Over the years, Kristie Anyabwile has found herself returning to Psalm 119 during her daily devotions. “The psalm itself is full of reminders of the beauty and the benefits of God’s Word,” she says. “It has always drawn me in. It not only encourages me, but it helps to whet my appetite more for God’s Word.”
It was during one of these times of personal study that she birthed the idea for His Testimonies, My Heritage: Women of Color on the Word of God. The multiauthor book—which received an Award of Merit in this year’s CT Book Awards—explores the 22 stanzas of Psalm 119 through exposition, essays, and poetry.
Anyabwile, who served as both general editor and contributor, spoke to CT about the vision behind the project.
The title of the book is derived from Psalm 119:111, which says, “Your testimonies are my heritage forever, for they are the joy of my heart” (ESV). Tell us more about the title and how this verse captures its focus.
There are three aspects to this. First is the idea of ethnic and cultural heritage. Psalm 119:111 tells us that God’s Word is our spiritual heritage. But I think oftentimes we don’t consider that God’s Word is for me, as an individual, in all the ways that God has made me.
Once, a while back, I tweeted that all the women of the Bible are women of color. That statement had a lot of resonance with people. So part of the vision for His Testimonies, My Heritage is that God’s Word is for me as a person of color, and I need to embrace the Scriptures knowing that.
The second part is the idea of faith and spiritual heritage. We worship a God who has gathered to himself a people from every tribe and language and nation, and his Word testifies to his goodness, his steadfast love, and his faithfulness. I want people who read the book to know that the testimonies of God—found in the Word of God—are our heritage.
The third aspect is the subtitle: “Women of Color on the Word of God.” I have gotten so much pushback on that. It brings to mind one of my favorite interviews of all time, when Charlie Rose interviewed Toni Morrison. He asked her, “Can you imagine writing a novel that’s not centered on race?” Morrison said, “You see, the person who asked that question doesn’t understand that he or she is also raced.” With His Testimonies, I’ve gotten a similar question: “Why did you have to write that it was ‘women of color on the Word of God?’”
Oftentimes you don’t see women of color represented in books. I want women of color to see that there is a resource out there that connects with their life experiences, their stories, and their histories and that exalts God and reverences Christ and his gospel. I want not only women of color to see that —I also want the church to see that and be encouraged to grow from it.
The Psalms, like the rest of Scripture, are brutally honest about difficult human experiences and emotions. His Testimonies, My Heritage is also raw and honest, including reflections on the trauma of racism, the experiences of refugees and asylum seekers, the killing of black men and boys, and the history of indigenous peoples in the US. Why did you and the other writers feel it was important to include such candid reflections on tough experiences?
I love what Elissa Weichbrodt wrote about this topic in her chapter. She said, “Psalm 119 challenges me toward a fuller understanding of how God’s Word operates as a refuge. It is a psalm that encourages delight in all parts of God’s Word, not just his promises of deliverance from suffering. It is a psalm replete with physical language, insistent in its embodiment. And it is a psalm that equips us to face the most rigorous challenges by submitting ourselves to that Word.”
We live in a fallen world with all kinds of pain and suffering. We know that God’s Word is our refuge, so we go to it in the middle of suffering—in the middle of whatever the current issues are in our society that challenge us as believers—and it is there that we find comfort. We find the ability to persevere another day. We find assurance that God will one day right all the wrongs in this world.
In the foreword to His Testimonies, Kim Cash Tate draws attention to the fact that African Americans have higher levels of Bible engagement than other segments of American society but that people of color often experience a disconnect with popular Bible study and devotional resources, which are primarily written by white authors. She writes: “We’re eager to learn and be encouraged by the exposition of the Word … But it’s often hard to see ourselves.” What’s your experience with this issue?
Let’s say we’re in a multiethnic church context and we pick up our favorite white Christian author’s Bible study to work through with the women in the congregation. In doing that, we might inadvertently overlook segments of women in our Bible studies and small groups.
For example, when we study the story of Ruth, most often we hear a wonderful story of connection between Ruth and Naomi. We get all the important messages of God at work providing a kinsman-redeemer that extends the line of David and points forward to Christ. All of that is right and good. But in this story, we also see God’s grace extended to an immigrant. We see his provision and protection. We see him provide a way for her to live and work as an expatriate in a foreign land.
In my church, Anacostia River Church, there are many first-generation immigrants in our small congregation, so this is an important element of the story of Ruth that I don’t want to ignore or overlook. If it’s not reflected in the Bible study that I choose, as a good Bible study teacher and as someone who cares for the members of my church, I have to include it. I have to talk about that. It gives me a point of connection—a way to let my sisters of color know that I see them and that their stories are important.
While the pieces are all written by individuals, there’s a strong sense of community—even family—that comes across in this book. In fact, the word “sister” is frequently used to directly address the reader. How was creating this book a valuable experience of sisterhood for the writers?
When the idea for this book came about, the word that kept coming up from people was “historic.” At first I was like, Why are people saying it’s historic? It’s because, honestly, I can’t think of another book quite like it, with so many women of color represented and writing about the Word of God.
Hannah Anderson gave the book such a beautiful endorsement. She said, “At certain times and in certain places this book would have been illegal for its authors to write. But today, between these pages, they triumph … Listen.” A part of connectedness and sisterhood is understanding that this book is sitting on the backs of women (and men) over hundreds of years who weren’t allowed to read, who weren’t allowed to write. If they did learn to read and write, it was clandestine. And now we have a whole volume of these women who are writing about the Word of God? It’s historic in that sense, and it’s amazing that God would grace us with this particular privilege.
As a reader, there’s a sense of not just observing but of being invited in to the sisterhood you’re describing. Why was this important to you and the other contributors?
Yes, we as writers are inviting others in. There is a door of opportunity to smash stereotypes, to encourage the body of Christ, to let the world know that we are here and we have a message. That message is the same message that we all want to share—the good news of Jesus Christ, who he is, and why he came. How his life, death, resurrection, and presence—right now at the right hand of God—is impacting our lives every day. The message is the same for all believers: We want people to fall more deeply in love with God and his Word and be more committed to obeying him joyfully.
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