Using a blacklight to point out and clean up our messes

The Rev. Melanie C. Jones of Union Presbyterian Seminary’s Katie Geneva Cannon Center for Womanist Leadership discusses reckonings ‘that aren’t temporal’

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Melanie C. Jones

LOUISVILLE — Multiple pandemics over the last two years, including COVID-19 and efforts to bring about racial justice in U.S. communities — even among communities of faith — have benefitted from a blacklight that highlights and helps clean up the messes that justice-seeking activists are asking the church to work on.

“As we begin to think about the journey to the cross” during Lent, the Rev. Melanie C. Jones told the Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty Wednesday during his Leading Theologically broadcast, “not only is there repentance to be done, but there is also this sense that we can no longer just say we believe in Jesus who cares about the oppressed.” Even justice activists operating outside the church “are spiritual, and they are calling out some of our own hypocrisy.”

Jones, the director of the Katie Geneva Cannon Center for Womanist Leadership at Union Presbyterian Seminary, was the guest Wednesday of Hinson-Hasty, senior director of Theological Education Funds Development for the Committee on Theological Education and the Presbyterian Foundation. Listen to their 30-minute conversation here or here.

A trained womanist and ethicist, Jones is a third-generation Baptist preacher. “I have a commitment to how our congregations are really living into the call for justice, in word and in deed,” Jones told Hinson-Hasty. “COVID-19 is a seismic shift. I think the church is being called to a new horizon, and I hope to help scholars, practitioners and everyday folk live into that call for sure.”

Justice-seekers are sometimes forming outside the church “to ask new questions and questions that need to be reckoned with that the church has been reluctant to ask and answer, or has ignored the question,” Jones said. Redefining discipleship and rewriting our liturgies as a reaction to, for example, the increased frequency of online worship “is not going away. This really is the way forward.”

Among the questions to be answered: What does it mean “to hold space with one another, to be concerned about persons made in the image of God who may not look like us?” Jones asked. “It’s 2022, and we are still in pandemics. These reckonings are not temporal. They are questions we need to continue to ask and answer, and they will radically alter the way we do church.”

The term “womanist” comes out of a Black Southern colloquial expression used as a way for Black mothers to talk with their daughters, Jones said. The author Alice Walker defined the term in her 1983 nonfiction collection, “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens.” Today, womanism is “a prophetic social movement that takes seriously the liberation and survival of Black women while advocating against all forms of oppression,” Jones said. Womanists “want to do this in a way that dismantles oppression for all of us.”

“It’s never just one thing we are after,” Jones said, whether it’s dismantling racism, patriarchy or poverty. All are intersectional and multidisciplinary, Jones said. “How do we dismantle systems and forces even as they show up in multiple ways?”

We can start by not dismissing the people we encounter daily. A common Zulu greeting, Jones noted, is, “I see you; you see me.”

“I see you in all your humanity,” Jones said. “You were made in God’s image just as I was. I see the ways I have infringed on our freedom.”

“What does it mean,” Hinson-Hasty asked Jones, “to lead as a womanist?”

“That’s the number one question I love to answer,” Jones replied. Black women are “among the best assets of the community and the church,” and yet often their leadership is not recognized, “and their gifts and talents have not been embraced.” Furthermore, “many of the Black women we see out front [of movements], we often see many who are stressed out and burned out and have no spaces to recharge and refill.”

The Center that Jones leads “is to nurture the soul of Black women.” Attending to Black women’s spirituality and equipping Black women with what they need “is the way to ensure that leadership continues,” Jones said. “Communities are ultimately transformed by these women … People can find us as a go-to place to recharge and refill.”

At 1 p.m. Eastern Time on Monday, Hinson-Hasty’s special guest will be Dr. John Burgess, the James Henry Snowden Professor of Systematic Theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. They will discuss “Religious Dimensions to the Crisis in Ukraine.” Listen to their discussion on YouTube here or on Facebook here.

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