In discussing her most recent book Dismantling Racism: Healing Separation from the Inside Out, Rev. Dr. Terrlyn Curry Avery spoke of many aspects of the long and difficult process of dismantling racism. One of the aspects we touched upon was the role of faith in her anti-racism activism. She readily noted that her faith guides everything she does. Her work as a pastologist (ordained minister and licensed psychologist), as well as her identity as a fourth-generation Presbyterian and African American raised in Mississippi, are interwoven, shaping, and strengthening each other. Her emphasis toggles between anti-racism and faith, but they never fully separate, modeling authenticity while remaining mindful of the self, the self in community, and the self in relationship to the Divine.
Because her faith informs everything she does, that integration can be a double-edgeD sword. On the one hand, it enriches her life. On the other hand, it sometimes poses a challenge to staying focused and finding appropriate opportunities to speak out. One such time was the summer of 2020, as the U.S. struggled with racial reckoning in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of the police. Despite having shifted her focus from anti-racism to healing the wounds of religion, a friend called on her to address this pressing issue. Despite her reluctance, Terrlyn recognized that her pastoral leadership and anti-racism experience were sorely needed at that moment.
"... we're all called for such a time as this to do this work."
The Power of Faith
Tackling a huge social problem such as racism is a marathon, demanding strength of character, clarity of vision, and stamina. Terrlyn’s faith is part of her source strength, as is experience of a supportive community since childhood. "Everything I do is based on my faith. In [Dismantling Racism], I talk about it being a sacred intelligence journey of faith. So, it's not about the religion, about being Presbyterian, Christian, any of that. It goes back to me being clear that I'm called, that we're all called for such a time as this to do this work."
Part of her stepping up to the moment entailed speaking of the racial crisis from the pulpit. She got push-back from her mostly white congregation. They saw the talk of race and racism as too political and inappropriate for a sermon. From her perspective as an African American Christian, using a sermon to address the social and moral issue of dismantling racism and racial equality was a perfectly appropriate place. Each party reflected their social norms and that gap created tension.
Facing pushback requires her to be clear about her connection to the sacred and the role it plays in her life. “It is virtually impossible to evolve in your appreciation of the Sacred with a limited worldview and unwillingness to expand it. It’s even harder to change age-old systems and go against the grain without a firm foundation to steady you through the ups and downs.”
“Start where you are, use what you have, and do what you can.” Arthur Ashe
In pursing anti-racism activism and her focus on injuries within religion, she is conscious of faith coming “with trials or challenges that are inevitable in your life”. Faith borne of struggle will hold for the long haul. This is a good reminder for us all. She commented that along the way, mindset is critical to how you navigate the various circumstances of your life and reveals not only your faith in your Sacred Source but also your faith in yourself, your purpose, and your belief that the current circumstance will, indeed, change. Another bit of sage advice Terrlyn is fond of quoting comes from the groundbreaking African American tennis champion Arthur Ashe: “Start where you are, use what you have, and do what you can.” Amen.
The Sacred and the Secular
In addition to the question of when to speak up, I see a built-in tension regarding where the sacred and secular meet in our lives. On the one hand, religion isn’t intended to be segregated to a part of our lives. Each of the Abrahamic traditions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – are designed to integrate beliefs into our ongoing practice. From prayer practice and dietary laws to giving charity, religious observance provides a roadmap for the faithful to guide one’s spiritual development. On the other hand, the distinction between the sacred and the secular is marked. Much as we are encouraged to bring the Divine into our daily lives, we also put boundaries around the sacred and holy. We set aside the Sabbath, avoid proscribed foods and alcohol, dress in certain ways. Marking distinctions allows us to appreciate those times as special.
When the sacred and secular are too segregated, those values become unmoored. We can slide into hypocrisy, wearing our religion like a coat that we put on periodically but do not truly inhabit. This strikes me as disrespectful, inauthentic, hypocritical, and ignores the benefits of religion or a spiritual practice. This is a yes/and not an either/or issue, honoring the sacred as distinct from the secular, while also weaving elements of the sacred beliefs into the secular week. Living with the tension of how the sacred and the secular meet is an ongoing challenge, one Terrlyn has given much thought to. Dismantling Racism offers much advice for taking up this important work, whatever your engagement with religion.
Click here to listen to Rev. Dr. Terrlyn Curry Avery’s episode.
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