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Resisting a Violent World with Dennae Pierre

In this episode, Chris asks Dennae how she’s seen the multi-ethnic churches she’s involved with respond in a season of spotlighted violence. They also reflect on a collection of prayers Dennae wrote in response, Healing Prayers and Meditations to Resist a Violent World, and how to keep moving intentionally toward God’s kingdom when it’s long and hard work.

The following is a transcript of Season 3 Episode 2 of the Do Justice podcast.  It has been lightly edited for clarity.  Listen and subscribe on your favourite listening app.  

Chris: Well hello and welcome to another episode of do justice. I'm your host Chris Orme and today we're very fortunate to have our guest today Dennae Pierre. Dennae is the executive director of the Surge Network. The Surge Network is a movement of local churches that are partnered together to put Jesus on display in Arizona. Dennae has been a church planter. She's been in community development.She is a leader of nonprofits that are all focused around economic and racial reconciliation. She's also the author of the recent book called healing prayers and meditations to resist a violent world. Welcome Dennae.

Dennae: Thanks, thanks for having me

Chris: Yeah, we're excited to have you on the show. I've been, you know, reading a lot about what you do, who you are, where you do it and how you do it.And, you know, aside from being thoroughly impressed and in awe of all that you do. A question jumped into my mind why, why do you like to do such hard things.

Dennae: Okay, Well, my husband asked me that often as well. I don't know it's funny I think I was just wired for it at a very young age, I have a seven year old daughter now who I watch she seems to have a similar wiring, who will run into brick walls, almost literally, to try to get what she wants.

So I think, I think I was wired to have a very intense personality and energy and, but I think really early was gripped by issues of injustice side growing up just disparity between. I grew up between two different cultures, Latino immigrant community and. And so yeah just just I think captured me and then I can't seem to get out of it so somewhere in my 20s I realized a lot of the things I complain about her are self inflicted I put I put myself in pretty intense furnaces, that I'm in I enjoy it as well.

Chris: Yeah, yeah. I want to dig into that a little more because I mean on the, you know, I'm a kind of a jokey guy, I'm silly, you know, and we're going to be talking about some pretty heavy stuff today. And so, you know, bring a little levity to get in but I mean the real meat of that question.

You know, it's funny to say hey well, like you're doing all the hard things and you are doing incredibly hard things but I guess the root of the question is, you know like what is the fuel that drives you like how are you fueled in into this work where does the energy come from. 

Dennae: Yeah. Yeah, I think it's kind of a maybe a few different places, one is just, I mean not to be over simplistic but I think the encounter I had with Christ at a young age was really personal and really deep, and it was in the midst of really intense really intense, you know trauma and, you know, life challenges, and just really had this powerful experience the presence of Jesus and I think that has always stuck with me when I think about a lot of the spaces of pain and suffering that I end up being around or being in just really, really sensing God's nervousness and presence in those places and wanting to be able to incarnate that with others.

And then I also think there's just a sense of a lot, broken in the world and somebody, somebody needs to be, maybe not able to fix it, but at least be awake to it.

And so I do get a lot of energy of just knowing kind of the everyday acts of showing up and being present, and responding to what we can and really is just as powerful picture of God's love, in the midst of like really dark and ugly things.

Chris: I want to ask you about the book again.  Healing Prayers and Meditations to Resist a Violent World. I love the title, it's, it's super compelling, and I was actually miss misquoting, the name of the book, because when I was, I was talking to my wife about it. She's like you know who you're talking to this week, and I told her and I said there's this book and it's amazing and it's beautiful and it's powerful and it's all of the things but, and I said it's healing prayers and meditations to heal a violent world.

And I was like, check that. no. to resist a violent world.  What inspired the recent book? What moved in that direction to use the word resistance in the title, I love it, it's, it's powerful. Um, but yeah what inspired the book.

Dennae: Yeah, you know, I think. So here in Phoenix, um, you know, my husband I planted a multi ethnic church 15 years ago. And being a multi ethnic church we, you know, we've, and and just multicultural so a lot of socio economic diversity as well, and have just watched, going from idealistic church planters to 15 years of just being embedded in neighborhood, beautiful neighborhoods but lots of suffering and then all that we as church people bring into that space, our own brokenness our own judgments, or own pride egos and walking through just really intense conflict leading up to the 2016 election, Starting at the shooting of Trayvon Martin. Our church experiencing just incredible division and relational brokenness and and then the work we've been doing in Phoenix has been working across denominations across networks across ethnic in our predominantly African American or, or white, or Latino churches, and they're just kind of gets weariness after a while of like no matter what you do or how much training, or how many conversations, how many years, a sense of seeming like you're just in this tidal wave of complexity and injustice and different paradigm different worldviews and reconcile peoples.

And so, coming out of 2016 we had a season of just real intentional confession examined repentance, repair and healing as a church and it was just so just a phenomenal experience for my husband and I, as well as our church family.

And so, and it's entering 2020 or 2020 unfolded in our church family has experienced some real powerful solidarity through what has been really polarizing nationally, despite our continued diversity is even more, more diversity nation, and the church especially just, you know, at the point of when I wrote the book. It was like oh we're hitting another, another national exposure of murders. The protest hadn't broken out yet.

I wrote this the week. I wrote it right so I started writing it after Arbery was murdered, or the news broke and finished it with the last one I wrote was on George Floyd, right after his kind of the day after his story broke or a couple days after.

And so just during that time a lot It was just like, man, we've been in this space for so long and I do see God's great I see God working in these small humble ways, but like the church as a whole.

And I really disappointing place friends you know, white pastors that I love and have walked with for eight years or more or less going to be over this in a couple weeks, you know, and so they're just going it's like it's like limit.

And that's what I think the word resist came on, it's like, this is not just something that we just wake up in half, and stumble into healing work. Being God's healing presence in this world, there is an intentional uphill or upstream movement that we have to we have to intentionally participate in. And, and just the word resistance to me sounds exhausting. And yet, it's also this like powerful picture like the spirit, you know, breaking through the kingdom of darkness and like opening up pictures of of God's kingdom of light. And so, yeah, I think I would also want to do one last thing would be, let's say one last thing would maybe be realized.

Yeah, I think, you know, 20s early 30s, just how much burnout there was from other pastors and even my own like my own my own journey of thinking that, that there's some grand thing we can do to fix and resolve.  And like this anxiousness anxious toil, as opposed to like this is our lifelong calling, and we do want to see repair and healing and evidence of that and believe that God is doing those things.  But there isn't going to be like a point where we've arrived, so Oh great. We now have adjust. Adjust world, and we can kind of like take a nap now. Right.

So it's like this is not this is going to be a 30, 40, 50 year journey that we pass on to our kids, and how to just shift from this especially for us as Americans, this kind of like fast rapid quick fix to a way of living, both in our work and our rest that understands that this is a lifelong lifelong resistance and lifelong presence in the spaces of brokenness.

Chris: Well, yeah, we're, I mean, you know I'm in, I'm in the Canadian context and we're not immune. We're not immune to that either. We're not immune to the yeah the brokenness that is on display I think I want to ask.  I want to ask about naming that which we resist against. Just as you were talking it seems like it's kind of a moving target.

It seems like it, it, it rears its face in different ways and manifests itself differently, how, how do we name, how do we name, what it is that we're pushing back against.

Dennae: Yeah, I think once again there's, there's some things that are very particular to your neighborhood, your city, your nation.

But there's other things that are kind of these streams, these cultural streams that you know different periods of time, probably by the centuries, or build, build up these, these very sophisticated systems and structures to continue to pass on ideology and reinforce ideas that and behaviors and practices that are so destructive to the modern day or that we're to the community, the community. And so I think, I think, you know, starting with kind of like the most basic of like you know there's just for thousands of years right it's division. It's, it's the superiority of a class or ethnicity.

You know it's this you know for us in this 21st century it's this you know these ideas of consumption individualism and and safety and and pleasure, like those domains it's a broad buckets that I think we then need to very specifically name I think the moving target some of the specifics, given what's going on, you know, culturally what's going on, no seasons of life, different things like that.

And so I really love... this last year so I just keep coming back to James chapter three. It talks about just these certain behaviors and spiritual and demonic or fusions, you know, talking about the body of Christ and lists out what reverent behavior looks like, and what it doesn't and I think a lot of times it's as simple as that. Right. It's like the evil one is not that creative. It's like the same go-to behaviors and postures.

But then it adapts, right? It adapts to different structures and different, whether you're religious or religious progressive or conservative and those behaviors and those those, those blinders adapt to fit into your ideology, which makes it all the more effective. 

Chris: Yeah. Yeah.  In the description of the book on your website. I just want to read this. It says, You wrote, it's not enough to describe the brokenness of the world. It's not enough to speak against injustice. It is not enough to resist evil. Yes, God's people are called to do all these things. But if we are to truly see peace, justice and reconciliation embodied by God's people, we must awaken to the reality of our union with Jesus. And because of that, our intimate and holy connection to one another. 

I mean I read that I chewed on that. I came back, I read that again.

And one of the things that I'd love to hear. Like, like, how does this look when it's being lived out by the church in a community? Some of the communities that you're involved in and work with.

Dennae: Yeah, so, you know, both in our local church setting and then in some of the teams I've been able to be a part of. And it's been amazing to see a transition go from like this, this resisting alone, a toxic culture and an unhealthy culture a few of you who are like this there's something broken with this culture, and how easy it can be especially for those of us who are kind of drawn to justice work maybe have a more prophetic personality or or gifting, just to like stay in this place of naming and, and, and speaking against the brokenness.

But when you're able and, and I'll kind of maybe give some specific examples they're able to kind of then see it go from that prophetic resistance pushing naming brokenness, to actually building alternative communities that represent and embody something totally different. It feels like you're living in heaven right so there's moments where, you know, in I’ll use 2020 as an example, as there's just this communal moment, or communal confession and repentance and prayers for healing and meals, somewhat all the code really made that difficult. But, you know, some some some attempts that just these like these, breaking bread together around the intense, both just anger and sadness what was happening yet again in our nation. will there be reform, will there be change?

Will there be a shared sense of sorrow over what's happening to our black brothers and sisters, or is it going to be more of the same? And so there was just these moments of like we're sitting, it's like being at a funeral. But we're surrounded by like family and loved ones and so we had several family members died last year and older family members and so we had a couple different gatherings. There was one family gatherings - that's the more healthy side of my family - and it was just like totally It was so joyful, it was like they're your with your with people that you hadn't seen for so long and you're like morning, but you're, but you're sharing in this depth of love and history and experience. That's understandable. And I would say that's what our church family has become, and was not that four years ago.

It took a lot of work and a lot of and really just getting more and more honest and learning how to, to allow conflict to happen and work through it and not avoid it, and to practice love through all these things and develop different behaviors and seeing in the teams I'm on right like going from I've been in a lot of teams where I start, they're all, it's all white men and me.

And that has a particular cultural dynamic to it right? And then a few years in it’s very multi ethnic and the brothers are telling each other they love each other as a hang up the phone right it's just a it you know, you begin to taste affection for each other. And I think those are just me. I could talk about this one, I could answer this one question for hours but I think just that that one, you know really cultivating affection belonging and a sense of beloved community that Martin Luther King wrote about of like what does it mean to really gather around a deep, deep love for one another? I think in the early days of justice work. It's all about, you know, it's a little bit narrow and the more you're doing this work with people and you're in conflict and you're experiencing reconciliation, and you're going through the things that make relationship stronger.

It gets more and more like these, these tastes of heaven.

But, but any point, it can be like, totally go off the rails if you're not willing to follow through on some of those really important practices and repair, where there were conflicts and inevitably surfaces.

Chris: Yeah.

Yeah, beautiful picture like there is something like transformative and, and at the same time like regulatory about table, when we sit down together. Yeah, those spaces breed this kind of this openness and this vulnerability that you're talking about.

It's, it's powerful it's such a powerful example.

This year has been unsettling and it has brought many injustices into center focus, including the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmend Arbery, Breonna Taylor, the Atlanta spot shootings killing Asian women and increased hate crimes against our Asian American and Pacific Island, sisters and brothers.

I wonder has this spotlight on violence, and the rise in the violence has it impacted your work?

Dennae: Yeah, I think, um, you know, when I wrote when I started writing these prayers. There's a sense of like man the last five or six years has just been non stop, like, physically witnessing violence. Right.

And, and maybe what was different this year is it seemed like there was a moment in time I don't think it lasted too long but there was a season over the summer, where everyone stopped and looked, and the word the world literally stopped and looked.

And, and, I think, I think what was compelling to me about last summer was it seemed like this moment in which the Holy Spirit was like, All right, We're going to take the blinders off, and some are going to choose to repent and keep them off and others are going to go right back to them, and spiral into endless arguments.But like, but like we're going to take the blinders off collectively. In June of 2020. And so, yeah, I think it gave me a sense of hope that you know as I was writing a lot of that.

Everything I wrote. There was, it was not it was I was writing hope into my prayers, but I was not feeling hopeful right I was, and I think that's part it was interesting of like, especially after Ahmed Arbery, and then Breonna Taylor it was kind of like this collective like, here we go again. And, like there's an unwillingness to repent. And so there was I think there was like a fighting for what is on the other side, you know, we keep talking like of repentance maybe if we could better describe what's being lost if I could actually, like, like I'm lamenting the injustice, but I also want to begin to lament the pridefu, the willingness to stay blind. You know I'm a little I want to limit those who don't want to be healed right and so I think there was like just work but that was the work.

And then I think things shifted so quickly. And so the summer and beginning to do the book didn't actually get, you know, all the art and all the publishing didn't come to early December.  It really felt. Yeah, I guess I began just using these prayers in our church community or in different settings.

It felt like it really put words to what we were hoping to see happen other the other is that the Lord did seem to be working in ways that was bringing people to repentance, and, and, and yet there's not a lot of, you know, our, our evangelical tradition, does not. We're kind of, you know, the spaces I'm in does not have a lot of developed practice for what communal repentance really looks like.

And so that was probably the more so a lot of the summer beginning to use these prayers and group settings, saying we need to actually, it's almost like when you're teaching kids how to, you know, vocabulary words like we don't even don't even have an imagination for what actually, we tend to think of repentance as a pretty negative guilt ridden, shame filled-thing. It's actually this amazing gift and so how do we change the paradigm of what repentance even is and what that looks like in practice?

Chris: Yeah, I can attest, having, you know started to work my way through some of the prayers and the book that I even though I've been doing it on my own and in my own space and in my own sort of prayer and meditation time I found I just found a sense of connection through, through really good work.

And, and so yeah I would just urge anyone who's... We'll talk about that later how can folks get the book but I mean I would urge anyone who wants to step into this journey to yeah to open the book and get your eyes, or your hands or however you read books on this book.

I, I'm wondering, through your work with the surge network you've seen, you've seen transformative communities, engage with each other across differences across the divergent viewpoints.And the language that's that comes up over and over again is to its to put Jesus on display. I love that language.

And I love, I love the bigness of the vision, I love, I love. Yeah, it's just, it's, it's awesome and it's like, I want to do that. .I that's what I want to do that's exactly what I want to do.

But for the church or, or even the individual who is just starting to engage in this kind of work to engage with other communities, What, what would you encourage them to do in this season? where to start, how do we look what's step one, what's the first step we need to do?

Deannae: Yeah, I think I'm thinking, I don't know if this is an American instinct for for a 21st century instinct, but I think we tend to think about. Yeah, this picture of unity, or the church coming together and we go big and broad, hey let's go hundred or 2000 or 3000 churches in our city to work together right.

And I think there's actually this again it's like these. I used to I used the imagery in the first the first part of my book around opening windows into the kingdom of God. It's like you're in this dark and clouded states, and you open up a window and light shines through. And it's these, these small acts ordinary that you're seeing God's people come together and practice solidarity and reconciliation, practically over there practicing sharing all things in common, exchanging, you know, kind of platform as a platform and branding for the sense of a bigger vision, those those types of things happening all over a city are much more unifying, and like one big giant city wide initiative. And so I think that that's certainly been true this last years we've watched you know three or four or five churches here, collaborate on this one thing, or these, you know 10 churches have that network, sit with these temperatures of this network.

And, and I think that's really important. we think about like putting Christ on display in our cities that the practice of solidarity and the work, the steps toward you know repentance repair moving towards reconciliation, it displays Jesus to the world around us in really profound ways, it, it, it reenacts the gospel. It provides a picture of who God. God's character, but it does so in large part because it's actually reshaping our body right so if you do a consistent exercise, you're lifting weights. And you, you know, you go from never lifting weights to lifting 10 pounds less than 50 pounds consistently five months later, you have a muscle struggling but you didn't know existed, and the practice of Christian solidarity of loving our enemies of moving towards people that we don't have peace with a peacemaking of justice and mercy, all of those behaviors in community actually develop muscles that help us look more like Jesus.

So we're giving sharper pictures to the world around us. And I think that's one of the big challenges. In the Justice space it’s easy to have like a lot of romantic ideas about intentional community or, you know, doing justice and mercy or fighting against injustices, but like you, you know us having those spots kind of on our own. in our bedrooms on our computers engagement, engaged in kind of dialogue all day, social and social media is very different than like, practicing it everyday is actually pretty boring. It's really hard.

It's not, it's not that romantic, and you don't you don't feel the wins that often it's like looking back over five years and saying oh my goodness look at what God has done.

It's not in the day to day that you're seeing these, you start miracles. But that's not the most of what what you're seeing.

Chris: Yeah. Dennae. Thank you. Thank you for sharing time with us today. Thank you for just being so open about the work that you're doing. It's super encouraging, it's challenging and encouraging. And I just I don't I just love the way that, again, reading through some of your work. It's just, it's easy to feel connected and plugged in. Real quick, tell us how can we get ahold of the book for folks who are interested.

Dennae: Yeah, so you can go to and you can find it there and it's also, you know, I wrote the words. But what really what split was in a gift to me has been, dear friends who illustrated illustrate, you know, some, some paintings, for for it illustrated it laid about visually, in a very beautiful meditative way so even if you just want to see this but excerpts of their artwork on the, on the website.

Chris: There's several of the prayers that are on there that you can just read if you'd like. I'm or you can order the whole, the whole book online, and to follow along the work that you're doing with the surge network, how do we how do we track you there?

Dennae: Yeah, so you can follow us on social media, or follow me, Dennae Pierre.



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