jennifer-arnold-story.jpgA large part of any seminary education should be learning about yourself. Ministry is more than what you can read in a book or what you can memorize for a test. The hardest part of ministry work is learning to confront ourselves—with all that good, bad, and ugly that lives inside. That's why Old Testament professor Dr. Joel LeMon tells all his students that they need to go to therapy. No matter how healthy we think we are, there's always more to uncover about ourselves and it's better to learn to see it now so we are less likely to accidentally push our hurts, fears, and hopes onto others. 

This summer I've been doing a Candler Advantage internship with Mistress Syndrome LLC. Mistress Syndrome does anti-racism organizing predominately with white ladies and peace church traditions, like the Mennonite church I grew up in. Perhaps this is an untraditional ministry setting, as the organization doesn't have any official religious affiliation at all. It's not the typical church or nonprofit, yet being here has certainly helped build my skills for ministry.

With Mistress Syndrome I've spent the last 10 weeks doing the hard work of learning about and looking at myself. In particular, this has meant searching inside myself  to explore the ways I have internalized messages about my superiority due to my "white" skin. I've realized that much about the sub-culture I grew up in, and the broader white American culture, have influenced the way I interpret and move through the world. A great deal of this learning is due to the Undoing Racism framework provided by The People's Institute for Survival and Beyond (PISAB), on which Mistress Syndrome and anti-racism partner Yoga Roots on Location (YROL) rely heavily. If you have an opportunity to attend a PISAB training, I highly recommend it. 

The other week I had the opportunity to participate in a session about trauma-informed Raja yoga teaching with YROL. The women in this training have been meeting one weekend a month for four months. During our time together, there was an opportunity for sharing our own traumas. Nearly all of the 30 people gathered shared. There were stories of rape, abuse, adoption, suicide, depression, anxiety, healthcare mistreatment, and more. Presented with all this hurt, people cried, held each other, practiced deep breathing, and wiped each other’s tears. When voices quivered I sensed a willingness to hold a safe and loving space for each other. Thus in feeling, listening, and speaking deeply, I felt capable of abandoning some of my shame that has kept me silent and feeling small. The more I speak my shame and listen to others honestly share their experiences, the more I realize that strength does not lie in perfection, but in our mutual vulnerability.

As I reflected on this experience, I couldn't help but think about how different this setting is from seminary. As a Black-led anti-racism space, YROL does not adhere to many of the white cultural norms—like perfectionism, individualism, and objectivity—to which I'm accustomed. Even in our pastoral care classes and Contextual Education reflection groups at Candler, we are asked to learn through reading books and writing papers. When we create, live, and work in spaces that implicitly preference textbook learning over lived experiences, we are missing out: the opportunity to show up without tidy answers, the ability to learn from a variety of viewpoints, the resiliency to show up and be transparent, the confusing experience of life as it really is sometimes instead of how we imagine it could/should be.

At YROL there was no requirement except to truly, wholeheartedly show up and be present in the space. Here, we weren't reading about listening; we were listening. Here, we weren't thinking about others' trauma; we were owning our own brokenness. Here, we weren't lonely individuals; we were in community we could trust. I am already better for the gift of being able to share myself with those people in that space.

In the same way that the YROL community was able to move towards wholeness through sharing and learning about ourselves, much of my work this summer has been learning about myself. As a white woman from a historic peace church tradition, I've learned to fear open conflict. Instead of seeing conflict as a natural and necessary part of life and transformation, the assumption is that all conflict is violent and therefore must be avoided. This includes the conflict of cognitive dissonance I experience when trying to be "a good white person," but one who is also deeply implicated in and benefits from racism every single day. I've learned that when I feel this cognitive dissonance, one of my go-to protection strategies is distancing myself from the problem. But to learn about myself, to sit with my trauma, my privilege, and my dehumanization through whiteness—my story—is to face conflict and to see myself in all this complexity. Instead of trying to ignore one identity, I must move towards "both/and," as we are fond of saying at Candler. I am both racist and anti-racist. I am both  complacent and active. I am both hurt and privileged. I am both knowledgeable and totally ignorant. All of this is exists together.

When I can recognize the complexity within myself and find compassion and love for myself without the need for perfection, I am better able to find compassion and love for others—just as they are at that moment. As a new Pittsburgh friend told me, "You can't hate other people and love yourself." I'd like to add that we can't love other people and hate ourselves. As I prepare to graduate from seminary in a few months, my job is to keep learning about myself. Keep confronting those things I'd rather ignore. It's hard inner work, but it's as necessary as the rest of my studies.

Here's to the conflict. Here's to showing up even when it hurts. Here's to the exploration. 

Want to learn more about the ministry internship opportunities Candler offers? Click here.

[Top photo: Gaelle Marcel, Unsplash]