PASS THE MIC
A Witness Podcast
LEAVE LOUD: Ally Henny’s Story Part 1
March 22, 2021
TYLER BURNS: Well, Jamar, two weeks ago you told your Leave Loud story; and last week you got me to tell some things, man. You got me to say some things on my Leave Loud story, Brother.
JEMAR TISBY: It was long overdue. I learned a lot about you, and came away just loving you and appreciating you more. So thank you for your courage and your boldness to tell that story.
BURNS: Man, I appreciate it. I just want to say thank you to everyone for your kind words, your comments, your messages. I cannot even read them all and keep up with them, but the ones I have been able to read and follow have really encouraged me and affirmed me in telling my story – especially my Black siblings. Thank you so much. Your encouragement brought tears to my eyes and has lifted my heart so much. I love us, Brother. I love us.
TISBY: Yeah. Yeah. The Lord made us beautiful.
BURNS: Exactly, Bro. Now this is actually my favorite week. I’m excited – the most anticipated episode for me. We are going to bring on someone who is no stranger to the podcast. But not just no stranger to the podcast, but one of our friends – a true friend: Ally Henny, who is the vice president of The Witness and also the host of the “Combing the Roots” podcast; and an incredible theologian voice. And Ally is always saying the things. So I cannot wait to hear what Ally is going to say, Brother.
TISBY: That’s right. That’s right. Like, Ally is somebody – I feel like she was Leave Loud before Leave Loud was a hashtag. You know what I’m saying? Like she was going to say what needed to be said, regardless. And she does it – this is what I told her, and I want to give her her roses publicly – I said she makes things better. Wherever she goes, she makes places better; or, if they won’t change, she’s gonna bounce, because she’s not going to settle for anything less than excellence. And a lot of that comes from her ability to analyze a situation – especially for injustices – and talk about it. And say, “Let’s do better.” So I think folks will pick up on that.
BURNS: I think so too, Brother. You ready for this?
TISBY: I am so ready for this.
BURNS: Well, this is Leave Loud on Pass the Mic.
ANNOUNCER: Dynamic voices for a diverse Church. This is Pass the Mic.
Q: Well, Ally Henny, oh my goodness, thank you so much for being courageous enough to tell your Leave Loud story. You ready for this?
HENNY: I’m about as ready as I’ll ever be, I suppose. I admit that I’m a little bit nervous, for reasons that I’ll get into here in a moment, but – I’m ready.
Q: Yeah. Yeah. It is an act of courage and bravery for you to tell this story. For the people who are just tuning in the for the first time, they probably don’t know you. Our audience is very familiar with you, and you’ve been on multiple episodes before. You have an entire origin story on your podcast. So I don’t want you to have to rehash everything about your journey, but what is the general theme and gist and trajectory of your spiritual journey? What have you learned over the course of your spiritual journey, your life, and how those two things intersect?
HENNY: So, something that I think is very important to know about me – and it’s something that I didn’t really realize was something that was important to know about me, until a few years ago – but I come from a small, rural town in Missouri. And so, being a rural Midwesterner, growing up in a predominantly white context, yet still being part of a Black community – my little town and some of the little towns surrounding my little town had Black communities, albeit small Black communities, but still had Black communities – and there were Black churches, and oftentimes we would travel to other churches in other towns. We would go up to Kansas City – I grew up outside of Kansas City – and we would go into the city and go to churches sometimes.
So that’s something that I think is important to know about me, is being formed by the Black church, but at the same time kind of living in this dual reality of: my home was Black, most of my relatives are Black; Black culture was at the center of everything that we did. Yet I had to go out into a world that was predominantly white. And I know that that’s the way everybody, every Black person lives; but, I mean, where EVERY person – pretty much every person in authority, every person of significance, whatever – like, outside of my home and the church, it was a white person. So I think that that is something that is incredibly significant to knowing me. And also I talk about now, I realize now, like, OK, I’m country. Like, I’m from the country. I grew up in a little farm town. I’m from the country. We eat squirrel and raccoon and rabbit …
Q: Really?! What? For real?
HENNY: For real, yeah. For real. Like my grandma, my mom, used to gather greens – like greens, not to go out to the garden and gather greens, but like, pick them from the wild. And I know, I know some greens. I don’t know nearly what my mama knows, and my mama, she don’t know nearly what my grandma and what my aunties knew. But yeah, like, for real, for real. That was – that wasn’t like ALL we ate, but that was what we ate. People would come by my grandma’s house – people in our community who hunted and fished – and they would bring my grandma coon, they’d bring my grandma squirrel, they’d bring her fish, whatever. So, yeah. I’m country.
Q: And that’s so important, I think, for people to understand about your background and how it shapes the appreciation of where you come from, as well. And I think all three of us in some regards are navigating acknowledging and appreciating where we’ve come from – not forsaking it, but putting it in its proper context as we move forward.
So you grew up in rural Missouri. And as you’re growing up in country area, in a rural context, how is faith different there? And how is the expression of faith different there? Because context matters; your social location matters. How is it different than what is popularly portrayed in the broader American church context?
HENNY: So, yeah. I think that it’s the Black church – again, for me, it was a Black church context – but I feel like rural stories are often stories – rural stories that are in predominantly white context stories, are often overlooked. I think that we get like the Southern trope of Southern Black folk who live in Black areas, and they’re adjacent to white people, and whatever. But it’s very different whenever you are surrounded by whiteness in the way that I was. And so, like many Black folks who come from our tradition, we go to church and it’s a refuge. Our families, our homes, are a refuge. And something that I think is a little bit unique, though, about rural Black church, is that there’s not really denominational lines. Like, yes, you might have – there are Methodists AME, there are Baptists; there are all manner of denominations; but we all fellowshipped with one another, because being Black, like, in these towns that are crushingly white – like, that’s the uniting factor.
And so even in towns – because there are a few places where there might have been multiple Black churches, and those churches would often fellowship with one another, even if they worshiped separately. And so I think that that might be a little bit different than in a city context, where there are a lot of churches, often of the same ilk, that you can fellowship with one another and just be within a denomination and not necessarily have to cross denominational lines. But in the rural Midwest – the rural Black Midwest is a lot harder not to cross denominational lines, because you’ll just be sitting off by yourself.
Q: That’s so good. That’s so perceptive. That’s really interesting. And I’ve just got to say: my wife is from the Kansas City area, and so we often drive through Missouri, rural parts of Missouri. There are places in Missouri that I’m way more nervous to be in, as a Black person, than places in Mississippi. Missouri’s on some other stuff. So I’m just glad that you’re able to process and synthesize this. And one of the things that I’m wondering about, growing up in that environment, is what is school like for you? Like, were you at an all-Black school? Were you the one chocolate chip in the mix there? Or, you know, what was that like?
HENNY: [LAUGHS] Oh my goodness. So, I’ll answer that by answering you with a line from the movie, “Philadelphia,” where Denzel Washington plays a lawyer who’s defending a gay man with AIDS who’s suing his employer, something like that, for unlawful termination. Washington has a soliloquy in this movie where he starts talking about – because there’s all sorts of intersections of race and orientation and all sorts of different things – and so Denzel’s character starts going off about how he was the only Black. And he just starts talking about how he was the only Black in this context, how he was the only Black in that context, how he was the only Black in the other context. And that was something – I saw that movie, I think, probably whenever I was 20-21 years old, long after it had come out – and that was something that really resonated with me. And so a lot of my experience growing up, in school, was being the only Black person.
Now, there were Black – I think there were probably, oh, eight or 10 Black kids, if even that, in my class, like in my grade; and there were always several Black kids, one or two, in each grade, maybe, you know, a boy and a girl. My grade, for some reason, there was an abnormal number of us that were there. But often, just because of academics, and because of some other factors, there were times when, maybe I wasn’t the only Black person in, like, my grade school room; but then I would be part of programs where I would be the only Black person. So I might not have been the only Black person in my fourth-grade class – there was one other Black person in my fourth-grade class, for instance – but I was the only Black person in Math Club. And then whenever we started, got to where we were rotating classes and stuff, I was taking a lot of advanced courses. So in middle school and high school, oftentimes I was the only Black person in my class. And I was the only Black person in marching band until my cousin came along.
So it was kind of this thing where we had one another, a little bit, but I was often separate from some of the other ones. And so I had a lot of times when I was the only Black.
Q: And I think, even beyond that, there had to have been this added layer of being a Black woman as well. Was there a moment early in your education journey, as you were maturing, getting ready to make life decisions, where that realization, and the even further separation from society, and the further alienation from society, really hit home for you as a Black woman?
HENNY: So this is something that I admit, this probably sounds really, really, super petty. But, being a teenager, and teenaged angst and whatever, something that I realized very early on was that my beauty did not fit the standard that everyone else was looking toward. So I came of age – I was born in 1985 – so I came of age in the time of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera and all that, and of course Destiny’s Child was there too. Destiny’s Child, they were the token Blacks that were there. Aaliyah was there, early on, then she passed away. Brandy and Monica were there. But I really came of age in the 1999-2000 era, so yeah, that was Britney Spears, that was Christina Aguilera, that was Jessica Simpson. And so in the midst of all of this, you know, I’m seeing these white girls on TV, and the way that they could do their hair and makeup – I mean, you know, yeah, my hair was relaxed, but like, I just didn’t look like them. And I was very, very, very, very skinny. I was probably 5’7” or 5’8” and weighed like 115, 120 lbs. I was very, very, very, very skinny. So it wasn’t necessarily like – because a lot of times I think that our sisters will be like, “Oh, yeah, you know, I was really curvy and busty,” or whatever. I didn’t have that problem. I did not grow up with being curvy or any of that, so I didn’t have those concerns. But just in terms of my facial beauty, just in terms of hairstyle and what I could do with my hair and that type of stuff, I definitely felt that.
And I definitely felt that also – because you come back to that small-town context, again – where there would be boys who maybe liked me? I’m not sure, now really – but there was also kind of this somewhat unspoken thing of, I maybe couldn’t date certain people – and that certain people wouldn’t be allowed to date me, I guess is the more accurate way to say it. It wasn’t, my mom wasn’t prohibiting me necessarily from going out with anybody. But, you know, I had a good friend, through middle school and high school; that I look back and I realize, like, literally the only reason why we never went out on a date or anything is because I was Black. And I knew that – he had mentioned a few times that, like – he didn’t say it like out and out, “Oh my dad doesn’t like Black people,” but there were things – I just knew that his parents, but his dad specifically, was racist, and that that wouldn’t be something that would be good.
And so that was something that I had to live with. I had to live with knowing. And I remember writing in my diary, as a teenager, talking about, yeah, you know, I don’t have blond hair and blue eyes like – you know, all the girls in my grade were bottle blonds, but still – like, I didn’t have that look. And knew that people, that the boys, weren’t attracted to me because of that. And I attributed it to the fact that I was a tomboy. But then I started to realize, probably around 7th-8th grade, I was like: This isn’t because I’m a tomboy. I’m not like a tomboy, but I’m – I don’t dress like a boy; I dress like the other girls in my grade, mostly. And, like, I’m still not getting the attention. But anyway. Yeah.
Q: There are so many layers to this. Let me ask you – all of this is very sensitive, so feel free to answer/not answer. But, first, did you go through a phase in junior high/high school where you thought that you had to change your appearance to be more Eurocentric? Or were you so grounded with your Black family, your Black church, you were like, “Naw, that ain’t me”?
HENNY: That just wasn’t me. Like, I just – I knew, like, I got nappy hair. And whenever I relax it, like, it don’t look like they hair. So it’s just like, I knew that I was unique. And that was something that I think my mom really instilled in me, was that, like, there are things that we just aren’t, and that’s OK, because we’re still beautiful.
Q: So how does this intersect with the church? So now you’re growing up in the church, and it’s a Black environment in a rural context, but now you’re getting older. And is there an exit from a majority-Black church space? Are you staying in that space? When does that turn a little bit for you?
HENNY: So I didn’t, like, become a member of, or really regularly attend, a white church until I graduated high school and went off to college. Whenever I was in high school, though, my best friend invited me to her youth group, and of course her church was all white. And so I would go to her youth group sometimes. And then, whenever I was a senior in high school – I mentioned before that I was in marching band, and so I played the drums; I played drumset and stuff for jazz band and for pep band and everything – and so there were some kids at a local Baptist youth group that asked me – we all played together in band, different instruments, of course – and so they were a praise band and they were looking for a drummer. They had tried several other people and it didn’t work out. And so they were wanting – it was a youth praise band. And so they asked me if I would play with them. And so I played with them. That was like the second half of my senior year. So I just went to like the youth group. And then, whenever I started dating my husband – now he’s my husband, but then – my husband is white, and he grew up Lutheran. And so I think I visited their church like maybe once or twice on different occasions. But other than that – so I had been to white churches before, but as far as like attending a white church, and like, “I’m going to go here, and this is my church” – that didn’t come until college.
Q: So when did you and your husband get married?
HENNY: We got married in 2005, so we’ve been married for a long time. We got engaged in 2004, so right before – I think it would have been five days before I left for college. We were high school sweethearts; we went to the same college; we were both in marching band our first year. And so I had drum line camp. And so before he had like regular band camp – and band camp, of course, was before the semester started. And so we got engaged five before I left for college, before I left for band camp. And then we got married in June of 2005, so right after we finished our first year of college.
Q: So was college different in the things that you experienced in high school. Was there a shift in what you were experiencing and also in your faith intersection, or was it much more of the same, just on a different scale?
HENNY: It was much more of the same on a different scale. So I went to college in Springfield, Missouri. I started out at what was called Southwestern Missouri State University, but then it became Missouri State University my freshman year, at the end of my freshman year. Springfield, especially at that time – I think it’s down to like 88% white – but whenever I first moved there, in 2004, it was in, like the mid- to upper 90s percent white. And it’s the buckle of the Bible Belt. I know a lot of places lay that claim to fame …
Q: Yeah, that’s Pensacola. What you talkin’ ‘bout? [LAUGHTER]
HENNY: But you can’t swing a stick in Springfield and not hit a church. I mean, like, there are two denominations that are headquartered there. There, at the time, was, I think four or five different Bible colleges, and then a couple of them consolidated into one university, into one network. So it was like where I grew up, but on steroids, in some ways. It was – I mean, where I grew up was religious, but this was like über-religious, über-white, über-conservative; like, über-whatever. And so going to college and not being – there’s a Black community in Springfield, but not, like, having the connection, and not knowing anybody there – like I was disconnected from the Black community.
Now, there was a church in the same denomination, the same organization, that the church that I went to as a teenager was in; and my then-fiancé, at the time, and I, we visited that church. And I was like, “OK, yeah, this is cool.” But it was just like, in a lot of ways, what I’d grown up with. And not that there was anything wrong with what I’d grown up with; I was just – I don’t know. I was just young, and I was like, “I want to try to find myself. I might do something different.” So, you know, I’m going to go someplace that’s – but then also at the same time wanting to be part of a similar denomination, which is like, “OK, I’m going to go to a different church.” And “a different church” just ended up being a white church. I didn’t know anything about that city, I didn’t know anything about Springfield; I didn’t know how many Black churches there were; and that was the only one in the denomination that I had been in, but there maybe were a couple of others that now I know I probably would have been comfortable at. But at the time I had no idea.
Q: And you’re not just a casual Christian who calls yourself that, or this is a tradition that you grew up with, so, you know, may as well claim the label. You’re serious about your faith – and you’ve sensed a call to ministry. So I’m wondering where that came in – where you started to think, “This is something that I need to do as a central focus in my life.”
HENNY: So God called me into ministry whenever I was 18 – it was whenever I was with that Baptist youth group. We had gone to an event in Kansas City called “Acquire the Fire.”
Q: Wow! Ron Luce!
HENNY: Ron Luce, Teen Mania, all that. And so we were at Municipal Auditorium and I was a student leader. I was in charge of some seventh-grade girls; and those little girls went down to the altar to go pray. I had no idea, like, what was happening. I had never – I came up in Black church, y’all. Like, we open the doors and like – like in the Baptist church I grew up in, they like open up the doors and put a chair in the front of the church for people to come sit down. Like that’s what we did in the Baptist church. And then in the Pentecostal church, I mean, yeah, there was like – you would come up to the front if you wanted to join the church or whatever. But I didn’t know what “getting saved” meant. I had no idea. Like, I didn’t know what that looked like, in that context. So all I see is these little 13-year-olds bouncing and going down in the auditorium, and none of the adults are moving. And I’m like, “Y’all gonna let these little girls out here in the city, like they just gonna go?” I was like, OK, I’m their student leader! Like, let me go down there!
And so I went down there and I was praying with them. And as I was praying with them, the Lord told me that He was calling me to ministry. And at that point I felt called to be a youth pastor. So as I’m entering into these, then, white church spaces, in Springfield, I know, I had that in my heart. I was a teenager, I was a senior in high school. So whenever I start entering into those spaces in college, it’s with in mind that I’m going to learn, I’m going to get training, I’m going to be able to somehow – I didn’t know how – I had no clue, really, what it meant. I knew that I was called, but I didn’t know what I had to do in order to serve as a youth pastor or whatever. I was just kind of trusting God to guide my path in that respect.
Q: Wow. So, youth ministry. This is definitely an intersection in our journey. You know, we have a few youth pastors on the staff at The Witness. And what I learned very quickly about youth ministry in a Black context was that it was very different than youth ministry in a white evangelical context. And so the second you said, “Hey, I feel like God is calling me to youth ministry” – as you were pursuing that call and getting that position, and getting placed, did you have a racial preference, I guess you could say? Were you thinking, “Oh, I’ll be in a predominantly white context” just by nature? Or were you thinking, “Hey, I’d love to be in youth ministry, a youth pastor, at a Black context” – even though it wasn’t very popular for Black churches to have youth pastors, quote unquote? It still really isn’t, right? So what was your initial thought about where you would land in ministry?
HENNY: I just really wanted to go wherever God wanted me to go. And I knew that ministering to my people was part of that. But I wouldn’t say that I necessarily felt a specific call to any specific context. I just wanted to go where God wanted me to go, and serve where he wanted me to serve; and that was it.
Q: Now, leading – in that context, you probably ended up leading a lot of white kids, and you probably ended up serving a lot of white kids. What were the racial dynamics like, for you as a Black woman in youth ministry?
HENNY: So here’s where we get to the goods. This is where we …
Q: OK, let’s go, let’s go!
HENNY: This is where we get to, this is the part you paid for. This is what you paid for. So, you know, I wanted to serve in youth ministry, felt called to serve in youth ministry. So the church that I was in, in college – the church that I ended up in, during college – it was a larger Pentecostal church. It wasn’t a megachurch by any means, but whenever we first started attending there – I say “larger.” In comparison to the churches I had grown up in, it was larger. So it started out, I think whenever we were there, I think we had about 200 to 250 people. And it grew beyond that. It grew beyond that. So I guess I’ll tell the end of the story first.
So I was at this church that my husband and I started attending whenever we were engaged, whenever we were freshmen in college, in our first semester of our freshman year – toward the end of the first semester of our freshman year, we started attending there. So December 2004, at the very end of 2004. We attended there from 2004 until 2011. And so over that time, I started out as just somebody who, we were young, and they were like, “Oh, hey, maybe they will want to be involved in youth ministry!” And so I was like, “Yes, of course, I want to be involved in youth ministry,” knowing in my heart that I had been called to be a youth pastor, at that point. And so we had started in the youth ministry, had been youth workers; and then, as youth workers, we kind of became some of the youth workers who were more senior in position. And then eventually, the student ministry there – it was “student ministry” at the time, because we’re talking 2000s, so it was student ministry.
Q: Yeah, it changed. It changed.
HENNY: It changed, but don’t get me started on that. That’s a whole other podcast. But anyway, so our student ministry grew. And so I eventually became the high school pastor, and then my husband became the college and young adult pastor. We did that together, and then there was another guy who was the 7th and 8th grade pastor. And so we were there, and then there was the person who was the director of student ministries, and that’s a whole other, different story. But eventually, I became the youth pastor/director of student ministries, and I didn’t have the titles or benefits that were consonant to that. And maybe we’ll get to that story and maybe not.
But anyway, after that – and I didn’t leave that church because of any of that, directly. I can see now, maybe, where that maybe sort of factored in, but that wasn’t really why we left that church. We moved across country to Virginia in 2011. Just telling you that, to tell you the end of the story first. So we were at this one church, and we actually went back to this church, and that’s where the Leave Loud part comes in. But I’m getting ahead of myself now.
But the part we need to know for right now is that I was at this church for seven years. It had a different name then; it was in a different denomination – now it’s nondenominational, but I’ll get to that; hopefully more, here, in a minute. But we were part of that church, and it was predominantly white. But the youth group was diverse. So, the youth group, we had – there was an Asian family that was part of the youth group; there were kids who were Mexican who were part of it; there were a lot of Black kids, a lot of white kids. So it was diverse; and it was more diverse than the church at the time.
So whenever I got hired – because I was hired to do bus ministry, which was sort of connected to youth ministry, so I had – I was the high school pastor, but I was on staff at the church to do bus ministry, and to run the transportation ministry. And so I was the youngest person at the time on the staff – one of the youngest people they had ever hired – and I was the first Black person that they had ever hired.
And so, something that I will say – and I’m answering your question, but some things I want to say that I just want to put out there – I will say, to this church’s credit, that the pastor saw talent in me. He saw different things in me, realized I had a calling in my life, and wanted me to be in ministry, and wanted to support me in ministry. So whenever he hired me, and because I was in an interracial marriage, there were a lot of people in the church that had a problem with that. And they left the church.
Q: Left! What?!
HENNY: They left the church. Now, there was some other stuff going on – in the years, I think, from like 2008-ish to about 2010 – in this church, there were multiple splits, like multiple people leaving the church to go to other churches, or somebody that started a church, out of the church. There was just a lot of turmoil and upheaval because we were in the process of leaving a denomination. And so that denomination that we were in was very legalistic. Something that I don’t talk about a whole lot, but there was a point where – I did not grow up this way at all – but to be in leadership in this church, women had to wear long skirts and couldn’t cut their hair. We were that kind of Pentecostal. And so I was just kind of like, “OK, I don’t quite understand this, but I feel like I’m supposed to be here. I don’t understand this, but OK, whatever. OK, that’s what we’ll do.” So, I mean, yeah, my mother-in-law has all kinds of pictures of me – because she’s the one with the digital camera – has all kinds of pictures of me with my long skirt and Pentecostal hair, whatever. But that is a whole other story, there.
So there were people who were leaving the church over those issues, because the church was like, “Yeah, we’re not going to do that anymore,” essentially. And so there were people who were leaving the church over that. But then also another factor, another reason why they were leaving, was because of me – was because I had been hired at the church. And there were people who were upset with that, in addition to the other things that they were upset about. So in this context – setting the stage for this – within this context, there’s some of this, too, that the pastor, again – to his credit – there were some elements of this that I did not find out until much later, because they shielded me from a lot of this. They shielded me, I think, both, one, because, it’s like you don’t, , like, “This is terrible, people are being terrible, she’s young; like, let’s not have this wound her and scar her.” But I think also there was an element of, like, “OK, let’s cover how racist this really is.” Because whenever I started going there, I was not the only Black person at that church. In fact, there was another Black family that was there. And that was even why I was there, because I thought, “Oh, my gosh” – because keep in mind, I’m from a small town, I’m young, whatever – I’m like, “There’s another Black person here, so clearly they’re not racist.” [CLEARS THROAT] OK. So the other Black family, their presence in that space, to me, told me that it was a safe space. And so I just kind of was tiptoeing through the tulips. I knew that there were people in the church that had racist issues. Like, I knew it. But I didn’t interact with them; and I’m just like, OK, well, whatever. Like, “I can tell that you maybe have a problem with some things, but it’s whatever.”
And so I’m being a youth pastor in this context. And so there’s that stuff going on in the main church; but then, within my youth group, we have this dynamic of diversity. And so, you know, we’ve got Mexican kids; we’ve got kids that are Black; we have a few Asian kids, and stuff. And so I’m sitting with these teenagers, and I’m just like, “Man! Some of y’all are racist!” And, like – it’s not like they’re calling N words or anything like that. But, like, there was one time I had – because I was the high school pastor, so I used to have parties at my house, just, I had a big house, no kids of my own at that point. And so, like, I would just invite a bunch of the kids over; we’d get the church van; we’d pull up, you know, there’d be like 40 kids at my house. We’d barbecue, we’d have all the windows open, like, whatever. And it would just be a party and stuff. And so, I remember one time I went outside on my porch, and there was a kid and a couple of girls. He was talking about how he’s playing basketball, and he was talking about how all the Black kids were showing off. But before he even got to how the Black kids were showing off, he’s like, “Oh, yeah, there were all these Black kids that were there.” And I was like: What does them being Black have to do with the story? Because I noticed they were always be like, whatever, like, “these Black kids,” whatever. So I was like, “What does that have to do with the story?” So he was just like, “Well, it lets you know what kind of people they are.” So I’m just like, “OK, but what does that mean?”
So anyway, there was kind of that type of dynamic. I had kids coming into my house, wearing stuff that had like Confederate flags on it. And they weren’t doing it to be like, “Oh, look, I’m wearing this Confederate flag,” but like that was part of their wardrobe. And like they didn’t think twice about showing up to their Black youth pastor’s house wearing that. It wasn’t like, you know, a big Confederate flag; it was just, you know, somewhere on the shirt. And I’m saying that, not trying to justify it, but just saying – to try to paint the picture of: they weren’t walking into my house wearing a shirt that was the Confederate flag. Like, they’re wearing some sort of shirt that has like fishing or something on it, and then somewhere within the design there’s like a Confederate flag in the corner or something.
Q: A statement.
HENNY: Right. So, yeah, so that type of thing. But I never will forget, there was one time that there was a family that attended youth group, and we had dropped them off – the kids had done something that was outside of normal service times or whatever, so my husband and I, we took them home – and I remember driving up to the house. And at this point, one of the kids had — there was a garage kind of apartment set up at their house, and one of the kids had moved into that. But they didn’t have any curtains on the window in that part of the house yet. And so I remember looking in – we’re sitting in the driveway – and I remember looking in and seeing a big Confederate flag in this kid’s bedroom.
HENNY: But hold on, hold on. On this Confederate flag, something I had never seen before. It said, “The South will rise again.”
Q: There it is.
HENNY: And I was like, what on earth?! And so it was something that I was just like: I don’t know how to think about that, how to feel about that. But so those are just kinds of things that are OK, yeah, those are racial microaggressions or whatever.
So let me get into something here, for just a moment. In this youth ministry, I was one of the leaders. Like I said, I started out, I kind of climbed the ladder, if you will. There were several of us that had kind of started out at the same time. And for whatever reason – I don’t really know – I had just started to climb the ladder. I ended up – it wasn’t like there was a whole lot of us; it wasn’t like the youth ministry was that big; but I ended up essentially becoming like the second in command in the youth ministry – like the associate youth pastor, but without the title and benefits that accrue thereto. And so, with that, and then also with my position in the church – I was a church staff member, and the reason I had been hired on the church staff was because there was a plan of succession, if you will, that was in mind. So they saw that I had a grace free (?) ministry. The youth pastor who was there, for whatever reason, the mentality was, in this particular group, it was, OK, you’ll be youth pastor for about five years or so, and then you move onto something else. Like, you move onto something else: like you become an associate pastor or something like that.
And so, initially the conversations were, “OK, so you’re going to come on. You’ll come on staff and you’ll be here; and then whenever the time comes for this other pastor to be promoted or whatever, then you’ll be the youth pastor.” And so this was a plan that happened, that was hatched, like, years in advance. Like, whenever I was like a junior in college. And so then after I graduated, I took a job at that church doing bus ministry. And so as I kind of, you know, rose and ascended through the ranks, I’m kind of the heir apparent, in some ways, to this youth ministry. And so it had gotten to where I’m a staff member, I’m second in command in this youth ministry, and so I have people working for me. A lot of the people who worked in the bus ministry were also youth workers within the ministry. And so I guess in some ways I’m maybe their boss or whatever, in two different capacities.
And so I started to notice that whenever I got on staff – because it was all, not mostly; it was all white men and their wives that were leaders in this youth ministry. And so I was the only woman that was like – it’s not like, “Oh, you’re youth ministers” or whatever, and it’s the couple, but the woman is like whatever. It was the inverse with my husband and I. And so, like – there’s so much more that I could say about that, at this point, but I won’t.
But I started to notice that whenever I’d gotten on staff, that people just started interacting with me differently, and started treating me a little bit differently. People that I had known for a while just started to kind of treat me differently. And there were times when I would give a directive – and it wasn’t necessarily even me giving the directive; it was something that my supervisor, that my boss was saying, like, “Hey, can you make sure that everybody does this.” And there were some things, as leader of the bus ministry, like asking, “Hey, can you drive a bus? Hey, can you do this, can you do that?” And people wouldn’t listen to me. And I remember in particular, there was one person – one white man – who, I had asked him to do something. I had gotten him to drive a bus for me, so he was doing that. So I asked him to do something or another in the service that night, and so he was like, “OK, let me just check with Pastor So and So.” And I’m like, “OK, but I’m asking you to do this.” And he’s like, “Yeah, I just want to make sure that I’m not like” whatever, blah blah blah. So I was just really like, “OK … but I’m asking you to do this thing. So it is, I have delegated authority. So it is as if Pastor So and So is asking you to do this.”
Like, I had several instances like that. But then, what was crazy, though – what was so strange, I should say – is that I could ask my husband to ask those people to do things, and they would do it without question.
Q: There it is. There it is.
HENNY: Without questioning, without “Is this OK?” or whatever, they would just do. He’s not the one who is actually the leader, right? Right? He’s not the one who’s the leader of the bus ministry. I am! And so something that killed me then was – I won’t even talk about the whole thing of becoming the youth pastor but not, like, whatever – there’s just not time for that, and I’ve got other stuff I’ve got to talk about, that I know y’all had me here to talk about. But I got a piece of feedback from the main pastor of the church one time, that was like, “You use your husband as your main volunteer too much.” So he’s saying all this, and I’m just like devastated. Because the way of the feedback – there’s a whole story behind it. But I’m sitting here thinking, like, I’m not wanting to use my husband as the only volunteer; he’s the only one who will listen to me! Like he’s literally the only person that I can ever count on and depend on. So then he was comparing me to another white male leader, who all these dudes were following. And I’m just sitting here like — so this is somehow supposed to be reflecting badly upon me, or reflecting upon me as like an area where I needed to grow. And I’m not saying that I didn’t need to grow. What I’m saying is, is that there were all kinds of other dynamics that were at play there. Like, yeah, people were listening to this other white male leader, but they weren’t listening to me. And like, I wasn’t – they just were choosing not to listen to me. And so then there just got to be a point when it was like, “OK, well, fine. If you’re not going to listen to me; if you’re not going to want to try to play ball with me; if every time I ask you to do something, you have something else you need to do – every time I ask you to come help out at an event, you have something else to do: well, fine. I’m just going to ask the one person that I can depend on. And that person I just happen to be married to.” So yeah. That was a trip. That was a trip.
Q: So I’m guessing all of this is part of a larger pattern. And my question is – if I’m getting the timeline right, like this is early 2010s, around there. What is your church saying in general about like race and justice, from the pulpit or Bible studies? How are they approaching any of those topics?
HENNY: So basically it was like, Yeah, we want to have a diverse church – like, we want to have a church that’s diverse – because that’s what Heaven looks like, and we want a church that looks like Heaven. But there was no discussion or delving into racism at all. And this actually brings me to – you’ve teed me up, here, Jamar, for another story.
Q: Here we go!
HENNY: So here’s another tale: the ratchedness. So the pastor of this church, again, to his credit – I want you to notice I’m saying this to his credit, because there’s going to be some stuff that hits the fan here in a minute. (Maybe not in a minute, but in – I don’t know how many minutes, but in some minutes, there’s going to be some stuff that hits the fan.) So to his credit, recognizing that – looking around and saying, “Our city is becoming increasingly diverse. We should reach out to the people who are moving into our city, or some of the people who are already here. Why should we just have all white people in this church?” Like, it should be diverse. And so he felt a sense of calling toward that end. So that was something that he really felt was important. And it was something that was aspirational, especially during those times. It changed; it did change, and he did get his multi-ethnic church, and hopefully I’ll get to that point in a minute. But that was something, at that point, that we were aspiring to.
And so I don’t really – I can’t tell you, really, any of the context of this; because at that point in my life – whenever all this was going down, I was 22, 23, 24 years old, 25 years old – and at that point, I didn’t talk about race to white people, except to my husband. And the reason why I didn’t talk about race to white people is because – now I know the term for it, the language; I have language for it now – but because of white fragility. Because anytime that I would try to speak about my experience, there would be people trying to tell me what my experience was, and trying to explain my experience to me. And that crap got on my nerves!
And so there was that aspect of it. But then there was also the aspect of, like, I don’t want to have to manage these white people’s feelings. And growing up in the context that I grew up in, just as a matter of survival – like, I just learned that you can’t tell white people that they’re racist, because they’ll get mad. And that can end, like, a myriad of different ways.
And so I say all that – I give all that context to say, then, that there was a time that I was at a church staff meeting. And it was the senior pastor, the lead pastor; there was the youth pastor/administrative pastor; there was the music director; and then there was the person who was the children’s minister at the time, and there was me. The children’s minister was the only other woman in the room. I have no idea how or why the topic of race came up, because, again, like I said, whenever race came up – like, if I was directly asked my experience, maybe I would say something. But I didn’t really say a whole lot, because people would just start talking over me. Like I couldn’t talk. People would start talking over me. So I would just, like, had learned: I’m not going to talk about it. So I don’t remember what the topic was. I don’t remember what was said. But somebody said something that, in that staff meeting on that day – something rose up within me, and I just said, “You know what? My people did not ask to be here. We were brought here.” And then I shut up.
And so then the youth pastor/administrative pastor/my mentor/the person who I had taken care of his kids – who we had spent hours talking together and mentoring and whatever – said to me, “Well, if you don’t like it here, why don’t you go back to Africa?”
Q: Oh. Oh, my goodness.
HENNY: So the room was quiet at that point. And I am shocked that he would say this. And I’m mad. Like, I am wanting to go off; and to go off about, “You know what? I would go back to Africa, but I don’t know where to go, because people who look like you done stole my identity.” Like, I wanted to go off! But here’s the thing. Here’s the thing. I knew that if I had read him to filth– because he was my, because he was a “pastor” at the church – I would have been looked at like I was being insubordinate! So I’m looking around the room – you know, I’m young, at this point. Everybody in the room – the youngest person– the next-youngest person in the room was actually him, I think, or maybe actually the next-youngest person was the senior pastor, who was like nine years older than me. So again, there’s also kind of like the thing that these are my elders, also, right?
And so I’m just sitting here like, I said it; he said that to me, and so I’m just like, OK, somebody’s going to say something. Fam, they didn’t say nothing. And everybody just kind of looked.
Q: Let it ride.
HENNY: They just let it ride. And so then everything kept on going, and then that was it. But fam, that hurt.
The other story that I’ll tell from this context, talking about race and whatever: I notice that in everybody’s stories so far, they’ve shared about their incidents with what happened around President Obama becoming president. So when President Obama became president, I shared an office with someone. I actually shared an office, whenever I was doing transportation ministry I shared an office with another person who was doing some secretarial work. And so the morning after the election, the children’s minister came into my office and she’s like – so it was me and the secretary that’s there – and she comes in and she’s just like, “Oh my goodness, wow, you just must be so excited about what’s happening!” And so I’m like, “Yeah, I am.” And so I started talking about how my mom was telling me – how the night I had talked on the phone with my mom, and I was telling how my mom had said she never thought she’d see a Black man become president in her life. And so the secretary proceeded – I can’t remember if she said it before the children’s minister came in or after, but she said that she thought that Obama was the Antichrist.
HENNY: And so I’m telling this story about, like, why this means a whole lot to me.
Q: And after that, she says this.
HENNY: So in the midst of it. Like, in the midst of it. Like, in the midst of this conversational exchange going on. So the music minister comes in, and they’re just – everybody’s gathering around here, gathering around Puff the Magic Negress, to listen to me regale them of like, whatever. And so I’m like, you know, “Yeah, this is huge.” And so I’m just talking about like – I’m just, you know, trying – I had cried like all that morning. I cried like all that evening; I had gotten up in the morning and then cried, like – I think I fell asleep upstairs where my television was, I fell asleep, like, in front of the television that night, and woke up; and I cried like all that morning before work. And so, like, I’m coming into work and I’m just like on Cloud Nine: there’s a Black president, I can’t believe this! And so then, you know, yes, the white folks want to come around and listen to the Negro regale them of her tales of whatever – I have no idea. All I know is that in my office there’s this gathering, now, of white people. I say gathering – it was like three other people besides me in the office. And so somebody’s asking me what this means to me; so I’m telling what it means to me. And in the minute I got Debbie Downer over here, talmbout how Obama’s the Antichrist!
And so I’m just like, OK, this is like a serious vibe killer right now. [LAUGHS] So I’m just kind of looking at her, and just kind of still just trying to talk, and still just trying to speak the truth about, like, how I felt about it, and how important it was, and momentous it was. But it was like, Wow. Situational awareness, fam! Like, regardless of what you – like you are going to insist that he’s the Antichrist right now. Like, when this is like huge for people.
So there were people who recognized the moment. I mean, I know that they didn’t vote for him; but they recognized the moment. But somebody else – so that’s my Obama election story, with white people showing they tails story. But anyway. Yes.
Q: Do you think some of this is due to that trope we hear among a lot of white people, where it’s like, “I don’t think of you as Black.” Or “I don’t think of you as that kind of Black.” You know, one of them type of things? Like you said, situational awareness. Was she that sort of oblivious to the fullness of your identity, because you’re in this predominantly white environment in this all-white staff, that it was just like literally color-blind in that moment?
HENNY: I just think she was being racist.
Q: [LAUGHS] Mmhmm. Mmhmm. Word. Yeah.
Q: You left in 2011; and right on the cusp of you leaving in 2011, right after that is Trayvon Martin and then the string of Black death and hashtags, and we see Black Lives Matter. Where were you in that? Why did you leave in 2011? Where did you go?
HENNY: So my family – it was just my husband and I at the time – we relocated from Springfield to Fredericksburg, Virginia. And so a lot of that – I won’t get into the whole story of that, but just essentially the Lord just let us know that our time in Springfield was done. And so we were like, OK. And I’ll say, there wasn’t anything bad that happened. We left the church that we were at, that we had served at for seven years – we left, that time, on good terms. Now, I will throw it out there again, that we had to leave this church again – and we did not leave on the best of terms. I won’t – I should probably characterize it a little bit differently. But anyway, we left that church at the time; we left it on good terms. It wasn’t anything like “Oh, my gosh, I’ve got to” whatever. It was just one of those moments where it was just like, you know, the Lord tells you to go, and so you go.
And so we relocated to Fredericksburg, Virginia, which is about an hour outside of D.C. It’s like 50 miles outside of D.C. – that’s the better way to put it, because traffic varies. Sometimes it can be two hours outside of D.C., depending on the traffic. But it’s about 50 miles from Washington, D.C. And so we had moved there, and we really enjoyed it there, really liked being in that area. And so we were part of a ministry that was very similar to the International House of Prayer in Kansas City. We had actually, whenever we lived in Missouri, we were not, like, part of IHOP KC like at all for real; but like we would go to conferences, some of the IHOP conferences, particularly the one conference that they would have at the end of the year. And I would drive up and go to the Prayer Room sometimes, because it was only a couple of hours away from Springfield. And so we wanted to be part of a community that seemed like that, that was like that, because that seemed like what we wanted to do at the time. But we knew we that didn’t want to go to Kansas City. So we found this place in Virginia to be part of. And so we moved out there, and we part of their – I mentioned IHOP. I mentioned that it was like IHOP, because the distinctive of IHOP is that they have a 24-hour Prayer Room. And so since 1999, they’ve been doing prayer 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There’s a lot more to it than that, but that’s kind of a thing.
So where I was at in Fredericksburg, we also had a Prayer Room. We were not 24/7 usually. Whenever I first moved there, we were 18 hours a day, five days a week. And so where this particular – where Trayvon Martin comes in, whenever Trayvon had happened, the community was actually in the middle of a fast. Because we would pray and fast a lot – which sounds kind of weird, but there’s more context to it. But we were kind of in the middle of one of those seasons. And so we were actually open 24 hours a day. So I remember – again, I didn’t have any kids at the time – so I really wanted to do what’s called the Night Watch. So I was there; it was like early in the morning. So I’m talking like after midnight time. Like, the shift was like midnight to 6:00. And so I was there, midnight to 6:00. So I’m in the Prayer Room – gosh, it’s probably, you know, 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning; I’m working on a project for a conference; I’m praying and whatever. And somebody gets up on the microphone, and they start praying for some man in Florida who was defending himself – who had been attacked and was defending himself – and blah blah blah.
HENNY: So there’s – you know, the way the Prayer Room’s set up is that, like, you have a person who might be leading the prayer. But then there’s different points where people can just get up, and they can just get up during – the way that the prayer is structured, they can get up and they can offer a prayer. So this person wasn’t – they were quote-unquote “on staff,” which doesn’t mean what you think it means. They were a person who was a volunteer – who was a high-level volunteer that was working there. But they were not a leader in this context. It was just a person.
And so this person gets up and they start praying this. And so I’m sitting here like, “What are they talking about? What is he praying about?” Then I realized: Hold on a second! He’s talking about that dude that shot that kid that was holding the Skittles. Hold up! He’s praying for that?! What?!
And so I was just like, OK. So then – I’m a little bit petty. I’m not going to lie about that, and y’all know me, so you know.
Q: In the Prayer Room?
HENNY: In the Prayer Room.
Q: That’s what we love about you, Ally.
HENNY: We’re in the Prayer Room. I’m a little bit petty. So after all this – because that didn’t sit right with me. So there was another point, I think it was during a time when you would do just like quick prayer. So I prayed for Trayvon’s family. I wasn’t like, you know, whatever about it, but I was just like, Hmm, I’m going to pray for Trayvon’s family. But in that context, like, they really wasn’t saying nothing – they wasn’t saying nothing about no Trayvon! Like, they weren’t trying to say nothing about no Trayvon. It was just that one rando who had prayed for George Zimmerman because he was falsely accused, and like, whatever. And I was like, “Boy, bye. You need to sit down.” Anyway.
Q: Now, in the midst of all of this, this starts the string of, you know, very prominent racial justice conversations in the church. And so was this a precursor of what was to come after, in terms of those contexts, either not praying for this – not even addressing, not talking about it – or praying for the oppressor? Or praying for the killer, versus praying for the family?
HENNY: So there was just a lot of racial ignorance there. So like another is, we had like a – because, you know, the Prayer Room is like – a lot of the prayers, not all of them, people pray, like verbally. But there’s also like singing, spontaneous singing; people will set choruses, people will sing choruses. So I tell this story …
Q: You gotta tell that. Jamar don’t know about that.
HENNY: I’ve got to tell this story. So there’s one time – this is all during the same season with Trayvon, with all that stuff. You know, we’re getting ready, we’re preparing for this big conference that’s coming up. And so Lou Engle, who was a figure in the International House of Prayer; he was in Virginia doing some stuff. Him, and some of the leaders of the ministry that I was part of, they were doing some stuff. And so we were having just all these kind of intense prayer – the prayer meetings that we were having every day, because Lou was there, and because of all the stuff that was going on – they were all the more intense. So one time – and I say it was one time, but I think it was actually multiple times – but there was one time that somebody set a chorus in the Prayer Room that was something like, “There stands Jackson like a stone wall; rally around the Virginians.”
Q: Mm mm, no! [LAUGHS]
HENNY: If I’m lyin’, I’m dyin’. So the context of this is that, because Virginia has a lot of Civil War history – where we lived in Fredericksburg was halfway between Richmond, which was the capital of the Confederacy, and D.C. And so there was a lot of blood spilled in Fredericksburg. Lots of blood spilled in Fredericksburg. And I can’t even remember, and some of it doesn’t matter; they never – these people never think that President Obama was a Christian. Never, we ain’t gonna acknowledge that, whatever, But their whole thing was abortion, and oh my goodness, the blood being spilled in abortion, we don’t want God to judge the nation – just all that type of stuff. And let me just insert myself in here and say: [HUSHED VOICE] I did not believe that stuff. It was just one of those contexts where, the way that I approached this was like: I don’t have to agree with everything that happens here. I don’t have to believe everything that happens here. There are some things that I like and some things that I embrace, and so I choose to like and to embrace those aspects of it; but then, you know, like I’m going to leave some of the other stuff alone. So some of this, like Obama not being a Christian, like, whatever. I left that nonsense alone, because I knew that wasn’t true. And often told people that it wasn’t true.
Anyway. So the context of this prayer is that, for whatever reason, there’s this prophetic narrative. So we’re getting into Charismania here, a little bit. But there’s this prophetic narrative that they had. And so Stonewall Jackson, how he got his name was from that line that I quoted. So somebody made that into a chorus in the Prayer Room; but the idea was like, OK, well, Virginia’s going to help to birth a revival, and God – like, there’s just so much stuff that it would take like a whole other podcast for me to unpack exactly why this was happening. But what you need to know, to know why this was happening in the story, is that there was a lot of baptizing the Civil War – not like saying it was OK, but being like, Yeah, we don’t agree with what these people did, but there was so much stuff – because, you know a lot of these people were believers. And so, like, we don’t agree with what they did; but then it made for a good story, essentially. Like it was a good story. It was a good analogy. It was a good way to draw people into some of the narrative that they felt like God was doing. Why they couldn’t just do that – why they had to incorporate the Civil War and all that stuff, I’ll never know.
What I will say – and the reason why I tell that story – is because since then, because somebody actually brought this up; somebody who used to be there actually brought this up publicly. And the leaders, like, in succession, were like, “This was so wrong; we’re so sorry we did this; we hate this, oh my gosh, this was bad, this was horrible. We were really, really ignorant, and we regret this.” And so, I mean, they apologized. And the people, some of the people who did it, some of the people who were part of all of this, were people that I was friends with; and I was still just kind of like, wow. I remember being in the Prayer Room and it would be like, “OK this is weird. Like, why are we singing about Stonewall Jackson?”
Yeah. So all of this is happening in this context. And so along about the time that Ferguson happened – so Ferguson – Trayvon, they weren’t looking for Trayvon, they wouldn’t care about Trayvon. But then whenever Ferguson happened, that was a little bit of a different deal, because it really became a national thing. And so they felt like – because, again, this is aspirational multi-ethnicity. Like, they don’t dislike Black people. Being where we were on the East Coast, there were actually a lot of Black people in the Prayer Room whenever that was happening, and a lot of us were like: the heck? But that’s a whole other, different conversation. But like, the way that they approached some of this stuff was, they wanted to talk about it – but they didn’t know what they were talking about. And they wanted to talk about it; but a lot of the way they wanted to talk about it often catered to white fragility, and often there was a lot of Both Sidesism. There was always the need, because in the Charismatic Prayer Movement — that was what I was part of – there’s this reflexive need that everyone feels – and every movement has this, I guess, in some way. But there’s like this reflexive need to bring it back to abortion. And so if you’re going to be Black, and if you’re going to talk about race, then you’ve also got to talk about the evil of abortion. You’ve got to renounce. And so in order to show that, like, you’re still cool, that you’re still in line, that you’re still solid. So you would hear a lot of the narrative of Black oppression in America – it being framed in terms of abortion. Like, it’s the Black Genocide, and all this stuff. And it was just like: Why can’t we just talk about racism? Like, why – there’s no other issue that y’all are really talking about. Like, you’re talking about other issues, and yes, you’re finding a way to sow abortion back in with them; but it’s like almost completely grafted into the race discussion. And so it’s like you can’t get too far off the beaten path of talking about it. Otherwise – something that I noticed among a lot of Black speakers in that sphere was, they would maybe have a lot of good things to say about race, but then they always found a way to talk about abortion. They always found a way to bring it back to that. And I’m just like, the only reason why I could think of why anybody would do this – and maybe because – I mean, heck, I probably did it a couple of times myself – was not wanting these people to think that you were suspect, theologically, somehow. But anyway.
Q: Yeah. Cringe. A lot of – so much of this.
[END OF PART 1 TRANSCRIPT]