The Stories We Tell via Social Media – Transcript from the Nourish Conference

It was almost two years ago. I was still adjusting to life as a new priest in a new diocese and my rector had just begun his four-month sabbatical. I had been “on” social media since MySpace was popular, but I had never really taken it that seriously. Mostly, I saw it as an opportunity to keep in touch with old friends, spy on old exes to ensure their lives weren’t too fulfilled without me, and to talk to my grandmother who has become a social media maven in her own right.

But August 9, 2014 changed everything.

As I scrolled across my Twitter timeline, I began to see a flood of tweets, each one capturing a small part of a slowly unfolding narrative. Mike Brown had been shot by Darren Wilson. His body was left in the street for hours. A crowd had gathered. People were protesting. Where’s the news media? Why aren’t they picking up this story? Hands up! Don’t shoot!

In the subsequent days, weeks, and months I watched, almost helplessly, as the movement grew. I had no idea what to do or how to address it. I did know that in those moments, in the midst of my majority white congregation, in the midst of my majority white diocese, in the midst of my majority white denomination, I felt really black.

And by that I mean that I felt “lonely,” like an outsider.

I didn’t get the sense that anyone could understand the amount of anger or grief I carried around with me or that it would be safe to express that anger or to talk about that grief. Sure, I had white clergy friends who were down with the struggle. They knew all the buzzwords – white privilege, respectability politics, Black Lives Matter, institutional racism, militarization of law enforcement. I had parishioners who expressed their anxiety and fear and “how messed up” the whole thing was.

But no one around me seemed to get the visceral reaction that I had to seeing a black body gunned down by police laying in the street for hours. No one seemed to get how that image connected to some memory imprinted deep in my DNA that recalled “strange trees” bearing “strange fruit.” No one around me understood the trauma.

When I shared that story on Social Media I found community and people who “got it.” Hashtags like #SayHerName, #BlackLivesMatter, #Ferguson, #BaltimoreUprising, #HandsUpDontShoot, and many others continued connect us like the “blest ties that bind” human hearts in the midst of the continued onslaught of unexplained police killings.

You see, that’s the thing about Social Media – it is connective. I think there is much that the Church can learn from Social Media in the ways that it promotes vulnerability, connectivity, and community. People once isolated by geography can talk to one another, build relationship with one another, and learn from one another. That sounds a lot like Ephesians 2.14 – “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” In this radically inclusive, dynamic, interactive space, we have opportunities to learn from, support, connect, and throw shade with people from across the world.

That sounds like Church to me.

A few weeks ago, I experienced a move of the Holy Spirit via Social Media. It was during the #SlateSpeak chat that happened on June 2. The topic was the continued legacy of slavery.  The conversation began as usual, but it quickly intensified as people of color from around the country expressed our frustration with the Church for failing to be a liberating space for oppressed people and for failing to tell the truth: that, as @tj_sings suggests,

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or when I said this…

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and expressed how exhausting it is to be a person and a textbook at the same time. That #SlateSpeak conversation continued for almost two hours as people of color told our stories of how we can still feel the effects of slavery, the reminders of trauma deeply imprinted in our DNA that recall “strange trees” bearing “strange fruit.”

At one point in the conversation, we took a breath. The intensity of the conversation grew as people told their stories and expressed deep emotions. @BrandiNico named that for what it was,

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The Church should be a space where we can name what ails us, where we can lament and complain about what is wrong, where we can be vulnerable with one another. Often times this is not the case. In the sarcastic words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “the pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner.” Too often the Church is too pious to actually be Christian, we bless our masks instead of inviting one another to take them off, and so week-in and week-out trauma, depression, and brokenness come and go unspoken, unchanged, unaddressed.

The stories we tell on Social Media are examples of what the Church could be – spaces of healing and vulnerability, truth-telling and reconciliation. To be certain there are examples on Social Media where this is not the case. Trolls often invade conversations to stir up mischief and to do harm. But the same is true for our churches as well. Too often trolls dominate the narrative of healing in our sacred spaces. Sometimes those trolls where stoles and collars.

However, the healing wind of God blows wherever truth is spoken – whether in 14-minute sermons of 140 character tweets. Social media has the same capacity to bear witness to the in-breaking of the Reign of God as scripture. The rule of St. Benedict suggests as much – that the vessels on the altar are to be treated with as much reverence as the tools in the garden. Liberty is wherever the Spirit of the Lord is – in this space or cyberspace.

The first time I ever said clearly to the world that I was gay was via Twitter. I had “come out” to my family and close friends before that, but the words were still awkward on my lips. I was still dealing with the trauma of growing up in a space that regularly named my identity as an abomination and told me Hell would be my portion. But boldly claiming my identity by telling my story so publically was the first step in making peace with my past and owning both my present and future.

In an essay entitled “Zora Neale Hurston: A Cautionary Tale of a Partisan View,” African American womanist writer Alice Walker recalls the grounding significance of sharing stories with her very southern family “rapidly forgetting their southern cultural inheritance” in the north. She writes, “they sat around reading the book themselves, listening to me read the book, listening to each other read the book, and a kind of paradise was regained.”[1]

We each must boldly share our stories with one another in to regain a kind of paradise. We each have a story to tell.

Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie suggests “Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”[2]

I want to close with this: your story matters. My story matters. We don’t need anyone’s permission to tell them because they belong to us. We just need the will to share them and to watch the Spirit of God give them wings as they join the countless other stories of God’s movement in our world.

Thank You.


[1] Alice Walker. “Zora Neale Hurston: A Cautionary Tale and a Partisan View” in In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose

[2] Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. “The Danger of a Single Story.” TED. July 2009.

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