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Read to leave home

To grow, we need to “leave home” physically, psychologically or spiritually, writes Teri McDowell Ott.

I haven’t traveled in a few weeks. But I have left home.

Practical theologian James Fowler discovered that most adults in American churches find themselves in a state of stasis midway through six stages of faith development. At this mid-point stage, individuals mirror or conform to the values and beliefs of their community. For individuals to grow in faith, Fowler writes, they must “encounter experiences or perspectives that lead to critical reflection on how their beliefs have formed or changed, and on how ‘relative’ they are to one’s particular group or background.” We need to “leave home” physically, psychologically or spiritually to encounter people and perspectives different than those we’ve always known.

Reading is perhaps the easiest way to “leave home” without hauling ourselves out of our beloved armchair. Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead recently took me to southern Appalachia and the challenges impoverished people face there. Trust by Hernan Diaz transported me to the lives of 1920s Wall Street tycoons where truth is easily warped by the power of wealth. Grievers by adrienne maree brown landed me in a locked-down Detroit where a mysterious new virus is killing its people.

As a book addict, choosing what to read and when is a struggle. I follow my curiosity paired with an honest examination of my areas of growth. Over the past few years, I’ve intentionally prioritized authors and books that take me outside my particular White, cis-gender window on the world.

This intention led me to pick up a book by Farah Jasmine Griffin, chair of the African American and African Diaspora Studies Department at Columbia University. When Griffin was nine years old, her father died from a stroke and the mishandling of his medical emergency by White police officers who presumed he was drunk. Rocked by her father’s death, Griffin leaned into her inheritance – a home full of books – for strength. Her father had taught her that reading was central to their struggle for justice and freedom, and to their development as human beings. He bequeathed Griffin books by James Baldwin, Frederick Douglas, Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, Toni Morrison and more. Inside were handwritten notes: “Baby, read until you understand.”

As I read Griffin’s Read Until You Understand: The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature, I left home, immersing myself in Black culture, writing and literature that I had not grown up with, that had not been centered in my education. At one point, Griffin recalls reading Toni Morrison’s Sula at age 13, and taking pleasure in reading the text aloud, hearing the familiar way Morrison brought Black dialogue to life. Upon finishing the novel, 13-year-old Griffin wondered, “Why did I now see my world, my family, my neighbors differently? Why did it seem so overwhelmingly beautiful, and why did it seem to even stretch my own understanding of what ‘beauty’ is or means?”

Reading Griffin’s reaction to Morrison made me contemplate my own. I’ve always found Toni Morrison’s writing brilliant, but difficult to follow because it was foreign to my cultural experience. Griffin’s words made me want to return to Morrison so I, too, could read until I understand.

This conscious, book-based “travel” is a spiritual pursuit, the disruption of a stagnant faith tied to stagnant self-growth. I am a person in process, guided by a God who imagines more for me than I could ever imagine for myself. The more I journey among people and perspectives different than those I’ve always known, the more I understand, and the more faithful I can become.

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