At Glide, they do not have Sunday services, they have Sunday celebrations. The worship is raucous and joyful, the sanctuary packed with people from all different backgrounds and from all walks of life. Homeless and housed, male and female and transgender, gay and straight, recovering and actively addicted, single and married and partnered, old and young, wealthy and poor, black and white and Latino.
Together they join in singing, dancing, and testifying to something they say has happened for them in that community: change. The emphasis on “real change” is repeated throughout their services, which are led by the GLIDE Ensemble and the Change Band. When they sing “I’m gonna sing when the Spirit says sing,” they add a verse of their own—“I’m gonna change if the Spirit says change.”
For the folks at Glide, change can be about any number of things—changing from addiction to recovery, from domestic abuse to empowered liberation, from isolation to community. Glide also emphasizes change on a larger scale—changes to racial discrimination, to a broken justice system, to inequities in marriage legislation. For them, being church in context is about pushing for change in people and in systems, change that is real, change that transforms individuals and the world.
I recently attended a workshop at a conference dealing in part with racism, and they made an important distinction between individual racism and institutional racism. Racism can happen person-to-person, say if I make an assumption about you based on your skin color. But racism is also encoded in the systems of our nation, in laws and business practices, in housing and food policy, in education and the justice system. In order for real change to occur, we cannot settle for trying to be nice to one another; we must tackle the institutions that perpetuate racism and classism.
But individual racism and institutional racism are connected. In order to change one we must change the other. I read a blog post the other day that illustrates the connection between individual and institutional racism. It was about Quvenzhané Wallis, the 9-year-old star of the film Beasts of the Southern Wild. This year, she became the youngest person to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress. If you watched the coverage of the Oscars, you might have noticed that hardly anyone in the press took the time to learn her name—they either called her “Q” or even substituted the name of a character she’ll be playing in an upcoming movie, “Annie”—after that, she gently corrected the reporter: “My name is not Annie. My name is Quvenzhané.”
The writer of the blog pointed out that names are very important. In the Bible, names point to your identity and heritage, and name changes in the Bible come at significant points in a person’s life with God. To refuse to learn someone’s name is to say that they are not worth the effort of getting to know them as a whole person. Quvenzhané is a sweet, spunky girl who wants to be a dentist when she grows up because she wants to see people smile. Why not take a moment to ask her how to pronounce her name?
The blogger argued that there is a widespread tendency in a dominant culture to domesticate unfamiliar names. That may seem simply lazy or inconsiderate at worst. I know I often hesitate to attempt a new pronunciation for fear of mispronouncing. But in that tendency to avoid or abbreviate are echoes of times when African-American slaves had their names taken away and replaced with European names, usually from their owners. There’s an institutional connection even today: studies have shown that employers look more favorably on resumés of people with white-sounding names—whatever that means.
We need change in our hearts and in our institutions. But the task is overwhelming. Can anybody really change the world?
But that’s just it—we change the world when we let change occur in our own hearts. This isn’t a new idea—Gandhi’s statement “Be the change you wish to see in the world” has become a common mantra. And you may remember Michael Jackson crooning about this same concept: “If you wanna make the world a better place / Take a look at yourself and make a change.”
If we’re intentional, the changes we make in our own lives can be serious acts of resistance against injustice on a larger scale. In fact, we can create a little change right now—here, try this: “Quvenzhané.” [Pause] I have to confess that it wasn’t until I read that blog that I went looking for help to learn how to pronounce her name. But to do so is to make a statement, that her identity and value is more important than my personal comfort, that treating her respectfully without regard to her age or gender or race is vital to overthrowing the systems that would hold her back because of any one of those things.
OK, now I’m going to ask you to talk to each other—turn to a neighbor, preferably someone you don’t know, and ask them two things: one, their name; and two, whether it has a certain meaning or significance or whether their parents just liked it. I’ll give you a minute. [Long pause] By taking the time to learn a name, we break down barriers and acknowledge our common humanity. It might seem simple, and it is, but it is a small act of resistance in a culture that keeps us separate and classified by our ace, race, gender, education or socioeconomic level.
At Glide memorial, they close each Sunday celebration the same way. The choir, the leaders, and the entire congregation grabs the hand of someone next to them and sings “We Shall Overcome.” But, as they tend to do at Glide, they change the words—“We shall overcome / We shall overcome / We shall overcome today / Oh, deep in my heart / I do believe / We shall overcome today.”
The angels in heaven have signed my name, whether it is Sarah or Quvenzhané. Let’s be the change we want to see in the world through our speech and in our actions—today.
Sarah S. Howell