Q&A with Laura Rutter Strickling for On Fire in Baltimore: Black Mormon Women and Conversion in a Raging City September 11 2018
Q: Will you give us a little background into your formal education and how it relates to this book.
A: I received an undergraduate degree from Brigham Young University way back in 1977, then, twenty years later, completed post-baccalaureate work in Spanish at Augusta State University. In between this time, our family of six lived in southern Spain for seven years where the kids attended Spanish schools in Rota, across the Bay of Cádiz. Later, back in the States, I taught high school Spanish in North Carolina until our four kids left home, then went on to do graduate work. I received an M.A. from the University of Maryland Baltimore County in Intercultural Communication, and a Ph.D. in Sociocultural Linguistics. My doctoral research focused on the impact of educator's attitudes toward students who speak African American English, and I developed a model that explains the process of reframing a linguistic mindset. This model shows that standard language ideology (in this case, the belief that Black English is poor English, instead of a language variation) is not easily modified, but requires incremental training, and the implementation of linguistically aware practices followed by analysis. I also completed a two-year post-doctoral position in Urban Education in Baltimore where we evaluated the efficacy of Turnaround interventions in low performing schools. In terms of writing On Fire in Baltimore, my academic preparation provided me with an interdisciplinary theoretical foundation regarding language, race relations, and intercultural difference; and living in the city provided me with day to day experience in an interracial neighborhood.
Q: How did this study come together and what were your goals with it?
A: Well, come together is probably a good description because it implies a process. Qualitative research can be fluid and take on twists and turns as the research unfolds. I began a study focused on recording the life and conversion of the African American women in my congregation—an endeavor that spanned over ten years and resulted in twenty-five recorded interviews and four hundred pages of transcription. But the interviews were more than data collection; they opened the door to sisterhood and sojourn into the Black community. Sitting side by side in their living room or at the kitchen table, these women would draw me into their narrative with Black vernacular, laughter, and tears. More than once I would find myself holding their hand as their eyes welled up from painful memories or smiling at their sarcasm as they described a family member. And my association did not end with the interviews; the women would invite me to family celebrations and birthdays or ask for rides across town to pick up prescriptions. They would call me out of the blue because they “had a feeling,” then tell me another story about their lives. These church sisters also let me know that they were interested in my work. “How are the stories coming?” some would ask as they passed me in the church halls. “We are praying for you,” they would tell me as the unfinished book advanced from months to years.
But our time together was not always easy; sometimes there were tense moments that were difficult to navigate. Sometimes I would find myself in a racialized snare that I could not resolve by intuition. A feminist theoretical approach obligated me to be mindful of these emotions and enabled me to adopt a reflective process aimed at exposing my biases and questioning my responses. It provided me with the theoretical underpinning to acknowledge that, as a researcher, I would naturally affect the research I do, but also, in the process, I would be affected by it. Keeping this in mind, I documented the evolution of my thoughts as I interacted with these Black women and as I attempted to peel back the layers of my racialized assumptions.
Q: You mentioned that what began as a linguistic study quickly turned into racially-entangled conversion narratives. Can you explain that a little further?
A: What I’m saying is that intersectionality became clearer to me. By intersectionality, I mean that socially constructed categories such as, race, class, and gender-hierarchy interrelate and come together to impact the degree of marginalization or healthy acceptance into a society. You cannot separate these Black women’s marginalized lives from their conversion stories. For example, Delilah talks about “the worst time in her life” when her husband pushed her to the floor, then held a gun to her head. After that, he beat her up, so she left him. Alone and without food for her children or electricity for the house, she went to her Baptist Church seeking help. Instead of help, she ended up losing twenty dollars. In anger and without resources, she yells at God, telling him that she would not go to church anymore—God would have to send a church to her. A few days later, she says “two White boys came knocking at my door, and I wondered, what are these White boys doing in this Black neighborhood?” Delilah says that her life changed after baptism into the Church of Jesus Christ.
But once Black women join the Latter-day Saints, they also have to reconcile that the Church denied them full access to full membership before 1978. Their membership was yet another layer of marginalization. The women in On Fire in Baltimore each have their own way of explaining the reason for this lack of access. Delilah, for example, researched the story of Black Mormon pioneer, Jane Manning James, and found comfort in Jane’s fortitude.
Q: Can you provide one or two specific examples from the book of stories that stood out to you in particular?
A: Every one of these Black sisters’ stories impacted me, but I can offer two examples. The first is found at the beginning of the book and was an experience that left me deeply reflective as to where I would take my work. In this excerpt, I am interviewing Ruth:
"I love doing these interviews," I explain, taking a stab at getting the interview started, "because I feel like the sisters are with me every day when I listen to their recorded voices and transcribe their words." Ruth smiles at me and nods her head, and I'm feeling confident in the work I'm doing. But my satisfaction is short lived, and I am quickly reminded of how fragile the interview process can be. With my next comment, I fall from academic grace onto uncertain interview ground. I tell Ruth that I have run across colleagues who were surprised to learn that there were African American Mormon women in Baltimore, and that they were interested in hearing their conversion stories. Without a hint of accusation and with her customary mild voice, Ruth asks, "Are you only interviewing African American women? Because I'm not African American. My father was White and my mother was Native American."
I catch my breath for one speechless moment as a wave of panic washes over me. I had assumed Ruth's racial identity. After years of theoretical study regarding the hegemonic construction and social complexities of identity, culture and race--how had I done that?
This experience sent me on a four-month journey researching race--in particular, the racialization of America and the formation of whiteness.
The second excerpt is found toward the end of the book and shows the reader how this work is more than a series of interviews or a collection of conversion stories. It illustrates how my life became intertwined with the Black sisters in my congregation. At the time of this story, I was the choir director and Clara was a member of the choir:
“[A]s I went to sit down Clara appeared out of nowhere. ‘Could we meet together for ten minutes some time?’
Thinking that this must be a question about the choir, I answered, ‘How about now?’ and followed her out the chapel door into the hall. But when she kept on walking, I realized that she must have wanted to meet more privately. Clara led me into a classroom and closed the door.
‘Can we have a prayer?’ She was asking me. In the split second that I automatically said yes, I was also wondering which one of us would be praying and for what purpose. But I was not left to ponder long because Clara immediately grabbed my hands, facing me. She pulled me close and started praying out loud in a strong voice. But she had crossed her arms in front of her chest so that she was holding onto my hands, right to right and left to left. I did not hear what Clara was saying at first, because I was trying to figure out the meaning of this hand position.
She was praying for me. ‘Heavenly Father, thank you for Sister Strickling. She was inspired to come today. Help heal her with the treatment she is going through. Thank her Heavenly Father. Heal her. Heal her Heavenly Father.’”
Q: In what ways did this study challenge your view of whiteness, and how race impacts your own perspective?
A: Generally, we do not become “raced” until we experience a racialized encounter. In other words, because race is a social construct, we are not aware of our whiteness, blackness, or browness, until someone’s behavior points it out. Several of the Black women in this book told me that they did not realize they were Black until they got their first paycheck and went shopping only to be told that Black people could not try on clothes in that store. Growing up in rural Oregon, I did not have many racialized experiences, and living in Spain, I viewed my day to day encounters with Spaniards in terms of cultural or linguistic difference. Baltimore was a good place for me to learn about racialized behaviors.
A: What are you hoping that readers will gain from this book?
That the last shall be first and the first shall be last. In other words, I'm hoping that these stories will inspire readers of all races to question their assumptions. Lorraine Hansberry, author, and the first Black playwright to write a play that was performed on Broadway, said: [Do you want to know about] love . . . and life? Ask those who have tasted of it in pieces rationed out by enemies . . . Ask . . . those who have loved when all reason pointed to the uselessness and fool-hardiness of love. Out of the depths of pain we have thought to be our sole heritage in this world—oh, we know about love! Perhaps we shall be the teachers when it is done.
Today, social discourse on race and racism persists, in the news, on talk radio and social media, but how do we go about being the teachers and the students that Hansberry described? What quality of relationship would foster this reciprocity? This book is really the beginning of that discussion.
 Lorraine Hansberry, To Be Young, Gifted and Black: A Portrait of Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words, 104. Hansberry (1930–1965) playwright and author, wrote A Raisin in the Sun (1959) and was the first Black playwright to write a play that was performed on Broadway.
Contesting Truth through Mutual Openness July 18 2018
Charles Randall Paul will be speaking on the topic of religious diplomacy and signing copies of his book at Weller Book Works (Salt Lake City) on Tuesday, Aug. 7th at 6:30 PM and at Writ & Vision (Provo) on Thursday, Aug. 9th at 7PM. Both events are free to attend.
Humans are social influencers by their very existence. They are always intentionally persuading each other in some fashion. All human life includes continual negotiation of social activities from “pass the salt” to “should we get married?” When one of us believes a purpose is good and an action right, that influences a response from others—and the response influences further responses.
While the ideal might be complete social unity or unconstrained freedom for all, human groups and societies should expect continual religious and ideological contestation. Within our interconnected societies, conflicting world-views and purposes are inevitable. No social program for peace will succeed that requires adamant believers to compromise or dilute their core values. Instead, we sustain peaceful tension within our societies through co-resistance and collaboration with our ideological rivals. Crucial to this is the absence of ill-will in our collaborative contestation.
Let me now make a distinction between these terms: Enemy, antagonist, agonist, ally, and friend. An enemy desires and acts to eliminate, enslave, or diminish others by passive or aggressive means. An antagonist acts like an enemy but does not desire to be one. If she presumes you are an enemy, she might be reacting defensively with no intent to harm you otherwise. An agonist is a fellow contestant who desires to win an ideological contest through persuasion. An ally is on your side because of shared interests. A friend desires your love and well-being and will self-sacrifice to promote it. It is possible to be an ally that is also really an enemy, but it is impossible to be a real friend and an enemy. However, your agonistic rival can also be your friend—but enduring (much less enjoying) this relationship is an acquired taste and skill.
If you have a real enemy, you need to defend yourself accordingly. But we need to determine first if antagonists are true enemies or agonists. An agonist desires to contest differences in order to bring about positive change for both sides, rather than the destruction of their rival. Sportsmanship is a common attitude of agonists. Persuading agonists to your side may make them allies; but converting agonists to trust and love can make them friends even while they remain persuasive agonists. The path forward lies in vulnerable openness between rivals with an open and honest disclosure of motives and beliefs. This requires courage to exchange critical and offensive ideas and ideals without taking offense. Let there be no mistake: openness that is truly open to change is always a dangerous experiment, especially for those who are concerned about diluting true orthodoxy (on the left or right) with relativism.
To prepare for inevitable contestations over religious, political, or ideological differences, I present ten useful attitudes and methods to remember when the pressure to either disengage or eliminate our fellow agonists becomes intense. I call this The Way of Mutual Openness:
Honesty begins when you look in the mirror. Who do you really think you are and who do want to become? When you are deeply honest, you acknowledge your motives for doing things and express your thoughts and feelings without faking it. Your honesty prompts others to respond the same way, and with open hearts and minds real communication results.
Kindness goes further toward building trust than the other practices listed here. It is not weak, naive, or mere politeness. Kindness is a language easily recognized and understood by everyone. Sincere kindness is a powerful way to influence others to desire to hear you. But, be wise: nothing shatters trust more than phony, manipulative kindness, or false respectfulness.
It is hard to listen well when you focus more on your feelings and thoughts than those of the person addressing you. Listening well is not remaining quiet before you insert your response; it is intense focus on a unique person with a desire for understanding. By listening like this to others you offer the gift of respectful empathy that everyone craves to receive. In return others feel like they should listen well to understand you.
Share the Floor
If you want to be taken seriously you must take others seriously. Sharing the floor means allowing others equal time to speak even when you “know” you are right and they are wrong. It acknowledges the mutual dignity of those engaged in conversation. Hogging the floor is disrespectful and rude, and it always undermines your persuasive ability when you appear dismissive or fearful of what others have to say.
Presume Good Will
We often presume that others do not have our best interests at heart. Sometimes they don’t. But you sabotage any honest communication with someone you presume to be stupid, duped, or ill-intentioned. Presuming good will is not agreeing with others’ beliefs or values. It means that you grant that others are clear thinking and good hearted unless they prove otherwise.
Acknowledge the Differences
Each human is uniquely different with a unique history and perspective. Acknowledging our important differences openly frees us to know where we stand without having to guess. It creates a tone of trust for real conversation. You cannot feel whole or honest if you focus only on similarities and avoid facing differences in deep beliefs and values.
Answer the Tough Questions
With genuine differences come tough questions—especially if the goal is a trusting relationship. When you answer tough questions in a straightforward way, sharing the floor equally and presuming good will, you build strong mutual trust. You can then face offensive issues without taking offense. However, diving deeper for better understanding has a limit. Aggressive interrogation or pushing for private details destroys trust.
Give Credit Where Credit is Due
Any compliment feels good, but a sincere compliment from an unexpected source such as a rival or critic can move our hearts powerfully toward trust. By openly admiring the excellence or good on “the other side” you demonstrate your honesty and fairness, and your confidence that your side can handle the truth. But be cautious—insincere compliments to manipulate or disarm others disastrously undermine any grounds for trust.
Speak Only for Yourself
Each of us is unique and we don’t like others—especially outsiders—to stereotype us or claim they know what we really believe or value. So, ask rather than tell others what they think and feel. It is tempting to speak for your friends and tribe members as if they all share the same view as you do. Except when you have been authorized to speak on behalf of others, speak only for yourself and encourage others to do likewise.
Keep Private Things Private
Humans are social beings, but their thoughts and feelings are private unless expressed. Personal dignity is based in large part on your freedom to choose when and where to share your inner self with others. Being open, honest, and trustworthy does not require you to disclose all things to all people. Keeping private things private means that you strictly honor someone’s choice to say something to you alone. If you cannot keep it private, you should ask the person not to share it.
These are the times that try our souls. In our increasingly polarized society, we will doubtless continue arguing over political, ideological, and religious differences. Based on years of experience in religious diplomacy, I believe the ten attitudes above will sustain with confidence anyone using them to actively engage in challenging and rewarding conversations that build healthy trust.
Charles Randall Paul is board chair, founder, and president of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy. He has lectured widely and written numerous articles on healthy methods for engaging differences in religions and ideologies. He is the author of Converting the Saints: A Study of Religious Rivalry in America.
Q&A with Charles Randall Paul for Converting the Saints: A Study of Religious Rivalry in America July 06 2018
Hardcover $49.99 (ISBN 978-1-58958-747-2)
Available August 7, 2018
Q: Give us some insight into your background, how you chose to write about this topic, and your involvement with religious diplomacy.
A: I was raised in northern New Jersey where my high school of 400 kids consisted of three major cliques: Jewish, Roman Catholic and Mainline Protestant. There were four Mormons. I was surprised to find how solid and happy my friends’ families were. How could they be so good without The Truth? In mid life I became interested in how religious and secular societies faced unresolvable conflicts over truth and authority and right values. It seemed God had set up the world for pluralistic contestation, and I tried to figure out why. These issues led me to develop interreligious diplomacy as a mode of interaction that included persuasive contestation between trustworthy advocates.
Q: Tell us briefly about the three case studies in this book. Who are these individuals and how did they differ in their tactics from one another?
A: In the early twentieth century after Utah had been accepted as a state, the major Protestant churches wanted to assure that Mormonism was not accepted as another Christian denomination. John Nutting, a freelance pastor, evangelical/preacher came to Utah with young college age missionaries to save souls that, after hearing his revival teaching or door-to-door witnessing, simply confessed the true Jesus and stopped attending the Mormon church. William Paden, a Presbyterian, educator/activist, helped set up 1–12 grade schools that taught LDS students “true” Christianity along with math and English. He also tried to discredit the LDS leadership, close down the Mormon Church, and educate its youth in the right way. Franklin Spaulding was an Episcopal Bishop intellectual/diplomat that aimed to educate LDS college students in the inconsistences of some of the Mormon Church claims. He hoped to convert the Saints in their pews—urging church leaders that he befriended to change just a few doctrines and join the mainline churches.
Q: You state that ongoing debate between religious ideology is at the heart of what it means to be a pluralistic society. Can you elaborate on this?
A: Humans in societies live by stories that order their lives. Ideological or religious traditions provide the comprehensive order and hope for a better world. These religious stories can seriously challenge the veracity of their rival claimants to truth and authority—making for conflict. Contemporary social conflict theorists have focused almost exclusively on conflicting economic and security interests as the engines for conflict, neglecting the cultural driver that religious tradition provides. I am bringing into focus the potency of conflicting formational stories in any society.
Q: Why isn’t tolerance always the desired outcome? How can two opposing people or groups find meaningful ways of collaboration?
A: Tolerance is a weak social virtue (devoid of trust or good will) that collapses when economic and security crises lead societies to seek for scapegoats. We have found that ideological opponents who engage honestly by means of persuasion actually can come to trust and “enjoy” each other’s bothersome presence. People engage in collaborative co-resistance n many forms—sports being the most obvious—legal, legislative, scientific and commercial realms also absorb non-violent conflict managing procedures. When religion is involved, there is no room for compromise solutions, so some form of sustaining the ideological contest in a mode of persuasion is needed. This is healthy intolerance because it allows critics and rivals to be authentic and to have conversations that matter.
Q: For Latter-day Saints, contention is a particularly discomforting word. In your book, you say that you prefer the term “contestation.” Can you explain what you mean?
A: This is a key to understanding how the LDS can lead in the goal of peace-building in split families or societies. We rightly learn that Jesus and Joseph thought contention—a term based on a root of forcing, twisting, coercing others—was the devil’s work. It includes anger and contempt and resentment and revenge. On the other hand, those who stand for something as witnesses need to elevate the term contestation that means to witness with, for or against something—the root being the testimony of a witness. The design of heaven and Earth seems to include many intelligences with different experiences to which they can respectfully testify without fear or anger. They have different viewpoints and experiences that bring them to conflicting contestants; honestly speaking the truth they see. This is what the Holy Spirit prompts us to do. It is the opposite of contentiousness even though the conflict of interpretation and ultimate concern or story remains. Peaceful tension results from contestation—and that is enough for Zion to thrive. Oneness cannot be identical interpretation and understanding of everything that would make individual existence redundant.
Q: We live in an age of intense ideological polarization. What are you hoping that readers will learn from the case-studies presented in this book?
A: I want them to read the book in the broad context of the problem of pluralism that began, narratively speaking, when Eve was different than Adam. I trace the American system of managing religious conflict as a living aspect of society. As long as it remains in the persuasive mode, it allows free expression in the balancing of ideological drives for hegemony. America is based on a foundation of continually contested foundations. Our culture can thrive on pluralism, not because we follow laws of procedural conflict management, but because we have a deep belief in the value of a worthy rival in religion as well as any other aspect of life. The case studies I show will hopefully move a reader to understand how the desire for a trustworthy opponent is a precious thing that does not come naturally but is essential to the success of a pluralistic society.