You're More Than an Ornament, My Friend

Rev. Rajathy Gerlyn Henry

Name: The Rev. Rajathy Gerlyn Henry
Pronouns: She/Her/Hers
Ethnic Identity: Indian- Canadian
Denomination: Anglican Church of Canada
Ministry Role: Curate
Ministry Context: St. Timothy Anglican Church, North Toronto
Seminary Attended: Columbia Theological Seminary


I have spent the last 15 minutes – maybe 20— just thinking about how I would address you. Any one term does not feel adequate. So, my dear discerner, child of God, brave traveller, freshman, woman, man, gender-bending beauty, my I-hope-I-am-in-the-right-place-wonderer; hi. I want to begin by welcoming you to the world of doubt and discernment. The mere fact that you are here and are reading this means that you are responding to the moving of the Spirit within you. That moving may be uncomfortable and scary, or it may be delightful. Most likely, it’s a fermenting mixture of both. However I find you today, welcome. 

It was 2016, and I arrived on a plane by myself from Canada -- doe-eyed -- running on the adrenaline of adventure for my first year of seminary in the deep south of the US. I remember being the only person on campus the first couple of days, settling in to my new home as if it were any other country I had lived in. When I met my peers on the first day of orientation, I was as nervous and excited as any freshman would be in a new context. It wasn’t till lunch on the third day when someone said, “Hey, do you want to eat with us? We don’t want to seem all white,” that I realized that I wasn’t just a freshman in a new context. I was a brown freshman in a predominantly white school in the deep south.

The one who asked me to eat with them has become a good friend over the years. If you allow it, for yourself and with others, through dialogue and reflection and re-action, there is tremendous potential for growth while in seminary. A big part of theological education is learning how to make meaning for the world through a fresh and liberating understanding of God. So, encountering sexism or casteism or racism or ageism or any other frustrating ism at seminary and learning not only to address it, but let it be fertile land for growth is part of the process of becoming a whole theologian. Don’t let the isms beat you down. Don’t believe that you don’t carry any of the isms, and don’t fall prey to becoming the spokesperson for any one ism. 

As a young woman of Indian decent, I quickly became the poster-girl for all South Asian experience. All questions about caste or poverty in the global south or gender and race beckoned glances toward me. At first, I felt uncomfortable, but I quickly fell prey to thinking that I indeed was the poster-girl for the immigrant experience. A lie that was easy to believe. That sort of self-understanding is murky, murky water to be in. Get out. 

People will try to ornamentalize you, my friend. You will be invited to fill the spot for diversity and speak on issues you have no expertise in or be expected to have answers to questions you’ve never heard before. If you are not careful, as a person of colour, you will lose yourself in the idea of being the perfect ornament in a panel or a classroom or in a conversation. You will be scared to crack and disrupt the system that has put you on a pedestal. That is not why you are here. You are more than a pretty thing on a Christmas tree. Remember that you are here because you bring a deep understanding of life and of God through your lived experience. You are not here because of your skin tone or your accent. 

My hope for you is that you find yourself in new and beautiful ways. That you will re-examine your faith and your understanding of who you are. It is through deep doubt that we find what is certain and true. About ourselves, our God, and our world. Don’t fear doubt. Don’t fear being unsure or feeling challenged by whichever school you are looking at. Find people you trust and keep looking till you find them. For me, I found that community in middled aged black women. It was they who made me feel the most uncomfortable and the most at home. It was they who called me out on my poster-girl, ornamental façade. It was they who reminded me that I was bold and intelligent and yet still learning. It was in seminary that I learned to own my deep melanin skin. 

I am now a priest in the Anglican Church of Canada. I worship and work at a parish in the heart of an affluent neighbourhood. Every day, when I walk from my car or the bus stop to the doors of the church, I do so with my keys clearly visible to anyone who might find me or my skin threatening. I do so to show that I indeed belong. I walk confidently up to the door, unlock it, get in, and let go of the breath that I had been holding. Seminary changes you, but sends you out to a world that often remains the same. Can I tell you why in God’s eyes racism is a sin? Yes. Do I acknowledge that people are racist and act accordingly? Yes.

You come to seminary knowing that you will learn about God and the history, the theology, the polity of the church that worships said God. You don’t always come expecting to lose yourself on more than one occasion and to find yourself in a multitude of ways. Yes, please do study and study hard! What you will be learning through these books is really, really important to being able to live confidently and speak fairly about God to a groaning world looking for ways to make meaning of life. But don’t forget that the point of seminary is to leave. The point is to acquire the tools to know how to live life with God and God’s people.

Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen

I am really glad that you are here in this moment. Welcome!

The Rev. Rajathy Gerlyn Henry

Practices/Resources Recommended:

Practice: Praying the Daily Office (If you are Anglican, or if you enjoy liturgy).

Practice: Spiritual Direction! If you are in Atlanta, try the Julian of Norwich Center.

Book: Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Life Together gathers Bonhoeffer’s 1938 reflections on the character of Christian community, based on the common life that he and his seminarians experienced at the Finkenwalde Seminary and in the “Brother’s House” there. The stimulus for the writing of Life Together was the closing of the preacher's seminary at Finkenwalde by the Nazis. While Bonhoeffer wrote with his own seminary community in mind, he intended Life Together to have a more universal impact, and spoke of a mission and responsibility of the church as a whole.

In My Grandfather's Blessings, Rachel Naomi Remen, a cancer physician and master storyteller, uses her luminous stories to remind us of the power of our kindness and the joy of being alive.Dr. Remen's grandfather, an orthodox rabbi and scholar of the Kabbalah, saw life as a web of connection and knew that everyone belonged to him, and that he belonged to everyone. He taught her that blessing one another is what fills our emptiness, heals our loneliness, and connects us more deeply to life.

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