Though the weather is chilling and the leaves are falling, my mind has been traveling back to a different change in the seasons. Spring of this year brought with it two moments that would change my life, though I didn’t know yet that they would. My doctor told me that pain would be a part of my life for as long as I live, and I applied for an internship at the Resource Center for Women and Ministry in the South.
Coming to terms with a lifetime of hurting means that it often feels like it’s no longer just pain that limits me, but also the mountainous emotions that have arrived along with it. And one of the places that I have so often sought peace—church—has also begun to feel too small for my emotional and physical suffering. Almost every space I occupy rewards the moments that I pass as able-bodied, pretending as if neither my body nor my spirit are hurting.
This semester, at the intersection of my labor and my faith, where self-blame, shame and stigma so often live, sat instead a little house on Watts Street. This house is the home of the Resource Center for Women in Ministry in the South.
Jeanette Stokes, an author, minister, artist, activist and all-around incredible human, noticed a need among women—especially those in the Southern United States—whose lives were infused with both the joys and sorrows of a flawed religion and a flawed world. She sought to create a space to make art and music, to preach and teach, to come together and be seen, heard and loved. Over forty years later, I sent in an application, not knowing that it would be exactly what I needed.
I have worked for four different nonprofits in the past year, each of which I love dearly. But I could tell that something was different about the Resource Center within minutes of arriving for my interview in the cozy, sunlit room full of books, art and the debris of decades of advocacy and activism. I sat down on a comfy couch, and Jeanette asked two questions, back to back.
“Is that seat comfortable? And how’s your pain today?”
I knew the answers to both of those questions, but I was still taken aback. Jeanette and I had done a phone interview where I told her about my chronic pain, but I wasn’t expecting her to bring it up again. Why was she asking me about pain when we had work to do?
It turns out that letting one another see both the shiny and the less-shiny parts of our lives is exactly the work that the Resource Center does. Everyone whose lives are touched by RCWMS—the staff, the interns, the bank tellers, the postal carriers, the neighbors—are regarded as complex, limited, beautiful, whole persons worthy of love and attention.
That means that when it’s raining outside, we might work from home and stay in our pajamas. It means that I never once logged my hours, that Jeanette trusted my friend and fellow Anita McLeod intern, Shelley, and I to do what we said we would do. It means that sometimes we would drop what we were doing and take a walk around the block. It means that more than once I would find myself sitting in a circle, the youngest one in the room, surrounded by wise women. It means that snacks and tea and stretch breaks and hugs are not just encouraged, but required. It means that the Resource Center has decided that it’s going to do both work and faith differently, and it’s inviting anyone who wants to join to come on in.
If this sounds countercultural, it’s because it is. It took me weeks to become accustomed to walking into the Resource Center and turning off the part of my brain that demanded my body and mind ignore their pain. I have lived for so long in a world that positively reinforces the moments where I appear to be in less pain than I am; it is strange and fascinating to be in a place that positively reinforces just showing up and being myself.
A few weeks into the semester, I left the Resource Center after stuffing envelopes and chatting all afternoon, and the poem by Mary Oliver popped into my head: “You do not have to be good. / You do not have to walk on your knees / for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. / You only have to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves.”
Being in pain does not make me bad. And it is not my fault that I am in pain. But the peculiar way that capitalism, white heteropatriarchy and hegemonic religion have intersected in this moment has done a good job of convincing me that both lies are true. A faithful body that hasn’t experienced healing is disruptive to a simplified faith that shrinks God’s love down to bodies that are able and well. And a smart mind that hasn’t been able to think its way out of being in pain is disruptive in an institution and workforce where one’s worth is predicated on their intellectual productivity.
My body disrupts a faith and a labor system that declares that our bodies are good only insofar as our bodies are productive and able. And I am so scared of appearing weak or stupid or broken in the spaces I occupy that I use my work and my faith to repent for being in pain, as if my pain was my fault, as if it makes me anything other than good and worthy of love.
The Resource Center said to me this semester, you do not have to be good, because you already are. You do not have to repent, because you haven’t done anything wrong. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. You only have to show up.
My time at the Resource Center is ending as the semester ends, and I already know I will miss it deeply. The world we all live in lives inside each of us, calling our bodies bad when they hurt or look different or feel too much. That voice is loud, harsh and strong.
But this semester, in the middle of all that racket, another, gentler, sweeter voice has appeared in my mind. I hope you learn how to let it appear in your mind, too.
It says, you do not have to be good. You just have to be here. It is enough for you to be here.
Liddy Grantland is a senior at Duke majoring in African American Studies and English. She will be hibernating for the next month, missing the Resource Center. Her column in the Duke Chronicle is called, “feel your feelings,” and it runs on alternate Mondays.