Her Testimony is a response to the urgent need to document the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the lives of Black women. Learn more about our campaign and participate in our survey here. The survey can be completed by anyone who identifies as a Black woman residing in North Carolina who wants to share their experiences as they navigate life in the time of COVID-19. Today, we offer another testimony.
Angela Whitenhill-Shields lives in Garner, NC with her husband and young son. As a licensed clinical social worker and minister, her life’s work sits at the intersection of mental health, spirituality, and activism. She often bridges the gap between religious spaces and the therapy field by creating spaces to reduce the stigma of mental health in church as well as helping people heal from religious trauma. In addition to that, she leads a spiritual support group for Black women called Deborah’s Table. Our conversation took place in late April and has been edited for length and clarity.
This is Angela’s testimony.
What has this experience been like for you?
Spiritually, I’ll just tell you, my response has been anger. When a crisis happens to me, the real stuff comes out. This has shown me how different Black and white people are. Not in just racism. Your relationship to privilege and access to resources, to me, it defines your relationship to God. And what hit me was, we have a different God, in the sense that we see God differently. Not because we don’t all read the same text. But if I pray for daily bread, and I own a bread factory, that’s a different kind of prayer than if I literally don’t have food and I’m talking about bread.
I do a lot of work with mostly older white men and to hear how they are responding and juxtaposing that to Deborah’s table and Black people, I’m thinking, wow we have so many different resources. I’ve always known that, but it didn’t hit me as much.
I think it’s time to return to the God of our ancestors. I think our ancestors are Christian in a lot of theological ways. But I just feel like in our country, so many Black people have been socialized in Eurocentric work ethic, Eurocentric hair, Eurocentric Christianity, when all that is coming down, because I believe that is being tested, we really don’t know what to do.
I’m so drawn to hear stories of how Black people just got through unknowns. That’s part of who we are. We survive. We are good at this. But now in the Black church, we don’t know what to do. Everybody is in crisis and I’m like, wait a second. We come from Harriet Tubman. We sing about it, and we talk about it, but when it hits the fan, I don’t see spiritual coping skills. That’s what I would like. What is my work around religious trauma? What are your coping skills? It doesn’t have to be Christian. But you need them. And those of us who are Christian, if your religion doesn’t help you in your mind and practically help you deal with life, to me, it’s not as important.
One of the things I’ve been doing is worshipping. I talk about a lot of worship in relations to whiteness because I’m the worship chair at my church. And recently the worship leader reached out and said, “how can I be in solidarity with the Black community?” And I was done. I don’t want to help you help me. I’m over it. I’m over here mourning.
I told her, “Black people tarry. And we sing for a long time. Personally, I think it’s because we actually believe worship is a portal to the presence of God. The idea that God inhabits the praises of our people, we take that literally.” White people don’t do that. I’m in my white church, and you guys sing in three minutes, you’re done. And that’s fine. When we sing, it’s actually a trance. We move into an emotional space. Hit that key, and keep going back. That has been an eye opener. I told her, “I want to tarry. If you want to help me, I just want to sing the same three words over again. And go somewhere and not be so present at church.” And that is what worship does for us.
I’ve been thinking about the coping skills of our ancestors. Spiritual coping skills. I think this is a beautiful time for the world to meet the God of the Black woman. I think Black women, in particular, we don’t have the same power in the Black church. That’s why we do Deborah’s Table. And we make it work. What do Black women do spiritually? We cry, we tarry, we intercede. We cook. We do these things, that we think we’re just doing them. But as a therapist, I’m like, that is consciously helping you cognitively and emotionally.
What are the coping skills that you are holding on to?
Coping personally, I’ve had a ton of anger, which is not my personality. I’ve been so angry because I think in my work, I’ve always communicated that this is coming, something is happening. You got to get away from this. You got to deal with your psychological stuff. So I think when everything hit, and seeing it really impact people, it just makes me angry. And one of the ways that I’ve been dealing with it is that I don’t entertain certain conversations. There is a scripture in the bible and essentially the Pharisees are coming at Jesus again. And they’re like, “show us a sign.” And Jesus was like, “I’m not giving you a sign. Your whole generation is not getting a sign.” And He gets in his boat and leaves. God was like, you ain’t got to explain yourself anymore.
So one of the coping skills has been…as Black women, how do we really have pride in who we are and let that fully come into a space and not explaining ourselves? At work, there’s a lot of stuff happening. And instead of me explaining why, I just say, “I can’t do that,” and I stare, which is very hard for me. Really practicing being fully there. That helps me cope with my anger because it gives me power.
Movement has been huge. As a therapist I encourage everyone to move. We’re sitting on zoom every day and we’re sitting at home. So walking, moving. Surprisingly one of the biggest things that has been amazing has just been gardening and working in our yard. It’s been great to be outside.
I don’t engage conversations that feel like I am taking on anxiety that’s not mine. A lot of times, anxiety looks like, “we have to do something,” which is also white supremacy, but it can be both. So it’s like, nope – I don’t have to do something.
In addition to not taking that on, what I am taking on is creativity, which is very hard to do when you are in crisis, I’ve noticed. My brother helped me out saying creativity comes in a time of constraints. When real creativity happens it’s because something is pushing down. That’s the Holy Spirit. And I think creativity is the Holy Spirit. And my people, that’s why we are so creative! So instead of me being like, “Oh I’m so overwhelmed,” I’m like wait a minute I can’t go outside, but what can I do? How do we create? And just tap into some of the energy from ancestors around creativity.
I’ve been writing more, which is awesome. Engaging conversations about Black identity and engaging conversations about Black women have been life giving. Laughter. Joking around and not being too serious. Really going deep into who are we when everything else around us seems to be peeling away. It just feels really good.
This is not going anywhere for a long time. I noticed the energy in all of my friends’ professions were to scramble to somehow control the moment. And to me, that is white anxiety. We know we can’t control the moment. This is something that we actually cannot fix. So a lot of my sisters have been burnt out. They are working. Working hours beyond hours. And I’m like, what are we doing? Whether it’s clergy, business, mental health professionals — you cannot fix any of this. So we have to be real specific right now. These are the amount of hours I can do. I’ve seen a lot of articles on how to keep your job when there is a possible recession — you somehow over perform so they don’t fire you. And that’s not for you. All of that to say, I think boundaries have always been important.
But in this crisis, I think a lot of other people’s crises fall on Black women. We are socialized to pick it up. But we can’t pick this one up. This is a pandemic, y’all. The whole world is trying to figure it out. You can’t do it.
How has your day to day life been affected?
Ironically, a lot and not at all, at the same time. I worked from home the whole time so that’s been nice. Kai is getting older and I had someone babysitting him for a few hours a day so I can get work done, but that can’t happen anymore. My husband is an essential worker. He’s actually a sheriff. Right when this happened, they put him on the streets as patrol, which I was super angry about. Now he works nights and days and his whole schedule shifts very differently than before. There have been some twelve hours days where it’s just me and the baby. And there have been some nights where it’s just me and the baby. No complaints. We both got jobs. I used to have a set schedule as a mom. If he’s home for four days now and I’m working, we’ll do all of the gardening and I will just do my work at night. I think daily, I talk on zoom so much more. Everyone is. So that’s probably been the most overwhelming part. It’s not my favorite thing. So I try to balance it by being outside.
I tell people as a therapist you need to tap into your five senses. Not just two. Not just your eyes and ears for zoom. So I promote pleasure. You should be smelling, and touching and tasting and feeling.
When I’m only looking at netflix and the computer and hearing, I go outside and I put my feet in the grass. Or Kai is an easy excuse because he’s learning everything. So we’ll splash water together. It’s so exciting. For me it’s just like tapping into the senses to offset. We cook big meals and literally eat the same things for four days. If I’m not working, I try to stay away from my phone. But I would call my family. We zoom every week. Or I’ll call certain friends every week. My world has gotten really small with who I’m actually checking in with, which is opposite. I’m usually checking in with a ton of people. And that’s just different from me.
What has been a low point for you?
I used to play football and worked out four times a week. So that completely stopped. And after about seven weeks, I was angry at the stuff I named but also I was cloudy, numb, and snappy. I remember just crying one time. Just sitting down, crying to God. A lot of it for me has been work stress –really feeling like this is the time to be for my people.
I think that combined with my body literally not moving, I was just so low. I remember I got up, went outside and went for a run. I wouldn’t say I was depressed because I know depression, but it was one of those things when there was something within me where I was like, Ang, you are one symptom away. So to be in a slump like that, I was like wait a second. And it was coming out like anger. Depression could look like anger. After running, you would have thought I went on vacation, had good sex or something! I was like, hey everyone, I’m good! And I wasn’t good, but I was able to manage in a way that I wasn’t. I think it was a compilation of working too much, watching the news, trying to figure out what was happening, going to the store, schedule changing. All of this change is happening. And then, not moving. Not tending to my pleasure and laughter and singing. That’s that breaking point. And after that, that’s when I started dancing and worshipping and cutting folks off.
Physiologically, our bodies will kick us into a space.
In addition to that, I’ve realized, I don’t know how many Black women are feeling this — I think this moment is making me rise up differently about my career and about who I am in society. I’m getting much more ready on just doing my own thing and focusing on Black women like The Beautiful Project. This is a scary thing but also a new thing for me. I like to hide within institutions. But I think some of the anger, some of the scary and numbness wasn’t so much the pandemic. I’m feeling drawn this way, and that is not what I was expecting in a time like this. So I’m curious. Are all Black people feeling this too? Are we all tapping into ourselves?
What has been a high point for you?
I think getting clarity. I had a call with a friend on how we could develop a sacred space for brown women in a worship experience that is not what we see. A lot of my people are outside the church. And to hear the synergy, to hear what she has been doing for four and five years without me even knowing it. And I told her about Deborah’s Table, literally like two steps to the same movement. To hear about her Indigenous background and what she’s been thinking about. There is something about going back to the ancestral knowing. That just felt like such an affirmation.
And literally two days later, I got a text from a friend about The Root is doing some kind of call to Black people to share papers on inspirations that call to Blackness. I think that is affirming. I want to speak to and about Black folk and Brown folk only. We have something to offer everyone in the institution of power. That has felt so exhilarating and terrifying but just the confirmation that may be where the spirit is going.
I think God has always been outside of the church. I always loved that idea. I think God is also inside the church. I’m trying to figure out what that looks like on my end. But these conversations, like you said about coping skills–all of this literal death. So many people in my world are dying. I am blown away by Black women. And not in a cliche type of way of Black women. Really how we’re thinking and feeling across economic lines. It gives me life. There’s movement outside of church in a way that has been really affirming with how God is speaking.
And this moment, particularly when we can’t be in a building. Church was also so attached to the building and the rituals inside. If you choose to, you can see what church really means and how it’s rooted in the people.
To me there’s church, which is great. But then there is a relationship with God. I started a group called Sisters in Spirit in college, which is pretty much like Deborah’s Table. And we were doing the same thing. Talking and sharing about God.
The tangible growth about how God moves, not that it doesn’t move in church, but it’s freer for it to move however it wants to move when you are in a space of openness.
To me, I’m excited because I hope this moment is hopefully introducing people that haven’t experienced that God can move. Whether it’s playing in the water with your kid, you can hear a word in anything. Not to take away from pastors.
What have you been learning about the needs for yourself?
A theme that has come up in our Deborah’s Table moment but has really hit me has been learning how to receive. If we’re the “make it work” kind of women, in a moment of crisis, us being able, me being able to go, “I’m angry, I’m tired. I cannot.” It was the first time I told my job, I cannot do that, which is very scary. Nope, I can’t do it. My husband — I tell him, “I’m going to need you to wake up and take him to the bathroom, I can’t do it.” Just knowing my limits. And that’s hard when I am good at a lot of things. And the world thinks I am really good at a lot of things. When the world is coming down, I have to be able to go, okay, this is my piece of the pie. And really discipline myself. In disciplining myself to not take on other people’s stress but also ask people for help.
My job is offering us to do lesser hours. And I wasn’t going to do it. But you know what, let me get that good 24 hours work week. Now I have time. Kai is asleep. I can write. I can create. I can talk to other Black women. I can do what’s inside of me. So in asking for help, cutting things off, and filling that kind of void of purpose. What am I when I’m not working? Now, you can do the stuff that I want you to do. Things that I usually don’t have time for.
What are some of the needs you are learning for your community?
I’ll start with Black community. That’s where my passion is right now.
As a therapist, and this is more like a foreseeing, we need to really have better theology of mourning and how we corporately mourn. We, as Black people, are really good at surviving. So you see in our words and in our sermon, we are always about that third day. God overcame. But I think we’ve been traumatized already. This is before COVID. Part of my work has been how do we help Black people mourn healthily? There is a process to mourn. A process to grieving, whether it’s loss of person, loss of job, loss of agency.
Our culture doesn’t know how to grieve, in general. Particularly when you have people who are marginalized who are always getting losses. It’s a piling effect. A need that I am interested in that I’m trying to wrap my head around is, you have people dying, mass deaths, and no funeral. How are we mourning this? How do we, in a year from now, still go back when we didn’t get to have a funeral. That’s anybody, but particularly with Black folk.
I’ve been talking to women, clergy women, and they said, this death is bringing up the trauma of police brutality deaths, the trauma of heart problems in the community. There’s been mass deaths. So to have it on a large scale. And now you can’t even do a funeral and stuff. We’re “fine.” We’re dealing with it. But as a therapist, I’m like, are we dealing with it maladaptively? How are we dealing? Are we drinking? Are we eating? Are we beating up on our own family? Or are we healthily grieving?
As a therapist in white community, there are many more practices like planting a garden, writing a letter, and sending off a balloon. We don’t do that culturally because we don’t know how. So a need would be corporate grieving and not being afraid of it. And we’re not afraid of death, but we don’t grieve. That’s harder. We do grieve. But I just wonder if it’s healthy and how do we do that?
For my Deborah’s Table, for my friends and people like me–more identity development.
How do you just form your identity in such a way where you protect it and let it free? I just think that the world needs Black women’s vision so there is a psychological development to do that.
If we internalized racism, that’s psychological. Every time I say sorry when I walk in front of someone it is because I’m conditioned. Preaching is great. Activism is great. But I think we have to do therapy around getting racism out of us and my white friends have to do therapy around how to let racism go. Personally, I’m righting that for me.
Deborah’s Table is for people who are running stuff and are powerful in the world. Deborah is someone who did that healthily. My fear is that all of us are powerful but dying inside. All of these things are happening and you will never know from our facebook pages. In the group, we talk about our personal needs. When you are a public leader, doing amazing things, needing a space to deal with my own fear, my own insecurities about my physical appearance, those needs are there. A safe space to do that. And do it with God. Church is not that for me. It’s not that for a lot of people. Therapy is not that for me. Activism is not that for me. So where is that space? Right now, I need that space. I’ve been needing other Black women to have that.
Where have you been finding joy?
My son. He is hilarious, this kid. I know a lot of people are stressed out because their kids are at home. I had a miscarriage before. I didn’t think I would have kids. That is always a marker for me. I’m still shocked that I have a kid. Seeing him do little things, it’s just really a big deal because I didn’t know if I could have a child or have more. He’s been my cuddle buddy. He’s my coping skill.
A couple of weeks ago, I had an impromptu game night with some couples’ friends and we were foolish, ratchet, and you could tell we just needed to get stuff out. You can tell we just needed space to not be responsible, not be holy. I’m still laughing at stuff. Black people have given me joy.
What are your hopes for the future?
I hope we notice what is happening now. I think what’s happening now is going to tell us where we need to go. So if I need to process my anger now, why am I angry? That’s going to tell me what I am supposed to do later. I love talking about the future. My hope is that the lessons and the awareness that we are getting now, about ourselves and about others, does really impact and move us.As Black women, I hope we speak up. I hope we know the world needs our perspective. And we feel confident in that.
A lot of my hopes are that this is the cleansing. This is the restructuring. This is humility. This is a gentle destruction. Natural disasters are not disasters. They’re actually just the earth rebalancing what should already be. Crumbling a building that wasn’t supposed to be there. It floods out towns that weren’t supposed to be there in the first place. And I think this moment, to me, feels like a moment in which, I don’t think it’s positive, but I hope that it does destroy some things that shouldn’t be for ourselves and for our country.
I hope that we come out of it never the same in a good way. I know we will never be the same, but I hope we don’t try to remake what we had. I hope I’m free to do it. I’m also hoping that I see more people out, looking for fresh and new.
What are your hopes for yourself?
I hope I get this baby out. It has been brewing. It’s time. I was praying the other day, like God, you give me a way out and I’m gone. You send a grant, you send a job, something and I’m ready. Maybe it’s not that. But I hope, in the midst of all of this craziness, I feel so pregnant with it. I just hope I get it out. I hope I don’t get distracted. I don’t want anyone to feel that “I’m supposed to be creative, I’m supposed to be productive.” But I feel very prepared for this. Spiritually. I’ve been preaching change, not the end is near, but I’ve been preaching really hard words about something that is about to change everything. So I feel like when I did, I was like, oh that’s it! I thought I could coast, but God was like, nope.
Any last words?
I really am focused on Black women. Think on these things: whatever is kind, whatever is noble. I give encouragement to Black women that they can think about their vision, their needs, their opinions. That to me, I think that’s the divine. I think the divine is a lot of things. I think this is our moment. It’s been a moment, but we know how to do this. We know how to make a way in no way. Unfortunately, we know how to suffer. But we know how to be resilient. And the world needs us. So I’m really trying for myself, instead of being angry at what’s happening. I’m really excited about Black women and what we’re doing in the midst. And I encourage other people to think on those things. Watch your people and be inspired by what God is calling us, Black women, to do and be.