What do we call you?
“I read in a book once that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but I've never been able to believe it. I don't believe a rose WOULD be as nice if it was called a thistle or a skunk cabbage.”
― L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables
“Words are things. You must be careful, careful about calling people out of their names…. Some day we’ll be able to measure the power of words. I think they are things. They get on the walls. They get in your wallpaper. They get in your rugs, in your upholstery, and your clothes, and finally in to you.”
― Maya Angelou
“Names are powerful things. They act as an identity marker and a kind of map, locating you in time and geography. More than that, they can be a compass.”
― Nicola Yoon, The Sun Is Also a Star
On my first day of kindergarten, I discovered that I had a name I’d known nothing about. “Hello, Jacqueline,” my teacher said. I politely responded, though inwardly I was surprised and curious to find out this wonderful new thing about myself. Wonderful because the way my name floated from my teacher’s mouth sounded beautiful, and I realized that beautiful name was directed at me. I was also curious why my mother and father had kept it a secret. Why had I been named Jacqueline only to be called something different?
As much as I loved the sound of my newly discovered name, when I returned home I was once again Jacqui to my family and to all those who knew me outside of school. In those days among the people who raised me, children didn’t say to their elders what name they preferred to be called, so I tolerated Jacqui among family members but inwardly delighted in knowing that I was really Jacqueline Yvonne, the full name I had been given at birth.
It wasn’t until I began to take standardized tests in school and my name never fit into the allotted boxes we carefully filled in with our number 2 pencils that I began to resist my birth name. It suddenly seemed too big for my little self. I openly declared my disdain for it, though I knew my scorn was quite false. I just wanted to fit into those boxes like everyone else seemed to.
Decades later I was at a women’s retreat and we were asked to introduce ourselves to the group with an “I Am” statement using the full name we had been given at birth, or the name we now claimed for ourselves. “I Am Jacqueline Yvonne” moved across my lips aloud to others for the first time ever. I was once again stunned by how beautiful my name sounded to me, this time its beauty floating from my own mouth in my own sound. It was my truth I proclaimed to others and to myself. Its impact was even more powerful and uplifting when the women at the retreat didn’t call me out of my name, by something other than who I declared myself to be, but called me in my name. I felt I had finally grown into its full stature, which was quite fitting, as I had had many years of learning that I did not fit into standardized boxes, and had long released any desire to do so.
What we are called matters. Especially when the facets of our identities have a history of being called all manner of derogatory names, intentionally meant to tear to bits our humanity, to eradicate it altogether. And the trauma of that, especially when history does not offer a cushion of distance, but is a lived experience. Or when demeaning extremes are cloaked in unconscious passive aggression by those with historical privilege and power who choose not to acknowledge, with respect, our names at all. Or the names we desire to be called, and diminish any need to do so, as if such desires are some immature, unsophisticated expectation to be ignored, or at most, tolerated.
Upon my return to ERUUF from sabbatical, I’ve been quite surprised to discover that a big question many have been holding is, “What do we call you?” I have been pondering the underlying nature of this question (and so remembering the many names I’ve been called), which seems somewhat anxious, and yet, as your new Lead Minister is a Black woman I do recognize that it is out of an anxiousness to be respectful. But while I understand the particularities in this question being directed my way, for me, this is not solely a matter of respectfulness but also one of history and culture.
It was only when I attended a predominately white church for the first time many years ago that I was exposed to the practice of calling a minister by their first name. In BIPOC communities of all sorts, this is generally not the practice (I say generally because there is no monolithic way of thinking, being, or doing among any group of people). In most cases an honorific still matters among people of color when it comes to what the leader of their religious or spiritual community is called. In fact, there are people of color at ERUUF who have always addressed me by the title “Reverend” when I held other ministerial roles here. Of course, what is notable in this moment is that the Lead Minister of ERUUF has never been a person of color before now, they’ve always been of the race and culture of the majority in the congregation without the implications of racial difference, queer identity, and the intersection of oppressions that have occurred both within our denomination and in the world beyond it.
In a time of many transitions in our congregation, the question, “What do we call you?” has also been directed to our new Executive Minister. In obvious ways, this is understandable, as we both have been at ERUUF for ten or more years and are now in roles with responsibilities that are somewhat similar to our previous work, yet they’ve also transformed and have expanded in ways that are quite significantly different than what they were befire. And also, for the first time, we now have a third full-time minister.
In the Durham community, where I co-chair a multi-faith clergy caucus, I am addressed as Rev. Brett or Pastor Brett by both citizens of our city and clergy colleagues. I have not requested this, it is simply what is done. As the Black leader of a predominately white congregation, what I am called by ERUUF’s members is perceived by those beyond our walls as an issue of respect rooted in multiple layers of complexity. Calling me by my first name alone could be considered disrespectful for many reasons. And so, if it should happen that you are referring to me among those in the larger community, my suggestion would be that you refer to me as Rev. Brett.
With this said, I acknowledge that I have known many of you now for ten years. I also acknowledge that the honorific matters to me. Call it culture, call it respect, call it having put in the heart and work which earned the title. Please call me Rev. Jacqueline here at ERUUF. And the other ministers here are Rev. Daniel, Rev. Jim, and Rev. Stacy. And if you forget, we shall be alright. But like getting someone’s pronouns or the pronunciation of their name correct after giving it conscious attention, I’d appreciate seeing that kind of attention and care taken in this instance too.