07/21/2014 04:52 pm ET Updated Sep 20, 2014

6 Lessons from my Liberation Song

'The Spirit of God hath made me, and the breath of the Almighty hath given me life.' Job 33:4

As a black, queer woman, who spent most of the first 18 years of my life growing up in Camden, New Jersey, a city which has long held the dubious distinction of being ranked one of the poorest, most crime-ridden places in the United States, being who I was, was only supposed to guarantee me about four things in life: an experience of uninterrupted poverty; a lack of educational opportunity; a perpetual battle with low self-esteem; and a lousy job.

But what it was not supposed to even allow me to imagine, let alone embrace, was that there might be something blessed, and beautiful, something BELOVED about my embodiment. And yet, by the time I was eight years old, God had already begun to sing a new song in my ear. And it was a liberation song.

The words to that song went something like this:

"You are my beloved daughter in whom I am well pleased. YOUR NAME IS LISA. You will not pass through this life unheard or unloved. Instead I will always cause you to remember that I exhale my belovedness onto you -- in all of your black, queer splendor -- as I do to everything that I have made. And because I have caused you to know this, I call you to dedicate your life to proclaim the very same to every creature I put in your path."

Now I came to Christianity in a somewhat unlikely way given who I am. The liberation song I first heard in Camden, New Jersey, came to me via the airwaves of a white conservative radio station: WKDN, the Sound of New Life. I used to listen to it on a tiny portable transistor radio while I was held up in my bedroom. I used to lock myself away in that room because I didn't' feel right in my flesh. Besides being black and queer, I also had a physical disability, and I was just so sure because of these identities that this pile of me was unworthy.

And yet behind those closed doors God sang to me. God breathed on me. And God did so through messengers that I would later critique for the privatized "Jesus saves" perspective that would fuel the rhetoric of the Christian Right.

But for reasons that I can only attribute to the grace of God, my poor, black, queer, disabled self began to experience God as an aching, yearning Presence that longed for ME through those messages. Imagine that! Imagine a God so determined to liberate me from the principalities and powers of this world's racist, homophobic, misogynist, classist wickedness that She would mount a "By Any Means Necessary" campaign to call me out -- to call me beloved.

Sometimes I still have to pinch myself. But what I learned from that experience is that I am not alone. My story is not unique. There is a whole world of us out there. And in order for the Church to really be the church today, we must bear witness to the liberation song God has sung to us, and the life lessons those songs have taught us, and can teach others -- right here and right now.

And so from my liberation song I learned six important lessons that I share with you.


#1 Don't be afraid to proclaim your testimony. It is the story of what God has done for you. It is the space where your liberation shines. And every Christian -- but especially those of us who the Church has often cast out, but whom God has always held dear -- needs to tell these stories to each other and to the world. Because the same God that liberates me, liberates each and every one of us. God is one, and we are many in God's oneness. So sing your particular liberation song.

#2 Ground your identity in God first, last and always, and work for the kind of justice that makes space for every other creature of God to do the same. For me this is the spirituality that must undergird every aspect of our lives and our work. We need the God content to pour out of everything we do, or else we die on the vine.

#3 Refuse to "laundry list" your humanity. One of the biggest challenges those of us with multiple identities frequently face is falling into the trap of reducing the complexity of who we are to a check-off list of categories. By itself, this practice can feel objectifying and limiting and put a chokehold on our imaginations. Don't do it. Don't run the list -- "I am a black, queer, disabled..." -- unless you are ready to tell a deeper truth: "I am Lisa, beloved daughter of God..."

#4 Invest in some folks you can love, and then love them hard! Every day in my job at Auburn Theological Seminary, I get to run a program that I created called the Sojourner Truth Leadership Circle. And get this, my job is to love black women for a living, by helping them figure out how to love themselves and their communities. I get to create a context for them to hear and to sing their liberation song. Now that's beloved community formation at the intersections. So I say find your folk even if they don't look like you and then fall in love with each other.

#5 Be fiercely, fabulously and unapologetically joyful. This is not a call to be a Pollyanna, but to be passionately and prophetically authentic. It is a call to find what gives you great joy and lean into it with all of your heart and soul! What is that thing you do that connects you to the very best in yourself? Me, I find my joy at the gym. I am fierce there. I come alive when I sweat. I take up space. I am loud. And from that place of deep authenticity I realize that I am powerful. This fuels my connection to God and my activism. So go get you some fabulous.

#6 And finally, embrace self-care as a mandate for prophetic witness. In other words, don't believe one of the biggest lies of our work: "til-you-drop, sacrifice yourself for the cause society," namely that self-care is an indulgence "real" justice seeking and loving people can't afford. Wrong! Wholeness and wellness is the birthright of every being created in the image and likeness of God -- period! And when we embrace this truth in our own lives, and commit to helping others do the same, we bear witness to the fact that we believe the promises of God's goodness and grace now. For didn't Jesus say, "I came that you would have life and have it abundantly?" And didn't Audre Lorde have Jesus' back 2,000 years later when she proclaimed, "self-care is not a luxury. It is an act of political resistance." Two people of color who heard God's song, sang them out loud and who continue to teach all who have ears to hear that we are all God's own beloved! Now that's what, I'm talking about.