It’s that time of year when we all need a little strength. Elections, holidays, the change of the season, we need fortitude to get through it. The Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis would say that we need fierce love too, and she knows about resilience. A year ago, her church burned down, a church that had already been through its own history of near-death experiences. Lewis is senior minister of Middle Collegiate Church in Manhattan’s East Village. In her latest book, Fierce Love: A Bold Path to Ferocious Courage and Rule-Breaking Kindness That Can Heal the World, she weaves together autobiographical anecdotes with theological reflections and practical tools to show what underlies and inspires change.
Immediately, our neighbors, our friends, I mean from around the globe—people carried the fire in the news in China, in Australia—and what we found, Laura, was how much people loved us. I remember about two weeks after the fire, I opened up my Facebook feed and read about 500 love notes from people all over the globe who were just, “We love you. We’re holding you. We think of you like the cathedral in Paris. You are our hope and our dream and we’re going to stay with you.” And they stayed with us, Laura. People joined the church. Some 500 people joined the church since March of 2020 during Covid and during the fire grieving time.
And so, I believe that what we found is that the theory of fierce love is actually practiced in real life, in communities and digital spaces—poor people sent a dollar, folks sent lots of money, but mostly people loved us through this time, their prayers and their commitment to us.
LF: This wasn’t the first time that Middle Collegiate had gone through a near-death experience. It has a long and pretty extraordinary history.
JL:Absolutely. The church building dates to 1892, but the Collegiate Church dates to 1628. We got centuries of stuff. We have, honestly, being the Dutch Reformed Church that “bought Manhattan from the Lenape,” lots of apologies and repairs needed around that. Some of our folks, some of our senior ministers owned Black people, our church was built with stolen labor and that’s real. And I think the work we’ve done in these last few decades has been all about repairing that harm—LGBTQ justice, opening the doors for all the people in the community dying with HIV/AIDS. We fed them. We housed them. We gave grants to them. We loved on them. We became a multiethnic, multiracial, anti-racist church. People count on us for anti-racist trainings. Six thousand people or so we trained during Covid in the digital space. This Black dreadlocked leader leading Middle Church is part of the way the Collegiate Church offers repair in the world for things we participated in.
LF: Well, it’s no coincidence that Fierce Love, your book, came out this year and the fire features in the book, too. It starts with one of the hardest things, self-love. Talk about that choice and why starting with self-love is so important in your view.
JL:This book had been cooking in me for years—just what can we do about the hot mess, toxic politics, horrific banter in this public square, erosion of civil rights, the pandemic of killing Black people. All of that, Laura, has been grieving me. I preach that, I write that, I teach that, but I wanted to do something that would push outside of the religious boundaries. Certainly, I’m a Christian pastor, but I wanted to put words in the world that could transform the lives of anyone who would dare to pick up the book.
Why are we so horrific to each other? Why are we so intent on wounding each other? I think it’s because we don’t love ourselves. That’s my working hypothesis: You don’t love yourself, you don’t give yourself care, you don’t think you deserve love, you shame on yourself. I am convinced that our founding fathers left Great Britain, and came over here to make a safe place for themselves and brought with them their oppression at the hand of the higher classes, their imperialist oppression. And then they passed it on. They passed it onto the Indigenous people. They passed it onto the Black people. I think our whole nation is built not only on stolen land, by stolen bodies, but on principles that look democratic but are actually steeped in self-loathing.
If you build a culture in which Black people are only three-fifths of a person, if you build a culture in which you think you have the right to “discover land” that already belongs to some other folks, you are clearly moving from a place where there’s a hole in your soul where love should be. That’s my theory. And it’s grounded in my experience as a psychologist, as a pastor, as a counselor. And so, I wanted to start there. We’re not taught to love ourselves, but if we don’t love ourselves, I think we’re going to keep repeating these patterns of abuse and oppression toward everyone who’s not us.
Let me talk a little bit about Ubuntu, though, if you don’t mind. What predates any of the world’s religions is the origins of humankind in the cradle of civilization and this Zulu idea, this ancient idea, umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu. And that’s Zulu for a human is human through other humans. We understood that our destinies were tied together.
It’s absolutely in the bedrock of my personal theology and the work at Middle Church. I am who I am because you are who you are. My destiny is tied to Edna, my Latinx friend who’s married to Heidi. My destiny is tied to Darrell, a queer Black man who is tied to Joy, who’s Chinese. It’s tied to you, Laura. My destiny is tied to humankind, and if we can own that, then the white ladies voting for Trump pretty soon have to say, “How does that affect the children in Detroit who don’t have clean drinking water?”
LF: For people who only ever see you preaching from the pulpit in your church or maybe know you through your virtual work in social media or online, I want you to share a little bit of what’s in the book that might come as a surprise.
JL:I tell a bad touch story in the book. Someone that I trusted, a person in our family, my family knows that story now. They didn’t know when I was younger until I got brave enough to tell. And the person was inappropriate with me in a kind of one-moment event, but it stayed alive. And it wounded me, Laura. As a pastor and as a counselor, I’ve talked to women and men who were literally penetrated by people they love. That’s not what happened to me, but what did happen to me was the sense that just being myself could be dangerous. Therefore, I feel like my body almost refused to grow breasts, refused to mature. It took a long time to get well-adjusted around my body, around sex as a beautiful gift from God and not only for marriage and procreation. And that good girls actually do have orgasms and have a great life, thank you, God. And also, that I could make mistakes and survive. And so, I’m wanting to say to parents your job is to love your little ones, to make a safe container for them so they can show you who they are.
LF: Can you describe a moment when you felt the kind of macro systemic personal fierce change that we’re talking about, a moment in which it was palpable. I’m imagining you have many of those experiences, but would you care to share some or one?
JL: Yes, I will. I was in Chicago for my dad’s 87th birthday, and the book was just coming out, and I had a bunch of meetings and stuff to do in the media. I went to his house to do a media event, and I said, “Daddy, I’m going to run in here, do it, and I’m going to come back out and spend some time with you.” When I came out, my dad had prepared a table for me, Laura, my favorite fried chicken—not breasts, thighs, because that’s what I like—and potato salad and coleslaw and a glass of rosé, and he sits with me and just listens and holds that space with me like the same daddy who taught me how to cut hair, who taught me how to change a tire, who taught me how to make a B. I had trouble making cursive Bs.
My dad is my proof text of fierce love. Our relationship is my proof text of transformation and change. We went through the terrible 2s, but I don’t remember them, but we definitely went through the traumatic teens. We definitely went through the transformative 20s, and we went through fierce 40s where I pushed and shoved and claimed my adulthood and claimed my voice. And that relationship that is now full of love and joy and forgiveness and peace is what we can do not only in our families, but what we can do at the workplace, what we can do in our schools, what we can do in our neighborhoods, and what we can do in the public square. We can tell the truth. We can wrestle our way to a new way to be. We can create a new story together. My daddy is my hero and shows me that it can happen.