After interning with The United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church and Society, ViaFaith McCullough discovered a deeper understanding of justice and found that even our simplest ideas can impact social inequities.
Guest: ViaFaith McCullough
- Learn more about The UMC's General Board of Church and Society.
- McCullough currently is on staff with the Oklahoma Annual Conference as the Project Transformation Program Director.
- "Tell Me Who You Are" is a book that McCullough references as being iimportant to helping her understand people and their different experiences.
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This episode posted on June 2, 2023.
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Before we start today's episode, I'd like to tell you about Safer Sanctuaries, an updated and comprehensive resource to help leaders reduce the risk of abuse in their communities, and create guidelines to welcome and build connection with those who have experienced harm. Learn [email protected] or by calling 800-972-0433.
At a young age, ViaFaith McCullough learned that people are more than their circumstances. After spending a summer as a college intern with United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church and Society, this cradle United Methodist discovered a deeper understanding of justice and found that when we work together, even our simplest ideas can impact social inequities.
Crystal Caviness, host: Hi, ViaFaith. Welcome to “Get Your Spirit in Shape.”
ViaFaith McCullough: Hello, I'm glad to be here.
Crystal: I'm excited for you to be here too, and the conversation that we're going to have. Before we jump into that, can you tell us just a little bit about yourself?
ViaFaith: Yes. My name is ViaFaith McCullough. I'm what you would call a cradle Methodist, meaning that I've grown up in The Methodist Church my entire life. I was born in Wichita, Kansas, and shortly after my family moved to New Orleans, Louisiana, and we had to move after Hurricane Katrina, which is how we ended up in Oklahoma where I am now. I attended Philander Smith College and got my bachelor's in political science and then did some nonprofit work, and now I'm working as the program director of Project Transformation Oklahoma.
Crystal: Wow. There's a lot there I want to talk to you about. I wanted to want to talk to you about surviving Katrina, the work you're doing in the Oklahoma Conference, and we will definitely go back to that. Um, but we are talking to you today specifically because of an internship you did with the General Board of Church and Society in Washington dc You were part of the Ethnic Young Adult program, and I want to talk to you about that in, in its context of working for this justice seeking work. The, the field you worked in, I believe was, um, eliminating poverty and just how that affected you. But I d I do <laugh>. There's a lot to talk about. I do want to go back and talk to you just about your path to that place where you became someone interested in justice, living through Katrina, your family moving w did that play a part in it at all?
ViaFaith: It definitely did. I feel like the pursuit of justice and peace is something that has always been within me since, um, I was a younger TA child, so my parents will always say that I always had a pretty strong opinion about everything, um, especially in regards to the ways that human beings and, and we, , have access and are allowed to live. And so of course going through that space in, , Katrina, I was pretty young, so I didn't really fully understand what was happening at the time. And it wasn't until I got a little older moved to Oklahoma when you not only had to reflect on the devastation that happened in the city, but also kind of the stigma that came in relation to you moving into a new space and then you being perceived as maybe a person who needs like pity or saving because you came from this situation. And I don't think that that's bad to care for people who came from situations, but I did notice a distinct difference in the ways that I was treated in some classroom settings because of that story. And I've always just thought that it's really important that while we make sure that those who have been displaced by disasters or , storm related issues are cared for, that we also don't stigmatize them. So that was a conclusion that I came to an elementary school. So that was a little bit earlier.
Crystal: Yes. But wow. So that is such an important conclusion because stigma is associated to many scenarios that people, that just happened to people and I did that. How did you carry that into your going into college, studying political science? How do, how was that lens a part of that work?
ViaFaith: Yes. So of course I am African-American, so I feel like when I'm growing up, in addition to the stigma that I experienced being displaced and um, going through Katrina, they're just situations that you encounter by nature of growing up in society where you learn that folks are treated very differently. Being somewhat of a refugee in way is one space, but then also there are differences in the ways that you can be treated in the education system. I experienced that as well, um, as well as looking around and just understanding the history of this country. And so I think that my parents were very good about making sure that we were equipped with the knowledge of where we come from and the things that the country has done and what we need to improve upon. So that carried into college where I developed the love for poli sci specific with the study of African American issues and studies. And I think that at that time I really realized that I wanted to commit myself to work to where we could work to help in advance marginalized communities.
Crystal: You said you're a cradle Methodist. So, through this time, what was happening to you in your faith journey kind of alongside this recognition of who you wanted to be and what kind of work you wanted to pursue?
ViaFaith: Yeah. my faith, the journey was pretty strong because I grew up and had a childhood at a phenomenal United Methodist Church. So I attended Quayle United Methodist Church since I was six up until when I left for college. And I really, in that environment saw a community of people who were gathered together, who were working to address, um, social, um, injustice, who were working to make sure that children, youth, young adults and , older adults were equipped with not only spiritual tools to navigate them through situations, but also, um, consciousness and care for others in the community. So I really feel like when I went to college, that set the foundation of where I needed to be. And then in college I continued to explore as I was challenged through what I was learning in my studies. And then I think that that was my drive to understand what God was calling me to do, to act. And that of course is a lifelong journey, a lifelong conversation of God, I see these things, I see these issues that we have in society. Where would you like me to move? And what would you like me to do?
Crystal: Yes, that is a a a big question and a lifelong question. And part of that answering for you, it sounds like was becoming involved with the ethnic Young adult program. Tell us about what drew you into that and really what that experience was like.
ViaFaith: Yes, so of course because I am United Methodist, I was hip to all the sites <laugh>, and so I was looking for impactful summer experiences. And when I went to the General Board of Church and Society site, I saw the opportunity for the ethnic young adult internship. And I was interested because not only did it look like it would provide an opportunity for you to explore faith as well as social justice work with other young adults who are people of color, but it also seemed like just a safe space. So of course I was very interested in, um, the work and I applied for the program. I was very excited when I got accepted and found out that I would be working at Results, which is an anti-poverty organization.
Crystal: And so you went to Washington DC that summer?
ViaFaith: I actually did not. Okay. Because this was during, COVID.
ViaFaith: So this was in 2022. So we kind of had, I believe this might have been the first time the program was in the virtual space. So it's a little bit of a different experience, but I appreciate Reverend Katie for making it as intimate as possible as you could get on a virtual platform.
Crystal: What kind of work were you doing in through RESULTS?
ViaFaith: So with RESULTS, we were doing a lot of evaluation of policies, bills that were being passed in the Senate. We would go and make our suggestions. We would also look at developing anti-poverty tools. I know that I worked on a one-pager that talked about the ways that economic exper disparity was impacting black and brown communities. We also had the opportunity to sit in on legislative meetings, take notes, all of that. So that was where a lot of my work concentrated.
Crystal: Did you see some places, ViaFaith, where there were reasons to be hopeful about where we're moving as a country in this, in that work?
ViaFaith: Absolutely. I believe that this organization, it was established and people have been doing great work for years. So I think it's really good not only when you see issues, but you get in spaces where you see that people are actually working to address issues. RESULTS was one of that organizations seeing people develop anti-poverty materials for SNAP housing, all of those things that are creating real change for people in communities, that is a place to be hopeful. It is also a place to be hopeful, just the fact that our cohort was engaged and you had three other young adults who are interested in making a change in their society and using their experience to speak truth to power. And so, yeah, there's a lot to be hopeful for.
Crystal: The internship is promoted as being for young justice seekers willing to unpack their faith and identity and developing a deeper understanding of justice, which sounds like a lot of work to do in one summer, honestly, <laugh>. But I want to talk about this, unpack your faith. How was unpacking your faith a part of the work you were doing that summer?
ViaFaith: So there were many things that in addition to working for results, we did, um, we had weekly bible studies where we would examine scripture. We also had practices where we would just enter a state of prayer. And that was very important because it gets you to a place where you're centering yourself and you're understanding that ministry takes different types of forms. So when you're working at these organizations are nonprofits, you are also going inward and connecting that to the ways that God is calling you to do that work, which is super, super important because I used to think they were disconnected. I used to think that ministry looked like being in a pulpit. I never really connected it to no, you can work in grassroots organizations and you can use your life and your witness as a testimony in those spaces. So I'm glad that this experience helped connect those dots for me.
Crystal: Oh yeah. That is such an important realization too, that we all can be in ministry whether we went to a seminary or not, you know, there's, there's no shortage of places for us, all of us as believers to be in ministry.
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Crystal: Another thing I read on the Church and Society website about, specifically about you and your internship is that you, you had believed you had to do something monumental to affect change, but that your work with GBCS changed that view. Can you explain that a little more?
ViaFaith: Yes. So, I think it can kind of be a byproduct of the educational system K through 12 where you're taught, you're taught that basically your work is your value, right? So if you get As, or you get named like a student of the week or student of the year, you're taught that that means that my work is doing something. And so when you're growing up through this system and it's like, okay, you're great, you're excellent, um, you should be in a newspaper writing, you should be doing this and that just things that are really focused on your name, being out there in spaces more so than the work that you're doing, whether it's recognized or not, is important. And so I had to go through a real mental shift in understanding that there are times where God may call you to be on public platforms, which is great, but there are also times where you might have to do work in the background, and that's just as impactful and ineffective. And so I think that, especially in a culture where we have a lot of social media and we're always seeing people do different types of activities, it's important to highlight that you can use that as a tool to make a difference and get your name out in spaces. But if you don't have a social media following, if you are not in a newspaper, that doesn't make your work any less impactful.
Crystal: That's such a great realization. We're in such, we live in such an achievement oriented society. And, I never thought about it that way, ViaFaith, that even the very structure of, you know, getting As, being recognized for something specific like reading the most books in school, those are all things that undergird that belief that you have to do these big things to get recognition. That was a, that was a huge realization to, to kind of set you up to go forward in life and do this ministry that God's called you to. And I want to talk about that kind of that next step. Let's talk about what you're doing now.
ViaFaith: So currently I am very honored to serve as the program director of Project Transformation Oklahoma. And this is a basically, a summer literacy focus program where we work with children, college-aged young adults and churches to connect them in purposeful relationship. And so I'm so excited because since 2003, we have had PT in Oklahoma and it has done great works. And not only making sure that children from low income communities have access to impactful programming that helps them work on their reading levels, but also making sure that people have access to meals that college aged young adults are engaged and can act out their calling and growing their spiritual journey. And that churches can receive like a mutual benefit in participating in all of these relationships that are established. And so I actually was a camper and that's how I got introduced to the program initially. And then, , I came back in college in 2018 and I served as an arts coordinator at a site and Moore, and then now I'm serving as a program director. And so it's just such a great full circle experience.
Crystal: I love that. It really is. And what a unique perspective you bring to it because you have participated in the program at the different levels as a participant, as a leader, and now overseeing all of it. It sounds like Project Transformation is such a great example of how the church can play a role in helping underserved communities in places where there's injustice. What are some other places that you've discovered through your work with GBCS and also with Project Transformation where you can see where the church can make a difference?
ViaFaith: Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, that's a great question. I feel like with these programs, we're headed in the right direction is what I would say. I think that there are a lot of things going on in our society, and it's really important that our focus continues to be on how we empower the next generation. How are we engaging in relationship with college-aged young adults, right? Because it's such a time where you're exploring, you're learning new things, but we also need communities where they feel safe and they feel seen and they're able to explore their faith and have conversations and toggle with scripture. And the nitty gritty that you get when you transition from what you're taught as a child into developing your own minds and mindsets as an adult. And likewise, children need nourishment, they need support, encouragement. They already come with an in innate set of gifts and talents, and it's just so important that we continue to support ministries that will help highlight these things that the children have and draw it out, draw it out of them.
Crystal: Well, before we finish up, I just have a couple of more questions. What is something that you wanted to share about your experience at either GBCS or Project Transformation that we haven't yet talked about?
ViaFaith: Yes, I actually hjave some of the tools that we use, I know <laugh> that people might not be able to see, but one of these is a libation jar, which is really, really helpful for me. When I practice mindfulness. I practice meditation and just really praying for the community, praying for folks who are in need as well as praying for myself. And so this is one of the tools that I wanted to highlight because I appreciate how we also got tangible gifts that we could use to help us explore our faith. Another one that I received is, "Tell Me Who You Are." And I keep this on my shelf and I go back to remind myself that the world is so vast. There are people of a multitude of experiences that everybody has a story, and it's really important to center ourselves in a place where we can highlight these stories and make sure that people's needs continue to be met.
Crystal: Tell me more about that book.
ViaFaith: Yes. So, "Tell Me Who You Are" is sharing our stories of race, culture, and identity. It's just a multitude of stories that people are sharing their lives, experiences. There's one with Queen Esther, a few more from people throughout the United States, and it's just really, it's a really good read and it's very inspiring. It gives you, it really engages you in your curiosity in understanding people and their different experiences.
Crystal: I couldn't help but notice ViaFaith and, you're right, our audience can't see this, but we are seeing each other through our monitors. But you have, there are Post-Its all through that book. Yeah. So it's clearly one of those books that you are going back to and that I love to see books that are used over and over that sounds like a really special, a special volume for you, which kind leads us right into, you know, our next question. The last question, and you kind of already touched on that, is how do you keep your own spirit in shape?
ViaFaith: Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, I keep my own spirit in shape. I really like to pray a lot. Additionally, I really get filled by having safe spaces to converse with other people. I like spending time with loved ones. I like getting to know people. It really does bring me a sense of energy and replenishment. I also like taking walks, love reading, listening to podcasts, and of course, spending time with my parents.
Crystal: That's awesome. ViaFaith, it has been such a joy to have you as a guest on "Get Your Spirit in Shape" today. I just thank you for the work that you're doing. I feel so hopeful that you and others are just coming along and doing this really important work that at that is transformative for our world, for our church, for the community. So thank you so much.
ViaFaith: Thank you for having me.
EpilogueThat was ViaFaith McCullough sharing about her experience as an intern with United Methodist Church's' General Board of Church and Society. To learn more about ViaFaith's story, go to umc.org/podcast and look for this episode where you will find helpful links and a transcript of our conversation. If you have questions or comments, feel free to email me at a special email address. Just for "Get Your Spirit in Shape" listeners: [email protected]. If you enjoyed today's episode, we invite you to leave a review on the podcast platform where you listen. Thank you so much for joining us for "Get Your Spirit in Shape." I'm Crystal Caviness and I look forward to the next time that we are together.
Today's “Get Your Spirit in Shape” episode is sponsored by “Safer Sanctuaries: Nurturing Trust within Faith Communities,” a new and comprehensive resource that continues the tradition of Safe Sanctuaries ministry by building on its trusted policies and procedures. This resource from the Upper Room and Discipleship Ministries contains theological grounding for the work of abuse prevention, basic guidelines for risk reduction, age level, specific guidance, and step-by-step instructions on how to develop, revise, update, and implement an abuse prevention plan. To learn more, go to SaferSanctuaries.org or call 800-972-0433.