From Vulnerability To Power

Neichelle R. Guidry ’10 M.Div.

Day in and out, most of us walk around with a stifling awareness of vulnerability. No matter who you are or what you do. Past a certain age, that sense of invincibility wears off, and it becomes only too clear that our wellness, security, and stability rely upon many factors beyond ourselves.

For people of color, this vulnerability is magnified by ongoing reports of a political system that was not built to serve our interests or protect us, and continues to devastate lives and communities. We know what it means to be susceptible to risk, not only by virtue of our humanity but also the color of our skin. We know ontological vulnerability. It is a weight under which we live daily.

The black church has helped black Americans live with this burden, and even lay it down. The church has assisted us spiritually, emotionally, and economically. It has served as hospital, financial institution, rehabilitation center, school, and psychiatric ward. Many of these roles are perhaps lost on the current generation, but I have seen the church’s courage and influence with my own two eyes. I have seen countless individuals turn to the church with a multitude of needs and the church attempt to meet them.

In discouraging times, how should a church show up in this world? I might simply say, “just be the church,” yet there are so many ideas and speculations about what that really means. So let me suggest three concrete ways the church can be the church.

First, we can provide safe spaces for people to be. To ask. To grieve. To play. If your church is not a safe place to be, nothing else matters. Churches must go out of their way to be safe from all forms of violence: sexualized violence, ideological violence, domestic violence, racialized violence, gun violence.

Every summer, our church collaborates with community organizations to host local teens and young adults for job training on our grounds. They work in every department. In the end, we inevitably hear stories from many participants who say how much they enjoyed the experience, just because they had a safe place to go to every day. In the long run, even if they never attend a worship service or give a tithe, I believe we’ve accomplished a lot by providing sanctuary to our vulnerable youth, if but for one summer.

Second, the church must provide political education so people can learn more about the policies that affect their lives and converse with elected officials without photo ops and politicizing.

To be clear, there must be a certain level of objectivity in such spaces. Facts need to be presented truthfully, transparently, and without bias, so citizens can make informed decisions for themselves. The time of simply propagating slanted ideas, preying upon ignorance and coercing people to think and vote a certain way, has come to a hard stop.

The church owes it to people to keep them meaningfully abreast and clued in. Forums and teach-ins can illuminate the policies and politicians that are shaping our realities. In our own congregational efforts, we have built relationships with young activist groups who are brilliant and powerful and creatively convey critical information to us.

Finally, the church can’t rely on Sunday morning to fulfill average needs of belonging and togetherness, whether with God and with one another. These days call for the church to stretch itself out and create alternative spaces for building bonds and bridges.

Debate watch parties can increase political engagement. Interfaith gatherings can dispel Islamophobia. Peace circles bring healing during times of tension. Movie outings and concerts stir levity and joyfulness. Finding a community, a place where you can go and belong, helps an individual manage and even dismantle that sense of vulnerability, stress, and isolation that plagues so many.

If the church is going to be a site of hope, clergy must take very seriously the work of dealing with souls by preparing thoughtful, empowering sermons. Worship must speak to difficult real-life conditions, while pointing us to God’s divine possibilities in this world. We embody liberation by teaching people what the evil “isms” look like (racism, sexism, ageism, and others), and how to defy them. We embody liberation by connecting the dots between local, national, and international freedom movements, between those happening in, for instance, Puerto Rico and Palestine and the US.

The church can be a site of hope, even in the post-election hereafter. It takes vision, planning, and work to transform vulnerability into empowerment.

The Rev. Neichelle Guidry ’10 M.Div. is associate pastor to young adults and liaison to worship and arts ministries at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. She leads workshops, preaches widely, and is founder of shepreaches, an organization devoted to inspiring African-American millennial women in ministry. She was named one of Time magazine’s “12 New Faces of Black Leadership” last year.