Click here for General Assembly coverage

Do you feel freedom?

How do we reckon with the systems that formed us? How do we move forward? Eric D. Barreto and Willie James Jennings discuss.

This video clip and transcript are the fourth in a series of bonus content from a conversation between Eric Barretto and Willie James Jennings for Outlook’s April issue. Stay tuned for more extra content and read the full, edited version of their conversation here.

Eric: For folks who have already been formed in some of these spaces, who are leading churches, who are teaching in theological education, who have come up through the type of theological education that you diagnose so poetically and powerfully in After Whiteness: What are the practices of undoing some of that formation, of living otherwise, of belonging in a different way? What if I’ve been a pastor for 20 years? What are the first steps I take if I’ve been teaching in a seminary classroom for seven (years)? Where do I start?

Willie: You start by telling yourself, either in writing or however you can, your story of formation. Go back and touch the fabric of your own life in the places where the wounding began. That’s the first step. We want people to touch the wounding.

Yeah. I remember the first time they told me I was inadequate. I remember that first paper I got back that had so much red, I thought somebody had been cut. You start there, and then you ask, “When did I make the agreement?” When did I make the agreement that I would take on him? If you would let me be here, if you let me be in that place, I will become that man (White, self-sufficient, master, control).

When did I say that to myself? Where did I say that to myself? We start by recounting that story. That’s the crucial first step. The next step takes us to that biblical passage when Jesus had those many people who had to be fed. And the disciples said, “We don’t have anything to feed them.” And there was a little boy (to whom) Jesus said, “What do you have in your hand?” And so the second step is to take the fragments, the fragments of our lives and the fragments of what we’re doing – whether we’re professors or ministers – take the fragments and start to play with the fragments.

And at that moment, we want to walk away from needing to have mastery over (the fragments), needing to have control over them and needing to possess all of them. We just have fragments. And then we take those fragments, and we take the fragments of the stories of the people around us and even our own stories. And we start a new work of weaving. So those are the first two steps to start the new work of weaving the fragments in light of the history that brought me to this place, that brought me to this church, this pulpit, this lectern.

We take those fragments, and we take the fragments of the stories of the people around us and even our own stories, and we start a new work of weaving.

Because inside of that, Eric, is the freedom that so many, whether in the pulpit or the lectern, are yet to feel. I’ve been doing this for many decades now, and one of the things, one of the crucial questions that every pastor and every professor should ask themselves is this: Am I free? And if the first response is a feeling of irritation, “Why are you even asking me that?” Then we know that you are not.

And if there’s anything that a minister or professor should feel, more than anything else, (it) is the freedom: the freedom of being at the site of playing with the fragments. So we use that question as a profound indicator of the level of captivity that must be overcome in order to move forward. And I think, especially now as we are still in this pandemic, I think that question, “Do you feel freedom? Do you feel free?” (This) is a crucial question.

The April 2023 issue of Presbyterian Outlook explores the concept of belonging from various perspectives, identities, places and positions.

Order extra copies of this special issue for use in independent study, congregation-wide discussions, Sunday School classes or small groups. You can order extra copies today for just $4/copy while supplies last.