Aisha Brooks-Lytle is the Executive Presbyter of the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta. She is multi-gifted as a preacher, teacher, and musician, bringing all these skills to bear as she helps oversee 84 congregations and 26 new worshipping communities. She believes her role is to equip healthy and innovative leaders as they live out their passion and purpose. Her inner calling stems directly from her personal life experience which she shares candidly and powerfully in the following excerpt from The Smile on a Dog: Retrieving a Faith That Matters (downloadable for free here).
“Aisha, you have two strikes against you. You are Black and you are female.”
These words casually fell out of my mother’s mouth like two stones hitting the ground as she was combing and styling my hair. I cannot recall the content of our conversation before these words, and I don’t remember the conversation afterwards. I do remember how I felt as an elementary school student hearing them for the first time. “Well, damn!” I thought. My reaction was quiet, internalized, heavy. My mother was stating what was obvious to her and what was a harsh reality for me. No matter how talented I felt, no matter how bright and beautiful I may have appeared, my life would be fraught with difficulty and an uphill battle as a young Black girl growing up in a country with a terrifying history of racial violence and discrimination towards Black and Brown bodies.
Growing up in a Black working-class neighborhood with a single mom offered sociological observations that made a profound impact on me. I could see the disparity on our block. I remember the crack epidemic and watching addiction snatch adults away from their children. I also remember asking larger questions about supply and demand and who profited off the pain of low-income and working-class communities. I lived in a city divided by the haves and have-nots. I knew there was a system at play that benefitted from an underpaid work force, division among the masses, and an unrealistic obsession with excessive wealth. I often thought, “There has to be a better way than this.” I wanted to be the kind of person who was part of the solution, not part of the problem.
While my mother instilled in me the truths about being Black in America, she also instilled in me a faith that is resilient and continues to dismantle the myths of superiority and inferiority. After taking a break from the church, my mother reconnected to her faith in the early ’80s with the rise of conservative white evangelical Christianity. In other words, I did not grow up hearing any sermons about justice, freedom, and the need to march in the streets when we saw harm done in our community. I grew up learning that Jesus was the only way, the truth, and the life. I grew up learning that I needed to live holy, confess my sins, obey God, love others, and be kind. There was not much talk about the gospel of liberation.
Ironically, I found a message of concern for the marginalized in the world of Contemporary Christian music. In the early ’80s there was an artist named Keith Green. He was of Jewish heritage and had converted to Messianic Christianity. He and his wife, Melody, sang with fire and passion about the Lord. By the time I really listened to his music, he had already died in a plane crash in 1982 at the age of 28. His music ministry only spanned six years. For many, his work still speaks to this day.
Green’s song The Sheep and the Goats, a musical interpretation of Matthew 25:31-46, captivated me. It’s a stirring rendition of this parable wherein Jesus reveals that we can find him in the poor, the hungry, the naked, the sick, and those in prison. One group could see Christ reflected in the marginalized; one group could not. I must have listened to this for hours upon end. I listened to it for years! How could people who followed Jesus miss his presence in the most vulnerable of the world? I knew as a kid with “two strikes” that I needed Jesus and the followers of Jesus to advocate for kids like me.
I also knew that there were people in my own city who had it worse than me. This was a cry for all of us, no matter where we found ourselves, to see Christ in those too often overlooked and invisible in our world. It was a call to love them, care for them, advocate for them, and to see them with eyes of compassion. I now know what I only suspected back in the day. I, too, am counted in the number of the marginalized, the overlooked, and the forgotten. I am also a marginalized voice who has come to recognize my position and power in the world. I am situated in this world to be an advocate for justice, to see Christ in the most vulnerable, and to serve Christ among the lonely, hurting, hungry, and lost.
This is my call, two strikes and all.