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God and the Machine

Why Shamika Goddard, chaplain to tech geeks, does what she does

I criticized “tech chaplain” Shamika Goddard pretty snarkily here, and invited her to respond, promising her that I would post whatever she sent, without editing. She has now done so, gracefully. I say +1000 to Shamika Goddard!

Soon after starting at Union Theological Seminary, students began asking for help with organizing their data or figuring out how to use all the many online educational resources. Somehow word got around that I was the person to go to for help with tech stuff. Before long, students went from asking about Google Calendars and Drive folders to general questions about different tools as well as issues with their devices. Though people were getting help, they were not being empowered to solve problems on their own and that nagging feeling eventually caused me to find a longer term solution. By the time I approached the school’s IT Department to take on the growing call for compassionate digital care, it was clear that many people were standing in need of intentional and loving help. Disappointed that the department did not have the capacity to extend any assistance, they surprisingly offered instead to support my work with the Union community. Intending to hand off what God put on my heart to someone more qualified and established sounds like the call story of so many biblical misfits turned God’s hands and feet in the world like Jonah or Moses. Thankfully my school has been supportive in affirming and encouraging this new kind of ministry. Left holding the bag, so to speak, I decided to keep helping people. Since officially starting as a tech chaplain in January of 2014, at least one third of the Union community (students, faculty, staff, and alumnae) has taken advantage of drop in hours, one on one appointments, or workshops ranging on topics from Inbox Zero (systematically decluttering one’s inbox) and Google Apps training to Curating Your Digital Self (strategically managing professional web presence across social media platforms).

Tech Chaplaincy was created out of a need to serve those troubled at the intersection of technology and humanity guided by the fruits of the spirit outlined in Galatians 5:22-23a. I believe love, peace, faithfulness, joy, goodness, gentleness, patience, self-control, and kindness are sorely missing from many experiences with modern technology. By handling conflicts, crises, or challenges that occur when people create and use technology, the tech chaplain, anchored in the fruits of the spirit, does more than tech support. The role of a tech chaplain is to stand inside the digital divide and build bridges so that more folks can get safely across strengthened in faith and without fear. Whenever anyone in the Union community has any issues even remotely related to technology, they know that there is someone who will truly listen, treat them with respect, and if not help them find a solution, certainly point them in a direction to acquire one. A lot of people who try to find support, particularly folks who have not had as much exposure to technology, end up getting talked down to or simply told to buy something they don’t need and still won’t understand. Instead of being there to fix a machine or upsell products, my prayer is for tech chaplaincy to be a vessel for the divine to reach and empower the person struggling through the medium of technology and all its context.

The healing that God has done so far through this ministry has been deeply humbling. Many of the issues I have worked with (tech literacy being the main one, e.g. incorporating educational technology or maneuvering through online tools like Moodle and BibleWorks) have the capacity to consume individuals with fear, anxiety, anger, and self-doubt. In those moments, I remind folks that the spirit God gives is not one of fear, as 2 Timothy 1:7 teaches, but one of “strength and of love and of temperance” as the Jubilee Bible tells it. Recognizing the power of faith, people having problems rooted in fear are slowly delivered and embrace empowerment.

While all this sounds well and good, tech chaplaincy was only setting up to be just a nice perk for a few folks at a seminary. It might then be wondered, how does this bring God’s work to help the larger world? A few months after becoming a tech chaplain, one of my professors Dr. Daisy Machado took a class of students down to Mexico to visit the border. Being from San Antonio, it was a good chance to learn while visiting home. My experience on the trip, however, shook me to my core – the struggles and on the Texas borderlands were not discussed during my childhood in Texas. It was meeting Rosa, however, and hearing her story of tragedy that resolved in me the responsibility to do more than tech literacy. While working in a Mexican factory, or maquiladora, to build an LG flat screen television, the machine she was malfunctioned and Rosa lost both of her hands. The company did not take responsibility, so Rosa committed herself to support worker’s rights and sharing her story in an effort to expose the labor conditions many like her endure to keep up with the demand of high tech (and other) products. Just as the Syrophoenician woman expanded the reach of Jesus’ ministry in the book of Acts, Rosa exposed a darker side to the devices I was working with. Thinking more about how God has called each of us in creation to be good stewards, including in and around technology, it became clear that raising awareness of these stories and not passing by like the Good Samaritan would have to be at the heart of my call. Now tech chaplaincy aspires to bring dialogue to the full flawed cycle of a device’s life–from the mining of “conflict minerals” in the Congo and terrible labor conditions like Rosa’s for manufacturing in maquiladoras of Mexico in the beginning, to the e-dumps in Ghana and China at the end. Tech Chaplaincy recognizes that the ubiquity and centrality of technology in more and more lives, while certainly empowering, does not reflect healthy diversity from concept to consumer and the industry’s need for a diverse diversity will only prove beneficial for all involved.

Venturing out on this new kind of path where I would be tying together my Christian faith, desire to serve others, and call to be a witness in the digital space led me to develop a foundation upon which I could run. The expanded vision of tech chaplaincy required roots in a theology that embodied caring for the least of those in society (the marginalized and oppressed), as James 1:27 supports, from a perspective that values such experiences. Enter womanism.

1. From womanish. (Opp. of “girlish,” i.e. frivolous, irresponsible, not serious.) A black feminist or feminist of color. From the black folk expression of mothers to female children, “you acting womanish,” i.e., like a woman. Usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful behavior. Wanting to know more and in greater depth than is considered “good” for one. Interested in grown up doings. Acting grown up. Being grown up. Interchangeable with another black folk expression: “You trying to be grown.” Responsible. In charge. Serious.
2. Also: A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually. Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility (values tears as natural counterbalance of laughter), and women’s strength. Sometimes loves individual men, sexually and/or nonsexually. Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female. Not a separatist, except periodically, for health. Traditionally a universalist, as in: “Mama, why are we brown, pink, and yellow, and our cousins are white, beige and black?” Ans. “Well, you know the colored race is just like a flower garden, with every color flower represented.” Traditionally capable, as in: “Mama, I’m walking to Canada and I’m taking you and a bunch of other slaves with me.” Reply: “It wouldn’t be the first time.”
3. Loves music. Loves dance. Loves the moon. Loves the Spirit. Loves love and food and roundness. Loves struggle. Loves the Folk. Loves herself. Regardless.
4. Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.

Written in her 1983 publication In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose, Alice Walker’s definition of “Womanist” launched a theology that critically analyzed the world across intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality, and more all while holding central the experience of women like me who identify with the African diaspora. While recognizing feminism’s shortcoming as a group not able to fully embrace the distinct challenges that women of color and various socioeconomic backgrounds experience, womanism became an opportunity to lift the voices of those too often silenced or overlooked. Each layer of womanism, from its original definition, spoke to how I wanted to craft tech chaplaincy. First, the desire want to “know more and in greater depth than is considered ‘good’ for one” makes sense to a black woman like me interested in technology since the field is known to foster less than loving environments at times for people of color, women, and other marginalized groups. Second, the commitment in womanism “to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female”, though affirming a gender binary, is one which aligns with Paul’s insistence in Galatians 3:28 that, under Christ Jesus, we are all united. The resulting unity does not mean our individual identities and past experiences cannot be a testimony for how God has shown up in our lives, and instead gives each of us a banner beneath which we can walk together. Third, womanism celebrates a robust love that reminds me of the multifaceted ways God shows love in scripture. From the biblical instruments and David dancing out of his clothes to the creation story itself and Jesus leaving us with the Spirit as a comfort until his return. Finally, womanism recognizes a close relationship with feminism that is yet distinct. Those differences allow room for tech chaplaincy to represent a broader variety of orphans, widows, and persecuted so often addressed in the bible.

While I recognize that the path God has put me on is fraught with contentious and divisive situations and sentiments, I hold fast to stories of hope and glimpses of how things can and are getting better. My views may differ from others here on American Conservative, but we are all gathered under the name of Christ Jesus and in that I am thankful. I send out my peace and welcome with a fervent hope that here the dust can remain firmly against my feet.

I still find the “womanist” position hard to accept, but I don’t want to argue that right now. I want to thank Shamika Goddard for her thoughtful response, and for helping me to see that while we certainly disagree theologically one some meaningful matters, what I can’t deny, and indeed happily affirm, is that she discerns something spiritually important in our culture, and is acting to ameliorate suffering. Good for her. I support her in that, and am grateful that she helped me to see the worth of her calling.



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