How to keep it real

Three religious leaders discuss transparency

Eli Hughes, Janice Steele and Les Shelton put their transparencies behind them for a group shot.

Eli Hughes, Janice Steele and Les Shelton put their transparencies behind them for a group shot.

SN&R Photo By Larry Dalton

To help bridge the gap between the “Have-Gods” and the “Have-Nots,” SN&R brings together faith leaders and pitches them the real-life ethical questions that spring from their communities. Venturing beyond biblical references and high-minded philosophies, our hope is to give voice to the complexity, insight and compassion inherent to any spiritual calling.

Let’s get something clear: My job is to lure faith leaders into SN&R’s journalistic Babylon, feed them lunch and get them talking about topics that most people pay years of therapy to avoid. With any luck, our guests go home with a sense of fulfillment, having at least attempted to answer some of life’s unanswerable questions, and a confirmation that beneath our apparent differences resides the unifying power of love.

What happens between the introductions and the closing niceties, however, is in the hands of a higher power.

When I sat down with Les Shelton, a return participant from Sacramento First Church of the Nazarene, Eli Hughes, of Capitol Free Will Baptist Church in North Highlands, and Janice Steele, of Imani Community Church (housed in Midtown’s First United Methodist Church), I was expecting some peaceful dissonance. These are, after all, three vastly different individuals, each with a well-established niche in his or her community. What I didn’t expect was that a discussion about a woman’s struggle to trust a new relationship would morph into a passionate debate about the cultural roots of personal transparency.

It all began when Hughes, advocating for the conflicted couple in question to get to know each other through open communication, declared, “I don’t push too much on transparency, but I do think there should be a tremendous level of honesty.”

“Isn’t that the same thing?” asked Shelton.

“No” was Hughes’ unequivocal reply. “Transparency is basically seeing even the most inner parts of a person. I mean, we all have little areas back there that aren’t so transparent, that we care not to share with other people. There’s certain areas that you just say, ‘Well, what’s the point? Best leave that alone.’”

Hughes seemed easy to peg at first: white, middle-aged conservative, as guileless as a farm boy dressed up in his daddy’s suit. Raised Southern Baptist and “called to preach at 12 years old,” he has served as associate pastor at Capitol Free Will for the past 11 years. He endorses Promise Keepers, leads a weekly Bible study, hosts tent revivals in the church parking lot, and claims that Capitol Free Will is “about as charismatic as you can get without getting Pentecostal.”

He also made it clear that his church includes and encourages cultural diversity, in keeping with their belief that “Sunday should not be the most segregated day of the week.” As if to support this point, Hughes’ cell phone twice busted out a bump-and-grind rap tone, adding a whole new dimension to his pious persona.

Steele revealed some amusement at this. A former performing artist committed to outreach ministry, Steele appeared, on the surface, to be Hughes’ perfect opposite: a fiercely outspoken African-American woman who considers herself a “moving target,” as well as a “progressive and prophetic voice” for folks in her community.

“I understand what it means to be kicked out of churches and not be accepted,” she said.

Imani, which is Swahili for “faith,” is a new church based on the seven principles of the spiritual holiday Kwanzaa. According to Steele, the church is about “the radically inclusive love of Jesus Christ,” as illustrated in their motto: “Practice Radical Hospitality.”

And somewhere between the “radically” subversive Steele and the promise-keeping Hughes sat Shelton: son of missionaries, and man of brevity and diplomatic humor. The perfect fulcrum for Hughes’ and Steele’s cultural see-saw.

What seemed at first to be a digressive defining of terms—what exactly is transparency?—quickly eclipsed the original intent of our discussion. The real question became: How willing are we to, as Steele says, “take off the mask"?

“I know it’s work, to strive for transparency,” Steele acknowledged. However, as an African-American, she feels transparency is both her inheritance and her birthright.

“We were already kind of groomed to be transparent, being stripped of who we were as a people coming over from Africa,” she said.

Yet the process of colonization also, Steele continued, taught the naturally transparent tribal Africans “to pretend, to put on the mask, and to cover up.”

“But I was raised in the same environment,” Shelton said. “It’s called the ’50s.”

Hughes agreed before asking, “So you’re trying to get back to [that transparency]?”

“For me, it’s innate,” Steele clarified. “There’s something innate in me that says, ‘You need to be real.’ And when I read the history of my ancestors and of African people, what I come to understand is that they were transparent.”

Steele proposed another perpetrator in discouraging folks from authenticity: The church, which she said “has really been the leader in helping us to put on masks and to be phony and to lie.”

“I totally disagree with that,” Hughes interjected.

“Totally transparent,” Hughes repeated, incredulously.

“Absolutely,” said Steele. “Takin’ off the mask, turning the lights on, taking the covers off.”

Hughes regrouped a bit, clarifying that he is “much more transparent with the people in my church who will not cast judgment on me … than I am with the person on the street, who will use whatever information they have as power.”

“And you don’t think people in your church will?” Steele cut in.

“They haven’t.”

“Some will.” Steele leaned forward in her chair. “’Cause the church is an organization, and it’s full of political crap. And so, yes, some people will use that same stuff against you in the church.”

“I personally believe that transparency is the goal,” Shelton piped in. “We grow up keeping secrets, from ourselves and others … and those things never really go away. We learn how to adapt as we get older, but they’re still in there. So the journey we try to make is a journey where we in a sense get over ourselves.” He gave a resigned laugh. “Because it’s tiring, it’s exhausting to maintain these images and these incongruent values. It wears you out. The older you get, the tireder you get. So pretty soon you say, ‘I’m just gonna throw myself on God’s graces and be who I am—I don’t even know who I am yet, but whatever it is, it’s better than trying to keep this juggling act going.’ And so that’s really what transparency brings us. It’s kind of like an emotional vacation.”