Q+A with Christena Cleveland: 'I Felt for the First Time—I'm Not Alone'

What everyone needs to know about supporting women of color at conferences and in churches.
Q+A with Christena Cleveland: 'I Felt for the First Time—I'm Not Alone'
Image: Carolyn Scott

If you’re a woman of color who works in or serves with an evangelical organization, you’re probably used to being the only one who shares your gender and background. The overwhelming majority of evangelical organizations, colleges, and churches are run and often staffed by white men (and to a lesser extent white women). Conference speaker lists and book award lists can look similarly homogenous. Dealing with the patronizing or ignorant remarks of well-meaning coworkers and people who “don’t see color” may leave you exhausted.

Enter the Women of Color retreat: Organized for the first time last year by Duke Divinity School professor Christena Cleveland and McAfee School of Theology professor Chanequa Walker-Barnes, the 24-hour program is designed to encourage and support women of color of faith. This year’s conference will be held this weekend in Los Angeles at the conclusion of the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) conference. (More info here.)

“So much of the work that we do, the battles that we face, and the quandaries that we find ourselves in, we’re doing it isolated, because we’re each called to different organizations,” Cleveland recently told CT.

Last year’s retreat was a welcome break from that reality.

“It was powerful to walk into the room and know that I was at home. It wasn’t just, Oh I read an article that really encouraged me. It was, This person is sitting right next to me. We are holding hands and talking about life together.

Cleveland, the author of Disunity in Christ, recently discussed with Lee her vision for the retreat, whether its model can be used at other Christian conferences, and how church leaders and laypeople can support women of color.

Where did the idea for this conference come from?

When I read Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes’ Too Heavy a Yoke two years ago, it changed my life because it was the first time anyone had theologically and sociologically laid out why black women are always so tired, why black women are always beat down by society, and how we ourselves participate by saying yes to everything. Although I didn’t know her at the time, I reached out to Dr. Chanequa and said, “Hey, we’ve got to start talking. We’ve got to put on a retreat. We’ve got to do something.”

Why does this conference exist?

This particular retreat is meeting a need. These are spaces where we as women of color can come together and share our realities and our causes. Last year, there were lots of young women and I thought, Man, I wish I had had that in my early 20s. I thought I was all alone in the world trying to make a difference around race and justice. It was beautiful to see the different generations and the different ethnicities.

This retreat made a lot of white people uncomfortable, which is all the more reason why there needs to be a women of color retreat. I’ve heard people ask, “Why don’t white women get to be invited?” The idea that there’s something specific for women of color unsettles them, without realizing how much is already about them.

How did you organize this year’s conference?

Our goal is that people come out of the retreat affirmed in who they are as women of color of faith. The whole retreat is scheduled around giving people opportunities to connect with each other. We have time for women to gather with those who share their ethnic background. There’s a group for Asian women, black women, Hispanic/Latina women, native women, and multiracial and multiethnic women.

What made last year’s conference meaningful?

I remember showing up to the retreat and seeing all these women who resonated with my experience—who loved God, loved people, and loved people different than them and wanted to do the right thing. I felt for the first time I’m not alone.

I participated in the black affinity group, and it was amazing to hear people say, “Oh, I’m not crazy. She gets what I’m saying. Her experience is like mine.” When you’re all by yourself and you’re seeing something and everybody else is saying that that’s not real, it’s easy to start questioning your own perspective. So there’s something powerful about being together. It reminds me of a Henri Nouwen quote about the ministry of presence that suggests we underestimate just what being together means. Often we want to preach eloquent sermons or produce some sort of amazing artistic expression to touch people’s hearts, and that’s great and there’s some of that at the retreat. But a lot of it is laughing and knowing that we’re not alone.

If you’re not a woman of color, what are the best ways to support those people in your life who are?

Pray for us. Pray that this retreat is as affirming and spirit-filled as we want it to be. One big tangible way to support is to provide scholarships. Many women of color want to come but don’t have the money to do that. You can go to the CCDA website and make donations specifically to the retreat. Also, encourage women of color in your life to attend. Encourage people you know to come and ask the church to help pay for their flight.

Finally, the women of color retreat exists because there continue to be a lot of issues in the world around race and gender, and women of color get caught in the crosshairs. Men of color, white people, and others need to be addressing some of these broader issues: What are the experiences of women of color? What can we do to honor the image of God in women of color? Why are people of color so upset? What needs to change in the culture of Christianity? Why is it particularly hard to be a woman of color? What does that intersection look like? How can we as a church think theologically and practically about creating space specifically for women of color?

This conference comes on the heels of another conference. Could you see other conferences incorporating this type of model?

Absolutely. We’re young as a group and still discerning what our long-term path will be. Other organizations have approached us and want to do something similar. I’m all for gathering women of color and encouraging them in their work no matter where that happens. I would love to see something like this at Urbana or Exponential—the big Christian conferences. Denominational conferences too. There are things that organizations can do to address the marginalization and to integrate the voices and experiences of women of color into the actual program.

We’ve found that for women of color, it’s hard to fund a retreat because most women of color are either from low-income backgrounds themselves or are working for non-profits that pay them very little. This idea that they can take $1,000 to buy a ticket, get a hotel, and pay for a conference fee is unfathomable for most people. Tagging along with CCDA helps with that because some organizations will send their folks to CCDA and so attending the retreat becomes a matter of tacking on an extra day.

What is it like to be an evangelical of color right now?

It’s not easy being a person of color in the United States right now, particularly if we’re at the forefront of justice issues, taking on those challenges, and being vulnerable. For a long time, people have acknowledged that being a person of color in the Christian and evangelical world is challenging. In the last couple years, people of color have started gathering among ourselves nationally, simply to support each other, do self-care, have a retreat experience, and connect with God. I think of the Voices Project that Leroy and Donna Barber run, which is gathering leaders of color in predominately white organizations twice a year.

Now, largely because the Black Lives Matter movement is so female-led, there’s been a strong self-care component, and self-care is a form of resistance, as in I’m not going to wear myself out in this fight and be the person that is always called upon and never says no.

November
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