You’re Gonna Hear Me Roar
by Gail Henderson-Belsito
I liked the Katy Perry song, “Roar,” the first time I heard it. I listened to it more than fifty times before I decided to look up the lyrics. Three of the lines I read returned the favor – they read me.
“I used to bite my tongue and hold my breath.”
I grew up in a church where I was expected to bite my tongue and hold my breath. I was never told that in those exact words, but as a female in my church, I would never be invited to be a pastor or an elder or even a deacon. As a child, I was never invited to speak my mind boldly or even shyly in the presence of a group of adults. I remember being shushed when I asked questions or wondered aloud about the concepts we discussed at church. I remember being told that there were certain topics that we didn’t discuss in public.
One night when I was twelve years old, the senior pastor, several elders, and a few other church leaders came to our house, some with their wives, to discuss a disagreement that had arisen between my father and the senior pastor. Unable to resolve it between the two of them, they decided to attempt to settle it with the assistance of other men in the congregation. Arguments ensued. Voices were raised. To my early adolescent mind, this was terribly frightening and unsettling.
My thirteen-year-old brother and I huddled behind the closed door at the end of the hallway where our bedrooms were and listened. I wept tears of deep sorrow. When I reached my limit, I pushed through the door and found myself standing in the presence of a dozen angry adults. All staring at me. Watching me cry. I was so distraught that I couldn’t speak; my bawling rendered me incapable of reminding them of all that they had taught me about love and grace and forgiveness and unity. I couldn’t ask them to explain why they refused to extend or receive mercy towards and from each other. I stood before them brokenhearted, the only sound in the room was that of my sobbing.
Unceremoniously and abruptly, I was ushered by firm hands back down the hallway to my bedroom and warned against further interruption. Silenced again. That night the decision was made that we had to leave that church, the only congregation of Christ followers I had ever known during my short life. My parents asked us children not to talk about the details of that exchange with anyone outside of our family. In actuality, we didn’t talk about it inside our family either. Silenced again.
Not long thereafter, I mentioned it to someone I knew from the church, a teenager in the youth group – he said that if we left the church, he would leave too. Energized by his support of our situation, I made the mistake of mentioning his response at a subsequent family dinner. Silence. An apology for disobeying my parents was demanded.
I learned the intended lesson well: I was silenced yet again. I bit my tongue and held my breath for the next several weeks, months, and years. Church after church. I kept my mouth shut. Or I spoke in hushed tones. Or I shared my opinions and ideas only among the women – because as a woman, I was not welcome to teach adult men in most of the congregations I was part of.
“You held me down, but I got up. Get ready cuz I’ve had enough.”
For more than seven years, I served as the English translator at a Spanish-speaking congregation here in my hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina. I stood on the pulpit next the pastor of that church on Sunday mornings, translating his sermons from Spanish into English in front of a group of beautiful, courageous, hard-working people. Generous people. Loving people. Caring people. From more than ten countries in Central and South America. I loved those folks dearly.
As the years and the sermons rolled past, I became increasingly aware that I disagreed with much of what I was translating. About women and gay people and young people and the government and the Catholic Church and politics. Frequently I would exit the sanctuary hoping and praying that no one in the congregation thought I believed what I had said that morning. When I disagreed especially vehemently with something the pastor said, I simply refused to translate it into English; I would look at him and deliberately shake my head.
Not long after an acutely difficult chapter in my family’s life, during which time not one pastor from my church called my house or came to visit us or pray with us, I had had enough. I decided that it was time to get up, time to get out, time to get on with the work of loving all people and welcoming all people into the fellowship of believers. I knew that I needed a church community that focused on compassion not condemnation, on gentleness and not judgment, on the priesthood of all believers and not the exclusive involvement of only a handful of men.
I thank God that I have found that kind of worshiping community. Not a perfect church, not even close to perfect — but a place where we are encouraged and expected to speak up, where questions are welcomed, and where answers are not always offered and not ever guaranteed. A place where each of the pastors (THE PASTORS!) have openly and frequently stated, “This is what I believe, this is what I have come to understand, but I may be wrong.” Their honesty, their presence, their compassion, their unconditional welcome has created a space for me not only to soar, but also to roar.
I almost declined Jena’s invitation to write something for this Roar series. I almost didn’t tell this story. In the days of reflection before writing all this down, I heard those old voices, the ones that demanded silence and complicity for most of my life, telling me to keep my story to myself. They accused me of mis-remembering, exaggerating, airing “our dirty laundry.” They accused me of being vindictive. They asserted that surely I had done something wrong to deserve the neglect and abandonment my family and I experienced.
The truth is that one pastor did come visit and pray with me here at home – but he was no longer on staff there. In my opinion, he too had been marginalized and silenced, and had decided to find employment elsewhere. As a sign of their love and support during our time of adversity, a group of Latina women from the church brought meals and cleaned our home, more than once. Although we withdrew from that faith community in 2010, I continue to name some of those brave, strong, generous, funny, hospitable, kind women as dear friends.
Once those oppressive and repressive voices were silenced within, I had no choice but to write, to speak, and to roar. No more silence for me. No more trepidation either. No more listening to or obeying those who believe that my gender (or my skin color or my political leanings or my faith practice) is enough to justify voicelessness. No more racing heartbeat and tongue biting in response to cruel jokes or inappropriate comments about women and young adults and the LGBTQIA community and immigrants and people of color and the poor or anyone else. No more.
“I am a champion and you’re gonna hear me roar.”
Two weeks ago, I began seminary study at the Presbyterian seminary here in my hometown. In my first class on my first day, I sat next to a person in transition (FTM). At orientation the day before, I met a woman in a marriage that looks like mine, an African American woman and a man whom our culture mistakenly refers to as white.* Across the circle was a woman who spoke lovingly about her wife and their daughter. I was acutely aware of how each and every one of us was made to feel welcome – even though we gathered a remarkably short distance from both religious and secular spaces where not one of us would be invited or allowed to preach, to teach, or even to speak openly about who we are and how we live our lives. Each of us, all of us arrived two Saturdays ago embodying singular stories of strength and courage and beauty and love and simply being human. We are, all of us, “walking each other home” – as Ram Dass once wrote.
Each of us is discerning the places and ways in which we have been silenced, in which we have bitten our lips and held our breath. We are all champions – even though our life stories are not part of any game that can be won or lost. And we are all getting ready to ROAR!
I am determined to be a champion beside and behind those who, like me, were silenced as children. Those who have been silenced by their immigration status. Those who have been silenced by poverty and lack of educational opportunity. Those who have been silenced by wealth and the pressure to conform to unrealistic standards. Those who do not yet understand who or what has caused them to bite their tongues and hold their breath. I am determined to stand with those who have stood alone for far too long.
Maybe I’m a champion.
Maybe I’m not.
I don’t know.
One thing I do know is this – you’re gonna hear me roar.
* Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me, explains the concept of mistakenly believing oneself to be white.
Gail Henderson-Belsito was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. She earned her B.A. in northwestern Massachusetts and her M.A. in central Connecticut, degrees put to good use during 20+ years of homeschooling her two children. She is now back in school, in seminary, in North Carolina. Gail’s life has not been easy (whose has?), but it has been good.One of her life quests is to spend more time being grateful for all that she has been given – the wonder-filled, the sorrow-filled, and everything in between – than worrying about what she doesn’t have.