Growing up in the Black church, we used to say, “This joy I have; the world didn’t give it, and the world can’t take it away.” Joy is unspoken hope that floods your being. It’s that “it is well with my soul” that resonates deeply within your spirit.
It took becoming an adult for me to understand the subversive power of a mantra that held joy as personally sacrosanct. What we were saying was that the conditions of this world didn’t produce joy for us; rather, something within us created the joy that the world continually tried to steal. Time and time again, systems of this world tried to steal our joy, our dignity, our hope and our future.
We fought as a community to get back what those systems took while keeping ourselves from internalizing what they said about us. We began to define ourselves. And out of defining ourselves came our ability to value ourselves. Out of defining and valuing ourselves came our ability to believe in ourselves. Out of defining, valuing and believing in ourselves came our ability to create joy. Hard, gritty, sustainable -- our joy that the world didn’t give.
It is with that communal formation as my spiritual and sociocultural backdrop that I have renewed my commitment to being on the lookout for joy, even in the midst of a pandemic. As a New York City pastor, I have been proximate to such widespread sorrow and grief that they have made joy seem like a luxury, not a right.
I found myself so weighed down by the realities of this crisis that joy was the furthest thing from my mind. Black Americans are three times more likely to die of COVID-19 than white Americans. My heart broke as I saw the economic and residential insecurity that the pandemic exposed, as well as the preexisting medical conditions of folks in my community that it exacerbated. As is said, when the nation gets a cold, marginalized folks get pneumonia.
Our community had to find a way to protect ourselves from an unseen virus, mind the preexisting socioeconomic inequalities, monitor our own pre-COVID health issues, and be on the lookout for potential exposure to a new disease that none of us had ever experienced.
On top of that, in the midst of the pandemic, fatal encounters with police or just everyday citizens made Black people’s names into viral hashtags -- Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Nina Pop. It seemed that joy was hiding. I knew that I needed to access some form of joy for my own well-being, but bad news was all around me. I pushed myself to preach and teach about the very thing I was in search of: Black joy.
Barbara Holmes’ book “Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church” has helped me. Holmes calls our attention to the concept that the most powerful response to Black death is Black joy, and she reminds us that we cannot live in an ongoing state of resistance. The joy that she speaks of is a kind of resilience that refuses to be dictated to despite the horrific conditions it is forced to transcend.
Among the practices Holmes encourages is being mindful of our breath -- particularly powerful in a moment when our ability to breathe feels endangered on multiple levels. She writes: “Breath is the sustainer of life and also the vehicle for entry into the contemplative center. We take deep breaths to still our thoughts, center our being and connect to a wisdom that permeates the universe. We breathe together individually and communally to invoke the spiritual strength to withstand and resist injustice.”
In this difficult season, I am intentionally looking for unexpected joy, mindful of the quote attributed to Dinos Christianopoulos, “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.”
People are buried under the pressures of life. They’re buried under the weight of having to say goodbye to loved ones taken by COVID-19. They’re buried under job loss and under health disparities, under foreclosure and landlord disputes. They’re buried under the inability to home-school their children, as well as a lack of child care. They’re buried under fear -- hoping that their names aren’t the next ones converted into hashtags.
But I find joy by asking the “what if” questions. What if this societal burial is of seeds in the ground? What if, while buried under job loss, we discover new vocational purpose? What if, while buried under health disparities, we find natural ways to heal our bodies? What if, while buried under foreclosure, we spread our wealth by moving two or three families under one roof to ensure that we have what we need?
What if, while buried under home schooling and a lack of child care, we discover new things about our children and begin to teach them according to their own personalities and needs versus what the school system says they need?
The possibilities of “what if” connect to where my joy lies. This is the joy that the world didn’t give. It lies in our ability to redefine what these conditions might be able to produce.
The lesson from the seed is that it may have been dropped into the ground and forgotten, but it is going to live again. The seed is going to live into its possibilities and sprout into its best hopes and dreams. But seeds don’t sprout on their own. They need water, sunlight and external support.
Likewise, for us to make it, we all need a little support while we are buried. We need unjust systems to be overturned. We need ways out of no ways to be made. And we need joy. We need a counternarrative. We need to be reminded that joy is our right. And we need to be reminded, as Nehemiah 8:10 proclaims, that the joy of the Lord is our strength.
Take a lesson from the seed. Find your joy. In that discovery you will also find your strength.