Editor’s note: This article has been updated.
Natasha Sistrunk Robinson, speaker, mentor, and leadership consultant, talks with Faithfully Magazine about her latest book, A Sojourner’s Truth: Choosing Freedom and Courage in a Divided World.
Sistrunk Robinson’s previous books include Mentor for Life: Finding Purpose through Intentional Discipleship and the Hope for Us: Knowing God through the Nicene Creed Bible study. In addition to chairing the Leadership LINKS, Inc. nonprofit, she hosts the “A Sojourner’s Truth: Conversations for a Changing Culture” podcast.
Publisher IVP Books describes A Sojourner’s Truth as “an African-American girl’s journey from South Carolina to the United States Naval Academy, and then to her calling as an international speaker, mentor, and thought-leader.” In the following interview, Sistrunk Robinson discusses themes from the book, including how women rescued Moses, cultural blind spots, and how she learned to truly live free. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.[emaillocker id=60875]
Why this book, and why now?
Because God said so. And I don’t say that lightly. I was working on another book project, but this book was the one that started keeping me up at night.
There was a lot that was happening in our culture and our country—particularly regarding the abuse of Black lives. So many Black people were being shot by the state—or by anybody. These were just regular people doing regular things, trying to live their lives and getting shot for no reason.
All these things were troubling to me, so I found myself getting angry. I was having conversations with God, wrestling with God, and asking God a lot of questions. So the book ended up being that ongoing conversation and prayer, to get me from that place of anger. It was a righteous anger; I just didn’t want to live there.
After the election, I went through a time where it was hard for me to be in predominately-White spaces. In A Sojourner’s Truth, you talk about needing to maintain proximity with White people if we are to reconcile with them and truly love them. You write, “I’ve learned that extending forgiveness requires that I remain close to White people.” How do you balance this proximity with the need for safe spaces?
I think there’s a tension there, for sure. I wanna be clear, too: When I think about safety, I don’t necessarily think about comfort.
For example, there are things that parents do to keep their children safe that don’t always keep them comfortable. You know I just had a conversation with my daughter: It’s October, you need to wear long sleeves at this point. But she’s hot, and I get that. However, the seasons are changing and this is cool weather, and we don’t have time to get the flu. So what you’re gonna do is wear long sleeves, and you may be uncomfortable! But that’s gonna be the best thing for you ‘cause we’re at the end of October and we’re not trying to get sick.
So I think we want to be clear that there’s a difference between what may be safe for a person and ultimately good for a person, and what’s just making them uncomfortable.
What I said in the book is that proximity is an intentional choice and discipline, so that White people don’t become a “they.” It’s too easy to hate, when I look at the history, it’s really easy to—lump everybody in a group—in the same way that historically has been done to Black people in America. To not feed into that temptation and to not sin in the same way then, I think proximity is important.
Now, there also needs to be an element of wisdom and discernment about who you give yourself to, just as a human. There’s a level of discernment about that. And I think that we have a responsibility to know when a place is safe and when I need to have seasons or moments where I need to step back.
Before we [my husband and I] got into this multi-ethnic church, we were at a mostly-White church. We were one of only two Black couples in the church. That’s not where I wanted to be, but we felt called there for that time. I remember telling my husband one Sunday: Look, about every three months, I need to visit a Black church. You don’t have to come. I’m not leaving the church. Nobody needs to start rumors or be concerned. I just need that for my own spiritual formation. That’s something you need to learn and know about yourself as well. So even for people like us who are committed to racial reconciliation, there are times and seasons—especially when things are as things are in the world now—to draw back and discern what they need to do so that they can be spiritually healthy.
That has to be okay, if we care for the human.
Amen. I want to talk a little bit about Moses and Natasha. How did your deep connection to the story of Moses develop?
When God was prompting me to tell my story, my thoughts were: How can I anchor my thoughts in the Word? Moses was a very easy choice because when I thought about the history of Blacks in America…
Even for the slaves, once they learned the story that people were born and died in slavery, their thought was, if God delivered the Israelites from 400 years of slavery, then most certainly He is able to deliver us. I’ve always known that. That’s how Harriet Tubman got the nickname ‘Moses.’ When I said, I’m gonna tell a story about a Black girl from the South, of course I’d use this story because this story has anchored Black people in America for centuries and generations.
I really loved when you talked about Moses being rescued by women. I’ve read the story a million times, I’ve heard a million sermons, but that has never clearly been communicated and pointed out to me.
Right, because most of the time, you probably heard it from a man. This is the danger of having too much of an expectation on what our pastors do for us. We have to study the Book. We have to study to show ourselves approved. We have to hide the Word in our hearts so we don’t sin against God. We have a responsibility as believers. When I was writing this book, by and large, I read this story over and over again. I read Exodus and Numbers and Deuteronomy, in different translations, over and over.
I don’t think we give enough attention to the act that Pharaoh’s daughter makes. This could’ve been considered an act of treason. That was a really bold, courageous move on her part. She could’ve easily gotten a girl, right? Let’s not forget that these people are slaves. She could’ve gotten anything that she wanted. The fact that she chose to keep a boy when her dad was murdering all the boys…
You’ve never heard it before because too often we’re only hearing these stories from the perspective of men, and then we’re not studying it on our own to really see what the Bible says about a matter.
Double Amen. And even as I was finishing this book and thinking about this book, an idea that has permeated the American church is that there’s only one right way to interpret Scripture…
I asked my early church history professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary-Charlotte, “How is it that Christians throughout history messed up so badly, like the crusades? There are a lot of ways that clearly we got stuff wrong. How is it that we say that we love Jesus and have these grave, catastrophic errors?”
He said: We forget what we bring to the Word. What we bring to the Word is culture, is our emotions, our baggage and our family and what we think about gender and class and politics. All these things we bring to the Word. We’re not studying the Word in isolation. It affects how we interpret Scripture. And it’s always been that way.
Anyone who says that we only study the Scripture with the Spirit… that’s true, but it’s not the complete truth.
There is a right way to approach Scripture, let’s be clear about that, but the problem comes when we say that we have the ONLY WAY to interpret Scripture, and not look at our own blind spots.
“…the problem with Pharaoh is that he thinks he’s god. The problem with the people is that they believe him. That’s a weird spiritual thing.”
On page 197 you write, “Sometimes we have to lose individually so we can win collectively.” Can you give me examples of people who are finding ways to speak against something and sacrifice for it?
One thing I’m really excited about is seeing more and more people of color and more Black women taking the risk to trust themselves with the gift that God has given them and giving themselves the time to build slowly and to build well so that they’re building to last.
I see that with Nicola starting Faithfully Magazine. I see it with Lisa A. Fields who has started the Jude 3 Project.That is an apologetic ministry. I see it with my friend Amena Brown and how she’s having a global impact with Woman to Woman Rwanda. I see it with Lisa Sharon Harper with her ministry, Freedom Road. And people like Jo Saxton with “Lead Stories” and the Ezer Collective, with the fabulous podcast “Truth’s Table.” It’s also what I’m doing through my nonprofit, Leadership LINKS, Inc.
Everywhere I turn, what is inspiring to me is that I see Black women who love Jesus, that are cultivating community, that are building their own tables. They’ve put in the hard work. They studied to show themselves approved. They prayed about that thing. And you best believe that everyone one of us—it’s costing us something.
On page 158 you say, “People of color need to learn for themselves how to truly live free. We have been conditioned to see ourselves through the lens of the dominant people group.” How have you learned to truly live free?
Another point of the book is that the problem with Pharaoh is that he thinks he’s god. The problem with the people is that they believe him. That’s a weird spiritual thing.
I think what we don’t realize as people of color and particularly as women, is that we have been told and have processed subconsciously what is good and right and perfect and pure and beautiful—it’s been based on what other people have said about us. So then we’ve adopted those messages for ourselves: my nose is big, or hair is nappy, because that’s what other people have told us. And all these things, even as children, have been told to us.
I’m natural now. That’s just how the Lord made me. There are some days my hair looks great, ‘cause I want it to, and there are some days that it doesn’t, and I don’t care. And I’m not looking for you to tell me that it does or doesn’t, cause what you say about my hair doesn’t matter to me.
Same thing about my attire. Are you comfortable with wearing a t-shirt that says Jesus or Black Lives Matter, or a woman with a big afro on it? Are you comfortable with the way that God sent you here? Because He said that He sent you here. He said that that was very good, right?
So living free is not apologizing for how God sent me here, and not apologizing for the things that God has sent in my life to shape me into the person I am today. I’m not apologizing for being a speaker. I’m not apologizing for being successful. If a man did it, we’d celebrate it, but because I’m a woman…
Truly living free is honoring the person that I am and having a heart of gratitude for it, not being angry that I am a woman or Black, even in America at this time. It’s looking at all of those things not as curses, but as blessings. If I live in my authentic self—in His image—I am honoring God in that alone.
What’s your prayer for everyone who reads this book?
I’m praying for a few things. I’m praying, first of all, that they will meet with the Lord, that it will be an act of spiritual formation for the reader.
That we would be asking questions about what the Lord is asking us or requiring of us in this season. What are the things I need to stand up for?
My prayer for people of color and women of color in particular, is that they get some healing. That God has been with us in our journey. He has not abandoned us; He has not left us alone in the wilderness. The wilderness is a part of our journey. This is not the last bad President or last bad situation, and it won’t be the end of us.
I hope that for people in the majority—that it will be a source of education. That they will ask the Lord about some of their blind spots, and that God will ultimately be glorified in that process.