Over the next 12 months, the Forum for Theological Exploration is spotlighting 12 leaders, their stories, and how their passion and call to shape a more hopeful future through Christian ministry guides the impact they are making in their communities, institutions and universities. You can find the full series, here.
By Rev. Jennifer Bailey, Founder and Director of Faith Matters Network
I am writing this reflection at the foot of my mother’s hospital bed as she lay sleeping. At 28 years old, the sight of my mother immobilized by illness is not new to me. I first learned about her cancer on my 14 th birthday. That morning, my parents explained that my mama would be going into the hospital for a procedure called a lumpectomy to remove a tumor in her right breast. I was confused and embarrassed because, truth be told, I had no idea that she was sick.
That summer, goodbyes to the places and people that had defined my childhood occupied my teenage brain. A week after my mother’s surgery, I would leave the bucolic beauty of my small town to start high school under the heat of Chicago’s bright lights.
Prior to my mother’s diagnosis, the decision for me to leave was an easy one for my parents. For all of its charms, my hometown was not an easy place for a little black girl to grow up. It is a place that often resists change in the name of tradition. Unfortunately, in a community that is 90 percent white those traditions rarely left space for people like me. Yet for every racist taunt I endured on the playground and hostile classroom environment, there were places and people of solace. None was more meaningful to me than Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church.
Sunday mornings were the only time in my young life that I felt free to be fully embodied. From Reverend Pendleton, I learned that my blackness was not the source of shame, as my playground tormentors implied, but a source of great pride. I learned about Richard Allen, whose protest against racial injustice led to the founding our denomination. I heard stories about Jarena Lee, the first woman Allen authorized to preach, who travelled 2,325 miles by foot preaching the gospel. As I grew, my story became enmeshed with theirs, until the rivers that separated us became one fluid ocean moving across space and time.
It is not a surprise to me then, that the faces that became so familiar to me in the pews those Sunday mornings are the same ones flowing in and out of my mother’s hospital room today. Sister Connie stopped by the room. So did Reverend Hailey. Over the years, while I became a sojourner, my mom stayed in my hometown. A complex mix of health insurance, job security, and family mess each contributed their part to the cement that fastened her here. Yet the cancer was the binding agent. For fourteen years it traveled through her body attaching itself to new locations along the way.
As a bratty adolescent, I did not understand the sacrifice my mother made by allowing me to stay in Chicago while she underwent treatment. She knew that I was receiving a higher quality education than anything my hometown offered. Yet, that meant missing out on the daily routines and mundanities that work together to form the joys of parenthood. Yet even in the middle of rigorous chemotherapy regimens, she always found a way to show up at orchestra concerts and homecoming dances. In doing so, she taught me the value of presence.
I have been an ordained minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ for 2 years, 4 months and 10 days. In my short career as a clergywoman, I have found that the lessons of presence from my mother have taught me more than any text I read in seminary. So often as clergy we focus on the results of what we do. Did I nail that sermon? Did the liturgy flow just right?
Within the social justice circles that I am part of, we ask different questions but with a similar orientation. Did the direct action we just did put enough pressure on that elected official? Did my speech at that rally demonstrate just how “woke” I really am? If we are to actualize the world we wish to see, it is clear that our actions and the results they produce are important. Yet, we must also remember that some of life’s most precious and valuable lessons are gleaned when we take the time to pay attention to our experiences as we are living them.
That is why I must conclude this piece. My mother is awake now and it is time to return to her the gifts she so selflessly gave to me: her time, her attention and her presence.
Rev. Jennifer Bailey is an alum of Forum for Theological Exploration. Named one of 15 Faith Leaders to Watch by the Center for American Progress, she is an ordained minister, public theologian, and emerging national leader in multi-faith movement for justice. Jennifer is the Founding Executive Director of the Faith Matters Network, a new interfaith community equipping faith leaders to challenge structural inequality in their communities. Rev. Bailey comes to this work with nearly a decade of experience at nonprofits combatting intergenerational poverty.
A Truman Scholar and Nathan Cummings Foundation Fellow, Rev. Bailey earned degrees from Tufts University and Vanderbilt University Divinity School, where she was awarded the Wilbur F. Tillett Prize for accomplishments in the study of theology. She writes regularly for a number of publications including Sojourners and the Huffington Post. Her first book, tentatively titled Confessions of a #Millennial #Minister is currently under contract with Chalice Press. Rev. Bailey is an ordained itinerant elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.