Rose J. Percy is a Haitian-American womanist theopoet. She hosts a podcast called Dear Soft Black Woman. Rose also co-creates sacred spaces at Quni Community. Her work engages theologies of imagination, critical pedagogy, and Black literature, to birth spaces for rest, belonging, and community care.
Rose holds a Master of Divinity from Boston University School of Theology. Rose was born in Les Cayes, Ayïti, and raised in Pawtucket, RI. She resides in Boston, MA.
Patrick: Welcome to the Sound of the Genuine, a podcast where I get to talk to leaders and scholars and practitioners about how they find meaning and purpose in their lives. I am Dr. Patrick Reyes and today we have Rose Percy, the founder of Dear Soft Black Woman, a podcast and social media platform that gives voice to women of color and explore Rose’s deep commitments to finding meaning, purpose, liberation and freedom in her life.
Now this interview is a live recording from our Christian Leadership Forum. And we get to hear Rose’s story about how she grew up and moved out of Haiti to Boston and pursuing a master’s degree to explore what ministry looks like and navigating the education system all along. It is such a joy and honor to sit across from rose as she tells her story and I can’t wait for you to hear it.
We have one more story, one more live recording. So I’m gonna invite Rose Percy, come on up. So Rose, I know you from Dear Soft Black Woman, an incredible podcast that I’m sure when you were born, you didn’t say I was gonna do this.
Rose: No, not at all.
Patrick: From Les Cayes, Haiti to the U.S., take me back to the beginning. Tell me about your people.
Rose: Yeah. So I was born in Les Cayes, Ayiti and my parents brought me over to the United States when I was two years old, almost three. I have about five rough memories of childhood in…like when I say rough I mean imagination wise. I barely remember Haiti. So I remember Haiti through my parents and the stories that they tell me. So it kind of feels like having, I like to call it like a sliver of a mango, cuz Haitian mangoes are delicious. What y’all call mangoes in America…you don’t understand - Haitian mangoes are like gold. And so whenever we’d get Haitian mangoes coming in from relatives who come, the kids would always get just like a slice and the parents would get a whole mango. I’d be like, I want a whole mango. And it kind of felt like, well if you don’t remember Haiti enough, you don’t get a whole mango.
So Haitian kids, those who grew up in the states, like to say that in our culture, there are three places that you are allowed to be, and we call them the three L’s. Which in Creole are Legliz, Lekól, Lakay. And in English that’s church, school, and home. And when I was growing up, I had a fourth L and that was the library.
So I was able to go a couple times a week and sometimes my mom would question whether or not I was really going to library, cuz I would like go so frequently. But I really did read a lot cuz I didn’t really have anything else. It was lekól, lakay, legliz. So I turned to my imagination to really build a world that I could be free.
And the time that I spent in church was…well, it was a lot. There was one point when I was a teen that I was in church Sunday morning for service, which could be two hours or longer. And then we go home, we eat, we come back for the youth service in the evening. Tuesday, youth prayer. Wednesday, youth Bible study. Saturday, choir rehearsal because we sang every fourth Sunday.
So I was in church a lot. And it was in church that I was shaped into an understanding of myself as a leader. When I was 15, I was asked to be on the youth board and they gave me two options. They said you could be the youth secretary, or you could be the vice president in charge of finances. I was like, don’t give me any money. I’ll write, I’ll take notes. I’ll be the writer. And so they gave me a laptop and I took notes during our Bible study and in our meetings and things like that. And it was from being the person who took the notes that I was like interacting with scripture and in like a way that really sat with me and lingered with me and our youth pastor kind of noted that. And he gave me the opportunity to preach for the first time. And so I preached and he said to me that I should consider going to seminary. So when I was 17 and I graduated high school, I went and toured two different seminaries. And I was like, okay, so now where do I apply? And they were like, you have to go to college first.
I was like, okay. And because my family spent a good number of time in the states and were undocumented for a long period of time and struggling to become citizens and residents of the US, when I did go to college, I was an undocumented student. And so it was community college, which is supposed to be the cheapest option available for everyone, but I was charged out-of-state tuition fees because of my status. And so I worked and went to school at the same time. I remember my first year, the second semester I was going through like a very depressed season and I was very heartbroken cuz I was like reflecting on how long it was gonna take me to get to where I wanted to be.
And I ended up withdrawing from school and classes and my parents kind of coaxed me into eventually signing up to go to like certified nursing assistant school training and all of that. And so I did that and I was miserable the entire time. I was like crying every single time on the way there cause I didn’t wanna do the job. And it was in that experience of like doing this job, which both my parents did - they were both CNA’s my entire life. And I really didn’t understand what it was that they went through on a daily basis, going to work and coming home and what church meant to them and what church means to our people and how church dignifies us in ways that the world is not - especially as immigrants in the United States.
But as a CNA, worked long hours, worked really hard, and I would take semesters off to save to pay for classes, or pay off classes and then go again. And it wasn’t until I was 22, that I was able to go to a four-year college. So I ended up at Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy, Massachusetts. A little bit in between that time, the time that I was a CNA and before I went off to ENC, I had left my parents’ church and joined a predominantly Portuguese speaking church. And it was there that someone who heard me do my poetry, which at the time was like heavily scriptural - I was basically just like rhyming the Bible to people. And someone said to me, you should, you should really consider going to Eastern Nazarene College and studying ministry.
And so I went to ENC and I did not end up being a ministry or religion major at first. I started off with music education cause I love music and I was like, maybe I would like to teach music. I learned very quickly that I loved playing music, did not care for teaching it to anyone. So, I changed my major to religion and ended up with this very interesting time, cuz it was 2014 to 2017 that I was in school. And if you can recall what happened during that time, we have the death of Mike Brown, and the Charleston AME church shootings, Sandra Bland and the election - the 2016 election. And all of these things are informing the questions I’m asking in class. And there were very few professors who were able to meet me where I was at to help me understand those realities. Yeah. I don’t know if I’m answering your questions exactly. But yeah, I would say that it has taken me a really long time to get to a place where I feel like I have the resources to understand that particular time. And yeah, at some point we’re gonna talk about seminary I’m sure.
Patrick: We are. I want to go back just a little bit. You mentioned hanging out at the library. I’m a nerd. This is the only place I’ve live. I love books. You said you found freedom there. Tell us about the library and that juxtaposition of this formal education system that sounds…shitty.
Rose: Yes. Yes. So one of the things that like people are often surprised to hear from me is that, like, I didn’t go to schools that prepared me for college. I mean, I was the 17-year-old asking to sign up for seminary before going to college. So I didn’t have a good understanding of how higher education worked.
And a lot of that is because of the middle school that I was in where I was constantly in remedial classes. Like I would do the work and then, you know, be done and then just like sit in my imagination for the rest of class, because I wasn’t being challenged. And the same is true for high school. Although I did have a little bit of fun cuz I went to a vocational school and studied a little bit of graphic design.
So basically it was just me making whatever I wanted on a computer. So that was fun. But yes, so the library was a refuge for me. And I started off in the YA section as one does as a child and read all the books I thought were interesting there. And then just kind of like wandered through other parts of the library. And even though I enjoyed going to the library, there was still some hostility there from the staff. You know like, I’d go up to the counter and I’d be like so nervous every time. I’d be like, “can you show me where the music section is?” And they’re just like, roll their eyes and just kind of be like, okay, come along over here.
And so I, I kind of, early on kind of developed a sense of just like trying to find and explore what I wanted to on my own, because I just got the sense that like, people weren’t really open to helping, so yeah.
Patrick: Wow. And so you get through school. And I’m gonna bring up what Bishop brought up earlier that you went to seminary – seminary is a flexible, adaptable, dancing, moving institution… no, it’s not?
Rose: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. yeah.
Patrick: Tell me about that. Like, you’ve been building up to go to seminary. You wanted to do this since you were 17.
Patrick: Tell me about your experience at seminary.
Rose: So to talk about my experience at seminary, I just wanted to start off reading a poem that I wrote for y’all. I was one of the people who raised their hands that I am a poet. So instead of doing the assignment of writing a poem afterwards, I will just read one for you now. And this poem is called Life of the Mind. And these first three lines that I will read before I pause were written like after my first semester. And the rest of the poem came to me in the summer after my first semester.
Be careful where you take your steps in that place.
They did not build it with your face in mind. I did not know that the life of the mind could teach me how to dance, but I have learned how to let others lead to protect my space and yours while we appear to be in sync.
I am minding my feet hoping I don’t step on you, hoping you don’t step on me. Knowing that with every twist of my wrist, I am aware that you are telling me with your eyes, which way I should turn. I did not know the life of the mind could teach me how to embody apology. I am sorry that I am here now and you must deal with me while I deal with my myself and no one deals with you. This is just the way things are.
The metal box that takes me there trains me to look down. I hate its screechy sounds. It is never on time, but I am always late, out of breath and out of place. The metal doors do not promise security. They promise to promise in as many words as one can use to sentence me to a prison of gratefulness. They are heavy with welcomes that close too fast behind someone who has never learned to look over their shoulder.
The Negroes of the past line the walls across from the elevator. You tell me we are proud of them. The metal box takes us up again. I do not have enough seconds to tell you how often I second guess myself. Before I came here, I felt who I was. Now I think too much about her as I wish I did not know this life of the mind would be a life in your mind.
So that poem for me just carries the heaviness of what I felt going to seminary. And it’s not to say that I did not meet people who I could journey with. I have a cohort of wonderful friends who are women of color, black women, international students. And I was able to find professors who could make space for the questions that I wanted to ask.
But as I reflect on what this poem means to me, and I think about what imposter syndrome is often…how we often describe imposter syndrome as something that’s internal, it’s an internal struggle you must overcome. So many women’s conferences about how to overcome imposter syndrome and be more assertive and confident.
And it’s all just reactions to the systems that were not designed for you. Buildings, architecture that speaks that you do not belong here. You are meant to be the servants in this space, not the ones who get to ask and make requests. And so for me, one of the things I feel like I’ve learned through seminary is really just to find my voice and to believe in it.
And part of doing that has been through reading the stories of others who have done that or who were traversing the same wilderness as me. And to realize that I’m not alone, that there are others who have gone before me who have gone through that. And I think one of the things that can often be a hindrance to students of color in the institution is a lack of historical memory.
So many students of color, like, you know, that homecoming weekend, who’s coming back to these institutions? Usually it’s not us unless we’re invited for like a very special panel or something like that. Yeah. I remember in college there was one alumni weekend, some homecoming weekend, and you kind of feel like you’re living in a fishbowl when that happens cuz there’s all these people walking around just like staring at you. Like it’s really weird. But this one woman just like, I just noticed she kept looking at me, this black woman and she said, “It’s good to see you here.” And that moment was so special and important to me. And when it comes to the school that I went to, Boston University, I really do hope to be an alumni presence that is there for students who go through the same journey that I went through, so that they can know that they’re not alone because that kind of space is really hard to be in without a reminder that, you know, you can survive.
Patrick: Now you became one of my teachers in the pandemic, because as you’re going through school in this, you launch a podcast. I mean, this is, I mean, it’s the best theology. I also went to BU for, you can cut that outta the thing. And I, when I was walking those halls, that chip got really big. I was pissed cussing at just about everyone who would listen to me swear. But you created and formed a theology. Tell me about how the podcast came about, how you found your content and how you’re now teaching the rest of us.
Rose: Ooh, the rest of us. Ooh. Okay. Yes. I really felt like I started the podcast as a space to ask the questions that I wanted to ask. And it’s called Dear Soft Black Woman because in a lot of ways that is something I used to say when I’d write affirmations for myself.
And I know that there are black women who are listening, who need that reminder of their softness. And it’s very interesting to me, whenever I say to my target audience, I have a podcast called Dear Soft Black Women, the immediate exhaustion and understanding that I get as a response is evidence of the fact that it needs to exist.
But it really started from looking at the exhaustion that was present in the air that no one was really talking about. In 2020, when we had what people are calling racial reckoning, but I really call white urgency emerging and being capitalistically beneficial. There was a moment where those who have worked for years and years and years to cultivate an understanding of anti-racism and, you know, just intercultural studies and critical race theory - all of that stuff -were being asked to like curate lists, give me 10 books that I can read so I can understand what you have learned for 20 plus years. And come speak on this panel, we’re not going to pay you, but the exposure will be good for your brand.
And in the midst of that, I kind of realized, like, I don’t wanna be anybody’s anti-racism mammy.
And it was really interesting to me that my friends who were doing this work were reflecting on the dissonance they were feeling in their bodies because they wanted to believe that the work they were doing was important and it was going to make changes. I mean, we’re in 2022 now I’m still waiting for some changes. And we wanted to believe that that was going to make an effect, but we realized that we were responding to white sentimentalism that wasn’t really compassionate love and justice that we were seeking. And it was having a toll in our bodies, and our livelihood and no one was asking us how we were caring for ourselves.
I started writing these affirmations, particularly to the black women who I knew who were doing that kind of work. And it kind of expanded into thinking about just the strength that we’re constantly being called to walk with and into in these spaces. And yeah, so for me, softness is it’s not so much about articulating something that’s opposite of strength, but it’s about articulating a different kind of strength, the strength to say no. And to acknowledge that even in rest, you are worthy and that you can create boundaries so that folks can respect your humanity, but boundaries that also invites those who need to do their work, to do their own work, and recognizing where that line can be drawn.
And in terms of theology, I think one of my main convictions is to constantly focus on black women. And I’ve realized like, even with the words, black women in the title, dear soft black women, there are still people who are like, you know, just thank you so much for what you’re doing. You’re teaching me so much about rest and I’m like you’ve missed the point. You’ve missed the point. I would love for everyone to listen and to feel like they’re having access to tools to say no, and to really think through boundaries and things like that. But I really want people to reflect on the role black women have in this country and in families and in black church, and in multi ethnic church spaces.
And just yesterday in the session with Reverend Gaye Song Bantam we were reflecting on just like how often in vocational discernment, black women go into spaces where, you know, we want to know like what it is we’re being called to do. And we end up being ministered into mammy roles, ministered into roles where we’re caring for other people. And no one’s really reflecting on what it means to care for us. And so my main conviction is to keep the main thing, the main thing, and focus on that. And as often as possible, remind people to reflect on the title. When we read James Baldwin’s Letter are my nephew, we don’t all think we’re his nephew.
Like there’s an understanding that he is writing something that is speaking to this tender relationship he has with his nephew, that speaks to his wider understanding of America and racism and how it shapes his world, but we can understand that it’s in that relationship and through that perspective that he is giving that knowledge. And so that is, that is pretty much it.
Patrick: Wow. Rose. I love you so much.
Rose: Oh yeah! I also wanna mention this very important book that I read before I started this podcast. It’s called Nobody Cries When We Die. It’s written by this man, I dunno if you’ve heard of him. His name is Dr. Patrick Reyes and yes, reading that book and encountering Dr. Reyes’s description of like survival as vocation…I was like, I didn’t know you can just like, make other things vocation. That sounds really cool. What would it look like to if like rest was a vocation? Yeah. Yes. And along with that book just recently, I took a week after graduating seminary to rest, and while I was resting, I was reading Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer. I like the way that he talks about vocation being formed, not just out of the things that we’re good at, but also the spaces that, you know, we’ve experienced rejection or that we’ve had to leave or that we felt like we failed.
And for much of this pandemic, I felt like that’s exactly how my vocation was formed. Like I left formal church ministry. I left the community that I was a part of because I really didn’t feel seen. Like I knew that I was needed there. You know, every church needs a black woman doing something, duh. But I did not feel the sense that I was like wanted. And my mantra during that time was I don’t want to be needed. I want to belong. The songs of belonging are different. I can sing them with my whole body.
Patrick: That’s right.
Rose: And so I’ve really just created a space, where I could be wanted, where I belong in that sense of belonging is it runs deeper than just knowing that my work is important, but who I am as a person matters. So, yeah.
Patrick: Thank you. Now, you know what this last question is? Bagels or donuts? I’m just joking. So how much of this that you’re doing in the podcast, what you hope for for the world, comes from this four L’s - from your love of learning, that 17-year-old who shows up and says, I want to do seminary and they go you got all these other things you gotta do. And how much comes from this sense of self thinking about these questions that matter to you putting it out into the world?
Rose: Yeah. In terms of the four L’s, I created a bookshop for the podcast that has like the books that have inspired me, that people can go and buy, you know, a little bit of coin comes towards me, which is great, thankful for that.
But the main goal for me is to really give people access to the same information I have. Cause I really do not believe…like I cringe whenever I hear the word master. And so it’s like a little weird for me to be a master of divinity. Like I, ugh. I’d rather be a midwife of divinity. I think that sounds cooler. Yes.
And on the podcast, what I do is facilitate space. Like, I don’t think I talk more than 25% of the podcast like the entire time. This is more talking than I’ve probably done all week. Most of the time it’s like just trying to find the questions that bring out the story from the person who is the guest.
I love resourcing people and I also, I don’t believe resources should be pushed on the backs of people. I think we should teach people how to carry those things with the strength that we know that they have. Like, I’m a big fan of Paulo Freire because Paulo Freire in his work is all about empowering everyone to understand themselves as teacher and student.
And so a lot of ways, my journey through education as teacher and student, like there was, there was a time in undergrad where I - when I first learned about Paulo Freire - that I realized like, up until that point, I thought of myself as a troublemaker through school. And then I was like, oh, it’s okay that I asked these questions.
Patrick: That’s right.
Rose: And it’s okay that I want to know. And it’s okay that I challenged these teachers. It’s good for them.
Patrick: That’s right.
Rose: And so yeah. I really hate the idea that because I have this degree that I have now power that I can Lord over people, but I wanna believe that it’s power that I can use to bring other people into power, so that we can share that power together.
And the second part of your question about like this inner knowing…mmmm. I’m a big fan of mirrors right now, like mirrors as an analogy and mirrors, like quite literally, like I like looking in the mirror and seeing myself and affirming myself. I like taking selfies and I know it’s kind of funny.
Like I’m a millennial, I like taking selfies, but there’s something about being able to see your own face and affirm its beauty and affirm who you are and who you are becoming, which is the first question I ask on my podcast to everyone. Like, who are you and who are you becoming? And to be able to speak words over yourself to lead you there.
One of the things I say often is that it’s really hard to look in the mirror and see someone and affirm that someone that you see in yourself before you even know that’s who you’re going to be. And I think in a lot of ways, when my parents made the journey to the states, that is what they hoped for. Like, they saw something in me that they knew I could be, and they brought me here to realize that dream. And they saw something that they wanted for their family. And before they knew how to get there, they came to realize that dream.
And there has to be something to keep you going when things get tough. When you don’t know the language, when you don’t know the culture, if you don’t know the rules and everything around you is telling you that you do not belong, there has to be something. And I really do wish that place was always the church for everyone. And the sad thing is that it’s not. And so my podcast really exists in hopes to help those who do not have that space to have that space, but also to convict those who are holding spaces that are not fully affirming and welcoming to everyone to begin to have the tools to understand how to get there. And so, that’s it.
Patrick: Rose, thank you. Thank you so much!
Rose: Thank you for having me.
Patrick: Give Rose a round of applause.
I want to thank you for listening to the Sound of the Genuine podcast and in particular for listening to Rose’s story. And please head on over and subscribe to Rose’s podcast, Dear Soft Black Woman. Take a listen.
I want to thank my team, our executive producer, Elsie Barnhart, Heather Wallace, Diva Morgan Hicks and @siryalibeats for his music. And as always, you can find Rose’s story and many more inspiring resources and opportunities at fteleaders.org.
From all of us here at FTE, we are sending you all the love and hoping that you find the sound of the genuine in you.