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Author: Merianna Harrelson

I am the Pastor of New Hope Christian Fellowship and Director of Ministrieslab providing tools and resources to churches, clergy, and lay people to meet need. I am always looking for a good cup of coffee and a great book to read.

Being a Woman in Southern Culture

In the wake of the Dr. Christine Ford’s testimony revealing allegations of attempted rape by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, there has been much discussion about whether victims of sexual assault, harassment, and abuse have space and a voice to share their experiences. Many have argued that the social climate and context in the 80s perceived attempted rape by a known person as somehow different than by a stranger in a dark alley indicated in movies like Sixteen Candles.

I would argue, too, that the geographic culture of the South and the Bible Belt have also made it difficult for victims to report and to share their experiences. This has a lot to do with the stereotypical picture of a Southern Woman. Growing up as a woman in the south in the Bible Belt, I heard again and again that the greatest aspiration for a woman was to be a mom. As a mother of three and one on the way, I agree to this sentiment, but not to the stereotypes and unrealistic expectations that are in the subtext of that statement. There’s a false and dangerous assumption here that a southern woman should be completely fulfilled when she becomes a mom. There is so much damage in this cultural expectation for women who don’t want to have children, women who need or want to work after they have children, and for stay-at-home moms who want time away from their kids. The expectation that underlies this idea is that a southern woman who is a mom should have endless and boundless amounts of energy to devote to her children, which creates dangerous patterns of ignoring self-care, signs of fatigue and exhaustion that lead to ongoing health problems, and never, ever asking for help because this is what southern women are supposed to do. It’s the idea that somehow as a southern woman who constantly self-sacrifices in the forms of hospitality and serving because that is we are wired and created to do. Not only is this an unrealistic and untenable expectation, it is a gross overgeneralization of gender roles.

I personally didn’t realize how much this was ingrained into as a girl who grew up in the Bible Belt, southern culture until I had children of my own. The pressing thoughts in my head about providing them meals and clean clothes and guidance would drive me to the point of frenzied anxiety. This anxiety permeated our home and our family for no good reason except this internal “this is what I am supposed to do.” Until I took the time to analyze and wonder where these ideas were coming from, I drove myself and my family to the point of exhaustion and fatigue. Perhaps it was also a need to be needed that drove these thoughts and ideas, but no matter the motivator, it was unhealthy and unbalanced.

It is never, ever easy to ask for help, but there is so much more joy and love and just plain fun when we work to create intentional space to grow and learn together. To be certain, I still fall into these learned behavior patterns and those expectations and societal expectations I learned long ago still creep in, but the more time I take to ask myself, “What do I want my children to remember about growing up?” the more time I find for dance parties, fort building and serving our community together.

Halfway There, Living on a Prayer

Yesterday, we hit the 20-week mark on this journey to welcoming a new little one into the Harrelson Pack. It took me by surprise to think that we were already halfway there to meeting this little one. This little one that we just found out is a GIRL!

In the midst of the excitement, I was inundated with the news of the accusations of rape against Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaughn and conversations surrounding this news. To read that Republicans claim this wasn’t a big deal and then to read religious leaders claim it’s not a big deal heaping spiritual abuse onto Dr. Ford have left me speechless. To think that these leaders who are trying to push through a Supreme Court nominee who wasn’t accountable to the law is baffling to me. How can we expect that he will not use the law to get away with other forms of abuse once his power increases if he is confirmed?

But even more than these details about the overall health and integrity of the most powerful governing body in our country, my mind keeps returning to our baby girl. How are we supposed to raise a girl to become a strong, confident woman in the midst of this climate and context where women aren’t believed? How are we supposed to keep her safe and strong and brave? How when there are so examples of political abuse and spiritual abuse protecting men who break the law? How when we have a president who has multiple allegations of sexual assault and harassment and jokes about women’s bodies?

And I think 20 more weeks isn’t enough to create everything I want to create for this little girl and for our 10-year-old and 8-year-old girls. It’s not enough time. There aren’t enough people working to overcome these powerful, powerful forces that have protected crime against women again and again. There’s not enough money to hire the best lawyers to fight NDAs and settlements and discrimination that sets the foundation for this type of oppression to take place. There’s not…enough.

Even as the tears fall in my laments, there are rays of hope. Women supporting Dr. Ford and her courage and bravery from her high school. Women and men coming together to rally again, understanding that the #metoo is not over and there’s still so much work to be done.

Here we are halfway there, living on a prayer and a hope that we will come together and we will create a better place for girls and women.

Spiritual Abuse and Natural Disasters

With Florence about to make landfall in South Carolina, people have been preparing for power outages and damages. In the midst of all of us trying to anticipate the uncertain, bad theology has come to the surface. This theology invites judgment about who deserves God’s protection and who doesn’t deserve God’s protection. This week Pat Robertson called on God and his people to pray a “hedge of protection” around their church and their properties. This is spiritual abuse.

Fundamentalism can’t thrive in uncertainties and so leaders of fundamentalism have to depend on predicting the unpredictable and trying to bring order out of the chaos that occurs during a natural disaster. These theological claims distract us from confronting the stark realities that natural disasters reveal. Over the course of the last week, I’ve heard many people asking condescendingly why people aren’t evacuating during the mandatory evacuations issued by the Governor in South Carolina. From the outside looking in, it would be easy to conclude that those not evacuating are people who are stubborn or who think the storm won’t be as bad as predicted. This conclusion allows us to turn a blind eye to the socioeconomic divisions that continue to segregate our state.

In reality, many can’t evacuate because they don’t have the resources to evacuate. Many can’t evacuate because of disability, economic restrictions, and responsibility to care for family members who are physically unable to travel. None of these reasons talks about the cost of evacuation: supplies, gas, hotels. For people who were born and raised in the community, evacuation is leaving their whole network. These are people who depend on every shift of work to make ends meet and having their jobs closed means they won’t be able to buy what they need. Evacuation is a privilege.

If there’s still a doubt as to whether evacuation reveals the divisions among citizens, recent reports reveal that the Governor of South Carolina did not make plans to evacuate the prisoners in the mandatory evacuate zones. When asked about those who couldn’t afford to evacuate, the FEMA Coordinator explained that FEMA doesn’t pay for evacuation expenses.

Our eyes are opened as we prepare for a natural disaster to the realities that separate us economically, racially, and socially. The question is will we see these uncomfortable realities or hide behind a hedge of protection laced with spiritual abuse?

Spiritual Abuse: Actions Speak Louder than Words

I’ve been pondering the discussions about Pastor Charles H Ellis and Ariana Grande for over a week. There was so much about this interaction that reminded me of similar situations I have been in as a woman and as a woman who attends religious services regularly. There is no doubt in my mind that Ariana felt uncomfortable in the interaction. I also recognize the exhaustion and pressure Pastor Ellis must have felt as he performed such a monumental and lengthy funeral as a member of the clergy.

But perhaps it is his fatigue that indicates where the problem lies. Perhaps it is when we are tired and when we are under pressure that we revert to our natural instincts and reactions. As a society, our natural instincts or our normal mode of operation is one that includes harassment, sexism, and spiritual abuse. Even with the revelation so the #metoo movement, we all witnessed before millions the way power and position are used to control women. In Ariana’s case, she was stuck in an extended embrace. Many women can tell similar stories of being stuck in too long or awkward or unwanted hugs. We recognize the look on her face and she realizes he’s not letting go. We feel her powerlessness as the “I’m stuck” realization washes over her face.

It’s hard to watch. It’s uncomfortable to watch.

Just as it is hard to hear of yet another victim coming forward in the Willow Creek’s former pastor Bill Hybels’ sexual misconduct case come forward. Not another one, we hope. Because another one would indicate that there were even more people who were silenced and told not to share their stories. Willow Creek’s response has been to concentrate on communication, but some are arguing that communication, or words, are not enough. Action is needed.

But we must open our eyes and see that things have not changed since the #metoo movement. We have heard the stories, but those stories, those conversations haven’t changed our mode of operation or what we do when we are exhausted and tired. If we really want to change these things, we must examine not only our words and language but our actions too.

Actions speak louder than words.

‘member that, Mommy?

As our son nears three, he is beginning to understand the passing of time. Terms like tomorrow and yesterday are starting to enter his vocabulary. Tomorrow usually pops up as the time when he doesn’t want to do something like clip his fingernails or go to the doctor. Yesterday usually appears when he is certain there is something we are about to do that we have already done like go to the store or going to school.

With these terms comes the question, “‘member that, Mommy?” especially when there was a particularly fun adventure like going to a baseball game. And every time I hear the question, I can’t help but smile and answer, “I do buddy, that was really fun, wasn’t it?” We are entering the stage where his memories are beginning to make lasting impressions. He understands what it means to be scared and he remembers when he found that spider on the ground. He understands what it means to hurt and he remembers when he got that splinter in his toe. He understands what it means to be happy and he remembers that time we all piled into the daddy’s truck and drove to the beach. He understands what it means to be loved and he remembers the times we turn the music up and dance around the living room.

As I watch this all unfold within him, I wonder if we remember. Do we remember what it feels like to be scared, to hurt, to be happy, to be loved? The words I overhear and the words I read are so often filled with emptiness, filling space with nothingness at best and hurt and pain at worst. Because we don’t want to remember.

We don’t want to remember the times we were scared and so we inflict fear on other people. We don’t want to remember that times we were in pain and so we inflict hurt on other people. We don’t want to remember the times we were happy because what if something happens and that disappears. We don’t want to remember the times we were truly and completely loved because that would ask us to truly and deeply love other people.

Remembering causes us to reflection, compassion, and empathy. Remembering asks us to recognize within us what is within all humans: fear, hurt, loneliness, joy, and love. Remembering asks us to recall the story of God who sent God’s only son to the world not to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved. Remembering is a radical spiritual discipline that recalls that we are ash and to ash we shall return. Remembering is a revolutionary call to honor the Divine breath that dwells in each and every human being.

Do this in remembrance of me.

Spiritual Abuse and The Process of Untraining

I found myself in an uncomfortable situation this week that reminded me of my conservative, evangelical upbringing. The semon was similar. The tone was similar. The lack of space for questions or discussion was similar. I found myself shifting in my seat trying to comprehend how I had ended up in a situation that reminded me so much of my past.

If you have childhood trauma of any sort, then you, too, know that these triggering events can creep up on you. Sometimes you can anticipate and predict what is going to take you down into the spiral of where you have been. The doubts. The questions. The emotions. And sometimes these triggers surprise you and threaten to drag you under the wave of remembering when you haven’t had time to take a good, deep breath.

Your mind begins the process of wondering, “How did this happen? How am I here again?” When this happens it would be easy to be hard on yourself telling yourself you haven’t made any progress because here you are again in the whirlwind of self-doubt and uncertainty. It’s easy in these moments to beat yourself up because you put yourself in a triggering situation.

But if you look hard enough in these moments, you can see and recognize little moments of light. If you offer yourself grace and space, then you will see that you behaved differently than you have before. You reached out for support or your center remained steady even in the midst of the situation or you were able to talk about the event in safe community.

Your eyes are opened and you can see that slowly, but surely you’re untraining yourself. Maybe you will never get rid of your past, but you this time you were able to not let the past take over. You were able to bring yourself back to the present. Back to your home.

Nothing Could Be Finer…Unless You’re a Woman

I grew up in South Carolina and went to college in South Carolina. I’ve taught and worked in South Carolina for the majority of my professional career both as a teacher and as a minister. Although I love so much about the state, I am shocked at the number of people who don’t understand the realities we face in South Carolina.

South Carolina ranks #5 in domestic violence and is one of the top 5 states in the country for women killed by men. A recent report, just revealed that South Carolina is named one of 2018 worst states for women’s equality. Coincidence? I don’t think so. South Carolina continues to top charts in ignoring the reality that women in our state are in danger. They are in danger of losing their lives. They are in danger of discrimination, underemployment, and being looked over for promotions.

And none of this can change because women are severely underrepresented because we rank 49th in the political representation gap. Things will not change until we have more voices of women in leadership positions in our businesses, in our state house, and in our capital. Things will not change until we value the lives of the women in South Carolina as much as male counterparts.

There is much work to do.

Children’s Books that Teach Kids to Love Language

Sometimes in our desire to make sure our children are learning all of the important preliteracy skills they need, we forget the power of loving language. Words are powerful, but words are also fun and funny and whimsical. As I was studying to be a reading specialist, one of the things I always wanted to include in my lesson plans and my units was a love of language. I wanted to encourage children and students to play with language and words because we know that it’s in play that children develop lifelong skills they will carry with them throughout their lives.

Here are some of our favorites because the language is so fun.

Mo Williems is one of my all-time favorite authors, especially in the way he invites his readers to respond and interact with his characters, but there’s something just a little bit different about this book. This is not only a fractured fairy tales (maybe my favorite genres), but the irony and sarcasm that runs throughout the book is so clever. Certainly, a must read for any age!

 

 

Anna Dewdney developed a lovable character in Llama llama red pajama, but the way she integrated this character into stories full of rhyme and rhythm is superb. “Please stop all this llama drama and be patient with your mama,” is a line we use all the time at our house!

I remember reading the BFG as a child and one of the aspects of the book that I loved is that you didn’t know who the BFG was unless you read the book. It was a mysterious acronym that only readers were privy to understanding. The words that the BFG makes up and uses to substitute for other words not only make the reader pay closer attention, but invite laughter and fun. Who didn’t want to try some frobscottle after reading this book?

There’s always room for rhyme and play with language while reading, while riding in the car, and while running errands. The more children hear language and especially fun with language the more inclined they will be to tackle new words, new meanings, and new ways to use language.

On Confronting My Privilege as a White Mom

I’ve been pondering, lamenting, and praying about the children separated from their families at our border. I’ve read as many different reports as I can trying desperately to understand the different sides of the issue, how long the practice has been taking place, and what I could possibly do to help better the situation. There is no doubt that children being separated from their parents, especially their mothers, at a young age is detrimental to their well-being, their sense of safety, and their overall growth. Again and again, in these discussions, I have heard people explaining that these mothers were putting their children in harm’s way by trying to come across the border. Again and again, I have heard versions of, “They got what was coming to them.” And to be honest part of me understands the sentiment behind these statements. Why would you, as a mom, risk crossing a border now knowing the consequences for your child?

As I thought about this question, I couldn’t help but think of books that I have read where mothers put their kids in harm’s way. Sheila Ingle in her book Courageous Kate tells the story of Kate Moore Barry tied her infant child to a bedpost as she rode away to deliver a message to her husband that the British were coming.

Michel Stone in her books Iganuna Tree and Border Child, tells of a mother who trusts a coyote with her child to cross the border in hopes of a better life.

Robert O’Brien in his book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, tells the story of a mouse mom who leaves her four children at home desperately searching for medicine and a new home for her son is so sick he cannot leave the bed.

As I thought about these books, these mothers, I thought about the extreme circumstance they found themselves in: war, abject poverty, and loss of life of one of their children. I thought about how as a white mom in the United States, I have never encountered a situation so dire that I would risk leaving my child or being separated from my child in order to offer a better life for him. I have never had to make what has to be a gut-wrenching, soul-crushing decision. I have never had to make that decision because of the privilege I have as a white mom in the United States.

Reflecting on that privilege, I realize my gut reactions to these stories are going to be laced with bias and assumptions created and formed by that privilege. I can never know what these families and these mothers are going through.

And so instead of judging or assuming, I will instead hope. Hope that more and more people in our country will take the time to read extensively and examine their privilege. It is only in engaging in these things that we will be able to overcome the vast divisions that privilege creates.

On Missions

Last week I took six youth, one college student, and one young professional down to Conway, SC for Youth Missions Week. I am not a youth minister, but when I found that 25% of my current congregation was youth, I knew there was something missing in the life and work of our church. We needed our youth to have meaningful experiences. We need our youth’s questions and wonderings. We needed to invest in mission experiences and devotion times and jumping in pools and getting caught in the rain. These are the experiences that help our youth understand what it means practically to live a life as a Christian.

And so we packed up three cars with suitcases, food, and crafts and headed to the coast not knowing exactly what we would encounter. We knew of the good work Palmetto Missionary Baptist Church was doing with Palmetto Kids. We knew that partnering was powerful and so we showed up with willing hearts and willing hands to help pitch in. As it turns out, the teachers and youth groups that Palmetto Missionary Baptist Church usually have come to help them in the summers weren’t able to come this year: the same year we felt called to partner with them in their work. Crazy how the Holy Spirit moves and works things together, isn’t it?

As we taught and played game and painted and crafted, we were overwhelmed by the connection we formed with the Palmetto Kids. How could that happen so quickly? How could we do more to help at risks students? Our work was tiring, but inspiring. The faces of those kids, the laughter, and tears as we worked and studied alongside each other is not something we will soon forget.

This is church.