Conversion in Community: Justice from the Inside Out

Preached on May 14

But [Alexander] at once, loving [Thecla] and also being dishonored by what had happened to him, brought her before the governor. And when she confessed the things she had done, he sentenced her to the wild beasts.But Thecla asked the governor that she might remain pure until she was forced to fight the wild animals. And a rich queen, named Tryphaena, whose daughter had died, took Thecla into her care and found solace in her.

And the charge on her inscription was “Sacrilege.” And the women along with the children cried out from above, saying, “God, a godless judgment has been passed on this city!” And after the procession, Tryphaena received her again, for her daughter, Falconilla, who was dead, said to her mother in a dream, “You will have the lonely stranger, Thecla, in place of me so that she might pray for me and I might be transferred to the place of the just.”

And the governor sent soldiers to bring Thecla, but Tryphaena would not stand away from her.

And Thecla was taken out of Tryphaena’s hands and stripped, and received a girdle and was thrown into the stadium

And they threw in many wild animals as she stood and stretched out her hands and prayed. But as she finished the prayer, she turned and saw a great pit full of water and said, “Now it is time for me to wash.” And she threw herself in, saying, “In the name of Jesus Christ I baptize myself on the last day!”

And the women, when other, more frightening, wild animals were being thrown in, cried aloud, and some threw petals, while others nard, and others cinnamon, and yet others cardamom, so that there was an abundance of perfumes. And all the wild animals which were let out were held as if by sleep and did not touch her [...]

And Tryphaena fainted as she stood by the arena, on the stage, and the female slaves said, “Queen Tryphaena is dead!” And the governor froze, and the whole city was frightened. And Alexander fell down on the governor’s feet and said, “Have mercy on both me and the city and acquit the animal fighter in case the city be destroyed with her. For if Caesar should hear these things he will quickly destroy us together with the city, because the queen Tryphaena, a relative of his, died beside the stage.” - The Acts of Paul and Thecla, Chapters 27-36

One of my co-workers used to play a song in the office on repeat about Christian conversion. Its lyrics were:

I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back. Though none go with me, I still will follow, no turning back, no turning back.

As a child, this language of conversion always made me think it was about a choice– a lonely one at that. I thought it was a turning point after which you were never the same, because you believed in GAWD, and you accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior. I think that’s why conversion seemed like such an alien concept to me as a child of White, intellectual, agnostic parents who had been traumatized by the hypocrisy of their first Christian communities. I couldn’t wrap my head around some sort of Jesus switch that could be turned on to make me believe. In fact, when Pastor Doug first approached me for baptism as a condition of membership, I told him, “I’m sorry, but my brain is just hard-wired against it.” I knew I had chosen New Day as my community. But that man had to work to bring me to the water. My conversion story did not begin with an encounter with God or Jesus that I could point to. But when I look back, I see how both were present throughout.

It’s important to get just how deeply Thecla is going through it by the time we reach her in today’s scripture. Have you ever had one of those days, or months, or years where it just felt like it just can’t get any worse? And then it does? And then does again? Oh, and then it does again? Thecla is a Roman woman who commits herself 100% to follow Jesus, with no turning back. And she is certainly made to work for the water of her baptism. She dumps her fiancé, and says, "You know what? I am sorry, Mama, but I am not going to get married, and I am not going to have sex with a man if I don’t want to, because I am gonna follow this rebel Paul with the poor and the outcasts." Her family banishes her. The governor puts her beloved Paul in prison because he is determined to stamp out the Christian movement. So she breaks to find Paul. The governor sentences her death and her mom co-signs it. She escapes and finds Paul to ask him to baptize her, and he actually has the nerve to tell her “you can wait.” And then, he abandons her when a rich man named Alexander tries to rape her. She rips Alexander’s crown and robe from his body in front of the city. Alexander was not used to being humiliated by a woman. So he brings her to the governor for punishment. And for the crime of her independence and her self-defense, she is sentenced to the wild beasts.

But Thecla is NOT alone. An unlikely alliance coalesces, made up of a wealthy queen named Tryphaena and women of all walks of life who use every resource they have to defend her. Through their co-conspiracy with God, Thecla both baptizes herself and breaks her chains. And in the process, the entire city is converted to the way of Jesus.

So, what is this mysterious, communal conversion story all about? And what does it tell us about how we are called to get free together in the name of the crucified one? Theologian Miguel de la Torre says, “Any salvation based on Jesus Christ should free the believer from any bondage that reduces humans to disposable objects. Conversion, as a spiritual dimension, heals.” This means that conversion is not just about realizing that you believe in God. Conversion is a full-body process of breaking every chain, of healing the wounds this cruel world has inflicted, and of rooting justice from the inside out. It’s not a one-time thing. And we can never do all that alone.

We’re going to explore three practices that catalyze the process of conversion in this story: witnessing the sacred, turning from empire, and becoming accomplices in each others' liberation.

So we’ll begin with:

1. Witnessing the Sacred in Ourselves and Each Other

It’s not as easy as it sounds. We get a lot of confusing messages from the dominant culture about what is sacred and what our role is in the world. As for me, there were lots of false idols propped up for little girls. There was the Cult of Barbie, or the Cult of Pretty Pretty Princess, or the Cult of Polly Pocket. There were certain inalienable truths that I learned from these idols without knowing it. Like that my hair needed to be shiny and straight. Or how my worth hinged on the love of a man. Or how one day I would marry one and we would have love and children. But I was not your typical Southern Belle. I had bushy, frizzy hair, with thick bangs and braces and freckles, and I was so impossibly tall and skinny that all my shirts fit me like sacks and all my pants were high waters. In middle school, I was hopelessly in love with Jake who was the captain of the soccer team and the most popular in school. I was his friend, just not a friend he told other people about. And not only would he not claim me, but sometimes when people called me “Skin-and-Bones,” he would join in.

I think Thecla would have understood me.  

She was so drawn to something sacred she thought she saw in Paul. He had a visionary ministry and all the women are flocking to his doorstep. She longs for him to see her in that same way. She thirsts for him to find her worthy of baptism. And although she puts in so much work, he keeps on denying her. Has anybody out there felt the pain of being rejected like that?  It’s hard to let your guard down when you’ve been hurt before, right?

I grew up pretty confused about how to belong in the world as it was. But I was sure that the scariest thing was to not have a place. And so I found it as an over-achieving goody two shoes. But then there are people that come along that are not the ones you thought you were looking for, but they see you and they love you as you are, and they show up for you. Thecla and the wealthy woman Tryphaena were that for each other. Tryphaena takes Thecla into her home, sees the sacred in her, and asks her to pray for her daughter’s spirit so that she can pass on. They mourn together and strengthen each other against the world.

A boy named Elijah would become that for me.

I met Elijah in a trailer-made classroom in my overcrowded public middle school. Elijah was always getting in trouble. In fact, he seemed determined to show anyone who made or upheld the rules that the joke was on them. I was obsessed with following the rules. And so Elijah made it his mission to poke at me, publicly, until I cracked. One day I finally did, and told him he would “never call me skin-and-bones again.” And he didn’t. He dubbed me affectionately Alley Cat. He once told me that I was one of the few people that was kind to him as the new kid from Oklahoma, even in spite of all his teasing: “There were little things that you would do that let me know you saw me, like ask me if I needed a pencil or whisper the page number we were on when I got called on by Ms. Allred.” Ms. Allred was our science teacher who was a white woman that seemed bent on breaking Elijah’s rebellious spirit as a Black boy. When we became friends, I never denied him to any others who raised an eyebrow. The truth was I admired Elijah, even though he intimidated and annoyed me. I remember one day, Ms. Allred ordered him out of class because he could not sit still in the sweltering trailer on a humid summer afternoon. A few minutes passed after he slammed the door, and we heard a rustling sound come from the woods– and then his voice call out, “Timbeeeeer!” Craaaack. And then a shuffling and dragging. And a WOMPF overhead. He had felled a small tree and hurled it on the rooftop. Elijah had a defiant and playful creativity, and a determination to be seen and free in spite of everything. And I was drawn to it. Something in me understood, even then, that the roles that the world imposed on us could not contain our humanity. One of the ways God breaks through is in becoming known through relationship that is honest, vulnerable, and builds trust. Elijah gave me permission to play, to embrace the strange and the non-conformist within me, to be wrong. I saw his constant pranks and he saw my constant correctness for what they were: defenses. Underneath them, we longed for love, understanding, purpose, freedom.

Do you remember the first time you felt truly seen by someone? Someone who saw past the armor we wear just to make it by? It’s an amazing thing, the first time you let someone love down your walls, and learn to do it back. Relationship helps us see the sacred in ourselves and each other that living with the false idols of Empire makes us numb us to.

For a time, I thought I could straddle both worlds of the dominant and counter culture. But, as Anne Braden, a White anti-racist activist from Mississippi, says, “In an oppressive society, there are always two sides and, at some point, one must choose.” Which brings me to my second point:

2. Turning from Empire to Experience Love

Thecla turns away from the role of wife, in which marriage transferred ownership over a woman’s body and labor from father to husband. She does this to pursue her calling with God. Tryphaena defies Alexander and the governor when she gives Thecla sanctuary. And in doing so, she rejects the role of benefactor. Wealthy benefactors of poor individuals or even entire cities played an important role in maintaining Roman hierarchy. They prevented the establishment from having to provide a safety net for all or to redistribute wealth. Help was given to gain public recognition: a name on the face of a building or a statue. But Tryphaena is not helping Thecla out of some sense of benevolence or self-importance. Her daughter’s spirit needs Thecla to pray for her, in order to transition into “the land of the just.” Conversion requires a rupture from sin, which is a state of separateness from God established by Empire. Empire violently defends its hierarchy by law and institutional policy. And it also does this through the ways we internalize and enact its practices of domination on each other.

One day, Laura Duskey called me to ask if she and Elijah could come over to my house to escape her parents, who did not approve of their relationship because Elijah was Black. Laura was one of the White girls I had grown up playing Barbies and Polly Pocket with, but we were freshmen in high school now. By this time our school counselor had told Elijah point blank that he should not expect to go to college. Even though his brilliance as a audio engineer was becoming every day more real, he had never learned how to sit still in class. I couldn’t accept this kind of treatment of my friend, so I lied to my mother and told her Laura was coming over to spend the night. We left for a walk around the block to meet Elijah. For about two minutes, we thought we had gotten away with it. But then Mr. Duskey’s SUV turned the corner and flooded us with its headlights. Laura charged her father screeching. He wound his hand back and struck her. Hard. Her body crumpled and he shoved her in the back seat. He turned and started towards Elijah. I stepped to Elijah’s side and squared my hips. I’ve always remembered the electric rising feeling in my body. I felt my connection with Elijah. I felt what I stood for. Mr. Duskey stopped short and looked at me. And I’ll never forget what he said: “Allison, you should be ashamed of yourself.” I was fuming in my silence and terror, but I was not going to move. Mr. Duskey turned and drove away. But afterward, I had a strange sense that I had done something wrong.

I couldn’t shake that feeling, even after I came home to my mother. She let me cry and made clear to me that she had known all along what I was up to but that she trusted me to stand for what I thought was right and to handle the consequences that might come. Yet it was quite clear to me in those searing words, you should be ashamed of yourself, that I had crossed some deeply entrenched line. As a little White girl, “innocence,” like “purity,” was something that I knew that I had and that I could lose. And the prospect of losing it felt like death. It hadn’t occurred to me that “innocence” wasn’t something afforded to all little girls and boys. It hadn’t occurred to me that the idea of “White female innocence” was another one of those inalienable truths through which I internalized both my inferiority as “woman” and superiority as “white."

Anne Braden writes a “Letter to Southern White Women,” in which she calls on them to reckon with both of these things simultaneously if they have any hope of real freedom: “We grow up little girls, absorbing a hundred stereotypes about ourselves and our role in life, our secondary position, our destiny to be a helpmate to a man or men. But we also grow up White, absorbing the stereotypes of race, the pictures of ourselves as somehow privileged because of the color of our skin. The two mythologies become intertwined, and there is no way to free ourselves from one without dealing with the other.” She writes about how the mythology of White female innocence was used to justify the lynching or legal death sentence of countless Black men under the accusation of rape of a white woman. In fact, rape as a capital crime was only adopted by the courts after the Civil War, to assist the wealthy, white, patriarchy to re-solidify their power and keep poor White and Black folks from coming together. The courts only ever convicted someone of rape if the accused was a black man and the victim a white woman. “Most real rapes go unpunished— and often unreported— because of the contempt with which police treat the complaining woman.”

When Thecla defends herself from rape, the courts find her guilty of “sacrilege,” or the violation of what is regarded as sacred. Clearly, the courts did not consider a woman’s body sacred. Rather, it held sacred a wealthy men’s right to her body– her sex, her womb, her childrearing, and housekeeping labor. It was typical for women to be raped again and again while awaiting trial, which is why Thecla pleads with the governor to “allow her to remain pure.” Some of the women cry out in defiance: “Godless judgement.” They know that too often, the law flies in the face of the sacred. These legacies won’t come undone without deciding to turn away from Empire in defense of the sacred we witness in ourselves and each other.

This would not be the last time that I came up against the violence of whiteness and patriarchy. When I broke up with my first boyfriend Tim, his best friend Jeremy sat me down at my house and told me that, as a virgin, I was not allowed to have sex with any man in town unless it was with Tim– or him. By this time, I had found my voice, and I told him he could have sex with himself, but in not so nice words. He raised his hand, but got up and ran out of the house “to stop himself from hitting me.”

That summer, I volunteered with a farmworkers union that was organizing immigrant workers who were resisting their brutal conditions in the agricultural fields of North Carolina. And I studied abroad in Peru to learn more about the struggles of campesinos against free-trade agreements that threatened to force many off their land. While there, I met a man named Claudio. For the first time, I fell in love and formed the most physically and emotionally intimate relationship I had ever had. But when I came home, I found out that one of my female friends had told the boys about it, and I had been excommunicated. I was still allowed to come into their space, but none of the men would look at me. Or if they did speak to me, they referred to me as “slut” or “whore,” as if it were my name. But my mother sensed in her spirit that something beautiful had happened to her daughter while I was away. She sat me down and asked me to tell her all about my love with Claudio. And when I did, she held my head in her hands and kissed my face. She went with me to Planned Parenthood and supported me in learning how to care for my body. She showed me that love across lines of difference and exploration of one’s pleasure was something to affirm, not apologize for. But I would have to give up some things to embrace it.

I had to confront then how Whiteness did not guarantee my protection. Whiteness was treated like a sacred territory to be defended, but white women’s bodies were a battleground. They were potential sites of invasion. And we, in our innocence, needed to be protected. But if we wanted intimacy with a Black or Brown man or woman, we were not only a threat, we were traitors. Whiteness was a space of privilege, but it was also a space of danger. Whiteness as a construct was certainly violent to the people of color that I cared about– and it was also toxic to me. I decided that I didn’t want [Whiteness'] protection or love. Although it might give me material privilege, it was always to be a pawn in their game. It was always to be an accomplice to violence against people of color. To accept it was always to be spiritually dead. I wanted to live. So I left the South running– and I spent the better part of my life running from whiteness.

Which brings me to my final point:

3. Becoming an Accomplice in Each Others Liberation

I came running to the Bronx hoping to learn how to be a better community organizer more committed to the cause. As a young organizer, I was always trying to be something other than who I thought the world had prepared me to be. And when we look at our political arena today, there are plenty of examples of white womanhood gone wrong. 53% of White women voted for Donald Trump, an open White supremacist and misogynist who is advancing an all-out demonic attack on femmes with his proposed health care bill that would slash Medicaid and consider being a survivor of rape or sexual assault or having depression or a C-section all pre-existing conditions that would be grounds for denying coverage. Meanwhile Hillary Clinton ran a campaign that made an appeal to a universal sense of sisterhood to rally women behind her, and yet her actions as a policymaker and War Hawk demonstrated a disregard and outright violence towards women of color. And she has repeatedly dismissed Black women and LGBTQ folks who try to challenge her.

Both of these are examples of sin: White women who are unable to see their stake in resisting an assault on their very bodies because they can only identify with their white privilege. Or White women who try to disappear women of color’s experiences within their own so they don’t have to give up anything.

I was introduced to my first faith community, New Day, in the process and I have been transformed in ways I would have never imagined. Faith community has helped me to stop running and instead take responsibility for the ways White supremacy lives in me. After all, we run the hardest from the things we don’t believe we are able to turn and face. And faith community has also asked me to answer the question, “Who are you, Child of God?”

When I came into New Day, I had almost entirely given up my creative gifts of writing and singing. But Lisa called both out of me and invited me to join the Worship Team and start a Writers Collective with her. I have been graced by her and other worship leaders like David, Rae, and QuiShaun, who inspire me to express myself fully, to come alive with all my body and soul, each time I get up in front of you to lead worship. Faith community affirms and holds us accountable to invest in our gifts, “to practice them so that all may see,” as Rodney told us, and to use them in service of God’s movement. And each time I do, I get to practice surrender and self-ownership, self-expression and co-creation all at the same time. So when it finally came to my day of baptism, I had no reservations, because I had experienced God in this place with you.

Thecla’s community is one of women coming together and using the tools and gifts that they got– their home, their bodies, their voices, their relationships, even their love medicine– to conspire for her liberation. They have a clear sense of their personal stake in it, but it extends beyond immediate privileges or concessions. One of my favorite scenes in the story is when the women throw spices and flowers into the waters of Thecla’s baptismal pool, in an offering that appears to be both a blessing and defense of her as the perfumes put to sleep the wild beasts sent to attack her. When the resistance from the crowd has reached a fever pitch, Tryphaena feigns her death so that Alexander and the governor call off the games, fearing retribution from her relative King Ceasar. She both leverages the perception of female helplessness and her powerful relationship with Caesar to her and Thecla’s advantage. And it’s a beautiful example of a woman exercising ownership of her body. I have been thinking a lot about how the femmes in my life have used what they have been given to bless and defend me, in particular my mother as I have been preparing to tell this story on Mother’s Day. And I have been learning a lot from reading about and contributing to the National Mamas Bail Out Day. This campaign was launched by Black Lives Matter organizers to reunite Black mothers with their families and raise awareness about the disproportionate impact of imprisonment and the bail system on LGBTQ communities and Black women. 44% of women in jail are Black. 62% of people in jail are there because they cannot afford bail. Mary Hooks, co-director of the Atlanta-based LGBTQ organizing project SONG, says: “We are using our collective resources to buy each other’s freedom.” And they are using an expansive definition of “Black mamas” on Mother’s Day to counter the ways our culture has limited the idea of who mothers are. Hooks says: “We know mothering happens in a variety of ways. Whether it’s the mothers in the clubs who teach young kids how to vogue or the church mothers who took care of me.”

When I was writing this sermon and painfully stuck on this last point, my co-conspirator Wendoly told me that one of my greatest strengths and weaknesses as an organizer is always that I was so concerned with how to be an accomplice to other people, that I never quite learned how to be an accomplice to my own liberation. I always struggled to see a clear vision of myself that wasn’t just a support to someone else. After eight years, I’m preparing to leave the organization that I love. In part, it’s because I no longer see being an organizer for a coalition that is committed to the leadership of people of color as the role I’m called to as a White woman. But it’s also because I have begun to ask: What I am called to as a child of God? What are the things I have been given that have untapped potential? So this summer I am headed to Ireland to re-connect with my ancestors. I’ve begun dreaming up exciting collaborations around music and writing. And I’ve begun a conversation with my family about how we leverage our resources that we have inherited to express our commitment to abundant life for all. I don’t have all the answers, but I am walking with these questions in faith, because I feel that I am not alone. I see now that in order to show up for the community I love, I need to learn how to show up for myself.

Each of us has to face who we are: an imperfect and sacred Child of God. Conversion is an ongoing healing of our humanity from the ways empire would have us enact violence on ourselves and each other on its behalf. Healing never comes through denial of any part of us. God cannot move through that which I refuse to take responsibility for– that which I cannot face and love into the light. That goes for both the sacred gifts that God has given and the sin of Empire that live within me.

I see myself in both Thecla and Tryphaena.

Most of our identities don’t break down along neat lines of marginalized and privileged. Where do they live in you? We are responsible to face and use all the parts of ourselves in the name of abundant life for all people and all creation. Whatever we do, may it be in the spirit of radical and humble contribution to a movement of God that is much bigger than each one of us and our small lives– and yet needs each of us to go on. The more we give up our illusions and give our gifts, the more we come alive.