“Soft and Strong” in Crisis and Endurance

By Essence Ellis ’21 M.Div.

As a Black American woman, being asked about life in the middle of a global pandemic reads more like a trick question than one of genuine concern. Being a first-generation college student raised by a single mom, I have many memories of crisis and survival – waking up with no water and scrambling to my aunt’s house so we could shower before school, carpooling to school because my mom didn’t have a car, having neighborhood kids eat at our house because their parents weren’t around, and much more. Survival has always been the name of the game. I watched my mom make do with few resources for many years, and by watching, I learned. However, there are some things only your own life can teach you.

It is a strange time to be human for those of us who have always functioned in survival mode.

While in high school, I was unfortunate enough to watch both my grandfather and younger brother die in their hospital beds on different occasions. I mention this because it is relevant, not because I enjoy recollecting it. Through both of these deaths, I walked alongside my once-invincible parents through grief and confusion. Redacting the nitty gritty details, I grew up a lot in two years. My therapists at the time were able to teach me healthy coping mechanisms, but it is difficult to come out of trauma unscathed. The resilience of Black American women is often romanticized. Being able to “roll with the punches” has led to us being overworked and unappreciated. And underpaid. Our work stands at the front of movements, while our bodies, faces, and names are escorted to the last row of the auditorium.

Gentleness and Anger

Earlier this year, I was hired by YDS as coordinator of the First-Year Experience (FYE) to help welcome the 136 new YDS students this summer. We all knew the fall semester would look completely different this year, and as coordinator I would be in charge of envisioning it and executing the program with my team … in pandemic times. Our leadership team met weekly to figure out how to manage many moving pieces. When I accepted the role as FYE coordinator in the middle of a pandemic, I never questioned my ability to get the job done. But, after an overscheduled middler year and the tumultuous shift to online learning, I questioned if I could work during a pandemic and continue to be gentle with myself and if I couldn’t, then how could I be gentle with others?

When we began scheduling FYE Team Collaborations, Molli, my chief of staff, recommended we use the Circle Way method for our small groups. The Circle Way is structured for deepening conversations in hopes of reaching a tangible outcome. In the past, this method was one I’d only practiced, informally, with my close friends. Using it with strangers was eye-opening for me. The intentional procedure of checking in with a group of people before diving into a conversation helped me name where my mind was each day. There were multiple occasions where I realized my heart was inconsolably heavy – from long hours of scrolling through Twitter and checking the news, reading and responding to long emails, donating money to Black trans folx trying to survive this layered pandemic, and attempting to be present in the virtual YDS community, all while struggling to bridle my anger. I was, and still am, angry to be living through a pandemic under the guidance of an inept federal government, angry that the University continued to practice exploitative graduate housing policies, angry that the police were still disregarding Black and Brown lives … just plain ol’ angry.

Divine Patience

It is difficult to decide where our anger should be placed. We are advised by professionals to not hold it in, while also being made aware that letting it out has its own consequences. As budding clergypeople, we are taught to “call people in, not out” and to carefully navigate terrains of resentment and animosity. In my own life, I’ve never been able to hold on to anger for too long. Prior to my second year of divinity school, my preference had always been to address what made me upset – through direct confrontation, be it with myself or another person, I put my anger down. But I’ve learned that there is a holistic aspect to “cooling off.” By allowing myself the time to feel, to fully process and not let it just roll off my back, I learned to be gentle. I learned that each passing moment is an opportunity to hold myself and others accountable to our common convictions. These moments involve honest self-reflection, divine patience, and the realization that I might still be angry despite this intricate process.

I recently listened to an episode of the podcast hey, girl entitled “Soft and Strong.” The language resonated with me as it has become difficult to allow myself space for grace – time for rest without the guilt of feeling like I am not doing enough. This is a feeling that many of us are familiar with right now. It is a strange time to be human for those of us who have always functioned in survival mode or supported a community that has constantly functioned in survival mode. And the election season has added yet another layer of distress. I question what it means to continue being soft and strong in a time such as this, whether it would be safer to revert back to being solely strong. But we owe it to ourselves to rest. I say this specifically for marginalized communities, for overworked Black women, for tired Brown folx, for underserved poor folx, and those in-between. If you are not amongst those listed or in-between, it may mean it is time for you to pause your own rest because the work that needs to be done around issues of restorative justice, abolition,  equity and inclusion, reparations, and more cannot be done by exploiting – denying rest to – the people whose lives need it.

Essence Ellis ’21 M.Div., is 2020-21 president of the Yale Divinity School Student Government, which serves as liaison between YDS students and YDS administration.