“Hearing the Call…and Listening,” By Jennifer Bailey

Posted on January 26th, 2011 | Filed under InterViews

I grew up in the quintessential small Midwestern town--content with staying put in the ways of the past yet constantly being pushed forward by the reality of time. The Mississippi River is its life source, giving birth to the industry and commerce that sustains town’s population of 40,000 people.  Pickup trucks often outnumber cars in grocery store parking lots, the county fair draws huge crowds each summer, and season tickets to local high school’s basketball games are a hot commodity. Diversity is not accepted and only barely tolerated.  Racial and ethnic minorities constitute only 5 percent of the population. Interaction between racial groups is limited, the result of inequitable housing policies that redlined minority groups into concentrated areas of town.

I  was first introduced to the politics of race on the playground of Adams School. Navigating the social landscape of recess can be an incredibly difficult process. A white male classmate, approached me at recess confidently stating that I must be dirty and rotten because why else would by skin be brown? As the other students laughed profusely, I became acutely aware of my status as the “other”.  My skin was indeed brown and as much as I tried to wash it off, I soon realized there was nothing I could do to change that. Once confident and bold I began to feel helpless. Throughout the year, the taunts and comments would escalate with little intervention from the teaching staff that was never trained in issues of diversity and discrimination.

Finding no comfort at school, I ran as fast as I could into the open arms and loving heart of Bethel A.M.E. Church. At my church, I was no longer an “other”.  Sunday mornings the pews filled with bodies in endless shades of brown--copper, russet, mahogany--each unique and striking. My heart leap with each chord Sister Oliver struck on the organ and note Brother Bumbry sang. From Rev. Pendleton’s pulpit I heard stories about those who had worshipped there before.  Families who boldly swam across the Mississippi in search for freedom, sustained by the unfettering belief that God would provide a way. At the altar of the church, I gave my life to Christ and as a teenager first heard the call to pursue ordained ministry.

My early encounters with intolerance as child engrained in me a deeply held empathy for those are oppressed and marginalized because of who they are. Genesis 1:27 states that, “God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Institutional discrimination on the base of their gender, race, class, and sexual orientation often robs individuals of their full human dignity thus distorting the image of who they truly are as children of God. Through my work in the interfaith and food justice movements, I have seen the ability of the human spirit to persevere against the greatest odds. I have witnessed public housing residents, long forgotten by those in power, rise up and organize their communities to increase basic access to affordable healthy food. I have beheld young women and men of all faiths and none at all stand in solidarity with the Muslim community in the midst of rampant Islamophobia based on the shared value of compassion for their fellow man.

In the midst of these and other experiences, I have begun to discern my calling. I believe I am being called to work in a ministry of reconciliation. By reconciliation, I am referring not only to the reconciliation of God to his people, but also of people to one another. This process of healing begins by actively seeking to correct the social inequities that continue to drive individuals apart. Inequities such as food insecurity, health disparities, and environmental degradation which often have disproportionate consequences for those who are historically marginalized in the United States including women and people of color.  Our current historical moment requires a vision of ministry that is not exclusively limited to the pulpit, but works in concert with community organizing and advocacy strategies seeking to create change.

In last night's State of the Union Address, President Obama told the American people that, "Our destiny remains our choice." For a long time I ran away from my destiny, my calling, out of fear--- fear of the unknown, fear of judgment, and fear of reliquishing control. This fall, I made a choice to stop running. I am seeking ordination in the A.M.E. Church as the first step in pursuing this my call.As I stand in anxious anticipation of the steps yet to come, I remember the words of the psalmist: "The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life of whom shall I be afraid?"

This article was originally published on State of Formation.

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