From this Episode:
“But when I look back at my own, like I look back at my own journey in the whole parachurch world, girl. I was talking to somebody recently about the white-ification of Lisa Sharon Harper. Um, the white-ification that happened when I was in college, four years in CCC, campus Crusade for Christ. And I mean, I went in, I came in one way and I came out so white-tified and I’m fine.” Lisa Sharon Harper
“For many of us, our actual salvation was on the line. That’s how we understood it. And so I had to die. You had to die to your blackness in order to be saved. When you think about that in its gravity, it is genocide.”
“If God is a black woman, then she’s gonna provide, [00:46:00] and she doesn’t need me to hide part of myself in order to live.” Christena Cleveland
On this episode, we are joined by Christena Cleveland, a social psychologist, public theologian, author, and activist. She is the founder and director of the Center for Justice + Renewal as well as its sister organization, Sacred Folk.
Christena has been on a living pilgrimage of transformation recently—the decolonizing pilgrimage. One of the products of this transformational journey was Christena’s awe-inspiring book, God is a Black Woman, which dropped onto bookstore shelves in February 2022. She’s also built a powerful Patreon community that is doing the work of decolonizing their faith and their minds.
This is the era we are in. It is time to decolonize our minds.
We’d love to hear your thoughts. Tweet to Lisa @LisaSHarper or to Freedom Road at @FREEDOMROADUS. We’re also on Substack! So be sure to subscribe to The Truth Is… And, keep sharing the podcast with your friends and networks and letting us know what you think!
Lisa’s highschool senior picture from 1986 and college senior picture from 1990 as mentioned in the episode!
[00:00:00] HARPER: Coming to you from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the city of brotherly love and sisterly affection. Also the land of the Lenni Lenape people. I am Lisa Sharon Harper, president of Freedom Road, a consulting group dedicated to shrinking the narrative gap. Welcome to the Freedom Road Podcast Cast.[00:00:20]
Each month we bring together national faith leaders, advocates, and activists to have the kinds of [00:00:40] conversations that we normally have on the front lines. Only this time, we have microphones in our faces and you are listening in. And this month, oh, we are joined by Christena Cleveland. Oh, y’all. I mean, you know, I, I’ve said this before, I don’t really fan girl a lot, but I do fan girl with Christena because I see, honestly, I see her power.
[00:01:00] I see the ways that she has been transforming in front of all of us. Um, and has had her own decolonizing journey that I actually really do believe is kind of emblematic for the, the, the time that we’re in. Christena is a social psychologist, public theologian, author, and activist. She’s the founder and director of the [00:01:20] Center for Justice and Renewal and also, um, it’s sister organization’s, Sacred Folk, which we’re gonna hear about both of those in the course of our conversation today.
Now, I invited Christena to speak to us today precisely because she has been living a pilgrimage of transformation recently, kind of this decolonizing experience, this decolonizing [00:01:40] journey. And one of the products of that transformational journey was Christena’s awe-inspiring book. God is a black woman, which dropped into bookstores’ shelves last February 2022.
Um, she’s also built this powerful Patreon community that is really doing the work of decolonizing their faith and their [00:02:00] minds. Um, and, but folks, look, this is the era we are in. It is time to decolonize our minds. Okay. So we’d love to hear from you. So go ahead and tweet to me or Instagram to me, or Facebook to me, um, LisaSHarper on Twitter and Instagram. And Lisa Sharon Harper on Facebook. [00:02:20] Also Freedom Road at Freedom Road, us, um, basically everywhere. So keep sharing the podcast with your friends and networks and letting us know what you think. All right, Christena, so we’re gonna dive in. I’m so excited to be talking with you.
Thank you for saying yes.
[00:02:33] CLEVELAND: I’m honored. Thank you for inviting me and it feels fun to be on this program cuz my [00:02:40] life is a freedom road.
HARPER: Hello. Somebody
CLEVELAND: Feels like alignment .
[00:02:45] HARPER: It is, it is alignment and I think you’re totally right. I’ve seen that. I’ve seen that. I, before we get into your, your, your latest part of that Freedom Road journey, I wanna just take us back to the beginning of your faith journey.
Can you tell us a little bit about the genesis [00:03:00] of your faith story? Like what, what’s the beginning.
[00:03:01] CLEVELAND: Hmm? What’s the beginning? Well, I was raised in a Christian family. My parents are pastors and actually on both sides of my family, my grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great grandfathers, were all ministers in the [00:03:20] COGIC Church, Church of God in Christ.
HARPER: Wow, really?
CLEVELAND: Yeah. So there’s a law, a strong lineage. Lots of bishops and lots of pastors within COGIC. Yeah. So, you know, definitely a ministry family. Yeah. Also very, um, very devoted, very, um, you know, like there, one of the things I loved [00:03:40] about the family I grew up in is yeah. Being people of faith meant that we lived differently.
And so there was definitely a discipleship aspect that I still carry with me now.
CLEVELAND: You know, how does, how does this practically look? Not just what are we talking about?
CLEVELAND: And then, but also, um, that Pentecostal element too, you know, like believing that God is gonna [00:04:00] do something, believing that the Holy Spirit is actually alive and at work.
CLEVELAND: Having expectation. So that was a big part of my story growing up. And also holiness. Holy.
[00:04:13] HARPER: Well, yeah. I mean, you’re, you’re doing COGIC, you’re gonna be holy, that’s for sure.
[00:04:15] CLEVELAND: Yeah. So there was a lot of, there was a huge emphasis on holiness. [00:04:20] A lot of that probably came from a place of fear, if I’m honest, looking back on it, you know?
HARPER: Okay. Like, yeah.
CLEVELAND: Um, you have to make sure you’re right before God so that you don’t experience these bad things. Oh, wow. So it was may, you know, a very much, a bit of a legalistic bent to it. Yeah. And so it was the mix of all of those [00:04:40] things. .
[00:04:41] HARPER: Yeah. Can I, can I ask you a question about that? Because I know that the COGIC denomination, I mean, it’s, it is one of the most, one of the earliest manifestations of, of the black church.
Right? And it has a really rich history. And, and you’re right in that holiness tradition, I’m wondering, what, like, [00:05:00] your, your last book is God is a Black Woman. And I know that the COGIC tradition, particularly in the Pentecostal tradition, really did have, um, it, it had this, um, in some ways decolonizing experience in the beginning of the Pentecostal movement with women leaders.
Like you had lots of women leaders. Mm-hmm. . How did you, did you see women leaders growing up in [00:05:20] the COGIC church?
[00:05:20] CLEVELAND: I did. Not, yeah, not in the church. So I can say I, I don’t, I don’t know that I understood this as a kid, but now that I’m a social psychologist, I understand. So of course, as a grassroots organization, there were all sorts of ways in which there was a subverting of hierarchy and creating space for mutuality and all that good [00:05:40] stuff.
But usually as organizations grow beyond one generation, you start to see the hierar, the hierarchies form, because that’s more efficient.
And organizations usually last because they’re efficient, in the context of our capitalistic world.
And that’s what happened with the COGIC Church. So even though at [00:06:00] Azusa Street in the beginning of the nineteen hundreds
CLEVELAND: There were, it was mostly women. There were some men, but it was a lot of women who were leading the revival and preaching’s. Right. Um, to this day, women can’t be pastors in the COGIC church. Women can’t be bishops in the COGIC church. So you can be a missionary. So there are labels that you can, that give you leadership capacity.
CLEVELAND: You c [00:06:20] women can even preach in the COGIC church, like my grandmother would preach every Mother’s day. So, you know, but it’s not, um, it’s a little bit of a… There’s, it’s not a real power role. Yeah.
HARPER: Yeah. Yeah.
CLEVELAND: And so my, my great-aunt Ernestine Reems, I love that. Aunt
[00:06:37] HARPER: Ernestine. I love that.
[00:06:38] CLEVELAND: I love that. Yeah. She’s [00:06:40] awesome.
Um, or she was, she, yeah, she’s, she’s, she just, she died last year, but she, she was my grandfather’s sister. Oh, she died of old age. I mean, she had, she lived a long, wonderful life, but she was my grandfather’s sister. And sh her, their father was a, was a huge COGIC bishop, my great-grandfather. Okay. And she is [00:07:00] probably the most powerful preacher I’ve ever seen.
Um, sometimes people ask me, how did you speak? And I just point to YouTube videos of her because I just, it’s just, um, ancestral, you know, like she just passed.
HARPER: Wow. Wow.
CLEVELAND: But she left the COGIC church and started her own church, and it actually is like the most prominent church in Oakland. And, and when she died last, this time last year in [00:07:20] Oakland, the whole city flew the flag at half mast in honor of her.
HARPER:What is her name? Ernestine Cleveland. Cleveland.
CLEVELAND: Cleveland Reams. Mm-hmm. . Like she’s in all, she’s in all the church history books. Like she’s, she’s like preached all the, she preached, she used to preach all the time at Liket Jake’s church. She’s like this powerhouse. And that’s my great-aunt. Oh, [00:07:40] wait, wait.
I was gonna say this. I’m just gonna, what? Yeah. I mean, it’s bananas, your family. Yeah. So the legacy. Yeah. And like, even my grand, even my great grandfather, you know, um, his church in Berkeley was the church where all the Black Panther programs ran out of
CLEVELAND: Mm-hmm. and Bobby Bobbys and Bobby [00:08:00] Hutton’s funeral was at his church and Yeah.
I mean, so it’s just
HARPER: Oh, oh my gosh.
CLEVELAND: This really incredible legacy in the Oakland area. Yeah. But for example, she, she knew she could never be her father, even though she was her father.
CLEVELAND: So she left, started her own black, black Pentecostal denomination, became a bishop in her own right, and [00:08:20] actually probably left a larger imprint on the city of Oakland than even her father did.
But she had to leave the COGIC church to do it. Just to show you. Yeah. So, you know, the structure of the COGIC church. So the, the downside is, you know, the COGIC church still doesn’t really like support women in ministry fully.
CLEVELAND: The upside is I grew up seeing [00:08:40] powerful women preaching because she was a pastor of this, this megachurch in Oakland.
[00:08:46] HARPER: Well, it’s striking, something that’s really striking to me is that your journey is not one that is just about decolonizing, I guess white people’s white supremacy, but you really are speaking prophetically to the freaking [00:09:00] church. Like yeah, everybody like the, the, the colonized church, no matter what the color of the church is, and that even goes to your own.
Like your own family’s church. That’s deep.
[00:09:12] CLEVELAND: Well, that, well I think that’s what was so confusing to me as a child, was that white Jesus was just as alive and well in the [00:09:20] black churches, in the white church spaces because I really straddled both. I really did. Cuz you know, I would, we would go to Aunt Ernestine’s church and we’d go to Big DeeDee’s church and we’d spend time in those black church spaces.
But I was also going to AWANA, you know?
HARPER: No! Were you really?
CLEVELAND: Yeah, because
[00:09:37] HARPER: Wait, wait. You got it. You gotta… Yeah.
[00:09:39] CLEVELAND: [00:09:40] AWANA is, it stands for Approved Workmen Are Not Ashamed. AWANA. Okay. A w a n a. And it’s like this very conservative, it’s very, it’s kind of like a white Baptist after school program. It happens in the evenings once a week and you learn a lot of Bible verses.
CLEVELAND: But the Bible verses you learn are like [00:10:00] extremely Calvinist.
HARPER: Oh yeah.
CLEVELAND: Extreme. But of course they don’t say, they don’t, they don’t situate themselves in the theological spectrum at all. They just act like they really are part of the truth.
[00:10:13] HARPER: But um, actually is true. That is true. They don’t,
[00:10:13] CLEVELAND: and I would say that that’s all true.
They just act like they’re evangelical, you know, just basic whatever. But it’s like the first verse you learn [00:10:20] is Romans 3:23 “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
CLEVELAND:And like, you know, and so you’re learning these like very interesting verses, but it’s also fun cuz there’s a game time that I just like.
HARPER: That’s how they get the kids in.
That’s how, yeah. So it’s also fun. But, so I was going to, that, I was going to Christian school, you know, evangelical [00:10:40] Christian schools, cuz Christian schools typically are evangelical.
CLEVELAND: Um, I was, you know, we were also members at an Assembly of God church and so I was getting kind of the white Pentecostal take.
[00:10:51] HARPER: You really did get a lot of the white church experience.
[00:10:52] CLEVELAND:. I did. YWAM, I did. Um,
[00:10:55] HARPER: You did. Wait, my heart just skipped a beat. That’s YWAM. You did YWAM. [00:11:00] When did you do YWAM? Cause Wait, wait, wait.
[00:10:58] CLEVELAND: I took a year off in between.
HARPER: Were you in high school or college or, yeah. Like what, what was that about?
CLEVELAND: I, I, I was, I was going to YWAM camps all through all growing up, but in between high school and college, I took a year off and did a discipleship training school with YWAM in Spain.
HARPER: Oh my God.
CLEVELAND:And so, Yeah. And then, you know, of course like then I was teaching it.
CLEVELAND: So it’s kind of interesting cuz my evangelical, the [00:11:20] street cred is pretty, um, actually there. Yeah,
[00:11:23] HARPER: you do, you went through all the pirate, not all, but many of the Parachurch organizations.
HARPER: As well as some of the most, you know, center denominational stuff with AWANA.That’s so deep. Oh, wow.
[00:11:34] CLEVELAND: And for people, and for people who don’t know what YWAM is, it stands for Youth with a Mission and it’s a, um, [00:11:40] it’s a, it’s a American-based evangelical missions organization that, yeah. You know, at, at this point I would classify as, um, colonial. , I think at the time.
CLEVELAND: You know, I thought we were just bringing Jesus to people in Mexico or whatever.
CLEVELAND: But, um, it’s short, it’s short-term missions based. [00:12:00] And so, um, it, it’s not clear to me that anything sustainable is happening.
[00:12:06] HARPER: I think that the main thing that I have come to in the last couple of years, really, maybe last five years, and, and really especially this last, I don’t know, it’s been very clarifying the last couple of years, is that pretty much the whole church is colonial, like really, like [00:12:20]
HARPER: colonized. And so when we talk about evangelism, sorry. When we talk about evangelism or mission. Oftentimes what we really are talking about is colonial work. Mm-hmm. , unless they have done really, really, really deep work and very few people have, or organizations have actually done the necessary work to [00:12:40] decolonize.
[00:12:40] CLEVELAND: No, it’s too scary.
[00:12:42] HARPER: Yeah. There’s too much loss.
[00:12:44] CLEVELAND: Yeah, I remember in 2016, I believe me, and like a bunch of people, Leroy Barber was there, and um, a bunch of us, we all went over to, um, Cape Town and
HARPER: Oh, yes, I heard about this.
CLEVELAND:Yeah. Yeah. And [00:13:00] so, like, um, and I remember, I think it, one, one of the townships, we, I wanna say it was Muhlenberg. It’s like, it’s like a color township primarily.
And it’s mostly Muslims. Um, one of the poor townships. And we were there and there were all these Hillsong people from Australia who had moved in to Muhlenberg [00:13:20] and um, basically colonized slash proselytized to all of these brown, Muslim, South Africans.
CLEVELAND: And what was fascinating was like you walk into the Hillsong homes and it’s like you’re in Pottery Barn.
Oh, so they like brought all their janky white crap [00:13:40] from Australia into this like poor township.
CLEVELAND: And, and then all of the kids who had all these brown kids, they’re colored, right? So like, they’re brown. They all these kids that were in their like, you know, little circle of influence, they were talking like they were Australian.
Oh, they were [00:14:00] dress, they were dressing like they were surfers. And like, I just remember, like the, the only songs they knew were Hillsong. So like, I was like, this is just colonization. Like there’s
CLEVELAND:Literal, like, you’re literally turning these kids Yeah. Into Australian Hillsong people.
HARPER: Like [00:14:20] that’s what they are.
CLEVELAND: In every way. Their, their sense of design, their sense of fashion, their sense of vernacular. And meanwhile, the white Hillsong people hadn’t adopted any of… They hadn’t immersed themselves at all, right?
CLEVELAND: It was, no. And I was just like, yeah, this is so gross.
[00:14:38] HARPER: You know, I think probably, [00:14:40] probably most of them, most likely knew where their best scone places were in town and…
[00:14:44] CLEVELAND: Well, they, well, they had to leave, well, they had to leave Muhlenberg to even get that because there’s no scone places in Muhlenberg.
They had to go to the white part of Cape Town to get that. Yeah. I was just like, why are you even here? It looks like you hate these people and are trying to change them
[00:14:57] HARPER: Yeah. Can I just say that it’s easier for [00:15:00] us to see that right. Overseas? It’s, it’s easier for us. It’s easier for me to see that in Cape Town and in South African, um, space.
But when I look back at my own, like I look back at my own journey in the whole parachurch world, girl. I was talking to somebody recently about the white-ification of Lisa Sharon [00:15:20] Harper. Um, the white-ification that happened when I was in college, four years in CCC, campus Crusade for Christ. And I mean, I went in, I came in one way and I came out so white-tified and I’m fine.
In fact, what we’ll do is we’ll put a picture we’ll, we’ll put a picture of this in the, in the show notes on the, on the website. That, [00:15:40] well, you see how I came in and my, my, my, my senior year picture in high school. And then you see my, my senior year picture in, in college and I was a theater major, but the people who were doing the yearbook were so confused by my picture.
They actually said I was an accountant.
[00:15:58] CLEVELAND: Wow. Well, I, I mean, I [00:16:00] honestly think it’s, it’s gen, it’s cultural genocide.
HARPER: That’s what it is. That is what it is.
CLEVELAND: I mean, that was an act of violence, uh, perpetrated upon you. Yeah. Yes. People can’t, people who are listening can’t see my face, but just the sorrow because it’s true.
Yes. And many of us, I’m like you, many of us tried, had to [00:16:20] survive. Yeah. And we would only be embraced by these groups that I would now classify as cults, you know? Um, because if you don’t conform, you are not embraced. If you don’t conform in every way, you are not embraced,
HARPER: Especially your politics.
CLEVELAND: And to be [00:16:40] embraced means you are saved. Right. So there’s an extra piece. It’s not like we’re just trying to join a sorority or something. Like for many of us, we were, our, our actual salvation was on the line. That’s how we understood it. And so I had to die. You had to die to your blackness.[00:17:00] in order to be saved. I mean, when you think about that in its gravity: it is genocide.
[00:17:08] HARPER: My God. I mean, I literally, my, my, my body right now is tingling because you are speaking the absolute truth. And it’s not, it’s not, truth anybody wants to hear, but it is the truth. Truth. So I, so now [00:17:20] I wanna ask you, what was the cost for you?
Like you had a white-ification journey. What was it, what did that look like for you?
[00:17:26] CLEVELAND: Well, I was part of Navigators in college, so, you know, I was, I was friendly with the CCC folks because, you know, but it’s all, you know, it’s all the same folks. Um, but I was part of Navigators and it was very [00:17:40] similar.
You know, I, there were, I would run up against, I would have questions, right? And, but I would learn very quickly. You’ll get rebuked. If you, if you speak up. So I, I would, I would ask questions like why it seems like cuz Navigators is fairly conservative or, or, or was, I don’t know what the situation is now cuz I don’t really care.
HARPER: That’s true. [00:18:00]
CLEVELAND: Like, but our, our head leader couldn’t be female there, there were like rules around that. Right?
HARPER: Right. The same with Crusades. Yeah.
CLEVELAND: Yes. Okay. So it’s like there could be a staff person who was female cuz we needed somebody to talk to the girls, but she couldn’t actually rise to the top whatever.
And I remember having questions about that cause I was at Dartmouth College and I’m like, I’m here planning to run the [00:18:20] world. Like…
CLEVELAND: So, so I don’t understand why my bible study leader who’s on staff with navigators can’t also run the world. She’s dope. Like she’s forming me. Um, and I just remember getting a very clear, unspoken signal that that was not allowed. [00:18:40] Those questions, that that was rebellious. You need to, you need to return to scripture and focus on what matters. You know, that kind of stuff. And because I had been raised in a home where, um, my salvation was dependent on other people saying I was worthy of it. I cared what they thought.
HARPER: Isn’t that something?
CLEVELAND: Because the locus of my morality [00:19:00] was always outside of me. Whether it was my dad, whether it was my pastor, whether it was my, my leader for, you know, Navigators. My sacredness was always on trial, and I needed someone from the outside who was an authority figure to affirm my sacredness.
So when I heard, okay, Christena, don’t, don’t [00:19:20] ask those questions, I just would quiet. So the questions would just get buried really. They were still there. But they would, I just would quiet down.
[00:19:28] HARPER: So was there a moment, a revelation that kind of catalyzed your decolonization?
[00:19:33] CLEVELAND: There were several, there were a series of moments.
HARPER: Mm-hmm. Okay.
CLEVELAND: Yeah. Yeah. And I, I, yeah, I think, I think the first, I mean [00:19:40] there were a lot of course leading up to it, but I think a very powerful one was 2012 when Trayvon Martin was shot in K George Zimmerman. Yes. Mm-hmm. . I think I’m a typical millennial in that way.
[00:19:50] HARPER: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I’m not even a millennial. I’m a Gen X. And that for me was like a, like really like a scales off the eyes.
But it wasn’t just Trayvon, it was actually, I don’t know if this was [00:20:00] the case for you, cuz I mean, most people didn’t even know Trayvon had died until the trial and then after the trial when, when George Zimmerman was let off and the justification for him being let off was the Trayvon used, the weapon that he had, which was the concrete under his feet.
So he couldn’t even walk on concrete and not have a [00:20:20] weapon. Isn’t that something else? And then, so now Trayvon is the one responsible for his death. And, um, stand Your Ground, basically undercuts the Civil Rights Amendment, which gives us the right to live. Um, and then, but the month before that we had the Supreme Court undercutting the Voting Rights [00:20:40] Act.
So that’s the, the second major accomplishment of the Civil Rights Movement. And this, the Friday before that, before that judgment came down on, sat on Sunday, the, the Congress tried to, um, eviscerate food stamps and basically entitlements for, for poor people out of the budget. They tried to take it out of the [00:21:00] budget on that Friday.
So that was the third major accomplishment of the Civil Rights movement was War on Poverty. So I was like, oh my God. Like they’re literally attacking the Civil Rights Movement in 2012. Um, and 2013. So, What for you, what was the, what was the catalyst for you? You said it was, it was Trayvon, so what happened?
[00:21:17] CLEVELAND: Yeah, you know, I was, I was, you know, I was [00:21:20] 31, I was actually working in, you know, I was speaking at that time and starting to do work in the, in the Evangelical church around racial justice and divisions. I mean, at the time I think we called it racial reconciliation. Um, and I think it was just a big wake up call when I saw the hordes of white people who claimed to be my [00:21:40] brothers and sisters and siblings in Christ.
And just completely, completely denying the black perspective. I mean, and to me this felt powerful cuz to me it felt like this was the first time there was a national conversation. I mean, social media existed at that point. Information was a lot more accessible. There was [00:22:00] a national conversation where there was clearly a black perspective and a white perspective.
And to see these people who claim to love me, and claim to pray for me, and claim to all these things, just completely deny and not even be curious about any other, anything else? That was [00:22:20] a huge catalyst for me.
[00:22:22] HARPER: Hmm. Do you remember, because I also had like a scales off moment. Do you remember your scales off moment when you just saw clearly: there were no more questions.
[00:22:31] CLEVELAND: Um, I think later, so I think that happened later. That was like the beginning of an opening. I still kept doing the work. I was still listening to [00:22:40] Black Evangelicals, who, so what I did, what I did was I, I saw, I saw the, I saw the disconnect. I saw the lack of integrity, and I did exactly what I was trained to do.
HARPER: Right? Which is…
CLEVELAND: As, as someone who’s, you know, oppressed, fill in the gap, [00:23:00] Christena. Blame the victim. I need to be more gracious. I need to be some, a black evangelical pastor, megachurch pastor, I forget his name. I think he’s in like Memphis or something. He said, “Reconcilers are bridges and bridges get stepped on,” right?
So now I had, and now I [00:23:20] had a spirituality to go along with my oppression. I had a cross theology. I literally had a cross theology to explain why I was being oppressed, silenced. Walked all over. Kicked all over, and why it was still important for me to keep turning the other cheek. I mean, that’s what [00:23:40] Jesus would’ve done.
So then I, so I basically just created a whole, I mean, this is why I know I am a brilliant theologian. I can make a theology outta anything. You know what I mean?
HARPER: Yes, yes.
CLEVELAND: My theological imagination can go anywhere, and so I needed to make sense of the disconnect, and so I [00:24:00] built a theology to make sense of it.
And I did that for several more years. I was speaking at all these places where I was just a mascot, and I knew they didn’t actually care about what I think I knew, I knew deep down inside, but I would still say to myself, you know what, Christena, like, you just need to go and be a servant and you just need to go and serve and love these [00:24:20] people.
And, um, so, but then I think the, there was more awakening around Black Lives Matter, cuz then that’s, that was three, four years later. Um, and there was more of a national conversation and more people were mobilized and then I, yet I would still come up against these same issues. And then there was more awakening around me [00:24:40] too.
HARPER: Oh, right. That’s right.
CLEVELAND: Right. Because, because up until Black Lives Matter, I always had to choose between being a woman or being a black person. Mm-hmm. because, in the women’s circles, even in the Christian world, there was a lot of anti-blackness [00:25:00] and there were the, the people who were leading those movements were not, their anti-racist leadership skills were not up to par at that point.
So I’d say, for example, Rachel Held Evans, right? Like not trying to dishonor the dead, but she was on her journey and she died young. And there were several times where she tried to get me to come to her things, her like feminist [00:25:20] things. And I, I would have conversations with her and be like, Rachel, I don’t trust your anti-racist leadership. I don’t trust that I’m gonna be safe as a black person in that space.
HARPER: Yeah, it’s really true.
CLEVELAND: And so I couldn’t participate, so I, I kind of had to choose, do I wanna be a woman or do I, because I was in the Mark DeYmaz multiracial church spaces.
HARPER: Oh my God.
CLEVELAND: And those places are straight [00:25:40] misogynist. Okay?
[00:25:42] HARPER: But not only that, Mark and I have had conversations about this, and so I’m sure like I’m not saying anything that I haven’t already said to him that, the reality of those spaces and not, I don’t know, I don’t know his journey really since George Floyd, my guess is that he’s, he’s probably had a journey since then and we haven’t talked since then, but in early [00:26:00] iterations of those spaces, he was really just trying to get them to do kind of the 1990s version of racial reconciliation.
[00:26:07] CLEVELAND: It was, and it, and it was just exponential, but
HARPER: Like go hug a black person.
CLEVELAND: It was exponential, but make it multiracial. Right, right. Yeah, it was, it was actually, yeah, it was church growth, it was cap, it was, it was corporate church [00:26:20] growth. But let’s, let’s make it multiracial in every space, but the leadership.
[00:26:25] HARPER: Well, and lemme just say, I mean, one of our conversations that I had with him, It was that, you know, look, if you’re gonna do this, if you’re gonna lead people into multiethnic church relationship, you have to be dealing with the systems and the structures that your people of color are dealing with when they [00:26:40] are not inside your four walls.
[00:26:41] CLEVELAND: Yeah. And that was not happening. Yeah. No, no, it was not.
[00:26:44] HARPER: And he literally said, that’s not gonna happen. He literally said that. So I was like, oh, okay. I’m out.
[00:26:48] CLEVELAND: Yeah. And, and those were like very, you know, he was, he was really in alignment with like the Matt Chandlers of the world and stuff. So there, so those were very anti-woman spaces.
And I remember being on those stages and be [00:27:00] walking, I’d be walking up to the podium and one of the other speakers would say, I don’t agree with you even speaking here as I’m walking up to the podium. Another one, as I was walking to the podium said, can you go get me some water.
[00:27:12] HARPER: I think I was there. I was there for that.
I was there when they said, I don’t agree with you speaking here.
[00:27:16] CLEVELAND: Yeah. I was like, mm-hmm. . Yeah. That I was in those. So I, I, [00:27:20] and I’m, I’m like 34, you know, just trying to figure everything out. And so I, I kinda had to choose, do I wanna be black or do I wanna be female? I chose black because that felt, that felt the most salient to me in that moment.
But then once Me Too came around and Trump got elected, well, at first when Trump was running, my thought was, oh, like [00:27:40] he’s saying all these racist things. He’s saying all these xenophobic things. And I was not surprised at all when the Evangelical Church supported him, because I was like, they’re racist.
They’ve been racist. I don’t, I, but when he started talking about assaulting white women, I was like, okay. Cuz in my head, like white femininity is like a fruit of the spirit to those people, you know, . [00:28:00] So like, I was like, no way. Like they are going to come for him. He is coming for their precious white women.
And I was shocked when the evangelicals were like, Nope, we still support him. It’s just locker room talk. I was shocked. And [00:28:20] that’s, and I think that was like the final wake up because I was like, up until this point, I’ve had a lot of issues with white Jesus. Right. But now I have issues with male Jesus.
[00:28:29] HARPER: Oh snap. Okay, so I gotta take a break here because we are almost at 30 minutes. We didn’t even take a break because we’re, this is so fire. So.[00:28:40]
These are our stories, you are listening to the Freedom Road podcast, where we bring you stories from the front lines of the struggle for justice.[00:29:00]
Okay, keep going. .
[00:29:03] CLEVELAND: Yeah, so I think, you know, the, the run up to the election really was like probably the, that’s, that’s when I realized my female body and my black body are not safe in these spaces. And these people do not have the [00:29:20] spiritual imagination to see the sacredness in me.
[00:29:24] HARPER: Okay, so now that brings me, that brings me to really kind of where I wanna sit for a minute here.
I wanna sit on the black Madonnas. because you took a pilgrimage to find the black Madonnas. And this has really [00:29:40] reshaped, I believe it’s reshaped your faith. It’s given you tons of wisdom. I do wanna say, I think like there’s some significance to the Madonna figure itself that I wanna also talk about with you and, and get like your thoughts on that.
But can you just tell us first about this pilgrimage that you took and what was the impetus for it?
[00:29:56] CLEVELAND: Sure. Yeah. Yeah. So, you know, it’s, [00:30:00] it’s late 2016. I’m just reeling from the election like everybody was, you know? Um, and I just said, I have to find an image of the divine that’s black and female, like black Jesus.
I’d read Cone, I’d read Kelly Brown Douglas, like, I, you know, and that was so nourishing to me. Mm-hmm. , but I said, I need a Jesus who gets my blackness and my [00:30:20] femaleness . And so I was just like, where can I find that? You know? And so then I just started researching. And so, and I, I didn’t have to look far because, you know, within moments, you know, on an online search, I found the Black Madonna and I saw one picture of her online and my entire physiology [00:30:40] changed and I realized I had been holding in my breath my whole life.
I exhaled in a way that I had never had my whole life. And I finally said, oh, that’s, there it is. I’m sacred too.
HARPER: Oh my God.
CLEVELAND: Like I’m divine too. I can find myself in the divine. The divine isn’t [00:31:00] the opposite of me. The divine is me and with me and stands for me and understands. And so I spent, I know at the time I was faculty at Duke, so I was doing a lot of research on the Black Madonna.
Did that for a couple years almost. Okay. Um, but then I was like, I have to go see her face-to-face. Yeah. Because [00:31:20] part of my journey into the sacred feminine was also a journey into embodiment. Because the white patriarchal religion wants us to stay in our head and like aana memorize verses.
[00:31:32] HARPER: Hello! Wait, can I just say this is really critical to the decolonizing process? Because what it means
[00:31:38] CLEVELAND: to be getting out of our [00:31:40] heads. Yeah. Well…
[00:31:41] HARPER: What it means to be colonized is to be disconnected. Yes, absolutely. To be disconnected from the land, from your own story, from your people, from, from, from reality, quite honestly. Yeah. From the actual, and it all lives up here.
That’s how one is colonized. So your, your journey has literally been one of being [00:32:00] reconnected to self and to land.
[00:32:00] CLEVELAND: Mm-hmm. . Totally. Yeah. No, and so it, it just went hand in hand. I was, as I was learning more about the Black Madonna, I was learning about sacred feminine spirituality and theologies and, um, it’s just the, the sacred feminine way is an entirely different way, you know, with your body, you know, in community it’s [00:32:20] non-hierarchical.
Everyone, everyone has their own personal connection to the divine source. Um, you don’t need priests. You know, there, there’s no interlocutors or any, anyone that’s an intermediary between you and the divine. It’s just a very different way of thinking. And so, um, so I…
HARPER: Like, is this Christian? Are we talking about…
CLEVELAND: [00:32:40] Yes. Oh, some of, yeah. A lot of them are. Yeah. I mean, it just depends. I mean, what it’s, it’s interesting because you can see. common themes in all the patriarchal religions, and you can see common themes in all of the divine feminine religions. So like if you look at like divine feminine, um, interpretations of the Trinity or something like that, then you’ll see, um, you’ll still see [00:33:00] a lot more embodiment and like a lot more of an emphasis on mutuality and a, a deeper connection between life and death and realizing they’re the same thing.
And so, yeah. So that’s when I was just like, and I, you know, I have to go see them because I already felt in my body just from the pictures. And books. That my [00:33:20] body longed to be near them. And so I, you know, I, I still, I, I was still faculty at Duke for just a little bit longer, so I, I used some professional development money, so Duke did pay for that first, um, pilgrimage
HARPER: Thank you Duke.
CLEVELAND: And yeah, thanks. Yeah, it’s the least they can do. Um, and then, um, I don’t know any French , [00:33:40] but I found that there’s a hotspot of Black Madonnas in this region of France, right in the middle, and it’s actually called the Auvergne Region. And it’s like very, it’s very out of the way. It’s, it’s beautiful.
It’s like, um, a chain of 27 or so volcanic mountains. So it’s just this gorgeous… Um, but it’s like not near Paris and [00:34:00] nobody, and it’s called Deep France, kinda like the deep South. It’s very French. It’s kinda old, old school. but… Yes. Very French. Nobody speaks, hardly anybody speaks English in that region.
So it’s not like going to Paris where you can just, you know, move through.
[00:34:16] HARPER: Well, they might be able to speak English in Paris, but they choose not to . They’re like [00:34:20]
[00:34:20] CLEVELAND: Dirty American prerogative…Yeah, yeah. You know? Um, but in this region, people are just like, I have no idea what you’re talking about.
Um, and so I, but I just knew, so there were, there were like, there were probably 40 or 45 black Madonnas in this region, and this region has had 40, 45. My gosh. Yeah. And, and yeah, cuz I wanted to [00:34:40] walk to them and so I was able to, and within like a walking radius, I could get to a lot of them. Wow. And so I just picked up and went.
HARPER: My God, are you kidding me?
Yeah. That just, and started walking.
HARPER:And So you went by yourself? There was no guide
CLEVELAND: I went by myself. [00:35:00] Yeah. And the route that I took is just a route that I, I made up. And so. But I knew I needed to see them.
[00:35:09] HARPER: What did you learn from the black Madonnas?
[00:35:11] CLEVELAND: Yeah. I mean, I think, I think there, there were a lot of things that I learned. I mean, each Black Madonna has her own story. Like in [00:35:20] my book I say they’re kind of like Marvel superheroes. Like they have their own origin stories. And so, and they’re all, they’re all known for doing different types of miracles.
And so, you know, when I came face-to-face with the, one of the black Madonnas of Mende, which is in Occitania in Southern France, um, you know, she’s called Our Lady, of the [00:35:40] Fountain. I call her “She whose thick thighs save lives.” Because whenever I, whenever I got to a Black Madonna, I just allowed my Pentecostal background to speak life into the interaction.
And I was like, what do you have for me? Speak.
HARPER: Wow. Yes, yes.
CLEVELAND: Spirit speak, you [00:36:00] know? And, um, she’s a Black Madonna who really helped me to look at my body a real, a different way because she is this like super, like big boned thick thigh, black Madonna. And
HARPER: She’s black. She’s a black girl. Yes.
CLEVELAND: She’s super dark skinned, you know, like dark chocolate colored. And, um, you know, the, so I, [00:36:20] each one I was kind of bringing a part of myself that had been fractured by, by colonialism and offering it to her and allowing her to speak to that particular part of my identity that needed to be made whole. And so, you know, I, I met “she who cherishes our hot mess” and I met like, um, [00:36:40] And I met like,
HARPER: No way.
CLEVELAND: “Our lady of the side eye” and I met, you know, so they’re all of these black Madonnas that, and so it’s interesting that on each, on with each Black Madonna, I, most of them I came up with my own name for them in addition. And so they have these traditional names, but I found out after the fact that the Madonna is known for [00:37:00] being named and like there, and actually there are tens of thousands of names for the Black Madonna.
Because the Black Madonna is kind of the opposite of the way we understand like the Judeo-Christian God who kind of shows up on the scene and says, “I am that I am,” and proclaims a lot of things about himself. The Black Madonna is [00:37:20] much more interested in mutuality. And so the Black Madonna is like, okay, let’s do this dance together.
And how do, how, how do you need me to show up in your life? So name me based on your need.
CLEVELAND: Yeah. And that’s, that’s… I mean, that goes back to, I mean, thousands of years. I found a prayer, a, an old [00:37:40] Eastern Orthodox prayer that’s from the fourth century in it. There are hundreds of names for the Black Madonna, and it’s just, and it’s, it’s like a seven.
It takes 17 minutes to pray the whole prayer.
[00:37:52] HARPER: Wait for y’all who can’t see me? My jaw is on the ground right now.
[00:37:54] CLEVELAND: Like, and this all just, and it’s all just names for her. And some of them are just like, [00:38:00] they’re just so beautiful. And like one of, one of my favorites is the, the enclosure of the God whom nothing can enclose.
So there’s just these like illustrious wow, gorgeous names. But then you go, you know, you, you go all over the world and there are black daughters called Slave Mama. And there are black. Yeah, there are black madon.
[00:38:19] HARPER: You [00:38:20] have to break that one down from me cuz I’m not really buying that one. Slave Mama
[00:38:23] CLEVELAND: She is the mother of the enslaved people and helps them get liberated. Okay. She’s actually, I can go with that. Especially associated with LGBTQ folks and their liberation Uhhuh from, yeah. So it’s, it’s a liberation title. [00:38:40] Yeah. It’s not, it’s not a mammy title. It’s,
[00:38:42] HARPER: yeah. See that’s what it, now, you know, that’s where I was going.
It was the whole Mammy,
[00:38:45] CLEVELAND: It’s giving Harriet Tubman. It’s giving Harriet Tubman. Okay. Okay. Mm-hmm. let’s get out. Yeah. So there are all these names and that’s, that goes back hundreds and even thousands of years. Oh. So [00:39:00] it, it’s interesting that my own. Spirituality sort of just invited me into that. But then to go and to see this is actually, this is part of the spirituality of the Black Madonna.
[00:39:11] HARPER: And can I just say real quickly that before, like if, if this goes back to the, what is, you said the fourth century, this is the three hundreds. This is really before [00:39:20] European colonization of Christianity. It’s before
[00:39:22] CLEVELAND: So yes. Well, the Black Madonna is sort of the effect of that. So, um, yeah, so, so for example, the Black Madonna of… so if you’ve heard of the Camino De Santiago.
HARPER: Right, right, right, right.
The, the French start to [00:39:40] it is actually in Le Puy, Southern France and there’s a black Madonna. Um, she has been there at least since the fourth century. But the thing is, is that there was a lot of dark goddess, probably Isis or Kybele worship there. And when the Catholic church came and gentrified the area and [00:40:00] colonized the area, they wanted to eradicate the goddess worship.
And the Catholic bishop in the fourth century actually didn’t wanna just eradicate it. Like he, he completely demolished the temple to the dark goddess because these were all like pre-Roman…
[00:40:18] HARPER: Oh yeah. Right. Well, lemme just also say very quickly that, I mean, [00:40:20] and I’m sure you know this, but just to say it for our, our listeners that that’s Southern European region had a lot of African trade tons, not twin trade tons.
Yeah. But there was a lot of interaction with Africa.
[00:40:31] CLEVELAND:.Yeah. And the Moores occupied this region for 800 years. So and so, wow. So, so this particular Black [00:40:40] Madonna is… the, the bishop came demolished, the temple of the dark goddess built the cathedral right on top of it. So the cathedral where everyone starts, the camino is right on top of the ancient goddess temple.
And so the people just said, okay, fine, we’ll just continue our goddess worship with the black [00:41:00] Madonna. So she’s actually in the lineage of Isis. Or one of, one of the North African goddesses. It’s unclear. So that’s, that’s how some of them came to be. But some of them were actually brought by Jesus’ disciples because they understood the Black Madonna to be Mary.
HARPER: Yes, exactly.
CLEVELAND: And Mary was blackity Black. So [00:41:20] actually what’s interesting is, um, mark, wow. Mark and Luke are the two disciples who are most, who are like the big black Madonna devotes. And so like, wow. The black, the famous Black Madonna of Poland supposedly was painted by Luke. So she’s a painting. Um, and she was painted by Luke on a table built by [00:41:40] Joseph, the father of Jesus
That’s, that’s the lore. So I mean, like, you know, that’s the story. But then a lot of the black Madonnas were actually brought to this part of Europe by Mark and Mark’s disciples, and Mark was Libyan. And so Mark was blackity Black. So
[00:42:00] HARPER: Mark was African [00:42:00] people! Yeah. Mark was an African people. Okay. Oh my God. What?
[00:42:05] CLEVELAND: Why do we not know these things? Yeah. Actually I didn’t learn that about Mark is until I started doing research on the Black Madonna. I never learned that in any of my church spaces. But Mark was Libyan. Libyan. And actually went back to Libya [00:42:20] after the, after the, after the resurrection.
But then he ended up going to Southern France in some of these areas and bringing the Black Madonna with him. And then some of them are just black. Like there’s a black Madonna in Orleans outside Paris who’s Syrian. The Syrians brought her in the fifth, and they were Syrian Christians in the fifth century.
Right, right. So like, it’s like some of them come [00:42:40] from these older goddess lineages. Some of them come from black and brown Christians. Right. Um, some of them come from the holy land during the Crusades. So the later ones that came in the 11th, 12th, 13th centuries mm-hmm. . It just depends. And some of them were just made from black rock, and so they’re black.
And so it’s like, you know. Yeah.
[00:42:59] HARPER: So I, [00:43:00] I, I wanna know, I wanna know like, what are the most salient lessons that you’ve learned from the Black Madonnas about God, God’s self? What have they taught you about God?
[00:43:10] CLEVELAND: Yeah. Oh, wow. So many things. Um, I would say the, the most, I think the thing that I carry with me two, two things I [00:43:20] carry with me that I think have changed my entire, not just theology, but spirituality and like, the way that I moved, not just my, like what I would say, this is what I believe about God.
Yeah. But like, this is how I am in the world because of this relationship. So the one I would say is, I’m too sacred for this. About just about everything. So like, [00:43:40] So like once I, um, once I finally found myself in the body of the Black Madonna, I realized I was putting up with a whole lot of shenanigans.
Yeah. That, frankly, I’m just too sacred for. And so I remember being on my pilgrimage, wrapping it up [00:44:00] and thinking I can go home and write a book and it’ll be super cute or I can go home and transform my entire life. based on the sacredness that I’ve found here. And that means I don’t have to work on the Duke plantation anymore because I’m too sacred for that.
I’m too sacred for this. This means there’s a bunch of relationships in my [00:44:20] life that I’m too sacred for.
HARPER: I’m too sacred. I love that.
CLEVELAND: You know, just so, and then, so that’s one thing I would say. Like I and one of my team members said, if there’s anything I’ve learned working with you is that I’m too sacred for everything.
You know, so it’s contagious, right? Then I think the other thing that is that if God, if [00:44:40] God is a black woman, then how does that change everything? Yeah. And so for me, it’s like if God is a black woman, first of all, it’s handled. Like, yes, like I, I don’t have to be out here controlling everything.
I don’t have to be out here being attached [00:45:00] to the outcomes. So controlling my siblings, controlling the, the people in the church communities. I used to be shaming. Mm-hmm. You know, like this idea, like it with the black, the black Madonna can connect with everybody on her own terms. Right. So she doesn’t need me out here telling people that they’re wrong, which [00:45:20] is exactly what I, my impulse is cuz that’s what I’ve been taught by patriarchy. Right. Leader, spiritual leadership is control and authority. That’s what spiritual leadership is, right? Telling people what to do.
[00:45:31] HARPER: Basically, and doing it in a way that doesn’t crush them necessarily that’s the best kinda leadership anyway, but yes.
[00:45:39] CLEVELAND: Telling, telling people [00:45:40] what to do. So that’s, that’s, so I think that’s been, so a lot of times it’s like, you know, should I, should I take this, should I take this opportunity that will bring in some resources, but it’s with an organization that can’t see my full sacredness?
Well, okay, let me stop. If God is a black woman, then she’s gonna provide, [00:46:00] and she doesn’t need me to hide part of myself in order to live. And so that it’s just changed my whole, my practice of faith. Yeah, yeah. You know, I remember before feeling like I couldn’t really trust this white male guy, but then being like, oh, Christena, like, oh, you have little faith.
You know, like you need to just muster up some more [00:46:20] faith or go fast or do something. And now I’m like, no, I actually believe that this God sees me and knows me and is with me and is on my side and is gonna provide for me and doesn’t need me to cut off my arm in order to be accepted by these people who don’t really wanna accept me.
So I would say that in terms of my spirituality, but I think in [00:46:40] terms of like my theology, there’s just a lot more, um, a lot more openness. Like, so yeah. I wanna, I wanna know how does this feel in my sacred black feminine body? Instead of what, what have I been taught? Or what is gonna be a, what, what are people going to approve of or, you know, the [00:47:00] ways of knowing we’re always what’s tradition, what do, what does the establishment want and what can I prove?
[00:47:08] HARPER: And I think, I mean, for me, when I think of this, it actually, it intersects. So, or actually it parallels, maybe even overlaps, actually it does overlap with my understanding of the image of God. Like, the reason why [00:47:20] you are too sacred for this is because you too are made in the image of the divine of God.
And what I mean, some scholars now are actually doing some amazing work on the, the Europe-ification of the image of God. Basically the colonization of the image of God that they’re kind of placing in the [00:47:40] enlightenment period. But I would actually, I take it all the way back to Rome and, and the Greek empire, you don’t find the impetus, the the belief that I should be leading everywhere I am. And I need to be the one who conquers all anywhere in Europe until you have that Greek Empire.
[00:47:59] CLEVELAND: Empire. Mm-hmm. Yeah.
[00:47:59] HARPER: [00:48:00] That’s where, that’s where it comes from. So you gotta go, oh, you can go back to like 300 bc and that’s where you start to find those first impetus of the only ones who are truly human are the people who are like us.
Right? And so, but what you’re saying is no, uh, no, no, no. I too, yeah. I too am [00:48:20] divine. I too am human and fully human. And what that looks like is that I too can rise into exercising dominion in the world. That’s how I’m translating this.
[00:48:30] CLEVELAND: Yeah. And I think like, um, you know, like I remember loving, like, loving hearing people talk about the Imago Dei.
You know, [00:48:40] but, but the way they talked about it
HARPER: Yes. Was colonized!
CLEVELAND: Yeah. Right. Exactly. So I would, I like the idea was amazing. Mm-hmm. , but the practice and the communication of it was, it’s only reserved for whiteness and maleness.
[00:48:57] HARPER: That’s right. And let me just say that, that’s why I don’t use the language [00:49:00] Imago de that’s imperi.alistic
[00:49:01] CLEVELAND:It’s hipster. Yeah.
[00:49:02] HARPER: Yeah. It’s, it’s hipster. Yeah. It’s, but it’s, it’s imperial. It literally comes from Rome, it comes from the people that crucified Jesus. Like, you know, brown colonized indigenous, Jesus
[00:49:13] CLEVELAND: was crucified by the, who was Palestinian and Air Aramaic. Yeah. So it’s just, well, I mean, we lost so [00:49:20] much of Jesus when he was translated into Greek.
There’s just a huge gap between what what Jesus actually verbally said. Because the, the, because Aramaic is a really mystical, feminine, open mutual, mutuality based. Wow. I have, it’s all possibilities. Right. It’s a dance between the [00:49:40] listener and the speaker to, to together come up with the meaning.
I mean, it’s totally different than Greek, which is Yeah. Very top down, very authoritarian, all about, um, red reductive, you know, like it’s the language of the empire. Right. So it is, there’s so much that we lost Yeah. That the people who are listening to Jesus [00:50:00] understood that we don’t, we just, it’s just not there for us anymore.
[00:50:04] HARPER: Yeah. It’s not there for us anymore because we’ve been, we’ve been reading Jesus through the lens of empire rather than reading empire through the lens of brown colonized Palestinian Jesus. Right. Amen.
Walking Freedom Road from coast to coast and around the globe. This [00:50:20] is the Freedom Road podcast.
Okay, so Christena, you left the academy. You kind of talked a little bit about that. You kind of like, you know, and you started your own learning community on Patreon, which I love, and it’s actually more than Patreon. It’s actually way beyond that now. [00:50:40] But what did you see in the academy that led you to walk away?
[00:50:42] CLEVELAND: Oh, um, well, there’s a lot I like about the academy, but I, I think after when I left, I had been, I had been a professor for 11 years, so. Wow. And it was always kind of like a, like don’t love, just in terms of the profession. I love teaching. I don’t, I don’t do institutions. [00:51:00] That’s not my personality. I’m just like a hundred percent prophetic.
And so I just don’t, I just really struggle with institutions and there were, you know, there’s just a lot. Um, so even, even when I was at schools that weren’t as horrible as Duke, where, where I was at the end , um, because I did have, I did have more… I mean, over my 11 [00:51:20] years and only four of them were at Duke.
I did have more positive academic experiences, but even when I was there I was always like, oh, teaching, but, you know, it’s like, it’s fine. Um, I, so part, part of my leaving was just like, oh, this is my first career and I’ve, I’ve, I feel like I’ve, it’s run its course. But then at the time I was also at Duke, which was [00:51:40] just, um, a very toxic and colonial space.
And that’s common. The more prestigious you go in academia, the more you deal with that. And I just felt. I remember being, so I, it, uh, early… before I did my Black Madonna pilgrimage, but soon after I got to Duke, I remember going to Kolkata [00:52:00] for work. Actually, I was, because at the time I was the director of the Center for Reconciliation at Duke.
So I was in Kolkata right on a work trip. And I got up really early in the morning to go and do morning prayer at, um, the convent that Mother Teresa had run. Right? Um, and then afterwards, and it’s, it’s still, it’s before Dawn still, cuz their prayer is like at three [00:52:20] thirty in the morning or whatever, . And um, I get back to the hotel and I’m like, you know what, now would be a really good time to go running because Kolkata is just chaotic.
And so you can’t run when the city’s alive, you’ll die. You’ll literally die. So yeah. So I was just like, okay, I’m awake. Like let’s just do, let’s get a run in. And I remember running around and seeing. . [00:52:40] So much poverty, so much devastate. I mean, obvi, you know, Kolkata is all the things, right? Yes.
But a lot of it is pain. Yeah. And I’m very attuned to that. And I remember running and just being like, there’s too much pain and injustice in the world. Yeah. And I’m too good at justice and healing to waste my time with Duke. [00:53:00] Like I had, and this was like, I think two years before I actually left, you know?
But I just remember it was almost like my Harriet Tubman moment. Cuz I remember when I, I mean, I don’t remember, but I imagine like Harriet Tubman’s, like raised on this plantation, she’s taught that like, that’s right. The only way to survive is to be the best negro on the plantation. [00:53:20] And so, you know, she doesn’t have any language or imagination for life off the plantation.
She doesn’t even know what life is like off the plantation. She doesn’t know if she has transferrable skills or anything. But one morning she woke up and was like, I’m too sacred for this. You know, and, and then, but I wonder too, like, what was the, what was the time from when she [00:53:40] had that realization to when she actually felt connected enough to the North Star to leave?
Like that whole, and I feel like that’s been my, that’s my jour… right? So it’s like I had that awakening moment where I’m like, like the world, like I can meet a need in the world, not that, not that the world needs lots of people doing justice. Right. It’s not like I’m the [00:54:00] savior of justice, but I have a role to play that is like infinitely valuable.
And I did not wanna be held back by the plantation.
[00:54:11] HARPER: Girl, I know what you’re talking about. Yeah. Yes.
[00:54:13] CLEVELAND: But at the same time, I also wasn’t ready, I didn’t feel brave enough to bounce, you know what I mean? Like, [00:54:20] wow. It’s like, it’s like an awakening process, right? It’s like, and you’re shoring up and you’re, because there’s no way you can be fully prepared to leave.
But at some point you just get to the place where you’re like, I just have to take that step into the unknown, and I’m gonna, and she said she called it the North Star, right? For me is the Black Madonna. Like, I trust that there’s a God who sees me [00:54:40] and relates to me and has got my back. I don’t know how, I don’t know what survival’s gonna look like.
I don’t know who my people are. That’s right. I don’t know what the language is. I just know there’s a North Star, and if I keep my eye on the North Star, I can walk, but that was a, that was a multi-year process. And I imagine it was for her too. We don’t know. Right. But [00:55:00] I imagine that’s what Hush Harbor was probably.
She was going out to those hush harbor meetings every night. Every day. Every night. She’d come back. A little more radicalized. .
HARPER: Yes. Yes. A little more brave.
CLEVELAND: A little more like Exactly. A little bit more connected to a. Yeah. And a little bit more like the shenanigans. Oh, no, no. .
[00:55:19] HARPER: Like a little , [00:55:20] little more like, I’m too divine for this.
[00:55:22] CLEVELAND: Yeah. I don’t care. Yes. What happens to me off the plantation? It’s gotta be better than what’s happened to me on the plantation.
[00:55:28] HARPER: The thing is, what you’re describing, I am sure, I am positive that what you are describing is actually, it’s a phenomenon. It’s something that a lot of us who have been in white space [00:55:40] actually who have, who have come up in white space, and you kind of have to make a decision at some point whether or not you’re gonna take the jump. For me, the word was literally jump and that was like, um, Bishop Plunder. I was, I was at a spiritual retreat.
[00:55:55] CLEVELAND: Oh, that’s a good, that’s a good prophet, you know?
[00:55:59] HARPER: [00:56:00] Mm-hmm. , yes. Who actually knows something, and I had never met her before.
[00:56:01] CLEVELAND: She’s awesome. She told me she was almost my aunt. Woo. She said, she said, oh, no, no, wait. She told, when I ran into her, she said, I, I can’t remember if she’s, I think she, she dated my grandfather. They went on like one date or something and she said, I, I was, she’s like, I could be your grandmother.
She said something. [00:56:20] And you know, she’s Oakland, you know Oakland black, black people. Yeah. So there’s,
[00:56:24] HARPER: , Yeahit’s not that big. They all knew each other, especially back then, and she totally that big that she knew your person who was that big.
[00:56:30] CLEVELAND: So Yeah, it was hilarious. Yeah. She was like, I could be your grandmother.
[00:56:35] HARPER: She walked up to me. We were in a, we were in a prayer group this one time, and she walked up [00:56:40] to this prayer group. Literally she was, it was her first day, first time at the Auburn Senior Fellows Retreat. And it was only my second time. Right. And you had this great circle of people who now we were supposed to be in a peer prayer time for each other and like peer support.
And she walks up and she says, “I have a word for you.” I have not ever [00:57:00] even spoken to this lady, but before, and she said, “I have a word for you.” And I said, oh, no. Okay. Okay. And she says, the word from the Lord for you is jump. Mm-hmm. And I was like, my jaw dropped because at that time, I had just come through four months of asking God to make it clear.
God, [00:57:20] make it clear so that I could make a move. I didn’t know, but I had a real sense just like you, that I wasn’t supposed to be in this place anymore. I knew I wasn’t supposed to be here anymore, but I didn’t know that I knew, and I needed God to make it really clear. And so it only took one month after that.
Oh, by the, she came up. [00:57:40] She came up with a, this is deep. She came up with a, with a, a follow up word. She said, wait, I have a follow up word, . I was like, I never heard a follow up word from from Jesus. I have a follow up word from the Lord. And this is what it is. It is, this is the word from God. I cannot catch you until you jump.
This reminds me, right?
[00:58:00] CLEVELAND: Yeah. Right. And this is where like Kelly Brown Douglas who said, Christ is a black woman. Anytime black women are out there bringing flourishing to the world, like that was, that was Bishop being Christ black female Christ to you. Right? That’s right. That’s right. And it’s like, and the fact that [00:58:20] we have been taught that that’s not legitimate, like wholly legitimate.
Like that, that’s ridiculous to me. You know? But yeah, that’s what we were taught.
[00:58:32] HARPER: And we were taught, we were really taught. We go there, we were really taught to give authority, to [00:58:40] assume the authority of white men who would, who would speak to us in this way. If a white man came up to me and told me, I have a word from you, I better, you know, trust that like, that’s trustable.
That’s doesn’t matter who that white man is, even, you know, especially a white man who is a big. , you know, star or megachurch person or whatever, no matter how many people he’s [00:59:00] raped behind the scenes or, or fondled behind the scenes or whatever. No, that man has authority. But you have a black woman who is, who is lesbian, and she comes up to me and she has a word from the Lord, and, no, no, no, that can’t be God.
Nah, nah, I’m sorry that it’s, it’s no longer, that was absolutely God. God spoke to [00:59:20] me through a black lesbian woman, and I think that, and when I did make that jump, God caught me.
Sounds like God caught you too.
[00:59:29] CLEVELAND: Yeah. Yeah. I, I’m so grateful in every way, and I can’t, you know, I, it’s the joy, the freedom, the [00:59:40] purpose.
I mean, it’s just the, I mean, it’s, everything’s changed.
[00:59:44] HARPER: So when you, like you think about the rising generations, you know, millennials are not really rising anymore. They’re, they’re actually we’re old. You’re in your forties. You know, like, that’s your generation. Oh my God.
[00:59:51] CLEVELAND: Yeah. Well, I’m the oldest of the millennials.
Yeah, yeah. Right, right.
[00:59:57] HARPER: And then when you think of the Zs that are coming behind and even but [01:00:00] beyond them, my, my niece and she’s not even Z I don’t think she’s like the next generation after that.What’s that? Double A?
[01:00:06] CLEVELAND: Mm-hmm. Dunno.
[01:00:08] HARPER: But like, what do you think are the strengths that, that these generations are bringing?
[01:00:11] CLEVELAND: Oh my gosh. This came up in one of my learning communities just yesterday. Yeah. Cuz we’re doing this like, um, uncovering your race story, particularly looking at the [01:00:20] shame in our race stories. And someone, we’ve been, we’ve been, we’ve been looking at lots of different aspects, but one of the things we’ve been looking at is our names.
Ah, and how our names. Depending on whether there are true names or not, can engender shame or a sense of belonging. And someone said, you know, I, I wish I could change my name. [01:00:40] And this was someone who I think is not a Gen Zer. And so I, I actually commented and said, you know, one of the things I’m learning from Gen Zers is, uh, you can decide who you wanna be, you can decide your name.
And we all really, really, really can learn from that. Um, whether we officially change our names or not. There’s something I [01:01:00] love about Gen Z where they’re, they’re just naturally suspicious of the establishment and they’re like, I am not gonna let you tell me who I am in any way. Um, and I’m gonna define for myself, and I’m gonna start creating categories that don’t even exist.
HARPER: It’s totally true. [01:01:20]
CLEVELAND: Because the existing categories don’t work for me. You know, and they,
[01:01:23]HARPER: It feels like they came up with an understanding that I am too sacred for this.
[01:01:27] CLEVELAND: Exactly. They really did. And that there are limitations to the existing world order. There are limitations. Whereas I think we were taught the [01:01:40] existing world order is legitimate,
[01:01:42] HARPER: That is the way it is. Mm-hmm. And you have to learn it and master it.
[01:01:44] CLEVELAND: Uhhuh. exactly. Course. Yeah. Yeah. Wow. And so I think there’s something, it feels very prophetic the way that they move through the world, the Gen Zers, because they are interested in asking questions that [01:02:00] they haven’t been taught to ask and actually have maybe been taught not to ask. They’re interested in imagining possibilities that go beyond what’s physically re real or pH the physical reality. Um, and, and I think they’re also interested in collaboration. I mean, there’s, yeah, I think there’s a lot less, um, individualism [01:02:20] in a lot more coalition building, even in just very informal ways.
And so, I mean, I think there’s so much that we can learn. I love working with Gen Zers. They tell me all the time, like, I’m old and not cool. You know, it’s great.
HARPER: Isn’t that funny? Um, yeah. My gosh.
CLEVELAND: It’s hilarious. I was talking to one of my peers the other day who’s in the engineering world, so, you know, totally different.
But he, so, uh, uh, one of the Gen Zers [01:02:40] said, okay, boomer him the other day. And he was like, oh, first of all, I’m not a boomer. Like, I’m literally horn . Oh my gosh. You know?
[01:02:50] HARPER: Yeah. You know, just hilarious. You know, and they literally skip over my generation, the Gen X. They’re like, gen. Oh, gen X whatcha Oh,
[01:02:56] CLEVELAND: doesn’t even exist. Yeah, exactly.
[01:02:58] HARPER: Well, I’ll just, I’ll, [01:03:00] I’ll set the record straight. Gen X is the generation of hip hop. Hello, somebody. That’s true. That’s true. You can’t even watch the Grammys right now without giving homage to Gen X.
[01:03:10] CLEVELAND: That’s true.
[01:03:12] HARPER: Yeah. You know? Yeah. We gave you a lot. People do not skip over. So I wanna also know what are the challenges that you think, [01:03:20] you know, these next generations will have based on what their experience of the world has been?
We need to focus on strengthening.
[01:03:27] CLEVELAND: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I mean, it’s easy to dismantle and burn down. It’s really hard to build. Yes. Yeah. And I think, I mean, I think they’ll, they’ll struggle with [01:03:40] hopelessness. Mm-hmm. , because some of those skills, it’s just, it’s just a whole lot harder to rebuild, especially with the existing structures, doing everything they can to prevent you from building.
So, that’ll be a challenge. Um, I also think, you know, just the economy, like I, I’m definitely, so I’m the oldest of the millennials, and in this way I think I, I, um, [01:04:00] relate more to Gen Zers in the sense that I went to college and have basically been gainfully employed as much as I’ve wanted to be since then.
So this, the younger millennials are, it’s a totally different story, right? They’ve had, they’ve been in and out of work. There’s been a lot more the, the, the, um, you know, home ownership. The economy’s been basically terrible. And [01:04:20] so getting laid off a lot and having a job for a while, and also having jobs that are kind of like below their edu before below their training, right?
Just stuff like that. And so I think part of it is just gonna be like they’re actually living in a later stage of capitalism than we were.
CLEVELAND: And so building enough wealth to actually just live, [01:04:40] right? Not to like dominate the world, but just like have, you know, to have enough, have have a place so that you can’t, cuz I mean, I have a lot of privilege.
Like walking away from Duke was something that I had the privilege of doing. Right? Yeah. I, I understand that there are plenty of black women who are working on plantations that are a lot worse than Duke. Hmm. That could never [01:05:00] just walk away. And so, as these Gen Zers are trying to create these experimental, you know, communities and experimental positions and all these sorts of things, the question is like, you know, how’s that gonna be sustainable?
Because there’s so much economic insecurity [01:05:20] in, in what they’re dealing with. So, I mean, I think, I think if there’s any generation that can handle that, that’s them. Cuz they have imagination and I think imagination is theology. And so they can, they can, they can find the ways to connect with abundance.
But I think that will be a challenge cuz it’s a lot easier to walk away from a job like Duke when you have a pretty well. Retirement plan that [01:05:40] you’ve been putting money into, and you have a home and you have, and you’re connected to other people who have resources, who always have a spare room, if any event that you needed one.
Right, right. I will never be homeless. Right. Because even, even if it’s just cause I’m connected to people who have resources. Right?
HARPER: Yeah, that’s exactly, exactly right. Wow.
CLEVELAND: I mean, it’s just, um, it’s, yeah. It’s, it’s [01:06:00] challenging to be an anarchist when they’re, when you don’t have any resources. You know, you talked
[01:06:06] HARPER: about our kind of, you know, late stage capitalism.
Can you talk a little bit more about that, break that down? What do you think of that?
[01:06:11] CLEVELAND: Yeah, I mean, I think cap, I mean, I think capitalism has gotten like more and more exploitative as, as it has, uh, It’s like the [01:06:20] monster that’s just grown, you know? And so, I mean, the jobs that people are getting when they’re coming outta college, it’s like 20, $25,000 a year.
Like you, you can’t, you can’t even live at your parents’ house on that. Plus place, plus pay school loans, you know? And so I think it’s just the bigger and bigger corporations that are more and more [01:06:40] exploitative. And I honestly, I really think all it is, at least this is from my perspective mm-hmm.
It’s just now middle class people are dealing with poor people with, with what poor people have always dealt with. Right. Cause my friends who’ve grown up their entire lives and socioeconomic, they always knew I’m in a work 60 hours a week and not even barely be [01:07:00] able to pay rent. But what’s happening now is college educated people are finding that’s also true for them.
That’s right. And that’s right.
So like the exploitation has always been there. It’s just spread. Wow, that’s true. Spreading into the middle class
[01:07:13] HARPER: and it’s spreading as the middle class shrinks.
[01:07:15] CLEVELAND: Mm-hmm, right. So Exactly. Having mm-hmm.
[01:07:16] HARPER: fewer and fewer actual middle class. Yeah. And it’s okay. That’s actually really helpful.
[01:07:19] CLEVELAND: [01:07:20] And, and what our parents, I don’t know if this is what you’re, but my middle class parents were like, go to college and get a good job. That’s the thing. Oh, totally. 100% a middle class black parent could te tell their kids to do that now. And there’s, there’s no guarantee that their kids will have any financial security.
[01:07:37] HARPER: Well, lemme just say, I think part, part of the reason for this, and I think [01:07:40] you’ve probably discovered this as you left the plantation and started your own business, like you started a business, a fee for service business. So when we think about how businesses are more exploitative now, is that because of our previous middle class [01:08:00] understanding of what it looks like to become safe to become, um, solid. It is actually to get that job, to have that career. Certainly, it’s not like the boomers where they would be in the same job forever. I don’t think we’ve actually had that since the, the, my generation, the Xers, we’ve never had that. But it, it is to actually [01:08:20] have a career that offers stability.
When you, when you join somebody else’s project, when you are not your own entrepreneur, when you are not setting the standards for your pay and determining the value of your work, then you are beholden to people who put a value on your work and a cap [01:08:40] on that value. So you actually have, and I don’t know that this is the case, but but for that upcoming, um, Z generation and, and I’d say for, for the lower, like the younger millennials, if they are looking to prosper, to, to have abundance in the, in within that big box capitalist [01:09:00] system, they are not going, it’s not gonna happen because those big box capitalist systems exist to feed themselves, not the workers. Is that kind of what you’re talking about? Is that what you’re, what you see?
[01:09:10] CLEVELAND: Yeah. Yeah, I see that. Yeah. And I remember when I started my business, the words, I mean, uh, this conversation was probably, [01:09:20] yeah, 12, maybe even more years ago. Saint Brenda Salter McNeil
CLEVELAND: Spoke with me on the phone. I was a little munchkin and I had just started out my speaking and she took the time to drop some wisdom on me. And she said, I remember I was sitting in my car parked on the street in St. Paul. I was about to go in to do something with a friend, and, but [01:09:40] she was talking to me. Wow. So I was sitting there listening and she said, Christena, when you set your prices for speaking, remember it’s ministry, but it’s also a business.
HARPER:She told me the same thing. She was too. She’s,
CLEVELAND: Oh, that’s, she’s a wise, she’s a wise woman. Yeah. I mean, she’s, you’re lucky. Yeah. I mean, I, I, I had little bits of conversations, but anytime I, I got a [01:10:00] chance to learn from her. I did. Yes. And, um, you know, and I think that’s something that black women need to keep telling other black women, you’re worth it.
You’re too sacred for this. You’re too sacred for the, you’re, you’re too sacred for this.
[01:10:10] HARPER: And lemme just say that one of the things that, that I learned that helped me to move into this business space and be able to set my own value was understanding that the nonprofit world where I [01:10:20] had grown up like that was my entire work life, was in the nonprofit world, it does not pay, almost as a rule, it does not pay the full value of your work.
It only pays you a, a portion of the value of your work. And it doesn’t pay market value, even if we’re just looking at market, like, you know, even in that market, [01:10:40] um, thing, it doesn’t pay market value. And so what does it say then that the majority, that the largest employer of people of African descent in the United States is the nonprofit world?
[01:10:51] CLEVELAND: Yeah. And don’t even get me started on like the mammy industrial complex in the nonprofit world because all these white ladies are making money and all these black women are [01:11:00] not. And that’s another thing I learned about the Black Madonna. I am not your mammy, so
HARPER: Oh, okay. Talk to me about that.
I am nobody’s number two, because white men love to have a powerful, excellent black woman right behind them. Propping them up. Yes. Making them brilliant. Yes. And I’m like, I’m tired of being your number two. [01:11:20].
[01:11:21] HARPER: Yeah, I did three times I’m like, not anymore.
[01:11:23] CLEVELAND: I never did that officially, but I played that role a lot in churches, right? Mm-hmm. , where I would be on the preaching team or I’d be one of the head leaders and all the, I had more brilliance than my pinky than the senior pastor had in his entire body. No [01:11:40] disrespect to him, but I’m amazing.
HARPER: You don’t get me in trouble, girl.
CLEVELAND: And he was mediocre. And so that’s just a fact. Let’s take let’s, and I was just like, she’s not your number two. Yeah. That’s great. She’s nobody’s number two, she is the kind of leader who makes people uncomfortable because she is black and actually in charge, not is not [01:12:00] supporting the white man.
The mediocre white man. Yes. But that’s the whole, that’s the whole industrial complex of the nonprofit world and ministry world, I would say it is. It 100 hundred percent have have a brilliant black woman who spends all of her time, actually wears herself out supporting your vision. For [01:12:20] no accolades and definitely no pay.
HARPER: That’s right. Yeah, I think we’re outta time.
[01:12:27] HARPER: The conversations leaders have on the Road to Justice. This is The Freedom Road podcast. Hello, somebody, . Thank you so much for joining us [01:12:40] today. The Freedom Road Podcast is recorded in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and wherever our guests, um, are laying their head that night.
This episode was engineered and edited and produced by Corey Nathan of Scan Media and Freedom Road Podcast is executive produced by Freedom Road, LLC. We consult, coach, train, and [01:13:00] design experiences that bring common understanding, common commitment, and lead to common action. And so you can find out more about our work at our website, freedom road.us, and stay in the know by signing up for our updates, which by the way, are now on subs.
So Freedom Road is on substack. Please go to Substack [01:13:20] to sign up for Freedom Roads a newsletter. We promise we will not flood your inbox, and so we invite you to listen again. And we have a really special treat for those on Patreon, we’re gonna have a special behind the scenes quick convo with my friend Christena Cleveland.
So join us again on the on Freedom Road.[01:13:40]