Todne Thomas, HDS Assistant Professor of African American Religions, discusses her recent publication, "Kincraft: The Making of Black Evangelical Sociality." Judith Casselberry (Bowdoin College) and Soong-Chan Rah (North Park University) served as respondents.
CHARLES STANG: My name is Charles Stang. And I'm the Director of the Center for the Study of World Religions here at Harvard Divinity School. Welcome to this evening's event, the very last but certainly not least of our whole year's programming. Panel discussion of my colleague, Professor Todne Thomas's new book, Kincraft-- Kincraft, The Making of Black Evangelical Sociality from Duke University Press.
I'll say more about Professor Thomas and this book in just a moment. But first, permit me a word about this series. It was established by my predecessor, Frank Clooney, as an opportunity for the Divinity School community to gather, not only to celebrate faculty publications but more importantly, to learn from them by engaging with them, both appreciatively and critically.
And to that end, we're grateful for our two respondents whose comments will kick off what I'm sure will be a very spirited conversation. We have an hour and a half together. So I will keep my remarks brief so that there will be plenty of time for questions. Now a brief word about the book, its author, and our two respondents. Professor Todne Thomas is a social cultural anthropologist and Assistant Professor of African-American religions here at Harvard Divinity School.
She is the coeditor of New Directions in Spiritual Kinship, Sacred Ties Across the Abrahamic Religions. We are here this evening, of course, to engage with her latest book just released from Duke University Press, Kincraft, The Making of Black Evangelical Sociality. In this book, Professor Thomas explores the internal dynamics of community life among Black evangelicals who are often overshadowed by white evangelicals and the common equation of the Black church with an Afro-Protestant mainline.
Drawing on field work in an Afro-Caribbean and African-American church association in Atlanta, Thomas locates Black evangelicals at the center of their own religious story, presenting their determined spiritual relatedness as a form of insurgency. She outlines how church members cocreate themselves as spiritual kin through what she calls kincraft, the construction of one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Kincraft, which Thomas traced back to the diasporic histories and migration experiences of church members, reflects Black evangelical's understanding of Christian family connection as transcending racial, ethnic, and denominational boundaries in ways that go beyond the patriarchal nuclear family. Now it is my pleasure and privilege to introduce this evening's two respondents, Professors Judith Casselberry and Soong-Chan Rah.
Professor Casselberry is Associate Professor of Africana studies at Bowdoin College where she teaches courses on African-American women's religious lives, music and spirituality in popular culture, music in social movements, and issues in Black intellectual thought. Her most recent book is The Labor of Faith which employs feminist labor theories to examine the spiritual, material, social, and organizational work of women in a New York-based Pentecostal denomination.
Professor Soong-Chan Rah is a professor of church growth and evangelism at North Park University in Chicago and the author of Many Colors, Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church. Thank you once again, both of you, for joining us and for helping us all. Enter into and appreciate Professor Thomas's new book. So here's how the evening will unfold. Professor Thomas will say a few words about her book.
And then we'll give the floor to Professors Casselberry and Rah who will offer their own remarks. We'll then invite Professor Thomas to respond. And then that will lead naturally into a conversation among all three. We'll aim at the top of the hour-- so 6:00 PM, we'll aim to open it up to discussion with your questions and comments. So at that time, I will reappear and begin reading questions from that Q&A. So thank you again for joining us. Without further ado, Professor Thomas, floor is yours.
TODNE THOMAS: Thank you. Good afternoon to everyone. I hope everybody's hanging on and we're April strong and not April worn out. My thanks go to Charles Stang, Director of the CSWR for the invitation to conduct this book talk, as well as to Judith Casselberry and Soong-Chan Rah, who are both scholars that if you don't know, I hope you get to know.
Their ideas and the body of their work have also been really important for me in the development of this work. And so I'm very excited and really honored to be in conversation with them this afternoon. Thank you for making time to discuss this project with me, especially during a busy season. And a warning or an alert, I have a very curious and free-roaming nine-year-old who may interject himself in our conversation at any time.
So cameos are a possibility. So my presentation is very brief. I'm more interested in and hearing from our panelists and being in conversation with them and with you. But briefly, my book, Kincraft, The Making of Black Evangelical Sociality, comes out of about 13 years of ethnographic engagement and intellectual deliberation.
When describing what it means to be a part of a Christian community, Sister Clara Sutton, a 62-year-old Afro-Trinidadian nurse and evangelical church member concluded that Christian's embodiment of the Holy Spirit fostered a special kinship between Christians. According to Sutton, it's unique relationship really that you meet people in another country from another place, and you have this one common bond.
And they don't really have to know you or know anything about you, but yet the Holy Spirit has made you all can, and you know it. And that's unique, really. It doesn't have to take long to form a bond with other Christians at all. It was conversations like the one that I have with Sister Sutton and other members at the Dixon Bible Chapel and Corinthian Bible Chapel Communities in metro Atlanta that alerted me to their very relational views of Christian identity and community.
Informed by my interviews with these congregants, my participation in their institutional and lived religious worlds, my review of church archival records and oral histories, I argued that CBC and DBC intellectual-- evangelicals, who were also intellectuals, make themselves into kin their spiritual definitions and enactments of family.
In particular, I observed that they manifested the spiritual kinship through discourse and practices of relatedness that they produced as brothers and sisters in Christ, spiritual mothers, spiritual fathers, spiritual children, and prayer partners. I use the term "kincraft" to denote the ways in which these spiritual relationships derive from religious and diasporic histories, orientations, and practices.
And in particular, I note that kincraft also emerges from their lived material conditions of racialization, spatial mobility, and social mobility. However, the study of Black evangelical sociality is not just a case study and utility. It also reveals a sense of pride that comes from participating in a community. Spiritual ties at times our joy to discuss. Eyes light up with pleasure when discussing their beauty.
I notice this in an interview with brother Bernard Stewart and Afro-Trinidadian member of DBC who later became my spiritual father. And last week, he chided me for not keeping in better touch. And during an interview, he expressed his opinion that Christians inherited church family after being bought by the blood of Christ. Yet, Stewart drew my attention to another dimension of relatedness that stemmed from a closeness.
And he talked about when I talk to a sister or brother I can feel a part of myself wrapping around them. It was this shared idea of personhood that also demonstrated to me that there was a finding that was not just derivative of church membership. But that ignited the joys of speaking of a we and an us. I interposed Kincraft to address two major problems that I think inhibit understanding the nuances and complexities of Black evangelical community life in the United States.
The first is a problem of religio-racial eligibility, right. We have a kind of popular racial cartography of Christianity in the US in which we think about mainstream evangelicalism as a predominantly white Christian movement, right. And as a result of that, minoritized perspectives are often lost or assumed to be assimilative.
At the same time, when we talk about Black church perspectives, we tend to think of an Afro-Protestant mainline that's associated with the traditional African-American denominations or long storied African-American engagements with some of the very important Protestant denominations in our landscape.
These popular mappings, while having some groundings in historical patterns and demography, miss the complex positioning of evangelicals who have their own ecclesiologies, histories, theologies, and constructs of community and kinship in the US social landscape. I also interject Kincraft as a response to an understanding of US neo-evangelicalism as solely or only a heteronormative family project.
Well certainly, heteronormative ideas and ideals are dominant within the Black evangelical communities in which I participated, worshipped, learned, studied the Bible, prayed. That there's another valence of kinship at play that church members are very active in voicing, very active in participating, and devoting their time and labor, too.
That the spiritual balances of kinship are actually very central to the functioning and operation of heteronormative family life. That they provide alternative spaces for Black evangelicals can voice what I call confessional intimacies, critiques of reflexivities of heteronormative discourse and also places of deep and abiding spiritual communion, intimacy, laughter, play, food sharing, kitchen table talk, and gossip.
And so one of the abiding lessons of Kincraft is thinking about how people construct kinship beyond what I call, colloquially in my mind, kin closures, the idea of a nuclear-bounded definition of nuclear kinship to broader interhousehold, expansive, and even transcendent and universal definitions of kinship, that people enact and believe in and invest in at the same time.
So that's my sort of general overview. I'm happy to answer more questions in Q&A. But I'd like to pass the mic, if I could, to Dr. Judith Casselberry.
JUDITH CASSELBERRY: Thank you, Todne. And I just-- thank you to Charles and to Ariel and the Center for the Study of World Religions. And thank you to you, Todne, for inviting me to participate in this conversation and just to spend time with your wonderful new book. As I was reading it and I was thinking, kin is a verb, right? But you had to actually come up with the word kincraft so that people would understand that kin is a verb.
And I always say love is a verb, right. And so as I'm reading your text, I'm saying, well kin is a verb, family is a verb, love is a verb. So overall how I have experienced your text is what has been circulating in my mind is love and legibility. That's where I feel that this text is sitting. And from 10,000 feet up, we can think about the discipline of anthropology.
Both of us are anthropologists. and specifically, in anthropology, the study of religion. And anthropology and its formation as a discipline had no love for the objects of study. And to the contrary, particular ideas about objectivity, places love beyond the bounds of consideration. But what if love is a theoretical and methodological component? What does that look like?
It looks like moving into spaces without hubris. It looks like moving through spaces without knowing and being OK with that. And what does love as a theoretical methodological component yield? Well, it yields counterintuitive findings. It yields both/and analysis. It yields seeming contradictions. And it yields beautifully layered complexity which is exactly where you are sitting with this text.
And for me, love and legibility is something that I've been working with and through, both in my work on Pentecostal-- with Apostolic Pentecostal Women in New York and then the things I'm working on now with Grace Jones. Love and legibility is kind of where I am sitting with this work. And so as I'm reading Kincraft, there it is again, like love and legibility. Who are these Black evangelicals?
And this-- much of this has already been laid out. But just this-- sitting at this-- sitting in this place that in many ways has a visible lifespan, that place of evangelical, which is understood as white and a particularly political conservative. That kind of mapping. And then between studies of Black religiosity that in America have been really framed around Christianity and particularly Afro-- the Black church, right.
And this made me think about the title of that canonical Black feminist text edited by Akasha Hull, Patricia Bell-Scott, and Barbara Smith, titled, All the Women are White, All the Blacks are Men, But Some of Us are Brave. And so this is another place where I feel like-- so then, how do we think about who are these Black evangelicals, with a genealogy that runs through England, Caribbean, Scotland, Canada, Detroit, Georgia.
They were not yet legible because no one cared to ask the questions. And enter Professor Todne Thomas. So I just want to say a couple of other things about the text. When I was learning about Michael Flowers, who's the founder of the CBC and DBC, I began thinking about Julia Foote, the 19th century itinerant preacher and how--
And it made me think about how she created and experienced her godly family during that time. And both-- for her and for Flowers both, biblical literacy was the place to begin. And so she-- in her text, she says, I believe that if I were educated, God could make me understand what I need it. For in spite of what others said, it would come to me now and then that I needed something more than what I had. But that was something-- but what that something was, I could not tell.
And so this idea of you have to get in the word, like that's the place that you have to start. And then the quote from Flowers to You before you start Bible study, I love that quote. He goes, "let's see what happens when we get in the word, and allow the word to get into us." And I also-- just as an aside, your section where you're talking about communion and relating, ingesting communion, and ingesting the text, I thought that was really powerful and really--
It was both-- it was a visual. For me, it was a visual. It conjured up kind of this visualization of ingesting this text. And then the other thing I was thinking about in terms of like Foote and Flowers was they both were challenging other Black Christians. And so Foote was-- her thing was like, if you're not sanctified, then you need to get right.
And with Flowers-- and I think this is really interesting because with Flowers, moving in-- it's '55 from Detroit to the South in the Civil-- during the Civil Rights movement, right. And his focus is to missionize people who are in the Black church, specifically Afro-Baptists, because as he says, they played church, and they were, quote, "given over to emotionalism without any content," unquote.
So he's basing his critique on real theological differences and on racist stereotypes of Southern Black religiosity. And so at the same time-- and at the same time, he's focused on Black Christians. He's criticizing this ethno-racial congregationalism and envisioning this interracial, inter-ethnic Bible believing community.
And so even though his vision isn't realized in the churches he founds because those are African-American and Afro-Caribbean. But his revivals in evangelizing is where we can see his interracial agenda, if you want to put it that way, right? But it's also so fascinating to me that he notes that he didn't really get a lot of Black preachers to come to his revivals because his message was Jesus focused.
And it was at a time when many of these churches were it was in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, so he didn't want to have this place of politics. He didn't want politics to be the center of what he's doing. He was about Jesus. And so then again, you have this disconnect from what is thought about as the place of Black religiosity in this particular moment.
But it's also really interesting to me that even though he believed that Black ministers should focus on this Jesus approach, at the same time, he notes that as Black people and as, quote, "oppressed" people, we are able to identify with Jesus. And I said yes. As Gwendolyn Brooks tells us, the loveliest lynching was our Lord. This is Black-- this is how Black people have been able--
And Flowers understands this really clearly from the perspective of being racialized and living in a racialized society, at the same time that he's pushing back against it. So it makes me think about this-- I don't want to call it a conundrum because this is what's happening. But this interesting situation where you have-- and this is for Foote as well but in a different context. But you have these Black religionist thinking about or evangelizing to other Black people against ethno-racial congregations in a racialized world, right.
And so it just made me wonder and think about like, well, they both chose to go to Black people first. And so it could-- this be-- could one argue that both Foote and Flowers love for the divinity in Black people, which is denied by society, is that what catalyzes they're evangelizing and their kincraft, specifically to other Black people.
Us thinking, oh, Black souls matter, right? Like how people said a little bit Black Lives Matter. Well, yeah. But we're saying that because-- right. And so I was wondering like is that kind of how they're moving into these Black communities wanting to have-- wanting to promote interracial and godly families. This also makes me think about Charles Long's definition of religion where he says, it's orientation and orientation in the ultimate sense.
That is how one comes to terms with the ultimate significance of one's place in the world. And what I really appreciate about your text is that you show us their place. And what you also show us that this place is very dynamic. It's very fluid. And so what you're locating for us is a shifting place that there's no reason for us to expect that it's going to stay the same.
But where we see it sit right now-- and I'll just reiterate what you said before. But just so people really understand, this sociality that's realized at the intersection of three different ways of understanding kinship and being kin. And that's the Aphrodite's work outlines about sacred ancestry, communion, and witness.
The second is these adaptive practices within diaspora but particularly important in migratory context, which I think is a really important point that you make to expand how we think about a place of diaspora but to also think about migratory context and then how that attends-- how those practices attend to the effects of racialization.
And then the third being that a United Christian relatedness to this theology of Plymouth brethren, in this particular case. So the other point that I want to make that I think is really important about what you're doing is what is family? And what is the relationship between family and kin? And your work building off of kinship scholars, who are arguing, who are questioning this usefulness of the heteronormative biological family as an analytical unit.
And moving what you're doing-- and they are doing as well, but you're building on this-- is moving ahead instead to the on the ground practices of sociology, like what are people doing. And it's so fascinating that by privileging the biogenetic family, older models of kinship devised this category fictive kin.
And it's an analytical framework that in its very construction, devalued the salient motivations and characteristics of what they're trying to name. And so as you say, the fictive assumes biogenetic descent is the legitimate way to define a family. And what your text shows really clearly is that does not work. Because we know since Black folks arrived in the US, the social and intimate networks that we've produced and reproduced refute these notions of bounded family and kin networks.
So I would argue that you're trying to retire the term fictive and that you're ready to strike it from the vocabulary. I have some other things, but I'll just hold those for conversation. But I just want to say, thank you very much for this text. And I really appreciate being able to engage with it or read through it and digest it. And I'm really looking forward to a conversation.
TODNE THOMAS: Soong-Chan.
SOONG-CHAN RAH: Thank you. Thank you Dr. Thomas and Dr. Casselberry for wonderful remarks. I'm very thankful for the invitation. Greatly honored to be able to participate in this panel. This is a very significant work. So I'm so excited about what it presents on so many different levels. I think Dr. Thomas, you already know that my doctoral dissertation was on the topic of Black evangelicalism or African-American evangelicals.
But it was taken more from a historical angle to try to trace the history and the development of Black evangelicalism from the 1960s forward. So I always appreciate multiple perspectives and different disciplines with different eyes, kind of trained to see different aspects of the story. So while my work was more historical, your anthropological and ethnography is extraordinarily helpful.
And of course, it contributes to the broader study of the topic of American religions, particularly African-American religion. I'm just a person of strong conviction that we need more of these kind of interdisciplinary studies to get a more robust picture of religious life in America. And this is clearly one of those contributions.
This contribution to-- and I'm using this term intentionally-- recognizing its limited impact, which is Black Church studies. Now there is-- it's too limited to use that phrase because there are so much more than just Black Church studies. But what your contribution does is it demonstrates that the Black church and the Black church experience is not monolithic.
As you've kind of laid out, it's not limited to a particular brand of African-American church or Christian life or religious life, but there's a greater depth, substance, and nuance to this broader topic of the African-American religious experience. So you are, in many ways, taking Dr. Evans-- Curtis Evans's work of the Burden of Black Religion and just kind of maybe releasing that pressure a little bit, releasing that burden a little bit, to say, no, there's a lot more going on than some of the most simplistic answers that we've given to that.
And I'll pick up on this theme a little bit later because I think it is such an important and significant contribution. But I thought I'll begin my response with kind of looking at the larger framework of American or US evangelicalism. And this text is such a needed corrective to that standardized definition that we have. This has already been mentioned.
Evangelical has been so tied into a particular social political framework. A sociology that is clearly reflective of white middle-class suburban Republican Americans. And what you're doing is stretching us to think about evangelicalism through this kind of different lens. So when we think of the term, "evangelical," especially in the US context. And in one of my earlier works, I distinguish between the small e evangelicalism and big E Evangelicalism.
Small e evangelicalism is really the larger movement of Protestant conservative theological movements that's been around for centuries and centuries. But what you're speaking about in context is kind of the organized network and systems and structures, the lived experiences of evangelicalism, particularly kind of post-World War II, especially with the advent of the NAE, the National Association of Evangelicals.
So evangelicalism in the US has been initially defined in more theological ecclesial terms. And we've talked about it using theological markers, like Bebbington quadrilateral, Mark Noll and George Marsden's work around the Puritan reform framework. We've talked about it's the high view of scripture, high view of christology, certain socio-soteriological categories.
And so that's created some boundaries, theological-ecclesial boundaries around evangelicalism that has assumed that includes nonwhite evangelicals. It's assumed that-- in fact, one of the easiest excuses that I've heard to not study Black evangelicalism, African-American evangelicalism is to say the Black church has an evangelical theology.
So we don't need to go beyond that because we already know that there's of an evangelical-- and that's just too simplistic of a statement to make. And oftentimes, it's not an accurate statement to make. But there have been these theological markers, whether it is kind of reformed theology, TULIP, the fundamentals, five fundamentals, Bebbington's quadrilateral.
So those are interesting categories to debate and talk about. And there's still some conversation going about the theological ecclesial boundaries of evangelicalism. But the situation though, is that it moved beyond these theological categories to these sociological categories. Now, I do want to point out that these theological ecclesial categories that you're kind of speaking to--
The fact that they exist is also problematic because these categories are so rooted in Western European culture, framework, worldview, et cetera. So it's a very truth possessed. And it's very bounded that it's kind of-- again, a clear demarcation of you're an insider and outsider, usually based upon cognitive acquiescence to the set of propositions.
And so when you have these kind of theological boundaries, they also have a sociological implication to them as well. Because these theological ecclesial boundaries are actually creating some of these boundaries because they are rooted in this Western captivity or Western cultural paradigms. So there's already an implicit bias, when we talk about evangelicalism, even if we're using theological ecclesial categories.
But clearly, as you point out and as others have pointed out, that it's shifted to a much more sociological understanding-- white middle class, suburban, Republican. This is amplified or maybe kind of solidified with the emergence of neo-evangelicalism as you point out, again, post-World War II, NAE. And the network of evangelicals that began to form usually rooted in seminaries they go to, the Christian colleges, the parachurch organizations, et cetera.
Then some of the denominations, they kind of create this social network for evangelicals. And because it's a social network and social connectedness, it tends to limit to white evangelicals and not to other people groups. And what's interesting is that that is kinship. That is this kind of kinship idea of reforming relational dynamics that define us more than some of our theological moorings.
So what you're defining in the lived theology of the Black evangelical experience is also actually the lived theology of the white evangelical experience. But it's never identified as such because it's seen as, oh, no, we're theologically bounded. We're ecclesially connected. You know, we're doing this for the sake of the Gospel.
You know, for the kingdom-- all the kind of language that comes with that without recognizing what you're describing is also happening in the white evangelical community as well-- these kinship groups and these dynamics that have occurred. And of course, we can now recognize and especially in the last four or five years, how much it is much more now a political designation.
The theology doesn't really count anymore as to whether you're an evangelical or not. Even the sociology is changed. It's not a middle class, suburban. It's kind of just white Republican period. And that's kind of the end of that story. So the label of evangelical has shifted dramatically. But it is still stayed in that realm of white evangelicalism.
And that's where it's so exciting to encounter this work because you're not-- I don't think you're redefining evangelicalism. You go back to kind of the root definition of it. If you go back to Bebbington, if you go back to Noll, Marsden, you're pointing out that the theological roots and categories are similar in many ways.
It's talking about a high view of scripture that coming from the brethren, the Plymouth brethren as well as the Black brethren that emerge later on, coming from NBEA, which is kind of another offshoot of the NAE but with similar theological framing and the same networks. And this is kind of my work with evangelical as Black evangelicalism is how much Black evangelicalism made an effort-- these are self-identified, and this is kind of what you're pointing to as well-- self-identified.
These would be kind of colleagues and peers of Flowers-- the Bill Pannells, the Tom Skinners, the Bill and Ruth Bentleys, as they kind of formed this organization, the National Black Evangelical Association. In many ways, it's doing what the white evangelicals were doing without kind of understanding how privilege of a position it was taking.
So these white evangelicals who form these parachurch organizations, these Christian colleges, that is kind of the inroads into evangelical power. And it is usually denied to Black evangelicals, even though the Black evangelicals that I've identified have the laminated evangelical card in many ways. They have the credentials. They went to Wheaton College. They went to Moody. They went to Trinity and Fuller.
They worked for Young Life. They worked for Billy Graham Evangelical Association. They have all the markers of the sociological connection and network and kinship with the white evangelical community. And yet we in the historical accounts that they were pretty noticeably left out in the rise of evangelicals in the '60s, '70s, and '80s. These are not names that you associate with the evangelical movement as much.
Skinner, you hear his name every once in a while. John Perkins, you hear his name every once in a while. But the Pannells and the Bentleys and the Clarence Hilliards and these significant Columbus Salley-- these kind of significant individuals who were part of the Black evangelical movement. Even though the kinship family experience was there, they were not included in a lot of the movements and especially in the places of power.
And that again, where the relational kinship dynamic, you're calling that out. And to use-- I'm an old time preacher. I was a pastor for 17 years. I still have a little bit of that preacher's zeal in me. But the preacher's zeal in me would come out, I would say, this is like the ultimate in hypocrisy to kind of play at the games of kinship, relationship. Evangelical was one big family. We're all connected to each other. We all love each other. We all care for each other. We all look out for each other.
But that doesn't cross the racial boundaries. And so this idea of kinship-- and again, the use of the word family and I really appreciate the way you are deconstructing, the way they use the family in a very specific heteropatriarchal, heteronormative nuclear family. And that's where the family values come out of. So it is again, a very sociologically culturally driven rather than actually even maybe even theologically or biblically driven.
So your reference to the Moynihan Report, that kind of identifies pathology in the other communities. And then this is the normal community. Without recognizing there are extraordinary kinship, relationships in these communities that you have created otherness for, that could actually be indicative of the kinship in the larger Christian community as well.
And so you see some of the dysfunctional expressions of it, decrying the absence of the Black male in the Black community, the crying of the female-centric nature of the Black church. All of these-- again, the fiery preacher in me says, that sounds-- that smacks of hypocrisy because you kind of set up the definition of family in one way that certain groups-- it doesn't make sense to use those measurements.
And so I really appreciate what this book does, which is to-- and others as well. You kind of tapping into that larger narrative of there are different ways to define what family kinship looks like. And let's look at the lived experience of these communities. And that's again, one of the strengths of this book. This is an anthropological ethnography. You're not imposing this is what you should have been.
You are saying, from out of this community comes this incredible story and narrative that informs vibrant religious life. So this is highly instructive book on what I think we should be doing more of in our understanding of religious life in America. Not just kind of looking at it from the theological ecclesial angle, which is helpful, but really to say, what is the lived experience.
And out of that live experience, the outcomes that we've seen and the learnings that we can have. And my final observation on this is I really appreciated that you took a Caribbean African-American church as one of your models because that's also kind of a neglected community. So I guess, I'm a preacher for many years back, but I was a pastor in Cambridge for many years.
So some of my best friends in Cambridge were part of the United Pentecostal Council of the Assemblies of God, which was actually Bill and Ruth Bentley's denomination. They were key figures in the NBEA. And so Abundant Life Church, Pentecostal Tabernacle, First Holiness, they're all like within blocks of each other in Cambridge. But it would be like Bishop Green, Bishop Ward, Pastor Lorraine Thornhill.
And all three of them are second-- maybe even third generation pastors. They inherited the church from their parents. And their parents were first generation immigrants-- Barbadian, Bahamian, from the Caribbean. And that's where they were kind of part of this Black evangelical network because the immigrant experience was really informing their Black church experience as well.
It's kind of that's where it's not this simplistic understanding. It's a much broader understanding because of the immigrant experience. So I know from my personal experience working with Abundant Life and [INAUDIBLE] Virginia and Bishop Brian Greene and Lorraine Thornhill that there was a connection there because as an immigrant myself who came out of the immigrant church.
And that sense of kinship that you're describing, I could say I've remember those experiences growing up in a Korean immigrant church. There were parallels there. There were-- the sense of isolation from larger American society and then the sense of connection that you come, it's almost like-- I don't want to use the word natural, but it just happened relatively quickly, the sense of connection and community kinship.
And it was almost like-- it wasn't even quite learned behavior. It was kind of out of a need for one because of the larger contextual issues. But there was a bonding that occurred within the kinship that occurred because of our common experience as immigrants.
And I do feel like there's kind of a parallel there between the immigrant communities now, whether it's Spanish-speaking congregation, Korean immigrant churches, Laotian churches, as well as especially the Afro-Caribbean churches that you're describing. So once again, thank you for this incredible work, extraordinary, insightful, and the larger conversation that this creates for American religious studies.
TODNE THOMAS: Thank you, Dr. Rah, for your feedback and for these really great sort of framing devices. So we're at a point now, we have until, I guess, 6:00 to be in conversation. And then we can take Q&A from the audience. And I hope the audience won't waste the opportunity to ask the two of you questions as well. And by the way, Judith, I have a student-- hopefully my student, Tom, is on the line. But he is a COOLJC pastor and is the biggest fan of your work and--
JUDITH CASSELBERRY: It's great.
TODNE THOMAS: Yes. I've been telling him he should email you. But hopefully, he'll be convinced after today.
JUDITH CASSELBERRY: Hello, Tom.
TODNE THOMAS: So there is a couple of questions that you brought up. And one of them is-- I don't know if I have an answer. It's why do you think T. Michael Flowers went to Black people first with evangelizing? And in the midst of-- it's sort of situated between these two negative critiques of a white evangelical religion that refuses to really properly missionize as it's called to do.
And a Black church Christianity that he sees as being more performative than biblical, all right. And I think it's a mixture of solidarity and paternalism. I think it's a mixture of solidarity and paternalism. I think it's also important for scholars of Black Religion to know that those things exist. Black church sounds-- it sounds like we're all one happy family.
It's almost like white people got Christendom and Black people got the church, right. And so we hear church-- and church is almost the kin concept itself as we use it. There's this idea, it's an entity, it's singular. And so it's really-- T. Michael Flowers is Afro-Bahamian. His wife is African-American. And so-- and interestingly, her family had moved from Georgia to Detroit to escape racism.
And he marries his wife and moves back to Georgia, and her family has some very interesting ideas. But I like to believe that his position within an African-American extended family would have-- I didn't talk about this in the book as much. But it would have created context of familiarity with him, a sense of racial solidarity.
And this is before we have really the kind of ethnic identity politics that we see happening after the Hart-Celler Immigration Act. This is still-- and the US is still segregated, right. And so Black men a thing-- like Black was just Black. They might be like, you're funny talking Black but you know-- that we didn't have the ethnic identity distinctions that we tend to have and what we tend to see in the same way.
It's not that they didn't exist but they weren't necessarily recognized by society writ large, right. Like we have Caribbean-American Heritage Month. That's a thing in the month of May, right. This is before then. And I also think it's a paternalism. He also was mentored by another set of Afro-Bahamian evangelists, the Nottage brothers, who are-- and I've been-- I remember I said AAR.
And then I met a scholar on a panel whose like, oh, so-and-so Nottage is like my great uncle or something like that. I've met some of the Nottage descendants. And I've been like, I hope you like the book, you know. So there's these three brothers who were also really instrumental and also brethren. They were in Detroit, I think, Philadelphia-- another city.
And so there's idea, well, Black people are really neglected in this country, right. And so there's this interesting kind of Caribbean-- one African-American church members said it was very British, almost imperial, right, the way they saw African-Americans, the affective demoralization of African-American Christianity. And I also-- I tried really hard to show that some of these orientations come from more than one source, right.
If you're a missionary-- Tom [INAUDIBLE] says you tend to have an evolutionary view of the culture you're trying to change. You don't missionize peers, right. If you think someone has the right gut, you don't missionize peers, right. And so it's also about his position as the evangelist. I think, his Caribbean ancestry, his family network, it's all of these things that I think shaped why he went to Black people.
It's white neglect, right. White spiritual neglect, white abrogation of evangelical missiological duty. I think it's all of those things. And what is family in the fictive kinship? Yes, my grad advisors is actually a feminist anthropologist of kinship. I did kinship before I did religion, right. And added religion later in grad school. I never took a religious studies class in graduate school. I had to learn a lot along the way.
There's even a piece that sociologist writes where she analyzes the social scientific use of kinship. And she finds that social scientists use fictive kinship to talk about Black and brown communities. And they use affinity networks in talking about white communities. And then you've chosen kinship. And so the use of fictive kinship on the part of social scientists is racialized.
And she thinks about the sort of symbiotic and discursive implications of talking about something as fictive, right. Something as not real when people are already dealing with having their family networks pathologized. So I'm 100% in agreement on retiring map. Professor Rah, I don't know if there were questions. I just, yes-- yes, I agree.
I think that one of the interesting things about Black evangelicals in the US, just we have a lot more work to do, right, of really talking about Black evangelicals. And not Black evangelicals who create racial reconciliation that somehow processed by a white majority but Black evangelicals starting religious movements in and of their own right that continue to operate institutions and their affiliation with a predominately white parachurch organizations and really understanding whiteness as institutional and discursive hegemony.
The fact that we are in a stage in which we are not just saying that we're disrupting the whiteness evangelicalism equation, but we're thinking about how that shaped our historiography, and who's been left out. And so I know there's a lot of work. And it's a really important and pressing work because we have a lot of elders who are getting older. And we want to make sure we capture those stories as well.
And so I'm also in agreement that-- and there are a couple of people who are part of these organizations who are well known. But I don't use their names because of confidentiality. But there's a person who's pretty high up in intervarsity who's a member of this church.
So although I don't talk a lot about it, there are some really important bridges between this community and some of those mainstream, well-known sort of storied parachurch organizations and things of that nature as well. So I would also very much, very much agree.
JUDITH CASSELBERRY: May I pose a question?
TODNE THOMAS: Please.
JUDITH CASSELBERRY: Another question. So I have a bunch of questions, but OK, I'll start with a small question. I was thinking about scale in your text. And that was when-- and the one member of the church talks about how they like small churches. And so much of what you talk about are these small intimate gatherings.
And I'm wondering, are small churches indispensable to the process as you understood it in terms of how it happens here? Is that something that's really necessary? Or is it something that they, themselves, have think about replicating it to a larger scale? Or is this kind of part and parcel of the process of [INAUDIBLE]?
TODNE THOMAS: I think it's something that is pretty self conscious. I think that in some ways, they would distinguish what they were doing from megachurch Christianity, like they located their place within a kind of religious marketplace. And of course, Atlanta is the home of quite a few predominantly Black megachurches, right.
So there's this megachurch options. There are white evangelical megachurch. So someone talked about going to Charles Stanley's church and being constantly-- Jamaican couple referred to the international service in Spanish. And they're like we're English speakers. You know, so people also talk about when they first touched down in Atlanta before.
Some people migrated and were part of this intergenerational brethren networks. And there are other people who found a way into the community. So they contrast themselves with like a megachurch Christianity. But also I think that brethren ecclesiology is really important, right. It took me a long time to figure out what people were saying brethren. I grew up Presbyterian. I was like, what's this brethren thing people keep talking about?
I would get these pamphlets. I couldn't find anything. It's not a denomination in the standard way. But brethren ecclesiology, it comes out of Acts, right? And so for instance, I did a Bible study with T. Michael Flowers. We spent the whole year in Acts, just the book of Acts. And I had someone remind me that like, actually he was discipling you because he didn't know you were a real Christian, now. I'm like, oh, OK. That makes sense, right. It's like, you know.
And I talked about how he took issue with my IR Reform as well. But he-- you get the sense that they're trying to recreate the house churches in Acts, right. These very small, primitive Christian communities where there's the intimacy. There's the smallest of gathering that that is the authentic ideal of community life.
And it's to the point so the brethren are antisectarian and antidenominational, right. There's a belief that institutional elaboration yields to processes. And this comes out of like disestablishmentarianism and all of that sort of stew that's cooking. And the British Isles in the 19th century-- but that the farther you move away from that is apostasy, right. So it's about trying to maintain this authenticated model of intimacy, a familial communion.
I mean, the term "brethren" comes from-- like that's the only kind of biblical term-- Christians and call them-- I mean, people Christians were called Christians at any hour. But that's not how they refer to themselves, right. And so this is also we're seeing literalism as playing a role that that becomes-- this is the church that Christ intended. And the churches we see today are not churches that Christ intended. So, yes, I think scale is huge in that regard.
JUDITH CASSELBERRY: Thank you.
SOONG-CHAN RAH: Yeah. And the whole story around brethren and Flowers-- the Flowers chapter was so informative for me because in my work in Black evangelicalism, it's centered in New York, Chicago, and Detroit actually, because of the Nottages. Somebody's got to do some work on Nottage brothers.
TODNE THOMAS: I agree.
SOONG-CHAN RAH: That is an amazing story.
TODNE THOMAS: I'm with it. I absolutely-- I've been trying to find sources. It's really hard. That's also the other thing, right?
SOONG-CHAN RAH: Yeah, the--
TODNE THOMAS: And brethren aren't always great record keepers according to Donald Akenson, so.
SOONG-CHAN RAH: Well, they do have a lot of sermons. I understand that there's a lot of sermons that they've said. But you're right, the other records have-- are a little bit sparse. But the Nottages, their influence is so broad. I mean, through Detroit, a lot of the brethren that gathered in Detroit, Bill Pannell comes out of that network. Flowers introduced there.
But exactly what you're saying, especially around Plymouth brethren as well as this group is called the Black brethren-- I think that was kind of their nickname for this cohort. What they ended up shaping and forming was highly influential in the NBEA and the ethos of that. So a lot of that in around maybe smaller churches but also the ethos of simplicity, ethos of kind of back to the basics of the Bible type of language.
That lent itself a little bit more to the evangelical ethos than maybe to kind of the Protestant liberal mainline church ethos. So that's where the Nottages and the brethren were so formative in their followers and in who they discipled. You see some of that impact.
TODNE THOMAS: Which is so interesting because brethren has actually been really central in the elaboration of the broader evangelical struggle. We tend to associate with eschatology, right? That it's about the end times narrative and John Nelson Darby and all of that, whereas there's this other kind of elements at the level of-- it's kind of an institutional critique and a focus on sort of biblical teaching.
I mean, there are critical of charismatic pastoral leadership, but it's not just about the charisma and performance. It's about the idea if you have a standard pastor, then everyone's not learning the Bible. So all the men should be responsible for preaching. So if everyone's responsible, their investment and learning will be different.
So it's also kind of-- it's radically egalitarian and in an interesting way, while super hierarchical and paternalistic and patriarchal at the same time. It's a male egalitarianism. So, yeah. I would love-- I mean, I've wanted to find out more about classes that Flowers took in Scotland and just kind of seeing how these ideas are-- how these ideas are traveling, right, what conversations are being had.
JUDITH CASSELBERRY: Do I have time for another question? I know we're going to be up in a minute. So OK, let me see which question I'm going to ask. I wanted to talk to you about two things. So in terms of how men's and women's spheres are operating, right. I was unclear about the-- because of the way that you tell us about women's prayer partnerships and those kind of things, I was curious about, do men-- are men doing that same type of prayer work in that same kind of way?
And then the other side of that in how I'm thinking about this is about women's biblical exegesis. So I was really struck by the story in the end where you're talking to the Stewardson. And then sister Stewart gets on the phone, and she gives you a scripture, right? And I say, oh, this is really interesting because she's the one who has the scripture. And then also you have a sister Brighton.
I love her quote. "There are women who can speak just as well as those brothers and some even better. And they've been studying the word. They know the word. They could deliver the word." So I'm wondering like through prayer meetings, the spaces between home and church, it was everyday activities that you map for us, what's the place of the Bible in there? And how do women use scripture in every day?
And do you find gender distinctions in how and when they use scripture or in their scriptural interpretations? So in other words, like the things that you identify as being how men operate, their sociality, how women form theirs, is there any kind of cross colonization or people doing some of the same things in their separate spheres but to different extent or with different outcomes?
TODNE THOMAS: Yes, that's a fantastic question. And one of the things I try to mention in the introduction that I don't know if it comes across as well is that some of those zones of, I think, experiential spirituality on the part of men, like the homosociality, I was not able to access as a woman. And there are a number of things that shaped my status and the research community.
I became more fully integrated when I became engaged to be married, which happened during my field work. I had got way more access to way more spaces. But as a single young woman-- I mean, there are times in which I would do an interview. And I would sometimes have to wait until the wife came home, right. This wasn't happen-- it didn't happen all the time. But it was--
I sat between my church parents one day. And I was told it was not appropriate to sit between a husband and wife. So gendered spheres, yes. I never heard the term prayer partner used on the part of men, although I know that men were certainly engaged to talk about spiritual parenting and maybe not so much about spiritual fatherhood. I think I was trying to just do more representational parity by focusing on women in chapter 5, which is my favorite chapter.
But definitely, spiritual parenthood, discipling, men were involved in that. And discipling was not just about bringing people into matters of faith, that kinship is in matter of discipling as men became husbands and fathers. Older men disciple them around that as well. So there's definitely evidence of that, and people could talk about it. And there would be-- you would see-- similarly, we would see more biblical exegesis, women who are spiritual mothers to their spiritual children.
For instance, a woman joined. She was a new Christian. She was mentored and mothered by an older woman who had been a Christian for a long time. And they would do Bible studies together. That actually really surprised-- at one point, my Bible study with Pastor Flowers, another woman entered in. I don't know if that came up as an issue. But she kind of so was the three of us doing Bible study.
And definitely in women's gatherings, like there was like women's retreats. You know, listen. Any brethren-- someone says, look, you don't want to mess with the brethren in the Bible, period, right. Any brethren, they will-- I used to be captain, but I went to an evangelical primary school. I was captain of the Bible quiz team. I had never been so grateful that I had studied the Word because they had no problems correcting you.
And so that knowledge of the Bible, the memorization, the utility, the facility-- there was one mixed sex. Well, there were two mixed sex Bible studies. But one on Thursday was more relaxed in terms of some of the generals, right. And so the conversation was more fully free flowing. And women would challenge men. And but the Tuesday night Bible study, that didn't seem to be the core.
Each Bible study kind of had its culture, too. And it didn't seem the right culture for the Bible study. So definitely, there is no-- I never saw anything that indicated that men were better. It was just by gendered prescription, right, that men were the only ones who were allowed to teach mixed sex groups. And this was-- I remember kind of coming into church as someone who grew up as Presbyterian.
My aunt's a minister. I was like, I have never seen anything like this in my life, you know. So when I talked about this Afro-Protestant mainline, I'm talking about me, right, and what it meant. Even though I went to a white evangelical school, to go into a Black-- I mean, like part of it was like I did not know there were Black Christians like this.
It was very aren't like-- women had head coverings and like we really can't-- I had to have a man go on stage with me to announce my research project. And I was told that was unprecedented. I'm like, really? Even as this all this other laughter and play and a woman making this point like I don't know why people use the Bible for families. There's a lot of dysfunctional families in the Bible which is such a really-- poignant observation, right.
The more you study, the more you're like, this isn't sometimes things are kind of amiss, right. So that is part of the reason why the gender spheres, I think, are so distinct. Some of the more intimate confiding relationships, I didn't always have an ear to. I could kind of deduced by context. But prayer partnership, and never heard men use that language at all. I only heard women talk about prayer partnership.
JUDITH CASSELBERRY: Are we-- do we have to open it up? I never think we have to but--
TODNE THOMAS: I think you can.
JUDITH CASSELBERRY: Should we?
TODNE THOMAS: Unless-- Professor Rah.
CHARLES STANG: I'm here. I'm at your disposal if you want the Q&A. But if you three want to continue the conversation, that's fine. We have one question in the queue. And I have one myself.
TODNE THOMAS: OK. I don't know if Professor Rah have one more question.
SOONG-CHAN RAH: What about the other questions from the group?
TODNE THOMAS: OK.
SOONG-CHAN RAH: Yeah, the feedback are going to be fantastic.
JUDITH CASSELBERRY: I have more questions, but I don't want to be a hog.
CHARLES STANG: No. Professor Judith, wonderful. We're very happy that you have more. And we're happy to circle back to those. So let's take one question from the audience. This is from someone well known here, Marla Frederick, Hi, Marla. Wow. Wonderful. So here's what Marla writes. She says, what a wonderful conversation. Thank you all. It's so good to see each of you.
My questions for Todne, do brethren have a commitment to the quote, unquote, "Black family" or to the quote, unquote, "family." Likewise, is there a commitment to the Black church or just to the church? In other words, as they dissenter race, do they see a crisis facing the Black family or Black institutions? How do they understand and confront racial inequity while not drawing attention to race?
TODNE THOMAS: That's a fantastic question. So one of the things that was really interesting about doing field work is the lack of the use of the word "Black" actually. Like it wasn't referred to a Black church. We didn't talk about slavery. Like that wasn't a byline. It's a theological historical conversation. I wouldn't-- I feel like people use church and they use family and unqualified term.
And then in conversations with people, one on one, they might bring up the Black thing, right. And in particular, a lot of times, it tended to be, not all, but African-Americans who did, right. So for instance, I think, in chapter 6, there's someone that talks about-- actually T. Michael Flowers's, too, that there's a crisis of leadership in our communities with men.
And this is partly why male leadership is so important in the churches like men. There's plenty of women who can actually be leaders. Like this is T. Michael Flowers who says this, right. Because they know how to take care of the family, and they know how to start institutions. But it's actually a crisis in Black male leadership that we seek to remedy.
So really moving into like a 1970s, 1980s moment that becomes a dominant line. I don't think it's a commitment to a Black church, right, because that just wasn't a form of language. There's certainly an understanding that racialization takes place, but it wasn't discussed in the pulpit, right. People would talk about it on the ground. And I think the common response to racialization was just material aid and reciprocity.
It was-- it's people moving into Atlanta. And one person said that when he came, a church member gave him a car so that he could look for work and find a job. It is-- there was a woman who had some health problems, who lost her job. It's love offerings. It's time zone, which I saw people in hard times and like after church, people would bring groceries to the-- very discreetly.
Or people would talk about some of their financial problems and testimonies to how God would-- and through the community, God through the community would provide for their needs-- children school fees, uniforms, things of that nature. So it's interesting because race doesn't become a point of discussion in the pulpit or church. People would bring it up at the-- talk about scale. The level of the interview.
But you wouldn't hear it. And in a lot of ways, I think, part of it is people having different relationships to Black identity as migrants as-- one of the things that's important is that the African-Americans that I interviewed, a lot of them were serial migrants, which means they've lived in at least two places since their place of birth.
So race is sort of decentralized but also acknowledged, right. People had no problems talking about race discrimination. And there are professions and interviews, it just didn't come up in church as a kind of shared language. So there's sort of two things, either Blackness becomes decentered or Blackness is so taken for granted, it doesn't need to be made. Does that make sense?
And I can never really figure out depending on context which kind of frame-- which kind of definition of Blackness was operative. But yeah, people wouldn't use Black family crisis. They just say the family in church. And then at the level of interviews, they'd let me know, Black men, there's this issue or in smaller spaces, that would come up. Does that makes sense?
CHARLES STANG: It does. Todne, I wonder if you'd permit a question from me. And then we can go back to Judith or anyone else that poses one in the function. I was intrigued by something you said in your comments. I think it was your beginning comments about how you studied kinship before religion.
And I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that transition from studying kinship from-- I assume you went there from a strictly anthropological training and then the transition to religious studies. And what made you feel that was a necessary transition to do the work you wanted to do?
TODNE THOMAS: Yeah, this should be a crowd favorite for our graduate students. So I initially started graduate school, I knew that I was very curious about the Caribbean diaspora in Atlanta, Georgia. I'm a Zora Neale Hurston fan. And so I was always struck by her sensibility to study African-American and Afro-Caribbean culture.
I knew that starting in the 1980s, Caribbean migration to Atlanta started to really become a thing, right. So Atlanta started to become a site for receiving Afro-Caribbean migration, predominantly from New York at first and then eventually internationally. And so I kind of fell in love with kinship. And I was interested in transnational family networks, originally.
So I go to do field work in 2006. And it's an abysmal failure. And it's a failure because Atlanta is so decentralized that finding just a place to post-- I mean, I was part of a Caribbean soccer league. There was like a carnival league with those-- the meetings were only seasonal. Or it wasn't a thing that would carry me through the whole entire year like I panicked.
And so my grad advisor asked me, what about churches? And I was like, what? What about churches? Like are there any Caribbean churches? They're like, oh, yeah. I heard about several. And so we kind of like-- and I had like a sort of personal interest in theology. As a younger woman, I contemplated a call to ministry. I would have never told my grad advisor that, right.
Like me-- and I actually had a colleague at UVA who went to Wheaton. And we would talk about our Christian identity in the stacks in the library and how we knew it was like not cool to like can't. And I was like, you get the worst of it because you went to Wheaton. I'm like an undercover. I remember the time I told her what's an evangelical school, my grad advisor looked at me like I'd been lying to her, right.
So I kind of did some research on some of the organizations, the Caribbean, a majority. And I decided on a Pentecostal organization. And then it just wasn't a fit. I walked into this evangelical church. I didn't even know it was evangelical. And like the use of kinship language was so thick from the time I walked into the door. My church dad was one of the first people I spoke to after service.
And I said, well, nice to meet you, Mr. so-and-so. He said, no, it's brother, right, if we're believers. We're brothers and sisters in Christ. So it's brother so-and-so. And your name is sister-- sister Todne, right? And so I was like, this is it. Not to be imperial colonial but I was like I-- you know. So it was sort of the kind of serendipity that happens with research interests in and having interest versus context.
And I had literally done all my three years of coursework. I'd never taken a religious studies class. I don't even want to tell you how stressed out I was and have been actually, I think, in reading my way into religious studies. And the irony being I'm a religious studies scholar now. So that's part of the pathway. I had a set of interests, and I didn't know how to study them spatially.
CHARLES STANG: Thank you so much. That was really, really wonderful. Thank you. Judith, we can go back to you if you have a question ready.
JUDITH CASSELBERRY: I do. In the book, you talked about the-- I like the way that you put this. The brother's ritual work contributes to the institutionalization of the community and sisters work contributes to the incorporation of members as an everyday familial community that shares common religious and cultural ground.
So my question is, do you see women's silences as ritual labor that contributes to institutionalization, and/or are there silences given a voice in their gender segregated settings and thereby opening up an interpretive space in the incorporation of members? In other words, what's the relationship between institutionalization and incorporation and is institutionalization possible without incorporation?
And do the practices of incorporation reshape the practices of institutionalization? In other words, I'm asking about call and response. That's what I'm asking about. And one of the reasons why I'm asking this question in this way in particular was just because of the ways that this religious community is very different from the community that I worked with.
And there are so many similarities. There are so many similarities so. I was just wondering about-- and so in my experience, there's this call and response that actually has an impact on institutionalization. I'm just wondering what that-- is there call and response in this community, and what does that look like? What kind of impact would it have?
TODNE THOMAS: It's a fantastic set of questions. The idea of women's spiritual silence is institutional labor. I mean, I would say it's a commitment to the institution. And women will talk about-- especially those who weren't raised brethren or some who were called born brethren.
You know, the born again brother in right, particularly, I think, African-American women who come into the movement and have to acquire these certain gender sensibilities, there's some discussion about the challenges of that. And sometimes done with a bit of levity like, you know, whatever. [AUDIO OUT] start and do our own thing on the side.
Some Afro-Americans being like, what kind of cult are you-- we're not-- legibility for some African-American members. Their evangelical identity made them eligible to other African-American family members. And the women's definite-- woman's voices are definitely loud in their own settings. There's a joy and fun, and there's critique.
There are also some context of subventions that there would be special services for people are allowed to give testimonies. And that's what women would jump at because it's mixed sex gatherings. And so women would-- sometimes women would use those spaces to critique church practices. And that happens. Certainly there are some personalities that are more likely to do that than others.
But definitely women are very-- in some ways they-- where I think they perform is a kind of adherence to these gender norms on the kind of on the top. But underneath, there's so many other perspectives, right. There are sometimes women who enact different kinds of hierarchy. So one woman was like, you don't call me sister. You call me aunt. I approached the throne of grace before you were even born.
So there are some women who claim their authority. We don't have church mothers but someone would claim aunthood kind of as a title and immense of authority and longevity in the Christian lifestyle. Certainly one of my favorite settings is in chapter 5, but there is like a women's prayer gathering. And I'm thinking it's like an hour or two or something. It starts at 7 o'clock.
It's 3:00 AM. We're still eating and laughing. I'm like, oh, my God. Like on the verge of almost irreverent jokes, like there's one sister who's Jamaican who brings woody and-- I was like, was that a sex joke? I was like, what's going on [INAUDIBLE]? Something I was like, oh, my gosh. I'm going to be so exhausted by the time I get home. But it was actually so much fun and like little jokes and somebody was teasing someone who's--
I was also getting married, so I got teased a lot, too. You know, like these little-- so yeah, I think that the common response is really-- in my mind, it is the ritual silence is performative. Women wield influence in different ways. They wield influence in homosocial settings. Sometimes they wield influence on their husbands if their husband has a particular role.
Definitely those women are like the elders in the community. Those women are often sought out. I think that they sort of really-- they're also better with newer members. You see women kind of just descending upon-- descending upon new members to take them in. I think women are how church is preserved. The relationship between the institution and incorporation, women kind of tighten the ties that bind, right.
Like you might join a church off of doctrinal convictions. A lot of people talk about that as the reason that they're drawn to the church. Not all. A couple of people are like, you know, it's a nice Caribbean community. I want my child to be raised with like nice Caribbeans. But a lot of people talk about how the biblical Christianity really spoke to them.
But it's the incorporation that creates the ties that bind because doctrinal convictions is not necessarily one of the most longest lasting bases, I think, for membership. I think about a couple who left the church. And one of the things that-- I'm surprised I didn't write about it. But one of the things that struck me was they wrote this really long letter to the church explaining why they were leaving, right.
And you know, I'm coming from a Presbyterian background. I'm like, why didn't they just leave? It's Atlanta. It's a city, right. There's like a billion churches on this road alone. There's like four churches on the street that this church was located on. It was a very long. And it was like, you know, what we've decided to spend church in our community. We're trying to win some young souls for Christ.
This is where we do soccer. We're like a soccer coach and soccer mom. And this is a long detailed-- and over time, I was like, it's the ties that bind. This is not an easy community to leave behind. One Sunday, I got sick. And I think I've just been attending for like four weeks. Multiple phone calls to my house, are you OK? Is everything all right? And so incorporation is really that staying power, it's that glue, I think. And that's how those two relate.
JUDITH CASSELBERRY: Yeah. Great. Thank you.
CHARLES STANG: Well, I just want to jump in and say the Q&A has just exploded with some fantastic questions from some more familiar names. So if you don't mind, I want to at least get one out, maybe two if we have time and you have energy. This one is from Denson Staples. Denson says, thank you so much for this conversation and for your scholarship, Professor Thomas.
I have a question that all the panelists might have insight into. The introduction to Kincraft situates the arc from kinlessness to kin possibilities in the context of the African diaspora, pointing out that symbolic constructions of kinship aren't uniquely or singularly the domain of Black religious subjects. What's the relationship between these broader diaspora kinship claims and the specifically spiritual kinship claims of Black evangelicals?
If the effects of the claims are similar, that is forging symbolic kinship, establishing relationality and sociality, making material resources available on the basis of that sociality, and so on, what are the ways beyond the effects alone might we use to think about their relationship? Now, I'm sorry. That was a long question. The panelists can all see it. But I'm going to actually cut that and put that in the chat for everyone else to digest as you are each taking it up.
TODNE THOMAS: I can't see it.
CHARLES STANG: You can't?
TODNE THOMAS: But I will try to address it.
CHARLES STANG: Yup. You're welcome. I put it--
TODNE THOMAS: I mean, I think there's like a broad set of really interesting kin processes or kin technologies. There's the middle passage which puts the ship in kinship, right? Shipmates, the shipmate relationship, which is kind of how I fell in love with kinship in the first place, right. And I think that more needs to be written about the ontological and cosmological dimensions of shipmate relationships in kinship, that kinship wasn't just a survival arc, but it's these other ontological things.
I think about susus, which are collective credit organizations, right. The effects can be similar, right. The affects can be similar. But I think, thinking about the idea systems that motivate them, those aren't necessarily the same, right. So even if they conduct different work or conduct similar kinds of work in terms of material outcomes--
I think, thinking about the ideological claims, the project that people see themselves participating in, the scale and scope of those projects are really, really important for Black evangelicals. The different kinds of kin world that they inhabit, where there's so many of them, were so relationally thick, right. So you have nuclear families. You had extended sort of biogenetic families, right.
There's one family that had four generations in the same church, right. You have brothers and sisters who were mentoring one another spiritual parents. And people would ask one man. I was like I have four mommies, right. You have people who-- like Pastor Flowers who really rejected-- he did not want to do an interview with me because my IRB said West Indian church.
And he said, there's no such thing as the West Indian church. There's only the universal church, the universal body of believers. I'll do a Bible study with you. But I can't do an interview with you because I don't support the language that you're using. There are people who-- really the breaking of bread, there would be people would say, we're breaking bread. And there are other Christians breaking bread.
And we are all a part of the body of believers, all the believers that have ever lived, the believers that will come. There would be these moments where people understood themselves as partaking of this universal body of believers. And it wasn't-- for me, I struggled with this, I think, coming from a Black church context. And it was really after [INAUDIBLE] trying to figure out the sincerity in that, right.
There was actually some of these universal claims of kinship that I struggled with the most that people would insist on and getting it right. People would be like, we're part of the royal family of God. It's a cosmic family, right. So it's about those simultaneities, those different scales. It's about translocal connections. Like some people came through this church called Good Tidings in Brooklyn through Atlanta.
And people maintain their connections at Good Tidings, their connections to the Caribbean, and their relationship to DBC. It's the simultaneities. So I think it's important to really be aware of the kind of idea projects that what people see themselves as being a part of and not just the affect and effects, material effects but the project aspect.
And it's really actually Mayra Rivera, who is a theologian in our community, that got me to think about really the significance of these transcendent ideas. She has this idea of relational transcendence. And I still remember reading it in grad school and being like, holy crap. This is what-- this is-- the interhuman, the cosmic that these things are actually theology, that these things are transcendent, that transcendence isn't just an individual subjectivity.
That someone's like, isn't that great that we get to be in heaven together? Because being in heaven by yourself would be so boring. And like, we're forever family. Sometimes I'd be like, OK, that sounds a little Mormon friends who are like, we're forever family. Like my blood family, they're not believers. I'm not going to be with them, right. They're not going to be in heaven with me. But we get to be family forever. So that's what I think is important getting. It's not throwing out kinship and specificity. It's just not assuming biology is a grounding.
CHARLES STANG: We have time for one more question. Do you have time? Do you have energy for one more.
TODNE THOMAS: I do.
JUDITH CASSELBERRY: Can I make a quick response to--
CHARLES STANG: Absolutely.
JUDITH CASSELBERRY: So one thing that I was thinking about was the effects, like the question about what are the relationship between that these broader diaspora claims and the specificity of spiritual kinship. And if the effects of the claims are the same, then how do we think about these relationships? I think one thing that we should look at is its conceptual approaches to doing things.
So in terms of thinking about the history of Black people and think about kinship and family structures, if we look at their different contexts so people are doing it in different context, but we can find threads of conceptual approaches. So as I'm reading this text, I'm thinking about Maroon communities. I think about all these different moments when Black people have to say, OK, we have to actually now-- we're going to make a network. We're going to make kin, and this is how we're going to do it.
So that really to me is more thinking about the threads of the conceptual approaches, as Todne is saying really clearly, of this idea of the heteronormative family structure is not workable. And so then, how do Black people then think about or practice another type of a family making or kin making? And the other thing that it makes me think about is there's a number of historians-- and also we can think about this in terms of Black studies in general-- about the sacredness of Black History.
So even if we go back to kind of the canonical's Du Bois, souls of Black folks, right there, the turn of the century, he's laying down the gauntlet about the sacredness of Black history and Black people. And so I think there are ways that those things actually kind of intersect. And I think one of the foundational conceptual approaches is an insistence, that Black people have an insistence on creating networks, on being social, on being social beings.
And that the net, the conceptual thread is that they're always having to work extra hard in different ways to make those things happen. And their framework is different, especially given what Soong-Chan was saying earlier about white evangelical hypocrisy that the Black framework is a different framework. So I think that's the way that I think about your question.
SOONG-CHAN RAH: And the connection for that for me is what I was trying to raise earlier about the parallels within the other immigrant communities as well. And so even thinking about the spiritual kinship and Cone talks about this in terms of the blues in African-American culture and han in Korean culture. And it comes out of a common experience of oppression, common experience of challenging, being conquered repeatedly historically.
So the spirituality that emerges is also a form of kinship. So to me, kind of looking forward, is there a way to think about this in terms of an ecclesial impact of what does a genuinely restored across multicultural community look like? And it's not the false family idea that you're kind of critiquing to say, oh, we're just our friends here. I love you, man. That kind of a beer commercial type of experience.
It really is the depth of the spiritual kinship. And that to me is a much better marker for what a united Christians really looks like. And so even Cory Edwards work on the elusiveness of multicultural communities at Ohio State, she's alluding to, you can't do this well because you don't really have-- I think what you're describing, which is the deeper sense of spiritual kinship.
TODNE THOMAS: Yeah. I mean, there's a lot of stuff, I think, that's talked about how even some of the effective balances of racial reconciliation, the language of brotherhood that we leave structures alone, right, or sort of the ethical thing, we could be using the same term. But what I associate with brotherhood, what it means to be a brother, or what it means to be a sister, not necessarily the same thing.
The way we do kinship, even when we're using the same language as English speakers-- Black family-- I mean, not all Black family ties abide to this. Sometimes-- whoa. They will-- whoa. They will tie you up, tie you down, tie you all around, right. And so I think it's also some of these ethical sensibilities as well. What does it mean to be a brother?
And one thing I'd like to point out that I came to this book later in the revision process, there's a way in which after the beloved community, interracial kinship sounds pretty germane, pretty du jour. But there's this book called, Hurting Words. And it talks about the real resistance to interracial kinship claims in the 1950s, right.
And part of this resistance on the part of whites was this idea like Black people don't do family right. Not like a literally not wanting Black people to use that language because of lack of trust. I think it's also about hegemonic privilege and influence. But not wanting Black people to use kinship as a language for interracial gathering because there is a mistrust of Black families. What do they know about kin-- you know.
So these terms of kinship sounds so utopian and fuzzy. It's so fraught and heavy laden. And kind of seeing that the interracial kinship brought up ideas of miscegenation and intermarriage that people were uncomfortable with that, right. This thing that to me, by the time I'm born seems pretty simple and unique, help me understand that Flowers' use of kinship and it's interracial-- was really, really very political.
And that's not something we tend to think of when we think about Black evangelicals, sort of they're interjecting this idea worlds that are challenging to their times, right. But I think Black evangelicalism has-- even as it doesn't take up the kind of civic position that's commonly associated with Black churches. But that was actually even very rare for Black churches in the Civil Rights movement, right.
So yeah. The idea of what could be the broader ecclesial story of these kinship, of spirituality as kinship, as kinship as a kind of spirituality is a term in my church that's used the Kindom of God versus the Kingdom of God. And I've found that to be very provocative and something to think through.
CHARLES STANG: That's great. Thank you, Todne. And I think that's probably a wonderful place for us to end. I want those who have submitted questions to know that we always pass on the questions and comments to the author and the respondents. There's no obligation, of course, for you all to respond to those.
But you just, at the very least, to know what sorts of things your work and conversation have provoked is always helpful. So let me, once again, thank you, Todne, for this. Thank you for writing this book. Thank you for hosting this event with such grace. And thank you, Judith and Soong-Chan for your wonderful framing comments.
And thank you all for participating. I'll speak for the center now and just say, we're going to take a few months break from Zoom. We all probably feel like we need it. But this is a wonderful event to wrap up the year with. So once again, thank you all. And I will see you in September. Take care.
JUDITH CASSELBERRY: Thank you.
TODNE THOMAS: Thank you.
CHARLES STANG: Thank you, Todne. Bye-bye.
TODNE THOMAS: Bye.
JUDITH CASSELBERRY: Bye.