PC(USA) podcast guest explains how to find your voice even when the world tries to silence you

Ally Henny is the most recent guest on ‘A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast’

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Ally Henny

LOUISVILLE — Ally Henny, a speaker and the author of the recently published “I Won’t Shut Up: Finding Your Voice When the World Tries to Silence You,” speaks her mind during the most recent episode of “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast,” which can be heard here. The hosts each week are Simon Doong and the Rev. Lee Catoe.

Henny, a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary who blogs at The Armchair Commentary and is vice president of The Witness: A Black Christian Collective, began the 58-minute conversation with Catoe and Doong by answering a question about spiritual abuse and its manifestations. Those guilty of spiritual abuse “are exercising undue authority,” she said, and throwing that abuse into a mix that can include church membership and “certain spiritual beliefs and practices.”

Some faith communities abuse congregants financially, Henny said. “There’s pressure for you to give an offering to the church or take the leader out to lunch,” she said, adding clergy sexual abuse and physical, psychological and emotional abuse to the list.

The intersection with race and racism comes “when people’s religious identity and their individual cultural or ethnic identity is weaponized against them to allow leadership to exercise undue authority,” such as the “Curse of Ham,” a narrative white people of faith used to justify enslaving African people. “People still use it as a justification for why American chattel slavery happened,” she said. “That’s spiritual abuse — using the Bible and spiritual beliefs and exercising undue authority over people.”

Ally Henny’s “I Won’t Shut Up: Finding Your Voice When the World Tries to Silence You” was published last month.

She called one chapter of her book, “Stonewall Jackson, Hear Our Prayers.” That chapter describes her involvement with a charismatic group “who had a justice mandate” that “sounded wonderful to me.” What she learned over time was, “Y’all care about justice, but you’re not saying anything about Trayvon Martin’s” killing. Group members would invoke the Southern general during the Civil War, “saying we need to be more like Stonewall Jackson, standing like a stone wall … Certainly, we can have another model for steadfastness in our prayer.”

We also see this narrative “in our current conversations with people in the trans and LGBTQ community,” she said. “Those things come back, and they harm queer kids in the pew who have tried to ‘pray the gay away’ and are still who God created them to be. That can be a form of abuse, a form of harm or marginalization. When you have a youth pastor or pastor or bishop or presbyter or superintendent who’s exercising that power to dictate who has the right to exist and who can be seen fully as children of God, that can be so harmful.”

Doong pointed out that in progressive denominations including the PC(USA), people of color are among those asked to serve on committees. “I hope I am being asked because of my gifts, talents and abilities,” Doong said. “But there’s always this element that I also bring some sort of diversity to the table. What if I say no? Sometimes the depth chart of other people of color isn’t deep, but as a person of color, you don’t want to be tokenized.”

“That’s something we need to ask ourselves as leaders,” Henny said. “If we ask somebody [in a faith community] to set up chairs or run the livestream or be an usher, there is a push-pull tension … When we start to get into issues is when giving is treated as compulsory, and not an act of worship or piety or faith. It’s about giving your time, talent and treasure. Some have the ability and capacity to do all three things. Some can do two, and others can do only one or may have zero capacity to do any of those things.”

“I think we need to be very careful and very aware of the pressures we’re putting on people,” Henny said. “As people of color, as Black folks, we can have that guilt of, well, if you don’t take the opportunity, then they think, well, you don’t really want to work for racial reconciliation. Or we wonder if we don’t take the opportunity, will the opportunity come again — not just for us, but for anybody else? That can be a form of harm, of spiritual abuse and spiritual gaslighting, where the people of the dominant culture wave these opportunities, these moments we can have, in front of us … We have to make decisions based not only on ourselves, but we are representing our entire race or ethnicity or cultural group.”

“There’s not always specific intent behind this, but I think the way whiteness operates is with a scarcity mindset,” Henny said. “If Simon doesn’t take this position, I guess we can’t offer it to anybody else. I guess you’re representing this whole group. They’re saying, ‘I guess they’re not interested in doing these types of things within the church, so never mind.’ I think it’s important for them to recognize the impact of their tokenization, their invitation or lack of invitation and what pressures that might place upon us. It becomes reason and rationale to not include, when sometimes we turn things down because we’re already part of 500 committees.”

“You’re already being the token person of color in every room, in every picture and in every video, and you just cannot add one more thing.”

And sometimes, she said, “White folks don’t take time to recognize the impact that being part of white churches or organizations or denominations can have on people of color. It’s sort of like, ‘Well, we tried the diversity thing, and it didn’t work, so we’re just going to go back to white supremacy.’ People don’t say it that way, but that’s essentially the way it is. ‘We tried to have that antiracism committee, and nobody wanted to do it. We tried it and it didn’t work.’ You can also talk about gender and LGBTQ equity.”

“I see gaslighting in a lot of mainline progressive churches,” Catoe said. “They say things on paper, but the reality is, well, why do you dress that way? Why do you look that way? Why do you style your hair that way?” They even question “how you express yourself and any kind of identity you have … You believe this is a safe space for you, and it turns out not so much.”

“I’m so glad you named that,” Henny said. “I think even in spaces that are more progressive, there is often a stereotyping, a type of tokenization that says, ‘You can be in this space as long as you’re not too Black. Don’t start being too queer; that’s going to upset some in the status quo.”

“A lot of cis, het, progressive white folks love having color and queerness around them. It shows they are good people,” she said, allowing them to say, “Look! We love everybody. But deep, deep down, there is still some of that programming, especially in progressive churches. You’re not doing that ‘Make America Great Again’ white supremacy, but you’re doing other white supremacy that at the end of the day isn’t any better.”

“If you have to meter and monitor yourself as a person who holds a marginalized identity, are you really free?” she asked. “My answer to that is no.”

“I am not a queer person, and there are things about queer culture I’m not going to understand,” Henny said. “I’m going to get those things wrong and have assumptions.”

“A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” with the Rev. Lee Catoe and Simon Doong drops each Thursday.

Henny gets frustrated by “that white progressive smile” that says, “I hear you, but I’m not going to change anything … You smile and nod, and then you turn around and do the same thing. That is gaslighting. You say you’re listening and you care — then why aren’t you changing? I understand that in big institutions, it takes time to change … At the same time, you can stop doing the thing. You can say, ‘We don’t know what we’re going to do yet, but we are going to stop doing the thing.’”

What faith communities don’t realize is that they can make excuses for only so long, Henny said. “There are people holding on by only a thread. They believe in God, and they believe in their institution and their denomination and in their church. But they’re part of groups that have been historically excluded … and there are only so many of us who are equipped and able and have the capacity and the ability to stay and try to change things.” Henny fears “you’re going to start driving those people away because y’all don’t want to change.” Marginalized people who are continually asked to “unpack their trauma and elucidate everything they’ve done” will eventually find themselves repeating this famous line from Dr. Seuss, which Henny quoted: “I will not eat green eggs and ham. I do not like them, Sam-I-Am.”

“I cannot tell you what else to say and do,” she said, “short of taking my brain out and hooking it up to a projector.”

Churches can put “so much effort” into writing an antiracism statement or plan “that they confuse that with doing something,” she said. “No! That is the first step. Y’all still haven’t done it.”

“I get that it takes action,” Henny said. “But can we do something?”

A new edition of “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” drops each Thursday. Listen to previous editions here.

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