Dr. Christena Cleveland "God Is a Black Woman" | Episode Transcript
Karen Pascal: Hello, I’m Karen Pascal. I’m the executive director of the Henri Nouwen Society. Welcome to a new episode of Henri Nouwen, Now and Then. Our goal at the Henri Nouwen Society is to extend the rich spiritual legacy of Henri to audiences around the world. Each week we endeavor to bring you a new interview with someone who, like Henri Nouwen, is thoughtfully and freshly exploring the concerns and issues of Christian spirituality today. We invite you to share the daily meditations and these podcasts with your friends and family. Our core purpose is to share Henri Nouwen’s spiritual vision so that people can be transformed by experiencing themselves as God’s beloved.
Now, let me introduce you to my guest today. Dr. Christena Cleveland has just published the book, God is a Black Woman. In this timely book, Christena weaves together her own personal pilgrimage and societal reckoning to dismantle the cultural white, male God, and uncover the sacred feminine.
Christena, this is a very intense, very personal, honest, and strong book with a powerful vision. Why did you feel compelled to write this book?
Christena Cleveland: I wrote the book because I wish I’d had a book like that to read when I was beginning my spiritual transformation. And so much of moving out of what I had been taught about God, particularly about God’s gender and God’s race, ended up being something that didn’t work for me, and I didn’t feel like I had a lot of tools to imagine something differently. And so, I went on that journey with some support by others, but certainly, no one holding me by the hand. And I thought, “Gosh, wouldn’t it be nice if there had been someone to hold me by the hand?” Well, I think the Divine was holding me by the hand, but you know, another human being, who said, “Hey, I’ve walked this path before. Why don’t you join me in imagining something different?” And so, that was my inspiration for writing it: sharing it with other people. So, it’s the journey, you know; I had the journey and I could have just held it to myself, I guess. But I also think there’s something – maybe this goes back to Jesus – just the idea that if we’re really excited about something, we share it. Kind of like that evangelism aspect. And this journey so transformed my life that I couldn’t help but not share it.
Karen Pascal: Now, at the core of it is one word, “whitemalegod.” It becomes one word. And I found that so powerful. And throughout the book, that’s there – whitemalegod.
Christena Cleveland: All lower case.
Karen Pascal: All lower case. And you needed to take this apart, because it had such a profound impact on you, and find the sacred that would meet you, would love you and would be there for you in all ways. Tell me about. . . I mean, I find it painful to think that God is just one sex; that’s not for me, or one color – that’s not for me. But tell me about why this has been so important for you and how this has infiltrated your whole experience of God.
Christena Cleveland: Yeah. You know, I’m an African-American, Black woman, and I grew up in a Black family, but we also spent a lot of time in white church spaces, particularly evangelical church spaces. And I, throughout my life, received this mostly implicit, sometimes explicit in the photos or the images of Jesus that were often presented, but mostly implicit, this idea that God is white and God is male. And I learned at a very early age that if I started to question that, or if I asked any questions that undermined the inherent sort of white patriarchal hierarchy of this whitemalegod, so even if I just asked questions that weren’t specific to God’s race or gender, but just questions, I was taught, you know, to be an obedient and faithful Christian meant to not ever ask questions.
And so, even as a young girl where I was starting to feel like in many of these church spaces, my blackness and my femaleness were not held as sacred. Were distant from the Divine. I didn’t feel free to ask questions about that until I was a little bit older. Then I learned very quickly, you’ll be labeled a heretic. You know, you’ll be labeled a rabble-rouser. You’ll be one of those difficult women. You’ll be one of those angry Black people, you know? And so, it became really important for me to understand that this broader system that was really holding us all captive, really had to do with God’s exclusive whiteness and God’s exclusive maleness, and how that landed on my Black, female body.
Karen Pascal: It’s interesting because, in a sense, you speak very much to an American reality. It’s probably a reality worldwide. Although if we think of worshiping God in Africa or in China or somewhere else in the world, maybe it’s not as much so, but I agree with you. I remember those pictures of a blonde Jesus, and sense that God had been interpreted by this European myth, in a way, and that was being delivered to all of us.
Christena Cleveland: Just to add something to that. I’ve traveled quite a bit, including China and parts of Africa, and it’s interesting how much this American ideal has been propped up around the world, because of the way that American Christianity has so influenced the world, particularly through worship music and through denominations spreading and doing missionary work. And so, it was really fascinating for me and a little bit horrifying to be in one of the townships in Cape Town, a township that was predominantly occupied by people who are called “colored” there. So, it’s kind of like in between Black and in between white. And to see that the so-called missionaries that had come and started all these huge churches in that township were all white people, mostly from Australia, and were essentially preaching about this whitemalegod. They were preaching their version of God. So, you saw all these Black and brown youth who had this understanding of God that was just like something you’d find in Australia or America, even though it’s a township in Cape Town, you know? And so, just even noticing how much America has colonized the world’s spiritual imagination.
Karen Pascal: That’s interesting. It’s interesting you have that firsthand experience. One thing that you’re clear about in the book, obviously, your father was a pastor. And so, although you grew up in a Black family, this was also not just coming to you from outside, it was coming from within your family, this sense of what this God was like and what this God expected of you, and that business of not being able to question. And it put a tremendous performance responsibility on you. And that’s one of the things that you’re so honest about in the book. And really, I think for so many women, I really felt the power of that questioning that was going on inside of you.
Christena Cleveland: I mean, that obsession with performance is so patriarchal. You know, just this idea that you are what you do and your only value to us is what you can offer us in terms of what we value. So, I imagine, you know, it hurts all of us, but I imagine lots of women would experience that aspect of patriarchy.
Karen Pascal: Oh, I think so. I think absolutely that that’s the case. Now, it was funny, towards the end of your book, you told about a previous writing experience that you got bogged down in, and your friend Kristen really helped you out. And I love what she wrote, and it was cute, because she wrote something that I thought just kind of really in a way describes who you are. Here it is: “Okay, you need to write a thousand words per day in order to meet your deadline. So, every day at 5:00 PM, I’m going to text you to make sure you wrote your words. You better write them.” And prior to that, she said, “You’ve got this, Christena, you’re the most brilliant person I know. Your work is crucial and the world needs your book. You’re the only person who can write this book. But don’t worry, you’re not alone. I’m here every step of the way.”
I loved that first part of that quote, because I thought she really gets who you are. Did you get bogged down in this book? I felt like it exploded out of you. I felt like there was an energy as I read it. I felt it on every page. Was it hard to write this book? I’m curious.
Christena Cleveland: Yes. It was hard to write the book, because it’s such a vulnerable book. And I commit a lot of faux pas. So, I talk about my real trauma and pain that happened within my family, which is not something that we’re supposed to do. I also talk about real trauma and pain that I’ve experienced in Christian organizations, which you’re not supposed to do. But I also agree with you in the sense that it did explode out of me. I mean, I don’t know, there was no other way. Of course, I had to write the book. So, there was that energy also, almost like a fountain or a geyser, that just was never going to run out of water. It was always going to be there and I just needed to let it loose. Or a fire hydrant or something like that, where it’s just, “Let this pop off or else we’re going to bust up the whole street!”
Which I love because, you know, the book is so much about going to visit the Black Madonna and the Black Madonna’s so closely associated with life, water, fountains, springs, you know? And so there’s an energy about her, too, which is just like, “Come and drink, come and drink of what I’m offering you.” So, I think maybe I got into that flow a little bit, and was able to ride her wave, so to speak.
Karen Pascal: Well, it’s funny, I think we should tell our audience a little bit about what you did. You actually went on pilgrimage. You decided you were looking for the Black Madonna and what it would bring to you, and whether there would be there a new image of God or a new understanding of God. So, where did you go and what was this pilgrimage?
Christena Cleveland: I went a couple years ago to France, Central France, this really rural, kind of under-the-radar – think Paris, and then think the opposite of that – mostly small villages, they call it Deep France, kind of like the Deep South here in the United States. So, it’s just very French, not a lot of influence from other cultures. Almost everyone speaks only French, almost no English. So, of course, I don’t speak any French, but of course I was there, because there were lots of Black Madonnas in that area. And so, it’s this volcanic region; really mystical and magical. And in that particular region that I went to in central France, which is called Auvergne, there are about 45 Black Madonnas that were within like, about a 40-mile radius of this central city that I was living in.
And so, that’s what drew me to that particular area: There are more Black Madonnas in that little spot than anywhere else in the world. And so, I walked to 18 of them. And it was about a little over 400 miles of walking. I went in the middle of winter, which – as a California girl, you know, I’m born and raised in California, so even though I wasn’t living in California at the time, I think I still kind of thought, “Oh, winter’s just not a big deal.” And so, yeah, it was cold. But I wanted to see these Black Madonnas face to face, you know. I had in the last couple of years awakened to the Black Madonna, and she has been such a powerful antidote to that whitemalegod.
Finally, I could see a sacred, Black, feminine image of God that has existed for thousands of years and been venerated by hundreds of thousands, even millions of people. And having grown up in Protestantism, she had been hidden away from me. And so, as soon as I started learning about her and reading books, I just fell in love. And then I thought, “Gosh, I have to go see these Black Madonnas.” And so, of the 18 that I visited, most of them were over a thousand years old, many of them closer to 2,000 years old, and have been living in these teeny, tiny mountain villages for years and years and years. So, it was incredible to show up and to be present to them, and to expect that God would do something extraordinary in me, going on that pilgrimage. And I love that as many problems as there were with my childhood home and spiritual communities, one of the things I learned in those communities was, I can expect God to do things. God isn’t dead. God isn’t . . . miracles didn’t end in the Bible, you know.
But I can show up and say, “Hey, I need to be transformed. I need to be healed. I’ve been burdened by this whitemalegod my whole life. And I can see the ways in which I’m still attached to perfectionism and I’m still attached to performance and I don’t know how to speak up for myself and I don’t know how to say, ‘But I’m sacred, too, and I need you to heal me. I need you to teach me another way.’” And these conversations that I had with these Black Madonnas, you know, that were just kind of a flowering of my spiritual imagination, were so transformative. And I got to nickname most of them.
Karen Pascal: Oh, I loved some of your nicknames.
Christena Cleveland: So, I feel like they’re my aunties. Or you know, like I just have this special relationship.
Karen Pascal: But I’m actually really glad to hear that conversation. It seemed like the conversations you were having with God were only when you were with these Black Madonnas. But I take it on the journey, there was conversation going on and healing going on. It’s interesting, because my natural response is, well, I think it’s totally wrong to deliver God as being the whitemalegod. I would feel left out, too. I feel left out by that.
But at the same time, when you turn around and say, “Well, God is a Black woman,” isn’t that doing exactly the same thing? Aren’t you leaving me out again? You know, although there’s lovely aspects of the female aspects of God, because I feel there is a female God, I feel there is a God that combines male and female. He made us in his image. He said, “Male and female,” you know, and we tend to go to the “he.” But as far as I’m concerned, there is a feminine aspect to God as well, that’s right there in the middle of it, of the God I love. But when I see you deliver this kind of finality of God is a Black woman, aren’t you doing exactly the same thing? Aren’t you just making it, “the box is this big”?
Christena Cleveland: I don’t think so. I mean, I can see why you would think that, but for me, God is a Black Woman is an antidote to the whitemalegod. And a white, female God wouldn’t be an antidote to the whitemalegod.
Karen Pascal: No. I understand that.
Christena Cleveland: Because whiteness is still the problem, right? And so, I think my journey and the way that I assert that God is a Black woman is my truth. And really, the goal of the book is to help people get in to claim their truth and get to a point where they can say, “I can name a God that I need in order for me to show up in a way that allows me to love everyone, beginning with myself.” And so, this book isn’t exactly written for white people or men. It’s not. The book centers Black women and it centers Black people and it centers women, right? And I think that’s such an important thing to note, because so much of the whitemalegod has centered whiteness and maleness that it’s important for us to shift the power dynamic and say, “Hey, this is actually a book for Black women, for Black people, for women.”
And the good news about that is, whatever is good for Black women, it’s actually good for everyone, because we live in a world that needs to dismantle all of these systems of oppression that land on Black women and indigenous women really harshly. But as we dismantle patriarchy, as we dismantle white supremacy, even in our spiritual imagination, we’re all getting free from that. And so, it’s been interesting to see. Of course, Black women in general love the book, but it’s also been really interesting to see how people of all genders and races have come to this book and said, “Hey, yes, it’s like healing for me to see God as a Black woman, because that heals the whitemalegod in me that I’ve inherited.”
You know, in this society, whether we’ve spent time in churches or not, the whitemalegod’s everywhere; he’s on the dollar bill, you know? And so, that’s been really beautiful. And it’s also been really fun for me to see folks saying, “Okay, I was able to read your book and now as an indigenous trans person, I’m starting to imagine what an indigenous trans God would look like and would be, and how that God would show up in the world.” And that to me is like – gosh, I couldn’t have asked for anything more than that. You know? This setting people’s imaginations free.
Karen Pascal: I really appreciate that. I really do, Christena. You know, in an age of gender fluidity being questioned all over the place, I think you have offered some really important, I want to say advice, in a way. I want to say: “People, go on this journey with Christena. If you’ve got these kinds of questions, go on the journey.” There’s a lot of honesty throughout this book. That’s something I really love. There’s honesty about what happened in your life. There’s honesty about where you’re at now.
My sense is you’re the kind of person I’ll look forward to meeting in five years’ time, because I think there’ll be something entirely different. I love people who are going on, who are in the process of solving the things that are happening in life and are going on and have something to offer. And you do; you really bring us there. That’s something that’s really valuable in what I find in your book, and I’m very grateful for.
I’m curious about something, something I love personally. I love the Bible, the word of God. I really love it. Is that now set aside for you, because you only see it as the whitemalegod? Or is it still a resource that you enjoy? I’m curious.
Christena Cleveland: Yeah, that’s such a good question. I think my relationship to the Bible is always changing. I think that when I first went on this journey, because of the really constrictive and abusive spiritual environment I had been in, the Bible had mostly been used as a way to whip me into shape, as a way to keep me disconnected from my sacredness. And so, I think a lot of those early years of deconstructing the Bible was something that was hard for me to engage with. But what’s been interesting is the further I go on this journey and the more secure I become in what I call the sacred Black feminine, the more I’m able to turn back to the Christian scriptures, and interpret them differently and see them differently.
So, I mean, there’s some parts of the Bible that I think are difficult to reconcile in an anti-racist, sort of feminist lens. But there’s some parts that are just life-giving and wonderful. And I think there’s something really patriarchal about throwing the baby out with the bathwater. And so, I think that was my first instinct, right, because I didn’t know anything else. I’d been taught just do things the patriarchal way. Everything’s black and white, everything’s binary. It’s like either good or bad, or it’s either true or not, you know? But then, as I’ve kind of healed a little bit more from some of that binary patriarchal thinking, the more I’m able to turn to scripture and say, “Hey, what feels life-giving to me today? What heals me today?” And then can I toss aside the parts that don’t feel life-giving today, and rely on my own inner spiritual authority to discern that? And I think the way that I approach scripture differently now is that I’m not expecting other people to tell me what scripture means for me. I’m allowing my own divine self to interpret what scripture means for me in that day.
Karen Pascal: Why do you call yourself a womanist? Help me understand that term. What’s a womanist?
Christena Cleveland: So, womanists are a segment of Black women who are both feminist and anti-racist. And so, the womanist movement came about because many of the feminist movements were excluding Black women and the issues of Black women, and then a lot of the anti-racist sort of Black liberation movements were excluding the Black women.
And so Black women said, “We don’t quite fit into the feminist box. We don’t quite fit into the Black liberation box. How can we move through the world in a way that acknowledges our femaleness and also our Blackness?” And so, the womanist movement, you know, their theologians, their artists, their . . . it runs the gamut of the types of people. But in general, womanists are discerning what is good through the lens of how does it land on Black women.
And one of the things I love about womanism, including theological womanism, is someone like me with theological background. I was taught that theology happens outside of the body. It happens outside of lived experience. You know, I was taught systematic theology, and these are the tenets and these are the principles. And that’s true regardless of whether it shows up in your life that way or not. In fact, if it doesn’t show up in your life, that means there’s something wrong with your life, and you need to change who you are. Whereas the womanists start with the lived experience of Black women, and if it’s not good news to Black women, then it’s not good news.
And so, it’s very much de-center and relocate the practice of discerning what God is doing and where God is.
Karen Pascal: So, I can’t get to be a womanist because I’m white? I’m just curious.
Christena Cleveland: Well, I’d say there are intersectional white feminists who actually are very much interested in incorporating the experiences of Black women into their work. But yeah, I think womanism is reserved for Black feminists. Yeah.
Karen Pascal: Got it. I’ve got it. Thank you.
I’m curious: In your studies, did you ever at any point come across Henri Nouwen? I’m curious if you’ve ever done any reading of Henri and if that’s ever been a value to you?
Christena Cleveland: So, when I was in my twenties, I was involved in a spiritual community that relied a lot on Henri Nouwen’s teaching. And I did a discipleship program for a whole year. And we were reading excerpts and once a month, all day Saturday, we were in workshops. And a lot of that was based on Henri Nouwen. And so, one of the things that I remember is the emphasis on presence and not performing, not doing, but actually becoming less and less focused on the checklist and the agenda, and really just showing up, and seeing that as an actual ministry of. . . essentially mindfulness, right? Like the term has changed now. And I remember being in my twenties and going through that discipleship program for the whole year and really starting to dismantle the ways in which white patriarchy had taught me that I always have to be doing something in order to be useful.
And also, that mystical invitation. What if I just show up and I’m attentive to my breath, to my body, to what’s happening in the world around me? And that was then an invitation into how do I be present to that and not be reactive, but just hold it? And that opened up a big question of, “Okay, well, I’m just going to hold it, then I need to be held, because it’s too much for me to just hold a lot of the time.” And that opened up questions of, “Who’s this God that I think is holding me and maybe this God isn’t really holding me,” you know? But I remember being in a PhD program at the time, where it was very much produce, produce, produce. And then having this invitation on Saturdays to let go of that and to start moving into contemplative practices. And another part of that program was like taking one day of the month to just go to a local monastery and read and rest. And so, you know, as a Protestant, with the Protestant work ethic, that was all new to me.
Karen Pascal: I get that. I get that.
Christena Cleveland: Yeah. Like a breath of fresh air. I struggled; there’s resistance at first, because you’re like, “This can’t be actually true.” But then throughout the year, I started sort of surrendering to those days and just saying, “Okay, this is a day that’s sort of an antidote to what I’m being trained up in my PhD program right now.”
Karen Pascal: It’s difficult, when all your life you’ve been rewarded for being good and smart and gifted and all those things. And clearly that’s a path you’ve been on. And it’s interesting, because as I read through your book, there were a few times that I put “HN” beside something you said, because I thought, Henri was constantly battling with this issue of performance. You know, I’m not what I do, I’m not what I own and I’m not what other people say about me. But those three things are such a trap. What I have, what I do and what others say about me, they’re the big trap. And being able to step back and go, “I am beloved.” That was Henri’s central discovery in his own mind, out of his pain. It was “I’m beloved. I’m a beloved child of God.”
And it’s interesting, because we, as an organization, we’re kind of saying, “Well, what is our strategic plan? What’s our most important thing?” And we said, “Well, really it is to pass on to others what Henri discovered: that he was a beloved child of God, and that each one of us is beloved.” You know, what that looks like for you. What that looks like for me. And still the keyword is that God really, really, really loves us. And the things that get in the way, the performance things, those checkmarks that you have, in many ways, rightly associated with the white, male God. The power of that demanding image, that it was so narrow. You blow that box apart and you realize the God that loves me, loves me. Black feminine me, or white feminine me. God loves me. You know, that means so much to discover that.
I want to go back a little bit and just ask, because it’s interesting, how you talk about going away on that once-a-month kind of retreat. And I’m like you; I came out of that evangelical background. So, you know, discovering what it is to discover God’s presence in a different sort of a way is really quite wonderful.
And I go back to your pilgrimage. I got a kick out of the fact that there you are, on your own. I know so many people who’ve done pilgrimages, but I didn’t know anybody who did a pilgrimage like yours. I just loved it. And it was interesting, because I wanted to get out a map of France and say, okay, she was situated here and then she went here and she went here and she went here and she went all over the place. And I want to ask you about pilgrimage and what the experience was like. It’s one thing to get to your goal, you always had a goal. What was it like on the journey, to make the choice to walk 18 miles? In the cold? Uphill? All that kind of stuff. How was that part of shaping your spiritual quest?
Christena Cleveland: I think for me it was really important to let go of the checklist and the performance aspect of it. Part of it is because of my background with an eating disorder and obsession with my body. So, I didn’t want to make this pilgrimage about training or about losing weight, you know, which is another performance aspect: looking a certain way so that this world will receive me and love me, you know? And so, it was really important for me to let go of that. But it was also really important for me to let go of this idea that like, wow, there are 45 in this region. I need to get to all 45, because that’s the only way that I’ll actually be transformed, you know, which is just so patriarchal, right? I have to do it all. Bigger is better.
This idea is so, such a part of the American spiritual imagination. And so, walking was a way for me to slow down. Walking was a way for me to make it about the journey and not the destination. Because my initial impulse was to just rent a car and drive to all these places. Because then I could have easily done all 45 in the five weeks that I had allotted, budgeted for, right? But I realized, you know, my human body was designed to go at three miles per hour. And the vast majority across history of the pilgrims who went to visit these Black Madonnas all walked. And so, I wanted to be part of that lineage and to know that.
I mean, there were some old Roman roads that I was walking along that I know tens of thousands of other pilgrims to see this particular Black Madonna walked these very roads, like the exact, same road. And so, it was a way for . . . I think pilgrimage for me, even though it can often be solo, it doesn’t have to be. It’s really about connecting to the larger human experience. It’s about connecting to the self and it’s about connecting to the earth. And I felt like walking enabled me to do some of those things in a really powerful way. And to really just be, again, going back to this idea of presence, you know, I’m just going to be present. It’s not about how many I get to. And you know, I ended up walking to 18, but I didn’t have a specific plan. It was just, “Hey, I’m going to walk to this one today. I’m going to see how much time. . .” You know, many of the walks were quite long, so then it’s like, “Okay, I need some recovery days, so let’s see how I feel in a couple days. Let’s see.”
You know, there wasn’t a set calendar when I went. And then, there was the one Black Madonna, Our Lady of the Side-Eye, who I didn’t even know of until I got to France, so I added her, you know? But I couldn’t, even if I had wanted to, have a calendar; I couldn’t have, because there were some Black Madonnas I discovered when I got there, even with all the research I had done.
Karen Pascal: Tell us about our Lady of the Side-Eye. I just loved that story. I loved her. I just thought that was incredible. Can you tell a little bit about how you discovered her?
Christena Cleveland: I was actually coming back from visiting the Black Madonna of Orcival, who’s an incredibly famous Black Madonna. Probably one of the two most famous out the whole 18 that I visited. And she’s about 11 hundred years old and people have been going to see her. But in the last 50 years or so, she’s been whitened, because she was restored, so-called restored, and so now she’s a white woman. And that was really disheartening for me for so many reasons that I go into in the book – to walk 15 miles across a mountain to get to see her and to know that she was a white woman now.
But after that I thought, “Gosh, I really need to go see Our Lady of the Good Death,” which actually is not a nickname, that’s her real name. And she lives in the town that I lived in, my little French hometown. And so, on the way back I wanted to go visit Our Lady of the Good Death, because she’s this super-dark, very fierce Black woman. Black, Black, Madonna. But on the way, I ran into an antique bookseller. And I had walked by that bookstore many times, but it was always closed. I don’t know if people who are listening have spent much time in France, but French people definitely have a really different attitude towards work than Americans. And so, they work way less hours and there’s no guarantee they will be there when they say they’re going to be there, because it’s just a totally. . . it’s great. In a lot of ways, it’s great, because they’re much more focused on having a good life than on making more money and working themselves to death.
So, the store had never been open, but I went in and I talked to the bookseller a little bit, and he gave me this book about all these old Madonnas; the book’s from, like, 1936. And I was flipping through it and I saw this Black Madonna that I had never seen before. And she is standing tall, really dark skin, covered in regal robes, holding her Christ-Child. And next to her in the statue is a white, male priest who’s kneeling towards her. And her eyes! She’s side-eyeing him, kind of like, “Ugh, this guy.” And so, it’s just so interesting, because that look on her face pretty much exemplified my entire experience in every faculty meeting at Duke Divinity School, where I was a professor at the time, where one of my blowhard colleagues – white, male colleagues – was going on and on and on about something that made him feel important. And, you know, the posturing and the back-and-forth, these contests that these white men would have with each other. And my face was always just side-eye, like, “This is ridiculous. Like, all of you need to reduce your egos, you know, stop talking, stop thinking that your way’s the only way, stop bragging.”
And so, I felt so seen. So, her real name is . . . well, her traditional name is Our Lady of the Rocks. She’s been around since about the 1100s, probably. She definitely was named Our Lady of the Rocks in the 1300s. And I felt so seen by her, like all the frustration, all of the critique I have for white patriarchy, all of the dignity that I felt as a Black woman was all seen in this one statue.
And I just loved her. So, I decided to go and visit her, even though she was in this teeny, tiny village and I had never even heard of the village. And that sent me on a whole ’nother wild goose chase, just getting to her. I ended up walking, I think, 42 or so miles to get to her. So, it was a multi-day trip. But those are the moments where I think there’s something really magical about pilgrimage, about taking a risk. You know, I think we can have these amazing experiences with God at home, of course, like the God of every day. And there’s something really mystical about that, too. But I think that being on pilgrimage and putting yourself in uncomfortable positions and taking risks and really just saying, “God, I want to go on a journey with you” – it’s amazing what shows up, what happens when we just put ourselves out there that way. And I think Our Lady decided I was an example of that. I never would’ve discovered her if I hadn’t gone to France and found this old bookseller and been curious, you know?
Karen Pascal: I love the fact – forgive me if I’ve missed it – but I love the fact that her side-eye is to this white priest who’s there.
Christena Cleveland: Oh, totally!
Karen Pascal: You know, she’s not looking at the baby, she’s looking at this holier-than-thou little character at her feet.
Christena Cleveland: Totally. Yeah. I mean, this whole idea – and who knows who that priest was in real life, right? But to me, it just represents the whitemalegod, right? It represents all the ways that the institutional church teaches us that you have to be a certain way in order to be beloved by God. And she’s just like, “Yeah, no.”
Karen Pascal: You have an awful lot to teach us. You really do. And I’m pretty excited about it. I did read, close to the end of your book, that you were walking away from Duke. Did you walk away from Duke School of Divinity?
Christena Cleveland: I did. You know, in this way, I think maybe I can relate to Henri Nouwen because, you know, you said that in his life journey, he really discovered that he was beloved despite what everyone else said, right? And for me, the results of that trip, that pilgrimage was I’m sacred, too. And I started to look, and as I was ending my pilgrimage, I had a moment of reckoning where I realized, “Christena, you’ve had all these transformational experiences. You can go home and write a book and almost make this pilgrimage like a time capsule, maybe even build a theology on it that other people are invited into. That’s one option. Or you can go home and do those things and also bring the pilgrimage home with you. So, everything that transforms you on this pilgrimage, you bring back home with you.”
And when I started, when I realized that, I was like, “Gosh, this can stay in my head, or this can transform my everyday life as a Black woman in America.” And that idea that I’m sacred, too, I can bring that back, but that’s going to challenge a lot of my relationships. It’s going to challenge my work situation. It’s going to challenge my relationship with capitalism. And I had been doing all these speaking engagements for organizations that really could not hold me as sacred, but that was a paycheck, you know? And I needed the money. And so, taking that idea – I’m sacred, too – and allowing it to reframe everything at home, I knew at some point I’m going to have to leave Duke. Because – and I’m not saying Duke is bad for everyone – I’m just saying for me, in order for me to claim my sacredness and trust that God was holding me, I needed to release myself from that situation. And it really asked the question, if I believe that God is a Black woman who really thinks that I’m beloved and can relate to my experience, then can I trust that if I make a move that’s good for me and my health, that God will catch me? And I think the whitemalegod had always been unsafe to me, and I couldn’t actually truly trust that God. I was taught to trust that God, I could profess trust in that God, but at the end of the day, I was always like, but he is not really going to be there for me, because he doesn’t really hold my Blackness and my femaleness with care. And when I said, “Okay, if I’m going to commit to this idea that God relates to my Black, female experience and knows my pain, and knows my struggle, and knows what I need intimately, then how’s that going to change how I live my life back at home? And what steps do I need to take?”
And so, I finished that pilgrimage late at the end of 2018, and June 2019, I quit my job at Duke. And, you know, I could not have done that without having those transformational experiences with those Black Madonnas. It’s like, if I hadn’t encountered these divine images of a God who looked like me and experienced the world like me, I think I would’ve remained trapped in that whitemalegod-based fear that if I don’t contort myself into what society wants me to be, then I’ll die.
Karen Pascal: I’ve got to tell you, it’s been an absolute delight to talk to you, and rich, rich to my spirit. I’m grateful for that. And the book is an important book. It’s really important. But I also find myself thinking, I’m going to be watching for whatever you write, because I feel freed up and I think you’re on a journey. I think you’ve jumped ship from something that, for lack of a better word, had you encased. And I think you have much to say. But more than anything, I think you see that you are beloved. You really are God’s beloved daughter, child, whatever. And that there’s healing. There’s healing for all parts of us. This is a great book. Thank you very much. Thank you for taking time to be with me. Honestly, I’m really impressed with you, Christena. Really impressed. I enjoyed the conversation. Thank you, thank you.
Christena Cleveland: Thank you!
Karen Pascal: Thank you for listening to today’s podcast. I’ve been talking with Dr. Christena Cleveland, author of God is a Black Woman. For more resources related to this program, click on the links on the podcast page of our website. You’ll find links to anything mentioned today, as well as book suggestions.
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