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Meet Jennifer Winingder of Spiritual Pathways in Brookhaven

Today we’d like to introduce you to Jennifer Winingder.

Jennifer, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
I am an Atlanta native who moved to New York when I was ten and spent my high school and college years in the Northeast, at Andover and at Brown University. I came back to Atlanta after graduating in 1992 and had what I would call and quarter-life crisis. I knew that I was interested in the non-profit, social justice world- in those days, the most prominent options were something like CARE, UNICEF, Peace Corps. I also was consumed with questions about the nature of life, my purpose, which God or the Divine was to me, and I was going through some personal transformations. I confronted some unhealthy family dynamics and entered the seminary at the same time. I believed seminary offered me the chance to learn more about God and grow in my own spiritual identity, study, and get connected to others asking the same questions. I am still doing this almost 3o years later.

My desire to help those who are underprivileged, my passion for justice, and to understand how people work to enable them to be happier and healthier led me back to New York City, where I work at an urban Church, West-Park Presbyterian and also enrolled in Lee Strasberg acting studio. The diversity and global focus of an urban church was very appealing to me. I enrolled for a second master’s degree at Union Theological Seminary and traveled to the Middle East in 2000- we got to see Palmyra before it’s destruction, Petra in Jordan, and Israel. I felt a deep connection to the culture and land there. Immediately upon returning to New York, I met my future husband, an Egyptian Muslim scholar. We married quickly due to his Muslim faith and settled into married life. I had two beautiful children in the space of 19 months and we lived in Brooklyn as students, he as a doctoral student and myself as a Masters student. 9/11 happened when we were living there. It was tragic and powerful. I was taking a class on Islam at the time and also helped organize interfaith women’s dialogue events.

My learning curve and exposure to a different culture, different religion, and interfaith studies was exciting and also challenging. We endured harassment, discrimination on a daily basis in the aftermath of the attacks. I became deeply aware of the pain and damage that systemic racism and white supremacist cultural framework imposes on minorities and the oppressed, both on an individual and collective level. Even the discrimination by proxy, against my husband and my children, even that continues until today, because they have Egyptian names was too much for me. We decided to move to Nigeria in 2006 when a teaching opportunity came open to escape the toxic environment here in the US. We had already been spending summers in Egypt, which were exhilarating, eye-opening, challenging, exotic, beautiful and enriching. My children were five and almost four. Nigeria came with its own set of adventures, challenges, learning, growth, and obstacles.

I am grateful for the time there where my own cultural conditioning and attitudes about Africans, developing countries, Black skin, and other religions and cultural values were dismantled and re-assembled. I realized also that white supremacist conditioning and white privilege is a lifelong issue and to be aware of my own privilege and ingrained attitudes and work to dismantle and change them is a daily ongoing process. I came back to the States in 2007 with my children and back to Atlanta to start my life over. I enrolled in a doctoral program in pastoral counseling, which fit my interests and skills wonderfully. It was also ironic that I entered a similar field to my mother, who graduated from Georgia State University with her doctorate in 1984 in psychology, and has practiced since then. She just recently retired.

After the 2016 Presidential Election, I and many others in the US, particularly in the South, were beginning to witness an increase in racist rhetoric coming from the administration and a rise in hate groups and state-sponsored hate crime. Our complicated history in the US and in the South, of systemic oppression from Slavery until today against Black people and many other minorities, and of the civil rights movement, is fertile ground for necessary dialogue between white people and Black people around recognizing and coming to terms with white privilege so that we can better understand each other and form a more unified country with similar values and common interests. I joined many wonderful activist groups here in Atlanta, and formed meaningful friendships and partnerships with educated, dynamic, involved Black women and men, and other white women wanting to do the work needed to move us forward and not backward. What we ran up against in the form of white privilege and implicit bias, however, became a stumbling block to unified progress and shared values. Good intentions on the part of white women only went so far when white supremacy is so deeply imbedded in our consciousness and conditioning.

Sooner or later, it always reared its head and created divides. I formed my nonprofit in 2019, Spiritual Pathways, as a platform to facilitate deeper and more immersive healing in the form of group retreats. I quickly realized that my focus for group dialogue and healing needed to be on facilitating open, honest informed conversations between Black women and white women and women of color, so that a) Black women and women of color could be truly heard and their voices lifted up and centered in public spaces, and b) white women could learn from them and at the same time learn how to confront their own implicit bias and privilege and also undertake the de-conditioning process themselves to form healthier and deeper and more respectful and productive relationships. I started a podcast called Present Pilgrimage with a dear friend Iyabo Onipede, who is half Nigerian and half white.

We began having conversations from each of our perspectives around pressing issues of each day and what was presenting itself in the national forum. Another friend from activist groups, Marla Cureton and I, then got together motivated by frustration with racism and white privilege being exercised in activist circles in Atlanta and beyond. We decided to form a group, along with three other women representing different perspectives, backgrounds, and ethnicities, called Together We Win. Our idea was to create workshops where motivated white women and Black women and women of color could come together to talk about what it means to really work together to elect progressive candidates, focusing on local, regional and national races, and understand what our shared values are. A necessary part of this process was to recognize and confront our own ingrained biases and work to dismantle them.

We developed a process for white women to listen to Black women and women of color talk and utilize tools to truly hear and learn from them. We developed a list of resources for white women to access for their own education. We developed as a group, strategies to increase voter turnout, advocate for progressive candidates, particularly Black women and men candidates, candidates who represent the LGBTQIA+ community, and those truly representing their communities and their needs. Together We Win gathered Black panelists and panelists of color, as well as the Together We Win committee, to listen to them talk about who they are and what they do. We also facilitated small group discussions with diverse perspectives. We did run up against privilege in the form of denial, emotionalism, deflection, and minimizing and dismissing, and we did our best to address these behaviors.

In my Pastoral Care classes at Candler School of Theology at Emory University, I include lectures, resources, and videos on systemic racism and how it has affected everyone. My students work with incarcerated populations, immigrant communities, homeless populations, in medical environments, and with persons living with addiction. Facts show that Black and minority and underprivileged populations are most affected by lack of adequate health care, increased incarceration rates, increased addiction rates, lower income levels, and lower levels of education. The list goes on and on. There is a relationship and direct correlation between systemic racism and oppression and these statistics. By raising awareness and understanding of where these policies came from, and why, my students can then be better equipped and informed to help the persons they work with and care for, as well as becoming better faith leaders in their communities.

As a deeply spiritual person and now a Director of Spiritual Direction degree program at The University of Theology and Spirituality, I believe that our spiritual lives, our understanding of being spiritual people – possessing a connection to something greater than us that inhabits and embodies every living being, helps us to remain centered in our shared values of loving and respecting all beings, and working towards a future where peace and mutual harmony can exist. We are not so easily brainwashed and manipulated by those seeking power and control over others. Blessings.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
My life has been full of obstacles, big and small, but I would not have it any other way. I am a product of childhood divorce and was raised by a single mother in the South in the 70s, which was very unusual at the time. My sisters and I became latchkey kids as my mother went back to school and back to work. As a result, we became very self-reliant and independent at a young age. I believe that experience growing up was one of the foundational learning experiences for my life. We moved to New York when I was ten from Atlanta, and then into New York City as my mother divorced again. I went to three different high schools, which forced me to adapt and be more outgoing and learn how to make new friends quickly. It also spurred a lifelong curiosity of travel, learning about people from all cultures and walks of life, and a desire to be a part of something bigger than myself, and to help those who are oppressed, victimized, and suffering. Giving to others gave a lot back to me. I quickly learned about the harm capitalism and certain economic policies can create for people simply trying to survive.

My husband (now ex-husband) whom, I met in 2000, is an Egyptian Muslim. Being married to him was a huge learning experience and also contained many challenges, from our cultural and religious differences to living in New York City as two young striving graduate students with small babies. To experiencing racism and harassment, particularly after 9/11. I witnessed and experienced by proxy the myriad ways that systemic racism is expressed and enforced, from being stopped and detained by police on an almost daily basis, to being passed up for teaching opportunities, to being harassed by neighbors, experiencing judgment from family members both here and in Egypt to myself experiencing blatant mysogyny and sexism and restriction in Egypt and Nigeria. Experiencing all of this was exhausting, demoralizing, and depressing. It also increased my own determination to fight back and create change.

After I came back from Africa in 2007 with my small children, I was also a single mother raising kids on my own. I also went back to school and started working. It was challenging to wear so many hats, and I was reluctant to ask for help for fear of being judged. I think women are too harsh on each other in that way. Motherhood became my priority and I do not regret a single second of it. But all of the decisions of the family rested on me, and there were many expectations from my kids, family, my community, and myself to be the best mother I could be and also grow my career. My children have Egyptian names, and they look different from myself. So, we have encountered prejudice from others in different ways because of this. It is something we talk about a lot with each other, why prejudice and discrimination exist, how to recognize it, minimize it, and not take it personally. It can be soul-crushing for young people to experience racism and discrimination when there is no good reason why or easy way to explain it, particularly if it comes from your own family. Thankfully, they have grown into aware, intelligent, strong young adults.

Please tell us about Spiritual Pathways.
I talked a fair amount in the first section about Spiritual Pathways, Together We Win, my teaching at Candler School of Theology, and at The University of Theology and Spirituality. As a teacher, counselor, and retreat and workshop organizer and facilitator, my goal is to promote awareness of issues, pain, wounds, and challenges that all of us live with individually and collectively, and to offer methods, techniques, and conversation tools to move through pain, suffering, challenges, and obstacles. I now have extensive training and experience in spiritual practices, counseling techniques, pastoral care, education on systemic and historical oppression, and how to heal from many forms of trauma, individually and collectively. I believe trauma comes in many forms and that is should be recognized and expressed and validated in order to move past it and heal. Currently, the most pressing form of trauma I address in my work, my teaching, workshops, and retreats, is racial and systemic trauma. I also address physical and sexual abuse, narcissistic trauma, and trauma that leads to addiction and other coping patterns and destructive relationships.

Do you look back particularly fondly on any memories from childhood?
My favorite memory from childhood is simply running around the woods barefoot in my backyard in Atlanta, climbing magnolia trees, staying outside until dark, playing with my friends, catching listening bugs. Any time I could be outside in nature was enjoyable for me, listening to the cicadas and feeling the dense night air. I also enjoyed traveling with my family. One time when I was around 8 or 9, my mother drove my sisters and I from Atlanta to Colorado in our mustard yellow Toyota Corolla and we made friends with truckers along the way because we had a walkie-talkie. Her code name was Atlanta Phantom. I was in the very back of the hatchback in my own space. We also hosted square dances at our Atlanta home from time to time, which was a lot of fun.

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Image Credit:

For Stacey Abrams photos, Kevin Lowery

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