Interview with Elizabeth Davidson
Leah Hunter: You were the first person I ever saw wearing that “I Stand with Black Women” quote on anything, I think you had it on a little pin, and I was like, “I need to find out more about this person.” What caused you to reevaluate your relationship with Black women?
Elizabeth Davidson: Education and just learning is the short answer of that.
The longer answer—I think I have a pin and a tote bag—both of those are, actually, from Planned Parenthood. Which is such a great example of what I mean when I say education and learning more led me to realize like—my understanding of my own experience and how our society functions, and how the world works, is so whitewashed. And I don’t do a good job of paying attention in my own life, and in behaving and acting in ways that recognize the Black woman—Black people in general—but, especially, the Black women in my own world [who] have made so much of what I enjoyed [in] my life possible. But also like, turning around and noticing, like what are their lives like?
For example, you think about Planned Parenthood or the services Planned Parenthood provides, and the kind of reproductive freedoms you and I are able to enjoy, such as they are, in this country, and in this state. I feel like growing up, a lot of reproductive freedom I just kind of took for granted.
Also, references to any kind of fight for reproductive freedom or justice was often associated with white feminazi types. But then as I got older, and as I started learning more, and realizing … no, reproductive justice is a movement of Black women. And the ways that movement is by and for Black women, and how the reason I have access to the kind of reproductive healthcare is because of Black women.
I have access to all these things, because of the strides Black women and other women of color have made. Yet so often their the ones most likely to be shut out of that kind of access. So, recognizing that and learning about the ways I can turn around and be like, “OK. Wait a minute. I—number one—I’ve missed this number, you know? Number two, what do I need to be doing to make sure I’m learning and telling the truth as it actually is? Then also living and behaving in a way that ensures people actually doing the work are reaping the benefits of that work? Yeah, education, learning and having my eyes open to the ways my own privilege has very much allowed me to be comfortable and aligned to what other people are and have been dealing with for a whole lot longer.
LH: One of the things that has always impressed me about you is how hard you work to create spaces that honor people holistically, without judgment. How has your relationship with God in the church deepened your work in providing inclusive spaces?
ED: My relationship with God is where that comes from because that’s what I believe. That is what I believe God is. That is my understanding of what God is. God is love. That’s who God is in my understanding, my theology. So, when I was going through and discerning a call to ministry, one of my mentors early on in the process said, “You know, as we think about what it means to be in ministry, and to be called into ministry most pastors really have one sermon they preach repeatedly, in a variety of forms throughout their career. Like we preach a lot of sermons, but really, you are preaching the same sermon over and over again. What is your sermon?”
And that really struck me like, “What is it? What is my sermon if I had to distill my ministry down to one? What would it be? And for me, my sermon is “You are safe, and you are loved.” I feel like if people know they are safe, and they are loved, they know that deep within themselves both emotionally and spiritually, but also at a physical and material level. If people know they are safe, and they are loved, we can do just about anything. We can get through just about anything. We can navigate just about anything if we know we are safe and loved.
So that’s been kind of my one sermon. God has been the anchor point and the center of that desire. The church is, at various points, a gift, and a challenge. Because people are awesome, and people are the worst. Because we’re human. I’m in the United Methodist tradition, which is nationwide, like one of the whitest denominations. We’re like 98% [white], I think when I was in seminary, the statistic was 98%, white, which is not good. Not reflective of the Body of Christ, not reflective of the United States population. It is reflective of white supremacy. That’s just all that it is.
However, you might not think this of Mississippi, we have one of the most diverse conferences at nearly 50/50, Black to white. And then there’s other racial groups represented. There are some indigenous, Asian, Latino as well.
There’s a lot of Black and white, but even so, there’s Black churches and there’s white churches. The conference is diverse, but there’s not a lot of overlap. There is a lot of wonderful potential, and there’s a lot of commitment and movement towards unity. But I think there’s pros and cons to pushing towards that unity. Because you don’t want to take away any safe space for Black Methodists by forcing white men [and women] into those spaces.
I come out of a white Methodist church, which at times has been a real gift and blessing and shaped me in a lot of ways. And my tradition has something called the social principles, which have been formative for me and really link our faith to how we live in community and how we act out our, political lives and our social lives and our financial lives. Like all of that is part of what it means to be a person of faith. That’s been really formative for me, but at the same time, there’s also those challenges of the reality of like, we are still a white church in a very divided state.
LH: What is one of your favorite scriptures that you pull from when you need a little boost, a little encouragement, your social justice work?
ED: One of my favorite stories of all time is the story of Esther. I just love that one. Which, for those that are unfamiliar, is the story of a young girl who is a Jewish woman that is placed in a really difficult position, but is able to save four people, [and she’s] the king doesn’t know that she’s Jewish. She’s given the choice of not revealing that and sort of passing as one of the common folks and not standing up for her people or revealing herself to be Jewish and advocating for the people.
And her uncle comes to her and asks her to stand up and advocate for the people risking her life and advocate for the people and says, who knows, maybe you were put here for such a time as this.
That particular idea that maybe you were put in this position. Maybe God gave you these particular gifts and this particular position or privilege, or leverage, or relationship or whatever it might be for such a time as this that like, maybe you can speak into this moment, in a way no one else can for such a time as this, I just always find that really encouraging.
LH: I find that people who are attracted to social justice work have often experienced injustice themselves, have you and if so, how?
ED:. I feel like yes, but I’m also like, I want to be so careful in this one. Because I do feel so often as white women, we are quick to lean into this because we don’t want to be associated with the oppressor or the injustice that when anyone tries to say like, ‘Hey, what you said was not okay,’ or ‘that behavior is not helpful,’ or whatever, even in a very, like, gentle way. We’re like, Oh, I’m a woman. Like, you can’t say that to me. Like, I’m laughing, but it’s not okay. Right. But at the same time, yes.
I’m a woman in a largely a male dominated field. However, I will say for sure that I experienced far less sexism than I was braced to, because of the women that came before me. And the number of women that are in ministry around me, even in Mississippi, there’s so many more women in ministry, in my generation, and the generation before me. I don’t have nearly as much pushback as you would think that I would have as a clergy woman in Mississippi. I would say I have experienced some injustice, but not on the level that some others have for sure. My hope would be that, if and when I have experienced that on any level that it has given me a little empathy. But I think the important thing is just to listen and trust and believe people, regardless of whatever our own experiences have been.
I think that’s very much true of social workers and caregivers, pretty much anybody in caring or helping professions are more likely to go into that if they have received some kind of a trauma that someone has been there for or had a loved one that have been really supported. I had a professor point out one time, though, that, especially when it came to working towards racial healing and racial reconciliation, she was actually kind of wary of people that would say things like, “Oh, well, my child came out and so now I understand what it’s like.” You will never know what it’s like to be a Black woman and a white man will never know what it’s like to be me. If you have to have a personal experience in order for you to care, I’m screwed. I think it’s important like yes, of course to having those personal experiences but just as much as having a personal experience, being able to build relationships and cultivate our ability to empathetically listened to one another’s stories.
LH: I love what you’re saying about being heard and believed and trusted. I think that is central to what happens, so often Black women are not heard, not validated, not trusted, not believed. And I think we on smaller scales have experienced that. And so yes, that absolutely makes sense to me.
ED: Right. Related to that, I am a survivor of sexual assault, and that very well may play into some of that knowing how important it is to be believed about a trauma. So again, it’s not comparing the two in any way, but just being able to say, like, having someone believe you about something really bad and hard happening.
I don’t necessarily have proof, but I am going to tell you this, I’m going to trust you with my story. And I just need you to know that it’s real. It’s an act of vulnerability, and trust for me to give this to you, basically, to let you into my world. And then how people react to that tells you something right? Even if you don’t need them to do anything with this particular story, it tells you whether or not they can handle the next thing and whether or not they might be a partner when it is time to do something. And I think that holds true, I think in injustice work as well, if people believe us about the smaller things, we can kind of know better if there are people that can be trusted when it is time to act on something. So perhaps that might be a more relevant experience for this particular thing.
LH: I think it’s all relevant. Because I, again, I think that being believed and trusted is so pivotal to social justice work. If you don’t believe what people are saying, then what are you fighting for? Right? And I think there has to be some element of us that has given us a window. I cannot imagine if my whole life was wrapped around not being seen, heard, believed, or validated. It pushes us forward in that work. I think it’s all relevant.
ED: Right? Yeah.
LH: Let’s go to another very deep and difficult one to answer. There’s a lot of tension in our country and a lot of that is centered around white conservative Christians. How do you navigate this tension as a southern white woman reverend?
ED: Jeff, my husband, and I actually talked about this a good bit. So, I’m a white, Southern United Methodist clergy woman. He’s not really affiliated with the Southern Baptist so much. He was at one point licensed in the Southern Baptist Church and is like still technically licensed through them, but he works in United Methodist Church, right? But he’s formed by the Southern Baptist Church. Sal grew up in Alabama. Diehard Alabama football fan like you meet him and he is a southern man who loves fishing and football and barbecue.
LH: I totally get it.
ED: People will make a lot of assumptions, particularly when they hear him talk for example, they make assumptions that they wouldn’t necessarily make about other people. And we talk a lot about that. We talked a lot about what does it mean that you have access, or I have access and privilege and an audience in certain places and with certain people that I grew around. You know, I was a debutante, for God’s sake, right? Like, you’re up in this place in this very particular community and have a certain amount of clout, just by virtue of who everybody knows, I’m Corinne’s daughter. I have the access that somebody else may not have to speak into, to challenge certain things or to bring certain knowledge. To talk about some of the Black women that started the reproductive justice movement, that other people may not know about, in a way that might feel less threatening, or that just honest to God might not be noticed because it happens to come out. Like there’s things that Jeff will say in a sermon that I will think, oh, my gosh, they are going to riot. Like I’m sure that I went with him one time to a church where he was preaching and I was positive, that they were going to freak out. And everybody came up to him, told him what a great sermon it was, because he said it in such a thick southern accent.
So, we talk a lot about what does it mean to use that particular positioning? How can we use our voice? I think it was last year at the womanist rally, when we talked about how you have access no matter who you are, you have access to places that some of your other sisters that are here at this event right now don’t if you’re straight, you have access to some places that your queer siblings cannot go; if your cis, you might have access to some places your trans sisters cannot go; if they’re white, you have access to some places that your sisters of color cannot get.
Pay attention to that, notice that, talk to each other, listen to each other’s stories, and then take those stories into the places that those people cannot go and share their stories. And when you do that, you are amplifying their voice. When you are in a place where they cannot go take their story open the door for them where you can. And that really stuck with me when Tameka lifted that up. I was like, “Yeah,” that’s absolutely true that we’ve got to do a better job of doing things. When you’re doing a Bible study, make sure you’re doing this at your church; make sure you’re using authors of color; make sure you’re using queer authors. It doesn’t have to be done in ways that are easing people into it. But I think it’s important for people that are kind of in these groups to slowly start troubling the waters a little bit so that it gets a little bit easier to open those doors for others.
My stepdad was in charge of the Holy Week. at our predominantly white, Methodist Church. He had James Cohn, a phenomenal Black theologian for all of the liturgy. It was just an opportunity for a lot of white Methodists that might not have ever encountered him. otherwise, to get to engage with this Black liberation theologian. There’s just plenty of opportunities to kind of fold that in in ways that help people normalize voices that are not just the same old white guys.