Britney Winn Lee is having a big year. An alumna of the Collegeville Institute’s summer writing workshops, Britney’s first two books were published in 2019. Her memoir, Deconstructed Do-Gooder from Missional Wisdom Library, organizes an exploration of mercy and grace around the parable of the Good Samaritan. Britney moves from someone who believed in converting others to her way of believing, “relationships with regulations,” to someone who has moved toward and is transformed by real mercy and compassion, for herself as well as others. Her second publication was a children’s book, The Boy with Big, Big Feelings (illustrated by Jacob Souva), which was released in August by Beaming Books.
Susan Sink had a chance to interview Britney about her books and ongoing journey with grace and mercy.
You organize your book Deconstructed Do-Gooder around the parable of the Good Samaritan. I’m interested in the step, associated with the Levite, that grace was about “making friends with people who made wrong choices.” Has your journey to grace and mercy led you to give up judgment?
What I would have defined as “grace” when I was a young Christian is not anything close to what I would define as grace now. That earlier version of grace was all about trying to save people. It’s icky, isn’t it? But I was convinced it was faithfulness. Is it possible to be a person who is hell-bent on finding the “correct” and “God-intended” answers “for all people, always” without being riddled with judgment? It hasn’t been in my experience.
No matter how my theology has changed, when my compulsion has been to live the “most right life,” it has always been accompanied by the conviction that other people are wrong. My journey to mercy has been a humbling and relentless sloughing off of judgment, yes, and a broadening to see how many paths can lead to God – both within my own life and certainly the lives of others.
In your memoir, Haiti acts like a crucible for faith. You tell the story of a toddler named Lovelee dying just as you were ready to get her to the US for help. You write: “I was losing trust that helping was helping, and therefore I was also losing my passion and parts of my identity and theological constructs upon which everything else rested.”
What role did your encounter with such immense suffering, and the suffering you then witnessed back home as a Missions Director, play in refining your faith?
There’s a whole essay that was a part of the original manuscript entitled “Theodicy” that I culled at the last minute, regrettably. It fell right around the pages of which you speak. Theodicy (or the exploring of why evil and suffering happens in a world where God is all good and all powerful) was the subject of my undergrad thesis. I didn’t know at the time how foundational those months of dissecting the topic – and all the panic attacks that came with the existential deep dive into questioning God’s goodness – would be for my later work.
As someone who possessed an unhealthy dose of invincibility and evangelical exceptionalism, experiencing unfixable suffering was refining for me. I had to look longer at what I knew of love, and free will, and pain, and then spend an uncomfortable time asking what I then believed of God, security, and prayer. What I discovered is that I have never not been loved and God has never not been here. And that’s been enough.
In the stories you share in the book, you still seemed to want the definitive answer. Does that ever go away? Can you ever fully deconstruct the promised black-and-white security of your youth?
The obsession to have black-and-white security in a dependably dualistic world fueled me throughout most of my young adult life. I don’t know that it ever totally goes away. I find it difficult to be convicted about social justice issues without osmosing back into the language of “right and wrong.” But I do think that practicing merciful renewal is important work to do in the world right now. And by that I mean inhabiting and spreading and accepting a hope for a better world as someone who knows their own need rather than someone who knows all the answers.
Leaving the door cracked to your own certainty has mercy written all over it.
A pastor friend told me some time ago that she makes it a personal practice to mentally follow-up her convictions with the words: “but I could be wrong.” I could be wrong; there could be more; there might be things I’m not seeing or parts of life I’m not experiencing. Leaving the door cracked to your own certainty has mercy written all over it. It takes creativity to consider alternatives to religion’s either/ors. Despite my susceptibilities, I hope to always be moving more toward that creativity.
What is your final—or at least current—take on mercy? How does it transform you from a “do-gooder” into something else?
It would be very counter to what I just shared if I said that this was my final take on mercy. But my current take? My journey has taken me from being someone who wants to do right to someone who has learned how to love her own needs. There is a cracking open that happens with loving oneself, neediness and all. That cracking open makes it harder to hate, I think. There is a level of enemy-love, and neighbor-prioritizing, and more-than-conquerors existing that I think is accessed by mercy.
I am someone who’s done harm and who was wildly loved and radically forgiven.
Have I transformed from do-gooder? Ugh, I wish. It is something I will have to challenge within myself for the rest of my life. But I do think that I am someone who’s done harm and who was wildly loved and radically forgiven by those at the receiving end of my choices. And that has allowed me to experience a sort of death that did not kill me. And who can be the same after that?
You’ve also published a children’s book this year, The Boy with Big, Big Feelings. I’ve seen it and it’s gorgeous, and tied closely to compassion and mercy. How has having a child, and how has art, affected your thoughts on empathy and mercy?
Becoming a parent has influenced my capacity to empathize and show mercy because I have so desperately needed the empathy and mercy of others while at the end of myself–which is what postpartum was like. Early motherhood brought with it pain, sadness, and limitation. As I share in Deconstructed Do-Gooder, for the first time in my life I felt hopeless.
My son (about whom my picture book is written) also experiences a tremendous spectrum of empathetic feelings. Making more space in my world for him has grown my capacity to make more space in the world for others like him.
As far as art goes, it has saved me in this ever-evolving deconstruction of theology and ideology. Using words and colors has helped process and make connections about these shifting identities within and around me. Art has kept me from imploding. I am unfathomably grateful for these outlets.