Black Women, Faith, and Sexuality

An Interview with Latishia James-Portis AKA Rev. Pleasure

Womanist, Writer, Sacral Spirituality Coach

Describing the Work and The Journey to This Work (Content Warning: Sexual Violence)

So, I have been involved in the sexual reproductive justice movement pretty much my entire career, and some would argue, life by nature of who I am by nature of my own personal experiences. In my early 20s my first job, my first adult job, out of college was working on an HIV/AIDS organization that catered to women and girls of color, and at the time, when I believed in things like dream jobs, it was my dream job. I am the daughter of a woman who died of AIDS-related illness. And so, that is a part of my journey and part of what drew me to this work in terms of personal experience. And the other thing that drew me to this work in terms of personal experience was that I’m a survivor of multiple forms of sexual violence.

And when I was working at the women’s collective, the HIV/AIDS organization, I was the youth program manager, and I was encountering many young women, young girls, they ranged in age from 12 to 20, and some of the older girls, 14, 15, 17, were confiding in me experiences that they were having, informed by their religious upbringing. So, for example, there were some girls who were exploring their sexuality, as you do at that age right, and as I was talking to them as the program manager about safe sex and safe practices, a lot of them either left or completely refused to engage in safe sex practices when it came to queer sex. And when I press them on it, they revealed that it was because of messages that they had gotten in church around homosexuality in particular. What it was, why they didn’t want to practice safe sex in their queer experiences, was because if they were to consciously practice safe sex, then they would have to admit that they were doing something intentionally and on purpose. And then it would be a sin, and then it would be like all of these things that came of it. So that was one thing, and so they’re engaging in these very risky behaviors because of the messages they’re getting from church.

And then the other group of girls, the other kind of camp, that I was seeing also had experienced sexual violence, and who blamed themselves and who were carrying a lot of shame because of messages they received in the church about virginity and not being pure and worthy and purity culture and all of these things. Which absolutely broke my heart for one, but for two, they were telling my story which they didn’t know because confidentiality. And I was the adult even though I was 24 at the time, but that was also a very similar experience that I had.

I grew up in the Black Church, specifically a Caribbean Pentecostal church, Apostolic and Full Faith, all of the things, and to give you a flavor of what I experienced and what I could relate to with them: when I was 15, my pastor, in front of the entire congregation…I had not been in church in a while because my family had moved, and I had come back to visit. And so, in front of the entire congregation as service was ending, she called me out and was like you know she was happy to see me and glad that I was back and then out of nowhere, she goes “and just make sure that you never let any man take your virginity.” And it was like literally in the front of the entire church. Unbeknownst to her, I had already been raped by that point, and so it literally just like shattered me. I was like “Oh, this was my fault, like I let him do this to me.”

So fast forward to that job, you know, I was like, wow, this is terrible and horrifying, and clearly, I am not the only person that Christianity, Black Church in particular, has done this too and has created this cavern of shame within us. And at the time, I was actually in discernment about grad school in general, and I was planning on getting my Master’s in public health because I knew I wanted to do sexual and reproductive justice work already because that was already the work that I was doing. So, I was like, “Oh, that makes sense. I’ll get my MPH. I’ll focus on Sexual Health. I’ll become like a certified health educator, like grade level.” That was the path. But once I started hearing the stories from the girls in my program, I started having these dreams. And they are very akin and reminiscent to dreams that other people talk about when they get their calling. Like what is going on? Like I don’t even think I knew the process of becoming a theologian or becoming a pastor. I was like, I don’t know what you do, but all of a sudden, seminary was on my brain and coming up in my spirit.

I was like if God hates me and hates my community as much as you claim, then God is going to have to tell me themselves. And that was also part of me going to seminary. I was like somebody’s going to have to tell me directly that this is what is said and that this is what it means.

And so fast forward, I end up in seminary, and I, I was living in DC at the time, had started at Wesley Theological Seminary, which is a Methodist seminary, similar to Emory. And they were progressive for who they are and where they were at the time, however, not progressive enough for me. And my partner had gotten a job in California, and we had agreed to move together. And so, I transferred to Pacific School of Religion, which is where I finished out my studies. And I learned about them because of the Church, I was attending at the time and a lot of other seminarians, and they had a certificate in sexuality and religion, and I was like “yes, sign me up.”

The other part of my seminary journey that is really important to name is that what was resonating with those girls, like I said, wasn’t just the sexual violence piece, but also the queer piece. And at the time, I was not yet out to my family because I was very closeted. I was very afraid, right? All this indoctrination that I had gotten growing up, but eventually did end up coming out kind of around the same time. It went very horribly. My family told me all manner of disgust things that I will not repeat here, but what it did was that I was like if God hates me and hates my community as much as you claim, then God is going to have to tell me themselves. And that was also part of me going to seminary. I was like somebody’s going to have to tell me directly that this is what is said and that this is what it means. And literally within like my first month in seminary, my professors were basically like, so everything you’ve learned is a lie. “Okay, great, fantastic, so here we go.”

So yeah, seminary, and I think like many seminarians who are raised in fundamentalist and evangelical context, I had a huge crisis of faith. Huge. That lasted pretty much the entire three years, that I was in school. I was very much like, what am I doing? Do I even believe this anymore? But I stuck it out, and you know PSR (Pacific School of Religion) really was a saving grace in terms of being able to work with professors who had been doing work on sexuality and religion for a very long time. And who were further along in their faith formation and helped me, introduced me to womanist theology and queer theology and all of these things and more liberative theologies.

And so, I was still and am still a part of the reproductive justice movement. I am still a reproductive justice activist. And so I very clearly knew in my work that I wanted to start to marry these things and kind of blend, and it became very clear to me in that faith experience with those girls that my calling was to be a part of the work of helping people to reconcile their spiritual and their sexual selves because one of the greatest injustices, in my opinion, of fundamentalist evangelical faith is that it has convinced us that those things are separate and they are not right, because they both come from God, so how can they be separate.

So, I was doing work in a manner of contexts. So, with reproductive justice, I started to do work with clergy to help them to support people experiencing different reproductive and sexual experiences. So again because of my faith formation, because of the context of helping people, like how are you supporting survivors of sexual violence? Are you shaming them? And sometimes many pastors didn’t even realize that they were causing shame with their theology and this theology around virginity. And I was like, you have got to stop talking about virginity. Like you are literally causing people to not only feel enormous amounts of shame but to close themselves off and ask the question, of their worth and their value, and whether or not they even belong on this earth, so we need to change all of that.

My calling was to be a part of the work of helping people to reconcile their spiritual and their sexual selves because one of the greatest injustices…of fundamentalist evangelical faith is that it has convinced us that those things are separate and they are not right, because they both come from God, so how can they be separate.

And then the second piece that I ended up doing, and work that is very near to me and I continue to do, is pregnancy-related work, so abortion, miscarriage, adoption. I literally got through three years of seminary and not one of my pastoral care classes focused on reproductive experiences. And I was like, “I’m sorry, like people get pregnant literally every day.” I know that there are people in your congregations dealing with these issues. You have to learn how to talk about it. You have to learn how to support them. And so actually, my final project for my certificate was that I developed my own curriculum called reproductive justice-informed pastoral care and have continued to teach that in various formulations to this day. Yea, it’s a very big part of my call.

At the heart of everything I do is still this this call and this understanding and this mandate of helping people to reconcile their spiritual and their sexual selves and so, for example, recently I taught a workshop at Spelman for Sisters’ Chapel which you might know Whitney Bond, she would also be a good person for you to talk to…But anyway, they invited me to come because they started a new series at Spelman. They’re doing their own kind of Super Soul Sunday thing, and so I was the first speaker for this season, and the theme that they told me was “A Time to Heal,” and I could interpret it however I wanted. And so, I prayed about it and meditated on it and the word that came to me was around sacral energy and sacral sanctity, and so I did a few things with that. One, I’m pushing back on this idea from Christians that anything that’s not Christian is demonic by bringing in talk of like chakras. And then two, the sacral chakra is tied to erotic force and creativity and sexuality and like all those things. And so, the way I structured was I focused on preaching against the Proverbs 31 woman archetype, and as offering an alternative to that archetype which is to be rooted in your sacral power because that to me is the work.

It is helping particularly Black women, girls, and femmes to reclaim all of the things that have been taken from us by colonization, by white supremacy, by patriarchy, by the Church, all of those things that they have said we don’t have a right to claim that. For all the times that a Black girl has heard that her body is treacherous, that she’s fast, all of these things that Black girls get fed and really trying to help facilitate some healing around that. And so, that’s kind of my focus. These days, I say that I’m a sacral spiritual coach helping people to heal from power-based violence, and power-based violence for me is patriarchy, white supremacy, and then sexual violence, of course, and within that, all of those.

And my day job, and I think it’s important to name this, I have yet to see a way to do my work in the Church. And I initially was very opposed to being in the Church. I was like “oh God no, please.” I had so much church trauma, and I was like I have zero desire to be anybody’s pastor. I have zero desire to do parish ministry. But, in a way, I have ended up being people’s pastor, just not inside the walls of the church. And I think that’s really important to name, that I see Jesus’s ministry was not inside the temple. He was outside. And so, very much so, that’s how I see things as well. And like the Church is actually very restricting when it comes to this kind of work. Unfortunately, the Church is about 100 years behind when it comes to doing this type of work. And so, many of us have to find alternatives, like myself. Whitney has a community called “Still Saved.” You have people like Pastor Lyvonne Briggs who does the Proverbial Experience. You have people like Jade Perry who does a lot of things. You have people like Danyelle Thomas, who does “Unfit Christian.” All of these things, like many millennial Black women and Gen Z Black women, we have figured out a way to do our ministry outside of the church because of patriarchy, because of all the ways that it undermines our brilliance and our power.

The work is helping particularly Black women, girls, and femmes to reclaim all of the things that have been taken from us by colonization, by white supremacy, by patriarchy, by the Church, all of those things that they have said we don’t have a right to claim that.

And so, I don’t say that to discourage you about the Church. I say that to say that’s what we’ve had to do up until this point. And so again, I’m not gonna say never, I don’t know if it’s going to happen in my lifetime, but I think the time actually is now to begin to explore what it might look like for these things to occur in the Church, because we can only reach but so many people outside of the walls, because many Black women are still very indoctrinated and still very much so only going to trust what comes from a pulpit. Even though I have the credentials, all of us have the credentials. We all have Masters of Divinity or Masters of Theological Studies or PhDs in religion, right? I think about Neichelle Guidry, and she’s the dean of Sisters’ Chapel and she has a PhD, right? And yet and still, there are going to be some people who are not going to trust her unless she’s vouched for by some pastor in a church from the pulpit.

And so, I have definitely been thinking about what that inside-out work looks like, you know. I think Candace Simpson is another person that will be great for you to talk to who is a great example of that because she does work in a church. She’s a minister at her parents’ church and the name of it is escaping me right now but it’s in Brooklyn; it’s a Baptist church [The Concord Baptist Church of Christ], and I know that she does like liberatory Bible studies. And that’s actually one of the things I would love to do. Like I would love for somebody to invite me into their church as a guest to like lead a liberatory Bible study. So, I’m definitely exploring and looking at ways to partner with church and to not see church as the enemy, anymore, to this work. But again, I think there’s many factors in that.

On Doing the Work

I mean honestly, a lot of us are still answering those questions [questions of ordination, academia, pay, and finding and creating space]. And again, a lot of us have just made our own way and made our own path, which is the womanist way, right, making your way out of no way and still being in community. I think sometimes folks see us as like renegade or like lone wolf and that we’re trying to do things on our own, and it’s like no, we’re still trying to be in community and we’re creating communities particularly with “Unfit Christian” and particularly with “The Proverbial Experience” like they’ve created communities, like very robust and intentional communities.

I think the other thing so, for example, I’m not ordained traditionally. I went to seminary and then I did a quick ordination because I was like having a title is important to a lot of you, and I know that that’s going to help me to get into some doors and open up some things. The other thing is that my faith formation has changed so much that I couldn’t find the denomination that I felt in alignment with to ordain me. There is one, The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries, and I started the process with them, but then things got a little weird and then COVID happened, so I have it in the back of my mind to maybe go back and explore and see what’s possible there. But I no longer see it as a necessity, if that makes sense, and I no longer see it as like a thing. Like my community trusts me. Like I’m community ordained is how I feel. However, I know that in order to do this work inside of a church, I do need to be vouched for by people who are trusted inside church spaces, etc. So, I totally hear you on that. I think if you are a part of a denomination already, and there’s a path already for you, I would say, do it. That would be my recommendation because it does make some things easier for sure.

And again, a lot of us have just made our own way and made our own path, which is the womanist way, right, making your way out of no way and still being in community.

And then I think the other part, is I no longer identify as a Christian, so I’ll name that. I identify as a follower of Jesus, and I identify as someone who is rooted in Christian faith because that’s what I was born into, that raised me. So, I’m very much so rooted in Christian faith and very much so a follower of Jesus, and I have since became a practitioner of African ancestral practice…And so, that’s the other part. Now, I am finding a way to infuse that into what I’m doing slowly, so that I don’t alarm the Christians because it’s not that I can’t practice both, I can. And a lot of people don’t recognize that. They think I’m abandoning Christianity, and I’m not abandoning Christianity, but I’m abandoning colonized Christianity. Yes, I am abandoning white supremacist Christianity. I don’t want anything to do with that, right. I am returning to Christianity’s African roots because they exist. This idea that Christianity suddenly appeared with white people, and how did we get there? So, I think that’s also part of the journey for me too.

Creating Space and Preparation

It’s been a journey. I graduated from seminary in 2016, and I’m still creating it for myself. So, in seminary, I started to really explore and kind of the case, first started with womanism and was like “Oh yes, this is me.” And also, I have a lot of gripes with the way that womanist theology has evolved within the context of Christianity because I feel like it’s very much so erased its queer roots. Because womanism is inherently queer and the way that it gets talked about sometimes in Christian context [is not]. Like, you do know Alice Walker is a whole bisexual right? So, there’s that, and many of us who are queer and who are womanists have those same gripes.

And what I would also say about that is the community…so back in the day, like when I was in seminary, and this is actually how Whitney and I met, there was a Twitter chat called Black Church Sex. And it was weekly on Twitter, and all of us who were queer and Black and churched and you know unlearning, we would have these weekly Twitter chats, and they were so helpful and supportive to know that I was not alone. And that’s how I started to build community in that way. So social media was a big part of building community for us. And you know when I was in seminary and I met folks, we would start to build in different ways and do different things, and we realized we were all kind of in similar places with our explorations, like this place of unlearning and reclaiming and decolonizing was amazing.

The “Unfit Christian” community and space, I’ve met people through there and then just like leading and like learning from trusted people. Like in terms of my faith tradition now, I have a godmother who I learned from directly. And then it’s kind of like all of my friends are now on the journey of like reclaiming ancestral practices, and we all talk about it and share together, which is really lovely. Yeah, and just continuing my own study. And so, also studying different books. I’m reading a book right now on ancestor veneration which I’ve been doing for a number of years now, and I think this book is really helping make some different connections and work through some things, so that’s been wonderful. We just read a book together about Santeria and the practice. And just continuing to be in community with people, and like I said, I continued my faith and reproductive justice work, so I’m still very embedded in that community.

I did a lot. I was doing the most for a very long time, and now I’m trying to really home in on spirit. And like what it is that I’m doing and how I’m going to show up. So, I think things shift, especially coming out of seminary. You’re like cool, I’ve got to do all of these things, like this checklist. And I think as much as you can, try to put the checklist down because you’d be surprised what other things come to you.

Advice For Those Hoping to Do This Work

Yeah, community. Get yourself some people, mentorship. At the time when I was in your position, it was really hard to find mentors. A lot of peers, but it was like we were all in the same boat together. And so, I think as much as you are able to, find in both, community, so that y’all can share in your experiences and build. That would be my biggest piece of advice honestly.

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