Calling Congregations Conference with a small team of my colleagues from Life Together, the Episcopal Service Corps young adult intern program in Boston. I experienced VocationCARE as a set of practices that intend to enliven individuals and communities, with the potential to deepen our relationship to God, to ourselves, to each other and our communities.

"> In the Body of Faith and Hope | Forum for Theological Exploration

In the Body of Faith and Hope

By: Suzanne Ehly
October 03, 2011

I have always experienced my life intensely in my body, with my senses. Here are some early snapshots:

I remember my paternal grandmother sailing through the house with zealous, righteous cheeriness singing:

“Jesus loves the little children,
All the children of the world.
Red and yellow, black and white
They are precious in his sight.
Jesus loves the little children of the world.”

I felt myself included in those words, and they echoed what I was already learning in my clergy family about a great force of love, God’s love, Jesus’ love that enveloped me and all life.

And so I also remember the confusion and the claustrophobic, panicked feeling I had in my body when my grandmother rolled up all the windows and locked the doors of the car as we drove through downtown Jersey City. I remember the meanness and virulence in the sound of her racist comments about the people strolling outside our little barricaded vehicle. I felt shocked and wondered if perhaps the preciousness of ALL children ended when they were no longer children?

I remember, just a few years later the sting of being targeted for the mistakes of the adult singers around me as I happily sang God’s praises, the only young person in the adult choir of my father’s church. I remember the tight grip of fear, shame and anger in my throat and wondered where the love of Jesus was in that room…

Something was not right here. The same adults who claimed to be Christian and who were telling me the stories of this great love, were also saying things and acting in ways that were directly in contrast to those love stories.

Then, at age 10, I moved with my family to Tarsus, Turkey. My father had accepted a five-year teaching assignment at a boys’ high school run in part by the United Church Board for World Ministries. I experienced this as a life-saving move for me. Suddenly my father’s reign/way was de-centered. Suddenly the unspoken/unwritten cultural habits and rules that I was being raised to consider “normal” were put into high relief, rather than being the water I was swimming in. Suddenly I could see with my own eyes, hear with my own ears, smell, taste and feel with my own body, rather than through the filter of my family, that much of the world didn’t live according to the rules I had been learning. Suddenly white, Christian, middle class, US, English speaking weren’t “normal.”

Here I heard the call to prayer swirling sinuously five times each day above Tarsus, from the minarets of the mosques all over town, declaring the greatness of God; I learned to speak Turkish; I heard the whoosh and slosh of fresh milk being poured into the pail outside our door in the mornings, and the hollow-sounding bells around the necks of the cows and donkeys walking down the cobblestone street on their way to pasture; I walked along the immense stone roadways of the ancient city of Ephesus, and crawled into the early Christian dwellings and worship spaces of Cappadocia and understood in my body a longer arc of history than I had encountered in the US.

It was a momentary reprieve, but a life changing one. It meant that, returning to the US at age 15, I could feel the heavy cloak of empire descend in the rigid categories of gender, class, race, ethnicity, religion, language, sexual orientation, the lack of interest in the world outside white US culture… And I could feel that the cloak did not fit me.

Out of these (and many other) experiences, along with the discipline and commitment to ongoing practice and exploration as a singer, I developed a life-long commitment to examining and learning from my own body, to understanding the history that I carry in my own person, to an incarnational way of learning. I’ve pursued this commitment in my hybrid life as a performer and a teacher. My work as artist and scholar focuses on the exploration of the body and voice as a potential site of transformation. My passion is to lead myself and others in excavatory practices of uncovering and un-obscuring the history/ies, liveliness, humanness, creativity and sense of passion for a just community that I can see we all long for, no matter how confused we may have become. My work looks at the way heritage, identity and life experience are held and enacted in our bodies and imaginations. It examines what we are habitually practicing and seeks to build new practices that uphold rather than block the full vitality of bodies and voices.

In October 2010, I was sent to Atlanta to attend the Calling Congregations Conference with a small team of my colleagues from Life Together, the Episcopal Service Corps young adult intern program in Boston. I experienced VocationCARE as a set of practices that intend to enliven individuals and communities, with the potential to deepen our relationship to God, to ourselves, to each other and our communities.

Particularly within the context of the US, with its unique history of white supremacy and the concomitant suppression of peoples’ relationship to their own heritages and creation of a mythical US homogeneity, I am excited and encouraged by FTE’s new commitment to thoroughly welcoming the body and its wisdom and potential for transformation, coupled with a commitment to anti-racist practices and learnings. These commitments have truly powerful potential to invite us to live God’s call to love in sustainable, lively and grounded ways; the potential to make a unique contribution to the important national and international conversation on building justice, peace and dignity for every human being.

With these commitments, VocationCARE practices have the potential to re-enliven our connection to a longer arc of history, with all its good and troubling aspects, all its inherent hopes and fears, horizons and obstacles; the potential to re-enliven our inherent love for other beings, for all of creation, a love that has been obscured by nationalism and calls to safety and comfort that always exclude more than include; the potential to re-ignite our imaginations, reawaken our curiosity and build practices of deep, holy listening.

As I look forward to attending the FTE Calling Congregations Conference: Awakening the Courage to Care in October 2011, I am reminded of something that Desmond Tutu said to us while he was in residence at Episcopal Divinity School: “You [the USA] will become a great country when you have the courage to listen to each others’ stories.” I am excited to have the opportunity to be there, to learn and to awaken, alongside all of you, the next directions for our journey/s.

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Suzanne Ehly leads a hybrid life as soprano/performer and teacher. She is Adjunct Faculty in Voice and Studies in Contemporary Society at Episcopal Divinity School, where she teaches Unleashing Our Voices: Voice, Identity and Leadership and co-teaches Foundations for Theological Praxis and Preaching. At EDS she serves as co-chair of Change Team II, charged with moving forward EDS’ antiracist/anti-oppression mission and initiatives. She also works with Life Together (Episcopal Service Corps, Boston chapter) as part of the leadership and design team and as teacher/trainer/spiritual mentor. In addition she performs and leads workshops for a diverse group of organizations around the country.

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Photo (cc) via Flickr user dawe2k5

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