In this podcast, which was produced as part of Project SAFE, Afua Addo speaks with the Rev. Dr. Cheryl F. Dudley, the regional executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metropolitan New York. Dr. Dudley discusses the history of black churches in America as well as their role, along with other spiritual communities, in supporting criminalized black women survivors of domestic and sexual violence.
This project was supported by Grant No. 2016-TA-AX-K022 awarded by the Office on Violence Against Women, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, conclusions, and recommendations expressed in this publication/program/exhibition are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Justice, Office on Violence Against Women.
The following is a transcript of the podcast:
Afua ADDO: I’m joined today by the Reverend Dr. Cheryl Dudley, regional executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metropolitan New York. A resident of New York City for almost 10 years, Reverend Dudley is an ordained American Baptist minister and member of Madison Avenue Baptist Church. She holds degrees from Pomona College, Princeton Theological Seminary, and McCormick Theological Seminary of Chicago, Illinois, where she earned the Doctor of Ministry in Executive Leadership. Reverend Dudley has been involved in pastoral, community, as well as global and philanthropic ministries for many years. She has served as the senior partner of her own consulting group; global religions director at a local foundation; senior advisor to the president of Church World Service; associate executive director of Church in Community Transformation, American Baptist Home Mission Societies; acting director of African American Studies at Bradley University; and executive director of Peoria Friendship House. She has also served on the pastoral teams of several churches in Illinois and Pennsylvania. Reverend Dudley has served on several national and international boards and committees and holds her membership at Madison Avenue Baptist Church in Manhattan.
She is the past president of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and the current board chair of InspirAction USA, a startup faith-based humanitarian response organization. Currently, Reverend Dudley represents the region’s interests by providing spiritual and religious resourcing to Project SAFE, which seeks justice and restoration for women who are survivors of intimate partner violence and sexual assault. Reverend Dudley is also part of the board of Flemister Housing Development Fund Corporation. In addition, in 2015, Reverend Dudley became the first woman elected to the position of regional executive minister at American Baptist Churches of Metropolitan New York, which began its conception in April of 1791. So, it has been long time coming to have you represented. Currently, American Baptist Churches in New York consists of 194 member congregations, which she oversees, in addition to her ongoing efforts to support her community, as well as represent the black women she serves and supports through the Project SAFE Initiative.
Welcome, Reverend Dudley. I think it’d be great to start out asking, I think, one of the more pressing questions: what it is like being a woman in your position, but more importantly, how has your role been shaped over the years in leadership, in pastoral leadership as well?
The Rev. Cheryl DUDLEY: Well, it’s an honor for me to be the executive minister of American Baptist Churches Metro New York. And, as you mentioned, I became the executive minister as the first woman and first black woman, the first woman of any stripe in 2015, and it’s kind of both an honor and a shame that it takes till 2015 for the first woman to be elected in this role. But, if we were honest, there’s only been seven of us, and so our regional ministers have had long tenures. And so, I’m glad to continue in that legacy, as a woman who is considered a leader—a black woman who’s considered a leader.
I have a friend—I was thinking about her words this morning—and she called me, when I was a part of the national staff, a reluctant leader. I said, “Oh, that’s an interesting thing that you picked that. Why do you say that?” She said, “Well, you kind of look around and see if anyone else is going to pick up the mantle, and, if they don’t, then you’re willing to step up. And so, you don’t seek.” Which I’m glad about, that there’s that perception to be the first in the limelight, but sometimes you have to go through that door, that window; and, if there aren’t other voices that are speaking or persons willing to lead, then being willing to do that is important. Having been nurtured by my parents, both my mother and my father, to recognize that there’s something special that God has implanted within me, as God has implanted in all of us, it is a responsibility that we have to live it out as fully as possible. And, so, I try to do what I do. It was good to hear you recite some of my history, to remember those places, and to be glad about them.
ADDO: Wonderful! We have some questions that we’ve talked about, but we are definitely going to veer off and on some tangents, no doubt. I appreciate the reluctant leadership title because this country is currently experiencing a surge in some reluctant leadership from our youth. Given recent tragedies and recent experiences that they have gone through, they have no doubt stepped up to the plate and are urging the adults in this country. Is there anything that you’d like to speak to as far as that situation is concerned? I think in a position of leadership, you’re able to kind of step back and look around at what has influenced you but also see the inspiration and kind of the impetus, the motivation, behind these youth to stand up and speak. From one reluctant leader to others, is there anything you’d like to share as far as that’s concerned?
DUDLEY: Yeah, sometimes in our lives and certainly in society, the time is now. And we have a responsibility, from whatever places that we are, when we look around and we see that real change isn’t happening, that the futures we aspire for ourselves, and for our peers, and our children when we’re older, may not materialize automatically. And, so, as young people who have stepped up now, in light of the latest school shooting, have been empowered to speak up for themselves because of the lack of likely leaders—those that we look to take responsibility and to act and to protect—have been motivated in order to protect themselves, and their friends, and their peers, to assure their own future.
As I’ve looked at the situation in Florida, where suddenly these young people have gotten an audience within the statehouse, Tallahassee, and the White House with the current president, I’m struck by a couple of things. I’m struck by the reality that a lot of the children, the young people that we see on TV who have made a stand in this case, appear to be young people of privilege. Appearances may be deceiving, but, certainly in respect to their demographic race and socioeconomic standing, they appear to be, really, I’ll use the word, exploiting their privilege to call for change. But they do so in the legacy of others who don’t have as much privilege, who have stepped out in the last several years, like in Black Lives Matter—those young people that have stepped out and said no more, yet weren’t received in the same kind of way. And so there are building blocks, if you will, of courage that the young people now are on the shoulders, if you will, of those who have tried to step out before and have been summarily too often ignored. We don’t hate them for this. We don’t want to hate them because we do aspire for change. And change needs to happen in order for our lives, precious lives, to be protected.
ADDO: Great. I want to pivot on the same concept of building blocks for courage and utilizing privilege from a vantage point to speak to more pressing issues and talk a little bit about how Project SAFE, which we have worked together on, is focused primarily on a population with intersectional identities: black, women, seemingly impoverished, systematically and structurally marginalized, definitely hyper-criminalized. Project SAFE focuses on criminalized black women, women engaging with the legal system who statistically have histories and experiences of domestic violence and sexual assault and abuse in their lives that kind of pipelines to criminalization. That’s just the foundation.
I’m also thinking about the historical impact of faith-based communities in galvanizing reform, in motivating activism, even before the Civil Rights Movement. Legally, people of color, and actually legally African Americans in this country, were only relegated to assembly in houses of worship, right? They could only meet together at that time. Otherwise it was just illegal, for those who needed a little brush up on history. But, I’m wondering, are there currently initiatives—do we see a movement from faith-based communities, at any response, at the local level, and maybe even at the regional level, for some of the disparities experienced by women, and women of color, by black women in many of these instances. The reason I’m asking this question specifically is because of the platform that churches had back then, that they quite possibly might still have, but we just don’t hear a lot from them. Again, we’re pivoting from a more centralized conversation on activism into working together from the community perspective with individuals, I hope.
DUDLEY: Yeah, you have a wonderful way of building a complex question based on some complex realities, and so trying to respond to that complexity, African American churches—black churches historically, and still now—have served multiple functions. And so, as you were saying, it was a safe place. It was a refuge for black folks to be able to assemble together, historically, during times of slavery and Jim Crow, where we could be free. I think about the cry in the classic movie Amistad: “Give us free.” And so, we would go to the church, the black church, to find that freedom to be ourselves, to find sucker, if you will, nourishment, refreshment from God and from one another, with people who understood the struggle [and who], day-to-day, lived in a world that was too often hostile to us.
At least for a few hours in the walls of the church, we found that safety. We felt safe. And the black church is not a homogeneous group, meaning that everyone who was there thought the same way or even believed the same thing. But the bond of culture brought us together and continued to bring us back there. When we had too much of this old world, if you will, we could go there and have a catharsis—to pray it out, to sing it out, to hear it out, to respond, and to know that we aren’t alone. And so, the black church, even for black folks and, I think, particularly for those who aren’t black, there’s a mystery to that institution. Certainly, it’s a spiritual institution, but it’s also a sociological institution that, in some ways, is impenetrable because if you’re from the outside, you can’t understand, culturally, what’s going on.
There are various expressions of what goes on, of our religion, of our spirit. What happens after the worship, the times of worship and the times of spiritual learning, the church has morphed into a social enterprise, where the community can gather to learn more about what’s happening in the public space, you know, political realities, also. It has been a place where we can get inoculations and health information to strengthen ourselves and to care of our children. There was, at least in the classic times of the black church, a place where children could be supported by parents that weren’t related to them by blood. There was an ethos of ‘we need to take care of one another and make sure that we grow up supported and well-grounded.’ And I don’t think that that’s a romanticized version of the truth.
I do think that that does happen and has happened historically, and it needs to continue to happen. But going back to the mystery of the church. I come from the Baptist church tradition, and so that means that every church is autonomous, and each church has its own way of doing things. It’s not hierarchical; they’re not accountable to another entity. But, in the case of my role, my role is to help round people together of similar beliefs and, collectively, to strengthen our witness in the world. I have often been surprised in going to a local congregation as to what is really happening there. I may find that there are churches that are doing active work in supporting those who have been victimized in various ways. There are churches that are very active in visitation in prisons and supporting those once they have been released. There are churches that are doing active housing work or hunger work. But you wouldn’t necessarily know that looking at it, but, prayerfully, the community itself that surrounds that church knows about it and participates in it.
ADDO: I’ve heard you talk previous times at our roundtables and at presentations about the role of faith-based institutions personally and then communally, right? You just talked about the cultural Christians and the spiritual Christians as well, and you’ve addressed the same for members of Judaism and Islam as well, similarly, right? That respite and safety. What’s interesting about what you just said is that there are so many experiences. And there are atheists, there are individuals who are drawn to the church for safety and support again. How has—
I guess the question I’m trying to build on, or go back and ask a question based on what you just said, and I’m losing my train of thought because there’s so many things to address… Why is it that that level of ministry, or outreach and community engagement, is so silenced or is not as well known to most? I think some of our listeners and viewers would be surprised to hear that smaller congregations are doing that level of work and engagement.
DUDLEY: I do think that there is a sense and hope of protection. So, if someone has experienced violence at the hand of, say, an intimate partner, that violence, that experience, is legitimate—yet there is some shame that’s attached to that. So, a community needs to both respond and, I guess, reflect on what has happened, the stories that they’ve heard, and the evidence that they may see of what the testimony that has happened from a person who’s experienced it is true.
I think we want to believe the best about people. And when that best is not true, then there’s an obligation to respond. There’s some investigation that needs to happen, some tearing away of some realities, and then coming to the conclusion that this experience that has been expressed by a black woman needs to be supported, and understood, and believed as true.
And, so, when we recognize that persons who are engaged in intimate partner abuse, in this case, exist within the church as well as outside the church, there is a need to confront both the abuser and the systems that would make abuse a reality. Whether it is through complicit silence, denial, what have you, people feel guilty. And they are guilty often tacitly, in supporting an unhealthy relationship or unhealthy expectation. Church folks are full of real people, and we have to do the reflective work that’s necessary in order to get to the truth, and after knowing the truth, to respond in kind. We all know people nearby, very close, often, that are experiencing the kinds of things that Project SAFE is trying to address. And, then, we have the opportunity to talk about it, to confess, to admit that this is a dilemma, still, and that the church needs to stop sitting on its hands, if you will, and to act actively, to bring voice to it, and to accompany those who have been targeted and who are trying to recover, and to do it with pride.
ADDO: At our roundtable, you displayed an image of stones, and you talked about the role of stones. Would you mind speaking a little bit about that? I don’t want to paraphrase what you say so well.
DUDLEY: Sure, I think stones are important to us in the Abrahamic faith traditions. Stones are our markers, often. They represent something to us. They seem to be generated from the earth, and so within the Christian tradition, there’s a well-known story of a woman who was caught in the act of adultery. The religious leaders and the others in public were anxious to get their retribution, and so they brought her before the community and said, “Since this has happened, we are obligated to respond by stoning her.” And, if you know the story, Jesus is quiet, and then he says, “The one without sin cast the first stone.” And, so, all the stones dropped. No one is free [or] is totally innocent. So, then, he tells the woman to be restored, to regain her life, and to go forward.
We have an opportunity to either use stones as weapons to contribute to the victimization of folks who have already been victimized. In this story there’s no evidence of others who were involved—just this person who was particularly vulnerable and dragged before the court who was asking Jesus to sentence her. He refused to do it in the way that they thought he would. We have the opportunity to either use stones as weapons or as building blocks. I think it’s helpful for us to think about stones, if we’re not using them as building blocks, to at least use them as markers that something significant has happened in a particular moment. We want to mark that. And so, in our traditions—Jewish and Islamic and Christian traditions—we talk about mitzvahs, or Ebenezer’s reckoning, with the reality that something significant has happened and we need to remember that. And, in remembering that, we also remember what responses are possible, either to heap blame or to look for places to heal and reconcile.
ADDO: Definitely markers of accountability, right, and remembrances. And I think if we come back to the focus of Project SAFE, where we’re focusing in on the experiences of women on the margins of the margins, right, who rarely have representation, who rarely have a stage, and definitely don’t have the privilege to advocate on their behalf—or the reluctant leaders kind of step up and are doing that, similar to your work, and your ongoing work in bridging gaps. What is your vision for ... This is a big question. You don’t have to have to answer this question.
DUDLEY: All your questions are big question [laughter].
ADDO: [Laughter] They’re big questions. I don’t know, you’re here for a moment, so I wanted to get it all in. What would your vision be for engaging the experiences of victimized black women or victimized women, period? This country, right now, is at a moment where we’ve got to mark the moment, the experiences of women stepping forward and feeling comfortable stepping forward, or the experiences of people being captured on video, right? There’s no going back once we have actual proof and evidence of the victimization of so many individuals. What would your vision be for engaging our victimized women from a faith-based perspective? I think the church believes it has been doing that work, believes it’s had this open door, open-arm policy, and maybe might not be received that way from the victimized. Do you have any thoughts on fixing it?
DUDLEY: We have to take advantage of moments that are presented in culture and society, and I think that the time, right now, is particularly ripe to listen, still, to the testimonies and experiences of persons who have been harmed. As a person of faith—and I don’t think you just have to be a person of faith, you can be just a human being—stories are powerful motivators. I think our hearts have been ripped right open when we’ve heard stories that are shocking, [like], ‘We didn’t know that was happening to you.’ We are suddenly kind of overwhelmed by the conspiracy of silence amongst those who have experienced something terrible that they’ve kept it to themselves for some reason and have either been afraid or reluctant to tell the story.
You’ve used the terminology marginalization, hyper-marginalization, and so I thought about this today. The response to persons who have been hyper-marginalized is to push them to the center. The opposite of the margin is the center. And so if it’s the same as I was talking about in terms of being a reluctant leader, those who have experienced harm in a significant way may need to become those reluctant leaders even though they weren’t seeking it, in order to bring voice to the story, which is not only their own personal story, but probably is reminiscent to the stories of many others. There is healing in telling stories. And our hearts aren’t hearts of stone. Our hearts are hearts of flesh, and since we are human beings, we respond to those earnest, clear stories, where we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the testimony that a woman is telling is true.
I have certainly been in enough places where I have heard a story, and I think I’ve heard a lot in life. Sometimes, you think, as a New Yorker, you’ve heard it all. But then you hear another story that transforms you, yet, still. You know that this transformative process isn’t over. It breaks your heart and you say, “How could that have happened to you? How could it have happened to her and how did you find the wherewithal to gather your strength and to find a place to escape?” Those stories, those difficult, hard-to-hear stories need to be told from center-stage, and they need to be told in the so-called holy places because when those stories are told, they become holy as well because they become a part of the narrative of a community. The community then should be saying to us, “We want to participate with you to find your redemption.”
ADDO: That is absolutely beautiful and a message that I hope is spread far and wide and resonates with other leaders because I think it can be conflicting and difficult to hear stories. Because it’s so hard sometimes to hear things, and we think that that might be the worst thing you’ve heard, we tend to shut people down. As soon, or as quick as we can say to someone, “I understand” or “Don’t cry,” that’s a way for us to block ourselves from the pain of someone’s experiences, but we are connected through those narratives. I’m so grateful to you for sharing that.
So many women who experience engagement with law enforcement or criminalization don’t own their stories. Their stories are kind of relegated to a rap sheet or criminal history. So, it’s so heartening to hear you advocate for the interpersonal narrative, the personal story. Is there anything you’d like to share with us about how hope plays into moving through experiences of victimization or moving past experiences of marginalization? I think that this country, and definitely myself, need some hope and inspiration for the future, for the work that you do, for the work we all do, and also, just existing, right, against the grain in the current administration.
DUDLEY: Well, I think part of the hope comes from every individual, whether or not one has suffered harm or has witnessed harm or is leery of harm happening to themselves, having the agency to know who you are. We all have been created in the image of God. There is something precious that’s been planted within us from birth that needs to be watered, that will flower. One of the places where it can happen is, certainly, in the company of others that recognize the same thing.
I do have hope, still, in our churches—and our churches are flawed. We’re human organizations, and some, I think, well-meaning people really do need some training, some help, in terms of knowing how to respond correctly to people who have been harmed. I’ve heard too many stories, I think, where people have unwittingly added to the trauma someone has already [experienced]. The tips that we all need to have —these are the ways that you respond to someone who has told their story so as to not contribute to more harm.
There are wolves in sheep’s clothing and then there are sheep and shepherds that want to respond and will respond. We just need the tools in order to respond well. I do find hope in this collaboration, such as ours, where different actors have come together: civic activists, [in] religious and public intellectual life. We need to talk to one another more intentionally. Often, there’s a gap between these various disciplines and maybe even a suspicion or competition. And, so, as we rid ourselves of the notion that we are either in competition or potentially adversarial, I think we can live out this vision that we all have that black women, in this case, will live into their fullness, that they will be restored, that black women who have been harmed before will help other black women recover and step up to the center and to the heights of their life. So, I find hope in these kinds of collaborations and certainly in these kinds of conversations.
ADDO: Wonderful, really wonderful! Before we even wrap up—I wish we didn’t have to wrap up, but I believe we’ve gotten a good amount of coverage on this topic—I am honored to be sharing this space with you, and to be speaking with you. Definitely at a loss for words at some points because you have so much value in not only what you say, but such rich experiences with some various communities and populations you’ve been working with—and are doing a queen’s job in taking on the ABC in New York Metro. You are engaging large and wide congregations and very diverse congregations and churches all over this city. But, on a fun note, I’d like to know if you have a favorite Bible verse. I think that’s a question we ask every … we always tend to ask pastoral leadership, “What’s your favorite bible verse?” or “What’s your favorite hymn?” But do you have one that you’d like to share with us before we go?
DUDLEY: Sometimes we default to the one we just preached on Sunday, but my favorite right now is really the 139th Psalm.
ADDO: I know that one [laughter].
DUDLEY: It’s a good one [laughter].
ADDO: It is.
DUDLEY: Just some of the words, and I would invite you to find your Bible and read it all, but some of the words are:
Where can I go from your spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to Heaven, you are there, God. And if I make my bed in hell, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settled at the farthest limits of the sea, even there, your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, “surely the darkness shall cover me and the light around me become night.” Even the darkness is not dark to you, and the night is as bright as day.
ADDO: Beautiful! Thank you so much for sharing that with us. Dr. Rev. Dudley, again, regional executive minister of American Baptist Churches Metropolitan New York and consultant on Project SAFE. Thank you.
DUDLEY: Thank you. It’s my pleasure.