I don’t identify as a Christian anymore, but this is what I do believe

Trigger warning: This post contains references to Christianity and Evangelicalism. That can be a tender and sore subject, depending on your life’s experience and your heart space. If you have further questions or something to add to this conversation, you already have my contact info and can get in touch directly.

I don’t identify as a Christian anymore. And that feels honest.

Faith is not the clinging to a shrine but an endless pilgrimage of the heart. Audacious longing, burning songs, daring thoughts, an impulse overwhelming the heart, usurping the mind–these are all a drive towards serving [the Divine] who rings our hearts like a bell. It is as if [the Divine] were waiting to enter our empty, perishing lives.

Rabbi Abraham Heschel

My main reason is that I feel Christianity in North America has been co-opted by white supremacy and colonialism. And I yes, I do have a conflicted relationship with this. My friend and I blogged about this before here.

I do believe that Spirit has liberated and sustained oppressed peoples in the United States through Christian churches. I believe that Spirit has fortified black, brown, and migrant communities. I believe there are ways that the Christian church has and continues to be a safe space for recent migrants and communities who have been devastated by addiction, abuse, and health disparities.

But I can’t associate myself with dominant culture’s expression of Evangelicalism or Bible belt institutions anymore — North American evangelicalism has too many limits for the ways I feel called to grow and serve right now: things like ignoring racial equity, homophobia, spirituality that suppresses the body and sensory experience, not to mention Christianity’s history of stripping indigenous communities of their culture.

This is where it gets complicated — do I love me some good old fashioned praise and worship? Do I feel good when I hear trusted collaborators and family members preach? Do I value public prayer, altar calls, ceremony?

And to these questions I give a wholehearted and resounding YES. It has been an important part of my spiritual formation and always will be.

I love Krista Tippett’s question: “What is in your spiritual soil?”

I would identify as Anacostal, or Anabaptist/Pentecostal. I would identify as a mystic, interfaith ally, interdenominational. More spiritual than Christian. Continuing to experience formation and fellowship beyond the confines of the evangelical/protestant world.

The story I heard for the formative years of my life was that spiritual truth was more black and white — one way was the right way, the only way, and the others were all wrong and in need of “saving” — and I believe this idea comes from a fundamentalist, colonial, patriarchal view. I mostly experienced spaces like this during college and shortly after, around the ages of 18-22.

I don’t think anyone has to necessarily believe that everything is equally true and valid, in fact I believe that respectful dialogue across differences is healthy and generative. Our worldviews and spiritual traditions have always existed in the same sphere and I believe the proof of what is “right” is in the ways our sense of humility, compassion, justice, and love shows up in the world. Towards ourselves. Towards our communities. Towards strangers. And I believe this is a reflection of how the Divine wants us to be.

I believe that wisdom and fingerprints of the Divine can be found all over the world, whether or not you decide what is ultimately true for you.

My deepest seeded roots are Pentecostal which I love for its mysticism and charismatic expression. But now I see charismatic expression in social dance, in cyphers, in spaces where bodies of all sizes and genders rejoice. I have a lot of curiosity and experience a lot of resonance when I learn about ancestral spiritual practices, none of which I have found to be contradictory to what I believe the Jesus way was meant to be in its essence.

Before our indigenous communities were colonized, I believe we had the tools and technology to resolve conflict, live in sustainable and abundant relationship with the land, and cultivate healthy families. I believe humans are made in the image of God and therefore have the Divine embedded in us. Check out more in this article: Christians of Color Are Rejecting “Colonial Christianity” and Reclaiming Ancestral Spiritualities

I don’t claim Christian as a primary identifier anymore, I’m not Evangelical, but I do feel well equipped for a lifelong spiritual journey and well nourished in my spiritual soil. I am committed to giving and receiving love from the Divine, social justice, humility and compassion, cultivating community wherever I am that looks like a tangible expression of the sacred, abundance, and love.

And yes, I do still long for, pursue, and participate in community. The past 4 years in Philly have shown me that I’m not alone in my questions and longings for spiritual expression in our world. I believe that people are hungry for divinity. But I have to be honest and say that I can’t be held to who I was when I was 18 and younger, or even 25 and younger.

I believe that community continues to exist in the mix of these experiences. And that Creator still brings us together to be nourished, healed, mobilized for transformation.

Pilgrimage is about longing, consciousness and intentionality. Pilgrimage is about noticing where we have been and where we have been broken, beaten and bruised.  Pilgrimage is about acknowledging that part of us is perishing and that we’re seeking new life. Pilgrimage is about looking for hope, healing, beauty and truth.

Christena Cleveland
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Setting Boundaries as a Person of Color in the United States, White Allies, and Leadership in Organizing

I’m learning about all of these things and who I am in the midst of them all just like you are.

This is nuanced and tender, and it’s all so real.

It’s from my perspective only – it is incomplete and in constant progress. POC experiences are not monolithic or anywhere near uniform.

There are a lot of social and historical things at work – you are invited to further research anything that is unfamiliar or unclear on the internet, your local library, or with a friend you trust.

My hope is to offer these reflections as a way to build each other up in organizing for liberation that is dearly envisioned for our communities and the generations that will come after us.

And one of the best things I think we can do in our organizing is to be deeply aware and compassionately honest about where we are in our identity formation. Because we organize and create based on who we are.

I am a third culture kid and immigrant who grew up very assimilated in North American culture. And the “norm” and presented standard in North America is white. As a brown kid, I was always aware of my differences, my capacity to code switch, and had regular occurring lunchbox moments:

As far as I can remember, especially when I came to the United States as a child, I have rarely been in settings where most people shared my experiences. So throughout my adolescence and young adulthood it felt exhausting to explain where I was “from.” To this day, every time I introduce myself to somebody, I have to make a quick decision about what I will share. It depends on who they are, the time we have to talk, and their level of interest and empathy – they may or may not hear my full story. And many white Americans don’t have this level of constant self examination if they’re used to being around people who resemble them.

I grew up with culture loss in need of ongoing replenishment. The healing, nourishment, and abundance I feel when I am with womxn of color, queer people of color, and Latinx community feels like being known and welcomed home in a comforting, familial sense that I haven’t always experienced. By intentionally cultivating Latinx friendships I know myself better in relationship to my wider cultural/ancestral community/diaspora. Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum would describe where I am this way:

From her book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria: And Other Conversations About Race

My process of reconciling my cultural identities has not always been supported by the spaces I’ve been in. I learned the hard way last year that I have very real limits when it comes to a predominantly white collectives because of what I need in my cultural healing journey. In those spaces I am prone to experiencing a lot of erasure and can end up not feeling fully seen, understood, or related to for all of who I am.

Since I grew up in North American suburbia, I am very assimilated and I know how to swim in predominantly white waters. So I can “pass” and have my third culture kid self and Latinx self overlooked. Or, if I am one of few POC in a group setting, I end up doing emotional labor – which for me feels like exploiting my own marginalized identities to educate/inform people or groups with privileged identities. It’s exhausting, and it’s not for me.

Here’s an honest perspective on what I observe in organizing: Centering POC/black/indigenous voices for a predominantly white audience can, at times, be a soft form of tokenism. Yes, a marginalized voice is centered, but who is it for? If the audience is mostly white, it still centers a white community and their learning. If the audience is made up of black/brown/migrant/indigenous folx, the goals and intent of designing and holding the space will likely be very different.

POC audiences have needs that are different than predominantly white audiences.

For a POC audience, it can look like designing and holding space to affirm and celebrate communal expressions that are trivialized by dominant culture. As a POC, there are safety cues I’m looking for: a level of warmth and hospitality, freedom to be expressive and affectionate, people who have my complex experiences in common, knowing that I won’t face an onslaught of micro aggressions, and working towards my community’s wellbeing. For a white audience, it can look like education, awareness, and examination of self in relation to systems of power and oppression – experiencing discomfort for the first time, developing resilience, and healing from the fiction of whiteness and racialized oppression.

Some of the work I’m doing this year is being really clear about who my audience is and how the project I’m designing is effectively resonating with that audience. Since setting boundaries for myself over the past year, I’ve become a lot more sensitive to which spaces foster anxiety and exactness – things that come from white supremacy – and which spaces feel whole, abundant, familial, restorative.

Art by Ricardo Levins Morales

Part of the myth and fiction of the United States is that white is standard, normal, neutral. And in organizing there are ways that white/dominant norms and the historical power associated with those norms go unexamined – which ultimately impedes the deeper recovery and liberation that is possible.

So this is an invitation to be honest about where we are in our identity formation, who our audiences are, and respect each other’s limitations, boundaries, and healing processes with compassion and generosity. Awareness is an important first step in healing from the longstanding effects of colonization. Knowing self and knowing the audience, and honoring the needs of all involved, is a foundation for organizing that meets people where they are. And we need each other at our best and most liberated.

Below is a list of my takeaways on leadership from the past year. Like this whole piece, it is incomplete and in constant progress – shared with the intent for mutual learning and constructive dialogue.

Do’s and Don’ts of Organizing

(and ways to be an equitable ally)

Do…

  • prioritize relationships over results
  • co-create, collaborate, practice consent in each step of the project
  • be flexible and malleable in design
  • have clear asks that respects folx’s time
  • be thoroughly self-aware about who you are in the project
  • be honest about your audience
  • allow for porous involvement that allows your collaborators to be at their most whole and have their needs met

Don’t…

  • make big asks for short term/temporary projects w/o long term partnership
  • organize in a single leader/director model
  • tokenize POC leadership when your audience is mostly white
  • claim “undoing oppression” and lead from a place of anxiety/urgency/scarcity/coercion
  • impose personal ambition in a collaborative effort
  • let internalized white supremacy go unexamined

Leadership is…

  • connecting people
  • reciprocal learning through sharing life experiences
  • lifting people up
  • compassion/generosity
  • non-anxious presence/facilitation
  • supporting a person’s journey
  • nurturing people when they are with you and releasing them when they are ready to evolve
  • extending generous, empathetic permission for change

Organizing is all cultivating relationships – it should be as simple as making a phone call. Do your research – know the individual or collective’s history and capacity, and be ready to either spend time on their turf cultivating a relationship OR have a clear ask that matches their capacity.

KonMari Method and Rituals for Transition

Today, Philadelphia had a ***SNOW DAY!***

After an ambitious week, I caught up on much needed rest and enjoyed quality Netflix time. Out of curiosity, I decided to watch Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, as I have been curious about the KonMari Method. Preview here:

Most of my friends know now that I am getting ready for a road trip this summer. I’m moving from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. In anticipation of leaving my dreamy West Philly bedroom with its beautiful bay windows where I have witnessed years’ worth of snow, springtime blossoms, and glorious sunsets, I am thinking about how I can simplify and travel with what is most meaningful to me. So naturally, Marie Kondo’s work was of interest to me.

Kondo has excellent strategies for tidying across the entire home. What I resonated with right away was the way she started the process in Episode 1. Before starting with any tasks or steps, she sat down with the family in the living room. She then facilitated a reflective moment of reverence and gratitude for the home-for being a place of safety, activity, life.

So often I can be preoccupied with work, creating, and organizing. But when I pause to take stock, I am abundantly aware of how my own space has been a place of love, rest, friendship, growth. I am deeply grateful for this place that has been my home, work, and creative space.

It’s the initial reflection of gratitude that then prepares the people who are tidying to practice gratitude when keeping, rearranging, and letting go. In the KonMari method, tidying is based on the question: Does this spark joy?

Gratitude is the action of the tidying method itself — each time you fold a clothing item, you are thanking the item for the joy it sparks in your life. And when you let it go, you thank it for the ways it has served you.

After doing an initial KonMari inventory of my clothing, I realized that I was able to wear the clothes that make me feel the most like myself more often, and I was able to release what I no longer needed. And by doing that, I emptied a whole dresser’s worth of storage space that I now have available to me. I am clearer on what I do want to invest my money in apart from clothing.

By releasing what I no longer need with gratitude, I am creating space to receive what I am creating and what is yet to be. This is a process that will continue for me throughout spring as I get ready to transition, but this initial practice was validating and affirming of all that I am holding in processing a transition. It allowed me to sit with a meaningful sense of gratitude for all that my West Philly home has been, and all that this city has been for me for the past 9 years. It allowed me to feel more excited about what I am making room for in my life.

To gratitude in letting go. To sparking joy. To remembering and releasing. To creating space for the new.

What if anxiety is a habit?

This month, I’m taking classes at Urban Movement Arts in Center City Philly. In my first intro to breaking class, I got to relearn the basic components of a 6 step. I’ve always been a little shy about my upper body strength especially in breaking, but what made me feel free and empowered in the class was what the instructor, BBoy Metal emphasized: That the foundations are the key to freedom and creativity. By learning and drilling the basics, a dancer is free to explore their creative expression with and against the music.

Here’s the nugget of wisdom that got me thinking about creativity and liberation:

Bboy Metal said that it’s hard to get good at something by only doing it once a week. Even just a few minutes of daily practice helps develop strength and skill.

Time is precious. The ways we use our time forms our present and our futures.

And it made me think, if habits are cultivated on a daily basis, what if anxiety is also a habit that can be grown? What if feeding anxiety gives it power to direct and inform our lives? I’m thinking about worrying without stopping to breathe and recenter. Hustling to meet deadlines without pausing to be grounded. The opposite of staying present in the moment without fear of immediate or imagined consequences.

And this is present in my forethought mostly because of my current to do list. Quite frankly, I’m wondering if I will accomplish everything I said I would do. If this sounds like a familiar set of circumstances, I send you a virtual high five and a reassuring hug squeeze that you are capable and totally in charge.

Yes, as a creative it’s easy for me agree to organize 100 things, and to do some things more thoroughly than others. But I would be blocking myself to being whole, effective, and present by cultivating a disposition of worry rather than a disposition of clarity and proactive problem solving, decision making that allows for the best possible outcome and the ability to release what no longer serves a project and to adjust expectations.

Although there are many important and necessary things for me to give me energy and capacity to, I know I can’t do anything without a daily practice of liberation through being creatively and spiritually present.

Here’s to cultivating powerful, liberatory mindfulness. Because I feel most like myself when I am creative and whole.

Dancing In the Moonlight

Every once in a while I have moments where I feel like my life is an actual Step Up movie.

There are are a couple of things happening in the Step Up movie series, and several dance films throughout the late 20th and early 21st century like it: Commentary on social status and witnessing a dancer’s transformation.

Sample storyline: Classically trained (usually female) dancer enrolled in a pre-professional or conservatory program comes from a family that is well off and upper/middle class expectations attached to that. Female dancer protagonist falls in love with a b-boy. Classically trained dancer then grapples with their own privilege and artistry through being exposed to the world of hip hop. Alternative (or simultaneous) sample storyline: Hip hop dancer is out to prove themselves in an institutionalized and/or competitive dance setting. Hip hop dancer of either gender challenges the status quo of institutionalized training or queers the norms of the dance competition outcome. And it all completely galvanizes what happens on a proscenium stage.

In the classical concert dance world there can be underlying creative elitism – awareness of who has gotten which funding, which artist has certain accolades, and slowly working towards some kind of approval from those with seniority in the field. Lots of pretty, architectural dancing from lean bodies that emphasize how a dance is read, not necessarily how it is experienced. I’ve been disappointed by established dance companies in the past because the work didn’t move my soul.

Essentially, I think the Step Up effect is a process of self actualization through popular vernacular dances and community – being deeply connected with the kind of groove that classical or postmodern concert dance doesn’t necessarily teach you. And I’m aware of how present that has felt for me in recent months, especially through salsa and bachata.

I have these Step Up movie moments in my actual Philly life. Picture New Year’s Eve with all its anticipation in the air, walking through a rainy parking lot, bass blaring, seeing my friends from Hardwork Movement backstage at the Electric Factory, and feeling like such a cool kid inside. And the night didn’t end there – afterwards a friend and I went out dancing at a local Ethiopian bar/restaurant in West Philly to ring in the New Year. I felt free and deeply connected with the community I was dancing with.

Dancing at late night hours has completely rewired my approach as a performer. I feel transformed by what I’ve experienced dancing between 11 pm and 2 am. There are many profound things happening in those late night dancing hours.

And what’s refreshing and life giving in social dance is the feeling that none of the ego/production/spectacle stuff matters. In social dance, strangers of all ages and walks of life are absolutely extraordinary and there is a generosity extended in connecting with many different dance partners. I can meet someone dancing for the first time, feel shared joy and mutual appreciation, and receive an abundance of creative affirmation.

I’m also struck by the element of anonymity – what I perform in a social setting isn’t connected with any value judgement of my daytime vocation or class status. It feels like such a space to celebrate expressions of identity and redefine what identities can be in real time.

Dancing for hours late at night builds community building. Feeling reenergized through connection with music and people is empowering. The ease of leading, responding, co-creating with dance partners in real time connects me with my sense of fearlessness. And being part of a dynamic, moving dance floor as a collective while being celebrated by the community within is deeply healing.

How I Heal: 4 Recommended Approaches

Over the last year, a prominent and recurring theme for me has been healing and self care. The last time I went to acupuncture and shared my symptoms with my local acupuncturist from West Philly Community Acupuncture, she shared that she once read that 80% of our anxiety isn’t ours. She said to me, “you’ve been picking up on other people’s bullshit.”

A big learning curve for me this year was learning how much replenishment I need in a line of work where I am constantly giving of myself to others as a Teaching Artist. In my Trauma Informed training with the Bartol Foundation last fall, we reflected as a cohort on the importance of self care when working with participants who have experienced trauma.

And I’ve been especially enjoying the mantra I’ve picked up from The Artist’s Way: Treating myself like a precious object will make me strong.

Here are 4 regular practices I use to restore myself:

  1. Massage
    1. As a dancer, I need myofascial release and restorative bodywork from all the training, teaching, and performing I do. Massage is an essential part of my maintenance regiment like stretching and good nutrition. I go at least once a season and take cues from when my body feels especially sore or fatigued after intensive periods of stress or movement.
  2. Acupuncture
    1. I had plantar fasciitis as a teenager and the last time it flared up in 2017, it was cured in just two sessions. Not to mention the holistic benefits of acupuncture like improved sleep and alleviation from anxiety and depression. It’s good to give specific attention to injuries, and it’s also good for restoring balance at a physiological level. Plus acupuncture naps are some of the best kinds!
  3. Reiki
    1. I had a powerful reiki appointment this month that allowed me to experience a level of self awareness I have never experienced before. I was able to make peace with difficult moments from the year. I was able to savor moments that connected me with my sense of love and tenderness, and felt affirmed by moments related to purpose. I felt able to rest and surrender.
  4. Yoga
    1. My favorite place to practice yoga is Studio 34 in West Philly. It’s excellent cross training for any vocation or modality, allowing for greater flexibility, strength, and balance. What I benefit from the most from in yoga is mindfulness. I am present with my breath, my mind stills, and I connect with my personal sense of inner strength.

There are endless ways to heal. Time spent in the woods on a scenic trail is clarifying, the sound, smell, and sensation of the ocean and beach has healing properties, and exercise gets the blood pumping and endorphins flowing. My favorite form of cardio is riding my bicycle around town.

There is powerful purpose in taking the time to heal. When we are more whole as individuals, we are more resilient for the purposeful work we show up for. Healing allows us to release what we inevitably take in that isn’t generative. And we embody what it is to be compassionate and generous to the world around us when we practice that for ourselves.

Saltwater

I found myself again – late night on Girard Av chismeando with my queer Latinx friends

In the rhythm of cumbia and ancestral sounds coming alive

I found myself in the Pacific Ocean

running fiercely, bravely into the water

diving into the the tide then allowing the waves to rock (and comfort) me

I found myself in the rhythmic circularity of my hips and when I discovered through bodywork that the musculature of my hips was completely (re)structured by (re)turning to my Latinx movement roots

I found myself between 11 pm and 2 am in Old City inside the rhythm of bachata – a powerful expression of community, reciprocity, consent, abundant joy that overflows

I found myself using my body and my voice in the movement, entre la lucha

I found new volumes of heartache that I didn’t know I could experience

I found closure when I put to rest the very real feelings of sadness and loss that my 7 year old self carried for nearly 20 years

they call it a journey of clarification

I found my roots and felt how nourished they were and how carefully they needed to be protected

And that they were the source of my power and wholeness