On this episode we are joined by Tamice Spencer-Helms, author of Faith Unleavened: The Wilderness Between Trayvon Martin and George Floyd and founder of Sub:Culture Incorporated, a nonprofit that provides holistic support and crisis relief for Black College Students.
We invited Tamice to speak with us about internalized oppression – the oppression of the self over the self. How to see that its present? How to acknowledge it? And How to break free?
We’d love to hear your thoughts.
Thread or Insta Lisa @lisasharper or to Freedom Road @freedomroad.us. We’re also on Substack! So be sure to subscribe to freedomroad.substack.com. And, keep sharing the podcast with your friends and networks and letting us know what you think!
Lisa Sharon Harper: [00:00:00] Coming to you from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the city of brotherly love and sisterly affection. I’m Lisa Sharon Harper, president of Freedom Road, a consulting group dedicated to shrinking the narrative gap. Welcome to the Freedom Road podcast. Now, each month we speak with national faith leaders, advocates and activists and authors as well to have the kinds of conversations that we normally have on the front lines.
It’s just that this time we’ve got microphones in our faces and you are listening in. This episode, we are joined by Tamice Spencer-Helms, author of Faith Unleavened, The Wilderness Between Trayvon Martin and George Floyd. She’s also the founder of Sub Culture Incorporated, a nonprofit that provides holistic support and crisis relief for black [00:01:00] college students.
I invited Tamice to speak with us today, in part because I kind of know her struggle, because we, we came out of very similar, in fact, the same college ministry organization. And when I heard that she works with college students, I thought, Oh, wow, we really do need eyes on the ground to know what’s going on there.
So her work with subculture is actually, I think really pertinent, especially since we are dealing in a world right now where education is under fire and especially education about, and for people of African descent. It is under fire, y’all. And to me, this has got something to say. Also, she has something to tell us about internalized oppression, the oppression of the self over the self, how to see that it’s present, how to acknowledge it and how to break free.
So we would love to hear your thoughts. So tweet or thread or Insta or [00:02:00] Facebook or any of the things to me at Lisa S Harper or to Freedom Road at Freedom Road.us or dot us depending on the, on the platform and keep sharing the podcast. We are growing. We have a great subscribership.
I’m so excited for what, for what’s happening. I mean, we really do have a Freedom Road community out there right now. And so look, share it with your friends because I know they want to be part of that Freedom Road community too. We need it. We need to break free. So let us know what you think and share with your friends and let’s dive in.
So Tamice, Oh my God. Okay. So I was like, I’m reading your book and I’m feeling like I’m reliving my own life’s experience in your prologue. Okay. So your prologue alone is, is actually kind of, um, it’s really wrenching. I was really struck by it. And it ends like this. Do you mind if I read it? Because I’m so excited about your book.
Okay. So [00:03:00] the prologue begins rehearsing the relentless stream of hashtag lives from Trayvon Martin to Philando Castile. And I thought it was interesting that you ended it there because I know that your book actually takes it through George Floyd. And I know that you go into George Floyd soon after that.
But you take it to the, you know, at the end of the prologue, you’ve landed on Philando Castile. And throughout the time, you’re also marking how your pastors are dealing with this, how the churches that you’re going to and the Christian, the white Christian communities that you’re a part of are dealing with this stream of hashtag lives.
And then you write, “but still the pastor didn’t say anything. Numb is not the right word because it was sharper than that. Angry won’t suffice either because it was deeper. It was as if the world was spinning and I could not find my balance. [00:04:00] With every hashtag, the crack in the toxic foundations of my faith grew wider.
Where do you run when the only person you can turn to is white Jesus? I could not breathe. I could not sing another damn song about joy. I didn’t know it then, but I was fellowshipping with the 81 percent of white evangelicals who voted for Donald Trump. And there was leaven in the bread.”
Oh, girl, what? Oh my God. Okay. So, so obviously this is where the title of your book: “Unleavened Faith” comes from. And so I just wanted to know before you get into the unleavened faith part, because I am going to ask you about that. I just want to know what’s your faith story. Like how did you come to faith in Jesus?
How did you come to worship in a context that never mentioned that [00:05:00] ever flowing stream of death, um, never bothered to minister to your black soul.
Tamice Spencer-Helms-Helms: Hmm. That’s a great question. So for me, I grew up in a black church as most people do my age. So I grew up going to church with my parents. When I was 17 years old, I had a friend invite me to what she called a play.
And it was actually one of those hell house experiences that takes you on a simulation of kind of, you know, teen drunk driving accidents and all kinds of traumatic experiences that they were dramatizing.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Oh wow.
Tamice Spencer-Helms: And at the end of the play, Jesus appears and asks everyone if their name is in the book of life. I had never heard of the book of life.
I didn’t know at that point that I wasn’t cool with God. I didn’t know that I needed to take any more steps to have a relationship with God.
Lisa Sharon Harper: wait wait, you were already a part of a black church.
Tamice Spencer-Helms: I was, and I had had a significant experience with my mother in the car. My mother had a very, very powerful [00:06:00] experience at a Joyce Meyer conference, actually.
And so she’s listening to the tape from the conference in our car, and I can’t remember. I think I might have been 10 or 11. I can’t exactly remember. But I said, Mom, how do you even know that God is real? You know, and I was very curious. It was a very precocious kid. Um, and she said, well, if God is real, God will show you.
And, and then we almost, we almost T boned this car and on the car was a bumper sticker that said, God is real.
Lisa Sharon Harper: What?
Tamice Spencer-Helms: So yes, that’s really kind of like a, you know, it’s, it’s really my spiritual life. Has been marked by situations like that. I will have questions, spiritual questions, and things will just happen in real time that answer questions that nobody knew I was asking.
And so then, you know, fast forward, I’m a sophomore getting ready to go in my junior year in high school. And obviously a high schooler has been exposed to a lot of things. And so my friend takes me and [00:07:00] Jesus asks me if I want, or the Jesus in the play asked me if I want my name in the book.
And of course, I mean, I’ve just been scared out of my mind. I didn’t know I was going to hell. I didn’t know any of these things. I hadn’t even, I couldn’t fathom at that time what I had done that was so wrong.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Was this, was this friend white or black? And was indeed, it was a white friend. And this Jesus then of course was white, then?
Tamice Spencer-Helms: It was a white man and was actually her pastor.
Who was playing the part of Jesus of course, of course. Okay. And so I went back, uh, I said, yes, I want my name in the book. And so, you know, how they usher you out and we go down the Romans road in the back. And I signed a little card, um, that says I was saved on May 21st, 2001. Um, and I just carried that card around.
I just didn’t know.
Lisa Sharon Harper: You were a card-carrying Christian.
Tamice Spencer-Helms: I was indeed quite literally. Yeah. So that’s how I got involved in white evangelicalism. And I, and in the book I do talk a little bit about, Some of the [00:08:00] juxtaposition that I was experiencing between the two church experiences. And honestly, white evangelicalism was shinier and it was, it seemed more in depth.
It seems more clear in a lot of ways because I was the type of person that really wanted certainty in my life, and white evangelicalism gave that to me.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Isn’t that something? It so does. I mean, I think if you ever heard the term, the tyranny of certainty,
Tamice Spencer-Helms: Indeed. Yes, I have.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Right. So the first time I ever heard that was when, uh, we did a conference called envision the future and the pilot and the future and politics… and the future and the politics of faith, something like that. And it was at Princeton seminary, but it wasn’t by Princeton seminary. It was just a conglomerate of people who put on this conference there. And somebody actually talked to me for the very first time at that conference about the propensity within white evangelicalism for [00:09:00] certainty that everything has to have an answer and it has to fit.
Exactly. And, so it’s a very high control stream of the faith. And when it comes to, I come to kind of understand it as kind of trying to control God in many ways.
Tamice Spencer-Helms: Yes. Uh huh. Yeah. I think so. I’ve been thinking a lot about that, just in hindsight, about my experience in evangelicalism. And I hate to say this, but it felt like something you could master.
You could master being a Christian. In that stream of the faith, you know, and so you get to a place where I’ve done all the missions trips. I’ve, I’ve done all the things and you really feel like kind of you’ve maxed out. And so for me at the time it was okay, well, the next step in this journey is what to have a kid and get married.
Like, I don’t know what else to do. I was a very passionate, zealous kid. I was put in leadership very early in my college ministry. And so I came to… When I went to college at [00:10:00] VCU in Richmond, I got involved with the college ministry that I went on to work for later in life. So that’s kind of the story of my time in.
Lisa Sharon Harper: So what does VCU stand for, for the folks who are listening?
Tamice Spencer-Helms: Oh yes. It’s Virginia Commonwealth University.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Okay. So it’s basically like the state university of Virginia.
Tamice Spencer-Helms: It is. Yes.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Okay. And so then you were working with the college mission agency that you were working with there. You became a member there.
Now tell me, tell me about. Your experience on that last page of the prologue, you know, when all of a sudden it’s like the, you know, you have now moved from, sorry, from Trayvon Martin all the way to Philando Castile and you’ve had this moment of kind of reckoning, realizing you’re worshiping white Jesus.
And you say that this moment was the culmination of many things that you had ignored over many years. So what had you ignored?
Tamice Spencer-Helms: You know, I [00:11:00] think one of the main things that I ignored, obviously, you know, that same year in 2001 was, was September 11th. I mean, we had a couple of things happening a few years after that we had Katrina.
And so there were lots of times where people’s, what I would say, well, racism was routed through religious belief. And so it wasn’t so much that they were anti black or anti Muslim. It was more like faithfulness to the gospel. And so a lot of times that language, that anti-language would show up in talking about people’s religions.
When Trayvon happened. He’s a 17-year-old boy with some Skittles and an ice tea there, there’s no way to kind of route this another way. And it kind of exposed to me kind of in hindsight, looking back at the conversations I had during Katrina and the conversations that I had, you know, around Islamophobia in 2001.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Right.
Tamice Spencer-Helms: And how those things were completely okay in church to talk about. It was almost [00:12:00] as if, you know, being a faithful Christian meant. anti blackness. Um, and I didn’t realize that until, until Trayvon.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Wow. So you end your prologue saying with the death of George Floyd, you found unleavened faith. So now can you explain to us what you mean by unleavened faith?
I have to say, when I read that, I literally gasped and I thought to myself, girl, I don’t know if you know what you’re doing here, but you know what you’re doing is you are talking about decolonized faith, right? Like I’m sure, you know, you’re a theologian and actually that’s a lot of the work that you’re doing in this incredible book is some really deep theological work.
But the way that the way that I… Like I, I just, my eyes literally went like bug eyed and my jaw dropped when you, when you wrote that last sentence, because I realized what we were talking about here. We’re talking about. a [00:13:00] decolonization process that you went through in order to find unleavened faith.
So, so talk to us, what do you mean by that?
Tamice Spencer-Helms: So there were a couple of things that came through. What I realized, um, in the book, there’s a part where I have an encounter with God, where Jesus reminds me that he’s the bread of life. And obviously there was a thought in my mind because I was, at that time, I was completely away from any kind of praxis. At that time, I was very, very disillusioned. This is around the time of Mike Brown, around 2015 Ferguson. And Jesus says, you know, I am the bread. And so obviously I’m thinking about communion. I’m thinking about Exodus and how the call for Israel when they leave bondage is to unleaven the bread. And so I go on this study of kind of learning that, that Egypt is actually responsible for leaven. Like they were the first civilization to add leaven to bread.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Oh my God!
Tamice Spencer-Helms: It was, yes, it felt significant to me.
Lisa Sharon Harper: I did not know that!
Tamice Spencer-Helms: Yes. [00:14:00] I didn’t either. It felt very significant Yahweh would call this people, this mixed multitude out of bondage and say that the, the commemorative thing that they would do would be to remove the leaven of Egypt from the bread. Um, and so it felt significant to me.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Okay. I’m sorry. I’m over here having church remove the leaven of Egypt. Now let’s be clear here. Cause some people would say, Oh, Egypt is bad because Egypt is bad. But I think what I hear you saying is Egypt is empire.
Tamice Spencer-Helms: Indeed.
Lisa Sharon Harper: You know, Egypt was enslaver, Egypt was, um, colonizer, remove the leaven from yourself of colonizer. What? Ooo, girl, come on!
Tamice Spencer-Helms: Yes. I mean, it really was a beautiful journey of realizing, you know, like. These people are meant to be an unleavened people. They will do kingdom differently. [00:15:00] Their kingdom will be marked by hospitality and kindness and inclusion, not power and exploitation and control.
So that was one thing. And then the other thing was this idea that, you know, whiteness and leaven function the same way, I think, and we’re functioning the same way in my faith where it was subtle, it was pervasive, but it gave rise to everything. And so it just made so much sense to me to talk about this process of going from Trayvon, where I’m first kind of awoken to, Oh my goodness, something has been added to the faith here. So by the time I hit, you know, get to George Floyd, I’m a completely different person. The way I was processing that murder was different. It, you know, it broke me, but it didn’t break me the same way. And that, you know, felt important to me to kind of describe what that process was like, what was that journey like between Trayvon and George Floyd in terms of why.
My experience of these two horrific murders [00:16:00] was so different. What had happened to my faith? And I think what had happened was honestly, that it had become unless I had removed, recognized and removed whiteness from the ways that I was seeking to follow Jesus.
Lisa Sharon Harper: So when you talk about whiteness, you’re not just talking about getting out of white communities, right?
Right. White people, what do you mean by whiteness?
Tamice Spencer-Helms: This idea of white supremacy, that white is right. White is best, that white is objective. Um, those were things that had crept into the ways that I did theology. Of course, you know, you talk about systematic theology, but then there’s like black theology or womanist theology.
But the norm, you know, the default was always whiteness. And I didn’t realize that that’s was going on. And then I start to recognize that white Jesus is the figurehead of this white supremacy. White Jesus is what comes from embedding white supremacy in your theology. That’s what you get.
That’s what it produces. [00:17:00] But white Jesus isn’t real. White Jesus existed in the imagination of colonizers. And then just became this person that we were kind of inadvertently asked to worship without being given the opportunity.
Lisa Sharon Harper: So Jesus wasn’t white?
Tamice Spencer-Helms: Guess what? Surprise.
Lisa Sharon Harper: I mean, you got to break that down, right?
Because I’m sure there are people. I mean, look, we talk about this a lot. We really do on Freedom Road, but, um, I’m sure there’s some listeners who really are just like, what are you talking about? So what are you talking about? What do you, I mean, Jesus wasn’t, I thought Jesus was white. I’ll have a picture I’ve ever seen of him has been white.
You know, he was hanging out with white Mary and white Joseph and, you know, white Paul and white Peter. And I mean, come on, weren’t they in Europe? I mean, I think it’s not Europe. Isn’t, isn’t it really Europe?
Tamice Spencer-Helms: That’s what you would think looking at the iconography. Yeah. I mean, you would think that I just really, I honestly never questioned the fact that in my mind, Jesus existed [00:18:00] as a middle class white man, just a very nice, better white man, because all the leadership I saw, everybody breaking down the scriptures for me, everybody leading from a platform, every leader in every sphere of society at that time, it was being led by white men. So it was kind of this subtle, just, I guess it was an assumption, you know, that Jesus is a white man.
And then you realize, wait a minute, like this man is from Palestine. He’s definitely not white. And also comes from an indigenous people group and is a Jew. And so there are so many things that are dichotomies between the way that Jesus lived and moved and had his being as a Nazarene and like what I was given in 2001, there were two different Jesus’s.
And I just didn’t know that until the recognition of anti-blackness in my faith made itself very, very apparent. And that’s when I realized there was something going on.[00:19:00]
Lisa Sharon Harper: These are our stories. You’re listening to the Freedom Road Podcast. where we bring you stories from the front lines of the struggle for justice.
Lisa Sharon Harper: So Tamice, I wonder if you could share with us a moment or two when you raised questions in your white community where you got pushback from them, questions about the scripture, where you got pushback from them that came from their unreckoned-with whiteness.
Tamice Spencer-Helms: I think mostly it was thinking about…
Actually was thinking about the theological underpinnings of the faith. So things that were very spiritualized and theological, and I started to read James Cone, you know, I started to read black liberation theology and realized [00:20:00] the more that I recognize my own humanity as a queer black woman in the United States, the more I came in touch with Jesus’s humanity.
And it made sense to me that what I had been given was very ethereal. It was very abstract. The meaning of Jesus was kind of it was doctrinized. I don’t know if that’s a word, but the meaning of Jesus became less and less human. The suffering of Jesus became about, you know, propitiation.
It wasn’t about being a man in an oppressed people group being executed by the empire. Those were not things that were talked about when we talked about what Jesus did and why. And so those are the types of questions I began to ask in my community of like, what do you all even mean saved from what? Saved? Why?
You know, I started asking these questions, and people just kind of shut it down. I lost a lot of friends during that time. Um, [00:21:00] It wasn’t a very pleasant experience to begin to kind of recognize this because you, you’re in these relationships where you think people know you, um, you’re doing leadership in these ministries where you think you’re of value, um, and, and you find out very quickly when you confront whiteness, you find out very quickly that whiteness is only loyal to whiteness.
Lisa Sharon Harper: It does not bend.
Tamice Spencer-Helms: It doesn’t. Not at all.
Lisa Sharon Harper: And it will kick you out the minute that you’re going to try to make it bend. It’ll be like, nope. You get the boot.
Tamice Spencer-Helms: It’s really true.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Or they make it so unbearable for you. That you have to go in order to save yourself. It’s absolutely true. What was the moment when you realized I have to save myself?
Tamice Spencer-Helms: So a couple of times, the first moment where everything hit me was Obama’s election. And I might even get emotional. I feel emotional right now thinking about it because of the way that they spoke [00:22:00] about Barack Obama.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Really?
Tamice Spencer-Helms: Was troublesome. Oh, yes. Uh, this is the antichrist. I mean, and that’s where you find, oh, this is racism because the same people who called Barack Obama married to the same woman, having two kids, a dog, never messed up.
I’m sure him and Michelle experienced so much pressure not to misstep. And then you have 2016 where 81 percent of those people who were scrutinizing this black man, vote for Donald Trump, who is completely different. I mean, just the opposite of what was represented in the Obama.
Lisa Sharon Harper: He’s definitely throwing out those flags nowadays.
Tamice Spencer-Helms: Yeah, indeed. I mean, people are pledging allegiance.
Lisa Sharon Harper:You see that mugshot? That mugshot was crazy. What? I mean, it really, I’m serious. The mugshot looked like it was like something out of Freddy Krueger. I was like, what the heck? It’s,
Tamice Spencer-Helms: Yeah, [00:23:00] it’s, it’s, it’s, uh, I’m so confused by the rhetoric and I’m, I’m having a hard time, you know, even within Christianity because it’s been so combined with right wing rhetoric, um, today that it’s kind of like to even say you’re a Christian.
You kind of have to ask people what they mean by that. Wait a minute. Let me find out what you mean by that before I acknowledge this. And so Obama wins and the community that I’m a part of has a solemn assembly to mourn. They want to do a lamentation service because Obama wins in the 2008 election.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Are you kidding me?
Wait, this, was this the college ministry or was this another church?
Tamice Spencer-Helms: So I had gone to a more charismatic ministry in the Midwest that was like a 24/7 prayer ministry.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Okay. Um, I know what you’re talking about.
Tamice Spencer-Helms: Okay. Yes. I’m sure you do. Wow.
Lisa Sharon Harper: So they were leading lamentations. That [00:24:00] is deep.
Tamice Spencer-Helms: It is. And you know, you asked, when did it hit me?
Well, at that ministry in particular, the rhetoric was, we’re friends of Jesus. We’re friends of the bridegroom. We are a prophetic ministry. We hear the heartbeat of Jesus. Jesus speaks to us. So wait, Jesus isn’t talking to y’all about Trayvon? None of you? None of you are hearing anything about Trayvon.
And we pray night and day and we’re a prophetic ministry and we fast three days a week. It’s kind of like, so either Jesus does not care about this boy or something is wrong. And it was the fact that, you know in 2012, where the president that they had assassinated in terms of character comes out and says, Trayvon could have been my son.
And that was the first time any leader. Any leader had said anything about black lives about what I was feeling. And [00:25:00] it was the leader that they told me was antichrist. So now you have a decision to make because y’all certainly are not talking about it. So does Jesus love me? Cause I’m in pain over this.
I cannot sleep. That boy has the same shoes as my brother. Like that could have been my brother. And I’m feeling these things so deeply, and it was, it was from about 2012 to 2016, where that’s what this process of unleavening really started to take place. Cause it was kind of like, I’ve done it all. And I like to say, you know, I have receipts with evangelicalism.
I had so many receipts at that point that this is anti-Blackness. And if white Jesus is real, whiteness is predicated on anti-Blackness. Then how do I relate to this white Jesus? Because whiteness actually exists, it persists on my non-existence, on the fact that my black body doesn’t matter.
It just didn’t make sense. It was just, we were incompatible [00:26:00] at that point. And so I had some, some searching to do.
Lisa Sharon Harper: So can you tell us about meeting white Jesus in hell? I just love that. That’s a great title for a chapter. I was like, what? Okay. So tell us about meeting white Jesus in hell.
Tamice Spencer-Helms: Yes. It was during that play.
And obviously, you know, the pastor is playing Jesus and I start going to that church and they start teaching me about why I’m saved, what we’re saved from. They’re trying to teach me about how to be a good Christian, which really was about, you know, losing old friends. Don’t listen to secular music.
Don’t watch rated-R movies. Don’t have sex. Um, and, and do quiet times. That was essentially what it meant to be saved. Um, and so that’s how I lived my life from that point on. And I say that I met white Jesus in hell, because before that, I didn’t know that I quote unquote did not have a legitimate relationship.
I had always thought that my relationship with God was just fine.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Why hell?
Tamice Spencer-Helms: So I think, cause that’s where the [00:27:00] play was, the play took place in this simulation. That was literally a simulation of hell. And from that point on, I was involved in evangelicalism from that play on until about And See,
Lisa Sharon Harper: I thought you were going a little deeper than that.
Can I share with you a thought that I had? Sure. Please do. Maybe it’s just like, it’s kind of the metaphor that comes from that story. Which is that, you know, one of my friends, Brian McLaren. So first person I ever heard kind of part like depart from the traditional understanding of hell.
He just asked a question, what if hell is actually more about the world that we make for ourselves right here now that is without God. What if the hell that Jesus was describing was more describing the impact or the outcome of our [00:28:00] ethics, our ungodly ethics, the ethics that break Shalom, the ethics that break God’s peace and the outcomes of them.
What if that’s hell? Hell is separation, not only from God, and we talk about it being eternal and, but it’s also separation from self, it’s separation from others, it’s separation from the, from the land, it’s separation. And the thing that struck me was, you know, when you’re in this white evangelical world, which is deeply, already separated from all those things because, right, because it etherealizes the faith.
It over spiritualizes everything, uprooting it from its context, and giving it a completely different meaning that is not in the text. Right.
Tamice Spencer-Helms: Absolutely.
Lisa Sharon Harper: What? That’s hell.
Tamice Spencer-Helms: Right. And I, I feel like that’s where I love Brian McLaren actually, and I feel like that’s where I’ve [00:29:00] landed because again, I think somewhere in the book I say, you know, they wanted me to be afraid of this arbitrary, eventual doom when black bodies are piling up right here and right now, the earth is on fire right here and right now
Lisa Sharon Harper: Because of ungodly ethics!
Tamice Spencer-Helms: Indeed. So it’s kind of like, well, wait a minute. Like, the world I’m in right now feels a lot like hell and I want to bring as much light to this darkness. I want to do as much good in this space as possible. And so I think once that started to break down, it became easier to ask more questions, um, about all of it.
Because I couldn’t imagine it. Um, because I remember back in the day, uh, people would always ask, well, did they know Jesus? If someone passed away, right? Well, hopefully they knew Jesus. Hopefully they were saved.
Lisa Sharon Harper: I totally remember that. Yes.
Tamice Spencer-Helms: So it was kind of like, I can’t [00:30:00] imagine going into any rural area in the United States, any urban area in the United States and saying, if you don’t say this sinner’s prayer, you’re going to hell.
And they would look at me and say, look at the house I live in. Look at the fact that we don’t have streetlights. Look at how it feels over… look, we can’t buy produce over here. You’re telling me that I have to say Romans something in order to not go to hell?
Lisa Sharon Harper: I have to walk the Romans road. I have to go to the oppressor’s land in Rome and I got to walk that road in order to be saved? Hello?
Tamice Spencer-Helms: No, I live on MLK Boulevard. I’m here already. Right? Like, excuse me. And so just the presumption of that. That’s a privilege to say that, like. Life is going to get worse if you don’t say the sinner’s prayer life is hell already for most of most of the people here in the States. And so to me, the idea of hell began to become more of a here and [00:31:00] now, and then I start seeing that how actually that’s how Jesus talks about the kingdom that really revolutionized the way I live.
It’s made me more. Um, more of an activist, maybe more of a, of a pacifist, um, it’s really changed how I live my life.
Lisa Sharon Harper: It’s funny because I mean, I do believe, I actually do believe in a spiritual hell. I believe, I believe in a, in a hereafter of judgment because even, even now when, when people say, Oh, I don’t believe in hell.
Right? I just think that’s a really, really privileged place to come to things from because 60, 70, 80 percent of the whole world is absolutely under the thumb of empires and whether those empires are nation states or economic giants, right? Like multinational companies that they will never, ever see justice in this lifetime.
And yet for them, they long for [00:32:00] judgment, but the only hope that they have for it is in the hereafter. I do believe in hell, but I just think that who’s going to be there is going to be a big surprise.
Tamice Spencer-Helms: It’s shocking. I agree with that. You know, I do. I love, I love these promises about, you know, valleys being turned into mountains and mountains being turned into valleys and the first being last and the last being first.
I mean, the way that Jesus describes ultimate justice is very comforting to me. It helps me navigate, you know, it helps me navigate every day.
Lisa Sharon Harper: So, so can you tell us more about the levees because you actually, you know, what’s the lesson of the levees for you?
Tamice Spencer-Helms: The lesson of the levees. You know, I, it was so interesting cause again, I’m very nerdy.
So during the Katrina catastrophe, Kanye West goes on television and says that George Bush doesn’t care about black people. And at that time I was in college. [00:33:00] And I was in a white, predominantly white, small group. I was the lonely only as is the case for most people and black people in evangelicalism.
Lisa Sharon Harper: And by the way, I had just left that literally that June, that June I had just left that white college organization, college ministry, and then the levees broke.
And that for me was also like one of those, um, Well, I had, I had a couple of years before that had my, my like scales off the eyes moment when I went on the pilgrimage that I often write about and talk about, but the levees really brought it home into the right now. It made everything current. This was not about past injustice.
We were watching injustice happen in real time. So, I’m sorry, I just had to, I had to share that with you
Tamice Spencer-Helms: It’s so true!
Lisa Sharon Harper: …because there’s like a real connection. Uh, Okay. in, in, in the, in the space that we were in at the time.
Tamice Spencer-Helms: Mm hmm. The levees really function for me as a metaphor for the theological constructs that I was [00:34:00] given from evangelicalism where, you know, all of these black bodies felt like a flood that overtook those constructs that, that, that showed how weak they were and how they actually weren’t sustainable.
And so, you know, it was a, it obviously felt like a flood and it was a hard thing to experience. So I write about it sort of metaphorically in the book. Um, obviously in 2004, I wasn’t even aware of all of that, but in hindsight, being able to write about it and going, that’s very interesting because I remember having questions about like, Wait, there are people’s grandmothers who are drowning and people can’t get their insulin and you’re telling me that God ordained this because of gay pride parades?
And Mardi Gras, like this, and you’re expecting me to believe in a God that would do that.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Right.
Tamice Spencer-Helms: And at the time I felt I had to do that. I felt I had to believe that, that that would be honoring, uh, to God. So that’s where that metaphor came from.
Lisa Sharon Harper: I really [00:35:00] appreciate that. I mean, you know, so that’s actually really helpful because one of the things that you go on to talk about is how you reckoned, you kind of had a reckoning with the, the prophetic leaders, the voices, the people who are shaping thought within white supremacy.
Well, sorry, within the white Jesus church,
Tamice Spencer-Helms: Tomato, to-mah-to.
Lisa Sharon Harper: You know, one of the people that I wondered, you know, cause that’s a whole nother, that’s another. Layer of the process. It’s, it’s one thing to see the black bodies and to see that the church is not talking about those bodies and to realize this is overtaking guys like this. The levy is breaking here.
I just, that is a perfect, perfect illustration. My faith is not the faith that you gave me is not able to hold what is happening in the world right now, basically. Right. But it’s a whole nother level to actually begin to understand that the people, the white men who are responsible for shaping our [00:36:00] Christian thought within those streams of faith, the Pipers, the Stotts, the Chuck Coulson’s, the,
Tamice Spencer-Helms: MacArthur.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Oh my God. Yes. Like MacArthur’s. I mean, you just named them, right? Like you can keep going that, that there was leaven in the loaf. So what was it like for you when you first realized that when you first saw there’s leaven, not just in this wa of a community that I’m in, but like there’s leaven in the The teaching that is coming from these white men’s lips and that it’s white supremacy.
We’re dealing with white supremacy coming from the shapers, the teachers that are the theologians that are shaping the stream of the church.
Tamice Spencer-Helms: Mm-hmm. And I think some of it, you know, obviously I don’t think any of it was malicious. I just think it was unchecked.
Lisa Sharon Harper: That’s right.
Tamice Spencer-Helms: And that these people were in power.
These people wrote the [00:37:00] books. I, I say somewhere in the book, I say something about like, you know, everything that shaped my theology was by a white man named John. I mean, and that’s really, really true. . I mean, my God, it’s, it’s really true.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Name the name. That’s
Tamice Spencer-Helms: John Piper. John Piper, John MacArthur, John Scott.
Who else? Um, Oh my God. I think of who else that’s funny. Jonathan Edwards.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Oh my gosh. Of course he owned slaves. He owned children as slaves. Yes.
Tamice Spencer-Helms: I mean, in every vestige of my experience in evangelicalism, there was a white man named John at the helm. Um, and that, or at least informing the leaders who were teaching me.
And that, that was unfortunate because it was unchecked and what whiteness is. Is it exists on anti Blackness, it is birthed out of anti Blackness. And so I’m imbibing this, of course, I turn against [00:38:00] myself. I become dissociated. I become disembodied. I don’t trust myself. I begin to even look at my parents’ church, my parents’ faith expression, the ways conceptualize God, Black people in general.
It really turns you away. Slowly. And you don’t realize until you’re sitting in a room. My grandmother called me the day of Obama’s election. And we had this conversation and she, I remembered the story that she told me about my great grandmother who was working for, she was working as a laundress and a maid for a white family in the Eastern shore.
And she goes to do the laundry one day, pulls out a white sheet to iron it. And there are holes in it, two holes. And she realized she’s working for a KKK leader.
Lisa Sharon Harper: No!
Tamice Spencer-Helms: Yes. So, you know, these stories are coming to me in this room full of devastated white people about the first black [00:39:00] president of the United States that progress.
Progress in the black community is antichrist for y’all. And it was, it was a shock. It was just such a, it was a moment where I think that that was probably the beginning of the end. Um, yeah.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Walking freedom road from coast to coast and around the globe. This is the freedom road podcast.
Wow. Tamice. Oh, okay. So I’m totally a fan. I’m now a new fan. I’m a fan. Yes. Um, you are breaking it down. And here’s the thing. I mean, a lot of people have written a lot of books, right? And I mean, me included, right? Like kind of, this is You know, [00:40:00] mostly just trying to show people this is, this is what, um, uh, the faith looks like, or this is the process that we get, it’s like a how to, how to decolonize our faith or whatever.
But I think what you’re doing is you’re showing us through your stories. That’s why I like the fact that this book is written in the form of a memoir, through your stories, like how this works out in flesh and blood. In real time, you know, so can I ask you if you had a word for people of color who are currently, right now, worshiping in white Jesus churches. You know, many are struggling to reconcile the truth that they see in their families and in their communities with the disconnected systematic theology that has formed their faith. The one that you’re, you’ve just finished talking about, what would your word to them be?
Tamice Spencer-Helms: Oh man,[00:41:00] God chooses our heritage for us, um, and, and that is both prophetic to me. It’s encouraging to me and it’s permission for me to begin to embrace everything that comes with being a black woman in this country, to embrace the magic of that, to embrace some of the pain, and the trauma that comes with that, and to begin to work through that and name it.
I think people of color who are in these spaces, to me, it’s inevitable that they will end up confronting whiteness in their own bodies. And in their own psyches, and that when that happens, Jesus is behind every door around every corner, leaving that space is not necessarily leaving the faith. Oh, that’s God calls [00:42:00] people to.
Unleavened, an unleavened community. And I think that that’s the only way we really learn to worship in the wilderness is to remove that stuff. And it is a wilderness. That’s why I called it the wilderness, but it’s where you learn God’s name. It’s where you learn to worship. You learn to say, you know, at the end of the book, I talk about how God had convinced these people that I don’t need this empire for my well being.
And I think for a lot of people myself included, I faced a lot of financial repercussions from being vocal about whiteness. But what God teaches them is I can make water come out of a rock. I can bring bread from the sky. You don’t need to go back to Egypt for your sustenance.
I will take care of you. And I think that that’s a word for people of color in these spaces who I can’t imagine are not wrestling, especially in light of these indictments, [00:43:00] violence that is taking place. I mean, I think that, it really is important for us to recognize that and to like, you know, fear has to go first, you know, I can’t imagine what they were feeling to kind of leave the safety.
And I talk about that, even that, you know. So whiteness can be comforting in its own way because, you know, it’s certainty, it’s safety, you know. And I think, you know, people have to embrace like, no, God is calling us to know them in the wilderness. That that’s where we get to know God. We, you know, and we have to be able to recognize that voice and follow it out.
Lisa Sharon Harper: You know, I’ve been thinking some about like the seduction of empire. The seduction of empire. And I hear you, I hear you speaking in that direction. Because I know that, I mean, I think now I’m thinking now about current, some current leaders of color, who are [00:44:00] leading, you know, leading within white evangelical spaces, and I think.
They’re good people. In fact, I’ve had good conversations with several of them outside of their roles, outside of the power that they have. But then I’ve also been an eyewitness to decisions that they’ve made that have explicitly protected the empire protected. Protected the reputation of empire, the reputation… either by not saying like not speaking, right?
Like letting stuff kind of just go under the, like be swept under the carpet, or by completely allowing the, the, the story about what they did to be twisted. Or forgotten completely, right? So the protection, there is a role that people of color who are in white evangelical spaces are expected to, [00:45:00] to play.
They are expected to play the role of protector of those, not just benevolent recipient of, it’s not enough. Now, if you are a benevolent recipient of white evangelicalism, and you’re a person of color, well, you might actually, you know, receive some, some money to go on a trip or, you know, receive some help during a hard time with your family.
That’s nice. You will never, ever lead in that organization, you will never be given or trusted with power until you take another step, which is the step of, and it’s actually several steps, the steps of protection of that white power structure. I mean, it’s not just white, it’s white male power structure.
Tamice Spencer-Helms: Absolutely. I think there was, there’s another aspect in the book where I felt like there was this organization that I was a part of. [00:46:00] I felt like they were trying. I mean, they were saying all the right things. Until, Michelle Higgins, the name’s whiteness from the largest stage at that time that they had and they had six figure donors calling during the actual message.
I was actually serving in the intercession space at that time and went into travail, not knowing what was going on. And we got a text message, pray because the donors are pulling money because of what Michelle has said from the stage. And the next thing that happened after that, not too long after that, they came out with their sexuality papers.
And to me, it felt like a concession. Oh my gosh.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Absolutely. That’s right. That was the next action was the hard turn to the right where they began to do the purge. Wow.
Tamice Spencer-Helms: And to me, it felt like, man, these spaces. They really, they really aren’t safe. And I, I mean, there are so many goodies wrapped up in whiteness that I’m kind of like, well, [00:47:00] we, but Jesus told us though, that it would cost us that, like told us that to follow him…
You know, foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head. It’s present. It’s right here, and it’s right now. And you follow me wherever I go. And I felt like, you know, where people have kind of written me off at this point. Um, I feel like, you know, I want to say I follow Jesus to this place.
I followed Jesus out of evangelicalism. And I, and I will say that. forever.
Lisa Sharon Harper: You don’t consider yourself evangelical anymore.
Tamice Spencer-Helms: I do not.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Wow. You know, a lot of people don’t. In fact, many of the, the, um, evangelicals ironically of color who were leading in that same movement and in other movements throughout the eighties and nineties don’t call themselves evangelicals anymore.
One of my mentors now calls themselves themselves, [00:48:00] Pentecostal, right? So they’ll, they’ll own the Pentecostal, um, uh, moniker, but not evangelical.
Do you think, do you, do you have any, any thoughts specifically, you know, regarding the faith life? Um, I don’t, I don’t know how exactly to put this. So forgive me if I stumble a little bit, but do you have any words for the leaders?
Of that movement. That began to do that purge after the Michelle Higgins moment, do you have any words for them now? And the thing is, many of them are my actual friends. Like they’re like, I literally came up in the faith with them and led with them. So I know them well. And it is really worth saying right now that many of them are people of color.
Tamice Spencer-Helms: Yes. What has been [00:49:00] difficult for me, as I’ve, I’ve left evangelicalism and am more privy to different voices is that really what’s happened is there’s been a loss of trust. And I feel like if… a lot of these people are sincere. So first, I think for me, it was important in the book to weave the story and to demonstrate.
I fell in love with Jesus through the scriptures. I loved worshiping God. I was in these places because I was sincere and I still to this day believe there are so many evangelicals who are absolutely sincere in their faith. And I’m asking them to continue to be sincere and to be honest, to right some wrongs, because what is at stake here is the trust of a whole generation.
A lot of our trust has been betrayed [00:50:00] and little ones are being made to stumble. And so I want people to hold the weight of that. And to trust that if you can’t be objectively certain about something that should cause you to walk in a relative amount of humility and to be open to change and to be open to grow.
And I do think that there are some apologies that need to be made. There is trauma for some of us from having to leave these spaces and feeling like there was something wrong with us. And I think that they need to own that, acknowledge that, and trust that we love Jesus enough to forgive.
That’s I think what I would say.
Lisa Sharon Harper: What is your word directly for people of European descent who are beginning to see?
Tamice Spencer-Helms: I think my hope for those folks [00:51:00] is that they would go on their own ancestral journeys. I think the only way… I know Fortune, that book was good, by the way.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Oh, thank you. Yay!
Tamice Spencer-Helms: But I think that’s honestly, I think that’s the only way forward.
They have to be rooted in something. In place. In tribe. In community. And I think whiteness is not rooted in anything. Which is why you hear this rhetoric, you will not replace us. If you felt like you had place, and that you had connection and community, that you were rooted somewhere, You would never question if you could be replaced.
Lisa Sharon Harper: That’s exactly right.
Tamice Spencer-Helms: What’s happening is their very identity is based in something that is not real. And so all the energy goes to kind of keeping up this myth of white Jesus, of whiteness. Instead of saying, Hmm, my family is German. Some of them are English. I wonder. What kinds of struggles they worked through.
I wonder what kinds of, um, [00:52:00] quirks and my partner is German. And so what they’ve started to recognize is like, Oh, their love for beer and fermented things. Like it’s coming from that German ancestry, it’s not coming from whiteness. It’s very true. I mean, their, their, their, um, boldness, their honesty, the way that they communicate. Those are very German traits, and that’s ancestral.
That’s cultural and that’s okay with me. I want to celebrate that. What I will not do is celebrate whiteness, uh, because all it has done is steal, kill, and destroy. And I think that if white people really want to do this work of kind of divesting or unleavening, the only way forward is to, to go on an ancestral journey.
To find out who their own people are.
Lisa Sharon Harper: I absolutely believe that. And let me ask you this. Now, what is your word for white people? Notice I did not say people of European descent [00:53:00] for me there’s kind of a difference people in European. Yeah. People of European descent are divesting themselves of the of the assumption of power that whiteness was created to bestow.
So when you divest, you take your fingernails out of… because they’ve been dug in, right? out of that promise of power that is given to people who are deemed white by the state. Simply because you, you happen to have been born from a white vagina, right? So that’s why you have power. Cause you were born from a white vagina.
Right. So, so. Now, someone who is divesting now identifying more with the reality of who they are in their descent, the land they are, their people came from, and the story that their people lived, which is what you were just talking about in terms of [00:54:00] people of European descent. But for someone who still claims whiteness, right?
So I am white. There’s a, there’s, this can go two ways, right? It could be somebody who was just saying, well, according to the state, I am white. And so I do get white privilege. And so they’re acknowledging that, I get that, that’s actually not a bad thing. That’s a good thing, but to claim it as the core identity, I am white.
You see the difference between that, and the state calls me white, right? So I am white for those people who might’ve even woke up from their slumber during the George Floyd moment, right?
Tamice Spencer-Helms: Right.
Lisa Sharon Harper: But it’s since fallen back asleep. What’s your word for them?
Tamice Spencer-Helms: That whiteness is violent towards everyone.
It’s violent towards you as well. It’s robbing you. Um, whiteness, [00:55:00] there is nothing good about it. Can I just say that?
Lisa Sharon Harper: Yes, you can.
Tamice Spencer-Helms: Like, um, definitively. Whiteness is wicked. It has only been used to exploit, destroy, colonize, and oppress. So there wouldn’t, for me, I can’t imagine wanting to claim that when there is some, when there is actual treasure, actual story, actual place that you could go on a journey into, and you know, I think a lot of times it’s just that we really don’t like to work for things.
Right. Like I think what, you know, it’s funny cause James Baldwin used to talk about how, you know, people of color know more about white folks than they know about themselves. And part of it is because we’ve had to claw our way to an identity, right? That was a subversive clawing towards of knowing ourselves and naming ourselves.
And I think whiteness, if you know [00:56:00] about it and you’re not doing anything about it, I wonder if that’s bordering on laziness, you know, and it’s like, show me some solidarity and do some work: divest of whiteness. And show me, I can trust you by going on your own journey and you’re clawing in a different direction, right?
We had to claw our ways up, but I think they’re going in the direction that, you know, Philippians 2 talks about.
Lisa Sharon Harper: That’s right. Clawing their way down from the, from the, the, the scaffolding that they’ve built for themselves to place themselves above everybody else.
Tamice Spencer-Helms: And when and when we meet in the middle, when we meet at equity.
Lisa Sharon Harper: That’s right.
Tamice Spencer-Helms: And justice. We meet on the ground. We have great stories to tell.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Exactly.
Tamice Spencer-Helms: I wanna hear your story now I wanna hear what was it like for you to claw your way down? And I’ll tell you about what it was like for me to claw my way up. And that’s where we have fellowship, that’s where we have equity, justice, and community.
But I, I can’t. We’ve, we’ve got to both be sweating and tired with, you know, [00:57:00] dirty fingernails. If we’re going to have actual relationship, I’m not interested in doing relationship with anyone that hasn’t done that work because it won’t be authentic. So I think that’s the word I would.
Lisa Sharon Harper: A to the men and the women.
I have one last question here as we, as we close our time. What does. Unleavening of the self require of us?
Tamice Spencer-Helms: I do think it has a lot to do with being in our bodies, coming back to our bodies, looking at ourselves, uh, in the mirror, letting God remind us of who we were and who we are. And I think as I’ve been kind of going on this, my own journey of recovering myself to me today is not new necessarily.
It’s kind of like starting back. at a young place and [00:58:00] building from there. It feels like a, Oh, there you are. Like I remember you, I remember whispers of you before you were told you weren’t welcome here. It requires that we return to our bodies. It means it necessitates an embodied faith. I think, um, even the very fact that we’ve based our faith on an incarnation, but the most things that we hear about are abstract makes no sense to me, um, that God took the time to flesh themselves out.
And then we went back and made it a theory on abstract again. And I think that faith was always meant to be embodied. And that’s what I’m hoping takes place. [00:59:00]
Lisa Sharon Harper: That’s fabulous.
The conversations leaders have on the road to justice. This is the Freedom Road Podcast.
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