Descending with Tommy Airey

“Descending” with Tommy Airey

~ing podcast Season 3, Episode 23
Full Episode Transcript

Season 3, Episode 23: “Descending” with Tommy Airey was released on June 6, 2023. The audio recording is available on all major podcasting platforms. More information is available here.

Episode Description:

In today’s episode, producer Ben Wideman sits down with ⁠Tommy Airey⁠ – author, activist, and place-based minister. Tommy will be talking through some of his passion and commitment to racial and economic justice, as well as themes from his book, ⁠Descending Like A Dove: Adventures in Decolonizing Evangelical Christianity⁠, published in 2018. If you’d like to get in touch with Tommy, reach out at [email protected]!

Ben Wideman, Tommy Airey, Heather Wolfe

Ben Wideman  00:00
It’s season three of ~ing Podcast, a production of MennoMedia’s Leader Magazine.  What does it mean to authentically follow Jesus?

Tommy Airey  00:08
In that ancient context, to repent was a word from the military. So so like we we see that Josephus, ancient historian, used this language with like traitors, like, like the person who repented was a traitor and switched sides, switched teams. Repentance for me, if I’m gonna follow Jesus in 21st century America, that means that I am pledging allegiance to the other America. When I do that, when I really make that commitment firm, when I, as Monica Louis Patrick here in Detroit says, when I connect the dots and tell the truth, in white spaces and middle class spaces, it’s uncomfortable.

Ben Wideman  00:53
Join us as we talked with people of faith who are creatively thinking, growing and being… people who are reimagining and exploring what it means to enrich faith in a complex world. Our conversation begins now. Join us as we journey together.  Hello again, friends. Welcome to ~ing Podcast. I’m really excited to introduce you to a friend of mine here today I’m joined with Tom Airey. Tom, I’ve known for a number of years, I guess our paths first crossed way back at Fuller Theological Seminary, in a Wilbert Shank class, maybe something like that, about exploring in anabaptism. Tommy has stayed in touch. And a few years ago now in 2018, published a book called descending like a dove adventures in decolonizing, evangelical Christianity kind of explaining some of his story and his journey from a sort of conservative evangelical background to a faith that’s more committed to following Jesus’s ideas of how we live out our faith in the world. And it’s been really interesting to continue to connect periodically, Tommy, having you visit here at Penn State and talk with students in this community and to to see where you have moved about the world. But I’m guessing you can do a much better job introducing yourself — how do you introduce yourself these days?

Tommy Airey  01:13
It’s so good to be with you, Ben. So many good memories of, of connecting with you. You know, five years I guess… it’s been five years or something like that. Yeah. But I’d way rather be in your basement sipping on red rye, IPA.

Ben Wideman  02:38
Craft, homemade craft beer. Yeah.

Tommy Airey  02:41
Oh, my goodness, Lindsay still talks about it will be it will be at like a big time brewery at Founders, and she’s like, it’s not as good as Ben Wideman’s. True story, a true story. But yeah, I, you know, I’m married to Lindsay we’ve, we’ve been married for for 18 years now. And we’d like to say that for our honeymoon, we went to Fuller Seminary together and, and made the one hour on a good day on the freeway commute from Orange County up to Fuller and, and since that time, we’ve we’ve, you know, led house churches and in Orange County, and eventually moved to Detroit, and in the last five years, six years have really focused on a ministry called Kardia Kaiomene – that’s the name of our, our nonprofit. It’s, it’s a ministry focused on soul accompaniment a lot of the folks that we connect with, like us grew up in fundamentalist Christianity, white evangelical Christianity, and have been in the process of trying to make sense of that faith. And, and many folks have have left the church of have left Christianity. But there’s others that are that are kind of holding on holding on by a thread or, you know, have one small toe dipped into the Christian tradition, somehow someway and still have some sort of relationship with that. So yeah, that’s that’s a brief summary.

Ben Wideman  04:25
I wasn’t expecting to start here. But something that I’ve noticed that with a number of our guests here on the podcast is when you start dismantling a faith that you have and uncover something new, I think they’re, they’re sort of a crossroads that you’re faced with one to just say, I’m done with this. I’m throwing it all out. Another to sort of dig deeper and kind of recommit and I’d be curious to hear you reflect on if you felt that tension at some point. And maybe what is what has made you sort of double down and say, Look, there’s still… there is still fertile ground here, there’s still something valuable. Even though I’m letting go of what I used to think this was.

Tommy Airey  05:06
All along the way, I have certainly felt like at times, like I just I want to ditch this whole Bible and Jesus thing altogether. Along the way. I think the seminary journey has been huge, just like kind of voraciously reading and studying history and theology and especially liberation theology and kind of alternative approaches to Christian faith, including Anabaptism. These are, these are the things that have kept me in it and have compelled me to, to double down on the Bible to deepen my Bible study and really be inspired to to reclaim these biblical texts that are being counterfeited by “Christo fascists.” And, and to me, those are the heroes of American history, these folks that are counter quoting the Bible, and committing their lives to to live like Jesus did. And I have to say that probably the single most important tradition for me is the black church. Not just reading these these kind of historical stories of Harriet Tubman and Frederick, Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells, and Dr. King and Rosa Parks, but also being here in Detroit, and a black majority city, and the black women who are leading up these justice initiatives. Leading up these, these community organizing spaces or quoting the Bible all over the place. And so so for me, to be around compelling figures, who continue to be deeply rooted in faith that has compelled me challenged me and inspired me to continue being rooted in the biblical tradition. It also has drawn you to place-based ministry, to intentionally deciding at times to relocate because of a sense of call to an area or community. Can you talk about that aspect of of this faith that you’ve uncovered here to not just think about how you move about the world, but where you are physically locating yourself? Yeah. So in 2014, Lindsay and I moved from Orange County, California to Detroit. I retired from teaching at the high school. We have been raising support financial support for for this move ever since and really like what kind of captured us with the Detroit move was this like, longing to to grow spiritually to mature to grow our souls in a black majority space. We knew, and this is like a total like, Richard Rohr calls it reverse mission. When we grew up in evangelicalism, we were going on short term mission trips to save the people. In Kenya, Nigeria, Mexico, innercity United States… what we believe is that like, we need Detroit for our own souls. We need Detroit to get free from capitalism from white supremacy, from these other supremacy stories like hetero patriarchy and American exceptionalism, and over and over and over, that’s been the case that the more that we’re around black people, the more that we’re shaped in ways that that are differentiating from those supremacy stories. And then the other part of that is, is this this commitment to the suburbs, this commitment to white people, middle class people as well, in 2015, we were part of a con, conference in Detroit called Spirit and Roots. And it was like, basically led, half and half black Detroiters and white Christians. And, and like after the conference, one of the black elders in Detroit, as we were just kind of gathered around, probably 40 of us having a meal together. Her name is Gloria House. She’s a professor and a poet. She, she just had this call to the white people in the room. And she said, she said, you know, ever since the civil rights movement in the 1960s, we’ve been asking white people to go back to the suburbs, because we can’t. And that hit me really hard.

Ben Wideman  10:17

Tommy Airey  10:18
The this call to build a bridge to white to white people to, to where I come from, has continued to just kind of call out to us in the last eight years now.

Ben Wideman  11:01
We’re all kind of called the different kinds of spaces and different levels of comfort too. You and Lindsey having that willingness to go to a place that maybe caused you discomfort, at least culturally speaking, but then to not just immerse yourself there and, and say, Okay, we’re staying put now but now that we’ve learned these stories, now that we carry these people’s lives with us, let’s carry them somewhere else and try and be that link and share those those stories back to, to the spaces that we are from. I think you told me that story just a few years ago, but it has stuck with me that that community leader saying, you know, go carry our stories with you back to the places you’re from, because we can’t go there. It’s just so so powerful. It reminds me a lot of the same sort of thing going along the US/Mexico border right now. People in, in difficult situations, who cannot cross to physically tell you their story, need you to be there to carry their stories back home with you to, to share them and let them know.

Tommy Airey  12:07

Ben Wideman  12:09
I imagine you’ve also experienced some cultural challenges moving back into suburbia. And, you know, with what you have have known has it been a challenge to to reintegrate into where you’re from?

Tommy Airey  12:24
Yeah, for sure. And I mean, I think it’s, uh, you know, it’s the repentance journey. Like, what what Jesus called repentance, the Greek word is metanoia. Like, in that ancient context, to reap, to repent was a word from the military. So so like we received that Josephus, ancient historian use this language with like traitors, like, like the person who repented was a traitor and switch sides, switch teams. And so, so I see repentance for me, if I’m going to follow Jesus in 21st century America, that means that I am pledging allegiance to the other America. I’m pledging allegiance to, to poor folks, low income, low wealth, black people, Native people, people of color, queer folks, these people who are discriminated against despised, excluded, exploited. And I think when I do that, when I really make that commitment firm, when I, as Monica Lewis, Patrick here in Detroit says, When I connect the dots, and tell the truth, and white spaces and middle class spaces, it’s uncomfortable. When I want I want to talk about the destructive nature of capitalism. When I, when I want to bear witness to what is happening to black people in Detroit, and all over the United States, it’s, it’s uncomfortable, and, and most people don’t want to talk about it. And so, so there’s this kind of like, mostly, what I’ve experienced, the kind of loneliness that I’ve experienced, is connected to a ghosting, like, like part of whiteness is this, this thing where we just we just kind of shut down and we don’t want to talk about it. We don’t want to we don’t want to have any sort of conflict. We don’t want to have any sort of confrontation. So I think the way that we’ve been trained to be is to just go away. And that’s how it has been with a lot of old friends. For Lindsay and I, they’ve just kind of gone away. And that’s been just part of the journey, Jesus’s take… take up the grace and follow me. And that that kind of, it’s an invitation to do to, I think oftentimes lose some social respectability.

Ben Wideman  15:05
I appreciate… I appreciate that sentiment so much, because it’s honest about the challenge that you’re facing too, and, and how difficult it can be. I think that’s one of the things I appreciated most about your writing, in descending like a dove. Your willingness to wrestle with the places you’ve gotten it wrong to and, and even taking some of our you know, pivotable pivotal American voices in, in some of these causes, and re evaluating what they said to you talk about Martin Luther King and his the triplets of evil, right, the racism, militarism and extreme poverty. My kids are now in elementary and middle school, and every year they learned about Martin Luther King, Jr. every every spring. Those three words are not usually a part of the curriculum racism definitely is. But really, there’s, there’s, there’s a lot of the the weightiness of his words that that are sometimes overlooked. And I think it’s because of that white embarrassment that you’re talking about here, if we start to acknowledge that we’ve got these evils here, and still presents, years after his passing, that we haven’t acknowledged, and some ways are getting even worse, then what? I guess it’s it’s making me wonder if this space that you find yourself wanting to do work in is one that leads people to shutting down? How do you overcome that? How do you? How do you get people talking again, in the midst of such difficult conversations?

Tommy Airey  16:54
Yeah. I appreciate the question. There’s a remnant first of all, like, there’s there are folks who just like surprised me, they want to have these kinds of conversations. For whatever reason, there’s something weighing on their souls. They want to, to know another way they they are, I mean, I’m consistently having kind of pastoral conversations with former students of mine, old friends of mine, people I’ve known for years in Orange County, and other places that are just like sincerely wrestling with their role in the world. And a lot of these, I mean, almost all of these conversations are with other white men. Who many of whom, like work changed legitimately. When George Floyd was murdered, that you know, that there was this moment, this kind of epiphany, this, this apocalyptic moment, this unveiling of like, Oh, it wasn’t just that George Floyd had a counterfeit $20 bill, it’s that America’s counterfeit, this, this is unveiling something way bigger than just one murder. And, and people continue to wrestle with that, and what it means for them to be to get free from that, but but also to, to be an ally, to be in solidarity to, to be to be somebody who really does care about justice and inequality and freedom, these you know, these kind of catchphrases and kind of trite words that that are easily thrown around but but to really live it out for real. And that to me like, these are, these are the most profound and encouraging conversations that I have. It does, it does deep things in my own soul.

Ben Wideman  19:10
Yeah, there’s something it’s strikes me as we’re coming out of the Easter season here in the Christian tradition that we have, we still have this huge fear of death. For for people who believe in resurrection we are, we are so paralyzed by the thought of something dying off or or being broken apart. And yet, when we confront some of these things, and when we reimagine there is new life that is found there. There is this ongoing resurrection that’s possible when we break down some of these myths or when we pull back the curtain and see the truth, finally, and claim it and own it. There’s new life that’s possible. It’s not just, you know, similar to your faith journey, it’s not just well, let’s throw the whole thing out there. fact that enhances and makes, makes living that much more meaningful when you are honest about some of these things. I guess that’s part of what you and Lindsay are calling people to these days. And I wonder if you could say more about what that looks like, from a practical standpoint — what is ministry for you and Lindsey in your context right now? What are you inviting people to?

Tommy Airey  20:24
Yeah, yeah, it is exactly like what you’re talking about this kind of resurrection story. In real time, like everybody has their own Lazarus story, we’re all called to come out of the tomb of empire, and unravel these linens that bind us. He and and Lindsey and are convinced that this is a life long process. Or, as, as my dear friend, Reverend Nick Peterson in Atlanta says is it’s going to take a lifetime lifetimes of exorcism. I mean, I mean, this is like, this is not going to happen anytime tomorrow. But it’s a long commitment. And what it looks like I think it’s just a variety of ways, like what we talked about with solar company meant is we’re committed to to accompanying folks through the written word, and through radical friendship and through small group spaces that are intimate and vulnerable. And so like, what we’re doing a ton of that through zoom, we, we kind of facilitate a variety of small group settings from Lectio Divina Bible studies, to, to some, some book groups on books, like the quaking of America by restaurant mannequin, who’s doing a lot of work around what he calls a white body supremacy. And, and I’m getting an opportunity to do some, some groups with white men and some retreat settings with white men, where we, again, like really commit to kind of not trying to fix each other, but to feel with each other. Because that’s like, not something we’ve really been ever scripted to do,

Ben Wideman  22:19
No, it’s revolutionary in our culture.

Tommy Airey  22:23
Yeah, and I think we have, we’ve been, we’re allowed to, like, be super competitive, and we’re allowed to be angry. But like, these kind of deeper feelings of, of tenderness and compassion and, and love and like these. We’re practicing doing that. And, and I think the more that we can kind of model that for each other, the more that we can just kind of let down and, and let each other and it’s a really kind of revolutionary task.

Ben Wideman  23:03
If people hear those words and get excited, and want to participate in some way, do you have a space that you can invite people to? website or something else?

Tommy Airey  23:16
I think the probably the best way is you can you email me at [email protected]. And let’s have a conversation. And I’m really interested to and work in, like partnering with faith communities that, that want to do some of this work with white men. And also folks that like, you know, kind of are recovering from Christian fundamentalism, and, and, and trying to reconstruct faith in these ways.

Ben Wideman  23:48
You strike me as someone who can be a voice of reason to help you imagine what it looks like in your own community and in your own context to start some of this. You know? You don’t have to move to wherever Tommy and Lindsay are located to do this work. You can do it in your own backyard.

Tommy Airey  24:05
Yeah. Especially in this era of Zoom.

Ben Wideman  24:08
Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. And you can Yeah, that’s right. You can get peers and allies and connectivity in lots of different kinds of ways.

Tommy Airey  24:18
The other part of why we’re in Detroit, is, you know, I talk about like, how it is shaping our souls and like how we are getting free from some of these supremacy stories. We’re, we’re we see our roles is bearing witness to so like, the more that we can be connected to some of the community organizing work in the city. And then and then report out, I think, I think that’s what we continue to get feedback from folks who don’t live in inner city and who want to know like, hey, what’s really going on? on. And so we live right on the border of the Woodbridge and core city neighborhoods here in Detroit. And, and so the core city neighborhood is just to the to the west of us. And basically it is a super black majority neighborhood. It is one of these like kind of classic Detroit neighborhoods now that you know, every other house is gone now. So there’s it’s like the wild there’s that we see pheasants I saw a coyote the other the other night like right before dusk. So the so it’s this kind of like rewilding of Detroit. But but it’s also and a lot of the reason for that happening is illegal tax foreclosures, subprime mortgages, environmental racism, you know, just just all the unemployment, on and on and on. So these neighborhoods have been decimated. But the fight continues, like now what is going to happen to the core city neighborhood, and it’s just so fascinating to sit to kind of watch. outside developers, almost all of them wealthy white folks from the suburbs, trying to remake these neighborhoods in their own image. Not with longtime low income residents in mind. But But what’s driving all of this as the profit motive is this kind of like image of saving Detroit. And this is like happening all over the city. But for us to be like hyper local, and to just really see this for ourselves. And to kind of, again, connect the dots and tell the truth of how this is working, is, I think, really important work for us. And what one of our mentors in the city says is that Detroit is this kind of neoliberal beta test for what is about to happen to the rest of the United States. It is this kind of corporate wealthy takeover of, of, of land of property, turning us more and more and more into this kind of renter society where the small, minority percentage of elite folks own everything. And so it’s not only happening to black folks and native folks, it’s happening more and more and more and more to some middle class white folks. And it’s in it’s, it’s vital that we pinpoint who’s to blame and the situation, because Because what’s happening in mainstream media is that that’s, they’re blaming the wrong people. And, and, and so like we see white folks and middle class people getting all wound up and angry at the very people who are, who are being victimized by this project.

Ben Wideman  28:21
Wow. And being present there in person. It’s a powerful way to communicate that. Well Tommy, just wanted to say thank you, again, for the kind of ministry that you do, the spaces that you’re willing to be, and your willingness to continue to reflect on what it means to truly follow Jesus. And friends, if you’re listening, and you want to hear a bit more about Tommy’s story, I really encourage you to check out his book, Descending Like a Dove: Adventures in Decolonizing Evangelical Christianity. And as he said, send him an email, get a conversation going, if you want to do that. It’s been a real pleasure talking to you. Thank you.

Tommy Airey  29:02
Yeah. Thanks, Ben. I’m way overdue for a trip to State College. So I’ll see you soon.

Ben Wideman  29:08
Perfect. Next week on ~ing Podcast, we’re joined by one of our Herald Press cookbook authors. We’ll be talking with Heather Wolfe, one of the authors of Sustainable Kitchen: Recipes and Inspiration for Plant-Based, Planet Conscious Meals.

Heather Wolfe  29:27
So we said, what if the power went out and the grid went down? If you had this cookbook, what’s everything we would want to put in here, so that someone could just turn their screen off, right? Or just intentionally say like, I want to fast from using my device right now and just use a book that you could do that in here.

Ben Wideman  29:51
As always we’d like to thank our guests and all who support ~ing Podcast. Thank you for joining us on the journey. If you enjoyed the show, please leave us a review in your favorite podcasting app. And if you have something to share, send us a message at [email protected] or by leaving us a voicemail. ~ing Podcast is hosted by Reverend Allison Maus and Reverend Dr. Dennis Edwards. And produced by me, Ben Wideman. Views and opinions expressed on ~ing Podcast are those of our hosts and guests and may not represent that of Leader Magazine or MennoMedia. ~ing Podcast is a production of MennoMedia, a nonprofit publisher that creates thoughtful Anabaptist resources to enrich faith in a complex world. To find out more, visit us online at