Talking Resilience With a Harlem Minister


Date Published: December 15, 2021

Rev. Audrey Williamson of Harlem's historic Mother AME Zion Church estimates that up to 15 percent of her congregation succumbed to COVID-19, a burden of grief that weighs heavily on the community. Eager to help, Rev. Williamson recently teamed up with Mount Sinai's Center for Stress, Resilience, and Personal Growth to facilitate a series of workshops aimed at helping parishioners process grief and build resilience. On Road to Resilience, she shares thoughts on facing fear, sustaining community, and persisting through adversity.
Reverend Audrey A. Williamson is the Nina M. Neely Minister of Christian Education at Mother AME Zion Church in Harlem.

Podcast Transcript 

Host 00:00
From the Mount Sinai Health System in New York City, this is Road to Resilience, a podcast about getting through the hard stuff. I'm Jon Earle.

Rev. Audrey Williamson 00:10
When we were doing one of the workshops we got into the conversation of going back to normal. And I asked them pointedly, "Was normal working for you?" Because we are quick to go back to normal. And I've heard that so much. And I said, "Was normal working for you?" That was an uncomfortable question for many people, because in many ways normal wasn't working for us—in the church, perhaps even in our own personal life. We were running, we were doing this, we were doing that and spinning our wheels and not necessarily being productive. Was normal working for you?

Host 00:50
My guest today is Reverend Audrey Williamson. She is the Nina M. Neely Minister of Christian Education at Mother AME Zion, a historic black church in Harlem. Reverend Williamson has been working with Mount Sinai to bring resilience insights from the laboratory to the community. She recently helped facilitate a series of workshops aimed at helping members of her church build resilience. The workshops covered topics associated with resilience, such as facing fear and, fittingly for a church group, faith. They represent the evolution of a project we covered last year on the podcast, which involved resilience workshops for physician assistants. But to me, there's something different and special here. It's one thing to teach resilience to caregivers. It's another thing to bring it into a community that's lost so much during the COVID-19 pandemic, as Harlem and the Mother AME Zion Church have. So in my mind, this is in a way where the rubber meets the road. And I wanted to have Reverend Audrey on to find out what she's learned from collaborating with Mount Sinai's Center for Stress, Resilience, and Personal Growth. And at the end of the day, I wanted to find out what we can learn from her about resilience. So here is Reverend Audrey Williamson, enjoy.

Host 02:02
First of all, thank you so much for being on Road to Resilience. Thank you for coming in to record with me. I wanna start out talking about Mother AME. Because it's a historic church and there's so much—just give somebody who's not heard of Mother AME Zion kind of a little introduction to where—orient us, where are we?

Rev. Audrey Williamson 02:19
AME Zion Church started as a form of resistance and resilience. So the resistance was that the African American was not able to worship fully at the Methodist church that was established. They were worshiping there, but were not able to pray openly, were not able to receive communion as they wished. So it was a space for resilience. And their resilience led them to founding the AME Zion Church in 1796. That's the resistance part. They were set up as a community, and the community was Seneca Village. Seneca Village has now become Central Park. And so that idea of resistance, but also resilience is part of the African-American story, but certainly the story of Mother Zion in New York as the oldest black church in all of New York.

Host 03:22
What was it like for you to be a church leader over the past two years?

Rev. Audrey Williamson 03:30
Let me just say, COVID really hit our community very hard. We lost at least 10 to 15 percent of our membership during this COVID time, especially in the very beginning. Many of them were strong members, members that were very active in the ministry, that were the treasurer and the person who did this, and the person who was responsible for that. We had a large number of people that passed away, especially in the very beginning. And it was very traumatic. And we haven't gone back in person. And one of the reasons why I'm so passionate about resilience, because I think that grief is love that has no place to go. And when we get back to the church, we're going to see empty seats. And so even though we know they're gone, these people, some of them have been gone almost two years, but the idea of visually seeing it is going to be, I think, difficult for some people. And so preparing people to come back to a place that is going to look different and is going to feel different. We're not gonna have as many visitors come through at this point, right? So it's going to look different in so many ways. And so preparing us spiritually, but also emotionally and mentally to come back and to be a vibrant community is kind of my goal in terms of this road to resilience.

Host 05:07
That number that you gave—10 to 15 percent of a congregation of 200-300 people is unfathomable to me.

Rev. Audrey Williamson 05:15
It is. And even though we know these people are gone, the idea of coming back and kind of reliving that grief that probably has not been completely addressed is going to be difficult.

Host 05:32
Grief is love with no place to go. How is grief coming out in different ways?

Rev. Audrey Williamson 05:38
So, even before COVID, if you think about how people deal with grief, most of us—because grief really hurts. I mean, if you really deal with the loss of someone that is no longer here on this earth with you, someone you really care about and that you really love. It hurts. It's sad. It hurts way down deep in your soul. So oftentimes it comes out and manifests in other ways. So when people are grieving, they are sometimes angry or sometimes they will drink over it, or they will eat over it, or they will buy lots of things that they don't need over it. I have done it. I know. I have done it. When my dad passed away, I was a senior in college and I was very close to my dad, and my behaviors were not positive as I was finishing school. I started to think about—they weren't positive behaviors, full stop. I didn't do anything horrible, but they were not behaviors that I would have engaged in had this not happened.

Host 06:58
What are you seeing in members of the congregation?

Rev. Audrey Williamson 06:59
In members of the congregation, I'm seeing perhaps sometimes a combativeness. I'm seeing the concern of isolation and what that isolation looks like. Also seeing a bit of, well, let me say it this way—I'm not sure even as well. Because when you do pastoral care in person, you can identify some of the behaviors that are not appropriate. When you're doing it from a distance, you can't always tell. So the idea that we're on Zoom—it's a lot more work to do something on Zoom, because you have to not just hear the words of somebody, but you also have to understand the underlying meanings. So it takes a lot more emotional energy to understand what's being said and what's happening over Zoom, as opposed to being in person.

Host 08:05
So let's get into these workshops. What was your hope for them?

Rev. Audrey Williamson 08:09
So my hope was that we begin to talk about some of the issues that are concerning us. I had a former pastor who would say, "You can't fix it unless you face it." And so trying to face some of the issues that we haven't talked about. Maybe we've talked about them in small pods or small groups, but really being able to come and say, yes, I need to face my fears. Yes, I have lost some hope. So really being able to talk about it, but talk about it from a spiritual place. And that's why I'm so grateful for Mount Sinai, because we are not just spiritual people. We have mind, body, and soul. And so not just from a spiritual place, but from a rational clinical place to talk about some of what we're going through, and to make us understand that we're not the only ones feeling this way or going through this or feeling isolated or thinking about how the next, you know, when does this end? How does this end? And thinking about the next several months and how do I get back to what I was doing without going back to everything that I was doing that kind of made me crazy that I found out I didn't have to do necessarily. So trying to figure out what the new normal looks like and being healthier and being more in control. But we need to talk about it. We need to think about it. And oftentimes if someone doesn't bring it up, it's kind of in the recesses of your mind, you don't think about it, you don't talk about it, and it's just there.

Host 09:47
Yeah, so the workshops were kind of a structure for addressing this thing that we've been talking about. And so there were six, I think, and each one had a theme, and I was fortunate enough to sit in on one. It was a beautiful experience. And basically you're imagining 10-15 people sitting in a Zoom room talking about issues like facing fears and hope and faith. And the one that you brought up, facing fears, is an interesting one for me. It's not the first one that I would think of in this context. So what were the fears that people were facing and then what were some of the tools that were introduced during the workshop?

Rev. Audrey Williamson 10:30
So again, the first thing was face your fears. So first you have to face them. And so how we started that one—that was probably one of my favorites—how we started that was just to talk about what you fear.

Host 10:41
So were the fears that came up during the conversation?

Rev. Audrey Williamson 10:45
Well, let me say it like this. I told them one of the greatest fears is speaking in—glossophobia, right?—Speaking in front of a crowd or an audience, and everyone kind of agreed. But then we kind of can roll into this idea of the fear of the loss of someone and how I'm going to keep going even though that person is gone. The fear of loss, of loss of whatever, of loss of employment, of loss of a community, all of those fears.

Host 11:19
Let's focus on that one, because I think that one's particularly relevant to COVID, fear of loss. This is still a specter that hangs over us. So where do you begin to address that fear?

Rev. Audrey Williamson 11:30
What do you do with that? I think that's the beauty of these workshops is we don't have all the answers, but let's have this conversation. What does that look like? How does it feel? We've lost people already? How have we managed? What will we do as we move forward? What are the options? What's the worst that—and I said this to someone, and they said they are guided by this—What's the worst that can happen? So sometimes you have to start there and say, okay, some of my fears are really large and the problem is not quite as horrible as I think. But losing people is really difficult. And so we need to acknowledge that some of those fears are valid because sometimes people just need to hear that what you're thinking—you're not crazy, you're not alone. And because none of us have control over from Delta to Omicron to wherever else—we're gonna learn the whole Greek—

Host 12:43
We're gonna be speaking Greek by the end of this. Alpha to omega.

Rev. Audrey Williamson 12:44
And so I don't know. But let's face it. Let's talk about it. And that's the beauty of the workshops. It's a place to talk about it and to acknowledge that you're not alone either in your thinking, but also we still have a community. We're still here. And it's nice for us to talk about it from a spiritual standpoint, but it's really important that we also have some clinical input to help us understand what our brain is doing. And I think that's one of the things that we have to be very intentional about is explaining to people what's happening, how it's happening and making sense of it. So it's not, it's both, it's not either/or, it's both/and. It's spiritual, but rational.

Host 13:39
How would you begin to talk about how those two work together, or let's speak concretely about the workshops— how did they compliment each other?

Rev. Audrey Williamson 13:46
So the genius, I think, of the workshops was we started from a spiritual place. So they wanted you to of course do your prayer and they had a scripture. So we start from that place, we start from a spiritual place, which for the church that's a good place to start. So that's a good in. So starting there and then having this piece where we talked about how your brain works when you're dealing with fear, and we didn't go that far into it, but really thinking about it from a clinical standpoint. So that now I'm using another side of your brain, I'm using another way for you to think about it. So it doesn't just have to be scripture and Jesus, but it can also be a rational way to think about. And if you do it that way, then you can be transformational in the ways in which you face your fears, the ways in which you think about the work of the church.

Host 14:50
Is there a piece of scripture that comes to mind right now that's been Useful for you during the pandemic?

Rev. Audrey Williamson 14:57
So I have a scripture that I—and it's not even just one verse, but it's a story, and it's the story of Job. And I don't know if many of your listeners know the story of Job, but Job was wealthy and then everything was allowed to be taken away from him. And he was a really faithful man, very faithful. And the story goes that the enemy says that he's only faithful because you, God, bless him. And so he, God, begins to allow the hedge of protection to come from him. So he takes money, children, and touches his body. And so finally, Job—long story short—Job begins to question, this faithful man begins to question God. And God who trusted Job enough to test him, says to him finally, where were you when I built the foundations of the Earth? And do you even have an understanding of it? And so I think that that's where I stand is that my faith says that I serve a God who created the mountains, who set the oceans in place. And so I'm going to do what I need to do. I'm going to learn what I need to learn. I'm gonna work as it's day before night comes and no man, no woman can work. I'm going to do all of that. But I'm also going to trust God who created the foundations of the Earth. And I don't even have an understanding of it. And so I take that text and I juxtapose it and put it alongside a scripture in Psalms that says, what is man? What is woman that God is even mindful of us? And so when I put those together, the same God that created the moon and the stars, who, when we go out in the autumn time, the autumnal beauty, and we see the paintings of God when the trees begin to change and flower, but then they fall off and they die. That's the same God who is mindful of me and you. And so if I can put those together, remind myself that I serve an awesome, powerful, all-knowing, all-creating God, but that that same God is still mindful of me. I think it gives me hope. And it gives me a sense that I don't have to do it all by myself. I don't have to do it all by myself. God is counting on me as though God is not working, but God is working though he doesn't have to count on—or she doesn't have to count on anybody. And that gives me peace.

Host 17:33
And I imagine those are stories that resonated with the people sitting in that Zoom room.

Rev. Audrey Williamson 17:41
Right, because sometimes we don't, we have found out in this season that we, I mean, we can control a lot of things, but there are some things we simply don't have control over. And when we start to understand that and to—and so oftentimes in church and as pastors and as ministers, we have what some people refer to as a "God complex." So we think we've gotta do everything and be everything, and doors don't open without us. And we have to also remind ourselves that that's not holy. That's just thinking that you can do everything and be everything. That's not holy. Holiness is also knowing that God is a God who will come to see about you and who wants you to have rest and peace. We've heard so much in the past 22 months about people and self-care and all of that. And self-care—okay. But the idea that sometimes we just appreciate where we are and understand we can't change it and figure out in this season, what are we supposed to be doing? How are we supposed to be moving forward? How are we supposed to be God's hands and feet and mouth in this season? Even if we're on Zoom, even if we can't meet in person? How are we supposed to be the handiwork of God as it were right in this season? As opposed to rushing through and trying to get out of it. And you notice as we try to rush through, we keep getting setbacks, because maybe we just haven't learned the lessons yet. So we've gotta get to a place where we decide to learn the lessons so that we can come out and flourish, and that our resilience is full and lasting. Because resilience is not always lasting, right? We can be resilient, and then we come back and we have to face the same issues again if we haven't learned the lessons, then we have to go through the process all over again. But if we've learned some of the lessons, then we can remind ourselves of what we did last time, how we did last time. And we can find equilibrium as opposed to the roller coasters that we often find.

Host 20:03
Yeah. It strikes me that one of the challenges of this moment, being the grind phase, kind of the long, slow grind, and I'm wondering what that to you calls for?

Rev. Audrey Williamson 20:17
I think that really sitting down and getting a sense of purpose and a sense of what's next for you and not rushing back to what used to be. When we were doing one of the workshops. And I don't remember which one it was, but we got into the conversation of going back to normal. And I asked them pointedly, "Was normal working for you?" Because we are quick to go back to normal. And I've heard that so much. And I said, "Was normal working for you?" And most of them, that was an uncomfortable question for many people, because in many ways, normal wasn't working for us—in the church, perhaps even in our own personal life, we were running, we were doing this, we were doing that and spinning our wheels and not necessarily being productive. Was normal working for you? So what does your new normal—I mean, in these 22 months, what have you found is profitable? What do you wanna keep? What do you wanna—what's your passion? Where are you being called to be of greater impact? Where are you being called to step away? Everything that you were doing doesn't have to go back. It doesn't have to go back because if you are honest with yourself, for many of us normal was not working. We were running back and forth doing 9 to 5s, trying to catch trains, me running, trying to catch trains, screaming at the platform saying, "Hold the train!" And today, as I came into New York, I ran up the stairs and the train was just coming in. And I said, "If that train leaves, I am not doing that. I'm not screaming for 'hold the train' again." And I say that to remind us that it's easy to go back to what we've done because it feels comfortable as opposed to really going deep into our recesses and seeing what we're supposed to do, and to leave some of that behind, leave some of that in 2019.

Host 22:31
What about all that grief that people are carrying? What are your thoughts on unburdening or processing, or however you wanna call it?

Rev. Audrey Williamson 22:42
This is also gonna be a bit of a statement of privilege. And I acknowledge it. So I wanna say this, but please find someone, whether it's someone you can just talk to, or it's a professional. At least try to unpack the grief that's throughout this society, that's throughout your life. At least try to unpack it because if not, your relationships will suffer, your health will suffer. You will be just bandaging up an issue that is surgical. And so find help wherever you can find it, whether it's a professional—and there's no shame, I tell people all the time, "You need a pastor and a therapist!" And sometimes your therapist, if you can't find a therapist that you are able to go to, then sometimes the therapist is just the grandmother down the street who really does have time and has lived through some of this. And maybe she doesn't have a PhD, but she understands the rhythms of life. So however and whomever you can talk to that's not just spiritual because we're more than a spiritual being. So to find some way somehow to talk it out and to unpack the sadness, the deep sadness that you feel when you lose somebody. And sometimes you just need someone to listen. And maybe if you're on the other side and you aren't grieving, maybe you can be that listener. Maybe you can be the person that just doesn't, butt in and cut in and try to pray them through it. Just listen, just listen. And hear what they're saying. And sometimes people will, in the midst of their grief, will tell you what they need. And it may not be another sermon. It may be something completely different. So to be a good listener as well I think helps. And I think when you help others, it helps your grief. When you start to turn your attention. So when we turn our attention from ourselves, from our inner selves and begin to think of others and begin to figure out ways to be helpful, a blessing, a confidant, a listener for others, it often helps our grief. And I don't know how that works. There may be a scientific—but I do know that when you focus less on yourself and begin to work with other people who are having a difficult time, it lessens your grief as well.

Host 25:35
Reverend Audrey Williamson is the Nina M. Neely Minister of Christian Education at Mother AME Zion Church in Harlem. That's all for this episode of Road to Resilience. A special thanks to the team at Mount Sinai's Center for Stress, Resilience, and Personal growth, which developed the workshops and made this episode possible. This interview was recorded earlier this month at the Levy Library at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. From all of us here, thanks for listening, have a happy New Year's, and we'll see you in 2022.