Split Second Decisions

Last week I posted a vaguebook request on my author Facebook page:

My Dear Readers,
I’d love your prayers. I am speaking two more times at chapel… I had something that happened at the first chapel that has shaken me up a bit….

There wasn’t enough time to elaborate but as a Christian brought up to believe prayer and the covering of prayer by your community is important I asked for prayer. I couldn’t type more. I couldn’t think about it too much because I wanted to cry, vomit, and scream.

Last week I was speaking on a Christian campus at the morning chapel services. I was preaching/speaking/talking using Mark 5: 21-33 as my text. I love this passage about Jairus and his 12-year-old daughter and the bleeding woman who had been bleeding for 12 years.  I have part of the passage tattooed on my right forearm as a reminder of what Jesus does for this woman.

I used the words menstruation and menstrual blood because that why the woman was bleeding. As a woman who was taught to be ashamed of her body and the things it did in order to one day bring forth life just like Mary did for Jesus, I believe it’s important to be beautifully explicit. I joked that it was probably the first time a chapel speaker talked about periods. I didn’t get much of a laugh. Whatever, I thought I was funny.

But the call to prayer was because as I was wrapping up I talked about a few things that are broken in this country, things that break my heart and make me desperate for Jesus. I mentioned the mass shooting that had just occurred in Aurora, IL and the arrest of an 11-year-old boy in FL who had refused to stand for the pledge of allegiance.

That’s a lie!

That’s when things got tense.

I believe my wording was along the lines of: “An 11-year-old was arrested for refusing to stand for the pledge of allegiance. I don’t know what you thought about Colin Kaepernick, but an 11-year-old being arrested breaks my heart.”

And then a male voice from the audience yelled back: “That’s a lie. He made terrorist threats!”

I have never felt so unsafe as I did in that moment.

In a split second I had to:

  • decide if I would respond to the man. I did not. I paused, caught myself and went on.
  • decide if I felt safe enough to stay on stage or trust the school would remove me from stage if someone else felt like I was in danger. I stayed but learned someone had moved quickly to get to me just in case.

Two more times

And then I went back up and did that same talk two more times. But I did it differently because after the first time I was asked about the Florida boy’s arrest. I was asked how I was feeling and if I was ok, but the conversation quickly shifted to the news story and one response was to point out that technically the boy was not arrested for refusing to stand for the pledge. No, technically no one can be arrested for that because it isn’t illegal to sit during the pledge. But the point was indirectly made clear that the particular example was now in question.

I just wrote a book about raising your voice and speaking up about the things we are most passionate about, and I am writing this as an example of when I chose to back off. I decided that for the next two talks I would not use the example of the 11-year-old being arrested, in part because his refusal to stand for the pledge angered the substitute teacher. I decided that I could not count on the school supporting me, a paid outside speaker, if and when concerned students, parents of students, and alumni emailed the school.

I decided that even though the man yelling at me was lying (the boy in Florida did not make terrorist threats) I didn’t want or need to put myself in that situation.

But it got me thinking

I’m not sure what I said the next two times I got up to preach/speak/talk. I did not feel great or even good about what I said and how I said it. I was unnerved, shaken, and scared. I did not know where the voice was coming from or if that young man was going to approach the stage. It didn’t matter which school it was, which state I was in, what the laws are. I didn’t know.

As a woman of color who talks publicly about things that are considered political (Jesus should get under everyone’s law and order skin because he didn’t care the woman broke the law by being in public while she was bleeding and unclean), I am not new to controversy. For all of the public speaking events I have done I have never once asked about crisis protocol, but this experience got me thinking about what I need to be asking event planners in the future.

It also got me thinking about imposter syndrome because in that moment of fear was also the fear that I had failed and couldn’t do the whole speaking in public thing even though that was exactly what I was doing. I told a friend of mine later that I felt like a failure, that as a WOC I can’t just be good enough or average. I have to be better than my best because so few of us get invited to preach/speak/talk that I feel like if I mess up event planners will be less likely to invite me again AND less likely to take a chance inviting another WOC they do not know or are less familiar with than, say, a white man or woman who has more platform than I. Does that sound absurd? This is what imposter syndrome operating in white supremacy sounds like. It tells me and other WOC that we have to actually be better than the average white woman or man to have a chance because we don’t get the same chances to build platform and audience.

It also made me angry. I have been asking for the past 10 years for an additional plane ticket to public speaking events so that I do not have to travel alone. I would’ve loved having a friend or my husband with me to pray with and cry with after this was all over. There were good people on campus with whom I could talk with, but no one I could just be completely honest and vulnerable with. I held it together like a professional Christian and waited until my husband greeted me at the curb and then I cried.

For all the conservative values around women and ministry and marriage, etc. you’d think I would’ve gotten at least one additional plane ticket in 10 years but maybe it’s because I’m a woman or a WOC with a smaller platform and less pull? Whatever. I’m still mad.

Welcome to the Christian Industrial Complex.

What’s next

The man was removed from the auditorium. I was told that it was swift, and I didn’t hear or see a commotion. I’m grateful. Rumor has it he was told that he should know better than to use the words “terrorist threats” these days in an auditorium, but the young man most likely would never be considered a terrorist, maybe a lone wolf at worst.

I’m grateful I’m safe and that he was removed without incident. I’m grateful he didn’t have a gun. I’m angry that I have to worry about this. I’m angry that I felt like my choice of words were in question and would not be supported. I’m angry that people may think this happened because of the specific campus or state. Nope. It’s all broken, it’s heart breaking, and it makes me desperate for Jesus.

This all came on the heels of my leaving InterVarsity Christian Fellowship after 21 years of ministry. This chapel talk that shook me to the core was on the Monday after my last day with an organization that helped shape my leadership and confidence. The devil is a liar but a sneaky one at that.

I’m not sure what’s next. I do know there aren’t any chapel talks or public events until May. There is time to cry some more, rest some more, pray some more.

My Dear Readers, thank you for praying, for the messages, for the texts. Thank you to the students who reached out via IG. No, that man doesn’t represent the whole of your community but he does represent a part of your community. His community patted him on the back and will use it as an example. What will you do with that knowledge? How will you love and correct siblings like that? And for that matter, that man isn’t just on a college campus. He’s in our churches and communities. My Dear Readers, how will be love and correct them when some of us are put in risky situations? How will thoughts and prayers cover us?

Platforms and #RubyWoo Lipstick

I’m not actually a high-maintenance woman (you can ask my husband), but I can look like one. I love doing my nails and applying sheet masks, and I always have on eyeliner. Red lipstick has always been my fav so if you follow me on Twitter you might have caught wind of the #RubyRevoWootion. #RubyWoo is my new favorite red lipstick and it’s less about lipstick and more about connections, platforms, voice, and sisterhood.

And it all started with me trying to not think about my book. My book manuscript is in the hands of my editor. He told me to mentally put it away and not think about all the things I already want to change, add, delete, etc. so I could come back to the editing process with an open heart and fresh eyes.

So I jumped right into dreaming about launching the book, about holding the finished product in my hands, and sending it out to a group of trusted friends and “influencers” who will leverage their “platforms” or circles of influence (which I write about in my book!) and cheer me and my book on by posting Amazon reviews, writing blog posts about my wise and winsome words, and sharing stylized photos on Instagram of my book on their table with the little freebie I give away.

(Insert sound of screeching brakes.)

In the world of Christian publishing I have generally only seen white female authors do what some call the “influencer box” – the box with the book, a lovely note, and a lovely gift packaged with the pretty crinkle-cut scraps of paper that make me want to order french fries in a color to match the cover. It wasn’t until my friend Deidra Riggs, who also is Black, sent out her first book “Every Little Thing” with a beautiful bracelet and matching set of notecards had I been the recipient of an influencer box and learned another nugget about the Christian Industrial Complex and marketing to Christian women (and by Christian women it’s usually geared towards white Christian women).

So I dreamed and vented with friends Deidra, Jo Saxton, and Amena Brown launching off of a Twitter thread about giving up platforms to return to the “work” of discipleship.

Building or obedience? Or both?

I don’t see building up a platform or giving it up as inherently good or bad. I do believe that if God has given you the talent and gifts to teach, preach, speak, and write and you don’t do it you will probably have a conversation with God about what you did with those talents you chose to bury. Personally, I have not set out to build a platform for myself. This space, my “voice” and influence has been 25 years in the making, maybe longer, and it has been a call to discipleship and obedience sometimes at great cost and indescribable blessing. This work of writing and speaking and in the process building a platform is about discerning what God’s invitation is to me, my family, and my community. How will I steward the gifts, talents, connections, and influence I have?

And in talking with my friends we agreed that the journey is very different for women of color. VERY DIFFERENT.

That is probably a blog series or a book alone. Just trust me, My Dear Readers. The journey is different for women of color no matter how many similarities all women have.

Back to the lipstick

So we come back to my soonish-to-be-published book and my hypothetical influencer box. I wanted “the gift” to reflect me and my voice and, though the book isn’t a “woman’s book,” I did not want to shy away from the fact that the power of my voice comes my living into my female voice.

My hypothetical influencer box would include a single-serving bottle of champagne (because launching a book is a celebration, and I love champagne) and a tube of lipstick.

But as My Dear Readers who wear makeup already know, makeup is tricky and lipstick colors get trickier. Women of all skin tones grow up with different messages about wearing makeup – when you can, if you can, what it means, etc.  And how do you find a lip color that looks good on a group of racially, ethnically diverse women? Because if an imaginary donor or book launch fairy godmother was going to help pay for a tube of lipstick for my influencers it better work for my dark-skinned friends as well as my light-skinned friends because I am not color blind. And, I am that friend who would tell you that that color doesn’t look good on you.

And that’s how and why I started tweeting and asking around about MAC cosmetic’s #RubyWoo. I think it was Jo who mentioned the specific color to me around the time I had Googled “is there a universal red lipstick” where the first article was about #RubyWoo.

And then Deidra started this Twitter thread about “Women I’m for:” with an ever-growing list of amazing women with their own circles of friendships and spheres of influence. I’m no marketing genius, but that thread of women have opinions so I asked if anyone had a connection to MAC or wore #RubyWoo. Maybe I am a marketing genius (where is that commission check, MAC?) but now that thread includes about 50 very diverse women trying on red lipstick for the first time, posting a photo of themselves wearing #rubywoo, and feeling like they are a part of something big and new and fun and beautiful because we are part of what I’m calling the #RubyRevoWootion.

So if you want to join the #RubyRevoWootion just put on that bold red lipstick (or put on whatever makes you feel empowered and fierce and speak up. Love one another boldly. Cheer on one another fiercely.

 

What Are You Worth?

No one likes to talk about money.

I mean we/I like to talk about it in the abstract. We can talk about it in terms of statistics (Women’s Equal Pay Day) or generalities (tax brackets) but there is a degree of taboo in talking about the nitty gritty. Because of what I do (work for a religious non-profit where I raise my entire salary through donations) many of my donors know about how much I could make and some ask how much I actually make.

Raising your own salary does a number on your soul. Some of it is messy in a “I know this is holy work” way and some of it is just plain gross. When people decline to give or stop giving to my support, I’m not supposed to take it personally but sometimes I do. I’m supposed to trust that it’s all in God’s hands. Some days I believe that. Some days I don’t because the bills are in my hands. There are also other layers because of gender and culture. If you grew up in the Church, think of the missionary families you or your church has supported. My husband is not the one called to vocational ministry; I am. Now, who supports the family? See? Layers.

I think many of us have a complicated relationship with money and how it isn’t supposed to be everything but we know it’s something. As Christians we are taught that we can’t have two masters, but personally the interpretation and application of that gets even messier when we remember America’s sinful relationship with slavery, mastery, and money – the Church included. As the child of immigrants, money was a means to stability and safety in a way I could not fully understand as a child. I can still sense that tenuous relationship between faith and security when my parents express their disappointment in how little my job currently pays. I have to actively remind myself they aren’t disappointed with me. They are disappointed in a system that doesn’t pay me what they think I am worth.

Which has gotten me thinking about my side-gig. I am a writer and speaker, and I often get paid for those opportunities because they are also jobs. It is work to write and/or speak/guest preach/present/teach/train. More often than not, I get paid very little or am asked to do it for free.

Corporate trainers, corporate editors, pastors, teachers all get paid. It’s fairly easy with a few keystrokes to find out the salary range in the school district my children attend. I can ask friends what their churches pay their pastors. My friends who are in the hiring loop in the business sector openly share starting salary ranges.

It’s a little more awkward in the Christian speakers circuit. Yes, there is a circuit -many circuits that overlap, run parallel, etc. And it’s a business, which is weird because it is also ministry and vocation and calling and all sorts of spiritual terms that make it that much more difficult to talk about MONEY.

So, I am going to do something awkward. I’m going to talk about money. My money. (This is where I am getting ready to duck and to read/hear comments about how I should be grateful, how that is too much, how nice it would be to make that kind of money, etc. Deep breath.)

I have already heard all of those things. I am tired of being asked to do what I do for free because it’s ministry, because I am a woman and not the one supporting my family, because it’s for a good cause, or because it’s a great opportunity to increase my platform. I have been told that my going rate is too high, that I should take what is offered, that organizers were surprised I would ask for money, that I am not well-known enough to have a rate, etc.

My going rate for a day is $1500 plus travel, lodging, meals. I fly coach. I will drink instant coffee. I don’t have to check in luggage. I won’t, however, guarantee I will be wearing something with a waistband, a collar, or pockets (male sound people often don’t know what to do with me).

I have never received my going rate. And in conversations with many other WOC who do what I do, we often are grossly underpaid.

YES, I KNOW THAT MANY PEOPLE ARE GROSSLY UNDERPAID. That is not my point. I am talking about Christian POC and specifically WOC who are being asked to lead, preach, speak, train, etc. and are being asked to work, to do what our white Christian counterparts can’t do, but not being paid for it and being told to be grateful.

I have been in vocational ministry for almost 20 years. I oversaw ministry involving 300+ students at a Big Ten university. My writing credits include a book, two devotionals, a contribution to a monograph, and five years of bylines as a newspaper reporter. As a 1.5 generation Korean American immigrant now in the sandwich generation who paid her and her husband’s student loans off so that we could now take on parent loans for our oldest child my lived experience may actually more “universal” than many white speakers.

Now, I set my initial going rate several years ago at $1,000/day at the advice of a mentor – an older, very learned, seminary professor, theologian, international speaker-type. He recommended no less because it isn’t just about the talk I’m being asked to give. He reminded me that it is my lived experience, expertise, time away from my day job and family, and preparation that needs to be considered. He told me, “Kathy, you are worth at least that per day.” He told me I might not get paid that much but that I needed to decide how much my time was worth. He also was honest and told me that as a woman of color I couldn’t be “good” like most white speakers, particularly male speakers. He told me that I had to be better than good because that is the unjust reality.

I knew the part about being better than good. That message was engrained in me by my grandmother and parents. The message was always “KyoungAh, you have to be better/smarter than Americans (translation: white people) because that is the only way they will see you almost as equal.

But the dollar amount? $1,000 a day? For doing something that I actually love doing? Something I’ve been told that I am fairly good (maybe better than good) at doing?

I was speechless.

And then I started asking around and realized I am worth that. Good grief. I am worth more than that, but again a good Christian Korean American with a uterus and breasts does not talk about worth in connection to money. The message, direct and indirect, is that I should be grateful for whatever comes my way like the birds of the air. The message is that I should be grateful to speak from my unique lived experience as a Korean American woman in ministry to speak/preach/train/teach/share from that unique lens because other speakers cannot because they speak from a universal lens.

I and many, if not most, of my sisters of color who do this work are now being told by the Church our stories and perspectives are needed because they are sorely and obviously lacking but we aren’t worth the same money.

Maybe if I hired an agent my agent could do the dirty/awkward work of negotiating speakers fees. Yes, many of your beloved Christian speakers have agents and there are agencies that represent many beloved Christian speakers. Most of those speakers are white men and women. #NotAllAreWhiteChristians but many of them are, and, yes, that is changing. And, yes, I have thought about hiring an agent (so if any of you agents are out there, feel free to contact me though I have also been doing some homework).

But that isn’t the magic wand to drive change. Change will only happen when several things start happening in different spheres at the same time with enough frequency to start forcing, encouraging, inviting change particularly as the Church and Christian conferences wake up to the racial, ethnic, gender, and cultural diversity that exists in the world is rarely reflected on the big and smaller stages, platforms, podiums, and pulpits of our Christian world.

So let me offer a few questions for conference planners, folks who invite guest speakers to preach in their churches or at the church events, etc. to consider as they invite people like me, especially as they are looking to diversify the line-up:

1. What do you pay and offer to your “big name” speakers and consider what it means to pay fairly and justly? Do you negotiate honoraria the same with all of your speakers and worship leaders?
2. Consider what is the person’s expertise and experience worth because that is also what you are investing in and paying for. Many times I get asked to speak on the difficult topics of race and faith. There is a cost to being that person. If you don’t understand that, ask other POC, particularly women of color who speak, preach, lead worship and ask them.
3. If you are inviting someone to be a guest preacher: your church’s preaching teacher’s salary/# of weeks she/he preaches = a good starting point for a guest preacher.
4. Many conferences put a lot of good time, energy, and money into pulling off a “professional” event. Are you paying your professionals accordingly? If you are inviting them to be on the main stage, aren’t they all main stage speakers? Do you think of them as equally important but not pay them equally? Why not?
5. If you lack the skills to fix a leak in your home or building, would you ask a plumber to fix your bathroom for free and tell her/him to be grateful for the opportunity and chance to build her/his reputation? Then why are you asking an entire worship team to do something you can’t do for free?

And for my dear readers who are worship leaders, writers, or speakers, what other questions or suggestions do you have for those who hire, invite, and plan these conferences?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Book Review: Streams Run Uphill


I can tell stories upon stories about the challenges of women of color face as they minister as a vocation. One of the difficulties hinges on the idea of story as being a legitimate teaching tool. My personal experience has been that my stories, woven into a sermon, often are received as something unique to me and not something from which listeners can draw life lessons about faith and faithfulness.

I may share or give talks, but there often is a moment of hesitation before someone – and that someone may even be myself – will say I teach or preach.

But story is what scripture is. It is truth told through story – narrative, historic, poetic, and prophetic. Jesus tells stories as he tests the patience of the Pharisees, the crowds, and the disciples. We learn about Ruth, Esther, and Mary through their stories.

When teachers and preachers get up to do their thing in front of the congregation or in front of the conference, they use and tell stories to invite people into a relationship with God.

In doing so, in being faithful to the call to be vocational ministers, women of color face having to validate their story and their place in the bigger narrative in unique ways. Personally, I have not chosen that path fully as I have not felt the call to complete an advanced degree in theology or pursue ordination and a formal call to serve in the church. But I know intimately many of the stories I read in “Streams Run Uphill: Conversations with young women of color,” by Mihee Kim-Kort, Judson Press, 2014.

In fact the first page of the foreword made me stop with these words:

“The uphill struggle is not the result of their swimming against the will of the Holy Spirit. Rather, they swim uphill as they struggle to overcome the sexism, racism and ageism that are thrown before them as obstacles to God’s calling,” writes Marvin A. McMickle, PhD, president and professor of church leadership at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School.

It’s an important word, perhaps for the many women who will pick up this book because they are drawn to the familiar stories, but more importantly for those who aren’t naturally drawn by kinship but because they personally have either thrown down the obstacles or have done nothing to remove them.

This book doesn’t need to be read by the women who are already living different parts of the stories in the pages. Those women, I suspect, are the primary audience for this book, which in its accessible format could be used as a guided reflection. Yes, those readers will find much-needed inspiration, encouragement, and advocacy. Yes, those readers will find their stories validated in a way only similarity can provide. Yes, those readers should read this book because so very few are written specifically to this audience.

However, if only those women who are already looking for inspiration, encouragement, and advocacy read the book, the obstacles will not be removed fast enough, in my opinion, for the need of another version of this book in the future. We women need more than validity. We need new advocates who are willing to read a book they personally are not drawn to, wrestle with their own complicity or apathy, and take small and big specific action steps to dismantle, destroy, and permanently remove the obstacles that force streams uphill.

This isn’t a book arguing for the ordination of women. This book presupposes clergywomen, but just because a denomination or church allow clergywomen doesn’t mean there actually are any. This book needs to get into the hands of church leaders who say, “We welcome any women (and women of color) to apply. Our doors are open.” This book needs to get into the hands of congregants who think similarly, even if it is about the diversity in their pews. Why? Because an open door doesn’t mean there aren’t any other obstacles to get through and feel like the door was open not by accident but as an intentional way of welcoming new leaders with new stories.

*Disclosure: I received a free preview copy of the book from the publisher for this review. No monetary gifts were offered in exchange for this very, very overdue review of “Streams Run Uphill”.