"Sandra Maria Van Opstal on Neighboring Well and Leading the Church as a Woman of Color" Transcript
Season 1, Episode 3
[00:00:00] Sandra Maria Van Opstal: I think that the church globally is a light in a very dark season for those of us that have done most of our work in white evangelicalism. We haven't been able to see the beauty that is happening all around the world. And we continue to do that as we, you know, export our podcasts and our books in other languages and our worship music acting as if we're still the center, when the reality is we are no longer the center.
I'm not concerned about what's going to happen to the people of God. I am very concerned about what's going to happen to white American Christians of all kinds- evangelical and Protestant, Pentecostal and progressive. We're so steeped in our own idolatry, it's hard for us to see what's going on.
[The song “Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades in. Lyrics: “I need to know there is justice/That it will roll in abundance/ And that you’re building a city/ Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home.” The song fades out.]
Jonathan Walton: Welcome [00:01:00] to Shake the Dust, leaving colonized faith for the Kingdom of God, a podcast of KTF Press. I'm Jonathan Walton here with Suzie Lahoud and Sy Hoekstra.
Suzie Lahoud: Today, we have an interview with Sandra Maria Van Opstal, who is an author, preacher, activist, and the executive director of the nonprofit, Chasing Justice.
We talk with her about her work, the challenges women of color face leading as activists and pastors, what keeps her motivated and joyful, and a whole lot more.
Sy Hoekstra: Just a quick reminder to subscribe to our blog at www.ktfpress.com to get access to our weekly newsletter, which is a regular roundup of media around culture, faith, and politics that is worthy of your time and attention.
You will also get writing from the three of us and bonus episodes of this show. We have a bonus episode coming after this one, that is a conversation we had following our interview with Sandra. We're talking about the American Christian tendency to consume the trauma of other people as a product.
Subscribing to the blog will also support this show and help us with our future book [00:02:00] projects, and to put some other plans in motion, like to be able to pay other people to write for our blogs in the future. And if you're not in a financial place to subscribe to the blog, we totally understand. You can still support us by going to www.ktfpress.com and signing up for the free mailing list, subscribing to this show, and rating and reviewing this show wherever you're listening to podcasts. Those things are incredibly helpful to us and we really appreciate it.
Jonathan Walton: Now that that's out of the way, let's get to it. Here’s Sandra Maria Van Opstal.
[“Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades in briefly, then fades out.]
Sy Hoekstra: Sandra Maria Van Opstal, thank you so much for joining us on Shake the Dust today.
Sandra Maria Van Opstal: It’s awesome to be with you guys.
Sy Hoekstra: I guess I want to start out by asking, you know, you have a lot of different leadership positions that you're in as a worship leader, a pastor, a campus minister, and the founder of a nonprofit, but we would just like to know to start off with, you know, how is it that you would like people, to be introduced to you right now?
Sandra Maria Van Opstal: Wow, well, I think I'm a neighbor. I think that's the way I would [00:03:00] like to be introduced. You know, I am just trying to do life in the context of this particular season and all the things that it has brought us.
So I think, you know, whether it's being a pastor or, you know, a nonprofit leader, an activist in my community, I think it primarily stems from trying to be a person of faith that's trying to neighbor well, so that's, that's how I'd like to be introduced right now, I think.
Sy Hoekstra: When you say neighbor well, what does that mean to you?
Sandra Maria Van Opstal: Well, very tangibly, it means I'm living in a household with multiple families. So my husband and I, we own a three-flat in a community that was gentrifying. And so we have family members, you know, community members that are in our home with us. We have three apartments and there are multiple, there are four teenagers in the space with us- college students and high school, and parents, and single parents, and all those kinds of things.
So I think, you know, a [00:04:00] neighbor to folks that live next door to us that are starting to see the construction really ramp up again, again, in a neighborhood that's gentrifying and the other day, having to just kind of listen to how neighbors are feeling when new construction is being built around them and it's actually eroding their soil or doing things to their dwelling, you know?
So I think in that sense, very locally, people around us- friends and family, who are trying to experience this inequity in education that we're experiencing, particularly as our children are remote or hybrid, all the questions and concerns and hopes and fears that our immigrant neighbors have. I mean, it just goes on and on.
So I think from the, the work that I do always stems from the space that I live in and the concerns that the people that I love are bringing to me and that are on my heart as I do life with them.
Suzie Lahoud: Well, and I'm sure that that level of being embedded in the community [00:05:00] really informs and enriches your ministries in so many ways. And Sy mentioned in the brief introduction that you're the executive director and co-founder of a nonprofit called Chasing Justice. And we would love it if you could just summarize for our listeners how that organization got started, what it does in terms of the mission and the vision, and just practically speaking, what are you all doing through that organization right now?
Sandra Maria Van Opstal: Yeah, I mean, Chasing Justice, I think is an extension of the work that I've always been doing, whether with students on campus or pastors and community leaders in the city of Chicago, or the work that I do when I'm training and kind of facilitating dialogue globally with leaders that are trying to pursue justice and reconciliation.
So I think the Chasing Justice organization is a community and really an organization that's seeking to be a guide for people to see God's goodness for our world, and then to learn to live a lifestyle of justice. And it's an [00:06:00] organization that's led by people of color, and that centers the voices of people of color in the work of justice, because we believe that the folks that are, that are most impacted by injustice should be given the center and leadership of how we pursue a new way forward.
So I think Chasing Justice for myself and Mark Reddy was really an opportunity to bring to life some of the work we had already been doing in the neighborhood, you know, here in Chicago with organizations that we had worked with previously in development and kind of global issues. But, you know, the reality is there's just a lot of darkness in the world, and I think as people of faith, we can become overwhelmed to even see where God is at work. And so Chasing Justice, we felt like would be a movement of providing pictures, kind of ways forward, images, curriculum, cohorts, all kinds of places, kind of community where people could disrupt their broken thinking by learning and centering the voices of people of color, [00:07:00] and really discovering that the work of justice is beautiful and that we can see God's goodness for our world and not become overwhelmed by all of it.
So, yeah, so it's, it started kind of a year ago. We launched a little prematurely. We had intended to launch in the summertime and COVID started and we realized that a lot of what was being interpreted for us about us as communities of color was being interpreted by white folks. And we just felt like, nope, that's not the way to go. We really want to give the microphone to some of our global partners and some of our folks of color that are working in our schools and in healthcare and in all these areas to let them interpret for us what's happening with COVID and why it’s, why a global pandemic impacts the poor so much, and folks of color so disproportionately. So that's how we started was really just, we did a daily live for 30 days, and that’s how we started on Instagram [laughs].
But yeah, we continue to grow and see how to move forward.
Jonathan Walton: Yeah, and I [00:08:00] watched a lot of those lives, Sandra. So I just appreciate you, and I'm super grateful that, you know, KTF and Shake the Dust were able to have you. And you know, you've made a lot of transitions and I don't know if ten years ago you imagined doing 30 Instagram lives, right?
Sandra Maria Van Opstal: [laughs] No, I didn’t. There wasn't Instagram. There was no Instagram.
Jonathan Walton: [laughing] Exactly, right?
Suzie Lahoud: And probably not in the middle of a global pandemic, either.
Jonathan Walton: Right. Exactly! So like, what has helped you discern you're gonna leave something, right, and then start something new?
Sandra Maria Van Opstal: Yeah, you know, I think the journey towards liberation is long and has lots of turns in it. I look back now on it and I think, “Oh, it makes perfect sense what I'm doing right now,” because what I did as a campus minister, as a campus pastor with, you know, in my twenties with people that were 19, 20 years old is the same thing I'm doing now.
I'm really trying to identify [00:09:00] what is it that we can show people about how the world can be? I think what I'm trying to do, and what we're trying to do through Chasing Justice organizationally, is really inspire a different Christian imagination, a different way that the world could be. There just has to be like, I think last year I just kept by myself saying like, “There just has to be a better way!” you know? There has to be a better way than what we're doing. And I think whether it's in the work of worship and really trying to imagine and reform and change how we're doing worship towards something that's, that embodies more of what it truly means to be the global church or whether it's trying to call people to stewardship and better use of their money, you know, I just, I felt like every transition for me has been a move towards either expanding the space or changing the space, but doing the same kind of work. Which is really helping [00:10:00] people integrate their faith with their lifestyle. Like not just what they do on a Sunday or on a Wednesday, if they happen to walk through some doors, which we don't do anymore, but what they do with their finances, what they do with their talents, what they do with their decisions.
So even today I was thinking, “Man, like people keep like, they're like posting about justice and like, you know, tweeting things and like writing a Senator and doing all this thing…” and all the while they're ordering from Amazon and shopping at Walmart and doing all these things that just continue to fuel some of the most, you know, dangerous companies that are out there that are oppressing workers and centering profits over people.
And I just, I have to ask my, cause I, you know, I'm in this, I'm thinking like “Why, why are we doing what we're doing?” So I think, trying to give people alignment in life, I think is what I'm, what I've always been doing. Whether it's in the area of worship, or as an executive pastor, or [00:11:00] as a nonprofit leader, or as a neighbor, it’s like, there's just, we have to be more free than this. There's gotta be a way to be freer than we are right now. And I think that's kind of been at the center of it is like leading maybe through journey and modeling and then trying to inspire a renewed imagination.
Sy Hoekstra: To what degree is that just discipleship or spiritual direction?
Sandra Maria Van Opstal: Okay, so I think it falls under those categories [chuckles]. I think some of what I do is that. Like I, for example, in Chasing Justice, we have cohorts and so we have an executive leader’s cohort. And we don't put a lot online about it just because it's by invite only at this point; they're pilots that we're doing so, and then we have one that's for women of color, kind of emerging leaders, folks that have pretty large platforms, but are still in their early to mid-twenties that are trying to figure out what it means that so many people are listening to them. And so I think in those spaces, I am doing kind of [00:12:00] discipleship, leadership development, spiritual formation in those spaces.
I do coaching through the work of Chasing Justice. So I coach a handful of primarily women of color, but in those kinds of areas. But then there is the collective work that we do through storytelling or through some of the podcasts that we're running or the posts that we're doing that are just trying to help all of us imagine a new way forward. Which for me is, and I know you guys could speak to this yourself in your own journeys, but trying to have a more integrated approach to justice that isn't only make a Black friend, you know, live in a poor neighborhood OR tweet, post, and, you know, raise your voice for justice. Somewhere in between there there's like more than, you know, kinda more than neighboring and, well, I shouldn't say that… I should say if you're neighboring, it probably will lead to advocacy, but more than [00:13:00] just either systemic advocacy that's disconnected from a neighboring, or neighboring that doesn't include advocacy. So somewhere in the middle is a lifestyle, I believe, of justice. And I think it's been informed by the, being an urban project director, by being someone who's taken students overseas and has family overseas, by marrying into a wealthy family and trying to figure out what to do with resources that I didn't have before.
So I think all those pieces for me, they inform not just the work that I do with individuals that are connected with Chasing Justice, but with whatever we're trying to message out there as quote unquote, you know, Influencers. Yeah, it's weird actually, you guys, cause I, you know, I'm not young, so I'm like, before there were influencers there were just doers, we just did stuff. And then people around us were like, “Hey, I wonder why they're doing that?” And then they just did it too. And [00:14:00] then came, you know, Facebook, social media, Instagram, and YouTube, and all of a sudden you can actually impact people that don't even see you on a daily basis.
Sy Hoekstra: So you've talked in several places, I think, about some of the trauma that has happened while trying to do the work that you're doing within white evangelical institutions. And you actually wrote an essay- in 2018, there was an anthology that came out called Still Evangelical? that was about writers explaining whether or not they still considered themselves evangelicals. And you wrote that you did, despite the fact that it caused you a lot of harm to be a part of that group and that you were constantly wondering whether or not you should remain part of the group. Can you walk us through that reasoning? And do you still consider yourself evangelical?
Sandra Maria Van Opstal: Yeah, so I think what I ended up saying in the chapter- which was only written over like a two-day period, so [00:15:00] it really was my gut reaction- is that I would consider myself to be an evangélica. And I primarily identify with my Latina spiritual heritage and roots, and to be an evangélica, in Spanish, is not to be politically aligned with what evangelicalism is, it's to be aligned with kind of the history of Christian thought and the theological space of being evangelical and it’s defined as like the centrality of Scripture, the desire to proclaim the good news of Jesus in both word and in deed in the works that you do. So I think what I was trying to say there is that, I mean I do consider myself in that space.
I pastor at a Christian Reformed Church, so even though I'm probably not as reformed as those spaces are, I think that, you know, I'm still like at the center of the work that we do with [00:16:00] Chasing Justice, I'm, right now I’m taking my students, or my student and staff team- kind of like the young folks that are involved in doing all the graphics and everything- through a study in the book of Amos, because I believe, well I don't believe, I know that Amos was instrumental for Mark and I as we launched the vision of what Chasing Justice would look like, thus, you know, the lion logo.
But for me, I consider myself to be within evangelical tradition. I just don't consider myself to be a white evangelical. So I don't identify with the 81%. I don't identify with the politics of evangelicalism, or the purity culture of evangelicalism, or the kind of, the utilitarian pragmatic approaches to evangelism or all those other things. But I don't think they're evangelical. I think they're white American evangelical.
So I think that in the context of that book- which we were writing coming right after the, coming right after the [00:17:00] 2016 elections, coming, I think it was published at the anniversary of the inauguration or something like that- I think it was important for me to say, I am within this Christian tradition, because then again, and this has to do with the work we're doing with Chasing Justice, then it ends up being like, well, the, you know, the evangelical or conservative Protestant, whatever you want to call them, Christians, they're about the work of really centering scripture and, you know, speaking about Jesus and calling people to actually the cost of discipleship, while the people that do justice over here, they’re not in that space. And I think that that polarity is just not helpful for what we see in the global church. Most of the global church believes in the centrality and the authority of Scripture in the work that they do. And we're only 10, 11% of the global church here in America. So I think that my decision to write that way was to say, actually, I represent what most majority Christians, where most majority Christians are- a [00:18:00] more Pentecostal, you know, Bible-believing, biblically, I guess, centering scripture and still deconstructing and still saying some of how we interpret Scripture is just white.
And so I think, you know, I think the way it's happening right now, it's kind of like, if you're justice oriented, if you're deconstructing, if you're decolonizing, then you're in this space over here. And then if you're a person who, you know, believes in the work of the Holy spirit and that it takes actual, you know, power aside from your own, you know, capabilities or your own capacity to overcome evil, then you're over here in this space. And I just feel like there's like a third and fourth and fifth way. And we see that globally. So just because Americans tend to be dichotomistic, and just because Americans think in binary perspectives, why do Western, why does Western binary thinking have to be [00:19:00] subject or, kind of put onto the rest of the world? Most of the world's Christians aren't binary in their thinking or dichotomistic in their thinking, they're actually very holistic in their thinking. So I think it was my attempt to say, you know, even though evangelicals may not consider me when they think of themselves, I'm still a part of this family in that I'm trying to reclaim, and in some ways reform, what people think about when they think about the word evangelical.
I don't, like toss that word around a lot. Like, it's not like I'm like, it's not in my bio, you know. But I do, like when I write to Congress or when I write to my Senator or my representative, I put, “I'm an evangelical Christian who pastors in a Reformed Church and I want you to know this about what I believe about immigration policy,” because it's important for them to see that there are people that are in their same theological space that don't hold their same [00:20:00] social/political perspectives.
I'm not sure if that helps, but…
Jonathan Walton: Definitely does.
Suzie Lahoud: Yeah, no, that's so helpful. And I love how you, I feel like, Sandra, you always do this beautiful job of bringing back in that global perspective. And for someone like myself, who's also been wrestling with that question, you know, even in light of the most recent election and all of the turmoil around that, do I still identify as evangelical? And I think it's so helpful to bring that perspective of, well, really what we're talking about that has become so heinous in the evangelical church in America, those are cultural things. Those are socio-political things. Those aren't necessarily theological things, even though of course our culture informs our theological lens, but I think it's so beautiful how you sort of turn that on its head by pointing to a cultural manifestation of evangelicalism that's probably truer to the teachings of Christ and what it means to truly [00:21:00] follow him. So yeah, thank you for sharing that and to kind of segue and almost backtrack a little bit into something you alluded to earlier, you talked about some of the trauma and difficult things that you've experienced working as a woman of color in predominantly white Christian spaces. And so if you wouldn't mind sharing just what’s some of the resistance that you encounter in your positions of leadership, both as a woman, and then particularly as a woman of color, if you don't mind kind of unpacking some of that and getting into some of that.
Sandra Maria Van Opstal: Okay, so you guys are trying to have me relive all my trauma today…okay… [laughs] No, I'm just kidding.
Jonathan Walton: It’s all to set up what it looks like to lead in transformational ways and lead transformational work.
Sandra Maria Van Opstal: You know, it's interesting cause my co-host for the Chasing [00:22:00] Justice podcast, Kathy Khang, and I just did it, we just recorded an episode last week about the role, the cost that women of color have to pay in our collective liberation.
And it really was a response to, you know, all these, we have white female, white male, men of color leaving white institutions, and like, it's just, it's breaking news and it's out there and everyone's talking about it and we're just like, yeah, we did that in 2017. No one said anything. Like nobody reported on us or like, you know, did a whole capture center page, you know, in some Christian magazine, there was nothing for us.
And the reality is that we leave, and nobody notices. You know, we leave and, quietly or loudly, and nobody talks about it. And I think that that actually is pretty telling to the kind of trauma that we experience, which is, [00:23:00] you know, we pay high costs for pretty much everything we do. And then we get very little reward for what is done.
So whether it's being a woman of color helping a white institution become diverse and more equitable, and then eventually we just get so tired we have to leave, but you know, who gets the award? Who gets to show their statistic? Who gets to kind of, you know, teach other white institutions, how to do this? The white leaders within that institution that traumatized us, you know. And/or men of color, you know, because as women, we often, you know, experience that even with our own communities.
And so, you know, you write for a magazine, or a publication, or a book you contribute to, you know, your own community is like, why are you going to be a part of that project? And you get questioned, you get kind of interrogated by your own community because you're lending your voice to that white space, and then, you know, who gets the award? Who gets noted? [00:24:00] Who's the savior of all the white, who's the savior of all the authors of color that, you know, use their platform to elevate those authors of color? It's the white person. And so I think part of it is just inequity in very real, tangible ways.
Cuz I think we're beyond our feelings being hurt. I think most of us are in therapy. So we're working on our feelings. We don't expect the systems to deal with our feelings, but the systems aren't just making us feel sad or unincluded. We're underpaid. We're overworked. And then where credit is due, it's never given to women of color within those institutions.
And so no matter what we do to break through those bamboo or cornhusk or glass ceilings, the reality is that women are just paying the cost professionally. And so I've seen that. I can't go through all of it cause I'm not ready to write that memoir book yet. But I know very few women of color that have [00:25:00] left institutions or have stood up for what they believed in and it became a good thing for their professional career.
Whereas I see white men and white women doing so, and then they actually enhance or elevate their career, because they find a new space and now they get to add this, you know, “justice warrior” name tag, or, you know, a banner to their own brand. So it's just, it's very painful. But yeah, I think, you know, obviously under, we're not paid, women of color authors are underpaid in the publishing industry. We're underpaid in the church. We're not given the titles or the, you know, the positions, that are, that come with a level of experience and expertise that we have, you know, the data's all out on that.
So I think, I really find that for women of color, we're less like, trying to [00:26:00] have somebody notice how sad we are about the situation, because we already know that no one's going to help us through that, but us. So we have our own communities. We've developed formal spaces as well as informal spaces and, you know, our sisterhood and all those things. So I think what we're looking for now is that just, you know, it's, we're done with the systemic things and we're going to speak to it as long as we can. And then when people won't listen, I think people bounced. I think in 2017 you saw an incredible amount of women of color leaving white evangelical spaces and returning actually back to their communities of color or just not returning to any kind of you know, spirit, like faith-based space. So they just took their talents and their expertise and their fierceness out into other sectors.
Suzie Lahoud: So as a [00:27:00] follow-up question, I appreciate the importance, you talk about the importance of just community that women of color have really had to create for themselves to have that sense of fellowship and support. But if we, if we look ahead to- you know, you talk about the importance of being able to imagine something beyond that, something even greater than that- and if we were to imagine a day when, honestly, men can really step up to the plate, both, you know, people of color and racially assigned white folks, and support women of color. What do you wish that that men would do to elevate and center women and women of color in leadership positions?
Sandra Maria Van Opstal: I remember having a panel in the, I want to say it was 2017 or maybe even 15 on this same question. So I'll say it again, but I really have, I don't know how much hope I have that things [00:28:00] will change, but I think that part of the role that men have is to speak up before they know we're even coming into the room.
And what I mean by that is, if you're a white male or man of color and you’re in these spaces- let's say in academia or in kind of the Christian church world or whatever, in the marketplace- and you notice, for example, that there are no women of color that are holding positions of influence or positions of leadership, and you want it to be that way, then I think you start the work before we show up, you know. You start to point those things out, to elevate the voice, to make, to just name that they're not, that they're not in the room.
I don't think it has to be in aggressive ways. I mean, I've seen my husband do this many times in a meeting, and he works as a consultant, you [00:29:00] know, and he'll say, you know, I think a lot, you know, “I propose this, but without having, you know, more women of color in the room, it's difficult to actually make a decision that will be effective for a more equitable space,” let's say. That's not an aggressive comment. It's just saying, you know, “I'm going to give what I can, but I just want…” he's making plain that there are no women of color in the room.
Sy Hoekstra: What does he do consulting in?
Sandra Maria Van Opstal: He consults in IT project management. So he's at a consulting firm downtown that works, that’s in his field, very male, you know. And/or sometimes he'll be in a room where he'll say, you know, “This is, this conversation…”- also, my husband does a lot of work in CQ, cultural intelligence, and does DEI work, we do together, and then he does in his workplace and me in mine- but he'll say things like, “You know, this is a great conversation about equity and diversity, but everyone in the room is either white or Asian. So I think until we have more Latino/ [00:30:00] Latina voices or African-American voices, we're going to be stretched to find a solution that will really be helpful.” So he'll continue to name that thing, because he knows that those things are important.
So I think in the same way, if I just, very tangibly, I've seen so many books that are written or conferences held or gatherings/events that are being done, and I look at the little squares of pictures of who's there and I'm like, “Do my brothers of color notice that there are no women present there? Like, is that noticeable to them?” Or I'll say like, “Does anybody else see that it's literally, like, I just opened the middle page of a magazine yesterday and it was like, seven white men who are going to teach us about the future of building the church? I really don't understand this ad right now.” So I think for a man to write to this Christian magazine and say, “I just want you to know that your, you know, your center [00:31:00] ad in your magazine was a picture of four white men, and I understand it's an ad, but I want you to know how it felt to me to open that.”
So, if it always has to be a woman of color that has to raise her voice, if it always has to be a woman of color that has to go in and say it, it becomes exhausting. So I think say things before we're there, and then say things when we're there, and then check in with us as we're in the room together, which I have tons of brothers that do that.
Like we have, you know, separate text chats that we have during meetings that are just like the women of color and a couple of men who are like, okay, you want me to say that, or do you guys just want to say that? I mean, it takes that kind of work. Like if you are listening to this podcast and you are in a meeting where there are people of color in your meeting, you could be 99% sure that there is a separate text thread happening within that meeting so that we are not, you know, just gonna lose our cool within that space because [00:32:00] there's so much happening relationally and systemically and politically in those spaces that we need someone else to process that with.
Jonathan Walton: Man. I have so many thoughts. So as you, as you're talking, like I have snapshots of meetings, right, within InterVarsity, within campus ministry, within church spaces. In addition, one of the things you talked about that Jemar Tisby talks about, particularly in the stuff he's just done very recently with “Leaving Loud,” is this leaving and transitioning and how we do that, particularly because things are not changing or will not change, or there's an explicit commitment doubling down to not be different, and they will not be anti-racist. They will not be anti-patriarchy. They will not be anti- the accumulation of self-indulgent wealth, right. It's not going to happen. And so I'm [00:33:00] wondering for you, how do we leave well and quote, unquote, shake the dust, and then go and begin that new thing in a helpful way?
Sandra Maria Van Opstal: Yeah, no, I mean, I've helped so many people leave [laughs]. People think it's my fault, but it's not my fault. They were already on their way out. I just helped them leave.
Jonathan Walton: [laughing] Yeah, they were already gone, they’re already gone, they’re already gone…
Sandra Maria Van Opstal: And you can send me the check cause I helped them leave without taking you down in the process. You know, I really believe that even if you, with integrity, you need to make a decision to do those things that you should still do them well. You know, you should do them with grace and with conscience and you should do them so that you can be able to sleep at night.
And I think, you know, in a kind of Christian world and culture where you can't have conflict, oftentimes our only moves tend to be passive aggressive, and I just don't think that's super helpful or [00:34:00] effective for doing anything. So I can tell you right now that I'm consulting with three different major historically white organizations, and there are people within those conversations that I'm having that have left and have left quietly, without saying anything. And each of those cases I've said, “Listen, you are a senior woman of color in that institution, and if you were to say something, it would make such a difference for the people that are left behind.”
But the cost of what that feels like for someone, because they know they might need a recommendation, or because they know they might call their former work, or, you know, whatever it is, it feels very, very huge. And so I just… but I do believe that when you leave an institution or a community, or even a relationship, like if you're in a friendship with someone and you just need to tell them, like, this is not healthy, this is just, this is not good for me, that you should be forthright, that you should name the thing, and that you should give [00:35:00] them the, I guess, the dignity of the feedback that they need and deserve because you have to believe, I believe that, the Holy Spirit is at work in all of us, all of us need change. So I would hate for someone to back out of a friendship with me, or to leave the work that we're doing with Chasing Justice and not tell me why they left. That would feel awful to me. And so I think to leave and to say to someone, you know, I'm leaving because of these three things and here's how I experienced them, very tangibly.
I did an exit interview with the organizations that I worked for- I stayed for a really long time in both of them, but there were two. I met with the senior pastors of churches that I have left, and even if it was contentious and very scary to me and felt difficult, I asked for an elder or an executive pastor to be there in that space. And we named things, we just, we named them. We said, “This is what we experienced.” And it was, in one case I had to actually tell the [00:36:00] pastor, “I don't care how mad you were in that situation, as someone who is a pastor, there is never any reason for a pastor to say that to another, to a congregant ever. It was wrong.” And so it was cross-cultural for me to do that as a Latina to speak to someone in authority over me that way, but I just, it had to be done.
So I think part of it is just actually knowing that we are, the work that we do is not for our own liberation, it's for our collective liberation. So if we leave a space without naming what is there in ways that I think are helpful and appropriate, then we don't do a service to the people that are left behind, or that will come after us, who won't know what happened, you know?
And I don't believe open letters really do a ton of the stuff. So typically, I just go to the person specifically and I address it with them, or I go to the leadership board, whoever that is in a church or an institution. I think how we leave well in transition, [00:37:00] the best thing I've known to do is to just to do the work of knowing yourself, like, of course, you're going to experience self-doubt. Of course, you're going to experience imposter syndrome when you try to start something on your own. I never wanted to start anything on my own. This was not my idea. That was Mark Reddy, you know. Like he was like, “Let's do this.” And I was like, “Oh, okay.” And you know, and then he's like, “Okay, now you be in charge, okay?” So yeah, he probably knew I wouldn't do it.
So, but I think knowing myself, like doing the work of knowing myself and identifying my gifts as a leader and my limits as a leader and my priorities and my passions, that's super important, which is why with Chasing Justice, this executive leaders cohort for me is so important because these are leaders in their thirties who have led at a national level, and they're either in transition or they're considering transition, and so I'm like, “This is why I've selected you for this cohort, [00:38:00] because I believe you're going to have the opportunity to either do things really well in this season, or maybe hurt yourself or your community along the way.” Cause, you know, it's hard.
And I think the last thing is just having mentors. So I had one mentor say to me, and I'll just name names- Rick Richardson. He's a professor over at Wheaton. He's an author in the area of evangelism and prayer. And so he said to me, “You can leave, and you can even sue if you wanted to. You could do a lot of things, Sandra. But I think what you'll want to do is to leave well, because you will experience this”- I think I was 30 at the time, 15 years ago, he said, “you will experience this at every single institution you go to, because people will be intimidated by your presence.” And so whether it's community of color, whether it's gender, whether it's, so he's like, “I think you're just going to need to know how to do this well.”
[00:39:00] And so I just encourage you to lean in and let the Lord take care of whatever's going to happen for that person or that leader, that institution, but really ask Jesus, “What do you have for me?” and leave well. You won't regret it. I know what he said to me, he said, “I know somewhere along the line, you're going to want to tear this thing down on your way out.” [laughs] And I did, you know, the first part of the transition was fantastic, and then something happened in an email and I literally was like, “I’m gonna send these emails public!” I was just like, “I'm gonna…”
Jonathan Walton: Gasoline everywhere, gasoline…
Sandra Maria Van Opstal: And then I just remembered Rick's words. He said, “You're going to want to do this and it will not, you have to ask yourself ‘Who will this damage- them or the people in that community?’” And I was like, “Ahh.” So I have to say that mentors are very important in that process. So if you don't have like, a mentor, spiritual director, [00:40:00] you know, someone that you're talking to you, you need to get one because you will, I mean, at least if you're like me, I just, I would have torn that thing down. I mean, absolutely light the match and let it burn on the way out. And it wouldn't have been good for the people in the community.
Jonathan Walton: That, that makes sense. And as you're talking, it sounds like you, you have like completely encultured yourself and are continuing to like de-center whiteness even in the way you leave, even in the way you do conflict, even in the way you build mentors, even in the way you build cohorts.
Because I can think of so many, you know, movies that when you leave as a white man in a movie, you destroy everything, right? There's all these ways of building and leaving and starting institutions that are rooted in colonization and dominance and destruction and the centering of an individual who rises up to become the quote unquote [00:41:00] master of something to put it in Dr. Willie Jennings’ language
Sandra Maria Van Opstal: Right.
Jonathan Walton: that like needs to be different. Different, redemptive, restorative- all the things that Jesus actually talks about in an upside-down kingdom. So I'm grateful, and I appreciate you expounding on that because I think you put words to what decolonization looks like.
Sy Hoekstra: Moving, um, away from the trauma and the pain and the difficult things [Sandra and Jonathan laugh] I want to end by asking you, you obviously have confidence doing this work. You have joy doing this work. I know that's not in all moments or in all things, but you, I mean, you can hear it just talking to you. So, what is it that brings you joy? What is it that keeps you grounded? Are there any spiritual disciplines or anything?
Sandra Maria Van Opstal: Yeah, I mean, the first thing that brings me joy is just [00:42:00] women of color and Black women specifically. I mean, I just, I am so blessed to have so many fantastic friendships of women that are just cheering each other on in ways that you all can see, but in so many ways that no one can see. The texts and the group threads and the Venmos, you know, and the, just support. I think that just gives me so much joy for modeling a new way forward that as Black women and as women of color begin to really take their place internationally as leaders, that we will not do the same thing that our white male counterparts and that our men of color counterparts did, which was, to really operate out of, what I think a lot of people operate out of scarcity, which I totally understand, but it doesn't fit for us. So, I think, to show up in places where our sisters are not present and not say something is, is very rare. I get joy from that. I get courage from that. I see it as a model of something, kind of a [00:43:00] liberated self moving forward in community.
Look at the global church. I mean, I'm not scared at all about Christianity. I am not. The church around the world is doing some amazing and creative and innovative, fantastic things as it comes to being a witness in the world around them, in transforming their neighborhoods and their cities. I definitely think we should all take a class somewhere outside of the US on how to do, on how to do church-planting, on how to do development, on how to do anything basically. I think that the church globally is a light in a very dark season for those of us that have done most of our work in white evangelicalism.
We haven't been able to see the beauty that is happening all around the world. And we continue to do that as we, you know, export our podcasts and our books in other languages and our worship music acting as if we're still the center, when the reality is we are no longer the center. [00:44:00] So, I think, that brings me so much joy just to learn from, especially young leaders, like running into community activists that are in their early twenties in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, you know, just seeing what they're doing and the way they're using art and activism to draw young people to the church and to faith. I mean, I can name for you so many things that are happening, but I think that brings me joy.
I'm not concerned about what's going to happen to the people of God. I am very concerned about what's going to happen to white American Christians of all kinds- evangelical and Protestant, Pentecostal and progressive. I think that we're so steeped in our own idolatry, it's hard for us to see what's going on. So I think my hope, my joy really is in the global church and in the way that its next generation is showing us new ways forward.
So, yeah, I mean, and I think part of it is like I [00:45:00] worship y'all.
Jonathan Walton: Amen.
Sandra Maria Van Opstal: I, again, I'm a part of a Pentecostal, you know, Black/ brown community on the West side of Chicago, that's primarily, predominantly, historically Puerto Rican. And I mean, we just get on our faces and cry out for the pain that we're in. And I think that that worship, an encounter with the living God, transforms how you see the world. Because without that kind of rootedness, I mean, what do we have? I also practice a weekly Sabbath and I take two, three-day silent retreats a year. So, um, that’s what I do.
Sy Hoekstra: Two things I want to highlight from that answer: one is you just said all that about your church, how your church worships and who's in the church. You also said you're at a CRC church, is that right?
Sandra Maria Van Opstal: Yes. [laughs]
Sy Hoekstra: So, for listeners who are familiar with the CRC, let that change your view of it.
Sandra Maria Van Opstal: So it is a Reform-a-costal [00:46:00] [laughs], you know, Dutch, you know, obviously denomination, but the church was planted about 30 years ago by Manny Ortiz, and this is kind of the next iteration of it. And it's a community center and a church and it’s doing fantastic things in the community of Austin in Chicago. So yeah.
Sy Hoekstra: The other thing you said was that when you talked about the power of Black and brown women's leadership not coming from a place of scarcity, I just think that's interesting because I, you know, coming from the demographics in the United States who have the least, who are the most vulnerable, not operating from a place of scarcity, what does that mean exactly?
Sandra Maria Van Opstal: Okay, I think what it means is like, there's only so many spaces at the table. That's what I think I hear, it's not just what I perceive, I hear that, you know. So it's, typically if I talk about diversifying your leadership, or your worship team, or whatever, you know, kind of workshop or facilitating I'm doing, I almost [00:47:00] always hear a white man say, “You know, well, does that mean I have to step away from the table?” or, “Well, what if I still want to be leading?” you know. Or like oftentimes in, whether it's in seminary or in classes that I'm teaching, someone will say, “Well, but I feel called to pastor in an urban setting” or, you know, “in a multicultural setting” and to all those answers, I say like, “You could feel called to pastor in a multi-ethnic setting or an urban setting, but feeling called to be a pastor is not the same thing as being the lead pastor.”
I don't really believe the Lord calls you to be a lead pastor. I believe the Lord gives you the anointing of pastoring and then you do that in whatever structure is there, and for women, we do that outside of those structures because most churches won't ordain us. So I think like really confronting the assumptions we make about our call and our place in the world.
And I just would say the image that I try to use in my own leadership is just add another [00:48:00] leaf to the table, I mean, or sit on the floor, you know, so there's enough room for all of us. So I just, I don't feel like elevating someone else diminishes my leadership. I'm not done leading, y'all. I hope that I'm still, I'm still young, you know, I'm not done leading,
But starting a podcast network with Chasing Justice and elevating voices of color that don't have the same platform as mine is not the same. It is not at a cost to me, right? There's no cost that I pay. There's enough room for more voices. I mean, there's a million podcasts led by white men. You don't think there needs to be a million podcasts led by people of color?
So I think that many times, and I say this about our brothers of color, not because I'm trying to be mean, but because what they walk into is a very white male space, and so they’re kind of indoctrinated with that, like, you know, there has to be like, at an event, there has to be like one, you know, Asian male speaker and one Latino male speaker and one Black pastor for entertainment and one Black musical artist and one white woman, and [00:49:00] sometimes there's a woman of color allowed, but there's only one space for each of us, even if there's 25 more white speakers.
And so I think we operate out of some scarcity that's given to us in a way that doesn't allow us to say, in a very practical way, I would say that most of my friends that are men of color won't speak at a conference if there isn't a woman of color speaking at that conference. They will decline the invitation. And if every ally did that, then things, then the system would change. But as long as we operate out of a system of scarcity that was developed by scarcity mentality within white evangelicalism, we're going to only perpetuate and promote that same system.
So, you know, I serve a God who owns, you know, all the cattle on the hill, and I don't feel like I'm running out of space here. I think the world is, you know, there's more room for voices. So that's what I mean. I think we're taught [00:50:00] to, again, not only operate out of binary and kind of polaristic, dichotomist ways, but I think we take on the mentality of the wealthy, which is actually scarcity. People with wealth operate out of scarcity and they hoard and they save and they spend and they keep, and people that typically don't have, you know, they're not going to operate out of scarcity because they know that they could be, that everything they have was given to them by the Creator himself. So I just, it's not an odd concept. I mean, anywhere you go around the world, you're going to find that the wealthy are pretty much holding on tight. So I think we show new ways. I think we're showing new ways. We're all coming along. And as long as we're honest with one another, I see more and more really frank and honest conversations, even in communities of color between Asian-American women and Asian-American men and Black men and Black women, where they're saying to one another, “This is what it means to stand by me and to really advocate for me [00:51:00] and to notice when we're not present.” And I think beautiful things are happening.
Jonathan Walton: As you're talking, what I hope, what I feel is convicted, but not guilty. Which I think is what a prophetic pastor is supposed to do is to call people to greater faithfulness, while creating space for us to be honest about where we're at on the journey towards reconstructing, or deconstructing the faith given to us by colonizers and reconstructing a faith that was actually offered by the Jesus of Nazareth, right. And so I am grateful for that and I'm hopeful that, I'm hopeful that the meal that's being served by you is eaten by more people, [00:52:00] just to put it plain, you know. I'm grateful and excited and convicted.
Sandra Maria Van Opstal: Well, you guys caught me on a good day, cause some days, [laughs] some days I'm not so rested and, um, it's not that good. So I just think, to be honest with you, I think we're all exhausted. Are we not exhausted? It’s like, at our own people, it's like, we're just looking at ourselves going like really people? Really? This is how we're going to behave? So I think you just, honestly, caught me on a rested day. Like I was able to Zoom church yesterday. I was able to Sabbath yesterday. And I feel like at my best, I, my desire is to graciously just call us to freedom, and at my worst, I'm just like, “Burn it down.” [laughs]
Jonathan Walton: [laughs] Next time we’ll interview you on a Friday. On a Friday, that’s how we’ll do it.
Sandra Maria Van Opstal: Yeah, any podcast on a Friday probably sounds like that.
[00:53:00] Jonathan Walton: [laughing] Oh man. All my podcast interviews on election night were like that. All of them.
Sy Hoekstra: That's true. We did two that night, I think. And we were not in the best mood, I would say.
Sandra, is there anything that you want to plug or point people to- social media handles, anything at all?
Sandra Maria Van Opstal: Yeah, I mean, I would love for people to follow us at chasingjustice.com. That's where most of our, you know, our blogs that we write for kind of advent and lent and kind of feature some particularities about different ethnic communities are there. Our former masterclasses are there, so our conversations on Black/brown unity and kind of a way forward, our conversations on women of color, conversations on spiritual formation and justice. They're all there.
Follow us on Instagram, cause we always have stories and things posted every day. And then we have a podcast network that has multiple podcasts that are giving voice to how folks of color are really living [00:54:00] into justice in their specific area. So yeah, we'd love for you to follow us on all those.
Sy Hoekstra: That’s fantastic. We second that, everybody go, go check out Chasing Justice for sure!
Sandra Maria Van Opstal, thank you so much for joining us on Shake the Dust today!
Sandra Maria Van Opstal: Thanks for having me!
[“Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades in briefly, then fades out.]
Jonathan Walton: Thank you so much for joining us this week on Shake the Dust! Just a reminder: there's a bonus episode where the three of us have a conversation about the American church’s unfortunate tendency to consume the trauma of others as a product.
You can hear that and other bonus episodes, as well as read everything on our blog, by subscribing at www.ktfpress.com. Also, make sure to subscribe to this show, rate, and review it wherever you listen to podcasts.
Our theme song is citizens by Jon Guerra, and our podcast art is by Jacqueline Tam. Follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook @KTFPress. See you next week! [00:55:00].
[“Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades back in. Lyrics: “Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home/ Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home.” Song fades out.]