Trillia Newbell, author of “United: Captured By God’s Vision for Diversity”
We were honored to include a book review of African American writer, Trillia Newbell’s first book titled, United: Captured by God’s Vision for Diversity. At UrbanFaith, we want to highlight and champion the work of African-American artists in the Christian community. However, we also want to give you the chance to know them. We are excited for the doors of opportunity we see opening for Trillia and are praying that God continues to use her as a voice of reconciliation and redemption in the church.
Natasha: You are a rising voice in evangelical leadership, writing and speaking for such organizations as The Gospel Coalition (TGC), the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), and The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) for the Southern Baptist Convention. How did you come to this place of ministry and what do you feel is your contribution to the relevant conversations of the church at this critical point in history?
Trillia: I went to the first TGC women’s conference in 2012 and met then editor, John Starke, who invited me to write for TGC. I then began working rather closely with Collin Hansen who helped guide me. From there, interactions began with other organizations like Desiring God and Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics. I was invited to contribute single articles and have been writing for various organizations and publications ever since.
I was surprised to receive a note from Owen Strachan about his interest in me as lead editor for the women’s blog at CBMW, but I was happy to do it. I wanted to contribute to the conversation on womanhood and prayed I could bring varied voices together. As far as the ERLC, Phillip Bethancourt approached me about joining their team as the Consultant for Women’s Initiatives. Dr. Russell Moore, President of the ERLC, and Dr. Bethancourt were assembling a team of Christians who had strong convictions but weren’t dogmatic about it…in other words, I think they were looking for gracious, loving, thoughtful believers who could write and speak to these topics.
I imagine that one thing I bring to the table is femininity, so to speak. Traditionally, these organizations haven’t had women in leadership and so to include women in some form is phenomenal. I’d also hope to bring a fresh perspective. I am female and I am also Black and therefore, I might be able to address issues and topics from an angle they may not have previously considered. I also love the gospel. This last point isn’t new to their organizations or unique to any of their writers, yet I hope and pray that with my contributions, I can share my heart and open doors for others to know and hear the Good News in everything I do.
So, how did I come to this place of ministry? I would say the Lord. God has given me opportunities to speak in areas I wouldn’t have asked for or imagined. I am truly grateful!
You recently published your first book, United, which we reviewed on the website. What inspired you to write this book and specifically what do you want your readers to come away understanding about diversity and racial reconciliation?
The book was inspired by a rather a simple story. I wrote my pastors an email sharing my thoughts on the topic and from there I wrote a blog post. The blog post garnered so much interest that I knew that a book on the topic would be helpful and prayerfully encouraging to the many men and women who seemed to resonate with what it’s like to be the only one or one of few black members of predominantly white churches. I hoped that by writing the book people would see that they are not alone. Through my personal story, I hoped to cast a vision for the beauty of diversity in the church.
I want readers to understand that racial reconciliation takes intentionality, work, grace, and love. I think so many people believe that we have “arrived” and no longer need to discuss racial issues. But I think reality dictates that this conclusion couldn’t be further from the present need for dialog. I hope readers recognize the necessity of having a robust theology of race and adoption—as in adoption into the family of God. A theological framework of reconciliation will enable us to truly fight racial prejudice and begin the long process of living as reconciled people of God. I pray readers of United would be eager to invite diversity into their own homes and churches. Mostly, I hope that we would know that the gospel transforms lives and this conversation. We can be united because of the gospel.
In your ministry experiences, you are often one of the only or very few racial ethnic minority or woman on the platform. How do those experiences impact you? What is it like being an African-American female in male-dominated ministerial spaces?
What a great question! I have been so welcomed that, at times, I do forget. Yet, I will say that I have never felt more “black” than since writing and publishing United. I’ve never had a season where I’ve concentrated so much energy on the topic of racial reconciliation. This has been a unique season and therefore I’ve felt more self-aware, more aware of my ethnicity, more aware of my perspective. I have been loved well by the leaders I serve with and for that, I am thankful. I have also encountered more ignorance and misunderstanding than ever before. This is not by the ministries or the leaders but through ministering. We still have a ways to go in understanding one another and learning to love biblically.
You spend a lot of time ministering to women. What is your message to today’s Christian woman?
My message to women would be to get in the Word of God, study theology, and serve as unto the Lord. I believe if we can do those things, we will be doing well.
Racial and women’s issues are not the only things that you think or care about? What other concerns, questions, or messages is God speaking to your heart these days?
“Racial and women’s issues are not the only things that you think or care about.” Amen to that. I care about a lot of things and I actually touched on some of them when answering the previous questions. I care about theology. I want to know about and study about God. I love to study the Word of God. I also have a desire to see people apply the Word. I’m slowly working on my M.A. at Southern Seminary in biblical counseling. I want to encourage people where they are and help provide a biblical understanding to their circumstance. I have a desire to love, serve, and care for people.
I’m also finishing up my second book called Fear and Faith. This book explores what women fear, the potential reasons for such fear, and how we can trust God in the midst of our fears.
What is your hope for the American church?
I hope the church would grow in unity and gospel-focus. As far as my book United, I dedicated it to my kids and one of the things I hope is when they become adults, they would think it strange that their mom needed to write a book about diversity. I hope that racial and ethnic diversity within relationships and worship in the American church becomes so broad and commonplace that it would seem silly to have a book dedicated to the topic.
When the reality television genre burst on the scene, I was positive it would be a passing phase. Like the run of game shows and judge court shows before it, people would lose interest and hopefully we would move on to better things concerning television entertainment. It has been about 21 years since the premiere of the first reality show I remember. MTV blazed the trail by introducing “The Real World” in 1992, and our entertainment world has not been the same. It is one thing to watch a soap opera where actors marry or divorce, have affairs, engage in casual sex, manipulate, fight, and destroy each other’s characters. At the end of the day, those actors go home to their “real” lives, which include families and communities. It is a completely different experience watching “real” people engage in these same activities (however scripted) and calling it entertainment.
The market for reality series has been particularly harmful to the African-American community. According to a Reuters poll released in August 2013, “40 percent of white Americans and about 25 of non-white Americans are surrounded exclusively by friends of their own race.” When almost half of the White American population do not have intimate relationships with people of different races, they are also unaware of the experiences and values of those ethnic communities. What little they know—however misinformed—is shaped by what they have been told by others or what they have seen, normally through television. Since there are currently still so few people of color and so few African American leads on primetime television, the images portrayed through reality TV can be extremely damaging to the way African Americans view themselves as well as how they are viewed by others.
In the particular brand of shows like “The Real Housewives of Atlanta,” “Love and Hip Hop,” and “R&B Divas,” we see the devaluing of sisterhood, a breakdown in the unity God desires in male and female relationships, and the images of human beings destroyed. Considering the disappointment of Christian reality shows like “Mary Mary” and the quickly canceled—thank God!—”The Sisterhood” (a.k.a. The Real Preachers’ Wives of Atlanta), the credible witness of the Gospel is also compromised. The heavily promoted “Preachers of LA” and “Thicker Than Water: The Tankards” surely put more holes in our Christian armor. Are reality shows purely entertainment, or is there something more to consider? After all, it’s only a show. What harm can it do?
That is the critical question. In our post-modern, information-gathering age, it is important that we learn to use a Christian worldview to process the information we receive. A Christian worldview takes the information provided to us and asks important questions like: What is being communicated? What is the purpose or intent of the communication? What am I expected to get out of this? What is God’s standard on this issue (a question we must reference the Bible to answer)? Finally, as a Christian, how should I respond to the information that I have received?
So, let’s do a Christian worldview analysis on the reality television genre. We already know the content and messages that are being distributed through this particular brand of reality television. Let us now consider how God’s Word speaks to this relevant issue:
Reference Point 1: God wants us to value all human beings.
At the core of every human being’s identity is the reality that we are all created in God’s image. As humans, everybody is created to reflect the Triune—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—God’s intimacy, unity in diversity, His creative ability, and His desire to see goodness reproduced or multiplied on the earth (see Genesis 1:26–31).
Because every human being is created in God’s image, our lives have value and God cares about the way we treat each other (see Genesis 9:6; Leviticus 24:21). These passages primarily speak about why we should not murder. It is important that we not miss the primary standard: The reason there is a consequence for someone who commits murder is because God values the life of human beings; He values all life.
In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus raises the standard concerning murder. He taught, “You have heard that is was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother or sister will be subject to judgment” (from Matthew 5:21–22, NIV). In this teaching point, Jesus moves from the letter of the law, i.e., “Do not murder,” to the spirit of the law, i.e., “Do not sin against another in your anger” (cf. Ephesians 4:26–27, NIV). Human sinfulness causes the anger that makes us sin against others by physically murdering them or just by killing them with our words (see James 1:14–15).
Reference Point 2: When we don’t have anything good to say, we must learn to close our mouths.
James’ letter also reminds us that gossip and other forms of verbal abuse are not the Lord’s will. “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be” (James 3:9–10, NIV). As Christians, we must learn how to become disciplined with the use of our tongues. This is not a virtue that we see practiced in the Christian reality shows previously mentioned.
Reference Point 3: How We Name Matters.
In Chapter 8 of Mark Labberton’s book “The Dangerous Act of Loving Your Neighbor: Seeing Others Through the Eyes of Jesus,” he talks about the importance of how we name other people—that is, the names we call them and how we refer to them. Naming begins first with how we see ourselves, then it considers how we treat and respond to others. One of the first jobs that God gave Adam was to name the animals (Genesis 2:19–20). Therefore, “naming is as primary to our being made in God’s image as almost anything else we might, well…name” (Labberton 121). When we celebrate people who call others outside of their God-given names—when we celebrate being rude and “chewing someone out”—then we are treating their victims worse than we treat animals. We must learn to name rightly through love. Love makes us “transformed namers.” The Gospel changes how we name God, ourselves, and our neighbors. Labberton concludes, “It’s not about a new set of labels. It’s about learning to live in the world as people who are named from the inside out by the God who made us, who is now remaking us and wanting us to be agents of that grace toward others” (pg. 122). This is right in line with what Peter says when he reminds Christians how God called us His people, even though we weren’t a people to begin with, and how He brought us into the light, which now empowers us to show our goodness to the world and give God glory (1 Peter 2:9–12).
Consider your favorite reality show: Does it reflect the value that God places on all human life? Does it encourage discipline of the tongue? Does it cause you to name others correctly? If not, then we might want to break the negative cycle of celebrating reality TV and reconsider what we consume as entertainment.
Trillia J. Newbell is a new author and voice in evangelical leadership which has already captured the hearts and minds of many who regularly read her blog, and articles at The Gospel Coalition, Desiring God, or The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. She is a young, African American woman who was raised in the South, married a white man, and is now the mother of two beautiful biracial children. Beyond the identity markers of writer, speaker, wife, and mom, Trillia is a passionate follower of Christ and her love for Him has inspired her love for his church. It is with this love that she has written and published her first book, United: Capture by God’s Vision for Diversity, through Moody Publishers (March 2014).
Why I picked up this book:
Over the past couple years, I have watched Trillia pour out her heart concerning the issues of race, racism, partiality, thriving in an interracial marriage, and mothering her kids in an ever changing culture. Compelled by her writing voice and presence, I asked her to participate in a racial reconciliation series on my blog by discussing author and theologian, Dr. John Piper’s book, Bloodlines: Race, the Cross, and the Christian. I know that the reading of that book deeply inspired her to share her own story and convictions, and I wanted to hear more of that.
The Power of Story:
We all have a story. Most often, the story is headed in a certain direction or down a firm path long before we realize what God is doing to shape us into his liking. It is very much like God to use every interaction, relationship, struggle, sacrifice, and suffering to transform us into the image of his Son Jesus Christ. This is the truth found in Trillia’s story. She was raised in a loving and supportive home of African American parents who lived through the Civil Rights Movement and believed that all people had value. This is a nugget Trillia took with her when she left her home as an adult. Like myself, she is a child of the 80s and 90s, who heard the stories of our parents, witnessed the national racism through the beating of Rodney King who asked “Can’t we all just get along,” and even experienced some racism of our own.
But race and racism was not the only topic of her family discussions or personal struggles. Trillia was raised in a predominantly white environment and in some instances, it was clear that she did not belong. Among Blacks and among whites, she did not fit in. Like every man, woman, boy, or girl, Trillia struggled with her identity, that is until she met Christ at a cheerleading camp. That encounter affirmed her identity, her love for his Word, and a desire for a church that reflected the diversity of all people whom God loves.
Trillia spends the rest of the book giving a theological presentation and her personal longing for diversity, the divisions of sin and partiality, finding a safe community in her predominantly white church, and the unity that we all have and can intentionally seek in Christ. She questions whether “race” is the proper term to use when discussing the cultural or ethnic differences among people. She also shares how God shaped and knitted the hearts of her (an African American woman) with two of her close friends and sisters, Amy (a Caucasian American) and Lillian (a Chinese American). She closes the book by reminding the reader that God loves diversity and she challenges us to remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream where children of all ethnicities will grow and play together and be judged only by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. Even with all of the progress and change in America, she still longs for that dream to be a full reality for her own children.
What’s in Store for You:
This is a book about racial reconciliation. It is about how we can intentionally choose to surrender our will and comforts to God and humbly submit to entering personal relationships, church membership, and fellowship with people who may be different from us. In some ways the book indirectly addresses racial insensitivity, but it does not address racial or systemic injustices. You will need to read another book if that is the conversation that you want to enter.
However, with the issues of racial reconciliation and racial injustices, I believe that we need a both-and—top-down and bottom-up—approach, along with a clear and biblical view for the redemptive practices to take shape first in our own heats, in the hearts and minds of those we will enter into relationship with, only then can we use our convictions, power, and influence to change broken structures that encourage or simply allow racial injustices to continue. Trillia has been captured by God’s vision for diversity. It is a biblical vision and she has done an excellent job of giving a theological presentation of that vision, along with presenting the practical reality of what that looks like in the heart of a believer. This is solid contribution to the racial reconciliation conversation and it is worthy to read, own, and practice.
Takes initiative. Confidence. Competence. Visionary. These are all characteristics that come to mind when we think of strong leadership—particularly male leadership. Unfortunately, even today, some of those same characteristics are viewed as negative traits when applied to women. Instead of being a go-getter, thinker, strategic planner, or capable team member, she is viewed as bossy, strong-willed, or rigid.
Without a doubt women are leading in more ways than ever before. And yet from Sheryl Sandberg’s national best seller, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, it appears that many women are still leading blindly. Sandberg encourages more women to sit at the table, jump in, grab opportunities, and keep their hands up. After all, “it is hard to visualize someone as a leader if she is always waiting to be told what to do.” As leaders, women must get comfortable taking the initiative.
In addition to taking the initiative, women need to become avid learners. Padmasree Warrior, Cisco’s chief technology officer, reports, “The ability to learn is the most important quality a leader can have.” For competent leaders, it is fairly easy to learn the business of our companies and organizations and our job descriptions. Women rarely fail because of what is written on paper. Women often fall behind professionally because of unmet expectations and unspoken rules and that is where many of us need more education.
A few months ago I read a book titled, The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help—or Hurt—How You Lead, by Carol Kinsey Goman. While I do not agree with some of the scientific information shared in the book, I was blown away when I read the chapter, He Leads, She Leads. I would guess that most of us don’t intentionally think about our body language. When we discuss “body” in connection with “professional women,” the conversation quickly turns to determine whether or not we are dressing modestly enough for the workplace. We don’t want to show too much cleavage, we don’t want our skirts too short, or our pants too tight. We don’t want our colors to be too flashy (after all, we do want to be taken seriously and not to look like a party girl). Never be too sexual or suggestive (that’s not the way that a competent leader wants to climb the ladder). We don’t want to dress too old, but want to appear young (but not too young) and fresh. We don’t want to look out of shape or lazy because we want others to know that we can get the job done. But as women leaders, do we really think about our body language?
We need to learn our own body language, its signals, and discern the body language of others if we want to lead effectively. Goman shares that research “offers insight into why corporations have relatively few females in senior leadership positions. It has everything to do with body language—but not in the way you might anticipate.” Goman shares thirteen gender-based differences in nonverbal communication. Perhaps the most important difference is that women are better at reading body language and should therefore use this skill to our advantage. Be attentive to the nonverbal messages in the room.
Both men and women also have strengths and weakness concerning their methods of communication. In addition to reading body language, women are generally better listeners and are more compassionate towards others. Since men are generally “overly blunt and direct, insensitive to emotional reactions, and too confident in [their] own opinions,” women who understand their communication strengths actually have the power to shape conversations.
Be careful because, “communication strengths turn into weaknesses when overdone.” Women leaders do not want to become “overly emotional, indecisive, or lacking in authoritative body language signals.” However, they should be mindful that followers are looking for warmth and authority in their leaders. If you are a woman who is educated, professional, have a title, or work experience, you already have authority. Own it! At the same time, be you. People want leaders who have personalities. When people are drawn by your presence and your professionalism, you win as a leader.
Here is Goman’s advice to women seeking leadership credibility. Lean In by:
Keeping your voice down.
Claiming your space. (Compensate for men’s larger and taller statue by standing straight, broadening, [your] stance, etc. [The goal is to] take up more physical space.)
Watching your hands. (As a woman particularly, you will be viewed as much less powerful if you self-pacify with girlish behaviors)
Curbing your enthusiasm.
Straightening your head. ([Literally.] Head tilting is also a universal sign of acquiescence and submission. When you want to project authority and confidence, you should hold your head in an erect, more neutral position.)
Employing a firm handshake.
Keeping your eyes in the business zone. [Focus on the other person’s eyes.]
Dressing like a leader.Trying a little tenderness. (Showing emotion is not only a good thing: it is a powerful leadership strategy.)Looking at people when they speak.Stop solving problems. (Try being a sounding board rather than a problem solver.)Lightening up. [Don’t take yourself too seriously.]
Women and men need each other, even in professional working relationships. Women can become more effective leaders by understanding their strengths and weaknesses, and paying attention to those of their male counterparts. Presentation is critical when considering expectations and unspoken rules. Women need to learn the power of their nonverbal communication, while understanding that both professionalism and personality are important for leadership growth, development, and advancement.
A couple months ago Fast Company made a significant oversight by releasing a list of “25 of the Smartest Women on Twitter” which included the brightest women in business, politics, news, and innovation, but excluded women of color. The Brandfog Founder and CEO Ann Charles wrote, “As a woman CEO who writes about women in leadership, I’m frequently looking to make connections with other women on Twitter. The main stumbling block to fully engaging professionally on Twitter is that it can be a challenge to find the most valuable thought leaders, who tweet about the most relevant topics for you.” Charles is correct in presenting this challenge. She is also correct in stating that, “the key to extracting the most value out of Twitter is to find the new voices in the crowd. It can be exhilarating to discover people and communities that share the same interests and passions as you.”
In response to this oversight, BlogHer editor and TWiB host Feminista Jones started the hashtag #SmartBlackWomenofTwitter. In her words, “It seemed to me that this was yet another case of the invisible Black women and I wanted to do something to shine a spotlight on the Smart Black women I know and follow on Twitter.” I was pleased to see the national sensation of Black women raising their voices to be seen and heard in the crowd of over 550 million Twitter users. The hashtag: #SmartBlackWomenofTwitter documents Smart Black Women on Twitter and I would like to see its continued use.
Fast Company did take note of the #SmartBlackWomenofTwitter and #SmartLatinaWomenofTwitter hashtags and followed up with a Twitter list which included women of color. However, their initial oversight speaks to the deeper issues of whose voice and presence is worthy of recognition and how we respond when we feel like we are ignored or devalued. It is so easy to go on the defensive when we feel disrespected, but the #SmartBlackWomenofTwitter presented a gracious response and simple acknowledgement that “We (Black women) are here. We are showing up in this space and taking our place at the table” and “We have been doing this for a while, so please don’t overlook our contributions.” There is a confidence and self-awareness that is present when we respond in such a way. Overacting in a negative sense may not have had the same powerful affect.
The Christian Worldview
Additionally, watching the events unfold as a Christian added layers to my understanding of the conversations. Gracious responses even to minor offenses sends a message about how we as people view ourselves, how we believe God sees us and our purpose in the world, and how we are perceived by others. As I contemplated these thoughts, I thought about the Egyptian woman, Hagar, whose life was changed when she had a personal encounter with God who spoke to her about the future. She said, “You are a God who sees me…I have now seen the One who sees me (Gen. 16:13).” I do believe that the lives of women, Blacks, or any overlooked group of people, respond differently once they come to the understanding that they are known and loved by God and that He alone holds their future. It is with this basic theological understanding that I as a Christian—who happens to be Black and a woman—engage and respond in boldness to the conversations that are shaping our world.
The second part of this conversation acknowledges my concern that publically professing Christians are rarely considered or invited into these “worldly” conversations. It’s almost as if there is an assumption that Christian women are not seriously thinking about business, politics, news, innovation, or leadership, and therefore are uneducated on the issues and cannot speak into these public spaces. The reality could not be farther from the truth. I am a Christian woman who cares very deeply about leadership, character development, and mentoring across generations. I also care about matters of biblical justice (specifically the disparities of social/economic class structures and the inequality of access and opportunity within our public education system, bridging the great divides between cultural challenges surrounding race and ethnic groups in America, and empowering women to use their influence to change the church, their communities, and culture). Because I am passionate about these issues, I speak, teach, and write about them.
There are bright Christian women of color who are discussing business, politics, news, and innovation and are serious about using their God-given influence to lead and have a positive impact on society. So I want the #SmartBlackWomenofTwitter conversations to include Christian women as well. If you are looking for #SmartBlackWomenofTwitter who are Christian leaders and thinkers and who are raising their voices to engage culture and change the world:
Follow me @asistasjourney and allow me to introduce you to these other Smart Sistas –
Christina Cleveland @CSCleve is a social psychologist with a passion for overcoming cultural divisions and seeing true reconciliation in the church. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of California and is an award-winning researcher, speaker, and gifted teacher. Christina blogs regularly at www.christenceleveland.com and just released her first book, Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart.
Lisa Sharon Harper @lisasharper is the Director of Mobilizing at Sojourners. She is the author of Left, Right, & Christ and Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican or Democrat. Lisa is a justice advocate who regularly writes for publications like Huffington Post.
Trillia Newbell @trillianewbell is a rising voice in the evangelical community. She’s a freelance journalist who writes for publications like The Gospel Coalition, Christianity Today, and Desiring God. Her first book, United: Captured by God’s Vision for Diversity will be published by Moody in 2014.
Enuma Okoro @TweetEnuma is a writer, award-winning author, spiritual director, and international speaker. She holds a M.Div. from Duke University. She recently released her fourth book, Talking Taboo: American Christian Women Get Frank About Faith.
Rahiel Tesfamariam @RahielT is a columnist for the Washington Post and founder of UrbanCusp online magazine. Rahiel is a graduate of Stanford University and holds a M.Div. from Yale. She is a social advocate who is passionate about exploring the tensions of life, style, faith, culture and justice.
Who are the other sistas we should add to this list?