The greatest teachable moments I have as a counselor educator are those that my students and I have together. The particular moment that I’m writing about occurred last summer in a group skills development. The group was comprised of 15 students, 10 of whom were women of African-American or of mixed African-American descent. Of the other students, one was from a Latin American country and the others were White and from the U.S (I’ll get to why this is important, later). This valuable discussion was introduced by two students (who were taking their turn as co-leaders) who invited the discussion of group members’ foundation or “rock.” This took the topic to the importance of religion in the students’ lives, with people sharing various degrees of spiritual truth. However, two of the African-American students, whom I’ll call LaTonya and Mary, remained silent. After the group leaders completed their period in the lead, I reconvened in the group, and asked the group to help identify who had remained silent. Mary was quick to share: “I’m mad at the church. I’m mad at people using religion to mistreat people. My sister has a gay son, and she refuses to accept him on the basis of religion. That baby needs her!” Mary was visibly very hurt by what she revealed. LaTonya then shared, “I’m not sure I believe in God or the church.” Not wanting to miss the moment that was needed for everyone in the room, and also trusting in the love and support that the group had come to establish over its time together (this was truly an amazing group of students), I asked Mary and LaTonya how it felt to name their experiences in a room in which so many people had expressed strong faith in God and their respective churches. “Scary!” they said in unison. “Scary because it’s hard to tell this stuff to Black people,” Mary said. “Scary because people expect you to have faith, and when you don’t, people assume you must be searching,” added LaTonya. This very powerful group was able to be visibly moved, offering very sincere respect and support for Mary’s and LaTonya’s experiences. One of the women in the group, a minister whom I’ll call Loretta, offered also to Mary that she had a gay son, and talked about how her religiosity provided her a means to express love and compassion for his gayness. This was clearly important for Mary, who hugged Loretta in response. Several members also expressed to LaTonya their desire that she lives her own truth, whatever this might be. As important as this moment would have been on its own, the group was able to take the discussion to another level of vulnerability. We identified how religiosity and church life have been such a solid identity component for African-American people and have been a source of survival and resilience for the culture in facing centuries of adversity. To that point, we specified the tremendous challenge for Mary and LaTonya to express their respective anger and ambiguity toward religion in a room that had not only African-American women on a continuum of religiosity, but non-African-American students, also. The importance, as summarized by Loretta, was in the “textures” of people’s lives and experiences. How valuable it was to see these textures in our room, allowing each of us, both African-American and non-African-American members, to see the complexity in a people’s experience. The importance was in recognizing an individual’s challenges of belonging to a marginalized cultural identity, and owning in a room with people both inside and outside of the culture that even the deepest of cultural components feel less real. As one student reported, “I’ve been Black my whole life, but learned a lot today about what it means to be Black.”
Stacee Reicherzer is a counselor, a faculty member at Walden University, and a private consultant with special interests that include: transgender issues in counseling, lateral (within-group) marginalization, and sexual abuse survival.