Joining the Conversation: Women, Racism, & the Church feat. Michelle Lang
Michelle Lang was a long-time resident of Seattle, Washington and now lives in Portland, Oregon where she works at Warner Pacific University as a campus professor and pastor. She also serves in worship ministry at her church.
At a young age, her passion for the arts, youth ministry, community development, and cross-cultural collaboration collided. She began working with nonprofit organizations, churches, and schools to help create better programs and opportunities for urban youth. In 2015, she drew on her extensive background to the theater to create an interactive workshop called The Art of Tough Talks to help foster conversations on often polarizing topics. That’s right, everybody, this is going to be one fun conversation.
I would love to DIVE IN & talk about women in ministry. what do you hope and dream for women coming up into leadership, specifically pastors & women who are gifted communicators like yourself?
I hope that it’s not so surprising that women are good at this. It’s as if when a woman gets on a pulpit or a platform and does a good job, people are surprised by how good she is. Why is that? Was the expectation so low? Did you think she couldn’t communicate clearly, wasn’t versed in scripture, or wasn’t cultured in life? I think there is this notion that women can or should only communicate with women or that women’s experiences are not relevant to the whole congregation or community. That’s so crazy; women are so responsible. I don’t know this for a fact, but I’m just thinking about my own congregation, the majority who are women.
I was scrolling on the internet, and I saw this conference. I think it was a family conference, and literally, they had maybe 10 speakers on this flyer. It was nine men and one woman, and the woman was the worship leader or something like that. I don’t usually make a big statement online because I think it’s just like yelling out in the wind sometimes, but I did that day. I was like,”I don’t get this. It’s unscientific, but I would imagine that 60-70% of people in congregations are women. I don’t understand how 10 of the speaking spots were filled with guys. Who said that was okay?”
I did get some responses, but I was like, “Prove me wrong.” What is going to be missed here? A woman’s perspective, generally speaking, is a missed opportunity. You are not doing a woman a favor by putting her on a program. You’re not doing a woman a favor by letting her have a voice. Women have a voice everywhere in society. You are being mindful of your congregation by making sure that her voice is prominently featured. I think sometimes people think they are doing congregations a favor or an individual woman a favor if they let her be on a program and I think that’s such an insult.
How do you help encourage pastoral staff Teams to think differently?
Yeah, there are two instances that I can think of off the top of my head. I was on a praise and worship team at a missions conference that was about three days long. At this conference, literally every one of the plenary speakers were men. I asked the person who was leading the worship team that I was on, “Do you see that?” and he said, “I didn’t see it.”
He is a good guy, but it never raised a flag for him. I think when you are the majority group–whatever that group is–you have a harder time seeing these inequalities; you really don’t even think about it. I, on the other hand, as an African-American woman, walk into spaces and immediately do a count. It’s involuntary; it’s not that I want to. Yet still, I immediately look around the room for people like myself.
I talked with this man and told him, “You have to practice seeing this.” He said to me, “Well, you’re on the worship team. Does that count as voice?” I said, “No. I’m singing the words of someone else’s songs. I don’t ever get to actually speak, let alone speak my own thoughts. Standing up here singing songs does not count as my authentic voice.”
The other situation was right after the 2016 election. My church pastor decided to set aside his sermon for the day and have a panel at the church to talk about how we were feeling and just take a moment for everybody to exhale. This was not a Sunday for a regular sermon. I was on the worship team, so I sang. Then I sat through the first service just like everyone else. When I went back after the service, the pastor asked me, “How does it feel from the seats? How was that discussion?” I said, “I think it was good, mature, and the right thing to do. Just for your information, there were no women on your panel so you didn’t have a woman’s voice up there. Considering the rhetoric of the campaign, I think a woman’s voice is important. You had people of color, but I think it would be good to have a woman.”
He asked me, “How did I miss that?” Again, another good guy, who thinks globally and mindfully about these things, yet he still missed it. In my mind, I was like, “ I don’t know. I don’t know how you miss that.” So he looked at me and said, “Can you be on the panel for the second service?” Everything in me wanted to say no because I didn’t have time to prepare or contour my answers, and I didn’t have any time to tame my emotions. But the Holy Spirit told me, “If you don’t go do it, there won’t be an effort to go find someone else.” So I said yes, and I said, “Holy Spirit get me ready because now I have to sing and do this panel.” So I did it, but again, it was just a situation where he didn’t even think about it. It didn’t even occur to him that voice matters, and it should be activated as organically and naturally as the guys. I think it is a misstep to not want a woman’s voice there. Well-meaning people need to learn how to think differently.
Another part of my story that I forgot to include. When I finished singing with the worship team at the first service, I went and sat in my seat and there were two people (a guy and a woman) next to me who I didn’t know (I think they were visitors). As the panel began to talk, the woman sitting there said, “I can’t believe they don’t have a woman up there.” She said it about three times, and by the third time she said, “Ugh, I just can’t sit here.” She got so upset while the panel was talking that she got up and walked out of the service. The guy didn’t realize she left, and so I’m looking at him like, “Your woman just left.” When she left, I sat there and I thought, “She didn’t have to do it like that. She didn’t have to be that ungraceful.” When I discussed it with the pastor, I didn’t get mad over it. I simply let him know that he missed a step.
I think that’s the message. The men in the churches need us to show grace, and we need them to help create space and advocate for us. I think we both need each other.
I think some people will say we’ve been needing this for years, and that’s right. Either we step in or we don’t. I think not stepping in means we are missing an opportunity to speak into things. She left and she was angry, but if it stopped there, my pastor would have never gotten the note. I think as women in these positions, we have to understand that part of our position is to speak up and say, “Did you notice that you’re missing this voice?”
speaking of voices, You created something called “The Art of Tough Talks.” What is the Art of Tough Talks, and why did you start this?
The Art of Tough Talks is a performance-based interactive workshop that fosters conversation on often-polarizing topics. Subtlety has a place, but so does intention and directness.
It began back in November 2015. I woke up to watch the Today Show, and Matt Lauer reported the outcome in the Mike Brown case in Ferguson, Missouri. Mike Brown was the young man who had an incident with the police and was shot. People can waver in their thoughts about that, but what is for sure is that he was left in the street dying for four and a half hours. I was struck by the inhumanity of that. Before Mike Brown, we had Trevon Martin and other instances, but Mike Brown was really the case that created the revolution of Black Lives Matter.
Before the Mike Brown case was decided, the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter had probably been tweeted 20 times a day. On the day that that case was reported, I think that there were 100,000 times as many hashtags in 24 hours. By the end of the month–which was just a few days–it had gone up to 2 million times. That was really the thing that created the avalanche of that movement. That day when I woke up and saw that, I (as an African American woman) was like, “Whoa. I think our nation just changed. I think something just happened.”
Still, I went to work where it was the last day at Warner Pacific University. We were having chapel that day. I was sitting there in the Christmas chapel where people were singing Christmas carols, but inside I was so heartbroken. At the time, Warner Pacific University was still predominantly white; now we’re about 63% people of color, so we’ve evolved a lot. I go to a church that is, for lack of a better definition, a big white church. I just saw these people wrestling to understand what the unrest was about in the African American community. They kept asking, “Why are you all so mad? What’s wrong? What’s going on?”
That’s when the comparison of Black Lives Matter versus All Lives Matter began. I saw good-intentioned, well-meaning people have a hard time talking. This came from a lack of understanding one another and at some point, they would just stop listening. We went from Black Lives Matter to All Lives Matter to Blue Lives Matter, and now we’re just not listening.
I was sitting in church one day, and I had this spiritual vision of when the pastor dismissed us for the day, that everybody was leaving. He had done this incredible message about racial reconciliation and meeting your neighbor and loving the other. I had this vision that while everybody was leaving the building, the entire congregation turned around and yelled back at the pastor, “We had no idea how to do what you just said. As much as we want to love and care and talk, we have no idea how to do it!” I felt like the Holy Spirit said, “Michelle, you have to create a tool to help people talk.” I thought, “No! Somebody else should do that; I have other things going on!” The Spirit said to me, “No, I’ve gifted you to do it.”
That happened during Christmas break. I then called on my background in theater and facilitation and called on a script called the Guitar Section. I decided I would have a cast deliver a 20-minute performance, and when it was done, instead of everybody leaving, we would turn the microphone to the audience and say, “Let’s talk.”
Art is a different filter for people to process through than a lecture or a sermon. When somebody just gets up and says something, people decide if they agree or disagree or they argue about it. When you use art, people are inclined to share their thoughts and opinions because it’s through the filter of an art piece. You and I could go to a museum and look at the same art piece on a wall. I might like it and you don’t, but we could discuss why we did or didn’t like it. It gives grace to people by saying, “I don’t agree with you, but I see your point.” My thought was to use art to help people have these tough talks. People could end up talking about the hard things anyway, but it was safer.
what have been some examples of people changing their ideas and opinions through the art of tough talks?
We began this work about four years ago, and we’ve done this over 40 times. We’ve done it all over the place: churches, colleges, high schools, etc. What we’ve learned is that people do want to talk. People do want to listen, but in the hostility of normal conversations, people sometimes decide to check out. The risk is not worth the outcome, and what they hope to get is not worth the risk. One of the things we feel our work has done is assure people that if nothing else, you’re going to hear and be heard here. We just did this in Eugene to a very mixed audience, and that still continues to be the story of our work.
So, once you’ve performed and once you’ve had the conversation, what are people taking away? Are they taking away an enlightened view? What are you hoping happens as people leave that space and go back out into their worlds?
I think one of the things that people are learning is that there are more things to talk about than just the bottom line issues we so often argue about. In our work, the piece that we have toured for 40 or more times, people have ended up talking about racial justice and racial equity. People get tangled up on the race questions, and a lot of times, people start talking about what they can lose. It goes back to the fear idea of, “I don’t want to lose this…” or “If I don’t protect this…” There is so much more to talk about than this bottom line, so our questions are guided questions. Our conversations are still organic, but we do have guided questions. These questions include:
- What do we do with hope?
- Do you know a microaggression when you see it?
- What do you do about the centering or decentering of one race over another?
- What do we do about community?
- What happens when someone who is part of your community experiences something that you’re not familiar with?
- Can they stay or do they have to leave?
There are so many other things to talk about, but because we are a soundbite society where we only get 2 minutes or 140 characters to share, you only get a short time. With these conversations, people begin to see that there is more to black and white than just black and white.
What often happens is that people of color get emotional in these moments. When we get emotional, we stop communicating in a way that can be understood because we are so undone by the idea that the other person won’t understand the issue. The truth is, maybe he or she doesn’t understand it already because nobody has ever stopped to have the conversation, but maybe nobody has ever stopped to have the conversation because the conversation costs too much. What we are doing with “The Art of Tough Talks” is almost guaranteeing a reward for people stopping and having a talk.
If people want to get a hold of The Art of Tough Talks and see that video, where can they find that?
Our website is theartoftoughtalks.com. It’s the same across all platforms. There you can see some of the interactions of people who have participated in our workshops, and you can see a video of the very first performance. I would say that if you’re in a place where you think your congregation or staff need something like that but end up thinking you’re not ready, trust it. Take a risk, and I’d love to talk about how to make sure your people feel safe during and after the workshop.
It has never not worked.
The only time that we’ve struggled is when we were doing it at a high school, and we were talking about stuff that the students hadn’t learned about yet! My cast and I had to be more educators than facilitators, so that was a learning experience for us. People want to talk and people want to listen and they want to be guided into that conversation. I think people jump into these conversations because of guidance or misguidance, and I think people avoid these conversations for the same reasons.
How do people get a hold of you?
I’m Ms. Michelle Lang everywhere you look and I can be found on the Warner Pacific University website and Twitter.