I met Tina Phillips while interviewing for my very first professional position. Right off the bat, her presence was big. I’m talking about the kind of big that makes you feel your confidence go up ten levels, just because you know she’s in the room with you and she’s got your back. And her soul is as big, if not bigger. Tina’s soul can tap into yours and tell when you need some loving. Her soul draws any disagreeable soul around her into the light for all to see. Her bigger than life laugh and those signature nails and that oh so famous saying, “Be kind to yourself” make me smile as I type this. The fact that she thought it not robbery to drop some gems for us humbles me in so many ways. And now, here’s Tina:
Grace. A word that brushed past my ears but never landed on my understanding as a young girl growing up in church. Sure, it was used often enough. I knew it was amazing from the song, essential to say before eating with hands clasped together in a posture of begging for mercy. But there didn’t seem to be a focus on bringing a true clarity of its meaning to the young girl who struggled with identity, self-esteem, and craved validation. What did I know and understand? I knew I was a “wretch”, a “filthy rag”, unclean, a sinner and nothing without a savior. I often wondered why the time was even wasted to save me if I was nothing. Maybe grace wasn’t preached loud enough, perhaps my brain was deaf to anything involving me receiving something I didn’t deserve because my soul, that served as an eardrum, was ruptured by the consistent berating and reminder that I wasn’t enough. Either way, I didn’t learn about grace as a founding principle of life or religion.
When I began my formal education at a Christian university, I was actively being equipped to be a social worker and mental health therapist, and there, my perspective of grace shifted greatly. The lens of empathy and rays of compassion combined to begin burning away the belief that only certain people (that would never include me) were chosen, forgiven, called, deserving of more than the second chance we sang about and that we could be a reflection of God by understanding people’s situation. In spite of their (or my) wrong turns and sometimes deliberate choices, we can gift people with something they don’t necessarily deserve. Why? Because we understand that life is challenging, that people are in different stages of their lives, maybe they too had misinformed beliefs about themselves and how they fit in the world and simply needed someone to give them another chance…. and another chance and then an opportunity to get it right again and again. That’s grace.
I had to learn grace by giving it externally and then to myself before I was really able to consciously accept it from God or from others. I had to meet God for myself without the cloak of “out of touch despotic rule” I thought He wore. I also had to break through the walls of shame I developed to insulate, smother, and water down my true self. It’s a constant journey and I’m reminded of grace in my work with trauma survivors daily as we tackle their belief systems. Many trauma survivors believe they deserved the traumatic events that happened to them. After they process and begin doing deep healing work, I introduce the concept of the gift of grace we give ourselves and how we can actively accept the gift from others. I’m a vault that has had the privilege and honor of walking with survivors from paralyzing horrors to the triumph they find for themselves while incorporating the grace concept into their new foundation they choose and construct.
One of the most moving experiences I’ve had to date was attending a sexual assault rally at a prison led by women who were incarcerated who openly identified that they were survivors of sexual assault at some point in their lives. They made beautiful signs to carry as we marched around the prison yard in solidarity together. The colors told stories of triumph and their tears held the salt that was poured in painful wounds by those who assaulted them, and sometimes even more so by those who didn’t believe them. I didn’t know each of their individual stories. I didn’t even know the majority of their names. But as several of them read poems and sang of their healing journey I was reminded of the word “grace”.
For most of us 1st-Worlders, there is no lower depth than going to prison; some take their own lives as an alternative to doing hard time because many know it to be the worst of the worst places you can be physically, spiritually, and emotionally. “Convicted felon” is a modern-day scarlet letter and society often gracelessly decides what “those people” do or don’t deserve. Being in the prison and seeing these women who sat in the seat that most of us fear and avoid, I was enveloped in a space of acceptance, understanding and compassion. It felt as though love and connection were tangible and I was overwhelmed ya’ll…. but in the best way! These women set the tone. I thought we were at the climax of the event, but we were all in for a life-shifting experience. In the already electric atmosphere, a dynamic duo took the stage. One proudly rocked a DOC issued blue jumpsuit while the other wore a DOC issued blue skirt and top….both had the word “DOC Inmate” in block letters on their backs. The lady in the jumpsuit took the mic and with a controlled alto tone began singing the song “Grace” by Tosha Cobbs while the lady in the skirt told her story through liturgical dance building the intensity in the space.
My spirit was overwhelmed and wanted to betray my professionalism in front of my coworkers. I felt my heart swelling as tears freely flowed down my cheeks. My throat threatened to scream in gratitude for the grace, mercy, and gift of life I continue to receive and my feet tingled as they wanted to dance in a Pentecostal praise break or a Baptist fit!!!! Whew!!! In that moment I embodied the chorus of Alicia Keys’ hit; “This girl is on fiiiiiiiyyyyyyaaaaa!!!!” The women who were incarcerated were sobbing. Some lifted their arms in genuine worship, others hugged and comforted one another. Not a dry eye or empty heart was in the room. I looked down and noticed my hands were clasped together in a posture, not as I once believed as begging for mercy, but overwhelmed in a gratitude of grace. There was a peace, a collective understanding that despite every distinguishing experience and story of each of us; we all knew grace. Many of us who sat in the “professional area” were likely reflecting on the fact that in spite of the infractions we’ve committed we continue to wake up free as much as I imagine all of the women with “DOC Inmate” across their backs were reflecting on the fact that in spite of the infractions they’ve committed they continue to wake up free….perhaps not in physical space, but in their spirits and minds. In that moment, most everyone knew we didn’t deserve the traumatic or bad things that happened in our lives but we encountered feeling the truth that while we didn’t deserve every good thing that has happened in our lives, we do deserve grace.
We are God’s valued, His children, the loves of His infinite life and as His reflections, we are love. There is no grace without love, and you cannot know love without grace. I understand grace now, I live it daily, I appreciate it, I gift it to myself wrapped in kindness with a bow of providential care; unapologetically, because I am worth it and I deserve it. Though I was receiving it even when I didn’t comprehend it, I now know and accept that I really would be lost but for His grace and my own.
Tina Phillips-Johnson is a Licensed Independent Social Worker, LISW Supervisor, Master Reiki Practitioner, advocate, and agent of change in her community. Through her innovative work with dually adjudicated youth as a Child Welfare Specialist, serving as a Level D+ group home therapist and consultant, intensive in-home therapy provider and clinical program manager at a sexual assault center, Tina has developed a non- judgmental, openly communicative, culturally woke and empathic approach that is successful in helping clients to reframe their current position and envision a plan to reach their goals. Tina’s personality and sense of humor bring life to situations and healing even in simple interactions. Tina is the owner of No Shame Counseling, Reiki & Consultation, LLC, and BEByTina Makeup. Tina enjoys singing, traveling, chillin’ with her “soul tribe” and spending time with her husband Greg, son Dayshon and fur baby, King Louis Vuitton. To learn more about Tina’s work, visit her website, noshamecounseling.com, or follow her on Instagram, @Noshamecounseling_Reiki.