Finding Joy in Belonging

In this episode Dr. Reyes talks to Rev. Dr. Angela Gorrell about her struggles in early childhood as she sought spaces to belong and the supportive family and community that cultivated her early gifts in writing and public speaking. She is passionate about creating collaborative communities where people can prevent illnesses of the soul, unlamented pain, and uncultivated belonging.

Season 4: Episode 5

The beauty in creating brave spaces

Kaitlin Curtice is an award-winning author, poet-storyteller, and public speaker. As an enrolled citizen of the Potawatomi Nation, Kaitlin writes on the intersections of spirituality and identity and how that shifts throughout our lives. In her new book, Living Resistance: An Indigenous Vision for Seeking Wholeness Every Day, she examines the journey of resisting the status quo of hate by caring for ourselves, one another, and Mother Earth.


Patrick: Welcome back to another episode of the Sound of the Genuine. I'm your host, Dr. Patrick Reyes. Today, I have one of my dear friends and colleagues, Dr. Angela Gorrell, who is the author of a number of books, but my favorite is The Gravity of Joy - A story of being lost and found. She's a podcast host. She's a consultant and speaker who's focused on trauma and loss and how to deal with grief in a variety of contexts from public to private sector. But her passion and her love always comes back to the church, and I can't wait for you to hear this interview about how that shows up.

Before we hear Angela's story though, do us a favor and leave us a review of this show. It really does help us get this story into more people's podcast feeds. And now, here's my interview with Dr. Angela Gorrell. 

Patrick: All right, Angela. Thank you for being here on the Sound of the Genuine. We are meeting at the American Academy of Religion, we're surrounded by a bunch of religious scholars, which makes me excited about this conversation because this is your crew, and this is not your crew. And we will get to all that in your story. But before we do, I want to know - take me back to the beginning. Tell me who are your people.

Angela: Yeah. I grew up in Appalachia, so in eastern, eastern Kentucky. I spent the first eight years of my life there, and I spent a lot of my first 18 years trying to understand why Kentucky was the place that I was born, because I struggled to feel a sense of home in the place. Now though, I am able to look back and to see the ways that it formed me, even as it was difficult - the ways that it formed me for good and to have an appreciation and a gratitude for where I come from.

Yeah, so eastern Kentucky, a really small, like mountain town. I grew up on a holler, as we call them, like roads cut into mountains. 

Patrick: It's called what? Say that one again.

Angela: It’s a holler. 

Patrick: Holler. 

Angela: A holler. Yeah, I grew up on a holler and it was called Cal Pin Road. 

Patrick: Interesting. Who drove on this holler with you? Tell me about the community that's out there. 

Angela: So there's a lot of poverty in Eastern Kentucky and it's a difficult place to grow up. The education system struggles. It's an under-resourced community, especially back in the day. Pikeville has grown tremendously. So I'm speaking about the Pikeville that I was born into, but there are still many hollers that people live on that are under-resourced. And I would say, probably one of the most difficult things is just like in other neighborhoods across the United States, poverty goes hand in hand with addiction and with corruption.

And so there's a really big gap in Appalachia between the rich and the poor. Like there are people who do really well there and have really beautiful homes, right? And then there's a lot of people living in trailers and in mountain areas where there's not access to a lot of things that you would need, like, you know, internet for example.

Patrick: What does young Angela dream at that time? Like what is your imagination or what's your family's imagination for you as you're growing up?

Angela: That's a difficult question because I spent a lot of my really early years in the midst of a lot of personal, physical struggle. And so I talk about this a little bit in The Gravity of Joy, but I was born legally deaf. That shaped a lot of my years in Pikeville. Like I spent the first two and a half-three years of my life not being able to hear. And so it was my parents trying to figure out what was going on, what was the problem. You know trying to find doctors to be able to help me. 

I was born without middle ear bones. My parents were relentless about it. They found a doctor in Memphis, Tennessee that was doing a one of a kind surgery. He had only been doing it for a couple of years when I needed it. He put in prosthetic middle ear bones. He didn't know how well it would work. And in my case, thanks be of God, I have been able to hear since I had the surgery with him. 

I learned sign language in high school to be able to communicate more with like people who are deaf. And the deaf community is a really beautiful community that I think I also could have really flourished in, you know? And so I'm kind of like of two minds about it. Like on the one hand I love music and I love hearing people's voices and so it's hard to imagine not being a hearing person now. And yet having communicated with people who are deaf, I also find a lot of beauty in that culture. 

But all of that to say, I had a very significant speech impediment. And so second, third grade, like I really struggled to make friends because one, I got bullied a lot, made fun of a ton. My speech impediment was really, really significant.

But also people would say stuff to me like, “I can't understand what you're saying. So like, stop talking.” So I remember spending a lot of my time like befriending my teachers in elementary school, just kind of alone. And so I think there was always this feeling in me, but I don't know if it was my own physical struggles that I was dealing with at such a young age that made me feel alienated from everyone around me but that's how I felt. I always kind of felt like I don't belong here. and then my parents were going through a divorce when I was seven, and really the years leading up to that were a lot of arguing and a lot of pain. And so it's just like when I think back to those early years, like it's just a lot of pain and struggle.

Patrick: Wow. Growing up, feeling isolated, trying to imagine…when you start coming into young adulthood, what does that look like then? If belonging is, for lack of a better word, fractured, in the very least, what does that look like as you're trying to find yourself and become who you want to be?

Angela: It’s interesting, I just now remembered that your original question was about dreaming and I think so much of life was struggle that it was like…I don't know that I dreamt much past, I'd just like to belong and I'd like for life not to be difficult all the time. And so what I did was I think that I began to write poetry and short stories in second, third, fourth grade, because since I couldn't have conversations with anyone other than the few people who knew me really well and could understand what I was saying, because they were around me all the time, I just began to have conversations with myself and with God. That's where writing started for me. I need someone to hear what I have to say about the world and my observations. I became like an observer, I think, largely of the world around me and I still to this day am because I couldn't participate in it for a while, the way that I wanted to. So instead I'm gonna observe it and I'm gonna write about it. And I went into myself. So I wrote a story about a bear. I can't remember anything else about it, but it won the Young Authors Award in Kentucky.

And I only say that because of that the School for the Creative and Performing Arts, a private school in Lexington - My mom moved us to Lexington after my parents got divorced to give us better like educational opportunities and to be closer to extended family, and I was able to go to the school for the Creative and Performing Arts. SCAPA is its nickname. And everybody who's gone to SCAPA would say the same thing that I'm about to say, which was we had these incredible teachers. And it was such a small…like every grade only had 40 students. And so we had these teachers that poured into our lives, that looked for our gifts and our passions and then like woke them up in us, right? And cultivated them so intentionally that it just literally set me up for the rest of my life. I went from being a child that was like always inward, always observing to alive, to participating, to finding my voice, you know?

And so that's the power of education when it's done well. That's the power of mentors who look at a child and say, ‘I see this in you. I lift it up. I believe in you. I hope that you'll believe in yourself too.’ The other thing is that the arts were integrated into all of our subjects so every one of us had a major mine was creative writing. 

And so two things. One, it was integrated into everything that we did, math, science, etc. So we had this integrated curriculum that was very holistic. And then secondly, I spent Monday through Friday, fourth to eighth grade writing for two hours a day. It was incredible. That was what started to spring me into becoming who I am today. The last thing I should say is that my fifth-grade teacher was also the speech team coach. So she saw me in class. She began to make connections between what I wrote and how I talked about what I wrote. And she got a special speech pathologist to come to our middle school, just for me, starting in sixth grade. And this speech pathologist met with me every week for three years. Ms. Randolph then also put me on the speech team. And I was like, Ms. Randolph, I was in a play last year. I got taken out of the play because they said I could not be understood. 

And she's like, “I understand. I see something in you and we're going to cultivate it and it's gonna be all right.” She spent extra time coaching me after school. She would make me read speeches to her. Every single word that I wasn't able to say she would be like, you know, say it again. And say it again. Do it again. And I'd be like, oh my gosh. And she'd be like, I see something in you. I see something in you. You know? And now literally what I do for a living is speak to people week in and week out. I have so much gratitude for that woman. 

Patrick: That's incredible. And I do, I think about what you're up to now, like the arts, the storytelling, the making other people come alive. Like I see all these gifts in you that seemed to be cultivated when you were really young. When did you start thinking, maybe this is when you went off to school, started thinking, hey, I got some gifts here in this area that I want to…I want to pursue these passions that I have?

Angela: Well, I think in middle school really. I mean really it was in seventh grade that I started to realize not only was I good at public speaking, like as I was able to have clarity of speech and be understood, but that, I have a passion for life that can be contagious. And so just like Ms. Randolph brought something to life in me, like I talk a lot with people about the idea that there have been people, and I think I was really inspired by your grandma's exercise with you about who has loved you deeply, and I think about both who has loved me deeply, but also who has loved me to life? Who has loved me in a way that made me come alive? And then realizing we can do that for each other. So that started to really happen to me in middle school where I realized the power of words both spoken and written, and I thought, I wanna use this power for good as much as possible.

I also, got really involved in my youth group in church, and it became a sanctuary and a safe haven for me. And I know that church doesn't always do that for people, right? but for me personally, as a young person, it was a safe haven and a sanctuary from everything else in the world.

And it was this place where I felt very loved and very seen and very heard and cared for and mentored, similar to my middle school. So my middle school experience was really astounding and like amazing because I had an incredible youth pastor and incredible teachers, and an incredible speech team coach, you know, and so all of that was coming together and while I was at church.

I think I realized I wanna love people the way that Dale Glover loves people and that was my youth pastor. I wanna help people to feel loved by God the way that Dale does. And I went to Dale and I told him, I feel like that God has called me to youth ministry. And this was a Southern Baptist church in Kentucky. No women on staff. And there's no reason he should have like lifted me up, right? And his immediate response, and this is one of the most powerful things that's ever happened to me was, you should preach at youth group. You should lead it. We had 80 to a hundred kids that came every Wednesday night. This was not a small thing that he was asking. But that was his gut reaction. His gut reaction was, God has called you to this thing, I wanna nurture it. I love that. Like both Ms. Randolph and Dale, for me, are such exemplars of what it means to look at a young person, not as a project, but as a full being and person that God can use just as they are, at the age that they are.

Patrick: Wow. That sounds incredible. So when you leave this community, what sounds like you got some great support there from teachers to youth group ministers to finding your voice, where do you go? Do you stay local or do you start exploring?

Angela: Yeah. So certainly in high school is when we got a new youth pastor and they were the opposite of Dale. They did not wanna affirm my gifts for ministry. And they told me, you know, you can be like the wife of a pastor, but you can't be one sort of thing. But because they couldn't like undo what Dale had already cultivated, right? Or Ms. Randolph, right? So it was like thanks for your perspective. Oh, I have to find another church and so I did. But then I found myself in college like wanting to do more. You know, I really wanted to be trained in how to be a youth minister. Like for me that was like, okay, this is what I'm, how I'm gonna be paid to use words written and spoken for good. 

So I went to a college initially that I often like don't talk to people about because it was such a difficult experience for me. But I went to Oklahoma Baptist University and I wasn't affirmed in ministry there, and I actually got lost in my sophomore year in a deep, deep darkness. And it wasn't like clinical depression. I literally feel like, looking back, that it was like this spiritual depression of just basically everything. Just like in 10th grade, it was people trying to undo what had been so carefully cultivated by the spirit, by God, by beautiful people around me. 

My first couple of years of college were like, I'm going to break you down and convince you that you are not the right person or fit for ministry and for using your words in this way. I began to question, in a very significant way as a sophomore in college, am I really called to anything sacred? And I began to lose my sense of self. And it was a darkness that I've never experienced since, as far as like a loss of meaning and purpose. I was in a play at school and the president of OBU's wife came to me at dinner one night and said, there's a program out in Los Angeles called the Los Angeles Film Study Center.

Like I saw you in this play here and I think, I don't know, I think you should explore it. I feel like that God just told her like, you need to go talk to Angela and tell her about LAFSC. And I applied for the program. I was immediately enthralled by it. I was like, oh, get 16 hours of college credit to live in LA and study screenwriting. That sounds amazing. And so I went. Well, first of all, I drove across the country alone from Kentucky to Los Angeles. I had like $400 to my name. I didn't know a soul in LA, and I'd never been there before. I saw the lights of Los Angeles. To this day, it moves me because it was almost 20 years ago, you know? But I saw the lights of LA. And again, just like in middle school, something opened up in me and I felt less suffocated, felt like I could breathe again. Felt like I could find myself. And it was as if God was like, this is your place. This is your city. You go be free. And you be yourself here. You know? And use your words, right? I fell in love with LA immediately - called my mom three weeks into it and I was like, I'm home. Like this is where I've always been meant to live. And then I ended up staying for 13 years and it has so profoundly shaped my relationship to the globe, to cultures of all kinds. It just gave me this like broadened perspective. So the place of LA has been deeply formative for me. Almost like another mentor. 

Patrick: That's amazing. I mean, I think about the city of angels. Angela's coming here as a young adult thinking, hey my world's opening up. I'm feeling free. What do you start pursuing? I mean, you didn't go into Hollywood. What was it that you ended up trying to do while you were in LA?

Angela: So it's so funny to look back now at like where I've been in the last 20 years because I wasn't strategic about education at all. And I know being at AAR and having a PhD now, like I'm sure that so many of our colleagues would just like be like baffled that I thought so little about college. And I literally was like, I love LA, how can I stay here? So after my program was done, you know, I still had a year and a half of college left. So I'm just like, okay, what's the closest college to where I am in Burbank? It's so funny to look back now, but I was like, oh, Asuza Pacific University. And then they had just started a youth ministry program, so I was gonna be like part of the first class of like bachelor's degrees in youth ministry. 

So I applied and I went home. I went home and I was like, mom, I'm gonna get like this 10 foot moving truck. Anything that you don't use very much, could you just like let me go put it in my apartment? And I got a couple of other buddies and we all just like pooled our money and we moved in. It's so funny to think about now, but like, I hadn't been accepted into college there yet and I was looking for a job, didn't have a place to live, but it all worked out. 

And so I was, back on track as far as like, you know, in quotes “of becoming a youth minister again.” But then while I was getting my degree, and then in the first couple of years afterward, I really struggled to find a job in full-time ministry. So even though I had been an intern for free - I had worked for churches for free for four years and had a degree in youth ministry - it took like 75 applications before a church would even interview me. All I can think is that I'd never been a full-time youth minister, I guess? I'm a woman, I'm 22 and this and that, you know. I applied in seven states because I gave up on California.

I got, and I got really down about it and I was just like, man, I don't know if I can stay because, you know, I really wanna do this thing. I wanna invest in the lives of young people, you know, at a church. I ended up, applying at seven places and then I became a personal trainer at a gym and then I was doing like, events in Hollywood.

So it's crazy. Now I look back and sometimes I'm like, maybe I should have just like stuck with that cuz because it was really fun and, you know, really lax and I let it go at, you know, six o'clock every day. It was like done whereas now, you know, my work keeps me awake at night oftentimes. But while I'm waiting to become who I feel like God has asked me to be, I get a call from a church in Santa Monica and I get my first interview. And my first interview gives me my first job. you know, and so then I became a youth minister in Santa Monica, and then I started preaching for them a couple years into it.

I still wanted to be very connected to the community itself. And so while I was working at this church in Santa Monica, I also was spending a lot of time with homeless youth and then also a lot of time at a center for youth that had been diagnosed with HIV. I went from not being able to find any work in what I was doing to like full time, all the time, investing in all these different kinds of youth and having them invest back into me because that's how it works when you hang out with youth. They're incredible. 

Then I started preaching at the church on Sunday mornings and it was mostly like an accident. They like created a third service that was like supposed to be hip and cool, you know? They, I think, just got tired of preaching three times a Sunday so then they're like you should help us preach on Sunday mornings. And then it like went really well. And about six months into it, I'm preaching all the time and they're like, Hey, this is a Presbyterian church. You're not a minister of word and sacrament. We have to fix this, which means you have to go get an MDiv. And I was like, what's that? Literally. I didn't know what a Master of Divinity was. They were like, you need to get a Master of Divinity.

And I'm like, what's that gonna teach me? You know? And they're like, okay. They share with me. I'm like, oh, that's cool. I get jazzed about it. Where do I go? Fuller Theological Seminary is down the road. You should go there. And so I started commuting to Fuller. and then through that ended up being a research assistant during my Miv to a professor who then looked at me post MDiv and said, you did really good work when you're helping me work on this book. Have you ever thought about getting a PhD? No. Why would I do that? And so then that led to getting a PhD and yeah, a lot of other things in the last decade.

Patrick: And while you were doing your PhD, you were working. You got a job while you're still finishing, right? Yeah. So what were you doing while you were doing that? 

Angela: So I did a few different things, but initially I was still a youth pastor. I commuted for a while and then I left the Presbyterian church to explore Mennonite Christianity. Cuz as it turns out, when you go to seminary, you learn about a lot of different denominations and their commitments and how they do polity and all that stuff. So then it made me wonder, what should I be ordained into? And I got really fascinated with Mennonite Christianity because of its commitment to social justice, simplicity, and peace building, specifically. And just their history of resistance against systems of corruption and oppression. It just fascinated me. I became an intern at a Mennonite church and was teaching Sunday school to young people. And over the course of five years between my MDiv and then into PhD work, I went from being like a Sunday school teacher to being the associate pastor of children and families and getting ordained.

So while I was doing my PhD, and working for the church 20 hours a week, I became a research assistant again. Then I started helping develop courses at Fuller. So then I ended up leaving church to teach full-time and do research full-time wondering is this my new vocation or do I wanna be bi-vocational, or just like wanting to explore it fully. And so I explored teaching and research fully. And then in my final year of PhD work, I was reached out to by the Yale Center for Faith and Culture and asked, do you know of anybody who might be able to do this job? And basically the job was an integration of research methods and then like understanding theology and youth stuff. And I was like, do you mean me? Like are you…is this like a sideways…And they're like, yeah, this is like a sideways thing of being like, is this you? Do you know about all these things?

And I was like, actually I do. You know, I know something about qualitative research method, you know, surveys, focus groups and so on. I know about youth and I know about theology. I got a PhD in theology. And so I applied for the job, got the job a few months later. As I say in my second book, I literally had $14 in my bank account cuz teaching and being a research assistant doesn't pay a lot. It was literally, literally the most bittersweet moment of my life when I got that phone call.

As I described, 13 years prior, I had come to LA and finally felt at home and like I had found myself and I got to be myself fully and wholly - like really live out the sacred call in my life. And it was such a life giving time but then I didn't have very much money. I got invited to work on the Joy Project with one of the greatest systematic theologians living today, you know, Miroslav Volf. So I thought, how can I say no to this job? Like practically speaking, and then also just career wise, but it meant leaving my home.

Patrick: And going to New Haven, which is not the city of angels.

Angela: Right.

Patrick:  There's no knock…if you're listening to this and you're in New Haven, I love the town, but it's a very, very different place, different culture. Yeah. So tell me about this work. You're finishing up your PhD, you start writing your own book, so it's not research assistant anymore, or research assistant Angela, you're coming into your own, almost going back to that fifth grade class or junior high, finding your voice, putting it together. What are those first couple projects that you work on? 

Angela: Yeah, so my, my first project was taking what I had learned in my dissertation and then making it accessible. So my PhD's in practical theology with an emphasis on like Christian education and formation. What I learned through my dissertation was that it was really difficult for pastors to help their parishioners, their congregants think theologically and critically about their social media use. So 2011 is when I started thinking about this and then I did my project in 2014. And it was like, over the last few years, social media has become wildly popular. And I was just wondering what connections are people making between their social media use and their formation as a person in Christ and just as a human being.

Very few people that I surveyed, and it was like almost 1500 people took my survey, they hadn't thought about it at all. Just zero thought about it. Yeah, my two open ended questions, like another one was how does your social media use help you to love God or love others?

And a lot of people started with, I've never thought about that before, but here's some thoughts now. You know? And so what I realized was I wanna write a book about helping people think through their use of technology and their participation in digital spaces - like just think about it critically and theologically.

And so I tried to write a book that would help Christian leaders of all kinds to walk their communities through thinking more about…like they use social media, but social media uses them. But it published while I was at Yale. But I really went to Yale with the hope of writing a book on Joy. And of course it was an incredibly different book than I could have ever imagined writing, because I went and for the first eight months after getting there, I read everything that I could get my hands on about joy. Even though I was deeply sad to leave my home, I was over the moon to be studying joy as my job. 

But then in the fall, 2016, we started inviting scholars to be a part of our project. A point was not just for us to write about Joy, the five of us on Miroslav's team and Miroslav, but like to get a lot of other people to write about joy. And as we invited people onto the project, it was 2016, people are literally looking at us like joy, really? This is what you wanna study right now? Isn't there something like more important in the world to think about?

Well I'll just speak for myself. I felt like I was constantly defending our work. If I'm on a plane talking to people about what I do, then they're like Oh, that's dope. Like that's cool. Like I love that you study joy. Like tell me more about that. I want more joy in my life. But if I'm talking to a scholar, they're just like, that sounds trivial and shallow in a world that's suffering. And I'm just trying to figure out how to articulate why I think it's important, other than the fact that, you know, I'm being paid to do it and can eat and pay my rent now. 

But then eight months into the project, everything changed for me. I was at church hanging out with young people in a basement as a volunteer youth leader. I've always wanted to invest in young people's lives and I just love being around young people because of their zest for life. they're naive enough to believe they can still change the world, and I love that and I want it to rub off on me, you know. So I was hanging out, it's one week before Christmas. I left my cell phone on the floorboard of my car. Grabbed my cell phone and I had seven missed calls from my mom. And then a text that read, Dustin killed himself. 

And Dustin was one of my family members, 30 years old. We had literally just talked that morning, my mom and I, before I went to church about Friday night and how we were all getting together, including him - had a present for him under my tree. It didn't compute. It was absolute and utter shock. And I literally scream no. And I'm screaming no and I drop my cell phone on the pavement and I like fall to my knees and I'm just wailing. I've never had that visceral of a reaction to like something in my life. Whenever someone dies by suicide that you love, it's absolutely unbelievable to you. You just can't compute it. You can't make sense of it.

So I go be with my family. I spend the next week helping them plan his funeral, and it is to this day, still the hardest week of ministry of my life, trying to hold space with so many different people who are grieving in different ways. Planning a funeral for death by suicide is, just gut wrenching.

I get back to New Haven and think, you know, I don't know how our family's gonna recover from this. And then, two weeks later, my nephew died very suddenly at 22 of a heart condition that we didn't know about. Found myself on three planes, going to Albuquerque, and hanging out with my sister…all my sisters around her counter. Get back to New Haven on a Sunday night. Again, feeling like the weight of my life and the healing that's ahead. And then, find out two days later that my dad was in the ER fighting for his life. Find myself on three planes, going to Pikeville to come back to where we started, to Appalachia to sit with my dad for the last five hours of his life. After 12 years of opioid use, his liver and kidneys were shutting down. 

I got back to Yale and like my job was to study joy and to teach a class called Life worth Living. And I had just had the four worst weeks of my life. And so suddenly, like all the people who were talking to us in 2016 I’m like joy is trivial and shallow in a world that’s suffering. The honest answer is that I just stopped reading about it and I did like the bare minimum. so I stopped making it about my work on joy, I just did what I needed to do to get through every day. It was like, your job is to create this survey and to manage this data, and your job is to attend this meeting and to listen to these people present their ideas on joy on this subject. 

And I just got through every day that I could until I could get home and cry or drink wine by myself. I was, for a year and a half, really just lost in the fog of grief. And then like, over the course of a number of months, realized that I was like waking up angry. Before the day had even started, I was just mad, mad at how the world is. Mad that it felt like no one understood how much the world had changed. But realizing now, right, it was that my world had changed, but nothing else had really changed in the world. Right? But I felt like everything had shifted and I just saw everything around me through the lens of suffering.

I think I write explicitly in the Gravity of Joy that it was like, study joy? Unthinkable. Absurd.

I mean, that's the answer. Like I just didn't really study it for myself for like a year and a half and just did what I needed to do to do my job, you know?And then in Life Worth Living, though, we were asking these questions together about what makes life worth living? What does it mean for us to lead our lives well, for life to go well? Like, what should we hope for? Do feelings matter? What does it mean to feel right? And I felt myself getting really lost on the question of suffering, on people's different perspectives on suffering. And so we actually added that question to the curriculum a couple years into me being at Yale. You know, we don't have a key question around suffering. And for me, my whole vision of a life worth living like hinges on suffering. Like it falls apart if I don't have an answer to that.

And so we added that question and it was through that journey with students that I began to open up about…it was my own reckoning of like, I am helping students to articulate their vision of a life worth living and I'm needing to do it again for myself in light of what has happened.

I've always been such an optimistic person. And then all of a sudden, like the world went dark and it was just like I couldn't do anything about it, you know? you know, so Life Worth Living helped a lot. But then I became a volunteer chaplain at a women's maximum security prison. There's no reason I should have done that because I couldn't pray. I was in the darkness myself, in the midst of profound, what I call like sheer silence of God in the Gravity of Joy.

And yet at church they ask for volunteers for people to lead a Bible study at a women's prison - something was woken up in me again. There was this thing, this irrepressible energy within that I had to attend to and I was like I have to say yes to this. But then my rational mind was like, Angela, you have nothing to give. Then this conversation between my rational mind and God was like, I don't need you to have anything to give. I just need you to say yes and to surrender to this. So I did. 

No part of my faith journey has ever shaped me in the ways that sitting in this room, in that circle, for that year has. And so I found myself ministering to the women on suicide watch at the prison. I was assigned to that building. I found myself connecting with these women over addiction, over the ways that life tries to shame us, quiet us, beat us down, break us. And to anyone listening, the biggest gift that you can give yourself, I think, especially after suffering or in the midst of suffering, is to leave your titles, your education and everything that you think makes you who you are from an outward way, like at the door.

At the prison, I couldn't tell them my last name. And women in my Bible study who were in prison for life, for murder. So it's like I wasn't allowed to tell them anything about what I did. They didn't know where I worked. They didn't know I had a PhD. All they knew was like, this is Angela and she's coming to hang out with us on Wednesday nights. That's it. And so I had to figure out like who is Angela without the ordination, without the teaching at Yale, like without the experience and education that I have, like what's left after all that? As it turns out a lot, there's a lot there, but we cover it up with all that stuff, you know? 

The way I described them to this day is like they were my cloud of witnesses. And they had so much faith, these women, that God would do something, that God could do something, that there would be a breakthrough. They had so much faith and I had so little when I walked into that room for the first time and I just like gave it to them. I was like, well, I need you to hold this for me then. And on Wednesday nights it became like the thing that I looked forward to every week. I get to go sit with people who are so open about the things in life that have wounded them. I get to grieve, I get to be shameless, I get to sing, I get to rejoice. I get to have faith that I won't always feel the way that I do and that maybe God is actually good. Every week I felt a little bit more restoration in my life. 

You know, I say in the Gravity of Joy, in my dedication, I say to the women in the prison Bible study, may the joy that you brought me be yours too. Because they are the people who taught me about joy, especially joy amid suffering. That joy is this modifiable emotion. It's sobering. It's quiet. It's not just exuberant, it's transformative. It's a bright sorrow as Alexander Schmemann once wrote in his journals. That's how I found my faith again.

Yeah, you know, the project ended and all this sort of stuff. Walking outta that room was really difficult for me for the last time, because it had been another safe haven, another sanctuary in my life, which is such a strained way of talking about a prison.

But I think that's what happens though. When we create brave spaces where we humanize one another, it doesn’t matter where you are. Beautiful things can happen.

Patrick: The thing I'm seeing is so much of your work now seems to be this, I don't know, gathering of all these joy filled pieces. That you have the artists, the fifth grade teacher, a youth pastor, folks who are calling you to preach, these women that you were able to connect with. Knowing that you're doing abolitionist work, that you're writing, that you're speaking now. You know, I ask everyone who comes onto this show, how much of your vocation/call comes from these community conversations, people who have called you into life and helped you find joy and how much comes from, yeah, connection to the divine or your inner self talking to Angela? 

Angela: It's the dialogue between the three. My call like resides within the three. Because I believe like everyone is born with a there, there. So when you have like a baby that's born, like there's a there there, to be discovered. There is a cultivation that happens in between people or whatever. I think that for me, like I've never been a parent, but like, having been a youth pastor in so many different spaces is that was always like a journey of like discovery. What person is becoming here, you know? But certainly the only way that we really are discerning about that person is like through dialogue with others and with God. I am absolutely only living and breathing today because of the people who have lighted the flame within me, and who've kept it burning on the days when I could not. The people who have loved me deeply. 

I think the best way to describe this is about a year ago I was having a really, really bad day in every way possible. A lot of self-doubt and low self-worth stuff like creeping up. I texted seven people that know me really well and I said I'm having a terrible day and I'm like believing stuff about myself that I feel like you would say is not true.

Tell me the truth about who I am. What do you know to be true about me? And like all seven of these people within 30 minutes texted me the most beautiful stuff. So if you're listening and you just like have those kind of days, I encourage you, don't be afraid to reach out to people that you know love you deeply and say like, tell me the truth about who I am.

On those days when people are trying to tell you who you are to narrate your story or to speak into you as if they really know you, but you know they don't. And then it starts to make you question…text seven people or three people or two people or whatever, and say, tell me the truth about who I am. Who do you know me to be? Because it was amazing how people just show up. We wanna show up for each other like that. So let's just give each other the opportunity to do it as much as possible, you know? It's that sort of thing. Just being in communities with people who I can be myself wholeheartedly with and shamelessly with that has cultivated that call in my life again and again. And then obviously, yeah, like always this connection with the divine, like that is an ongoing conversation even when God is silent. My spiritual director has helped me to see now, Suzanne, thinks that God's greatest language is silence. And it was through the silence of God that I think I did begin to sit on the edge of the seat of my own life again. I got hungry again. So sometimes I think silence, it's like what makes us fight, you know?

And so yeah, for me it's this dialogue between this inner self that's becoming, the people who know me truly, and the communities that have loved me, and the divine voice that speaks always, sometimes not as loudly as we want.

Patrick: That's incredible. Angela, you are one of the most courageous and brilliant people that I know. I'm grateful for the conversation and story. Folks who wanna learn more about you and your work, the work that you're doing in the world right now, where would they go to find more of that? 

Angela: So is the best place to find me. And you can see all the topics that I, write about and talk about with people. And I do everything from like interviews to conferences, to leading retreats, to lectures. I'm really passionate about creating collaborative communities of prevention - and prevention in the sense of like preventing illnesses of the soul, unlamented pain, unhinged identity, un cultivated belonging.

I'm also on Instagram at Angela Gorrell and then I have a podcast with my sister called The Grief Sisters. And you can also find us on Facebook. There's a book club and support group for people that are navigating grief of any kind. You can come and hang out with us. 

Patrick: Wow. Angela, thank you so much. Love you. Appreciate you for sharing your story with us. 

I want to thank you for listening to the Sound of the Genuine and Dr. Gorrell's story. I want to remind you that you can find out more about Dr. Gorrell by going to the link to her website in this episodes show notes. You can also check out her book, The Gravity of Joy, or listen to her podcast with her sister, the grief sisters podcast, anywhere you listen to podcast. 

If you need resources, helping you discern your next most faithful step, head on over to the Forum for Theological Explorations website And I want to thank my team, our producers, Elsie Barnhart, Heather Wallace, and @siryalibeats for his music. We hope this podcast is helping you find the Sound of the Genuine in you.