To My Elders

Four years ago, on a wintery morning, a fierce, truth-telling woman whom I cherish as my elder told me something I have never forgotten: “You can’t know where this story leads. All you can do is look at this moment and do the next right thing.”

At the time, we were speaking of a romantic relationship, but this dear friend’s words brought a prophetic kind of shift to my life, sweeping over far more than the way I engage intimacy. How many times since then have I begged, “Spirit of God, show me the next right thing.”?

Looking back, I see hundreds and hundreds of steps taken in pursuit of the next right thing. And I see how far I’ve traveled in the process. Today, I speak differently, listen differently, laugh, cry and hope differently. I also find myself positioned differently in the rooms I enter, often challenging the majority opinion, because for me, walking towards the next right thing has meant walking towards people on the margins.

In Scripture, the margins are where we find God’s prophets —those who speak truth to power, those who draw us out of apathy and towards God’s righteous and just love.

I started walking towards the margins because something inside me said every voice matters, and I knew there were voices I hadn’t yet learned to listen to. So, I started listening and entering conversations with people of color, members of the LGBTQ community, and women leading in the church.

I started recognizing the ways these voices highlighted different themes in scripture, themes not necessarily preached by the pastors who raised me. I also started realizing I had inherently benefited from the systems and structures that had oppressed these friends spiritually, socio-economically, physically, and emotionally.

So I’ve started living differently, trying to make room. I’m grateful for how this process has shaped me. Still,it has come with a cost, experienced most acutely during interactions with my elders—teachers, relatives, and sweet family friends.

When I speak with these loved ones I can feel their confusion over where I have landed. Most often, this confusion plays out at the table of politics. And with the drama of early November, I once again find myself feeling far away from many of my elders, and longing to close the distance. And, perhaps I know how to embrace the next right thing…

To my elders: I love you. I have not forgotten you. I would not be the woman of strength and conviction I am today without you. I am so grateful for you. And, I would love to introduce you to some of the women and the men who are continuing to shape me.

Meet my sisters—Marcy, Stacey, Maggie, Marta, Tracy, Libby, Kelsi, Shauna, Sarah, Rachel, Allison, Katie, Shaelee, Jill, Nikki, Audrey, Nichole, Jen, Rachel, Carol and so many others. I have heard or read these women’s stories of harm within the context of the church and beyond it. Together, we stand for creating more room for women to speak and lead, because we recognize the ways in which women bring the strength and safety of God into the rooms we enter.

Meet my neighbors, Diana and Sara, Latina women who know better than I the nuances of this country’s documentation process, the struggles of belonging, and the fear that they or their families could be ripped away from the lives they have built. I bear witness to these women and their hospitality. I have learned from them that neither fleeing violence nor pursuing opportunity is a crime. I am glad they are here, and I will vote for them until the day I can vote with them.

Meet my queens and kings—McKenna, Emily, Owen, Steven, Trey, Jeremy, Natalie, Tyler, Jeff—queer believers in Jesus who have uniquely nourished my soul with an unyielding love that has been birthed from hardship, and for some, trauma. Each has felt the pain of religious sentencing, even as they have acted as the hands and hope of Jesus countless times.

Meet my reminders, refugees like Rasha and Agnon, whose faces fell when I met them because they learned I was from America instead of Canada and they knew my land did not want or welcome them. I carry their faces with me always as a charge to pursue whatever I can to throw open the doors of my home to the refugee.

We are not called to a citadel of scarcity. 

Meet my leaders and prophets, women of color showing us all the way—LaTasha, Kathy, Austin, Sandra, Eliza, Han Luen, Wil, Kaitlin, Natasha. They are pastors, professors, nonprofit directors, denomination leaders, and writers. They call out, call forth, call back, and call up, circling the wagons of the faith in ways that are global, timely, and absolutely spirit led.

Meet my sojourners and iconoclasts—Aaron, Travis, Hayley, Amy, Johanna, Janet, Jonathan, Pete, Chris, Troy, Tom—each of whom gives me language for the in-between spaces of identity, community, and faith expression. These are the voices bravely showing me life in tension when it comes to church, culture, and politics.

To my elders, I carry your stories and these stories all within me. You have taught me how to love and be brave and generous. And so, I cannot stand with power that is ever violent to women. And I cannot stand with power that routinely forgets this land is a gift that none of us own. I cannot stand with power that refuses to make room for every voice. I cannot stand with power driven by fear. And I cannot stand with power that is justified by an increase in my tax returns and bumps in my 401K while my friends soothe their children at night by assuring them that no one is going to deport them or shoot them or grope them at school the next day—all while those same parents silently pray, “Sweet Jesus, let it be so.”

So for the time to come, I will vote to put my needs last so other people can gain access to what has become my exclusive white privilege. I will pay more taxes, talk less often, and continue showing up as a woman called by God to lead. When that makes some of our conversations difficult, know that I bring to you my love and my efforts to do the next right thing.

Katy Johnson lives, dreams, writes, and edits in a messy, watercolored world.  She’s a 29 year old, discovering her hope, her longings, and the wild spaces in her own heart.  Her favorite creative project right now is called Will I Break?, and someday, that manuscript may see the light of day.  For now, she shares her thoughts here.