review of Fierce Love: A Bold Path to Fierce Courage and a Kindness that Breaks the Rules That Can Heal the World by Reverend Dr Jacqui Lewis
Michael Quinn live review
My partner is a Christian. He is looking for a spiritual home. Before the pandemic, he spent many Sundays trying out different churches in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Some, he thought, had a sleepy, old-fashioned quality. Some felt like cults. Some were inhospitable to homosexuals.
One Sunday I went with him to Middle Collegiate Church in East Village. Twenty-five years earlier, I lived across the street. I have vague memories of hearing the bell ring during my weekend hangovers. I had never set foot inside.
The place was filled with all kinds of people. It vibrated with energy and excitement, like the buzz before a sold-out show. There was no curtain to raise, no spotlight, no stage. However, we were indeed in the presence of a star. Preaching his philosophy of “Love. Full stop, ”the charismatic pastor took command of the room, taking stock of the end of the world headlines – racism, transphobia, global warning – and urging everyone to“ pray with their feet ”: stand up , walk, make a difference. His words radiated compassion and intelligence, but also vibrant joy.
My partner was stunned by the radical politics. This straightforward approach to the most pressing social issues of our time was also not what I expected at a church service, but my reaction was different: I felt invigorated.
This singular star quality shines through in Reverend Jacqui Lewis’ moving new book, Fierce Love: A Bold Path to Fierce Courage and a Kindness that Breaks the Rules That Can Heal the World, who presents his manifesto for a new way of living in these “hot and messy times”. The first African-American, the first person of color, and the first woman to lead Middle since its founding in 1628, Lewis “isn’t trying to convince you of God,” she explains, but to make you witness, understand and believe in something much more universal: the power of love.
Lewis takes as his point of departure the Zulu philosophy of Ubuntu: “a person is a person through other people”, she explains. She describes nine behaviors that gradually pushes our absorption of ourselves to the people who are dear to us and to the world in general. They involve things like kindness; authenticity; moral courage; speak honestly; and love us unconditionally.
To illustrate these ideas in action, Lewis shares stories from his life. Fierce love is, in part, a sort of spiritual autobiography: an accumulation of hard-earned life lessons and a stripping away of everything else. A child of the 1960s, the oldest of six children, Lewis had her first encounter with racism at a New England elementary school. Although she never heard the word the little white girl from Mississippi spat at her, “Her meanness made me to feel nasty, ”she wrote. Recounting the incident at home, Lewis received varying reactions from her parents: her mother quietly explained and calmed, her father demanded (and obtained) an apology from the little girl and her family. Lewis grew up having some of his parent’s superpowers: love and ferocity.
Very successful with the “good girl syndrome”, she first studied chemical engineering before moving on to psychology. A successful career in sales at Kodak has moved her across the country. She married a white man, then another, relationships that unraveled the cord of her relationship with her father.
Like many people of the cloth, Lewis’ path to the pulpit was twisty. In private, she struggled to free herself from the “evangelical church” of her education and “to have a relationship with God.” After a pastor “sees the call” on her face, she entered seminary school, which “was to learn and unlearn what it meant for God to have a say in the leadership of human life ”.
As a pastor, Lewis also has an important role to play in guiding people. Fierce love discusses some of the incredible work around social justice that Lewis leads at Middle, even without a physical place to gather. Last December, a nearby vacant building caught fire and the church was destroyed. Only his 800-pound New York Liberty Bell miraculously survived the fire. In June, just before being transported to the New York Historical Society for safety, he rang 19 times – struck by Lewis, with a helmet and colorful robe – in honor of Juneteenth, the emancipation of the African-American slaves. The building may be gone, but Lewis’ commitment to social justice seems everlasting.
This commitment is, in itself, a kind of faith. And hope is eternal. Lewis writes: “Just to imagine what we can do, together, if we each day possess our power to live righteously, to choose fairness and equality. ” Fierce love is an invitation to share this vision and make it a reality. When it comes to the power of love, Lewis’ account will make you a believer.