Going to Church Shouldn't Hurt: Alicia Crosby on Religious Trauma’s Effect on Black Lives - Jen Hatmaker

Going to Church Shouldn’t Hurt: Alicia Crosby on Religious Trauma’s Effect on Black Lives

Episode 03

God created a beautiful world, filled with people who share love, creativity, friendship and hope in all kinds of ways. For thousands of years, some have tried to use religion to wield power and authority over people around the globe, claiming “their” way was the “right” way to gain access to God. That’s how the seeds of religious trauma are sown. And through generations, we’ve seen members of the white American Christan church push Black and brown people away from the center of the church’s stories in an attempt to gain control over those cultures. But as justice educator and equity consultant Alicia Crosby reminds us, we gain so much when we center stories that have been pushed to the margins, when we allow ourselves to be curious about ourselves and other cultures. Alicia shares her own history in the church as a Black queer woman, and how, after her “burn it all down” phase, she’s learned to embrace the beauty of who she is and how she chooses to express her faith in God’s love for her. Jen and Alicia dive into why it’s important to create protective spaces for affinity groups of all kinds (everything from parents, to race and cultural groups, to LGBTQ+ spaces), and why sitting down at the table is the most equalizing force in our universe.

Episode Transcript

Alicia: Asking questions—I swear on everything—is the start to so much. It’s the start to unraveling our biases and challenging them, to being able to walk into new opportunities. 

Jen: Welcome to the For the Love Podcast with me, Jen Hatmaker. Today we’re going to look at the ways that the church in America has played a role in Black lives with justice educator and equity consultant Alicia Crosby.

Hey, everybody, Jen Hatmaker here. Welcome to the For the Love Podcast. I’m delighted that you are here, absolutely thrilled that you are so highly engaged in this series. 

Oh, man. Today, you guys. Whew. Let me tell you that at the end of this conversation, I told Alicia that I was sweating, like an armpit sweat, and I had to push my chair back and stand up because I had so much energy in my body. This is packed today, absolutely packed with wisdom and clarity and candor. I am still—my head still feels like it’s zinging. 

Today we’re taking an unflinching look at something that might make a lot of us feel uncomfortable. We are going to look at the church’s role in the wholeness of Black lives. Without mincing words, this has been a place of profound failure for the American white church, because the center of the American church remains white, straight, and cisgendered. All kinds of people groups who fall outside of those lines have not been valued, much less centered. And this has had tragic consequences. Having said that, what is learned can be unlearned. We can hand back some of the narratives we were given from the time that we were little, and there are so many good teachers that we can learn from right now. 

Today I am absolutely grateful to have such a wise teacher who is here to help us wrestle with some of these uncomfortable truths—not just around the church, but around our individual role in it, around our own narratives, around our own bias. 

You might have encountered Alicia  through her writing, because she’s prolific and her words have appeared in all kinds of publications. You might have heard her speak at a conference. You maybe met her through the Center for Inclusivity, which is an organization she co-founded to build peace at the intersection of faith, gender, and sexuality—a hard fought peace by the way, not an absence of conflict. Sincere and genuine peace. 

Wherever you have met her, or even if you’re meeting her today, Alicia offers such leadership for both people who have experienced spiritual and systemic harm in faith spaces and for those who have knowingly or unknowingly perpetuated it. She calls herself a “sometimes reluctant minister,” which is hilarious, I completely identify. But there’s no holding back her passion for people, and for truth, and for justice. Her mind and heart help us explore today and unpack identity, and inclusivity, and intersectional equity. Nothing matters more than this right now. You’re going to learn a lot today, and I invite you to sit tenderly and quietly as a listener today, a listener and a learner. We open our hands to what we hear.

One thing that Alicia and I talked a lot about is highly valuing the posture of spiritual curiosity. And I hope that is something we continue to cultivate here on this podcast and in this community, that we are less interested in certainty and absolutes and far more interested in curiosity and possibility. I think that’s what you’re going to experience today. With great delight, I’m pleased to share my conversation with the absolutely wonderful Alicia Crosby.  

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Jen: Well, I told you this, but my team and I really, really wanted to have you in this series, Alicia. So welcome to the podcast, and thank you for saying yes to it.

Alicia: Heck yeah. Thank y’all for inviting me. I’m super pumped to be with you in this time and the community that surrounds your work. I’m really, really excited for this time we’ll spend together.

Jen: Same. Would you do me a quick favor before we dive into a lot of the nuances of this conversation, and will you tell my listeners, kind of high-level, who you are and what your basic story is, where you are, etc.?

Alicia: Ha!

Jen: Just that.

Alicia: No big deal. Tell you all the things. 

Jen: Easy.

Alicia: Who I am? That is a question I’m asking myself and reframing. I think if we’re talking about my work, the best way for me to talk about this is I’m a justice educator and equity consultant. So I have conversations about the systems and practices and relational dynamics that either heal or harm people. That’s this most succinct way I could probably get into my work. Sometimes that means I’m talking about it from a justice perspective. Sometimes I’m talking to people within religious communities. Sometimes it’s an educational space for a non-profit, it’s really varied. That’s the scope of my work. 

Who I am as a person—well, I’m most recently a fiancée. 

Jen: Oh, congratulations! 

Alicia: Thank you! I’ve actually been double engaged—or super engaged, as I’ll call it. My fiancée proposed to me first, and we had this conversation when we were dating where I told her that I was going to counter propose to her at some point. Because, of course. She proposed a couple of months ago, and then I counter proposed last weekend, now we’re super engaged.

Jen: Last weekend? I just got goosebumps! 

Alicia: Yeah!

Jen: What’d you do? Can I ask? What was your approach? 

Alicia: I am a relatively recent resident of North Carolina. I’m actually a seminarian at Duke. I asked my fiancée if we could go for a drive and do a history tour of Durham, North Carolina. She’s actually from the area. She grew up, she was born and raised in Raleigh, and she also loves history. I tricked her into being a part of the proposal. I had her do what she loved, which was talk about the history of spaces as we drove around the city. Then we took a drive out to the country and then made our way back. I’d also gotten her a couple of presents that are very specific to our geeky sides. 

Jen: Yes!

Alicia: We had stopped to grab a quick bite while we were out in the country. I gave her the first of the presents, which was a matching set of Mickey ears, except they were Star Wars Mickey ears. Hers had the Millennium Falcon and Chewbacca on them, and mine had a Darth Vader because I have a lot of love for Darth Vader. I think he’s actually a very complicated person and not a true villain. 

But then when we got back into the city, there was a pavilion that she had mentioned that was really pretty at night and had string lights. I was like, “Oh, we should totally go there. I want to check it out if someone’s still around.” We went there, and that’s where I gave her a second gift, which was a pair of personalized lightsabers. 

Jen: Oh my gosh!

Alicia: Because over the Christmas holiday, we had watched Star Wars together from the prequels, which I know some people can attest to but I think they’re helpful to understand the story. But [we watched] the prequels, the core, and then the sequels. 

As she was tearing through this box that was really tightly wrapped, I snuck the ring out of my purse and stuck it next to me. Then when she had finished is when I proposed. I told her I had another gift that was just for her because these first two gifts were for us. That’s how I counter proposed in the pavilion under the stars and the string lights. 

Jen: That was so good!

Alicia: I was really hoping that I didn’t screw it up, and she was very happy with it.

Jen: Oh, that’s great. Thank you for sharing that story. We need a little spot of joy, and that delivered. I love the nerdy packaging around all that, it is just delightful. Well done. I’m so happy for you.

I want to steer back into your work. You high-leveled it for us, which was a really great description. When I look at what you do, I think, This is a woman holding and creating space for people who live with the intersections and don’t feel safe or included in the center stories that our culture values. And so you speak truth, you hold power accountable. It’s nuanced, it’s complicated, it’s probably exhausting. Can you talk about how specifically you moved into this work? Did you always have some sense [of], This is what I want to…This is going to be my work in the world, or did it come to you?

Alicia: I absolutely did not know this was what I was going to be doing. It did come to me, but one thing I want to push back in terms of phrasing is I don’t create space. I cultivate. 

Jen: Oh good. Tell me the difference.

Alicia: The reason why I say that is I think of creation—sometimes we do create. I think that we engage in a co-creative process with God a lot of the time.

Jen: Sure. 

Alicia: There’s nothing there, and then we bring parts together. Right? There is sometimes purely creative energy. But more often than not, I think we actually do the work of cultivation, that there are things there and we work to make the connections and amplify what’s already existing in the space. 

Jen: Oh, that’s so good. What a good distinction. 

Alicia: Thank you. 

Jen: And you’re right. It’s already created. It is there it exists. It’s a matter of cultivation. So speaking of cultivating that, obviously anyone who walks and lives outside of the white heteronormative, cisgendered narrative of the American church has a really interesting and important story to tell about their faith journey. 

I wonder if we can start personally with you. Would you be willing to give us a high-level view of what your faith journey has been like? What your relationship with the church has been like? What is the body of believers you’ve been surrounded by through the years? What have they looked like? And how has the capital-C Church impacted and affected you? 

Alicia: I think at this point in time, it’s fair to say that I am ecumenically promiscuous. I don’t know where I first heard that phrase. It’s not something I came up with on my own, but I heard it somewhere. Thank you to whomever said it years ago, because it totally fits me. I’d cite you if I could. But I think that’s a good way to describe what my background is as it relates to Church big-C now. 

I grew up in the Black Baptist Church—Missionary Baptist to be more specific—in New York City. I’m a native New Yorker. After I left the church of my formation, my dad actually pastored a church in Harlem that actually split off and became non-denominational. That church project came to conclusion, because all churches aren’t called to be together forever. We transitioned into what is arguably one of the larger—it is I think the largest—Black Church, if not Black Evangelical Church in New York City, but it’s also one of the biggest ones in the country. 

But those churches earlier in my formation, as well as a couple of I’m about to mention, were definitely more theologically conservative. I was far more conservative, I wouldn’t self-describe as conservative now at all, but I did grow up really conservative and having the understanding—or had the belief, rather—that faith and politics went together. And so as we’re entering now into my college years and my faith journey, I was a part of the College Republicans, which is something a lot of people don’t know about me. 

Jen: Wow. 

Alicia: Yeah.

Jen: Well, I didn’t see that coming.

Alicia: Yeah, no. Most people don’t. So when I went to college, actually the first church that I attended there was an Anglican Church. I joined this church specifically because they were non-affirming. They were non-LGBTQ affirming. Because this was a point in time where I went to college in the early 2000s—yeah, early, mid, however you put it. But this is when the Episcopal Church started ordaining LGBT bishops.

Jen: Right. 

Alicia: I aligned myself with the church because of where I was theologically back then. I ended up…

Jen: Can I ask you a question? 

Alicia: Yeah.

Jen: Right there at that moment, when you chose a denomination and a church specifically for its non-affirming stance—feel free to say, “This is none of your business and I’m not answering it.” But where were you in your personal sexuality at the time? I’m wondering how those…

Alicia: Repressed.

Jen: Yeah, that’s what I was…

Alicia: I was repressed, deeply repressed. I tried to come out when I was in high school, had a couple of conversations with friends that went swimmingly. Had a conversation with family that did not. I was like, “Oh. So my family said I’m not actually bisexual.” I now identify as pansexual or queer. But my family was like, “No, you’re confused.” I’m like, “Oh, I guess I must be confused.” So I tucked it in and shoved it down and suppressed. That was my life actually for a number of years. 

So yes, Anglican Church. After that, I was in a white Pentecostal Church.

Jen: Wow.

Alicia: That split and became a non-denominational church, so it’s very evangelical in nature. When I graduated college—I’m telling you my church experience is long. When I graduated from college, I ended up in another non-denominational church now back in New York. That is significant to know because I worked there, I ministered there, and I attended church there. 

That was a very interesting time of life, and one honestly where I have a lot of religious trauma that stems from…

Jen: Is that right? 

Alicia: Oh yeah, I’ve got religious trauma going all the way back. I’m a pastor’s kid, right? So there are things that we see about the inner workings of not our individual churches, but denominations and church culture. And the intimacy that we have and honestly the secret keeping that these families who are pastoral families, what we see and what we witness means that a lot of us walk around with a lot of pain because we witnessed the pain of others intimately—just by proximity to who our parents have been called to be. 

So [I] worked at the Evangelical Church. Then I ended up in a Nazarene Church for a season. After that I was hanging out with the reformed kids for a little while. After that I ended up… 

Jen: Did you?

Alicia: Yeah. That was a short season, but it was a meaningful one. I met some really, really dynamic folks there. 

So at this point now, after I left that church that I worked in, I’m getting to a place where there is some degree of theological progression, and there’s this challenge taking place. So the pastor at the Nazarene Church was actually a professor. And so we would have these really…

Jen: Like heady?

Alicia: Yeah, heady conversations and dialogues. And even though there are some places that were still theologically conservative to moderate, I was thinking about justice in ways that felt good to my soul. I am eternally grateful for the ways in which that church, one, helped me heal from some things, but also question so much.

Jen: That’s so great. Great thing to say.

Alicia: Yeah. Let’s see. It was after the reformed, I went to Evangelical Covenant Church for a really brief season. Then I ended up moving to start grad school in Chicago. This is grad school the first time, I’m in grad school the second time now. 

I went to a Methodist Church for a season, and at that point I finally got to the place where I said, “You know what? The institutional church isn’t for me.”

Jen: Yeah. 

Alicia: It’s for a lot of other people. There is meaning and value and beauty. I had to come to the place where I could say those things. [Before], I was like, “Burn it all down!” 

Jen: That’s right. 

Alicia: Then I pulled it back and realized that sacraments, and ritual, and the gathering and the consistency of those things is so beautiful and needed by so many people, but that’s not what gave my soul life. I could pop in and out, but I couldn’t any longer be in a space where I couldn’t ask questions when the questions emerged. And when there was such a rigid order of service, such a tight order of service, where I couldn’t turn to the person next to me and have a conversation. I was asking questions. I think of all the times I’m traveling from place to place, like, when we have journey, when we travel, it’s because there’s something that we’re not finding where we are. For me, I ended up in all these different places and have this really—when I tell people I’m ecumenically promiscuous, I mean you all see my journey. 

Jen: Yeah, that’s not a joke.

Alicia: I’ve been around. I’ve been in a lot of places, but it’s because there were questions about community and power—and shared power, specifically—that weren’t answered for me in the spaces that I abided in until me and God got to the place where I realized that I had to go outside the doors of an institutional church and the congregational setting to find what it is that I needed. 

And then, this brilliant thing happens. All the while, I’m in scripture trying to validate this, right? It’s like, God, I feel like I’ll be sinning if I’m not in a church every Sunday. Then I was like, Yo. Looking back at the early church, this is what they did. There were people who were still going to temple every week because that was a part of their spiritual formation in a way that they honored God and the way that they honored themselves. But then there was this whole other pocket of the believers and the followers of Jesus’s teaching who couldn’t go out. Some of them elected to be outside the doors, but some of them couldn’t go in the first place because of the identities that they held and because of who they are and how they chose to live in the world and not even how they chose, but how they had to live in the world. The temple wasn’t a place that was going to be spiritually life giving to them, and so Jesus went to them.

When we look at the formation of the church, we’ve always existed in and outside of buildings. I think that that’s the thing that I celebrate and I’m really pumped about because it’s not a matter of either/or. I’m glad that I got past the place—and honestly had friends pushed me past the place—where I was in that whole “burn it all down” mode because I recognize that there was a degree of reclamation of identity as a follower of Jesus that I could take hold of when I realized that people like me have always been a part of the body of Christ, always.

Jen: So powerful. That gave me butterflies in my stomach. I’m thinking about how many people heard you walk through that and say that in plain terms and probably felt a million pounds roll off their shoulders. 

Alicia: Mmhmm.

Jen: The sense of duty and obligation and should should-ing around institutional church attendance and involvement is so high. You mentioned it. I know it, too. I went to church three times a week as a fetus. And so…

Alicia: Hard thing.

Jen: The powerful theological framework that the people of God have been in and out of buildings since the beginning is so liberating. What a beautiful and a wonderful thing to say. 

I also really appreciate your generous posture toward the organized church and toward people who still find a lot of meaning and depth inside of that. 

Alicia: Oh yeah. I mean, they’re my siblings. How dare I be in a position, because of what my need is, to try to take away what their needs are? I had to get to a place of humility in myself where I recognize that. I think that sometimes when we’re in the “burn it all down” place, it’s because of the profound violence and harm that we’ve experienced in those places, and we want that thing that hurt us to go away. But this is where healing work is necessary, and we can get into a whole conversation about that. 

Because if we’re being real, us having conversations about healing from religious trauma and naming it as trauma and naming the things that happened to us as violences, that’s a fairly emergent conversation. People have academically even having these talks about things for a while, right? But in terms of our public discourse things, it’s like things that are available to regular, degular people like me and you, and your listeners, this is stuff that we’re getting our hands on now. You got a lot of theologians and pastors and counselors who are really doing the work of trying to identify resources in all these different spaces to deal with this. 

I remember a few years back I had a conversation. I was on a panel for clinicians. When I tell you that my work takes me a lot of places, y’all, I’m not joking. I’m in this room full of therapists and psychologists and what have you. We’re talking about mindfulness, but then the issue or the question of religious harm comes up. I asked them, I’m like, “Okay, so show of hands. Who in this room has had any education about religious and spiritual trauma?” A couple of hands go up. This is showing me that in the places of formation—and I already knew this. Part of my background is in psychology and social work. That’s part of the studies that I’ve undertaken over the years. I know that they’re not learning those things in their classes. But a few of them were able to say, “Sure, I’ve studied this.” 

Then I asked the followup question. I’m like, “Who here in this room has actually confronted the ways in which religion has hurt them over the years, in terms of your personal work?” Very few hands went up. Then I gave them this thought. I was like, “Okay, so you’re telling people to do their work, and you haven’t done your own? Is it possible to consider that by you not committing to doing your own work, and honestly not having the resources to do that, you may be taking your biases over into your practice?”

Jen: Wow. Wow. 

Alicia: And I kept in contact with a few people who were a part of that session, and that helped them get on their healing journey. It’s just asking questions. Asking questions—I swear on everything—is the start to so much. It’s the start to unraveling our biases and challenging them, to being able to walk into new opportunities. I think if I was going to self describe as who I am, I’m a professional question-asker. Asking questions of myself changed my life, and that’s what I want to do in the world. It’s ask questions to help people enter into the fullness of who they are.

Jen: I’m deeply receiving what you’re saying right now. We, like so many people, have been on the receiving end of so much religious trauma. And because it got wrapped up in this notion that people in spiritual authority were to be trusted and not questioned. It’s like an absolute roadblock to the healing process. And so I know what we did is probably what a lot of listeners do: you just bury it. You just bury it. You try to move onto the next iteration of church. This is what you described so perfectly earlier, this wandering mistress of, Where am I going to find the wholeness and the fullness of God and what faith community?

And so I thank you for bringing up that, the necessity of spiritual healing from trauma—and for naming it, because that is what it is. That strikes at the heart of our wellness when we have been spiritual traumatized. People don’t talk about this enough.

Alicia: No. And I think that honestly, if we’re going to now bring it back into a conversation about race, I think that that’s an imperative that we inherit from white religious spaces because they’re not curious. They’re not curious.

Jen: Let’s talk about the intersection of the white American church and white supremacy, and what this has meant historically at all the way to currently for people of color. Let’s talk about the pain points. Then we’ll dig into the nuances of how to address it.

Alicia: Yeah. I think the thing that I was saying—and I will reiterate it again—one of the big issues that I have—and that many people have if they sit with it—about the white church is it’s not a curious place. It’s a place that relies on absolute. Honestly, any imperialist space—and I think that we can call supremacy—there are resources that we can look at without getting too deep in the weeds about how imperialism functions. When you have an entity that seeks to control culturally, socio-politically control something, it relies on absolutes because it gives boundaries around what is or isn’t permissible and creates an out group. I think that some of what white Christianity and specifically white American Christianity has done, curiosity is a threat to its existence.

Jen: That’s right.

Alicia: Out there, even curiosity about self. Even if you will want to take conversations about people of color off of the table, like, just indigenous practices to white people. Where does your family come from? Who are your people? What were their religious practices? How did they merge these things if they were Christians within their articulation of their Christian faith? If they weren’t Christian, then what were the practices that they held to be true? And how did that help them make meaning of the world? 

These are things that the majority of white Christians don’t know how to do. And not only do they not know how to do them, when you have people who are a part of the African diaspora and Asian diaspora and who were an indigenous peoples of the Americas and what have you, the ways in which we experience God in the world and ourselves that weren’t within the scope of what white Christians wanted us to explore, those things got not only suppressed but called demonic.

Jen: That’s right.

Alicia: There are so many people right now who are going back to looking at nature and our connection to it and seeing what nature tells us, what the stars tell us about what’s happening in the world. But that’s called demonic because it’s astrology. But that’s an impulse that comes, I think, out of a very specific type of Christianity. And it’s not even what happens in this moment, right? What’s happening in this moment has a lineage. And that lineage is one of suppression for the sake of control. 

Jen: That’s right. That’s right. It’s a very reliable approach. Very predictable, and not without precedence. And everything you’re saying is zinging me right now, because I wrapped my arms around spiritual curiosity as an adult. That was absolutely not available to me as—I also grew up Baptist—as a young adult or definitely as a kid. It’s interesting, because as you said, some of the practices around being a spiritually curious person, I’m willing to examine our own hearts and minds and souls and faith walk as well as our systems and our theologies. 

Being either spiritually curious or learning from all those different traditions, that is so punished. It’s such a punished behavior. And the narrative that I heard around that posture of curiosity toward faith was of course how dangerous it was. It’s the absolute slippery slope, and we were putting everything cherished on the altar of doubt and arbitrary interpretations. 

But interestingly, I believed all that. That kept me scared away from it for long enough, because I didn’t want to be at odds with God. I’m like…

Alicia: Same, same.

Jen: But once I stepped into a place of spiritual curiosity and I rotated so many new teachers into my life, completely different voices, totally different faith experiences, absolutely different perspectives, whole new systems of faith and theology and doctrine and interpretation—it’s not at all that. The opposite has been true for me. I have experienced absolute spiritual flourishing. So I’m like, “Oh, that was a lie. That whole thing was a lie to keep us in control,” as you just said.

Alicia: Also it was a lie for the sake of someone’s profit. That’s a thing that we can’t escape is when we look at systems of supremacy, we also need to look at profitability, because somebody is either socially profiting off of suppression, or they are materially profiting. Their entire industry’s like, you all know what it is. There are books, there are conferences, there are platforms that are built off of the expression and articulation of certain types of theologies. They are like, “Buy this book series where you could learn da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da.” 

Jen: Yup, yup.

Alicia: Somebody is making money and/or gaining social capital. They’re being placed in a position of influence off the sake of you not being curious because those systems of supremacy rely on the myth of scarcity, that there isn’t enough. There’s more than enough to go around. What we’re talking about Christian supremacy, because that’s a thing, if we’re talking about racial supremacy, if we’re talking about economic supremacy. Billionaires can get it too.  If we’re talking about anything in which there is a group of people put above others, we are now about a myth of scarcity that we don’t have enough to share in this together. 

Bringing this back to the church, this is one of my favorite things about the church, like ever. And it’s been this way my entire life. I always, always, always loved communion. And it’s as an adult that I get why I love it so much. The reason why I love communion so much is that the table is a place of equity. And I think ultimately, this is the thing that we’re working towards. We’re working to a place of equity, that when we’re speaking about how we orient our bodies. When you’re talking about ability and disability, the table challenges that because when people gathered around the table, you don’t know who has what capacity to do what. When everything is laid out on the table, you don’t know who brought what. You’re not asking questions about money and power or whatever because the food is on the table and they got there somehow.

That is a thing that encourages me about the table, tables are also a universal thing. The majority of cultures have tables in some capacity, whether it be a sacred table, a communal table, a work table, what have you. But when we gather around it, there’s something that can be done. There’s a coming together that happens. Sometimes there are arguments that happen at these tables, because there’s a proximity to one another that we share when we’re there. But yeah, I love it because I think that there’s an equity that God calls us into, where even if we have to have these thorny conversations about why it is that I wasn’t invited here before, or why it is that you tried to gatekeep at the door that led to the table, but it can happen when we’re together. 

Jen: That’s right. So one thing that you do extraordinarily well as we grapple our way toward equity,  that is our aim at the end of the road that we’re walking toward. In the meantime, you are gifted at curating safe spaces for people inside a faith community who need the most. I’m thinking specifically what my first exposure to you was at Evolving Faith last year, and you created the POC space which was so instructive to me. I learned so much just from its existence.

I wonder if you can talk about that a little bit. Why is it necessary, what it means to the community, and why curating safety along the way as we work toward equity—we’re going to talk about that next. As we work toward equity, until we are there, the need for safety and connection and protection is so real. 

Alicia: I am so grateful that you actually use the word protection, because I actually abhor the idea of safe space. I use such a strong word because almost every time that people say, “This is a safe space,” they’re making assumptions about the needs of another person without engaging in the work of curiosity.  The frame of work that I use is one that I developed through my work with my former organization, the Center for Inclusivity, we developed something called “protective space,” where we were curious and continuously are curious about one another and what our needs are and understand that needs shift, and that we have the ability to be responsive to one another’s needs as our time together goes on. 

And I don’t personally use safe space language. I’ve actually written on this for Evangelicals for Social Action, I’ve talked a little bit about it in a piece on allyship with them. There are too many assumptions that come with safe space, and we’ve got to stop. I think one of my deep desires is actually to push people to stop making assumptions around what is or isn’t safe for other people, and instead do the work of asking. 

That being said, that space that I helped to curate for Evolving Faith was something that was asked for. Jeff [Chu] and Sarah [Bessey] and Rachel [Held Evans], when she was still with us, they sat in conversation and consideration about what Evolving Faith had been its first year and then what it needed to be moving forward. And they’re like, “We need affinity space where people of color can go. We’re not sure what it looks like, but we know this is your jam. This is what you do, you help cultivate these spaces. What would you enter into partnership with us in order to do this?” And I’m like, “Heck yeah. I think all of y’all are dope, so absolutely.” 

Too often when people have spaces that are inclusive, they forget about the fact that affinity is also needed. Sometimes we share identities and experiences with other people and need to be able to lean in that in order for us to enter into inclusive spaces where people come with different experiences and identities more fully. That is the importance of affinity space. It’s not a supremacist notion, as some people would try to frame it. No. Sometimes you need to let your hair down. The way that we are talking now may not be—and this is because we are both speakers and podcasters and writers—there’s shared experience around how Jen and I are in conversation in this moment. But if I’m with someone who has very different experiences, my tone, and in the way that I show up, it’s going to be different. And that can be exhausting.

Code switching is so tiring. Sometimes in affinity spaces, whether it be with people who we have relationships with, or people who we just met who happen to have some of those shared identity markers, it can be like being able to catch your breath. It’s like, Ahh. I don’t have to deal with people asking me a million questions about this thing that they don’t have access to by way of their identity constellation.

Jen: That’s right. 

Alicia: It’s a place where we can breathe, and that’s ultimately what the POC space became. Because we were in a white-dominant space, which is good because there was a lot of curiosity in that room. People came because they were looking for something. And so that allowed for everybody, regardless of their racial identity, to be able to show up to Evolving Faith generally. But what was cool about that room for people of color is that folks weren’t asked questions that were intrusive about their identities. They weren’t asked to do labor, because there were a lot of people who were well-meaning but are asking complete strangers deep things.

Jen: Totally. 

Alicia: And it’s like, y’all don’t have relationship enough to ask this. Just because this person is black or brown does not mean that they are here to serve you and your curiosity. You have speakers who will open up because they have been compensated to do that.

Jen: That’s right.

Alicia: It’s not the responsibility of the person who’s in the seat next to you to give you what you feel you need in the moment. That’s incredibly selfish.

And so that was a lot of what was happening there, in the wisdom of the curators of Evolving Faith was that they knew that that was a thing that had happened and will continue to happen if they didn’t have a space for people to go. 

And that wasn’t the only affinity space that was there, there was also a space for parents when they needed to take their kids somewhere. There were places where people who had different sensory needs and needed manipulatives, where they could go. But that’s the cool thing. When we curate these spaces, we’re able to address the needs of a myriad of people. We’re acting like there isn’t just one set way of being, or orienting, or concerns that need to be elevated. There are multiple things that we can hold together and that’s why affinity spaces are important.

Jen: Yes, that’s so incredible. Yeah, they had a LGBTQ kids space because there were a bunch of teenagers and college kids there in that community, and I thought that’s a powerful witness to that sense of community, these sub-communities where they can be completely protected and have affinity.

So I don’t know quite how to ask this question, but you perfectly explained the need there and why that is where your shoulders can finally drop down and your jaw can unclench and you are not being tasked with irresponsible asks to be everybody’s mentor and teacher and educator. When we look at the church right now, let’s say the American church in general—and this is a clunky question because there’s so many slivers of the pie. This is not a monolith, and so it’s challenging to address holistically. But when we look by and large, and more or less, there’s white church and Black church. There’s not a lot of multicultural space. There really isn’t. That’s more rare than anything. How do we balance? How do you suggest we balance, on the one hand, this very real felt experience of affinity spaces where you are just free to be, to be understood, to be loved, to be cherished, to be centered. This matters. And to be represented, this matters. Then this idea of what could be possible if our faith communities were absolutely diverse and represented at every level, top to bottom, with variety and with diversity of thought, of race, of theology, of experience? That feels so whole and the spiritual possibility and that feels a real wonder. 

Is it possible? Should it be possible? How do we balance these two very different faith experiences? I’m not really sure what the question is in there. But is it possible to have both affinity spaces that matter and are necessary, as well as really diverse and inclusive churches where we are honestly like the kingdom of God?

Alicia: I think that this is why there is the Church, big-C, the Church universal. In the same way that we look at the scriptures, you have the church in Corinth, then you had another church in Rome, and you have the church in Jerusalem, you had all these places. They were culturally nuanced spaces. They didn’t share the same exact culture. They didn’t function the same way. And maybe there were believers even then who had some things in common, and when it made sense to, they came together in a community and shared that. They even then didn’t force themselves. Yes, there are some things core wise theologically that they try to be like, “All right then, let’s make sure that we’re on the same point.” But they weren’t like, “We must make cookie cutter churches that do X, Y, and Z.” 

So why are we trying to do it now? There is a cultural distinction and beauty that happens in Black American churches, and then even African churches, right? They’re not the same thing. A Caribbean church, they do their own things. Even within the scope of Blackness, there’s diversity in the way that our church communities worship. And it’s beautiful and awesome and cool and it can still remain distinct. There’s no need for us to be like, “Every church has got to be multicultural, and we all have to follow the same set, or try to blend our theologies.” Even though there are people who are out to do that because it makes sense for them. It makes sense for their community. It’s part of who God’s calling them to be as a congregation. 

So I think that we make space for that, but also understand it’s fine and also reflective of not only the church, but also the image of God that all of these people can show up in their cultural distinctions with their theological flairs, and it’d be beautiful and this is like another facet of who God is to us and for us. 

Jen: Okay, I love that answer. Thank you. Thank you for saying that. I appreciate that position, as opposed to this constant shoving everything and in this amalgamous way. It’s not working, and I think for the reasons you just said, because everybody loses their distinction, which is godly. There’s nothing wrong with it.

Alecia: Now, even as I say this, there is a warning that I want to give. 

Jen: Okay.

Alicia: It’s that this is where fellowship is also important. One of the real dope things about growing up in the Black Baptist Church, particularly in New York, was fellowship. It was a pain in the butt back then, but I actually can celebrate it now. We had sister churches that we would travel around the city and around the surrounding area and visit with. You got an opportunity to hear different styles of preaching and see people worship in different ways. It was a way of us celebrating what these other people within the family of God were doing. Sometimes there were things that were shared and sometimes it was different. 

As we, yes, honor our distinction, it’s also important for us to get back to that place of fellowship, where fellowship just doesn’t happen between people within the same congregational spaces for those who attend those spaces, but where you reach out to your siblings down the road. If you’re a Lutheran Church, reach out to the Episcopalians, reach out to the Methodists, the Baptists, the Evangelicals. Build relationships where your people can find ways to come together. Yes, through worship, but also in general community seeking. Why are you operating like you don’t have family out here and you do?

Jen: It’s good, it’s so good. 

Alicia: You’re a family. Let’s get back to that. We call ourselves a family of God, how about we actually act like a family and spend some time together?

Jen: That’s so good. Oh my gosh, that is profound. I’m going to ask you one last question before we land the plane. Speaking of right now, this really interesting moment in time, we are seeing white people, a bunch of them for the first time, figure out what it means to become an active participant in anti-racism and an allyship. At least more than I can remember seeing in my adult life. You have a very good word about allyship for newbies. You say, “You cannot name yourself an ally, that that title is bestowed upon you.” I appreciate that and I wonder if you would talk a little bit more about it.

Alicia: Absolutely. This goes in the same bucket that I put safety in, and that you are making a whole heck of a lot of assumptions when you call yourself someone else’s ally. When I have been told that someone is my ally, first of all, it’s usually from a defensive posture, when I tell them that I don’t need what they’ve given me. And again this goes back to—curiosity has been thematic in our conversation today. So allow curiosity to sit with you in this place as well. 

When you want to be allied with someone, let’s turn this into a verb. When you want to be in that space in which allyship is a priority, you need to actually know people. This is why it’s a conferred title. When someone, when I call someone my ally—which is actually a very, very, very, very rare thing, y’all—it’s because they know me. They know my perspective, they know my needs. We’ve talked about what is, or isn’t permissible for me as a person. They know my ethics. They know my politics, and they know how I speak and how to honor my voice in the world. You cannot do work without relationship.

Jen: That’s right. 

Alicia: You can’t. It doesn’t matter if this is about racial allyship, if it’s about the allyship with sexual and gender minorities, with persons who are disabled, with anybody, with elders, youth, whomever. You cannot call yourself another person’s ally. They tell you. They give that to you. It is a gift and it is one that can also be rescinded. Because there are people who I would have and they said, “Oh, this person is my ally.” Then they did something that was outside of alignment. Alignment is a key principle I think in allying with someone. When you were out of alignment with someone, that allyship can be taken back. “You no longer represent me. You don’t have that authority anymore. You’ve done something to compromise the integrity of our relationship, and as such, you don’t get to speak for me any longer.”

Humility is a big thing here. Humility to be curious and ask folks, “Hey, I realized that this is a thing in the world.” When you have relationship—don’t go talking to strangers about this stuff y’all—with people, the people who you call friends, who you call your beloved, who you actually are invested in, I think it’s fair to say that investment is a key thing, because don’t go talking about someone’s your friend and you met them one time, that’s not friendship. 

But for those people with whom you have intimate relationships in your world, it’s appropriate and I think necessary to ask them, “Hey, as it relates to this thing in your world, this identity, these set of experiences that you have to deal with oppression around because our world isn’t as equitable as it needs to be, what should I be doing? How do I best represent your interests when I go into spaces?” 

I’ve done this work for other people. I, even in being a queer woman, I am a cisgender woman. That means for my trans friends, when I want to do things where I’m partnering with them and kicking oppression in the face, it means that I make sure that my email signature includes my pronouns because it puts people in the practice of asking people what their pronouns are.

Jen: That’s good. 

Alicia: It’s also a feature of my work. When I’m in spaces, when I’m doing my facilitation or consulting, I’ll ask people their pronouns. Even when I do something like a Zoom call, which many of us have gotten very familiar with during this COVID season, I try to make sure that my pronouns are present there in order for people to not make assumptions about other folks’ identity into a model. Those are things that I do after having had conversations with folks who told me, “Hey, this is helpful.” 

Another thing is your allyship, should it be conferred upon you, is different between relationships. Because what I may ask of you as a Black queer woman from a major city is not the same thing that your friend who has a similar identity constellation but lives in a rural space. 

Jen: Sure.

Alicia: They’re not going to tell you a different thing.

Jen: Yeah.

Alicia: Your allyship can become more dynamic, you’re accompliceship, your co-conspirator. If we’re going to have actually move away from the language of allyship, those things become more dynamic as you hold more and more people’s interests in mind and understand that confronting oppression and dismantling the systems that keep people bound and worded and living in their best life that keeps them from flourishing in the way that they could, it requires a multitude of responses, which means that you have to consistently be curious. You’ve got to ask questions of yourself and also of your complicity, which is also something that people don’t necessarily want to do because it means that they got to admit they got it wrong, but we all get it wrong sometimes. It’s about how do you confront that, deal with it, and keep it moving and try to stop doing those things.

Jen: Oh my gosh. Alicia, I cannot believe how good this conversation has been. This has been absolutely incredible wisdom and insight. I’m going to go back and listen to this as soon as we’re done. 

I want to ask you, if you don’t mind, three quick questions that I’m actually asking everybody in this series. This first one it’s probably a long list, so you’re going to have to pick. Here it is, here’s the first one. Who have been some of your greatest role models?

Alicia: That’s a hard one. It’s hard for me to answer that question because I don’t know if I really have role models so much as I’m inspired by regular, degular people who I meet. But I’ll meet people and they’ll tell me their stories and I’m like, “Oh my God. I value that so much and I love you so much.” People are my role models. People who are willing to be vulnerable and share their story. 

Jen: What a great answer. Awesome answer. 

Here’s the next one. Again, this could be a mile long, you’ll have to choose, but who are some of your personal favorite artists or teachers or leaders that you would like people to be listening to and learning from right now?

Alicia: Yeah. Okay. I’m very excited because I actually get to talk about friends. 

Jen: Good! 

Alicia: I think some of my favorite conversation partners who are also all of those things that you mentioned. The first one I’ll mention is Anayelsi Velasco-Sanchez. Anayelsi is a brilliant human who is also an artist. She paints and draws and is awesome in that way, but is also a writer. 

Jen: Awesome.

Alicia: I think another person is Jameelah Jones. One of her recent projects is actually creating greeting cards that are available at Etsy, but they are queer greeting cards. They’re brilliant in that—one of the cool things about queer community is the level of care that happens within the space. Asking people if they’ve had enough water, or asking people how they’ve rested. Her cards are doing that. This is stuff she loves to send cards and so she started making them.

Jen: I love it.

Alicia: It’s super cute. 

Another person I’ll mention is Candace Simpson, who was a dynamic preacher. I think that preaching is an art and Candace is an artist, also a writer. 

Let’s see, who else? My co-host of Hope & Hard Pills, Andre Henry. One of the things that’s missing a little bit now, in terms of popular culture, is movement songs. Songs for the movement and for the moment. And Dre is really dedicated himself to tapping into that energy, sitting with people, sitting in his work as an organizer and producing music that talks to people’s pain. 

One other person that I will mention, and this goes back to the art of preaching and I think that everyone needs to hear her sermons all the time, is Naomi Washington-Leapheart. Naomi is hands down one of the most anointed, gifted ministers that I have ever encountered in my entire life. And when she speaks, I listen.

Jen: Powerful. Everybody listening, going back to Alicia’s point earlier, this is a really simple way to go to the transcript page and follow every one of these people. Start there. Follow those suggestions, start listening to them, learning from their work, discovering who they are. Boom! Begin rotating through some of these incredible thinkers and leaders into the daily diet of your social media which has an accrued effect of learning. 

Okay. Last question, Alicia. 

Alicia: Yes.

Jen: Everybody gets this question in every single episode. It’s from Barbara Brown Taylor. Barbara Brown Taylor is a Episcopalian priest. Anyway, this is her question and answer it literally however you want. What’s saving your life right now?

Alicia: Love. 

Jen: Yeah.

Alicia: Love. This is a really difficult season on all levels. Like, I’ve come to the realization that I won’t be able to see the rest of my family back in New York and in other parts of the East Coast. I’m not probably going to see them until next year because it’s not safe right now. But the love that we share, it’s grounded me. So even though I can’t hug my mom for a while, or my dad who’s lived out of the country, I’m not going to be able to see him or my little brother. The fact that our love travels across telephone calls and WhatsApp and whatever medium that we choose to communicate, that love is still there. The love of friends who send care packages, shout out to Jenny, who sends care packages just because they want me to know that I’m seen. The love of my partner, who makes it her business to show up in ways that make sense for me, especially as I’m dealing with the emergence of a chronic illness. She has been so attentive to me. Love is the thing that’s saving my life right now, and all the people who work to show me tangible expressions of love, that’s what saving me.

Jen: Gorgeous. Last, can you tell my listeners where to find you?

Alicia: Yes. I’ve made it easy for you all. Almost anything that I have, if you look up Alicia T. Crosby, you’ll find me. Aliciatcrosby.com is my website. I’m findable on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter @aliciatcrosby. My Patreon is AliciaTCrosby. The only thing that’s distinct is that it’s a collaborative project that I work on and I mentioned this a little bit earlier. That’s the Hope & Hard Pills Podcast. You can follow that on Apple Music or Simple Pass.

Jen: Perfect. Thank you for coming on today. I am deeply going to think about and sit with several things that you said today, some of which I heard for the first time, and a profound amount of insight that you brought to this show today. I’m really, really thankful for who you are—who you are in the world, who you are in your own skin, and the amount of commitment that you bring to your work. You’re so dedicated and single-minded, and really it’s a marvel to look at. It’s a marvel to watch and learn from. 

And so I’m so happy that my community is going to be listening to you and learning from you. Thank you for your labor today, I receive it and I honor it. And until we can get out of this quarantine, next time I see you, big, full frontal hug.

Alicia: Oh, yay. I love hugs. I love hugs! 

Jen: So do I, so do I. I’m trying to warn you. Be prepared. 

Alicia: I receive it and I’m ready. 

Jen: Thanks, Alicia. 

I don’t know about you, but I heard some really important things today that I’m going to be thinking on and considering and learning more about. Nothing appeals to me more right now than leaders who are clear and decisive and direct. I think we’ve done enough handholding and cushioning and propping up and making everything slightly more palatable to the majority culture and it’s gotten us absolutely nowhere. 

And so I am a thankful learner today from Alicia and the wisdom and expertise that she brings to bear in the world but definitely into our space today. And so as promised, if you go to jenhatmaker.com underneath the Podcast tab, you will find every resource mentioned today, including the entire transcript of our conversation, if you’d like to read it, or cut and paste parts of it to share. But every person, website, or book that Alicia mentioned today we will have linked over there for a one stop-shop because it’s a lot to gather if you’re walking around your neighborhood or driving in your car. Definitely follow her, definitely sit under her leadership from here on out. 

And come back next week. We continue to really push in closer and tighter to the various systems and structures in our culture right now where equity and equality is not yet realized, and what it means to be an anti-racist. I cannot thank you enough for your maturity and your willingness to learn as we open up this conversation series even further. There’s so much more to come, don’t miss a single episode. I really invite you to share these. Share these with your friends and family. Share these with your pastors. Share these on your social media sites. I know that you do. 

And so thank you for being so highly engaged. Laura and her team of producers thank you greatly, and so do Amanda and I. With great love, thanks for joining us in another important conversation, and we’ll see you next week.

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