What is your name? What name is on your birth certificate? What is its significance? Has it been changed over the years? My name has changed many times over the years. Often I carry different names at the same time. Some of those names legal, some in the form of a nick name or aliases, some are label’s others have given me. A name/label holds within it ones identity. Who am I in relation to those around me? How am I experienced by others? I may claim, wear or reject the claims of the designation.
My parents named me Jeana-marie Louise Johnson. Each of these names is connected to their history, my heritage, these are the names of those who have gone before me. The spelling of “Jeana,” is a weird thing my biological father had for wanting all his children’s names to start with a “J.” So a compromise was made. Johnson is a stolen name, an alias. The family story is that great-grandfather (paternal) was on the lamb for murder in the mid-west. He fled west to Arizona and started using Johnson, and married a Chiricahua Apache woman. My great-grandmother’s name and heritage were almost completely annihilated from our family memory. Grandfather was sent to a mission school, where he learned to hate and turned it inward, denying our history even to himself.
Over the years that name has taken many forms. From just Jeana, which was enough to get my attention, to mother’s call when I was in trouble “Jeana-marie Louise…!!” You’ve heard that voice. In school I was labeled, teacher’s would say she is quiet or shy, she doesn’t socialize with others. Kids called me fat and stupid. As an early teen I began to take on the persona of thug, bad girl, slut, bitch etc. As I began healing and working my formal education the names that came included, lazy welfare bum, victim, lost soul, white trash, bitch, survivor, student, advocate, service provider, social worker, pastor.
Several years back, I went through another of those rough patches that life can throw at us. One part of that mess was that my marriage came to an end. My X had informed me many times over the years that if that happened that he wanted his name back. At that point quite frankly I was happy to oblige. Yet, after all I’d been through in my life, all the healing, success, failure I just could not wear the name of my birth. My father was a violent and deviant sociopath. I was not willing to claim any longer the inheritance he left in his wake. Yet mother on the other hand, having had her own role in the story, takes up her part, owns her responsibility, has made possible healing through her active love along the way that has helped to make whole what was broken. Then there are the stories through my Italian and German ancestors I am named after, which needed to be honored. Therefore, I took the original spellings back, and went to my family elders for permission to take on the family name of Pezzi. A formality perhaps, but I wanted to offer my respect for what that name is for them & their history, as well as claim my place within that family.
I often hear the phrase, “let go of the past.” This can be helpful in keeping us in the present and looking toward the future. However, there is value in our history, even a history of violence, dysfunction and brokenness. Robert McAfee Brown, in the preface of the 25th anniversary edition of Ellie Wiesel’s work, “Night” offers us insight. Ellie Wiesel was a survivor of the death camps at Auschwitz and Buchwald, Rabbi, Professor and Nobel Peace Prize holder. Brown writes:
“Among the few who survived the onslaught of that formidable shadow [of death] turned substance, was Elie Wiesel, whose deliverance condemned him to tell the story to an unbelieving and uncaring world. But because of his telling, many who did not believe have come to believe, and some who did not care have come to care. He tells the story, out of infinite pain, partly to honor the dead, but also to warn the living – to warn the living that it could happen again and that it must never happen again. Better that one heart be broken a thousand times in the retelling, he has decided, if it means that a thousand others hearts need not be broken at all.”
Within the main-line church denominations we teach that our baptism is where God, names, identifies and claims us as one of God’s own, blessed, beloved child. We are adopted into the family. Because this is traditionally done early in life most can’t actually remember the event, even though we are reminded often to remember our baptism. Within that memory, hold the name that identifies our heritage, who we are, who we are becoming, and who we belong too/with. It is not a one-time event but an education and process we live into. Attached to this naming is a responsibility to the community to teach, learn, nurture, grow, inspire and return, give back. Again, it is not a one-time event, rather a process that is on-going.
In Mark’s gospel, is the story of an encounter which included labels, divisions, insults, name calling and claiming, teaching, healing and identity. Jesus wants to get away from the crowds he needs some space. He goes to a place he is not likely to be known or even noticed. He goes to the hood. You know that place where “those” people are. He is not interested in connecting with them, just hiding from the “us.” Then, if it don’t beat all, one of them finds him. Now, this wasn't just one of them, it was a woman. Law, culture, race, gender are all part of what would have prevented this encounter. But this was no meek and mild woman – she was a mother – a mother with a desperately sick child. She was one determined and tenacious spitfire. She had heard rumors of a healer, so she sought him out and mustered up the courage to approach him. Once found, she asks him to help her. He has no reason whatsoever to care or want to help her. He says to her, in effect, “Bitch you kidding me, what I do is for my kid’s. I’m not giving you the bread from their table.” Un-deterred she retorts, “even bitch’s get the scraps falling from the table.” Having heard her plea, he relents, “Indeed, go home your daughter is healed.”
Rather than argue or deny her identified place in relation to Jesus, she embraces it, flips it, teaches him something new and ultimately accomplishes her objective.
Many folks are confused, intrigued, offended and curious as to why or how I can call myself “Jesus’ Bitch.” Technically the word bitch refers to a female dog. We all know we have made it something else. It is used today as an insult, an attitude, a term of endearment and even affection. “Who the hell do you think you are bitch?” “Hey bitch, let’s hit the club.” I have a history that includes a high-risk street life. I have the playful loving heart, passion and tenacity of a bulldog, once I bite into something you’ll be hard pressed to un-clench these jaws. Along with having an attitude throughout my life which moved from in your face defensiveness based out of insecurity - to a confident - I don’t really give a shit what you think about me - it then made since that this story was used as the passage at the center of my ordination. As my very dear friend, mentor and pastor Doug Vold preached it:
“We who know Jeana-marie are often inclined to think this story is about her. She has used that language. She could tell her story, if someone asked her to. And we are blown away by that story, to be honest. Those who know it more are the more deeply drawn into its drama and its wonders. It is a story, by the way, that includes an amazing and tangled history with God, full of sharp exchanges, and more than witty repartee. The Syrophoenecian woman could look tame by comparison!
But all that is to get the subject of this story wrong. It is not really a story about Jeana-marie. It just looks like it. And Jeana-marie is the first to say so. This is a story about God, and God’s grace. This is a story about God’s love that reaches farther and deeper than we can ever imagine. This is a story about God’s promise that crosses barriers of gender and culture and personal history and, at times, even outright rejection. This is a story about a gospel in which crumbs become feasts and the gift of acceptance and grace, itself, can draw us into a life, into a world, into a story that is bigger than we are. This ordination of Jeana-marie is a story of God, God’s grace, and how it hit its mark.”
So, I claim my name, with memory and with attitude. I am Jesus’ Bitch. I will wear it in faith, love and humility. I ask for the faith and courage to live into it and share it. What is your Name?