Q. Right now, you oversee a variety of church services and ministries for the homeless in New York City. Your job seems quite different from life at Trinity Forum Academy, which is located in a comfortable, rural part of Maryland. So how has the Academy informed how you approach your current job—if at all?
The Academy helped me learn how to lead through my vulnerability.
When I first took this job, one of the questions I asked myself was: How can I effectively exert a level of authority over the hundreds of participants in our church’s community ministries? I am significantly younger than most of them, female, and I look like I can’t relate to many of the struggles they are going through in part because of my ethnicity and economic upbringing. I was concerned that they wouldn’t take me seriously, and also that I wouldn’t know how to control this large group of people with so many unpredictable variables involved.
Adjusting to my new position felt rocky in the beginning. The first turning point in my confidence was when I was teaching at our Tuesday night wellness café, where we talk about recovery from addiction. I prayed a lot about how I should share that night, especially since I have never had to go through the recovery process to the degree many of our members have. I shared some of my story, which was quite vulnerable, and I talked about how we all need to be changed and transformed regardless of our position. We all have something that we are addicted to other than God.
I was uncharacteristically nervous as I spoke, but a lot of people responded positively to the lesson. One of the guys approached me after and said that he had a new respect for me, that the lesson was really powerful. Some have started calling me “reverend” even though I am not a reverend in the least. I have found that part of the authority I have gained is not me, but what is coming out of my mouth – the Gospel –which is authoritative by its very nature because it is what governs all things and all people.
But part of it is also being real and leading through my vulnerability, which is something that was talked a lot about at the Academy, that vulnerability is not a sign of weakness but strength. And now when I conduct the bible studies, I try to be real and speak from my heart, not just my head. At the Academy, we spend a lot of time listening deeply to the hearts of one another. In my job, I spend a lot of time listening to the people whom I serve, sharing my own heart with them, and building trust. I’m beginning to see an increased level of respect for my authority when I have to put my foot down and take control of a situation.
Q. Could you elaborate on what you learned about vulnerability at the Academy?
I am an independent person; I have been used to taking care of myself and not letting people see my weaknesses for fear of being taken advantage of. So although I am a very forthright person, when it comes to what’s at the heart of things, or the things that I’m really afraid of, I’m not so open to talking about them. At the Academy, I definitely shared my fears more than I was comfortable doing and let myself break down in front of people. I wasn’t the only person who went through this. In response, my class had to learn how to not jump to conclusions quickly, to think deeply about what people were sharing, and then put that into a larger context.
Q. Is all of this part of why you wanted to attend the Academy?
I was taken to a dark place while I was the Academy, which was what I anticipated in going there.
I have a lot of emotions and I am moved very easily. Before I became serious about my faith at around age 20, I was fairly fearless and did not care what anyone thought of me (some of this was out of self-protection and a fear of failure). I had a lot of anger, which often came out when I felt I or someone else was being mistreated or carelessly labeled and misunderstood. My emotions were criticized within the Christian community; I was told to rein them in and not be so passionate or fiery, so I tried to contain them.
This is tough especially because I’m an artist, and for many artists, when we create art we often dive deep into our souls and the human soul at large — it’s a scary thing to have to have to go to that place that is often hidden in the dark. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it is a dark thing in and of itself; it’s just that it’s hidden. So you have to have the courage to encounter it, experience it, and reveal it.
Part of the reason I went to the Academy, then, was that I wanted to go to the frightening depths of myself. For the sake of my own artwork, and also for my understanding of individuals who chronically live in that place. I didn’t want to go back to art school to do it because art and the artistic experience are idolized in that environment. I wanted to be in an environment where I was safe to explore the darkness and where other people would be there to help me come up from it.
And I think I found that. After the Academy I could better understand what was going on in my emotionally wrought process of creating artwork, whereas before I was either tormented by it or trying to avoid it altogether. I found that God is there with me — he is just as angry about the things that I get angry about, and weeping over the things that I weep about. At the Academy, people pointed out how my emotions could be very imposing. So now I ask, “How can I allow God to be in that emotion? How can I sympathize with his emotion?”
Q. When you said earlier that you try to lead Bible studies by speaking from the heart, it’s more than just speaking about your vulnerable feelings. It seems that you are trying to speak from that “deep place” which you were able to really access at the Academy.
Yes. That’s it. I can actually feel in my body the difference between when I’m talking from my head versus from that deep place, although there is value to both of them. An artist illuminates things. She illuminates what we can’t see because it remains hidden in the dark. And so I see my work, whether as an artist or as the director of community ministries, as a work of illumination.