Rev. Diane Ford Dessables is the founder of Gemstones in the Sun (GITS), an online blog where people of color (POC i.e., the Indigenous, descendants of slaves and immigrants of color) share their experiences with beliefs, shifting values, and resources. Through Gemstones in the Sun, Dessables also convenes spiritual support groups called Gemstones in the Sun Freedom Circles for POC to work together to “lessen greed and lack while striving to share abundantly and live life purposefully.” The celebratory manner in which this sort of collective POC striving occurs among “Gemstones” and their allies can be viewed in this video.
Dessables is ordained in the United Church of Christ and is a lifelong diaspora-member of the Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C. Her current ministry focuses on the intersection of faith and money in marginalized communities of color during this era of ecological strain, demographic shift, and transformative healing. Her work has been steady and intensive, with the passion of a call that empowers communities to sustainability with loving, supportive direction.
In this interview, Dessables shares why she started Gemstones in the Sun and how sharing our own stories enables us to see the roots of our relationship with faith and money.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Christina Colón (Faith and Money Network): In your introductory post to the blog, you write, “I am wondering how strong the bond that people of color share actually is, and if money has left us so desirous of gain that we share very little faith in each other.” You go on to say that this blog is that place to bring people together. I’m wondering, why a blog?
Rev. Diane Ford Dessables (Gemstones in the Sun): I wanted to create a space where people could talk about what community means for them and what they long for. But I didn’t want that to just be a closed door conversation. The blogs are about storytelling. Our stories transcend cultural impediments. It is imperative that you tell us your story. And the stories speak for themselves … they offer other people who are not POC an opportunity to see, hear, contextualize, and learn about a different set of ways of being and value structures that may be unfamiliar and that they may fear. They can’t come to appreciate something that they don’t yet know anything about, let alone claim in public space or determine how they make use of their own resources.
People of color in the world have been subject to colonialism, neocolonialism, slavery, and underestimation, no matter where we’re from. There have been very intentional systems and mechanisms across centuries that have kept us apart. The whole construct of race and racism [in the U.S.] originated out of a need for those who owned property to exploit free labor to enrich themselves, and prevent those whom they exploited from having the means to curb that exploitation. The fragmentation that people of color have experienced was deliberate. The strategy of “divide and conquer” used by many among the “property ownership class” (i.e., those who rank in and above the top 10 percent of financial worth in this country), that pitted us POC in lower socioeconomic brackets against each other is as old as the hills. And the use of this strategy is by no means just being implemented by white folks. And while poor white people have also been exploited to this end, the harshness of the impact that it has historically had on the majority of POC in America has been disproportionate. That’s why, in my view, fighting for social justice often feels like a Whac-A-Mole game, as each justifiably enraged group advocates on its own behalf to gain strides for their respective groups of people of color.
In order to thrive in the U.S., we POC need to heal. For us, no matter if we were here before everyone else, born here, repatriated here, brought here by force, or willingly came here, internalized oppression, I believe, is an unaddressed manifestation of racism that can and is all too often confused for POC being inwardly and outwardly racist themselves. Most POC before America prided themselves on relationship with community, relationship with nature, and relationship with spirit. However, in our American culture – a culture which prides itself in and cultivates its residence to take stock of themselves through pursuits of profits for personal gain’s sake – in order to thrive, POC are forced to accommodate harmful mythological American norms like, for example, aiming to “pull oneself up by one’s own bootstraps,” at the expense of accommodating, or even recognizing, our own healthier ones. This having to tear away from one’s true self erodes our spirits and causes us harm. “Gemstones” builds lasting solidarity by doing our inner work, collectively.
But in our search for answers and in dealing with the root cause of “the interruption,” we POC must give ourselves an opportunity to heal on our own terms and to do so collectively. Those words — on our own terms — matter. Without it, there won’t be a lasting transformation or a lasting peace. We cannot heal if we continue to look for white people to create the conditions under which we POC heal. It won’t be real. It will be limited to what Western-world policy prescriptions and their religious institutions suggest it should be. But that’s a very surface and temporary fix to what is a much deeper malady and a far deeper source of POC redress for the harm that we have endured. That’s why I created the blog. It is not a conversation that is normally had in American society, let alone in POC society. POC folks, we are typically busy trying to survive. Whether you’re Native American folks at Standing Rock, or folks in Puerto Rico trying to survive a hurricane. And then there are kids at the border who were ripped from their parents, and African American folks who are getting shot by police. POC must heal so that the fruits of their building a new solidarity cooperative economy can by extension be offered by them to every marginalized and exploited group in American society, including but not limited to our white brothers and sisters in Appalachia who too have been used, lied to, and abused. We’re constantly playing Whac-A-Mole in our pursuit of justice because we are literally consumed with trying to survive. Now is the time for us POC to collectively be proactive rather than reactive by addressing the internal effects of the — overtly harsh and microaggressive — external oppression we are dealt on a regular basis. That’s the movement of the POC spirit that we Gemstones seek to recall, inspire, and channel. In lies our true strength and source(s) of power.
I was in a job interview a couple of years ago and somebody asked me, how would you deal with racism? And I said I don’t. And they said, why? I said, because it’s not my issue to fix. I didn’t come up with a construct of racism in order to enrich myself. I don’t perpetuate it via the exploitation of POC. It’s not my problem. My concern is how do I address my internalized oppression? Because as I address my internalized oppression, as I throw off all of the shackles that others seek to confine me to and live into my authentic self by allowing the Source of my soul to direct how, what, and when I do what I do, then I no longer give someone else the licence nor power to niche me into being constricted by their racism or anything else that is not in my best interest. I no longer assume responsibility for that falsely contrived problem or submit myself to that self-defeating posture. I move on. I self-empower to move into a very different way of being in relationship to myself and other people. I cut ties with being part of a dysfunctional codependent relationship with non-POC. I reset the terms of our social contract by no longer buying into our old American caste construct. I grant myself and other POC permission to follow my/our Great Spirit’s leading, instead. At its heart, that’s what Gemstones in the Sun is attempting to do.
Colón: I personally thought about my own history and relationship when reading the blog. I’m Puerto Rican. And I was thinking a lot when I was reading your posts about my own family and history in ways that I hadn’t before.
Dessables: When I wrote my introductory post, the idea was to scratch down just a little bit below the surface to the woundedness that we all experience, so that we can get to the place where we experience the joy. We can walk around our woundedness, or we can embrace our woundedness, and let our woundedness break open and pull forth our true depths of consciousness. And there’s a tremendous amount to celebrate about what our true depth of consciousness holds. That’s the reason why POC have been vilified. It’s because we carry a deep, rich, long-lasting legacy of consciousness that is not driven by the commodification of things or people, or the earth. The more we assimilate into this culture because we have to survive, the more we forget what those original values are.
Colón: You have this really great line where you write, “I think non-people of color are especially concerned about what we could do with the American dollars that we earn, manage, or administer, in the second half of this century.” What is your vision or hope for a new — or returned to — economy? What has to be overcome or countered for it to be achieved?
Dessables: I’m glad you said return to, because what I’m talking about is very old. Recovery is a spiritual process. There are a lot of people who are trying to fix things. Public policy has its place. But public policy is not going to address the root of what needs to be addressed. For POC, it’s an inward-outward journey. Our Gemstones in the Sun Freedom Circles are used as a means for exploring our inward journey. It’s the place where POC come to have those private conversations of healing, that sacred space that allows us to remember, reclaim, and mourn what has been lost and connect with the things that we need to connect to. All of that sharing about our beliefs, shifting values, and resources in America happens in the Freedom Circles.
The conversations are facilitated. There’s a sharing at the beginning. Trust is formed. Healing occurs. Connections are made. Spiritual consciousness is deepened. A depth of appreciation for each other’s cultural wellspring occurs. Someone on the border of Texas will find tremendous synergy with someone in Puerto Rico, who will find tremendous synergy with somebody in the Dakotas or with those who live in Dearborn, MI, or Macon GA. And those folks who find synergy around something that moves them out of the depths of their consciousness, out of the depths of conversations, form a group together. So now you’ve crossed geographic boundaries, language boundaries, and what had been perceived cultural boundaries into a true remembrance of what POC community is all about. It’s POC-owned, POC-inspired, POC values that have the potential to serve the entire American society well, because POC did not originate from societies where privatized and individualised concerns were championed for the purposes of privatized nor individualized gain.
Since the pandemic has started and everybody’s using Zoom, you would think that because there’s a life-threatening virus roaming the planet, that there would be more time that each person would carve out to treasure and savor the things that are most important to them. But that’s not what is occurring. What’s occurring is an uptick of work. Everybody is driven more into work. The way we value, the way we quantify or place a value on people in this society, is based on what our work is. It’s not based on who we are as human beings. It’s based on what we can produce, as if human beings themselves are simply confined to being commodities. How sad is that?
Colón: That is so true. I live in a studio apartment and I feel there’s no separation between my work and any other part of my life. I have found myself working more hours. It often feels like I have to.
Dessables: I suspect that if you could climb into a time capsule and go back to talk to your great-great-grandparents, it would be a very different story. They would be working hard, don’t get me wrong, probably working with the earth, but their values around that were very different and the values around who they were working in community with, and the purpose of that work, and what it served, and what it stood for, and what it meant, and where it came from, and who Created it — with a capital C — was very different.
Colón: I’m glad you brought up this current moment that we’re in, because one of the things you talk about is that, “what we gain through our relationships must remain greater than the sum of our monetary transactions.” That’s a powerful way of thinking about how we are interconnected in ways that we don’t think about. Currently, we are in this moment of real financial struggle and forced distance. How are you living in this moment? And how might you encourage others to live in this moment?
Dessables: I cannot speak to how others need to live in this moment in time. But I can share with you how I’m trying to live through what I believe is a season of transformation here, across the world and perhaps even across the cosmos, right now.
I’ve been reflecting on Psalm 150. In the Bible, it follows many psalms of lament. And found in Psalm 150 is a directive: “Praise God in God’s sanctuary. Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!” That directive coupled with the scripture taken [from] John 15:4-8 when Jesus basically says to his disciples just prior to his crucifixion, “Stay in me so I can do my best work through you … No branch can bear fruit by itself. Without the vine – the living God and Source of Life – we become like the branch that withers away, loses its ability to bear fruit.”
I love coupling these two directives in my mind because it has been challenging me to consider, who are the people in God’s sanctuary? What does God’s sanctuary look like today? Stay in me so I can fully indwell joy in you, Jesus says. No matter who you are, how you pray, or if you pray, allow my “Christ-likeness” in you to bear witness of God’s presence to me.
I’ve been spending a great deal of my time in both my personal and my vocational life considering how I do that. And how might those of us who are building Gemstones in the Sun and doing other things to try to make this world a better place, do that. How do we human beings shift our earthly consciousness; our limited vision; our prescribed/scripted expectations; our reflective instinct to resist change; our firm grasp of control; and our preserved/perceived sources of power? How do we shift these things toward a deeper, vaster, wider, unlimited, organic, flexible, far less transactional, non-hierarchical, non-judgmental, non-dogmatic, clear visioned, non-proprietary way of being in this world? And how do we use this transformed way of being to come into the fullness of who we really are – by building connections, being conduits for healing, responding to another’s pain, relinquishing ownership, cooperating with each other in concert with all of nature itself?
I’ve been focusing all of my energy on asking God to order my steps so that by Her/They/His mercy I might be granted the wisdom to scratch the surface of which foot needs to be placed before the next toward arriving at that more integrated way of being fully aware and completely alive.
Colón: A few years ago, you went on one of the Trips of Perspective to Haiti with the Faith & Money Network. How has that trip informed your work?
Dessables: There are several things that happened on that trip. It was the first time ever I’d stepped into a completely African-originated country. So, the first thing was just to get over the culture shock of stepping off the plane and seeing all these Black folk who look like me. But then to see all the little ways in which the African culture permeates through time and space. It’s really quite amazing. And the abundance of joy in the midst of struggle was familiar to me. The embrace of life and the celebration of its Source while moving through the day-to-day challenges of living, it’s not at all unfamiliar to me.
I was just talking to my sister-in-law who is Haitian about this. I said, remember I told you a little while ago that all of our GITS Freedom Circles are centered on shifting values of resources? We were talking about shifting values, she and I, and the way that the men in Haiti move a heavy sack from the ground. They toss it from one person to the next, up the ladder to the person on the ladder and then he tosses it up to the rooftop. It’s just amazing to watch. And the women in the marketplace. Maybe one person is selling bananas and just a few stalls down, another person is selling bananas. They’re neighbors. They know each other, but they don’t compete with each other. Even if one has sold all of their bananas for the day, the other will walk down and help the other. It’s a different way of being in a community. Here, competition rules. Haitians have a very different value structure. In my experience, most non-westernized POC do to one degree or another all be there living in or born in America, or not.
Our conversation took me back to the stories about my great-grandparents. My great-grandfather on my mother’s side, in order to save up enough money to purchase a one-way ticket so that my grandmother could go to college — because somebody gave her a scholarship and she was the first person to go to college in their family — he planted wheat in a small plot. He milled wheat in his hands until he got a sack of wheat, and then he sold it so that she could have a one-way ticket to go. My other great-grandfather wrapped his feet in cow dung in the winter time so that he could go out to farm and his toes wouldn’t get frostbitten. And it was they who sheltered one community member after another in their homes until they were able to stand on their own two feet and make a living.
What I saw in Haiti, hearkened me back to the stories I had been told about my own people. They made use of what little they had, worked hard, shared it, and sacrificed for their families and their community members so that everyone could rise. This, I recalled, also sums up the collective experience of many POC who currently live in America.
At that point, I was working for a large NGO, a prosperous NGO, and I had a mid-to-senior-level job and was living in Southwest D.C. next to the waterfront. When I got back here, I remember going into the Safeway off of 4th street. I looked at all of the rows, and rows, and rows, and rows of different types of toothpaste. It just took my breath away. Do I really need 20 rows of different types of toothpaste? It plunged me into the depths of discernment about what was sufficient. What was I really lacking and what did I really need? Moreover, when my ancestors arrived on these shores, I couldn’t help but wonder what were the essential things that they lost and what were the essential Americanized values they were forced to gain for their survival sake?
I wrote an essay about the African American church. And the question I was grappling with in that essay, was what rests on that hyphen that some people put in between the words “African” and “American” when it comes to faith and money? There’s a lot that rests on that hyphen. And I needed to unpack that for myself. It was the unpacking of that over years. And my mother came to me and said, you know, what you’re working with is broader, deeper, and wider than just dealing with conversations about faith and money with Black folk.
I realized, you know, it is. It is not just about money, not just about faith, it’s about spirituality, and loving our neighbors as they would have us love them. It’s about resources because Black folks didn’t have any money. We didn’t come from money. We didn’t have 401Ks, trust funds, or bequeathed wealth from one generation to the next. We had resources and we are resourceful. But resources are different from money. We had deep, spiritually based connections and experiences and history, but that’s different from institutionalized faith traditions and the dollars that are dropped into tithe baskets on Sunday that were used for the purposes of building 401k retirement accounts for white pastors who worked in tall steeple congregations elsewhere. The folks in those well-off churches were worshiping Christ, while downtrodden church members were praising Jesus — the oppressed Palestinian Jew with woolly hair who came to show us how to use love to defeat a tyrannical empire that cared not for but rather used, abused and discarded the marginalized people, who were racially/ethnically oppressed.We POC had been gifted with all of those things that weren’t currently even being explored. For the sake of our own POC children and their relationship to themselves and to non-POC children who live in community with them, that has to change.
Interview by Christina Colón | January 15, 2021
Christina Colón is a writer, editor and digital strategist. Her work has appeared in Sojourners and Global Press Journal.