“Advent is a season of waiting.” This is what we say every year, acknowledging the significance of this time before Christmas. As we wait for the birth of our savior, we consider the world we live in. We study Scripture. We prepare our surroundings and ourselves for what is to come. We know our world is full of uncertainty, chaos, and confusion, but we also know that there is something-someone-coming that gives us a reason to hope, and that possibility of hope makes the challenge of waiting feel worth it in the end.
As a queer Black woman and minister, I’m no stranger to waiting. For many years, I fought and waited to see if people who loved like me would be permitted to be ordained. For even more years, I fought and waited for the church to allow marriages such as mine. I still wait for the world and even parts of the church to see my skin and the skin of my Black and Brown siblings the way God sees it: beautiful, sacred, a cause for celebration and not discrimination. I’m waiting for the day Black children, especially Black girls, aren’t suspended from school at higher rates than their white counterparts. I’m waiting for the day my Black trans siblings won’t be at such a high risk of losing their lives. I’m waiting for the day I’ll no longer have to fear turning on the TV or pulling out my phone to see the latest Black person killed simply for being Black in America. I’m waiting for the day I’ll no longer fear the next person will be me.
I still wait for the world and even parts of the church to see my skin and the skin of my Black and Brown siblings the way God sees it: beautiful, sacred, a cause for celebration and not discrimination.
Imagine my shock when, after 294 days, WNBA All-Star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner, a queer Black woman detained in Russia, was finally returned to U.S. custody.
I’m not a policy or negotiation expert, but based on various news sources and reports, there are some things I know. Griner, who plays in the U.S. for the Phoenix Mercury, also played basketball in Russia during the off-season to supplement her income (this is common for WNBA players due to their low pay). As she attempted to leave Russia, airport security claimed to find a vape cartridge with less than a gram of cannabis oil in her luggage. She was arrested and put on trial where she pleaded guilty; it is worth noting that almost no one pleads innocent at these trials. She was subsequently sentenced to nine years in a penal colony, which is considered exceedingly harsh according to those familiar with Russian drug laws. The U.S. government declared her wrongfully detained and worked towards a prisoner swap, which they achieved by swapping Griner for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. There was also talk of attempting to bring home former marine Paul Whelan, who Russia has kept in custody for four years on espionage charges, but the U.S. government claims Russia considers him in a different class of prisoner than Griner and was never willing to trade him.
On the day Griner’s freedom was announced, so many thoughts of waiting and hope swirled around my head. First and foremost, I thought of her wife, Cherelle, and what it must’ve been like to endure all those days of waiting, wondering, hoping the person you love the most is still alive, still okay. Russia is a hostile place for LGBTQ folk, and I imagine Griner being a Black woman did not bode well for her, either. While the government did help Cherelle Griner speak with her wife from time to time, that didn’t always go smoothly. Still, she worked with them and waiting, hoping that somehow, someday she would be reunited with her wife. Praise God that day has come.
First and foremost, I thought of her wife, Cherelle, and what it must’ve been like to endure all those days of waiting, wondering, hoping the person you love the most is still alive, still okay.
I thought of the relief and joy I felt upon hearing the news. If I’m honest, part of me didn’t think Griner would ever make it home. I prayed with every part of me that she would someday be free and safe again, but I already know that Black people, especially Black queer people, are never guaranteed freedom or safety in this world. In the U.S., our lives are constantly at stake, from the streets to the grocery stores to the clubs we go to to find peace and refuge. We are called “thugs”, “gangstas”, “groomers”, and much, much worse. When we peacefully protest for our dignity and honor and presuming a position of prayer by kneeling, we are called “traitors”, “terrorists”, and much, much worse. All of these things happened to Griner; all of these things STILL happen simply by mentioning Griner’s name. If the U.S. is bad, Russia is worse. Griner never stood a chance at a fair trial to begin with due to the notorious corruption of the Russian courts, but her intersecting identities put her in real danger. Even she didn’t believe she was coming home soon, cutting her signature dreadlocks out of fear they would freeze during the Russian winter. For both of these countries, who are hostile to folks like her, to work together in a way that brought her home, honestly feels like a miracle. After seeing so much Black and queer death recently, this is a reason for hope.
After seeing so much Black and queer death recently, this is a reason for hope.
At the same time, there is more to hope for still. Brittany Griner is home with her wife and even playing basketball again, but Paul Whelan remains in Russia, and he is not alone. There are others who have been wrongfully detained who still wait for their day of freedom. Celebrating Griner does not mean we forget about them or lose hope that one day they, too, shall be released. Likewise, we know there are many in the U.S. who sit in prison today, mostly Black and Brown folk, for charges similar to Griner’s (even as state after state legalizes cannabis use). We can acknowledge this and even work towards justice for those folks while still lifting up Griner’s freedom. This is not an either/or situation. If anything, this moment should inspire us to push forward towards more justice, more freedom, more hope. Yes, more waiting may be involved, but if this situation shows us anything, it’s that the seemingly impossible may indeed be possible.
If anything, this moment should inspire us to push forward towards more justice, more freedom, more hope.
The Sunday after Griner’s release, one of the lectionary passages was the Magnificat, Mary’s song of rejoicing. As she sings of her pregnancy and of God’s greatness, she says “the mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name; indeed, his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation…He has come to the aid of his child Israel, in remembrance of his mercy.” During this time, may we rejoice for what God has done with Brittany Griner, and may we wait with hope for God to come to the aid for all those in need of God’s help and mercy.
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Ashley DeTar Birt is the Co-Director of the Center for Jubilee Practice. Ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA), she has served as a Sunday School teacher, Youth Leader, Director of Christian Education, and Youth Pastor. Her work focuses on children and youth, social justice, artistic creativity, and technology. She currently lives in New York City with her wife who is also a pastor.