, you quoted one of my favorite verses since I was a kid, Dorlimar, of “God is love.” That cheesy verse that we have in Methodist Christian summer camp of 1 John 4:16, that God is love and those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. It was interesting to have this question flipped because normally, the basic question that people like to ask is, ''Who is God? Or what is God?''
From there, for me my response is, well, love. Then now to have it flipped and say, ''Well, what is love?'' That took me a second to adjust and say, ''Well wait a second. If I believe God is love, well what do I believe love is?'' For me, going off with Bell Hooks says and just the queer theologians that I've gotten to read and interact with and in the solidarity work of activists working with so many different communities, saying that love is active, love isn't like you said Bishop, some Hallmark statement that we have on the card, that love is doing something. It's also about the way that we do what we're doing.
Love isn't only sacrificing for a neighbor, but it's the way in which I'm sacrificing for a neighbor. As I think about that, the words of John Wesley, I can't get his book right now because it's holding up my computer, but his sermon on Christian perfection, good old Wesley holding us up. His sermon on Christian perfection. I'm a bit of a perfectionist, I'll admit that, but I think our Wesleyanism gives us a little out there like, alright. It's been our tradition, but the way that Wesley defines perfection is that love filling the full capacities of the soul, that love motivates every desire of my heart and action of my body.
To think about that, that as Methodists, we believe that we will be perfected. Not that we'll do everything perfectly, but that we will do everything on our best days out of a deep desire of love for our neighbor. In such a time as this, that love as the United Methodist Church, looks like humbling ourselves and empowering and equipping and raising up young people, young queer people, young black and brown people who have been disadvantaged by the church for centuries. As I think about what love looks like, what love does in this moment, it looks a lot like, what this podcast is, it looks a lot like elevating and amplifying young queer people, young people of color that are in the church empowering and equipping us to be the church of today and not just of tomorrow.
Bishop Easterling: Well, see now. Okay, now you've got me. I don't know which way I want to go because now I could go down either one of these roads, but I think I'm going to stick with right now. You've used the word a couple of times, JJ, queer, and in theology in the church, that term is very off-putting to some. Again, I'm going to tell the whole truth. The first time I heard somebody preach on queer Jesus, I was like, ''Oh no, LaTrelle’s getting off the train with you. Now LaTrelle’s an advocate; she's been down with you; I've been hanging with you, I'll take to the streets, but queer Jesus, I don't know.''
As I began to read more, what I began to understand was that the term was being used-- before I think we would've talked about it as being radically counter-cultural. Is the way that perhaps that same notion was being extolled before. Can you unpack for us what the term queer in this theological context means and why we don't have to be afraid of it.
JJ: We don't have to be afraid of it. That's the truth. That's the whole truth right there. We don't have to be right there afraid about queerness or queer and that's what my dissertation is on here in Vienna. Let's get nerdy. Really, queerness is a methodology. My Methodism, it's a way of doing something. As my good friend Dorlimar was talking before we started recording, it's a way of challenging the norm which was born from the experiences of LGBTQIA people. In the mid-1900s, it became a method of queering, which meant that we say, ''Okay, LGBTQ people have existed outside the norm for centuries.''
Our very existence challenges the notion that there is one way to be human. It challenges binary, it breaks things open. As we've seen with our continued evolution of our understanding of gender, that to queer something like gender means to say there's not only just male and female, there is more, there's in between, there's fluidity and expansiveness, much like Paul says. There's neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, but we are all one in Christ Jesus.
It's this deeply personal process that has been born from a community that has been ostracized for so long, but then can be applied by so many folks who are inside and outside the LGBTQ community. I'll just wrap up by saying, I took a class at Harvard Divinity School last semester with a Black Baptist queer pastor named Rev. Dr. Brandon Thomas Crowley.
Bishop Easterling: Oh indeed, worked with him when I was in Boston, brilliant brother, brilliant.
JJ: He defines queering as a perpetual process of subversion and reeducation to transition the church into being something it has never been, and that is inclusive. I've seen a lot of posts out there that talk about the Methodist Church and people, quite frankly in the Wesley Covenant Association or the Global Methodist Church, are saying yes, if you stay in the UMC you'll be part of a gay church, a queer church. I push back to that on the one hand to say not everyone's going to be queer obviously.
We don’t want everybody to be queer; on the other hand, I embrace the idea that we will be part of the church that is constantly challenging its own binaries and preconceptions to be radically broken open to the love of God. To me, that's what it means to queer. If that's the queer church, that's the church to me and I want to be part of that.
Bishop Easterling: Amen. I resonate with that. I resonated especially with you talking about being part of the LGBTQIA community and simply showing up every day to say here's who I am and I am a representation of part of God's creation. Just to show up evidences that there are different ways of being human as a black female, I can so understand that because in a world that is still very racist, very sexist, very male dominated, for me to show up every day is revolutionary.
In and of itself is revolutionary because there's some people who I get letters even today as an Episcopal servant, “don't send us a female pastor. Don't send us a black pastor.” Just to show up in spaces as who we are is revolutionary in and of itself. Dorlimar jump in here, queer, why should we not be afraid of that term?
Dorlimar: I think JJ really summed it up, and particularly in the context of what does queerness mean for the church and in our context in the church. You also touched on this subject of like why we shouldn't be afraid of the word. There are these words that have historically been taboo. We don't talk about it. We don't say it. As long as we keep it hushed, it feeds that fear. I do believe that we are being called as a church, as a denomination, into stepping out of fear and stepping into faith.
As corny as that sounds, but really that is what the spirit is calling us to do because we are in unknown waters on so many levels. I say this as someone who has been in a local church during the pandemic and what has been the epicenter of that pandemic in Manhattan. Having to deal with now this immigration crisis of immigrants being dropped off on buses. Having lived with people on the ground, there's so many things, so many reasons we should be afraid or have fear. Oftentimes when we actually ask ourselves what are we really afraid of?
We're mostly just afraid of what we don't know, or what we understand, or not what is really that scary. I think that this also begs us to interrogate our own fear, interrogate the things that we are afraid of. Moments of crisis, moments of what seems like chaos, I think that is where God's creative spirit is most present. Part of liberation theology particularly from the liberation theology in Cuba, is this belief that we believe in the God of the oppressed, the God who has liberated, who wants us to be liberated just like he liberated the Israelites from Egypt.
They also add an emphasis on the creation story and say it's not enough to just get freed. We have to build and create this new thing that we have the opportunity to do so. In Cuba they were speaking to their specific context. What does it mean to be the church in the middle of political revolution and all these different things that were happening, but they were clear that their faith did not change. Their belief in a God did not change. What changed was their relationship to one another, their relationship to the society, their relationship to the state, to each other. That is with the change.
I invite folks to interrogate that fear because oftentimes we are afraid of things just simply because we don't understand them or know them. We're living in a time where we just can't afford that anymore. Take the Band-Aid off, let's have real conversations here at this table. Let's do these things without fear. As people I think there's also a responsibility on us, on people. They're the people-- responsibility of the people to ask those questions but on us to show grace in teaching this, because for me the whole idea of learning, we're in a new time. We're learning new language, new concepts, new way of being. I am not going to judge you--
I always think of this. Sister Act 2 is one of my favorite movies. I don't know if you've seen it or not but there's a scene where Whoopi Goldberg is trying to assess the talent in the room. She's pointing at people and she's like you sing this song and sing Mary Had a Little Lamb. They're going around. Everyone has their own style of singing Mary Had a Little Lamb and then she goes to this other young woman and the young woman is like “I don't know Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Everybody, all the students were joking on her and they were like "I can't believe it, oh my gosh. That's unbelievable." She's like no, she defends her, Whoopi Goldberg says, she's like "no it's not her fault. She did not know that Mary had a lamb."
She said, “Maybe where she’s from Mary had a dog, or a little kitty cat or a little bald headed brother neighbor. It's not her fault she did not know that Mary had a lamb.” I use that all the time because it is not somebody's fault. Most of the time, not every time, some people are just faking, don't read. Most of the time people know what they're taught. Most of the time I believe people are good hearted people who are just using the tools that they have to operate in this new world.
Bishop Easterling: To operate, to understand.
Dorlimar: Part of it is being gracious and helping people understand and learn and being patient and understanding we're all in this together trying to figure it out, because it's both this whole step taking the bold step of not being afraid of interrogating those things that makes us afraid, but also us as people who maybe know better or who maybe think we know more like to be gracious in trying to help someone come along. At the end of the day, that's what it's about. It's not about who's right over wrong. It's about how are we going to come along together in ways that are meaningful and respectful and still preserve our dignity as we journey together.
Bishop Easterling: Amen. Again you have provoked so many things in me. We're not going to go here but one of the things that you just laid out for us, Dorlimar, is why our current system of education is so inappropriate. Questions on SATs and ACTs and whatnot, like you said if it's a question about a lamb and lamb is not part of your experience, you're not dumb. You just don't relate to lamb. For you, it's something else. You make me think about that. We'll have to explore that for another time.
I'm hearing you use the word queer then to say that it is about de-centering that which has been centered and allowing other expressions, other beliefs, other methodologies. JJ talked about queerness as a methodology. I remember when I was in seminary and they brought a womanist theologian in to talk about Womanist theology. I've told this story in public before. It's not the first time I'm saying it. I love my alma mater, I love Boston University School of Theology. This is a true story. We were sitting there and we had this wonderful presentation about Womanist theology, and then when Dee Newsom walked out the door before the door could close, the professor said, “Now getting back to real theology.”
I could not believe it, because that just allowed everybody in the room to say "we don't need that.” To come back to Kant and Hegel and Kierkegaard whatnot, who we know while they were brilliant, some of those folk were also very racist and introduced things into the theological thread and stream that we are still grappling with today. What I hear you saying about queerness is about the way that it de-centers. Especially a Eurocentric voice theology philosophies and makes room for other voices and ways of being. Who would you welcome us to be bringing to that table? Whose voices would you welcome us to be listening to? Dorlimar, you invited folks to read the trilogy that Bell Hooks offered. One of the persons I referenced since we've been talking is Robyn Henderson-Espinoza. I have found their work to be incredible. Who are some other voices that you would invite us to be listening to?
Dorlimar: I would encourage folks to check out Rev. Dr. Pamela Lightsey's book, Our Lives Matter. It's a good introduction I think. She's a pastor at heart, and I think I like reading her work because it reads in that way. I would also suggest anything by Adrienne Maree Brown. She's really a science fiction writer. The reason why I like her work is because she is a longtime facilitator and committee activist, not technically in the theology world, but has a very clear theological background and is able to use sci-fi to bring across these principles of transformation and love and mutual accountability. All of those things that have to do with our relationship to the Earth and to each other and to God, to the divine.
Bishop Easterling: Rev. Dr. Sakena Young-Scaggs, who is not only my soror but a good, good friend. I spent some time with her this summer and she was opening my mind to Comic-Con, and how there's a deep thread being developed between that and theology. Oh, I can't think of the name of the woman.
Dorlimar: Octavia Butler.
Bishop Easterling: There. Thank you. Exactly. How she's grounding a lot of her work in Octavia Butler's work now.
Dorlimar: Absolutely. That she is a prophet in our time. She was.
Bishop Easterling: Amen. Excellent. J.J., who would you invite us to be in conversation with? Who would you invite to the table as we de-center some of the voices that have predominated?
J.J.: To begin with an academic setting, Patrick Cheng is the basics of queer theology, so I definitely recommend Patrick Cheng in his book, Radical Love: An Introduction to queer Theology. Another one that I really enjoyed was Melanie Harris who wrote Ecowomanism. That book really helped me grapple with this idea of spiritual activism which I think we Wesleyans have a lot in common with and what we do, spiritual activism. Then the other thing now moving out of the academy is to say, and as equally as important, is the young people in our churches. We were talking about this question. I'm sorry that I'm using your own question earlier.
Bishop Easterling: Go for it. Go for it.
J.J.: When folks say young people are at the church of tomorrow, at least I-- I wince at that. Maybe in the '90s, that was cool, but today, young people understand that we are the church of today. We're not just the church of tomorrow. We are in your pews. We are in your pulpit. We are on your boards and agencies and committees when we're allowed to be or when we're empowered to be and so we-
Bishop Easterling: Tell the whole truth. Tell the whole truth.
J.J.: -we are here. I would say a good person to be in conversation with, if you're not already, and sadly, I think a lot of our churches aren't, are the young people in our own churches. Not just as a token. Now I get to see a lot of Methodist churches as I travel and speak and to talk about reclaiming church, which is meant for young people, that is church and beyond. A lot of churches in this area, they put on one youth representative. I found that that one youth never speaks up because they're alone.
They're a bit intimidated sometimes, and they know they're the token. When I came to this new church, when I was appointed here, I did something that upset a lot of people. I changed half of our church council to be under 35. I changed half of our church council. I actually gave power, voice, and vote to young people. That changed our church. I would say, listen to the young people in your churches. Give them power.
Bishop Easterling: Give them power. Amen. You called out a name that I just have to stop and say Melanie Harris. I was an elder on staff at a church in Denver, Colorado when Melanie was coming up into ministry. I know Melanie and her mother, who also came into ministry and now is fully ordained, so another person near and dear to my heart. Amen. She definitely is a voice that I would invite persons to be listening to.
There's so many others. There are so many others.
Again, this notion of bringing different voices to the table, to interrogate, to be in conversation with, to get angry with, and to say, "Well, wait a minute. What do you mean by that?" And to have some real engagement, but to stop centering and listening to one particular voice out of one particular time in space, one particular part of the world, one particular orientation. I think part of our problem with the whole notion of human sexuality is we don't explore enough. We don't talk enough. Again, back to this notion of fear. I think about our whole lives. That is an educational resource. I always get the denomination wrong as to which denomination it is that has OWL [Our Whole Lives].
J.J.: I think it's UU (Unitarian Universalist).
Bishop Easterling: I think so too. I think it is our UU brothers and sisters. It is an understanding of an engagement and education with an interrogation of our human sexuality from cradle to grave. This notion of, again, not dealing with things because we're afraid of it. I think part of why we are struggling and wrestling with human sexuality from one small understanding of it is because we don't understand who we are as sexual beings, period. We are really afraid to engage who we are as created, erotic beings made in the image and likeness of God in this way.
This notion of being ashamed to talk about it-- I taught a class. I was a teaching associate at Indiana University and it was human sexuality, and we were not allowed to use some of those ridiculous names. We're not going to call them out now, but we all remember some of those names that we were given for our anatomy. That this is the way you say this. That kind of just-- I hate to use the word ridiculous – but when I was a child, I spoke as a child and thought as a child, but now that I'm an adult, I put away childish things. We should not still be talking about our sexuality in those kinds of terms.
Sometimes I wish we had resources like OWL that allowed us to engage and explore and interrogate and question and learn from a holistic perspective, but sometimes our framing and our thinking is so narrow. It's so narrow. Thank you for opening up so many things. Again, I wish we had time to explore all of it, but I'm going to ask both of you one last question. You touched on it a little bit in the first question, but I'm going to try to ask it a little bit differently.
Dorlimar, if the church becomes, first of all, who we said we would be, who even the United Methodist Church said it would be in 1968, but even beyond that, the church that God intends for us to be, when I heard J.J. talking about the definition from Rev. Dr. Brandon Crowley, and it talked about the church finally becoming something different, to my mind, is the church becoming what God intended from creation. What will the church have to look like for you to believe that we really have made progress and we're becoming who we say we are?
Dorlimar: It's interesting because being on this side as the local pastor, I look at church as a big sea and then the church as the small sea. There's two different worlds. I hadn't navigated both worlds. 90% of my time is spent with folks who have no idea what even maybe the annual conference is, maybe they've gone, they have no idea even to the extent of what they're hearing on the news or what they're saying about the division. Then you have the other folks, so it's like a spectrum. When you say, what would we need to see to show that there's some movement happening? In a lot of ways to play devil's advocate and not just advocate that people don't like to advocate for separation.
Not to say that that is the way to be, but at least what I see, and from an outsider perspective right now is at least somebody's trying to deal with this. Somebody's trying to say that things cannot stay the same. I don't know what's going to happen or how the chips will fall at the end of the day, but whether it's forced or whether it's happening on purpose or whatever this is, because there's so many layers. It's not just the starting of a new denomination, it's not just the leaving of churches, it's the pandemic, it's the wars happening around the world. It's all of these things. I often pray for the spirit to move in me through me and if need be in spite of me.
Bishop Easterling: Amen.
Dorlimar: This is a prayer that we say in church, I grew up saying those prayers. In a lot of ways, could this be that things cannot stay the same. We are asking the spirit, this is what we've been asking for, for the spirit to come, for the spirit to do something. Anytime the spirit comes, things do not leave the same. Again, it goes back to this. How do we look at this moment of the church? Those are visual signs at least that I see.
I think that the impact of the denomination will be seen and felt as much as it impacts the local congregation and local people on the ground and everyday people that are looking to be transformed. That is the reason why we are doing what we do. I don't know, I can't sit here and tell you that there's one thing I can pinpoint when I see this for sure I know we've made it. I can definitely say that the greatest impact that the church will have to do with the people that are working on the ground with community members transforming lives and doing all that.
My prayer and my hope is that church leadership listens to the pastors that have been doing this work. You started this by sharing how there's this great resignation and pastors leaving left and right and people like, "I just started this, I still have time to start over something else." There's probably not one week that goes by in the last five years, that I don't say that. At the end of the day, God has called us to be daring, to dare to believe that what is not there can be there, that what is there can be changed into something better, into something bigger, into something more expansive, into something that actually makes an impact on people because then it's just lip service. All we're doing is lip service.
This critical moment I think in the denomination and the church is just like Paul's letter. How deep is your love really? Are you really about that life that you say you are, because loving just something you throw around and love actually transform people if you allow it to. How does that translate? I think that would be my response to that because people need hope now more than ever. People need to know that hope is not dead, that love is still possible, that even though rent is through the sky, that we're going to keep fighting in this together and that if God did it for everyone before us, God will continue to do it for this generation and the next one. That's how I would respond to that.
Bishop Easterling: Amen. JJ, what will it have to look like for you to believe that we're actually moving, there's some progress?
JJ: We're all Methodist nerds here and I'm going to get real Methodist, real nerdy. For me, some very practical things that would show me that the Methodist church is becoming what God intends for us to become and really what the spirit of Wesleyanism challenges us to become is one, we need to see a de-centering as we've been talking about this whole time. A de-centering of the US when we think about the way that our global church is structured. That comes for those of you Methodist nerds out there through the Christmas Covenant legislation. You can find out more about that Christmas covenant online.
That's a way for each part of the church to have its own voice, to make decisions about its own context without having anyone else's ideals or concepts imposed upon them. That would be one way that I'd see the church making progress. What we've talked about, love, love is active, love is surrendering, love is a way of empowering the so long dis-empowered. For me, making the United Methodist connection an equitable connection where when we come to a global gathering, like a General Conference, we're actually building relationships where we're getting to know what it means to be Methodist in Kenya. What is unique about being Methodist in Kenya and what is unique about being Methodist in Boston, Massachusetts?
How can we embrace these uniquenesses, learn from one another, embrace the diversity of God's goodness and deepen our understanding of Wesleyanism in the 21st century, really engaging with one another as equals. That's one thing that I'd really like and that would show me that we are on the way of becoming, of moving on towards perfection as the Wesleys’ would say. Also elevating the voices of young people. Hopefully that goes without saying.
Bishop Easterling: Yes. One of the things that for me will show that we are really becoming who we say that we are and who God intends us to be, for me, will be a move from always trying to have the answers to asking more, better, and deeper questions. The future for me lies in the questions, not in the answers. Again, Espinoza who I've referred to a few times in their book Activist Theology, one of the things that they say is that we're all struggling to live the questions and that activist theology, and I see both of you as activists. You're profound thought leaders, you are demanding on behalf of those that you love and pastor and represent that there be change, that there be a dismantling of barriers. That there be greater inclusion, so I see you as part of this activist theology.
It says, "Activist theology is framed by the deep unrest that struggle brings and the hope in creating a different world where no one is damned and where the struggle is to find a place that does not embody the depth of harmony that difference helps animate." When we are there, I'll know that we've made some progress.
Beloved, thank both of you for taking the time and being willing to be vulnerable. That's what this is all about. It's being willing to be vulnerable together.
Brené Brown talks about, is it safe spaces, is it bold space? I think it's got to be a little bit of both. What we have to be willing to do is be vulnerable to really move the pendulum. I feel like we've done that. I feel like we've told some real truth at this table. Thank both of you again. You give me hope, and I'm grateful for who you are, who you are allowing God to continue to help you to become, and keep challenging us and calling us to be better and do better. Thank you so very much. May God richly bless you.
JJ: Thank you, Bishop.
Dorlimar: Thank you, Bishop.
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