By Dr. Terrance Dean | 7-13-2020

Editor’s note: The blog series “5 Questions” is a Westar Think Tank initiative designed to provide a window into current religious issues from diverse perspectives. They are not intended to represent Westar scholarship.

Westar Think Tank Fellow Terrance Dean, PhD sat down with Rev. Canon Nontombi Naomi Tutu, MDiv, for a Q&A about COVID-19’s essential workers and how they’re viewed, the protests happening around the world, Black women’s leadership in the struggle, and the three (plus) thinkers she’d most like to have as conversation partners.

Rev. Canon Nontombi Naomi Tutu is the Cathedral Missioner for Racial and Economic Equity Missioner for Kairos West Community Center at The Cathedral of All Souls in Asheville, North Carolina.

Rev. Tutu, our world is experiencing two critical moments: one, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the second, racial injustices aimed at Black men and women. As a reverend, what messages and/or scriptures have you been utilizing or wrestling with as you preach to your congregation on Sundays, and why did you choose those messages and/or scriptures?

My focus at this time has been to uphold the idea of this time being a Kairos moment for the Church. The idea of Kairos is that this is a time that God calls the Church to be Church, to stand in the tradition of our savior Jesus Christ, and to call the world into account. In a Kairos moment, things might seem to be simply a time of crisis, a time of trouble, and a time of danger. But it has always been in those times that God has been most active in the lives of God’s people. This Kairos moment invites us to imagine God saying to us, as She did to the Israelites, "I put before you life and death, blessings and curse, and it is for you to choose. But I beg you to choose life that you might live the life I have dreamed for you from the beginning of creation.”(Deuteronomy 30:19 paraphrased).

I also remind them of the Genesis reading that after each day God looked at creation and said that it was good. It was good because it was balanced. God gave the world animals and plants, and placed human beings as God’s stewards for the goodness of the earth. We have moved away from God’s good creation in so many ways, especially in the ways we treat one another, and in the way we treat God’s planet. So, as always, God offers us yet another chance to get it right. Yet another time for us to choose life and not death. To choose justice and not oppression. To choose to be family rather than enemies, and to be in balance. To be once again a creation that God can look at and see, and say, “It is Good!”

Unfortunately, the recent deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery have reignited a conversation and issue that has plagued us for centuries when it comes to race relations in our world. What do you think the concept, idea, or purpose of God means in this moment, especially for Black people as they make sense of these horrific experiences?

The truth is as Black people, we have always been clear about who God is and how God is in the world. We have all of the Scripture showing us that God is a God who lives with the oppressed. We see a God who sides with the oppressed freeing them from slavery, leading them to a Promised Land, and reminding them always that their salvation from suffering is not meant to be a license to oppress but a reminder of who God is. I think the more pertinent question is, what is the white concept of God and how do white people see themselves in relationship with God? Not long after I moved to Asheville, I was in an interfaith meeting of people working on issues of justice. During our one-on-one conversation, I was paired with a white clergywoman. We talked about all the terrible things we were hearing about violence, bigotry, and racism. She said to me, “as a white person I have to remember that God loves white people too!” That comment struck me very powerfully because it made me wonder whether indeed white people do believe that God loves them.

All throughout scripture God tells us who God is. God condemns the people of Israel even though they are following all the fasts and feasts God has ordained, because they are dealing unjustly with the poor, the widowed, the orphan, and the stranger in their midst.

Jesus condemns the Scribes and Pharisees because for all their piety and following the letter of Jewish law, they are failing in the most important commandment regarding human relations: “Though shalt love thy neighbor as theyself.” So, God is clear.

If white people truly believed that God loved them and were confident in that love, then they would have no need to oppress and dehumanize Black people. If they truly believed God loved them, they would not be flying Nazi and Confederate flags. If they truly believed God loved them and believed God’s word, then they would know that the actions they undertake here on earth are going to be held up for them to answer for on God’s Judgement Day. Yet, they continue on the path of oppression and the dehumanization of God’s children—those who are Black. That says to me, at some level, that they have given up on God’s love of them and have decided that, “since we are condemned from God’s own mouth regarding the Judgement Day, then let’s live in this time as we wish and just keep claiming God’s love and agreement with all we do.”

The media has drawn significant attention to the deaths of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, yet little of media coverage focuses the spotlight on the death of Breonna Taylor. Historically, Black women have been marginalized, and left out of the discourse when it comes to recognizing their bodies, identity, and presence when it comes to violence and their lived experiences. Malcolm X once said, “The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman.” Why do you think this occurs, and what can we do to bring to light why this happens to Black women so often?

I don’t think we have to go beyond Malcolm X’s statement to find why this is true. We can just add in Sojourner Truth’s question, “Ain’t I A Woman?” The truth is Black women have historically been the bearers and the brunt of both racist and sexist oppression in this country, and indeed around the world. Even as women have been in the forefront of the struggle for civil and human right, even as Black women have been at the forefront of the fight for gender equity, our concerns and our stories have always been relegated to the bottom of the demands. We are the bodies in the trenches and on the battlefield for freedom and justice and, unfortunately, we often remain just that, the bodies sacrificed for the betterment of everyone else.

I think it is important to see how our story is so often subverted in the service of actions and laws that do us harm. It is striking to me that from the period of Reconstruction and into the present moment, the myth of Black men wanting to rape white women has been such a powerful part of the American story. We know the reality is the exact opposite. The ways in which white men have raped Black women is, in fact, the truth. Yet, even to this day, this subversion is hardly ever referred to, nor is its impact on Black women’s access to safety considered.

We are living in unprecedented times, and many persons have questions and are wondering if this is all God’s will. What advice or insights can you provide that can help individuals who may feel disheartened or unresolved in their spiritual journey and who are trying to make sense of our current world?

I tell people all the time that the greatest part of God’s will is that we as human beings have free will. We can decide how we want to live in relationship with God, other human beings, and the rest of God’s creation. All too often, human beings have chosen to oppress and dehumanize one another and to use the rest of creation as though it has been put here simply for our convenience. The world God created was one that was in balance; as Simba would say, “The Circle of Life.” We have turned that balance around and have commoditized every aspect of life.

Right now, in this pandemic, people are being called essential workers. People from meatpacking plant workers to CNAs (Certified Nursing Assistants) and cleaning staff in hospitals.

But seeing them as essential workers has not led us to look at them as essential humans, worthy of respect, proper payment for their services, and protection necessary to do their work.

So, for me the hope again comes from this time of crisis as a time we can choose to live a new way. The pandemic offers us a chance to say if the work is essential, then care for the ones performing the work has to be essential.

If we are in awe of what teachers do day after day after trying to teach our children for a few weeks, then we have the opportunity to make sure that teachers receive the respect and pay their importance to our children and our society demand.

This is our chance to look at the environment and the way we have abused it and decide to do it all a different way.

The emphasis on racialized police violence gives us an opportunity to stop talking about a few bad apples and reimagine the justice system. The spotlight that is being shone on white Americans’ ignorance about dates such as Juneteenth and the massacres at Tulsa and Rosewood is an opportunity for us to begin to teach the whole history of the United States and not simply the parts that make the dominant culture feel good.

I believe that we are given opportunities in our personal lives daily to be better people. I also believe that there come times when God offers a whole community, country, or even the world the chance to choose a new way. I believe that this is one of those times in our lifetime. That is how I encourage people to stay grounded in their faith and in the hope for the world we have been promised.

If you could be in a room with three philosophical or theological thinkers, living or dead, discussing COVID-19 and the protests happening across the world, including the teachings of Jesus, which three would be your conversation partners? Why? And what message would you think they would have for us on how to engage and deal with this crisis using theology, Christianity, and our faith?

This is such a hard question for me. Can’t I choose twelve like Jesus did? I know I am going to keep changing my three even as I answer. Okay, here goes, and I am going to cheat. I am warning you.

My first is Howard Thurman. I choose him because this man had insight and wisdom and such a discerning spirit. He did not hide from the ugliness of the world. He did not try and pretend that all was well, and yet everything he wrote came from such a deep faith and relationship with God. I swear that his book, Jesus and The Dispossessed, is a survival handbook for me. I turn to it whenever I feel overwhelmed by the level of hate and bigotry in the world. I think I have everything he ever wrote, and some things that people just threw together, which are bits of his writings, just because there is always such compassion and commitment in all he writes.

My second would be Delores Williams and Kelly Brown Douglas. I have them together because each of them has been central to my having access to Black women theologians who look at the world through eyes like my own. Delores Williams’ Sisters in the Wilderness was the first book I read that put the story of a Black woman as central to an understanding of God. Kelly Brown Douglas keeps on doing that each and every time I hear her. So, to sit with these two and hear how they place Black women’s story in the forefront of COVID-19, police brutality, and the complicity of the institutional Church would be a taste of heaven and they help me in my commitment to our liberation.

My third would be Steve Biko and Malusi Mpumlwana. Again, like my second, these two would be such rich, enlightening, edifying, and inspiring conversation partners that I could simply sit and take in their conversation and not say a word. Steve Biko’s work on Black Consciousness in the South African context, and our responsibility for our mental and spiritual emancipation has been a bedrock for me. Then, Malusi’s work, which focuses on the institutional Church and the ways we have allowed our African culture to be used and described from a non-African perspective, just adds a layer and depth to the conversation. To hear these two and how they speak of what we are facing through a decidedly African lens would feed my soul and give me energy for what is to come.

__________________________

The Rev. Canon Nontombi Naomi Tutu serves as Cathedral Missioner for Racial and Economic Reconciliation, and Missioner for Kairos West Community Center for The Cathedral for All Souls in Asheville, North Carolina. Rev. Tutu came late to the ordained ministry, having been ordained in 2017 in the Diocese of Tennessee. Her first assignment was as curate at Christ Church Cathedral in Nashville where she had lived for 20 years. Her professional experience ranges from being a development consultant in West Africa, to being program coordinator for programs on Race and Gender and Gender-based Violence in Education at the African Gender Institute at the University of Cape Town. In addition, Rev. Tutu has taught at the University of Hartford, University of Connecticut, and Brevard College in North Carolina. She served as Program Coordinator for the historic Race Relations Institute at Fisk University, and was a part of the Institute’s delegation to the World Conference Against Racism in Durban. After leaving the Race Relations Institute Rev Tutu established Nozizwe Consulting and worked as a diversity consultant and motivational speaker. Through Nozizwe Consulting she also led Truth and Reconciliation workshops and organized specialized partnership trips to South Africa for churches, schools, and women’s groups. Naomi has three grown children, Tebogo, Mungi and Mpilo.

Dr. Terrance Dean received his Ph.D. in Religion and African American Diaspora Studies from Vanderbilt University in June 2019. His research interests include gender, sex, sexuality, Black religion and Homiletics, rhetoric and communication, African Diaspora, Black Cultural Studies, James Baldwin, and Afrofuturism. In 2005, Dean was a John Seigenthaler Journalism Fellow from Vanderbilt University, and in 2014 he earned his Master’s in Theology from Vanderbilt Divinity School. Dean is a professor in Black Studies at Denison University.

He is also the author of the Essence Magazine best-seller Hiding In Hip Hop - On the Down Low in the Entertainment Industry from Music to Hollywood (Simon & Schuster/Atria Books - May 2008), including, Reclaim Your Power! A 30-Day Guide to Hope, Healing and Inspiration for Men of Color (Random House/Villard - May 2003); Straight From Your Gay Best Friend – The Straight Up Truth About Relationships, Love, and Having A Fabulous Life (Agate – October 2010); Visible Lives: Three Stories in Tribute to E. Lynn Harris, (Kensington – May 2010). In 2011, Dean made his fiction debut with his novel, MOGUL (Simon & Schuster/Atria Books – June 2011).

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