The Golden Gospel: Spirited Tunes edition

portrait style photo of a young Black woman. She is wearing a black t-shirt and jacket and wearing yellow earings.

Veronica Williams

Veronica Williams (C’23) a fellow in the Black Interfaith Fellowship created The Golden Gospel devotional for her final project. It’s a curated playlist that combines a brief history of Gospel Music with Williams’ reflections. Williams’ said she came up with the idea after spending time in reflection with Rev. Ebony Grisom, interim director of Protestant Christian Ministry, and her peers in the Fellowship. Through these conversations, she began to realize how much of a role music plays in her faith. “I’m definitely a church baby and I was fully born into the Black church. So growing up within a Black Baptist Church (shout out to St. Paul Baptist Church in Montclair, New Jersey!) I was surrounded by music and dance”, she said. 

To hear more about Williams’ connection with Gospel music and why she feels closest to God when she listens to her favorite Gospel songs read her devotional

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Prayer for Uvalde, Texas

image of a single candle flame

God of mercy and compassion, we come to you yet again with heavy hearts, for we have heard the cries of the slain calling to us from the ground. We come remembering all the lives lost and injured in Uvalde, Texas. And we ask for your mercy.

Although we find ourselves in a broken world it is no mystery that you are a God capable of healing our world through justice and fairness. We hope and trust that you stand firmly with all who cry out in suffering and loss. May we be empowered by your Spirit to stand in solidarity with those who suffer at this time, and to remain instruments of light in a world that, at times, is clouded by the darkness of violence.

We cry out to you, heal our souls from this curse of violence. Lord, we ask that you grant us the voice to speak in the voice of authentic justice and peace and demonstrate sacrificial compassion and mercy to the hurting.

Teach us your ways, O God. Bless us with the wisdom and strength to put down our swords and be peacemakers. Use us, work through us and, if necessary, work in spite of us to mend our nation’s brokenness.

 

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Bongiwe Bongwe Talks about Faith, Trust and the Many Ingredients of Love

Bongiwe Bongwe (MSFS’22) is an eldest sister and a Black South African who has been studying in the US since 2016. At MSFS, she is concentrating on Global Business and recently spearheaded the 2022 Georgetown Africa Business Conference. She describes herself as “a person trying to make the most of her time on this earth.”

A Black woman is standing next to a white marble wall wearing a white dress with a stole in the colors of South Africa.

Bongiwe wearing a South African stole at the Lincoln Memorial.

bell hooks wrote “there can be no love without justice” and “the heart of justice is truth-telling.” How do you see the connection between faith, truth, and justice?

At a macro level, how do you engage in forgiveness? When I think of truth-telling I always think about the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. At the time, many families wanted people to know what had happened to their relatives. It was going to be painful, but at least everyone would know the truth and have a shared understanding of what happened under apartheid. On the other hand, some families actually wanted action–change or consequences. That has created a lot of tension that persists today. People look back at our history and ask, did we just act like everything’s okay, and not really deal with the root issue? In my younger years, I thought justice was simply the acknowledgment of wrongdoing. Now, I think, it means accountability: how do we take action to right an actual wrong?

My dad loves the phrase: “At the table of peace will be bread and justice.” I don’t know if the quote has religious origins (my dad got it from a painting he bought at a store – see the image below), but in a way, I think that speaks to its power. It’s always stuck with my understanding of a universal spirituality. No matter what religion you follow, that quote will resonate because we have all experienced and witnessed the way in which injustice leaves people in such impoverished situations. I find that justice conversations in South Africa and in the US, rightfully keep coming back to how people have deliberately been excluded from an equitable share of resources. Justice can also be monetary. I think the discussion of reparations is one we have shied away from because there is the sense that all we care about is money. But we are entitled to a lot of things because Black people built this country and continue to play a huge role in the benefits people reap. The lack of economic justice has had financial consequences; justice has to have a component of giving people back that bread.

A photograph of a painting depicting a dove flying in front of a table set with candles

At the Table of Peace will be Bread and Justice.

How would you describe your spiritual community?

I went to an Episcopalian boarding school. We had to go to chapel twice a week and sing hymns. When I came to the US, that stopped and I had to find what religion means to me as opposed to sort of having it imposed. That shift dramatically changed my understanding of spirituality. Today, when I think of the values that make me who I am, spirituality feels the most personal. Now, I definitely think my spirituality is more rooted in sound. I started to notice that the way I actually channeled that best was through music. I have an extensive playlist of Gospel songs and spiritual music. It helps the most when I need a little more centering and calmness. I listen and spend time outdoors. Something about being outside with fresh air gives me the feeling that I can release and think through things. 

Also, it sounds very millennial, but spiritual podcasts have really helped me. Before the pandemic, I wasn’t a big fan of the podcasts, but I moved to DC right before COVID, and that was the first time I was really alone. For the first six months, I literally spent 95 percent of the time by myself. Everybody that I would try to call in South Africa was sleeping because of the time difference. I needed to find ways to fill up my lonely space with some kind of interaction and feeling; podcasts gave me that space. They have reminded me that I’m not alone. I think that’s the whole point of spirituality; it gives us a sense of comfort and connection. Hearing other people’s stories and how they are healing through different things allows me to heal as well. 

bell hooks says only love can heal the wounds of the past through committed loving relationships. In relationships, are we able to see ourselves with new eyes and can it be spiritual?

In a podcast episode of Black Girls Heal, they talked about how often firstborn Black and immigrant girls are  ‘parentified’. We deal with a lot of pressure and become very afraid of disappointing people, which then turns into love avoidance. So when we are met with love from someone who does not expect these same things of you: to pay for everything or have it all sorted, it feels weird. We want to run away. That makes me think about religion. I’ve never quite been able to come to terms with the fact that religion is supposed to be a space where you love, no matter what, and then having somebody return that love flaws and all? It helps you be less love-avoidant.

There is something spiritual about making a choice to trust someone and to open yourself up–especially if you have been hurt before. For the first time in a long time, I’m in a very healthy romantic relationship. Something that my boyfriend has taught me is that you just need to talk. You actually just need to get it out and say it in order to work through it. You discover things that bother or affect your inner child that you didn’t even know were there. It comes out. I tend to harbor things. I don’t want to grow old and have aches just because I kept so much in.  I’m trying to cleanse my heart, to process things, heal and refresh, learning to let go which comes with forgiveness.

It’s also about communication, especially how you actually listen and understand. If we don’t communicate honestly and openly, then the inverse means closed and hidden. Just being able to speak and let things out is the first step. I think that’s rooted in spirituality. Every religion has its own way of helping you let things out–through speaking or praying or confessing. It’s built-in. But it’s still hard to actually do that. That’s a persistent practice.

In all about love, bell hooks describes love as having several ingredients: “care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, trust and open, honest communication.” Would you like to comment on any of the ingredients? Anything else that you would add? 

She knew the recipe. There’s something about ‘recognition’ that I think is distinct from ‘respect’. I would describe recognition as I see you and all the different elements that make you who you are today and respect as ‘I then carry a level of understanding and regard for the fact that you are this person’. When we talk about diversity, sometimes people miss that you can recognize diversity, but not necessarily respect differences. On campus, we do a lot of recognition work, but I think to institutionalize it is to respect it. Having consistent books and essays in our classes that reflect diversity over the years, means more to me than just one special DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) event. The syllabus outlives us all. I really like that bell hooks said “care” and “trust”, because the more you trust someone or something or an institution, the more you care about it. I think I would add “intentionality to this list.

This interview is part of the Blackness & Faith series by Kawther Berhanu (C ‘19, MSFS ‘22).

Photos courtesy of Bongiwe Bongwe (MSFS’22).

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Love: A Commitment to Healthy Conflict and Spiritual Growth

Jerome Smalls (MSB ‘19, G‘23) identifies as a Black Southern man and describes himself as both student and educator–newly privileged with educational, social, and financial capital.  Music has been a formative influence on his journey of faith and love–especially Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and Mick Jenkins’ THC (The Healing Component)

For Jerome, developing language, community, and practice around love and spirituality have helped him gain clarity and confidence about who he is and equipped him with the tools to engage others. He published his coming of age story, Small Talk: One Youth. Seven Stories. Countless Lessons. Jerome now works at The Hub for Equity and Innovation and is pursuing a Master of Arts in Educational Transformation at Georgetown. 

Jerome is wearing a cognac colored jacket, he is leaning against a wall smiling.

Jerome Smalls (MSB ‘19, G ‘23)

How were you introduced to bell hooks? How have her teachings shaped your time at Georgetown? 

My former professor, Dr. Sylvia Onder, gifted me hooks’ book, all about love for Christmas; it’s taken two years to read it with justice. In Mick Jenkins’ song Angles, Jenkins writes, “I had to get to know myself before I could claim I love me.” That’s what I hear from bell hooks. She describes love as a collective commitment. It’s a leap of faith to invest in each other’s spiritual growth. It’s not a commitment to physical growth, accolades, or material growth, nor is it tied up in romantic or lustful desires or familial obligation.  I recently watched a Master Class series on “Black History, Black Freedom & Black Love.” They talked about how the antithesis of white supremacy is Black Love.

How is Black Love popularly, and colloquially conceived in pop culture? How does it mirror or depart from the assertion that Black Love is the antithesis of white supremacy? 

I have a couple homies I can talk to about these topics, but most folks are Black women. It’s easier to talk with Black women because they have deeply explored and interrogated love and have an inherent openness to tenderness. With most heterosexual Black men, even this notion of tenderness is taboo–maybe with the exception of a Black father showing tenderness to their child. These are nuanced conversations that a lot of brothers my age haven’t grappled with or aren’t willing to grapple with. So when I find other guys who are willing to engage, and especially if they’re also Black and from FGLI (First Generation, Lower-Income) backgrounds, I gravitate towards them.

The problem is Black Love gets reduced to this commercialized, heterosexual idea of who should be loving each other. Love & Basketball, Love Jones. But that’s actually, only a sliver of the vast universe of Black Love. Love isn’t butterflies in the stomach when a cute girl smiles at you. Love transcends physical attraction. Like bell hooks said love is a commitment to one’s spiritual growth–point blank period. Love is love–with your romantic partner, children, parents, and friends. The only difference is the context of that relationship. When you have that perspective, love becomes a tool of accountability to call-in folks when they’re moving in unloving ways like perpetuating homophobia and colorism.

You’ve described the experience of evolving towards our authentic selves. What does homegoing look like with new eyes? 

I realized I was very naïve in my thinking about race relations in Charleston. It took a lot of unpacking and learning to understand that just because Black and white folks coexist doesn’t mean that there’s healthy peace. Being who I am now, in all settings, may cause healthy conflict and I’ve recognized that isn’t something to shy away from. Discomfort is a growth opportunity.

Jerome with childhood friends and his god-daughter at his Small Talk book signing in Charleston, SC.

As you’ve pointed out, in community conflict is inevitable. How do we attempt to repair it? 

I’ve adopted a Buddhist approach that life is full of suffering, and harm is inevitable. With that, I shouldn’t fear the inevitable, it’s our job to find peace in our suffering. It’s just a matter of, How do I respond to harm in a healthy way?  There’s a difference between harm and trauma. Trauma requires a deeper level and process for healing and a lot of community involvement. However, there are also daily harms that can collectively become traumatic if we don’t know how to handle them.

For me, meditation has been key. I recognized that sensations, thoughts, feelings, and emotions all arise in the same space of consciousness–out of thin air. With more mindfulness and understanding, we can make them all disappear, too. It’s about what you choose to fixate on. It takes empathy to put myself in others’ shoes, and to ponder why they may have caused the harm: Was the harm really something negative or just misplaced intentions? It’s also about centering what I can control, which is my reaction. I have to ask myself, What is this bringing up? Why is this triggering that? 

There are some things that I’m very open about that happened in the past and things that I’m still nervous to talk about. I’ve realized the more I just accept and express that this happened,  I can evolve to, Oh yeah, it happened; it’s no longer happening.  And these experiences no longer have the same effects they once did.

Jerome embracing a student after they shared their story as part of the SmallTalk Storytelling Club.

Jerome embraces a student after they shared their story as part of the Small Talk Storytelling Club.

How does a loving, faith-informed pedagogy shape your approach to cultivating a classroom environment where students feel comfortable learning and confident that they won’t be abandoned?

Collective commitment is where faith comes into play. Commitment isn’t because of who you are right now, what you bring to the table, your class, or your race. I’m committed to you because you are human. We have faith in this commitment and we’re gonna see this through. So I’ll call someone out because I’m committed to trying to help them grow–no matter how many times they need to hear the lesson. Eventually, they have no choice but to have faith in themselves. This same level of commitment to faith, love, and growth, is what I want at the center of pedagogy. This is especially important for Black students because there’s such a lack of love and commitment to them in so many other spaces, so we gotta give it to them in the classroom.

This interview is part of the Blackness & Faith series by Kawther Berhanu (C ‘19, MSFS ‘22).

Photos were provided by Jerome Smalls (MSB ‘19, G ‘23).

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Cultivating Spiritual Awareness and Living an Integrated Life

Jaime Brown (MBA ‘23) describes herself as an “eldest daughter,” raised by a Buddhist mother and a Christian grandmother. She joined the Georgetown community in 2016 where she started the Black Meditation Group. On the Hilltop, she’s worked as an educator at the Cawley Career Center and as a Harbin Community Director. Our conversation occurred while she was on maternity leave in her home state, New Jersey, and we were joined by her son, Iverson. As a new mom, she’s been spending time with Iverson and has renewed aspirations of spiritual awareness.

Left to Right- Chantel (Jaime’s Mom), Jaime, Isaiah (Jaime’s Partner) & Dolline, (Jaime’s Grandma)

 

You describe yourself as a ‘work-in-progress’ on a spiritual journey–aren’t we all? What insights would you share with folks on the Hilltop who resonate?

I’m always hesitant to contribute to faith-based things–even this interview at first because my faith isn’t as solid as I want right now. Similarly, when I considered going to Georgetown’s Buddhist retreat, I thought, should I go? I hadn’t encountered other young, Black folks who had a parent that wasn’t Baptist, or Christian.  Ultimately, I reached out to Brahmachari. He’s a real one, very down to earth. We connected because, similar to me, he loved Georgetown but was open to letting Georgetown know when they were not doing right. I ended up going on the retreat and it was a really good experience.

I participated in the Prayer and Daily Life Retreat during the pandemic. We were encouraged to pray daily for a week. I was paired with a mentor, Dr. Jim Wickman, director of Catholic Life who checked in with me every day for 30 minutes to reflect, What’s coming up for you? How does that feel? It was really good. I always encourage people to use Georgetown resources.

What has the John Main Center for Meditation and Interreligious Dialogue, located in Anne Marie Becraft Hall, meant to you? 

I love and miss the space. Physical spaces are a huge part of my spiritual connection. They are somewhere I can go to disconnect and just tap in with myself. Ideally, when I get stronger with my spiritual practice, it’ll be with me everywhere I go. I was at the Center heavy in 2017-2018. When I was the Harbin Community Director, it was a huge part of my programming. I would take my residents. It was a space to eliminate phones: DND [do not disturb] or leave it in Harbin. Twenty minutes of stillness. It was a great way for me to start a meditation practice.

It’s major that Georgetown renamed the building after Anne Marie Becraft [an African American nun and educator, (1805-1833)], especially if you follow the history of what other buildings were previously named. [The hall was formerly named after Rev. William McSherry, S.J., a Georgetown Jesuit involved with the 1838 sale of over 270 enslaved individuals that financially kept the university afloat]. More of Georgetown should know this history.

How do you see “Faith that Does Action” at Georgetown?

I saw where faith was a central theme and where it wasn’t. I think the residence halls are one of the better examples.  The chaplains in residence were so helpful in addressing crises—and as someone joining the Georgetown community during the Trump era, there were a lot of crises. At the institutional and student level, there were many examples of people not caring about each other. Beyond just rudeness–there’s disrespect, racism, and misgendering. Georgetown could definitely do better. It’s a Jesuit school and loves to remind people of it. We say, Care for the Whole Person, but beyond “Problem of God”, how else are people learning about the effective principles of faith and actually being a good person? 

Jaime is sitting at a table with her head peeking out from behind a laptop, with curly dark hair and a hand on her cheek. She’s in a bright orange room. Her laptop has several stickers on it including the Georgetown Wellness Wheel. She’s wearing glasses and a gray sweater. On the table are a vase of long stem sunflowers, a binder, a calendar and colorful pens.

Jaime Brown (MBA ‘23)

You’ve read some of bell hook’s Teaching to Transgress. I don’t know if you’ve seen the TV show, Abbott Elementary, but–how have faith, humor and joy informed your approach to education?

YES! All caught up with Abbott. [Quinta Brunson] does a good job of using humor and keeping it real. “The budget doesn’t allow for this” or “Oh, these are new books!”. The character Jacob is the best—perfect example of well-intentioned white folks who go about things the wrong way. It’s great that he’s aware, but his awareness is annoying, so it’s fun to watch him. I listen to the podcast, “Nice White Parents” and think of him. I think humor is being used by younger generations to lessen how saddened we are by things in the world. Maybe there’s a faith component to that… 

I’m from Trenton–about 45 minutes from Philly [where Abbott is set]. I started out as a substitute teacher at Trenton Public Schools during college summers. Now, I’m at Georgetown which has a completely different population. When I came to Georgetown, I got Teaching to Transgress because I was thinking about my approach to shaping the next generation of leaders. The class I taught, Discerning the Profession: Personal Narrative and Professional Discernment, was about authentically telling your story. For example, if an interview question leads you to bring up Abbott, share why you connect. Maybe you went to a similar school or had a similar job.

I primarily rely on examples surrounding race, gender, and upbringing. I don’t explicitly bring up faith as often, because it’s an area that I need to explore more. However, I use Georgetown’s Wellness Wheel to talk about the importance of being well, holistically. Every year, I write goals for each slice. We’re not going to be 100 percent at all times, but the nine slices help us strike a balance. If your spirit is right, your physical and emotional wellness is going to check out. And when you’re feeling good and loving yourself,  it’s easier to give and help others see that in themselves too. Cura Personalis

This is interview is part of the Blackness & Faith series by Kawther Berhanu (C ‘19, MSFS ‘22). 

Photos were provided by Jaime Brown (MBA ‘23).

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