“This place has freed you. Now go and free others.”
I am not sure if she will ever remember speaking those words to me, but those ten words imparted by my former New Testament professor commissioned me to be an agent of liberation for the world.
It was a warm May afternoon and I had just graduated from the Interdenominational Theological Center. There I stood on the broad plaza of the Martin Luther King, Jr. International Chapel with a statue of King on my left and a monument to Howard Thurman on my right with the world in front of me. Bright-eyed, eager, and empowered by the ashé (power) of the ancestors, my fellow graduates and I would be dispersed to the winds, blowing wherever the Spirit might take us. Standing between these two theological giants, Dr. Aymer found me and spoke life and mission into me. I cried. We embraced. I will carry that tender moment with me for the rest of my life.
The Spirit has taken me through years of formation, discernment, and vocation and all the while those words have stood as an anchor in my mind, sometimes a healing balm, other times a call to arms, but all the time as a mark of the mission to which I deeply believe G-d has called me. Freedom is not merely something to be received or demanded. It is a mandate to strive not only for one’s own freedom, but for the freedom of all people. Freedom is an open-ended commitment to struggle against easy answers and small narratives.
I never said it, but I often felt that G-d and I had this unspoken contract that I would do what I was called to do and that G-d would send me to a parish filled with people who looked like me, shared my experience of the world, spoke my language, and held my beliefs. Lies, fairytales, and fallacies.
My first parish position would take me half a continent away into a space alien to me in so many ways. I was called to a church where I am often the only person of color in the room on Sunday mornings; where the liberation theology of Gutierrez, Cone, and Grant are not only unheard of but in some ways resisted; and where my experience as a faithfully queer Christian is still a novelty for many. In a parish faithfully grappling with difference, the best way that I know to “free others” is to be me – unfettered, unbroken, unashamed, and unapologetically free.
Living into the freedom of Christ flies in the face of so much of our common life which impresses upon us not to rock the boat or upset the status quo. Those of us who represent any departure from white, heternomative, patriarchal experience are expected to submit to psychological chains and spiritual bondage. I remember being told while discerning the priesthood not to wear my sexuality on my sleeve. I remember how small it made me feel. I considered giving up until I heard Dr. Aymer’s words again naming my freedom and calling me to make space for it. I had been made free by Christ, an affirming space of study and formation had helped me to recognize and claim it, and I was called to emancipate others from the smallness of prejudice and bigotry. Freedom is a responsibility not only to ourselves, but to the world. We are set free in order to set free.
I would be remiss if I did not name the reality that for some my freedom has been a challenge for them to assess their own ability to move about the world unfettered, unbroken, unashamed, and unapologetic. My voice, tempered with the plaintive cry of ancestors oppressed in a bitter bondage, or the muted suffering of homeless LGBTQ youth and young adults abandoned by families and communities is a plain reminder of the cost of silence or bigotry. For some my presence alone is a judgment. Yet the judgment G-d offers us is, at its heart, a gift – an opportunity to be renewed, a chance to be free.
The freedom I am committed to is a freedom I offer others even while I strive to live into more and more myself – freedom from the chains of prejudice and bigotry into relationship and community. Freedom from preconceived notions of a black and white world into the beauty of technicolor rainbows. Freedom spoken and claimed over cups of coffee or drizzled in barbeque sauce.
“This place has freed you,” she said, “now go and free others.” The best way I know to do that is to be free enough to transform spaces from the inside out, one heart at a time, beginning with mine.
[Photo credit: Unsplash, Public Domain via Pixabay.]
How has Christ set you free?