Finding and Claiming My Voice

As of July 11, I officially became a non-Missionary.  three years, gone in a flash.  It has been one of the greatest joys, challenges, and fruitful things I’ve ever done.  As I journey forward I want to spend some blogs over the coming weeks looking back.

I remember my interview and discernment days (IDD) waaaay back in March 2012.  I went to NYC and met the most brilliant people I’d ever encountered, and I thought surely there is no way I belong here.  They were all so composed, so professional, and just so damned smart.  When I was in my exit interview with our program executive, she said, “I remember from IDD, all the giggles, and now look at you sitting before me.”  IDD was a giggly nervous time.  I was so unsure and scared (because that is what happens when you really want something, you’re too scared to even think they would consider you), and though it was an experience of affirmation, I was acutely aware of my own inadequacies.

Three years later, I find myself so grateful that they could see past that younger version of myself.  That they could see the only partly molded clay just beneath that giggly surface, and decided to help me mold it into El Presidente and into a truer version of myself yet to be realized.

They challenged us to push one another.  They made us speak out and up, to use and find our voices.  In the beginning, I couldn’t stand toe to toe with these powerful young adults, certainly no one was intimidated by my uneasy and unsure nature.  They analyzed this world in a way that I had never been encouraged to examine it, but slowly, they started to rub off on me.  I was finding ways to speak without the quiver in my voice.  In their challenges I found sustenance for my growth and development.

And somewhere within myself I found my true voice.

I spent so many years when I was younger being so scared.  Being perpetually the new kid, I was scared to be an outsider.  I was already just a little bit awkward, and my clothes came from goodwill, I couldn’t afford to really try to speak my mind.  In SC, this was only exacerbated as I found myself in a place that I was actually going to stay for quite some time, but was being steeped in racism so deep and wide that I couldn’t find a way to say, “The history of the confederacy is one of racism, white privilege, and treason, not this State’s rights, economic whatever, history blah blah blah you’re telling me” without ostracizing these wonderful people who had accepted me.  I spent YEARS (at least a decade) trying to find the right balance of saying what I thought and just going with the flow.  And in that tension, the silence that resulted was tacit agreement with my friends and others in this “truer history” of the South, among other issues.

When I returned from missionary training, and later from Ukraine, I struggled bringing my newly found voice to the table at home.  To my friends of half my life, to my beloved South Carolina, to my sisters.

I still struggle from time to time.

When you find your voice, it’s not all roses.  I sometimes crave the quieter girl of my teenage years.  She intimated no one (well unless we were talking music, cause ya know, I was pretty awesome).  She made few feel uncomfortable.  She challenged nothing that she thought would be controversial.  She giggled a lot, she was uncomfortable a lot.

She was suffocating, and I had no idea.  Someone once asked me, if a child only knows hunger, how does that child know that he/she is hungry?  I had tried for so long to be everyone’s ideal of me, that I had no idea I was suffering.  Then I became a young adult missionary.  I was given a chance to release that pressure, and to become a more authentic me.

That woman is a little bit more scary.  She pushes back when you compare taking down the confederate flag to Isis burning all traces of history in other countries.  She pushes back when you claim that “Illegals” are ruining this country, and when you try to tell her that she’s been brainwashed by her liberal friends.  She will challenge you, when she’s right and when she’s wrong, and will enjoy being both right and wrong (humility is still important, friends.  wrong=lessons/growth).  She wants to learn, and engage, and she has a clear sense of her strengths and what she believes about this world.  She is fiercely loyal, abundantly compassionate (well she tries to be), but could not care less about what some stranger thinks about her or her pedigree.

This voice, this self awareness that I now wear, scares some folks.  Makes some people a little uncomfortable because I’m young, because I’m a woman, because I’m not as well educated perhaps, maybe because I’ve overcome quite a bit in my young life and have wounds and scars that have resulted in a crazy amount of life experience.

I have spent the last year and a half trying to make myself just a little smaller again.  Trying to become a little more like 23 year old Erica, trying to not intimidate anyone by being myself.  I wanted to help, and give grace, and give assurances.  It came from a place of love and deep desire to help.

But here’s the thing, in trying to make myself smaller, I only made it worse, and though Miami has been great in so many many ways, in other ways I have been slowly dying as I tried to fit into someone else’s box so that I wouldn’t scare them.

This past week, at Summer Institute with UMCMA, I came into a fuller awareness of the actual state of my soul, and it wasn’t good.  I cannot continue to make myself smaller because I am a woman, young, passionate, or loud.  It would be untrue to myself, and to my calling in this world.

So hear me world, gone are the days where I make myself smaller to feed your ego.  I may not have all of the answers, I will certainly mess up and forget and fumble words, but I have fought for my voice.  I have fought past the nervous giggles, and found some amount of power and self awareness that I never thought I was capable of, and I refuse to be less than so I can live into some cultural expectation of lessness for a young woman of color.

I will make myself less for no man or woman.

I will silence myself for no man or woman.

If I don’t fit into your box or your plan, why don’t we make a new one together?

It is my deep and fervent prayer that students might find their own voices and not take the paths of less resistance.  That they would not find themselves chipping away at parts to fit into the molds that our culture puts before them of quiet obedience and complacency. That they would make excuses to no one for standing up for themselves, their ideals, or the people in this world.  I have had the amazing privilege of being at the feet of some of the best mentors I could have ever asked for in this life, and I can only pray that my students find themselves in the presence of folks that can engage, encourage, and challenge them to be their true and authentic selves, no matter the messiness that follows.

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